Summary: Advice sought and given, but why bother? Co-winner of the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
Rated: K+ Word Count: 5,764
Aunt Agnes Series:
He’d been asked for advice.
Adam knew he hadn’t imagined the hand on his arm, the subtle tug toward a quiet corner, and the urgent whisper—all done with a humble air of embarrassed hope.
Fifteen years earlier . . . or even ten years . . . or so (who was counting anyway?) he would have found his youngest brother’s trust in his ability to figure things out and solve any and all problems endearing. He would have dropped everything to give the kid his full attention and the benefit of his hard won wisdom.
Apparently, he was still that brother.
The two of them shared a quick conversation in which after giving Joe’s tale of woe his full consideration, Adam devised a well-reasoned, rock solid solution that was practically guaranteed to succeed. By the conclusion of their talk, Joe’s spirits were soaring, and Adam was feeling pretty good about things himself.
That sense of satisfaction lasted just long enough for Adam to witness Joe sally forth and proceed to do the complete opposite of his wise counsel.
Why did he even bother?
At that moment—watching Joe merrily cast himself into a river of chaos while ignoring the available safe haven—something snapped inside Adam Cartwright. He’d always reserved the very best of himself for his family. To see his efforts disregarded—not for the first time—well, he was through with it. He would no longer cast pearls before swine. For too long, he had rejected all opportunities to exercise his talents outside of the Ponderosa. That was over. Leaving his brother to struggle with his own petty little problems, Adam departed in search of a little appreciation.
Two weeks later, Adam pushed his way through the swinging doors into the dim, smoky interior of the Silver Dollar saloon. Dropping a parcel of correspondence onto the sticky bar, he accepted a cool mug of beer. Savoring that first, long swallow, he regarded his fellow patrons with interest. A clutch of miners and cowboys were paying rapt attention while one of their number was reading from the Territorial Enterprise. Whatever the man was sharing was encouraging appreciative murmurs and even spontaneous applause.
“What are they reading?” Adam asked the bartender.
“You haven’t heard about Aunt Agnes?” Sam replied, wiping the bar top with casual efficiency. When Adam shrugged, he dropped the rag and leaned over the bar to explain.
“It’s all anyone talks about.” Sam told him. “A fellow can write a letter with, you know, a question to this widow woman, Aunt Agnes, in care of the Territorial Enterprise, and in a few days, she’ll have answered his question right there in the newspaper.”
“Sam,” Adam said, “I don’t think anyone needs to write a letter to the newspaper to tempt one of Virginia City’s charming ladies to offer advice.”
“No! This is different. The fellow writes in anonymously. The widow don’t know who he is, and he don’t know who she is. It’s a lot more private, and you know . . . less embarrassing for everyone.” Sam paused in his explanation to allow a burst of laughter and raucous cheering from the reading group to subside.
“Besides, she gives real good advice. Look, this is it right here.” Sam handed over a bedraggled copy of the newspaper folded to reveal a column headed by the title, “Ask Aunt Agnes” and accompanied by a sketch of a smiling middle-aged woman seated at a desk, pen and paper in hand.
“Popular, you say?”
“Yep,” Sam replied. “Um, Adam? Do you think this picture actually looks like Aunt Agnes? I sure would like to meet her.”
Adam returned the newspaper to Sam and slapped a couple of coins onto the bar top. Collecting his mail, he turned to the bartender before stepping outside.
“I wouldn’t count on it.”
Within a mere month, Aunt Agnes’s advice became the talk of the town, and her influence over Virginia City’s citizens was obvious. When thorny questions—whether ethical concerns or romantic woes—were discussed, it became fashionable to ask “what would Aunt Agnes say” and proceed accordingly.
Who could blame them? Aunt Agnes was just so sensible, so compassionate, and so very right about so very many things. Because of her guidance, businesses prospered, families reunited, and the spirit of cooperation prevailed over selfish concerns.
The newspaper’s editor, Dan de Quille, was over the moon with the increase in sales. He could have sold special editions containing nothing other than Aunt Agnes’s advice but for the resistance of his star columnist who declined all offers of further fortune and glory. The savvy widow did accept a bottle of fine bourbon whiskey shipped all the way from Kentucky and presented to Aunt Agnes as a token of appreciation for a job well done.
That bottle, cushioned inside the latest batch of letters and then tucked within a saddle bag, survived the long rough trip to Aunt Agnes’s residence. Spirited inside the fine home under the noses of an unsuspecting family, the token took place of honor on the columnist’s desk—proof that plenty of people understood the value of good advice.
Adam wasn’t a man prone to keeping secrets. That was not to say he was indiscreet or couldn’t be trusted with a confidence. However, he’d always believed in the value of being open and above board in all of his dealings. At the very least, being forthright made it easier to keep a story straight.
He had to admit that these clandestine activities were much more fun than he had ever imagined. Not only did he get the chance to exercise his particular talent for telling others what to do, but that talent was praised and admired rather than ignored and resented. It felt good, and as a consequence he found that he was responding to everyday irritations with relaxed cheerfulness rather than biting sarcasm.
It didn’t bother him a bit that his alter ego was garnering all the credit for his accomplishments. Writing an advice column under his own high-and-mighty name would never have worked—and, of course he would never have heard the end of it from his brothers. Impersonating a middle-aged woman ensured that no one would guess the true author—and it was a well-established precedent besides. If Ben Franklin could have Silence Do Good, Adam Cartwright could certainly have Aunt Agnes.
Finding time for his side job was surprisingly easy. The family was long accustomed to the sight of him at his desk scribbling away at some paperwork. He’d even found time to answer letters during the round up. Mentally composing pithy words of wisdom while gathering errant cattle from hill and hollow was just distracting enough to make the hard work enjoyable.
A trip into town once a week to attend to ranch business and visit with his old friend, Dan, enabled the pair of them to exchange a passel of questions for a bundle of answers. Adam made sure to answer as many questions as quickly as possible while Dan published the answers slowly to keep the pipeline full and the readers happy. It was all working out perfectly. It looked like Aunt Agnes would enjoy a very long life.
Sometimes, there were just not enough hours in the day. Not only was Adam responsible for the ordinary town errands—picking up the mail, delivering contracts to the family attorney, and bringing home any needed supplies—he’d need to hire a temporary cook, pick up the guests arriving on the afternoon stage, and squeeze in a moment to see Dan. Adam enjoyed visitors as much as the next man, but Pa’s old chums often ended up inhabiting the guest rooms for weeks. If you counted the regular addition of Hoss’s strays (which Adam did), there could be a noticeable lack of elbow room inside the ranch house.
As it happened, the arrival of these particular guests had required extra effort. Justin Locke, a major importer of fine dyes and textiles, was well accustomed to the finer things in life. However, Hop Sing was visiting family in California, and the Cartwrights agreed that the menu of beans, bacon, and beef the men usually subsisted on during their cook’s absences was not appropriately hospitable. They would need someone to fill in for Hop Sing while their guests visited.
Soon after he began asking around, Adam was blessing his lucky stars. Hanson Ellis, the head cook at one of Virginia City’s fancier restaurants, was available and interested in the position. Apparently, Hanson and the restaurant owner had creative differences, and Hanson had decided to pursue other opportunities. At least that was the story Hanson told. He agreed so readily to Adam’s terms, it actually seemed a mite suspicious. Looking at the tall, blonde cook shift and nervously wring his hands reminded Adam of the gossip linking the man to several young lady patrons. If that information was to be believed, Hanson was a bounder and a cad. And if memory served, the restaurant owner had a naïve daughter that might have seemed ripe for the picking. He wasn’t the sort of fellow Adam preferred to hire on at the ranch, but surely the man could behave for a few weeks. Well, his options were limited, so with fingers crossed, he offered him the job. Setting the man up with a rented horse, he instructed the new cook to get a head start toward the ranch. With any luck, they’d all enjoy a decent supper that night.
The afternoon stage arrived nearly on time, and Adam welcomed the latest guests to the Ponderosa. Justin Locke was a sturdy fellow, clad in an expensive suit and snowy white shirt that gleamed in contrast with the indigo cravat tied around his neck. Adam could understand his friendship with his father. The man was abundantly good natured with a shrewd head for business and a keen observer of people—with the notable exception of his daughter.
The daughter, dressed in a fashionable indigo gown that complemented her twinkling eyes and admirable figure, simpered and clung to Adam’s arm throughout the drive back to the ranch in a manner just short of inappropriate. It appeared the young miss was experienced in exercising her considerable charms and must have felt a little constrained during the long journey at her father’s side. Attractive, flirtatious, and empty-headed—Jeanie Locke was just the type of girl to put a jingle in Little Joe’s spurs. Adam expected the next weeks to be quite entertaining.
Hanson’s culinary skills did not disappoint. From that first night’s dinner onward, every meal served was a masterpiece. Breakfast eggs were not merely fried or scrambled, but whipped and blended with mushrooms and grated cheese into fluffy omelets. Lunch became a midday buffet of cut meats, soups, breads and pie. Suppers were multi-course events from the dainty appetizers to the elegant dessert.
Hoss was the new cook’s enthusiastic admirer, and Hanson basked in his praise. Joe was a bit more muted in his appreciation, perhaps because he sensed a rival for Jeanie’s affections. Regardless of Joe’s feelings, Adam counted the choice a success. Pa was satisfied, everyone was fed, and if Hanson was spending a bit more effort than polite in catching Jeanie’s attention, Adam figured Joe could handle the competition.
Given all the energy that Joe and Hanson were putting into winning Jeanie’s favor, it never occurred to Adam that he himself might be the target of her inclinations. One balmy evening, he had just managed to slip away from the after-dinner conversation with the unspoken intent to pay Aunt Agnes a call. He’d almost made it to his room when the predator pounced, and he found himself trapped between the wall at his back and the press of an eager young lady to his chest.
“Adam,” she whispered, “I have been hoping and hoping that you might ask me to take an evening walk.” Soft, persistent fingers traced a coy path up and down his arm. “It’s so pretty outside, and the moon and the stars are so bright . . . don’t you think we could have a nice time?” She sighed softly and leaned her head against his shoulder.
Drat! Why couldn’t he attract a sensible, refined lady instead a giggling girl? He had been so sure she was the type to be smitten with Joe’s looks, laughter and boyish spirit. Instead, she seemed to prefer her men to be tall, dark, and hirsute. While he couldn’t argue with her taste, this was bound to make things awkward.
Shifting aside to put more space between them, he took her hands to prevent any more wayward activity.
“Miss Jeanie,” he said with a friendly and (he hoped) fatherly smile, “I’m afraid I’m too much of a stick in the mud to provide pleasant company. I have a bit of headache, as well as a great deal of work to do. Perhaps Joe might take you for a walk?”
“You, sir,” she replied, “are far too serious. There’s always a great deal of work to do, and I know the very best way to cure your ailment.” Before he quite understood what she intended, Jeanie Locke was surging up on tiptoes to press her lips against his own. It seemed she was telling the truth; Jeanie was certainly able to cure whatever ailed a man.
They clung together long enough for Adam to rethink his preference for sensible refined ladies when they heard a sound beside them. Breaking the kiss, Adam opened his eyes to see his brother glaring at the two of them. Jeanie, without even a hint of embarrassment, patted Adam’s cheek possessively, and glided into her own room.
“I never meant . . .” Adam started to explain when Joe cut him off with a rude gesture.
“Save it,” Joe growled. Head high, Joe marched into his own room and slammed the door hard behind him.
Things were definitely going to be awkward.
“What’s going on up there?”
“Nothing, Pa!” Adam answered hastily. “Didn’t mean to make so much noise. Good night.”
Finally alone in the sanctuary of his own room, Adam took a moment to settle his nerves. Everything would be fine in the morning. He would explain to Jeanie that the two of them were ill-suited for each other. She would probably cry at his rejection, but he would convince her that he was right. Then he would make amends to Little Joe. No doubt Joe and Jeanie would fall into each other’s arms and pursue the course of true love until it was time for her to depart, or Joe fell for someone else.
At least Adam could still count on Aunt Agnes. Sitting down at his desk, he adjusted the light before opening the latest parcel of letters. He worked diligently for an hour, reading and responding to a number of questions—most of which he had already heard versions of and answered in previous letters. Seemed like there wasn’t much new under the sun.
Opening the last letter, he was struck with a sense of familiarity. The color and weight of the stationary looked just like the sort that was used at the Ponderosa. Holding the letter up to the light to peer at the watermark, he confirmed his suspicion. It was the same type of paper. Huh, that was a coincidence. Scanning the page, Adam was brought up short by the poignant message.
Dear Aunt Agnes,
I am in love with the most beautiful, wonderful girl in the world. However, she’s smitten with another man who can’t possibly love her as I do. How can I make her see that I am the man for her?
That hit uncomfortably close to home. Surely, surely the letter wasn’t from Little Joe. The carefully shaped block letters didn’t resemble Joe’s back-slanted scribbling in the least. Although, it could be Joe if his youngest brother was trying to conceal his identity.
Adam chewed on the end of the pen. Maybe, he could just go and talk to Joe? No, that wouldn’t work. If Little Joe wanted Adam’s advice, he knew where to find him. It seemed Joe was more interested in Aunt Agnes’s interpretation of the problem than what he probably considered the same tired platitudes from his oldest brother. The least Adam could do was save Joe from embarrassment and make sure Agnes provided helpful suggestions.
Tapping his fingers against the desktop, Adam pondered what to say. Finally, he began to write.
You sound like a man of sincerity as well as action. Try to demonstrate your regard with a profound display of affection that sets you apart from your rival. If that does not win you the fair lady’s heart, find a private moment and declare your feelings openly. If she does not share your feelings, wish her well and step aside.
That ought to do the trick. He could ride to town at dawn (thus avoiding further encounters with Jeanie) and prevail on Dan to make certain this letter was published in the next edition. Joe would be certain to see the paper. Adam wasn’t concerned that his brother would be flummoxed by the advice. If there was one thing Little Joe Cartwright understood it was how to make a grand gesture.
If Adam had hoped that Aunt Agnes’s influence would have a calming effect on the romantic tensions on the Ponderosa, he was sadly mistaken.
At his earliest opportunity, he had taken Little Joe aside and attempted to apologize for the incident and show the kid he had no interest in the ardent Miss Locke. Joe refused to listen, told him everything was “fine” and scurried away before Adam had said his piece.
Jeanie was not cooperating. While Adam was attempting to convince Joe he was not interested, Jeanie stuck to him like paint. If Adam sat on the settee, Jeanie was also there close enough for her skirt to cover his leg. If he sat in the leather chair, she balanced on the arm—or overbalanced and landed in his lap. Everywhere he went, she was at his elbow, cooing and trying to steal a kiss.
Almost as challenging as avoiding Jeanie were the series of misadventures Adam was experiencing. Salt rather than sugar somehow found its way (repeatedly) into his coffee. One heel from his best pair of boots came off without warning turning his ankle and nearly sending him sprawling. Any item he set down seemed to grow legs and disappear. Apparently the ranch house had gained a malevolent imp whose sole purpose was to pester Adam into distraction. Frankly, Adam expected better of Joe.
Their normally peaceful house was swept away in a tide of turbulence. Joe’s temper was simmering, Hoss was having a good laugh at his expense, and Pa was looking increasingly concerned. Even Hanson was distracted and out of sorts with the situation. The only person in the house without a clue to what was happening was coincidentally the only person who could have done anything about it—Justin Locke.
Adam could do nothing but hold on, dodge Jeanie, and hope that Little Joe’s grand gesture turned the tide.
Finally the day of salvation was in sight. All the local sights had been seen, stories had been told and retold, and the business dealings that Justin had put aside began to urgently demand his attention.
On their last evening at the Ponderosa, Hanson had outdone himself with the number and complexity of the dishes. He had gone to great pains to prepare a special dish for Jeanie and placed it before her beneath a chase silver dome.
“What is this?” she asked. With a flourish, Hanson lifted the cover to reveal an artfully arranged dish of deep blue mushroom caps over greens and rice.
“I thought you might like this,” he said. “These are indigo mushrooms. They’re the color of the pretty dresses you wear . . . and your pretty eyes.” Hanson was beaming.
“Look, Adam!” she cried. “Have you ever seen anything like this? Here take a taste.” She cut into one of the mushrooms and would not relent until she had fed Adam from her fork. Hanson seemed first crestfallen, then appalled at her reaction.
Hoss must have noticed the cook’s response because he quickly piped up with words of praise.
“That’s about the prettiest thing I ever seen. Where’d you find somethin’ like that? Those don’t grow around here, do they?”
Hanson replied to Hoss’s questions without even looking in his direction, his gaze instead intent on Jeanie.
“They’re more common back east, but I know how to find delicacies.”
“You’re always mixing mushrooms into stuff,” Hoss continued while spooning a helping of the dish onto his own plate. “You must know a lot about them.” Hanson merely shrugged and retired to the kitchen.
Thankfully, the dinner party subsided into a more normal tone and broke up earlier than usual in expectation of the Locke’s early departure the next morning. Adam waited patiently for the shoe to drop, but Joe surprised him by going to bed without attempting to speak with Jeanie. Maybe the kid had gotten over his infatuation quicker than normal. It was probably a sign the boy was growing up.
The morning was a bustle of frenzied activity. Breakfast was eaten, all bags were packed and loaded into the buggy, and good-byes were said.
While Pa and Justin Locke were thumping each other’s backs and promising to stay in touch, Jeanie was saying her own farewells. She shook hands with each of the Cartwrights sons as formally as a duchess on her estate and without a trace of her usual coquettishness.
Adam could only suppose that with every departure, she washed her hands of any romance she had created and looked forward to breaking new hearts at her next stop. Frankly, Adam was relieved at the clean break, but a glance at Hanson suggested the cook didn’t share his feelings. The man looked devastated and infuriated by turns.
Finally, Joe was at the reins with their guests safely ensconced in the back of the buggy. With a little cloud of dust, the buggy rambled out of sight.
Surely, now everything could get back to normal.
They split up a couple of miles from the house. Hoss and Walt headed out to the south pasture to check the herd while Adam rode to the nearest line shack to repair and resupply it.
The structure was, in fact, more than the usual shacks they maintained. Left behind by a prospector turned farmer turned “going back East where I belong,” it was a real cabin, properly divided into meagerly furnished rooms and a porch. The Cartwrights often used it as a temporary camp and gathering place before round ups. After the summer storms, the place needed significant repair. Adam sighed at the state of the roof alone. From the look of things, he might end up spending the night. Tying his horse and shedding his gun belt, he pulled out his equipment and got started.
Oddly, working up a sweat climbing up and down a shaky ladder to repair the roof proved more relaxing than avoiding the unwelcome attentions of a determined female had been. Adam was enjoying the change of pace. By the time the sun was high in the sky and he was ready for a break, he spotted a rider coming his direction. He was back on the ground cleaning up when Hanson rode up. The cook ambled over with a canvas bag in hand.
“I figured you’d be hungry,” Hanson told him handing over the bag.
Adam took a peek inside. Hanson had practically packed a picnic lunch with a large wrapped sandwich, hand pies and a corked bottle of apple cider.
The men sat down together in the shade of the cabin’s porch. Adam unwrapped what looked to be a meat pastry, still warm from the oven. The savory aroma made his stomach rumble.
“You didn’t have to come all the way out here,” Adam told Hanson, “but I’m glad you did. Are you going to have some of this?” Hanson shook his head and gestured for Adam to help himself.
“I don’t mind coming out,” Hanson replied. “You all have been nice to work for, and I like to see people enjoy what I cook.”
Adam took a large bite of the sandwich. The flaky pastry broke into buttery layers that enhanced the cooked beef and mushroom gravy. He hadn’t realized what an appetite he’d worked up. Too quickly, the sandwich was gone, washed down with the cider. Hanson agreed to take a pie, and they spent several minutes eating and not saying much. Finally, Hanson got up and spent a few minutes clearing away the remains of the meal.
“I meant what I said earlier. I hate to have to leave things this way.” Hanson said.
“What are you talking about? We could use you until Hop Sing gets back, and I’ll be happy to write you an excellent reference.”
“Much appreciated,” Hanson gave Adam a sly grin and sat back down on the porch. “But I think I’ll be moving along after we talk a spell.”
“What’s on your mind?”
Hanson cleared his throat. “I took a bit of a fancy to Miss Jeanie.”
“Sorry about that,” Adam replied. “I did my best to shake her loose.” Hanson answered with an unbelieving glare. Adam threw up his hands in a placating gesture.
“No, really . . .”
“What I saw happening,” Hanson said, “was the big man of the house stringing along a pretty girl so’s he could feel good about himself. It didn’t matter what I did. Why’d you think I cooked up all of those fancy meals? You aren’t so much. But even when you were choking on coffee or falling down the stairs, she acted like you hung the moon.”
That explained the malevolent imp.
“Hanson,” Adam figured he might try a soothing approach. “Jeanie Locke is about as deep as a puddle in July. She doesn’t know how to appreciate anyone.”
Hanson didn’t seem to hear. “I tried everything I knew to do. I even wrote that Aunt Agnes. She said to do somethin’ big. That’s just what I did. I found those indigo mushrooms because I figured Jeanie would be tickled with them. She didn’t give a thought to all the trouble I went to. I tried to talk to her this morning and let her know how I felt, but she pretended that she hadn’t even been flirting with me. She told me to leave her alone, or she would have her pa thrash me.”
“That’s rough, Hanson. I know you may not believe me now, but she’s not worth it.”
The big cook jumped to his feet and began pacing back and forth across the porch. Adam watched him warily, but soon found the constant movement was making his head hurt and his stomach a bit queasy.
“That’s where you’re wrong, Adam. Jeanie Locke was worth plenty. I could have been set up like a king instead of scrounging around for jobs. Someone’s got to pay for that, and I reckon that someone is you.”
When Hanson crouched down in front of him, Adam’s attempt to jump to his feet ended in a clumsy flop onto his back. Panting with the effort, Adam rolled over to his hands and knees trying to find his way to standing.
“You might as well take it easy,” Hanson sneered. “You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“What . . . have you . . . done?”
Hanson took his time answering, and Adam was darn sure he wouldn’t like what he was about to hear.
“Hoss called it right. I do know a lot about mushrooms. I like to cook with ‘em. There were some nice ones in that sandwich you just wolfed down. I figure you’ve got a couple of hours before it’s too late for anyone to help you.”
“You’re . . . crazy.”
“Sure, crazy like a fox. I’ve done this before, and all I gotta do is keep you company for a few hours and mosey along my way when things start to get nasty.”
Who did this two-pastry chef think he was dealing with? Adam Cartwright didn’t sit around waiting to die. With a shout that surprised him as much as it surprised Hanson, Adam lunged for his pistol—only to have it kicked away far from his grasping hands . . . too far for his dwindling strength.
Hanson was laughing. The man wouldn’t shut up. Adam’s gut was twisting and cramping. He fell to the floor and curled around himself. His blood was rising to pound a mad cadence in his ears until he couldn’t hear Hanson laughing any more, but in his imagination he heard hoof beats and shouts, and he saw Joe and heard him call his name.
Adam woke slowly—squinting through heavy eyelids at the dim light. Weakly, he shook his head to cast off the fragments of nightmares filled with pain and panic. Controlling his breathing eased the nausea. Where was he? A pillow under his head, a scratchy blanket and musty quilt tucked around him—in the cabin? An attempt to sit up was halted by both weakness and a sore belly. Her shifted uncomfortably and became aware that he was naked within his cocoon. Funny how he couldn’t remember any of it.
“Look who’s awake.”
Adam turned carefully toward the voice and waited patiently for his eyesight to clear. Little Joe was seated in a faded armchair next to the bed.
“How did you . . . get here?” His throat was so dry and sore, he wasn’t even sure he was speaking out loud.
“Hold on before you try any witty conversation,” Joe said. “See if you can keep down some water.” Joe held a spoon of water to his lips, and as the liquid trickled down Adam’s throat, he was sure he’d never experienced anything before as miraculous.
Joe must have been satisfied with Adam’s response because he helped him drink several more swallows before Adam sank gratefully back into the pillow. He watched Little Joe putter around, dipping a cloth in a basin of water before laying it across his hot forehead. Joe pushed up the elbows of his long john shirt and settled back into the chair. What the . . . why was Joe sitting around in his long underwear?
“Where are your clothes?” Adam whispered.
Joe snorted in amusement. “That’s the question you want to start with? Well, brother, in case you haven’t figured it out, you’ve been sick and for a while things got kind of unpleasant for you. Our clothes are soaking and I’ll hang them out in the morning.”
Oh, perhaps it wasn’t all a just nightmare after all. Joe was blessedly quiet, giving him time, letting him figure things out on his own. Hanson has poisoned him; he could remember collapsing in pain. But . . .
“How did you know?” Adam struggled again to sit up.
Joe shushed him and pulled the blanket up around his shoulders.
“If you’ll lay still and rest, I’ll tell you. I got into town and put the Lockes on the stagecoach. I strolled over to the Silver Dollar to, you know, take the edge off the trip. I’m just sitting there when Clem comes in. He shows me this wanted poster—described ol’ Hanson to a tee. Said he was wanted for poisoning a fellow in Saint Louis. I knew that hombre wasn’t right, Adam. You never did pick up on the way he looked at you—like you were the cause of all his troubles. I did my best to keep an eye on him, and I tried to stay between him and Jeanie.
Anyway, I just had a feeling that he might have it out for you because he couldn’t have Jeanie. Clem and I hightailed it out here, and we found him standing over you, laughing. He ain’t so tough when he’s not being sneaky. It was easy to take him.
But you, brother, weren’t doing so good. I made you swallow a bunch of salt water to try to bring up the poison, but I reckon it didn’t all come up ‘cause you’ve been pretty bad off.”
Joe ducked his head and swiped a shaky arm across his face. Lord, he must have been really sick to scare his kid brother so bad.
Adam maneuvered a hand from under the blanket and reached out to touch Joe’s knee.
“You’re a good nurse.”
“Hah! Well, I don’t wanna make a habit of it, so be more careful what you eat next time.” Joe favored him with a watery grin.
“I’m sorry about Jeanie.”
“Sorry? Give me a little credit. I never had any feelings for her. Something about all those blue dresses she wore was just all wrong. But Hanson sure had feelings for her, didn’t he?”
“He . . . wrote Aunt Agnes . . . for advice.”
Joe snorted with laughter. “What did you tell him to do?”
“Make a big gesture,” Adam whispered before he realized what he had divulged. “You KNEW?”
“Brother,” Joe paused to wipe Adam’s face again. “Disguising yourself as a fussy widow lady isn’t exactly a stretch. I knew . . . Pa knew . . . Hoss knew, heck even Hop Sing knew who Aunt Agnes really was.”
“But, why didn’t you say something?” Adam’s mind was reeling, and it could have been from more than the poison.
“Why should we ruin it for you? You were walking around whistling and smiling at everyone. It was pretty nice. Besides, you’re good at giving advice.”
Adam managed a weak huff of disbelief. “You never listen.”
“Sure, I do. I listen hard every time. Thing is, your advice is always about playin’ it safe. Sometimes, the reward is worth a little risk.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything. Go to sleep. Clem was going to get word to the Ponderosa about what happened as soon as he got Hanson to jail. I expect to see Pa at first light, and it would be better for both of us if you didn’t look so puny by then.”
Adam closed his eyes. He was too tired to argue, even too tired to think. He hoped he said what he was thinking loud enough for Joe to hear.
“That’s good advice.”
Written for the 2017 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.
My challenge words/phrases were:
During the round up
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