Three Dog Night and Robin stories (by BettyHT)

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Summary:  Three stories.  Three Dog Night — A year after Laura’s treachery with Will, Adam is still feeling the effects from that and the fall from the house he was building for her.  He is melancholy and then a tragedy sends him on a quest for justice that turns into something more. Lemon Tree is in two parts. Joe has trouble to resolve in his marriage, Hoss needs a romance, and Adam is being tormented by someone which is the major mystery underlying the whole story.  Dark Secrets — issues of hate and prejudice are at the center of this story as nasty stories about Robin’s heritage are spread. There’s a sinister plot by a dastardly villain too that has to be uncovered and stopped.

rating = T  WC = 67,057

Three Dog Night

Chapter 1

Impotence: lacking power or strength. It was the same as weakness, wasn’t it? It was a word that haunted him. It was how he felt. He thought it was what he was. Sometimes he wondered when he had lost control of his life and realized he had lost it step-by-step not in one fell swoop. It had been an inexorable decline as his father took more responsibility from him and passed it to his two younger brothers as they grew into their maturity until he was less a partner and more an employee. But it was more than that. He listened too much to what people said and what people expected of him trying to please too many and disappointing himself at every turn as a result. The more he did, the less he liked it, and that made him sour and moody lashing out at others with the inevitable result that he hated that part of himself too.

Then Laura happened and though he couldn’t blame her for all of it, he knew if she had not come into his life, he would likely have found a way out of this quicksand of despair and loathing. He looked in the mirror knowing he needed to shave and wondering why he should. There was no one to impress, no one to touch his cheek softly or place a kiss there, and likely there never would be. How had he let himself get to this point was the question he asked, but he knew the answer. He had stopped fighting. He had stopped arguing and had given in. It didn’t seem worth the effort any more to argue. His logical points were dismissed. Impassioned pleas were met with condescension obscured by a smile that never hid it, and his father probably knew that too, which was infuriating. The only solution to stop him from doing the unthinkable was finally to stop fighting so he had. It was check and mate, and he had wanted to leave, but even that was too much for him now because he couldn’t even summon the energy to argue that he had the right to go.

The only times he would argue was when he was forced to protect himself from further harm. He had gotten out of that spring cattle drive though his father had let him know how much of a disappointment that was to him. He had stopped helping his youngest brother with the horse breaking, and Joe had let him know that he too was deeply disappointed with the lack of help with that. He worked and did what he was told he needed to do. He took jobs that often meant he worked alone. It was easier that way. He didn’t go to dances or other social events unless he was pushed so hard that any other option was worse, but once there, he was usually disagreeable enough that he wasn’t encouraged to go again for a while. Now he had this trip to deliver horses, and he had been unable to summon a logical reason why he shouldn’t go. So it was going to be him and his two brothers on a two-week trip to Wyoming to deliver some horses and then a trip back home in which both wanted to do some hunting.

At least Hoss was going to be along. With Hoss there, he could do his best to act normal as if there was nothing wrong. He could try to be the brother they expected him to be, but he wondered when his indecision, his caution, his inattention was going to cost him more than a bruise or a few words from his father or an angry retort from his younger brother. Losing your edge and your will were significant especially when you were the first-born, and the one that had usually been accused of being so bossy. Well, that was certainly being tested these days, and he guessed it would be tested more until he broke. He smirked at himself then. He was already broken. It was really only a matter of others finding out. He shaved, grabbed his saddlebags, and headed down the stairs for some breakfast.

Hoss was using his flapjack like a trumpet and making noises like an elephant. Little Joe was cackling like he usually did at such unexpected things by the usually quiet Hoss, and Ben was leaning back in his chair chuckling at the antics of his two sons. Watching the scene, Adam wondered why he didn’t laugh. He was lost in thought for a moment trying to remember when he had lost his ability to laugh with abandon. There had been times in the past when he had thrown back his head and roared with delight at humorous stories or actions. He remembered one of those quite fondly when Joe had tied their father in the outhouse and let him think Adam and Hoss had done it. They had gotten the dirtiest jobs for a week while Little Joe smirked with ill-disguised glee at how well it had all worked out for him. The worst jobs fell to Adam, and as the week went on, they got worse as their father wondered why Adam didn’t simply apologize for what he had done. Ben assumed Adam had been the instigator of the deed never thinking that Hoss could have thought of such a thing. Of course, neither Adam nor Hoss would snitch so they suffered through a grueling week, but the resentment of Little Joe had grown to enormous proportions. On Friday, they had gotten their revenge, and in their minds, justice too. They tied Little Joe in the outhouse and left for town hearing him yell for them to come let him out. The hands thought it a marvelous prank and agreed with the brothers that he could stay there until his father came outside and heard him. Then he would have to explain why his brothers had tied him in there. Joe was many things but not a liar. He would need to tell his father that it was in retaliation for what he had done but let them be blamed. Of course, it wouldn’t happen quickly. Their father though was good at ferreting out the truth when he came to understand that there was more to a story than he thought that he knew. They had thought the night in town would be about enough time for him to drag every last shred of the truth out of Little Joe. They had laughed long and hard several times that night when Hoss would mimic their father and his usual inquisition techniques, but neither had laughed as hard as they did when they arrived home the next morning to find Little Joe painting the barn on Saturday. He had paint spattered all over him and a scowl that seemed to go on forever. They had laughed so hard, they had to help hold each other up. Adam smiled remembering that day. When he did, the others noticed and thought he was smiling at Hoss’ antics with the flapjacks.

“Hey, older brother, happy to see you in a good mood this mornin’ ’cause we’re startin’ out for Wyoming with storm clouds on the horizon.”

“Yeah, we were going to come up to see what was taking you so long. Hoss thinks we’re going to get wet today.”

“Not just wet, Joe, I said this is gonna be a toad strangler. We wanna be far enough along so we don’t have ta cross no rivers for a few days at least.”

It made Adam feel oddly pleased that his smile had made him welcome at the breakfast table making the conversation light. It was preferable to many of the conversations he had been having lately. The one the previous evening had rankled especially hard. Facing a couple of weeks of being on the trail, Hoss and Joe had decided to spend the night in town taking in the dance and probably spending some time at various saloons as well. Adam had declined their invitation to go which had upset their father.

“Adam, you have to get over this. This thing was a year ago now. You need to make an effort to move on, find a good woman, and settle down. I know it’s what you want, but it isn’t going to happen if you sit home alone like this. Now you know she’ll be expecting you at the dance. You’ve spent a lot of time with her.”

“I have, but I’ve made no commitment.”

“That’s just it, isn’t it. It’s about time you did, and she deserves that.”

For about two months, Adam had been seeing a woman or rather had accompanied her to several social engagements. They had enjoyed a picnic together as well. That’s all it was to Adam who had decided not to see her again before she got the idea that he planned on something more serious than being her escort if she needed one. He had guessed that gossip had already paired them up but had not realized his father thought the same.

“Listen, there’s nothing between us. I don’t love her and she doesn’t love me. We’re friends, and it was convenient to have someone to be with, but if people like to make assumptions, then I shouldn’t see her any more.”

“People make assumptions? Of course, people make assumptions. I’m sure she’s made assumptions too as you’ve been monopolizing her time for two months. No other man is going to go see her when you’ve shown her all that attention. What else would you have in mind if not marriage?”

“Marriage? There was never any talk of marriage.”

“Well, I saw her parents at church and they were curious when you were going to formally ask her. She’s been asking them how long it takes a man to make such an offer.”

Genuinely surprised by that, Adam had put up his hands as in in surrender. “All the more reason I should not go to town to the dance. I had no intention of asking her to marry me. Marriage was never a subject I considered with her.”

“Maybe you should.”

“Maybe it’s my business and no one else has a say.” With that, Adam had stalked out of the house and hadn’t returned until it was dark. His father had still been upset so Adam had gone up to his room. At least this morning, it looked like there wasn’t going to be any confrontation over anything. His brothers looked like they had had a good time and weren’t sporting any bruises so they must have stayed out of trouble. Joe was chipper so he hadn’t lost his salary for the month either and might have actually won some at poker, which was rare for him. It was all looking to be a very good day until Joe addressed him about RoseMary.

“RoseMary asked about you last night. I told her you weren’t feeling well and stayed home to go to bed. I told her you’d talk to her when we got back in a couple of weeks.”

“Damn it, Joe, why would you do that?”

“Because I wanted to help you. You don’t seem to be able to help yourself.”

“I thought I made my feelings clear.”

“What the hell is wrong with you? She’s a fine woman, and she wants you. There aren’t many that you can say that about especially the way you act and the way you treat women.”

“I treat women with respect. What’s wrong with that?”

“You treat women like you can’t wait to find the next one. How do you think that makes them feel?”

“I’m not responsible for how they feel.”

“Enough! Can’t we have one day without an argument around here? Adam, Joe was only trying to do you a favor. There was no need to yell like that.”

“So now it’s my fault. I shouldn’t be surprised.” With that, Adam stood, grabbed his saddlebags and gunbelt, and headed outside.

Ben wanted to stop him but there wasn’t any purpose to doing that. He wasn’t a boy who needed permission to leave the table although there certainly were times he wished he were. He didn’t understand at all what had happened to make him this way. He addressed Hoss and Joe. “I hope things are better on the trail.”

“Mebbe we kin stick to business and let Adam have his private business be his own concern. I’ll get the grub from Hop Sing and meet you outside.”

About to say something about that to Hoss, Joe was stopped by his father’s upraised hand. “Let it go, Joe. You aren’t going to settle anything anyway. Drop it. I’ve tried to talk to Adam about this issue and gotten nowhere with it. If anyone can talk to him about it, it will be Hoss. Let’s hope that maybe the two of them can have a conversation about this. Sooner or later, Adam has to open up about why he won’t let a woman get close to him. He pushes every one away. You’re right. Soon, there won’t be one who will even give him a chance.”

Within about an hour, the three brothers headed out with each one leading a string of horses for the Army. They had one packhorse too. Hoss’ prediction about the rain was correct too. By noon, they were riding in a light rain, and by late afternoon, it was a heavy downpour. They decided to push on to get past any potential difficult river crossings that would be made possibly treacherous by runoff. It was late then before they were finally able to make camp. It was a soggy camp too with no place to place a tarp for protection. They finally camped in the shelter of some rocks and slept leaning up against them in the small dry space they afforded. The morning was gray, but that pleased Adam because it meant his brothers weren’t in a mood for talking. He preferred it that way.

Chapter 2

Getting the horses watered and back in order for the ride as well as getting breakfast took quite some time and the sun was up and drying things out nicely before they were on the trail again. Seeing Hoss eying the sun frequently, when they took a midmorning break, Adam asked what he was thinking.

“When we plotted this all out on the map and figured how fast we could go, we figured this as about a week and maybe a few days more. As long as it took to get going this morning and such, ifn it takes so long every day.”

“It will take at least two weeks to get there.”

“Ya, that’s what I bin thinking.”

“We can’t go any faster. These horses have to be delivered in good condition.” Joe was worried that Hoss and Adam wanted to increase their pace.

“No, little brother, what we’ll need to do is wire the Army post and wire Pa that things are going to take a bit longer.” Adam said it with a bit of an edge frustrated that Joe would immediately assume an antagonistic attitude.

Of course his response only aggravated Little Joe more. “Don’t call me little. I’m every bit the man you are and more.”

“You two cut it out. We got a lot of time on the road and I ain’t gonna be listening to this bickering the whole time.”

Pulling his hat down a bit lower in acknowledgement of the rebuke, Adam took a sip from his canteen and said nothing. Joe wasn’t done yet though.

“You tell him to keep his nasty comments to himself then. I won’t put up with any of them.” Joe stalked away.

“I don’t know why he’s that way with you.”

“I’m a disappointment to him. I’m not the man or the older brother he wants. It frustrates him. Hell, it frustrates me.”

“It ain’t been that long. What’d the doc say last time ya saw ‘im?”

“Time, just let time take its course. The melancholia will lift, he says, and the other thing may go with it. He said a change of scenery could help. I thought perhaps this trip would help do it, but this won’t help to do not if things go this way.”

“The weather or Joe?”

With a laugh that held no humor, Adam let Hoss know he meant both. Then he got philosophical. “It is the unfairness that bothers me the most. God fashioned us in his image and gave us this great gift to love and to be loved. It is both our glory and our tragedy. What happens when you can give love but cannot share it and desire love but cannot have it?”

“Ya got a lot of years left. Things changed a lot in the last two years. They could all change again.”

“But what if they get worse instead of better?” With that, Adam walked away to do what he had to do before they could get going again.

Finishing his lunch, which now had the appeal of sand, Hoss washed it down with water and then packed things away getting his string of horses ready to move again too. He shook his head as they moved out seeing Joe with his stiff back obviously still a bit angry, and Adam riding with his shoulders a bit slumped and leaning to one side as he was prone to do when he was feeling down which was almost daily. Then there was Hoss himself sitting tense in the saddle worried about both of them as well as getting the horses delivered in a timely way without his brothers getting into a dustup that could have lasting consequences. He guessed that at some point, he would have to get Joe to back off somehow but wasn’t sure how to do it. He spent the afternoon thinking about it until he decided he had a plan. It needed some work on the fine points but he knew both would be wary around each other that evening so he had time yet to finalize it. He would find a way to let a little of the inside information he had out to Joe without letting the main reason for it slip. He knew it would be extremely difficult for him because Joe was like a ferret if there was something he thought he didn’t know and Hoss knew. Hoss was going to have to be very careful in how he presented the story to his little brother. Those thoughts dominated his mind that night and made it difficult for him to sleep for quite a while.

It was a good thing that Hoss was awake. Exhausted, Adam had fallen asleep much more quickly than usual, and Joe usually fell asleep that way. Hoss heard them and moved swiftly to Adam’s side and then Joe’s. They had a cold camp putting out the fire after they cooked their dinner because it was warm enough they had no need for a fire. In the darkness, Adam told Hoss and Joe to stay together.

“If it’s Paiute, I’ll find out and talk to them. If it isn’t, we may be in a lot of trouble. In my black, I hope they won’t see me first.”

Adam slipped off his boots and moved silently away from his brothers. Hoss and Joe gathered their saddlebags with their extra ammunition as well as their rifles and got in a defensive position. They waited nearly an hour before they heard Adam call out.

“It’s all right. You can come out now.”

Hoss and Joe stepped from behind the boulders they had been using as a shield to see Adam walking toward them with three Native Americans in nondescript clothing. They looked like they might be Paiute but not like any they had seen before.

“They’re hungry. I said we would feed them and they can travel with us. Tomorrow we’ll be close enough to town to ride in and buy some supplies for them.”

Joe was angry. “But they were going to steal our horses!”

“Yes, they were going to steal at least one, and they were going to eat it. When I first found them, I listened and they were deciding which was the worst of the horses. They couldn’t decide because they were all fine animals and they hated the thought of killing any of them, but they and their families are starving.”

“Families?” Hoss and Joe almost said that as a chorus.

“Yes, they got run off their land, and they’ve been wandering for quite a while hiding out. They picked up a few others from some other tribes who were also lost and without a home. Their families are up in those hills. We’ll buy some supplies for them, and they’ll go back and feed their families for a time.”

“Then what?”

“Hoss, I don’t know. I’m not an Indian agent. It’s a mess.”

“Why are we buying supplies for them anyway?” Joe was curious more than upset.

“Because they were ready to kill us if we fought back when they tried to steal horses and this is the compromise that brings peace between us, and because it’s the right thing to do. They recognized my name. At least the good we’ve done over the years has made enough of an impact that our name is a trusted one.”

The six Paiute shared their breakfast with them and then rode with them. There was a small town up ahead and Adam halted the group several miles from town so no one in town would know what they were doing. He asked Hoss and Joe if they would like to take charge of getting the supplies that would be needed and they agreed to do so. They unpacked their packhorse and left with it returning five hours later with it laden down with supplies. Adam had to smile as he saw Joe excited to hand over the supplies to the Paiute and even showed them some ribbons and candy he had included that they could give to the women and children. The men divided up the supplies and then acknowledged the deal was done, two of them handed over leather wrapped bundles to Hoss and Joe, and they left. Hoss opened his bundle to find a large leather pouch decorated with a sun design made from porcupine quills, and Joe opened his bundle to find a necklace with a shiny quartz stone in an intricate basket woven of leather and tied to leather strips.

“Why did they give us gifts?”

“Joe, it’s their way. They never accept anything without giving something in return. We’re even now in their minds. Otherwise they would owe us, and that would make us powerful over them. They couldn’t allow that.”

“So they could steal from us again?”

“No, now we’re friends. They wouldn’t do that to us.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s a different way of looking at things. There are a lot of different ways of looking at things in the world. What we think we see isn’t always what the other sees at all.”

“Now you’re just as confusing as they are.”

“That may be true, Joe. Sometimes I don’t understand myself either. Now let’s get going. We need to go around that little town so they don’t ask too many questions. I don’t think they would like knowing what we just did.”

“Yeah, Joe and me got the extra supplies for us too. As soon as we get our packhorse ready again, we can go.”

Having such a shared adventure and perhaps hearing Adam speak so openly made the rest of the trip go better. There were still a few comments made by Joe that could have caused trouble had he followed them up with any more, but each time, he knew he had overstepped and backed off. Hoss told him he appreciated that, and Adam wisely didn’t react to any of the comments. By the time they reached the Army post, they were in a good mood and ready to turn over the horses and begin the ride home. The post commander assumed that Adam had gotten the horses ready for them and thanked him.

“No, Colonel Haskell, I hurt my back about a year ago. My younger brother Joe took over that part of our operations. I only helped deliver the horses to you. I can assure you though that they are among the best the Ponderosa has ever delivered.”

“I’ll take you at your word. I know that’s good.” Turning to Joe, the officer put out his hand. “Please to meet you, young man.”

“Pleased to meet you too, Colonel.”

Hoss and Adam cringed a little at that. Joe didn’t know why, but Hoss quickly offered his own greeting. “Good to see you again, Colonel Haskell. It’s a fine operation ya got here, sir.”

Ignoring Joe, the colonel turned his attention to Hoss. “Yes, I believe in organization and efficiency. We’ve got some renegades to round up and these horses are going to make that job a bit easier.”

“Renegades, sir?” Adam had a sinking feeling that he knew who they were.

“Yes, some of the settlers had a problem with some, and they ran off into the hills. We can’t have them roaming about loose like that. If they headed south, then they’re not my problem any more. If they’re still in those hills, I’ll have to round them up and move them to a reservation.”

Seeing Joe about to say something, Hoss put a hand on his arm and squeezed, hard. Joe looked at Hoss but said nothing. Adam thanked the colonel for the receipt for the horses that they could take inside to get their payment. The colonel asked if they were heading home next, and warned them about Ruby when Adam told them what he thought they might do. The colonel said some stories had been trickling back about men being found unconscious and stripped of their valuables in that town. With the money they were carrying, they could be likely targets in such a place. Once out of earshot, Joe asked why they didn’t say something about the Paiute and that Adam had only mentioned possibly stopping in Ruby after some hunting in the mountains.

“Because we’d be sendin’ the Army right inta that camp, and sum a them women and children likely could be hurt or even killed.” Looking at Adam, Hoss guessed what they were going to do. “We gonna go tell ’em to head south?”

“With a packhorse loaded with supplies, that would be about right, don’t you think?”

“What about me? Don’t I get a say?” When Hoss and Adam looked at him, Joe grinned. “Let’s go get some money and get this show on the road.”

The camaraderie among the brothers lasted. They got the money, got the supplies, and headed into the hills. It didn’t take long to locate the band who saw them coming and recognized them. The news they brought was unwelcome but not unexpected. They left the supplies and left them to make their decision as to what to do. Joe expected them to leave, but was surprised to find that Adam and Hoss weren’t sure they would go.

“It’s their land, Joe.”

“Then why did Adam want us to bring these supplies to them and tell them what the Army was likely going to do?”

“It was only fair to give them the chance to run ifn they was a mind to. Ifn they want ta stay, that’s their choice too. Everybody’s got choices to make in this life, and then has ta live with ’em. They know that. They’ll talk on it some amongst themselves and then decide. Life is darn hard further south. They know that too.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Adam has a hankering for sleeping in a soft bed for a couple of days. Cain’t say as I would mind neither. We’re thinkin’ on heading to Ruby for a couple of days then heading home.”

“No hunting trip?”

“Nah, I ain’t really in the mood for one no more.”

“I guess I really don’t want to any more either.”

In agreement, the three headed to Ruby, got a room, and headed to the saloon after cleaning up and putting on clean clothes. Sitting at their table after a meal and a beer, Joe saw a poker table with only three playing. He thought he would go join in. Before leaving, he pulled the thick wallet with the money from the horse sale from his jacket and handed it over to Adam who made a show of putting it in his pocket. That had been too public a transfer however so Adam surreptitiously handed the money to Hoss under the table.

“You would think Joe would remember how much trouble we’ve had doing things like that.”

“Ya, but one beer and the temptation of that poker game, and common sense flew right out that there window.”

With Joe intent on his poker, Hoss enjoyed his beer as Adam nursed one. There were several dark-haired saloon girls who were happy to keep serving Hoss until there were a half-dozen empty glasses on their table. One dark-haired saloon girl came over then to collect the empties and ask if they wanted more.

“Shur nuff. Bring two more.”

“I’ll do that, sugar. Be right back.”

She talked to Hoss but gave all her attention to Adam. Hoss noticed and teased his older brother about it. Adam said little but did admire the physical attributes of the woman. Joe had eyed her up earlier too, but he was too busy in his gambling to follow up on attraction to her. There were others who were interested in her too, but she had a way of putting them off that was direct but funny enough that no one was likely to follow it up with any more overtures.

“Honey, if it was a three dog night, you surely could come home with me, but I already got two dogs to keep me warm tonight.”

That line got the other men laughing and ribbing the one who had propositioned her until all thoughts of following up that offer were forgotten.

About ten, she walked over and rather brazenly declared that her shift was over and she wouldn’t mind if Adam walked her home. Hoss grinned and kicked Adam’s foot under the table. Adam shrugged and said he wouldn’t mind doing that. The two left together arm-in-arm to the envy of a number of men in the saloon.

Chapter 3

“My name’s Gloria.”

“My name is Adam. Is your name really Gloria?”

“Why would you ask that?”

“My experience is that a lot of women who work in saloons or the theater adopt names that are what they consider prettier than the names their parents thought appropriate.”

Laughing lightly, she didn’t answer that. Adam and Gloria had only walked a short distance from the saloon when they neared an alley. She pressed herself against him then and asked if he found her desirable. He did of course so when she made it clear that she wanted to kiss, he obliged her and didn’t mind stepping into the alley a bit to let the shadows hide what they were doing from any prying eyes. He didn’t hear the two men behind him until it was too late. Iron hard hands gripped his arms as a cloth laden with chemicals pressed against his mouth and nose. He struggled but to no avail as the saloon girl ran away. Two men told him not to struggle too much or he might find a knife cutting his throat. He felt the blade there. The next thing he knew though, he heard Hoss’ voice and then Joe’s almost as if it was through a fog. There was another voice or two there but he wished they would all shut up as his head was pounding. One of them must have noticed he was regaining consciousness and told the others to be quiet. That voice began to talk very softly to him.

“You’ve been unconscious because of chloroform. They used a lot and could have killed you. Now I suppose you have a headache and I have a basin right here if you feel sick.”

Those words and that feeling came at about the same time. The man must have realized it and asked for help in getting Adam on his side. He retched into the basin several times and then lay there with his eyes closed. He heard them asking if he was awake but he didn’t feel like answering. He heard that more gentle voice say about as much to them.

“Let’s let him rest for a bit. He’s all right, but he’s exhausted. You can stay with your brother, but let him rest.”

Adam must have fallen asleep then because the next thing he knew, light was stabbing his eyes as noise assaulted his ears. He opened his eyes to find sunlight pouring in the windows and Hoss snoring in a chair at his side. Joe was in another chair leaning against a table asleep too. If he had been more comfortable, he might have left them sleep, but he had needs that were urgent and he needed to move. He called Hoss’ name softly and then more loudly until his brother was startled awake. Hoss smiled at Adam.

“Good to see you awake. Ya had me worried last night.”

“Can you help me off this table. I gotta go.”

“Oh, yeah, I bet you do.”

Adam had thought that all he needed was help to get down from the table where he lay, but found his legs were rubbery and the room seemed to revolve around him as he stood. He grabbed onto Hoss trying to steady himself.

“Whoa, now, hang on there. I’ll get you outside right quick. Ya look like you’re gonna need that.”

Joe was waking up then and saw that Hoss needed help. He grabbed Adam on the other side and the two of them got him outside before he retched again. Then they walked him to the necessary so he could take care of other business before walking him back to the doctor’s office where Adam simply asked to sit in a chair on the porch there.

“It’ll probably make things simpler.”

Hoss agreed. Joe cleaned up the mess Adam had made earlier as Hoss went to tell the doctor that his patient was awake and on the porch. After a quick exam, the doctor told him there would be no long term effects, but that he would probably want to drink a lot of water and not eat much for the rest of the day. The sheriff came by later to ask what he was missing. His wallet was gone, but he hadn’t had much money in it. Joe’s eyes got bit then and he asked about the money from the sale of the horses.

“I gave it to Hoss.”

Hoss patted his pocket to let Joe know it was safe as Adam dropped his head into his hands. He asked from that position if the sheriff had talked to the saloon girl about her part in the robbery. He had and she claimed she had run away frightened about the assault. Adam doubted that very much, but there was nothing to prove she was lying. The sheriff said she had come back later to report that he was unconscious in the alley.

“Wasn’t that Christian of her to do instead of letting me lay there all night.”

“She didn’t seem none too broke up about it neither.”

The sheriff was defensive. “These saloon girls see a lot. They get a bit hard on the outside. No need to think anything bad about her because she wasn’t crying.”

“I wasn’t only that, Sheriff.” Joe was also upset. “She seemed almost angry about something instead of being upset that our brother was hurt.”

“Probably upset her friends didn’t find the money on Adam.”

“Now, that’s enough bad-mouthing one of our own just because some men come into town to do wrong. You ain’t lost nothing. You can be on your way then anytime.” The sheriff left then obviously upset with the nature of the conversation.

The doctor watched him leave. “I think he’s sweet on her, and she’s been leading him on.”

“Why do you think she’s bin leadin’ him on?” Hoss asked the most obvious question first.

“Never seems to be more than teasing going on between them, and last night, who asked for that walk in the moonlight?” With that, the doctor walked back inside. It was clear that he knew what the answer was before he asked the question.

Even in his state, Adam had a fair idea where the doctor meant to lead them. “The doctor thinks she’s in on it too. She’s leading the sheriff on so he doesn’t dig too deep into her background or activities.”

Joe looked excited. “But we will, right?”

“I will. If I find anything, you can help find more. All right?”

Joe looked disappointed. “Then what are we going to do?”

“Watch my back. I have a feeling I may need that most of all.”

For the next hour, Adam rested and told his brothers what he intended to do when he felt better. They suggested waiting until he had a meal in him thinking he probably needed the strength. He agreed that made sense. He waited for them while they went to have breakfast not willing to try eating anything quite yet. Then he spent the morning sitting on the porch sipping water and relaxing. At noon, he thought he could probably eat so they went to a restaurant where he was able to eat a light meal. After that, they got directions to the saloon girl’s house on the pretense that Adam wanted to see how she was doing explaining that she had reported his attack to the authorities so he wanted to thank her. Before he went to her home though, he had a few conversations with her neighbors who were willing to talk especially for a few dollars in most cases. By the time he knocked on her door, he had enough information to try to pry the truth from her. She looked wary when she saw him.

“I would have thought you would be gone by now.”

“Most of your victims leave town so quickly?”

She moved to close the door on him then, but he was too quick and pushed it open and stepped inside. Backing up, she reached in the pocket of her dress, but again he was too quick and grabbed her wrist wrestling a small pistol from her grasp. He emptied the five shells on the floor and tossed the pistol in the corner of the small parlor.

“Now, why don’t you tell me who the two men are who are working with you. Your neighbors have seen two men here frequently and coincidentally yesterday before you went to work. Once I brought it to their attention, they seem to recall that they seem to be here about the time men get attacked and robbed here in Ruby and that all started to happen about the time you arrived.”

“You can’t prove any of it.”

“That helped convince me right there. You didn’t deny it.”

“Get out. Get out right now. Get out!”

“I’ll be back with the sheriff. I think your little game with him won’t be working much longer. I want my wallet. It didn’t have that much in it, but it is the principle of the thing.”

“I said get out!”

Having heard her yelling, Hoss and Joe were waiting right outside the door. Adam stepped outside and she came to the door to yell at all three of them as the neighbors watched. Adam turned back once to remind her he wanted his wallet back. Then the three brothers headed to the sheriff’s office to lay out the whole logical argument that she was part of the group attacking and robbing men in his town. They guessed it might take some time, but she wasn’t going to get very far so they weren’t worried. It did take well over an hour before the sheriff reluctantly agreed to walk back with them but said he had some work to do first delivering some legal papers and said he would meet them at his office in an hour. It had been and over three hours since they had left her house before they entered it again. It looked a lot different than when Adam had backed through that doorway. The sheriff stopped at the doorway and Adam looked over his shoulder stopping too. Hoss and Joe asked what was wrong. It took a moment before Adam turned to them. They could see the shock in his expression and hear it in his voice.

“She’s dead, and she didn’t die easily.”

As the sheriff stepped into the home, Adam and his brothers followed. She was battered especially her face which was demolished. Her throat gaped open and she lay still in the middle of her small parlor. The bullets from her pistol were still on the floor and the pistol laid where Adam had tossed it. Whoever had come in had not been someone she feared or perhaps she thought it was Adam returning. Either way, she had not rearmed herself and had no means of protection against whoever had wanted to do her harm. Joe brought out a blanket from her bedroom, and the sheriff covered the body. He looked at Adam as if to accuse, but Adam quickly reminded him that the neighbors had heard her yelling at him to leave and saw him and his brothers leave as she stood in that doorway yelling at him.

“I’m thinking somebody didn’t like you being here then. I’m still a mind to believe what you said. If it’s true, we ought to find some evidence here in this house.”

The sheriff moved then to her small kitchen and began looking in the cupboards there. It didn’t take long to find a small bottle of chloroform and a small stack of cotton cloths. In the small wardrobe in her bedroom, they found Adam’s wallet and several others. All were empty. There was no money of any amount in her house which was surprising.

“We talked on occasion. She mentioned how much money she got every night. I know she put a lot in the bank, but she shopped a lot too for dresses and such. She always had money on her. Somebody took it.”

“I’m sorry, Sheriff. I never meant for this to happen. I didn’t mean for her to be killed. I only wanted my wallet back.”

“Not your fault. Gloria got herself mixed up in something she shouldn’t have. Too bad too. She had a real good thing going at that saloon. She was the best gal there. Made lots of money.”

“Looks like they beat her to find out where it all was then, don’t it.” Hoss was about ready to retch thinking about what had been done to the woman.

“If she told them where the money was, why did they do that?” Joe couldn’t get over the horror of her throat being sliced open.

Adam spoke almost in a monotone. “They didn’t want her to identify them.” Turning to the sheriff, Adam had a question for him. “What will you do now?”

“I’m going to find out as much as I can about the two men been visiting her house and see if they’re still in town. They’re probably long gone, but I’ll get wanted posters out on them soon as I can. What are you three gonna do?”

Looking from Hoss to Joe, Adam could only shrug. “I guess we’re going home.”

Chapter 4

There was snow capping the mountains and the morning sun reflected off the mountaintops creating a rainbow effect against the sky. With the green of the trees below promising abundant life, the scene would have inspired a preacher to expound on Genesis. However, the thoughts of three brothers as they rode home were more on the hell they hoped two men would soon experience for the evil they had wrought in Ruby. Fully recovered from the assault upon him, Adam suffered from guilt over the role he believed he had played in Gloria’s death because he had disarmed her. He had trouble sleeping as did his brothers who couldn’t get the image of the battered woman especially her horribly damaged face from their thoughts and from their dreams.

When they arrived home, Ben expected to see three relaxed and jovial men but instead found them morose and looking exhausted. Of course, he began questioning them immediately. Short-tempered, Adam responded with a quick summary of what had happened shocking his father with the blunt nature of what he said and the graphic description of the young woman’s death. Joe didn’t like the way he did it.

“It’s bad enough we have to have that picture in our heads. You didn’t have to paint it so clearly for Pa.”

“He asked why we were the way we were. I told him. It’s the truth.”

“Aw, c’mon, Adam, there’s ways of tellin’ the truth ain’t so harsh as what ya done. I agree with Joe on this one. No need to be so hard on Pa. He didn’t do nuthin’ wrong here.”

“And I did. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Nah, I ain’t saying that. You’re twisting things all around. You been letting everything stew around inside ya ever since we left. Ya ain’t talked but ten words I think since we left there ’til we got back here and then you spew it all out at Pa. Mebbe ya oughta forgive yourself too. Weren’t yer fault no more than it was ours.”

“I was the one who disarmed her.”

“She was the one got herself mixed up with them who done it.”

Ben stepped forward. “Maybe a bath, good food, and some rest will help all of you recover and then you can talk about this more calmly. It seems you had a rough time of it. I’ll get some men to take care of your horses. You three go on inside. Hop Sing will get food for you, and I’ll be in shortly.” With one hand on Adam’s shoulder and another on Hoss’, Ben looked to Joe with an expression that asked him to please help. Joe got the message.

“Yeah, we’re all a little short-tempered, and for me, that doesn’t take much. C’mon, I’ll even let my two older brothers have the washroom first.”

The peacemaking worked. None of them actually wanted to argue. They walked quietly to the house. Not much more was actually said about what happened in Ruby, and Ben assumed that the worst was over. It seemed to be as things got back into a routine for a couple of weeks. Things began to unravel when a story appeared in the Territorial Enterprise about a band of renegades captured by the Army in the Ruby Mountains. Apparently a number had been killed, the men were being sent in chains to a facility in Indian Territory, and the women and children were being sent to a reservation. Ben had read the story and not remarked on it because it was so similar to many stories he had read and expected he would read again. However when Adam read it, there was a distinctly stronger response.

“Damn! Damn the Army, and damn the whole damn system!”

With that, Adam had slammed the newspaper on the table by the fireplace and stalked from the house. Shocked, Ben picked up the paper to look at the stories and couldn’t see why his son had reacted so strongly. He looked at Hoss and Joe.

“Pa, I guess we didn’t tell you about one other little thing that happened. We were so much thinin’ on what happened in Ruby, we plumb forgot to talk ’bout it at all. It didn’t seem like such a big thing.”

“What else happened?”

“Some Paiute was gonna steal some of our horses. I was awake and heard ’em. Adam went to talk to ’em, and we made a deal. We bought some supplies for ’em instead.”

“You bought supplies for the men who were going to steal from you?”

“There were starving, Pa. Hoss forgot to say that. They were going to take the horses to eat so they could feed their people. We got them food instead.”

“And these are the same ones the Army captured?”

“Yeah, ‘cept the Army calls them renegades and attacked them. Pa, they wasn’t dangerous. They only wanted to live. We warned ’em the Army was coming. Adam figured they might not head south as it’s pretty tough living down that way.”

“You warned them? You could have been charged?”

“Well, we were only trying to save lives, Pa.”

“I suppose it was your older brother’s idea.”

“It ain’t fair, Pa. We all wanted to do it.”

“Hoss is right, Pa. We did.”

“Well, what’s done is done. I only hope they don’t say anything about you three warning them. I don’t want my sons arrested and charged with treason.”

It was quiet the rest of the evening, and Adam hadn’t come back in by the time the other three went to bed. He stood outside until he was sure he wouldn’t have to face any of them and then quietly entered the house, locked the doors, and headed to his bed. Ben heard his footsteps in the hallway and then rolled over to sleep. He yearned to be able to throw an arm around his eldest son to tell him things would be better and that he loved him no matter what, but he doubted that Adam would appreciate such a gesture. Joe craved such attention, and Hoss appreciated it, but Adam was an enigma to his father. Many times, he didn’t know how to approach him so didn’t approach him at all. If only he knew that any approach would have been welcome. Adam felt very alone in the midst of his family held there mostly by Hoss, the one who did approach him and touch him even when he was snarling, churlish, or morose. Hoss was the one who knew that all of that was the armor he put up to try to prevent being hurt even more.

At breakfast the next morning, it was still quiet. The talk was fairly neutral in tone and it was clear that no one had slept well. For a couple of days, it continued that way as all four recovered emotionally until things returned again to the usual routine. On a Friday, Ben suggested they all go to town to get supplies, have dinner, and perhaps stay late to enjoy some of the social graces of the city mentioning that there was a troupe of singers that were supposed to be performing that night. That got Adam’s attention so he agreed to go too. Ben thought it would be nice to ask Roy to have dinner with them so after giving a list of supplies they needed to the general store owner, he and Adam headed to Roy’s office to extend the invitation. Roy had his head bent over a stack of wanted posters and was sorting through them looking to see if any of the men looked familiar. Ben extended the invitation as Adam watched Roy sort. Suddenly Adam’s hand shot out to grasp a poster. He held it up and then dropped it on the stack.

“You recognize those men, Adam? If you do, I sure would like to know where they might be. I’d like to arrest them. Says they murdered a young woman. They’re the worst sort killing a woman.”

“I didn’t see them, but I know the woman they murdered. She was the one who got me attacked in Ruby. Those are the two who killed her. That’s the first I’ve ever seen of what they looked like. Apparently the sheriff did his job and got a good description. Unfortunately, a two hundred dollar reward isn’t going to get anyone to go after them.”

“No, I imagine a little town like that doesn’t have the money, and a saloon gal wouldn’t have relatives or friends willing to put up a larger amount.”

“So what’s the point?”

“It gets the poster circulated, and just like me, if any sheriff sees them, they’ll get picked up, and for that amount, they’ll get sent back to face trial. Then they’ll hang.”

“Roy, with those likenesses, all they need to do is grow beards and no one is likely to know them.”

Shrugging, Roy had nothing more to say. Adam was correct. Lots of men committed crimes and never faced justice for them. Jurisdictions of sheriffs were too separated and unless there was a federal warrant, the marshals wouldn’t pursue them. It was unlikely the two would ever be caught. The rest of the night passed without incident, but for Adam, it passed without him paying much attention to what was happening either. His mind was on other things. He had seen RoseMary briefly, but she had been curt with him. When he attended the musical performance, he understood why because she was escorted there by another man, the new clerk at the Bank of California branch bank in town. He was probably more to her liking and far less moody. It still felt like a loss though because he had liked her. He reminded himself that there had been no future for them but found little comfort in the thought. Unfortunately for him, his father saw the couple too and couldn’t help needling his eldest son about another lost opportunity. It was the next afternoon, but it could have been any time.

“You should think more about your future. I saw RoseMary with another man last night. You could have spent your attentions on her instead of worrying about some renegades or a dead saloon girl.”

“They were not renegades. They were people who wanted to live. That’s all. As for the dead saloon girl, she might not have been dead except for me, so yes, I do feel responsible. Pardon me for having a conscience.”

“Well you don’t have to worry about it. There are wanted posters out. The law will handle it for you.”

“It’s only two hundred dollars for the two of them. No one is likely to chase them down for that amount.”

“What? Why is that even an issue? Do you think you ought to do something about that?”

Hoss was listening and if he could have, he would have stopped his father long before he got to that point, but he knew he couldn’t. He knew too what his father had done long before Ben did.

“Maybe I should.”

There was a sudden change in Adam’s demeanor that Ben didn’t miss but he didn’t understand it either. “Maybe you should. It might make you easier to live with.” Ben intended that Adam should increase the reward money.

“Yes, I’ve been thinking about doing it, and your thought that I should too confirmed it.”

“Good!”

“I’ll leave tomorrow.”

“What?” Shocked, it took Ben a moment longer to respond more. “That’s not what I want you to do. I thought you would increase the reward money.”

“No, talk with no action to back it up is worthless. If I’m going to do something, it’s got to be something more meaningful than throwing money at it. I know how tall these men are. I’ve heard their voices. I talked to her neighbors who told me about them and the horses they rode. I’ve got the sketches now too that are on the wanted poster. I’ve got the best chance of anyone to bring these two men to justice.”

“I didn’t raise my son to be a bounty hunter.”

“I’m not doing it for the money so I’m not.”

“Then what are you? A vigilante?”

“You can call me any name you want, but I will do what I think is right, and this feels right. It seems I haven’t done anything that feels right in over a year. I’m doing this.”

There was that hard edge in Adam’s voice at that point that said there was no dissuading him. Ben knew he shouldn’t try at that point because it would only be an argument he could not win. He had about twelve hours and hoped to think of a way to stop Adam from leaving in that time, but he knew the odds were not in his favor. That night at dinner, Adam told Joe the news and got the predictable response. However Joe had plans in town and left before there was too much arguing. Adam excused himself to his room to get some rest and prepare for his quest as he called it. Ben sat quietly smoking his pipe for the rest of the night even though Hoss noted the pipe had no smoke and Ben never blew out any either.

Chapter 5

With only twelve hours, Ben never did find a way to talk Adam out of leaving and knew he had to let him go just as his family had let him go when he was determined to leave.

“Know, son, that this is your home whenever you want to come back. It will always be your home, and I hope you will come back.”

“I don’t know what I’ll do, Pa, but thank you.”

However, Joe wasn’t ready to let him leave so easily.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving. You’ve got a woman who probably expects you to marry her and Pa was thinking you would finally settle down and have some grandchildren for him.”

“She’s got a funny way of showing that. She was with another man Friday night.”

“Only to make you jealous enough to show some real emotion, to show you care.”

“She’ll do better with him than me then. I don’t like being manipulated.”

“Why can’t you open yourself up to a woman and let her love you?”

“Seems like you could do that just fine instead of me. You certainly have a lot of women chasing after you. Let one catch you, and you can give Pa all the grandchildren he wants.”

“It shouldn’t be my place to do it. I’m only twenty-four. I still have lots of time. What’s wrong with you? You’re thirty-six and every time you get close to marrying a woman, you walk away for one reason or another. You could have fought for Laura but you let her and Peggy go with not even a whimper.” Joe could see Adam’s jaw muscles working and knew he was getting to him so he kept going. “Then there was that Ann you told us about. I know she was a saloon girl, but at this point, Pa wouldn’t have cared. Any woman would have been better than none. What’s wrong? She sent you a letter and you never answered her. Have you decided you don’t like women?”

Mounting up on Sport was a tremendous effort by Adam because he was struggling against the desire to pummel his youngest brother. He couldn’t and wouldn’t, but he sorely wanted to shut him up. Hoss stepped in then knowing it had to stop when he saw that Adam wasn’t going to answer Joe, which was likely to enrage the younger man and make him say worse than he already had because of his frustration. Hoss knew Joe didn’t want Adam to leave but as usual didn’t say what he meant.

“Joe, you don’t know what you’re saying, so you need to shut yer yap.” Joe was looking like he was going to defy Hoss on that point, so Hoss held his arm even firmer causing Joe to yelp in pain. “I mean it.” Then Hoss looked up at Adam who sat on Sport with a strange look that Joe couldn’t interpret at all. “Tell him?”

“May as well but when I’m gone. Might settle some things for him and me.”

“Pa?”

“No, I’m enough of a disappointment without that being added. There’s enough on that plate already so leave it.”

“All right, but you know Joe might slip up some time.”

“If he does, then I guess that’s what happens. He should know how important it is to me. If he wants to know it, he needs to carry it too.”

“You ever need me, you let me know. I’ll come help ya.”

“I know. I’ll be seeing you, here or there.”

With that, Adam wheeled his horse and rode out not willing to look back afraid it might weaken his resolve to leave. He was torn enough about it, but weighted by his guilt, he had to go. Behind him, Hoss released Joe who rubbed his arm and stood defiantly waiting for Hoss to explain himself. Hoss walked into the stable not wanting to be overheard by anyone. When Joe followed him, he told him to close the door behind him. He lit a lantern then.

“I could have let the door open for light.”

“What I’m gonna say to ya ain’t for the light of day and anybody nosing about.” Hoss took a seat on a crate.

Stabbed with a sudden fear, Joe sank down on the crate next to where Hoss sat. “Adam’s not dying, is he?”

“No, he ain’t dying. He’s going out there to put himself in harm’s way, and I pray he don’t die while he’s doing it. But he’s a careful man and damn good with a gun so I figure he’s got a good chance to do what he wants to do.”

“Why does he have to go, Hoss? He could stay here. He’d get over it.”

Hoss snorted softly. “That’s what he said about that gal he’s been seeing. He said she’d get over it. Said she would like all the others. Said she’d find somebody else. They all do.”

“But why? Why doesn’t Adam marry one of them? He could have had so many different women. I know things happened, but this past year, he seems to have given up on the idea completely. He doesn’t even try any more.”

“That’s jist it. It’s been this year that there’s been a change.”

“Laura? But he said he wasn’t really in love with her, and besides, the way she cheated on him with Will, he ought to be glad they’re both gone.”

“Well, that ain’t the problem, but when he said he didn’t really love her, well that was cuz he didn’t want to let on how much it hurt.”

“I kinda figured that. But what’s the problem then?”

“You know how he couldn’t move his legs when he fell from that house.”

“Yeah, that was scary. I thought he might be stuck in that wheelchair forever.”

“You know how he doesn’t help you break horses no more.”

“Yeah, well I figured that was because of his back and not wanting to hurt it again so soon. Like when he begged off the cattle drive and Pa went instead. I figured even Pa knew his back wasn’t as good as he said it was when he started making all those excuses why he couldn’t go last spring. But he went this time when we had to deliver the horses.”

“Yeah, he did, but you saw how careful he was. He wasn’t out there cutting like we were used to seeing him do. He’s good at riding straight out, but he don’t want to strain that back too much yet. Doc told him it may always give him a bit of trouble, but if he’s careful, over the next year, it should mostly keep getting stronger.”

“So why are we talking about his back?”

“Well and his legs. They’re part of it too. And other things.”

Frowning, Joe looked at Hoss for a couple of minutes because Hoss wasn’t going to say it unless he had to say it. Joe’s eyes got wide.

“No! But I know he went to the Palace at least a couple of times.”

“Every man needs the comfort of a woman’s arms now and then. It sorta works some, and he can pay them to keep their mouth shut about what don’t.”

“He told you?”

Hoss shrugged. “He needed to see the doc some, and he needed somebody to cover for him so you and Pa wouldn’t be asking questions.”

Frowning again, Joe smiled. “So when you had those stomach problems?”

“Yeah, no problems except for that foul medicine I had to take so Pa would believe me when I said I had to go see the doc a couple more times. Adam was, of course, nice enough to go with me.”

“That’s why he did some of those dirty jobs for you.”

“Yep, that was the silver lining, as they say. Our older brother always pays his debts.”

“It’ll never get better?”

“Doc said maybe especially if he can stop worrying about it and relax. Can’t see as how that’s gonna happen. Know how I’d feel ifn it was me.”

“Damn, I wish I hadn’t said those things.”

“He knows that. Remember what he said when he told me I could tell you? He knew you would understand better what’s happening. He needs to get away. Pa’s putting pressure on him and so were you. People in town are talking. It was too much especially with the guilt he’s carrying over that gal dying the way she did. He felt bad about what happened to them Paiute. Nothin’ he could do about that though.”

“Hoss, I don’t know why he feels so guilty about her dying.”

“He went to see her. She pulled a gun on him, and he took it away. He was mad and he emptied the shells on the floor and tossed the gun across the room. They argued and he left.”

“I know that. I was there with you.”

“He figures she musta not thought anything when she heard somebody coming in the door probably thinking he was coming back only it wasn’t him. When he came back with the sheriff and they found her, those shells were on the floor yet. She hadn’t been able to defend herself because he had taken her gun away.”

“But it was her fault for not picking it up and reloading it when he left. Besides she’s the one who led him out there to be attacked and then stole his wallet. She probably did that to other men too, and maybe the men who worked with her came back at her to do more than bring the sheriff. Somebody took her money. It could have been that.”

“Yeah, I know, but try to tell our older brother that. You know how he is.”

“I didn’t want him to go.”

“I know. I think he knew it too.”

“You think he’ll come back?”

“When he’s ready ifn he’s ever ready.”

As Adam rode away, he had some of those same thoughts. He felt sadness about leaving, but felt guilt too about how free he felt and the joy in his heart to be breaking free of the ranch that had held him captive in its gilded cage. He had told his father and Hoss that he would come back when he was ready but truly didn’t know if that would ever happen. There were things he needed to do before he began his quest so he planned to spend the night in town and meet with several people the next day. He wanted to travel to Ruby first, but he had to make arrangements for someone to handle his investments and to make sure that he had access to cash as he needed it. He wanted to talk to Roy too and see what advice he could glean from him as to how he might proceed when on the trail of two fugitives in such a situation. He knew Roy wouldn’t approve at all so that would be the first obstacle to overcome, but once Roy knew he was determined to do this, he would want to give him every advantage.

The meeting at the bank went well and he had all the documents he needed within a couple of hours. His meeting with Roy proceeded about as he expected though with Roy spending even more time than he had thought trying to convince him not to go.

“You’re a durn fool trying to do this. How you going to find two men you never even laid your eyes on in the middle of millions of square miles of mostly nothing?”

“Marshals and bounty hunters do it all the time. Do you think I’m that much more inept than they are?”

“They make a career of doing it. Is that what you want to do?”

“I’m not sure what I want to do except to find these two and bring them in.”

“Alive?”

“If at all possible.”

“All right, then, this is what I’d do. First, you go back to Ruby and you talk to people who saw these men and get any information you can. Talk to the sheriff and see what impression he might have gotten about where he thought they might go. I’ll send out some wires for you asking if anyone has heard of such a thing being tried anywhere else. You contact me before you leave Ruby to find out if I’ve heard anything. You keep in touch with me and I’ll do my best to help you.”

“And tell my father where I am and what I’m doing?”

Roy shrugged. Adam had caught him out, but he had expected that. “I will help you as much as I can.”

“I know that, but if you’re going to be telling tales to my father, I won’t be able to ask for any help from you.”

“How about I won’t tell him unless you tell me I can other than to say I heard from you and you’re doing all right?”

“That I can accept. I could use that copy of the wanted poster you have too.”

With the wanted posters in hand, Adam returned to his room and drew several smaller versions of the two men separately on small cards. He put those in his pocket and folded the wanted poster and put it with the other papers he had. Roy had given him a letter of introduction to use if he met with any lawmen along the way. He made sure that was well protected in his oiled leather pouch. Then he lay down to get some sleep ready to head out the next morning.

Chapter 6

Trail drives of six weeks or more could make a man mighty saddle sore. Hoss liked to say he wanted to sit in a tub of warm mud for a week and let the soreness ooze out of him. That image had never appealed to Adam who much preferred a warm soapy bath and a clean rinse, but after three months in the saddle looking for the two fugitives, the mud bath was looking better and better. Now he had to shake his head in disbelief at what he had done only a few minutes earlier because he had signed on to a cattle drive that would take probably six weeks of hard riding through some of the most inhospitable land in the country. The trail boss had looked on him with some suspicion but needing hands desperately, he had taken him at his word. Adam knew he wouldn’t disappoint the man because he probably could ride and herd as well as any he had or nearly so. The two men he wanted to check out had signed on ahead of him. The only way to get close to them and keep tabs on them was to sign on to the same drive so he had had little choice. He had sent a telegram to his family letting them know he had arrived safely in Texas. He took a room at the hotel, got a good bath and one night’s sleep in a soft bed, two good hot meals, and then he was heading out to where the herd was being rounded up and organized for the drive north to Kansas. He didn’t shave his beard for it helped disguise him quite well. After losing his hat in a windstorm months earlier and realizing that was probably a good thing because he thought his quarry might recognize that distinctive band on it, he now wore a more functional dark gray hat now with a taller crown and a wider brim. He had gotten rid of the cream colored coat too and wore a dark gray coat when he needed one. Both allowed him to blend into the environment when he needed to do that. His father and brothers might not recognize him at first unless they heard his voice or saw him mount up on his horse and ride. Those things were too distinctive to change. However, the men he chased didn’t know those things about him so he felt comfortable getting close to them without worry.

Three months had seemed a long time when he first started out after the two men, but when he realized what a difficult task he had set, he realized that three months was actually a fast pace for getting this close to them. He had been advised not only by Roy but by others that he might spend up to a year before he found them if he did at all. The two didn’t seem too worried about pursuit though and had kept using the same names they used in Ruby. That had helped the most. Of course Smith and Jones weren’t very inspired choices for last names but he guessed the first names actually belonged to them. It was unlikely anyone would have picked Stan and Gordy as aliases. Those were the kinds of names parents bestowed on infants who had no choice in the matter.

There was some relief for Adam in that his work the first few days convinced the trail boss and ramrod that he could ride flank so he avoided the dreaded drag duty altogether. He got nighthawk duty on a rotation with the other men who seemed a bit standoffish with him. With no inkling as to why that was, Adam stayed quiet and tried not to step on any toes. He did his work, didn’t complain, and cooperated as much as any new hand would be expected to help out. Stan and Gordy, who seemed not to have much in the way of intelligence or talent at all, were welcomed more than he was. He wondered about that until the ramrod pulled him aside for a conversation about a week into the drive.

“Some of the men are worried about you.”

“I don’t know that I’ve done anything to worry anyone.”

“It’s not what you’ve done.”

“It’s being here?”

“Yeah, the way you carry yourself, the pistol rig, the horse you have, well, it don’t fit with a man needing to sign on with a cattle drive. Some of these men got reason to worry. I mean to take all my regular hands back to the ranch with me. I wouldn’t expect anyone to try to interfere with that.”

“I’m not any threat to you or your regular hands. I won’t make any trouble on the drive either.”

“You talk straight out. I like that. All right. I’m thinking I can trust ya. Here’s my hand on it.”

“My word isn’t good enough?”

“It is for me, but the hands over there are watching. They see us shake, and you ain’t likely to have an unfortunate accident one of these days.”

“Thank you. I’ll give you a day’s work for a day’s pay like I said I would until the drive’s done.”

“I get the feeling one or two of the drifters I signed on might have reason to worry once the drive’s over.”

“Maybe. I don’t know yet, and I won’t do anything until I’m sure.”

“You a bounty hunter?”

“No, I’m not a bounty hunter, and I’m not the law either if you’re going to ask. It’s personal, but I won’t break the law either.”

“You’re a strange one, but I can respect that. All right, we don’t need to talk about it any more. We’re good. Say, you wouldn’t know how to sing any songs would you? I heard you on the harmonica the other night.”

To Stan and Gordy, it appeared that Adam had been recruited to sing and play the harmonica in the evenings when there wasn’t any bad weather or any reason to keep things quiet. They had no idea what had actually transpired, but the other hands accepted Adam then knowing he was no threat to them. Once they reached the railhead and had all the cattle in the stockyards and counted, the trail boss got the bank drafts and headed into town. The hands waited for his return and talked casually about what they were going to do next. A couple of nights of celebrating seemed to be the consensus with that amount of money in their pockets. Watching Stan and Gordy, Adam saw them exchange a few looks and got a suspicion of what they might be planning next. When the trail boss returned with cash to pay the men, he and the ramrod had them line up. Most of the regular hands asked him to pay them about half their wages and hold the rest for their return. There was a lot of laughter about that because they all knew what they would do if they got it all. Then Stan and Gordy got paid their full amount. Last in line was Adam who was also paid the full amount. He waited as he watched Stan and Gordy follow the others to the saloons in town.

“No firearms are allowed in town, right?”

“That’s right. You have to check them when you get to the sign.”

“I think Stan and probably Gordy too carry some long knives. Held to a neck, they can be even more intimidating than a pistol and a lot more quiet.”

Both men stared at Adam for a short time until the trail boss responded. “You think there’s a chance they might try to dry gulch one of our men?”

“It’s a real possibility. I tried to be sure it was them I’m after, but the beards make it too difficult, and I only heard their voices briefly and once. I can’t be sure.”

The ramrod was more direct. “But you think if you catch them doing that, you’ll know.”

With a nod, Adam acknowledged that was his plan. “I’m going to talk to the sheriff.”

“Let us know what he says. We’ll be in the saloon. I’m not letting any one of them walk out alone unless I know somebody is out there to make sure he doesn’t get his throat slit.”

“I’ll be seeing you.” Adam left then and headed to the sheriff’s office. He showed them the wanted poster and explained the whole situation. The sheriff wasn’t too sure of him, but the letter from Roy helped as did a letter Adam had gotten from the district marshal whose territory included Ruby. He didn’t like the idea of two men who had murdered a woman getting away either, and said he would come to get the fugitives if they were arrested anywhere.

“Sheriff, you’ll get a two hundred dollar reward. I know it’s not that much, but you don’t have to do much either. Deputize me so I can carry this pistol and let me set it up. You wait in the alley out of sight. If it happens, you step forward to arrest the two.”

“How long do you think it will take?”

“Probably no more than a couple of hours.”

“All right. You go set it up, and in a couple of hours, we’ll be in that alley by the saloon waiting. If nothing comes of it though, you turn in that badge tonight.”

“Fair enough. I didn’t really plan to be a lawman.”

With a smile, Adam headed to the saloon and entered to find the drovers already well on their way to being very happy. A few noticed he was wearing his pistol and told him he was going to get in trouble. He pushed back his coat and showed them his badge.

“Nope, I already signed on here for a new job. I’m a deputy. I have to go make rounds now, and then I plan to go find a room and get some sleep. You boys have a good time and don’t make too much noise, all right?”

After they wished him good luck, he wandered over to talk briefly to the trail boss and ramrod. “I’m all set. In a couple of hours, I’ll be all relaxed and resting.”

“If we don’t see you again, good luck.”

“Good luck to you too. Full moon tonight. Easy to see if you have to go outside to take care of business. That ought to help. No one’s going to be stumbling around in the dark.”

“Yeah, I saw there’s an alley right next to the saloon here. That’s real handy.”

With that, Adam bid them good night and left. Both the ramrod and trail boss drank beer and had fun acting as if they didn’t have a care in the world until they saw Stan and Gordy leave. Then they set it up. The ramrod thought he ought to be the one to go, but the trail boss said it should be him because they knew he was carrying the most money. He announced he had to take care of business then and walked somewhat unsteadily to the door and outside where he paused. It made him a bit nervous to take that walk, but he had said he would and planned to do it. It dawned on him then that he was trusting a complete stranger and for a moment, wondered if this could be an elaborate set-up by Adam. Of course, he did have that badge and was wearing his pistol. If he had wanted to rob him, he could have done it out by the stockyards. There was no need to set up this elaborate ruse. Taking a deep breath, he walked to the alley, turned in, and then turned to face the wall of the saloon to do his business. Suddenly Stan and Gordy were there with knives as hands grabbed his arms and a knife was placed at his throat. Another hand started searching him for his thick wallet when Adam’s voice penetrated the darkness.

“Now this seems very familiar, boys. Why don’t you drop those knives so I don’t have to shoot you.”

Stan and Gordy froze. Unsure what to do, Stan decided to be brazen. “We could kill him if you don’t drop that pistol.”

“Now that would be stupid of me, wouldn’t it. I can kill both of you. Why would I let you get the drop on me over a man I hardly know.”

The sheriff stepped out then. “You two are under arrest for attempted robbery.”

“Let it go, Stan. We’ll get some time locked up, but if we kill him, they’ll hang us.”

The two men dropped their knives and raised their hands. The sheriff put handcuffs on them and then looked at Adam.

“You going to tell them?”

“Oh, yeah, you two are wanted in Ruby for the murder of Gloria. You’re going back there to hang.”

“What? We didn’t murder Gloria. We got out of town when we heard somebody did. She was the one in charge of everything. We don’t know who went after her, but we figured we were next so we hightailed it out of there.” Stan actually sounded sincere.

“Mister, we ain’t so smart. We did what we were told and she paid us well to do it.” Worse than that, Gordy made sense based on what Adam had learned about the two of them.

“You were ready to slit this man’s throat for the money like hers was slit.”

“Her throat was slit? Mister, our knives ain’t sharp enough to slit a throat. We make sure of that. Hell, we don’t want to kill nobody by accident. It’s just to scare ’em. All we want is money.”

The trail boss picked the two knives up out of the dirt and felt the edges. “He’s right. These are so dull they’d have to saw somebody’s neck to try to draw blood. They couldn’t slit a throat with one.”

The sheriff didn’t care too much about any of that. “I’ll lock them up and let the law handle it there.” He put out his hand for the knives and the trail boss handed them to him. He left then. He had the two men, the wanted poster, and the two knives, which was all he needed to get his two hundred dollars. It was all he cared about doing.

The trail boss thanked Adam for making sure he and his men were not robbed by the two, and then he went back to the saloon. Adam walked to the sheriff’s office to drop off the badge and check his pistol before going to the hotel. His sleep was delayed though as he thought about all that had happened. He had not questioned the guilt of the two men at all and had spent over seven months of his life now bringing them to justice. However, he wondered if it was justice. There was a good chance they were going to hang. He remembered the scene in Gloria’s house and her battered face and slit throat. There had been remarkably little blood now that he thought about that. With all that battery, there should probably have been blood spattered around. With the throat slit from one side to the other and gaping open, there should have been blood pooled around her if she had been unconscious when it was done or all over if she had been conscious and desperate to save her life. Her hands and arms should have been covered in blood. So shocked by her violent end, he hadn’t thought about that before Stan and Gordy had professed not only their innocence but that they were the ignorant stooges hired to do her work. Apparently she must have been dead or nearly so when her throat was cut and perhaps even when her face was battered. So the question was why would anyone do that to someone who was dead or dying. He sat up in bed and swore when he realized the answer. He had a much more important quest and one that might save two lives if he could do it fast enough.

Chapter 7

By the next morning, Adam had developed even more suspicions about what had happened in Ruby and sent out some telegrams while he made arrangements for travel. He wasn’t going to take the time to ride so he had to make arrangements not only for himself but for Sport to go by rail and make all the connections. It would take a day or two longer that way, but it would still be much faster than riding overland. He guessed the marshal wouldn’t be in a big hurry to come this far to collect Stan and Gordy so he had time, but he needed to be efficient. He asked that the answers to the telegrams be delivered to where he expected to be in a couple of days and made hotel reservations there. It worked out, and he got the answer he expected. It wasn’t satisfying but gave him his destination. The sheriff had in fact moved on to another job. He was working in Stillwater and Redmonds. Adam was familiar with the area and guessed that in his present appearance, he would not likely be recognized if he didn’t ride in on Sport. He could put him in a livery stable in Uniontown, and buy a mount more suitable and head to Stillwater like any cowboy drifting through. He guessed he could find out all he needed that way.

When he rode into the nondescript little town of Redmonds, he discovered that there wasn’t much in the way of accommodations. He could sleep on a small cot in a large room over the saloon with a dozen other men doing the same or camp outside of town. He chose the camp because he had nothing of value to steal and would be more comfortable in that setting even though he didn’t like sleeping on the ground. Once he set up a camp and cleaned up reasonably well, he headed back to the saloon to get a drink and a hot meal. Dressed as he was, he didn’t attract much attention other than being the newest arrival and getting the usual evaluation on that basis of anyone first walking in the door. Looking rather ordinary in most ways, most turned their interest back to whatever had been their previous focus. One saloon girl served him and came back a few times to see if he wanted anything else. He had little to say and didn’t seem interested in her company. That piqued her interest more than if he had been more forward which she had expected.

“You’re not the usual kind who stops in here. What brings you here?”

Looking at the young woman, Adam decided she probably wasn’t as young as he had first thought. She probably had more experience then than he had first thought too. “And what is the usual kind who stops in here?”

“Oh, the kind that wants all sorts of attention and the kind that talks a lot and doesn’t turn around and ask a question instead of answering one. You’re probably quite good at evading questions. You’re not wanted, are you?”

“If I was, do you think I would tell you?”

“There you go again. Talking with you is like a chess match.”

“You play chess?”

“If I answer that, will you at least answer one question I put to you?”

“Maybe. It depends on the question.”

With an exasperated sigh that was softened by a smile, she leaned back in the chair she had taken. “I play chess when I can find someone who knows how. I’m not particularly good at it, but I do know how to play and find it far more challenging than checkers. My father taught me to play. Now, where have you been?”

“On a cattle drive.”

She looked a bit skeptical, but she reached over and picked up his right hand turning it over and running her fingers up and down his palm and his fingers. “Hmm, you are a working man. I believe you, but I never would have guessed that. You have more the look of a lawman or a shootist.”

“I can assure you that I am neither of those.”

“Yet, you are well spoken, and though your clothing is plain, it is of good quality and in good repair. You take good care of yourself. You make me very curious.” She noted too that his eyes roamed the room missing nothing. “You looking for someone in particular.” That startled him apparently and pleased her. She liked him already and found him far more interesting than any man she had met in years even though she had only talked with him for minutes. She watched the mask come over his face noting how well he covered his emotions.

“Being observant keeps me from being surprised.”

“I have a strong suspicion it’s more than that, but for now, that’ll do. Where you staying? Upstairs?”

“I made camp outside of town. I’ll probably be moving on tomorrow.”

“Me too. I work here and in Stillwater. The saloon over there pays better, but they needed help here so I came over for a bit until they hired more girls here. Now I’m going back to Stillwater. You wouldn’t happen to be heading in that direction? I could use the company. I don’t like traveling alone.”

“I was planning to go that way. I wouldn’t mind the company either.”

“I get off early tonight because I’m leaving tomorrow. I have a small place they’re letting me use. There’s an extra cot there if you would like to use it. That’s all I’m offering.”

“You’re a prophetess too among your other talents. Yes, I would appreciate the cot. I’ll go pack up my things and be back soon is that’s all right. My name is Adam.

“I’m Robin. I’m not joshing about that either and it’s not a name I took because of my job. My sisters have bird names too. My father was a naturalist, and he and my mother thought it was cute.”

Adam began to smile and it turned into a huge grin.

“What?”

“I’m thinking of the possibilities: crow, buzzard, and pigeon.”

“They’re Wren and Dove.”

“Then there’s snipes and grouse and bustards not forgetting of course cuckoos. And how could he have forgotten the goose?”

Frowning at first, Robin had to smile thinking of being named one of those. “I guess I should be happy he didn’t name me for a coot or a rail.”

Both were laughing then. As they got up to leave, they continued.

“You could have been a shrike.”

“Or a nuthatch.”

If they laughed much harder, they were going to have to hold each other up. The others in the saloon watched them leave, shook their heads, and went back to their beers. A short time later, Adam was back at Robin’s place with his gear. He put his horse in the livery and then headed to her place to sleep grateful to be able to sleep indoors again. She seemed nervous when he returned.

“Robin, I am what I am. You can trust me. I won’t harm you. Your first impressions of me were correct in that I would never hurt a woman nor do anything that she doesn’t want done. You can rest easy.”

Closing the door to her small bedroom then, Robin was torn actually wishing he had made some kind of move toward her. She wouldn’t have minded a kiss from the dark man with the beard and the wonderful sense of humor and the kind eyes. Realizing she did feel safe with him, she put on a gown and pulled her robe around her before venturing out again surprising him.

“It’s still early enough if you want to try chess with me. If you’re any good, it probably won’t take too long.”

The match took far longer than Adam had suspected it would. Robin was an experienced player with a creative streak in her moves and he had not played in quite a while. When they finished, she congratulated him and stood as he stood. They were very close and stood silently for a moment until Adam leaned down and softly kissed her.

“You’re quite a lady, Robin. Thank you for the match.”

Only their lips touched, but Robin felt as if her body was on fire. It took all of her self-control to walk to her bedroom then and close the door. That didn’t last. She opened it again and stepped out crossing to where Adam sat on the cot removing his boots. He looked surprised again.

“My bed is big enough for two.”

“Robin, I can’t.”

“You have some scruples against sleeping with me?”

“No, I can’t.”

He said no more, but from the anguished look he had, Robin knew he had admitted a very painful truth to her.

“That’s all right. You wouldn’t be the first man who had that issue. We’ll do what we can if you’re willing.”

Nothing more was said. In the darkness later, Adam apologized.

“There’s nothing to apologize for. I enjoyed what we did. I think you did too. That’s all that matters. Now we can sleep and in the morning, we’ll head to Stillwater.”

Falling asleep in her arms, Adam felt comfort he hadn’t felt in so many years that he had forgotten what it felt like. Waking beside her and seeing her smile was even better. They packed their things then and headed to the livery stable. Robin had a small carriage there and Adam got his horse. With some provisions, they began the trek to Stillwater hoping to be there by late that night, but if necessary, they were prepared to spend a night camped out on the road. Travel conditions were not good and they did have to spend the night camping. The next day, they traveled again arriving in Stillwater late in the day. Both got rooms at the hotel attached to the saloon. Robin’s room was the one she regularly used while working there, and Adam got one near hers. He was hoping that their intimate relationship would continue. He had found he needed it more than he had realized, and she seemed to enjoy his attentions. That night, they enjoyed more time together, and she slept in his arms in his room until morning.

When he walked into the saloon the next day though, all those thoughts vanished as he took on the mode of the hunter again. He saw a woman who looked a lot like Gloria although the hair color was different and he hadn’t known her long so he couldn’t be sure. He listened though and soon had his answer. She was propositioned by a miner and had a ready answer. The voice, the words, and the whole tone of it were etched in his mind from Ruby.

“Honey, if it was a three dog night, you surely could come home with me, but I already got two dogs to keep me warm tonight.”

Passing by his table and noting where his attention was directed, Robin leaned down. “That’s Philomena. It’s her standard line. Always gets a laugh and no one takes offense.”

“I’ve got a question for you now. Any robberies here lately?”

Frowning, Robin looked at him for a moment wondering again what he was doing. He had yet to trust her enough to tell her that. “One, maybe. A man about a week or so ago was found passed out in the alley outside. His wallet was gone. He said he had been carrying a lot of money, but he didn’t have any left. He’d been in here drinking. No one knew if he was telling the truth or if he passed out drunk and only said he was robbed.”

“Is there a mayor in this town?”

“Closest thing really is the man who owns this saloon, John Reynolds. He owns about everything that matters in this town. He hired the sheriff and he makes any decision that makes any difference around here.”

“Where could I find him?”

“This time of day, he’s either at the bank or in his office at the back of the store.”

“Thank you. I’ll be back.” By that evening, Adam was back with a job working in the back room of the saloon. On occasion, he brought out barrels of beer or bottles of whisky. No one paid much attention to him after the first night as he was out of sight most of the time doing whatever it was the owner wanted him to do in the office and storeroom in the back. Mostly what he was doing was using the owner’s peephole to watch what was happening in the saloon waiting for Philomena to pick her target. It took three nights for it to happen. Meanwhile, Robin plied him with questions trying to find out what was going on. He told her to simply do her job and that he was doing his. She knew there was more to it, but knew too he wasn’t going to tell her. Meanwhile of course, they did have some very pleasant time together playing chess, talking, and sharing the bed in one of their rooms.

On the third night, Adam saw Philomena working on a man who was better dressed than most. When he saw two men head out of the saloon after making eye contact with her, he knew. He waited and then moved into position himself having set up crates in the alley to allow him to move around without being seen. He left by the saloon’s back door and watched as the two men secreted themselves into dark spaces. Then they waited. Within a half hour, Philomena’s laugh could be heard and then she and the man stepped into the alley. He was clearly anxious to have that kiss with her and not paying attention at all to any potential danger. The two men moved quickly and overwhelmed him with the chloroform as Philomena hurried away so as not to be caught. The two men were bent over the man when they heard the click of Adam’s pistol. An hour later, they were tied up and gagged in the storeroom of the saloon, and the gentleman who was their unfortunate victim was resting in Adam’s bed with Robin attending to him.

Soon, John Reynolds was there with Adam. He had to see the proof with his own eyes. He saw that man and then headed to the saloon to see the two men who had assaulted him. Adam took out his pistol and told the two to be quiet when he pulled down their gags. They were.

“Who hired you?”

They didn’t want to answer, but Adam had an inducement for them.

“Mister Reynolds thinks we can charge you with attempted murder. Now if you cooperate, that could be attempted robbery. Twenty years in prison or one. That’s your choice. Want to think again about answering that question?”

“The sheriff.” Both men answered at once.

Looking at John Reynolds, Adam smirked. He had gotten it all right. “I’m sure by now, the sheriff is wondering what happened to the victim. Why don’t we go take care of that?”

“I want a few more men before we do that. Let me get some men to take care of it. We’ll take care of Philomena too. You go see that the other man is all right.”

A bit uneasy about how John Reynolds said that, Adam had little choice in the matter. He had no authority in the town. When he got to his room, the man was awake but groggy. Robin was trying to explain to him what had happened. Adam filled him in on the rest of it.

“You knew what they were going to do to me, and you let them do it?”

“It was the only way to prove it.”

“You’re a jackass.”

“I’m the jackass who saved your wallet.”

“Don’t expect a reward.” With that, the man got out of the bed and made his way unsteadily to the door.

Putting out his hand for Robin, Adam said they ought to get back to the saloon. “I don’t think the sheriff is likely to survive his encounter with John Reynolds if he decides to argue with him, and those two in the storeroom are likely to get shot trying to escape if I’m not there guarding them.”

“You think Mister Reynolds would do that?”

“You didn’t see his eyes. Men like that don’t like being crossed. He may regret it tomorrow, but tonight, he’s furious and that may make him do things he wouldn’t otherwise do. The sheriff and Philomena were going to let two innocent, well nearly innocent, men hang, so I can’t feel too sorry for them.”

“You can save two men now?”

“I hope so. I’ll send a wire and then go there as fast as I can to testify for them.”

“When will you go?”

“Tomorrow morning.”

“So we still have tonight.”

That full dimpled grin was her answer. At some point, she hoped to see what else might be hidden under that beard. First though, he had things to do.

Once Adam was sure that Reynolds wouldn’t kill the two men he had in custody, he was free to return to his room and wait for Robin. When she got there, he told her that the sheriff was dead, and that Philomena was gone.

“She ran away again?”

“She must be good at it and be ready to do it at a moment’s notice. Yes, she’s gone, and apparently so is your carriage.”

“I wish you could go after her.”

“I drew a number of pictures of her. Wanted posters will go out, and I’ll make sure that the amount will interest bounty hunters and sheriffs alike. She won’t get away unless she leaves the west altogether.”

“Good, now there is our last night together.” Robin began unbuttoning Adam’s shirt and running her hands across his chest. She loved the feel of his muscles under those soft curly hairs and knew she would miss this the most. After letting her undress him, Adam returned the favor removing each of her articles of clothing and kissing her exposed skin as each piece was discarded until she wanted him as much as she had ever wanted a man. Later as they lay in each other’s arms, Adam was smiling.

“That was amazing.”

“I think that was supposed to be my line.”

“I didn’t think I could.”

“The doctor said time and relaxing about it could do the trick. Apparently it worked.”

“I’ve worked hard for the past months. I thought my back would hurt more, and at first, it did. But now it hurts less. I guess it got stronger with the work.”

“I guess everything got stronger. You’re all healed up.” Pausing then to ask a hard question, Robin was afraid she knew the answer. “Adam, do you think you’ll ever come back this way again?”

There was a long silence. “I don’t know.”

Chapter 8

When Adam arrived in Ruby, there was a telegram waiting for him. He had wired his family when he was leaving Stillwater and told them he was going to Ruby. He didn’t tell them why, but assumed they would know it was to settle the case that had started him on this quest. The telegram had a surprise, but also a command that irritated him. His father told him to come home for Joe’s wedding that was a week away. The wedding was a pleasant surprise, and he would do his best to be there, but it irritated to get such a message from his father. He sent a reply that anyone could read between the lines and hear that message. “Overjoyed. Congratulations. Will return when I can. Job almost done. May be on time.” He would not be pushed into doing anything he wasn’t ready to do.

His return to Ruby was timely as Stan and Gordy were sitting in the jail there expecting to be tried for murder and then sentenced to death. It likely wouldn’t take long either as people weren’t sympathetic at all when it came to a woman being killed especially the horrific way that woman had been killed. Because the sheriff had been killed in Stillwater, there was no way to know who the unfortunate woman was that the sheriff and Gloria had killed, but probably it had been one of the other saloon girls. With some questioning, some did remember they thought that one of the girls had left about that time. Now they realized she hadn’t left but had been the one murdered in Gloria’s place with her face battered and throat cut so that it would appear that she was Gloria. In one of Gloria’s dresses and with the body in Gloria’s home, no one had ever thought to question the identity of the victim until Adam met Stan and Gordy and heard their protestations of innocence. Eventually Philomena would be caught and perhaps she would have some answers. She would probably get prison time for her part in all of these crimes. Stan and Gordy were charged with robbery then, and got a promise of a light sentence when they pled guilty and agreed to sign statements admitting their guilt but also explaining everything that Gloria and the sheriff did. The whole mess was then cleared up legally, and the two were sent to prison to serve one year for their role.

It took several days to get all of that done, and then storms prevented Adam from traveling immediately. When he finally got on the road, he rode hard but knew he might not get home for the wedding. Even if he did, it was going to be close. Once he was on the Ponderosa, he guessed he would at least see his brother even if he missed the ceremony. As he rode to the ranch, he was stopped near the house by a hand.

“Sorry, mister, but there’s a wedding today. Only guests allowed. They won’t be hiring anybody today. You kin come on back on Monday.”

“I know there’s a wedding. I’m invited.”

The man looked clearly skeptical, but Adam didn’t look like the type of man to challenge so he let him through but signaled to the next man up the road. He thought that perhaps he might be trouble. The next man was the new foreman and he stopped Adam too.

“I guess you didn’t believe the man back there, but there’s a wedding here today, and only guests are allowed.”

“When did we start turning people away from a wedding party?”

Candy was going to argue but caught himself in time having heard the ‘we’ in that sentence. “You better hurry on up. They were about ready to have the minister start things when I came out here to see if all the guests were here yet. I’ll take care of your horse.”

“Thank you. I’ll do that.”

With a tip of his hat, Adam headed toward the house. Upon entering, he saw that Joe was standing by the minister and ready to say his vows. He stood quietly in the back and listened as his youngest brother got married to a woman that Adam didn’t recognize. He waited after the ceremony was completed and the guests were done congratulating the couple before he approached them and Hoss and their father who were standing with them.

“I wish Adam had been able to be here.”

“I was. It was close, but I saw it all.”

The shock on their faces was priceless. They recognized his voice but he didn’t look much like the Adam who had left. His hair was longer and curled over his collar, he had a full beard, and wore a gray shirt. He seemed thinner too although they weren’t sure about that. Hoss grabbed him in a hug first and then Joe did. Both had tears in their eyes. Ben wasn’t sure what to do, but Adam resolved that by giving his father that rare hug. Though brief, it was warm.

“Dadburnit, it don’t hardly look like you!”

“I never would have recognized you. In fact, I saw you standing there and didn’t realize it was you. Just before we started, I looked around the room hoping to see you and didn’t.” Joe shook his head. “You always were good at surprises.”

“You’re not so bad yourself, Joe. Are you going to introduce your wife to me?”

“I’d prefer to do it after you shave, but we can do it now if you want. Doreen, this is my brother, Adam. He doesn’t look like a saddle tramp usually but he just got back from a long trip.”

“A successful quest, Joe. Justice was served. I’ll tell you all about it after the party. Now how about some fun as soon as I get cleaned up and get some clean clothes?”

That brought smiles. It seemed the old Adam was back, and his actions at the party reinforced that as he sang with the band a bit and played guitar. He danced a bit too but not much after dancing with RoseMary who had married the clerk she had originally used to try to make Adam jealous.

“Oh, Adam, I made a mistake. I should have waited for you. Archibald is so terribly boring. He doesn’t like to do anything. I cook, clean, and do what he wants and that’s it.”

“RoseMary, you shouldn’t be saying that to me. You said marriage vows. Don’t they mean anything to you?”

Adam had had a couple of similar conversations during dances and before he got into any trouble with husbands, he decided he wouldn’t be doing any more dancing. Instead, he carried desserts out to the table for Hop Sing and got extra chairs when it was time for some to sit. He tried to be helpful until there seemed to be nothing left for him to do. He was offered a cup of punch to toast the bride and groom and accepted without looking to see who had offered it to him. After a few minutes, he felt dizzy and felt a hand on his arm guiding him away from the party toward a bench in the shadows. He sat heavily and then would have jumped up if he could. He shivered inside when he heard her voice.

“I guessed you would come home sooner rather than later after all the mischief you did. I really couldn’t let you keep doing all that now could I? Once you’re gone, I can get back to business. I will need new helpers, but they really aren’t that hard to find. It’s remarkably easy to kill someone once this drug takes effect. You can’t fight back at all, and after all the drinking, no one will think it odd if you lean back in this bench and close your eyes. You’ll bleed out before anyone knows you’re even cut.”

Adam felt the first prick of a knife in his side and the next thing he heard was Hoss’ voice.

“Well, you finally gonna wake up? You had us all plumb worried sick that you come back only ta leave us permanent like.” Hoss stood from the chair by Adam’s bed and walked to the door of the bedroom. “Hey, Pa, Joe, everybody, he’s awake.”

Doctor Martin shooed everyone to the side and got to Adam first checking his eyes and his breathing. He smiled and pronounced that he thought there would be no ill effects. Adam grabbed his arm to disagree and asked for a basin and quickly. He retched into it and after wiping his mouth, dropped back against the pillows. In a weak voice, he asked what had happened.

“Son, we were hoping you could tell us. Hoss thought that the woman with you was acting suspiciously and walked over to you. He saw she had a knife in her hand and stopped her from stabbing you. You do have a small wound but it’s minor. Hoss got the knife from her before she could do serious damage. Who is she and why did she want to kill you?”

“If you have my saddlebags, there’s a wanted poster or two on her in them.” Joe moved quickly to Adam’s saddlebags and found those handing them to Roy who nodded when he saw them. They were a good likeness of the woman being guarded in the Ponderosa bunkhouse. “She’s the one we thought was killed in Ruby. Instead, she and the sheriff killed someone else and made it look like her. They blamed it on the two men they hired to do the rough work for them. I caught them and realized they weren’t smart enough to have carried out those robberies. I tracked down the sheriff but he resisted arrest in Stillwater. The authorities there killed him. She got away again. Then I went to Ruby so the other two wouldn’t hang for a murder they didn’t do. They’re going to prison for robbery. I guess she didn’t like me interfering with her plans.”

Doctor Martin said he thought everyone ought to let Adam sleep then as the best medicine. Adam didn’t disagree. After all he had been through and the hard riding to get to the wedding on time, he was exhausted. He smiled in acknowledgement of the doctor’s prescription and thanked him. The others got the message and trooped out closing the door. Adam didn’t wake up again until dawn the next morning. He looked at his shaving kit set out on his dresser, he assumed by his father, and instead simply trimmed the beard and washed his face. He headed to the dining table then to have some breakfast. He was hungry for Hop Sing’s cooking. He got his fill of that for the next week as the family cook did his best to please the son who had returned and who praised his cooking at every opportunity. After a week, Joe and Doreen were back and the family was together for Sunday dinner. That week, Ben had refrained from questioning Adam feeling that he was a bit prickly about his father questioning him about anything. Joe however didn’t feel that way at all.

“So, Adam, what are your plans? You going to stay?”

“I have a little trip I want to take, and then I don’t know.”

“If you don’t stay, what would you do?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t have a plan?”

“Nope, not yet. So, what are your plans?”

Neatly turning the conversation around to Joe and Doreen, Adam got them talking about their plans for a new house which he agreed to design. They talked too about having children, and with one on the way, which had precipitated the wedding occurring so fast, that wasn’t going to be a problem. Ben seemed happiest about that part of their plan. Joe talked too about how well the horse selling was going, and he and Hoss talked about expanding the herd. It was only later that they realized that Adam had got them talking so he didn’t have to talk. Hoss talked to Adam about that in the stable the next morning.

“That little trip you’re gonna take have anything to do with why you don’t know what you’re gonna do next?”

“Some.”

“That little trip got anything to do with a gal? Cause you get that look when you talk about that trip that makes me think you got a gal in mind.”

“It does.”

“Dadburnit, you gonna start doing some talkin’ to me like I’m your brother or do I hafta knock you around a bit to loosen you up some?”

“All right, her name is Robin, and don’t laugh. All right, maybe you can laugh, because I did, and I even got her to laugh about it. When I was with her, things worked out better than they have with anyone else.”

“Ya mean?”

“Yes, things are better. In fact, things are good.”

“Glad to hear that. I guess Doc was right after all.”

“Guess he was.”

“When you gonna go?”

“Soon, I think. Not sure how soon is too soon. I don’t want to upset anyone around here already after only being back a week.”

“You tell ’em it’s a gal making you want to travel, and they’ll understand perfect like.”

“What if I tell them she’s a saloon girl?”

“Dang, you do know how to make things difficult sometimes. But heck, even that should be all right. It’s your life, and ifn she makes you happy, that’s all that matters.”

“Good, then maybe I’ll leave, and you can tell Pa.”

“Tell me what?”

Because Adam and Hoss had been gone so long, Hop Sing was getting upset that his hot breakfast wasn’t going to be hot much longer. Ben had gone to tell his sons to hurry.

Hoss slapped Adam on the shoulder. “No time like now.” He looked at his father. “I’ll go get started on that breakfast. Hop Sing will be so busy serving me, he won’t even notice ifn it takes you two a few more minutes ta get there.”

Ben waited as Adam dropped his head and rubbed his neck, a sure sign that he had something important to say. “Pa, I’m going to take a short trip. I may be bringing someone back with me. If she’s agreeable to spending her life with me, that is. I’m not sure she will be, but I need to ask her.”

“Now that’s good news, so why would you have preferred Hoss to tell me instead of you?”

Taking a deep breath and blowing it out, Adam decided to tell him straight out. “She’s a saloon girl and that’s where I met her. We spent a lot of time together, and I doubt I was the first man she’s been with. I don’t care as long as she agrees that I’ll be the last man she’ll be with. That’s all that matters as far as I’m concerned.”

There were many things that Ben thought of to say, and if it had been Hoss or Joe, he probably would have said them or at least some of them. To Adam, there was only one thing to say. “As far as I’m concerned, what matters to you is what matters to me.” Hoss had told him that if he had any chance of convincing Adam to remain on the Ponderosa, he had to change how he acted with him. He was trying.

“Thanks, Pa. Let’s go get some breakfast. I’m hungry.”

After breakfast, Adam left. Once it was decided, there was no reason to delay although a number of times as he traveled, he wondered if he was making the right decision. He finally thought that if he wasn’t, he would turn around and go home. He didn’t so it was the right decision. When he walked into the saloon in Stillwater, Robin stopped and stared for only a moment. Then she smiled and went to the bar to get him a plate of food and a drink. He sat at a table and waited for her to serve that and to sit with him.

“I was thinking you wouldn’t come back.”

“I had a lot to do. I wasn’t sure I was going to come back, but here I am. Now, I have to ask you. Would you consider spending your life with a man who can be moody and sometimes downright hard to live with and who doesn’t even know what he wants to do with his future right now?” Robin was going to answer, but Adam put up his hand. “No, there’s more. First of all, we’d be living on the family ranch, the Ponderosa, because I have no idea what else to do at the moment, but I haven’t always been happy there, and I could decide that I want to leave and do something else. You would have to live with that uncertainty of a man not sure where his future will lead.”

“Are you done now?” Adam inclined his head to let her know he was finished. “All right, there are things you should know about me too. I’m selfish and greedy.” Adam raised an eyebrow. “I could have married at least a dozen or more times over, but I wasn’t satisfied with the thought of being a farmer’s wife or a rancher’s wife. I like nice things. I don’t like having to work with my hands doing hard labor. I’m a saloon girl because I get lots of money doing this work. I own lots of nice dresses and jewelry. I have my own carriage. I can do all sorts of sewing and things like that, and I don’t mind some cooking and baking, but I don’t like the idea of spending my days in the kitchen either. I like to read, play chess, and do all sorts of things like that. This job allows me those luxuries.”

Grinning, Adam took her hand. “You know who I am, don’t you?”

“Yes, I asked around and found out. I know about the Ponderosa. I know you can afford to support me the way I would enjoy, but I didn’t want you to go into this without knowing that’s what I expect too. It’s the kind of woman I am.”

“You’re honest.”

“Sometimes to a fault.”

“I’m familiar with that trait.”

“I thought you might be. There’s one other thing I would like.”

“What’s that?”

“I’d like to see what’s under that beard.”

“If I shave it off, you’ll see that I get stubble rather fast. You may have to deal with whisker burn on occasion.”

“Hm, I guess I’m willing to make the trade.”

“Is there a minister in this town?”

“You want to get married now?”

“If you’re agreeable, yes. Why wait?”

“I think I told you that I’m selfish and greedy. I want the wedding and the party. Let’s get married on the Ponderosa. Would that be too much to ask?”

“No, in fact, that will help with my father. He’s going to love having another wedding. My youngest brother recently married. Now we have to find someone for Hoss.”

“Hoss?”

“All right, I guess it’s time to tell you all about the family. Then you can tell me about yours.”

The bartender called over that Robin should get back to work. She said she quit and was getting married. That led to all sorts of responses and a round of drinks on Adam. They spent the night in her room, loaded up the carriage the next morning, and headed out of town into their uncertain future together.

*****

 

Lemon Tree

Part One

Chapter 1

The moment one learns English, complications set in. Ben Cartwright was so aware of that. There had been days when Ben wished that his son Adam could wait until he was sixteen to learn any words. Somehow he had learned ‘no’ before any other word and used it extensively for quite a while. Then he had learned at a very young age to string words together. Questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” had seemed to be so difficult to answer until he asked how the baby had gotten inside Inger’s belly and then how Hoss had gotten out. Inger had smiled at Ben, and he knew she was enjoying his predicament every time as he turned red and struggled to find an answer that Adam would accept. He knew that stories about cabbage patches and storks delivering babies wouldn’t work with Adam even at that young age. So he had to take him aside and privately teach him even more words and hope he didn’t go off and tell all the other children what he had learned. Inger told him that he was Adam’s hero and that he had to answer the questions no matter how difficult because a boy needs his hero. She told me that a world without heroes is like a world without sun, you can’t look up to anyone.

However standing at that pile of raw earth covered with a mound of stones, he had to teach his son a whole new set of words and could barely get them out through his own tears. Ben wondered about how you teach your son about the finality of death, the promise of heaven, and the vastness of eternity when he’s only six years old. He thought about what to say when Adam asked if this mother would join his other mother up in that heaven. How Ben wished he could be teaching Adam words like family, home, safety, and happiness and get him to believe they were real.

Because he remembered that Inger said he had to be a hero for his sons, he choked out the words though his heart was in pieces. He had to show Adam that you could go on even when the world slammed you into the dirt so hard you felt like you might never be able to take a breath again. But what you really did was stand there and suck in the air you needed and try to remember what other reasons you had to live. Important reasons to live were there beside him, a baby, and a boy who needed him to be a hero to reassure him that he and his brother wouldn’t face that same fate anytime soon. He had to show Adam that being a hero wasn’t having a lack of fear, but facing the fear and every other challenge and going forward despite them.

That lesson had been learned well, perhaps too well. Adam was a strong man who had faced so many dangerous situations unflinching it seemed in the face of danger and sometimes what seemed was a good chance that he might die. Ben had been amazed during the Paiute War to meet with his son and find him in amazingly good spirits even though he had to know he was likely going to be the first one killed if there were any shots fired by either side. In another confrontation, he had shot Poole, a professional gunman, and luckily had not earned a reputation equal to that man.

However there had been other shootings and other confrontations, and now there was a young man in town who had challenged Adam as a way to build up his own reputation. The young man, Tom Mills, had a grudge against Adam too because of Robin as well thinking that somehow Adam had stolen her away from him. It was a fantasy in that Robin had never been interested in him, but he had been much too overconfident in his romantic abilities much as he was in his ability to face an experienced capable man in a gunfight. Adam was avoiding the confrontation, but it was becoming more and more difficult to do so. That morning, even his youngest brother had questioned him as to how he could continue to do so. He had been in town the night before with some of the hands and hadn’t liked hearing the things that some were saying when they repeated the young man’s statements.

“He’s called you a coward. He’s called you worse. How can you let him keep saying those things and not react?”

“They’re only words said by a foolish boy. If he was challenging me to a boxing match, I would already have accepted.”

“Then why won’t you fight him?”

“It’s not worth dying for.”

“You are afraid of him.”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what is it?”

“If you don’t know that answer, then you won’t understand it when I tell you.”

Adam had walked away without saying any more, which had frustrated Joe even more. He had turned to Hoss to try to get a better answer.

“He tole ya what he’s gonna tell ya. Think on it, and mebbe you’ll figure it out. There’re things worse than dying sometimes, and our older brother carries enough of them that he don’t want to be carrying this.”

“You don’t make any more sense than he does.”

After Hoss said nothing more and followed Adam out the door, Ben walked up behind Joe to prevent him from following and perhaps causing trouble with his brothers. “What caused this?”

“Adam won’t fight that gunman in town. He’s probably a lot better than him, but this makes him look like he’s afraid of him.”

“Does it, or does it make it look like he doesn’t want to kill a foolish young man?”

“After what happened yesterday, you would think he would want to fight him before he does something that kills him.”

“Now, Adam doesn’t think that he cut his cinch. He thinks someone else probably did that.”

“Aw, c’mon, Pa, even Robin thinks it was him. Yesterday when we dragged him in here all banged up from the fall, she wanted him to go shoot that, um, lowdown sneaky skunk.”

Robin had stayed out of the conversation. Over the couple of months that she had lived on the Ponderosa, she had found it wise to stay out of all arguments that Adam had with his father and/or his brothers. However Joe had pulled her into this one. “Yes, Joe, when I saw Adam hurt, I was ready to have him do something rash. I was angry, and I was upset. But we talked last night, and we agreed that it didn’t seem like Tom did something like that. He’s brash and bold. Sneaking around and cutting a cinch doesn’t seem at all like him. Now someone doing it so he would be blamed would be more likely.”

“But why would somebody do that to Adam?

“You do remember we’re talking about your oldest brother here?” Robin was smiling a bit and Joe had to hold back his own grin a bit until even Ben got into it.

“Yes, Adam has rubbed a few people the wrong way over the years.”

“A few? Pa, that’s like saying it gets kinda warm here in summer or getting run over in a stampede kinda hurts.”

Robin started chuckling then and Joe began to giggle. Ben laughed too. It was good to release some of the tension. After a moment though, Ben got more serious again.

“Robin, you’re the only one who knows this Tom. What do you think he’ll do?”

“I don’t think he’s got the will to keep this up much longer. He’ll tire of it and move on. Adam is a much stronger man in every way. He only has to wait him out and not let him get to him with anything he’s said.”

“It’s going to be difficult to keep Adam on the ranch and away from a confrontation.”

“I know, but I hope that if he does go somewhere, we’ll all be together. He says he wants to go to church services on Sunday. I assume that will be fine. I can’t imagine a gunfight there or anywhere near there. At least there will be lots of people who are his friends there who won’t want to see that happen either.”

“What about the plans for your house and ordering things you need? I thought you planned to go to town to take care of that next Saturday.”

“We’ll wait an extra week. Adam thinks that won’t delay things too much as he can do things at the site such as set the cornerstones and other things without going into town for anything, and the beams are coming from your lumber mill so that works out well too.”

“I’m glad the two of you worked that out. It seems you’ve got it well under control.”

A little sheepishly, Joe said he would go talk with Adam and apologize. Robin and Ben agreed that would help things go better too. Outside, Candy told Joe that Hoss and Adam had already left to go do the work they had planned for the day.

“You look like you’re ready to do some terrible thing. You do something wrong or something?”

“Yeah, opened my mouth without thinking things through.”

“He knows.”

“Who knows?”

“Your brother, of course. Who else would you have said things to who makes you look like that? He and Hoss talked a bit. He told Hoss it would be fine by dinner. I think he knows you real well.”

“Yeah, not the first time we’ve disagreed.”

“Must be irritating when he’s right.”

“It is.” Joe grinned then though. “Makes it feel all that much better though when I’m right. You should see the look on his face then. It’s worth all the other times.”

“Yeah, I guess he wouldn’t like being wrong.”

“You ever let him forget it when he is?”

“Not hardly. That wouldn’t be any fun at all.”

“You going to town with us tonight?”

“I don’t know.”

“We can find out what saloon that loudmouth is in and go to a different one. It’s not like there’s a shortage of them.”

Joe had to grin at that and agree. Later that afternoon when Hoss and Adam rode back in, Joe was there to greet them and ask if Hoss was heading to town with them. Hoss said that’s why they were back early so Joe offered to take care of his horse for him so he could get cleaned up. As Adam and Joe groomed the horses in the stable, they talked about mundane things until they were done. Joe offered his hand to Adam then who took it. Both knew what it meant. Adam helped him saddle up a fresh horse for Hoss so that by the time he came from the house, he could leave with Joe and the others. Hoss saw Adam and Joe talking amiably with each other and slapped each on the shoulder.

“Steak dinner in town for us, and Hop Sing has got some kind of cheese dish he’s fixin’ for you.” Hoss shuddered when he said the last part.

“Yes, he and Robin were working on it all afternoon. I’m looking forward to it. So is Pa. It’s a soufflé. Should be wonderful.” Adam laughed at Hoss’ reaction to that and watched them ride away. He didn’t miss those nights in town now that he had Robin. Joe still liked to go to town even though Doreen would have preferred him to stay home. He wondered how things were going in that marriage as a result, but it was none of his business. She seemed happy enough taking care of their house and the baby, but it had to be lonely with him gone nearly every Friday and Saturday evening as well as every day to work except for Sunday. Ben tried to get her to come to the house for dinner on the nights that Joe was gone but she said she preferred to stay home because the baby was still so young and usually had other excuses as well.

Chapter 2

At first, when Robin had arrived, it had seemed that Ben disapproved of her role in the family. She was so unlike Doreen who did all the domestic things wives were generally expected to do. She also had the baby in her care and Ben doted on the little girl whenever he had a chance to see her. Doreen was the submissive wife who let Joe make the decisions, didn’t argue with him, and generally let him do what he wanted to do. Robin was never like that. She challenged Adam repeatedly questioning his decisions on many occasions and refusing to be left home if he made a business trip of any length. She let Hop Sing do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry although she did take over the sewing which she seemed to enjoy including putting up new, brighter curtains in several places. She also helped out in the kitchen doing the cooking on those days when Hop Sing was gone or when he needed the assistance. Sometimes they collaborated on new dishes with success. Gradually Ben came to appreciate the more active role in the family that Robin played too. She was there to talk with him as he savored his coffee after breakfast and often brought him a cup in midmorning as he worked telling him he needed to take a break. Sometimes she would challenge him to a game of chess when there were no pressing matters. If they had guests, she was a superb hostess charming everyone who came through the door. Her impact on Adam was clear as he was more relaxed and happy although still not sure what he wanted to do in the long term, but at least for the short term, he was willing to live and work on the Ponderosa. They spent their evenings and their free time together often sitting on the settee talking or going on picnics or simply riding on the ranch. There were of course arguments and disagreements, but the tension never seemed to last more than a day as they worked through the problems with honesty they had pledged to each other.

Sometimes Ben thought the two of them could go too far with honesty though. They had not hidden Robin’s background at all, and the gossips in town had made quite a fuss about it. Adam’s reasoning was that they should get it out of the way right away as it would seem worse if it appeared they were hiding it and someone ferreted out the information.

“Pa, Redmonds and Stillwater aren’t that far away. Someone from there could easily end up here and recognize her. There are people there who knew who I was. It wouldn’t take much for the story to break here. We’re going to tell it so it gets told with the facts and nothing more.”

There were still a few snide remarks on occasion, but many people in the west started over and some more than once. As long as you moved forward in a virtuous way, most would forgive anything that had happened earlier. All Robin had done was work in a saloon. It wasn’t nearly as scandalous a past as some tried to live down. Ben gradually had come to see the wisdom of it even if he still wondered if it had been the best way to handle it.

However as Ben sat at the table and watched Adam sample the soufflé and Robin waited for his reaction, he was struck again by the contrast in his sons’ marriages. Doreen was home with her baby while her husband was in town with the hands and Adam sat at the table sampling his wife’s latest culinary adventure. Adam made a face, but it was clear Robin knew he didn’t mean it as she slapped his arm.

“Don’t do that. Hop Sing’s feelings will be hurt.”

“All right. It’s delicious. It is better and lighter than any I have had in San Francisco. I want to know how you learned to make this.”

Triumphant, Robin turned to Ben then as it was his turn to sample the soufflé. He did and had to agree with Adam. All thoughts of Tom and the trouble he could cause were forgotten then as they ate their soufflé and then the roast beef and green beans that also had been prepared. It was a few hours later that Tom was once again the center of their thoughts.

When Adam and Robin had gone up to bed, she was dismayed to see the large purple bruising on his back and side. It seemed even worse than it had the day before when he had come home from town helped by Hoss and Joe, but Adam said it was only because she hadn’t seen them since then.

“It’s not any worse. It’s tender in those spots but not particularly painful. Of course, if you would like to kiss them to make them better, I wouldn’t mind at all.”

“Yes, and I suppose you think that might lead to something else that you would like even more.”

“Now that you mention it, it has been a few days since we’ve done anything like that and I’m not very tired and tomorrow is Sunday so there’s no reason not to do a little extra tonight, is there?”

“I think it’s funny.”

“What’s funny?”

“How you try to convince me sometimes when all you would have to do is kiss me and things would develop from there without you having to say a single word.”

“Ah, but variety keeps things interesting, doesn’t it?”

Of course, as he was talking, he was unbuttoning her dress and doing all sorts of other things that meant that there was going to be a lot more going on regardless of what he said because Robin was having a difficult time concentrating as it was. She put her hands on his shoulders and let his hands roam over her enjoying those sensations.

“I’m plenty interested, mister, so you can shut up now and just do what you’re doing.”

Wrapping her arms around her husband’s neck, Robin could feel the rumble of the chuckle in his chest as he slid his hands down her back and kissed his way softly across her cheek to behind her ear and down her neck to her shoulder and beyond. Then he moved his arms down under her thighs, picked her up, and carried her the short distance to the bed. Later as they lay together with Robin’s leg up across his hip and her arms across his shoulder, he talked softly with her about potential plans for their future. He liked that he could try out ideas and she didn’t overreact as she listened and sometimes asked questions but never judged although sometimes she made funny comments. Several days later, she would usually offer her opinion of what she thought about the idea after having given it some thought. They had already come up with a couple of ideas of things they might do but thought that they could use the first year of their marriage not only to get to know each other better but to live on the Ponderosa so Robin could get to know the other Cartwrights well too. She was doing that but had some concerns.

“I think you should talk to Joe about Doreen. I don’t think he understands completely what marriage is all about. He leaves her alone too much. Tonight was too much. He was gone last night and then tonight too. That isn’t right.”

“Isn’t that for them to work out between them?”

“You’re the one who has told me on many occasions how your younger brother sometimes acts without thinking things through all the way. I think he’s done that here. He got married that way. I think he loves her, but he never took a good look at how marriage would change his life. He’s trying to have both his old life and his new one.” Adam was quiet so she knew he had drawn the same conclusion. “If you thought that, why didn’t you say something to him?”

“What goes on between a man and a woman is really their concern. As long as he’s not hurting her or doing something wrong, I don’t feel it’s my place. That’s one reason, and it’s a good one.”

“But he is hurting her. I know she and I don’t get along that well. Our backgrounds and the way we are, well, they’re so different, but she’s said enough when we have been together that I know she’s unhappy with how things are going.”

“Then why doesn’t she come over to dinner when Pa asks her? She says she’s happier staying in that little house with Maribeth.”

“If you feel awful, do you want to be with other people especially other happy people?”

“She should say something to Joe about how she feels. She needs to stand up for herself.”

“That’s probably easier for you to understand than for her. Think of her background. Her family isn’t exactly the type to stand up to anyone. You had the example of your father to follow. If she follows the example of her family, she will do exactly what she’s doing.” There was silence again so in the dark without being able to see his expression, Robin could imagine what it was. There would be a slight furrow between the eyes, and those cupid bow lips would be pressed into more of a straight line as he pressed them tightly together. The eyebrows would have dropped a bit lower and the eyes would have narrowed too. Most likely there could be a muscle working in his jawline. Often that was visible too if you watched closely. She used her hand to softly touch his face to see if her conclusion was correct. As her fingers traced his lips, he nipped her fingertips. “What was that for?”

“You’re checking me out again, aren’t you? You wanted to see if I was frowning.”

“You are too.”

“I was thinking. Joe got married quickly like I did, but he didn’t have a lot of time to think about it. There was an overriding reason to get married and that drove the decision. I thought about you a lot and how things would be different if I was sharing my life with someone. The pluses were rather overwhelming that I was able to make the voices in my head that argued against it simply shut up. I was ready for my life to change if you said yes. I guess Joe wasn’t.”

“So, will you talk to him?”

“I guess I’ll try, but maybe I’ll talk to Hoss first to see what he thinks about it. He knows how Joe can be when I try to offer advice especially if he hasn’t asked for it. There’s another issue to address though and the solution is going to be more difficult. Who’s going to talk to Doreen and get her to tell Joe when he’s gone too far? Who’s going to be that person who helps her?”

“I was afraid you were going to bring that up. I don’t think I’m a good candidate for that task. She doesn’t seem to like me that much. We’re kind of in that tolerate each other state.”

“Yes, I don’t think the two of us could have married women much more opposite than the two of you.”

They might have talked a bit more about that or about other things as it wasn’t that late yet, but there was quite a bit of commotion with some yelling outside and then noise downstairs. Adam got out of bed and pulled on his pants and a shirt. He skipped the boots and put on his slippers as Robin pulled on a gown and pulled a heavy robe around her and got her slippers as well. When Adam got to the top of the stairs, he was surprised to see Joe on the settee with his arm in a sling and Hoss standing by the fireplace talking with their father who looked to be equally concerned, angry, and frustrated. Hop Sing soon was there with some items and fussed over an apparent wound in Joe’s arm. Adam didn’t know what had happened, but he headed down into the foray. He got a quick summary from Hoss who turned on Joe next with apparently a repeat performance of what he had told him a few times already that night.

“That dadburned yahoo Tom goaded our little brother until he couldn’t take it any more and he let himself get suckered into a situation where that dang little jasper could draw on him. He’s darn fast too. Joe put one in his arm too though. Ain’t neither one of ’em gonna be doing anything stupid like this for a while.”

“You heard what he said. I had to answer that.”

“Nah, ya didn’t. Nobody in there believed a word of what he was saying. He only said it and more cause he saw your face getting red when he said it. Now you gotta go home to your wife and explain what happened. I shur hope you kin explain it to her ’cause ya shur cain’t explain it to me. Ya never shoulda been in town in the first place. I bin meaning to tell ya. I shoulda said something sooner. Ain’t right you bein’ in town drinking and gambling with me and the hands when ya got a wife and new baby at home. That’s where you belong. Ain’t you got any more sense than a stray dog? Ifn I had what you have, I know where I’d be. A man oughta be where his treasure’s at not gallivanting around the country like he’s still a footloose ramblin’ man.”

Coming up behind Adam, Robin slipped an arm through his and leaned into him. When Hoss finished, she looked up to see Adam returning the gaze. “I guess you won’t have to talk to him now.”

“Yes, Hoss did a good job, didn’t he?”

They were whispering, and there wasn’t any other sound in the room. Even Ben had nothing to say. Hoss had stolen their thunder and succinctly summed up their arguments and delivered them. All that was left to do was get Joe home and let Doreen know what had happened. Adam offered to help, but Hoss said he would take care of it, and Joe agreed that it made the most sense. Hoss stood and waited for Joe to stand, and the two walked slowly to the door both reluctant to face what was certainly going to be a difficult time. Doreen was going to be upset that Joe was hurt, but she was probably going to be as upset or more so by the reason he had been hurt. If Joe was completely honest, she was likely to feel insulted as well. Hoss and the others understood that even if Joe didn’t fully comprehend yet the full import of his actions.

Chapter 3

When Hoss left the house with Joe, Ben turned to Adam. “I was trying to think of a way to talk to Joe about his behavior, but I didn’t want to interfere too much. It’s difficult to offer advice to another man about his marriage even when you think he might be messing it up rather badly.”

Adam smiled although it looked more like a smirk probably. “Robin and I talked and agreed I should talk to him too. I’m relieved that Hoss took care of it though. All we need to do is let Joe know we agree with what Hoss said. If he has any doubts about following Hoss’ advice, that should help.”

All they could do at that point was to wait for Hoss’ return and hope that Doreen wasn’t too upset when Joe arrived wounded and she found out the reason for it. Robin knew how she would feel in a similar situation and didn’t envy Joe the next few hours especially. Adam and Ben had similar feelings about being glad it wasn’t them caught in such a predicament.

It was over an hour before Hoss returned, and they could ask the questions that were burning inside. Until then they were forced to talk about the little that they did know.

“Any idea what Tom said that got Joe so upset?” Robin was curious not knowing what kind of things would let him allow himself to be set up for a gunfight.

“Hoss didn’t say much only that he said things about being with Doreen and what kinds of things he had done with her. Now you both know Doreen would never do anything like that, and she hasn’t left the Ponderosa in the last couple of months except with one of us because she has to care for Maribeth.”

“So Joe let his temper take over? Why would he let anyone think he would believe those things. That’s very insulting to Doreen.”

“Yes, and Doreen may be rather shy, but she’ll understand that if he got that mad about those insults that it was like saying they could be true. I’m afraid that with all that’s been going on, he was too on edge and not thinking clearly at all. Hoss is right. Even in the best of circumstances, he should never have gone to town. Maybe this will give him some time to think and perhaps to talk things over with his wife.” At least Ben hoped that was true.

“Pa, there’s more of a problem there than Joe. Doreen needs to stand up for herself too. That’s the other thing that Robin and I talked about. She never complains, openly at least, about anything that Joe does. By the way she acts, he may think it’s all fine with her, or he may think worse.”

“Worse? How could it be worse?”

“He could think she doesn’t care.”

That statement by Adam made them all quiet for a time. They waited for Hoss to come back to hear how that part of the night had gone, and to find out what had happened to Tom for instigating a gunfight in town. Roy generally was very perturbed by such behavior, and they had forgotten to ask earlier because of their overriding concern for Joe. When Hoss got back, that was in fact the first question he heard.

“Well, now, he was facing a list of charges from Roy and a bill for damages from the saloon so Roy gave him a choice. He could face a judge who could give him up to thirty days in jail. Now you know he’d owe some money for that too. His gun arm was in a sling. The other choice was to leave town and not come back. That’s what he done. As we rode out one way, he was a ridin’ out the other.”

The second question was about Joe and Doreen.

“Now she looked mighty worried and maybe a bit upset. It’s always so durn hard to tell with that gal. She never loses her temper and never complains as far as I know. It ain’t normal. Well, maybe that ain’t right, but it sure ain’t like a Cartwright not to caterwaul a bit at least when they’re feelin’ somebody done ’em wrong, I kin tell ya that.”

Adam looked down at Robin sitting at his side. He had that small smile that said he very much wanted to say something. Ben and Hoss waited, but Robin looked at him in a way that said he probably shouldn’t. Shrugging, he looked back up at his father and brother who chuckled.

“Son, you’re learning very fast.”

“I’ve got the bruises on my arm to prove it. She’s got very sharp elbows.”

About to deliver a sharp poke to her husband, Robin held back, and Adam chuckled with his father and brother about that one. He reached down though and took her hand.

“I’d rather have those though than not know what she’s thinking. I know where I stand with her. Joe and Doreen have been married longer, but I’m afraid they still don’t know each other well enough.” Robin put her other hand on top of his and leaned against his shoulder to show her agreement with his statement. She liked too how their marriage was developing. Both had faults, but they were learning to adjust to each other and trying to curb their worst traits. Marriage was good for both of them, and as Adam often said to her, it was good and getting better and not only in bed.

Ben thought that perhaps he could do one thing to help things along. “With Joe’s arm injured, I’m going to suggest he take some days off. That should give him some time to take care of some of that if he’s willing. Hoss gave him the right idea. Now it’s up to him to do it. Now it’s late. I’m going to bed. I plan to go to church services tomorrow. Are you three going with me?”

All agreed so after locking up the house, they headed to bed with thoughts of Joe on their minds. Each said a few prayers for Joe and Doreen that night. The next morning, they headed to church without having heard anything from Joe although they had not expected to hear anything so early nor had they expected the couple to go with them under the circumstances. Adam and Robin took the carriage, and Ben and Hoss rode their horses. It was a pleasant morning so they weren’t expecting any trouble.

As they drove to the church in town, Robin was quiet as she enjoyed the panorama of the Ponderosa. She and Adam had lots of time to talk so these times when he wanted reflection and peacefulness were good with her too as she liked sometimes being alone with her thoughts even if he was beside her. She knew he needed the time too. There were times when they snapped at each other or even argued over little things until they realized that each of them had spent a lot of years having private time whenever they needed it. Gradually they were learning how to adjust to that and let each other have that time sometimes even when they were together. Adam had talked about how he and Hoss could do that too, but that Joe got nervous whenever there wasn’t conversation and would do something to stir things up. She had asked about their father then.

“Pa’s good about it to a point, but he’s insatiably curious about what we’re thinking so inevitably he’ll start asking questions.”

“And inevitably you evade them.”

Adam had laughed at that and agreed. No one was ever going to get him to talk about something until he was ready unless of course they made him lose his temper. It wasn’t that easy to do, but when it blew, Robin thought it was a sight to behold. He warned her that his father could blow much harder than he did, but as of yet, she hadn’t seen his famous temper that even Hoss had said was quite impressive. She decided that she never wanted to be on the receiving end of it. Both Adam and Hoss had been quite serious when they responded to that by agreeing wholeheartedly. That had only made her more worried. He had not exploded when he found out what Joe had done in town to get himself wounded so Robin wondered just what it took to make him lose that temper of his because she didn’t want to do it. She remembered asking him about that. Adam had said it was very simple.

“Don’t ever hurt a member of his family or try to take the Ponderosa or any part of it away from him. Anything else, and he’ll probably manage to control his temper reasonably well.”

“You lose your temper more easily than that.”

“I’m married to you.”

And he had gotten one more of those bruises on his arm that he complained about, but she thought he truly deserved that one. That had been early in their marriage, and Adam had learned to be more diplomatic in his statements since then or at least to be further away when he said things like that. She did love the teasing though even if he could be infuriating because he was so good at it. Without the skills he had, she couldn’t match him in that department at all. The pokes in the arm made up for it though or so he said. She wrapped an arm around his arm and leaned into him knowing he was probably looking down at her with affection. She looked up to verify her thought and was rewarded with a full dimpled grin. That ride to town was a long one, but it didn’t seem that way at all.

At church, before they could enter, RoseMary Leach stopped them to ask Adam to be on a committee to work on raising money to help the children made fatherless because of accidents in the mines or in the timber camps. She had attention only for him making Robin a bit upset with her. This was not the first time that RoseMary had tried something like this, and it was clear that she was trying to get closer to Adam. At least that was what she thought, although Adam dismissed the idea or at least said that he did. He hadn’t seemed to be as convinced of his words as he should have been if he truly believed what he was saying. This time she thought he handled it better than he had previously.

“The person you should ask is Robin. She has more time to work on things like that, and she wants to get to know more of the people in town. As a Cartwright, she has a lot of influence too.”

The whole tone of RoseMary’s voice changed then. “Of course, Adam, if that’s what you want. Robin, would you like to be on the committee?” Robin agreed. “I’ll let you know the time and place of the first meeting.” Turning to her husband who had stood quietly during her performance, she indicated they should leave. With never having even greeted them, Archibald Leach turned with his wife and headed into the church.

Hoss addressed Adam with his concern. “That gal ain’t never got over her feelings for ya. Plain as day every time she’s near ya.”

“She only asked me to be on a committee.”

“Ya, but it was how she looked at ya first and then after ya said no and said Robin would rather do it. Say, shouldn’t you have asked Robin first?”

“Robin has been saying she would like to do something like that. I only said she should ask Robin not that she would do it.”

“I didn’t miss that you said I was a Cartwright too. Thank you for that, although like Hoss, I don’t think she liked hearing that. I’ve often gotten that impression from her, and now I think I may know why. She’s jealous of me.”

“Enough of all that kind of talk. We can always continue it later in the privacy of our home if you think it necessary. Let’s all get into church.” Ben was concerned about RoseMary too but didn’t want them to be overheard by others either. He agreed with Hoss that RoseMary had an unhealthy interest in Adam. He had hoped she would get over it especially after she got married, but she had not so he wondered if he should talk to her parents to see if they had any insight. He had that opportunity after church. As it turned out, they had the same concern but thought that Adam had been encouraging her based on what she had told them.

“No, Adam hasn’t seen her or talked to her. I don’t know what she is basing her conclusions on, but Adam and Robin are very happy together.”

“RoseMary told us that he wasn’t when he found out about her past. She said he wanted to get out of the marriage but was worried about the scandal of a divorce.”

Ben had to smile but then had to apologize. “I’m sorry to smile, but Adam met Robin in a saloon. He knew her past right from the start. There was nothing to learn. It was his idea with Robin not to keep her past a secret because they were afraid it would seem worse to people if they tried to hide it. Yes, she did work in a saloon, but that’s all.”

“RoseMary has told us it was much worse than that.”

“That’s malicious gossip. Adam knows the truth and that’s the important part.”

“I’m sorry. We only said what we’ve heard. We didn’t know it wasn’t true.”

“It isn’t true at all, and I would appreciate it if you would tell RoseMary that so she would not repeat that story any more. As far as we are concerned, Robin’s history that matters is what happened after she met Adam, and she has been a good friend and then a loving wife to him. That’s what is important.”

“Yes, we can see that she and Adam are happy.” Jim wanted to say he wished his daughter and her husband were happy but couldn’t say that.

“Robin is my daughter-in-law now and part of my family. I hope the people who say things like that about her know that they are insulting my family. I won’t forget it.” The threat was clear and delivered loud enough that anyone standing near would have heard it.

“We’re sorry, Ben. We thought our daughter had heard the truth. We meant no harm. We’ll be sure to tell not only RoseMary but everyone we know what you’ve said.”

“Thank you, Jim. I certainly would appreciate that.”

At the carriage, Robin had a question for Adam. “Was that the famous Ben temper?”

“No, but it was getting close. I don’t know what they said, but something got close to setting it off. His voice was close, real close to where it is when he’s about to blow.”

Hoss agreed with that assessment, and the three were chuckling when Ben got there but not about to tell him why. Robin and Adam decided to take the scenic route home with a stop by the lake so Ben and Hoss rode home ahead of them. They knew that Adam and Robin wanted to be alone.

Chapter 4

It was four hours later that an angry and upset Adam drove the carriage into the yard. Hoss was on the porch whittling and could tell by the way Adam looked and the way he got out of the carriage that something was wrong. He hurried to his brother’s side.

“What happened?”

“Somebody took shots at us. I’ll give you one guess as to whom that was.”

“Dang, and I thought he was gone for good. I suppose he used a rifle then?”

Of course the assumption was that it was Tom Mills, and that’s he hadn’t left at all. However hampered by his gun arm being wounded, he was using a rifle instead and shooting from cover. Robin had doubts about it being him, but she didn’t know him well enough to be certain of that so she said nothing. She thought perhaps she might discuss it with Adam later privately to see what he thought about her theory that someone else might be using the situation with Tom to attack him and get Tom blamed. She had been thinking about it on the way back from the lake but wasn’t ready to answer the barrage of questions such an idea would likely unleash from not only Adam but the rest of the family if she mentioned her idea at this point. Instead she let Adam do the narrative of what happened.

“Yes, we were at the lake and otherwise occupied when we got pinned down by rifle fire. I didn’t have my pistol on me so we had to wait him out. He probably didn’t know that and couldn’t get any closer and take a chance I’d shoot him.”

“You didn’t see him then?”

“Didn’t have to see him. Who else would be shooting at us, or rather at me?”

Hoss tried to lighten the mood. With that impish look that was so incongruous on such a large man, he had to tease his older brother. “Should I make a list?”

That didn’t get Adam to laugh, but he rolled his eyes. Robin however did chuckle so the tension was broken. They were safely home. When Ben heard, he was upset too. They talked at dinner about what to do. Because he was likely long gone, there was no point in returning to the lake to look for him.

“We should tell Roy so he can do whatever he might be able to do, and he was on the Ponderosa so we need to alert the hands to watch for him too. Adam, you need to keep yourself on alert at all times too.”

“Pa, I’m not a boy. I don’t need to be lectured.”

“Then what were you doing without your pistol on you?”

Adam’s raised eyebrows and Robin turning a rather bright pink in the cheeks, and Ben suddenly realized what he had asked. Hoss started to guffaw like only he could, and Adam and Robin joined in the laughter. Ben shook his head and laughed too knowing he should never have asked that question. It was about that time when a much more serious looking Joe and Doreen arrived at the house with Maribeth. The baby got most of the attention although a number of furtive looks assessed the couple trying to discern their mood. Joe noticed though.

“Yes, Doreen and I have talked a lot if that’s what all those looks are about. There are going to be some changes. We’re not ready to talk about everything yet, but I’ll be spending more time at home. I figure it will be a few days before I can do a full workload again, so we’ll have more time to talk and work out some things.”

“That’s great, Joe.” Adam was the first to say something, and Hoss slapped their younger brother on the shoulder to show his agreement with what Adam had said.

“Son, you take all the time you need to heal.” Ben couldn’t have made it clearer that it wasn’t only the arm that concerned him as he looked from Joe to Doreen and the baby and back again.

“It’s going to work out, Pa. We kinda lost our way for a while, but we know what’s important.” Ben put a hand on Joe’s shoulder and squeezed. “Now, you want to tell me what had all of you laughing when we walked over here?”

The laughter started again of course as it was Ben’s turn to look embarrassed about how he was going to explain that without saying something he shouldn’t. Adam stepped in and said he would take care of it whispering in Joe’s ear. Joe’s grin grew as he heard the story and Doreen got curious as to what it was.

“He didn’t?”

“He did.”

“Pa, you really need to be more careful about what you say.” And Joe began to giggle as Robin whispered to Doreen what Ben had said so she could enjoy the humor too.

On Monday, Ben went to town to talk with Sheriff Coffee to see if he could do anything about finding Tom Mills to make sure he did nothing more to Adam. Shocked that the young man would try something like an ambush, Roy agreed to help.

“I never saw any sign that he would do something like that. He was a loudmouth, and he went too far pushing Joe into that fight, but I never took him for a back-shooter. If I had, I would have sent him on his way a long time ago. I figured Adam could never get pushed into a fight by him no how so I wasn’t really worried about him. I will send out a few telegrams to see where he may be ’cause I know he ain’t in town here.”

“I know you keep a close eye on who is coming and going, Roy, so that’s why I wanted you to know. We’ll be watching on the Ponderosa too. That was a close call for Adam, and I don’t want another one like that. Robin was with him too and could have been shot as easily as Adam.”

“I suppose that’s why Adam wasn’t able to get the guy. I woulda thought he woulda gone after him, but with Robin there, he couldn’t.”

Ben hadn’t thought about Roy reasoning along those lines. It was logical though as was his conclusion that Adam hadn’t chased after the assailant because Robin was with him. It gave Ben a good way out of answering the question honestly so he simply agreed with Roy who did wonder why Ben looked so uncomfortable at that point. That is, he was until he remembered that Adam was with Robin in a secluded location, and then all he did was smile and wish Ben a good day.

Heading to the bank next, Ben met RoseMary’s parents who quickly said they had had a talk with her. They didn’t look at all happy about it so Ben had to ask.

“She didn’t like what you had to say?”

“It’s not that. Ben, she argued that we were wrong. She claims that Adam is miserably unhappy and those smiles are all a front to cover up how sad he is. She said it isn’t like him to smile so much and that tells her how unhappy he is.”

“Well, that’s the most foolish crazy thing I think I’ve ever heard. A man who is happy is proof that he is unhappy? Where would she get a fool notion like that?”

“She reads a lot, Ben, and she gets these ideas from the books she reads. She likes poetry and romantic stories. I’m afraid she thinks too much of that is true.”

“Yes, and I suppose that was much of the attraction to Adam and his love of books.”

“She said she loved his singing too, and she said he practically proposed to her in one of his songs so that’s why she thought he was going to marry her. Then when he was gone, she married Archie. Now she says she shouldn’t have because that’s why Adam got married. Apparently, she thinks that it won’t last, and then she and Adam will be together.”

“What are you going to do?”

“We’re going to talk to Archie and see if he knows about this. Then we’ll see what he wants to do. I’m afraid she needs care. Being with child now of course is going to make it all the more difficult.”

“I’d congratulate you, but I’m afraid, under the circumstances, it doesn’t seem appropriate.”

“No, our joy has certainly diminished as we’ve learned these new things. Pray for her Ben, and pray for us and Archie as we try to help her.”

After that, the rest of the visit to town seemed a blur to Ben later as his mind was on Tom Mills and on RoseMary and the problems they posed for Adam. Well aware that Adam was still considering leaving, he worried that these two problems could push Adam away and hated to have to bring more bad news home. However Adam had a right to know about RoseMary so he told him when he got home and before anyone else could. Remaining quiet as his father explained the whole situation to him, Adam was first incredulous and then incensed.

“I can’t believe the ludicrous situation in which I find myself. On one hand, I have a young man who wants to kill me to build his reputation and win my wife for his own. On the other, I have a woman who is clearly unhinged and is waiting for what she believes is the inevitable breakup of my marriage because I’m too obviously happy to be happy. Is that about right?”

Sitting next to Ben, Robin could only watch as Ben agreed with his son that his assessment was accurate as it was succinct. She didn’t think there was any more to add, but Ben expressed his deeper concern with the situation.

“Son, I know you’re still thinking of leaving. I hope that these things don’t make you go.”

Leaning back in his chair, Adam took a deep breath, stared up at the ceiling as if beseeching heaven, and blew the air out forcefully. “Pa, I am very frustrated with the situation. But this isn’t going to push me out. If I leave, it will be because something is pulling me to go. Robin and I have talked about this quite a lot already. I want to do things that I’m not doing now, but I can do a number of them right here. If there are things I can’t, then I may have to go for a while to do those. Right now, I haven’t identified a goal that requires me to leave.”

“When will you know?”

“I’m not sure, but if I leave, I’ll come back even if I can’t tell you when because I don’t know yet why I would go. We do plan to build a house. We’ve agreed on that much. We were hoping to take some rides and look at places to put one, but I don’t want to put Robin at risk. We can wait until they find Tom Mills and lock him up.”

“As long as you’re on the Ponderosa, you should be safe enough. I can ride with you if you like. I doubt Tom Mills will take on both of us.”

“The Ponderosa is a big place. I’m worried that he’s holed up somewhere and may strike when we least expect him as he did yesterday.”

“You don’t have to worry about that. I saw Hoss and Joe as I was coming back. They found his tracks from yesterday and followed them until he was well off the Ponderosa and then on the road. Eventually they couldn’t find his tracks with all the other marks on the road and came back. No, he left our ranch and headed out. I can only hope he keeps on going.”

“That’s good to know. All right, then, if Robin agrees and the weather is good, how about tomorrow for a day to scout out possible sites for a home.”

In his heart, Ben felt warmed by that statement because Adam called it a home not a house. The difference in those two words was significant.

Chapter 5

There was more good news the next morning at breakfast although Hoss didn’t understand how it was good news and was shocked when Adam congratulated their younger brother on making progress.

“Progress? How is that progress? Joe comes over here with a big smile and tells us he had a huge fight with his wife last night, and they even woke the baby, and then they up and argued about that too. He said it went on for a coupla hours, and you call that progress, and you’re smiling?”

“Yes, Hoss, it means she cares.”

“Huh?”

Deciding to take over for Adam who was being too concise, and Joe who had been too excited, Ben explained more simply and in terms the unmarried Hoss might better understand, or at least he hoped so. “You see, Doreen never argued with Joe. She did what he wanted and always seemed to not care much one way or the other. Joe started to feel that perhaps she didn’t care that much for him either. Well, by arguing with him, she let him know she cared. No one argues that much with someone unless they care. If they don’t care, it doesn’t matter what the other person thinks or does. It’s kind of a I don’t care attitude. By wanting him to change what he does and being forceful about it, it shows she cares.”

“Oh, you mean like we always knew Adam and Joe really did love each other like brothers cause they fought so much. Ifn they’d ignored each other, that woulda been worse.”

Rolling his eyes at that one, Ben smirked. “There are times I wish they could have ignored each other, but yes, that’s the gist of it. They cared so much that they argued. By arguing with Joe, Doreen let him know how she felt.”

“Yeah, and making up was pretty darn good too.”

Adam raised his arms out of harm’s way before he agreed. “Yes indeed, the making up is the best part of arguing. Makes it all worthwhile.”

Robin paused and then jabbed her elbow into his exposed ribs. Hoss had taken a mouthful of flapjack and nearly spit it out. Ben was less fortunate. He had taken a big gulp of coffee and some came out of his nose. Joe simply sagged against the wall giggling. Once Ben recovered and wiped his mouth and nose with his napkin, he had some wisdom to impart to his eldest son who was bent over in mock agony.

“Son, I think your wife has informed you rather forcefully that it is not respectful to talk about her in such a way in front of others especially other men.”

He turned to Robin next.

“My dear, could I ask you please to deliver your corporal punishment lessons somewhere other than at the dining table. I would most appreciate that.”

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Apology accepted. Now, Joe, how’s the arm?”

“Aren’t you going to ask about my damaged ribs?”

Rolling his eyes again, Ben waited for Joe’s answer.

“It’s sore but no infection. Doreen changed the bandage for me again this morning. She said she’d help do some exercises later and put some warm packs on the muscles to ease the soreness.”

“That sounds good, son. Now I’m going with Adam and Robin today to look at some home sites. Hoss, you’re in charge here.”

Hoss leaned back with a self-satisfied smirk and looked around at his brothers. “You heard him. I’m in charge.” He paused. “What exactly does that mean, Pa?”

Joe giggled again before heading for the door. “I believe that means you get to do all the work. Thank you, big brother.”

“Yes, thank you, Hoss. You’re the best brother ever.”

“Adam, you talk smart and smirk like that at me one more time, and I’m gonna pound you.”

“You can’t do that, Hoss. Who’s going to help you find a gal then. You don’t want to get involved in another of Joe’s schemes, do you?”

Robin walked around to where Hoss was sitting and wrapped an arm around his mighty shoulders. “Don’t you worry. I’m going to be checking out all the gals in Virginia City. I’ll find one who’s nice, pretty, and can cook. Oh, I’ll be sure to check that she likes critters too.”

“Robin, ifn you wasn’t already married to my brother, I’d fall in love with you right now.”

“Hoss, I do think you are the sweetest talker of the three.”

That made Hoss blush and Robin smiled. She left then with Adam to get the carriage ready. Ben looked at Hoss. “What kind of gal do you want?”

“Not as sassy as Robin. I do like her a lot, but she’s too much of a challenge for me. And I’d like more of a partner than Doreen. Probably someone more in between the two would be the best for me.”

“Have anyone in mind?”

“Dadburnit, Pa, I cain’t git no gal to pay attention to me. Leastways, not the kind of gal I want to pay attention to me.”

“It will happen, Hoss. I have a feeling it will happen.”

“I shur wish it would happen sooner rather than later then.”

“Well, I have to get going. We have a lot of places to go today. Maybe Robin will find someone for you.”

“Shur would make it easier.”

Wishing he could say something more supportive, Ben had nothing so he said only that they would be back by dinner and left. Adam had their horses ready and Hop Sing had food packed for them. With their canteens filled, they headed out to scout out some locations. They started with some near the house, but Adam was anxious to look at sites with grander vistas while Robin was enjoying the day and the scenery in general. Ben had a feeling that she would be content with a house anywhere as long as it was nice and she didn’t have to do the cooking and the cleaning. He mentioned that when they took a break making her laugh.

“You have nailed me down very accurately. I have little interest in being that kind of wife. I told Adam that before we married. I didn’t want to mislead him in any way.”

“You checked him out.”

“I did.”

Seeing the look on his father’s face, Adam had to chuckle. “She’s more like me than you thought, isn’t she?”

“I guess so. I never would have expected that.”

There was no chance to discuss that any further because they saw a rider coming and soon could tell it was Sheriff Coffee. That was a surprise and probably meant he had important news for them. They all hoped it meant that Tom Mills was in custody. He was, but it wasn’t as reassuring as they had thought it would be.

“I saw one of your hands, and he said he saw you all headed on up this way. I got good news, but it ain’t what you’re expecting to hear. Tom Mills is locked up in Carson City.”

“That is good news, Roy. Why wouldn’t that be what we’re expecting to hear. Adam should be safe from that man now.”

“Oh, he is, and he was on Sunday too.” That got the surprise from the Cartwrights that Roy had been expecting. He had been as surprised when he found out as they were at this moment. “Tom Mills was locked up already by Saturday night. As soon as he got there, he made trouble. He fired off his pistol with his left hand and did some damage. He didn’t have any money on him so they threw him in jail. He’s been sitting in there since. He’s got a few more days left to serve. He couldn’t have shot at Adam on Sunday ’cause he was locked up.”

“Then who shot at me?”

Ben and Robin were as astonished and as worried now as Adam.

“Now that’s a durn good question, Adam. It’s why I rode on out here instead of sending a message. I need to talk to you about that. We need to figure out who could be gunning for you. You got any other ideas who might be mad enough at ya to take a shot at ya? Somebody had to be awful mad to want to shoot ya.”

“No, I don’t. I haven’t had any altercations with anyone around here for quite some time. It would have to be an old grudge, I guess.”

Ben had another idea. “Tom was here because of Robin. Could there be someone else here because of something you did while you were gone those months?”

“I don’t know of anyone, Roy. I did get two men sent to prison but that’s where they are yet. You sent Gloria or whatever her real name is off to Ruby for trial, and I assume they locked her up somewhere.”

“Well, I’ll check up on those but like you say, they’ll all likely be locked up somewhere. Do any of ’em have friends you know of that might mean some harm to you because of what you done? I do suppose it’s possible that the two men are out by now, but they ought to be grateful you saved ’em from hanging. They had those wanted posters out on ’em, and without you finding what that sheriff and woman had done, they woulda hanged for a murder they never did.”

“But now that it’s not Tom, I don’t know who to watch for. Somebody is gunning for me, and I don’t know why and I don’t know who. Roy if you find out that Stan and Gordy are out of prison, I’d like to go see them if they’re anywhere near here. I think I can tell by how they react to me if they’re part of this.”

“As long as you don’t go alone. I don’t want anything to happen to you or to them. Of course, first I have to find out if they’re out yet.”

The information Roy sought was easy enough to get and he brought it out to the Ponderosa as soon as he could. He timed it so he could have dinner with the family too and discuss the news over one of Hop Sing’s delicious meals. The most important news he had was about Gloria.

“Now what I’ve got is a detailed report. She’s in the Wyoming Territorial Prison sitting in a cell twenty-four hours per day. She’s allowed only one letter per month and the warden read it before it went out. He read every letter she’s received and apparently there’s been only two and both from her lawyer telling her first that he was filing the appeal she requested and then telling her that it had been denied. She sent him a pretty nasty reply letter. That’s been about it. She has no communication with anyone else.”

“Why is she in prison in Wyoming?” Adam had thought that Nevada would have handled her case.

“Seems there were already sentences against her there. She escaped from jail there before they could lock her up. Easiest thing to do was to send her there. If she ever gets out, she comes to Nevada to go to prison here. Now for Stan and Gordy, the news is different. They’re both out and on parole for good behavior.”

“That’s not surprising. From what I knew of them, both men were reasonably able to follow orders and probably did better in that kind of setting.” Adam had the information he needed except for where they were. “Where are they?”

“They’re working on a place up in Harriman. Not many people up that way so you should be able to find the place fairly easily. If it’s a big ranch, that’s the one. It’s called the Rocking R, and they took both of them on. Now that’s quite a ways to come to shoot at a man, but it’s possible. They woulda noticed them being gone though. There’s no telegraph there so I can’t contact them directly. I could send a letter, but it would take a while to get a response as there’s no sheriff up there for me to contact. Not even a real town.”

“All right, I can head up that way tomorrow.”

“I’ll go with you.” Hoss wasn’t about to let Adam do something like that alone.

Both Robin and Ben were relieved that Hoss was going too, and Roy thought it was best. “Now you two won’t have any authority up there so tread lightly. I can give you a letter saying you’re up there investigating a crime and need to talk to the two of them. That’s about all I can do for you.”

“That’s all we need. The two of them aren’t smart enough to hide anything. We’ll know by how they react if they were the ones who did it.”

It worked out that way perfectly too. It was a hard ride up to Harriman and then to the ranch in question. Dusty, thirsty, and tired, Adam and Hoss went to the ranch house to present themselves and the letter from Roy saying they needed to speak to the two men. Looking a little suspicious, the owner of the Rocking R went with them and summoned a couple of his men to walk with them too. When they got to where Stan and Gordy were working, the two men recognized Adam right away. Their grins and their shouts of greeting were clear indications that they had no ill feelings toward Adam.

“Hey, Adam, we wanted to come see you sometime and thank you for what you done, but we’re on parole and we can’t leave this area without permission.”

“Yeah, but we shur woulda come see ya if we could. You saved us from having our necks wrung and we thank you for that. Your recommendation got us this job too. It said in there that we did a good job on the trail drive and took orders and didn’t cause no trouble.”

“Yeah, somebody read that and thought they could trust us working outside the prison instead costing them money inside so they let us out.”

“So we owe you twice.”

“Say, what you doing here?”

“Came to talk to you boys about somebody taking a shot at me. You know any friends of the sheriff or Gloria that might be upset with me for what happened?”

Both men frowned in concentration. Neither one could come up with a name although they said that there were often other men at Gloria’s house whenever they were there. They described the men to Adam, but of course, it was rather meaningless without a name. He thanked them anyway, and said they were a big help, and that they had paid him back for what he had done. They were all smiles when he and Hoss left. As they rode back toward home, Hoss chuckled a bit.

“I kin see why you started to wonder about the whole thing. Hard to believe those two could ever have got the drop on that Gloria gal.”

“Exactly.”

In Virginia City, the real shooter was frustrated that his target wasn’t even at home for over a week. It bothered him too that his wife wasn’t at home when he got home for lunch. She probably had another of her silly meetings. It was another reason for his unhappiness. First he would take care of Adam Cartwright, and then he would make some changes in how his wife behaved. But first things first.

His wife wasn’t happy either seeing Robin Cartwright at the meeting. She did everything she could to make Robin’s life miserable at that meeting.

When Robin left that meeting, she was going to find that the reins to the horses weren’t going to stay intact for the entire trip home. They were cut most of the way through up near where they were attached to the harness. It wasn’t likely to be seen from the carriage seat, but when they got pulled on enough, they were going to snap and cause an accident. With all the hilly terrain, there was a good chance it was going to be a fatal one too.

Chapter 6

As Adam and Hoss rode toward the Ponderosa, they were tired but also a bit on edge because they didn’t know who meant to do harm to Adam. Now that they were back, that person could be anywhere. It was a shock to them then to see their carriage wrecked at the side of the road still laying on its side. It looked like the accident had occurred perhaps days earlier by the dust that had collected, but what sent Adam back to his horse and racing home was Robin’s scarf still fluttering in the breeze tangled in the bent metal of the seat support. As he reached home, he ran into the house only to be intercepted by his father who had heard the hooves of his horse pounding into the yard and guessed immediately what had happened. He wrapped his arms around Adam.

“Son, she’s going to be all right.”

“Where is she? I want to see her.”

“She’s sleeping and she needs her sleep. Why don’t you let me tell you what happened first. Doctor Martin left only a couple of hours ago. He’s been here every couple of days since the accident.”

“Every couple of days? How bad is it?”

“Not too bad, but she did have some bleeding and he wanted to be sure that it was under control. He’s been checking and has said there’s nothing to worry about as long as she stays in bed. We’ve been taking care of her as well as she’ll let us. Some of the ladies from town have been out to help in the afternoons.”

“Bleeding where?”

Ben knew that the next part was going to be difficult for his son to hear. “From her female parts. She has a broken rib too so he has her wrapped up pretty tight so that doesn’t move. Other than that, she’s got some bruises and some scrapes. If it wasn’t for the bleeding, she could be up and around.”

It took a moment for what Ben had said to sink in. “Why from her female parts?”

“She was going to have a baby. She lost it. Doctor Martin said it was very early and the trauma was to much.” Ben could tell from Adam’s reaction that he hadn’t known. Robin hadn’t told him yet and had probably meant to surprise him with the news fairly soon. Now the news was that there wasn’t going to be a baby. Ben watched as Adam’s face hardened.

“When did it happen?”

“It happened the day you left. She went to that meeting in town and when she was on the way back, it happened.”

“How could it have happened? Robin is excellent at handling a team. She knows better than a lot of men how to handle those horses.”

If the earlier news was difficult for Adam to hear, Ben knew that this was going to be much more so. Hoss walked in about that time having taken care of both horses before coming in the house. Ben addressed him first. “Robin is going to be all right. She’s sleeping.” He turned back to Adam then and cautioned him not to react too loudly as his wife was sleeping. “Someone cut the reins.”

That caution had been wise because that temper was ready to explode with all that he had heard. However concern for his wife let him exert iron control, and he choked out the next words. “Who did it?”

“No one knows. Roy checked and only women were at the meeting. It was at the old schoolhouse. Anyone could have gotten to that carriage without being seen.”

Further discussion was ended when Hop Sing appeared at the top of the stairs to say that Robin was awake. He too had heard the horses ride in and knew that Adam was home and would want to see his wife. It didn’t take long for Adam’s long strides to make it to the stairs and up to see his wife. When he entered the room, Robin had a small smile but it collapsed as soon as she saw him. She had been determined not to cry, but she couldn’t hold her resolve once she saw him. As he wrapped his arms around her, she began to sob. He did his best to soothe her but felt the loss and the fear as much as she did. When she had cried herself out, she looked up to see his eyes were brimming with tears too.

“I wanted to tell you. It seemed so unlikely that I didn’t believe it at first. I wanted to be sure, and now I’ve lost our baby. Doctor Martin said we may not be able to have another. He’s not sure after this if I will be able to carry another baby.”

“It’s all right. I didn’t marry you to have babies. It would have been wonderful, spectacular even, but I am so relieved that you’re all right.”

“But I’m not all right. Didn’t you hear me?”

“I’m sorry. I’m not saying this right. It’s a lot. I only know I love you, and we’ll get through this together.” All Adam could think to do at that point was to hold her so he did.

After a time, Robin knew she had been too emotional too. “I’m sorry. It’s a lot for me too. Yes, we’ll get through it together.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here. I assumed that they were shooting at me. I never thought they might be shooting at you.”

“I know. It’s so odd. Why would anyone want to shoot me? I hardly know anyone here.”

Noticing then that there were items on the bedside table, Adam picked them up to find a small book of poetry and a small box of chocolates as well as a few small notes. “Who brought these?”

“Oh some of the women have been out to help me. They’ve helped me clean up and change into a clean gown every couple of days.”

Reading the note stuck in the book of poetry, Adam was startled but did his best to hide his reaction from Robin. It didn’t work entirely.

“What’s wrong?”

“Oh, I was thinking that it’s rather warm in here for chocolates and you probably shouldn’t have any because it will interfere with your appetite for Hop Sing’s famous diet for those confined to bed. He will be very unhappy if you don’t eat everything he brings to you. I know. I’ve been there.”

“I haven’t had much of an appetite yet although I was thinking that those chocolates were looking pretty good today. Perhaps you’re right. Have Hop Sing keep them for me. But don’t let Hoss know they’re there.”

“Oh, never fear. I won’t let Hoss have even the tiniest bit of your chocolates.”

There was a light knock on the door then and Hop Sing was there with tea and a light snack making both Adam and Robin smile. His only concession was letting Adam be in charge of making sure she finished both.

“Tea help her heal and make her sleep better. You see. She sleep again soon. You come down eat lunch too.”

So when Robin finished her snack and tea, Adam waited until her eyes closed and she fell into a peaceful slumber. He gathered up the note he had read and the chocolates, placed them on the tray, and headed down the stairs with a murderous look in his eyes. Ben and Hoss saw his demeanor as soon as he began to descend the stairs and wondered what it meant. Adam handed the note to his father to read. Ben read it and handed it to Hoss who read it and had the same expression as his father and wondered why Adam was so upset.

“Adam, it’s poem. What is it about that poem that’s got you so gosh darned upset that it looks like you’re ready to kill somebody?”

“Because I am. That’s not any ordinary poem. The first part is very close to a song I learned in college. I was down on the wharf and heard a sailor singing. He was Portugese. He taught me the song and translated it for me too. The second part of the poem seems to be someone’s attempt to alter the second verse meant for this situation.”

“This situation?” Ben was getting worried.

“Yes, this is a song I sang to RoseMary. She liked it a lot and asked me to sing it on several occasions.”

Picking up the note again, Ben read it with that information in mind and drew the same conclusion that Adam had drawn.

Love, oh my love, my heart twisted on thy knife,

Who has love does not sleep, not in the night or the day,

I did not dream though that you would be the doom of my life.

There were other dreams in my mind like fish in the bay.

Someday beneath the lemon tree, you said,

My love and I, the knot would tie.

I dreamed of that day but I am now afraid,

To be true, there’s one in our way who must die.

“RoseMary is the one who tried to kill Robin?”

Hoss almost spit out his food at that point. “RoseMary Leach is the one who’s been doing all of this?”

“Yes, and no one should eat those chocolates. I’m afraid of what might be in them.”

“There’s one problem with your theory, Adam.”

“What’s that, Pa?”

“RoseMary has not been to the house.”

“She could have had someone bring these things here for her. We know she was at that meeting.”

“Yes, and when Robin is awake again, perhaps you can ask her if RoseMary ever left the meeting. Whoever did it would have needed some time to cut through those reins as they did.”

That part of Adam’s theory didn’t hold up either. Once Robin was awake again, he spent time with her and eventually asked her about the meeting on the day she had been injured. When he asked how the meeting had gone, her response was immediate.

“It was contentious. No matter what I said, RoseMary Leach opposed it. I could have said the sky was blue, and she would have countered it. I know I don’t have the formal schooling she’s had, but I have a lot of common sense and have handled quite a bit of money over the years. I know what I’m doing. She treated me like I was completely ignorant if not downright stupid.”

“Didn’t you ever get a break from her? I mean most people have needs they have to take care of in a long meeting like that.”

“No, some of the women left to use the necessary, but she never did. I wanted to pour a few extra glasses of water and slide them over to her so she’d have to go. I had to put up with her for the entire time.” They continued to talk for quite a while until Robin made an observation. “Are you very tired or bored with me? You seem distracted.”

“No, I would never be bored with you. I guess I keep coming back to the question of who wanted to see harm come to you. I cannot come up with an answer.”

“Well, I’d say that it was RoseMary except she couldn’t have cut those reins. I thought of her right away but knew it couldn’t be her. I wanted it to be her so I could be done with her, but I’m just as at a loss as you are.”

With no answers, the only thing left to do was to hand over the note and the chocolates to Roy with an explanation of why they were suspicious. They could let Roy handle the investigation to see if he could come up with a viable answer to the mystery. He checked on who had bought chocolates and he interviewed the ladies who had been at the meeting. Then he rode out to the Ponderosa to talk with Ben and Hoss to find out which ladies had been at the ranch to help Robin before Adam returned. When he heard the names, he looked at them solemnly. By that time, Robin was freed from bed rest and sitting on the settee with Adam. Roy looked at the couple.

“You’re gonna find this hard to believe.”

Chapter 7

Very carefully, Roy explained what he had learned. “I found out who left the meeting at any time especially who left alone. I found which ladies who was at that meeting bought chocolates after the meeting. I compared that to the ladies who came here to the house to help Robin. There’s only one name that came up as an answer to all three.”

Adam was getting impatient. “Spit it out, Roy. Who did it?”

“Elaine Statler, RoseMary’s mother.”

There was a silence so profound that you could hear the clock ticking across the room. It was a shock that the diminutive shy woman would do such a thing. Unbelievable but Roy was a careful cautious man who would never accuse someone unless he was sure. It had to be her.

“Now there’s a real problem with all of this. What I have isn’t proof of anything. We don’t have a witness to anything. All we have is opportunity. We have no evidence and no motive.”

“I don’t understand why she would hurt me. I’ve never even talked to her. What could she hold against me?” Robin was shocked that a stranger would be working so hard to kill her.

However Adam had a theory. “It could be that she’s trying to help her daughter.” With everyone’s attention, he continued. “All of you have been trying to convince me that RoseMary hasn’t given up on me even though she’s married and I’m married. What if her mother decided to help that along and kill Robin? She might be aware of that song if RoseMary wrote it down and talked to her about it. According to Pa, she talked to her about me and about Robin. It seems she shares a lot with her mother.”

Roy was interested but saw a problem. “Adam, that makes about as much sense as anything, but what about Archie Leach? RoseMary is still married to him.”

“I don’t know, Roy, but if Adam is right about Elaine, then she may have a plan for Archie too to get him out of the way.” Ben thought too that Adam’s theory made sense.

“Now that’s all good, but what we gonna do to get some evidence to go forward?”

“I have an idea.” Robin had a bit of a smile so the others had to wonder what she was going to say. “I’ve heard these stories about a famous Cartwright temper that is magnificent to behold when it is on display.”

Ben took one quick look to either side to Adam and then to Hoss to know exactly whom Robin was including in that statement. He pursed his lips and the eyebrows came down so his sons knew Robin better have a great reason for bringing that up or they were going to hear about it. They might anyway, but the impact would be softened if she had a good plan.

“How about if Ben were to go see Elaine with the accusations we’ve made here, and because he’s talking about protecting his family, his temper might just rise to those fabled limits. That could scare her enough that she might say something that could be an admission of guilt. Now if a third person who is not a member of this family was, to say, be standing some place nearby listening, that could be a way to collect that information and use it as evidence, wouldn’t it?”

Adam was smirking and Robin thought he didn’t like her plan. She looked at him and asked that.

“Oh, no. I was thinking that if Roy had the chocolates, he could be the one to go with Pa. He could offer them to Elaine, and Pa could challenge her to eat one.”

It was dark humor but what they needed at that point to ease the tension. It helped that he endorsed Robin’s plan with the remark too. She leaned into him as he sat beside her.

“Thank you.”

“We make a good team. I only wish you could be there to see it happen.”

“I like how Roy tells stories. I bet he’ll be telling a good one when this is all over.”

All Ben could do was sigh as the others smiled. There were a few details to work out on how they would manage their plan, but by the time Roy left, they had that worked out. Ben and Roy made arrangements to meet to go to the Statler home the next day. They knew that there was a chance that Jim would be there too, but thought that wouldn’t complicate things too much.

After Roy left, Joe and Doreen came over to the house wondering what the news was. Both were as shocked as the others had been and as supportive of the plan. Ben worked up a good dose of righteous anger to use the next day when he saw the tears in Robin’s eyes after she held Maribeth for a short time. He knew she was feeling great sorrow not only over losing her baby but over the possibility that she might not be able to have any more. He resolved that he was going to make Elaine face what she had done.

The next day before he left, Ben hugged Robin and kissed her on the cheek. “You take care. I’m going to make this all right if there’s a God in heaven.”

She looked at Adam as Ben went out the door. “He’s never done that before. What do you suppose that was all about?”

“You’re a Cartwright. He’s going out to do battle for the family.” Adam saw the tears in Robin’s eyes at that point and had a difficult time not letting a few gather in his. It was important to her to be accepted by his father, and that process had finally been completed.

When Ben met up with Roy, he noticed that Roy did have the box of chocolates. “They may be the worse for wear as I took ’em all over town asking who mighta bought ’em, but now that Adam of yours did have a good idea. I want to see her face when I offer her these chocolates and ask her to eat one of ’em.”

“Roy, let’s stop at the chocolate shop and replace them with new ones that look good so she has no good reason to refuse.”

“Now, there’s an even better idea.”

An hour later, chocolates in hand, they arrived at the Statler home. They knocked on the door, and Jim answered clearly surprised to see them, but then not so surprised. Ben wondered at that.

“Come on in. How can I help you?”

“We’ve come to talk with Elaine, if we could, Jim. I’m sorry to say, it’s about the attack on Adam Cartwright’s wife.”

“Attack? I thought she had an accident.”

“That’s what someone wanted people to think, but the Cartwrights found that the reins had been cut after Robin told them that they came apart as she was driving. She used the brake, yelled ‘Whoa’, and jumped when the carriage started to go over. If she hadn’t done all of that, she mighta been killed. Somebody wanted that to happen.”

“But why do you want to talk to Elaine?”

“Jim, could you please ask Elaine to come out here.”

With no more argument, Jim went to the kitchen. They could hear quiet voices and then Elaine came out.

“Good morning, Sheriff Coffee, Ben. Jim says you want my help in finding who tried to hurt Adam’s wife. I’m not certain how I can help, but I will do all I can.”

At that point, Ben was ready to blow. She was acting all sweet and nice when she had tried to kill Robin twice. Roy held out the box of chocolates.

“Perhaps you would like a chocolate. They’re the ones you left for Robin. She can’t eat them, and thought you would like to.”

“No, that’s all right.” Elaine was looking nervous.

Roy opened the box. “No, go ahead. Eat one.” He held it right up in front of her so close she had to be able to smell them.

Elaine forcefully shoved his hand away and the chocolates fell to the floor. “I’m sorry, but I said I didn’t want one. Now no one will eat them.” Her voice wasn’t so sweet any more. “Now how else can I help you?”

“You can tell us what you were doing when you left the meeting. Did you go out and cut the reins on our carriage? You’re the only one who left the meeting who also bought chocolates, chocolates that were poisoned. Is that why you knocked them to the floor instead of eating one? You’re also the only one who could know the song that Adam sang to RoseMary. Is this your handwriting?” Ben held up the note that had been found in Robin’s room. Jim gasped audibly. “From Jim’s response, I would guess it is. You visited Robin when she was lying helpless in bed. You left poisoned chocolates and these poisoned thoughts, didn’t you?” Ben was very close to her and leaning toward her as his voice boomed louder and louder.

Elaine stepped back but was defiant. “Anyone could have cut those reins. No one was out there who could see. Anyone could have left poisoned chocolates on her nightstand. Anyone could have taken my note from the house here and left it in her book of insipid poetry. You can’t prove I did any of that.”

“You harmed my family. You took away the baby that Adam and Robin were going to have. I can never forgive that. I will hound you until you admit what you did. The gates of hell will close around you before I give up.”

“Ben, you don’t need to do that.”

“What? She hasn’t admitted anything yet.”

“Yes, she has. At least she has enough that I kin get a jury to believe it.”

“What? I didn’t hear her admit anything.”

“Ben, she said no one was out there to see anyone cut those reins. She said it was her note. She said the chocolates were put on the bedside table. She knew the note was stuck in a book of poetry. Ben, who else could have known that except the one who did it all?”

“Elaine, what have you done?” Jim took his wife by the arms and forcefully turned her to face him. “Tell me what you did.”

“He married that trollop. He rejected our daughter and made her marry that insipid Archie. Then he brought that trollop home and married her instead. What do you think that makes people think about our daughter, our poor pathetic daughter who is still infatuated with him. Her silly head is filled with thoughts of him. She sings that damn song all the time. She talks about him all the time. Well, I decided to make her dream come true.”

“But what of Archie? They’re going to have a baby.”

“Oh, I was going to let Adam know that it was Archie who shot at him. He came here that Sunday to borrow one of your rifles to do some hunting, he said. He never changed out of his church clothes and came back here in a hurry later. I knew what he had done when I heard someone had tried to kill Adam. All I had to do was wait and tell Adam and he’d take care of him.”

With a horribly pained expression, Jim looked to Roy and Ben. “She’s sick. She needs help. Please, let me get her some help.”

“By rights, Jim, I ought to lock her up, but if you have a better idea, I’m willing to listen. Ben, you willing to listen?”

After Ben agreed, Jim said he would pay for a deputy to stand guard at their house and he would make arrangements for Elaine to be placed in an institution for the insane. Ben agreed if it was done officially through the courts with a record of what she had done filed there. Jim agreed but asked if it could be done quietly. Roy said he would talk with the judge if Jim would see to making the arrangements. When they left the house, Roy had a lot of work to do and Ben had a warning to deliver. He headed to the bank where Archie Leach worked.

“Now, Ben, don’t you hurt him. I don’t want to have to lock you up.”

“I won’t hurt him. I want to, but I won’t. But there’s a clear message I want to deliver, and he’s going to hear it.”

Roy had no doubt that the whole town was going to hear it. When Ben walked into that bank, everyone there knew someone was going to hear the wrath of the patriarch of the Ponderosa. They waited for the show and it didn’t take long to see who the recipient was going to be. Archibald Leach began to back away from the teller’s window almost as soon as he saw Ben come through that door. When Ben started speaking and detailing the accusations against Archie and what would happen to him if he tried anything more against Adam, mouths dropped open. The manager of the bank came from his desk.

“Ben, are you sure?”

“I was just with Roy to hear a witness say that she has proof to offer that he’s the one who tried to back-shoot my son.”

The manager turned to Archie. “Do you deny what he’s saying?”

“All I hear about every day every minute I’m home is that damn Cartwright.”

“You’re fired. Pack up your things and get out. I assume you’ll be under arrest soon. The best thing for you to do would be to go directly to the sheriff’s office and turn yourself in. Maybe you can ask for mercy because you have a wife to support and a baby on the way.”

Archie left but didn’t head to Roy’s office. Instead, he headed home. Most wished they could have been there when he tried to explain all of this to RoseMary. She could be silly and flighty and had this obsession with Adam, but she could be a shrew too. Undoubtedly that part of her was likely to be what Archie experienced next. Ben headed home to give the news to Adam and Robin, and the rest of the family.

Chapter 8

When Ben got home, the family was waiting for the news and actually came out to the stable to hear him tell it as he was taking care of Buck. Hoss folded a blanket and put it on a crate, and Adam helped Robin sit there after he carried her from the house. She didn’t want to miss anything, but he didn’t want her to overexert herself by trying to hurry. Ben told the whole tale from beginning to end amusing all of them. Hoss had a question.

“So you really accused Archie in front of all those people?”

“Yes, and he as much as admitted it. He got fired and left.”

“So Roy didn’t arrest him.”

Adam and Joe stood suddenly as Hoss looked at both of them. Ben looked at his sons.

“What’s wrong?”

“Pa, a back-shooter like that, well, dadburnit, we all think he’s most likely a runner too. He’s probably on his way to California right now.”

“He couldn’t have gotten far. He would have had to get a horse and some supplies.” Joe had that hopeful look.

Adam picked up on it. “If we cut across country, we could probably cut him off.”

“Hey, I’m goin’ too. Ain’t been this much fun in a long time ’round here.”

After Adam asked Ben to take care of Robin for him, the three got busy saddling their horses and then rode out as fast as they could. Within about two hours, they were waiting on the roadside wondering if they had missed him when they saw a rider coming in the distance. He wasn’t riding that fast nor that well.

“It’s gotta be him. How you want ta handle this, Adam?”

They worked out the details, and as Archie drew near, Adam rode out to greet him. “Well, howdy there, Archie. Going somewhere?”

Startled, Archie pulled up and stopped. Seeing that it was only Adam though, he smiled. “Well, we meet face-to-face. I guess that was how it should have been all along.” Archie reached into his coat.

“Don’t do anything stupid, Archie.”

“I’m only getting a handkerchief to wipe my face, Adam. It’s been a long, hot ride.” Archie’s fingers closed around the handle of the pistol he had stuck in his inside coat pocket. He was about to pull it out to shoot Adam when two clicks behind him made him freeze.

“That better be all you pull out of that coat. Shur hate to shoot ya this close up. This here Sharp’s rifle would make an awful big hole and bigger mess up close like this.”

“Yeah, I’m aiming at the head so it won’t be so messy. The head usually stops gushing sooner.”

“Good thinking, but I think my Sharp’s might just take his head clean off. Ya think if we hung the body over a horse, all the blood would drain out ifn I did that?”

“I don’t know. Adam has his pistol out now, and he usually shoots for the heart. If you hit the heart, I think maybe all the blood kinda has nowhere to go.”

Adam watched as Archie’s face turned a pasty shade of gray and then noticed a foul smell in the air. “I don’t think I want to ride downwind of him on the way back. You two literally scared it out of him.”

“Really? I always heard people say that. I wasn’t sure it could really happen. Hot diggity, I learned something new today.”

Joe looked at Hoss and made a sound of disgust. “Adam, how did we ever get mixed up with him?”

That got Adam laughing. “Seems to me I’ve asked that question about the two of you on more than one occasion.” He ordered Archie to drop his weapon on the ground and turn his horse around to ride back to Virginia City. “All right, who wants to take him back, and who wants to go back home?”

Hoss volunteered to take Archie back to town. “You two got wives to take care of. I’ll be back home when I’m done. You be sure to have Hop Sing save enough supper for me.”

Dismounting, Adam retrieved Archie’s pistol and handed it to Hoss. “Thank you. I owe you one.”

“Nah, we’re brothers. It’s what we do. Besides, I’m gonna have a beer and tell the story of how we scared it out of him. It might get me a second beer free.” Heck there’ll be all sorts of questions to answer. For a bit, I’ll be the most popular man in town.”

Grinning, Hoss rode after Archie who was well on his way by then not willing to do anything to anger these apparently bloodthirsty Cartwright men. He had been quite brave in his own mind, but in reality, he was a weak, ineffectual man. Hoss did get his two beers, and on the way out of town, he stopped at the chocolate shop. All that talk about chocolates had made him hungry for some. He thought he might treat Robin too seeing as how she was hurt and feeling bad too. He ordered what he wanted and waited for the girl behind the counter to wrap them up for him. She came out to hand the packages to him, which surprised him.

“I wanted to give these to you. I make most of the candies here, and I tried a new recipe. You look like the kind of man who likes good cooking so I would appreciate your opinion on these. I had some like these in San Francisco so I tried to make some like those.”

Hoss popped one of the candies in his mouth. It looked like ordinary chocolate which he liked quite a lot anyway, but as the chocolate melted in his mouth, there was the taste of maple cream too. He smiled and looked at her in appreciation.

“That’s real good, ma’am. I like it. I like it a lot. You make all the candies here?”

“I do. I like to cook and making candy and selling it is a good way to make money. I like to cook other things too, but I don’t have time to run a restaurant. Of course, I could cook a dinner for a guest sometime if you were willing to sample some of my cooking. My shop is closed on Sundays and I close early on Saturday too. Maybe you wouldn’t mind sampling Saturday dinner?”

“Ma’am, I’d be pleased as punch to sample your Saturday dinner. But there’s one problem.”

“Oh, I guess I was being too forward. It’s so hard to meet a nice man. I thought the only way to do it was to go ahead and throw myself at one, and now I’ve gone too far.”

“No, ma’am, that ain’t it at all. I’m right happy ya done what ya done. But ya see, ifn I’m coming to dinner, I think I need to know your name.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t know much about doing this kind of thing. My name is Melody, Melody Cranston.”

“And I’m Hoss Cartwright.”

“Oh, I know that. My family moved here only a few years ago. My parents died in that cholera outbreak. We had only started this store a short time before that happened. You came in here almost every week after that and bought something. You said you wanted to say how sorry you were and you wanted to make sure I had customers. Your brothers came in too and said you had sent them in. Well it worked. Seeing you and them come in here so regularly made a lot of other people stop in to check out what I had for sale. You helped me so much and you didn’t even know who I was. I’m sorry I was too shy to even say hello much less thank you for what you did for me.”

“Aw, shucks, Melody, I was only being a good neighbor.”

“Hoss, I hope we can be more than that.”

“Me too, Melody. Me too.” And Hoss walked out of the shop with a lot more to tell than he thought he was going to tell when he got home. Except when he got home, he decided that he wasn’t going to tell anyone except Robin at first. He wanted to enjoy the news himself for a bit especially because he didn’t want anyone to tease him about it yet.

That night in bed, Robin told Adam. They couldn’t do anything more than kiss and cuddle anyway so they had a lot more time to talk. Doctor Martin had given them strict instructions that there was to be no marital relations of any kind for at least six more weeks. Robin needed time to heal and Adam was heeding the doctor’s prescription for once. He did get some pleasure from the news though.

“Hoss found a lady in a chocolate store. Now what could be more fitting than that?”

“You can’t tell anyone. I think he’ll probably tell your father soon, but no one is to tell Joe. He doesn’t want any teasing about this. Let him have this time.”

“Oh, I will. I know how nervous he’s going to get though so you need to be ready for that. He’s probably going to be asking for advice. Keep it simple. He really does know what to do, but he gets all twisted up about it when he has too much time to think about it.”

There was nothing to worry about. Hoss was worried but with Ben, Adam, and Robin there to offer support, he headed to town on Saturday for dinner with Melody. Adam suggested he take a valise and get a room for the night so he didn’t have to rush home if things went well.

“Adam, I don’t think she’s that kind of gal.”

“I meant conversation, Hoss. You two don’t know each other that well, and there are so many things for you to talk about, you could lose track of the time.”

“Oh, all right. I’ll do that then.”

As Hoss went back up the stairs to pack a small valise, Robin slapped Adam on the arm, hard. “That was not what you meant and you know it.”

As Adam rubbed his arm, Ben chuckled and walked to the kitchen for a coffee refill. “Good comeback though, son. I’m grateful to Robin however for keeping you in line these days.”

“Well, he’s covered in either case at least.” Adam had taken the precaution of putting his arms around Robin in a hug before he said that one.

The next morning, Hoss escorted Melody to church and met his family there. He had Melody sit with the family sending a clear message to the whole congregation and the family. Things had indeed gone quite well. They went well for the family in other regards too. Jim worked with the judge to have his wife sent to the Insane Asylum of the State of California in Stockton. Jim agreed to pay all expenses. Archibald Leach was sentenced to one year in prison for the attempted murder of Adam Cartwright, but the court granted mercy because of family circumstances. His wife was due to have a baby within months. He agreed to move with his wife to California and live with his father there and work on the family ranch. If he ever returned to the state of Nevada in any way even for travel purposes, he was subject to arrest and would be sent immediately to prison to serve that one year sentence. As a result, Jim Statler put his property up for sale. It was purchased for the sale price and Jim was able to accompany his daughter to California. RoseMary felt terribly humiliated by all that had happened and wanted to be away from the whole mess when her child was born hoping that none of the notoriety would attach to the child, and wouldn’t divorce Archie because of that issue. Divorce was highly frowned upon, and inevitably, their child would bear the shame of it. So she would have to hope that their new community wouldn’t ask too many questions about a son coming home to work on the family ranch although he had hated it and escaped it to work in banks.

A short time later, Ben asked Adam what he planned to do with the Statler property. He wasn’t sure but said he had a few plans in mind for a business venture and the property was so convenient to town that it was too good a prospect to pass up. Ben knew that Adam wouldn’t tell him any more until his plans were more concrete so he would have to wait. He got a better answer when he talked with Robin about another matter that concerned him. They hadn’t yet begun to build their home, and Ben worried that they might not.

“Is he going to stay, Robin?”

“Oh, he’ll stay. We may travel at some point perhaps even quite extensively, but I’m not sure Adam can ever leave here and not come back. A man needs his heroes because a world without heroes is like a world without the sun. There’s nothing to look up to and only darkness up ahead. And for Adam, there’s always only been one hero.”

For a moment, Ben was transported back decades. It was Robin speaking, but the words sounded like Inger. He marveled as he thought about it and compared the two women and how much alike they were in personality. There was no question in his mind that his son had found the right wife and companion. He smiled at Robin, leaned down, and kissed her cheek even as a small tear slipped from his eye and down his cheek.

“You stay safe too, daughter of mine.”

Part Two

Chapter 9

Hoss saw it coming but was powerless to stop it. Adam’s temper was usually under control, but there were times it exploded. When it did, anyone who had caused that loss of control was likely going to pay the price for it. If it was Little Joe, Adam would pull his punches. However these two men whom Adam didn’t know weren’t going to get any such mercy. There weren’t many men that Hoss would fear fighting, but his older brother when his temper was unleashed was one of them. The two men unwisely were laughing thinking that they had the upper hand because there were two of them. They had no idea what they faced. Hoss knew as did Little Joe that Adam was going to take some punishment because he was taking on two men, but both still expected him to win this battle.

It started with one of the men taking a swing at Adam who ducked and delivered blows to the man’s midsection and chin only to get caught with a few himself from the second man. That kind of exchange went on for a full minute with Adam delivering a lot of blows but taking quite a few too. Hoss thought he probably didn’t even feel them in the temper he was in, but he knew he would the next day. Hoss had been in this situation previously and knew what it was like after it was over. The exchange of blows continued until Adam shoved one man back hard enough that he fell to the floor. Before he could get up, Adam grabbed the other man’s arm and slammed it into the bar breaking the man’s arm. The noise of the bone snapping was audible and made a number of people in the saloon groan in sympathy for the pain the man must be suffering. His friend objected to that and charged Adam who sidestepped him, grabbed him, and used his momentum to slam him headfirst into the bar. He fell to the floor and lay there unmoving. The man with the broken arm was cradling it and clearly out of fight. He was still standing though and Adam was going to rear back to remedy that situation when Hoss caught his arm preventing him from doing any more damage.

“That’s enough. Ya taught ’em a lesson they ain’t never gonna forgit. Now, let’s get you home. You’re gonna be in enough trouble when she sees ya.”

With Adam’s hat in his hand, Joe was there too to help. They would have gotten Adam out of the saloon and on his horse to head home except they met Sheriff Roy Coffee at the saloon doors, and he backed them up.

“Now what’s been going on here? Adam Cartwright, I never would have expected this of you.”

“I won’t listen to insults like that from any man.”

“I thought you was more of a man than that. Words can’t hurt you.”

“You’re wrong there, and the words were directed at my wife.”

Surprised, Roy looked at Hoss and Joe first and then at others in the saloon who nodded solemnly. A few even spoke out saying that the two men had made derogatory comments about Robin and that Adam hadn’t done anything until then. Roy looked over to where a couple of saloon girls were checking over the two injured men.

“How they doing?”

The answer was that one had a broken arm and that the other was awake but had a terrible headache. Both were walked to a table where they sat not paying attention to much of anything. Roy looked to Sam, the bartender, next and asked how much the damages were.

“Not too much, Roy. Mostly they stayed away from breaking anything except for some glasses.”

Stepping up to the bar, Adam put down a twenty. Sam raised an eyebrow. Adam put down another twenty. “Drinks for everyone.” Sam tipped his head to the side. Adam took another twenty and reached over to stuff it in Sam’s shirt pocket. Sam smiled.

“Roy, we’re good. No damages.”

“All right, then. Now Adam, by rights, I should charge you with disorderly conduct for fighting, but seeing as how they insulted a woman, and that woman is your wife, I’m going to suspend the charges. Ifn you don’t get in any more fights for a month, the charges will be dropped. Is that fair?”

“Thank you. Yes. Now, I’d like to get home. I think I’m going to get a few more bruises when I get there. You may suspend the charges, but I doubt my wife will be so inclined.”

“All right, you go. I’ll get some men to get these two over to the doc’s to get patched up and then we’ll see about getting them outta town as soon as we can.”

Outside the saloon, the toll on Adam was clearer as he staggered a bit as he walked to the livery stable with his brothers. They had come to town to have a big steak dinner and celebrate the completion of Adam’s home. It still had finishing work to be done, but that day, they had installed the last of the windows and doors so the house was now secure against the weather with fireplaces that were in working order. When they had come to town, they had been in high spirits, making what, for the three brothers these days, was a rare visit to town together. With Joe and Adam married, and Hoss courting a lady, they seldom had time to socialize together, but the ladies had sent them on their way knowing how important it was to them. It had been a great evening too until those two men had begun spewing their filth in the saloon. As they got their horses and began the ride home, Adam had only one thing to say.

“It has to be more of those damn letters.”

About a month earlier, a batch of letters had been sent to quite a few people in Virginia City and detailed Adam’s difficulties with impotence after his accident building a house for Laura. There weren’t many who knew of that problem, but somehow, someone who held a grudge against Adam had found out. They had made sure that the word got out and Adam had suffered for weeks from taunts and been at the receiving end of a number of jokes. That he had been married to Robin for quite a while now without a baby or one on the way seemed to be more fuel for the cruelty. He didn’t want to discuss the loss of their baby in Robin’s carriage crash especially in so public a setting as those encounters were. So he had endured the humiliation until those taunting him tired of their game and moved on to targets more willing to react. Now though the taunts had been about Robin, and Adam had found that he couldn’t ignore those.

If Adam could find who was sending the letters, he would do something about it, but there was nothing in them that was a clue. Whoever was doing it was clever too printing each letter carefully on white paper in block letters, and sending them with no marks or any indication of a return address. He couldn’t strike back at the architect of his torment because there was no way to know whom it was. Gradually as those who would say things about it had lost interest in trying to get a reaction from Adam especially as he spent less and less time in town, the whole thing had diminished. It was one of the reasons his brothers had wanted to go to town with him. They had thought they could celebrate the house and get Adam a fun night in town, but nothing had worked out as expected.

What made things even worse for Adam was knowing that Robin was likely now to suffer the same kind of unpleasant experiences in town that he had endured. He had to stop at one point, dismount, and retch. Most of that steak he had had for dinner and the beer chaser were gone. Joe spoke softly to Hoss as Adam leaned against a rock just off the road.

“When I was younger, he never used to do that after a fight. Wonder what made him lose it like that as he got older.”

“When you were younger, he never let you see him do it. That’s the only difference.”

Startled by that, Joe only stared at Hoss for a bit and then looked over at Adam wiping his hand across his mouth. Grabbing his canteen, Joe quickly slid from his saddle to offer it to Adam who thanked him. Joe noted that Adam was careful not to touch his lips to the canteen but let the water drop into his mouth, rinsed it around, and spit it out.

“Thanks, Joe.”

“You want to drink any of it?”

“No, I think it might come right back up. Swallowed a bit of my own blood, and it always makes my stomach fight back.”

“How is your nose?”

“Not broken thankfully. It stopped bleeding fairly quickly.”

“You need anything else?”

Looking at Joe with gratitude for his concern, Adam smiled but winced because it hurt to do so. “You’re married. You already know there’s nothing that’s going to help with what comes next. What I did was stupid, and I’m going to pay a price for it that’s going to hurt worse than this ever could. By reacting as I did, I made sure everyone in town is going to hear what they said. Robin is smart enough to know that. By now, it’s already in all the saloons in town.”

“They went way too far in what they said though. They didn’t only say they heard things about her. They said maybe they did those things with her too when she was working in the saloon.”

“I know. Don’t remind me. I don’t need to have my temper riled when I get home. Robin’s is going to be enough.”

“Pa ain’t gonna be easy to face either.” Hoss waited with the two horses for his brothers to walk back.

“I’ve gotten past the stage of worrying what my father is going to say.”

“Ya, I guess you have. That’s ’cause he keeps worrying that you might leave. He’s afraid to say anything bad and make you go.” Hoss saw the smirk that even the battered face couldn’t stop Adam from having. “Dang, you know that and use it, dontcha? Jeez, wish I had something to hold over him like that. He still makes me feel like I’m ten years old sometimes.”

“Wait until you and Melody are married. He’ll act differently then. He’ll let her put you in your place. Women have a special weapon they can use.”

Joe’s advice had Hoss frowning for a moment. “They don’t! Really?”

Adam and Joe made it clear they did.

“Dang! Never would have thought that either. Never too old to learn things, I guess. How do you handle that?”

“It’s not too difficult. If you want some loving, don’t make your wife unhappy with you that day.”

“Oh, sure, Adam makes it sound so easy. It’s not so easy to get through a whole day without doing something she doesn’t like. I can tell you that. Oh, and Adam, how do you think tonight is going to go for you?” Joe started to giggle then, and Hoss joined in when he saw Adam swivel in the saddle and give an impolite gesture to Joe. “Hey, that wasn’t nice. I was only concerned about you.” And Joe giggled more, and on and off again until they arrived at the main house, and he continued on to his own home.

Although Hoss offered to take care of his horse, Adam struggled through the task. Hoss guessed he was delaying the inevitable confrontation and trying to think of exactly what he was going to say. By the time they walked into the house, they found there was only one lamp burning downstairs. That meant that both Robin and Ben had gone upstairs. Hoss put a hand on Adam’s shoulder.

“At least you only have to face one of ’em tonight, and she can’t yell too loud.”

“Yeah, but that won’t help. Her words will pierce like daggers.”

“Ya, I know what ya mean. It hurts a lot more when ya love ‘er.”

Chapter 10

With a soft sigh, Adam pushed open his bedroom door. In a few weeks, he wouldn’t have to do this as they would be in their own home. For a while at least, there wouldn’t have to be closed doors. However, for now, he was grateful that door was going to be closed. He turned and closed the door and then turned back to face his wife who was reclining against pillows in the bed reading. When she saw him she gasped in concern for him and moved quickly from the bed to him. When she saw his fists though, she knew. He hadn’t been attacked; he’d been fighting.

“This better be good.”

Hesitating, Adam didn’t know how to begin. He had thought he knew what he was going to say, but seeing his wife there in her gown and robe looking soft and vulnerable had undone him a bit. He had been thinking on the way home that she would greet him when he came in the door. A fairly strong woman, he had meant to try to be as diplomatic as he could but tell her what the two men had said. He had no excuse for fighting and had lost his temper. That he was going to have to accept and admit. Seeing her in those soft things with her hair down made him want to gather her in his arms though and say he would fight a thousand times if he could only protect her from being harmed. He did not want to repeat what those men had said about her. Robin understood well what he was doing.

“Don’t do that. You’re trying to think of ways to protect me. I can see it. Just tell me what happened.”

“I don’t like being told what to do – by anyone.”

“Then be honest. We promised that, and you’re trying to hold back right now. What was the fight about?” When Adam looked away and then down, she knew. “What was said? What did they say about me that made you lose your temper?”

“Robin, I know you were with other men before me. I know you had romances and that men courted you. I know you ended up saying no to marriage in each of those cases.”

“Yes, I told you that. You had a right to know. And it was clear that I wasn’t the first woman that you had known. Where is this conversation going?”

“Two men were in the saloon tonight, and they claimed to have known you that way too only they said it was for money. They said you knew a lot of men that way. They described things that they said you did, and that you were well known for doing them with many men and often with many men at the same time. I told them to shut up. I told them I wouldn’t let them keep talking that way. They decided to add more detail instead to their awful stories. That was it.”

“I’m surprised that your brothers didn’t try to stop you from challenging two men at once. Didn’t they know how hurt you would be? I hope Roy locked up the two of them.”

“No, Roy was planning to run them out of town as soon as they were done at the Doc’s.”

“You sent two men to the doctor!”

“They insulted you!”

“I assumed by the way you looked that you lost that fight.”

“I wasn’t exactly a winner. I made a huge mistake.”

“Yes, now what they said is going to be the talk of the town.” Robin paused and thought about the whole situation for a short time. “Of course with what they were saying, it was going to be the talk of the town anyway. I wish you hadn’t fought like a common thug, but I guess your father isn’t the only one with an impressive temper. I’ve seen you get angry but never so much as to do something like that.”

“I know I’ve probably made things worse because now the loose tongues will be wagging about the fight too. It gives them more to talk about concerning us and that is always a huge mistake.”

“Do you think it’s more of the same like it was with those letters about you?”

“It has to be.”

“Who could want to torment us like that?”

“Maybe a visit to see RoseMary and Archie is next up.”

“Not you. Maybe Hoss could go or maybe Joe would do it. Meanwhile let’s go down to the washroom to clean you up. I think a large basin of soapy water is going to be necessary, and I want to get your shirt soaking so we have a chance to get the bloodstains out. Bring your robe with you. You’ll need it.”

After removing his boots and belt, Adam followed his wife down the stairs and to the washroom. She brought in a basin of warm water and added a bar of soap to it lathering up a cloth.

“Let me clean your face first.” After gently cleaning Adam’s face paying close attention to his battered nose, Robin asked him to remove his bloodstained shirt. He assured her that the blood was primarily from his nose so she didn’t expect to find any wounds. There were abrasions though and large purplish bruises, some of which were swollen and tender to the touch. She carefully traced his ribs to determine if any were displaced and sighed in relief finding all where she expected them to be. She had been careful not to show shock at the bruising but tears still formed in her eyes. Unable to stop it, some slipped down her cheeks. When she moved to dry the moisture left from wiping his chest, Adam wrapped his fingers around her wrists to stop her movement and make her look at him. When she did, the tears came. She put her head gently on his bruised chest and cried softly for perhaps a minute before picking up her head.

“I’m better now. Thank you. I guess I needed to do that.”

“You’ve been under a lot of pressure. I’m sorry that I added to it.”

“I understand what happened. I only wish that it hadn’t happened. Now do you have any injury to your legs?”

“I got kicked a few times.”

“Then why don’t you take off those pants and let me tend to any injuries you have there so we can both get to bed and get some rest.”

When he dropped his pants, she saw the nasty bruises he had from being kicked, but there was something more. She looked up at him to see a slight smile. “Even with all this?”

“My wife was touching me all over and wearing only a thin gown and robe. Yes, with all this, that’s what happens.”

Pursing her lips, Robin walked toward the washroom door, and Adam thought she was leaving. Instead, she dropped the latch locking the door. She turned toward him and grinned before she walked back, dropped her robed and slipped her gown over her head. She moved to Adam who was reclining on a tall bench.

“Sweetheart, I don’t know if I can.”

“You did your part. You’re ready. I can do the rest.”

Later, as they clung to each other catching their breath, kissing, and smiling, Adam suggested that they really ought to consider going to bed.

“Soon, but there’s one more thing to do tonight.”

“One more? I don’t think I hardly have the energy left to walk up those stairs. I hope it’s not too demanding.”

“Not at all. It only requires you to use these muscles.” Robin touched and kissed each side of Adam’s face. “I have news for you and you alone for now.”

Staring at her and hoping it was the news he prayed they both would get, Adam waited and then couldn’t wait any longer. “Really?”

“Yes, we’re going to have a baby. Now, it’s early so please don’t say anything to anyone, but I already saw Doctor Martin, and he says things look good. I wanted to be sure that I was healed enough, and he said he thought everything was fine.”

With Adam’s white shirt with the bloodstains soaking in the basin, Adam and Robin went to their bedroom. No one was surprised when they didn’t come down for breakfast in the morning. It was well after that before the two of them came down the stairs. By then, Ben had heard the whole story from Hoss and Joe. He didn’t approve of fighting, but he couldn’t help that little pride he felt inside that his son had come to the defense of his wife and defeated two men in a fair fight. He didn’t think he would ever tell him that directly, but it was his honest reaction to what had happened. Instead he reacted the way the rest of the family expected him to react.

“I heard from your brothers what happened in town last night. I’m sure I agree with Robin and what she likely told you about fighting in a saloon. Nothing more needs to be said.”

“Thank you, Pa. Yes, Robin had a lot to say.”

“Now your brothers have a good idea. I’ll let Hoss explain it.”

“Well, you see, Adam, you brought up those letters again last night, and me and Joe bin thinking that maybe it could be RoseMary or that Archie she’s married to. We were thinking on paying them a visit and putting that question to ’em. I mean she knew about your, um, condition, and she could easy of told Archie. Add to that, she would know too about what Robin did for a living before she married you. Whoever did these things may not live here, but shur as shooting, they lived here once and not that long ago.” Hoss looked hopefully at Adam not knowing how he would feel about his brothers taking a role in his life.

“Hoss, that is a splendid idea. I wish I had thought of it.” Adam winked at his father. “Now don’t hurt either one of them. Pa wouldn’t like it if he had to go there to bail you two out of jail, but I would like to know if they’re trying to get revenge on us for some perceived wrong.”

“Huh?”

“Do they blame us for what happened to them?”

“Yeah, that’s what we were wondering too. We think we can get things in order around here by tomorrow and leave the day after. You and Candy can handle things while we’re gone. Right?”

“Yes, that’s not a problem. There’s nothing major going on so the two of us should be able to take care of things.”

“With what happened to you, you shouldn’t ride for a day or two.” Robin was concerned after seeing the bruises on Adam’s back.

Ben picked up on her concern. “You think it’s the kidneys?”

“Probably.”

“Adam doesn’t need to do anything much for two days. That should be enough time for him to recover enough. If not, I can help Candy.”

“Thank you, Papa.”

Frowning, Adam objected. “Don’t I get a say in this?” A chorus of ‘no’ gave him his answer. He shrugged in acceptance of overwhelming odds. A chess player, he knew when it was checkmate.

Everything worked as expected. Two days later, Hoss and Joe headed toward California to make a visit to RoseMary and Archie. It was to be unexpected so they could get a true response from them. They wouldn’t have a chance to prepare. That should have meant there was a peaceful time on the Ponderosa. Adam and Robin knew better than to venture into town expecting that the gossips had been busy wagging their tongues. However, it was only two days after Hoss and Joe left that a rider pounded into the yard of the Ponderosa calling for Adam. As soon as he saw Adam, he yelled out to him.

“Your property’s on fire. The Statler place you bought is on fire.”

Turning to Robin and Ben, Adam said he had to go. Robin said he didn’t have to go because it didn’t matter any more. Ben wondered at that and asked about it after Adam left saying that someone could get hurt and that was why he had to go. Robin only said that Adam would explain when he got back. That was a few hours later.

“Well, I got everyone to stop fighting the fire. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt or die trying to save useless buildings.”

Ben was surprised. “Useless?”

“Yes, I got an offer on the place that’s three times what I paid for it and that’s less than six months ago. The D&G Mining Corporation is expanding and that property is convenient for them. They wanted it and I was willing to sell. We agreed on a price. They wanted those buildings gone. I was going to dismantle them, but this is quicker.”

“So someone did you a favor?”

“They did, but I doubt very much that is what was intended. When they find out, they will be even more angry.”

“They’ve also made this a much more serious and dangerous game they’re playing.”

“Yes, they have. We’re going to have to watch our backs very closely.

Chapter 11

As Joe and Hoss neared their destination, they had one more night to talk over their strategy before they met RoseMary and Archie Leach. As they had traveled, Joe had begun to use his imagination. He had wanted to use disguises and try to trick the two into admitting some kind of plot, but Hoss had stuck firm to the idea that the best way was to confront them by surprise and to see their honest reactions.

“Joe, we’re gonna feel it in our gut ifn they had anything to do with anything. Nobody is that good when ya catch ’em by surprise. Even ole Adam has that moment before he gets that stone face in place ifn ya surprise him with news. We gotta be watchin’ careful like and we’ll know right off if they was the ones who is part of it.”

“You must feel pretty strongly about it to make such a speech.”

“I do. It’s family, and we gotta do this right.”

“Yeah, when those men started saying those things about Robin, I think I got as mad as Adam. I wanted him to tear them apart. It was only later I realized how he could have been hurt. All I thought about at first was she was family and they were talking nasty about her.”

“Ya, it’s hard to think of Adam without Robin now. Heck, I can’t hardly remember any more what it was like not having the ladies around. I hope you all accept Melody like that.”

“Heck, we already have. Adam said it was fate. She had to be the one when you found her in a chocolate shop. What’s really funny is how we all ended up with ladies that no one would ever have picked out for us.”

“What dy’a mean?”

“Pa and I were talking one day. I was kinda wild and went from one pretty gal to the next. Then I up and married the first shy, quiet gal who ever really caught my eye. Adam is the one who did all the traveling and went to school and everything, and he’s the one who ends up marrying a saloon girl. Now most people would have expected that of me. You end up marrying a really smart independent gal who owns her own business and plans to keep running it after you get married even if she has to hire some help to do that. Now that seems more like someone Adam would have married, and the quiet, shy gal is the more likely one people would have picked for you.”

“I don’t think it’s funny at all.”

“You don’t think it’s odd?”

“Nope ’cause I look at it different, I guess, than you and Pa see it. You two are thinking we shoulda married somebody like us, two peas in a pod sorta. Well, now Pa should know better. I never knew Adam’s ma and never knew my own ma either, but from everything I ever heard, they were nothing like Pa. I did know your ma, and she and Pa were way different from each other.”

“But they loved each other.” Joe was a bit defensive on that score.

“Aw, I ain’t sayin’ they wasn’t. What I’m sayin’ is Pa loved three women and married ’em and not one of ’em was like him. Each gave him something he needed though. And that’s what our ladies give us. Adam wasn’t happy before. Now ifn he’d married somebody like him, what dy’a think he’d be like?”

“Oh, I see what you’re saying. If it was someone who was unhappy with her life and not knowing what she wanted to do, they would both be searching for what to do and both be unhappy together. This way, Robin knows what she wants and she’s willing to help Adam find what he wants so it works out for both of them, and he’s a lot happier.”

“Yup.”

Lost in thought for quite a while, Joe finally had his answer. “And I was wild and going from one to another and couldn’t settle down. I had my heart broken so many times it’s a wonder I could love at all. Then steady Doreen came into my life and it was like an anchor to hold me in place. Now I have someone who loves me no matter what. She’ll be there through the storms. She already has been.”

“Yep, you do things without thinking sometimes. You get all het up about things and act on your heart instead of using your head. It gets you into all sorts of fixes, but one thing you’re always gonna know is that woman will be there ready to hold you up.”

“So, what about Melody?”

“Joe, I spent years always helping you out and helping out Adam. I was the middle brother and I did my best to keep peace between you two. Sometimes though there were things I woulda liked to have done. Now Melody is encouraging me to do ’em.”

“Like what?”

“Now don’t you laugh when I tell you or I might have to pound you some. I want to open a restaurant in Virginia City. There isn’t one there that serves a steak big enough to suit me. It will have a limited menu: anything you want as long as it’s made with Ponderosa beef. Melody said she could do it too ifn I was to be there to help her hire some help and expand the place some. She’ll be able to make some chocolate desserts too.”

“So the menu will be steak and dessert?” Joe was doing his best not to laugh. He knew how important this was to Hoss.

“Well, there could be beef stew and other things made with beef. And Melody makes these beans where she puts in sugar and molasses and onions and a tiny bit of chocolate. Joe, they’re the best beans I ever ate. And of course, there’ll be bread or potatoes or something like that. But yeah, not much more than that.”

“What are you going to call this restaurant?”

“I was thinking The Ponderosa Restaurant, but Melody likes The Melody Café ’cause it’s right next to her chocolate shop so I guess we’ll go with that as long as she went with my idea.”

“So you’re going to be a businessman.”

“Yup, I will. I’ll be joining the chamber of commerce in town.”

Grinning, Joe pictured that and the looks on the faces of the stuffy upper crust of Virginia City when Hoss plopped himself down at the table for the first time. “Hoss, I wish I could be there.”

The brothers slept well after their long talk, and got up early the next morning to have a good breakfast before finishing their trip with a ride out to the Leach ranch. When they arrived, a ranch hand asked them their business. When they said they wanted to see RoseMary and Archie and were old friends from Virginia City, they were sent to a smaller house next to the main house. Sitting on the porch was RoseMary holding a baby as she rocked in a chair. When she saw them, she was clearly surprised and then smiled.

“Well, Hoss and Joe Cartwright, I never expected to see you again. Did you come here to check up on us to make sure we were where we were supposed to be?”

So easily caught out in their mission made both Hoss and Joe a little embarrassed. Hoss finally spoke. “Yes, ma’am, we are. There are reasons for it.”

“If I were you, I would have checked long ago. I understand after what Archie did and what my mother did. C’mon in. You can talk to Archie too. He’s inside working.”

“Is your baby a boy or a girl?” Hoss peeked at the baby as he stepped up on the porch.

“A boy: Thomas. We named him after Archie’s father who is very proud. He’s a very nice man. Archie’s mother is very nice too. She’s much nicer than my mother ever was. I never knew how nice a mother could be until I met her. She’s teaching me so much. I love living here. I never knew that I would like living so far out in the country, but we have servants who do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry, and people come out to visit fairly often.”

“You sound happy, RoseMary.”

“Hoss, I am happy. For the first time in my life, I am truly happy.”

As RoseMary turned to lead them into the house, Hoss and Joe exchanged looks. So far, it seemed that it was unlikely this was the source of the trouble for Adam and Robin. When they got inside, they got more evidence to back that up. Archie sat at a desk with ledgers and correspondence all around. He also had his right arm in a sling. He stood looking nervous, but RoseMary said they were only checking up on them and meant no harm.

“Listen, I went way out of line back then. I am sorry. I’ll never do anything like that again.”

Archie’s voice shook with a bit of fear. He remembered his last encounter with these two men. Hoss raised a hand in greeting and Archie stepped back as if hit.

“We did come to check on you, but I can see you couldn’t have done what we were worried about. We did have to check. After what happened, you have to understand that. Now what happened to your arm?”

“As it turns out, not only do I hate ranch work, but I am terribly bad at it. I got hurt several times, and this last time, a horse slammed me into the corral fence so hard it broke my arm in several places. Luckily it was my right arm.” Seeing Hoss and Joe frown, Archie had to smile finally. “I’m left-handed. My father said that as long as I could still write, I could help with the ledgers and letters. Well, I do enjoy this kind of work and I’m good at it. He hates it. He’s discovered what we should have done years ago. He put me in charge of all the paperwork, and he’s gone back to a more active role in the ranch. We’re both a lot happier.”

“When did this happen?”

“Oh, about two months ago, I guess. At first I was in bed, but now the pain isn’t so bad. The doctor doesn’t think the arm will ever be quite right, but at least it’s healing.” Archie looked at RoseMary who nodded. Hoss and Joe wondered at that but Archie asked a question before they could. “May I ask why specifically you’ve come here now?”

“For the past month, somebody has been making trouble for Adam and Robin. Whoever it is knows a lot that only somebody who knows Adam well would know. We had to check you out.”

Once more, Archie and RoseMary looked at each other. RoseMary nodded and Archie smiled at her as if to encourage her. She took a deep breath and turned to the two brothers.

“My mother was released from the asylum about two months ago. We don’t know where she and my father are. They visited here about a month ago after Archie was hurt. Thomas offered my father a job but he refused.”

That surprised Joe who knew how much money Adam had paid him for his property. “Why would your father need a job? He had all that money from the sale of his place.”

“He spent a lot of it on mother’s care, but he also invested in a project that was a scam and lost a lot of money there. He’s very angry and bitter now.”

Hoss had a question about her mother. “Why would they let her out so soon?”

“Their policy is to try to return people to society as quickly as they can. When she knew I was in good hands and happy, she didn’t have that to rant about. She can also act very well. I’m sure she began to play the shy, quiet woman again. You don’t know what she was like when no one was around. It was like two different women.”

“So she could be upset about what happened to your father now and be on another quest for revenge.”

“She could be.”

“Joe, we know what we need to know. We best be on our way home. RoseMary and Archie, congratulations on your new baby and your new job and home. We wish you the best.”

After Joe offered his congratulations, the two brothers left. After they had left the ranch and ridden a short distance beyond, Joe pulled up. Hoss stopped and waited for whatever question he had.

“Did you believe everything she said?”

“Nope.”

“Why did you act like you did?”

“I didn’t want to give anything away.”

“Give what away?”

“There was a letter on the desk addressed to Barney Fuller in Virginia City, and it was written in full block letters.”

“So it is Archie!”

“Or someone who wants us to think it’s him.”

“Then we don’t know anything more than when we left.”

“We do. One way or another, this is tied to Archie and RoseMary. They’re part of it or they’re doing it or somebody they know is doing it. That much we know.”

Chapter 12

Furious, Adam wanted to go to California and face Archie Leach. He thought that the information that Hoss had brought back implicating him was enough, but Hoss told him to think about it.

“Think about it! All I can do is think about it. My wife’s reputation is attacked so much that we have to avoid going to town. How can we not think about it?”

“Adam, whoever did this wants you to react exactly the way you are.”

“And what way is that?”

“With your heart and not your head.”

Fuming, Adam stood at the fireplace and tried to calm himself. It wasn’t working particularly well until he looked at Robin who did a slight bob of her head indicating that she agreed with Hoss. Someone was playing him and doing it expertly. That made him angry but in a different way. It was a cold anger instead of the hot anger that might make him do something foolish.

“You think someone is playing a game with our lives.”

“Yup, I shur do. Listen, when we talked with RoseMary and Archie, they sounded like they was really happy. Then I saw that letter on the desk and I got all suspicious. Now anybody who knows what happened with him and you knows you’d suspect him again and want to check up on him. What better way to leave a false trail than to write those letters using the same way of writing he’s got?”

“How do we know that’s the way he writes?”

“Me and Joe stopped at the bank where he worked and asked there. They remembered it real well. Said he always wrote stuff out like that ’cause his other writing looked like a chicken scratching in the dirt. Said he never really learned to write well that way that they call curling, or curving, or whatever.”

“Cursive.”

“Yeah, that’s it. Said he wrote his numbers real block solid like that too. They liked it ’cause they said it was real easy to read anything he wrote up.”

“So anyone who knew him would know he wrote like that.”

“Yup, and they could easy copy it. Heck, I could copy that ifn I needed to.”

“We’re no closer to knowing who’s behind all of this than we were before.”

“Maybe we are. Elaine is out of the asylum.”

“What?” Adam was shocked.

Equally surprised, Robin wanted to know more. “Why would they let her out so soon after what she did? She tried to kill me.”

“According to RoseMary, they do their best to get people back out into society as quick as they can. I guess Jim knew that. Anyway, RoseMary says she could act real well. She says she was only quiet and shy when she was out in public. She said she was a different person at home.”

“So that crazy woman could be after us again.”

“She’d know all about how to do everything that’s been done. I don’t know how the Statler property got burned, but maybe she found a way to pay somebody to do it.”

Ben had remained quiet listening to his sons, but he had formed a conclusion too. “Adam, Hoss may be on to something. Whoever is doing this is trying to rile you up. You rode out of here to that fire without thinking. Someone could easily have attacked you when you did that. You certainly weren’t thinking of your own safety when you left here. Anyone who knows you, knows about your temper. They may be trying to get you to act on that instead of thinking what you’re doing. Now if you go racing off to California, what better time to get to you than that.”

“So you think they expected us to check up on Archie and RoseMary. They expected we would see how Archie writes. That’s a lot to assume.”

“It is and it isn’t. Anyone who knows them would know what was going on.”

“So you think it’s probably her mother? That’s who knows them that well and knows me and Robin well too.”

“That seems to make the most sense at this time, but I don’t know how she’s doing it if Jim is that low on money, and he’s with her.” Ben was as confused as the rest of them other than to know, as Hoss did, that they were playing Adam and probably trying to set him up for some kind of ambush. “What I think we should do is nothing. Make whomever it is have to do something else because their plan hasn’t worked so far. It must be terribly frustrating to them.”

“Whoever it is has shown they will do dangerous things. What if they try something here on the Ponderosa?”

“That’s just it, son. Everything that’s been done has been off the Ponderosa. Whoever it is seems to be afraid of confronting you and us here. Let’s make them do more and maybe they’ll give us enough clues to figure out whom it is. The more they do, the greater the chance they’re going to make a mistake. Maybe they already have and we haven’t seen it. We need to take a close look at all that’s happened and examine closely all that happens in the future. As Hoss said, let’s use our heads.”

Liking the idea more and more, Adam actually found that he could smile a little again. “And perhaps we can turn this game around and make them react emotionally.”

“I have an idea.” All heads swiveled toward Robin who had been quiet for most of this discussion. “Maybe someone could let it slip in conversation with Dan DeQuille at the Territorial Enterprise that the fire actually helped Adam, and let it slip too that he sold the property for three times what he paid for it.”

Frowning, Adam made it obvious that he wasn’t happy about the idea of his information becoming public. However Hoss and Ben were showing definite interest in the plan because of its merits. Ben was the first to speak.

“Adam, I know this wouldn’t be your first choice of how to proceed, but you have to admit that the news would certainly get under the skin of anyone who meant to do you harm by setting that fire. They may not know, and this would make sure they did know.”

Putting his hands palms up in surrender, Adam still didn’t like the idea. He wondered too how they would deliver the news. He certainly would never be one to divulge something like that and knew his father wouldn’t either. They looked to Hoss.

“I ain’t the kind to stop and chat with Dan.”

It didn’t take long though to realize the man they needed. “Joe!”

The plan was set up and implemented within two days with Joe enjoying the role he got to play. It suited his personality perfectly. The reaction to it came within days as letters arrived in Virginia City addressed to prominent residents claiming that the Cartwrights and Sheriff Coffee had framed Elaine Statler so that Adam Cartwright could get the Statler property and make a deal with the mining company. Dan DeQuille jumped on the story and the mining company told him they hadn’t even decided to expand until after the Statlers had left town. The story died there because there were no facts to support it.

The following week, a letter appeared saying that Adam Cartwright had fathered RoseMary Leach’s baby and that was why Archie had attempted to kill Adam. There was a short statement included in the letter supposedly from Archie in support of that assertion. Dan DeQuille rode out to the Ponderosa to question Adam about it and got the denial he expected. After he left, the family discussed the situation.

“Well, that’s it. It’s an invitation to go see Archie. Whoever it is, they’re trying to get me off this ranch again.”

“Well, of course, you’re not going.” Ben was adamant.

“I don’t know, Pa. Maybe I ought to go. We could make sure I have protection and we could see who comes after me. Surely it’s going to be hired gunmen. Once we have them, we can find out who hired them.”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling him, Papa Ben, but he still wants to do it.”

Hoss and Joe were quiet, and that was rather ominous as far as their father was concerned. He looked at them and then back at Adam. “The three of you want to do this, don’t you?”

“Otherwise, I’m stuck here at the mercy of this person for an indefinite time. Yes, I think it’s time to find out who it is and where she is.”

“I guess we better do some planning then.”

The planning was complicated by a short note that Adam received from Archie Leach the next day.

Adam

RoseMary’s father paid us another visit. Her mother wasn’t with him, and he seems a very different man than he was before. I know I can never make up for what I tried to do to you, but I hope this makes the scales balance a little bit better. He’s very angry at you. I’m not sure why, but it was clear that he was. He said that I could expect a visit from you soon, and that I should prepare myself. I don’t know what kind of mischief may be afoot but know that what RoseMary and I said to your brothers was the truth. We are happy and wish no harm to you. I know I was wrong, and I want to move forward in the life I have now. I hope this warning helps you in whatever is going on.

Archie Leach

“Now what am I supposed to think about that? Is he telling the truth and Jim is the one behind all of this, or is this an elaborate ruse to make me think so while Archie plots the next step against me?”

“Son, I think we go ahead with the plan and find out. You’re right. One way or another, this has to stop. Someone is treating your life like a game. It has to end.”

The day after that, Adam rode out from the Ponderosa toward California. Far off to either side, he had help. On one side, Hoss and Joe were riding and doing their best to try to keep Adam in sight while watching the whole area to see if there was any other rider doing the same. Up ahead, Candy was in disguise as a gold miner leading a mule laden with the supplies a prospector in the mountains would use as well as bags of supplies. He was checking to see if there was anyone out ahead of Adam waiting for him. On the other side, Ben rode with Clem who had volunteered to help out. He had no jurisdiction once they reached the county line. After that, he would be acting as a private citizen and was willing to do so. That night, Adam had a nice little camp as did Candy while the others had to endure cold camps. They did that for the next two days not seeing anyone until Hoss spotted someone following them. Joe went ahead to alert both Adam and Candy. Candy switched directions and moved to intercept the man or men following Adam. Much too late they realized the men back there were decoys and that Adam was likely riding into an ambush.

Chapter 13

“Dadburnit, Joe, these are the two jaspers that Adam had that fight with in the saloon over what they said ’bout Robin.”

“Who paid you?”

“Nobody paid us nothing. We’re just out riding, and you all came at us with guns.”

“Hoss, they’re not going to tell us anything. We need to get to Adam. He may be in trouble by now. Candy, can you take charge of these two?

Without waiting for a response, Joe wheeled his horse to head back in the direction Adam had been traveling. Hoss followed as Candy pointed his pistol at the two men and told them to drop any weapons they had. Soon he had their hands tied and secured to their saddle horns. Then they began to follow the others. Candy could only hope that they found Adam before he had too much trouble.

Unfortunately no one found Adam. Ben and Clem were closest, but in the thick timber they were in, suddenly found no trace of him. They looked but in the pine needles and then the rock around there, they couldn’t find tracks either. When Hoss arrived with Joe, Ben was almost desperate with his plea that Hoss find Adam’s tracks. Only fifteen minutes earlier, Adam had been accosted and forced at rifle point to ride away from the path he had been following. After a hard ride uphill, he sat on Sport and finally knew the enemy. He was surprised to some extent, but after thinking about this for weeks, he had become suspicious that this was the only likely suspect.

“I don’t exactly know why, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me or you would have simply shot me when you had the chance.”

“You see, that’s part of the problem with you, you’re always too damn smart. If you had simply fought that fire, I could have shot you then. You would have fallen into one of the buildings and your body would have been so burned up, no one would have realized you were shot. You could have gone to see that damn Archie and somehow your food would have been poisoned and you would have died. It would have been so simple, but you wouldn’t do the simple things.”

“I’m not going to apologize for making it difficult for you to kill me. What I want to know is why.”

“Why? You tormented my daughter. You made her think she would marry you and then you married that saloon girl. Do you know what that made people say? We were humiliated that you would choose a saloon girl over our daughter. Then you expose my weak son-in-law as a criminal. That shredded what dignity my family had left. To make it worse, you buy our property for face value. We didn’t need your charity or what it looked like to everyone in town. The saintly Adam Cartwright saving the poor family with all the problems: the daughter no decent man wants to marry, the crazy mother, and the worthless son-in-law. But you turn around and sell that same property for three times what you paid for it. Now you look brilliant and I look stupid too.”

“Jim, I would have given you that money if you would have contacted me.”

“More charity, no thank you. What I need is justice. Elaine is dead, you know. She killed herself. After they let her out and she found out we had nothing, she couldn’t accept that. She killed herself. I came back to our shoddy little rented room, and there was blood splattered all over. She wasn’t even very good at that. It took her a while to die. She must have suffered a lot. That’s on you too.”

“I’m sorry, Jim, but Elaine wasn’t healthy. She needed to stay in that asylum to get more help.” Adam hoped to keep the man talking long enough for help to arrive.

“Oh, I know what you’re doing. You think they’ll come charging to your rescue. Well, they’ll never find a trail. I picked this spot for that reason and for another.”

Adam hated to ask but had to do so. “What other reason?”

“You’re going to die here. Get off your horse.”

With a sheer dropoff behind him, Adam couldn’t do much except obey. He dismounted. Jim told him then to slap his horse to get him to move away. Adam did that too. Then Jim told him to back up. Adam didn’t want to do that, but Jim leveled the rifle at his chest and told him he had one choice.

“Now, you can jump or I can shoot you. The choice is yours.”

The gleam in Jim’s eyes showed that he was indeed well past the point of being sane. Adam had a question for him as he hoped to buy a bit more time.

“Was what Elaine did her idea or yours?”

With a feral grin, Jim looked at him in triumph. “Well at least you figured that out. She was easy to push. I only had to suggest ideas and she would do them. Then all I had to do was act surprised when she got caught. It was exhilarating to control someone like that. I enjoyed that almost as much as I enjoy this. Now, back to your choice: jump or get shot in the heart.”

“No, that isn’t going to happen!” From behind Jim, Ben’s booming voice froze the villain in his tracks for a moment.

However Jim wasn’t going to be denied. He knew he couldn’t raise the rifle to aim and shoot now because they would shoot him before he could finish. But there was one thing he could do. He spurred his horse to charge Adam intending to knock him over the precipice and then turn to escape if he could. He didn’t think they would anticipate him doing that so it might work. Kicking his horse viciously, he sprang forward toward Adam. However Adam had seen the look on Jim’s face which wasn’t that of a man giving up. It was the look of a man intent on mayhem so Adam was almost ready for the charge. It was enough that he was able to miss most of the charge and slam his fist into the horse’s head making it fail to respond to Jim’s pull on the reins. The momentum carried horse and rider over the edge but the blow took Adam down and over as well although more slowly as he fell and slid over the cliff’s edge grasping for any handhold he could find as he went. Ben, Hoss, and Joe dismounted and ran toward him as Clem unwound his rope and rode up behind them. Adam was a few feet down clinging to a rock outcropping with one hand.

“Hoss, grab my ankles and lower me down.”

“Joe, I can’t hold both you and Adam.”

“Ben, tie the rope to Hoss.”

It was an odd looking rescue as Joe went down headfirst to grasp Adam’s wrists and save him from falling as Hoss held Joe by the ankles and Clem held his horse steady. Ben got his horse and a rope and dropped it to Adam who grasped it taking the weight from Joe. Ben pulled Adam up and then worked with Hoss and Clem to pull Joe back up. Then they pulled Hoss to safety too. The three brothers collapsed on the ground resting side-by-side as Ben and Clem stood by them and caught their breath too and waited for their hearts to calm down. After a short time, Adam had a request.

“When you tell this story to anyone, could you please leave out the part about me falling over the cliff? Robin is with child, and I don’t want anything like that to upset her too much.”

There were congratulations all around then but Adam had to add one more caution.

“Now you can’t tell her I told you either. She wanted to keep it a secret a while longer. So act surprised when she makes the big announcement, please.”

“We can do that, older brother, but I have a request too. Please don’t tell Doreen then that I hung over the cliff to grab you. I made her a promise to try to think before I acted, and that didn’t happen there.”

“Little brother, that is one time I am most grateful you are impulsive. Thank you for saving my life.” Frowning a bit, Adam had a question. “How did you find us so quickly?”

“Jim talks a lot. It was echoing, and we finally figured out the direction based on that. We heard a lot as we got closer. We had to be quiet to try to get close without him hearing us so he didn’t shoot you.”

Ben looked at Clem Foster. “Do you have enough to write up an official report of this?”

“I do. And I’ll take those two into custody that Candy has. We’re close enough to the county lines that no one will question it. They’ve got some prison time coming to them. Conspiracy, attempted murder as accomplices, and anything else I can think of ought to do it. Roy may have some ideas too. I’ll send an official letter to RoseMary and Archie too about her parents. I’ll do my best to keep it simple, but she has a right to know they’re dead. Based on what we know about them now, she probably won’t miss them much.”

“Yeah, now what she said ta me and Joe ’bout being happy living with Archie’s family makes a lot of sense.”

Ben reached out his hand to pull Adam to his feet. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter 14

Hoss was glad that Melody was spared being part of the drama of what had happened with Adam and Robin and their troubles with Jim Statler. He didn’t want anything to interfere with their plans to marry and nothing did. The night before the wedding, the family had the last dinner they would have with Hoss as a single man. There was quite a bit of teasing but Hoss didn’t mind because he was so happy that he would soon be married. However he was worried a bit about the wedding night, and asked his father if there was any advice he could give.

“Listen to her. Let her know she’s the most important person in your life now. Be patient and considerate of her.”

Sitting on the settee, Adam had a comment he probably shouldn’t have made. “It’s too late for him to be patient.” He got an elbow in the ribs for that one. “Ow! What? “We’re all adults here. I was being honest. I thought you said we should always be honest.”

“That wasn’t being honest. That was being crude.”

“Being with child certainly has made you feisty.”

Ben chuckled as he watched Hoss turn a bright pink color and assumed that was the result of Adam’s comment. He also noted Adam rubbing his ribs in mock torment as if it hurt terribly as he usually did when Robin delivered a rebuke that way. However Ben agreed with her so he wasn’t going to say anything. She was showing now so the secret wasn’t a secret any longer. She and Adam had moved into their home and were preparing a nursery there. Adam had hired a woman to work for them as he had promised Robin before marriage that she wouldn’t have to do a lot of household chores. He was also busy developing a construction business to use his skills and tie in with the Ponderosa timber business and lumber mill.

A knock at the door announced that Joe and Doreen were there with Maribeth a moment before the door opened and they entered. They had an armload of linens for Hoss’ room that would soon be his room with his wife. He and Melody were going to live in the main house with Ben. Joe and Doreen lived close, and Adam and Robin lived only about three miles away and closer to town. Doreen and Robin had collaborated on new linens and curtains for Hoss’ room. Adam had built an armoire for Melody to use as well as a dressing table. Ben had ordered a mirror to hang above that table for her so the room had a distinctly different look to it now. Candles and flowers were to be added the next day as was a bottle of champagne and two crystal glasses. Normally they would have added some chocolates or desserts, but Melody could do those better than anyone so that had been left up to her.

“Now, Hoss, you know you can’t sleep in your room tonight. It’s going to be set up for your wedding night.”

“I know. I already moved some things into the room down the hall across from Pa.”

As agreeable as Hoss was, the wedding was destined to be successful and was. It was also quieter than the usual Cartwright party. Doreen and Joe had a child to get home and to bed so they left early. Adam was concerned about Robin and didn’t want her to overexert herself, and she was tired too fairly early in the celebration so they left as soon as the dinner was concluded and the toasts were made to the happy couple. Without Adam and Joe to spur on the dancing and the music, the party was a quieter one that slowly diminished until most guests departed at an early hour. After the cleaning up was done, Ben told Hoss he was going to town with Roy to give the couple some private time. Hoss and Melody made the most of their quiet time and any time they could get in the months after that as she continued to run her business and the restaurant they opened next door to it.

By the time Adam and Robin welcomed Samuel Edwin Cartwright into the world months later, Hoss was ready to announce that he and Melody were with child too. They were at Adam’s house the day of the christening when Joe surprised them with the same announcement for him and Doreen. Ben thought there couldn’t be any more good news when Adam grinned and said he ought to talk to his foreman who had been spending a lot of time visiting at Adam’s house. Ben raised an eyebrow because that was news to him, but Adam said that Candy had found his housekeeper to be quite beguiling and was ready to ask permission to be a married foreman on the Ponderosa. Adam had decided to smooth the way by letting his father know the news first so he could get ready for it.

“Well, son, I guess you’ll have two new jobs to add to your workload then.” Adam frowned not sure what his father meant. “You’ll need to design a house for Candy and his bride, and you’ll have to find a new housekeeper for Robin. With Sammy now, she’ll want one even more.”

Robin smiled at Adam who sighed a deep theatrical sigh but covered his ribs just in case even with Sammy in his arms. That brought a round of chuckles to the room.

“I can’t do that when you’re holding Sammy. Maybe later.” Robin flicked her eyebrows up and down eliciting more chuckles. Nothing seemed to change about her. She kept things light with Adam not letting those dark moods overtake him. They had a big dog at their house too. Robin had claimed she needed the dog to make her feel safe when Adam wasn’t there which was partially true, but she felt that Adam needed a dog too. He named the dog William thinking that Shakespeare would draw too many unkind comments, and the dog was by his side wherever he went. It made him tell Robin that perhaps they needed two dogs so he could leave one home with her. She had smiled and said it was all right.

Sitting on a comfortable chair by the fireplace in his son’s home, Ben looked at Adam seated with Sammy in his arms and Robin at his side with William lying at his feet. Hoss sat by Melody next to the fireplace with his arm draped over her shoulders. Joe was playing with Maribeth as Doreen looked on. Ben smiled and enjoyed the dream that had come true for him.

*****

 

Dark Secrets

Chapter 1

With a sigh because he was never satisfied these days, Robin unbuttoned her dress and exposed herself. He sucked the nipple into his mouth as quickly as he could even as she was startled a bit by his teeth grazing the sensitive tissue. It had become an issue lately.

“Perhaps you need to think about weaning Sammy. He’s seven months and from what my father has told me, I was almost walking by that age. Within a month or two, he could be walking. You don’t want him to walk up to you and reach up to grab you like he does when he’s on your lap and wants to suckle.”

“I know. I have to watch those hands of his when anyone is around. It can be so embarrassing. And he only has four teeth but those are starting to be a problem too. They’re sharp as razors. You may be right.”

“He does eat quite a bit at the table. I’m sure that with help from Mabel, you can get him to eat and drink enough.”

“I wish he could stay a baby a bit longer, but I guess that’s a wish that can’t come true. We may not have any more so I would like to enjoy this experience as long as I can. Soon, I can see you buying him his first boots and dressing him all in black like you and taking him out with you.”

Chuckling, Adam watched her nurse their son. “He’s going to look good in black too. He’s got dark skin like I do. Of course, you’re as dark as I am even in those places the sun has never seen.” A dark look passed over Robin’s face then. Adam had seen her react that way before when he had mentioned her complexion. She had always avoided telling him why, but he decided to press the issue. “Why don’t you like me mentioning your coloring? It’s the same as mine so I don’t know why it makes you uncomfortable, but it clearly does. We promised each other honesty. You’ve held me to that standard a number of times. It’s your turn.”

Boxed in by that, Robin had no choice but to explain. “We lived in Ohio. A lot of people there were pretty sensitive about skin color and race. They called me names. Wren and Dove were lighter like my father. I was more like my mother. She’s darker too, but she spent a lot of time indoors and she used some powder on her face when she went out. As a child, I didn’t have that luxury. It was one of the reasons I left home and came west. I didn’t think any young man there would have me after all of that.”

Stunned a little, Adam was also surprised she had never told him anything about that before this morning.

“Loving someone is giving them the chance to hurt you and trusting that they won’t. When we were first together, our love was still growing as was the trust. Now I trust you with everything so I can tell you my dark secret.”

“Maybe there’s some Indian in your family history. I think there is in mine. Pa showed me the Bible that my mother had. In it, my grandfather’s grandmother is listed only as Sarah. He said that from what he was told, if anyone asked about her, they were told to mind their manners. No one wanted to explain anything about Sarah. The assumption by everyone in the family is that she was what they called a ‘praying Indian’ in that she converted to a Christian faith or was raised that way if her parents had converted. Those Indians who adopted a white way of living and became Christians were accepted in many communities, but their Indian heritage was wiped away and never mentioned again.”

“Oh, my, that’s the same as killing them. They killed what they were.”

“Yes, some would look at it that way. I don’t know if she was happy or not about it, but I think it’s why I’m darker. There is Indian heritage in the family.”

“You never told me that before either.”

“I guess I never thought it was that important. Until now, I hadn’t even thought about it. I certainly never was taunted about my color like you were. I was outside a lot. People probably assumed I was darker because of the sun. But maybe you’re darker too because you have some Indian ancestry no one talks about. It seems to be how most families handle that.”

“I suppose that’s possible. My mother’s family is from Virginia and lived there for many generations. There were those who took Indian women as wives in the early years. It could be the reason for the darker color of my skin and my mother.”

“Oh, well, no one has said anything here and won’t so there’s no need to be concerned about it.”

That conversation between Adam and Robin had taken place when Sammy was about seven months old. Only a couple of months later, it was going to take on a significance neither of them expected. Their lives were settling into a very pleasant routine and Adam was in an optimistic and upbeat mood. One morning a couple of months later, he again watched Robin nursing Sammy. She was doing less and less of it mostly in the morning and at night.

“Now I do need to get going. I have to get working on that new deal. The contract is very profitable but there are deadlines that have to be met.”

For the past two months, Adam had been working on a deal with the railroads. He had designed a trestle for them in consultation with their architects and engineers, set up a cutting schedule for timber, set a milling schedule for the lumber mill, and worked out a transportation schedule for the freight haulers he had hired. When the trestle was built, the Ponderosa would see a profit from all four aspects of the building of it so they had been able to undercut the bids of everyone else on the project by vertical consolidation of their businesses. The pieces of the trestle were to be numbered at the mill so that when they arrived at the site, they could be fitted in place with the least amount of labor. That meant that the railroad company was saving money on their construction labor as well and were happy about that too. If this project worked out as well as it looked like it could, Cartwright construction would be in great demand and profits would grow. The outlay in expenses was not much more than their usual so the cash flow was impressive, but as Adam said, they had deadlines to meet. He needed to supervise all aspects of the project closely to keep everything moving along well. The last part of the project depended on Joe buying the horses they needed to pull the freight but that was nearly completed too.

“Will you be back home tonight?”

“Yes, I’m only going to the lumber mill today and then to talk with Joe about the horses. It may be a bit late, but I’ll be home.”

“Good, it makes me nervous when you’re not home at night. Mabel is good, but it’s not the same as having you here.”

“We’ve talked about hiring a man to help around the place. Then when I’m gone, there would be someone here.”

“Except I don’t know who I would trust enough to be that man.”

“Well, we’re going to have to find someone. When the construction starts, there are times when I may have to go to the building site and that will mean I may be gone for a week. Of course whenever I go to the timber camps, that’s three days at least. We need someone here.”

“Maybe ask Hoss who he thinks would be a good choice. I asked Candy, but he suggested that young man they just hired, the one Ben got out of prison, the one who’s here on parole.”

“I’ve met him. He has a surly streak, but you might like him. How about if I invite him to dinner one night?”

It was Robin’s turn to be stunned. “You would hire him to protect me and Sammy?”

“Hear his story, and talk to him. You might be surprised. I was. Remember, he saved Pa’s life too. He might be worth taking a look at. He could probably do with a bit of mothering too and you and Mabel would be good at that.”

“You’ve talked to him and you like him?”

“I’ve talked to him or rather we had words. He’s rather prickly around everyone.”

“But he’s the one you think would be good to do this?”

“I think he would be fine with you women, and he needs to be needed.”

“Why was he in prison?”

That made Adam pause. He should have anticipated the question and had not. Too focused on his business plans, he hadn’t given full consideration to what Robin would think about his idea. Knowing though that honesty was the only option, he reluctantly told her. “He killed his stepfather. Now he was very young and there were extenuating circumstances. A boy doesn’t always realize there are other alternatives to drastic action. I’m not going to say the man deserved to die, but he certainly contributed to what happened to him.”

“I get the picture. All right. I’ll talk to him about it, but I’m not making any promises.”

“Neither am I. I’m not sure he will even consider the job. I’ll have to talk to Pa about it first anyway, and then I’ll have to talk to him. Now I do need to get going.” Leaning down, Adam kissed his wife softly and then kissed the top of his son’s head before he left.

On the Ponderosa, the young man he had been discussing with his wife was standing with Candy and watching two gentlemen approach the ranch house to meet with Ben Cartwright. They had driven into the yard and asked where they could find him. It was early, and Candy was certain they were not expected. That in itself was rather rude for it was rather early to be dropping in as unexpected guests, but the attitude of the men was that it didn’t matter either. Griff stood by him and had a similar opinion.

“Those two are trouble.”

“At least we don’t have to talk to them.”

“We may have to do worse.”

“What? Why?”

“I’ve seen men like that a lot. They don’t care about anybody else. They’ve got a plan and anybody who stands in their way is in for a lot of trouble.”

“You can tell all of that by how they walked into the house?”

Griff shrugged, but inside the house, Hoss was getting the same impression by how the two men addressed his father and demanded a meeting dismissing him as if he didn’t matter. He walked with them to his father’s desk regardless of how they acted and waited there for what they had to say to his father. They seemed irritated by his presence and perhaps by having a witness. Hoss could see that his father was ill at ease and also irritated and waited for the fireworks to begin because he assumed the two men were going to propose something his father wasn’t going to like. Then, his father was going to let his displeasure show once he knew what they wanted. What they said though surprised both of them.

“We’ll get right to the point. You have frozen other construction companies out of some very lucrative work with the railroads. Your method means we cannot compete. We do not own timberlands like you do. In the future, you will raise your bids to the same level or higher than ours. We’ll tell you in advance what those numbers should be.”

With a smirk, Ben looked at them as if they were crazy. “You think you can come in here and demand I do something like that for no reason.”

“Oh no, we have a good reason for you to do it. If you don’t, we’ll publish the information we have that your son has married a black woman and fathered a mixed race boy. Who will do business with you then? We’re allowing you to keep that secret and stay in business. That’s the deal we’re offering.”

“That’s ridiculous. Get out of my house.”

“Fine. Talk with your son. Find out the truth and we’ll be in town waiting for your reply.” The man dropped a card on the desk.

“You have my reply. Get out!”

To emphasize the point, Hoss stood and pointed to the door and then escorted the men out. His glowering look let Candy and Griff know that the meeting had not gone well. Griff looked at Candy with a triumphant smirk. He knew there was big trouble on the way. He wasn’t happy about that as he was grateful to this family especially Ben for taking him in, but it was a good feeling to have your judgment validated. When Candy looked at him and gave him a look that said he was impressed with his evaluation of things, he felt proud and hoped he would be able to do more to show how much he appreciated what everyone here was doing for him. He knew that sometimes he let his temper show too much, but he was trying to control it. Candy had told him the Cartwrights had pretty good tempers themselves and understood his difficulties. Nothing had happened yet to verify that bit of information, but it would explain their tolerance for some of his bad behavior although he didn’t think Adam liked him much. He guessed it was because the man in black seemed to be cool as ice most of the time and didn’t like the hot-tempered young hand his father had hired.

Chapter 2

“They have to be talking about Robin. The only one who has a son is Adam.” When Joe got to the main house to talk over the work for the day, Ben and Hoss had shared what the two men had said.

Hoss and Ben had discussed it for a short time before Joe had arrived. “That’s ridiculous though. Robin isn’t black. She isn’t any darker than Adam is.”

Joe wondered though what the strategy could be. “Pa, why would they say something like that?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps they’re using it as a threat thinking that the slander they intend to use will scare us into giving in to their demands.”

That made sense to the brothers, but Joe had another concern. “How are we going to approach Adam about this? He’s going to be really upset.”

“Onliest way I see to do it is to tell him straight out, but I don’t think he’s going to be home today. He’s supposed to be up at the lumber mill seeing to the final instructions for the logs coming in from the timber camps. They’re starting in on that trestle job.”

“He’s supposed to check in with me today about the horses for the hauling though so I’ll see him. Do you want me to tell him?”

“I think we should all be together when he hears. Maybe Robin should be here too.”

“Pa, ya think mebbe we oughta let Robin know what’s going on? I mean, it’s gonna be about her too.”

“I’m not sure if we ought to tell her before we tell Adam.” Ben was torn. Telling Robin first could make Adam feel that they had interfered, but she was here and he wasn’t. They could ask her advice too about talking to Adam. It was possible that she would like to tell the news to Adam. He brought up all those points with Hoss and Joe.

“Pa, I think you or me ought to go talk with Robin. I’m guessing this is gonna shock her some too, but she’s got a right to know. Then we can decide what should be done next after hearing what she’s got to say.”

Joe had what he thought was an even better idea, and Melody who had been listening agreed. “Joe’s right. If both Papa and Hoss go there, it will be more like a family meeting and not make her feel like she’s being put on the spot. Discuss it with her like you all did right here.”

Hoss was smiling. His wife didn’t talk a lot in family discussions, but when she did, she always had something really good to say, at least it was in his estimation. Usually, as they did now, they agreed with him. Joe headed out to work, and Hoss and Ben headed over to Adam’s house to speak with Robin because they assumed correctly that Adam would have already left for the lumber mill. They arrived at the house to find Robin coming out to sit on the porch with a cup of coffee in one hand and a book in the other.

“Oh-oh, this looks serious. To have my father-in-law and Hoss here at the same time makes me think there’s something big to talk about, but Adam has already left.”

“We thought he probably had, but Hoss and I came to talk to you. We have news and we need your advice too.”

“Do you want coffee? I can have Mabel bring out a pot.”

“That would be very nice. We had breakfast so we don’t need any food.” Hoss looked disappointed at that making Robin smile.

“Maybe Mabel can bring a few biscuits out too.” Robin was gone only a few minutes. Mabel came out with her carrying a tray of cups and biscuits, and Robin had the pot of coffee. Mabel said she would take care of Sammy if he woke while they were there talking, and then she retreated into the house to give them privacy.

“Now what brought you here this morning?”

Shocked by the news they brought, Robin wasn’t as surprised though as Hoss and Ben had expected. She explained why with the taunts she had received as a girl because of her darker skin.

“Many in Ohio are very sensitive to the race issue. Where we lived, many of the people had relatives in Tennessee and Kentucky. You know it is kind of funny because Adam and I talked about this only a short time ago. His skin is like mine, but no one ever called him a darky. Here no one would think that. In the south, they have the one-drop rule. They’re much more sensitive to the issue.”

Hoss was frowning. “What’s the one drop rule?”

“It means that if you have one black ancestor, you’re black even if all your other ancestors were white. So let’s say that six generations back, there was a black woman in your past. That would make you one sixty-fourth black. You would have sixty-three out of sixty-four ancestors who were white.”

“That’s plumb crazy. Ifn I was to put one grain of pepper in my salt shaker, that don’t make it pepper. It’s still salt. Anybody seeing it would say it was salt and probably not even notice the pepper in there. Heck, how could anybody even see that a body had a black ancestor? I mean, would a person look black after so many generations?”

“You would look as white as anyone else probably. By law though, you would be black.”

“Dadburnit, but how would anybody know?”

“Like people around here know who your father is. People live in the same area so they know who your parents are and your grandparents and so on. They would know.”

“Well, couldn’t you like move away and live somewhere where folks wouldn’t know?”

“Yes, and people do that. It’s called passing.” Robin was uncomfortably aware of how similar it was to what she had done coming west to escape the taunts and innuendoes of her hometown in Ohio. No one out here had ever said anything like that to her.

Ben took a deep breath and sighed. Both Hoss and Robin knew he had something important to say. He looked down too before he said it so they knew he was having a difficult time saying it. “Robin, is there any chance that these men know your past in Ohio and are using that as the basis of this threat?”

Almost sighing in relief, Robin managed to keep her expression as neutral as she could in answering. “It’s possible. They could be using that and hoping that Adam didn’t know and that you would be very upset to know. I don’t think anyone here would believe it.” Robin was relieved that Ben didn’t ask if it could be true. She had wondered herself sometimes if her mother might have left Virginia with her father to pass as white if she was a fraction black. Miscegenation laws in Virginia would not have allowed them to marry either, but in Ohio, no one would have known and it would not have been a problem. Robin had avoided the thought that it could be true and had not written her parents to ask them. Based on this new crisis, she thought she probably should but wondered if they would tell her. She realized then that Ben had been speaking and she hadn’t been listening.

“I’m sorry. My mind was wandering and I didn’t hear what you said.”

“That’s all right. We came here with some disturbing news. Now what I said was that we weren’t sure if we should tell Adam or if you wanted to tell him.”

“I think you should tell him. He’ll have questions about the two men and exactly what they said, and you can answer that far better than I can.”

“All right. I’ll have Joe tell him to come see me when he stops by to check on the horses for the freight wagons. You’re sure you’re going to be all right?”

“I’ll be fine. Just be sure you’ve calmed Adam down some before you let him ride home tonight.” Robin smiled as she saw the looks Ben and Hoss had to that. They all knew how this would set off the oldest son’s temper. Robin thought for a bit longer. “You don’t suppose that could be what this is all about? They want to get Adam and you upset and angry to see if they can get you to do something rash?”

Frowning, Ben thought about that and had to consider that it was possible. He agreed with her and suggested that they needed to find out a lot more about these two men. Hoss knew what they looked like so Ben sent him to town to alert Roy and to have Hiram hire someone to start doing some digging to find out as much as possible. Roy would find out the basic information, but they might need to know more than that. Then Ben went to tell Joe to send Adam up to the main house after he saw him later that day. Then it was a matter of waiting.

When Adam saw Joe, he knew something was wrong but couldn’t imagine what he was going to hear when he saw his father. Joe’s news about the horses was all good with the teams ready to go and drivers and wagons all set for the jobs that needed to be done. After thanking him for a job well done, Adam headed up to the house to see his father because Joe wasn’t saying anything more than there was a problem and their father wanted to talk to him about it. When he heard the threat that had been made, he didn’t know at first whether to be angry or to start laughing.
“They’re going to tell people that Robin is a black woman! Now who in their right mind would believe such drivel?”

“Apparently they think some might. By their accents, I guessed their background is southern, but they could be from southern Ohio. I never was good at telling one southern accent from another. I talked to Robin, and she said she was taunted for her darker complexion when she was a child. Perhaps these men knew her then or knew of her. Anyway, they plan to try to stir up trouble with it.”

“I knew about Robin’s past. We had talked about it. I told her about Sarah, and we talked about the possibility of her having an Indian ancestor as I probably do. I don’t think anyone here is likely to care much about that.”

“Probably not here, but what about the companies that we want to do business with in the future? Will they care? I think that’s what these men have in mind.”

“If they care, then damn them. We got along without them in the past, and we can get along without them in the future. We can’t do all the jobs anyway. We should get enough of them to make good money even if some won’t do business with us. I have a meeting in Carson City in two weeks. I can drop the news on them there and see if such a story would affect them doing business with us in the future.”

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

“If it isn’t out by then, better to have it out in the open than hanging over our heads, don’t you think? I’ll present it as I did to you here. We think that each of us has an Indian ancestor and therefore we have a darker complexion than most. However some have insinuated that my wife may have a black ancestor instead. It doesn’t matter. She’s white. If they don’t like it, they can tell me then. We still have a contract to complete.” Adam thought about his wife with her dark complexion and her black wavy hair that he loved to press his nose into and inhale her scent. He couldn’t imagine the pain she must feel with all this talk about her. There might be more talk, but he was going to be there to support her and love her. She wouldn’t face it alone. He would be there, and his family would be there too.

“One thing, son. Please be sure that Robin is all right with your plan before you go ahead and do it.”

“I will. We’ll talk. While I’m here though, I have a question for you. I hate leaving Robin alone when I have to take these longer trips. I was wondering if I could ask Griff to bunk in at my place and head over here in the mornings to work. I know he’s on parole, but I think he would be the kind of man to have watching over the place. He’s always alert to what’s going on around him.”

“You’re right about that, but Candy has taken him under his wing, and I would hate to interfere with that. He trusts Candy and follows his lead better than anyone else. I’ll talk to Candy and see if there’s someone else who could do the job as well. I’m actually surprised you would pick Griff.”

Adam grinned. “Maybe I miss having a little brother around.”

“Well, we have a few others here who could stand a to have some guidance from a big brother type. I’ll get you some names, and you can talk to them about the job.”

After that, Adam headed home to talk to Robin and Ben went to the bunkhouse to talk with Candy.

Chapter 3

After Ben left the bunkhouse, Griff was curious about what he had wanted with Candy and found out. “Adam wants to know if one of the men wants to bunk over there, do some light work there when needed, and report here in the mornings otherwise. His wife is a little nervous being alone when he’s gone on these trips he has to take. Mister Cartwright wants the names of some young hands who might be willing to do that.”

“Well, I can bet you don’t want my name on that list.”

“Actually, Mister Cartwright said that Adam had asked if he could ask you to do it, but Mister Cartwright would rather have you here working with me.”

“He asked for me? You must be joshing me.”

“Nope, he asked for you. You gotta start learning that just because somebody says something critical, it doesn’t mean they don’t like you. It could mean they want you to do better. That means they care.”

“But he ain’t never said anything real good to me.”

“Maybe you ought to try doing something real good so he has a reason to do that. Walking around like you’re ready for a fight with anyone who looks at you isn’t a way to get someone to say something nice, now is it? Hoss told me that Adam was like that some with Joe when he was younger. Joe was kinda wild and untamed. You probably wouldn’t guess it by how he is now, but he did some crazy stunts. Get him talking some time, and he’ll tell the stories himself except he comes out sounding pretty good in his versions. Adam is a lot older, and kinda knows better about a lot of things. You have to expect he’s going to look at you like a kid and tell you what to do.”

“I never thought about it like that.”

“I know. Anybody who ever told you what to do was probably somebody who was mean or nasty or both. Not every boss or person who tells you what to do means you harm. Some want to help. Well, I have to get to my quarters. Everything is squared away here, and things are all set for tomorrow.”

Candy could see that Griff was thinking and was glad about that. Too often, Griff reacted emotionally and didn’t think things through. He hadn’t had the opportunity to be a thinking man until he got to the Ponderosa, so this was a new experience for him in a lot of ways. Getting used to all the different kinds of men on the Ponderosa was an experience too. He was used to guards and inmates most of whom fit patterns. The Cartwrights and the men who worked for them weren’t so easily pigeonholed.

The next morning, Candy had some names for Ben to give to Adam, but they were interrupted by the arrival of the same two men. They were as impolite as they had been the day before demanding Ben’s answer.

“I gave you my answer yesterday. Now get out. Your information is erroneous. People around here will laugh at it.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way. You may find out that we keep our promises and that your confidence in your friends and neighbors is excessive.”

“Hoss, show them out again! Candy, please give him a hand.”

The two men didn’t need any more encouragement. They grabbed the two visitors by their jackets and belts and literally threw them out of the house and into the dirt in the yard. Standing there, they challenged them to object. Looking around at the other hands who were watching the spectacle, the two men didn’t do anything except mount up on their horses.

“You’ll be sorry you did that, and your whole family will be sorry they aren’t cooperating with us.”

As Hoss made a move toward the horses as if to drag one or both of them from their saddles, the two men quickly rode off. Candy waited for a moment for Hoss to cool down at least a little before he asked what was going on.

“Aw, they threatened to spread a nasty rumor about Robin ifn we didn’t let them tell us what bids to put out there on contracts.”

“What kind of nasty rumor?”

“They’re sayin’ she’s a black woman. Seems there’s some kinda rule in the south that even if you got one black in your family, it makes everybody black. Silly rule. Not even likely that Robin has one black in her past. Most likely her family’s got an Indian back there same as Adam does. Ain’t that unusual.”

“Ah, that would explain the black hair and darker skin then. Robin has that too so it makes sense.”

“Yeah, I’m guessin’ they’ll be trying to stir up trouble for us now. They don’t like this new system Adam has for bidding. He can undercut anybody whenever he’s a mind to. I don’t know why they’re so all fired upset though. We can only do one job at a time. There’s lots of other jobs out there.”

“Maybe they expect that with the profits you make, you’ll be expanding and force them out.”

“Well, I’ll have to come up with another brother or two for that to happen. Adam’s as busy as he can be right now, and me and Joe got all the work we kin handle.”

“Yeah, but I bet your competitors don’t know that.”

“No, probably not, and they’re likely to stir things up a bit, but I don’t know that it’s gonna make a bit of difference.”

It didn’t. The men spread their story based on information that one of them had from Ohio and tales of Robin from when she was a youngster. The Cartwrights told their hands what they thought the story was. The version that at some point in Robin’s mother’s family, someone had married an Indian woman made sense to most people. The Cartwrights said that most families kept such things private, and families there agreed for some of them had the same history and kept it private. It was the usual way of handling such a situation. People might know but didn’t usually talk about it. After about a week, hardly anyone spoke about it any more and in less than two weeks, the whole thing had died away. The two men were frustrated and went to their partners to come up with a different plan.

On the Ponderosa, there was excitement of a different sort. Ben came to the bunkhouse to ask one of the men to ride to town for the doctor. Griff was there and volunteered to go. Ben said he would rather he go over to Adam’s house and Joe’s house to get the ladies to come to the main house. Another man went to get the doctor. Melody was in labor, and Robin and Doreen had experience so they would be great helpers to have there until the doctor arrived.

“You’ll have to help them pack up their little ones and help with them. Get Doreen first because she’s closest. Then you can go pick up Robin next. Mabel might take care of Sammy but if not, you’ll have to bring him along too.”

Hoss had been summoned earlier when Melody wasn’t feeling well which turned out to be the first indication of her labor. When Doreen got to the house with Maribeth, she was complaining of a backache and needed help up the stairs. Ben got worried then thinking there was a chance there were going to be two ladies in labor at the same time. He warned Hop Sing, and when Robin got there, he told her the same news. He was correct. Within a couple of hours, Doreen knew and had to be helped to a guest room. Hoss and Robin were tending to Melody, and Hop Sing had lots to do getting things ready. Ben called on Griff to come help.

“What can I do, Mister Cartwright?”

“Someone has to entertain and feed Maribeth, and someone has to sit with Doreen and make sure she has what she needs. I can’t do both. So, which job would you like until Adam and Joe get here?”

Dumbfounded for a moment, Griff finally stammered out that he probably would be more comfortable sitting with Doreen if he only had those two choices. Ben smiled and told him to go up the stairs and down the hall to the third door on the left. He had Maribeth in his arms and she was insisting on a cookie. It was a couple of hours before Adam and Joe were back that day. It was another eight hours before the doctor arrived because he had been busy with an emergency on a ranch far from Virginia City and hadn’t gotten the news until he returned to town. He was still ten hours early for the delivery though which was long and arduous. Finally the exhausted family and their helpers heard a baby cry. Sighs of relief were more pronounced than exclamations of joy which came a bit later.

Hoss was up those stairs as soon as he was summoned by the doctor who looked like he had been in labor himself. He told Hoss to spend only a little time with his wife and son because Melody was very tired and needed to sleep. When Hoss entered the room though, all he saw was his wife’s smile and a tiny bundle she was holding to her. Melody pulled the receiving blanket back so that Hoss could see his son for the first time. Hoss knelt beside the bed and looked at his first child.

“I never thought I’d have a baby so small. He’s got such tiny arms and tiny legs. He ain’t no bigger than a puppy.”

“Hoss, he’s huge. That’s why he took over twenty hours to be born. It took a lot out of me to squeeze that one out. He can hold his head up and he’s just been born. Do you know how rare that is?”

“I know, darling, I know, and I thank you with everything I got that you gifted me with a son, but darling, he ain’t even as big as my hat!”

“He’s big enough, and Doctor Martin says he’s as healthy a baby as he’s ever seen. He likes the name we gave him too.”

“Good, because Gabriel is a fine name. I like it. He’s probably gonna be a big man and that’s the kind of name a big man needs. Nobody gonna mess with Gabe.”

As they talked, another baby’s cry was heard. Doreen’s contractions had begun many hours after Melody’s and her baby was born only an hour after Gabriel made his appearance. Then it was Joe’s turn to run up the stairs. Doctor Martin finally was going to get some rest. Moving back and forth from one room to the other and delivering two babies after not getting any sleep the night before had taxed his strength to the limit. Ben invited him to have something to eat and sleep in the downstairs guest room. Adam was already headed home with Sammy and Robin. Ben put Maribeth down for a nap and then crawled into his bed for the same. Joe sat with his wife and listened to the noises in the house diminish as everyone left of fell into bed.

“Another beautiful girl. Pa’s not getting his wish that I get a boy to do to me all the things I did to him.” There was a giggle at the end of that.

“I’m sorry you didn’t get a son.”

“Don’t be sorry. I’m happy to have a beautiful healthy daughter. We can have more, and if we get a son next time, that will be fine. If not, I love girls. So, now we have Lilliane. Maribeth is probably going to be jealous.”

“Yes, girls can be a handful too, and your father won’t be able to offer any advice about raising girls.”

Ben was all out of advice on how to handle the two men who were creating trouble too. On a day when they should have been celebrating, at dinner he had to break some bad news to Hoss and Joe.

“While the men were out working, those two men approached two of our hands with a message for me. They want the deal they proposed or my sons may be in danger. They said that by now I should know they keep their word.”

“Dadburnit, I shoulda tore ’em limb from limb like I wanted to when they was here.”

“I wanted to do the same. I know the feeling. Now I think we have to go to Roy, and we need to find out more about these men and who they’re working with. Tomorrow, I’m going to town to talk with Roy and with Hiram. I want him to hire someone to dig into who these men are and find out as much as he can. Roy will find out the basic information, but we’re probably going to need to know more than that.”

“What do you want us to do, Pa?”

“You and Joe have to take care of your families. I want you to stay right here for now. Adam has a meeting in Carson City tomorrow. I’ll ask him to stop by to talk to the governor while he’s there. Maybe we can get some help from his office. Meanwhile he has a man at his place now, and I’ll tell him to stay there every day. Joe, I think it might be best if you and Doreen and the children stay here in the main house for a while. It will be more comfortable for Doreen with Hop Sing fixing meals and I can help watch Maribeth.”

“Thanks, Pa. I think that’s probably a good idea.”

“What about Adam, Pa. Ya think it’s safe for him to go to Carson City?”

“Hoss, they’re not likely to do anything until they get my answer.”

“Oh, yeah, so when you’re in town tomorrow, you kin tell ’em. By then, Adam will probably be on his way back home before they can come up with a plan.”

Things worked out mostly as Ben predicted except he was disconcerted by the response of the two men to his answer to their proposal. It was as if they had expected it and were ready with their counterproposal. It was chilling.

“We told you your sons were forfeit is you didn’t comply. One down and two to go unless you agree soon.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I think you know, and if you don’t, you’ll soon find out.”

“If you have harmed my son, you won’t find any place to hide until you’re rotting in hell.”

“Big words. We have not harmed your son, but that doesn’t mean he’s all right. And will you feel that way when you only have two sons left and wonder how long you will have them?”

“I’ll have the sheriff on you.”

“There are no witnesses to this conversation. It’s the two of us against you. Checkmate.”

Furious, Ben went back to Roy to tell him what had happened. Roy told him there was nothing he could do without evidence of a crime. Frustrated then, Ben rode home. He told Hoss and Joe what he had learned and then rode to see Robin to explain to her what had happened in town. He knew how upset she was going to be and wanted her to come to the main house.

“But what if Adam comes here and wonders where we are?”

“He’ll know.”

It was a long night, and Adam did not return. The next day, Ben and Hoss rode to Carson City and found that Adam had never arrived there. They backtracked and found no trace of him. Hoss said that they only thing he could think to do was to go back to Adam’s house and try to track him from there. There wasn’t much daylight left by the time they got to Adam’s house, but Hoss started out anyway with Candy and Griff with him. Ben agreed to send more hands and supplies the next morning.

Chapter 4

It was difficult tracking the next day, but for Ben it wasn’t nearly as difficult as it had been to tell Robin the news the night before. How do you tell your daughter-in-law that her husband is missing and that you have no idea where he is. He had been missing for two days with no clue to his whereabouts or what had happened to him. The only positive sign was that Hoss had picked up his trail from his house. At least they had that, but Ben knew that following a two-day old trail was going to be arduous and could be impossible. He had to hope and told Robin the same. It was as difficult as they had guessed it might be. Several times they lost the trail and had to backtrack and work their way forward until they picked it up again. It was a short distance from the Ponderosa where they found the spot where he had been ambushed. The good news was that there was no blood or sign of any significant fighting. Four horses had ridden on from that point. It made it easier to follow for a time until they moved into some rocky terrain. Then it was back to the backtracking and searching for the trail over and over again. It was midafternoon before they got a break. They were in the midst of a search for the tracks of the horses when Griff was nowhere to be found. Ben asked Candy where he had gone and the foreman had no answer. A short time later, Griff rode back to them leading Sport.

“I found him a little ways away. He came to me when I took out the apple I kept from my lunch. I remember that Adam fed him apples so I knew he liked them. He doesn’t have a saddle or a bridle. Somebody took everything off of him and set him loose. My guess is that he didn’t go too far though. Mister Cartwright, I think your son is around here somewhere near.”

“Pa, the boy makes sense. Sport wouldn’t stray too far from Adam lessen he was scared or too hungry. He’s probably been grazing around here waiting for Adam to come get him again. Ifn we fanned out, maybe we kin find him.”

“We could wipe out any tracks that were here too by doing that.”

“Pa, it’s been three days almost. Ifn we don’t find him soon.” Hoss left the rest of the sentence unsaid. He didn’t need to say it because all the men there knew what he meant.

“All right. It does make sense. Let’s fan out and ride in sight of each other. Look over your section of the pie real well and ride back and forth looking for any place a man could be.”

The men split up evenly and took off in different directions. Griff rode slower than most talking to Sport. “Now, you know where he is. I know you do. I think if you wanted to do it, you could lead me to him. I need to do something to make them proud of me. I need to do something to pay these men back for trusting in me. Now, can you help me out here, sport? Hey, I can see where you get that name. It’s kind of a natural, ain’t it.” The horse had perked up his ears as Griff talked. He kept pulling to go off toward the right even though that wasn’t in the straight line Griff had intended to go. “You trying to tell me something or you just ornery like your owner? All right, I’ll go with you. You are stubborn. You two are a pair, aren’t you?” Crossing a small ravine, Griff saw a ramshackle cabin set against the opposite side and well hidden by brush. A man could easily be hidden there and never found. He decided to check it out. Sport gave no resistance as he rode to the cabin that was more of shack. He dismounted and tied his horse and Sport to a small sapling. He moved to the shack and called out asking if anyone was inside. No one answered but he saw there were a lot of boot prints in the dirt. Thinking he had found what they were looking for, he opened the door cautiously.

“Oh, damn, don’t you be dead.”

Rushing to Adam’s side, he felt for a heartbeat and was relieved to find one. Then he stepped outside and fired off three shots as he had been taught almost as soon as he had been hired on the Ponderosa. He guessed it might take them some time to find him so he got his canteen and headed back inside. With no way to remove the cuffs binding Adam to rings attached to the center post, he tipped Adam’s head back and poured a small amount of water into his mouth hoping he would swallow. He didn’t at first but he did cough and then move his head from side to side. Griff wet his kerchief and used it to wet Adam’s face because he seemed very hot. He was still doing that when Hoss entered the cabin.

“He’s alive, but he’s cuffed to this post.”

“I’m gonna tear those two yahoos limb from limb next time I see ’em. I don’t know how we’re gonna get these cuffs off of him.”

“If I had a nail or something like it, I think I might be able to open those cuffs.”

By then, Candy and Joe arrived and heard the request. They began working at some boards in the wall of the shack until they managed to get a nail out intact and handed it to Griff. He set to work on trying to open the cuffs as Hoss worked on getting Adam to drink some water as he gradually regained consciousness. Hoss poured some of the water over his head and over his shoulders and chest to cool him down. By the time Ben arrived, Adam was groggy but beginning to respond to them. Griff got one cuff open and Ben moved to wrap that arm around his shoulders letting Adam sag against him. Then when the other cuff was removed, Hoss helped him lower Adam to the floor. Adam sighed in relief for he had been forced to stand at that post for almost three days and without food or water. Hoss kept giving him small sips of water not allowing him any more than that knowing he would retch if he got too much in his stomach at once. Joe brought in another canteen that they poured over his chest and head to help cool him down. Ben looked up at Joe.

“I don’t know if we can get Adam home tonight, and Robin is sick with worry. Can you ride home to tell her he’ll be all right. We’ll get him home to her as soon as we can, but he needs to drink more water and eat something before we let him try to ride. It will probably be too late tonight to make the ride.”

“I can do that. We saw the saddle and tack laying outside so he can ride Sport when he’s ready. Or do you want me to bring a wagon back?”

“Meeting us with a wagon tomorrow might be a good idea. Even if he can ride, I don’t know if he’ll be strong enough to make the whole trip.”

After leaving his bedroll and canteen, Joe left for home with some of the hands, and Hoss, Candy, and Griff stayed with Ben to help care for Adam. Adam was still groggy after an hour, so Ben had them start to set up a camp and prepare for a night there. After cleaning up the cabin as well as they could, Ben and Hoss did their best to clean Adam up too, bandaged his wrists, and kept giving him water until he said he had enough for a while. It was late before he finally was able to tell them what had happened. It was about what they expected so they didn’t ask any questions. Because he was so exhausted, they didn’t want to tax his reserves by making him to talk any more either. Soon after he told them what he knew, Adam fell asleep on Joe’s bedroll. Ben sat beside him with his hand on his son’s shoulder. Hoss put his bedroll on the opposite side of him. They slept there to be sure that they would be close if Adam needed anything. He slept through the night though.

In the morning, Adam wanted water first and then asked what smelled so bad in the cabin and was chagrined to realize he was the source. There wasn’t much of anything they could do about it other than get him home where he could get a bath, a shave, and clean clothing so that’s what they set out to do. That took quite some time as he was still weak after his ordeal and they had to stop often to let him rest. It was a great relief to see Joe in the distance with a wagon after a couple of hours. Robin was on the seat beside him. It didn’t matter the condition Adam was in when Robin saw him as she threw her arms around him the moment he dismounted and she didn’t let go. With Hoss’ help, they got Adam into the back of the wagon where he was able to stretch out on the mattress Joe had thought to put in there. Robin sat beside him holding his hand and talking softly to him every now and then until he fell asleep.

Once they arrived at the ranch, Hoss helped him from the wagon and Robin helped him to the washroom. There he was able to strip off the filthy clothing and slide into a bath that Hop Sing had waiting for him adding hot water as soon as he was there. After his bath, he shaved and dressed in clean clothing. Then he kissed Robin and held her for several minutes without saying anything even as he felt her tears on his cheek. He was close to letting tears fall too but managed to hold them back by focusing on the anger he had against the men who had done this to them. They sank down and sat on the bench in the washroom holding each other.

“I’m so sorry, Adam. I feel like this is all my fault.”

“How could this be your fault?”

“It all started with the story about my past.”

“They only used that to try to get to us. They would have used anything they could find. It didn’t work so they tried this. You don’t have to feel guilty at all. None of this is your fault. It’s the fault of two men and I know who they are. I want to go to town and find them.”

“You’re not strong enough to do that.”

“I managed to ride part of the way home, and town is closer than that ride I took.”

“Please trust your family to handle this for you.”

The tremor in her voice and the way she held him made Adam reconsider. “All right, I’ll trust them to take care of them. I need to be here for you and Sammy.”

When they went to the great room, Adam’s father and brothers were almost as relieved as Robin had been that Adam had accepted that he shouldn’t accompany them to town. Adam sat on the settee and held his son on his chest with Robin beside him. His family left soon after that seeing that he was in good hands and fully capable of taking care of himself again, but they did alert Candy that he should keep an eye on the house to make sure that everyone there stayed safe. In town after telling Roy what had happened, they accompanied Roy to the hotel to find the two men only to discover that they had just checked out. A search through town yielded nothing. They had clearly left or were in hiding. Roy had their names and their general background. A trip to their lawyer Hiram Woods’ office and Ben found out who their usual employer was and that was enlightening. He guessed they would have a good conversation once they were home and shared the news with Adam.

“They work for what?”

“I think you heard me. They usually work for the railroad company that you’re working with. Most often they’ve been hired to go out and get the land the company needs for right-of-way. You know the kind of men who usually do that kind of work.”

“But they’re already getting a great deal from us. Why would they want us to bid higher and get higher bids on their construction projects?”

“It doesn’t make much sense to me either, but if we could get hold of these two men, I’m sure we could have our answers.”

“But they’re gone.”

“Yes, but they went too far this time. Roy put out wanted posters on them.”

“But I’m the only witness.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you aren’t going anywhere for a while. We know they have at least one other man working with them and possibly more.”

Hoss had a concern then. “Pa, so far it’s been Adam and they made threats against me and Joe. Ifn you protect us well enough, it don’t mean they’re gonna give up. What if they decide that one of your grandchildren or one of our wives would be an even better target?”

“I know. I’ve been thinking about that. We’re going to have to set a guard, but we’re short-handed with the three of you tied up here and the fall-roundup coming up soon.”

“So what we gonna do?”

Chapter 5

As the men sat silently considering their options, Robin interjected what at first seemed a stray thought. “Adam has told me that the Paiute are very good at sneaking through the trees without being seen and hiding so that you could walk right by them without knowing they were there.”

Ben and Joe stared at her wondering why she had said that, but Hoss and Adam began to smile. After a moment, so did Ben, but Joe had to ask.

“Why is everybody smiling? And why did Robin start talking about the Paiute?”

“I think my daughter has come up with a solution we could try. We could hire some of the Paiute to guard the Ponderosa. They wouldn’t interfere with anything we’re doing, and anyone approaching would never see them. It might be our best chance to get our hands on these two men.”

“Pa, one of us is going to have to go up there to make the deal.”

“Yes, Adam, I know. I think Joe is the best bet to do that if he’s willing.”

“You bet I am, Pa.”

“Take several men with you. We didn’t get Adam back only to take a chance on losing you. Take some cattle as a goodwill gift that they can have regardless of the answer they give you.”

“I’ll leave tomorrow morning. I’ll go to the bunkhouse and tell the men I’ll need to go with me.”

“If you don’t mind Joe, could I do it. I’d like to thank the men who helped find me.” So Adam headed to the bunkhouse and thanked the men who had ridden with his family to find him. He added special thanks to Griff for finding Sport. When he turned to leave, Griff asked to speak with him. Outside, Griff hesitated.

“Out with it, man. You’re the one who wanted to say something so just say it.”

“Can’t you ease up on a man?”

“You are a man so I treat you like one.”

Pausing then, Griff was momentarily surprised, and then he smiled. “You do, don’t you. You don’t coddle me at all. You know, I never looked at it that way. Your father still treats me like a boy sometimes trying to protect me and such. You treat me like any of the other hands.”

“You are, aren’t you?”

Griff grinned then. “I wanted to thank you for asking your father if I could work for you and be there to protect your family when you were gone. I know that may not seem like much to you, but to me that was a big deal. It meant a lot.”

Surprised a bit at that, Adam decided to go all out. “You’re a good man, Griff. I see a lot of potential in you. You think things through when you’re not being mad about something. Control that temper of yours, and you could be a great asset here or anywhere.”

“I’ve heard you have some experience in that temper control thing.”

It was Adam’s turn to grin. “I do. I hope you do better than I did in getting control of it. There are still times it gets the better of me.”

“Like it would if you ran head on into those two men.” Adam’s look then was all the answer that Griff needed. “I hope I never get you mad at me.”

“I doubt you could ever get me that angry. Thank you again for what you did. Now I need to get inside. My wife worried enough the last few days. I don’t want to make her worried again.”

The next day, Joe headed to the Paiute camp to make the offer of employment. Ten Paiute young men were happy to have the chance to legally hunt white men even if they had to bring them in alive. The pay was one steer per day for guarding and five per man they brought in alive. Shots were fired at Hoss and Joe one day as they worked, and within an hour, two men were brought to the Ponderosa main house trussed up like antelope shot on a hunt and slung over their horses. The Paiute young men seemed almost disappointed that their work was done, but they were very proud of the seventeen steers they were able to get in payment to drive back to their camp. That would feed a lot of their people for quite a while and the leather would be very useful too.

At the house, Adam stepped out to identify the two men. He had a feral grin that made the men cringe. They expected to be brought to the sheriff and were shocked by what Adam said.

“Pa, Griff and I have been talking. I like his idea. We’re going to take these two and put them in that shack where they left me and in the same condition. Only difference that I see is that no one is likely to come looking for them.”

Momentarily stunned, Ben knew that Adam must have an ulterior motive for what he was doing so he played along. “I guess if we turned them over to the sheriff, they’d only say it was their word against yours. It might even work with a jury. All right, let’s do it your way.”

The two men were stunned never expecting that men like the Cartwrights would do something like that. “You can’t do that to us. We’ll die.”

“That’s what you left me to do.”

“We were going to tell your father where you were.”

“When? I was almost dead when they found me. Another day, and I wouldn’t have likely made it.”

“Jackson was supposed to come back and check on you.”

“So that’s the name of the third one.”

“Yeah. We don’t know why he didn’t check up on you.”

“Doesn’t matter now. It would have been nice though if he had checked on me. I do remember well what those three days were like. At first, I was only uncomfortable. I had to stand and couldn’t rest at all. I had to piss and hoped someone would come so I could at least get relief. That didn’t happen and you know what I had to do. I’d fall asleep too and then the pull on my hands would hurt so much I’d wake up and have to stand up on legs that began to ache, but there was nothing I could do about that either. I got hungry, but nothing was as bad as how thirsty I got. My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, and it actually hurt to pull it away. You’re going to find that is one of the worst feelings there is. You wonder if you’re going to be able to do it at all. Your lips stick together too, and you’ve got nothing to wet them with. You have to rub them together to try to use the dryness to keep them from sticking together. Then you hear things and imagine things and realize your mind is going too. You know you’re dying and all alone with no one to comfort you on the way out of this world. That’s what it will be like. I know. It’s an eye for an eye. I guess that’s the justice you get.”

“But we never meant for you to die.”

“It doesn’t matter because that’s what would have happened if my family and friends didn’t figure out where I was in time.”

“It wasn’t supposed to happen that way.”

“So who hired you to do all of this?”

“Nobody. We did it all on our own.” The man looked uneasy as he said it. Clearly he was lying and meant to call their bluff if they were bluffing.

They weren’t. Adam told Hoss and a few others to get horses saddled up, and then they headed out with the two men still trussed up. By late afternoon, they were at the old shack. The two men were carried in and dumped on the floor.

“Adam, we gonna put ’em in cuffs like you were?”

Contemplating them lying on the floor, Adam turned to Griff who stood beside him. “What do you think? Leave them like this or untie them and put them in the cuffs they had on me.”

Staring down at the two men who were clearly worried now, Griff looked up at Adam. “Those Paiute sure know how to tie a knot. It would take us a long time to undo all those ropes.”

“Good point. We’ll leave them like this. There that’s settled and saves us some time too. All right, we’re ready to go. Justice has been done.” Adam turned and let the others file out of the cabin ahead of him. Turning back at the door, he smiled that feral grin again. “Enjoy your time in hell, boys.” Then he pulled the door closed.

The two men inside began yelling almost as soon as Adam stepped away from the cabin. They yelled for him to come back. He didn’t and mounted up to ride away but not too far as they listened to the two men yell inside. When one said he’d tell them anything they wanted to know, Adam turned his horse around and the others followed. When he opened the door, both men stared at him as he stood in the doorway.

“Who said they were willing to tell us everything?”

“Tatum, keep your mouth shut. We’re dead men if we say anything.”

“Neal, we’re dead now if we don’t. I’m talking if he says I can run.”

Griff knelt down next to Neal and tied a kerchief around his mouth effectively gagging him. Then he looked up at Adam. “Time to let the other bird sing.”

“Listen, I’ll tell you what you want to know if you let me go. I can be hundreds of miles away from here before he knows.”

“Who knows?”

“I’m not telling his name until you say you’re gonna let me go. He’ll have me killed.”

“You’re in no position to bargain here, but I can say I’ll turn you over to the authorities and let them know you’re in danger. Otherwise, I can leave you here while we go look for this Jackson. He might be more cooperative, and then we won’t need you at all.”

By not saying anything more, Adam left the implication that the men would be left to die in this cabin if Jackson talked. It worked. Tatum nodded his head in defeat and began talking. What he said was surprising and yet not so surprising in this era of greed and corruption in business and government. They took both men to Carson City then and turned them over to the authorities there explaining what had been done and that both men were in danger. They asked about Jackson and found that he was in the jail for trouble he had caused in town. They asked for the chance to speak with him. As soon as he saw Adam, he looked scared. They knew then that he would talk too and he did spilling everything that he knew which backed up what Tatum had said. With those two talking and likely to get some leniency for doing so, Neal caved in too and agreed to testify. That gave them all the evidence they would need to convict the man behind the scheme.

However, he had probably hired others so the governor’s office wanted to find out who those men were before arresting the subject. They wanted to put the man under surveillance and wait a day or two before arresting him. Adam and his family were asked to stay close to home and keep up a guard until they were told the man was under arrest. It wasn’t the happy ending the group had hoped to convey when they got home. Griff especially was angry thinking that there was going to be some cover-up that would let the man get away with what he had done. Adam tried to explain it to him so he wouldn’t be upset and would understand the whole situation.

“Not only did he threaten us, he threatened his own company and his partners. They got an enormously profitable deal with us. He wanted to take that away. That was money out of their pockets. He was getting kickbacks from some of the other contractors. In fact, apparently, he got quite large kickbacks. That was money directly out of their pockets.”

“What’s a kickback?”

“Companies put in bids higher than they needed to be and when they were accepted, he got the difference between what the company actually wanted to be paid and what they were being paid. Let’s say the bid is for seventy-five thousand dollars so they bid one hundred thousand dollars. If he awards them the bid, they pay him the extra twenty-five thousand. They’re happy because they got the bid so they won’t complain and he pockets the twenty-five thousand. The problem is he basically took twenty-five thousand away from his company. Now multiply that by every contract that company makes and you can see how much money he might be pulling from his partners.”

“So when you bid so low and cut him out of the deal, you cost him a lot of money?”

“Yes, and by consolidating the various parts of the deal, we cut him out of several kickbacks costing him a lot of money.”

“Will he go to prison? I can’t see a man like that going to prison.”

“He will, but I can’t see a man like that doing well in prison.”

“No, I can’t either.” Except that Griff was grinning when he said it. Then Griff got a more sober look. “Adam, you’re going to have to watch yourself.”

Pausing to consider what the young man had said, Adam had to agree with him. “You think he has accomplices we don’t know about because no one could have managed all of this alone.”

“That’s right. I know from when I was in prison that the nasty head of the gang could only do what he was doing because others were helping, and sometimes it was someone you thought you could trust. That’s how they stayed in power.”

“The problem is finding out who that is.”

“I have an idea if you want to hear it.”

After discussing the idea with Griff, Adam talked with his family and then they went back to the governor’s office to see if they could work out a plan. They did, and by the time Adam and the others were headed home, they were ready to put it into motion. Adam had asked to meet with the company representatives to explain his absence from the previously scheduled meeting. That would bring the principal players to Virginia City for a meeting so they could carry out their plan.

Chapter 6

As expected, Robin wasn’t happy to have Adam playing hero and undercover agent again. She knew he was good in that role, but reminded him that his circumstances had changed.

“You’re married now, and you have a son. When I met you and you were doing something like this, you didn’t know what you wanted and you were alone. Now you have a plan for your future and you have a family.”

“I took chances then that I won’t take now. Robin, I’m not doing this alone. Griff will go with me to meet the man, and there will be others outside in case things don’t go well.”

“Griff’s very young for what you expect him to do.”

“I trust him though. He’s looking forward to doing this.”

“I think it’s because he wants to impress you. He looks up to you now. I’m not sure why.”

“Hey!”

“Oh, you know what I mean. He doesn’t know you that well, but yet he seems to want to help you. It seems he’s formed some kind of bond with you.”

“There, so you know he’ll do all he can to make sure this works, and Hoss and Joe will be outside with agents from the governor’s office as well as Roy. I’m sure he won’t want to be left out of this.” Adam wrapped an arm around Robin as he leaned down and kissed her cheek as his other hand caressed her opposite cheek and then slid slowly down her neck and across her chest stopping only briefly at the neckline of her dress before beginning to unbutton it. “Now what can we do to take your mind off this plan and make you relax?”

“Hmm, I think you know exactly what to do to make that happen.”

“I am looking forward to going back to our house where we can be a bit more adventurous.”

“And noisy?”

“That too. I feel like a boy hiding from my father yet when I’m with you. I know it’s silly but I remember my father telling us we could never bring a woman up to our bedrooms.”

“You didn’t bring me. I was up here first putting Sammy to bed.”

“You know what I mean. Now enough talking.”

He had the buttons undone by then so the dress slipped to the floor. It didn’t take long for the rest of her clothing to follow and then she helped him get rid of his. Pressed together, touching, and kissing, it didn’t take long to end up in the bed either. Resting together later, Robin ran her hand over Adam’s chest as her head rested on his shoulder.

“These are the best of times.”

She put a finger over his lips before he could say anything more because she didn’t want to hear anything about the worst of times. Instead she wanted to savor the warmth and feeling of safety and security that making love with her husband always brought to her. He rolled up on his left side, and after a couple of years of marriage, she knew what he wanted and did the same. He fitted himself against her spoon fashion and wrapped one arm around her waist holding her to him. She felt him kiss the top of her head before he settled into the pillow. His hand caressed her softly for a short time and then his breathing slowed and began a steady rhythm. She knew he was falling asleep and closed her eyes content for the night. They could talk again in the morning, but she wasn’t going to let anything take away these hours of feeling so good.

In the morning, Robin was quiet. Adam waited for her to tell him her thoughts, and when she did, he wasn’t surprised. He had married her as much for her intelligence and caring as anything else.

“You’re right. This will finish it and we won’t have to worry about you having a target on your back. Once this is settled, we can move back home and life can be as normal as it can ever be for a Cartwright. You have taken as many precautions as you can take, and this is better than waiting for them to spring another surprise on us. I don’t want to have someone come tell me again that you’re missing or tell me something even worse. There is one thing I want to change in your plans, though. I want to be in town. I don’t want to have to wait hours to know how it all turned out. Waiting like that is torture.”

“That’s agreeable to me. We can take a room at the hotel. It makes sense too if we’re going to be having a meeting. Go ahead and pack for us. Will we be taking Sammy with us?”

That startled Robin who had neglected to think about that. “Yes, no, I mean, I hadn’t thought about that.”

“If you can stand to finally wean him, this would be the best time. He can eat enough without your suckling him at all. If you’re not here, he won’t even have the option. He’ll have to take milk from the glass as he does at meals.”

The arrangements were made then with Ben staying behind with the ladies and Hoss and Joe going with Adam and Griff. Candy and the hands were there to provide any protection that might be needed. By that evening, Adam and Griff headed to the target’s home. He was surprised to see them but did invite them in as if there was no problem. He soon found out that there was a problem when Adam pulled a pistol on him and told him to hand over any weapon he had. Once disarmed, he demanded to know what Adam wanted.

“Barnes, right now, I want you to sit in that chair and let Griff here tie your hands behind you. If you don’t, I’ll shoot you in the head. Is that clear enough to you?”

Barnes complied and Griff stepped away when he was done.

“What do you want now?”

“What I want? What I want is for you to be dead. I know you’re the one who ordered me to be locked in that cabin where I almost died. You’re the one who spread those nasty stories about my wife. I don’t know what you have planned next, but you won’t get a chance to do it.”

“If you kill me, others will know it was you. Surely people saw you come here.”

“Maybe they did, but I’m leaving. Griff here will do the deed for me. You see, I’ve never actually murdered anyone. He has. He was in prison for it until he saved my father’s life and got paroled for doing that. He’s willing to do it for me. I’m going to go someplace very public with lots of witnesses. It shouldn’t take me more than a half hour to do that. Once I’ve managed that, Griff here is going to shoot you. He’ll leave then. No one will suspect that he has a reason to kill you. They may suspect me, but I’ll have a perfect alibi.”

“I have friends who will know it was you who were responsible. They’ll take care of you.”

“Well, you’ll be dead, so what will that matter?” Adam motioned to Griff who pulled his pistol. Adam moved toward the door but paused there as if in thought. “Griff, maybe we should reconsider. If he’s willing to tell us the names of the men he’s working with who might still try to kill me, then we could take him to the sheriff with the evidence we have against him, and we could go kill those other men.”

“Makes sense to me, boss.”

“I’m not going to tell you those names. They’ll kill me.”

Adam and Griff both laughed then. Barnes frowned at the predicament he was in.

“All right. I’ll tell you, but you have to take me to the sheriff first.”

“Nope, you could clam up there because you would feel safe, and I wouldn’t have the names. Tell us now, or Griff shoots you.”

A shot was fired through the window then shattering Barnes head and making a horrible mess on the wall behind him. Adam and Griff dove to the floor wondering what had happened. There was shooting outside for a few minutes, and then there was quiet. Finally Hoss’ voice was heard.

“You all right in there, Adam? Griff?”

“We’re all right. What the hell happened out there?”

“One of the governor’s men shot Barnes. Said it looked like he was getting loose. None of us saw it. He’s wounded now, and Roy’s taking him to the jail. We think he’s in on it. The other agent is the one who wounded him and took his gun away so we think he may be all right. We’re not too sure about that right now either. You two stay put there until we make sure there ain’t no more shooters out here.”

By the next morning, it was all sorted out. Adam had gone back to the hotel to tell Robin what had happened. Griff, Hoss, and Joe had a room there too. In the morning, Roy was there to tell them the story. The agent who was shot had a brother who worked for the railroad as a bookkeeper. He was the one working with Barnes on the kickbacks and keeping false sets of books and forging papers and contracts so the other partners never knew what was going on and how they were being cheated. A telegram had been sent to Sacramento to have that man arrested too. Finally the whole plot had been exposed and the men involved were arrested. Adam got a telegram from the other partners thanking him for his service to them and promising him more contracts in the future. The best part was that the deadlines on the current contract were extended so that there was no worry about defaults. They made it easy for Ponderosa Construction to complete all requirements without penalty and they would be paid in full. It was a jovial bunch who traveled back to the Ponderosa.

“Pa, it’s over. We found out who was behind all the trouble and they’re all locked up. We may have to testify at their trials, but that won’t take much time. The evidence is overwhelming.”

“That’s good, Adam.”

“Pa, you look worried yet.”

“We’ve lost a couple of weeks on that big project. I don’t know how we can make up that much time.”

“The company was so grateful for what we did, they’ve extended the deadlines by four weeks. That takes care of the delays we’ve had and gives us a two-week cushion too. We should be able to complete the project and get paid in full with no penalties.”

“Now that is cause for a celebration. Hop Sing can make a huge dinner.”

“If you don’t mind, Pa, I would rather get home. It’s been gracious of you to have us here, but I’m anxious to get home. William must miss us, and I want to get back to work as soon as I can.”

“Of course, the rest of us can celebrate.”

“Ah, Pa, I’d just as soon take Doreen and the children and get back to our house too. It’s been too long since we’ve had a chance to be just us. I hope you don’t mind, but I was looking forward to being with my family tonight.”

“Of course, you do that.”

“I’ll still be here, Pa. Ya said somethin’ about havin’ Hop Sing make a big meal. I’m all for that!”

Laughter greeted Hoss’ statement, and there was a bustle of activity as Adam and Joe got their things and their families and headed toward their homes. The big house seemed rather quiet to Ben after having all of the family there for a couple of weeks as they worried about the threats against them. He didn’t miss the threats, but he did miss the children especially. Knowing that, Melody asked him if he could please rock Gabriel for a while so she could go help Hoss get the bedrooms straightened up a bit to help Hop Sing who was busy in the kitchen.

As Hoss and Melody got to the top of the stairs, he gave her a big kiss and hug. “Thank you, darling. That was just what he needed.”

In the rocking chair by the fireplace, Ben rocked slowly and hummed some songs he could remember that helped soothe his sons when they were infants.

Chapter 7

When Adam got home, William jumped all over him in joy. The dog was seldom that demonstrative but he had missed his owner very much. The hired hand who had been watching the place for Adam and making sure that everything was being done as needed smiled to see the dog so happy.

“He ain’t been that chipper at all since I been here. He followed me around wherever I went but never acted at all like that.”

“I guess he missed me, Jake. Everything all right here?”

“Sure is. Mabel had me get in some supplies figuring you’d be back soon. When I was in town, I got your mail for ya too. It’s inside on your desk. Otherwise, nothing special happened. Things about what you’d expect.”

“Good, you’ll be here for the rest of the week. I’ll be heading to the lumber mill tomorrow, and then later in the week, I’ll have to make a trip to the timber camps. If you have time, I could use the corral expanded a bit.”

“I kin do that for ya. Anything else ya want, jest let me know.”

After that, Adam went inside to find that Robin had already found the mail and was reading a letter from her mother. Mabel was playing with Sammy who was enjoying having his wooden blocks and other toys again. Robin had an odd look as she read.

“Bad news from home, sweetheart?”

“No, nothing unusual. Father is still suffering since his heart attack. Mother says he can’t travel so they have declined our offer to visit again. I doubt they will ever come out here. She suggests that we should visit them when and if we can.”

“Why the frown then?”

“Well, I told her about the trouble we were having here. I didn’t tell her everything because I sent the letter before you were kidnapped. I only told her about the stories that were being told about me. I guess I wanted to know if there was an Indian in the family history to explain the skin color she and I have.”

“And what did she say?”

“She says that there probably is some Indian ancestry that explains her slightly darker skin but that my sisters must have taken after my father. She says that my ancestry should be no one’s business out here. She says that if you accept me for who I am than that is all that should matter.”

“I guess she follows the tradition that most do that such ancestry is not to be discussed.”

“I guess so. She talks of my father’s failing health and that he might not have many more years. She told me here how my sister Dove lost a child to stillbirth.”

“Perhaps when this project is done, we could go for a visit. By then, Sammy will be older and better able to withstand the trip. It will be spring and the weather will be better for travel by then.”

Robin looked so hopeful that Adam knew he could never renege on that offer. “Oh, could we? I would like Sammy to meet his other grandfather before it’s too late.”

“He’s so young he probably won’t remember him later.”

“That’s all right. We can have a picture taken. We can write about it. At least they will be together once.”

“We’ll do it. I have to be here for the project, but once it’s done, we’ll go. I’ll tell Pa not to plan on me being here in the spring.”

“He’s not going to like that, is he?”

“Maybe not, but that’s the way it’s going to be. There’ll be a lot of money in the Ponderosa accounts by then because of the work I’ve done. He shouldn’t complain.”

In April, Adam helped his family board the train and waved farewell to his father and brothers as the train pulled away from the station. Several days later, after a reasonably pleasant journey, they arrived in southern Ohio at the home of Robin’s parents, Daniel and Rose. The following week was a whirlwind of meeting Dove and Wren and their husbands and children. There were parties, church services, and tours of the community. Robin was getting frustrated that she didn’t get time to talk with her mother about the issue that troubled her the most. Each time she tried to make reference to it, her mother found another subject to discuss or found another activity they should do, or made any kind of excuse she could find. Robin turned to Adam in the early morning of the last day they were scheduled to be there before returning to Nevada.

“It’s not my imagination, is it? I get the feeling that my mother doesn’t want to talk about this with me.”

“It’s not your imagination. I’ve drawn the same conclusion. She is quite obviously trying to avoid the subject altogether. If you want to know, you’re going to have to force the issue today or let it go. It could be that she doesn’t know any more about it than she’s told you.”

Adam held his wife and kissed her. Her almond shaped eyes, full lips, black curly hair, ample bosom, and buxom figure as well as the darker skin still made his inner fires burn. He was looking forward to when they would again have some privacy to enjoy each other’s company.

The discussion Robin had with her parents ended up being more about what had happened to her because of her darker skin than about her heritage. As Adam suspected, nothing had been talked about in Rose’s family so she knew no specifics of her ancestry to share with Robin.

“So the taunts I got as a child were because they saw something in me that reminded them of black people because I do have some Indian heritage. Is that why you never objected too much when I went west on my own as a single woman.”

Again Rose and Daniel looked embarrassed. This time Rose answered. “With the way men acted around here, we didn’t think anyone would ever ask you to marry. We hoped that in the west with their more free attitudes, you would find a man to marry. We never thought that you would become a saloon girl. That shocked us. I guess we didn’t understand much of how a woman would get along in the west. We are so happy though that you found Adam, and that you’re happily married now.”

“I have to say that I am a bit disappointed in you.” With that, Robin left the room. Adam walked out silently behind her. In the guest bedroom, Robin cried for quite a while before she was able to talk.

“I want to leave now.”

“No, you need to clear the slate with your parents.”

“They’re not my parents. They washed their hands of me, didn’t they?”

“They are your parents. They made mistakes. All parents do. We’ll make mistakes too with Sammy. We can only hope he understands that we aren’t perfect because no one can be. Now you have to find it in your heart to forgive them. It won’t be easy, but you can see how frail your father is now. You need to offer them your forgiveness now before it’s too late.”

“I need to be the understanding adult because they weren’t?”

“Yes.”

“How did you get to be so wise?”

“It’s easier being wise when you’re not the person in the middle of the storm. I love you with everything I’ve got to give. Nothing will ever change that. If it wasn’t for the paper thin walls in this house, I’d show you right now too.”

“You’re insatiable.”

“I wouldn’t call it that. I would call it being frustrated. Nothing on the train and then nothing here because it’s your parents’ house and the walls have no soundproofing at all. Next, we’ll be on the train again. We may have to stop somewhere and take a hotel room for a day.”

“Or wait until we get home. It will only be three or four days now.”

Pulling Robin into a fierce hug, Adam whispered in her ear. “It seems like an eternity now.”

“Maybe tonight, if we can be quiet, we could take care of that eternity issue.”

They did, and Robin needed the emotional release as much as Adam did. She had made peace with her parents after dinner offering her thanks to them for raising her and loving her. She forgave them for keeping secrets and letting her go off on her own into the unknown. She told them too what Adam intended to do. The next morning, there were hugs all around as Adam and his family left for Nevada. At least there, Sammy’s darker skin wouldn’t be an issue as he would be a man of the outdoors most likely as his father was so people would assume his skin color was as much a result of that as anything else. It was a good situation in a nation so filled with prejudice and hate.

 

Other Stories by this Author

Author: BettyHT

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

6 thoughts on “Three Dog Night and Robin stories (by BettyHT)

  1. I like this story and not just because Adam finds Robin. He certainly had his fair share of problems to overcome, not least his impotence – his complex relationship with Ben, Hoss knowing him better than he knows himself and Joe’s take on the issues is so endearing. A good read.

    1. Thank you for the wonderful review. I do think you summarized the story much better than I did, and certainly looked at all aspects of the story.

    1. Interesting that you focused on the ending. When I wrote it, that was the part that came to me first but ended up being the part I worked on the least as the rest of the story took on so much more of an impact on Adam’s life or so it seemed to me.

  2. I really enjoyed this story. I felt for Adam and his melancholy. He just had way too much come at him and then pressure from his family to be “normal” and “happy”. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to get away from everything. Adam’s trip north with his brothers opened up a whole new world and danger for him. Adam would always want to right any wrong he might have caused. I like him in the hunter role he took on to find the killer. The special girl he finds is perfect for him. I bet there will never be a dull moment for either of them.

    1. Thank you so much. I gave Adam some problems in this one that are out of the ordinary but gave him a reason to get away as you suggested. It was what he needed to do but couldn’t manage on his own. The ending is uncertain. It didn’t seem like the kind of story that could suddenly be wrapped up with a nice neat happy ending.

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