Summary: A sequel to Mis-Everything. What appears to be a juicy scandal has the gossips joyful, but it’s not what they think. The real story is far more interesting. That romance works out far better than Joe’s tragic one which brings Adam full circle in facing a demon from his past.
Word Count: 16,636
The two ladies were so excited to see Adam Cartwright escorting Brandy, a saloon girl, down the street to the boardinghouse. It confirmed for them what they had been hearing. Adam Cartwright was seeing another woman now that his wife Melissa was thick with child. Oh, the stories were racing like wildfire through the town, and now the ladies had fuel to add to the flames. They watched as Brandy hugged Adam and he hugged her back. Hoping for more, they stared, but he handed her the packages he had been carrying and watched until she climbed the steps and was safely inside the boardinghouse. Then he turned and walked directly toward them. Doing their best to appear to be engaged in other activities, they knew they hadn’t fooled him at his first comment.
“I hope you saw what you wanted to see.”
“Well, I don’t know what you mean, Adam Cartwright. Was there something to see? If there was, perhaps you should be the one concerned.”
“I’m not at all concerned if that tells you anything.”
As Adam walked away, the two women were comparing notes. They were sure they had seen the end of a tryst between two lovers and planned to report it as such. The encounter with Adam would figure into their story too, but they had to agree on how to portray it.
“He’s mighty proud and such for a man whose wife is clearly well on her way to having that baby, and them married only less than two months.”
“Yes, well, we wondered, didn’t we, why he would marry someone from so far away when there were eligible ladies here including our daughters.”
“There’s no telling with those Cartwrights, and now he’s sniffing after a saloon girl.”
“Didn’t you hear? She’s quit her job and Adam Cartwright is paying all her bills now.”
“Well, that’s the icing on the cake then, isn’t it? Come now, we have a meeting to attend, and we shall certainly be the center of attention with our tale to tell.”
They weren’t though as every lady there seemed to have a story or two to tell. Although a couple of women tried to tell the others that the stories weren’t true, the whole scenario was too juicy and entertaining for the women to give up that easily. That evening, many men in town heard stories of Adam Cartwright. When Hoss and Joe came to town a few days later to get supplies and have a beer, they heard enough of them too so that Hoss had to restrain Joe.
“Little brother, it don’t do no good to attack the man who done told us what’s going on. We gotta see Adam and get this straightened out. You don’t think he could do this, do ya?”
“Well, of course not.” Except Joe wasn’t as sure as he should have been especially as he had been interested in Brandy too. He resented what he thought was his brother’s interference. When he saw Adam later, his temper rose.
“I can’t believe what you’re doing. Hoss and I heard all about it in town.”
“What did you hear? That I’m buying materials to finish building my house? That I’ve purchased an office and am renovating it? What is it you’ve heard that has you so upset? And be careful what you say.”
Hearing the warning, Joe wasn’t as sure how to proceed. Candy was nearby and decided he could step in and perhaps help both of them. Joe’s temper and impulsive nature when paired together could be explosive. Adam didn’t seem to be agreeable at the moment to tolerating an outburst. The man seemed on edge, and although Candy didn’t know why, he saw the signs.
“Hey, I’ve heard the stories too. Had a few good laughs over some of them. Adam, you do know how to stir up the gossips in town. Keeping things close to the vest like you do only makes those biddies all that much more curious and of course more, shall we say, creative in the stories they tell.”
“And how creative have they been? I assume you’re talking about what I’ve been doing with Brandy?”
“Yeah, how could you step out on Melissa at a time like this?” Joe was steamed and stood with his fists on his hips ready apparently for anything his older brother was ready to say.
Except he wasn’t ready.
“I’m not interested in Brandy the way you are.”
“It’s clear you must have set your sights on her by how angry you are.”
“You don’t know that.”
“You denying it?”
Caught in the proverbial quandary of a rock and a hard place, Joe couldn’t lie. “Well, no, not exactly.” However, he didn’t want to let his older brother off the hook either. “But what about you and her?”
“What about it?”
“Damn, Adam, you trying to get into a fight with your brother. Tell him the truth.” Candy was getting frustrated.
“I’d like him to admit his suspicions are false first. I don’t like the accusations he made. He could have come to me and asked instead of making groundless charges.”
“I guess you got a point there. He should have known better.”
“Hey, whose side are you on?”
Frowning, Candy turned to Joe. “It’s pretty clear I’m trying to stop the two of you from beating on each other. Now, I told him to tell the truth and stop holding back, but he’s got a point. You didn’t exactly come at him in a way a brother ought to.”
It was time for Joe to frown too. It wasn’t easy for him to back down ever and especially difficult for him to back down with his oldest brother, but he knew Candy was correct. He put out his hand to Adam.
“I’m sorry. I should have asked what was going on.”
Shaking his hand to accept, Adam pulled him forward. “I accept, but be careful how often you expect me to do this.”
Candy heard and knew that Adam was still on edge about something and it wasn’t what was happening with Brandy. He could see Joe stiffen, but his friend was wise enough this time not to say anything no matter how he must have wanted to respond.
“Brandy only worked in that saloon because she didn’t have any chance of getting a decent job and her family needs the money. The drought about wiped them out. I’m hiring her to work with Melissa and eventually to be not only a nanny but also an assistant to her in our business. Melissa will tutor her as part of the deal, and money will be paid to her family as part of her wages. She will get room and board of course which has already started, and I paid a sign on bonus to her family to keep them from starving out there. Now, does that answer your questions?”
“Why don’t you just tell people?”
“Melissa doesn’t know yet. It’s to be a surprise when we move into our house. She’ll have someone there to help her as her time gets closer and to keep her company. I don’t want her to be alone at all.”
“When will you tell her?”
“Enough of the house will be done in a few days so we can move in. I’ll tell her because Brandy can move in then too. Brandy can help us finish organizing and help with the curtains and other things like that.”
“What about all the gossip?”
“It’s gossip. They’ll find things to say no matter what I do. I’m sure they’re talking too about our child who will arrive rather soon after our wedding.”
Shrugging, Candy and Joe had to admit that was true. What Adam said was also true. It seemed that no matter what they did, the Cartwrights were always the subject of intense interest by the busybodies of the area. There would be talk no matter what they did.
Grinning then, Adam looked at his brother and Candy. “What do you suppose they’re going to be saying when Brandy moves in with us?”
“I don’t care what they’re going to say. I just realized that I won’t have competition for her anymore because she’ll be at your house and not at the saloon at all.”
“Don’t think about stealing her away too soon, Joe. I need her to help Melissa for a while, and her family needs that money. We don’t need one of those whirlwind romances of yours.”
The men laughed, and all was well again. Well, it was all normal with them but not with Ben Cartwright who had been hit with the gossip directly and by innuendo in town. He didn’t like it, and when Joe tried to explain it to him, he didn’t like that either.
“He should simply tell Melissa and get this whole thing out in the open. He never seems to care about this family’s reputation at all.”
About to come downstairs after a nap, Melissa overheard their conversation. She could hardly miss it with Ben upset. His voice in those circumstances had a tendency to carry. She went back to her room and waited expecting Adam to check on her when he didn’t find her in the great room. He did.
“Are you all right? I thought you would be downstairs by now.”
“I would have been but your father and Joe were having words. I didn’t want to interrupt.”
There was something in the way she said it that made Adam wonder about what she had heard. Putting everything together led him to the one conclusion he could draw.
“You know about Brandy?”
“I know about the gossip. Your father was certainly vocal enough about that.”
“Brandy was working in a saloon and I’ve hired her to be a nanny and assistant for you. She was going to be staying at the boardinghouse until our house was ready and we could move in. I wanted it to be a surprise, and I guess it is, but not in the way I had hoped.” Adam knelt down beside the bed where Melissa was sitting and took her hands in his. “You’re not upset with me, are you?”
“A saloon girl?”
“Not really. She took the job because her family need the money. Sam the bartender told me she needed to get out of there before she got hurt. He said she was pretty enough, but she didn’t know how to handle the men. He asked if I could use my influence to get her a job. I talked with her, and I found out she’s very nice and very bright. She needs some education, but I thought you could tutor her. She has basic reading and writing skills, but she needs to learn a lot more. She said she wants to learn, and she said she has some books she would like to read.”
“Why don’t you have her come out here? We can get started before we move into the house, and it should stop some of the gossip.”
Adam grinned. “Or start up a whole new set.”
Thinking about that, Melissa mirrored his grin. “Being a Cartwright does have some drawbacks, doesn’t it?”
“Everything will work out. We need to give it time.”
“Then why do you look so worried. Every day, you seem to look more worried.”
“I have a lot on my mind. Once we’re in the house and the baby arrives, I’ll relax.”
Melissa had to hope that was true because she didn’t like the way Adam seemed to be carrying such a heavy emotional load. She thought that perhaps Ben or Hoss might be able to talk to her and explain more of why he seemed to be that way especially when he talked about their baby. What should be only a joyous experience seemed to be more of worry to him. Although he touched her belly with reverence and joy, at other times when he spoke of the baby, those worry lines were there.
With Brandy at the house, the gossip did die down, and Ben was mollified. What was somewhat of a concern though was Joe’s interest in Brandy. Ben had a talk with his youngest son warning him that there was to be no romancing of Brandy until she left the house.
“Son, things are complicated enough. You need to let this play out with Adam and Melissa, and let them get established in their home before you complicate things. Is that clear?”
“Pa, how could a walk in the moonlight create any kind of problem?” Then Joe grinned and nodded. “All right, I’ll wait. It’s only a week anyway.”
It was a busy week though as Melissa and Brandy got to know one another and got busy on the linens and window coverings for the new house. Soon those were well on their way to being done, and the two women were well on their way to being friends. Sewing was interspersed with lessons so that Brandy had work to do in the evenings too, but she didn’t mind because she was learning. Melissa was teaching her how to play chess too which was a fun diversion for her but also educational.
Then, the move to the new house was almost ready. For the first time in her life that she could remember, Brandy was getting her own room and a brand new bed with new linens. She was ecstatic. Adam and Melissa would have privacy with their bedroom on the second floor too.
Leaning back in bed a few days before the move, Adam Cartwright watched his wife, Melissa, get herself ready for bed. He never tired of watching her brush her long hair or standing and turning from side-to-side looking in the mirror to be sure her gown fit just right before she slipped into bed beside him. No matter how much he teased her about wanting to look good to sleep, her routine didn’t change. Well, it didn’t change except she now often used her hands to smooth the gown over the expanding belly she had. Adam liked looking at that too.
“Brandy said she helped on the farm when her mother had the younger ones. It’s reassuring to know someone here was present when a baby was born.”
“Sorry, but I was much too young when Hoss squeezed himself out, and far too embarrassed to be anywhere near there when Joe popped out.”
“From what I’ve heard, babies don’t pop out. Brandy was telling me a little about it. It’s good to have someone who can explain things to me.” After turning down the lamp, Melissa snuggled back into the warm spot next to Adam as he raised the covers for her and then lowered them over her pulling her against him.
“I’m sorry your mother chose to travel instead of staying here with you for these last few months, but I am glad you and Brandy are getting on so well. I always liked Brandy and thought she had no place working in a saloon. Her family needed money with all those children to feed and clothe, and she thought she had no other options.”
“Now she does, and she learns quickly. Tutoring her is helping me too. I have to refresh my own knowledge to make sure I’m teaching her in the right things. By the time you have our house finished and the baby is here, we’ll be all set to go. Once you get your business going, she will be a big help to both of us. That is, she will be if your brother doesn’t claim her away from us too soon.”
“Is it that serious?”
“All she can do sometimes is talk about him and how much she admires him, how handsome he is, and how sweet. Then she’ll say how she isn’t good enough for him.”
“What do you tell her then?”
“I just said to her, ‘Brandy, you’re a fine girl!’ Of course, I have to say that quite often. She doesn’t believe it yet.”
“No, I suppose not. People who’ve been beaten down can take some time to learn to hold their head up high again. I hope my brother can see that and will be nice to her.”
“Nice? I hope he plans on a lot more than that. That girl loves him. I don’t know if he knows how much though.”
“I don’t know. Joe has had a hard time making a commitment to one lady.”
“Joe? No, Brandy adores Hoss. I think she may love him.”
“Hoss? But Joe is the one who is interested in Brandy. He told me so when he thought I was stepping out on you and seeing Brandy.”
“No, she’s never mentioned Joe. She goes on and on about Hoss.”
“And Hoss will never reciprocate if he thinks he’s interfering with Joe.”
Both were silent for a short time. Then almost in unison, they spoke. “We’ve got a problem.”
As it turned out, it was a bigger problem and a smaller problem than they thought. The next day, Hoss confronted Adam before he had a chance to go over to where he was building his house. Clearly the big man was concerned about something important, and Adam had a guess what it was.
“When you went away for a while, did it help you clear up things in your mind and your heart some?”
“Yes, it did with some things, but other things stayed about the same. I guess time and distance heal some issues and give you the chance to calm down and think them through. Other things though stay about the same if time and distance aren’t the key to settling them in your mind and especially in your heart.”
Apparently unhappy with that answer, Hoss sat down heavily on a bench in the barn. Adam paused in saddling his horse and looked at his brother wondering how much he ought to get involved.
“You want to tell me about it or do I have to guess.”
“Aw, it ain’t nothing you kin help me with whether I tell ya or ya guess.”
“So you’re feeling hopeless about it?” Hoss nodded. “Would it help for me to say that if it’s about Brandy, she’s on your side and so are Melissa and me.”
Looking up, Hoss’ eyes were large and his mouth had fallen open.
“Don’t look so surprised. I can’t read your mind. Brandy told Melissa how much she likes and admires you, and not that I can entirely see why, but she thinks you’re the most handsome man she knows.”
“She does?” Finally Hoss had a reason to smile, but almost as quickly, the frown was back. “But I cain’t do nothing about that ’cause Joe laid claim to her first.”
“Clearly, you and Joe need some lessons about women. First of all, they are not property. You can’t ‘lay claim’ to a woman. It has to do with who a woman likes and who a man likes. If they like each other, then you have a match. You like her and she likes you. Voila.”
“You two are the ones who should be together. Joe likes her, but she likes you. That’s not a match. Joe should back off.”
“Adam, you know how he is.”
“Yeah, well that is the problem.”
Stepping out from the tack room, Candy offered his opinion. “Not so much of a problem as you might think.” Adam and Hoss were startled. “Sorry to eavesdrop, but you two were well on your way into the conversation before I even had the chance to say I was back there.”
Although Adam looked perturbed, Hoss was curious. “Why isn’t it a big problem?”
“When Brandy quit, a new gal got hired. She’s going by the name of San Antonio Rose but everyone I know just calls her Rose. She is very popular with the men, but not attached to any one of them. Unlike Brandy, she’s well suited to the life in the saloon because she can flirt and charm at ease without making anyone angry or at least almost no one. Sam says she’s increased business.”
“And how does this help us?” Adam was skeptical.
“Levi is the only one who has been bothering her. She needs a champion to defend her. Now don’t you think that would appeal to Joe? Taking up the cause and defending a pretty lady against a louse like that – now that would appeal to him, and did I mention that she’s a pretty one too.”
Unable to stop himself, Adam smirked a little. “Finally, we find a good purpose to all that knight in shining armor stuff he aspires to.”
“Hoss, he means he thinks it’s a good idea.”
“Dang, I wish he’d come right out and say so sometime. You know, Candy, being away didn’t change him near enough.”
Candy knew that if Joe had expressed that, Adam would have bristled at the comment, but with Hoss, he smiled instead. Candy was wise enough not to mention that. Instead, he suggested that they needed a way to bring Joe and Rose together soon before Joe got too comfortable with the idea of chasing after Brandy.
“Well, we’re moving in a few days so that should keep Brandy too busy to see him. Does that help with your planning?”
“It does with two conditions. Keep Brandy busy with packing and all those other things your wife needs her to do. Then once you move, make a list of things for her to do to make sure she can’t get away for at least a week. By then, Joe should be hooked.”
“Anything else that we can do?”
“Yeah, second thing is for you or Hoss to mention marriage to Brandy as something for Joe to chew on. It might make him panic a little. You know he doesn’t like to get tied down especially if it isn’t his idea.”
“So perhaps if I said something about how Brandy was looking forward to him courting her and when he was planning to have the wedding?”
Chuckling, Candy slapped Adam on the shoulder. “Yeah, that ought to do it.”
Hoss wasn’t so sure. “You know things don’t always go the way they’re planned with Joe.”
“Hoss, don’t worry. Like Adam knows too, that’s when Joe’s in charge of the scheming.”
“I hope so.”
“I’ll have to confide in Melissa, and she may tell Brandy what’s going on. The only ones who likely won’t know are Joe and this Rose. David’s working on my office in town, so I’ll need someone to help at the house with lifting. Hoss, do you suppose we could talk Pa into letting you come over to help for a few days?”
Adam was looking directly at Hoss whose grin got wider and wider. “I sure do think he oughta. Ifn he wants more grandchildren, he better let me have my chance to woo this lady. I think he likes her anyway.”
“I’ll let you go in the house and explain to him why it’s going to be you and not Joe.”
“Yeah, in matters like this, I am.”
As a result, Ben had quite an interesting morning. First there was an unusual halting conversation with Hoss. By the time they finished, Ben was flabbergasted. Not that Hoss would be interested in Brandy and she in him, but that Adam was mixed up in the scheming. He even mentioned it to Doctor Paul Martin later when he came to check on Melissa.
“Ben, Adam is different than he was. It could be worry about his wife aggravating other issues. I’ll do everything I can to make sure Melissa makes it through this delivery. If I lose her, I know I could lose two. I’m not sure Adam can face losing anyone or anything else now that he’s finally found his way again.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Haven’t you seen it? He is more the Adam we once knew before whatever happened out there in that desert all those years ago. He was never the same after that.”
“Oh, he had some nightmares, but Paul, he was still Adam.”
“Ben, he had trouble with all of his relationships. He couldn’t commit to any woman. He had outbursts of temper that were sometimes irrational and often far more severe than the situation warranted. He gained weight and then lost weight on a regular cycle. He pushed people away and seemed to prefer being alone. He stopped doing a number of things he had previously enjoyed. Then he left. I was worried.”
Although Ben knew what that worry was, he didn’t say it. Over the years, some of Paul’s concerns had been his too even if he didn’t like to acknowledge them even to himself. But the good doctor was correct. Adam was home and smiling often even sometimes at his own private amusement at the behavior of those around him. It had been very clear once Melissa had arrived. As Adam had begun to build a house for them and make plans for his business, the situation had gotten better and better.
“Yes, I suppose there might be some truth to that. I guess his decision to have his office here instead of in San Francisco or Denver supports your idea. He is reaching out to us for our support.”
“Yes, he knows he needs his family even if he doesn’t say it. Like Adam often does, his behavior tells us more than his words. For a man so gifted with language skills, it’s amazing how little he tells us of what’s in his heart and mind.”
Ben knew how true that was. Seeing Adam interacting with Melissa and with David showed many of the best qualities he had which had often been in short supply in the few years before he had left. There was teasing instead of the snide remarks and sarcasm. There were smiles and laughter instead of the sneers to which they had become accustomed. More cooperative and helpful, Adam complained less, but at the same time was as assertive and forceful as he had once been. There was no question that he was a man in his own right unwilling to accept any other man’s domination even his father’s, but there was still that vulnerability. Ben had to wonder again what had happened out there in that desert with the madman Kane to have changed his son so much. Paul voiced the thought.
“Has Adam ever explained what Kane did to him?”
Shaking his head, Ben conveyed all the frustration that question dredged up. He had wanted to help his son but was unable to do so because Adam had held iron control over his memories of those terrible weeks not letting them know anything. Joe had described it as hell, and it must have been. Adam had made it back to them, but some parts of him had been lost. Now they seemed to have been found, and Melissa was clearly the glue that held those parts together. Like Paul, Ben had a terrible fear of what might happen to his son if he lost her.
“There’s no problem with Melissa, is there?”
“No, none at all. She’s as healthy as any woman with child ever is. Ben, there’s always risks. For a woman, this is the greatest risk they usually face. I’m checking on her as often as I can because I don’t want any surprises. I’d like to know when she gets close too so I can be here for the delivery. You know that often a midwife will handle that, but for Melissa, I want to be present too. Brandy will be a big help as a backup. Knowing she will always be with Melissa is a relief.”
“I wish her parents would have stayed. That would have made her feel better.”
“Maybe they’ll be back in time.”
“We can hope so. I keep waiting for that letter or telegram to give her that says they’re on their way.”
That news arrived the next day. Melissa was ecstatic.
“Adam, my mother will be here when the baby is born. They should be here in time according to her message.”
“I’m happy for you, sweetheart.”
“You seem troubled by it. Aren’t you glad my parents will be here for the birth of their grandchild?”
“Yes, but the wording of their message makes me worry. Why would they say not to tell anyone? They sent it by parcel so that no one would be able to read it. Why all the secrecy? What’s going on?”
“Oh, they probably wanted to make sure it got here. You know, when you travel how unreliable the mail service is. But packages usually get delivered so that’s why they did it that way. I’m sure of it.” Except Melissa wasn’t entirely sure. Over the years, there had been other unusual or even mysterious behavior by her parents. Usually she passed it off as eccentricity, but she was beginning to worry that it was something else. She had heard of mental illness and how it sometimes affect older people quite severely. Hoping it wasn’t her parents, she chose to regard everything in the most positive and optimistic way.
Meanwhile there were things to do that kept Adam and Hoss busy. They had to get Joe scared off from Brandy and to keep Brandy busy so there would be no time for Joe to be close to her. Adam asked Joe to help him with loading some of their things to take to the house which gave him his first opening to talk to his brother.
“Joe, as soon as I can, I’ll free up some time on Brandy’s schedule so you can see her.”
“I appreciate that, Adam.”
“Yes, well, if you want good weather for the wedding, you need to get busy with the courting.”
“The wedding. You know, after the courting comes the wedding. Brandy is so excited. That lady does want to get married. She’s the kind of lady who looks forward to a home and family. Now that she’s going to be around Melissa all the time and with the baby on the way, she’ll be thinking about that even more.”
“But I hardly know her.”
“Yeah, that’s why I want to free up some time so you can court her and get to know her better. It didn’t take Melissa long to see her fine qualities. You won’t be going to saloons and gambling once you marry Brandy. You’ll turn into a mature husband and father. I bet you’ll learn to like it too.”
“But I like going to the saloons and doing a bit of gambling.”
“There’s not much place for that in a happy marriage.”
As Joe thought about that, he realized he hardly ever saw Adam in a saloon having a drink, and he never sat in on any poker games any more. He didn’t even go to billiard halls, and he had enjoyed doing that at one time. It did seem that marriage took away all that fun. Joe wasn’t at all sure he was willing to give that all up yet even for the benefits of the marriage bed.
“Maybe there’s no rush yet on that courting. You know, Melissa is going to need a lot of help now and even after that baby is born. I could wait.”
“Oh, there’s no need for you to wait. Once we get settled in, Brandy will have some time for you every evening and on Saturday nights and Sundays. When you’re not working, you can be with her. That should be plenty of time for you to get to know her well before the wedding.”
“You keep saying that but I never said I was going to marry her.”
“Oh, I guess not. It’s about the same thing though. Brandy keeps saying marriage.”
Of course, Adam failed to mention that she had said it to Melissa and that it was her hope to one day marry Hoss. There was no need for Joe to know that at this point of course. By the time Adam pulled away with a loaded wagon, Joe was perplexed, and Adam couldn’t help smiling as he drove to his house. Step one of the plan was successful, and step two was Candy’s job.
“Hey, Joe, you going to town with me and Hoss? We gotta get some supplies and thought maybe a few beers unless you have other plans maybe with Brandy?”
The mention of her name sealed the deal. “No, no plans. I’m going with you two.”
Listening through the open window above his desk, Ben smiled. He had to give Adam and Candy quite a bit of credit. They were smooth operators. Joe hadn’t known at all what had hit him. He looked over at the two ladies serenely sewing up the last of the window coverings and guessed they knew some of what was going on. However, not sure how much the men had disclosed to them, he wisely chose not to open that discussion.
In town, after they got supplies, Candy and Hoss steered Joe to the saloon where Rose had taken Brandy’s job. It was easy when they mentioned the new saloon girl and how pretty she was.
“We heard a lot about her. I want to see for myself if she’s as pretty as the hands said she is.”
“Hoss, I’ll flip you for the right to have her sit on my lap. Heads I win, and tails you lose. All right?”
“Ah, wait a minute, I can’t win that way!”
“That’s exactly right. You can’t win, so don’t even try. Rose is going to be sitting on my lap in about two minutes.”
“What about me?” Joe was perturbed not to be included.
“Dadburnit, Joe you got Brandy. It ain’t fair for you to want another one.”
“I don’t have anybody yet.”
Joe stalked ahead of them at a furious pace then as Hoss and Candy grinned at each other. The plan was working well. In the saloon, Joe’s look changed to one of adoration quickly when he saw Rose for the first time. She was gorgeous, and it was no surprise that she was the center of attention. But she did like a cute face so Joe got her looking his way soon enough too.
“Hey, my cute young cowboy, ready to buy me a drink?”
“Yes, ma’am, as many as you want.”
“Only one, but I like the best.”
“Then the best is what you’ll get. Stick with me, and you’ll always have the best.”
“And who are you?”
“Joe Cartwright, ma’am, and you must be the beautiful Rose I heard was blooming in here making every other woman look like a common wildflower.”
“Oh, you are sweet.”
Candy and Hoss got drinks too, and the three men sat at a table with Rose paying most of her attention to Joe who introduced his brother and Candy. They had another beer and some lively conversation, but reluctantly Joe had to tell Rose then that they had to return to the ranch.
“You’ll come see me again now, won’t you?”
“A herd of horses couldn’t keep me away. I’ll be here at every opportunity.”
Then Levi Brown walked in and the whole dynamic changed as Rose did her best to be inconspicuous behind Joe, Candy, and Hoss. Levi was searching though, and her red dress was simply too bright and sparkly to be hidden completely. He spotted her and headed directly to her.
“Rose, honey, now you can have a few drinks with me.”
Joe bristled at Levi’s proprietary manner. “She’s with us.”
Looking at the table and the empty glasses, Levi knew better. “You’re about to leave. It’s my turn with her. She’s paid to be with the customers, and I got some money to spend.”
Levi made a big mistake then reaching out to grab Rose and force her to be with him. Grabbing the bigger man by the collar of his shirt and the back of his belt, Joe moved him across the room and out the door before Levi realized what was happening. A moment later, with laughter all around, Levi swore he’d get even with Joe. However often when there was an altercation in that saloon, the other men tended to gang up on him forcing him to leave. He would have to wait for another day.
When Joe returned to the saloon, Rose kissed him and thanked him. “I won’t have to worry about him for today. He won’t come back before tomorrow so I thank you for one night of peace at least.”
“He bothers you every day?”
“Almost. I don’t know how to get rid of him.”
“I’ll go talk to Roy. Maybe he can think of something. But I’ll be here too as often as I can to protect you.”
For the next week, Joe was in town whenever he could get away. Adam didn’t see him much as he was busy at his house, but by the end of the week, Joe asked Hoss if they could talk. Hoss agreed and hoped it was the opening he needed with Brandy.
“Hoss, I got a real problem. Adam’s gonna be done settling in and getting his house all clean and organized.”
“Joe, that sounds like a good thing.”
“Well, it is for him but not for me.”
“What does that have to do with you?”
“Brandy is going to be expecting me to call on her. Hoss, I don’t want to do that, but I don’t want to hurt her either. Now that I’m seeing Rose, I realize Brandy is not the one for me. She’s too, well, she’s too quiet and serious. But what can I do? I don’t want to hurt her and destroy all her dreams by telling her she can’t have me for a husband.”
Although it was exactly what Hoss had hoped to hear, Adam had counseled him on this part. He wasn’t supposed to be too eager and certainly wasn’t supposed to seem happy about it. “Aw, Joe, I’m real sorry about that. Brandy seems like such a nice girl. You sure about this, you know, that you don’t want to court her?”
“Oh, I’m sure. I wish there was somebody else who could take my place.”
Waiting was the hardest part at this point but Hoss forced himself to count to thirty as Adam had told him to do. “Joe, maybe I could try my hand at it. I mean, I think she’s a right nice gal. Maybe she wouldn’t mind me too much.”
Not wanting to disparage his brother and getting desperate for a way out of his dilemma, Joe was reluctant to say anything against Hoss’ plan. Instead he began plotting with him for the best way to win her heart. “Hoss, I’d be so grateful if you would try. Even if it doesn’t work, I could tell her I couldn’t court her because it would break your heart. Now, I think you need to do something sweet for her like maybe bring her some flowers. That might get you started with her. You know, make her see you as someone she could have a romance with.”
“I was thinking about asking her if she knew how to play checkers.”
“Checkers? No, you have to try something better than that.”
“I guess I could ask her what she wants to do.”
“That might work. She certainly had some ideas of what she wanted to do with me. Now, I want to get ready to go to town to see Rose. Hoss, I owe you big time for this. Anything you want, it’s yours. You only have to ask.”
“It’s what a brother does to help out a brother. Is Rose still having problems with that Levi?”
“Yes, but not as much. It’s only been a week, but he stays away if he knows I’m in town. I keep Cooch tied up near the saloon or make a big show of riding into town so he should always know when I’m there.”
“What about when you’re not?”
“Sam says there are some men who’ll protect her as needed. She’s popular at the saloon so the customers don’t like it when Levi makes trouble for her.”
“That’s good. I hate it when a man is bothering a lady.”
As soon as Joe left for town, Hoss told their father that the plan had worked, and he was going over to see Brandy to tell her. When she saw it was Hoss riding up, she wanted to go out to see him, but she was shy. They were in the main room of the house organizing things. Adam shook his head.
“Brandy, go see him. It’s what we’ve been talking about for a week. It looks like it finally is happening so go celebrate.”
“You think that’s what it means?”
“Yes. Hoss would never do anything to upset Joe about something like this. He kept his distance when he was here helping to move furniture. He only stayed as long as I needed him, and he never talked to you except as necessary. Now he’s riding up here and I didn’t ask him to come over. There’s only one other reason that I know.”
After Brandy went outside to meet Hoss, Melissa grinned at Adam. “That was a very long answer to a short question.”
“The longer I talked, the calmer she got. It’s an old trick from taming horses. You just talk to them calmly and they calm down.”
Thinking about that for a time, Melissa threw a small book at her husband. “You do that to me too sometimes, don’t you?”
“Hey, it works doesn’t it. Wait. Try it sometime and see if it doesn’t work.”
Somewhat mollified, Melissa went back to work although there wasn’t much she could do. At the moment, she was seated and sorting books in front of her into his and her stacks although some were for both of them.
Outside, Hoss and Brandy began to make plans. “Miss Brandy, I was thinking maybe I could show you around the Ponderosa. I mean, you ain’t seen much of it yet being up at the house and now here.”
“I would love to do that, Hoss. I love animals and I’ve heard so much of how pretty the view of the lake is from up on the ridge, but I haven’t had the chance to see it yet.”
“Oh, I know a meadow where there’s some deer almost every time I go there. And we kin look out over the lake, but we kin go down there too. It’s right pretty seeing the lake with the mountains showing in it like it’s a mirror.”
“That sounds wonderful. Now, I baked some cookies. Would you like to come inside and have some cookies and coffee while I pack them in tins?”
“I cain’t think of anything I’d rather be doing than that.”
Then over the next several weeks, they carried those out taking those tours of the Ponderosa by carriage and by horseback, going on picnics, playing checkers, and sometimes just enjoying each other’s company. In town, Joe’s activities with Rose expanded in the same way as they began to do things together outside the saloon. Rose came out to the Ponderosa for dinner on Sunday evenings and got to meet the rest of the family. Melissa and Brandy found that they liked her so that cleared one more potential obstacle to family harmony.
Ben rather hoped that Rose might follow Brandy’s path and choose another job, but Rose liked the money she could make at her job because she was so good at it. The more time Joe spent with her, the more Ben realized his youngest was getting serious about a saloon girl again. He wanted so much to talk to him about it, but wisely held his thoughts. Adam helped him confirm that was the right decision when they talked one morning.
“You want to talk to Joe and make sure he knows what he’s getting into, don’t you?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Pa, you look like you’re sitting on the edge of your seat every time her name comes up in conversation. It looks like you’re being held back by force. Every time I’ve thought this would be the time your will cracks.”
“Would that be such a bad thing?”
“Can you tell him anything he doesn’t already know?”
It took Ben some time to face that question because he hadn’t considered it until Adam asked him. Reluctantly he had to agree that anything he wanted to say to his son, Joe already knew. “You’re right. I should hold my thoughts and let Joe work this out.”
“If it helps, I’ve had some of the same thoughts. It’s hard to accept that he’s not a kid any more. We can share a brandy the next time the family is together. How’s that?”
“That’s a good plan. Speaking of which, it seems Hoss’ romance is going well too.”
“Yes, they’re both being cautious and getting to know one another. It’s not one of those whirlwind romances. They’re building up to something permanent.”
“And how are you doing?”
“It’s hard, Pa. I worry a lot about Melissa. Her time is getting close. Paul says less than a month now.”
“She’s a strong woman, son. She will be fine.”
While they were talking, Ben walked over and poured two small brandies. It was early in the day, but he saw how Adam’s demeanor and even the color in his face changed when the subject changed to the imminent arrival of his baby. Ben had spent so much time worrying about his younger sons, he had missed the signs that his eldest son needed someone too. Based on their conversation, he knew words weren’t what was needed. He handed his son the brandy, put his hand on his shoulder, and squeezed.
Although Ben would have liked to spend more time with Adam over the next few weeks, Melissa’s parents arrived. With no notice to the rest of the family, suddenly they were there. It was a surprise, but even more of a surprise was the instruction that they were not to tell anyone they were there. Adam asked them not to ask any questions mostly because he didn’t have an answer for them. Clearly he was troubled by the situation and didn’t like not knowing, but he was not in a position to do anything about it. When he questioned Melissa, it only upset her so he knew she was troubled too. After the baby was born, he was determined to get some answers. Tragically, he didn’t have to wait that long.
“She ain’t never coming back, Joe, no matter what we do.”
Hoss stood behind his brother who stared out at the Mojave as if he could make water flow up from its depths and grass cover those arid plains like a soft carpet. No, the land that lay before them was almost as defiant as a living thing whispering a challenge to test its might against their frail human frames already worn down by hard riding, lack of sleep, and stress. At least Hoss was as wise as their father and never said anything about her being a saloon girl. To Joe, she had become so much more than that. With her zest for life and determination to make something of herself, she had refused his offer of a loan to buy her own business. She intended to keep working until she had saved enough to do it on her own. On a Saturday afternoon, she was supposed to come to a family party on the Ponderosa and bring a dress she had picked up from a seamstress. It was made for Melissa to make her feel more comfortable in her last couple of weeks before delivery. The belief was that Levi had trailed her from the seamstress’ house.
Levi Brown had bothered Rose ever since she had moved from San Antonio to Virginia City. Many times, Sam the bartender had to intervene to protect her. Often customers banded together to escort the unruly man from the saloon. When Joe started spending time with his San Antonio Rose, he was the one who often interceded when the ruffian made trouble. But in a carriage on the road to the Ponderosa, there was no one to help her. From what Roy found, it seemed that Levi took her and then apparently killed her so she couldn’t tell. Her face and arms were bruised, and a knife had been driven into her heart. Not content with those crimes, he robbed her purse taking the cash she had too. He might have been able to walk away from it all despite the suspicion that would have immediately fallen on him except he stole a horse from the livery stable leaving his poor nag in its place. That got Sheriff Roy Coffee’s attention. He caught up with the big man a short distance from town.
“Levi Brown, I need to talk to you about what happened to Rose.”
That was all Roy got to say. Panicked, Levi drew his pistol and fired hitting Roy in the side. He rode away fast then thinking he had probably killed the sheriff who had fallen from the saddle and laid still on the ground. At the first farm he encountered, he took the little money the people had, a spare horse, a sack of provisions, and extra canteens. That made it clear what direction he was probably headed. From the things he said, the farmer guessed what he had done to Roy and went out searching for the sheriff. He found him and brought him to town.
Deputy Clem Foster sent a man to the Ponderosa to give the sad news to Joe. He assumed Joe as well as Adam and Hoss would join the posse he was forming. They did even though Joe told his brothers it wasn’t their fight. Hoss wasn’t deterred.
“It shur is. You’re my brother, so, it’s my fight.”
Ben only told them what he would do to help and for them to be careful. “I’ll check up on Melissa every day for you Adam, and I’ll help David get over there because he can help too. Now, Brown has that reputation for fighting dirty. He may be planning to set traps to slow you up or even an ambush to try to make the posse turn back.”
“I’m not turning back until he’s dead or being brought back here to hang.”
Then, they could only imagine what Joe was thinking. Now Hoss had some idea as he watched Joe stare out into the night sky over the desert. He was correct. Joe spoke softly knowing only Hoss was left to hear him as Adam was cleaning up their plates and pan from dinner.
“I dream of her, Hoss. She was so sweet and tender. I know I didn’t know her long, but that doesn’t matter. Kissing her was like kissing a rose with the petals falling aside. I want to call her back, but the dream is broken. She’s gone. Now I wonder if I’m after justice or vengeance. I guess it doesn’t matter. He needs to be brought back. The rest of the posse gave up and went home. I won’t.”
“Let’s go. Adam said we should keep going because we can make up time riding at night when it’s cooler.”
Joe nodded in agreement. He had lost his moral compass, but it didn’t matter. His brothers were there and would guide him as they always did in those kinds of situations. They had acted as the conscience of the other more than a few times so it was natural for him to accept their guidance even if he bristled at it at times. He had the drive and Hoss had the perspective and Adam had the philosophy to guide them all. With the three of them, they would get the murderer. He was sure of that.
What Joe didn’t notice but Hoss did was how quiet Adam had become as they moved out into the desert in pursuit of Levi. Vigilant, he however hardly spoke at all. When they were so exhausted they could hardly move on and had to camp, Hoss woke a few times and each time, Adam was awake. Clearly he was troubled, and Hoss wondered why so he asked.
“I keep thinking what kind of trap he may have set for us. Like Pa said, he fights dirty. And a trap out here would be deadly. I don’t like games, and he’s playing with us luring us in deeper and deeper so he can spring his trap.”
“Adam, we ain’t seen no signs that he’s doing anything ‘cept running from us.”
“That’s just it. You don’t see the signs until it’s too late. Then you’re in the madman’s trap, and there’s no way out. He might be playing a game with us right now, but we can’t see. You never see it until it’s too late.”
Over the next day, there were more references to games being played until Joe’s temper exploded. He didn’t want to hear any more about games.
“Nothing about this is a game. This is deadly serious. We’re out here to catch a murderer, and you need to get your mind on that.”
After that outburst, Adam didn’t talk much at all except as it was necessary. The following day, as they rode, Hoss and Joe noted that Adam was hanging further and further back. As long as he was staying with them though, they weren’t too worried. Then as they were about to take a break with a water hole coming up, Joe looked back.
“Hoss, he’s gone.”
“What?” Hoss turned to see Adam was nowhere in sight. “Damn! Let’s water the horses and then go find out where he went. He can’t be far.”
“He was upset that we didn’t believe Levi was playing a game with us, and now he’s playing one of his own. He can be downright infuriating sometimes.”
“Makes me mad.”
“Yeah, he’s making me mad too, but I’m worried about him too.”
“Yeah, so am I.”
As soon as Hoss and Joe got to the water hole, they dismounted and led the horses to the water letting them drink their fill and not paying enough attention to their surroundings. When they heard the click of the rifle, it was too late. Levi had them under the gun.
“Drop your pistols.” When they did, he had another order. “Now walk away over to that big rock. You shoulda turned back like the others. Even your brother musta turned back.”
“What are you going to do, Levi? Hoss and I won’t give up. You murdered Rose. You have to pay for that.”
“I know you won’t give up, but I didn’t murder her. She was dead already when I got there. I mighta done something like that so I don’t suppose I kin blame you for thinking it, but it wasn’t me.”
“Who else would have done it?”
“They were a lot worse men than me. They jumped me after I found her. They scared me into telling them anything they wanted to know. I told them everything I could about you Cartwrights and about Adam’s wife. They thought that was who they killed. Thought I was lying when I asked ’em why they killed my Rose. They said she picked up some dress at the shop that had Missus Cartwright’s name on it and then she headed toward the ranch. They figured it was Adam’s wife so they went after her. When I told ’em it wasn’t, they said that musta been why she didn’t answer their questions. They was real mad they got the wrong one. I knew they was gonna kill me too, but I’m tricky so I fooled ’em with my being sick thing. They backed away from me when I started to retching. It gave me just enough time to run into the brush and git away in the dark. Those men don’t know nothing about being in the west. It was easy to git away from ’em. But they’re killers. I ain’t stopped running yet, and I won’t for a long time.”
Hoss was inclined to believe the man because no matter how despicable he was, he usually told the truth too sometimes even bragging about the things he did. “Ifn we believe you and agree not to chase after you no more, what you plan to do with us?”
“Don’t matter what you say or do. I figure to wing you both and leave you here on foot. That’ll take care of you following me for sure.”
That made Joe angry. “If you wound us and leave us without horses, we’ll die out here!”
“Won’t be me doing it though. The desert will kill you.”
“It’s the same thing!”
Levi wasn’t moved by the argument and raised his rifle to fire, but never made it as a rifle shot shattered his right hand. Howling in pain, he dropped the rifle and dropped to his knees as Hoss rushed in to grab the rifle. Looking to where the shot had originated, neither brother was surprised to see Adam emerge from the rocks.
Levi screamed at him. “Damn you! You crippled me!”
“Not that bad. You can still walk up the gallows steps.” Then Adam turned his attention to his brothers. Hoss had a question for his older brother.
“How did you know?”
“He was slowing down. He wasn’t trying to get away any more. Like Pa said, he’s known for laying traps and ambushes. A water hole seemed like a likely spot to set one. You would be off your guard, and he’d have plenty of cover.”
Hoss shook his head. “Older brother, it’s a little scary how your head works.”
“I don’t know, Hoss. It’s better than reading a dime novel.” Then Joe got serious. “Could you hear what he said? If he’s telling the truth, Melissa and the family are in danger.”
“I couldn’t hear clearly. I was keeping my attention on his actions. I couldn’t let him hurt you two because I’ve gotten used to having you around. Why would Melissa be in danger?”
Hoss and Joe told Adam what Levi had said, and it all made sense to Adam too. Based on that worrisome news, they made plans. After getting his horse watered, Adam was set to ride for home. Joe was going with him, and Hoss would take Levi back. It had taken them days to get where they were. The two brothers knew that it could be too late by the time they got back. They could only pray that the precautions the family had in place for protection might be enough.
When Adam and Joe rode up to Adam’s house though, their worst fears seemed to be realized. There were numerous bullet holes in the outside and some windows were shattered. The house was dark. There was no point in looking inside. Anything to be learned was going to be found out at the main house. Despite their exhaustion, they rode that way as fast as they could meeting armed guards a hundred yards from their destination. Candy greeted the two brothers but focused on Adam.
“I’m glad you two are back. Your family has been worried sick about you. Adam, Melissa and your father are at the house. But where’s Hoss?”
The news alleviated the worst of his fears, but Adam had to see her to be reassured. As Joe told Candy about Hoss, Adam rode to the house. Once he got there, he ran inside with Joe not too far behind. Melissa was seated in that old blue chair as if to summon strength by sitting in the chair he had always favored. She gave a shuddering sigh when she saw him and rose to nearly collapse in his arms. He pulled her to the settee which her parents vacated, and the two sat there. Brandy asked about Hoss, and Joe told them that he was taking Levi to jail and would be there within a day probably. Then Joe asked for an explanation of what had happened in their absence, and Ben told the story.
“David was the hero this time. He intercepted two men with guns as they approached Adam’s house. They questioned him, but of course didn’t understand his signing. He struggled with them, and they shot him. Now, he’s upstairs recovering. Doctor Martin thinks he will pull through with no long-term effects, but he lost a lot of blood before he got any help. However, his delaying tactics and that shot was a warning to Melissa’s parents and to Brandy. Raymond and Mary got weapons and were prepared to fight by the time the two men tried to enter the house. Brandy got Melissa and barricaded the two of them in her bedroom. Brandy had a shotgun ready in case anyone tried to enter. Melissa had her pocket pistol and told Brandy to fire it out the window three times. Some hands heard that as well as the other gunfire and came to help. The two men were killed in a crossfire. Now though we don’t know if anyone else is coming to finish what they started.”
“What the hell did they want to finish anyway?” Joe had no idea and looking over at Adam who was staring at Melissa’s parents, it was clear he was waiting for an answer too. Ben looked to Raymond who knew he had to explain.
“We probably shouldn’t tell any of you this, but you have a right to know after all that’s happened. We haven’t been traveling for fun although we do get to enjoy many fine activities in our travels and see many beautiful things. We work for our government’s foreign service. Our wealth made it rather easy to seem to be simply travelers engaging in frivolous activities, but we were doing serious business. We’ve been spying on the Russians and the Prussians. We think it may be the Russians who are behind this, but we can’t be sure. Someone must have divulged our activities. We have had several attempts on our lives including poison and shots fired, but I thought we had covered our tracks well enough as we fled them. I had no idea they were able to follow us here nor that they would be that persistent. I’m afraid we’re going to have to fake our deaths to keep all of you safe. That was already in the works because we are no longer useful and are a liability. We know too much and could tell too much if we were ever taken by the other side.”
“Doctor Martin has been enlisted to help and has told the papers in town that it was the two of us who were wounded in the assault, not David. His trips out here are supposedly to treat us. In a day or two, he will report that first one and the other of us have succumbed to our wounds from loss of blood, shock, and infection. Bodies will have to be shipped to the east for burial. We’re waiting on those now. Some unknown persons’ cadavers will be here to be dressed in our clothing, encased in coffins, and shipped to our hometown to be interred with our names. I’m afraid we have been forcibly retired and will have to find a place to live inconspicuously and quietly for the rest of our lives.”
Looking down at Melissa, Adam gently lifted her chin until he could see her eyes. “Did you know any of this?”
“No, it has all been a big shock.”
Looking over at her parents, Adam had a question for them. “Where is it that you think you will live?”
“We visited the Sandwich Islands once and thought them quite beautiful. They’re close enough that you might come there someday to see us. Mary likes warm weather, and it will be a sweet break from those beastly Russian winters. Meanwhile, we could live quite comfortably and anonymously. Do you think you would visit us someday?”
Adam was serious and had that look that said he had been pushed as far as anyone dared push him. “When we can find it in our hearts to forgive you for putting Melissa, our baby, and all the others in such danger with no warning, perhaps we will.” Then he spoke more dispassionately. “When would you go?”
“We would like to be here for the birth of our grandchild which Doctor Martin thinks is imminent, and we want David to be stronger before we travel.”
“Why does David have to be stronger?”
“Oh, we didn’t tell you. He wants to come with us. He’s never had the chance to travel, and when Mary described the islands, he got that look in his eye. So, we invited him to come with us, and he accepted. He’s sorry about not working with you, but he said he thought Brandy would be a very good assistant for you and Melissa.”
“I want to talk with him.”
“Whenever you want to talk, I’m sure he wants to see you. Someone should tell him that you’re home and safe. You could do it yourself. He’s been very worried.”
When Melissa whispered that she was all right and that he should go see David, Adam was reluctant to let her go. There were many there who could watch over her and already had though so he kissed her on the cheek and walked up the stairs. David was clearly surprised and pleased to see him walk through the door. Although he was exhausted and covered in grime from the trail, he was safe. Adam was glad for signing not sure his voice wouldn’t betray him seeing how pale David was and knowing he almost gave his life to protect Melissa and Brandy.
“David, I can’t thank you enough, and just glad to see you looking fairly decent although you’re pale. How do you feel?”
“Weak as a puppy, but I am stronger than I was if you can believe it. How are you? You look like you’ve been through hell. Where did you catch him?”
“In the desert. Hoss is taking him to the sheriff.” When Adam said desert, he got a haunted look that David didn’t miss. “When we heard Levi’s story, we knew we had to get back here as fast as we could, but I was so afraid it was going to be too late. I will never be able to repay you in full for what you did.”
“Yes, you can.”
Frowning, Adam had to ask. “How?”
“Tell the truth.”
Although Adam had some idea about what that was, he asked. “About what?”
“Why you still have nightmares.” When Adam was going to object, David amended his statement. “Or call them bad dreams or whatever you want to call them. I know something terrible happened to you a long time ago in the desert where your family found you dragging a dead man. When you awakened sometimes, you told me a little of your dreams so I wouldn’t worry too much. I put enough together to know you are terribly troubled yet by the experience you had there. I asked your father about it, and I found he knows next to nothing about what you experienced. When you said desert a few minutes ago, you got that same look you have after one of your bad dreams or nightmares. Something is haunting you and you need to tell what happened to you in that desert.”
David waited for Adam’s answer. When there wasn’t one, he reached for his friend’s hand and signed into it because he saw that Adam had closed his eyes.
“Defeat those demons with the truth.”
“You think the truth will set me free; wipe the memories away?” Clearly Adam didn’t think that was true.
“I think it’s your fear of the truth that is harming you the most right now.”
Adam began to budge a little. “If I’m going to tell this story, I should tell Melissa first.”
“No, tell them all at the same time. You know that will be best. Get it all out and cleanse yourself of the taint of those memories. I want to see you healthy. That’s what you can do for me. I’ll feel better about my cousin knowing her husband is whole and healthy.”
“You don’t usually say this much.”
“I’ve had a lot of time to think.”
“I hope you get well quickly then.”
David smiled knowing what he meant, but he was not to be deterred. “Will you honor my request?”
“Under the circumstances, I guess I can’t say no. Maybe I don’t want to say no either. It’s time to bury that madman forever.”
“I’m pretty exhausted now.”
“Then it’s the best time to do it.”
“You know me pretty well, don’t you?”
Looking at a smiling David, Adam realized how well the young man did know him. His defenses were down, but by the next day, he would have them back up and a number of reasons why he shouldn’t do this thing or at least not at that time. He nodded.
“All right. You win.”
“It’s not about winning. It’s about making you feel good about yourself again.”
“I don’t know that telling this story will make me feel good about myself.”
“It’s not the telling. You’ll see.”
So Adam went downstairs and announced he had something to tell them. “David has exacted a payment for what he endured in saving my family. He wants me to tell a story if you have the time. It’s about the time I spent in the desert and almost died.” The room was silent. It was as if no one wanted to even breathe loudly and disturb the air. Adam knew they were waiting so he forged ahead knowing that each second he paused was making it more difficult to do. “I made a foolish mistake years ago at Eastgate. Actually, I made a number of mistakes, and each one compounded the others. First, I let others know I was carrying money. I went off on my own without my brother to watch my back. I trusted a man by the name of Kane when he made me an offer to work for him for three days in exchange for the use of his mule to get back to a town. That was just the beginning of being sucked into his plan.”
In great and often agonizing detail, Adam told then of how he was first embarrassed, then humiliated, and finally debased by what he had to do and how he was treated. Telling them everything he did to survive made him look down because he couldn’t look at them and admit what he drank and ate and how he did it. Working from dawn to dusk, he was denied adequate food, water, and shelter while being worked under threat of a rifle and pistol until he wasn’t always sure what he was doing. Tricked by games and traps, he didn’t know what to do and even hallucinated at times. Ultimately, he found himself strangling the man and stopped. He paused in his story. It had been nearly forty-five minutes of a horror story. He wasn’t sure how much more he could say or the others could bear to hear, but he had to finish it.
“He wanted me to kill him. I was out of my mind. I lost all control over myself. What I was doing is what brought me back to my senses in time before I did the ultimate sin. I finally realized his plan had been for me to murder him. His plan was that he would be dead and I would have to live with the shame of being a murderer. That was what he wanted all along. Everything he did was to drive me to commit murder. That’s what he meant by proving he was a better man. To bring me down to the lowest level was the goal. When he realized his plan didn’t work and I didn’t murder him, he stopped talking or doing anything. He laid there and stared at the sky. I put him on a travois and dragged him out of there.”
Melissa had tears streaming down her face knowing the pain Adam had endured. He couldn’t speak any more. Ben could.
“My God, son, I had no idea how you had been tortured. I hope that man is suffering for eternity for his sins.”
“What about me, Pa. I did despicable things. I told you what I did to live; what I ate; what I drank to survive. I tried to murder a man with my bare hands. I was an animal.”
Joe walked over and put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “Don’t you ever talk like that. You did what you had to do. Any guilt belongs on that man’s head. Nothing you did was wrong. What you did was because there was nothing else you could do. You had a choice and chose survival. A weaker man would have run into the desert and have been shot in the back or let the desert kill him. You outlasted that madman. You showed him that he couldn’t do that to you. You walked out of there still a man dragging that excuse for a man on a travois. I don’t know many who could have done it. I’m proud of you.”
Raymond joined in. “In our work, we have seen men who have been tortured. Some kill themselves after the fact. Some give up and die during the torture. Some lose their minds. Only the strongest walk away with their scars and live their lives. I’m proud to know you and to be able to call you son even if by marriage to my daughter.”
Of all the reactions he had expected, these were not remotely close. Hiding his story for years because he feared the reaction of those closest to him, Adam had a difficult time accepting that his family was so supportive and even proud that he could have survived such an ordeal although he had told them the most horrendous things. He had expected them to be ashamed of him, but instead they were sympathetic and even proud. It was hard to reconcile that with his expectations and his memories. Mostly he had feared Melissa’s reaction and that she might recoil from him, but instead, her arms had tightened around him as she waited for him to say more.
“I can’t say much more now than to say how grateful I am for your responses.” The tears threatened to fall then but he held them back. Certainly everyone must have seen his eyes glistening, but no one said anything. He couldn’t allow them to say anything more or do anything or he knew he’d probably begin sobbing. That would be too embarrassing to endure.
“I’m very tired. I guess we must be back in one of the bedrooms here. I’d like to clean up and get some sleep. Oh, and could someone tell David that I kept my promise. It may take a while though so it needs to be someone who isn’t too tired right now.”
Recognizing his need, the others all nodded or quietly said good night.
“I can’t sleep worrying about Hoss. I’ll tell him. My signing is getting better.” Brandy was shaken by what she heard and wasn’t at all sure she could repeat some of it, but knew she could do it in general terms.
“I can help Brandy if she has trouble. I’ve been working on my signing too.”
Ben smiled. He had found how smart Brandy was as the two of them learned signing from David. They might need to write some things down to tell David the story they had heard, but one way or another, David would get the complete tale. Within a short time, the main room was empty.
The next morning though, the main room was bustling with activity. Adam had woken early because Melissa was stirring beside him seemingly unable to find a comfortable position. When he asked if she was all right, she burst into tears.
“Adam, I’m afraid. I think the baby is coming.”
“Why are you afraid?”
“Because you are.”
“Listen, I’m a fool. I shouldn’t be afraid at all. You’re a strong, healthy woman with Brandy and Doctor Martin to help you. Hop Sing is here and he knows a lot about helping women. Oh, I better get someone to go tell Doc Martin. Stay here a minute. I’ll be back.”
She had to smile at that as if she was going anywhere. In a short time, he was back still wearing only his pants but now grinning.
“Your mother told me to put on a shirt. She said I shouldn’t be flashing this chest at a woman so early in the morning. It could make her heart stop.”
“My mother is an unbelievable flirt.”
“Well, she did lighten the mood. She’ll be in here as soon as she’s dressed to help you. Brandy is getting dressed too. They said to relax and not do anything except wait. I’m going to get dressed.”
“No, sit with me until they get here or at least one of them gets here.”
“Can I at least pull a shirt on?”
“Oh, all right.”
Then Melissa grinned, or at least she did until the next contraction hit. It was mild but was a surprise because they were already getting stronger and her water hadn’t broken yet. She had heard a lot about deliveries and thought that was supposed to happen first. Soon Brandy was there to answer questions and then Mary was in the room. Adam was told to find a place to wait. Four hours later, Doctor Martin arrived and by then there had been some cries from Melissa who was in labor. Each one made Adam jump to his feet from his chair if he was sitting until he finally just paced around the room.
When Hoss arrived, he saw how agitated Adam was, handed his older brother a brandy, and made him sit. Then he got some food from the kitchen, and as he ate, he told Adam to eat something too. Adam ate almost mechanically with his eyes frequently focusing on the top of the stairs as if he could see something. It took four more hours and they heard a baby cry. Within thirty minutes, Doctor Martin was at the top of the stairs telling Adam he could come up.
“That was quick, Adam. Your wife is a champion.”
“Quick? It was over eight hours!”
“Listen, I’ve had women who took twelve, sixteen, or even twenty-four hours or more. Eight or so is quick. Now give the ladies and Hop Sing a few minutes to clean up in there. They’ll open the door for you when they’re ready.”
“I don’t need them to clean up for me.”
“Well, Melissa needs you to wait. She wants the first sight of her and the baby to be a good one so give her a chance to get cleaned up some.”
First out was Hop Sing with a large bundle of linens and a big smile. A short time later, Brandy came out with some soiled clothing and told Adam he could go in. Mary stayed in the room to hand the baby to Adam as Melissa reclined in the bed. Then Mary left saying she would keep the rest of the family away for ten minutes as Adam cradled his baby.
“You’re all right?” Gingerly, Adam sat down beside his wife.
“I feel wonderful now, but I’m tired. It’s why I asked mother to hand the baby to you. I didn’t want to drop him.”
“It’s a boy?”
“Yes, it’s a boy.”
“Is Aaron Christopher still the plan?”
“Yes, I like it. I like a name that can’t be shorted into a nickname so easily. Aaron will be Aaron. We could still name him after you. He could be Adam Aaron or Aaron Adam. He’s the first so he’s the one who has that right.”
“No, I want our son to become a man in his own right. That’s why we picked Aaron Christopher in the first place so he would have his own identity without a tie to me or to any other Cartwright.” Then Adam thought about what she had said. “The first? Are we planning on more?”
“No, but we didn’t plan on Aaron. As they say about mysterious ways, I have a feeling he won’t be an only child.”
“I don’t know that the Lord had anything to do with it.”
Adam grinned then in his most lecherous way making her smile. She was relieved that the experience of the previous night and the worries of her childbearing had not seemed to push him into one of those dark moods. She hoped those were behind them now.
A short time later, the family met Aaron and welcomed him to the family. Ben didn’t want to give him up when his turn to hold him was over. Adam had to smile. His father had waited so long, but perhaps Brandy and Hoss would be able to give him more.
It was late that night before anyone thought to ask Hoss about Levi. Earlier, Hoss and Brandy had spent time together, and besides some personal time together, Brandy told him about Adam’s revelations of the previous night. Hoss had been shaken to hear the story, but knew then why Adam had been so different in the desert and why he had made those statements about games he thought Levi was playing with them. Hoss wasn’t even thinking about Levi until he was asked by Joe.
“Roy’s inclined to believe his story. Now he’s still got to answer for shooting Roy and for stealing the horse from the livery, and robbing those farmers too. Roy said ifn he pleads guilty, there’s no need for a trial. The judge won’t likely go easy on him, but he won’t hang even though he took two horses. Under the circumstances ’cause he thought two men were after him to try to kill him, they’ll likely go easy on those charges, but shooting a sheriff is gonna get him the longest time. One other thing, Clem has men watching for any strangers coming into town and for anyone asking about us or Melissa’s parents. So far, there’s nothing.”
The next day, a coffin containing what were supposed to be Raymond’s remains was sent into Virginia City to be prepared for shipment to the east. The following day, a coffin containing a body that was supposed to be Mary’s joined it. The undertaker was paid extremely well to add additional embalming fluid and to do what he could to make the bodies as presentable as possible but to obscure the identities as much as he could without any mutilation. He said he was good at that if they were willing to pay. They were so glass eyes were inserted, extra fluid was pumped into the lips to inflate them, and the overall appearance was altered enough that no one could recognize the bodies. Then the coffins were sealed up tight and shipped out. Word was received a few days later that the coffins had been opened somewhere between Denver and St Louis but the bodies had not been disturbed. They had to hope that whoever had done it had been fooled. That they had only looked inside seemed to indicate that they had only wanted to confirm that there were bodies there and not some dead weights. The story in the paper was that Melissa was too weak to travel so a memorial service was held in Virginia City and a funeral was held in her home town where Matthew and other relatives attended. Matthew was unaware that Raymond and Mary had not died. He might never know because their lives were at more risk with every person who knew. The Russians had long memories.
Then it was time for the two to leave with David accompanying them. One night without any warning, men arrived and told them arrangements had been made. They said goodbye and were gone. Three months later, Adam and Melissa got a letter from a ‘cousin Cornelius’ in the Sandwich Islands saying that he wished they would visit someday as the weather was quite nice. There was no return address, but the letter said if they decided to come, they need only check in with the American consulate to find directions. The same was true if they wished to send a letter which was to be sent to Cornelius care of the American consulate.
The next afternoon, when Hoss arrived to take Brandy for a carriage ride, she told him that Raymond and Mary were gone. “It’s a relief. It was weird hiding them in the house and not being able to move about freely in the evening wondering who might be peeking in a window. This morning, we opened up the shutters and the curtains upstairs. The house seems so much nicer this way.”
“I bet it does. How did Adam take it?”
“Very well mostly. He seems relieved to have them gone. Melissa is sad of course, but I think she was a bit relieved too once they were gone. She doesn’t have to worry what Adam might say to her father. Sometimes it looked like he was ready to let loose on Raymond, but he’d look at Melissa and take a deep breath. She would smile at him and shrug her shoulders a little. Then he’d find something he had to do that was real important all of a sudden. Mary would always tense up at moments like that like she was ready for an explosion, but one never came. I think she could guess that Adam was still furious inside even if he was polite on the outside. Everyone can relax now.”
“That all sounds pretty good. Why’d you say ‘mostly’ then? Seems he’d be happy all around.”
“He’s not too happy about David leaving with them. He wished that Matthew had been informed so he could come here to talk him out of it. Raymond and Mary wouldn’t do it, and David said it wasn’t necessary as he would let his father know of his plans. He’s so excited to be going off on an adventure of his own. Adam doesn’t think he knows what he’s getting into and doesn’t trust that Raymond and Mary will keep him safe. He tried to talk him out of going with them and said how much he needed him. But I think my being here didn’t help. David kept saying how I would be enough help for them. Now I can’t do what David could do, but I think somehow, I made him feel uncomfortable just like Raymond and Mary made Adam feel uncomfortable.”
“They sure didn’t use good sense coming here when they were in danger and bringing it with ’em, that’s a fact.”
“There’s nothing we can do about that now. It’s over for the time being.”
“Yeah, now we can concentrate on us. Adam’s troubles seem to be all taken care of with the baby born and her parents gone. That is, they are unless he decides to go see if David is all right living with Melissa’s parents.”
“Hoss, we shouldn’t be saying that out loud, you know, when we’re around people. We shouldn’t even be saying that now. We should talk about them like they’re dead because they’re supposed to be dead.”
“Oh, yeah. I forgot. I guess it’d be best ifn I never said nothing about them.”
“That’s the way. We can talk but we have to use a code like them or things like that where we know but no one else would know.”
“I don’t think I’m too good at that.”
“Then maybe it’s best we don’t talk at all about them but we talk about us. Where are we going today?”
“I thought a picnic at the lake would be nice. I got a spot all picked out. Hop Sing packed a basket for us so we can spend the whole day there. It’s all right for you to be gone all day, isn’t it?”
“Yes, Adam said he would be here to help Melissa with anything she needed. He said from now on, Sundays are all mine. He wants to make sure I have enough time to spend with you.”
“What about the rest of the week? I mean, we been talking about marrying up, and I would like to know what you’re thinking about for after we’re married. I’d like you to be home when I’m home.”
“I’d like that too, but Hoss, I like the work and the learning I’m getting now too. I’d like to keep working with Melissa as long as I can. I mean, if we stay at the main house, there isn’t any cooking or cleaning or anything there I need to do, is there?”
“No, I guess not. You mean you’d be coming over here every day to Adam’s house to work?”
“I want to if you don’t mind.”
“I’d like to say yes, but I have to tell you that the idea doesn’t appeal to me that much. I wouldn’t mind some days, but every day seems like too much.”
Hoss could see that Brandy was disappointed with his answer. They didn’t talk about it anymore that day enjoying the weather and the scenery as well as the picnic. When the sun began to dip, it was time to head back. Hoss decided it was time to do what he had been planning for days. Their earlier talk had almost convinced him to delay, but he wanted to do it and wasn’t going to be deterred. Before they rolled up the blanket, he knelt down as she stood and took her hand in his.
“Brandy, I have an important question to ask you. Will you do me the honor of becoming my wife. I know we talked about it. But I want to make it official. I want you to agree to marry me. I know we don’t agree on everything, but husbands and wives don’t always agree on everything. I promise to always listen to you and try to work out something we can both accept no matter what it is. So please be my wife.”
Dropping to her knees, Brandy kissed him soundly as tears flowed. “Yes, yes, of course. I know we can work things out. I know we can.”
That was an optimistic assessment. They discussed it often and didn’t come to an agreement. The family was thrilled for them of course, but Adam sensed that Hoss was troubled and finally found time away from his family and his work to ask him what was bothering him.
“You’re happy with Brandy, aren’t you? I mean, she’s a fine girl, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, she’s more than I guess I ever hoped I’d get to have as a wife.”
“Then you want to tell me what’s wrong?”
“I didn’t say nothing was wrong.”
Saying nothing, Adam waited. Hoss looked at Adam leaning on a railing and staring into the distance. It did irritate him that his older brother always thought he knew things when he didn’t.
“You don’t know what I’m thinking.”
“No, I don’t. That’s why I asked.”
“Well, why are you just standing there not saying nothing?”
“Can’t say much until you do.”
Frowning, Hoss had no answer to that. Then much as Adam had planned it, Hoss felt compelled to talk. “Sometimes I think Brandy is too good for me. I mean, she’s too smart and too good at doing stuff. I was thinking I’d marry up with a woman who’d be home cooking up vittles and waiting for me when I got home.”
“So, Brandy working for me is the problem?”
“No, oh, maybe yes, but it’s how much work she’s doing and will be doing. You know, she’s gonna be gone a lot. Ifn I stop home for lunch, she won’t be there. You decide to have lunch at home, your wife is right there. Mine won’t be.”
“So, if we could work out a better schedule for her work, you wouldn’t have a problem with it?”
“Well, let’s say, I’d be all right with it. I’d be willing to get used to it at least until we have our own young’uns. Things might have to change again then.”
“You’re right about that. I don’t know if she’s mentioned it, but the ladies have already been talking about that. They want to start a school here for the little ones until they’re older so they don’t have to make that long trek to town. Both of the ladies are quite capable of teaching the little ones.”
“Nah, Brandy never said nothing ’bout that.”
“I have some ideas about how we could alter her schedule once she’s married. I’ll have to talk with her and Melissa, but I think you’ll like it. Brandy can explain it once they work out the details. How’s that sound?”
“Thank you for listening and not thinking I’m silly for feeling the way I do.”
“Oh, you’re welcome, and who said I didn’t think you’re silly.” By then, Adam had already mounted up on his horse and wheeled him around and rode off before Hoss could throw anything at him.
Hoss grinned, and he smiled quite a lot more when he and Brandy got to talk about that same subject. “So, because you do copy work mostly, you can bring it here or they’ll bring it here, and you can work at the house?”
“Yes, that’s most of how I assist Melissa with the business end of things. The other thing I do is some of the laundry, but Adam said they will take that to town now. He’s hiring a cook and housekeeper so that takes care of the other work.”
“What about taking care of Aaron?”
“Well, there will be times when I need to care for him so I may be at their house, but sometimes he could be over here too especially as he gets older.”
“Darling, thank you for settling all of this for me.”
“Hoss, thank you for agreeing that I can continue to work. For the first time in my life, I feel like somebody. Adam and Melissa gave that to me, and I didn’t want to give that up. I feel so good about what I do. I’ve learned so much already. I can hold my head up with pride when I go to town with you now. I’m not that poor little farmgirl who practically has to beg for money to support her family. Now, I could support them and me with what I can do.”
“Except you won’t have to work when we’re married. As a Cartwright, you’ll have enough money to support your family.”
“Hoss, I need to do this. I hope you understand.”
“I do. I know what it’s like to have folks make fun of ya and feel like there’s nothing you can feel proud of. I won’t take it away from ya. I’m proud of you too.”
With the last hurdle out of the way, they set a wedding date six weeks from that day. It was a good thing too because those picnics at the lake had become a test for Hoss to maintain his control. He didn’t want to endure the gossip that had swirled around Adam and Melissa. He knew those two mostly ignored it, but he and Brandy were more sensitive to that kind of thing. Not that he would mind a baby coming soon because he hoped they had one as soon as they could.
Hoss wasn’t the only one hoping that. One day, when Brandy was taking care of Aaron as the others made wedding preparations, Ben got Aaron for a time and took him outside to get away from the commotion. Joe signaled all of them to come over to the desk when he heard their father talking to the little one. Ben was in a rocker on the porch talking to Aaron as if he could understand.
“Now, I want you to grow up big and strong, but not too fast. I think maybe there’ll be another one coming along soon enough. Your Uncle Hoss is getting married, and I think he’s anxious to have a child. He’s probably almost as anxious for that baby as I am for him to have one. There’s no greater joy in the world than to hold that new life in your arms. Your father has experienced that now. I’m sure he would agree with me. Soon Hoss will have that joyful time too. I know I tell my sons I want grandchildren, but the biggest reason is so that they can have the unbelievable happiness that comes from seeing your child enter the world. I know Joe suffered another tragedy, but soon too I hope he can find someone who will capture his heart forever. Then he can have children too and have that great joy. Now your eyes are drooping down so I’ll be quiet and just rock so you can sleep, little one. And my sons can get busy again because it’s awfully quiet in there.”
Ben was smiling knowing his sons had been listening at least to part of what he said. He didn’t mind. With eyes glistening, Adam ushered his brothers away from the desk. Saying nothing, he simply nodded and got back to work. Hoss looked at Joe who was grinning.
“C’mon, we got a wedding to get ready for.”
“We sure do, and then we know what you have to do.”
Joe ducked the hand swinging his way.
Only weeks later, Hoss and Brandy were married at the church in town with a celebration party that followed on the Ponderosa. Her family had insisted on a church wedding, and Hoss couldn’t refuse her. Brandy’s parents had been through so much and needed that church wedding to show that they stood on an equal footing with everyone else. They couldn’t afford to throw a big party though so they were grateful when Ben graciously offered to take care of that.
At the wedding celebration, there were many women who tried to impress Joe Cartwright because he was the last of the sons still available. Joe found that he didn’t much like women chasing after him like that. Instead, he was attracted to a couple of ladies who didn’t participate in what he began to refer to as the stampede. By the end of the evening, he had an agreement to meet one of the ladies for dinner in town the following Saturday.
Life was looking good for the Cartwright sons on the Ponderosa.