An Unspeakable Dawn (by McFair_58)

Summary:  It has been five years since Joe Cartwright took Bella Carnaby as his wife and nearly twenty since he first met Rosey O’Rourke – a woman he knows his father loves, but one that life and time has conspired to keep away from the Ponderosa. A new threat and an old enemy appear to threaten the Cartwrights – will the end of their collective tale be joy, or tragedy?

81,360 words

Rated PG-13 for western violence and brutality and mild adult language

Author’s Note:  This story will make more sense if the reader is familiar with both Wet Bottoms, Warm Heart series (Bella Carnaby) and Blood and Bread (Rosey O’Rourke) series.

 

An Unspeakable Dawn

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When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable. There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age.
Victor Hugo

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One

Joe Cartwright slowly closed the door behind him, careful not to make a sound.  He didn’t want to disturb the man within the room he had just left, who was finally sleeping.  Shifting to the left of the doorjamb, he leaned his back against the wall and let the tears fall.

A moment later his knees went to jelly.

With all the strength he had left – which was about as much as an newborn pup – Joe stumbled across the hall and fell into the Chippendale chair pressed up against the wall beside what had once been the door to his oldest brother’s bedroom.  Joe’s hands shook on the well-polished arms as he righted himself and then dropped them and his head between his knees in a valiant attempt to remain conscious.

It had been so close.

So close.

One second, one heartbeat less – one blink of his unseen God’s eye – and his father would have been dead.

Dead.

Pa.  Dead.

Dear Lord….

A too familiar hand landed on Joe’s shoulder, startling him.  He hadn’t heard the door click open.  Didn’t hear the footsteps follow him across the hall.

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

The curly-haired man looked up into Paul Martin’s haggard face.  Even though the aged physician had turned most of his practice over to a younger doctor, Paul had come at his request.  For the last three days, within the walls of his ailing father’s room, Pa had waged one of the greatest battles he had ever faced.

Maybe the greatest battle.

“What can you do for me?” Joe echoed, his voice ragged with exhaustion.  “You can promise me Pa will be okay.”

Paul’s lips did that thing they’d done so many times when his father had asked the same question about him – pursed and turned down slightly at the corners.

“You know I – ”

“Yeah, I know you can’t make that promise.  It’s up to God and Pa.”  Joe hesitated and then a wry smile curled his lips.  “Just don’t go tellin’ me he’s ‘young and strong’.”

Paul smiled too – a weary smile of relief and caution.  “Now if we can just convince Ben of that.”

He’d tried.  Oh, Lord, how he’d tried!  They were several men down due to a sickness that had swept through the bunkhouse a week back.  Jamie was gone at school.  Griff was Heaven only knew where, and Candy wasn’t back from the cattle drive.  Adam didn’t exist anymore and Hoss, well, Hoss….  Joe’s eyes flicked to the his father’s door again.

If Pa had died that would have been it.  It would have been only him.

A sudden sound at the end of the corridor made both men turn toward the stair.  Joe blinked back tears to clear his eyes as a small dynamo rounded the corner aimed straight for him, reminding him that he was not alone – that he would never be alone.

Doc Martin’s pale blue eyes lit with delight.

“Ah,” the older man said, “the best medicine.”

Joe started to rise, but he didn’t make it to his feet before he was driven back into the chair by twenty-two pounds of love.  Ten grubby fingers reached for his face.  Two found the trail of tears on his cheek.  A pair of eyes, wide and green as his own, blinked as eight other fingers reached for the silvery curls that dangled near the collar of his shirt.

“Don’t cry, Papa,” the little boy said.

Another voice followed a moment later – soft, out of breath.  “I’m sorry, Joe.  I couldn’t stop him.  I’m not exactly moving at full speed right now.”

Joe looked up at his wife.  Her blonde hair was askew and her lovely face powdered with flour.  One hand rested on her back and the other on her expanded belly that held their next child, who was due within the month.

Bella Carnaby Cartwright was just about the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Next to Eric Benjamin Cartwright, that was, who was squirming in his arms and trying to get down, obviously terrified that the ‘real’ set of pants in the Joe Cartwright family had caught up to him.

Doc Martin chuckled at the scene.  When Joe looked at the older man, he was shaking his head.  “Divine justice,” was all he said.

Joe looked down at his first child, at the boy’s tousled blond curls and those puppy dog eyes that were working to assure him that he was holding an angel and not a naughty little boy who had disobeyed his mother and run up to Grandpa Ben’s sick room when he’d been told he was not allowed.

As he ran his fingers through his son’s curls, Joe sighed.  “Yeah….”

“Joe, why don’t you take your family and go downstairs?  I’m sure your father will be asleep for some time.  He’s very weak.  Ben won’t wake up any time soon –”

These were the times when Joe knew where his ornery, stubborn streak came from.

His pa had just called his name.

Bella hurried over and snatched Eric up.  With a quick kiss, she said, “I’ll be in the kitchen with Hop Sing.”  His wife looked down at their little boy who was nuzzling up to her now that he realized he wasn’t going to feel her hand on his rear end.  “So will this one.  That is, if I decide to let him help bake the cookies after he did exactly what he was told not to do.”

Eric blinked.  “Papa needs cookies too,” he pronounced as he held out one of his fingers, offering the gooey dough that lingered there.

Joe kissed him again and replied, “If you don’t mind, punkin, I think I’ll wait ‘til they’re cooked.  You be good for your ma, you hear?  I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Bella leaned in as best she could and nuzzled his cheek.  “I’ll be waiting.”

Joe drew a breath as he watched his very pregnant wife walk toward the stairs.  He waited until he heard her reach the ground floor and head for the kitchen before letting it out – only to find Paul Martin watching him.

“Still waiting for the other boot to drop?” the older man asked, a little too astutely.

“What do you mean?”

Paul’s hand returned to his shoulder.  “Joe, I can feel it in every muscle in your body.  You have to let go.  You can’t spend every waking moment waiting for a tragedy.  If you do, you will miss the joy of the day.”

His older brother vanished.  Hoss, dead.  His first wife murdered, burned…worse…with their child still inside her; him struck blind, tortured by a madman….   Pa’d told him it was all because God loved him; that the Almighty couldn’t use a man greatly until He had wounded him deeply.

Joe sighed.  It was either that or God hated him.

Joe….”

“You better go to your father, son.  Ben doesn’t need to be agitated.  There’s still a long road of recovery ahead.”

Joe pursed his lips.  He nodded, sniffed, and wiped the remnants of tears from his eyes – which made Paul laugh.  The older man touched his shoulder affectionately.  “Like your father doesn’t know they were there,” the doctor said.

Joe laughed too as he headed for the door.  Opening it wide, he stepped inside and stood for just a moment, listening to the steady if still shallow sound of his father’s breathing.  He knew, of course, that Pa would pass one day and most likely before him.  It was the curse of being the youngest son.  He might well outlive all his family, which would be an irony since everyone had been fairly certain he would break his neck before he made thirty.  And yet, here he was.  Both Hoss and Adam were gone.  No one knew if older brother lived or not.  Adam’s letters had stopped coming somewhere close to three years ago and had been sporadic for the two before that.  Pa always said that God supplied what you needed when you needed it.  He’d come to accept and believe that over the last so many years.  He’d lost Hoss and that was something he had never dreamed of or thought he could make it through.  Not too long after that the Almighty had sent Bella back into his life.

The rest, as they said, was history.

“…Joseph?”

Wow, hearing Pa’s voice sound so weak was like a blow.  Joe drew a breath to steady himself and then crossed to the chair beside the bed and sat down.  Reaching out, he took his father’s hand.  Once so firm and certain, his grip was faltering.

Pa was getting old.

“Joseph?  Is that…you?”

Leaning in, Joe ran a hand across his father’s slightly fevered brow and brushed his hair back, unconsciously repeating a gesture the older man had used with him for years.

“Yeah, it’s me, Pa.  How do you feel?”

There was something.  Kind of a chortle.  “Paul tells me…I’ll live.”

“But you’re not so sure?” Joe asked, forcing a cheeky grin.

His father snorted.  “Not sure I want to.  Damn steer….”

Joe sucked in air, not only at his father using a curse word, but at the image the older man’s words evoked – Pa, waist deep in water, pushin’ at a stubborn steer like he was sixteen instead of sixty-four.  It had seemed such a small inconsequential thing.  The steer’s hoof had caught Pa’s leg, breaking the skin.  Befouled water had entered the wound.  Pa’d started feelin’ badly and then collapsed at the supper table with Bella and Eric looking on.  Eric had begun to wail and reach for ‘Gappa’ even as Bella bore their boy toward the kitchen and Hop Sing.  Doc Martin had been called.  The wound was infected and the infection was as stubborn as the Devil.  Like a cancer it had spread through Pa’s body, taking him down.  Just two days before this Paul had told him he believed it was hopeless.  Pa’s fever had spiked.  He’d been out of his head, yellin’ first for Hoss and then callin’ for brother Adam.  A shudder ran through Joe as he remembered the moment when the decision had been made to pack Pa in ice. At his age, it was a terrible risk to take.  The cold could have stopped his heart.

It didn’t.   Pa was here.

Pa was alive.

“Now don’t you go blamin’ that steer, Pa.  He didn’t have the sense to get out of the water.”

The older man’s eyes were watery and weak.  Humor began to dry them out.

“Like I…should have?”

Joe sat back in the chair.  He shook his head.  “Pa knows best.”

His father was silent for several heartbeats.  “I’m sorry, son,” he said at last.  “I…should have…thought of you.  Don’t want you to…be…alone.”

There it was.

Everyone knew he wasn’t good at it, no matter how much he’d protested most of his life that he wanted to be.

“You’ll outlive me, Pa,” he said, wanting it.

His father’s chocolate-brown eyes fastened on his green ones.  That feeble grip grew firm.  “Never,” he said.

Never.

“Joe?”

Joe closed his eyes and let out a relieved sigh.  He had to remember it was true.  Even if Pa, Adam, and Hoss were gone, he wouldn’t be alone.

He had Bella and Eric.

With a bit of a smile, he turned toward her.  “What is it, darlin’?”

Bella crossed to him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  She was like that.  She needed the touch as much as he did.

“Candy just came back.  He says he needs to talk to you.”

Joe frowned. “About what?”

His wife shook her head, sending her golden curls flying.  “He didn’t say.  Just that it was important.”

“You…go, boy,” his father said.  “I’ll be fine.”

It had taken him a while to figure out what the Cartwrights were the best at.  It was lyin’.  Each and everyone of them had honed the art to perfection.  It was the only way to keep the others from worryin’.

Or to try to.

“I’ll look after Pa,” Bella said as she ran her slender fingers through his curls.

Finally Pa had a daughter.  It tickled him no end.

“Go…Joe.  Take care of what you have to,” Pa said.  “I’ll be fine.”

That made him snigger.

That was his line.

“Joe,” his father ordered, sounding more like himself.  “Don’t keep Candy…waiting.”

Good old Pa.  Business was business.  And it had been his business this last few weeks, keeping the ranch shipshape and runnin’.  Candy had helped no end, but it had shown him what he would be up against when….  Joe glanced at his father.

When the inevitable happened.

Rising, Joe leaned in and planted a kiss on his father’s forehead, just like the older man had done to him so many times when he’d been ailin’.  Then he turned to Bella and caught her by the waist and drew her as close as he could and kissed her with a passion born of the knowledge of close loss.

“I love you, Mrs. Joe Cartwright,” he whispered into her hair.

“I know,” Bella answered with a smile.

Joe turned back and caught his father’s hand.  “I’ll be back soon, Pa,” he said.

“Take…your time.  My new nurse…is…easier on the eyes.”

That made him laugh.  He was laughing still as he started down the steps and headed for Candy Canaday where he waited near the front door.

Candy’s face wiped the smile right off of his own.

“You look awful,” Candy said in greeting.

Joe eyed their foreman from top to toe as he ran a hand through his unruly curls.  Candy was covered in trail dust and looked like he’d given sleep a miss the night before.

“You look worse,” he responded in kind.

“No.  No.  You definitely win.  The red eyes….”  His friend paused.  “Should I count the bottles in the liquor cabinet again?”

It was their way and he thanked God for it every day.  Candy wasn’t his brother, but he was about as close as it got.

“They’re all there,” Joe answered, all mock-seriousness. Then he smiled.  “Still, I don’t see anythin’ wrong with counting.”  He blew out a long breath.  “I could use a drink.”

Candy’s clear blue eyes went to the staircase.  His thoughts traveled on up it to the bedroom at the top.  “How is Ben?”

“I can answer that,” Doc Martin said as he came around the corner from the kitchen.  The older man’s black jacket was covered with little handprints made of flour.  He noticed Joe looking and grinned.  “I told Hop Sing I would lend him a hand while Bella went upstairs.  Eric thought I needed a new one – a few new ones!”  Paul moved to join them near the door.  “But to answer your question, Candy, Ben is still a sick man, but he’s on the mend.”

“That’s good news.”

“Yes, it is.”  Joe flinched as Paul turned that ‘look’ on him – the one that said he knew the Cartwrights all too well.  “Joe, I need you to keep Ben in that bed for another day or two at the very least.  I know he’s going to say he ‘feels fine’, but don’t you listen.  Do it!  He’s not getting any younger, in spite of what he thinks.  Stubbornness will only take a man so far before it takes him too far!”

Joe was all too aware of the consequences of disregarding Doc Martin’s warnings.  He’d done it often enough himself.

“Will do, Doc.  Bella will sit on him if she has to.”

“Is that a remark concerning my present weight, Mister Cartwright?”

He whirled to find his wife standing behind him.  “Pa…?”

“Asleep.  I came down to get some broth and coffee for when he wakes –”  A sudden wail rising from the kitchen caught their attention.  Bella shook her head as she looked at him.  “I thought boys were supposed to take after their mothers.”

He slipped his arm around her back and kissed the top of her hair.  “Like Elizabeth Bella Carnaby wasn’t a handful to raise.”

Bella stiffened in mock indignation.  “I was not!” she declared with a little stomp of her foot.  Then, shooting a look at Candy and Paul Martin, she finished.  “I was two!”

His wife made her exit amidst a fresh chorus of laughter.  It felt good to laugh.  There’d been precious little of it in the house this last week.

Paul Martin put out his hand.  Joe shook it and was surprised when the doctor didn’t let it go, but gripped his fingers more tightly.

“You remember what I said, young man,” he remarked.  “Enjoy the moment.”

As he was released, Joe replied, “Yes, sir.”

Paul’s white eyebrows danced.  “Ah, respect at last,” he said with a wink.  “Well, I’ll be off then.  I’ve been neglecting a few of my other patients.”

“I thought Julian was covering for you,” Joe said, confused.

“He is.  But I have a few older patients who, like you and your father, seem to think that I am the only doctor in Virginia City that God gifted with the power of healing.”  Doc Martin’s hand came down on his shoulder again.  “Take care, Joe.  I’ll be back tomorrow morning to see how your father is doing.”

Joe sent the older man out of the house with his thanks and then turned to Candy.  “Now, how about that drink?”

 

Twenty miles away in Virginia City, quite unaware of Joseph Cartwright’s current crisis, a well-dressed man in a city dweller’s suit, with thick black hair cropped just below his ears, moved with stealth, careful to wear the shadows that lined the bustling street as a cloak.  It had been close to twenty years since he had walked them.  During that time the city and its surrounding environs had grown to nearly 25,000 inhabitants, expanding exponentially with the discovery of more and more mineral wealth buried beneath Nevada’s soil.  Fortunately, he wouldn’t stand out.  There were many of his ‘kind’ in the city – nearly one out of ten – welcome or not.  Still, long years of evading pursuit had taught him to be cautious.

He was here with one intent and one intent only, and he did not need a chance recognition to divert his cause.

Drawing his coat up about his chin, the well-dressed man moved to the end of the alley where he paused to gaze at the establishment across the street.  It was the office of the local constabulary – a larger building with more of an air of self-importance than he remembered.  He’d considered going directly to the lawman in charge, but decided in the end that was not wise.  The words he had were for one man’s ears alone.  Once his message was delivered, that man could choose what action to take – if any.

After all, it was his life that was at stake.

Casting a glance in both directions, the well-dressed man headed for the International House. Though his ‘kind’ were not welcome there either, his money would be.  He would rent a room with a comfortable bed and, after getting something to eat, catch a few hours sleep.  Then he would hire a good horse and head out.

To the Ponderosa.

 

Joe Cartwright cast a glance at his riding companion.  Candy’s jaw was set and his ice blue eyes were ever vigilant, searching every inch of the road, which was quite a feat as they were moving at a good clip.  He’d been the one to set their pace.  He didn’t want to be gone long from the ranch.  It was an old wound.  One that remained unhealed.  Every time he rode away from the house leaving his wife and child without his protection, he expected disaster to follow.

Joe snorted and shook his head.  Doc Martin had been right.  He was waiting for the other boot to drop.

“Something wrong?” Candy called over to him.

Me,’ Joe thought, but he answered, “You.”

Candy’s light brown brows edged toward his hair.  “Me?  What’d I do?”

“You’re jumpy as a bit up old bull in fly time,” Joe answered.

“Me? ” Candy shook his head.  “I ain’t jumpy.  I’m just…”

Lookin’ out for your little brother,’ Joe thought.  He’d never escape it.  Even though, in reality, he was a little older than Candy, their foreman had taken up where Hoss had left off.

The curly-haired man winced.  Then again, as Bella was all too quick to remind him, it did seem – at times – like he needed a little more lookin’ after than most people.

“The sheriff didn’t indicate there was any direct threat against me, did he?” Joe asked.

Candy’s lips pursed.  He thought a second and then said, “Not ‘direct’, no.  But if it was me – and I ain’t you, thank God! – I’d be wonderin’ what a man was up to if he came to town and started askin’ all sorts of questions about me and mine.”

That had been the news Candy had come to the house to convey.  Roy Coffee was long retired, but he was short on sittin’ still.  He still helped Clem out most days by sortin’ papers and keepin’ watch on the inhabitants of the jail and so on.  Roy had caught hold of Candy when he was in town.  Seems there was a man lately come to Virginia City who’d been asking a lot of questions about him, his family, and the Ponderosa.  Roy wouldn’t say who the man was or what the questions were, only that both had made him uncomfortable.  He’d apologized to Candy for holdin’ back and asked his friend to bring him to town so they could talk.

They were about five miles out now.  The late afternoon sun was shining.  Joe didn’t know the exact time, but he would have guessed by the slant of the light that it was heading toward four.  By the time they reached town, met with Roy, grabbed a quick bite to eat and maybe a drink, it would be dark.  There was a fairly full moon, so travelin’ home by the light of it was a good possibility even though it would be smarter to stay in town and head out at first light.  Joe pursed his lips and tried to talk himself through it.  Even though Pa was down, Hop Sing was at the house with Bella.  There were ranch hands coming and going, even though the sickness had left fewer than he would have liked on their feet.  He’d even asked two of the younger ones to stand guard until his return.  Fool kids!  They’d slapped him on the back and – with a wink – told him to take his time in town, as if town held something more special than what he had at home.  None of it mattered.  There was something in him that compelled him to return home as soon as possible.  He knew it was foolish, but he felt he had to be there – that it was his responsibility and his alone to keep Bella and Eric safe.

Like he’d been unable to keep Alice and their child safe.

Shifting in his saddle, Joe eyed the road ahead.  Then, with a wicked gleam in his eye, he leaned forward and pressed his knees ever so gently against Cochise’s sides.  His horse snorted with excitement as his old friend’s black eyes lit with the same fire.

“Hey, old man,” he called to his companion.

Candy had been looking to the side, eyes narrowed.  His head whipped back.  “Old man?”

“You’re movin’ slower than a snail on crutches.”  As Joe let Cochise take the lead and felt the wind begin to rush through his curls and slap his cheeks, he called, “Last one into town buys the drinks!”

And then he left Candy in the dust.

 

The light was almost gone by the time Joe slowed Cochise to a walk and rode into Virginia City.  He’d expected Candy to catch up to him but, so far, there was no sign of the brown-haired man.  Cooch was getting older and it probably hadn’t been too smart to drive him so hard.  He wasn’t lathered, but he was sweating.  Joe laughed as he patted his mount’s neck.  Then again, he was sweating too.

He’d never admit it, but every year Cooch got older, he did too!

As they walked slowly into town, Joe took in the sights.  Even this late in the day the city was still buzzing with activity.  It had only been sixteen years since the small settlement his pa had first come to had given way to Virginia City, and even less since the discovery of silver in the area had changed it from a trading post with a few surrounding buildings to what some called the ‘inland partner’ of San Francisco.  There were days when he found the changes exciting.  As a young man, he had thrived on it.  But now, as an older and slightly more sober married man, with one child and another on the way, there were times when he longed for the old days before gain and power had come to be Virginia City’s currency of choice.  Of course, a bigger town offered more than a one horse post.  There were several doctors now, a bigger school – with  teachers educated back East that would have given Adam a run for his money as far as smarts – and, of course, the larger expanded office of the law with its young sheriff and multiple deputies.

There had to be multiple deputies to deal with the rise in crime.

Along with the silver had come men who would do whatever it took to get their share of it, fair or not.  It went all the way up to the Bank Crowd and the Irish Big Four who literally battled it out to see who would come out on top to control the mining industry and all of its possible profits.  Joe sighed and shook his head as he called Cochise to a halt and dismounted in front of the livery.  He enjoyed town, but he was glad his father had created a haven twenty miles away from it where he could rear his family.  Where they could be safe.

Where he could keep them safe.

After ordering plenty of hay and a dose of oats, and paying for the best care for Cochise, Joe eyed the hotel and considered whetting his whistle first, but determined instead to head straight for the sheriff’s office to see if he could find either Roy or Clem.  The fastest way to the new jail from the stable was an alley that connected one street with the other.  As he began to walk toward it, Joe looked out of town, searching the darkening night once again for his missing companion.  He was beginning to worry.  Even if Candy had decided not to take up his challenge and to lope into town, he should have been here by now.  If he didn’t see him by the time he got done with the sheriff, he’d have to forgo that drink and bite to eat and head back out.  Maybe his friend’s horse had thrown a shoe, or….

Or maybe something worse had happened.

Joe hadn’t gone three yards into the alley when he stopped.  Without warning, his absent older brothers’ words hit him like a fist.

Hoss first.  ‘Now, Joe, don’t you go takin’ any chances.  A few more steps ain’t gonna wear out them skinny little legs of your’n.  You stay out of that alley!’

Then Adam.  ‘Joe, I’ve never met anyone as prone to tempt fate as you.  What is it about the equation of a dark tunnel, unscrupulous men, and danger you just can’t seem to figure out?’

Reckless.  Imprudent.

Stupid.

Joe ran a hand along the back of his neck, shifting the silvery curls from the collar of his green coat as he glanced down the long narrow passage before him.  It was black as pitch.  The young man he’d been would have plunged straight into it, daring something to happen and sure he could handle it.

But he wasn’t that young man anymore.

Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Joe turned and headed back toward the street he had just left behind.

He should have plunged ahead.

 

 

Chapter Two

There were times – many times – when Bella questioned the wisdom of having married Joe Cartwright.  Not that she didn’t love him more than her own life, but the combination of his impulsive nature and her own stubborn streak was a sure recipe for disaster when it came to the likelihood that their progeny would drive her to an early grave.

She was sure she had lost at least two years in the past five minutes.

With a sigh, the blonde woman turned to the small man standing beside her.  Hop Sing nodded his graying head and gave her an understanding smile.

“Wise old Chinese man once say children give great comfort in old age.”  He paused and then added, “Help reach it faster too.”

Bella blew a puff of exasperated air out.

Wise old Chinese man certainly knew what he was talking about!

“You try call again.  Boy come to mother when he not come for any other.”

She felt a smile tug at the end on her lips.  “Oh?  And why is that?”

Hop Sing’s black eyes sparkled.  “More afraid of mother than of any other.”

She’d come down from looking in on Ben to find Eric swaddled in his favorite blanket and sound asleep on the settee.  A plate of cookie crumbles and a half-finished cup of hot chocolate sat on the low table before the fire.  She couldn’t chide Hop Sing – he was such a help to her – but he did spoil the boy.  Apparently Eric’s resemblance to his father at that age was remarkable.

She just wished her son only looked like her mischievous husband.

After tucking the blanket around Eric’s shoulders – the room had a chill with the approach of winter – she’d gone to the kitchen to check in on the meal plans for the next few days.  It hadn’t been more than fifteen minutes before she and Hop Sing returned to the great room.

Only to find it empty.

They searched the house from bottom to top.  She’d hoped against hope that her four-year-old son had chosen to be disobedient again and she would find him nuzzled up against his grandpa, but Ben was alone in his bed.  They were careful not to disturb the older man as they continued to search the second floor – and then the first floor again – and then the yard….

Panic was setting in.

Bella pursed her lips and scowled.  “When I find that boy, I will give him a reason to be afraid of his mother.”

“Hop Sing go search stable.  Boy love horses like his pa.  Maybe he there.”

She nodded.  “If you don’t find him, please go back to the house and check on Ben.  I hate to leave him alone too long.”  Her father-in-law had been much improved when she last visited, but he was still weak.

“Where Missy Bella go look next?”

Her young son had certain places he was found of, the stables for one, but even more than the stables he loved to watch the horses that ran and played in the open field.  Due to several mis-adventures Eric’s little backside had been tanned enough times that he had finally learned to be obedient and remain outside the fence.

Most of the time.

“I’ll head to the pasture.  You know how he is about watching the horses.”

Hop Sing nodded.  “Just like Little Joe.”

Bella had to smile.  The first time she’d met her husband – when she had helped save him from a burning structure – he’d been seventeen and known as ‘Little’ Joe.  Now, at thirty-five, no one called him that.

No one but Hop Sing.

With a nod, the Chinese man headed toward the stable.  Bella drew in a breath to calm her rising anger and then set off at a brisk pace for the wide open spaces that surrounded the ranch house.  She had Eric’s heavy coat, hat, and mittens in hand.  It was after dark and the temperature was dropping.  She couldn’t imagine what had possessed the boy to go outdoors.  While Eric wasn’t afraid of the dark, he wasn’t one to go very far afield.  Like his father, their son liked people around him and grew frightened after only a short time alone.  The good thing was that, as a child reared on a ranch, Eric was older in some ways than a city boy of his age would be.  He could already ride and his father had taught him basic survival skills.  Still, he wasn’t quite five years old.

He was just a baby.

As she walked Bella placed her hand on her belly, which had grown large of late.  She’d lost the last baby early on in the pregnancy a year or so back.  Doctor Martin had assured her that is was common, especially as young as she was.  It had been a difficult time for both of them, but especially for Joe.  Over the last eight months as this baby grew he had barely left her side, as if his presence alone was proof against disaster.

And now, here he was away from the house and Eric was missing.

Bella paused and turned back toward the house.  She knew if Hop Sing located her son in the stable, he would call out.  She waited a moment and, when she heard nothing, began to move forward again, calling her son’s name.  She was sure when she found him, Eric would have some reasonable explanation for his evening excursion.  The boy was prone to flights of fancy, often making up the most outrageous stories to explain why he’d done what he’d done.

Hop Sing said his father had been the same.

Halting as she came to the first length of fence, Bella called again and was startled to receive an answer.  Her son spoke a few words and then fell silent.  Eric’s voice was odd.  It sounded as if he was behind or under something.  Or maybe….

As if there was a hand over his mouth and someone had stifled his reply.

Terror stabbed her like a knife.  Ben had told her of the times one or the other of his sons – most often Joe as the youngest – had been the target of kidnappers.  But how could someone have gotten past the hands who patrolled the perimeter of the ranch?  Did they lure her son out of the house, or was he already outside and had simply blundered into danger?  Neither she nor Hop Sing had heard anything before noticing he was missing.

“Eric?” Bella called.  “Eric, it’s mama!  Where are you?”

This time her son’s voice rang clear.

“Mama?  Mama!  Help!”

Bella sucked in air.  She forced herself to remain calm; to sound confident.  “Tell mama where you are, sweetheart, and she’ll come and take you home.”

“Mama?  I –ah!”

“Eric?”  She’d been walking.  Now she ran.  “Eric!  Answer me!”

Her son’s cry had come from the direction of the shack at the edge of the yard that had once been used to house supplies.  It was a ramshackle old thing now.  She’d warned Joe that it should be taken down, but her husband had stubbornly said it still had its uses – one of them being the root cellar under it.

If Eric had gone in and the floor had given way….

Bella quickened her pace, running for all she was worth.  She was out of breath by the time the shack came into view.  She paused to catch her breath and then continued to run.

Or she would have, if a man had not stepped out of the shadows and grabbed her.

 

Candy Canaday walked out of the livery shaking his head.  Right after Joe spurred Cochise on and took off like a cat with his tail on fire, his horse had come up lame.  Fortunately, she’d just picked up something in her shoe, but it left the mare sore enough he was afraid to push her to any kind of speed.  So they’d ambled along like a schoolmarm on a Sunday afternoon jaunt until they arrived in Virginia City.  He’d come straight to the livery to stable her, knowing he could rent another mount for the journey back to the Ponderosa, and had found Cochise.  The owner of the livery told him Joe had dropped Cooch off late afternoon, saying he’d be back shortly.

And hadn’t seen him since.

Puzzled and more than slightly concerned, he’d stood stock-still for a moment, unsure of what to do.  He doubted the sheriff would be in his office this late, so he doubted Joe was at the jail.  The only thing he could think of was that his friend had gone to the saloon and gotten suckered into a poker game.  Still, Joe rarely did that now, and with his pa sick and only Hop Sing left to hold the fort and guard Bella and Eric, it seemed unlikely. Of course, it could be that Roy or Clem had told him whoever this man was that was askin’ about him and Joe’d gone to find him and run into some kind of trouble.  Candy kicked at a clod of dirt and started moving across the windy semi-deserted street.

Best try the sheriff’s office anyhow and then panic.

The brown-haired man blew out a sigh of relief as the office of the law came into view.  There was a lamp burning inside, which meant someone was still there.  Stepping onto the boardwalk that fronted it, Candy raised a hand and brought it down hard several times on the door.  He heard the legs of a chair scrape the floor and then footsteps.  Finally, the door opened.

“Ain’t you out kind of late, son?” Roy Coffee asked with a mock scowl and a wink.

“Ain’t you up kind of late, old man?” he replied with a grin.

“Clem figures I sleep enough durin’ the day, I’d just naturally be up all night anyhow,” the older man replied with a chuckle as he stepped aside.  “Come on in, Candy.  I got some coffee hot on the stove.”  As he moved into the room, Roy added, “I heard Ben’s feelin’ better.  He send you on an errand?”

Candy drew a breath against the fear Roy’s words caused to tingle along his spine.  “Roy, are you tellin’ me you haven’t seen Joe today?”

The older man had the coffee pot and a graniteware cup in his hands.  He turned eyes narrowed with concern on him.  “Joe Cartwright?”  Roy shook his head.  “Ain’t seen hide nor curl.  Should I of?”

The brown-haired man nodded.  “I told him what you said.  We were heading to town together when Joe decided he was thirteen instead of thirty-five and took off on that damn racehorse of his, leavin’ me in the dust.  I couldn’t catch up ‘cause my horse came up lame.  Took me hours to get here.”  Candy glanced out the window.  “Cochise is at the livery.  I was hopin’ I’d find Joe here.”

Roy held out the cup.  As he took it, the lawman asked, “How long’s it been?”

He glanced at the clock on the wall and counted up the hours.  He and Joe had parted ways, he thought, around four o’clock.  It was nine now.

“Five hours, give or take an hour either way.”

Silence hung between them.  Anything could happen in four or five hours.

And this was Joe Cartwright they were talking about.

Roy was heading for the hook on the wall that held his gun belt.  As he fastened it on, he said, “You and me better head on over to Clem’s, and then make our way to Chinatown.”

“Chinatown?” Candy asked, surprised.  “What for?”

The retired lawman hesitated.  “Well, I guess it don’t hurt no way now to tell you.  That man that was askin’ questions about Joe – he was a China man.”

 

Bella stifled a scream as the man drew her into the trees.  If Eric was nearby – and conscious – she didn’t want to frighten him any further.  She twisted and looked up at the man who held her, but saw only a shadowy figure.  Whoever he was, he was about Joe’s height.

And strong.

“Let me go!” she demanded, her words a sharp whisper driven out between clenched teeth.

“Think twice, act once,” the man responded, holding on.  “Any hasty action may involve an improper consideration of important aspects.”

Bella blinked.  What?  Who are you?”

The man shifted his grip so he was able to look over her head toward the shack.  When he spoke again, his words were soft as the whisper of a leaf on stone.  “Long years ago I told the son of the tiger to look before leaping.  I tell you the same now.  It is not I who am your enemy.”

Not buying it for one minute, Bella demanded, “Where is my son?  What have you done to him?”

“I have done nothing.  It is with regret that I see this trouble come to your house.”  The man hesitated.  “And even greater regret that I was not in time for the boy.”

Bella stiffened.  Not in time?   Tears began to flow.  “Is he…is Eric all right?”

The shadow that held her grunted.  “For now,” he replied.  “As I drew near, I saw the boy.  He was wandering through the field as if lost.  I could hear his cries. Unfortunately, the ones who took him heard him as well and reached him first.  I was close by when he told them who his father was.”  The shadow shook its head.  “This was not wise.”

“Are they kidnappers?” she asked.

The man turned and looked down.  As he did a beam of moonlight struck his eyes.  They were black as the night and glinted hard as diamonds, but she sensed no malice in his gaze.  “It is what they have become,” he replied.

Bella began again to pull against the man’s strength.  “Please!  Let me go to them.  I can talk to them.  He’s…Eric is just a baby!”

“No!”  His tone was firm.  “You must leave this to me.  These men would crush the child underfoot if it served their purposes.”

Bella stopped struggling.  She swallowed over her horror.  “They’d…murder a four-year-old?”

The man released her.  He took several steps back and remained hidden.  “The boy is a means to an end for them, nothing more.”

“Who are they?” she demanded.  “Who are you?”

The stranger hesitated and then moved forward into the moonlight.  He was a handsome man.  He appeared to be in his late forties, maybe fifty.  His dark hair fell two inches beneath his ears and was brushed back on the sides as was the current style in the East with men of leisure and the arts.  He was dressed in a black suit of a European cut and wore a dark shirt, so he nearly vanished into the night – would have, if it had not been for those piercing black eyes.  They were narrowed, not with intent but by God.

He was Chinese.

“Who are they?” he echoed.  “They are men whose purpose is to bring about the end of Joseph Cartwright.  As to who I am,” he paused, “I am a shadow of the past come to bring hope for the future.

“My name is Jian.”

 

Gibberish.  He was hearin’…gibberish.

No, maybe it wasn’t.  Maybe it was Hop Sing.

A lazy grin lifted the corner of Joe’s lips.  If it was Hop Sing, he was hoppin’ mad!

The grin lasted only a second – just long enough to let Joe know there was something wrong with his lips.  His tongue moved to wet them and he discovered what it was – well, the two things it was.  First of all he was gagged.

Second, his tongue tasted blood.

Joe lay where he was for a moment, takin’ his oldest brother’s oft-spoken and even more oft-ignored advice to think before actin’ to heart.  A groan had welled up behind the gag, but he held it in.  If someone had gagged him then that probably meant someone had a use for him.  Otherwise they would have killed him outright.  That gave him an advantage.  It gave him time to figure out who they were and what they wanted.  Best for him if they thought he was still unconscious.  That way they wouldn’t guard what they said and maybe he could figure out what the hell was going on.  Of course, it would have helped if they were speaking English, which they weren’t.

They were talkin’ in Chinese.

He’d heard it his whole life, of course.  One day, later than it should have, it had dawned on him how arrogant him and his father and brothers had been to make Hop Sing learn their language without learning his.  Oh, he knew a few words and could give as good as he got in a shouting, match, but he didn’t really know the language.  That had been about the time Alice died.  He’d set out then to learn more, at least enough to let Hop Sing know he was tryin’.  Trouble was, old dogs had hard heads.  Nothin’ much had stuck.

Still, what he did understand was enough to let Joe know that the two men standing a few feet away from him weren’t exactly exchangin’ recipes.

Keeping his eyes closed he concentrated and listened, though concentrating only made him aware of how much his head hurt.  It had taken him a moment to realize that the blood he’d tasted on his lips had come from a trail running off his forehead and down his cheek.  He still couldn’t remember what had happened.  He’d turned around to leave the alley – after bein’ a good boy and choosin’ the safer route to the sheriff’s office – and then, everything went black.

As black as his prospects looked at the moment.

The Chinese men were arguin’ about what they were going to do with him.  He heard one of them mention something about ‘orders’, to which the other replied ‘dangerous.’  That was one word he knew well.  Hop Sing had shouted it at him often enough as he grew up.  The word ‘now’ followed, and again, ‘dangerous’.  As the men spoke, their voices grew louder and their words more heated.  Joe fought back a smile.  Maybe they’d fall out and kill each other and then all he would have to do was wait for someone to come find him – wherever he was.  He could hear sounds beyond the walls of whatever place they had him in.  The meager light of the lantern hooked on a pole above his head didn’t reveal much – just the boards under his feet and rafters  above his head – but it looked like a warehouse of some sort.  The sounds were people – and a good many of them.  He had to concentrate again, which made him want to scream, but he could make out a little bit of what the muffled voices were saying and it was in Chinese too.  Whoever these men were they must have brought him to Virginia City’s Chinatown.

Maybe they were Hop Sing’s cousins and they’d decided to make him pay for all the practical jokes he’d pulled on their cook over the years.

Joe stifled a snort.  If only.

There were two of them.  One was obviously older.  His voice was quiet as a rattlesnake before the strike.  The younger one was hot-headed and loud.  He reminded him of himself when he was young.  There was a certainty in his voice that said he knew he was right even if he was wrong as hell.  He was yellin’ something about payment.  What he couldn’t tell was if the man was talking about bein’ paid or payin’ for something.  He kind of thought it was the latter.  A minute later, Joe knew for certain which one it was when he heard something else.  The older man said it.  Not a word, but a name.

Khu Zhuang.

 

Khu Zhuang.

Bella frowned.  She’d heard the name before.  Joe had mentioned it in connection with a terrible time in his youth.  Nearly twenty years before two Chinese tong leaders had come to the Ponderosa, one bent on finding a man he blamed for the loss of his family’s honor, and the other just as bent on killing that man and retrieving the object he had stolen.  Joe had nearly died.  It had been close for the rest of the family as well as the tong leaders battled it out.  In the end the one killed the other and then returned to the Sacramento area to assume leadership of the darker side of its Chinese population.  From what she understood, the Cartwrights had had no hand in Khu Zhuang’s death.

According to Jian, the current leader of the tong believed otherwise.

“So these men have come here to take revenge on Joe?” she asked.

Jian nodded even as he continued a close watch on the shack.  “This one learned of their intent  and left as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, it was not soon enough.”

His regret was genuine, she could tell.  And while the Chinese man had not brought this danger upon them, she couldn’t help but wonder if his coming to Virginia City hadn’t somehow hastened its arrival.

Abruptly, Jian’s hand gripped her shoulder.  She looked up at him and then at where he looked. One of the pair of men who had taken Eric was riding off.

“I will go now,” he said.

“Go where?”

“To free Joseph Cartwright’s son.”

Her gaze returned to the shack. “Is it safe?”

“Distrust is the mother of safety,” Jian replied cryptically.

“I’m coming with you,” she stated flatly.

He had begun to edge toward the shack.  The Chinese man stopped and turned back.  “You will not come.”

Bella planted her hands on her hips and glared at him.  “And you will not stop me!  I’m his mother and that’s my son who is in that madman’s hands!”

Jian’s lips twitched with barely concealed amusement. “It does not surprise this one that tiger cub found tiger wife.”  He glanced at the building and then turned back to her again.  “You will not come with me….”

“You are not going to – ”

He held out a hand.  “But you will help save your son.”

Her eyes on the shack, Bella demanded, “How?”

Jian’s smile, when it broke was not pleasant.

“Small fierce woman will be bait.”

 

Candy kicked at a clod of dirt driving it so hard that, when it struck the side of the wooden boardwalk, it shattered against the dry, aging boards.  He’d dutifully followed Roy to the section of Virginia City east of the downtown that was occupied by upwards of fifteen hundred Chinese.  It covered several blocks and was made up of a collection of a few fine, but mostly ramshackle buildings that contained lodgings and businesses such as laundries, noodle parlors, herb shops, and small mercantiles.  Once it had been a bustling part of the ever-expanding city, but as the silver coming up out of the mines had ebbed, so had it’s prosperity.  There was a lot of crime here.  But then, there was a lot of crime everywhere now.

It seemed his friend had fallen afoul of it.

There was something that passed for the law here, a kind of constabulary made up of a half-dozen honest men trying to keep their homes and their families safe.  They were led by a man named Junjie which, amusingly, meant ‘handsome hero’.  Chan Junjie was about his age and height and looked like he’d spent most of his youth wrasslin’ with some angry bears.  He was covered with scars from one end to the other, though the ones you couldn’t avoid staring at were the two that crisscrossed his right cheek in an ‘x’, and the one above his left eye that had puckered and left him with a perpetual  frown.  His eyes were keen and piercing and, amazingly, hazel-green like Joe’s.  Junjie knew Hop Sing and had been out to the Ponderosa a few times, once for a supper to which he’d been invited.  Ben had asked the lawman to tell his story and he had, in part.  Seems Junjie’s grandfather had been an Englishman who had defied his family to marry a Chinese woman while in Shanghai on business.  In time they had come to America, hoping for a better chance for their children.

Hoping, not finding it.

Candy glanced at the window of what passed for a law office.  He could see Roy Coffee inside.  The older man was gesturing with his hands.  He was pretty animated for an old guy.  Junjie had looked about as pleased as a foal eyein’ a rattler when they’d stepped into his office ten minutes back.  He’d listened to the two lawmen talk and then, growing impatient, stepped outside.  The buildings in this area were built side by side for the most part.  As a cowpoke used to wide open spaces, it amazed him that people could live in such close quarters – and even more that they would want to.  Everybody knew everybody’s business.

At least, he hoped they did.

Stepping into the street, Candy headed for what passed as the local saloon.  Its lights were still bright even though it had to be going on midnight.  He and Joe had been there a few times, admiring the scenery.  Joe’s heart was all for Bella, but his friend still appreciated feminine beauty.  They’d come here to pick up supplies for Hop Sing more than once.  The Cartwrights’ cook wasn’t old yet, but just like Virginia City, he was slowing down.  A four hour ride in a wagon, a day spent haggling and bartering, and four hours back was just about more than the old fellow could take.  Of course Hop Sing wouldn’t admit it.  Joe’d had to come up with some pretty inventive excuses for them to take over – some plausible and others just plain laughable.  Still, in the end, his friend had come out on top and if he had to admit it, he really didn’t mind the time they spent here.

Those Chinese gals sure were lookers!

As he ambled across the street, the brown-haired man looked right and left, payin’ attention just in case anything appeared out of place.  Seeing nothing on his way, he stepped up onto the porch of the Canton Cantina – the name came from the original partnership of a Chinese man and one from Mexico – and pushed open the batwing doors.  It was kind of quiet inside.  A couple of Chinese men were playing a game in the corner.  An older woman wearing a sheath of blue silk was singing.  A white man in a citified suit was consuming the last of a meal, just reaching for a whiskey to wash it down.

Candy glanced around the perimeter of the room and then headed for the bar.  “Still open?” he asked the man behind it.

He was Chinese and fairly young.  Name of Gwong Bo.  He went by Bo, which seemed just about perfect for a barkeep.

“What Bo can do for Mister Candy of the Ponderosa?” the bar-keep asked as he finished polishing a glass and placed it on the counter.

“Whiskey.  A small one.  I need to be able to sit my horse and get home.”

As he complied, Bo asked, “What Mister Candy do in town so late?”

He took a sip, smacked his lips in satisfaction, and then said – watching the other man for a reaction.  “Came into town with my friend Joe.  Still here lookin’ for him.  He’s missing.”

Bo blinked.  “Missing?  Mister Joe?”

Candy nodded as he shifted and leaned his back against the counter so he could watch the other patrons in the saloon.  “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about it, would you?” he asked, careful to keep his voice low.  “He went missing this afternoon.”

Bo was quick to answer.  “No, sir!  Bo know nothing.  Keep bar all day and night.”

The brown-haired man nodded.  “Syun in?”  She was one of the girls who liked to flirt with Joe.

“Syun know nothing, just like Bo,” the barkeep answered.

A little too fast.

Candy took another sip and then looked him straight in the eye.  “Now Bo, you don’t sound too sure about that.”

“You not talk to Syun,” Bo replied, his tone sharp. “Not bring her trouble.”

Joe admired Syun’s beauty.  Bo was sweet on her.

Turning toward the other man he spoke, his voice tight and low.  “Now, if you just tell me what I need to know, then I won’t have to bring her trouble…will I?”

“Bo know nothing!”

Which, of course, meant Bo knew plenty.

Candy thought a moment.  “How about this, Bo?  I’m gonna walk out that door.  How about you tell me which direction to go – and then I won’t have to ask Syun.”

The man looked truly frightened.  It made him wonder just what Joe had stumbled into.

Bo’s eyes darted about the saloon.  He drew a deep breath and then said, his voice pitched so low he could hardly hear it.  “Mister Candy need find Cho Ban.  He at warehouse near end of street.  He have what you need.”

What he needed.  Was that information…or Joe?

Candy finished his whiskey and then tipped his hat.  “Nice talkin’ to you, Bo,” he said and then added deliberately, “I’ll be sure to come back and talk to you again if Cho doesn’t have what I need.”

Bo’s skin was normally pale.  It was fish belly white now.

“Mister Candy desire to extract a tooth from a tiger’s mouth.  Best if he go back to Ponderosa.”

Bo didn’t seem to understand.  He’d walk into the den and take that tiger by the tail if it meant saving his friend.

With a tip of his hat, Candy replied,  “He who sups with the Devil needs a long spoon.”  Then he sighed.

He’d been around Hop Sing far too long.

It seemed to the Ponderosa’s foreman that every eye in the place followed him as he moved to the bat wing doors and stepped outside.  The brown-haired man glanced back through the doors, checking to see if anyone was following him, and then moved into the street as the silk-wrapped woman inside the Canton Cantina began to sing once more.  He wondered where Syun was and what she knew and why.  If Joe had been taken – and it seemed he had – he wondered what the ‘why’ was in that too.  Roy hadn’t said much about the man who was asking about his friend, but he had said he was Chinese.

He had a real bad feeling about all of this.

Candy halted and stood for a moment, considering whether or not he should go find Roy and Junjie and tell them what he’d learned.  It was one of those choices a man made a thousand times a day.

And it was one of them that was wrong.

 

THREE

Bella drew in a sharp breath and let it out slowly to steady her nerves.  Then she stepped out of the leaves and into full view.  The moon was up and its cool light shone on the grassy field, painting it silver-blue.

It would have been a beautiful sight if not for the fact that her son’s life was in danger.

Cupping her hands around her lips, she called, ‘Eric?  Sweetheart?  It’s Mama.  Eric, if you  can hear me, answer Mama!”

She moved a few steps closer to the shack.  It sat there, silent, unmoving, like a predator poised to strike.

“Eric!  Baby, let mama know where you –”

“You will advance no further!” a voice commanded even as the door to the shack creaked open.  A moment later a black-clad sleeve appeared and then a small head of tousled dark blond curls.  Eric’s captor – a man from China like Jian – shouldered the door the rest of the way open and then turned to face her.  Her son was locked under his arm. A gloved hand covered the little boy’s mouth.  Eric was disheveled; his little face muddied with dirt and tears.  His eyes, so like his father’s, were wide with fear.

“If you dare harm my son, I’ll kill you,” she promised between clenched teeth.

“Striking the grass alerts the snake,” the man sneered as he drew a small silver gun from inside his jacket and pointed it at her.  “If you will not see your son die, you will do as I say.”

Bella fought the urge to search the surrounding shadows for Jian.  She knew he had taken up a position somewhere behind the shack.  She wanted so to look, but that really would have been striking the grass.

Remembering the role she’d agreed to play, she let her shoulders sink and dissolved into tears.  “What…what do you want me to do?”

“You will go to your home and bring the one who owns you to me,” the man said.

Bella hesitated, unsure of whether admitting Joe wasn’t home would be wise or foolish.  Finally, she shook her head.  “I won’t leave my child.”

“You will, or you will watch him die.”  The man shifted the gun until the end of the barrel pushed into Eric’s curls.  Her son squirmed, trying to get away from the cold metal and held his little hands out toward her, pleading.

It broke her heart.

“Eric, keep still!” she ordered and watched as her terrified son obeyed.  “Please, let him go,” she breathed a second later.  “Take me as a hostage, but let Eric go.  He’s just a baby.”

The kidnapper shook his head.  “A mother fights with fangs of wolf and claws of dragon to keep child safe,” he said as he took a step forward.  “You will do what I say because you know I say what I mean.”

Bella’s heart was pounding.  She’d seen a shadow fall across the ground to the right of the shack and then disappear into the puddle of blackness surrounding it.  Her jaw clenched with terror.  The man’s gun still rested against Eric’s head.

If Jian tried to make a move….

“All right,” she said, commanding the man’s attention.  “I’ll go to the house and get Joe.”  Bella inched forward, closing the gap between her and her precious child just a bit.  “What do you want me to tell him?”

The Chinese man’s head cocked to the right.  A cruel sneer curled his upper lip.  “Tell him Khu Qian awaits.”

“Khu Qian?” she repeated.  “Is that you?”

The man didn’t laugh as much as bark.  “When the dragon comes, his fire will consume all.  I am but one of his claws, poised to strike.”

“Jin Chen!”

Bella jumped as the shadows beside the man who held her son came to life.  Everything happened so fast, she had no time to react.  Jian struck.  Jin Chen snarled.

The gun went off.

Fear struck Bella blind and dumb for several long interminable heartbeats.  Then she felt a hand on her shoulder.  When she found the courage to look, she discovered that Jian was standing in front of her with Eric in his arms.

Her son wasn’t crying.  He was strangely quiet.  His green eyes were closed and his little face, deathly pale.

Except for the vivid trail of red running from his temple to his cheek.

“I was not fast enough,” Jian said simply.

Bella’s heart stopped.  For a second.  Then, as Eric blinked and opened his eyes, the Chinese man added, “He is alive.”

Her hands reached for her baby.  “Eric,” she whispered.

That was all it took.  Eric began to shriek.

Jian released him and watched as she gathered the boy into her arms.  The Chinese man indicated the trees nearby. “Go!  His cries may cause the other to return.”

Bella’s fingers combed through her son’s matted curls.  She cooed and kissed him and told him he was safe.  As the boy’s gasping sobs slowly gave way to normal tears, she asked Jian, “What are you going to do?”

He glanced at the man on the ground who was regaining consciousness.  “Jin Chen lives.  I will…speak to him.  Take the boy home.  Go inside.  Lock the door.”

“Will you come?”

He nodded.  “I will knock three times and then two more.  You will ask me for the tiger cub’s name.”

Looking at her son, she smiled, “Eric.”

Jian’s own smile was tight.

“No.  Little Joe.”

 

“Mister Cartwright go back to bed!  You no supposed to be up!  You end up dead!”

Ben Cartwright swayed as he gripped the back of the well-used blue chair near the bottom of the staircase.  He knew he wasn’t supposed to be out of bed yet, but he’d found that he suddenly felt better and would be damned if he was going to lay flat on his back feeling useless one more minute!  After he’d awakened he’d laid in bed for a while awaiting Bella’s return, thinking he would have her help him up, but her absence had grown from minutes to over an hour and that intuition that he’d always had where his youngest son was concerned had begun to clang like a ship’s bell tolling out the advent of an approaching storm.

Something was wrong.

His eyes were weak but they were good enough to see that, except for him and Hop Sing, the house was empty.

“Where is Bella?” he demanded.

Hop Sing went blank for a moment, then he said, “She put little boy to sleep.”

Ben fought to keep his temper.  He hadn’t expected to catch his long-time friend in a lie so soon.  “I checked both Bella and Eric’s rooms.  They’re not there.  Now, where are they?  And where’s Joseph?”

“Mister Joe go to town with Mister Candy.”

“The truth, Hop Sing!”

The little man deflated.  “Sheriff send for Little Joe.”

Ben managed to limp from the chair to the settee.  Taking hold of the back of it, he steadied himself.  “What for?”

“Hop Sing not know.  Sheriff not tell Mister Candy why.  Only that it important.”

Ben held his old friend’s gaze.  The fact that Hop Sing didn’t look away told him the man from China was speaking the truth.

“What about Bella and Eric?”  When no answer was forthcoming, he raised the volume on his voice to the level his boys used to call ‘hurricane gale force’.  “Well?”

“Little boy go missing,” Hop Sing admitted, deflating.  “Missy Bella go search for him.”

Ben’s gaze went to the window.  It was pitch black outside.  ‘When?”

Hop Sing sucked in air and then the dam broke.  “It been hours!  Too many hours!  Hop Sing want to go with missy, but she send him away, back to house.  Not good Missy Bella out there alone!”

Ben slumped.  “Because of me.  She sent you back because of me.”

“Mistah Ben not….”

He held up his hand.  ‘Mistah’ Ben was an old man who needed a nursemaid; an old sick man who languished in bed while those he loved were in danger.

Well, no more.

“Get my gun,” he said as he stumbled toward the door.

“You not go out!  Doctor say you not well!”

Ben’s jaw grew tight.  “I will not sit idly by like some invalid when Bella and my grandchild – my two grandchildren – are in danger!  You will get my gun and coat and –”

He stopped.

“What is it?” Hop Sing asked.  “What you –?”

“Shh!”  He’d heard a sound outside.  A thud like something had fallen and now, crying.

Taking hold of the latch, Ben threw open the door and stepped out – and almost stumbled over Bella where she lay on the stoop holding Eric and sobbing.  Tossing a look at Hop Sing that shouted ‘Go get some brandy!’, the older man knelt beside his daughter-in-law.

“Bella, child, what is it?”

Bella’s eyes were wide with fear.  She tried to speak.  Nothing came out but a low, guttural sound such as an animal makes when it’s almost beyond its strength.  He took her face in his hands and turned it toward him. It was then he knew his intuition had been right.

There was blood on her cheek.

“Bella?” he asked.

“Not mine…it’s Eric’s…” she breathed.  “Ben, he’s…hurt.   I….”

He reached out for his grandson.  “Let me take him –”

“No!”  Bella shouted as she clutched her son tightly to her breast.

It frightened him that the boy made no sound as she did.

“Bella, if Eric is hurt, he needs looking after,” he gently insisted.  “Let’s take you both in where I can see to help him.”

For a moment she didn’t respond.  Then, like a somnambulist, Bella rose and let him lead her to the settee.  Hop Sing handed him a glass of brandy as they arrived and he quickly passed it on.  While the distraught woman downed it, the older man’s eyes went to his son’s child.  The boy had a deep gash on his temple.  It was odd and looked like both a cut and a burn.  The wound was still bleeding, though it was also crusted with dried blood indicating the accident had happened some time before.

Turning to the Chinese man, he said softly, “Hop Sing, please bring some alcohol and bandages.”

His old friend nodded once and then vanished into the kitchen.

As he did, a sound caught Ben’s attention and he turned back to find his grandson stirring.  Eric moaned and then opened his eyes.  The child looked at him somewhat perplexed, and then  turned to look at his mother.  When he saw she was crying, he started crying too.

He had a set of lungs, that boy.

As gently as he could, Ben reached out and placed a hand on Bella’s shoulder.  Over Eric’s cries, he said, “Bella, look at me.  You have to tell me what’s going on.  How did Eric get hurt?”

Joe’s wife looked at him – well, through him really – and then went white.  Bella stiffened as she turned toward the door, which was still open.

“Close it!” she shrieked.  “Close it and lock it!  Ben, lock the door!”

He nodded to Hop Sing who had reappeared.  As the small man hastened to do as she asked, the older man turned to look again at his daughter-in-law who was trembling from head to toe.  It was obvious whatever fright she had taken was immense.

Bella was made of stern stuff.

As Hop Sing joined them, holding out the alcohol and a cloth, he dropped his hand to her arm. “Bella?  You need to turn Eric so I can tend to that wound.”

Bella looked at his hand and then directly at him.  It was as if she was seeing him for the first time.  “Pa?  You’re out of bed,” she said with a frown.  “You shouldn’t be out of bed.”

In spite of everything he almost chuckled.

“It seems the fates have conspired to get me up and moving,” he replied.  “Now, please, turn Eric around so I can see to that cut.  It looks angry.”

Bella planted a kiss on her small son’s curls and then did as he asked.  “It’s not a cut,” she said as she did so, her voice husky with unspoken terror.

Ben frowned.  He looked at the wound again as he reached out with the cloth and when he saw what it was – a deep gully left by the path of a bullet – he was overcome with rage.

“Dear Lord!” he exclaimed.  “Who would…?”

Three knocks on the door cut him short.  Bella jumped and Eric began to cry again as two more came in rapid succession.

“Mistah Cartwright want me see who it is?” Hop Sing asked.

Ben wobbled as he rose, but managed to keep his feet.  “No.  I’ll get it.”

Bella caught his hand and held him back.  “Pa.  Wait.  Ask him who the tiger cub is first.”

He frowned at her.  “What?”

Please, Ben.  Ask him.”

The older man loosed himself from her grip and went to the door.  He moved slowly.  The adrenaline rush of finding Bella and Eric on the porch had kept him going, but he was beginning to fade.  Leaning hard on the credenza, the rancher called out, “Who is the tiger cub?”

“Little Joe,” a soft voice answered..

Bella let out the breath she had been holding.  “It’s all right, Pa.  Let him in.”

Ben turned toward her.  “Bella, who is it?  What is this all about?”

Tears streamed down her cheeks as his daughter-in-law clutched her son to her chest and replied.

“Hope.”

 

Hope.

He’d had it, but it was gone now.  It had run like the rats bedded down in the straw he lay on had when the lantern’s light hit them; like a stallion when you looked him in the eye and he knew his days of freedom were over.

His days of freedom were over.

These men, whoever they were, were out for blood.  They had come to Virginia City to restore the honor of the House of Khu.  For some reason they blamed him for the death of the tong leader, Khu Zhuang, even though he had had nothing to do with the man’s demise.

Joe flinched as a familiar shadow fell across him.  He sucked in air as he was struck again and stars exploded before his eyes.  Planting his teeth in his busted lip, Joe lifted his head and pinned the dark-haired, dark-eyed man who beat him with a defiant stare just to let him know that – even though he was on his knees and tied between two posts, dripping blood and sweat – there was no way in Hell he was going to admit to something he hadn’t done.  The thug who loomed over him glared back at him as if that defiance was a personal affront.

Who knew?  Maybe it was.

Even though he knew it would cost him, Joe peeled his split lip back in a grin.

“That all you got?” he asked, spitting blood.

The thug’s eyes narrowed.  He was an odd lookin’ fellow, one part Chinese and three parts somethin’ else.

Possibly gorilla.

His name was Cho Ban.

His tormentor leaned in and breathed fire.   “I will break you, little man.”

Joe made a tsking sound.  “I don’t think your dragon master is gonna like that.”

The brute sneered as he gripped his throat and began to apply pressure.  “And how will Khu Qian know?”

Joe swallowed against Cho Ban’s fingers. In spite of what Adam had always thought, he really wasn’t that stupid.  He didn’t want to die.  Ban was a flunky – a strong arm used for intimidation.  Since the new tong leader wanted him, Cho had to be under orders not to kill him in spite of what he said.

He really hoped he was under orders not to kill him.

Joe blinked several times, trying to dispel the darkness rising before his eyes.  He had a plan.  He wasn’t sure how good it was, but it was the only one he had been able to come up with.  He had to get away and he wasn’t going to do that if he was tied hand and foot and the center of attention like he was now.  If he pushed Cho Ban far enough, the thug would believe he’d passed out.  Then, most likely, he would cut him down and leave him alone so he could plan his escape.

Tears ran down Joe’s dirt and blood-stained cheeks as he either put his plan into action or signed his death warrant.

“Tell me, Cho,” he said, and then waited for the Chinese giant to look at him.  “Those big…fingers of yours…make up for somethin’ else you got that’s small?”

The pressure intensified.  Air was denied him and things began to go black.  Then, blessedly, he heard a voice order in Chinese.

Tìhng dài!’  ‘Cease!’

Cho Ban froze, but the pressure on his throat didn’t decrease.  The thug scowled as he turned his beefy face into the darkness.  “And why should I listen to you, jì nǚ?”

Joe scowled.  He didn’t know that one, but he was guessing it wasn’t nice.  He didn’t know the voice that answered either.  It had the timber of a woman, but was gravelly as a man’s.

“You would be wise to fear the wolf in front and the tiger behind, Cho Ban.  If he dies, you die.”

Somewhere in the distance thunder rumbled.  Or at least he thought it had.  Then he realized it had been a low guttural sound driven from the thug’s throat by his impotency.

A moment later Cho Ban’s fingers were gone and he was on the ground eating sweat-soaked straw and dirt.

Joe lay where he had fallen, trying hard not to suck in the life-sustaining air his lungs so desperately needed.  If he did, it would reveal he was still conscious.  Instead, he sought to relax as Hop Sing had taught him, to breath in air slowly through his nose and to expel it quietly through his parched, barely parted lips.

Hop Sing had taught him another thing.  He wasn’t sure if the proverb was Chinese or not.  ‘Three feet of ice is not formed in a day’.  In other words, all good things come to him who can wait.

Joe Cartwright snorted quietly.

He had nothin’ else to do.

 

Jian.  The name of a mythological creature in China.  It was a type of ghost.

So, it seemed, was the man sitting before him.

Ben Cartwright shifted in his chair.  He refused to admit it, but he was bordering on exhaustion.  He wanted nothing more than to return to his bed and to sleep through supper the next night, but he couldn’t.  If even half of what Jian had related so far proved to be true, Joseph was in grave danger.  Ben’s eyes flicked to Bella who was half-reclining on the settee.  She’d wrapped Eric in a warm woolen blanket and drawn him close, tucking her small son into the cranny between her swollen belly and the back of the couch.  The boy was barely awake.  Eric had one hand raised, the fingers of which were entwined in his mother’s long blonde curls.  His other hand was balled in a fist, the thumb placed firmly between his lips.  It was a habit his mother and father were trying to break him of.  Of course, he understood why Bella had chosen to do nothing about it now.

The trauma the boy had been through today was enough to make him want to suck his thumb!

Ben’s gaze shifted to his grandson’s face.  The furrow the bullet’s passage had plowed had finally stopped bleeding.  It was unlikely infection would set in, though one could never be sure.  When he had time, he’d send one of the hands to town to get Julian, the young man Paul Martin had recently turned most of his patients over to – the Cartwrights included.

New life needs new hands,’ his old friend had said the last time he visited.  ‘Ones that don’t shake.’    

He and Paul were of an age.  Their lives had been full and rich compared to many of their contemporaries.  It wouldn’t be long now until Joe came into his full inheritance – until the Ponderosa was his and his alone.  At sixty-four, he could only count on a few more years.  If those years saw Joe settled, his own family growing and safe, he could die content.

It was the ‘safe’ part Ben was worried about right now.

“Jian, you say these men have come here to avenge the death of Khu Zhuang, but that doesn’t make sense,” he said, his eyes returning to the taut, modest-size Chinese man standing before the fire.  “Joe didn’t kill him.  None of us did.”

Jian drew a breath, his shoulders rising and falling slowly, and then turned to look at him.  “It is a lie, but it is a lie Qian Khu believes.  It is Joseph Cartwright he blames for the death of his grandfather.”

In spite of the gravity of the situation, Ben felt a smile tug at his cheeks.  No one but Bella – and perhaps, Hop Sing – could get by calling Joe ‘little’ anymore.  But then the last time this man had seen his son, Joe had been in his early teens.  He’d asked Jian about that day – the one when the former tong member had fled the house after abducting Joseph, with the intent of taking his son to Khu Zhuang.  Somewhere along the way Jian had a change of heart and instead of delivering Joe, he helped his son escape.  Jian had had Joe climb a tree and remain hidden while he drew their pursuers off.  There was a scuffle at the river’s edge and all signs pointed to the Chinese man drowning after being thrown in and carried away toward the falls.  Jian had listened quietly as he’d explained what they believed had happened.  With a wry smile he admitted that he had indeed gone into the river, but he had not been ‘thrown’ in – he had jumped!  He was a strong swimmer, Jian said, but in his weakened state the current had proven too much and even he had doubted he would survive.  By the time he made his way to shore and rested long enough to gather strength, everything was over.  He had come to the Ponderosa and watched from the shadows as they returned.  Once he saw that Joe had survived and was safe he’d left, having no desire to draw the tong’s attention back to their home.

Ben grunted.  Poor Joe.  His son had suffered deeply over the loss of this man he had come to think of as a friend.  Still, he understood Jian’s motives.

It was something he himself would have done.

Jian went on to tell them that, after that, he’d returned to the Sacramento area where he kept a low profile and a careful watch on the tong’s new leader, Da Chao.  Chao held the city in his dragon’s claw for fourteen years, ruling a combined tong made up of the surviving members of what had once been his and Khu Zhuang’s organizations.  In the fifteenth year, the older man died under mysterious circumstances, throwing Sacramento and Vallejo’s Chinese criminal element into disorder.  No cause was ever determined, but poison was suspected.  Not long after that Khu Zhuang’s grandson, Khu Qian, arrived to take up the reins of power.  Qian was a ruthless man – if possible, even worse than his grandfather – who quickly began a campaign to make every shop, saloon, and cat house pay him a percentage of their profits in order to secure the tong’s ‘protection’.

The owner of one of these establishment’s was Ah Kum, the late Da Chao’s wife.

Jian paused then, his face reflecting some sort of inner battle, before going on.  He started off by saying that he had known the owner of the Delectable Dragon for years and regretted her fate.  For reasons of her own – chief among them the desire to save her own neck – Ah Kum had submitted to Qian.  Rumor on the street was that it was the Dragon’s madame who had told Khu Qian that the man who had killed his grandfather was Joseph Cartwright.

Ben shifted forward in his chair.  If Jian was right, Joseph – really, all of them – were in dreadful danger.

The older man’s gaze returned to Bella and Eric, and then lighted on his daughter-in-law’s expanded middle.

He had to get them out of here.

He’d been thinking about it ever since Jian began to spin his tale.  The Chinese man knew the way to Sacramento.  Rosey O’Rourke lived on a spread just outside of it.  He had kept up a correspondence with the beautiful, older woman over the years, sharing joys and sorrows alike. A year or two back Rosey had informed him that her son Rory had tired of San Francisco and big city living and they were planning on relocating to the small town where he had grown up.  Bella and Eric could go with Jian – who would prove a more than competent protector – while he and Joe stayed behind to deal with this new threat.  Bella wouldn’t be happy, but when Joe came home he would be able to convince his wife that it was in her – and their children’s – best interest to go.

“Mister Cartwright…?”

The older man started.

He was getting old!

“I’m sorry, Jian.  My mind was wandering.”  Ben’s smile was chagrined.  “It seems to happen frequently these days.  What I don’t understand is why Ah Kum, or anyone for that matter, would lay the blame for Zhuang’s death at my son’s feet?  Joe was even less responsible than me!”  Ben coughed and felt the remnants of his former illness pull at him.  Undaunted, he continued.  “It would make more sense to blame me.”

Jian inclined his head.  “Meaning no disrespect, Mister Cartwright, but you are an older man and in Qian’s eyes, would be an unworthy opponent.  Madame Ah Kum would know this.  For this reason she chose Little Joe as Khu Zhuang’s killer.  In doing this, she believes she has set Khu Qian on a path toward destruction.  She knows you would do anything to save your son’s life and that you and your sons defeated his grandfather before.”  Jian paused.  “With Qian out of the way, she would be free.”

Thirty-five years old and Joseph still drew trouble like a magnet.

Ben glanced at Bella again.  The poor thing had fallen asleep out of sheer exhaustion.  Eric was asleep too.  He knew because the boy was snoring to rival his namesake.  The older man rose wearily to his feet.  He found his balance and then signaled Jian to follow him to the dining room table.  Once there, the rancher leaned on one of the chairs for support.

“What is it you would like to say, Mister Cartwright, that you do not wish Mrs. Little Joe to hear?”

Shrewd, this man.

“Ben, please.  You saved my boy’s life all those years ago.  I think that has earned you the right to address me by my first name.”

Jian considered it.  Finally he nodded.  “Ben.”

“There’s a favor I would ask of you – if Joe approves.”

“You would have me take Mrs. Joe and her son away,” the Chinese man said.

Very shrewd.

“Yes. You’ll be returning to the Sacramento area.  My friend, Rosey – you remember her?  She lives near there and I hoped you could take Bella and Eric to her.  Rosey would be more than happy to….”  His voice trailed off.  The look on Jian’s face was unmistakable.  “Has something happened to Rosey?” he asked. As this new revelation sapped the last of the strength he had, Ben sat down on one of the dining room chairs.  “Tell me what has happened to her.”

Jian hesitated, as if thinking through his reply.  At last he said, “She is missing.”

“Missing? How?”  Ben swallowed over a growing fear.  “When?”

Jian moved to the window behind the table and looked out.  “Several months ago Rosey’s son, Rory, was offered a position in England.”  He glanced over his shoulder.  “Did you know this?”

Ben shook his head.  “No, her last letter said nothing of it.”

“It came about suddenly.  I have kept watch over Rosey and her family.  The last time I saw her, she had made a choice.  If Rory went, she would not go.  She told me her grandchildren were old enough.  Both girls are at a boarding school in the east and the boy is nearly a man.”  Jian returned to the table and sat down as well.  “It was five, perhaps six weeks back, that Rory and his wife and children set sail.”

Leaving Rosey alone.

Ben shook his head.  Only God’s grace had saved him that particular heartbreak, though he often wondered where Adam was and if his far-wandering son had finally married and had a family.  His eldest had written diligently for the first five years.  After that Adam’s correspondence had fallen off and, over the last three years, stopped.

They didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

“Did you check on Rosey after that?”

Jian nodded.  “Once, but for the most part I was engaged in watching Khu Qian as he took power and began to exercise it.  I became the shadow to the mouse in order to listen and learn. When at last I returned to her house, it was empty.  I checked with those who live to either side of her.  One saw her leave the house late at night with a valise in hand.  She has not returned.”

A chill ran through him.

Rosey rivaled Marie for being independent-minded and bull-headed.  If the beautiful older woman thought something needed to be done, she would have set out to do it – no matter the danger to herself.

“Did you find any sort of a trail?” he asked.

Jian’s black eyes locked on his.  “Yes.”

“Well?” Ben demanded.  “Where was she headed?”

The Chinese man let out a sigh.  It surprised him.  It was the first time he had ever heard him do so.

“She was headed here.”

 

 

FOUR

The tall distinguished man with thinning salt and pepper hair sighed as he closed his valise and turned toward the hotel window.  It had been a long hard trip from Europe marked with both anticipation and apprehension.  His success in navigating both the path to the U.S. and the tangled web his life had become had not seemed truly real until the snow-capped mountain peaks appeared in the distance and the scent of pine trees became the common currency.  Now, as he was overtaken by the spectacle of Nevada’s majestic landscape and a peace seldom known of late descended upon him, he was finally able to accept the fact that, after three, long lonely years,  he might finally be able to put the life he had chosen behind him.  As Michel de Montaigne put it.  ‘…home…It is my retreat and resting place from wars.  I try to keep this corner as a haven against the tempest outside, as I do another corner in my soul.’

He was home.

Adam Cartwright lifted his arms high above his head, stretching, pushing his sore back muscles to the limit and feeling their limit scream back at him.  It felt good, but it hurt too.

Just like coming home.

For the life of him he didn’t know what he was going to do when he got to the Ponderosa.  Just open the door and shout, ‘Hello everyone, I’m home!’?”

Somehow, he didn’t think so.  While his father would be happy to see him – more than happy – he had grave doubts about the reception he would receive from his youngest brother.  Theirs had ever been a strained relationship.  Though they loved one another deeply, they were like oil and water.  No.  That wasn’t the right image.  The corner of Adam’s full lips quirked with amusement.  He and Joe were like nitro and an unsteady hand.

Though he was unsure which was which.

Lowering his arms, Adam adjusted his wine-colored shirt and then reached out and opened the window on a city going to sleep. Ahead of him lay the last sleep he would have before he reached the ranch house – if he could rest, that was.  If everything went according to plan, his arrival there would bring an end to his current life and the start of yet another new one.  It seemed he’d lived three lifetimes in the decade and a half he’d been away.  The first was spent on a sailing ship as a student of life and the world.  The second, as an English professor at a British university where he had met and married Kate and fathered two beautiful children.  And then there was the third – the one that had chosen him.

Ironically, it was the third life that had finally succeeded in driving his wandering feet toward home.

That, and his middle brother’s death.

It still effected him deeply – how he’d found out about Hoss in such a casual manner.  A friend of his father’s was in Hong Kong, working on a project just as he was.  They’d happened upon one another in the street and had both felt a pang of homesickness.  After a few minutes they’d agreed to meet later at a local eatery, ironically run by a distant cousin of Hop Sing.  They’d finished their meal and were chatting, sipping a fine liqueur and growing maudlin and sentimental, when the man remarked, “It’s a shame about Hoss.  He was one of the finest men I ever knew.”

Was.

Knew.

What?

After that, well, the welfare of his birth family had taken on a sudden import.  He’d chosen to keep his marriage a secret, hoping one day to surprise his father.  He and Kate had planned to head to the states for that ‘surprise’ shortly after Joe and Bella’s first child was born, but…things had come up.  He’d been forced by circumstances beyond his control to do an abrupt about-face and disappear.  Adam ran a hand over his chin as he turned back into the room.  The main impetus – the reason he had made it through these last three desolate years – was the knowledge that what he was doing would keep not only Kate and his children safe, but his father and remaining brother as well.  He’d always known he’d go back home one day.  He’d expected, when he did, that he’d be greeted at the door by his aging father and two fat and sassy – whole and hearty – and well-contented, married brothers.  Instead, Hoss was dead.

Joe could be dead and he wouldn’t even know it.

Adam Cartwright stretched again and looked at his valise where it lay on the bed.  He should get back to packing, but his heart wasn’t in it.  There was something – a presentiment – that made his feet drag like a clock winding down.  He’d been completely out of touch with his family for just over three years.  Joe was going to be a hard sell.  Adam snorted as he pushed off the sill. No, Joe was going to be royally pissed!  It had been a tough choice, but when he had signed on to do what had to be done, he’d had to agree to leave everything behind; his old life, his father and brother – even Kate and the kids.

These last three years had been pure agony.

The tall man, whose once black hair was thinning at the top and going gray above his ears, permitted himself a tight smile. Kate was already in the States.  She and the children were set to arrive in Virginia City on the fifteenth of the month, about two weeks from today.  By then, he should receive word that the project he had signed on for was completed.  Adam shook his head and ran a hand over his cleanly shaved chin.  Those two weeks were going to feel like a century.

Which was about how old he felt most of the time.

As he drew in a breath, the scent of pine trees wafted through the hotel room, reminding him of his childhood.  It was almost over.  He could put it all behind him.

He was almost…free.

As the tall man stood there, savoring the scent and the memories it stirred, the door to the room opened and his traveling companion stepped in.  Calling back to someone in the hall, the Englishman said in his distinct accent, “Thank you, good man.  Stoddard and I will be leaving at first light tomorrow.  If you could have our things ready, it would be much appreciated.  There will be something extra in it for you.”

Adam snorted.  Stoddard.  It was the name he’d gone by for the last three years.  Stoddard Benjamin Eric Josephs.

The smile returned.  It seemed that, even though you could take the boy off the ranch, you could never entirely take the ranch out of the boy.

As the door closed, his friend turned toward him.  “Clyde will have our trunks ready and loaded on the stage by the time we finish breakfast.”

Adam drew in a breath as the man came toward him.  It struck him every time.  That head of tousled curls, his hazel eyes; even the way he turned a phrase.  All of it reminded him of his ornery little brother.  But then, that had been the problem back when Joe was twelve and he had first met Jude Randolph.  A man with vengeance in his heart, who hoped to destroy their father, had kidnapped Joe as a replacement for the handsome mulatto.  Now, nearly fifty, Jude’s head of tousled light brown curls was turning to silver.

His lips quirked.

Joe…with silver hair?  Imagine that!

“That’s good,” Adam said as he moved across their Spartan room.  The hotel was a small one, inconspicuous and – he hoped – unnoticed.  “I’d like to leave before the other patrons, even if it means eating somewhere down the road.  I want to travel alone on the stage if possible.”

He’d run into Jude when he was in London and they’d become friends.  In a way, it was kind of like having an older version of Joe with him.  Jude’s laugh was unaffected and contagious; another thing that reminded him of Joe.

“Garrulous, you are not,” Jude remarked.  “But then again, that doesn’t come as a surprise.  You never were much of a talker.”

No.  Joe had done enough talking for all four of them.

God!  How he missed him.

Jude crossed to the window and looked out before heading to his bed and dropping onto it.  “If you mean to be up with the lark, it would be well to have supper sent up and then get some sleep.  Don’t you think?”

Adam nodded absent-mindedly.  “Yes, though I don’t feel much like eating – or sleeping for that matter.”

His friend remained silent for a moment.  “You’re concerned about the welcome you will receive.  Don’t be.  It will be as if the last few years never happened.”

He glanced at the other man.  “But they did happen.”

Jude hesitated a moment before rising to his feet.  As he came to stand beside him, he reached out and placed a hand on his shoulder.  Inadvertently Jude, along with Bella Carnaby’s younger brother Jack, had been drawn into the tangled web that was his life.  The liberty to touch him was a privilege he accounted to only a handful of people and, only then, when the situation was dire enough to warrant it.  It was something the other man knew only too well.

“Adam,” he said, “Your brother Joseph will understand.  Once you tell him why you –”

“No!”  He pulled away.  “I can never tell them, you know that!  No matter what.  The danger….”

“You know he would face it willingly.”

Yes, he knew it as well as he knew his brother.  If Joe got wind of the fact that his older brother’s life was in danger – that even now there were men scouring the Old and New World for him – there would be no stopping him.  Even if they clashed like a pair of stallions fighting over a brood mare, Joe would die for him as he would die for Joe.

It might still come to that if things went wrong.

Jude regarded him for a moment and then nodded.  With a quirk of his full lips, he said, “Supper  it is, then.  How about shepherd’s pie?”

Adam couldn’t help but smile.  It was an old joke between them.  When he’d first come to England, he’d been offered the local dish.  Being a cattle rancher, the idea of eating the entrails of a sheep stuffed with God only knew what had turned him green. He’d spent the remainder of the evening bringing up just about everything inside him.

“How about not?

“I’ll order two then,” came the accustomed reply.

Sometimes he wondered if luck – or perhaps fate – had not drawn the two of them together and, if it had not, if he would have made it through these last three years.  Jude was a tie – albeit the thread was slender – to what he had left behind in Nevada.  It frightened him, what he didn’t know.  What else had happened in the time he had been out of communication with his family?  Here he was expecting to find Joe at home with his wife, with his little nephew and maybe a niece on his knee.  And his beloved pa.  And dear old Hop Sing.  The man from China would be in the kitchen complaining in Cantonese while he worked away.  But Pa was getting older.  What if….

What if everything he had given up everything for was gone?  What if the man he had worked so hard to take down had somehow gotten wind of what was to come and decided to do something to stop it, like attack his family?

What if it had all been for nothing?

Adam Cartwright swallowed hard over his fears.  Then he laughed.  He was doing what he always accused his little brother of doing – leaping before he looked.  Home was only a day away.

He’d know soon enough.

 

When Candy Canady came back to consciousness, they first thing he noticed was that his knees were on fire.  Or, at least, it felt like they were on fire.

Probably because two great big Chinese yahoos were draggin’ him through the dust.

Keeping his eyes narrowed, Candy sized them up, considerin’ his chances.  The one to his left who had his mitt rammed into his armpit was about six foot tall.  The other one, who was trying to tear his left arm off, was, well, taller, and frankly, built like a box car.

Who knew they bred them that big in China?

His head was still ringing like a dinner bell and the trail of fresh blood that ran down his forehead and across his lips made him think maybe raw meat had been on the menu.

Him, in other words, served up nice and cold and dead.

The only good thing was that the pair spoke English.  Well, some sort of English since he couldn’t make most of it out.  Or maybe that was just the ringing in his head, keepin’ him from hearing right.  He didn’t know really.  Anyhow, he’d caught Joe’s name and from the sound of it, his friend was probably worse off than he was right now.  Apparently Joe had been…uncooperative…when questioned.

Imagine that.  Joe Cartwright.  Uncooperative.

Candy bit back a snort by planting his teeth in his lip, which was really stupid because it was covered with blood and he hated the taste of blood.  Since he couldn’t spit it out, he had to swallow it and that made him mad.

Probably about as mad as Joe had been when he was being ‘uncooperative’.

Where was Joe anyway and where were these bruisers dragging him?  Opening his eyes just a bit more the cowboy sneaked a look at where they were going.  It was some kind of a warehouse, set between a couple of disreputable looking lodging houses.  Candy frowned.  He oughta know all the warehouse districts in Virginia City.  But then again, the city had grown a lot in the years he’d been away.  He didn’t like people much, so the more people there were in town, the more he avoided it.  Now that he thought about it, other than the Bucket and a few other rather er…salacious…establishments, he really didn’t know much about Virginia City anymore.

And since Joe was married, he didn’t really know all that much about those places either.  Most nights it was just him and the steers croonin’ to one another under the moonlight.

Damn.  He needed to get a life.

That was, if whoever it was these two worked for didn’t kill him first.

As they came to a halt, the man pinching his pit growled several low words in Cantonese that were answered by several more comin’ from within the warehouse.  A few seconds later the door creaked open and Candy was dragged inside, banging his shins on the threshold along the way.  If he’d had any thought of takin’ on the two bruisers – not that he had – it was too late now.  The door slammed shut behind him, cutting off the alley and the pale light cast by the one meager street lamp at its end.  He waited for someone to light a lantern.  When no one did, he figured they had to be part cougar or somethin’.  He couldn’t see anything, but the two who were draggin’ him seemed to know exactly where they were going. He was bumped up a short ladder, turned around, and unceremoniously dumped onto a wooden floor covered with stinkin’ straw and debris, before being bound hand and foot with his hands behind his back. Behind him was a wall of wooden crates that loomed ominously, and in front of the crates was a man who was also bound hand and foot.

Joe Cartwright’s eyes followed the pair of Chinese gargantuans as they left the loft and descended the ladder, leaving them alone.

“Shouldn’t that..have been the other…way around?” Joe asked, his words slightly slurred.

“I don’t know,” Candy replied as he worked his way to his feet and kind of hopped over to his friend’s side.  Joe was seated with his back against the lowest tier of crates.  He was half-hidden in shadow.  “Personal delivery to your parlor. Who could ask for…more….”

“You got…a…problem?” Joe snarled.

Candy winced.  “You remember what I said this morning about you lookin’ awful?”

“Yeah….”

“Let’s just say, compared to what you look like now, you could have won a beauty contest.”

Someone had beaten the hell out of him.

Candy lowered himself to the debris strewn floor and looked right into Joe’s eyes. “You okay?”

Joe winced as he shifted.  “Couple of busted…ribs, I think.”

“Didn’t Doc Martin say you’d broke all you had?”

His friend’s curly head nodded.  “Several times.”

“If you’re gonna do somethin’, you may as well do it right, I always say.”  Candy’s eyes roamed his friend’s lean form as he kept up the banter they used to create a barrier for their emotions.  Plain and simple, they loved each other as brothers, but they were both too damn stubborn. They never let it show.

Well, almost never.

Candy looked away, partly to give Joe a break from his gawking and partly to see if he could make any sense of where they were. The fact that they weren’t gagged meant there wasn’t anyone close enough to hear if they shouted.

After a second, he looked back at his friend.  Joe’s left eye was swollen shut.  His lower lip was split in two places, one of which was bleeding pretty badly.  The shirt he was wearin’ had been ripped so his left shoulder was exposed and what skin showed was turnin’ black and blue.  But those bruises had nothin’ on the ones on his throat.

“That’s gotta hurt,” he said quietly.

Joe shrugged – and then cussed.

“That’s what I thought,” the cowboy snorted.  “They want somethin’ in particular?”

Joe looked at him and then leaned his head back and rested it against the crates.  The one above them groaned ominously as he did, but his friend didn’t seem to notice.

“It was before…your time.  I…was just a kid.  Fourteen, fifteen…can’t remember.”  Joe sucked in air.  “A pair of tong leaders out of the Sacramento area…decided to make the Ponderosa their…battlefield.”  The curly-haired man shifted again, this time pressing his bound hands against his left side.  “One ended up…killing the other.  For some reason these thugs…think I did it.  Wanted me to admit it.”  Joe moved again.  This time a gasp escaped his lips.

Candy sized him up again.  Joe was really in pain.  “You mighta considered it,” he said softly.

“Dead…either way.  This way…I get to live longer.  Maybe have a chance….”

A chance to get back to Bella and their children.

“Damn,” he sighed.

“Don’t…go all mushy on me,” Joe said, tight-lipped.

“Who’s goin’ mushy?  Not me.”

Joe smiled that cocky smile he had, the one where his cheek went up and his eyebrow went down.  “Well, it sure…ain’t me.”

After that, they fell into a silence, both lost in their own thoughts – Joe thinking about his wife and children, and him thinking about the fact that he didn’t have either.

Thinking about the fact that he had a lot less to lose.

“Don’t you go doin’…anything stupid,” Joe growled as if reading his mind.

“Who me?”

“I…know that look.  You just…get it out of your eye.”

“What look?”

Joe winced again and sucked in air.  He was breathin’ hard.  “How long have…we known…each other?  Ten years?”

“ ‘Bout that.  Why?”

“And how many times…have we…raised hell in those ten years?”

Candy had been looking around for some means of creating a distraction.  He was eying the crates above their heads.  They’d work great – if they didn’t all come down at once and crush both of them before they could get out of the way.

Joe wasn’t lookin’ like he’d be movin’ fast anytime soon.

“Don’t know.  Ain’t done it for a while, what with you bein’ a married man and all.”  Candy had wiggled his way to his feet again.  He’d hopped to the edge  and was looking over.  “Joe?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t you think its kind of funny that they put the two of us up here together and didn’t leave a guard at the bottom of the ladder?”

“What?”

Candy nodded.  “Not a soul in sight.  Now that means one of two things.”

“Bein’?” Joe asked as he began to work his way to his feet.

“Either they’re damn sure of themselves – ”

“Or they want us to try to escape.”

“Or….”

Candy’s eyes were scanning the warehouse below.  It was as dark and still as a tomb.

This time he winced.  Bad choice of words.

“Candy, come on…help me.  I can’t….”

He looked.  Joe was halfway up, beet-red in the face and sweatin’ like a freshly branded steer.

“It’s not like you’re gonna miss anything,” he said as he hopped over to him.  “Ain’t nothing goin’ on…below….”

Joe’s eyes went wide.  “Do you hear that?”

He nodded.  Yes, he heard it.  A cracking, a popping and hissing sound, kind of like when you tossed a sappy pine log into the middle of a campfire.  It did that – just before it exploded.

Candy swallowed hard.

He guessed maybe they didn’t try to escape fast enough.

 

Adam Cartwright was awakened from a deep sleep by the sound of someone screaming.

It took a moment to realize it was him.

Jude was on his feet and moving.  The Englishman caught hold of the oil lamp on the desk and turned up the wick, casting light as well as weird, disturbing shadows on the walls.  Adam stared at them for a moment, completely lost, and then he remembered.

The Ponderosa had been on fire.

He sat up in bed and dropped his head into his hands and shuddered.

“Would talking about it help?” Jude asked.

Adam looked up and smiled weakly.  Jude knew all about nightmares.  In the stillness of the night Jude frequently traveled back to the dark dank hole on the ship Independence where Wade Bosh had held him captive a little over thirty-five years before; the hole from which his own father, Ben Cartwright, had freed him.  For Jude, sharing the stuff of his night terrors eased his pain, as if bringing his fears to light had the power to chase the demons away.

It was different for him.  He supposed he had been influenced by Hop Sing’s beliefs since, as a boy, it had been the Chinese man who had often tended to him and his brothers when they had a bad dream.  He remembered his father’s s friend saying ‘When man dream, soul speaks.’

If that was true, just what was his soul trying to tell him?

“You and I,” Adam hesitantly began, his breathing ragged, “we were coming over that low hill, you know the one right before the ranch house?  It was you who spotted it first – smoke rising where it shouldn’t have been.  Not like the smoke that comes out of a chimney, but great black billows of it, roiling and rising and riding the wind like a string of hellish stallions with their tales and manes flying.”  The tall man drew in a breath.  “The house was engulfed in flames.  Pa was out front.  Hop Sing was with him.  They were both looking up.  Up to where…in the bay window….”

He couldn’t go on.

In the bay window he’d designed for the new wing Joe and Bella occupied, he’d seen his brother.

Joe had been on fire.

Jude took a seat on the bed next to him.  “Night terrors have no more power than that which we give them,” he said quietly.  “Perhaps, your anxiety at returning home….”

Adam’s smile was tight-lipped. “I did say there’d be hell to pay when I had to face Joe.”  He thought a moment and then added, “Hop Sing’s people believe that dreams can be prophetic.”

Jude’s hazel eyes were dark pools in the light of the single lamp that lit their room; his curls, a halo of spun gold framing a pensive face

“And what do you believe, Adam Cartwright?”

Adam sat still for a moment, then he tossed off the covers, placed his feet on the floor and reached for his pants.

“I believe it’s time to go home.”

 

Roy Coffee wasn’t exactly a lawman anymore, but then that didn’t matter.  He found plenty to do.  After about six months of retirement, he’d come back to lend Clem a hand.  After all, someone had to keep the boy in line!  When Clem was away, like he was now, he passed his time sortin’ wanted posters and keepin’ an eye on the drunks sleepin’ it off in their cells.

Or, truth to tell, snoozin’ in Clem’s fancy new chair.

So, it had been kind of excitin’ today when Candy Canaday had shown up all worried about Joe Cartwright bein’ missin’ and he’d been the only one around to take up the chase.  Clem had left for Carson City that mornin’.  He had to testify at a hearin’ and wouldn’t be comin’ back for a week or more.  So that left him officially ‘in charge’.

Just like the old days.

Not that he wanted to go back to them.  Bein’ a lawman in a pretty much lawless town had been about as thankless a job as he could have thought up.  Still, if someone he knew right well asked him – say, like Ben Cartwright – he’d have to admit he was a little sorry to see those old days go.  Virginia City was right prosperous now.  All kinds of nice, civilized people had moved in durin’ the heyday of the silver mines and most of them were still hangin’ on even though the silver was dwindlin’.

They was all hopin’ for one more strike like the Comstock Lode to set it all right.

Roy pulled at the end of his mustache as he stood in the shadows waitin’ for a pair of Chinamen – bullies by the look of them – to make their way past.  Thing was, nice civilized people brought their own kind of trouble with them; a kind that was a little harder to see and a lot harder to prove.  There’s been somethin’ kind of, well, simple about a town where the worst thing you had to worry about was two hard-headed drunk as a skunk cowboys drawin’ on one another in the middle of the street.  Now, Clem said they was dealin’ with all kinds of intrigue, graft, corruption and the like.

Sounded like the boy was describin’ a cesspool ‘stead of a city.

Anyhow, a lot of that there intrigue went on in places just like the one he was in now.  Once upon a time the Chinamen who came to Virginia City were just lookin’ to make a place for themselves like everyone else. They wanted to settle down and raise a family, make a livin’, go to whatever they called church, and die and be buried in a nice place with a fence and maybe a tree or two overlookin’ some pretty meadow or stream.  Chan Junjie told him that was all changed too.  Junjie’d had word of one of them there tongs, like the one Ben Cartwright had to deal with ten years back or so….  Roy paused.  No, that weren’t right.  Little Joe’d been in his teens, and gosh-darn it if the boy didn’t have his own young’un who was comin’ up on five.  Must of been some fifteen years back or more.  Well, never no mind, Junjie had told him one of them there tongs was thinkin’ of movin’ into Virginia City and settin’ up shop.

Roy shook his head and let out a sigh.  Imagine Virginia City bein’ big enough to look good to the likes of them Chinese devils!

Junjie was right upset about it.  He said all kind of malcontents and disorderly persons would trail after them tong members like a dog sniffin’ offal.  They’d bring in the kind of cat houses that had cribs behind them, and that meant disease would follow as surely as the sun rose after it set.  Then they’d start threatenin’ the store owners, makin’ ‘em pay protection money or else.

What was the world comin’ to?

He’d had a pleasant enough time of it talkin’ to Junjie.  It was about an hour later that he realized Ben Cartwright’s foreman weren’t nowhere to be seen.  Candy’d just up and left and gone off on his own, probably to look for Joe Cartwright.  Now, in the old days, most like you would have found Little Joe bellyin’ up to the bar, sippin’ a beer, and flirtin’ with some pretty thing.  But that was in the old days.  Marriage had been good for that boy.  Sobered him up right away.

Why, he’d even attended one of the city council meetin’s on his own the other night!

Roy stepped out into the street and started on his way again, only to stop and turn back to look at the pair of Chinamen who had walked by. They was stopped on the other side of the street, talkin’ fast and gesturin’ back along the way they’d come.  He didn’t like the look of them.

Couldn’t say why.  He just didn’t.

They wasn’t locals, he was sure of that.  He’d beat this path often enough.  He had a favorite shop way down at the end of the main street of the Chinese part of town, run by a sweet little old man and his wife, who sounded an awful lot like Hop Sing on a spree and, come to think of it, looked like him too.

Ugly or not, that woman made the best donuts this side of San Francisco!

Roy smacked his lips as he began to walk, his hunger propelling his old legs at a pace that would have surprised anyone who knew him. Why, he’d just mosey on down there and see if he could get himself some.  It was near dawn and Po would be up bakin’.  Matter of fact, he could just about smell the smoke from her chimney right now.

Matter of fact, he could smell smoke.  Roy coughed.

A lot of it!

As the thought struck him, several Chinamen came runnin’ along the street, wavin’ their hands and yellin’ in that there language of theirs that twisted a man’s tongue to try it.  The first got past him, but he caught the second one’s arm and drew him to a halt.

“What’s wrong?” the retired lawman demanded.  “What’s all the yellin’ about?”

His answer was more yellin – and pullin’ and shovin’. The man was doin’ just about everythin’ he could to get free, all the while shoutin’ at the top of his lungs and lookin’ like the Devil himself was after him.

And maybe he was.

Roy let the man go as his mouth fell open.

The west end of the city was ablaze.

 

 

FIVE

It was early – so early that not even Hop Sing was up.  Bella was though as she’d been unable to sleep.  At first her concern that Joe had not returned from town was just that, a concern.  It seemed unlikely, considering Ben’s condition and Joe’s current state of mind, but she knew sometimes the old man in her husband came out and he and Candy would stop by one of Virginia City’s local ‘watering’ holes for a beer and a few hands of poker to blow off some steam before heading home.  That concern turned to worry around midnight, and somewhere between three and four in the morning – when she turned over and her husband was still not in bed – it had blossomed into full-blown panic.  If it hadn’t been for Eric – and for the new little one she was carrying – she would have mounted a horse and been on her way into town to find her beloved and make certain he was all right.

Joe had to be all right.

Bella paused with her hand on the back of the settee and looked about the great room.  These four walls had seen so much joy and sorrow.  It was here Ben Cartwright had come with his New Orleans bride, and here where Marie had lain dying after falling from her horse.  Here, where Adam Cartwright, the youth, had talked of going to college and seen his dream come true – and then, as a man, walked out the front door never to return.  Bella ran her hand over the worn fabric, noting the places where the sofa had been mended – patched back together much as the lives of the men in this household had been when one of them was cut short.  This room had once rung with the laughter of the affable, lovable Hoss.

It echoed now with his absence.

Lifting her hand, Bella turned toward the front door.  Once upon a time, not all that long ago, a shy young girl named Alice had come through it.  She sat on the settee, coming to know the man she would call ‘Pa’, just as Joe sat there, inconsolable, nearly a year later after she was murdered.  She could see him, standing by the fire, poker in hand, staring into the flames – seeking to come to terms with the horrific deaths of his first wife and child; daily descending into a darkness that threatened to destroy him.

Then, God took pity.  He freed her from a loveless marriage and sent her back to Joe, and in that moment, everything changed.  Light, laughter, and unfettered love returned to the Ponderosa.

Bella walked to the hearth.  She picked up the poker and fingered the handle.  Sitting, she lay it across her knees and thought of her husband.  Joe was a wonderful, loving, and attentive mate, less prone to fits of anger and melancholy than when she had first met him.  Still, there were currents of discontent roiling just beneath the surface of his happiness.  She noted it especially when he thought she wasn’t looking – when they sat in this room at night as a family and his eyes fell on her and their son and the child growing inside her.  She grieved for him.

Joseph Cartwright loved deeply, but he feared to live fully.

She would never say that to his face, of course, though she had discussed her own fears with Hop Sing.  She knew the aging Chinese man was a safe harbor for them.  He had smiled the first time she’d voiced her opinion of her husband.

‘Mistah Hoss would say, for Little Joe, ‘them are fightin’ words’”,  the small man had remarked while punching the bread dough he was kneading.

She’d often chided Joe for his quick temper, but the truth was, he needed to fight.  Joe needed that…spark of life.  He needed to be angry, not at fate or death or even at God, but angry at himself for giving in to his fears.

Bella’s eyes flicked to the door, which stood closed, and then to her husband’s extra coat that hung by the door.  Papa Ben….  She liked to call him that.  She’d called her own father ‘papa’.  Papa Ben had told her many stories about her husband, recalling how ‘Little Joe’ would fling on his green coat and throw open the door and bolt across the yard to hop onto Cochise and disappear into the night when his emotions overcame him.  She’d seen it a few times at the beginning of their marriage.  Like any wedded couple, they’d had their disagreements and when he came to the point where his fingers were forming fists, Joe had excused himself to go riding.  Riding was his salvation.

She only wished he didn’t need any other salvation than her and his children.

One day.

One day, they would be enough.

“Mrs. Little Joe?” a soft voice asked, making her nearly jump out of her skin.  Bella looked again.  She didn’t know how she had missed him.  Jian was standing in the shadows at the bottom of the staircase.

With her hand pressed against her fast beating heart, she said, “Please call me Bella.”

Jian moved with the grace and subtlety of a mountain cat on the prowl as he came to her side.

“I didn’t see you there,” she said.

A slight smile curled his lips.  “I did not mean for you to.”

She had asked him to go into town to check on Joe.  Jian had flatly refused.

Tiger cub would never forgive me if I did and something happened here,’ he had said.

A chill snaked along her spine. Even though she had transferred Eric to Ben’s bed before coming down, it frightened her to leave her son’s side after what had happened.  Ben was still not well and might not be able to….

Bella bit her lip.  ‘Trust’, she told herself.  ‘Trust.’

Jian stared at her a moment and then crossed to the front door and opened it.  His dark eyes canvassed the yard beyond.

“All is well.  They are in place.  You and your family are safe.”

They.  Jian had mentioned a ‘they’ the night before.   When she’d asked him who ‘they’ were, his answer had been evasive.

Bella scowled as her hand involuntarily went to her middle and the child lodged there who seemed, like its father, never to be still.

“When are you going to tell me who ‘they’ are?” she asked.

Jian turned.  His dark eyes met hers as his lips curled with a half-smile.  “It is best if Bella does not know.”

Shadows with no substance, no doubt, like their curious guest.

A moment later, the Chinese man’s smile faded.  Jian opened the door wider and stepped out onto the porch.  He glanced back at her before closing the door.  “Remain inside,” he said, and was gone.

Into the silence that followed – a somewhat stunned one, she had to admit – came a voice.

“Who was that?” Ben Cartwright asked.

Bella turned toward her father-in-law, her heart hammering in her chest.  But then she saw Eric in his arms. As her second Pa came down the steps, her son turned his wide, tear-filled eyes on her and reached out.

“The boy woke from a nightmare calling for you,” Ben said softly.  As she took her son, who wrapped his little arms around her neck as if his life depended on it, her father-in-law asked again.  “Who is it that just left?”

“Jian,” she answered.  “He said everything was fine and then something made him step outside.”

Like a thick wet blanket, a smothering fear covered them both.

Bella jumped as the door reopened and Jian stepped in.  Another man followed close on his heels and pulled it closed behind him. It was obvious the newcomer was of mixed blood.  He was slightly taller than Jian, perhaps five-foot-eight or nine, and looked to be in his early thirties.  The man was slender as a reed, but looked strong, and was dressed something like a sailor. His black coat was short-waisted with two rows of evenly spaced buttons.  There was no extra fabric in it.  It fit his taut form as snugly as one of Joe’s leather gloves fit her husband’s hands.  The newcomer’s shirt and pants were black as well, as were his boots.  In fact, the only flash of anything other than black in his wardrobe was a hint of silver on the ends of his sleeves.  His face was roundish, but angled at the chin.  His eyes were large; their color the dark gray of storm clouds – with just a hint of lightning.  Several locks of unruly, spiraling black hair dangled in front of them.

They were the only thing about him that seemed out of control.

Jian turned toward them.  She could tell he was slightly amused by their confusion.

“My son, Jin Lei,” he said, his smile returning.  “It means ‘thunder’.”

Lei inclined his head.  “I am most honored to meet the beautiful wife of Joseph Cartwright.”  His eyes narrowed as they moved to Ben.  A moment later Lei bowed.  “And the most honorable Benjamin Cartwright.”

“Lei and several others accompanied me on my journey here. We parted company before reaching Virginia City and they have only just arrived.  I have set them to watch the Ponderosa.”  Jian hesitated.  “While your men, Ben, are most capable, they are restricted by certain…conventions.  Mine are not.”

“Then how does that make you any better than our enemies?” Ben asked, his voice carefully controlled.

It was Lei who answered.  “Honorable Mister Cartwright, forgive this one for speaking out of turn.  It is my understanding you have faced the men of the House of Khu before?”

Ben nodded slowly.

“These men have undertaken a mission, bound by a solemn oath, to destroy your son.”  Lei’s dark eyes flicked to Eric, who had fallen asleep with his head on her shoulder and was busily sucking his thumb.  “And to do it by whatever means necessary.”

Bella heard Ben’s sharp intact of breath.  She turned to look at him and found the older man pale and shaking.  “Pa,” she said, taking hold of his arm. “Pa, you should sit down.  You’re unwell.”

He ignored her.  “You are not talking about….  Not another war?”

Lei nodded.  “Several of Khu Qian’s men have been seen on your property.  Among them is one who is well-known to us.  His name is Kang Fan.”

“And this Kang Fan, he works for the new tong leader?”

“At the moment.  Kang Fan works for whoever pays the most,” Jian said, his voice quiet.  “He is a mercenary and assasin.”

“The one I trust most was sent to follow him,” Jian’s son said.

“Follow him?” Ben echoed.  “Where was he going?”

“He followed Joe.  Didn’t he?  When he went to town?” Bella croaked, her throat going dry.

At that moment a knock on the door made her jump again.  Eric lifted his head, looked at her with drowsy puzzled eyes, and then smiled a little smile and went back to sleep.

Jian called out sharply in Chinese and was answered in kind.  Lei held a hand out to stop his father from opening the door and then asked a further question.  Seemingly satisfied with the answer, Jian’s son took hold of the latch and opened the door.

Bella was surprised when a boy – he might have been fifteen – stepped inside.

It was instantly apparent that he was Lei’s son.

It was also instantly apparent that the boy was exhausted.  He was obviously winded and looked as if he might fall down any second.  As he moved into the room he limped, a fact that brought a frown to both Jian and Lei’s faces.  As she looked at him more closely, she noticed burns on his exposed skin.  The child had to be in pain.

His face showed nothing.

“Report,” Lei ordered, as if he spoke to a lieutenant and not his son.

The boy bowed slightly.  “Honored father and grandfather, I regret to inform you that I have fallen short of your expectations.”

Jian caught his arm.  His tone was sharp.  “Joseph, tell me Little Joe is alive!”

As she puzzled over the double use of her husband’s name, the boy turned to look at her.  “Mrs. Cartwright?”

She’d forgotten to breathe.  “Yes?”

“I was sent to bring word to you.  Your husband says he is all right and you are not too worry.”

Bella exchanged a glance with Ben.  He looked as shocked as she felt.

“Not to worry about what?”

The boy shuddered and then swayed.  A second later, he caught himself and drew up to his full height.

“There has been a fire.”

 

It had been one hell of a night.

Roy Coffee stood on the porch of the somewhat ramshackle sheriff’s office in the Chinese quarter, smellin’ of smoke and sweat and starin’ at the devastation before him.  He had a cup of strong black coffee laced with whiskey in his hand and a great weariness in both body and heart. As he stood there, feelin’ the hot wind on his cheeks, he listened to the grief that rode it.  It came from the women of the Chinamen who’d done run to stop the fire and not come home.  Roy took a sip and shook his head.  He could hear Chan Junjie in the room behind him shoutin’ out his displeasure in that gibberish he spoke, loud as Hop Sing on a day when someone complained about his biscuits.

They’d managed to put the fire out before it took the whole dang town – barely.  It was he who’d set off the alarm as he ran down the street toward the warehouse that was ablaze.  It was an old building, abandoned for the most part.  He knew from walking the streets with Junjie that there was more than enough old straw and other fodder in there to feed a good set of hungry flames.

Sometimes it seemed Virginia City with its wooden buildings was cursed with the eleventh plague.  Fires broke out all the time, though most were small and quickly contained.  This one had been a humdinger.  As he ran down the street toward it, there was women and children, old men and their wives, dogs and cats and just about everythin’ else in the world runnin’ in the opposite direction.  Before it was done, the fire had claimed about a block both ways.

It almost claimed the lives of two men he loved as well – one, like his own son.

Roy reached up and wiped a tear from his eye.  If he’d been in company, he would have said somethin’ got in it.  It weren’t a lie, after all.  That ‘something’ was gratitude.

If Joe Cartwright had died last night, his Pa would have died as well.

Finishing the coffee, Roy placed the cup on the ledge outside the office window and stepped into the street, turning his feet toward the house that had been set up as a temporary hospital.  Dr. Kam Lee had come back to Virginia City and was lookin’ out for the victims of the fire.  The Chinese physician was still a bachelor when he arrived, but he didn’t stay one for long.  The Doc had needed a new suit for a ceremony for an award he was gettin’.  The tailor had been out of town and someone had sent him to ‘Tomorrow’s Flower Millinery’. Used to be for women only, that place, but lately Ming-hua had taken on makin’ men’s clothin’ to bring in more money.  She’d had a husband and he’d died and times were, well, a little rough.

Ming-hua took one look at Kam Lee and she took him in too – married him, in fact.

Couldn’t be a nicer couple of people this end of town.

As he neared the steps of the house, Roy paused and looked back again at the burnt-out skeleton of the warehouse.  Over the years he’d fine-tuned his senses, includin’ the ones he would have been hard-pressed to explain.  An inkling, a sense – a notion.  Call it what you like, he had it where Ben Cartwright’s youngest son was involved.

He’d just know’d Joe was in that burning buildin’ and it had about done his old heart in.

Hell on Earth, that’s the only way he could have described it.  Flames shootin’ up into the air and runnin’ along the dry ground.  Burnin’ timbers thrust up against the sky like Satan’s torches.  A wind out of purgatory blowin’, drivin’ ash before it and leavin’ nothin’ to breathe behind.

He’d got as close as he could, closed his eyes, and said a prayer.

Fastest damned answer he’d ever got.  When he opened them, there were four figures walkin’ toward him.  Well, three was walkin’ and one was bein’ dragged.

And the gates of Hell shall not prevail’, was all he could think as he jogged forward to meet them.

At least, not against a Cartwright.

 

He struck out with his hands.

They were on fire.

Everything was on fire – he was, his house was, his father, his wife and child….

The world was on fire.

His lips moved but no sound came out as he threw his whole body into fighting it.  Old wounds blossomed anew as his hands shriveled before his eyes, as flames ran along his shirt sleeves; reaching for a heart that had already turned to ash.  Somebody was screaming.

Words fell into the fire like drops of water – a tin cup against the roaring inferno of his delirium.

‘Joe.  Joe!  It’s all right.’

He wanted to laugh.  No, it isn’t, you idiot!  Everything but God is burning and I’m not so sure about Him!

‘Joe, listen to me!  We made it out!  Joe, you’re safe!’

Safe?  Safe?!  There was no such thing as safe.  There hadn’t been since that day so long ago when he’d watched his mama fall; a ton of horseflesh crushing her as easily as a slug on the road, and then risin’ back up and walkin’ away as if it was an ordinary day.

Whoever it was, was screaming again.

In his fevered mind he saw it happen – his mama falling, only this time she fell into a pit of fire and like Lucifer Morningstar was consumed.  Above her, nodding his head, was God.

I have plans for your, Little Joe,” God said.  ‘Plans for your future.’

Whoever it was, they weren’t screamin’ now.  They were shriekin’.  He wished to Hell whoever it was would stop.

A bitter laugh rose up in his chest, fightin’ to escape; clawing its way through the coughs and pain.

He was in Hell.

And into Hell, another raindrop fell.

‘Joe.  Buddy, you gotta wake up!’

And then, suddenly, there was a boat sailin’ across the fire like the flames were waves.  There was a man at the helm – a tall upright man, with black hair and a quirk of a smile that barely reached his eyes.  He pulled up alongside him and reached out a hand to him.

‘Joe, buddy’, he said again.

And then went up in flame.

Arms caught him as Joe Cartwright sat upright screaming his absent brother’s name.

“Adam?  Adam!”

There was a moment of silence into which the sound of Joe’s fast-beating heart bled.  And then more words, not soothing like water but bitter as gall.

“Joe, don’t you remember?  Adam’s not here.  He hasn’t…been for a long time.  It’s Candy.”

Joe tried to focus on the man at his side, but he couldn’t.  The world was out of focus.

“Not…Adam…?”  He was out of breath; huffing like he’d run a long, hard race. A series of coughs wracked him, each one stabbing like a knife into his chest.  The hands urged him to lay back down.  He didn’t have the strength to fight.

Not Adam.

The next time it was like a rain shower.  There were several soft voices.  One reminded him of Pa – but it wasn’t Pa, couldn’t be Pa.  Pa was sick.  The voices came and went around him, eddying, pushing him about like a leaf on the river’s surface.

“…both lucky….”

“…should…dead….”

“…not.  Do you know who….”

“…boy…saved them….”

“…where?”

“…God alone knows….”

God.

The one who was laughin’ as he burned, like Nero watchin’ Rome go up like a torch.

The man who held him let go.  Another set of hands took over – gently, probing, pokin’ where it hurt, and then liftin’ his eyelids.

“Mister Cartwright?  Can you hear me?”

It sounded like Hop Sing, but didn’t.  For one thing, Hop Sing would be yellin’.

“Mister Cartwright, you have survived the fire.  You must remain still.  Your ribs are injured and you inhaled a good deal of smoke.”  The hands released him.  “Can you hear me?”

“How about this, Joe?  You wake up and I’ll buy the bottle of whiskey to celebrate,” a worried voice suggested.

“…better not…be…coffin varnish…”

Was that him speakin’ or an old barn door creakin’ open?

“Hey, Doc!  He’s awake!”

And slammin’ shut.

“Oww….”  Joe tried to raise a hand to his head, but the action sent shock waves through him. “Maybe…already drank…it….”  A second later an explosive series of coughs wracked him and pain shot through his aching form.

Damn stupid to wake up.

“Mister Canaday, please assist me,” the calm Chinese voice said.  “Since Mister Cartwright is awake, it would be best if he is elevated in order to help clear his lungs.”

Two sets of hands gripped him this time.  He feebly batted at one of them.  “Been…sittin’ up on…my own since I was…”  Joe paused as pain and a tidal wave of dizziness slammed into him and nearly took him under.  “Well, maybe…just…this once…”

And then his eyes opened on the reality around him.  Candy’s worried face was the first thing to come into focus.  It was black like a miner’s.  One side looked like the sun had set on it.

“About…that beauty…contest,” he said, still startled by his own voice.

“It would be wise if you kept quiet, Mister Cartwright.”  There was a pause. “If that is possible.”

Joe looked to the left.  It took a moment, but he recognized Dr. Kam Lee.  He started to open his mouth, but the doctor’s stern look silenced him.  Instead he wiggled his fingers in the physician’s general direction.

Even that hurt.

“Damn,” he said between gritted teeth.

“The occasional epithet is entirely acceptable and not unexpected in this situation,” Dr. Lee said straight-faced,

He wanted to laugh so hard tears ran down his cheeks.

He knew better.

“Smoke?” he asked.

“You must of been cravin’ somethin’ from the chuck wagon, Joe.  You sucked it in like there was no tomorrow.”

Candy was scared.  Joe hated to admit it, but that scared him a little bit too.

“How…bad?”

Doctor Lee looked up from his examination of his arm with one black brow raised.

How was it Lee said more with that one brow than Doc Martin could communicate with a whole sentence?

He shut up.

“As Mister Canaday has indicated, you breathing is compromised.  You took in a good deal of smoke.  That along with your previous injuries has rendered your condition somewhat precarious.”

“You were out cold, Joe.  Couldn’t help it,” Candy offered.

Lee looked a bit put out by the interruption.  “You have two broken ribs along with multiple contusions and lacerations, plus a few minor burns.  On top of this, your lungs may have sustained damage.  If so, they may become infected, swollen, and fill with fluids.  You may experience severe shortness of breath that will lead to respiratory failure, which could prove life-threatening or effect your heart and brain.  If you have trouble breathing or begin to cough up blood, it would be wise to admit to the difficulty and seek help rather than attempting to…’martial’ through on your own.”

Joe’s brows popped up to match the doctor’s.

Lee’s lips curled as a trace of irony entered his tone.  “You see, I do remember you.”

As the Chinese doctor spoke, the door to the room opened.  Joe didn’t know who he expected to see, but it wasn’t who he saw.

He started to ask a question.  Lee’s frown shot that down.  Instead, he bobbed his head to say ‘Roy.’

“Joe,” Roy returned.  The older man sighed.  “Seems I can’t leave you alone in town one night without you gettin’ into trouble.”

It was a damn fine imitation of his father.

Joe snorted and then held his side as another fit of coughing took him.

“Humor is not in the best interests of the patient at this moment,” Doctor Lee remarked dryly.

Roy took his hat off and ran a hand through what was left of his hair.  “Sorry, Doc.  I just need to corroborate a few things with Joe.  If that’s okay?”

“Keep the questions to ones that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as much as possible.”

“Yes, sir,” the aged lawman said.  “In here your word is law, Doc.  So I take it you was kidnapped, son?”

‘Kidnapped’ made him feel like a kid, but basically….  He nodded.

“You know by who?”

That one got a shrug.

Candy answered.  “They were Chinese. Joe thought they worked for…Khu Zhuang?”

“Ain’t he dead?” Roy demanded.

“Someone else….”  Joe drew in a breath.  It hurt.  “…took over.”

“Revenge, eh?  Comin’ back to right a s’posed wrong?  Somethin’ like that?  And that’s who beat you?”

Joe nodded.  He was starting to feel nauseous, but he wasn’t about to admit it.

“Who set the fire?”

“We don’t know,” Candy replied with a glance at him.  “The men that took Joe took me too.  They tied us up and left us in a loft.  By the time the fire started, they were gone.”  He shrugged.  “Could have been them or someone else.  Maybe even an accident.”

“Either of you know the boy who saved you?”

This was news to Joe. ”Boy?”

Doctor Lee poked at one of his burns, freeing cloth from it, as if in warning.

“Strangest thing I ever did see.”  Roy tipped his hat back as he shook his head.  “I was runnin’ toward that fire when all of a sudden here come Candy and two other fellers, one of them totin’ you along.  Chinese, both of them.  The one had hold of Candy was about your size, but that little squirt who had you, well…”  Roy’s face lit.  “He were as scrawny as you was way back when we all called you ‘Little’ Joe.”

“But strong,” Candy added.  “Real strong.”

Joe looked at his friend.

“They came out of nowhere,” Candy went on.  “Right down from the top of the warehouse.  Everything was on fire below us.  Joe couldn’t…”  Candy paused.  He looked slightly sick.  “I wouldn’t leave him.  Thought we both were gonna fry, and then here comes this kid, all dressed in black, and then the other one.  The kid picked up Joe and the man took hold of me and quicker than I knew it, we were outside layin’ on the ground coughing our guts out.”  He whistled.  “It was a helluva ride.”

Joe had no memory of it, or of the boy.  “You say he…was Chinese?” he asked a moment later in spite of Doctor Lee’s glower.

The former sheriff nodded.

“Roy, turn around,” Candy said.

Roy’s owlish eyebrows lifted and then he did as he was told.  Behind him, in the doorway, stood a slightly singed Chinese youth garbed in black and skinny as a bed slat.  Another man stood behind him.  His hand rested protectively on the youth’s shoulder.  Joe gasped as his eyes met the man’s and recognition dawned.

“I see you cannot do without me now any better now than you could eighteen years ago, tiger cub,” Jian said.

 

SIX

Bella jumped and dropped what she was holding when the knock came at the door.  She glanced with guilt at the remnants of the yellow and white Chinese ginger jar that lay scattered at her feet, wondering if whoever it was would think she was a madwoman when they saw it.

She’d been mad . Very, very mad when Jian refused to allow her to accompany him to town.  Ben, she could understand.  He wasn’t well.  But she….  She needed to….

Her hand went to her belly and the child within that even now was kicking and bucking, ready to break free.

Bella sighed.

She needed to take care of her children.

Jian had been right, of course.  She was too close to her time.  Joe would never have forgiven her if she jeopardized both her life and their unborn child’s to make the twenty mile trip over rugged and uneven roads just to make sure he was all right.

“Dear Lord,” she breathed.  “Let Joe be all right.”

Unexpectedly, the knock came again.  It puzzled her.  Not only was it far too late for visitors, but the night had grown wicked.  A strong western wind had arisen and driven a hard rain before it.  Even now it struck the hewn log walls of the ranch house with the force of cast stones.  On top of that, Jian had men watching the house and it surprised her that they would have let anyone pass. Using the toe of one slipper, Bella shoved the china shards aside and headed for the door.

There was no masking her surprise at what she found when she opened it.  Standing outside of the Ponderosa ranch house was a cloaked woman with a shivering child nestled closely under each arm.  For several heartbeats they simply stared at one another and then the woman asked, her voice mellow and husky as a fine brandy sipped by the fire.

“May we come in?”

Bella blinked and then stepped back.  “I’m sorry…forgive me,” she said. “Please, come in out of the rain and…mind the broken china.”  As the woman ushered the two children in and around the jar’s remains, one of the men Jian had left behind stepped out of the shadows and into the light.  He nodded once, as if to let her know everything was under control, and then disappeared.

Puzzled, Bella followed the strangers.  Once inside, the woman paused and turned back.  “Is it all right if the children sit by the fire?”

Bella nodded.  Then she remembered.

“Just a moment,” she said, halting the woman in her progress.  Crossing to the settee, she knelt down and lifted her sleeping son into her arms.  After the men left she had brought Eric downstairs.  She’d been concerned…no...terrified to leave him alone in his room.  With a smile at the unknown woman, she headed for the guest bedroom.  “Please, make yourself at home while I get my son settled.”

It took her a few minutes.  As she laid him on the fresh sheets Eric woke up, crying for his father.  She hushed him and sat with him a few minutes, singing one of the French lullabies she’d heard Joe sing to the child.  As soon as he fell asleep, she tucked the covers under his chin and returned to the great room.

It didn’t surprise her to find Hop Sing placing a tray on the table in front of the fire.  Steam rose from the cups it held.  Hot chocolate, at a guess, she thought as she watched the children’s weary faces light up.  There was one of each – a boy and a girl.  The girl was older.  She had a beautiful but sober face; pale and perfect, and surrounded by a framework of long, black hair.  The boy was younger.  There was something about him that, surprisingly, reminded her of her missing husband.  The boy’s head was a tousled mess of sorrel-colored curls.  His wide eyes were dark.  At a guess, she would say about as dark as Ben’s.  Neither was very old.  The girl might have been eight and the boy, six.

Bella smiled as she moved into the great room.  The woman was busy fussing with the boy who – again, like her husband – had moved too quickly and already spilled his drink down the front of his light-colored shirt.  She was speaking to him softly as she wiped his chin.  The woman’s hair, which she wore swept up and away from her face, was just about the same color as the boy’s, though a shade or two darker, and though tamed by combs and pins, she could tell is was curly.  The stranger was a handsome woman and rather tall for her sex – perhaps an inch or so shorter than Joe – and she was older to have such young children.  At a guess she would have placed her in her late thirties or, perhaps, even forty, though her slender boyish figure and the energy with which she moved seemed to belie that.  Bella smiled as the boy grinned and ducked under his mother’s arm, escaping the last passage of the cloth meant to wipe his chin.

From the looks of things, she needed it!

The woman caught her watching and smiled.  “This one takes after me, I’m afraid,” she said with a smile as she corralled the boy in Ben’s chair.  He squirmed for a moment and then rubbed his eyes before surrendering to the last swipe of the cloth.

Bella was dying to know who this woman was and what she was doing at their house, but she knew – as a mother – that it would have to wait.  She recognized the signs of a sleepy little boy all too well.

“We have plenty of room upstairs.  Would you like to get these two settled?” she offered.

The woman frowned.  “You have no idea who we are and you’re offering to put us up for the night?”

Bella laughed.  “I know who you are.”

Her visitor looked surprised. “Oh?”

“You’re a mother with two weary children who need their rest.”  Again, Bella wondered who this woman was.  She was guessing Jian’s men knew her somehow.  Why else would they have let her through their protective barrier?  “Please, see to their needs and then we can talk.”  As she spoke, Hop Sing reappeared, his arms laden with fresh linens.

“Missy stay night with little ones,” he concluded.

Dear Hop Sing.  Always ready to help. She didn’t know what she would do without him.

“Yes.  Will you please show them upstairs?”

The Chinese man nodded.  As he moved past, he paused, “Missy Bella hear anything more about Mister Cartwright’s number three son?”

She touched his arm.  “No.  No new word yet.  I’ll let you know when there is.”

Hop Sing gave her another nod and a smile, and then headed up the stairs.

The woman was staring at him.  She wasn’t quite frowning, but it was something like that.  It almost looked like there was a memory she was trying to recall.

“Is something wrong?”

Her visitor started and then laughed.  “No.  Just tired.”  She glanced at her children.  Both were seated on the settee now.  The boy was leaning against his sister, fighting to keep his eyes open.  “It’s been a long and somewhat…trying journey.”  The woman crossed over and picked the boy up, cradling the child’s head with a hand in his curls.  She smiled as the girl rose and came to stand beside her.  “Lisbet’s been my anchor all along the way.  Haven’t you, my heart?”

Intelligence shone from the young girl’s eyes and hard-won wisdom – too much for a child of her tender age.

“I can take BJ upstairs, mother, so you and the lady can talk,” she said.

“Room ready for Missy and little ones,” Hop Sing announced from the top of the stairs.

As much as she was dying to know who this woman was, she could tell she was just as exhausted as her children.

“Why don’t you take them to bed and get some rest yourself,” Bella suggested.  “We can talk in the morning.”

The woman looked tempted.  She closed her eyes and weariness seemed to shudder through her.  Then she shook her head.

“No.  We need to talk.  I need to explain, and you need to know just who you have welcomed into your home….”  The woman paused.  She glanced at her son and daughter, and then back to her.

“And just what she has brought with her.”

 

“Joe!  Hey, Joe!  Damn it, Joe!  Hold up!”

Candy couldn’t believe it.  He was hopping with one boot on and one boot off and Joe Cartwright was already halfway to the Ponderosa.

Well, not really.  But from the look in Joe’s eyes he would be if he didn’t get his blasted boot on and get on his horse in the next few seconds.

“I need to get home,” Joe announced as he rounded Cochise and came to a restless stop before him.  Joe’s mouth was a thin line, straight and unassailable and set in the midst of a rocky mountain jaw.  As the pinto pranced and snorted, sensing his rider’s agitation, the youngest Cartwright snapped, “I told you we….”  Joe paused to cough and fought a second for breath.  “We don’t have time to stop.”

“And I told you that while – beggin’ your pardon – while I had the smarts not to inhale an entire warehouse of smoke and nearly fry my lungs, walkin’ on burnin’ ground sure enough can play havoc with the bottom of a man’s feet!  Just cause you caught a ride out of that place – ”

“I thought the doctor gave you…salve for them.”  Joe was scowling, though whether about the delay or the coughing, he wasn’t sure.  “Don’t tell me you were stupid enough not to use it.”

“Oh, right,  Listen to mister ‘I-never-do-what-the–doc-tells-me-cause-I-know-better’!”  Candy shoved the bottle he was holding in the hand without a boot toward his friend and snarled,  “What the hell do you think I took my boots off for?”

It wasn’t a smart move.  Cochise took one snort of the offending salve and reared back, nearly unseating Joe.

Made him wonder what it was doin’ to his feet.

“Easy, Cooch, easy,” Joe cooed while patting his horse on the neck.  It took a second, but the animal settled without throwing its rider to the ground.

A smile broke on Joe’s face. “What’s in that stuff?” he asked, his voice coming out in a rasp.

“Hell if I know,” Candy muttered as he poked his nose into the bottle and sniffed.  “Piss and ink?”

His friend was shaking his head.  After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “You gonna put on that boot or…do I have to come down there and do it for you?”

Muttering under his breath, Candy made his way over to a nearby boulder.  After placing the bottle on the top, he propped his hip next to it and began to pull on his boot – hissing and complaining the whole time.

Joe’s hard look softened.  “It really hurt that much?”

He’d given his toes a good look over before jammin’ them into the leather torture chamber known as a ‘boot’.

“All I can say is I’ve seen dogs on a spit that looked less cooked.”

Joe hesitated and then swung down from the saddle.  Candy noticed how he held onto the horn for a moment, gathering himself, before he started toward him. There had been one hellatious row when Joe announced he was goin’ back to the Ponderosa ‘right now’.  It was after nine at night and rainin’ cats and dogs, and both docs – Martin and Lee – told him he was playin’ with fire, pun intended.  That Jian and the kid with him, they weren’t too happy with him either.  Jian told him he’d left men watching the ranch house and that Bella and his boy were safe, but Joe would have none of it.  Jian had offered to come with them, but Joe insisted he stay behind with the Chinese boy.  Seems the kid who saved Joe was Jian’s grandson and by the time they got to the docs, he was hurtin’ just about as much as Joe.  The boy’d insisted he was all right when he rode out to the Ponderosa to find his father and grandfather and let them know what had happened in town.  He’d lied, of course.  Not only had the kid breathed in just about as much smoke as Joe, he had burns on his feet and arms.  When Doctor Lee asked him how he was feelin’, he responded with a familiar phrase.

‘I’m fine.’

Candy snorted as he eyed his friend who was definitely not at the top of his game.

No wonder the kid’s name was Joseph too.

“You look like you better sit down,” he told his boss and friend.

“What do you think I’ve…been doin’?” Joe growled as he tossed his curly head toward Cochise, who was pawing the ground.

Dang horse was as impatient as its owner!

Candy finally managed to get the boot on over his smarting foot.  “Fine!” he snapped back.  “See if I care when you fall off your horse and onto your ass!”  He paused, really looking at his friend.  Joe was pale.  He had his palm pressed against his chest and was fighting to draw a deep breath.  “Hey.  You okay?”

Joe’s lips curled in chagrin. “I will be when I get home.”  Those green eyes pinned him. The ones that could make the rock of Ben Cartwright melt.  “Candy, please.  I need to get home.  I have to see that…Eric and Bella are all right.”

Jian hadn’t said much, but what the Chinese man hadn’t said, said a lot.  Someone had threatened Bella and Joe’s boy.  Jian had stopped them and they were all right.  He wouldn’t say who or why or exactly what had happened – just kept evading it.

That bad feeling he’d had?  Well, it just kept gettin’ worse.

“Look, buddy,” Candy said, “the rain’s stopped and there’s a nice dry path of ground over there with your name on it.  How about you give yourself fifteen minutes?  Just fifteen.  I’ll fill the canteens.  The doc said for you to drink as much and as often as you could.  You suckin’ on those candies like he told you to?”

Joe’s eyes had a funny look in them.  “Yes, I am, big brother.”

Candy frowned.  “What?”

His friend shook his head as he dropped to the dry spot of ground and leaned his head back against a boulder.  “Adam.  He used to call me ‘buddy’, and he…would have been the one makin’ sure I followed the doc’s instructions to a tee.”

“Sounds like a smart fellow to me.”

Joe opened one eye.  A second later he let out a little sigh.  “Adam is…was the smartest and just about the dumbest man I ever knew.”

“You want to explain that?”

“Pa always said a little learning was a dangerous thing.  He was quotin’ somethin’ back at Adam some…fellow named Pope.”  Joe snorted.  “Older brother’s head was so…full of knowledge that he couldn’t see straight.  It was like there was….” Joe paused to cough. “…like, when there was a path clear cut before him, he was…so damn busy calculating how to find one, he’d miss it.”  His friend paused.  He looked away.  “God, I miss him.”

“You do?”  Candy picked up his canteen and then went to get Joe’s where it hung on his saddle horn.  “The older hands said you two were always knockin’ heads.  Said he treated you like a kid and you didn’t like it much.”

“I’m thirty-five now.  When Adam was my age, I was twenty-three.  I was a kid.”  Joe hesitated.  A moment later a pale smile curled his lips.  “I guess I’d like to be able to tell him I understand now.”

“What about when he came after the wedding?  What was that, five years ago?”

His friend nodded.  “We talked some, but he was busy with building the new wing and preoccupied most the time, and, well, I…still thought I knew it all.”

“You tried writing him lately?”

Joe got a funny look on his face.  “We haven’t heard from Adam since he went back to Europe.  He sent a telegram before he boarded the ship and then, nothing.”

Candy stood there, canteens in hand.  “Nothing?”

Joe shook his head.  “Pa thinks he’s dead.  I can’t…”  His friend sucked in air and then he coughed…and coughed.  The sound this time was harsh and deep.  By the time the fit was over, Joe’s eyes were watering.  He drew a breath and held it, shook his head, and then closed his eyes and leaned his head back again.

“I’ll go refill the canteens and while I’m at it, answer the call of nature,” Candy said, sensing his friend needed a few moments to himself.  The name Cartwright had a meaning everyone knew – family.  If Adam was dead, then Joe and his pa were all that was left.

Joe nodded.  When he spoke, his words slurred just a bit.  “We need to…go…when you get back. Wake me up if…I….”

As the brown-haired man watched his friend slip into sleep, his lips twisted.

‘If…’ had an awful lot of endings.

 

Bella was sitting on the settee, her fingers absent-mindedly stroking her son’s curls as he slept.  She was bone-weary but sleep eluded her.  All she could think about was her husband and wonder how badly he was hurt.  Jian had said very little, but it had been enough for her to know that both Candy and Joe were injured and that they had been close to a fire.  The blonde woman closed her eyes and let out a little sigh.  God had His ways and they certainly were mysterious. Though he wouldn’t admit it, Joe had a very real fear of fire and with good reason.  Fire had taken his first wife and unborn child.  A fire set by a madman seeking revenge had almost killed both of them shortly before their marriage. And now, Joe could have died….

But he hadn’t.  He would be home soon.

She needed to count her blessings.

The sound of footsteps on the staircase made her look up.  She’d expected to see their unexpected visitor.  Instead, it was Ben.

“Is Joe back yet?” the older man asked, his voice tight with worry.

She shook her head.  “No.  Not yet.”

Her father-in-law frowned.  “I thought I heard voices earlier.”

As Eric murmured and cuddled closer to her, she met Ben’s puzzled stare.  “We have a visitor.  Well, three actually.”

He walked over to her and bent down to touch his grandson’s head.  Compassion and anger mixed in his dark eyes as he noted the healing wound.  The older man straightened up and then looked toward the door.

“Jian’s men let them through?”

She nodded.  “It’s a woman and her two children.”

He frowned.  “Anyone we know?”

Bella shifted her grip on her son.  As she did, her fingers touching the bandage that covered the trail the bullet had blazed across his temple.  An insane thought almost made her laugh out loud – Eric was likely to have as many scars as his father did by the time he went to school!

A second later that bottled-up laughter turned to tears.

Ben sat beside her.  He slipped an arm around her shoulders and laid his free hand on her boy’s head.

“You’re both safe.  Joseph is alive.  God is good.”

She bit her trembling lip and nodded.  “I just wish Joe would come home.”

“I’m sure he’s on his way.”  Ben paused.  “I know my son.  Whether for good or ill, Joe won’t rest until he sees for himself that you are both safe.”  At her look, he added softly, ‘It’s how fathers are.”

Bella rested her head on his shoulder.  “Thank you for being my papa,” she said, her voice tight as she fought to contain her tears.

The older man smiled. “Having you here is such a joy, Bella.  After raising three sons, I needed a daughter.”

“You need a wife,” she said before she could think to stop herself.

Ben laughed.  “Me?  I’m too old and set in my ways.”

“Why didn’t you…” she began and then stopped.  It was really none of her business.

“Why didn’t I remarry?”  The older man’s near-black eyes took on a faraway look. “I was blessed with the love and companionship of three fine and excellent women.  They entrusted their sons to me when they passed on.”  Ben laughed.  “Those three were more than enough to last a lifetime.”

“Was there never anyone….  Anyone who came close?”

Ben’s fingers softly stroked Eric’s hair.  Her son shifted at the familiar touch and a little smile lifted the corner of his lips. She smiled at her boy and then looked up at her Pa.

Ben looked about as lost as she had ever seen.

For a moment Bella was lost as well.  Then she knew what it was.

“Rosey,” she said.

The older man disengaged his hand and rose to his feet.  He moved to the end of the settee and looked out of the window above the dining table.  “She’s missing,” he said simply.

Bella blinked.  “Who’s missing?  Rosey?  What do you mean?”

Joe’s father turned to look at her.  “Jian told me.  Rory took a post in Europe.  He went there with his family.  Rosey had settled her affairs and was headed here.  Then she simply vanished.”

She didn’t know what to say.  “No one knows where she is?”

“Jian looked for her before he came here.”  Ben sighed.  “If anyone could have found a trace, it would have been him.  There was nothing.”

Bella considered all she had been told of the older woman.  Joe was sure Rosey’s feelings for his father were just as deep as Ben’s were for her.  Her handsome husband had expressed his regret that the two of them hadn’t been able to find a way to make a life together.  It had been eighteen years – nearly a lifetime ago – when they had met.  She could tell Ben loved her still.

How much loss would this man be made to suffer?

After a moment Pa said, his voice firm with resolve.

“I’m going to find her.”

Her instant reaction was to remind him that he was barely recovered from the accident, that he shouldn’t push himself and certainly shouldn’t entertain the idea of traveling that far, and that she didn’t know what they would do if something happened to him – what Joe would do if something happened to him.

But she didn’t.

Love would find a way.  It always did.

 

Joe opened one eye and looked around.  It was still dark.

A moment later he closed it, and then opened both wide.  It took him a second to remember where he was – and then to realize that he was going to beat the hell out of Candy for letting him fall asleep and leaving him asleep!  Fighting angry, Joe leapt to his feet and drew in a breath of the late night air ready to shout, and instantly dissolved into a coughing fit that nearly brought him to his knees.

Damn.

Cussedness, apparently, was not enough to overcome everything.

With his shirt sleeve, Joe wiped away the tears running down his cheeks and then looked around for a canteen.  It was at that moment that he realized something was wrong.  Candy had been headed for the stream to refill their canteens when he sat down – before he fell asleep.  The other man should have been back long before now.  In fact, Candy should be laying somewhere close by, taking advantage of the opportunity to catch a few winks while his bullheaded friend was out for the count.  Joe looked again.

Nope.  No Candy.

Instinctively, his hand went to his hip.  Then he remembered he wasn’t the young sharpshooter he’d once been, but a responsible older man – a husband, father, and rancher.  He didn’t carry a sidearm anymore.  The damage to his shoulder made it pointless anyhow.

And his rifle was anchored on his saddle on his horse that was…

Nowhere to be seen.

“Cooch?” Joe called softly.  He remembered that when he’d dismounted, he’d neglected to tether the animal.  Cochise was probably off somewhere munching grass.  Probably the same place Candy was, skinny-dipping or picking daisies.

A second later a twig snapped.

Deliberately.

Joe sucked in air and turned.  He knew what he would find and he wasn’t disappointed – a pair of Chinese men staring at him like he was a prize steer on the block.

The curly-haired man swallowed.  A nerve jerked in his cheek.  “Lookin’ for someone?” he asked as casually as he could.

The oldest and largest of the pair took a step toward him.  He was dressed in dark clothes like the other two, but silver threads shot through the fabric like quicksilver.  “You are Joseph Cartwright,” he said in a voice that sounded surprisingly like a woman’s.

It wasn’t a question.

He shook his head.  “Sorry.  Never heard of him.”

The man took another step toward him.  Damn, but he was ugly!  His was the face of his nightmares – one that had seen and survived the flames.  Joe glanced at his hands.  If not for Hop Sing’s constant care and Chinese remedies, they would have looked the same.  As it was, there was a lot of scar tissue, but not nearly as much as this man had.  The right side of his face looked like it had melted and cooled, forming a skin bridge that occluded one eye. It made the man look like one of those grotesques Adam had shown him in a book on England – the ones that were so repulsive they scared demons away from cathedrals.

“You will come with us,” big ugly said.

Joe took a step back.  He drew in a breath, fought a cough, and then shook his head.  “Thanks for the invitation, but I don’t…think you set the kind of table I’d be interested in.”

He’d probably be the main course.

Something happened then it was hard to put words to.  Big ugly’s face rippled as a dark humor danced in his eyes.  It was kind of like what the ground did under your feet when there was an earthquake, only rolling and heaving skin was a whole lot scarier.

It took Joe a moment to realize the man was sneering.

“If you value the life of your friend, you will not resist.”

Friend?  Dear God!  They had Candy!  Or, at least, they wanted him to think they had Candy.

Did they have Candy?

“You’re holdin’ a pretty empty hand,” Joe said with a bravado he didn’t feel.  He drew a breath, stifled a cough, and then demanded, “Throw your cards on the table.”

The man’s eyes reminded him of a pig’s.  Not one of those nice pigs like Hoss tried to make into a pet, but an eight foot long, mad as hell boar who would be only too pleased to gore you with his tusks.

Big ugly raised a hand.  He snapped two words off in Chinese.

In response there was a movement just within the trees.  A second pair of Chinese men appeared, dragging a man between them.  He recognized one of them as Cho Ban, the bully who had beaten him and probably set the fire that had nearly killed him.  Joe stood his ground even as fear and fatigue shuddered through him.  Their captive’s head was hanging down to his chest.  Blood dripped from his chin to his chest.  It was obvious he’d put up a fight and he hadn’t gone down easy.

It was also obvious it wasn’t Candy Canaday.

Joe swallowed over his surprise and the gut-wrenching terror he felt.

It was his brother, Adam.

 

SEVEN

It was four o’clock in the morning.  As safe a time as any to make an escape attempt.

Ben Cartwright held his breath as he descended the staircase, satchel in hand.  He had little concern that those sleeping in the new wing of the house would hear him. When Bella had finally given in and taken Eric up to sleep with her in her bed, she’d been exhausted.  Between worrying about Joseph, dealing with all that had happened in the last few days, and her maternal condition, it was a surprise she’d stayed on her feet as long as she had.  He was worried about Joseph too, but instead of that concern wearing him down, it had energized him enough that he couldn’t sleep.  His youngest son should have been home long ago.  The fact that neither he nor Candy had turned up was troubling to say the least.  Still, his concern for his son wasn’t the only thing that fueled his nocturnal wanderings.  Ben glanced down to make sure he didn’t miss the last step in the dark and then headed for the wall where his coat hung on a peg.  He would go to town first and make sure Joseph was all right and then….

He was going after Rosey.

In the almost two decades since he’d met the beautiful older woman, he couldn’t count the times he’d kicked himself for letting her get away.  Never, since Marie, had he felt that way about a woman.  The trouble was, it seemed just about everything that could possibly keep them apart had – time, distance, their children’s needs; their own….  And now, when all of those obstacles seemed to have been miraculously cleared away, she’d gone missing, just as she had nearly twenty years before.  And just like that time with Finch Webb, Rosey had gone missing coming to his home.  What he felt wasn’t the same as that inner sense he had when it came to his sons’ welfare, but there was a voice inside him urging him to go.

And he was determined that he would!

As the rancher moved swiftly past the table behind the settee, intent on reaching the door before anyone could catch him, Ben caught his foot on the foyer rug and stumbled.  Someone had left a stack of books anchored on the table’s edge and, as he reached out for balance, his fingers tipped the stack and they crashed to the ground.  Ben held still, expecting any second to hear a string of irate Cantonese words directed at him from the wing of the house that held the kitchen.  Instead, there was a small and very feminine, ‘Oh!”, and a second later a hand appeared on the back of the settee.  A tousled head quickly followed – feminine, covered with long dark curly hair.  The woman blinked sleep away.  She stared at him a moment and then seemed to remember that it was she who was the intruder and not him.

The stranger rose to her feet, smoothed out her skirts, and then reached up to shove a few of the loose and rampant curls back from her forehead.

“Forgive me.  I fell asleep so early that when I woke I thought I would come downstairs and look around….”  The stranger paused, frowned, and reworded what she’d said.  “I mean, I thought I would sit by the fire for a bit and then head back up.  I must have fallen asleep.”

She was a lovely woman – whoever she was – maybe forty, and tall for her sex.  He couldn’t exactly judge the color of her hair in the pale light that fell through the open window, but he thought it was a deep auburn.  She wore it loose and it kinked and curled on its way to her taut shoulders.  She watched him closely.  Wary, and….

What?

“You must be Lisbet and BJ’s mother?” he asked.

The woman looked a bit startled.  Then she laughed.  “Bella told you.”

He nodded.  “A bit.  But not your name.”

She frowned.  “I don’t think I told her.  It’s Katherine, but everyone calls me Kate.”

Ben took a step toward her and held out his hand.  “Kate.  I’m – ”

“Ben Cartwright.”  At his look, she added, “I would have known you anywhere.”

It was his turn to frown.  “Have we met before?”

Her teeth caught in her lip for a moment before she spoke.  “No.  But I have heard a great deal about you.”

“Positive things, I hope,” he said with a smile.

“Oh, yes.  All positive.”

Ben waited.  When she seemed unwilling to elaborate, he placed his satchel on the table behind the sofa and bent to retrieve the fallen books.  As he did, he asked as casually as he could, “And what brings you to the Ponderosa?”

Kate stiffened – marginally.  “What did Bella tell you?”

“Only that you arrived with your children and were exhausted.”  As she seemed to relax, he added, “and that you indicated you might have brought some trouble with you.”

The handsome woman drew a breath.  “Ah, yes. Well….” As she puffed out the breath, her eyes – nearly as dark as his own – settled on his face.  “I had hoped to wait until….  You see, there is someone else coming here to see you.  He was supposed to have arrived before me, but things got out of hand and so I took the children and hightailed it out of Salt Lake as fast as I could.”  She frowned.  “I don’t know if…well…if I should wait for him or if I should tell you about…everything.”

He held her gaze.  “If whatever this is puts anyone in this house in danger, you have a duty to tell me all you know.  Now.”

She thought a moment and then nodded.  “It’s not much.  I’ve been kept in the dark as well – for my own good and for the children’s.”

“Bella seemed to indicate….  You believe someone may have followed you?”

Kate shrugged.  “I don’t know for certain.  I think so, but I have no proof.”

“Were they Chinese?”

There was a sudden change.  Kate’s handsome form went rigid and fear – real fear entered her eyes.

“Are they already here?”

“They?”

She looked at him and then began to move about, quickly, as though standing still was impossible.  In her wandering she passed the well-worn blue velvet chair by the gun rack.  Ben noted how she stopped and her hand reached out to caress it.  And then, how her eyes traveled up the stairs to linger at the top.

“I’ve dreamed so often of being in this house,” she said.  “It’s recorded in my mind’s eye.  You, sitting in your chair by the fire with your paper; a glass of brandy at your side.”  She turned and her gaze went to the low wooden table before the fire.  “Little Joe and Hoss playing checkers over there while Adam sits here strumming his guitar.”  Kate nodded toward the kitchen.  “And Hop Sing, all the while complaining that your supper is getting cold.”  With a sigh, she dropped into his eldest son’s favorite chair.  “I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet Hoss.  I’m sure I would have loved him as deeply as I love your son.”

Son?  For a brief moment he wondered if Joseph had gotten himself into trouble somehow, though the thought was absurd and he felt shamed for even entertaining it.  But if she didn’t mean Joe or Hoss, then she had to mean….

“Who are you?” he asked, although he was fairly certain he knew.

The woman rose and came to stand before him.  She pulled herself up to her full height and met his challenging stare.

“Who am I?  I’m Katherine Rebecca O’Connor…Cartwright.  Adam’s –”

He finished it for her.

“Adam’s wife.”

 

So much for the best laid plans.

Of course, it was a poet he favored – Robert Burns – who’d said the best laid schemes of both mice and men ‘gang aft a-gley’.

Somehow he imagined that walking smack dab into the enemy’s camp, being captured, trussed up and knocked on the head, most certainly qualified as ‘a-gley’.

Adam Cartwright moaned, though whether with pain or due to his own stupidity he wasn’t sure.

“It’s about time you woke up,” someone growled.  “You’ve put on a bit of weight.  Just about wore me out holdin’ you up all night.”

The man’s voice was weak and there was air in it, like he’d run a long race – or just swung off of his horse after riding into the yard hell-bent for leather.

Adam didn’t know whether to shout with joy or curse out loud.  After all, they were bound arm to arm and back to back in the middle of a hostile camp with several rather…irate…looking Chinese men guarding them.

Several rather large Chinese men who, sadly, looked disturbingly familiar to him.

“Oh, that’s right,” his companion snapped, his words angry; punched.  “You forgot how to talk.  That explains it’s been nearly three years since we heard from you!  That last word was punctuated with a shallow cough, quickly followed by a series of deeper ones.

Adam licked his lips.  “Joe?”

His brother’s back was up against his.  His muscles rippled with rage.  “You surprise me, older brother.  I figured you forgot my name – and Pa’s too.  Can’t address a letter if you don’t know a person’s name.”

“Joe, look,” he said, keeping his voice low.  “Now’s not the time to – ”

“Like hell it isn’t!”  His brother spoke in a whisper, but the volume ratcheted up with each incensed sentence.  “Do you know what you disappearin’ did to Pa?  Do you?  First he lost Hoss and then…you.”  Joe swallowed over another cough and when he went on, the air was back in his voice.  “It…about killed him.”

“Joe, I wanted to write.  Really.  I couldn’t –”

“You break your hand?”

“Joe….”

“Or maybe you’re blind.  Is that it?”  There was a pause and when his little brother spoke again, he sounded incredibly weary.  “Tell me there’s something, Adam.  Give me a…reason not to hate you.”

As he opened his mouth to answer, Adam became aware that one of the Chinese men had moved to stand beside them.  He was closer to Joe.

“You will be quiet,” the man ordered.

Joe’s head snapped up.  “What are you gonna do if I’m not?”

Adam tried to look at his brother, but all he could catch was a glimpse of long curls brushing a pair of broad shoulders.  In the moonlight, the curls looked silver.

Silver?

“You will be quiet!” the man repeated, nudging Joe’s shoulder with the butt of his rifle.  “If not, I will make you quiet.”

Adam could feel the tension in his younger brother’s form.   ‘No, Joe,’ he thought.  ‘Don’t.  You have no idea who you are dealing with.’     

Apparently Joe didn’t hear him.

“You and what army, fèiwù?” he sniped.  

Joe had, of course, picked up a lot of Cantonese from Hop Sing, some good, some bad.

That was one of the bad ones.

A second later Joe’s head rammed back into his and then his brother fell sideways.  Adam braced himself, bearing the sudden dead weight in order to keep Joe from hitting the ground.  Slowly, careful not to appear antagonistic, he looked up at the Chinese man, wincing as he saw the blood decorating the butt of the man’s rifle.  When he saw who it was, his heart plunged to his toes.  Knowing it would do no good to show fear, he deliberately met Cho Ban’s intense gaze.

And read his brother’s death in it.

No.  No, he thought.  Get hold of yourself!  If their captors wanted Joe dead, he would be dead.  Sadly, the fact that his little brother was still breathing suggested Khu Qian had plans for him, and that frightened him even more than the thought of his brother’s death.

Cho Ban held his gaze for a moment before turning his rifle around and slowly and deliberately placing the barrel against his brother’s head.

The message was clear.  He knew.  Somehow, the tong knew what was going down and he was going to pay for his part in it and pay dearly – not with his own death, but with the deaths of those he loved.

After a few seconds, the man shifted the rifle away.  Then, quicker than he could follow, Cho Ban kicked out with his foot, taking Joe in the side and knocking them both over and onto the ground.  As the thug walked away, his brother moaned.

“Joe?” Adam pleaded, keeping his tone low.  “Joe, can you hear me?”

“Mm..mmm.”  Joe shifted slightly and groaned.  “Damn…hurts….”

He couldn’t help it.  He laughed.

It was nice to know nothing had changed!

 

It was impolite and he knew it, but Ben couldn’t help it.  He was staring.

Staring at Adam’s wife.

“I’m sorry Mister Cartwright,” Kate said.  “I know this must come as quite a shock.”

The fact that his eldest son was alive, and not only alive but married – with children?

“A bit,” he admitted.

The clock had just struck four-thirty.  Kate was once again sitting in Adam’s chair while he had taken a place on the settee.  Outside the new day was dawning.  The first fingers of light were brushing the snow-capped mountains, painting them a fiery gold.  Soon Hop Sing would rise to begin the day’s tasks, followed shortly by Bella.  The few hands who had remained behind would begin their chores, performing the tasks his young sons once had.

His sons.

He’d had three.  Then, it seemed, only one.

Now, he had two.  Two!

Adam was alive!

“Perhaps,” the rancher said after clearing his throat of emotion, “you should begin at the beginning.”

Kate knit her fingers together in her lap and met his gaze.  “Adam and I came to know one another after he took a position teaching at the same university as my father.  As they were both expatriate Americans, they struck up a friendship fairly quickly.  Adam came often to our house.  He and Papa loved to engage in heated but friendly debates.  Afterwards, we would sit down and eat dinner together.  At first Adam would leave early in the evening, but then as our friendship began to grow into something more, he would often stay into the wee hours of the morning.”  The handsome woman paused.  “At first, Adam was very…close about his family.  I thought….”  She laughed.  “In the beginning I thought perhaps you were bank robbers or something.  Having been reared in Massachusetts, I had rather wild and – now I know – foolish notions about the West.  Of course, Adam’s genteel ways cured me of that.”  Kate hesitated as a sadness entered her dark eyes.  “I came to realize very quickly that it hurt Adam to talk about you.”

Ben scowled.  “Hurt him?”

“Yes.  Mister Cartwright, Adam loves you and his brother very deeply.  His path took him far away, but his heart is here.  It has always been here.”

“Ben,” he said gently.

“Excuse me?” Kate asked.

“Call me, Ben.  After all, you are my daughter-in-law.”

The older man swallowed a chuckle.  There had been a time when he thought he would never have a use for that word.  Three stubborn sons that refused to settle down had left him believing he would never have grandchildren.

Now he had three – no, almost four!

Kate smiled.  “Ben, it is.”  She rose and moved to stand in front of the fireplace where she could gaze at the embers. “In time, Adam told me everything about you and his brothers; about how he and Little Joe knocked heads, and how their brother Hoss would always come between then to remind them of how much they loved one another.  We actually made plans to come here to let everyone know about us shortly after Joe’s wedding.”  Her shoulders slumped as she finished.  “And then, everything changed.”

“What happened?”

Kate sighed as she turned to look at him.  Spreading her hands wide, she said, “I wish I knew!  A little over three years ago, shortly after returning to England after his visit here, Adam began a new project.  As the months went by, he grew close about what he was doing.  He would disappear for weeks on end and when I asked him what it was about, he would somehow manage to avoid giving me any real details.  I began to grow…suspicious.  Foolishly I thought, perhaps, there was another woman.  Finally, when I confronted him and told him I was going to take the children and go to my father’s, he apologized.  Adam explained that he was not at liberty to tell me what he was doing.  He told me….”  She drew in a breath.  “That our lives would be in danger if we knew.”

It surprised him to hear that there could be something dearer to Adam’s heart than this woman and his children; something his eldest would consider important enough to put not only his own life in danger, but his family’s. For the first time since learning that his eldest son was alive and well, Ben wondered if Adam was still the man he had known.

“Do you know any more?” he asked, hopeful.

She shook her head.  “No.  We were staying in London with my father then.  Adam made arrangements for us to go out to dinner.  Father kept Lisbet and BJ.  It was then he told me that he had to go away and he had no way of knowing how long he would be gone.  He told me that the project he was involved in had grown so dangerous that it was no longer safe for him to remain with us.  He had to change his name.  Disappear.”

Three years ago?”

Kate came to his side and sat on the settee.  She looked directly at him.  “Three long years.”

“Good Lord!” he exclaimed.

Her smile was sad.  “You know what Adam did?  He told me how you had traveled the seas – how his grandfather had as well, sailing away for years at a time. ‘I know  you didn’t sign on to be a seaman’s wife’, he said to me, ‘but I hope you can find it in yourself to think of it that way.’”  Kate wrapped her arms around her shoulders.  “After that, we went home.  He spent about a week with me and the children and then packed a valise and walked out the door.”

“You haven’t see him since?”

She shook her head.  “No.”  After a pause she added, sadness ringing in her tone. “BJ doesn’t even remember him.”

Ben reached out and touched her hand.  “I’m sorry.”

“So am I.”

They sat in silence for several heartbeats before he asked, “Kate, why are you here?  You said Adam is coming as well?”

She nodded.  “About two months ago I received a letter from him.  It was slipped under the door at my father’s house during the night.  There were tickets in it and instructions for me to follow.  We took a ship to the states and then the train brought us out West.  We traveled to Salt Lake City where we were supposed to remain for several weeks before coming here to join him.”

“Join him?” Ben started.  “Adam is already here?”

“I don’t know.  He said he would meet us here, on the Ponderosa, on the 15th.  I’m nearly two weeks early.”  Kate shivered.  “There was a man in Salt Lake City – a Chinese man.  I realized one day that he was following us wherever we went.  Sometimes he was alone, but at other times there were two or three others with him.  I don’t know why, but they made me afraid – so afraid that I sneaked out in the middle of the night with the children and hired a coach to take us away from the city as fast as it could.  I didn’t know where to go if I didn’t come here.”  Kate’s gaze moved around the great room.  “Somehow, Adam’s stories made me feel that this was the one place on the Earth where those men couldn’t harm us.”

“It was right you came here,” he said, reassuring her.  “This is your home now.”  Ben paused and then asked, just to clarify, “So, Adam wasn’t expecting you to be here for another two weeks?”

“Yes.  And Ben, I think that man followed us.  I don’t know how he did.  We were in Virginia City asking about directions to the Ponderosa when I saw him.”

“You’re sure it was the same man?”

“Yes.  His face is unmistakable.  It’s hideous.  His skin is terribly scarred.”  Kate’s eyes brimmed full with tears.  “I…didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t want to bring trouble here, but I didn’t know where else to go.”

Ben reached out and covered her hand with his own.  “As I said, you did the right thing.  This is where you belong – where Adam’s children belong.”

“But, that man….”

“He and others like him were already in Virginia City,” he assured her.  “My foreman came to the house two nights ago to get Joe.  There were men in town asking about Joseph, about the ranch.  They were Chinese.”

Kate must have sensed something in his voice.  “What happened?  Is Joe all right?”

Her fear echoed his own.  “There was a fire.  Apparently, Joe and my foreman were caught in it.  He was…hurt.  I don’t know how badly.”  Ben glanced at the door.  “He should have been back by now.”

“Who are they?” she asked in a whisper.  “What do they want?  Why do they want to hurt us – and you?”

Ben fought down a rising panic.  He feared he was beginning to understand.  First came the attack on Eric with the seeming intent of kidnapping the boy.  Nothing would have made Joseph surrender himself more quickly than a threat to his young son’s life. Then, Joe himself was taken and his life threatened.  A fire was set.  His son survived.

Was it a warning?

It seemed to him that someone was intent on sending a message and now he knew who that message was meant for.

His eldest son.

 

It was rather uncomfortable laying with his hands and feet tied, nose-down in the grass.  And cold.  Really cold.  Even though the sun had topped the mountains and was climbing the sky, the ground retained the chill of the night before.  It had seeped into his bones.

His old bones.

Adam snorted as he attempted to shift and find a more comfortable position.  He was forty-seven years old.  At twenty-seven he’d been telling his almost fifty-year-old father that it was time to accept the fact that he wasn’t a spring chicken anymore.

Et tu, Brute,” he breathed.

Once he’d made himself as comfortable as possible, he tried calling Joe’s name.  It had been several hours since his brother had once again surrendered to unconsciousness.  He knew Joe was breathing.  He could feel the rise and fall of his chest against his back.  Still, it worried him that the injured man hadn’t made a sound.

After all, this was Joe.

When his brother failed to respond, Adam waited a few seconds and then tried again.  In the silence that followed, he fell to thinking about the mess they were in.  He knew the man who had taken such ghastly delight in cold-cocking Joe.  Cho Ban was a minor player in the drama his life had become; one of a group of unprincipled immoral men who surrounded Khu Qian.  They were men who needed to be stopped on so many fronts.  Making sure that happened had occupied just about his every waking hour for the last three years.  It was all to have ended this week.  There were good men in place – men from Scotland Yard, Pinkertons, local lawmen, judges, and men like him – independent agents – all poised to spring the trap that would take Qian out and close down his illicit and immoral operations.  The man was a monster, far worse than his grandfather Zhuang, or even Da Chao had been.  Qian’s ‘pursuits’, as he liked to call them, ranged from the theft and sale of ancient artifacts to the theft and sale of men, women, and children.  Stolen artifacts.  Opium.  Prostitution.  Extortion.  You name it, Qian had a hand in it.

It had been hard leaving Kate, but he’d had to do it for the sake of his soul.

He’d done it to protect his birth family too.  When his superiors informed him that they’d intercepted communications that implied Qian meant to destroy the Ponderosa in retaliation for what had happened to his grandfather, and that the target of his hate was the young man who was bound arm and back to him now, he’d made the choice to act.  He couldn’t just sit in London and wait for word of…what?   Hoss’ loss had been hard enough.  If Joe….  Adam swallowed hard.  His little brother had already been through so much.  He didn’t know if Khu Qian meant to kill Joe or to make him suffer or both.  What he did know was that his brother had a wife and child – and that Joe had already lost a wife and child.

Pa’s letters had made it clear that he wouldn’t survive losing another.

A long drawn out ‘uhh…nnn’ alerted Adam to the fact that the object of his concern was finally coming to.

Adam’s whisper was terse.  “Joe.  Joe, listen to me.  Keep quiet.”  He bit back the laugh that threatened, absurdly, to bubble up and break free.  “I know it’s asking the impossible, but I need you to listen to me.”

“Uhhh…Adam….  What…?”

Joe was moving.

“Stay still!  I don’t want them to know you’re awake.”

Some of the fire had gone out of his brother’s tone.  Some, but not all.  “You…gave up your right to order me around…when you disappeared!”

“There isn’t time to explain, Joe.  I did what I had to do.”

“And big… brother knows best….”

“Yes!”  Adam sucked in air as he turned his head slightly and looked toward their captors.  For the moment they were ignoring them.  “These men, Joe, I’ve dealt with them before.  They’re high up in the House of Khu tong.  They were supposed to be in Sacramento this week.  Joe, please listen, I – ”

He could feel his brother shaking his head, trying to clear away the cobwebs. “You…know them?” Joe demanded, breathing hard.

“Not personally, but I’ve seen them.  They’re part of Khu Qian’s organization.”

“Qian?  Zhuang’s…grandson?”

“Yes.  Listen, Joe.  I’ve been working for years to bring him down.  It started out as a noble cause.  Artifacts were disappearing from the Orient – important artifacts – and showing up in the hands of private collectors out West; unscrupulous men with enough silver and gold to pay Qian’s exorbitant prices.  China was being raped of her past.”

“Artifacts?” his brother asked, sounding incredulous.

“Yes.  But, it was more than that.  Qian had his fingers in everything.  Children, Joe, he was prostituting children.”  Adam drew a breath to steady himself, remembering the ones they had found tied up and abandoned in a warehouse along with dozens of antique cloisonné vases and jade dragons.  Abandoned and starving.  “My interest in art was known.  I was contacted because it would allow me to move among them without suspicion – the American English professor, the rich son of a cattle baron; a man with enough money to buy what he wanted, elicit or not.  The trouble was, they knew who I was.  In time, I had to cut myself off from Kate, from you and Pa.  I had to become another man.”  Adam sighed.  “It was the only way to do the work and keep all of you safe.

“These men…”  Joe bit the words off, pain making them sour.  “These men…are here because of you?  You brought them here?  You!”

“Joe, I’m sorry.  They were supposed to have been contained and taken captive.  Something or someone must have alerted them – sent them out of the Sacramento area before they could be.  Or maybe it was just Qian’s need for revenge that drove him here.  I don’t know.”  He wet his lips and spoke fast, sensing his brother’s rising anger.  “I can’t be sure what they’ll do now that they know I’m here, but I’m afraid they mean to use you to make me to talk.  I know all about the operation – names, places, when it will go down.  I – “

“Bastard.”

Adam frowned.  “What?”

“You bastard!”  Joe was struggling, fighting against the ropes that bound him as if he would break free and pound him.  “Damn you, Adam!  You nearly got my son killed!”

“Joe!  What I did was to keep your son safe.  Joe, listen.  You need to keep quiet – ”

Too late.

A golden hand gripped his collar.  Another one gripped Joe’s.  Unceremoniously, they were hauled to their feet and dragged across the clearing.  Joe fought like a tiger the whole way, though whether it was to get away from Qian’s men or to get at him he couldn’t be sure.  As they reached the fire Cho Ban pulled out a knife.  The thug glared at Joe and, for a moment, he thought it was all over. Then Cho used the knife to slice through the ropes that bound them one to the other.

Joe staggered and moved a few steps away and he finally got a good look at his kid brother.

Joe looked a lot like he remembered, only more…solid.  Older too.  He hadn’t been wrong about that silver hair.  Unfortunately, his little brother also looked like death warmed over.  Joe was sweating even though it was cold, which was never a good sign, and his exposed skin was as red as if he had spent a day in the desert without a hat.  His brother’s clothing was blackened with soot and every breath he took was an effort.  It was obvious the kid had been in a fire.  Adam froze.  Joe said his son’s life had been threatened.

Good lord!  What had he done?

Adam sucked in air as a long, lean shadow eclipsed him.  He turned and came face to face with a man he had heard described but never seen.  His was the face out of a night terror; one that looked like someone had cut it into pieces and sewed it back together – blindfolded.

It was the face of the man who was Khu Qian’s second.  The one who executed the Chinese tong leaders’ orders and oversaw the strong-arm division of Qian’s army .

The one who enjoyed getting his hands dirty.

Kang Fan.

Quicker than lightning Kang moved.  He grabbed Joe by the wrist and rolled him in, and then twisted his fingers in Joe’s curls and bent his brother’s head to the side as he withdrew a curved blade from behind the sash wrapped around his waist.  When Kang was sure he was watching, he pressed its edge into his brother’s throat.

The threat was implicit.

Adam met his Joe’s eyes.  There was nothing of fear in them, but there was a large dose of regret.

He knew the feeling well.

“All right,” he said. “I’ll tell you all I know.”

 

EIGHT

It was now five o’clock in the morning.  The sun was up.  So was Bella.

Ben Cartwright sighed and ran a hand over his chin.

Facing down a gunslinger would have been preferable.

“What do you mean Joe still isn’t here?” the petite blonde demanded, her voice going up a full half-octave as she did.  “It’s been nearly a day!”  As he watched Bella turned and reached for her coat where it hung on the rack by the door.  “I don’t care what you say, Ben.  I am going to town to find out what is going on.”  As the expectant mother jammed her arm into a sleeve and began to scramble for the other one – working her way around her ample middle – she added,  “I can either walk past you or through you!”

In many ways his youngest son’s wife reminded him of his youngest son’s mother.  Bella was beautiful, smart, affectionate and loving, spirited and feisty.

And stubborn as a mule.

She hadn’t quite managed to get her arm all the way in the second sleeve when her hand became entrapped.  She was pulling and pushing at the same time, trying to free it, but only managed to ensnare it further.  Frustrated and, if the truth be told – infuriated – Bella thrust her arm backward, striking the new ginger jar on the credenza and sending it crashing to the floor just like its predecessor.  She froze at the sound.  The petite blonde woman looked down at the broken vase and then up at him.

And dissolved into tears.

Yes.  Just like Marie.  And especially when his late wife had been carrying Joseph.

As he had learned to do with his most…vulnerable wife, the rancher said nothing.  He reached out and caught Bella’s arm, skillfully removed it from her sleeve, returned the garment to the coat rack, and then drew her to his chest and placed a hand on her hair.

“Let it out.  Just let it all out,” he said softly, wishing he could do the same.

As Bella began to sob, Kate appeared around the corner, coming from the direction of the kitchen.  She had gone to make them some coffee.  Adam’s wife stared at them and then her eyes misted and her lower lip trembled.

Good Lord!  He didn’t know what he had done to deserve having two emotional women in his seemingly unassailable all-male household, and at the same time!

A second later, Ben smiled.  Yes.  Yes, he did.

He’d had sons.  That’s what he’d done.

Kate went to the table and placed the tray she carried on it and then came over to join them.  He looked over Bella’s head at her and smiled.  The older woman nodded in response.  She came to their side and reached out and placed her hands on Bella’s shoulders.

When Joe’s wife turned to look at her, Kate said softly, “Adam’s missing too.”

Ben let out a little sigh.  No wonder Adam had married her.  The woman was inspired.  In a way, it reminded him of his oldest son who could hone in on his little brother’s feelings and either ignite or defuse them with a single word.

Bella drew herself up and wiped away her tears, suddenly reminded that she was not the only one who was suffering.

For a moment, he thought everything was resolved.  Then with a little sigh, Kate said, “I’ll get my coat and go with you.”

Ben stepped directly in front of the door, using his somewhat sizable frame to block access to it.  “Now, wait a minute!  The two of you are going nowhere.  Joe – and Adam for that matter – would have my hide if I let either of you out of my sight.”

Kate glanced at Bella and then back to him.  “All right.  You can come too.  You can drive the wagon.”

“W…wagon?”

Adam’s wife looked at him as if he was an idiot.  “You’re still recovering and you certainly can’t expect Bella to sit a horse in her condition!”

No.  Of, course not.

“What…what about your children?  Who will take care of them?” he stammered.  That should do it.  Both women would have to choose to remain once they realized they would be putting their children in danger.

“You’re right,” Bella replied as she turned to Kate.  “We’ll have to take them with us.”

“I’ll get Lisbet and BJ,” the older woman said as she turned toward the stair. “Then you can rouse your son.”

Ben’s fingers were formed into fists and firmly anchored on his hips.  “You two are going to stay put.  That’s an order!  I absolutely forbid you to leave this ranch house!”

The pair exchanged a look and then Kate turned to him.  She appeared startlingly like his eldest son as she raised one dark eyebrow and asked, “On what authority?”

“What?”

“On what authority do you forbid us to leave?  The last time I checked, we’re not related.”

“You’re…my…my sons’ wife!” he stammered.  Ben turned to Bella who had her arms crossed over her ample belly and his soon-to-be grandchild.  “And you are too!  You listen to them…don’t you?”

Two pairs of eyes locked on him, unperturbed and unconvinced.  He had the distinct feeling both Elizabeth and Marie were looking right at him.

All he needed now was Inger.

Kate’s lips quirked.  “I listen.  When he knows what he’s talking about.”

“Which isn’t often,” Bella added.

“Missy Bella and Missy Kate right,” a soft voice said.  “Husband in trouble, need to go – and get in more trouble.  Maybe take children into trouble too.” Hop Sing had come from the kitchen and was standing near the table.  He wore an apron smeared with something dark.  As the two women turned toward him, the aging Chinese man advanced into the room.  “Then there be nobody left but cows and horses to eat Hop Sing’s chocolate cake!”

Ben hid his smile behind his hand as he watched the two women’s indignation melt.

After a moment, the rancher cleared his throat.  “Actually, I was just headed into town to see if I could find out what’s delaying Joe and the others.”

“Mistah Cartwright not well.  He not go.  Hop Sing go,” his cook and friend said.

“I’m well enough –”

“You well enough to fall off horse and miss chocolate cake too!”

He was right, of course.  He wasn’t really well enough to ride yet – at least, not for any distance.

But then, Hop Sing was always right.

“I finish in kitchen.  Serve breakfast, then go.”  He pointed at each of them in turn.  “You go take seat at table!”

Kate was the first to speak after his departure.  “Well, we certainly have our marching orders.”  Her lips twitched with a smile.  “I see Adam didn’t exaggerate in any of his stories.”

Ben looked at his hat and coat still hanging on the peg by the door.  Everything that was in him wanted to go after his sons – and after Rosey.  It had taken Hop Sing to remind him that he had something precious here that needed looking after first.

Stepping forward, the rancher placed a hand on each of the women’s shoulders and gently directed them toward the table.  He hadn’t gone two steps when there was a knock at the door.  Bella and Kate glanced at the clock just like he did.  Five-thirty.  Too early for visitors.

Or for anything good.

“You two take a seat.  I’ll see who it is.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two of them start to obey and then stop and turn toward the door.  He couldn’t blame them.  They were just as curious as he was as to who had come to call.  When he got there, Ben stopped at the credenza and drew his pistol from its holster.  Then he lifted the latch and opened the door.  There was a strange horse tethered at the rail and man standing outside on the stoop.  He had his back turned toward him and was looking at the barn.  The stranger was well-dressed in clothing of a European cut.  He was of moderate height and had a head of shining silver-blond curls that rivaled his missing son’s.

“May I help you?” Ben asked.

The man started and then pivoted on his high-heeled boots to face him.  He could see now that the stranger’s clothes were mussed and dusted with dirt from the trail.  When he looked at his face, the rancher realized there was something about him – an air of familiarity that had almost settled into a surety before the man spoke.

“Ben!  Thank God!  You have to come with me.  Joe and Adam need you.”

His frown must have asked the question for him.

The stranger’s smile was weary.  “Forgive me.  It’s been quite a few years,” he said, his accent obviously English. “I’m –”

Jude Randolph.

 

Candy Canaday shoved a finger under his nose and stifled a sneeze.  Sneezing wouldn’t be a good idea right now – especially seeing as how he was staring at Joe Cartwright who was on his knees with a knife to his throat.

How did he do it?

Joe’s ability to get himself into hot water fast as a desert dust rat in a bordello bathtub was legendary.  No, that wasn’t quite right.  A legend was something no one was completely sure about.

He’d witnessed it himself often enough to know it wasn’t a tall tale.

A crick in his knee made Candy shift slightly to the right where the touch of a silken garment reminded him that he was not alone.  He’d left Joe in the camp to go lookin’ for water and to take care of necessary business, and had taken a good old time doin’ it so his friend could rest – which had turned out to be a royal mistake.  He’d just fastened his pants when he was waylaid by a couple of goons.  He caught a glimpse of one of them as the lights went out.  The man was Chinese and ugly as a Montgomery Ward woman sent west on approval. When he woke up, there was another China man bending over him, only he wasn’t so ugly, so he had high hopes that maybe – just maybe – this one was on his side.

God must have decided he liked him ‘cause he was.

Jin Lei turned toward him, a finger to his lips.

Candy rolled his eyes.  He wasn’t stupid, after all.

Though he was wonderin’ about his nose.

Lei explained that he had come from Virginia City after leaving his father and injured son there.  They were friends of the Cartwrights.  He said his father had got wind that Khu Qian, a tong leader in Sacramento, had it in for Joe. Qian’s men were the ones who had put a scare into everybody by kidnapping Eric and nearly killing the boy.  Candy’s eyes returned to his friend.  Joe didn’t know about that yet.  He just knew something had happened with Bella and his boy and that was why he was so hell-bent to get home.  Candy swallowed over a lump of fear as the man holding the knife to Joe’s throat twisted his fingers deeper into his friend’s silver-gray curls and pulled the blade up until it rested under his ear. There was another man with Qian’s crew.  He was white, tall and distinguished looking, with a beard and salt and pepper hair. Even from where they were hiding – which was a good twenty feet away – he could see him shaking.  Joe’s eyes never left the tall man, except when they closed every now and then.

When it looked like his young boss was praying.

Lei had spent the last ten minutes observing the men in the camp.  While he’d sweated every second of it, the Chinese man had stayed calm as a skunk in moonlight.  About eight minutes into it Lei whispered a few words in his ear, telling him he didn’t think killing Joe was what was intended.

The other man,’ he said.  ‘He is their target.’

Candy noted the sunlight glinting on the blade pressed into his friend’s jugular.

Could’ve fooled him.

The cowboy’s nose twitched again and he pinched it.  Looking over his fingers, Candy asked the other man in a whisper, “When are we gonna make our move?  I don’t take much to the idea of watchin’ my friend get carved up like a side of prize beef!”

Lei looked at him.  “There are two of us and eight of them.  I am open to suggestions.”

There he went.  He had to go and be a realist.

“We gotta do something!”

“We are not far from the Ponderosa,” Lei noted.  “We must wait for reinforcements.”

Candy snorted, remembering their earlier…discussion.  He’d wondered for a while just who was gonna come out on top.  Jin Lei was stubborn as a Cartwright.  The Chinese man was bound and determined that he would stay to watch the tong members’ camp since he knew all there was to know about Qian and his men.  Jude Randolph, an interesting English feller Lei had stumbled on and rescued earlier as he made his way to the Ponderosa, declared that he wasn’t going anywhere since the guy with the salt and pepper hair – a man who went by the name of Stoddard – was his associate.  And him?  Well, he sure as Hell wasn’t gonna leave Joe behind.  In the end they drew straws.  Well, sticks.

Jude got the short one.

“You suppose he’s there yet?” he asked.

Lei spoke without looking at him.  “Did you not sense Jude’s apprehension?”

“You mean about his friend?”

The Chinese man frowned.  “Yes, but there was more.  I believe Jude Randolph is as concerned about your friend’s welfare as his own.”

Candy thought about it.  The Englishman had seemed really distressed when he realized what was going on.

“You think he knows Joe?”

Lei turned to look at him.  “Knows and loves him, as you do.”

Candy made a face.  “Now don’t go gettin’ all soggy on me.  We’re…buddies, that’s all.”

The Chinese man’s black eyes lit with amusement.  “Call it what you will.”

“I call it ‘buddies’.  Pals.  Compadres.”

“Not brothers?”

The brown-haired man sighed.  “Yeah.  Brothers.  But don’t you go tellin’ Joe I said that.”

Jin Lei turned back to face the scene unfolding before them.  Candy did as well.  A trickle of blood was running down Joe’s neck, spilling onto his soiled shirt.  The Chinese man’s lean fingers gripped the long blades of grass before him as he spoke.

“Let us pray I have the chance.”

 

Ben Cartwright glanced at the Englishman who rode stiffly at his side.  Jude explained as they mounted their horses that it had been quite a few years since he’d been in the saddle.  His youthful enchantment with the sport had waned as he grew from a young to an older man.  Jude didn’t know his exact age since he had been born a slave and no records had been given to his new master when he was sold.  Most likely he was over fifty now.  Like Joe, Jude’s hair was a mass of curls.  Though originally a rich blond, it had darkened with age and was liberally sprinkled with silver now as was his son’s.  Looking at Jude, sitting tall in the saddle beside him, made his heart ache for that missing son.

For all of his missing sons.

The tale Jude told as they rode was frightening.  He and his companion, a man named curiously enough ‘Stoddard’, had been riding for the Ponderosa when they were overcome by a group of Chinese men.  The ambushers dropped from the trees as they rode through a copse.  Stoddard had been struck and knocked unconscious.  Jude managed to elude capture.  He followed, keeping watch on the party until they reached a camp.  It was only then that he saw their second prisoner.  There was no mistaking Joseph, he said.  When he pushed him further, Jude admitted that both Joe and this Stoddard had been beaten but appeared relatively unharmed.  He did mention that Joseph was coughing and that he had been puzzled by it.  The Englishman paled when he explained that Joe had been in a fire two nights before and was already weak.

Fire, it seemed, was a mark of the House of Khu.

Jude had remained near the camp for some time, watching for a chance to make an attempt to free his friends.  Apparently something he did had aroused their suspicions and he had been forced to flee.  It was in this way that he made Jin Lei’s acquaintance as the Chinese man intercepted him and kept him from harm.

Ben blew out a low whistle.  Talk about Divine intervention!

As to Candy, he’d left Joe to rest and come back to find his boss and his friend missing – plus a pair of Chinese goons waiting for him.  He’d been knocked out in the struggle and nearly taken himself, but Lei – toting Jude along with him – had come to the rescue.  Ben smiled as he maneuvered Buck around an outcropping of stones that dotted the path.  Apparently Candy and Jude had nearly come to blows over which one of them would stay and which one would go to the Ponderosa and return with help.

Both were good men.  Loyal to their friends.  And in Candy’s case, loyal to his boss and friend.

Ben’s musings were interrupted as Jude brought his borrowed mount to a halt.  “We should dismount here,” the Englishman said quietly. “We are getting close to the camp.”

The older man nodded and complied.  Ben winced as his foot hit the ground and hung onto the saddle for a moment to steady himself.  Then he walked Buck off the road and tethered him.  Jude watched in silence for a moment and then followed and did the same.  As he turned to go on, the curly-haired man hesitated.

Ben turned back.  “Is something wrong?”

After a second, the other man nodded.  “I have not been entirely truthful with you.”

The admission startled him.  “Oh?”

Jude let out a sigh.  “No.  I did not want to upset Mrs. Cartwright or Joseph’s wife, since she is with child.  I have been considering the entire time we’ve been riding just how to tell you.”

The words snapped out.  “Tell me what?”

“My friend.  His name is Stoddard Benjamin Eric Josephs.  Or at least, that is what he has gone by for the last three years.”

At first Ben was confused.  Why was Jude telling him this?  Then, slowly, the cobwebs melted away.

Stoddard.  Benjamin.  Eric.  Joseph.

Apprehension gripped his heart.  “Adam?” he asked, his voice sounding weak to his own ears. “You’re telling me my son Adam is with his brother – and is in danger as well?”

Jude nodded.  “Yes.  Stoddard is Adam, and Adam is being held captive along with his brother.”  The Englishman winced.  “Ben, you have no idea what Adam has been doing these last three years.  It is a noble thing – a thing of high value – but it has inadvertently placed all of you in danger.”

“Adam would never do anything to harm us,” he said flatly, still reeling from the news.  Adam wasn’t coming home.  He was home!  His long lost son was already here!

And already in peril.

Ben drew a slow breath.  “While I appreciate your…caution, Jude.  This is hard to take.”

“I suspected as much.  Forgive me.  If not for the women….”  Jude sighed.  “And then, we were on the road and I did not want to delay.”

“I understand.”  And he did.  But that didn’t make it any easier.  “What are we facing when we get to the camp?”

“A whole pack of trouble.  Business as usual for Joe Cartwright,” a wry voice commented.

Ben swung around to find his foreman emerging from a thicket of trees.

“I was just on my way to the ranch,” Candy said as he came alongside them.  He looked at Jude. “Jin Lei and I thought maybe you got lost.”

“You’ve been watching the camp?  Are Joseph and Adam all right?”

Candy scowled.  “Adam?”  He frowned, puzzled, and then the light went on.  “Oh!  You mean that Adam?  Your Adam?”

“Stoddard,” Jude said, confirming it.

His foreman pulled at his chin as his light blue eyes sparkled.  “Yeah.  I can see it now, you and him.  Two sides of a coin.”  He reached a hand up toward his head.  “Except for the, you know, hair.  You got it and Adam seems to have lost most of his.”

How strange it would be to see the boy after such a long time.

If he got to see him.

“Jin Lei?  Is he still at the camp?” Ben asked.

Candy shifted his feet as he hooked his thumbs behind his gun belt.  “Someone had to stay,” he replied evasively.

“Has something happened?” Jude asked.  “Joseph?”

“He’s gonna kill you if you call him that,” Candy remarked succinctly.  “He hates it – other than when Mister Cartwright here says it.”

Ben felt the flicker of a smile. Calling him ‘Mister Cartwright’ was a habit Candy hadn’t quite broken.   The smile died quickly as his foreman went on.

“We better get back.  Things didn’t look so good when I left.”  Candy glanced beyond them, puzzled.  “Is it just you two?”

Ben nodded.  “For the moment.  A few of the hands are about a half hour behind us.  I didn’t want to take a chance that….”  The rancher drew a breath and then he reached out and caught Candy’s red shirt sleeve in his hand.  “My sons?” he demanded.   “How are they?”

“Stoddard…Adam was on his feet when I left, though those Chinese thugs have him under the gun.”

“And Joe?”

Candy squirmed a bit.  “Those men want something from Adam.  Not sure what.  Seems these thugs were the ones behind the attack in town and probably the fire.  They’re…threatening to kill Joe if Adam doesn’t give it to them.”   His foreman swallowed hard.  “Sir, when I left a man was holding a knife to Joe’s throat.  His neck was bleeding.  Lei’s there watching.  If it comes to it, he’ll make a move, but there’s at least a half-dozen of them milling around the camp.”

“Well, there are four of us now and more to come,” the rancher declared as if that said it all.  “How far is it?”

Jude answered.  “Not far.  Just beyond those trees.  It is situated in a shallow bowl.”

“Are there sentries?”

“Not that I know of.”  It was Candy’s turn to frown.  “The ugly one – the one that’s in charge – he’s, well, pretty sure of himself.”

Of course, he was.  The man had made no attempt to mask what he was doing or where he was, which meant that he expected they would be coming.  Perhaps, even welcomed it.

Candy had obviously come to the same conclusion. “Maybe you better stay here.  These men –”

“These men were willing to shoot a four-year-old boy,” Ben finished for him. Then he added, his voice rich with outrage, “You know as well as I do that they won’t hesitate to kill either one or both of my sons if it suits their purposes.”

They’d dealt with the dragon tong before, when the late Khu Zhuang was its leader.  They’d escaped with their lives by the skin of their teeth and only then, by God’s grace.

Jude caught his arm.  “Take heart, Ben.  If they want Adam to do something and he does not do it, then Joseph will be safe.  They must retain him as leverage.”

Perhaps.  But perhaps not.

If they only wanted information and Adam failed to tell them what they wanted to know…

Both he and Joe could wind up dead.

 

“I hate being a woman!  What does Ben think, that we’ll fly off the handle and do something stupid?  For Heavens sake, someone needs to do something!” Bella stamped her foot as she spoke and then realized just how much of a willful spoiled child it made her appear to be.  She let out a little sigh and turned back to look into the yard where the children were playing.  It had been all she could do to let Eric go outside – and out of sight – with his newfound cousins.  In the end the need for quiet and a bit of sanity had won out over fear.  One of Ben’s hired hands was leaning on the corral fence, keeping an eye out for trouble, and Jian’s men guarded the perimeter of the yard.  They were safe.

At least, they should be safe.

Bella chewed her lip.

Maybe Eric had been outside long enough….

As she stood there, fighting with her emotions, Bella felt a hand land on her shoulder.  “I agree,” Kate sighed.  “The waiting is the hardest thing of all.”

Bella pivoted toward her.  “I’m sorry.  Here I am worried about Joe and your husband is in danger too.”

“It comes with the territory,” her companion remarked.

“Territory?”

“Marrying a Cartwright.”  The older woman’s gaze went to her belly.  “How long?”

“Till the baby is due?”  A smile touched her lips as she thought of how the child had come to be –  of her handsome husband and their nights of lovemaking – but it faded quickly with the thought of present dangers.  “I don’t know exactly when.”

“From the look of you, it will be soon.”

She thought so too, just going on how she had felt with Eric.  “I’m trying to remain calm for the baby’s sake.  I don’t want my fear to make the child afraid.”

“Maternal impressions?” Kate asked.  At her nod, she added, “You know the doctors back East are beginning to dismiss that.  They don’t think what a mother experiences emotionally can affect or harm their child.”  She looked thoughtful.  “The worry might bring labor on more quickly though.”

“Really?”  The older women at church had warned her to not to expose herself to any shocks while pregnant, since strong emotions could effect her child both emotionally and physically. Bella’s hand sought her belly and remained there.  She could feel the tiny fingers at work beneath the skin, probing for her own.  This child, like the last one, was never still and frequently let her know it was more than ready to come into the world by kicking hard.  Bella’s thoughts turned again to her husband.  With a sad little smile, she said, “You have no idea what a comfort that is to a woman married to Joe Cartwright.”

“I look forward to meeting him,” Kate replied, her tone slightly amused.  “Little Joe’s exploits have grown to the point of legend in my children’s eyes.  I’m not sure that they believe he really exists.”

“Uncle Joe,” she said, trying out the sound of it.  “And – oh! – Aunt Bella!”

Kate laughed.  “Who has grown to be something of a legend herself.  The girl who single-handedly pulled Little Joe Cartwright out of a fire and then made him promise to marry her.”

Unexpected tears entered her eyes.  She’d made him promise and then been afraid to go through with it, fearful that he might die.

Like now.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to upset you.  I….”

Kate’s husky voice trailed off.  She’d heard it too.  The sound of a wagon rolling into the yard.

Bella’s first thought was relief – Joe and his Pa were home!  But then fear began to gnaw at her.  What if it wasn’t Ben.  What about –

The children!

Bella flung the door open and stepped onto the porch.  She arrived just in time to see the wagon come to a halt in the yard.  Ben’s ranch hand had moved forward, toting his rifle, and was talking to the driver.  The blonde woman stared at the man, wondering if she knew him, until a movement at his side drew her attention.  Sitting on the passenger side of the wagon seat was Hop Sing.  Their cook was holding a cloth to his head and moaning.

A cloth stained red.

Behind Hop Sing, in the bed of the wagon, was a woman.  Her stylishly coifed black hair with its fringed gold combs and other ornaments, along with the elaborately embroidered silk jacket she wore, indicated she was a woman of some substance and, most likely, Chinese.  Bella watched as the driver turned and said something to her.

The driver was…well…interesting.  His clothing seemed to indicate that he was an old, down on his luck miner or prospector, but the way the stranger moved belied that and gave the appearance of youth.  His age was hard to determine as his face was masked by the shadow cast by the wide low brim of the battered hat he wore.  He nodded to their ranch hand and then moved a few steps away before pausing, hands on hips, to study the house.  Into that moment of silence a sound bled – horses’ hooves, flying fast and hard.  A moment later two Chinese men on horseback tore into the yard, their weapons at the ready.  Bella recognized them as Jian’s men.  She wondered if, whoever this was, they had managed to get past them somehow – or if maybe their watchers had let the strangers through, intending to confront them once they had them safely corralled in the yard.  At that thought, Bella paled.

The children.

Where were the children!?

Frightened, she turned to look.  It only took her a moment to find them.  Lisbet had both boys by the hand.  They were standing in the open door of the barn.

Kate’s oldest was certainly able.

The driver studied the Chinese men for several heartbeats.  Then he turned and approached her.  His voice was deep and even huskier than Kate’s.  “Beg pardon, Ma’am, but that’s about the sorriest pair of lookouts I’ve ever seen.  Slipped right past them, wagon and all.”

Bella watched Hop Sing dismount.  Once on the ground, he headed for the back of the wagon. “What happened to Hop sing?” she demanded.

“Someone tried to nab him.  Lucky I came along when I did.”  The stranger indicated the open door where Kate remained behind her with a nod.  “You two here with no men?”

The blonde woman didn’t answer, but exchanged a long pregnant glance with her dark counterpart.  By the time Bella looked back, Hop Sing was approaching her.  The woman from the back of the wagon was leaning heavily on his arm.  Their cook was pale and shaking, but determined.  With haste, he ushered the Chinese woman past them both and into the house.

Several seconds later Hop Sing reappeared. “Missy Bella, Missy Kate come inside!” he ordered.  “Bring children.  Not safe outside.  Not safe anywhere!”

“I’ll go get them,” Adam’s wife said as she headed for the barn.

Bella turned back to the wagon driver.  Staring at the black hole where a face should have been, she said, her tone curt, “Thank you for bringing Hop Sing home safely.” After a moment’s pause, she added, “I hate to be impolite, but I have to ask, who are you and what are you doing here?”

The driver had been watching Kate hustle the children toward the house.  With a shake of his head, the man turned back her.  There was a moment’s pause and then a gloved hand reached up to push back the dusty, dirty brim of the battered Stetson, revealing the man’s dusty, dirty face.

No.

The woman’s dusty dirty face.

The driver’s dark eyes danced as she held out her hand.

“My name is Rosey O’Rourke and I’m here to see Ben Cartwright.”

 

NINE

“May I ask a question?” Adam inquired.

He avoided looking at his brother.  He knew what expression he would find on Joe’s face.  His little brother had to think he was out of his mind!  Still, he’d learned the hard way that remaining calm, cool, and collected, and making polite conversation with the members of Khu Qian’s tong was expected.

Even if they did intend to kill you.

Kang Fan’s face twisted with its usual unpleasant smile.  “And what is it Adam Cartwright would know?”

Adam pursed his lips and hesitated.  He was afraid to ask, really, but he had to know.

“How…?  How are you here?”

It was hard to read Qian’s hit-man’s face.  His scars had scars that acted as a mask to hide his true feelings.  Still, nestled as they were within ragged sacks of flesh, Kang’s black eyes spoke clearly.

He was triumphant.

Hóng máo guǐzi,” Kang began, calling him a ‘white devil’. “You think you are wise, but you are a fool.  Khu Qian was not fooled by your deceptions.  When he discovered who you were, the dragon lord’s desire for revenge was doubled.”  The man with the deformed face inclined his head toward the clump of  trees where Joe was being held.  “I was sent to learn what this man knew about your return.  And to end his life.”

‘This man’.

His baby brother.

Cho Ban still had hold of Joe.  Kang had ordered the thug to drag him away as they began to speak.  Adam closed his eyes and sucked in a breath, afraid of what he would find when he did look.  In his mind’s eye his little brother was a vibrant, irrepressible force of nature.  The last time he’d seen him, Joe was lying on the ground, breathing hard; his throat a field upon which the crimson trail of his lifeblood was drawn.

Swallowing over his fear, Adam turned and looked.  Relief nearly drove him to his knees.  Joe was alive!  He was seated with his back propped against a tree.  Blood covered his neck and ran onto his shirt and he was breathing like a man just rescued from the collapse of a mine.

But he was defiant.

“Good for you, little brother,” the tall man murmured under his breath.

“You do not ask why he still lives.” It was a statement, soft and sinister as a rattler’s sideways slither.

Adam blew the breath out as he ran a hand over his stubbled chin.  He hadn’t asked because he had a pretty good idea of why.

“I would guess Qian left you with some discretion as to…timing.  Unless you’ve chosen to deliberately go against his orders.”  The tall man paused as the thought struck him that Kang Fan might be playing some game of his own.  If so, it was a dangerous gambit.  Though he had never met the tong leader, he knew a good deal about Khu Qian.  He was not a man to be crossed.

Or double-crossed.

“The dragon lord trusts me,” Kang replied.

Which wasn’t really an answer.

From the little bit he’d been able to glean since finding out that – somehow – Qian was aware of his part in the operation, he’d come to the conclusion that someone had to have betrayed him.  As far as the take-down of the tong leader’s organization, it mattered little.  There was nothing now that could stop it.  Khu Qian and a few of his thugs might escape, but he stood to lose both power and prestige, as well as most if not all of his illegally gained assets.  Scotland Yard had spent years in Hong Kong driving the tong leader’s suppliers to ground and threatened them with everything from exile to imprisonment if they didn’t give up the locations to which the contraband they were handling was to be shipped.  They, along with the Pinkertons and local lawmen here in the States, were in place awaiting the signal for the operation to begin.  Adam’s gaze returned to his brother.  Joe was champing at the bit, his muscles tensed for action in spite of the fact that he looked like he couldn’t rope a day old calf.

Only the sword blade pressed between his brother’s ribs kept him in place.

The thing that continued to puzzle him was how Qian and his cronies had gotten word that he was headed for the Ponderosa.  He had kept his travel plans secret, sharing them with only a few close associates and booking everything under his assumed name of Stoddard.  One of them must have talked.  Someone had to have alerted Qian.  Mot likely someone who stood to gain something both by getting into the tong leader’s good graces and destroying the Cartwrights.

For the life of him, he couldn’t imagine who.

“The hóng máo guǐzi is troubled,” Kang Fan sneered.  “He does not know who to trust.”

Adam felt the sting of the scarred man’s remark – for a second.  And then in the next second, oddly, felt pity for the man.  Kang lived in a world of duplicity and uncertainty.  He didn’t.  he knew whom he could trust – his family – and whether or not someone else had betrayed him, it really didn’t matter.  The tall man’s eyes returned to his brother.  He waited until Joe looked up and caught his eye.  ‘Wait’, he projected.  ‘Be patient, little brother.  Wait until Jude makes it to the Ponderosa and brings back help.”  He had to believe the Englishman had escaped.  Kang Fan would have paraded his body in front of him otherwise.

‘Joe, please, wait until Pa comes.’

Something flickered in the depths of those green eyes, but it was cut short as Cho Ban took hold of his brother’s arm and forced Joe to his feet.  The brute moved him forward into the light and then pressed the tip of the short sword between Joe’s ribs again, this time near his heart.

“No more words, Adam Cartwright,” Kang Fan said.  “You will give me the information Khu Qian desires now.”  Kang raised a hand.  He dropped it an inch.  Adam watched his brother bite his lip and stifle a cry as Cho Ban forced the tip of the blade through the ruined cloth and into his skin.

“Or you will watch your brother die.”

 

“Mister Cartwright…Ben, no!”  Candy’s whisper was fierce.  He’d been to the circus.  He knew the moment when the acrobat had one foot on the rope and was concentrating to keep his balance was the most dangerous one.  Anything – a cough or a sneeze, even a hearty cheer – could mean a fall to their death.

He was lookin’ at Joe Cartwright’s death right now.

“I have to save my sons!” Ben countered in a fierce whisper as he tried to wrench his arm free. “Let me go!”

“No!”  Candy shook his head.  Then he said, softer, “No, sir.  You have to listen to me.  You need to give Lei time to make his move.”

The older man scowled as his gaze returned to the scene unfolding before them.  “A man I barely know?  You expect me to put my sons lives in his hands and his alone?”  Ben Cartwright paused.  When he spoke again, some of the fire was gone.  “Please, Candy, I need to go to my boys. Maybe I can convince these men to – ”

Candy gripped his boss’ arm more tightly.  “You step out there, Ben, and you’ll be signing Adam and Joe’s death warrant!”

The rancher remained rigid for a moment – every muscle poised to do battle – then he seemed to deflate.  “I can’t just stand idly by and watch…”  He swallowed hard.  “And watch my son die.”

“We aren’t just standing idly by,” Candy reminded him.  “The men have taken up positions and we’re waiting for a signal from Lei.”

Ben looked worried.  “Is Lei so sure this Kang Fan won’t recognize him?”

“He says they’ve never met.”  Candy took a chance.  He let go of the older man.  “All we gotta do is wait for him to bring Jude into the camp. When Lei feels it’s safe, they’ll take action.”

Candy glanced at Joe.  His friend’s jaw was set.  He couldn’t tell if it was with anger or from pain.  Crimson blood ran along Cho Ban’s shining sword.

Action.  Right.

He was gonna beat that Goliath of a Chinaman to a pulp!

Ben’s eyes never left his youngest son.  “We have to get that man away from Joe before taking the camp.”

“That’s what Lei is counting on doing,” he reminded him.  It was Jin Lei’s plan to show up in the camp totin’ Jude with him as his captive.  Jude had managed to escape when Adam was taken, so it only made sense one of the tong’s members could have come on him and taken him.  The only problem was that Lei wasn’t one of Kang Fan’s thugs.  He was counting on the fact that there were other Chinese men in the area who might be a part of it.

Candy glanced at the sky.  It was getting dark.  Lei would have the added advantage of the night to mask his face.

The plan was that once Jin Lei and Jude were in the camp, they would create some sort of distraction that would draw Cho Ban away from Joe.  Hell, even their being in the camp might be enough to do it.  The brown-haired man glanced at his boss.  Lei had told him to wait until they made their appearance and then to send Ben to free Joe.  Candy’s lips twitched with a wry smile.  Restrain him until they made their appearance was more like it.  His friend Joe, when he had his mind set on something…. Well, stopping Joe was near as impossible as using your hands to clear a pass of boulders after a landslide.

“Five minutes,” the older man announced.  “No more.  Then I take matters into my own hands.”

Stoppin’ Ben Cartwright was like trying to take down the mountain itself.

 

“Stop it!  Stop hurting him!  I told you I would give you the information!” Adam shouted as Joe stiffened and bent forward as the tip of the sword penetrated deeper.

Kang Fan’s nod was curt.  He said nothing, but raised his hand and opened his fingers wide.  With a grunt of disapproval, Cho Ban pulled back on the sword.  Joe swayed, but managed to keep his feet.  He even gave him a nod and a wink to say he was okay.

The blood on Cho Ban’s blade said otherwise.

By the time Adam turned back, Kang Fan was speaking with one of his lieutenants.  A few sharp words in Cantonese sent the man flying.  He returned almost as quickly with several sheets of paper, ink, and a pen.

“You will write it all down – everything,” the scarred man ordered.  “Dates, times…names.”

As he took the pen, Adam glanced again at his brother and then back to Kang.  “If you let my brother go, I’ll give you all of that and more.  I’ll give you me, and I think you know what that means.”

The thought was enticing to the tong member, he could tell.  A smile on Kang Fan’s face was an unpleasant experience.

“Perhaps,” he said.

Adam masked his surprise when the scarred man didn’t dismiss the idea outright.  Khu Qian’s order would have been to hold his brother until he came.  After all, Qian wanted Joe to pay for the murder of his grandfather – and he most certainly wanted to watch.  He was beginning to suspect more and more that the scarred man had his own agenda and he might be able to use that to his own advantage.

Adam looked at the pen in his hand.  He glanced at Joe and then back at Kang Fan.  “What guarantee do I have that, if I give you this information, you won’t kill Joe anyway?”

Kang lifted his hand again and began to close his fingers. Out of the corner of his eye, Adam saw Cho Ban’s grip shift on his sword.

“The only guarantee you have, Adam Cartwright, is that your young brother will die if you do not.”

Adam swallowed hard.  “All right,” he said, and then looked around.  Spotting a sort of table near a large ornate tent, the tall man headed for it.  Before he could reach it, a sound stopped him.  Someone, hidden within a copse of trees, was shouting.  He glanced at Kang Fan, but the scarred man looked just as puzzled as he felt.  Frowning, Adam turned toward the sound and was horrified to find Jude Randolph, bound and apparently bruised and beaten, stumbling into the camp in the grips of what looked to be yet another member of Kang Fan’s gang.

Kang caught Cho Ban’s eye and inclined his head.  The thug glanced at Joe, shoved his brother so he stumbled to the ground, and then went to meet the newcomer.  Another of Kang’s men moved in to watch Joe.  Sadly, it seemed unnecessary as his brother was lying on the grass unmoving.

“Who are you?  What is this?” Cho Ban demanded.   As he came to halt near the pair, the thug made a noise low in his throat.  “You,” he said as he turned toward Kang.  “This is the man who traveled with Adam Cartwright and escaped.”

Kang Fan was silent a moment.  Then he said, “Bring him.”

Adam cursed silently as Jude was roughly hauled across the camp.  He’d hoped the Englishman had made good his escape and high-tailed it to the Ponderosa.  With all the time that had elapsed he couldn’t imagine….

Something caught his eye – he couldn’t say why, since his attention was focused on Jude – but someone was definitely on the move within the trees just behind Joe.

Adam’s lips quirked at the end with a secret smile.  Maybe Jude did make it to the Ponderosa after all.

Fearing someone else might notice, the tall man forced his gaze away from the trees and back to the scene playing out in front of him.

“I have not seen you with Qian,” Kang Fan said to the newcomer.

“What is told into the ear of a man is often heard a hundred miles away,” the lean young man replied.  “If you knew of me, I would be of no use to the House of Khu.”

It was a bold statement, given Kang Fan’s position and power.  It implied Qian did not implicitly trust him.

Cho Ban exploded with anger at the insult, drawing his bloody sword and stepping forward, ready to defend his master.

A word from Kang stopped him.

“No!  Let him speak.”

The newcomer inclined his head.  A slight smile curled his lips as he did.  “Khu Qian has sent me with questions.  How is it this man,” he shook Jude slightly, “escaped Kang Fan?  Why was he not detained?  Why was he allowed to come close to the house of Benjamin Cartwright where an army could have been raised to stop Khu Qian’s victory over the assasin of his grandfather?”

Adam’s eyes went to Jude.  The Englishman’s chin rested on his chest and his arms hung limp at his sides.  He appeared listless, as if he’d been struck in the head and was dazed.  As the tall man watched, concerned, Jude swayed.  His friend’s knees buckled and he dropped to the forest floor.

Impulse moved him forward until a shout from Cho Ban made him stop.

Frustrated, Adam looked at his friend again and was surprised to find Jude watching him.  The Englishman’s gaze was crystal clear.  Jude moved his hand.  He spread his fingers wide showing five digits, waited, then four, waited, then three….

When he made a fist, all hell broke loose.

 

A few minutes earlier, Ben Cartwright had taken up his position behind his youngest son.  It was agonizing.  He could see Joseph, but he couldn’t touch or speak to him or even let him know that he was there.  The boy had been ill-used.  Beyond the obvious signs of the fire both he and his clothes had sustained, his youngest had been beaten and abused.  Standing there, staring at his son’s unmoving form, brought a lump to Ben’s throat and the image of Joe’s mother to his mind.  He could see Marie lying in the yard of the Ponderosa in much the same position after her horse crushed her.  For a moment he’d been unable to move, not capable of grasping what had happened.  He’d stood there waiting for some sign of life from the one he loved, just as he did now.

“Move, boy,” the rancher muttered under his breath.  “Joseph, move!”

As if in answer to the unspoken prayer that had winged forth with those words, Ben saw his son shift.  Joe’s fingers clutched the grass.  He moaned and attempted to move.  At first, he didn’t make it, but then his son tried again and succeeded, turning his head slightly in the direction of Jude and Jin Lei.

And of his older brother.

Ben drew a sharp breath.  He’d been so worried about Joe – terrified that his youngest had succumbed to his injuries – that it hadn’t really registered with him yet that Adam was standing only a few yards away from him. Adam, whom he’d feared he would never see again.  The older man’s gaze went to the tall, erect figure facing Jin Lei.  He would have known his eldest anywhere in spite of the fact that his hair had receded and was a mixture of black, gray, and white now, and his once lean form had grown more substantial.  Even if he couldn’t have seen his face, he would have known Adam simply by his posture; by the sure, confident, calm stance that belied the anger and outrage etched into every powerful muscle of his frame.  Ben gazed at him, drinking in the sight, and then realized his eldest was frowning.  Following his long-absent son’s gaze, he watched Jude Randolph slip from Jin Lei’s grasp and fall to his knees.

Ben stiffened.

That was the signal.

He had a minute at most before Lei and Jude made their move and the men from the Ponderosa, along with Candy, attacked the camp.  Ben’s eyes flicked to Adam.  He had to believe his eldest would be all right.  According to what Jude had told him on the journey to the camp, Adam had already survived more danger than he could imagine.  His focus had to be Joseph.

Joseph, who – true to form – was trying to climb to his feet.

“Joe!”  Ben’s whisper was tense and he prayed, barely audible.  “Joseph!  It’s Pa!  You have to stay down! ”

Joe heard him.  He could tell.  The boy stiffened and froze in place.  There was no sound, but his battered lips formed the word.

‘Pa?’

“I’m right here behind you, son,” the rancher went on, his tone dry; desperate.  “Can you move my way?”

Joe’s gaze went to the scene unfolding in front of him.  He frowned.  “What…?”

He saw it too.  Jude suddenly springing to his feet, pulling a weapon and then tossing a pistol to Adam as Candy and the men from the Ponderosa moved out of the trees at intervals ringing the camp.  For a heartbeat or two, the members of the Chinese tong were stunned.  When they awoke to the danger confronting them they pulled in, gathering at the clearing’s heart to protect their leader.

All  but one.

Death was coming for his son, and maybe for him too.

With a strength he didn’t know he possessed, Ben moved into the clearing, grasped his injured son under his arms, and hauled Joe’s slight but substantial form back into the cover of the trees –just as the tip of a knife buried itself in the ground where Joseph had lain.  The giant of a man who had thrown it let loose a cry of impotent rage, pulled another longer sword from the sheath on his back, and rushed toward them.  Instinctively, Ben let Joe go and stepped in front of his son.  He could feel Joe pawing at his leg; hear his son’s weak order for him to get out of the way – to save himself.

He pointedly ignored him.

The Chinese man was running straight at him.  Ben remained composed.  He waited until he could see the tong member’s eyes and met the violence in them with righteous calm.

Then he drew his gun and fired.

 

Adam was lying on the ground, clutching his arm where it was bleeding, when he heard the shot.  One of the tong members had thrown a knife and it had sliced through his coat and flesh, stunning him more than harming him.  From his position, he surveyed the carnage in the clearing.  At least six tong members were dead.  Sadly, one of the hands from the Ponderosa had been killed as well.  More were injured, including his father’s foreman, though none of their injuries appeared life-threatening.  He was glad Candy was all right.  He’d met the cowboy when he’d come home to supervise the building of the new wing of the house and knew how much he meant to Joe.  The brown-haired man had been hit by a bullet in the arm, but it hadn’t slowed him down.  He, Jude, and Jin lei were on the move, somewhere out there in the woods.

Kang Fan, along with a handful of men, had escaped.

The tall man with the salt and pepper hair closed his eyes, drew a breath, and dragged himself to his feet, feeling not only the beating he had taken earlier but the weight of what he might find when he reached the other side of the camp.  He’d stolen a glance earlier and seen his father stepping into the open, placing himself between Cho Ban and Joe.  It was at that moment that his injury had occurred and he’d lost focus.

‘Lost focus’, Adam thought with a grim smile.

More like, found it.

With blood dripping through his fingers, he stumbled across the clearing.  As he passed Cho Ban’s body and saw his father on his knees beside his brother, Adam breathed a sigh of relief.  Coming to a stop just behind him, he asked – his voice weaker than anticipated.

“How’s Joe?”

The older man stiffened.  His hand remained on Joe’s shoulder as he turned and looked up.  Even though Pa’s look was grim, there was a light of welcome in his eyes.

“Adam.  Your brother needs a doctor.”

He couldn’t help it.  He snorted.

“It’s great to be home, Pa.”

 

He had no idea what time of day it was.  In fact, he had no idea what day it was.  Living had become a constant unending misery that moved from night to day to night again with nothing to distinguish one from the other but the sound of the footfalls of his captors approaching and the fear their return stirred in his heart that – amazingly – still beat.

The fact that it was still beating was both a puzzle and a promise to him.  The men who had taken him had pulled and prodded and punched and punished until they knew everything he knew – who the man known as Stoddard Josephs was, why he was in the country, what he had been involved in both in the Old and New Worlds, and what was about to happen.  They had taken him unexpectedly as he boarded the ship in London, while preparing to set sail for America.  He’d been betrayed by a man he trusted.

Just as he had betrayed the man who trusted him.

Not that he’d wanted to – or chose to.  No.  But the constant torture and torment had proven too much.  He had broken.  Shattered into a thousand pieces like one of Adam Cartwright’s priceless artifacts dropped on stone.  He hated himself.  He wanted to die.  But he couldn’t.

Not until he made it right.

Shifting slightly, the young man bound to an upright chair in the center of an empty room with only a thin shaft of light spilling through a narrow window for company, turned his face toward the door.  For some time now there had been silence.  This was the time of day when his tormentors usually arrived to bring him just enough food and water to keep him alive.  He didn’t understand why, unless the man who ruled them wasn’t done with him yet.  Unless he meant to use him somehow, maybe as bait, or perhaps as a hostage against the ones he loved – the ones who loved him.

Or had loved him.

They wouldn’t love him now.  Not after what he had done.  Not after what these men intended to do because of what he’d told them.  Leaning back in the chair, the young man sighed as he turned his eyes toward the slit of a window.  One of the men had let something slip the last time they came in to ‘question’ him.  He was in Nevada.  Possibly in Virginia City itself.  He was close – so close.  If he could just get word to someone, let them know where he was and that he needed help.

But no.  That would put them in danger.  More danger.  They were already in danger.

They.

His sister.  Her children.  His brother-in-law.

It would be better if he died.  If he could have, he would have ended his own life before allowing the men who held him to use him to harm those he loved.  But his hands were bound and his feet as well.  He was gagged and tied to a chair in the middle of a dark room; isolated, forgotten.

Remembered.

The young man drew in a sharp breath.  The footfalls had returned.

Someone was coming.

He heard the key turn in the lock.  The door creak open.  A man advanced into the room and came to stand before him, choosing the precise spot where the moonlight struck the floor to stop.  The pale glow illuminated a face deceptive in its calm demeanor.  Like a river, he knew there were undercurrents and unseen hazards lurking just below the surface.  This was the dragon lord and he breathed fire.

And when he breathed fire, people died.

The dragon lord taunted him.  His breath had already blown through the ramshackle and dry wooden structures that made up this town, igniting and consuming several blocks and almost killing Joe Cartwright.  The tong leader assured him that Joe had not died, though it had been close.  The fire had been a warning – not a warning to take cover or keep watch – but a warning that the dragon had been roused and was making its slow, inexorable way to the Ponderosa where it would put an end to the ones who had brought shame to the House of Khu.

Where it would put an end to the House of Cartwright.

Fingers roughly grasped his thick brown hair and brought his head up.  He was forced to meet the dragon lord’s eyes.

“Again,” the tong leader snarled.  “Again, you will tell me of the rooms in this house, of its windows and doors, and of its secret places.  You will draw a picture in my mind; a picture that cannot be erased.”

The young man gritted his teeth and shook his head.

No.

The dragon’s voice was calm.  “If you do not, all will die.  The woman.  Her children.  All.”

“You’ll kill them all anyway!” he countered.

“Perhaps.”  The dragon lord paused.  “Perhaps not.  Can you live with yourself knowing it was your choice that made it so?”

The exhausted man closed his eyes.  He could see her – young – her blonde ringlets bouncing as she ran after him and caught him, hauling his butt out of trouble time and time again.

“She does not have to die.  Her only crime is choosing the wrong man to love.  Let your choice not be the wrong one as well.”

Could he do it?  Could he sacrifice the man his sister loved to save her?  Would she hate him?

Yes, she would.

But she would be alive.

Bella would be alive.

Tears streamed down his face as he nodded.

“You are wise, Jack Carnaby,” Khu Qian said.  “Let us begin again.”

 

TEN

A little moan escape Bella’s lips as she opened her eyes.  Slipping her fingers between her waist and the leather chair, she arched her back to ease the pain.  Then she blinked and looked around, a little confused.  As the day progressed into night, Kate had taken the children up to bed and then retired herself.  BJ had asked for Eric to sleep with him and she’d quickly agreed.  She was still uncomfortable leaving her son alone for any amount of time, and she’d been bound and determined that she would remain in this chair until his father came home.  The blonde woman’s eyes shifted from the blanket covering her – put there no doubt by Hop Sing sometime during the night – to the tall case clock by the door.  It was nearly 5 a.m.

And still, no Joe.

With a frown, Bella tossed the blanket aside and started the process that it currently took her to rise, but halted at the sound of someone descending the stairs.  Turning to look, she was surprised.  At first she thought it was a complete stranger, but then she realized they’d met before.  Briefly.  Only now, instead of wearing an old prospector’s shirt, battered hat, and men’s trousers, Rosey O’Rourke was clothed in a deep-green fashionably cut dress that accented both her boyish figure and her upswept dark brown hair and eyes.  There were a few streaks of silver among the sable waves, suggesting she was in her fifties, and yet she moved with the energy and vitality of a much younger woman.  As she arrived at the bottom of the steps, Rosey gave her skirts a twirl, putting her in mind of a society belle at a ball.

She couldn’t help but laugh.

The older woman grinned as well.  “A bit of a change, isn’t it?”

Bella nodded, and then her gaze went to the landing above.  “Is your…companion coming down?”

“Madame Ah Kum?” Rosey glanced over her shoulder.  A wry smile curled the corner of her lips as she turned back.  “The ‘empress’ is sleeping.  I’m afraid she’s not accustomed to traveling by horse and wagon over the mountains at a breakneck pace.”

The blonde woman frowned. “Why is she here?”

“Why is she, or why am I?” Rosey asked as she moved closer.

“Both, I guess.”

The older woman took a seat on the settee.  For a moment, she studied her.  “You’re Joseph’s wife, aren’t you?  Elizabeth….”

“Bella.  Bella Carnaby Cartwright.  Yes.”

“And the woman I met upstairs, that’s Adam’s wife?”

“Her name is Kate.”

Rosey nodded.  “She told me.”  The older woman paused, then she added with a smile, “You have a beautiful son.  He looks like his father.”

She knew from what she had picked up over the years that Rosey had known Joe as a boy and been instrumental in saving his life.  Part of the reason had been her own son, Rory, whom she believed had been murdered, but later found out was alive.  They were reunited thanks to the Cartwrights.  From what Joe had said Rosey and his father had fallen in love, but set aside their own feelings and desires for the sake of their children’s happiness.

“Thank you.  Eric definitely favors his father,” she said and added with a little sigh, “in just about everything.”

Rosey shook her head.  “Little Joe Cartwright.  It seems a lifetime ago we first met.  He was just a child.”  The older woman made a face.  “It was a lifetime ago.  Nearly twenty years!”

“Joe will be happy to see you,” Bella said.  “So will Ben.”

The older woman’s eyes went to the stairs again.  She scowled as if thinking of something unpleasant and then said softly, “I hope so.”

“Rosey, is there something you – ”

The sound of horses – multiple horses – racing into the yard stopped her short.  Men were shouting.  Others were answering. She could hear Ben’s deep voice booming out instructions.

She didn’t hear Joe.

Bella finished her awkward ascent from the chair and took a step toward the door and then stopped, unexpectedly dizzy.  As she clutched the edge of the table, Rosey looked her up and down.

“Are you all right?” the older woman asked.

She swallowed over her fear.  “I think I better stay here.  You’ll have to unbolt the door.”

 

Rosey eyed the expectant mother with concern as she moved to do what she’d been told.  Bella Carnaby Cartwright looked ready to bust.  Her time must be close.  She also looked scared out of her wits.  The older woman’s lips twisted a bit as she reached for the latch.  Being married to a Cartwright would be a challenge – any Cartwright – but being Little Joe Cartwright’s wife would be an act of faith.  The boy, when she met him, had been like a moth to flame when it came to trouble.

It seemed now that he was a man nothing had changed.

A curt cry from outside and a fist hammering on the door drew her attention back to it.  After casting a last glance at Bella, who had gone pale as a winding sheet, she said a small prayer and opened the door to find a tall man with piercing hazel eyes and salt and pepper hair staring at her just as openly as she was staring at him.

“Who?” he said, frowning.  Then he shook his head as if it didn’t matter.  A second later he turned back into the dawning light and called out, “Pa! Wait. Let me help.”

Pa.

She hadn’t recognized him.  Just like he didn’t recognize her.  She did now.

It was Adam.

Ben’s eldest was home.

A moment later Rosey stepped aside as the two tall men moved into the house, bearing a smaller man between them.  She could hardly believe that head of silver curls, but she knew Joseph Francis Cartwright the instant she laid eyes on him.

And knew as well that he was in danger.

Bella’s intact of breath was audible.

At first it had seemed Ben didn’t see her – or know her – so intent was he on his youngest and his needs, but then those dark eyes fastened on hers. In them Rosey read relief and the longing of nearly twenty years – a longing she knew all too well.  But there was something else.

Fear.

Her gaze went from Ben to Joseph and traveled the length of the youngest Cartwright’s taut muscular frame.  Joe’s clothes were singed and covered with ash and soot, as were his spiraling curls.  He was pale and breathing hard; his cheeks bright with fever.  But worse than that, his silvery hair was matted with day old blood while a fresh supply – brilliant and red – soaked his shirt front.

“Rosey,” Ben began.  “Please get Hop Sing. Tell him we need bandages and water.  One of the men has gone for the doctor, but we’ll need to clean Joe’s wounds before he gets here.”

She nodded and turned toward the kitchen.

A strong hand caught her arm, holding her back.  Surprisingly, a moment later that hand touched her face.  She met Ben Cartwright’s gaze and then reached up to take his hand in hers.

“Good to see you,” he said with a hint of a smile.

“Good to be here,” she replied softly.

“Pa….”

Rosey looked up at the tall man.  Yes, it was Adam.  Older.  More intense, if that was possible.  But definitely Adam.  He was struggling to hold onto his brother who had roused and was trying to push his hands away.

“I can…make it…up my own…damn stairs,” Joe snarled as he broke free.  “I…don’t…need your…help!”

The older woman stifled a laugh.  Ben had actually rolled his eyes!

“Joseph, you will do as you are told!” the rancher ordered.

Bella had moved in beside Joe.  He’d just given his overwrought wife an encouraging smile when his father spoke.  True to form, Ben’s youngest’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared as he whipped around to meet the older man’s disapproving stare.

“Since when?” Joe snapped.

Right before he hit the floor.

 

Ben gripped the newel post to steady himself.  Rosey had just shot past him, her arms laden with bandages and towels.  Hop Sing followed quickly in her wake, bearing several pitchers of water.  Neither had given him more than a cursory glance as they raced for the sick room above where Bella sat with her ailing husband.  He was worried about his daughter-in-law.  The heavily pregnant woman had needed support to make it up the stairs.  From experience he knew shock and worry could hasten a woman’s time, and the last thing they needed right now for his daughter-in-law to go into labor.

Things were mad enough as it was.

A shout and a whistle drew the older man’s attention from the stairs to the open front door.  Candy had just stepped outside and he could hear the brown-haired man shouting orders.  They were meager on hands due to the drive.  Still, the few they had with them were trustworthy and Candy had volunteered to handle putting them to work.  A few would tend to the stock and so on, but most were to be sent – along with Jin Lei’s men – to take up strategic positions around the house.  Lei had gone to Virginia City to check on his son and father and hopefully bring them back.  Jude Randolph went with him, refusing to let him travel alone.  Ben ran a shaky hand over his eyes and wavered slightly on his feet.  If the truth be known, he was exhausted.  It didn’t matter.  Without a doubt some kind of attack on the Ponderosa was imminent and they had to be prepared.  Adam had made that quite clear.

The rancher’s gaze went to his eldest son who was pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace like a man possessed.

What Adam hadn’t made clear was why.

His eldest must have sensed he was watching him. Adam halted where he was, opened his mouth to speak, and then dropped into the chair that for more years than he could remember had been his eldest son’s favorite.

“Pa, I’m so sorry.  I…failed to prevent this.”  Adam’s gaze went to the staircase and then came back to him.  He chuckled sadly.  “No.  I should amend that.  I just failed.”

“At what, son?”  He moved closer to the boy – the man – he hadn’t seen in almost five years. One he had feared dead.  “What is it that you have failed at?”

Adam snorted as he leaned back in the chair, resting his head on the worn blue velvet. “It’s a long story, Pa.  In the beginning it was all about preserving a country’s history.  Then, it became about the greater good.  Now….”  Adam sighed as he shifted and looked at him.  “Now, it’s about keeping Joe alive.”

“You’re talking about the threat Khu Zhuang’s grandson poses.  Jian explained that Qian erroneously believes Joseph killed his grandfather.”

Adam nodded.  “Because someone told him Joe was responsible.  I don’t know who.”

“I do,” a voice spoke from the stairs. The sound sent a small thrill through the older man.

It was Rosey.

Both of them turned toward the stairs and were surprised to find Rosey assisting a frail Chinese woman down to the first floor. It was clear she had once been a beauty, but life had not been kind.  The older woman’s face was heavily painted; her narrow eyes smudged with kohl to make them appear larger and her lips stained too bright a red.  Though her hair was black, it was evident that it was not her natural color as streaks of a dull white showed through here and there.  The woman moved carefully, her dark eyes darting constantly from one side of the room to the other as if she expected an attack.  A nervous tick lifted the corner of her upper lip into something resembling a sick smile.  Ben’s eyes went to the elegantly embroidered silk sleeve Rosey gripped, noting the strength the brown-haired woman put into it – as if she feared the Chinese woman might collapse.

Or bolt.

“Rosey?” he inquired.

She assisted the Chinese woman to the settee and settled her against a pillow in one corner before replying.  “This is Madame Ah Kum, Ben.  I think she can answer some, if not all of your questions.”  The handsome woman’s gaze went to Adam.  “Both your questions.”

Adam sat up and leaned forward.

As courtesy demanded, the rancher inclined his head.  “Madame Ah Kum.”

The Chinese woman seemed a bit stunned.  It took her a moment to return his greeting.  “Mister Cartwright,” she said at last, her voice thin and reedy, “it is with both regret and anticipation that I greet you.”

His eldest had grown pale.  “Madame Ah Kum?  From the Delectable Dragon?”

Ben frowned as he looked from one to the other. “You two know each other?”

Adam shook his head. “We’ve never met. But….”

“Madame Ah Kum, as you remember, Ben, was married to Da Chao,” Rosey said.  “After his death, she became Khu Qian’s property.”

“Qian is a madman, Pa,” Adam explained. “You remember the jade dragon his grandfather and Da Chao fought over, and all the possession of it implied? According to my sources, Khu Zhuang’s grandson believes all that and more.”

“And how do you know this, son?” Ben asked as he took a seat.

Adam glanced at the Chinese woman before continuing.  “Madame Ah Kum contacted the men I work for, offering to give them information concerning Qian’s organization if they would guarantee her safety and see that she made it back to China.”

“And who, son, is it that you work for?” he asked softly.

Adam frowned.  “I can’t tell you exactly, Pa.  I’m sorry about that.  Until Qian’s organization is dismantled, I’m sworn to secrecy on some accounts.  But I can tell you this, the men I am associated with – on two continents – are good men who are entirely devoted to breaking Khu Qian’s grip on Sacramento and Vallejo and stopping all of his abhorrent practices.  He enslaves men and women, Pa. Children too.  He sells them like you would sell cattle – after hooking them on the drugs only he can supply.”  Adam shuddered.  “And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

Ben had been watching Madame Ah Kum.  Her dark eyes were averted.  Adam’s words seemed to paint her a hero.

Somehow, he doubted it.

The rancher moved closer to the settee so he could address the woman directly.  “Was it you who told Khu Qian that it was my son, Joseph, who killed his grandfather?”   He noticed Adam looked shocked.  “It’s what Jian told us, son, and I trust him.”

When the Chinese woman remained silent, Rosey spoke.  “It’s true, Ben.”  She smiled sadly as he looked at her.  “I’m afraid you have the Cartwright reputation to blame.”

“What?”

Rosey glanced at Ah Kum and then turned back to him.  “She’s terrified.  She was afraid Qian would find out about her cooperation with the authorities.  She wanted him away from Vallejo, but more than that, she wanted him dead.  Madam Ah Kum thought the best way to insure that was to send Qian to the Ponderosa.”

“Whatever for?” he all but shouted.

“Because you will kill Qian,” the Chinese woman said, her voice scarcely a whisper in the dark.

“She knew you’d beaten Zhuang, Ben,” Rosey explained.  “She believed you would beat Qian too.”  The handsome woman shrugged at his disbelieving look.  “It’s the reason she came with me.  She believes she is safe here.  Madame Ah Kum believes you will kill Qian, and when you do, she will be free.”

Ben felt his fingers form fists.  There was a rage building in him that had nowhere to go.  He wanted to, but couldn’t take it out on this frail, self-seeking woman.

“Pa,” Adam said, his voice thoughtful.  “It may do us well that Madame Ah Kum is here.  I’m sure she has information that can help us defeat Qian.”

The rancher drew several calming breaths before continuing.  “This take-down you speak of, Adam, when is it to happen?”

“It may have happened by now,” his son said.  “It was scheduled for this week.  Qian was supposed to have been taken and his organization destroyed.  You, Joe, and Joe’s family – all of you were supposed to be safe.  That’s why…why I did everything I have done; why I left my life behind.  I did it not only to take Qian down, but so all of you would be safe from the monsters.”  His son sighed.  “I was so arrogant, Pa.  I got in over my head.  When I wanted to, I couldn’t get out.  I was in too deep.”  Adam swallowed hard.  “And now, with Qian free, it seems it may never end.”

Ben walked over to his son and placed his hand on his shoulder.  “What happened, Adam?  Do you know?  What went wrong?”

Adam shook his head. “Everything progressed as it should.  The last communication I had indicated everyone was in place and only waiting for a signal.  When Jude and I left England, I was confident that I had accomplished everything I had set out to accomplish. Once in the states, it quickly became clear that everything had changed.  We were followed.  Everywhere we went, Qian’s men were there ahead of us.  One day, the notes began to appear.  Sometimes they were delivered by hand, but most often they were waiting for us when we arrived in a new city or settled into a hotel.”

“Notes?”

“Threatening notes, Pa.  Qian made it very clear that I was going to pay for betraying him and that the payment exacted would be the death of those I loved – you, Joe, my wife and children.” Adam smiled at his look.  “Yeah, Pa, I’m married too.  We meant to surprise you with a visit, but then…things happened.  Kate should be on her way here now.  I’m afraid for her, Pa, and for my children….”  His son frowned.  “Pa, what is it?”

How could he have forgotten?  Adam didn’t know.  His son didn’t know that the woman he loved and his children were safe and, in fact, upstairs in this house. Ben opened his mouth to tell him just that, but then, found he didn’t need to.

Adam had risen to his feet.  His hazel eyes went wide and his mouth gaped as he took a stumbling step forward.  Ben knew before he looked what it was that had surprised him so.  Kate was standing at the top of the stairs with BJ asleep in her arms.  Lisbet stood at her side, clinging to her mother’s hand, looking shy and uncertain.

Terror might await them.  In fact, it almost certainly did.  But at that moment fear was meaningless.  For him, for Joseph and Bella, but most of all for Kate and her children there was only joy.

Adam was home.

 

Mama was home.  He couldn’t remember where she’d gone, but he knew – somehow – she’d just come back.  He knew it because she was humming as she moved around the room.  Men were so different from ladies.  Ladies had all their ‘finery’ as Pa liked to put it, like jewels around their necks and bone combs in their hair, and so many white skirts under their dress that if you climbed inside and took hold of their feet, there wasn’t a Paiute in miles who’d be able to find you.  Whenever he did that, it was like bein’ in a lavender patch.  Mama always smelled of lavender.

Except now she smelled like one of Hop Sing’s cakes, all-over cinnamon and vanilla.

Joe Cartwright shifted uncomfortably and fought to pry one eye open.

Something wasn’t right here.

“I think he’s waking up,” a hand cautioned as it took hold of him, and then added, “Joseph, don’t try to move.”

No.  Wait.  That wasn’t right.

Hands couldn’t talk.

There had to be a person attached to it and it sure as hell wasn’t his mama, ‘less her voice had gone down several octaves and her skin grown tough as leather.

And there was only one person who still called him ‘Joseph’.

Finally succeeding with both eyes, Joe opened them to view the one constant he had known his entire life.

“Pa?”

As he said the word, the curly-headed man winced.  Pain stabbed his chest like a knife.  He looked down to find it bandaged and the bandage matted with dried blood.  He saw too that someone had removed his ruined clothes and apparently given him a wash.  Automatically, he thought of Hop Sing, but then, no, he remembered he wasn’t a little boy anymore and he had a wife.  Joe’s hungry gaze sought her.  That was Bella’s scent he had nosed – cinnamon and vanilla.

When he finally found her, it was across the room by the chest of drawers.

Bella was packing.

His confused gaze went to his father.  The older man favored him with a slight smile and a shake of his white head, as if to say, ‘It’s not what you think’.

Even so, he had to know.

“So does this mean you’re finally givin’ up and goin’ to find that city slicker?” Joe asked, scowling at the air in his voice

Bella whirled at the sound.  She dropped the chemise she was holding and came swiftly to his side.  “You keep doing this and I just might,” she said softly as she bent down and kissed his forehead.

“Is that…all I get?”  He scowled as his question was interrupted by a short, harsh cough.

“Until the doctor says otherwise,” Bella scolded.  Then kissed him on the lips.

To the sound of an accompanying ‘Harrumph!”

Joe leaned back and closed his eyes.  “No,” he whimpered. “Not again….”

“I’m just about as ‘delighted’ to see you as you are to see me, Joe,” Doctor Martin said.  “I had hoped marriage and fatherhood would put an end to your rough and ready ways.”

“And I’d hope my gettin’ married would allow you to retire,” he growled.

“I have this fear that, so long as there is a Cartwright alive, I will never retire.”  Paul Martin made a tsking noise as he headed for the door.  “I was worried about you, young man, but since I see you’re awake, I think I will leave you in the hands of these your capable caregivers and go check on that son of yours.  That gunshot wound of his seems to be healing nicely, but with a little one, well, it’s best not to take chances.”

Joe had leaned back and closed his eyes, steeling himself for the inevitable probing and prodding that would come upon Paul Martin’s return.  It was a stupid thing to do and he’d all but fallen back to sleep when the physician’s words registered.  For a moment he couldn’t believe what he’d heard – he figured it was just a part of a nightmare – but when he opened his eyes and saw the tension in both his father and his wife, he knew it was true.

Someone had shot his son.

His four-year-old son!

“Joe, no!” his father’s stern voice commanded as he took hold of the covers and tossed them back.  “Paul said you shouldn’t get out of bed for at least two days and it hasn’t been one.  Joseph!”

“Joe Cartwright!  You listen to me,” his wife scolded. “I have enough to worry about without you putting yourself in more danger.  Joe – !”

His feet were on the floor. His fingers were locked in a death-grip on the bedpost and he was rising under his own power – meager as it was.  “Where is Eric?” he demanded. “Where’s my son?”

“Here,” a deep voice answered.  “He’s here and he’s safe.  Now, Joe, get back in bed before you set a bad example for your son.”

Joe froze where he was; his fingers clamped on the carved wood.  Truth to tell, he was pretty sure he wouldn’t have made it two steps without falling flat on his face.  He shifted slightly and looked toward the door and then did a double-take.  Filling the frame was his long-lost brother Adam, just as he’d expected.

Except Adam had a little curly-headed boy on each arm.

Both boys turned their faces toward him.  He was struck dumb by the resemblance.

“Should I pinch you?” he heard his father ask with a soft chuckle as he gripped his arm and assisted – well – forced him back to bed.

“It might not hurt,” Joe muttered as his head hit the pillows.

Even as he spoke, his son slipped from Adam’s embrace. The moment the little boy’s feet hit the floor, he was on the move.

“Papa!” Eric exclaimed as he threw himself onto the bed and began to plow through the covers toward him.  “Papa!”

Adam winced as he shifted his hold on the other squirming child.  “I can see whose lungs he inherited,” he said with a wry twist to his lips.

Eric made a beeline for him, but stopped just short.  As he looked him up and down, the expression on his son’s cherubic face changed from one of puzzlement to fear.  Finally, he reached out and touched what Joe knew had to be his battered face.

“Papa? You okay?”

Joe glanced at Bella and then raised a hand to trace the ugly wound on the side of his son’s face.  “Punkin,” he said, as tears entered his eyes, “are you?”

Seeming to take his father’s question as a ‘yes’ to his own, Eric beamed.  “Me’s fine! And I gots me a new best-est friend.  And another cousin and an uncle and auntie too!”

Adam remained anchored in the doorway.  At their father’s urging, he moved a few paces into the room and then stopped, as if unsure of his welcome.

Which was fine.  Joe wasn’t sure he was welcome either.

Eric held his hand out and waved the other little boy over.  Adam hesitated and then surrendered his hold, allowing the boy to race across the room and leap onto the bed.  From his brother’s expression, it was apparent this was Adam’s son.

And his spitting image.

Joe laughed out loud.

“Don’t rub it in,” his brother groused.  “I mean, Pa, look!  What was God thinking?  Three of them!”

“This is BJ, Papa,” Eric declared as he bounced up and down on the bed.  “That stands for Benjamin Joseph ‘case you ain’t smart enough to figure it out.”

BJ was frowning, his lips curled with a familiar pout.  His nephew studied him a minute and then looked back at his father.

“Are you sure this is Uncle Little Joe?” the boy asked.

“Yes,” Adam said, biting back a smile, “though I admit the silver curls threw me off.”

His brother’s son turned back and pinned him with his cool hazel eyes.  “I don’t believe it,” BJ announced.

Joe exchanged a glance with his brother.  “Well, I’m pretty sure I’m me,” he said, trying his best not to laugh at the boy’s serious expression.

BJ’s curly head shook.  “Papa told mama and mama told me that Uncle Little Joe Cartwright was the quickest draw with a six gun, the best bronco-buster, the fastest horse rider, the smartest Cartwright, and the best-est little brother ever. You’re just an old man!”

Khu Qian didn’t need to worry about him livin’ very long.  These two little mischiefs were gonna kill him with laughter.

Joe managed to choke out, “The smartest Cartwright?”

Adam’s expression was priceless. It set him off giggling until he was clutching his side.

“Now, just what is going on in here?” Paul Martin’s authoritative voice roared.  “I turn my back for just a minute and I find a party being thrown in my patient’s room?”  The older man paused and waited until Joe looked up and met his gaze.  Paul nodded his head at Pa who was looking hale and well and laughing his head off, and then his eyes returned to him.

The best medicine,’ he mouthed.

 

ELEVEN

Joe sat alone in his father’s favorite chair, his head resting on its worn back, staring at the door through which his family had just disappeared.  It had been a hard parting.  Bella had done her best to put up a brave front, but in her maternal condition it was a losing battle.  She’d clung to him and cried and cried until he was crying. It took Eric clinging to their legs and crying too to get Bella to pull herself together and walk out the door along with Pa.

They’d talked it over and agreed to send the women somewhere safe.  Adam’s wife had taken it better than Bella, but then she was older and had already been through so much.  He’d seen the two of them – Adam and Kate – standing in the hallway outside the room they shared, touching and talking early in the morning when he’d stubbornly climbed out of bed and gone to check on his son who was bunked in with theirs.  Adam had nodded at him and Kate had turned, showing the tears in her eyes.  It was hard.  Hard for all of them.  But it was for the best.  Should Qian choose to attack the Ponderosa, they would need to be able to focus, and if the women they loved and the children they’d fathered were in the house, there was no guessing what they would be focusing on.

And that might get them all killed.

Joe shifted, seeking a comfortable position.  The wound on his chest was healing, but not healed and it still hurt.  He had been told in no uncertain terms that he was to stay put.  Adam had volunteered – with a wry grin – to make sure he did while Pa and Jude went with the women.  The men were going to see them to the border of their property and then turn back.  Rosey O’Rourke, God bless her – a woman he would trust to protect his family over most men – had offered a sanctuary.  The older woman was taking all of them – Bella and Eric and Adam’s wife, Kate, and her daughter and son – to her home near Sacramento where they would be safe.

If anywhere was truly safe.

“Coffee?” a tired voice asked him.

Joe looked up to find one of the familiar red and white transferware cups in his line of sight.

Another constant in his life.

As was the man standing before him, though in a very different way.

Adam took a seat on the settee across from him, not in his blue chair, as if he hadn’t yet earned his right to be a part of the family again.  His brother’s narrowed eyes searched the room, noticing the changes; the things that were missing and the added touches that said a woman once again ruled the roost at the Ponderosa.

“Joe, I….” his brother began.

“It’s all right, Adam,” he said wearily and meant it.  “You did what you had to do.”

His brother’s gaze darted to him over the edge of the cup.  “Maybe BJ is right.  Maybe you aren’t Little Joe Cartwright.”

Joe couldn’t help it.  His lips quirked with triumph as he thought of Adam’s boisterous son. “You’ve got your hands full there,” he snorted.  “God’s gettin’ you back for all those times you were mean to me.”

Adam’s salt and pepper brows popped.  “And how, then, do you explain Eric?”

He turned his head as tears entered his eyes.  He already missed his son.  “Pa calls it Divine justice,” he said quietly.

“Pa.” Adam leaned back on the settee.  “Thank God, he’s still here!  Candy told me about the accident.  How he almost…died.”

Joe ‘s fingers gripped the arm-rest of the chair.  The old man – and younger brother – in him snapped, “Yeah.  You wouldn’t have wanted to miss it like you did with Hoss.”

He expected Adam to come right back at him, to rationalize and justify the choice he had made when he walked away that day so long ago.

But he didn’t.

“I can’t say I was wrong to have left, Joe.  If I hadn’t gone to Europe, I would never have met Kate.  But I was wrong.”  His brother sighed as he placed the china cup on the wooden table before him.  “I found there was nothing in that great big wide world – the one I felt so desperately I had to see – that I didn’t already have here.”  Adam paused and then favored him with a slight smile. “So, you see, you are the smartest Cartwright.”

He’d wanted to rail at his older brother, to scream out his rage that Adam’s choices – made so callously and so far away – had nearly killed his son and threatened his wife.  But he didn’t.  As he watched his brother deal with his own wounds – as he’d seen Adam try to reconnect with a son and daughter who, if the truth be told, thought of him as a stranger, and with his own wife – he’d realized something.  He’d realized that the pair of them were not so different anymore.  At the heart of every choice they’d made since the last time they’d seen each other was one thing and one thing only.

Family.

“Sorry, Adam.  I shouldn’t have said that.”  Joe drew in a sharp breath as he shifted and frowned.  Yep.  He still hurt in more places than he knew he had.  “I know you would have been here for Hoss.  You were always here for him…and me.”

Adam rose and walked toward the dining room, as if seeking to connect with the brother they had shared so many meals with there.  He took hold of the chair at the end of the table and looked out the window.  “I can’t tell you how I felt when Douglas mentioned Hoss had died…in passing, like it was just a piece of old news.”  He glanced over his shoulder.  “You know me, Joe, I like words.  I looked for the one that fit.  Distressed.  Heart-broken.  Lost.  None were enough.  In the end, the one I settled on was ‘bereft’: deprived of, stripped down, devoid of, bankrupt – robbed of….”  Older brother drew in a deep breath and let it out in a long sigh before returning to his chair.  “At that moment the choices I made – the mission I undertook – none of it had any meaning.”

Joe was silent a moment.  “What about the children?” he asked quietly.

Adam stared at him as he sat down.  “Who told you?”

He snorted.  “Who do you think?  Who is it usually gets through my thick skull that beatin’ you to a pulp is a bad idea?”

“Pa?”

“Yeah.  Pa.”  Joe couldn’t imagine it.  Children – like his and Adam’s – stolen from their parents, abused, drugged, bought and sold.  He drew a deep breath and siphoned it off with the pain.  “Like I said, you did what you had to do.”

Adam thought that over.  Then he nodded, accepting it.  “In the beginning, Joe, I admit it was all about the artifacts that were being stolen; the history of ancient civilizations raped and plundered.  Once Scotland Yard knew I could be trusted, they approached me and asked me to go deeper.  At first I was simply a sort of liaison – the rich American buyer.  I could have walked away at any time.  At least, I think I could have.  After that day,” he paused, “after I saw those kids….”

“You felt it was your duty to take Khu Qian down.”

“It was about that time as well that I began to hear rumors that Qian was going to target the Ponderosa.”  His brother’s gaze went to the front door.  Madame Ah Kum had gone through it a short time before, headed to Virginia City with one of their men.  They’d all agreed to let her go.  There was nothing they could do to make her pay for her treachery that God had not already done.  Rosey had informed them the night before that the Chinese woman had a cancer and only months to live.  “Now I know why.  Ah Kum aimed Qian at you as surely as if she had picked up a rifle, loaded it with bullets, and handed it to him.”

Joe shook his head.  “Pa’s mighty proud of that Cartwright reputation.  I guess he never figured it could go both ways.”

“What?  You mean that a crazed Oriental madame would believe that a family of cattle ranchers could take down the leader of one of the largest and most vile tongs in this hemisphere?” Adam grinned. “I always thought Pa lacked just a little in imagination.”

“That was on account of him naming his buckskin, ‘Buck’.”

The two brothers looked at each other and then burst into laughter.

“What you two laughing about?  Plenty, plenty to be done!  You well enough to laugh, you well enough to help Hop Sing.  Much to do!  Chop chop!”

Yet another constant.

Joe looked at the little, old Chinese man who had just emerged from the kitchen.  “Hey, Hop Sing!  Doc Martin said I had to keep off my feet for two more days.  No can go chop chop!”

“You keep off feet.  Hop Sing no make Little Joe be on feet.  You not too old to sit in kitchen and snap beans!”

“He’s got you there,” Adam laughed.

“You come too, Mistah Adam!  Many, many things to do.  Must be ready for when bad men come.”

Joe and his brother sobered.  They didn’t know when, or exactly what it would look like, but they were expecting a siege.  They’d called in most of their remaining men and sent them with Pa and the women, both for the women’s protection and their own.  Those who remained, under Candy’s command, were seasoned men who had refused to go.  While they appreciated their loyalty, it was hard.  These were men they knew and cared for and they were risking their lives by remaining.  When he’d realized what was about to go down, Candy had fought him tooth and nail to stay with them in the ranch house, but in the end his friend had understood that he needed him where he couldn’t be – out there, watching for any sign of an attack.  Jin Lei had returned with his father and son and they were out there too.

Jian had looked him in the eye and told him it only made sense to meet Qian’s Dragon fire with a little Chinese fire of their own.

Adam picked up his cup and rose to his feet.  “Well, little brother, it seems we have our marching orders.”

Joe looked up at his brother.  He grasped his side as he felt the laughter bubbling up again.  He was thirty-five, gray-haired, with one child and another on the way, and Adam still called him ‘little’ brother.

God.  It felt good.

 

Adam sighed.  Hop Sing had sent him outside to gather eggs – and even given him an apron to put them in.  He’d stared at the little Chinese man like he was out of his mind and then dutifully tied the strings around his still slender, but ample waist and done as he was told.  As he left the kitchen, he’d taken one last look at his younger brother.

He was worried.  Joe didn’t look so good.  He was pale and moved with a stiffness that belied the fact that when he had asked him how he was doing, he’d gotten the expected tight-lipped, ‘Fine.’

Some things never changed.

Except they did.

Everywhere he went.  Everything he did.  In the house.  In the barn.  The yard.  Each action echoed with the emptiness of the one who should have been there.  Somehow, when he’d walked away, he’d assumed everything at home would stay the same.  He would be the one to change.  He would be the one at risk – after all, wasn’t what he was doing dangerous?  The fact that one of his brothers would pass and he would be unaware –that he wouldn’t be there – had never crossed his mind.

“Selfish bastard,” he growled as he made his way to the hen house.

But then, as he’d told Joe, if he hadn’t left – hadn’t gone overseas – most likely his and Kate’s paths would never have crossed, and he couldn’t imagine his life without Kate.  The night before, well, it had been as if those three years had never been.  She was his soul mate, his love. She completed him.  No, she made him more than he was.  God, how he’d missed her!  There weren’t a lot of women who would have waited, especially not knowing where he was or what he was doing.  Adam halted as he reached the coop and the chickens scattered.  But then Kate was of New England stock.  She came from a long line of women who loved men who went to sea, like his father and grandfather.  They were women as rock solid as the land they walked.  She had assured him before leaving him again that there was nothing and no one on the face of the Earth who could keep them apart.

Adam bent to pick up the first of the eggs.  Nothing and no one.

He hoped in time it didn’t prove to be one of their children.

The tall man sighed.  He could still see them, huddled in the corner of the room that first night.  BJ had no memory of him.  None at all.  Lisbet remembered, but the papa she remembered had looked different and – he had to admit – acted differently.  She was not so sure that he was the man in her memory.  Kate said he had to give it time, but he wondered now just what it was he had sacrificed to save those damn artifacts.

With two eggs in his fingers Adam stopped and closed his eyes, fighting back the tears that threatened to fall.

No.  No.  He had to remember.  It might have been about the artifacts in the beginning, but in the end it had been about Joe and….

The one who was missing.

The night he left – that night when he left the Ponderosa behind – Hoss had come out to find him in the barn.  If the truth be known, he was hiding.  His emotions were on a knife’s edge.  He kept vacillating, determined to go and just about as determined not to.  He’d traded words earlier with Joe.  His little brother had accused him of caring about no one but himself and then ridden off toward town, determined in his own way to drown the emotional turmoil he felt in loud music, pretty girls, and a beer or four.  Hoss had stood for some time, silently watching him check his gear and ready his horse for travel.

Finally, as he pulled the cinch, his middle brother spoke.

“I need you to promise me something, Adam.”

He remembered turning, curious.  “And what is that?”

“That you won’t leave Joe alone.”

The words had stopped him – concerned him.

“What do you mean?”

Hoss glanced back toward the house.  “Little Joe, you know, he ain’t ever been alone.  There’s always been you or me or Pa.  And when we was gone, there was Hop Sing…and Mama for a while.”

Adam remembered he’d sneered.  “Little brother makes it clear enough that he can take care of himself.”

He’d turned back to his work but stopped at Hoss’ reply.

“It’s a lie, Adam.  A plain bald-faced lie. I ain’t sayin’ Joe ain’t smart, and he sure enough is strong.  And determined don’t begin to describe the boy, but….”  The big man paused.  “There’s somethin’ inside him, Adam.  Maybe someone.  And that someone is afraid.”

He’d actually laughed.  “Joe?  Afraid?  Don’t let him hear you say that.”

Hoss wasn’t smiling.

“Adam, now you listen to me.  You and Joe ain’t as close as him and me, and I’m sorry for that.  I been with that boy since he was born and I know what I know.  The reason Joe fights so hard and runs so fast is ‘cause deep down inside he’s still that little boy who lost his mama in a moment, and he’s scared he’s gonna lose all of us the same way.  Sudden like.  With no warning.”  Hoss held his gaze.  “He’s scared he’s gonna be left all alone and so you gotta promise me that if anythin’ ever happens to me, you’re gonna be here for him.”

He’d formed a fist and jammed it into Hoss’ beefy shoulder.  “You’re gonna live forever, you big galoot.”

Hoss had closed his big hand over that fist and waited until he met his gaze.  It was intense, almost as if – somehow – he had known his life would be short.

“Promise me, Adam,” his brother insisted.  “You promise me.”

And he had.

“What?  Mistah Adam no have eggs all gathered up yet?  What you do with head in clouds?” Adam felt a hand push him to the side.  “Never send boy to do man’s job,” Hop Sing huffed as he bent to retrieve the remaining eggs.

“Eight or eighty,” a soft voice said from behind him.

He turned to find Joe only a few paces away.  His brother frowned when he saw him.  Joe seemed to brace himself and then he closed the distance between them.  The curly-haired man met his gaze and nodded as he noted the tears that trailed down his cheeks.

“Yeah,” Joe said. “I miss him too.” His brother pursed his lips in that way he had and then blew out a breath.  “Adam…” he began. “There’s somethin’ I gotta tell you.”

Joe’s tone was serious.  What was it, he wondered?  Was it something about Hoss and how he died?  After a moment, he demanded, “Joe, tell me!”

His brother’s green eyes lit with mischief.

“You’re lookin’ mighty fine in that apron, older brother.”

A minute later Little Joe was looking mighty fine too.

After all, Hop Sing always said eggs were good for the hair.

 

There were times when the amount of land he owned was inconceivable, even to him. This was one of them.  They had traveled most of the day, heading west, and were still on the Ponderosa.  Of course, the fact that they were was both a wound and a balm to his soul.  Ben looked down at the sleeping form of his grandson, Eric, who was nestled in his arms.  He reached out and moved one of the boy’s rampant curls aside and placed a kiss on his forehead; his lips brushing the edge of the boy’s scar. Adam and Joe had given him a gift that morning – one without price.  They had placed the lives of those they loved and were loath to leave in his hands.

His and Rosey’s.

The older woman smiled at him as she reached out and tucked the blanket covering Eric up closer about the boy’s shoulders.  She’d followed him to the edge of the camp where the sky was wide and the stars perfect pinpoints of light.  He’d retreated there as his men set the watch and their camp was made.  Kate, God love her, reminded him of Elizabeth. She was no-nonsense and soon had both Joe’s wife and her own children settled in.  Poor Bella was lost without Joe. Though normally as headstrong and capable as his son, her maternal condition had her off-balance.  He remembered Joe’s mother.  Marie had been the same. As her time approached the littlest thing would set her off.  Fears were magnified.  A sadness, almost a despair, would overwhelm her at times.  Paul Martin had explained that there was nothing to worry about.  Once the baby arrived, any sadness Bella felt would turn to joy.

Ben glanced at his daughter-in-law where she lay sleeping.  The poor child had cried herself to sleep.

Which was why he had Eric.  Not long after Bella finally surrendered to sleep, the small boy had crept out of their shared bed and come to find him.  Without a word his grandson had climbed into his lap, jammed his thumb into his mouth, taken hold of the placard of his shirt with his left hand, and snuggled in.

My, how the feel of that mop of curls against his chest took him back!

“You still miss her, don’t you?” Rosey asked softly.  “Joe’s mother?”

“Marie?” he responded. “Yes.”  Then he added, “I miss them all at times.”

She nodded as she shifted her position on the rocky seat they shared.  “It’s the same with Patrick.  There are moments when I still expect to see him walk through the door.”  Rosey paused and then added, “A wise man once said time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.”

“Hawthorne,” he said.

“You know it?”

“He’s one of Adam’s favorites,” Ben replied as he shifted the little boy he held, relieving the pressure on his arm just a bit.  “I believe he’s the one who said, ‘Happiness is as a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.’”

Rosey’s full lips quirked at the end.  “We’re sitting quietly.”

He watched her turn her beautiful face toward the sky.  The years fell away in the moonlight and he could see Rosey as she had been when Patrick O’Rourke made her his bride.

A moment later he chuckled.

“What?”  Rosey turned toward him.

“I was just thinking how young and beautiful you look, and how most anyone would wonder what you were doing sitting in the moonlight with a baked and broiled old rancher like me.”

She touched his cheek with her hand.  “I like baked and broiled ranchers, and you are far from being old, Ben Cartwright.”

He thought about the sixty and more years he had walked the Earth and all the things he had seen and done.  Sometimes it seemed he had lived three lifetimes – the first as a seafarer, the second as traveler, and the third as the owner of a ranch.  Or perhaps, a better way to put it would be that, if his life had been a play, he was fast approaching the final act.

Looking down at the innocent child asleep in his arms, he said, “I’ve seen my sons married and held their sons.  I’m content.”

Rosey bit her lip.  “I’m not.”

“No?” he asked surprised.

She shook her head.  “Children, Ben, are given to us to raise up in the way they should go – and then to let them go.  Adam and Joe – my son, Rory – they are men now, with families of their own and, while they still need us, we are not necessary.”

Ben thought that over.  He chuckled.  “You certainly know how to make a fellow feel better.”

Rosey leaned in.  She waited until he met her stare.  “I would certainly like to try,” she said, her words a breath against his cheek.  And then, without waiting for permission – without even asking – she leaned in and kissed him on the lips.

“There,” she said as she pulled back.  “It’s done.”

“Done?” he asked a bit surprised but pleased.

Rosey shrugged.  “It was hanging between us.  Now, you know how I feel.”

Eric shifted and sighed.  Ben looked down at the new life in his hands and shook his head.  “Rosey, I’m  too old to –”

“To what?  To live?” Her voice took on a tone he remembered from the past – used at some point by all three of his wives.  “Have you given up already?”  She reached out and touched Eric’s curls.  “Don’t you want to see this young man married one day?”

Ben glanced down.  His lips quirked.  “If it takes him as long as it took his father, I’d be well on my way to one hundred!”

“And maybe you will be. Ben.  You have a long life left ahead of you.”  Rosey paused.  She drew a breath and let it out slowly.  Then she chuckled.  “I don’t know what your opinion of brazen women is, but I am about to be one.  I’m getting old too – too old to stand on propriety.  Ben, I love you.  I’d like  to spend the rest of my life with you.”  Her hand covered his.  “We did our duty to our children.  Now it’s time to do our duty to ourselves.”

He was just about to reply when one of his hands appeared, drawing his attention away from the beautiful woman before him.  In response, Ben rose to his feet and placed himself between Rosey and whatever was coming.

“Let me take the boy,” she said softly from behind him as the man stopped a few feet away.

Ben’s eyes shot to Bella.  Thank the Lord, she was still sleeping!  Turning, he handed his grandson to this woman – the one he knew he loved – and said, “Take care of him.”

“As if he was my own,” she responded instantly.

“What is it, Nolan?”

The man looked over his shoulder and then turned back.  “Someone’s coming.  Jude went to meet them.”

The older man’s eyes narrowed with hard-won experience.  “Trouble?”

Nolan shrugged.  “No idea.  Whoever it is wasn’t tryin’ right hard to hide their comin’.  Maybe just someone in trouble themselves.”

So, his men were just being overly cautious.  Reaching out, Ben placed a hand on the shoulder of Nolan’s red plaid shirt.  “Thanks, he said and then, with a last glance at Rosey who was settling in with Eric, moved past the man and toward their hastily made camp.

As he entered the ring of firelight, Ben saw movement to the north.  There were two men just breaking through the trees.  No, it was three.  Jude and his hand – and someone else.  Laze, an old wrangler, was carrying someone.  A young man, by the look of it.  The older man nodded as Jude Randolph pushed past him and came to his side.

“Who is it?” Ben asked the Englishman.

Jude shook his curly head.  “He wasn’t able to give us his name.  He… The young man is in bad shape, Ben.  It appears he’s been tortured.”

“Tortured?”

Jude’s wide eyes reflected their shared past.  Ben knew the man before him understood torture better than most.

“Yes.  The signs are evident.  He is highly fevered and out of his head.”

The rancher’s eyes went to the fire.  Laze had laid the young man on the ground and was wrapping blankets around him.  Kate had fallen to her knees beside him and was opening the small satchel they’d packed with medical supplies.

“Did he say anything when they found him?”

Jude hesitated.  “Only that he had to find Joe Cartwright.”

The older man stiffened.  What new danger was this?   “He’s looking for Joe?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The Englishman shook his head.

“Bella, no!”

Kate’s sharp cry drew his attention back to the fire.  Bella had awakened and was on her feet, heading for the injured man.  Kate had risen as well and had a hand on her sister-in-law’s arm.  She was attempting to hold her back – but Bella would not be stopped.  The blonde woman turned a fierce face on Kate, shoved past, and knelt at the injured man’s side.

A second later she let out a small, strangled cry.

As Bella reached out to caress the battered and bruised face – which was just about the only thing that showed of the injured man – the fire cracked and a burst of light illuminated the pair.

It was Ben’s turn to suck in a startled breath.  It had been years, but he knew that  face.  He knew it well.

It was Bella’s little brother Jack.

 

TWELVE

The large and ancient iron brazier held a bowl filled with cool water that reflected a star-studded sky.  Its black surface was still as the air around him which, sensing a moment of great import, had wisely drawn its breath and held it against what was to come.  A man, dressed in a crimson silk coat with gold thread shot through it, sat cross-legged beside the brazier.  Nearby lay another.  Under the second one a fire burned.  Contained, the fire’s crimson tongues licked the bowl, expressing their displeasure. The man’s lips curled with malicious delight as he relished his dominion over them.  So long as the dragon’s breath was held at bay, it was harmless as a dove.

When released, it would consume the House of Cartwright.

Three white pebbles rested at the heart of the second brazier, sizzling and popping as the heated water roiled.  The man plunged his bare hand in and grasped one; relishing the scalding touch of the fiery water and stone on his flesh.  Like fire, pain was purifying.  It drove all that was of no import away, leaving only that which mattered most.

Which was his hate.

Turning in place, the man dropped the pebble into the bowl of cool black water, delighting in its death gasp as it shattered into a dozen pieces.  He watched as its soul – smoke gray, ghost-pale – rose into the ebon sky.  Grasping the second pebble, he did the same, this time permitting himself a vicious smile as it too shrieked and splintered.

The third pebble he held in his hand as he rose to his feet.  He turned from it to contemplate the shallow, steaming bowl and then – with a savagery that belied the simple task – kicked it with his foot, sending the brazier crashing to the ground, scattering the embers beneath it.  Seconds later the forest ignited.  As the dragon’s breath ran along the dry grass consuming leaves and gorse, sating its hunger, his men woke to the danger.  They began to shout as they rose from their beds and scrambled to save their worthless lives and belongings from the flames.  The man did not move.  The dragon’s breath would not harm him.

He was the Dragon.

A sharp voice commanded his attention.  “Lord Qian,” his lieutenant urged.  “It is ill done to chain the dragon for roasting meat.”

Qian sneered.  He knew Kang Fan would as soon see him roasted as their enemies, but he concealed his treachery well.  Kang had sought to use the dragon’s fire to his own ends when he set the warehouse ablaze and nearly killed Joseph Cartwright.  He said this was not so – that it had been no more than a warning such as he himself had ordered.  He knew better.

It was Kang Fan’s desire to be the Dragon Lord.

The tong leader sneered as he continued to watch his men scramble to extinguish the tongues of fire licking up the trees and racing over the ground.  The dragon’s breath was his inheritance from his forefathers and no one else’s.  Soon, it would cleanse this land of the blight of the House of Cartwright.  If not for Joseph Cartwright, the House of Khu would not have been shamed.  By killing his grandfather, Benjamin Cartwright’s youngest son had brought a sea of fire and a mountain of knives down upon his head.  The white man’s death would begin in smoke and end in ashes.

It was he who would do this, not Kang Fan or any other.

And then from the ashes of the Ponderosa, the House of Qian would rise.

Satisfied, Qian allowed Kang Fan to draw him back.  As they stood watching the flames savage glory, Kang noted the white pebble still clasped in his hand.  His lieutenant asked what it meant with a nod, since the words were not his to speak.

Qian opened his fingers and stared at the pristine white pebble nestled in the web of scars that covered his flesh .

“Adam Cartwright,” he breathed near wordlessly.

The dragon’s breath was not for him.

It was for him to watch.

 

It was funny.  It felt like he was ten again, what with just him and Adam and Hop Sing rambling around the house.  When he tried, he could even pretend Hoss was away with Pa on the drive and that both of them would be coming back home in a few weeks hot, dusty, and grouchin’ tired.

Joe rose from the large bed he was sitting on and crossed to the dresser by the window.  He knew most people thought it was morbid – the fact that Pa hadn’t changed anything in Hoss’ room other than to move in a double-frame with pictures of the two of them.  He picked it up now and looked at his brother’s big, beefy and broad face.  Somehow having Adam back home made the ache for Hoss even deeper.  He figured it was because it had been the three of them together for so long.  The hole had been there when Adam left, although to a lesser degree since there was always a chance big brother could come back home.

Hoss had gone to a whole other country.

“It was like stepping back in time, coming into this room,” a soft voice spoke from the doorway. “Kind of a shock, really.”

He didn’t turn to look at Adam.  “I been in here a hundred times.  It’s still a shock.  Hoss not bein’ here, I mean.”

Adam took his place on the bed.  “I didn’t want to ask Pa. I…well, I’m not sure I want to ask you, but….”

“What happened?” Joe asked for him.

“Yes.”

He closed his eyes against the sight.  It would never leave him.  He’d been there.  Hoss had simply been Hoss.  Someone needed help.  He’d given it as he always had, but this time he’d died.

Joe noted his hand was trembling.  He sat the frame down.

“It was him or a woman,” he said softly.  “You know Hoss.  There wasn’t any choice.”

“Would there have been for you?”

Joe whirled to look at his brother, angry for a second at the implication of his words, but when he saw Adam’s face, he knew he was trying to help.

“No,” he said at last as he dropped into the bedroom chair.  “I was hurt.  Hoss saved me first and then went back in.”

“So you saw….”

Joe swallowed hard and nodded.  When Adam said nothing more, he went on, his voice shaking just as much as his hand.  “I blamed myself for a long time.  I should have been quicker, smarter, stronger.  It was stupid, but it was….”

“The Cartwright way,” Adam finished.

Joe actually smiled.  “Yeah.”

For several heartbeats they sat in silence.  It was Adam who stirred first.  He rose and walked to the window and looked out.  “I’m sorry, Joe, that I wasn’t here for you and Pa.  I hope you believe that.  If I had known…”

“You still wouldn’t have been here.  Face it, older brother, if you had hopped on the first ship, Hoss would still have been dead and long buried before you arrived.”

“But you weren’t,” Adam said, his tone soft.  “And I promised….”

His brother had stopped as if he was about to reveal a secret.

“What?  You promised Hoss…what?”

 

As he looked at Little Joe – yes, Little Joe – Adam’s soul took him back, not to that night when he had promised Hoss he would never leave their young brother alone, but to the night when Joe’s mother died.  Their father had been so lost in his grief that he had forgotten about his littlest boy.  After Marie fell, the house exploded into chaos – their Pa shouting as he lifted his step-mother’s broken body from the ground, ordering him to go for the doctor though it was plain to all of them that Paul’s ministrations would do no good.  Hoss following in Pa’s wake, tears trailing down his cheeks; lost, hopeless – sick.  He’d glanced at Little Joe as he headed for the barn, but at that moment the boy had run into the house and that had been the last he had seen of him until early the next morning when he had found the four-year-old in his room lying in his crib instead of his bed.  The crib had been put aside not all that long before as it was one without a foot board, meant to hold a child until they were well on the way to moving about on their own.  His young brother had been so proud to become a big boy and sleep in a big boy’s bed.  Little Joe’s thumb was anchored firmly between his trembling lips and he was sobbing in his sleep.  He’d picked him up and gone back to his own room. Cradling the small boy to his chest, he’d leaned against the head board and given in to his own grief.  Within a few minutes Hoss had appeared at the door.  Those wide blue eyes had sought an invitation and, receiving it, middle brother had climbed into the bed beside them and rested his head on his shoulder.

‘Adam,’ he’d said after a while.

“Yes, Hoss,” he’d answered.

“You ain’t never gonna let anythin’ happen to me and Little Joe, is you?” Hoss asked with all sincerity, as if he could actually fulfill such a promise.

But the boy had needed it.  Joe had needed it too, and he had seen that.  His younger brother’s eyes were open and locked on his.

‘I promise,’ he’d said and meant it.  ‘I promise – if it is within my power – that I will never let anything happen to either you or Little Joe.’

What was is Samuel Butler had said, ‘Oaths are but words, and words but wind’?

Those same eyes pinned him now.

Adam’s lips curled in a rueful smile.  “I made a lot of promises, Joe.  I’m a big enough boy now to know that promises made are meant, but can’t always be kept.”

Joe thought about that a moment and then, dogged as ever, asked, “Was it about me?”

He could have lied.  Should have, probably.  But what was the point?

Joe knew what the promise was anyhow.

“I promised the big galoot that I’d come back one day.  That I wouldn’t leave you alone.”

Adam tensed, waiting for the fireworks.  When they didn’t come, he didn’t know whether to be relieved or concerned.

Joe rose to stand beside him.  His brother placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Thanks, brother. That means a lot.”

The man with salt and pepper hair blinked and looked sideways.  “Definitely,” he said.

“Definitely what?”

“BJs right.  You aren’t Little Joe Cartwright.”  Adam straightened up and placed both hands on his brother’s shoulders.  “You are Joseph Francis Cartwright, father, husband, brother, and a very good man.”

Joe’s green eyes reflected how much that meant to him.  He sniffed back tears.

Then he cuffed him on the arm.

“Last one to the barn gets to muck the stalls!” Joe said as he bolted out the door.

Adam watched him go.  It was pointless.  When he’d been thirty, he couldn’t outrun the little scamp.

Besides, the tall man thought as he left the room and closed the door behind him, he hadn’t said a right and proper ‘hello’ to Cochise and Chubb yet anyhow.

 

The older ranch hands Pa had left behind looked askance at him as Joe bolted into the barn, running like a twelve-year-old with a switch waiting for him.  They were a pair of old wranglers and they’d known him since he was a kid, so after rollin’ their eyes at each other and wavin’ a ‘hello’, they went on their way.  Candy had assigned the pair to patrol the perimeter of the yard, always keeping within a hundred yards or so of the house.  They said they’d come in to grab a bite to eat and were headed back out.

Night was upon them.

As he entered the barn, Cochise snorted as did his deceased brother’s horse.  Chubb had pined something awful for Hoss after his passing, but slowly, as he and Pa rode and worked with him, the black had accepted them and now looked forward to the time they spent together.  Chubb was a big boy – as big as his owner in both size and heart. Most of the time it was Pa who took him out, but now and then he would ride him and every time he did, he felt close to his brother.

Kind of like they were riding together in spirit.

Joe patted Cochise on the neck and then moved on to Chubb.  Cooch would understand.  He knew his stable mate was still hurting and needed an extra dose of attention.  Now that Adam was home, older brother could step in too.

That was, if Adam intended to stay.

He hadn’t asked him yet.  He’d been afraid of the answer.  Though Adam had made noises about how happy he was to be home and how he felt he belonged here, he still hadn’t said he was going to stay.  After all, his and Kate’s home was in Europe, not here.  His brother had a wife and kids – other responsibilities.  As much as he wanted Adam to remain, he would understand if older brother had to go.

As Joe reached up to pat Chubb’s large head, Cochise whinnied.  Not a ‘hello’ this time, but the kind of horse talk that signaled trouble.  Looking down, he cursed himself for a fool.  He’d run out of the house without his sidearm.

He was defenseless.

Ducking under Chubb’s neck, Joe surfaced on the off side of the horse closest to the stall wall, knowing the animal’s bulk would offer some protection.  Quickly, his eyes scanned the interior of the barn.

Nothing.

Nothing was wrong.  Nothing out of place.  No sound or movement.  Maybe he was imagining things.  Maybe Cooch was just excited.

Joe’s gaze went to his horse.

No.  There was something.  Had to be.  Cooch was alert.  His ears were back and his nostrils were flaring.

The curly-headed man stifled a laugh.

Looked a lot like him when he had his dander up.

Turning one way and another, Joe looked for something he could use as a weapon.  Unfortunately, the stall area was pretty clean.  There was a broken piece of railing leaning up against the boards, waitin’ for repair.  It was about three feet beyond Chubb’s hind end.  Joe licked his lips as he considered what was the wisest move.  Adam would probably come out of the house shortly.  In fact, he was surprised he hadn’t seen him yet.  He had two choices – yell to warn his brother or take care of the threat himself.

He never did cotton to choices.

Inching around Chubb, Joe hugged the wall.  He paused, breathing heavily as he came to the end of the horse’s rump.  As he moved, his eyes searched the area surrounding him and found nothing.  Coming to a decision, he moved into the light and reached for the board.

A second later he was pinned to the wall with a blade against his throat.  A man swathed from head to toe in black, with his face covered in soot so nothing showed but his eyes, had appeared out of nowhere.  The blade nicked his skin when he jumped as another man spoke.

“Unless a serpent devour a serpent it will not become a dragon.”

Joe looked over his attacker’s shoulder.  A lean Chinese man, about his height and build, stood just within the opening of the barn.  His well-muscled frame was apparent even within the confines of his gold-shot crimson coat.  Women might have thought him handsome, with his coal black hair and eyes, but there was something about his face – a narrowness to the chin, an inward pitch to his black eyebrows; the way his eyes were angry slits – that turned that handsome into hideous.  As he approached Joe noted how he clung to the shadows, keeping his face concealed, revealing it only as he came close for maximum impact.  It was covered with a web of thin, slightly raised, spidery lines.  Scars.  They were scars.

Something he knew only too well from his own burned hands.

“And so, Joseph Cartwright, we meet at last,” the marked man said as he came to stand before him.  “Do you know who I am?”

Joe nodded, marginally, aware of the knife blade.

“Qian,” he managed to rasp out.

A hand circled his throat.  Its fingers tightened, choking him. “You will address the Dragon Lord as is fitting.  It is Khu Qian to….”

“Kang!” Qian commanded, his tone menacing, “You will not harm him.”  When Joe’s eyes went to him, gratitude in them, he saw how mistaken he was.

“That is for me,” Qian said.

Joe’s gaze flicked to the house.  Where was Adam, he wondered?  Surely his brother would have followed him out.

“Ah, you wonder about the one who would see me destroyed.”

He swallowed hard, feeling the blade.   “If you…hurt him…I’ll….”

Qian’s lips quirked with a sinister smile.  “You are a worthy opponent.  I would expect nothing less.  As to your brother, he is otherwise occupied.  Two of your workers, it seems, have met with an accident.”  As Joe bristled, thinking of the two loyal men who had just walked away, the tong leader drew a paper packet out of his pocket.  As he opened it and removed several matches, he added, “As you shall soon.”

Joe gritted his teeth.  Good.  If Qian killed him, maybe he would leave – and leave everyone else alone.

Though in his heart he doubted it.

“You will not die today, Joseph Cartwright.”  Qian said as he struck the matches and lit them.  “But you will feel the dragon’s breath.  Give this word to your brother when he comes.  Tell Adam Cartwright that soon it will destroy all he loves.”

“Like hell it will!” Joe shouted as he pushed into the knife and let it cut his skin.  Anger and fear fueled him as he twisted and took Kang Fan out with one well-placed blow.  Breathing hard, he pivoted to face Qian.

Who was gone.

For a moment he stood there, breathing hard; stunned.  Then he realized there were flames licking at his feet and the dry material in the stall was quickly being consumed. Cochise screamed in his ear and reared up, his hooves striking out mere inches from his face – which caused him to back up, bringing him closer to Chubb’s rear end.

And the big black’s hooves.

He never knew what hit him.

 

Brent Barton was a goner if they didn’t get him help quickly.  When young Carl Turner had stumbled into the house with the older and thinner wrangler in his arms, it had been apparent from the start that Brent’s wounds could prove mortal.  They’d just resumed their patrol around the house when a knife had winged out of the darkness and taken the older man in the neck.  Brent and Carl were both wounded and covered in blood.  Adam drew a breath to steady himself as he pressed a wadded cloth into the older man’s wound.  He’d shouted to Hop Sing to put some water on and to bring bandages – chop chop!  As he waited – the pressure of his fingers on the man’s throat his only hope of survival – the tall man’s gaze went to the door of the ranch house.  He had no doubt this was the first assault.  Unfortunately, his little brother was in the barn and there was nothing he could do to warn Joe until he had the blood flow under control. Otherwise, Brent would bleed out. So far he hadn’t heard anything suspicious, but then, if there was one thing he had learned about Qian’s assassins and agents over the years, it was this.

Once you heard them, it was too late.

“Mister Adam in way.  You move.  Go find Little Joe!” Hop Sing scolded as his deft fingers sought the wadded cloth and applied the pressure needed.  “Number three son in trouble!”

Adam nodded.  As he rose and made his way to the door, he wondered how Qian’s men had gotten past not only their men, but Jian and his kin.  The only possible answer made him shudder.  It didn’t matter anyhow.  All that mattered was that his little brother was out there and so were Khu Qian’s men and that was a very bad combination.

Just as his hand touched the latch, a shout went up.  He opened the door to see several men, including a very disheveled Jian along with his son and grandson, dismounting.  Jin Lei was obviously wounded.  He was leaning on his son, Joseph, his color pale.  Jian’s exposed skin was covered in blood, but he paid it no heed.

He was running toward the barn.

It was on fire.

“No!” Adam shouted, startling him.  As Jian halted and pivoted on his heel, he called out, “I’ll go in.  I need you to find as many able men as you can and start a bucket line.  We have to get the fire out before it reaches the other buildings!”

Jian had not moved.  “Little Joe?” he asked.

Adam came to his side.  He drew in a deep breath of air and, with a nod, let a little of it out to say, “I’ll let you know.”

Then Adam plunged into the barn.

The flames were rising, licking at the stall walls.  Chubb and Cochise had broken loose and were blocking his way.  Both were stamping and snorting with fear.  Adam coughed as he caught hold of their reins and directed them to the door before slapping their rumps and sending them out into the clean night air.  His jaw clenched as he turned back.  It was hard to see.  Thick black smoke, rising from the scattered debris of the floor, obscured his vision.  Since he couldn’t see Joe and his brother didn’t answer his calls, he could only assume he was on the floor.  Feeling like a louse, Adam began to kick about with his boot, hoping and yet dreading to make contact with something.  It didn’t take long.  Inches inside the second stall the tip of his boot hit something solid that shouldn’t have been there.  Reaching down, he closed his hand around his brother’s ankle and began to drag him out.  He knew what he was doing could be causing Joe immeasurable pain.

But it was better than him burning to death.

The path through the smoke and flames was short but debilitating.  It took everything that was in him just to get Joe out of the barn and onto the grass.  Once they’d made it, the tall man fell to the earth and spent a minute sucking in air before he found enough strength to sit up.  When he did, he saw his brother. The sight made him sick to his stomach.  Pa had written him seven years back about an accident Joe had had.  His brother had been home alone.  Everyone else had taken off for the drive.  There was a storm, the lightning struck and a skittish horse had panicked, mangling his little brother so badly he’d developed gangrene.

One of the horses had struck Joe’s leg just above the boot.  It looked like a hoof might have clipped his head as well.

“Mistah Adam.  Is Little Joe all right?” a concerned voice asked from behind him.

His father had trained him well.  First things first.  “Brent?” he asked.

“Not good, but living still.”  Hop Sing’s eyes went to his brother who lay silent in the grass. “Number three son?”

Guilt washed over him.  He hadn’t checked.

Maybe because he was afraid to.

Reaching out a trembling hand.  Adam placed two fingers at the base of Joe’s throat.  As he nodded with relief, he said, “Heartbeat’s there.  It’s strong.”

“Bad men hurt Little Joe many times now.  Hop Sing want hurt bad men.”

Did that include him, he wondered?  If not for him, these men would not be here.  They would not be trying to kill his brother to get back at him.

“I go get Carl.  He hurt, but not so bad,” Hop Sing said.  “Get Little Joe in house and to his bed where Hop Sing can look after him.”

Adam caught his arm.  “No.  I’ll carry him.”

“But Mistah Adam hurt too,” came the cook’s slow reply.

“Not so badly I can’t carry my own brother,” he growled.  Then he added, softly, ‘Hop Sing. I need to.  Okay?”

Adam rose to his feet as the Asian man nodded, and then nearly lost his footing as he bent over to pick up his brother.

“Good thing doctor already on his way,” their cook breathed as he noted the shape Joe’s leg was in.  “Same leg as before.  That not good.”

Nothing about this was good.  He’d come to the States to reconnect with his brother and father, believing Qian would be finished by the time he was settled.  Instead, it seemed he had called the wrath of the Dragon Lord down upon their heads.

Hop Sing’s hand found his arm.  “Not number one’s son fault.  Fault of bad men.”

He nodded – as was expected of a Cartwright – and then he bore his broken brother into the house.

 

Later, sometime after midnight, Adam went to Joe’s room.  He suspected he’d find Hop Sing there and he wasn’t disappointed.  Hop Sing finished placing a wet cloth on Joe’s head and then sat down wearily.  It had been three hours since the fire was put out.  The barn was a complete loss.  Of course, that was nothing.  The barn they could replace.  His brother….

Joe was alive, but he was a very sick man.

Lying on the floor had saved Joe from breathing in a lot of smoke – a blessing for his already weakened lungs – but it had exposed him to the muck that filled the unclean stall and, as had to be expected, some of that filth had worked its way into the open wound.  Infection had set in and Joe’s temperature was rising. The doc still hadn’t made it out.  Brent was on the settee.  Like Joe, he was holding his own.  Carl was with him, doing double duty as nursemaid and night watchman, splitting his time between caring for the injured man and acting as a lookout.

There were other walking wounded as well.  Earlier Jian and his son and grandson had spotted and followed a group of eight Chinese men as they approached the house.  Among them was a man they believed to be Khu Qian. They had taken them unawares, but been unprepared when  Qian willingly sacrificed most of his soldiers to save his own hide.  Only Kang Fan escaped with him.  During the chaos that followed, Qian and Fan had made their way to the barn and laid in wait for whichever of them came out first.

Unfortunately, it had been Joe.

Adam started as the still form beneath his hand stirred.  Joe sucked in air and let it out in a long breathy sigh, and then turned his head to the side and fell silent again.  Terror gripped him.  So much so he fumbled as he checked for Joe’s pulse and actually roused the injured man.

Joe sighed, licked his lips, opened his eyes to slits and frowned.  “Thought those…hands were too rough…for Bella’s.”

“Speak for yourself,” he said softly.  While tending Joe, it had been his first time to encounter his brother’s scarred hands.   The sight had made him weep.

“Is…she okay?”

Adam reached out to brush the curls back from his brother’s forehead – a gesture so familiar that it countered how silly he felt.  “She’s not here, Joe.  Remember?  She went with Pa.”

“Oh.” Joe tried to shift position, sucked in air again, and said, “Ouch!  What hit me?”

Adam’s eyes went to his brother’s splinted leg.  Thank God, Joe had been unconscious when he and Hop Sing set it!  He forced a smile.  “Maybe it was Hoss in spirit.  Chubb came down on you good.”

“Horse…spooked.  Not his fault.  Qian….”

So it had bee Qian!

“What about Qian, Joe?”

“Fierce little…bastard…..”

He didn’t want to hurt his brother more, but he reached out and shook him gently.  Joe was drifting back to sleep and he had to know.

“What did Qian want, Joe?  Did he say?  Did he give you a message for me?”

Joe blinked back to the present.  “Huh…?”

“Did he tell you something?  Something he wanted you to tell me?”

Joe slowly nodded.  “Said to tell…older brother…he’d feel the dragon’s breath.”  His brother sighed as he began to lose consciousness.  “…soon…destroy…everything you love….’

Adam rose and walked to the window.  As his gaze fastened on the remnants of the barn, he offered up a silent prayer of thanks.  He knew he could just as easily have been grieving for the loss of a second brother now as worrying.  While he stood there, staring, a shadow shifted.  A second later a lean figure clad in a crimson coat shot with gold slipped out of the shadows to stand fully exposed in the moonlight.  As the tall man pressed his fingers to the glass, the Chinese man raised a hand in triumph – all five fingers ablaze.  Then he was gone.

The glove had been tossed.

It was all out war.

 

THIRTEEN

Bella was nearly inconsolable.  It was evident her brother Jack had been brutalized and the damage went far beyond the bruises and cuts that were evident on his exposed skin.  For hours, they had despaired of his life, but as time went by the boy showed a tenacity worthy of a Cartwright.

Jack had rallied.

At first the boy had been combative but, when his sister’s voice finally registered, he’d calmed and they’d managed to get some water and a bit of broth into him.  As was to be expected, fever claimed him shortly thereafter.  Fortunately, Hop Sing had included several of his remedies which, with patience and care, Kate had force-fed the young man until the fire in him began to subside.  All the while Bella hovered, distraught, but too exhausted to do much to help.  He’d ordered Laze to keep an eye on her.  It was not unheard of for extreme stress to bring on a woman’s time prematurely.

That was all he needed – Bella giving birth to his second grandchild in the middle of a war!

Now as he looked at Jack Ben saw a sick boy, but one he believed would recover.  At least physically.  There was no knowing what scars the young man would carry within.

Rosey looked up at him as he placed a hand on her shoulder.  The handsome woman had taken over from Kate, who had gone to rest.  She was holding Jack’s hand and speaking softly to him, trying to get him to rouse.

“Somehow, it doesn’t seem right to waken him,” the lovely older woman said softly as he knelt beside her.  “To bring him back to all that pain.”

“It isn’t, but we need to know what he knows.”

If he remembered correctly, the boy wasn’t twenty yet.  Still, that meant little.  It was a man’s character and experiences that determined his maturity.  With a sigh, he turned to look at Jude Randolph, who stood talking to Laze.  As Jack fought to live, Jude had told them that Jack was working for the same organization as Adam.  Bella’s brother had murmured in his delirium, saying just enough to make them wonder if he was the missing link.

If it was Jack Carnaby who had told Khu Qian about Adam’s plans.

“He’s coming around again,” Rosey breathed.

A ragged breath of air sucked between clenched teeth and a slight shifting of Jack’s lean form proved her right.  Bella’s brother looked at Rosey and then at him, at first without clarity, but then – slowly – recognition dawned.

“Mister…Cartwright….”

“Yes, son.  It’s me.”

Terror entered the boy’s eyes.  “Bella?”

“I’m here.” Rosey shifted aside so that Bella could kneel by her brother.  She gripped his fingers as she placed her other hand on his forehead.  With tears running down her cheeks, she assured him, “You’re safe now, Jack.”

“Bella?” the boy asked again as if he had not heard her. Then, Jack’s fingers sought his sister’s face.  When he touched her, he began to cry.

“It’s too much, Ben,” Rosey warned.  “Too soon.”

“No!”  It was Jack.  “No…it’s all right…need to know….”  He drew in a ragged breath and held it in fear.  “…Joe…safe?  Here…too?”

His daughter-in-law’s eyes met his over her brother’s prone form.  She bit her lip as she fought back tears.

“Joe’s at the house.  Papa….”  Bella paused.   She smiled shyly as she started again.    “Joe’s pa is here.  So is Jude.  They are taking us to safety –”

“Jude?!”  The boy shifted and struggled  to rise.  “No!  …Adam….  No!”

Ben caught Jack’s shoulders in his hands and forced him back down.  He spoke his name, “Jack!”, and then waited until the boy had quieted and looked at him.  “Breath deeply, son.  Take your time.  Now, what is it you need to tell me?”

“Thought I…was dead and…left me.  Away…got…away.  Have to warn Adam…Joe….”  Jack paused to wet his dry lips before continuing.  “Couldn’t help it…told them all about…Adam.  Then you.  When hands…work.  The house…  How to get in without..being seen.”  Jack caught hold of his vest, twisting the lightly tanned leather between his fingers.  “Joe!  Have to…warn Joe!  I…I told.  Qian knows…everything.  He knows….”

Spent, Jack fell back unconscious.

A chill snaked through him.  Rising to his feet, Ben looked at Rosey and declared, “I have to go home.  Joe is in danger.”

“I’m coming too!”

He turned to face his very much pregnant daughter-in-law.  “Bella,” the rancher said softly, “you know you can’t.  The wagon would take too long and, in your condition, you can’t ride.”

“But you heard what Jack said!” she argued.  “You know Qian wants Joe dead and now he knows how to get in!  Joe’s in danger, I have to – ” Bella’s face went pale as milk.  She sucked in a breath of air and then let it out in little puffs as tears streamed down her face.  “I…have…to….”

Ben went to her and took her in his arms.  Placing a hand on her shining hair, he drew her close and said, “You have to take care of Joseph’s child – and yourself.”

“No!  I….”  Bella stiffened against him and then sobbed out, “I have to help Joe….”

“Adam is with him, and Hop Sing.  Jian and his men are on patrol and they know these men,” he said, as much to assure himself as her.  “I’ll go.  Jude will go with me, but you need to stay with Rosey.”

“No….”

A hand on his shoulder made him turn.  “Ben, Bella’s not going anywhere for a while,” Rosey said softly.

He wondered what she meant, but then he felt it.  His leg was warm.  Wet.

Bella’s water had broken.

Good Lord!

What was that phrase Adam was so fond of from ‘Hamlet’?  ‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions’.

Ever efficient, Rosey said, “I’ll wake Kate and we’ll get the back of the wagon ready.  Lisbet can assist us.”

Ben hesitated, torn between his fear for his sons and his duty to them, and the duty that demanded he see their wives and children to safety.

“We’ll be all right, Ben,” Rosey assured him.  “I’ve birthed more than my fair share of babies before, some of them breech.  You have to remember, the girls where I worked had no doctor until Pat.  I’ve seen just about everything.” She pressed a hand to his cheek.  “You mount up and ride.  Ben, go take care of your sons.”

He placed his hand over hers.  “Have I told you I love you?” he asked softly.

Rosey’s lips quirked with a smile.  “No.  But you just did.”

With a passion long held in check, Ben bent down and kissed her.  Rosey leaned into it, pressing her body against his.

“Be safe,” she said.

He nodded.  “You as well.”

“Rosey! I could use your help.”

It was Kate.  She ‘d awakened on her own and had Bella in hand and was guiding the expectant mother to the wagon – the supply wagon where his son’s second child would be born.

Well, if a stable had been good enough for God’s son, he supposed he could accept that.

With a nod to Jude Randolph who was approaching with both their mounts, Ben took his horse’s reins, put his foot in the stirrup, and mounted.

Then they rode like the wind.

 

“I can get…up!  Let me…up.  I may not be…able to walk, but you can prop me up in a window and I can shoot!”

Adam turned to look at Joe.  His brother was pale, sweating, shivering with fever, glassy-eyed, and bound and determined to kill himself.

Against his better judgment he’d helped Joe down the stairs and to the settee in the great room and parked him there so he could be a part of their war council.  Of course, if he hadn’t helped him, his stubborn little brother most likely would have tried to make his own way down and fallen and broken his neck.

At least, this way, he was alive.

For now.

Jian turned to look at him.  The Chinese man’s face was troubled.  His own son lay gravely wounded in the downstairs guest room, sharing a bed with Brent.

The older man was shamed, though no one blamed him but himself.

“Adam, much as I wish to disagree with Little Joe putting himself in harm’s way, we may need him,” Jian said.  “There are less than a dozen of us and Qian’s army is unnumbered.”

Meaning they had no idea how many foes they were up against.

“What do you think he will do?” Adam asked.  He had an idea, but he wanted to hear Jian’s thoughts.  There had been rumors about Khu Qian, and about how Kang Fan had come to be so scarred.  Sick rumors about a twisted relationship in which pain played a major role.

“Qian does not believe he has the Dragon Lord’s power, he believes he is the Dragon Lord.”

“Great-father?”

Jian turned to look at his grandson, who had come from his father’s sick room.  The boy was holding up well, but he too had suffered injuries.  His left arm was in a sling and he had taken a nasty blow to the head.

“Yes, Joseph?”

“I thought the Dragon Lord’s power lay in water, not in fire.  And that he wished to do no harm.”

The older man went to the boy and touched his arm briefly before speaking.  “The Dragon Lord or god is good.  Khu Qian has perverted all he stands for.  The water has become to him a place to lay fiery rocks.  From the water the steam rises and he breathes it in, believing he takes the dragon’s power into him.  Then, Qian breathes it out as fire.”  Jian paused.  “As he did in your barn, Adam Cartwright.”

It had been a warning.  Qian could have just as easily killed Joe.  The tong leader was playing with him – making him suffer and enjoying it.

“You think he’s going to try to burn us out,” Adam said, his tone hushed with dread.

“That is exactly what I believe.”

He’d hated to do it, but he’d called Candy and a half-dozen of their men back to the house.  They were dousing the out-buildings and exterior of the ranch with water as a precaution.  All the windows and doors were locked, so they knew they were safe inside, which was a good thing since they had three men who were less than mobile.

“I told you, Adam.  That’s why Qian set fire to the barn and…left me there.” Joe struggled to stifle a cough.  His poor lungs were working hard, having been assaulted by smoke two times in less than a week.  “He’s gonna try to burn the house down!”

Adam turned toward his overwrought brother.  “You’re right, Joe.  He’s going to try.  Candy has the men hard at work.  Soon there won’t be an inch of wood that hasn’t been watered.  There’s no way he can torch it from the outside.”

“There.  You said it yourself,” Joe announced with a note of triumph in his voice.  “We’re safe inside.  I’m safe, Adam.  You need to take Candy and the men and get out there and take that madman down!”

When had Joe learned logic, he wondered?

“Joe, I can’t leave you.”

“Yes, you can!  Give Hop Sing has a rifle.  I got my sidearm.  Carl’s here.”  Joe paused as deep pain shadowed his expressive green eyes.  “Adam, I need you out there.   You gotta stop him before he….”

Before Qian managed to find the women and their Pa and used them as hostages against them.

For a long moment Adam held his brother’s gaze. Then he said, “If I go – and that’s a big ‘if’ at the moment – I need you to promise me something.”

“Adam….”

“Not for me,” he added softly, “for Bella and your boy, and for that little one who’s about to enter the world.  She needs her father.”

Joe’s brows popped.  “She?  You know somethin’ I don’t?”

It felt good to smile.  “Call it an intuition, little brother.”

The curly-headed man sat still for several beats of his heart and then asked, “Okay,  What exactly is it you want me to promise?”

“That you will stay here.  That you won’t try to follow me.”  Adam grinned.  “And that you’ll take orders from Hop Sing.”

His brother snorted.  “That task master?  No thank you!”

“Joe, much as you want to deny it, your leg is badly injured and you’re fighting infection.”  The sweat was pouring down his brother’s face and he looked flushed.  “You have to stay off it.  If worse comes to worse, do what you said – let Hop Sing help you to a window and stay put there and lay down ground fire.”

“I can shoot,” Jin Joseph said, his tone a fierce as his namesake’s.

Jian nodded.   “And he can shoot well.”

“With Carl, that gives us five guns, Adam.  We’ll be okay.  He can keep watch outside and the rest of us will stay locked up inside.  I promise.”  Joe blinked back tears.  “Now go and take care of the women we love…and Pa.”

Adam hesitated a moment and then agreed.

Little did he know how soon he would come to regret it.

 

The sun was rising in glory, casting its fiery fingers across the land he owned.  It was a sight Ben Cartwright never tired of and one that meant nothing to him now.  All that mattered was the steady thunder of his horse’s hooves and those of the horse beside him.  Jude was tiring, he could tell, unused to riding and setting such a pace, but determination and desperation drove the Englishman just as surely as it did him now that they understood.

Jack had awakened again just as they mounted to leave and told them everything.

It seemed Bella’s brother had become embroiled in the same intrigue as Adam, one intended to bring down the House of Khu along with all of its immoral and illicit operations. Jack was to have boarded a ship and traveled to the States a week or so before Adam.  Before he left there were things to be done, contacts to be made – telegrams to be sent and so on – to make certain the take-down went off without a hitch.  Jack made those connections, all the while unaware that he was being watched.  Before he could board the ship, Qian’s men took him.  He was placed on another ship and brought to the United States and taken to the tong leader and then, the torture began.  At first he resisted, but as the constant torment and pain took its toll, he told them everything – everything about Adam and his involvement with the Yard, about the Pinkertons and authorities in the States that awaited them.

Everything about the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa.

Jack had been in their house many times along with the rest of the Carnabys.  Bella’s family who, thank God, were away now, often came to visit.  The young man had stayed several weeks one winter when snow blocked the pass and, though there was quite a gap in years between him and Joseph, the two had become fast friends.  At the time he thought his youngest son saw something of his own youthful self in the boy.  They’d visited all of Joe’s old haunts, torn up the town (on a small scale that Bella approved of), and wandered the ranch house from one end to the other chattering like magpies.  Jack had expressed an interest in the way the house was built.  Like Adam, he was interested in architecture.  Joe had taken delight in showing him all the cubbies and bolt holes, including the ones only he and his brothers knew about.

Khu Qian knew about them now.

No one in the house was safe.

With a start, Ben realized he had outdistanced Jude.  Reining in his horse, he turned back and saw that the Englishman had dismounted and was checking his horse’s hoof.  Walking Buck back, he leaned over in the saddle and looked.

“Stone?” he asked.

“Just bruised.  But I doubt he can keep up the pace.”  Jude patted his mount’s neck and then looked to the east.  “How far is it to the trading post?”

He’d wired ahead to have someone bring them fresh mounts.  They were to pick them up at Gerlock’s.

“A few miles.”  Ben dismounted as well.  He knelt and checked the horse.  As he stood up, he puffed out his disappointment.  “It’s pretty irritated.  We’d better walk.”

“Ben,” Jude’s voice echoed his worry.  “You go on.  I’ll catch up.”

He’d thought of it.  He wanted it.  But, one man alone would stand little chance of breaking through Qian’s line of defense and, if he was injured or worse, there would be no one to help his sons.

“I think it best we travel together.  I’m sure we’ll arrive in time.”

The rancher turned his face in the direction of his home.

Please God, he breathed.  Let us arrive in time.

 

Rosey O’Rourke dropped to the ground beside the campfire and sat there unmoving.  She couldn’t remember when she had been so tired.  With a groan, she looked toward the wagon.   For a moment she panicked, but then she saw Eric and BJ playing with Laze.  Both boys seemed oblivious to the drama that had unfolded around them.  While Bella’s baby had not been breech, it was close.  She’d been at her wits’ end as the Cartwright stubbornness reared itself and the child refused to respond to her attempts to turn it.  Panic had set in but – thank God! – that had been the moment when she heard buggy wheels and had been both startled and delighted to see Paul Martin rolling into the clearing.  It seemed the good doctor had gone to visit a friend who lived over the Truckee and had spotted their camp on his way home.

Talk about divine intervention!

The older man shook his head when she filled him in and then rolled up his sleeves and went to work.  She’d assisted him as best she could, taking in everything he did.  Firmness of hand, eye, and a few direct commands made that little baby heave to and when she emerged into the world, she was whole, hearty, and shouting out her displeasure.

She.

What would Ben do?

A gentle touch on her shoulder made her look up.

“That makes three Cartwrights I’ve seen come into this world and each and everyone of them has emerged kicking and screaming.”  Paul Martin ran a hand along the back of his neck as he added with a wry smile, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.  They all have a piece of Joe Cartwright in them.”

“Would you like some coffee?” she asked.

“I’ll get it,” he said, stopping her as she leaned forward.  “You stay where you are.  You look bushed.”

“How’s Kate?” Rosey asked as he poured a cup and sat next to her.  Adam’s wife had been the one to keep Bella calm while they did their work.

“Asleep with her girl.”  Paul looked toward the wagon.  “The way Laze is running those two boys, they won’t be far behind.”  He turned back to her and assessed her with a clinical eye. “You should be doing the same thing.”

“In a bit, but first I want to talk to you.”

Earlier she’d filled the doctor in on how and why she’d returned to the Ponderosa – leaving out her personal reasons, of course.  As soon as the light was up, Paul intended to head for the ranch house.  He knew the Cartwrights well enough.  There was no doubt his services would be needed.

She meant to go with him.

“Rosey, Ben would have my hide if I take you into danger,” the older man said as if reading her mind.

“I’m no longer needed here, Paul.  Kate and Laze can take care of everything.”  She bit her lip as a chill snaked along her spine.  “For some reason, I know I’m needed there.”

“A presentiment?” he asked.  As she nodded, the older man added with a wink, “Are you sure you’re not a Cartwright?”

“What would make you say that?”

“Ben.  I have never known a man – any human being for that fact – who could so keenly sense when his children were in danger.  It’s as if he’s standing on an ant hill.  He gets this itch and he’s up and pacing, and then he’s on the move.”

“Is he usually right?” she asked quietly.

Paul shook his head.  “No.”

She was surprised.  “No?”

“Ben is always right.”

Rosey reached out to touch the doctor’s arm.  “Then, will you trust me?”

Paul Martin studied her for a moment.  “You’re in love with him, aren’t you?  Ben, I mean?”

There was no reason to deny it.

“Yes.”

“Does he know?”

She laughed.  “He should.  I told him so.”

“And does he love you?”

It was an impertinent question, but she sensed the heart behind it.  “Yes,” she said softly.

“Well, then.”  The doctor put his cup down.  He rose and held out his hand.  “We’d best get on our way.”

“You’re taking me?”

Paul Martin met her puzzled look with a laugh.

“Ben can take his two cents of hide.  I’ll trust a woman’s intuition over a man’s pride any day.”

 

Joe had finally agreed to let Hop Sing assist him back into the great room.  He winced as he lowered himself onto the settee and then gave the Chinese man a nod, indicating he was all right.  Ever since Adam had left, he’d kept up a post at the  kitchen window.  He’d chosen it since it was somewhat hidden and had a decent view of the yard and surrounding outbuildings.  Just as his strength ran out, Candy and a couple of the hands had rolled in with a wagon loaded with barrels of water and then formed a bucket brigade to douse the still smoldering ruin of the barn.  It was a smart move.  All they needed was a for a wind to rise and fan the flames.

Or for the dragon’s breath to bring them back to life.

With chagrin, Joe admitted to himself that, if it hadn’t been for Hop Sing, he would have been frightened of the Chinese.  When he was little his father had forbidden him to go to that part of town, but as he grew Pa relented – so long as Hop Sing was at his side.  Pa’d lift him up and plant him on the wagon seat beside their cook and tell him to stay put and to do everything Hop Sing said while they were in China town.  At first it was a lark.  Hop Sing’s many cousins, aunts, and uncles plied him with sweet Chinese dishes and deserts and treated him like royalty.  One day, while everyone was busy, he’d wandered out of Hop Sing’s uncle’s house.  It hadn’t been five minutes before he was accosted by two men dressed all in black.  One of them caught hold of his arm while the other offered him sweets, like he was still that little kid.  He hated to admit it, but if Hop Sing hadn’t come out looking for him, he might have ended up like one of the kids Adam had saved – a slave.

Or worse.

Joe shifted, easing the pain in his mangled leg.  Like any group of men, there were both good and bad Chinese.  Most of them he knew were honest, hard-working men and women just trying to make a life for themselves in what was, for the most part, an unwelcoming world.  But there were others – the dark underbelly of the race led by ruthless men like Khu Qian and his grandfather – who cast a long shadow of fear.  Even brave men were scared of the tong.

Smart men too.  Like him.

He was scared.

Not for himself, of course, but for Hop Sing and the others in his charge.  He didn’t know Carl or Brent all that well, but both were good workers and had families of their own that must be worried sick.  Joe turned and looked at Jin Lei’s son, Joseph, who was curled up asleep on the floor near the fire.  He felt responsible for the boy and his father.  He owed Jian his life and if that meant taking risks and putting himself in danger, then so be it.

A twinge of guilt made him wince.  Bella’d tear his head off if she knew what he was thinkin’.  And she’d be right.  He was a father now.  He had a son – and soon, another son or daughter – to consider.  But right was right and he couldn’t just sit by and let everyone else put themselves in harm’s way while he remained safe.

Leaning his head back, Joe rested it on the pillow at the far end of the sofa.  He laid his loaded pistol on the table beside him, placing it with the handle toward him so he could catch it up and fire in one swift movement if necessary.  God, he was tired!  The pain in his leg was nearly intolerable.  He wondered what was keeping Doc Martin.  Maybe he’d been out on a call. You could never know.  With his assistant Paul had to travel less and less, but then again, if an emergency arose, that never stopped the older man.  In his mind’s eye, he could see Paul, scowling and letting out a sigh as he received the summons to the Ponderosa.

Joe Cartwright’s injured.

Again.

Joe snorted as he shifted to find a more comfortable position.  At least he and his pa had had a hand in keeping the man in practice.

As Joe’s eyes closed, he reached out again for his gun.  Content that it was well within reach, he relaxed and let sleep take him.

At that moment a small portion of shingles on the roof of the ranch house were shifted aside, revealing a narrow opening in the roof.  It had been one of Joe Cartwright’s boyhood escape routes.  One no one had ever found.

Until now.

 

FOURTEEN

Adam had been both surprised and pleased to find his father at Gerlock’s Station when he arrived just after dawn.  Or at least he had been at first.

Then Pa told him about Jack.

He’d hesitated in the beginning to bring Jack Carnaby into the web of intrigue and peril that had become his world.  Jack had come to England with a friend and decided to stay when he’d offered to employ him as an assistant.  He’d made the decision early on to keep the boy in the dark and so, for the first year, Jack had been completely unaware that he was up to anything other than designing buildings and collecting antiquities.  Then the Yard came to him with a scheme that required them both.  He’d refused.  Unfortunately, one of the detectives went straight to Jack and spoke with him and Jack – being nearly twenty – declared himself old enough to make his own decisions.

The boy had been barely eighteen at the time.

He had to admit Jack had proved adept at deception.  Something that shouldn’t have surprised him considering all the stories Bella told about her mischievous little brother.  In time, he gave in and Jack became another inhabitant of his secret world.  He told himself – frequently – that it had nothing to do with the fact that Jack reminded him of Joe and he simply enjoyed having him at his side.  The young man had proven a true and loyal ally and, in time, he had shared everything with him.

Adam ran a hand over his eyes and shook his head.  That choice, it seemed, had all but brought about the young man’s death.  It was a miracle Jack was alive.  After a brutal session of torture, during which all of his remaining secrets had been mined, he’d been dumped at the edge of town like so much refuse and left for dead.  If not for a passing stranger who had wandered far afield and found Jack barely clinging to life, Bella’s younger brother would have died.  According to Pa, he was holding his own at the moment, but was far from being out of danger.

Adam closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, in unconscious imitation of his father.  If the boy died, it would be one more grief he would have to lay at the feet of his arrogance.

“Adam,” his father said, interrupting his reverie, “there’s more.”

Pa had that ‘tone’.  The one that meant trouble.

“More?” the tall man echoed.

What ‘more’ could there be?  The older man had just explained how Jack’s information had allowed Khu Qian and his top men to escape the Sacramento area in time to elude capture.  It was just like the scum to desert and leave the majority of his men to pay the price of his evil.

“What ‘more’ are you talking about, Pa?”

His father looked ill.  “It has to do with Joe.”

Adam caught his father’s arm.  He wasn’t surprised to find his hand shaking.  “What about Joe?”

Pa’s brown-black eyes held his puzzled gaze.  “In the years you were away, Adam, before Jack joined you, he was a frequent visitor at the Ponderosa.  During that time, he and Joe became great friends.”

It didn’t surprise him.  In many ways, his little brother was still a kid.

“So?”

Pa’s lips pursed as they always did when he had something to say that he just didn’t want to say.  “Khu Qian didn’t stop Jack’s torture after he obtained the information about you, or about the operation to take down his organization.  He wanted more.  That’s why Jack almost died.  They boy held out as long as he could in a desperate hope that he could keep from betraying your brother.”

“Held out?”  Adam considered what knowledge Jack might have that could put Joe in danger.  At first he could think of nothing.  Then, it was as if a knife pierced his heart.  “The house?  You mean how to get into the house?”  He was well aware of his little brother’s penchant for unapproved nighttime activities.  Over the years he’d found most of the boy’s bolt holes and hidden escape routes, but Joe had proudly informed him one day that he hadn’t found them all. “You don’t mean….  Qian can get in?  Good Lord!”

When he’d left he’d made Joe promise to keep all the doors and windows locked and to remain inside.

Inside where he was safe.

“Pa, we have to go now!”

The older man nodded.  “Jude will be here shortly.  He had to have his horse shod.”

Adam nodded even as he began to pace.  He grudged the time it would take.  There was no way to know what was happening at the Ponderosa.  Qian could have made his move already.  Even now the tong leader could be in the house.  His first move would be to set it on fire –

Adam sucked in air like a drowning man and groaned, “No….”

His father turned toward him.  “Adam?”

In his mind’s eyes he saw it – the vision that had disturbed his sleep the week before when he was on his way home.  In it, he’d come over the rise in front of the house with Jude beside him and seen smoke rising where smoke shouldn’t be.  The house had been engulfed in flames.  Pa was laying outside it with Hop Sing standing over him.  And in the upstairs window – that big, beautiful bay window Bella loved so much – was his brother, Joe.

On fire.

“I have to go,” he said as he turned and readied to mount his horse.

“Son, we should wait for Jude.”

“No!”  Adam drew a breath to quiet his fear.  He puffed it out with the words, “No, Pa.  I have to go now.”  If he went now and Jude and his father weren’t with him, then maybe he could keep his vision from becoming reality.  The college-educated man knew the thought was entirely irrational, but he didn’t care.  He wasn’t feeling very rational at the moment.  “You have to trust me on this, Pa.  Sport is fresh and you know I can ride like the wind.”  With those words, he stepped into the stirrup and mounted.  “You and Jude follow as quickly as you can.”

His father caught Sport’s reins and held him back.  “Adam, what is it?”

He shook his head.  Tears came but words wouldn’t.  All he managed was.

“I have a promise to keep.”

 

A noise woke him.  Joe lay there, half-awake, as his brain worked its way back toward consciousness.  There was a muffled cry and then the sound of a door slamming – neither of which boded well.  He remained still, controlling his breathing and, if the truth were known, his rising fear.  Then he reached for the loaded gun he had placed on the table.

It was gone.

Well, not ‘gone’ exactly.  A moment later he felt the barrel press into his curls.

“We meet again, Joseph Cartwright.”

With a sigh, Joe opened his eyes.  There was no use pretending he was asleep anymore.  He looked up and wasn’t surprised to find that it was Kang Fan who held the gun.  Khu Qian was sitting in Pa’s chair, his lithe form appearing almost childlike in its large leather embrace.  The tong leader sneered as Joe’s gaze went to the space near the fireplace where Jin Lei’s son, Joseph, had lain and found it empty.

“The boy is unharmed,” Qian said.  “He, like your housekeeper, is outside.  As are the men who occupied your guest room.”

“You bastard!” Joe spat.  “Those men are wounded!”

“They will live or die as the Jade Emperor decides.”  Qian uncurled and came to stand over him.  “You should thank me.  They will not share in the cleansing of the House of Cartwright.”

Joe winced as the barrel bit into his temple.  “How did you get in?” he snarled.

“Your secrets are mine, Joseph Cartwright.”  The tong leader’s black eyes gleamed with triumph. “I would guess your sailor father has an expression. ‘Loose lips sink ships’.”

But who, Joe wondered?  Who would know of the half-dozen hidden ways in and out of the house besides the family and Hop Sing?  Even as the question was raised, a thought came to him.  Hadn’t Adam said Bella’s little brother Jack had been working with him?

Joe winced as he realized who it was that had betrayed his brother.

And him.

“So, I take it you’re here to kill me,” Joe said once he found his voice.  “Do you think you could do it with me sitting up?  I’m getting awful tired of lying here looking at big ugly.”

Kang’s finger tightened on the trigger as he knew it would.

And then Qian called his dog off – as he’d hoped he would.

“Kang Fan, you will step back.”  Qian’s sharp gaze settled on his lieutenant and remained there until his order was grudgingly obeyed.  Then, that black gaze returned to him.  “I see fear in your eyes, Joseph Cartwright.”

Joe slowly shifted his aching body and sat up, all too aware of the pain that screamed through his injured leg as he did so.  “Seems to me two against one suggests that I’m not the one who’s afraid,” he growled.

Qian nodded and the barrel returned to his temple.  “You will speak when spoken to and not before,” the tong leader warned.

“Like now?” he snapped and was rewarded by being backhanded.

“Kang Fan would like nothing more than to kill you.  You would be wise not to anger him.”  The tong leader’s keen gaze fixed him.  “Or me.  It is my intention that no one die but you.  I could easily be persuaded otherwise.”

Joe breathed a sigh of relief.  Thank God!

“Do you understand?”

Not wiling to press his luck, Joe nodded.  Then, with a glance at Kang Fan, he spoke.  “May I ask Khu Qian a question?”

The tong leader’s lips quirked with triumph as he nodded.

“I know what Madame Ah Kum told you that I killed your grandfather, but it’s not true.  Da Cho killed him.”

“This is not a question,” Qian said coolly.

“Okay.  Here’s one then.  I can see what I just told you doesn’t come as a surprise.  If you know I didn’t kill Khu Zhuang, why do you want me dead?”

The tong leader thought a moment before replying.  “It does not matter.  Even if you had nothing to do with Khu Zhuang’s death, still you must pay for it.  The House of Cartwright cannot be stronger than the House of Khu.”

“You’d kill me to stop a rumor?”

“To retain power.”  Qian hesitated.  “It is a very different world I live in from the one you occupy, Joseph Cartwright.”

As Joe considered everything the tong leader had said, a thought came to him.  “What about Adam?”

“I do not intend to take the life of your brother.”

The words were cold and spoken with more menace than anything Qian had said before.

Joe swallowed over his fear for his brother.  “You want Adam to suffer.”

“Adam Cartwright will suffer.  I will take everything from him as he has taken everything from me!  The Dragon’s fire will consume all!”  Qian drew a calming breath and then added, “I am not the one who takes your life, Joseph Cartwright.  It is he who is your executioner.”

Joe could feel the barrel of the pistol on his skin.  It had been there so long the metal had grown warm.  He didn’t want to die, but he didn’t want this madman to use him against his brother either.  If he was dead, Adam would be free to act.

Maybe then he could save himself.

The curly-haired man closed his eyes.  In the darkness he saw Bella standing over his grave, weeping.  She was holding his children’s hands.  They’d never know their pa.  There would be a hole in their heart just like the one he’d carried in his own heart all these years – the one where his mama belonged.

Screwing his courage to the sticking point, as Adam liked to say, Joe pivoted sharply and made a grab for the gun.  It went off as he shoved it away, the bullet chipping wood from the edge of the table – and then it rebounded and struck one of the splints that held his broken leg in place.

As he screamed and fell into darkness Joe knew the Dragon Lord had won.

 

The horrific vision in his head drove Adam Cartwright forward at a pace that was far from safe, especially considering it had been years since he had spent any time in the saddle.  It didn’t matter.  He couldn’t shake the image of his little brother in that broad window in the new wing of the ranch house, his curly hair and clothing ablaze.

As he rode, he tried to recall the plans for the new wing he had gifted to his brother and his wife.  At Joe’s request he had included a back staircase. His tough-as-nails little brother would never admit it, but Joe was terrified of fire due to what had happened to Alice and his first child.   Unfortunately, the entire wing hadn’t been finished when he was recalled to Europe.  He certainly hoped whoever had finished the job had followed the blueprints to a ‘T’.

That back staircase might just come in handy very soon.

The tall man slowed his horse’s pace as he reached the first of the series of low rises that lay before the ranch house, half-afraid for the wooden structure to come into view.  His fear wasn’t unfounded.  As he crested the hill, there was smoke rising above the house where it shouldn’t be.

His nightmare had come true.

In the face of it, it was all he could do not to spur Sport forward and race to the house.  Still, some inner sense – calmer than he was – alerted him to the fact that such an action would not only be foolish, but dangerous.  Dismounting quickly, Adam tethered his lathered horse to a tree and then crept forward until he had a clear view of the yard.  He sucked in surprise when he saw four men lying on the ground, guarded by a half-dozen figures in black.  Terror immobilized him until he saw one of them move and realized that, whoever they were, they were trussed up and not dead.  One appeared to be a boy.  Jin Lei’s young son, no doubt.  So the man laid out next to him was most likely his father.  He recognized Carl’s shock of pale hair and then, bless him, heard Hop Sing shouting out his displeasure in Cantonese.

But where was Joe?

As his eyes went to the front door, a slight, Chinese man dressed in black pants and a crimson jacket emerged from the house.  A taller, more substantial figure, also dressed in black followed.  He knew that one.  It was Kang Fan.  So the other one had to be….

Khu Qian.

As if sensing his scrutiny, the tong leader turned and looked straight at him.  Adam ducked into the trees and then counted to ten before emerging again.  As he did there was a boom! and a brilliant light illuminated the dusky morning sky.  Horrified, his gaze went to the far end of the house – to the wing he had built for his brother and his wife.  Fear nearly unmanned him as his eyes sought the bay window that faced onto the yard.  Bella had wanted it to be as big as possible, so she could look out on the Ponderosa pines.

“God, no!” he croaked.

Joe was seated in the window.  His brother wasn’t on fire – not yet – but he wasn’t moving either, which indicated he’d been hurt.  His little brother was unconscious.

Or dead.

 

Ben used the time while he waited on Jude to raise a group of men from those visiting the station.  It had taken all the money he had on him and the promise of more to get them to follow him to the ranch, but he would have sold his own soul if it meant saving his sons.  In the end, the extra time had proven to be God-sent.  As he stood in front of the station, waiting for the men to gather, a buggy had rolled in carrying not only Paul Martin but Rosey O’Rourke.  As he and Paul talked – and he found out the joyous news that he had another healthy grandchild – Rosey disappeared.  He’d supposed at the time that it was to attend to female needs.  Less than fifteen minutes later, he knew he was wrong.  Rosey reappeared dressed in men’s clothing and leading a large gray horse, declaring that she was going with him.  He considered arguing, but knew the handsome woman well enough to realize it would only prove a waste of precious time.  With a nod, he’d mounted even as Rosey did and then, calling out to Jude and the other men, turned Buck’s nose toward his home and spurred his faithful horse into action.  Paul Martin solemnly promised he would follow as soon as he could after he’d refreshed himself and his horse.  Though he hoped his old friend’s services would not be needed, it was comforting to know the doctor would not be far behind.

“God,” the older man breathed as he flew like the wind, so low only his Creator could hear his prayer, “let there be no need.”

Driven by a presentiment that was not his own but his eldest son’s, Ben pushed his horse to a breakneck speed.  Rosey easily matched his pace and the pair of them left Jude and the hired men in the dust.  It was a cloudy day and the sun’s light was diffused.  A gray pall hung over the land.  And so, as they rounded the last bend before the house and Ben saw an orange-red light reflecting off the leaves and the trunks of the trees, his heart nearly stopped.

His Ponderosa – his dream – was on fire.

 

Adam paused at as he reached the back of the house to run a hand over his stubbled chin.  There were fewer of Qian’s men in the yard than he would have expected, but those who were there were positioned at nearly every strategic point around the building.  He’d managed to elude all but one so far and that one was guarding the rear entrance into the new wing.  Seeing the smoke that was rolling out of the first floor windows, he knew he had no time for subtlety.  Whatever incendiary device Qian and Kang Fan had used, it appeared they had set it off on the lower level.  And while he had included a fire wall between the new and older portions of the house, he hadn’t done anything to strengthen the floors.  He had to get Joe out before the fire ate through the boards beneath his feet.  Thank God, at least the floor was thick!  If it gave way before he reached his brother, Joe would plunge into the flames and be gone.

He couldn’t let that happen.  He couldn’t let his brother die alone.

He had a promise to keep.

Knowing a gunshot would draw unwanted attention, Adam flipped his gun in his hand and headed for the Chinese tong member near the door.  Just before he struck him with the handle, the man spotted him – but not quickly enough.  A second later he went down without a sound.  Grabbing the tong member by the back of his shirt, the tall man hauled him into the trees and left him there, whispering a silent prayer that he would stay down.  Evil as these men were he couldn’t shoot one in cold blood, and he’d taken no thought to bring along a rope to bind him with.

Returning to the house, Adam paused.  He knew fresh air could feed the flames and might make the fire accelerate.  Still, he had to go in – had to get to Joe.  Pulling his kerchief from his pocket, he wrapped it around his nose and mouth and then closed the distance between him and the door.  Pressing a hand against it, he checked for heat.  Thank God!  The wood was cool to the touch, so the fire must not be in the stairway yet.  Taking his pistol up again, he brought the butt down on the latch several times until it was broke and fell away.  Then, drawing a breath and whispering a quick prayer, Adam slipped in and quickly made his way up the stairs, his heart and mind bent on rescuing his beloved little buddy.

 

“Dear Lord!” Ben exclaimed when he saw what lay before him.  Flames licked through the shattered windows of the lower portion of the new wing of the house.  Several men lay in the yard near the corral fence.  Among them was Hop Sing, who was shouting out his displeasure.  A half-dozen men in black stood between the prisoners and the house, along with a man in a crimson coat.

He was laughing.

Enraged, Ben pulled his pistol from its holster and prepared to charge down the hill.

Rosey came up beside him just as he did and caught hold of his wrist.  “Ben, think!  Think what you are doing!”

“I know what I am doing!” he growled.  “Defending my own!”

“If you charge in there now with guns blazing, a lot of men will die – good men, like Jin Lei and Hop Sing!”

Ben glared at her.  He knew she was right, but his blood was up.  “I will not sit here and watch my home go up in flames!” A thought struck him even as he said it – one past despair.  The rancher whirled back toward the burning structure.  Once again, he took in the sight of the men lying on the ground.  “Joseph?  I don’t see Joseph!,” he cried, his voice rough with despair.  “God Lord, Rosey!  What if he’s inside?”

The pity in her eyes nearly unmanned him.  “Ben, if he is, it may be too late….”

Her words turned his resolve to steel.

“It’s never too late!” he declared before pivoting in the saddle to look at the men who were pulling up behind them.  They were a hard lot – cowboys, wranglers, outlaws, and God alone knew what else.  Men fueled by greed, but with guts and grit.  “The ante’s upped,” he announced.  “Anyone who follows me will get ten times what I promised, and….”  Ben drew a breath.  Killing did not come easy to him.  “No quarter is to be given.”

“Ben,” Rosey cautioned.

He touched her face.  “You stay here,” he ordered.

And then, with his heart in his throat, Ben Cartwright gave the signal.

A moment later, like the legendary hounds of Hell, he and his ragged crew flew toward the house.

 

As he cleared the stairs and stepped into the upper hall Adam paused, momentarily distracted by the sharp report of rifles outside.  Less than thirty seconds later, he became uncomfortably aware of the heat radiating up from the lower level.  By the grace of God the fire had not eaten through the double portion of thick pine planks yet.  Other than a heavy haze of smoke, his way was clear.

The room he sought wasn’t very far away.  There was a turn and then the hall opened up into the common room that was fronted by Bella’s bay window.  During his earlier visit home his sister-in-law had told him of her love of the big Ponderosa Pines and how she wished she could see them first thing every morning.  He’d quickly altered his architectural plans to incorporate her idea.  In the brief time he’d spent at home two things had become abundantly clear.  One, Bella Carnaby Cartwright was now a part of Pa’s dream and, two, she loved his brother with a deep and abiding passion.

Just as he loved his brother.

Pushing the cloth away from his mouth and nose, he called out, “Joe!  I’m coming!  Hang on, buddy.”

By the time Adam reached the common room, the boards beneath his feet were rippling.  The tall man paused in the doorway to get his bearings, and then pushed through the smoke toward the window where his brother had been left on display.  As he neared Joe’s quiescent form there was a sharp crack!  The tall man pivoted just in time to see one of floor boards he had just crossed snap in two.  A moment later fire poured through the opening into the room.  Within seconds it had set a chair on fire.

There was no going back.

As he came abreast his brother, Adam paused.  His gaze went to the sheet of glass before him and then back to Joe.  His baby brother’s curly head lolled to one side.  Joe’s mouth was slack and he was still as death.  Adam steeled himself against the sight.  There wasn’t time to check for a heartbeat.  There wasn’t even time to think.  Coming to a quick decision, he took hold of the chair and lifted Joe up and placed him and it on the cushioned seat that banked the window.  A moment later he joined him.  For a second, the two of them teetered on the bench.  Then, with a strength born of desperation, Adam lifted the chair again – brother and all – and dashed it against the window, shattering the glass.

Seconds later he was falling – riding a sea of glass and fire – and then the ground rose up and struck him and Adam Cartwright knew no more.

 

Even as he put his heels to Buck’s heaving sides and spurred his tired mount down the rise, Ben noticed movement behind Bella’s bay window.  Terror nearly halted him when he realized it was his sons.  It was all he could do not to ride straight into the burning structure in a vain attempt to reach them.  Still, he knew – when Adam and Joe made it out of that blazing inferno – it was his job to make certain they did so without falling into Khu Qian’s hands.  It gave him great satisfaction to watch the tong members fall around him, some beneath the hooves of his men’s mounts, and others by the gun.  Arrogance would prove to be Qian’s undoing.  In believing himself to be the Dragon Lord, the madman thought he was invincible. His line of defense was poor at best.  As he maneuvered through the yard, barely side-stepping the falling bodies, Ben heard a collective cry go up from the men in the yard.  His sons names were contained in it.  Steeling himself, the rancher looked up and saw a sight that would haunt him until his dying day.

Adam and Joe.  Falling in the midst of a hail of fire and glass.

One of the men called him by name.  He wanted something from him, but he couldn’t give it.  His heart, his mind, his soul was bent on his sons, watching, waiting for them to strike the ground – wondering if they could do so and survive.  And so it was that Ben was taken completely by surprise when something struck him behind the ear.  He staggered forward and turned to find a stranger’s face – highlighted by the hell of his burning home – leering at him; a scarred face, bestial, savage.

Triumphant.

And then, he saw no more.

 

FIFTEEN

A groan escaped him.

“Welcome back,” a male voice, all business, said even as a cool hand landed on his forehead.

It took him a moment, but then everything came back – the race to the house, the fire, his brother unmoving, bound to a chair, and….their audacious escape.  As Adam struggled to sit up, that hand – and another – restrained him.

“Adam, for God’s sake, lie still.  I swear, you Cartwrights!  You’re about as hard to contain as a flash flood.”

It was a familiar voice – marked by a familiar mix of exasperation, affection, and cautious amusement.

Giving in, Adam returned his head to the pillow and opened his eyes.  “Hey, Doc.”

“Mm-hm. ‘Hey, Doc’ yourself,” the older man said as he checked his pulse.  “Aren’t you getting a little old to be playing the hero?”

“No choice,” he muttered as the myriad cuts that covered his skin began to make themselves known.  Laying there, Adam watched the physician, noting his expression.  Paul was tired.  Exhausted, really.  But he didn’t appear to be grieving.

Of course, he could be hiding the truth.

Adam licked his lips and asked, anxiously, “Joe?”

Paul Martin shook his head.  “That little brother of yours may just be the toughest man I have ever known.  He’s still with us.”  He glanced over his shoulder.  “Barely.”

It hurt to move, but he did it anyway.  He had to see.  It was only as he raised himself up on one elbow and shifted position that Adam realized they weren’t in the house as his muddled brain had thought, but in some kind of hastily erected shelter.  The telltale scent of fire and smoke lingered in the air.

Fire and death.

Paul took hold of him and helped him to settle back against the pillows.  That simple action nearly did the tall man in as his chest tightened and he choked.  After a full minute of coughing, Adam drew in a breath and tried again.  Then he saw it – a cot behind Doc Martin.  Joe lay on it, his lean form swathed in bandages.  It appeared someone had made an abortive attempt to clean the soot from his face.  It hadn’t helped.

Baby brother’s skin was as gray as his hair.

“He’s so still,” he said, his tone slightly awed, as if Joe being still was the same thing as the earth not spinning.  “What exactly is wrong with him – besides the cuts from the glass?”

Paul puffed out a breath as his eyes rolled.  “Let’s see.  Besides the beating, the broken leg, and the damage to his lungs from being in two fires?” The physician drew a breath.  “Someone put a knife in his side.”

Adam swallowed over his shock and fear.  “Good God!” he breathed.

Paul nodded.  “You can add ‘thank’ God to that.  Whoever it was, must have been in a hurry. The blade went in at an odd angle and didn’t do much damage.”  The older man reached out to touch his arm.  “Don’t worry too much, Adam, about Joe being still.  I gave him laudanum for the pain.”  Paul eyed him from head to toe. “Would you like some? You have to be hurting.”

Adam glanced at his own bandaged arms.  “Just how many glass shards did you pull out?”

“How many cattle does the Ponderosa have?” the physician asked with a sigh.

The tall man’s gaze shifted from his quiescent brother to the open door of the lean-to structure.  They were facing the wrong way.  He couldn’t see the ranch.

“The house?” he asked.  “Did it survive?”

Paul made a face.  “The new wing is probably lost.  Thanks to the dousing Candy and the men gave it – and their work at putting the fire out – they managed to save the original structure.”

Thank God the fire-wall had held!  Losing the ranch house was unthinkable.  Pa always said there was nothing more important than his sons – and it was true – but the house was as much a part of the older man as they were.  At that thought, Adam’s eyes returned to Joe, and then went to the empty chair beside his brother.  It was inconceivable their father was not at Joe’s side.

“Where’s Pa?” he asked warily.

Paul hesitated just long enough to cast doubt on his reply.  “I’m afraid I don’t know.”

“Yes, you do.”  Adam’s gaze was piercing.  “Paul, where is he?”

The physician’s shoulders slumped.  He shook his head.  “I didn’t lie, Adam.  I don’t know where your father is.  No one does.”

“No one?  What do you mean – no one knows?”

“Just that.  Once the chaos ended, my attention was on you and Joe and the other wounded men.  Rosey and Jude helped me by walking the ranks of the injured to see if any could be saved.”  Paul paused, obviously disturbed by what he had seen.  “Only one of Qian’s men survived and he’s badly injured.  When I went to look for Ben, he was gone.  At first I wasn’t troubled, but….”

“How long has it been?” he asked.

Paul’s eyes reflected his own fear.  “Too long.”

With a grunt, Adam threw off the covers and planted his feet on the floor.

“I suppose if I tell you that you shouldn’t do that, you won’t listen,” the physician remarked dryly.

He snorted.  “Have I ever?”

Paul hesitated, as if what he had to say would not be welcome.  “Adam, I need to tell you that Rosey is missing too.  Once she knew you and your brother were out of immediate danger, she left to attend to a ‘personal matter’.  I’m pretty sure that ‘personal matter’ was going after your father.”

Adam looked at the older man as he reached for his coat, which was lying on the end of the cot.  “You haven’t told me about Qian or Kang Fan.  I take it they escaped.”

Paul rolled his eyes.  “I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d do exactly what you’re doing – risk killing yourself.  Adam you’re injured, too much so to sit a horse.”

“I have to, Paul!  Don’t you see?  All of this,” his hand swept over Joe’s silent form and encompassed the devastation outside, ”all of this is because of me – because of my stupid desire to play at intrigue!  I knew it was dangerous and yet I arrogantly thought I could handle it.  If I had known the cost….”  He paused to strike a tear away, not because it was a sign of weakness, but because it was just about enough to unman him. “Paul, I never stopped to consider what it might do to my brother’s family, to my wife and children…to Pa.”

“Still think…you’re the…center…of the universe…don’t…you?”

The voice was weak, but it was the most wonderful thing he could have heard.  Crossing to the other cot, Adam maneuvered his battered body into the chair beside it and then reached out to squeeze his brother’s arm.

“I’d ask how you feel, Joe, but I think I know the answer.”

“Like a…horse sat…on me.”  Joe coughed and winced.  Then his eyes roamed the interior of the lean-to.  “Where…?”

“Where you should be!” Paul Martin groused as he sat on the other side of the cot and took Joe’s wrist between his fingers.  “Flat on your back in my infirmary!”

Joe wrinkled his nose and scowled.  “Oh.  It’s you.”

“Yes.  It’s me.  Your best friend, it seems.”  The physician switched his hand to his brother’s forehead.   “Just a low grade fever.  That’s a blessing.”

“So…that means I…can…go with Adam.  Right?”

Adam hid his amusement behind his bandaged hand.  He’d visited a volcano once.  Paul Martin looked just the same – steaming, and ready to pop!

“Of all the hair-brained, irresponsible, foolish….  An hour ago you were at death’s door!”  Doc Martin pointed a finger at his brother and gave him a look worthy of Abigail Jones on her worst day.  “You, young man, are going to stay in that bed if I have to sit on you!”

Joe was in a lot of pain, but his irrepressible spirit wasn’t diminished.  He and Paul glared at each other for a heartbeat or two and then Joe’s lips twitched.

“Got…you,” he said.

For a moment Paul was nonplussed.  Then he sighed and shook his head.  “And I should add, immature….”

Joe winced again and sucked in air, which resulted in a cough – more than one, actually.  Shifting onto the bed, Adam eased himself between his brother and his pillow and held him until the fit had passed.  By the time it had, Joe was exhausted.  Still, there was strength in his fingers as he gripped his arm.

“I’ll be…okay.  Adam, go…find Pa.”  Joe’s eyes closed for a second.  He fought off the darkness and jerked awake.  “You gotta….  Qian’s a madman….”

Paul Martin met his gaze over his brother’s curly head and shook his own.

“I will, Joe.  I promise,” he said as he slipped out from behind his brother and lowered him to the cot.  “I….”  He sucked in a startled breath when he saw Joe was already unconscious.  “Paul?”

The older man was reaching for his brother’s wrist.  As he took Joe’s pulse, he shook his head.  “It’s thin and thready, Adam.  Joe’s been through too much this last week.  He has to rest.  It’s dangerous, but the next time he wakes I’m going to give him another dose of laudanum.”

The tall man nodded his agreement as he released his brother and rose to his feet.  After shrugging his battered arms into the sleeves of his coat, he headed for the door.  Once there Adam paused and looked back.

At least that way he knew Joe couldn’t follow him.

 

Dressed in her dungarees and a man’s shirt, Rosey O’Rourke made her way through the tall pines that surrounded the ranch house.  The sun was risen, but it was that time of the morning when it cast long shadows and did little to illuminate the land.  She was careful to hug them.  She had no way of knowing if Qian had more men. If he did, they could be roaming the woods.  With her hand to the gun she had ‘borrowed’ from one of Ben’s fallen men, the older woman carefully picked her way through the underbrush, following the tracks Ben’s kidnappers had left behind.  She’d been helping Doc Martin take care of Adam and Joe when one of the hands reported Ben missing.  It had taken everything in her to wait until the doctor proclaimed both men would live before slipping away, but she had done it for the man she loved.

He couldn’t be there, so she had to be.

Tracking Khu Qian and his henchman wasn’t hard.  There was a certain pitch to their shoes and quite a size difference between them and the boots of the cowhands Ben had hired, as well as with Ben himself.  Even in his sixties, Ben Cartwright was an imposing man; tall, forceful, and distinguished.  One of the men had said Ben disappeared just after Adam and Joseph exploded out of the second story window and hit the ground.  Rosey’s jaw tightened with fury at the thought.  Qian had taken advantage of a father’s fear, striking while the rancher was distracted.

While Ben’s attention was on his sons.

As she moved through the trees, she considered everything that had happened since she had arrived at the Ponderosa.  It seemed to her that Qian’s main focus was revenge for what he believed the Cartwrights had done to him and not what was happening to his organization.  Madame Ah Kum, who had been forced to denigrate herself before and for the tong leader, had hinted that there was a secret purpose behind the madman’s choices.  She’d thought long and hard about what the aged madame had said and come to an unpleasant conclusion: Qian was out for himself.  He didn’t care what happened to the men who worked for him. The only thing he cared about was bringing down the ‘House of  Cartwright’.  The tong leader had to have known that Ben would come in with guns blazing to save his boys.  Qian’s men had been armed with only knives and swords and – it seemed to her – that their ranks were thin.  All but one of the tong members died in the battle and, from his injuries, it was likely he would die as well.  That left only Qian and Kang Fan alive.  Was it Khu Qian’s intention, like the phoenix of ancient legend, to rise from the ashes of tonight’s destruction and begin again?

The only thing that stood in his way was Ben and his sons.

Rosey scowled.  Qian, no doubt, thought Joseph was dead.  God knew, the young man was close enough to it.  Paul was worried about infection, especially at the point of entry of the knife, which had not been clean.  Adam was injured too, though not as badly, but bad enough that he was lying in the tent beside his brother nearly unconscious.

And Ben….

Ben was the prisoner of that monster.

The handsome woman knelt to check the ground as a shaft of light stabbing through the leafy cover illuminated the path before her.  As she did, she heard voices.  Relying on the skills that had kept her alive as an army scout, she continued on, stopping only as the speakers came into view.  Ben, thank god, was alive!  The rancher was seated on the ground while Kang Fan and Qian stood a little ways off from him.  As she assessed the situation, Rosey became aware of movement in the trees surrounding her.  A flash of red and black told her that Candy Canaday was among the men taking up positions.  That meant, most likely, Jian was too unless he had remained behind to care for his son and grandson.  She’d seen him enter the bunkhouse where they were resting before leaving the area of the house.  If both men were here, then it was likely others were too.

Rosey’s jaw grew tight.  If they saw her, they’d stop her.  They were men and they’d have to play the hero, saving the helpless damsel in distress.

Damn it!  Yes, she was distressed, though she was far from being a helpless.

Determined the men would not spot her, Rosey ducked into a stand of tall grasses and once again melted into the shadows.  From her place of concealment she watched as several men passed by and then, weapon drawn, inched forward toward the clearing, resolutely determined to save the man she loved.

 

Ben cursed himself for a fool as he struggled against the ropes that bound him.  He’d let his guard down for an instant and now he was being held as a prisoner – and even more likely as a hostage against his sons.  The rancher closed his eyes against the image that continued to play out before them.  He had to believe that both Joseph and Adam had survived that terrible fall.  The slanted roof beneath the window would have acted as a buffer, slowing their descent.  Still, he was deeply troubled by the shower of glass that had accompanied them as well as the flames licking out behind them.  Joseph was already weak.  The boy had been through so much in the last few days.  Still, his youngest son was as tough as they came.  Ben sucked in a breath and held it against his fear.  Joe would be all right.  Adam would be too.

He had to believe it.

Lifting his eyes, the older man sought out Qian’s flunky, Kang Fan, who was pacing nervously.  As the thug moved, he slammed his fist into his hand and muttered under his breath.   He was obviously frustrated, though whether that frustration had to do with the way things had gone or with Khu Qian himself, he wasn’t sure.  Qian sat beneath a tree, silent as a Buddha with his eyes closed and his hands resting on the knees of his black silk pants.  The tong leader seemed untroubled by the fact that his scheme had failed and his men been so easily defeated, and if Adam was right, it didn’t end there.  The tong leader’s organization was now in a shambles; his illicit business dealings exposed and brought to an end.  He had lost everything.

And still Qian sat there as if he hadn’t a care in the world.

Even as that thought entered his mind, the Chinese man opened his eyes and unfolded.  With the grace of a mountain cat Qian rose from the ground and – after speaking a word to Kang Fan, which sent the thug off into the woods – crossed the glade and came to stand before him.

For a moment the tong leader didn’t move.  Then he reached out and removed his gag.  As Ben wet his lips, Qian said, “You believe me defeated, father of my enemy, but it is not so.  If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”

Ben started to speak, cleared his throat, and then tried again.  “Your men are gone.  Your organization is no more. You’re alone, Qian.”

The Chinese man’s upper lip twitched.  “All is as it should be.  The Dragon God needs no one.”

God, not Lord.

Ben’s eyes went to the surrounding trees.  “What about Kang Fan?”

Qian shrugged.  “He is useful for the moment, but soon he too will be no more.”

The rancher’s mind was awhirl.  Qian was acting as if everything had gone his way – as if he hadn’t just suffered a massive defeat.

As if the victory was his.

Ben sucked in air.

“I see you begin to understand, Benjamin Cartwright.”

“You used us – all of us – to take down your own empire,” the older man breathed.  “Why?”

Qian’s black eyes sparked like flint on steel. “I have seen your land and the great forests that grow upon it.  You know as well as I that it is only after purification that new growth can emerge.”

The rancher’s head was reeling. Was it possible?  Had Qian known from the beginning that his organization was about to be exposed and an end put to the evil it encompassed?  Adam blamed himself for everything they had suffered, believing that his actions had made them, especially Joe, the target of Qian’s madness.  What if it wasn’t so?

What if Adam had nothing to do with it.

“Why were you determined to kill my youngest?” he asked.

The tong leader’s jaw grew tight and his eyes took on a diamond-hard edge.  “There can be no chink in the Dragon God’s scales.”

In other words, he and his sons had defeated Qian’s grandfather and that couldn’t stand.  So long as it was known that the House of Khu had been defeated by the House of Cartwright, no member of it could reign supreme. There would always be someone who believed Qian a man and not a god; someone who would challenge him and might take him down.

“But why target Joseph?  Why not me, or Adam?”

The tong leader’s lips curled with a self-satisfied sneer.  “It is well known that the great Benjamin Cartwright has a chink in the scales on his belly.  As does his oldest son.”

He loved all his sons fiercely and equally and yet in a different way.  Loyal and steady Hoss had tied him to the earth, to the trees and land and all the animals that walked it.  Adam was his head, lifting him out of the mundane, challenging him to become a better man.  And Joseph?

Joseph was the beat of his heart, the breath of his body – his soul.  Without him….

There was nothing.

“The death of the youngest of the House of Cartwright is the death of all.  He was a worthy opponent.”

The older man’s head came up.  Qian had used the past tense.

The Chinese tong leader inclined his head.  “Joseph Cartwright lives no more.  The Dragon God has consumed his enemy.”

Ben’s heart pounded hard n his chest.  He was lying.  Qian had to be lying!  And yet, he knew what he had seen – Joe bound to a chair, his head lolling and his arms flailing as he fell, as if there was no life in him.

“Why…?  Why would I believe you?” Ben countered.

“Kang Fan!” Qian called without turning.

Immediately the tong leader’s thug appeared at the edge of the clearing.

“It is Mister Cartwright’s desire to see the Dragon’s claw”

Kang Fan moved forward with alacrity to proudly display the knife he carried. The blade was covered in dried blood.

“My lieutenant left your son to bleed out like a pig,” Qian said.

It was more than he could take.  Bound as he was, rising up and striking out was reckless and foolish and so like the beloved son he now feared he would touch and hold no more.  Kang Fan easily side-stepped his clumsy attack.  As the rancher fell, breathless, to the ground, the thug laughed and knelt to press the tip of the knife into the skin just beneath his ear.

“And so the House of Cartwright falls,” Qian said softly.

“Not yet,” a strong voice called out.  “Not while there’s breath in my body.”

 

Adam swallowed over his fear.  His father lay on the ground, a knife to his throat.  One quick movement and it would be over.  The tall man kept his eyes trained on the older man, careful not to give away the position of the others who had come with him – including Candy and Jude Randolph – who were distributed throughout the trees.  He’d hoped to have Jian at his side as well, but the older man had insisted on remaining behind to guard Joe.  Adam schooled his face to remain calm as he moved forward.  Khu Qian’s arrogance was startling and it was about to prove his undoing.  The only obstacle to taking the tong leader out was his father.  They needed to do it without Pa being injured or losing his life.  Sadly, as of this moment, there was nothing he could do but buy time and look out for a way to get the tong leader and his henchman away from the older man.

Once he did, those with him would be free to act.

“Adam Cartwright,” Qian sneered.

Adam’s eyes flicked from the tong leader to his father and back.  “Let my father go,” he said.  “If you’re going to make someone pay for what’s happened, it should be me.  I’m the one who gave three years of my life to take you down, you bastard!” he added with venom.

One black eyebrow arched toward the straight line of black hair that crossed Qian’s forehead.  “For which I thank you,” the madman said as he executed a bow.

Adam stuttered.  “You…  You…what?”

“You Americans.  So arrogant.  So sure of your own importance.” Khu Qian stepped away from his father and approached him.  Unfortunately, Kang Fan remained with his knife pressed to Pa’s jugular.  “Do you think the Dragon God does not see?  That he is not all wise?”  The tong leader’s voice rose in both volume and pitch as he spoke.  “Of all those in the army close to the commander, none is more intimate than the secret agent.  Of all matters, none is more confidential than those relating to secret operations.  I have long known of the Westerner’s plan to destroy the empire my grandfather built and which I inherited.  Nothing you accomplished was done without my knowledge and consent.”

Adam was reeling.  “I don’t understand….”

“The occidental mind cannot comprehend the oriental.  Like the shark, it swims forward and never back.  The Dragon God knows all life is a circle.  Wood parts Earth.  Earth dams water.  Water extinguishes fire.  Fire melts metal.  Metal chops wood.”

The tall man groaned.  “You wanted the Yard and the Pinkertons to take your organization down.”  He was beginning to understand, though he found the idea nearly incomprehensible.  “So you could build one of your own, free of the taint of your grandfather’s failure.” As he spoke, a great weight lifted from Adam’s shoulders.  “You’re not here because of what I did.  You’re here because of who I am, and because of what my father, brothers, and I did when we stopped Khu Zhuang.  When we proved the House of Khu was not invincible.”

“Your brothers are dead.  Your father is at my mercy and so, Adam Cartwright, are you.” Qian’s tone was triumphant. “When the House of Cartwright is ash, out of it the House of Qian will rise!”

Adam’s jaw tightened.  “Let my father go,” he said as his eyes went to his father, pleading with him to understand.  “Pa’s an old man.  Joe’s death has broken him.  Would not the Dragon Lord take greater pleasure in the death of the last of his sons?”

Pa did indeed look broken.  He had no way of letting the older man know that Joe was still alive. Even if he had, he wasn’t about to tell him.  There was no way he was going to sick either Kang Fan or Qian on Joe in the shape he was.  His father didn’t know it yet but, if he was released, at least he would still have one son.

“Tiger father, that’s what Jian calls Ben Cartwright.  Would it not be better for those who may challenge you to see that the great Qian has broken him?”  Adam paused to draw a breath.  When he spoke, he remembered to use the past tense.  “Joe was strong.  He nearly beat you, but death has come to the youngest of the tiger’s sons.” He held his hands out.  “The oldest offers himself willingly for the life of his father.”

The tall man held his breath.  If Qian accepted his proposal – if he made a move to take him – it would be the signal for the bloodbath to begin.  Pa was in the middle of it.  There was no way to keep him safe.  There was nothing left but to pray and, though he was a praying man, he had learned early in life that God did what God wanted to do, prayers not withstanding.

Qian raised a hand signaling to Kang Fan.  He obeyed by hauling Pa to his feet.  The thug shoved him forward.  After a few paces Pa hit a rough patch of ground and stumbled.  Before Kang could catch him, the older man fell to the ground.

At that moment a single shot rang out.

Startled, Adam met Qian’s surprised gaze.  A second later the tong leader’s eyes darted from his father to Kang Fan.  It was hard on the black cloth to see the crimson stain spreading outward from the thug’s heart, but it was there.  For a moment no one moved – no one breathed.  Then,  as Kang Fan dropped to the ground, a man stepped into the clearing, the barrel of his pistol still smoking.

No, not his.

Hers.

Rosey O’Rourke tipped her slouch hat back as she sighted along the gun, aiming for the area between  Qian’s eyes.

“And you men claim we women talk too much!”

 

SIXTEEN

“Little boy should be in bed.”

The tall man sitting in the kitchen stirred and lifted his head, not surprised to see a familiar – and now gray-haired – figure emerge from the shadows near the back of it.  It was very early in the morning.  Though the part of the ranch house that had escaped the fire was full of people, it was still.

Too still.

As he’d left Kate, asleep in his old bed with their children firmly fixed to each side, he’d stopped to stare at the fire-wall that separated the old and new portions of the house.  He didn’t know why he’d included it in his design.  Divine inspiration was the only rational explanation.  For a moment the tall man considered what might have occurred if he had not, and then he was on the move, past Pa’s old room where Joe lay coughing and struggling for breath, down the stairs and into the common room.  He’d come to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and to be alone with his guilt.  Of course, somewhere along the way he’d forgotten one of the Cartwright’s cardinal rules.

No one was ever alone.

“What you drink?” Hop Sing asked sharply.

Adam grinned.  “Yesterday’s coffee warmed over once.  I found some left in the pot.”

He just hadn’t had the nerve to light a fire.

Imagine that.

“Mister Adam should be in bed with pretty wife,” his old friend huffed as he moved to the stove and began the preparations for a new pot.  “Make new pretty babies.”

Adam looked up to find Hop Sing grinning a cheeky grin that rivaled his little brother’s.  “Haven’t you just about had your fill of Cartwrights?” he asked with a weary sigh.

The older man shook his head. “Life never dull.”

Adam put his cup down and kicked back in his chair.

Hop Sing had that right!

He supposed, when he thought about it, that being the son of a man who was larger than life brought with it it’s own risks.  Not only was Pa fearsome in his sense of right and wrong, he had instilled those same values into his sons.  None of them could stand idly by.  Injustice was a call to action.  Add to that the fact that Pa owned about half the state of Nevada, engendering jealousy and, at times, fear, and you had a recipe for constant disaster.

The tall man’s eyes flicked to his old friend who had tied on a near threadbare apron and was cheerily going about his morning duties.

Or adventure.

Adam laughed.

“Laugh better than sigh,” their cook said as he brushed past.  “Sigh make man sick.  Laughter heal.”

Adam closed his eyes.  Into the black void it created came the sound of his brother’s laughter.  He’d heard that girlish giggle recently, but it had been a long time in coming.  It had been nearly a week since the war between the House of Khu and the House of Cartwright had ended.  He, Pa and Rosey had dragged themselves back to the ranch house only to find the wooden structure as battered and bruised as they were.  The new wing was nearly gone.  Some of the older hands had taken charge and the carnage in the front yard had been removed.  Doc Martin was there shouting orders and moving between the bunkhouse and the lean-to where Joe lay.  For a time he’d feared – in spite of everything – that the ultimate victor of the war would be Qian.  For days Joe’s life hung in the balance.  It was only a short time ago that Paul had declared his little brother out of danger.  Paul put Joe’s recovery down to his cussedness and God’s hand, but it was just as likely that Paul’s familiarity with his brother and all that he had been through in his short life had helped to pull him through.

That and the wagon that had rolled in just before dark carrying his brother’s wife and new baby girl.

A girl.

A female Joe Cartwright.

Imagine that.

After accepting Hop Sing’s offer of a fresh cup of coffee, Adam sat at the work table sipping it and remembering.

That first night he had believed his brother would never get to see his newborn daughter grow up.

**********

“Where is he?” Bella was breathless.  Her hand shook where it gripped his scorched sleeve.  “Adam!  Where is Joe?”

He was breathless too.  Worn out.  Close to collapse.  So much had happened.

Too much had happened.  The house burned.  Joe injured.  Pa….

But Pa was all right.  The older man was exhausted, but that had done little to stop him.  Along with Rosey and Jude Pa had gone inside the house to assess the damage.  Thanks to the fire wall the original house was fairly untouched, at least on the inside.  The thick wooden beams had protected it as the fire Qian set in the new wing flared and consumed all it could.  Over the next few days they would put the ranch hands to work to clean away as much of the smoke as was possible.  But not tonight.  Tonight they would bed down where they fell – on the ground, in the bunkhouse or stable, or in hastily-erected lean-tos like the one that held his injured brother.

Injured, not dying.  Joe wasn’t dying.

He wouldn’t let him!

“Adam,” Bella demanded again.

No.  Not Bella.  It wasn’t Bella who had spoken.  .

It was Kate.

Utterly weary, the tall man looked up to find his wife watching him.  Kate had a small bundle in her hands, pressed up tightly against her chest.

It was only then he realized what his brother and his wife had expected had arrived in the midst of the chaos.

Somehow, he found his voice.  “Boy or girl?” he asked.

“A girl,” Kate replied.  “Marie.”

Ah.  Of course, ‘Marie’.

New life risen from the ashes of the old.

He started then, realizing he had never answered his brother’s wife’s plea  – and then realizing she was gone.

“Where’s Bella?”

Kate nodded toward the lean-to as she freed an arm and slipped it around his waist.  “Paul came out and got her.”

“Joe?” he asked, afraid to know.

“In God’s hands,” his wife answered.

 

Paul Martin watched the petite blonde woman settle in at her husband’s bedside.  Joe was holding his own for the moment, but he couldn’t make her any promises.  He’d just given the wounded man a second dose of morphine to keep the pain he was feeling to a minimum. Joe was unresponsive – a fact that terrified his wife.  Poor Bella looked wrung out.  With his practiced eye, Paul noticed instantly that she had given birth.  At a time when the young mother should have been lying in bed with her newborn child on her breast and her husband smiling at her side, she was fighting a battle.

Such was the life of a Cartwright.

Bella took her husband’s hand and pressed it to her lips before turning a tear-streaked face to him.

“I don’t understand,” she said softly.

He knew what she meant without her putting it into words.  He’d had those same thoughts himself about this particular patient over the years and had spent many hours ruminating on God’s providence and the Almighty’s plans for Joseph Francis Cartwright.  Wearily – feeling everyone of his nearly seventy-years – Paul pulled a second chair up to the bedside and sat down.  He couldn’t help but smile as he did.  Someone had raided the ranch house and brought out a half-dozen of Ben’s elegant Chippendale chairs.

They looked quite incongruous on the lawn!

Paul hesitated a moment before he spoke.  “Bella, I’ve been a doctor a long time – too long, it seems.  I have witnessed more death and disease, and been helpless in the face of it, than most men.”  He lifted his hands.  “These have been a party to both miracles and tragedies.”  A wry smile lifted the corner of his thin lips as he laid one of them on Joe’s bandaged arm.  “This young man has shown me both.”  Paul leaned back in his chair, utterly weary.  He went on after running a hand over his face.  “I can’t tell you why God has let Joe suffer so, but I can tell you this.  No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive. Difficulties are but dares of fate; obstacles, but hurdles to try his skill; troubles, but bitter tonics to give him strength, and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity[1].”

The child was so young and her deep blue eyes, so wide.  He remembered how, when she had come to visit Joe Cartwright at the tender age of sixteen, Bella Carnaby had run from her love for him, fearful of just such a day as this.  Looking at her now, he was tempted to see only that young girl.  But Bella was no longer a child.  She was a wife and mother, and had her own strength that had been tempered like steel by all she had endured.  She held his gaze for a moment and then nodded.  Then she moved to the side of the bed and pulled her husband’s insensible form into her arms.  Paul said nothing.  Joe’s injuries had been treated.  There was nothing she could do to hurt him any more.

And her touch might just help.

Bella’s fingers went to her husband’s hair.  She stroked the soft silver curls as she spoke, “Joe will be fine,” she said, as much to assure herself as him. “He has to be.  Marie needs her papa.”

Paul’s eyebrows popped.  “A girl?  You mean to tell me there’s a female Cartwright?”

He couldn’t have known, of course.  He’d seen Kate holding a small form close, but the blanket hid everything other than a few golden curls.

Bella smiled in spite of her fear.  “We agreed.  My mother’s name is Mary and Joe’s was Marie.  So, in a way, we’re honoring them both.”

“And the middle name?”

Her lips twitched.  “Carrie.”

Paul’s brows climbed toward his receding hairline.  “Carrie?”  He thought a moment and then his lips formed a round ‘o’.  “Carrie Pickett.”

The young woman nodded.  “If she’d been twenty years younger, I would have been quite jealous.”

There was a love between the old woman from the Piney Woods and Little Joe Cartwright that went beyond definition.  Carrie had been a strong woman; one who had saved Joe’s life more than once.

It was fitting.

A slight moan and several twitching fingers drew their attention to the figure on the bed.  Joe had been alternately quiet as death and violently active in his delirium.  The hour before his fever had broken.  There was some residual heat, but that was to be expected with so many lacerations on his flesh, some of which were bound to be infected.

Joe licked his lips and then, slowly, both eyes opened.  For a moment he was disoriented, but when he recognized who held him, his eyes shone with love.  Bella caught her husband’s hand in her own and leaned in to plant a kiss on his dry, parched lips.

“Now, now,” Paul chided softly.  “There will be none of that for some time to come.”

Joe’s eyes rolled over toward him.  “You sure…know how to…take the zip from a…feller’s step.”

“You won’t be ‘stepping’ anywhere anytime soon, either.”  Paul laid a hand on Joe’s arm and in a rare moment of emotion, let his feelings show.  “Thank God!  I was afraid all of this might have proven too much, even for an old soldier like you.”

“Nah.”  Joe licked his lips again, which brought Bella to her feet and sent her racing for the pitcher and glass by the other cot.  “I got…too much to live…for.”  Joe winced as his wife lifted his head, but managed a few sips of water before he shook it, letting her know he had had enough.  As she sat down beside him again, his eyes went to her belly.  Joe blinked and looked again.  “Hey,” he said softly, “ain’t you missin’ something?”

“The only one missing something, little brother, is you,” a soft, worried voice said.  Paul pivoted in his chair to find Ben’s prodigal son standing in the entryway of the lean-to.  Adam held a tiny bundle in his hands.  The smile on his face broadened as he moved to his brother’s side and placed the newborn in the crook of the other man’s arm.  “And I think you just found it.”

Joe sucked in air like he was hurting.  His eyes darted to Bella.  As she nodded, the tears rolled down his cheeks.  Not tears of grief or loss or of fear, but of joy.

And gratitude.

Before he could ask, Adam said, “Congratulations, Joe, on producing your first female Cartwright!”

His brother blinked.  His head swiveled toward Bella.  “It’s a girl?”

She smiled back, though there was still a great deal of fear in her eyes.  Then she nodded.  “Marie.”

It hurt his brother to move, but he did.  Joe lifted his sore body up so he was propped against the pillows.  Bella shifted the bunting back so he could see his daughter’s face.  The baby was cooing softly.  Her green eyes fixed on her pa and a slight smile touched her rosy lips.  When Joe reached out, she caught one of his fingers in her little hand.

“Marie,” he echoed.

And so, little Joe Cartwright, had come full circle.

Paul stood and excused himself, leaving so the young family could begin to mend in private.

New life had a way of doing that.

Paul stopped just outside the lean-to.  He placed his hands in the crook of his back and stretched.  As he did, his gaze went to the stars above and he thought about all that had transpired.  It had been a long day.  The tong leader, Khu Qian, had meant to raise a new evil empire from the ashes of the old.  Instead he was sitting in the Virginia City jail awaiting the arrival of the Pinkertons and representatives of Scotland yard, who would take him away.  Qian’s men had been captured as well and were incarcerated with him.  The House of Khu was no more.  Paul looked back, into the structure behind him.  Through the opening into the lean-to he could see Bella and Joe embracing.  The tiny child caught between them decided she didn’t like it and let out a wail worthy of her father.

Yes, indeed.  Life did go on.

 

Ben Cartwright dropped heavily into his favorite chair and stared at the wall just beyond the fireplace.  It turned out Adam’s firewall had been the only thing standing between the fire Khu Qian set and the destruction of the home he had known and loved for nearly forty years. The thick hewn log wall had not escaped unscathed.  Even on this side the wood was scorched and the scent of smoke was thick in the air.  Still, it would pass in time as would the horror of what they had endured.  Just as he would pass with time.

“Lord,” Ben breathed silently as he shifted back, “let it be before another of my boys.”

He’d looked in on Joseph before he let Rosey lead him away.  Paul had been non-committal as usual – as a doctor had to be – but hope had shone out of his old friend’s eyes.  It was plain to see that the physician believed Joe – his precious ‘Little’ Joe – would be all right.  Adam had been wounded, but it wasn’t his eldest’s arm or the various cuts and burns he suffered that troubled him.  Though Adam had been freed in part from the burden he had carried for the last three years by Qian’s words, his eldest still bore a load of guilt large enough to crush a better man.  It was his hope that his son’s reunion with his wife and children would prove healing.  Kate was a good woman.  She needed his son.  Adam’s children needed him even more.  Ben sighed as he rested his head on the back of the chair.  He knew what his brief desertion after Marie’s death had done to Joseph. It had left the boy with scars he carried to this day.  Adam’s children would not emerge unscathed but hopefully, since they had a father and a mother who loved them, they too would heal in time and the wounds they bore would serve to make them stronger and not diminish them in any way.

A soft sound drew his attention to the dining room.  Ben opened his eyes to see Jude Randolph coming down them, his arms laden with blankets and pillows. The upstairs had been all but unfit for habitation until Hop Sing took charge.  Efficient as ever, their Chinese housekeeper and cook had commandeered a crew and removed what could be salvaged before setting a dozen hard-bitten, tough-as-leather cowboys to wash down the walls and floors.  When that was done, he’d finished by opening the windows to air out the house.  The older man chuckled to himself.  The front yard of the Ponderosa ranch house looked like a harbor with dozens of white sheets flapping in the breeze.

“Good evening,” Jude Randolph said as he emerged from the kitchen.  When he failed to respond, the Englishman came to the end of the settee.  His hazel eyes were narrowed with concern.  “Ben, are you all right?”

Jude knew, of course, that before this had all begun he had been ill.  If the truth were known it hadn’t been until now that he had realized just how weary he was.

“To take a page from my youngest’s book, Jude, I’m fine,” he replied with a tight smile.

The curly-haired man shook his head.  “You are a most remarkable family.”

Jude’s comment made his thoughts turned on another remarkable family.  “Have you seen Jian lately?  How are his son and grandson doing?”

“I visited the bunkhouse earlier. Joseph is sore but whole.  He is helping to care for his father.”  Jude paused.  “The doctor believes Jin Lei to be out of danger, but there is a long road of recovery ahead.”

Lei, like his Joseph, had been stabbed.

“And Jian?”

“When he is not with his son, he and Candy are on patrol.”

Ben frowned.  “Why?  Jian doesn’t think any of Qian’s men are left, does he?”

“As usual what Jian thinks is not a matter open to discussion.”  Jude laughed.  “He simply said it is best to be prepared.”

Ben nodded.  It was the way of the West.  Even as it became more civilized, one could never let one’s guard down.

Not for a minute.

“Jian said that they will remain until his son is well enough to travel and then return to their home.  There is much to do in the Sacramento area to repair the damage left in the wake of the fall of the House of Khu.”

The rancher nodded.  A lump rose in his throat as he asked, “And Jack?”

The Englishman paled a bit.  “Broken in body and in spirit.  I have spent some time with him, but he will not listen to reason.  He blames himself for what happened to your son and for all his sister had to endure.”

He held nothing against the boy but he had to admit, Jack had some blame to bear.  It would disparage the young man to pretend he didn’t.  Still, Bella’s brother was young and, though the torment he had endured would have killed many an older man, he had survived.  In the end, Jack had failed only in that he was human.  The boy’s deep depression and brokenness in the face of that truth reminded him all too much of his own youngest son who always felt things too deeply and took too much upon himself.

Perhaps, in time, Joe could help Jack find forgiveness.

Jude stared at him a moment longer and then indicated the linens in his hands.  “I should get going.  I have my orders.”

Ben laughed and it felt good.  “General Hop Sing?”

The Englishman nodded.  “Who else?  He’s determined to have you all back in your own beds by tomorrow night.”

“Knowing Hop Sing, he’ll make it happen.”

Of course, there would be no going back for Bella and Joe.  Not until the new wing of the house was restored.  Adam was here.  He could build it.

That was, if his eldest was home to stay.

“Jude?”

His old friend was at the door.  He turned back.  “Yes, Ben?”

“Check on Joseph for me, will you?  Let me know if there is any change.”

Jude nodded before opening the door and going out, leaving him alone.

Or so he thought.

A moment later a gentle hand fell on his shoulder.  Ben listened to the rustle of fabric as Rosey rounded the chair and sat on the ottoman beside him.  He breathed in the scent of red lilacs as she did, so refreshing amidst the lingering smell of smoke and ash.

It took him back.

At first, she said nothing.  She simply sat there, staring of into the distance; her hand transferred to his arm.  He found the silence strangely comforting after the chaos of the last few days.  As she sat beside him, he took a moment to study her.  Rosey’s brown hair, slashed with silver, was upswept as was her common fashion.  It’s absence revealed a long, tapering neck that led to a pair of white shoulders that were just the barest bit bare.  The green dress she wore was a far cry from the ranch hand’s shirt and pants she had donned before emerging from the woods to take down Khu Qian.

He couldn’t help it.  Ben chuckled.

Rosey’s head pivoted toward him.  “What is it?”

“You,” he said.

She did her best imitation of a docile, fan-wielding, eyelash-batting female.  “Who?  Little old me?  What ever did I do?”

Ben placed his hand over hers.  “It’s not what you did, but what you are.”

For a moment, her eyes grew wary.  “And what am I?”

“Obstinate.  Impossible.  Bull-headed.  And brave as any man.”

Her lips quirked with amusement.  “Anything else?”

Rosey’s eyes were as brown as her hair and the hard-won wisdom of a life lived in the face of adversity shone out of them.  They were set in a face that had once been pretty, which time had ripened into a mature beauty that had the power to take his breath away.  She had the intelligence of Elizabeth, the gentleness of Inger, and the fire that had been Marie. And yet, she was none of them.  She was herself.

She was Rosey.

“Well?” the handsome woman demanded, sounding a bit put out.  “What else am I?”

Ben shifted in his chair.  He leaned forward and pulled her toward him and, without asking for permission, kissed her on the lips, lightly, like a suitor.  Then, shifting his grip so one hand rested in the hollow of her back and the other circled her neck, he pulled her into a close embrace and kissed her again.  This time deeply and with passion.

As they broke apart she gasped.

He chuckled again as he said, “Wonderful.”

“Excuse me.  Does this mean I need to add a second wing onto the house?” a wry voice asked.

Ben looked over Rosey’s shoulder to find Adam standing in the doorway.  His wife was a little ways behind him.  Adam was holding his sleeping son and Lisbet was holding his hand and staring up at him with love.

Miracles did indeed happen every day.

Ben rose to his feet, drawing Rosey with him.  “How is your brother?” he asked, knowing Adam had been in the lean-to.

“With Bella and Eric.”  His son’s lips twitched.  “And Marie.”

He knew Joe had a daughter.  In the midst of the chaos he had never thought to ask her name.

Of course it was Marie.

“All doing well?” he asked, his tone hopeful.

When Adam hedged, Kate answered.  “Doctor Martin seems to think Joe will be fine – in time.”

“How much time?” Ben demanded.

His son’s smile broke as he looked from him to Rosey and back.  “Oh, I imagine he will be up and moving in time for a spring wedding.”  Adam laughed as he sputtered.  “You have to admit it, Pa,” his eldest said as he circled Kate with his arm.  “There just isn’t any room in this house anymore for a Cartwright bachelor.”

 

SEVENTEEN

Ben Cartwright eased his aching body down into the worn leather chair before the fire and reached for his favorite pipe, not surprised to find it already filled.  As he did, he noted the vase of fresh pine greens and berries that adorned the round table which held both it and his well-worn Bible.

He’d have need of it soon.  Tomorrow was Christmas eve.

A time to reflect and give thanks.

The events of the past spring were never far from his thoughts.  Though Joe’s physical condition had improved steadily over the last year, his youngest son was still not himself.  Joe tired easily and was irritable often.  They all knew his frustration was with himself and not with them and, when they could, ignored it.

When they couldn’t, they steered clear of him.

Such instances had lessened of late, though they had not fallen off entirely.  Last night Joe had become irritated and nearly bit his head off.  His son had, of course, apologized a short time later, stating that he had no idea what the matter was.

Ben wondered idly when his son had learned how to lie.

Though Khu Qian and his threat lay long buried – the tong leader had hung himself while in jail rather than face his shame – still it was as if the Dragon Lord’s spirit hovered over the Ponderosa.  Joe still fought for a control he could never have.  He had nearly driven himself into the ground making certain the ranch house was impregnable, adding barbed wire to its perimeter and never leaving it without a half-dozen men on patrol.  In spite of this they had faced their fair share of trouble.  No amount of barbed wire could hold back a winter meant to starve both man and beast.  They were all right, but his son worried constantly that they wouldn’t be.  Joe had gone out hunting and when he failed to come back at the appointed time, had caused his wife and son – well, all of them really – untold worry.  In the end it turned out he had been forced to hole up while a storm raged past.  By the time he returned, Joe was nearly beside himself that he had not been there to make sure they were all right.  That night – last night – he had called on his son to face his fears. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t be everywhere at once.  He had to learn to trust; had to learn to let the Almighty take control and to accept that whatever happened was in God’s hands.

Joe said nothing, but he’d heard the words his son bit back clearly enough.  ‘What about my mother’s death?  What about Elizabeth and Inger?  How can you say God is in control when bad things happen?  If God is good, then He can’t be the God of bad!’

Yes, he thought.  Yes, He could.

The older man sat there a moment more and then rose to his feet and headed to the door.  Before he had taken two paces, a familiar scent wafted through the room, announcing the arrival of his wife.

His fourth wife.

Rosey had even more pine greens in her arms.  She had spent the afternoon placing them on the hearth and above each door in anticipation of tomorrow’s party.  Due to the weather, it would be a small gathering.  Adam and his family had made it through the pass before the snow blocked it, so they would be a part of it.  After recent events, his eldest son had decided his home was in Nevada.  He and Kate were living with their children in Virginia City while their own house was being constructed on a piece of land he had given them as a belated wedding present.  He’d offered his eldest son his third of the ranch, but Adam said he was content with the plot of ten acres for the time being.  ‘I’m a builder, not a rancher, Pa,’ he’d told him.  And to prove it, his son had started a firm and was busy helping to construct businesses and homes in the surrounding area.

Adam was content.  He only wished Joe could be as well.

At his sigh, Rosey remarked, “Thinking about your youngest again?”

He laughed.  “Married less than six months and already you know how to read me.”

His wife laid the pine boughs down and came to him.  Taking hold of both of his hands, she met his concerned stare with a brilliant smile.  “I knew how to read you the day we first met, you old mother hen.”  With a laugh, she placed her hand on his vest above his heart.  “It’s all about your sons.”

Ben frowned.  “Rosey, I….”

“Don’t worry.  I know that heart of yours is big enough for both them and me.”  Rosey cocked her head.  As she did, the last of the sun’s rays shone through the window setting the silver veins running through it on fire.  “These last few months have been the happiest I have ever known.”

They’d been married in the spring, just as Adam predicted.  Both of his living sons had stood up with him.  It had been a joyous affair.  All of their friends had been invited – Ming-hua and Kam Lee, Paul Martin, Roy Coffee, Jude, Jian and his family, and just about everyone they had ever known including the Carnabys who had returned from their trip back East.  Jack had come with them.  The young man was living at home now, recuperating, and though he had not yet shed all his guilt, their forgiveness was working the miracle the Lord had promised and he believed that one day soon Jack would be able to move on with his life.

As he hoped Joseph would.

“That sigh tells me you’re thinking about Joe again,” Rosey said with a wry twist to her lips.  “Leave him be, Ben.  The boy will come around in his own time.”

He frowned at her.  “Boy?  Joseph is thirty-six. It’s time he –”

“What?  Straightened up?”  She paused.  “Are you going to take a switch to him if he doesn’t?”

“I’d hate to see who’d win that contest.  Joe’s not that scrawny little kid anymore and you’re getting on a bit, Pa,” his son Adam remarked as he descended the stairs.  Adam and Kate were staying in his old room upstairs.  Joe had offered to put them up in the recently restored new wing, but his son had preferred his own bedroom.  “Rosey’s right.  You just need to give Joe some room.”

“Good evening, son,” he said, turning but keeping Rosey’s hand in his own.  “I guess it’s an old habit.”

“Worrying about Joe?  Really?”  Adam laughed as his feet hit the floor.  He took a moment to scan the room and then asked, “Where is he anyhow?  Bella was asking. Or, I should say, Eric was asking.  He wants his pa to read him a bedtime story.”

“Your brother is in the barn.  Where else?” he replied, failing to keep the disappointment from his voice.  It was a lifelong habit.  Joe usually retreated to the barn and the care of his horse when he felt overwhelmed.

“The barn, eh?  Maybe I’ll just go out and lend him a hand with the horses.”

Rosey squeezed his fingers.  “I’ll go up and check in on Bella.  Maybe Grandma Cartwright will do when it comes to that story.”

Adam slowly shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Just how good are you at oinking, mooing, crowing, and baying?”

His wife laughed.  “What?”

“Eric wants the Bremen Town Musicians.”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” Rosey laughed.  “Again?”

“I’m afraid BJ and Lisbet are waiting too,” he said with a smile.

“Well then, I’ll set all three of them to oinking and mooing.  Really, my dignity!” she said playfully.

“Has suffered greatly since you consented to become a Cartwright,” Ben finished for her.

She lifted up a few inches and kissed him on the cheek and said, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

He and Adam waited in silence until she had mounted the steps.  His son broke it by saying, “Joe’s still hurting, Pa.  You have to give him time to reconcile everything he’s been through.”

The older man returned to his chair and sat down.  “That boy hasn’t forgiven God for taking his mother.  You know that, don’t you?  Everything else stems from that loss.”

Adam nodded.  Then he said, with a twist to his lips. “I’m not sure I’ve forgiven Him for taking my mother either.  I’ve just learned to accept it.”

“Son….”

“It’s okay, Pa.  I’ll get to meet her one day.”  Adam turned then and looked toward the door.  “You know, Pa, I hate to say it, but I think you’re wrong.  I think Joe has come to terms with Marie’s death.”

“You do?  Then what do you think keeps the boy so on edge – so unwilling to trust his God?”

His eldest’s sons expression was hard to read.  Adam paused and then he said.

“Hoss.”

 

Joe drove the curry comb over Cochise’s back, brushing his horse down with a vengeance.  His old friend stamped his foot and snorted, but endured the trial without complaint. He supposed he was used to it.  Just as Cochise was used to him.

Useless as he was.

The first time he’d met Bella, he’d been mad as a peeled rattler.  He’d left the house in an attempt to outrun his troubles and run into more.  When he was seventeen, he’d thought he had a monster inside him.  A monster that fought tooth and claw to own him.  It made him ride too fast and run too far and take too many chances, all in the hope that something would stop the pain.  He was a married man now with two children of his own.  He had a wife, responsibilities – heck, he was practically in charge of the Ponderosa.  But the monster was still there.  It still pushed and prodded him like a cowboy shoving’ a rogue steer down the line.  When he was a boy, he had named that monster ‘anger’.

Now, he knew its name was fear.

Joe drew a breath as he laid the comb aside and reached out to pat his faithful mount’s neck.  He was a grown man, for God’s sake!  It was shameful to admit he was afraid.  But he was.  No amount of time, nothing that had happened, had been able to cage the beast within him.  He knew he let Bella down on a daily basis.  His pa too.  But try as he might, that boot that Doc Martin told him he was waiting to fall was still suspended in the air.  It hung over his head like Adam’s Sword of Damocles.  He knew he was impossible to live with.  He wanted to be ‘possible’ instead.  He just didn’t know how to go about it.  In his short life he had been kidnapped and  wounded more times than he could count, he’d lost his mother, his pa had nearly died, his first wife and child had died, and his beloved Bella and son Eric had almost been killed.  And then, there was Hoss….

“I think I feel him more here, in the barn, than in the house.  Don’t you agree?” a quiet voice asked, cutting into his thoughts.

Joe froze with his fingers entwined in Cochise’s mane.  “How long have you been there?” he demanded.

“Long enough,” Adam said as he came into the barn and close to the stall that held Chubb.  Reaching out, he patted the black’s nose.  “You miss him too, don’t you, boy?” he asked.

“I ain’t out here because of Hoss,” Joe insisted as he reached for the comb again.

“No?  Then why are you out here?  Your son is asking for you.”

He glanced over his shoulder at his brother.  “Is Eric all right?”

Adam gave him ‘that’ look.  “He’s fine.  Just missing his pa.”

“I can’t….”  Joe began to comb his mount again, seeking peace in the repetitive action.  “I’m not a very good father.”

There was a pause.  Then, “No, you’re not.  And you’re not a very good brother either.”

Astonished, he pivoted on his heel to face Adam.  “What the hell did you say?”

“I said, you’re not a very good brother.  Oh, not to me.  To Hoss.”

He was seething.  “You take that back!”

“No.  I won’t.  Hoss would be the first to tell you that you are acting like a spoiled child by only thinking of yourself.  Your unending grief doesn’t honor him and it diminishes everything he was and did – including his death.”

His hands were clenched into fists.  “You take that back,” he said again, “or I’ll knock you on your ass!”

“And what will that solve?  Hoss will still be dead.  Pa will still be worn down by worry, and your son still won’t have his pa there to read him a story.  Joe, you have to let go.  You have to…live for today.  The past is the past.  You can’t change it.  You can only learn from it and choose to live.”

For a moment he remained as he was.  Then, with a shake of his curly head, he admitted, “I don’t know how.  Adam, I can’t….  Nothing is certain.”

His brother placed a hand on his shoulder.  “That’s not true, and you know it, Joe.”

The curly-haired man frowned.  “Don’t you go quotin’ me platitudes about God having a plan for my future.  I know you’re not a Bible readin’ man.”

“True,” his brother admitted.  “But I believe in its truths.  I wouldn’t be Pa’s son if I didn’t.”  Adam waited until he had looked up and met his steady gaze.  “Joe, life is uncertain.  And it is out of our control.  If God isn’t in charge of both the good and bad, who is?”

“So you’re sayin’ God let my first wife be raped and burned to death with our child inside her?” he protested.

His brother’s eyes reflected his own pain.  “Yes.  If Alice had lived, you would never have married Bella.  She’s a wonderful woman, Joe.  You need to cherish her, not continue to mourn the one who is gone.”

“I do cherish Bella!  I love her – “

“Then show her!  Be there for her.”

“I’m….”  He swallowed hard.  “Adam, I’m afraid.  I can’t bear to…lose her.”

“You’re losing her already by neglecting her.  By wallowing in your grief.”

He wanted to punch his older brother to wipe that smug look off his face.  But he was right.

Adam was right.

Defeated, Joe dropped the comb to the straw-matted floor and then followed it.  Placing his head in his hands, he admitted, “It all happened so fast, Adam.  One day Mama was there – Hoss was here – and then, they were gone.  And then Pa almost….”  He sucked in a breath. “I don’t think….  I can’t live through that again.”

“Who says you’ll have to?” Adam asked as he knelt beside him.

“But….

“But, if you have to, God will see you through as He has before.”  Adam’s hand came down on his shoulder.  “Joe, you’re still here.  You’ve been incredibly blessed.  What will it take for you to see the jug half-full instead of half-empty?”

What would it take?  A life without pain – without loss?  A life where everything went according to his plan?  Where mothers and brothers didn’t end up dead?

For a second he said nothing.  Then he asked, “How about you, older brother?  Is your jug half-full?”

Adam hesitated, and then took a seat in the straw beside him.  “I’ll be honest, Joe.  When Marie died I felt much the same way you do.  I was a kid, really, and I thought God must hate me.  I’d already lost my mother and Inger.  I didn’t think I could survive losing your mother as well.”

He looked at his brother.  There were unshed tears in Adam’s eyes.  “How did you?  Survive, I mean?”

“It’s funny.  I was at my lowest ebb.  The wagon had just come and taken Marie’s body away.  I was sure at that moment that I would never dare to love again.  It hurt too much.  It was at that moment that I began to build walls to keep everyone out.”

He turned toward Adam, who was being incredibly honest.  “What happened?  I mean, well, you…love all of us….”

His brother’s lips twisted and his dimples appeared.  “Oh, some of those walls are still in place, but the biggest one fell thanks to the smallest thing.”  Adam looked at him.  “You.”

“Huh?”

“You’d been forgotten in the madness that followed Marie’s fall.  I found you asleep in the crib you’d only recently vacated because you were a ‘big’ boy.  I stood there for the longest time, trying to talk myself out of loving you.”  Adam snorted.  “I couldn’t do it.  Just like you can’t talk yourself out of loving all of us.  Out of loving Pa and Rosey or Bella and your children.”  Adam’s hand found his arm.  “Joe, if you’d closed down, you wouldn’t be in pain.  Pain is God’s megaphone to the world.  It keeps us alive.”

Joe considered his brother’s words carefully.  He hesitated and then asked, “What do I do with the anger, Adam?  I….”

“Hate God?  No, you don’t, Joe.  You’re disappointed with Him.  Life hasn’t gone the way you wanted.”  His brother paused and then he laughed.  “You’re royally pissed, but you know what?  God knows that and He’s all right with it.”

Joe remained silent for several moments and then asked, his words hushed with shame.  “I’ve told God I hate Him, Adam.  I’m going to Hell.”

His brother laughed.  “I seem to remember King David giving God an earful about what he thought He’d done wrong.  God is big enough to take it, Joe.  He’s okay with you telling Him what you think.  What He isn’t okay with is you shutting Him out.”  Adam paused.  “And that’s what you’ve done, isn’t it?  Since Hoss’ death?”

He could see it still.  He’d been injured; unable to do anything to prevent his beloved big brother from running in where fools would have known better.   Hoss had died as he watched.  All of his prayers, his pleading, had fallen on deaf ears.

It had been at that moment that he had shut God out and shut down.

“Joe,” his brother said, “Hoss would want you to live your life.  You honored him by naming your firstborn after him.  Let that giant spirit of his into your heart.  Feel his love and joy as you rear the boy.  The last one who would want you to wallow in grief is Hoss.”

His brother’s death had broken his heart.  He realized now just how deeply.  And yet, Adam was right.  Hoss would be ashamed of him.

You take care of those young’un’s of yours, little brother,’ he heard him say.  ‘You tell them about old Hoss.  That way, I ain’t dead.  I’ll live forever.”

Forever.

His shoulders began to shake and the tears began to flow.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  I’m so…sorry.”

An arm circled those shoulders, his older brother lending him strength.  “Don’t tell me,” Adam said.  “Show me.  Show Hoss.”

It was at that moment that he decided he would live.

 

As he finished reading the Christmas story, Ben Cartwright glanced at Rosey and then lowered the Bible to his lap and looked at the small circle of faces before him.  Adam sat in his favorite chair, his son on his knee and his wife and daughter close by.  Joe’s family filled the settee.  Four-year-old Eric was positioned between his mother and father.  The boy was beaming with pride as he held his baby sister, Marie. They’d pulled up the chair from the chess table and positioned it just to the right of Adam.  It remained empty.  Well, no, that wasn’t true.  An old worn dun-colored Stetson with the crown popped up occupied it in memory of the one who was missing.

It had been Joe’s idea.

Ben’s black eyes went to his youngest.  Something had changed.  Today Joe had seemed, well, content.  The fire was still there, but the anger that had consumed him for so long seemed to be gone.  In a way, the bright, happy-go-lucky scamp he both loved and despaired of was back. As Joe rose and offered Bella a hand up, he couldn’t help but laugh.  The seat of Joe’s trousers was still coated with flour.  Earlier he and Eric had decided to raid the kitchen and – much to Hop Sing’s dismay – had managed to get into a flour fight.  Both had emerged from the back room looking like ghosts.  Apparently Joe had forgotten to check the seat of his pants when he’d cleaned up.

He was lucky Hop Sing hadn’t taken a spoon to that seat!

“Now, just what are you laughin’ at?” he heard his son ask.

Ben wiped a tear from his eye. “Certainly not you.”

Joe’s lips curled at one end.  “Of course not.  I’m the ideal son.  Now, old Adam over there.  He’s another story.”

“You leave me out of this,” his eldest insisted as he rose with his sleeping child and headed for the stair.  “Perfect outpaces ideal any day.”

The rancher’s gaze returned to his youngest as Joe knelt in order to be eye to eye with his young son who was tugging at his pants’ leg.  Bella had taken Marie and headed up to bed.

“Hey, punkin,” Joe said softly.  “What is it?”

Eric looked puzzled.  “Papa, you told me I’m s‘posed to be nice to Marie.  How come you ain’t bein’ nice to Uncle Adam?”

That set his youngest to spluttering.

Ben waited a moment and then decided, perhaps, a rescue was in order.  “Eric, come here,” he said.  The little boy reached out and caught his father’s shirt, thinking – perhaps – he was in trouble.  Modifying his commanding tone, the rancher tried again.  “Eric, please.  You’re not in any trouble, son.”

Joe threw him a glance and then, with a hand, scooted his son toward him.

Ben patted his knee and waited until the boy had climbed onto it to speak.  “Your father loves his brother very much.  It’s just, well,” he glanced at Rosey who occupied the chair at his side.  She was watching the proceedings with thinly veiled amusement.  “Well, men sometimes have a hard time showing affection for one another.”

“Sometimes?” his wife murmured under her breath.

He scowled at her.  “Your father and his brother love one another very much.  They just show it by…fighting sometimes.”

That came out bad.

Eric looked confused. “But Mama said fighting is bad.  I ain’t supposed to fight with Marie when she gets big.”  He thought a minute more and then, with the logic of a child, asked, “Grandpa, is you gonna give Pa and Uncle Adam the switch for fightin’?”

Ben snorted. “I just might.”

Joe was dying.  He was holding his sides to stop the laughter from spilling out.  At that moment Bella appeared at the top of the stairs, calling his grandson.

“Joe?” she asked as the little boy ran up the stairs and leapt into her arms.

“In a minute,” his youngest replied.  “I want to talk to Pa.”

Bella nodded as if she understood and then disappeared into the hall that led to their wing of the house.  A moment later Rosey rose from her chair, gave him a kiss, and did the same, leaving him and his son alone.

When he turned back he found Joe had gone to the empty chair and taken a seat.  Hoss’ hat was in his lap and his fingers caressed it.

“I felt him here tonight,” he said without preamble.

He nodded.  It was nothing new to him.  He often felt his middle son’s presence in their home.

“I…. I want him to be proud of me.”  His son’s head was down.  It came up quickly.  “Do you think Hoss is proud of me, Pa?”

The two of them had been so very close. While Hoss lived, it was hard to think of a time when he’d seen the one without the other.  Though he had never experienced the loss of a brother so well-loved, he had lost his wives and a son.  Each time it had been like he had been ripped in two; as if half of him was lost and could never be found.

As if half of him had died.

Rising, he crossed over to sit on the blue chair close to his son.  Reaching out, he placed his hand on Joe’s knee.

“You know your brother is proud of you, Joe.  He’s proud of the man you have become.”

“I haven’t….” Joe cleared his throat.  “I haven’t been a very good man for a while.”  He snorted.  “I aim to do better from now on.”

He thanked God for Adam’s return.  Whatever his eldest had said to his brother the night before seemed to have worked wonders.

“You’ve been a good man, Joe.  You are a good man.  You just lost your way for a bit.”  Ben sighed with the memory.  “It happens to the best of us.  Just ask your brother about his father before Inger came along.”

Joe grinned.  “He said you were mean.”

He started and then nodded.  “I was angry.  Angry at God.  Sound familiar?”

“Yeah,” his son admitted.  Then, with a little sigh, asked, “How come it has to be so hard, Pa?”

There was no simple answer to that.  His faith taught him that it was all wrapped up in what you were to become when you reached the other side.  Of course, that did little to comfort a young man on this side of the veil.

“To make us stronger, son.  To make us better men – more compassionate, more attuned to the suffering of others.  To teach us that this life is a gift to be lived wisely and well and to be left as a legacy to those who remain behind when we journey home.”

Joe frowned.  “Now, don’t you go talkin’ about dyin’ again. You’re gonna live to be one hundred.”

If God wills it, he thought.

A soft voice broke into the silence that followed his son’s words.

“Joe?”

They both turned to find Bella once again at the top of the stairs.

His son put the hat down and rose to his feet.  “What is it, darlin’?” he asked.

Not – what’s wrong?

Yes, Joe had changed.

“Eric is crying.  He wants his papa,” she said.

Joe laid a hand on his shoulder, followed by a kiss on the top of his head.  “Gotta go, Pa.  My young’un’s waiting.”  His son’s fingers tightened on his flesh.  “I love you, Pa.”

He covered the hand with his own.  “I love you too, son.  Now go take care of that boy.”

“Yes, sir!” came the instant response.

And then his son was gone.

For a few minutes Ben sat where he was, thinking.  He was roused by a second touch on his shoulder and looked up to find Rosey looking down at him.

“Is Joe all right?” she asked as she sat in the chair his son had deserted.  Hoss’ hat was on the table now.

“He’s fine.”  The rancher chuckled, thinking of his son’s oft-used phrase.  “In fact, I think Joe is really fine now.”

“He seemed happy tonight,” she said. “Truly happy.”

He nodded.  While he was sure all of the tempests in his youngest son’s life were not past, for now, it seemed they were – at least – in the eye of the storm.

“Ben?”

He looked at his beautiful wife.  “Yes?”

“Do you remember what you told me fifteen years ago?  After you rescued me from those horrible Chinese men?”

He thought a moment.  “No.  I’m sorry…?”

“You said, ‘I see a house, oh, say, twenty years from now.  Filled with children and laughter.  And I see two old people sitting by the fire hand in hand, sharing their joy.’” His wife reached out to take his hand.  “You missed it by a couple of years,” she added with a smile.

He rose then and drew her to her feet along with him.  Circling Rosey’s slim waist with his arm, he drew her close and kissed her with passion.

“What’s say we go to bed, Mrs. Cartwright?  And I’ll show you just how young I am!”

At that moment the clock struck midnight.  Christmas had come.

And so had joy and peace to the Ponderosa.

 

[1] Ella Wheeler Wilcox

 

 

Tags:  Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, ESA, ESJ, Family, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, revenge, SJS

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

9 thoughts on “An Unspeakable Dawn (by McFair_58)

  1. This was the greatest story I have ever read. So many intense moments. Lots of Cartwright love. Beautiful ending. Adam and Joe have some of the best talks ever. Adam is a great influence for Joe, Adam is so good at helping Joe with his problems. I am glad Adam came home to stay. Thanks for a wonderful read.

  2. Such a wonderful story I couldn’t stop reading it until the end. I loved reading about the older Little Joe and Uncle Little Joe as well as divine retribution.

    1. Thank you, Anne. I love the older Little Joe too, tough as nails but still our sensitive sweet guy. And God always has a role in my stories as he does in my life!

  3. Intense excitement, with so many elements brought together to a satisfying conclusion. I haven’t previously read the Bella stories, but her character here makes me want to. All this homecoming made me think it should have been set around Thanksgiving. After all, everyone came to dinner–LOL! And goodness knows, they had much to be thankful for, chief among the reasons that they managed to stay alive through all this! Well done.

    1. Thank you for your comments and compliments. Bella came out of the blue, birthed in a VERY short story (originally 1000 words) entitled ‘Wet Bottom, Warm Heart’, and has gone on to become a large part of my own particular Cartwright mythos. Glad you liked her!

  4. I love reading your wonderful tales both here and a couple of other fan fiction sites. Thank you for sharing your gift.

  5. Have barely started reading yet, but just wanted to say how excited I am to see Bella and Joe back! Thanks for writing!

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