In Like a Lion (by BettyHT)

Summary:  It’s complicated, and that’s what the villains are counting on:  that no one would believe anyone would concoct something so complex.  It’s up to the Cartwrights to prove them wrong or they are going to pay a heavy price.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rating:  PG
Word Count:  9136


 

Prologue

“Which one?”

“The oldest.”

“Why?”

“He’s probably the most dangerous. Locked up, he won’t be a threat and that will improve the odds that we get the money.”

“Yeah, but he is the suspicious type. Maybe we should kill him and go for one of the other two. He might not fall for it.”

“He will.”

“You think she’s that good.”

“She’s my daughter, isn’t she?”

“The father is a dangerous man too.”

“Yes, but Ben Cartwright can be blinded by worry for a son.”

“The plan is kind of complicated. Lots of things could go wrong.”

“This kind of thing, people want to lay the blame on someone. Punishing a rich man for it is always satisfying to folks. Nobody is ever going to believe that someone could put together a plan this complex. Now, based on the information we have, he leaves on the stage March first. Have you planted the right stories to get this all started?”

“It’s in place. The right men have heard the right things.”

“I’m sure that Adam Cartwright is going to find the old adage is true for him. March will come at him like a lion.”

“And go out like a lamb?”

“If his father cooperates.”

“He’ll probably never live this down. People will always be thinking that he did something and got away with it.”

“Other than the money, that’s the best part.”

*****

Chapter 1

Point at a spot and then have the fist hit it. Their method was efficient from their end. From his end, it wasn’t appreciated. He had been in fights, but it was nothing like this. Being held so securely he couldn’t move and then hit methodically made him feel weak. Knowing it was coming didn’t make it any easier to take. It was quite a bit harder. No matter how often he protested that he didn’t have any money, it only made them angrier and the blows came faster.

There had been too many mistakes in the past. Announcing to a brother how much money they had made or carrying the profits home had put him and his brothers in danger. They had learned. Now anytime a major sale was made, money was deposited and a bank draft drawn and shipped home by secure courier such as Wells Fargo. No longer did they ever carry significant currency or bonds. It was far too dangerous. But the men who held up that stage didn’t know it apparently. They had searched him, the stage, the other passengers, and the luggage. Frustrated, they had gotten angry. When the beating didn’t work, they changed tactics.

“We’ll shoot the driver unless you tell us where the money is, Cartwright.”

“I have told you. I’m not carrying any money. We ship our money by Wells Fargo. Please don’t shoot anyone. I can’t give you any money because I’m not carrying any money. You said you saw me carrying a bulging valise. It wasn’t filled with money. All I had in that bulging valise were contracts. Many of them are on the way to our legal advisor in San Francisco. The rest you’ve seen here.”

To his shock, they shot the driver in the head dropping his body to the ground at his feet. His arms were held so tight he could hardly move. He tried to fight free, but that only earned him more blows. Dropping to his knees under the onslaught, he saw the open eyes of the man who had been murdered. He felt responsible. They never hit him in the face because they wanted him to talk. He yelled at them.

“Kill me, then! Kill me. I can’t give you any money so go ahead and kill me.”

That seemed at first to shake their confidence, but they pulled a young woman from among the passengers and held a pistol to her head. The message was clear. They were going to shoot her unless he told them where he had hidden the money, but he couldn’t. He knew there was only one thing he could do. Rising slowly and acting as if he barely had the strength to do so, he avoided the arms that had held him. It was all he needed. He broke into a run away from them expecting them to shoot. There was one shot and a hot streak burned through his side dropping him, but he heard the shouts stopping the others from shooting.

“Damn you. We need him to find the money.”

“But he was getting away.”

“He was beat up and on foot. How far do you think he was going to get?”

“He ain’t shot too bad. He kin still tell us.”

Except when Adam fell, he hit his head. He let that, the wound, and the injuries take him to the darkness. He was aware enough to know it would save him and save that beautiful young lady they had been threatening to kill. At least, he had to hope they would let everyone live. There was nothing more he could do to help them.

*****

Fighting consciousness because his last thoughts were to remain in darkness to protect the others, Adam Cartwright felt the soothing hands and heard the soft voice. Those factors penetrated and slowly he let loose from the iron discipline which had held him from being aware. He opened his eyes. Or he blinked and then squeezed them tight against the sun. It was enough to let anyone know he was conscious.

“Oh, thank goodness, you’re alive. I was afraid you were going to die.”

It was the young woman they had threatened to murder. “No, I only wanted to die.”

“Yes, I heard what you said. You were very brave.”

Adam croaked out the only question that mattered. “They’re gone then?”

“Yes, they left when they realized you wouldn’t wake up. It worked.”

“Worked?”

“Your plan. It worked. They didn’t kill anyone else.”

“How do you know that was my plan? Maybe I was just trying to run away.”

“No, it was your plan. I was especially grateful. I think they really were going to shoot me.”

Carefully propping himself up on one elbow, he looked around. “The others left?”

“Yes, it’s rather exposed out here. They headed toward those trees over to the west hoping for some shelter and wood for a fire. I stayed with you. You saved our lives. I thought it was terrible that they were willing to abandon you.”

“Thank you, but I think I was the cause of getting you in danger in the first place.” He wanted to say more, but the words stuck in his throat. “It looks pretty dark that way. A storm is rolling in.”

“Yes, I know. But no matter what you say, what happened wasn’t your fault. I don’t know why you think you should blame yourself, although right now we need to get into the stage before that storm gets here. It was warmer earlier, but I can already feel the temperature dropping. Do you think you can walk as far as the stagecoach if I help you?”

“Yes, I can do that. At least, I think I can.”

“I’ve been going through the luggage and other things in the boot. That’s how I found clean clothing that I could use to bandage up your wound.”

“How bad is it?”

“It isn’t too bad. The bullet went through, and it wasn’t bleeding too much.”

“Lucky for me, they weren’t all that good at shooting.”

“As close as they were, he could have killed you. You’ve got some nasty bruising too from where they hit you, but I don’t think there’s anything broken.”

“They were being careful. They wanted to hurt me but wanted me to be able to talk to them.”

“Were you telling them the truth?”

Staring at her for a moment, he realized she didn’t know him that well. “Yes. I would never have risked your life or anyone’s to save some money like that.”

“You must have a lot of money to be able to talk about it that way.” She paused before continuing. “My family has money too. If they had known, they might have treated me badly too.”

“I’m glad they didn’t know. I wish I could have convinced them so they wouldn’t have killed the driver. Where is he?”

“The other passengers buried him before they left. At least I don’t have to worry about that. They tried to make me go with them, but I wanted to take care of you. There was a blanket, and I found what must be your valise. It had your coat in it. I have my coat, and I found the driver’s water jug. It’s all inside the stage. With the window canvas pulled down and tied, we will have some shelter from the storm.”

“They took the horses?” Adam ignored the idea that the others had been ready to leave him behind. It was a measure of how much they blamed him for what had happened.

“No, the outlaws drove them off. I guess once the stage is late enough, someone will come looking for us. It will probably be tomorrow. I think those outlaws wanted more time to get away before anyone got here to see what they did. My brother is going to be upset when he hears about this. He never wanted me to come out here anyway.”

As they talked, she had helped him rise and walk the short distance to the stagecoach. Adam managed to climb in by himself. Normally he would have assisted the lady first, but this was an unusual scenario. Leaning on her shoulder as much as needed, he managed to maintain his end of the conversation, but it was when he pulled himself up the step and into the coach that he groaned with the pain of his wound and from all the injuries from the beating he had taken. Except for the earlier reminder, he had almost forgotten he had been shot. The pains were intense but brief. Settling into the seat, he breathed shallowly with his eyes closed. He felt those cool fingers on his forehead then as she settled into the limited space beside him instead of the seat across the coach.

“We’ll be warmer sitting together, and it’s more shielded from the wind, if there is any, on this side.”

She lifted a curl of hair from his forehead and held her hand across his brow trying to determine if he was getting a fever. She couldn’t tell.

“Are you cold?”

“No, not too much, but I wouldn’t mind that blanket you mentioned earlier. It’s likely to get colder too. A March storm can even have snow or sleet.”

It took some time moving in the cramped quarters, but she got the jug of water and the blanket. After they each had some water, she stowed the jug again and settled in beside Adam under the blanket.

Looking up at him as he regarded her seriously, she had one comment. “You know, most men might have at least tried to kiss me by now.”

“I’ve been shot and beaten. That alone would stop most men, wouldn’t it?” Adam cocked up one eyebrow as he grinned at her. As she had frequently been in close proximity to him, the thought of kissing her had indeed occurred to him, but she was much younger and had saved his life. Kissing a beautiful woman was something any man would consider, but this wasn’t the time or place to engage in romantic fantasy.

The cheeky grin had disarmed her. “No matter what happens, you still have an attitude.”

“That’s about what my father says too. As for attitude, you stayed with me against the advice of all the others. To do that alone shows courage. Remind me not to oppose you on anything if I have a choice.”

About that time, the wind picked up and rain began hitting the coach as the storm arrived. There wasn’t much rain except for the initial burst, but the winds were strong. They huddled under the blanket as the temperature dropped and the coach rocked with powerful wind gusts. She could feel the tension in Adam’s body as the rocking motion made his wound hurt. She chose not to respond to what he had said.

“Lean against me. It will help.”

Resisting the enforced intimacy at first, the pain and his weakness eventually made him give in. Accepting the warmth as well as the comfort of that soft body nestled against his, he closed his eyes and relaxed. The darkness because of the rain clouds and the canvas flaps securely tied down encouraged the surrender to slumber. The storm rolled on and the wind faded with its departure. Snuggled against him with his arm encircling her, she slept despite her plan to stay awake and on guard.

*****

Startled by calls when the searchers arrived, the lady answered as Adam was groggy and woke slowly. The men outside asked her to identify herself. When she said her name, Adam began to wonder if he might know her brother.

“My name is Aubrey Adams, and this is Adam Cartwright. He’s hurt.”

The Sheriff recognized Adam’s name and called out to him. “How bad are you hurt this time, Adam?”

“Not too bad. Banged around mostly and a hole in my side. Lost some blood, but Aubrey here bandaged me up. They were convinced I was carrying money and thought I wasn’t telling them where it was.”

“I thought you had given up that bad habit.”

“I have. I wasn’t carrying any money, but those four men didn’t believe me.”

Seeing Adam struggling to get down from the coach, the sheriff dismounted to help him while another man went to help Aubrey to be sure nothing had happened to her. Aubrey explained about the horses so several of the other men left to look for tracks that were mostly wiped out by the rain. It took them quite a bit of time to find the team. By then, the sheriff had helped Aubrey put a new bandage on Adam and get a clean shirt on him. Once they got his coat on him, they had him sit to the side while some of the men packed up the luggage and stowed it away.

Then it was a matter of retrieving the other passengers. Members of the search party went to get them, and they trudged up to the stage about the time the others brought back the horses. Upset and angry, the passengers focused their ire on Adam who was defended by the sheriff. An experienced lawman, he soon shut the critics up with his logical rendition of the facts as he had heard them from Aubrey and from Adam.

*****

Once Adam was back in town and had given a full report to the sheriff, he finally got to see a doctor. The doctor said there wasn’t much more to be done except stitch him up as the bullet had gone through the fleshy tissue. After Adam was bandaged up there, he arranged for a hotel room for himself and one for Aubrey. Seeing the initials on the expensive luggage as well as the matching coat of arms what was on the small signet ring she wore on the little finger of her left hand, he suspected he knew who she was. He told her that after a day, he would be traveling on to Virginia City and the Ponderosa and Invited her to travel with him. He did have a question for her though.

“Is your brother Jacob Adams?”

“Yes, and I wondered when you would figure that out. Listen, I don’t need any favors because you and my older brother were friends in college. I came out here to try to make a life for myself. Jacob didn’t want me to do it. So, there you have it. He wouldn’t appreciate you helping me. I wanted you to know that.”

“At this point, I have only invited you to stay as a guest on the Ponderosa and to meet my family. What you do after that is entirely up to you.”

“Then I accept. Thank you.”

Tired to the point of exhaustion, Adam needed to go to his room to sleep. Excusing himself, he did that, but even in that tired state, he had an uneasy feeling there was something about the whole situation that was odd. He wasn’t sure what it was, but when he gave it more thought, he hoped he would be able to figure it out.

*****

Chapter 2

Meeting in the hotel restaurant, an older gentleman met with his younger cohort. The two sat at a table a hardly spoke not wanting to be overheard at all by anyone. The only thing that was said was enough for both of them,

“The plan is underway?”

“She’s registered here now but is invited to travel with him.”

“He’s grateful for her assistance?”

“Quite grateful. The men who attempted the robbery threatened her.”

“Ah, that was unexpected. You will take care of them?”

“Already set a plan in motion for that. I knew you would want that loose end tied up especially after what they did. It will be done in such a way to take care of both concerns.”

“Well done.”

For the rest of the meal, the two men were quiet. They spent a long time drinking coffee after their breakfast observing Adam and Aubrey entering and sitting at a table. Then they watched as the sheriff paid them a visit.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, folks, but I got a job to do. I found this packet of information at my door this morning. It’s wanted posters and a note. Says he thinks these are the men who robbed or tried to rob that stage and shot you, Adam. Could you look at these pictures and see if these look like the men?”

“Oh, my, those are the ones, Sheriff!”

“I agree with Aubrey, Sheriff. Those do appear to be the men. Isn’t it odd though that someone handed it all over to you like that?”

“It is odd, but my guess is that they made an enemy somewhere along the way, and that man decided he found a way to get even. Listen, I’ll take the facts any way I can get them. I’ll be sending out notices and wanted posters on these four as soon as I can. The stage line has set up the standard reward. We might have these men in short order.”

“They didn’t seem like the kind of men who would be easy to take into custody.”

“The posters will be the standard for robbery and assault.”

“Dead or alive?”

“It has to be done, Adam. We can’t put innocent people at too much risk trying to take these four alive if they want to fight it out.”

“I wasn’t being critical, Sheriff. I was only curious.”

Mollified, the sheriff left, and Adam was quiet. Aubrey wanted to talk to him about what he was thinking but decided he wanted time to himself. He appreciated that she didn’t push him to talk. When they finished breakfast, he suggested they arrange their trip to the Ponderosa. A short walk to the stage depot and they had tickets for the next day. By then, Adam was tired and asked if she would mind if he went back to his room. Before he left, he said they could have dinner together.

*****

When Adam and Aubrey had dinner, the two men watched them again. They had made no attempt to contact her. At this point, any such effort could cause Adam to become suspicious and undermine their whole plan. Instead they discussed their next steps as Aubrey seemed to be successful in hers.

“So, our man will be on the stage with them?”

“Yes, that should give him the opening to try to get a job on the Ponderosa. Before you ask, he has everything he needs packed and with him. He’ll stash it someplace where he can get it when he needs it.”

“You’ll be traveling to Virginia City in two days?”

“Yes, as soon as they leave, I’ll get a shave to get rid of this beard. I have my new wardrobe in my valise. He won’t recognize me. You start growing your beard and arrive there in a week. Your new clothing is packed for you already as well. You have a room at the same hotel. We can find times to talk without arousing suspicion.”

“By the end of the month, we should have a quarter million dollars to divide.”

“That’s the plan.”

“I’m going to especially enjoy my part in the plan.” Richard actually smiled in anticipation of the crime he was expected to commit.

“Oh, I know you will.” Brice cringed internally at the man’s statement.

Brice, the older gentleman, wondered how he could eliminate this man from their group when his part was done because he enjoyed his activities too much. The younger man, Richard, had a necessary if quite distasteful part to play, but after that, he was expendable. There was no need to fulfill the second part of the plan. Although he wouldn’t tell Aubrey he planned to take the money and let Adam suffer the consequences of their deception. Once she knew what had happened because of her participation in this scheme, she would do anything because her soul would be black. There would be no more hints about leaving this life to pursue some silly dream of a conventional lifestyle. The older gentleman would have been surprised to know the younger man was having similar thoughts about the older man being expendable as he had no active role to play in their drama. It didn’t seem fair to the younger man that he get an equal share of the profits only because his daughter had a role to play. No, Richard thought Brice was unnecessary and Brice thought Richard was beneath contempt. The two bid each other farewell with insincere smiles.

*****

Neither of the two men slept well, and neither did Adam. He felt uneasy about the whole situation as well as uncomfortable from his injuries. Expecting the stage ride to be a test of his endurance, he hoped to be rested but as dawn approached, he knew that hope was futile. Trying to examine the situation logically, he couldn’t find a reason why he was so suspicious of Aubrey, but he was. On the stage, the next day, she sensed his unease, but tried to be light in her conversation and say nothing that would increase his apparent concern about her. By the time they reached Virginia City, she thought she had succeeded. Adam introduced her to his family who seemed, of course, to be far more concerned with his condition at first than in meeting her. Once they were assured he was all right, their attention especially that of Joe and Hoss turned to her. She saw Adam’s eyes roll and guessed this was the usual reaction of his brothers. Hoping to make Adam jealous, she teased his brothers. Even as she did so, she began to wonder why she was doing that. It wasn’t part of the plan at all.

“Now, Joe Cartwright, you are the handsomest cowboy I’ve seen in some time.”

“Thank you, miss. Lots of young ladies say that, and may I say, you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”

“Yes, you may say that.”

Easily pushing his little brother aside, Hoss moved in to speak to Aubrey. “Aw, shucks, Miss Aubrey, Little Joe says that to all the gals. Now I only ever says the truth, and you are the prettiest gal in these parts. I sure am grateful too that you took care of our older brother. Besides being pretty, you’re a right brave gal.”

“Now, Hoss Cartwright, you are quite the speaker. I love a man who is so well spoken.”

“Dadburnit, Miss Aubrey, I only says what’s in my heart.”

“You must have a heart even bigger than you appear to have then for your words are beautiful.”

Doing his best to get back to Aubrey’s side, Joe got back in the conversation at least. “Hey, I can talk beautiful words too if this big galoot would move over and give me a chance.”

Before there was any more turmoil in the street, Ben intervened. “I think it’s time we head back to the ranch. Adam should get some rest, and our guest has been through a lot as well.”

“Pa, I met a young cowboy on the stage. He’s looking to get a stake to help him buy a ranch and needs work for the next year or two. He has experience breaking horses and working cattle. Do we need an experienced top hand?”

“We could use one with so many leaving for Montana lately. Where is he?”

“I asked him to wait. He should be right behind you at the depot here. His name is Frankie Davis.”

“Hoss and Joe, would you see to hiring the man and getting him a horse to ride while I get Adam and Aubrey into the carriage. We’ll meet you back at the ranch.” As the two younger brothers headed over to talk to Frankie, Ben turned to Adam. “You look tired.”

“The ride was a bit difficult.”

“Do you want to see Doctor Martin?”

“No, but I’ll ride in the back of the carriage if you don’t mind and take a nap on the way back.”

“Well, I told Paul about what happened to you so he’ll be stopping out to check on you at some point anyway.”

That got another eye roll from Adam which made Aubrey smile. She climbed into the front seat of the carriage as Ben put the luggage in the boot and Adam got in the back.

Tucked in with the carriage blanket for a pillow, Adam quickly fell asleep as Aubrey rode beside Ben on the trip to the ranch. Ben drove slowly and they spoke quietly so Adam could sleep as Aubrey filled Ben in on all that had happened. They arrived at the ranch at about the same time as the three riders did so Hoss and Joe carried in the luggage and resumed their attentions to Aubrey. Ben asked Adam one important question.

“Do you have any interest in the young woman that is going to create any problem with your brothers?”

“No, none.”

“Good. She seems to be playing with them and has no serious interest in either so I don’t expect there will be any problem.” Ben paused then. “You seem rather resolute in no interest in her when she did save your life and she is beautiful.”

Frowning, Adam paused not sure of what to say.

“You have some concern about her?”

“Ever since the holdup, I’ve had concerns. Things are not adding up. I don’t know what’s going on, and that kind of thing always bothers me.”

“What kind of things?”

“Why were those men so sure I was carrying money or a bank draft?”

“You’re thinking someone told them you were?”

“And why didn’t Jacob tell me his sister was out here? He was always protective of his sister. It seems quite odd that she is here and he never let me know.”

“It could be that she didn’t want him to do that. She seems rather independent.”

“Yes, she does.”

“You seem surprised.”

“I guess so. He used to mention that she was shy. I never met her in person, but saw the pictures of this little thin girl doing her best to try to hide during the family portrait.”

“Have you contacted him?”

“I sent a letter to his family. I don’t know his current address. It may take some time for the letter to reach him.”

“You have some doubts that she is who she says she is?”

Adam shrugged. “I have no logical reason to give you.” Then he excused himself to go get some rest passing his brothers and Aubrey as he headed up the stairs and they were coming down after getting her settled in a guest room.

“So, it’s settled. Tomorrow, I’ll take you riding in the morning.”

“Yeah, and then in the afternoon, you and me are going on a picnic. Now, Joe, you be sure to get her back here on time. None of your excuses. Morning ends at noon.”

“And who is going to be doing the work around here while you two are off enjoying yourselves and Adam is convalescing?”

“Oh, we’re gonna be taking turns showing the new hand what to do. Hoss gets him in the morning, and I’ll work with him in the afternoon. Don’t you worry, Pa, we’ll get the work done.”

*****

The next day, while Joe and Hoss were busy with Aubrey, Doctor Paul Martin stopped by to check on Adam. He didn’t have any concerns but did have a warning for Adam.

“It’s not a serious wound as far as damaging anything, but it is long and shallow with stitches only at each end. If you ride or do anything strenuous, it’s going to open up inside and bleed, and the stitches could let loose too. Keep that bandaging in place and wrapped tight for at least a week so that the tissues bond together well. Even then, I would suggest no hard riding or hard work for another week after that and keep the bandage on even if it isn’t so tightly wrapped, but some support would be good. I can be out in a week to check on it.”

After lunch, Paul left. Within a few days, Aubrey suggested she was ready to leave as well. Although Joe and Hoss had hoped she would stay longer, there was nothing developing between any of them and they gave her a ride to town where she took a room at a boardinghouse. She wasn’t very clear on what her plans were, but as their father said, it was her business.

*****

The following Friday, Adam went to town with his brothers for a social. Paul had given him the clearance to ride if he took his time, but he tired quickly and left early telling his brothers he was heading home. He didn’t get there. He was waylaid by gunpoint along the way by a masked man and held for well over an hour until inexplicably, he was allowed to continue on. He never made it home. A posse caught up to him and brought him back to town. Sheriff Roy Coffee apologized but told Adam he had no choice.

“We got a young woman who got attacked, and we got a witness says it was you.”

“What liar could say that it was me?”

“Your friend, Aubrey Adams.”

Hoss and Joe were at the jail soon after Adam was locked inside. Both were furious, but Adam told them it would all be cleared up. He told them to go home to tell their father, but first he asked if one of them would tell Doctor Martin he needed some help. Some of the posse members had been a bit rough before Roy settled them down, and the wound in his side had opened up. He needed a fresh bandage.

*****

Chapter 3

That night, Sheriff Roy Coffee never went home. He was concerned about what citizens might do because a young woman had been viciously assaulted, and he knew Ben Cartwright was going to be there as soon as he could. No lynch mob showed up, but Ben did as furious as expected.

“You know Adam would never do such a thing!”

“I know.”

“Then why do you have him locked up like an animal?”

“Because I have a witness said she saw him running from the scene, and the young woman says it was a man dressed in black who done it.”

“Any man can dress in black.”

“Yes, but we still got Aubrey Adams saying it was Adam. Adam can’t account for his whereabouts either from when he left the social and when the posse caught up to him. He’s got some cockamamie story about a masked man holding him at gunpoint and then letting him go.”

It all started to become clear to Ben. All those misgivings Adam had were on target. Someone had set him up and had done it well. No one would ever believe it was a set-up. His side of the story was the part that wasn’t believable.

Roy was continuing. “I got the young woman’s statement right here. It’s a terrible thing that happened. Marcella said she tore at him trying to make him stop but he didn’t. Her dress was torn. She said he had a hairy chest. Now that fits Adam too. It’s an awful thing that man done. She said he had a bandana over his face and kept his hat on though.”

Ben got quiet before asking Roy to do something he knew was going to be difficult. “Roy, I know you won’t want to do this. I know the young woman has suffered a great deal. But in the interest of justice, could you ask her two questions. Could you ask her if she scratched the man who attacked her, and if she tore at the bandage he had on his chest?”

“Ben, I can see where you’re going with this. I can’t rightly do that, but don’t get mad. I can ask Doctor Martin if he can talk with her. She’s in his care at his office now. She was hurt too much to leave at her place.” Turning to Clem, Roy asked him to hold down the fort as he headed to Doctor Martin’s office. A half hour later, he was back with two sheets of paper.

“Doc got me an addition to her statement, and I got a statement from Doctor Martin. One, she says the man had no bandage and that she did scratch him. She said he was mad when she did that and slapped her hard for doing it and called her some nasty names. Two, Doc says when he examined Adam last night, the bandage he had on was blood soaked and was the bandage Doc put on him. He didn’t find any scratches on him neither.”

“Roy, Adam is innocent. I should tell you that he has been suspicious of Aubrey Adams being who she says she is from the start. He sent a letter to her brother Jacob because of it but hasn’t received a reply yet.”

“What’s going on here, Ben?”

An angry Hoss and an angrier Joe arrived then with a note they handed to their father. Ben read it and handed it to Roy.

“I think we know now what’s going on. They want a ransom to get Aubrey to change her story. For a quarter million dollars, she will no longer believe it was Adam.”

“This is the most cold-hearted evil plot I’ve ever run across. She’s got somebody working with her to do this, and that man hurt that young woman so they could blame Adam.”

“There’s someone else too, Roy. Whoever held Adam at gunpoint so he wouldn’t have an alibi by being home with witnesses.” Ben told Roy then the rest of what they knew.

Roy sighed in exasperation. “They must have set up that holdup of the stage too so Aubrey could get in with Adam. The murder of that driver is on them too.”

Roy signaled to Clem to go get Adam. He thought he had a right to know what was going on. Soon Adam knew what they knew. Roy, Ben, Hoss, Joe, Adam, and Clem knew what had happened but couldn’t prove much of anything. Ben asked the obvious.

“What do we do now?”

“Maybe I should stay in jail and you should pay the money. That will smoke out the others.”

“Son, that puts you at great risk.”

“Pa, do you want to let them get away with it so they can try again. Look at all the damage they did this time. What would they try the next time? At least giving them the money means they don’t have to hurt anyone else. I hope.”

Joe agreed. “Yeah, we can stake out the money drop and find out who else is in on it.”

That made Adam change his mind about how to proceed. “Except they’ll expect that. We’re going to have to be sneakier than that.”

Hoss grinned. “Older brother, you’re the best at being sneaky. What we gonna do?”

“It’s not going to be easy, Hoss, and we’ll need Marcella’s parents to agree.”

“Oh, Lordy, what you got in mind?”

So Adam explained what he had in mind. There was silence for a moment when he finished probably more from shock than anything. His father was the first to respond and not favorably.

“There are so many things that could go wrong even if her parents agree to this crazy plan.”

“Pa, I agree there are things that could go wrong, but it is not crazy.”

Joe was next. “Adam, if the charges against you didn’t get you lynched, this could do it. There could be a lynch mob here for you tonight. It’s going to be awful hard to keep you safe until tomorrow.”

“That’s what I’m counting on you to do for me, Joe.”

That did the trick for Joe. There was nothing better than appealing to his sense of heroism. Hoss was already there of course. The only one left was Roy. He nodded and then shook his head.

“I don’t know. It’s risky, but I can’t see any other way to find out who she’s working with and who really done that awful thing. Now what about the money?”

“Make the drop but don’t put any money in it. Put in a note that she has to change her story first. Tell them they can request the drop after she changes her story because you don’t trust them and it takes longer than a day to get that much cash together. That should shake things up. I’m not in any real legal jeopardy so we can wait to see what the rats do.”

“We’re supposed to make the money drop tomorrow morning. We need someone watching her to see who meets with her when they don’t get the money. She’s going to need to know what to do next.”

“Who’s a good bet to watch her and be above suspicion?” Roy wondered if they had any ideas.

Hoss and Joe grinned as Ben sighed. Adam knew why and explained to Roy.

“She’s staying at Clementine Hawkins’ boardinghouse. I’m sure we can count on her to help out an old friend.” He refrained from using ‘ducky’ or any accent when he said it though sorely tempted.

“All right, but I’m staying in town.”

“You can’t, Pa. You got to make that drop tomorrow morning. Me and Joe will stay here to watch out for Adam. You head on home.”

*****

It was settled then, but the night wasn’t so settled. They waited as a raucous crowd gathered, but between Clem and Roy, they managed to get them to agree to wait for the inquest the next morning. They knew that things had to go well there though because the mood was ugly. Adam was the only one who got any sleep and not much at that. In the morning, they all looked about as bad as they felt. Heading to the inquest, Adam asked Hiram to do one thing. They stopped at his office and Hiram carried out the task handing the sealed envelope to Adam who folded it and put it inside his vest. Inside the courtroom where the inquest into the supposed death of Marcella Martin was to take place, the judge awaited them. He had been informed of the nature of the proceedings and wasn’t pleased, but was getting paid so was at least agreeable to see what happened. He knew that Marcella’s parents had agreed to the deception and were with their daughter at the doctor’s office. The casket at the mortuary was filled with sandbags. Aubrey came in and took her seat but looked worried. Ben came in a short time later and whispered to his sons and Hiram.

“Frankie picked up the drop. He went to the hotel and met with someone and then went to meet with Aubrey. We don’t know who he met at the hotel. Clem is trying to find out.”

Ben sat back then as Adam relaxed. The pieces of the puzzle were beginning to fall into place. The room filled with spectators of all types. Aubrey looked around as if expecting someone. The inquest began with Doctor Martin and his report on Marcella, her statements, and then what he found when examining Adam. That created quite a stir and rumble in the room. People began to wonder what was going on with some thinking perhaps the doctor was lying. The Aubrey was called to the stand. Adam pulled the envelope from his vest, unfolded it, and handed it to Hiram. In bold letters was his address and Jacob Adams’ return address. Hiram nodded and turned to Aubrey.

“Would you state your name for the record please remembering that you are under oath even though this is only an inquest?”

Silent, Aubrey’s eyes went to the back of the room where an older man stood and attempted to leave. He was stopped by Sheriff Coffee.

“Papa, it’s too late. They know too much.”

“You stupid girl. They knew very little until you opened your mouth. Don’t say anything more, you foolish girl.”

Both Aubrey and Brice were placed under arrest. The crowd was astonished so Roy explained first that the whole thing had been a show. “Marcella isn’t dead. This was to flush out the real criminals. These two was blackmailing the Cartwrights. They said for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Aubrey would say it wasn’t Adam who done it. Those reports from Doctor Martin are true. Marcella says it wasn’t Adam. She scratched the man who done it. If you want, Adam can open his shirt and you can see he ain’t got no scratches. He’s also still got a bandage from when he was shot during that holdup. It was all a big blackmail plot. Frankie Davis was in on it too. We’re not sure yet who attacked that poor girl but we got three to ask about that.”

There were murmurs and lots of talking so although disgusted at the spectacle, Adam unbuttoned his shirt and let them take a look. He had no scratches on his chest. That did it. The crowd dispersed finally convinced that he was in fact innocent or probably so. Adam knew as well as his family did that the taint of this would probably never entirely leave him. It was a price they paid for being in the social position they were. There were some who wanted to believe the worst about them and would despite any evidence no matter how airtight. The four of them walked out together, thanked Roy and Hiram, and were going to leave when Adam saw a man heading for the stage. He paused and stared at him before walking across the street to accost him.

“I saw you in Sacramento. I saw you several times on my trip home before I got shot.”

“You must be mistaken. I don’t know you. I’ve never seen you before.”

“You were in the dining room with Aubrey’s father the night before we headed to Virginia City. You had a beard then. Your face is still pale where you shaved it off.” Taking a closer look at the man, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. “You’re about my build and my height. It would be easy for someone to mistake us at night if you were wearing all black clothing. If you unbuttoned your shirt, would we see scratches on your chest?”

The grin the man had was feral. He saw that Adam wasn’t armed. He drew to fire and never realized how many guns could be drawn faster than his when he meant to shoot down an unarmed man. His bullet riddled body lay in the street when Roy Coffee arrived a minute later. Roy leaned down and ripped open the man’s shirt revealing the gashes made by Marcella’s nails on his chest.

“I guess we got all of them now and saved the expense of a hanging too.”

“A hanging? Marcella isn’t dead.”

“No, but that Aubrey or whatever her name is, well she’s a singing like a bird telling what he’s done. He’s killed others. She’s trying to get out of a jail sentence by giving up everything on the others.”

“Roy, will it work?”

“Probably will, Adam. Not many women go to prison especially if they haven’t shot someone or stolen anything. Most likely, she’ll get banished from the state.”

“Son, let’s pick up the mail and some supplies and head home. We need the peace and quiet of the Ponderosa.”

*****

In the mail was a letter from Jacob Adams to Adam. He explained why he had never traveled west to visit and likely never would. “My sister, Aubrey, took a trip west three years ago. It was supposed to be a grand adventure. She was brutalized and murdered in Denver. It took all the emotional stamina I had to even write those words on paper.  All she owned was taken. We didn’t even know what happened to her for months until a drawing of her was circulated by newspapers. They were trying to find the identity of the poor woman left that way and buried in a common grave in a potters’ field. We had a proper headstone made for her. It was all we could do. They couldn’t even find the exact place of her burial. The idea of the west sickens me now. I’m sorry to tell you this awful tale, but you asked. I know that I once said I would make a trip out to see you. I’m sorry to say that will never happen. You are still my friend. Nothing will change that, but if you wish to see me, it will have to be here. I will never travel to the west no matter the reason.

Silently, Adam handed the letter to his father who read it and passed it on to Hoss and to Joe. They all knew then that Aubrey as they knew her was far more complicit in the crimes the group had committed than she wanted anyone to know.

“Son, there’s really nothing you can do about this.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

“Roy said her father will get a long enough term that at his age, it will likely amount to a life sentence. Frankie will probably get between ten and twenty years. It’s going to have to be enough.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

*****

Chapter 4

Three weeks later, Sheriff Coffee released Aubrey from custody with a one-way ticket out of Nevada on the stage. She had testified at her father’s trial and at the trial of Frankie Davis admitting all that she knew or at least enough of it that the jury able to quickly convict the two of various charges. The judge knowing all that he knew gave each of them the maximum sentences that he could impose. Brice was never going to get out of prison and Frankie would be an old man before he experienced life as a free man again. There were many who would have liked to see Aubrey punished severely too, but Brice was a father at least and didn’t retaliate against her keeping his secrets and Frankie didn’t know enough. The conviction she had was for relatively petty offenses and earned her a permanent ban from setting foot in Nevada.

One of those who suspected Aubrey was far less innocent than she proclaimed, Adam decided to confront her as she left town. Leaning against a post, Adam was at the stage station when Sheriff Coffee escorted Aubrey there. She was thinner and clearly had suffered the strain of the previous weeks, but Adam didn’t feel any sympathy.

“Adam, I didn’t expect to see you here. I know you won’t believe this, but I am sorry about what happened to you.”

The smile he gave her for that statement had no humor behind it. “You’re right. I don’t believe you. But I do have someone I want you to meet. He has traveled a long way to see you.”

A tall man stepped forward. Aubrey almost smiled thinking that perhaps it was a writer who wanted her story, but that good feeling didn’t last. Adam looked like he was enjoying the moment too much. She had a sick feeling developing in her stomach and knew she wasn’t going to like what he had to say next.

“This is the federal marshal from the Denver, Colorado district. He has some questions for you regarding the murder of the real Aubrey Adams. Because you have her luggage and her ring, he’ll be escorting you to that city for some legal proceedings.”

The marshal stepped forward and put handcuffs on her before helping her into the stage. She looked out the window at Adam with more curiosity than anger.

“But I never hurt that girl. I had nothing to do with what happened to her.”

“You can tell it to the court in Denver. You can even tell then who you really are.”

Calming herself, Aubrey regarded Adam with a hard look. She was curious about one thing. “How did you know? I mean, why were you so suspicious of me that you sent that letter to Jacob Adams? I hadn’t done anything to you. I don’t know why you were already checking into me.”

“It didn’t add up. He always told me his sister was curious about the world, but I never expected her to be so forward. That, and the accent wasn’t quite right. I lived there for four years and heard a number of accents but never one like yours. I did meet quite a few members of wealthy families, and anyone who’s had a tour of the great cities of Europe ought to have been more cultured when the occasion called for it. Jacob always talked too of his ‘little’ sister and emphasized how little she was, and Jacob was short and thin too.”

“So, why is that important?”

“You helped me into the stage that first day. I leaned on your shoulder. I wondered too why the signet ring was too small for one of your ring fingers. You are not a small woman. That didn’t match my memories of Aubrey Adams based on what Jacob had said.”

“I guess there was too much I didn’t know, and your memory was too good.” Aubrey decided it wouldn’t matter to admit something more. “Richard wanted to kill you to get you out of the way. He said you were too suspicious, and he was worried that would cause us to fail. I guess he was right about that, but I’m still glad that my father didn’t want to kill you. Like with most things, father made the final decisions. I did what he asked me to do, but I would never have participated in a plot to murder someone. I’m sure he knew that. That girl being killed and the death of that driver weren’t my fault.”

“Maybe some things were not your fault, but at some point, you made a choice to continue working with your father despite knowing what he was doing. That is your fault.”

“I wanted to leave after Denver. When I got her things, I knew she had been killed. I had suspected there had been others. I knew there would be more. I had never participated directly in any of Papa’s crimes before we got here. I was only along because it made him more respectable looking and people wouldn’t be suspicious of him, but he was worried that I would leave him. If I took part in this, he thought I would have to stay with him. He made me do this to you. He wanted my soul stained as black as his.”

Although skeptical of most of what she said, Adam wasn’t going to debate her on the individual points of her argument. “You had a choice in Denver, and many chances to make that same choice since then.

“You are an unforgiving man.”

“No, I believe in justice. It’s something you’re going to find out about finally.” After a pause, Adam had a question for her. “Why does your father hate wealthy people so much that he would kill them with no regret?”

“You have more money than we do.”

It was a simple answer, but with those words, her character was revealed more than by anything else she had done or said. She probably didn’t know it, but behind her, the marshal nodded. He had a good idea now of the kind of person he was escorting to Denver and was grateful this conversation had taken place. There was no more talking as the driver had a schedule to try to keep. Hoss walked up behind Adam as the stage pulled away.

“At least you can write to your friend and tell him there will be some of that justice. It might help him a little. He’ll get his sister’s ring back too. It’s something.”

“Not enough, but you’re right. It’s something.”

“It’s a nice day to end the month. March has been a lion, but at least it’s leaving like a lamb. How about a beer?”

“It is a real nice day. How about some fishing instead?”

Hoss heard the words that weren’t spoken. “Yeah, breathing fresh air and looking at the lake and the mountains might be exactly what you need.”

So that’s what they did, and brought home some fish for dinner too. At dinner with the family, they finally could talk about normal things. It would take more than that to erase all the ugliness, but it was a good start, a necessary step.

***THE END***

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