Summary: There’s lots of shocking trouble for Adam right from the start, but there is also a plan for revenge, subterfuge, false identities, fraud, financial difficulties for Ben and the Ponderosa, stunning developments for the family to absorb, and then a climatic confrontation between two villainous siblings and the Cartwright family.
rating = T (WC = 40,705)
Born For Adversity
After a long afternoon and evening of riding and especially after such emotional turmoil of the previous days, Adam was tired. He had been tired and worn down before all of this began and those talks with his father over the past few months had not settled anything in his mind. Then all of this had taken what energy he had. It needed to be settled so that he could move on. He began looking for a good place to camp as the rays of sunlight began to take that low angle telling him he had about an hour of light left. He knew he could make camp, take care of his horse, fix dinner, and be settled in before complete darkness fell. He hoped to sleep well and get an early start in the morning. He had barely dismounted when he felt a blow to his back with a searing pain that threw him to the ground. Vaguely hearing the sound of the rifle shot that must have done it, he had little time to even have that thought register before there was another blow and this time to his left thigh. At first there was little pain from that because the pain from his back was so severe, but then as he tried to move, pain shot from his thigh up his leg and made him cry out. That caused more pain because any effort to breathe or make a sound caused the wound in his back to stab him with horrible sharp stabs of hot pain. In agony, he almost didn’t feel the next shot that entered his left side. The least serious of the three wounds, it did little damage, but he was so severely wounded by that time, that any additional damage threatened his life. Immobilized by pain and moaning almost inaudibly in his helplessness, Adam lay facedown unable to move because any attempt to do anything other than draw a shallow breath increased the pain level to the point of intolerance. He wanted to scream, to call out for help, but couldn’t. He felt the tears fall and jerked slightly as a few small sobs escaped due to the nearly overwhelming pain radiated up and down his body. He was aware at some point that there were men around him but barely heard what was said until they wrenched him onto his back and laughed at him as he whimpered in agony.
“Lookee, there. He’s still alive. David, you’re losing your touch. Your sister is gonna be right disappointed in you.”
“Not hardly. When I tell her how he was laying there gasping for air with tears on his cheeks from the pain and crying like a kicked puppy, she’s going to enjoy hearing that story.”
“You could put one right between his eyes while he’s a looking at you. That would be a good one, wouldn’t it?”
Staring at Adam who was struggling to breathe, David decided he had a better idea. He saw the blood soaking into the earth from Adam’s thigh and from his side and saw the blood stain from the wound in Adam’s back. “No, he won’t survive the three holes he has now. I like the idea of leaving him here to die slow and painful like. We’ll take everything he’s got and leave him here all alone to die. I can’t think of a worse way to die than that. We’ll drag him close to the road so the stage driver will be sure to see him tomorrow. Go ahead, boys. Take anything you want. Whoever gets it first, owns it.”
Moving in like a pack of wolves to devour its prey, the men stripped Adam of his gunbelt, belt, boots, and hat quickly. His pants pockets and coat pockets were searched and emptied. Then they grabbed him by the ankles and dragged him next to the road leaving him to lie gasping for air and in agony as they collected his gear, and took Sport. The men rode off, but David lingered a moment.
“My oldest brother died so slowly and in agony. He tried to defend my father and the crowd beat him. He died days later. The doctor couldn’t save him. Too much was busted up inside of him. Blood leaked out of him from both ends. It broke my father’s heart. After everything he’d been through, it was the final straw. He killed himself a year later after the guilt and the booze ate away at him. We’re going to make sure your father suffers, and we’re going to drive him down into the dirt too. I’m planning to kill your brothers too whether Carlotta wants me to or not. Like, I said, your father is gonna die too. Oh, he probably won’t kill himself, but we’ll take care of that, but first know that he’ll suffer some too with his oldest son dead and knowing how you suffered, and then losing the others one by one and then that ranch of his. You see you’re just the first step in the justice he’ll get for what he did. Too bad you won’t be around for the rest of it.” With that, David laughed and rode off after his men content that he had completed the first part of the plan that he and Carlotta had concocted.
Once David was well out of sight, three other men materialized out of the darkness. They checked Adam over and found that he was still alive.
“Who is he?”
“Don’t matter. If he’s an enemy of that one and his demon spawn sister, then he may be useful to us. If he lives that is. We’ll do what we can for him. He’s not looking too good right now, but he was tough enough to survive being shot three times. Let’s see if he can make it through the night.”
With some care, the three men lifted Adam and carried him back to the spot where he had originally intended to set up a camp. They built a shield for a campfire before lighting one and then got to work on binding Adam’s wounds and wrapping him in a blanket. In the morning, he had a fever but was still breathing. They rigged a travois and began the task of hauling him back to their main camp. The leader of the men addressed Adam before they left not sure if he could hear him or not.
“I don’t know who you are, but if you can live until we get to our camp, we have a real doctor there. He was a doctor in a prisoner of war camp for the Johnny Rebs and the bluebellies didn’t like that. They were going to send him to prison for it. I busted him out and brought him with me out here. It’s been handy having our own doc. You’ll see if you can hang on. If not, well, he’s a God fearing man, and he’ll say some words over you. That’s the best we can do for you.” With that, the man mounted up, and they began the trek to their mountain home. His two companions carefully brushed out their tracks as they left.
Vaguely aware of movement, Adam was very aware of the effect of the travel as waves of pain washed over him with each slight bump in the terrain. He knew there were men around him and horses but didn’t know who they were. He was hot and thirsty but the overwhelming pain that assailed him constantly making him want to scream was his constant companion. He couldn’t scream though nor even groan or moan any more as it took what strength he had just to draw in shallow breaths when he was conscious until he succumbed to darkness once more. At one point, he thought the movement had finally stopped for good and could only pray that it wouldn’t resume again. He heard voices but paid little heed to what was said. All he wanted was relief from unrelenting agony.
“What have you got there?”
“Well, you old sawbones, we got you one tough bastard. He’s got three holes in him, but he’s fighting hard to stay with us. Think you can help him with that?”
Bending down beside Adam, Doc looked him over and checked his vital signs. “Who is he?”
“We don’t know, but David and Carlotta hate him from all we could tell, so he must be a friend of ours. If you can pull him through, we’ll find out just how he can help us against them.”
“I’ll do what I can. Being out in the cold probably saved his life by slowing the bleeding. He’s got a fever, but his arms and legs are cold. Don’t feel bad about it. It was one thing that you did besides the bandages that gave him a chance. Carry him into my cabin, and I’ll see what else I can do for him. I might need a couple of you to hold him down when I dig the bullets out of him. The one in his side probably passed through, but the other two are still in there.”
As Adam lay on the travois, he didn’t understand what was being said. It was just as well for if he had, he would have dreaded what was coming. The surgery without anesthesia was awful, but at least he didn’t have to suffer the anticipation because he only knew it was happening when Doc had men hold him down when he dug for the bullets. Then with weakness, shock, and pain, Adam succumbed to darkness again and didn’t awaken until the next day. The pain wasn’t as bad because the bullets were gone and the wounds had been skillfully sutured closed. He was weak and throbbing pain was still there but he could think and he could open his eyes to take in his surroundings. After a short time, the woman who was tending to him noticed that his eyes were half open and summoned the doctor. Between the two of them, they began giving him fluids without saying anything. He was terribly thirsty so cooperated with their efforts despite the difficulties. After they had managed to get him to drink quite a bit, they stopped.
“That’s enough. I don’t want to ruin my good work by making you retch now. Can you talk?”
In response, Adam wanted to say of course he could talk, but when he tried all he could manage was a moaned yes that sounded like some old man was trying to hiss the word.
“Don’t look so upset. You came back from having two feet in your grave. It may take a while for your body to decide to stay.” The doctor moved in and checked Adam’s vital signs and then took a look at the wound in his side and in his thigh. “Your worst wound is in your back. It was probably the one that got you first and put you face down in the dirt. Then for good measure, he shot you twice more before they got to you. He probably thought you were dead until they got there. According to Drake, they rolled you over then and had a good laugh amongst themselves when they found you not only alive but still conscious. That bastard David is the devil himself in the way he enjoys hurting people. They left you there to die slowly and alone, but Drake and two of the men were waiting and brought you here instead.” Seeing Adam’s frown that was somewhat hard to distinguish from the grimace he had from the pain but was there nevertheless, Doc continued. “Drake is good with a gun but the other two aren’t. They’re just ordinary men pushed off their land and with nowhere else to go. They couldn’t go up against David and the hired guns he has with him wherever he goes.”
“Renegades?” Adam whispered the word but Doc could understand.
“Some call us that. We do relieve the occasional traveler of some of his funds, but mostly we live off the land and trade furs for what we can. We own no land and we’re wanted for various things so we’re not free to go where we wish.”
“Wanted?” It was difficult to talk but the story was taking Adam’s mind away from the pain and had his interest. If it was true, it was all that he had hoped to find out when he left Virginia City heading to California to investigate Carlotta and her brother.
“Most of the men here face trumped up charges that David and Carlotta made against them so they could get their land. They built up quite a little empire over on the California side there by doing that. They waited until men had worked the land and developed nice little ranches, and then they got them charged with rustling or robbery so they had to run or go to prison. They have a buddy, Charles, who is the judge. Have themselves a sheriff who does what they want too. In Maxwell, they run things and they own just about everything now. Anybody left there now works for them or sides with them.”
Doc stopped talking then because he saw Adam’s eyes drooping and knew he wasn’t probably hearing much of what was being said any more. They had many days in which to discuss what had happened. Doc wanted to know what Carlotta had done since they had lost contact with her too especially why she wanted this man dead. He expected that Drake would be in the cabin soon to find out if he had learned anything yet from their guest. He had not except that the man was strong, tough, and had an insatiable curiosity about Carlotta Johnson. He guessed that perhaps that was going to work out in their favor.
On the Ponderosa, Ben Cartwright sat that morning with a cup of coffee and a stack of legal papers and the ranch ledgers but couldn’t concentrate. He didn’t understand how what had seemed like such a bright and promising business venture with new friendships only about two weeks earlier had turned so ugly in so many ways. He recalled the morning that he had met Charles Johnson and his charming daughter Carlotta. Charles had been at the same meeting with the railroad men and was as frustrated as Ben with their demands. Charles invited Ben to join them for dinner after a particularly difficult day. He accepted graciously, but of course, dinner conversation inevitably shifted to talk of the negotiations.
“We can’t possibly meet that schedule of delivery unless we double our crews, and then we have untrained men and who knows what kind of accidents and trouble we would have.”
“Yes, and the Ponderosa has the same problem. We can only produce about half of what they’re demanding. I can’t see how any producer can deliver what they’re asking.”
Very demurely, Carlotta has asked for attention. “Mister Cartwright, I’m not a businesswoman, and I hate to be so forward, but it seems that you and Papa have already suggested the answer.”
Ben gave her his attention and smiled. She was an attractive young woman and he hated to dismiss her outright, but he did doubt that someone so young could untangle such a mess. “Yes, my dear, what would you have us do?”
“Well, why don’t you work together? You could each do half of the contract and that would give them all of what they’re asking.”
Charles had stared at his daughter as if a bit perturbed at her boldness, but Ben began to think about what she had said.
“We would have to find a way to get them across the lake to your property, and you would have to find a way to get them up the slope to your flumes so they could be delivered. But if we could overcome those two issues, it could work.”
Turning to Ben in surprise, Charles had to ask a few questions. “You would make that kind of investment in a partnership for this contract?”
“Charles, we’ve wanted to find a way into the California market for some time. Hauling logs over the Sierras is prohibitively expensive as my eldest son reminds me every time that I dare to broach this subject, but floating them to the California side wouldn’t be that difficult. If this works, then we could work together on a number of projects. Our combined resources could let us outbid any number of our competitors in the future. This could be quite lucrative for both of us. We would get a new market, and you would gain an edge on your competition.”
“So you would recoup the considerable expense you would incur on this contract by using the resources on future contracts.”
“Yes, this contract might not be a boon to us, but it would open the door to significant benefits in the future. If we have the rafts or barges and the means to push them across the lake, that could be used to move cargo or even cattle in the future as well as logs.”
“Ah, you are a risk-taker, a dreamer, and an entrepreneur, but a practical one. I can see now why the Ponderosa has been built into one of the biggest operations in this part of the west. Yes, I do think that we can work out a deal. We should probably sit down with lawyers tomorrow and hammer out the details.”
“Yes, that sounds like a good plan.” Ben had a few misgivings about making this decision without consulting with his sons especially Adam, but he couldn’t see a downside to it. He guessed that their attorneys would advise him of any problems if they saw any. He had confidence that he had made a good decision, and that he could show his sons especially his oldest son that he hadn’t lost his touch when it came to making a great deal.
As Ben finished his dinner, he missed the smirk that Charles gave to Carlotta and the slight nod and smile she gave back to him. Their plan to destroy Ben Cartwright was well underway. Next up, they had to secure an invitation to visit the ranch because they needed to meet the sons, or more specifically, Carlotta needed to meet the sons. She guessed that Joe and Adam were going to be the two she would target based on the information that they had gathered. Joe was the one she would romance, and Adam was the one she would put in jeopardy by her machinations. She was looking forward to it so very much because it had been quite a while since she had ruined a man’s life and in this case she was looking forward to ruining or ending four of them. That night, she was especially lively in Charles bed. For the time being, he was the only lover she could allow herself. She looked forward to when she could bed the youngest Cartwright for she was tiring of the older man who lacked the energy she desired in a lover. He served his purpose as a judge, and he was convincing in his role as her father, but she found him rather disappointing in bed. It gave her motivation to work on the next part of the plan and soon. While she enjoyed her evening, Ben struggled to find rest as his dreams were troubled by a dream that was more like a nightmare except it was a real memory of the past.
Snows so deep that even with the thaw, the depth was sometimes more than the horses could manage. Often the rescue party was stopped and had to dig their way through a section or turn around and find another way. Theirs was the fourth try to get through to the Connor party. They knew how desperate those families must be by this time. The last two who had struggled out through the snows desperately seeking help for those they had left behind had told tales of how the ones left behind were boiling the hides of oxen for soup and how they were trapping vermin and eating everything including the heads of them in order to survive. Even so, Ben wondered if they would find any left alive. The cold and starvation might have taken all those left behind weak as they already were. He had come to help despite having two young boys he had to leave behind in the care of friends. He knew that Adam would do all that he could to help with Hoss, but his heart ached with his absence from them. He wondered too at his decision to take his young sons to these same mountains as soon as the weather cleared. The snows had been twenty feet deep if reports were to be believed. When the rescue party smelled the wood smoke, their frowns were broken by faint smiles for a short time. At least some of the people were still alive. When they arrived at the camp, if it could be called that, the frowns and other expressions turned to shock and dismay. The camp was a mess. The lack of organization was appalling and certainly had probably contributed to the loss of life. Slowly survivors approached them almost like apparitions almost afraid to believe that rescue had finally come and some were angry it had come so late. Ben helped one family in particular. A man had two children and an infant.
“My name is Maxwell. This is my oldest son. This is my daughter, and she’s holding the baby. He was born on the way here. How he’s still alive is a miracle.”
“Your wife died then?”
“Yes, that’s her. Please leave her there.” Maxwell indicated a blanket-shrouded corpse
laying off to the side of their makeshift dwelling. Maxwell turned then to escort his children to where the rescuers were giving out more blankets and hot food. Ben stepped over to the corpse intending to bring it to where the other bodies were being collected for burial. He lifted her and half of her fell away. He was shocked and dismayed thinking he had a corpse but realized that it was wood that had fallen. Much of her body was missing and wood had been put in its place. He looked at what was in the blanket and saw that her legs had been cut away. He dropped her and groaned loudly. Maxwell turned back to him.
“Nooo, you were not to touch her. What have you done?”
Ben turned to him in shock and horror. “What did you do to her? Her legs are missing.”
By then, several others of the rescue party had come to see. They grabbed Maxwell and asked the same question Ben had asked.
“We had to live. I had to keep the children alive. She would have wanted me to do it. She wouldn’t have wanted me to let the children die. Please, don’t tell the children. Please, don’t tell anyone. Never tell anyone. If you do, the children will find out. Please?”
Ben woke after that one in a cold sweat. He got out of bed and lit a lamp wondering why he had that dream after all these years. It was so real. He remembered all that had happened. After Maxwell’s revelation, they had searched the camp and found other bodies with missing parts. Not everyone there had cannibalized the dead, but many had. Faced with a similar situation, Ben didn’t know what he would have done, but he did know that he had nightmares and bad dreams for months after that rescue. Finally, he had been able to banish the awful memories, but suddenly they were back. Perhaps Charles Johnson mentioning that he was from the town of Maxwell had done it. Ben had to think that had been the trigger that had loosed those demon dreams again. It didn’t matter too much. It had been so very long ago. No one talked about that terrible tragedy any more. He thought that was a good thing as it was one of those episodes in history that was best forgotten. He didn’t think he would be able to get back to sleep easily so he took his Bible out and read for a time until he had calmed his mind and soothed his spirit. Then he slid back into bed and managed to get a few hours of rest.
When it was time for breakfast, Ben met Charles and Carlotta in the hotel dining room. They had a very pleasant time as Charles asked Ben about his family and the Ponderosa giving him plenty of time to talk about his sons and his ranch. Carlotta started to get very interested when Ben began to talk about his three sons and mentioned that they were very handsome and that not one of them was married.
“Three handsome sons and not one of them is married? I think that I would like to visit this Ponderosa, Mister Cartwright.”
Chuckling, Ben smiled at her enthusiasm. “I think perhaps that would be a good idea if your father approves. I certainly would like to see my sons or at least one of them become seriously interested in a young woman. I take it that you are seriously interested too in finding a suitable young man?”
“Yes, yes, I am. When you live in a small town such as Maxwell, there aren’t very many young men who are suitable. There are many men who wish to be suitors, but not many I wish to have as suitors.”
“Well, seeing as how your father and I are entering into a business partnership, it seems that it would perhaps be a good idea for him to see the other end of the equation as my son Adam would put it. What do you say, Charles? Is a visit to the Ponderosa something that you could fit into your schedule?”
“Well, if we can work out all the legalities with the lawyers and the financial details with the banks and accomplish all of that in a timely fashion, then we certainly would like to see the great Ponderosa. We have heard so much about it. It would be a privilege to be able to visit it.”
“Then I would like to extend a formal invitation. At the conclusion of our business, would you two please do me the honor of accompanying me to my home to be my guest for the next week at least. You cannot enjoy the Ponderosa with less than a week’s stay, two weeks would be better.”
Looking at Carlotta who had such a hopeful expression, Charles had to chuckle. He turned back to Ben. “This must be one thing that you never had to suffer with boys. She can use that look on me to get almost anything. Yes, Ben, I would be delighted to accept your invitation to spend two weeks on your beautiful ranch.” Carlotta gave Charles a dazzling smile for that, and he knew he was going to be rewarded handsomely for his performance. Ben saw the smiles and only thought that he saw a proud father and very happy daughter. If he had heard them talk that night, his blood would have run cold.
In her room at the hotel, Carlotta was almost crowing in her delight at how well she thought that her plan was working. “He is so very much easier to manipulate than I had imagined. I would have thought that a man with such an empire would have been more suspicious.”
“Carlotta, he may yet be suspicious. Do not get overconfident. Besides, from what we learned from our investigators, it is the oldest son who is the one who tends to be the most suspicious. He is the one who will fault us if we misstep. And of course, we will do that with him, or shall I say, you will purposefully set up situations in which he knows that you are lying. He will be so suspicious. Will we bring David into it or use only his younger brother to stoke the fires?”
“I think that letting him see me meet with David in town will be the thing that gets him to decide to investigate. When he does that, he will break ranks with his family. That will hurt his father and set him up for David to kill him. Once Ben sees his bullet-riddled body, we will be able to put the rest of our plan into action. I will stay and console the youngest who will need to be strong for his father. You will go back to California and wait until you get word that Ben has made the financial commitments for moving those logs across the lake. Once that is done, sever all ties with the railroads and the banks as well as with the Ponderosa. Our lawyers put those escape clauses in those papers today so neatly that I don’t think he saw them at all. They are cleverly worded and worked into the rest of the contract so seamlessly, it would take a genius to see them.”
“I’ve got training in the law, and I’ve never seen anything like what you got into those contracts.”
“David and I paid some attorneys a lot of money to work out that language. It better work. They know how David is when he gets angry at someone.”
“What if they see the problem when Ben gets those contracts home?”
“It won’t matter. He made a deal and he’s stuck trying to deliver. He won’t know that we’re going to renege on our end of the contract until it’s too late. He needs to stay in the good graces of the railroads so he’ll have to go through with it no matter how awful the contract actually is and that he may lose a lot of money in the long run.”
“A lot of money, Carlotta, he may lose it all.”
“Charles, I’m counting on that. Now, help me out of this dress. I have a lot of energy to burn off, and you’re going to help me do it. Once we’re on that horrible ranch, I’ll be stuck with no one until I can get that silly boy into my bed.”
“I wonder how old Ben thinks you are.”
“How old did you tell him I was?”
Worried then, Charles had to admit something he was afraid to say but he was even more afraid to try to hide anything from her. “I think I forgot to tell him.”
At first, ready to explode in anger, Carlotta relented. “Well, he was so busy talking about his sons, you really didn’t have a chance to talk about ‘your family’ now did you? All right, tomorrow at breakfast, you start talking about me and your poor devoted wife, my poor mama, and how she died twenty-three years ago on the day I was born. That should soothe any suspicions he might have about me. He looks at me every now and then like he thinks he should know me. He should but I’m quite a bit older now. I’m only four years younger than his son, Adam, but if you tell him that I’m twenty-three, that should help, and it makes me the same age as his youngest son which should help the matchmaking too.” Carlotta waited a moment to let Charles process what she had told him to do. “So, do you have that straight?”
“Yes, Carlotta, I’ll do just what you told me to do. I always do what you tell me to do.”
Carlotta smiled then for she had some ideas of what she wanted him to do that night.
One floor up, Ben slid into bed and hoped for a quiet night, but he didn’t get it. The dreams were back. This time he dreamed about a confrontation with Maxwell that happened months after the rescue.
“You told people. You told them and now they’ve spread the stories all over. My children are hearing those stories. How do I answer their questions? I do I explain it to my children? You did this to me. You ruined my life and my children’s lives.”
“I didn’t tell anyone that story. There were a lot of men there that day.”
“It had to be you. The story is about how the wood fell out when you picked up her body and then found out her legs were missing.”
“Any one of the men there could have told that story.”
“It was you. I know it was you. I can’t get a job. I have no money. I have to beg for food to feed my children. What’s going to happen to my children? I curse you. If I could, I would kill you for what you’ve done.”
Shortly after that incident, Ben packed up his belongings and his two young sons and moved to the high Sierras, staked out a claim, and begun a trap line. A young Chinese immigrant signed on to go with him. The four of them spent the next two years nearly alone until a few others began to venture into the same area. Ben never thought much about the Connor Party after that, except when he had those bad dreams or when he had to soothe the bad dreams of his oldest son.
Waking in a cold sweat, Ben shook his head wondering again why those dreams were back. Once more he was up and reading his Bible trying to soothe his mind and spirit so that he could try to get some restful sleep. It took quite some time.
Breakfast then was a lively affair with Charles spinning tales of Carlotta as a child and then turning serious when Ben asked about her mother. Charles dropped his head.
“Sadly, I’ve had to be both father and mother to her for her whole life. Her mother died giving birth to her. She was a lovely woman but not a strong woman. Her heart gave out. We were lucky that the doctor could save Carlotta. My poor Millicent didn’t have the strength to make it, so there were no brothers or sisters for Carlotta either. I wasn’t as strong as you, Ben. I couldn’t marry again. It was too much for me.”
“I understand that, Charles. Now, how about getting our bags and heading to the train? We’re off on an adventure soon. You will never see sights as beautiful as what you will see when you see Lake Tahoe from the Ponderosa.”
Within two hours, Ben sat across from Charles and Carlotta as they began the trip to Virginia City. There were many men who passed by and gave admiring glances to Carlotta. Ben could only smile as he thought about how his sons would react when he brought this eligible and very beautiful young woman to the Ponderosa. He had some hope that perhaps Adam or Joe would find her suitable. He was getting impatient with his sons and their unwillingness to find wives and settle down. Well if they wouldn’t find a suitable woman to marry, he would bring one to them. With that thought, he smiled again and continued his most interesting conversation with his new friends. They had many such conversations as they traveled to Virginia City. Ben had sent word ahead of time letting his sons know that he had signed a contract but without divulging the details. He had wired them too when they had begun the stage trip so they would know when to expect them to arrive.
On the day Ben had said they should be in Virginia City, Joe stood adjusting his string tie one more time and looked down the street for the stage that was late as usual. “So, Pa said to be on our best behavior and our Sunday best when we met the stage. Did he say why?”
“No, Joe, it’s the same answer as all the other times you asked. He only said what he said and nothing more, and you know everything that he said.”
“All right, Adam, you don’t have to bite my head off. It was only a question.”
“The two of you could just stop bickering too. It would be a whole lot nicer that way. It’d be even nicer if they’d up and finish that spur line so folks could roll into town on a train instead of a dusty ole stagecoach. It might be on time once in a while too.”
“You’re only complaining because we’ve waited here so long you’re afraid we’ll miss the lunch special at the International.”
“Now why you so cranky this morning, Adam? First you’re spouting away at Joe and now at me.”
“See, it wasn’t my fault. You said it, yourself. He’s cranky this morning.”
“Now, Joe, it was your fault too for irritating him when you know he was already in a mood. Adam, why are you in a mood. Is it cause Pa wrote and said he signed them contracts without ever talking with us about ’em cause I know you like to look ’em over before he signs ’em.”
“It’s not that so much as signing them with people he’s just met. We know nothing about these people, and Pa signed us up to work in a partnership with them. It worries me.”
“Adam, you’re too suspicious. If they were up to something to try to hurt us, would they come and stay with us for two weeks?”
“I remember a certain countess who did.”
“Adam, even you have to admit, she was kind of crazy. I think Joe’s right on this one. If they meant to do us harm, I don’t think they’d come to visit, and it sounded like maybe that Charles feller is even looking to marry off that daughter of his to one of us.”
“Yes, that worries me too.”
Joe rolled his eyes at that one as Hoss laughed. “Well, older brother, ifn you’re so all fired worried about that little gal, me and Joe will be sure to keep her entertained. Won’t we, Joe?”
With a smirk, Joe nodded. “You bet we will. Hoss and I can handle that just fine.”
Shaking his head, Adam could only accept what his brothers said. At the moment, he wasn’t interested in any romantic entanglement. He had an uneasy feeling about the whole situation and couldn’t explain why. There simply was something that was bothering him about the situation. It also could have been that there was a young man that seemed to be staring at them. That was also a bit unnerving because he didn’t recognize the man at all.
“Do either of you know that man in the brown suit standing over next to the millinery shop who’s been staring at us for the past hour?”
“Adam, now you really are getting too suspicious. Maybe he’s waiting for someone too. He’s probably got a wife in the shop and is just trying to look around like he doesn’t have any interest.”
“Yeah, older brother, why you so jumpy and ornery, anyway? We got to take a day off of work, come into town all gussied up, get to meet a new gal, and have lunch at the hotel. You should be smiling instead of frowning.”
Unable to articulate his misgivings, Adam could only shrug and remain silent. He sat then and waited for the stage. Luckily that was only a few more minutes. When it arrived, Ben was the first to get out. He smiled broadly as he greeted his sons and then offered his hand to Charles as he exited the stage. He would have helped Carlotta too but Joe was quick to step up to offer that service and didn’t release her hand once she had stepped down the two steps to the street. She smiled demurely at Joe.
“You must be Joe. Your father has told me how handsome and charming his youngest son is, and there can be no mistaking you. He warned that I might be swept off my feet in minutes by his son with the quick smile and fast moves. I can see now that I needed that warning.”
“No need to be worried, miss. I’m as harmless as a puppy dog but just as cute.”
“That you are, Joe. I look forward to some spirited rides with you.” Turning to Hoss, Carlotta extended her hand and took his large one in hers. “You must be Hoss, the wise son who loves the land and his family with a fierce heart but a gentle soul. Your father cannot stop talking about your skills and your love of the land and all that lives upon it. I hope that we have a chance to see some of that together.”
“Yes, Miss Carlotta, I shur hope we can do that.”
Carlotta turned then to Adam who had watched her performance with some skepticism. It was well done but lacked an inner warmth and sincerity. It reminded him of a stage play by an actress who did not feel the role she was playing. He stepped forward though to take her hand surprising her by taking the initiative from her. She did her best to hide her irritation at his boldness, but Adam saw the flicker of distaste cross her expression before the smile was again locked in place.
“Most pleased to meet you, Miss Carlotta Johnson. I hope that you have a very pleasant stay on the Ponderosa. My brothers have been talking about little else but their wishes to show you the length and breadth of our holdings.”
“And of course, you must be Adam, the bold, decisive one. You do like to take charge now, don’t you?”
There was a slight challenge in the words but nothing he had to answer. He smiled and bowed just a little letting Joe offer his arm to escort Carlotta to lunch. He and Hoss made arrangements for the luggage to be loaded into the buckboard they had brought for that purpose. Then Adam pulled the carriage up next to the hotel, and he and Hoss walked inside to join the others already seated for lunch. Adam had hoped to see the contracts his father had signed, but Ben told him that they were in his luggage and he would get them out when they returned home. Adam had to wait, but was even more concerned when he noted the slightly nervous look he got from his father with that statement. After lunch, Joe and Ben took the carriage and gave Carlotta and Charles the scenic ride to the Ponderosa as Hoss and Adam took the buckboard with the luggage. As they left town, Adam noted that the man in brown was still watching them. He pulled out a small notebook he had in his coat pocket and did a few small sketches of the man. As he drove the wagon, Hoss looked over to watch him draw.
“Hey, ain’t that the guy you thought was watching us at the stage depot?”
“Yes, and he was there when we walked into the hotel, in the lobby when we left, and then on the walkway when we drove out of town. He was watching us for a reason. I wish I knew what it was.”
“Maybe he was just curious. You don’t have to be so suspicious to think that everybody who looks at us means to do us harm, you know.”
Looking at Hoss with that sideways frown, Adam had only two comments that got Hoss thinking too. “You’re the one who always says to trust your gut feelings. My gut is churning badly about everything right now.”
“No idea why?”
Shaking his head in answer as much as in frustration, Adam stared out over the terrain as they drove toward the ranch. He had nothing specific in mind but lots of concerns that he had trouble delineating even in his own mind so he knew he couldn’t explain them. When he met Carlotta, he had a momentary flash as if he knew her, but it wasn’t as Carlotta Johnson and that bothered him too. He had a fantastic memory and yet could not remember ever meeting this young woman. He needed to know more about her, and yet the only way to do that was by spending time with her. Somehow, even though he knew he needed to do it, his gut told him not to do it, and it wasn’t only because he knew that Joe was likely to misinterpret his interest. There was something sinister about her. She was beautiful and her form was as attractive as any woman’s could be. Her dress, although modest enough, had been expertly designed to show off her attributes while maintaining her status as a lady. He had seen other women who could pull that off, but most of them earned a lot of money doing it. She definitely wasn’t one of those, but he had to wonder what she was. He couldn’t believe she was the innocent daughter of a California rancher and timber baron. Too much simply didn’t add up for him there.
Watching Adam from time to time as they headed home, Hoss was worried too. Adam had seemed so unsettled recently. There had been the problems with Howard and then when Adam had some problems in negotiating a contract, he and their father had gotten into a heated exchange, which had led to their father heading out to do this last round of negotiations instead of trusting Adam to do them. Hoss worried that Adam might be thinking of leaving and that what their father had done might have caused a breach that would make that more likely. However perhaps he was going to go regardless. He seemed unhappy in other ways too. He and Joe didn’t get into those same kind of teasing arguments any more. When they argued now, there was an edge there especially from Joe that was new. It was almost as if Joe was pushing Adam hard and it was if Adam didn’t mind being pushed. All too often, it seemed, he would back away with his hands up as if in surrender and take the dirty job or accept the weeks at the timber camp or the long stay up at a line cabin. He did anything to avoid a more serious confrontation with Joe as if it didn’t matter any more. Hoss had to wonder if it was because he was planning to move on and that’s why he didn’t care much about their younger brother getting more and more arrogant. In the past, Adam would have done something about that attitude but now had a more tolerance. Hoss was worried but not about those things that seemed to be bothering his older brother. It was his older brother and his behavior that worried Hoss. What happened over the next few days made Hoss worry even more.
Dinner was as delightful a meal as Joe and Hoss could remember with Carlotta spending time asking questions of each of them. The only sour notes as far as they were concerned was that when she asked questions of Adam, he responded in as few words as possible and barely looked at her. Joe and Hoss tried to make up for his surly behavior with more smiles and lots of happy talk. The next few days, whenever Carlotta wanted to see any part of the Ponderosa, Joe or Hoss were right there volunteering to be her guide. Even though she gave each of them opportunities to do so, it was clear that Joe was getting to spend far more time with her than Hoss. He realized by the third day which was Saturday that he was out of the running and deferred to Joe when Carlotta once more asked for a riding companion. Adam spent those first two days making himself scarce doing the work his brothers should have been doing. However on Saturday, he had no such opportunity and was there working at repairing some harness when Hoss watched Joe ride off with Carlotta.
“He was a bit upset with you last night.”
“Upset with me? Why?”
“Carlotta asked you to take a walk with her after dinner.”
“Why would he be upset with me. She asked me to take a walk. I didn’t ask her. In fact, if you recall, I declined and he was the one who walked with her.”
“Yes, but she asked you, and she asked you the night before, and you said no then too. He thinks that you’re kinda like teasing her and that’s why she keeps asking you.”
“Now, why would he think that?”
“Well, I guess she kinda said something to him that she thought you really wanted to walk with her but weren’t walking with her because of Joe. She said she could tell you are really interested in her, and Joe said he watched you, and he could tell the same thing.”
Dropping the harness he was working with onto the workbench, Adam turned to Hoss in frustration. “So by being not interested in Carlotta, that shows I’m interested in Carlotta. By not walking with her, that shows that I want to walk with her? And Joe’s mad about that, but if I showed interest in her or walked with her, Joe would be very angry. Do I have that about right?”
“All right, when you say it like that, it does sound kind of funny. I don’t know, but when Joe was talking about it, it made more sense, I guess. You do seem to be staring at her a lot.”
Shrugging at the last part, Adam couldn’t deny it. “That’s true but it’s because I can’t shake the feeling that I should know her from some place. She seems so familiar and yet, I can’t remember her at all. I’ve been trying to remember since she got here, and I have no memory of having met her in California or anywhere else.”
“You been losing sleep over that?”
“Well, you look real tired like you ain’t been sleeping well.”
“I haven’t been sleeping well, but it has nothing to do with Carlotta. I’m worried about those contracts that Pa signed. Charles had an escape clause built in for the Johnson Ranch but there’s nothing there for the Ponderosa. If they pull out, we’re stuck with trying to fill the whole contract.”
“Could we do it?”
“I doubt it. It could ruin us, and Pa doesn’t even want to talk about it. He keeps telling me that I’m worrying too much and that he knows what he’s doing.”
“I guess that is enough to lose some sleep. Anything else bothering you?”
“For some strange reason, I’ve been dreaming about the Connor Party. You don’t remember because you were only a baby, but Pa was on the last rescue mission that brought the last of the survivors back. There were some children in the group, and I played with a few of them before they moved on. Even though they weren’t supposed to talk about it, soon the stories were all over about how the survivors had survived. It was years before the Donner-Reed Party had similar problems, but no one heard about the Connor led group because when they had their troubles, there were few here who spoke English and no English newspaper to spread the story. Most of them left there soon after that became common knowledge in the settlement, and I suppose the story died out with them leaving. Not long after that, Pa brought us here. I’ve been having dreams about that time. It makes falling back asleep difficult.”
“Well, I hope you get some decent sleep tonight. Maybe Hop Sing can give you something so you don’t have them dreams. I hope too that you and Joe can work this thing out between you before it gets any worse.”
“It seems that Carlotta enjoys the friction between us.”
“See now, you can’t be saying things like that. It only gets Joe’s back up and makes things a whole lot worse.”
“Sorry. I guess I should keep my opinions to myself and not talk to anyone.”
“Now don’t go getting like that. I only want you to try to get along with Joe and keep things peaceful around here.”
“I won’t do anything to make things worse. Fair enough?”
“Thanks. Now, let’s get to work.”
That evening, things did seem to go better. Adam slipped outside after dinner before Carlotta could make her nightly request that he take a walk with her. Hoss smiled to himself when she looked around the room presumably for Adam before settling on the couch beside Joe. After about a half hour, Joe excused himself to get a book from his room to show Carlotta. Joe was no sooner at the top of the stairs than Carlotta was headed to the front door and outside. Hoss had a fair idea that she was going in search of Adam, but he had no idea of what to do about it. When Joe returned and asked about Carlotta, all Hoss could do was explain that she had walked outside.
In the moonlight outside, Carlotta had quickly found Adam who had been sitting on a chair on the porch looking at the stars. He stood when she came up next to him because he had been taught to be a gentleman and stand in such a situation. She took full advantage of that expecting him to do just that. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him as soundly as she could. Adam put his hands on her upper arms to try to peel her from him and that made it look as if her was pulling her into his embrace which was exactly what she wanted Joe to see when he came looking for her as she knew he would. In the moonlight and as hot-tempered as Joe was, Carlotta knew that Joe would draw the conclusion that she wanted him to draw.
“Adam, what are you doing?”
Acting as if she was startled, Carlotta jerked in Adam’s grasp and then pulled away as if she had been fighting his grasp. He released her glad to be free of her, but to Joe it looked as if the opposite was true. Carlotta rushed into the house with what sounded like small whimpers escaping from her.
“What the hell were you doing?”
“I was trying to get her away from me. Thank you for coming out here. At least it made her leave.”
“That’s a feeble story. I’m not buying it this time. You’ve used that story too many times. You stay away from her. I’m falling in love with her, and I might want to marry her. You stay away from her, or we’re going to have big problems. You hear that.” Joe spun around and returned to the house then.
Silently, Adam watched him go, but then speaking to the stars and himself, he was prophetic. “We already have big problems, little brother. It’s just that no one else seems to see that yet, but there’s a lot of trouble headed this way.”
Inside, Carlotta told an angry Joe that she was tired, and she headed up to her bedroom. It was all part of the plan. Joe would not get a chance to talk with her and calm his fears about what had happened. She wanted his imagination working on the scenario in his mind all night because she hoped to plant more seeds to grow in the next few days until there would be a major fallout between the two brothers. It was working even better than she had hoped. She and Charles had the guest rooms that had an adjoining door. Ben had no idea how convenient that was for them not knowing that they were lovers instead of the father and daughter he thought that they were. Carlotta had thought that she would have to curb her carnal urges while she waited to seduce the youngest Cartwright, but instead found she had an outlet while she waited. That night after their coupling, they whispered about how well their plan, or rather her plan, was working.
“Adam and his father are already tense with each other over those contracts and the investments that have to be made. Ben is trying to do what needs to be done without drawing Adam in too much because he’s worried that Adam will disapprove when he finds out just how expensive a proposition it is. He probably suspects already and he’s getting more upset all the time as you and Ben talk and work and shut him out of the discussion.”
“Yes, I’ve seen him prowling about trying to be invited into the discussion and Ben ignores him. That must infuriate him, but Ben is nervous about it too. This has to succeed or he will lose so much respect from his sons, and he has to know too how much he has put the ranch in jeopardy. He’ll be devastated if this fails.”
“You mean when this fails. You’ll exercise that escape clause as soon as we know he’s in too deep to pull out. I’m hoping by then that the trouble between Adam and Joe will have fractured the family already. He won’t have Adam to help him get out of the mess because he’ll be dead, and that death will paralyze him.”
“By the way he talks about Adam sometimes, it could kill him. The death of any of his sons could send him over the edge. I didn’t know that he had lost three wives. I guess I never understood that. Our investigators never made that part clear. I only knew that he was a widower.”
“Well we never told them to dig into his past. I hope you’re not feeling sorry for him. That would be a dangerous error for you to make.” The threat in her words was not lost on Charles because he knew the kind of things that happened to men who opposed Carlotta.
“No, not at all. It was only to explain why I thought Adam’s death might affect him more than we originally thought.”
“Good. Then over the next few days, I’ll keep playing my games with Adam and Joe, and you keep pushing Ben on those investments. Once he signs those papers, I’ll get Joe to explode, and we’ll get this whole thing moving along at a faster pace.”
“The bedroom scenario?”
“Yes, I think it will work. Adam gets up quite early as does Ben. You and I will do our usual thing, and it will be all the evidence Joe will need to believe that it was Adam who bedded me. He of course would have no idea that there is anyone else in this house who could be a suspect so when he sees the evidence, Adam will be his target. That will be all that it takes to break this family into two. Perhaps tomorrow, I should take that ride into town and meet with David. By now, Adam might be suspicious enough to follow me. What do you think?”
“Tell them you want to take a short ride by yourself after Joe leaves to do some work. Earlier I heard Hoss say something about Adam working at the forge in the morning so he’ll be here. If he doesn’t follow you, just ride about the ranch. If he follows you, go to town and find David.”
“That’s good, Charles. Yes, that will work. And if it doesn’t work tomorrow, there’s always the next day.”
Well, Carlotta’s strategy to get Adam to follow her didn’t work the next day because Adam did his best to ignore her. She however didn’t ignore him. She spent a lot of time looking at him, and waited for that inevitable question from Joe that night.
“Carlotta, you must know that I’m very interested in you.”
“Joe, I’m very interested in you too. You know that, don’t you?”
“I’d like to think so, but there is something that makes me hold back on telling you what’s truly in my heart.” Joe had walked outside with Carlotta and stood staring at the darkness not trusting himself to put his arms around her because once he kissed her, it was too difficult for him to think. She overwhelmed his mind and all he wanted was to keep kissing her and had to hold back so that he didn’t become too forward in his advances.
Carlotta moved up and put her hand on his forearm at his elbow as she moved until her body was so close to his that Joe could feel the warmth emanating from her. “Joe, what is it? Have I done something to upset you? Please tell me. I want to make things right with you.”
“It’s you and Adam.”
“Me and Adam! But there is no me and Adam.”
“You’re always looking at Adam and smiling at him. I don’t see him looking at you. It’s always you looking at him.”
“Oh, Joe, he’s always looking at me. Whenever I chance to look in his direction, he’s looking at me. Sometimes he smiles but other times he looks like he’s ready to devour me. Then I smile at him but he always turns away. That must be what you see. Oh, Joe, he makes me so nervous. I think I should be afraid of him.”
Turning toward Carlotta, Joe had to smile then as he gathered her in his arms. “Oh, that’s all it is then.” Carlotta still looked so worried that Joe decided to explain more. “Adam’s been suspicious of you and Charles ever since he heard about this deal that Pa made. Adam is always suspicious of everyone, and to have Pa make this deal without him made him upset so he’s even more suspicious. He’ll get over it. You’ll have to give him time. He doesn’t trust people easily.”
“He’s not like you then. He’s so cold and hard. You are like your father. You are both so nice and warm and kind. Hoss is too, but not Adam. He doesn’t fit in here. It’s like he doesn’t belong here.”
“Yes, he is different than the rest of us. He is my brother though.”
“Yes, and one cannot pick one’s brothers although I bet you would have picked Hoss if you had been given the choice.”
“I sure would have. No one ever had a brother better than Hoss.”
With the conversation going exactly as she wanted, Carlotta was willing to spend an extra long session of kissing that even went a bit further with Joe until she exclaimed that she couldn’t continue because it just wasn’t right. Joe was so apologetic that she wanted to laugh but knew she and Charles could chuckle about it later.
The next day, Carlotta thought that she would be unable to work on her plan because all three sons headed out in the early morning to do work. However late in the morning, Adam came back to get some things. Ben heard some noise and looked out the window by his office and mentioned to Charles that Adam was back. Carlotta was seated by the fireplace reading and wondering what she could do to advance her plan. When she heard Ben say that, she asked if Ben thought that Adam would have time to help her saddle a horse for a ride. Ben of course told her he thought that wouldn’t be a problem. She put her book down and hurried out to the stable. Adam was gruff and wanted to leave as soon as he saw her, but when she said that his father had said that he ought to saddle a horse for her, he gave in on that point at least and told her to wait by the corral. A short time later, he led a horse from the stable and handed the reins to her without asking if she needed any help. She didn’t of course, but his churlish behavior rankled anyway making her relish the thought of what was going to happen to him in the near future. Her regret was that she wouldn’t be there to watch it happen. Adam wondered at her strange look, but had nothing upon which to base any conclusion. Trying to pin her down to something was like trying to catch the fog. Once she rode out, he only thought about it for a short time before he mounted up to follow her. He didn’t follow directly thinking that she might expect that. He took an indirect route that would give him a clear view of her many times but wouldn’t give her the sense of being followed. He guessed after a short time that she was going to town, but he was wrong on that count. Near the edge of the Ponderosa, a man rode out of a copse of trees greeting her. It was the man in brown who had been watching them in town. The two talked briefly before they parted. Adam followed her for a while and then rode down to intercept her.
“What game are you playing?”
“You scared me.”
“Oh I doubt that very much. My guess is that you wanted me to follow you. I don’t know why, but you were so obvious about it that it has to be part of some plan you have. What are you and your father doing here?”
“We are visiting your wonderful family of which you certainly do not belong. You are crude and mean.”
“You should know.”
“I shall tell Joe about what you have done. He will get satisfaction from you.”
“What do you gain by driving a wedge between me and my brother? I know you’ve been working hard to do that. What I don’t understand is why. What can you gain from that?”
“You have quite an imagination. It was a stranger who asked directions. I told him I was a guest here and didn’t know any better than he how to give directions. He rode off to find someone better to ask.”
“So that’s your story?”
“It’s not a story. It’s the truth. Now I want to ride back. I’ve had quite enough of a conversation with you. You are such an uncouth cold-hearted man. I prefer your brother. He is much more of a gentleman.”
“He is, and you are a conniving bitch. I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m going to find out.”
Adam didn’t know it, but he had pushed Carlotta into accelerating her plan at that point. She was ready to move much more quickly and wheeled her horse around to ride around Adam before he could react to stop her. She mussed her hair and made sure she looked disheveled by the time she returned to the ranch leaving her horse tied to the corral fence when she saw that Joe’s horse was already at the hitching post. She ran to the house and inside hurrying up the stairs ignoring all greetings. Joe called to her several times. She knew he would follow her. He caught up to her before she was able to close her bedroom door. She made sure of that.
“Carlotta, what happened?”
“It’s nothing, Joe. I don’t want to make any trouble.”
“I can see that there has already been trouble. What happened? Did someone hurt you?”
“No, no one hurt me, not really.”
“What do you mean, not really? Tell me what happened. Please?”
“I went for a ride, and a man rode out. He only wanted to ask directions, Joe. I told him I was as new here as he was and couldn’t give him directions. He rode off, but Adam had followed me. He accused me of meeting that man. Joe, we spoke for a minute or so at the most. We never even got off of our horses. You can ask your suspicious brother. He is so hateful though. He isn’t a gentleman, Joe. He called me a bitch, Joe. I was so upset. Maybe I should leave. I don’t have to stay here. My father can conduct his business here without me.”
“No, I’m beginning to think you’re not the one who ought to be leaving. I’m gong to have a few words with my oldest brother. He can’t act this way.”
“No, Joe, please, for my sake, don’t say anything. Maybe he was only in a bad mood and soon things will be better. He may already be feeling badly about what he said. I don’t want to be the cause of discord in your family. Please, for my sake, keep this between us. Please?”
Most reluctantly, Joe agreed to do as she asked. She said that she wanted to stay in her room that evening if he would make excuses to the family that she wasn’t feeling well and perhaps bring her a tray with a light supper later. He agreed to do that, and found her looking quite a bit better later when he brought up a tray that Hop Sing had prepared. He had barely been able to hold his tongue around Adam but had managed. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could do that though so Carlotta said he should leave the door wide open and they could sit there and talk until it was time to retire for the evening.
“Joe, perhaps, I should talk privately to Adam and try to work this out. I need to get him to understand that I mean no harm to this family, and that I am falling in love with you. Maybe if he knows that, he will not be so suspicious of me. I’ll talk to him privately and tell him how I feel about you and that I hope to have a future here with you if you’ll have me.”
“Oh, my God, Carlotta, I wanted to ask you that, but I was afraid you wouldn’t be ready to make that kind of commitment. If you’re ready though, yes, I do want to have a future here with you. Our fathers will be so happy to have the two of us together. I can’t wait to tell them.”
“But first, we have to get Adam to calm down about things. I’ll talk to him because I can tell you’re too angry. Men are like that about their women. I know that much even if I’ve never been married. It will be easier for me to talk to him than for you to do it, don’t you think?”
“Yes, you’re probably right about that. Men are so proud and strong.”
Appealing to Joe’s ego had been the way to go. Carlotta had a lot of experience manipulating men, and Joe fell for that trick much as she had expected. Later, she discussed strategy with Charles.
“Tomorrow morning, our timing has to be impeccable. Ben and Adam get up first. I’ve been paying attention. There’s a short lull then before Hoss and then Joe get up. I have to make the move in that lull and be ready by the time Hoss leaves his bedroom.”
“If it doesn’t work, this whole plan could fail.”
“I know. It could all blow up in our faces, so that’s why our timing has to be impeccable. Now let’s get to sleep early tonight. We have a lot to do in the early morning.”
In the morning, Ben got up at the usual time and enjoyed some coffee at the dining table not realizing the hell that was going to break loose in less than an hour. Adam was downstairs a short time later. He had a dark look and told his father that as soon as he was back inside, they needed to talk. Ben wondered at what that could be but knew he would have to wait. Upstairs, Hoss rolled out of bed and began to dress pausing several times when he heard strange sounds. He couldn’t place the sounds and wondered what they were. As he left his bedroom, he realized the sounds were coming from Adam’s bedroom. The door was slightly ajar so he pushed it further open saying his brother’s name as he did so. What he saw and heard left him standing there in shock.
“You came back. Oh, you came back. Will you help me? I don’t know what to do now. Please help me.” Carlotta was in Adam’s bed, naked, with her clothing laying on the floor. She turned toward Hoss and he saw what appeared to be marks on the upper parts of her breasts and her breasts were red as if whisker burned. She grabbed the sheet and pulled it up to her chin and began crying again in the halting sobs which had been the sounds he had heard before. Behind him, he heard Joe’s voice and tried to stop him from entering the room.
“Hoss, what’s going on in there? Who’s in there?”
Pushing by Hoss, Joe saw Carlotta in Adam’s bed. He stood in shock as Carlotta put out one hand to him and then pulled it back. She cried and then piteously tried to explain.
“I went to get something to eat last night. I was still hungry. Adam saw me and pulled me into his room here. He forced me. I’ve never been with a man. I didn’t know what to expect. He’s so strong and frightening. Oh, Joe, you’ll never want me now. No one will want me now.”
From behind both brothers, there was a roar of anger. Charles was there and had apparently heard everything.
“I will kill him. How could he do this to my daughter? I will kill him.”
Charles turned to go back to his bedroom as Hoss told Joe to take care of Carlotta. By this time, Ben was alerted by the noise and was walking toward the stairs when Charles came rushing down the stairs with a pistol.
“Where is Adam? I’m going to kill him. Where is that bastard of yours?”
About that time, Adam walked back into the house with no idea of what had happened. Charles raised the pistol to fire, but moving quickly up a few steps, Ben deflected the shot which went into the ceiling instead. Adam stood in shock wondering what was happening as his father wrested the weapon away from Charles. By then, Hoss was on the stairs as well and helped his father. Charles screamed obscenities and threats at Adam as Hoss and Ben held him. Ben told Adam to go out on the porch and wait until he could figure out what was going on. Adam wanted to stay, but Ben asked him to please step outside. Then Hoss told Ben what he had seen earlier in Adam’s bedroom leaving his father speechless. Charles continued to utter his threats until Ben told him to be quiet so they could sort out what had happened.
“There is no sorting out. Your son took my daughter against her will. That is what happened. I demand justice.”
“Let’s go downstairs. You sit down and be quiet. I want to hear what Adam has to say about this. Hoss, you keep him quiet and don’t let him near a firearm.”
Heading out to the porch to see Adam, Ben was worried. He knew that Adam would never have done what Carlotta had said he had done, but he feared that somehow she had set it up to make it look like he had and had his two brothers as witnesses. On the porch, he explained to a shocked and dismayed Adam what had happened.
“Pa, I never touched her. She was never in my bed.”
“But she was. Hoss found her there, and Joe saw her there. Adam, I don’t know what’s going on here, but you’re going to have to give me some time to sort this all out. Please don’t get too upset with your brothers. You have to realize that they have been set up in this situation as much as you have been. This is a major problem now because of what she’s done. I should have listened to you when you warned me that there was something not right with all of this and with the two of them. I’m afraid that your instincts were correct and I’ve mired us in a terrible mess. Now, we’re going to go inside and see what we can do, but I doubt we can resolve anything here this morning. It’s too well orchestrated for that. They planned this well. What I think I want you to do is to pack a bag and leave.”
“You’re kicking me out? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I know that, and you know that, but we don’t know what their game is yet. Can you go to town and start an investigation? Find out all you can about them in town and, and get Hiram to start working on getting us out of this contract. Find out who that other man is that you mentioned earlier. Hire investigators if you can. Tell Roy all that we know. Meanwhile, I’ll start talking with Hoss and with Joe as soon as I can calm things down. We need to work together and right now Carlotta and Charles have set it up so that we aren’t. I need some time to take care of things here.”
“All right, Pa. Thank you for believing me.”
“There never was a question about that, son. Now let’s go back inside and see what kind of trouble we’re dealing with at the moment. Then you can grab a few things and head to town.”
Once Ben and Adam got inside the house, Charles stood and began lobbing obscenities and accusations at Adam again. Ben told him to be quiet or Hoss would gag him. Hoss was almost as surprised by that as Charles was.
“Adam has something to say, and I want you to listen to him.” Ben turned to Adam and signaled that he had the floor.
“Carlotta was never in my bed, at least not while I was in it. I don’t know what happened after I left my bedroom this morning. Something very strange happened and she needs to explain her actions. I will not take responsibility for something I did not do.”
From the top of the stairs, Joe angrily responded to that. “I saw her in your bed. I saw the condition she was in. If it wasn’t you, then who was it?”
“Joe, what I said was that she was never in my bed when I was in it. She wasn’t in my bedroom when I was in it. She is lying. I would like to know why and what game she is playing here, but I understand how bad it looks and how upset you must be. I’ll be gone a few days while all of you sort things out here.”
As Adam was moved to go to his room to get a few things, Joe stepped forward to block his way. Ben asked Adam to wait. “Hoss, would you please go upstairs to Adam’s room and get the things he’ll need for a few days in town, please?”
There was silence in the room then as Joe was clearly furious but Ben wouldn’t let him do anything about it. Charles was confused. He had thought that they had done everything according to the plan yet it seemed that it was all falling apart anyway except that Joe was still on their side. Somehow, Ben had turned against them, and Charles didn’t understand why. Hoss was in the middle not knowing which way to go even after what he had witnessed and apparently wanted to believe his brother more than what he had seen for himself. The least influential and most emotional of the four, the youngest son, was on their side but that wasn’t enough to make their plan work. The family was fractured, but it was certainly not broken in the way that Carlotta had planned and needed. Charles knew that Carlotta was going to be furious and hoped that she had a backup plan because this one was clearly not working as expected. He did know that Ben had signed contracts for materials and equipment that would ruin the Ponderosa financially if the deal he was in was not successful. He was ready to do the next part he had been assigned.
“Ben, I think that under the circumstances, Carlotta and I will be leaving as well.”
“No, I want Carlotta to stay!” Joe was upset at the thought of Carlotta leaving and moved forward toward Charles and Ben to plead his case.
Turning toward his father, Adam got Ben’s attention and nodded. Ben wondered what Adam meant but thought about it for a moment. Then he understood or at least he thought he did so he watched for Adam’s reaction as he addressed Joe’s outburst.
“Perhaps Carlotta can stay until she feels calm about the whole situation. Charles, I can have Hoss give you a ride into town.”
Ben saw Adam give him a slight nod and knew that he had correctly interpreted Adam’s thoughts. Divide and conquer was still a useful strategy. It was also helpful to keep your enemy where you could see her. It would be very difficult for Joe, but no matter what happened now, it was going to be very difficult for Joe. Hoss returned with items for Adam stuffed into his saddlebags. Adam accepted them with a thank you that was returned however grudgingly by Hoss who was still trying to understand what was happening. When Ben told Hoss what he wanted him to do, he followed Adam from the house. Hoss said nothing until Adam was about to leave. Then he couldn’t hold it in any longer because he needed answers.
“Adam, I saw her in your bed. She was naked, and well, something happened with her. All the signs was there.”
“When I left my bed and my bedroom this morning, she wasn’t there. She’s never been in my bed.”
“Well, what’s going on here, Adam, cause somebody done something to her.”
“Yes, somebody did, and if it wasn’t me, then you’ll have to work it out as to who the likely man was who bedded her so she could say it was me.”
Without waiting for any response, Adam mounted up on Sport and rode out of the yard then leaving Hoss to ponder that. After a short time, Hoss grimaced because there was only one answer even if it was too disgusting for him to think about just then. He thought he would want a bath after giving Charles a ride to town.
In the house, Joe went back to consoling Carlotta because Ben didn’t have time to explain everything to him at that point and have him play along with her game to find out what they were hoping to do. Once Charles left, Ben sat at his desk poring over those contracts and orders finally seeing all the problems that Adam had warned him were there. He didn’t have the luxury of time to berate himself for being a fool about things because he had to start working on a solution to the mess they were in. He hoped that Adam’s investigation would yield some information that would help him invalidate the contract with the railroad because otherwise, he could only see financial ruin in their future that he had brought down on them by his pride and overconfidence. He was also still underestimating Carlotta who was at that moment working her magic spell on Joe upstairs.
With tears flowing and in a seemingly barely controlled state of near hysteria, Carlotta poured out what seemed to be heartfelt words to Joe. “I’m ruined. I will never marry because no man will want me now. I should just go be a nun and lock myself away so no one will see my shame.”
His heart breaking for her, Joe wanted to gather her in his arms and somehow make her stop crying. “You have nothing to be ashamed of. And as for being married, I would marry you if you’d have me.”
Carlotta turned her tear stained face up to Joe briefly before turning away again as in she was too ashamed to look at him. “Joe, you don’t have to sacrifice yourself to take care of what your brother did.”
Reaching out to her, Joe grasped one hand and reached for the other. ” Look at me.” He waited until she looked up at him. “It’s not a sacrifice. We already talked about how we would like to share our lives. That was what we were talking about, wasn’t it? It’s what I meant. Please, Carlotta, marry me? We could get married today if you wanted to.”
Allowing herself a brief hopeful look, Carlotta stopped crying but replaced it with a frown soon after. “Oh, Joe, that would be perfect, but your father would never allow that. You know he wouldn’t.”
“Well, maybe we won’t tell him until after we do it then.”
“Oh, Joe, you can’t defy your father like that. He rules this place. You can’t break his rules and expect him to forgive you.”
“Carlotta, I’m a man. I get to make the rules for how I live my life, and my father has to learn to accept that. Now, if you could clean up, you and I could take a ride to town, and if you’re still willing, we could get married today.”
“Joe, he wouldn’t even let us leave here much less get married. No, that would never work. You couldn’t do that.”
“You might be surprised what I can do.”
“But Joe, what would we do after we were married? Where would we go? Where would we live?”
“We’d live right here. Once we’re married, Pa would have to accept you as part of the family.”
“But what about, oh, you know?”
“He’s gone for now, and he’s been talking about how maybe he’d like to do some traveling. I overheard him talking to Hoss about it once. It kind of upset me then to think aobut him doing that, but now I think it wouldn’t bother me at all, and maybe now would be a good time for him to do that, and permanently at that. We don’t need him around here any more.”
“Joe, how can you say that? He’s your brother.”
“After what he did, I’m not sure I want to call him brother any more. Now listen, you dress for going to town, and I’ll go out and tell Pa I’ll do the chores to clear my head, but I’ll hitch up the carriage. I’ll pull it out the back of the stable where Pa won’t hear, and then you slip out the back and meet me there.”
“Joe, I’m scared.”
Wrapping his arms around Carlotta, Joe held her close for a moment. “I’ll take care of everything. Don’t worry.”
When Joe left, Carlotta put on the appropriate sad look, but as soon as he headed down the stairs, she was down the hall to listen as he spoke to his father. This next part had to go well or she was going to need an entirely new plan as the previous one had blown up in her face. She was improvising and so far was doing well.
“Pa, I’m going out to the stable. There are chores to do.”
“Joe, we need to talk first. There are some things you need to know about Carlotta and Charles.”
“No, Pa, right now I need some time by myself. I need to clear my head. I can’t listen to any more talk.”
“Joe, it can’t wait. It’s that important.”
“Pa, can I have just an hour. An hour can’t be that much, can it. I mean, you’re not going anywhere, are you?”
“No, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve got plenty to do right here. All right, but only an hour. We need to talk. It’s very important that we clear some things up. There are many things that you need to know.”
“All right, Pa. I’ll be done in the stable in an hour or less even. There’ll be nothing that I have to do then out there.”
Rationalizing that he had not actually lied to his father, Joe did feel a bit guilty at misleading him. He hurried to the stable and made his preparations for leaving with Carlotta. About fifteen minutes later, she was there. Joe led the team down the road a short distance before he climbed in and began the ride to Virginia City. He didn’t know that there was already trouble being stirred up in town by Charles who had just been dropped off by Hoss. Adam was in town too and meeting with Hiram Wood, the family attorney. He planned to see Sheriff Roy Coffee as soon as he finished talking with Hiram. However, Charles was improvising as much as Carlotta. He bought a stage ticket out of town and had a few hours before it left. He went to several saloons and bought one drink at each but it was the tale he left behind that had the greatest impact. He told of how Adam Cartwright had taken advantage of his daughter, and been kicked out of the house by his father and banished to town, and how the family honor was to be rescued by Joe marrying Carlotta. Charles assumed that Carlotta still wanted to do that so he sowed the seeds of the idea making it seem like the only logical result. There were varying levels of belief in the story he wove depending on whether the persons listening liked Adam or not, but rumors were flying through town rapidly before that stage arrived. Roy heard them and when he saw Joe drive into town with Carlotta, he found out where Adam was and headed there to talk with him.
“I saw Joe drive into town with that Miss Carlotta. They headed down the street toward your family’s church.”
“Roy, come with me. We’ve got to stop him before this gets a whole lot worse.”
When Adam and Roy left Hiram’s office, there were a few loud comments directed toward Adam that he ignored except for muttering under his breath that they hadn’t wasted any time in spreading their foul stench. When they got to the church, Joe and Carlotta were headed inside. Adam headed toward the minister’s house when they saw him walking out the back door. Adam hailed him which drew Joe’s attention. Adam got to the minister first and whispered the story to him frantically before Joe could reach him. When Joe rushed up, he shoved Adam away.
“This is none of your business. You’ve done enough.” Then Joe turned to the minister. “Reverend Miller, I want you to marry me and Carlotta right now. We’re both of age and healthy so there’s no legal reason that we can’t be married.”
“Joe, I’m sorry, but your brother has given me some information that tells me that I cannot marry you and this lady. I am sorry. If you attempt to marry her at any other church in this city, I will be forced to intervene and share what I know with them so that they will not perform such a ceremony.”
“Then I’ll have Sheriff Coffee marry us. He’s a justice of the peace. He can marry us.”
“No, Joe, I’m sorry, but I have to trust Adam on this one. I won’t marry you today.”
Furious at being thwarted, Joe turned on Adam and attacked him. Adam didn’t do anything except try to defend himself as Roy and Reverend Miller pulled Joe back. Bleeding from his lip and nose, Adam addressed Roy.
“I think that qualifies as grounds to arrest him, doesn’t it, Roy. He attacked me with no provocation.”
“I had plenty of provocation, you bastard.”
“Joe, now you settle down or I’m gonna have to add some charges to what I already got against you. You come along now, and your Pa can bail you out later today.”
“What about Carlotta? Who’s going to protect her from him?”
“She can come with us, and I’ll see that she stays safe until we can see where she’s gonna be spending the night. Adam, maybe you ought to go on your way now. I got this under control.”
As it turned out then, the only safe, quiet place for Adam was in Hiram’s office or leaving town, so he got his things and left town leaving a note with Hiram telling his father what he planned to do. He was on a mission to find out some information, and he thought that he could do that better if no one knew where he was going so he rode out of town instead of taking the stage. He didn’t realize he was being watched and followed. One man reported back to David as another followed him at a distance.
At the jail, Joe sat in a cell until his father arrived. Ben had been alerted by Hoss who arrived home and asked his father why Joe was taking Carlotta to town. Both of them had saddled horses and ridden hard to town afraid that Joe was going to do something foolish. They were relieved on this occasion to find him in jail. Carlotta was nowhere to be found. She had located Charles and then found David. The three of them had discussed strategy before Charles left on the stage. Carlotta gave David his orders.
“Adam Cartwright has become a major problem. Here or wherever, I don’t want him causing any more trouble. Kill him.”
“Are you going back home?”
“Not until I get to see Ben Cartwright devastated by the death of his son and ruined by the business mess he has gotten himself into. Then I want to tell him why he’s ruined and who did it to him. I want to see him suffer. I wish I could see Adam suffer, but you’ll get to see that. I hope you enjoy it.”
“Oh, I will. You know I always do, and it’s especially good when it’s the high and mighty who get brought down low and dirty.”
“We won’t get the Ponderosa though?”
“No, marrying Joe isn’t going to happen. By now they’re telling him enough to take care of that. Someday, he and that brother of his are going to have some unfortunate accidents though. Ben Cartwright isn’t going to have any heirs. The Ponderosa, what’s left of it, will wither and die like a tree with the roots cut.”
“We’re not going to kill him then?”
“No, after getting to know him and seeing my plan not work out, I think it would hurt him far more to live long after his sons have died. Alone without his sons and no grandchildren must be his worst nightmare, and we’re going to make it come true.”
David’s man arrived then and told him about Adam leaving town and heading west. David smiled at his sister.
“This is going to be even easier than I thought. I’ll be back by tomorrow morning with very good news for you and very bad news for Ben Cartwright. Of course I won’t be able to stay. I wouldn’t want to make things too easy for them.”
“Will you go home?”
“Yes, of course. Do you want me to get rid of Charles when I get there?”
“Hmm, I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re probably right. He’s become a liability now with what is known about him, and with what he’s done. Make sure he’s exercised that escape clause and then take care of it.”
While Carlotta and David plotted, Joe and to some extent Hoss were being buffeted with news their father delivered. Joe had not wanted to listen at all at first when his father pulled up a chair outside his jail cell and began talking. However as his father talked, the story was so compelling and so stomach churning that Joe couldn’t help but listen.
“You think she was in bed with her father?”
“I doubt that Charles is her father, but yes, I believe she was in bed with Charles.”
“So Adam was telling the truth?”
“Joe, when have you known Adam to lie? He may leave things out and try to avoid answering a question. I’ve had my experiences with him doing that too, but have you ever known him to tell you a direct lie?” Joe had to hang his head on that one. He knew his father was correct, and he was ashamed to have accused Adam of lying. “Your brother knows you were manipulated. He understands. He’s had his problems with women doing that too and quite recently.” Ben didn’t have to mention Laura. They all knew who he meant. “And I think Hoss can tell you as can I that any man can be fooled for a time. Love tends to get in the way of clear thinking.”
“Pa, what do we do now?”
“If you’re ready, we get you out of this cell. Adam told Roy to drop the charges as soon as I asked him to do that. You’re free to go if you’re ready to accept all that I’ve told you.”
“I am, Pa. I want to see Adam too. I want to tell him how sorry I am.”
“All right, let’s go find him. I think it would be a good idea to have the whole family at peace and working together again. He’s probably back at Hiram’s office. I’m hoping they’re finding something we can use to invalidate those contracts I signed.”
The three of them were a bit dismayed not only to find that Adam was not at Hiram’s office but to find that he had left town by himself. Hiram said that he realized he could get the information as easily as an investigator could so he had decided to go get it himself.
“Darn fool! We don’t know all of the threat against us. He shouldn’t be alone.”
Hoss suddenly had another worry. “Pa, did Adam tell Roy about that man in brown? You know the one he said was watching us and then the one he accused Carlotta of meeting? Seems to me that could be someone she’s working with, don’t it?”
“Yes, it could. Let’s go back and talk to Roy. We need to find out more about that man if we can. He may be part of this whole puzzle too.”
Roy was an observant sheriff and had seen the man in town. He was quiet and hadn’t gotten in any trouble. Roy knew he had a room at the International so they headed in that direction only to meet Carlotta exiting the hotel. The meeting was cool.
“Under the circumstances, would you please have my luggage brought to the hotel?”
“We will as soon as we can.”
With nothing else to say that could be said in polite company, Ben turned and walked into the hotel with Roy. Joe frowned at Carlotta having a difficult time reconciling what he had learned with what he had thought. Finally he simply shook his head and followed his father. Hoss had waited for him but turned to Carlotta before he followed Joe into the hotel.
“You hurt any of my family, you got all of us to worry about. Remember that.” Then he walked into the hotel too.
Fairly certain that she had nothing about which to worry, Carlotta smirked and proceeded to a restaurant to have lunch attracting a fair share of curious looks as she went. No one could understand what was happening. Wild and vastly conflicting stories were spreading through town so fast that no one knew what to believe.
In the hotel, Roy asked the hotel clerk if he had a man staying there who wore a brown suit and brown hat. When the clerk said no, Roy was shocked.
“You mean to tell me that the man in the brown suit and brown hat who comes in here every day and leaves here every morning isn’t staying here?”
“No, sir, Sheriff Coffee, he isn’t. Now he was, but he isn’t any more.”‘
“What do you mean? I could swear I saw him not more than an hour ago.”
“Oh, he was here. He checked out about fifteen minutes ago. Said he was heading home.”
“Did he say where home was?”
“Hmm, no, sir, he didn’t. I never did think to ask now, either.”
The clerk turned the register around so that Roy could read it. “David Smith. Now that’s original. Did you happen to see any people that he might have met with or talked to?”
“Well, there were two men that he met with every day, and just a short time ago that woman who left here was with him. They seemed real friendly. She went right up to his room like they was family or something. He checked out, and she checked in.”
Roy heard some muttering from the Cartwrights behind him about the ‘or something’ and could imagine what they might be thinking. Roy thanked the clerk for the information before turning to Ben.
“I hope Adam is paying attention on the trail.”
“I pray he is, Roy. I’ll be praying that he is. I wish I knew the route that he took so we could send some help after him, but we only know the general direction. We don’t know exactly where he went or what he is planning to do. My guess is that he is after information, but he shouldn’t have gone alone.”
David and his men knew where Adam was going though because they had seen him leaving town and sent a man to follow him. That man tied a small red ribbon in a tree every few miles to make sure that they others could follow along later. They rode hard and caught up to him by late afternoon. By the time the sun was getting ready to set, they were on a ridge high above where Adam was preparing to set up a camp. David snickered as he prepared to shoot by setting up a gun rest for his rifle.
“That yellow coat with the sun setting is almost a perfect target. I can’t miss with him setting himself up so nicely.”
Firing once, David grinned when Adam went down. Then he couldn’t resist, and carefully fired twice more into the prone man enjoying the sensation each time knowing that a bullet he sent on its way had ripped into the body of another human being. David was never as happy as he was when he was killing someone. Once he had completed his task, he told the men they were riding down to make sure that the job was done. He hated the thought of disappointing his older sister. They found that Adam was still alive but grievously wounded. After they took his belongings and dragged him to the side of the road for the stage to find the next day, they rode off. That’s when Drake and his men came out and saved Adam’s life.
Early the next day, as Drake and his friends headed to their camp with Adam on a travois, David and his men were headed back to Virginia City for a brief stop. David slipped into the hotel by the back way and up to Carlotta’s room knocking softly because he knew she would be awake and waiting for his report. The door was opened almost immediately so he could slip inside. Carlotta was anxious for a report.
With a feral grin, David shared the details. “I left him bleeding from his chest, his side, and his leg, gasping for breath and laying on his back like a turtle unable to move.”
“But is he dead?”
“Carlotta, we stripped him of his hat and boots, he’s shot three times, and he was laying in the wilderness in the cold and dark all alone. Of course he’s dead. He died alone and suffering with no one to help him or offer any comfort as he felt the blood drain out of him. I thought you would be pleased to know how much pain he endured before the end.”
Frowning, Carlotta sat down heavily on the edge of the bed. Unable to sleep, she was tired and frustrated. “I’m sorry. Yes, it does sound as if you made his death as unpleasant as you possibly could. It’s that so many things have gone wrong that I had hoped to have confirmation that this one thing would be assured.”
“We dragged him to the side of the road. In that yellow coat, the stage driver can hardly miss him. They can’t go that fast around that bend in the road where we left him to bleed out. The driver is bound to see him, and they’ll bring his body to town. Then you can watch from here as old Ben and his boys come riding in to see the body of his oldest knowing how much he must have suffered before he died.”
“All right, and I’m sorry not to have been more grateful. Stay close by though for the next day or two. I’ve been thinking, and perhaps we ought to arrange a bit more trouble for Ben Cartwright before you leave. Let me think about that and you can do more of what you like to do best before you go back home.”
David moved to sit beside her on the bed then. He wanted to see her smile and thought that he knew how to make that happen. “He had tears on his cheeks. He was crying because it hurt so much. He whimpered like a sick puppy. We stood around and laughed at him and he was helpless to even say anything to us. Taking a breath hurt him so much that you could hear him hiss in pain as he tried to breathe. The boys rifled through his pockets and took everything he had on him. They were rough about it too. They took his belt and his gunbelt and jerked them off of him. He sobbed like a little girl for a bit at that point. When we pulled his boots off and dragged him over to the road, all he did was moan and cry out. He was helpless. We dropped him there and left him alone to stare at the stars while he died.”
Wrapping her arms around her brother, Carlotta smiled. “Thank you, David. You always know how to make me feel better. Now, you need to get going before anyone sees you. We want them to think you’re gone so they’ll never connect you with me or with the next things that happen. They won’t even know you’ve been back in the area.”
Both smiled then as David left. Carlotta wasn’t smiling later as the stage rolled in though. There was no commotion. The driver got down at a normal pace, set the step for the passengers to disembark, and unloaded the luggage as if there was nothing unusual there. The sheriff walked up to the stage and talked briefly with the driver before moving on. Carlotta didn’t know what had gone wrong, but once more she was upset that her plans had gone wrong. She would have to wait until that evening when David returned to get him to do something about this latest issue. He would have to go out there and find that body and bring it in so it could be identified. The rest of her plan couldn’t move forward very well until everyone knew that Adam Cartwright was dead.
At that moment in Drake’s camp, Adam looked like he was dead. Pale and unmoving, Doc waited for him to come around. He had lost a lot of blood, which was the greatest threat to his survival at that point. They spooned water into his mouth at any time when it seemed he was nearing consciousness enough to swallow. He did, and they got some fluid into him that way, but it was a slow laborious process that required constant monitoring of him. Doc wondered why Drake wanted so much for this man to live and concluded it had to be to thwart whatever plan that David and Carlotta had concocted this time. It took a day but finally the man was awake again and aware. After explaining a few things to him, Doc summoned Drake.
“He’s awake and it seems he may stay awake for a bit this time. I don’t think he can talk much, but he can answer yes or no fairly well and say a few short sentences if you don’t ask too much or too often.”
Drake was frowning though despite getting what should have been good news. “We got a problem too, Doc. We’re going to need his clothes. David and his men are out there searching. They must be looking for his body. We got a plan but need his clothes. Do you think we can get him undressed without too much fuss?”
“His shirt is already off. I had to get it out of the way, and I cut off a pant leg to work on that leg of his. I can’t think it would be too much trouble to get the rest, and it would make things easier for us to take care of him too. What do you plan to do with them?”
“Let’s go inside. I’ll tell you both at the same time.” Once inside, Drake wasted no time. “David Johnson shot you and thought he killed you. He’s out there now looking for the body probably wondering what up and happened to it. Now, we found a trapper the day before we found you who took on a grizz and lost. The bear ate most of him and half buried the rest probably thinking to come back later to finish the job. We buried him instead. Now he had black hair like yours and he had a lot of hair on him. What I’m thinking is we take what’s left of him and stick him in your clothes and half bury it like a grizz woulda done. It’s gonna be a stomach twisting thing to do but, it will look like that grizz found your body, dragged it off, ate a bunch of it, and buried the rest for later. I’m hoping that will work. We got some claws here in camp that we can use to rip up your clothes. It ought to look real good for David.”
“Listen, if David finds us all here, ain’t none of our families getting good news. Your family might suffer a bit for a time, but better you’re alive and they find out later, right?”
Grudgingly, Adam had to admit that Drake’s logic was impeccable. He agreed and let them remove the remainder of his pants without complaint. Later that morning, stealthily, Drake’s men placed their grisly package into a hole dug and then marked with grizzly claws. Carefully brushing out their tracks and leaving grizzly marks, they retreated into a hiding spot and waited to see if David’s men who were nearby would find the remains. It took a few hours, but finally one of the men smelled something and came to investigate. He called for the others and they dug at the mess until they unearthed what was left of the body. David began to laugh.
“Well, that’s perfect. He got himself eaten by a grizzly bear. Now, what could be more fitting than that. I hope he was still alive when that bear started chewing on him. Shit, we need to have more than this to identify him though. A few ragged strips of clothing and some chewed up bones and rotten body aren’t going to convince anyone. Where are his boots, hat, belt, and gunbelt. That would be enough, wouldn’t it?”
“We got most of that stuff in our saddlebags. That would do it, Boss. They see that stuff, they aren’t even gonna want to take much of a look at the rest of this.”
“Now who’s going to bring it into town though. We need somebody to bring it in.”
“We saw that old prospector this morning. Maybe he’d do it if we told him that old Ben would probably give him a reward.”
“Well, he’s going to ask us why we don’t do it then.”
David smiled. “We tell him that the sheriff kicked us out of town and we can’t go back.”
“What about his horse? We can’t keep his horse then.”
“I want his horse. I’m going to enjoy riding his horse and remembering what I did to him. Have one of the men take it to the ranch for me. We can hire more men to help us here if we need them. They’ll think his horse ran off somewhere. Let’s get this done. Carlotta is going to be waiting for me to bring her some good news, and you boys know what happens when she doesn’t get good news.”
They did, so while one of the men went to get the prospector, the others doctored up the hat, gunbelt, and boots they had taken from Adam and made the items look like they had been damaged by a grizzly bear during an attack. They even fired the pistol a few times to make it appear that Adam had tried to fight back. By the next day, the old prospector was riding into Virginia City with a large blanket bundle on the back of his pack mule. He went right to Sheriff Coffee’s office and called out to him. Soon Roy was there looking shocked at what the man said, and then they headed to the undertaker’s shop. Carlotta watched from her room and smiled. She had chosen the room because of the excellent view it gave of several streets. She settled in to wait because she didn’t want to miss the sight of Ben and his sons arriving to see the terrible mess that was his eldest son. David had brought her that good news the previous night. She had hardly been able to sleep in her excitement that finally something wonderful had happened instead of another frustration. She had ordered some wine for the afternoon and sipped from a glass as she watched and waited.
After a few hours, Ben rode in with Hoss and Joe looking very worried and anxious. About an hour later, they left the office looking defeated. She swore that Ben looked smaller than when he had entered that undertaker’s office. Joe supported him as he walked and Hoss walked behind him as if he waited for him to collapse and wanted to be there to catch him if he did. Neither of Adam’s brothers looked all right either. Both looked ill, and she guessed they probably felt that way too wanting to retch but too proud to do so. They stood by their horses as if they were unsure of what to do next. Sheriff Coffee was with them and looked as lost as they did. She smiled in her first victory and wished she could tell him why he had suffered that first pain. She wanted to see the agony up close so she dressed quickly and headed out for a walk. Moving quickly, she crossed the street to pass by the three men who were grief stricken. She smiled and said hello to get their attention, but got only hostile looks and fierce glares instead. She smirked and moved on stopping in a dress shop to buy herself a nice new dress. She wanted to be sure to stand out in the crowd on the day of Adam’s funeral for she had decided she would attend. The thought made her smile even more.
Meanwhile the object of her joy was arguing with Drake that he needed to go home. Adam was physically weak, but his force of personality was as strong as ever. It didn’t matter though because Drake’s stubbornness was a match for him. “No, Doc says any travel right now could kill you. I didn’t save your sorry hide to kill you, and I’m not risking my neck or either of my men to send a message to your family. We’re wanted men or did you forget that?”
Deciding to try a different tack, Adam tried negotiation. “I can help you with that. Please, I don’t want my family to worry.”
Drake wasn’t buying it. He hadn’t let this group safely for so many years without learning how to deal with recalcitrant men. “They already are. A few more days ain’t gonna make much difference.”
“You aren’t talking a couple of days. You’re talking about waiting a week and then there will be travel time too.”
“And during that time, at least David and Carlotta will give up trying to kill you now that they think you’re dead. Besides, you owe me.”
“I saved your life. The least you can do is pay the bill.”
“I have nothing. You know that. You have to take me home to get paid.”
“No, you got exactly what I want. You know what David and Carlotta have been up to and that’s what I want to know. Someday I want to find a way to get back at them so I need to know what they’re doing. You know so you’re going to tell me. There ain’t no bargaining on that point. You ain’t leaving here until you pay your bill with all the information you got on them. Now, you can start talking any time.” He settled in to hear what Adam had to say and hoped there would be something in it that they could use against Carlotta and David.
So Adam began to tell the story. He was weak so he only got as far as the contract that his father had signed before he needed to rest. Doc told Drake to come back later. Over the next two days, Adam told the whole story. He learned a few things as well. The most surprising thing was perhaps not that surprising after all.
Drake had to laugh a bit at part of the story that Adam told although Adam wasn’t surprised at all by the new information that he got as a result. “Charles isn’t her father. He isn’t related to her at all. He’s Judge Charles Tanner, the crooked judge who does whatever she tells him to do including probably whatever she wants him to do in her bed. She takes anyone to bed that she wants and has for years.”
“Years? How old is she?”
“I’m not sure, but probably about thirty or a bit older. She’s been running Maxwell for almost ten years now. She started taking over when the family that took her in died in a fire. Now that I look back, I’m guessing she probably had something to do with that too. They were a nice couple, name of Johnson. They took in Carlotta and David when their father died.”
“Do you know what their father’s name was?”
“Of course I do. Everybody in Maxwell knows. They renamed the town after him. Town was named for some little town that the original settlers came from back in Wisconsin. So at first it was called La Crosse but Carlotta and David changed it to Maxwell when they took over enough of it to have the power to do it.”
“Carlotta Maxwell.” Adam frowned in thought. That name was a trigger to memories but they were still very nebulous. Nothing was coalescing yet.
“Name mean something to you?”
“It doesn’t, but somehow it seems like it should. I don’t know why. It’s a puzzle. When I first met Carlotta, I had this funny feeling that I had met her before, but I couldn’t remember when.”
“That’s hard to believe. Woman like that, everybody seems to remember.”
“Yeah, that’s what makes it such a puzzle. She seems so familiar, and yet I don’t know her. And now that name is the same thing. It seems familiar like I knew it, but I don’t know anyone with that name either.”
“Your brother was really lucky that you got him thrown in jail by the way. Carlotta’s husband wasn’t so lucky.”
“She’s been married?”
“Sure, that’s how she got some real money and got started on building up her little empire. She married a widowed rancher. He had no children and he was lonely. She played him perfectly. After they were married less than six months, he had an accident in the stable. Fell from the loft and landed on the fork he’d been using. Went clean through his chest. It was a bloody mess. His death made her the wealthiest woman, hell, the wealthiest person in the whole county. From that point on, she just kept getting richer and richer with David doing the dirty work when necessary. Some were scared off, some were bought out at a fraction of what their places were worth, and some like us who tried to fight back ended up being charged with crimes and having to run off or end up in prison.”
“Why didn’t you go to the state for help?”
“When wealthy folks, a judge, and a sheriff say you’re a criminal, you think the state is gonna listen?”
“They would if other wealthy folks, judges, and lawmen were on your side.”
“Well where are we gonna get those?”
“You got one already, and I think I can get the rest especially after what they’ve done here already. My father and brothers will help, and we have a lot of influence with those other two groups. I need to think about this for a while, but you need to figure out a way to get me home. I need to let my family know that I’m alive and give them the information you’ve given me. Then we’re going to work on a plan to take down Carlotta and David and find a way to get your property back for you and for all the other people who’ve lost theirs to those two. I have some ideas, but we need some others to help.”
“You’d do that for us?”
“I’ve got a lot of other reasons to do this, but yes, helping you is one of the reasons too. You saved my life, which is cause enough, but the information you have given me will help my father save his ranch. If we all work together, we can defeat her.”
Looking over at Doc who sat with his wife Frances, Drake asked how long before Adam would be fit to travel.
“Well, if you want him able to stand and talk at the end, I’d say wait at least a week. He lost a lot of blood, and the reason he isn’t dead is that bullet in his back hit his infra spinatous fossa and created a fracture.” At their frowns, Doc smiled a bit. “It hit his shoulder blade and broke it while tearing a jagged and bloody hole in him too. I removed the bullet from it and bound him up tightly, but that bone needs to stitch itself back together. Even in a week, the travel is going to be very difficult for him. He’ll need to go very slow and need a lot of breaks. Someone will need to lead his horse probably because after a short time, he’ll need both hands just to hang onto the saddle so he doesn’t fall off.” Adam looked affronted at that assessment, but Doc smiles slightly. “I dealt with such injuries in the war. Even the best horseman can’t fight an injury like that, and you have two other minor injuries as well as severe blood loss. If we had a wagon, travel would be easier but still not pleasant for you. Ideally you should spend a month recuperating. So far, you have only had a few days.”
“Well, there you go, Adam. You’ve got a week to think and plan, and we’ll get you ready to go home. You and me can talk over this plan and if you need to know more about her or about Maxwell or anything else, I can tell you. By the end of this week, you’re going to know everything about her that I know.”
Doc had one final question before leaving the two men to talk. “Adam, we could help you sit up now if you wanted Frances to give you a shave. You’ve got quite a healthy beard growing there already.”
Pausing before answering, Adam had a thought. “No, I think I’ll keep it for now. This dead man may want to stay dead a while longer, and the beard may be useful in that. Thank you for the offer though. I suppose a bath is out of the question.”
“No bath, but I’ll help you clean up later. We can take care of you smelling like you need a bath at least.”
In Virginia City, there was no taking care of the partial body at the undertaker’s office. The face was nearly ripped away and the soft parts of the body had been eaten as had the hands and forearms. There was no way to positively identify the body except by the clothing and possessions, and all of them were Adam’s. The body was wrapped in a shroud and placed in a coffin to be buried on the Ponderosa after a funeral at the church, which was packed to overflowing with many more standing outside.
In the church, Ben was numb in many ways. He had expected to lose his oldest son, but not like this. He had thought he would go off to travel and to find challenges, and then, Ben hoped, he would find that he did love his family and his home more than those other things and he would return. Now all those dreams and promises were gone. Instead there was nothing. There were words from friends and praise for all those things Adam had done, but it would never fill the emptiness. He knew that his younger sons felt the pain too but he had nothing to help them either.
Everyone in church could see the pain the family suffered. When the family emerged from the church, and the coffin was placed in the wagon for the trip to the ranch and private burial, many tears were shed seeing how they hurting. As the wagon pulled away, along the road, many stood in silent respect for the young man they believed had died. With her head held high and a smile for the Cartwrights as they passed, Carlotta was very pleased to see how well things were working out for her. She walked back to the hotel amid murmurs that she ignored. She was working on a plan to eliminate the youngest Cartwright son thinking that would hurt Ben Cartwright even more. David was headed back to California to take care of Charles but would be back in town within a week so they could begin to carry out a plan to kill Joe Cartwright next.
Adam would be returning at about the same time and hopefully be able to give his family information that would not only save the Ponderosa but save their lives as well. He had been having more dreams and in those dreams, he had remembered who Carlotta was. He woke on the morning when they were to travel back toward the Ponderosa. He was in a cold sweat making Doc think he was sick.
“No, I’m not sick. Maybe in my stomach because I’ve been having some bad dreams since I met Carlotta, and I finally had one that made sense. I know who she is now and I think I know why she wanted me dead. She probably wants my father dead and maybe my whole family. I need to tell them who she is and why she’s doing what she’s doing.”
When Adam badgered Doc into declaring that he could probably survive the trek home, Drake decided that he and Doc were the best ones to travel with Adam. Doc wasn’t wanted in the West except by the military who were probably not actively looking for him any longer, and the reward for Drake was small so as long as he stayed away from towns, he was probably safe too. The plan that Adam had developed required them only to get him to a line shack on the Ponderosa so they would be seen only by a few men too. The travel though was as arduous as Doc had warned. Even though it had taken Adam less than a day to travel to where he had been ambushed and it had taken less than another day to get him to Drake’s camp, it took them four days of slow travel to get to the line shack. Adam was exhausted by the time they reached it, and Drake and Doc had to help him inside to one of the narrow bunks to rest. Luckily the line cabin had been stocked recently so there were supplies of beans, flour, and coffee as well as a can of peaches that were a real treat for the three men who had brought some fresh meat with them.
The next morning, some of the hands saw smoke coming from the cabin and alerted Hoss who was working further down the slope. He and two other men came to investigate.
“Yo, in the cabin. Who are ya, and what you doing on the Ponderosa?”
Inside, Adam assured the others there was nothing to worry about. “That’s my brother, Hoss. Open the door and step out unarmed. Tell him to come on inside to talk.”
Doc and Drake swung the door open wide. “We’re coming out. We don’t have guns.” Both men stepped out and Drake continued to talk. “Got a man inside who says you must be Hoss Cartwright. He wants to talk to you.”
Keeping his pistol out, Hoss motioned to the two men to step to the side. They did, and he moved into the cabin with his pistol ready. There were only three horses at the cabin so he did expect only one more man, but he still thought it could be a trick. What he did find shocked him and then angered him. A bearded man sat on the bunk to the left side as he entered. He looked at him wondering what was up until he spoke.
“Hello, Hoss. As you can see, I’m not dead.”
“Damn you. You let me think you were dead. You let Pa think you were dead. What the hell were you thinking?” He stepped toward Adam and grabbed his shirtfront pulling him up. “I oughta pound you good for that.” But there was something wrong and Hoss realized it even in his fury. Adam looked very different and it wasn’t only the beard. Hoss released him and Adam sat heavily on the bunk as if he didn’t have the strength to stand.
“I couldn’t let you know. I wanted to let you know.”
In a softer tone, Hoss asked and then waited for an answer. “Adam, what happened?”
“Carlotta’s brother, David, the man in brown, shot me three times. The two men you saw outside saved my life but only barely. I couldn’t even have gotten this far without their help.”
Suddenly Hoss felt guilty about how he had manhandled his brother, and Adam saw the look.
“Don’t feel bad about what happened. I would have felt the same. I understand.”
“I gotta take you home. Pa ain’t been himself. It seems like he wants to give up. Joe’s doing his best to run things, but it’s real hard especially with this mess we’re in.”
“Yes, well, I want to stay dead.” Hoss frowned so Adam needed to explain more. “I have a plan and no one expects too much from a dead man, so for now, I’d like to continue to have people think I’m dead. I don’t think I could make the ride to the house right now anyway. But you can bring Pa and Joe here.”
“You bet I will, and you better not go anywhere.” Hoss smiled gently then well aware that Adam probably couldn’t do much of anything on his own. He stepped forward and put a hand on Adam’s shoulder as his brother sat on the bunk. “It’s gonna be all right now. Nobody can stand against us when we’re all together.”
Seeing that Doc and Drake had come back in, Adam included them. “We have some additional help too.” He introduced his new friends to his brother who told them he would bring back some of Hop Sing’s cooking. Adam smiled and told them there was no greater gratitude that Hoss could show than sharing their cook’s food with them.
The last thing that Hoss saw as he exited the cabin to ride for home to get their father and younger brother was Adam laying back on the cot and Doc covering him with a blanket. Adam accepting that kind of coddling let Hoss know just how weak his older brother was. It made him angry and determined to get justice for Adam and anyone else that Carlotta and her brother had harmed. When Hoss got to the house, he found Joe working at the desk and his father sitting at the dining table as he often was these days staring at his coffee cup. Hoss told him that he had some good news but he needed to get out to the stable and saddle Buck if he wanted to find out what it was. Ben was reluctant but Hoss was firm. It was a measure of Ben’s depression that he accepted Hoss’ orders. Hoss told Joe to do the same and accepted no excuses. Then he went inside the kitchen and whispered to Hop Sing who nearly yelled out his joy but instead filled a sack with food and some special things for Adam. He had a smile the whole time and an even bigger one as he handed the sack to Hoss who grinned in return. As soon as the three of them were away from the ranch about a half mile, Hoss pulled up and waited for the other two to do the same.
“I got some news you ain’t hardly going to believe, but it’s true. I want you to get ready for a big shock, especially you, Pa. I got to tell you like this, and I wish I could have softened the blow some but I can’t. Some of the men told me this morning that there was three men up at the line cabin. I went up there to find out who was using our cabin, and I found out. Pa, Joe, it was two men and they had Adam with ’em. He’s alive.”
As expected, Ben nearly fell from his horse. “Hoss, no, you can’t do this to me. I saw. I saw what there was.”
“No, Pa, that was a trick. It was a trick to fool Carlotta and her brother into thinking they had killed Adam. You see, Carlotta’s brother shot Adam three times. He was hurt real bad. He’s coming around, but he’s still not doing so good. There’s some men who found him and took care of him. They’re with him now.”
“But why didn’t he come home?”
“I guess at first he couldn’t, and getting to the line shack was about all he could handle for right now. He’s got some other thing in mind for a plan too. I guess we’ll find out more when we get there. It’s gonna be kinda late when we get there. I figure we’ll be spending the night so we’ll have plenty of time to talk.”
“He better be ready to talk a lot. He’s got a lot to answer for.” Joe’s anger was palpable because he was so worried about their father.
“Joe, you gotta get that temper of yours under control and remember who you oughta really be mad at here. I told you already how bad hurt Adam was. You gotta keep that in your head, and you’re gonna see how he ain’t back to being himself yet neither. So you get your head around that and remember we’re a family cause that’s what matters the most right now. Now we got some riding left to do. You ready?”
“I’m ready. I’m sorry. I guess it was a lot to take in and pretty shocking to hear. I know what you’re saying.”
Ben smiled at his youngest and at Hoss. “I think I can stay on my horse now too. That was quite a shock, Hoss, but a welcome one. Now how fast can we get there?”
It was late afternoon before they arrived at the line cabin. Adam was seated outside waiting for them as anxious to see them as they were to see him. Ben didn’t recognize him at first not only because of the beard, but because he had lost so much weight in only a week and a half. He was pale which was so unlike him. Ben moved to wrap his arms around his son, but a man stepped up next to them.
“Careful, sir, I know you’re his father, but I’m his doctor. Any hug is going to cause him pain unless you are very careful.”
With some conflicting emotions, Ben did wrap an arm around Adam but felt the thick bandages still strapped around his son’s chest and left shoulder. Adam leaned against him and lowered his head to his father’s shoulder in a gesture of warmth and weakness. Joe came up and paying heed to what Doc had said, he lightly touched Adam’s arm.
“Maybe we could go inside. You don’t look so good there, older brother.”
Picking his head up, Adam smiled at Joe. “The ride here was harder than I expected. Yes, I’d like to sit down at least.”
Soon they were all inside and seated on chairs and benches as Adam and Drake told the story. Drake told most of the story of how they found Adam and brought him to the camp and took care of him, and then why they misled everyone into thinking Adam was dead.
“David’s the type never to give up. If he would have found our camp, we would all have been dead. I’m the only one who can use a gun. Doc never could use one, and the other two men are farmers and never did much except shoot rabbits and varmints. I was in the war and know more how to handle myself, but I couldn’t take on David and two other men.”
“I understand, but why didn’t you let us know afterwards?”
So Drake continued with the story of how he and the others were wanted and couldn’t go into town and be seen. By then, Hoss had food ready for everyone by heating up what Hop Sing had sent and cutting up the bread he had sent too. Everyone ate and Doc and Drake ate about as much as Hoss did. Adam was feeling stronger after that and having had the chance to rest for most of the day, so he picked up the narrative then explaining about Charles and what he thought his father and Joe could do to get out of the contracts and to get the orders cancelled or at least postponed. Then the most important question of all was asked by Joe.
“Why did they want to do all of this? Ruin the Ponderosa? Kill you?”
“Joe, they aren’t done yet. I think they’re only beginning to carry out their plan of revenge.”
That got Ben’s notice. “Only beginning to carry out their plan of revenge? Revenge for what?”
“Pa, ever since I was introduced to Carlotta Johnson, I’ve been having bad dreams. I’ve been dreaming about the Connor party and the children I met who came back with you and the other men who went up there. I remembered some of the terrible stories I heard. There’s a lot I don’t remember or perhaps never knew about what happened then, but I remember enough.”
Surprised by learning that Adam had been having similar dreams, Ben had an admission to make to his son. “Adam, I’ve been having those same kinds of dreams except they’re more like nightmares only they’re real. I remember those things that I saw. What does that have to do with this?”
“I know why we’re having those dreams. Carlotta comes from Maxwell. It didn’t have that name until she and David changed the name to that of their father. She’s Charlotte Maxwell. You remember the Maxwells, don’t you?” Adam saw the signs as his father recognized the name and probably the significance of it as well.
Suddenly, Ben had an idea of why this might be happening. He did remember Maxwell and how he had blamed him for his trouble after the Connor Party news became public in the small settlement.
“You think that she’s getting some kind of revenge because she thinks I somehow ruined her father’s reputation by telling the truth?”
“That seems to be the root of it, but there’s more, and I don’t know the whole story, but it’s clear she blames us for what happened to her father and to her and David. After their father died, they were adopted by a couple named Johnson. According to Drake, the Johnsons may have been their first victims.”
“There was another boy too. He was quite a bit older than her. I don’t remember his name.”
“I think he may have died too. What I don’t understand is why she blames us for all the tragedy in her family.”
Ben nodded because he thought that he did. “I could be because of stories she heard from her father. David would have been too young to be told, but Carlotta could have shared the stories with him when he got older. Maxwell blamed me for the stories about him. I never told anyone what I saw, but I’m sure others did. I was the first to reach his family. It was him and the three children. David was an infant and Charlotte was clutching him to her like a little girl would hold a precious doll. That’s what I thought he was at first. He was so small and quiet. Then I saw the body wrapped in a blanket next to where they had been living. I lifted it thinking to take it with us for a proper burial. It was wood. Much of the body was gone and replaced with chunks of wood. They had used the body to survive.”
Adam had known what his father was likely to say, but Hoss and Joe were shocked. Joe was unable to speak, but Hoss was outraged.
“They up and ate their own mother? He ate his own wife?”
“Hoss, in a situation like that, I don’t know what I would have done. If I had a choice of seeing my children starve to death or doing that, I don’t know. They had boiled hide to drink the broth. They broke bones of the animals and ate marrow. They ate mice and anything else they could until the snow was so deep there was nothing left to eat. It was a terrible year for snow that year. Reports I heard were that the snow was twenty or more feet deep. They couldn’t hunt or trap anything after a while. I can only guess at the horrible choice that was, but then when we knew, all they wanted was for us to forgive them and not tell. I never spoke of it.”
“But Maxwell thought you did when the stories began spreading about him?” Adam knew where the story must go at that point.
“Yes, he came to me with that accusation. I told him it wasn’t true, but he wouldn’t believe me. He wanted to shift guilt to someone else so he shifted it to me.”
“And he probably told that story to his children, and she was so young, she would have accepted anything he said.”
“I’m sure that’s true, and David would have accepted anything she said. Now she’s trying to be his avenging angel except she and David are doing the devil’s work instead.”
“All right now, I’ll tell you what I think I heard the night I was shot. I don’t know how much might be a dream and how much is real. I was lying on my back and the pain was horrible, but what David said was horrible too so I might be remembering accurately. I could never swear to it though.”
“What is it, son? What do you think he said?”
“I think he said that his brother died defending his father and that Maxwell killed himself because of it. I also remember him threatening to kill my brothers and destroy the Ponderosa in order to destroy you, Pa. I don’t know if he said anything specific about how they were going to do it, but I do know that as my memories cleared up and my brain started working, I knew I had to get back here and warn all of you. They’re going to try to kill Hoss and Joe like they tried to kill me. They would have succeeded except for some amazing luck for me. I would have died alone out there if not for Drake and Doc.”
Turning to them, Ben offered his gratitude. Adam asked for his father’s attention though.
“We need to give them more than that. We have to defeat Carlotta and David, and give these people their lives back like they gave me mine back. By doing that, I’m able to warn you so that Hoss and Joe can be protected too.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“I’m going to stay dead, and when I’m stronger, I’m going to go to the government and offer to go to Maxwell as an agent to get hired by Carlotta and David to find out as much as I can. Once I know their secrets, they can be brought to justice.”
Joe was skeptical. “Just you? Adam not even you are that good.”
“I’m sure that there will be others who will be part of this, but I know them better than anyone else now, and they won’t suspect me. Who would suspect a dead man? And I’m sure that some of the people they have working for them will turn on them for a reward or a promise of immunity. It’s always a house of cards when you deal with criminals. Once it starts to fall, it will all come tumbling down.” Seeing the looks he was getting, Adam explained more. “I’m not being arrogant. I know it’s extremely dangerous and that I could die doing this, but as long as they’re free to operate, all of our lives are at risk. The risk won’t be that much greater going after them than waiting for them to come after us.”
“You’re not strong enough to go after them.”
“Pa, I’ll take it easy for a while. The trip here convinced me that Doc was right. I know I need to take some time to get my strength back. Here is as good a place as any. I’m as safe here as anywhere, and you can make sure I have plenty of food. I’m going to need some clothing and other things. They took everything I had. Did anyone ever find Sport?”
Adam looked so hopeful that his family hated to disappoint him, but they had to tell him that no one had seen his horse. The assumption was that he had probably been taken by someone who had found him wandering in the hills and thought him lost or abandoned. Clearly disappointed by that news, Adam moved on to other matters however not dwelling on what he could not change.
“Drake and Doc provided me with clothing and a horse to ride here. We’ll need to pay them for their services too. It’s the least I can do for them until we can get the mess in Maxwell cleared up.”
“Adam, if we could have some supplies like you have here, and maybe a cow or two, we’d be happy with that. It would take care of a lot of problems for us.”
Looking to his father, Adam smiled when he saw his father as well as his brothers nod in agreement. They might be in financial difficulties, but they could easily manage that. Then the room began to move on its own and the next thing he knew, he was resting in his father’s arms.
“I think you’ve done enough for today, son. Let’s get you into that bunk to sleep.”
Later, as the stars were the only light outside, Ben stood on the small porch of the cabin and Doc joined him there. Hoss and Joe walked out as well not wanting to disturb Adam with any conversation.
“Worried about him?” Ben didn’t answer so Doc continued. “I can’t say much about his plan to go after Carlotta. That kind of thing is out of my realm, but I can talk about his recovery. He’s going to be fine. He’s past all the critical stages. He didn’t develop any major infections, thank the Lord, and he only had the fever that is typical of such injuries. The major problem, once he got over the pain and shock, is the blood loss. It very nearly killed him. If it hadn’t been so cold that night, I daresay he wouldn’t have survived. Now I’m not telling you this to alarm you or worry you, but to tell you that he only needs time. He’ll recover quite nicely here, I think. He can’t go anywhere if you don’t leave him a horse, and he can’t do much of anything. He’ll be forced to rest and recuperate.”
Ben turned to Doc appreciative not only of the reassurance but also that in such a short time, he had learned so much about Adam’s personality. “You know my son well. He’ll want to do too much too soon and put himself at risk.”
“Yes, he wanted to come back here only a few days after being shot. I knew it would likely kill him to make the trip and made him wait a week. He wasn’t happy about my decision.”
Chuckling, Ben nodded in appreciation of that too. “I’m sure he wasn’t. At least now, he seems to have an acceptance of how weak he is.”
“Yes, we had to literally hold him in the saddle for the last part of the trip. He was exhausted. I’m very happy you keep these line cabins so well appointed. We spent a very comfortable night here.”
“How long do you think it will be for Adam to be strong again?”
“I would say another four weeks normally, but he’ll be pushing himself. Two weeks would be a minimum though. No matter how he pushes himself, his body can only heal itself so fast, and his shoulder blade needs time to heal. There was no displacement, but it was cracked in several directions. It was more painful than anything, but if he tries to do too much, those cracks could give way. The wound in his side is healed but still quite tender as is the one in his leg.”
“I hate to leave him here alone.”
“Pa, I can have a man watching over the place without Adam knowing. I mean, he’ll know, but he won’t know, ifn you know what I mean.” And then Hoss got a confused look himself but the others did know what he meant.
“Joe and I will have to go to Carson City to try to get those contracts invalidated if we can and then possibly one of us will have to go to California. You’ll be in charge here.”
“I figured as much. I’m thinking I’ll go in and talk to Roy too and let him know what’s all going on so he can keep an eye on that woman and watch for her brother too now that we know who that is. I wish Roy could arrest him for what he done to Adam.”
“As Adam said, the only thing they could prove at this point is that they stole from him when they thought he was dying. A jury might not believe that he was the one who shot him. No one saw the shooting.”
“I still think a jury here would convict him.” Joe agreed with Hoss and wanted David arrested.
“Boys, they have a lot of money. They would get an excellent attorney who would turn that case on its head. In fact, they might not even believe that they were the ones who robbed him. Adam was in terrible shape and the other men are wanted men. Their testimony might not be believed especially against a man of wealth and power. No, Adam’s right on this one. We need more evidence first. We need evidence that can’t be twisted in court. What I don’t like is Adam thinking he’s the one who has to get it.”
“Maybe if we do well in Carson City and then in Sacramento, he won’t have to.” Joe was hopeful. Having gotten his brother back from the dead, he didn’t want to risk losing him again.
“None of you should travel alone. Keep somebody with you at all times. David doesn’t like witnesses. He’ll try to take you like he did Adam, out where nobody can see anything or he thinks they can’t. He won’t come at you straight on. He’s a coward at heart. I’ve never seen him face anyone in a fair fight.”
Inside, Adam was resting but had awakened with the conversation outside. The thin cabin walls didn’t block much sound. When he heard that last part, the plan in his mind began to solidify. He wanted to get David into a situation where it was one on one. He had plenty of time here to practice and be ready. He was going to need someone watching his back, but he guessed that when he worked with the authorities, they would be willing to take care of that. In fact, they would probably insist on sending someone in with him. He didn’t have to tell them what he wanted to do. He would cooperate with whatever plan they had up to a point. But David had hurt and killed too many people. He needed to be removed, and Carlotta needed to face justice. The only way to get to her was to remove her protector. David had insulated her for too long by eliminating anyone who opposed her. That was going to end if Adam had any say.
The next day, Drake and Doc went with Hoss to get some supplies and then a couple of cows to take back to their camp in the mountains. Once Hoss sent them on their way, he packed up some books, clothing, and supplies for Adam and brought those back to the line cabin. Ben and Joe had spent the day there discussing the business issues with Adam and watching over him of course. He knew what they were doing, but at this point, he knew he needed some help yet. Ben was relieved to find that Adam was in much better condition on that second day. He had rested and recuperated from the trip to the line cabin. Once Hoss returned, Ben and Joe headed back to the ranch house so they could head to Carson City the next day. Hoss planned to spend at least that night with Adam and perhaps come back for the next night or two until he was sure his brother could manage on his own. Adam had asked for books to read and ammunition for practice. He was going to rest and recuperate, but he was also going to plan and prepare. He did get to spend some time talking with Hoss too about the family and about his plans. The touchiest subject by far was what had happened that morning when Carlotta had made her accusations.
“Adam, I’m sorry I ever doubted you at all. I know you would never have pushed her into doing something she didn’t want to do. You’ve always shown women a lot of respect even when sometimes they didn’t deserve it. But, dadburnit, she was there in your bed, and you know, it was clear she had been with someone.”
“Yes, the way they set me up was perfectly done. If Pa had seen what you had seen, he might have some momentary doubt too, I’m afraid. Heck, if I had seen what you had seen, I might have wondered the same thing if she had tried to set you up or Joe up.”
“By the time Charles was doing all that yelling and such, I knew he was acting. A real upset father woulda been with his daughter right then. I figured he was after you too much and not so concerned with her ifn you know what I mean, but I still couldn’t get my head around how she coulda been like that.”
“And our hot-headed little brother never even stopped to think about it at all. He wanted to be the gallant knight to the rescue not realizing he was rescuing the dragon.”
“Huh? Oh, I get it. Instead of the princess from the dragon. Yeah, she sure is a fire-breathing one like them stories you used to tell us when we was young’uns. You know Joe is real embarrassed about it all. I don’t think he knows how to talk to you about it.”
“It will come out in time, I suspect, and most likely in another emotional encounter between the two of us. It seems to be about the only time we can clear the air. It would have helped too if I had stayed in town instead of going off on my own to try to get information about Carlotta and Charles. That wasn’t very smart, but at that point, I had no idea they intended to kill any of us.”
“Yeah, it looked like more of a plan to get you out of the way so she could marry Joe and get herself on the Ponderosa. I don’t think any of us had any idea they was dangerous in that way.”
Once that touchy subject had been broached and settled, the two brothers could talk about more mundane things and settle back into a more natural relationship. Nearly every day, Hoss found a reason to ride to the cabin to see Adam even if for a short visit or to drop something off for him and to check that all was well.
In Carson City, Ben and Joe spent the day first meeting with the governor’s aides and then finally had a meeting with the governor. He asked them to let him have some time to discuss the issues with his staff. Ben was impatient but knew that there were legalities as well as political considerations to be made. He was gracious but did let the governor know how precarious his position was. It was the next afternoon before the governor sent a messenger to call them to a meeting.
“I can’t invalidate the contract with the Johnsons which you signed in California, but any court there can do that because Charles Tanner committed fraud by misrepresenting himself as Carlotta Johnson’s father. That should be quite easy. We have been in contact with the railroad company. They are willing to allow you some leeway in the contract. They still want your timber but will renegotiate the terms and amount as well as the delivery. I know it will be a burden, but I think this is the way to go. You’re probably going to have to work out a partnership with some other companies here, but you and Adam have done that before.” Suddenly the governor realized what he had said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up that loss.”
“Governor, in confidence, there is something that I have to tell you. It may be quite a shock to you. It certainly was to us three days ago when we found out, but Adam isn’t dead. He was shot and nearly killed, but he was rescued by some men.”
“Why haven’t you told anyone? Why didn’t you tell me this yesterday?”
“We weren’t sure if you were going to be on our side. I’m sorry about that, but you see, David and Carlotta Johnson plotted to kill Adam. David is the one who shot him, but we can’t prove it. Adam’s word when he was shot three times in the back against that of David and the other men who were with him probably wouldn’t stand up in court. For Adam’s safety now as he recovers, we need to keep his secret. We also have every reason to believe that they may wish to kill me, and my son, Joseph, too. For that reason, we have a man with us, and he is watching for anyone following us.”
“But why would they want to kill you?”
For the next hour, Ben explained about their connection through the Connor Party and what had happened to them as well as what had happened since then although some of what they knew was conjecture. They weren’t sure what had happened with Maxwell and the oldest son although Adam had heard some things that if he accurately remembered those did explain quite a bit.
“So besides trying to get out of these contracts into which they manipulated you, what else do you plan to do?”
“Adam wants to go in secretly and get more information. We also want to go to the authorities in California to work with him and with us. They have broken so many laws. They need to face justice.”
“Ben, if there is any help we can give you, let me know. I’ll keep your secret but I do think you ought to work with my attorney general here and let him know what is going on.”
Ben agreed and for the rest of the day, he and Joe met with that official setting up what Nevada could do to monitor Carlotta and David. By the time they were ready to head home, there were agents on the way to Virginia City to keep watch on Carlotta and on David should he return to the area. By that time, Hoss had informed Roy too of what had happened, and he had a deputy keeping watch on Carlotta at all times. She was too much of a predator not to realize that there were people on her trail. In a fury after two days of that, she knew that things once again were not working the way she wished. She packed her bags and headed for home because she could not function with constant surveillance. That worked out very well for the Cartwrights who were much safer with her further away. They weren’t aware that she liked to be close so she could savor her kills, but they had lucked upon the one strategy that did the most good for them at that point.
When Carlotta arrived in Maxwell and got to her home, she saw that David was there. It infuriated her for no logical reason so she entered the house angry and ready for a fight. He saw it immediately and moved to be conciliatory because for David there was only one way to control him and that was to have his sister angry with him.
“Carlotta, what’s wrong? Tell me, and I will do everything I can to make it right.”
“Something is wrong again. I can tell. There were people watching me, following me. How could they know, David? What’s gone wrong?”
“Charles didn’t have the chance to tell anyone. He went on a fishing trip after he did what you told him to do. He met with an unfortunate accident. He fell into the stream, hit his head, and drowned. No one found him for hours.”
“You didn’t make him suffer, did you? David, he didn’t cross us. He was becoming a liability, but he never turned on us.”
“Well, he took advantage of you. That was enough.”
Carlotta sighed. David had an insane jealousy of her. Any man who became her lover was destined to die. As soon as she spurned the man’s advances, David took that as his permission or perhaps as his invitation to get rid of the man. It was convenient at times, but sometimes it made Carlotta feel a bit strange as it did now, but she didn’t have time to dwell on that.
“For now, I’m wondering if we should be satisfied with killing Adam Cartwright and creating a financial mess for the Ponderosa. He may get out of it or he may not, but I’m worried that if we get ourselves more involved in it, we may have more trouble than we can handle.” Even as she said it, Carlotta knew she didn’t mean it. Her desire for revenge was too great to give up. “Forget what I said. It was a moment of weakness. It’s passed. But I don’t know what to do next.”
“What about killing the other sons? That wouldn’t be that hard to do. It wasn’t that hard to kill the oldest one. I bet the big one would be very easy, and then I could get that little one.”
“Maybe, but we need a new plan. I’m sure they’re coming up with a plan against us, so we’re throwing out our old plan and coming up with an entirely new one that will surprise them.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Nothing yet, but I’m thinking. I want it to be something that will be fast and not so complicated. This last plan was too complicated. That’s why it is falling apart. Too many parts meant that there were too many things that could go wrong. This time, I’m going to come up with something simple and deadly.”
“Deadly. I like that.”
Even as she thought about possibilities, Carlotta continued to worry about those men who had been following her and why they had followed her. It seemed that they knew more than they should have known about her, and it bothered her that she didn’t know how they knew and what they knew. There was an unknown element that she couldn’t control which could undermine any plan she devised. She talked to David at the end of the day about using their contacts to try to get some information. It was risky because it exposed them to inquiry by involving more people, but it was a known risk. She decided she would rather have that than to have the unknown risk. With that settled and David sent on that mission, she got to work on finding a replacement for judge now that Charles had died, and for several other jobs that needed filling. She had neglected her work because she had been busy plotting against Ben Cartwright and playing the dutiful and adoring daughter, but now she was back to being the woman in charge of an empire, and she had a lot of work to do. For the next couple of weeks, she got back to the business of running her small empire, but she never forgot about her plans for the Cartwrights. It was a constant irritant to her that her plan had mostly failed except for killing the oldest son. She waited for an opportunity and an idea of how to proceed with a new plan.
Not many people traveled through Maxwell but she recruited any likely looking prospects to work for her. The type of people who frequented a small backwater town like this were often exactly the type of people she liked to hire anyway because they were men trying to avoid the attention they might get in a bigger town or one where the authorities took a more active role in apprehending outlaws. Her sheriff had wanted posters for an entirely different reason. He noted when a newcomer resembled anyone on one of those posters and brought the man to Carlotta’s attention as a potential employee. About two weeks after Carlotta returned home, two such men rode into town. The sheriff had recently received posters on them from Sacramento and found that they bore a striking resemblance to the two men who rode into town from that direction looking like they probably hadn’t seen a town in quite some time. One was bearded and walked with a limp, and the other had a mustache and looked quite dapper although trail weary. They headed into the saloon for drinks and food as the sheriff headed to Carlotta’s office.
“What are they wanted for?”
“Murder. It says they kill for money. People have hired them to kill, and they do it. They started as gunfighters, but I guess they found the money was better as hired killers. They’re originally from the South somewhere, and they’re wanted in other states too.”
“It seems that they are rather brazen to simply ride into town here.”
“They probably know that a town like this ain’t got anybody can face a fast gun, and nobody willing to go up against them for the reward. They don’t rob banks or nothing so we don’t really have a reason to worry about them.”
“Hmm, I suppose you’re right. They pose no threat to us, and we pose no threat to them. Well maybe I ought to go over there and meet them to see what I think. I might have a job for them. Maybe they’d like your job.”
The sheriff started to stammer until Carlotta’s grin let him know she was joking. Then his heart rate settled down and he was able to summon a nervous smile too. Like most people in town, he voluntarily cooperated with her because he made a good living by doing so, but he also knew that crossing her was deadly. He never wanted to cross her.
Carlotta got her things and walked with the sheriff to the saloon. When she entered, the two newcomers noticed her arrival immediately and tensed up. She would have been nervous about that except she was with the sheriff and expected the two men to be a bit tense when they saw a man with a badge. The sheriff put his hands out in front of him and crossed to their table as she stepped to the bar and leaned on it to watch what happened. She saw the dark-haired man’s eyes flick to her from under his slouch hat. He didn’t miss anything in the room that moved. The other man seemed to trust the dark-haired man to be alert as he turned his attention to the sheriff. Carlotta noted how well the two worked as a team.
“Now, I want the two of you to know that I know who you are, and I ain’t about to do nothing about it. I know you ain’t a threat to our town, and I sure as heck ain’t a threat to you. You’re welcome to stay here as long as you can pay for anything you need or want just like any other man who comes here. What do you say to that?”
In a rich southern drawl, the man answered. “I’m likin’ what I’m hearin’ from y’all. Now it’s a right purty lil town. We might as well spend sum money here as anywhere. Thank ya kindly.” The dark-haired man nodded but said nothing.
“You planning on staying a while then?” The sheriff looked a bit nervous while asking not sure of which answer Carlotta wanted to hear more.
“We’ll spend the night and then decide.”
“All right. I’ll be seeing ya then.” The sheriff took his leave then turning his back on the men in a gesture of trust he hoped was reciprocated. He knew the bartender had a loaded shotgun under the bar in case it wasn’t. The bartender nodded as the sheriff left so he knew there had been no hostile moves by the two killers.
Carlotta asked for a glass of brandy and sipped it as she stood at the bar and watched the two men and they watched her. Finally the more talkative one spoke.
“Ma’am, if y’all like to talk with us, why don’t you set yourself down and be comfortable?”
Finishing her brandy and setting the empty glass on the bar, Carlotta turned to the two men. “Not right now, but tomorrow, if you’re interested in some work, ask anyone where my office is, and we can talk then.”
“Ma’am, may I ask what kind of work you would have for us here?”
“Oh, the kind of work that you do.” With that, Carlotta smiled and turned on her heel and left the saloon. She was fairly certain she now had the makings of a new plan in mind. She was in a better mood for the first time in weeks. Finally it seemed that perhaps she could make things go her way. She wasn’t used to failure, and it had infuriated her. This feeling of power was more what she liked to have.
The tall slender boy knelt down and put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I lost two mothers, and I know how it can hurt.”
Sitting with David in her arms and crying after the taunting by the other children, Charlotte Maxwell had lashed out at the boy who was only a year or two older than her and swatted his hand off of her shoulder. “Nobody can lose two mothers. We only ever have one mother so that’s all anybody can lose.”
“My first mother died when I was born. My second mother was killed when an Indian shot an arrow through her. She was my Pa’s second wife. Your Pa might get married again. He might get you a new ma.”
“I don’t want a new Ma. I want the one I had. I want everything the way it was.”
“I wish it could be that way. I’m sorry you’re hurting. Someday it won’t hurt so bad.”
“It will always be bad. Nothing can ever make things good again.”
“Only you can make things good again. I’ll pray for you and I hope that someday you find happiness and a good life.” With that, the boy had gone to pick up his pudgy little brother, and she had never seen him again. She wished he had helped her more because the other children continued to taunt her on a daily basis making her life miserable. The taunts rang in her ears. Her father began to drink heavily and no matter where they moved, it was the same. She heard those horrible taunts over and over again.
Awakening in the middle of the night, Carlotta wondered why she had dreamed of that dark-haired boy after so many years. When she was a child, she used to dream of him coming back and taking her with him like he took that pudgy little brother of his with him. Now though she hated it when she dreamed of those days and those awful memories. It usually put her in a foul temper, and she had work to do and men to hire. She couldn’t afford to be in such a state. She lay back and tried to think of things that made her mood better, but her thoughts kept coming back to the dark-haired boy, and she couldn’t understand why.
On the Ponderosa, Ben wasn’t sleeping well either. They had gotten word that day in a coded message that Adam and U.S. Marshal Matt Howard had gone to Maxwell to begin the operation against Carlotta and David. Unfortunately, David was not in Maxwell. They had another operative working for the state of California who was there and reported that. No one knew where he was, and that was enough to make everyone nervous. Apparently, the state of California was already beginning an investigation of events in and around Maxwell. The suspicious death of Charles Tanner and then the subsequent allegations of fraud against him and collusion with the Johnsons and possibly with the railroads to create a fraudulent deal to ensnare the Ponderosa in a ruinous business deal raised their interest significantly. They already had a man working undercover in Maxwell observing there and the man driving stage in and out of the town carried messages to and from the town for them. With that system in place, it was fairly easy to work out a plan to place two more men there. Other men were brought in to a nearby town ready to move against Maxwell at short notice if necessary. Forces were aligning against Carlotta and David, but as yet the duo didn’t know it. Even though Ben was aware of most of that, he was worried about Adam putting himself in so much jeopardy again after barely surviving the attempt on his life. He knew there were those who were watching out for him, and he had to trust them, but he prayed each time he thought about his son and the danger he was in.
In their hotel room, Adam Cartwright and the U.S. Marshal Matt Howard, who were known only as Abel and Matt in town, were discussing how the day had gone. As far as they could tell, all was going according to the plan, which was for them to get hired by Carlotta. Once she instructed them to commit a crime, she could be arrested. If they could include David in the arrest, it would be even better, but she was the key to the operation. Once she was arrested, the plan was to move in on the sheriff and anyone else in town who had been identified as having participated in any of the plots and conspiracies in the past. As long as they had not actually killed anyone, they would be offered limited immunity for testifying against Carlotta and David. Anyone who cooperated with the authorities would pay fines and would lose property that they had gained through their illegal activities but they would avoid prison terms. The goal was to put Carlotta and David in prison or on the gallows. Many hoped for the gallows, but they needed proof of a capital crime for that and might not be able to get it. However they were sure they would have enough for fraud, conspiracy, and various other felonies that would mean that the two would never be free again to prey on the innocent. Adam’s knowledge of Carlotta helped them formulate the plan, and he was the advisor to Matt who was the main player in the drama they had planned. They didn’t want Adam to talk too much afraid that his southern drawl wouldn’t sound authentic enough in protracted conversation and that Carlotta might recognize his voice if she heard it often enough even if she believed him to be dead. So he was the mostly silent but very observant partner. From the reactions they had gotten so far, no one had seemed to question how the two of them worked together.
“So far, all we have is a job offer. I wish she would come out and say what she wants us to do. I guess that would make it too easy. I’ve never been a hired killer before so I don’t know how one speaks to a hired killer. I guess saying that she wants us to kill old so-and-so for such-and-such an amount of money would make it too easy?”
Reclining on the bed, Adam had to smile. “Yes, I’ve never done anything like this before either. I do wonder how one talks to a hired killer. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow. If anyone knows how it’s done, it’s her.”
“Do you think we have to keep watch?”
“Every minute we’re here. We can’t relax for a second around her.”
“I was afraid you would say that. All right, who sleeps first?”
The next morning after breakfast, Matt asked where Carlotta’s office was. The man at the restaurant told them that she had left a message that they should go to her house at the edge of town. He said they couldn’t miss it if they simply went to the biggest house. She said she would be outside, and they would see her. When they got there, she was talking with some men and dismissed them when she saw the two men she had summoned. She walked over and introduced herself as Carlotta Johnson telling them they could call her Carlotta but that it didn’t mean they were friends. She asked their names then because the wanted poster didn’t have them but did have good likenesses of them.
“I’m Matt and my colleague is Abel.”
“Doesn’t he ever talk?”
“He does if he needs to talk. I do the talking for us usually. Is there a problem with him not liking to talk?”
“No, I find it odd.”
Deciding to try out his drawl and alleviate her concerns if he could, Adam spoke but in a higher pitch than his normal speaking voice. “Ma’am, I do heah a sight mo while I’m not speakin’. I do laak to observe and listen. No disrespect intended to y’all.”
Matt cringed internally a bit at Adam’s attempt but Carlotta had no experience with southerners and accepted the accent as authentic.
“None taken, Abel. I do appreciate that you were willing to address my concern. Now, I have work that I believe is within your experience. Are you available?”
“We are if the price is right, ma’am. We are rather expensive to hire.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to. How much is your usual fee?”
“Depending on the expectation, it starts at a thousand per desired result and goes up from there.”
“This job would involve three results; three targets to be eliminated.”
“Are all of these intended results in one location, ma’am?”
“Yes, they all live together.”
“We don’t consider women and children when we work, ma’am. We draw the line at that, and no amount of money will make a difference.”
“All men in this case, but you would have to travel. We would have go to Nevada for this one.”
“We don’t mind the travel, but you said ‘we’ would go? You plan to go with us? Ma’am, that’s not how we work.”
“If you want three thousand dollars, that’s how it will be this time.”
“Just a minute, ma’am, I think Abel and I would like to talk this over.” Matt walked a short distance away and whispered with Adam. “She wants us to go to Nevada and kill your family, but she hasn’t come out and said it yet. We’re only guessing that’s what it is. We can’t arrest her based on what we’re guessing. She actually has to say it. I don’t like it. Something funny is going on here, and this isn’t even close to our original plan.”
But Adam thought he understood a bit more about Carlotta at that point. “No, I think that’s her. I think she likes to be there for the kill. That’s why she was in Virginia City even after all the trouble with my family. She wanted to be there when news of my death arrived. She wants to savor the kill. No, I think this is exactly what we want. I think we ought to say yes. We can write this all up and drop it off so our contact can let everyone know how the plan has changed.”
“All right. That’s why you’re with me. You know her better than anyone else.” Turning back to Carlotta, Matt made a counteroffer. “All right, we talked it over. It’s a bit out of the ordinary and including you is a risk we haven’t taken before. We’ll do it, but we want five thousand. We’ll take a thousand up front and the rest when we finish the job.”
“Done. I’ll pay you the thousand in two days. I’m expecting my brother back then, and we’ll all go together.”
“Wait a minute. Your brother is going too? This is getting riskier all the time. I don’t like traveling with people I don’t know.”
“Ten thousand for the whole job, and I’ll pay you three thousand up front and the rest when the job is done. Does that take care of your worries?”
Taken aback by her offer both in his role-playing and in his job, Matt looked to Adam who nodded. It was what they needed to do. “All right. We’ll do it. Ten thousand is a lot of money. I guess you really do want the job done if that’s what you’re offering. Where do we meet you and what do we need for the trip?”
“I think we’ll ride there so they don’t know we’re coming. There have been far too many prying eyes. Meet me here the morning after next. I’ll have all the supplies we need for the trip and extra horses so we can travel fast without delays.”
“And get away clean too. That’s always an important consideration.”
“Yes, well, I don’t think that will be an issue if you do your job. It’s a long way from town, and by the time word gets to the authorities, you can be long gone.”
“It’s a deal. We’ll be here.” With that, Matt turned to leave and Adam tipped his hat before turning to follow him.
Carlotta watched the two men walk back into town wondering why the dark-haired man seemed familiar even though there was nothing about him that she could identify. He didn’t look like anyone she knew. He did have a slight resemblance to Adam Cartwright who was dead, but he was thinner and had a higher voice than Adam had had. He had a limp, a southern drawl, and a beard, which could all be added to disguise the man’s true identity of course except the limp looked real. She decided to be more observant and try to determine who the man might be if he wasn’t who he said he was, and if he wasn’t, then the next question was whether Matt was who he said he was. Now they both looked like the wanted poster that came from Sacramento so if they weren’t who they said they were then the authorities had to be involved. If that was true, she had to be very worried. It was such an outlandish possibility that she began to laugh at her musings and went back to the house to have a late breakfast and make a list of what she wanted to take with her on the trip to the Ponderosa to eliminate the Cartwright sons in front of their father. Chuckling a time or two over how her frustration had made her overly suspicious, she sat for a time after finishing breakfast and debated whether she should kill Ben or maim him so he could spend the rest of his life suffering. She decided to ask David if there was a way to maim him so that he wouldn’t be able to testify against them but would be able to think and remember all that he had seen and all that had been done to him and by whom. The prospect made her almost giddy wondering if it was possible. Her euphoria was short-lived though because David arrived and his news was unsettling.
“Ben seems to be recovering very well from losing his son. He’s been to Carson City and word is that he got the contract with the railroad cancelled or got it cancelled soon after that. He and that youngest son, Joe, went to Sacramento and had a meeting with the governor there. It seems they found out who Charles was and used it to their advantage. I don’t know how they got that information so quickly, but it’s done. I’m guessing that there will be some kind of investigation because of you and Charles posing as father and daughter. We need to be gone before they get here.” Carlotta was fuming with that news, but David had more. “The Nevada governor is helping them set up some kind of deals with the companies they made orders with and with the bank so they aren’t going to suffer much. They’re coming out of this all right financially.”
“This is impossible. He’s not even losing any money, but you said he doesn’t seem too sad about his son’s death either?”
“No, I never saw him or any of them. I couldn’t go into town or too close to the ranch. There was too much risk in that, but I had men check with others and had them hang out in the saloons and restaurants to hear conversations. It seems none of them are all that sad. They’ve been in town and acting kind of normal. It has a lot of people wondering why they don’t act more upset about it all. Maybe they didn’t like him that much.”
“He did seem kind of odd man out in some ways especially in how badly he got on with his youngest brother, but I saw how devastated they all looked that day when the body was brought in. How could they get over that so quickly? Things are simply not adding up. So many things haven’t worked out the way I wanted. How did they find out about Charles so quickly? Things simply haven’t been going our way. I’ve decided to take a more simple and direct approach. I hired two killers. They’re wanted for doing this very kind of thing. We’re going to the Ponderosa the day after tomorrow, and we’ll take care of the Cartwrights once and for all. There will be no tricks, no games, just a direct assault.”
“I’ll have our other men there. They’ll be our back-up and they can kill our killers once they finish the job for us. That way we can get back the money I have to pay them for this. I’ve sent our men on ahead. They’ll be keeping watch on the Cartwrights and getting ready for us. It’s why we aren’t leaving right away. I want things set up nice and neat for a direct attack.”
“How much are you paying them?”
“It doesn’t matter. They’ll never live to spend any of it.”
“That’s true, and they’re wanted men. We could let our men turn the bodies in and collect the reward on them.”
“Oh, David, that’s perfect. They could do our dirty work for us and get the blame, and then their deaths would pay our men.”
Brother and sister couldn’t stop laughing for several minutes over that one.
Once Adam and Matt had a chance to talk privately, they were concerned about why there was a delay before they were heading to Nevada. Adam especially was concerned because she seldom ever seemed to be patient.
“If she wants to do this, why wait? She has something else going on.”
“I trust you because you know her better than any of us, but what could she possibly be doing in two days?”
“She knew she was going to hire us the moment she saw us in the saloon and the sheriff talked to us. She had time to plan and set something in motion. My guess is that she already had decided to give up the intricate planning and go for the direct assault. We played into that for her and made her planning that much easier. However, she doesn’t like loose ends.”
“And we’re loose ends. So it’s likely that she has another plan going that will take care of us once we do her bidding. She’s holding us here until that part of her plan is set in motion and established. Then we fit into the plan like parts into a machine.”
“More like expendable pieces on the chessboard. We’re probably the knights. She’ll use us and then discard us. No wonder she so easily agreed to pay us an exorbitant amount. She never plans on us getting it anyway, and she’ll probably get back what she gives us in advance.”
The two men sat silently for a short time. Matt tried to do what Adam had been doing and think like Carlotta. He began to see what Adam meant by how her mind might work.
“If she accepted us for who those posters claim we are, she’s going to lay all the blame for the deaths on us and if we’re dead, they can collect the reward on us as well.”
Snapping his fingers, Adam nodded and smiled. “That’s it. That’s what she’s doing. She’s laying a trap for us, and when we do her killing for her, then we get killed. It’s an ingenious plan. We’ll have to see what we can do to make sure it doesn’t have any chance of success.”
“What if we’re wrong?”
“Do you see any other logical or possible scenario based on what we know?” Matt shook his head. “Then this is how we have to assume it will go, and if we’re wrong, we may end up exactly how she wants us to be. Let’s hope our back-up is better than hers. We need to write this up and get it to our contact. They’ve got a lot of work to do before we get to Nevada.”
“What if we can’t get word to our contact or he doesn’t get word out?”
“Then we better be ready for a hell of a lot of shooting.”
The next day, Matt and Adam spent their time casually wandering the small town, taking their meals, and spending quite a bit of time sitting and listening. They managed to drop their message off without being noticed as far as they knew, and then they could only hope it would be picked up and delivered quickly. That night, they did what they had done each night and took turns sleeping. In the morning, they talked about how they would handle that on the trail. Adam was insistent that they had to have one of them awake at all times. He didn’t think the two of them could trust sleeping with Carlotta and David in the same camp.
“If they keep watch, when one of us is keeping watch, the other can sleep safely. When neither of us is keeping watch, one of us will need to stay awake even as we try to appear to be sleeping. It’s going to be difficult, but our lives may depend on doing it.”
“What if they don’t keep watch?”
“I think we have to insist on it even if it means we’re the only ones keeping watch.”
“All right. We can tell them it’s part of what we do for clients. That may work with them. They may feel more important that way and let us do it. It would work out better for us to do it that way too.”
“Matt, you’re starting to scare me with how well you’re starting to understand them. Yes, that sounds like it would work. Let’s try that. It would work out the best for us.”
When they arrived at the Johnson house, Carlotta and David were not yet outside. Matt and Adam waited for them by the corral. There was a packhorse loaded with supplies there as well as two horses already saddled and four horses on lead ropes. Adam nearly reacted when he saw that one of the horses they were taking with them was Sport. Sport whinnied in recognition of his master, and Adam walked over to the horses giving attention to all of them so that if anyone was watching, they would only think that he was fond of horses not that he was fond of any one horse in particular. As he stood there with the horses, David and Carlotta came out from the house. David was a little perturbed to see Adam with the horses.
“Hey, you there, what are you doing with my horse?”
“Sorry, suh. Which one is yours?”
“The one with the white socks. Who are you?”
Matt stepped forward then. “And who are you? Miss Carlotta has hired us, and we don’t take kindly to being addressed so rudely, sir.”
“Carlotta is my sister, and I’ll address you any way I want to.”
Stepping in before the argument could escalate, Carlotta tried to calm things down. “Now, David, these are the men I hired. They were only getting acquainted with the horses that I told them we would be taking with us. I told them to be here, and they are here as expected so they are following orders. There’s no need for anyone to be angry with anyone else now, is there?” When no one said anything, Carlotta made the introductions. The men tipped their hats to one another, and then the four of them mounted up and headed out.
Once Carlotta and the three men left town, their contact did also. Within a day, there were law enforcement officials in Maxwell arresting the sheriff and a few other officials based on the information that had been received from Matt and Adam. Search warrants were executed and evidence was gathered. With the offer of partial immunity, the sheriff and the others began talking. It took nearly two weeks to put everything together into a cohesive case, but charges were drawn up and arrest warrants were issued for Carlotta Johnson nee Charlotte Maxwell and David Johnson nee David Maxwell. They were charged with fraud, extortion, theft, conspiracy, and murder. Unfortunately by that time, Carlotta and David were in Nevada, and the arrest warrants were California documents. The information was sent to Nevada, but the two had to be found first before they could be arrested and then extradited. Matt and Adam could have arrested them if they had known that those documents existed. They didn’t of course as they crossed the mountains avoiding all towns and settlements so that the Ponderosa and the authorities would have no idea that David and Carlotta were in Nevada. Matt and Adam both realized how good a plan it was, and both had to pray and hope that their message had gotten out because otherwise the odds were stacked against them.
As Adam and Matt traveled with Carlotta and David, it was clear that David did not like the two men being there in close proximity to his sister. Jealousy was the only way to explain it, but Adam and Matt were at a loss to understand why David would be jealous except as they observed the two, they seemed to touch or be in very close proximity to each other much of the time. Matt raised his eyebrows to Adam on more than one occasion as if to ask if he had seen the same thing. It was quite weird and not something that either of them wanted to think about much as it distracted them from being alert to what was more important and could be a fatal problem. Once they crossed onto Ponderosa land, Carlotta and David became very cautious. Adam knew where they were but had to act as if he did not. Matt brought it up with Carlotta as they rode.
“Are we getting close to where we’re going? You two have been acting as if we should be watching our backs this morning.”
“Yes, we’re close, and we’re waiting for our advance scout to contact us. He should be here somewhere. It makes us nervous that he has not contacted us yet.”
“Maybe we should hold up and let him find us.”
“We’ll ride a short distance yet and them perhaps we’ll think about doing that. For now, we’ll stay alert. We’re still quite a ways from the house where the men are so we don’t have to worry about them yet.”
A few hours from the house, they made camp. On edge now, David didn’t let Matt and Adam ever have any time to be together. He was clearly suspicious of them, but neither man knew why. In fact, he had been getting more and more suspicious of them as they traveled. Late that day, a man rode near them and David hailed him and went out to talk with him before sending him on his way. He came back to talk to the three of them.
“It’s all set. They’re all at home. Tomorrow morning we hit them early as soon as they send their men out to work. Our man will be watching to make sure they’re all still at the house when we move in.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”
Carlotta was so excited. Her cheeks were flushed and her smile made her seem much younger because she couldn’t stop smiling. Even when the sun began to sink lower in the sky and they laid out bedrolls for sleeping, she was still smiling. She was smiling even more when Matt and Adam rolled their bedrolls out and heard pistols cocked behind them.
“Stand and keep your hands away from your pistols.” Carlotta’s voice was cold and showed none of the giddiness of earlier. “David, get their guns and be careful. These two are a tricky pair.”
Once they were disarmed, Carlotta had them turn around. The smile she had then was predatory, and David’s was smug. He was so proud to have helped his sister uncover Adam’s subterfuge.
“I was the one who figured it out. It seemed impossible, but I couldn’t fight the evidence. The limp with the left leg, being friendly with that horse that doesn’t like anybody, not wanting to talk around us, and being familiar to both of us was enough to make us suspicious. But old Ben seeming to adjust too easily to the death of his son. That was much too odd. He should have been devastated, and he was at first, but then suddenly, he was fine again. Soon he was in Carson City meeting with the governor, but then him visiting Sacramento just before those wanted posters for you two showed up in Maxwell and those posters came from Sacramento: well that was an awful lot of coincidences and odd things piling up.”
Carlotta was smiling then with that look that said she was smarter than anyone else. “Then I saw the distinctive way you have of mounting up and dismounting your horse. I mentioned to David that it reminded me of Adam Cartwright. It was the last piece of the puzzle for him.” Pointing with her pistol at Adam, Carlotta had an order. “Now one more thing. Take off your shirt.” Once Adam had reluctantly complied because of the pistol she held pointed at his midsection, Carlotta ordered him to turn around. She smirked to David when he did and they could see his back. “You were definitely correct there, brother. Those scars are fairly new and about where you thought they would be. Give him your razor.”
Next she ordered Adam to shave off his beard. He had little choice and soon stood before them as Adam Cartwright. Matt was ordered to bind Adam’s wrists.
“Can I put my shirt on first?”
“No. I don’t mind you being uncomfortable. Now, Matt bind his wrists and do it well. If you don’t, and he gets loose, I’ll have to kill him so his life is in your hands.”
When Matt finished, he turned to Carlotta as if to ask what to do next. David shot him in the head. Blood and brain matter splashed onto Adam who was shocked by the sudden and senseless violence of the act.
“No!” Then he turned to them in dismay. “Why?”
David spoke as if he had simply removed garbage from his house. “We didn’t need him. He was of no use to us, and we don’t keep witnesses around. Who was he, anyway?”
“He was a U.S. Marshal. His name was Matt Howard. You’ll answer for murder to the federal authorities now. There isn’t a safe place for you to go.”
David could not have been more smug or more casual in his answer. “Oh, that won’t be much of a problem. Perhaps a bit inconvenient, but Carlotta bought property in Mexico years ago just in case. We have money in a bank down there too. We guessed that when we did this one, it could mean that we would have to leave, so we made preparations.”
Knowing that they were telling him because they planned to kill him, Adam had to ask. “So what’s the plan for me?”
Gleeful, Carlotta couldn’t resist telling him. “You get to ride in on your horse, and then we get to kill you in front of your father. It seems too good to be true. Brought back from the dead, and then brought back from your secret mission, only to be shot dead at your father’s doorstep. Then we’ll kill each of the other sons before we kill him. We’ll burn his damn house down around him too. Oh, and this precious horse of yours that gave you away? We’re taking him with us. I like the looks of him. I’ll ride him for years and think of all the grand things I did.”
Unable to tell them that they were riding into a trap, Adam could only stand in silence and hope that it was true. The pistol shot had to have been heard if they were alert and waiting as they should have been. He had laid out the whole plan for them in the message that he and Matt had dropped off in Maxwell. Unfortunately, such a system didn’t allow them to know if the message had been picked up and delivered. All he had now was hope.
“What, nothing to say? You really are taking this silent thing too far. David, you can do what you will, but remember I told you not to hit him in the head. I want him aware and awake when it happens so he can appreciate it all. I want him to be able to look at his father and see the tears in his father’s eyes just before he dies and his father can do nothing about it.”
There was nothing that Adam could do about the beating that he took, but because Carlotta had told David that Adam had to be alert and conscious, it limited how far David could go and did allow Adam the chance to roll into a ball and protect some of himself, but his back and kidneys took quite a beating before David gave up.
Contrary to what Carlotta had said however, Ben could do quite a lot about what she had planned. That gunshot had alerted his sentries and put the family and their hands on alert. Guards were set for the night and the next morning, and although the ranch looked like it was operating normally, it was an armed fortress. Carlotta and David and their men were riding into a formidable trap set up by Adam. They thought they had neutralized him, but he had done his planning and had defeated them before they had even begun their trip. Joined by three men the next morning, the group rode to the Ponderosa planning to do some killing without any idea of the danger that was ahead of them.
Unable to sleep because he was worried about what that one pistol shot had meant, Ben Cartwright was down before dawn having a cup of coffee. His two younger sons were there as soon as they realized he was there. They also had been unable to sleep more than a few hours. There were too many questions and no answers. They were as ready as they could be, but the anticipation was literally painful. Hop Sing was up and put some light breakfast on the table for them, but no one could do more than eat a biscuit or two as they waited. At about seven, they were alerted that horsemen were approaching stealthily. Everyone was told to get in position and wait for the signals.
A quarter mile from the house, Carlotta and her group stopped as the man she had watching the house came up to tell them what he knew. “It all looks normal so far. It’s quiet with hands out saddling horses. Soon we should see a bunch of men ride out to do work. Then you can ride in and there won’t be hardly anyone there. I’ll work my way to the house and come in through the kitchen. I’ve got two other men set to come into the bunkhouse just in case there are any men left there just like you ordered. It should be all clear for you to ride right in. You’ve got your hostage and we’ll come up behind them in the house too just like you planned.”
“Good. Go then. We’ll ride in as soon as you give us the signal that the hands have ridden out as expected.”
“You might want to gag him. If he yells, they might hear. Things echo a lot around here.”
The whole group looked at Adam who was slumped forward on Sport. David had thought it would be even more of an insult to have him ride in on his own horse that had been missing for so long. He had taken a beating and wasn’t in the best of condition, but Adam was faking too. He was not nearly as disabled as he appeared to be. He could only hope that at some point that was useful to him.
An hour later, the group rode toward the Ponderosa with Carlotta triumphantly leading the procession and David pulling the lead rope on Sport with Adam still slumped in the saddle and hanging onto the pommel with his bound wrists. They rode into the yard of the Ponderosa and called out to the house for Ben Cartwright to come outside. It took only a moment for Ben to appear.
“What are you doing here?”
David reached over and pulled Adam’s head up by grasping his hair and jerking him up roughly. “We brought you a present. Remember him?”
“Adam! You’ve hurt him again. You’ll answer to me for that.”
“No, you’re not in charge here. Drop your weapon now.” Carlotta dismounted as did David who then roughly pulled Adam from his horse and held a gun to his head as Carlotta moved next to him and did the same. “If you don’t, you’ll get to see us blow his brains out right now.”
Ben wasn’t giving any ground though. He was as forceful as always. “You can’t escape. You have ridden right into the trap that Adam created.”
“What trap? There is no trap. We have men behind you. You men, come out now. Show them.”
Instead, Sheriff Coffee stepped from the bunkhouse and Hoss came out of the kitchen as Joe moved out behind his father. All three had pistols drawn. Suddenly there was the sound of a number of firearms being cocked behind Carlotta and David and the other men startling them. A quick glance showed a dozen men with rifles and pistols behind them emerging from the stable and the storehouses. Carlotta and David were visibly shaken by those developments. They had been so arrogant that they had never anticipated that anyone could have foreseen what they were going to do.
“Adam planned all of this. He didn’t have much time when you came up with this new scheme in Maxwell but he sent word so that we could make all the necessary preparations. No, your men have been arrested. We were waiting for them to make a move. We’ve been watching for them especially since yesterday when we heard that pistol shot. I was scared that was Adam, and I am relieved that he is alive.”
“They killed Marshal Howard, Pa.”
“Shut up.” David shoved his pistol hard up against Adam’s face. “We’re leaving here with him. Anyone tries to stop us, and he dies first.”
Ben talked calmly unnerving both David and Carlotta who wondered how he could react that way. They were used to people being afraid of them. “Son, it looks like they’ve got the drop on you. If they didn’t have the drop on you, we could drop them where they stand. If all boils down to who has the drop on whom, doesn’t it?”
Much too late, Carlotta realized that Ben was sending Adam a message. She was going to say something when Adam dropped down to his knees opening up David and Carlotta as targets. David turned to point his pistol at Adam but never completed the maneuver as several shots hit him in the chest and head. Carlotta was spared the sight of her brother’s body being destroyed because Adam used his position and strength to drive his body back and up into her hip knocking her back onto the ground and landing on her. It knocked the pistol from her hand. She writhed beneath him attempting to retrieve it. Adam raised up slightly and reared back to use his bound fists in a roundhouse swing to smash against her jaw. She was stunned senseless by the blow. Men moved in to help Adam to his feet and take custody of her. Ben and Joe were at Adam’s side in seconds.
“Older brother, I never saw you hit a woman, but you surely know how to do it in grand style. She won’t forget that one. I wish I had been the one to do it though.” Joe cut the bindings on Adam’s wrists.
“Joe, I wish I could do it again.”
Bleeding from her nose and mouth, Carlotta slowly regained her wits and looked around at what had happened as she was pulled to stand. Her brother was a bloody mess and lay dead at her feet. Her men were handcuffed and being led away. She had handcuffs on as well and blood had dripped down all over her expensive clothing that was also dirty from Adam and from the ground. She was furious and heartbroken as well as frustrated. Bloody spittle flew from her mouth as she spoke.
“You should all be dead. You killed my brother and my father and now you killed David too. You are evil! My brother couldn’t take hearing my father slandered every day. He took on a group who were saying terrible things about him. They beat my brother. He lingered for a long time bleeding inside. The doctor couldn’t save him. My father felt so awful after that and began to drink. The guilt ate him up until he took his life. You made us orphans by telling all you knew. It was evil what you did and that makes you evil.”
Looking at her in pity as well as anger, Ben couldn’t hold back. “It’s you who are evil. You are Lucifer’s spawn born to do evil it seems. You have hurt many innocent people all because your father couldn’t live with a decision he made. It was his choice to use your mother’s body to keep his children alive. Any father might have done the same. God would have forgiven him if he had forgiven himself.”
“No, God wouldn’t have forgiven him. He killed her so we could eat. He was hungry too, and there was nothing else to eat. My older brother helped him. Then we had food. I was hungry too. I wanted my mother, but he said she would always be with us that way, except you took her away, and then you told people what we did.”
Shocked into silence, Ben could only stare at her. No one spoke for quite some time and slowly Carlotta looked at the group of men staring at her.
“You didn’t know?”
Still staring in shock, Ben shook his head. “If we had known, he would have faced the gallows. Anyone who did something like that would have been arrested and put on trial. We thought he made a terrible, regrettable, but understandable choice. Instead, he committed murder, and the worst kind of murder possible. That’s why he drank, and that’s why he killed himself. That’s why your brother couldn’t stand hearing the stories about it. He couldn’t stand being reminded about what they did. The guilt must have been eating him up.”
“No, no, it was you. It was your fault. All of it was. Everything that happened is your fault and you should pay for it by suffering like we suffered. You should have felt the pain that my father felt and then died like my father died.”
“Like your father, you keep trying to blame someone else for it. It is all his fault, and everything you have done is your fault. You’re going to face a trial now, and most likely the gallows. You can pray to God and beg forgiveness, but I can’t forgive you. You’ve done too much harm to too many for me to forgive you.”
Stepping forward then, Adam spoke forcefully. “Matt Howard was a good man. You and David murdered him. You’ll hang for that.”
“David shot him. I won’t hang.”
Sheriff Coffee stepped forward then. “Conspiracy to commit murder and accomplice to murder carry the same penalty as murder itself. Yes, ma’am, they’re right. In my opinion, you are going to hang.”
Sobbing then, Carlotta dropped to her knees and bent her head to David’s body. Unfortunately the men there relaxed. She was a woman, handcuffed, and apparently disarmed. They didn’t know her as well as Adam did. He yelled to Joe to look out. Joe looked at him wondering what he meant, and Adam pointed almost frantically at Carlotta who was already rising with a small pistol in her hand aimed at their father. Joe didn’t have time to think about it but drew and fired. She shot and Ben cried out, but luckily her shot had not fired true for Joe’s bullet had hit her just at the moment she pulled the trigger on the small pistol. She hit Ben but her hand was going down when she fired and the shot hit him in the leg and not the chest or abdomen where she had hoped to wound him and kill him. She never knew she had failed. Joe’s shot was accurate, and her body fell over David’s in a bizarre imitation of a cross.
The first to rush to Ben was Hoss who held his hand over his father’s wound and pressed down despite his father’s cry of pain. There was a flurry of activity then as Adam pulled off his belt to use as tourniquet when he saw how badly the wound was bleeding. Joe wanted Hoss to carry their father into the house, but Hoss wisely waited until Adam had secured the belt around their father’s thigh before he did that. Adam turned to Roy and asked him to send a man for the doctor, but he knew as did the others that they needed to stop that bleeding before Paul ever got there or he wouldn’t be needed at all. Roy agreed but his look said it all. He knew what Adam knew. He put his hand on Adam’s shoulder.
“I’ll do that and take care of everything I can take care of. You go take care of your pa.” As Adam walked as quickly as he could to the house, Roy sent a rider to town for the doctor, and then had the men roll the two bodies in blankets they got from the bunkhouse. The men inside were brought out and put on horses and all of them were taken to town to face trial. Soon Roy was the only one left. He decided to stay and let Clem handle all the details in town. This was as close to a family as he had, and he was determined to be here to support them in any way that he could until he knew that Ben was going to be all right. Inside, Roy found all three sons and Hop Sing in the downstairs guest room tending to Ben although Adam was mostly giving directions on the tourniquet. He didn’t look too good in Roy’s opinion and apparently Hoss shared it.
“Roy, good! You can help by taking Adam out of here and setting him down on a chair out there cause he’s liable to keel over himself any minute now, and we ain’t got time to help him. If you could tend to him, that would help us out a lot. I know he ain’t likely to be cooperative but he’s too weak to fight ya right about now.”
“I’m fine.” Except the fine sheen of sweat on his face and chest belied that remark as did the fact that he was looking pale and haggard. The beating he had taken was exacting a toll especially after the tension of the encounter outside.
“You come with me and that’s an order. You’ve said you’re my friend and that you see me almost like your father. Well, prove it now and listen to me. We can help your father and brothers and Hop Sing the most by getting out of their way.”
Unable to resist both Hoss and Roy, Adam acquiesced. Roy led him to the settee, got him water to drink and some biscuits and preserves that he found in the kitchen. Then he went upstairs and rummaged around until he found a clean shirt, socks, and pants for him to wear. He brought those down, and after finding a basin of water, towel, and soap, he let Adam clean up, and then helped him change into clean clothing. Despite Adam’s claims that he was fine, he was getting progressively more exhausted. He refused to go up to his bed so Roy got him a blanket and told him to lay back and rest on the settee. Adam said he wouldn’t sleep until he knew his father was all right, but within fifteen minutes, he had collapsed in exhausted sleep. After another hour, Hoss came out to say they had the bleeding stopped and that Ben was resting too and that Joe and Hop Sing would sit with him.
“Other than exhausted, probably not too bad. He’s got some nasty bruises, and the ones on his back probably mean they pounded on his kidneys. He did drink and eat though.”
“I’m fine.” Adam awoke when the two men began talking. “I need to use the necessary though.”
“I’ll help you.”
“Hoss, I can walk to the necessary by myself. I’m fine.”
“Fine, then I’ll walk there too. You’re not going to object to some company on the walk, are you?”
Certainly there was nothing Adam could say to that so the two men left. When they returned, Doctor Martin was arriving. When he saw Adam, he told Hoss to get him to bed and said he would see him later. All Adam had for that was a scowl that made Hoss chuckle.
“Don’t you worry none. I ain’t gonna wrestle ya into your bed yet until you get to hear what Doctor Paul says about it all, but right after that, you know you need to get some rest at least. All right?”
It was impossible to say no to Hoss when he was being that way, but Adam had a request that Hoss couldn’t refuse either even as he accepted Adam’s concession. “But I want to see Pa first.”
“Course. I was figuring on that.”
With that settled, they joined Roy and Joe inside as they waited for Doctor Martin to finish working on their father. At one point, the door opened and both Joe and Hoss began to stand, but Paul only summoned Hoss who nodded and left the house returning quickly with some slats of wood and entering the bedroom with them. Joe frowned, but Adam smirked.
“Pa isn’t going to like that.”
“Paul must be splinting his leg so he can’t move it. He will do that sometimes with a serious wound to an arm or leg to make sure a patient can’t rip stitches.”
“But with a wound that high on the leg, any splint would have to go way up and then…”
“Wow, Pa isn’t going to like that.”
Those words were exactly correct. Paul called them in to see their father and discuss his condition a short time later.
“You all did well in caring for that injury. It could have been fatal without your quick intervention. That bullet did a lot of damage to blood vessels. Thank goodness it was a small caliber. Any larger and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.” That comment had a sobering effect on everyone. “Now I’ve repaired what I could. Cleaned it out. Stitched it up as tight as I could and packed it. The splint is to prevent any movement. The stitches are in some tender tissues. Too much movement could tear some loose. Ben has to stay flat on his back for the next three days. No sitting up. No rolling over. Nothing. You can prop him up a bit for meals and comfort, but that’s it.”
Staring at the ceiling, Ben was grateful to be alive and wondering how he was going to survive the humiliation of the next three days. He had often groused about his youngest being such an uncooperative patient and his oldest being a grumpy one. His middle son was an impatient patient. Now he was sure he was going to hear those things he had said over many years come back to him unless he was on his very best behavior, and when you are flat on your back in bed covered only by a sheet, it is difficult to think about being on your best behavior.
At least Ben didn’t have to listen to much from Adam for those three days. When the three brothers left the bedroom so that their father could rest, Doctor Martin took one look at Adam and asked why he wasn’t in bed as he had ordered hours earlier.
“Because I’m fine.”
“You’re sweating. You’re pale, and on you, that’s saying a lot. From what I heard, you took a beating. Are you passing any blood?”
Adam shook his head, but Hoss objected. “From what I saw when he was leaning up against a tree outside taking care of business, if it wasn’t blood, it was something else all dark like it.”
“Three days of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and you should begin to recover nicely. No riding for a week though except in a carriage or wagon and take it slow. Hop Sing will take good care of you, I’m sure. After a week, you can start doing some light work for part of the day and gradually work back into a normal routine over a few weeks.”
“Can I rest by sitting here and reading a book?”
“Yes, as long as that’s all you do. I know how you Cartwrights like to push the limits.”
With everything under control, Roy and Paul took their leave. The three brothers sat silently for a short time. Hoss was the first to speak.
“It’s amazing what can happen in a couple of months.”
“Yes, she tried to break us up, but she couldn’t do it.”
“That’s right, little brother. Nobody can stand against us when we’re together.”
Joe stared at the floor before turning his attention to his oldest brother. “Adam, before all this happened, I was being kind of disrespectful to you sometimes. I apologize. When all this was going on and I thought you were dead, a part of me felt like it died too. All I wanted was my oldest brother there teaching me to do things again and showing me the way. I’m sorry about pushing you into arguments. When I thought I would never hear your voice or see your smile again, a part of me felt dead too. When you were gone this second time and we didn’t know what was happening, I had trouble sleeping at night wondering what danger you might be in. I’m truly sorry for any of those things I said that were hurtful or disrespectful.”
“Joe, I understand, and I accept your apology, but it wasn’t necessary. You wanted to take over more responsibility here, and I stood in your way. I still do. It’s one of the reasons that I have to tell both of you something that’s been building up for a long time with me. I have talked to Pa about it, but I need to tell the two of you straight out.” Hoss was sure that he knew what was coming, but Joe was blindsided. “I have to leave the Ponderosa. I have to travel and see what else there is that I can do.”
“No! You can’t leave! Didn’t you hear what Hoss said? Nobody can stand against us when we’re together. But you want to break that up anyway? You want to do to us what Carlotta and David tried to do. You wouldn’t let them do it, but you would do it to us yourself? I can’t believe what I’m hearing after everything we did to pull this family back together again.”
In the guest bedroom, Ben heard Joe’s complaint and quickly guessed what the conversation must be. He had been anticipating it for months, but never suspected it would happen in this situation. Wanting so badly to be there for his sons, he was terribly frustrated to be tied to this bed with the injury that left him splinted and unable to move. He was powerless to help any of them. He heard the door slam and rightly assumed that Joe had left the house. He heard footsteps next and the door open and close, and guessed that his middle son had gone to try to console the youngest. When the door opened, he knew who it would be.
“I’m sorry, Pa.” However it was Hoss. “I tried to tell him I would go, but he said it had to be him. He shouldn’t be pushing himself to do things like that, but you know how stubborn he is when he’s got his mind set on something.”
“Yes, I do, but he may be right. I thought it would be you going to console your brother, but it’s probably better that it is Adam. He needs to explain it to Joe, and probably needs to help clarify it for himself. He’s been struggling with this for a long time. He is the one who can best explain it to Joe, but is he in any condition to do it right now?”
“Yes, he’s brought it up with me. I’m sure he’s telling Joe the same things although Joe is unlikely to accept his reasoning. It is sound logic although I didn’t like hearing it either when he first discussed it with me.”
“He kinda has said some things to me too. He’s told me that when I look at the land, I see what I love and the kinds of things that put a smile on my face. He says Joe looks out and sees challenges and possibilities. He says you see your dream and your hope that your sons will have a legacy here.”
“And what did he say he saw here?”
“That was the sad part. He said he walks out in the morning and he sees work and responsibilities and things he has to do. He said he does the same things and then the same things over again.”
“Yes, Hoss, he’s lost the joy in living here. He’s worked so hard for so long that it’s taken over who he is. That’s why when he says he has to leave, I have to accept that. I think he does have to leave. I can only hope that by leaving, he’ll find the reasons to come back home. I am a little worried about him talking to Joe. He’s not strong. I saw him when he got off that horse.”
“Yeah, well he looks a might better than you right now. Besides, ifn he keels over, maybe that would soften Joe’s heart toward him some. You know how Joe is. He can turn from one feeling or thought to the next faster than anybody I ever knowed.”
“Yes, he can turn fast because of those emotional swings, but I hope he can think this one through and not say something he’ll regret and not be able to make right before Adam is gone.”
“Pa, you think he’ll be leaving that soon?”
“I don’t know. You’re a better judge of his mood than I am at this point especially. Do you think he’ll be leaving soon?”
“Doctor Paul said he had to rest for at least three days and no riding for at least a week. Adam asked if he could rest by sitting in a chair down here and readin’ and Doc said yes. It seems to me he wouldn’t have asked it like that ifn he was fixin to up and leave right off.”
“No, it doesn’t sound like it. He probably had to get that decision out in the open. It had to be weighing heavily on him, and there were so many other things weighing on him. At least Drake and his group can be exonerated now and get their land back.”
“Yeah, I hope that all works out like it should. You think that maybe one of us ought to go there to make sure it does?” Seeing his father’s look, Hoss knew what the answer was. “Yah, I guess Adam would be the likely one to go now, wouldn’t he. That would be one of those things like he’s been talking on about doing accomplishing things that he can’t do here.”
“I wish I could get out of this bed.”
“They’ll be back inside soon.” But Hoss was wishing more than predicting. He knew it would be better for his father if they did come back in sooner than later, but there was nothing he could do about that. He only hoped his brother’s understood that need as well as he did.
Outside, Joe had asked the questions that had addressed the same basic issues that their father and Hoss had already discussed inside, but he had one more objection that neither Hoss nor Ben had raised. “You’re saying that what we do here isn’t important. What we do here is just simple work that anyone could do.”
“Joe, I never said that. I said that I’ve been doing this work now for well over twenty years. It has long since lost its attraction for me. It’s work that takes skill and determination. It takes a lot of strength and planning. If a man doesn’t have his heart and mind in it, he can make mistakes and get himself or others hurt. It is important work. We own one of the biggest and best ranches in the west. I helped make it that, but I no longer love it. Maybe if I’m gone for a while, I’ll realize that I do and I’ll want to come back. If that’s true, I hope that you’ll welcome me back.”
“And if you don’t?”
“Then I hope you will understand that I need to do other things to be happy and that you’ll want me to do those things.”
“I don’t know, Adam. I don’t know if I can do that.”
“We’ve got some time to talk about it. I won’t leave until winter, but I had to tell you. It was too much to keep from all of you.”
“You had to tell us today?”
“I guess that might not have been a good idea, but it seemed so natural with you being so honest with me.”
“Oh, no, you don’t get to blame me. You messed this one up all by yourself. You get to take all the credit.”
“Wow, did I hear that? You said I was right, and you were wrong.”
“I never actually said I was wrong.”
“You said I was right so it’s the same thing.”
“All right, I’ll concede on that. Now though we need to get back inside. Pa is probably worrying about us, and he shouldn’t be worrying. He’s in enough pain as it is.”
“Gee, I hadn’t thought about that. We should go back inside.”
“Yes, we should, but before we do, I have something else to say. When I saw Carlotta in your bed, I should have known you wouldn’t have pushed her into doing something she didn’t want to do. You always taught me to show respect to women. You did it by telling me, but you did it too by showing me. I know she set me up to lose my temper and think bad things about you. I fell for it. I was a fool. I’m real sorry about that. I wish I could change, but my temper gets in the way even when I try so hard not to let that happen.”
“I think it runs in the family, Joe. It would be a good thing to be able to learn how to control it, but I understand. Now we really should get back inside. Pa will be getting worried, and he shouldn’t especially in his condition.”
Quickly Joe turned and headed for the house but turned back at the door when he realized that Adam was not following. Adam was still leaning on the corral fence where they had been talking. Without saying a word, Joe walked back and took Adam’s arm and put it around his shoulders. Then the two walked to the house slowly. Inside, Hoss heard them come in and walked from the guest room and saw how pale his older brother was and that he was sweating again. He addressed Joe and more or less ignored Adam.
“You go in and see Pa. I’ll get him up to his bed.”
“Yeah, fine as a greenhorn with no more sense than to come in out of a rainstorm. Now shut up and let me help you.” Once Hoss got Adam to his room, he had to ask. “When you leaving?”
“Not until winter. I wouldn’t leave you short-handed with the drive coming up and things that need to get done. I need to make some preparations for leaving too. It will give us all time to get used to the idea and make any preparations that need to be made.”
“I don’t know that I can be prepared for this, but I guess I’m going to have to try.”
For three days, Ben had to endure the humiliation of having everything done for him. He did it reasonably quietly because anything else would have meant hearing about all those things he had said to his sons when they had been patients. He could see them all waiting for the opportunity to do that and got some satisfaction in denying them the chance to hand back those bits of fatherly advice. Doctor Martin released him from the splints on the fourth day, but not from the bed so although he could at least care for his personal needs, he was still confined to the bedroom. However sitting up for meals and able to read the newspaper was infinitely better than resting flat on his back. It gave him a chance to talk with each of his sons individually, and he found that they were gradually coming to peace with Adam’s decision. It would take time, but thankfully Adam had given all of them that. He was penning letters to old friends and business contacts in the east making plans for his travels, but he wasn’t going to leave any sooner than he had promised. Work on the ranch proceeded normally, and eventually Ben was able to work back into the routine. He could almost forget that soon the routine was going to be very different.
There was one trip that the family made together after the fall cattle drive. They were invited to the new town of Howard. Maxwell had been renamed in honor of the U.S. Marshal who had died trying to bring justice for the people harmed by Carlotta and David. Once they got their land back and their town in their control again, they got rid of everything that reminded them of the foul pair that had caused so much evil. While they were in Howard, Drake and a few other ranchers offered a fair deal to Ben to work with them on their timber rights and harvesting. The Ponderosa would take the lead in negotiating and setting a schedule for harvesting, and the ranchers would work from their end to meet the contract provisions set for each of them. It was a profitable arrangement for all. By the time they returned home, all were in a jovial mood.
As the cool breezes of fall made work more comfortable and the leaves changed color, it wasn’t only the snows of winter that three of them dreaded. It was the day that Adam would tell them that he was going. Knowing how much the family treasured Christmas, he told them he planned to leave on January second. It was a relief and a sad announcement. When that day came, they rode to town and watched a new chapter start for all of them as Adam climbed aboard that stage and rode away into a different life. They could only hope it would be safe and that he would return to Nevada someday.
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