Charity Series #1 – Fractured (by BettyHT)

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Summary:  WHB to the Bitter Water episode. This is the backstory that explains how Adam ended his relationship with Virginia Keith,  why there was tension in his friendship with Todd McCarren, and why Lem Keith disliked Adam so much.  Charity is introduced in this story and will be part of a series of stories featuring her as the main OC.

rating = T   WC = 18586

Charity Series:

Fractured
Wounded Hearts
Trust Me
Let’s Do It!
Dreams and Challenges
Sticks and Stones

Charity Series #1 — Fractured

Chapter 1

All the warning signs were there. Moody and making snide remarks, Adam also volunteered for every job that he could do alone so he wouldn’t have to be with anyone and endure conversations. Whenever he was troubled, he had a tendency to get more cynical in his remarks and less likely to find humor in anything so that teasing carried a meanness about it that left a sour taste. Little Joe did his best to avoid his oldest brother when he was in these moods knowing that the two of them could come to blows if he pushed the situation too far. Ben was grateful that Little Joe was suffering from a failed romance at the same time. Of course Little Joe suffered from a failed romance about every month or two. But it was convenient at this time otherwise he would be in a similar state and itching for a fight. Then it often took the combined efforts of both him and Hoss to keep the oldest and youngest from getting into a dispute that would end with Little Joe throwing a punch and Adam saying things he would later regret. As it was, Ben had sent Hoss and Little Joe to work together and asked Adam to work at the forge thinking that the physical labor there might help him burn off some of the anger brewing inside of him. From the epithets he could hear though, it wasn’t working. Finally at midmorning, he walked out with two large glasses of lemonade to try to break through the wall and get his tightly wound son to let loose some of what had turned him so tight.

“The iron can’t talk back, the tools can’t defy you, and the fire can only burn as hot as you make it, so the complaints I’ve been hearing must be directed at someone or something I can’t see. Care to elaborate or would you rather keep spitting and sputtering to keep us all at a distance?”

The bunched brows and the pursed lips communicated as well as the shoulders that raised up an inch or so. “It’s nothing you can help me with.”

“Did you have a fight with Virginia on Sunday? It seems that you’ve been in this foul mood ever since you got home on Sunday.”

“Virginia and I did not have a fight. We never fight. We never argue. She never complains. She never even raises her voice in anger to me no matter what I say.”

As Adam dropped his head then Ben realized that his son had said more than he intended to say or perhaps he wanted to talk and didn’t know how to initiate that kind of discussion. It was a delicate kind of discussion to have so Ben took a moment before saying anything.

“I take it that you may have purposely tried to provoke her and nothing resulted?”

“Pa, it’s as if she doesn’t care. She never gets angry with me. She never shows much of any kind of emotion with me. I could tell her today that I can’t take her to the dance tomorrow, and she’d probably say that she understood and she knows how busy I am.”

“Doesn’t that mean that she’s understanding and willing to give you the time you need to do the things you have to do?”

“Or does it mean she doesn’t care if I’m there or not?”

And there it was: the insecurity or fear that was underlying his thoughts probably for quite a while. It still didn’t explain why he had been in such a foul mood since coming home on Sunday evening though.

“Did something change on Sunday?”

“No, she was her usual very pleasant and undemanding self. Things were as calm and peaceful as they always are when we’re together. Nothing happened between us.”

“She hasn’t been hinting that perhaps you ought to be asking her to marry? After all, you’ve been courting her nearly three years. Most men would have married and had a child with a woman after that length of time.”

“Are you going to start too?”

“Too? So she was pressuring you? It is understandable, Adam. Virginia is of an age when most women are married. As long as you are courting her, no other man is going to approach her. If you aren’t planning to marry her, then she has a right to know that.”

“She’s not pressuring me.” That was said vehemently. Then more softly Adam continued. “Virginia never even drops any hints about marriage. It’s as if she’s content with our relationship the way it is. She doesn’t seem at all concerned about moving it along. It’s probably why it’s been nearly three years and all we do is go to dances and church together and not much more except for Sunday dinner. She likes having me on her arm for any social occasion. I don’t think she likes the idea of me being there permanently.”

“For some reason, is that what has you upset now?”

“No, it’s Lem.”

Frowning, Ben got a look that one would normally have while eating a sour lemon. He didn’t like Lem and never had. There was something about the man that made you want to wash your hands after greeting him. It was never anything overt, but there was still a sinister aspect to him. Once at a party at the Ponderosa, Hop Sing had said the house needed to be sanitized of evil spirits after Lem had been there. Ben was almost afraid to ask why Adam was upset with Lem. “What’s Lem done?”

“He’s the one dropping hints, and on Sunday confronted me as I was leaving and told me it was time for me to propose to Virginia. He said I had compromised her in the community because after this length of time, people would have assumed that we have been, as he put it, ‘friendly beneath the cloth’ and probably for a long time now. Pa, that’s not true.”

“Adam, he insulted you and he insulted his own daughter by saying that. I’m glad you didn’t challenge him on that, but I do think he has a point.” Ben could see Adam bristling at his comment and hurried to explain his statement. “You do need to decide what want to do about Virginia. It isn’t fair to either of you to continue the way you have been going. She may be happy now to have you on her arm for social occasions, but will she be happy a year or two from now with only that? You’re already dissatisfied with the relationship. I can tell that from your comments. Don’t you think you need to move forward with it or end it. Although I would have loved to see Virginia as part of this family, I would never pressure you to marry.”

Despite the serious nature of the conversation, Adam had a small smile at his father’s last statement, and even Ben had to acknowledge that perhaps he did push a bit on that.

“All right, I admit that I do wish that you would marry. I would like to have grandchildren. I built this ranch for my sons, but I would like to see them pass it on to their sons. The next step of course is for at least one of them to have a son.”

In an unusual moment of candor, Adam responded to that in a way Ben had never heard before that day. “I would like that very much too, Pa. I dream of a wife by my side with our child. I want it as much or more than any other dream that I have, but I need a woman who has passion, a woman with fire in her, but a woman too who has compassion, intelligence, and a sense of adventure. I want a woman who can share my dreams and walk by my side not wait at home for me to come to her where she sits in comfort and safety calmly anticipating my arrival.”

“And except for compassion and intelligence, none of that fits Virginia. None of that fits any woman that you have been with so far. I can see then why you aren’t married. Adam, are you sure you can find such a woman? That’s a standard that very few women could meet.”

“Pa, you met and married three women who could have met those standards.”

After a short pause as Ben considered each wife according to what Adam had said, he nodded and smiled. He remembered his wives and how they made his days so much more fulfilling and his nights so satisfying. “Yes, I guess they did. They were all very different, but they would have met those standards. Yes, there are women out there who have the character you desire. You know what that means for you, don’t you?”

“Yes, I guess I do. I’m taking Virginia to the dance tomorrow. We should talk and I need to tell her it’s probably the last dance we’ll be attending together or at least the last one as a couple unless something changes. I doubt that she’ll be surprised.”

“She’s an intelligent woman. I think she’ll know that this is best. I hope that you and she can remain friends if you are no longer a couple.” Ben decided to change the subject a bit. “Joe’s rather interested in her younger sister, Charity, but she hasn’t shown any interest in returning his interest.”

“He’s lucky. She’s got quite a mouth on her. Every time I’m there, she has some kind of verbal jab if not a physical jab for me.”

Ben frowned a bit at that. “She’s always seemed to have a bit of a crush on you. Are you sure that isn’t what it is?”

“Pa, she’s not a little girl any more. She must have grown out of that childish behavior by now. She’s an adult now and a fairly ill mannered one at that. Her father has indulged her so much since their mother died. She was so young that I think he thought he had to give her everything she wanted to make up for not having a mother in the house although Virginia was old enough to mother her a bit.”

“But it wouldn’t be the same.”

“No, it wouldn’t, but it’s no reason to spoil a child.” Adam stopped there because he was dangerously close to a discussion that he and his father had many times before about how Little Joe had been raised and their disagreements over how that had been handled. Instead, he steered the conversation back to the dance. “Todd still doesn’t have a wife either. He gets about the same commentary from Andy as I do from you. Sometimes I think he and Virginia would have made a better match than Virginia and I do.”

“Yes, when she came back from school and traveling in Europe, Lem didn’t invite Todd to any of those parties. You were the featured young bachelor. It was no secret that Lem was pushing the two of you together. It seemed a good match at the time. I didn’t know how you felt or how she felt. It seems that the two of you may have been destined to be friends and no more.”

“She and I will talk. We’ll decide if this is it or if we want to give it any more time, but we need to either move forward or end it. That much is clear. I’m not happy with holding it as it is even if she is, and I know her father doesn’t like it.”

That evening, Hoss and Little Joe were as skittish around Adam as they had been for days until they realized he wasn’t as ornery as they expected. They were able to relax and enjoy the evening. Neither knew why his mood had abruptly improved, but both were certainly glad that it did. The next evening, all three got ready for the dance and rode to town together laughing and talking like they had done many times. Adam went to Virginia’s home to walk her to the dance as Hoss and Little Joe moved directly to the dance hall. Both brothers had danced a number of times before Adam and Virginia arrived. Adam and Virginia danced a few dances before joining his brothers at the refreshment table where Charity stood with Hoss, Little Joe, and Todd McCarren. Todd took the opportunity to ask Virginia for a dance so Charity immediately asked Adam for a dance surprising him and everyone else. He could hardly refuse without seeming churlish so he did dance with her. She spent the time smiling and pressing herself against Adam as much as she could within the bounds of propriety. He noticed of course and did his best to keep her from getting too close although he was sure everyone else noticed. She was an attractive and shapely young woman so he didn’t mind too much. She also spoke to him asking about his work and his plans. He found the dance seemed to end quickly and was surprised that he had enjoyed it very much.

“You dance very well for an old man.”

“I’m not an old man.”

“You always tell me how much older you are than me. I’m a young woman, so what does that make you?”

“A man, Charity, I’m just a man.”

“Not just a man, Adam. I have enjoyed the dance with you. Thank you.”

“I enjoyed dancing with you as well.” He didn’t want to say that it surprised him but he did smile at Charity and took her hand to lead her back to the refreshment table. Then he saw Virginia and realized that perhaps that may have been a big mistake.

“Adam, I’d like to take a walk outside. We can talk where it’s cooler.” Virginia was surprised at how jealous she felt. She had thought that perhaps she and Adam should call off their relationship but wasn’t so sure any more. She told him that as soon as they were far enough from the hall not to be overheard.

“Do you think that being jealous is a good reason for a relationship? Virginia, there has to be more, and we don’t seem to have more.”

“Are you telling me that it’s over? Are you saying that you don’t want to see me any more?”

“Yes, I wanted to talk with you about that. Frankly, you don’t seem that interested in me other than to take you to social events and escort you to church on Sundays. You seem to have no interest in me otherwise. Virginia, I don’t see a future for us other than as friends. Do you?”

“I want to see us with a future.”

“I wanted that too.”

“Adam, will you walk me home now?”

So Adam’s courtship of Virginia Keith ended much as it began. He walked her home and she took his hand between hers to bid him goodnight before proceeding up the walk to her home. There was no kiss, no hug, and no warmth. He knew now that he should have recognized it that first night. She held nothing for him other than the affection one holds for a friend. That was all that he would ever be. The jealousy at the dance was far more over her sister than it was over him. He turned to go retrieve Sport and wait for his brothers so he could ride home. He hoped they wouldn’t tease him too much over what had happened. It was painful enough to confront without them rubbing it in with their commentary. When they finally met him for the ride home, they were remarkably understanding and quiet letting him ride home in peace. He guessed that their father had talked with them. Although it was somewhat of a violation of his privacy for his father to have breached his confidentiality like that, it was also a great benefit so he appreciated the silence.

Chapter 2

When the brothers got home and went into the house, Ben was awake. He heard them all go into their bedrooms. He wished that someone would knock on his door. He had a lamp burning so they all knew he was awake. It took a short time and there was a knock. Hoss pushed the door open.

“I guess it pretty much happened the way you thought. He’s not doing too bad. Quiet, but otherwise all right.”

“Thank you, Hoss.”

“Good night, Pa.”

In the morning, Adam was still quiet and looked tired. He probably had not slept well. Ben didn’t want to assign him the job he needed to assign him, but it was his turn. “Adam, we’ve still got a problem with rustlers. I need you to head on up to the high pastures to do herd counts. You can take a couple of men with you. I don’t want you up there alone. The area where we’re losing the most cattle is where our ranch borders the McCarren ranch. I’ve talked to Andy, and he wants to work with us on this. Todd is going to be up there on their land counting and watching as well.”

“And if the count is off?”

“Then we know that they’re actively working that area again, and you send a man for reinforcements and we set out after them. We’ll go out in force once we know where to look. Some of the other ranchers are setting out men to watch too. If we get word that they’re somewhere else, we’ll head there to do the same thing. We want to hit them with so much force that we end this once and for all.”

“What if they know that, and they set up a fake activity to trigger the raid but actually move in to steal cattle in another spot that will be severely undermanned because you’ve drawn off so many men?”

“To do that, they would have to know our plan, and the only way to know it would be for the rustlers to have a member in the Cattlemen’s Association. That’s not possible so your worry is groundless.”

“I wish I was as sure of that as you are.”

“Adam, we’ve talked about this before. I don’t like your insinuation that one of the members is working with rustlers. These are all friends of ours and most we’ve known for years.”

“All the worse to think that one of them could be doing this.”

“Enough. You have no evidence to back your suspicions. Now please do as I say. It’s the plan we’re using, and you need to do your part. Hoss and Little Joe have already taken their turns. I’ve waited to assign you because of your attitude, but it’s not fair to expect them to do it again when you haven’t done your part yet.”

“I’ll go. I was only stating my concern.”

Once Adam had packed up what he needed and left, Hoss asked his father why Adam suspected that one of their neighbors might be part of the rustling.

“It’s because of the pattern that it follows or seems to follow that makes him suspicious. They never hit the same ranch twice in a row. They seem remarkably well organized. When one of the ranches set out watchers, that ranch wasn’t hit until they thought they were safe and pulled their men in. It’s as if they know what’s going on. I think they have very good scouting. Adam thinks they have an inside man.”

“Pa, ain’t it possible that Adam’s right?”

“No, Hoss, I don’t want to believe it is. Which one of our friends and neighbors would you like to accuse? No, they have to be watching us very carefully. They must have a lot of men to work this system.”

While Hoss still looked worried, Little Joe endorsed his father’s point of view. “So we’re going to hit them with a lot of men. It sounds like a good plan to me, Pa.”

“All right, let’s head to church. Maybe we can learn something from the other ranchers this morning. It would be good to get some good news about this.”

“Pa, we haven’t lost any cattle in two weeks. It probably means we’re due to get hit again. Do you think maybe I should head up to help out Adam?”

“No, the more we have watching, the less likely they’ll try something. We’ll be ready though to head up there to help as soon as he sends a man.” Ben paused to think for a moment about what Hoss had said and about being further away by going to church. “Perhaps you could stay home from church services just in case. Tell the men to keep their horses saddled and their gear ready too. They have the day off unless we need them. Tell them that I’ll pay extra for them doing that.”

“Thanks, Pa. I feel better about things already.”

Hoss’ worry was premature for nothing happened on that Sunday, and nothing happened on Monday or Tuesday either. Ben was beginning to think that their plan was never going to work, when word arrived with a speedy rider that the rustlers had hit the Marquette ranch and that Ross and his father had gotten their men ready to ride and were waiting for the others to join them. The rider told them where the others were headed and then rode off to notify the next ranch. Ben, Hoss, and Joe mounted up to lead their men to the designated spot. They were jubilant because they thought the plan had worked and the rustlers’ threat would be neutralized by that evening. Up in the higher pastures, Adam and Todd had seen what they thought were the indication of a large number of horses. Old friends, they had decided to work together soon after they had both arrived so they told the men that they were going to follow those tracks to see where they led. Unfortunately the rustlers were watching them and didn’t like them following. They set up an ambush in a valley in which they had taken cattle, run brands, and then moved the cattle to market under their new brand to buyers who weren’t too concerned with brands that some might question. Because of that, the tracks moved off in many directions at that point. Adam dismounted to look at the tracks more closely and Todd followed a set of tracks up toward the tree line. When he did, shots rang out because the rustlers didn’t want him to get to cover. First turning to flee, Todd wheeled his horse around when he heard Adam cry out in pain. He raced back to him and grabbed his rifle and canteen before dropping down to help Adam stumble to the limited coverage of a boulder.

“How bad is it?”

“Not too bad, but my leg was numb at first. It must have hit the bone and then ricocheted off. At least I don’t think it’s broken, but the damn thing hurts like hell now that the numbness is starting to wear off already.”

“Here, wrap my bandana around yours and try to stop the bleeding. Hopefully some of the men will hear the shooting and ride hard to help us. Otherwise, we’re soon going to have a few more of those holes to wrap.”

“You should have ridden out of here. Now they’ve got both of us.”

“Virginia would never have forgiven me if I let them kill you.”

“I don’t think Virginia would mind much right now.”

“Oh, you two have a fight?”

“It’s over. We called it off on Friday night.”

“You called it off after almost three years? Are you a lunatic? She’s a great gal. You aren’t going to find another one like her.”

“Maybe not, but it wasn’t working out for either of us. Now let’s see about keeping us alive until we can get rescued. How about letting me use the rifle?”

“I grabbed it for you. You always were a lot better shot with that than I am. I don’t mind shooting at deer or antelope with it. They don’t shoot back.”

“Let me get set and then keep them busy. I want to see where they are so I can line up a shot on one of them. If I can take one of them down, they may not be so anxious to get any closer.”

“I don’t have much ammunition.”

“My pistol is loaded and I have more in my coat pocket. Our only hope really is to have the men come to help us anyway so use what you have to make them think we’ve got all the ammunition we need. Otherwise they’ll ride us down.”

“Yeah, we wouldn’t stand a chance if they come at us from more than one direction.” As Adam worked his way into a firing position, Todd prepared to fire. “Ready?”

At Adam’s nod, Todd fired off a few shots and got several in response giving Adam the location of several of their assailants. He aimed carefully and fired. They heard a yell and both men smiled. He had hit one of them. The men up there would be more careful now. They did the same maneuver three more times, and had one more success.

“I’ve got three shells left.” Todd looked morosely down at Adam’s pistol in his hand. They couldn’t do much more.

“I’ve got two shots left. I was rather hoping that the men would have heard the shooting by now and come to check it out. We can’t make a run for it. Even if I didn’t have this bad leg, that’s a hundred yards of open ground to the next cover. It’s too far to try it.”

Miles away, the hands were riding hard to return to help the two men. They had been summoned away to help where the rustlers had made the ranchers believe they were going to be pulling off their next raid. As they rode down the mountain, they heard some shots and thought that Todd and Adam had shot at some game. However when there were more shots, the Ponderosa hands pulled up.

“I know you men joked about Todd not being much of a hunter, but Adam ain’t never needed that many shots ever in his life. They’re in trouble, and we’re heading back.”

Riding as hard as they could, they had many more miles to cover and most was uphill. They heard shots periodically as they rode and then ominously heard no more.

“Where are they?”

“We have to keep going in the same direction. They have to be further up ahead.”

About that time, there was a lot of activity in the tree line above Todd and Adam who knew their time was almost up. They readied themselves as well as they could, but with no help coming, the rustlers felt confident. Todd and Adam hadn’t fired any shots in quite some time because they only had a few shots left. They were keeping those for the charge they expected the rustlers to make. Their only hope was to kill or wound enough of them to make the others stop. If they failed, they knew they would die. As usual, Adam met the inevitable with his typical response.

“Don’t fire until you can see the whites of their eyes. I know you can’t hit anything until they’re that close anyway. If I miss with the shots I have, just make sure that you get at least one of them. I’d hate like hell to let them all walk away from here.”

“That’s all you’ve got to say. No noble last words?”

“Well, I do wish I could see my father’s face one last time especially so I could say I told him so. They must have drawn our men off somewhere else while they were here planning to steal cattle until we blundered right into the middle of their operation.”

“How do you think they’ll do it?”

“Probably have one or two men start firing to pin us down while the others ride hard at us from two directions.”

As if to underscore that Adam was correct in that evaluation, shots began to hit the boulder that was their only protection causing both of them to crouch down further behind it. Adam held the rifle at the ready though. As soon as he heard horses, he planned to move into position to fire regardless of the hail of bullets flying their way. The men up there had proven not to be too accurate. It must have been a lucky shot that hit him. He had jokingly told Todd earlier that the man had probably been aiming at his chest. Todd had shaken his head as he usually did when Adam made remarks like that. They heard horses and Adam was going to aim and fire except the horses were behind them. Todd grabbed Adam’s arm and yelled. Adam grimaced in pain at being pulled to the side so roughly but then had to smile. The McCarren and Ponderosa hands were riding hard into the valley with guns at the ready. The rustlers had turned to retreat. Soon there was a gun battle, but Adam fired off a shot and called to the men to pull back.

“You’re too evenly matched. I don’t want any of you men shot and killed. Now that they’re on the run, that’s good enough for now. Thank you.”

The men brought Sport and Todd’s horse up then. Once they bandaged Adam’s leg more tightly, they helped him on his horse and slowly made the ride back to the camp they had made that morning. They got Adam settled comfortably on his bedroll before one of the men opened the bandage to take a look at his wound.

“It’s a through-and-through. Looks like it nicked the bone but it’s not broken. I need to pour some alcohol in here though. It’s gonna burn something awful. You ready?”

One of the other men handed Adam a piece of leather on which to bite. He nodded then before grunting in agony when the alcohol burned the wound. The bleeding wasn’t bad so they bandaged the wound as well as they could with a clean shirt Adam had in his saddlebag, and then tied that in place. One of the men had been sent to the Ponderosa ranch house to let Ben know what had happened. They expected to see a wagon by the next morning. One of Todd’s men headed to the McCarren ranch to let Andy know what happened too. The rest of the men took turns on guard duty that night not sure of what the rustlers might do. The night passed peacefully though, and as expected, shortly after breakfast, they could see a team and wagon approaching in the distance. Adam had a fever and was in some pain. He had not slept much and the fever and the exhaustion had made him weak. By the time Ben arrived and knelt by his side, he didn’t even have a smart aleck remark to make. He whispered only one thing to his father before he closed his eyes and let others make all the decisions. Soon he was in the back of the wagon and headed home. Todd could see the guilt that Ben carried.

“He’s going to be all right, Mister Cartwright. He said he did want to see your face when he told you he was right.”

“He was too. I don’t know how he does it. He figured it out with no evidence at all.”

“I know. Sometimes he seems to know things that the rest of us don’t know.”

“Todd, Adam told me that you saved his life. I don’t know how I can ever thank you enough for that. You have been a very good friend, the best. If ever you need anything, you let me know.”

“It’s what friends do, right, Mister Cartwright?”

“Right. Now get on home. Your father is probably worried too.”

Soon, the only evidence that anyone had been there was a fire ring. The rustlers were scared off for the moment, but everyone knew they weren’t defeated. They would be back, but now the question was to find who was helping them or possibly even leading them.

Chapter 3

Knowing it was time to do it now that Adam was feeling better after being home for three days, Ben made an admission that wasn’t easy for him to make. “I have to apologize to you.”

“It’s not necessary to apologize for losing every chess match. You gave me a good challenge with each one. It’s not like you lose in the first ten minutes.”

“No, it’s not that.” Although an apology for that was the last thing on Ben’s mind. He was irritated that he had lost three chess matches in a row over two days. He was determined to win this one, but now Adam had him upset and that was going to interfere with his concentration. Undoubtedly his eldest son knew that. That small smile indicated that he was well aware of the impact of his seemingly innocent statement. “I meant to apologize for not listening more when you said there was someone working with the rustlers. I should have considered that possibility as more reasonable. I didn’t want to believe that one of our friends or neighbors was willing to do that. It made me ignore the logical. You didn’t.”

“I wish logic could tell us who it is.”

“Yes, one of the problems is that now we have to determine whether it’s someone who is actively helping them or inadvertently letting information slip that they can use. We know that not everyone can keep things close to the vest like you can.”

“That’s going to be difficult to determine. It will have everyone suspicious of everyone else. At least that might keep them all more careful of what they say and to whom they say it.”

“Roy has started to check into who has financial difficulties that might make them consider doing something like that to their friends and neighbors. That should help us narrow it down if someone is actively helping or leading this endeavor.”

“Has anyone thought to follow the tracks of those cattle that they rustled to see where they’re selling them? That might give us an idea too. We could alert the authorities on the other end to watch for rustled cattle. With as many as they’re taking, they need to sell them to a big operation somewhere.”

“Hoss had that same idea, but once he tracked them to where others were driving cattle through the mountains, it’s impossible to tell where one herd goes compared to another.”

“Yes, unless we could mark them some way, there would be no way of telling them apart if the brands got changed.”

“Yes, by now they’re probably quite good at running brands. We need to stop them on this end. We aren’t likely to have any luck catching them on the sales end.” Seeing Adam grimace as he shifted position at the table, Ben had to ask about his leg. “Does it still hurt quite a lot?”

“It’s not too bad except when I sit for a long time like this. It seems to bother me the most then. I need to sit with my leg up for a while, I guess. If you don’t mind, we can take up this match again this evening.”

“I should get some work done anyway. Hoss and Little Joe should be back from town soon with an update from Roy and the wagon load of supplies.”

Walking rather gingerly and leaning on a cane, Adam made his way to the settee where he sat carefully positioning his left leg up on a pillow. He leaned back with a book but soon fell asleep. Ben walked over and took the book from his hand and set it on the table. Adam stirred a little.

“Here let me take that pillow out so that you can lay back and get some sleep. You need it or you wouldn’t have fallen asleep so quickly.”

Without any argument, Adam complied which was further evidence that he was overtired. Ben moved back to his desk to work and about an hour later heard Hoss and Little Joe arrive home. He waited for them to come into the house. Hoss was the first one in and announced rather loudly what he and Little Joe had seen in town without realizing that Adam was on the settee because he couldn’t see him.

“Pa, you’ll never guess who we saw walking all around town with Virginia Keith: Todd McCarren. Adam’s gonna bust a gut when he finds out. He courted her for three years and now his best friend is sniffing around already.” Hoss finally noticed Ben’s frantic efforts to get him to stop talking. Then he looked and saw Adam sitting up on the settee with a pained expression. “Aw, Adam, I never meant for you to hear that. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt by hearing that.”

“That didn’t hurt. It’s my leg that hurts, and now I need to make a long walk to take care of business. It may take a while so don’t come looking for me right away. It’s embarrassing enough to be hobbled like this. I don’t need any keepers.” With that, Adam grabbed his cane and slowly walked from the house.

“Pa, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know he was there. I never woulda said nothing ifn I woulda knowed he was there.”

“I know, Hoss. He knows too. He’s not upset with you. I think he already suspected that Todd was interested in Virginia. It hurt to have it confirmed.”

Little Joe looked confused. “I don’t understand it. If he broke off his courtship with Virginia, why does he care who she sees? He doesn’t want her any more.”

“Little Joe, Adam cared about Virginia a great deal and for a long time, he thought that they had a future together. When you end a relationship like that, it takes some time to get over it. You don’t walk away like you do when you have only been seeing a girl for a month or two and didn’t plan on a future together. To have your best friend move in so quickly hurts, and for Virginia to seem to care so little that she would immediately welcome the attentions of another man probably hurts him too. Does that make sense to you?”

“Not really. I guess maybe when I get older it might. Right now I don’t see it.”

“Well, best accept what we say about it and let it ride. Maybe in a few months or so, you can say something about it, but right now it’s too raw. Let him be.”

Outside, Adam was fairly sure that he was at least part of the conversation going on inside. He paused to let them talk as well as to give himself time to rest physically and to think about what was happening. He wasn’t the type to get jealous. He knew that Virginia was which was one of the things that did irritate him about her somewhat. At the same time, he was hurt to think that she could so easily turn away from him and look to another man. He wondered and actually hoped that perhaps this was a ploy on her part to make him pay by trying to make him jealous. It would hurt less to think that was what it was. What hurt more was to think that Todd would be so insensitive as to immediately chase after her. He had suspected for some time that Todd was interested in Virginia. He always seemed to have compliments for her that were far more than what a friend might offer. He always seemed very interested in everything that Adam said about her. Most men weren’t that interested in other men’s romances except if they were willing to share salacious details that he wouldn’t; not there were any to share anyway. Virginia had kept him at arm’s length for their entire relationship. He had to be satisfied with relatively chaste kissing and hugs as she wasn’t willing to allow anything more than that. To hear that in less than a week after breaking off his relationship with Virginia, she and Todd were walking about town as a couple had been a shock. He guessed that Hoss wouldn’t have said anything if he had known he was there. In a way, it was better this way. He knew and had a chance to adjust to the information. It would have been more difficult to arrive in town and see it for himself with no warning. By the time he was ready to walk back into the house, he had assumed a more relaxed demeanor and asked Hoss about his meeting with Roy.

“Well, Roy said it helped and didn’t help. We got a list of possible suspects, but it’s a long list. With the bad winter we had, there’s about ten ranchers who are behind on their payments to the bank. Eight of ’em are in real trouble. Now all of them been hit by the rustlers so we can’t narrow it down that way ifn you was thinking that. Roy already checked that out. Ifn it’s one of ’em, they’ve been smart enough not to stick out that way.”

Adam’s suspicions were aroused by the two who had gotten some money to start getting out from under their debt load. “Which two are not in so much trouble?”

“Levi March and Tom Jacobs both made some payments this spring. Roy said that Levi being a Mormon got some of his Mormon friends up in Utah to loan him some money to bail him out until he can get back on his feet some. Tom musta had a decent spring drive cause he came back with a good sized check to pay down some of his debt too. Neither one got out from under though.”

Ben was interested mostly in one name. “Tom has mostly high pasture. He would have had to sell off most of his stock to bring in a big check from a spring drive.”

“I mentioned the same thing to Roy. He said it ain’t right to be suspicious of a man only for that when there could be a lot of explanations.”

Cynical by nature, Adam didn’t think Tom could explain. “He would have a difficult time explaining that one.”

“Roy said he talked to Tom and he said he’s raising a lot of the calves and the heifers down close to home cause he sold off so many cows.” Hoss looked like he found that farfetched.

Openly skeptical, Adam snorted. “Yes, heifers and calves that wouldn’t be branded if you took them from other ranches when cows were being rustled. You could certainly build your herd back up that way without getting caught. By next year, he’ll have another good herd to take to market and pay off his debt and be in the clear.”

Ben felt he had to intervene. “Adam, granted, it is suspicious, but you’ve charged, tried, and convicted the man based on very little. We need far more than what we have here. If he is involved, there still are far more men involved. Tom was with us the morning when you were shot so he isn’t actively working with the rustlers if it is him.”

Wondering what was next, Hoss had to ask. Ben said they ought to discuss their ideas with Roy and with the few ranchers they could be sure were not involved such as Andy McCarren and a couple of the others who owned larger ranches and had been hit hard by the rustlers. “I think we have to assume that whoever is helping them is probably not one of those. We should call them here for a meeting. We can’t meet in town or the others will wonder why they’ve been excluded. Hoss and Joe, I’ll need you to be discreet and invite them here for a meeting tomorrow evening. You can ride out in the morning to make the invitations.”

“Pa, I’ll take a trip to town and talk with Roy.”

“Adam, you can’t ride yet with that leg.”

“I’ll take the carriage. It’s my left leg so it won’t bother me doing that, and I can keep it up while I’m in the carriage. I need to get out of here and do something.”

“All right as long as you get enough sleep tonight. I don’t want you to do this if you’re tired.”

“Pa, I don’t need to be coddled. I can take care of myself.”

Ben rolled his eyes which only got Hoss and Little Joe to start laughing especially when Adam scowled. Things were definitely getting back to normal.

Chapter 4

The next morning, Hoss and Little Joe hitched up the carriage for Adam after they saddled up their horses. They each had two ranchers to see, and Adam would talk with Roy who might also attend the meeting late that afternoon. It was decided that a late afternoon meeting would likely draw less attention because the men could be seen as being out and about doing business as they would on any normal business day. An evening meeting on the Ponderosa would be a bit unusual and draw perhaps some unwanted interest. Hopefully all of the men could attend and they could come to some kind of agreement on how to proceed.

As Adam drove the carriage to town, he had plenty of time to think and much too much time to regret the decision to go to town. He knew that there was a possibility that he might see Virginia. She liked to stroll around town on any nice day and visit with people. One of the things that he had liked about her was that she was so social and engaging, so open. However, the day before when he was upset, he had thought he wanted to confront her, but that had been his heart speaking to him. Now his mind was in control again, and he realized it would be better if they didn’t talk for a while and let the hurt heal more or at least let the pain fade away. Instead he had foolishly volunteered for this. All he could hope was that he could go to Roy’s office without seeing her, and then hopefully he could drive out of town again without seeing her. However if she saw the Ponderosa carriage, he knew it was unlikely she would go home without stopping to at least ask how he was knowing that he had been wounded. It was almost as soon as he arrived in town that he saw the first member of the Keith family but it wasn’t Virginia. Charity waved to him and moved toward the carriage. He knew it would be rude to ride past her, and she had done nothing to deserve that kind of treatment.

“Adam, I heard you were shot. I’m very pleased to see that you’re already able to get around under your own power although you’re riding in a carriage like my father likes to do.”

As usual, Charity had been able to inquire about him and irritate him at the same time by comparing him to her father. The impish look she had meant that she had done it purposefully too. “I was shot in the leg which makes it difficult to ride. The carriage is only a temporary requirement.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to insinuate that you were getting old or anything like that. I’m so sorry if I hurt your feelings. Perhaps I should do something to make it up to you. Perhaps I could come for a visit to the Ponderosa and bring you a nice pie or something like that. We could talk, and I could be nice to you.”

“You most certainly will not.” Lem Keith walked up behind his daughter, and the look he had made clear his feelings toward Adam. “He’s already done everything he could to ruin the reputation and the future of one of my daughters. I will not have him anywhere near another especially one so young and innocent as you. Now, get on into the store to get those things you said you needed.”

Reluctantly, Charity turned to the store but looked back at Adam with a look that said she was sorry for causing the confrontation with her father. Adam nodded to let her know he held no hard feelings over anything she had done or said. Lem however wasn’t finished.

“How dare you approach my daughter? Haven’t you done enough harm to my family? Virginia has been beside herself since Friday night. She can barely bring herself to face leaving the house.”

“Then it must have been a great chore for her to walk about town with Todd McCarren yesterday.”

“If she was with Todd it was because Todd stopped by to see how she was doing. He’s a family friend, and your friend too although I can’t see why. He saved your life from what I heard. You would be dead if not for Todd. I would think you would be grateful instead of spiteful.”

“I am grateful, but I was talking about Virginia, not Todd. If she can walk about town with him, she must be doing all right.”

“So that makes the damage that you did inconsequential, is that it? You ruined her reputation, and that’s all you care about it?”

“I didn’t ruin her reputation. I courted her, yes, and then we decided that it was over. Nothing happened that could in any way reflect negatively on Virginia.”

“Except to be spurned by the most eligible man in the territory after he courted her and only her. Now everyone is questioning why that happened and what’s wrong with her. There isn’t a man around here who will want to marry her now, and it’s all because of you. She feels her life is hopeless, without a future. That’s the damage you’ve done.”

Anger was rising in Adam and he lashed out in the same way he was being targeted. “Or is it that Virginia’s father hates to see that she isn’t marrying into the wealthiest family in the region, and he hates to see all that money slipping away?”

“If you weren’t a damn gunslinger, I’d have to call you out for saying something like that. But know that from this day forward, you are my enemy, and I will do everything that I can to bring you down. You will pay for what you did to my daughter. Someday someone is going to make you pay, and I’ll be there laughing when they do. You aren’t always going to have Todd or someone else there to hand you a rifle and watch your back. Someday you’ll be alone and even a shot to the leg will be enough without someone there to help drag you to a boulder to hide.”

“We were working together. Todd and I are friends. Friends do things like that for each other.”

“I doubt that you would have done it for Todd if you were riding away with bullets flying and he was the one down and unable to get away. You would probably have left him there to die. You care only for yourself. You showed that by how you treated Virginia. You used her to have someone on your arm when it suited you, and now that you’ve tired of her, you discard her like she is nothing. Well, you stay away from Charity. She’s an innocent young woman, and I won’t have you ruining her reputation too.”

Shocked by most of what Lem had said but especially by Lem thinking that he was pursuing Charity, Adam defended himself against that charge. “I am not chasing after Charity. She hailed me, and I was being polite. It was nothing more.”

“Yes, with you it’s always nothing more than what suits you. Stay away from us, from all of us.”

Lem was done spewing his venom, and Adam was still furious with him, but his mind was churning too wondering how Lem had known all of those details. Lem stalked away. Waiting for a moment in thought, Adam drove to Roy’s office carefully avoiding pedestrians. He spent some time with Roy explaining his theory about who might be helping the rustlers and told him about the meeting on the Ponderosa that afternoon. Roy was already committed to some other tasks but said he would send Clem to the meeting. Clem was intelligent and logical so Adam thought that would work out well. Adam said nothing about his concern about Lem Keith knowing so many details about the rustlers’ ambush, but on the trip home, that was what most occupied Adam’s thoughts. When he arrived home, his demeanor and his frown let his father know that something was troubling him. Ben pushed a little wondering what it was and thinking that Adam had probably seen Virginia.

“No, but I did see Charity and then I saw Lem.”

“I take it that those meetings didn’t go well.”

“Actually, Charity was more pleasant than I expected. She stopped me to ask how I was after being shot. However her father came up and accused me of trying to start up something with her and of essentially ruining Virginia’s life. He thinks what I did was completely unacceptable. I suppose it wasn’t fair to her. I should have backed out long ago when I realized there was no passion, no love building in our relationship, but I hardly took advantage of her. She never pushed for anything more either.”

“I suppose that perhaps Virginia may have sensed how you felt or perhaps felt the same in that there wasn’t a strong enough bond between you to sustain a marriage. I do wish that the two of you would have come to that understanding a long time ago though.”

“I know it was disappointing to you, Pa. It was disappointing to me too. I guess I thought that because I liked her and that there was nothing objectionable about her that somehow I would learn to love her. I should have known that wouldn’t happen with me even if it’s happened with others who have come to love the one they’re with. Did you know, each time, did you know it was love or did you have to wait to learn what your feelings were?”

The raw emotion of that question was so unlike Adam that Ben was surprised and took time to carefully word his response. “I guess that I knew as soon as I took the time to accept how I was feeling. Each of those women challenged me in some way that made me think at first that I could not love them, but then I found that it was that spirit, that courage and spark of life that drew me in like a moth to the flame as soon as I opened myself to it. Yes, I knew it was love fairly quickly. I may kid Joseph about how quickly he falls in love or claims to do so, but that was how it was for me with all three women whom I loved and married.”

“Maybe that’s the way it is with us Cartwrights. Maybe I’m denying my heritage thinking that there’s some careful logical process that will bring the right woman to me. Perhaps I need to find a way to let my heart lead the way.”

“What I think you need most right now is time to let the pain fade. I know it was your decision, but I know too that it wasn’t an easy thing to do. I saw how you reacted when you heard that Todd was already squiring her around town yesterday. Take some time for yourself. Heal your heart before you try to open it to another.”

Before they could discuss any more, two men rode in and Ben moved to greet them. The first arrivals for the meeting were there. There would be no more personal discussions, and Ben suspected that by the time the meeting was over, Adam’s walls would be back in place. He would once again have buried his feelings and the hurt and insecurities inside. At least he had given his father a moment of closeness. Those were rare with Adam, and Ben appreciated each one as a treasure. By the end of the meeting, the general feeling was that Tom Jacobs was a likely candidate for the rustlers’ inside man. Todd McCarren had come with his father and offered some evidence that added to what Roy had found.

“His ranch borders ours. I knew he was having some problems, and we had some extra calves and heifers after the spring roundup and drive. I offered to sell some to him at a very reasonable price. It was Pa’s idea. I went over there, and he seemed to have quite a few. In fact, he had some that were short-horn and Hereford mixes which surprised me because I thought only the Ponderosa had any of those. He said he had gotten some from a seller, but I don’t know anyone around here who would have any calves to sell. You might get a bull for one or the other if you had thousands of extra dollars to spend, but Tom is in financial trouble. We all know that.”

Clem stepped in then. “So you’re saying if he has any, he got them from the Ponderosa?”

Todd nodded as did several of the other men. Turning to Ben, Clem had a question. “Ben, did you sell or give any calves to Tom Jacobs?”

“No, I did not. I didn’t know he was in as much trouble as I’ve learned in the last two days. He and I haven’t seen each other anywhere except at Cattlemen’s Association meetings.”

“Well, that might be grounds enough to arrest him. I would have to talk to Roy about it, but it certainly would be enough to question him.”

Ben intervened though. “Perhaps it would be best to let Roy go talk to him and try to see what a little pressure might do. Let Roy handle it. He does a good job of making people sweat when he has information and they don’t know how much he knows.”

The other ranchers agreed with that strategy as well as with a plan to keep a closer watch on the other men on the list who had financial difficulties because they couldn’t be positive it was Tom Jacobs. He could be telling the truth. They hoped that with more vigilance, they could find out who was working with the rustlers and gain the advantage on them. As the meeting was breaking up, Todd asked to speak to Adam privately.

“Adam, I got a big favor to ask of you. Now that you and Virginia have called things off, well, I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I called on Virginia. You see, I always thought a lot of her, and honestly, I thought you were the luckiest man in the world to have her as your gal. But now that you two aren’t together, well I would like to see her and see if she would consider being my gal. We’ve always been friends, the three of us, and I’d hate to lose that, so I’m asking as a friend.”

“What if I said that would bother me?”

Todd dropped his head. “Then I guess I’d have to back off. I wouldn’t want to lose you as a friend, Adam.”

Not sure if Todd was sincere but relieved that he had actually responded that way, Adam relented. “It’s all right, Todd. You have my blessing. I hope that you and Virginia make a go of it. You two are probably better matched than she and I ever were anyway.”

“Gee, thanks, Adam. You really are a great friend. I have to tell you though. It won’t be a three year courtship. If she’s willing, I want to move a lot faster than that. I don’t know about you, but I want to get married before I’m thirty.”

“We’re only twenty-eight now, Todd.”

“Almost twenty-nine. It’s time for me to have a wife. I’m ready, and if she’s willing, she’s going to be my wife.”

“You’re moving very fast.”

“Maybe I am, but there are a lot of other things I want to do too. I’ve been talking a bit with her father. He’s been out of town a lot, but he got back this morning and sent a message to the ranch that he would like to talk with me about some ideas he’s come up with. He’s got some ideas too about what I can do with the ranch to make it better. Pa hasn’t been feeling well lately and I’m going to have to step up and do more.”

At the mention of Lem Keith, Adam grew wary. He was especially interested to find that Lem had been out of town and only returned that morning. When he had seen him in town, he had been dusty like he had been riding. He couldn’t have been back for long. “Be careful of her father, Todd.”

“Now, you were being so nice about things, Adam. Don’t go ruining it now.” Todd mounted up then and rode out to catch up to his father who had left in a carriage.

Watching him go, Adam had one more thing to concern him. He was frowning even more when he went back into the house, but he wasn’t ready to talk about things yet. He needed time to think.

Chapter 5

The next day, Adam insisted that he could ride and could do some regular work. By that afternoon, he had to ride in and admit that his leg was hurting too much to continue. Having to concede that only added to the foul mood he was in already. After a number of surly comments at the dinner table which had followed many others that morning and then again before dinner, and Ben had had enough.

“Listen, I know your leg is hurting. I know that you are still bothered by what happened between you and Virginia, but that is no reason to make the rest of us suffer with you. We feel sorry for your pain, but we don’t need you to make us feel miserable too. If you can’t say anything civil, then perhaps you could say nothing at all.”

For the rest of the meal, Adam was quiet. He knew he had been at fault doing what he often did striking out verbally when he was frustrated. He found apologies difficult so took his time formulating what he had to say. When dessert was served, he knew it was time to serve up his apology as well.

“I’d like to tell you all that I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting. I didn’t mean to offend.”

Hoss immediately smiled and accepted. Adam could see that his father and Little Joe were still a bit irritated with him. He accepted that and hoped it wouldn’t interfere with what he had to say next.

“Part of the reason I’ve been so ornery is that I’ve been wrestling with a dilemma. I’ve got something I think may be true, but it’s going to look like I’m only casting aspersions on someone because of what’s happened between us especially lately.”

“Aspershuns?”

“Derogatory remarks. Slanderous statements.” Hoss frowned. “Saying nasty things.”

“Well why didn’t you say that right off. All right, who you gonna say nasty things about anyway?”

“Lem Keith. I think he may be mixed up with those rustlers.”

Silence and shocked expressions of disbelief met that statement. No one knew how to respond at first. Ben finally decided to ask Adam why he would think such a thing about a respected businessman from Virginia City.

“This morning when he confronted me, he knew details about me getting shot that I don’t think any of you know. Todd would know and the rustlers would know but no one else.”

Hoss had to ask. “What didn’t you tell us?”

“Only the details, Hoss. I told you Todd saved my life by helping me to cover when I was shot. I didn’t tell you that he was riding away when I was shot and came back for me grabbing his rifle when he dismounted because he knew that I would need it because Sport had bolted. He pushed me behind a boulder and that’s where we were until the hands rode in. Todd had to practically drag me to that boulder because my leg was numb when I was first hit. Lem knew that too.”

Little Joe was openly skeptical. “Todd was playing the big hero to the family and probably told them all about it.”

“That’s just it, Joe. Todd told me that Lem has been out of town and only got back this morning. Even if Todd told the story with all the details to Virginia, there was no chance for her to repeat it all to her father. Virginia is rather squeamish and Todd knows that. I don’t think he would tell her that whole story. If he did, I don’t see Virginia repeating that kind of story anyway. Do any of you? You have gotten to know her rather well in the last couple of years. Does she seem the type to repeat any of the details of a story like that?”

“No, but Charity would.”

“Hoss, you’re probably right about that, but Todd can’t stand to be anywhere near Charity. He’s told me on a number of occasions that he wished that Lem would send her east to school or to Europe to travel so she wouldn’t be around for a while. He would hardly engage in conversation with her if he could help it.”

Hoss leaned back in his chair. “It’s kinda looking like you might be on to something there. You gonna tell Roy and the others about it?”

Looking at his father, Adam smiled. “Pa, you’re not sure even now, and you were openly skeptical when I first said it. Little Joe had the same reaction. If that happens with two-thirds of my family, what would happen if I said this to anyone else?”

“Son, you can’t say this to anyone else. What you’ve said is logical. You have some evidence this time, but you’re right. People would scoff and think it was some kind of sour grapes. With Todd seeing Virginia now, they would likely think it was for personal reasons, and that you’re trying to make trouble for the Keith family and indirectly for Todd. We can’t say anything directly about Lem. However, we can watch and see what we can learn. It would be interesting to see if Lem has any dealings with any of the ten ranchers who are on our list of possible suspects. I would especially like to know if he has had any contact with Tom Jacobs.”

That was exactly the kind of thing that made Little Joe excited. “Pa, I could watch the Jacobs place and see if he ever goes there. I could be a spy.”

“Joseph, you will not do anything of the sort. If Tom Jacobs is involved in this, then the rustlers are also going to be on his place at some point. I do not want you in the middle of that, young man.”

“Yes sir, but how will we watch him, then?”

“We can keep men at work in the pasture nearest the road. If one of them happened to be up on that hill overlooking the crossroads at all times, well then, if anyone rode toward the Jacobs ranch, I guess we would know, wouldn’t we?” Little Joe smiled then. “But, young man, you will stay on the Ponderosa at all times, and you will keep our men in sight too. I do not want you alone for any reason. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Pa. I’ll do exactly what you said. Exactly.”

“I’ll send Shorty out with that crew to report back to me if you don’t.”

Little Joe’s face fell at that making both Adam and Hoss laugh until their father’s look silenced them although when Little Joe left the table, Ben had a small smile for his older sons’ benefit. The next day, Ben had planned to go to town to discuss the situation with Roy but remembered that he had to go to Carson City to discuss some prospects for timber bids. With Hoss busy on the ranch and Little Joe already committed to watching for Lem visiting the Jacobs ranch, Ben had to ask Adam to go to town again.

“I’m sorry, son. After what happened of couple of days ago, I was hoping that I could go do this, but I can’t. Will you be all right going in to see Roy? You might see Virginia or you might see her father again.”

“I know. I guess the worst of that is over. Lem already lambasted me. He can’t say much more than he already has. If I see Virginia, well, she’s got the upper hand now with Todd on her arm, so I’ll have to eat some crow, but I don’t think it’ll be too bad. She certainly probably feels that she came out the winner in this.”

“Do you really think she’s thinking about it that way?”

“Yes, I think she is, but it’s all right. This way she won’t be angry and bitter. We’ll still be able to be friends. I’m not so sure about me and Todd though.”

“I thought you told him it was all right with you for him to call on Virginia.”

“Oh, I did, but he was already seeing her before he ever said anything to me. That was only a formality and probably something Andy told him to do to calm the waters. The way he brought it up to me, Pa, I don’t think my answer was going to make any difference to him at all. He told me he wants to marry her.”

“Marry her? He’s hardly seen her more than a few days.”

“You see what I mean. Asking me was nothing more than a courtesy and after the fact. He’s also getting in close with Lem and taking advice from him. Pa, Todd’s heading down a crooked path. I don’t think I can follow him there. I doubt that our friendship is going to survive this.”

“I’m very sorry about that, Adam. You’ve lost Virginia, and now you may have lost your friend too.”

“Before this is all over, I can only hope Todd doesn’t lose even more than that. I wish Andy was in better shape. I was surprised at the meeting the other day to see how poorly he was getting around. Todd had said he wasn’t feeling well, but I had no idea it was progressing so fast. He can’t ride a horse any more.”

“Yes, his mind is sound, but his body has betrayed him. If he keeps going like this, I have to wonder how much longer he has. He’s failed a lot in the past year. I really do need to get over there one of these days. I’ll bring him one of those packages of tobacco that I got in San Francisco. He’ll like that. Once this mess is cleaned up, I’ll take a day and go see him. Right now though I need to get going. The boys have the carriage ready for you too. Don’t worry about unhitching the team when you get back. One of the hands can do it when they come back.”

“I’m not crippled. I can still work.”

“Good, I’ve got a bunch of figures that need to be entered in the ledgers. You can do that when you get back.”

A scowl was his answer for that, but he knew Adam would do it. About two hours later, Adam was sitting with Roy and Clem asking if they had found out anything new. Roy had talked to Tom Jacobs.

“Tom stuck to his story of buying them calves from a seller. He had some papers that looked like they could be real. The only way I could know would have been to take them and checked with the seller. I couldn’t do that, but I have sent a wire to the seller asking if he sold a large number of high priced calf stock to Tom. It may take a few days to get a response. Ifn the answer comes back as a yes, then I got nowhere to go with this. But, I have to tell you that Tom did seem nervous.”

“Tom always seems nervous.”

“Adam, you’re right about that, but he seemed more nervous than usual. I wonder if there ain’t more going on than what we know.”

Pausing for a moment, Adam thought about what Roy could be implying. “Do you mean the possibility that someone might be threatening Tom to get his cooperation?”

“That’s a possibility, now, ain’t it?”

Adam had to agree that it was. They talked for a time about who might be doing that, and then Adam shared his theory about Lem Keith. Roy was openly skeptical of Adam’s theory.

“Now Lem Keith is a respected businessman who is not in any financial difficulty as far as anyone knows. Why would he get mixed up in something like cattle rustling?”

“Do we know all the ways that Lem has made money?” Roy raised his eyebrows in preparation for an objection, but Adam went on quickly before he could respond. “Roy, we know that a lot of businessmen not only walk perilously close to violating the law but some cross over all too often when it suits them. They have enough power that they rarely get caught. It gives them impunity. It wouldn’t be that unusual for Lem to do the same.”

“But ifn they do it’s in fraud and paper crimes, or they hire some rough characters to use their guns to scare folks. They don’t go stealing cattle and stuff like that.”

“Not usually but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.”

“No, it doesn’t, but it makes it pretty unlikely, and with what little you got to go on, I’d say it’s a big jump from what’s possible to what’s happening.”

“I’m not saying that it’s true, but only saying that it’s cause to watch him. That’s all we’re going to do. Other than you and Clem, we’re not going to say anything to anyone.”

“Well, that’s good cause you could stir up a might big hornet’s nest with accusations like that. You best stay away from Lem Keith anyway. He’s been talking pretty negatively about you in town the last two days. Seems he’s pretty riled about you breaking it off with his daughter. Folks are thinking that you aren’t such a gentleman to have done it the way he said it happened and put his daughter into such a sad state.”

“The only one in a sad state about it is Lem. He’s sad to see that his connection to the Ponderosa bank accounts has been lost. Virginia is already seeing Todd McCarren. Confidentially, Todd plans on marrying Virginia, and from what I can tell, she’s agreeable.”

“One of your best friends and your former gal getting married? You all right with that?”

Nodding, Adam told them of his conversation with Todd and his belief that Todd was a better match for Virginia. Then he took his leave to head back to the Ponderosa. When he got outside, Charity Keith was leaning up against his carriage.

“You and the sheriff seem to have a lot to talk about these days.”

“We do.”

“I suppose the problem with those rustlers is still a big issue for you and your family.”

“It is.”

“Well, when you and Virginia were together, it seemed you had more than two words to say to her when the two of you were talking. Is it that you dislike me so much?”

“I don’t dislike you.”

“Well, there, you doubled up on the words. That’s an improvement. Maybe we could go for six in your next reply.”

“Do you have to do that?”

“See, I knew you could do it, and what do you mean by do that? Do what?”

“You seem to like to challenge me with every sentence you utter.”

“Sometimes I do. It’s fun to challenge you. You are one of the few men who can parry back and forth. Most men are defenseless with words.”

Adam had to smile then. Charity was honest to a fault even if she could be irritating. “Do you ever think about what you’re going to say before you say it?”

She smiled in return then but with an impish look. “I do. But then I say it anyway to see what reaction I’m going to get. Life is more fun that way.”

With a smile, Adam was about to respond until he saw Lem Keith exit the bank across the street. He was in conversation with Tom Jacobs. The sight of the two men together made him change his expression immediately and Charity noticed.

“Now why does the sight of my father make you look like that?”

“You should know, and you should probably be on your way, or there will be another unpleasant confrontation as there was a few days ago.”

“I can talk to whomever I wish.”

“I doubt your father will see it that way.”

As Lem saw his daughter talking to Adam, he hurried across the street and addressed her directly telling her that her admiration for Adam was misplaced. “Furthermore, if you persist in in this behavior of seeking him out which I have no doubt you did, then I will carry through on my threat to send you to live with your aunt in Philadelphia. My sister owes me many favors with me supporting her and her family in style for the past ten years, and she will see to it that you learn to act like a young lady and stop throwing yourself at this man. Then perhaps a grand tour of Europe will show you how genteel people act. You certainly don’t see models of proper behavior here especially with Adam Cartwright.”

“Papa, you’re being unfair. Virginia told you that she was just as happy that Adam ended things. She wanted to do it herself. She told you that. You were the one who pressured her to keep her with Adam. She’s happier with Todd and you know it.”

“That’s enough! You will not speak of family matters in the street like some common hoyden. Now get on home. We’ll talk there.” Without another word, Lem ushered his daughter down the walk and away from Adam. As he left, Adam was wondering where Lem Keith got the money to do the things that he did. He was a businessman, but he didn’t have any enterprise that brought in large sums of money. He had enough to live comfortably, but some of what he had revealed indicated a far larger outlay than what he should have been able to afford.

Chapter 6

That night at dinner, Little Joe was very disappointed to say that he had not seen Lem Keith riding to the Jacobs ranch. However he did report that Tom had headed in the direction of town and then gone back toward his ranch several hours later. Each time he had been alone.

“He wasn’t alone in town. I saw him come out of the bank with Lem Keith.” Adam’s statement had the effect of silencing his family for a moment. “I was talking with Roy and when I came out, Charity was waiting by the carriage. We talked for a couple of minutes, and while I was there, Lem walked out of the bank talking with Tom. They seemed to be in a very serious conversation that ended when Lem saw Charity talking with me.”

“I’m guessing that Lem wasn’t happy seeing you with his younger daughter.”

“No, Pa, in fact, he was very unpleasant about the whole thing. He threatened to send Charity to live with her aunt in Philadelphia to go to a finishing school before going on a grand tour. Pa, he also said he’s been supporting his sister and her family there for ten years. How does a man like Lem get the money to live well here, send a daughter to school in the east and on a grand tour, send a second daughter to do the same, and support his sister’s family? He doesn’t seem to have that kind of income.”

“No, he doesn’t but we don’t know all the details of his investments. Perhaps he has some major investments elsewhere.”

“If he does, he lied to Virginia about them. He told her that he sold everything he had in order to purchase what he has here.”

“Pa, Adam may be on to something here. Ifn he’s spending so much then maybe he is doing things like stealing our cattle or squeezing Tom for money. There’ve been other yahoos like that here. Just cause he dresses fancy don’t make him honest.”

“Now, hold on just a minute. We can’t assume anything. We still don’t have any evidence. All we have are some very strong suspicions. As we have been doing, we will watch for what Lem is doing and what Tom is doing. We need far more than what we have. Adam, did Roy say anything about Tom?”

“He talked to him and said he had bills of sale. Roy is checking on those. He said Tom seemed more nervous than usual.” Then Adam had to admit something he knew his father wouldn’t like to hear. “I mentioned my suspicions about Lem Keith to Roy and Clem.”

“Adam, I didn’t want you to do that. I wanted to keep that within the family.”

“I thought Roy had a right to know what I was thinking. He can judge it on its merits. He has enough experience and knows me well enough to know I wouldn’t say something like that to be petty. If we’re going to get to the bottom of this, there’s no reason to hide anything from Roy. He can observe Lem better than we can. If there’s something to see, Roy may see it.”

“Well. What’s done is done. Was there anything else you have to tell me?”

Knowing his father was perturbed about that, Adam had nothing more to say about that which would irritate him at least. “Other than what he had to say about Tom Jacobs, Roy had nothing new. No one has reported any cattle stolen since I was shot. It’s bound to happen soon.” Hoss wondered where it would be. Adam was cynical in his response. “You can bet it won’t be the McCarren or Jacobs ranches.”

Even more perturbed by that remark, Ben got a bit testy in his response. “Adam, that is beneath you especially to talk that way about the McCarrens. We need to go out looking for where those rustlers might be. We know they’re working with a big crew. Tomorrow, if you feel that you can ride for at least a half day, why don’t you go see if Todd will ride with you again to try to locate any tracks of the rustlers. Hoss and I will head out on our land to do the same. Little Joe will go back to his sentry duty.” The only one not happy with his assignment was Adam who wasn’t that anxious to be with Todd, but Ben thought the two of them needed to be together to talk. It didn’t work out as he had hoped.

When Adam arrived at the McCarren ranch the next morning, he found Virginia there. She was in no better mood than Todd it seemed for both frowned when they saw him, and their greetings were cool.

“I’m sorry to barge in on you. Pa thought that perhaps, if you had time, you wouldn’t mind taking a ride to look for tracks of those rustlers. If they’re checking out your herd or ours, we might find tracks along our property lines.”

“I have a lot of other things to do, Adam. Don’t you think that perhaps it’s your turn to risk your life? I already risked mine. Now I’m thinking that we should probably be leaving this to the sheriff and the men hired to hunt outlaws and to men like you who seem to like taking risks like that. I don’t.”

“Todd, when we rode out that morning to take a look around, I wasn’t thinking that we were taking any kind of risk. I had no idea those rustlers were so close. Neither did you. If we did, we wouldn’t have done what we did by following those tracks. If we would see any tracks today, we wouldn’t follow them. We would head back and alert the others now that we know these men are willing to kill.”

“Well, and you don’t know what they would do today either if you got close to them. No thanks. I’ll stay here. My father can’t run this ranch any more. If anything happens to me, then he could lose the ranch. Or is that what you want? To have the Ponderosa swallow up another one of its neighbors who fell on hard times?”

Bristling in anger, Adam managed to hold his temper in check but only barely. “Todd, we’ve been friends a long time so I won’t do what I should do with an insult like that, but you’re stepping dangerously close to pushing me over the line. I don’t think you want to do that.”

“Or what, Adam? Would you shoot your best friend? It’s one of the reasons that I’m glad you broke it off with me. It’s why I could never let you get too close to me. You’re dangerous. You carry that anger and that danger with you wherever you go. You should know too that you need to stay away from my little sister. Charity is infatuated with you like a silly schoolgirl. You must be so flattered by the attention, but she’s a child.”

“She is not a child. She’s a young woman, but I have no designs on her. I have simply had two conversations with her. Nothing more. I know she is too young and knows too little of the world, but she is intelligent, caring, and insightful.”

“I suppose you’re saying that I’m not.”

“No, we were talking about Charity. You called her a child and silly. She is neither of those. I was not comparing her to you at all. I have no idea why we are even having this conversation.”

“We are having this conversation because father is very upset with you pursuing Charity, and has threatened to send her to Philadelphia. They had quite a row about it last night, and this morning again. She thinks that you are attracted to her and will come to her aid. Father has assured her that you will not help her. I told her the same. Would you deny that?”

Caught in a trap, Adam had no answer. He wanted to say he would help Charity if she needed his help, but that would be tantamount to admitting an attraction to her as far as Virginia was concerned. He knew what he had to say, but it felt bitter coming from his mouth because he was sure that Virginia would delight in repeating it to her sister and her father. “No, I wouldn’t interfere in what a father wanted to do with his daughter. It is none of my business if he is not harming her.” He could imagine how those words would likely hurt Charity if she had hoped he would help her. He despised Lem Keith and could imagine how difficult it was for Charity to live under his rule, but it wasn’t his place to interfere in that family especially now that he was no longer courting Virginia. Sadly, he knew that Todd was likely to endorse Lem’s plan to ship Charity to the east where there would be an effort made to break her spirit and mold her into the type of lady that would please Lem, a lady like Virginia. Adam shivered inside.

With nothing more to say, Adam took his leave then. He rode the boundary lines of the Ponderosa and McCarren ranches until early afternoon making his leg ache. He had to ride home then slowly and didn’t arrive there until nearly dinnertime. Ben and Hoss were worried and waiting for him. Hoss was in the stable thinking about saddling up Chubb to go look for him when he rode in. He dismounted and sank down on a stool grimacing in discomfort and exhaustion.

“Pa’s been worried sick. We thought you woulda been back hours ago.”

“I suppose you were out here keeping Chubb company just for the heck of it.”

“Well I was worried too. Why are you so late?”

“Things didn’t go well over at the McCarren place so I ended up riding alone. I was mad and took some time to settle down. I didn’t find anything, and by the time my leg hurt enough that I knew I had to head back, I was so far out, I had a long slow ride home.”

“Me and Pa found tracks. I already was in town and told Roy. He’ll be out here tomorrow with a posse good and early. We’re heading up to where we saw the tracks. We figure they may hit us tonight or tomorrow, but the tracks were real fresh.”

“That’s good news. We can get them finally.”

“Not we. You’re not in any shape to ride where we’re going. There’s something else you may want to do anyway.”

“What’s that?”

“When I was in town, I stopped in the general store real quick just to get some peppermint sticks. Lem Keith was in there with Charity. I overheard them talking, or rather I heard him talking. He said that if she kept flirting with you, she was definitely getting sent back out east, and if you did anything to respond to her flirting, then it was gonna go doubly bad for you. I was thinking maybe you want to try to make peace with him before this all blows up in her face. She’s a nice enough gal. I’d hate for her to get hurt. She was crying when they left that store.”

“I don’t know what I could say. I got a similar lecture from Virginia today. She was with Todd.” Adam repeated what she said and told Hoss what had happened that morning. Hoss was in dismay at what was happening to Todd since his association with Lem Keith. Adam fully understood what he meant, and after Hoss again urged him to go try to calm things down between him and Lem, he agreed that perhaps he would try to talk with Lem and try to calm things down before Charity was hurt. Later Ben added his endorsement to that idea.

“Perhaps your suspicion of Lem has colored all of our thoughts about him. Tomorrow we’ll track down those rustlers, and then we’ll get to the bottom of this whole mess. It certainly would help if you could try to make sure that Charity and perhaps even Virginia are not hurt by this. I’m sure you don’t want either of them hurt by this.”‘

The next day as a result, Adam found himself walking up to the Keith home. He knocked, and when Charity came to the door, he asked politely if he could speak with her father. He waited on the porch until Lem stepped out to talk with him. It went better than expected with Lem unexpectedly being somewhat conciliatory and explaining that now that Todd and Virginia were getting married, he no longer was concerned with what Adam had done. Adam hid his surprise at that news that apparently Lem had gotten the previous evening. When they finished talking, Adam and Lem shook hands. Adam was surprised by that and saw Charity watching them from a parlor window. He couldn’t wave or acknowledge her in any way without ruining the peace he had made with her father. He instead left quietly but full of questions. Quite a bit of what had happened had surprised him. It didn’t made sense to him even if it was explained as if it was logical and reasonable. When he got home, he was surprised again when he found his father and Hoss already back.

“What happened? You couldn’t have tracked down the rustlers already, could you?”

“Nope. The tracks we found yesterday were gone. All brushed out. We searched for a couple of hours and found nothing. They moved on and left nothing to let us know where they went. As far as we know, they could be anywhere now. How did it go with you?”

So Adam told them of the meeting with Lem and how he had taken a complete change of heart it seemed treating Adam with respect and acting as if everything was fine between them again.

“Now that’s darn odd considering how he was talking against you jest yesterday when I heard him in the store.”

“It is odd. There is so much that is odd here. I can’t figure it out. It’s a puzzle and we’re missing some of the pieces.”

Chapter 7

Almost a week later, Hoss returned from town with supplies and a letter for Adam. It had been left for him at the general store. There was no name on the outside or an address so it had come from someone in town. The writing looked like it could be a woman’s so as Little Joe giggled, Hoss’ teased him a bit about having an admirer who wanted him now that Virginia was out of the way. Adam took the letter and moved to the blue chair to read it. When he finished, he had a dark look and stared into the fireplace even though there was no fire there. Hoss knew better than to ask him a question at that point. Little Joe wanted to tease him about it more, but Hoss stopped him before he could start.

“You let him be. That look he’s got says it ain’t no letter from a lady about no romance. It’s something serious.”

It was at the end of dinner before Adam revealed most of what had been in the letter. “The letter is from Charity Keith. Lem sent her away to the east to live with her aunt, and he told her that I suggested that it was a good idea on that day that I was there to talk with him. She thinks it’s my fault that she’s gone. She thinks I wanted her to stop bothering me because that is apparently what Lem told her. She’ll miss her sister’s wedding, and she didn’t want to go at all. She’s very upset.”

The whole family was surprised at first, but then not so much when they considered that Lem was the one responsible. Ben was the first to say anything.

“What do you plan to do?”

“I’ll ask Virginia for Charity’s address in Philadelphia and I’ll write to her. I don’t know that I can help her be any happier with what’s happened, but she deserves to know the truth about it.” What Adam didn’t reveal was the end of the letter when Charity revealed her hurt and the blame she placed on Adam for it. I thought what I was feeling for you was love. I’m not sure what love is, but I admired you, respected you, and looked forward to seeing you. If that’s not the basis of love, then I don’t understand it at all. I didn’t know you hated me so much though that you wanted me banished from your life and all the way across the country. When I saw you shake my father’s hand, I was surprised, but when I found out why, I was shocked to my core. He said that you agreed to let all the trouble between the two of you be gone if only he would send me away. You and Todd agreed it was best to have me gone. Todd is twisted around my father’s thumb so I know why he would agree, but I don’t know why you would do that. I can only hope now that someone will hurt you the way that you have hurt me. You tore out my heart and did your best to break my spirit. I’ll find a way to fight back. I don’t know how, but you better watch yourself if I ever get back home, and whatever my father has planned for you, I guess I no longer care. You made your choices, and now you have to live with the results.

Now some of what had happened with Lem Keith made sense. He had been putting on a show for his daughter so that he could condemn Adam with it later. Adam had to wonder if there was any other ulterior motive to Lem apparent good humor and friendliness. It was masking what he wanted to accomplish. Adam wondered too if Lem knew that Adam suspected him of involvement in the rustling. Surely if Roy was asking questions, it was possible that Lem had heard enough to have guessed that he might be suspected. Adam began to wonder what he would do if he knew he was in that position. He didn’t hear his father addressing him because he was lost in thought. He apologized and asked what his father had asked.

“I asked if you planned to go to town tomorrow then. You could ask Roy if he has gotten any information yet on Tom Jacobs and those bills of sale he said he had.”

“Yes, I’ll go. No one has reported any cattle missing. I wonder what’s going on. Have the rustlers given up because we were getting too close to catching them?”

“Roy thinks so. He thinks that whomever was directing the operation has been scared off. At this point, we’re probably never going to know who did it.”

“So we’ll be looking at our neighbors and wondering.”

“Yes, unless something happens that gives us more evidence or lets us apprehend the rustlers, then we will likely continue to wonder about those ten men who are in debt and may have been working against their friends and neighbors.”

The next day in town, Roy had just received telegrams back from two sellers. They had not sold any stock to Tom Jacobs making his bills of sale bogus. Roy planned to go out to talk to him that afternoon. First though he had other information for Adam.

“There’s been some rustling of herds now in eastern California. It seems the rustlers may have moved on. Maybe they weren’t working with anyone in particular here. Maybe it was only one man here and his men doing the damage. Tom’s men have quit. Seems he couldn’t pay them or that’s his story according to the Cattlemen’s Association. It could be that they didn’t want to hang around and pay the price for rustling.”

“If he can’t pay his men then he must be about to lose the ranch to the bank too.”

“I would think so. Desperate men do desperate things sometimes. Clem is coming with me cause I’m not sure what to expect when I confront him with what I know now.”

“All right, Roy, I’ll let Pa know. Let us know how it turns out, would you? We’re almost on the way back from the Jacobs ranch.”

“I’ll do that, Adam.”

The next stop for Adam was the Keith home. He didn’t expect a friendly welcome, but it was frostier than he expected. Virginia had clearly been crying. When she opened the door and saw Adam, she looked like she thought about closing it immediately.

“Father isn’t here. It seems the two of you have done enough.”

“Virginia, I had nothing to do with sending Charity away. I would like her address in Philadelphia so that I can write to her and explain.”

“Why should I believe you? Father told me the things you said, the terrible things you said.”

“Virginia, you know me. You should know I would not say terrible things about Charity.”

“He said you were saying terrible things about me!”

“I would never say terrible things about you. I courted you. It didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean that I have anything but respect for you as a person. You put up with me for almost three years. I hope that you and Todd have a wonderful life together.”

“Still, Adam, it would probably be best for Charity if you leave her alone. The more contact you have with her, the more father is going to be upset with her and with you. You need to go now. I can’t help you. I’m sorry.”

About that time, Lem Keith arrived home. He was calm and reasonably polite, but said that Virginia was upset and that because she was now engaged to be married to Todd, that Adam should not be there. He apologized if that sounded harsh and asked for Adam to be understanding. His effort to be gentlemanly didn’t ring true after what he had done to Charity and after what he had told Virginia, but Adam didn’t stand to gain anything with an argument with him. He simply acquiesced and left. By the time he got home, he was equally angry and frustrated with no answers and no target for his anger or his frustration. He pushed it down inside and let it simmer. It was bound to sit there for months before the suspicion and anger boiled up once more with Lem Keith as the target. Until then, he had no evidence on which to base any accusation.

A few hours after he returned home, Sheriff Coffee rode into the yard. He was alone surprising Adam who had expected to see Clem with him. An explanation soon cleared that up.

“Clem took Tom Jacobs body to town. We found him hanging in his stable. Looks like he hung himself. There was no note or anything, but we found a bundle of running irons there. No one needs those unless they’re in the habit of changing a lot of brands. We took a quick look at those calves he’s got. It’s clear some of them had the brands changed, and there were two there that still had Ponderosa brands on them. Looks like we were right all along. Tom was the one leading them rustlers all along.”

Ben was shocked. “But why kill himself?”

“He had a big loan payment due this week. He had to stop the rustling cause we was closing in on him. He was gonna lose the ranch anyway. The men all left him. He was left holding the bag for all of it. I guess he knew I’d find out about them bills of sale of his. Once I knew that, he’d be arrested. To him, I suppose he thought he had nothing left.”

Shaking his head, Adam leaned back against the porch column. Roy noticed as did Ben, but Roy was the first to comment.

“Now, Adam, you was the one who was the most suspicious of Tom to begin with.”

“Yes, I thought he was probably providing inside information, but Tom Jacobs wasn’t smart enough to run an operation that worked so efficiently. Someone else ran it. He’s taking the blame now so someone a lot smarter walks away clean.”

“Now, I suppose you’re gonna say Lem Keith again even though you got no proof of any kind against him. Adam, you can’t say things like that.”

“I’m not saying anything, Roy. I can think whatever I want to think though.”

“Just don’t go making any trouble that you can’t work your way out of is all I’m saying. Ben, you know what I mean. Lem is a powerful man. He’s got a lot of influence here too. It won’t sit right with a lot of folks if Adam starts badmouthing him with no evidence he did anything wrong.”

“I know, Roy. We’ll talk.”

“All right. I got to get back to town. There’s a lot of paperwork to get done with this. I’ll be seeing you.”

Roy mounted up and rode out as Ben and Adam stood silently. Ben looked at Adam.

“Lem may have gotten away with it this time, but we’ll keep watching, son. When we get the evidence, we’ll make sure we get justice.” Surprised, Adam looked in astonishment at his father and then smiled. “Son, I can be logical too. Lem was involved in this up to his eyeballs but was smart enough to let Tom take all the blame. He’ll pay someday. Now, let’s see if there’s a way for you to write a letter to Charity. That girl has the right to the truth.”

Working together, Adam and Ben managed to use their connections with Mark Twain and a few other newspapermen to locate an address for Charity’s aunt in Philadelphia. Adam wrote a letter to her explaining as diplomatically as he could what had happened, and he let her know that he had never suggested in any way that she be sent away nor did he think it was a good idea. He assumed she had learned that her father bought Tom Jacobs ranch from the bank and paid the back taxes on it. Lem sold his house in town moving to the ranch with Virginia who was betrothed to Todd McCarren. The young couple planned to marry the following summer. It was all very respectable of course except Adam explained the sad demise of Tom Jacobs and the strange circumstances of it. He had learned some information from Doctor Paul Martin who examined Tom’s body and did say that Tom died from hanging which made his death officially a suicide as Roy had surmised. However, Paul had found a lot of bruising on Tom’s body. Adam and Paul discussed the possibility that Tom had been forcibly hanged. Without any evidence, they couldn’t convince Roy to consider that possibility, but the thought that Tom had been murdered lingered with both of them for a long time. Adam included only the minimum about that in the letter to Charity. He didn’t think she needed to know all the terrible things that he thought about her father, but she might read between the lines. What he didn’t know was that the letter never reached Charity because her aunt intercepted it. However those details were discussed by Adam and his father. Hoss and Little Joe agreed with their theory about how Tom died.

“So someone could have pushed Tom into helping cause he was desperate for money. Then when things got real tense and it looked like Roy might be getting close to catching them that was doing the rustling, they killed Tom and left the running irons there to let all the blame fall on him so no one would look any further.”

“That’s about it, Hoss. Someone very clever was in charge of this.”

“And you and Pa both think it was Lem Keith.”

“We do.” Adam answered as Ben nodded.

“Dang, I sure wish we could catch him at something.”

With a hand on Hoss’ shoulder, Ben did his best to reassure him as well as Adam and Little Joe too. “We will, Hoss, we will. Sooner or later, he’s going to make a mistake. He’s got some rough characters working for him at his ranch. I have to wonder if those are the men who were doing the rustling.”

“Ya really think he would hire those men? That’s really being a yahoo.”

Adam showed his frustration as well as his determination. “Yes, I think he thinks he’s smarter than all of us, and why not. He’s managed to pull it off so far and get away with it. But he’s going to make a mistake. I know he will. We have to be ready when he does.”

But Hoss had another worry. “He may drag Todd into it too.”

Ben let them know they would continue to be good neighbors but was philosophical about the situation with Todd too. “We’ll do our best to help Todd, but he’s a man. He needs to decide which way he wants to go.”

“Yeah.” Was the response from his sons.

At the Jacobs ranch which was now the Keith ranch, Lem was organizing the men and sending some of them to Texas to get more cows. He had a small herd the men had brought from California, but he wanted more. He wasn’t too worried how they got them either. He needed to build up a larger herd quickly and wanted some hardy stock so Texas longhorns seemed like a good idea to him. He didn’t know much about things like Texas fever and ticks. He was going to learn a lot about that very soon. Meanwhile he had a few deals he wanted to get his future son-in-law to do especially one that would harm the Ponderosa. He looked forward to that one the most. It was too bad about Tom Jacobs. The man had been very cooperative at least until he felt the pressure closing in at the end. Then unfortunately he was going to run to the law and beg for mercy. That couldn’t be allowed, but resolving that had opened up this wonderful opportunity. Lem had wanted to be a big landowner, and this was a good start. With his daughter marrying the McCarren boy, they would more than double the acres they had, and then they would border the Ponderosa with all those square miles of land. Lem almost drooled at the possibilities.

The end of this story

The next part would be the episode Bitter Water.

Next Story in the Charity Series:

Wounded Hearts
Trust Me
Let’s Do It!
Dreams and Challenges
Sticks and Stones

Other Stories by this Author

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Author: BettyHT

I watched Bonanza when it first aired. Only within the last several years did I discover Bonanza fan fiction, and started writing storiesin 2012 for fun. If I am ever unavailable and someone needs permission to post one or more of my stories on another site such as Bonanza Brand, AC1830 and/or Mo1427 are authorized to give permission in my absence.

4 thoughts on “Charity Series #1 – Fractured (by BettyHT)

    1. Thank you so much. Yes, the episode left some intriguing possibilities wide open so I went with how I thought it might have gone to get them to that state.

  1. A fine job of developing the backstory this episode hinted at–and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens to Charity! Somehow I doubt she’ll ever be smoothed into the same mold as her older sister, however hard people at that finishing school may try!

    1. Thank you so much. Yes, Charity has more spirit and intelligence than her sister and no school is going to tame her.

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