In Defense of Innocence (By MissJudy)

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Summary:  Adam’s life begins to fall apart after a lie told by another student at Harvard results in him being expelled. He struggles to understand how he could have done everything right and still lose everything he worked so hard to accomplish. He must listen to the wisdom of those who love him, look deep into his own heart and find the truths and lessons that forged his character into the man he became.

Rating: T

Word Count: 30021

 

Note: This story contains a serious topic. However, it is used only as the basis for what happens once the truth is exposed rather than as the story’s focus.  This takes place around 1850 when Adam is a junior in college, so such things were handled differently. I’ve included the mores of the era in the footnotes. Thank you.

In Defense of Innocence

One

Adam waited for Abel to raise the last bite of cake to his mouth before he slid the empty plate away. “Melinda and I’ll do the dishes while you take your walk, Grandfather.” His exaggerated cheeriness continued. “We’ll be done by the time you return and we can play a few hands of whist before I leave for school.”

The older man pulled his plate back while taking a sip of coffee. “It’s Impolite to rush through the end of a meal, Adam. I’m sure your father taught you better manners.” He raised his napkin to dab at his lips and used it to cover his sly grin. Abel Stoddard was as wise as he was old, and understood the boy’s impatience was not about getting the dishes done; it was about getting his grandfather away from the house to have some time alone with their Sunday dinner guest, a lovely brunette his grandson had been keeping company with for the last year.

The girl was the niece of Lynne Hayworth, Abel’s nearest neighbor and long-time friend. The child had spent a good deal of time with her aunt over the years, and had been around since Adam first arrived. But he’d heard she was working in Boston, and her weekends at Lynne’s never corresponded to Adam’s with his grandfather.

Lynne had walked over to introduce her niece on a fall day at the beginning of Adam’s sophomore year when the two men had been outside pruning trees. A moment of distraction and miscalculation during that meeting had sent his grandson flying from the ladder he’d been on. He’d landed in the branches of a prickly hawthorn, unconscious and severely injured. The friendship that began as Melinda lent comfort that day, turned to affection during their coordinated future visits.

Abel had noticed the attraction between them from the start. He didn’t discourage it, but he was prepared to say something if it advanced too quickly. It didn’t—remaining a gentle romance between two people with high goals. Adam was now nearing the end of his junior year, still at the top of his class. Abel admired the young man’s ability to keep his head and his heart working together in proper perspective. He had seen Ben demonstrate the same trait during the time he’d been in love with Elizabeth, while sailing under Abel’s command.

Abel had come to know his grandson well in their three years together. He’d also become adept at teasing his daughter’s child. Delaying his walk was Abel’s way of observing how the boy handled his impatience. He moved the cake crumbs around on the plate, and addressed Melinda. “I’m sorry your aunt couldn’t join us today.”

“She sends her regrets. I decided to come despite her being gone a few hours today, since this was a weekend when Adam…”

Abel smiled as Melinda blushed with her abbreviated admission. “Lynne looks forward to your visits…even if they coincide with those of my handsome grandson.” A glance towards the “handsome grandson” confirmed that his cheeks were also red. He’d often made Ben squirm a little when he’d courted Elizabeth, and he enjoyed putting his grandson through the same torment.

A relieved sigh was released by both youngsters when Abel finally slid his chair from the table. He winked at Adam. “I will take my digestive constitutional now. I’m sure Mrs. Doherty will appreciate having a clean kitchen when she returns from her church function.” He stretched as he rose, and leaned forward onto the table, looking directly at his grandson. “In fact, I’m a little thirsty, so I’ll probably stop in at the pub. But I will accept your challenge for cards later.”

***

Adam noted Melinda’s slight frown and sigh as she began gathering the dishes from the table. “Did Grandfather upset you?”

She drew back as her eyes popped open, and then laughed. “You didn’t see it, but he winked at me when he was giving you a hard time about your manners, so I knew he was having a little fun at your expense. Abel also knows that I visit my aunt when you aren’t here, so he was teasing me.” She tilted her head, smiling coyly. “There’s just added incentive to come when you’re next door.”

“So what’s got you frowning?”

Melinda looked towards the ceiling as though trying to find answers there. “I’m wondering if I could ask Abel’s help with Aunt Lynne.”

Adam reached for her hand, bringing it to his lips. “You’re worried about her?”

“Her mind is increasingly jumbled, and she’s anxious and forgetful. She has good weeks, but other times she can’t even remember how to get washed and dressed. My father arranged for a live-in housekeeper, and that helps.”

Adam squeezed her hand. “What would you like Grandfather to do?”

“I’m protective of my aunt, but he’s undoubtedly noticed her forgetfulness.” She breathed deeply. “I’d appreciate him stopping over whenever he can. She’d like the company and he could give me reports on how she’s doing.”

She stepped forward closing the space between them. “That’s enough unhappy thoughts! Would you think me forward if I kissed you instead of waiting for you?”

“I would be honored.” He winked and leaned in, forming his lips into a comical pucker.

“I don’t kiss fish,” she said as she put her arms around his neck and tugged him downward. “Do it properly.”

Their kiss was long and sweet. Adam shivered as he stepped back, enjoying the sensation that warmed his body. “That was tasty,” he whispered into her hair as he pulled her to him again. “Might I have seconds?”

They spent another several minutes renewing their acquaintance before Melinda swatted his shoulder. “Your grandfather’s going to tease us more if we don’t have the dishes done when he gets back.”

“I s’pose you’re right about that, but I sure do miss you.”

She laid her hands at her waist and tipped her head. “I bet you don’t even think about me when we’re apart.”

A rosy glow formed at Adam’s neck and slithered up his jaw line.

Her feigned pout became real. “You really don’t think about me?”

“It’s not that I don’t want to, Melinda, but I limit the amount of time I allow it.” He smiled sheepishly. “If I didn’t, I’d never get anything done.”

The hurt look dissolved into a gentle smile. “School is your priority; you shouldn’t be distracted.”

He kissed her quickly. “You, my love, are a mighty distraction.”

She touched his face, leaving her palm resting against his cheek. “I don’t know why I was teasing you. I feel the same way. If I thought of you as much as I’d like to, I’d never get anything done.”

He embraced her tightly before stepping back and grabbing the plates. His tower of china nearly toppled when she slipped behind him and gave him a sturdy hug. “Hey!” he laughed. “The captain wouldn’t mind finding dirty dishes, but he’d be unhappy if they were all broken.” He made it to the kitchen and set his load safely on the cupboard. “I usually wash. I hope you don’t mind drying.”

***

The last dish was safely dried and stowed with time left over for Melinda and Adam to sit on the back porch steps, holding hands, stealing kisses, and watching squirrels hop along the spindly branches above them.

“Oh!” Melinda cried out. “I almost forgot!”

Adam grinned and wrapped his arm around her. “What is it?”

“The family I work for is having a picnic next weekend, and your roommate’s family is invited.”

“I didn’t realize they knew the Wadsworths.”

Melinda rolled her eyes. “Everyone knows the Wadsworths. When I saw the guest list, I mentioned that I knew Frankie Wadsworth’s roommate. They said I should invite you. The only snag is that I volunteered to watch the boys because the nanny is away.”

“I’m used to watching boys.” He winked. “I’ve mentioned my brothers.”

“My two are tame compared to what you’ve told me about Hoss and Little Joe.” She bit her lip as her shoulders rose. “There’s another thing. I’ll also be watching a fourteen-year-old girl.”

His brows dipped. “Why does a girl that age need watching?”

“I kept an eye on Leslie once during a dinner party. She looks like any girl her age, but her mother explained that complications during her birth delayed her first breath. That lapse affected her ability to learn.”

“I recall a family in our wagon train with a son who was called ‘slow’. He was strong and tall and helped as much as he could, but his learning process froze at a young age.”

“That’s it exactly. Leslie’s mannerisms, comprehension, and social abilities are frozen at those of a six-year-old. It’s like her memory and learning power are inaccessible past that age.”

Adam leaned back on the step behind him. “Wealthy families usually banish such children to asylums. It’s nice that Leslie’s folks accept and include her.” He reached for Melinda’s hand and kissed it softly. “I’ll be honored to keep you company at the picnic. I’ll catch a ride with the Wadsworths.”

Two

Adam had the cab drop him several blocks from campus to save on the fare. He trotted toward his dorm while experiencing the excitement he always felt when returning to school. His classes challenged him and he’d been blessed with a great room and roommate from the first day. He’d always suspected there was more than luck involved in being paired with the son of a highly regarded alumnus. Other first-generation and scholarship students shared crowded, multi-person rooms on the fourth floor, while he occupied a spacious, light-infused room on the main floor directly off the commons area.

He’d worried at first about being paired with an affluent Easterner, but he and Frankie had become fast friends…almost brothers. Frankie’s father owned the premier engineering firm in the city, and his mother, Marian, was active in social and charitable causes. Although raised in completely different ways, he and Frankie had the same values and commitment to family, and there was something about Frank Sr. that reminded Adam of his own father. He’d always felt at ease with the Wadsworths, and they often referred to him as, “son.”

He renewed his thanks for his as he spotted the residence hall in the distance, and then let his mind travel back to Boston to remember his day with Melinda. They’d played a cutthroat game of cards with his grandfather, and he’d said goodbye once Lynne arrived home. Adam’s pace slowed to a walk, and finally stalled while he recalled their parting kiss.

There’d been times on the trek east when he’d had misgivings about his plans. He’d worried that Abel Stoddard might dislike him or the intrusion. Then there’d been fears about his preparedness to compete at school. But he’d found Abel with an open heart and willingness to speak of Elizabeth. They’d grown close and comfortable together. Then he’d met the Wadsworths, done well in school, and now there was Melinda. He sighed happily, even as his mind began to drift west. In this moment of thanks for beginnings, his heart began to ache for the father and brothers he’d left behind.

He took a deep breath and began running until he bounded up the steps of his dormitory, and continued to his room.

***

The door was ajar, alerting him that Frankie had returned from his weekend home.

“Hey, Buddy.” Frankie’s greeting was issued with a quick handshake, before he pulled a stack of neatly folded shirts from his valise and jammed them into his dresser.

“I’m surprised your mother doesn’t send someone to put your clothes away,” Adam teased when he witnessed the mess his friend had made.

“If she had her way, I’d have a valet. The saving grace is that Harvard wants students to be self-sufficient, and hence frowns on personal attendants.” He laughed. “And it’s not that she wants someone to take care of me, mind you; she just doesn’t want me showing up for class in wrinkled clothes.”

“Your mother does care about presentation, but in a nice way.” His mind journeyed west again. “She reminds me of Pa. We always had to be washed up and wearing ironed shirts when we went to town. That wouldn’t have happened without Hop Sing. I tried ironing once and burned a hole in my best shirt.”

The two men shared a laugh over their parents’ quirks while Adam pulled his books from his travel bag. He saw the top edge of a white envelope peaking from the pages of his physics book and turned away to smile. He wasn’t sure how or when she did it, but Melinda always managed to get a note tucked into one of his books when she came to Abel’s house. His head snapped up when thoughts of Melinda jarred his memory.

“My friend invited me to a picnic at the Olivers’ next weekend. She mentioned that your family was coming. Does that include you?”

Frankie pursed his lips. “Mother mentioned it, but I have other plans. I forgot that your…ah…friend works for the Olivers.” He laughed as he tossed a book in a perfect arc towards his desk. “I was going to ask you to spend the day at Seth Waller’s country house. His parents never use it, so Seth started living there on weekends.” He gave Adam a minute to decide which party he’d rather attend, and finally swatted his roommate’s arm. “I’ll send a note to have my parents pick you up.” His smile grew. “I’m beginning to think your Melinda is more than just a ‘friend’. Are you thinking about a country church adorned with flowers, and a minister up front waiting to pronounce you husband and wife?”

Adam stepped back, his eyebrows joining in his wary squint. “I like her very much, but I can’t begin to think of the future.” He turned the new invitation over in his mind. “As far as Seth’s party, I did promise Melinda I’d help with the boys she teaches…and…that would be like being with my brothers…”

Frankie waited while his roommate’s thoughts returned from the West. The deep homesickness he’d helped Adam combat his first year in school had passed, but there were times when his friend still got lost between the Ponderosa and Boston. “Just enjoy your…friend…and her charges at the picnic.” He leaned back, crossing his arms in a thoughtful pose while rubbing his chin for effect. “Melinda is as pretty as any girl in Boston, but if you’re not thinking of marrying her, you should let me help you find a bride. I’ll introduce you to someone who’s pretty…and rich.”

“I intend to become rich by using my intellect and won’t need to marry a woman with money. You on the other hand might enjoy being a kept man.”

Frankie snorted and pulled a neatly-folded beige suit from his closet shelf, holding it out to Adam. “My mother sent this in case I changed my mind about joining them. We’re close enough in size that you can wear it instead. I’m sure there was no need to have a picnic suit for watching them steers in yer pastures. And if you wear this to the party, you won’t look like the country bumpkin you really are.” He took a moment to relish the longsuffering sigh his comment elicited. These two had become close enough that they enjoyed a good verbal sparring match, and they each gave as good as they got.

Frankie pulled a white straw hat from the closet and tossed it onto Adam’s bed. “This won’t fit since your head is bigger than mine—in more ways than one—but you can balance it up there for effect when you arrive, and then ditch it so it doesn’t fall off when you sneak a kiss behind the shrubbery.”

***

Intending to get ahead in his studies for the weekend, and finding a little privacy, Adam headed to the library after his final class on Monday, choosing a carrel at the back of the room. He slipped Melinda’s note from his book and breathed in its scent. She didn’t add drops of the lilac cologne she wore, so it wouldn’t transfer to the pages of his book and become a source of teasing. Yet there was still a trace of something familiar, perhaps the soap she used. He slid his hand across the sheet to flatten the folds, willing himself to feel the warmth of her hand as it had moved across the page. He could imagine her breath stirring the edges as she’d held it up to read it a last time before slipping it inside the envelope, and finally, he let his eyes move across the words while imagining her saying them to him.

Dearest Adam,

I’ll probably hide this in your book before I can ask you to the party, but I hope you’ll accept, and shall base my thoughts on that presumption.

I know how much you miss your brothers, and being with Nathan and Charlie might remind you of home. I’m excited to show you around my little classroom, and explain how I make their lessons come to life. You and I think of learning as an undiscovered land, and we are willing explorers.

Have a wonderful week. Be brave in your convictions and solid in your theories as you work through your classes. Think of me only when you have a moment without worry of other things.

I will be impatient Saturday as I await your arrival, and then we’ll make the most of our day.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll be broken-hearted if you are unable to attend. (Of course I tease.) I will miss you, but will truly understand if this doesn’t work into your schedule.

Until then, remember that you are always in my heart.

Melinda.

He closed his eyes, smiling as he leaned back in his chair. These hidden notes were not passionate. They were certainly filled with love—for he knew she loved him—but they were pure Melinda, and that was even better. This blossoming romance left him knock-kneed and breathless at times. And despite his denial to Frankie, he did see the future when he thought about her, although the edges were still shadowed, and the picture incomplete. All he knew for sure was that he’d find a private moment on Saturday to show her know how much he’d missed her, and appreciated her note.

Three

The tall, broad-shouldered, fourteen-year-old Hoss charged into the house, slamming the door behind him. He skidded to a stop when he noticed the stern look on his father’s face. “Sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean to shut the door so hard. Guess I forget my own strength.”

His middle son’s toothy smile always disarmed Ben. “Keep that in mind or you’ll break our things with your exuberance.”

“My what? All I done was shut the door hard.”

“Exuberance means excitement.” He motioned for Hoss to join him at the desk. “I suppose you’re glad it’s Friday.” He realized Hoss didn’t have Little Joe in tow. “Where’s your brother?”

“He’s tending his horse, but I wanted to ask you if I could ride out to that back corral and watch the guys working the wild horses. I sure do love seein’ them buck.”

“You can if you don’t have school work. I don’t want you forgetting about it until Sunday night like last weekend.”

“I don’t got any homework, Pa.”

“I don’t have any homework,” Ben corrected.

“Well of course you don’t, Pa.” Hoss gave his father a sideways glance. “You all right? I see you’re just doodling on that paper. That usually means you’re thinkin’ of Adam.”

A chuckle. “I guess I am,” Ben admitted, looking up at the sky-blue eyes of Inger’s child. “We haven’t gotten a letter in some time.”

“It’ll come.”

“I’m sure it will.” He set his pencil down and pointed to the door. “Go watch the broncos and get back as soon as the sun starts to set so Hop Sing doesn’t have to wait supper.”

“That won’t happen.” Hoss rubbed his stomach. “My belly is a better clock than any timepiece we got in our house.” He headed for the door, calling, “Bye, Pa,” as he went out, latching the door softly behind him.

Hoss might say not to worry, but something was making Ben uneasy. He didn’t believe in premonition…exactly…yet he often felt a gut-deep tension just before his sons became ill or when he sensed they were headed for trouble. He supposed it came from being both father and mother to them—giving him a double awareness of danger. He sighed heavily, knowing that there was nothing to be done. If the feeling persisted, he’d take a ride to the telegraph office at the Carson River Settlement in Eagle Valley. He’d contacted Adam that way a year ago when Little Joe had gone missing. It had taken many hours; but it had worked, and Adam’s suggestion led them in the right direction. It was too costly a service to use on a regular basis, and it would mean spending at least a day at the settlement while waiting for the message to snake its way across the country and back, but it was an option he appreciated.

He laughed to shake off the edginess, convincing himself that it really was just the stretch of time between letters. Weather often delayed mail as it crossed the country, just as a downed line delayed a telegram.

Ben reached into his desk drawer to retrieve the paper where he noted the family activities for his absent son. He’d add a few final comments every week, and take about a month’s worth to the trading post to go out whenever a supply train came through. The information was old by the time Adam read it, but he knew how much these compilations meant to his son.

Letters from Abel confirmed that Adam had adjusted to his new life, was making friends, having a little more fun now that he’d found his pace at school, and held the top spot in his class for both years he’d been in school. His father-in-law had also confided that Adam devoured letters from home, reading them repeatedly until Abel feared the pencil marks would disappear. He was grateful for Adam’s very organized information, and even more grateful for his father-in-law’s perspective. Ben knew Adam carried a self-imposed burden to perform above expectations. Yet he just wanted his son to do the best he could and enjoy this time of discovery.

He began writing about the new horses they’d brought in from the range, and was finishing his last sentence when Little Joe bounded into the house. He smiled at the youngster who tossed his hat onto the rack and headed toward the desk. “I’m surprised you didn’t join Hoss.”

The little boy shrugged. “I didn’t feel like it today.”

“Are you feeling well?” Ben asked as his brows dipped. His youngest son was usually full of energy and excitement.

“I’m all right, Pa. I just got this fuzzy feeling in my stomach.”

“Fuzzy? Like something’s tickling you?” A grin appeared and widened.

“No, more like ants crawling around inside. I don’t feel sick, just jumpy.”

The grin faded to concern. “Is everything all right at school?”

“Yeah. I even got a star for my arithmetic, Pa. It was just when I was in the barn, I saw Adam’s empty stall, and those ants started moving around.”

Ben nodded. He knew that Little Joe struggled with Adam’s absence. His oldest son had always helped with his younger brothers, even when Marie was part of the family. And in the first months following her death, Adam had taken over because the head of their household had drifted into a deep melancholy. It was Adam who’d usually held Little Joe at night when he’d cried for his mother, and kept him entertained during days that often stretched on endlessly without Marie’s energy propelling them forward.

Little Joe’s frown gave way to a smile. “Hoss says Adam’s half done with that college stuff now. That’s not so bad.”

“That’s not so bad,” Ben repeated as the ants in his stomach began moving again. “It’ll fly by, and you’ll soon be wishing he was gone again.”

“He is pretty bossy.” Joe bit his lip as he grinned. “And he thinks he’s so smart.” The lip chewing continued. “But it’ll be good when he’s back.”

Ben extended the pencil, and pushed the sheet he’d been writing on across the desk. “Add a note to this telling Adam about the star you got. He’d like to hear about that.”

A sheepish look rippled from Joe’s eyes down to his lips. “It’ll take some time, Pa. You know my spelling isn’t so good. ”

“Sit across from me and I’ll help you with any word you’re not sure about.”

Four

“It shouldn’t take too much longer to get there,” Marian Wadsworth informed her companions as their coach made its way through heavier than normal Saturday traffic in Boston. She and Frank had picked up Adam about 20-minutes earlier and she’d noticed that the farther they got from campus, the more he was unable to sit still. He was wearing Frankie’s suit, and he looked very handsome. Yet with his constant fidgeting, she began to wonder if it didn’t fit comfortably. She studied his face as he stared out at the passing streets, and began to smile. Frankie had recently told her that Adam was fond of a young lady who worked as a governess.

Getting information from Adam Cartwright was always a challenge. Frankie’s note, asking them to stop for his roommate didn’t mention how Adam came to be invited to this party. When she asked him earlier, he said he knew someone who worked there. They’d been at a dinner with the Oliver’s recently where they spoke glowingly of a young woman who was teaching their two boys, and how she made every lesson interesting. Marian’s arithmetic skills were still top-notch and she performed the equation. Adam’s young lady and the Olivers’ governess was the same person, and Adam was as excited to see her as a child entering a candy store with a nickel to spend.

Testing her theory, Marian announced that they were no more than a mile away, while watching Adam’s face for tells. She feigned a cough to camouflage a laugh when the usually unflappable young man nearly bounced out of his seat. Her attempts to hide her amusement were too obvious, and Adam sat back, and took a deep breath while a brief flush brightened his cheekbones. The squirming stopped…replaced by bouncing his hat on his knees. Each turn closing in on the house increased the tempo of the bounce.

He began chewing on the inside of his lip and breathing faster, and she realized that his excitement had turned to uneasiness. “Are you nervous about the party?” she asked softly, reaching forward to bring the hat to a stop.

His face took on a hue that matched Marian’s light pink dress, and he looked up with a smile. “A little. I’ve been to formal functions at school, but we never got this fancy for a picnic at home.”

“I’d hoped Frankie would fill you in on what’s expected, but knowing how you two tease each other, he’s probably hoping you’ll make a few etiquette mistakes so he’ll have a laugh at your expense.”

“You might be right about that.”

Frank Wadsworth had been lost in his own thoughts along the ride, making notes on a small pad of paper as he’d remember something he needed to do. He looked up with Adam’s admission. “You look good, Adam. You are a gentleman, and you watch what other’s do. Just do that today.”

“Thank you, sir.” Adam was comfortable with Frank Wadsworth. The man had grown up with privilege, but Frank’s ways reminded him of his own father. Both men worked hard: Ben Cartwright to build a heritage, and Frank to maintain and strengthen his, and they never let their influence outweigh their effort. Getting a compliment from either man was a heady experience.

Marian rolled her eyes. “Frank is entirely right, but let me give you a few pointers. This is a picnic in name only. The invitation called it, a ‘celebration of spring’, so the house and grounds will be formally decorated and there is nothing casual about what happens. There will be two food services while we’re there. The buffet luncheon, soon after our arrival, will be served outside on fine china rather than the less expensive dinnerware one might expect at a picnic. You should let the…um…more mature guests go first.” She nodded towards her husband and winked. “Then take as much as you like. If Frankie was with us, he’d heap his plate like he hadn’t eaten for weeks. The second offering will come later in the afternoon, and while there may be small sandwiches, it’s mostly sweets.”

“What else should I know about this buffet?” Adam asked.

“There will be blankets on the grass, and you’ll probably end up on one of those because chairs are reserved for women and older guests. Spread a napkin on your knees, placing your plate atop that. This isn’t their finest china, but they won’t be happy if you break it. Guests are expected to pay for anything they destroy. Replacing one setting could cost your allowance for the entire year.” Marian watched the uncertain look slip across Adam’s face, and laughed. “I’m teasing you, sweetheart.”

Adam laughed. “Now I know where Frankie gets his sense of humor. I assumed it was from his father.”

“I’m the tease…Frank is just grumpy.” She peeked out the window as they came to a stop. “We’re only at the gate. It takes a while for each vehicle to empty and the guests to be announced.” She closed her eyes and tapped her temple. “Let’s see…what other advice can I offer. You’ll be with your friend, but don’t be a wallflower. Talk to people: introduce yourself and say you know us and Frankie. Join in the games and appear to be having good time, even if you’re not. This first affair of the season is more about being seen than enjoying yourself.” She turned toward her husband. “Isn’t that right, Frank?”

The older man stopped writing and smiled lovingly at his wife. “I met you at a picnic, so I’m prejudiced about their value.” His turned to Adam. “I get a big glass of scotch and nurse it under a shady tree while talking business with the other old men. I can do that because I have nothing left to prove. But you do, so talk yourself up a little. Marian and I will do the same for you.” Frank looked down and smiled when Adam blushed, and excused himself to finish his notes before they debarked.

Marian didn’t want to appear nosy by sticking her head out the window, yet she was anxious to spot the young woman she suspected was waiting for Adam. She leaned over just enough to view those waiting by the house. The hat-tapping had begun again in earnest again, and unfortunately for Adam, he’d taken the seat across from her, and was facing away from the house.

As the coach pulled ahead a few feet, Marian spotted a lovely girl in a beige dress with long, dark curls cascading nearly to her waist. The look on the beauty’s face mirrored the one she saw on Adam’s: a mixture of anticipation and excitement, with a good dose of nervousness. She winked at the boy across from her. “Don’t worry, she’s waiting for you.” She watched as Adam’s left cheek rose until he was squinting at her. “You’re wondering how I know that. Well…if I was to pick someone I think you’d find interesting, it would be the young woman out there craning her neck to see who’s stepping out of each vehicle.” Marian reached out to pat Adam’s hand. “Take a deep breath and relax. There are still five coaches ahead of us, and it’s very bad manners to exit before you reach the front of the line.” She gave his hand a squeeze before sitting back and poking her husband. “An early exit irritates guests ahead of you, who like Frank, are anxious to get to the bar.”

***

Melinda took a deep breath to settle her nerves. She was standing off to the side of the area where guests were exiting their conveyances, waiting impatiently for the only one she cared about. She blew an impatient huff as yet another empty coach left without satisfaction.

Her attention was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder. It was a young girl who’d been in a group of event servers she’d shown around the house. Melinda realized that that rosy-cheeked girl dressed in a crisp black dress and bright white apron, was no more than 15-years old. “May I help you?” she asked, offering a kindly smile.

The young woman looked down at her feet. “I’m sorry, Miss,” she began, her voice quaking while her cheeks flamed to crimson. “You mentioned where them extra linens were kept when showin’ us around, but not a one of us can remember where that was, and everyone’s afraid to ask.”

“Why is that?” Melinda raised the girl’s chin so they were looking at each other.

The words came out in a rush. “Sometimes people holler at us for askin’ questions.” Her color eased to a more natural shade. “You seemed nice earlier, so I chanced it.”

“I’m pleased you did.” Melinda grabbed the girl’s hand and led her around the house and into a pantry off the kitchen. “Here we are. The extra serving pieces are in the cupboards; the tablecloths and napkins are in the bottom drawers.”

The child finally smiled. “Thanks ma’am. I knew you’d be all right.”

“Everyone here is nice so don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Melinda gave the girl a quick hug and excused herself to head back outside.

She stopped short as she turned the corner back to the front of the house. From the back, the dark, wavy hair, height, and build of the young man assisting a woman from a coach, looked like Adam. Her identification was confirmed when he turned enough to see his profile. Adam was wearing a beautifully tailored beige suit, and since he was the only person with the couple, she had to assume that even though Frankie was not attending the party; his suit was making an appearance. Melinda sighed quietly and shivered.  Adam Cartwright could not afford a set of clothes like he was wearing, yet they seemed made for him.

Her quick glance into the large windows along the front of the house revealed that her hair had gotten tousled in her rush. She pulled the stray strands away from her face, and shook the curls down her back. After smoothing her dress, she moved forward and lightly cleared her throat. Her long wait for his arrival was rewarded when Adam turned and smiled while giving her a quick head-to-toe perusal. She also heard the sweet audible sigh at the end of the breath he took. It was something he always did when he first laid eyes on her after being apart. Melinda looked from Adam to the couple. “I’m happy you could come today.”

Adam made quick introductions, after which Marian took Melinda with one arm, and Adam with the other and headed with them toward the front door. “I’m so pleased to meet you, young lady,” she said cheerily before winking at Adam. “You are as lovely as this spring day, and from the smile Adam gave you, I believe he’d concur.”

***

With the formalities of the receiving line completed, Melinda led Adam up the stairs. “It’s deserted in this wing of the house,” she explained as they turned into a quiet hallway. “It’s just rooms for the help and my classroom here. The family bedrooms are the other direction.” She took a quick breath. “It’s not a large house compared to others in this neighborhood, but the yard is immense and quite beautiful. There’s a woods bordering the north side that ends at the shoreline of the Mystic River, and it’s home to deer and many small animals. I made a blind out of branches where the boys and I hide out, watching what comes through…”

Adam nodded appropriately as his smile grew. He finally put his finger across her lips. “I’ve never heard you talk so fast…or so much. Are you excited…or nervous?”

“A little of both. I’m excited that you’re here, but I’m nervous about you being here too.”

His smile drooped as his brows drew close. “Do you think I’ll embarrass you?” The frown deepened. “Frankie said I would feel out of place. Maybe he wasn’t teasing.”

Melinda’s eyes had grown large and her mouth formed a silent o. This time she laid her hand across his mouth, before pulling him into the shadows of a recessed doorway. “How could you imagine such a thing? I’d have been proud of you if you’d shown up wearing work pants and a farmer’s straw hat. Your quality as a person is always evident.” She winked. “Although you do look incredibly handsome.”

“Then why are you nervous about me being here?”

“It’s the first time we’ve been anywhere as a couple, Adam!” She took a step back. “We always see each other at your grandfather’s house. We never have enough time go anywhere together.” Melinda reached for his hands. “I wasn’t sure you were ready for others to know about…us.”

His look softened to a sly smile. “I’m pretty sure the cat’s out of the bag concerning…us. Marian guessed my feelings even before I saw you today. And you look so beautiful; I know my jaw dropped. The one thing I didn’t like was all the welcoming formalities.”

She drew back and tipped her head. “Why?”

“Because I wanted to do this.” Adam drew her toward him and kissed her. He stuck his head from the shadows to ensure they were still alone and repeated his action. “I’d like to stay here doing this all day, but then I’d never see the beautiful yard, forest creatures, your classroom, or rub elbows with the elite of Boston.” He grunted when Melinda gave him a playful punch, and then stole one last kiss. “Where’s your classroom?”

“Across the hall.” She opened the door and walked into a bright room equipped with chalk boards, easels, small desks, and shelves filled with books.

Adam looked around, marveling at how happy he felt in this room. His eyes were drawn to an eye-level strip of wood covered with drawings attached with pins. He moved along the length. “Did you do some of these?” he asked, pointing to one intricate rendering of the Oliver house.

“Those are Charlie’s. He’s got a talent for copying what he sees.” Her mouth and eyes puckered. “If I ask him to draw a person, it’ll look like a colored lump when he finishes. But if I ask him to draw a building he’s seen, or copy a picture of one from a book, they look like those.”

“A budding architect?”

“Mr. Oliver is an architect. He does promotional drawings for Wadsworth Engineering.”

“Where is the young artist and…” His statement was interrupted by two boisterous boys running into the room.

“Is this the guy you talked about?” the smaller child with large, dark eyes asked as he walked around Adam.

“It is,” Melinda answered as she corralled them. “Masters Charles and Nathaniel Oliver, I’d like to introduce Adam Cartwright.”

Each boy shook Adam’s hand solemnly while giving him a good looking over. “You can call us Nate and Charlie, Mr. Cartwright,” Charlie, the older one, told him.

“And you can call me ‘Adam.’ I’ve heard about the two of you.”

“Miss Melinda says you lived on a ranch before you came here, and have two brothers.” The statement came from Nate. “I don’t know what a ranch is,” the little boy confessed. “But Miss Melinda said you’d tell us about it.”

Adam dropped to one knee so he didn’t tower over them. “I do have two brothers. Little Joe is about your age, Charlie, but Hoss is nearly 14.”

Nate wrinkled his nose and squinted. “Why do you call your brother a horse? That’s not very nice.”

“It sounds like horse, but it’s spelled H-o-s-s. His actual name is Eric, but Hoss is a Swedish word meaning a big friendly guy. That describes Hoss.”

Adam took the boys to a map of North America pinned to the far wall. “My family lives in the Utah territory, but folks sometimes call it Washoe, after the Indians there.” He pointed to a series of lines on the map. “This is the Sierra Nevada mountain range that forms the western boundary of the territory. Nevada means snow-covered mountains in Spanish, so some call the area Nevada. My home sits pretty high in the foothills of those mountains, and much of our water comes from the melting snow.”

“Is it cold there?” Nate asked.

“In the winter, but it gets very hot in the summer. The territory has a lot of desert areas too.”

The boys were asking questions about the ranch when a couple appeared at the door with a young girl between them. Melinda made her way over. “It’s nice to see you again, Leslie. You look so pretty in your party dress.”

“Thank you.” The childlike voice was a direct contrast to the tall young woman who produced it. “Who’s that?” Leslie pointed at Adam.

Melinda walked the girl over to the map. “This is Adam. He’s a friend of mine, and he’ll be with us at the picnic today.”

Adam took the teenager’s hand and bowed slightly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Leslie.”

The young woman blushed as she turned to her parents. “He’s nice.”

Melinda told Charlie to show Leslie his drawings while she took Adam to the girl’s parents. “Mr. and Mrs. Benedict, this is Adam Cartwright. He’s had lots of experience with children.” She blushed slightly just as Leslie had.

Mrs. Benedict reached for Adam’s hand. “Are you a teacher too?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. I attend Harvard, but I was often in charge of my younger brothers back home.”

“Are you that young man from out west the Wadsworths talk about; the one who rooms with their son?” the husband asked.

“I am, sir. I was born in Boston and my grandfather is still here, but my father and I left when I was young.”

“Thank you both for watching Leslie. It will be nice to enjoy a party for a change.” Mr. Benedict took his wife’s arm and led her to the door. “Let us know if she needs anything.”

Five

Adam had Leslie’s hand tucked in the crook of his elbow, and was trying to keep Nate and Charlie distracted until Melinda returned. Leslie had picked at her lunch, complaining of an upset stomach. Yet now she was eager for the sweets available at the desert buffet, and Melinda thought she’d best get the mother’s thoughts on what to allow.

He smiled when he saw Melinda heading back, and realized he’d smiled a lot today. Everything about the day had been pleasant. They’d remained in the classroom until Mrs. Oliver came to say they should head outside for lunch. He told about living in the West while they ate and the boys stared open-mouthed when he described living in an area with few people, trapping for their income and food, and staying in lean-tos and small cabins at first. Their excitement grew as he told about cowboy life. He’d wondered why Melinda left for a time, and laughed when she returned with a coil of rope, telling him that a lasso demonstration would show what his words couldn’t. He’d spent the next half-hour expertly roping objects, and finally dropped it around the children as they ran. The fun had attracted several adult onlookers who’d cheered on both the roper and the youngsters.

Being with the children gave him a sense of peace he hadn’t felt since leaving the Ponderosa, and he was already anticipating showing Melinda his gratitude when they found a few minutes alone before he left.

“What did Leslie’s mother say?” he asked, when Melinda finally maneuvered through the guests.

A concerned frown slipped across her face as she moved close enough to speak privately. “Leslie’s been having stomach problems for a few months already. Mrs. Benedict says the doctor thinks she might be eating too fast, causing a colic-like reaction. Her mother is fine with us letting her eat anything she wants, but to control how quickly she consumes it.”

***

Adam played a game of graces1 with Melinda and the children, trying to rid themselves of their malaise after dessert. With Adam’s experience playing horseshoes and roping, the team of Melinda, Nate and Charlie didn’t stand a chance against the cowboy and Leslie. The girl couldn’t throw her loops well, but she was steady as a rock when holding her pole for Adam’s tosses.

Streaks of red and gold in the western sky signaled the waning afternoon when Melinda pulled Adam aside. “The Olivers want the boys with them as they say goodbye, and their faces and shirts are full of chocolate cake. I need to get them cleaned up, and it would go faster if Leslie could stay out here with you.”

“We’ll feed the ducks,” he told her as he motioned for her to go, and he smiled when he heard Nate and Charlie complaining about going inside instead of staying with him. After making sure the Wadsworths were still occupied, he slipped into the kitchen to ask for a napkin filled with buns, and then led Leslie down the expanse of grass toward the river bank where he’d seen ducks earlier.

Leslie giggled when one feisty mallard jumped up to grab the bread morsels while quacking impatiently, and laughed heartily when ducklings scurried around her feet for crumbs.

“I took my brothers to do this at a pond near the house, but those ducks were never as demanding as these guys,” Adam told her as he tore the bread apart for her.

The spring day was cooling with the lengthening shadows, and Adam saw Leslie shiver as she threw the last crumbs among the raft of ducks vying for her attention. He retrieved his suit jacket from a nearby limb where he’d hung it, and draped it around her shoulders. He was taken aback at feeling the exaggerated knobs of her joints. He’d noticed earlier that while she seemed extremely thin through her limbs, her dress snugged tightly over her round stomach. He recalled the child’s earlier nausea and her mother’s explanation, and he felt a tug of concern, wondering if Leslie might be more ill than people thought.

The teen looked up at him with the same shy smile she’d bestowed on him all day and pulled the jacket around herself. “Thank you.”

“Are you warmer now?” he asked. She nodded, and then stepped closer, motioning for him to bend down.  He complied, and then pulled back as though poked with a branding iron after she whispered in his ear. “Pardon me?” he said tightly.

Adam’s face blushed to a deep crimson as Leslie repeated her suggestion, and then pointed towards the area of his anatomy that she was talking about. He wanted to run until he was back on campus, but Ben Cartwright had taught him to act, rather than react, and running was not an option. His mind was swirling and he took a settling breath. He couldn’t control the uneasiness in his voice but he forced a smile. “Why are you suggesting this, Leslie?”

The girl’s smile and wide eyes presented a portrait of complete innocent. “I like you, and that’s the secret thing girls do when they like a boy.”

Something was terribly wrong. At fourteen, Leslie was physically capable of engaging in what she’d suggested, but this young woman had the intellect and innocence of someone Little Joe’s age. She shouldn’t know the mechanics of the offer she’d just made to him. He didn’t understand, but didn’t want to make her defensive or ashamed, so he forced his tone lighter. “Did someone tell you that?”

She nodded. “He said he liked me…and there was a special way to show that I liked him back.” She closed her eyes and shuddered.

Melinda had told him that Leslie attended a day-school at the Waller Asylum for children who were slow, but able to learn. He made a quick assumption that one of Leslie’s male classmates might be responsible for Leslie’s confusion. These children matured, as evidenced by Leslie’s outward appearance, and boys experiencing the upheavals of their changing bodies might be making inappropriate conclusions about how to accommodate their physical desires. He was uncomfortable, but he wanted to determine whether Melinda needed to speak to Leslie’s mother.

He took the girl’s elbow and kept walking towards the house. “It seems like his offer scared you.”

Another nod. “I was scared…the first time…..” She gave an exasperated sigh. “I don’t even like him anymore, but he says mean things when I don’t want to do it.”

Adam stopped in his tracks, stunned to the bone and now feeling like he was sinking in quicksand. “Is this a boy from school?”

Leslie’s head moved side-to-side. “His name is Seth. He helps at the school. You’re a lot nicer than him.”

Their walk became a near trot as Adam hurried back to the other picnickers. “Please wait here,” he told Leslie once he found a chair for her near the door. “I’ll be right back for you.” He tried to spot Marian’s white dress and hat among the others dressed similarly for the party, nearly bumping into a girl carrying a heaping tray of dishes. He helped steady her load. “I know this isn’t your job, but could you keep an eye on the girl in the chair over there until I get back? I don’t want her to wander off.”

The girl who was near Leslie’s age said, “I saw you with that lady what works here. She helped me before so I’ll gladly help you. I’ll clean that table next to her.”

He smiled, saying a relieved, “Thank you,” before rushing away.

Marian noted Adam’s red face and furrowed brow when he approached. “What’s wrong?” One eyebrow rose along with the corners of her mouth. “Are you sunburned or did you break some dishes after all?”

“I need your help.” His tone sounded desperate even to his ears, and he gently tugged her away from the ladies she was with.

“What’s wrong,” she asked again, now concerned that his color had turned nearly ashen, and he swayed like a drunken sailor when he stopped. “Are you ill?”

“Please, Mrs. Wadsworth, I need you to listen. Then I need you to find Leslie’s mother and Melinda.”

Marian pushed Adam down on a bench and sat next to him. “No one will hear us now; what happened?”

I…ah…um…don’t want to be indelicate, but…um…” Adam looked down at his feet blowing out a long breath. “Leslie said something to me…and I…um…her mother needs to know. I might have misunderstood…and um…that’s why I need you to…determine…if I did. Melinda is really good with her, so she can help.”

One word had registered in his jumble. “Indelicate?” Marian tried to smile when he nodded, but she was pretty sure it looked like a grimace. Whatever Adam was trying to tell her was making him lose the ability to speak coherently. This was not like him, and she began to understand how serious this situation must be. She took his hands. “You’ve known me for nearly three years, young man. There have been times when you’ve told me things you might have confided in your mother. Tell me what happened the best way you can, and we’ll sort this out.”

He nodded while continuing to look down. What Marian said was true. There were times when he’d confided in her. He’d been more reserved with Inger and Marie but it was different with Marian. He’d come to know his mother in his talks with Abel, and he’d finally accepted that she wouldn’t consider him disloyal to her in turning to a mother-like figure for support. It was also easier because Marian had no ties to his father.

Looking directly in her eyes, he took another deep breath, and told her the story, including a verbatim account of Leslie’s suggestion.

“You’re positive she was indicating a physical act—one that she had participated in before?” Marian stated.

“As sure as I can be.” The words exited Adam’s mouth before he considered their import, and he looked away.

This admission of his own innocence didn’t surprise Marian, but she held back any reaction so as not to embarrass him more than he already was. “You’re right; Leslie’s mother needs to hear this.” She patted Adam’s knee and then stood. “Please stay with Leslie while I find Melinda and Mrs. Benedict. Then you can find Frank and Winston Benedict and have them arrange for our transports. The party is ending and we’ll go as soon as this is done.”

Six

Leslie was all smiles when the four women exited the Oliver house. But the rigid posture and tight jaws on the three women spoke to a far different frame of mind.

Marian forced a smile when they joined the men. “That went as well as it could have.” She touched Winston Benedict’s hand as he demanded to know what was going on and said softly, “Your wife will explain on your way home.” With a gentle nudge, she sent Adam in Melinda’s direction. “Say a quick goodbye, and then join us at the door.”

***

Adam led Melinda to the same bench where he and Marian had spoken.

She touched his cheek gently. “It was a wonderful day, and now you’re left with this.” She sighed as her hand drifted to her lap. “I’m sorry.”

“I enjoyed the day very much. My father taught me that things happen for reasons. Leslie needs help. She was being abused by someone who has been very clever in gaining her cooperation and securing her silence.”

“I agree.” She shook her head. “The Benedicts are facing some big decisions, but at least the abuse is over. Mrs. Wadsworth will tell you what we found out. It was shocking, but Leslie spoke freely because we controlled our reactions.”

“I’m glad for that.” He shifted closer on the bench and took her hand. “I’d like to end this day with a happier thought.”

“What is it?”

“You are a wonderful teacher. I marveled at how you slipped lessons into everything the kids did.”.

“Thank you.” She looked down at their hands, and gripped his tightly.

He lifted her chin. “It’s time to follow your dream of attending college, and then write a manual to teach others how to bring learning to life.”

Melinda blushed as she glanced up and noticed Marian looking their way. “We need to say goodbye.”

“I want to go back to that alcove, but this will have to do. He leaned in, brushing her lips with a soft kiss, before pulling her into an embrace with a soft moan lingering as he sat back again. “I plan on visiting Grandfather next weekend. Might you get a day off?”

“I’ll send a note to Abel if I can.”

Seven

“Marian,” Frank said once they were settled in their coach. “You’re as nervous as a bat in a broom factory. Does this have anything to do with your disappearance?”

She patted his hand and gave Adam a knowing glance. “A serious situation occurred concerning Leslie Benedict. Adam alerted me, and I helped her mother talk to her about it.”

“Why do you sound so mysterious?” Frank asked, wedging himself into the corner of the seat so he could see both passengers.

Marian played with the beaded fringe of her reticule, but finally laid it on her lap, crossing her hands atop it. “We’re a family, so I’ll speak bluntly.” She took a deep breath. “Leslie made a lewd suggestion to Adam when she was alone with him.”

Frank laughed but stopped when he saw the serious look on his wife’s face and the patchy color on Adam’s cheeks. “You’re serious? What could that child have said to make Adam blush?” The older man’s mouth dropped open while Marian told him the gist of the proposal. “What did you find out?”

Marian looked at Adam. “First off, Melinda was a godsend with Leslie. Christine Benedict and I sat off to the side while Melinda told Leslie she liked a boy, and was wondering what she could do to show him how much. She used two figurines as characters, having Leslie provide the dialogue for the boy while Melinda was the girl. We got a pretty clear picture of what happened.”

“Get on with it sweetheart,” Frank encouraged. “What did she say?”

The look Marian flashed her husband should have burned a hole in his lapels. “A young man convinced Leslie that girls do this act with boys they like. He manipulated her innocence until she gave in, and then swore her to secrecy. He’s taken advantage of her so often that she thinks it’s normal.”

Frank’s fists were clenched as tightly as his jaw. “Did she give a name?”

Marian nodded. “Seth. The only Seth who has access to Leslie that Christine could think of is Seth Waller.”

The couple exchanged a look that Adam couldn’t decipher. Seth was a classmate at Harvard, and he feared the Wadsworths were making an association to him, wondering if all young men could be as devious. “You don’t think I did anything to encourage this, do you?”

His question and shattered look prompted Marian to move into the seat next to him. “Heavens no, Adam!” She waited for him to look at her. “Unfortunately, this is not the first time the Waller family has been accused of abusing girls in their care.”

“It happened about ten years ago when Seth’s grandfather ran the asylum.” Frank closed his eyes and leaned his head back. “A family told the police they believed Clinton Waller had done unseemly things to their daughter, and she was expecting a child as a result. He denied it, but then others families came forward with similar accusations.”

“Most of this was only hinted at in the newspapers, but we heard the real story from our friends,” Marian explained. “The Wallers paid off the families involved, and Seth’s father, Marvin, gave up his medical practice to run the institution. Marvin sent the old man away; cleaned house at the asylum, and worked hard to restore confidence in their facility. Christine Benedict heard about the school’s good reputation, and enrolled Leslie in the day program when they moved here two years ago.”

Adam shook his head. “Seth would have been old enough to understand the devastation his grandfather caused. Why would he risk this?”

Frank looked like he’d swallowed a bug. “I don’t know what’s going on now, but some of the things we were privy to back then would curl your hair.” He shook his head. “That old lunatic told people he was doing research to see if children born from these girls and ‘normal’ men would have normal intelligence. He was a swine, and we’d heard that Seth spent a lot of time with that crazy old coot. Who knows what he might have witnessed or what warped values his grandfather instilled.”

Marian gave her husband a stern look. “We can’t jump to conclusions. Maybe it wasn’t Seth Walker.”

“Highly improbable.” Frank rolled his eyes and snorted. “If I was Winston Benedict, I’d be loading my shotgun.”

“I’m sure you would.” Marian eyed her husband and shook her head. “The Benedicts need proof for an accusation. Leslie will make a good witness but we have to verify it was truly Seth Waller. I’m just afraid that whoever it is will say that Leslie promoted the contact. And they will use her unknowing proposition to Adam as proof of…. She couldn’t complete her thought, and dabbed at her tears with a handkerchief she withdrew from Frank’s suit pocket. “That poor child would be abused and abased in the investigation.” She sniffed and sat up straighter. “But we have a plan.” Turning towards Adam, she added, “We’ll need your help.”

Marian’s request for Adam’s assistance went unspoken when Frank sat forward and bellowed, “Where was Frankie going today instead of accompanying us?”

Marian swallowed hard before looking down at her hands. “Oh, dear, no,” she whispered as she understood her husband’s concern.

“I can’t recall him ever mentioning Seth Waller as a friend.” Frank’s voice calmed, but he looked pointedly at Adam. “What do you know about this?”

Adam’s head moved side-to-side as he shrugged. “The invitation was a surprise to Frankie, and Seth’s parties are paradoxical, so I can’t tell you much.”

“What do you mean by that?” Frank demanded.

“Those who’ve never been invited think they are the stuff of legends, yet those who attend regularly never talk about them. They’re like meetings of a secret society. I think Frankie went because he was…curious.”

Frank’s tone was now honed with a sharp edge of anger. “Well, he better not have a reputation as the kind of man who’d be a candidate for a secret society like that.”

He thought he should answer this accusation, yet Adam sensed that Frank didn’t want a second-hand defense of his son’s character. His suspicion was confirmed when he glanced at Marian who raised her eyebrows and quickly shook her head, before patting his hand.

Marian ended the uncomfortable silence when the coach pulled up to the dormitory. “We’ll wait in your room if Frankie isn’t back yet.” She nodded to Frank. “I’m sure his father won’t rest until he talks at him.”

“Wait for him?” Frank roared. “If he’s not there, we’ll drive to the Waller place and I’ll pull him out of there by his ear!”

Eight

Adam led a sober procession to his room. He’d never seen Frank Wadsworth so angry, and he wasn’t looking forward to the coming confrontation. Frankie was respectful of his father, but he stood up for himself, and Adam expected he’d resent what might soon be insinuated about his character. He was trying to find his key in his pocket when Frank reached around him to try the knob, finding it turned easily.

Frank pushed past Adam, shouting, “Frankie!” as he disappeared inside. Adam waited for Marian to enter and then slipped in, ducking into an empty space by his dresser.

Frankie was sitting on his bed, holding his head. His eyes looked red-rimmed and watery when looked up at his parents. “I didn’t expect you to come in when you dropped Adam off, but I’m glad you did.”

Marian rushed to his side and touched his forehead. “You’re burning up, sweetheart. Have you been here all day?” she asked, her voice infused with hope.

The sick young man took a good look at the serious expressions on the new arrivals. “What’s wrong? Why did Dad yell like that, and why is Adam so quiet?” He laughed hesitantly. “Did he do something unforgiveable at the party?”

Frank pulled the desk chair over and sat directly in front of his son. “Did you go to Seth Waller’s today?”

Frankie nodded but then groaned and gagged. “I get dizzy when I move my head too fast,” he explained and then concentrated on the question. “Yeah, I went for a couple hours, but I felt sick, and caught a ride into town with their driver around eleven. But…”

“But?” his mother asked.

“I’d have found an excuse to leave even if I hadn’t been ill. Seth is an odd guy.”

The edges in Frank’s face softened and he laid his hand against his son’s cheek. “I’ve never been prouder of you, son, but what makes you say that?”

“We went riding, and Seth let his shorthair pointer run along with us. We weren’t hunting, but the dog caught a scent and gave chase while we followed. He lost it in a thicket, and Seth got off his horse to scream at the poor animal while repeatedly smacking its nose with his riding gloves.”

“What did you do about it?” Frank asked, his tone indicating he expected the right answer.

“I stepped between him and the dog, and said that we couldn’t have done anything even if we’d cornered it, and the dog probably knew that.” Frankie leaned his head on his mother’s shoulder, and she wrapped him in her arms. “That was just the start,” he continued, puffing like he’d run up the stairs. “Seth and the others drank so much, so fast when we got back that they were stumbling drunk before ten. The drunker they got, the cruder they got.” He carefully looked up at his mother. “Don’t be offended, Mom, but I’ve been known to speak coarsely when I’m under the influence. And maybe their words seemed worse since I was completely sober, yet I have never heard such vile expressions used to speak of everything from our professors to the women they claimed to hold affection toward. When the driver came in to tell Seth he was leaving for town, I jumped at the chance to go. By then Seth was nearly passed out, but he kept mumbling that I was going to miss the fun.”

“What sort of fun?” Frank asked.

“He didn’t say, and the others just sat there looking uncomfortable. The driver said he was going to the Waller asylum but he didn’t mind the detour here. Out of Seth’s earshot, the guy said he was glad one person was decent enough to leave. He didn’t explain further, but said chauffeuring for Seth’s parties was the reason he’d be quitting soon.”

Adam saw his own confusion mirrored on Frank and Marian’s faces. “Isn’t it odd that all this information about Seth Waller exploded today,” he offered. “Yet it could all be innocent.”

Frankie opened his eyes but stayed put on his mother’s shoulder. “Just what happened today?”

“Do you know Leslie Benedict?” his mother asked.

“She’s that cute kid who’s a little slow,” he offered.

“Leslie isn’t a kid anymore. She’s a striking young woman but with a child’s intellect. Someone has taken advantage of her. She made an inappropriate overture to Adam, and then mentioned Seth as the person who taught her such things.

“So what are we doing about this?” He grinned sleepily, and patted his mother’s hand. “You aren’t the sort who would let a challenge to the honor of my roommate and an innocent girl go unchallenged.” The exchange took everything out of Frankie, and he slumped down, cradling his head in his hands again.

Marian sprang into action. “You’re coming home with us. You’re too ill to care for yourself, and Adam shouldn’t have to tend you or catch what you have.” She grabbed the blanket from the foot of his bed to wrap around him when he began to shiver, and then turned to Adam. “I mentioned we’d need your help. It’s simple, yet it might go very wrong. Do you know Seth Waller enough to talk to him?”

“We’ve spoken, but he mostly ignores me.”

“That’ll do.” She nodded soundly. “Christine and I would like you to approach him tomorrow and mention Leslie. Tell him she confided something he should be aware of because we feel she’s mistaken about the name. You’re a good judge of people, Adam. You’ll know immediately if he tries to lie.”

Adam’s sour look belied his words. “I can do that, but how will it help?”

“Christine will take Leslie to the doctor on Monday for confirmation of what we all now suspect from her stomach problems and appearance. The Benedicts won’t say or do anything until you verify that Seth is responsible.” She sighed heavily. “This is complicated. Winston Benedict sells hospital equipment, and the Waller Asylum is one of his biggest customers.” She paused, turning nearly as pale as her son. “Adam asked earlier why Seth would risk this after what his family has endured. After hearing what Frankie told us about this young man, I wonder if Seth picked Leslie because her family would be hard pressed to make a claim against him without losing their livelihood.”

“How will I let you know what I find out?” Adam asked, interrupting Marian’s thought, when Frankie moaned and grabbed his stomach.

“I’ll go to the office with Frank on Monday,” Marian told him quickly. “Christine will come there after the doctor and you can meet us there after classes.” She looked at her husband and nodded toward Adam, making him dig in his pocket.

“I don’t imagine you have spare cash for cab fare.” He handed Adam a wad of bills, and then laughed when the boy’s eyes widened at the size of the roll. “Take it. I don’t want you to run short. I know you’ll you return what you don’t use.”

Frankie’s eyes were drooping, but he looked up at the others. “What did Mother mean when she said the doctor would confirm what the rest of you suspect?”

“I’ll tell you in on the way home.” Marian looked around the room. “We don’t need to take anything except this.” She grabbed a small garbage can. “I hope you won’t use it, but I like to be prepared.” After a quick smile towards Adam, she ordered, “Let’s go.”

Frankie gave a limp salute to his roommate as he started toward the door leaning heavily against his father. “I don’t know what’s going on, but right now I’m too sick to care. Good luck, buddy.”

Nine

Adam tried studying once the Wadsworths were gone, but his concentration bounced from topic to topic like water drops on a hot skillet. He finally headed to the dining hall for a late dinner, more out of need for distraction than food. He saw classmates from his analytical geometry class studying together in the corner of the room while they ate, and they waved him over.

“You arrived right on time,” Harry Kellerman told him when Adam set his bowl of soup down. During the week, meals were served in a formal, family-style with place settings laid out, grace pronounced, and bowls and platters of food delivered to the tables. But weekend fare was usually a one-dish meal that students could serve themselves.

He grinned at his friends. “Are you having problems with the math or your dinner?”

“Math…!” One of them shouted, and then laughed. “Each of us worked the same problem, and we came up with three different answers. You do it, and we’ll see who’s right.”

The warm soup and conversation eased the cold uneasiness that had saturated his room. He looked at the three expectant faces. “What makes you think my answer will be right?”

Harry laughed. “Your answers are always right. It’s like you hear something once and immediately know what to do with it. The rest of us have to stomp on it for a while before it fits in our brains.”

Adam copied the equation from the review section of the text onto a tablet, and then pretended to ponder for a second or two before writing the answer. It matched none of the others.

“Aw, c’mon,” Harry squealed. “how’d you do that so fast? And we can’t see how you figured it out.”

“Show me your work,” he told the others, pulling their papers over for inspection. “Harry, you copied it wrong.” Adam pointed to the discrepancy. “Jack multiplied wrong, and Richard…I don’t know what you did.”

“Show us how to do it,” Richard demanded before adding a sheepish, “Please.”

***

The kitchen staff cleaned around the four students until the cook ordered them out so they could go home. Adam had worked through the rest of the review problems with them, and then walked with his friends until they split off for their own residence halls.

The hour of respite from his uneasiness left as soon as he walked into his room, but this time he sat down and forced himself to study until his eyes drooped shut, and he nearly fell off the chair when he woke up. The room was stuffy so he opened the window, hoping the cool night air would clear his thoughts like a stiff breeze could reveal the Boston harbor basin after a foggy night. He was shivering from the rapid drop in temperature by the time he got his clothes off and dove beneath the down quilt. The feather-filled comforter brought instant warmth. “No wonder geese always look so comfortable,” he mumbled.

His expectation of an easy escape into slumber went unmet as his mention of water fowl reminded him of the task Marian had assigned. “Why should I confront Seth Waller!” he grumbled aloud.  “I could have ignored what Leslie said. But I made sure her mother could protect her. It is no longer my concern.” He inhaled for what seemed like minutes, and held his breath while considering what to do. “I’ll write a note to the Wadsworths in the morning,” he said triumphantly while exhaling. “They’ll support my decision to stay out of it.”

The plan released the pressure in his chest, and he hunkered further under the quilt. A smile of relief lingered as he drifted off.

***

The pencil wouldn’t move. Adam had awaked in early morning darkness, and turned up the lamp, intending to write the note he’d imagined while falling asleep. The words, Dear Mr. and Mrs. Wadsworth, were there, and he added the date when his attempt at constructing the first sentence failed. But now his hand was paralyzed.

The phrases drifted though his mind. I was glad to assist yesterday… You can understand my reluctance for further involvement… My opinion as to Seth Waller’s truthfulness would be dubious … This needs to be addressed by a lawful authority….

Yet the pencil didn’t move. Hovering over those sensible thoughts was an image he’d seen in the dream he’d had before he’d torn himself from his warm bed. His restless night had been exacerbated by a feather’s needle-sharp end poking him through the fabric, just as his conscience was poking him now.

He knew the dream was the brake holding his pencil in place. In it, he’d been transported to a spot outside the general store back home. The incident from ten years ago seemed vivid, with Hoss lying in the dirt, being belittled and thrashed by an old woman using her cane as a weapon. Adam grabbed her arm, but she pulled free, getting a solid hit on his head while screaming about being attacked by another “worthless Cartwright”. Adults flew out of the store at hearing the commotion and it took three men to hold her back. The woman they were staying with while their pa was in New Orleans took Hoss inside to tend to his bruises and cuts, and Adam ran to the house where they were staying, where he tried to silence the sound of his brother screaming, and cope with his shame in not intervening sooner. He knew that older kids from a passing wagon train were using Hoss’s naiveté: making him believe they’d like him more if he’d do what they asked—like say rude things to old ladies. But Hoss refused to believe Adam’s warnings about their motives, and he figured his brother would learn the hard way. He’d heard those same boys laughing at his brother’s plight that day, and he’d made a solemn vow: a promise to protect his brother and others like him who trusted too easily and were put in harm’s way because of their innocence

At the conclusion of the dream, he’d heard a voice accusing him of being a liar for walking away from Leslie. A chill rippled across his shoulders when he realized the voice had been his.

Another voice entered this mental conversation, coming on a whisper of light illuminating his window pane even though sunrise was a bit away. This voice was deep, strong…and unmistakable. “Each vow you make to God or man can be called into action, son, and you don’t decide the time or circumstance.”

The pencil he tossed skidded across the desk; the point breaking off as it bounced onto the floor. “I give up,” Adam raised his arm in surrender to the forces calling him to fulfill his vow. He grabbed his shaving kit and headed to get ready for church.

***

Adam hadn’t attended many “church” services until he went to Boston. His normal Sunday worship had occurred at the kitchen table or outside if the weather had been nice. His father always started their service with a Bible passage. He might tell the history behind the verses if it was something he’d studied, but he always relayed a truth for the Cartwright family. Adam remembered some spirited discussions when he’d asked the resident “preacher” about how such a truth might have been exhibited in one of his father’s actions. He’d especially liked passages on tolerance and forgiveness.

This part of his life had changed. When he didn’t walk down the street to church with Abel, he attended First Parish Universalist Church: the official church of the Harvard campus.2 Anyone who preached from that pulpit was a highly regarded theologian, and their words filled the young man in the nave with awe. Yet some Sundays he would have given anything to be leaning against a sun-warmed rock listening to his father’s insights.

While he was certain this morning’s sermon had been top-notch, he couldn’t remember it. His mind had been sending a steady stream of questions heavenward. Why, how, and are you sure you want me doing this, had dominated his thoughts, and although he’d requested answers, the conversation with the Almighty remained one-sided. As the congregation rose for the final prayers, Adam sent up a last desperate request. If I’m really supposed to talk to Seth Waller, Lord, then please provide the means. If an opportunity doesn’t come, I’ll know you don’t want me interfering.

His ultimatum to heavenly authority was quickly answered. A few people stopped him on his way out inquiring about Frankie, after hearing he’d left campus feeling ill. Free of the crowd, he headed toward the dining hall for breakfast. His stomach lurched as he noticed someone coming towards him on an intersecting path. Even from a distance, Adam recognized Seth Waller’s blonde hair and swagger. His eyes drifted upwards as he whispered, “You didn’t waste any time.”

“Hey, Seth,” Adam called as he got closer.

Seth stopped when they met, squinting at Adam as though trying to reason why this person would engage him in conversation. He finally managed a sour smile. “You’re…Abraham?”

“Adam.”

“Yes…the farm boy from out west who was enrolled despite not having decent credentials.”

Adam knew that Seth was establishing his superiority. He’d dealt with the raised-nose implication that his admission to Harvard was suspect when he’d first started. But his scholastic record had silenced most critics. People like Seth Waller would never accept him, so there was no use responding. “I was at the Olivers’ picnic yesterday, and—”

Seth cut him off with a surprised huff. “You were invited to that?”

“The invitation was extended by their governess.”

“So, a second-hand invite from the hired help.” Seth rubbed his chin and nodded. “That makes sense.”

Adam was starting to wish he’d never tested God with his ill-conceived stipulation. “My friend and I kept an eye on the children who attended.”

A dirty laugh gurgled in Seth’s throat. “I was wondering how you’d possibly fit in, but child care!” An ugly snort. “You’ll never belong in our social circles, but you’re a student at the most prestigious school Boston, so show some pride in what you do publicly.” The chuckling started again. “Then again you probably need the money. I hope they paid you well.” He squinted at Adam and gave him a repulsed look. “I hate that Harvard has sunk to accepting charity cases. It demeans the rest of us.”

Where Adam had been dreading this encounter, he was now relishing a chance to wipe the arrogant smile from this childish man. “It was my honor to help. I think you’re well acquainted with one of the children we watched: Leslie Benedict.”

“A pretty girl, but dumb as a box of rocks.” His smile had dissolved with the mention of Leslie’s name, but it crept back for an instant before he demanded. “What about her?”

That momentary smile gave Adam his answer. Leslie was right. He prepared to hear how Seth would absolve himself. “She’s kept your secret very well, but she appreciated that I’d been nice to her all day, and suggested we go into the woods so she could thank me the way you taught her was expected. She also told me how angry you get when she doesn’t comply.”

Seth’s hand felt like a vise around Adam’s arm as he forced him behind the cover of a group of pines. “So, I’m guessing you aren’t happy that she shared this?” Adam stopped talking when he looked into Seth’s eyes. He’d seen the eyes of a madman before, but he couldn’t describe the combination of hate and murderous intent staring back at him now. Leslie had undoubtedly seen the same look.

Waller relocated his hand to Adam’s lapel as he yanked him to within an inch of his face. “Be very careful what you say next, Cartwright!”

Adam choked out a laugh even though his knees felt wobbly. “So you do remember my name.”

“Listen Cartwright, that girl is a strumpet. You just said she suggested you give her a green gown.”3

Enough strength returned to Adam’s limbs that he pulled Seth’s shoulders sufficiently low to bring his rising knee squarely into the snake’s diaphragm. Seth let go and stumbled back, trying to catch the breath Adam had unceremoniously removed from his lungs with the perfectly-placed strike.

You listen, Waller.” Adam bent over the other man, resuming the nose-to-nose position. “Leslie hasn’t the mental capacity to suggest such an action without someone showing her what to do. Neither does she have the intellectual intent to understand that this is not normal.”

Able to breathe again, the repellant grin reappeared on Seth’s face like a gruesome mask. “My grandfather proved otherwise. People didn’t want to believe him, and called him a monster, but he figured out that these…children develop urges just like everyone else. I just help them experience what they already want.”

Adam’s jaw dropped. “It’s assault!”

“She agreed to it. There’s no crime if there’s consent.” Seth flashed a vicious and victorious smile.

Adam scrubbed his face with both hands. “Consent requires the ability to understand the consequences. You…you used Leslie’s innocence to satisfy your prurient needs.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “I don’t understand. I’m sure women would line up to be with the great Seth Waller. So…why Leslie?”

Seth laughed loudly but immediately looked around to make sure no one was passing. “Beautiful wealthy women want husbands, not lovers. It takes a lot more work to get one of them on their backs, and they cry foul if you don’t propose afterwards. Better to leave those pretties intact for their wedding nights. I don’t care if the girl who satisfies my ‘needs’ has a lovely face. Leslie being pretty and somewhat conversant is pleasant, but not something I insist upon.”

“You’re disgusting!” Adam had to step away or he would have struck him. He was amazed that Seth would reveal such vile and damning information about himself…while smiling. Couldn’t others see and feel the evil as he did? He began shivering and wanted desperately to leave.

Taking a step closer to Adam, Seth smiled like a cobra. “I’m going to tell you another reason I pick these girls. After my grandfather got caught, my father turned our school into a charitable institution. He’s the complete contradiction of my grandfather, and such a goodie-two-shoes that he makes me work there for nothing. I figure I deserve a wage, so I take it in trade.” The smile became more menacing. “You should have taken Leslie up on her offer. You’d have seen how well I’ve taught her.”

Adam looked down at Seth flopping in the grass like a fish out of water. While he knew his fists had clenched during Seth’s last detestable outburst, he really couldn’t remember making the conscious decision to strike him. But he had…hard enough to send the disgusting abomination flying.  He groaned, wishing he could continue beating him until Seth’s depravity pooled on the ground along with his blood. His own knuckles stung, and he saw they were bloody. Whether it was his blood or Seth’s was unclear, so he bent down to wipe the sticky red goo onto the grass, gagging as he nearly rubbed his hand raw.

He was breathing hard and still felt sick. He wondered whether it was the current circumstance or if he was coming down with Frankie’s illness. His anger ebbed to a controllable state and he began to walk away.

“Hey, holier-than-though Cartwright,” Seth called after him, the pronunciation of his T’s  affected by his rapidly swelling lip. “You’re feeling superior to me about now. But you just made the biggeth mistake of your life. Don’t bother informing on me. No one will believe a poor-as-dirt farm boy over the heir of the Waller fortune. You’re a nobody, Carwright!” he screeched hoarsely.  “Tell anyone about this and I’ll have you heading home to hoe potatoes by the end of the week.”

The shiver he had experienced during Seth’s tirade, turned into full-blown chills and nausea as he continued walking. He collapsed onto his bed when he got to his room, hoping he’d feel better with some rest. The conversation he’d just had, bumped around the edges of his mind like a billiard ball and he groaned with the mental pain. Seth was right. Adam was the outsider here, and as such, if he tried to make this known, there would be more scrutiny placed on the accuser than the accused.

He was done for now. His report to the Benedicts would confirm Leslie’s story, but he knew firsthand the evil they’d face if they went forward.

***

He awoke with a start. The chills were gone and he was hungry. Things seemed normal with midday sunlight filling his room and the voices of passing students drifting through the open window. In thinking back, he was sure Seth implied that his indecency didn’t end with Leslie, and he hoped that if the Benedicts took action, they would tumble Seth’s house of cards. A glance at the clock assured him there was still time to get Sunday dinner, so he combed his hair, tucked in his shirt, and left.

Ten

Monday was going well. Adam had breezed through his math exam, and the others he’d studied with on Saturday reported similar success. Best of all, he hadn’t seen Seth on campus or in the dining hall, making him wonder if he’d gone home. This wouldn’t be for confession; the weasel would only need to know whether his parents had heard anything at the party, and if so, begin a preemptive denial…or rather begin exposing Leslie as a depraved siren.

His surety disappeared when he was called forward in his first afternoon class.

The professor’s eyebrow rose along with a grin as he handed over a pristine white envelope. “I’ve never had a student receive a summons from the president’s office,” Professor Murdoch teased as he pointed out the presidential seal affixing the flap.

Adams hands began to sweat as he broke the seal and slid the single sheet of paper free. It was from the secretary to President Sparks3, requesting he make his way with due haste to meet with the head of the university. “I have to go,” he told his teacher as he headed towards the door.

***

The sweating that had started with the message continued, making his shirt feel sticky under his jacket as he covered the considerable distance between his classroom and the administration buildings at a brisk trot. There was no circumstance he could imagine where being called to a meeting with President Sparks in the middle of a school day would mean good news. He flooded heaven, praying that it wasn’t an accident back home or a health emergency for his grandfather. His heart plummeted to the soles of his shoes when he noticed a familiar coach with a small, glossy “W” plaque, parked in front of the building where he was headed.

He took the steps two-at-a-time, and handed the secretary the note he’d received.

“Ah, Mister Cartwright,” he said. “Thank you for being so prompt.” The man behind the reception desk gave the student a once-over and smiled as he moved towards a table holding a pitcher and crystal glassware. “Why don’t you have a drink and take a minute to…compose yourself before I present you?”

Adam gulped the glass of liquid like a man finding an oasis after being lost in the desert; immediately regretting it as he heard a loud rumble and felt a brief churning in his gut. He sighed with relief as it passed, and he used his handkerchief to blot the beads of perspiration from his cheeks and forehead. “Thank you. I’d like to go in now.”

The young man motioned for Adam to stay behind him as he stepped into the main office. “President Sparks,” he nodded for Adam to move forward, “Adam Cartwright.”

Jared Sparks had taken over as President earlier in the year, and was well-liked by the students. He rose as Adam entered, walking around his desk to extend his hand. “Thank you for coming.” He motioned to the other man in the room. “You know Frank Wadsworth.”

Adam shook hands and then looked at Frank. “Has something happened to Frankie?” he asked.

Frank realized that Adam was clueless as to the reason for this meeting. He nudged the boy forward towards the chairs in front of the president’s desk and they both waited for Sparks to sit before following suit. “Frankie will be fine in time.” He directed his comments to the president. “Frank Junior is highly allergic to bites from ticks. Something in the saliva of those insects makes him extremely ill. Frankie walked the dogs in the woods when he was home a week ago, and forgot to check himself afterwards. The doctor saw a few spots he suspects were tick bites, and feels that’s what caused this.”

Adam nodded and breathed more easily. “So why are you here?”

“I sent for Frank,” President Sparks began. “I was told you have a grandfather in Boston, and you can return with him for clarification, but since you’re well acquainted with the Wadsworths, and as Frank sits on our boards and is an alumnus, I felt he might best help you with this process.”

Adam was having trouble breathing again, and had to force air out to ask, “What process is that?”

“Let’s start at the beginning.” President Sparks pushed a small pile of papers towards the men on the opposite side of the desk. “These are witness statements from a meeting I had first thing this morning with Seth Waller and five other students. Seth is alleging that you beat him within an inch of his life yesterday morning. The others with him, say they had to wrestle you away to save him.” Sparks waited a moment for a response, but saw that Frank touched Adam’s arm and shook his head. “I will ask if you had occasion to strike Mr. Waller,” the president continued.

Adam’s mouth was open and his breathing uneven as he looked toward Frank. Given a nod of approval, he replied, “I admit to hitting him once. He might have a swollen lip, but that would be it.”

“Seth’s face was severely bruised. His eyes were nearly swollen shut and his upper lip was torn and so large he had trouble speaking.”

“I hit him once, and there was no one else present; no one even walked by when we were talking.” Adam’s voice was shaky as he realized something sinister had happened in the last 24 hours, and he’d been put in a defensive posture with no knowledge of what he was defending.

“So you’re saying these students are lying?”

“That’s exactly what he’s saying,” Frank offered, giving Adam a chance to catch his breath.

President Sparks’ voice was kind as he asked, “Why did you hit him?”

Adam looked at Frank for the go-ahead and got it, along with a side-glance of caution. “I’d stopped him in the yard after Sunday service to tell him something I’d heard concerning him. His response was most demeaning of the person we were speaking of, and I struck out in a sense of protectiveness.”

“What was Seth’s story?” Frank asked firmly.

Sparks directed his comments to Adam. “He says you confronted him as he and his friends were leaving church services too. You seemed nervous, and while it was difficult to understand your train of thought, he finally realized that you thought you were tied with him for the Award for Scholastic Excellence, given to the graduate with the highest overall grades. You begged him to muff one test next year so you’d win.”

Adam’s mouth dropped open, but he remained silent.

“Please remember that this is what Seth said, and therefore, only his perspective,” Preside Sparks explained. “Seth feels you’re deluding yourself about even being in the competition because your grades are…enhanced…to give the illusion that our charitable students actually do well: especially in your case where you were clearly not in an equal league with your classmates. He knew you weren’t really in the running, so in an effort to appease you while not being brutal, he suggested that you two just keep working hard, and let the best man win. You went berserk, attacking him while screaming you’d win, with or without his help.”

“That’s absurd,” Adam shouted, and then bowed his head. “I’m sorry for the outburst.”

“I agree with Adam,” Frank added. “Wouldn’t Adam be bruised too if he been ‘beaten off’?”

“Show me your hands, Adam.” Sparks said.

Adam realized that Seth had seen his bloody knuckles, but what the liar hadn’t realized was that it was his own blood. He raised his hand for inspection. “I already admitted hitting him, once…and have a small bruise on one knuckle for the effort.”

Frank harrumphed. “There’d be a lot of damage in a real brawl. I hate to ask this, son, but would you open your shirt so we can verify that you have no bruises from the blows you supposedly sustained.”

The absence of anything amiss on Adam’s face or torso spoke its own conclusion. “What are you going to do about this, Jared?” Frank asked.

Sparks held up the papers he’d produced earlier. “These all give the same account, and Seth Waller’s injuries are real. On the other hand, there does seem to be a discrepancy in your lack of injury.” He sighed audibly. “Might anyone have seen you with Seth?”

“No one came by, and we were hidden by trees.”

President Sparks rubbed his chin. “What had you heard about Seth?”

Adam remained silent for a moment. “I don’t know how the person wants to proceed, so I can’t reveal the information.”

Frank leaned forward. “I appreciate Adam’s discretion, but I’ll give you the gist. Adam, Marian, and I were at a party on Saturday where a young woman with the mental capacity of a first-grader told an unsettling story of Seth Waller persuading her to do unseemly things. The child’s mother and my wife asked Adam to mention that conversation to Seth, thinking the girl might be mistaken about her abuser’s identity.”

“I’m assuming there was some admission, causing you to strike him?” President Sparks looked at Adam for confirmation.

He nodded.

“Would this girl or her parents speak on your behalf?”

“I spoke with the mother this morning,” Frank offered. “She is unwilling to bring further attention to this matter, fearing her daughter would be demeaned.”

President Sparks stated the problem. “So it’s Adam’s word against Seth’s.”

“And mine and Marian’s,” Frank interjected. “She was with the girl when she made the accusation.”

“But neither of you heard what was said between Seth and Adam,” Sparks said gently, “And Seth has a cadre of witnesses. I will interview those students separately to see if their stories hold.”

“What happens now, sir?” Adam heard his voice, but it sounded far away.

“My action is dictated by school policy.” President Sparks looked directly at Adam. “However,” he shook his head and frowned sourly, while pulling a sheet from the pile. “Let me read the stipulation at the end of Seth’s statement. Adam Cartwright’s brutish actions should have been expected since he was raised in squalid poverty, and thus, never exposed to sophisticated intellectual competition. He lacks experience adapting to the norms of a cultured society. Therefore, I will retract my complaint if he makes a public apology to me during next week’s student assembly. The admission will be noted on his record, and he will be placed on scholastic probation, making him ineligible for further scholastic recognition.” He watched Adam closely, trying to gauge his reaction. “This is a way out if you want it, Adam. Perhaps public humiliation is preferable to the immediate suspension and removal from campus I must enforce while I investigate the matter.”

“What happens if you can’t break Waller’s lies?” Frank asked.

“Adam will be expelled for violating our code of conduct. Seth might also bring legal charges for battery.”

Adam couldn’t swallow. He was shaking his head as he looked towards Frank. “I…” he stuttered and tried again to remove the lump in his windpipe that was making it hard to breathe. “I won’t…” His voice faded.

“Won’t?” President Sparks asked.

He drew strength as Frank moved behind him, and grasped his shoulders. “I won’t admit to something I didn’t do. Seth Waller is lying to prevent a sordid truth from being exposed. His friends are protecting him…maybe because they’re all as involved as he. Your investigation will exonerate me.”

Frank patted Adam’s back before reaching to shake his hand, “Good for you, son. I’ll help any way I can.” He looked at the head of the university. “Is there anything else we should know?”

“You must vacate your room and you can’t attend class, Adam, but there’s no reason you can’t keep up with your studies. You’ll receive a letter with my final determination by early next week.”

“I’ll drop you at your grandfather’s,” Frank said as he pulled the boy up from his chair. “I have a few board items to discuss with President Sparks, so go gather what you need from your room. You might as well decide which books Frankie needs while he recuperates, and we’ll take those too. I’ll stop for you in 30 minutes or so.”

Eleven

Frank waited at the window until he saw Adam exit the building. “I can’t believe Waller wrote that Adam is a farm boy who doesn’t know how to behave in society.”

“He had the gall to tell me he wrote it out so I could remember it correctly. I suspect his family doesn’t think a history professor makes an adequate figurehead for the school.”

“Do you know much about Adam?” Frank asked.

“Bits and pieces.”

“His father left Boston with Adam as a baby and went west. He has amassed land in the Utah Territory near the Sierras and parlayed a profitable trapping business to a sizeable cattle ranch. This all comes from the grandfather. Adam is too modest to talk about how much they have. Of course they’ve worked for every penny and they’re not wealthy…yet, but the grandfather says they own a third-of-a-million acres with more in their sites. I can’t even imagine that much land!”

Jared gathered the papers from his desk as he nodded. “He seems like an impressive kid. By the way, I’m thankful you came by yesterday to tell me about the accusation against Seth, even though we had to pretend we didn’t know about it.” He reached deep into his bottom drawer and withdrew a folder, pulling a note-sized paper from it. “This is that anonymous letter I told you about, intimating that there is something bad going on at the parties Seth hosts.”

“I wonder what that means,” Frank pondered as he looked over the note.

“I’ve a pretty good idea.” Jared pulled another sheet of paper from his middle drawer. “My secretary brought this in while Seth and his buddies were here, and I didn’t have time to show you before Adam arrived. It’s another anonymous letter asking the school to investigate why our students at Seth’s weekend drunks needs to have girls from the Waller Asylum provide ‘entertainment’. I think it’s from the same person, and implies our students aren’t expecting singing and dancing.”

“Wow!” Frank blew out a long breath. “Seth is one sick devil.” He bowed his head. “I hate to admit this, but Frankie was invited to Seth’s last party. Something about it made him uncomfortable, and he left before anything started. Frankie mentioned that Seth’s driver seemed upset. That makes me wonder….”

“If this note is from him?” Jared provided

Frank passed a knowing look. “I suspect so.” He rose and began pacing. “I came to see you yesterday because I suspected Adam’s conversation would bring retribution. But Seth was smart. This story completely shifts the issue and gives Adam no defense.” He stopped at the window. “Are those two really vying for that award?”

Jared joined Frank in looking outside. “Adam and Seth hold top spots in their disciplines.” Sparks gave Frank a soft punch in the arm. “I don’t suppose you ever worried about such honors.”

“I was not a scholar,” Frank admitted. “But someone must hold down the bottom of the class to balance those on top.”

“Your grades did not reflect your aptitude. You’ve done great things since graduating. School trophies lose their luster; success never does.”  He saw Frank blush, and laughed. “Their ‘grades’ are similar; the scores behind those grades leaves Seth in the dust. And the award is given for more than good grades. Adam’s teachers have told me he always corrects his errors and resubmits his papers or tests. They can’t change his score, but it shows his commitment to learn. The boy sings in our choirs; performs in plays, and is always first in line to help with projects—usually taking the helm to get them done.”

“That sounds like him,” Frank agreed.

Jared’s face paled and became a mask of horror as he raised his hand to his mouth. “I just remembered something Seth told me at the last honors tea. I asked if he worked at his family’s facilities. He told me….” He cleared his throat and fought for composure. “He told me that he arranges outings for the children to their country home on weekends.”

Frank allowed the silence to linger as both men understood that Seth’s mind was fully warped. “There’s something else on your mind. What is it?”

“I can prove that Harvey Oldman lied. He was nervous and kept twirling and sliding a ring on his right hand while he gave his account. I got a good look at it when he signed his statement. The shape and beveling matched a bruise on Seth’s cheek. Yet, if I confront him now, he could say he’d hit Seth inadvertently while pulling Adam away.” Sparks looked at his companion, leaned back in his chair, and blew out a long breath. “Are you positive we’re doing the right thing, Frank? I could go to the board with the anonymous letters, my suspicions about the faked beating and lies, and let them deal with it.”

“And the stool pigeons4 on the board would run to the Waller family. They’d bury the evidence and probably have your job before they were through.”

“Then we should tell Adam what’s happening.”

“I hate putting Adam in the middle, but I believe his character is strong enough to handle it. I’ll make sure he doesn’t get behind while we give Seth Waller enough rope to hang himself.”

“You know we’re playing poker with that boy’s future as the pot.” Jared eyed Frank carefully. “I’m sure Seth has threatened enough people to swear to anything he says.”

Frank drummed his fingers against Jared’s desk as he leaned forward. “That’s even more reason we can’t tell him. There are no guarantees that this will go as we foresee. But it’s clear from these notes that this is more than one child and one abuser. If we want to clean house, we have to catch Seth and friends in the act.” His frown eased, and he offered a half-smile. “Those notes will help. I’ll contact the Boston police. They have jurisdiction where that house is located.”

“I’ll interview Seth’s witnesses separately. Those boys are more afraid of Seth than they are of me, and unlikely to waver. Unless someone recants, I’ll expel Adam…soon.”

“That should lower Seth’s guard,” Frank said as he stood and stretched. “And that pompous pail of hog slop will want to celebrate. That’s when we get him.” Frank shook Jared’s hand. “I’ll get back to you after I speak to the police.”

Twelve

Adam observed Frank Wadsworth’s wide-eyed reaction to his recounting of the conversation with Seth, while on their way to the Stoddard house. He expected Frank’s surprise, but he wasn’t sure why the man remained quiet, and stared out the window when he finished. “Might the Benedicts rethink their position if they know all this?” he asked.

Frank shook his head, continuing to look outside. “Caroline was already at the office.”

“That’s what you told President Sparks. I thought we’d be going there now to report to her and Mrs. Wadsworth.” The silence continued. “Had Leslie been to the doctor that early?”

“I shouldn’t have allowed Marian to bring you into this,” Frank said as he finally looked at Adam. “But like you, I thought the Benedicts would take action.” Frank sighed heavily, the expulsion of air seeming to deflate him. “While Caroline would like justice, her husband wants to run away from any hint of scandal. She said Winston never understood Leslie’s condition: how she can look normal but be so ‘childish’. He believes that she is somehow responsible for not refusing Seth’s advances, and she fears that he’d be inclined to side with Leslie’s accusers rather than her defenders.”

“That doesn’t make sense. I mean…how can he not defend his own daughter?” Adam had trouble constructing his thoughts. “Did the doctor confirm…?”

“Caroline feared their doctor might gossip, even if not maliciously.” Frank cut in. “They’re telling everyone that Caroline and Leslie are going to Baltimore to care for a relative. She’s actually taking Leslie to a convent there, where a relative is the Mother Superior. Winston will sell their house and business here, and work for Christine’s family until they’re settled in Maryland.”

“That’s a lot of effort to avoid the truth. What will happen to Leslie…afterwards?”

“She’ll remain at the convent and learn simple tasks to do for the nuns. She’ll be safe there.”

“The truth is swept under the rug; liars go on lying…and the innocent pay. Leslie becomes a prisoner and I either publicly humiliate myself or get expelled.” Adam twisted in his seat, his nerves sending shocks of raw energy through him as he dealt with his options. An even darker thought began twisting at his soul. “May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“Seth portrays me as lacking upbringing, intelligence, and the proper credentials to be at Harvard. To cover his own evil, he claims I’m an insecure thug who beat him up over grades…that aren’t real anyway because they’re being altered to keep up the illusion that I belong there. During our confrontation, he said I was admitted as a sort of social experiment: a way to judge whether a flea-bitten farm dog can be taught to perform a few tricks for the fancy folks. And unfortunately for those who really do belong here, I’m allowed to stay because I’m likeable enough to have become a pet. Even Frankie teases me about being a hayseed. So…I’d like to know; do most people smile to my face, but really think of me in those same terms?”

The question caught Frank off guard. Rather than considering what was driving the question, he reacted. “If you believe that, then you don’t deserve to be at Harvard. Self-pity is not becoming, Adam, and if that’s the card you want to play, then I’ll gladly fund your boat ride home. I’ll even stand on the docks to wave goodbye.”

Adam bit his upper lip hard enough to tear into the soft inner tissue. He removed his arm from the two stacks of text books he was securing on the seat next to him, clenched his fists at his side, and looked out the window. There seemed no air in the coach and he struggled to breathe normally. He’d expected there might be some truth in what he’d asked—an unspoken, lingering perception—that the man he respected and trusted might bring into perspective. Instead, Frank caught him with a hard verbal gut punch and told him to go home, the man’s angry response confirming everything Adam feared.

He tried to stop the mental assault by concentrating on the streets they were passing. Once oriented, he reached for the cord that alerted the driver to stop. “I’ll walk the rest of the way. You’ve wasted enough time with me today.” he said softly without turning.

“We’re a good distance from Abel’s, yet,” Frank responded; the harsh edge of his previous words replaced by gentleness. “You can’t carry your books that far. Your arms will be stretched to your ankles by the time you arrive.”

“Please ask Frankie to take my books back when he returns.” His gaze drifted to his feet. “I have no witness to rebut Seth’s lies. The Benedicts won’t come forward, and I don’t possess the wealth or clout to request special consideration through an appeal.” His laugh was humorless. “Seth said he’d have me headed home by the end of the week. At least he’s a man of his word. And, I’ll pay my own way.”

The coach swung to the side as the driver maneuvered out of traffic. The shift sent the unsecured books flying to the floor. Both occupants reached to gather them, nearly bumping heads. Frank took Adam’s shoulders before he could sit up fully, and kept him from turning away.

“That moronic leper is eroding your confidence with his lies and insinuations. If you’d confided your concerns to Marian, she would have grabbed you and said that she loves you, how proud she is of you, and not to believe anything a liar says.” He brought his hand to the back of Adam’s neck. “But I’m not Marian. You must feel like you were thrown in a pit today, and I just shoveled dirt on your head with that response. I am sorry, and I offer this: Lies can win skirmishes; truth wins the battle. The truth will come out, son.”

Adam didn’t look away when Frank released his hold. “What if the truth comes too late?”

“We’ll figure it out.” A smile brightened Frank’s face. “I will tell you that Seth Waller isn’t even a hot breath on your neck when it comes to grades, and for your information, no Harvard professor would award a grade that a student didn’t earn. Benjamin Wadsworth, a long ago relative of mine was the tenth president of Harvard. The presidential residence on campus is named for him and even that, along with a few major contributions from my father while I was a student, couldn’t raise my grades.”

Frank’s revelations allowed Adam to inch his way up the side of his pit to see the light and feel its warmth. He began to breathe normally for the first time since receiving the summons to the president’s office that morning.

The two had gone back to restoring order in the coach when the door opened from the outside.

“Did someone wish to get out here, sir?” the driver asked.

Frank looked at Adam. “Do you still want to leave?”

“I apologize for your trouble,” Adam told the driver. “I thought I knew where I was headed, but I still have a ways to go.”

Thirteen

Abel opened the front door after hearing a light knock, and stepped back, his eyes shooting open as his jaw dropped. “Adam!” he fussed at his grandson. “Are you ill?”

“I’m in a little trouble at school, and have to stay here until it sorts out.” When Abel still didn’t move, Adam grinned. “Can we come in? These books are heavy.”

Frank and Adam deposited their load on the table and took seats in the parlor. “Might you have something to drink with a little kick?” Frank asked the older man. “It’s been a long, tough day, and I think we could use a little bracer before we explain why Adam is home.”

***

Abel inched forward in his chair as he listened to the unfolding story. His sips of scotch became swallows with the revelations of depravity in the young man who’d made the accusations resulting in Adam’s suspension.

The older man noticed that Frank and Adam seemed to sink into their chairs as they spoke, almost as though the story weighed them down. He rose and paced the length of the room, stroking his beard as the tale came to an end. “Is there a word to describe what’s wrong with this…Seth? He had no problem disclosing his inhumane deeds, but was cunning enough to get out ahead of the consequences by fabricating a story of jealousy and rage. It keeps my grandson defending himself, and renders it fruitless to argue the actual facts.”

Frank stood as well, “You’re an astute man, Abel. You probably remember his grandfather’s scandal. It appears Seth is following in his footsteps.” He glanced at his pocket watch. “I need to be on my way. Marian’s been at my office all day, and I’m sure she’s anxious to hear what’s transpired. And,” he grinned, “With my wife in residence, I’m sure no one got much done. She probably served tea and cookies, and kept the men talking about their families.”

“Please tell Frankie I’m thinking of him.” Adam stood to shake Frank’s hand.

“I’ll send word when he’s well enough for you to come study with him.”

“Won’t he return to school?” Adam asked.

“I may be overprotective, but I don’t want him on campus right now. Thankfully he left that party early, but that could make Seth target him too.”

“We’ll keep him in our prayers,” Abel offered as he accompanied Frank toward the door. He looked back at his grandson. “I’ll walk our guest out. You can start moving those books to your room.”

***

Abel leaned in the doorway to Adam’s bedroom. “Do you have to take all those to class?”

Adam laughed as he looked around at the books occupying every surface of his room. “I just take the ones I need for my daily classes,” he explained. “And a lot of these are reference books.” He continued organizing until he cleared his bed and nightstand. He motioned Abel into the room and pointed to the bed. “You might as well be comfortable,” he teased.

“You seem to be accepting this turn of events…on the surface. But how about in the deeper waters?” Abel asked, careful not to sound overly sympathetic.

Adam paused midway to placing a text on the bookshelf. “I’m fine…as long as I don’t think about it.” He turned to face his grandfather. “You and Mr. Wadsworth spoke for some time. Did he say anything of interest?”

Abel pursed his lips, considering how much to divulge. “He shared no secrets if that’s what you’re thinking. He told me there are some tough days ahead for you. This liar set a pretty sound trap. It is likely that the school president cannot expose the truth by the usual methods, and as a result….”

“I’ll be expelled,” Adam offered in conclusion. “It’s the logical outcome.”

The older man winked at Adam. “Frank concurs. But he wants me to stop you from jumping into the harbor and swimming for San Francisco if it happens. There are many people who will help you set a new course should you need one.”

Adam slid the book onto the shelf and dropped onto the bed next to his grandfather. “You mentioned President Sparks failing with ‘usual methods.’ Was there mention of ‘unusual’ methods?”

Abel moved his head side-to-side, recalling the conversation. “Frank may have been implying something, but there were no words to back that.” He stood and pulled Adam up. “Mrs. Doherty has the evening off, so we’ll go to the pub for supper, and then get a good night’s rest.”

***

The reminiscing of the old sea captains at the pub, along with the fistfights breaking out between inebriated sailors provided an evening of diversion. Adam had been humming a sailing tune when he bid his grandfather goodnight. But that was hours ago. Now alone in the dark, the day’s events swam circle in his mind. He fought to quiet his thoughts, not understanding how he could be utterly exhausted while every bit of his brain was exploding like fireworks.

The tossing and turning produced only a lump of sheets beneath him, so he donned his robe and shoes, tiptoed downstairs. and slipped out the back door to sit on the porch steps. The vast starry sky allowed him to think clearly and reassess each segment of the long day. He was lost in thought, and jumped when he felt something brush against his shoulder.

“Did you think I was a ghost?” Abel asked with a chuckle.

“I’m sorry I disturbed you.”

“The back door squeaks. I was pretty sure it was you, yet it might have been a burglar, so I checked.” Abel leaned on Adam as he eased down next to him. “You can put oiling that hinge on your list of projects to do while you’re off.”

“I have a list?”

“You do now.”

The two gazed up at the sky. “You know how to navigate by the stars,” Abel said, breaking the silence.

“I do, but I’m rusty.” He nudged Abel’s arm. “We have street signs in Boston, you know.”

Another period of silence ensued until Adam sighed loudly and leaned forward, bracing himself on his knees.

Abel knew that getting his grandson to speak his fears was nearly impossible. Ben and Adam Cartwright were stoics who valued counsel, but seldom sought it in matters of the heart. He decided to crack the door. “What bothers you most about what’s happening?”

Adam had no intention of answering, and was startled when his thoughts became words that demanded to be said. “It’s why it’s happening!”

Abel thought the episode was pretty clear. “It’s a tale as old as mankind’s fall. Satan lures the weak with his lies and relies on them to promote his cause.”

“I understand that part.” Another deep sigh. He looked down at his hands, tugging at a hangnail. “I knew for so long that I needed to come here.”

“Your father confided that in his letters. I admit to praying that it would work out.”

“I had a dream of attending college, but by the time I was twelve, I understood that couldn’t happen. I learned so much from the people I knew, but they couldn’t prepare me for a university. Then I found a Harvard professor sniffing wildflowers.”* He stopped and smiled at his grandfather. “Maybe your prayers added to mine got him there.”

Abel nodded and smiled.

“That was just the beginning. It took hard work to get here and more to get to a point where I’m a year from graduating at the top of the first engineering class at Harvard5.” His pitch rose as he rested his head against the porch rail. “Why can someone’s lie end years of effort?” A frustrated huff. “It feels like I‘m being punished.” He bolted upright as another thought hit, and he left the steps to pace. “How will I explain this to Pa? I’m ashamed to go home with nothing to show for the time away and the money spent. My father doesn’t abide failure.”

“If you’ll stand still, I’ll respond.” He waited for Adam to sit again. “Did you pray to find a professor in your pasture?”

“Of course not. That solution was…unexpected.”

“But when the gift was given, you knew what to do with it. You prepared for the next opportunity.”

“Yes.”

“You may not like hearing this, but what if our prayers were answered for a different reason than what you wanted.”

“What does that mean?” Adam’s response was wrapped in irritability and tied with a bow of churlishness.

Abel noticed the tone and chuckled. “It’s hard to hear that you aren’t the center of the universe. But perhaps you aren’t in Boston to graduate at the top of the class. Maybe you were sent here to be in the right place at the right time to help Leslie.”

“I could accept that if something good came out of it. But now Leslie’s locked up in a convent, and Seth can do it to someone else.”

His grandson had never talked back or challenged him before. But he’d never been this upset before either. As a captain, Abel was not prone to loving gestures, but he felt the ache in Adam’s responses, and he reached out, wrapping the boy’s shoulders tightly. “You’re hurt and confused. Otherwise you’d remember your father saying that life moves one step-at-a-time. Those steps got you here, but sometimes, like today, a step feels like a stumble that sends you sprawling on your face. That doesn’t diminish the value of the step. You ended Leslie’s abuse and she’s safe while they figure out what to do. Seth thinks he’s rid of you, but he’s made the biggest mistake of his life because he doesn’t recognize the power guiding you.”

Abel felt the tightness in Adam’s shoulder relax. “You’re selling your father short too, Adam. Having a diploma in your suitcase isn’t as important to him as you returning as a better man. Ben Cartwright faced disappointments, and he fell flat on his face many times along his journey. That only made him stronger.”

***

The conversation with Abel settled Adam’s mind enough to fall asleep. But his questions soon nudged him awake. His loss might have accomplished something, but right now it felt like a large hole had been torn in his heart, and the pain throbbed with every beat. This would take time to understand, and even longer to accept. He rolled onto his side and tried to imagine his father’s expression when he explained returning home with nothing tangible for his years away. No words could cover it. He buried his face in the pillow and groaned, “Oh, Pa.”

Fourteen

Ben shivered as he sat up on the side of his bed. It wasn’t cold; spring air was ruffling the curtains as it deposited its warm breath into the room. The chills came from a place deep inside his heart.

He hadn’t been resting well lately, even though he seldom finished a day without being bone tired. Sleep always came easily, but it didn’t last, and he’d wake in the wee hours feeling uneasy. There were good reasons for this, or so he told himself. Spring was a torturous time, and decisions made now determined income potential for the entire year. Every plan required careful preparation along with anticipating the pitfalls that might bar success.

Ben missed Adam. His son had insight beyond his years and Ben had used him as his voice of reason in planning. He released a deep breath as he leaned back, bracing his arms on the bed behind him. While these things might add to his uneasiness, his current wakefulness issued from one source: a dream.

It always amazed him that dreams could drop you into situations and places that made no sense in reality, yet seem perfectly normal while asleep. This one had him on a clipper ship. He stood at the helm, his hands giving gentle direction on the wheel, and he took a deep, hearty breath of the misty sea air. He heard the groaning ropes as they stretched tight across the cargo and masts with each swell. The sails were at full and snapped like rifle shots when the flagging wind strengthened again and caught every square inch of fabric. One thing was missing: his crew. He barked orders for them to present themselves, but no one responded. After securing the wheel, he made a hasty retreat below deck, figuring to find them afoul with rum. The hold was as lacking of men as the deck, but a noise drew his attention to a far, dark corner. He grabbed a lantern and made his way forward.

As he approached, he saw a young man lying there. The lamp nearly fell from his hand as he raised its light and saw that it was Adam. His son pulled into himself—almost cowering—while trying to tell him something. But he couldn’t hear because the weather outside had changed, sending the rattle of thunder and whistling wind down the passageway to blow the words away. The crew was suddenly there, begging him to guide the vessel before it foundered coming out of a trough. He fought them, wanting to get Adam first, but the group tugged him toward the stairs. As he looked back, he saw Adam overwhelmed by the deluge of water surging through the hold, and heard him cry, “Oh, Pa!”

He woke then, but those last words tore his soul. His eldest seldom shared his personal grief or confusion, but uttering that two-word plea had always been Adam’s way of communicating the devastation he couldn’t verbalize.

This dream, along with the general uneasiness he’d experienced lately, set him towards panic. It was time to find out what was going on.

***

“Where’s Pa,” Hoss asked as he sat across the table from Little Joe.

The boy shrugged and mumbled, “I dunno,” amid a swallow of oatmeal.

“Father gone already,” Hop Sing told them as he delivered Hoss’s bowl. “He say you go school like always and don’t be late!”

“So where’d he get to so early?” Hoss asked, adding a spoonful of honey to his cereal.

“Eagle Valley. Say he have order to pick up. Be home late tonight or tomorrow. You do chores like always after school.”

Hoss started to chuckle once Hop Sing returned to the kitchen. “Well, it’s about time.”

Little Joe’s eyes nearly disappeared as he wrinkled his nose and cheeks. “Why’s that?”

“There’s no supplies; he went to send a telegram. You know he’s been sorely worried about our older brother.” Hoss sniffed loudly. “I don’t know how he can tell what’s goin’ on way across the country, but he was sure upset during the night. I heard him hollerin’ for Adam in his sleep, and then he passed my room on the way downstairs. He might’a left then, but I fell back to sleep.”

“You can sleep through anything, Hoss.”

The older boy set to work on his meal, not paying attention to what was going on across from him. He looked up when he heard Joe say, “Hey, Hoss,” and saw a lump of sticky oats flying towards him from the tip of his brother’s spoon. The goo had the needed velocity, but the trajectory was off, and he avoided the impact by leaning right. Unfortunately Hop Sing was on his way back when the glob landed on the wall behind Hoss, and began rolling down to its final resting place on the doily covering the sidebar.

Finished or not, both boys ran to grab their books and lunch pails from the credenza and flew out the door. They could still hear the cook hollering in Chinese as they rode towards town.

Fifteen

Abel made Adam study the next morning, even though the boy had jokingly protested, saying he was on “sabbatical.” Yet his grandson soon lost himself in the pages of the enormous texts. By lunchtime he declared he’d finished his classwork for the day, and asked for his “list.”

He assigned Adam the task oiling the back door hinge and then clearing the yard of the branches that had broken in the last wet, heavy nor’easter to come through before spring. That was dispatched quickly and the boy continued by turning over the garden plot.

He glanced out the window and teased his cook that she’d better make extra food for the hard-working young man. A knock sent him to the front door where he found a messenger with a telegram. The origination point was Eagle Valley, and he knew immediately it was from his son-in-law, or someone with news about Ben. His heart beat heavily as he pulled the page open and read.

“If you’ll wait a moment, I’ll send a reply back with you,” he told the boy waiting by the door.  He gave his thoughts a quick once-over after writing them out, and handed over the paper with enough coins to send the message on its way.

***

Adam was on his second helping of everything that evening when Abel casually pulled the telegram from his pocket. “I got this earlier.”

The fork slipped from Adam’s hand, clunking on the table. He’d only gotten one other telegram, and that had been from his father when Little Joe had gone missing. His immediate thought was that this one would hold equally dire news. After a quick scan, he grinned at his grandfather. “How do you suppose he knows everything?”

“You two are much closer than most fathers and sons. I don’t know how it works but he is aware that something isn’t right. What he doesn’t know is the cause.”

“What should I tell him?” The smile was gone as he thought of condensing all that had happened into a few words.

“The wire was to me, Adam, and I answered it.” The contortions appearing on Adam’s face made Abel laugh. “I can’t tell if you’re irate or relieved.”

“I haven’t decided yet. It depends on what you told him.”

“I told him all is well, but his uneasiness might reflect that you’re working on a special project that you’ll explain in a letter.”

“A special project….” He thought about it and smiled. “I like that. Thank you.”

Sixteen

A note from Frank Wadsworth arrived Tuesday evening telling Adam to be ready for pick-up the next morning so he could join Frankie at the estate for a visit and study.

When he arrived on Wednesday, he found his mathematics professor having coffee with Frank. The man laughed at Adam’s surprise, and said he volunteered to come out and work with the roommates so they’d be ready for finals.

Adam spent the remaining mornings that week with Frankie, and a different professor arrived each day to tutor in their respective subjects. Afternoons were reserved for Abel’s lengthening list.

He was making headway on the Stoddard projects when the captain made another suggestion. “Melinda told us that her aunt is lonely, and Lynne’s yard and house hasn’t been tended for years. How about doing a little outdoor work, fixing a few things inside…and spending time with her?”

Adam liked the work, but wasn’t sure what to say to Lynne at first. He soon found he loved assisting the overgrown yard back to life as much as he enjoyed watching the older woman blossom when they talked while he worked. He even took her out for lunch on Saturday when Melinda sent word that she was unable to make her visit.

The ease he’d felt since accepting his suspension began to evaporate on Monday of the second week, when he expected a letter from school. Adam hadn’t seen Frank since that first day of tutoring, so he didn’t know if he’d heard anything. His not-too-subtle interrogation of Frankie had produced no information either.

No mail came on Monday, and Adam was sure his fate was being carried in the satchel of the postman walking toward their house on Tuesday afternoon. He continued raking until he saw his grandfather exit the back door and motion him over.

He recognized the Harvard stationery immediately. Normally such envelopes brought good news. His acceptance had arrived in one, along with each congratulatory note and invitations to honors events. But this bore President Sparks’ title. He moved off by himself to read it, and returned to the porch, telling Abel. “It’s official. I’ve been expelled.” The laugh was dry. “I guess I have more time for projects until I arrange a way home.”

Abel didn’t respond. He held up another envelope instead. “This was delivered shortly before the mail arrived. It’s from Frank. He was alerted to the outcome and wants me to remind you that this is not final. There’s an appeal process.”

“I’d be defending against the same lies, so what’s the use?” He reined in the eye roll and sigh accompanying his statement, and chuckled at himself.

“Frank says much the same thing…minus the theatrics,” Abel teased. “You’re to continue studying. It’s only two weeks till the end of the year so he’s been assured you can take your final tests. He also suggests an internship at his company to complete your preparation for a career. And should you prefer to go to another school, you’ll receive more recommendations than you’ll ever need.”

Adam nodded and grinned. “I’ll wait at least a week before I start swimming home.” His grin drooped to a frown. “My only regret is that Leslie was locked away and Seth wasn’t. I’ll think this through more thoroughly after my final tests are done, and speak with Frank and President Sparks. Maybe I will have to confront those lies after all.” He held out his hand. “Could I read Frank’s note?”

“Might I read your letter as well?” Abel responded.

Adam finished first. “It seems like he feels as badly about this as I do.”

Abel nodded as he continued reading, and frowned as he handed it back. “I didn’t expect this to read like a letter of apology. This Sparks says he’s sorry a number of times, and he makes it clear that your teachers are incensed.”

Seventeen

Melinda knocked hard, and then entered the Stoddard house early Saturday afternoon, calling out the names of its occupants. She knew Abel didn’t mind if she let herself in.

Abel waved with his free hand as he exited the kitchen carrying a cup of coffee. “Welcome, young lady. I’m glad you could make it this weekend.”

She blushed. “I admit I rushed through a lesson with the boys so I could get here as early as possible.” She waited a moment, hoping Adam might lope down the steps as he often did when he heard her voice. “Where’s our guy, and how’s he doing? He sent me a note revealing all that’s happened in the two weeks since the party.” Melinda smiled warmly at Abel. “He wrote that he didn’t want to burden me, but you’d advised him I’d be more upset if I walked in here today not knowing.”

“Ah, yes. My grandson is extremely bright, but he has much to learn about women.” He set his coffee next to him as he settled into his favorite chair. “Would you like a cup? It’s still hot.”

“Thank you, but I’d rather see Adam if he’s here.”

“He’s out back burning yard debris. Your aunt’s house and mine look great, and the projects kept him busy. And…he’s coping.”

Melinda shouted a thank you over her shoulder as she nearly ran to the back door, but paused on exiting. There was a good-sized blaze going, and Adam was sitting cross-legged on the grass with his back towards her. She stepped onto the porch and called, “Ahoy there! Permission to board?”

Hearing Melinda’s voice made him happier than he’d felt in days and he responded with a wide smile. He stood and saluted. “Permission granted.”

She hurried across the lawn and wrapped him in a hug. “I’m so happy to see you!”

“I was beginning to think Saturday would never get here.” Motioning toward the fire, he said, “We’ll have to stay here until that burns down, but I’ll get a blanket. The grass is a little dewy.”

Melinda rested her head on Adam’s shoulder as they talked about everyday things. She told of taking Nate and Charlie to visit a historic church near their house. “Nate was fascinated by the old names and dates on the headstones in the cemetery next to it, but Charlie was in awe of the architecture. He drew a wonderful depiction of the altar and sent it with me for you to see.”

“You should bring them to Cambridge one day and I’ll show them some of the buildings on….” He turned away, awash in his loss.

Melinda didn’t intrude at first but finally hugged him tightly and whispered, “It isn’t right that you lost so much to speak up for Leslie.” She huffed loudly. “Especially since her parents have turned tail. They won’t stand up for their daughter or to Seth.”

Adam was finally able to exhale as his emotions settled. “That old sea captain in the house has told me a few things about life, and I’ve mulled them over.”

“What did he say?”

“I’m looking at circumstances from my human point of view, and maybe my purpose in coming here was not to earn a degree, but to help someone who was in big trouble.”

“If that’s true, it seems nearly cruel to allow you to get as far as you did. Why couldn’t God let you do both?”

“I’ve shouted that same accusation all week, but I also begged to understand.” He gazed upward and sighed before staring at the fire. “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.6 I can’t complain about this without being ungrateful for the rest. There was something else I’d forgotten too.”

She tipped her head awaiting explanation.

“Quoting another verse: When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it.6b I made a promise years ago after Hoss was tricked into doing something he shouldn’t have—like Leslie was.”

“Is Hoss a little slow too?”

Adam choked back a laugh. “He’s a very bright kid. Yet people often assumed he was slow because he looked older—taller and stronger than his actual age. He was still a little boy inside, making it easy for other kids to manipulate him. One time he suffered badly for it. I promised I’d never let that happen again: that I’d always protect him and make sure no one ever used his innocence to hurt him.” His pursed lips made a whistling sound as he exhaled. “I assume my promise was accepted, and is to be honored for more than Hoss.”

Melinda wasn’t sure whether Adam had received a heavenly mandate or if the fine character he’d developed being raised a Cartwright made him intervene with Leslie, but the result was the same. Despite this outcome, she also knew he would continue to stand up for the innocents and underdogs of the world. She could say nothing that would make this easier, so she wrapped her arms around him, and they watched the fire become ashes.

Eighteen   

Adam shoveled dirt over the remaining embers as he told Melinda, “I liked spending time with your aunt while I worked over there.”

“I’m sure she enjoyed your company.” Melinda forehead crinkled with concern. “How was her memory?”

“She told me wonderful stories of her youth, but she couldn’t remember me from one day to the next. But then she’d finally say, ‘Oh, you’re Melinda’s young man.’”

The conversation ended abruptly when their attention was drawn to a commotion on Abel’s back porch. Frank Wadsworth, Frankie, and Abel were wedged in the open door: all trying to exit at once.

Frank was the first out, and approached them, carrying a set of clothes over his arm with shoes dangling from his fingers. He acknowledged Melinda with an exaggerated wink. “I need to borrow this guy for a few hours. We’ll all go out for dinner when we return.” He didn’t wait for a response, grabbing Adam’s arm as he pulled him towards the front of the house where their transportation was waiting. “C’mon! You’ll change while we drive.”

“Where are you taking me?” Adam asked as he paused in the doorway of the coach.

“To Harvard.” Frank pushed Adam into the vehicle and told the driver, “Go like the Devil’s chasing you!”

“This would have been easier at the house.” Adam laughed as he struggled out of his work clothes while the two Franks pulled at sleeves and pant legs. “By the way, hello, Frankie.”

“Hello, Adam,” Frankie replied. “Be quiet and stick your arm in this shirtsleeve. You have to look presentable.” The younger Wadsworth braced himself on the ceiling while Adam and Frank collided when the driver took a corner a little too fast. “Here, let’s try that again.” This time Frankie shoved his friend’s arm into the sleeve from the top, then grabbed his hand as it exited the cuff end and hauled the shirt upward, choking Adam as he reached around his neck to grab it from the other side.

Frank held out the dress trousers as Frankie fastened shirt buttons. “I’ll do this part myself.” Adam grabbed the pants and slid them onto his legs once the shirt was in place. “Where’d you get my suit?”

Frank laughed. “We told your grandfather why we were there and what we needed. He moves pretty fast for an older guy!”

“How about you tell me why I’m changing clothes while careening towards Cambridge.”

“They got him!” Frankie announced

“Who got whom?” Adam’s brows dove towards his nose.

“It will explain itself if you’re patient,” Frank offered.

Adam shook his head as he slid across the seat again while trying to button his pants. “This has been a wild ride. Not just the last ten minutes, but the last two weeks. Am I going to be expelled in an official ceremony?” He laughed as he slipped his arms into the jacket Frank Sr. was holding out for him, and ducked down so Frankie could flip a tie over his head. “At least I’ll be well-dressed…I think” Once the tie was secured, he asked, “Is everything on and fastened? I don’t want to face execution with my fly undone or two different shoes.”

Frank gave him a withering look, and nearly slid onto the floor as the coach skidded to a stop. “We’re here. Now…just listen when we get inside.”

***

President Sparks nodded towards Frank as the trio of Wadsworth, Wadsworth, and Cartwright made their way into the board room of the administration building. “All parties are now present, so we can begin.”

Adam followed his “party” to chairs in the back of the room before he could get a good look at the others in attendance. President Sparks was at the head of the table, seated next to a man wearing a police uniform. Seth Waller was sitting with a couple Adam had seen at the Oliver party, and He suspected were Seth’s parents. The five students who’d falsely testified in the bogus assault were sitting across from the Wallers. What Adam didn’t understand was why police officers were lined up against the wall behind his classmates. He glanced at Frank who smiled and then motioned for him to look forward.

Sparks stood. “A month ago, I received an anonymous tip about students engaging in unseemly activity, using children from the Waller School and Asylum. There were no details, and so the letter was dismissed. Then two weeks ago, one of our board members approached me after hearing of an accusation about Seth Waller abusing a student at the Waller school.”

Mention of the accusation against her son, made Seth’s mother say, “That’s a lie!” even as she paled and slumped back into her chair.

“I’m sorry this distresses you, Mrs. Waller,” President Sparks said evenly. “The details will get more explicit, so you may wish to wait in my office.” With her assurance that she was fine, he continued. “A young woman revealed the abuse to one of our students, who alerted the child’s mother. Thinking it was a case of mistaken identity, her mother asked this student to speak with Seth, and give him a chance to investigate who might be using his name.”

“That makes more sense.” Mrs. Waller snorted imperiously before nudging her son. “Tell them it was a mistake, and we’ll go home.”

“It wasn’t a mistake, Mrs. Waller,” Sparks told her gently. “The student who spoke to your son has paid dearly for it.”

“What is he talking about?” The question was posed to Seth by his father. The boy said nothing, but responded with a haughty glance and lengthy sigh.

“I believe this conversation did occur,” the president explained. “So you can imagine my surprise when instead of Seth reporting that he was being defamed by someone using his name, or notifying you, Mr. Waller, that your school was being libeled, he concocted an elaborate lie.”

Mrs. Waller shoved her chair back and began to stand. “I will not listen to this.”

Her husband grabbed her hand, pulling her back down. “Don’t you find it odd that our son isn’t refuting any of this?”

“Seth made his friends beat him to a pulp,” the president continued. “Then he came to me with the claim that this other classmate attacked him in a jealous rage over grades. He ‘convinced’ his friends to say they’d seen the incident exactly as Seth described it. I wasn’t able to disprove this lie at the time, and since battering another student is not tolerated: the other student was expelled.”

Seth’s father was turning redder with each thing Sparks said. “Since you call Seth’s story a lie, you must believe he abused that child.”

“All I knew for sure was that your son was lying. I could have confronted these pitiful witnesses with the concerns I had,” Spraks said, turning to the group of five. “But with as detailed as this lie was, it had to be covering up something even bigger. Why expose a single snake, when you really want to find the nest.”

“Why are the police here?” Marvin Waller nearly shouted.

The uniformed man next to Sparks spoke up. “I’m Chief Styles of the Boston police. We’ve been working with the university to expose that ‘nest’. As a courtesy, I’m allowing President Sparks to conclude school matters before charging these boys at the station.”

The chief’s words brought agonized groans from Seth’s accomplices.

Adam now understood what “unusual methods” might have been used to investigate the lies. He looked over at Frank, and mouthed, “Why was I expelled?”

Frank pulled Adam closer and whispered, “Just listen.”

“What your son didn’t know, Mr. Waller,” President Sparks replied, “was that while he was here lying to me, I received another note suggesting Seth ran a sort of brothel on weekends, using children from your asylum. I consulted with Frank Wadsworth, our board president, and we contacted the police.”

The chief stood next to Sparks, revealing his ample girth and height, and stared down at those around the table. “We concluded the notes were sent by the driver who transported all parties to the house. An officer contacted this man under the guise of looking for stable work at the Waller’s, and the driver admitted writing it. He’d already figured out that Seth’s parties occurred on weekends when a certain orderly worked at the asylum, and his most damning revelation was that Seth always sent a packet of cash to be handed to that orderly once the girls were brought outside.”

The faces of Seth’s parents were set in stone when the chief had begun, but Sara Waller’s facade began to crack with the unfolding story. She bowed her head and began picking at lint on her sleeve.

President Sparks looked at Adam after the chief sat down. “It was a joint decision that in order to find the bigger truth, we would have to accept Seth’s lies and expel you.” Sparks line of sight moved to Seth. “Once that news about Mr. Cartwright became known, you wasted no time in celebrating. We counted on that arrogance.”

Chief Styles nodded towards the Waller family. “Your driver let us know that he’d received orders to pick up Seth and his mates today, along with instructions to gather the ‘entertainment’ after dropping them off.” The veteran officer shook his head slowly and then focused in on Seth’s father. “After cleaning up the mess with your father, I never imagined you’d let this happen again! People in this city trusted you, and now….”

Seth’s father banged his fist on the table. “Finish this story so I know what you’re accusing us of!”

“Officers followed the coach with the children out to the house. Then they watched through the windows, and caught the boys preparing to abuse those children!”

The policeman behind Seth cleared his throat. “Don’t ya mean we caught this one with his pants down?”

Chief Styles silenced his officer with a stern look. “There’s nothing to joke about here.” He waited for a moment. “I remained at the asylum to question the orderly, who when confronted with what we knew, confessed to selecting children who were docile.” He pointed as Seth. “You told the staff that these outings helped increase ‘sociability’ in these children, but the orderly knew what you were really doing. He saw their disheveled clothing and…”

Adam gasped along with the Wadsworths. Hearing proof of abuse out loud ripped his heart open.

The chief continued. “I questioned how the orderly could continue sending them if he knew their torture. He said he wanted out, but Seth blackmailed him and eventually paid him extra to get the children ready. He needed the money.”

Sara Waller’s eyes had grown rounder and her cheeks redder with each revelation, and when the chief finished, she slumped forward. In a soft voice, she said, “You keep saying, children. Please, how old were they?

“Not the wee ones, ma’am,” Chief styles told her. “We’d be having an entirely different conversation if they were babes. But abusing girls in their mid and late teens is still an appalling crime.

Confronting her son’s depravity dropped Sara in a dead faint, her head hitting the table with a solid ‘clunk.’

Marvin Waller grabbed his son roughly. “Is this true?”

Seth draped his arm over the back of the chair and turned to face his father. “They can’t do a thing about it. Grandpa always claimed those kids enjoyed this, and I made sure they were old enough to consent.”

The slap Marvin delivered to his son’s face knocked him off the chair. “How dare you! You were old enough to experience the family’s shame when your grandfather did his awful experiments. I tried to implant a love for these children in you, and explain how insane my father had become.” He scrubbed his hands over his face. “Why!”

For the first time in the meeting, Seth seemed off-guard. He slid back onto his chair and stuttered as he tried to speak, but then re-found his confidence. “It’s your fault… I saw the value in Grandpa’s work. His research should have been lauded. Your apologetic response turned the hospital into nothing more than a charity now. We take in anyone, and can barely make ends meet. Then you made me work there for nothing! I deserved something, and I took it!”

Marvin Waller was stunned to silence. The pale man took a deep breath and leaned down to check his wife as she moaned. When he looked back up, he addressed Chief Styles. “Would there be no charges if the children did indicate their…agreement?” His words made him retch, yet he was now defending his entire family.

“I’m not surprised that’s the tack you’d try, sir,” the chief stated while his eyes seemed to fire lead shots toward the family. “But here’s a couple’a things your fancy attorney won’t overcome. The orderly will swear that he was ordered to pick children who couldn’t refuse. They hadn’t the mental capacity to make any decision. And even if that boy of yours tries to make the case that they smiled, indicating their approval to be savaged, there’s that sticky matter of the money. Your son was charging his buddies money for the service. As soon as President Sparks finishes, your son will be taken away and charged with running a brothel. We’ll add on charges of kidnapping and false imprisonment. And since they couldn’t consent, he and the others will be charged with assault.”

“I feel sick,” Sara Waller muttered as she rested her head back on the table.

“Now to right a wrong before I rid this school of all this worthless trash.” Sparks walked over to Harvey Oldman. “You should know that of all those who lied about Adam Cartwright, yours is the one I can prove.” The shaking boy began sobbing. “Did you lie about witnessing an altercation between Seth Waller and Adam Cartwright?”

“N..n…no,” he stuttered, glancing at Seth. “It happened just like he said.”

“Seth, turn your head so that we can see your left cheek,” Sparks commanded.

Seth heaved a sigh, rolled his eyes, and finally complied.

“If you look closely at the remains of the bruise on his cheek, you’ll notice it’s square.” President Sparks drew the shape in the air for emphasis. “Also note the center where something clearly poked deeper, breaking the skin.” He reached down and raised Harvey’s hand. “Now observe the ring that this young man wears. If I hold it to that bruise, we’ll have a match. So again, Harvey, did you beat Seth and then lie about it?”

Harvey began blubbering as he shouted at the chief. “If I tell you everything, can I get out of this mess?

“The truth can’t hurt you,” the officer replied.

“Seth invited us to that house of his last fall.” Harvey looked around at the others while sniffling. “It was fun the first time. We went riding, and then drank while we played cards. But the next time he brought in those girls. He claimed we would be helping them. I don’t know about the others, but I couldn’t do anything to the poor kid he gave me. I don’t think the others did anything either. We sat outside drinking while the girls played out there. We told Seth we wouldn’t come anymore after that, and he said he’d tell the police and the university that we had molested those girls when he’d just brought them out to enjoy a day in the country. So we kept going out there, and drank until we were too drunk to think about it. It got even worse when he started demanding money to keep quiet. We were afraid of him.” Harvey’s voice broke with a sob. “Two weeks back he said Cartwright was onto us, and we had to help discredit the guy. I beat Seth up, and then we each wrote a statement saying Cartwright did it. None of us were there when it happened.”

With the truth exposed, the others began swearing to it, asking for consideration, and citing Seth’s revenge if they hadn’t cooperated.

“Thank you for your honesty,” President Sparks told the boys. “Of course you’re all expelled, but if you want to salvage your futures, you’ll take any deal the police offer.” He walked to the back of the room, stopping in front of Adam. “Your record will only recognize your assistance in this matter. It must be vindicating to hear the truth from these liars, and I offer my sincerest apology along with my thanks. If you’re the man Frank and I think you are, you understand the dilemma we were in.”

Frankie had remained silent, but stood and walked to the table. “Why did you invite me to that party?” he asked Seth. “Did you honestly think I’d do what you were doing?”

Seth met his glare and laughed. “Nah. I never figured you would, but these guys were running short on cash. My plan was to get you drunk enough to stay through the day, and then I’d have had a new source of income. The Wadsworth pockets run deep.”

The policemen put handcuffs on each of the boys, and began leading them from the room. Seth turned back when his parents didn’t follow.

“Come on!” he spat at them “You can post bail, and I’ll be home for dinner.”

Marvin Waller placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder, keeping her put. His voice was defeated but forceful. “I will arrange for a lawyer, but there will be no bail. Being locked up might demonstrate what it’s like to have no choice in what happens to you.” He looked from his son to President Sparks. “You have my word that I will make this right, starting by immediately finding someone outside the family to run the home and school.” He thought a moment. “You said one accusation against Seth exposed this. Was that a separate incident?”

The answer came from Frank. “Yes. Your son forced this girl into allowing his advances; deceiving her into thinking it was normal. He abused her at the school and even at her home while you visited with her parents. But they aren’t pressing charges, fearing you’d vilify their daughter to save your son.”

Marvin nodded. “I know who it is. I’ll contact them and try to help.” He assisted his wife to stand and supported her as they walked towards the door. He turned back before exiting. “I am sorry.”

Nineteen

With the room cleared, President Sparks shut the door and dragged a chair to sit with Adam and the Wadsworths. “You look lost in thought, Adam.”

“I was thinking about my grandfather. Whenever I felt sorry for myself, he’d remind me that even though we can see where we’re headed on the horizon, that doesn’t mean the road to get there won’t have a few curves and detours.” He looked from Frank to President Sparks. “You could have told me what was going on. I would have played along.”

The two men exchanged a knowing glance. “You’ve played poker, haven’t you, Adam?” the president asked.

“Sure.”

“Then you know that once you ante in, you’re going to lose everything you toss in the pot if you don’t win. Even if you think there’s cheating, you’re out the money from that hand unless you can prove your suspicion.”

Adam nodded. “I’ve been there.”

“Well,” Sparks continued, “we were all playing a high-stakes poker game with Seth Waller. You got in the game by speaking to him, and even though Seth cheated to win that hand, you had to accept the outcome. Frank, the police, and I started playing then, and we realized we’d have to fold at first, to win in the end. We couldn’t even reassure you, because had Seth bluffed better, your loss would have stood.”

Frankie broke in. “How could Seth have ‘bluffed better’?”

His father answered. “Harvey finally confessed because he was more afraid of what the police were going to do, than of what Seth held over him. Had Seth been more cunning, he would stopped the parties after bringing those false charges against Adam. With only a year until graduation no one would have risked talking. We’d have always believed something horrible had occurred, but we couldn’t have proved it. The only thing remaining was Leslie, but even that would have dissolved because of Winston Benedict’s fear of scandal.”

“And I would have been out of school for good….” Adam shook his head slowly and then grinned. “I’m glad Seth plays badly, but I wish I could have done something.”

“You were the silent hand, Adam, and the game couldn’t have progressed without you,” Frank told him. “To win in poker or in life, you have to judge your opponents correctly. Seth didn’t do that with you. He underestimated the good reputation you’ve made, and overestimated what people thought of him. That misjudgment led him to construct an absurd story.”

“So…if I continue the analogy,” Adam said thoughtfully, “you counted on me to back away from the table and wait for you to prove that Seth was dealing from the bottom of the deck?”

“You’re catching on.” Frank told him. “Seth was too vain to see that his ill-conceived lie attracted attention, and made people watch how he was dealing. He had no idea President Sparks and I were onto him. He thought he had the other students and the orderly under his thumb and his snobbery left him open to one more mistake: he forgot about his driver. The man was invisible to him, and he never considered that he would contribute to the pot.”

Frank looked at both boys. “You can both learn from this. When you pay attention to people, you’ll start to recognize the ‘tells’ in their characters. That’s an invaluable skill.  The Seth Waller types are easy to spot. They’re arrogant and pompous, imagining they’re smarter than everybody. The hardest to figure are people trying to take what they won’t work to get. You have to decide what they want as an outcome, and most importantly, how far they’ll go to get it.” Frank leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “With constant observation, you’ll become adept at reading people, and you’ll know how to play your hand…whether in life,  or a card game.”

President Sparks rose. “Good thoughts, Frank. Your insights made all the difference in this case.”

Frank stood and grabbed his son’s arm while nodding at Adam to do the same. “President Sparks, I think it’s time to celebrate. Would you join us for a ‘reinstatement’ dinner?”

The president of Harvard shoved his chair back to the table. “I would like that very much.”

One month later:

Melinda was pink-cheeked when she kissed Adam in Abel’s doorway. “I’m busting with news!”

“Come further inside,” Abel called from the parlor. “I don’t want you exploding in that tight hallway.”

“You’re such a tease,” she whispered while bending down to give him a peck on the cheek.

“We have time before Sunday dinner, so sit!” the older man ordered with a laugh.

“First, how do you like working on the Wadsworth jobsite?” Melinda asked Adam.

He grimaced and stretched. “It’s been a while since I’ve worked that hard. As sore and tired as I am, Frankie can barely move by quitting time. Luckily we’ll only do half the summer at the sites. In July we start working with the engineers at the office.”

“And he’s getting paid to have all this fun,” Abel added with a wink.

Melinda chuckled before changing the subject. “I read the article about Seth and his gang in the Courier today. The five who lied about Adam aren’t being charged with much.”

“Their biggest crime was keeping silent. They stood together at the trial, swearing they continued attending those parties only because of Seth’s blackmail.” Adam sighed. “I believe those five never harmed the children, and they should have stood up to Seth from the beginning. He couldn’t have ‘exposed’ them without exposing his own darkness. I don’t understand how they couldn’t see that.”

“They were children of privilege who never had to face consequences for their actions,” Abel said firmly. “They’ve been expelled, must pay fines, and have endured public humiliation as the story unfolded in the press. But fines and embarrassment don’t address the horror they allowed to continue, even if not participating.”

Melinda looked down, shaking her head. “You’re right, Mr. Stoddard. The notoriety will hinder them for a while, but eventually the gossip will fade and they’ll resume their privileged life. It’s the lives of those children that won’t change.”

Adam smiled as he reached for her hand. “Things will get better. Marian Wadsworth was asked to serve on an advisory panel for the hospital that took over the asylum. She’ll be a fierce advocate for better conditions, and especially in the careful oversight of who’s allowed access to them.” His eyes drifted to the newspaper he’d been reading when Melinda arrived. “On the other hand, Seth’s absurd comments and outbursts during his trial earned him an indefinite stay at a state-run insane asylum. He’ll face a crucible of his own making there.”

Abel allowed a moment of thought before turning to Melinda. “So, what news has you busting?”

She scooted forward on the couch. “Leslie’s parents stopped by yesterday. I’d told Mrs. Benedict that I had to inform the Olivers of the incident that had happened during their party. Part of the reason for them to come by was to thank us all for our discretion.” She faced Adam. “They also sent their thanks to you for standing up for Leslie, and their regrets for all you went through because of it.”

“How is Leslie?” Adam asked.

“She became so distraught in the convent that she stopped eating and barely slept. The doctor there explained that Leslie was frightened and confused by the drastic changes going on in her body. Being torn from everything familiar compounded that. She miscarried soon after arriving. Her parents are relieved for her, and she’s recovering quickly at her grandmother’s home.”

Abel’s tone turned sad. “It’s a sad but understandable outcome.”

“There’s good news too! Marvin Waller contacted the Benedicts, and encouraged them to continue raising Leslie at home. He said they’ve been doing a splendid job, and he feels Leslie has so much potential to unlock.”

Adam’s right brow rose. “How did Mr. Benedict react to that?”

“A private meeting with Mr. Waller placated his fears. They decided to stay in Boston, and asked if I’d teach Leslie along with Nate and Charlie if the Olivers would agree. They did, so Leslie will join us as soon as she’s better. She’ll be with us for the next year until the boys become full time students at a private academy. The Wallers gave the Benedicts a plentiful settlement. They’ll use that to hire their own governess then, and I’ll train her.”

“Why don’t you go with Leslie?” Abel asked.

“They asked me, but I’ll be starting college. The Olivers offered to help with my tuition if I stay until the boys are in school.” She glanced at Adam and saw him smile. ‘It’s something I’ve dreamed of doing.”

Adam rose and pulled Melinda up next to him. “You’re just the teacher Leslie needs.” He smiled at his grandfather. “We’re going outside until dinner so I don’t have to rush you through dessert.”

***

Abel laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back, thinking about the month that had passed. Adam had finished his junior year two weeks after being reinstated, and he held no bitterness toward his experience. Only one thing remained undone: a letter to Ben. Adam had wanted to write sooner, but he’d advised waiting for the trial outcome. He pulled the Courier from the table, carefully tearing off the front page with the story of Seth’s sentencing, and figured he might as well get started. Adam would compose his own letter, but he knew Ben would appreciate the insights in his father-in-law’s rendition.

Three Months Later

Ben used his sleeve to wipe the sweat from his face, and squinted at the dust devil on the far horizon. He’d sent Hoss and Little Joe off to swim in the pond near the house. Their tempers had seemed as hot as the late August weather, and he thought an afternoon of fun might be the best medicine. But they’d headed in the opposite direction, so he continued to watch the swirl move closer until he could make out a rider.

A laugh broke from his sun-cracked lips as he recognized who it was. Dave Cass was the son of Will Cass, the shopkeeper who’d settled in the area around the time Ben had switched from trapping to ranching. His long-distance recognition was aided by the fact that the Cass family owned only large horses that pulled wagons loaded with equipment out to the settlers. Dave had to saddle one of these beasts, when he visited the Cartwright boys. The cinch made it around the horse’s wide girth, aided by an additional section, but there was nothing to do about the stirrups. Dave’s short legs barely curve around the horse’s ribcage, and they flopped as he rode, giving the illusion that the horse had wings.

Ben finished brushing his horse and cooled him down with a wet cloth while waiting for Dave to arrive. He finally waved and called his greeting.

“Hey, Mr. Cartwright,” Dave called back. “Pa sent me with this.” He held up a large envelope. “He said you probably wouldn’t be comin’ to town soon, and he knew how much you’d want it. It’s from Boston.”

Ben took the package confirming it was from Adam, and breathed in relief. “Thank you. Why don’t you get down and water yourself and your horse before heading back.” He noticed that the boy was craning his neck trying to see into the barn, and realized what…or rather who he hoped to see. “The boys just left to swim.”

“You mean at the pond that’s over the rise?” Dave asked excitedly. “Cause if it’s that one, I can find them. Pa said I could spend a few hours out here before getting back.”

“That’s a fine idea, but you can use one of our horses while this big guy rests.”

Ben made quick work of saddling a smaller mount for the boy, and sent him on his way. He retrieved the package from the feed box where he’d set it, and slid down onto an overturned pail near the door where there’d be enough light to read. His uneasiness in spring had been appeased by the short telegram from Abel. The note had raised more questions than it answered, yet he trusted Abel wouldn’t keep anything from him concerning Adam’s wellbeing. The dread he’d felt at the time had dissipated a few weeks later, replaced by his anxiousness to know what the “special project” had involved. He’d received a letter from his son soon after that, but it had been written much earlier.

He used his pocket knife to carefully slit the top of the envelope. The first item he extracted was a folded page of newspaper. His heart plummeted to the dusty barn floor as he scanned the banner headline. Six Harvard Students Sentenced In Scandal Involving Girls From Waller Asylum.

This can’t be about Adam, pounded in his brain like waves making shore. The obvious conclusion was that this was Abel’s special project reference, yet how could Adam be involved? The story concentrated on a student named Seth, but it didn’t mention the names of the others. Ben stopped reading, trying to make sense of how his son fit into this. When no scenario could explain it, he shook his head and returned to the article.

A smile turned the edges of his concern when the last few paragraphs told of how the scandal came to light after a fellow student had confronted Seth about deceiving a mentally slow girl into engaging in carnal acts. Seth then blackmailed the others involved in the scandal to help fabricate a story about that confrontation. Ben’s heart beat faster again, but with pride as he read how the president of Harvard said that the lies had painted an egregious scene, and he’d had to follow through by expelling the student in question. But the lie had been preposterous enough to make him realize it was covering up something darker. He enlisted the help of a trusted board member and the Boston police to investigate. President Sparks commended the young man who’d accepted the expulsion, allowing those in charge to complete their investigation, and mentioned that if they hadn’t been able to expose the lies, that student would have lost everything.

Ben refolded the paper with shaking hands, impatient to dig into the letters still inside the envelope. He read Adam’s account first, and then laughed while perusing Abel’s far more informative depiction. “Thank God for that old pirate!” he nearly shouted when he finished. The letter from Adam had listed the facts, but the only indication of how unnerved he’d been, was in the last sentence. I admit that I was shaken by this, Pa, but Grandfather helped me navigate a smoother course.

Ben didn’t move until he’d read Abel’s letter a few more times, allowing him to realize how closely his own sensations of fear for his son aligned with the events Adam had been experiencing. His heart broke with Abel’s telling of Adam’s greatest fear: returning home to tell his father he had failed. Rereading that part made Ben wipe his face again as something other than sweat wet his cheeks. He’d always expected a lot from his oldest, and perhaps he’d begun taking Adam’s abilities for granted. In thinking about it, he had a hard time recalling a situation in the last several years when he’d put his feelings of pride and appreciation into words. Of course no one was harder on Adam than Adam himself. Still…to hear that his biggest fear was coming home….

The opportunity to say the right things in the past was over, but he could make sure Adam never had to worry that he would disappoint him when he did the right thing. He hurried to the house, stashing the envelope in his desk, and hollered for Hop Sing. By the time Hoss and Little Joe got back he was ready to leave for Eagle Valley and spend the night away with his boys.

As they made the hour ride to the small settlement, Ben told them about Adam’s letter, making the incident about their brother taking on someone who’d been unkind to children rather than the actual situation.

“That sounds like somethin’ Adam would do.” Hoss said and then wrinkled his nose. “But why do you need to send a telegram now that you know what happened, Pa?”

“Yeah,” Little Joe joined in. “I wouldn’t mind looking over the candy at the store in Eagle Valley, but I don’t see what’s so important you gotta say it in a telegram.”

Ben smiled sagely. “That’s between me and your brother.”

Boston – A Day Later

“I thought you’d be out celebrating your last day of work before going back to school,” Abel teased when Adam walked in at his usual time.

“Frank invited us to their house on Sunday,” Adam replied. “He claims we’ll celebrate then, but I’m sure he just wants to tell you all the mistakes I made this summer.” His suntanned cheeks flushed to a golden pink. “And there’s plenty to tell, so you’ll have a good time.”

“That does sound like fun.” Abel held a small envelope aloft. “This came from your father. Since it’s addressed to you, I didn’t peek.”

Adam’s quiet sigh was the only outward sign of his uneasiness. “Receiving these never gets easier.”

“Read it before you jump to conclusions.” Able rose stiffly. “I’ll go check on supper.”

He opened the flap as he sank into a chair and read the note. “Maybe telegrams aren’t so bad after all,” he said softly, and reread the message.

Received letters regarding special project (STOP) Always proud of the boy you were (Stop) Prouder still of the man you have become (STOP)

The End

Notes:

1 The Game of Graces was played by pairs of children in the 1800s. Each of the pair held two sticks. A ring was slid onto one set of crossed sticks and thrust upwards by uncrossing the pole. Their partner tried to catch it on their set of sticks.

2 First Parish in Cambridge is a Unitarian Universalist church, located in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The current building was erected in 1833.

3 From Captain Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811): ‘ To give a girl a green gown, to tumble her in the grass

3A Jared Sparks (1789-1866) became president (at Harvard) on Feb. 1, 1849. Students were happy with the choice: Sparks had found favor as the first McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History (1838).

4 Stool pigeon was originally used to describe a decoy bird left on a stool to attract other birds. First used in 1812. In the mid 1800’s it began being used to describe someone who betrays the unwary.

5 Founded in 1847, the Lawrence School was Harvard’s first major effort to provide a formal, advanced education in science and engineering.

6/6B Luke 12:48 and Ecclesiastes 5:4

7 In researching this story, I found that prosecution for child molestation occurred only for the very young in this period, and even then it was iffy. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, reformers fought to raise the age of consent to sixteen. Prosecution for any sort of sexual assault was tenuous in the 1840s unless there was obvious bodily harm. The usual defense was that there was consent, and unless the woman had been beaten, she couldn’t prove that she hadn’t agreed. The children Adam fought to protect would have been in that age group where consent would have been an issue, and thus why the police latched onto Seth securing money for services. In the end it was moot because he was declared insane.

*From my story, It’s Just a Year – He Said What?!

 

12 thoughts on “In Defense of Innocence (By MissJudy)”

  1. First, I want to commend you on taking on such a serious subject. Your writing always draws me in and with this one I was brokenhearted for the child and felt fury against the instigator for his criminal acts and arrogance. You also gave us a good lesson in history in the reactions from the parties involved. How different compared to today, or maybe not so different. Adam went through the ringer on this one but he was never alone. I loved how you even brought Ben into it, and gave us Abel’s gentle wisdom. This is an intense story but well worth the reading. On a lighter note I have to say I was thrilled to see some of the early Adam/Melinda courtship. This time period was always hinted at but to actually read about it was so much fun. More please, Ma’am?

    1. Thank you so much AC1830. You always make me feel so good about my stories, and I appreciate that more than you can ever know. I’m glad the topic was believably covered and created enough mystery and family unity that it was a good read. Thanks again!!!!

  2. Thought I had already reviewed this, and now I see I have not — so sorry! And I got caught by the ‘not a robot’ thing again as well … either that’s fairly new or I’m out of practice reviewing, because I keep missing that and losing my reviews. 😕 Anyhoo …

    What a tricky, delicate situation Adam faces in this story, and what terrible revelations emerge. So glad he had the support of his grandfather and his friends during this time — both he and they really showed their quality when up against a bit of a wall. Also glad this awful thing was put to an end at last, even though Adam had to suffer a bit to get there …

    As always, thanks so much for writing!

    1. I know your struggles with this site. I don’t post often enough to keep up and then get things done wrong. But I think we’re both on track again and thank you for the review. I believe we all go through these times where we have the best intentions and yet things go so very wrong. Most of the other characters in my stories have some basis in people I’ve met along the way in life, and it’s one way of using experiences in a positive way. Thank you again for sticking with the process and for reading the story and leaving a lovely review.

  3. This was a very intriguing story. I really had trouble putting it down. I read most of it in day one (and then had to go to bed) but as soon as my chores were done the next day I was back at it. Characters were defined and in my mind’s eye I could see each scene. A job well done on a very sensitive topic.

    1. Thank you indyanna130. I’m so thankful that you found the story intriguing enough to go back and finish. That was a high compliment. And thank you too for noting how you could see each scene. when I consider the basis for this fanficition writing, I think about how visual the series of Bonanza was. Although much of it was filmed on lot or on stages, you always had the feeling that it “set”. Being in color there was a lot for the eye as well as the plot and characters. I try to be true to that in my stories as well, bringing the reader into the living room to see the family communicating or in this case on the back porch. So I truly appreciated hearing that you felt included in the settings. Thank you so much!

  4. My plan was to read some and then come back later to read more and so on, but I couldn’t. I had to read the whole thing at one sitting, thank you. The tale grabbed me and pulled me in — I had to know what happened next. It is an excellent depiction of a young Adam with those traits we love so carefully developed and portrayed and then you showed how he was guided in his development of those skills he had later that made him so intimidating. This realistic tale told with compassion and tact was compelling. Kudos!

    1. Thank you Betty: first for the lovely review, but also for the help in getting this story into the new Brand format that shows everything on the initial page. I know the Cartwrights were formidable, but when I watch episodes like Death At Dawn or the Ride, I always wonder how Adam could keep his cool when everyone around him was telling him he was wrong. This gave me a chance to explain how it might have come to be.

  5. I really enjoyed this story, and am glad you were able to fix the format (or whatever it’s called). It really hit home with me since I have a young cousin with a developmental disorder. Like Leslie, she’s absolutley beautiful but has few communication abilities and is very vulnerable. Adam’s protective stance fit right in with his character. It was good to see the relationship with Abel and Frank, Sr. I’d say more, but I don’t want to give the story away. I’ll just limit it to good writing and well developed characters.

    1. Thanks so much, pt! I had to get some posting tips from another writer. I guess the format changed a little since I last posted a story. Now I know how to do it. I’m so glad that Leslie’s character played true. I was friends with a girl in grade school. She was such so sweet, and as you mentioned about your cousin, she was so vulnerable. We’d walk home from school together and sometimes played, until about 3rd grade. Then it was as Adam describes it, she sort of froze at that level of understanding and social ability while the rest of us moved on. She was a blessing in my life. Thank you too for the comment about character development. That’s so important to me.

  6. I love your Adam and Melinda stories. Adam’s grandfather is such a warm and insightful fellow. Ben’s dream about Adam and the deep emotion in the simple two words of “ Oh Pa”was so spot on of Adam’s character and his and Ben’s intense and special relationship . Adams character is above reproach. Thoroughly enjoyed this tale!

    1. Thank you Lisa. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story. I had so much trouble posting this that I nearly cried and shouted for joy when I saw your comment. The Abel we saw in the one episode of BZ had such a rough time of it, yet he was going through a change in his life that threw him. I always figured he would have jumped at a chance to know his grandson, even if he had sent Ben away with the encouragement to keep moving forward.

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