Presha and Adam stories (by BettyHT)

Summary:  Christmas Comes Only Once a Year — Adam is depressed with all that has gone wrong in the past year. He’s thinking of leaving. Will the new person in his life make that more or less likely? It’s a toss-up with the tumultuous relationship that has everyone guessing.  Baby Blues —  The first chapter in this tragedy is a prologue that overlaps the ending of the first story. Adam and Hoss each await the arrival of their first child, but Sally comes back with a plan to get some money.

Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  T
Word Count:  50,006


Christmas Only Comes Once A Year

Chapter 1

The news wasn’t good when Ben got the report from his foreman about the fencing in the upper northwest pastures. They were due to do the roundup in about a month and the men working up there had found many of the fences down in a number of places. Someone would have to go up there and do repairs while some of the men found the cattle that had strayed and got them back into the proper pastures. Ben laid out the problem at the dinner table when his sons had finished their meal and before Hop Sing served coffee and dessert. Hoss and Little Joe began bickering over whose turn it was to go until Adam silenced everyone.

“I’ll go.” He said it firmly and without complaint.

Even Ben didn’t know what to say at first. Finally, he tried to be conciliatory. “Adam, you spent most of July up at the timber camps, and then you had to go to San Francisco and Sacramento for negotiations with the railroad companies. You haven’t been home for a week yet. You don’t have to go off and do this.”

“I will. Hoss doesn’t want to go, and Little Joe has all sorts of social commitments apparently. I don’t have any reason not to go. I’ll go. End of discussion.”

There wasn’t anything left to say. After arguing that they didn’t want to do it, Hoss and Little Joe could hardly reverse themselves and offer to go in Adam’s place. They looked to their father with looks that showed how helpless they felt and saw the same look on their father’s face. Adam had been somewhat depressed after what had happened with Will and Laura. He had managed to get through the past year reasonably well except there had been more setbacks. He had befriended three men and all three had turned out to be poor choices. All had been killed and Adam carried their deaths and the deaths they had caused as a guilty weight. Clegg had been the most tragic case, but Tom Wilson and Howard Mead had caused more guilt. They didn’t know what had happened when Adam had pursued his imposter, but when he came home, he seemed to have lost interest in romantic relationships and avoided social events such as dances and parties. He had become solitary and reclusive, or as Hoss usually referred to him, ornery.

Profoundly unhappy, Adam knew that the only way to avoid spreading his unhappiness to others was to avoid being with them. However that was not a perfect solution. His father worried about him and had trouble sleeping knowing his oldest son was so unhappy. He suspected that Adam was thinking of leaving and that worried him even more. Hoss was bothered too. Except for the years when Adam was in college, he had always had his older brother there to take the lead, to stand next to their father as a partner and shoulder the responsibility. It was always an option to step aside and let Adam take the reins. He harbored some resentment that over the past year, Adam had shirked that responsibility and let more and more fall on the shoulders of his younger brothers. At first Little Joe had welcomed Adam’s absences because they gave him more free rein to do the things he wanted to do, but often he found that things hadn’t worked out as well as he hoped especially because he didn’t have his older brother there to offer his advice and his experience. He knew that those things were often given with a smirk and what he had often taken as a superior attitude, but now he knew it was that his brother had simply been that confident in his ideas. That was no longer the case. His confidence was shaken along with so many other things about his character. Now he would be gone again for a week or two, and the three of them would wonder if he came back, would he stay. The stress was building and he didn’t like it at all but didn’t know what to do about it.

Sitting at the table pushing his dessert around the plate and sipping his coffee, Adam could almost read their minds. Yet, he had nothing he could say to answer anything they could ask him. He couldn’t answer the questions he asked himself. There were days he wanted to leave, and yet he had no idea where he would go or what he would do. If he left, he would be as adrift as he was if he stayed. He was living a life that didn’t seem to matter to anyone including himself. He couldn’t see meaning in it nor value. There were times that he wondered if he died, would anyone even care a year later or would they be more relieved than sorrowful. He knew that when Ross died, part of him was very sad, but part of him was relieved because he had felt helpless in the face of Ross’ passage to the dark side because there was no one who could reach Ross where he had gone, and his death resolved that dilemma. He wondered if his family might feel the same way about him. He knew he was unpleasant company. He didn’t enjoy himself much either. He preferred the jobs he had been volunteering to do because he could work twelve or fourteen hours a day until he was exhausted which was the only way that he could sleep through the night. He had found that if he worked hard enough, he could stop himself from thinking all those dark thoughts. He could concentrate on the work. His solution was work until exhaustion resulted in sleep so he could work again. It was the only prescription that seemed to help. The other alternative was alcohol and he wouldn’t do that. In fact, he avoided alcohol. He had found that it made him far too willing to let the dark side out. It was easier to keep his dark thoughts tightly bound up inside if he was completely sober so he declined any invitations to drink. That lasted until about a week of working on the fences.

The morning Adam left to head up to the northwest pastures to work on the fences, it was raining and windy. Ben told him to wait a day to see if the weather would clear. He was stubborn as usual though and donned a slicker, put up the canvas top on the wagon, and headed out anyway. It didn’t take long for him to realize he shouldn’t have done it, but he refused to give up and turn back. It took all day to make what should have been a five or six hour trip. He was cold, wet, and exhausted but he had to take care of the horses, unload the wagon, and get everything into the line cabin, and dry the tools and everything else as well as wipe down and oil the harness before he could even consider getting himself a warm meal and dry clothing. By the next morning, he felt the first signs of illness. He felt cold but his head felt hot. He knew what it meant. By the middle of the week, he was forced to stay in the bunk all day for two full days only venturing out to feed and water the horses and get fresh water for himself. After two days of shaking with chills as he burned with fever, he forced himself to go back to work knowing that the job had to be done. He wrapped himself in all the clothing he had with him and still felt chilled, but at least if he worked, he was warm enough. When he came back inside, he was too exhausted to cook and dropped into an exhausted sleep. In the morning, he forced himself to eat some beans but an hour later wished he had not done that. By the end of the week when he should have headed home, he had less than half the work done, and wasn’t sure he was strong enough to handle the team of horses anyway for the length of time it would take to get back home.

“Great rancher you are, Adam Cartwright. You can’t take care of the fences. You can’t take care of yourself. And soon you won’t have feed for the horses. One of your brothers is probably going to show up soon wondering what the hell is wrong with you, and he’s going to find you in this sorry state. God, I hope it’s not Little Joe. If he starts laughing at me, I may hit him with this hammer. Damn, if it’s Hoss and he looks at me with that pity in his eyes, I may just hit myself in the head with this hammer. Either way, I’m destined for the gallows. Fratricide is a hanging offense and so is attempted suicide. Now that is one that is actually funny. If I want to kill myself, all I have to do is make an attempt, and the state of Nevada will kindly finish the job for me. Of course, they might decide that I’m insane and lock me away with myself for the rest of my life. At this point, I cannot conceive of a worse punishment.”

“Older brother, you mumbling to yourself? You been up here too dang long. I sure hope you ain’t answering yourself too.”

Startled, Adam dropped the hammer he was using and nearly fell when he lost his grip on the fencepost where he was working. Hoss noted how heavily he was dressed and immediately dismounted and approached his brother.

“I know you don’t like the cold, and you wear your coat in weather that I find pleasant, but you’re dressed like it’s nearly winter.” Hoss put a hand to Adam’s forehead. “You’re burning up. What the hell are you doing out here working? You’re sick, you damn fool.”

“I was sick. I’m actually starting to get better.”

“I hardly think that’s true. You’re talking like you’re plumb loco. Let’s get you back to that cabin. You need to get some rest and some good food. You don’t look like you’ve had much of either for a while.”

“Good food, about a week. Good rest, about a year or two.”

“I reckon that was about what I thought. Now c’mon.”

Hoss wrinkled his nose when he got to the cabin. It smelled and looked like a cabin where a man had been sick for a few days. He opened up the single window and the door to air it out even as he built up the fire in the fireplace.

“Shuck them clothes you’re wearing. They need to be washed. You can wrap yourself in them blankets. I got more with me. I’ll get ’em in a minute.”

It actually felt good to Adam to surrender to another’s will and not have to make any decisions. He did as Hoss directed removing his soiled clothing and wrapping a blanket around himself and sitting in front of the fireplace warming himself by the healthy blaze that Hoss had built there. Hoss returned with his bedroll and blankets, food that Hop Sing had sent along, and other supplies. He heated water and cooked up some broth. After helping Adam to wash, he had him drink broth and eat some fresh bread. Then he told him to lay down and sleep. He was pleased that his older brother didn’t argue but complied. Soon he was sleeping soundly. His breathing was raspy but steady. A few days later, they arrived back at the ranch house with Adam resting in the back of the wagon. Ben came rushing outside when he saw Hoss driving the wagon with Chubb tied behind.

“It’s all right, Pa. Adam got sick, but he’s getting better. He’s still a mite tired so I had him sleep on the last part of the trip back.”

Looking in the back of the wagon, Ben saw Adam sound asleep on Hoss’ bedroll. He looked to his middle son for an explanation.

“I’m not sure how sick he was, but when I got there, he was still feverish and weak, and he told me he was getting better. He could hardly take care of himself. It was a good thing you sent me up there to check on him.”

“I guessed something was wrong. As hard as he works, it was odd that no one saw him working on the fences, and he should have been back. I suppose we ought to wake him.”

“I’m awake.” Adam sat up and slid to the back of the wagon and got out. He moved to help Hoss unload the wagon, but Ben told him it would be better if he took his things inside. “I’m not helpless just a bit tired yet.”

“Your voice tells me you’re not fully recovered yet. Someone has to take those things inside so why don’t you do that. You could use a bath and a shave before dinner as well.”

With a scowl, Adam complied. Once he was inside, Ben sighed and looked to Hoss who shrugged. “Nothing’s changed, has it?”

“Nope, he’s as ornery as he was. Probably gonna be a right unpleasant week while he’s getting his strength back. He may say he’s fine, but he’s weak and gets tired doing just about anything. I’d check on him in that bath if I was you. Like as not, he’s gonna fall asleep in there and he might slide right down under them suds and not even know it.”

That was what happened except that he didn’t slide under the water. Ben found Adam sleeping in the tub. He got the shaving kit ready and lathered him up before waking him to tell him he would shave him.

“Why did you wake me then?”

“I didn’t want to startle you and accidentally cut your throat.” Ben was making a joke when he said it, but he sobered quickly at Adam’s response. His son leaned back, closed his eyes, and said more than his words conveyed.

“Might be doing us all a favor if you did.”

By the time a week had passed and Ben was due in Carson City for a meeting with the cavalry to finalize several deals for horses, he was ready to be away from the gallows comments of his eldest son. He reminded Joe that he was to accompany him on the trip.

“Dang, Pa, I forgot. I borrowed this book from the new schoolteacher in town and I was supposed to return it today. She’s a feisty one. I sure would hate to get on her wrong side.”

“She is that. Perhaps Hoss could do it.”

“No, remember, he’s got to ride over and settle that deal with the Masons. They’re putting their herd with ours for the drive this fall.”

“That’s today. Well, maybe Adam can do it. Hop Sing has a small list of supplies he wants. Adam could go to town to get those things and drop off the book.”

Walking back out to the great room with a cup of coffee, Adam heard his name. “What can I do?” Ben explained, and Adam agreed that he could. It was the type of errand he liked. He got to be alone.

*****

Chapter 2

In the stable, Ben questioned Joe further about the errand he had sent Adam to complete and wasn’t happy hearing the explanation.

“Pa, me and Hoss figured that Adam needs a woman to get his interest in life again. It was Laura who took it from him in a lot of ways. Then he had a run of bad luck with friends this past year. We figured a woman friend could turn things around for him.”

Sighing deeply, Ben dropped his head. “Joe, or it could be the thing that drives him away for good. I interviewed this woman. She is highly qualified for the job. She is intelligent and well-read.”

“See, that’s what I figured.”

“She is also contentious, argumentative, and as contrary to a man’s opinion as any woman I have ever met. She had every man on that school board ready to run her out of town by the end of the interview.”

“So why did you hire her?”

“It was a gargantuan task to convince the board to do that. I spoke for over an hour on her behalf. It was August, Joe, and we had to have a teacher. She was by far the most qualified one we had seen. She has impeccable credentials and references. She is knowledgeable. She is dedicated to having children learn. From all we could tell, she gets along marvelously with children. I don’t think I could stand to be in a room with her for more than ten minutes, but from what I’ve heard, the school year has gotten off to a wonderful start.”

“But you don’t think that she and Adam will hit it off.”

“I think we’ll be lucky if she and Adam don’t hit each other. I can only hope that when we get home later today, there is not a terrible result of this interference in Adam’s life. I have feared for some time that he was thinking of leaving. I have worried that something would happen to make him go. I hope that nothing happens with that woman that will be the thing that helps him make up his mind to pack up and leave.”

“And you think one more bad experience like this could be the thing.”

“Unfortunately, to me she is exactly that kind of woman who could take what little spirit he has left and trample it in the dirt.”

Joe looked down. “I’m sorry, Pa. Hoss and I have been talking about what we could do to help, and we thought this might be it. Adam hasn’t had anyone to talk with or do anything with for so long. We thought if he hit if off with her, maybe he at least would have someone to talk to about things that he likes.”

“All I can do now is pray that you’re not wrong.”

All day Ben worried and concluded the negotiations as quickly as he could probably giving the Army a better deal than they expected because he wanted to get home. If he prolonged the bargaining, he and Joe might have to stay overnight in Carson City. He didn’t want to do that. He and Joe rode hard and got home before Adam had returned from town. Hoss was back and the three of them waited anxiously for Adam to return. What Hoss told them about the time in the line cabin had them even more worried.

“I gave him whisky to drink because his cough was bad. I figured the whisky would help. It would help him sleep without coughing so much anyway. Well, it made him talk too. I can see why he don’t want to drink much. He gets pretty darn down when he drinks. He says things I hope he don’t mean.”

“Hoss, what kind of things?”

“Pa, you know, things like it wouldn’t matter if he died cause nobody would miss him and stuff like that. How it would be better ifn I hadn’t come up to the cabin cause maybe he woulda died and that woulda been better for all of us. There ain’t no reasoning with him when he’s drinking neither.”

“I was afraid of that. No matter how hard he is on the rest of us, I’m afraid he’s always harder on himself.”

There wasn’t much more they could do except wait. About four, Adam strode into the house without having put Sport in the stable. He went up the stairs without saying a word, but it was clear that he was agitated. When he came down with a book in his hand, Ben had to ask.

“Aren’t you going to take care of your horse?”

“I will when I get back to town.”

“You’re going back to town?”

“Yes. She said it was Tennyson, when it clearly wasn’t. I told her it wasn’t, but she refused to accept my answer and belittled my answer to boot. I am going back to show her the answer right here. It was Sir Thomas Malory, Malory with one l. And it is Alfred, Lord Tennyson, not Lord Alfred Tennyson.”

With that, Adam walked out of the house and soon they could hear him ride out. Hoss looked at Joe and then both looked at their father. None of them knew what to make of that exchange. Joe had a feeble response.

“Well, Pa, at least he wasn’t mad at any of us.”

Staring at the closed door for a moment longer, Ben turned back to his younger sons with a sigh. “Well, he’s not angry at anyone here now, but how will he feel if he finds out that two of us set him up to meet that woman who has obviously made him so angry?” He paused for a moment to let that sink in, and then stood. “He obviously won’t be back in time for dinner. Hop Sing, there will be three for dinner, and I have no idea if Adam will be back at all this evening. He may be late and decide to stay in town tonight.”

“I know. I hear. Such foolishment all time. Hop Sing never know what family will do next. So hard to cook for this family some time.”

Riding back to town, Adam cooled down and then his temper would reheat when he

thought about the confrontation he had had with the schoolteacher when he had returned the book Joe had borrowed. The windows had been open and he heard her discussing King Arthur and the round table except she was referring to the book by Sir Thomas Malory but gave the attribution as Tennyson. He had stepped up to the door, cleared his throat to get her attention, returned the book, and quietly told her the correct attribution. She had looked down her nose at him which was difficult because she was considerably shorter, but she managed to do it nevertheless, and dismissed him as if he was an ignorant lout. He had repeated his assertion and she had argued with him and asked him to leave. That had done it. His temper aroused, he rode home to get his copy to go back and prove it to her. Now he was riding back and felt a bit foolish doing it, but he was committed to the action, and was curious as to her reaction. When he got it, he was shocked.

“Well, I was sure when I said it, but I wasn’t sure after I said it so I looked it up in the copy I had.”

“You had a copy.”

“Yes, I did. I forgot I did until after you left saying you had a copy and you would show me. Then I remembered I brought a copy with me and it was in a trunk in my room. I went there and dug it out and found out you were correct. There, now are you happy?”

“Happy? I rode home and back. It took hours, and you could have easily told me you had a copy and could check it yourself and find out your error. Instead I wasted all this time to find out something you already knew.”

“Well if you hadn’t dressed like an ignorant cowhand, I might have taken you more seriously when you first barged in here.”

“Now you’re insulting me as ignorant.”

“I didn’t say you were ignorant. I said you were dressed as if you were an ignorant cowhand. I didn’t say stupid. Ignorant can be fixed. Stupid is permanent.”

“Are you insinuating that I’m stupid?”

“Not at all. I was simply making conversation.”

Stepping close to her, Adam looked down at her. “It seems that the more conversation you make with me, the more you infuriate me. Is that your intention?”

“Not at all. I only wanted to converse intelligently with you. I don’t even know your name though.”

“I’m Adam Cartwright.”

“I’m Miss Presha Shay.

“That’s an unusual first name.”

“My father was a teacher and loved Latin. He used a variation of the Latin word for important lady, pretia, because he said I would be an important lady some day.” She spelled out the Latin word for him assuming he would not know it.

“The Latin word is actually precia. It means highly esteemed or of great value and is the origin of the English word precious. Do you have a copy of a Latin text to look that up, or shall I ride for hours again to prove it to you?” He couldn’t help smirking. This was the most fun he had had in months or perhaps a year or more. He could see the anger rising in her and her cheeks were getting red. It was as much fun as he had with Margarita except she had been betrothed to another man, and the thoughts he had about her he had to keep to himself and do his best to forget. The thoughts he was having about this fiery young woman he could entertain all he liked.

“Is it your intention to infuriate me? You seem to find fault with everything I say.” Presha found that having him so close was anything but infuriating. In fact, it was making her quite warm in ways that she thought were best left private although as warm as her face felt, he probably had some idea of the effect he was having on her. That did make her a bit angry with him, although she did notice that he had the most beautiful lips she recalled ever seeing on a man. He did have an unusual scar there on the left side though. Suddenly she realized that he was asking her a question.

“Did you hear me or are you deliberately ignoring me now?”

“No, no, I’m not ignoring you at all. I was looking at your lips, I mean, at the scar on your lip. That must have been a painful injury. How did you get that scar?” Without thinking, Presha reached up and touched the thin small scar on the left side of his upper lip. Suddenly aware of what she had done, she jerked her hand back as if she had touched the flame of a candle. “Oh, my, I’m so very sorry. That was terribly forward. I can be so fascinated by things sometimes that I forget my manners.”

With a charming grin then that belied his words, Adam spoke softly. “So now I’m a ‘thing’ that ‘fascinates’ you?”

“No, of course not. You are, however, a most bedeviling man with whom to have a conversation. I do need to go now. I have to have dinner, and I have work to do tonight. I have students who expect me to teach them again tomorrow.”

“It is getting late, too late for me to ride home in time for dinner. Perhaps, you would like to have dinner with me. We could continue our discussion.”

“No, no, I think that I have had quite enough of our discussion. No, thank you. I cannot have dinner without a chaperone with a man according to my contract unless it is with a member of the school board. The contract was quite strict on that point. Apparently so many schoolteachers get married and do not finish their contracts that they made that provision quite strong.”

“I am a member of the school board.”

“Now, you are surely trying to bamboozle me. You expect me to believe that you are on the school board? You weren’t there for any of the interviews, and your father was. That doesn’t make you part of the school board.”

“I was in San Francisco when you were hired.”

“And what would a cowboy be doing in San Francisco?”

“I was negotiating a timber contract with the railroad.”

“I must say that you are very good. You can keep a straight face no matter what you say. I guess there’s no point in you telling me how you got that scar. I would likely be some fantastic tale. You must be quite good at storytelling. Now, I really do have to go.”

Bemused, Adam held the door for Presha as she walked through and pulled it closed behind her. She thanked him and walked away with dignity. He smiled and led Sport to the livery stable before he headed to the restaurant at the hotel after reserving a room for the night. He was hungry and planned to have dinner before getting a good night’s sleep and heading home in the morning. He did expect to get a good night’s sleep for a change too. For the first time in a long time, he was in a good mood.

*****

Chapter 3

Adam’s good mood lasted until he was about to enter the restaurant and heard Laura’s unmistakable whine as she was apparently complaining to Will. He paused wondering where he could get dinner instead of there because he was sure that Will and Laura would invite him to have dinner with them. He couldn’t think of a worse situation in which to find himself. From behind, he heard a possible salvation.

“Well, go in or get out of the way please. You already made me late for dinner and Tuesday is the weekly special. I hope they still have some.”

Turning with a smile, Adam took off his hat and bowed slightly. “Would you do me the distinct honor of dining at the same table with me this evening? Surely simply sitting at the same table in a crowded restaurant would not be considered in violation of your contract.”

“I suppose that would be acceptable, but please no more outlandish stories and claims. Perhaps a very limited conversation would be best regardless.”

“Whatever my lady requests, I would grant. Please.” Adam swung his hat in a grand gesture to have her walk in before him. She smiled and gracefully preceded him into the restaurant. She was about to be seated in the corner when the owner saw that she was with Adam and promptly moved them to a nice table by the window. Presha didn’t know why she suddenly received such preferential treatment, but she thanked him profusely. He said it was no trouble at all as he winked at Adam when she wasn’t looking. They had passed by Will and Laura’s table on the way in. Adam had tipped his hat to them and said good evening but nothing more making it clear he was not interested in any conversation. Laura was miffed at that, but he truly did not care. He had not even been aware that they were in town. He supposed that his father might have mentioned something about it, but he wasn’t usually paying much attention lately, or his father may have kept quiet about it trying to protect him. He knew the family did that for him too despite his protestations that he wasn’t bothered by Laura’s two-timing of him and Will’s betrayal. It had hurt, but he thought that he had hid it well. Apparently he had not hid it well enough with his family especially his father and Hoss. Presha didn’t seem to notice that he was a bit distracted though and ordered the special. He did the same. He looked out at the street at the passing traffic and noticed that Roy had noticed him sitting with her. He expected there would be some questions asked in Roy’s gently probing style when his old friend had a chance to ask. It would be fun parrying those too. He must have let a smile tug at his lips with those thoughts.

“Is there something funny out there? I don’t see anything funny.”

“No, nothing funny that you can see. It’s that I saw the sheriff. He’s likely to ask me what I was doing having dinner with the schoolteacher.”

“Why is that funny?”

“I have a way of enjoying conversations with some people.”

“Yes, I discovered that already.”

“If you have any questions about teaching here in Virginia City, I might be able to help. I’ve been the substitute teacher on occasion in emergencies.”

“I thought that we had an agreement that there would be no more of your silly stories. For now, I would prefer silence to such drivel. I have a lot to think about for tomorrow’s lessons.”

Adam was beginning to enjoy this thinking that she was going to get a huge does of humble pie when she found out her misconceptions and all the things that she had said to him in error. He thought he could help it along a bit more. “Perhaps then you would like to tell me what you’re teaching tomorrow. Sometimes talking through something can get it all more organized in your mind. I’ll keep quiet if you’re talking.”

Looking at him with that teacher look of one eyebrow raised and her mouth pursed in skepticism, she waited for him to react. He raised his hands in surrender but kept silent. She started then to explain her plans for the next day and eventually for the rest of the week. He was impressed by the amount of thought that she had put into her lesson planning and the goals that she had set for the students. He kept his word though and said nothing. When she finished and he kept silent, she waited for at least a minute until her curiosity got the best of her. “Well, you must have some opinion of what I said. You didn’t fall asleep.”

“Impressive.”

Their food was delivered then, and both were hungry and began eating in earnest. Halfway through her meal, she had to ask.

“Really?”

“Yes, as much as an ignorant cowboy can be impressed.”

That was a conversation killer so they went back to their meals in silence. When they finished, each paid their bill. Adam left a generous tip and made sure that she noticed. She did and wondered a bit about how he could afford that. He walked to the lobby with her and bid her good night. When he made no move to leave, she asked why not, and he explained that he had taken a room for the night. She was beginning to wonder more and more if she had gotten things very wrong. When the clerk asked if Mister Cartwright would like a bath set up before he went to his room, she decided it might be best that she leave and find out more information. She worried that she was going to have to make a very big apology. He had such confidence when he said those outlandish things to her, and he kept such a straight face. Then in the restaurant, the owner seemed so deferential to him and she ended up being seated at the best table in the room. She had wondered at that. She frowned as she thought and then she looked at him. He was smirking and she knew. Turning a bright red, she hurried from the hotel and started to build up a healthy anger at Adam Cartwright although she wasn’t exactly sure why, but she was going to think of a few very solid reasons by the next time she saw him. She was going to rehearse a good speech too to tell him exactly what she thought about what he had done to embarrass her so. By the time she got to her rooming house, she knew she had done it to herself. She was in tears as she unlocked her room. Sleep did not come easily, and when it did, it was troubled by dreams of a dark haired man laughing at her when all she wanted was to touch those beautiful lips and have him tell her how he got that little scar.

In the hotel, Adam relaxed into his bath and felt just a little bit bad about what he had done, but overall he reasoned that he had done very little. She had done most of it to herself, and if she felt bad, it was because she had some preconceived notions that she had decided to follow instead of what he told her. He thought quite a bit about her as he rinsed and then dried off, headed to his room, undressed, and slid between the sheets. He had a few fantasies about her and slipped into a pleasant sleep with a number of very nice dreams. He awoke at dawn, dressed, paid his bill, and rode out of town feeling better than he had in a very long time. He also got out before Roy was out of bed so he escaped that questioning for the moment. All in all, he had had a very good time. When he got home, he was hungry, but Hop Sing was not in a good mood. No one had filled his wood box or his kindling box. Adam volunteered to do so. He began chopping wood and whistling some of his favorite tunes.

Inside, Ben sat at the table with Hoss sipping coffee speechless with amazement. He called out to Hop Sing and asked him who was chopping wood because he couldn’t believe it was whom he thought it must be.

“Mister Adam chop wood. Nobody else do job. Number one son is number one helper for Hop Sing. He come for coffee and help. Nobody else come for coffee and help. Only drink coffee and wait for Hop Sing do everything.”

“I’m sorry, Hop Sing. I didn’t realize you needed help.”

“You no ask. Number one son ask. He big help. You no help. Now I got work to do. No time answer foolish questions.”

About that time, Joe came stumbling down the stairs with his boots in hand and his shirt open. “Who’s chopping wood at this hour and making all that racket whistling with no regard for people who are sleeping?”

In unison, Ben and Hoss answered. “Adam.”

Joe froze on the bottom step. “My brother, Adam? Your son, the dark haired ornery one, that Adam?” Ben and Hoss nodded. Joe walked to the table, sat on his chair, pulled on his boots, and buttoned his shirt. He looked at his father, and then he looked at Hoss. “Has anybody gone outside to see if he’s drunk?” He turned to the sound of an ax splitting wood and stared in that direction for a moment before turning back to the table. “Of course not. He’s got an ax in his hand. I wouldn’t go ask him either.”

A short time later, Adam walked in with a biscuit in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He hooked his chair with one foot pulling it out and sat in his usual spot. He finished his biscuit and coffee and waited for Hop Sing to bring out breakfast. No one said anything waiting to see what he would say. He didn’t say anything so finally Joe couldn’t stand it and had to ask.

“What happened in town last night?”

“I had dinner. It was late. I took a room at the International House. There was time so I had a nice bath before bed. Oh, I saw Laura and Will at dinner. I said hello. Nothing more. The special on Tuesday is quite good by the way. I don’t think I ever realized they had a special on Tuesday before. I may go in and have it again next Tuesday.”

No one knew quite what to make of the change in Adam. He was more like the Adam of old. He still made snide comments. He still smirked. He still was ornery at times. But he whistled sometimes, he worked without complaining, and most of all, he had an occasional smile. He didn’t seem to spend his time avoiding people either although he didn’t seek out social interaction. It was significantly better. Ben didn’t want to risk losing anything that had been gained by asking Adam any questions that might irritate him, but he did wonder what had happened. He got a clue on Sunday when Roy sauntered over after services and was obviously very intent on asking Adam some questions about Tuesday evening.

“Say, Adam, I was meaning to stop in and say hello to you on Tuesday, but you was gone from the restaurant by the time I come back there. Now, did you enjoy that dinner date with the schoolteacher?”

“We were simply sharing a table for convenience. It was reasonably pleasant.”

“Well, the reason I asked is cause I saw her a few days later. She had all sorts of questions about you. She seemed right mad at you for some reason. Now you didn’t do anything that was cause to make her mad, now didja cause we need to keep her. We ain’t had a good schoolteacher like her in a lot of years.”

“She chose not to believe a number of things I said, and then when she found that they were true, she was apparently rather perturbed at me. I cannot take responsibility for that.”

“Well, I did answer all of her questions honestly too. I think she was gonna go on over to the newspaper office for more information. She seems real interested in you.”

“Apparently, she is learning to do research. That’s a good thing in a teacher, don’t you think?” Adam was actually pleased that she was interested in him especially that she was interested enough to ask Roy about him and then go to the newspaper office to do research. He did wonder what she planned to do with the research, but he knew she wouldn’t find out anything that could harm him so he thought there was no reason to worry. But then he didn’t know her nor what she was capable of doing although he was intrigued by her and wouldn’t mind finding out. His father saw the look as did Roy, and both drew the same conclusion. Adam was very interested in the young lady. Both were equally surprised. She didn’t seem to like men much so it made them wonder why Adam liked her.

“She did make a point of asking which church you attended if any. I got the impression she didn’t want to be in the same one you were in.”

“I have a suspicion I know why, but I’ll keep that to myself. Good day, Roy. It’s been a pleasure, but I’d like to take a walk now if you don’t mind. Pa, I’ll see you at home later. Don’t worry. I’m only going to take a walk around town. See who I may run into.”

Adam untied Sport’s reins and led him toward down the street walking as he said that. Ben and Roy had little doubt whom he hoped to run into on his sojourn. They could only hope the fireworks didn’t draw a crowd.

*****

Chapter 4

After a short walk, Adam tied Sport to a rail and took a seat on a comfortable chair outside the mercantile that was across the street from the rooming house where Miss Presha Shay had a room. He leaned back in the chair and waited hoping that she wasn’t back yet from wherever she had gone to church. He wasn’t disappointed. About fifteen minutes later, he saw her trudging along the walk looking a bit bedraggled and warm. She was fanning herself but obviously not doing much good. It was a warm sunny day, and she was dressed as prim and proper as anyone could expect a prim and proper schoolteacher to dress. He waited until she neared him before he said anything.

“If you weren’t so scared of me, you could have had a shorter walk. My church is much closer to your rooming house.”

Presha stopped and put her hands on her hips staring at him with consternation that was soon replaced with a glare. “Have you been checking up on me?”

“Not at all, but I was informed this morning that you have been checking up on me. Did you actually think that people you questioned about me wouldn’t say anything to me about that?”

“I did think that the sheriff would have more discretion. I assume he must be the one who talked to you. You did say that you were friends although after what he told me, I cannot imagine why.”

That surprised Adam so he had to ask. “Why would we not be friends?”

“You have been arrested twice for murder. You were only rescued from the gallows at the last minute because the eyewitness changed her testimony. I can only imagine why. You have been involved in so many gunfights that the poor man has lost count of the number of men you have killed and wounded. It is no wonder you dress in black and wear that frightful gun. You are a gunfighter and I thought you were a working cowboy. Instead it seems you enforce your will with your fists and your weapons.”

That got Adam’s temper up. “It is a violent land. I will use what I have to defend myself, my family, and my friends. Would you have thought it better to have let myself be killed or let others kill with impunity?”

“Men always have excuses for what they do. You went to college. You could have a respectable profession, but you choose to be the lethal enforcer of your father’s will.”

“I make my own choices.” Adam paused then to control his emotions and get back to using his mind instead of his emotions. “Why do you hate men so much? You do know that the boys you teach will grow into men, don’t you? How can you love them as children but hate what they will become?”

“Because their fathers will teach them that women have no value and that only men have rights. I will do my best to teach them otherwise, but I know that I place a grain of sand against the tide.”

“I know that women have rights. What rights are you talking about that women don’t have? The right to vote? I know that’s coming, but it’s probably not coming as fast as you want it to come.”

“The right to own property, the right to equality, the basic rights of a human being are the ones I look for.”

“I see no problem with that. Most men I know have no problem with that. There are a number of women in town here who own property. A friend of mine, Annie O’Toole became quite wealthy with a restaurant project we ran jointly. Of course it helped that she had a mining claim to sell that was quite valuable too.”

“And did you take a share of her wealth?”

“No, why would I do that? It was her claim.”

“I suppose you are wealthy enough now that you don’t need to take wealth away from others.”

“I believe in working for what you get. We worked hard to get our ranch. We started here with a wagon and not much more. It was Pa and me and Hoss. We staked out a claim and worked hard. We still work hard.” He put out his hands palms up. “I don’t have calluses from sitting and counting money nor do I have it from using my pistol or my fists. I work. I don’t take wealth from others and never have.” For a moment Adam paused. His temper had risen, and he suspected that was exactly what she had wanted from him. He didn’t like being so easily manipulated. She had done that to him twice. He wasn’t going to let her do it again. He had wondered at her reason for doing it, and for the past week, he had been thinking about her behavior toward him. He took a stab in the dark asking her a question very quietly and calmly. “Why is it that you dislike men so much that all you want to do is make a man so angry that he walks away from you? Has a man hurt you so badly that you expect the worst of every man?”

The look on Presha’s face showed that if he hadn’t hit the truth, he had hit uncomfortably close. She was shocked at his statement and had nothing to say. No one had ever understood her so well, and he had that insight after meeting her on one day. It was frightening to her and disconcerting. She turned to walk to her rooming house. Adam stood and stepped into the street behind her as she turned to leave.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. I spoke in anger. Please, could we start the conversation over again. I would like to be your friend. Perhaps we could share a table for lunch?” She stopped but did not turn around. “We could talk about literature or perhaps history or any topic that isn’t likely to turn into an argument. Please?”

Presha sighed and thought about what she was doing. It was a big risk for her, but she had no friends, and it would be nice to have someone to whom she could talk and discuss things instead of spending all of her free time alone. So far, most of the difficulties between them had been her fault and she knew that too. She turned to him. “Sharing a table for lunch would be acceptable. I am quite warm though. I dressed for cooler weather than what the day has brought. If you don’t mind, I could meet you in the restaurant in a half hour. I would like to freshen up and put on something lighter.”

“Thank you. I’ll get a table and be waiting for you.” Adam took Sport to the livery stable hoping that the lunch might turn into an afternoon of pleasant discussion and not wanting his horse to have to stand in the sun for the duration of that. He headed to the restaurant then and waited nearly forty minutes for Presha to show up. He was beginning to think she wasn’t coming when she walked in the door. She came to his table. He stood and mentioned that he had wondered if she had changed her mind. With his trip to the livery stable and his wait at the table, it had been nearly an hour since they had spoken in the street.

“I did almost change my mind. I hesitated so many times that I truly wasn’t sure if I was staying or going. I finally got my courage up and decided that I had given my word and had to be here.”

“Is the prospect of lunch with me so difficult to face?”

“If you knew me better, you would understand.”

“You could tell me why and then I would understand.”

“Perhaps if we get to know each other better.”

“I would like to think that would be when we get to know each other better.”

“You are somewhat arrogant.”

“I prefer to think of it as confidence.”

“I’m sorry. Arrogant was too strong a word, but you may be overconfident.”

“I believe that to achieve something, you have to be sure that you can do it. You have to give it everything you’ve got, and you have to know in your heart that will be enough.”

“And if you fail?”

With a grin, he gave that tongue in cheek answer that got her smiling. “Why, then it is impossible for anyone to do.”

Presha laughed then. It was the first time that Adam had heard her laugh, and he found it delightful. He found quite a bit about her to be delightful even if she did everything she could it seemed to keep him away. He was determined to be her friend though and began to use his best talents to work his way into her good graces. He asked about her work with her students, he asked how she managed the bad behavior that was inevitable from some, and he asked how she rewarded the good behavior without making those students targets as teacher’s perceived favorites. For someone quite young, she seemed to be a natural in many ways in handling children, and she was so enthusiastic when talking about her teaching that she nearly forgot to eat her lunch. Adam reminded her several times that her lunch was getting cold. She would eat a bit more, and then she would think of something else that had happened in school that she wanted to tell him. Hours passed and they had dessert and coffee until it was nearly three.

“I suppose we could go outside and sit on the chairs and enjoy the sunshine if you wish. It would give the staff a chance to clean up in here before their dinnertime crowd arrives.”

“Oh, my, I had no idea it was getting so late. I didn’t mean to monopolize so much of your time. I talked so much, and you didn’t hardly get a chance to say anything.”

“That’s all right. I have the feeling that you needed a friend to listen.”

“You have done it, haven’t you?”

“Done what?”

“I believe that you set out to be my friend. You have done it. We’re friends, aren’t we?” With a small smile, Adam nodded. “Yes, we’re friends. I hope you don’t mind, but I needed a friend, and I thought perhaps you did too. Now, on Tuesday, they have a special. I didn’t know that until last Tuesday, and it was quite good. Would you like to share a table with me again on Tuesday evening. We could have the special and perhaps talk about things again. You could tell me about how school has gone with your new projects.”

Presha reached up and lightly touched the scar on Adam’s lip once again as she had on the previous Tuesday evening. “Or you could tell me how you got that little scar on your lip.” Then Presha got very serious. “Adam, aren’t people going to start talking though. Isn’t this going to become a problem?”

Sighing, Adam leaned back. “I’m a Cartwright. No matter what I do, they’ll talk. You’re the schoolteacher. No matter what you do, they’ll talk. But do you mean will there be trouble because we’re meeting in a public restaurant and talking, then no, there will not be trouble. Nothing we have done is in violation of your contract or of any social etiquette requited of a teacher in this community. Now if I wrapped my arms around you and kissed you in the middle of the street, that could cause trouble, but as you know, I haven’t attempted anything at all like that.” He saw her pull away from him when he said that. “I’m sorry, I was only teasing. We are friends. If that was in bad taste, then I apologize. I was only giving an example of what could be trouble. I would never do anything like that.”

“I’m sorry too. I guess that I am still a bit unused to how direct people can be in their conversation out here.”

“Really? According to my father, you were very direct in your conversation when you were interviewed by the school board. He said he had quite a job convincing them to hire you.”

“Oh, so he was the one. I wondered how I got hired. I could see all those brows coming down and bunching up and all those lines in those foreheads. I was sure that I was going to be sent on my way, and then after an hour or so, your father came out to say that I was hired. He didn’t seem too happy about it so I never would have guessed he was the one who spoke on my behalf.”

“My father has some strong opinions about how women should act, but he also recognizes ability, talent, and intelligence. He saw that you were a superior candidate for the job and he could tell from you answers that you loved children. You’re a great teacher. I’m surprised that you ended up here. I would think that you could have gotten a job almost anywhere.”

There was a hint of reticence in Presha’s answer letting Adam know there was more to the story. “I’ve been moving west. I guess I’ve gone about as far west as I can go without ending up in a big city again. I don’t want to live in a big city ever again. I hope that I can stay here.”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Sometimes things happen to change what we want. I’ll wait and see.”

Curious about what was not being said, Adam knew that their friendship was too new to support any inquiry so he dropped it. They walked outside and sat for a time in the chairs on the walk until nearly four. Then Adam knew he needed to ride home so that he would be there by dinner as expected.

“One of these Sundays, I would like you to come out to the Ponderosa for dinner. We’ll eat early so that you can be back by a reasonable hour. And don’t worry. It won’t cause trouble. You’ll be having dinner with two members of the school board. No one can fault you for that.”

With smiles, they ended their time together. Adam retrieved Sport from the livery stable and rode home. He was relaxed after having spent an enjoyable afternoon in the company of Presha. He realized too that when she had touched his lip again, it was only the second time that he had been touched with tenderness in the past year or so, and both times it had been by her. He knew she would be in his dreams again that night. She was helping to push some of those dark demons back into the recesses and letting the light shine again.

In town, Presha relaxed in her room. She smiled when she thought about Adam, but she was worried too. She had to be careful that he did not learn her secrets. He was an honorable man as she had quickly found out. He would probably feel that he had to tell the truth if he knew it. She would be his friend, but he could not know her secrets. She began to concoct a story that would cover all the bases she hoped because she was sure he would be asking more questions. She needed a story without any holes in it.

*****

Chapter 5

Roundup began on Monday. Adam did his best to find a way to get to town on Tuesday, but work kept him occupied until it was too late to get there for dinner. Even riding to town to try to explain his absence at dinner would be too late. He would end up riding in the dark which would have been unsafe. He didn’t like missing dinner at the restaurant and realized he shouldn’t have been so confident that he could get away. In a roundup, things seldom went according to plans especially in the first few days. He hoped that he had not ruined his new friendship with that one failure even knowing that if it failed over that, it wasn’t much of a friendship anyway. It was important to him. He was quiet as he worked for the rest of the week. There was a dance on Saturday night. Hoss and Joe as well as their father waited on Saturday afternoon to see if Adam would quit work early as the others did to get ready to go to town. When he did, there was an audible sigh of relief among them. They had to hope then that Presha Shay was the forgiving type.

In town, Presha was in her room debating whether to attend the dance or not. She had a dress that would be appropriate for such an occasion. One question she had was whether Adam attended such events. She didn’t think she would be comfortable there unless he was there. She knew that was a bit silly. At twenty-four, she had been completely on her own for six years, and had traveled across the country, worked for six different schools, handled her own financial affairs, handled travel arrangements, and everything else. She shouldn’t be afraid of a social gathering in a western town, but she was. All social gatherings made her nervous. At least if Adam was there, he would be a friendly face she could turn to at any time. She assumed that something unforeseen had kept him from being at dinner on Tuesday. She did wonder what it might have been, but she knew so little about ranching that she had no way of guessing what it might be. She was too nervous to have dinner. She drank some water and ate some crackers from a tin that she had in her room. As it grew dark, she watched out her window and saw couples heading to the dance. Then she saw the Cartwrights arrive, and her breath caught a little when she realized that Adam had accompanied his brothers to the dance. He had told her that he seldom if ever attended these kinds of things any more. She wondered why he was at this one and in her heart, hoped it was because he might be thinking she would attend. It made her decide to go but it was another hour before she got up the courage to walk alone to the dance.

When Presha got to the social hall and entered, she didn’t see Adam. She stood by herself for some time until Joe Cartwright came over with his brother Hoss and introduced him. Hoss offered to dance and he was so sweet about it that she could not refuse. After two dances with him, Joe was back and danced a couple of dances with her, and then Hoss was back for two more. Neither of Adam’s brothers said much and she was too shy to ask at first, but she summoned up her courage finally.

“I thought I saw Adam walking with you earlier, but he isn’t here now.”

“He was here. He danced a few dances but seems he lost interest real quick like. I’m not sure where he is now. Like as not, he’s waiting at the livery stable for us to be done, and the he’ll ride home with us.”

Shortly after that, Presha made her escape from the social hall and was about to walk to the livery stable when she heard her name called. She turned and looked into the darkness near the side of the social hall. A shadow emerged from the darkness and Adam walked out to her.

“I didn’t see you in the hall or I would have stayed inside instead of sitting out here.”

“Why did you sit out here?”

“The prospect of dancing any more dances with women who seem to have only one reason for dancing with me was too depressing.”

“What reason was that?”

“They all seem to want to impress me with their many lovely charms and attributes to convince me that they would make wonderful replacements for Laura. Once it was clear that I would marry, it seems that I will get no peace from the women in this town until I do.”

“Why would women want to marry you so much more than anyone else here? There are so many men here compared to the number of women.”

“Having a ranch of one hundred thousand acres seems to be a great enticement. I’m sure that my brothers are getting their share of attention inside as well.”

“Yes, they are very busy. They were very kind to dance with me.” With a small grin Adam had to ask how that went. “Hoss is very sweet and tries very hard. Joe, is, ah, enthusiastic in his dancing.”

“Would you like to go inside and test my skills to see what kind of grade I get?”

“Why, Adam, I think that is a lovely idea, but I’m not in the mood for testing. How about if we simply do the homework together?”

Presha laughed and again Adam was delighted with her laugh. He loved that he had been able to get her to smile again and to laugh. He offered her his arm, and they walked back into the hall where the band was playing a reel. Adam tilted his head in silent inquiry. Presha nodded, and they began to dance. She had fun in the first dance, but the slower dance that followed opened a whole new dimension for her. She felt that she was gliding around the dance floor in Adam’s arms. She felt his warm hand on her waist. Her hand rested on his shoulder, and her other hand was in his hand. His body was slightly pressed against hers just enough to keep contact at first but more as the dance progressed. At the end of the dance, she was warm not only from the exertion but from the close proximity of the handsome dark cowboy. She realized that she had not been held not touched by another person in six years. Tears formed and her eyes glistened as the dance ended.

“What’s wrong? I thought everything was going so well.”

“It was. It is. That’s just it. I’m not used to things going so well. I’m sorry. I’m not usually so emotional. It was a big step for me to attend this dance tonight, and I think it put me on edge more than a little.”

“We can step outside for a bit. It’s cooler, and you can have some time to relax a bit.”

Stepping outside with Adam was likely to make her more nervous and not less. Instead, she suggested they have some punch and then dance again. They spent the next hour dancing, and during breaks, Adam was able to explain why he missed dinner on Tuesday. He also explained about the upcoming cattle drive and that he wouldn’t be able to see her for about five or six weeks. She was disappointed more in that than she thought she would be, but he was the only friend she had made in town. Before eleven, she asked Adam if he would escort her to her rooming house. He did, and when he got there, he wondered if he should kiss her. She resolved that for him.

“Adam, thank you for a wonderful evening. I appreciate very much that we are friends. This is a little later than my contract specifies for a curfew, but I don’t think anyone can object too much. I will miss you and look forward to having dinner with you when you return.”

“Dinner it is. It will be the first thing I do on my return. Well, the first thing after I go to the bank and have a bath and shave. Then it will be the next first thing that I do.” He got a smile for that and a good night. He watched until she closed the door to the rooming house.

On the trail drive, Hoss and Joe expected Adam to be sour about missing his new friend and having to leave on a cattle drive so soon after having met her. Instead, he was far more pleasant than they expected. Oh, there were the usual barbs, but they threw their share as well. It was back to the back-and-forth banter that had characterized their relationships before Laura. Hoss reflected one evening on that as he and Joe rode nightherd duty.

“It’s kinda funny, I guess, how I think on our family history now as before Laura and after Laura. She done a lot of damage to our family. Who woulda thought a whiny little thing like that could make a whole family of men change how they got along with one another. Here Pa was ready to take Will in and make him like a long lost son, treat him as well as any of us, but once he did what he did to Adam, there was no way Pa could ever trust him enough to see him as part of the family that way again. We were ready to see Adam married to Laura, but after she backstabbed him like that, well he ain’t been the same, and the whole family ain’t been the same since.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. When Will decided to sell that ranch and move to San Francisco, I thought we were finally rid of the two of them, but he keeps coming back. He says for business, but they never seem to do much business here. I think Laura comes along too to check up on the rest of us especially Adam. I think she knows she made a big mistake.”

“Probably jest wondering how she can still get a chunk of the Ponderosa. We all know Will is no businessman like Adam is. He ain’t doing so well according to what Pa heard. I’m guessing that Adam heard plenty too when he was in San Francisco and Sacramento. He never said much about it, but his mood was always worse when he come back from those trips. Now why would he come back with those great contracts and be in a foul mood?”

“You know, I never thought about it that way. I know I didn’t like to see him when he got back from those trips. He was ready to bite my head off at the first little thing I said. But if he had a run-in with Will or Laura or both, then it would make more sense. Why didn’t you ever mention this before?”

“Cause I only figured it out this last time. I saw, what would you say, let me see, yeah, a pattern, that’s it, a pattern. He would come back from each trip in a foul mood and not want to talk about it. The only thing he never ever wanted to talk about was what happened with Laura. He always said he was fine with it as if that settled it.”

“Yeah, and we know what it means when he says he’s fine.”

“Speaking of fine, that little schoolteacher that Pa says is so hard on men was real nice to me at that dance. Now I ain’t exactly the best dancer there is, but she said real nice things about my dancing and then she danced with me again. There ain’t many ladies willing to do that. I thought she was a real fine lady.”

“I thought so too. I like her. Of course, I think we’re about the same age so she probably doesn’t think of me like she thinks of men like Pa. Maybe it’s older men she likes to fight with.”

“She don’t seem like she wants to fight with Adam. She seems like she’s real taken with him.”

“Yeah, that’s a real surprise too. I thought they might be friends, but it’s looking like it might be a lot more than that because it seems like our older brother might be real taken with her too.”

“Now we gotta hope it works out. You remember what Pa said. If this doesn’t work out, it could be the last thing that pushes Adam to leave.”

“Hoss, Pa was wrong because Adam was going to leave one way or another. He was too unhappy here to stay. Maybe if this works, he won’t leave.”

“You think he and that schoolteacher could get together and he could still leave?”

“I think it could happen, but then at least, if he left, it wouldn’t be because he was so unhappy he couldn’t stay.”

“Well, I’m hoping he stays cause I feel like we’re able to take on just about anything when it’s all of us together. Ifn he left, then I wouldn’t be so sure of that, and I’d worry about him all the time. I know he’s a mean son-of-a-gun when he needs to be, but without someone to watch his back, there’s a lot worse out there than him. I’d be afraid he wouldn’t come back and maybe we’d never know what happened to him. He could end up shanghaied or worse.”

“The way he is right now, he’ll stay, I think. He hasn’t been this happy working on the ranch in a long time. It’s actually been almost like fun to be on this cattle drive. If it wasn’t for the cattle, the work, the dust, the beans, and sleeping on the ground, and nightherd duty every other night that is.”

Hoss had to laugh at Joe’s comments. He knew too that it felt good to laugh, and that he had been doing more of that lately too. Perhaps he ought to think about getting serious about a gal. If he wasn’t so dang shy around women, he would have already. He thought maybe he ought to talk to Adam about that. Maybe he could get some advice. He didn’t want to end up alone, and at his age, that was starting to look like a real possibility. Joe noticed that Hoss had gone quiet and was thinking.

“Now what?”

“Nothing too much. I wish I had a gal to chase after like Adam does. Maybe when we get back, I ought to find one who doesn’t mind being chased by someone like me.”

“There were a couple at the dance who looked interested.”

Hoss and Joe spent the rest of their shift discussing the merits of the ladies with whom Hoss had danced and comparing notes on them. Eventually Hoss asked Adam’s opinion after explaining that Joe thought a list of pluses and minuses of each one would be the way to choose.

“I think it’s simpler than that. Which one makes you smile when you think of her?”

Adam had walked away then as if that said it all. Hoss frowned thinking that Adam’s advice was much too simple. However he went over the list of women that he had discussed with Joe and when he got to one woman on that list, he couldn’t help himself and he smiled. Then he understood what Adam meant. All those pluses and minuses were for the mind. Falling in love was for the heart. He knew the lady he would call on when he got back to Virginia City. For the rest of the drive, each time that he thought about her, he smiled. He knew then why he sometimes caught Adam smiling for no apparent reason. It was soothing to have someone in your heart who could make you smile.

*****

Chapter 6

When Adam and his brothers neared home, Hoss and Joe wanted to head for the Ponderosa first. Adam wanted to head to town.

“You jest want ta see that pretty little schoolteacher, dontcha?”

“I want to deposit this draft and make sure everything is safely in our accounts. This is a lot of money to be carrying around.”

“I suppose he’s right, Hoss, and we can’t let him ride alone. We’ll have to go with him.”

“Dadburnit, and I was looking forward to Hop Sing’s dinner tonight too.”

“You two can head out right after we get to the bank. I don’t need you to stand around inside the bank while I do business. You can still be home in time for dinner.”

“Well, then, stop jawing and start riding, older brother, time’s a wasting.”

By the time the three brothers got to town, Hoss had reconsidered his options and decided to get a bath and a steak dinner in town. Then he planned to stop at the house of the lady he hoped to court and ask if she would be willing to join him on a picnic on Saturday. He knew that if she said yes then his dream of having a lady in his life would be well on its way to being reality. Joe decided that he would head home then to let their father know what the two older brothers were doing.

“I’ll tell him the hands will be home in a few days with the wagons and the gear. I suppose the two of you will be home later because Pa isn’t going to be happy if I have to tell him you won’t be home until tomorrow.”

Both Adam and Hoss indicated that they had every intention of being home that night. At the bank, the three split up with Joe heading home, Hoss taking his horse and Adam’s to the livery stable, and Adam walking into the bank. Hoss got a lot of friendly greetings wherever he went, but Adam noted that people seemed a bit wary of him. He wondered at that but did his business at the bank without anyone mentioning any reason for the standoffish behavior. He noted a similar reaction when he left the bank. He was about to enter the barbershop when he was hailed by Sheriff Roy Coffee. Some of his questions got answered then but made him angry.

“Adam, wait up. I’d like to talk to you afore anyone else does. Now, I know you’re probably upset, but they had good reason for what they done, and nothing really changed, now did it?”

“Roy, what are you talking about. I was in the bank, and people acted like I have a disease, and out here, people avoided me, and now you’re talking in riddles.”

At that point, Roy paused. He had seen the purposeful stride and thought Adam was on his way to see the head of the school board. Instead, Adam had been intending to get a bath and a shave before stopping in to see Presha. He had his saddlebags with a clean set of clothing and hoped to be clean-shaven and looking like a gentleman instead of a grimy cowboy after six weeks in the saddle. Roy didn’t want to be the one to give him the news, but he supposed it was better coming from him than from someone who might taunt him with it.

“Adam, while you was gone, the school board got some complaints about our new schoolteacher especially about her keeping company with you.”

“Keeping company! We sat in a restaurant a couple of times and had a meal at the same table. We danced at a dance where she danced with others too.”

“Well, now, you spent hours at that table each time especially the second time and then spent some time sitting right outside where anyone could see you two were together. At the dance, they say the only other ones who danced with her were your brothers. Now, she went to that dance unescorted and then she stayed an hour over her curfew. The board had to do something cause they had written complaints.”

“What did they do about these ‘terrible’ offenses?”

“Well, what I heard is that they give her a warning and told her that she had to follow the letter of the contract exactly ifn she wanted to keep her job.”

“Didn’t my father stand up for her?”

“Adam, I can’t speak to that. I wasn’t at the meeting. I don’t know exactly what happened. All I know is what I already told you. I guess if people was acting a bit standoffish with ya it’s because they’re thinking you’re not going to take this news very well. Now you ain’t gonna do her no good by losing your temper. You know that, don’t ya?”

“You can’t actually expect me to accept this ridiculous overreaction by the school board, can you? Who made the complaints? Parents of students?”

“No, seems a number of women in town sent complaints to the board.”

Adam got a sick feeling about that. “They wouldn’t happen to be unmarried women, now would they?”

“I can’t swear to that, but I believe that was what I heard from the school board. It was something about them saying they were interested in protecting the morals of the town or something on that order.”

“I seriously doubt that they had any interest in that. What they wanted to do was to hurt someone because they feel that they have a vested interest in me, and she is in their way. I would have thought that the board could have seen through that very thinly veiled animosity. Nothing that Presha did was in any way wrong or setting a bad example. Damn, I never even kissed her.”

There were people walking by who must have heard that part. Undoubtedly that would be making the rounds. Adam was so upset he didn’t even seem to notice that he had been overheard. Instead he was hurt for Presha and knew how upset she was likely to be. He wanted to go see her but knew she would still be in school with her students. He asked Roy to walk with him later to the school so that no one would claim any impropriety if he talked with her. Roy nodded and said he would be back in an hour. He was, and Adam was ready to take that walk. The doors to the schoolhouse stood open. Roy waited at the door so he could swear that nothing improper happened if there were any questions asked. Adam stepped inside, and Presha turned at the noise of his bootsteps. Her expression was not welcoming, and she put up a hand to stop him from coming any closer.

“I’m sorry. I made a mistake thinking that I could be your friend. It has only led to trouble. Anything having to do with men always leads to trouble.”

“Presha, men didn’t cause this problem. Women did.”

“Men sit on that school board. Men threatened to take away my job. I need this job, Mister Cartwright. I pay for my room and my meals week to week with this job. If I lose it, I don’t even have the money to pay for the ticket to leave this town. And please refer to me now as Miss Shay. I think we need to keep a polite relationship and nothing more.”

“That’s it? You give up that easily? I thought you had some spirit, some courage?”

“Don’t you dare question me. Every time I fight men, I lose. You wouldn’t know about that. Men always win. They have all the power. Women can’t do anything about what men want. I was a fool to think that I could be friends with a man and everything would be fine.”

“It seems to me that women were the ones who got you into trouble with the school board. You don’t give women enough credit it seems. You certainly don’t give yourself enough credit. I won’t bother you any more then. If you think so little of me then there is no reason for me to tilt against windmills is there?” Adam turned on his heel and left without another sound. He didn’t say goodbye to Presha nor to Roy. He went to the livery stable, got his horse, and rode out of town. The first words he spoke were to his father when he got home. He didn’t unsaddle Sport but left him tied to the rail by the house. He didn’t expect that he would be there for very long. He walked inside and could tell his father was expecting him in the mood he was in. He waited for a moment and his father spoke.

“There wasn’t much I could do. She never spoke in her own defense. She only said that what was in the complaints was true and that she had violated the contract that she had signed. The meeting was very short. If she had offered some explanation or defense, I could have sided with her and asked for a second chance or leniency.”

“A second chance or leniency for what? For sitting at a table and eating a meal with me? For dancing with me at the dance? For walking down the street with me? What did she do that was so terribly wrong that you would threaten to take away her job, her livelihood? She doesn’t want to see me again.”

“Adam, I’m sorry. I had no idea that she would overreact like that.”

“She overreacted? How about you and that whole damn school board overreacted to a bunch of damn gossiping hens who have nothing better to do than spread their ugliness around. There’s nothing I can do now, is there?”

“Perhaps when things calm down, she will reconsider?”

“Really? You’ve met her. What do you think?” Adam stared into the fireplace for a minute. “Has anyone been up to the timber camps lately?”

“No, but you don’t have to do that right away. I’m sure we would have heard from them if there was a problem.”

“I’ll go. I need to get away from here anyway.” Adam headed to the door grabbing his hat and coat as he did.

“Adam, don’t go tonight. You’ve been gone for a month and a half. At least spend the night here in your bed. We can talk in the morning.”

“Nothing will have changed by morning.”

“It’s late. You can’t get far anyway.”

“I’ll camp when it gets dark. I’d rather be alone.” With that he was gone out the door. As he was mounting up, Hoss rode in.

“Hey, Adam, where ya going? I got good news. Sally said she’ll go on a picnic with me on Saturday. Ain’t that great?”

“Go to hell.”

With that, he rode out leaving Hoss stunned and dismayed. Hoss walked inside and asked what had happened because the last he had seen of Adam in town, he was happy and looking forward to seeing Presha. Ben and Joe filled him in on what had happened with Presha and the school board. No one in town had told him.

“Damn, Pa, why didn’t you speak up for her and tell them busybodies that she’s a nice woman and hadn’t done anything wrong? Is it because you don’t like her? The only reason them women complained about her was because Adam is paying attention to her. You know that, right?” Ben had nothing to say to that but feared that Hoss might have hit too close to the truth. “What did the women who had kids in school say about her?”

Staring at Hoss, Ben’s mouth dropped open. “Hoss, sometimes you are the smartest one here. Maybe we should put you on the school board instead of me.”

Hoss smiled but then frowned and looked at his father and at Joe. “What’d I say?”

“Hoss, the regular meeting of the school board is on Thursday. Adam won’t be here. He left for the timber camp.”

“He left? It’s almost dark. He told me to go to hell too. I thought he was kidding. Did he really mean it?”

“He probably meant it in anger, but not really. He’s upset after what happened. He thought he was going to have something good happening in his life and it got taken away before it even had a chance to develop. He’s hurting now and you know he stays away from us when he’s like that.”

“Damn, and things were going real well too. He was happy, or at least as happy as he gets. On the trail drive, things were going about as good as we could have expected. What are you gonna do, Pa?”

“Hoss, I’m going to use your idea. I’m going to see what the parents of the students in the school think about the teacher having dinner with a member of the school board and going to a dance. That should be more important that what anyone else thinks.”

“Pa, is there anything that Hoss and I can do to help?”

“Yes, I was hoping you would be willing to help. With only two days before the school board meeting, I’m going to need some help. Let’s get a good night’s sleep, and in the morning, we’ll plan out who will see whom.”

On Thursday afternoon, Ben rode into town early enough to stop by the schoolhouse as the students were being dismissed for the day. The school board meeting wasn’t scheduled to begin for another two hours. He walked up the steps to the school and knocked at the open door. Presha was cleaning the board and turned toward him. He saw her shoulders droop when she saw him. She faced him with an air of resignation.

“Have I broken another rule and I’m going to be fired?”

“No, no, not at all. I’m sorry to show up here like this and perhaps give you such an impression. No, I came here to invite you to stay for the school board meeting. Several of the parents have asked to address the board this evening, and they asked specifically that you be asked to be in attendance when they do so. I am offering that invitation. Would you please be here for the meeting?”

“Of course. I can hardly decline an ‘invitation’ from a school board member, can I?”

“Miss Shay, you most certainly have the right to decline. This is voluntary on your part. It is not the board’s intention to push you into this. It was the desire of some parents to see you here tonight. I think that you will be pleased by what they have to say. I believe that is why they want you to be here.”

Skeptical but a bit intrigued by that, Presha agreed. Ben smiled and said he would be back for the meeting, and Presha said she would have the school cleaned up and ready by that time. It was only then that Ben realized how the workload was increased because of meetings held in the schoolhouse. He resolved to bring that up at a meeting as well. When it was time for the meeting, there wasn’t room in the building for all those who wanted to attend. Presha was surprised and wondered why so many people were there. She saw Joe and Hoss Cartwright standing outside with a number of the fathers of her students as the mothers crowded inside. She was escorted inside with smiles by several of them who insisted she move close to the front of the room. The mother of one of her most troublesome students was the first to address the school board.

“Now you all know my Jason can be a handful. He takes after his father, God bless him. He was on the road to real trouble ’til this school year started. He come home ornery as a hungry bear the first few days, but I got to tell ya, after a while, I noticed a change in that boy. He likes learning now. He likes going to school. It’s because of the schoolteacher ya hired. For once, ya done a good job, well that is, until ya decided to give her a hard time cause some busybodies in town don’t like that Adam Cartwright might see in her what all them children sees in her. We got ourselves a keeper this time, and we mean to tell ya that we don’t like it at all that we heard you give her a bad time. There might be some here got better words to use to tell you the truth, but I wanted to be the first cause I think I speak the strongest. We want you to ease up on the lady, and we want you to make sure she wants to stay. That’s all I got to say, but there’s some others here got to say their piece too.”

The meeting lasted for two and one half hours because the first hour and a half was filled with people, mothers of students mostly, giving testimony on behalf of Presha Shay. A few of the fathers spoke too to add an air of authority to what their wives had said. It grated on Presha’s nerves that it was so, but she understood the political necessity of it, and appreciated that the men waited for their wives to speak and then stood to support them. She had not had that kind of experience and was gratified to learn that some women had marriages in which their husbands would do that for them. After the open session, the school board conducted their regular business. At the end of the meeting, there were still many people standing in groups outside the schoolhouse wondering what the school board might decide to do. Ben walked up to Presha who was talking with Joe and Hoss.

“The Board has rescinded any previous censure and any record of it has been removed. There is no warning on the record. Your contract has been amended if you approve. Any reasonable public social activities conducted within the city limits or in the company of two or more other adults are now considered acceptable under your contract. Your curfew has been extended to midnight on weekends as long as you are engaged in any such social activities. You may ask any board member for an extension in special circumstances as long as you get that permission in writing. If there are other provisions in your contract that you find to be overly constricting, the board is willing to discuss those with you. Your salary has been increased by one dollar per week, and an extra dollar for any week in which a meeting is held in the schoolhouse. Is that acceptable to you?”

A small group had gathered around the Cartwrights and Presha as Ben explained what the school board had decided. When Presha accepted, there was a small cheer. Presha smiled, but her smile faded as the people moved away to their various conveyances to head home.

“Have I ruined things with your son, though, Mister Cartwright? I spoke very harshly to him. I’m afraid that I let the anger I had at the situation come out at him. He did not deserve that. I’m sorry, but I don’t know if I will have the opportunity to apologize for that.”

“My son, Adam, has been known to say harsh words that he has been forced to eat later as well. I think he could be persuaded to accept your apology. Give me a little time to get him to bow that proud, stubborn head of his.”

Hoss stepped forward. “Ifn he doesn’t, ma’am, I’ll sling him on over my shoulder and haul him here for ya.”

Presha laughed, but Joe had the parting comment saying Hoss would do that too. As she watched them ride away, she sighed deeply and hoped they were right.

*****

Chapter 7

Over a week later, Adam got home from the timber camps. He was quiet when he walked into the house. When he turned so that his family could see him, they knew he had been in quite a fight. He still had a nasty looking black eye that was shades of purple with blue, green, brown, and yellow around the edges. He had a bad scrape across the other cheek, and his knuckles showed that he had given as much as he had gotten. His father stood and was obviously displeased.

“Are there more serious injuries than what we can see?”

“My ribs are bound but not broken. I was still able to work. I mapped out trees for at least a month of cutting. No one missed any work.”

“Why were you fighting?”

“There was a disagreement over how I issued orders.”‘

“And?”

“It got settled.”

That was the closest Adam was likely to ever come to admitting he had probably been forced to back down. It was how things were often resolved in the timber camps though. The next time that he went up there, none of it would matter because it was settled and forgotten. Ben wasn’t sure if he should tell him the news about Presha right away or not but thought that withholding the information would likely be resented. He decided to go ahead and explain it all. Adam took the news with seeming calm until Ben mentioned that Presha had expressed that she wanted to apologize to Adam.

“An apology? She thinks an apology will fix everything?”

“She’s an intelligent woman. I’m sure that she knows an apology is a first step, and I hope that you will give her that chance. She was in a very difficult situation, and I have to admit that I did nothing to help her until Hoss gave me an idea of how I should have handled it better in the first place.” Adam frowned and Ben explained. “Yes, Hoss is the one who wondered why we didn’t ask the parents of the students what they thought. As it turned out, the parents had a very different idea of what ought to be done than the school board or the busybodies who thought they could get Presha in trouble. Things should go much better now.”

“Things have a way of going wrong whenever I’m involved.”

“Adam, you had a run of bad luck. Don’t let that stop you from taking a chance on having friends. I think we’ve shown you that we’re here to help.”

Adam dropped his head in silent acknowledgement of those truths. When he picked his head up, he saw his family waiting to see his reaction. “Is there time for me to have a bath and shave before dinner?”

“Dadburnit, I shur hope so. I, for one, will enjoy dinner a whole lot more without that aroma you’re giving off.”

With the hint of that crooked grin of his, Adam stood and walked to the washroom touching his father and each of his brothers lightly on an arm or shoulder as he passed. They understood. He was going to try to make the best of the situation, but it would take some time. An hour later, they were having dinner and conversation was reasonably light and mostly concerned Hoss’ new love interest.

“Adam, she likes books, but when she talks about ’em, it makes me want to read ’em. Her favorite one right now is about some explorer. She reads in French. Didja know she went to school back east and learned French. She said she can read and write in it better than she can say it.”

“What is the book about?”

“It’s an adventure about some captain who goes to the North Pole. She’s been telling me the story as she reads it. Maybe when she’s done with it, you might like to borrow it. You’re a real good storyteller. You could tell the whole story after you read the whole thing. I’d look forward to hearing that. Winter’s coming up, and nothing would pass the time better during one of them big storms than hearing some good stories.”

“She’s well educated then?”

“Yeah, who woulda thought she’d be interested in me, but she is. She says I know all about natural knowledge while all she’s got is book knowledge. She says we make a nice pair that way.”

While listening to Hoss extol the virtues of his Miss Sally, Adam watched his father’s reaction for clues as to his feelings about the pairing which seemed odd to him. He saw some subtle hints that his father was a bit skeptical. When Hoss turned his attention to his dessert, Joe looked at Adam with an expression that said he too had some very serious doubts about Sally’s interest in Hoss. Adam knew that both his father and Joe were unlikely to have said anything to Hoss. He was so happy that neither of them would want to have their doubts intrude especially with nothing to back up their concerns except logic. Adam knew the feeling. A woman who could read novels in French but preferred Hoss’ company to that of all the other men in Virginia City somehow seemed a bit hard to believe. It wasn’t that he doubted that his brother would make a fine match for any woman. It was that such a well-educated woman suddenly showing such an interest didn’t ring true. It would bear some investigating when he got the chance. For the time being, he congratulated Hoss on his good fortune and apologized for his crude remark on leaving almost a week and a half earlier.

“It’s all right, but don’t you be talking that way in front of her, or I’ll have to thump ya a bit.” Hoss laughed a little when he said it, but Adam knew he meant it.

Adam had a request then. “Does anyone have anything they need in town tomorrow because I was thinking of taking the day and heading to town?”

“Hop Sing has a list, and I have a list. Hoss probably wants to ride in with you.” Ben looked at his middle son who nodded even as he chewed a large mouthful of his second helping of dessert. He looked at Joe next.

“I’m good, Pa. I’m heading to town late tomorrow with some of the men. If I need anything, I’ll get it then.”

“Well, it looks like I’ll be the only one home tomorrow afternoon. It may be nice having a quiet relaxing time. Could you all promise me that no one will end up in a fight, in jail, or in trouble?”

While Adam raised one eyebrow and Hoss’ eyes twinkled, Joe answered for all three. “We can promise, Pa, but you never know what other people are going to do.”

Some light laughter at Ben’s long suffering look ended the meal on a light note which extended through the evening and into the next morning. Adam and Hoss left by midmorning and had time to talk on the way to town. Adam asked Hoss what he knew about Sally. Hoss was happy to spend time talking about her, but Adam noted that most of what he said had little to do with Sally’s background. He truly didn’t know much about her. As Adam thought about it though, he didn’t know much about Presha’s background either except that her father had been a teacher and was now deceased. He knew she had been teaching for six years and had taught in a succession of schools all progressively further west. As he thought about that, he wondered again why that was so for a teacher who was so clearly gifted at her craft and highly intelligent. He knew too that at some point in time, she must have had a major problem with a man or men. He didn’t know what it was, but it had marked her so it must have been quite traumatic. He had started to think about her so much that he wasn’t paying close attention to his driving. Hoss grabbed his arm.

“You want to watch the team some there, older brother, so we don’t run off the road? You can think about your gal when we get to town and stop this wagon by the store.”

“Sorry. It’s that I don’t know much about her background, and I was thinking about that. I’d like to know more about where she came from and what made her the way she is now. Don’t you wonder about Sally and where she came from?”

“Not that much. I figure she’ll tell me anything that’s important. How much you know about your gal?”

“Not much, but I’m not sure she is my gal. I guess I’ll know today.”

“Ah, she is. I seen how she looks when she talks about you, and I seen how she looked when she was dancing with you. I figure that’s what them jealous busybodies saw too and that’s why they tried to make trouble for her.”

“Maybe.”

It was clear Adam wasn’t going to talk about it so Hoss leaned back and enjoyed the ride thinking about Sally and the time they had already spent together. They made good time to town and it didn’t take long to load up supplies at the mercantile. That gave them the whole afternoon.

“See you back here about five?”

“That’s a plan, and you don’t have to say it. I won’t be late. I know it’s gonna be nearly dark when we get home as it is if we leave by five. But the sky’s clear and there’s a full moon so it won’t be bad. Aw, don’t give me that look, I said I won’t be late.” Hoss grinned and headed toward Sally’s place. She had returned to her home only a short time earlier after stopping by Presha’s rooming house with a warning.

“I know you overheard me in the dress shop that day. I know you know too much. That’s why I organized that little problem for you with the school board, but your friends, the Cartwrights, saved you. If I let loose the real news, Presha Shaw, then what can they do for you? The good citizens of the town won’t have you then, will they? Isn’t that why you had to leave the last five teaching jobs you had? Yes, you see, I have done my homework, teacher, and you better not even think of messing up my plans for Hoss Cartwright. He’s my ticket out of here, and you are not going to get in my way, or you’re going to be trampled like a herd of his cattle ran right over you. You can have the dark moody one. He’s much too much trouble. I’ll handle mine, and maybe both of us can get what we want. Now that you understand, I hope you know what you have to do. Keep your mouth shut and you can keep your precious little job in this stupid town.” Sally had turned then and with a smile and a wave as if she was done visiting with a friend, she had gone on her way leaving a shaken and pale Presha behind.

When Adam got to the rooming house, Presha saw him coming, took a deep breath, and headed out to the porch to greet him. Hoss had told her that he thought Adam would be in town on Saturday and she had hoped that it would happen. Now she only hoped she could keep her hands from shaking when she made her apology. She did, but Adam could tell something was wrong. He asked her to have lunch with him, and she wanted to decline but knew that would only make things worse so she agreed but with less than an enthusiastic response. He didn’t know what to make of her behavior that seemed so at odds with what his father had told him and with the apology that had seemed so sincere. They talked about such ordinary things at lunch and there was none of the lively banter he had come to expect in a conversation with her. When they finished lunch, Presha asked if Adam would walk her back to her rooming house. She couldn’t carry on this small talk with so many serious issues weighing on her. As they walked, they said little giving Presha time to think. As they got to the rooming house, she turned to Adam.

“Adam, I would like to go to church with you.”

“I would like that too. I could pick you up tomorrow morning if that’s convenient.”

“No, I mean I would like to go to church with you now.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now, because I need to speak with you where no one else can overhear what I’m going to say and no one can say that we’re doing anything wrong. Church seems to fulfill both requirements. Can we go to church now?”

“Of course.” Offering his arm, Adam turned and when she took his arm, they began walking to the church that Adam and his family attended on Sundays. When they got there, the minister was outside playing with his sons. He greeted Adam who introduced Presha and explained that they needed a quiet place to have a serious private discussion. The minister said they should use the church and that he was available if they needed a neutral party for advice. Once inside, Presha almost let her nerves get the best of her, but she took a deep breath, looked at Adam as he waited for her trusting her, and she knew in her heart that she could trust him.

“I’m going to tell you something that could cost me my job. It is something that you may feel that you as an honorable man are duty bound to divulge. All I can say is that I trust you to do the right thing. My name is not Presha Shay. I am Presha Shaw. It wasn’t that difficult to alter my documents and change that w to a y. After losing my last teaching job for the same reason I had lost the previous four, I decided to change my name, but I still needed that teaching certificate and those references. With cursive writing and flourishes, a w can so easily become a y, and Shaw becomes Shay and I had a new name.”

“But why did you need a new name? You’re not a murderer on the run, are you?”

“No, but when people find out what I’ve done, you would think they might prefer a murderer. No, I’m not a single young woman. I’m divorced. I was married at eighteen. My father died only a few months later. My husband spent about a month settling the estate and making sure all of the property and the deeds were transferred legally and permanently. When all legal and social obligations were met, we arrived at our home. He took off his hat, gloves, and topcoat, looked at me, and told me to pack up my clothes and my father’s musty books and pictures and be out by the next day.”

“That was it. No explanation.”

“My father had been ill. He had wanted me married before he died. He thought that would make me secure and safe. My husband was a man who must have realized what a perfect situation that was for him. He took everything from me. On Christmas day nearly six years ago, he took what was left of my innocence and my faith in men and destroyed them.”

“On Christmas day he told you he was divorcing you?”

“Yes, he wasn’t working, and once all the necessary social obligations were met with family and friends, he moved on to the next order of business. He stood there and pronounced my sentence with all the solemnity of a judge sentencing a murderer to the gallows. Then he poured himself a nice glass of whiskey and sat in my father’s leather chair and smiled as if all was well with the world. All the property was in his name. It all belonged to him legally. We had no children, and he had made sure there would be none on the way. Everything belonged to him. I took a job tutoring students but too many knew what I was. I saved what I could and moved but what I was kept following me.”

“And you think that if they find out here, you will lose your job?”

“Adam, not only does the contract say that the teacher must be a single woman of good moral character, but I altered my teaching certificate and references. That’s forgery. By any standard, those are grounds to fire me. Yes, if anyone finds out, I will lose my job.”

“Why are you telling me this then?”

“There are two reasons. Originally, I was going to lie to you. I had concocted a whole cover story in my mind, but that was before I got to know you better. You are too good a man for me to do that. You are not like him and not like the men who had me fired in every other school before this one. I had to be honest with you. I want you to trust me, and I couldn’t lie to you and expect trust in return. I do want us to be friends.”

“You said there were two reasons. What’s the other one?”

“I have to tell you what I know about Sally so you can save Hoss from her.”

Then Presha told Adam what she had heard in the dress shop, and what she thought she knew about Sally. She also told Adam what Sally had said to her that morning when she had tried to warn her off. As she talked, she realized she felt more comfortable and less stressed than she had before when she was keeping her secret. No matter what happened, she decided that she was going to be herself and stop hiding who she was. Adam had heard her out, and she could tell that he had not judged her. She had found a man like her father in character. In fact, she thought that perhaps the whole Cartwright family was of good character. If she lost her job, she knew they would help her. And right now, she would help them because Sally was out to hurt Hoss, and she didn’t want that to happen any more than they did. Adam was quiet when she finished explaining everything. Adam turned to her and asked for her cooperation. She smiled and said that of course she would help in any way that she could. The minister poked his head in the door then and asked if he could be of service. Adam asked him to come in and talk with them. Soon there was one more man of good character who knew Presha’s story and who was willing to help. What they needed was a plan.

*****

Chapter 8

Furious that Sally had orchestrated the campaign that had nearly cost him his friendship with Presha and could have cost Presha her job, Adam felt closer to Presha than he had before she had told him her secrets. He felt protective of her now and wanted to do his best for her. He also wanted to find a way to get Hoss out of Sally’s clutches but needed to do it in a way that didn’t devastate his brother. That was a dilemma. Once he escorted Presha back to her rooming house and thanked her for her honesty and the information, he met Hoss at the wagon and drove back to the Ponderosa. Hoss noted how quiet Adam was.

“Things didn’t go well for ya?”

“What? Oh, with Presha. No, things went fine. We’re good. I have a lot on my mind.”

“Uh huh. Me too. I had a real good few hours this afternoon.” Hoss grinned as he thought about it. “Adam, I know it ain’t been long, but I’m already thinking about asking her.”

Panic was the only way Adam could later describe how he felt at that moment. He thought about as furiously as he had ever thought about anything. This situation was as dangerous as facing a gunfighter in the street or rustlers trapped in a box canyon. One false move, one moment of indecision, or one bad move could mean disaster. He came up with an idea on the fly and could only pray Hoss would agree. He needed to buy some time for their plan to work. “This isn’t a very romantic time of year though. What woman wants to remember being asked at the harvest dance or thanksgiving. Makes her feel like part of getting ready for the long winter. Don’t you think you should wait for a more romantic setting that she’ll appreciate?”

“Huh, oh, you mean like Christmas?”

Adam had a thought then but pushed it back as he thought about Hoss’ issue first. “No, I was thinking more of Valentine’s Day in February. Christmas is so much about other traditions that celebrating an engagement would fade in comparison. No, that kind of thing needs a much more romantic setting to please a woman. It seems that women like Valentine’s Day quite a lot not that I understand why considering what it commemorates.”

“That’s a long time to wait.”

“You don’t think she wants a winter wedding, do you? Women like those June weddings with all the flowers and such. I would think a Valentine’s Day proposal and then a June wedding would be the right thing to offer. You waited all these years. You want to do it up right, don’t you? You want to give her memories that will last a lifetime, right?”

“Well, I suppose you’re right. When you say it all like that, it makes a lot of sense. Sally was talking like we shouldn’t be waiting on things cause we’re older, but we ain’t that old, are we?”

“Not at all. You could be looking at forty or fifty years together. You want to start something like that off the right way. Rushing in and not doing things the right way is no way to start a marriage, is it? I mean, there’s no way to go back and fix it if you get it wrong so you have to do it right the first time.”

Hoss nodded and looked at Adam with that lopsided grin he had. “You’re right there, older brother. I need to work this out and do it up just right. I’m thinking now that if we have a June wedding, I could have a house ready for us to move into by then. Would you be able to design something for us and help me get it built by then cause that would be a great wedding present?”

“Definitely. We could start talking ideas and I could start drawing up some preliminary plans fairly soon. Now that dance is coming up. I assume you and Sally will be there together. Why don’t we invite the ladies to come to the house for dinner the day after. Maybe Joe will find someone he can invite too. We can have a nice dinner party. Pa would like that.”

“Boy, he shur would. I’m liking how you’re thinking on all this. I surely am.”

“We could ride back to the Ponderosa after church and have all afternoon to talk. That would be a good time to bring up ideas like what kind of house the ladies would like to have if they ever had a chance to design a house. That way we could get ideas without letting her know what you are planning. I could ask Presha if she might bring up the idea of June as the month for weddings and see how Sally responds to that. We’ll get her talking about all of it without her knowing what you plan to do.”

“Adam, you’re darn sneaky but in a good way this time. I like it. I like it a lot. I’m glad I waited and talked to you before I up and did something.”

Snapping the reins to keep the horses moving at a good pace, Adam felt a slight twinge of guilt but not too much. He was being sneaky but quite a lot more than Hoss realized. He knew he was manipulating Hoss, and he knew his chin might suffer some ill effects if Hoss ever figured out how much he had done that, but saving Hoss from Sally was worth the risk. That night, Joe wasn’t likely to be in until late, but Ben usually stayed up later than Hoss. Adam wanted a chance to talk with him about what was going on. Hoss excused himself at the usual time and headed up the stairs. Ben had noted that Adam had seldom turned a page in the book he had been holding for nearly two hours. Once he heard Hoss’ door close, he was ready to hear whatever his oldest son was willing to tell him.

“Something on your mind, son?”

“I’m always that obvious to you?”

“Not always, but with only you and Hoss here tonight, it seemed fairly clear that you were thinking about something rather hard. Is it Presha? You came home in a good mood so I had assumed things had gone well with her.”

“They did. We’re back to being friends.” Adam paused, closed his book, and set it on the floor next to his chair. “No, it’s something that she told me about Sally that has me very worried. She was in the dress shop and she heard Dolly, the little helper in there tell Sally that she shouldn’t hurt Hoss because Hoss was a good man. Sally told her to keep her nose out of Sally’s business if she knew what was good for her. Then she said that Hoss was her ticket out of here. She said that once she was married and had her hands on some of the Ponderosa money, that ‘fat bear’ would do anything for her for the chance to be in her bed every now and then. She said it would be a small price to pay for the money he could bring to her.”

“You believe Presha?”

“I do. She entrusted me with another secret about her life that could devastate her if it got out. She wanted me to know that she trusted me so that I could trust her. Pa, Sally is only after Hoss for the money. I know you suspected it too, and now we have the proof. The problem is what to do with it.”

“Yes, if we tell Hoss, we know he won’t believe it. He trusts so easily and so completely.”

“And Sally has done everything she can to bewitch him. Pa, Presha and I talked with Reverend Miller and we came up with a plan.”

“Adam, you know I don’t like it when you interfere in your brother’s life. I would think that you would have learned your lesson about that with Regan and Helen.”

“Pa, the plan we have is to let Sally tell him what she wants by putting some pressure on her. If she’s the one to tell him, then he knows it’s the truth. He won’t like hearing it. If he hears it and still wants to marry her, then he at least will be walking into hell with his eyes wide open.”

“You don’t think he’ll marry her if she tells him what she wants though, do you?”

“No, especially when she tells him that she wants to leave here. Pa, I don’t think he loves her, at least not yet. I think he wants to get married. He doesn’t want to live his life alone. I understand the idea of falling in love with the idea of being married more than you love the woman you’re thinking of marrying.”

Neither man needed to say any more about that. Laura and all the bad memories attached to her name were still very fresh in their minds even if a year had passed. Adam had only one more thing to add and hoped his father wouldn’t object too much.

“I need Joe to help, and I need you to host a dinner for us next Sunday. There will be three ladies as guests. Presha will be here as well as Sally and Dolly if all works according to plan. Reverend Miller will be making Sally a bit nervous with his sermon that morning. With Presha and Dolly here and with our conversation that afternoon, we’re hoping that we can draw Sally out. The rest will be up to Hoss.”

“You’re taking some big risks here.”

“If it saves Hoss from Sally, it will all be worth it.”

“Some say that Joe’s the gambler because of all the poker games he likes to play. They say that you aren’t because you rarely play, but they don’t know you only play when the stakes are high enough.”

“No, I only gamble when I have to win and it’s the only game in town. I would prefer a sure thing, but there isn’t one here.”

For a moment, there was silence in the room. Adam wondered if Ben would guess the rest of the story. It didn’t take long. “Adam, one of the women who sent in a complaint about Presha to the school board was Sally. Was it because she knew that Presha had overheard that conversation?”

“That would be the case. She thought to get rid of her that way.”

Ben was quiet a bit longer. “That didn’t work. What is Sally using now to keep Presha from saying publicly what she heard?” Adam didn’t answer, and Ben remembered what Adam had said earlier. “Sally is blackmailing Presha with something. Presha told you what it is, but you aren’t going to tell me.”

“Good night, Pa. Tomorrow, in church, be sure to say a few prayers for all of us that this is going to work.” With that, Adam went up the stairs to bed. Ben watched him go and wondered what secret Presha had shared with his son that Adam would not share with him.

The next week when Adam got a chance to talk with Joe, he explained everything that he had explained to their father.

“So, you said you needed me to help. What do you need me to do?”

“We need you to take Dolly Davis to the harvest dance and bring her here on Sunday.”

“Dolly Davis? But she’s so plain, and so short, and so, so, so, I don’t know, so ordinary.”

“Joe, I know she isn’t your usual kind of girl, but this isn’t for you. It’s for Hoss. You need to take her to the dance so that you can ask her to be here for dinner on Sunday. It won’t look right otherwise. There are two good reasons to have Dolly here. She’s the one who stood up to Sally for Hoss. She’s the one who got Sally to say those things that Presha overheard. If it wasn’t for Dolly, we wouldn’t have any proof at all that Sally was out to get Hoss for the money and nothing else. She called Hoss a ‘fat bear’ so we know she has no respect for him at all. Having her here is going to help make Sally very nervous.”

Knowing that Sally had insulted Hoss, even if Dolly and Presha had been the only ones to hear it, made Joe angry. That alone was enough to make him want to help but he had some questions about how it was all going to work and why. “All right, having her here puts pressure on Sally. I get that, but you said there were two reasons.”

“There are two reasons. Dolly likes Hoss a lot. That’s why she started that conversation in the dress shop with Sally when she thought no one else was around. She wanted to warn Sally not to hurt Hoss. When Hoss gives Sally the boot, won’t it help Hoss to have a lady here to console him and tell him how wonderful he is and how Sally wasn’t good enough for him?”

That got Joe grinning. “Damn, Adam, you are sneaky. Yeah, so I’m only bringing Dolly so she can be there for Hoss. Dolly is going to know this, right?”

“Dolly is going to know this. Presha is going to talk to her and enlist her in our cause. If she agrees, and we think she will, all you have to do is go to the dress shop and ask her to go to the dance with you.”

“Wait a minute. On Sunday, how does Sally get home so that Dolly gets to stay with Hoss?”

So Adam explained the rest of the plan making Joe smile because he got to drive Sally home. Joe only had one comment when Adam finished talking.

“Why do both you and Hoss attract these short women anyway?”

Meanwhile, in town, the two short women, Dolly and Presha had become better acquainted, were seen together on several occasions chatting, and had dinner together one evening and then walked together to Dolly’s parents’ home sitting on the porch and talking for a short time. Many people including Sally saw them together that week. She worried a little about that but not too much thinking that the information she had to blackmail Presha was good enough and that the meek Dolly could be frightened into silence very easily. She had no idea of the alliance they had formed with Adam and Reverend Miller. Dolly had been nervous about doing what Presha explained but when she found out that Reverend Miller and Adam and Joe would be helping, that resolved her worries significantly. She looked forward to helping Hoss. It was what all of them wanted to do. Sally was outnumbered and outgunned, but she didn’t know that yet.

Probably the biggest gossip in town by the end of that week was the news that Joe Cartwright had asked Dolly Davis to the annual harvest dance that Saturday night. It was the last big social event of the year. Although there were winter dances, the weather often meant that the turnout was low because many couldn’t make it in from the ranches and that of course meant the Cartwrights weren’t there. Dolly was so unlike the usual lady that Joe asked to escort to the dances that there was all sorts of speculation as to the reasons for his sudden interest in the shy shop girl. Most assumed that somehow her association with the schoolteacher who had captured Adam Cartwright’s attention must be a factor but couldn’t guess what the connection could be. Hoss was escorting Sally and that pairing was another big surprise to everyone with the well-educated and sophisticated Sally seeming to be well on her way to marriage to the nature loving and shy middle Cartwright son. It was a mystery to all. There was little talk about Adam and Presha any longer because that pairing seemed so mundane in comparison to what Adam’s younger brothers were doing.

When Adam and his younger brothers rode into town on Saturday evening and split up to go to escort their respective ladies for the dance, attention was focused most on Joe. He didn’t mind. He liked the attention. Adam had told him that he was going to be making all the younger ladies jealous, and he could see by the looks that Adam had been correct. He guessed that after this dance, he was going to have an easier time getting some of these ladies to say yes when he asked for a social engagement. He smiled as he entered the social hall with Dolly on his arm. She was quite nervous, but Joe told her to relax because he or one of his brothers would be by her side for the entire evening. She had never had an escort to a dance before this night and didn’t have much of an idea what she was supposed to do. Joe took the pressure off the evening for her by telling amusing stories when they weren’t dancing or conversing with Adam and Presha. Most of the stories were about Hoss although a few were about the three brothers and some things they got into together.

As Presha danced with Adam, she mentioned what she had observed. “Joe can be very sweet and charming when he’s trying to help out. He’s made Dolly very happy tonight. She was so scared about doing this, but she wanted to help Hoss so she agreed to do as we asked.”

“She likes Hoss that much? It’s amazing. I never paid much attention to her and certainly never had any idea that she was interested in Hoss.”

“Apparently at each dance, he’s danced with her at least once. Those are some precious memories for her. Hoss doesn’t know how much of an impact he had on her.”

“She probably hardly said a word to him. He would have had no way of knowing.”

“Tomorrow, we have to help her make more of an impact. Tonight will help. Hoss is seeing more of her personality with Joe bringing her out a bit more by telling those funny stories about Hoss.” With a bit of a mischievous grin, Presha had to ask. “Does he have some equally funny stories about you?”

Twirling Presha around, Adam gave her a bit of a mock frown in return. “Do not ask him. We were getting back to being friends. I would hate for you to let Joe ruin that.”

“Oh, I don’t think that Joe would ruin anything. I would like to know more of what made a man who can burn so hot. Your hand on my waist makes me warm.”

At that point, Adam wanted to lean forward and whisper in her ear. He wanted to kiss her lips and neck. There were so many things he wanted to do, but aware of her vulnerable position, he kept his hand on her waist and her other hand gently held and continued the dance. “You are torturing me.”

“Torturing you? It’s all over town that you haven’t even kissed me. Did you actually declare that on a public street for everyone to hear?”

“Of course not. I, ah, may have said something like that to Roy though when he said that there were stories that you were accused of improper behavior with me.”

“There are other sorts of improper behavior other than kissing.”

“You need to stop doing that. I can’t walk outside in the cold air. We have to stay inside to make sure no one has any other complaints about you.”

“I’m sorry. I should not tease you so.”

“Thank you.” Secretly though, Adam was pleased because it meant that Presha saw him as more than a friend. She obviously thought about him romantically and desired him physically even if she only showed it by her teasing. He smiled at her and continued the dance. At least by dancing, he could hold her and touch her even if he couldn’t kiss her although he wanted to very much. He saw Sally pressing herself against Hoss and touching him in more and more suggestive ways until the couple began walking toward the exit. Adam danced with Presha in that direction to intercept them and invite them to the refreshment table. He got a bit of a scowl from Hoss when he did so, but the two could hardly say no to such a polite request. Adam and Joe spent the evening doing their best to keep Sally from getting Hoss outside where they were sure she planned to get him either into a compromising situation or she was going to pressure him into a proposal of marriage. They needed to delay those things. Finally it was late and it was time to escort the ladies home. Adam decided there was no better time to make the suggestion of church and dinner the next day.

“Hoss, why don’t you invite Sally to join us at church tomorrow morning. Then she could come back with us to the ranch and spend the afternoon and have dinner with the family? I’m sure that Pa would like to get to know her.”

With a big grin, Hoss turned to Sally. “Well, now, Adam has a right good idea there. How about if I come pick you up in the morning for church and then you come with me to the ranch? I can show you around the place a bit and then we can spend the afternoon at the house. Hop Sing will make a great dinner, I’m sure. How about it?”

“Well, that is certainly a tempting offer. I guess I can’t say no.”

Suspicious of how things were developing, Sally felt uneasy about what was happening with Presha and Dolly at the dance with Adam and Joe, but at least she would have Hoss all to herself the next day or so she thought. She had hoped to get Hoss to propose before she had to undergo scrutiny by his father, but she felt up to the task. She planned to be her most charming self with Hoss’ father and her most seductive self when she was with Hoss. By this time on Sunday, she expected that her plan would be well on its way to success.

*****

Chapter 9

To say Sally was surprised to see Dolly and Presha with the family at church the next morning was understating the situation. She knew then that there was another plot underway to counteract hers, but she had no idea what it was. She got a hint of it with Reverend Miller’s sermon. He talked about figures in the Bible who had been judged as lacking by society but that Jesus had seen that they had a heart of gold. He looked at Presha several times as he said that. Then he had talked of people in the Bible who had set themselves up as paragons but who had evil hearts no matter how beautiful they looked or how grandly they dressed or comported themselves. He looked pointedly at Sally several times in that part of his sermon. There was no possible way that members of the congregation did not notice those looks. Sally was fuming inside, but kept smiling through it all.

Hoss seemed a bit confused by the sermon and the looks the minister had made. He didn’t know that Sally was one of those who had made a complaint against Presha trying to get her fired. He of course did not know any of what Sally had said in the dress shop to Dolly nor of the threat she had made to Presha. He did know that it seemed that Reverend Miller didn’t like Sally, and as they left the church, there were some pointed looks by other members of the congregation many of whom did know that Sally had instigated the complaints against Presha. Sally said nothing but asked Hoss if they could please leave so she could see his beautiful Ponderosa. She was further surprised when Hoss directed her to a large carriage and Joe and Dolly got in the back seat and Hoss helped her into the front seat.

“There, you can see a lot better than you can see from the back. I’ll take the best way back so you kin see the lake on the way to the house. It’s how we like to show anybody who never seen the Ponderosa before.”

“I’m sure that it is lovely, Hoss.” Sally noted Ben getting into a smaller carriage with Adam and Presha squeezing in beside him. They looked very happy which she tried to look too, but was afraid she wasn’t doing nearly as well as she had hoped. Hoss noticed.

“Is something wrong, Sally?”

“No, Hoss, I had hoped that we were going to have time together.”

“Gosh, Miss Sally, we got the whole day together. Wait ’til you see the house, and I’m sure that Hop Sing is gonna have a jim dandy lunch for us. Course it will be a light one cause he’s fixing on having a big ole dinner for us early so we can get all you ladies home at a respectable hour. It wouldn’t do to have people gossiping about you now, would it?”

At that point, Sally wasn’t sure if Hoss was as innocent as he seemed to be. Joe and Dolly were being very quiet in the back of the carriage. When she looked back to check on them, Joe winked at her, but it wasn’t a pleasant wink. It had a hint of mockery in it. Of that she was sure, but she still wasn’t sure what was going on. They were being pleasant enough. Surely Presha had not shared her secret with them. It would ruin her chances of keeping her job and winning the oldest son. Sally was rather certain of that, and yet there was an undercurrent of something going on that made her nervous. She wasn’t paying much attention to what Hoss was saying until she heard him talking about building a house.

“Excuse me. I was so taken with the view, I’m not certain I heard everything that you said. Could you repeat that, please?”

“Shur I could. That meadow yonder is part of my share of the Ponderosa. That’s where I plan to build a house someday when I get married. Adam already said he’d draw up some plans for a house for me and my wife. What kind of house would you like when you get married?”

“Why I would like a nice house with a big veranda on the street so that it’s sheltered from the rain and the sun when guests come calling or when we give a big party. I would like a nice garden in back with roses and a small pond. I would like the whole yard fenced in of course so that we would have privacy from the neighbors.”

“Oh there ain’t no need for fences around the yard out here. Ain’t no neighbors for miles around.”

“I wouldn’t want to live out here. I would want to live where it’s civilized. I think San Francisco would be a wonderful place to live.”

“Gosh, Sally, I never planned on leaving the Ponderosa except for some vacations. I plan to live here for the rest of my life.”

“Oh, Hoss, where is your sense of adventure, of having fun? Wouldn’t you like to see more of the world? Meet new people? Try new things?”

“Miss Sally, I done tried a lot of those things and I like it here better.”

“Oh, I see. What if your wife hadn’t tried those things. If you loved her, wouldn’t you want to let her do those things?”

“Well, I guess that maybe I would have to as long as we ended up back here.”

Watching from the back of the carriage, Joe and Dolly could see that Hoss was far less than enthusiastic when he said that. A lot of the joy had gone out of the conversation for him, but Sally took his concession as a victory, and began chattering on about all the things that a couple could do in San Francisco and how much fun it would be to live there. Hoss didn’t say much more for the rest of the ride. In the other carriage, Ben was overjoyed to hear how Presha was impressed by the Ponderosa and supported Adam’s ideas for improvements to it as well as how he might find ways to do some creative things on his own as well. He mentioned travel and she perked up and asked how he could do that and leave this beautiful land and such a wonderful family. Hearing that, Ben almost hugged her right then but managed only a small smile that he kept mostly to himself although he suspected that Adam did see it. Adam didn’t miss much.

When they got to the ranch house, Adam and Joe volunteered to take care of the horses allowing Hoss and their father to escort the ladies into the house. In the stable, Joe quickly told Adam about the conversation in the carriage. “It’s working already. She told Hoss she wants to live in San Francisco and then kind of put some pressure on him to make him agree that was a reasonable thing to do. I could tell Hoss wasn’t happy with that but wasn’t going to argue with her.”

“Good, then we need to get her to put a few other of her opinions and plans out there. When Hoss finds what she is actually like, I think we can trust that he’s not going to be thinking about marrying her.”

“Maybe we won’t have to have Dolly and Presha confront her with what she said. She might say enough without that.”

“I would be very happy if we could spare the ladies that. It would be so much better all the way around if Sally simply shows her true self. Hoss won’t like what he sees.”

When Adam and Joe got inside the house, Ben and Hoss were showing off the house to the ladies and explaining how many rooms there were. Ben said that there were five bedrooms upstairs and an extra guest room downstairs. There was also the bunkhouse attached as well as the kitchen and the washroom. It was a large house by western standards. Presha and Dolly were quite impressed. Sally asked when they were going to finish it. Ben was surprised.

“Finish it?”

“Yes. You still have exposed logs and stones. When are you going to plaster and cover it so that you have real walls, you know, finished walls?”

“My dear, these walls have been like this for twenty years. We plan to keep them like this. We like them like this.”

“But it is so primitive. Don’t you want it to at least look civilized?” Sally became aware of how much she had revealed of her true nature by her comments and tried to soften the impact. “I guess being raised in a city, I never learned to appreciate true western living. I’m learning all the time what it means to live here in the west. I have so much to learn, don’t I, Hoss?”

Hoss smiled but there was little warmth in it. Hoss was being polite, but it was clear to those who knew him well that he was having some doubts about his compatibility with the woman he had thought would be perfect for him. Her imperfections were all too apparent in this setting especially after having been made so on edge by Reverend Miller’s sermon and the presence of Presha and Dolly in the group. She still didn’t know what they might say. Hoping to get the attention shifted away from her, she directed a question to the other ladies.

“How about you two? What do you think of this house?”

Presha answered first. “It’s a house that shows the character of the four men who live here. It is solid and strong, but the wood is warm and inviting too. It is large but not grand, with a style and grace that suits the men who live here and the land on which it sits.”

Dolly shrugged. “I don’t have fancy words like that. To me, it makes me feel warm and safe. It’s a place that seems to invite me to kick off my shoes, have a cup of hot cocoa, and play a game of checkers in front of the fireplace.”

Dolly’s answer made Adam and Joe look at her in amazement. It couldn’t have been a better answer if they had coached her. She had not said much the entire time that she had been with them, but when she had, it had been perfect. Hoss was smiling.

“Dolly, that’s the exact kinda way I think on this house too. It ain’t fancy. It’s home.”

“Home ought to be a place you can point to with pride.” Sally wasn’t giving up.

Hoss wasn’t either. “I think we are proud of our home.”

Further debate about that was cut short when Hop Sing brought out a tray of small sandwiches, cookies, and fruit. “No talk now. Eat. Hop Sing make big meal so no eat too much now. Three hours and big meal ready for you.”

“Hop Sing, do you have coffee for us as well?”

“Can’t carry all in one trip. Hop Sing only have two arms. Mister Cartwright should be patient with Hop Sing. I bring coffee. All time complain. Where thank you for lunch?”

“Thank you, Hop Sing. I’m sorry to have complained. I should have known better.”

Hop Sing left to get the coffee tray, and Sally was shocked. “You let your servant speak to you that way. He should be fired for such insolence.”

Hoss was as shocked by her outburst as she had been by Hop Sing’s comments to Ben. “Hop Sing is like a member of the family. He talks like that all the time. We know what he’s like. We don’t mind at all.”

“But he’s a Chinaman. You would let one of them talk to you like that. He looked your father right in the eye and insulted him.”

“He may be from China, but he’s a man like any man, and he’s got a right to act like any man would act.”

Sally knew that once again she had made a mistake with Hoss. “Oh, here I go again. I’m showing my lack of knowledge about this part of the country and its peculiar habits. Please excuse me for not knowing how you get along out here. I guess I haven’t been here long enough yet to learn those kinds of things.”

Hop Sing brought the coffee tray, and it was clear from his expression that he had heard the exchange. Hoss smiled wanly at him, but it was clear that he was uncomfortable with what Sally had said as well as with her explanation for it. Adam and Joe were sorry that she had hurt Hop Sing’s feelings and would apologize to him later and explain why they had not done more to defend him, but at the same time they were glad that Sally was hanging herself. There were only a few more topics on which to get her to talk, and they were sure that Hoss would give up all thoughts of marrying her if he hadn’t already. They talked about several topics until Presha and Dolly were able to introduce the topic of having children. They asked Ben if he had wanted more than three. He said he had wished for more but was happy with three healthy sons who had survived to adulthood.

“Yes, not all babies survive. My mother lost three babies to various illnesses. She got sick herself trying to save the last one. That’s how she died. Then it was my father and me until he died when I was eighteen. I hope that when I have babies that medicine and childcare is better so that all the babies can live to be healthy adults.” Presha was genuinely sad about not having known her brothers and a sister who had all died as babies.

Dolly knew she had to lighten the mood. “My parents want me to have a lot of children. They said they want a lot of grandchildren. I think having a lot of children around would be a lot of fun.”

“But you have such a nice figure and you’re so small. Having many children would ruin your figure. I don’t think I want to have any children. They’re such a hindrance too.” Again Sally realized she may have been too honest and tried to soften the impact. “I mean a woman needs to spend her time making her husband happy. If she has children taking up her time, how can she spend her time with her husband. He could get very lonely if she has to take care of the children instead of him.”

Hoss had heard enough. “I always wanted a passel of children and figured a wife would want the same as her husband to make him happy. If a woman can’t love children, then how can she love anyone?”

“Oh, you people are so backward. Can’t you see that isn’t how people of wealth should live. You need to rise to your station instead of acting like any commoner. You have the money. Why don’t you act like it?”

“I guess cause we always thought a person is what you see and not what’s in their bank account or what they’re wearing. I’ve known a lot of jaspers who was wearing fancy clothes and had plenty of money and you couldn’t trust ’em at all, and I’ve known some real classy folks who didn’t have much except a good heart and a clear conscience. I’d take them any day over them that set themselves up as better than everybody else but they’ve got evil hearts like Reverend Miller was talking about today.”

“Hoss Cartwright, are you accusing me of having an evil heart? You apologize this instant or I’ll have to ask you to take me back to town immediately.”

Hoss stood silently as he thought about all the things that Sally had said to him that day and in the previous few weeks. She sealed the deal with her next comments though.

“I can see that Presha and Dolly have been telling you stories. I can see it from the look on your face. I should have told everyone the whole story about Presha instead of just sending those complaints to the school board. None of this would have happened if it wasn’t for her and her nosy friend poking into my business. They had no right to tell you what I said in the dress shop, no right at all.”

“What did you say in the dress shop?” Sally said nothing and realized by Hoss’ expression that he didn’t know. Hoss turned to Presha and Dolly then. “What did she say in the dress shop? What is she talking about?”

Adam stepped in then. “Sally, would you like to leave now? Joe could give you a ride back to Virginia City if you wanted to leave.”

Sally grabbed her things and flounced out of the house trying to make a dignified exit and failing. Joe grabbed his coat, hat, and gunbelt. “I’ll hitch up the team again, and I’ll be back in a few hours. Don’t hold dinner on my account.”

In the house, Hoss insisted that Dolly and Presha tell him what Sally had said in the dress shop. Under pressure, reluctantly, they did. Then Dolly said that perhaps he would like to play checkers. It would give him a chance to be there and not have to talk. He appreciated her offer and pulled out the checkerboard. Adam asked Presha to go for a walk, and Ben took out a book to read. They all knew that Hoss needed a bit of quiet time. Dolly didn’t pressure Hoss to talk. She simply played checkers with him. By about the third game though, Ben heard Hoss starting to make comments, and after an hour, the two of them were beginning to talk about things other than checkers. He wondered if Adam and Joe had purposely brought Dolly along as a potential lady for Hoss but dismissed the thought as too devious even for those two. He would have been very surprised to know the truth.

*****

Chapter 10

Outside, Adam and Presha did walk for a bit but it was chilly so they ended up in the stable to get out of the wind. Presha was chilled so Adam opened his coat and told her to wrap her arms around him and he would warm her up.

“It seems you could simply ask for a hug if that’s what you wanted.”

“I want to warm you up. The hug is an incentive for me to do it.”

He grinned then and she had to grin back. She slipped her arms around him and snuggled into him as he pulled his coat around her and hugged her. He was right. She warmed up immediately, but it wasn’t only from the warmth of his coat and his body. The press of his body against hers and the masculine smell of him made her warm in an entirely different way. She hadn’t felt that way in a very long time. When she had first married her husband and thought that he loved her, she had felt that way. It had not lasted beyond the first few nights together as his more cruel nature took over and his demands on her were for his pleasure and had nothing to do with her feelings. She felt Adam press his lips to her hair and whisper to her. She couldn’t understand what he was saying but the tone was very gentle. His hand slid under her chin and tipped her face up to meet his. He leaned down and brushed his lips across hers in their first kiss. She waited to see what he would do. He increased the pressure and she responded so he began kissing her more deeply until they were locked in a passionate embrace. His hand moved from her chin down to stroke the smooth skin of her neck and then lower. She wasn’t sure what more might have happened except they heard Ben calling for them. Adam slowly broke the kiss.

“It must be time for dinner.”

“Yes, I suppose we should go have dinner.”

Neither was in a hurry to break the embrace, but they couldn’t be rude and be late to dinner either. Mutually, they disengaged and walked arm-in-arm to the house. When they entered, they found Hoss and Dolly already seated at the table with Ben. Ben was pleased that it seemed that Dolly was able to get Hoss to talk. He had been afraid that Hoss being hurt would make him withdraw, but having Dolly there made a big difference. He realized too that having her there must have been part of the plan that Adam had cooked up with Presha and Joe. Seeing how Dolly looked at Hoss, it was very apparent that she liked him very much. Hoss was beginning to return some of that interest. Ben smiled as he thought about how things were working out. When Adam and Presha got to the table, Ben as well as Hoss and Dolly could see that Adam and Presha looked different. They looked at each other with warmth that was greater than before and Ben hoped that meant their relationship had become more of a romance and not just a friendship. That was clear during dinner several times when Adam reached for Presha’s hand and held it. Ben could only smile when he saw that. Although he had reservations about Presha when Joe had first said that he and Hoss had cooked up a scheme to have Adam meet her, now he could see how well matched they were, and together both were far more pleasant. They brought out the best in each other. Joe arrived back during dinner to say that Sally had been on a rant during most of the trip to town knowing that she had ruined her chances with all of the Cartwrights.

“You better watch out, Presha, because she had the worst threats for you. She said she was going to make you pay. I don’t know why she would single you out because you didn’t do anything to her. I guess she’s just that nasty.”

Presha looked pale and worried then as Adam held her hand tightly. “We knew it could happen, Presha. We should tell my family so they’re ready for it. I’ll help you. You know they will help you too. It would be best if it all came from you and not her.”

“So it’s time for the next step?”

Adam nodded. They had met with Dan DeQuille from the Territorial Enterprise and Presha had given him an exclusive interview. He was waiting for their permission to go ahead and print it. Presha had also drafted a letter to the school board with all the details of what she had concealed from them and how she had done it and why. Letters had also been written to the parents who had spoken on her behalf before the school board. She had those ready to be delivered as well. First though, she was going to have to tell Ben Cartwright the story, and for Presha, that was the scariest part of the whole ordeal. She looked to Adam for reassurance, took a deep breath, and told Ben Cartwright everything she had told Adam. Then Adam explained what they planned to do next. Ben said nothing for a short time as he thought about everything that he had learned.

“I understand why you did what you did, but you do know that you are in violation of your contract in a number of ways.”

“Yes, I do know that. But it is time to be honest. I wanted to be Adam’s friend and possibly more, and I couldn’t do that with such a huge lie between us. He deserved the truth, and I cannot expect him to withhold it when he has a position of authority that requires him to divulge it. When we talked with Reverend Miller, he was very clear that even though my motives were good, my actions were not, and that I needed to do something about that.”

“This puts the school board in a very difficult if not awkward position.”

“I understand that. I am sorry about that. I see now that my decision to protect myself has led to trouble for others. That was never my intent. I wanted to be able to teach, and my past kept getting in the way of that.”

“Pa, Presha and I have some errands to run now. I plan to stay in town tonight. Hoss, would you be willing to drive the carriage so we can get the ladies to town, and bring it back here? I’ll tie Sport to the back. If you give me a few moments to pack a bag, I’ll be right with you.”

Ben held up his hand. “No, Adam, I have one objection.” Adam frowned and Presha got worried but only for a second. “Hop Sing worked very hard on dessert. I believe we should have dessert before you leave. And when you go, I’ll go with you. I’ll talk to the other members of the board and make sure there isn’t an overreaction to the news.” Ben smiled and they knew he was on their side too not that Adam had much doubt, but it was good to have it confirmed. A beaming Hop Sing brought out dessert, and a half hour later, the group departed for Virginia City.

By that evening when Adam escorted Presha to her rooming house, she was emotionally exhausted. He knew she shouldn’t be alone, but there was no solution to that dilemma. “I’ll be at the hotel. I’ll be thinking about you.”

“Adam, tomorrow morning, will you walk me to the school? At some point during the day, I expect that the school board is going to make an appearance. I might get fired on the spot.”

“I doubt that they’ll do that, but you will likely get summoned to a meeting. I would guess it will be at the end of the day and probably about five. I’ll be there. I am on the board. Pa will be there too. I’m sure that there will be a discussion of what to do, but remember that they have no replacement for you. That much will work in your favor as will the good relationship you have with the parents.”

“That only goes so far. What will they think when they know about me?”

“The full story will be in the paper tomorrow. It won’t be gossip. They’ll know why you did it. If they don’t understand then I’ve been giving them too much credit.” Adam knew he couldn’t kiss her in public especially with what was likely to happen the next day. He took her hand and raised it to his lips kissing the palm of it as he closed his eyes. When he opened them and released her hand, he saw tears in her eyes. “It will be all right. We’ll get through this.”

“No, it’s that you are so gentle when you could be so righteously angry with me for the mess I created.”

“I’m not happy with what you did, but I understand. You didn’t think you had an alternative, and you didn’t have anyone to help you. Now you do. Don’t ever do anything like that again though, promise?”

“I promise. I’ve learned that it’s better to face it than to hide from it. No lies.” She paused for a moment. “Do you really think that putting it all in the newspaper is the best way to go.”

“We’ve been through this many times already. Reverend Miller agreed as well. The best way to counteract gossip and innuendo is with the truth. Once it’s all out there then there is nothing for them to use for gossip. For people like that, there is nothing more boring than the truth. The whole thing will flare up, yes, but then it will die out quickly. It’s like lighting a match. It will burn bright and hot for a very short time, and then we’ll be done with it.”

“You keep saying ‘we’ but isn’t this all about me and what I did?”

“It’s us now.”

Adam said it with a finality that said there was no more discussion of that issue. Presha forced a small smile before turning to go into the rooming house. The next morning when Presha walked out of the rooming house to go get breakfast, Adam was waiting there for her.

“The first issues of the paper are out. Some people already have the story. Don’t be surprised if you get a few strange looks. We’ll get some breakfast and I’ll walk you to school.”

As they walked to the restaurant, Reverend Miller and his wife joined them. “We saw the paper this morning. We left the boys with a neighbor. We thought perhaps you could use some company.”

Presha was nearly overcome with emotion. She thanked the Millers and the four of them had breakfast together before walking to the schoolhouse. Presha had not been able to eat much but Adam insisted that she eat her toast and fruit and drink a glass of water. He had a small lunch packed for her and told her he expected her to eat it. He wished he could stay with her that day, but knew he couldn’t. Instead he would keep himself as busy as he could while he waited. He picked up a copy of the paper on the walk back. He thought he might stop in and chat with Roy. As he walked toward the sheriff’s office, Sally flounced up to him.

“I’m telling everyone I know about what your little trollop did. By the end of today, her secret will be out and she’ll be fired. You won’t be able to protect her any more.”

Unfolding the newspaper, Adam held it up for Sally to see the banner and the featured story. The shock on her face was worth a great deal to Adam. He savored the moment and knew it was going to be a great story to tell. Her face grew red with fury because of the frustration of not being able to do anything to get revenge. Adam guessed that if she had a firearm, she would have used it at that moment. Instead, with an inarticulate cry, she turned and stormed off. Roy walked up behind him.

“Adam, now what did you say to that lady to make her that angry?”

“Roy, I never said a word. I showed her the front page of the paper, and it made her very upset. I was coming to see you, but as long as you’re out and about, perhaps I can buy you a cup of coffee instead of drinking that coal oil that passes for coffee in your office?”

“Well, now, as long as you’re offering to buy, I’ll ignore that insult on my coffee making skills. I’m guessing you got quite a story to tell me too. I saw that in the paper this morning, and I was wondering when you was going to fill me in on the story behind it.”

“The whole story is there.”

“You know what I mean, boy. Why is that story in the paper this morning? I know there’s more to what’s going on especially after I seen what happened with that Sally character out here just a short time ago.”

“I’ll tell you but let’s talk about it at your office later. Let’s go get some good coffee first.”

And later Adam did tell Roy about what had happened and why. He also told him what he expected to happen that evening and that he was in town to help Presha in the event of something unexpected happening. The day passed much as expected though with a number of people wanting to ask Adam about Presha’s story but not one daring to do so. Adam waited outside the schoolhouse at the end of the day until all the students left. He sent up the steps and knocked before entering. Presha looked up from her desk. He could see how drawn she was with the strain of working all day under the pressure of knowing that the school board was likely to be walking in on her at the end of the day. She didn’t have to wait long. Soon, two members of the board were there. Adam looked out and saw that his father had arrived as well. He asked the board members if they would please go speak with his father before they spoke with Presha. They seemed relieved to be able to do that. A short time later, Ben came to get Adam.

“We’re meeting at the Cattlemen’s Association building. Presha, dear, we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. I can assure you that Adam and I will do our best for you. Please trust us to find a solution if it is at all possible to do so.”

“I do trust you. I’ll wait here. I don’t think I could stand to be anywhere else right now anyway.”

For the next hour, Presha cleaned the blackboard, straightened up the room, wiped the desks, put wood in the stove for the next morning, and did all the little chores she could think to do while she waited. She had the schoolhouse in perfect order and still no one came to tell her what the board had decreed as her fate. She tried reading but couldn’t concentrate. She wrote some Emerson quotations on the board for the next day and then wondered why she had done it because there was a good chance she wouldn’t be there the next day. After an hour had passed, she saw Ben and Adam walking toward the school. She tried but could read nothing from their expressions. When they entered the school, Ben was the one to deliver the news but Adam didn’t look too worried even though Ben’s first words were a blow.

“The school board has decided to censure you and suspend you without pay for one month. At the end of that month, you will resume your duties at your regular pay.”

“So I will still have my job?”

“Yes, you will. They thought that a one month suspension and censure was sufficient for what happened considering the circumstances and that nothing that you did occurred while you were here but before you arrived here. It’s not that unusual for people here to have changed their names or to have less than savory backgrounds that they would like to forget. They only violation that they see is that you altered your documents.”

Presha sighed and had a small smile. “Thank you. You must have spoken very well in my behalf.”

Adam was the next to speak. “There are some remaining problems. You have no income for the next month, and we need a teacher for the next month. The board has to hire a substitute teacher. The school board members are wondering if you would be willing to apply for that position. It pays two dollars per day and no more.” Adam couldn’t help grinning.

“But that’s almost what I’m earning now.” She looked at the two men who couldn’t help the broad grins. “You two! You let me worry and you had this information. You could have told me that right away.”

“Now, my dear, I think you did deserve a bit of a punishment for what you did. The board decided on that course of action within about fifteen minutes. They wouldn’t let us leave to tell you though until an hour had passed for the very same reason. They said you had to pay at least a bit of a penalty, and that sitting here worrying was the least they could expect for you to do. That’s why Adam didn’t tell you right away. I hope you don’t think that was too cruel.”

“No, no, not at all. In fact, it is so much less than I thought I deserved that I am truly amazed and so very grateful. I will write a thank you to the school board for their wonderful understanding.”

“They heard from quite a few parents and other citizens today who read your story in the paper. That was a brilliant move by the way. Putting the facts out there so that everyone could know the story and make up their mind worked very much to your advantage. Many of the women here could certainly sympathize with you even if it didn’t happen to them for they have friends and relatives who have had similar experiences. Making a friend of Dan DeQuille by giving him a story like that was a good move. He’s on your side now too.”

With that, Ben left to ride home. Adam offered his arm to Presha. “Let’s go to dinner. I’m staying in town tonight. I’ll ride home tomorrow after I walk you to school.”

Dinner in town started to become a regular thing for Adam, and Presha went to church with Adam on Sundays and then rode with him to the Ponderosa for dinner. Most people began to wonder when there might be an announcement. Of course, Hoss started seeing Dolly almost as often so the question actually was which one of the brothers might make an announcement first.

*****

Chapter 11

About a week before Christmas, Hoss and Adam were working in the stable fixing some loose boards and filling in some places where the wind was able to blow snow into the stable. After the first snowstorm was always the best time to find such problems because the telltale snow in the stable led them right to the problem areas. As they worked, Adam brought up another problem that he faced.

“Hoss, I want Presha to be here for Christmas.”

“She’s here so much anyway, I figured on her being here for Christmas. I’m shur Pa and Joe won’t mind. You are figuring on making her part of the family right soon, ain’t ya?”

“I do have some plans, but Hoss, in her position, she can’t stay here for the Christmas break with only men without someone starting up some gossip again. She needs to have someone with her that can act more or less as a chaperone, or maybe we could call it her a companion.”

Pausing from his work, Hoss leaned back against a stall wall and regarded Adam with a speculative look. “Now you wouldn’t be thinking that I ought to invite Dolly to come visit too, would ya?”

Rather sheepishly, Adam nodded. “I wasn’t sure how you were feeling about her, but she and Presha are friends so it would seem natural to have the two stay together. I guess if it would make you uncomfortable to have her here for a week then it’s not a good idea.”

“It’s not a good idea.” Hoss stepped closer to Adam and slapped him heartily on the shoulder. “It’s a great idea, older brother. I been wondering how I’m gonna be able to see her with the weather getting so bad and all. Having her stay here is perfect. I never would have thought to invite her to stay, but inviting both of them works out just right. I wonder if she can get a week off from the dress shop.”

“Hoss, she can probably bring her work with her. Maybe Presha can even help her.” Adam paused then and frowned.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know if Presha can sew. I don’t know if she can do any of those household kind of things. That’s never come up in any conversation.”

“I guess if she’s here for a week, you could find out a lot about her. Of course, she could find out a lot about you too. You shur you’re ready for her to know that much.”

With a mock scowl, Adam got back to work. “We can ask them on Saturday, and then they could come back with us on Sunday. The school break starts on Friday so Presha has no commitment for three weeks. That way they can be here when we get the tree and do the decorating. Pa would probably enjoy having some ladies here to help with the decorating.”

“Yeah, they gotta be better at it than we are. At least, I hope they are. Adam, I don’t know if Dolly can do any of that stuff neither.” After they worked for a short time, Hoss had one more comment that got the brothers laughing. “Ifn she can’t cook, then you can forget about them plans for a house. I’m staying right here with Hop Sing.”

Once the laughter died down, Adam got serious again. “So you’re thinking about asking Dolly?”

“I remember what you said when I was thinking of asking Sally. I’m gonna wait and be sure. Ifn I’m thinking the same way, I plan to ask her on Valentine’s Day and keep it real romantic for her. Then a June wedding would be nice. You still willing to design that house for me?”

“I would be honored to do that for you. You still thinking of building in the same place?”

“No, that was when I was thinking of a house to impress Sally. No, Dolly needs people around. I was thinking of not too far from the house here so she would always have people not too far away even when I was out working. I think that would be best for her.”

“Hoss, have you considered staying in the house here with Pa?”

Hoss stopped working again and looked at Adam wondering why he had asked that.

“Why would you ask that?”

“Dolly is used to having family around. Being alone in a house might make her uncomfortable at least until she had a baby or two to keep her company and keep her busy. She and Pa get along very well, and I’m sure he wouldn’t mind at all.”

“What about you and Presha?”

“If she wants to continue teaching, and I believe she does, then we’re going to have to build a house much closer to town. This is too far to go every day.”

“That all makes sense. Let me think on it some. I got time. I haven’t made up my mind to ask her for shur yet but I’m almost shur. I’m thinking you’re shur though ifn you want her here for Christmas.” The only response Hoss got was a small smile. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

After getting their father’s approval for their plans, Adam and Hoss headed to town on Saturday to stock up on supplies and to ask Presha and Dolly to spend the next week on the Ponderosa as guests. Dolly was excited when Hoss asked and her employer thought it was a wonderful idea as well. They began organizing work that she could take with her to complete when she had the time. It wasn’t much because most of the Christmas orders were done, and things slowed down quite a bit over the holidays normally. While Hoss was there, Dolly said that Adam’s order was ready and Hoss could take it with him if he wished. Hoss agreed and wondered what his brother had ordered at a dress shop. He thought about the teasing he could do on the ride home. He carried the packages to the wagon and waited for Adam who was taking quite a bit longer to return. There was a reason for that. Presha wasn’t so sure she wanted to be on the Ponderosa for Christmas.

“Adam, Christmas isn’t a good time of year for me. It reminds me of my father’s death and other unpleasant things. I tend to be in a dark mood much of the time. I would likely ruin things for everyone else who wants a happy time.”

“Dolly will be there. She won’t be able to be there though if you don’t come. The whole idea is that people won’t think anything improper is going on if both of you are there to be companions to each other.”

“So you’re pushing me to come so that Dolly can be there for Hoss? Is it that important to him that Dolly be there for a week?”

“He’s thinking seriously about courting her. He needs some time to get to know her better. Lunch on Saturday and church and dinner on Sunday are not much time to get to know someone. Yes, the week together is very important. Being together on Christmas is very important. Christmas comes only once a year. If he misses this opportunity, he has to wait a year.”

Presha wondered a bit at what Adam meant by that, but she gave in to his argument. “All right, I’ll be there for Dolly. I’ll do my best not to be a wet blanket.”

“Good. I’ll be here tomorrow morning to escort you to church. If there’s snow, we’ll have the sleigh. Otherwise, we’ll probably have the buckboard. It’s getting too difficult to use the carriages. Hoss and I will rig the canvas cover on the buckboard tonight and add bench seats in the back. Pack your warmest clothing because we plan to do some outdoor activities.”

“Adam, I don’t have a very heavy coat. I only have to walk to the school.”

“You need a heavier coat. The weather will get worse in the next few weeks, and January and February can be quite cold and snowy.”

“I know, but I haven’t saved enough to buy everything I need yet.”

“Well, perhaps you can wear one of Joe’s old coats. That might be best when we go get a tree and greens to decorate the house. A nice new coat could get damaged anyway.”

“That does sound like it might be fun.”

“Of course there is the obligatory snowball fight too. I expect that you will be on my side when that happens.”

“That sounds like even more fun.”

“On Christmas morning, Joe will get us all up very early. We’ll sit in our robes and slippers by the tree with hot chocolate and biscuits fresh from the oven. We’ll open presents and perhaps even sing a few Christmas carols. How does that sound?”

“It all sounds lovely. All right, you’ve convinced me. I’ll be there, and I’ll be smiling.”

“Good. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.” Adam leaned forward for a fast kiss on the cheek that he hoped no one would see. With a grin, he turned and was off to meet Hoss for the trip back to the ranch as Presha turned to go back into the rooming house hoping that she could keep up the pretense of being happy for a full week of Christmas celebration on the Ponderosa. She would be genuinely happy to be with Adam if she could only keep the old bad memories from intruding.

Everything went according to plan. The trip to the ranch was fun riding in the back of the buckboard bundled up in blankets against the stiff cold wind that promised there would be a pile of snow by morning according to Hoss. He was right. They woke up on Monday morning to a white wonderland. Of course that meant there was a lot of work for the brothers to do as they cleared paths, did chores, and pulled the heavy snow from the roof. By the middle of the afternoon, they were tired and came inside to the smells of cookies baking. Ben smiled at them from his desk where he was working. Adam asked where the ladies were.

“It is a Christmas miracle. Hop Sing likes both of them so much that he has allowed them to be his assistants in the kitchen all afternoon. They’re baking cookies. I’ve had a few samples. If you have a seat, I’m sure there will be samples for all of you too.”

It didn’t take long for those samples and hot coffee to be delivered. Hoss tried every type of sample on the plate and then finished the ones that Adam and Joe didn’t. All three pronounced the cookies some of the best they had ever had. Joe slapped his brothers on the shoulder.

“Boy, you two do know how to pick them. Those are great cookies. I wonder what else they know how to make.”

Dolly was coming out to get the plates and see if they wanted any more hot coffee and had an answer. “Presha is making some kind of special dish for dinner. She’s putting sour cream in the stew. Hop Sing thought it was crazy but tasted a sample and then let her do it. She said she read about it when she was back east. It was in some magazine that was starting up and it was all about cooking in France but this recipe was from Russia. Where is Russia anyway?”

That led to a short discussion about geography but Hoss was more interested in dinner. “What else is in that stew?”

“Oh, some onions and other vegetables. She was going to make some kind of potato dish to serve with it, but Hop Sing wanted to make noodles so they’re in there now making noodles. He’s showing her how. It’s quite a mess. I’m finishing up the cookies.”

Unable to hold back his curiosity, Adam went to the kitchen doorway to watch. He smiled as he listened and observed Presha and Hop Sing busy at work and chattering away. Hop Sing was trying to teach Presha some of the Chinese words for things they were using and doing. She was proving that she had no gift for languages. Eventually she must have sensed a presence behind her and turned to see Adam watching. She grinned at him and it warmed him to see her having so much fun. It was what he had hoped for and actually more than he had hoped to see so soon.

“I’m looking forward to dinner. I like to try new things, and I hear that Hop Sing has already given it his seal of approval.”

“He has, or he will once we get these noodles ready. I wanted to make something special because everyone has been so special to me already. What are we doing tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow we go out to get a tree and cut some greens to decorate. Then the next day, we’ll bring the tree in, set it up, decorate it and the house, and then have a small Christmas Eve dinner and party with close friends if the weather allows.”

All of that went according to plan as well including the snowball fight. Joe had found an old coat that fit Presha reasonably well, and she and Dolly were able to join in on all of the fun. Ben did appreciate having two ladies to help with the decorating especially Dolly who was very talented with bows and ribbons. Roy and Paul and a few close friends were there for Christmas Eve dinner but the party was over early with snow threatening again. Adam led the family and the two ladies in singing carols for rest of the evening, and then eventually one by one, everyone went to bed until it was only Ben sitting in his red leather chair by the fireplace and Adam and Presha sitting on the settee. Ben was a bit reluctant to let the two of then alone, but Adam told him that he and Presha would like a few moments alone before they went to bed. He smiled and told his father not to worry. Ben knew what he meant and bid goodnight to both of them. Adam pulled Presha in close and held her as they listened to the clock strike midnight.

“Well, there it is. It’s Christmas.”

“Yes, it is. I know you have bad memories of Christmas in the past. It reminds you of your father passing among other things. I have to say that I think that perhaps your father would approve of this.” Adam took her hand in his and Presha wondered what he meant and what he was going to do. He slid from the settee then and knelt on one knee before her. “Presha Shay, will you do the great honor of agreeing to be my wife? Will you marry me the day after you finish your teaching? I love you and I cannot think of spending my life with anyone else but you.” Presha gasped and began crying and then sobbing. Adam moved back to her side and pulled her to him wrapping his arms around her and doing his best to console her. “Of all the responses I was prepared to get, this isn’t one I expected. What’s wrong? I thought you knew I would ask you.” He felt her nod her head but she still said nothing as her crying diminished but didn’t stop. Hoss was at the top of the stairs then.

“What’s wrong? I heard crying.”

Soon their father was there too. “Adam, what happened?”

It didn’t take long for everyone to be there wondering what had happened. Presha leaned back away from Adam who looked at her red eyes and tear stained face. She smiled at him.

“Yes, a thousand times yes.”

Adam leaned down and kissed her lightly. “You had me scared for a little there, but that answer is all I needed to hear.” He looked up at his family and Dolly who were at the top of the stairs looking worried. “We’re getting married; in May; as soon as she’s done teaching.”

Joe was the first to comment. “Gosh, Presha, I know he can be hard to live with sometimes, but it won’t be that bad. He loves you.”

“Joseph!”

“Aw, Pa, if I can’t tease my sister-in-law, she won’t think she’s part of the family.”

Ben rolled his eyes, but everyone else laughed. Joe’s comment had lightened the mood considerably. Presha felt she had to explain.

“Adam knew that I had some bad memories of Christmas day. He decided to give me a memory of Christmas day to replace those bad ones. He knew my father would approve of his way of treating Christmas. Now I understand why he thought it was so important that I be here on Christmas. He told me that Christmas comes only once a year. He wanted to make it special for me, and he did. I will look forward to Christmas every year now. I will wait for that clock to strike midnight because that was the signal he used to ask me to marry him.”

There were congratulations all around before Ben suggested that they should all go to bed to get some sleep so they could celebrate Christmas and the betrothal in the morning. Again everyone went to bed except Adam and Presha. Again Adam told his father not to worry.

“Adam, why did you tell your father twice now not to worry when he went to bed, and why did he look so worried anyway?”

“He knows how much a man wants a woman when he loves her, and he’s worried that I can’t wait. I was telling him not to worry. I’ll wait.”

“We have been getting more, ah, passionate. Are you going to be able to wait? I mean, I can tell how much you’re, ah, affected by us kissing and being, ah, passionate.”

“I’ve waited a long time to be with the right woman. I know how important it is to you that we do this the right way. I can wait. It will be difficult. I’ll wait because I want to have the rest of my life with you, and the way to do that is to do this the right way. Now that we’re betrothed, I have something for you. Tomorrow morning, we’re all going to be in our robes and slippers opening our gifts. I have a gift for you to open before we do that.” Adam went behind the tree and pulled out a large box tied only with a ribbon. He put it on her lap. “Go ahead and open it.” Presha untied the ribbon and opened the box to find a dark red gown and thick lined robe with matching slippers. She looked at Adam and didn’t know what to say at first. He spoke before she could. “Please say you like it. I didn’t know what color to get and Dolly said you would like this color because you had admired that fabric in the store. She had your size because of a dress you had made there so it was easy to make these items. Do you like them?”

“Adam, they’re gorgeous, but I didn’t get anything wonderful like this for you. I can’t afford anything like this.”

“I know, but it doesn’t matter any more. We’re going to be married. You had to know that I have more money than you have but that doesn’t matter to you, does it?”

“I guess not, but it’s going to take some time to get used to the idea. I’m simply not used to things like this. It would take me months and months to afford this and only if I didn’t eat and slept in the school.”

“You’re going to look beautiful in them.” With a wicked grin, he wiggled his eyebrows and she knew he was going to say something he wouldn’t have wanted his father to hear. “Maybe I could help you try them on?”

“No, I think that now would be a good time for you to follow your father’s advice and go to bed and get some sleep.”

“A kiss first?”

The kiss grew passionate very quickly and Adam had to pull away. He sighed and walked Presha to the downstairs guest room and stood there as she went inside and closed the door. He made sure the doors were all locked and the shutters secured before setting the firescreen by the fireplace and heading up to bed. The next morning everyone was by the tree waiting and Presha was still in the guest room. Adam knocked on the door and there was no answer. He opened the door to see her still sound asleep. He called her name and she turned over and looked at him standing in the doorway.

“Already? I only got to sleep a few minutes ago.”

“We have coffee, and everyone is waiting for you.”

“All right. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

Presha was there in ten minutes too and then the gift opening began in earnest. Dolly got a new dark red coat, hat, muffler, gloves, and boots from Hoss. Presha got a dark green coat, hat, muffler, gloves, and boots from Adam. The men got the usual gifts from each other. Dolly gave Hoss a new fishing pole that her father had made. Presha gave Adam a set of books from her father that included essays from Emerson and other transcendentalists. He was excited about receiving them and no one else could understand why, but if they made him happy, then they were happy. The day was filled with warmth, good food, and family activities. By the end of the day, Presha had a whole new memory of what Christmas was to keep in her heart.

*****

Chapter 12 -May

Dressed in a new suit, Adam was in Hoss’ room helping his big brother tie his tie. Hoss was in a new suit too and never had one that had fit him so well. Dolly had insisted that he come to the dress shop to be measured and then had sewn his shirt and suit for him. They fit him perfectly giving him room for his shoulders and chest without being baggy or bulky. He looked very good in it.

“You’re going to look good next month for your wedding, Hoss.”

“Yeah, so I better be careful at yours not to spill anything on it. It’s warm anyway so I was thinking that as soon as the fancy stuff is over, I can take the coat off. That way it will stay real nice.”

“That sounds like a plan.” Finishing with the tie, Adam was going to leave but Hoss asked him to stay and pushed the door closed.

“Adam, I been thinking on something and I got a question to ask ya. Did you and Joe have something to do with Sally saying all those things that day she was here?”

“No, she said everything of her own free will.”

“No, I mean she never talked like that before, and I mean, she was nervous like, and she wasn’t like that before. I remember too in church that Reverend Miller done give her some funny looks. It made her uncomfortable. I could tell. Adam, did everybody know about her but me?”

“No, not everyone, but after she had that outburst to Dolly that Presha overheard, and she made those complaints to the school board about Presha, some people started to get an idea about her.”

“But mostly you and Joe and Presha and Dolly and Reverend Miller?”

“Yes, mostly us.”

“And Sally knew that so with all of you here, she was thinking you probably told me things and she got real nervous and started to say things. Dolly was part of that. She knew that by being here, she would make Sally real nervous and maybe her true feelings would come out.”

“I can’t say what Dolly was thinking.”

“Adam, I got some things to say to you. I’m happy it worked out the way it did. I’m real happy with Dolly and we did talk about this some. We’ll talk about it more, I expect. But I’m mad that you did it the way you did it. You do anything like it again, and we’re gonna have real big problems. You ever got something to say to me, you say it to me and let me deal with it my own way. You got that?”

“I got it. I apologize if I offended you or hurt you in any way. I was trying to protect Dolly and Presha from Sally too. As it turned out, they were able to take care of themselves rather well.” Pausing and not sure how much to say, Adam did feel there was one thing left to say. “Hoss, I never asked Dolly to say or do anything in particular that day. All we asked was that she be here to help make Sally nervous. Anything that Dolly did or said that day was all her own doing. It was genuine. In fact, she surprised me with things she said and did. I never realized until that day how much I liked her or how well suited she was to living on the ranch.”

“She is, ain’t she? I couldn’t a found a better gal ifn the good Lord had made one according to my dreams. Well, he coulda made her a mite taller, but that’s about all. By the way, who’s taller, Presha or Dolly?”

“About the same. Joe thinks it’s funny that we both have short ladies. I hope he finds a lady four inches taller than him.”

Hoss started laughing then. “His bootheels is darn high now trying to be as tall as you. I wonder what he’d do then.”

“It could be fun finding out.”

The two brothers were still chuckling as they went down the stairs to greet guests and wait for the ladies to make their entrance. Presha had no family so the wedding was going to be small and on the Ponderosa. Dolly’s family was bigger and her wedding to Hoss the following month was going to be in church and followed by a big party put on by her parents at the social hall in town. Ben would contribute to that party, but the party for Adam and Presha was all his doing so even though it was small, it was sumptuous. The house was decorated in flowers and satin bows with paper lanterns festooning the trees and porch outside. Banquet tables were set up already and there was a large area cleared for music and dancing. When the time arrived for the ceremony and everyone was in their place, Ben proudly waited to watch Presha exchange wedding vows with Adam. Dolly stood beside Presha as Hoss stood by Adam. In a month, those roles were going to be reversed. When Adam said ‘I do’ there was a murmur in the crowd who had wondered if that would ever happen. It brought forth a few smiles and then Presha said her wedding vows, and the couple kissed when Reverend Miller declared they were husband and wife. The rest of the day passed in a blur for both as there were congratulations, dancing, dinner, and finally the well wishes as they climbed into their carriage to spend the first night in their new home only a short distance from the main house as Presha had said she didn’t want to teach in Virginia City because it was too far from the ranch. She told Adam she would wait until there were children on the ranch to teach. That got him to smile and got a big smile from Hoss when he heard that news. The result was that Adam built a house not far from the main house, and Hoss and Dolly planned to live in the main house with Ben until there wasn’t room for them if they had that many children. Hoss hoped they would. Adam wasn’t hoping for a house full of children but he thought a couple would be wonderful. First of all though, he wanted to make his wife happy. He hoped to make her wedding night as memorable as he had made Christmas for her. As the carriage neared their new home, he pulled it to a stop so she could see what he had done.

“Oh, Adam, it’s beautiful. Where did you get all of those lanterns?”

“The same place we got them for the wedding decorations. I asked for a few dozen more and then asked some men to come light the candles inside when it got dark. Everything should be ready for us.”

“Everything?”

“Yes, I have a few more surprises.” As Adam drove the carriage up to the house along the path lit by the two dozen paper lanterns hung in the trees, Presha got an idea of what he meant. The house was warmly lit by lamps. Someone had lit all of them inside and she could smell smoke so she knew the fireplaces had been lit too. As they neared the house, two men appeared with their horses.

“Everything’s taken care of just like you wanted, Adam. We’ll take care of your carriage and horses soon as you’re inside.”

“Thank you. The payment is on the seat.” Adam helped Presha from the carriage and left an envelope on the carriage seat. He wrapped his arm around his wife and escorted her up the steps to their home. He paused on the porch to kiss her before he opened the door and carried her inside kicking the door closed after he did so. Then he carried her up the stairs to the master bedroom which was already warmed by the fire in the fireplace there. He set her down and kissed her again. “No more waiting. Now we don’t have to hold back at all.”

Their clothing and personal belongings had already been moved to the house the day before except for the few items they needed the night before and that morning. Those items were in a small bag that had been delivered by the two men when they came to light the lamps, lanterns, and fireplace as well as deliver a platter of food to the kitchen.

“If you’ll help me with the buttons on the back of this dress, I’ll go change into a gown.”

Stepping behind Presha, Adam began unbuttoning her dress. He pushed it off her shoulder and she was going to step away when he slid his arms around her. “No, I’ll help you with the rest too, and there’s no need for a gown.”

“Nothing, you want me to be wearing nothing, but I’ve never gone to bed wearing nothing. I’ve never been in bed wearing nothing.”

“Then you’ll be giving me something that no one else has ever had.” Adam kissed her shoulders as he undid her corset. He turned her around to face him when that was out of the way. “I want to see all of you and touch all of you tonight.” He began kissing her and touching her and all thoughts of objecting disappeared. She hardly remembered later how she had helped him remove his clothing and all the things that had happened. She did know that she had experienced sensations and experiences that she had never had before. When Adam pulled her to him to catch his breath and let his heart rate return to normal, she felt more fulfilled than she had ever felt in her life before but had no idea that her wedding night was going to be like that.

“Oh, my, what was that? I hoped that my wedding night was going to be pleasurable, and I thought I knew what to expect, but that was beyond words.”

“That was how a man and a woman show love for each other and take pleasure in each other.”

“I have to tell you that comparing you to my first husband is like comparing a hammer to a piano. There is no comparison. I am the happiest wife in Nevada, perhaps in the whole of the United States. I will do that with you any time you want.”

“And any time you want too. All you have to do is tell me. I’ll be willing.”

She saw the grin but she knew he meant it too. She decided to tease just a bit. “Now?”

“Ah, it might take me a little while, but now is good.”

After that, they were so tired they slept very well. In the morning, Presha wanted a bath and that turned into another session when Adam explained to her why he had purchased such a large bathtub for their home. Later that day, they drove back to the main house to have dinner with the family and load up all the gifts they had received to take them back to their house.

A month later, it was Dolly’s turn to get the full romantic treatment from a Cartwright son. Adam coached Hoss well and he and Presha moved into the main house for a weekend so that Hoss and Dolly could have their house for a short honeymoon. The ranch was too busy in summer for the couples to take time away. That would have to come later. Hoss and Dolly took a few weeks in fall to enjoy the fall colors and some time away at a cabin in the mountains fishing and relaxing. Then the family was together for Christmas and the announcements that there would be two more Cartwrights in the following year. In January, Adam took Presha on a trip to San Francisco that lasted almost two months as they spent a lot of time traveling up and down the state seeing the sights. By the time they returned home, it was time for Adam to get back to work, and Presha had to start getting ready to welcome a new addition to the family but that’s another story.

*****

 

Baby Blues

Chapter 1 –Prologue

The dust of five hundred cattle can hang in the air for a long time. It clings to everything and gets in the eyes, nose, ears, and throat even with hats and bandanas for protection. Every cattle drive Adam did, he swore it took several baths before he began to feel that the dust and dirt was finally washing out of all the places it liked to lodge. He began to feel clean after the second bath but he took another bath the day after because it felt good to be clean and it was relaxing too. His muscles were sore after four weeks on the trail and that was after over a week of roundup. Hoss and Joe teased him about his addiction to bathing but he noted that they had spent quite a bit of time in the baths too, He and Hoss had headed to a fine restaurant that first night while Joe went with the drovers to a saloon and celebrated the successful drive. Adam had an appointment the second day with an architectural firm that was considering hiring him for some work. He knew his skills were rusty and that he would have to work his way up, but he had been doing a lot of reading over the years and had practiced quite a lot of the newer techniques in building his house including some of the more modern features in it. If this didn’t work out, he planned to try starting up a small business of his own in Nevada. By the end of the day when he met with Hoss, he could only tell him that he interview had gone about as well as he could expect. They told him they would let him know within a month. That too was about what he had expected. They were going to check him out. He would not have expected any less from a reputable firm. He felt all right about that though. If they were going to take the time to check him out, they were at least interested in him. Hoss had the same thought. They went in search of their younger brother to see if he was ready for dinner.

As Hoss and Adam walked through downtown Sacramento, they were spotted by Sally who watched them from the upper floor of a rooming house where she had rented several rooms months earlier. Her funds weren’t adequate for anything better, but seeing Hoss walking with his brother, she had an idea. She looked across the room at her servant girl, a pregnant girl willing to work for room and board.

“Myrtle, ever since that beast of a man had his way with you, you’ve wanted to get even with him, haven’t you?”

“Yes, ma’am, I have. He hurt me, and he never had my say so to do what he did. He just did what he wanted no matter what I said and the men with him laughed when I screamed.”

“Men are like that. Men take. You have to force them to give you anything you want. Right now I saw two men who have a lot to give. And you might have a way of getting them to give it. Didn’t you say the man who attacked you was big and light.”

“Yes, he was. Blond he was and he had baby blue eyes, but he had black evil in his heart which I would have cut from his chest if I had a knife and he ever went to sleep.”

“I would have cut his heart out too. It really isn’t so hard to cut a man’s heart.”

“Have you done it?”

With a smirk and a bit of pride, Sally boasted. “I did. There was a man who hurt me, and I hurt him. Then I took his wallet. I’m using his money to live here. He had a lot of money in that wallet. He hurt me, but he made a mistake and fell asleep.”

“But the evil brute who attacked me didn’t. He left me hurting and crying and rode out of town. How could I ever find him to get even with him?”

“You probably can’t, but does it matter? Men are men. As long as you get revenge does it matter who the man is? And if we get a lot of money in the process, it’s even better, isn’t it?”

“Well, I guess so. When you say it like that, it makes a lot of sense to me.”

“Then here’s the plan. It’s going to take some time, and in the meantime, we have to stay here. I’m going to start wearing a pillow under my dress, and you’re going to have to stay in this room most of the time. You can’t go out where people can see your condition. I know they probably can’t tell yet, but soon they could. Some might even notice now. You were already with child when I got here, weren’t you?” Myrtle nodded. “Then that’s going to work in my favor. When you have that baby, I’m going to take it to that big blond blue-eyed Cartwright and tell him it’s his baby. I’ll tell him he can have it for the right amount of money. Then when he hands over the money, we hand over the baby, and we start living well. How about that for a plan?”

“I have to give him my baby?”

“You want to keep the baby that the ugly brute forced into you?”

“No, but why would I want another ugly brute to have him?”

“He’s getting married in June. His wife would have the baby. Does that help?”

“That’s all right then. I just didn’t want a man to have him. That wouldn’t be right.”

“This may take some time. We need the baby to be strong enough to make the trip to Virginia City. We should be able to do that by fall.”

As Sally and Myrtle plotted, Adam and Hoss found Joe. They had dinner, celebrated a bit with a few drinks but not too many as they planned to ride out the next morning. The trip back was mostly uneventful. The only interesting thing happened when they were in Placerville. They took rooms there because the weather was awful. Thunderstorms with heavy rains had drenched them for two days. They decided to dry out and wait out the storms. Sleeping in a dry bed was certainly more attractive than a damp bedroll under a tarp on wet ground. The next morning, the sun was out and the storms were gone. As they walked to breakfast, they passed the sheriff’s office and Joe called to his brothers to stop and walk back to take a look at a wanted poster. Adam laughed.

“They don’t still have one of you two wanted for bank robbery, do they?”

Joe was looking at a poster on the wall by the sheriff’s office. It was a sketch of a woman. “Look familiar?”

Adam got the resemblance right away. He looked at Hoss who seemed to take longer probably because he had a difficult time making the association. Finally Hoss looked at his two brothers.

“She looks a lot like Sally, don’t she?”

“From the drawing and the description, Hoss, that is Sally.”

“Adam, it can’t be. It says she’s wanted for murder. Sally is a lot of things, but I can’t believe she would ever murder anyone. Nah, that can’t be her.”

A man walked up behind them as they were talking. He interrupted Hoss. “Do you know this woman?”

“My brothers thought that she looked like a woman we knew, but it’s not her. It can’t be her. She would never murder anyone.”

“Well, it says suspicion of murder. We can’t be sure. The man had a knife in his chest and his wallet was missing. That’s why it’s suspicion of murder. His brother was here a short time after that and said he wanted his brother’s murderer brought to justice, and I gotta say that until we bring her in and talk to her, I have to agree with him that it looks bad.”

Adam’s interest was piqued by the missing wallet. “How much money was he carrying?”

“The brother estimates that he probably had between five and ten thousand dollars on him. He didn’t trust banks and did his business in cash only. Seems like it didn’t work out that well for him though. It’s what probably got him killed if his brother is right about this woman. Now how do you know her and what’s her name?”

“Like I said, she only looks like a woman we knew.”

“Hoss, that’s Sally. C’mon, Adam’s right.”

“You two didn’t spend as much time with her as I did. She couldn’t murder somebody in cold blood. I can’t believe she’d do that.”

“Hoss, she set out to ruin Presha and she threatened Dolly. How can you defend her? We don’t know what she would have done if we didn’t stop her. Now maybe she didn’t murder this man, but don’t you think they have a right to bring her in and question her about it?”

“Dadburnit, I guess so, but it feels bad telling.”

“Then Joe and I will tell. You go on to breakfast.” Once Hoss moved on toward the restaurant, Adam turned to the man. “I assume you’re the sheriff?”

“I’m his deputy, but he’s been sick lately and I’ve been handling most of the work. C’mon in the office so I can write down what you tell me and get your names.”

A short time later, Adam and Joe joined Hoss at breakfast. It was a quiet meal. When they finished and were sipping their coffee, Hoss looked at his brothers.

“Ifn she really did that, then I’m really lucky to have gotten away from her. I still find it hard to believe she’d do something like that, but that was her picture, and there’s no arguing with the facts. A dead man with a knife in his chest and a missing wallet shur make it look bad. Let’s ride on outta here and try to forget about this. Please don’t bring this up when we get home. I don’t want to be talking about this with the two weddings we got coming up. Let’s try to look forward and not back. All right?”

As the three brothers rode out of town, the dead man’s brother was summoned to the sheriff’s office and given the information that the deputy had received.

“I know it isn’t much, but I can send out more specific wanted posters now. I still don’t have much money to put on there for a reward, and I can only say wanted on suspicion of murder. We still don’t have enough evidence to say it was definitely murder especially by a woman against a man as big as your brother.”

“I don’t have any more money to give you for the reward. I don’t have money like my brother did. That two hundred dollars almost wiped me out. I’m working any job around town to get money to live until I can find the woman who murdered my brother. Now who were the men who gave you that information on her?”

The deputy shared everything he had learned from Adam and Joe Cartwright.

“So she was planning on marrying their brother. Well if she needs help, she might head back that way at some point. I’m going to be looking around for her, and if I don’t find her, I may be heading to Virginia City to see if she shows up there. Thank you for all your help.”

“Just remember, if you find her, you bring her in for a trial. Don’t take the law into your own hands.”

“Of course not. I wouldn’t think of it.” He left then, but the deputy doubted the words he had uttered. He thought that if he ever found that woman, she was going to pay the price for murdering that man’s brother because despite his statement that she deserved a trial, the deputy too thought she had done it.

*****

Chapter 2   –about one year later

Riding toward Placerville on the way home from another successful drive, the Cartwright brothers were in a good mood. Adam and Hoss were married and anxious to get home. Both of their wives were expecting babies within a few months. Presha was due in less than two months and Dolly in about three months. It had been difficult for the men to be gone but Ben had told them that they wouldn’t have to do a fall drive if they did a large spring drive. That had been enough incentive to get them to agree to the spring drive. They would have lots of time to spend with their families before they would be expected to be gone again. Adam was especially anxious to get home to Presha knowing what the doctor had told her before he had left. He unfortunately had shared that information with his brothers one evening when he had been especially depressed about being away from her, and they had not let him forget it since that night. As they neared the town, Hoss was ribbing Adam unmercifully.

“Yup, four weeks before and six weeks after, he ain’t gonna get none. He’s shur wants to get home in a hurry to use these two weeks or so he’s got left. Joe, maybe we oughta spend a day or two in Placerville like we done last time. I’m all for a nice bath and a big steak and sleeping in a nice bed. How about you?”

“Sounds like a good idea to me. Now Adam wouldn’t be thinking all that time about sleeping in his bed next to his wife, would he? His real pretty wife with the nice way she fills out a dress and all.”

“Now, Joe, you can’t go talking on about another man’s wife and how pretty she is and how good she looks especially how she fills out a dress just right in all the good places. It ain’t seemly.”

Joe snickered as he watched his oldest brother adjust himself in the saddle. That got Hoss’ attention and he started his laugh that rumbled low in his belly before it burst out in big guffaws. Adam glowered at both of them.

“You two can stay in Placerville if you want. I’m riding straight through. I can be home in a few days especially if I don’t have to listen to the two of you constantly. I can ride faster and harder without you constantly talking about Presha.”

Joe started laughing so hard then that he almost fell from his horse. Adam shook his head and rode ahead of his two brothers. As he rode into town, he saw a man stare at him. He didn’t know the man and kept riding. Hoss and Joe were laughing so much that they never saw the man who stared at the younger two brothers too. The sheriff stepped out of his office and spoke to the man.

“You thinking of following them to Virginia City?”

“I am. She hasn’t shown up anywhere else, and there’s been no word on that wanted poster from anyone. I’m sure she must be using a different last name and probably changed her looks some. But if they’ve got as much money as I’ve heard, she’s probably not done with them. She’ll head that way sooner or later. It’s been over a year. She’s got to be running low by now. Five thousand dollars wouldn’t last a woman like that much longer than this. When she gets there, I’ll be waiting.”

“What if she’s already there?”

“All the better.”

“I’ll send word to the sheriff there if you like.”

“No, don’t do that. He’ll only start asking questions, and if she’s in disguise of any kind, she’ll spook. No, I’ll find her.”

“All right, but remember to bring her to the sheriff when you do. He’s a good man. He’ll see that you get justice for your brother and send her here for trial.”

Nodding, the man walked off. Like his deputy, the sheriff doubted the man would ever bring her to the law, but he had seen the man she had likely murdered. He had run into women like that before. They were cold-hearted and probably whatever happened to her was well deserved. It was going to happen in Nevada anyway so it wasn’t his problem. The man had saved up a few hundred dollars. He had a stake to keep him in Virginia City for quite a while. He planned to get a job there and wait for Sally to show up. He had no doubt that she would. She followed money, and from everything that he had learned, the Cartwrights had a lot of that. He was sure that she was going to be after some of it as soon as she finished spending his brother’s money. He headed to the stage office to buy a ticket. He was heading to Virginia City.

In Sacrameto, in a small house on the outskirts of town, Sally and Myrtle made plans for the move to Virginia City. They had spent a difficult year. The pregnancy and delivery had been very difficult for Myrtle because the baby had been very large. Myrtle had nearly died in the delivery and had been in bed for months afterwards. She nursed the baby, and Sally was forced to create a whole scenario to explain her maid caring for her child while she did the shopping and brought food to their rooms for them. On one such trip, she had passed the sheriff’s office and saw a wanted poster with her first name and a reasonable but crude sketch of her with a two hundred dollar reward. Somehow she had been connected to the murder of that dreadful man in Placerville. She had thought that she had managed to avoid being seen with him, but someone must have noticed them together at some point. She ended up buying some nondescript clothing and a wig. With Myrtle’s help, she managed to change her appearance enough that no one would have recognized her from that sketch. She knew though that she had to leave California so her plan to get money from the Cartwrights for the baby took on paramount importance. However the baby became ill and that delayed their departure for Virginia City even longer until it was winter and they couldn’t travel across the mountain passes. Traveling by train with those posters out was too risky too. She decided that waiting until spring was her best bet. By then both the baby and Myrtle would be stronger. In fact, she guessed that the baby might be nearly ready to walk by then and she could imagine Hoss not being able to resist him. He also could be weaned by then. He was eating quite a bit of solid food already by January. The more that Sally watched Myrtle feed him and play with him, the more she wondered if she really needed Myrtle as part of this deal. Once that baby was in Hoss’ hands, perhaps she could eliminate her as well. Fifty thousand dollars would go much further if she was the only one spending it. As she and Myrtle talked about the move to Virginia City, Myrtle sealed her fate as far as Sally was concerned.

“Sally, maybe once we get the money from Hoss Cartwright, we could ask to have one more day with Eric. Then we could just leave with him. We’d have the money and the baby.”

Doing her best not to show her shock, Sally tried to be reasonable. “If Hoss believes that’s his baby, he wouldn’t stop at anything, and none of his family would stop either, until they found him. You could never keep him if they thought he was a Cartwright.”

“Then maybe I don’t want to do this.”

“Myrtle, did you forget who that baby’s father is? He’s from an evil man. He has that evil man in him. You would be raising the devil’s spawn. Who knows what he would do when he grew up.”

“But I could teach him up right. Maybe he wouldn’t be like that man.”

“But he could be and you would be responsible for what he did to women like that man did to you.”

“But if I leave him with the Cartwrights, ain’t it the same thing? He’ll still grow up evil ifn he was gonna grow up evil only I won’t be there to try to stop it.”

“Myrtle, we’ve talked about this. The best thing for Eric is to give him to the Cartwrights. They’re the best ones to be able to control him. They’ve got the money for the best doctors if he needs it. They could keep him from hurting women. You couldn’t stop him if he tried. Look how big he is already. When he’s a man, he could toss you aside like you weren’t even there. He could be very dangerous. At least the Cartwrights are big men and could control him.”

“I don’t know. It just seems like it might be the wrong thing to do. He’s such a sweet boy. He plays so nice. He’s never no trouble at all.”

“Maybe he is now, but what happens when he’s older and starts liking women?”

“I don’t know.”

“You know how men change when they want women. You’ve seen how boys change when they become men.”

“I guess so. I’m just not so sure we’re doing the right thing any more.”

“It’s the right thing. Trust me. Once we have the money, if you change your mind, then we can do what you said. All right?”

With a big grin, Myrtle nodded. Thinking she was happy with him, Eric clapped his hands and smiled too. Sally only sighed in relief. It was a small glitch in her plans but one she thought that she could handle quite easily.

On the Ponderosa, the brothers arrived home and Adam rode to his house entering to find Presha in the kitchen. He smiled and she grabbed him in a hug as he wrapped his arms around her as well as he could with her stomach coming between them. He took advantage of his height though and managed to kiss her with some of the passion he had been holding inside for well over a month. He pulled away only long enough to whisper hoarsely to her.

“Let’s go to the bedroom. I’d say we could do it right here, but I know in your condition, the bed would be more comfortable.”

“Adam, we can’t.”

“Lord, woman, don’t say that. I’ve been thinking of almost nothing else for that past week at least.”

“No, Dolly is here and she’s very upset.”

Stepping back, Adam looked down at Presha who did her best to calm down as well.

“Upset about what?”

“I probably shouldn’t tell you, but you’re going to find out soon enough. Her baby’s heartbeat is weak and the baby isn’t kicking and moving like ours. Adam, something might be very wrong. She was crying, and I came in here to make some tea when I heard you ride up. Now I should go back to her. Please understand.”

“I do. Hoss is headed to the main house though. We should probably get her back there so she can talk to him. I’ll go get her carriage ready.”

“She doesn’t have the carriage here. Ben dropped her off because he didn’t want her by herself. He said he would come back for her before dinner.”

“I’ll hitch up our carriage then if you want, if she wants. Why don’t you ask her? I’ll wait for her answer.”

Dolly wanted to go home to speak with Hoss and she didn’t want to do that. She knew she had to though so her answer was a yes. After hitching up his carriage, Adam helped her into it and then helped Presha sit beside her. Presha wrapped an arm around her and held her for the short trip to the main house. When they got there, they were greeted by a grinning Hoss who quickly lost his grin when he saw the grim look on Adam’s face. He saw how unhappy Dolly looked as well. Adam got out of the carriage first.

“Dolly needs to speak with you. She has some bad news so you need to take her inside where it’s private. Hoss, be gentle with her. She’s very fragile right now.”

“I always am, but what do you know that I don’t?”

“It’s for Dolly to tell you. Hoss, I’m sorry. We can talk tomorrow if you want, or anytime you want. I’m here if you need me.”

With an arm around his wife and a worried glance back at Presha and Adam, Hoss guided Dolly into the house and up the stairs to their room. Except to get some tea and biscuits, he didn’t come back downstairs until the next morning. Ben and Joe knew that there was something very wrong, but Ben had suspected something was wrong especially with the visits that Doctor Martin had been making to the house and the grim look he had after those visits. He had told Ben that the couldn’t divulge the results of his examinations to him because that was up to Dolly and eventually would be up to Hoss when he got home, but Ben knew that the news was bad. He didn’t know though if it was about Dolly, the baby, or both. He and Joe had to wait until the next morning to find out.

*****

Chapter 3

An hour later, Adam and Presha arrived back at their home. Adam helped her down from the carriage, up the steps, and into their home. He had her sit on the couch and put her feet up. “I’ll be back as soon as I get the horses in the stable. You rest. I can see how difficult this has been for you.” Adam hurried with his tasks. When he returned to the house, Presha was in the kitchen. “I thought I told you to stay on the couch.”

“I wanted some tea, and you make dreadful tea. As soon as I have my tea, I’ll go back. You don’t have to fuss so much. I know to be careful. Doctor Martin has given me all of the instructions.”

“I’m sorry. The news about Hoss’ baby affected me.”

“I thought it would. Adam, I’m fine and our baby is fine. In fact, he kicks a lot.”

“So it’s a boy?”

“I think so because no girl would give her mother so much trouble especially when I want to sleep at night. Then he gets very rambunctious and really starts kicking. I’ll let you feel that tonight. In fact, he never wants me to rest. Every time I sit for any length of time, he starts kicking. You’ll see.”

“He wants out of there.”

“He probably does but he has to wait a while yet unless I got the weeks wrong.”

“Got the weeks wrong?”

“Doctor Martin thinks I might be a bit further along than I think I am. He thinks I might be at eight months instead of just over seven months.”

“But that means?”

“Yes, tonight is the night and then that’s it.” Presha took her cup of tea and walked out to sit on the couch as Adam stood open mouthed in shock before following her. He sat beside her, and as she predicted, she soon took his hand and placed it where he could feel some very energetic kicking. “I think he might be a tall one too.”

That night, Adam and Presha went to bed early. Adam held back what he wanted to do and made sure that their lovemaking lasted until both were well satisfied. Afterwards, he pulled Presha to him spoon fashion and ran his hand over her swollen belly.

“He’s not kicking now.”

“He doesn’t kick usually when I’m active. It’s whenever I try to rest that he kicks. I talked to Mrs. Sanders who helps Doctor Martin deliver babies sometimes. She has a theory. She says when I’m active, it’s like rocking a baby to sleep. He sleeps so he doesn’t kick. When I try to rest, he’s not rocking so he wakes up and then he’s busy playing in there and starts kicking.”

“That makes sense.”

“I like that. The skin is so tight it itches. I have some oil to rub on it to soften the skin, but it still itches.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“Well, I can’t reach my feet any more. Would you mind rubbing my feet a little?”

“I would love to rub your feet. I’ve missed touching you and being with you. Anything you ask is fine with me.” Adam pulled the covers away from their feet and turned himself so he could rub her feet. After a short time, he was going to ask her how he was doing until he heard her soft breathing and knew she had fallen asleep. He assumed then that he was doing a good job. He pulled the covers back over her feet and moved back into a spoon position with his wife content to hold her against him. That night, Presha woke up several times and had to use the water closet. Each time Adam rubbed her neck and shoulders or her back and her calves to help her relax and fall asleep. In the morning when she awakened, Adam was up and shaving. When he saw that she was awake, he was at her side immediately offering his help.

“You’re spoiling me, but I have to say that was the best night of sleep that I’ve had in a month. He likes you being here. I certainly love having you back.”

“I won’t be gone now for a long time. I’ll be here to help as much as you need me.”

“Good. A family should be together.” Adam had a serious look then, and Presha guessed what he was thinking. “You’re worried about Hoss and Dolly, aren’t you?”

“Hoss was so excited about having a baby. He talked about what he was going to do with his first child. Now it looks like that might not happen.”

“It will happen, but probably not now. If Doctor Martin is right, this baby isn’t likely to make it.”

“It’s that bad?”

Hoss had learned it was that bad the night before. Dolly had told him through her tears. “I know the baby isn’t moving. I heard Presha complaining about how her baby was always kicking her, and I kept waiting for ours to kick me and it didn’t happen. I finally asked Doctor Martin about it and that was the first thing that got him to have that worried look. He took out that thing he uses to listen and then he looked even more worried. He said the baby was quiet. I told him I wasn’t getting any bigger and Presha kept getting bigger and bigger. He asked if I was eating and I said I ate very well with Hop Sing here. He knew Hop Sing would make sure I had good meals. He kept checking and then two days ago he gave me the worst of the news. He said the heartbeat should have been getting stronger but was suddenly getting much weaker and slower. He’s afraid the baby won’t make it and there’s nothing he can do. He said there’s nothing anybody can do.”

“Darling, I don’t know what to say. I know how important this was to you.”

“Oh, Hoss, I know how important it was to you. I’m so sorry to disappoint you.”

“You haven’t disappointed me. God decided, I guess, that it wasn’t time for us to have a baby. I wish he hadn’t picked this way to tell us. It’s gonna be awful hard on you.”

“Yes, and awful hard on you too. Hoss, this is the hardest thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t know how I’m even going to tell my parents. I told Presha, but I haven’t even told your father all of it yet. I can’t bear to see the pain when he finds out.”

“I know. It’s gonna be so hard on everybody. I’ll tell Pa and Joe. You won’t have to. Then if you want, I’ll go tell your family too.”

“No, I should be with you for that, but I do appreciate that you would help me with that. It’s going to be terrible to have to say it out loud. I’m going to have to say the words. I don’t know if I can, but they have to be said. I have to tell them that our baby is dying before our baby ever got to live.”

And Dolly had started crying and Hoss couldn’t stop his own tears from joining hers as he held her. They finally fell into an exhausted sleep late that night. In the morning, red eyed and tired, they got up and dressed. Hoss told Dolly to rest for a while so he could go downstairs and tell his father and brother the news. He guessed that Presha would tell Adam. When he told his father, Ben surmised that the next month or so was going to be awkward with Adam and Presha experiencing joy at the impending birth of their first child. Ben couldn’t deny that he would felt that same joy anticipating the arrival of his first grandchild. However the joy would be tempered by the sorrow that Hoss and Dolly would be mourning the loss of their child and in a particularly unpleasant way. Dolly would likely carry the lifeless body of her child for some time before her body went into labor and delivered the lifeless child. All the pain would be for nothing as the child would be buried upon its arrival. It was clear from what Hoss told them that the child was not going to survive because with the weak heart even if the baby lived until the time of labor, the strain of delivery would take what was left of its strength. The baby could no survive. Dolly had known that even with the carefully worded things that Doctor Martin had said. When she had repeated those things to Hoss, he had known too. Their child would be stillborn.

Meanwhile the child who looked quite a lot like Hoss and carried his name even though he was no relation to him was getting ready to leave Sacramento with Sally and Myrtle. Sally had planned a circuitous route to Virginia City because she could not risk going through Placerville or any town near there nor did she want to travel by train and the possibility of being seen by so many people when there were wanted posters out for her in California. She knew it would take her much longer to get to Virginia City and it would be more expensive, but coming in from the east of Virginia City should make it less likely that anyone would think that she was the infamous Sally who had been so thoroughly humiliated by those Cartwrights and the two women the older sons had married. She wished there was a way to get revenge as well as the money, but thought that under the circumstances, the money would have to do. With her blond wig, Eric looked more like her son and she was starting to try to act more like a mother, but the boy didn’t seem to like her much. She tried to play with him, but he insisted on doing things his way which made her angry. When he wouldn’t do things her way when they played, she got upset with him. He would pout then and refuse to play until Myrtle would take over again. Sally knew that she was going to have to do a better job if she was going to convince Hoss that she was the boy’s mother. The other option was to get rid of Myrtle sooner. She began to consider that option because then Eric would have to turn to her for everything.

On the Ponderosa, Adam told Presha that he had to go see Hoss. “He’s probably not going to want to talk much.”

“That’s all right. He doesn’t have to talk much.”

“Don’t take him from Dolly’s side if she needs him.”

“I won’t. I know she needs him there.”

Adam left then, and Presha worried. She knew he was sensitive and kind, but she knew that he had good news while Hoss had gotten the worst news. She was afraid that it might not be the best thing for Hoss to have to face that. She need not have worried. When Adam got to the main house, Hoss was outside leaning on the corral fence staring out over the pastures and up at the mountains. Adam dismounted and tied his horse to the rail. He walked up beside Hoss and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder. Hoss nodded in response but said nothing. Adam looked to where Hoss was gazing. They stood there for a long time. Inside the house, Joe looked out the window several times at his silent brothers standing at the corral fence.

“Pa, they’re not saying anything. Adam has his hand on Hoss’ shoulder, and they’re just standing there.”

“Don’t worry, Joe. Those two have been like that for a long time. They give comfort to each other that way. They’re fine.”

Eventually Hoss turned to Adam. “Thanks, Adam. I should get back inside to see how Dolly is doing. She needs me. I should be with her.”

“Yes, I would think that’s true. I’ll head on home then.”

After Adam mounted up and rode toward home, Hoss walked inside. “I’m going up to be with Dolly. Adam was here, but he headed back home.”

*****

Chapter 4

For several weeks, Doctor Martin made regular trips to the Ponderosa. Each time Ben was hopeful that he would have better news for Hoss and Dolly, but it wasn’t to be so. The news was more and more grim until the dreaded words were spoken. Ben knew they were coming when he heard the sobbing from upstairs and Hoss’ entreaties to his wife calling her name as he tried to soothe her even as his own heart was breaking. Doctor Paul Martin came trudging down the stairs a short time later.

“I’m sorry, Ben. I knew it would take a miracle, but sometimes you Cartwrights have managed to do that.”

“But not this time?”

“No, I’m so sorry to say that not this time. There is no heartbeat. The baby has passed.”

“But, the baby is still inside.”

“Yes, unfortunately, Dolly’s body hasn’t yet determined that it’s over. It could be weeks yet before her body goes into labor to expel the baby.”

“My, God, can’t you do something?”

“There’s little that I can do safely. I have done what I could. I’ll tell you what she can do and I’ll come back to talk with her tomorrow. She’s much too upset to listen now. She can walk as much as she is comfortable doing, and she can do as many things standing as possible. She can do all those things that we generally tell women not to do in that last month. She can lift and carry, climb stairs, and those kinds of things. I can do a few things to try to stimulate labor, and I’ll tell Hoss what he can do. But, Ben, the bottom line is that her body will do what it’s going to do on its own schedule. We can try to encourage the labor, but anything that will force the labor is dangerous to Dolly’s health. Hoss has lost his baby. I don’t think he wants to risk his wife.”

“No, of course he wouldn’t, but I’m thinking of how awful it will be to have to carry the child when you know it has already died. It has been terrible for them knowing how sick the baby was, but now it must be horrible.”

“I’ve never had this happen like this but I have read of cases where it has happened. Sometimes women have had to carry a baby like this for months. I don’t think that will be the case here. I think though that it could be a few weeks. It’s going to be a very stressful time. Presha and Adam are in the last week of waiting too. She is very close to delivery. I’m heading there when I leave here. I’ll be stopping in to see her every few days too now. Her baby has gotten quite large, and she is very small. I’m worried about her too, but you know I can’t show any of that worry over there.”

“I know. Adam already looks like he hasn’t been sleeping. He’s worried, and I think Presha is scared.”

“I think it might be best if I ask them to have a midwife from town stay with them. They may need some help before I can get there. Margaret Saunders has been helping with some of the more difficult cases. I think she would be willing to spend the rest of the week there. If they agree, I’ll ask her to go there. You might want to send someone there too. If it happens, Adam isn’t going to be able to ride for help. He’ll be needed there. They’ll need someone to send.”

“Those are good ideas, Paul. I’ll see if I can do anything for Hoss and Dolly, and then I’ll head over to Adam’s place with you.”

When Paul and Ben arrived at Adam’s place, Adam looked relieved to have someone else with whom to share the load. He had obviously not been sleeping well. Ben asked him about that when Paul went to examine Presha.

“Presha can’t sleep. I rub her feet and legs or her back and shoulders until she can fall asleep. Then she’s awake again in two hours and we go through it all again. When she does sleep, she tosses and turns instead of having a restful sleep. In the morning, she’s so exhausted that she has to stay in bed.”

“But you have to get up and get things done, and you’ve had less sleep than she has.” Adam nodded. “Not for the next week. Stay here. Paul will send that midwife out, and she can take over some of the work, but you need to be with your wife, and you need to get some rest. You could get sick as exhausted as you are. We have enough problems at the house without having you sick here.”

“What happened? Is it the baby?”

“Yes, Paul couldn’t hear a heartbeat of any sounds at all this morning. The baby has passed, but the worst part is that Dolly may have to carry that baby for weeks yet before she can deliver it.”

“There must be something he can do.”

“Not without a risk to Dolly’s health. At this point, the safest thing is to wait.”

Neither man could imagine how awful that was going to be for Hoss and Dolly. Meanwhile, Paul told Presha about the midwife as Ben explained that he was sending a man to stay at Adam’s place.

“I know you’re not far away, but Paul said that when your baby starts to come, you’ll be needed here so you should have someone else to ride for help. I’ll find one of the men who can help out over here and sleep over here at night so you have someone when you need him.”

“Thank you, Pa. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a good idea.”

It was another week before Presha went into labor. It was in the early morning hours and the precautions proved to be wise. The midwife and Adam spent the first six hours with her before Paul arrived. He had been at one of the mines tending to some men hurt in an accident. Then it was ten more hours of labor before the baby arrived. Presha was exhausted, but the delivery was without any major complications. Adam had spent those ten hours waiting with Joe and his father and worrying. He finally got to relax when Paul called him up the stairs to meet his son. They had heard him crying loudly for fifteen minutes before that.

“He’s not fond of the long labor and it’s taking a while to calm him, but he’s a healthy one. Presha is doing fine too. Everything is fine, Adam.”

“Thank you, Paul.”

“Margaret will stay until tomorrow to help you through what needs to be done. I’ll be back in a few days to check on both your son and your wife. Go in now and meet your son.”

Adam pushed the door open just as Margaret was gathering up linens to launder. She smiled at him and left the room. Presha was pale and her hair was damp, but Margaret had helped her put on a clean gown, and had put clean bedding on the bed. She held a bundle in her arms and was humming softly but the babe was still squalling quite loudly and probably couldn’t even hear her humming.

“We got a loud one. Would you like me to try to quiet him down? I had some luck with Little Joe when he was small. I used to sing to him. Marie taught me songs to sing to babies, and I still remember most of them.”

“Please do. I’m feeling a bit helpless here. Margaret said he would tire and stop crying but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Adam picked up his son and smiled at the red face. He rocked his son gently and began to sing. Almost immediately the crying diminished and then stopped. Presha smiled.

“I guess he needed someone louder than he was. Are we still going to name him Thomas Adam Cartwright?”

“If you still want that name, we will.”

“It’s a good name. I still like it.”

“Can I ask Pa and Joe to come up and see Thomas?”

As soon as Presha nodded, Adam turned to the door but he didn’t have to call out for his father and brother. They had been waiting and heard him ask Presha. They were at the door almost immediately to see the newest Cartwright.

“Geez, Adam, he’s a big one.”

“Joe, he’s not so big as long. I guess he’ll be tall which does surprise me.”

“Why? You’re tall.” With a pause, Joe smiled as he looked at Presha still sitting in the bed. “I guess it is a bit of a surprise after all.” With an impish grin, he couldn’t help adding a little teasing. “Heck, he’s almost taller than his mother now.”

“Joseph!”

“Oh, Pa, we gotta do a little laughing and teasing around here. It’s like a funeral at the house. Hoss and Dolly don’t even hardly talk.”

“They have a hard thing to face every hour of every day right now.”

“I know, but they seem to have forgotten that it’s not the only thing going on in their lives. They’re both alive and healthy. And now we have a new little Cartwright.”

“Yes, we do. What’s his name?” Ben knew he needed to get the conversation back to the topic of the new baby.

“I thought you probably heard, Pa, but he’s Thomas Adam Cartwright. Presha’s father and his father were both Thomas so we’re honoring their memory. Thomas is a good name too. Presha wanted him to have my name as well so we agreed that if it was a boy it would be Thomas Adam.”

“It’s a good name. May I hold my grandson now that you have him quieted down?”

“Then I want to hold him too.”

“Certainly not. The grandfather has privileges, but then it is time for him to go back into his mother’s arms. We need him to start learning who his mother is and we need him to stay warm. You will have plenty of time to hold him when he gets a bit older.” Margaret gave Ben a look that said he had held the baby long enough. Ben handed Thomas back to Adam who placed the baby in Presha’s arms as Ben and Joe left the room. Margaret closed the door firmly. She looked at Adam and Presha. “Now, according to Doctor Martin, I have a bit of instructing to do in how you need to care for a newborn babe.”

For the next few weeks as Adam and Presha enjoyed their time with their baby and learning to be a family, Ben and Joe were frequent visitors to their house. Even Hop Sing found time to show up at their house to visit and prepare some meals. It was clear that the atmosphere at the main house was so oppressive that they needed to escape. Sadly, Adam knew that Hoss and Dolly could not escape. He and Presha prayed that they would be released from their torment, and finally after two more weeks, they were. Dolly went into labor that was short and relatively easy. The baby had not grown over the last months of the pregnancy so it was small making the delivery easier. She cried for quite a while when it was over. Hoss asked his father and Joe to prepare a coffin for a burial and they said they didn’t have to do that. Ben explained why it wasn’t necessary.

“Adam made one for you, Hoss. He has a marker carved too with everything except a name. He knew he couldn’t be here for you so he did what he could. What name would you like us to tell him to put on the marker?”

With his voice breaking and hoarse, Hoss told them that it had been a little girl. They agreed to call her Lily. “You know, cause a lily is so fragile even a strong wind can knock it over, but it’s white and pure. We want her name to be Lily.”

“I’ll ride on over and tell him, Hoss. Then I’ll go dig a grave next to the lake near where my mother is. Would that be all right with you?”

“That would be perfect, Joe. Thank you. I’ll tell Dolly. I think she wants to do it already tomorrow morning.”

“We’ll have everything ready, son. Do you want me to read from the Bible?”

“Yes, Pa. Please read over her for us.”

The next morning, there was a small procession to the lake. Dolly’s parents had come to offer their daughter their support. Dolly’s mother had been at the ranch several times, but as all of them had found, there wasn’t anything she could say to help. Roy and Paul joined the family for the small ceremony. Ben read some verses before Joe and Adam placed the small casket into the ground. Each person dropped some dirt into the hole, and then Joe filled in the small hole. Adam set the marker that had Lily, beloved daughter of Hoss and Dolly Cartwright, and the year carved into it. He had carved cherubs and angels into the border of the marker. Hoss and Dolly said nothing, but it was finally over for them. The whole group went back to the house for a meal. They were still all there when a rider came in with a letter for Hoss. He wondered what it could be. He opened it, and stood in shock before handing it to his father who handed it to Adam. Joe read it over Adam’s shoulder. Roy asked what it was when he saw the variety of expressions including shock and anger on the Cartwright men. Adam answered once Hoss took Dolly upstairs to talk with her privately.

“Sally’s back and claims to have a baby that she says is Hoss’. She’s willing to sign over complete custody for fifty thousand dollars.”

*****

Chapter 5

The rest of the contents of the letter were divulged to Paul and Roy then. Sally said she was in Virginia City under a different name and that Hoss could avoid a scandal by paying the money and taking in the child using any story he wished to use. The next day, she proposed a meeting where Hoss could see the boy if he had ten thousand dollars as a down payment. He could visit with the child and presumably take him to the Ponderosa with him. Her promise was that she would leave and not contest anything he said if he paid the balance. If he didn’t pay though, she said she would go to the papers and tell the story to create a scandal and then demand that Hoss support her and the baby in Virginia City creating an ongoing scandalous situation.

“The cold-hearted bitch said she heard about his ‘tragic situation’ and thinks this would be the ‘best solution for all concerned’ which means of course that she finally gets her hands on Cartwright money. That’s all she wanted right from the start.”

Ben was concerned though. “Adam, what if it is Hoss’ son?”

“I guess we’ll have to ask him if it’s possible.”

“It must be possible or she wouldn’t even be bringing this to us. There has to be a basis for it, and where did she get a baby anyway?”

“She’s been gone a long time, Pa. I wouldn’t be surprised if she sought out a man to have a baby that she could claim was Hoss’ baby.”

“I remember her sitting here in this room and saying she never wanted to have a baby because it would ruin her figure. It was one of several reasons that Hoss realized he didn’t want to marry her.”

Adam and Joe recalled that as did Presha. It didn’t make sense to them that Sally would purposely have a baby in order to get money from Hoss when she was so set against having a baby. They would have to wait for Hoss to tell them if it was possible.

Roy asked the most obvious question as far as he was concerned. “Where does she want to meet?”

“She said at the line cabin closest to town.”

“Ben, do you want me to be there?”

“No, Roy, I think we can handle this. I don’t want to spook her at this point.”

Roy asked then if they wanted him to check into anything for them, but they couldn’t think of what he might check into until Joe recalled their ride through Placerville a year earlier and the wanted poster they had seen then.

“Hey, remember when we were in Placerville and saw that wanted poster that Adam and I thought was Sally. It said she was wanted on suspicion of murder there. Hoss said it wasn’t her, but we gave information to the deputy then. We never heard anything after that.”

“Well, I can wire the sheriff there. I know I don’t have a wanted poster on any woman, but sometimes those don’t get circulated very far if it’s only suspicion. Do you remember how much the reward was?”

“No, Adam do you remember?”

“It was two hundred dollars. I thought at the time that it wasn’t much, and if they really wanted her, they would have put up more reward money.”

“Maybe the sheriff didn’t think it was her then. I’ll find out what I can. It could be why she took so long getting here and why she’s using a different name though.”

Ben thanked him for his offer to help and said they would get back to him if they needed any more help with Sally. Roy and Paul left then, and Adam left to take Presha and Thomas home. Ben and Joe waited for Hoss and Dolly to return to talk about the letter from Sally and the meeting that she had indicated she wanted to have the next day. Dolly’s parents waited silently not knowing what to think. Their daughter had suffered through so much and they didn’t know how this crisis was going to affect her. They could hope that she could weather the storm but she was fragile after losing her baby in such a tragic way. They worried. Ben had one more concern. He asked Joe to ride to town and talk to the bank about getting a bank draft for ten thousand dollars. They would need that the next day.

Upstairs, Hoss told Dolly everything he could think of that related to that letter from Sally. He told her that he had been with Sally once when he must have had too much to drink. He said he woke up with his pants undone and Sally said that they had been intimate. She told Hoss that they had to get married then. He had been embarrassed more than anything and had felt sick to his stomach as well as dizzy. He had made excuses for not committing to anything that night and gone home. He had avoided seeing her for almost a week. When he saw her, he had apologized for his behavior but had not promised marriage. It was then that she had become even more affectionate with him at every chance until the fateful meeting at the house when Presha and Dolly had managed to get Sally to say things that let Hoss know what kind of woman Sally actually was. She had said then that she never wanted to have a baby, and Hoss had ended his relationship with her. Sally had left town and never contacted Hoss to say that she was with child.

“Now, that does seem real odd. Ifn she wanted money from me, she woulda known we woulda given her money ifn she was carrying my child. She never asked for none. It seems real odd, but you never know with Sally. Dolly, I have to go see this boy. I have to see if he looks like me.”

Dolly had been silent and staring seemingly at nothing until that point. “What will you do then? Will you bring him here? Will you try to have him take the place of our Lily?”

“Dolly, nobody can ever take the place of our Lily. I’ll be thinking on her for the rest of my life. I know you will too, but ifn I let this boy go and he’s mine, then I’ll be thinking on him for the rest of my life too. I can’t lose him too if he’s mine. So, yeah, I’ll bring him here if he’s mine. I know that’s gonna be hard on you, but we’ll work something out. It’s a big house.”

“Hoss Cartwright, I’m in mourning, I’m not a devil. If you bring that boy here, I’ll help you care for him. I just don’t know if I can love him like I should knowing that Sally was his mother.”

“I kin understand that. But it ain’t the boy’s fault now, is it? Well, your ma and you pa are still here. We should go down and talk to them. It’s gonna affect them too as grandparents and all.”

It seemed to help Dolly to have something on which to focus other than the daughter she had lost. By the time she was walking down the stairs, her parents could see the difference in her. She still was clearly sad, but she no longer looked lifeless. Her mother breathed a sigh of relief and squeezed her husband’s hand. Somehow they would all make the best of this difficult situation.

In town, Sally and Myrtle were discussing the meeting about that very difficult situation. Myrtle wanted to go along but Sally had to explain to her several times why she could not go. “If you’re there, they’re going to doubt that I’m the mother. If they doubt that, they won’t pay the money. They have to believe that I’m the mother and that Eric will be better off with them than with me. If they believe that, then they’ll pay that money, and we can leave here and live very well.”

“But Eric will come with us. I’ll still have Eric, right?”

“Yes, of course. Now you do know that they may want to have him stay with them for a few days, don’t you?”

“No, you never said nothing about that. You only said you was taking him to the meeting so they could meet him and believe he was that Hoss’ boy. You never said they was taking him with them.”

“Well, I have to show some good faith. I said in the letter, that if they had ten thousand with them as a down payment, then I would let them visit with Eric.”

“I thought that meant just at the meeting. I didn’t think that meant they’d take him.”

“They’re going to think that ten thousand dollars buys more than a few minutes. Now that’s reasonable, don’t you think. Then when they bring the rest of the money, I’ll say I need a little time with him to say goodbye, and that’s when we take him and leave. That’s a good plan now, isn’t it?”

“I guess so. You think they’ll let you do that?”

“Of course they will. They’ll let him say goodbye to his mother.”

“But you’re not his mother.”

“Yes, but they don’t know that.”

Listening outside their kitchen window, the stranger nodded. He would wait until the baby wasn’t there before he came for the woman who had murdered his brother. It would be better to kill her when the baby wasn’t there. He would probably have to tie up the other woman unless she was away from that Sally or perhaps sleeping. He thought about it and decided that nighttime might be the best time. He could be this close before it ever got dark, and then wait until they were sleeping before he made his move. So by this time the next night, he would have justice for his brother if all worked out well. If he was not successful that night, there was always the night after that.

By that evening, Adam was back at the main house because he wanted to know what had been decided. Dolly parents had agreed that if the child was Hoss’, they would accept the child as their grandchild because Dolly would accept the child as her own. Ben also would accept the child. Hoss was gratified to have the support of his family. With the bank draft in hand, he was going to meet with Sally and hoped to have the boy on the Ponderosa on the following day. Adam had a question.

“Do we have to pay the full amount? If Hoss is the father, he should be able to claim the right to custody of the child. Any court would see him as a more fit parent than her.”

“We did talk about that Adam, and we want her to go away. We know what kind of woman she is. If we don’t pay the money who knows what kind of trouble she might try to cause for Hoss and for Dolly. If we pay her, she will go away.”

“Until she needs more money.”

“I’ll make it clear to her that when Hoss pays her that amount, she will sign all the necessary legal papers relinquishing all rights. We’ll make sure that Hiram draws up an ironclad agreement.”

“She could still carry out her threat to cause a scandal.”

“Yes, and we’ll live with that. Having the child here will cause enough tongues to wag. We’re going to ignore all of that and move forward. People will gossip about us whether they have something concrete on which to base it or not. We’re not going to live our lives in fear of gossip.”

“All right. Is there anything you want me to do?”

“Bring Presha and Thomas here and stay with Dolly tomorrow. I’m going with Hoss and Joe is going to act as a lookout for us to make sure there are no unwanted visitors just in case she has some associates who plan to try to rob us. He’ll have some men with him. I’d like someone here with Dolly too for the same reason. If she’s playing some kind of sick trick on us, I want to be ready for her to make a move other than the one she told us about.”

“We’ll be here. I’ll feel better too being with family while this is going on. Maybe we’ll stay here until it’s all settled.”

“That may be the best idea of all. Yes, plan on staying.”

The next morning, everything went according to plan. When Sally drove up wearing her wig, Hoss didn’t recognize her at first. But when she climbed down from the carriage and then pulled a child down and set him on the ground, Hoss felt as if his heart shuddered. There stood a blond, blue-eyed smiling cherub with round cheeks and a big grin. He looked at Hoss and Ben with undisguised curiosity. Hoss knelt down and put out his arms.

“Eric, I’m Hoss. I’m your Papa.”

Eric waddled over to him and grabbed his hands. Hoss was going to pick him up, but Sally stopped him and demanded payment first. Ben stepped forward and gave her the bank draft.

“We didn’t have time to get the cash together, but there’s a bank draft made out to the bearer. It’s the same as cash. You can put that into the bank or exchange it for cash. You’ll have to wait a few days to actually get the cash in hand. It would be easier if you put that in the bank and then transferred the funds to a bank in any city of your choosing under any name you wish.”

“All right, then you can take Eric for a visit. His things are in this bag.” Sally handed over a small valise filled with clothing and diapers as well as some toys. “He likes to sleep with that big sock doll. It gives him comfort. I’ll expect the rest of the money by the end of the week. You can pay it the same way, I guess. This should work out just fine.”

Ben stepped forward then. “We’ll have papers here for you to sign on that day. You will have to give up all legal claim to Eric.”

“I will. He’ll have a better life with you.” Sally climbed back into her carriage and left then.

“Hoss, he does look somewhat like you, but mostly in a general way. I’m not sure he’s your son.”

“I think he is, Pa. I think he is my son.”

Ben wasn’t so sure, but he wasn’t going to say anything at that point.

*****

Chapter 6

Noting how Eric didn’t seem to mind Sally leaving, Ben wondered about Eric and Sally. The boy did not resemble his mother at all if Sally was his mother. Even though Eris was blond, blue-eyed, chubby, and big for his age with a wonderful smile, Ben remembered Hoss as a child, and knew that Eric did not look like Hoss either other than in that general sense. He didn’t want to throw doubt on Hoss when he had suffered so much loss with Lily, but he dreaded what would happen if Eric turned out not to be his son. He was in a quandary with no idea at all of what to do. All he could do was to follow Hoss’ lead at this point, and Hoss wanted to take Eric to the Ponderosa. Eric seemed fascinated by horses so Hoss was using that to get to know the little boy. Ben worried though what would happen when Eric was no longer fascinated with the horses and began to look for his mother. That wasn’t an issue though. It seemed that Eric didn’t miss his mother at all. That seemed odd to all of them until Presha brought up a point at dinner.

“Perhaps Eric has sensed all along that his mother doesn’t want him. He’s been well cared for physically. Anyone can see that, but emotionally, we know that Sally doesn’t have a heart. How much love has this boy had? Has anyone shown him true love or has he been resented all along?”

About that time, Thomas let it be known that he was hungry. Presha moved to the red leather chair and prepared to nurse her baby. Eric saw what she was doing and he wanted to nurse too. He tried to climb into her lap but Adam had to stop him. He cried and fought against Adam. It was the most emotion that they had seen from him that day. Mostly he had played with anyone who had wanted to play with him. He had sat with anyone who paid attention to him for he seemed to crave attention. He had eaten the food they had given him and drank from glass that had been held for him. However he began screaming for the chance to nurse as he saw Thomas nursing. It upset the baby so much that Adam suggested that Presha ought to go into the guest bedroom and sit in the rocking chair in there. He helped her up and escorted her there after handing off the struggling Eric to Hoss. Eric fought against Hoss then as he wanted to follow Adam and Presha. Ben was concerned.

“He’s been weaned but apparently he wasn’t ready to be weaned. He was probably weaned because he was big and could eat solid food. He’s showing a great desire to be mothered though. It’s a very sad situation.”

“Maybe I could do it.”

That statement from Dolly shocked the three men but especially Hoss. He knew that Dolly had been leaking milk since her labor. Doctor Martin had said her body didn’t know what had happened and that it would dry up in time with no stimulation. However, if she tried nursing Eric, then the milk production would probably increase dramatically. That wasn’t the most serious concern though. If she started nursing him, then if anything happened to remove him from their custody, she would be completely devastated. Hoss didn’t think she could recover from such a loss. He looked to his father.

“Pa, could you hold this whirlwind for a bit. I think me and Dolly got to go talk a bit.”

“Hoss, I’m ready to do this.”

“Dolly, it’s a big step. We should talk it through. Now I ain’t gonna tell you what to do. But we’re husband and wife. We should both say what we’re thinking. Now can we talk?”

About fifteen minutes later, a grim faced Hoss walked down the stairs. “She’s bound and determined to do this, Pa. Now, I’m taking Eric up to her.”

“Hoss, she probably won’t have enough to satisfy a boy his size.”

“We kinda guessed that. We’ll take a bottle of warm milk too ifn Hop Sing can get one ready for us. We’re heading into the wilderness on this one. Ain’t got a map and no compass neither with no trail to follow but Dolly says she’s sure she knows where we’re going.”

“How do you feel about this son?”

“Scared, Pa, real scared, but ifn you saw how Dolly looked, you’d know I had no choice. She’s got to have this. I guess I knew as soon as I found out about this boy that I had to have him too so I know what she’s feeling. There’s a hole in my heart and he’s just what I need. He’s what Dolly needs too. We got all this love to give to a child and he’s gonna get it all. I don’t know what we woulda done otherwise. The sadness like to turned part of our hearts to stone. He brought that back to life for us. Lily will always be a sorrowful memory, but now we got a joy too.”

As Hop Sing delivered the bottle and Hoss headed back upstairs with Eric, Adam came out of the guest room to ask what happened. Ben filled him in on everything. Adam wasn’t surprised.

“Hoss needed to give that love. As soon as I knew about that boy, I suspected that Hoss was going to accept him as his son no matter what.”

“I’m worried though. What if this is some sort of trick? What if this isn’t Sally’s baby and she had somehow gotten someone’s else’s child? What if the real mother comes looking for her baby?”

“Do we know where she’s staying?”

“Yes, Joe was able to follow her when she left the line cabin this morning. She’s at the old McCullough place on the edge of town. He saw her pull up there and put the horse in the small stable they have. Then she went into the house by the kitchen door. It was clear that she was in charge there. That was her place.”

“Maybe I should take a ride over there and have a talk with Sally before Hoss gets too attached to Eric if it isn’t too late already.”

“That might be a good idea. You could tell her that she gets to keep the money regardless because we only want the truth. I’ll even pay her the balance to get the whole truth.”

“Do you mean that?”

“Adam, I would pay anything if it meant that Hoss wouldn’t get hurt again by this, and if Dolly has to suffer any more torment, I don’t know what it will do to her. Yes, I mean it.”

“By the time I get there, it will be late. It could be very late before I get back here with her answer.”

“That’s all right. I don’t think we’re going to be able to resolve anything tonight anyway.”

Adam went back into the guest bedroom to tell Presha what he was doing. Ben could hear some objections but waited until Adam came out. “She doesn’t trust Sally and worried about me going over there, but when I said I was offering her money with no strings attached, she agreed that it would be best for Hoss and Dolly. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Hours passed though and Adam didn’t return. Finally Joe headed out to go to town to see if he could find out what was happening. Ben cautioned him to ride carefully as dusk was near. When Joe got to the McCullough house, Clem was there with two bodies wrapped in blankets. Joe was scared at first because he saw Sport, but quickly realized that neither body was large enough to be Adam.

“Clem, what happened?”

“Joe, we’re not exactly sure. Your brother is over at Doctor Martin’s office. Roy is with him. You can probably get more of an answer there.”

As fast as he safely could, Joe rode for Doctor Martin’s office. When he burst through the door there, the expected that Doctor Martin was going to be busy working on Adam. Instead, he found Paul sitting in the front office with Adam and Roy. Adam had a bandage around his head but otherwise appeared unhurt.

“What happened?”

“Now, hold on there, Little Joe. That’s what I’m trying to figure out, and I only now got a chance to talk with your brother. You just sit on down there and be quiet, if you please, while I ask Adam some questions here.” Turning back to Adam, Roy continued from where he had been interrupted. “All right then, your pa said to offer her the money just to get the truth about who the baby’s mama is. Did you ever get to ask her?”

“No, I walked up on the porch, and knocked on the door. I looked in and thought I saw a woman’s foot and part of a leg sticking out of the doorway to what I assumed was probably the kitchen. I called in to ask if anyone was hurt and then opened the door. I stepped inside and that was about all I remembered for quite a while until I woke up. Someone must have hit me from behind when I came in the door. I went to the kitchen and saw the two bodies. That’s when I went out on the porch and fired the three shots. That made my head pound, but I knew I would never be able to walk or ride anywhere for help.”

“How did you know it was two bodies?”

“Well the one woman had a knife sticking out of her chest and Sally was laying in a pool of blood staring at the ceiling. I remember that much. The blow stunned me but it didn’t affect my memory or my ability to think.”

“Well, then, did you find anything odd about what you saw?”

“Other than finding two women dead in a kitchen? Yes, the woman I didn’t know was laying on a blanket. I found that rather odd.”

“So did I. I’m hoping the doc here can figure that out some after he gets a chance to look at the bodies. There were two cups of tea on the table like they was having tea after dinner and then one laid down on the blanket and got a knife through the heart.”

Almost in unison, Doctor Martin and Joe asked the same question. “Drugged?”

“Now that was what I was thinking, but we’ll have to wait to see what the evidence tells us if there is any evidence to tell us anything. This is a darn peculiar situation. Now where was Hoss during all of this?” Both Adam and Joe bristled at that question. “Boys, you know I gotta ask. Just tell me he was at home so I can put that in my report.”

Joe answered. “He was at home with Eric. He still is.”

“Well, you see, there was a note. It was on the table. It said only a few words. It said “Justice for my brother” and nothing else. I had to wonder. Now maybe it had something to do with that wanted poster you saw in Placerville. I’m still waiting to hear on that. Adam or Joe, you think of anything else, you let me know. All right, I’m going back to that house to see if Clem found anything more. Adam, you take care now.”

Once Roy left, Joe told Adam he would take Sport home with him and bring a carriage back the next morning for him. “You’re in no shape to ride home especially in the dark.” Paul offered a bed in back for Adam to use and Joe suggested that was the best solution. Joe headed home then to tell the family of the latest developments and to tell them that Adam was hurt but not seriously.

“Joe, don’t tell Presha I’m fine. Tell her exactly what you saw and how I talked and looked. She’ll be more relieved that way.”

Joe agreed and smiled a bit. Apparently Presha had already discovered what Adam’s ‘fine’ meant.

*****

Chapter 7

By the next morning, Roy had a man in custody. He had gotten a wire from Placerville that included the name of a man who had been looking for the woman suspected of killing his brother. Roy and Clem had tracked him down. As soon as he saw the lawmen at his door, he thought they knew he had killed Sally and admitted his guilt. He told them everything that he had seen and done. Roy explained the whole scenario to Adam who explained it to his family when Joe gave him a ride home. He greeted Presha and reassured her that he was fine, but Joe let everyone know that the case had been solved.

“Roy told Adam the whole story. He told me some of it on the way home but said he’d explain it all when he got here.”

With a bit of a scowl at having to explain immediately, Adam nevertheless sat down and told the story. “The man’s name is Barnabas Donald. His brother was Harland Donald. His brother was a big man and Barnabas couldn’t understand how Sally had managed to stab him in the chest to kill him. He thought that even if Harland had fallen asleep, he would have awaken and tried to fight her off. However, he said he’s been watching Sally and waiting for an opportunity to confront her. He got it last night because he knew the baby wasn’t there, and he stood outside the kitchen window as the two women argued. He said the other woman’s name was Myrtle. He doesn’t know her last name. She was the mother of Eric and she wanted him back. Sally said that there wasn’t any way to get him back from us and that they should be satisfied with the money. Sally asked Myrtle to fix some tea and Barnabas saw Sally put something in Myrtle’s cup. Myrtle fell asleep when they drank the tea, and that’s when he realized that was probably how she had gotten his brother. She had probably drugged his drink.”

Joe interrupted then because he knew the story of Sally and Hoss and how she said they had been intimate. “Hoss, that’s probably what Sally did to you.”

Dolly nodded because she had the same thought. Hoss didn’t want to think about that too much but had to admit it made sense. “She wasn’t the woman I thought she was. She was real good at hiding what was in her heart and acting like she felt something different than she felt.”

No one disagreed with that. Ben asked Adam to finish the story.

“Barnabas told Roy that it took him a minute to sneak into the house. He got to the kitchen too late to save Myrtle. Sally had apparently planned to kill her. It wasn’t an impulse. She had the blanket on the floor and Myrtle laid on it and had stabbed her in the heart just before Barnabas got there. He said Sally was on the floor with her hand still on the knife when he shocked her. He said he knew then how she had killed his brother, and she asked who he was. He said she should know unless she had killed more than once. She didn’t say anything more then but reached for a knife on the counter. He shot her before she could get to the knife. He used a paper and pencil that was on the table to leave the note that Roy found. He hadn’t planned to do that and realized later that he had pointed the law directly at himself. Roy arrested him but isn’t sure he’ll be charged. Sally had murdered someone and was going for a knife. She was a wanted woman too. He could claim self-defense and most juries would be sympathetic. It would be difficult to get a unanimous guilty verdict. He may walk.”

“Son, what about him hitting you? That had to have been him, wasn’t it?”

“He admitted it was, but I told Roy I wouldn’t press charges for that. I could understand how scared he was at that point, and he didn’t hurt me too much. He could have, but mostly he stunned me. He lost his brother. I don’t want to give him any other reason to suffer.”

“What about Eric?”

“Roy says that as far as he’s concerned at this point, if Hoss is willing to say he’s the father, then Eric can stay right here. There is no place else for him to go. He’s lost his mother, and we have no way to know who his father is or where to look for him or if he is even alive.”

“Hoss, are you willing to do that? Are you willing to accept Eric as your son with all the question marks?”

“Pa, I’m willing. Dolly and me been talking, and we want to raise Eric as our son if it works out.”

“Son, what if his father shows up at some point and wants to claim him? That could happen.”

“We know that, and we’re willing to take that chance. We feel like we need to love that boy right now, and make him feel as loved as any child can be. We think we’re the best ones to do that right now.”

With as much settled as they could get settled, Adam asked Joe if he would give him and Presha and Thomas a ride home. For the rest of that day, Adam thought about the situation with Hoss and Eric. By the next afternoon, he rode over to speak with his father. Hoss was upstairs with Dolly and Eric so he was able to talk with his father and Joe alone at first.

“We ought to hire detectives to investigate Sally and Myrtle to find out where they were, to find out everything they can about them and about Eric. It would be best to find his father now rather than have a terrible surprise in the future. It could be that Eric’s father is dead or doesn’t want him. He hasn’t found him and Eric must be getting close to a year old. It would be best to get it settled though, don’t you think?”

“Why, Adam? Why stir things up? Why not just let it alone?”

“Joe, I think what Adam is saying is to settle it now and not later when Eric would be a part of this family and it would be wrenching to separate him from us. It would be terrible for him and for Hoss and Dolly as well as the rest of us. Better to know it now than to be shocked by it later don’t you think?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“I do.” Hoss was walking down the stairs. “I heard enough to know what you must be talking about. I been thinking on it since yesterday too. We should hire some detectives to find his father if he’s to be found. Meanwhile, Dolly and me will still be loving this boy and we’ll love him every day that he’s here whether it’s a month, a year, or the rest of our lives.”

“I can go to town and have Hiram begin the inquiry, Hoss, if that’s what you want.”

Hoss nodded. Adam stood and said he needed to get back home. Joe couldn’t help teasing him. “Those six weeks must be up. Older brother looks mighty anxious to get back home to his wife.”

Scowling and silent, tired of Joe’s teasing about his wife, Adam still had no way to explain to Joe that although the physical relationship that Joe repeatedly teased him about was important, it was being loved by her despite everything that happened that made him anxious to get home every day. To walk through that door and see her smile only because he was there and to slide into bed at night and have her move next to him as if it was the most natural thing in the world was what he needed in his life. It nourished him in ways that nothing else could. Until Joe got into a more mature relationship, he wouldn’t understand. Ben put his hand on Adam’s shoulder, and as Adam turned to him, he saw his father’s smile and wink. His father understood.

“Go home, son. We can handle everything here. You deserve some time with your family now.”

“Thanks, Pa. I’ll be at home if anyone needs to find me.”

Within a month, the family had the rest of the answers. Doctor Martin’s autopsies confirmed that Sally had never had a child. The conclusion was that Eric was Myrtle’s child. Detectives traced Sally and Myrtle to Sacramento where it was discovered that Myrtle had been assaulted by a miner who had later been killed in a dispute over a mining claim. He was likely Eric’s father. It also probably helped explain why Eric wasn’t as attached to his mother as he might have been expected to be. He hadn’t been as sad to be separated from her as most people expected. She probably loved him but also resented him because he was a constant reminder of what had happened to her. The description of her assailant and Myrtle’s explained why Eric looked the way he did. Ben talked with Hoss after they learned all of that news.

“Hoss, are you going to have a problem knowing that you aren’t Eric’s father now that we know that Sally did not have a child?”

“It’s not a problem, Pa. It don’t matter how Eric got here. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways. Well this time it was darn peculiar and there was some parts that was downright awful, but the first time I held Eric, I knew he was my son. He’s our son now. Ain’t nobody ever gonna tell us different. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”

“No, I’m happy to have Eric as my grandson! I have two grandsons now. Now, when is Joe going to get married and get in on this?”

“I don’t know, Pa. He seems happy with a lot of ladies right now. He needs to settle on just one first.”

***The End***

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