Painful Truth (by BettyHT)

Summary:  The Ponderosa is in crisis and the family asks Adam to come home to help, but that sets in motion a plot that leads to tragedy and loss, and eventually surprises with two drifters who show up on the Ponderosa.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  21,524


“The pain from telling the truth is far less than that of trying to hide it.”

Chapter 1

Walking into the house, Candy took off his hat and headed to the dining table. The Cartwrights were already there and as usual lately, looking worried. At least he had some good news to share with them amid all the bad news that had assailed them recently.

“Hired two new hands today. Both are experienced, but one doesn’t talk. His friend said he got stabbed in the throat a couple of years ago and hasn’t been able to talk since.”

“I’m surprised they’d hire on here with the mines hiring and as short of funds as everybody has heard we are.”

“Said they don’t care to be underground, and that if need be, they’ve been known to get by on grub and a place to sleep.”

“We’ll pay them. We’ve never missed a payroll yet.”

“Mister Cartwright, have you heard anything back yet from Adam?”

A deep sigh was the only answer from Ben Cartwright. They needed money, and Adam still had extensive investments in the area. If they could liquidate some of the most lucrative of those, they could withstand the financial crisis they were in. However, numerous efforts to contact the eldest son had been fruitless.

“Pa, why don’t we go ahead and sell some of them. I gotta believe my older brother would want us to do that ifn he knew how much trouble we was in.”

As Ben frowned and said nothing, Hoss wondered why he didn’t respond. Joe gave him the answer.

“We’ve been talking about that. The letters didn’t come back. If they weren’t delivered, they should have come back. Not one did.”

That made Hoss frown too and then shake his head. “I don’t want to believe that. He may have left, but I can’t believe he wouldn’t care.”

Candy and Jamie said nothing, but both had wondered how Adam could have left in the first place so they did consider that he might not care enough to help. However it wasn’t their place to say anything in this conversation unless asked, and it was unlikely either of them would be asked. The best that Candy could do was change the subject.

“Yeah, on those two men I hired, the older one is real good with horses according to the younger one. Says he’s got a way of gentling them that makes them easier to break.”

That got Joe’s interest. “What does he do? He must be the one who can’t talk so he doesn’t talk to them.”

“No, the younger one said he learned it from some Indians he lived with a while back. I’d like to see too what he does.”

“Breaking some horses and selling them would help, but we’re too deep in debt for that to be enough.”

“Pa, we have to keep trying.”

“I know we do, Joe. I’m sorry. Yes, you should do what you can. Maybe something will happen to get us out of this mess. We do ourselves no favors by giving up when there’s still a chance.”

Hoss had a question then. “What are the names of these two new hands?”

Candy had wanted to avoid that but couldn’t any longer. “Ah, Rand Johnson and Denver West.”

Smirking, Ben wanted to say they ought to let them go, but hands were too hard to come by these days. He had to trust Candy’s judgment. “Well, at least they were clever enough not to use Smith and Jones.”

“I know what you may be thinking, but I don’t think they’re wanted. They didn’t have that look about them. It seemed more like they’re the kind that simply maybe don’t want their past to interfere with the present.”

Ben was agreeable to that. It was common enough in the west that men sought to start over. He nodded to let Candy know he was agreeable to trying out the two new hires. Then they got busy planning for the work for the next day and following week. As expected, Joe asked for the two new men to be assigned to him to get working with the horses as they had a contract to fill with the Army.

As Joe walked to the corrals with the men, he noted that Denver kept his eyes averted and his head slightly down. He asked Rand about it.

“He ain’t one to take to anybody too easy. He’s got some hurts too that affect him.” Realizing how a boss might take those comments, Rand quickly amended his statements. “Now, it won’t get in the way of him working. He won’t never shirk his responsibilities. He always does what he has to do, and he’s darn good at a lot of things.”

By the end of the day, Joe had to admit that was true. Both Rand and Denver had worked hard with Denver walking horses before the men rode them. Somehow, he managed to get them calm and easier to ride. Joe wanted to ask what he did, but of course couldn’t because the man didn’t talk. So, he asked Rand.

“Well, it’s kinda weird. I mean, because he does different things with different horses. It’s like he tries to get to know what each one needs and does that kinda like a father or mother does with their children.”

“Well, what kinds of things does he do?”

“That first one this morning, that black one, he bit the ear a few times when he pulled her head down. He kept her head down so she knew who was boss and bit her ear to tell her to behave. She got the message. He was the boss of her. But the next one with the white socks was skittish so he pulled her close and kept rubbing her neck and doing his best to let her know it was going to be all right until he thought she was all calmed down.”

It all made so much sense, but Joe had never thought to do anything like that. He wasn’t usually in the mode of preparing to do things logically which was more his older brother Adam’s way of doing things. He wondered about that thought popping into his head, but it was immediately followed by some anger that Adam hadn’t come to their rescue when they needed it so much.

They continued to work that week without any trouble. On the weekend, the hands prepared to go to town inviting Rand and Denver to go with them. Rand accepted with enthusiasm, but Denver shook his head. There wasn’t much anyone could do about that. It wasn’t like they could ask him why he didn’t want to go. Instead, they told him he was welcome to join them later if he changed his mind. He saddled up his horse and rode to town with them leaving their company at the edge of town.

Denver waited at the side of a building in the shadows to make sure no one followed him. He knew his situation invited curiosity and didn’t like it. Once he was sure they had all gone on ahead, he made a few stops to finish up a few errands and then rode to his destination for the evening, tied off his horse in the darkness under some trees, and walked up the steps to the door. As he had hoped, it wasn’t locked. Walking inside, a sense of peace came over him. Although he missed being in church, he couldn’t tolerate Sunday services with so many people around him. It made it impossible to relax and concentrate on the service. Ever since he was attacked, any group of people put him on edge. Sleeping in the bunkhouse was a challenge and he didn’t get a good night’s sleep on any night. He looked forward to being sent to do some work far from the buildings so he could sleep outdoors where he felt safer away from all those men and their lethal weapons.

The sound of the door startled him, but whoever entering was carrying a lantern so they weren’t intending to sneak up on him. He did wish he could bring a lantern with him so he could read some scripture, but he never wanted to advertise his presence that way. The man carrying the lantern appeared to be a minister. He nodded and walked up to the front taking his usual position. Taking out his Bible, he began to read scripture. For the next hour, he read and talked as if it was a Sunday service. Then he stopped and looked at Denver.

“Sir, was that what you wanted?”

Sitting in unbelieving shock, all Denver could do was nod.

“I will be here on any Friday night that you need me. Simply knock on my door when you arrive. I will come as soon as I am able. Now, I’m going back to my home unless there is something else I can do for you.”

Denver shook his head.

“Very well. Good night, sir. Stay as long as you wish. I’ll leave the lantern. Please put it out when you have no more need of it.”

Denver stood as the minister neared him. They shook hands. Outside, the minister hurried to his house anxious to share the news with his guest whom he was certain had wondered why he had been gone so long. Inside, he found that his wife had kept Hoss entertained as best she could, but the big man stood and waited to hear what had happened.

“You were so right, Hoss. That is a troubled man.”

“Were you able to talk with him then?”

“No, I sensed it wasn’t talking with a man he wanted. It was God’s word he wanted so very badly so I gave him a good dose of that. By the end, he was looking up at me and seeming to take in every word. When I left, he stood and smiled. He put out his hand to me and we shook hands. I left the lantern so he could stay a bit longer if he wished.”

“Maybe he found a little peace in there tonight?”

“I think perhaps he did.”

“Good, well, I’m riding home. Thank you for helping Denver.”

“Hoss, is there more to this story than you’re telling me?”

“There is, but I don’t know it yet either. I’ll tell you soon as I know.”

With that, Hoss left the house, mounted up, and rode for home. He had been seen however. Denver had walked from the church with the lantern he had used but snuffed out. Meaning to leave it on the minister’s porch, he paused under a tree when he saw Hoss leave the house. He knew then why he had the visitor in the church. There had been no divine intervention. Not sure how he felt about the situation, he dropped off the lantern and retrieved his horse riding slowly in the same direction as Hoss had gone. He did speed up though when he saw the glow of a fire in the distance. It could only mean one thing that he knew. Something was on fire at the main compound of the Ponderosa.

*****

Chapter 2

The scene that greeted Hoss when he rode around the barn was the stuff of his worst nightmares. The only home he had known in his lifetime was engulfed in flames. Piled in the yard were many of the priceless possessions, but it was clear the house itself was going to be lost. There wasn’t enough water available from a few horse troughs and a nearby stream as well as a few rain barrels to fight a fire of this size. All the men were doing was wetting burlap and blankets to stop the sparks from igniting any of the other buildings and some were further away to stop the fire from spreading into any nearby groves of trees if they could. Hoss jumped into the work too as soon as he could tie off Chubb. He found his father a short time later and had to ask what happened.

“We don’t know, Hoss, other than someone had to have started it because the fire began on the outside walls and then got the roof. That’s why we got so much out before we had to give that up. The couple of men who didn’t go to town alerted us to the fire but by then the roof was fired and there was no way to stop it.”

“Why would anyone do this?”

“I think we know, don’t we? They’ve been after the Ponderosa. What better way to hurt us than try to kill off a few of us?” Joe was back and furious.

Hoss hadn’t realized his younger brother had returned, and he didn’t like to think this business competition had turned deadly. “Joe, just because somebody burned the house don’t mean they meant to kill anybody.”

“Hoss, I think Joe may be correct. Firing a house late at night means a good chance someone could die. We have to consider this whole matter has become more than about money and land. It’s about survival now.”

“Yeah, and we hired two new men and then this happens. Where are those two anyway?”

Seeing Candy nearby, Ben called him over. “Do you know where our two new hires were this evening?”

“You thinking they had something to do with this?’ Seeing their serious demeanor, Candy shrugged. “Can’t be Rand because he was with us the whole night at the saloon. Denver rode with us to town but then split off. I didn’t see him again until we were here fighting the fire.”

“It wasn’t him either. I know where he was, and he couldn’t have been here starting the fire because he was in town.”

“Well, where was he then?” Joe wasn’t going to give up his theory that easily.

“It’s his personal business, but I’m vouching for him. That ought to be good enough for you, shouldn’t it?”

Joe shrugged. “Yeah, it is. Sorry. I’m so upset. That’s the only house I ever had.”

“Me too, Joe. It’s the only house Adam ever had either. None of us ever had another.”

“Well, he isn’t even here to see this. If he cared, maybe he’d be here.”

“He cares, Joe. He cares.”

Hoss grabbed a wet blanket then to head back to the diminishing fire to work with the men still intent on stopping it from spreading. Ben asked him to stay.

“Candy can take charge of the work. We need to talk.”

Hoss nodded as Candy left. Joe turned to his father for comfort. In many ways, they comforted each other, and then the three began to discuss options for what they could do next for living quarters and what to do about storing their belongings until they could build another house.

“Joe, I don’t know how we can afford to build a house right now. Every cent we have has to go to paying off our obligations or we lose the ranch.”

“Well, if we have to, we can live in the barn and store everything in the loft. I don’t care as long as we’re all safe.”

“You might start to care when it gets cold. The barn isn’t made for men to live in. It would take a lot to make it livable. I’m not sure it would be a safe place either.”

“You’re thinking that if they burned us out of a house built of solid pine logs, it would be far easier to burn us out of a barn made of lumber.” Ben nodded. “We’re going to have to set a guard.”

Ben was worried about that though. “That’s more expense.”

Hoss thought perhaps it wouldn’t be expensive. “Maybe the men will do it for their regular pay. No one wants to think about being burned out.”

Looking and sounding defeated, Ben sounded exhausted too. His sons picked up on the weariness in his statements.

“Pa, maybe we oughta see about getting some of this stuff into the barn. Could you maybe stay in there and supervise that? You know, tell them where to put things. Joe and me will stay out here and try to get things organized as much as we can.”

“Yes, yes, that’s a good plan. We have to get started on that.”

Giving in so easily to Hoss’ suggestion was another indication of how affected their father was by what had happened. Joe walked with him to the barn to get some lanterns lit and make sure the horses were settled down and well secured. Certainly all the smoke and noise had likely upset them.

“Son, I know you’re going to hate hearing this, but we should probably put all the horses in the corral. We need the room in here.”

“You’re right about that. I’ll get some men in here to move the horses and clean out the stalls.”

Soon Joe had lanterns lit and men led the horses from the barn to the corral. With the stalls mucked out and fresh straw thrown in, there was more room to store the family possessions which were hauled in from the yard. Heavier items were packed into stalls and lighter items went into the loft. There were scratches, nicks, and dents in some things, but overall, most had survived relatively unscathed.

Dawn was breaking before the job was done. Joe escorted his father into the tack room to sleep without letting him know how light it was getting outside. He didn’t want him to have to face the specter of the smoldering ruins of his home just yet. When he walked out alone, Hoss met him.

“Pa sleeping?”

“Yeah, he fell asleep almost as soon as I helped him lay down.”

“Good. I hope he sleeps all day. I’d like to clean up as much of this as we can before he sees it. It’s gonna be awful hard on him as it is. The less he has to face, the better.”

“That’s what I was thinking too.

“Awful hard on us too.”

“Yeah.” Joe’s voice almost broke with that one word. Hoss put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“Jamie’s gonna need some support too. The house don’t mean as much to him, but the family does. He’s gotta be wondering if we’re gonna hold together through all of this and if he’s gonna still have a family.”

“Of course he’s still going to have a family.”

“Joe, he’s the one we got to tell. Let’s go find him and let him know the plans. I’m not sure where he is.”

They found Jamie working with Candy and a crew trying to clear away debris so they could get to the cellar. It looked like the area was not much affected directly by the fire with so much debris landing there, and that made them all hopeful that most of the supplies down below were undamaged.

“Boys, I think once we get some of this cleared away, we can get everything out of the cellar.”

“Candy, maybe just clear it all away and leave it all in there. We don’t have anywhere to put things so if the cellar isn’t damaged, we can use that space.”

“I agree with Hoss. We’ll need those supplies if they’re still good, but we don’t have anywhere to put them right now.”

“Denver suggested the smokehouse. There’s nothing in there right now, and we wouldn’t have to worry about it flooding if there’s rain.”

“You know that’s a darn good idea. I shoulda thought of that. Yeah, put everything that’s still good in there.”

Hoss liked the plan, but Joe looked suspicious.

“How did he think of that, and how did he know the smokehouse was empty?”

Looking at Joe, Hoss wondered why he was so suspicious of Denver. The man hadn’t done anything to warrant that suspicion. “Maybe cause there’s no smoke coming out of it? C’mon, Joe. I told you he didn’t have nothing to do with this. Get over it.”

That conversation made Candy curious. “Who had nothing to do with this?”

“Oh, Joe thinks Denver mighta had something to do with the fire. I told him he couldn’t have cause I know where he was and it was nowhere near here.” Then Hoss looked around. “Hey, do I smell coffee?”

“Yeah, I had a couple of the hands go get the chuck wagon and help Hop Sing set it up. Figured we’d need that for a while now. We set it up by the smokehouse.”

“So you were planning to do what I said anyway.”

“Yeah, it made the most sense to do it that way.”

Stomping off, Joe made it clear he wasn’t happy. Candy watched him go and turned to Hoss.

“You have any idea why he doesn’t like Denver?”

“No, not really.”

That made Candy pause because it seemed Hoss was holding something back. But if Hoss wanted him to know, he would say something. Candy decided to share something he had found peculiar because he could find no logical explanation for it.

“Hoss, tonight, when the fire was nearly out, and we were standing there thinking about what we were going to do next, Denver was next to me. Hoss, he had tears on his face. When I saw, he wiped them away and said it was from smoke in his eyes. Hoss, it was a lot more than that. It was real tears. I know the difference between smoke gets in your eyes and real sorrow. Now why would Denver be so sad that your house burned to the ground?”

“I think he’s got his reasons, Candy. He’s got his reasons.”

“But you’re not going to tell me either, are you?” Shrugging, Candy asked where Hoss was going to sleep.

“I figure in the bunkhouse. Pa, Jamie, and Joe will fit in the tack room. It’ll be tight for the three of them, but until we get the barn set up more for living, there shur ain’t no room for me.”

“Mister Cartwright sleeping now?”

“Yeah, he’s plumb tuckered out. I’m worried about him. Quite a shock to him to have this happen after all the trouble we already had.”

“And worrying about your older brother. I heard him say something earlier about what Adam would say when he got back and saw the house gone.”

“Yeah, that would be Pa always worrying about his sons and not himself. But we got even bigger worries. Pa’s got a meeting in town tomorrow about our loan payments. I sure hope we got all the papers out of the house that we needed. We’ll have to sort through things later to be sure.”

“We got the desk out of there. Lucky it was made in three pieces. I always thought it was one piece, but it was one large piece on top of two smaller pieces. It’s all out. The safe is out too.”

“Then we should have everything we need. We do need to put a guard on that stuff. Let’s go find out where it all is and make sure someone is watching it all the time. Could be the fire was to destroy it or get at it.”

Within a short time, the desk, safe, and all the papers were located and secured. Everything seemed to be there so Hoss made sure there was someone set to watch over all of it. He told Joe about his precautions too. Then he and Candy went back to work at clearing away the debris of the former grand house to make way for a new house to be built there one day. But at least, they didn’t want Ben Cartwright to have to look at the smoldering remains of his home. By the time Ben woke and walked outside, much of the ruins was gone. The smoke blackened fireplace of the main room stood as a sentinel though with the smaller kitchen fireplace to the side. The various rocks that had anchored the walls of the house were still in place. The charred logs that could still be used were laid out to one side and had been wet down. Material that could be used for charcoal was spread out to cool. The smell was still overwhelming though.

Walking from the barn to where his house had once stood, Ben clenched his fists and looked to the heavens vowing to himself that they would not defeat him. If anything, this act had brought back his resolve to fight. Everyone watching him saw it. The men who had done this horrible deed had unleashed a sleeping and now angry and resolute bear. When his sons came to stand beside him, he told them what they were going to do.

“Tomorrow at that meeting in town, I’ll sell whatever I have to sell to get the money to fight those bastards. We’re not giving up.”

Hoss, Joe, and Jamie linked arms with their father. The battle was joined as far as all of them were concerned.

*****

Chapter 3

Standing with hands on hips and chin jutted out, Joe looked like he was ready to fight instead of hearing good news. “What do you mean the loan payments have been made? What kind of trick is this?”

“Our lawyer assured me that it is no trick. Our loan payments have been made with no strings attached. There are no conditions and no requirements that we repay the money. It was paid to the bank with only the stipulation that they not divulge the name of the person paying the money.” Ben had returned from his meeting in town to inform his sons that all required loan payments had been made.

“Why would someone do that, Pa?”

“Hoss, I have no idea. Perhaps a rival of this corporation that wants to take us down? If someone wants to hurt them, one way would be to stop them from getting anything from all that they have invested in trying to take over the Sierras.”

“They’re not going to give up though, are they? Now we gotta wonder what they’ll do next. After this, who knows what they might try.” Hoss waved his arm around to indicate the barn and their possessions stored all about them to remind them of the fire that could have taken so much more from them.

“We can be grateful now that we are safe from foreclosure. Next we have to get ourselves back on a good financial footing to face the future in better stead than we were before.”

Although he already had a fairly good idea of the answer, Jamie asked what the others were thinking. “How are we going to do that, Pa?” Jamie had become his father’s shadow. Both Joe and Hoss had told him privately to stick with their father and watch out for signs of physical or emotional distress. They were concerned that the tension and the loss of his home might yet affect him more significantly. Therefore Jamie had gone with Ben and knew some of what had been discussed with Hiram Woods.

“Years ago Adam suggested that I reorganize the Ponderosa like a set of companies so that I could take a loan against one part without jeopardizing the whole. I ignored his advice, and it has nearly cost us the ranch. It all happened without us even seeing it coming. The drought meant we sold more cattle at a lower price than usual leaving us less for the following year. Then we lost out on a few contracts for timber. We got a loan to meet out cash needs, and suddenly found ourselves in competition for every bit of business for supplies, workers, contracts, and anything else we needed. That corporation was waiting for us to take out that loan. Somehow they knew to the penny what our accounts were and that our contingency funds had been depleted. I don’t want to let us get into that kind of dilemma again.”

“So how do we fix things, Pa?”

“Hoss, I asked Hiram Woods to begin the paperwork to do that now. We’ll split even the land up into parcels with each of us the holder of one part. The cattle will be another, the horses one more, and the timber and the mine two more. We will have ten entities in total. When we need cash, a loan can be taken against one of the ten.”

Thinking about what was said and looking around, Jamie wondered at that. “Ten?”

“Yes, the house and buildings here will be one in all our names, and one section will be in Adam’s name.”

Ben could see Joe fuming at that, but luckily his volatile son said nothing. When Hoss and Jamie had nothing more to add, Ben moved on to the next subject.

“With no fear of foreclosure and our loans paid, we can rebuild the house. It won’t be completely furnished when we finish, but we’ll have a house. If we can manage with what we have in this barn, we’ll get by with more rustic furnishings until we can afford to properly furnish a large home again.”

“Who is going to design the house this time, Pa. Adam isn’t here with his plan.”

“Joe, that Denver has some ideas. We was talking while clearing away some of the debris.”

“Talking?”

“Well, his way of talking. He points a lot and draws in the dirt. After a while, it ain’t too hard to follow it. Well, anyway, he thinks we could put a water closet behind the fireplace and put a bedroom there too. Pa, would you like a first-floor bedroom? We could have a larger kitchen with an attached laundry room and washroom too without much trouble. That would give us more room to add rooms upstairs with a wing on one side and another on the other side.”

“Do you think he has experience building anything, Hoss?”

“Sure seems like it, Pa. I’d bet on it. I surely would.”

“We need a kitchen first, I would think. Hop Sing needs something more than a chuck wagon. How soon do you think you could get one started?”

“We could clear that area today, and then we could work out a plan. I’d say by the middle of next week, we could get started on building a kitchen with a room for Hop Sing.”

Looking around the room at Joe and Jamie trying to judge their reactions, Ben saw Jamie looking excited but Joe looking skeptical. “Joe, do you object to Hoss starting this project?”

“No, let’s see what they do. If it’s a disaster, then we know we have to try something else, and we won’t have risked much.”

Frowning at the lack of endorsement, Hoss refrained from saying anything. He did smile though when Jamie asked to be included in his crew. Ben was agreeable to that as it kept Jamie close to home and safe or at least safer than being away from home. He was still worried.

“Pa, you still got them frown lines. Care to tell us why?”

“Hoss, even though we’ve got some things going our way, I have to wonder what our enemies will do now. I worry about what’s coming at us next.”

“I wonder who it is who’s helping us and why. They probably don’t have our best interests at heart. They’ll stab us in the back at the first opportunity.” Joe was suspicious and skeptical that anyone would help them for good reasons.

“Maybe it was Adam. Pa did write and ask for help.” Jamie was hopeful even though he had never met his oldest brother.

Joe snorted. “He can’t even write to us, but you think he paid tens of thousands of dollars to haul our asses out of the fire?”

“Joseph!”

“Sorry about the language, Pa, but not the thought. If he cared at all, he’d be here.”

“Joe, maybe there are reasons he can’t do what you want him to do.” Hoss spoke quietly but emphatically.
“Yeah, like spending more time gallivanting around France or England having fun with the rich folk and people with fancy manners and such that he prefers to his own family?”

“Joseph, that’s enough! I’ll not have that kind of talk about my son when he can’t even be here to defend himself. It would be best if you get busy with what you can do to help rather than criticizing others for what you think they ought to be doing even though you know nothing of their circumstances. Is that clear enough for you?”

“Yes, sir.” Joe agreed, but it was a sullen response. He excused himself then and walked out to get to work.

Staring at the closed door in his wake, Ben almost didn’t hear Jamie’s question.

“What do you think, Pa? Could it be Adam helping us?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t see why he would hide his actions from us, but I don’t know who it is. That does worry me.”

“Well, I’m gonna go get a crew busy clearing an area for a kitchen and Hop Sing’s quarters. I’ll tell Hop Sing too. He may have some ideas as to what he wants us to do.”

Once outside, Hoss searched for Candy. When he found him, he told him of what had happened and what the plans were. Candy was as surprised as the family had been. What surprised him even more was that Hoss didn’t seem that affected by the news. It was as if he knew who had paid the money.

“All right, somebody paid tens of thousands of dollars and pulled your family out of the fire at the last minute. You don’t have any idea who it is, and it could be someone who means harm to you, but you don’t seem worried at all. Why is that? Do you think you know who it is? If you do, who is it?”

“Jamie suggested it was Adam. Pa said Adam wouldn’t do it in secret like that. Joe don’t think Adam would do it at all seeing as we ain’t heard from him.”

“But?”

“I think maybe it was Adam, but there’s things going on that are stopping him from letting us know what he’s doing.”

“What kind of things would keep him from telling you where he is and what he’s doing?”

“It would have to be something really big and really serious. Adam don’t do things for little reasons. This has got to be big.”

“You’re that sure it’s Adam?”

“I’m so sure that I’d bet my month’s wages on it.”

“You hardly ever bet.”

“There you go!”

“So you’re that sure. Well, where is he?”

“Pretty close, I think. We got enemies, and he’s watching for ’em is what I think he’s doing. Watching and waiting ’cause they don’t know he’s here. What he did, paying off the loans, has got to have really made ’em mad. They’re gonna do something drastic because of it. I think he knows that.”

“Does your father think that too?”

“No, he doesn’t. He and Joe are wondering what comes next, but I don’t think they expect big trouble. I do. They’re going to be looking for whoever paid off those loans. They know that’s the one they got to eliminate first. So we have to do what we can do to protect him.”

“How do we do that if we don’t know who or rather where he is?”

“We find out.”

“Now that’s got to be easier said than done.”

“Maybe so. Candy, you said Denver had tears in his eyes seeing the house burn. You said he told you it was smoke. How’d he tell you that? I mean, the man can’t talk. He draws pictures in the dirt and points to tell me things.”

“He kin talk if you can read sign. He knows Indian sign. By what he uses, he seems to have learned it from the Paiute or maybe the Ute or Shoshone. One of the tribes around here. I scouted this area quite a bit for the Army and picked up a lot of it too. It’s not hard to read, and you can say a lot of simple ideas pretty fast with sign.”

“Ah, that makes sense, but how does Rand understand him so well?”

“They’ve worked out quite a system apparently including Indian signing, but you did know that Rand’s mother was Comanche, didn’t you? It’s part of the reason he got pushed out by his stepmother.”

“How’d you know that?”

“He’s said a few things in the bunkhouse.”

“I think maybe we need to hear more from Rand at some point.”

“Might be a good idea.”

“Yeah, it seems that Denver is a lot more complicated than we know, and he doesn’t seem willing to let us know much. He seems to have a way of knowing what others know too, and he ‘talks’ to them in a way they can understand doing what works with each one. Makes me wonder how he knows so much.”

“He does seem awful smart.”

“He does, doesn’t he.” Hoss paused in contemplation only briefly. “Well, anyway, let’s get a crew and get busy on this kitchen job. I don’t aim to have Hop Sing get so upset he leaves. Let’s go tell him first, and then we’ll pick out a crew to get to the work part.”

“You know, somehow I knew you’d get to rebuilding the kitchen first.”

“Yeah, and how’d you know that?” Except Hoss laughed instead of waiting for an answer, and it did some good for everyone who heard it. Finally there was the sound of something normal in all that had happened. Soon too there was the sound of Hop Sing happily telling Hoss what he wanted in his new kitchen and then the sound of men working on a project as they cleared away debris in the size and shape of the new kitchen and quarters for Hop Sing resetting stones for the foundation as they worked. With their enthusiasm, by the end of the day as the sun set, the outline of the new rooms was already taking shape. It would be days before there was any building as they had to cut trees and get logs ready, but now they had the start of a plan.

Ranch work still had to be done so on Monday morning, Candy and the family met in the barn for a strategy and planning session to assign work. Candy took over supervision of the cattle operations while Joe continued to handle the horses. Ben’s job was the paperwork with Jamie’s help as needed with Hoss handling the construction and anything needed at the timber camps and lumber mill. The mine had a supervisor so it was left to him for the time being.

“We still have one problem, Mister Cartwright. We’re short of men to handle all the work we have.”

“I know, but I have no idea what we can do about that.”

“I’ve got an idea.”

The others looked to Hoss and waited for what he had to say. Hoss shrugged and continued.

“Rand says he has two brothers he can contact who would come here to work if they had the fare.”

Rand wasn’t very old so Ben wondered if his brothers could be old enough to be qualified. “Ranch hands?”

“No, but we need men at the timber camps and the lumber mill. He says they are strong and hard workers like him.”

“All right. I’m willing to try it. Two more young men would be a help. I wonder if there are any of our other men with relatives who would come if we paid the fare? However I’d be more interested if they could actually do ranch work.”

“Should I ask?”

“Hoss, try it out with some to see what response you get. We could try with a few like we are with Rand. If it works, we could do more.”

By the end of the week, six young men arrived ready to work. Only a few were ranch hands, but the others freed some of the men working on Hoss’ building crew to get back to ranch work. After that, Candy asked if anyone had relatives who were experienced ranch hands offering fare and to outfit them if necessary. That got them six more hands over the next few days. Those dozen men put them in pretty good shape for getting the work done that they needed.

Most were there about the time the logs were ready to be rolled into place for the new kitchen and Hop Sing’s quarters. A full day was spent pulling those logs into place and securing them. The kitchen and a room for Hop Sing were roughed in. They still had to chink the walls, plaster them inside, put in floors and cabinets, put in windows, and of course they needed a roof over each. However it did wonders for everyone’s mood to see such progress in such a short time.

Another mystery appeared though when a freight wagon pulled into the yard with a large stove in it as well as crates of dishes and other kitchen items. Ben told the driver he had not ordered a stove nor any of the other items nor did he yet have the cash to pay for them.

“Don’t matter. It says it’s paid for and to be delivered here. All the stove pipe is in the back too. I don’t install stoves though so somebody else is gonna hafta do that.”

Once they unloaded the stove and other crates, Hoss looked at his father and frowned. “It’s a real good thing this got here before we got anything more done to the kitchen.”

“Why, son? What do you mean?”

“It would never have fit through the doors once we put in the frame and such. It’s gonna be a tight squeeze as it is. It’s like somebody knew just how big to order it and when it had to get here.”

“I wish I knew who our benefactor is, and why he’s doing all of this.”

Joe sneered. “And what he wants for what he’s doing. There’s going to be a price to pay for all of this. I know there is. Everyone keeps smiling about how generous this man is and keeps forgetting we’re going to have to pay for it all eventually.”

Looking at Hoss who was trying to hide a smile though, Candy guessed that Hoss thought he knew who had done it all and wasn’t at all worried about paying for it. The question still was where he was and how did he know so much. Candy began to wonder more about that too.

*****

Chapter 4

The next morning, someone took a shot at Ben Cartwright as he drove the carriage to town. They missed but not by much. Ben had hit a bump in the road and his head had gone down because of it. That lucky occurrence saved his life. Jamie was beside him and grabbed the reins to snap them and make the team take off at breakneck speed. That was the second bit of luck or perhaps good planning by his other sons. They were well out of range by the time the next shots rang out and none of them even hit the carriage. The noise drew hands to the area, and Ben and Jamie returned to the ranch with an escort.

Later that day, someone shot at Joe as he rode through a pasture. He was hit, but because he was riding fast as he usually did, the shot skimmed across his back instead of penetrating his heart and killing him. Some hands raced to where they thought the shot had come but found no one. They took Joe home so Hop Sing could bandage up the shallow wound furrow across his back. It was going to be painful for him but not serious.

At the house, Hoss talked to Candy and they decided it was time to find out more information. The situation had turned potentially lethal. They knew Rand was in the bunkhouse because he had cut his leg while working on the house. He was getting a day off. During their lunch break, both Hoss and Candy went inside to talk with him.

“Rand, we need some information from you, and we need it now.” Their tone and demeanor made it clear their demand was serious and not to be denied.

“What kind of information?”

The look he gave them said he knew what they were going to ask and didn’t want to answer.

“You know what we want. We want to know whatever you can tell us about Denver. Now, we don’t mean him no harm. It’s just that we think he’s connected to what’s happening around here, and we need to know how.”

Candy let slip a little information then because he thought it might open up some trust between them. “Hoss thinks he might know who Denver is.”

“He does? I don’t even know who he is, I mean, his real name and such, but if you think he’s doing anything bad, you’re wrong. He would never hurt nobody who didn’t hurt him.”

“Rand, we know that, but if we knew more, maybe we could figure out a bit more about what’s been going on.”

“Hoss, I owe him a lot. You don’t know how much.”

Hoss was sympathetic. “Why don’t you tell me. You kin trust me. Your story won’t go further than this room. Anything you say stays with us. It’s only to help us understand and get to the bottom of things.”

Rand looked over at Candy sitting silently at the table. Hoss inclined his head toward the foreman. He knew that Rand was asking a question simply with that look. The more he was around Rand, the more he understood why he and Denver could communicate so well even though Denver didn’t talk.

“Talking to Candy is like talking to me. By now, you should know that.”

“Somehow I think I can trust you. Hoss, you’re a lot like him, you know, Denver. You got that way about you that says you know how life can be hard, and sometimes you hafta do things you don’t want to do.”

“Is that how it was with you?”

“Well, when I was a kid which may seem funny to you, but a couple of years ago, I really was, and I didn’t know anything about taking care of myself, but my pa turned me out. He said he couldn’t feed us all, and they needed the food for the younger ones. My ma had died, and his new wife most likely had something to do with that. But anyway, I was beggaring for jobs and food when these men said I could ride with them. Said if I took care of camp chores and watched the horses, they’d make sure I had enough to eat, a horse to ride, clothes to wear, and well, you get the picture. I jumped at the chance.” Rand looked down at the dirt then too embarrassed to continue. He had thought he could tell this story, but found it far more difficult than he had imagined to tell it to decent men like Hoss Cartwright and Candy Canaday.

“They were outlaws, weren’t they?”

Rand nodded.

“You held their horses when they committed crimes.”

“All Rand could do was agree.

“How’d you quit them?”

“The things they did was bad, but the most awful thing was when they took this man and a woman from a train near Denver. The man had no idea what was gonna happen. I could tell because he didn’t fight them at first. Darcy, one of the men, stuck a gun in his back when he went to help the lady down from the train. Then the man told his lady to get back on the train, but Darcy said no, that she was coming with them too. They took them around back of the building until the train got water and left. The man asked what they wanted, and they hit him.

“That made the lady scream, and Matthews covered her mouth with his hand. He was a nasty man. He was grinning while he did it like he got some enjoyment doing that. The man tried to help her, and he fought hard. They beat him something fierce. Then they took his boots, his hat, and his jacket. I guessed what they meant to do then. I’m pretty sure he knew too, and for sure, she knew. She cried for him, and he asked them to please not hurt her. He said he wouldn’t fight them any more if they would please not hurt her.

“That’s when it got real bad. Darcy pulled his knife and stabbed him once, but he didn’t stop stabbing him cause that man wouldn’t stop fighting. He stabbed him over and over and then left the knife sticking in the man’s throat when they took the woman into the building there. I was sick to my stomach, but I couldn’t fight six of them. I didn’t even have a gun.

“There was blood all over in the snow, and there were screams from inside for a while. Then they came out, and Darcy was mad at Matthews. Matthews said it was an accident. He said she fought back too much. They all seemed mad at him.

“Anyway, I brought the horses like I was told, and we all rode into town. On the way, Darcy said they oughta do something about the mess in that building. Said nobody who saw them would likely be all that worried about finding a man dead. But when a woman got found like that, all hell might break loose. When we got to town, they bought supplies first thing and got a tin of coal oil like it was something they usually bought. Outside, Darcy handed it to me. Said to take it back and spread it all around that building and put some brush up against it so it’d burn real well. Told me not to go inside at all. Gave me a tin of matches to use too. Asked me if I could do it. I said I could because all I wanted to do was to get away from them.

“Without saying another word, I rode out of town like I was gonna go to that building and do like they said. At first, I thought I’d hightail it out of there, but then I wondered if that woman was still alive. I couldn’t just leave her there if she was. So I rode there thinking I’d check on her before I left.

“I went in that building. Hoss, that memory is gonna be in my head for the rest of my life. What I saw was something no man should ever see. I couldn’t believe what they’d done. I ran out of there backwards, you know, scared like the devil himself was staring me in the face. Then I was afraid I might get blamed for it so I did what I’d been told and burned that building. If they were watching for the smoke, they probably figured I’d done my job. I backed away from that fire, and I tripped over that man who was stabbed.

“I fell almost on top of him, and that’s when I realized he was alive. Blood was still trickling out of his throat. I reached out and touched his chest, and I was sure he was breathing even if he was awful cold. I didn’t know what to do, but soon there were men there. They asked what had happened, and I told them without saying my part in it. I said I saw it but didn’t have a gun and couldn’t stop those men. They couldn’t put out that fire, but they did take that man and haul him to a doctor who said he needed to go to Denver. He asked if I was any kin to him. I said no, but he said ‘Well, you’re all he’s got so take good care of him on the train.’ And like that, I went with him right to the hospital in Denver.”

Hoss could hardly believe the tale yet it rang true. “You’ve never told that story to anyone, have you?”

“Yeah, I did. I told Denver when he woke up. I told him the whole truth. I told him I hadn’t told the sheriff or anyone who could lock me up. I said if he wanted to, he could tell them.”

“He couldn’t talk though, could he?”

“No, and he could hardly write either because his hands were all bandaged too, but he took my hand and held it with his bandaged ones and closed his eyes. He’s got a way of talking to you without saying a word.”

“Yeah, I know someone too who can do that.”

“Well, we’ve been together ever since. I helped him find some of those men. There’s a couple we haven’t found yet, but Denver wants to find the men who sent them too. He got some papers off Darcy when we caught up to him. He’s got some idea who sent him, but he needs more information.”

“Why are you here then?”

“Because the men who sent those outlaws to kill him are here.”

“Is that what Darcy said?”

“No, he never said anything. He’s dead. So is Matthews and two of the others. They weren’t interested in going back to Colorado to hang.”

“Denver killed them?”

“He did. He’s pretty dangerous when riled.”

“Yeah, I know someone like that too.”

“He figures maybe those other two might show up here and help lead us to the ones who hired them.”

“That’s probably something that could happen, but what if it doesn’t?”

“We’ll keep looking. Justice has to be done.”

Hoss had to agree with that too considering what he had heard, but there was so much more to the story he wished that Rand knew. “I’m curious. Do you know Denver’s real name?”

“Nope. He said if people knew his name, they might come to finish the job they botched. Without knowing who wanted him dead, he doesn’t know who to watch out for so he wants them to think he’s dead.” Then he chuckled. “Oh, and I know what you and the others probably think, but Rand is really my name. I was born Rand Johnson or I should say my parents give me my name so I wasn’t making that up. There ain’t no posters on me or nothing so I go by my real name.”

“You’re right about us thinking you made up them names. We did kinda think you made that up yours too seeing as how it was pretty clear Denver did. Now did the people at the hospital know his name?”

“I don’t think so. He had them write a letter on his behalf once to a ranch out further west somewhere, but he didn’t like the answer that came back. They sent some money but pretty much said there wasn’t a place for him. The hospital kept the money to pay his bill so he left there with nothing. I had a horse and I’d been doing odd jobs so I had some money. I bought him a horse and saddle and we left. We had to take it easy for a month cause he wasn’t in such good shape, but he got stronger. That was after almost two months that he was laid up before that. We worked ranches here and there and did stuff as we could to make money. The more I saw that he could do, the easier it got for us to get jobs cause I could tell them what he could do.”

“And he can’t talk at all?”

“Well, if he has to, he can force a few words out, but it’s so darn hard for him, and his voice is real hard to understand for me cause it’s kinda growly if you know what I mean. He only does it when he has to.”

Hoss was pleased with that information. “And the two of you tracked down that Darcy and Matthews and the others in between jobs then?”

“Yeah, wanted posters were up on them so we paid attention to where they were busy and headed in that direction. I knew the kinda things they done so we waited for them to hit and were on their trail right away. They never had a chance to get away. One look at him, and they knew what was gonna happen if they were taken to jail so they fought. He’s darn good with a rifle and a pistol. Lots better than they were. Even wounded, they kept shooting though so he had to kill them.”

“They recognized him?”

“He didn’t have the beard right away then. Only the scars showed where he got cut in the face and the neck. He grew the beard and let his hair grow long after that to cover them and to hide who he is.”

“That was four of them?”

“Yeah, the other two had only come in just before that job near Denver. They must have left then or later, I guess, because they weren’t with them when we caught up with them. That’s why Denver figures we might find them here.”

“I wish he’d trust us to help him.”

“Hoss, I don’t think he trusts anybody including me after what happened. He doesn’t let me know more than what I need to know.”

“Guess I cain’t rightly blame him after all he’s been through. He must wonder who wanted him killed so badly to stop him from coming here and why they did.”

“He hates them for what they did. They killed that lady of his. He ain’t gonna let ’em live after that.”

“I can understand him feeling that way.” Hoss put a hand on Rand’s shoulder. “Thank you for telling us. I think I can talk to Denver now. I gotta talk to my Pa too. I’m thinking there’s a lot needs to be straightened out here, and you did a lot to make that possible. I’ll always be grateful for all you done. You ever need anything, you got a friend in me, and you got a home here. You hear that?”

Although Rand didn’t quite understand why what he had done was so important, he did like hearing what Hoss had promised. He thanked him. Hoss and Candy headed back to work as Hoss was thinking he had some talking to do that evening. There were a few questions he needed answered but he didn’t have any doubt as to what those would be. He was concerned about the reactions to what he had to say and began to rehearse in his mind the questions he would ask and how he would ask them.

*****

Chapter 5

Leaving the crew to finish plastering the kitchen and Hop Sing’s room, Hoss headed to the barn to talk with his father. He guessed that he would be alone in the late afternoon probably having coffee and wrapping up a day of figuring out their pluses and minuses. Overall, the numbers had been pretty good since the fire and the anonymous payment of the loans. As long as nothing more serious happened, they would be able to stay afloat. The shots fired at Joe and at Ben however made it clear that their enemies were taking a more lethal approach.

“Pa, kin I talk to you?”

“Of course. I’m fine. You don’t have to worry either. I won’t be going to town again without taking some precautions. Clearly they’ve hired some men to eliminate us permanently.”

“Yeah, I’m glad to hear that, but that isn’t what I wanted to talk to you about. It’s a couple of other things. I heard a story today and I need to ask you a question. Did you get a letter from a hospital in Denver six months or more ago asking about a man who’d been hurt?”

“Yes, and how did you know about that?”

“Well, I can’t tell you that right now, but I kin tell you it’s real important. What did the letter say?”

“It was rather vague if I recall correctly. A man was seriously hurt and unable to care for himself. They said he had been here on the Ponderosa for many years and wondered if we would take him during his recuperation. Now you know what things were like here six months to a year ago. We couldn’t take on a man convalescing from serious injuries. The letter said he was destitute, had nothing. I sent some money and my regrets.”

Hoss looked down as sad as he could be hearing what he had feared to be true was in fact the truth.

“Hoss, what’s wrong? Why does that bother you so much? We often have people ask us for help and many times we can’t help. We can’t help everyone who needs it.”

“I know that, Pa, but what if that man was Adam? What if we sent him a letter and then a telegram asking him to come home, but on the way, he was waylaid and some men tried to kill him. That’s how he got seriously hurt. Then he asked for help, and the answer was no. What if he came this far only to find we had a foreman in the house using his room and you had adopted another son to take his place.”

Ben was offended to hear Hoss say that. “Jamie was never adopted to take Adam’s place, and Candy only stayed in the house because it was more convenient that way.”

“Yeah, Pa, I know that, but Adam didn’t know that. Think about how it would look ifn he didn’t know about either of them and then came here after those other things happened.”

Frowning, Ben stared at Hoss for a time and then his mouth dropped open. “You think Denver is Adam?”

“I think it’s a real possibility, Pa. I think that man is hurting real bad, and he’s here to get justice on the men who hurt him.”

“Us?”

“No, I think he knows now that the men who hurt him are the men who are after the Ponderosa. But it suits his purposes for them to think he’s dead. They tried to kill him, I think, because they knew he would be the one who would make a difference if he got back here.”

Ben leaned back in his chair. His face paled a bit as he realized the enormity of what Hoss was suggesting. “So when we sent that telegram asking him to come home, we set those men on him like jackals. They only had to wait in ambush for him because they knew the route he would have to take.”

“That’s pretty much how I got it figured.”

“But I didn’t know it was him when that telegram came.”

“I know. I figure by now he does too, but think about his situation then. He’d been ambushed once. He probably figured they would come back and finish him if they knew he was alive. He told you what he thought was enough for you to know it was him and got nothing really because you were so focused on our troubles here you didn’t put two and two together like he thought you would. Musta hurt him real bad, and he was already hurting inside and out. I wish one of us coulda been there for him. I cain’t tell you more yet, but I will when I can.”

“If he had sent a telegram that he was on his way, I would have figured it out troubles here or not.”

“I’m thinking he did send one. You know Adam. He takes care of details. He woulda told us ifn he was coming home. We never got it.”

“But he wouldn’t know that, would he? He had no way of knowing that someone here was interfering with our communication.”

“Nope, there was a lot we didn’t know and a lot he didn’t know.”

“Hoss, what are we going to do?”

“I think right now, it’s what I’m gonna do that matters. Tonight, I’m gonna talk to Denver. With the shooting going on, they’re turning this into a war. It’s time for us to all work together. I think it may suit our purposes for him to stay Denver for a while too. He can go places, do things, that none of us can do because nobody is watching him.”

“But what if they are watching him, Hoss. What if they are suspicious of him just as you are?”

“But they got no reason to be. They don’t know about the wounded man in Denver. They think Adam is dead.”

“But what if they do? What if they started checking on things when the loan got paid? It wouldn’t take long at all to find that a man suffered grievous wounds but lived. If they found that out, they might decide to come after him to finish the job so he couldn’t help any more than he has already.”

“Dang, I hadn’t thought of none of that. I guess I really do need to talk to Denver and ask about some of that. I’m gonna go ask him if we kin talk in here. You wouldn’t mind letting us have the space for a private talk, would ya?”

“We need a cover story so no one here gets suspicious. I still wonder if someone who works for us is passing information to our enemies.”

“I don’t think none of them are at least willingly, but you know men kin talk when they shouldn’t. If they got others listening and waiting to hear, yeah, they might find out things.”

“Then I have an idea of how to do this.”

Together, Hoss and Ben went to thank the crew as they finished plastering the kitchen and Hop Sing’s quarters. Soon those areas were going to be able to be used. The doors from the kitchen into what would be the main house were boarded off, but otherwise, the rooms were complete. The windows were in and caulked. All that needed to be done was to install the cabinets and move in the necessary furniture and other items. Hop Sing asked if he would be able to cook dinner in the kitchen the next day. Jamie was remarkably diplomatic in his answer saying yes but stating under which conditions that would occur. Hop Sing was still excited and so was everyone else at the prospect of a full meal cooked on the large stove that was still to be tested.

As the men filed out, Hoss walked up to Denver and asked if they could speak privately in the barn before dinner. Loud enough for others to hear, he said he wanted to discuss the building plan and it seemed Denver knew quite a bit about building things. In the barn, there was paper and pencils which would make it easier for the two of them to communicate. As was his habit, Denver nodded without raising his head. It was difficult to see much of his face with the beard, the longer hair, and the hat pulled down to nearly cover his eyes. Ben did his best not to stare as he tried to see if that was his son. He watched Denver walk with Hoss, and thought there was a resemblance, but there was a slight limp to the gait that made it difficult to be sure.

In the barn, Hoss sat on the edge of the desk and let Denver settle on a chair. He didn’t know any other way besides being direct so he let loose with his best shot first.

“I know who you are.”

The transformation in Denver was instantaneous and remarkable in its subtlety. He was on alert, tense, with every muscle fired and ready for a fight or flight. Hoss saw the change, and in his gut and in his heart, he knew he was correct in his assumption. He couldn’t think of any other reason for that severe reaction no matter how well it had been concealed because the signs were still there.

“I know what happened outside of Denver. I know how you were hurt. You don’t know how sorry I am about all of that. I’m guessing you didn’t know what to think and were horrified by what had happened. You wondered because we sent a telegram to come home and on the way, you were ambushed. Then you had the hospital people contact Pa. Under the circumstances, you were careful and didn’t want to give away too much information in that telegram so you didn’t give ’em your name, but then Pa sent a no-thank you letter and some cash. You thought he musta known it was you because he sent for you. We’re thinking you probably sent a wire that you were coming home, but we never got one. So when Pa got that letter, he had no reason to suspect it was you. None of us knew you were on the way and might be in Denver.” Hoss saw a reaction to that and knew he had guessed correctly. “Anyway, after you done what you had to do, you came here and found another son and Candy living in the house. Musta made you feel like you’d been pushed out. Wasn’t never the case. Jamie was adopted because that was what he needed. Had nothing to do with how we felt about you. We waited for you to come back. We wanted you to come back so much. We couldn’t figure out why you never came back.”

For quite some time, Denver sat still and didn’t react. Hoss had told the story in his way sticking to the main points not wanting to muddy the waters and wasn’t sure what was going to happen until Denver pointed to his head and his stomach.

“You were sick?”

Denver nodded.

“In England or in France.”

With that, Denver nodded but there was the hint of a smile too.

“All right, I’m still catching on to how to do this. England?” Denver shook his head. “France?” Denver nodded. “But there’s lots of trouble there now.” Denver nodded again. “So that’s why we didn’t hear from you. And I suppose you didn’t get our letters either. Did you get them when you got back to America?” Denver nodded. “So that’s the first you knew that we were in trouble. Then I suppose you got the telegram and headed home.”

A dark look passed over Denver’s features then.

“Rand had told me the whole story so I know what happened on that trip. It was awful just hearing it. I can’t hardly think what it musta been like to live it knowing what you went through and what happened to that lady.”

Denver pointed to his left ring finger and Hoss knew then that the lady had been his brother’s wife.

“I’m so sorry. I’d like to know more about some time when things settle down and we can take the proper time for it.”

Hoss sat down beside his brother then and wrapped an arm around him. They sat silently for quite a while gaining emotional support by being together again.

“Does it hurt any less because I know the truth too? Sometimes for me, the pain seems a mite easier to bear ifn I got someone to help shoulder that load with me.”

Adam nodded ever so slightly.

“Yeah, you got some mighty painful truth to carry, but bearing it alone makes it even harder.”

The two sat in companionable silence. When Joe walked into the barn unexpectedly, he didn’t know what to think. Hoss looked at Denver who nodded.

“Joe, I got quite a story to tell ya. Close the door.”

By the time Hoss finished talking, Joe was in tears and Denver wasn’t much better. Hoss wasn’t sure at all what to do. Neither of them could go out to see anyone without inviting a significant number of questions. He finally walked to the door and pushed it open looking for someone he knew. It was with great relief that he saw Candy and called him over. The foreman had been waiting wondering what was going on. Hoss asked him to bring their father and Jamie to the barn as well as their dinners.

“What do I tell everyone?”

“Tell ’em we’re planning the building of the rest of the house. Tell ’em we’re gonna be busy the rest of the evening drawing up plans so we don’t want to be bothered.”

“It is him then, isn’t it?”

Hoss nodded, and he almost broke into tears too. It was all so overwhelming. Candy put a hand on his arm.

“I’ll get the others. It’s going to be all right now, Hoss. You’re all together again and your family can heal. There isn’t anything that can stop you Cartwrights especially when you’re all together. You’ve told me some tall tales about your older brother. Now I get to see how much is true.”

“Ain’t no tall tales, Candy.”

“We’ll see.”

Candy laughed then so anyone watching would have no idea how serious their conversation had been. Next he went to see Ben and then Jamie giving them the cover story and felt sorry for the shock they would receive when they got to the barn although it seemed to him that Mister Cartwright had some idea what was coming. He wondered how much Hoss had already told him.

In the barn, Jamie took the news well with more curiosity than anything. Although Ben expected most of the story Hoss told, he was still staggered by it because of the details he learned. Some of the revelations of Adam nearly dying alone in Denver because of the telegram he had sent to him was difficult to accept, and the news of Adam’s wife being murdered was horrific. After all the condolences were given, it was time to look at their situation.

“So someone here is in on it. They’re monitoring our communication. It’s what we thought too. That’s why you came here incognito and continue to operate without letting anyone know who you are?”

Adam nodded although Hoss looked puzzled. Jamie leaned over to Hoss and whispered to him.

“He came in disguise. He had a fake name. He dressed in a costume unlike any clothes he normally wore.”

“That’s what Pa said?”

“Yeah.”

“All that in that one word?”

“Yeah.”

“I gotta learn me some of them fancy words.”

Ben never knew if Hoss did these things out of ignorance or because he was wise enough to know they needed some levity to get through the situation. It didn’t matter though because either way, it worked.

Smiling slightly at Hoss, Ben turned his attention once more to Adam. “Can you talk at all?”

Clearly struggling, Adam answered in a hoarse and quiet voice. “Yes.” Then he tried more. “Hard.” The words were guttural but could be understood. After a long pause, he uttered one more word that brought tears to all of their eyes. “Pa.”

Then Adam reached into his shirt and pulled out some papers and a small book wrapped in a thing oilskin and handed them over to his father. Ben smoothed the papers out and began reading as Jamie and then Joe leaned in to get a look. As Ben finished one and then another, he passed them to his sons. After a short time, Ben looked up at Adam.

“This evidence will help. This implicates some people in the plot against us. It’s not proof, but it certainly makes it look like they’re part of it by sending these letters to outlaws like Darcy and giving him your itinerary as well as your description. With what happened to you, it is incriminating. I’m assuming you took these from men you tracked down?”

With a nod and a scowl, Adam confirmed that.

Hoss was curious. “Pa, who sent those letters?”

“Officers of our bank sent them. The men who held the loans on us. The ones who said they would help us out when we got in financial difficulties. Apparently they were part of the plot to take the Ponderosa. I told them we had contacted Adam and asked him to return to help us out. I had no idea they were involved. So they set those men on Adam. I am so sorry, son.”

Only silence greeted that. Adam couldn’t respond and there was nothing more any of them could add. Joe did however want to make up for what he had been thinking and saying and knew there was only one way to do it.

“We’ll help you get justice, Adam. Whatever you need to do, we’ll back you; all of us will back your play.”

Clearly if Adam had any worries about them, they were gone. He nodded.

Suddenly Ben had a question. “Son, how did you pay off those loans? If you worked with the men at the bank, they know you’re alive. You could be in great danger.”

Adam shook his head and smiled slightly.

“You didn’t work with the men at the bank?”

Adam shook his head.

“Then how did you pay off the loans? You must have cashed in investments and the money had to be paid. I’m assuming you bought the stove and the other items that were delivered too. How did you do that without letting anyone know who you were?”

Struggling a bit, Adam managed to deliver one word. “Hiram.”

“Hiram Woods? Our attorney did all of that? He never said anything.” Looking at Adam who still had that hint of a smile, Ben nodded. “You made him work confidentially for you. The two of you were in cahoots. He’s good too. He never let on that he knew anything. I should have guessed though that something was up. He was in remarkably good spirits when I asked him to draw up those documents.”

The whole group was grinning by that time. Hoss expressed their feelings quite well. “Pa, you done passed on that sneakiness real well to elder brother here. I’m tickled pink that Adam is back and working on our side.”

However, Adam still wanted to be Denver. It was safer for him, and he could be more effective if he remained in that role. No one else needed to know. So he left first and headed back to the bunkhouse to turn in for the night. The day had been exhausting and not only from the physical labor. In the barn, there wasn’t much for any of the others to say. Joe mentioned that he was sorry for all that he had said. Ben said they would forget all of it, and Adam had never heard it and never would. With a thank you, Joe said perhaps they ought to all try to get some sleep. With agreement, Hoss headed to the bunkhouse and the others headed to their cots. Their enemies were still out there, but now the family was all together. At the bunkhouse, Hoss gave Candy a thumbs up. Any one of the men seeing it would simply think they had worked out the plans for the house. Only Candy knew it was an affirmation of their earlier discussion.

*****

Chapter 6

The next morning, the family received some bad news. Sheriff Roy Coffee arrived and asked to speak to Ben. Joe and Hoss went into the barn too to hear what had happened that brought the sheriff out to the ranch so early in the morning.

“Hiram Woods come to see me first thing this morning. I hardly had a chance to pour myself a cup of coffee, and your lawyer was banging on my door. Now, I have to tell you, he was pretty darn upset and wanted me to do something although I have no idea what I can do. Seems he got a visit from the president of the bank and the news he got had him fretting all night so that he could hardly sleep. I know you folks have had a real run of bad luck out here, and I rightly hate to bring more bad news, but Hiram wanted you to know.”

Frustrated with Roy’s slow delivery especially after all the revelations of the previous day, Ben showed his irritation. “Would you just tell us?”

“Now I was getting there, Ben. No need to get all upset. Seems that Adam is here somewhere. Now I don’t know if you know that, but that news was given to Hiram from the bank president so it’s pretty reliable. Adam has been doing business with the bank president on behalf of the Ponderosa. Now did you know that?”

“Yes, Roy, we’re aware of that.”

“You are? Well maybe I didn’t need to come out here at all.”

“We had sent information to Adam asking him to come because we needed an infusion of cash to weather the crisis and he had that in his investments or at least enough to make our loan payments. He did that and we no longer face a financial disaster as long as nothing else happens.”

“I don’t know that it’s such a big deal then that a telegram was sent out from the bank to the main office in San Francisco telling them that Adam is here.”

“What?”

“Yeah, somebody at the bank sent an official telegram to the main office in San Francisco with that information. Now the bank president said he only found out because he was standing at the door to the bank when the runner brought a reply back. The messenger handed it to him thinking it was his business. He opened it, and he said he was mighty surprised because he’d been working with Adam in secret, I guess. He didn’t know that anyone else was supposed to know.”

“No one else was supposed to know. We suspected someone in that bank must be part of the conspiracy against us, and possibly someone in Hiram’s office or someone spying on him is also. And someone in the main office of the bank is part of it too. We’re narrowing it down, but now Adam is in danger too when we thought he was safe here.”

“Ben, you gonna tell me what’s going on?”

“Roy, have you noticed any gunmen in town recently?”

“Matter of fact, I have noticed a few strangers that I’ve had my deputies watching. They looked like they might be gunmen. I don’t like to see that in Virginia City. Why?”

“Someone took a shot at me on my way to town, and someone, maybe the same man, took a shot at Joe.”

“I don’t know, Ben. Most of these men ain’t been in town but a couple of days although seems there’s more of ’em every day. None could hardly know who you are or know Joe that fast. You ain’t been to town in days. They would have to have local help or someone who was here longer.” Roy paused briefly and looked around before asking what he had been anxious to ask ever since he had first talked with Hiram. “So Adam is really here?”

Ben nodded at Hoss who left and came back with Adam who Roy knew as their new hand Denver. However it didn’t take long once Adam took off his hat for Roy to figure it out. He immediately greeted Adam and wondered at the lack of response. Looking back and forth from Adam to Ben, he waited.

“It’s a tough story to tell. For now, know that Adam can’t speak except for a few words if he has to say something. An attempt was made on his life that damaged his throat.”

So much was left unsaid that Adam had to react. Dropping his head, he looked down and Hoss and then Joe both put hands on his shoulders to comfort him. He had suffered so much and to have it reduced to such a minimal explanation actually hurt. Ben did understand.

“Roy, an awful lot more did happen, and eventually you will learn all the details of the tragedy that Adam suffered, but for now, know that the men we face will kill. We didn’t know that certainty before, but we know it now. That fire was meant to kill us. I know that now. It was only their incompetence in burning a log home that saved our lives and a great deal of our personal property. It burned because we didn’t have enough water to stop the fire, but because of the design, it burned slowly. If it had been a conventionally designed house, we would have been burned to death.”

“That’s a horrible way to die.”

“I think that’s what they wanted. We would have perished. The Ponderosa would have been theirs, and who would have dared to stand against them?”

“I see what you mean. That’s pretty heartless to think on killing folks that way just to make money and scare other folks.”

“When I heard the story of what they did to Adam, I knew that’s what they were. We need to be ready for them. In fact, I think we need to take the fight to them. Maybe we should strike now before they find out we know what we do.”

Roy frowned as did Hoss and Joe, but Adam nodded. He seemed to understand what his father wanted to do.

“Let’s go to the bank and find out who sent that telegram and ask him some pointed questions without you around. You can go arrest those two gunmen who tried to kill Adam. Find out where they’re from and bring them to the jail for identification.”

“Ben, I can’t just arrest two men for no reason.”

“Please describe them.”

Roy gave as detailed a description as he could of the men he thought were gunmen in town. Ben turned to Adam when Roy finished talking.

“Do any of them sound like the two men you’ve been looking for?”

Adam nodded. Roy needed to know more so Ben filled him in.

“Six men tried to kill Adam. He was stabbed repeatedly and left for dead. His wife was attacked and murdered. He tracked down four of the six men. Two he couldn’t find. Because he thought the attack on him was to prevent him from returning to Virginia City, he came here thinking that eventually those two men might show up here. Apparently they now have. So, if you would arrest them on suspicion of murder and attempted murder, Adam can go with you to give you a positive identification. Now, is that grounds enough to arrest those two men?”

“I gotta hear it from Adam, but I suppose I can’t rightly do that.” Turning to Adam, Roy had a question. “Is what your father said the truth as you know it, and can you swear that it is?” Adam nodded. “Then, by golly, I got enough to at least arrest those two. That should help too. If Adam can come with me to positively say they’re the ones, then I’ll throw them in my jail. I don’t like gunmen walking around town especially hearing what these two done, but Ben, how is that going to help?”

“Whoever hired them is going to get nervous about them being in your jail. They’re going to try to get them out one way or another. The same with the bank clerk because we’re going to get him to admit to forgery at least. He’ll be in jail too. We’re going to work our way up the ladder and find who is at the top.”

“We’re gonna need some help.”

“I have Adam, Hoss, and Joe. I’m sure Candy will help. How many more do you need?”

“How many more can you have in reserve in case this gets nasty?”

“As many as you want.”

“I like the sound of that.”

“Roy I have some letters you need to see too. We have some men including our bank manager and bank president who are not as upright and honest as they want us to think they are.”

Roy was as surprised by those names on the letters as Ben and the others had been. When Ben explained the significance of the letters and who had held them, he was angry realizing that those men had been part of a conspiracy to commit murder.

“Why don’t I just arrest all of ’em?”

“Because we want to see what they’ll do and say and who else is involved. I find it hard to believe that a bank president and manager and a teller did this on their own. I want to know who was helping them or directing them.”

“That makes sense. All right, let’s do it your way.”

The youngest and the oldest stayed on the Ponderosa with a few of the regular hands to help out in case there was trouble. Jamie didn’t like being left behind, but Ben wasn’t taking him at his age so he put Hop Sing in charge of his youngest boy.

Then Ben, his sons, and Candy rode into town with Roy. They met with Clem and the other deputies to alert them to what was going to happen. Clem went out to take charge of the reinforcements. Ben went to Hiram’s office to talk with him and make sure that they were doing nothing that was against the law. Then, Ben and Joe went to the bank as Hoss, and Candy stood outside the bank and kept watch for anything unusual. Loud voices from inside the bank alerted them to trouble so Joe raised his eyebrows to Hoss to invite him to go inside. Hoss’ mere presence could be intimidating. It seemed to work too as things got much quieter once Hoss was inside.

Soon the door opened and the bank president was there as apologetic as he could be. “I knew something was wrong. That’s why I took that telegram to Hiram Woods. This is all very underhanded. I should inform the main office.”

“Edward, your young man here sent that telegram to someone in your main office.” Hoss had a large hand on the shoulder of one of the tellers as Ben talked. “We need to find out who that is. He can tell us and get a lighter sentence for his part. Maybe a night in jail with those two gunmen will help.”

“Gunmen?”

“Yes, Roy has arrested two gunmen who were part of this plot too. They are part of the group who tried to kill Adam. He went with Roy to identify them. They should be over at the jail already too. Whoever talks first out of these three stands to get off very lightly. I don’t care too much what happens to the ones on the bottom. I want the ones further up. They’re all going to prison.”

“As they should, of course. Now, does Hiram want to come over here and look at the books. Perhaps he can figure something out. I want to cooperate fully.”

“I know you do, Edward. You wouldn’t have brought that telegram to our attention if you didn’t. You provided the key to breaking this whole conspiracy wide open. We won’t forget that.” Ben almost choked on the words but didn’t let on that he knew Markham was involved.

“Thank you, Ben. I believe in being a tough businessman, but I won’t stoop to tactics like these men are using. I fight my battles fair and square.”

“I know you do, Edward. Thank you, and we’ll let you know how things are developing.”

With that, the men walked together to the jail with the teller sandwiched among them. Joe had to ask what many of them were thinking.

“You were rather open with Mister Markham about what we’re doing?”

“Yes, I was.”

“Was there a reason for that?”

“Yes, there was. This young man kept looking to the manager while we were questioning him. I watched without being obvious, and I’m fairly certain that the manager nodded slightly at one point. I think he’s planning something to help our young teller here. I wanted them to hear everything so they could tell their bosses.”

“Pa, shouldn’t somebody be watching them?”

“Before we ever went to the bank, Roy set two of his deputies up to watch to see if anyone left. If so, they’ll follow to see where they go. I’m sure we’re being watched.”

At that point, Hoss had a comment. “Pa, I used to always say Adam was sneaky. Course, he is, but now I know where he got that from.”

When they walked into the sheriff’s office, there were chuckles all around which meant they had to fill Roy in on what had happened. The teller was locked in a cell next to the two gunmen. Roy said he was not surprised when Adam gave a positive identification of the two gunmen. They all noticed though that Adam looked disappointed though. Ben stared at him but of course but didn’t want to ask him why he felt that way. He thought his son might be recalling some unpleasant memories.

However Joe wasn’t so reticent. “Why does Adam look so upset you got those murderers locked up? I thought that was what he wanted.”

After looking briefly at their father, Hoss shrugged and decided to give an honest answer. “I think he might have preferred being the one who tried to bring them in or maybe that they’d try to fight back.”

“Now ifn he’d tried to do that alone, they mighta decided to fight it out with him.” Roy paused. “Oh, I understand. Considering what they done, I guess I am a mite sorry, son, but the law’s got them now.”

Sitting with his head down for a short time, Adam stood suddenly and gestured for Hoss to go with him.

“Where we going?”

Pointing to his hair and beard, Adam shrugged. Then he looked down at his clothing and wrinkled his nose. Ben asked him if he had enough money, and he took a roll of bills from his pocket as if to ask if he thought that was enough.

“Some things never change. He’s still got that insolent streak in him.”

With a grin, Hoss slapped Adam on the shoulder to escort him from the office. “He does it with a smile though, Pa. You gotta admit that.”

Ben had to smile too when the two left. It was a small bit of normal behavior in the midst of a lot of trouble. He looked over at Roy who had two rifles out and was cleaning them on his desk.

“Roy, can you tell me what you’re expecting?”

“Ben, we cornered those rats today. Now when you do that, they try to get sneaky and slither off in ways you never saw or they get nasty and come at you with everything they got. I don’t know what these rats are gonna do. They don’t know about the letters and papers you turned over. They may think we only have those three witnesses back there. That’s why I wanted your men around to help. If they decide to come at us with full force to wipe us out, we’re gonna need those extra guns. If they try to finesse us, well then, it’ll end up in the banks and courts, and the lawyers kin handle most of it.”

“If you had to bet, which would you expect.”

“I’m cleaning these rifles, ain’t I.”

“But you let Adam and Hoss walk out there.”

“They ain’t had time to do anything yet, and if it comes, it’ll likely be when we’re all in here. They’ll want to take us all out at the same time. I figure when Hoss and Adam get back may be the worst time. We need to be ready about then.”

Over the next hour, they made preparations. With the prisoners under guard, they boarded up the windows in their cells and told them why. Their bosses might decide they were better as dead witnesses who could tell no tales.

“We’d never talk.”

“They can be positive of that if you’re dead. Otherwise, they can’t be sure.”

The three prisoners especially the bank teller looked a lot less sure of themselves after Roy’s statement. Furniture was moved to create defensive positions and boards were placed across the lower portions of the windows. By the end of the hour that Adam and Hoss were gone, the sheriff’s office and jail were made into a defensive stronghold. When the door opened to admit Hoss, they thought they were ready for anything. Hoss stretched his arm behind him.

“Presenting the new and improved…”

A barrage of bullets hit the walls and windows and Adam dropped to his knees on the walk outside as Hoss grabbed for his arm and pulled him inside. Ben slammed the door as the others took up positions ready to return fire as soon as they could safely look out a window. Meanwhile they avoided the bullets that managed to come through the window.

Roy urged caution. “All right, we only have to hold them off a short time. Try to have a target before you shoot. If we can hit a few, we got a better chance of slowing this down.”

When Adam didn’t get up from the floor to help, both Hoss and Ben moved toward him. Hoss checked him over and didn’t see any blood. “You ain’t hit, are ya?”

Breathing hard, Adam of course found it difficult to respond. After a moment, he pulled the belt for his old pistol from his shoulder and showed Hoss and his father. He had purchased a new pistol and belt which he was wearing. He had carried the old one doubled up over his shoulder. A bullet had hit the doubled thick belt directly in a metal pin holding a bullet loop. It hadn’t penetrated completely, but the force had knocked him down and hurt him. Adam gingerly tried to move his left arm and shoulder, but that made him grimace.

“Let me see.” Hoss pulled the shirt away so he could look. “Owee, you’re gonna have a nasty bruise there. Best you sit off to the side for a bit. We kin handle this. Pa, he’ll be all right.” It was the first time Hoss had seen Adam’s back since he had returned, and he was somewhat shaken by the scarring he had seen which was the result of the knife attack Adam had suffered. Hoss didn’t want his father to see that yet.

Suddenly there was a lot more shooting outside, but far less shots hitting the office and jail. It was clear that the hands from the Ponderosa with Deputy Clem Foster in charge had arrived. It took some time before anyone got to the office to tell them it was safe, but it was Clem with a few men in hand. He took them to the cells and locked them up. Roy pointed out that he had put more men in cells than there were cots.

“That’s all right. I’ll give them extra blankets. They tried to kill me and the others as well as everyone in here. They can be a little uncomfortable.”

It was rare to see Clem angry that way making all of them smile a bit.

“Who you all got in there, Clem?” Roy was curious because he thought he had recognized a few of the disheveled men being herded into the cells.

“Quite a few of our local no-goods, a few others apparently who were brought in from outside to help out, and Edward Markham and his manager.”

“Edward Markham? I thought he was on our side?” Joe was surprised. He had played cards with Edward and thought he was a straight shooter and his name had not been on any of the letters Adam had turned over to his father.

Ben wasn’t surprised and from the looks Hoss and Adam had, they weren’t either. Joe looked at them waiting for an explanation. Ben gave it.

“He said he had been working with Adam secretly. He wasn’t. Hiram never mentioned Adam in his work with Markham. It was all on behalf of the Ponderosa. The only way that Edward knew was if he was part of the conspiracy and had access to whomever was spying on Hiram or stealing his records. We wanted to see who that was or we could have arrested the whole bunch at the bank this morning.”

Roy added more to the discussion. “Apparently, he thought he was being clever. I had a deputy waiting in the telegraph office looking like he worked there. He ordered the telegraph operator to look like he was sending the telegrams they wrote out but not to send them. I can’t make out exactly what they meant by all these code words they use, but we know who they were sending them to. We’ll figure out the rest. I think we ought to head to Markham’s office to do a good search and probably to his house too. The bank manager should get the same treatment. By the end of today, we ought to have plenty of evidence to put this whole bunch away for a long time.”

“Sheriff! Sheriff!”

The teller who had been arrested earlier wanted to talk. In financial difficulties, he had been forced into cooperating and no longer had the stomach for any of it. He spilled everything he knew. Information was collected to be sent to Carson City and to Sacramento about illegal activities so men could be arrested in those locations. Roy and Clem were going to be very busy.

While they got to work, Ben went out to thank his men and tell them they could go to the saloon for a round he was buying. Then he said they all ought to head home.

Adam shook his head no and pointed at Hoss and Joe before pointing at the saloon and holding up three fingers.

“Adam, the three of you have a lot of work to do tomorrow.”

Grinning, Adam put a hand on Hoss’ shoulder and one on Joe’s turning them toward the saloon. Ben had to smile though to see his sons together again after so much time had passed. Adam did look so much better with his hair cut and the beard gone although his face was pale. It was going to take some time to get used to seeing that scar on his neck and the small one on his face. He saw Adam drop his arm from his brothers’ shoulders and favor his own left shoulder. Well, Ben thought a few drinks and a night in town might help that some.

*****

Chapter 7

The next morning was a time for reflection and evaluation as well as some long-awaited communication. Rand sought out Adam when he returned from town.

“You really Adam Cartwright, one of these Cartwrights who own this ranch?”

Adam nodded.

Those last two men we was chasing are in jail in town?”

Another nod.

“Then, am I gonna hafta go back to Denver with you to testify against them because if I do, I’m probably going to prison too. I don’t think I’ll live long if I go to prison. They’ll know I worked with you against them. I know they ain’t gonna like that.”

The concepts Adam needed to explain were beyond his ability to communicate easily with Rand, and although Rand could read, he would have trouble with larger words if Adam tried to write an explanation for him. He waved to Hoss to come over to where the two sat. Using his hand in a circular motion, Adam got Rand to understand that he should repeat his main question. He did, and Hoss nodded

“I reckon Adam waved me over here because he wants me to answer that for him.” After getting affirmation from Adam, Hoss did that. “The two who he was hunting, are in jail and facing charges here and there murder and kidnapping charges in California according to wanted posters Roy found on them. Now if what they did here doesn’t get them the gallows, we kin send them to California for trial. They’ll likely get the gallows there. It ain’t likely, but if that maybe don’t happen, between here and there, enough charges have been brought up that those two will never get out of prison. Having them rot away in prison ain’t such a bad outcome either. I kinda like the thought of that too.”

“What about me and my brothers?”

“I done told you that you got a home here ifn ya want it. Now that ain’t changed at all. Adam feels the same and maybe even stronger about it.” They both looked to Adam for his agreement and got it. “You want to leave, that’s up to you, but you’re welcome to stay and work here as long as you want to make it your home, and your brothers are too.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, we keep our word.”

That settled one issue, but there were so many more. Some were easier to work on than others. Jamie and Adam needed to get to know one another. Jamie liked working on the house, and Adam was an integral part of that team, so they spent their days together. However, there wasn’t much in the way of conversation. Jamie could talk, but Adam couldn’t communicate much to his youngest brother.

There were times too when the reality of his situation hit Adam hard. At those times, it would have been good for him to talk with Hoss or his father perhaps, but he couldn’t do that either. The bouts of melancholy were a worry to his family, and they seemed to be increasing in frequency and duration as the weeks progressed. They worried that he might slip into one and not come out.

Adam wasn’t the only one affected by melancholy either. During the fight to save the ranch, Ben had withstood a great deal. Even when they burned his home, he had stayed strong or had seemed to be strong. Clinging to the truth that he had not lost a son, he had held it together for those sons. Adam’s return had seemed to invigorate him more. But on the inside, he had been crumbling slowly hiding it from his family. The signs had been subtle such as the exhaustion not felt by any other family members doing the same work. He only went to town if he had business to conduct. The withdrawal from some normal activities was noticed eventually as the others began to participate and he declined all invitations. Adam did as well, but he was in mourning so it was expected.

The younger sons didn’t know what to do about the melancholy of the oldest son nor the withdrawal of their father. It seemed they should be able to do something, but nothing they tried, worked. They turned to Doctor Paul Martin for advice.

“I wondered when you would finally come to me. I’ve talked to both Ben and to Adam. Neither will listen to me. They are stubborn men. Now however I think I have an audience with you boys who will listen.”

“You’ve got an idea about all this?”

“Yes, Hoss, I do.”

Settling in a chair, Joe motioned to the others to do the same. “All right, care to enlighten us?”

“Your father did a wise thing reorganizing the Ponderosa. It is much more financially secure than it ever was, and that has relieved quite a bit of stress for him. However, Ben Cartwright used to be the patriarch of the Ponderosa.”

“He still is!”

“Joe, if you could let me finish?”

Raising his hands in surrender, Joe agreed.

“Nothing happened on the ranch without Ben’s final approval. Now that’s gone. He needs a project, something which is his full responsibility. He’s feeling old and not wanted. So, it has to be something important too, not something you make up to make him feel good. That will only work until he finds out you were being devious.”

“So what do we do?” Jamie knew the rest of the story. It was this part he couldn’t figure out.

“It’s staring you in the face, boys. Adam! He needs help mostly in finding a way to better communicate so he can be understood. I’ve examined him. The knife wounds he had were ghastly, but his treatment was barely adequate and that’s what caused the problem. He was destitute as far as they knew so they gave him only the minimum of services. To me, that was inexcusable. However, I think some of what resulted from their inadequate care may be reversible.”

“Elder brother could get his voice back?”

“Hoss, he could get the ability to speak again. Whether he could have a voice like before is not likely although I can’t say it’s impossible. His voice box is undamaged as far as I can tell. The problem I saw from the examination he allowed me to do is that the amount of scar tissue near his voice box is putting pressure on it. There seems to be a flap of scar tissue in the way as well. The scarring interferes with his swallowing, his speech, and to some extent with his breathing. You may have noticed the sound of his breathing. That’s not healthy either.”

“Yeah, the men in the bunkhouse have noticed the snoring. Many a time I got up and rolled him over some so he wasn’t so loud.”

“An excellent surgeon might be able to improve that situation and the others by removing the excess scar tissue or as much of it as possible.”

Joe understood the whole plan Paul was suggesting. “And Pa could find that surgeon, convince Adam to see him, and then convince Adam to have the surgery. It’s an important job and one that would be satisfying if he could do it.”

“There, you understand what needs to be done, and how that would help both of them. By helping to resolve Adam’s main issue, we most likely help both problems, don’t you think? Once Adam can speak again, he can begin to work out other issues.”

“Doc, there’s some mighty big ifs in there. Joe’s saying that Pa would convince Adam to see him and then convince Adam to have the surgery. How much luck has anybody ever had convincing Adam to do anything?”

Jamie wondered about that as he listened and had to ask. “I thought you always say how smart Adam is. If it’s the logical thing to do, why wouldn’t he do it?”

“There you go, boys. Jamie has hit upon the exact idea you have to use. Adam isn’t convinced by the messenger but by the message. Logic will convince him not your father. So what you have to do is load up your father with all the logic of the plan.”

Hoss scrunched up his face in concentration and Joe frowned as he thought. Jamie smiled and answered the good doctor.

“Yeah!”

“I think we have the other person to put into the mix. Jamie thinks much like his oldest brother. He should probably be the one to sit down with your father and work out the strategy for talking with Adam. Once that was accomplished, he could begin the search for the best surgeon.”

“I thought you said we was doing it in the other order?”

“No, thinking about that and Adam, you need to be upfront with him the whole way. Nothing behind his back. You know what that would do to our planning.”

“Yeah, he wouldn’t like that. He wouldn’t even like this talk ifn he knew we was doing it without talking to him first.”

“So, tell him what we discussed. Let him know it was the first time we discussed that option for him. You might even tell him the project is to benefit Ben. He might allow it to proceed at least for a time for that reason.”

“Doc, that’s right smart. He just might do that.”

Except none of that worked with Adam. Ben took to the project enthusiastically much as the family had anticipated wanting so much to help his son. It was a way to ease his guilt and to take his mind from the daily reminders of his losses too. It was hard for the whole family because although the loss of their home had hit all of them hard, none could compare that loss to what Adam had suffered. They felt guilty feeling sorrow for a building when he had lost his wife and suffered grievous wounds. All of them needed time to heal yet none were getting the support they needed. Ben had hoped that they had found a way out of the morass by following Doctor Martin’s suggestions, but Adam resisted every suggestion no matter how logically it was presented. It led to another of those brothers’ discussions when Adam wasn’t around. This one was overheard by Rand.

Frustrated and not knowing what to do, all Joe could do was vent. “He won’t do it even though his life would be better if he tried it. Even if the surgery isn’t completely successful, there would still be improvement, wouldn’t there?”

Because he had traveled with Ben, Jamie knew even more than his older brothers. “Yeah, the surgeon Pa talked with said everything he heard from Doctor Martin led him to believe he could help Adam and probably get him his voice back. Why does Adam want to suffer when he doesn’t have to?”

“He wants to make us suffer to pay for what we did. If he’s not suffering, then we won’t, I guess.” Joe was being overly cynical and knew it. “Oh, hell, that’s not it. Even I know that’s not it, but it doesn’t make sense. My brother always makes sense, but this is crazy. I can’t figure out at all what he’s thinking.”

“Maybe it’s guilt.” Hoss had been the quietest of the three all along.

“Guilt?” Joe asked but Jamie was wondering.

“Yeah, he’s feeling terrible about bringing his wife out here and getting her killed. He figures he ought to be the one dead. He doesn’t want to make it easy on himself. He figures he got off easy enough already.”

“Doesn’t seem so easy to me.” Jamie had witnessed enough to know how badly his oldest brother had suffered. One glimpse of even some of those scars had shown him that.

“Compared to being dead though, it’s easy. But now he’s gotta live knowing she died for him. It’s a heavy load to carry especially now that he can’t do nothing more about it. All the men responsible have been punished. It’s all out of his hands and in God’s. I think maybe he’s put his fate in God’s hands too. Ifn he don’t talk, he figures it’s what he deserves for all that’s happened.”

“But he didn’t do anything wrong.”

“No, Jamie, he didn’t, but our older brother has a tendency to always take responsibility for things even when he wasn’t the one responsible. It’s weird, but I guess maybe it’s from when we was growing up. Pa put him in charge, and no matter what me and Joe did, he always held Adam responsible. I think it got ingrained in him then that if he was in charge, no matter what happened, it was his fault.”

“That wasn’t really fair.” Jamie had a hard time reconciling his image of their father with that kind of man.

“No, it wasn’t probably, but it was a hard life back then, and things had to be dealt with that way. There was no hemming and hawing about things. It was right or wrong and move on.”

“So, Hoss, you’re saying Adam sees himself as having done wrong by his wife, she’s dead, and he’s being punished.”

“Yeah, Jamie, I guess that’s about the sum of it.”

Joe whistled. “Hoss, when you think of it that way, there doesn’t seem to be much we can do.”

“Nope, I don’t see a way out of this mess neither. Not right now I don’t.”

“Are we giving up?” Jamie found that hard to believe.

“Jamie, there’s only one person in this family as stubborn or more stubborn than Pa, and that’s Adam. Do you think you could ever change Pa’s mind ifn it was the opposite of yours?” Hoss stared at his youngest brother until he dropped his head. There was no need for an answer because they all knew it. In a contest of wills, Adam was going to win this one. “Until something changes, we’re not making any progress.”

They had no idea of course how close that change was. A few days later, Rand was working with Adam preparing stairs to be installed in the center room of the new house. No one was nearby so Rand thought it the perfect time to initiate the conversation he had been practicing.

“I overheard your brothers talking about you.”

Bristling at that, Adam stopped working and stared at Rand.

“I wasn’t eavesdropping at least not on purpose. They never checked to see who might be near them. They didn’t mean no harm neither. They want to help.” Rand went ahead and summarized the conversation then leaving out nothing. “Fair storytelling so far? You believe it’s accurate?”

Adam nodded because everything seemed consistent with his brothers.

“All right, then I got a story to tell you about Denver. I didn’t tell you this stuff because you were suffering enough. I didn’t know then how it would affect you. I kept it to myself. Your wife didn’t have to die. It was her choice.”

Standing and balling his fists, it was clear that Adam wanted to hit Rand for that statement.

“Hear me out. She was yelling when they started hitting you. Do you remember that? Do you remember what she said? She said not to hurt you. She said she would do whatever they wanted if they wouldn’t hurt you. Then they pulled that knife, and she screamed and said no, don’t kill him. Anything you want you can have. I’ll do anything, but don’t kill him. Then she thought they had killed you. When they grabbed her and said not to fight, she said she was going to try to kill them. All that screaming and such inside that building. She fought them like a mountain lion. She hurt them. That’s why Matthews lost control. She hurt him bad. They never meant to kill her. They said it afterwards over and over. How she fought so much and Matthews lost control. They meant to kill you not her. They woulda left her. She didn’t scare them. She wouldn’t have been able to track them down or do anything to them. That’s what they thought. She was not a threat. They had no reason to kill her.”

Pulling a rarely used small pad of paper from his pocket, Adam wrote his question in simple terms so that Rand could read it all. “But they brought her with me and wouldn’t let her get back on the train.”

“They were worried she’d bring help for you. They only meant to hold her until the train left and you were dead. Then they would have left her with your body. By the time anybody was looking, no one would have found them with the little she knew. Her story would have been that for no apparent reason, seven cowboys killed her husband and then rode off. How many murders like that ever get solved out here?”

Sitting back down, Adam dropped his head as he thought about all that had been said. After a time, he raised his head and stared at Rand with glistening eyes. Raising his hands in supplication as if to ask why, he waited for Rand to explain.

“I know this was all real painful for you to hear. I told you because if she was willing to do all that to save you from hurt, to save your life, I gotta believe she would want the best for you now, and that’s the truth. The last thing she would want would be for you to suffer for no good reason after she gave her all for you. She wouldn’t want you to waste her sacrifice, her courage.”

Standing then, Adam pointed at their project but put a hand gently on Rand’s shoulder for a moment to let him know he appreciated all that had been said. When they finished the treads and the stringers about an hour later, Adam helped Rand carry them to the house site. Then he waved at his brothers working there and headed for the bunkhouse. After a few minutes, he came out with his saddlebags packed and walked to the barn. Hoss looked at Rand.

“Is he leaving?”

“Maybe temporarily.”

“Huh? What did you two talk about anyway?”

“Courage.”

Soon, Ben called out from the door of the barn and asked for someone to hitch up the carriage and asked which of his sons could drive him and Adam to town. They were going to Sacramento to see a surgeon.

*****

Epilogue

“Where is Adam anyway? He was supposed to be home hours ago. The last message we got said he would be.”

“Joe, I’m sure he’ll be here. He would never miss Hoss’ wedding.”

It was Christmas Eve, and Hoss was going to be married. He had met a lady during a social when people from town came out to help with raising the frame of the second story. She made the pies, and Hoss had asked about the pies. Soon they were introduced, and if love at first sight is a possibility, it happened for those two. Hoss’ smile the first night he had spent time with her let anyone who saw him know he had lost his heart to her already. It was only four months later, and they were getting married. The house was done although not yet completely furnished. Some of the rooms were a bit spartan, but they were managing.

In Sacramento, Adam had several surgeries to remove scar tissue. The surgeon didn’t want to do too much at a time and risk infection so he did small amounts with each one. The results were two-fold. Adam had a voice again. Ben had come home after the completion of the surgeries to make that report to the families. The other situation was that Adam had to stay in Sacramento during his recuperation so that he could be monitored by the surgeon. No one in Virginia City could handle that. Ben had reported too that Adam had taken an intense interest in his nurse and that they were playing chess and discussing literature on a daily basis. It led to many questions for which he had no answers. He wasn’t sure if it was romance or friendship. He hadn’t seen anything to indicate a romance, but Adam was private about such things and wouldn’t have made it known unless he was sure of it. Early in a relationship, it was typically impossible to know how he felt about a woman. Now Adam had written that he was coming home to stay, and they waited to see if he was coming alone or if he had someone with him. He had a tendency to enjoy springing surprises on his family so all bets were off as to what he would do.

Originally scheduled to arrive on the twenty-second, Adam had been delayed by bad weather, but only light snow had fallen on the Ponderosa. Hoss had timed his wedding according to when Adam had said he would arrive home. Now he was worried that his careful plan might not have been careful enough. When he heard another carriage, he looked out and saw Doctor Martin had arrived. Disappointed he looked away without realizing that Adam was riding in the back seat of the doctor’s carriage, and he had someone with him. Ben noticed though and was there to greet her warmly. Joe and Jamie too were soon there to help escort her into the house where she shed her fur wrap and bonnet. She was an attractive woman but what made her look so good was the lively look she had with a ready smile and eyes that lit up with every new person she met and every new thing she saw. Paul Martin stood with Ben as Adam made the rounds of the room introducing her and testing out his new voice with the guests.

“She’s perfect for him. That personality of hers could shine like a beacon in the fog, don’t you think? I doubt he will have a chance of slipping into melancholy with her around. “I don’t think anyone could slip into melancholy with her around.”

“Yet, she doesn’t challenge him. She’s very supportive. I was quite impressed meeting her tonight and on the ride out here.”

“That must be her nurse’s training.

“Did he say anything about marriage?”

“Paul, it’s always difficult with Adam. No, he didn’t say anything. I’m not sure what he’s planning, but he brought her here and that has to mean something.”

“Probably, but they didn’t mention anything on the ride here either except it sounds like she plans an extended stay. They talked quite a bit about things they planned to do and people Adam wanted her to meet.”

Then Hoss came down the stairs and spotted Adam. Racing across the room, he almost knocked some guests over. He wanted to hear Adam talk and got his wish. That only lasted a few minutes though as it was time for the wedding. Despite all of Hoss’ fears, the wedding took place without a hitch. The new husband kissed his wife, and the guests applauded. Standing proudly with his wife on his arm, Hoss announced refreshments and dancing, but Sheriff Roy Coffee stepped forward to ask for a few moments delay.

“I’m sorry, Hoss, but I got to ask for an official pause in the refreshments and dancing if ya don’t mind too much. You see, there’s one more thing that has to get done tonight. There’s another couple would like to get married up here. Adam, why don’t you bring your fiancée up here now so the minister can do the marriage ceremony and such, and we can all get to the refreshments and dancing and all the celebrating? I hear tell Joe’s got some fireworks to shoot off over the snow later.”

The room was nearly silent for a moment until Adam’s fiancée looked around.

“Is that it? Aren’t you happy for us?”

There was laughter and then applause as the couple moved to the spot recently vacated by Hoss. Ben stood in shock never expecting that surprise. Jamie was there with a glass of brandy and slid it into his father’s hand.

“Here, Pa. Joe says you look like you need this.”

Ben downed it in two slurps. “Thank you. You boys are going to kill me yet with these surprises.”

“Last one tonight, Pa. Me and Joe aren’t getting married.”

“You’re too young, but now, as for Joe, I wouldn’t object.”

Joe had stepped up beside them. “I heard that.”

“I know. I meant you to hear it.”

“There are some pretty ladies here tonight. Maybe I could elope.”

Luckily Joe was grinning as he said that or Ben would have been worried. He never could be sure what his most impulsive son would do. So he responded with mock severity.

“Don’t you dare.”

“Don’t worry, Pa. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Guests wondered at the laughter as Adam and his new wife finished their vows. Adam didn’t wonder. After all, it was Joe. He grinned after kissing his new wife, looked for Rand among the guests, and nodded in his direction. He wanted to introduce the young man to his lady. Life was good again.

***The End***

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