Summary: The third story in the Asylum series following Almost Lost Two and A Piece of the Puzzle. The group that caused all the trouble makes one last attempt to silence the key witness against them.
Word Count: 10,370
Sitting at his desk beneath an open window, Ben Cartwright listened to some strange exchanges between his youngest sons and his ranch foreman. They were on the porch and he heard them describe a day without a sunrise, a night without the moon, lightning without thunder, and then beer without a foam head that got them laughing. When they discussed the minister and church services without a sermon, he had to go outside to find out what had stimulated that line of discussion. Not one of them was willing to say anything until his stare focused squarely on his son, Joe.
“Well, we were kind of talking about Adam and how he doesn’t talk about his life out east.”
“But why the strange references?”
“It’s because it’s like his life is missing an essential part. I mean, we all know the things he did and the things that happened to him made him what he is, but he acts like nothing from that time mattered. It’s like there’s a big hole in the picture. He kind of doesn’t talk about it at all.”
“Kind of doesn’t talk about it? He never says a word about it and changes the subject as soon as possible, and he is quite good at changing the subject. Usually he’s changed the topic of conversation before you’ve even realized he’s done it.”
“What do we do about it, Pa?”
“I don’t know that we need to do anything about it. It’s his life, and he gets to decide what to
“Jamie kind of convinced it that maybe we should do something about it.”
Turning his attention to his youngest son, Ben was softer in his approach but just as insistent in wanting a response. “Jamie?”
Although nervous about stating his opinion with his father so clearly skeptical, Jamie cared enough for his oldest brother that he stood his ground and said what he thought anyway. “Obviously it bothers him or he wouldn’t be avoiding it so much.”
“Wouldn’t that be a good reason to let him avoid the topic? We’ve taken care of any danger we thought he was in. Shouldn’t that be enough?”
“Not if he never fully gets peace in his heart and his mind. He snapped at me when I asked him some questions. He’s awfully touchy about it. It’s still bothering him.”
“I’m not sure there’s anything we can do about it if he doesn’t want to talk about it. You know how he is. He won’t talk about it until he’s ready.”
“I think he’s ready but doesn’t know how.”
Ben looked at his youngest son and wondered how he thought he could know Adam better than he or Joe knew him. It was as if Joe understood the question in his mind without him saying anything at all about it. It didn’t take long to know why.
“Pa, Jamie may have a better way of seeing Adam than we do. I wondered why he thought he could know Adam better than me, but he said he didn’t. He explained only that he might see things that I was blind to. I expect to see certain ways from Adam so that’s what I see. Jamie never knew him before so he only sees what’s there now.”
“So we may be missing things because we have certain expectations.”
“I think I ought to talk with Adam to see how he reacts. He’ll either tell me to shut up or he’ll talk. Either way, we’ll have our answer.”
“Why you and not me?”
“I’m thinking some of it could be embarrassing. We both know how hard it is for Adam to admit any failings to you. It’ll be easier for him to tell me. He knows how many mistakes I’ve made.”
“That’s logical, but I’m curious why you included Candy in this conversation.”
“You know that Adam and Candy have become friends. Their link to Hoss has led them to a friendship as sure as if Hoss was here to make it all happen. Candy is the back-up plan. If Adam won’t talk to me, Candy will give it a try.”
Turning toward Candy, Ben had a wry look. “You sure you want to be part of this plan? You do know how well Joe’s plans work out?”
“They work out sometimes.”
“I guess they do. I’ll be praying.”
“Gosh, thank you, Pa.”
As Ben turned to walk back into the house, he grinned. “Joe, I love you son, but one of your plans without prayer is like a well without a bucket, a cattle drive without a chuckwagon, a stable without doors, and a pistol without a trigger.”
As Candy and Jamie laughed uproariously, Joe shrugged. “Well, at least he endorsed my plan.” That only made the other two laugh more. Their next item of discussion though brought the laughter to a halt. They had to figure out how and when Joe could manage to have this conversation. They spent quite a bit of time working that out. When they next discussed work assignments as a group, Adam and Joe ended up assigned to work together for a week. They thought there ought to be some opportunity during that time for a discussion to occur. It did but not when Joe expected.
“All right, out with it. You obviously set this up and you’ve spent two days dancing around it. What is so important to manipulate things so you could get me alone to talk?”
“I was hoping to be a bit more diplomatic about it, but, Adam, are you going to let those people get away with what they did to you?”
“Don’t play dumb. You’re not any good at it.”
Staring at each other silently for a time, both came to the same conclusion.
“All right, we can talk.”
“Good because I wasn’t going to let you walk away without talking.”
“Oh, and what would you have done if I didn’t decide to talk with you?”
“Maybe take a swing at you or start crying?”
The cheeky response had the desire effect. Adam smiled, and more importantly, he relaxed. This was his brother, and Joe and the others had been correct. Although he wanted to talk about the situation, he didn’t know how because it seemed so much of a hopeless situation.
“I can’t do anything against them alone. I was the witness against their illegal activities. With the ledger copies I made, I would have been a strong witness too. Without those ledgers, I’m not going to be enough. When they had me committed to that asylum, they had all the time they needed to search my office and my home. I’m sure they searched lawyers’ offices and any other place they thought I might have put any records. If I had enough time, I might have stashed records in a more secure place, but I had no idea they knew what I was doing.”
“You sound like you blame yourself for that.”
“In some ways, I do. I should have been more careful and watched my own back. I had no idea of the treachery and corruption around me and how deep it went. Now after that time in the asylum and without any corroborating evidence, I’m not a very credible witness. I would like to see justice done, but what jury would believe me against the word of all those others?”
“You told the authorities and they never charged anyone?”
“Do you trust them?”
“No, if I did it again, I’d contact the federal government. It’s a different political party, and even though there’s still a lot of corruption there, they would love to do something about people connected to their rivals.”
“So, contact them and tell them you have made copies of those ledgers and you’re ready to testify. You could say you sent a copy of records here because if they ever searched for material you had, they would find the ledger copies you had made and stop looking. Here, the records would be safe from any search, and now you have been working on a duplicate ledger and you’re ready.”
“Joe, that’s not true and I couldn’t do anything even remotely close to duplicating those ledgers.”
“You don’t have to. Listen, I’ve been thinking about this a lot.” Joe caught Adam’s smirk but ignored it and continued. “They only have to believe it’s true and come after you.”
“Somehow, that doesn’t sound like a very good plan so far. I’m not so sure they would believe it anyhow.”
“They don’t have to believe. They only really have to worry enough to decide to do something about it. When they do, we’ll be ready for them. We’ll take those men prisoner and make them talk.”
“It’s still a rather preposterous plan that depends on them thinking I could do this.”
“They know you. You’re suspicious, careful, and plan for everything.”
“Clearly not everything.”
“Yeah, well enough so that some of them would believe the story and others would at least be a bit worried. All we need are a couple.”
“Yeah, we’re all in this together.”
“Joe, this could get very dangerous. I’m exposing myself to a lot by trying to expose them. If you stand with me, you’re in grave danger too.”
“I wish you hadn’t used that word grave, but if they come for you, we get them and turn them over to the authorities.”
“We should get the authorities involved before we even think of starting something like this.”
“All right, so we contact the federal authorities and get them to agree with our plan. They can swoop in later and round up the whole bunch. Even if they don’t, with all the bad news that will be out about them, they’ll be ruined.”
“So we use one pack of wolves to take down the other pack of wolves? They could turn on us.”
“All right, I admit it’s a dangerous thing to try, but when is justice ever easy?” Then it was Joe’s turn to smirk a bit. “You’re seriously considering following one of my plans. Hoss has got to be grinning like a fool up above watching this.”
Putting his hand on Joe’s shoulder, Adam pulled his brother into a rare hug. There weren’t any witnesses around, and it was an emotional moment. Those and an Adam more aware of his need for family made him more willing to confide in his brother as well as to embrace him. What they had to do next was talk to their father and convince him the plan could work.
The uncertainty of Joe’s plan made Ben the most uncomfortable. He didn’t express it, but he worried too that all the progress Adam had made in his recovery from the time in the asylum might be lost. He had survived the first assault by those who wanted to make him appear feeble minded. He had to wonder what they might do in a return appearance and considering that they had attempted such a foul plot involving murder in the first attempt, he was worried.
“There is an awfully big risk to Adam in this plan.”
“Adam is already at risk, but this way, we’ll control the situation and end it for good.”
“We shouldn’t be deciding this. Adam, what do you think? Is the risk worth it?”
“Pa, for me, the risk is worth it because I’ll finally be free of all of it. But is it worth the risk for the rest of you especially Jamie?”
For the first time, Joe and Ben considered that the most vulnerable member of the family was not Adam but Jamie. He lacked the experience and the skills the others had in facing the kinds of foes they were up against. It was another concern. Jamie however wasn’t going to let them discard the plan on his behalf.
“If you can protect Adam, you can protect me. I can stay close to home and stick with the hands.”
That made them realize that Jamie knew that he could be used as a hostage to force Adam into doing what their foes wanted. Ben and Joe noted in their minds that they were thinking of Adam’s enemies as their enemies. Clearly they had to follow through on this plan. There was one more concern.
“Have the two of you considered the problem if they insist that Adam go back there to testify?”
“Maybe it’s time for me to talk to Justice Department representatives to see what they think about Joe’s plan. It could be that they won’t endorse this at all, and we’ll have worried for nothing.”
“How will you do it?”
“Pa, if you can spare us, Joe and I can ride over to the U.S. Marshal’s office in Carson City and lay out the whole thing for him. If he thinks it has merit, he can help us get in touch with the people we’ll need.”
The next day, Adam and Joe packed up for a short trip. It was successful and three days later, they headed home to tell Ben and Jamie about the plan and that they were going to have some house guests for a short time at least. Two agents with legal training were being sent to work with Adam to reproduce as accurately as possible ledgers and documents to the best of his ability to remember details. They would do the work and ask questions of him based on their knowledge of the businesses and individuals involved. The plan was that his memory might be stimulated by their references. All they could do until the men arrived was to wait, although Adam found that the plan itself was making him remember more. By the time the men arrived, he was going to have information to share with them.
Worry, irritation, and some frustration in about equal measure were Ben’s fare a few weeks later. Marshal Rain had liked the plan and endorsed it to the Justice Department who agreed. With the marshal’s endorsement of the Cartwrights as upright citizens who wanted to do the right thing and wanted no compensation, and several agents headed out west to begin the process. So, Ben was worried about how the plan would work and if they could keep everyone safe.
More of an issue to him was that his home had become the center of operations for the plan. The two men had been invited to stay as guests on the Ponderosa to facilitate the work they had to do with Adam. He was irritated though that the two men had taken over the house and appropriated nearly every flat surface including his desk for the process of recreating the papers and ledgers they were going to try to use to bluff men into testifying in order to get lighter sentences. They were fairly certain that there would be enough accurate information they could glean from Adam’s memory that the men wouldn’t question the rest of the material they had. None of it would ever be introduced in court, but there was no law that prevented them from lying to suspect when questioning them. Focused on their work, the men seemed to have forgotten to say thank you for all that was being done for them.
The time it was taking was frustrating too. Ben had not realized the hours and days that had stretched into weeks already that would be necessary to produce documents that looked authentic. They also had to send telegrams to alert those affected to get them in a position where they could react to what they were going to have to do. They could stay in place and cooperate which would be the smart move. The other option was the one they expected from some. They would mount some kind of operation to remove the threat. Therefore, precautions had already been taken on the Ponderosa. Those measures interfered with ranch operations and would continue to do so until the whole plan was complete. Ben had not considered how disruptive that was going to be.
However as the work was completed and the men had a dinner with the family before leaving with the documents, they alleviated one significant worry. Adam was shocked.
“I won’t have to go east to testify?”
“I don’t see how it will ever come to that. These documents cannot ever be used as they are not authentic. You can remember enough to testify but without corroboration, it wouldn’t be enough to convict anyone. No, confessions and self-incrimination is our best bet. If they take deals and plead guilty, we can use their statements to go after those higher up. Some of them will undoubtedly have documents like you had. Some might have hung onto what they took from you.”
Staring at the men for a short time, Adam nodded. “And if some are donors to your political party, they could probably expect even better deals for testifying.”
Ignoring the jibe, one of the men replied. “If they help us get the ringleaders and the government officials who have been working with them, it will be worth being generous with those lower on the totem pole, so to speak.”
His partner did reply more directly. “We choose not to talk politics. We do our job. What deals our bosses do, we can’t control.”
Realizing they were men trying to do the right thing in the midst of a difficult situation, Adam apologized. He had been caught in such a situation and knew how hard it could be. They concluded their work amiably and the men left packing up their personal possessions and the ledgers and documents leaving the house looking the same as it had before they arrived.
Of course, much had changed, but none of it showed physically. With the process underway, Ben’s worry for his sons especially Adam only increased. He was concerned that Adam was being used as a pawn and might be in greater danger than anyone guessed. Increasing the men watching the ranch house at night and making sure that Adam never worked alone were about all he could do though. Of course Adam noticed and talked to his father about it.
“Pa, if they want to kill me, nothing is going to stop them.”
“I would think there is no ‘if’ about that. You are a terrible threat to them and they must want to get rid of you.”
” No, if they wanted to do that, they would have done it already. No, the only way they can get rid of me that way is if I would die in an accident. They can’t have it look like murder because that invites an investigation which would lead to the accusations I made and send the investigation directly to them. It makes the accusations I made look more credible too if I was to be killed because of them. What is something that worries me more is that they will try to put pressure on me and by now they know the best way to do that.”
Thinking about that for a moment, Ben nodded. “Yes, if you were to recant and then later say you were forced into that, with all that has already happened, it would muddy the waters so much that no one would ever take on that case.”
“Yes, Mister White and Mister Jones and I talked about that.”
“They weren’t too clever about their names, were they?”
“They work undercover, but even though they couldn’t give us their actual names, they had nothing to fear from us either so simple names were easier for us to remember. We had to call them something.”
Chuckling, Ben inclined his head toward the kitchen. “It’s a good thing they don’t understand Hop Sing and know what he called them.”
“It’s pretty clear they have no experience with the Chinese and that they are both born to privilege and treat household employees as servants.”
“Yes, they acted as if Hop Sing wasn’t as worthy of respect as other men. What worries me is that attitude could be broader than that.”
Frowning as he contemplated his father’s words, Adam considered what he meant by that. “You think they might be using me as bait and aren’t worried what happens to me?” Ben agreed. “I suspected that from the start, but remember that this is our plan. We do our part and it works out the way we want no matter what their attitude is. We simply never rely on them for anything.”
Surprised by that answer, Ben had to respond. “You’re using them?”
“No, I’m letting them do their job. But I’m not going into this blindly and thinking they’re going to do their best to help me. That’s not their priority.”
“So what do you think they’ll do?”
“They’ll leak the information about what they have and how they got it. They’ll want people to start worrying and hopefully some people involved at a lower level will be pressured to talk based on getting clemency or even a pardon.”
“Meanwhile, those on the upper levels will know that you are the linchpin to this investigation as they knew that before. Eliminate you as a credible witness and there’s no case.”
It didn’t take long for that exact scenario to begin playing out in the east as the leak was confirmed by paid sources inside the government. The documents were locked safely away but their existence was confirmed. That two agents had met with Adam and spent two weeks getting testimony from him was the story that circulated. Those who were most deeply implicated in the corruption he wanted to expose met together to discuss their options.
“We could hire men to kill him. There’s no way they would all be stopped. He could be dead within a week.”
“Yes, and the fingers would all be pointing directly at us. If you want the investigation to get more intense and focus more directly on us then go ahead and order someone to kill Adam Cartwright. His statements will still be there and the documents will still be there too.”
“But we have to do something about him.”
“Yes, we do. We tried to discredit him with a complex plot involving too many amateurs. We need something to discredit him that is more direct and something that our people can do. It has to be foolproof. If he can be discredited or if he recants his testimony, their case falls apart. Just as it has always been, he’s been the linchpin.”
“I’d still like to see him dead.”
“You can do it, but after this is done so there’s no connection to us.”
“Well, then, that’s fine by me. I want that kind of justice for my daughter and for me after all the grief he’s caused me and the money he’s cost me with his accusations. My daughter actually cared for him at one point and forbid me from killing him. I’m sorry I didn’t do it then. The asylum plan was a good one, but who knew how stubborn he was and how many friends he had who would help him.”
“You know, we have to keep that in mind this time. We have to make sure there is no one who will help him. I have no soft spot for him because of a daughter. I’ll make sure he suffers enough for your benefit and ours. I do need to talk to your daughter about Cartwright though.”
“I need to know as much as possible about him, and I need to know that she is willing to go along with our plan. I don’t want her to hear our plan and what we expect of her and then warn him because of some residual feeling she may have for him.”
Agreeing that made sense, the group adjourned their meeting and headed back to their homes confident that one of their members was going to take care of this threat to all of them.
There was a knock on the door to the Ponderosa ranch house and Hop Sing answered the door. He returned to the table to inform the family that their foreman was at the door. Ben was surprised that Candy sent Hop Sing with a message and didn’t come to the table.
“Well, tell Candy to come in. He knows he’s always welcome to talk to us and join us at the table to do so.”
“He say you and Mister Adam better come to door. He say he has stranger with him and you need to talk.”
With that, Ben and Adam stood and immediately headed to the front door with Joe, Hop Sing, and Jamie on their heels. Candy stood at the door with it halfway closed.
“Mister Cartwright, I know you said not to let any strangers on the Ponderosa, but this one is a special circumstance.”
“Yeah, it’s a woman, and she says she’s Adam’s fiancé.”
“I don’t have a fiancé, but I know who it is. I’ll talk with her. You can let her in.” Clearly irritated, Adam was curious too. He wanted to know what had brought her so far. He doubted it meant anything good for him.
Swinging the door wider, Candy moved his arm to indicate to the woman that she could enter. She gave him an imperious look and swept past him into the house. Candy gave the others that look that said he wished them luck.
“I’ll go back to watching for varmints and predators. It will be more pleasant than staying for this, I’m sure.”
If she caught the insult, she made no reaction to it. Instead, she looked all around the house as if evaluating it. Finally, she settled her gaze on Adam.
“You’re looking well.”
“I did hear that you had some unpleasant experiences.”
“Your father had me committed to an asylum. I spent months in a hospital recovering from that. Yes, you could say it was unpleasant. I noticed you never visited me there so why the visit here?”
“As to not visiting you there, we were not betrothed nor otherwise committed any longer. There was no reason for me to think you wanted to see me. However, once I learned of the rigors of your ordeal from reading the stories that were published, I knew I should have done something. I apologize for not doing more. I did argue with my father when he was so angry that he wanted to kill you. I begged him not to do that.”
“I suppose you want some gratitude for that.”
“I did apologize for my lapse in judgment. I would think you could give me credit for what I did right.” Looking around then, she asked perhaps a more obvious question. “Are you going to introduce me to your family?”
“I don’t think you’re staying long enough for it to matter.”
“Adam!” Ben wasn’t happy with his son’s response to her request. He expected to be introduced to the young woman.
Not because she asked but because his father had taught him to be a gentleman, Adam apologized. “I’m sorry. Ben Cartwright, this is Mercedes Dandridge. Mercedes, this is my father, Ben Cartwright. This is my brother, Joe and my brother, Jamie.”
“You don’t look like brothers.”
“That’s a long story and frankly none of your business. Now, why are you here? You haven’t answered that question yet.”
“I’ve traveled a long way. Don’t you offer travelers any accommodations and refreshments?”
“I’m sorry. Hop Sing, would you get a glass of water for her, please.” Adam gestured to a chair then. “Please, sit.”
Realizing she wasn’t going to get anything more, Mercedes moved to the chair he had indicated and sat down. When Hop Sing brought the water, she drank some and then knew she had to talk. Nothing she could do to delay the conversation was going to work. Adam was leaning up against the fireplace with his arms crossed waiting for her to talk. The other three, his father and two brothers, were like mirror images standing and waiting for whatever she had to say with a mixture of curiosity and distrust showing quite clearly.
“You may find this hard to believe, but I came here to warn you about what my father and his friends have planned for you. They are going to kidnap one of your brothers and use that to force you to recant your testimony against them. I didn’t think that was right. You did nothing wrong and were already hurt. Your brothers are innocent bystanders. This thing has grown too large and involved people who should never be harmed by it.”
“Why not send a telegram?”
“Do you think they would let such a message go through? I would never know if you received it. No, the only way to know you got this message was to deliver it in person. I know my father would never let them harm me.”
“So now you’ve delivered the message. I’ll take you back to town.”
“But I thought I might stay here. I brought my bags.”
Not responding to her statement, Adam instead addressed Joe and Jamie asking if they would go see if her carriage was ready to go.
“But I don’t have a carriage. I hired a man from town to bring me here. I’m sure he left.”
With that, Adam amended his request to his brothers and asked them to get one of the ranch carriages ready for a trip to town.
“I’ll give you a ride back to town then. Grab your bag and wait on the porch. I’ll be with you in a few minutes. I want to speak with my father.”
Dismissed and thwarted in her desires, Mercedes stomped out to the porch. Adam turned to his father who was concerned.
“Do you think she can be trusted?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. She didn’t say anything about the trouble I caused for her father. That’s out of character for her. She’s devoted to her father. I used to admire that until I realized how far she would go to defend him.”
“Do you think she’s concealing her reason for being here?”
“She’s definitely hiding something. I’m not sure what, but keep a close eye on Joe and Jamie. That part might be true.”
“Be careful then. Are you sure she’s not armed?”
“She never knew how to use a weapon. I doubt she’s learned by now, but I’ll be careful. I’ll drop her at the hotel and head straight back. I won’t let her talk me into anything more.”
“Please don’t. If you feel you need to talk with her more, you can tell her that we can meet her in town tomorrow.”
“That’s a good idea, Pa. I’ll do that. It gives me a good out if she pushes too hard.”
Getting his hat, coat, and holster, Adam headed out to give his former fiancé a ride to town. After helping her into the carriage, he climbed in and snapped the reins to get the team moving. For the first part of the trip he said nothing. Mercedes kept looking at him and waiting for comments or questions but there were none. She put her hand on her knee thinking that would surely get him to ask a question. Even that didn’t work so she went for the bold approach.
“I didn’t tell you something. I got married. Father insisted that I had to marry so no one would think I was the reason for any of the trouble. He thought if it was clear another man wanted me the everyone would assume the problem had been you.”
Staring straight ahead, Adam said nothing. Having seen the ring earlier, he had suspected much of what she had said but did appreciate that she had confirmed what he had thought. Knowing that her nervousness had made her talk and perhaps divulge more than she had intended, he stayed quiet to see if it would work to make her talk more. She did.
“We have a little boy. He was born only a month ago. I surely thought you would have noticed how much I changed. I haven’t recovered yet from that grueling experience. I still have to wear these wrap dresses.”
“I knew you were hiding something. Is that all?”
“You can be such an arrogant bastard. Nothing that’s happened has changed that.”
“I think I have enough cause to act the way I do. There is no reason for me to trust you.”
“I can’t believe you said that. I gave myself to you. Do you know who I had to marry because of that? Father made me marry one of the men who work for him.”
“That should work out well enough. You and your father can order him to do your bidding.” Pausing for impact, Adam waited a moment before he made his last statement. “Did he know he was selling his soul to the devil?”
Turning to stare straight ahead, Mercedes was done talking. The rest of the trip was silent. Adam drove to the hotel, stopped, and moved to help her out but she refused her offer. He did take her luggage and put it on the walk outside the hotel before climbing back into the carriage and heading back toward the Ponderosa.
Five hours after Adam left to give his former fiance a ride to town, his father and brothers were worried. He should have been back. Joe asked Candy to ride with him and they rode to town to see if they could intercept Adam and escort him home. They never saw him and there was no sign of the carriage. Arriving at the hotel, they went inside and found the room Mercedes had taken. Joe insisted they were going to go up there but the clerk said there was no need as she was in the dining room. They went there instead, and Joe confronted Mercedes.
“Where is Adam?”
“I have no idea, and I certainly don’t care. Hopefully he drove that carriage off a cliff.”
Furious, Joe moved forward ready to grab her and pull her from her chair to shake her to get some answers. Candy stopped him and moved him back forcefully. Then he turned to Mercedes.
“You must still care for him. You came here to warn him of danger he was in. He’s missing. Can you tell us what happened after you left the ranch?”
Looking a bit worried about Joe, she agreed. “We talked or rather argued briefly on the ride back to town. Then we didn’t talk at all. We were both angry. He brought me here to the hotel and put my luggage on the walk. I was so mad I didn’t even look to see which way he went when he left.”
“May I ask what you discussed that made the two of you angry?”
“I told him I got married. He said some unkind things about that. Remember at one time we were to be married.”
“Did he say anything about going anywhere other than home?”
“As I said, we didn’t talk after that conversation about my marriage.”
“Thank you.” Candy turned to Joe and pushed him toward the door. There was nothing more to be learned there.
After leaving the hotel, they went to see Sheriff Roy Coffee and told him what had happened. Working with Roy, they headed out to question as many people as they could. Hours later, all they had was that many had seen Adam driving out of town in the direction of the Ponderosa. No one had seen him after that. Joe and Candy headed home in the dark with no idea where Adam was.
In the dark described a lot of where Adam was. Badly beaten but in ways that wouldn’t readily show, he was strapped into a strait jacket and laying on the floor of a cabin. The windows had been covered with tar paper so that no light could enter. His head was covered with a cotton hood and he was blindfolded and gagged. His ankles were tied together as were his knees with bandages because they didn’t want any abrasions to show. There was no heat in the cabin as the stove and the fireplace were cold and unused. He had no blanket to stay warm. His jacket, boots, hat, and socks had been removed to make it more likely that he would be chilled.
The plan was to deny Adam any food or water for three days. He wouldn’t be allowed to get up to move or to take care of even the most basic needs. A federal judge had scheduled a hearing about the case based on a motion made by attorneys challenging the whole procedure and Adam’s credibility. Their plan was to release him just before the hearing in a debilitated and probably mentally and emotionally disturbed state. That he might never recover was not a concern to them. He would show up at the hearing with no visible injuries and be unable to speak rationally or act normally. That was all that mattered to them because nothing he said would ever be taken seriously again.
As expected, Ben was upset to find that Adam was missing. His first thought was that Mercedes was involved in the disappearance.
“Pa, Roy thought the same thing. He ordered her to stay in town. She asked if she was under arrest, and he said if she tried to leave, she would be. Roy is searching through town and on the outskirts. He’s also checking with the freight haulers and the stage lines to see if anyone saw anything.”
“What do we know?”
“The last anyone saw, he was driving the carriage out of town. No one saw anything unusual. There may have been some men riding out at the same time. Roy is following up on that.”
“He’s getting some volunteers to help our search.”
“Joe, how can you search in the dark?”
“Pa, we figure that they had to hide that carriage someplace. We’re going to head up to ridges and high points and look for any signs of camps or lights on in line shacks that shouldn’t be. We won’t be able to do anything about it tonight but we’ll have an idea of where to go tomorrow if we see something.”
Knowing that Joe had to do something, Ben didn’t argue with him. “Be careful. We don’t want anyone hurt. I’ll work on maps for a general search tomorrow.”
At the cabin where Adam was being held, the two men who had come west to carry out the mission were uncomfortable. It was far colder than they had expected. Even wrapped in their coats with blankets around them, they were shivering in the night air.
“We could make a fire. We could use it to warm up and heat up some coffee too. He won’t know we have one out here. He can’t see nothing or hear nothing.”
“I told you no fires at night.”
“Why not? This is when we really need one.”
“Look around. It’s black as pitch as far as you can see. It’s why we picked this cabin to use. If we light a fire, it will be like a beacon. It could be seen for miles. As well connected as he is, you have to know they’ll be looking for him. What do you think they’ll do if they see a fire?”
“We’re going to freeze to death out here without one.”
Quiet for only a short time, his partner had a solution. “Let’s use the carriage. We can both sit in the back. It will be warmer and more comfortable.”
“We covered it in brush so no one could see it.”
“But it’s black as pitch.”
“Oh, yeah, and we could cover it up again in the morning. Let’s go pull it out before it gets any colder.”
The two men pulled the carriage out and pushed it up near the cabin so that it was shielded from the wind. Then both climbed into the back seat with their blankets and wrapped the blankets around themselves as they leaned against each other for additional warmth. It was all they could do, but with their hats pulled down low, they were warm enough to sleep. They agreed that the next day, one of them would have to risk a ride to town to buy a couple more blankets.
Inside the cabin, Adam shivered uncontrollably for a long time until his injuries, weakness, and exhaustion overtook him. In the morning, his captors were worried because he was so still, they were afraid he had died. One knelt down and felt for a heartbeat and both were relieved when he found one. However he also found that Adam was very cold.
“As cold as we were, he’s colder. It’s lucky he didn’t freeze to death in here. We’re going to have to do something about that. They said not to let him die.”
“When you go get blankets, get a couple extra. We’ll wrap two around him real tight like they’re part of the strait jacket. That should still work but keep him warm enough.”
“Maybe we should wrap him in the ones we got. We can use the new ones we get.”
“Yeah, that’s a good plan. Go get the ones from the carriage.”
For Adam, it was a confusing time. The injuries and deprivation had made him unsure of where he was. He needed food and water. He was so cold that he was having a difficult time thinking clearly. There were times he thought he was back in the asylum and then he would tell himself that was impossible as he remembered all that had happened since he had left there. It was getting harder and harder though to do that as the hours passed and the sensation of the strait jacket was unmistakable and the gag and blindfold reminded him so much of being bound and gagged in his cell there. Cold and laying on the floor with no light and no outside stimulus, he began to imagine sounds and flinched over and over again at imagined attacks by rats and insects. In the asylum, after letting him sit in an ice water bath for a couple of hours, they would wrap him in a wet blanket and let him in it for ten or twelve hours. When his captors wrapped him in those blankets, he thought he was back in the asylum. He tried to fight but all he could do was squirm a bit which made his back hurt terribly after the beating he had taken the day before.
“He stinks something awful already.”
“We’re going to give him a bucket bath before we put him in that carriage in two days.”
“A bucket bath?”
“We pour a couple of buckets of soapy water over him and then rinse him down. He’ll be mostly dry by the time he gets to town.”
“You think he’ll even be able to find his way?”
“We’ll get him close enough even his addled brain will let him find it.”
Although Adam’s captors knew all about the hearing, Ben and his family only heard the news the next morning as they searched for the missing Cartwright. Sheriff Coffee brought the news when he came out to tell them he had found out nothing in town about where Adam had gone. Whoever had done it had set it up well. Now they knew the motive too. The hearing was about Adam’s credibility as a witness. If he didn’t show at the hearing, that would be in doubt. However if they could show that he had been kidnapped, it would counteract their case. It made them wonder what they were missing. They had no idea how diabolical the plot was.
The search went on for that full day, and none of the searchers found anything. Late in the afternoon, they headed out to a new area to continue the methodical process outlined by Ben Cartwright. As the day had progressed, Jamie lagged behind because his horse had a shoe that was missing a nail. The loose shoe made the horse favor that leg and refuse to go faster. Ben finally told him he had to go home because he was holding up the search. Jamie argued that he wanted to help, but Ben argued that he could help best by going home.
As Jamie rode home, he saw a man riding with four blankets across his horse. That was mostly a curious sight because the man wasn’t dressed for hunting or traveling yet was going into a heavily timbered area where there were only hunting cabins and a few cabins abandoned much earlier by prospectors and trappers who had given up on making a living there. Jamie decided to follow the man to discover what he was doing. Unfortunately for him, the man spotted him and gave chase. With his horse nearly lame, it was no contest. The man took him at gunpoint to a cabin.
“This one was trailing me. It’s another of those Cartwrights.”
“We’ll tie him up inside too.”
“Put them together?”
“He’ll be tied up and the other one can’t move, hear, or see anything so what difference does it make?”
“What will we do with him when it’s time to go to town?”
“We’ll leave him here. They’re bound to be looking for him. They’ll find him eventually. It doesn’t matter if he lives or dies.”
By that point, Jamie had a good idea who was in that cabin and didn’t struggle much when he was forced to go inside at gunpoint. The smell assailed him first and then the pitch darkness bothered him. Only the light from the open door let him see where he was going. He was told to sit in a chair and his arms were tied behind him and his knees and ankles were tied together. They left him sitting on the chair like that. He had seen the bundle on the floor and was shocked at how his brother was being treated. His head was encased in a sack and he was rolled in a blanket or two. He made no sound and didn’t move. All Jamie could do was stare at him until the door was closed.
Plunged into inky blackness, Jamie had to choke down the fear he felt and think about his brother for he had no doubt it was Adam despite the fact he was wrapped up as he was. Jamie called his name numerous times and got no response. Fearful that Adam might be wrapped that way because he was dead, Jamie was determined to find out. He managed to get off the chair mostly by falling and doing it rather ungracefully at that. Then he moved across the floor like a snake in the general direction of where he had seen his brother. When he bumped up against him and felt him move, he was relieved to know he was alive but frustrated in not knowing what he would do next.
For Adam, it was another moment of panic. He felt a body move against his and wanted to fight or flee but could do neither. He remembered what that meant in the asylum and had never allowed them to abuse him that way fighting back so hard that they had gone to other less troublesome victims. Enduring so much, there was at least that small victory there, but now he was in the most helpless position he could remember and didn’t know how he could fight. He tried to move away but thought that he heard his name being said. It was so hard to hear with the hood but he concentrated and then heard it clearly. It was his name and being said in a friendly way and in a voice he should recognize. He fought against the demons of his horrific memories and struggled to grab the knowledge he needed. Finally, it was there. It was Jamie. He relaxed. Someone who cared was by his side. He was still in great pain and helpless, but he was no longer alone. He leaned back into the warm presence by his side.
Feeling Adam relax and lean into him, Jamie kept talking even as he continued to try to remove his bindings. They were too tight. After a long time of fruitless effort, he used his mouth to explore the bindings on Adam. He tried to loosen the bindings on his brother and found them as difficult to loosen as he had found his own. As much as he could, he kept talking because it seemed to make Adam relax. Jamie tried to imagine how it must feel to be trussed up like that and cringed at how it made him feel just thinking about it. He knew it was much worse to have to live through it and felt it was his responsibility to do what he could to ease his brother’s suffering. With no way to tell how much time had passed, he still could tell by how tired he was, that night must be passing. That was confirmed when the two men came inside the next morning to find him at Adam’s side.
“What’s wrong with you, boy? He’s filthy and now you’re soiled too.”
The two men pulled Jamie up and put him back on the chair tying him to it. Then to be sure he wouldn’t be able to do anything, they pulled over another chair and tied that one to the first and piled firewood on the second chair. He was effectively held in place. The men left the cabin then. Jamie was thirsty and hungry. He had asked for water and the men had laughed so he could only imagine how thirsty Adam must be at this point. Hoping his family was following his trail, he prayed for both of them.
However, Ben and Joe had decided to save time and had not returned to the ranch house instead camping out on the search. They continued their search in the morning without realizing that Jamie was missing.
On the day of the hearing, at dawn, the two men walked into the cabin and cut the bindings on Adam freeing him from the blankets. Then they cut the bandages that had bound his knees and ankles. Jamie saw then that Adam had been confined in a strait jacket. Although he had never seen one before, he knew from hearing a few stories from Adam that this must be one. They pulled the gag from Adam’s mouth and took the blindfold from him. He was filthy, unshaven, and exhausted. One of the men gave him a drink of water. Then they pulled him to his feet. He couldn’t walk so despite their revulsion at his condition, they were forced to help him from the cabin. Just outside the door, the pulled a chair and had him sit. Then after the strait jacket was removed, buckets of cold soapy water were dumped on him. They told him to scrub himself but he sat immobile and unresponsive.
“Damn, we’re going to have to do it. This all worked better than expected. He’s a moron and about as feeble-minded as you can get.”
They scrubbed him and then rinsed him with cold clear water. Jamie knew it had to be unpleasant, but he knew too how much Adam hated being dirty. The men combed Adam’s hair back and gave him more water to drink. Finally, they gave him a cup of hot coffee. One of the men handed him his socks and boots, but he sat there staring at them instead of putting them on as ordered.
“Hell, put them on for him. He can’t do anything right. One look at him at the hearing and we’ll win.”
“Why should I do it? Why not you?”
“Oh, hell, you do one and I’ll do the other.”
As the two men struggled to put socks on Adam and pull on his boots, Jamie saw Adam cock his head to the side. Jamie struggled not to laugh. He had been worried until he saw that head lean. Adam was getting some payback from these two. Once they had his socks and boots on, they had to get his coat on him and then his hat. Sitting there unshaven and looking blank, Adam didn’t look like he could implicate anyone in a crime. Satisfied that their work had been successful, the two men pulled the carriage around to the front of the cabin and helped Adam into the driver’s seat. Again Adam looked blank.
“Damn, one of us will have to drive until we’re nearly in town. Then we can slap the horses on the rear ends and they’ll go in on their own even if he still doesn’t know what to do.”
“So we follow and watch it play out so we can report back that it all worked out and the bosses don’t need to worry.”
“And we don’t either.”
“What if he has an accident on the way in to town though?”
“The way he looks now, it would have about the same effect so I don’t think it would be a problem. As long as it’s an accident, it removes the problem just as effectively.”
The two men seemed to have forgotten about Jamie. However at the ranch house, they had returned the night before and were shocked to find that Jamie wasn’t there. They had headed out at dawn to try to pick up the trail he had made when he had headed for home. As Adam headed for town, they were already following the track toward where Jamie was tied to a chair.
About the time they found Jamie, Adam was outside town and being sent on by himself by the two men. Of course, Adam was well aware of what they were doing and drove into town directly to Doctor Martin’s office because he knew he needed help. There were some stares along the way because of the way he looked and because it was well known that he had been missing. Roy was alerted and arrived at the doctor’s office soon after Adam did.
“You gonna get outta that carriage?”
“I could use some help, Roy. The last few days have been rather rough.”
“I’ll help ya. You can tell me what happened once I get you inside.”
The first thing Adam explained was where Jamie was. Roy went to tell Clem so he could go rescue the boy. Then Roy returned to hear the rest of the story from Adam. Outside, the two men who had confined Adam realized the plan had gone terribly wrong. Adam however gave Roy a description of them and Roy set out to find them before he heard all that they had done. An hour later, he returned to the office to find Doctor Martin in the outer office.
“Did you find them?”
“Yeah, got them locked up in the jail. What about Adam?”
“He’s resting now. He’s in rough shape, but he should recover. He probably has some internal injuries so I don’t want him moving around. He’s dehydrated and exhausted. Do you think it would be possible to have the judge come here to interview him?”
“I’ll tell him everything we know that happened and see what he says.”
“I can tell you more.”
With the information from Adam, Roy got the judge to delay the hearing for one day. He didn’t want to break precedent too much and wanted to maintain the decorum of a courtroom so he thought a delay should be sufficient. Of course, Ben didn’t think so when he arrived and found out. Clem had found them at the cabin when he arrived. He was able to inform them that Adam was safe and the whole group had come to town. The following day, Adam testified in front of the judge. He had rested, had shaved and bathed, and had food and water. It was still grueling after all he had endured, but the judge was impressed.
“I have the sheriff’s report concerning your experience of the last few days. That you are able to be coherent, logical, and well-spoken after all that means that I am dismissing the motion to suppress your testimony and statements and all material related to such evidence you may give. Case dismissed with prejudice.”
Ben asked what that meant.
“It means, sir, that the motion or any like it cannot be filed again. The case against those who are accused may move forward.”
“I thank you and your son, sir. Not many men have the courage to stand up for justice at such great personal cost.”
That ruling was enough to get the two men in Roy’s jail to agree to testify in return for a lighter set of charges. Kidnapping was going to get them a long term in Nevada if they didn’t. The federal prosecutors thanked Adam and said the dominoes were already beginning to fall. As they celebrated with a lunch in town, Adam and his family could relax finally and smile. Justice was being served. There was still a question that Ben wondered though.
“Do you think Mercedes was part of the plot against you?”
“I don’t know. I think I should talk with her.”
“I’m going with you!”
Without any argument, Adam stood and Ben stood with him. They walked to the hotel and up to Mercedes’ room. She answered the door almost immediately and knew what they wanted to know.
“Yes. I did it for my father. It was the only way to save him, and you weren’t going to be killed. I could save both of you by doing it.”
“That’s criminal behavior. You were part of a conspiracy to commit a crime.”
“You wouldn’t put the mother of your son in prison, would you?”
“It’s why I had to marry. You can still get him. Recant your testimony and he’s yours.”
“Don’t believe her, Adam. If it was true, she would have used it right away. She knew the effect it would have had on you. She didn’t use it because it’s a falsehood. She’s saying it now because she’s desperate.”
Looking at her, Adam made a request. “Go to Doctor Martin and have him verify that you have given birth. Then I’ll consider doing as you wish.”
“That’s ridiculous. I’m not letting some horrible country doctor look at me there. I can’t believe you would suggest such a thing.”
“Pa, you’re right. Let’s go tell Roy there’s one more to arrest.”
As Ben and Adam moved to leave, a noise in the hall alerted them to trouble. Both moved to the side seeking cover as they heard someone come up quickly behind them. Ben drew his weapon to fire. Shots were fired and the would-be assassin was killed. There was no need to summon Roy then because the shots were a beacon for the lawman.
“Why did they try to kill you?”
“We always assumed that might be their last resort. I guess we should have been more careful and watched for them to try. I never expected it to be so soon.”
Roy reached over and touched Adam’s arm. “Looks like they got close enough. You got nicked there.” Adam needed another visit to the doctor for a wound in his arm. Paul was surprised to see him of course and worried about what could happen because of his weakened state after his ordeal.
“With this, I am going to insist that Adam stay here. He shouldn’t have been running around town as it was. With this and what he’s been through, I’m worried about infection.” Doctor Martin could see Adam getting ready to resist. “Your father can get a book for you from the store and you can relax and read. I won’t bother you other than to check your wound and general condition every now and then.”
Under those conditions, Adam agreed to stay. It was the right decision as the wound did get inflamed and require some treatment. With Paul there treating it immediately though, there was no serious infection. The one day stay turned into five days of recuperation as Adam found that his weakness persisted. Paul told him that the damage to his kidneys and other internal organs were at fault and he needed rest to let them recover.
At the end of the week, Adam was at home when the most shocking news arrived. Mercedes father agreed to testify in return for lesser charges and for immunity from prosecution for his daughter and son-in-law. He turned over his secret ledgers and a treasure trove of other documents so that none of the material Adam had provided was needed any longer nor was his testimony needed. He was no longer a factor. With five witnesses and corroborating evidence, the prosecutors had all they needed to proceed with their case.
That Christmas, when the men opened their gifts from Adam, they found that they all had similar gifts. Ben had two conch buttons for his leather vest, Joe had a tie, and Jamie had a belt buckle but what tied them together was the design. All were silver with five interlocking rings. Jamie looked up and had a question.
“Yes, one for each of us.”
“Oh, Pa, you, Joe, me, and Hoss.”
“Yes, none can beat us when we stand together. And Hoss is always here.” Adam put a hand over his heart.
Almost subconsciously, the others did the same. The echo of that big booming laugh could be heard if one listened closely enough.