Summary: Little Joe Cartwright loves dime novels with all the action and adventure, and that becomes the center of his latest ‘brilliant’ scheme that has the usual unintended and unfortunate consequences.
Word Count: 10,452
Fighting what amounted to a duel but using an umbrella before escaping out the window. Hiding in the Chinese laundry and leading the villains on a chase. Ending up in a cheap saloon with a beautiful woman and being suave and seductive. Little Joe Cartwright couldn’t imagine a better book than that. It was the ending that was so disappointing. Having his father swat his behind and tell him to get home like he’d been on a childish lark was humiliating. It was all true too which made it all the worse. Then he watched Hoss walk out with his father.
“He’s got some business with the lady.”
“What kind of business?”
“The kind you wanted but was too young to pull off. He’ll be out shortly. He’ll make his point and that’ll be it.”
“Make his point?”
“Like I wanted?”
“But I wanted to kiss her.”
“If he can kiss her, why doesn’t he want to stay with her?”
“She isn’t the kind of woman he’s looking for. He’ll kiss her, but he isn’t interested in anything more that she has to give even if I bet she’d be willing to give it if he was willing to take it.”
Ben Cartwright interrupted then telling Hoss that it was enough talk about things like that. But Hoss was right too. Adam walked out, pulled Sport’s reins from the rail, and smoothly got in the saddle. Lotta came out to bid them goodbye, but she only had eyes for Adam. Little Joe guessed Hoss was right about all of it. Lotta had never looked at him that way no matter how hard he tried to get a real kiss from her. A little peck on the cheek didn’t count. He wanted to kiss a real woman not the silly girls who would let him with hardly any coaxing. He wanted the kind of women Adam seemed to be able to kiss. A decision was made right there: he was going to observe Adam and analyze him to learn how he managed to do what he did. Step number one was to ask Hoss about all the things Adam had done in town when Joe wasn’t around to watch him. Little Joe knew Adam wouldn’t divulge any of the details because he never seemed to like doing that when the story was about him. Hoss however loved to talk about their older brother and his exploits.
That plan took a few days to implement as Ben Cartwright wasn’t happy with his youngest son’s behavior and kept him close to home doing chores including odious ones such as digging the hole for the necessary while filling in the old one. He also had to muck out the stables and scrub down the stalls before putting in fresh bedding. As soon as that soapy water hit those boards, the smell was nearly overwhelming. Digging up the filthy soil and carrying it off to the pastures and bringing in loads of clean sand was difficult too. When he was done, he did get some praise from his father but the inevitable lecture too reminding him why he was doing such chores and doing them alone.
It was the end of the week before he was sent out to do regular ranch work but then under Adam’s supervision. They both knew it was because their father was fairly sure Hoss would be sympathetic to Joe’s plight by now. Adam wasn’t concerned that Joe ought to be punished for anything but wasn’t going to go against his father’s orders either when all he was doing was insisting that Joe work instead of play or go to town. On their short lunch break, Joe decided to complain.
“Don’t you think I’ve been punished enough?”
“I don’t think you’ve really been punished at all.”
“Every day you were working, I was working and Hoss was working. We weren’t being punished. So why would you consider that you were being punished?”
“Because I had to do awful jobs like scrubbing out the stable.”
“Who cleaned out the stable last time?”
“Well, I guess you and Hoss did it.”
“Why did we do it and not you?”
“Because I went with Pa to Sacramento so you two were the ones at home.”
“So, this time, you were at home being supervised because of your recent exploits, and Hoss and I were out on the range working. It is logical that it was your turn to do that job. Therefore, not a punishment. Now it’s time to get back to work so we’re not late getting home.”
Frustrated that he couldn’t think of a retort to that, Little Joe headed back to work and was grumpy for the rest of the day. Little Joe knew something had gone wrong with how he had presented his point of view but he didn’t know what it was. Adam found that a bit amusing knowing he had caught his brother in a logic trap. By his reasoning, it was good for him as he needed to examine his thinking. Too many times, Little Joe acted without thinking or thought too little before acting. He had a good mind but often failed to use it preferring speaking and acting first.
Later that afternoon, Adam somewhat regretted giving Little Joe something that distracted him not that it took much. They were pulling a calf from a mudhole, and Adam decided to be fair and the two flipped a coin to see who got the worst job. Adam got the wrong side of the coin toss and had to strip down and go into the muddy water. Little Joe had the rope and was to pull as Adam pushed. Little Joe had one additional responsibility which was to watch for the calf’s mother. He forgot about that part. The mother came charging in when she heard her calf bleat. She saw Adam with her calf and charged him tangling her hooves in his clothing as she did so and dragging them into the muddy water with her. Luckily the clothing slowed her down and Adam was able to escape her charge. Little Joe finished pulling the calf to safety and quickly removed the rope from it. Then he retreated waiting for the mama to claim her youngster.
Smiling at the family reunion, Little Joe turned around to talk with Adam who had a
grimace and a glare for his brother as he tried to retrieve his clothing. He couldn’t find his shirt in the mud hole but did find his pants trampled, muddy and wet. He had no choice but to pull them on and then retrieve his boots which had luckily escaped being trampled and pull them on. Riding home in wet pants and no shirt, he was as ornery as that cow had been who had charged him. Wisely, Little Joe said nothing. It did mean that he and Adam weren’t going to be working together for at least a few days. That worked out well for Little Joe who got to work with Hoss. He found out from Hoss all about Adam’s exploits in Virginia City fighting those who had tried to use Lotta Crabtree to kidnap him and extort concessions from his father. When he found out Adam had won a gunfight with a professional gunman, he was amazed.
“Why didn’t he say anything about that? He should be famous for that.”
“He ain’t that kind of man, Little Joe. He don’t want no part of being famous as a gunman.”
“Why not? People would be afraid of going up against us if they knew that about him.”
“Some would take it as a challenge too.”
“I read books about stuff like that all the time. I’ve got one now that I’ll finish tonight. I’ll tell you all about it when I do.”
Little Joe was excited when he finished that latest book and thought he would try to get his father and brothers to read it. “This one is a really good one. It’s about a lawyer who goes up against a gunman and wins. The people are so impressed with his courage that they elect him to the Senate and he does a whole bunch of good things for the state.”
“Now, why would I want to read the book, Little Joe? You told me the whole plot and the ending.” His father was not convinced.
“No, I really didn’t. Most of it is about what led up to it and how he finally walked out there to face him. It’s so realistic, it’s like being there.”
Slightly interested, Adam had a question. “What’s the title of the book?”
“It’s called The Man Who Shot Dangerous Dan. Dangerous Dan is the gunman. It’s supposed to be a true story.”
Quiet until then, Hoss stated a simple fact. “I met the man who killed the real Dangerous Dan.”
Now that got Little Joe’s attention. “You met the man who got to be Senator?”
“Nope, I met the man who really shot Dangerous Dan It was when I rode in that Army patrol scouting with Sergeant Piper. We met an old rancher along the way who helped us out. He knew that territory out there like the back of his hand and rode with us for a bit. At night, around the campfire, he talked some. He told the story you got in that book, but he told it different.”
“Aw, c’mon, Hoss, if he shot Dangerous Dan, he would have been the hero not the guy they elected Senator.”
“No, not the way he said he did it. He knew how fast Dan was and how many men he’d killed. He knew no good man could beat him. He went in an alley and shot him when he faced off against your hero there. The hero was his friend but he wasn’t fast enough to win that fight. You know how wild gunfights can be. Bullets are flying everywhere. People are ducking for cover trying to avoid being shot. They don’t really pay attention to what’s going on. He fired right away just as Dangerous Dan drew and fired. Then he left and never went back there. Spent his life away from towns and people.”
Little Joe was shocked. “He murdered him?”
“Some would see it that way.” Hoss was willing to let everyone draw their own conclusion.
Ben saw it that way. “It was illegal and immoral no matter what he was trying to accomplish.”
Adam was more philosophical about it. “A lot of good came from that one bad act. How many more would have been hurt and how many would not have been helped if Dan had been allowed to continue?”
“That’s not the point, son. There are rules, and mankind lives under those rules because we do better, all of us, when rules are followed.”
Little Joe had a question too. “Pa, what would you do if it was one of us facing Dangerous Dan in that street?”
“I trust that my sons would be smart enough not to get themselves into such a situation.”
“But didn’t Adam do that when he stepped into the fight with Langford Poole to save you? He knew you couldn’t beat Poole in a fight so he stepped in and took a chance that he could. You let him.”
With a smirk he tried to hide but couldn’t quite manage to do, Adam was rather proud of the logic trap into which Little Joe had led their father. He wondered if he could manage to think his way out of it. Joe continued as their father did his best to find a way to answer his youngest.
“Yeah, Pa, Hoss told me all about that fight. He told me how he was sweating just watching things play out. He said when the shots came and the smoke filled the room like a fog, he realized he wasn’t breathing. He saw Poole fall and said it looked like it took so long. He said he stared at Adam praying he wasn’t going to fall too. He didn’t. You know, Hoss, you told that story so well, you should write a book.”
“I can’t write a book, Joe. I never went to school like you and like Adam.”
“You never went to school?”
“Nope, there weren’t any schools when we got here. Adam and Pa taught me the three Rs. Then Adam went away to school. He had a tutor who helped him to get ready for that. He went to schools along the way to getting here but never for long. Maybe you should write a book.”
“Yeah, maybe I should.”
“Well, if you do, either of you, make sure it’s not about me.” Adam was always worried when his younger brothers came up with an idea. Somehow no matter what it was, there seemed to be a good chance it was going to be a problem for him.
Ben Cartwright went back to his newspaper relieved that the conversation had moved on from the question to which he had no answer. He looked over at Adam and saw that look that said his eldest was thinking and probably about that very issue. He lowered his eyebrows at him in warning. He got that famous smirk in return and found it especially irritating. Adam was well aware that he had contradicted himself even if Little Joe wasn’t going to force the issue and most likely had forgotten it already. Adam wouldn’t forget, and sooner or later, Ben knew he would bring it up. Meanwhile though, Ben had a little smile too and directed his look toward his younger sons. That made Adam’s expression change as he was clearly worried about what the two might do especially because of Joe’s fascination with his defeat of Poole. Adam wanted that forgotten as soon as possible but was afraid it might get better known if Joe had his way.
Over the next month, Little Joe said nothing more about the book nor anything about Adam’s fight with Poole. Adam relaxed thinking his impulsive youngest brother with the short attention span had simply moved on to other ideas as he was prone to do. Little Joe talked to him about traveling out west, about what it had been like not to have any of the usual trappings of civilization, and how they had managed without courts and a sheriff in those early days. When Adam asked him why he had so many questions all of a sudden, Little Joe had a perfectly plausible answer.
“When Hoss said you didn’t go to school and he never went to school, I realized how little I know about how things were for you and for him when you were younger. I just want to know about those days. You know, so I can understand things better about how you and Hoss do things and why. You two know everything about me so it only seems fair for me to get to know you two better than I do.”
That made great sense so he should have been suspicious. He wasn’t. He continued to answer his youngest brother’s questions in great detail as he actually loved to tell stories and reveled in all the attention he was getting. Not used to being treated that way by Little Joe, he found it gratifying and let that blind him to possible other motives. Joe asked him about many of the events of the early days on the Ponderosa and the troubles they had with men traveling through to California. Often they had little respect for who owned the cattle or horses they thought they needed.
“We had to stop them, Joe. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have survived here. It was a hard time and a hard life. Pa insisted that we treat harshly any trespassers and others who took our property. Word got out not to try it.”
“We weren’t shy about using our guns and they knew it. You know that even now when miners try to come on the Ponderosa in search of gold or silver, we do the same. We can’t let them get a foothold. We know what happened in California. It could happen here too.”
“You mean at Sutter’s Mill?”
“Yes, he lost everything. We could lose it all too and be overrun if we don’t insist on our property rights.”
“And you’re good with that pistol and rifle. People know it. Pa’s not so good with either.”
“It doesn’t matter. We all work together. It’s not important what one man’s skill is. What matters is that we have the whole group working together toward the same goal.”
“But it is a lot easier if some of those men, like you, are really good.”
Basking a bit in the implied praise, Adam was happy to agree.
Ben Cartwright was happy too. For the first time in his life, Little Joe was going to bed at a decent hour every evening without prompting. That he was getting along so well with Adam only helped convince his father that the young scamp was finally growing up. He even said that to Hoss one day as they were working.
“Pa, you know, Little Joe’s been making me nervous.”
“Nervous? Why would he be making you nervous by doing what he should be doing?”
“Pa, Little Joe ain’t never done anything like it before and he’s been smiling a lot too.”
“Hoss, that seems like a good thing. I can’t see why you would be worried because he’s been smiling a lot.”
“Pa, I guess you know best. It’s only that it seems that usually when Little Joe’s been smiling a lot, I ended up getting in trouble. He ain’t asked me about doing anything though so I don’t know what’s going on. It’s got me real worried.”
Although Ben was dismissive of Hoss’ concerns, they did get him thinking. He decided to approach the issue directly and asked Little Joe if he was scheming or plotting.
“No, Pa, there’s no scheme or plot at all. I’m not doing anything to try to pull Hoss or anyone else into doing anything at all. You can believe me on that. I’m doing my work and getting along with Adam. Is there something wrong with that? I mean Adam hasn’t complained about me in days if not weeks, and I’ve done every job that I’ve been asked to do. I can’t see why anyone would complain about how I’ve been acting. I mean doing my work, getting along with everyone, and following all the rules should count for something, shouldn’t it?”
“No, no, there’s nothing wrong with that, and yes all of that should count for something.”
Little Joe’s answer made perfect sense, and yet Ben was more worried after he heard it than he had been before he asked the question. His experience with Little Joe was that the more he talked when answering a question, the more likely he was covering up something. The length of his answer was usually directly correlated to the size of the issue he was trying to conceal. That correlation was most likely related to him being nervous. The length of this answer was significant and showed he must be very nervous if Ben’s theory was accurate. Ben decided to discuss it with Adam next. He repeated his question to his youngest and Little Joe’s answer to him.
“It makes sense at least.”
“Then why are you so nervous about it, Pa?”
“Because it is so unlike Little Joe to make sense, do his chores, work hard, get along with you, and not get into any trouble.”
Frowning as he thought, Adam finally looked up with a smile. “Pa, if we said this about anyone else to anyone else, they would think we had lost our minds, but you’re right. Little Joe is being too good so it must mean he’s being bad about something. What it is, however, I have no idea.”
“We’ll need to keep a watch on him to see what it is. He can’t fool both of us if we pay close attention.”
“Don’t underestimate him, Pa. He has some naturally strong abilities to escape detection.”
“You should be able to see through those. Over the years, I’ve had the same problem with you.”
Adam had a bit of a wry smile as his father stared at him almost daring him to deny it. He wouldn’t. One way to avoid confrontations with his father had been to make sure his father didn’t know too much. He had gotten quite good at that, and he decided this was one of those situations where the minimal answer was the best course of action to take.
“I’ll do my best.”
With a snort, Ben turned back to his desk. “I’m sure you will.”
Over the next couple of weeks, Adam did note Little Joe doing some odd things. He carried a notebook which was an odd thing to do and wrote in it fairly often. Adam tried to get Joe to talk about it, but he was unwilling to discuss it claiming it was like Adam’s diary or journal and private. Adam could hardly argue with him when he used that kind of argument. The other odd thing was that Joe bought some paper at the general store. When Adam asked him about that, he said he didn’t question Adam about all the paper he purchased assuming his brother was writing letters, drawing, and doing other things that were also his private business.
“You know, if we’re opening up a new kind of deal at home where we each get to look into what each other are doing all the time, then I guess you have a right to know all my private thoughts and activities. But until you’re willing to share your private matters, I don’t think you have a right to expect me to share mine.”
“I’m sorry, Little Joe. You’re right. I had no right to intrude on your private life.”
“And stop calling me Little Joe. It makes me sound like a boy. I’m a man now, and I can conduct business like a man and ought to be talked to like a man.”
“I don’t mean to say you’re a boy by calling you Little Joe. It’s a family name. We’ve been calling you that for so long, it’s hard to change.”
“Well, you need to work on doing that.”
“I suppose we should. You are eighteen years old now. It’s time to start thinking of you becoming a man.”
“Not becoming a man. I am a man.”
“Joe, someone doesn’t become a man one day because he has a birthday. There are a lot of milestones along the way as you learn all the things you need to know.”
“Like how to kill a man?” Joe stopped brushing down his horse and waited to see how his brother would react. Watching Adam, he could almost watch the stages of emotions his brother worked through from the initial anger to the eventual look of sadness. Then in a quiet voice, Adam began to talk to Joe in a way the younger brother had never heard him talk before that day.
“It’s not killing a man that’s so hard to do. It’s learning to live with it that’s difficult. It takes seconds to do the killing. It takes years and years to try to reconcile your heart and mind to what you’ve done. Even then, you wonder if there’s a stain on your soul that will never come clean. Worse than that, it gets easier to kill because you’ve done it already so you figure one more time won’t make the sin any worse. Then when you’re with a woman, someone still innocent and clean, you wonder if you should even be there. Will you ruin her by association? How can you ever be worthy of the love of another when you have broken the most important rule of civilization?”
“But if you kill bad men who are breaking laws or hurting others, then you’re a hero. You’re like the sheriff or the marshal who makes sure that everyone stays safe. You used to tell me and Hoss those stories about knights and such. You’re like one of those knights, you know, going around and doing the right thing vanquishing evil and fighting for good.”
“You make it sound so good, but sometimes all I was doing was making sure Pa kept the Ponderosa and the cows and horses he had. That’s not exactly a noble cause.”
“It’s noble enough if you’re doing the right thing.”
“Joe, I get the feeling you’re doing your best to make me feel better about things.”
“Of course, I am. I’m your brother.”
Shaking his head, Adam smiled. “Thank you.” He turned to walk from the stable realizing that Joe had done a masterful job of turning the conversation from him to Adam. Looking back, he saw his youngest brother pull out that notebook and write furiously. He wondered what in their conversation had inspired such an inspired creative moment, but he gave it no more thought. He should have.
Over the next few weeks, Joe seemed to lose interest in asking Adam any more questions. The notebook writing ended and apparently had been a phase. Joe stopped heading up to his room early in the evening, and his father had to frequently remind him that he needed to go to bed so that he could be up early with his brothers to go to work. When Joe got in trouble on a Friday night in town, the family concluded that their concerns about him had been unwarranted. They decided that he hadn’t changed at all.
There was one thing that Adam pointed out to their father that had him worried. Joe paid his own fine in town. In the past, Adam had often paid the fines to keep Joe out of serious trouble. Now he could hardly admit that and let his father know he had bailed Joe out of trouble that often, but of course Ben had known that Joe was notoriously short of funds.
“Pa, where did he get the money to pay his fine after celebrating at the saloon for hours with the hands?”
“Adam, he gets paid a good salary to work here. He simply may be getting better at saving some of his money.”
“Maybe.” Except Adam wasn’t convinced. Joe wasn’t good at saving money which he usually spent as soon as he got it or he lost it in card games or on some sure-fire scheme that never was. He wondered where Joe had gotten the extra money. It wasn’t going to be long before he found out.
On the following Friday, after a difficult week of herding cattle and breaking horses, Adam had a chance to spend the day in town. Ben had a list of errands that had to be completed and supplies to be picked up, but he had a meeting in Carson City. Because one errand was at the bank and another was with their lawyer, Adam was the logical one to go. Though Joe fumed at the decision, he couldn’t argue against it. He didn’t have the experience yet to handle those meetings by himself. Hoss didn’t care because he didn’t like those kinds of meetings in which the talk usually got him confused with all the fancy words.
“Don’t worry, boys. I’ll tip an extra one in your honor.”
“Dadburnit, Adam, now that there’s rubbing it in.”
“Sorry, Hoss. I’ll bring some peppermint sticks back.”
“Well, now you’re talking.”
Joe was offended by that. “Hoss, don’t let him pay you off so easily.”
“Joe, I’m not paying him off. I’m being nice.” Adam paused, and then he offered the olive branch. “What should I bring back for you?”
Surprised, Joe didn’t have an answer at first. Then he grinned. “A cold beer and a lady to perch on my knee and lean over to give me a few kisses would be good.”
“Joe, if I could manage that, I wouldn’t likely make it all the way home.”
After the laughter died down, Hoss did have a serious question. “You gonna have time to stop by to see Virginia?”
“I better if I want to take her to the social. By now, she heard about Lotta. I’ll have to smooth that over first.”
“You plan on courting her?”
Although Adam did his best to look noncommittal, he didn’t deny it either. That got Hoss and Joe hooting at him and asking when the wedding would be.
“What wedding?” Ben had arrived in the barn ready to ride to Carson City.
“Oh, Hoss mentioned Virginia and now they’re ready for me to marry her.”
“Adam, have you asked to court her?”
“I’ve been thinking about it, Pa.”
“Well, she’s a fine woman. I’d be happy if you would.”
“I’m not so sure her father agrees with you.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The comments he’s made when I’m around would be a clue. Despite my education, he has the attitude that I’m a little too uncivilized for his daughter. I watch my step with him. He seems to be warming to me though. As long as nothing bad happens, I think I should be able to ask him soon if I can court Virginia.”
“Adam, I’m very happy for you.”
Hoss and Joe added their congratulations. They all felt good then and both Ben and Adam left in a good mood. Ben’s mood changed rather rapidly on arrival in Carson City and his reception by business associates.
“Don’t think that intimidation delivered in any form is going to make a difference in us competing with the Ponderosa.”
“Yes, you may have your own in house hired gunman, so to speak, but he isn’t invincible. We can hire our own guns if we need them.”
“Why you put that garbage out there now just before these crucial negotiations for the next year’s timber contracts is too obvious. I know you’ve been greedy in building up the biggest spread in Nevada, but this is a big reach even for you.”
“What are you men talking about?”
Confused and angry, Ben would not plead for information but definitely wanted it. He had expected the usual convivial repartee and a couple of days of catching up with the other men who ran timber operations as he did. It was rather clear they had no intention of including him in the social activities when all three men turned their backs and walked away without deigning to answer his question. They assumed he knew.
When Ben went to the hotel, he received many looks, some admiring and some curious while others seemed a bit antagonistic. He didn’t understand any of them. When he went to lunch, he got a better idea of what was happening. Approached by a reporter from the largest newspaper in town, he was shocked by the first question the man asked.
“Did you intentionally groom your oldest son to be your enforcer of the law when you moved here and there was no law and government?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Isn’t it true that at an early age, your son Adam killed a number of men who attempted to trespass on your land to take cattle or horses or to prospect for silver or gold? Didn’t he lead men against these interlopers to protect your empire? Doesn’t he have remarkable skills with both pistol and rifle and has used both to kill? Isn’t he a threat to anyone who opposes you?”
“My son is not a killer. He never did anything except defend himself or others when he was forced to do so. Where have you gotten such ridiculous ideas?”
“From the book, of course.”
“The most popular book on the Comstock and throughout Nevada by now. The book has been selling like hotcakes. It took me days to get hold of a copy.”
The man actually seemed to shrink at Ben’s thundering voice. He pulled a dime novel from his pocket. He didn’t know what game Ben Cartwright was playing, but he was so intimidating, he didn’t dare resist.
“This one, of course. The book written by Joseph Francis Cartwright, A Bold Brave Hero In Black about the Knight of the Ponderosa. Most are referring to him as the Black Knight now for more reasons than one.”
Grabbing the book, Ben could hardly believe it. Many things began to fall into place now with all that had been happening. He slapped a dollar into the hand of the reporter.
“That should cover the cost of the book.”
“But I can’t get another one!”
“You clearly read it. You don’t need another one.”
Forgetting his meal, Ben strode to his room and sat in a chair and began to read the book written by his youngest son. He had to admit, Joe had used good grammar and spelling or had an editor who had taken care of any issues. The story itself was a fabrication, but Ben could see how Joe had incorporated the stories he must have heard from Adam. The spin that Joe put on them though was purely fictional. Most would not know that however when one member of the family was writing about two other members of the family because both he and Adam were well represented. Joe had changed their names and the name of the ranch, but Ben could see why not a single person had been fooled. Dark-haired Aaron Wright and his father Bill Wright with the silver hair on the family ranch called Heavenly Pines next to Lake Tahoe were too easy especially when written by the youngest of the Cartwrights. He was so furious that if he was home, he might have taken his belt to his eighteen-year-old son. There was a possibility that might happen anyway considering what had happened. Despite the difficulties he was having, he worried about the reception Adam must have gotten in Virginia City and wondered why no one had warned them about the damn book.
There was a knock on the door then. He didn’t want to see anyone, but a voice announced the sheriff so he had to answer. Opening the door, he saw the reporter behind the sheriff. He strode to his chair, retrieved the book, and walked back to the door thrusting the book into the sheriff’s hand.
“I suppose he told you I paid him ten times what it was worth.”
“He did, but he didn’t want to sell it.”
“He can have it. I have no need of such garbage. Is there a fine?”
“No sir. I think everything is fine now.” The sheriff took the book and handed it to the reporter who wanted to stay, but the sheriff pointed down the hall indicating it was time for him to leave.
Ben pulled ten dollars from his pocket. “Perhaps there is a fund that could use a donation then?”
“Yes, sir, there is always a need. Thank you.” Pausing for a moment, the sheriff was curious. “You’ve stirred things up quite a bit here. Will you be staying?”
“Only to send a lawyer in to represent our interests. I’m afraid my presence would be too much of a distraction right now. I’ll try to keep out of the public eye as much as I can until this ridiculous story can be forgotten.”
“You didn’t know about it then?”
“Sheriff, do you have children?”
“Yes, three of them, two girls and a boy.”
“Watch out for any of them that are sneaky.”
Smiling then, the sheriff left. Ben steeled himself for more looks and comments and went out to engage an attorney to represent him at the negotiations. By the end of the day, he was back in his room waiting for that attorney to return with news and hopefully it would be acceptable. Any hopes of a successful trip were long gone.
At about the same time, Adam was on his way home. He was angry as well as confused and upset. Taking his time, he guessed that a couple of hours might be good not only for him to put things in perspective but also to determine what had happened. It had all started with what seemed to be a pleasant experience at the general store when he had been approached by several women.
“Hello, Adam. It certainly is good to see you. I’d love to see you more often. You know, we could discuss the history of the region and how difficult those early days were. You were so important to what this area became. Wouldn’t you like to reminisce about those days with someone else who lived here then?”
Barbara was an attractive woman from a wealthy family who hadn’t seemed to be all that interested in Adam but now seemed to desire his company. She put a hand on his arm as she talked to him stepping close to let him know her interest was genuine. She would have likely had more to say except two other women let him know they wouldn’t mind him calling on them. The attention was heady, but he didn’t know what had instigated it. Nevertheless, as he was reveling in it, Virginia walked into the store. Her glare melted all the goodwill he had been feeling.
“So, the stories are true. All you want are hordes of adoring women. Well, I don’t plan to be one of them. Todd McCarron has asked if I would accompany him to the social. I said I would.?”
“But you said you would go with me.”
“That was before the book and finding out about you.”
“Don’t play me for a fool any more. It’s insulting.” With that, she turned on her heel and left the store.
He called after her in an unusual display of honesty. “But I was going to ask your father if I could court you.”
Virginia stopped and looked back. “Don’t bother. He’s read the book too. He was right about you all along apparently.” Then she turned and walked away without another look back.
The other women were going to try to continue the previous conversation, but Adam looked at them and raised his hands. “Do you know what book she means?”
“Of course. Don’t you? After all, your brother wrote it?”
Suddenly, Adam had a terrible sinking feeling and waited for the words that he knew must be coming. He heard them. Joe Cartwright had written a dime novel based on the stories Adam had told him and any other stories Joe had heard. He must have done a great job in creating a fictional version of his oldest brother that had captured the imagination of others except those others didn’t see it as fiction. This was a big mess that was going to be difficult to clean up. Adam wondered how widely the novel had been distributed. He didn’t like the answer when he heard it.
“The first copies came from the publishing house in St. Louis. They’re likely all over the west by now. You’re famous, Adam, with the book your brother wrote.”
For a private man, this was the last thing Adam wanted. He got attention wherever he went in town. Questions dogged him about things he had done in his life. Derisive comments greeted him when he went to the saloon to try to escape the stares and the questions. He finally went to the stable and sat in an empty stall by himself until the time he had been told his supplies would be ready and loaded. Then he paid the hand at the livery stable to go get the wagon and drive it to the back of the stable. From there, he began the ride home.
Before he had left, he had gotten a copy of the book. He wanted to read it, and at the same time, he didn’t want to read it. Halfway home, he took a break while there was still some light that was good enough for reading and skimmed through most of the book. All it did was make his temper nearly explode. When he got home, he guessed he better tell Hoss to protect Joe or he was likely to kill him. He did his best not to take out his mood on the horses, but they must have sensed his mood and became difficult to handle. That made the ride home even more difficult. When he came into the yard, Hoss was there working and one look at Adam told him it had been a difficult day. He approached cautiously. Emotionally and physically exhausted, all Adam did was toss the offending book to his brother. Curious, Hoss took a quick look at it, skimmed through it, and then looked up in horror at his older brother.
“He did this? Really?”
“He did. Look at the name. Most writers don’t use their own name, but he couldn’t resist putting his name on it. It’s even worse when you get a chance to read the details. I’m thinking of killing him.”
“Adam, now I’m gonna go talk to him, and I’m not gonna let you kill him although I’m guessing Pa might do it when he gets home.”
Holding up his hands to show he would agree, Adam climbed down from the wagon. Hoss put a hand on his shoulder to show support. Both knew this was a mess that was going to take some work to clean up.
When Adam walked into the house, he walked across the room and up the stairs never looking at Joe and not even acknowledging he was there. Hoss said goodnight and Adam raised his hand to wave briefly. Joe nervously said goodnight, and Adam acted as if nothing had happened continuing up the stairs to his room and closing the door loudly enough that they could hear it quite distinctly.
“He’s really mad.”
“Joe, like I said, I don’t know how you could do this to him.”
“I made him the hero! What’s wrong with that? Oh, I know now that I should have asked him, but I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“It was a surprise all right. Joe, Adam likes his life to be private for one thing. You took what he told you and made stories for everybody to read.”
“But I only used the good stories. He’s like one of those knights he used to tell us about in stories. I finished up with that fight he had with Poole so he was like a knight who won in the end.”
“No, you didn’t!”
“Sure, I did. It was the best story of all. I changed Poole’s name to Pike.”
“Joe, people are likely to know it’s Poole, and especially Poole is going to know.”
“He’s likely to come back here for a rematch.”
“That’s not important. Adam already beat him once.”
“Poole knows that. He’ll do something to make sure that doesn’t happen this time.”
“What can he do? He knows Adam is faster.”
“Catch him by surprise. Get him with the sun in his eyes. Distract him with something he can’t ignore. Joe there are so many things that can happen that can influence how a gunfight turns out. Being fast is only one thing. Being accurate is important too. But there’s how tired you are and how well you can focus on what you’re doing. How well you can see your target.”
“I’ve never had a gunfight.”
“I know. Joe, you never want to have one if you can avoid it, and now you’ve put Adam in a position where he may have a bunch of them.”
“A bunch of them?”
“Sure. Anybody thinking to make a reputation can start by shooting him.”
“That’s why he’s upset.”
“That’s part of it.”
“Pa’s not going to like it either.”
“No, I think you can count on that.”
With shoulders slumped, Joe sat down on the hearth. “I thought you all would be so proud of me, and instead, all I did was mess up again.”
Joe looked so miserable that Hoss almost felt sorry for him. However, with all the damage he’d done, he thought Joe deserved to feel miserable. The next day, Adam left the house before either Joe or Hoss were out of bed. He headed out to the range to work alone. Neither of them thought to interfere with that decision. In fact, Joe thought perhaps he might do something like that, but Hoss told him his jobs were to work at home.
“I think you know why. Pa’s coming home today, and I’m guessing he’s gonna want to see you right off. I ain’t gonna be riding all over creation looking for ya.”
“You going to talk with Adam?”
“I’m going to work close enough that he can come talk if he wants to do that. If he doesn’t, I’ll let him be. He deserves some space right now.”
“You want to be close to protect him too if you need to do that too, don’t you?”
Hoss didn’t need to answer. The rest of what Hoss said came true. At noon, when he took a break for lunch, he heard a rider approaching and guessed it was his older brother. Hop Sing had packed extra food knowing Adam had taken nothing with him except water.
Hoss showed a flask.
“More than a little.”
After passing the flask back and forth a few times, the two shared some chicken. Then finished off what was left in the flask. Adam wasn’t used to drinking much, and the brandy affected him. He leaned back and then lay back in the grass. Hoss hoped he would relax but not fall asleep although he guessed Adam probably needed that too. Adam closed his eyes but spoke softly.
“I’m not going to the social.”
“Isn’t Virginia going to be upset?”
“She decided to go with Todd McCarron instead of me. I’m no longer her first choice. I’m guessing her father would never approve now anyway. It’s over.”
“I’m sorry. That must hurt.”
“I tried to show myself as an educated man with integrity, honesty, and ethics. All of that seems to have gone by the wayside with one silly book. All people are paying attention to now are exaggerated stories told by a boy who has no idea what he’s done. Anyone impressed either way by what’s in there doesn’t deserve much in the way of respect.”
“He thought we’d be proud of him.”
Snorting, Adam looked at Hoss to be sure he was serious. Then he shook his head and lay back again.
“Do you think Poole will come for you? He’s the one who worries me most.”
“No, he doesn’t worry me.”
“He doesn’t. You’re not worried about him? He’s darn good.”
“He is, and I was lucky the first time catching him by surprise. No, Langford Poole does things for money. There’s no money to be made here. He doesn’t care what a boy writes in a dime novel piece of trash.”
“You keep calling him a boy and you’re gonna have another real problem with him.”
“I’m calling him that because that was how he acted. He wants to be a man, he has to act like one. Going behind my back, ignoring my wishes, and profiting from that is hardly what a man would do.”
“So, if you’re not worried about Poole and not about Joe, then who worries you. Who is it you are worried about cause I kin see them worry lines on your forehead, and I know someone’s got you fretting something fierce.”
“Young guns. There are other boys out there who don’t have good sense. Some might think it a good idea to earn a reputation by killing me. I won’t see them coming because there is no grudge, no enmity driving their behavior. They could show up anywhere, anytime. I won’t know who they are. How do I get ready for that?”
“Damn, you’re right. I don’t see how you can.”
“Maybe I’ll be spending the rest of my life here on the Ponderosa, no wife, no family of my own or I’ll have to leave and start a life far from here.”
“Aw, don’t talk like that. There’s got to be a better way.”
“You think of it, you let me know.”
“Well, I kin watch your back. Let’s work together today and from now on for a while. Ain’t no young gun gonna get close to ya without me being there to help.”
There was a smile in answer to that but it didn’t show any real humor. They both knew that no one could be with Adam everywhere he went and all the time. They did work together the rest of the day and planned to tell their father the plan when they got home that evening.
However, Ben wasn’t in much of a mood to talk, and Joe looked about as upset as they had ever seen them. They eventually got a full report of what had happened in Carson City. Retelling had reignited Ben’s anger so it took some time for him to cool down enough to explain calmly and rationally or at least as much as that was possible under the circumstances. He had felt humiliated by all of it, and he had been worried the entire time too about what Adam had faced. Adam gave a short version of his reception in town surprising both his father and Joe with Virginia’s response.
“Son, she didn’t give you a chance to explain? She took up with Todd before she even talked with you?”
“Yes, I know. Maybe she was looking for an excuse. I know her father has been talking against me the whole time I’ve been calling on her. It could be that he poisoned the well sufficiently that she wouldn’t even consider a marriage proposal from me and wanted to end it before she received one.”
It was as open as Adam ever was about a relationship, and it was the last time he talked about Virginia for almost two years. They were going to have to use intermediaries for negotiations locally until things calmed down but could do direct negotiations in San Francisco without worrying about a dime novel. There, those involved in such business wouldn’t be reading such fare and therefore wouldn’t be affected by any claims in it. Ben and Adam sat down to discuss the advantages of Adam being out of town too and made plans for him to take an extended trip to San Francisco.
“Hoss will stay with you until you’re safely on the stage. Wire us when you’re coming back, and we’ll be sure to have Hoss or other men there to greet you. I don’t want you challenged in street with no way out.”
“I don’t want to be treated like a child in need of protection.”
“Not a child but a man who has been put in a difficult and dangerous position through no fault of his own.”
Ben directed a glare at Joe once more at that point. He did that often enough that Joe knew it was part of his punishment for being foolish: a constant reminder that he had acted as a foolish boy.
“I suppose it won’t be so bad. I can visit the theatre and eat at fine restaurants and not worry about being shot for at least a few weeks.”
Unlike his father, Adam ignored Joe rather than remonstrating. His method of punishing his brother was shunning. At first, Joe hadn’t thought it was too bad. It seemed better than angry words and accusations or possibly threats. However, the longer it went on and the more he was treated as an invisible object, the more it hurt. He wanted it to stop but knew he had no means to do anything about it. When Adam left for California, he had not said a single word to his youngest brother since the morning he had left for town and found out about the novel Joe had written.
In San Francisco, Adam had to put up with some teasing and a few jibes. His friends stopped the teasing when they realized he was hurt more by it than amused. Competitors continued with the jibes only until they realized they didn’t gain an advantage by doing so and might actually be hurting their case by angering the man and making him more determined to defeat them in the competition for contracts. By the time Adam left the city three weeks after arriving, he was much more relaxed than when he had arrived.
Traveling home though, the concern he had with what might have happened because of Joe’s novel began to rise again. The first people he saw on his return were Hoss and Sheriff Coffee who confirmed his worst fears. Roy spoke first.
“Now, Adam, it ain’t been too bad, but I’ve kept watch for any young guns and used vagrancy laws to move ’em out of town almost as soon as they got here.”
“Like I said, older brother, I got your back too.”
“I don’t want anyone else to be hurt because some fool is gunning for me.”
“Let’s hope we kin scare ’em off.”
“With two? You know these young guns. They all seem to think they’re so fast they can defeat two as well as one.”
Hoss shrugged. “One of the horses threw a shoe. It’s over at the livery. You want to walk there with me or wait here?”
“I’ll wait here rather than lug all this luggage that far.”
“All right then. I’ll be back right off.”
Two young men who had taken menial jobs watched and smiled. They had been waiting expecting Adam would be coming home soon. They had been right. Avoiding the fate of other gunmen who had been sent unceremoniously from town, they were still there. They had managed to stay by not openly wearing their pistol rigs but more importantly by seeking employment, and they had been biding their time until their target showed up. Both decided to make their move. Walking into the street, they called out Adam who had no choice but to face them.
Then an amazing thing happened. From a nearby saloon, several men rushed out and took up positions on either side of Adam ready to back his play. One of the gunmen dropped his pistol to the ground as ordered. The other hesitated. He had a few questions he wanted answered.
“You afraid of me, Cartwright?”
One of the other men answered. “Nope, he ain’t afraid, but he’s got a lot of friends. You all need to know that. Ain’t nobody ever got close to him because of that.”
“That’s how you win? You’ve got friends?”
“He’s got family too.” Hoss came back and surprised the two by walking up behind them.
“This ain’t fair.”
Disarming the young man from behind, Hoss chuckled. “Seems to me that two against one weren’t fair neither. You two is heading out of town and don’t never come back. You kin tell anybody you know about what happens here.”
By then, Sheriff Roy Coffee was there alerted by townspeople and repeated what Hoss had said. The men to either side of Adam headed back into the saloon hardly acknowledging his thank you.
“Hoss, I hardly know those men.”
“Yeah, I know, but Joe does.”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“He took the money he made from the book and gave it to Sam inside the saloon there. The deal is, anytime anything like this happens, those men rush out to back you. If all goes well, each one gets seven dollars or a week’s pay. It’s a pretty good deal for men like that. They probably won’t mind ifn it happens again.”
Looking back at the saloon, Adam rubbed the back of his neck. “I was a bit nervous there. I thought I was going to have to kill those boys.”
“Mighta gotten hurt doing it too.”
“Joe cleared this whole idea with Roy first and made sure me and Pa were all right with it too.”
“I was gonna tell you about it but I didn’t have a chance. Sorry, but I never thought it would happen so fast. I mean, you ain’t been home but fifteen minutes.”
“You and not Joe?”
“You wasn’t talking to him ifn you remember, last I recall.”
“Yeah. I guess that’s over with now.”
“It’s all good?”
“Good enough.” Pursing his lips, Adam wondered about the situation though. “Joe came up with this idea on his own?”
“Well, Pa did tell him he needed to figure out what he was going to do about things, and he did have a couple of other ideas that were a mite, well, let’s just say, Pa said no. When he brought up this idea, Pa figured it could work and asked him to talk to Roy.”
“Let’s go home then and see about getting things back to normal, or as close to normal as we ever are.”
The two laughed and walked to the livery stable to get the carriage that Hoss still hadn’t retrieved.
“You know, he can’t make up for what happened with Virginia.”
“I know, and I’ve been thinking about that. She never gave me a chance to explain. She was right there throwing Todd’s name in my face. I have a feeling something was going on that I didn’t know, and maybe she was looking for an excuse to call it off between us. She certainly did it fast enough when she got an excuse to do it and didn’t seem to have any regrets.”
“You gonna miss her?”
“No, I think I’ll put her in the past and look to the future. There’s a better woman out there for me. I just have to find her.”
The slight smile Adam had belied the seriousness of his words. Hoss thought for a time, but it wasn’t until they neared the ranch house that he asked a question about it. Until then, on the carriage ride home, Adam regaled Hoss with stories of all that he had done in San Francisco, and Hoss told Adam about everything that had happened at home while he was gone.
“You got a plan to get even with Joe though, dontcha?”
“I may have something in mind.”
“Pa ain’t gonna like the two of you going at each other over this when he thought this was settled.”
“We won’t ‘go at each other’ at all. I doubt Joe will even know I’ve evened the scales.”
Knowing he could trust Hoss, Adam explained. Hoss shook his head.
“Remind me never to make you mad.”
Two weeks later, Ben got a letter from a friend in San Francisco saying that Adam had invited him, his wife, and his eighteen-year-old daughter to visit the Ponderosa. If Ben didn’t mind, he would like to accept. Soon the arrangements were made. Joe of course volunteered to give up his work on the ranch to escort the young lady. Of course, Adam and Hoss objected, but Joe asked first, and was the same age as the young lady. So, the two older Cartwright sons were off on the ranch rounding up cattle while Joe stayed home to help entertain the guests. When Adam and Hoss returned, Joe was so glad to see them.
“You two are so lucky. I was in hell. That woman was the most irritating female I have ever met. It started with that whining voice. Nothing was ever good enough and demanding. Boy, she wanted things her way all the time. I’ve never been so miserable in the company of a woman in my life. The last week has been horrible.”
“Joe, that’s awful.”
“Yeah, Joe, we’re real sorry about that. I guess we got lucky then that Pa picked you to be her escort.”
Adam slapped Hoss on the shoulder so he would stop talking. They went to take care of their horses, and Joe stood in the yard wondering. But it couldn’t be. He was sure that no one could possibly have worked out something so dastardly and concluded he didn’t. Even if he could, Joe thought Hoss would never have gone along with it. He walked to the house sure he was correct.
Over the next few weeks, he wasn’t so sure as Adam started writing in a little notebook. It seemed to happen every time the two talked. Joe felt better about it when Ben interrupted one day and Adam left his little notebook he had been holding on the table on the porch. As soon as he could despite Hoss’ warning not to do it, Joe snatched up the notebook opening it to find it blank.
“Aha, he’s just been bluffing. There’s nothing in here.”
Marching triumphantly into the house, Joe presented the notebook to Adam.
“Here, you left this on the porch.”
“Oh, thanks, Joe.” Turning to their father, Adam waved. “I’ll take care of those things today.” Then he left.
Joe was grinning, and Ben had to ask why.
“I thought Adam was writing in those notebooks, but he wasn’t. It was blank.”
“Not surprising. I only brought it back from town at noon. It’s the third one he’s asked for in a couple of weeks. I don’t know what he’s been writing about so much.”
At that response, Joe stood openmouthed and Ben had no idea why.
Outside, Hoss asked Adam one question before he left. “How long you gonna keep this up?”
“Oh, I think this is enough. Let him stew in it for a time, but I won’t do anything more.”
“He’s gonna be wondering and waiting for a long time for that other shoe to drop.”
“That’s all right. Might make him think before he causes another disaster like this one.”
“Maybe, but I wouldn’t count on it.”