Charity Series #5 — Dreams and Challenges (by BettyHT)

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Summary:  Now that Adam and Charity are married, they face challenges in work and in family relationships. They have dreams of a family and a home too, and they have to adjust those dreams to the reality of events over which they have no control.

rating = T  WC = 22,140

Charity Series:

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

 

Charity Series #5 — Dreams and Challenges

Chapter 1

Riding back from town with the mail, Hoss almost hated the thought of handing it over to Charity. There was another one of those letters from her Aunt Julia, and every time she got one of those, she was sad afterwards. She wanted so much to fix things in her family, but there was no fixing what her aunt was and what her father had been. All she could do was look to the future in which she, her sister Virginia, and her cousin Prudence would show that it wasn’t inherited. Prudence had a sister in Philadelphia. The letters they got from her showed that she was probably much like Julia, so there was no more correspondence with her. It seemed to be the best solution. Julia lamented that and blamed them for that daughter turning on her too, but it was her low station that had caused that rift. She had taught her other daughter too well. Her mother offered her nothing so she had no use for her. Prudence wanted to help her mother, but she knew that she couldn’t because her mother still wasn’t showing any remorse for the things she had done. Given the chance, Prudence was sure that she would try to do more if it would mean that somehow she could get more money. At least her mother was the vengeful type. Her life was centered on money and how to get it. Hoss smiled as he thought about Prudence even though she worried about her mother so much. Even those serious conversations with her made him feel good because she confided in him, she trusted him, and he hoped that meant that their relationship would continue to grow stronger. She was so busy helping Virginia with the baby though that he seldom had time to see her. He wished that she could get away from that ranch a bit more so he could spend time with her. His exceptionally busy older brother was about to offer a solution to that problem.

On the Ponderosa, Adam was in the midst of three major projects and was about to embark on a fourth that he had not anticipated. He was doing some finishing work on his house. He and Charity were living in the main house, but they wanted to move into their own home before winter which was only six months away. Whenever Adam had free time, which seemed to be rare, he was sanding, varnishing, painting, or adding some shelving or doors somewhere. Building a mill to produce shingles, siding, windows, and doors for construction was a major undertaking by itself, but Adam had also helped set up a crew to run the only mine owned by the Ponderosa. He had told Eric that he would be available to help as needed, and as the relatively inexperienced crew got to work in the mine, they often called on Adam for his guidance. The travel to the various locations, the supervision, the hands-on work, the ordering, the payroll, and the myriad other tasks left him very little time.

For all those reasons, Charity worried about him. One night as he slipped into bed, late as usual, she was waiting for him. She reached for him and rubbed his shoulders, and then as he relaxed under her massage, she continued down his back until she felt that she had helped as much as she could that way. Before he could fall asleep though, she had him roll over so that they could talk. He had other ideas but she stopped his hands from roaming.

“We need to talk, and there’s no time in the day any more to do that.”

“Oh-oh, have I done something wrong? If I have, I have to say that I’m sorry because the very last thing I want to do right now is to have you angry with me.”

“I know that. You don’t have the energy to even have an argument with me. Adam, something has to change. You’re working too hard. You’re pushing too hard.”

Pushing himself up against the pillows, Adam sighed because he knew she was correct. Charity knew he wouldn’t contest that point because it was too obviously true. She wondered what he would say though and wasn’t surprised by his answer.

“I made promises. They were made in good faith to everyone, but I didn’t consider the time involved when I made them. I didn’t sit down and work out how much time each thing was going to require of me.” Reaching for Charity’s hand, Adam had a confession to make. “There’s something I haven’t told you yet. I didn’t know how to bring it up. I have to build a large forge to make the hardware for the windows and doors we’ll be making. We’ll need hinges and handles and other hardware. I found that I can’t order enough at a reasonable price to keep a decent profit on what we’re producing. The only way to do it is to make our own. We can do it. We’ve got workers who can do it, but what we don’t have are the facilities.”

“So, there will be more construction, more correspondence, more ordering, and another payroll?”

“Yes, and frankly, I don’t know how I’m going to manage it. I was going to talk to Pa and my brothers. I’m going to get overwhelmed by all of this. I’m not used to feeling this way.”

“Is that why you haven’t asked for help yet even though you’ve been struggling to keep your head above water?”

“I’m not exactly drowning yet.”

“Adam, what if you get sick? What if there’s a problem in any one of your projects? You haven’t got a spare minute left in any day.”

“I know, but I don’t see a solution.”

“I do.”

Frowning for a moment, Adam wondered but then he guessed. “You want to work for me.”

“No, I want to work with you, and I want to bring Prudence in to do some of it too. She has a very good hand as well. We could do all of the correspondence, the ordering, and the payroll. We could do the ledgers for each of the businesses. I do the same for Hiram. I prepare the papers. He looks them over, and if all is in order, he signs them and sends them off. I did the same with the bookkeeping and the payroll in the store I worked at in Philadelphia. I filled everything out, and the owner looked it over and gave the final approval. When you got home in the evening, all you would need to do was look things over and sign your name as needed.”

Closing his eyes and envisioning what Charity had described, Adam could see no problem with it. Getting his father to agree was going to be a big problem though. “I like it.” He knew Charity had been worried about his answer. He pulled her close then and as her head rested on his shoulder, he added his worry. “Now we have to come up with a strategy to convince Pa that it’s a good idea.”

“I have an idea about that too.”

“Of course you do.”

“You better not be mocking me, mister.”

“I’m not, at least not much. I married you because I thought you were smart.”

“Oh, I thought you married me because you loved me.”

“Yes I did, and I love you because you’re smart, and sassy, and you are the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. I can’t get enough of you. Now, is that enough? Are you going to tell me your idea now or do I have to flatter you more?”

“A little more flattery and sweet talk would be nice.”

“How about this instead?” Adam gathered her in his arms and began kissing her hoping it would lead to more before he was done. He wasn’t nearly as tired as he had thought he was when he first slipped into the bed. It did lead to a lot more and later as Charity rested with her head on his chest and sighed in contentment, she was ready to talk again even as his eyes were closed.

“I think we ought to tell your father that I’m going to start working with you and helping you. It will take a while for me to know what to do so when I’m ready, then we can bring Prudence into the mix.”

“Did you have that on your mind the whole time that I was doing my best to show you how much I loved you and desired you?”

“No, I enjoyed all of that immensely. But now that’s done so I’m back to where we were before you decided to show me how you loved me instead of telling me. That was a very good way to win that argument, by the way.”

“I didn’t know it was an argument.”

“Discussion then. You are very good at discussing things. Now, how you discuss this with your father should be interesting. Tomorrow morning, you can tell him that I’m going to start looking over the ledgers and such. I can imagine the look on his face, but I have lots of free time tomorrow. I have all the curtains and linens done for the new house. Virginia and Prudence have helped and there’s nothing left to do until we can get inside and start decorating. You said that won’t probably happen for a few months yet so I have lots of free time.”

“Let’s talk about this in the morning. I have to sleep now.”

“Say yes and you can sleep.”

“Yes. And in the morning you can tell me what was in that letter from your aunt.”

Adam succumbed to sleep then, but Charity’s eyes were wide open for another half hour. She didn’t want to tell Adam about Julia’s pleas for money. She assumed that Prudence was getting similar pleas and was probably being asked for even more help. Julia had never taken care of herself in her lifetime. There had always been someone there to help her. What Charity feared is that if they didn’t help her, she might find some unsavory character to help her and then she might get involved in something that would get her in serious trouble. She thought about what she would tell Adam in the morning and hoped he would understand that she thought they should send some money to Julia. If they sent her small amounts, it might be enough to keep her from getting into more serious trouble. She worried though that he wouldn’t see it that way, and in the morning, she found that her worries were correct.

“I will not send one cent to her. She tried to destroy our relationship. She tried to prevent us from getting married. If she could, she would have done more than she did. If she was any smarter, we could have had some serious problems.”

“She was being encouraged to do that by the Toad. He’s in prison now. She’s all alone.”

“She deserves the situation she’s in. She’s lucky not to be in prison with him.”

“Adam, please think about it.”

“For you, I’ll think about it, but don’t expect me to change my mind easily. You’ll need more than the arguments you’ve used on her behalf so far.”

“I would think that you might do it for me.”

“You are the only reason I’m even considering it. For now, you’ll have to be satisfied that I’m keeping an open mind as to the final word on it. Perhaps we should have a discussion with Todd and Virginia and with Prudence too before a decision is made.”

“Thank you. Yes, that is a good idea. I was hoping that you might think that way. I’m glad you brought that up. Now, are we ready to face your father on the other issue?”

“Yes, we’ll act as if it’s something that’s perfectly natural. You’ll talk with me about it and I’ll hand over papers to you to look over today. I have some letters for you to write. I was thinking about that while I was shaving this morning. I have some orders to send and you can write those up following the pattern of the letters I sent for the lumber mill. I have a list of materials I need and you can substitute those. If you make two copies of each, then I can sign them and post them tomorrow. Tonight, I can start going over the ledgers with you and showing you how I do them. Then you can start making entries in there. I’ll bring the papers for the payroll home with me on Thursday and you can work on the payroll too. Now is this too much?”

“No, it doesn’t sound like too much. I can do it. If it is too much, I’ll tell you and you’ll have to help.”

“I won’t mind that at all because it will still be far less than I was doing before you agreed to help. I would have spent most of my time this week filling in the ledgers and getting the payroll done. Getting those orders out this soon will help a great deal.”

Offering his arm, Adam smiled conspiratorially. He and Charity were about to begin a strategic campaign against his father. His father was quite intelligent so the surprise maneuvers that would keep him guessing were their best bet for getting things to work their way. It worked out much as they planned. Ben wondered what was up with the looks that Adam and Charity exchanged at breakfast but soon got a taste of what was to come when Adam set Charity up at the table as soon as Hop Sing cleared away the breakfast dishes. He had her drawing up letters for him and making copies. It was similar work to what she did for Hiram Wood so at first Ben didn’t suspect what was to come. That night when Adam got out the ledger for the new construction and showed her how he entered everything, Ben was going to object but heard her say that it was so similar to what she had done in that store in Philadelphia where she had worked and what she did for Doctor Martin in his ledgers that she disarmed his objections. By the time she was doing the payroll, it was too late. Ben realized that she had taken over the office roles for the new manufacturing facility they were building and he had had no say in the decision. It irritated him somewhat, but those were Adam’s areas of responsibility so he could hardly object too much if Adam wanted his wife to help him with that work. At least that was how he justified it to himself so he could avoid a confrontation. At least it meant that Charity gave up her work with Hiram and Paul because she no longer had enough time to do that work. Adam was relieved at that even more than the rest of the family although he never said that to his wife, but he had been concerned about her being in town without an escort. Then Charity started to put pressure on Adam to hire Prudence to help her because it was a lot of work and they needed to get the books for the mine in order too. Adam cautioned her that was going to be a trickier proposition, and they needed a more elaborate strategy.

Chapter 2

Slamming her pencil to the table, Charity sat back and exclaimed loudly. “It’s hypocrisy!”

Ben Cartwright continued reading his newspaper and wisely refrained from making any comment. He saw his younger sons look at each other and return to their checkers game without giving even a glance in Charity’s direction. In the months that she and Adam had been married, they had all gotten used to her and Adam having some fiery although short exchanges occasionally. All had found it best to let the two of them alone when that happened.

“What? Why is taking a census of the population a hypocrisy?”

“No, not that, but I can only check one box for occupation. I do many other things so shouldn’t I be able to mark more than one box to show what I am actually doing?”

“That would seem to be sensible.”

“I assisted Doctor Paul when he needed me so I could also put down nurse. In fact, Hiram sent documents to me for copying because he said that I have the neatest and most readable penmanship of all the clerks he’s had. Now I do the correspondence for the new mill. I do the ledgers and billing. I prepare the payroll so I’m a bookkeeper. I should be able to mark all of those boxes. In the future, people will look at this and think that I sat at home cooking, cleaning, and doing nothing else except obeying my husband I suppose.”

“I like the last part of that.” Adam put up his hands in mock surrender though when he saw the smoldering look he got for that comment. “I do apologize for my flippant comment. It was insensitive. However, I can only check one box also.”

“Yes, but there is no box that says something like family provider or anything like that. All of your choices have to do with your work outside of the home. Why is the top choice for women one that assumes that the woman doesn’t use her mind and her education for something outside the home when we know that almost all the women out here do that?”

“It could be because the survey was created in the east where the prevailing attitude is that women should be in the home caring for the children.”

“And even there, we know it isn’t true. Many women work in factories and as servants as well as in all sorts of other jobs. Most families couldn’t survive if the woman wasn’t working. It’s a snobbish question written by men who have antiquated and ignorant ideas of how society works. Why don’t men with intelligence and principles run for office?” Then she remembered how a run for office had nearly wreaked havoc in the family and dropped the subject. However on the census form, she had to fill in the section of family size next and that stopped her as well. She wanted a child very much but nothing had happened for her and Adam yet. Adam saw her pause over the form, but because she said nothing, he leaned over and looked to see what had her attention. He paused briefly too and then squeezed her upper arm to get her attention and whispered to her very softly.

“It will happen.”

“But when? It’s been months and months. Most women would already be with child and I’m not yet. I want one so much, Adam.”

“I know, and I do too, but it will happen when it’s going to happen. We have to trust that it will and let it happen. Remember, you could have a big one like Hoss. You need to be ready for that. Or we could have one like Little Joe. Can you imagine our lives with a little whirlwind like that on top of all the work we already have?”

“I suppose He knows best. He probably thinks we don’t have time right now. Perhaps when we have our house and not so much work to do.”

“Yes, so now let’s get this census form finished so we can take a walk in the evening air. We haven’t had a chance to do that much lately, and I’m feeling a need for a walk with you.”

“Oh, you need to walk with me. Well, then, let’s get this done, because I need to walk with you too.”

But Charity had that saucy grin that showed she was interested in far more than a walk. When the two of them left the house arm-in-arm, Ben and his two younger sons had a chance to talk. They had overheard enough to guess most of the rest of what had transpired in the conversation.

“Pa, we need to find a way to ease up on Adam and Charity and all the work they got to do. I was thinking that maybe we could bring Candy in to take charge of more of the work around here. Then I could help out Adam more. Joe’s already got his hands full with the horses and with the changes we’re making there.”

“How could you help out Adam?”

“I know quite a bit about building things. As long as the plans are there, I could help a lot with the building. It would give him more time for the planning and other stuff he’s got to do.”

Giggling a bit, Joe had to add more. “And they need some time together. Anybody can tell that they have other plans and stuff they want to do together. They haven’t had much time for that either as busy as Adam has been. Late to bed and early to rise is no way to get us a niece or a nephew, is it, Hoss?”

“Joseph, flippant comments about relations between a husband and wife are not appropriate. What happens between Adam and Charity is not any of your concern and certainly should not be part of any conversation.” Except those comments Joe had made had more of an impact on Ben than Hoss’ ideas had. He did wonder if Adam’s workload had made it too difficult for him to have a child. He thought that perhaps finding a way to take some of the burden from him might get that grandchild he so coveted. He thought about that and then looked to Hoss. “I like your idea. I think we should talk with Adam about that at breakfast. If he agrees, we should bring up that subject with Candy, and then we could all meet with him, perhaps at dinner tomorrow evening, to discuss it.”

Looking proud and rather pleased with himself, Hoss looked over at Joe who was looking a bit chagrined after his father’s comments. “Ya hear that, Joe. Pa likes my idea.”

Snarling a bit, Joe didn’t think his father would appreciate hearing his comment that he and Hoss had been discussing that idea for some time. It would only seem like sour grapes at that point. He would let Hoss take credit for it. He was the one who had the courage to bring it up, but he hoped that Hoss would at some point let their father know that the two of them had come up with the idea together. Otherwise, he was going to have to get some revenge on Hoss for slighting him. As he thought about that, he smiled. Hoss saw that smile and got worried. He looked over to his father and had something to say.

“Hey, Pa, I meant to tell ya sooner, but that idea about promoting Candy, well, Joe and me been talking ’bout that for a while, so ya see, it was both our idea.”

“Yes, well, good. Now, I need to get some work done on these ledgers.”

Hoss looked over to Joe and saw that he was not fully placated. He grimaced a little knowing that he was going to pay a price for this slight. He guessed there was only one way to avoid a serious consequence. “Hey, Joe, if Adam agrees, do you want to be the one to tell Candy? He sure is gonna be tickled pink, dontcha think?”

“What? That he’s going to get to do more work for the same amount of pay?”

“Huh?” Hoss looked over to their father then who was bent over the ledgers. “Pa, is Candy gonna get paid more if he has more responsibilities?”

Sitting up and leaning back in his chair, Ben thought about that. “Yes, we should probably raise his pay. In fact, we should probably raise salaries for the three of you too. Let’s talk about that tomorrow morning before we talk with Candy.”

Hoss looked back at Joe who was all smiles then as all thoughts of revenge disappeared. Hoss had just gotten a raise for him. He was already thinking of how he could spend it. Hoss saw that look and relaxed because all was right within the family again. He liked it best when it was like that. And with Candy taking over some of the work, Hoss guessed that he might finally get some time to go see Prudence during the week. He was tired of only seeing her on Saturday evening and on Sunday. He wanted the chance to see her more often. It was with that thought that he wished his father and Joe a good night and headed up to bed followed by Joe a short time later. Ben turned down the lamps and banked the fire. He was about to head up the stairs when Adam and Charity walked in the house.

“Adam, do you have a moment. There’s something I wanted to tell you although we’ll talk more about it at breakfast.”

Ben could see that Adam was reluctant, but Charity told him she needed time to brush her hair and get ready for bed anyway. Adam smiled and plucked a few stray pieces of straw from her hair as she turned to walk to the stairs. Suppressing a grin, Ben watched as Adam nonchalantly walked to the fireplace and tossed the straw into the coals before turning to his father with that hint of a smile that said better than anything that he knew his father had seen everything and knew what it meant. Saying nothing about that of course, Ben got right to the business at hand.

“Your brothers have suggested that we give Candy more responsibility on the ranch. That would free Hoss to help you more. Hoss would like to be involved in the building of the mill. Are those things all right with you?” Adam nodded. “We should probably come up with a salary increase for all involved including you. Responsibilities have increased all around and that means that salaries should reflect that.” Adam nodded again. “We can talk more about it at breakfast.”

“That all sounds good, Pa. But if you’re talking salaries, it’s probably time to think about what you want to pay Charity for the work that she’s doing. You can think about that so that we can talk about it at breakfast.” With that, Adam turned and headed up the stairs knowing that his father was probably in shock without a thought of how to respond to what he had said. He would give him time to think that through, and he would warn his wife so that she would be diplomatic at breakfast because he wasn’t at all sure how his father was going to respond to that idea.

Surprisingly, Ben was agreeable to paying Charity a salary commensurate to what she had earned working for Paul and Hiram. She was agreeable to that so it was quickly settled. Raises were agreed upon for the three sons, and then a raise was agreed for Candy if he would agree to accept more responsibility. There were some incentives that were added as well such as new quarters in the future and some expenses being paid. Joe and Hoss got to go present the proposal to him and ask him if he would join them in the future for breakfast in the morning as they would plan each day’s work and the week then. Not too surprisingly, Candy enthusiastically agreed.

There was only one sobering thought that Ben made sure that all of them kept in mind. None of the changes they were making had brought any extra money into their coffers yet. They needed to keep a tight rein on expenses and the new salaries for the sons wouldn’t go into effect until the profits increased. Charity’s salary and Candy’s raise would have to be paid regardless because they were doing extra work, but the stakeholders in the Ponderosa were going to have to wait. Joe put his dream shopping list on hold. His look told his family what he had been thinking and gave them a chuckle before they headed out for work that day. Charity and Adam were heading to town to post mail and get supplies. Hoss was going to take Candy through his new duties, and Joe had work to do with the horses. As usual, there was more than enough work to do.

In town, Charity went to post the correspondence as Adam went to order supplies. Barney Fuller approached her as she finished posting the letters that had to go out. As usual, Barney was nosy and a bit overbearing. Charity explained what she was doing in the simplest terms and hoped to escape the conversation with him as quickly as possible. Barney however was in one of those moods in which he had to poke and prod and try to start something.

“You’ve got a smart and talented husband. You live in a powerful family with a big ranch and more money than they know what to do with. You could live a life of comfort and ease. Now why do you have to try to be equal to men like me?”

“Mister Fuller, I don’t want to be equal to you or to any man like you.”

“Well, you sure act like it sometimes.”

“No, I’m far more ambitious than that.” With that, Charity turned and exited the store hoping to find Adam and escape any more unpleasant conversations with the likes of Barney Fuller.

In the store, Barney Fuller was at first offended especially when there was laughter at Charity’s remarks. Then he shook his head as he watched her cross the street. He looked at the people standing in the store who waited for him to respond.

“Adam Cartwright snagged himself a wildcat. I wonder if he knows it yet.” He laughed then as did the others in the store. “Better yet, I would pay to see the look on old Ben’s face when she up and smart mouths him like that cause I know I ain’t the first man felt the sting of that sharp tongue. No sirree, I bet old Ben has heard a few words from that one. Well, good to know that Adam has his hands full with her and that new mill he’s building. Maybe I’ll stand a chance with the next contract bid for railroad business. I’m tired of him and his old man undercutting my bids. This time I’ll bid low enough to beat them out. You can bet on it.”

Unseen by any in the store because they had focused on the action at the front of the store, Adam had come in the back door to meet Charity. He had heard her encounter with Barney and had heard all that Barney had said afterwards. The shop owner was going to apologize to him, but Adam put a finger over his lips to keep him quiet. He left as silently as he had arrived with none knowing he had been there. He had a plan for paying Barney back for those words. He was going to let the man punish himself. He found Charity and walked her to their wagon which was already loaded. He knew she was a bit upset but told her they would talk once they left town.

“Trust me. I know what you’re going to say. I have a few things to tell you too, but not here.”

On the way home, Adam explained to Charity what he planned to do and why. When he arrived home, he explained it to his father who agreed with him. For the next few weeks, Adam confided in a few close friends that the Ponderosa was desperately in need of cash and was going to bid at rock bottom prices for the next railroad contract because they absolutely had to win it. When it was time to bid, they didn’t even submit a bid because they no longer had any intention of selling good Ponderosa timber for rough-cut railroad ties. Barney won the bid at a price that probably had him losing money. He was furious but had no one to blame but himself for being a fool.

Chapter 3

The next month started with very good economic news. Adam had part of the mill up and running. It was producing doors and siding. He got a contract for a large hotel in Carson City. When he came home from town after meeting with the men building the hotel, he was excited. He could hardly stop talking and ran through everything that he had learned from the corporation building the hotel that had advanced him money on the order for doors.

“Do you know how many doors there are in a hotel? This is a great start and good advertising for the type of work we can do locally. They’ll save money by buying from us, and we’ll make money. We can have the product there faster than they could have them shipped in from any other source too. If all goes well, we’ll be making transom windows as well as doors for their next project here in Virginia City. They have other projects in the works too. They have a railroad switching station to build in the Sierras. It will be three stories and we don’t even have to bid on these projects. They want a catalog or listing of what we have or can make, and they’ll order from us. They’re going to give me a chance to do some design work for them too. They’re going to send me some ideas, and I’ll get to submit a design to them. If they like it, they’ll buy the design and we can produce all the products for building it as well.”

After Adam handed over the receipt for the money he had deposited, Hoss and Joe crowded behind Ben to look at the amount and then whistled. Ben smiled.

“This will go a long way toward recouping our investment in that mill. A couple of checks like this, and we’ll start seeing a net profit from it.”

“With the money coming in from the mine now and the money from the cattle and the horses, we’re doing well. As long as the cattle drive brings in at least an average return, this could be a very good year. The mill and the mine will keep operating through the winter so there will be no more pinching pennies in the winter months hoping to make it to the spring drive.”

“Yes and Joe has some ideas about how to use any extra freight wagons and teams over the winter months if we don’t need them here for the mill or the mine deliveries.”

After Joe explained what he wanted to do, Hoss laid out his plans to do the drive with Candy as ramrod. It would be the first drive in which there would only be one Cartwright working the drive. It seemed odd, but it was how things were probably going to work in the future as they developed a multi-faceted business operation. Everything was falling into place, but Charity was quiet. Ben noted that she said very little, and after dinner, she and Adam went outside. When they came inside, they went upstairs without saying much to anyone. The next morning, Ben asked Adam if there was anything he could do to help.

“No, it’s only another month.”

“Adam, it will happen for you. Perhaps the two of you are still working so hard. Maybe a short break would help. We can take over for a few days and let you and Charity take a short vacation. You hardly have any time for the two of you.”

“I don’t know how we can do it. We need someone to do the books. You can’t take over my work, keep up with yours, and do Charity’s. It’s too much.”

“Perhaps there’s someone else who can take over Charity’s work for a short time.”

Adam wanted to grin but held it inside. It was the opening he had been hoping to have. “Well, Charity has been asking me if she could show Prudence how to help with the books. Now that she and Hoss are getting so serious, and it looks like Prudence will be part of the family at some point, it seems that perhaps it would be all right to have her help out part-time.”

Ben looked at his son wondering if he had been played but lacking any evidence that was true. “Do you have any idea if Prudence has any talent for this kind of work? We know that Charity had experience doing it, but does Prudence?”

“Not as much, but Charity could teach her. She wouldn’t have to do as much though. She would mainly be making entries to keep track of things. There would be no correspondence, no orders. Charity and I do all of those, and we do the payroll too. But there are lots of records to be kept and it’s time consuming to write it all down.”

A bit suspicious about that sudden turn in the conversation, Ben wondered how much was going on that he had not known about. “What does Hoss think about this?”

Clever enough to avoid that trap, Adam was evasive. “We should ask him. I’m fairly certain he would like the idea. It would mean that Prudence would be here every day. He would hardly be likely to object to that.”

“We couldn’t pay her much.”

“I don’t think that would be a problem. She gets paid nothing for what she does for Todd and Virginia, and she could continue to do that for the room and board she gets there.”

Outmaneuvered at every turn, Ben could only concede on every point. He did want to see Adam and Charity take some time away, and if this was how it would work, then he was willing to take a chance on Prudence. “It’s a trial run though. When you and Charity return, we’ll evaluate how things worked, and then we’ll make a final decision based on that.”

“Yes, Pa. That sounds about right.”

So that evening, Ben told Hoss and Joe that he got Adam to agree to take some time off and spend a short vacation in Carson City with Charity.

“How did you get the old granite head to do that? I never thought he would ever agree to take a break until that mill was completely done.”

“Joe, give your father some credit. I knew how to appeal to my oldest son. I used logic and common sense to get him to see things my way. He and Charity need some time away. You saw how unhappy she was this morning. Well, it’s time for them to spend some time together.”

Hoss was happy with the solution, but not nearly as happy as Charity. She asked Adam how he had managed to get some time away when there was so much work to do and she was especially surprised that Prudence was going to be able to work with her. “How did you get your father to agree to letting Prudence work with me, and get a short vacation for us as well?”

“I appealed to his common sense and his logic. Your looking so downcast this morning helped too. Why did you look that way?”

“I saw the stack of paperwork that I had to do today. It made my head hurt to think about it.”

“Pa interpreted it as something else, but that’s all right. It helped the solution. He thought it was because you aren’t with child yet.”

“But I might be. You didn’t tell him I was late, did you?”

“No, you’re not that late. We can’t be sure yet.”

“No, but I’ve not been this late before so it could be.”

“We’ll keep it as our secret until we’re sure. Now get packing what we need for a short vacation in Carson City. I want to take you to dinner and then spend some quality time together without any work and without any talk about work.”

“You don’t feel guilty at all about taking this vacation under false pretenses.”

“No, I don’t. We need this time away, and if our special secret turns out to be true, they’re going to be very happy for us. If it isn’t true, then perhaps this small vacation can make it come true next month. Either way it’s a winning proposition.”

“I’ll have to spend today showing Prudence how to do the entries.”

“That’s fine. An early evening ride to Carson City, a bath together, dinner in the room, and who knows what might happen.”

“Oh, I think you know exactly what will happen and you’re counting on it too. Now if you want that, you need to go over to talk to Prudence and get her to ride over here in their carriage so she can get home. I’m sure Hoss will be willing to escort her home. I’ll have our things packed by the time you get back. Then I’ll spend the day getting Prudence ready to handle things while we’re gone. I’m assuming that you’ll be doing the same with Hoss and your father?”

“I will, and Charity, you won’t need to pack more than one gown. You’ll hardly be needing that one.” With a cheeky grin, Adam leaned down to kiss her quickly before he left the room but not before she slapped his behind as he turned to leave. She stood with her hand on her hip. He grinned again as he saw that when he looked back. The thought of having some time away from work and worry had already rejuvenated him, and Charity realized that his father might be correct. Perhaps it was the stress and the worry that was making it difficult for them to conceive a child. She decided then that she needed to make more of an effort to find time for the two of them to relax and enjoy life despite how ambitious they were. It was going to be a challenge. She smiled at the incongruity of the problem. She was going to have to work to give them time to relax. Shrugging, she knew it was how they were going to have to be for the foreseeable future.

Someone who looked forward to being busier, Prudence was thrilled that the idea that Charity had broached to her some time earlier had finally come true. As soon as she could, she was dressed for the ride to the Ponderosa and was merrily driving the carriage with Adam riding along beside her. As soon as she was in the yard at the ranch, Hoss was there to escort her inside. Then as Charity and Prudence bent their heads over the books with receipts and bills stacked next to them, Adam sat down with Hoss and their father to discuss what needed to be done at the mill in his absence. Things were going rather smoothly this far into the process, but every day they would need to check on the progress with the various work crews and see that the plans and the work was being done according to orders Adam had written out. He wasn’t going to be gone for long so there were few worries about that. By late afternoon, Adam felt comfortable in leaving things in Hoss’ hands with his father as back-up, and Charity pronounced that Prudence could handle anything needed for the bookwork.

Once Adam and Charity left, Hoss startled his father and Prudence with a request. “While Adam and Charity are gone, maybe Miss Prudence should stay here instead of making that trip by herself every day. She could stay in the guest room down here and then she could do the work right there at the table and keep the paperwork right there in that room when she wasn’t working. It’s only for five days. Sunday evening after we all have dinner, I could escort her home. Adam and Charity will be back by then.”

By Monday morning, Adam was feeling rejuvenated in many ways, but Charity was tired from her vacation. She was still ‘late’ so she and Adam were hopeful that they would soon have good news to share. Hoss had spent five days getting to know Prudence better and had come to a decision. He meant to talk to Adam about ordering a ring and how to do that to get the right size without her knowing she was getting a ring. Ben was pleased with how smoothly things were going, and then the bad news arrived. Joe came home from town with the mail on Wednesday and two items of news. The first wasn’t too bad.

“Toad died in prison. I saw Roy and he told me. Said he had been hazed so much by the other prisoners that his heart must have given out. He died about a month ago.”

“Why are we only hearing about it now?”

“Apparently it wasn’t much news until the reading of the will in Carson City on Monday morning. You can guess who his heir is considering that he had no children and no known relatives.”

As Ben and Hoss thought about it, Adam and Charity got a sneaking and horrifying suspicion. Seeing Joe looking at them, they knew it had to be true. Almost in unison, they asked Joe if it was Julia, and he told them it was.

“Yes, he left the whole of everything he owned to her. He left a sealed letter for her too. She has to read the letter and then she gets everything.”

Frowning, Hoss looked around at the others who were frowning as well. “What do you suppose is in that letter?”

“Son, it can’t be good news for us. And if Julia is coming back here, that’s bad news too.”

Chapter 4

When Prudence arrived the next day on the Ponderosa, Adam and Charity had some questions for her. She admitted that she had sent some money to her mother.

“She begged me for help. She said she didn’t have enough to pay the rent on her place for this month and needed extra. I don’t have many expenses so I sent her some. I guess it was all a lie. Now I think she wanted that money to come here to hear the will being read. Well she won’t be asking me for money any more. That awful man left her plenty of money if the story we heard is true. I wonder if she’ll even bother to come over here to say hello to me.”

Wishing that Julia would go away forever, Adam couldn’t bring himself to say that to Prudence. Julia was an awful woman, but she was her mother. Hoss was there looking sad for the pain that Prudence was facing. Adam suggested that the two of them ought to get to work and let the two ladies spend the day together talking and working. It didn’t take long for the ladies to find topics to discuss.

“Charity, do you like being married to Adam?”

Surprised at that question, Charity put down her pencil and stared at Prudence who looked at her innocently letting Charity know that there was no malice in the question. “Yes, I adore being married to Adam. I no longer can think of living any other way even though we have only been married less than a year. It seems like it is the most natural way for me to live my life. Why do you ask?”

“I think Hoss is going to ask me to marry him. He’s been saying things that kind of hint at that without coming right out and saying it. I’m scared of saying that I will spend my life with him. How do you know that you can trust someone so much with the rest of your life? And you know, with other things? I’ve never been with a man before, and Hoss and I have only kissed. I’m worried about what will happen when we get married. He’s a very big man.”

Sliding her chair closer to Prudence so that she could whisper and not be overheard, Charity decided to confide in her cousin in order to reassure her. “You can never tell anyone, not even Hoss, anything about what I’m going to say. Adam is a very private person. But I can tell you that even very strong men can be very gentle while they are being passionate. They can take their time and make sure that they don’t hurt the woman they love. I mean, there is going to be some discomfort until you get used to it, but it will be of little consequence in comparison to the feelings that you’ll have when you join with your husband. You’ll forget all about that little discomfort when the feelings of pleasure wash over you.”

“It’s really that good? Mother always made it sound as if it was something that she had to do and not something that any woman wanted to do. She never seemed to have minded so much that she didn’t have a husband any more except that there was no one there to provide an income.”

“If you love the one you’re with, you want to and then it’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s so strong you want to hang onto him and never let him go, and other times it’s gentle and warm and you settle in and want to snuggle in his arms and let him love you like that forever.”

“But how did you trust him enough to marry him in the first place? That’s what I’m struggling with now.”

“Whenever I needed him, he was there. Whenever I saw him, I felt better. When he wasn’t there, I felt like something was missing from my life. I knew that if ever I needed him, he would be there, and if ever I asked something of him, he would do his best to do that for me. He would always do his best. What is trust but knowing that? Isn’t that true of Hoss for you too?”

Prudence thought for a short time, and slowly a smile grew until she looked at Charity. “My fear is fear of doing something that’s unknown. That’s all it is, isn’t it? I do trust Hoss. I love him too. If he asks me, I’m going to say yes. You’ve helped me a lot.”

“Now I have one more bit of advice for you. You told me all of this. You have to tell Hoss too.”

“Oh, no, I couldn’t tell Hoss. It would upset him.”

“No, it won’t. You say you trust him. Well, he needs to trust you too, and one of those things is that he needs to trust that you will tell him the truth even if it’s difficult to say and perhaps difficult to hear sometimes. He needs to know how you’re feeling and how you’re thinking. Don’t make him guess. That’s not fair.”

“Did you tell Adam how you were feeling?”

“Yes and no. I told him some of it, but he guessed a lot without me telling him.”

“How did he react?”

“He was very gentle and patient with me. That helped a lot. It didn’t take long for me to get over those fears, but he understood, and Hoss will too. You need to give him the chance to be understanding and patient by letting him know how you feel.”

“Thank you. I don’t have a mother who I can talk to about things like this, and when I tried to talk to Virginia about things, well, she was very embarrassed and didn’t really want to talk about it.”

“You can always talk to me, but I think that once you’re married to Hoss, you won’t need to talk to me. You’ll be able to talk with Hoss about things.”

“I hope so. It’s lonely not having someone to talk to about things, well about lots of things, not just that, well, you know what I mean.”

Prudence turned pink then and Charity had to chuckle. At his desk, Ben had been aware of the two of them whispering away and could guess at the topics. He stayed at his work and let them have their privacy. Ben had noticed Adam being especially attentive to Charity. He hoped it meant that there was going to be some special news soon. He knew the two of them hoped very much for a baby, and although they sometimes joked about the wait, it had to be gnawing at them. It would be good for them to know, and he was looking forward to the news as well. He also expected Hoss to have an announcement soon. He had thought it would have already occurred but Hoss was taking his time as he did on many things. Ben could only hope that Adam was counseling him and encouraging him. That would likely speed things up. That was happening too as Adam had already pushed Hoss to get the ring ordered and had given him some ideas about how to make the proposal. Now it was up to Hoss to set the stage and finally ask the question. Adam gave him one last piece of advice that morning.

“If you don’t ask her soon, everyone is going to know you’re getting married before you know it. It will take a lot of the excitement out of the announcement.”

“Huh? Oh, cause everyone is gonna figure it out so they’ll be expecting it?” Adam rolled his eyes as if that wasn’t even necessary to state. “Well, I was thinking of asking her this weekend. Is that soon enough?”

“It is. Have you alerted Hop Sing like I told you to do?”

“Dadburnit, I knew I forgot something.”

“Well do that tonight and offer to pay him extra and pay a cousin if he needs any extra help. He’ll like that well enough that you won’t have to put up with much complaining. I made sure that there’s champagne for the toasts when you tell everyone so that’s all set. Did you pick up the ring you ordered?”

“It’s going to be ready on Friday. I’ll get it then.”

With a grin, Adam stopped and took a good look at Hoss. “You’re going to be so happy.”

“I shur hope so.”

“You will be. Let’s hope we can keep her mother from being a problem about the wedding.”

“Do you think she will be?”

“She’s a problem about everything. I wish I could say she isn’t but we know that’s not true, but I wish I could say I knew what she was likely to do. She’s unpredictable.”

“That’s a worry.”

“It is. Now that she has money, maybe she will be less of a problem though. She doesn’t have to try to get her hands on Ponderosa money because she has her own.”

“I know, but I got a bad feeling in my gut about all of that.”

“So do I. I wish I knew what was in that letter she got from Mann.”

In Carson City, Julia was meeting with the lawyers and getting that sealed letter. She was given privacy and a chance to read it. She read it, and after getting over the shock, she smiled and nodded to herself. She wouldn’t mind doing what he asked of her. As he pointed out in the letter, she had enough money now to accomplish the task without getting her hands dirty, and he had even provided contacts for her. She could meet with those people and make the arrangements. It would cost her some of her newfound wealth to pay men to carry out the assignment but not too much. Then she could let events move forward and enjoy the rest of her wealth. She planned to move back to Philadelphia and live the life of a woman of leisure. She could do that now and live off the investments she had inherited. She wondered at the warning in the letter that said there was someone watching to be sure she completed her assignment. She wasn’t sure that was true, but she suspected it might be. She didn’t object to the assignment though so it wasn’t going to be an issue for her. She called to the lawyers to tell them she had read the letter. The rest of the meeting was to officially sign over Mann’s wealth to her. She walked out of the lawyers’ office and headed to the finest hotel in town and took one of their finest rooms. She planned to do some shopping the next day. She had some men to meet, some arrangements to make, and then she was going to go see her ungrateful daughter and let her know that she was leaving her here in the west and going back to Philadelphia.

Two days later, three men met with her in her hotel room. They were reasonably well dressed, but they were obviously also very dangerous men. She was nervous around them but explained what they had to do. They found the task odd, but her offer was too good to ignore. She paid them half up front and told them where to meet her to receive the other half of the payment.

“I’ll be back here in a week. By then, it should be done. They should be drying out there in the desert just as Mann wanted. If you have accomplished that, you get the other ten thousand dollars.”

“How will you know we did it?”

“If you do it, it will be news. No Cartwright disappears without it being news. If he disappears without a trace, then I know you followed your instructions. They’ll know something bad happened because of the note, but they won’t have any idea of where to look.”

“And we don’t actually have to kill him? We leave him to die?”

“Yes, him and the other one that Mann wants dead for what they did to him. Leave them to die in the desert according to the instructions I gave you. That’s what Mann wanted. Eventually they will be found but by then, there won’t be much to find.”

Two days later, three men met with her in her hotel room. They were reasonably well dressed, but they were obviously also very dangerous men. She was nervous around them but explained what they had to do. They found the task odd, but her offer was too good to ignore. She paid them half up front and told them where to meet her to receive the other half of the payment.

“I’ll be back here in a week. By then, it should be done. They should be drying out there in the desert just as Mann wanted. If you have accomplished that, you get the other ten thousand dollars.”

“How will you know we did it?”

“If you do it, it will be news. No Cartwright disappears without it being news. If he disappears without a trace, then I know you followed your instructions. They’ll know something bad happened because of the note, but they won’t have any idea of where to look.”

“And we don’t actually have to kill him? We leave him to die?”

“Yes, him and the other one that Mann wants dead for what they did to him. Leave them to die in the desert according to the instructions I gave you. That’s what Mann wanted. Eventually they will be found but by then, there won’t be much to find.”

“When do we do this?”

“As soon as possible. I want to show up after they’re missing so that it’s clear that I wasn’t present when it happened. I will simply gloat over my good fortune and their bad. Then I will take my leave to come back here and await your return.”

The men went to Virginia City that day and got to work. At the end of the day, a note was delivered to the Ponderosa. It was relayed to Adam at the mill where he and Hoss were working. Hoss headed to town to pick up the ring he intended to give Prudence that weekend, and Adam headed to the mine to find out what kind of trouble Eric was having that needed his attention on a Friday. He was surprised by the request, but he honored it because he had promised Eric that he could always call on him if he needed advice or help.

That evening when it was time for dinner, Adam had not returned. Hoss said he had gotten a note from Eric. No one worried too much assuming that the two had their heads together working out some problem at the mine. However when one of Eric’s friends arrived because Eric’s wife was worried that he didn’t come home for dinner, concern rose exponentially with each bit of information.

“No one’s at the mine. I checked. We finished up on time today with no problems.”

“But Eric sent a note to Adam asking him to stop by.”

“No, I don’t think so, Mister Cartwright. Eric was getting ready to lock up the office when I left. He wouldn’t have been locking the door if he was expecting Adam to be there.”

Suddenly the whole Cartwright family got a cold chill. Toad dying, Julia arriving, and now this had to be connected. They weren’t sure how, but it was ominous. Ben looked at the man who was also looking worried.

“Tell Sheriff Coffee what you told us. Joe, will you go with him and explain things from our end? Hoss, do you think you could find anything this late?”

“No, Pa, but I know where Adam was exactly when he rode off so I know where to start looking. We’ll be there at first light.”

Ben turned to Charity and wrapped an arm around her as she stood in near shock not knowing what to say or do. “We’ll find him. He’ll be fine. You know how strong and resourceful he is.”

Many miles away, however, Adam was shivering in the night air as his horse was led along a desert trail. They had been traveling nearly nonstop since he had been taken at gunpoint. Eric rode beside him in nearly the same state. The only stop had been to toss a bundle over a steep cliff. It contained their weapons as well as their shirts, hats, and boots. Their captors had made sure that it was going to be very difficult for them to fight back or run away. It was also very cold riding in the night air. Apparently their comfort meant nothing which led Adam to believe they weren’t meant to survive this ordeal, but then he wondered why they had not been killed outright. No answers were forthcoming from the three men though who said almost nothing as they forced them to keep moving on further into the desert.

Chapter 5

In a moment of privacy as the men let Adam and Eric relieve themselves at the side of the trail, Eric whispered. “Adam, what do you think they’re going to do to us?”

“If I had one guess, they mean to strand us in the desert. Why is the big question. If they were going to shoot us or kill us outright, they’ve had quite a few chances already. They took our boots and guns which made sense if they were going to make us less likely to be able to escape, but taking our shirts and hats makes no sense unless they want us exposed to the elements.”

Even though they weren’t worried about the two men escaping, the three men didn’t want them plotting either. Hearing them whisper was enough. They ordered them back to the horses, tied their wrists again, and had them up on the horses quickly and back on the trail. In this relatively flat terrain, they could travel at night if they went slowly. Adam was getting some blisters on his ankles and feet from the stirrups rubbing against skin normally protected by his boots. He tried to keep his toes pressed against the stirrup but found that he was getting too tired to maintain the pressure. The result was some painful blisters that broke and bled. He guessed he was going to be far more uncomfortable than that if these men carried out whatever plan they had for him and Eric. He was curious too though to know who had ordered it. He didn’t know these men and they seemed to have no personal animosity toward him or toward Eric so they were hired help. He hoped at some point to find out who had hired them and why. He also was trying to come up with a plan to free them from their captors, but so far, he had nothing. As dawn broke, the men forced them to pick up the pace. They moved rapidly for several hours especially when they saw some freight wagons in the distance. The men with them told them that if they did anything to attract attention, they would be shot immediately. They didn’t dare do anything, but they did hope that the drivers noticed them and might tell someone at some point. It might be their only chance at a rescue. They traveled for several more hours until they reached a very desolate spot. Then they were ordered from their horses.

“All right, move on out over there.” One of their captors pointed to a spot not unlike every other spot around them.

“Why?” Adam wanted to know what was expected of them.

“For now, we have the guns so you just follow orders. Move.”

One of the men moved to the packhorse and pulled out two shovels. He carried them and followed the other two men who leveled guns on Adam and Eric and forced them to move out into the sandy terrain.

“Now, start digging. We want a nice big hole by tonight.”

“We can’t do much with our wrists tied.” Adam held up his wrists that were abraded and bleeding from the ropes chafing for over twelve hours already. He got no sympathy but did have a point. The ropes were removed by the man who had brought the shovels. Then as one man guarded them, the other two went back to care for the horses and prepare a meal. None of that was shared with Adam and Eric though, and they got no water either reinforcing Adam’s belief that they were meant to die at the end of whatever the plan was. He wished he knew what the plan was however.

Many miles away, Hoss was frustrated. He had followed Adam’s tracks to where he had been abducted and then to a public road. From that point on however, he had nothing. Splitting up the searchers, they were looking in every possible direction for some indication that they had left the road and gone some other way. They never found any indication of that. They searched all day and found no trace of where Adam had been taken. By the end of the day when Hoss met up with his father’s search group, he had only one idea left.

“Pa, we need to bring in some Paiute trackers. If anybody can find a sign of where he went, they might. I only hope we ain’t messed that up with all the riding around we did today trying to find something.”

“That will take so much more time.”

“Pa, we got to do something. Unless Joe gets back here with better news, we got nothing else.”

“All right, I’ll ride to town to see what Roy may have found out. If I see Joe, I’ll let him know what you’re doing. Send the men home to get a good meal. Will you ride to the Paiute camp now?”

“I’ll get started. I won’t get all the way there before it’s dark, but I’ll be there early tomorrow. How much can I promise as a reward if they find him, Pa?”

“Whatever you have to, Hoss. Whatever it takes to get the help we need.”

As Ben rode to town, he met up with Joe and gave him the unenviable task of having to tell Charity that they had found no trace of Adam. He did tell Joe to tell her what Hoss was planning, and that he was going to town to see if there was any news there. When he got to town, he saw Barney Fuller first. It was one of the last people he wanted to see, but Barney hailed him and refused to be ignored which was Barney’s usual way.

“Barney, I have urgent business.”

“I heard, but I have something that might help with that.”

About to brush Barney off, that got Ben’s attention. Barney knew it would. He had to jab Ben a little first though.

“Now I had a run-in with your daughter-in-law. She’s got a sharp tongue on her, that one. But, Adam has always been reasonably respectful so I figure I owe him this much especially as he has to put up with that wife of his.”

Clearly frustrated, Ben fumed. “Barney, what have you got to say that I need to know?”

“Well some of my freight haulers were coming back from Reno. They took a side trip to bring some stuff over to the folks who took over the old Wilson Station. When they were leaving there, they saw five men riding out into the desert. It looked like Adam was with them. Now that wasn’t what grabbed their attention and made them tell me.”

“Well, Barney, that is important information all by itself, but what did grab their attention and make them tell you what else?”

“Adam was shirtless, hatless, and wasn’t wearing his boots. Now that is an odd way to see the oldest son of the Ponderosa riding in any circumstances.”

“Shirtless, hatless, and without his boots? That’s very odd. Who was he with?”

“Several other men. My men didn’t know any of the others. One man looked familiar to them. He didn’t have a shirt or hat or boots either. The other three men they didn’t know. They told me a short time ago. I was about to go tell Sheriff Coffee because I heard your son was missing. It’s not a big stretch of the imagination to think that this is related.”

“Thank you, Barney. Despite everything we’ve done to each other in business, this is a good thing you’ve done. I won’t forget it.”

“It’s all right, Ben. That other stuff was never personal.”

“Which direction from Wilson Station were they going?”

“Generally northeast. They weren’t paying close attention. They only thought it was odd at the time. If they had known more, they would have done something about it.”

With another thank you, Ben hurried to Roy’s office with that information. Roy had nothing more to offer but now had something to check out. He headed to the livery stables to see about men who might have had horses there or rented out any horses. He and Ben got information at the second one they checked where they found that three men had bought a pack horse. They followed that lead to the general store where they found the men had purchased food, a pot, canteens, and two shovels. That last part seemed especially ominous with the rest that they knew. Even though it was getting close to dusk, Ben headed to the ranch to inform his family and hands of what they had learned. Roy was going to have a posse formed, and they expected Hoss back with trackers in the morning as well. The search area had gotten quite a bit smaller too. Hoss was going to be back even earlier than expected because in the dusk and early evening, he pushed on and encountered some Paiute before it got too dark to see where he was going. He explained what he needed and got their agreement to help. They waited only for enough light to travel in the morning. A full-scale rescue was underway.

“Will it be soon enough?”

Charity’s plaintive question when Ben told her of the plans he had made with Roy in town and then explained to her and Joe shook him and Joe. It was the great fear neither of them could face but one she couldn’t shake. None of them knew if Adam was even alive at this point. He was but things were getting desperate by that evening. He knew it as did Eric. They suspected that they weren’t going to survive the next morning by the comments made by the men. They had spent the day digging but without food and mostly because they had no water, they were getting very weak. In the hole, Adam whispered to Eric.

“If they get us out of here, we need to use these shovels to our advantage.”

“Against rifles and pistols?”

“The other choice is to let them kill us. You heard what they said. They’re going to burn our feet and let us in this hole. Unless we’re found fast, we won’t make it. Men can only survive a couple of days without water out here. We’ve already used one of those. We can barely stand now. We have to act as if we can’t do much of anything. Start staggering and acting as if you can’t even lift another shovel of sand out of here. Over the next few minutes, we have to convince them that we’ve reached our limit.”

“And then what?”

“And then they’ll move on to the next part of their plan, and we’ll have to make our move. It may be the only chance we have.”

Having trusted Adam before when things had worked out well, Eric was already conditioned to trust his advice. He nodded. They whispered no more but began bumping into each other, dropping to one knee and having trouble regaining their feet, and when lifting a shovel of sand finding that more poured from it than got tossed from the hole. As they continued, those actions were more and more exaggerated until the man guarding them at that time decided that the plan had worked. He yelled to his partners.

“Hey, Axil, it looks like they’re about done in. It’s probably time to have them crawl out of there before we have to haul them out.”

“That bad?”

“Yeah, it’s been kind of fun watching them for the last half hour or so. It’s like a pair of clowns down there banging into each other and not getting much of anything done.”

The other two men walked up beside the first and watched Adam and Eric seemingly in a daze from dehydration and heat exhaustion. After another five minutes of watching, they all agreed that it was time. Axil ordered one of the men to go heat up the branding iron they had brought with them.

“Lew, stick it in that fire and get it real hot. I don’t want to have to do this over again. Once is gonna be bad enough. This is the worst part of what she told us to do. For what she’s paying us, we’ll do it, but it’s a sick thing.”

Axil yelled down to Adam and Eric to climb out of the hole they had dug. It took several attempts to get their attention and get them to understand what he wanted. They used their shovels to help them make the climb. Axil and Rowdy were just as glad not to have to touch them to help them out. Adam and Eric took their time waiting for Lew to rejoin his friends before they stood and swung their shovels in a desperate effort to disarm their captors. A frantic fight for control ensued with shots fired and blows struck until the three men were battered, bleeding, and subdued. Adam held a rifle in his hands as did Eric, but it was Adam giving the orders.

“Take off your boots and your shirts now!” The three men did as they were told. “Throw them in the hole.” They did that as well. “Now lay face down and put your hands behind your back. Any trouble and I’ll put a bullet in your brain. I don’t have time to do anything else at this point.”

Once the three men had their wrists tied, Adam had Eric tie their ankles as well.

“We can leave them here. I’m sure that they can be retrieved before anything too terrible happens to them, but if not, well, they brought it on themselves.”

“Adam, we have to do something about the bleeding.”

“I know. Go look to see if they have any clean cloth on that packhorse. A clean shirt will do. I wish that they had boots that fit, but clean shirts or a nice blanket would be good.” With that Adam dropped to his knees and then to his side. Eric was beside him in a moment to ease him onto his back. Then he rushed to the packhorse to see what was there to use. The wound wasn’t too serious if they were in town, but out here, he was worried about the bleeding especially as weak as Adam already was. He did the best he could but succumbed to exhaustion too in the middle of the night.

Chapter 6

A few buzzards circling helped the Paiute trackers and Hoss zero in on the location of Adam and Eric. Both men were nearly delirious with heat exhaustion from their ordeal and Adam had the additional blood loss and pain. They had the canteens of water and had been sipping the water but it wasn’t enough to recover. They needed assistance. Hoss wanted to send a man to the station to see about getting a wagon but suspected that a Paiute might not receive a friendly welcome there. Instead, he fired off three shots hoping that a search party might be close enough to hear not realizing that his father and Sheriff Coffee had converged on the area and were waiting for some sign even as they looked for tracks. Hoss was greatly relieved to see the men ride up a short time later.

“Pa, Joe, they’re alive but in tough shape. Adam’s been shot in the side. It ain’t bad. He musta been fighting over a gun with somebody cause there’s powder burns on his side too. That actually helped cause the wound closed up, but he’s already got a fever. Could be from what he went through but it could be an infection. He needs a doc.”

“What about those three?”

“Must be the ones who done it to them. We ain’t paid no attention to them, but if Eric and Adam done tied ’em up, they had a good reason to do it.”

“I’ll send a man to the station for a wagon. Joe, could you ride for Doctor Martin and have him meet us at the ranch?”

“That’s what I wanted. Now we gotta get Adam and Eric cooled down. You got plenty of water with you?”

“We do, and we’ll use whatever we have.”

Both Adam and Eric roused a bit with the care they received. The three men who had taken them captive were begging for water and for their clothing. Adam smiled grimly and whispered to his father who had to lean down close to his mouth to hear him. Ben leaned back then and nodded before walking over to Roy.

“Roy, don’t give them any water or anything else until they pay for it.”

“Ben, how they gonna pay for it? I don’t think anybody ought to have to pay for water out here in the desert.”

“Roy, they didn’t give Adam and Eric any water for a full day. Now, they can wait for water at least that long and perhaps longer unless they want to tell us who gave them the orders to do this thing. It could go easier with the judge too, don’t you think, if they showed remorse and confessed?”

“Well, now, Ben, you got a point there. These men surely could show some good faith by telling us who give ’em these orders and by confessing everything. The judge surely would take than into consideration. They didn’t kill nobody, and it could give ’em a lot shorter time locked up.”

“How long is the sentence for kidnapping and attempted murder?”

“Judge could give ’em twenty years or more.”

“But if they cooperated, what could happen?”

“Well, now it could be charged as assault. That could get them a year or two if the judge was told that they was willing to cooperate and was remorseful.”

“Most young men can handle a year or two, but twenty years, and your life is over before you’re done.”

“It sure is. I’ve seen men get out after twenty years. Sometimes they’re only forty or so years old, and they look like sixty or more. Can’t get a decent job. Can’t get a gal. Swamping out a saloon, begging for drinks and food, and such is about all they got to look forward to. It’s a sad thing. It’s almost better to get the gallows. You die quick that way and not so slowly.”

Lew tried to roll over. “I’ll talk. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.”

“You fool. That’s what they wanted. They were only trying to scare you.” Axil tried to get him to stop.

“I don’t care. What they said made sense. I don’t owe her anything, and neither do you. We already got money in the bank. We serve our year or two and move on. It was all her doing. Let her serve the twenty years.”

Anyone listening who knew the family well had a fairly good idea who the ‘her’ was going to be. Rowdy agreed with Lew and said he would also talk. Axil gave in then and also agreed to confess. Roy had one of the men remove the ropes on their ankles and let the men sit up to tell their tale. Roy had the men in the posse tend to the horses and the gear. He and Ben sat with Hoss and Clem as they listened to the three tell the whole story. Ben and Hoss continued to tend to Adam and Eric who listened as well as they could.

At some point, Adam slipped away into much needed sleep in his father’s arms with a blanket wrapped around him. When the wagon arrived, Hoss helped Ben lift him into it without waking him. Then Eric was helped onto a horse. Roy took the three criminals to town. Clem and a few men took Eric home. The Paiute, who had waited patiently, rode with Hoss and his father who accompanied the wagon to the Ponderosa. As they reached the Ponderosa, Hoss told the Paiute to cut out twenty head of cattle to drive up to their camp. The men nodded their thanks and left. At the ranch, Charity came running toward the wagon as soon as she saw it. Ben had the driver stop so that she could climb in the back with Adam and then they proceeded up to the house. Charity bent her head down beside Adam who was awake.

“You shouldn’t run in your condition.”

“I’m fine. You don’t look so good though.”

“I’m fine. I need to get cleaned up, and I need lots of tender loving care and some time in bed.”

“Is that all you ever think about?”

“I mean to sleep although that afterwards would be wonderful.”

“Are you hurt?”

“I got shot. Don’t look so scared. It’s not too bad. Even Hoss said that. My wrists and my ankles have some sores. Other than that, maybe a few bruises, but otherwise, I’m perfectly fine.”

“Oh besides the sunburn and the fever you have?”

“Oh, yeah, there is that too.”

“How’s Eric?”

“Better than I am. He’s heading home. Charity, you know who had this done, don’t you?”

“I didn’t, but by the way you asked the question, I think I do now. It was Julia, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, she plans to show up in town today or tomorrow to gloat over you in your sorrow, and show off her wealth to her daughter. Then she plans to leave in triumph to go back to Philadelphia after paying off the men who did this.”

“What were they supposed to do?”

“Work us at hard labor in the sun, exhaust us, burn our feet so we couldn’t stand, and then strand us in the hole we dug too weak to claw our way out. Without food and water, we would have died within another day or two. With the sand piled on either side of the hole, the winds would have blown sand back into that hole over time. We might never have been found if his plan had worked.”

“Diabolical.”

“Yes, and apparently it was what she was supposed to do in order to inherit. He had someone watching her to make sure she did as he requested. No one seems to know who that is so there’s another person out there yet that we need to uncover.”

“Do you have a plan?”

“No, I only have begun to think straight again. I need more water and more sleep.”

By then, the wagon had reached the yard. Hoss and Ben carried Adam into the washroom laying him on the large table Hop Sing kept there. Hop Sing had spread two thick blankets on the table. It had been used for this purpose before. Soon Adam was bathed and his wrists and ankles were bandaged. Not much was done with the wound in his side because they planned to wait for Doctor Martin to arrive before anything was done with that. Hop Sing pressed a clean bandage over the wound to protect it. Once Adam was cleaned up, Hoss and Ben carried him to the bed in the downstairs guest room despite his objections that he could get there on his own. They set him on his feet and his one attempt to take a step caused him to fall forward into Hoss’ arms settling that argument. He waited in the bed down there for the doctor to arrive. Charity helped him drink water and beef broth until then and he fell asleep resting for a half hour before Paul arrived. Paul examined the wound, cleaned and drained it, and bandaged it tightly. He addressed Charity then who had hovered behind him as he checked on Adam.

“He should have no problem with it if you keep it clean. Change that bandage as often as needed to keep it dry. It could be every few hours today and then less as it begins to heal. He needs to sleep obviously, but I see a full recovery. However I see that you need some sleep as well. You should probably go up to your bed and rest too.”

“I don’t want to leave him.”

“Well, then, lie down beside him and close your eyes. I’ll tell Ben I prescribed sleep for both of you for the next several hours.”

Once Charity agreed, Paul went out then to inform Ben and Adam’s brothers of his findings and was invited to have an early lunch with them. Happy to agree, he was soon surrounded by yawning men. He told Hop Sing that he would take a delicious sandwich with him, and that all of them ought to get some sleep. Ben agreed but did ask Paul one favor and explained why. With a smile, Paul departed, and they took his advice and grabbed a nap. By midafternoon though, Hoss headed over to the McCarren ranch to tell Prudence, Todd, and Virginia what had happened, and Ben thought more about the plan he had and talked with Joe about it. He knew he needed to discuss it with Adam before he went to Roy with it. They had to smoke out this unknown man and they probably would have to use Julia to do it. She would never cooperate so they were going to have to manipulate her into doing what they needed her to do.

As Hoss expected, Prudence was shaken by the news that her mother could have arranged something like that. “She hired men to kill Adam?”

“Well, ya see, she probably didn’t see it like that. They was gonna strand him and Eric in the desert. The desert was gonna kill ’em. Now by the law and the way I see it, it’s the same thing as killing ’em, but I guess she didn’t see it that way. She told the men she hired that they couldn’t kill ’em cause she didn’t want to risk the gallows. That right there says she ain’t got the smarts to see what she was doing was the same thing. Old Toad told her just what to do. Somebody is watching too to see that she done it. She only gets to keep the money if Adam and Eric are dead.”

“So she’ll lose all that money now?”

“Well, she will, but she don’t know that yet. The men who did it are in jail, but Adam got shot. So, Pa’s got an idea. He’s waiting on Adam waking up so he can talk to him and Charity. Pa thought it might be best ifn you was to come to the house too to hear it all out. Maybe you too, Todd and Virginia, could come with us. Pa said maybe all of us ought to talk it over to see how it could work.”

“How what could work?” Todd was curious.

“Pa’s working on a plan, and seeing as how Julia is family to you all, you ought to be in on it as we see it.”

Prudence leaned against Hoss who gathered her into his arms. He rubbed her back and tried to comfort her. His high hopes of asking her to marry him had to be delayed. Instead they had this to handle first. Todd went out to get the carriage ready and Virginia gathered up things for the baby. Soon they were on their way to the Ponderosa. When they got there, Hoss was surprised to see that Joe was gone.

“I decided that we needed to give Roy some idea of what we were planning, and then I thought that we had not made any provision for Eric to be protected. Eric and his family will be coming out here to stay if they wish, and Roy can talk to the three men in jail to get their cooperation in our plan. We’re going to need them too. I don’t care too much how long they’re locked up as long as we get the ones who set this up. Joe is taking care of all of that.”

Hoss was going to go find out if Adam was awake yet. Ben stopped him.

“Hoss, you do not open the bedroom door of a married couple.”

“But, Pa, he’s shot.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll wait for them to come out on their own.”

In the guest bedroom, Charity was snuggled up against Adam’s unwounded side. She raised her head and smiled at her husband. They had heard the exchange between Hoss and Ben. “Your father knows you well.”

“I suppose he does. You should get dressed now. Would you get me some clothing too? I’d like to wear something more than those dirty pants to greet our guests.”

When Charity emerged from the guest bedroom, Ben indicated clean clothing for Adam on the dining table and his slippers next to his chair. Soon, with Hoss’ help, Adam was able to join the group, and they started to plan in earnest as Adam endorsed his father’s idea. In fact, he rather liked the idea and the time it would give him with his wife. Charity had the same thought. Their smiles had everyone there thinking the same thing.

Chapter 7

Arriving at his office and looking terribly worried, Paul Martin climbed down from his carriage and Roy met him. As usual, people gathered close hoping to hear whatever news the doctor was going to share with Roy. This time they were going to get a very good story.

“Paul, you’re looking mighty darn worried there. I thought you was going out to see Adam. Now there ain’t no bad news there, is there?”

“Roy, I’m afraid there is. I never expected this. There was some pus draining from the wound but I expected that. It didn’t seem like anything out of the ordinary. I bandaged him up, and he seemed fine yesterday.”

“But today?”

“Roy, it’s peritonitis.”

“Is that what I think it is?”

“If you’re thinking he’s got a bellyful of infection, then you’re right. It’s just started, but Roy, you know there’s no way to stop it once it gets going. There’s nothing a doctor can do. We can pray for him. Sometimes men are able to fight off an infection like that, but he was so weak when they brought him in. He hadn’t had any water or food for a full day, and he lost all that blood.”

“Are you thinking he might not make it?”

“Roy, I don’t like to say things like that.”

“I’ve known that boy since he was a rascal of about seven or so. I can’t think of a world without him in it. Doesn’t seem natural to me to have a boy gone before his father. Ben’s got to be beside himself.”

“He is, and Charity is sitting by the bed in shock not knowing what to do. They haven’t even been married a year yet.”

“It’s a sad thing. Well, them jaspers over in my jail might be facing a murder charge after all ifn he dies. I better go have a talk with them. They might want a lawyer after all.”

As Paul turned to go into his office, Roy took a quick look at the faces of the people nearest him. They looked shocked which meant they had heard the story or enough of it to have it spread all over town soon. He wanted it that way because his information was that Julia was due to arrive that morning. She needed to know that her target was at death’s door, but that he might take a while to die. That would make her stay in the area longer, and it might make her contact come to see her. They were hoping that would be the case. Having jailed the men she hired was another complicating factor, but other than the Cartwrights, only he and Clem knew what they had confessed. With the chance at a light sentence, the three had agreed to cooperate fully. They would play their parts of the sullen and uncooperative criminals. Hiram had agreed to play the part of their attorney. He would be over at the office soon so all of them could talk. Joe’s visit the day before had been at first a bit disturbing to Roy but the idea had grown on him the more that he got to think about it. It was a complicated scenario, but Roy knew that Ben was correct. They needed to smoke out this unknown man if Adam and Eric were going to be safe in the future. Eric didn’t want to go to the Ponderosa, but he had sent his two boys out there. His wife was staying with friends, and Eric was going to be staying in a different place every night. After the meeting, Roy intended to meet the stage and greet Julia. He would of course give her the bad news about her nephew-in-law to gauge her reaction.

On the Ponderosa, the ‘sick’ man was moved to his upstairs room where he would have to take all of his meals and spend all of his time. They couldn’t risk anyone seeing him moving around and possibly sharing that information with anyone. Eric’s two sons were put in the downstairs guest bedroom, and Ben as well as Hoss and Joe enjoyed having them around. It was good to have some joy in the house. It was a matter then of waiting to see what Julia would do.

As expected, Julia made a trip out to see her daughter and her niece. She showed off her new wardrobe and bragged about the nice room she had in town and how she was going back to Philadelphia in style. When questioned about how she got the money, she was less than forthcoming, but it didn’t matter because they already knew where she had gotten the money. They guessed that she had to be nervous about the three men being held in jail, but outwardly she showed no signs of that. Roy had a man in a room on each side of her room in the hotel. They watched her every move in the hotel following her in and out. She was followed at a distance when she left town and when she returned. No one approached her, and she received no messages of any kind. After several more days of that, frustration set in with those watching for something to happen.

As Charity lounged in bed one morning, she voiced her complaints. “I want to celebrate our news. I want to see your father smile and shake your hand or whatever he’s going to do when he finds out. Instead, we have to keep the biggest news you’ve had since you asked me to marry you as a secret while we wait for my aunt Julia to do something so we can catch whoever the other person is in this plot.”

“At least you get to leave this room. Now that I’m feeling better, I would like to do something but I’m stuck in here. It sounded so good when I felt awful. I thought lounging in bed with you for days was going to be so great, but now we’re getting crabby with each other because we want to have something more to do.”

“I get to leave the room, but I have to act like I’m so sad whenever anyone is around. I have to act like my husband is dying so that if anyone is watching they’ll see that and believe our story.”

“Maybe nothing is going to happen for a while. Whoever it is was very patient to wait this long. Maybe they’ll wait even longer for another opportunity.”

“How much more time do we give this plan before we give it up?”

“Pa said the judge will be in town on Monday. If nothing happens by then, the three men in jail will have to go before him on the assault charges as we agreed because of their cooperation. At that point, I guess Roy could arrest Julia. At least she won’t get away with it.”

“She’ll go to prison this time, won’t she?”

“Judges can be unpredictable when it comes to sentencing women, but I believe that with the testimony of the three men she hired and what they did on her orders, she will.”

“Paul is supposed to be here again today. Your father will come up with him. He always does. We can talk then about what we’re going to do and how long we’re going to keep up this charade. It sounds like until Monday morning.”

“It does. That means only two more days of this. I think that perhaps Pa or someone should go confront Julia and see if they can put some pressure on her.”

“Maybe I can go with your father. The two of us could try to get her to cooperate. If she did, do you think we could offer her a deal like we did with the other three?”

Charity could see that Adam was opposed to that idea but at least was thinking about it and not rejecting it immediately. “I suppose it might be worth it if we get the unseen threat removed but only if her cooperation helps us uncover whoever is behind this. If she cooperates, but we don’t find out who the mystery man is, then I see no reason to give her any leniency after what she did.”

“I agree. Let’s present it to your father that way. The two of us can go see her tomorrow and try to break her down. She’s got to be getting nervous by now too, and when we tell her that you’re going to survive and she sees her wealth disappearing, she’s likely to be in a panic. We can take advantage of that.”

“It’s a relief just to hear that there’s an end to this in sight. Now how about some breakfast?”

On Sunday morning then, Hoss and Joe got to take Eric’s sons back to town for the family to reunite. There would be someone watching the family until this whole scenario played out, but it was thought that he was the secondary target. More attention was going to be paid to Adam.

In the afternoon, Ben and Charity dressed for dinner after sending an invitation to Julia to have dinner with them. She had accepted probably as much out of curiosity as out of the chance to be seen in Virginia City with a respectable pair of citizens. Despite her new found wealth, Julia had found that most people didn’t treat her with the respect that she thought she deserved. She hoped that such a dinner might help her gain some of the respect she so craved.

There was one very disappointed Cartwright though. Both Ben and Charity thought that it was best if Adam stayed home. They thought that his presence would not help them get Julia to talk even with the shock value of having him show up looking healthier than she expected. He was still a bit pale from his ordeal, and although freed from any bed rest, both thought he could stand to stay at home. So he reluctantly had the house all to himself by late afternoon because Hop Sing had taken the day to go see some of his family in Virginia City. Adam got a book and sat in his blue chair by the fireplace to get comfortable. He was deep in the novel when he heard a sound from the kitchen. Thinking that Hoss and Joe had returned, he was slow to look up. When he did, he saw a stranger standing at the dining room table pointing a pistol in his direction.

“You must have nine lives. I guessed that something like this was going on. You look much too healthy to be at death’s door. I shall take care of this myself and be done with it. You are the reason my brother is dead. All he wanted was to own this land.”

With no idea who the man was, Adam was at a loss but he did detect a slight English accent. He rapidly ran through all the possibilities, and then the startling conclusion appeared. “He tried to get all the land in the area. He tried to kill me. He kidnapped my wife and me. He had my brother shot. He broke about every law there is.”

“What does it matter out here? He’s dead and you aren’t. I mean to even those statistics.”

With that, the man raised his pistol to fire, but there were several shots. He fell, Adam fell, and then there were shouts and men rushing into the room. Ben hurried to Adam’s side.

“Are you all right, son?”

“I am, but aren’t you supposed to be in Virginia City right now? Not that I’m complaining, but I am surprised, on several counts.”

“Charity figured it out. As we were driving to town, we saw a man riding and she began going through the things that we knew. It was remarkable to more or less listen to her think. She’s quite intuitive.”

“She knew that this was the man who would try to kill me?”

“No, but she figured out that all this inactivity was to lull us into thinking nothing would happen so that we would leave the ranch, and that would give someone like that lone rider access.”

“Where is she?”

“Right beside you if you turn your head the other way.”

Then Ben turned his head the other way as the couple kissed.

Chapter 8

As the mess was being cleaned up and the body removed, Charity finished telling the story. “We saw Hoss and Joe heading back toward the ranch and asked them if they recognized the rider. Neither of them did, but Hoss said he looked kind of familiar and not in a good way. You know those gut feelings your brother has. We turned the carriage around and came back here. As we got close, Hoss and Joe rode around the back way to see if that rider had come toward the house and found his horse. Joe rode back to tell us that he had. Hoss came up the back way, we came in the front, and Joe came in from the side. It was terrible hearing what he was saying and knowing he probably had a gun on you, but until Hoss or Joe did something, we didn’t want to come barging in the front door and make him shoot you. We couldn’t see where he was. We guessed that Hoss or Joe was going to be able to see that better with the windows.”

Picking up the story at that point, Joe took it to the conclusion. “As I snuck in through the kitchen, I saw Hoss peeking in the dining room window. He signaled me by pointing to where the man was. Then he counted down with his fingers, one, two, three, and I came through the door as he fired at the man. That was all Pa needed to come busting in the front door and you know the rest.”

“Your timing was impeccable.”

“Im what?”

“Just right, Hoss, just right.”

“Thanks, but we made ourselves a mess of work. You think you’re ready to help caulk up the dining room window? I think we got a spare piece of glass in the supply shed.”

“Me and Joe will get this body to town and tell Roy what happened. My guess is that he can arrest Julia then.”

“Yes, and perhaps he can find out who this man is, and then we can find out who that man was who tried to get the Ponderosa and all the ranches in the area.”

“The one who kidnapped Charity and then you?”

“That’s the one. Apparently this is that man’s brother. He was back for revenge, and perhaps to try again for this land. At least it’s all over now. We finally have the man in the shadows who was behind the whole thing. I thought he was going to kill me. Until I saw a shadow in the kitchen doorway, I didn’t think I had a chance. I couldn’t think of anything I could do to get out of this one.”

“Wow, I never thought I would ever hear that. My older brother admitting he didn’t have a plan or an idea when he needed one. Hoss, can you believe that?”

“Joe, it ain’t nothing to joke about ‘specially now. Let’s get this mess cleaned up and go talk to Roy.”

With a good hard look at Joe so that he wouldn’t say anything more, Hoss looked over at Charity and could see how upset she looked. In fact, he thought that she looked ill. That was confirmed a few minutes later when Adam escorted her outside. He said she wasn’t feeling well and needed to be outside because the smells were making her nauseated. She retched, and then she clung to him as she cried. He held her and rubbed her back.

“How can you be so calm? I want to scream.”

“I’m not calm. Inside, my belly is still churning, and my heart was pounding so hard for a while that I was sure all of you could hear it. I wish I could throw up and I wish I could cry so I could release some of what is inside me. I can’t. It’s not who I am. I hold it all inside until I can get control of it. Then I’m all right again.”

“You know there’s another reason for me to be sick.”

“Yes, it’s the bright spot in all of this.”

“When we see Paul next, I want to talk to him about it.”

“That’s a good idea. He’ll want to take the stitches out of my side. Perhaps tomorrow, we could see him for that. We have to go to town anyway. I’m sure that Roy is going to want to talk to me about what happened here, and I have to talk to the judge about what happened with me and Eric at the hands of those three men in the desert. They’re pleading guilty so it shouldn’t be much of an issue.”

“Once Hoss and Joe get to town to tell him what happened, he’s going to arrest Aunt Julia, isn’t he?”

“I assume so. Hoss will probably go tell Prudence then. He had high hopes for the two of them. I hope this doesn’t delay things too much.”

“Does he have the ring already?” Adam’s smile was the only answer she needed. “She talked to me and knows he’s going to ask her. She’ll be ready to say yes, but she’ll want time to get ready for the wedding. She’s nervous about being married. I think he should go ahead and ask her. Then she can get used to the idea, and it won’t be right away anyhow.”

“Will it be breaking any kind of confidence if I tell him that?”

“No, I think that what I’ve told you is not anything that breaks a confidence. It’s in her best interest for Hoss to know that.”

“I’ll tell him before he leaves. Now, can I walk you back to the porch at least? We don’t have to go back inside.”

“Good. And perhaps you could ask Hop Sing for some tea?”

Soon Charity had a large mug of tea liberally dosed with milk and honey. Adam smiled as he handed it to her. She looked at it and then up at him. “Does he know? Did you tell him?”

“I’m sure he knows. He always seems to know things. How he knows, I don’t know. He said when you finish that, he will bring you some warm apple cider and ginger cookies. He said that would be good for your stomach.”

“Actually, that does sound good.”

“All, right, sip that, lean back, and keep your eyes closed. I think they’re bringing the body out soon. I’ll help them, and then they’ll have it out of here quickly.”

“Don’t do anything to pull those stitches.”

“I thought I would mainly shield you from seeing what they’re doing.”

A short time later, Adam had a large blanket he hung from the porch posts. Charity could hear him and his brothers but couldn’t see anything. When she heard horses leaving, she breathed a sigh of relief. Adam took the blanket down then and put it over her lap and sat beside her. Let’s sit here and relax until dinner. Hop Sing brought out a tray with beverages and cookies as promised. Ben joined them then as they sat quietly and waited for Hoss and Joe to return. Adam and Ben read while Charity napped with her head resting against Adam’s shoulder. Several hours later as dusk arrived, Joe rode into the yard. He looked far more serious than expected and he was alone which surprised all of them.

“Joe, where’s your brother?”

“Pa, he had some bad news to tell Prudence. He went right there and then he planned to take her to town. He’ll stay there tonight.”

“What happened?”

Looking at Charity and worried how the news would affect her, Joe glanced at Adam too. “Well I don’t know how else to say this, but Charity, I have some bad news about your aunt. We were going to tell Roy what happened here and we expected him to arrest her. He went to do that, but there was no answer at her door. He asked the clerk to open her door. She was laying on the floor.”

“Oh, no, Joe, what happened to her?”

“From what Doctor Martin could tell when Roy called him there, she was poisoned. Someone must have gotten something and put it in the pitcher of water in her room. She was probably dead last night already. Paul said it had probably been quick. She was still wearing the dress people had seen her in yesterday.”

“So the man who was killed here today probably killed her. Then he came out here to kill Adam. I wonder what he would have done next.”

“Pa, that’s what Roy thinks too, but there’s no way of knowing. That’s what makes the most sense though. Roy says that the men in jail are worried, but Roy thinks they’re safe. He thinks that there’s no one else involved.”

All four of them were quiet then thinking of how tangled this web had been, but that hopefully finally all the parts had been unraveled. Poor Prudence though had now lost her mother to the scheme, but at least she had Hoss to comfort her. Adam wondered how it was going to affect Hoss’ plans to marry her though. That subject didn’t come up until several days later. First they had a few things to get done. The next morning, the whole family headed to town. Adam and Charity rode in the carriage with Ben while Joe rode Cochise. In town, Adam headed to Doctor Martin’s office with Charity to get his stitches out. While there, they asked the doctor to examine Charity too. Then they joined Ben and Joe at the courthouse where the three men who had kidnapped and assaulted Adam and Eric were facing the judge. Roy explained to the judge how the three men had cooperated since their arrest and helped unravel a criminal conspiracy. The judge asked Adam and Eric if they accepted that the three men were only being charged with assault because of their cooperation. They said they did. The judge wasn’t entirely happy but accepted their answer as well as Roy’s recommendation. He was stern though in his sentencing.

“You three men will serve one full year for your offense. When you are released, you will leave the state of Nevada not to return for nineteen years. If you are in this state again, you will serve the rest of the twenty-year sentence you should have gotten for kidnapping and attempted murder. I am holding that in abeyance for the full twenty years. Is that clear?”

The three men nodded. Hiram had continued as their actual lawyer and spoke to them quietly. They spoke up then thanking the judge one-by-one, and then turning to apologize to Adam and to Eric for what they had done out of greed. Adam looked at them and nodded.

“You’ve gotten a second chance. When the year is up, make the most of it. I have the name of someone in California who will be willing to give you a real job if you want it. Hiram will have his name. Contact him when you’re released.”

The men thanked Adam and filed out of the court under Roy’s supervision. As Adam and Charity walked out with his family, he asked Hoss about Prudence.

“She’s got a funeral to take care of. I’m staying in town to help her. Hiram is gonna help us with the legal stuff. When it’s all done, I’ll get her back home. She don’t want nobody at the burial. She only wants the minister and me there. I hope that’s all right with everybody.”

Ben was concerned and wanted to do something for Prudence. “Hoss, I understand her feelings, but perhaps she would be willing to have a gathering of our family and hers at our house on Sunday. By then, she might be willing to have family around, and we could all use some time together. Everyone needs some time to heal from all that’s happened.”

“Pa, I like the idea. I’ll ask her about it and try to get her to say yes to the idea. I think she will. I’ll let you know as soon as I can. I already gave my statement to Roy about what happened yesterday. I know he wants to hear from the rest of you so ifn you don’t mind, I’ll go see how Prudence is doing, and you can take care of that.”

So Ben, Adam, Charity, and Joe gave their statements to Roy. Hoss helped Prudence, and the next day Julia was buried next to her brother. Two days later, Hoss saw that Prudence got home to the McCarren ranch after Hiram and Roy told her that all the legal details were done. All the money in Julia’s accounts was going to Prudence making her a rich woman. There were two other names on the account. One was Mann who was deceased, and the other was Reginald Chesterfield. He was the man shot on the Ponderosa. His brother had been Harold Chesterfield. They were two disgraced English gentlemen who had been disinherited by their family and had hoped to recreate their wealth and power in America. With the help of unscrupulous and dishonest friends in government and greedy friends in business, they had almost succeeded. However, they were now dead and all those who had helped them were scurrying to cover up any ties to the two. The whole mess was finally over.

Chapter 9

On Sunday evening, the gathering was quiet but pleasant. Hoss walked with Prudence for a time outside before she rode home with Todd and Virginia and the baby. He came back inside then and sat quietly with the rest of the family. Joe was the only one who seemed to have energy to spare.

“I miss Eric’s boys. It was nice having Todd and Virginia’s baby here too. I like having the sound of kids in the house. It gives this place some energy. It’s a lot of fun too.”

Sitting quietly and observing, Ben couldn’t miss the wistful look that Hoss had nor the small half smiles that Adam and Charity gave each other. He wondered when they were going to share their news. He hoped that Prudence and Hoss would be able to work out getting married despite the tragedy of Julia’s death. He knew it had complicated matters but hoped it wouldn’t be too serious a problem. The following Sunday, he got both answers. Hoss took Prudence to church services as had been their habit for quite some time, and then they spent the early afternoon together before they returned to the Ponderosa for an early dinner. Hoss could hardly stop smiling so it wasn’t much of a surprise when he announced before dessert that he had a big announcement to make. Prudence had been hiding her left hand under the table all through dinner, but Charity had seen the flash of a ring there before they sat down.

“Pa, I got an announcement to make. I wanted all of you to hear it first before we told anybody else. Me and Prudence are getting’ married.”

After all the whoops and hollers, mainly from Joe, and the congratulations from everyone, Ben and Adam made toasts to the couple with the champagne that Hop Sing brought out. Then it was time for dessert and some discussion. Ben asked about the date.

“Well, you see, that’s a bit of an issue with her ma dying and all. She said that in Philadelphia, she would have been expected to wait for maybe up to two years to marry cause she would have been in mourning. But she talked to Virginia who said no more than six months would be necessary at the longest, and that out here sometimes it’s a lot shorter than that cause people are more practical. Some don’t wait no time at all. Well to be sure, Prudence says we ought to wait the six months. That makes for a February wedding, and I kinda like that idea too.”

“In February, we could have a difficult time getting guests out here unless you want a wedding in town.”

“No, we want a wedding here, and Pa, we want a small wedding. We were thinking that we don’t want a lot of guests. Maybe just a few good friends and then the families, you know, everybody here, and Todd and Virginia.”

“We can certainly do that. What about your sister and her family, Prudence?”

“I don’t think she’ll come, Mister Cartwright. She doesn’t think much of anything out here, and even if we have money, she thinks of everyone out here as not quite civilized. I don’t want you to think that I think that now, but I did when I first came out here. I expected things to be very different than I found them. Mister Wood sent her a telegram asking if she would like to come out here to be in court to receive any of mother’s estate. She wired back that she wasn’t interested. He sent her a letter to sign saying that officially. She sent it back immediately signed so that she wouldn’t have to show up here in court. She never asked how much money mother had.”

Everyone at the table grinned at Hiram’s cleverness. Without disclosing that Julia had inherited a significant amount of money, he had gotten all of it for Prudence by getting her sister not to contest the settlement in court that gave it all to Prudence. Hoss turned his attention to Adam and Charity next.

“Prudence and me would like the two of you to stand with us for our wedding. We couldn’t think of two people who had more to do with us getting together than the two of you.”

Sharing somewhat nervous looks at first, Adam nodded when Charity smiled at him and said a quiet ‘yes’ to his unspoken question. He looked at Hoss and started in a very serious tone that had Hoss shocked at first. “Sorry, Hoss, but we have to say no.” Adam paused and waited for a reaction. He saw his father smiling but had suspected that his father had already guessed. “In six months, Charity will be in no condition to be standing for a wedding as she will be due to deliver our baby at about that time.”

There was another round of whoops and hollers, this time from Hoss and Joe, and then more congratulations and more toasting. Hop Sing placed a cup of tea before Charity as he served more champagne to the others. The celebration went longer than anyone had anticipated. Ben had little to say after the toasts. His emotions were close to the surface as he watched Hoss escort Prudence out the front door to take her home, and then watched as Adam wrapped an arm around Charity as she sat beside him and they talked to Joe about baby names.

“I like Joseph Adam Cartwright. You could call him Jac for short.”

“What if it’s a girl?”

“Josephine is a pretty name.”

As Adam shook his head, Joe and Charity began giggling. Ben was sobered by a thought though. By the time the baby was born, Adam and Charity would be in their new house. Adam would have his home finished before Christmas. He had been adamant about that. Hoss and Prudence would likely want their own house too because Hoss had said he wanted a ‘passel’ of children. Things had been changing so fast in the past year that Ben found it somewhat unsettling. For the next week, that was how he felt. On Saturday, he took a ride out to the lake. He must have spent more time there with his thoughts than he had planned because Adam came up behind him in the late afternoon. Ben heard the leaves crunching under his son’s boots and turned to greet him. It was only then that he realized that the sun was getting low in the sky.

“We were wondering where you were, and Candy said he saw you ride off this way hours ago. I’m sorry if I’m interrupting, but I was concerned.”

Turning toward the lake again, Ben still had his hand on Marie’s marker. “I come here often when I need time to think, to try to find peace when my thoughts are in turmoil.”

Walking up beside his father, Adam put a hand on his shoulder. “A lot has happened in the past year, but it’s been mostly very good for the family and for the Ponderosa.”

“It has been.”

“Why are you so troubled then?”

“It’s not the dream I had. So much is changing all around me that it scares me. I’m not prepared for all the changes, for the challenges. I had planned for how it was all to look and how it would all work. It was working that way too. I knew what to expect each day. I saw my sons in the morning, and I knew from day-to-day and month-to-month what would happen. Oh, there were unexpected setbacks, but none that we couldn’t overcome together. Now you’ll be gone, and by this time next year, Hoss will be gone. When I come down to breakfast in the morning, I won’t know all that is happening nor who is doing what. It worries me.”

“Pa, we won’t be gone. We’re still on the Ponderosa. We’re still part of the whole.” As his father continued to stare out over the lake, Adam reminded him of some things they had talked about in the past. “You told me that when you left to go west, Grandfather challenged you, and you told him that if your dreams didn’t scare you, then they weren’t big enough. Isn’t that still true?”

“Do you remember everything?”

“Only the important things. I remember too when we settled here, and you told me what it would be one day. I couldn’t believe it except my father said it would happen so I had to believe it was possible. You told me that the only impossible things are the ones you haven’t tried to do.”

“So you think now I need to dream with my boys and see the dreams you have too.”

“We shared your dreams. You can share ours, and those of our children. You wanted us to marry. Now we are. We’re going to have those grandchildren you wanted and wondered if you would ever have.” Then in an uncharacteristic moment of candor, Adam admitted something too. “Pa, I’m scared too.”

“Why would you be scared? Many of these changes are because of your ideas?”

“But I have a child to consider now. I know now how you must have felt having a big dream, but having a family to protect and nurture too. It’s a lot of responsibility. We can use all the help we can get.”

“So we have to find a new way for all of us to work together?”

“We do, and who better to manage that than the one who holds this family together through everything? It will be a challenge, but we know you can do it. How do we manage to work together while having our separate homes and families? Together and apart at the same time.”

“Your house isn’t that far away.”

“No, it isn’t.”

“Hopefully Hoss won’t build too far away either.”

“I don’t think he will. He may build closer than we did. Prudence likes having people close by. She’s more dependent on others than Charity. If Hoss is listening to what she needs, he’ll be very close.”

“I’m thinking that perhaps we could meet at the house fairly often.”

“That’s probably the way to go. You’ll have to come up with a plan, and then we’ll go with that once I’m in my house.”

“You knew what I would say before I said it, didn’t you?”

With a squeeze of the shoulder, Adam released his father and headed back toward his horse. “We need to get going. Hop Sing said dinner was in an hour and that was nearly an hour ago. We’re going to get a tongue lashing from him as it is.”

“Sometimes it seems that he thinks he’s the boss of the Ponderosa.”

“I’m not going to be the one who tells him he isn’t.”

About nine months later, Ben was back at that same spot at the lake, but to write in his journal and have some quiet time. It had gotten very hectic at the main house.

It’s been a very exciting time, and I’ve not had time to even read in my journal much less write. I’m going to make up for that now. When my grandchildren read this, I want them to have a full story of the Ponderosa and not have too many long gaps in the story. Hoss delivered his big news today that he and Prudence are having a baby. I couldn’t be happier. He’ll be in his new house by then too, but as Adam predicted, it is only a short walk from the main house. Now he has promised me that he and Prudence will be over for dinner quite often when they move over there and I hope that when the baby arrives, they will continue that tradition. Adam and Charity were here on Sunday with their baby. He’s growing so fast. He certainly did make Hoss’ wedding a memorable one for everyone. He and Prudence had barely said their vows when Charity told Adam that she couldn’t wait any longer. It was a good thing Paul was a guest at the wedding. His services were definitely needed, but it all turned out well even if Adam nearly succumbed to apoplexy during the whole thing. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but my son was so on edge that it perhaps wasn’t too far from the truth. He has told Charity that she can’t have any more children as it is too hard on him at which point, each time, she gives him that long-suffering look that is quite amusing and makes the rest of us chuckle. She has had to cut back on the amount of work she is doing for the business so Adam has hired a man to do that work. Prudence continues to do the paperwork for the mine, but I doubt that will continue that once her baby is born. It is simply much too difficult to manage all of that work daily and care for a baby and a house. Both ladies will continue to do the correspondence because they are so skilled in their writing, but the work of posting in the ledger each day will be done by someone else. We are in the process of becoming a well-organized enterprise the likes of which Nevada has never seen. There isn’t much that this family can’t do when we work together. Now if Joseph could only find a woman to marry.

Next Story in the Charity Series:

Sticks and Stones

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Author: BettyHT

I watched Bonanza when it first aired. In 2012, I discovered Bonanza fan fiction, and started writing stories as a fun hobby. I have hundreds of stories now. If I am unavailable and anyone needs permission to post one or more of my stories on a site such as Bonanza Brand, AC1830 and/or Mo1427 are authorized to give permission in my absence.

4 thoughts on “Charity Series #5 — Dreams and Challenges (by BettyHT)

    1. Thank you so much. I’m glad you liked it. If you like the twists and turns in these story plots, then you should enjoy the next story which is the last in the series.

    1. Only one more story to the series. I ran out of plots for this romantic series so I switched to writing some stories with nasty villains.

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