SUMMARY: When witnessing a crime, Adam can’t act, and then after the fact, he can’t help the posse and he can’t tell what he knows. Those things give people the wrong impression, but eventually put him in great danger too. The whole family will have to work together to resolve the problem.
rating = T word count = 10,705
Alcohol and cronies who have the same thoughts and inclinations can make a man bold. In this case, there were probably a dozen bold men in the saloon emboldened by both. It didn’t take them long to gather enough courage to challenge Adam Cartwright as he ordered a whisky and drank next to his brothers at the bar.
“He’s got a yellow streak a mile wide. That’s why he wears that yellow coat.”
“Yeah, that coat was made to hide a coward’s shame.”
“He let that boy get killed and didn’t do a thing to stop them.”
“They had to bury Franklin a month after he was got married to the widow Paisley. Now she’s lost another husband and no one to take care of her children again.”
“Yeah, damn coward let Elmer be gunned down right in front of him too.”
“He left a family too with no one to support them.”
Silent and stone-faced despite all the taunts, Adam Cartwright finished his drink and walked out of the saloon at a deliberate pace. He had hoped that after a month, things would have settled down, but obviously tempers hadn’t cooled at all. Only a month before, he had been in the bank when three outlaws held it up. Another customer pulled his pistol and was shot to death as was a teller who was hit in the hail of bullets fired. Adam had a pistol at his head after the shooting started and had not pulled his weapon. Some still held him accountable for the lives lost especially because the two dead men had wives and children they had left behind. Those grieving family members were constant reminders of Adam’s failure to act. That he had not volunteered for the posse that pursued the outlaws had been another reason people had turned against him forgetting all that he had done before and remembering only that incident and their perception of it.
In the saloon, talk about Adam stopped almost as soon as his back disappeared through that door. Although over the past month, some had tried baiting his brothers with insults, Hoss had kept a firm hold on Joe and neither had reacted enough to satisfy the troublemakers. They had given up. Most of what could be said had been said so often no one else was interested in hearing it any more. It was only brought up because the dark haired Cartwright they resented had dared to enter the saloon with his younger brothers. The two younger brothers did as Adam had done and finished their drinks before standing and walking out those same doors.
“Why doesn’t he explain that he didn’t draw because it was a woman’s voice he heard giving the orders, and he knew who it was? He was so shocked that he didn’t react right away and then it was too late.”
“Dadburnit, Joe, you know as well as I do that Roy told him not to say anything. The last person who was a witness against her and the others was bushwhacked, and all he could do was identify them by sight. Adam’s the first one who actually knows who it is, but he’s the only one who can. Ifn they know that, they’ll want him dead too.”
“If he was half as shocked as we were to find that out, I could see why he didn’t draw right away.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Roy figures they got a better chance of catching her ifn she figures there ain’t nobody knows who she is.”
“He could at least say he’s cooperating with Roy and that they’ll hear a reason eventually about why he can’t say more. It might shut them up for a while. I don’t know why he won’t at least defend himself a little.”
“I guess it’s probably the same reason he don’t tell ’em why he was driving the carriage inta town that day instead of riding his horse. Ifn he did, they’d understand why he couldn’t ride a horse in that posse that day. He’s too proud to beg ’em for respect.”
“Where do you suppose he went?”
“Probably rode straight for home. Let’s go see Roy to see if he’s got word on them outlaws yet. We know he ain’t put out any wanted posters ’cause he don’t want ta let her know she was recognized. They’re waitin’ on her heading back ta one of her usual places so they can arrest her.”
“Of course, if Roy did put out any wanted posters on her, Adam’s life wouldn’t be worth a nickel. She and her friends would be hunting him down right now.”
“Yeah, Adam’s the only one who knows it was them was in the bank that day. He can send ’em all to the gallows. Without his testimony, they get away clean. If only those yahoos in there had any idea how brave he really is. If those outlaws start getting nervous about that possibility, nothing we do is liable to be enough to protect him.”
“You don’t suppose he rode home alone, do you?”
With a look of disgust, Hoss frowned. “Joe, he’s a mite too proud. He ain’t stupid. Pa woulda likely bin ready to go by now.”
“Yeah, I bet he wouldn’t have left town until he knew that everything was all right with Adam.”
In fact, Ben and Adam were well on their way back to the Ponderosa by then. Ben had asked one of their hands to ride with them as an additional precaution. Because of the seriousness of the situation, several of the most trusted hands had been told the true story so they could help watch for any trouble. Adam wasn’t fond of what he called his minders but they were there to keep him alive. As the three rode back, Adam was quiet and relived that fateful day again as he often did trying to decide if there was any way he could have acted differently.
Several days before that, he had been thrown into the corral fence by a horse that didn’t want to be broken. He had been sore when that happened but it was even worse the next morning when the muscles in his back went into spasms when he tried to get out of bed and walk. Hop Sing’s attentions and rest allowed him to walk reasonably well within a day, but even after two more days, he couldn’t climb into a saddle. Ben asked if he thought he could ride in a carriage and he jumped at the chance to do something. The carriage ride turned out to be a bit more difficult than he anticipated but he could handle it. He managed to get the supplies and mail before heading to the bank to do his father’s errand there. After that, he planned on a leisurely lunch so he could rest before taking the long ride back home. At the bank, he talked to Franklin about the withdrawal his father wanted to make and what denominations he wanted it in not noticing the door opening behind him. Intent on getting things ready for Adam, Franklin didn’t notice either until a rough voice told everyone to hold steady and not do anything stupid. A customer, Elmer Davis decided to do something about the outlaws and called to Adam to help. A woman next to Adam yelled.
“Don’t try it!”
Her voice froze Adam for a moment as his head jerked toward her. He saw her eyes above the bandana covering the lower portion of her face and knew her, but the gun she pointed at his head was something he never expected from her. Her hand shook a little but the barrel was pointed directly at his head and didn’t waver. With her finger on the trigger and slightly white from pressure she was applying, he knew it would take only a little more pull for her to end his life. He didn’t move as she took his pistol. Franklin though, expecting Adam to help and with Elmer already drawing his pistol, he pulled a gun from beneath his counter and aimed at the outlaws. The three male outlaws opened fire on Elmer and Franklin killing them instantly even as one of the male outlaws swore loudly. Adam recognized that voice too.
“Damn, grab the cash on the counter and let’s go. This is a mess! We need to get out of here fast.”
He kept his pistol trained on Adam as the woman moved to his side and the other three men took the money from the counter and stuffed it in their pockets.
One of the men took Adam’s pistol from the woman and tossed it behind the counter as the outlaws exited the bank. The bank manager rushed from his office as soon as the outlaws were gone and he and the assistant manager asked Adam why he didn’t draw on the outlaws.
“Because I’d be dead now if I did. They had their guns drawn. I had a gun to my head.”
It was a logical explanation and a sensible one. Yet the emotional reaction was not to accept it. As Adam explained it later to his family, the people in town would rather have him a dead hero than a living witness. Each time he relived that day, he came up with the same conclusion. Drawing on men who had their guns drawn was suicide. He didn’t know why Elmer thought they had a chance or why Franklin had thought to help him other than they reacted without thinking. It seemed the only way to explain it, which certainly wasn’t of any comfort to their families. When he declined to ride with the posse that was hastily formed, murmurs of him being a coward wafted through the crowd. Even Roy had looked at him curiously wondering why but had not asked until later. If he had asked that day, perhaps some of the stories wouldn’t have been so bad. Instead, most did not know that he was injured and couldn’t ride a horse. They saw him in town and made assumptions.
Riding next to Adam, Ben waited as long as he thought he could before he interrupted his son’s silence when they slowed to give their horses a rest. “Does it ever change? The day in the bank, does it ever turn out differently all these times you relive it?”
With a rueful look, Adam could only shake his head slightly. Of course his father would know his thoughts. They had spent so much time together, sometimes he thought his father could read his mind. He did his best to hide things, but Ben Cartwright had a way of reading how he looked and acted to know how he was feeling and thinking. “I always hope that I’ll find a way, but it turns out the same no matter what I do. There was no other way.”
“Unless you wanted to get yourself killed. Adam, I know this is terribly difficult, but if you tell your story, the outlaws will know you can identify them. At this point, they must think their masks were enough.”
“Do they? I wonder if they aren’t rethinking that day as much as I am and wondering if I know who they are.”
A chilling and sobering thought, it was the last thing Ben wanted to consider but knew he had to keep it in mind. Once more, he wondered if they were doing enough to keep Adam safe. Even now, there could be rifles trained on them ready to remove the only witness to their crime and the only man who could put them on the gallows. He decided that the horses had rested enough. When he urged Buck into a faster pace, Adam understood and matched him. Ben was not too far off in his thinking either. Miles away in the California foothills of the same mountains, the outlaws were discussing the same topic.
“He could have recognized our voices.”
“Jason, he didn’t say anything.”
“He didn’t have to say anything. Standing there in shock instead of drawing his pistol wasn’t like him at all. Something surprised him and it wasn’t that customer drawing his gun like a fool. Adam Cartwright is used to things like that happening. No, something more was going on. I think he recognized our voices. He certainly heard yours often enough for a lot of years and mine for several.”
“But it’s been so long.”
“A man like that doesn’t forget.”
“By now he’s told other people if he knew. There would be wanted posters with our names on them.”
“You remember Sheriff Coffee, don’t you? He’s smarter than that too. He wouldn’t give up that he has an eyewitness so easily. I wonder how many sheriffs got telegrams with our names though.”
“How could we ever find that out?”
“If I recall correctly, there’s a sheriff in Red Granite who likes whisky and poker a great deal. One doesn’t go well with the other. He’s often in need of money. The syndicate often made use of him because of that to get information, and all we want is a little information. He wouldn’t likely have a problem with that.”
“He wouldn’t tell you or me. He would know we were the ones in the telegram if he got one.”
“No, I figure we’ll send one of the others and have him pose as a bounty hunter. He can say he’s after us and heard a rumor that there’s more information sheriffs have.”
“I get it. Sheriffs are keeping it close to the vest but he needs it so he would be willing to pay for it because he’ll get a big bounty if he can cash in. The sheriff will buy that story. Jason, that’s brilliant.”
“That’s how I didn’t go to prison with the rest of the syndicate. I had a better story.”
It worked exactly as Jason predicted. Within a few days, they had the information. Adam Cartwright had identified the two of them and sheriffs all over California were waiting for them to show up in one of their towns where they would be arrested. A trial would be held in Virginia City and the probable outcome was that they would be on the gallows although it was unlikely they would hang a woman. However life in prison was not appealing as an alternative.
Planning was begun immediately as to how they could return to the area of Virginia City without being detected and how they could eliminate Adam Cartwright without being caught.
“Ben Cartwright is like a mother bear protecting her young. He’ll be doing everything he can to put up barriers around Adam so nothing can get through.”
“But we know Adam. He’ll chafe at those restrictions and sooner or later, he’ll break free. When he does, he won’t live long. We’ll be waiting.”
On the Ponderosa, as expected, Adam fumed with the restrictions placed on him. He always had to work with others and didn’t get a choice of what to do or when to do it. His jobs frequently were with his brothers whose constant vigilance was always a reminder of the danger facing him too. When they got a visit from Roy, it seemed it got worse.
“Adam, I know you ain’t gonna like hearing this. But I gotta say it. The longer it takes to find these outlaws, the more I suspect they might be thinking you know who they are. I’m thinking they may be hiding out until they can do something about the only man who can identify them.”
“If they wanted to kill me, they could have easily done it there in the bank that day.”
“You know as well as me that they never killed nobody before in any robbery. They never even shot anyone. With five guns against them, most folks never fight back.”
At that point, Ben joined in the conversation. “I’m sure they never meant to become killers when they went down this road. They didn’t mean to kill anyone when they went in that bank that day. In fact, didn’t you say it was the other three who did the shooting as far as you could tell?”
“That won’t matter to a jury though, will it? They were all responsible for two deaths because they were part of the robbery.”
“Adam, that’s true, and when we catch ’em and put ’em in my jail, that’s exactly how I’m gonna write out those charges. Until we catch ’em though, they know you’re the one who can get ’em convicted. Boy, you’re gonna have to watch your back like you never done before.”
For the week after Roy’s visit, Adam was irritated at the constant efforts to protect him feeling smothered by the attention and confined because he couldn’t go to town. Often working at the forge or doing repairs to the buildings, he didn’t even get the option of riding freely about the Ponderosa. He became surly and snapped at everyone. Hoss and Joe discussed it one day when they knew Adam couldn’t hear because he had gone in to take a bath and Ben had gone to town.
“I know what I’d be missin’ most ifn I was cooped up here on the ranch for weeks like he is. He can get sippin’ whisky from Pa and some of those fine cigars but it’s fur shur Pa ain’t got what’s really got him itchin’ to go ta town now.”
“Well we can’t exactly bring a lady here for him. Pa would have our hides.”
“I bin thinking, Joe. What if a lady was ta come here on her own like? I mean ta drive her carriage here and be all proper dressed and all and ask if Adam would like a visit?”
Snapping his fingers, Joe grinned. “Yep, Carleen would do it. I’ve seen her outside the saloon shopping and such, and she doesn’t look like a saloon girl at all. She’s still very pretty, but in a regular sort of way. Yes, she would do it. She’s sweet on Adam anyway and they’ve spent time together. I know he likes her.”
“Yeah, that’s a good one. Adam would like spending time with her.”
“How about I talk to her on Friday and try to set something up for Saturday or Sunday? It will be a surprise for Adam. This is going to be great. Boy, I have some great ideas sometimes.”
As Joe started to walk toward the house, Hoss frowned. “Hey, wait a minute. That was my idea.”
There was no more discussion though as Ben arrived home cutting off any discussion of such a thing as bringing a woman to the Ponderosa to keep company with Adam. However it was Ben who greeted the young lady on Saturday afternoon when she arrived in a carriage. He didn’t know her, but she said she was a friend of Adam and wished to see him. Knowing how much Adam would appreciate some company, Ben escorted her into the house noting the surprise Adam had but interpreting it as surprise at any visitor under the circumstances and not at the identity of the guest. Carleen had been reluctant at first to visit.
“Joe, things are just getting back to normal here for me. Everyone knew that I was special to Adam so I wasn’t too popular around here for a while. You know we get paid by a percentage of the drinks we sell to customers. I wasn’t selling much.”
“Carleen, no one needs to know where you’re going. You could be going to see anyone. Don’t you often take carriage rides?”
“Well, yes, I do, but if one of your hands were to say something, that could ruin it all for me.”
“Hoss and I will tell them to keep the secret. Right, Hoss?”
“Oh, right, Joe.”
With that assurance, Carleen had agreed to the visit. She had missed Adam and hadn’t believed the stories about him although she couldn’t speak out on his behalf. It was the same problem all of his friends had. With no evidence or story to back him up, they made themselves targets by standing up for their friend. At least she could do this for him and smiled as soon as she saw him.
“Carleen, this is a pleasant surprise, a very great and exceedingly happy surprise.”
“It’s beautiful out here, Adam. I had no idea how beautiful it was until I took a ride to your ranch.”
“Why don’t we take a walk outside?”
As planned, Joe had a suggestion. “Adam, why don’t you ask Hop Sing for a lunch basket. It’s almost time for lunch and I know we’re having sandwiches. I’m sure he could put some in a basket for you and Carleen.”
Curious as to why Joe was being so helpful but pleased with the suggestion, Adam agreed and thanked Joe even as he wondered if there was more going on here than he knew. When he saw Hoss trying to hide a small smile, he knew and squeezed Carleen’s hand. She squeezed back. Hop Sing already had a basket packed when they got to the kitchen confirming what Adam had surmised. He held the door open for Carleen and offered her his arm as they exited.
“We can use the blanket I’ve got in the carriage for our picnic.”
“That’s a good idea too.”
For the next hour, they enjoyed their lunch and talked of what had been happening in town and in the state. Carleen had attended several performances at Piper’s Opera House and described them in detail to Adam who relished hearing about such things as well as hearing a woman’s soft voice. After an hour, they packed up the basket and then moved into a hug that turned into far more.
“Not out here. It’s too public. Come with me.”
Carleen walked with Adam to the stable and entered by the back door. They stood in the darkness a moment until they were sure they were alone and then Adam had her climb up the ladder into the loft in the back. He climbed up next taking a bedroll from the tack room with him. Once in the loft, he rolled out the bedroll, and sat down reaching up for Carleen’s hand.
“C’mere.” He put out his hand for her.
With a smile, she did, and for the next hour, there was very little talking. That changed suddenly when they heard Ben’s voice calling Adam’s name. Discarded clothing was hastily grabbed and donned. Adam did his best to help Carleen and they exited the stable by the back door again checking to see that Ben was not near there. Walking away from his voice for a time, Adam grinned and picked bits of straw from Carleen’s hair as she grinned and told him to rebutton his shirt as he had mismatched buttons and buttonholes.
“At least we have everything on right side out. Now, let’s start walking back. We’ll seem breathless as if we were hurrying to get back instead of away.”
When Ben saw them enter the yard, his relief was evident. “I was worried. It’s been hours.”
“After we picnicked for about an hour or so, we went for a walk. In those shoes she has, she can’t walk very far or very fast so when we heard your voice, well.”
Adam let that statement hang so he wouldn’t have to add any details. He hadn’t lied yet except by omission and didn’t want to do so. They had walked to the stable and she did find it difficult to walk any distance in the shoes she was wearing. Luckily Ben accepted all of that at face value.
“I thought perhaps you didn’t see the clouds building over the mountains. It may be too late now for Carleen to get back to town before those storms hit.”
“Oh, I would like to get back to town so no one worries.” Carleen was actually worried most about her job as she was expected to work that night.
“I can ride with her, Pa, and make sure she gets to town safely. We’ll be close enough to town when it hits, if it does, that it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.” Joe was ready to help out.
“Joe, I don’t want you riding back in that storm if it’s as bad as it looks like it may be.”
“I won’t. I’ll stay in town overnight if I can’t ride home safely.”
As Joe went to get Carleen’s carriage ready and to saddle Cochise, Hoss wished he had volunteered. “Pa, maybe I ought to go along to help.”
“Yes, you could help Joe get the carriage ready so they can leave sooner and save some time, but he can get her to town just fine.” Ben had to grin at Hoss’ look of disappointment.
“We’ll go get the picnic basket and her carriage blanket from the grove of trees where we had our picnic.”
“There’s no need, Adam. We can send one of the hands. That will be quicker.”
Robbed of any further chance to kiss Carleen or hold her, Adam was left only the chance to kiss her on the cheek and thank her for the visit. She kissed his cheek and whispered a promise to visit him in a week though that made up for anything else he thought he had missed. As she drove her carriage away, Hoss stood at his side.
“Feeling a mite better ’bout things, older brother?”
“A lot better. For a change, my two scheming brothers pulled off a plan without a disaster. Congratulations on a job well done, and thank you.”
“Gonna sleep better tonight?”
“Going to sleep like a baby tonight.”
With a slap on the shoulder, Hoss let him know that he knew what he meant. “I suppose we better get things tied down and put away ’round here before those storms hit. Looks like it could be a big blow.”
“Let’s start with the stable. I have a few things to put away in there before Pa decides to help us out by bedding down the stock.”
With a knowing smile and a wink, Hoss agreed.
“You know, if you keep doing things like that, Pa is going to guess why Carleen was here.”
Frowning then, Hoss pursed his lips. “I hadn’t thought about that part.” Pausing in thought while they worked, Hoss had another thought. “He’s gonna ask you how you know her too, ain’t he? He’s gonna want to know more about her.”
“Yes, he is, so now we have to think about what to do this evening that will make it difficult for conversation.”
That took a bit more concentration from Hoss until he sported that gap-toothed grin he had. “You got that new guitar in a couple of weeks ago.” Adam acknowledged that wondering where Hoss might be going with that idea. “You have two now.”
“Remember years ago when you said you’d teach me except there wasn’t a guitar here for me to practice on and you didn’t want me practicing on your good one?”
Slowly, a smile developed into a smirk. “Pa would hate all that racket and probably tell us to go some place else to make all that noise.”
“He shur wouldn’t be asking questions.”
“All right, we have a plan.”
It worked to perfection too. All through dinner, Hoss was asking questions about guitar playing never letting Ben open a conversation about Carleen. After dinner as soon as dessert plates were empty, the lesson began.
“Why don’t you two go on the porch or up to one of your rooms to do that? A man can’t even think with that much noise.”
“Pa, Adam’s teaching me music. I thought you’d like that.”
“I will when I recognize something you’re doing that sounds like music.”
The two conspirators went up to Adam’s room and continued the lesson enjoying their time together as much as their hoodwinking their father who wasn’t as hoodwinked as they thought. It had all been so smooth, too smooth, and those bits of straw still clinging to the back of Carleen’s hair and glistening in the sun before the storm clouds got there had been the finishing touch. However he had to admit that Adam was a grown man, and he could see how frustrated he had been. If this was what it took to keep him safe, Ben was willing to look the other way at least this time. It was rather amusing too to see to what lengths his younger sons would go to help their older brother without overtly offending their father. At least they all had that much respect for him and his standards of conduct. At some point, he’d probably say something to let them know he knew, but for now they could savor their small victory.
Just over a week later, Carleen came for another visit surprising both Joe and Hoss who had not made arrangements for it. She passed them and Ben on the road to Virginia City as they were heading in to church services. Adam didn’t attend any more but stayed on the Ponderosa under the watchful eye of several hands. Carleen greeted them and stated that Adam had invited her. Joe and Hoss grinned at each other but the smiles disappeared when they saw their father’s look after Carleen drove away. He was not pleased. They guessed they would hear about it, and they did on the ride home. When they arrived back at the house, Adam and Carleen were on the porch playing a game of chess and drinking lemonade. It all appeared very innocent, but of course they had been together nearly four hours by that time. Ben wasn’t fooled at all. Although he was pleasant to Carleen, the look in his eyes let his eldest son know he wasn’t happy about the situation. Adam didn’t let that interfere with the rest of his day enjoying the company of the young lady until midafternoon. When she left, he made it clear that she was welcome to return, but she was as perceptive as she was pretty.
“I don’t think your father thinks it’s such a good idea.”
“It’s not my father you’re coming to see. If you enjoy your time here, please come back. I enjoy your company very much.” He saw the look of concern she had though. “It’s not causing you trouble, is it?”
“It didn’t last Saturday because I wasn’t gone that long, and no one seemed to know I was here. If I keep coming here though, more will know. I can’t afford to lose my job, Adam.”
“I understand. If you have to risk your job, then you shouldn’t come out here. I’ll miss you, but one day this will all be settled. I’ll see you again in town.”
“Adam, I know there must be more to the story. I wish you could tell me.”
“I wish I could tell you too, but for now it’s best if you know no more than you do right now. Thank you for visiting me. I truly enjoyed all of our time together. You have been a light in the darkness.”
The kiss they shared then was not a kiss on the cheek. Whispering another thank you to her before he released her, Adam wanted to be sure she knew he valued her friendship and her visits. When she left, she had tears in her eyes thinking about what she wanted and thought she could never have. Ben watched her drive away and greeted Adam as he walked back to the house.
“It’s probably for the best, son.”
Knowing what he meant by that, Adam got angry. “She’s been more of a friend to me than any of my so-called friends in town. What other friend other than Roy has been out here to see me? What other man or woman has cared to see how I was doing now that I’m shunned by the citizens who seem to have forgotten every good thing I’ve ever done. They’ve judged me a coward for one act they don’t understand.”
“Adam, that’s not fair. I doubt most people even realize how unhappy you are. You have been absent from town for long periods before because of Ponderosa business or because you were traveling. They could think it’s because of those things.”
“Pa, we both know better. They would rather not associate with me and then have to explain themselves to anyone else. Who are the cowards here? It’s not Carleen.”
“She’s a saloon girl, Adam. She doesn’t have a reputation to risk.”
“No, she’s only risking her job and her future. It’s a whole lot more important than anything anyone else is willing to risk. But you can feel good about it. She won’t come out here any more. I told her not to do it.”
The tension between Ben and Adam persisted so later that week when Adam insisted that he would drive some cattle up to the Paiute camp, Ben was hard pressed to deny that request.
“Pa, anyone thinking to do harm to me is not waiting up by the Paiutes. I can see that they would watch the roads to town, and they might watch the road leaving the Ponderosa to any of our neighbors, but seriously, why would they watch any trail up toward the mountains. How could they? There aren’t that many of them.”
“It only takes one to bushwhack someone.”
“Pa, be serious. Now I’m doing this. The only way you’re going to stop me is to hogtie me in my room.” With that, Adam went to pack up what he needed for the trip and then headed to the kitchen next to get supplies.
Getting up from his desk and following him, Ben met him in the kitchen. “Be careful. I know you’re probably right, but it’s my right to worry.”
“Sometimes you worry too much. I’ll be back in three or four days. Don’t send out a search party.”
As Ben rolled his eyes, Adam grinned and got his father to do the same. There was peace between them again. Even so, Ben watched his son go and had some worry lines in his forehead. They would likely stay there until Adam returned. When Hoss and Joe got back later that day, they wondered where Sport was, and Ben told them what Adam was doing.
“He’s like as not right about that, Pa, and it gets him out of the house and doing something. Ya know he was getting plumb crazy tied to the house like he was. This oughta help some.”
“Oh, like you two getting that saloon girl out here helped.”
As Joe twisted his mouth to one side in that familiar look that said he had no idea what to say and was a bit embarrassed that their father had figured it all out so easily, Hoss answered boldly.
“It did help, and she’s a nice lady.”
“Lady? Hoss, she’s a saloon girl!”
“Pa, that don’t mean she can’t be a lady. She’s a bit sweet on Adam, that’s fur shur, but that don’t mean she ain’t a lady. She’s one of the nicest gals I ever met. She took a big chance comin’ on out here for Adam. She knew it, but she done it anyhow.”
“Hoss, there’s no future for them.”
“Why? Because she’s a saloon gal ’cause she had no other way ta support herself? Pa, I never figured on you being so narrow-minded.”
“I am not narrow-minded.” As Hoss said nothing and Joe looked at him waiting for more, Ben relented. “All right, maybe I don’t know her well enough to make a judgment.”
With a grin, Joe changed the subject. “When will Adam be back?”
“He said three or four days.”
“So when do we go looking for him?”
Hoss snickered at that as Ben frowned.
“Sometimes I think the three of you conspire against me. He said not to send out a search party.”
That got the brothers laughing and Ben couldn’t help it. He had to join in. When Hop Sing brought out coffee and dessert, the mood had changed and they were relaxed and engaged in conversation about all sorts of things. That mood lasted until the end of the fourth day when Adam didn’t return. All of Ben’s fears returned, and Hoss and Joe were worried too.
“Pa, Hoss and I will head out at first light. He may not want a search party, but he told you four days and he’s not one to be late.”
“If you’re leaving at first light, you’ll have to catch up to me.”
The three men spent a hard day of riding until Hoss caught the smell of smoke and roast meat. He directed them toward that and they found Adam camping a few miles away. He had a good amount of meat roasting on a campfire as they arrived. He was sitting near the fire casually feeding wood into the smoky flames.
“Sorry, but I shot this antelope yesterday. The meat is more like jerky by now than roast antelope, but I couldn’t let it spoil.”
Angry, Ben said the first thing on his mind. “You let us worry and you sit here smoking meat?”
“I would have ridden home with it, but two things stopped me.”
His anger softened by curiosity, Ben had to ask. “Two things stopped you?”
“Sport has a sore leg, and I can’t walk on my ankle very well. I shot that antelope yesterday, but as I was riding downslope to get it, Sport stepped in a hole rolling both of us down the hill. He got off easy, but I twisted my ankle rather badly. I haven’t taken off my boot because I guessed I wouldn’t get it back on if I did.”
It was then that they noticed the large stick at Adam’s side. He saw them looking.
“Yes, I have managed to hobble around with that. I cut the back haunch from the antelope and then got as far from it as possible figuring I didn’t want to be too close when the other predators came to eat. Sport can’t defend himself very well with that bad leg, and I can’t run.”
“How did you get here?”
“I hung onto the pommel and Sport limped. We managed.”
That’s when they noticed that Adam had made camp up against a wall of rock so that he had a clear field in front of him and nothing could come at his back.
“Well you got the meat and we got beans, coffee, and some biscuits left.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Soon they had a good meal ready to go and were quiet as they ate. All were relieved. Ben noticed how drawn Adam looked and guessed it wasn’t only from the painful ankle.
“Did you get any sleep last night?”
“Why don’t you settle in now? We’ll take care of everything. You need to sleep.”
“How much sleep did you get?”
“We’ll all sleep as much as we need to sleep. Don’t worry about us.”
Without any more talk, Adam leaned back into his saddle and closed his eyes. Ben pulled the blanket up to his shoulders and added a little more dry wood to the fire. He silently motioned to Joe to get more firewood. Hoss and Joe nodded and got up to do that before it got too dark. Ben cleaned up the dinner plates, fry pan, but left the coffee pot and cups. They would probably drink more as the night was cool.
The next morning, they had to decide how to manage the ride home. Hoss suggested that they put the saddle on the packhorse for Adam to ride and divide the supplies up among the three of them letting Sport go without any weight. That worked all right except the packhorse wasn’t used to a rider and needed a lot of direction, which Adam found painful to do with his bad ankle. Joe suggested it would be better if Adam rode Cochise and he rode the packhorse.
“Thank you, Joe. I know how much of a sacrifice that is for you. I do appreciate it very much.”
“I guess it’s my turn to take care of you.” He couldn’t help adding a bit more. “Especially now that you’re old and fall off your horse.”
Adam took a playful swipe at Joe, which he easily dodged. The mood was good and stayed that way. When they got home, Hoss helped Adam into the house and then it was time to pull off his boot. That was a chore as swollen as his ankle was, but luckily, it wasn’t broken. The boot had helped too by compressing the swelling for two days. Hop Sing wrapped it tightly and pronounced that Adam was to sit with his leg up. Adam knew he was trapped in the house again and frowned at his father.
“You got your wish. No one can get at me here. I’m as good as hogtied now.”
“And you did it to yourself. I had nothing to do with it.” Ben’s smirk was proof positive of where his sons had learned how to do that.
For a short time, they thought they could relax but a visit from Roy the next day made them even more worried. He brought news from a small town in California.
“Seems a sheriff in Red Granite thought he was talking with a bounty hunter who was after this same gang. The man said he had heard there was some information that sheriffs had and he was willing to pay for it. This sheriff thought it wouldn’t hurt to let a bounty hunter know so he told them that a witness could identify the two leaders of the gang and gave ‘im the names.”
“Damn!” Ben wasn’t given to such expletives but he knew how significant that information was.
Roy continued. “The man gave the sheriff some money saying it was a share of the bounty he was going to get. Course he never collected no bounty and those two haven’t been caught. By now, the sheriff figured out he’d been hornswoggled and decided to confess what he’d done.”
“So clearly they know now that I have identified them and can testify against them. There’s no doubt any more that they will want to get rid of me.”
Roy had to agree with that. “Adam, they never meant to kill those two in the bank. I’m pretty sure of that, but once they turned to killing, there’s no going back. If they don’t kill you, they hang or at least Jason does and the other three men will too. She might end up in prison but for here, that would be about as bad.”
Ben knew too how dangerous the situation was. “After all the time she spent here, she knows the place well. They could be anywhere.”
Roy left them with one more sobering thought. “She knows Adam just as well and knows how to get to him. I’d say none of the family is safe. She knows he would do anything to protect his family including risking his life.”
Smirking but with a serious look, Adam gazed at his family. They all knew what Roy meant. All of them now were going to be in the same situation Adam had faced since the robbery. Their lives were going to be very different until those outlaws were apprehended.
On the Ponderosa in a long-abandoned played-out silver mine, the gang of outlaws was meeting. Jason and his wife were stuck hiding in there not knowing how many people knew their identity and were looking for them. The other three were doing the information gathering and preparations for taking care of the one witness who could put them on the gallows. One of them came in with some interesting information that he thought they could use to formulate a plan.
“All right, we already figured it was going to be too hard to kidnap a Cartwright and hold him without creating an even bigger mess. Then we’d have one more witness who could identify you two. Well, how about someone who could lure Adam out but couldn’t identify either of you?”
“Who’s that? You already found out that he isn’t seeing any woman right now.” Jason was ready to dismiss the man and find out what the others had found out until he made his next statement.
“Yes, but a woman is seeing him.”
“What?” Jason was definitely interested in that.
“I was in the saloon listening for any information I could get because a couple of hands from the Ponderosa were in there. They never said much. But when I was leaning on the bar to get a beer, I heard the bartender talking to a saloon girl named Carleen.”
“What was so interesting?”
“He asked if she was going out to the Ponderosa again. She said she didn’t know he knew that.”
“He said he did and so did a number of other people. She got a real worried look. She said she didn’t want to lose her job. He said not to worry because he was a friend of Adam. He said she could go out to see Adam and not to worry about her job. It was safe.”
“What’d she say then?”
“She thanked him and said Adam said not to come see him again if it meant her job. She said she would go see him if she could, and he said that her turn to have Saturday off was coming up. She said she would be going out to see Adam then.”
“Was the bartender named Sam?”
“I think it was. Yeah, I’m sure that’s what she called him when she thanked him.”
“It makes sense then. Adam and Sam always got along well. I think we can work something out then. We can take her. She won’t know any of us. We’ll wear masks and then blindfold her. We’ll send a message to Adam telling him to come see us or she dies. We get rid of him and ride on out of here free and clear.”
“It sounds like a plan, boss.”
On Saturday morning, they were waiting for Carleen as she approached the Ponderosa. Things proceeded according to the plan except Carleen fought back, which they had not anticipated. When they brought her to the mine, Jason told them to put her way back in the mine tunnel in the dark. Then when they were done with that, he had a note, which they put in her carriage before it was driven near the Ponderosa ranch house and left abandoned there to be found eventually by some cowhands.
When the cowhands brought the carriage to the Ponderosa ranch house, Hoss and Joe came in the house to ask Adam to identify it even as they handed the note to Ben. Adam asked what it said. Ben was reluctant to say so Adam took the note from his hand. It directed Adam to come alone to the abandoned mine or Carleen would die. It gave him an hour.
“How could they know when the carriage would be found?” Hoss wondered at that.
Adam knew. “They were watching and now the clock is running. I have to leave now.” Adam began struggling to pull a boot onto his injured foot and ankle.
“You can’t, son. They’ll kill you.”
“Maybe. They’ll try, but if I don’t, Carleen will die. What would you have me do? Stay here and let her die?”
“No, we’ll do something. All of us.”
Joe had an idea. “What if everyone goes to the mine? What if we have every single man on this ranch ride to that mine? It will look like the cavalry is heading toward them. My guess is that they’ll run.”
“Maybe they won’t.”
“Maybe they won’t, older brother, but it’s a better hand to play than the one you want to play.”
“Adam, Joe’s right. His idea is better than yours. We ain’t got much time. Let’s go.”
As fast as they could, they rounded up as many men as they could and rode toward the mine. As Joe had predicted, the five outlaws saw them coming and fled. Their plan wasn’t well thought out and failed miserably. At the mine, at first they found no sign of Carleen, but her wrap, purse, and gloves had been in the carriage. They kept searching. They found her deep in the mine. She had been dead probably for hours. The bloody wound on her head evidence of what had killed her. The blood had long since dried, and her eyes were open and dry too. Carefully lifting her, Adam carried her limp body in his arms. Outside, he asked Hoss for help. Hoss held her body as Adam mounted up on Sport. His leg ached because of the pressure he had put on it riding to the mine, but he wasn’t going to let that stop him yet. When Hoss held her up, Adam took her in his arms again. Ben asked where he was going.
“I’m going to town. I’m going to tell the whole town what happened and who did it.”
“Is that wise?”
“Maybe and maybe not, but at this point, I don’t care. No more secrets.”
As Adam turned his horse to head toward town, Hoss said he was going with him and then Joe said the same. Several of the hands said they were going too. After asking one man to take the carriage back to town, Ben and the others headed home.
In town, Adam got a lot of attention with Carleen’s body in his arms. He rode to Roy’s office and stopped outside but didn’t dismount. Hearing the noise from the crowd, Roy walked outside and asked what had happened.
“Jason and Mariette Blaine and their gang happened. Carleen was coming to see me and they kidnapped her to use her against me. They told me to come see them or they would kill her but she was already dead. They ran off when we rode at them in force. Yes, everyone, I know who robbed the bank that day. It was Mariette Blaine who held a gun to my head and Jason Blaine who aimed one at my belly. If I had drawn, they would have killed me. They probably wished they had. I recognized their voices. They know that now and want me dead. Satisfied?” There was a lot of murmuring in the crowd. “Yes, Jason fooled all of us. He was a part of that syndicate. I have doubts now about Judge Rand who accepted so easily that Jason was an innocent pawn of the syndicate and I have doubts about Mariette. She must have known and her innocent act was just that. She liked the money he had and how he had gotten it because he could get a lot more that way. Except the syndicate was gone so they had to find a new way to steal money.”
With that, Adam forced his way through the crowd to the embalmer’s office to make arrangements for Carleen. Roy asked Hoss if he would track for a posse. He said he was ready and Joe volunteered to go along as well. The Ponderosa hands said they would help too but Joe said maybe they ought to stay with Adam. He was still the only witness against Jason and Mariette. Within an hour, the whole group rode back to the mine where they split. Adam headed home while Hoss and Joe headed out with the posse and Roy. Although Adam burned with a desire for revenge, he knew he would make a posse slower with his bad leg or he would lag behind them. Either way, he wouldn’t be much help to them. He was better off going home. Carrying Carleen from the mine and the ride to town had made his leg ache and he expected a lecture from Hop Sing and probably his father too but didn’t care. He had done what he thought was right. He usually did.
As Adam and the others reached the ranch buildings, Jason and the gang were on their way to the ranch. By late that day, they were not far from the house hiding in the grove of trees near the stable. They hoped to be able to remain hidden until dark and then catch Adam by surprise or possibly shoot him through a window. They hoped to escape in the darkness led by Mariette who was checking out their planned escape route already with everyone else preoccupied. When it got to be evening, the first part of their plan was already a failure. In the house, they closed the interior shutters. It was a smart move on their part and one that Jason and Mariette had not anticipated. They waited then for Adam to use the necessary before retiring for the night. He didn’t. They realized that the Cartwrights must have instituted some significant safety procedures once they knew the threat against them. Jason turned to Mariette as they waited.
“You know which bedroom is his. You’re the lightest one here.”
She got the message. “You want me to shoot him in his bed once the light goes out.”
“It’s probably the only way now. My guess is they’ve got a posse out tracking us. By tomorrow, they’ll know we doubled back if they haven’t figured it out already. It’s tonight or we have to ride out. Then it’s Mexico or be on the run here for the rest of our lives.”
“I want all of you close by in case I need help.”
“We’ll be there.”
It seemed the wait was endless, but Mariette reminded them several times that Adam tended to stay up late. Finally all the lights in the house were turned down. They waited a half hour and then walked up to the house quietly. There was a lantern burning brightly by the stable, another by the porch, and one by the bunkhouse. They would have preferred no light but it would have been too obvious to douse those lanterns. They would have to be quiet and hope no one had trouble sleeping. Jason told Mariette to take off her boots and then he hoisted her up to the porch roof. She quietly headed to the window of the bedroom she remembered as Adam’s. When she saw the window open, she was sure of it as he was the brother often chastised by his father for doing that even in the worst of weather, and a crisis like this wouldn’t likely make him change either. Smiling like a wolf, she knelt on the roof and took careful aim at the broad back in the bed pushing her hand into the room to get the best shot possible. She guessed she might have to take more than one shot but hoped to make the first one the best. An iron hand grasped her wrist though as another hand grabbed the pistol wrenching it from her grasp as she was dragged into the room. She hit her head on the sill stunning her but gave a small cry that was heard down below.
When there was no answer, the men below had no recourse. They ran. However men with rifles seemed to appear from everywhere. They stepped from the bunkhouse, the stable, and the storehouse. Hop Sing was at the kitchen door with a shotgun. At the door of the house, Ben Cartwright stepped out with a rifle in his hands too. Joe was at his side. There was no place to run. Two of the outlaws aimed weapons at their adversaries and were immediately cut down. Jason and the other dropped their weapons. Jason had smooth-talked himself out of prison once and hoped he could talk himself out of the gallows this time.
“Ben, we never meant to kill those two men in the bank.”
“That will be up to a jury to determine, Jason.”
Pushing Mariette in front of him as she staggered still stunned by a head injury and with blood on her face, Adam was the picture of a vengeful angel of God though. He stood tall beside his father and shoved Mariette toward Jason and the other outlaw.
“What excuse will you give them for murdering Carleen?”
“It wasn’t murder. She fought back. They didn’t expect her to fight so much. She fell and hit her head.”
“Instead of a doctor, you put her in the back of a mine in the dark to die. I don’t think you will convince a jury that was excusable. You’re going to hang.”
“She was already dead.”
“When I found her, there was a pool of blood by her head. Dead women don’t bleed.”
“I’m sorry, Adam. I didn’t know. Honest, I didn’t know.”
“No one is going to believe you.”
Dropping his head, Jason guessed that Adam was correct. No one would believe him and he was going to hang. “What about Mariette? Don’t you have any feeling for her any more at all?”
“Yes, but the feelings I have aren’t fit to be spoken here. Men, tie them up and put them in a stall in the stable. We’ll take them to town in the morning.”
“Mariette needs some attention.”
“Put a bandage on her head. She hit her head on the sill when she was going to murder me. It’s only a bruise and a small cut.”
“One last thing: how did you know?”
“Joe was with the posse. They started to notice how your trail was arcing around and guessed what you might be doing. Joe rode straight back here while you took your roundabout way. We had a lookout up on the hill who signaled when he saw you and then he rode in like he was coming back from a day’s work.”
Jason remembered the lone rider they had seen coming back to the ranch. He hadn’t gone to the house or anything unusual. He had put his horse in the corral and gone to the bunkhouse as one would expect any hand to do. They had been outsmarted.
The next morning the two bodies were loaded into a buckboard and the three outlaws were forced to sit next to them for the ride to town. They objected but the dark look they got from Adam was their only answer. They complied then. They didn’t make it all the way to town before they were intercepted by Roy and the posse who took charge of the prisoners. Hoss was glad to see his brothers safe and sound and asked what happened. Joe gave a quick summary. Roy asked if he and Adam would come into town to give official statements. They did as Hoss rode home to tell Ben what had happened.
The trial occurred three days later and Adam’s testimony was about all that was needed. The statements by Adam and Joe as well as Ben’s testimony about what happened at his home were overwhelming evidence, and a few of the hands were called to add their accounts of what was found at the mine and what happened on the Ponderosa. The jury never left the room but leaned together to confer before rendering their unanimous verdicts of guilty on all counts for all parties. The judge was reluctant to sentence a woman to hang but sentenced Mariette to three consecutive life sentences and then a twenty-year sentence for attempted murder. Jason pleaded for mercy and again offered to give them information on other criminals including a crooked judge in California who had let him off originally on the syndicate charges. It was all investigators from California had been waiting to hear. They took that statement and left the courtroom to charge a judge in California with corruption. All the pleading did no good with Elmer’s widow and Franklin’s widow sitting in the front row waiting for the sentencing. Jason and the other man were sentenced to hang.
As they left the courtroom, many people came up to Adam and thanked him for what he had done. There was no mention of how he had been treated. The four Cartwrights headed to the saloon to get a drink. Several offered to buy but Adam declined their offers. Sam said their drinks were on the house and Adam accepted. He raised his glass and made a toast to Carleen. Sam raised his glass and touched Adam’s and the other Cartwrights joined the toast.
The message was clear. Adam knew who his friends were, and the men in that saloon were not his friends. It made a few of them nervous and they downed their drinks and left embarrassed at how they had acted. Others turned away and wouldn’t face him when he turned to survey the room. It was clear who was yellow and who had courage. With a smirk, he finished his drink.
“Let’s go home.”
On the day of the hanging, Adam was back in town with his family. He didn’t witness the hanging but stayed down the street as it occurred. He stayed in town until the prison wagon arrived and Mariette was placed in it. She was disheveled and in chains. As the wagon pulled away on its way to Carson City, she looked out the bars and gave a rude gesture to Adam. He made no response.
“Adam, ya jest ain’t seemed all that surprised by Mariette. Why is that?”
“Hoss, that day that I killed Eskith, he was supposed to have terrorized her.”
“Yeah, I remember you talkin’ ’bout that.”
“It was all so theatrical. It was more like she was acting than real. I’ve seen women in that situation. She was putting on an act for me. At the time, I didn’t understand it. Now I do. She wanted me to kill Eskith for them so she made it seem as bad as possible and sent me to where they had set it up.”
“You’ve had a lot of time to think ’bout things like that, I guess.”
“Ever since that day in the bank, I had to re-examine my thoughts about her. She held that gun on me and her hand wasn’t steady, but her eyes were cold, Hoss. If I had done anything, she would have killed me. She had the eyes of a killer.”
“Still does now that she’s not hiding her true nature.”
“I hope she never gets out of prison.”
“For your sake, I hope so too.”
No one in his family questioned the bouquet of flowers Adam took with him as he rode out of town. They stopped at the cemetery near the church and he walked to the grave with the miniature white picket fence around it and the small white marble headstone that had just arrived. He placed the flowers at the stone and wondered once again if he would ever find a woman like Carleen who had loved him for who he was and the way he was. He had only begun to appreciate her when he had lost her. She had given him a gift though: a better understanding of the kind of woman he wanted by his side. He smiled and thanked her as he looked up to heaven sure that was where she was.
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