Summary: Adam has been in a wheelchair for two years when a woman dressed in ‘men’s clothing’ approaches Ben for a job. Upon Adam’s recommendation, he agrees. Now’s ranchers are having a problem with rustlers; is their new hand a friend or foe?
Rating: T (7,375 words)
At first no one paid attention to the stranger riding into town; that is, not until they took a second look. It was a woman dressed in black boots, dark pants, a white shirt and a tan jacket with fringes up and down the sides of it. Her long dark brown hair hung down to the middle of her back unrestrained; though her head was covered with a black hat. She wore a pistol on her side.
The woman knew people were staring at her as she rode through town; she was used to it-didn’t really care anymore. Give her a good book or put her to work with horses and cattle? She’d be just fine. Only when she saw two gentlemen sitting at a table talking to the various men looking for work did she stop.
The older gentleman sported white hair while the younger one sported little hair and looked big as an ox. It had to be them. If it wasn’t guess she’d just wind up making a fool of herself. She’d done that before.
She couldn’t explain it but it didn’t surprise her. As she dismounted and walked toward the men with the reigns to her horse in her left hand it was as if the waters were parting; the applicants that were ahead of her stepped aside looking at her they needed their eyes checked.
“May I help you, Miss?” Ben Cartwright smiled politely though he was puzzled to as what she wanted from him.
“If you’re Mr. Cartwright you can. I’m looking for work and,” she hurried to finish as they sat straight up, “I can hold my own with the best of them. If you don’t believe me you can always ask your son, Adam.”
Shock waves went from the top of their heads to the bottom of their feet; their eyes widened and it was all they could do to keep their mouths shut. It was Ben who found his voice first.
“And just how do you know my oldest?”
Before she could answer another voice spoke, “Hello, Mariah.”
Ben whirled around. Adam and Little Joe sat in the wagon they’d brought to town. Ben would have asked why Adam wasn’t home looking over the current lumber contracts but he didn’t have the heart to. Adam didn’t make it to town much anymore; not since his accident.
Not knowing anything about his accident; nor of its consequences, Mariah only nodded, “Hello, been a long time.”
“If you’re smart, pa,” Adam spoke to his father but kept his eye on Mariah, “You’ll hire her.”
Ben watched as his sons drove the wagon out of town then turned the woman before him. Was his son crazy? Hire a woman as a ranch hand? That was absurd! Still; he looked from the woman before him then to the wagon that was almost out of sight. Adam had actually said he wanted her hired? ‘I’m crazy’ Ben told himself, “Alright, we do need extra help around the ranch but where am I supposed to house you? I’ll not have you in the bunkhouse with the men.”
She grinned, “It is not me you have to worry about, but” she mounted her horse and grinned, “I’ll sleep out in a tent if I have to. I’ve done that before too.”
Ben and Hoss watched her ride away before turning their attention back to the men still trying for a chance to work on the famous Ponderosa.
Adam sat in his wheelchair behind his father’s old oak desk looking over some lumber contracts. He did his best to concentrate. That was hard though; his mind kept wandering back in time. A time before Laura, Will and the blasted accident that put him in the chair (okay, he might be out of the chair if he hadn’t pushed himself to stand up. What choice had he had though? It was the only way to get Will and Laura married. As it was he hadn’t gotten ten feet in the house when pain shot up his legs and into his back forcing him to the floor. He’d never walked since).
Mariah. Adam sighed as he sat back in his chair. There was a woman a man best watch himself around. She had a wicked left hook and he’d never seen anyone jump, kick and hit with the moves she used. He’d heard Mr. Jacobs talk about the time a couple ranch hands decided to have their way with her—only to find themselves with broken jaws, broken teeth and laying on the ground in major pain.
“Adam?” Ben tapped the desk with his hand, “You in there?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Adam sat straight up and picked up the papers before him, “I got lost in my thoughts.”
“I hired that woman but,” he stood with his hands on his hips, “you have any idea where to put her?”
“In the bunkhouse,” Adam smiled, “If those five men out there think they can handle her? I want to watch-after I put a hundred dollars on her. If you don’t like that-give her a tent. She’s done that before.”
Ben stared at his son. He couldn’t believe his son had just spoken those words, “I’ll not have her in the bunkhouse and there is no way she’s spending her time in a tent. I guess we can give her the guest room for now but,” he paused, “we have to figure something else out. How do you know her anyway?”
Adam grinned, “I met her when I went to Carson City three years ago; she was working on the Jacobs’ ranch. As far as figuring something else out? Fine with me- but you tell her,” he rubbed his chin; as another memory came back to him. He couldn’t help but chuckle, “Even in my condition I’ll face an angry grizzly bear before I tell her what to do; outside of her job that is.”
Ben shook his head and headed back outside.
“Too bad,” Mariah shook her head; Little Joe had just finished explaining to her what had happened to land his older brother in his chair, “I’m just glad he found something to do instead of wallowing in self-pity.” She swung the ax she was holding and split yet another log.
“Why do you do men’s work anyway,” Little Joe did his best not to sound rude, he was fixing Adam’s ramp-one of the boards had started to split.
Mariah smiled, as she finished splitting the last log, “When one’s parents are blessed with seven daughters before they get a son; and you’re the second to oldest guess who gets to go outside and work with one’s father.”
Little Joe smiled, “You do.”
Mariah chuckled, “You’re young but not stupid.”
They both looked towards the front door when it opened. It was Adam.
“Thanks,” Adam smiled as he watched his younger brother drive the last of the nails into the board.
“No problem,” Little Joe stood up, “If you’ll excuse me, I have other commitments to keep.”
“Other commitments,” Adam watched as Little Joe went back into the house then looked at Mariah, “what do you want to bet he’s got his eye on a pretty gal again?”
Mariah drove the ax into the stump she’d been splitting logs on, “That would be a fool’s bet. May I ask you something?” she looked at Adam’s legs then raised her eyes to his face.
Adam shrugged, “Go ahead but I thought I heard Little Joe telling you about this,” he smiled and added-due to the confused looked on her face, “The window was slightly opened.”
“Oh, well,” she pulled the chair Mr. Cartwright had left setting outside over and sat down, “it’s not about how you got into the chair anyway. Your father and Hoss were helping you with some exercises this morning. May I assume there is hope of you walking again?”
Adam sighed, “It’s been two year now; so, I doubt it. We only do those exercises because the doctor insists it’s necessary; something about the circulation in my legs.”
Smiling she stood up, “Well, you take care,” She then headed for the barn, “You all know the places to look for me if I’m needed.”
Adam shook his head and had to chuckle. As a ‘hired hand’ she’d refused the guest bedroom but Pa had not budged when it came to the bunkhouse nor did he like the idea of a tent. The two had finally compromised; the loft had a guest.
Ben stood outside Sheriff Coffee’s office; the lawman and he were discussing the recent problem Mr. Cartwright-and other ranchers-had been having with rustlers.
“Hoss and Little Joe…” Ben never finished his sentence. A shot rang out causing the sheriff and Ben to whirl around. They were shocked to see a man fall off the roof of the building just across the law office. The man’s rifle fell next to dead man. Both men looked to see who had stopped the man from shooting them; or at least one of them. Every one they could see looked as shocked as they were.
Ben and Sheriff Coffee hurried over to where the man lay. The good sheriff rolled him over. “Well, I’ll be…” Ben shook his head in disbelief, “That’s Frank’s boy isn’t it?” Frank was a small time rancher whom everyone knew had a heart of gold; they also knew his boys weren’t exactly the best.
Sheriff Coffee sighed, “I was beginning to suspect Frank’s boys may be involved in something but I didn’t think they’d go so far as to try to kill anyone.”
“Three questions I have,” Ben scratched his cheek, “which one of us was he after and why; also,” he looked around again, “Who did the saving?”
Sheriff Coffee took a hold of the dead man by the shoulders, thinking for a second, “My educated guess is he-and his brothers may be involved in that rustling business and, if that’s the case, then it would be you they’re after,” he looked up at Ben, “how about helping me?” He asked with a sort of ‘I can’t believe you’re just standing there’ expression on his face.
“Oh,” Ben hurried to take hold of the man’s feet, “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Obviously, guess someone just blew out your candle for a moment?” The lawman smiled as he teased him.
Both men chuckled as they got the dead man off the street.
By the time Ben got back to the Ponderosa Little Joe and Hoss were waiting for him.
“Boy, are we glad to see you.” Little’s Joe relaxed his shoulders and relief shown on both their faces.
“And why is that? Did Hoss steal your dessert again?” Ben grinned.
“Hey, I’m innocent…this time.” Hoss grinned. He knew he had that one coming; after all, thanks to him, Little Joe had no dessert the night before.
“Anyway,” Ben looked at his youngest, “why are you glad to see me? What happened?” He felt himself on edge; especially considering the event in town.
“We chased some rustlers off; okay, we tried catching them but failed,” Little Joe stopped and looked at his father, “Did anything happen while you were talking to the sheriff?”
Ben stiffened; how? “In matter of fact, yes, what made you ask?”
Hoss tilted his head a bit, putting his hands on his sides, and answered for his brother, “One of them hollered something about it was too late; something about you being shot.”
So, Sheriff Colby had been right. “We can’t worry about that right now. I need to talk to Adam.” Ben headed for the house.
“He’s not there,” Little Joe stopped him, “and, no I, don’t know where he’s at. He was gone when we got back.”
Ben frowned, “He never said anything about going anywhere. Did you ask Mariah if she knew anything?” Mariah was supposed to be fixing some more of their fences.
“We can’t find her either,” Little Joe smiled, “Maybe the two of them are off together.”
Ben shook his head, “I doubt it. From what I’ve seen-they’re friends but that is it. Keep looking for Adam. Mariah’s probably just farther ahead on her work than you thought.”
Mariah looked up from where she was working when she heard the sound of wagon wheels, “Adam,” she smiled, “What are you doing out here? In fact; how did you get up there in the first place? Little Joe and Hoss aren’t around to help you; are they?”
“I’m not an invalid; I pulled myself up onto the wagon-if it’s any of your business and I was looking for you.” the seriousness in his tone made Mariah lay down the barbwire she’d been getting ready to attach to the fence post.
“This,” he pulled out a telegram from his pocket and handed it to her, “it came two days ago.”
Two days? And he was just now showing it to her? Mariah took the telegram from Adam and read it. Disgust was on her face by the time she was through; and in her voice when she spoke, “I would assume you would check something like this out; which means, unless someone’s messed with records-you’d know I was on the right side of the law when this incident outside Carson City happened.”
Adam nodded, “I did and no, no one’s messed with the records.”
“Then why come out here acting if something is seriously wrong?” she didn’t like it.
“I was wondering why you left right after the mess was over. I mean; like you said-you were on the right side of the law.”
Mariah didn’t know whether or not to be irritated. “With all due respect, Adam,” she picked up the barbwire, “I’ve work to do. Unless you’re here to fire me with just cause; please let me finish.”
Adam watched as she went back to work. The fact that she was hiding something was obvious but what? Guess he couldn’t worry about it now. He too had work at the house to get done, “I’ll see you later.”
Ben was behind his desk looking over the papers his oldest had left out when Adam entered the house. “So, where have you been?” his father put down the few papers he had in his hand.
“Trying to get some answers,” Adam handed him the telegram; along with the one from the sheriff in Carson City, “Mariah’s not one to be messed with. I don’t understand her leaving when she was in the right; nor, do I understand someone trying to get us to fire her. At least,” he shrugged his shoulders, “I am assuming that’s what they were trying to do.”
Ben didn’t understand it either but he wasn’t about to let someone go when they hadn’t done anything wrong. The more he thought on the telegram though the more another idea came to him, he sat straight up, “What if she knows the rustlers? I mean; they’d be the only ones who had any reason to want her off this land.”
Adam sat straight up, “Pa, if they want her off the Ponderosa and this doesn’t work…”
Ben cut his son off as he hurried to the door Adam had left open, “HOSS! LITTLE JOE!” he turned to Adam, “Where did you leave her?”
“Working on the last bit of fence you asked her to fix.”
When Little Joe and Hoss hurried out of the barn Ben stepped out of the house and told them what Adam had said and what he feared. Neither men wasted anytime in getting their horses; nor did they waste any time as they went to check on Mariah.
If anyone had seen Hoss and Little Joe riding towards the south part of their home they’d have thought the two men were racing each other. Both were pushing their horses as fast as they could-in fact they were wishing there was a way to make them go faster still.
When they arrived in the area Adam said Mariah should be she was nowhere in sight. After they’d looked for a good hour they headed home. They were surprised to see Sheriff Coffee talking to Ben and Adam when they came around the barn.
“What’s up?” Hoss asked as he dismounted.
“I was just telling your father that your new hired hand brought in a man wanted dead or alive today-rustling was just one of the charges he was wanted on.”
“She wh…” Little Joe started to speak then he caught on to one word the sheriff had used…was. “He’s dead?”
“She says she had no choice; that he jumped her then-after she fought back-he pulled his gun.” Ben answered him.
“You don’t believe her?” Hoss eyed the sheriff.
He shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t have any reason to doubt her right now,” he started to mount his own horse then turned to Ben, “Oh, Frank’s son? The one that was shot trying to kill you?”
“What about him?”
“Doc says the bullet he was shot with came from a Henry Rifle.”
“There’s a lot of people with that kind of rifle,” Ben didn’t see why the sheriff was bringing that fact up, “is it supposed to mean something to me?”
The sheriff lifted the reigns to his horse up, “I just thought it interesting as Miss Mariah was carrying a Henry Rifle when she came into my office.” He turned his horse around and headed back for town.
Ben’s eyes widened. “He’s saying our newest hand may have saved me?” He was surprised.
“While I don’t hate the idea that Mariah might have saved you, pa,” Adam spoke up; sort of hating the idea of destroying that idea. After all; his father had so many reservations about hiring her in the first place, “She was still working that fence line, remember?”
“The sooner we find out whose behind all the rustling the sooner we can all get back to normal.” Ben headed inside, “When Mariah shows back up tell her I want to see her.”
Mariah stood as Mr. Cartwright talked; she’d refused to sit, “I have no reason to doubt what you told the sheriff; however,” he was leaning against his desk with his arms crossed, “What if there had been more than one man? What if there had been two or three; even more.”
She shrugged her shoulders, “I’d have fought them and won,” she then started grinning, “Or at least gotten a couple of them before they got me?” seeing Mr. Cartwright wasn’t exactly pleased with her ‘humor’ she grew serious, “Look, Mr. Cartwright, have I not been doing my job? Do you have a reason to be dissatisfied?”
He didn’t and Ben knew it. “No, I don’t.”
Mariah headed for the door, “Then, I am taking a small break then I have work to do.”
Adam was sitting on the porch as she headed for the barn. Unbeknownst to Mariah, the sheriff or his father; Adam had been sending out more telegrams and doing a lot more digging. He didn’t know why but he’d felt compelled to.
He was more confused than ever. On one hand he’d found out she’d actually been the one that led the fight to save the Jacob’s neighbor’s ranch-not destroy it as indicated in the one telegram. On the other hand-they (the Jacobs neighbors) didn’t have a problem with rustlers until a couple of months after she’d begun working for them. Mr. Jacobs had also noted, as far as he was concerned; she was an exceptional woman to be trusted with one’s life if needed. On the other hand; Mrs. Jacobs had written separately and said that while, yes, Mariah seemed dependable enough there was also ‘something amiss’ as she (Mrs. Jacobs) could feet it.
The fact that his family and their neighbors hadn’t had any trouble ‘until a few months after she arrived’ made him more nervous; only he couldn’t help but wonder if she had indeed left her work and gone into town the day the assassination attempt had failed.
Feeling his stares Mariah stopped in her tracks and turned around, “If you’re going to stare at a body you might as well speak up.” She was too tired to play games and the round she’d just gone with Mr. Cartwright had not exactly left her open to ‘anything she considered out of line’.
“Do you know anything?” Adam knew he was being extremely blunt only he didn’t feel like they had time to beat around the bush; especially since he’d also learned that morning one of the ranchers had been badly hurt by one of the rustlers. Unfortunely he’d been attacked from behind and could give the sheriff no description.
‘Why do I seem to draw trouble like flowers draw bees?’ knowing how Adam had a way of ‘looking through someone’-when they were lying- she was grateful she could give an honest answer; without really giving the answer he wanted, “That gentleman I brought in was my cousin. He approached me yesterday asking me to join in the rustling thing. He said he could introduce me to ‘the right people’. I dare say he jumped me because I refused to get into it and refused to listen him name names-though, looking back on it, I guess I should have gotten all the names from him. I also dare say-he was afraid I might talk. A lot of good his fear did him, huh?” she turned leaving Adam’s mouth sitting on the ground.
Adam sat on the porch working at the outside table when Ben and Little Joe walked out of the house. So intent were the three on talking about the problem with the rustlers that they didn’t see the masked man on top of their roof. They all jumped ten feet in the air as Mariah came out of the barn and yelled, “BEN!”
Before they had a chance to react Mariah’s bullet introduced itself to the sniper’s chest. Ben and his sons stared as the man fell from the roof and landed on the ground below. They hurried over to where the man lay. Ben reached down and took the bandana that had been wrapped around the man’s face off.
“Why, pa!” Little Joe exclaimed; shocked to see how young the ‘man’ really was, “he can’t be more than seventeen or eighteen!”
“What on earth does a kid that age have against us?” Hoss couldn’t figure it out.
As shocked as they were at the sight they were more shocked as they turned around and looked upon Mariah; she’d ran up to them and was standing next to Hoss. Her face had gone pale and pure pain shown in her eyes. It didn’t take a genius to figure out she knew their attacker.
“I’m going on a short ride,” she finally found her voice, “one of you go ride for the sheriff. Please, have him bring any-and I mean any-wanted posters he has. We need to have a talk.”
None of them spoke a word as she walked away; they couldn’t-they were in too much shock. Who was the boy? How did she know him? Why get the sheriff and what did she want the posters for? There were a hundred other questions; however, they all knew that whatever was going on at least they no longer had to wonder which side she was on.
While the Cartwrights took care of the young gentleman Mariah rode around the Ponderosa. Numb with disbelief and shock; she tried to make sense of things. Finding out that her cousin-all right-technically he was actually her third cousin-was involved in the rustling ring wasn’t so bad; but Jake? How the blazes had he allowed himself to get pulled into something like this and what had happened over the past few years to turn such a good natured, fun loving boy into someone willing to kill another human being?
What troubled her more was the thought that there may be more of her family involved in this thing but why? Sure her father had been a bit on the wild side in his days but he’d never done anything illegal; same thing with all of her uncles’. What was going on with this generation?
‘I should have spoken up sooner,’ she stopped her horse and gazed at the pasture below, ‘I’ve had my suspicions since Carson City. Oh, Jake, why? Why?” She broke down and let the tears fall.
Mr. Cartwright, his boys and the sheriff were all sitting-or standing-in the front room when Mariah walked in. All eyes turned to her as she headed for the kitchen table, “If you don’t mind bring those posters over here.”
Sheriff Coffee did not argue as he too headed for the table; Ben and his boys followed.
They watched as Mariah took the posters and began making two piles out of the posters; one in front of where the sheriff was sitting and one in front of her; the fact she sighed and shook her head as she’d put one down in front of her only served to raise their curiosity. When she was done she sat back in her chair and closed her eyes.
“Mariah?” Ben spoke after her eyes had been closed for a good five minutes.
Her shoulders slumped a bit and she opened her eyes; they were all shocked by the fresh tears that began streaming down her face, “That kid,” she looked at Little Joe, “would have been eighteen next week…the son of his father’s old age.”
Little Joe stiffed and sat straight up, “You’re not saying he’s your brother!”
Everyone gasped in horror as Mariah slowly nodded her head, “That’s him. I knew he was a bit wild but,” she looked at Mr. Cartwright, “I didn’t know he’d gone that wild,” She went on to go into the reputation the men in her family had held for years, “None of them ever broke the law though. Still, I got tired of trying to live a good decent life around folks that were only serving to try to drag me down; even if they were family. However; I didn’t think any of them had gone this bad…well, not until after the incident in Carson. I began wondering then-I saw a few of my second cousins, and one of my first cousin’s, in the group of men that got away only,” she paused, “I told myself they were just a few real bad apples, I guess I didn’t want to admit that, maybe,” she held up the papers in front of her, “there were a whole lot more. When I gave you the name of Mariah T. Philips-I never said that Philips was my father’s name. The fact that I’m a widow was something I didn’t see the need to tell-though I did think about it a couple of times; now,” she looked around the table, “I wonder if it was a blessing I didn’t. I can’t help but wonder too if, for whatever insane reason they have; they’ve actually been following me. Maybe, like that cousin of mine, hoping to get me to join them.”
Adam spoke up, “That or to find out where the good cattle are. You have to admit, you’re picky about the ranches you work on.”
That made her blood boil; not Adam but the thought that her own kin would be using her that way. “Maybe,” she did not try to hide her anger, or her disgust, “They are going to rue the day if that is the case!” The men couldn’t help but smile; Adam had been right from the start-it would be better to wrestle something like a bear than to mess with her.
“Do you have any idea where they’re at?” Ben finally spoke; feeling bad for the woman before him. It had to be hell to find yourself fighting against one’s own kin; then again, the way things were going he was afraid too many men would soon find themselves in the same boat.
“Not for sure but,” she shrugged, “when I found myself having to go into town a few weeks ago I thought I saw Daniel,” she picked up one of the wanted posters that lay in front of her, “slip out the back of the livery stable.”
“You had to go into town since you’ve been here?” Ben leaned forward; as far as he knew one of his sons; or one of the other hands, had always been sent to town. Maybe…
“I’ve been in town a time or two but,” she slid the posters back to the sheriff and asked, “Why should that matter? We have to get them once or for all. No rancher alive will be safe while they’re walking around and I’ll never get another moment’s peace!”
Once again silence fell as the group tried to think. Slowly a wolf like smile spread across Adam’s face, “I have an idea if Mariah is willing; only,” Adam rubbed his chin, “if you put your hand into motion? At least do your best to aim it the other way?”
“You’ll have to tell me your idea before I can say whether or not I’ll go along with it.” Mariah leaned back and grinned, “And as far as the hitting bit goes; just don’t get in my way, get behind me without warning me or do anything else stupid.”
Mariah strapped on her pistol then headed for her horse. She was surprised to see Mr. Cartwright standing on the porch. “Thought you were going to talk the sheriff?”
“I am; I was hoping you’d let someone take your place. I mean, we have plenty of hands that are willing to take a few head of cattle through that canyon.”
“Any that would make the heads of Daniel, Lee, Mason or any of my other relatives sit up and take notice? Someone who has a chance to get ‘in’ and do what needs to be done right away?”
“No,” Ben put his hands in his pockets, concern was written all over his face, “I just wish there was another way.”
“Why? Because I’m a woman?” she couldn’t help but smile. She’d come to realize just how much Mr. Cartwright respected women and really cared about ‘treating them right’. She had to give him that much.
“Partly,” he admitted, “partly because you are the best ranch hand I’ve hand around here in a long time.”
She started to mount her horse then turned around; putting her right hand on his left shoulder; keeping her eyes locked on his she smiled, “I dare say you’re the best boss a body could have. No matter what happens; thanks for giving me a chance. I had about given up hope of finding something.”
Ben watched as she mounted her horse and rode away.
“She’ll be fine, pa,” Adam startled his father as he wheeled up behind him, “I told you, she can hold her own. She’ll come through this just fine…just wait and see.”
“I know that.” Ben started for his horse.
Adam wasn’t blind; he had seen in his father’s eyes what the man himself had been denying for weeks, “You know, pa,” he spoke up as Ben mounted his horse, “It’s okay to admit you like her.”
Too taken aback by his son’s comment Ben was unable to say anything. He turned his horse and hurried off to meet Sheriff Coffee and Hoss.
By the time Mariah got the four cattle to the bottom of the canyon the sun was throwing its heat down full force; sweat poured down her back and down her face. Pulling her canteen out she took a drink. Sure hope Adam was right; this had to work.
As she rode along her mind wandered back to Ben Cartwright. ‘Why did I have to look; I mean really into your eyes? When she saw a shadow of a man not twenty feet away she forced her thoughts back onto business. She could not afford to let her emotions get the best of her now.
“Well, hello, Mason,” she stopped her horse and leaned forward, “thought you were heading to California?”
The man rubbed his thin wiry mustache, “I am as soon as I finish up here. I didn’t know you were into rustling; thought you were one of the straight ones.” His eyes were on the Cartwright brand on the cow nearest him.
“I got tired of fighting my own family. Figured I’d take a few cattle and see if I would have any luck in finding them.” She felt sick to her stomach as she said the words; still, she pulled it off with a believable grin.
“It’s about time you saw the light, cuz!” chills went down her back as she heard Lee’s voice; the man stepped out from behind a huge boulder off to her right. Didn’t matter the man was known to be quite handsome and had a way with the ladies-he was still pure evil. He’d been that way since the day she’d met him, “I’ll go tell the gang we have another member. You help her with the cattle.” The man disappeared behind the boulder; soon Mariah heard the sound of a horse galloping away.
Mason said nothing as he too went and retrieved his horse then rejoined Mariah. Together they worked to get the cows through the canyon and to the other side. When they got to the other side Mariah; feeling sick to her stomach again, stopped her horse, “I have to rest. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
Mason eyed her; she did look a bit pale, “We can rest here for a spell I suppose.”
Mariah sat on a small boulder near the edge of a cliff. She had to get a hold of herself. The last thing she needed was to fall apart and endanger what the Cartwrights, and everyone else, was trying to accomplish. Out of the blue Mason looked at her, “I sent Michael to come and find you after we heard you were working for Mr. Cartwright. Did he ever find you?”
Out of all her many talents Mariah found herself grateful she knew how to keep what her father called ‘a blank face’ in any situation. “Yes, he did. I told him to give me a while to think about it. He never came back though; so, like I said-I decided to take a chance on my own.”
Mason knew Michael well. He didn’t like this. He had his doubts about Mariah too. He stood up and walked over to her, “He wouldn’t have just disappeared and there’s been no…” he stopped talking and Mariah stood straight up. The shaking sound was coming from a clump of grass near the side of the mountain. A rattler!
“Look,” Mariah kept her voice low, “if you insist on talking about Michael and the fact that I haven’t seen him since the day he approached me,” that part was the truth, “I think we best do it elsewhere.”
“I ain’t scared of no rattler!” Mason drew his gun and hurried over to the bush. He moved too fast though; before he knew it the rattler had bitten him.
“Mason!” Lee, who’d come back with some of ‘the gang’ jumped off his horse. Mariah couldn’t believe it when Mason stepped backwards instead of going towards Lee. That was the biggest mistake he made; his foot hit a loose rock throwing him off balance and sending him down the side of the cliff. She didn’t know whether to be sorry for the man or not; though she was grateful for what she saw as divine intervention.
Mariah shot the rattler then ran to the edge of the cliff. Lee ran up beside her. They could see Mason lying dead at the bottom of the ravine. “That idiot! What did he think he was doing?”
Mariah shook her head, “I don’t know but I’m not going down there after him and I thought you went to tell your men you had a new member.”
Lee grinned, “I met one of them on the road and figured I’d come back. As far as going to get Mason now? I’m not going down either. Let’s get you back to camp. We need to talk over our plans.”
“If they find out you’re with us you’re dead before you can blink an eye!” Ben was standing by the fireplace as Mariah hurried to explain where the men were camped and what they planned to do; along with the fact she’d agreed to lead any ranchers looking for them to an ambush.
She rolled her eyes, “Don’t you think it’s a tad bit too late to worry about that one? Look if I take a couple of men and head towards the ambush; the Sheriff and others can get above them. We just might have a chance of busting this wide open. I’ll tell you up front though; it’s Lee we need to get in the worst way; him and Daniel. Those two are the glue to that outfit. If you’d been in that camp with me you would have seen that within seconds of being there.”
Finally Ben admitted to himself the real reason he’d been fighting her getting involved; he did like her. Okay, he didn’t know whether nor not they had a chance to be anything more than friends only he hated the idea of never being able to find out for sure. “I’ll send Little Joe into town to get Sheriff Coffee and some men then I’ll get a few men and go with you.”
Now it was Mariah’s turn to panic. “Mr. Cartwright; go with the sheriff and Hoss. I, and whoever you get to come with me, can distract them.”
Slowly a smile spread across his face, “It will be more believable if they think I’ve been fooled. I go with you.”
“Anyone ever tell you you’re stubborn?” Mariah put her hands on her waist.
Ben let out a roar of laughter and took a hold of her shoulders, “ME? Stubborn? What about YOU? “Then, facing a very real possibility of losing any chance he had with her to the rustlers, Ben made a last minute decision- he drew her to him and started kissing her.
Mariah was shocked; she hadn’t thought he cared about her like that! Slowly relaxing she slid her arms up his back and returned his kisses.
“That’s interesting way to go about catching rustlers.” Adam made them both jump as he came out of the kitchen grinning from ear to ear.
Embarrassed at being “caught” Ben headed for the door, “Let’s go get those men!”
Mariah followed only she couldn’t help but chuckle; Adam and that grin of his!
Ben and Mariah rode with Hal Coffee (the sheriff’s cousin-he’d recently bought a nearby ranch), Mark Jewels and his brother, Frederick. All kept a look out for anything out of the ordinary; especially any metal reflecting the sunlight.
Daniel had his three men hidden on the right side of the canyon she was leading them through and Lee had his two men were on the left. “By golly,” Lee grinned as he looked at ‘Big Mac’, “she actually got the big Ben Cartwright to come! She’s better than I thought!”
“You had doubts about her?” Big Mac didn’t like that.
“Not doubts my friend,” Lee was too proud to admit that fact so he just lied, “just didn’t think she’d get that man to come with her is all.”
As they drew closer to where the men were hidden Mariah whispered, “I sure hope the others are where they’re supposed to be.”
“Does Lee or Daniel have any more men than what they have with them here?” Ben knew he should have asked that one sooner; he hadn’t been thinking.
“Yes but,” she shook her head, “the four he’s leaving behind? They’re leaving if Lee loses. I overheard them tell each other that it wasn’t worth taking anymore risks unless Lee and Daniel win this round. Bad thing is,” she sighed, “all but one man with them is related to me.”\
Ben felt his heart go out to her, “I am sorry, really.”
She gave him a half smile, “Nothing you can do about it.”
Sure enough as they drew a bit closer a shot rang out. Frederick took the bullet in his arm and jumped off and hurried behind a rock as all hell broke loose.
When the two men with Lee both fell by bullets from Little Joe’s and the sheriff’s rifles Lee swore and yelled, “MARIAH, YOU BASTARD! YOU NO GOOD BITCH! YOU SET US UP!” He started firing at Mariah and Ben only to find a bullet from Hoss’s rifle saying hello to his back.
Little Joe and the others made their way down the side of the mountain dodging bullets from Daniel and his men.
When Hoss dropped to the ground Ben’s heart about stopped; he was relieved to see his son sit up and pull himself behind a rock; he’d only taken a bullet in his leg.
Mitch-one of Daniel’s men stood up to take a shot at the sheriff only to find a bullet having a conversation with his liver.
“Put that gun down, Mister.” Little Joe stepped out from behind a rock and put his gun into Daniel’s back. Acting as if he was going to do just that Daniel swung around only to find a bullet from one of the other men entering his chest.
“I can’t believe she’d go against her…” Daniel never finished his sentence as he dropped to his knees then fell onto his stomach.
The last of Daniel’s men threw down his gun knowing he was beat. Sheriff Coffee hurried to handcuff him and led him away.
“We did it!” Ben slapped Mark on the back and put his pistol back into place; the triumphant he felt could be heard in his voice. That triumphant evaporated when he turned around and saw Mariah laying face down on the ground. He hurried to her side and turned her over. Thank heavens she was still breathing!
He hurried to stop her from losing anymore blood, “You hang on,” he fought to keep the fear out of his voice, “We’ll get you back to the Ponderosa and get this taken care of.” None of the men fought him when he insisted on being the one to carry her on his horse.
Adam sat in his chair; Hoss and Little Joe stood off to his side as Ben and Mariah talked.
“When will you be back?” Ben took a hold of her left hand; her right one was in sling.
“As soon as that man’s trial is over,” Mariah smiled, “A thousand mules couldn’t keep me away; especially with this,” she lifted her left hand slightly; keeping a hold of his hand, “on my hand.”
Ben beamed. Her left hand now sported the ring he’d given her just that morning. Letting go of her hand he put his hand on her shoulder, “You know you wouldn’t make such an easy target if you’d start wearing dresses.”
“You would want me to change?” She lifted her one eyebrow as she feigned shock.
“No,” Ben smiled and shook his head “Guess not. I have to ask though…was it you who saved my life in town?”
Mariah smiled, “Yes, I am glad I saw him before it was too late.”
Ben grinned, “So I am. Now get going and then hurry back. The next month will seem like an eternity.”
Adam, Hoss and Little Joe went back inside when Mariah rode away leaving their father to watch her disappear.
Other Stories by this Author
- Close Call (by Tauna Petit-Strawn)
- Acceptance (by Tauna Petit-Strawn)
- Cassie (by Tauna Petit-Strawn)
- Troubled Waters (by Tauna Petit-Strawn)
- Something Worth Fighting For (by Tauna Petit-Strawn)