A Dish Served Cold (by Questfan)

joe, adam, hoss, ben

A somewhat AU What Happened Instead for The First Born. While New Orleans had brought Marie into Ben’s life, it was also a breeding ground for lies, whispered rumours, family disputes and long-held hatred. It has long been said that revenge is a dish that is best served cold.

Rating: T

Word Count: 63028


Disclaimer: All publicly recognisable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

A Dish Served Cold

The doctor stepped back from the bed and began to pack away his stethoscope and other items into his medical bag.

“I’m sorry. There is nothing further I can do for her. It’s really only a matter of time, but I have given her enough laudanum to make her comfortable.”

The young woman slid down into the chair by the bed and grasped at her grandmother’s thin hand and stroked at the fingers.

“Grandmama, can you hear me?”

Tears rolled down her cheeks as she considered the woman who had been her strength for so many years. The woman who had held her family together in the face of heinous betrayals and cruel gossip. Angelique had heard the stories many times over as her grandmother had taught her what it was to restore a family’s honour. The grand only lady of the manor had outlasted her own children and her husband. She had stoically and steadfastly ignored the social slights and had stood staunch in the face of whispers behind lace fans. She had been an undefeatable force until illness had struck her down and her lungs had failed her. Now the doctor said her heart was failing too.

Angelique laid her head across the old woman’s thigh and felt a gnarled hand begin to stroke at her hair. As the strokes slowed and finally stopped altogether, she was unable to look up and confirm her fears.

“I promise I will do as you asked. I will make you proud of me and I will avenge you. He will rue the day he dared challenge the de Marignys.”

Hetty slipped into the room and knelt beside the bed and kissed the limp, cool hand of her employer. The woman had given her a place in the world when she did not deserve it. She had seen many things over many years and had tucked them all away in her heart. The young woman who was bowed in grief would rise strong and proud. She would carry the family name with honour and she would fulfil her grandmother’s dying wish.


It was such a beautiful name and she wore it like some kind of badge of honour. Adam said that it suited her as she was simply angelic. Joe couldn’t argue that point when looking at her. His first glimpse of the refined young lady strolling along the boardwalk under a lacy parasol had stirred something in him and Hoss had told him to shut his mouth before he caught some flies. But then, Hoss had also agreed that she was pretty as a picture and Adam had reminded Joe that he was too young to be thinking what he was thinking. Joe had blushed red and swiped at Hoss as he laughed before stalking back towards the wagon where they were supposed to be loading stores. Of course Adam knew what he was thinking. The very same thing every other red-blooded fella was thinking as she strolled past, her skirts a-swishing across the wooden boards and her dark curls swinging from beneath her floral bonnet. Just because he was only sixteen didn’t mean anything!

But Joe eventually came to know that underneath those perfect curls and the perfect silk dresses, there was something not so angelic about her. He just wished his brother could see beyond the curls and the dresses and the sweet words she whispered in his ear. It was if she had woven some kind of spell over him and Joe couldn’t break through it.

It wasn’t just Adam, but everyone seemed taken with the charms of the beautiful southerner who had stolen his brother’s heart. His pa had said that of all of them, Joe should appreciate her French heritage and her gentle southern accent the most. He had tried. Lord knew, he had tried to like her. But something rankled and he couldn’t shift it, like a burr under the saddle. It itched and annoyed him and poked at him when he least expected it. Nobody else had ever seen the looks she shot his way from time to time and each time Joe caught her out, Miss Angelique would turn on the charm and bestow the sweetest smile on him, just in time for Adam or anybody else to notice. She had the uncanny knack of looking like sunshine and rainbows every time and he was never quick enough to have anyone catch her out. He was beginning to wonder if he really was imagining it after all as he couldn’t figure any reason for her to look the way she did or what she could have against him.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t want to like her. It looked likely she was going to become part of the family after all and he wasn’t going to have any say in that decision. After that first fateful glimpse outside the mercantile, Adam had been quick to offer the young lady assistance when she had slipped on the uneven boards of the boardwalk and she had eagerly grasped at his hand to save herself from further embarrassment. When an older woman had appeared from inside the mercantile to bat Adam’s hands away from her charge, Joe had smiled at his brother’s attempts to smooth things over. Fortunately for Adam, the young lady had assured her chaperone that the lovely young gentleman had done nothing wrong and had, in fact, saved her from a nasty fall.

That day had so easily slipped into more days and Miss Angelique Johnson and her chaperone, Miss Hetty Smith had become regular guests at the Cartwright dining table.

Joe stared at the peas on his plate and tried to drown out the noise from across the table. He could hear Miss Angelique’s silken tones and Hoss’ hearty laugh and he speared at a pea in frustration. He wanted to get up and walk outside where the air was fresh and not so stuffy as it had become inside.

Hop Sing nudged at his foot as he leaned over to place another tray of meat on the table and Joe glanced up to see the man frowning at him. It was such a small expression that only lasted a second, but it was enough. Somebody had noticed his mood and it was a sure bet that his pa had too. As Joe pushed a few more peas into his mouth, he risked a glance at the head of the table. His father was pouring Miss Hetty another glass of sherry, but that didn’t stop him looking Joe’s way. A slight shift of his eyebrows was all the warning his son needed. Pa had noticed too.

Joe looked up to where Miss Hetty was seated and he smiled at her as she took another sip of her sherry. It was a good thing Adam was driving the ladies home in the buggy as he wasn’t sure they would make it if it was up to the older woman.

It seemed an interminable amount of time before dessert was served and coffee was done before Adam stood and offered his arm to the lovely young woman seated across from him. A stroll in the moonlight may have seemed like a romantic idea to Joe under other circumstances, but he could barely hold his apple pie down as he watched the two young lovers leave out the front door.

As Ben offered an arm to Miss Hetty and steered her towards the sofa, Hoss caught Joe’s eye and frowned at him.

“Just what is goin’ on with you tonight?”

Joe’s eyes widened as he stared back. “What are you talking about?”

“You know exactly what I’m talkin’ about. Pull your horns in!”

Joe glared at his older brother before gathering some of the dishes off the table and taking them into the kitchen. Hop Sing was surprised to see him and waved him towards the door.

“You have guest! Not need be in the kitchen.”

“I’d rather be here,” Joe muttered under his breath as Hop Sing waved a dishcloth at him and pointed towards the dining room once more.

Joe sauntered out into the great room and watched as his father and brother entertained their single guest. Miss Hetty was a homely spinster who could have been around the same age as his father, but Joe couldn’t be sure. He was far better at picking the ages of younger women than older ones and he wouldn’t have dared vocalise a guess.

“Joseph, Miss Hetty was just telling us she knows the area in New Orleans where your mother lived.”

Joe’s ears pricked up at the comment and he smiled at the older woman. “Really?”

It wasn’t like he was particularly interested, but it was a subject that would at least keep the older woman talking and keep him in his father’s good books.

Hetty began to describe the trees that graced the riverside and the unbearable summer heat that would leave her feeling quite drained. Joe sat and tried to pay attention as she droned on and by the time the front door opened again, he was trying hard not to nod off.

“I think it might be time for you to be taking us back into town, Adam dear.” Hetty smiled sweetly at him and stood up to reach for Angelique’s hand. “We do need to be getting our beauty sleep, don’t we now?”

“Of course we do.”

Adam whispered something into Angelique’s ear as he placed her wrap around her shoulders and she laughed softly. “Well, you are supposed to say that!”

Joe watched as his older brother escorted the two women towards the waiting buggy. His father had moved to one side to help Hetty up the step and Joe looked back to see Angelique watching him. He frowned at the odd look on her face, but it passed so quickly that he was left shaking his head at his own folly. Surely he was imagining it.

It wasn’t long before the trio were on the road to Virginia City with Adam’s horse tied on behind the buggy. Angelique snuggled up against Adam’s side as Miss Hetty settled herself in the seat behind with a warm blanket wrapped across her knees. Adam had suggested the lovely young woman sitting beside him should sit in the more comfortable seat, but she had insisted she wanted to sit right where she was and he had readily agreed. The heady scent of her jasmine perfume drifted across and Adam inhaled deeply. If the older woman wasn’t sitting behind them, he would have pulled the horse to a halt, leaned over and kissed Angelique as passionately as he had only an hour earlier. The memory brought a smile to his face and he looked down to see Angelique’s hand resting against his thigh. Her touch sent chills up from his leg and it was all he could do not to react. It wouldn’t do to give Miss Hetty any call to separate them. The older woman had proven herself a stickler for the rules as she determined them and Adam had tried his best to comply. Of course, the teasing fingernails that slowly worked their way along his leg weren’t helping matters. Angelique had shown more than once that she was willing to flout the rules and tread a very fine line between propriety and following her heart. Adam had already decided he was set to make his proposal, but that made it even harder to rein himself in from where his thoughts drifted to.

Angelique knew exactly what she was doing and what effect she was drawing out. Adam coughed as her hand wandered a little too high and it slowly withdrew.

“Do you think Little Joe was bored at supper tonight?”

The question caught him by surprise and Adam pulled himself upright in the seat before looking at her. It wasn’t where his thoughts had been only seconds before.

“Bored? Why do you ask that?”

“Well, he seemed very uninterested with our conversation and I wondered if we had bored the poor child.”

“Don’t let Joe hear you referring to him as a child. He’s a man already, don’t you know?”

Adam smiled as he considered what his youngest brother would have to say about it as it had barely been a month since the boy had been allowed to leave school. Adam had tried to convince him to stay on and finish his education as they all knew the boy was brighter than he let on, but Joe was adamant he was leaving and getting to work full-time on the ranch. He had actually whooped for joy as he fled the classroom for the last time.

“Oh, I know that, silly!” Angelique batted at his arm as she smiled up at him. “I just wondered if he wasn’t able to keep up with the conversation. It’s not as if he is as well read as you and me, my darling.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully as he had seen Joe’s eyes glaze over at the mention of Wordsworth and Shakespeare’s sonnets.

“True. He didn’t seem to think much of us quoting poetry at him.”

Angelique laughed as she recalled the look on Joe’s face. “It’s a shame that the boy hasn’t received a full education. Unlike you. Why doesn’t your father insist he go on to college as you did?”

“Pa has suggested it and so have I, but Joe just isn’t interested.”

“Sometimes we need to be nudged towards what we need instead of just following what we want to do. It would be good for the boy to be stretched in his education. Unless, of course, your father doesn’t have the means. Is that why Hoss never attended college either?”

Adam turned to look at her and Angelique quickly raised a hand to her mouth.

“I’m so sorry. That was a very indelicate question and far too forward of me. Do forgive me.”

Adam felt torn between defending the implication his father was short on funds while knowing Hoss would never have dreamed of setting foot in a college. At the same time, he had no wish to imply anything negative about his middle brother’s intelligence. Hoss may not have a knack for book learning, but he was one of the most intuitive men Adam knew.

“It isn’t a question of money, but Hoss would not be happy leaving the Ponderosa.”

“And Joe?” Angelique tried again. “Do you not think it would be a good thing for him?”

“I believe it would be, but it’s going to take more than my opinion for anything to happen. Joe can be completely obstinate when he makes up his mind on something and he digs his heels in.”

“Hmmm. Well, perhaps your father could persuade him otherwise. He strikes me as a wonderful negotiator.”

“Why this sudden interest in Joe going to college?”

Angelique pulled herself away and drew a lacey handkerchief from inside her wrap. She began to dab at her eyes with it.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” Adam reached for her free hand and patted it gently.

“You didn’t. It’s just … I just wish my little brother had been given the chance to follow his dream to learn.”

Adam had already learned that Francois had passed away just short of his thirteenth birthday and he reached to grasp Angelique’s hand more firmly.

“I know. It’s a cruel thing to have a life cut short.”

“I cannot place my dreams for Francois onto Little Joe. That is not fair.”

Adam felt her squeeze his hand as they drove on in silence. The idea that Joe should expand his horizons was not new and the thought that one life had been cut short and robbed of opportunity stirred something inside him. Joe should not be robbed of life’s chances either.

It would be another two days before Adam had the chance to raise the idea once more with his father. The days had been full with necessary chores and plans for the upcoming drive to Sacramento and it was well after supper when Adam took his opportunity. Joe had headed for bed already and Hoss was still in town so Adam found himself sitting across from his father and trying to concentrate on the book he was reading. It was a book of sonnets that Angelique had gifted him and every time he tried to focus on the lines, he was drawn back to their conversation days earlier.


Ben looked up and over the top of his newspaper. The serious look on his son’s face caused him to fold the pages and place them across his knee.

“Yes, Son.”

“Pa, I know we’ve talked about this before, but I’ve been thinking on it again. I know that Joe objected to the idea, but I keep wondering if he is being sold short by not furthering his education.”

“Oh?” Ben raised an eyebrow as it was well known what Joe thought about the matter. “How so?”

“He’s a smart kid, Pa. He’s got a brain in his head that he barely uses sometimes.”

Ben frowned at the comment and Adam hurried on.

“I don’t mean that as an insult! I mean that he isn’t challenged to use it. He reads more than he lets on and he absorbs a lot more than he shows us. But all he knows is this ranch.”

“And is that so bad?”

Ben leaned forward in his chair and placed the paper on the table before him.

“Pa, you and I both know there is a big world out there. It holds some incredible wonders. Joe could do a lot more than just break horses for the rest of his life.”

It was well known that Joe had proclaimed he was going to be the best bronc buster in the West and he had the raw talent to show he could. Still, it was a hard way to live and Ben still wanted to close his eyes every time his sleight son climbed up on top of an unbroken beast and went into battle with it.

“Son, you and I wanted to see that big world and we have both seen some of it. Joe doesn’t. At least, not yet. He’s still just a boy and has his whole life ahead of him to choose.”

Adam recalled Angelique’s tears as she relayed the death of her little brother and how his life had been stolen from him. Joe may not have as much time as they all assumed he did as life could change in an instant. Opportunities needed to be taken when they were presented.

“That’s just it, Pa. Now is the time where he can choose to study. Later on, he’ll have responsibilities and won’t be able to. If he is going to go to college, it should be now, while he is still in a schooling frame of mind and has nothing to hold him back.”

Ben rubbed a hand across his lower jaw as he tried to understand where Adam’s explanation was coming from. He knew he was missing something.

“Son, I thought we had settled this already. What has stirred this up again for you?”

“Angelique reminded me the other day that her younger brother never had a chance to fulfil his dreams. It was all cut short. She said that Joe shouldn’t be denied a chance at bettering himself, just because he can’t see the value in it yet.”

Joe stood at the top of the stairs, seething with anger. He’d simply come out for a glass of water and stumbled into the conversation. He’d tried for weeks to convince himself that he was imagining things with Angelique, but now he knew he hadn’t. She was trying to get him to leave the Ponderosa and Adam was supporting her!

He began to stomp down the stairs and pointed a finger at his older brother.

“She don’t know anything about what I want and I’m not her brother! I already told you all, I don’t want to go anywhere and I sure as ever don’t want to go to no college! Why is she trying to get rid of me? And why are you helping her?”

Adam recoiled at the level of venom in Joe’s voice and the blaze of anger in his brother’s eyes. He stood up and held up a hand to settle him.

“Joe, nobody is trying to get rid of you! That’s ridiculous.”

“She doesn’t like me and now she wants you to help get rid of me!”

Adam shook his head in confusion. Angelique had only ever talked well of his family.

Ben was on his feet and moving towards his youngest son, but Joe sidestepped his hand.

“I don’t want to go anywhere, Pa!”

“Nobody said you had to, Joseph. It was just an idea. Adam’s right; you are definitely bright enough to take on a college education and I’d be more than happy to send you, but …”

Joe glared at his father before fixing his stare on his brother. “What part of not wanting to go aren’t you both hearing?”

Ben reached for his son and placed a firm hand on his shoulder. “Joe, there is no call to be rude! I was going to say, that if you don’t want to go, it’s a moot point.”

“What?” Joe stared at his father as his thoughts swirled in his head. Surely his father wouldn’t agree.

“Son, it’s up to you and you have made it clear you don’t want to go.”

He could feel his son trembling under his hand and he knew the anger was barely being contained.

“Now, young man, why were you coming downstairs anyway?” He held back the comment he wanted to make about eavesdropping as it would only add fuel to the fire.

Joe shook his head as if to shake off some of the anger. He held out the glass in his hand. “I came to get water.”

“Then I suggest you get some and head back to bed. Tomorrow comes early and you have a big job ahead of you with Hoss, remember?”

Joe nodded and made his way towards the kitchen, carefully skirting around his brother. Adam sighed as he sank back into the chair and stayed silent until Joe had climbed the stairs and gone back to his room.

“Well that went well.”

Ben waited to see if there was any more.

“What do you suppose he meant about Angelique not liking him?”

“I have no idea. She has always been interested in him and nothing but polite towards both of your brothers.”

Adam rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes as he considered what had transpired.

“Pa, I think you know how I feel about her.”

Ben nodded and smiled. It was impossible not to know.

“Is this going to be a problem for Angelique if Joe feels this way?”

“Your brother is young and impetuous. He burns hot and quickly fizzles out. He’ll come around, especially when he sees how important this is to you. But I do suggest there is no more talk of college.”

Adam nodded at his father’s words, but something in him still felt unsettled despite the assurances. What could have given Joe the idea that Angelique wanted him gone from the ranch?

Chapter Two

Hoss leaned up against the shovel and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He replaced his hat and frowned at his little brother. Joe had been distracted all day and his work pace kept dropping off as his mind wandered off.

“We ain’t never gonna get this here fence finished if you don’t start pullin’ your weight, Little Joe!”

Joe startled at the sound of his brother’s voice and looked up to see Hoss glaring at him.

“Alright … out with it! What’s chewin’ at your insides, little brother? You’ve been grumpy as a springtime bear since breakfast.”

“Nothin’!” Joe declared and began digging dirt once more from his hole.

“Sure. Then how come you can’t do nothin’ but stare off into space?”

Joe kept digging furiously as Hoss continued to watch him. Finally he stopped and sighed heavily as he turned back towards his brother.

“Adam’s gonna marry Angelique, isn’t he?”

Hoss smiled softly as he recalled his older brother’s face every time he looked at the girl. Couldn’t blame him really as she was just plum pretty as a daisy.

“Sure seems like it.”

Joe scowled and started digging again.

“Now just what’s got stuck in your craw? Adam’s happy and she’s a real good match for him, bein’ smart and well read and all that stuff.”

“Sure she is,” Joe muttered as he kept digging.

Hoss dropped his shovel and walked over towards Joe.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I ain’t good enough for her!”

“What in the world are you talkin’ about?”

Joe stopped digging and started at his brother. He needed Hoss of all people to understand. He couldn’t stand the way his older brother was looking at him and he felt like a heel, but it didn’t change anything. He knew what he knew, but he didn’t know why.

“Angelique doesn’t like me. She disapproves of me and she wants Adam and Pa to send me away.”

Hoss licked at his lips as he slowly shook his head.

“Little brother, I’ve heard you come out with some wild stories before, but this one just takes the cake!”

“It’s true! I came down to get a drink last night and Pa and Adam were talkin’ about sending me off to college! All because Miss Know-it-all says it’s a good idea!”

Hoss stared at Joe and could see the anger in his tense stand. Joe’s fists were clenched around the handle of the shovel and the scowl on his face had deepened.

“But you already told Pa you didn’t want no more schoolin’. He let you finish up already.”

“I know that, but now he’s thinkin’ on it again. All because of her meddling!”

“Now, Joe, this just don’t sound right to me. Maybe you done got it wrong in your head.”

“I’m not stupid, Hoss!”

“Never said you were!”

Joe blew out a sharp breath as he shook his head. He needed to keep at least one ally and it seemed that even Hoss was against him.

“I’m sorry, Hoss, but it’s true. She doesn’t like me and she’s trying to get Adam to tell Pa to get rid of me.”

“Now, Joe … to be fair ….” Hoss sidled closer and placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder, ” I ain’t never seen anything from Miss Angelique to make you think that.”

Joe shrugged off the hand and went back to digging with a vengeance.

“Forget it! She’s got you hooked too.”

When it became clear that Joe was done talking, Hoss shrugged and reluctantly went back to work. Every so often he glanced across at his little brother, but it seemed Joe had clammed up and refused to be drawn any further on the subject.

By the time the job was finished, Joe hadn’t said another word. Hoss gathered his equipment and loaded it into the back of the wagon while Joe hitched the horse. He climbed into the driver’s seat and watched as his brother silently climbed into the seat beside him.

“Joe, you gotta let this crazy idea go. Adam’s likely gonna marry that little gal and he don’t need you makin’ it hard for him.”

Joe glared at him. “So maybe I should just go away, like she wants then? Would that be easier for Adam?”

“You don’t gotta be a brat about it! I was just sayin’ that you …”

Joe clambered down from the seat before Hoss could stop him and began walking across the meadow. Hoss urged the horse to follow and he called at his brother’s back.

“Little Joe, get back in the wagon and we’ll get on home.”

“Leave me alone!” Joe continued to walk as Hoss kept pace.

“Awe come on little brother. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it. You can’t walk all the way home. I’m just tryin’ to …”

“Hoss, leave me alone. I can walk just fine.”

Hoss finally shrugged one last time and clucked the reins. “Suit yaself!”

It was a long, quiet ride home and Hoss spent the entire time wondering if he shouldn’t just turn the wagon around and go back for his brother. Surely his boots must be rubbing now and Joe would be glad to see him. Every time Hoss was about to do so, he thought on Joe’s scowl and angry words and he kept right on going.

Hoss pulled into the yard and eased the horse to a stop as his father hurried up to him.

“Where’s Little Joe?”

Hoss thumbed over his shoulder. “Somewhere between here and the fence we was workin’ on.”

“What? Why would you have left him out there?”

“I didn’t, Pa! He refused to come with me and said he was just fine walkin’ home.”

Ben folded his arms across his chest and waited until Hoss climbed down from the seat.

“What happened?”

“Pa, I just don’t know what’s goin’ on in that boy’s head? He’s got this bee in his bonnet that Miss Angelique don’t like him and wants you an’ Adam to send him away to college. But I know you already had that out with him and he don’t have to go nowhere!”

When his father didn’t answer, Hoss began to wonder if he’d missed something.


Ben frowned as he looked back towards the way Hoss had come. “How far back is he?”

“Probably a couple of hours on foot.”

Ben glanced up at the sun as he estimated how long until sundown. “Then he can have some thinking time.”

Hoss shuffled nervously as he held onto the horse’s harness. “Pa, you ain’t thinkin’ of sending him off anywhere, are you?”

“I wasn’t, but if this nonsense continues, I just might!”

Ben stalked towards the front door as Hoss went to work sorting the horse and wagon.

“Maybe the military might do the trick!” he muttered to himself as he pulled the front door open.

The sun had set well over an hour ago and Ben couldn’t help himself as he glanced out the door one more time. Hop Sing had fussed and complained about supper being late, but Ben had insisted they eat on time as Joe had chosen to miss it. It was a very quiet affair as Adam sat and wondered on the argument Hoss had described. It made no sense to him as Angelique had never shown any hint of animosity towards Joe. Of course, his youngest brother had been known to get the wrong end of the stick once or twice and he was sure that was all this was.

“Pa, I can get the horses saddled.” Adam was on his way to the door when he heard footsteps on the porch. The door swung open and Joe found himself face to face with his oldest brother.

“We were just about to come looking for you.”

“Why? I don’t need looking after.”

“Joseph! What is all this nonsense about?” Ben stood at the hearth with his hands in his pockets.

“Nothin’! I just chose to walk home, that’s all.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Ben stalked towards his youngest son. “You chose to be childish.”

Joe’s breath was quickening as he clenched his fists into tight bunches, as he barely kept his mouth shut.

“You want to be treated as a man on this ranch? Then you finish the job you are assigned.”

“I did finish the job!”

“Don’t you raise your voice to me, young man. The job wasn’t finished as Hoss had to come home and clean and stow the equipment. He was left to care for the horse and wagon while you were too busy walking home. And for what? Because you couldn’t pull your temper into line.”

Joe glared at Hoss as his brother tried to keep his emotion in check. Hoss would never knowingly get his brother into trouble, but Joe sure was making it hard to keep him out of it.

Ben waited as Joe tried to pull himself together. He knew the effort it was costing his youngest and he wanted to encourage it, but he also could not allow such nonsense to continue.

“Joseph, you convinced me that you were old enough and mature enough to finish school and work with the rest of the men. That means taking responsibility for yourself and your decisions. You are paid a wage as everyone else is and you are expected to earn it.”

Joe stared at his father; his anger rising once more.

“I do earn my wages! I work every bit as hard as Hoss and Adam and everyone else around here!”

“Son, there are things you have a right to for being part of this family and other things you must earn. How long do you think I would keep a ranch hand employed who did what you did today?”

“You think I’m just another hand?” Joe glared at his father.

“That’s not what I said! I’m talking about your behaviour and your attitude. And right now, I’m not liking either of them!”

Joe’s gaze dropped to his boots as he struggled to rein in the fury that was rising from his gut. He felt the walls closing in around him as he considered the hole he had dug for himself. What if he really was just being paranoid and Angelique hadn’t meant anything against him? Joe began to deflate as he wondered how crazy he must look to his family. He sucked in a sharp breath and looked up to see Hoss watching him and chewing on his lip.

“I’m sorry, Hoss. I had no call to lose my temper at you today.”

“It’s alright, little brother. I’m just glad you made it home alright.”

It was so like Hoss to blow off an offence and restore things so quickly. Joe knew it wasn’t going to be so easy with the rest of his family.

Hetty lifted the brush and stroked at the long, dark tresses. It was a job she had done every day for many years and she sang softly as she worked. The young woman seated at the dresser smiled as she listened and Hetty slowly worked the long hair into a braid.

“My darling, you did wonderfully today. Adam Cartwright is ready to propose and has no idea anything is other than what you have told him.”

Angelique considered the Sunday afternoon buggy ride and picnic in the heights overlooking Lake Tahoe and she nodded in agreement. She had Adam wound tightly around her finger and all she had to do was maintain the act for a little while longer. Let the fool propose and make the announcement public before she took the next step and utterly humiliated him with her very public denouncement of his brother and the whole family.

Reputation was something that Ben Cartwright prized very highly which was strange given he ignored the reputation of his whore before trying to defend her supposed honour. Angelique almost spat out the bile from her mouth as she considered the woman who had no honour and yet paraded herself as a victim to snare men. Oh yes, she would take great delight in destroying her youngest son’s reputation in a town that thrived on gossip. Given his age, she may not get him to the gallows, but she could certainly shred his name to tatters. It was all just a matter of time and the best part was that Adam would never see it coming!

“Grandmama would be proud, I hope.”

“Oh she would be most proud of you. The Cartwright family brought untold pain to your family and you are the key to restoring the family’s honour. Benjamin Cartwright will rue the day he ever rode into New Orleans.”

Angelique smiled at her reflection in the mirror. She had spent many hours at her grandmother’s knee, hearing the saga that had sullied her family name. Her Uncle Jean had betrayed them all and taken a wanton whore to his bed. He may have run from his disgrace, but that had not lifted the shame from the family. The fact his whore had gone on to produce a child that she dared claim was his had left a dirty trail they had been forced to bury. Angelique had only once laid eyes on the son called Clay, when she knew he had resurfaced from wherever he had been buried. He had dared to turn up to her home and demand an audience with her grandmother. His insolence had been rewarded by two servants grasping hold of him and turfing him into the street where he belonged. How dare he lay claim to the family name! She had no wish to know the details, but her grandmother said she had sent men to deal with the problem and that was all she needed to know at the time. But now, she was the sole heir to the family name and reputation and it all rested on her shoulders.

Hetty watched as the smile slid into a frown and she placed the brush on the dresser and grasped at Angelique’s shoulders.

“What is it?”

“Mama told me they would deal with the other son, but I have to wonder. I hope Grandmama can truly rest in peace and not have any more ghosts pop up from the grave.”

Hetty leaned down and hugged the girl before smiling in the mirror once more. “That is exactly why we are here, my dear. We promised your grandmother, God rest her soul, that we would settle things once and for all.”

Angelique sighed as she turned on the stool and stood up. “I do find this whole thing tiresome, but I made a promise and I intend to keep it.”

Hetty laughed softly as she began to lay out the bedclothes across the bed.

“Surely there is some enjoyment in taunting Marie’s youngest whelp?”

Angelique nodded as she began to undress. “Oh that part is the only thing that keeps me going. It is such fun driving a wedge between him and his family. It is only fitting after what his mother did to my family with her lies and deceit.”

Hetty began to unlace the heavy corset and she smiled as soft creamy flesh spilled out from its bondage.

“It’s almost time to take the next step with our ignorant young man. Who could possibly resist that?”

Angelique looked at her reflection in the mirror and smiled again as she turned first one way and then the other. Adam was only just restraining himself to a gentleman’s standards. What hope indeed did a sixteen-year-old backwoods yokel have against such temptation?

“What will Saint Benjamin say when his beloved son attacks his brother’s fiancée?”

Hetty smiled at the question, knowing full well the impact such a claim would have. It would tear at his loyalties, but given the kind of man he was, he would have no choice but to defend her honour.

Clay stared at the rough wooden sign. Twelve miles to Virginia City. It had been a long, meandering route from New Orleans and now that he was within sight of his goal, he wasn’t sure anymore about any of it.

What kind of response would he get? Would he be turned out on his ear or would he be welcomed? His gut churned with apprehension and doubt. He had no claim on this family except for one detail. Somewhere out here was a half brother. He ached to know a blood relative who would not disavow him and yet he wondered what the boy would say when he told his story. Would his mother’s husband believe him? Or would he call the sheriff and send him packing? Surely the tentacles of New Orleans couldn’t have reached this far west to taint his name and try to entrap him once more with lies?

Chapter Three

“I dunno how you do it, buddy!”

“Do what?” Joe loaded the last of the supplies onto the wagon and stood back to see Mitch looking at him.

“Not drool every time you see her.”

“Don’t be stupid!” Joe glared at his friend. “She’s gonna marry my brother.”

Mitch shook his head slowly as he considered the idea. “Ma saw the announcement in the Enterprise. She said it was about time Adam got himself hitched.”

“Hmmpfh.” Joe climbed into the seat of the wagon. He knew the town gossips would have been having a field day to know one of the town’s most eligible bachelors was officially off the market.

“So when’s the party?”


“C’mon, Joe! You tellin’ me that Adam gettin’ engaged isn’t cause for a famous Cartwright party?”

“Yeah, I guess so. But we’ve got the cattle drive to Sacramento first. Speakin’ of which, I gotta go and see how Pa and Hoss are going with recruiting hands.”

“My pa said it’s real tight trying to get enough men to work anywhere but the mines, what with the boom and all.”

“Pa says we’re still short about seven or eight men. The good news is that means I definitely get to go this year. Pa can’t make me stay home when he needs us all on the drive.”

Mitch smirked at him as Joe began to pull out from the boardwalk.

“But who’s gonna take care of Adam’s girl while he’s gone? She’ll be fightin’ off all them other fellas with a stick!”

“They can take her for all I care,” Joe muttered to himself. He tried to push aside the ugly thoughts as he drove the wagon across town to where his father had set up a table and chairs in an effort to recruit hands.

He noted a couple of men talking with his father and brother as he sauntered across the street towards them. One of them was a wanderer who seemed to turn up every couple of years or so, but the other looked a little too clean cut to be a ranch hand. His fine tidy moustache was an unusual style for sure and it made him stand out. Joe noted the gun at his hip and idly wondered how good he was with it.

Hoss nodded towards the old hand as Joe approached.

“Hey, Little Joe, Josh is back again for another season.”

“You’ve grown, kid. One day you might just measure up to ol’ Hoss here!” Josh slapped Joe on the shoulder as he pointed up at the top of Hoss’ hat.

“Not likely!” Hoss leaned on Joe’s shoulder as Joe clipped him in the back of the head. “And this here is Clay. Says he’s from New Orleans.”

The stranger stuck out a hand towards Joe and smiled at him. “Hoss tells me your mother was from there too. Small world.”

“Yeah, it sure is.”

“Well, I think we’ve done all we can do here today. Time to head back to the ranch.” Ben was already gathering up his paperwork and stuffing it in his pocket.

“Sure, Pa. Are we gonna have enough extra hands for the drive?”

“I hope so. We’ve still got a couple of weeks before we need to head out.”

Hoss lifted the table and two stools into the back of the wagon as Joe climbed back up into the seat. His father stepped up next to him as he nodded towards the two new hands that had just signed on.

“Either of you need to get anything before we head out?”

Josh shook his head and pointed towards his horse. “My life’s right there, Mister Cartwright.”

Clay had his horse by the reins and was about to mount up. “Same here. I travel light.”

“Well alright then. Let’s move out.”

As the group made its way down the dusty main street towards the edge of town, none of them was aware as Hetty stood inside the mercantile and watched them leave. Her face was pinched and white as a sheet as she stared at the young man who trailed along behind the Cartwright’s wagon. As Angelique noticed her strange reaction, she looked out the window to see what had caused it.

“What is he doing here?” She glared at the young man she had presumed was dead or at the very least, had been paid off to disappear for good.

“I have no idea, but we need to move the plan up to tomorrow before he gives us away. We can’t afford to have him see you and say anything to anybody. It would ruin everything if he does.”

Joe wrapped the reins around the rail and eased Cochise’s left hoof towards him. He could feel the tension in the movement and the horse’s resistance. As he lowered the leg back down, he noted the beginning of swelling. It was his fault and he knew it, but that did nothing to fix the problem. He’d been galloping across an area his father had warned him not to and Cochise had stumbled in a hidden hole. While he hadn’t been thrown, he almost had as the horse stumbled and quickly slowed to a walk. He had climbed down from the saddle and walked his horse home the rest of the way and he was worried at the beginning of a limp in the last half mile or so.

He glanced at the buggy pulled up alongside the fence and scowled at it. Adam’s dinner guests were very early. He’d hoped for some time in peace before they arrived, but it was not to be. Given how long it had taken him to walk back, his brothers couldn’t be too far behind him and hopefully they could take the brunt of the polite conversation and he could just stay out of the way.

“C’mon, Cooch. Let’s get some liniment on that leg.”

Joe led the horse into the barn and set about pulling down the supplies he needed. He was oblivious to movement behind him until Cochise snorted and moved sideways. Before Joe could stand up, he felt a hand slide across his shoulder. Warm fingers caressed the side of his neck and he turned to see Angelique looking down at him.

“What are you doing?” He pushed her hand off his shoulder and quickly scrambled to his feet.

“I got here early and just thought … well … I have been thinking about you, Little Joe.” Angelique cooed his name like she was savouring it on her tongue and Joe felt his skin crawl.

He stepped backwards as the woman advanced towards him and he felt his mouth go dry as she reached a hand towards him again and began to trace a line down from his chest with her finger.

“Now, I know you have the strange idea that I don’t like you. Adam told me all about it.”

Joe shoved her hand off him once more and continued to back up until he found himself up against the railing.

“I know you don’t like me!”

Angelique reached both hands towards him and leaned closer as she whispered in his ear.

“Oh, but I do.”

Joe felt his body react of its own accord as she began to place her hands in places they had no business being. He tried to push her away once more and she laced her fingers into the buttons of his shirt. As he tried to step sideways, she grasped hold of the fabric and ripped the top button free.

“Oh, I like you very much. More than you know. It’s why I’ve had to fight so hard to resist. And I know that you want me too.”

Joe felt the heat rising up his chest as he stared at what she had done. Her words made no sense as his blood pounded in his ears. He couldn’t help but notice the plump creamy flesh that was thrust into his face and he stood frozen to the spot for a moment. It was like some kind of crazy nightmare unfolding in broad daylight as his mind went to war with his body.

Angelique’s hands began to toy with him once more and before he knew what was happening, she leaned in and kissed him hungrily. Joe took a moment to regain his senses and he shoved her backwards.

“Get off me!”

Angelique fell against the railing and smirked at him as she pulled herself upright.

“Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy that because I know you did.”

The sound of horses in the yard carried across to them both and Angelique laughed at the look on Joe’s face.

“Wouldn’t want big brother to know what you’ve been up to, would we?”

She reached for her left sleeve and began to tug at the fabric until it sheered away at the shoulder. Lace from her bodice hung free and Joe could see exposed flesh. She reached to pull a few pins loose and begun to muss her hair in an almost seductive fashion. As Joe stood, mesmerised, Angelique let out a high-pitched scream.

Joe began to edge towards the door while keeping his eyes locked on the mad woman who had dramatically sunk to the floor, but he had no idea that Adam had appeared in the doorway behind him, followed closely by Hoss.

“What the hell are you doing?” Adam roared as he charged towards his brother and spun him around before planting his fist into Joe’s jaw. Adam glared at him as he fell to the floor, but Angelique chose that moment to begin sobbing loudly.

Adam rushed towards her and scooped her into his arms as she flung her arms around his neck. He lurched towards Joe and seemed as if he was about to kick him where he lay sprawled on the ground.

“Get out of here before I kill you!”

Joe scrambled sideways out of his brother’s reach before pulling himself upright against the railing. He watched in stunned disbelief as his brother carried his tormentor out the door towards the house. It took him a while to shake off the stupor that had overcome him until he realised what Adam had said.

Hoss seemed torn in two as he stared in disbelief at his younger brother while following his older brother towards the house. Joe’s mouth hung open with no words to speak of what had just happened. He watched helplessly as Hop Sing held the door open and his two brothers stalked inside.

Cochise stood staring at him and Joe reached for his reins before suddenly realising he couldn’t ride him at all. Instead, he rushed across the yard and grasped at the nearest reins before he vaulted onto Sport’s back and charged out of the yard.

He had no idea where he was headed or what he would do next other than putting as much distance between himself and his brothers as possible. He could only imagine what twisted tale Angelique was spinning and he closed his eyes as he recalled the evil grin on her face. He couldn’t make sense of any of it, but what he did know was that he needed to get away. As far away as possible.

Miss Hetty had been sitting on the couch, sipping her honeyed tea and keeping an eye on where the cook was. It wouldn’t do for him to leave the house and spoil the plan. He came running from the kitchen at the sound of a commotion outside and threw the door open.

Adam stumbled across to the couch with Angelique in his arms and Hetty leapt to her feet and rushed forward.

“Angelique! What happened?” She reached for the girl’s arm as Adam laid her onto the couch, but Angelique clung to his neck and continued sobbing.

“Adam! Don’t let him near me! Please! Don’t let him hurt me again.”

Hop Sing paused, unsure if she meant him, but was left even more confused as Adam responded.

“It’s alright. Joe won’t ever touch you again.”

Hop Sing looked at Hoss and saw the anger on his face.

“Little Joe?”

Hoss slowly turned towards him and Hop Sing saw confusion mingled with the anger.

“Little Joe done this to Miss Angelique. I just can’t figure why!”

Hop Sing’s mouth was moving but no words were coming out as he tried to make sense of the situation.

Hetty drew upright and pointed at her charge. “He dared lay hands on her in such a vile fashion?”

Angelique tried to stifle her sobs as Adam dabbed at her face with a handkerchief.

“It’s alright. You’re alright now.”

Nobody heard the front door open and none of them realised Ben had returned home until he stepped in beside Hoss.

“What on earth happened here?”

“Pa …. Little Joe done lost his mind!”


Hoss shook his head as he haltingly relayed the events, as if he still couldn’t believe what he’d seen.

“Joe attacked Angelique, in the barn.” Adam looked up towards his father and saw the same confusion on his face as he felt in his own gut. It was so very out of character for his brother, no matter what. There had to be some explanation, but he simply couldn’t find one to fit the evidence before him.

Ben leaned over the side of the couch and noted the girl had slipped into an exhausted sleep in his son’s arms. The state of her dress and hair wasn’t lost on him, but he truly couldn’t reconcile what he was seeing with what he was hearing.

“She told you that?” His tone was incredulous.

“I saw him, Pa! Joe did this!” Adam barely growled the words at his father. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he would have struggled to believe it too.

Miss Hetty was pacing beside the couch as she stared at Ben.

“She simply went out to see if young Joseph would like to take some tea with us! That boy has had it in for her since we came her, but Angelique thought it would blow over. It was just childish jealousy she said! But obviously not. Mister Cartwright, I will be pressing charges! And I want him horsewhipped!”

Ben was floundering for something appropriate to say. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing, but three people were all saying the same thing and all of them had seen it happen.

“Oh believe me, Joseph will be giving an account!” He turned for the door and tugged at Hoss’ arm. “Son, you’d better ride for the doctor.”

Chapter Four

It was several miles before Joe pulled the lathered horse to a walk and allowed Sport to catch his breath. The horse snorted as he walked and Joe could feel the heaving breaths beneath him. He had pushed the horse at a full gallop and it was not sustainable. Panic had taken over and he had simply reacted and run.

As he glanced around him, Joe decided he needed to find somewhere to hole up for the night and decide what he was going to do next. It was more by good luck than anything else that he realised he was headed towards one of the line shacks that had not been used in some years. As it came into view, he noted that one side of the roof had dropped and a portion of the porch had dipped as well. If he’d stopped to look closer, he would have seen that termites had taken out a stump from under the building. It didn’t matter since he wasn’t planning on staying.

As Joe dismounted, he ran a hand across Sport’s neck and thanked the animal for helping him escape. A sudden chill ran up his spine as he knew how Adam would react on top of everything else to the theft of his horse. It was too late to do anything about it and Joe led the horse into a corral and began to remove the tack. He didn’t have any saddlebags and that meant he didn’t have any brushes to work through the horse’s matted and lathered coat. He looked up at the darkening sky and couldn’t see any sign of rain so he laid the saddle and blanket across the railing and made his way inside before he lost the light altogether.

His father had set a list of repairs and maintenance on the line shacks and this particular one was still a ways down the list. As Joe sidestepped the dip in the porch and glanced worriedly at the roofline, he decided he had nothing to lose. It didn’t really matter if the roof fell on his head while he slept. It already had!

After a while, he had gathered a lantern, some matches and a few tins of food together and made himself a supper of cold beans and peaches. He eyed off a bottle of medicinal brandy and decided a mouthful of that couldn’t hurt anything either. As he took a gulp of the alcohol from the bottle, he spat it straight back out again. The raw taste burned his throat and he reached for the water canteen instead.

It suddenly occurred to him that he hadn’t put out any water for Sport and he looked around for something to use. An enamel bowl was the best he could do and he poured almost the rest of the water canteen into it before heading outside into the dark. The horse came up to him at the edge of the coral and nudged at him as he held out the bowl of water. There was enough grass within the confines to make do for one night and Joe waited as the horse emptied the water.

“I’m sorry. This isn’t what you deserve, but it’s the best I’ve got.”

Finally, Joe headed back towards the door, unwilling to light the lantern in case the light drew any unwelcome attention. He had enough moonlight to see by if he stayed outside, but once inside, it was almost pitch black.

“I can’t stay here. And I can’t keep Adam’s horse.”

As Joe sagged onto the floor and leaned up against the wall, he began to think through what he needed to do. There was no way he could go back and face his brother. Angelique was right about one thing – a part of him had enjoyed what she had done. His body had betrayed him and he had betrayed his brother. Adam would never forgive him. The look of disgust on Hoss’ face brought tears to his eyes and he hung his head and rested his forehead on his knees. It didn’t even bear thinking about what his father would think of him once he heard the story.

There was no going back. He had to leave.

Joe’s heart felt like it was in his mouth. It wasn’t like it was the first time he’d ever climbed up the side of the house and into his room, but the stakes had never been higher. He had no idea what time it was, but the house was silent and there was no light still shining anywhere. His family had apparently gone to sleep in spite of the fact he was not under the roof and where he should have been. What he would never know was that four men had gone to bed that night with heavy hearts and unanswered questions and none of them would be getting much sleep that night or any night for some time to come.

Joe slipped in through the window and eased his way across the room in his bare feet. He knew the layout and had done it many times in the dark. The little amount of moonlight was enough to show him the outline of his dresser and he slowly slid open a drawer and pulled a few items loose. He carefully shoved them into a saddlebag he had lifted from the barn only a few minutes earlier. Cochise had nickered a welcome at him as he slipped in with Adam’s saddle and bridle and he had almost thrown aside his plan as he stroked at the horse’s neck. The pinto had been a gift for his last birthday and had proven himself to be everything he had dreamed of in a horse. Somebody, and he assumed it was Hoss, had wrapped his horse’s leg with liniment and a bandage. Cochise was still favouring the leg and had it raised onto the tip of his hoof. As he ran a hand down the leg, Joe could feel the heat underneath his fingers. As much as he desperately wanted to take his friend, he would never take the risk of doing permanent damage to the leg.

“I’m sorry, Cooch. You can’t come. I wish that …” The words stuck in his throat and he buried his face in the horse’s neck as he closed his eyes to stop the tears that threatened. “Bye, Cooch.”

The horse snorted at him as he left the barn with his own tack and Joe felt his gut clench into a knot.

By the time he had gathered the few supplies he wanted, Joe pulled open his top drawer. The box inside didn’t hold much in the way of cash, but it was all he could get his hands on. He knew the probable combination to the safe and the idea had flickered across his thoughts, but he could not and would not steal from his father. He took one last look around the room and felt his breath hitch in his chest. It was not the way he had ever envisaged himself leaving the Ponderosa, but there was no other way.

As he shimmied his way back down to the ground, Joe landed softly against the side of the house. He debated going into the kitchen for some food supplies, but decided he had risked enough by coming back at all. If it hadn’t been for the fact he had stolen his brother’s horse, he knew he probably wouldn’t have come at all.

Joe slipped across the open yard and prayed that nobody happened to look out any windows as he melted into the shadow behind the barn. He pulled on his boots, gathered his tack and made his way down to the corral. There were several fresh-broke horses milling around and he reached a hand towards a big black that he’d worked especially hard on the week before. The mare had been skittish when he rode up earlier and tied Sport to the outside of the corral, but she stood and stared at him as he lifted the rail and walked the other horse inside. It was second nature to saddle a horse and despite the low light, he made short work of the job. The black wasn’t so sure about the idea of having a saddle on her back again, but she finally allowed him to lift it from the railing and place it on her.

By the time he had cleared the corral and was heading into the hills, Joe was struggling to force himself onwards. If not for the memory of the raw fury on his brother’s face, he may well have turned back. He would not put his father in the position of having to choose between his sons. It was a contest he had no hope of winning anyway, given all that had happened in recent weeks.

It was several hours before the sun began to rise against the horizon and Joe felt himself swaying in the saddle. He dared not stop until he reached the rocky land where he knew he couldn’t be tracked. The timber was growing thicker and he finally decided he couldn’t stay upright any longer. He desperately needed to find somewhere to sleep.

Clay hauled himself out of the bunk and followed the other hands through the morning’s processes. Hank had pointed out where he could gather the things he needed and soon enough the door opened and somebody stepped in with a tray of food and a pot of coffee.

“There’s been some kind of trouble last night. Hop Sing was in a right sour mood and we got bread and coffee this mornin’.”

“No fatback!” A voice called from behind a bunk and Clay turned around to see who it was.

“Nope. Hop Sing just went off at me when I asked and you know I don’t speak a word of that Chinese.”

“But Hop Sing always does fatback,” Josh moaned to himself.

“Wonder what happened?” Another hand that Clay recalled was named Gerry poured himself a mug of coffee and swiped a piece of toast.

“Dunno. But the doc was out here ’til all hours and Mister Cartwright looked like thunder when I seen him last night. Adam musta gone somewhere ’cause his horse ain’t out there in the barn.”

Clay listened and took note of the various opinions, but his gut churned as he wondered what had happened in less than two days since he had arrived.

“Well then, how come Adam’s out there now?” Someone stood at the window and pointed outside.

“Dunno, but we’d best get to work and not give him any reason to bark at us.”

Soon enough the handful of men spilled out of the bunkhouse and began to set to work saddling horses. Clay followed along, assuming he would get instructions from somebody about what he was to do next.

“You there, Stafford. You’ll be comin’ with me to the top pasture this morning.”

“Sure thing.”

Before long, Clay and Hank were heading north from the house. The coral was only a short distance ahead and Hank reeled his horse over towards the railing. Clay followed suit, wondering why they were stopping. He was even more surprised when Hank dismounted and reached for a rope from his saddle. He lifted the gate of the corral and stepped inside before neatly lassoing a horse.

“Just what are you doing in here?”

“What’s wrong?”

“This here is Adam’s horse. Ain’t no reason he should be in here and not in the barn.” Hank ran a hand down Sport’s side and frowned at the matted coat. “He’s been ridden hard and left all lathered up. Nobody does that around here. Something funny is goin’ on.”

Before Clay could ask anything further, Hank had turned for home and was cantering back towards the yard they had just left. Clay followed along behind him and saw Adam’s reaction as they pulled into the yard. He strode forward and grabbed the lead rope from Hank’s hands as the two men dismounted.

“Where did you find him?”

“In the corral with the new broke horses.”

“Damn it! I’ll wager he came back and took an unbranded one.”

“Who came back?”

Before Hank got an answer, his boss was hurrying out of the house. “Joe came back?” The hope in his voice was soon dashed as Adam pointed beyond the yard.

“I reckon Joe left Sport in the corral and took one of the new horses. Unbranded.”

Ben’s shoulders sagged as he took in the comment. It made sense even if it meant his son didn’t intend to face what had happened.

“We need to get tracking. He can’t have gone too far.”

Adam stared at his father, torn between wanting to find his brother and tear his limbs off and knowing in his gut that something was very wrong in spite of what he had seen.

“Son, we need to find him, no matter what happened.”

Before Adam could respond, the door opened and Hop Sing stepped aside to allow Angelique through with Hetty supporting her arm. She looked pale and her hair hung down by her shoulders as if she had no energy to care for it. Adam strode forward and reached for her hand.

“I wish you would reconsider another day of rest.”

Her face was frosty as she pointed towards the buggy. “I have no wish to stay here and be reminded of my ordeal for another minute. I want to go back to Virginia City and follow up with the sheriff on those charges.”

Clay leaned against his horse and stared at the woman making her way across the yard. The hair was not its usual perfect coif, but everything else about her screamed at him. There was no doubt who she was and she had apparently outmanoeuvred him by arriving before him. Of course, he had no idea that she would have ever bothered to come to Nevada, but it was clear in his mind that nothing good could ever come of it. He sucked in a breath as he wondered how he would confront the issue with no credibility behind him. He’d lied to them about who he was. Well, maybe not lied, but he hadn’t yet had a chance to be heard and he frowned as he wondered if he ever would now.

Adam nodded reluctantly as he reached for Angelique’s hand to help her into the buggy. There would be no sitting beside him this day. He was surprised as she faltered and turned pale.

“Are you alright?” He grasped for her elbow and she shook it off. Her eyes narrowed as she looked behind him and Adam turned around to see one of their new hands moving towards them.

“Hello, dear cousin.” The word dripped with disdain as Clay stared at the two women in front of him.

“You are no cousin of mine!”

“Believe me, I wish I wasn’t, but I can’t help my parentage.”

“Stafford, what are you doing?” Adam growled at the man as he felt Angelique trembling beside him. He assumed it was from fear and was stunned when she pushed his hand off her arm.

“You are too late. The damage is already done and nothing will put this family back together once I am done with my day in court.” Angelique laughed at Clay’s face. He was a nobody who had no right to anything and she had beaten him to whatever he had hoped to achieve by coming here.

“What did you do this time, you snake?” Clay glared at the woman before him.

“She does not have to answer your questions, young man!” Hetty pushed Angelique towards the buggy and pointed at Adam. “You need to take us back to town, at once!”

“Not until I tell them just who you are. I’m assuming you haven’t told them the truth.”

Ben had moved up beside his son and Adam was barely holding himself in check.

“What are you talking about?”

Clay pointed at the younger woman in the buggy. “That there is Angelique de Marigny. Her uncle, Jean, was my father.”

Ben gaped at him as if he had sprouted another head. He wondered briefly if Marie knew her first husband had fathered a child.

“Her name is Angelique Johnson.” Adam pushed Clay in the chest and the younger man stepped backwards.

“Yes, it is. That’s her father’s name. But she goes by her mother’s maiden name of de Marigny. It holds much more clout in New Orleans.”

Angelique’s lips curled into a smirk. “Of course it does. It’s an old family lineage and it holds great honour.”

“You mean he’s telling the truth?” Ben stared at her as her smirk turned into a cruel smile. The same kind of smile that had graced Madame de Marigny all those years ago. He felt his heart thundering in his chest at the implications.

Angelique’s voice dropped to a softer tone that only those close to her could make out. “I made a promise to my grandmother before she died that I would clear the debt between your family and ours. You took her eldest son and turned him against her. You took his whore and made her a supposedly respectable woman of means.”

“How dare you speak of my wife that way?” Ben’s hands clenched into fists as he stared at the young woman who had beguiled his eldest son. It was becoming clear that the previous night’s accusation against his youngest son was not all it had first appeared.

“I will speak of her any way I choose. And believe me, I will be telling the whole sordid story just as soon as I get into court to have her son held accountable for the vile manner in which he attacked me yesterday. I have witnesses and the doctor’s testimony too.”

Adam was seething with anger as he watched Angelique’s expression change from the injured party to a woman he had never seen before.

“I have it on good authority that no Cartwright would lie on the witness stand and you both saw what that boy did to me. I have the scratches and bruises to prove it.” Angelique pointed towards her arms and face as she spat out the words. “All I can say is, thank God you both arrived when you did or who knows where it may have ended.”

Adam surged forward at the implication of the threat, but before he could respond, his father’s firm hand clamped down on his shoulder.

“Get off my land! I’ll be in very soon to Virginia City myself to press whatever charges are available to me.”

Angelique laughed as Hetty climbed over into the driver’s seat and took the reins. “I have done nothing that is against the law. Your sons willingly gave themselves to me. Well … maybe one of them did.”

Adam glared at her as he recalled the seductive teasing and edging closer to a line that he knew he was about to fall over. Angelique was obviously far more worldly than she had let on and it was becoming clear that he had been led by the nose from the first day she spotted him.

“I simply took your eldest son in payment for my grandmother’s eldest son.”

Hetty slapped the reins and the horse began to move forward. “And Marie’s whelp is gone! He’s run away like the coward that he is. Not surprising really, given his pedigree. Your youngest son got quite an education last night.” Her subtle laughter echoed around them as each was left wondering just what exactly that meant.

Adam wanted to chase after the buggy and tear her from the seat and make her tell the truth of the night before, but Hoss’ restraining hand on his other shoulder stopped him.

“We gotta find Little Joe and find the truth of what she done to him.”

In the space of a few short minutes, each of them had come to realise his innocence. Adam wanted to bring up his breakfast as he stared at her retreating back. Not only had he been taken for a fool, but he had fed his brother to the wolves in the process.

He shook himself as if to clear his head. “Hank brought Sport back from the corral. We start there and look for tracks. He can’t have gone too far.”

Chapter Five

Despite Adam’s assertion that Joe could not have gotten far, nobody was denying the length of time he had been gone and the clearly lathered state that Sport had been in. It was obvious with hindsight that he had ridden off in a panic and nobody was fooling themselves about what that could mean. If Joe did not want to face the accusations, as seemed apparent, then it may not be as simple as riding out and bringing him home.

Ben had no idea which of the hands had heard Angelique’s ugly words and right at that moment he didn’t care. His son’s safe return was far more important than a slur against his reputation that would soon be rectified. He quickly issued instructions for two of the men to ride with them and left the day’s work orders in Hank’s capable hands.

Adam silently cursed himself as he saddled his horse and stowed gear into the empty saddlebags. He’d been so blinded by love for a woman who clearly did not love him back, that he’d been an unwitting pawn in her games.

“We’ll find him.”

Adam turned to see Hoss coming up behind him.

“Sure we will.” He didn’t feel half as confident as he sounded and he noted the grim set of his brother’s shoulders as he checked the cinch of his own saddle. Apparently neither was Hoss.

It was a flurry of activity as more horses were saddled and extra water canteens were stowed alongside bedrolls. Hop Sing scurried back and forth with hastily packed trail rations. Finally the group was ready to ride and Ben frowned as Clay pulled his horse alongside them.

“I know we have things to talk about, but they will have to wait until we find Little Joe. You don’t know the country and will just get lost. We don’t have time to be keeping track of you just now.”

“Sorry, Sir, but I’m coming too.”

“I don’t have time to waste here and you don’t know your way. Joe needs his family, not strangers chasing after him. Now we’ll be back as soon as we find my son and we’ll discuss things then.”

“I can’t do that.”

Ben turned in the saddle and shook a fist at the new hand. “You will stay here as instructed!”

Clay held onto his saddle horn to keep his hands still. The irate man before him was intimidating, but he had to stay. “He may be your son, Mister Cartwright … but Joe is my brother … well, half brother …and I think Angelique may have come after him because of me.”

Multiple stunned faces stared at him as Clay stood his ground. “This isn’t how I planned to have this conversation, but I told you already that Jean de Marigny was my father. Well, his wife … your wife … Marie … was my mother. I came here to find my brother and I’m not going to just sit here and wait for you all to come back.”

Ben stared at the determined young man and saw a familiar set to his jaw and the squared off shoulders. He could have been looking at his youngest son. His breath caught in his throat as he slowly nodded.

“We need to find Joseph first and then we sort out everything else.”

Clay nodded in agreement as he nudged his horse forward once more. Neither Adam or Hoss had anything to say that mattered more than picking up Joe’s trail and it was Adam who charged the way towards the corral with multiple riders following in his wake.

Joe’s boot prints were clear in the dirt on the far side of the corral gate and for a time, it was easy enough to follow one unshod horse’s tracks. Hoss muttered under his breath as he realised his little brother had paid attention to his lessons after all and was heading for rocky terrain. Within an hour, the tracks had petered out and they were forced to split up.

Each of them took separate directions with an agreement to return to Hanson’s Peak by nightfall. Ben rode on with his thoughts in a swirl. He knew Marie had had a son, but the baby had died as an infant. He glanced across at the younger man riding beside him and tried to see his wife’s features along with the man who had worked for him so many years ago. There were shades of Jean there, but could he be telling the truth? And why had Marie said he died?

It was almost twelve hours later when Hoss pulled his horse in beside Sport and he slid down from the saddle. He could pick out his father’s silhouette against the fire and there was a definite smell of coffee in the air. He didn’t need to comment on his success or failure as he could soon see each of the other’s faces.

“Any sign of him?”

“No.” Adam held out a mug of coffee which Hoss took hold of before dropping down onto a nearby log.

“Where’s Josh and Gerry?”

“I sent Gerry into town and Josh back home.” Ben hurried on to explain his reasoning. “I need Roy to know what’s happened and we need to get the word out in case anybody sees Joe to tell him to come home.”

“You think he ain’t gonna do that on his own?” Hoss took a mouthful of the coffee and frowned at his father’s comment.

“I think he’s scared and he thinks we believe Angelique’s story.”

Adam hung his head as he thought back on his words to his brother. “Hardly surprising. I told him I’d kill him.”

“Now Adam, Little Joe knows you don’t mean that. Soon as he stops and thinks about it, he’ll know.”

“You didn’t see his face, Hoss. He believed me.”

Nobody spoke for the next few minutes. Finally Ben pulled some hard tack from his saddlebag and began to hand it around.

“We need to eat and we need to rest. Tomorrow, we’ll find him.”

Each of them nodded in agreement, but none of them looked convinced. Silence descended again as they each wandered off with their own thoughts.

“Why don’t you tell us about yourself?” Ben nodded towards Clay.

“Yeah, I suppose you’ve got a hundred questions.” He chewed off a chunk of jerky as he tried to think about how to start. This wasn’t at all how he’d planned things in his head on the way from New Orleans.

“Jean de Marigny was my father and from what I know of him, he ran off and left my mother to face a scandal and social blacklisting.”

“Marie was really your mother?” Adam had been studying the man’s features and it was possible, but he still wasn’t sold.

“She was. She died when I was born … or so I was told! I was raised by my adoptive parents in a poor quarter of New Orleans. My mother passed a few years ago, but my father was still alive until last year. I knew I was adopted, but never knew the truth of just who I was until one day a man turned up looking for me. He was an old friend of my real father’s and he was trying to re-establish my father’s claim to the family money. I didn’t know what he was doing, but he used me to threaten my grandmother. He tried to blackmail her.”

“I can imagine how that went down.” Ben had never forgotten his own run-in with Madame de Marigny and how she had been so cold when told of her son’s death, but so passionate when talking about his despised wife and her supposed betrayal of the family.

Clay nodded with a grim expression on his face. “Nobody threatened her and got away with it. By the time I realised his claim had more to do with self-gain and nothing to do with helping me, it was too late. I had already run afoul of Angelique and her mother. I heard a while back that her mother passed away and my dear cousin was the sole heir to the family fortune.”

Hoss didn’t miss his brother’s shudder at the mention of the woman he had almost been trapped into marrying.

“My grandmother sent some of her men to set me up. They claimed I shot a man in cold blood in a card game. I shot him alright, but it was self-defence. No judge in New Orleans was going to argue with a de Marigny witness, but they didn’t count on a federal marshall who witnessed it all too. Since they couldn’t get me in a rigged trial, they tried to kill me. They were supposed to drop me off in a swamp for the alligators to deal with.”

“What happened to stop them?”

“My father saved me. He killed three men to save my life and the alligators got their supper after all, but not before my father took a bullet in the stomach.”

Nobody spoke as Clay looked around for any sign of condemnation. When he saw none, he hurried on.

“It took him two hours to die in agony. He told me the whole story that had been buried for so long. He and my mother kept the story quiet to protect me. It seems my loving grandmother wanted me dead and somebody defied her to save me. My real mother didn’t die when I was born, but she had been told that I died from a fever. I was taken and hidden and she never knew I was still alive and I had no idea that she was. I guess they just wanted to break her and have the whole scandal just go away.”

Clay hung his head as the memories overwhelmed him. “I told my father I had to find her and he told me she had gone west with you. I decided to find her and for a time I believed I would. I searched the public records to trace her and that’s where I found your marriage listed in the register. As I got closer to Virginia City and asked questions, everyone knew of the Cartwrights. I was in Arizona when I was told my mother had died many years ago. I almost quit then and there until somebody mentioned Little Joe. I figured I had to come and at least meet him.”

Ben had been listening intently to the tale and it certainly made sense. All but one thing. “Why didn’t you just tell me who you were? Why sign up as a ranch hand?”

“I guess I wanted to see if I liked you. If I didn’t, there was no skin off my nose. And you would be none the wiser and I could just leave.”

“Fair enough.” Adam could see why a stranger with such a tale would err on the side of caution. He figured he would have done the same thing.

Joe stared at the horse as it pawed the ground and snorted in disgust in being trapped within the corral.

“Well, kid. Time to put your money where your mouth is!” Larry tried to keep a straight face as he half expected the newcomer would back down from the challenge when he saw the horse that had been selected. After all, he’d made some real big promises.

Joe licked at his lip and nodded. “Sure thing.”

“Hey, Larry, I’m not so sure about this. That’s a mighty mean lady and he’s just a kid.” Sam leaned against the corral and watched as the horse pawed the ground and clouds of dust wafted up around her hooves.

“He’s a mouthy kid who reckons he busted that big ol’ black he was riding. Time to back up his tough talk and prove it … or die trying.”

“It’s the dyin’ bit I’m worried about. How you gonna explain that to the boss when he gets back?”

Larry shrugged his shoulders, stuck both hands in his pockets and nodded towards the corral. Before he could answer, Joe had climbed up onto the back of the grey and grasped at the reins. He sucked in a sharp breath and nodded for the hands to let the gate go. The horse pranced sideways before suddenly bucking violently. Joe held on for all he was worth and vaguely heard the shouts of encouragement from across the corral.

“Stick with her, kid! You got this one.”

Joe felt his body lurch forwards and then sideways as the horse tried desperately to dislodge him. He gripped the saddle with his knees and tried to anticipate her next move. It felt like an eternity before the horse began to tire of its antics and dropped to simply kicking out at the hands who had climbed over the fence. It took another couple of minutes for her to slow down altogether and Joe pulled at the reins to walk her in a wide circle. His arms ached from the effort, but he pulled her back the other way and slowly circled the corral twice. The sweat dripped into his eyes, but he didn’t dare wipe it away. Finally he pulled the horse to a stop and slid from the saddle. A hand slapped him on the back and almost shoved him into the horse.

“Now that was a sight to see!”

“Wait ’til we tell the boss we got us a new bronc buster.”

Joe looked around the group and smiled at the comment. “You mean it?”

“Sure. That was impressive. Of course, since you’re only half the size of our usual hands, you’ll be real cheap.”

Joe swallowed down the angry retort to the comment as he desperately needed the job. It took a minute before Larry began to laugh and Joe looked around again to see all of them joining in.

“Just teasin’ you, kid. But you do need a good feed to get some meat on you. Don’t know how you managed to stay on for so long when you don’t weigh any more’n a sparrow!”

Hours later as Joe lay stretched out in the bunkhouse, listening to the sound of snores all around him, he smiled at his good fortune at turning left at the fork in the dusty road and not right. Adam had often told him he had a mouth on him, but it had paid off. He’d thought he was going to get run off when he’d started telling Larry what he could do and the trio of men had laughed at him. But then he’d climbed up on that horse and shown them exactly what he could do. He smiled at the thought of the cheers and shouts as he’d ridden her to a standstill. For the first time in days, he fell into a deep sleep and slept clear until dawn with no dreams of his brother hunting him down and shooting him square in the chest.

“Hey, kid, what’s a young’un like you doin’ out here anyway?”

“Ain’t got anywhere better to be.”

“Hmmm.” Larry moved another checker and frowned as Sam moved his piece and kinged it.

Joe was sprawled across his bunk with his legs hanging over the edge. He’d been given the tick of approval when the boss had returned and Larry had taken the kid on like some kind of pet project. He wasn’t getting very far in pulling any real details and every so often he caught the kid looking off into the distance with a real funny look on his face. A couple of times he’d hollered in his sleep, but most folks did that sometimes. Of course, the fellas all snored like they were sawing logs so Joe’s indiscretion had been pretty much ignored. Still, something about it all just gnawed at him.

“Who taught you to bust broncs the way you do?”

“My brothers.” The response seemed choked off and Larry wondered if he’d hit a nerve.

“Your brothers? Why ain’t ya still with ’em?”

“Cause they don’t want me around.”

Larry held his piece in mid air as he looked across at the bunk. Joe had pulled his legs up and curled onto his side, away from the game. Larry looked across at Sam and frowned.


“Just shut up with the questions, will ya?”

“Sorry, kid.”

Well after lights out, Larry heard the door open and the footsteps headed outside onto the porch. He fell asleep before he heard them come back inside. He had already decided that on the next day off, he was going to take the kid up to his favourite fishing hole and get the rest of the story. There were too many things that didn’t add up. Like the quality of horse and gear the kid had. And just how did someone so scrawny learn to hold a full-grown wild horse and ride it to a stop? And just what was he running from?

Chapter Six

Hetty sat and watched the town’s bumbling sheriff try again. He was no more a lawman than she was a shopkeeper and it was all she could do to keep the sneer off her face and stay civil in her conversation. The only reason she bothered at all was that he served a purpose in it all by bringing the law to bear on the situation. He had no choice really, given both women’s complaints were backed up by the good doctor’s testimony. He had indeed been called to the Ponderosa to treat the young woman’s injuries and had been shocked to learn of how they came about. Still, he had sworn an oath to do no harm to his patients and that meant he had no choice to lie about the cause. It was all part of the evidence that would be heard in open court soon enough where the whole sordid affair would come out.

That day couldn’t come soon enough for Hetty as she considered that these backwater western towns were so very uncivilised and she longed to be on the next stage and heading home for the comfort of New Orleans. But the job was incomplete and she would not sully her employer’s dying wish by leaving things unfinished. She took another sip of her tea and watched as the man twisted his hat between his fingers and waited on her reply.

“Miss Angelique is simply not up to another conversation at present. I have left her to rest in our rooms which is why I am down here in this … this … restaurant.” The disdain in her tone was clear as her hand swept around the room and Roy hoped that Clara hadn’t heard the slur. She had worked hard to establish her dining room within the hotel and the food was acknowledged as excellent by all but the fussiest of guests. Roy was struggling to keep himself calm as each time he spoke with the woman before him, she would publicly slander his friend’s family, making sure that others would overhear her comments. He knew that the town had been abuzz with gossip ever since Miss Angelique had made her outrageous claims against Little Joe. He had been forced to take a statement that he knew would be repeated in a public courtroom if the two women had their way. Of course, it didn’t help that the boy had run off and fed the rumour mill about his guilt.

“Well, could you please get the hotel manager to send for me when she is up to talkin’? I have a few more questions for her.”

“Of course, Sheriff Coffee. But I can’t say how soon that will be as she has taken a sleeping powder as her nerves have been so unsettled. You know, she had another fit of the vapours last night and we had to call for the doctor again.”

Roy knew all about it since the woman had chosen the hotel foyer to fall into a dead faint and there had been plenty of patrons around to see and gossip about the cause.

As Roy made his way back out into the street, he couldn’t see the slight flutter of a window curtain as Angelique allowed it to fall back into place. Her wretched cousin had almost stopped the plan in its tracks, but they had managed to salvage things so well that half the town had Little Joe tried and convicted simply on her say so. Why were men such fools and so vulnerable to a woman’s fluttered eyelashes and swaying hips? Angelique smiled as she turned back towards the settee and sat down to wait for Hetty’s news. It really didn’t matter why. It was just a very, very useful weapon in a world that was controlled by men.

Adam rested one foot on the hearth and stared at the empty fireplace. The whole house felt empty. They had looked everywhere anybody could think of for two weeks and there had been no sign of his brother anywhere. He hung his head as he wondered for the thousandth time how he could have been suckered so perfectly and so destructively. His father had gone over it time and again as he filled in details of the de Marigny family and tried to assure his son that he was not to blame. But Adam knew differently. No matter what else he may have butted heads with Joe over, he had known in his gut that Angelique’s accusations were so far off the mark. He’d just been blinded to the truth at the time it mattered most.

It would have been a relief if the vile woman and her accomplice had left town already, but they were determined to stay put and were doing their very best to besmirch his brother’s name in particular and the Cartwright name in general. Adam had felt the pleasure of planting his fist in a few faces along the way, but it did nothing to change the facts. Joe was missing and nobody knew where to look next.

The cattle drive to Sacramento had been put off once, but he knew it couldn’t be left indefinitely. They needed the sale of this year’s herd to go ahead or the ranch would seriously suffer down the track. Somehow, his father had rounded up enough men to make the trek, probably by paying extra wages, he figured and Hoss had left the day before to get the job done alongside their foreman and other trusted men. Hoss had objected vehemently, until Adam had intervened. He had promised he would track down their brother and bring him home if it was the last thing he did. Despite his protests, Clay had been sent along with Hoss. If Adam could do his job, there’d be more than one family reunion happening, but in the meantime, all hands were needed on the trail.

“Breakfast ready.” Hop Sing stood in front of him and Adam hadn’t even noticed his approach.

Adam headed across for the table and nodded as his father came in through the front door.

“The horses are ready to go when we are.”

He didn’t mention anything about another horse that stood in the stall and waited for his owner to come back and ride him again, but Ben had spent some time with the pinto, talking to the horse in much the same way his son used to. It brought a measure of comfort in the familiarity while simultaneously tearing at his thoughts that Joe may never do it again. He forced the bleak thought aside and made his way across to the half empty dining table.

Neither of them felt like eating the breakfast before them, but they had a long day ahead of them so they began while Hop Sing was busy in the kitchen loading supplies into saddlebags.

Larry sat with his bare feet dangling in the water and his pants rolled up to his knees. His line hung slack in the water and so far there were only two fish hanging from his wire hook. The kid was doing a little better with four on his wire. Fresh trout for supper was always a welcome way to finish a day and he smiled as Sam napped in the shade. The small section of creek was an offshoot of the main river and a favourite spot for fishing. Or sleeping. It didn’t really matter much either way.

“Hey, kid. You never did tell me why those brothers of yours don’t want you around. Seems to me you’d be a real useful fella to have around the place.”

Joe flinched at the comment and stared straight ahead to where his line hung in the water.

“It doesn’t matter why. It just is.”

Not to be deterred, Larry pushed on. “What about your folks? They must be missin’ ya by now?”

Joe kept his mouth shut and ignored the comment.

“You can’t blame a fella for wonderin’. You turn up here, out of the blue, riding one of the best horses I ever did see and she ain’t got no branding on her.”

“She’s mine! I broke her!”

Larry held up a hand to ward off the protest. “Never said you didn’t. You’re just awful young to be out on your own. That gear of yours cost good money. Same with those clothes. Just got a fella to wonderin’. That’s all.”

“Well don’t.” Joe hauled his line out of the water and began to stand up. “I earned everything I’ve got. I broke that horse after I caught her. She’s got no brand, because I don’t own a brand. I ain’t done nothin’ but work and do what you tell me to, have I?”

“True enough. You got a real hard work ethic. Somebody taught you that.”

Joe’s angry mask slipped for a moment as he sucked in a sharp breath. “Yeah, well, it weren’t enough. Now stop asking questions that I ain’t gonna answer.”

Before Larry could stop him, Joe was heading for his horse. Sam had woken from his nap with the noise of the conversation and he stood to block Joe’s path.

“Come on, kid. We’re just worried about you. Is the law after you? Is that it?”

Joe gulped at the thought. Angelique could well have filed charges by now.

“Not that I know of.”

As he climbed into the saddle and took off, Larry shook his head. “Sam, that kid is runnin’ from something and if it ain’t the law, what the hell is it?”

“Dunno. But maybe we should do some more digging and see what turns up. He said he was from Reno. Know anybody in Reno?”


“Me neither.”

Nick leaned up against the railing and watched as his hands finished up with the last of the horses. Larry was right – the kid was good. He’d been shocked when his foreman had introduced the scrawny youngster and said he had been hired to work with the horses for the ranch contracts. He’d almost laughed out loud and asked if it was April Fools’ Day. But Larry had more than proven his choice and Nick had been forced to eat his words. He watched as the kid rode a bay mare to a standstill and wondered again just where he had learned his craft. Somebody had taught him very well, but the boy remained tight-lipped about anything personal and nobody had gotten anything out of him other than he came from somewhere near Reno and he had some brothers.

He had wondered if he shouldn’t do a little digging himself and finally decided it was none of his business. Families were messy and life in the West could make for some tough choices. The kid was doing his job and earning his keep. If he chose to keep things to himself, then so be it.

That had been up until today when he’d been in town and dropped in to see the sheriff on another matter. A wanted poster sitting on his desk had caught his eye and for a moment, he’d wondered if his newest hand was wanted by the law after all.

“Mind if I take a look at that?”

Morgan shuffled the paper across to him and as he swung it right side up, he drew in a sharp breath. The face staring back at him was definitely the kid he’d employed all those weeks ago. Except his name wasn’t Joe Carson as he’d told them it was. It was Joseph Cartwright and there was a one thousand dollar reward for information about him!

“You know him?” Morgan had seen the reaction and figured his friend knew something.

“Yeah, he’s out at my ranch. But this says he’s a runaway from a family who wants him back.”

Morgan looked up at his friend. “You ever heard of the Ponderosa?”

“Who hasn’t?” Nick looked again at the written information. “You mean this kid is Ben Cartwright’s son?”

“Sure looks like it. I’d better ride out with you and identify him before wiring Virginia City.”

“Umm, that may not be a good idea. You’ll spook him and he’s likely to run again. Maybe you should just wire his family and get them here first.”

Morgan frowned at the idea. “I don’t want to be wiring information and getting them here on false pretences. You sure it’s him?”

“Absolutely! Mind if I keep this?”

Morgan nodded in agreement as he pulled out a piece of paper. “Better get that wire off right away. You just make sure you keep him there, you hear me?”

“Sure.” Nick chewed on his lip as he stared at the wanted poster. Who would have thought?

Joe had fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. As much as he might talk up his skills, it didn’t come cheap. His body was sore and he was beyond exhausted. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he recalled his father making sure he was allowed time to rest up between days like today, but this wasn’t home and the foreman wasn’t working for his father. Not that Larry didn’t keep an eye on him, but it wasn’t the same.

He had no idea how long he had slept before he jolted awake in a cold sweat. He didn’t know if he had called out, but his whole body was shaking. Joe lay still as he waited to see if he had woken anybody. Across the room, Sam was snoring at a volume that would have given Hoss a run for his money and Joe felt his heart pounding at the thought.

Finally, he decided that nobody had been woken up and he slipped down from the bunk and walked outside. The cool night air across his bare skin was refreshing and he wandered across to the trough to splash some water on his face and chest before taking a drink with the dipper. His heart still pounded under his hand and he felt the water sloshing in his stomach as if he would throw up.

It had been almost six weeks and the dream still persisted. Adam would kill him if he ever caught up to him. Joe sat on the edge of the porch and dropped his head into his hands. He’d replayed the moment over and over and none of it made any sense. Every time he did, he felt nothing but revulsion for the woman who had trapped him and aroused a response in him that made his cheeks flare with shame. How could he possibly be attracted to his brother’s girl? It was the worst kind of betrayal and he knew it. The only thing worse was his cowardly decision to run.

Chapter Seven

Hoss leaned against his saddle and swilled the last of the coffee around his mug. It had been a quiet return trip to the Ponderosa after delivering the herd of cattle to Sacramento. It had taken some fast talking from his pa to get enough men for the job and Hoss knew he’d had to make some arrangements that he wouldn’t have usually tolerated, but this wasn’t the usual way of anything. Normally, they would all get some downtime to enjoy themselves and spend some of their pay before heading for home and normally, Hoss would have been in the thick of it with his brothers and father. Instead, the three of them had set off for home the day after the contracts were signed and the money was in the bank. Hoss would have ridden home alone if need be, but was relieved that Hank had chosen to come with him. It didn’t surprise him that Clay had also left early as he had no reason to stay in Sacramento and every reason to get back. After all, he’d been angry enough that he had been expected to go along in the first place. It was Adam who had talked some sense into him when Ben couldn’t and told him that they needed to go and bring Joe home and sort the mess out before throwing him in another spin with a new brother.

Clay stared into his own mug and saw nothing but blackness in the coffee dregs. It wasn’t at all what he had hoped for as he made the trek from New Orleans and it wasn’t the first time he had wondered if he should have just left well enough alone and stayed away. If he hadn’t come, would Angelique have set out to destroy his brother and the whole Cartwright family? There was no way to know for sure what his cousin had been thinking when she had headed for Nevada, but he couldn’t shake the sense that his poorly thought out run-in months earlier with his supposed family had somehow started something that had become unstoppable. He knew enough of the de Marignys to know that Angelique was unlikely to quit until she got whatever it was she was after. That was the part that left him shaken each time he dwelled on it since he wasn’t entirely sure what that was.

“We should be back in Virginia City by nightfall tomorrow if we ride hard.”

Clay’s head jolted upright at Hank’s comment and he quickly looked across at Hoss.

“You up for that?”

It had been clear that Clay was not used to such long hours in the saddle, but he’d held his own so far without too much complaint. Of course, his bow-legged gait when he climbed down off his horse at the end of each day had given away his discomfort, but he’d stayed with them all the same.

“Sure!” Clay nodded, drawing on his best poker face.

“Let’s hope Pa ‘n’ Adam have got some news for us when we get there.”

Neither man commented on the fact there had been no much-anticipated telegraph when they reached Sacramento and no reply when Hoss had wired to say he was on the way home.

“Yeah. We need to get some sleep if we’re gonna make that ride tomorrow.” Hank slid down into his bedroll and stopped himself from looking across at Clay. He had to give the man some credit. He’d kept up with his first trail ride and done a decent job of it. Under other circumstances, they all would have been poking some fun at the greenhorn, but there had been little cause for laughter along the way and certainly none on the hurried ride for home.

As Clay eased himself into his own bedroll, he wondered if he would ever walk straight again. His whole body ached and he had bruises on bruises and aches that seemed to have permanently settled into his bones. It only took a few minutes for him to fall asleep and he could have sworn only a few more minutes had passed before he heard Hoss making coffee and throwing beans in a pot to warm through.

Katie had worked in the hotel kitchen and taking care of the guest rooms for the better part of a year and most days she enjoyed the work. Clara was a hard taskmaster with high expectations, but she was fair and worked harder than any of those she employed. It had earned her a level of respect among the hotel staff as well as the regulars, but it also meant that nobody dared to slack off. So Katie found herself with a dilemma, as she knew that Clara would be looking for her and yet she dared not move. If only she hadn’t been stupid enough to think she could slip into the room without being caught.

It was all Mitch Devlin’s fault. If he hadn’t sweet-talked her into doing some snooping, she never would have been so stupid. She’d heard all the gossip that had circled the town in a heartbeat and she had shared some of it as she stood at the sink and prepared vegetables or washed supper plates. Everybody knew who the Cartwrights were and the town seemed divided right down the middle about the accusations. There were those who said Ben had raised his boys to respect ladies and there was no way that Little Joe could have done what the beautiful stranger accused him of. Then there were those who were all too keen to pull out the long-buried, but never forgotten gossip about his mother and just what kind of wanton woman that Ben Cartwright had brought home from New Orleans. Those were the ones who were only too happy to say they had told everybody so and that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Katie found herself with a foot in both camps as she had seen for herself what a flirt Little Joe was when he was at school, but then she had never seen him cross the line. Of course, the fact that she was far too plain and too painfully shy to catch his eye meant that he had never had the chance to prove that theory wrong with her. It wasn’t for lack of wishing on her part that the handsome young man would look past her drab clothes and lank hair and see inside. She had no time or money for pretty ribbons and curling rags and her hands were rubbed raw from carrying the bulk of the chores in her home since her mother had passed. It was the reason she had left school and gone to work at just fourteen to help put food on the family’s table.

But then, Little Joe had never been cruel to her either, as others had. He had never teased her for her lack and he had never called her names. He just hadn’t paid her much mind at all. It would have been easy to ignore the words she was hearing and head back to the kitchen and just keep peeling her mountain of potatoes. It would have been smarter too. The likes of her would never be believed over the two fine ladies who sat on the balcony and sipped their tea. It would have been better if she just slipped back through the outer door of the suite and pretended she knew nothing.

But her mama had raised her better than that.

And Mitch was waiting outside the kitchen door for any news she could give him to help save his friend from a prison sentence.

Hetty sat and watched the main street as horses and carriages traipsed back and forth. Beside her, Angelique still looked pale and tired and she smiled at the girl’s ability with face powder and khol. It had proven very helpful at times and was especially helpful now to keep up the façade of the injured party. She had not missed the sympathetic looks of other women as Angelique had finally ventured out to take short walks on the boardwalk before heading back to the hotel to rest each day.

“I do hope this doesn’t take much longer.” Hetty frowned at her tea that had grown cold as she pondered the scenery.

“It is growing tiresome, I agree, but we are almost done. That stupid boy can’t have gone far and his father is rather determined to find him and bring him back. We will soon get that day in court and then we will be able to air all of Ben Cartwright’s dirty laundry, including his son’s unprovoked attack.”

Hetty smiled as she thought on how that would play out in a very public forum. She could sense the anticipation in the town of those who would love nothing more than a scandal-laden courtroom drama to wring their hands over.

“You will so enjoy being able to replay all the details for the judge. It was a most heinous attack to be certain and I am looking forward to your performance as I’m sure it will one of your finest.”

“Second only to that day in the Cartwright’s barn. Little Joe had no idea what hit him.” Angelique smiled across at her chaperone who had done so much more than publicly protect her virtue over the years. Hetty had been instrumental in teaching her how to use her feminine charms on gullible fools to gain whatever she wanted. It was often said that it was a man’s world, but beautiful young women had extraordinary power when they chose to wield it. She twisted a lock of her hair around her finger as she smiled at the memory. “The poor child thought he was a man. He looked more liked a stunned rabbit than any man I would choose to bed.”

“It’s such a pity you couldn’t get Adam across that line as it would have added so much more fuel to the fire.”

Angelique’s lips curled again into a twisted smile as she recalled how very close she had dragged the fool. “If only Clay hadn’t shown up and almost spoiled things, I’m sure I could have gotten him there. It would have been so much easier to carry out our first plan to ensnare Adam, but then, this way has been fun too.”

The conversation drifted into a lull as both women considered how easily it all could have fallen apart.

“At least this way we didn’t need to worry about paying those two witnesses to my, ahh … deflowering.” Angelique fluttered a hand across her face as if she were about to faint.

“That is true, since we never got Adam into your bed, but they have become something of a nuisance.”

Angelique shifted in her seat and frowned at the comment. “How so?”

Hetty reached a hand across to pat her hand and smiled. “Oh, don’t let it worry you, my dear. I just had one of them accost me in the street yesterday, saying he wanted his money and I told him that he had been paid all he was going to earn and if he had a problem with that, perhaps he should take it up with the sheriff.”

“He what?”

“Well what is he going to say when he files his complaint? That he didn’t get paid to be a false witness to a crime that didn’t happen?”

Angelique stood up and drew aside the window curtain and looked down into the street.

“I suppose not. But you must be careful as I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you while we were stuck here.”

Hetty felt her anger rising up as she considered the men they had paid already to appear in court. “They were well compensated already in preparation for their testimony and now they are not needed. They will soon tire of this backwater town and move on. Don’t worry about it any further.”

Katie held her breath as she eased the inner door closed between the two rooms and prayed that neither of the women had heard her. Mitch had simply asked her to snoop as she cleaned the room and she had been reluctant to do so, but when the women began to talk, she had been too scared to move away from the door. She scurried across the room and slipped out into the hallway before almost bounding down the stairs towards the kitchen. Never again would she listen to anything Mitch had to say as her heart pounded wildly in her chest.

It was all she could do to calm herself to a respectable pace lest she attract any undue attention and she was grateful that Clara was nowhere to be seen as she pulled a potato from the sack and reached for a knife to begin peeling it. She almost jumped from her own skin as she felt a hand on her arm. She whirled around with the knife in her hand as Mitch jumped backwards.

“Easy! I ain’t gonna hurt you!” Mitch raised both hands in defence as Katie dropped onto a nearby stool.

“You scared the daylights out of me!”

“Sorry. Just wanted to know if you found anything.”

Katie frowned at the boy in front of her. “Meet me at the back of the hotel after my shift. I should be done by seven and I’ll tell you then.”

“But, I …”

“Go! Before I get into any more trouble.”

Mitch reluctantly headed for the door and Katie rubbed the back of her hand across her face before looking at her fingers. They were trembling and she clenched them tighter around the knife and set to work on the potatoes.

Mitch paced the alleyway, half expecting that Katie would give him the slip after his earlier run in with her. She had seemed frightened out of her wits and he wondered what could have happened to scare her so badly. As he was about to head over to the door and knock on it, he noted it slowly open. The slip of a girl stepped out into the alley and closed the door behind her. She still looked frightened and he hurried towards her in case she ran away.

“Not here!” Katie motioned towards the far end of the alley and hurried away as Mitch was forced to scramble after her. Finally, she pushed aside the back door of the livery and waved him inside. He followed along and waited impatiently as she began to pace up and down against the length of the nearest stall.


“That is the last time I am doing anything for you or Little Joe. You hear me?”

Mitch nodded as he noted the girl’s frightened features.

“If I had been caught, I would have lost my job and Papa doesn’t earn enough. I need my job!”

“I get that. And I’m real grateful. But Little Joe could go to prison for somethin’ that I just know he didn’t do!”

Katie stopped pacing and sat down on a bale of hay. “I know that. And that’s why I said I would help.”

“So, what’s got you so rattled? What did you find out?”

Katie looked up at the young man who looked so very scared. Much like herself really. “Those two paid somebody to testify in the court, against Adam.”

“Adam? But they haven’t accused him of anything!”

Katie blushed scarlet as she thought on the conversation she had overheard. “No … but I think they were setting a trap for him. I think Miss Angelique was going to … well … you know … and then get somebody to say they saw Adam.”

“Saw Adam doin’ what?”

Katie ran her hands over her face as she tried to find the words. The two women had talked so openly about things and she had been shocked at how brazen they were and yet she couldn’t bring herself to voice the words to a boy.

“They were going to say they saw Adam in her … well … in her suite.”

Mitch frowned at the words. It wasn’t considered proper for Adam to be in his fiancée’s suite unless her chaperone was there, but then, why would ….

“Oh! You mean in her bedchamber?”

“Yes!” Katie had worked in the hotel long enough that she wasn’t entirely naïve, but describing what she had heard was embarrassing enough without having to draw it out in detail.

“She said they planned to trap Adam and since the plan changed when somebody called Clay messed things up, they just went for Little Joe instead.”

Mitch frowned at the comment as he had no idea who Clay was. “Do you think you could tell this to Sheriff Coffee?”

“No! I can’t be involved in this! I can’t testify in the court!” Katie looked horrified as she leapt to her feet and began to edge towards the door. “Nobody will believe me and I will lose my job for eavesdropping on guests.”

“Hold up! I need something that the sheriff can use to help Joe. They lied about him and we need to prove it.”

“Then get Sheriff Coffee to talk to the man who has been harassing Miss Hetty. I think he’s trying to get money from them.”

“Wait! What man?”

Before he got an answer, Katie had fled through the door and Mitch was staring at an empty stall. It was slim, but it was all he had and he reluctantly made his way across the street towards the sheriff’s office. He just hoped the man would hear him out and not dismiss him again as a boy trying to do a man’s job.

Chapter Eight

Both horses seemed to reflect the mood of their riders as they slowly trekked into town with their heads hanging low. Ben felt his despair rising again as he had lost count of how many times they had ridden out and come back empty-handed. How could his son have simply disappeared off the map? He glanced across at Adam and knew the same thoughts were wearing at him too.

“Ben! Ben Cartwright!”

Ben looked across to see Lem Watkins waving at him from across the street. As the town’s main telegrapher, he was often the bearer of bad news and Ben felt his hands clench around the reins that bit tighter. He nudged his horse across the street and Adam followed suit.

“I got a wire for ya!” Lem headed inside without waiting for them and by the time they had tethered their horses, he was back again. He handed the folded paper towards Ben and smiled at him. “It came in a few days ago, but I knew you weren’t back yet.” He pointed at the paper in Ben’s hand as he steppd back a little. ” I sure hope that’s true.”

He had sent out so many telegraphs in the first few days of Joe’s disappearance and he knew more than anybody just how far the Cartwrights had searched. He’d also sent a boy out to the Ponderosa with the wire the day it arrived and he’d returned hours later with the paper still in his pocket, saying that Ben and the boys were still away from the ranch. He didn’t have permission to give it to anybody else and since he couldn’t read it for himself, he had no thought to give it to the Chinese man who opened the door.

Ben unfolded the paper and felt Adam leaning across to read it with him.

“You think it’s really Joe?”

“Well, this sheriff seems sure it is.” Ben looked up at Lem and handed him the payment for the return wire. “Thank you. Can you tell him we are on our way tomorrow and please, can you keep this to yourself for now?”

“Sure thing.” Lem nodded as he knew full well what could happen if news got out prematurely. He’d seen the restlessness in the town since Little Joe’s disappearance and the accusations and gossip had begun to do the rounds and grow legs as it did. The fact was, he didn’t believe a word of it, but that didn’t stop some folks from taking the law into their own hands. Returning a fugitive could seem like easy money to some, especially since Miss Johnson had made it clear she would pay for justice to be done.

Lem watched as the exhausted father and son climbed back up onto equally as exhausted mounts and turned for home.

Hoss sat at the table and tried to make himself eat the good food that Hop Sing had piled up before him. The little man seemed to be trying to outdo himself with more food than the whole family could need and Hoss knew it had been bleak over recent weeks. Hop Sing’s way of showing how much he cared was always practical and he’d been deprived of the chance to take care of any of them and he seemed determined to make up for lost time since the two of them had returned.

Clay sat across from him and Hoss tried not to frown at the fact it was Joe’s chair he was sitting in. It wasn’t Clay’s fault his little brother wasn’t using it and enjoying the feast set before them. Still, it irked him anyway and he dropped his head to take a stab at his roast beef instead of saying what he wanted to.

Clay hadn’t missed the look thrown his way and he wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. He’d found the big man was pleasant enough company, given the circumstances of their time together, but he still felt himself sitting on the edges of things and it felt like a very precarious perch.

The Chinese man who had laid the table before him had muttered something about Missy Cartlight along with a few words in Chinese and held his tongue since then. Clay followed Hoss and speared a mouthful of beef onto his fork before stuffing it into his mouth. It was easier than making conversation. They had each sat with their thoughts for some time when they heard the sound of horses coming into the yard. Hoss was on his feet in seconds and pulling the front door open before Clay had even reacted. His legs screamed at him as he forced himself to stand up and he clutched at the back of the chair to steady himself. He’d been saddle sore before, but nothing even close to this time.

“Pa! Adam!”

Clay heard Hoss call out to them as he rushed out the door and he slowly followed along behind. He’d hoped there might be third name in that list, but it soon became apparent that his brother was not with them. A couple of hands had come out of the bunkhouse and were soon leading the men’s horses towards the barn as they all made their way inside. Clay stood awkwardly off to one side as the men entered the room and both Ben and Adam nodded towards him. They stripped off gunbelts and hats and Hop Sing was already busy laying extra plates and cutlery as they all sat down. It was clear that both men were exhausted and yet something seemed to say otherwise.

Ben pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to Hoss. As he scanned the words, his face broke into a broad smile.

“They found him!” He looked up at his father as he saw his own smile reflected back, albeit more restrained.

“Let’s hope so. We’ll head out tomorrow and see.”

Clay barely held himself in check at the idea of getting back on a horse the next day, but he soon found himself with no say in it.

“I assume you will want to come with us to get Joseph, but I think it would be best if you stay here.”

Adam and Hoss had stopped chewing as Ben made his pronouncement and both of them saw the look flitter across Clay’s face before he quickly pulled on a poker face. It was so different to how Joe would have reacted and they both glanced at each other. Joe’s emotions were never far from the surface and he struggled to keep them off his face at the best of times.

“We have no idea how Little Joe will react to seeing us and I want … well, I want to give you and Joe the chance to get off on the right foot once he knows your story.”

“I figured you would say that, sir. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to come!” Not that his body was going to argue with that decision, but still, it felt like a betrayal of a brother he didn’t even really know.

Clay pushed his fork into his potato and lifted it to his mouth. It effectively stopped the conversation on his part and each of them could see he was trying to hold himself in check. It was such unchartered territory and none of them knew quite what to do with it.

Hop Sing had slipped back in as they were talking and he edged up to the table.

“Hot water ready to draw bath.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing. I must say, I’m ready to clean off this trail dust.” Ben looked down at his clothes and wondered if they could just about walk on their own.

Nick knew they were coming, but he couldn’t be sure of the day when they would arrive. It was a long ride from Virginia City after all. He’d shown his foreman the wanted poster and Larry’s eyes had just about fallen out of his head. He knew there was a story behind the kid, but nothing like that one! He’d kept his word and said nothing and made sure the kid stayed around. Neither of them had any idea how he would react when his family showed up, but Larry hoped for the best. He liked Joe and wanted to keep him around, but he’d seen the sadness in his eyes and a look that spoke volumes when he thought nobody was looking. Whatever the kid was running from, he figured it was time to put a stop to it.

Joe had watched as two of the other men had been busy breaking their two horses. He’d been working the chute for them and had cheered loudly as Sam brought his horse under control. Unfortunately, Rusty hadn’t been so lucky and the big bay had thrown him clear across the corral. Larry was about to call a stop for the day when Joe had convinced him to give him another shot at the bay. After all, he was half way there and was tired from Rusty’s ride. Larry nodded in agreement and soon enough the horse was back in the chute and Joe was standing on top of the railing.

He watched as the horse pranced against the railing and he slowly eased himself down into the saddle. He wrapped his fingers around the reins and prepared himself. As he yelled for them to open the gate, he looked up to see Nick heading towards the yard with a group of riders in tow.

Joe felt his heart rate jump as he recognised the riders and the moment’s inattention was enough for the horse. The bay bucked with all he had in him and Joe was thrown sideways into the railing.

“Joseph!” Ben was down out of the saddle before his horse stopped moving and he was climbing through the railing as two of the hands grasped at the horse’s reins to pull him in. The horse reared again and barely missed his son’s inert body.

Adam was a few paces ahead of his father and gingerly lifted his brother’s body out of the dirt. He noted the blood trailing down Joe’s face and the gash across his forehead as he pushed the hair back out of the way. “Joe! Joe, can you hear me?”

The horse was pulled clear of the group and fastened tightly to the side of the corral as more men rushed in. Ben dropped to his knees and reached towards his son’s face.

“Son, open your eyes.”

The men gathered behind heard the comment and looked askance at each other.

Adam tried again and shook Joe’s arm. “Joe! Come on, Joe, I know you can hear me. Wake up.”

“Larry, get him in the wagon and back to the house. Sam, ride for the doc!” Nick pointed at the two men as he barked orders. He’d seen the whole thing unfold and kicked himself at bringing the family here instead of waiting at the house and bringing Joe to them.

Adam lifted his brother’s body into his arms and stood up as somebody came rattling up the hill with a wagon. He hesitated to place Joe in the back and let go of him, but he noted his father nodding at him. Hoss climbed up into the wagon to help and Adam could see the tears in his brother’s eyes. They had searched long and hard and surely they weren’t going to be denied the prize at the finish line.

“Easy there.” Hoss reached to push a wadded up blanket under Joe’s head and he heard a faint moan. “It’s alright, Little Joe, you’re gonna be just fine.”

Joe heard his brother’s voice and felt the touch of his hand against his cheek. The pain in his head almost pushed everything else aside, but he turned towards the touch.

“You heard me? Can you open your eyes?”

The wagon was already moving and Joe felt the sway as it rolled towards the house. His stomach protested the movement and he tried to push himself upright as he could feel himself about to throw up.

Hoss could see it coming and he rolled his brother sideways and propped him up against his arm as Joe vomited violently across the floor of the wagon.

“It’s alright, I gotcha. You’re okay now.”

Joe sagged against his brother’s broad chest and closed his eyes once more, thoroughly spent. By the time the wagon reached the house, he was out cold and had no idea as he was lifted and carried inside.

It was another hour before the doctor arrived and in that time, Joe had not woken again. They had cleaned him up as best as possible and wrapped a strip of bandaging around the head wound, but it was still bleeding sluggishly. As far as they could tell, nothing seemed to be broken, but the spectacular array of bruising down Joe’s right side meant he was going to be plenty sore when he woke up again.

Nick brought the doctor in as soon as he arrived and Ben had to wonder if all doctors learned something in medical school about shooing family out of the room as they appeared on the scene. He reluctantly followed his two sons out the door as he glanced back at his youngest.

“I’ll be out as soon as I’m done, I promise.” The doctor opened his medical bag and pulled something out as Ben shut the door behind him.

“Anybody needing coffee?”

Nick had a pot simmering on the stove and he placed mugs on the table as he waved the men towards seats. He didn’t wait for an answer before pouring the coffee and then grabbed a bottle of whiskey and poured a generous shot into each mug.

“Figured you could do with that as well.”

Ben nodded as he lifted the mug to his lips.

“How long has my son been here?”

Nick slid into a vacant chair and looked around the table at three tired, drawn faces.

“Four, maybe five weeks. He was here when I got back from a trip to Sacramento. My foreman had taken him on and convinced me he could pull his weight, despite … well, despite appearances.”

It wasn’t the first time his son had been underestimated and Ben nodded in agreement.

“Didn’t anybody wonder? I mean, his age? Anything?”

Nick scratched behind his head as he stretched back in his seat. “Well, sure. But he said he was on his own and needed a job. He proved he could do the job and he’s been a real fine worker. I didn’t have any call to doubt him and to be honest, I needed more hands.”

“My son always could talk his way into anything he set his mind on.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, just why was the boy out on his own? I mean, it’s clear he’s got a family and a home, so …”

Adam pushed up from his chair and began to pace across the small room. “That’s my fault.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is, Pa! I drove him away and never gave him a chance to explain.”

Nick looked back and forth between the men and waited to see where this was going.

“Let’s just say that Joe ran afoul of somebody with a vendetta and a lot of things got very mixed up. He got caught up in something he had no control over or understanding about. And neither did you!” Ben pointed at his eldest son and watched as Adam turned his back.

The conversation slowly drifted to more mundane things as each of them tried to fill the time. Finally, the doctor stepped into the room and sat down at the table as Nick shoved a coffee his way.

“Well?” Ben couldn’t read the man’s face as he would have if it was Paul, but he didn’t look too grim.

“The boy’s got a concussion, no doubt. It should sort itself in a few days, but he’s going to be mighty dizzy and most likely sick to his stomach too. From what Nick told me, he’s lucky it isn’t worse. Nothing is broken, but he’s got some impressive bruising coming up already. He’s going to need some of these as he’ll be mighty stiff and sore when he wakes up.”

The man handed Ben a bottle that he recognised only too well as laudanum.

“Let him sleep, but wake him every few hours or so. Give him these as he needs and let me know if he goes downhill at all.”

“Thank you, Doctor … errr …”

“Mulligan. David Mulligan.”

Ben stood and shook the man’s hand as the doctor placed his empty mug on the table and headed for the door and his next patient. Before the door had even closed behind him, the trio were already on their way to the room to check if his prognosis was as positive as it sounded.

Chapter Nine

“How’s he doing?”

Nick leaned on the corral fence and watched as Sam tried to get a saddle on one of the more ornery horses. Given the events of the day before, it seemed everyone was a little more alert and attentive to what they were doing and nobody had noticed him immediately. Larry had been on the far side and seen him approach the corral so had climbed over the fence to talk with his boss.

“He slept right through until about four this morning. He was sick as a dog when he woke up and he’s been back asleep ever since.”

Larry glanced up at the low angle of the sun and figured that was only a few hours back.

“But the doc said he’s gonna be okay, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, he did. Reckon it’ll be a while before he’s fit to travel though.”

Larry lifted his hat and rubbed at the back of his neck as he considered that. “So he’s going to go home then?”

“Why wouldn’t he? His family came all this way to get him, didn’t they?”

“Yeah … but the kid didn’t seem too happy to see them coming. I saw his face before he was thrown and … well … he looked downright scared! I’d sure hate to be sending him back to any kind of trouble.”

Nick frowned at the comment as he glanced back at the house. “They don’t seem like trouble. They seem like a real close-knit family and I think the kid just ran into something he couldn’t handle and got spooked.”

“I sure hope you’re right about that.”

“Me too, buddy. Me too!”

Joe shifted as he began to awaken and a hand on his chest pressed him into staying still. “Don’t go moving about, Son.”

He felt the glare of the open window and his eyes ached before he even opened them. Somebody must have noticed his reaction because suddenly the room grew darker as someone closed the curtains and stood between him and the window.

Finally, Joe opened his eyes and squinted around the room. His father sat beside the bed and Hoss leaned against the end railing. Joe felt the dryness of his mouth as he looked further, but there was no sign of Adam. He felt immediate relief until his brother called out into the next room.

“Adam, Joe’s awake!”

It wasn’t the first time he had been awake, but it was the first time the room hadn’t been moving like a ship at sea. Joe glanced at the door and felt himself drawing back as his older brother walked into the room. The fear must have been evident on his face, because Adam stopped in the doorway.

“I’m not here to hurt you, Joe.” Adam licked at his lip as he waited for a response. When his brother didn’t answer, he hurried on. “I came to tell you how sorry I am.”

“We all are.” Ben reached for his son’s hand. “We have a lot to talk about, but you just need to know for now that Angelique’s lies will be dealt with.”

Joe’s gaze narrowed at the comment and Adam stepped closer. “I didn’t see what you saw about her and I’m sorry for … well for all of it! I should have known you could never have done what she accused you of.”

Joe felt his face burning with shame as Angelique’s words taunted him and he turned away into the pillow. Adam didn’t know anything of what he had done!

“I’m tired.” The words were no more than a whisper and Adam withdrew towards the door. There was no reason Joe should accept his apology. Not after what he had said and done. Ben smoothed a hand across his son’s hair and smiled tightly. He had hoped for a better outcome, but it would take time to undo what had been wrought against his family.

“You just sleep now, Son.” He glanced up as Adam left the room. “We’ll talk later, when you are up to it.”

Larry watched as the eldest of Joe’s brothers wandered down to the corral and leaned up against the railing. He couldn’t see much of a resemblance between the two fellas who called themselves his older brothers. Still, he’d heard the urgency in their voices as they had tried to rouse the kid after he’d been thrown. He just couldn’t reconcile that with what Joe had told him about his brothers not wanting him around. Something wasn’t adding up and it stuck in his craw. In the time the kid had been in his bunkhouse, he’d grown on them all. If this fella dressed in black had any plans to give his kid a hard time, well, that just wasn’t gonna happen. Not if he had anything to say about it.

He stepped off the porch of the bunkhouse and sauntered down towards the corral, unsure of what kind of reception he might get. Adam barely turned as he felt the man’s presence behind him.


“Good morning.”

Larry leaned across the railing and pointed out the bay that had thrown Joe two days before. It was clear that Adam had been watching the horse and he wondered what he would say next.

“The boss threatened to shoot that one after … well, after what happened. You know what stopped him?”

Adam didn’t answer, but Larry continued on anyway. “He said the kid wouldn’t want him to.”

“No. Joe couldn’t bear to see a horse put down, especially on his account.”

The soft-spoken answer belied emotion that sat just under the surface and Larry chewed at his lip as he considered what to say next.

“Never did see such a scrawny kid that could hold a full grown horse.”

Adam barely smiled at the comment. “Don’t let Joe hear you call him that. He’s a man.” The smile slid away as Adam looked at his hands. “He’s more of a man than I am.”

When Larry didn’t answer, Adam turned to leave. Uncertain of whether he was risking a fist in his jaw or something else, Larry grasped at his arm.

“Somebody raised that kid good. I’m bettin’ you all had a hand in that.”

Larry dropped his hand to his side and waited. Adam seemed torn between leaving and saying something.

“Is it true you didn’t want him around?”

“Joe told you that?” Adam looked stricken at the question and Larry knew he’d hit a nerve.

“Sorta. He didn’t say much at all. Played it pretty close to the chest. Still, it didn’t sit right with none of us.”

“I told him I’d kill him. Did he tell you that bit?”

“Nope.” But it sure explained a few things. “I guess all brothers say things when they get riled.”

“I meant it. I thought that …” Adam scrubbed a hand across his face and frowned at the foreman. “Doesn’t matter what I thought. I was dead wrong. About everything.”

“Then tell him. He’s a smart kid.”

Adam nodded as he looked at the older man in front of him.

“He got under your skin, didn’t he?”

Larry grinned at the comment. “Oh yeah. The fellas will happily adopt him if you wanta leave him here.”

Adam smiled in spite of himself. It wasn’t the first time.

“I just hope he wants to come home and isn’t looking for a new family.”

Hoss sat with his feet propped up on the blanket box by the window and allowed himself to close his eyes. The sun streaming through the window was warm and the air was still. He felt himself beginning to nod off when he heard a soft moan from beside him. His eyes flew open and he shot forward in the chair, ready to grab at the enamel bowl if it was going to be needed.

Instead, Little Joe lay still against the pillow and gingerly touched the side of his head.

“You’d best leave that alone for a bit. It’s gonna hurt for a while yet.”

Joe frowned as his hand dropped to the blanket and he glanced around the room.

“Pa’s outside with Nick and Adam’s gone … well, he’s gone to check on the horses.” The truth was, Hoss wasn’t sure where Adam was, but he’d been reluctant to stay around as each time he’d woken up, Joe had pretty much ignored him.

Joe closed his eyes again and turned his head away.

“You know, Adam’s tryin’ awful hard to make you understand he’s sorry about what happened.”

Joe felt the bile rising up his throat as he tried to contain it. He pushed himself up from the bed and grasped at the enamel bowl as Hoss thrust it under his chin. By the time he was done and Hoss had cleaned up his face, he sagged back against the pillow and closed his eyes again. He didn’t see his brother’s face or his father’s as he slid back into a troubled sleep.

“He’s still being sick? I thought that might have eased up by now.”

Hoss stood up and carried the bowl with its contents towards the door and his father slid into the seat he had vacated.

“I hoped so too, but you know Little Joe. He don’t do nothin’ by halves.”

It was meant to be a joke at his brother’s expense, but it fell flat as Hoss saw his father’s face crease into a frown.

“Sorry, Pa. I didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“I know, Son. I just want to take him home and we can’t begin to plan that until Joe is feeling better.”

Nick sat on the porch and watched the sun setting over the hills. The air was still and warm and he could hear the crickets starting up their nightly orchestra. Even so, the house felt empty and silent with his guests heading out for home that morning. He swirled the dregs of his coffee in his mug and tossed the grounds over the railing into the dirt. He stayed seated, even as the light dropped away. He could hear the sounds of men moving about in the bunkhouse and he knew what tonight’s topic of conversation would be. The kid had left a mark on them all and he was going to be sorely missed. Not least for the fact he’d helped get that army contract filled ahead of schedule!

Ben Cartwright struck him as an honourable man and a loving father who was beyond grateful to have his son restored to him. The two brothers had proven how much it meant to them to have their wayward brother back and yet he couldn’t shake the sense that something was still not right. The kid had been declared fit to travel by Dave two days before so it wasn’t that. There was something in the way he avoided eye contact with his oldest brother. Something was still chewing at the kid and Nick felt uneasy about it. Still, it was none of his business and they had left that morning for home.

By the time the sun was setting, Ben had already pulled the wagon to a stop and a makeshift camp had been set up for the night. Joe had still looked peaked despite the doctor’s assurances and he wondered if it wasn’t something still weighing on the boy’s mind, more so than anything physical. He’d seen his son avoid his brother for days and he was at a loss as to how to restore things between them.

Adam had been trying for days to figure how to broach the subject without pushing Joe further away. It wasn’t like he hadn’t done enough damage already. Finally, the chance came when he least expected it. He thought Joe was sleeping in the back of the wagon until he heard the creak of timber and soft footsteps heading towards the fire. His father and brother were sound asleep by the fire, but Adam had been awake for hours. He waited until Joe nudged the coffee pot into the coals before speaking.

“Can’t sleep either, huh?”

Joe jumped at the sound of his voice before he slowly eased back down to crouch by the fire.


Adam sat up and shrugged himself out of his bedroll. “Joe, I know you don’t want to talk to me and you have every right to be mad at me, but you really need to understand something. I don’t blame you for anything that happened. I should have seen it and not been so stupid. I’m sorry I ever let her near you. Or any of us for that matter.”

When Joe didn’t answer, Adam tried again. “You did nothing wrong!”

“That’s not true.” Joe felt the lump of shame that settled in his gut and he stared at his brother, stricken by what he knew he had done.

“What do you mean?” Adam pulled himself out of his bedroll and moved over to crouch by his brother.

“When she … when Angelique … did what she did … she said that I enjoyed it. She said that … Adam … she said that I wanted her too … and she kissed me and I kissed her back!” Joe buried his face in his hands as a wave of condemnation settled over him. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder and he looked up to see Adam watching him. “How could I do that to my own brother? I’m sorry. I never meant …”

“She was a liar. She set you up and used your youth and inexperience against you. She suckered me and I should have known better, but she used every charm in the book against all of us.” Adam felt his own gut churning at the memory of wandering hands and teasing comments that had seemed so enjoyable at the time.

“But, I …”

“But, nothing! Joe, you did nothing wrong. Being attracted and having a physical reaction to somebody who is attractive and trying to seduce you is not your fault. You didn’t pursue her and you sure as hell didn’t attack her as she claimed.”

Joe felt himself shaking as he took in the words. Adam reached for the coffee pot and shifted it out of the fire before pouring them both a mug.

“And when we get back, we’ll make sure she can’t take this any further.”

“But, she can still press charges. She can say … she can … ” Joe looked up to see his brother watching him intently. “I don’t want to go to prison! Nobody will believe me that I didn’t attack her! I made it pretty clear I didn’t like her and you ….” Joe gulped as he watched his brother’s face.

“We aren’t going to let that happen. Joe, I’ve said this already and I’ll say it again as many times as you need me to, I’m sorry I didn’t believe you, but I do now and we’ll make sure everybody else does too.”

Adam was fairly certain nobody had told Joe about the charges already laid and the rumours running amok in Virginia City, but there was no point in worrying him any further until they had to. The boy still looked like he wanted to run again and Adam was determined to get him home in one piece.

Joe looked at him with confusion clearly written across his face. “Why?”

“Because you’re my brother.”

“No.” Joe shook his head. ” I mean, I can’t figure out why she did this. I’ve been tryin’ ever since I left, but I can’t work it out. She said she loved you and wanted to marry you. Why would she do this?”

“She said a lot of things that weren’t true.” Adam swilled the last of his coffee before drinking it down. “There’s a long story to why she did this and it has nothing to do with anything you have ever done, but right now, I think we need to sleep.”

“But …”

Adam held up a hand to forestall the argument.

“I promise, tomorrow we will fill you in on all of it.”

Joe stared at him, trying to gauge his brother’s sincerity and whether or not he was just being fobbed off.

Adam reached a hand to squeeze his shoulder again. “I promise you. Now, how about you and I get some sleep so we can stay upright tomorrow?”

“Sure.” Joe reluctantly nodded as he knew he could barely keep his eyes open anyway.

Ben dared not move as he heard his son climb back into the wagon. At last, Adam had hit the crux of Joe’s lingering problem and he prayed that finally, he could start to heal from the whole ordeal. Of course, there was still the matter of what was awaiting his son once they arrived back in Virginia City. A prison sentence wasn’t out of the question if Angelique played her hand right. It was a long time before he could make himself close his eyes and allow sleep to come.

Chapter Ten

“What do you think you are doing, boy?”

Mitch jumped sideways and twisted back to see his irate father standing there, hands on hips and a frown creasing his face.

“Umm … nothin’!”

“Really? Then why aren’t you up at the mercantile loading the wagon like you’re supposed to be? Lately you never seem to be where you’re meant to be!”

Mitch swallowed the lump in his throat and chanced a look back down the alley only to see the man disappear around a corner of the building.

“Darn it!”

“What?” His father’s frown was growing darker by the minute and he knew he was in trouble. But Joe was in more trouble.

“Pa … I need your help.”

“What kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into now?”

“None!” Mitch held up both hands, protesting his innocence. He hurried on before his father could speak again. “But you know what’s been said about Little Joe and, well, Pa, you know it just ain’t true!”

Charlie looked at his boy afresh and wondered what was coming next. Whenever the Cartwright boy was in trouble, sure enough, his Mitch would be tied up in it somehow too. He’d heard the ugly gossip and prayed his son had nothing to do with any of it.

“Reckon I do know that. Ben raised his boys better’n that.” Charlie crossed his arms over his chest, suspecting that he wasn’t going to like what he would hear next.

“Pa, I found out some things last week that will help Little Joe prove he’s innocent.”

“Last week? Then why didn’t you tell the sheriff? Or me? Or your ma?”

Mitch shook his head in frustration. If only it were that simple.

Less than twenty minutes later, the boy found himself seated across from Sheriff Coffee with his father sitting beside him.

Roy was writing notes on a piece of paper and every so often he would look up and ask a question. He hadn’t believed a word of the accusations, but he had a duty to be impartial and investigate, especially for such a heinous charge as an attempted rape. He’d felt sick as he wrote down the details as outlined by the victim and he knew that there was simply no way Little Joe had done what she accused him of. Oh, the boy was a flirt, no doubt about it. And he knew the effect he had on the girls as he walked past and winked at them, but there was no way Roy could bring himself to believe he would ever willingly hurt a lady. Certainly not in the way that Miss Johnson had said he had. Still, Paul had backed her claim with a measure of medical evidence and he knew his friend would be hard-pressed to appear in court and state what he knew.

“So this girl … has she got a name yet?”

Mitch looked up at his father and swallowed hard. “No. She won’t testify. She’ll lose her job at the hotel and I can’t do that to her!”

Roy leaned back in his chair and dropped the pencil onto the desk. He had a fair idea already who the boy was talking about, and he could see why she would be reluctant to speak up. Still, without somebody willing to sit on a witness stand, the information didn’t amount to enough to do anything of use.

“Son, you do know what Little Joe is facing if he’s found guilty?”

Mitch felt his throat close over as he tried to swallow down his fear. “I got a fair idea.”

“Five years in the territorial prison.”

“But he didn’t do anything!” Mitch pushed away from the desk and began pacing across the floor. “I know he didn’t!”

Charlie stood up and grasped at his son’s arm. “We know that too.” He swivelled back to stare at the sheriff. “Don’t we, Roy?”

“What I know in my gut and what I can prove in a court is two very different things and you know it!”

Roy watched as the boy sagged against the wall. “You need to get this girl to come and see me. Maybe I can keep her off the stand.”

It was a long shot and he knew it, but it was all he had. If the girl refused to speak then he couldn’t force her to.

“What about the men I told you about? She said they were trying to blackmail Miss Smith. I saw her talking to somebody out the back of the hotel just before and she looked real angry and uppity.”

“What’s this fella look like?”

“Tall, kinda lanky lookin’. Didn’t see much of him except he’s got a scar across the side of his cheek that runs into his beard, about here.” Mitch drew a line across his own left cheek as he recalled the man.

“Reckon you’d recognise him if you saw him again?”


“Good, ’cause you can expect to be sayin’ that on a witness stand.”

Charlie patted his boy on the shoulder and nodded. “If that’s what he needs to do, he’ll be there, Roy.”

An hour after the Devlins had left his office and headed for home, Roy decided he fancied a meal at the hotel and he slipped his hat on his head and tucked his keys in his pocket before he set off across the road.

Little Joe slumped against the bedrolls stashed in the back of the wagon and tried to pull his thoughts together. He’d known some of his mother’s past had been less than savoury, but he was just beginning to realise how sanitised and edited his version had been. New Orleans had always been a place of mystery and adventure to him and he had often expressed a wish to go there someday. Now, he couldn’t think of any place he wanted to be less.

“Joseph, are you all right?”

Joe felt his father’s hand on his arm and he looked up to see the man staring at him.


“You seemed miles away.”

“I knew that Mama was married to Jean, but why didn’t I ever know they had a child?”

Ben took a breath, knowing it was something he had struggled with himself. Marie had told him, of course, but she had buried that grief down deep and refused to give it air.

“Your mother grieved deeply for her son and she believed he was lost to her as a baby. She didn’t ever want that grief to taint her love for you.”

“I don’t understand. I mean, you talk enough about having grandchildren one day and everybody I know is real happy when they do, so why wouldn’t the de Marigny’s want their grandson?”

“Joseph …” Ben found himself struggling for an answer. How any family could have rejected Marie was beyond him, but the child was a whole other issue. “I can’t explain why, other than to say that sometimes people have a very warped idea of what matters most. To them, they placed a great deal of value on their position and reputation and … well … your mother just didn’t fit their expectations. So no son of hers would ever be good enough either.”

“Their loss.” Hoss slapped his hand along the side of the wagon and tried to hold in his anger. Little Joe didn’t yet know that the family had tried to kill his half-brother in order to save their good name.

“So why would Angelique come all this way to cause trouble now?”

“I’m only guessing, but I think from what Clay told us, he inadvertently stirred up some trouble and brought things to the surface again. It seems that Angelique was the sole heir to the family fortune and name. I guess she aims to protect it.”

Joe frowned at his father’s words. “Protect it? From me?”

It seemed so ridiculous that he could possibly matter to her.

“I don’t know. None of this makes much sense. But Clay seems to think he somehow caused this. He got used by somebody trying to stake a claim on the family money and ran afoul of Angelique and her grandmother. He thinks it is all tied in together, but I don’t know for sure.”

“What’s he like?”

“Clay?” Ben debated how to answer that. They had so little time with him to make any kind of assessment, but he was stubborn and had shown courage to make his way to Nevada. He had also defied the same family that Ben had found himself up against all those years ago.


“We haven’t had a lot of time to get to know him. But he wants to get to know you.” Adam looked at his youngest brother and watched as he tried to smile.

“What if I like him more than you?”

It was supposed to be a joke and Adam knew that, but something in the barb still sunk in. It was a thought that had surfaced several times, given recent events between him and Joe. He had quickly squashed it, but he noted Hoss looking his way and frowning. Maybe he wasn’t the only one who had his doubts.

Ben could sense the tension and he tried to defuse it with a joke of his own. “Then we’ll have to send him packing!”

Joe smiled before turning serious once more. “Are you gonna let him stay?”

“I already have. I believe he is Marie’s son and that makes him family. It will take some adjusting for all of us, but I believe your mother would have wanted him with us.”

Joe nodded as he tried to stifle a yawn. The lack of sleep the night before was catching up and his father smiled at him before climbing out of the wagon.

“You get some rest, young man and we will get us on the road for home.”

Joe reached for his father’s arm as he walked along the side of the wagon. “Pa. Thank you. For telling me.”

Ben nodded at him, knowing full well there was a lot more that still needed to be discussed. So far, his son had avoided mention of what awaited him when he got home. He wasn’t about to open that can of worms if he didn’t need to and he climbed up into the driver’s seat.

Clay was beginning to wish he had just told the truth and not signed up for a cowpoke’s job. It wasn’t as if he couldn’t do the work, but he was always a pace behind the others and having to ask what he had to do next while they all just seemed to know. Hank had rolled his eyes more than once at his inexperience and he’d earned a few wise cracks from other hands as he used a wrong knot or let an ornery calf give him the slip.

None of the hands had said much of anything about his confrontation with Miss High and Mighty Angelique; at least not to his face. There had been plenty of speculation behind his back and more than once he’d walked into a conversation that had suddenly gone very quiet. It was impossible to ignore the gossip in town and Angelique had done a decent job of planting doubt in enough minds about Joe’s integrity. Innocent people didn’t run away.

It felt strange to have somebody in the mainhouse who might just be family to the boss while the rest of the family had all but disappeared. Clay edged around the men and tried not to rattle any cages while he waited impatiently for Ben to bring his brother home.


It was such a foreign thought and one that he still struggled to come to terms with. He had no idea how Little Joe was going to react to the news. After all that Angelique had done, he couldn’t blame him if he wanted nothing to do with anybody from New Orleans ever again. Still, he ached to know about his mother and the half-brother he had never known existed. He’d been denied the truth for so long and the pieces of the puzzle were just that – pieces. He felt like his life was a patchwork of lies and half-truths and he needed to get them clear in his head.

He sat alone on the edge of the porch outside the bunkhouse and drained the last of his coffee from the mug. The other hands had gone into town, but he was in no mood for a Friday night at the saloon. The miners had made it known they had a beef with the cowhands and the ranching men had stood toe to toe with enough miners that Roy Coffee was running out of bunks in his jail.

It wasn’t as if he didn’t like a round of poker or two and he was pretty good at it. His father had joked that he could make a living at it and it was something he’d considered. Still, that murder charge in New Orleans had left him rattled and wary of getting into anything again. The swamps of New Orleans were no place to die and he figured there were equally dubious ways to deal with dead bodies here in the West. Maybe not as efficient, but dead was still dead.

Maybe he’d head on down to Mexico and see if all the stories were true about how pretty the senoritas were. He’d gotten a taste for pulque in New Orleans, precisely because it was looked down upon as a peasant’s drink. He had no wish to join the high falutin’ society folks his cousin circulated with where they sipped champagne and ate those stupid fiddly things that were no more than a bite. No wonder the women were so darn scrawny. They all needed a decent feed!

Clay closed his eyes as his memory drew him back to the smells of his home and the food that was peculiar to the south. He could feel his tongue starting to tingle as he thought on his mother’s gumbo and a hundred other things he would probably never eat again. There was no going back while ever the de Marignys held power. Angelique would have him hunted down and drawn into an unwinnable duel in a heartbeat. Yes, if he couldn’t stay in Virginia City, Mexico was looking better and better all the time.

Finally, he had enough of sitting in the dark and he was about to call it an early night when he heard somebody coming up the road behind the bunkhouse. Maybe one of the men had gotten himself into trouble and they’d all been turfed out as the sheriff had threatened. He’d take bets on it being Steve if it was anybody and he chuckled to himself as he thought how the lanky lad always seemed to find trouble.

Moments later, a wagon and several riders pulled into the yard and he realised who it was. He stepped off the porch and was about to make himself known when the front door flung open and Hop Sing came rushing out.

“You bring home Little Joe?”

“Yes, Hop Sing, we brought him home.”

Clay could hear the affection in the question and he stopped where he was and waited. He had no business butting in on this reunion. He watched as his brother was helped out from the back of the wagon and he was flanked by his older brothers as he entered the house. In the darkness, he couldn’t see how, but it was clear that Joe was injured. He wanted to see for himself, but he pulled himself back into the shadows of the bunkhouse. Finally the front door closed, leaving Clay alone in the yard. He looked at the weary horses and figured he could at least help get them unsaddled and brushed down so he walked across to get the first one.

Some time later, as he was getting onto his third horse, Clay heard footsteps behind him and he turned to see Adam and Hoss coming his way.

“I figured the horses needed to be put up for the night.”

Hoss clapped him on the shoulder as he led the wagon horse into the barn.

“Thanks. We just needed to get Little Joe settled and we was comin’ to do this.”

“He’s injured, isn’t he?”

“Yeah. He took a pretty bad spill off a bronc he was on, but he’ll be fine. Just needs a few more days of rest.”

Clay kept brushing the horse and tried to decide how he felt about that.

“He wants to see you, but we figured you’d be in town with the hands tonight.”

Adam had busied himself putting way the tack, but he watched closely as to how Clay responded to that.

“He knows? About me?”

“Yeah. We filled him in on the way home. He wants to talk to you.”

“No time like the present.” Adam pointed towards the house and waited to see if Clay would take up the offer. He wasn’t surprised at the hesitant reaction and he tried again.

“Pa believes you and so do we. No reason Joe won’t as well.”

Clay looked up at the two brothers who were like day and night. Half brothers could well be different and yet be on the same page when it mattered. He sucked in a breath and straightened his shoulders. Why did he feel like he was about to face a courtroom?


Soon enough, Clay found himself settled in a chair across from where his brother lay stretched out on the couch. His brother. He had no idea if Joe even wanted him for a brother, but Mexico would still be there if he didn’t.

Ben had retreated to the hearth but was watching his son like a hawk. He knew that Adam and Hoss would choose to wait outside and allow their brother some measure of privacy as he faced an unknown scenario, but he was not going to leave the boy to manage on his own. Joe had faced enough in recent weeks on his own and his father felt the weight of responsibility settle over him as choices made so many years ago had risen up to hurt his innocent son in more ways than one.

Joe watched Clay intently and Clay wondered if he was being evaluated up against his two other brothers. Joe had a deep bruise stretching down the side of his cheek and back up into his hairline. The swollen skin and stitches told a story of their own and Joe looked tired, but his gaze never wavered.

“Surprise!” Clay waited for a response and was relieved when Joe smiled.

“Sure was.”

“I never knew, Joe. I never knew any of it until recently. They lied to me and they lied to our mother.” Clay’s hands twisted together as he had thought many times about how different life would have been had she known he was alive.

“Mama would never have given you up. She would have found you, if she knew.” Joe edged up against the back of the seat and leaned forward as if to emphasise his words.

“Your father already told me the same thing.” He looked across at Ben who simply nodded in agreement. “Still, I can’t change what happened.”

“Why did you come here?”

Clay looked again at his brother’s battered face.

“To meet you.”

“Some first impression!”

Clay grinned at the look on Joe’s face.

“Not one to forget. Still, I got the impression that our mother was a pretty feisty woman, so I can see where you get it from.”

Joe laughed outright at that one. “Yeah, any time I cross the line with Pa, he reminds me that I am my mother’s son!”

Ben chuckled at the honest remark. There were times he despaired at his son’s antics and yet he could so easily see his wife in him, especially when he tried to charm his way out of a situation. It was a part of his son that had contributed to many of his grey hairs and yet he wouldn’t change a thing about the boy.

Joe’s grin quickly faded as he noted Clay’s reaction. “I’m real sorry for what you missed out on. But I guess we’ve got all the time in the world to make up for it. You are gonna stay, aren’t you?”

Clay nodded as he looked again between the young man he had come to call brother and the man who had chosen to give him a chance.

“Yeah. I’m gonna stay.” He barely stopped himself from adding, for now.

Later that night as Clay lay under a handmade quilt in a bed that was softer than anything he’d ever slept in, he stared at the window and watched the moonlight dance across the curtains as they fluttered lightly. Sleep had eluded him for hours as his thoughts went off on trails of their own.

For some reason that he couldn’t explain, he still felt the pull of Mexico. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to keep his word to Little Joe, but he just didn’t know if he fit in this strange new world.

Only time would tell.

Chapter Eleven

Ben sat ramrod straight in the chair and tried to find the words he needed. Behind him, he could hear the beat of his son’s boots on the floor as Adam paced back and forth. It was a sign of how tightly wound he was that he had been unable to sit still. Across the desk, Hiram sat with his elbows on the desk and his hands steepled together with his face carefully schooled into a neutral mask. The lawyer had just finished outlaying his plan of defence and Ben had noted it basically boiled down to the family’s reputation against the words of a stranger in town. A very beautiful stranger who had been afforded weeks to stir up sympathy from townsfolk who thrived on gossip. It seemed that every petty slight against his family had been dragged out to be re-examined in the light of this new evidence. He knew that both of his older sons had planted a fist into several jaws in recent days, but it did nothing to exonerate his youngest son. He clenched his own fist and wrapped the other hand around it to keep it steady.

“Pa, you ain’t gonna let her do this to Little Joe, are you?”

Ben looked up to see Hoss staring at him. His son’s distress was clearly written across his face and he wished he could say something to erase it.

“Hoss, we can’t just ignore formal charges. No matter how ridiculous they are.”

“Ben, it’s only a matter of time before Roy heads out to see the boy. He’s been trying to keep a lid on things here in town, while you’ve all been gone, but he has to follow the law.”

“I know.” Ben rubbed a hand across his jaw as he noted Hoss shaking his head in frustration. “Roy has a job to do to uphold the law.”

“And we just need to make sure the law is actually upheld!” Adam had stopped pacing and had swept aside the window curtains. He pointed a finger out towards the street and barely contained a growl of anger. “They want blood! Like this is some kind of entertainment to them.”

Ben stood up and followed his son across the room. He could see the people of Virginia City going about their day as if nothing mattered. The same people who were taking wagers on how long his son would spend in prison! The same people who couldn’t wait to see the downfall of a Cartwright and hadn’t stopped to consider that his son was barely gone sixteen. He could feel his eldest son’s anger and understood it very well. He shared it, but he could not afford to give it voice. He needed to listen to the only man who could save his son.

“I’ve heard the slurs as well, Adam, but we need to fight this the right way.” He raised a hand and placed it on his son’s shoulder. “Little Joe isn’t going anywhere.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it.”

Ben turned back to see Hiram watching him intently. He nodded at the man who held the cards he desperately needed to be aces.

“All right. We need to get working on our strategy as soon as we can. I need to speak with Little Joe and begin to go through his testimony with him.”

“He’ll be ready when you get there. He isn’t up to riding yet anyway, but I’ve told him that he needs to stay on the Ponderosa until the trial.”

“That’s a wise idea, Ben. It wouldn’t do to have him in town at the moment. There is some ugly sentiment doing the rounds after he … well, after he ran. There are those that think that is proof of his guilt and you know how the gossipmongers work around Virginia City.”

“Only too well.”

“As to the rest of you, I would suggest you all stay out of town unless absolutely necessary.”

Ben paced back across to stand in front of the man’s desk. He planted his hands on his hips and shook his head as if pondering why.

“Hiram, there is no need for …”

The lawyer held up a hand to forestall the rest of the argument. “Ben, all three of you are spoiling for a fight and that’s the last thing Little Joe needs right now.”

“But …”

“But, nothing!” Hiram pushed up from his chair and squared up to his client and friend. “Ben, I know that all of you want to vindicate him. And stop this nonsense. But that needs to happen the legal way and not settled with fists.” He looked across to see Hoss glaring at him while trying to hold himself in check. “As much as I understand the sentiment, I’m asking you to trust me and do things my way.”

An hour later, the trio found themselves the object of curiosity as they rode along the main street towards home. There were those who had greeted them as usual, but there were also those who had eyed them with suspicion as they rode into town earlier in the day. It had not escaped Ben’s attention when a mother had drawn her daughter to the far side as they had approached each other on the boardwalk. It seemed that while they had been absent, in search of his son, Angelique had done a very thorough job of destroying his son’s reputation. In some petty minds, that cast doubt on the whole family.

Cochise’s flanks were lathered with sweat and his breath was coming in great heaving bursts and still they gained on him. He’d tried bolting into a deep gully in the hopes of throwing them off his trail, but they were too fast. There were also too many of them. He’d counted only three when they had first fired on him, but now there were at least twenty and more were coming. He couldn’t see them, but he knew, deep in his gut that there were more. He dared chance a backwards glance and could see Adam’s horse galloping across the packed ground behind him. He could feel the ground beneath him giving way to sand and Cochise stumbled in the loose soil. He grasped at the reins in a vain effort to keep the horse’s footing, but he knew it wasn’t going to be enough. Even as he felt himself being flung from the saddle, he could hear Adam’s triumphant shout behind him. The sand closed in around him and pulled him under.

“Joe! Wake up.”

The hand against his shoulder was pushed aside as he sat bolt upright.

“Easy there.”

Joe stared at the face in front of him as he scrubbed a hand across his jaw, trying to still both from trembling. The inside of his mouth felt like leather as he tried to swallow down the fear.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” Joe swung his legs over the side of the couch and tried to stand up. The flush of embarrassment crept up his neck and he could feel his ears beginning to burn. Of all people to witness his humiliation, why did it have to be the only brother who didn’t know about his weakness?

“That was some kinda dream!”

Joe headed for the fireplace and leaned up against the cold hearth. He could feel his knees threatening to fail on him and he locked himself against the stonework, as if he could draw strength from it.

When Joe didn’t answer him, Clay tried again. “I had a few of those after my father was murdered. Always left a real sour taste in my mouth.”

Joe looked up to see understanding rather than the ridicule he had expected on his brother’s face. Nightmares never seemed to plague anyone else in the family in the way they had stalked him and it felt strange to have somebody empathise.


Hop Sing had appeared from nowhere and stepped forward with a cup of something and pushed it into Joe’s hands.

“Drink. Make better.”

He didn’t have to ask what it was as he lifted it to his lips. Hop Sing always had tea brewing and it only took a moment to add whatever he felt was necessary to cure whatever ailment it was needed for. Joe knew this one would taste a little bitter, but it was masked with honey. He allowed himself a moment to savour the smell before lifting the cup and draining it. Somehow, he managed a small smile for Hop Sing as he handed the cup back.


As he headed back towards the kitchen, Clay walked around the table and pointed at the door.

“How about you take me for a ride and show me some more of this place?”

“Pa said I had to stay put!” The edge of bitterness in the comment wasn’t lost on his brother and Clay tried again.

“On the Ponderosa. That’s a pretty big place from what I’ve been told.”

Joe looked up to see the glint of mischief in his brother’s smile and found himself laughing. “We really are brothers! That sounds like something I would say.”

“Well, brother, what are we waiting for?”

The two of them were headed towards the door to gather their hats when they heard the sound of horses in the yard. As Joe pulled the door open, he saw not only his father and brothers, but Roy Coffee climbing down from his horse. He held onto the door and managed to keep it open, when what he really wanted to do was slam it shut.

Ben smiled as he made his way towards the door, but Joe could see past it. It wasn’t his father’s usual broad smile. It was forced and they both knew it.

“Son, it’s alright. Roy is just here to do what has to be done. We’ve seen Hiram this morning and all of this is going to be sorted out.”

Joe stared at him and barely managed to nod, but he could not make himself voice any kind of agreement. Instead, he turned away as the sheriff entered the room and he found himself struggling to keep himself in check.

Hoss had kept quiet most of the way home, mostly because he couldn’t think of anything to say that would change the nightmare that had descended on his family. He walked over beside his younger brother and squeezed his shoulder.

“Ain’t nothin’ bad gonna come of this. I promise!”

Joe heard the waver in his brother’s quiet words and that gave him a moment’s pause, but he slowly turned around to face the man who held his fate in his hands.

“Little Joe, I’m real sorry to be the one tellin’ you this, but I figure you already know that a charge has been laid. I tried real hard to make ’em think again, but, well, Miss Angelique was real determined and wouldn’t be swayed. She’s within her rights to press charges and have them heard before a judge.”

Joe stared back as he felt Hoss’s hand squeeze his shoulder again.

“Now, I ain’t takin’ you into custody, since your pa here said he’d see to it that you show up when the judge gets here. But it’s my solemn duty to tell you that that an attempted rape charge has been laid against you.”

Joe felt the colour drain from his face. He’d known it was coming, but somehow, in some small corner of his mind, he had allowed himself to believe it wouldn’t. Suddenly the quicksand he’d dreamed of earlier seemed like a preferable fate to the prison sentence such a charge brought with it.

Roy swallowed hard as he stepped forward and wasn’t surprised when Joe flinched back. “Son, I don’t believe a word of it. But I gotta do this and see it through. Your pa has got a good man defending you and you are gonna be just fine.”


“Judge Kennett should be here by Friday. This’ll be over before you know it.”

“Thanks, Roy.” Ben held the door open as the sheriff turned to leave. He felt sick to his stomach with the blow he had just delivered to the family and he prayed that his words were true. By Friday afternoon, this whole sham should be exposed for what it was. If he could just get young Katie to testify in court.

Adam had said nothing as the sheriff explained the situation and he found himself unable to find anything of comfort. No matter how many times his father may say otherwise, he had brought this upon his family and his brother could well pay the price for his own blind stupidity. He watched as Hoss grasped Joe by both shoulders and forced the boy to look at him.

“Ain’t nothin’ and nobody gonna believe what that little minx has to say in court. You ain’t goin’ nowhere, little brother. You hear me?”

“Hoss is right. Hiram will see to that.”

Joe managed to extricate himself from his brother’s grasp and headed towards the door.

“Where are you going?” Ben stepped into the space between his son and the door.

“This is all a mistake. She can’t mean it. She can’t!”

Ben felt his gut twist at the anguish in his son’s voice. Better than anyone, he knew just what drove the young woman as he’d seen it before. He just didn’t know why. And why now?

“Son, you can’t go anywhere near Angelique before the trial. You certainly can’t go questioning her.” He barely stopped himself from saying she would twist it and use it against his son.

“But, I need to get out of here.”

“You need to stay right here. It isn’t wise for you to be out right now.”

Joe clenched his fists open and closed in a vain effort to contain his anger. He knew, somewhere down underneath it all that his father was right, but it still grated against him. Why should he be punished and caged like a prisoner if they believed him that he had done nothing wrong?

“Joseph, you need to listen to reason and do as I asked you.”

“But, Pa … I just want …”

“I know what you want. But right now, I say that it would be best for you to stay away from Virginia City. Hiram will be out some time tomorrow and we will discuss things further then.”

Ben moved over to where his son stood and placed a hand on each shoulder. He could feel the tremor of tensed muscles under his fingers and he knew what it was costing him to stand still.

“Please, do as I ask.”

Joe barely nodded as he frowned at his father. “Can I at least take Cochise out for a ride? I haven’t been out since we got back.”

It was against his better judgement, but he knew just how hard Joe found it being cooped up in the house and since Paul had given him a clean bill of health as far as the concussion went, he couldn’t argue against it indefinitely.

“I’ll come with ya, Little Joe.” Hoss stepped forward and smiled at him.

“No thanks.”

“Well, I don’t really want you out by yourself just yet.”

“I said I wouldn’t go to Virginia City! Don’t you trust me either?” Joe’s anger flared red as he stared at his father.

Ben bit back the words he wanted to say and instead tried another angle. “I am concerned that you haven’t been on a horse since your accident and I don’t want you riding alone.”

“Well, Clay and me were just going up to Mama’s grave before you got back. So he can babysit me.”

Ben turned to see the young man nodding at him. “Joe had promised to show me.”

Hoss turned away as if he’d been kicked and Ben reluctantly nodded. “I suppose you would want to see it together.”

In less than twenty minutes, they had both horses saddled and Ben watched from the porch as the two of them rode out of the yard. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust both of them, but emotions were running high and Clay was still an unknown quantity.

Joe leaned against the rock and watched as Clay sat down beside him. He had a small jug of something in his hand and he pulled at the cork that plugged it closed.

“I got this from Manuel at the livery and had it stashed in the barn since I wasn’t sure if your father would approve.”

“What is it?”

“It’s called pulque. The Mexicans make it from cactus. I got a taste for it on the rougher side of New Orleans and some day I plan to go and see where they make it.”

“I thought you were gonna stay here. With … us.”

Clay didn’t miss the hesitation and he smiled before taking a mouthful of pulque and gulped it down.

“I know. But there’s still a lot of places I want to see one day. Don’t you have any dreams? Places you want to go?”

Clay held out the jug towards his brother and waited to see if he would take it. Joe sat upright and took hold of the jug. The smell wafting towards him was unlike the whiskey Adam preferred or the brandy his father favoured. He took a sniff and tried to appear nonchalant as he lifted the jug to his lips. He’d once made the mistake of taking a gulp of whiskey and choking on it as his brothers laughed at him. Instead, he took a sip and tried to hold the liquid in his mouth. He could feel Clay watching him as he allowed it to go down and he barely contained the cough he wanted to let out. He couldn’t stop his eyes from watering and he had to laugh as Clay slapped him on the shoulder.

“It’ll put hairs on your chest.”

“Hoss says that’ll never happen.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Joe suddenly sobered as he took another swig from the jug. “Ain’t gonna be going much further than the territorial prison!”

Clay took another mouthful as he considered how to answer. “Your pa and your brothers aren’t going to let that happen.”

“They didn’t believe me either to start with. She had them all fooled.” Joe grasped at the jug and took another gulp and almost choked as it went down. Clay slapped him on the back before he took another mouthful. “She’s gonna get up in court and bat those eyes of hers and cry and that Judge Kennett is gonna believe her!”

“I have an idea about that.”

“Huh?” Joe felt his face beginning to heat up and the pulque had settled itself in the pit of his stomach. His thoughts were beginning to drift a little and he had to force himself to focus on what had been said.

“Every person has their weakness. And Angelique is no exception. Greed is hers.”

Joe stared at him as Clay took another swig of pulque.

“One day, you need to come to Mexico with me. I heard the senoritas are quite beautiful. I plan to find me a Conchita, or a Rosita or a Bonita!”

As he took the jug back, Joe stared into the rim of it, trying to gauge how much was left. He poked a finger in the hole and couldn’t feel any liquid so he lifted it to his lips and took another mouthful. He wiped his hand across his mouth and passed the jug back.

“We could find you your very own Conchita.” Clay raised the jug in the air. “Viva your Conchita!”

Joe grinned at the look on his brother’s face and he swiped the jug back.

“Viva! Viva pulque!” He took another gulp and giggled as it missed his mouth.

“Viva my brother!” Clay laughed at him as Joe slumped back against the rock.

As if he had been slapped, Joe suddenly stopped grinning. “How long do you reckon it would take to get to Mexico?”

“Depends. On which way you go.”

“They can’t extradite from there, can they?”

“Joe, you aren’t thinking of doing anything dumb, are you?”

“I can’t go to prison. I just can’t!”

Clay shifted a little closer. “You are not going to prison. I promise you.” He held out the jug and watched as Joe took another long gulp. It wasn’t long before his brother’s head dipped sideways and Clay found himself being an impromptu pillow. “I won’t let her take anything more from me.”

Chapter Twelve

He’d given them the benefit of an hour past the time he’d expected them back and finally he couldn’t stand it any longer. He’d been reluctant to allow Joe to leave for multiple reasons, but Ben found himself second-guessing his choice with every pace across the room. Hop Sing had already come out several times to see what he was doing and had retreated to the kitchen each time while shaking his head and muttering softly in Chinese.

He would have chased after the boy himself except Adam had beaten him to it and had his horse saddled by the time the worried father stalked into the barn. It wasn’t that far to Marie’s grave and he prayed they hadn’t taken it upon themselves to defy him and go into Virginia City after all. He knew Adam would pursue them if they had, but he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Ben stopped pacing and glanced upstairs. His middle son had barely said two words since Joe had rejected his offer and chose Clay instead. As much as he hated to admit it, he could understand Joe’s choice. Each of them had misjudged Joe along the way and each of them still had some trust to rebuild. Clay had no such black mark against him. Still, he couldn’t quite silence the voice of doubt that whispered in his ear as he resumed pacing.

“What have you done to him?” Adam climbed down from the saddle and hurried across to reach for his brother’s face. He lifted Joe’s head off Clay’s shoulder and frowned as he smelled his breath. “You got him drunk!”

Clay stayed silent as he watched Adam running hands down Joe’s arms and legs as if checking for injury.

“He’s fine.”

“This is not my idea of fine!”

The low tone of the answer did not cover the anger and Clay simply shrugged as Adam pulled Joe towards him.


The mumbled question sounded so like a small child and Adam felt himself drawn back. Somehow it had always fallen to him to keep the little boy safe and he had sworn to Marie that he always would. He glanced across at the headstone behind them and frowned. Joe didn’t always make that promise easy to keep.

“Yeah, little buddy. It’s me. How about we get you on your feet and sober you up some?”

Joe opened his eyes and squinted at the face in front of him. Before he could argue, he felt two sets of hands hoisting him upright and he stumbled back against the rock.

“Gonna be …” Adam and Clay were just quick enough to pull back as Joe emptied his stomach across his own boots.

“What the hell did you give him?”


“Viva pulque,” Joe whispered as he looked up at his older brother. Adam simply glared at him as he shook his head.

“Let’s get you down to the creek and washed off before we take you home to … to Pa.”

Joe winced as he thought on that.

“Pa’s gonna kill me.”


Adam grasped at Joe’s elbow and steered him away from the headstone that seemed to accuse him of failing in his duty and down towards the creek. Clay gripped at his other arm and Joe stumbled along between them. As they reached the muddy embankment, Adam pushed Joe down onto a large rock and began to unbutton his brother’s shirt. He placed it on another rock and watched as Joe looked like he was about to vomit again.

“Come on.” Adam grasped at his arm and hauled him upright again before pulling him towards the water. He crouched down beside the stream and Joe dropped to his knees beside him. “Wash up.”

Joe scooped a handful of water into his mouth and spat it back out. He was about to take another when he paused. As Adam waited, Joe plunged forward and stuck his head in the water. As he came up for air, he shook his head and splattered water across both his brothers.

“Hey!” Adam stood up and moved back, but it was too late. He reached a hand out and pulled Joe to his feet and noted the boy still looked a little green. Behind him, Clay said nothing and ignored Adam’s sour look as Joe stumbled back up the embankment towards their horses.

Ben heard the sound of horses in the yard and rushed for the door. He flung it open and strode out onto the porch as the trio pulled up by the hitching rail. He hurried across to where Joe slumped in the saddle and frowned as the boy slowly made his way down to the ground. His boots were covered in drying mud and water stains were clear across the collar of his shirt and down his back. He looked like some kind of bedraggled child instead of the defiant young man who had ridden out only a few hours ago.

“Joseph? What happened to you?”

Joe shrugged his father’s hand off his shoulder and began to lead Cochise towards the barn. “I’m fine.”

Clay followed with his horse and Adam was left standing beside his father who clearly wanted an answer.

“What happened?”

“Maybe you should ask Clay about that.” Adam tugged at his horse’s reins and followed the others to the barn. By the time the three were done with striping tack and settling their horses, Ben was still standing in the yard, hands on hips and an expression that did not bode well for any of them.

Joe’s hat was pulled low over his face, but it did nothing to fool his father. As he reached towards him, Joe skirted around him and hurried inside. Ben followed, noting his son’s stumble as he pushed his way through the door. If he didn’t know better, he would have said his youngest son was drunk.

“Joseph, are you unwell?”

As Joe hung his hat on the peg and leaned back against the credenza, Ben got his first real look at him.

“Or are you drunk?” He grasped at Joe’s shoulder and forced his chin upwards with his other hand. Joe squinted at him and tried not to give himself away.

“You!” Ben looked around to where Clay stood in the doorway. “You did this to my son!”

“What did you do to my brother?” Hoss stood at the top of the stairs and shook a fist towards the interloper who had only hours before, ridden away with his brother in tow. As he stomped down the stairs, Joe tried to move towards him.

“He didn’t do nothin’! It was my own choice.” The words were a little slurred, but the usual confident tone was coming back.

“And just where would you have gotten whiskey from?” Ben followed his son across the room as he advanced towards Hoss.

“It weren’t whiskey. Was pulque.”

“And that makes it better? Young man, you are going upstairs to sleep this off and then we will talk.”

Joe steadied himself against the couch as he tried to keep the room still.

“I don’t need to be put to bed … like a … like a little kid!”

Ben felt his anger rising as he stared at the defiant boy in front of him. “Joseph, go upstairs.”

Joe’s face wavered as he tried to stare down his angry father. His eyes dropped to the floor as he felt a wave of dizziness wash over him.

Ben’s voice dropped a little, but the intent was still crystal clear. “Unless you would prefer I put you over my knee instead!”

Joe’s head shot up and he glared at his father’s comment. He wouldn’t dare! Would he?

Ben folded his arms and waited until Joe finally edged towards the stairs and tried to give Hoss a wide berth. He wanted nothing more than to lay down somewhere, but something still rankled about how he was being spoken to. The scowl on his face as he climbed the stairs did nothing to mask the fact he had to hold the railing all the way up, which was in stark contrast to his usual two-at-a-time style.

The room was silent until they heard Joe’s door slam closed. Hoss watched as Adam moved towards Clay and he wondered if their guest was about to get his face pummelled. To his credit, Clay stood stock still.

“What the hell were you thinking? He’s just a kid!”

“He needed it.”

“Needed it? To get drunk to the point of vomiting over himself?” Adam looked as if he were about to reach for the front of Clay’s shirt, but he managed to hold himself in check. Barely. “He’s still recovering from a concussion!”

“Do any of you know that Joe has been having nightmares?”

Adam frowned as he slowly shook his head. It was something Joe had struggled with on and off most of his life, but if he was honest, he hadn’t realised that he had been having any lately.

“I walked in on one earlier today while you were all in town. Ask Hop Sing. He saw it too.” Clay pointed towards the man who was hovering between the table and the safety of the kitchen and he reluctantly nodded in agreement. “Joe told me there have been more.”

“Why hasn’t he said anything?” Hoss slowly approached from across the room.

“You really sure you want the answer to that?’ Clay looked at each of them in turn and was met with a frown at every turn.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ben stepped forward, his hands planted on his hips.

“He’s convinced he’s going to prison because nobody will believe him over Angelique’s lies. Nobody believed him before and now she’s had plenty of time to set the gossips against him. He’s not stupid and he’s terrified.”

Ben’s hands dropped to his sides as he moved closer. “He told you all that?”

“He needed a little … well … something to loosen his tongue a little. But yes, he told me all that.”

Ben frowned at the idea his son had needed to be plied with pulque before he would admit what was bothering him. He knew he was stubborn and wished more than anything to be thought of as a man, but it was only reasonable he would be worried about the trial. Still, none of them had known about the nightmares and that bothered him even more. His son was hiding from them and it had taken a virtual stranger to get through to him.

Clay watched as all three men surrounding him began to ease back. His defensive stance began to relax a little and he stayed quiet as each of them absorbed the comments.

“Something else you should know.”

“What?” Ben almost held his breath in anticipation of another blow.

“”He’s thinking of running again. To Mexico. Where he can’t be extradited.”

“What? If he runs now, he’ll be found guilty in his absence. He needs to stand trial and we will fight this thing. He’s innocent!”

“We all know that, Pa. But half the town has already pronounced him guilty.”

Ben sighed as he knew the truth of it. He wished it could be a trial by judge and not by jury, but Angelique had insisted on it. As the so-called victim, she had that right and she had done her work very well. Hiram’s last comment as he had left the office still hung like a noose over his son’s head. Adam and Hoss had already unhitched their horses, but Hiram had held him back. He alone had ridden home with that extra weight as his lawyer had warned him that jury selection could make or break his case. It seemed that Little Joe already knew that too.

Without answering, he turned and headed for the stairs.

Moments later, he stood outside his son’s door and raised his hand to knock. He paused as he wondered what on earth he was going to say. Finally, he knocked several times and when there was no response, he pushed the door open and stepped inside. Across the room, Little Joe lay sprawled across his bed. Thankfully, he had managed to pull off his muddy boots or Hop Sing may have had a fit, but he hadn’t bothered to undress any further.

Ben stood beside the bed for several minutes, watching this son of his who had given him more than a few of his grey hairs. Finally, he slid down onto the bed and reached a hand to rest on his son’s back. He could feel the rhythmic rise and fall as he slept and Ben found himself wondering if this night would bring another nightmare. How had he not known about the others? He had always been the first one Joe sought comfort from.

He had no idea how long he sat and watched, but the heaviness in his heart would not shift. He was supposed to protect his sons and yet, when Joe needed him most, he had turned elsewhere. The realisation that Joe no longer trusted his family, weighed like an anchor around his neck. Starting tomorrow, he would begin rebuilding that trust.

Finally, he forced himself to stand up. He reached for the blanket at the end of the bed and spread it across his son. For all his adamant arguments that he was all grown up, he looked so very young and Ben allowed himself a small smile as he crossed the room for the door. The boy was going to have the worst headache of his life come morning.

Katie gathered the fine dishes and stacked them carefully. Any breakages came out of her wages and she was keenly aware of just how much the porcelain pieces cost. She pushed the trolley along and stacked more dishes and placed the heavy cutlery into a tray. The crystal goblets shone under the light from the candles and she saw rainbows dancing across the white tablecloth. For a moment, she turned the goblet in her fingers and watched the colours play across the table before suddenly realising she was being watched. She grasped at the stem of the goblet and placed it on the trolley beside the others.

“Evenin’, miss. That was a mighty fine supper you served up tonight.” Sheriff Coffee smiled at her and Katie felt her insides melting. He had been a regular in the dining room in recent days.

She bobbed in a small curtsey and tried to smile. “Thank you, Sheriff. I will let Miss Clara know you enjoyed it.”

“You do that. She runs a real fine place here. I imagine it’s gonna get real busy here with the trial coming up on Friday.”

“Trial?” Katie’s voice squeaked as she tried to keep going with gathering dishes.

“Little Joe Cartwright. You musta gone to school with the boy, I figured.”

Katie’s voice deserted her altogether so she nodded instead.

“It’d be a real shame to see him go to prison. Still, we gotta trust that justice will be done, don’t we?”

Roy placed his hat on his head and tipped the front of it at the girl. “You have a good night now, won’t you?”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.” Katie pushed the half-full trolley towards the kitchen, blinking back tears as she hurried. She shoved the trolley through the swing doors and leaned against the wall trying desperately to get her composure.

“Just what are you doing, girl?”

Clara stood with her hands on her hips and pointed at the trolley.

“That is my best china! You can’t come barrelling through like that with it!”

Katie’s resolve crumbled and she burst into tears, knowing she had probably cost herself a job.

Clara hurried across the room and grasped the girl by the shoulders. “What’s wrong?”

Katie stared at her feet as she tried desperately to pull herself together.


She reached for her apron to dab at her eyes and stop the tears flowing as she pushed the trolley towards the sink.

Clara wouldn’t be swayed that easily and she grasped Katie’s wrist and tugged her towards a chair. “Sit down there and tell me what’s wrong, child.”

Chapter Thirteen

The early morning sunlight filtered through his window and Joe tried to push the pillow over his head to block it out. It hurt to open his eyes, but it also hurt to keep them closed. He groaned and tried to curl back up and go to sleep, but his stomach protested. As he scrambled to untangle himself from the bedclothes, he felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up to see Hoss holding out an enamel bowl.

“Need this?”

Joe had no time to ask why he was there or how he knew what he needed before he made use of the bowl. By the time he was done, he wiped a hand across his mouth and flopped back on the bed, feeling utterly miserable.

Hoss held out a glass of water and Joe reluctantly hoisted himself up on an elbow to take a drink.

“Now Hop Sing said to give you this one.”

Hoss took the first glass and held out a cup of tea. Joe’s nose wrinkled as he got a whiff of it and Hoss just nodded again.

“Drink it. He said it’ll make your stomach feel better.”

“Couldn’t make it any worse, I guess,” Joe muttered as he forced the tea down. It was lukewarm and he wondered vaguely how long Hoss had been sitting and waiting for him to wake up.

“Now Pa said you gotta get dressed and come on down for breakfast.”

Joe groaned as he thought about eating greasy fatback and eggs and his stomach roiled again.

“You can just eat biscuits if you want. Now get dressed and don’t keep Pa waiting.”

Hoss stood up and tried to smile. Joe looked miserable and Hoss was hard-pressed to express any sympathy, but still, it was his little brother and he couldn’t help himself. As he headed down the stairs, he noted his father and Adam and Clay were already seated at the table. He settled into his chair and lifted a platter of eggs towards him.

“Joe’ll be down in a few minutes.”

Ben just nodded at the comment and kept eating his breakfast. Finally, his youngest son came down the stairs looking much the worse for wear. It was no surprise to any of them, but at least he was dressed and his buttons were done up correctly, even if his shirt was not yet tucked in. Joe winced as he slid into his chair and he turned green as he looked at the platter of fatback.

“Good morning, Joseph.”

“Mornin’,” he mumbled across the table without making eye contact with anybody.

The responses from around the table felt like sledgehammers against his skull and he grimaced as his stomach roiled again. Joe closed his eyes as he waited for the expected lecture to begin.

“You need something in your stomach, son. It will help.”

He didn’t dare comment, but he could feel all eyes on him as he looked up and reached for a biscuit and forced himself to nibble on it. He barely noticed as Hop Sing slipped in another cup of the tea that Hoss had brought up earlier.

“I’m glad to see you up and about. Hiram should be here some time this morning to go through your testimony with you.”

Joe shoved back from the table and bolted through the door to the kitchen and each of them could hear the sound of retching and Hop Sing saying something that nobody needed a translation for.

Ben felt torn between following his son and giving him some measure of dignity. His anger from the night before had damped down somewhat, given Clay’s revelations, but he couldn’t help but frown across the table at the young man. Clay just shrugged as he pushed another forkful of eggs into his mouth.

Finally, Joe returned to the table and slid back into his seat. The half-chewed biscuit sat on his plate and he stared at it like it was some kind of poison.

“It isn’t going to matter what I say.”

“Son, it matters very much that the truth is heard.”

Joe looked up at his father, doubt clear in his eyes. “Sure it does.”

Clay sat astride his horse and stared at the road sign ahead that told him Virginia City was just five miles away. It wasn’t the first time he had doubted his choices and it wouldn’t be the last, but the potential cost had never been so high if he got it wrong. He’d sat and listened as the family lawyer had outlined his defence strategy and he’d seen his brother squirming under the scrutiny. He also knew Angelique far better than any of them did and he knew she would not fight fair. If he took this road, there would be no going back and he was only too aware it could blow up in his face. Still, he couldn’t shake the certainty that Angelique would play the victim to perfection once she got up on that witness stand and Little Joe would be fed to the lions.

He nudged his horse forward once more and slowly rode in along the main street of the town until he reached the hotel. A few coins slipped into the hand of a hotel porter meant he soon knew the room his cousin and her guard dog were settled in. Of course, it was the best the hotel had to offer. By the time he stood outside the door of her suite and raised his hand to knock, he still hadn’t convinced himself he was doing the right thing. As Hetty opened the door and gaped at him in surprise, he knew there was no going back.

“What do you want?” The words were almost spat at him and Clay turned on his most charming smile and his best poker face as he squashed down the fear and doubt.

“To talk about a business proposition.”

Hetty glared at him, but Angelique moved up behind her and waved him inside. Clay felt his gut twist as he stepped into the lion’s den.

“Business? What business could we possibly have in common?” Angelique swept across the room and settled herself on the brocade couch while Clay was left standing just inside the door. Hetty circled around him and he barely held back the urge to push her away.

“You forget, my dear cousin, that as much as you would like to pretend otherwise, I am a de Marigny and if there is one thing our family knows about, it is blackmail.”

Angelique reached for a goblet of wine that had been sitting beside her and took a slow sip from it. Her eyes never left his face and Clay was hard-pressed not to squirm under the scrutiny.

“Blackmail? I have no idea what you are referring to … dear cousin.” The words dripped with sarcasm and Clay felt his skin crawl. The woman had a manner of speaking that had been taught at her grandmother’s knee and been perfected as she grew.

“Of course you don’t.”

“I can only assume you are here to beg on behalf of that miserable excuse of a brother of yours. Or should I say, half brother? It’s so hard to keep up with your mother’s liaisons.” Angelique took another sip of her wine and smiled. “I have nothing to say until I step onto that witness stand on Friday.”

“Really? So you won’t have any issue when I return to New Orleans after this is all over and launch my legal claim to what is rightfully mine.”

Hetty surged forward and Clay stepped aside from her. “Don’t touch me, old woman! Don’t think you will be staying on when I lay claim to the family home. After all, I am the only heir of the eldest son of the de Marigny family.”

Angelique’s hand clenched around the stem of her goblet as she slammed it on the table beside her and the fine crystal snapped in two. A shard of glass embedded in her finger and she dabbed at the blood with her handkerchief. The last of the wine dribbled over the edge of the table as she stood up and tried to stare him down.

“You have no proof of that. In case you have forgotten, you tried that scheme once before and look what it cost you. Do you really want to lose anyone else? A brother, perhaps? Or is he expendable to you?”

Clay barely held himself still as he stared at her. The last time he had been dragged unwittingly down this path, his father had paid with his life. Not the man who had sired him, but the man who had loved and cared for him from before he could remember.

“What I want is what is owed to me! I will not spend the rest of my days having to scrape up money when I am owed my inheritance. Why should you have it all?”

Angelique stayed silent as she considered the comment. She slowly walked towards him and appeared to be sizing him up as she did so.

“So why did you come here?”

Clay smirked at the two of them as he waved a hand towards the window. “To see the sights of course, same as you.”

Hetty almost snarled at him as she settled herself on a chair by the window. “This backwater has no sights worth seeing, except the stagecoach station on the way out of town.”

“Then why did you both come here?”

“Because you began digging into family records. It is your fault we came here and everything that has happened is on your head!”

“The more I dug into our family history, the more dirt I found. Ben Cartwright is a respected man in these parts and his word carries weight. When I stake my claim, he has said he will back me and will even come to New Orleans. He doesn’t have any love for the de Marigny family name after what was done to my mother and would enjoy seeing you brought undone when I testify in court about you.”

Angelique stared at him for a moment before she turned and slowly walked across to the window. The blood on her finger had slowed to a sluggish dribble and she stared at it as if mesmerised. There would be blood alright, but it wouldn’t be hers.

“I haven’t even begun with what I will do to your mother’s memory. This town will hear all about the truth of the whore that Ben Cartwright brought home with him. Is that what you want? For her name to be dragged through the mud and her son to be hearing every word of her scandalous past as it is all documented in an open court.”

Clay may not have known his brother for very long, but he knew enough to know what that would have done to him. His brother had spoken passionately about his mother and had even gifted him a treasured locket that held her likeness. It was the only thing he had of a woman he had never known and he felt the bile rising up his throat as he stared at the two women in front of him. He needed to keep a cool head in the face of their provocation or the whole plan would crumble to nothing.

Angelique stalked towards him and pointed a finger at his chest. “You think you know how to play this game, but you are a rank amateur. Let me show you how it is done, dear cousin.”

Clay glared at her as she moved closer as if to whisper in his ear. “You think you are going to blackmail me into dropping the charges. You need to know one small piece of information. I have men working for me in this town. It isn’t hard to get them onside.”

Clay felt his stomach twist as he noted the way his cousin sashayed across the room.

“Men are so easy to manipulate. On Friday morning, that little brother of yours will be riding down that street out there to the courtroom. If you are anywhere in sight, he won’t make it inside alive. Should you decide to try to warn him and he fails to show up, the court will find against him and he will be arrested and taken to prison without a trial.”

Angelique smirked at him as she sauntered back towards him. “So let’s see what is more important to you, dear cousin. Your brother or money that you will never get your hands on anyway.”

Clay felt his hands clenching by his side when all he really wanted to do was grasp her by the neck and end this charade.

“You know nothing of how to play this game. Now run along and pack your saddlebags. You are leaving town, tonight and you will never return. Not here and not to New Orleans.”

Hetty began to laugh as Clay edged towards the door. “You have no business calling yourself a son of this family. Madame de Marigny was ashamed of you, for good reason!”

As Clay headed for the stairs, he was unaware of the maid who carried a serving tray towards another room. She ducked her head and shifted the tray onto her left arm as she raised her other hand to knock on the door. Behind her, the young man stomped down the stairs as if something was chasing him.

The door to the next suite opened and Katie dropped the guest’s supper tray onto the table before hurrying back outside. The older woman from across the hall was headed down the stairs before her and Katie paused at the top of the landing. Her conversation with Clara from the night before came to mind as she slipped down the stairs and followed the woman out into the street. It wasn’t hard to follow at a distance as the woman never once looked back. Still, Katie felt her pulse racing as she hurried along and tried to stay in the shadows. It was another three blocks before the woman turned off down an alleyway and Katie forced herself to keep going along the boardwalk as if she were headed to the mercantile. She dared not follow down the alley, but she knew the only thing down that way was a couple of places that rented rooms by the night. She knew enough to know what went on there and had no idea of why the genteel Southern lady from New Orleans would have any business down there.

As Katie slid into a shadow and waited, she kept her head down and tried to blend into the darkness. It was another few minutes before the woman hurried out of the alleyway and turned back towards the hotel. Katie hesitated to follow and chance being seen. As she debated what to do next, two strangers came rushing up from the alleyway. They didn’t bother to look her way as they walked across the street and onwards to the livery. Katie barely held back a squeal as she noted the scar down the cheek of one of the men.

Clay heard the sound of hoofbeats behind him and he turned in the saddle to see two horses thundering towards him. His hand shifted to his gun instinctively and he nudged his horse to the side of the road. If they were simply in a hurry, they would ride by. If not, he would be hard-pressed to outrun them both. Before he could decide what was happening, the riders went flying past in a swirl of dust. He waited several minutes before holstering his gun and pushing his horse forward again. It was another couple of miles up the road when he realised, too late, that he had been duped.

“Food nearly ready.” They all heard the annoyed tone as Hop Sing made his announcement and all of them knew what it meant. Clay was late.

“He knows what time we eat. I’m sure he’ll be back on time.” At least Ben hoped he would be.

“Hmmph!” Hop Sing retreated to the kitchen and took his irritation out on the pan sitting on the stovetop.

“Any idea where he went?” Ben sat at his desk, surrounded by an array of paperwork that had barely been touched all afternoon. He’d been distracted by Hiram’s cross-examination of his son and Joe’s reluctant responses. He’d tried to put it down to the boy being hungover, but he couldn’t shake the sense that his son doubted any of them could save him.

“Nope.” Hoss shook his head as he looked over at Adam.

“Me neither. I didn’t see him leave.”

Ben glanced at the stairs. Joe had been upstairs since Hiram had left and none of them had gotten more than a few words out of the boy. They had been too concerned with Joe to pay any attention to Clay and he had slipped away some time later. Before he could decide what to do, they heard a horse in the yard and Hoss hurried across to open the door before Hop Sing could complain again.

“Pa!” Without another word, he raced out into the yard and his father and brother weren’t far behind. Hoss grasped at Clay as he almost fell from the saddle. It was clear he had been beaten and he groaned as Hoss wrapped an arm around him and steered him into the house. Hop Sing came running as Hoss deposited Clay on the sofa.

“What happened to you?” Ben reached a hand to check a nasty gash above Clay’s eye and he flinched back at the touch. Blood still oozed from the wound and his eye was swelling underneath it.

“Picked the wrong fellas to play poker against.”

Ben frowned at him as he stepped side for Hop Sing. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Adam stood aside and watched as Clay allowed himself to be ministered to. He could see he was favouring his left side and suspected there were bruised ribs under that hand. By the time Hop Sing was done, Joe had appeared from his room and silently assessed his brother’s injuries before stepping forward.

“Who did this?”

“Don’t know them. Two miners who didn’t take kindly to losing money to a cowpoke.”

“Two against one? Hardly fair. But then, fair doesn’t count for much in Virginia City any more.” The bitterness of the comment wasn’t lost on any of them.

“Doesn’t matter. I should never have gotten into a game.”

As they finally sat down to eat, it was a very subdued affair with each of them dealing with their own thoughts. Clay excused himself early and headed for his room. Before he could get himself ready for bed, he heard a knock on his door. He half expected it was Hop Sing coming to check on his dressings and was surprised when he opened the door and found Adam standing there, preparing to knock again.

“What really happened?”

Clay frowned at the question and began to push the door shut. “What I said. Now I’m going to bed, if you don’t mind.”

Adam shoved a boot against the door to stop it from swinging shut. “I do mind. You didn’t just ride into town for a casual game of poker. So what happened?”

“I’ve never had an older brother and I don’t need one now. I told you what happened.” Once more, Clay stepped back and pushed the door closed. This time, Adam allowed it to swing shut and he found himself standing in the hallway. Something didn’t add up.

“What did you say to him?” The anger in his brother’s voice was clear to all of them and Adam shook his head. He had no idea what Joe was talking about. He’d only just arrived at the table and was sitting down to eat breakfast when Joe came flying through the front door. “What did you say to Clay last night?”

Adam held up a hand as his brother stalked closer. “I just checked on him to see if he was okay. Why?”

“Because he’s gone! His gear is all gone and so is his horse! The only thing he left behind was this!” Joe held up the locket that they all knew he had given to Clay.

Chapter Fourteen

Clay sat at the table and drew circles in the dust with his finger as he drank down the last of the coffee. He yawned as he stared at the dust rings. The cabin had obviously not been used in a couple of seasons and he hoped he had the right one. There were several that Hank had pointed out weeks ago while shifting part of the herd and he’d explained about the Cartwright’s line shacks. These ones were on the maintenance list, but nobody had gotten to them yet and weren’t planned to be started on for some time.

Finally, Clay pushed the empty mug aside and stood up and stretched. He yawned again as he considered the few short hours of sleep the night before. He looked across at the bunk he’d barely slept on and debated catching a few more minutes of sleep. As he was weighing it up, he heard a horse coming up the rocky trail and he hurried for the cabin door. He felt his fingers instinctively wrap around the handle of his pistol as he stepped out into the mid morning sunlight. Clay blew out a breath of relief as he saw the man riding towards him.

“You got my note.” Clay had debated telling Joe’s family any of it, but he knew he needed help and Adam seemed like the best choice. He also had the most to gain from bringing down the woman who had plotted against him and used him against his own brother.

“I got it.”

The note had been left inside his boot, a place where nobody but him would find it. He’d managed to sit through breakfast and feign ignorance as Joe launched at him, but it had proven harder to slip away without Hoss knowing where he was going. He hated lying to them, but he’d made a plausible excuse and ridden off as soon as he dared. Adam slid from the saddle and tied his horse to the hitching rail. “Now, you’d better have a damn good answer of why you wrote it.”

Clay waved a hand towards the door. He reached for a mug on the shelf as he entered and wiped the dust from inside it using the edge of his sleeve. Adam stared at him as Clay poured two mugs of coffee and settled himself back at the table. While Adam lifted the mug, he refused to sit down.


“I don’t think any of you know what you are up against. Those two men that came after me last night, they weren’t poker players and they weren’t miners.”

“Then why lie about it?”

“I poked the hornet’s nest and got stung.” Clay was still favouring his left side as he moved and his face was turning a deep purple below the bandage that hid the gash across his forehead. “They were a warning from her. Among other things, she told me that if I show my face on Friday, Joe won’t make it into the courtroom alive.”

Adam’s gaze narrowed with suspicion.

“I know her and how she does things. She learned from her grandmother and she has no heart. She’s like a poisoned candy, beautiful on the outside and deadly on the inside. I needed to press her hard enough to force her to show her hand before she gets to Joe in the court. She needed to think she had outmanoeuvred me.”

Adam finally slid into the chair and dropped the still-full mug onto the table.

“Go on.”

“She plans to tear my mother to shreds from the witness stand. She’ll provoke Joe into a rage and he’ll publicly prove her case for her. He’s just a kid and she’s been bred to this. She knows how to play the game and she’ll wipe the floor with him.”

Adam felt his gut churning and his mind racing as he tried to work through a strategy. It was no secret that Joe’s fuse was short and if it came to his mother, it would be almost non-existant.

“You need to get that fancy lawyer of yours to put me on the stand, not Joe.”

“Joe can’t sit back and not testify. He’ll look even more guilty if he stays quiet. Besides, you’ve seen enough to know that nobody will get him to stay silent if Marie is being slandered. Whether he’s on the stand or not.”

“Adam, I know you don’t think much of me and … ” Clay held up a hand as Adam shook his head. “It’s alright. This isn’t how I imagined this playing out, but that doesn’t matter at the moment. I know you have little reason to trust me, but if you want to save him, you have to help me do that.”

As Adam sat silently watching the man seated across from him, he made a decision.

“What do you need me to do?”

By the time Adam settled himself in the saddle again, he couldn’t shake the sense that they were playing with fire and his brother’s reputation and freedom hinged on a very flimsy plan. As he rode towards Virginia City, his mind kept replaying something else that Clay had said.

“When this is done, if Joe doesn’t want me for a brother, I’ll leave. But if I leave now, she will take him away from you all.”

Adam soon found himself standing on the boardwalk outside Hiram’s office. Would Joe forgive them for what they were about to do?

Friday morning came all too soon as far as Joe was concerned. He’d been awake since well before sunrise and he’d spent the last couple of hours in the barn. He’d always found brushing his horse had a calming influence, but this time it was tempered with the knowledge it could be the last time he got to do it. If the case went against him, he’d be in Roy’s jail by nightfall awaiting the prison wagon by the end of the month.

“Thought I’d find you here.”

Joe startled as Hoss appeared in the doorway behind him. For a big man, he could move quietly when he chose.

“Hop Sing said that breakfast is ready and on the table in five minutes. He made flapjacks.”

“My last supper.” Joe muttered the comment to Cochise, but Hoss frowned at the words.

“Nope. Your breakfast that you’re gonna need before we go and beat this thing today. And tonight will be a feast to celebrate.”

Joe turned to really look at his brother. “You believe that?”

“Sure do. Me and Adam and Pa. We’re gonna make sure that little minx don’t get away with her lies.”

Joe turned away as he considered the comment. No mention of Clay in that army. He felt a hand rest on his shoulder before Hoss squeezed it.

“Let’s go get us some of those flapjacks, before ol’ Adam eats them all.”

Adam handed the reins to the boy who helped in the livery and shifted his hand to his holster. He felt paranoid as they rode into town, knowing what Clay had said, but they managed to enter the court without incident. Well, so long as he didn’t count the various insults hurled at his brother by people gathered in small knots along the boardwalk. His father had hustled Joe inside before he could respond and Sherriff Coffee had taken a brisk stroll along the street to dispel any trouble before it flared up.

Hiram was already inside, leafing through papers on the desk and he looked up as the group walked in. The remainder of the room set aside as a courtroom was still empty, but he knew that wouldn’t last. Once Roy and his deputies opened those doors, the room would be filled to capacity with gawkers, gossips and friends. Hiram stood up and shook hands with Ben and then reached for Little Joe’s.

“Son, I know you probably didn’t sleep last night, but I promise you that I will use everything I have available to me to see you are acquitted today.”

Ben nodded as Hiram glanced his way. It was a question wrapped in a statement and he needed to agree to Adam’s plan. He didn’t like it, but if even half of what Adam had said was true, he would be fine with seeing the fine young lady’s past exposed for who she really was. Of course, the real bite meant that he was also exposing his wife’s past and he wasn’t certain his son would ever forgive him for that.

Ben settled his son on the front bench between him and his attorney and nodded as Hoss and Adam sat down directly behind their brother. No matter what happened today, they had their brother’s back.

Soon enough, the deputy holding back the tide allowed the members of the public into the room and they could all hear as the sound swelled. Joe sat rigid and refused to turn around. Ben could see his clenched hands and the trickle of sweat that ran down behind his ear. He prayed this day would soon be over and the nightmare would finally end.

Hoss looked back as somebody made a derogatory comment in a not-so-quiet whisper. If he could have pinpointed who said it, Ben knew he may have been holding his son back from thumping somebody.

“Easy there, Hoss.” Adam muttered beside him. “You aren’t doing Joe any favours if you get thrown out of here before it starts.”

“I know that, but it ain’t right.”

Adam smiled at his brother. “Don’t worry, when this is over, you and me are going to settle a few scores.”

Hoss stared back at him, trying to get himself under control.

“Just a few?”

“As many as we need to for as long as it takes.”

“Well, alright then.”

Finally, Roy came across to the front of the room and a trail of men followed behind him. The jury had been selected over the last two days and while Ben knew who was on it, he wasn’t quite prepared to see them lining up in their seats, getting ready to judge his son’s guilt or innocence. More murmurs ran through the crowd as the men got settled. It was no secret there was no love lost between Mark Brady and Ben, but then that could have been balanced out by Tom Hansen seated at the end.

Joe sat in his seat, rigid as a pine tree and stared at the wall ahead of him. He was afraid to make eye contact and see the condemnation he knew was there.

“All rise.” Roy’s voice carried over the room as the judge made his way up to the front. Joe felt his father’s hand on his elbow as he slowly stood on his feet.

“It’s alright, Son.”

No. Nothing was all right. It was all wrong.

Judge Kennett settled himself in his seat and raised his gavel to slam it down on the bench.

“This court is now in session. I am Judge Morgan Kennett and I will be overseeing this trial for one Joseph Francis Cartwright.” The judge looked down at his paperwork and frowned. “It says here that you have been charged with attempted rape. A heinous crime, young man.”

Joe barely managed to keep himself steady as he heard the judge’s words. It was no secret the man had four daughters and could feel the contempt in the tone as he read the charge.

The judge turned to the jury and pointed a finger. “I don’t usually like jury trials as they are subject to emotion and juries can be swayed by gossip and local attitudes. However, the plaintiff has requested a jury, which is within her rights. Gentlemen, I expect you to listen with impartiality and make a judgement based on facts and not emotions.”

Ben saw Hiram nodding at the admonishment and hoped it would hold water.

“Now, Sherriff Coffee, where is the prosecutor and his client?” The table across from Hiram was empty and there had been several whispered comments about it. Joe prayed it meant that Angelique had changed her mind, but it was not to be. A deputy finally walked in with the prosecutor trailing behind him. Angelique followed him with Hetty holding her elbow. Both women looked tired and it was clear that Angelique had been crying. As the two women settled at the table, the prosecutor stepped towards the bench.

“Your Honour, I apologise for being tardy into your court and there was no disrespect meant. It was just confronting for my client as she fully realised that this whole sordid tale will be dissected in front of so many witnesses. I’m sure as a father of young ladies, you know how a reputation can be tattered in moments. I would humbly request that the courtroom is cleared of the public.”

Joe felt his hands clenching as he stared at the woman who was trying to destroy him and acting like a vulnerable victim.

The judge shook his head at the prosecutor. “Mister Andrews, your client chose a jury trial. If her privacy was so important, then perhaps she should have decided otherwise and I may be more inclined to hear her plea. Request denied.”

“Yes, Your Honour. My client has never been in a courtroom before or had real understanding of how trials work. I did try to sway her, but in her innocence, she did not fully understand.”

“Well, I am sorry for her discomfort, but my decision stands.”

Angelique dabbed at her eyes with a lacy handkerchief while Hetty rubbed a hand across her back.

“Now, Mister Andrews, you need to begin. I intend to have this case done today.”

“Yes, Your Honour.”

As the prosecutor strode across to where the jury were seated, Adam heard the door at the back creak open. He dared not look back to check, but his father turned around, as if to speak with him.

“Don’t worry. It’s all in place.”

Hoss had no idea what they were talking about, but he noted Adam leaned back into his seat and seemed to relax a little. Before he could ask, the prosecutor launched his attack.

Chapter Fifteen

“Shut up. You aren’t getting out of here until Sheriff Coffee says I can let you out. That’s the end of it, so once more, shut up!”

Matt hadn’t been a deputy for very long, but if his boss gave him an order, then he wasn’t going to argue about it. Least of all, with two prisoners who yelled at him from inside the cell that he had no right to lock them up. He closed the door between the cell and the office and reached for the coffee pot on the stove. It was still early in the day so the coffee was still reasonably fresh. Depending on how busy the day got, the coffee pot could sit and stew all day and by the end of the day, it had a kick like a mule.

Today should be a quiet day, judging by the case being heard across the road. The level of interest was through the roof and the saloons were almost empty, except for outsiders who had no interest in a local case. Matt sat down at the desk and figured he might as well get started on the paperwork since there wouldn’t be much else to do.

Clara looked around the dining room and nodded in satisfaction that everything was in place. Breakfast service had been extremely busy and she fully expected that the lunch trade would be even more so. It seemed a trial brought out appetites in more ways than one. She frowned as she watched the girl push the china cart back through the door into the scullery. As much as she carried a lot of her family weight and responsibilities, Katie was still just a child. Even as she poured out her fears only a few nights ago, Clara could see the fear etched across her face had not gone away. If she stood up in that court and testified, the hotel’s reputation would be sullied and the manager would have no option but to fire her. The family could ill-afford to lose her meagre income and there would be no other jobs in town for her. Katie would be forced to leave and look for work in Carson City or further afield. It was a trial that would be covered by the Territorial Enterprise and beyond, given the level of interest in the Cartwright family and that could seriously hamper her job-seeking efforts.

Clara wandered along the servery and adjusted a few things. None of them needed adjusting as the girl had done a superb job, but she couldn’t help herself. What she wanted to do was walk back in the kitchen and take her by the arm and lead her down to the court. As Clara stared at the kitchen door, she was surprised to hear footsteps behind her. It was far too early for lunch and she spun around to say so when she stopped still.

“Mister Lawson.”

The man before her had his hat in his hand and he threaded it through his fingers as he looked at her, in a sure sign of nerves.

“I know she’s ‘sposed to be workin’, but I came lookin’ for my Katie. I need to speak with her.”

“Of course, she’s in the kitchen. This way.” Clara pointed towards the door. As they walked through, Katie was busy stirring a large pot on the stove and she blanched as she saw her father. He had never come to her workplace before and he was wearing his good clothes and not his work clothes.

“I’ve been thinkin’ on what you told me, girl. And I changed my mind. You need to tell that court what you know.”

Katie stared at him as if he had lost his mind. She shook her head slowly as she gaped at him. “Papa, I can’t do that. We agreed.”

Her father approached her and laid his hat on the table as he did so. He reached for her with both of his hands and grasped hold of her hands.

“When your mama passed, I didn’t know how we would get through the winter. I couldn’t work and be father and mother to you young’uns at the same time. I was a broken man and I started drinkin’ to drown out my grief. I know you remember those days, girl.”

Katie nodded as tears welled in her eyes.

“It was Ben Cartwright what pulled me out of that ditch and set me on my feet again. He knew what it was to grieve and he knew what I needed. I told him I couldn’t take his charity and he told me that it weren’t charity between friends. I told him I’d pay him back one day and … well … one day is here. You need to help him save that boy of his, ’cause we both know that Little Joe Cartwright ain’t guilty.”

“Papa … I’m scared.”

“I know you are. But you got no call to be when you tell the truth, girl. What’s right is right.”

Clara edged closer and smiled at the girl. “I will write you the best reference and do everything I can to get you suitable work somewhere else.”

“I don’t want to work anywhere else. I like working here.”

Katie began to sob as her father squeezed her hands again.

“And Little Joe don’t want to go to prison for somethin’ we all know he didn’t do.”

James Andrews had been practising law for long enough to know that a court did not always dispense justice. There were many who had gone to the gallows protesting their innocence, only to be found innocent long after their necks had been stretched. There were others who should have been lined up against a wall and shot multiple times over who simply walked away as if they were untouchable. He had begun the journey into his profession as many others had – with a thirst for justice and a naivety that was soon dispensed with. What he had come to know was that sometimes justice played out according to how much money got splashed around. He’d seen men like Ben Cartwright before. Men who had the means and the clout to get their way. Men who thought themselves above the law. Men who raised sons who thought their wealth covered a multitude of sins. As he stepped up to address the jury, he vowed to himself that the Cartwright brat would not get away with his crime simply because of who his father was or what he had.

“Gentlemen, this is a sad day in Virginia City, when one of your leading citizens, Mister Benjamin Cartwright, has been exposed as allowing his sons to run amok, all in the name of personal revenge. First, he encouraged his eldest son to establish a liaison with my client that she was led to believe would end in marriage. Unfortunately, that charade cannot be put on trial and my client’s emotional trauma cannot be weighed in the balance. What we can put on trial is the behaviour of the youngest Cartwright son, Joseph where he attacked and attempted to rape my client after she had spurned his juvenile advances.”

Ben had his hand clenched around Joe’s wrist as the man’s lies continued and he could feel his son’s pent-up anger beginning to surface. His own wasn’t far behind, but he needed to keep himself calm in order to contain his son. They could hear murmurs running through the courtroom and the judge quickly intervened.

“You will be silent in my courtroom or you will be removed.”

Andrews looked around and nodded at the room. He swung back to the jury and started again. “I can understand the discontent in this room as the good people of Virginia City hear this very sad story in its entirety. I will lay before you an undisputable case and by the end of this trial, you will have no choice but to find the defendant guilty as charged.”

As Andrews strode across the room and slid into his seat, he patted Angelique’s hand and smiled at her. She tried to smile back, but dabbed at her eyes instead.

Hiram stood up, adjusted his waistcoat and slowly moved towards the jury. “Gentleman, I have been serving the legal needs of this community for several years now and have had Benjamin Cartwright as a client, and indeed a friend, for that time. My colleague’s description of the Cartwright family could not be further from the truth. Yes, this case hinges on revenge, but it is not the story the prosecutor has spun for you. Rather, Miss Johnson is the instigator here and not the victim in any way, shape or form. In fact, we should be trying her for her actions, but unfortunately, we must first contend with her complaint. I intend to prove to you, by the end of this trial, that Joseph Cartwright is neither a rapist or a perpetrator of any crime, but rather the innocent victim of a sadistic plot to exact revenge against his father for having the audacity to marry his mother.”

“Pa!” Joe turned to his father, clearly alarmed at what had been said.

“It’s alright, Son. Just trust us to do what needs to be done.”

“But, they will …”

“Trust me.” Ben held his breath as he watched his son’s face. Had he burned that bridge so badly?

While Joe didn’t answer him, he didn’t argue any further either. It would have to be enough for now.

Hiram sat down and waited as the prosecutor stood to his feet once more.

“Your Honour, I would like to call my first witness.”

Judge Kennett nodded and Andrews held out a hand to help her from her seat. “I call Miss Henrietta Smith to the stand.”

Hetty smiled as she took hold of his hand and allowed him to escort her to the witness chair.

“Miss Smith, could you please explain your relationship to Miss Johnson?”

“Miss Johnson is my employer. I have worked for the de Marigny family for many years and in recent years, I have been a companion to Miss Angelique.”

“A chaperone?”

“That is one of my duties in my role, but I do not see it as a duty. Rather I see it as a part of protecting someone I love.”

Andrews nodded and smiled as he turned towards the jury. “It’s a sad indictment that a young lady should need such protection, but I am very glad that my client had you on hand. Could you please explain for the court how Miss Johnson came to be involved with the Cartwright family?”

Hetty drew a deep breath as if she were about to begin a long story. “Miss Johnson and I were travelling through to California when we stopped for a few days of rest in Virginia City. I was inside the mercantile when that man over there accosted her on the boardwalk outside.”

“Objection!” Hiram’s voice rang out as he looked to the judge. “Your Honour, my client’s brother saved Miss Johnson from slipping and falling on the boardwalk. He did not accost her!”

Judge Kennett looked across at the woman. “Is that what happened?”

“The three of them were loading a wagon and there was supplies everywhere. It was impossible for her not to trip over something and I believe they knew that.”

“Objection. You cannot possibly know what any of them were aware of.”

“I agree. But can we agree that Miss Johnson did fall on the boardwalk where the Cartwrights were loading a wagon.” Andrews looked across at his counterpart.

“We can.” Hiram conceded the point.

“Please, Miss Smith, go on.”

Hetty adjusted her broach at her throat and nodded as if she were nervous. “We were invited to have supper with the Cartwrights and Mister Adam Cartwright soon made it clear that he was interested in pursuing Angelique. She believed he was genuine in his interest and she returned his attention. It wasn’t long before he proposed marriage and she accepted. She believed he loved her.”

Andrews turned and looked directly at Adam as if sizing him up. “And what of her relationships with his family?”

Hetty looked uncomfortable as she looked across at them. “Well, Mister Cartwright seemed pleased to hear that his son wished to marry. Adam’s brother, Hoss, also seemed pleased with the arrangement.”

“And what of Joseph Cartwright?”

“He struck me as an immature young man. A little spoiled by his family and he didn’t seem happy about the marriage plans. I supposed he was jealous of losing his older brother’s time and attention.”

Joe shifted forward in his seat and he felt his father’s hand across his wrist once again. Hiram had told him this would happen and warned him to stay quiet. He’d promised there would be time to cross examine and deal with any lies once he was on the stand, but Joe still found himself wanting to argue with the woman in front of him.

“And what happened on the day of the attack?”

“Objection! There has been no proof of any attack.”

Andrews sighed as if dealing with a child. “Very well. What happened on the day of the … incident that led to this court case?”

Hetty swallowed and reached for her broach once more. “We had been invited to the Ponderosa for supper and we arrived before the menfolk had arrived home from their day’s work. Little Joe was in the barn and Angelique thought she could have a word with him and try to smooth things over. It was apparent that he was not happy about the marriage plans and … well … she knew that it would help to have him on side before the marriage went ahead.”

“Go on.”

Hetty frowned as she seemed to struggle for the words. “I was inside, taking tea and I heard a scream. I was making my way out when the door opened and Adam was carrying Angelique inside. She had been injured and I didn’t know how.”

“And did you discover what had happened to Miss Johnson?”

“Angelique was distraught and I was not sure what she was saying at first. It wasn’t until Ben arrived that I heard Hoss say that his brother had lost his mind and attacked her. I could not believe what I was hearing!”

Hoss hung his head as he heard the words. It was true and he knew his own words would be used against his brother. Ahead of him, Joe tensed as he heard the same words.

“And what happened after that?”

“Somebody went to fetch the doctor and he came out to examine Angelique’s injuries. I’m just so thankful they came home when they did or this would have been so much worse.” Hetty allowed a few tears to slip as she pointed at the family.

“Thank you for you brave recount, Miss Smith. Nothing further for me, Your Honour.”

Hiram stood up and adjusted his waistcoat once more.

“Miss Smith, by your own testimony, you were not in the barn that day, correct?”

“Yes. I already said I was inside taking tea.”

“So you did not actually witness what transpired in that barn?”

“Well, no, but it was obvious by the state of Angelique’s dress and how she had been battered! That wretched young man there attempted to violate her!”

Joe glared at her as she spat at him. His father’s hand weighed heavily on his arm and his breathing had grown ragged.

“Easy, Son. You will get your chance to tell them the truth.”

Hiram walked toward the jury panel. “This woman is employed by the complainant. She is dependant upon her for financial sustenance. By her own admission, she did not witness the events in question and her testimony is nothing more than hearsay.”

He turned back towards Hetty and dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “I have nothing further for this witness, Your Honour.”

Andrews stood to his feet and looked up at the judge. “Your Honour, I call my next witness. Doctor Paul Martin.”

Chapter Sixteen

Ben tried not to frown as his friend reluctantly took the witness stand. Paul looked across at him and he could see how troubled he was to be placed in the situation he was now in.

“Doctor, I believe you were called to the Ponderosa to examine my client and treat her injuries on the night of the fifteenth.”

“That’s correct. Hoss came to get me.”

“And what did you determine when you saw the state she was in?”

Paul licked at his lip as he recalled his first sight of Angelique, lying on the couch and covered with a blanket. She had been asleep when he arrived and she had startled awake when he touched her hand. Her first response had been to scream hysterically and he had insisted on moving her into a guestroom before beginning his examination. The girl had appeared frightened out of her wits and had insisted on having Hetty by her side, clasping hold of her hand.


“Miss Johnson had bruising to her face and some marks on her back.”

“Did you determine the cause of this bruising and marks?”

“I was told the marks on her back were the result of falling against the railing in the barn.”

“Falling or being thrown against the railing?”

Paul shook his head at the question. “I have no way of determining that. Either would cause the same injury.”

Andrews withdrew a little and moved closer to Angelique.

“What about the bruises to her face?”

“I had no way to determine what caused those.”

“Really? Didn’t my client tell you that Joseph Cartwright had hit her with his fist?”

Paul shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I don’t believe that Little Joe could or would do such a thing.”

“Doctor, need I remind you that you are here in a professional capacity and you need to answer questions with a professional opinion and not a personal belief!”

Ben watched helplessly as his friend was forced to help cement Angelique’s lies.

“Doctor? Isn’t it true that my client told you that Joseph Cartwright had hit her, repeatedly?”

“Yes, she said that.”

The ripple through the court was audible as women could be heard tutting and comments being made about Joe. Once again the judge raised his gavel and glared at the room.

Andrews nodded at the crowd once more as they settled down.

“And what state was her clothing and hair in?”

Paul frowned at the prosecutor. “It was a couple of hours by the time Hoss found me and I got there.”

“That isn’t what I asked, Doctor. When you arrived to examine my client, what state was her hair and clothing in?”

“I didn’t pay any attention to her hair … but her dress was torn in several places.”

The crowd murmured again and the judge raised his gavel as if to strike it. The sound dropped again and Andrews pointed across to where Angelique was sitting.

“Torn in several places. Could you be more specific, Doctor?”

Paul appeared to consider the question as if trying to recall. He raised is hand to indicate on his own shirt. “Her sleeve was torn loose and the bodice of her dress had some ripped fabric.”

Andrews waited to allow that to sink in with the crowd.

“Is it true that you prescribed a sedative for my client to sleep as she was so distraught?”

“I prescribed a sleeping powder.”

“Because she was distraught?”

“Because I felt she needed to get some sleep!”

Paul felt his heart rate rising as he wondered where the questions would go next and what he would be forced to concede.

“Have you had reason to see my client since that day?”

“I was called to the hotel a few days later when Miss Johnson fainted in the foyer.”

“And what was your professional diagnosis for the cause of this faint?”

Paul glanced across at the young woman who sat nearby. He’d noted the kohl on her eyelashes and the heavy powder on her cheeks during his examination. She was wearing the same now and he could see the dark circles under her eyes and he wondered if they were real or applied. From where he was seated, he couldn’t be sure.

“There are many reasons why a young lady may faint. Lack of food or sleep. A too-tight corset. Not enough fresh air or a poor constitution.”

“Thank you for the medical lesson, Doctor Martin, but I am asking for a specific reason for a specific episode.”

Paul sat up a little taller in the chair as he spoke. “Well, Mister Andrews, sometimes the specific reason is not always obvious. Oftentimes, I must treat the symptoms without knowing the exact cause. That is what I did that day when Miss Johnson fainted at the hotel.”

Andrews smiled a tight-lipped smile and walked up to the jury again. “Could emotional stress bring on a fainting spell?”

“It could, but so could …”

“Just answer the question, please.” Andrews smiled at him as Paul stared back.


“Have you had reason to treat my client since that fainting spell?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Could that be because she sees you as a friend of the Cartwrights?”

“Objection, Your Honour! Doctor Martin cannot possibly know why somebody would not see him or even if they needed the service of a doctor!” Hiram sat and waited as the judge upheld his objection.

“Agreed. Mister Andrews, you will contain your questions to relevant and pertinent information.”

“Yes, Your Honour. No further questions for this witness.”

Hiram stood to his feet and walked over towards the witness stand.

“Doctor Martin, when you went to the Ponderosa that night, did you have cause to do a full examination of Miss Johnson?”

“No. I treated the marks on her back and examined the bruising.”

“While trying not to be indelicate here, was there any reason you did not feel it necessary to conduct a full examination?”

Angelique dropped her face into her hands as Hetty wrapped an arm around her shoulder.

“I was told there was no need. In fact, Miss Johnson was quite emphatic about it.”

“So the complainant refused to allow a complete examination?”


Andrews stood to his feet and held out his hands towards the judge. “Your Honour, must my client be embarrassed further?”

Hiram stepped towards his opponent and shook his head. “A young man is on trial here and facing prison and it is only fair that all doubts be dealt with, is it not?”

The judge nodded at both men. “I believe we have established the doctor’s testimony and need to move on.”

“Yes, Your Honour. I have no further questions for this witness.”

Paul visibly blew out a breath as he stepped down from the seat and he looked across to see Ben nodding at him. Joe once again stared at the floor and refused to make eye contact with anyone.

Andrews walked towards the empty witness chair and appeared to hesitate. Finally he looked up towards his client. “Your Honour, I call Miss Angelique Johnson to the stand.”

Angelique stood and leaned against the desk before slowly making her way forward. She settled into the seat and dabbed at her eyes as she tried to look at her attorney.

“Miss Johnson, I understand this will be difficult for you, and I will do my best to walk you through it. Are you ready to begin your testimony?”

“Yes, I think so.” Angelique’s voice wavered as she spoke and Andrews patted her arm.

“Miss Johnson, we have heard how you came to be involved with the Cartwright family and Adam Cartwright in particular. Would you say Miss Smith’s summary is accurate?”

“Yes, it is.”

“And you willingly entered into an engagement with Adam Cartwright?”

Angelique let out a small sob as she nodded. “I believed he wanted to marry me as much as I wanted to marry him.”

Adam stared at the woman as she painted a picture that was miles from the truth.

“And could you tell the court what was the nature of your relationship with Joseph Cartwright?”

“Well, Little Joe seemed … unhappy about my relationship with his brother. I believe he was jealous, but I also believed it would blow over, given time.”

Joe glared at her as Angelique looked towards him as if appealing to him.

“Why would Joseph be jealous of you?”

“Objection! The witness cannot know my client’s state of mind.”

Andrews held up a hand and changed tack. “Miss Johnson, what prompted your belief that Joseph was jealous?”

“Well, he would be charming when his family was watching and then make crude faces at me when he thought nobody was watching. More than once, he made snide comments to me that were out of hearing of anybody else. They were most upsetting.”

Angelique dropped her face into her hands and began to sob as she tried to go on. “It was that day in the barn that I knew it for certain. He told me that his brother wouldn’t want me after he knew that … that I had …”

Andrews reached to hold her arm as Angelique began to breathe harder. “Take a moment. It’s alright.”

“He said that he would tell Adam that I had tried to seduce him! That Adam wouldn’t want such a wanton woman for a wife. That I would never measure up to be a Cartwright wife!”

Murmurs ran through the room as Joe stood up. “That’s a lie and you know it!”

Judge Kennett banged his gavel multiple times on the bench. “That’s enough! Sit down, young man! Order! Order in my courtroom or I will clear the room.”

Ben reached to pull Joe back to his seat and he noted Hiram grasp his son’s other arm. The noise began to settle as the crowd did not want to be put outside. A few rows back, Mitch felt his father’s hand on his own arm and he realised he had been about to stand up himself. He couldn’t believe it that they had all been duped by this woman who now outright lied about his friend. He’d teased Joe about her looks and being attracted to her and he felt his stomach sink into his boots as realised what that would have felt like.

Angelique sat up a little straighter in the chair and appeared to pull herself together as the room quieted once more. As Andrews stepped closer to the jury, she waited for the next question.

“Can you tell us anything further about that dreadful day?”

“Well, I told Little Joe that I loved Adam and wanted to be his wife. He laughed at me and said he would make sure that never happened once he got done with my reputation. I reminded him that his own mother had a questionable past and yet his father overlooked that to marry her.”

Joe felt his father’s hand clench around his wrist and he set his jaw so hard that he thought he may break a tooth. Hiram had said he would counter any attack on his own story, but he hadn’t counted on his mother being dragged into the fray.

“He attacked me and tore at my clothing like a wild thing. I feared for my virtue!”

“I’m sure you did.” Andrews turned to stare at Joe as he continued on. “What made him stop before it got that far?”

“Thank goodness that Adam and Hoss arrived home. They heard me scream and came to my aid. They saved me from being violated!” Angelique clutched at her throat as her voice dropped away to a whisper.

“And what was their response to this despicable attack on you?”

“Adam hit Little Joe and then he carried me inside. I’m not clear about what happened next as I was too distressed to think clearly.”

“That’s understandable in the circumstances. Can you tell me what happened when you tried to leave the ranch the next day?”

Angelique dabbed at her eyes once more as she seemed to consider the question. Her face crumpled as she looked across at the family she now counted as enemies.

“Adam told me that I would never get to tell my story in court. He said that he would make sure I kept quiet because he would not stand for me telling the truth about his brother.”

A ripple ran through the court once again as Adam simply stared back at her. Hiram had warned them of this and he would not give her the satisfaction of responding.

“What did you take that to mean, that he would make sure you kept quiet?”

“I feared for my personal safety and for Hetty! The family has a history of silencing those who threaten to expose them. After all, that is what Benjamin Cartwright did when he first met my family.”

As much as he thought he was ready for it, Ben had still hoped Angelique would not go down the path she had stepped onto. He could feel his son’s rage as Joe struggled to keep himself in check.

“Objection! Benjamin Cartwright is not on trial here and it has been twenty years since he met the complainant’s family.”

Judge Kennett raised a hand as Andrews began to respond.

“Mister Andrews, this line of testimony had better be relevant.”

“It is, Your Honour. That will become clear if you allow us to continue.”

“You have a very short rein. Continue.”

Angelique looked across at the jury and sniffed delicately and dabbed at her nose as she tried to continue.

“Many years ago, my uncle was betrayed by an unfaithful wife and he left New Orleans to come out west in the hope of leaving behind his pain and embarrassment. He found work on the Ponderosa and when he died in an accident, his employer travelled to New Orleans to tell his grieving mother what had happened. She was heartbroken at the news.”

Ben clearly recalled the day he had broken the news to Madame de Marigny and if there was any grief, it was extremely well hidden. Instead, she had been intent on telling him about the unfaithful woman who had destroyed their family.

“The woman who had betrayed my uncle then took up with Mister Cartwright and he eventually proposed to marry her. While still in New Orleans, he became involved in an illegal duel that took the life of the man who would share the truth about her dubious past. So when Adam threatened me, I knew he would follow through on that threat. I was fearful for my own safety.”

“You’re a liar! Nobody in my family has ever threatened you!” Joe shouted across the room.

The judge banged his gavel repeatedly as the room erupted. “Silence! Young man, you will restrain yourself or I will get the sheriff to put a gag on you!”

Joe blanched at the threat, seeing the judge glaring at him. He felt hands holding him in his seat and Hoss had both hands on his shoulders.

“Be quiet!” Hiram growled in his ear as Joe felt himself trembling with anger.

“You will have your turn on the stand soon enough, but in the meantime, you will keep quiet! Is that understood?”

“Yes,” Joe managed through gritted teeth.

“Now as for the rest of you, this is my final warning. I will have respect and quiet in my courtroom.”

Andrews had stepped closer to his client as if needing to protect her and he turned towards her once more.

“Well, my dear, you may not feel so at the moment, but you are perfectly safe as the sheriff there has been notified of all these things and has seen the evidence for himself right now.” Andrews pointed across at Roy who tried his best to keep an impassive face. He didn’t believe a word of what he was hearing, but he wasn’t about to give the prosecutor any further ammunition to use against his friend and his family by appearing biased.

“I wish I could feel the same way.” Angelique shrank back against the chair and looked up at Andrews.

“I have no further questions for my client at the moment, but reserve the right to recall her to the stand.” Andrews patted her arm and smiled encouragingly as he stepped back to his seat.

Hiram slowly stood up and painstakingly adjusted his waistcoat and checked his fob watch as he moved towards the witness stand.

“Miss Johnson, based on your testimony so far, you have chosen to take us down a road involving some of the Cartwright family history. You have introduced claims into this courtroom that have been unproven. You have chosen to denigrate the character and person of Marie Cartwright and made some seriously damning claims about Benjamin Cartwright, Adam Cartwright and most importantly, Joseph Cartwright.”

“Your Honour, is there a question anywhere in this or is my colleague simply editorialising?”

The judge looked across at Hiram. “Well?”

“Yes, Your Honour, I have a whole host of questions, but I am laying the groundwork for the questions I am about to ask so that my learned colleague will not raise any objection to them. Miss Johnson and her attorney made this trial about character and family ties. I think it is only reasonable that I be allowed to explore the same with regards to her character and her family ties.”

Angelique looked horrified and tears began to dribble down her face as she dabbed at them.

“Objection, Your Honour! My client is not on trial here!” Andrews stood up with his hands on his hips, looking thoroughly indignant.

Hiram moved towards the judge and shook his head. “Your Honour, this witness has made several serious accusations on that stand about members of my client’s family. She has made some outrageous claims and her credibility is certainly on trial if this young man’s liberty depends on it.”

The judge leaned across towards the lawyer and waved a finger at him. “You have a very fine line here and I will hold you to it.”

“Yes, Your Honour.”

Hiram moved back to stand directly in between Angelique and the jury. “Miss Johnson, am I correct in stating that your uncle, Jean de Marigny was once married to the woman who later became Benjamin Cartwright’s wife and Joseph Cartwright’s mother?”


“At the time that Marie and Jean were married, was this a legally recognised marriage?”


“And yet, Jean’s mother, your grandmother, did not approve of the match?”

“I was not even born at the time, so how would I know anything about it?” Angelique’s face had hardened as she stared back at the lawyer.

“Perhaps, but I have it on good authority that this was the case and your grandmother spoke openly to you about the situation.”

“Objection, Your Honour! Who is this good authority he speaks of?”

Hiram pointed to the back of the courtroom where a man sat with his hat pulled down low. Joe and his family, along with every other person turned to see who it was and he gaped at his brother as Clay lifted his hat and smiled at him.

Angelique gasped in shock as she tried to cover her mouth with her hand. Hiram turned back towards the judge.

“Your Honour, I know this is unusual, but I would like to leave this witness for the moment and reserve the right to recall her to the stand.”

The judge narrowed his gaze as both attorneys moved in towards him. He held up a hand to stop them and pointed at the back of the courtroom.

“Just who is your witness back there?”

“Clay Stafford. He is the half brother of my client and has pertinent information that I believe the jury needs to hear.”

“Half brother?”

“Clay is the son of Jean and Marie de Marigny. He is also a cousin to Miss Johnson.”

Judge Kennett looked across to the witness stand and saw the young woman was beginning to wilt in the seat. Before he could speak, Angelique slipped sideways from the chair onto the floor in a dead faint. Hetty was on her feet and half way across the room before anyone could stop her.

Chapter Seventeen

Paul stood to his feet before he thought about it and found himself hurrying across the room in spite of the cynical voice in his ear telling him that Angelique should try for a career on the stage. He saw Roy pulling Hetty aside as he knelt down and patted at Angelique’s face. The skin beneath his fingers felt cool to the touch and there was no sign of clamminess. He barely held back what he wanted to say, acutely aware that an entire room full of people were watching.

“Miss Johnson, can you hear me?”

“Darling, please wake up!” Hetty pushed in next to him and Paul felt a flush of irritation as the woman tried to take over.

“Please, give her some air.”

Finally, after a few minutes of Hetty patting at her face while Paul kept a finger on her wrist, noting a calm and normal pulse, Angelique began to stir. Her eyes fluttered open and she gasped at the faces crowded overhead.

“Oh my.” She raised a hand to her face as her eyes fluttered a little more. Paul found himself biting his tongue as he reached a hand out to clasp her hand and placed his other hand behind her back.

“Let’s try to sit you up. Slowly now.”

Angelique looked around the room as if unsure of what had happened.

“How do you feel, my dear?” Hetty knelt beside her while still gripping Angelique’s hand.

“Dreadful. What happened?”

“You fainted again. This whole ordeal is too much for you. It’s cruel that you are forced to face this.”

Paul frowned at the comment, knowing that the members of the jury could hear it all.

“Might I suggest we take you out of here for some fresh air and a glass of something?”

Paul began to stand up and tugged his patient to her feet without waiting for an answer. On her other side, Roy Coffee had a firm grasp of her arm as the two men steered Angelique towards the back of the courtroom. Fresh murmurs arose around them as the group headed out of the room. Clay sat against the wall and smiled as Angelique ignored him.

Judge Kennett had his hands full trying to quieten the room since the court had clearly moved into a recess without his orders.

“Silence!” He banged the gavel repeatedly until the crowd finally began to respond and the conversation dropped off. “This court will be in recess until I recall it. Members of the jury will be escorted to the side room and sequestered there. Deputy, please remove the jury and make sure nobody enters that room until they are recalled.”

Joe sat and watched as the jury shuffled past. Some of the looks he got were sympathetic and then Mark Brady paused in front of the desk and stared at him for a moment before the deputy prodded him forward. Joe returned the stare without flinching, but his father could see the effort it cost him. He had hoped that Brady could have put aside the bad blood between them and done his job impartially, but now Ben wondered if the man would take opportunity to disparage his son with the other jurors where nobody could intervene. As the last juror left the room, Joe blew out a sharp breath and he raised a trembling hand to brush his hair back. He felt his brothers’ hands on his back and he dared not look around, lest he give way to the angry tears that threatened.

“Mister Wood, you will ensure your client does not leave this room. For any reason. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Your Honour.”

“Mister Andrews, I suggest you see to your client and we get this show back on the road. I have a circuit to complete and do not intend to be detained here any longer than is required. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Your Honour.”

“Now, since we are in recess, the deputy can recall me as soon as the complainant is back in the room.” The judge banged his gavel for good measure, stood up and stalked out of the room, not stopping to speak to either of the deputies who stood guard on the far door.

The room erupted as the townspeople began to discuss what had just happened and what they expected would still come. Many turned to get a closer look at Clay although none spoke to him directly. They gawked as he stood up and made his way up to where Ben was sitting beside Joe. Hiram pointed to the seat that Andrews had been using.

“Grab that while he isn’t needing it.”

Clay pulled the chair closer and turned it backwards before straddling it. He leaned over the back of the chair and grinned at Joe. “Surprise!”

In spite of the tension in the room, Joe smiled back. “I figured you were half way to Mexico by now.”

“I thought about it, but I decided saving your hide was a far better use of my time.”

“Did you bring the letter?” Hiram had no time for small talk, given they had no idea how long the recess would be.

“Sure did. Right here.” Clay patted at his pocket.

“What letter?” Ben leaned forward as he turned towards the lawyer.

“Just something I asked for Clay to bring with him.”

“What? How would you have known Clay would even be here?” Joe stared at the man before turning his attention back to his brother.

“Well, that’s a long story that we can talk about once this is over. But let’s just say that Angelique isn’t going to be too happy to see me on the witness stand.”

“If you get on the stand!” Hoss muttered to himself as he looked back towards the closed doors at the rear of the room.

“He’ll get there. The judge isn’t going to wait forever for Angelique to reappear. He’s in a hurry to get out of here.”

“So am I!” Joe turned towards his brothers and was pulled up short by the faces behind them. Many were people he knew and yet the glares and open reproach from many of them was startling. As he felt himself beginning to waver again, he noted Mitch and his parents a few rows back. Mitch nodded at him and tried to smile. It wasn’t his usual toothy grin, but it was enough. Somebody in the room besides his family was on his side.

Katie felt her father’s hand squeeze hers as she watched Joe scan the sea of faces. Her knees felt like jelly as she considered the very real possibility she would be called up to the witness stand and what it would cost her and her family. As she watched the Cartwright family close ranks around Little Joe, she felt a measure of confidence building within her. If they could weather this almighty storm, then she could manage a little squall.

Paul watched as his patient took the last sip of her tea. She had taken her time about it and had complained that it was far too sweet for her tastes. He had insisted she drink it with the extra sugar as she obviously needed it and he did not want her fainting again.

He tried not to intrude on the quiet conversation as Hetty held out the small black purse she had retrieved from their hotel room. He was not given any clue what was in it or why she needed it, but Angelique had insisted that Hetty go and get it while she drank her tea. Paul half expected he would be asked to leave the room while Angelique reapplied her makeup or some such nonsense, but it never eventuated and he soon forgot all about it.

A short couple of raps on the door was all the notice they got before Roy’s deputy pushed the door open and announced the judge had reached his limit and they needed to be back in the court.

“Ready, my dear?” Hetty reached for Angelique’s hand and patted it.

“No, but we must get the awful business done.”

Paul watched with a cynical eye as Angelique stood to her feet and swayed a little before she made her way towards the door.

“Yes, we must,” he muttered under his breath as he followed them out into the corridor.

By the time the judge had his courtroom under way again, Joe felt the weight settle back over him once more. Angelique had elicited multiple looks of sympathy as she slowly made her way back to her seat. Mitch had said it to him all those weeks ago that Angelique was irresistible and Joe was seeing it play out before him. It seemed all she had to do was flutter those eyelashes or swoon a little and everybody was fussing over her. He could see Adam’s clenched jaw as he stared at his former fiancée and Joe felt his gut churning with anger once more. She had duped them all and it seemed she still had many eating out her dainty, manicured hand.

“Gentlemen, are we ready to recommence?”

“I believe so, Your Honour.” Andrews looked at his client and appeared concerned despite his assurance.

Hiram stood up as he nodded. “Yes, Your Honour. And I would like to call Mister Clay Stafford to the stand.”

“Objection, Your Honour. This witness was not listed as appearing today. I have had no time to confer with my client.”

“Overruled. You had sufficient time during the recess to discuss the matter. Now, as I said already, I intend to have this trial done today so we will not be wasting any more time.”

Clay stood up from where he had squeezed in next to Hoss and winked at Joe as he walked forward. Hiram followed him to the witness stand.

“Mister Stafford, can you please explain for the court how you are connected to the Cartwright family?”

“Sure. My mother, Marie de Marigny was married to Jean de Marigny until his death. She later married Ben Cartwright and had another son – Little Joe.”

“So you and my client are half brothers?”

“Yes, we are.”

“And you are also a cousin to Miss Johnson? Is that correct?”

“Yes, it is.”

“And when did you first make the acquaintance of your brother?”

“Less than a couple of months ago.”

“Why has it taken so long for you to meet each other?”

“Well, until last year, I didn’t even know Joe existed.”

Hiram turned back to eye the jury as he continued. “Could you explain for these gentlemen why that was so?”

“My father’s family lied to my mother and told her I died when I was only a baby. We both had a fever and she believed I died while I was raised believing that she had died.”

“What a travesty! Why would a family do such a thing to a mother and child?”

Clay stared straight at Angelique as he answered. “Because my grandmother did not believe my mother was worthy of the de Marigny name and she engineered things so my mother was publicly dishonoured and driven out of the family home. My father deserted her and she thought she was alone in the world.”

Angelique stared back at him as Clay looked around the room to gauge the impact of his words. The murmur that rippled across the room was quickly silenced as if they were waiting for the next juicy detail.

“Your grandmother. I have heard of Madame de Marigny. She has been quite a formidable force in New Orleans for many years.

“Objection, Your Honour. This is not about what Mister Wood has heard. Does he have a relevant question in there?”

“I do, Your Honour.” Hiram turned back towards the jury as he started again. “Mister Stafford, would you classify the de Marigny family as a warm, close family?”

Clay snorted as he shook his head. “Nope! Unless you consider a cottonmouth snake to be warm.”

Angelique’s breathing grew more agitated as she glared at her cousin. Hetty had a calming hand laid across her wrist, but it wasn’t doing much.

“What makes you say that about your own family?”

“Well, I know they don’t consider me family, since my own grandmother tried to have me murdered as a baby.”

A ripple ran through the court and the judge raised his gavel as if to strike the bench.

“Murdered?” Hiram’s voice rose as he turned on his heel and paced back towards his witness.

“Well, my grandmother believed my mother was not worthy of her son and after driving her away, she needed to be rid of me as well.”

“Objection, Your Honour! The witness cannot possibly know what his grandmother may or may not have believed.”

“I can if she told me so herself!” Clay glared at the attorney as Andrews looked towards the judge.

“Mister Stafford, you will only address Mister Woods or myself. Is that understood?”

“Yes sir, umm, Your Honour. But I know what Madame de Marigny thought since she told me so.”

“Objection overruled.”

Hiram shook his head slowly and deliberately as he walked back towards the witness stand.

“Murder? Couldn’t they have simply adopted you out? Murder is a rather extreme option to a problem, wouldn’t you say?”

“To most people, yes. But not in New Orleans high society. I was adopted, but only because somebody intervened and saved my life. Besides, murder in New Orleans is more common than you would think. It’s more important to uphold the family honour than anything else.” Clay glanced over to see Angelique looked about fit to boil over while Hetty stared at him with open hatred.

“Is this the only instance of attempted murder in your family saga?”


“No?” Hiram looked genuinely shocked as he strolled past the jury again.

“Angelique had a younger brother. His name was Francois and he died when he was only twelve years old.”

Angelique shot to her feet and raised a fist as she screamed, “You leave Francois out of this! He was just a child!”

“A dead child! A murdered, dead child!” Clay shot back at her as the judge began to bang his gavel again.

“Order! The witness will restrain himself! Mister Wood, you will get your witness under control and Mister Andrews, you will control your client!”

Andrews had already tugged Angelique back into her seat and she looked as if she may pass out again as her face had blanched white as a sheet. She was urgently whispering something to Hetty as tears streaked down her face.

Hiram walked up to Clay and rested a hand on his arm as if to contain him. The courtroom was dead silent as the crowd leaned forward in anticipation of what could be revealed next.

“Mister Stafford, that is an extreme accusation. I hope you have something to back it up.”

Clay patted at his top pocket as he stared directly at Angelique. “What would you say if I had a telegram from the police in New Orleans confirming that Francois de Marigny died from slow arsenic poisoning that was ordered by his own grandmother?”

“That’s a vile lie! How dare you throw such filth on my brother’s memory and speak such lies about my grandmother?” Angelique was on her feet again and Andrews was trying to pull her back into the seat once more. “Let me go!”

The crowd began to mutter as the accusation began to sink in and the judge began banging his gavel and shouting for order, to no avail. As Clay sat and stared at Angelique, nobody was paying any attention to Hetty as she slipped something out of the small black purse.

“Don’t worry, my dear. I will do what I always do and take care of you.”

The look on her face changed from anger to oddly serene as she slowly stood up and raised her hand. It was Ben who saw it first and he launched out of his seat as Hetty took aim and squeezed the trigger. He collided with her and pushed her sideways into Angelique who toppled into her lawyer’s arms. The sound of the shot echoed in the small room and the crowd truly erupted.

Chapter Eighteen

Chairs toppled as several people tried to get up and away from the gun before it could be fired again. Roy sprang forward from where he was standing and found himself blocked as two women pushed into the gap between their seats and the closed door. He manhandled them both aside and was about to squeeze past when one of the women’s husbands pushed the sheriff backwards as he scrambled towards his wife.

Joe heard the screams as if they were coming from a distance. He knew it in his gut before he saw the proof for himself; his father was dead and it was all because of him. He felt the ground move under his feet and had no idea that it was actually his feet stumbling forward as he pushed around the desk and grasped at his father as he fell backwards. Joe’s slight build was no match for the weight and he collapsed to the floor with his arms wrapped around his father’s chest. As Ben landed on top of him, Joe felt the breath leave his lungs and he struggled to draw another. His hands grasped desperately at his father’s shirt, hoping that he was wrong, but knowing that he wasn’t.

“Pa!” The word was no more than a desperate whisper as his left hand felt the warmth flowing between his fingertips. “Pa! Hold on.”

Ben shifted against him and groaned as he tried to sit up. Joe looked up to see his brothers coming towards him when a bullet slammed into the floorboard in front of Adam’s boot. Hoss crashed into the back of him as Adam stopped so suddenly and Joe saw Adam trying to slow their combined momentum by reaching for the edge of the desk.

“Don’t move!” Hetty screeched as she waved the revolver around wildly. “Don’t any of you move unless you want to die too!”

All across the room, men pulled their womenfolk closer and tried to settle the noise before Hetty decided to shoot anybody else. Katie pulled in beside her father and noted the anger in the woman who she knew would follow through on her threats.

“Hetty, what are you doing?” Angelique disentangled herself from her lawyer’s arms and tentatively stepped closer with her hands outstretched.

“This court is a farce! This is not justice! This is a travesty!” Hetty pointed the weapon towards Joe’s head as she felt Angelique grip her free hand. “And it’s your fault. You Cartwrights think you are above the law.”

Joe stared back at the woman as she glared at him with naked hatred.

“This is my court room. And until a few minutes ago, it was following legal procedure.” Judge Kennett bellowed from his seat. “Nobody is above the law.”

“Nobody asked you!” Hetty barely looked up as she fired a shot just over the judge’s head that splintered wood from the wall. Judge Kennett ducked his head as screams carried across the room.

“Shut up!” Hetty glanced around the room at the men and women who had come for a day’s entertainment. “Courts do not deliver justice. Sometimes we must bring true justice ourselves.”

“Hetty, please don’t do this,” Angelique pleaded as Hetty flicked her hand loose and stalked closer to the two men still sprawled on the floor.

Roy saw his two deputies with drawn guns and he waved a hand at them to lower the weapons. He had no idea what the woman would do next, but he was guessing that she still probably had three more shots left in that revolver of hers and he didn’t want the next one taking a life if he could prevent it.

“I’m doing this for you, child. Everything I do is for you. Always!” Hetty moved towards Ben and began to circle around like a coyote sizing up its dinner. She pointed towards the witness chair where Clay sat with his hands gripping the edge of the dock. “You should be up there, Benjamin Cartwright. It’s you who should be on trial here. Not Angelique and not the reputation of the family I swore a vow to serve faithfully. You brought nothing but misery with you to New Orleans and left a trail of destruction in your wake.”

Joe gripped his father’s chest as he felt the blood still oozing from between his fingers. “Leave him alone! He needs a doctor. Now!”

Ben tried to speak and found himself struggling to keep his eyes open. Hetty surged forward and once more aimed for Joe’s head.

“If you don’t keep your mouth shut, I will put another bullet in him.”

She shifted the weapon towards his father’s head and Joe gripped tighter as he stared back at her and somehow managed to keep silent.

“Now get up.”

Joe clenched his hands even tighter as he shook his head. “He’s bleeding out. I can’t let go or he’ll die.”

Hetty’s face went from furious to a twisted smile in seconds. “Good. That’s a just judgement right there. Alright then, have it your way. You can both testify from the floor where you belong.”

Hetty stepped closer and kicked at Ben’s leg. “Wake up. You are going to answer the questions you have avoided for all these years.”

Ben groaned as he tried to make sense of what was happening. He could feel arms around his chest and he heard something being whispered in his ear. He knew the voice, but the words made no sense. Joe tried again as he couldn’t get a response.

“Pa, can you hear me?”

Hetty kicked at him once more and Joe saw the muzzle of the revolver waving in front of his face, only inches from his father’s temple.

“He can’t hear you! If you want answers, ask me. I’m the one you put on trial.”

Hetty laughed as she straightened up again. “You mean you’re the one who was gullible enough to bait?”

“Hetty, don’t!” Angelique slipped closer. “Please don’t.”

“Why ever not? He’s a little fool who thought he could outsmart us. He has his mother’s blood in his veins. Filthy whore’s blood!”

Joe flinched at the spiteful words and he felt his father’s hand slip over his own.

“Don’t bite, Joe.” The words were soft and breathy, but he caught them. “That’s what she wants you to do.”

Joe felt his breath catch as he heard the words. His father sounded so weak and yet so strong in the same moment.

“The whore you brought back to avoid her disgrace in New Orleans. The devoted mother who abandoned her infant son and ran off with her lover.”

“There was no lover and you know it. Madame de Marigny set her up.” Ben felt the old anger rising up from his gut and he struggled to sit up. He wasn’t going to allow his wife’s name to be dragged through the mud yet again.

Hetty laughed as she turned back to face the courtroom. “That’s what he would have you all believe. The high and mighty Benjamin Cartwright who married his whore after he killed her husband.”

“Jean died in an accident.” Ben’s voice was gaining some strength as he tried to make himself heard. “Some of you were there that day.”

As Hetty paced across in front of the crowded room, her revolver stayed firm in her hand and nobody was sure where the next shot may go.

“Jean was weak! Like all men.” Hetty’s rage was building as she turned back towards her target. “Like you! And those sons of yours. All weak!”

Angelique had heard those words all her life. Men were weak. They had a fatal flaw when it came to women. She clasped her hands together as she considered how many times the woman in front of her had said those very same words. Drummed it into her. Urged her never to fall prey to a man.

“And you too.” Hetty stalked towards Clay and aimed the revolver squarely at his chest. “You thought you could throw your weight around and intimidate Angelique, but look at you now. Cowering before me, knowing you are about to die too.”

Clay gripped at the front of the witness stand and found himself staring at the wrong end of a gun. It wasn’t the first time the family had tried to kill him, but it may well be the last. He figured he might as well take her with him if he was going down and he pointed a finger straight back at Hetty.

“So you’re going to kill me, just like you killed Francois?”

An audible stir ran through the room, but Hetty didn’t bat an eyelid as she aimed the gun even closer.

“Was he weak too? Was he just another weak male who deserved to die?”

As Hetty’s back was turned, Adam saw his moment. He glanced across at Angelique, knowing full well that it would only take one scream to turn that gun back his way. She seemed entranced by the argument going on about her brother and Adam took another step.

“Did my beloved grandmother order his death too as this letter says?” Clay slowly reached into his pocket and withdrew an envelope before waving it in front of his tormentor. He could see Hetty following his hand and he waved it towards her again. “Doctor’s records of arsenic poisoning over a lengthy period of time.”

Hetty glared at him as Clay smiled at her.

“Or was she too weak as well to do it? Was she really just another weak woman who was ruled by her man and too scared to act?” Clay knew he had pushed the right nerve as Hetty exploded.

“Madame did what had to be done. As did I.”

“And what was that exactly? She couldn’t have blood on her own hands so she sent others in to do her dirty work. Was it you who fed him the poison?”

Clay could see Adam sneaking closer and he hoped he could keep Hetty’s focus on him without getting shot in the process. He snapped his fingers as he leaned forward.

“I get it. Really I do. It was all about the money. If there were two heirs and one of them died, all the money went to Angelique. Except she didn’t count on me showing up and laying claim to my share. As the son of the oldest son, the family owes me!” Clay pointed to his own chest as if to emphasise the matter. “And I intend to collect my dues.”

Clay knew he had really hit the mark when Hetty’s face twisted into a snarl and she rushed towards him.

“You are nothing! You are not a true de Marigny at all! Your mother could have slept with anybody! You will not take one penny of Angelique’s inheritance.”

Clay leapt sideways out of his seat as she squeezed the trigger. He knocked her arm away and the shot went wild, shattering a glass window.

“Hetty! Noooo!” Angelique screamed as Adam pushed forward and grasped Hetty by the waist, swinging her towards him and pinning her arms. Joe saw his brother’s back jerk violently as the gun fired again and again. Adam staggered back with Hetty still entwined in his arms. Roy rushed across the room from one side as Hoss ran from the other. He reached Adam, fully expecting his brother to drop to the floor and was stunned to see Hetty with her head laid against his chest. Her hand hung limp and they both heard the gun clatter to the wooden floor by Adam’s boots.

Adam gently lowered the woman to the floor and dropped onto the floor himself as Angelique hurled herself onto the other side of Hetty. She grasped at her hand and patted at her face as she tried desperately to rouse her.

“Hetty! Please, don’t leave me.” Tears streaked down her face as Angelique tried again. “Hetty! Can you hear me?”

Hoss pulled Adam clear as Paul pushed his way into the empty spot and he began to pat down his brother’s chest. He could feel the damp stickiness of blood in the dark fabric and he frowned as he looked up. Adam pushed his hands away as he shook his head.

“I’m not hit. It’s her blood.”

“You sure ’bout that?”

“I’m sure.”

Angelique tried to pull Hetty into her arms and Paul didn’t bother stopping her, knowing what was coming. The beautiful and elegant young woman who had held court in the town for weeks was a dishevelled mess as she rocked on the floor with the older woman in her arms. Blood trailed across her skirt and Paul made no effort to stop it. There was far too much for him to be able to do anything of use.

“I did it for you, child. It was all for you.” Hetty smiled as she looked up into Angelique’s face. The smile slowly faded as her eyes sipped closed and Angelique buried her face in Hetty’s hair and began to sob.

Later that night as Joe thought back on things and saw it all playing out again and again, the one thing he couldn’t shake was the certainty he was about to lose his father.


Paul turned from one side to the other and reached to remove Joe’s hand from his father’s chest. The bloodflow was still sluggish and he quickly pushed Joe’s hand back into place. “Keep the pressure on that.”

Roy pushed his way into view and Paul looked up at a sea of faces.

“Get him down to my surgery. I’m going ahead to start prepping what I need.” As Paul climbed to his feet, he saw Hoss lean down and hoist his father into his arms. The fact his patient didn’t make a sound scared him more than anything else had in the entire day.

Chapter Nineteen

Joe scrambled to his feet and began to follow his brothers and father towards the door.

“Young man!”

Joe kept going, oblivious to the judge’s call. He frowned as one of the deputies stepped in front of him and was about to shove him aside when the judge called out again.

“Joseph Cartwright!”

The deputy on the door had only been deputised for the course of the trial as Roy understood the level of interest in the case as well as the agitation that Angelique had stirred up in the town. He’d anticipated possible trouble, but nothing like what had actually happened. The deputy looked sympathetically towards Joe, but still held up both hands as if to stop him. Joe saw Adam pause in the doorway before waving Hoss on his way. He looked torn between following one brother and staying to see what the issue was for the other one.

“Go with Pa. I’ll be there in a minute.” Joe nodded as Adam rushed out the door and out of his view before he turned back towards the judge. “What?”

“I’ll excuse the tone of voice just once, but this court is not adjourned yet.”

Joe was barely aware of the sea of faces around him as he strode towards the judge’s bench. He was about to argue when Judge Kennett held up a hand to forestall him.

“Son, I know you want to go with them and that will happen in a moment. But first, we have a few legalities to take care of on your behalf. Given what has just transpired, I am declaring a mistrial. The plaintiff still has the right to a retrial so I wouldn’t be leaving town any time soon if I were you.”

Joe looked across to where Angelique still sat on the floor clutching Hetty’s body to her chest. As much as his father had taught him a respect for life, he couldn’t muster an ounce of sympathy for either of them in that moment. He turned back and stepped up in front of the judge.

“So I can go?”

“Yes, you are free to go.”

Joe didn’t bother with anything further as he bolted towards the door. The judge leaned across the bench and pointed towards the jury panel. “Gentlemen, you are also free to go and I thank you for your service.” None of them rushed to leave their seats as the entire room still seemed stunned by what they had just witnessed. A few murmurs began across the hushed room as the townsfolk began to process what happened and what it all meant.

Even as the judge was speaking, Roy had crouched down beside Angelique. “Miss, why don’t you let me take care of her now?”

Angelique tugged Hetty closer and kept stroking at her hair as if she would wake up at any moment. “No! Don’t you touch her! None of you will touch her!”

Clay stepped out from the witness chair and hesitated before moving towards them. He wasn’t sure what to expect or what to say, but wasn’t surprised when Angelique began to scream at him.

“This is your fault! You did this!”

Clay swallowed hard and stood still, uncertain of what to do next. He could see the two deputies ushering people out through the back door, but Angelique was oblivious to them all. She stared at him with open hatred as tears still slid down her face. The fine powder and rouge had long since washed away and dark streaks of kohl stained both cheeks. He had never seen her looking anything less than totally in control of herself and for a moment the image struck him like a slap in the face. Suddenly another image welled up and he shook himself as he recalled a night where he sat and held his father as he died from a bullet wound. The grief he had stuffed down deep began to seep up again and he unconsciously clenched both fists as if to take on some invisible opponent.

“You did this to yourself. You and your sick idea of family honour! Thank God I’m a Stafford and not a de Marigny.” With that, Clay pulled himself upright and strode out of the courtroom. He knew where the doctor’s office was, but was suddenly uncertain if he would be welcome there. For a moment, he stood outside the door and pulled in a few deep breaths as if it would help clear his head. Finally, he turned and headed down the boardwalk.

Paul felt the probe move again as he pushed it into the hole. He knew he was dangerously close to the left lung and he had no wish to push the bullet through. So far, his patient was still breathing evenly under the ether mask and he prayed he could keep it that way. He’d know very quickly if his probe caused a lung puncture. Finally he felt a little more resistance and knew he’d found the edge of the bullet. He blew out a slow breath to steady himself and began the delicate process of extracting it as blood welled up from the wound as he worked. He found himself in a desperate trade off for time as he couldn’t afford to rush what he was doing, but his patient could ill afford any further loss of blood.

Outside in the waiting room, Hoss sat slumped on a chair, staring at the blood that coated his hands and shirt. Adam leaned up against a windowsill while Joe was slowly pacing the room. He had burst through the door a good twenty minutes earlier, his breath coming in great heaving bursts. They both knew he had sprinted from the courthouse, but had barely said two words about why he was delayed. There would be plenty of time for that conversation later and for the moment neither brother attempted to interrupt his pacing. It was simply how Joe dealt with his agitation and both knew better than to get in the way.

Suddenly the door swung open and Clay stood on the threshold. He seemed uncertain about what kind of reception he would get and he waited to see if he would be invited in or turfed out into the street. Finally, Adam stepped forward and nodded at him.

“Take a seat. Pa’s still in with the doctor.”

“Well, that’s good.” Clay slowly made his way across to a seat near where Hoss was as Joe rounded on him.

“Good? How is any of this good?”

“Easy, Joe. I just meant it was good that … well, that he is still alive and not …” Clay held up both hands as Joe glared at him.

“Dead! Because you provoked that crazy woman!”

Adam took a couple of steps closer, but refrained from touching his brother. “Joe, nobody could have foreseen what Hetty would do.”

“He knew! He knew how crazy she was. How else would he have had a telegram saying what she did to Angelique’s brother? He knew!”

Clay stayed seated as Joe pointed a finger in his face, having decided that standing up would only anger his brother further.

“Wait up a minute.” He tugged the paper out of his pocket and began to unfold it. “There is no telegram. It was a bluff. I told Hiram about it and he agreed that we needed to expose the family way of doing things.”

“You mean you lied under oath?” Hoss stared at Clay as he took in the words.

“No, I didn’t. I said, ‘suppose I had a telegram right here’. I didn’t say that I did have one and that is not lying under oath.”

Hoss narrowed his gaze as he stared at Clay and then noted that Adam didn’t look at all surprised. “You knew about this too?”

Adam nodded in agreement as his brothers both gaped at him. “We spoke with Hiram about how to make use of Clay’s testimony. Joe, we needed to expose the de Marigny family in order to save you. Pa knew about it and agreed to it as well.”

Joe felt his mouth go dry as he took in the information. “Your plan could have gotten Pa killed.”

Adam moved towards him and Joe stepped backwards away from his hand. “I’ll never forgive you … either of you … if Pa dies!”

Roy had his hands full trying to oversee the removal of Hetty’s body from the courtroom while trying to give her some measure of dignity. He had sent for some blankets from the hotel and she had been wrapped in two of them. A third was draped around Angelique as she stood to one side while two of his deputies lifted the body from the floor.

“Which way we gonna take her?”

“Out the back. Don’t need a street full of gawkers. Get her down to the undertakers and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Angelique began to follow when Roy grasped her arm. “Now, Miss, you don’t need to go with them. They’ll take care of things with Harry when they get there.”

“But Hetty needs me!”

“You can see her again once Harry’s wife is done with getting her all presentable. Now, let’s see about getting you back to your room at the hotel.”

Angelique seemed intent on resisting, but Roy had enough years of dealing with the roughest of men to be able to steer one trembling woman across to the door and out onto the street. The crowd had thinned somewhat, but there were still pockets of people milling about as if waiting to see what would happen next. He kept his gaze straight ahead and a firm hand on Angelique’s elbow as he directed her down the boardwalk. In the few minutes it took to reach the hotel, they had collected quite a few stares, not so whispered comments and even a few snide remarks about things like just desserts. Roy could feel Angelique shaking beside him and he wondered if it was anger, fear or grief. Whatever the case, he had little sympathy for the young woman who had wrought havoc in his town.

As they entered the hotel foyer, it became apparent that somebody had forewarned the manager and he was waiting for them at the desk. He had ordered a bath be sent up to the suite and a maid was standing in the shadows with a pile of towels.

“Miss Johnson’s quarters have been prepared for her and Rachel will be available for anything she may need.”

Roy nodded in appreciation as he climbed the stairs with his hand still firmly directing Angelique. Rachel traipsed up the stairs behind them and he smiled at the girl who looked petrified. The door had been unlocked and he pushed it open to continue on into the suite. He released Angelique’s elbow and tipped his hat towards her.

I’ll leave you to get cleaned up and get yourself settled. I have a few things to follow up on, but if you need me before I get back, send down to the front desk and somebody’ll come get me.”

Angelique stared at him as Roy crossed back towards the door.

“And I’m sorry for your loss, Miss Johnson.”

Rachel had slipped into the other room with the towels and she edged back out towards the woman who had held court in the hotel up until a few hours ago.

“Ma’am, could I help you with the buttons?”

“What?” Angelique looked as if she hadn’t noticed the girl before.

“Your buttons. On your dress. So’s you can take that bath.”

As if only just seeing the blood for the first time, Angelique looked down at her hands and ran them down the front of her dress.

“No. You can leave.”

With that, she walked towards the other door and pulled it shut behind her, leaving Rachel standing alone in the front room. The maid chewed her lip as she wondered what to do next, but finally decided she had been handed a reprieve and hurried towards the outer door.

Inside the other room, Angelique began to twist open the buttons on her dress. It was a job she rarely had to do alone and she struggled to get them free. As anger began to well up within her, her fingers pulled harder until a few buttons ripped free and plopped onto the floor. Anger turned to rage and she grabbed at the silk fabric and pulled with all her might. More buttons began to fling off the dress and hit the floor before she finally managed to struggle free. As she stood and stared at the puddle of fabric around her feet, she noted the blood had seeped through onto her underthings. She began to sob as she pulled the corset lacings free and finally slid into the tub of hot, bubbly water.

It would be hours later that she climbed out of a stone cold tub, knowing that no amount of water could ever wash away what had been done. As she slipped into the bed, it wasn’t long before exhaustion claimed her and the dreams began.

Paul wiped his hands on the towel and noted the amount of blood in the washbowl. It was far too much for his liking. He’d stitched up the bleeder and it seemed to have stemmed the blood flow, but he wasn’t convinced it was enough. As he placed the towel back on the rail, he slowly headed for the door. He’d heard raised voices earlier, but was too busy to focus on the words. It didn’t surprise him that emotions were running high on the other side of the door, but as he stepped out into the waiting room, he was surprised to see Joe on his own across the room, well away from his brothers. He didn’t have time to find out why before all four of them stood up and moved towards him and he held up a hand to forestall questions.

“Your father made it through the surgery to remove the bullet. He is still asleep from the ether.”

He saw all four faces register their relief in different ways, but there was none of what he had come to expect from this family. There’d been more than enough times where he had been called to treat an injury or an illness with an unknown outcome and he’d always seen them draw together. Something was very wrong as he glanced around the group and saw none of the usual backslapping or such.

“Your father has lost a lot of blood. He was still bleeding during the surgery and I need to keep a close eye on him.”

“But he’s gonna be alright, isn’t he?”

“Little Joe, I hope so.”

“You hope so!”

Paul dared reach a hand out to place on Joe’s shoulder and he could feel the tremors beneath his fingers.

“Your pa is a stubborn man. He isn’t going to quit and neither will I.”

“Can I see him?”

Paul stepped back and waved at the door. “Don’t wake him.”

He waited until the three brothers had traipsed inside before turning to Clay. The unspoken question was obvious.

“I don’t think I belong in there at the moment.”

Paul didn’t answer as he was inclined to agree, even if he wasn’t entirely sure why. Clay moved closer and his voice dropped to little more than a whisper.

“Is he going to make it?”

The doctor noted something in the young man’s expression that surprised him. Up to that moment, he had only thought of Clay Stafford as Marie Cartwright’s firstborn son or Little Joe’s half brother. But there was something more that Clay quickly sought to cover. The man who had already lost two families looked like he could well lose a third one. As much as the doctor had tried to bring hope to Little Joe with his limited comments, he knew that he wasn’t looking at a sixteen-year-old youth from a loving family. Clay had lived in the world and knew exactly how harsh it could be. He wasn’t looking for comfort and needed an honest answer.

“I don’t know.”


Chapter Twenty

Matt could hear the commotion from outside the jail and he stood up to go and see what was happening. He liked the Cartwright kid and he hoped that noise didn’t mean he was being dragged back and being locked up, ready for the prison wagon. The newly-appointed deputy glanced down at his shiny new deputy badge and frowned at it. He’d accepted the few weeks’ pay from the sheriff since he needed the money and he’d figured guard duty and helping to keep the peace was an easy enough way to earn it. The two fellas Roy had locked up had been mouthy enough, but he’d shut the door and poured himself another coffee. The idea of locking up Little Joe in that same cell didn’t sit well with him and he hesitated before pulling the front door open. As he stepped out onto the porch, he was surprised to see groups of townspeople gathered together and talking animatedly. Something had clearly happened at the court, but there was no sign of Roy or the kid.

“Hey! Walt!” Matt waved the man over as he walked past. “What’s going on?”

“Ben Cartwright got shot.”

What!” Matt hurried down the steps to meet the man. “Who shot him? Is he alright?”

Walt shook his head slowly as if trying to find the right words to explain. “That Smith woman. She’s one crazy old crow. Hoss’n Adam took Ben down to the docs. He was still alive when they left the courthouse, but he was bleedin’ real bad.”

Walt lifted his hat and scratched at his head. He still looked dazed as he continued on. “Then she tried to shoot Joe and that Clay fella, but Adam grabbed her and she shot herself. I don’t think it was on purpose since she seemed real mad at all of them.”

“Thanks, I think.” Matt clapped him on the shoulder as he turned to head back up the steps. Maybe the story they’d been told about their two prisoners wasn’t so far from the truth after all. He had to admit he’d been sceptical, but it seemed the older woman was capable of much more than it appeared. He paused before going back in and glanced up the street towards Doctor Martin’s office. He assumed his boss would be heading there as soon as he was done at the courthouse and he needed to stay put with their prisoners until told otherwise.

Joe stood and stared at his father. The blood had been wiped away and a large white bandage was wrapped around his chest, but it didn’t hide what he knew was underneath. His father’s face was almost as white as the sheet and the bandaging that covered him. His breathing was rough and even in sleep they could see the pain it was causing. Hoss moved around to the far side of the bed and Adam followed suit. Both of them spotted the shredded shirt that had been left on the far bench alongside the bowl of bloodied water and a wet hand towel. Neither of them commented at the sight.


“Doc said not to wake him.”

Joe looked up to see Hoss watching him and he frowned. He’d heard the same instruction, but he couldn’t help himself. He needed to hear his father’s voice and in its absence, he reached for his hand instead. The fingers felt cold to the touch and instead of wrapping around his, they sat like a dead weight in his own hand.

“He’s cold.” Joe felt panic rise up and he touched his father’s face as if to reassure himself he was still breathing.

“He’s lost a great deal of blood and that has lowered his body temperature.”

All three turned to see the doctor behind them and he gathered another blanket to drape over his patient.

“If he doesn’t show signs of improving in the next hour, there is something I can try, but it’s not without risk.”

“What?” Adam knew his father trusted their doctor with all of their lives and had done so many times, but he couldn’t shake the niggling doubt that bubbled up at Paul’s hesitant comment.

The doctor leaned over to check his patient’s pulse and frowned as he counted. “It’s called a blood transfusion. It means taking blood from one person and inserting it into a vein via tubing.”

“You can do that?” Hoss looked sceptical at the idea.

“I can. I mean that I know how to do it and have done it a couple of times, but as I said, it’s not without risk.” He looked around the bed at the faces that expected him to have all the answers. “We don’t know why, but sometimes it makes the patient better and sometimes it makes them sicker. It’s something I have only tried when I felt there were no other options because according to the papers I have read, sometimes it will kill the patient. Of course, in order to need it they are near death anyway so we don’t really know which is the actual cause of death.”

Joe shuddered at the bluntness of the words.

“Because of that, I would need your permission to go ahead. I would also need one of you to draw blood from.”

“Pa can have my blood!” Hoss looked at his own arm and nodded at the doctor.

“Mine too.” Joe squeezed his father’s hand as if somehow he could transfer strength by doing so.

“I think we would all give whatever is necessary. If you truly think this is necessary.”

Paul heard the question in Adam’s comment and nodded. “His pulse is very weak. His temperature has dropped and the surgery took a lot out of him. I believe it will be necessary, but if it comes to that, you’d be my best choice, Adam.”

“Why?” Hoss looked upset as he leaned closer to his father. “I got more blood in me than Adam does and that means more for you to use.”

“That’s true, but as I said before, we really don’t know why some transfusions work and others don’t, but there are some theories. Best results seem to work between parents and children and then between siblings.” Paul held up a hand again to stop what he could see coming. “Now, I know that applies to all of you, but Adam has one more thing in his favour. He and your father both come from New England. I’m only guessing here as this is not an exact science, but there could be something in that too that makes him the most compatible. There are some theories that work on familial connections in the greater population beyond just immediate family. In the absence of anything else, I’ll take whatever helps me even the odds.”

Clay leaned up against the wall outside the doctor’s office and watched the crowds finally dispersing. Their day’s entertainment had not gone to plan and most of them looked genuinely shocked or saddened as they drifted back to their horses, wagons and lives. Many had the good grace to look downward as they hurried past him and Clay heard a few of the whispered comments. He didn’t care what any of them had to say since he had no plans to stay anyway. He needed to wait and see if Ben pulled through or not, but after that, well he couldn’t see himself sticking around to be a constant reminder of just how badly things had turned out. As he stood and mulled over the darkest of thoughts, Clay was barely aware as Roy approached along the street.

“How’s he doing?”


“Ben. How’s he doing in there?”

“The doc got the bullet out. Not sure what’s going to happen now though.”

“The boys all in there with him?”


Roy didn’t bother to ask why Clay was outside instead of inside with the family.

“Well, I’ve got a few things to do back over at the jail, including dealing with those two fellas that attacked you. Assuming it’s them. Don’t s’pose you want to come and clear that up for me now, do you?”

Clay nodded as he glanced back at the closed door. “Not like I’m needed here.”

Roy placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder as he steered them both back onto the street. “I wouldn’t say that. Things are just a mite touchy at the moment.”

“Now that’s the biggest understatement I’ve ever heard!”

“Probably. But not much we can do about it at the moment, so let’s deal with what we can.”

Katie sat at the table in the hotel kitchen and tried to drink the cup of tea that Clara had set before her. Her father sat beside her and hadn’t said much at all on the slow walk back to the hotel. Her hand shook a little as she lifted the cup again to her lips and she noted Clara smiling across the table at her.

“I’m proud of you, child.”

Katie looked startled at the comment. “Why? I didn’t do anything!”

“But you were ready to and that’s what counts for me.”

“Me too, my girl.” Katie’s smile flickered as her father squeezed her hand. The smile quickly faded as she remembered something else.

“What about those two men? What will happen now?”

“I reckon we need to give Roy a visit and let him know what you saw. Not that it’s gonna make a mite of difference to Miss Smith, but I reckon you got a load you still need to get off your back, girl.”

Clara nodded at her as Katie’s face fell. “They’ve probably already left town, but it can’t hurt and your father is right – you’ll feel better.”

“Finish your tea and we’ll get across to the jail.”

Fifteen minutes later, Katie felt her father squeeze her hand as she walked through the door to the jail and the sheriff waved her into a chair.

“I’ve been expectin’ you.”

“Why?” Katie felt her mouth go dry as she almost fell into the chair. Across the room was the man she had come to learn was Little Joe’s brother. Well, half brother. He crossed his arms and leaned against the wall as he watched her intently and she found herself feeling even more unnerved.

Roy seated himself on the edge of the desk and smiled gently at her. “Because I think you’ve got a bit of a story to tell me.”

Joe chewed on his knuckle as he watched the doc at work. He’d said it was risky and would only be an option if there were no other choice. Adam sat in the chair and allowed Paul to tie a tourniquet around his upper arm. He slowly flexed and clenched his hand as the doctor tapped at his arm in search of a vein and Joe realised he was holding his breath. He forced himself to blow out a slow breath as he saw the blood running down the tubing until it hit the metal clamp.

“You sure about this, Doc?”

“I’m not sure, Hoss. But I don’t have any better options.” Paul glanced up to see Hoss watching him, his unease as clear as day. Finally he nodded at the doctor as he went back to what he was doing and eased the clamp off the line.

Joe still held onto his father’s hand as the doctor proceeded to transfuse the blood from his brother’s arm into his father’s. The fingers were still cold and he idly wondered how long it would take for them to warm up. For the next twenty minutes, none of them spoke. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but Joe couldn’t take his eyes of his father’s face. He couldn’t tell if it was just wishful thinking or if his face was just a little less white than it had been when they started.

“How will we know if this worked?” Adam waited as the doctor finally disconnected the tubing from his arm.

Paul hesitated in answering. It would be some time before he knew, but it could go badly very quickly if he had gotten it wrong.

“It will be a while yet.”

By the time Roy closed the front door behind them, he felt his anger rising again. So much had been going on in his town, under his nose and he had been unaware of the details. Katie Lawson had been brave enough to identify the two men sitting in his cell and she had given him more than enough to verify Clay’s story and allow him to press assault charges. The duo had thrown a few dirty looks her way as the girl walked into the back room, but the looks had quickly turned to threats when they realised she was there to point the finger at them. The girl’s father had shouted a few threats of his own before Roy had pushed them all back into his main office and assured them he’d take care of the matter.

“You gonna press charges for them trying to extort money too?” Matt watched as the sheriff slowly moved back towards his desk and sunk into the seat. It had been a long day and it wasn’t even close to being done yet.

“That’s a bit hard when the victim is dead. And I doubt Miss Johnson is going to say anything to incriminate herself.”

Matt held out a mug of hot coffee and Roy took it with a small nod of gratitude. He might be a new deputy, but the kid had the makings of a good one with an intuitive nature and a willingness to help.

“What about their story?” Matt hooked a thumb towards the cell. “You believe them that she paid them to rough him up?

“Don’t forget they were supposed to kill me if I showed up at the trial this morning.” Clay clenched his fists as he stared at the closed door between them.

“I haven’t forgotten.” Roy took another sip of his coffee. “I can press assault charges for you, with young Katie’s testimony, but at this stage, it’s gonna be mighty hard to prove anything more. They sure aren’t admitting anything on that front and I’ll bet my bottom dollar that I’m not going to get any kind of admission out of Miss Johnson.”

“So what happens next with my dear cousin?” Clay felt the bile rising up his throat as he looked towards the sheriff.

“It’s getting late and I need to go and check on Ben. How about you walk with me and we’ll see about that?”

“You are going to lay charges against her, aren’t you?” Clay glared at the sheriff.

“What charges would you like me to lay?”

“What? Are you serious? She … she lied! She set Joe up and he didn’t do anything!”

“That remains to be proven.” Roy stood up as Clay stomped towards him. “Now hold up! I believe that, but it still hasn’t been proven in the court and she may just decide to ask for another trial. Course it’d be a whole lot harder to find a sympathetic jury and I don’t imagine Judge Kennett would give her much lenience a second time round. But from what I’ve seen, she’s a mighty stubborn gal. And folks who are grieved don’t always act too sensible, now do they?”

Clay bit back the retort that arose and turned around to walk away. As he paced across the floor, he knew the sheriff wasn’t trying to make things harder, but it did nothing to ease his anger. Angelique had lied through her teeth for months, caused no end of grief for his brother and stirred up passions in the town that would take a long time to die down, if ever. And yet, without Hetty, she may just get away with it all. The woman’s actions in the court gave Angelique the perfect defense that she had done nothing and Hetty had engineered it all without her knowledge. Of course, laying false charges against Joe and perjuring herself weren’t exactly capital crimes and no punishment for those charges could possibly expunge the cost.

Clay was caught by surprise when he realised the sheriff had stepped up behind him. Roy laid a hand on his shoulder and nodded towards the door. “Come on, son. Let’s go and see how Ben is doing and then we can figure this thing out.”

Before Clay could answer, the front door swung open and Judge Kennett strode in.

“Your honour.”

“Enough of the formalities. I’m off the clock. Now, Roy, I’m assuming I’m going to have a delay in my circuit and I need to wire ahead to push back my other court dates.”

Clay reached across the desk for his hat and pushed it down onto his head. “I’ll leave you to it.”

As he headed out onto the boardwalk, Clay looked up the street towards the doctor’s office and back down the street towards the hotel. As much as he wanted to know what was happening over at the doctor’s, he knew there was nothing he could do there to make any difference. He pulled the hat down a little lower as he turned towards the hotel.

Chapter Twenty One

The sky was growing darker and Clay glanced up as he walked towards the hotel. The day had all but disappeared as they had sat in the court and he scrubbed a hand across his face as he walked. It felt more like a week than just one day as so much had happened since he slipped into the courtroom only that morning. He barely paused as he walked into the foyer and hoped the shift manager didn’t notice him. Fortunately, there were a couple who were demanding something with raised voices and the man had his hands full. As Clay climbed the stairs to his cousin’s suite, he briefly wondered if he could pull off another bluff.

A few minutes passed as he waited to see if Angelique would answer his pounding on her door. Finally, the door swung open a fraction and he quickly stuck a boot in the bottom of the door to prevent it being slammed closed.

“What do you want?” The words spat at him didn’t surprise him, but he still felt a momentary doubt rise up again.

“We need to talk. And I don’t think you’ll want me to say what I have to say out here in the corridor.”

For a moment, Angelique glared at him before slowly stepping back and allowing him entry. She was wearing a lacy gown that would have looked seductive under other circumstances, but her usual chilling confidence was missing and her hair looked as if she had just lifted her head off the pillows. Instead, raw hatred was obvious as she crossed her arms and stared at him.

“Speak whatever it is you have to say and then leave.”

“Straight to the point. All right then. You need to drop all charges against Joe and leave town.”

“And just why would I do that? I fully intend to ask for a new court date and see that whole family punished for their sins.”

Clay stepped closer and Angelique flinched but held her ground.

“Because you and I both know that he didn’t touch you and just in case you hadn’t noticed, you lost a little bit of credibility today. You also lost your lying alibi.”

Before she stopped to think about it, Angelique reached forward and slapped his face with all her might.

“How dare you? Have you no honour that you would come and disparage Hetty when she is not even cold in her grave?”

Clay raised a hand to touch his cheek and barely stopped himself from slapping her back.

“Honour? You know nothing of honour. Whatever you may think of that old witch, there is no doubt that she lied for you. She also helped murder your own brother, in case you had forgotten.”

Angelique turned and paced across the room to where a crystal decanter sat on a tray. She poured herself a large shot and gulped it down in one go. She poured another before turning back towards her nemesis.

“I refuse to believe any such vile lie! Francois had a malady that the doctors could not cure. Nothing more sinister than that!”

Clay patted at his jacket pocket. “I told you in court, I have a telegram that says otherwise and I fully intend to expose the whole story. Including your beloved grandmother and how she hated every man in her life, even her own flesh and blood. I have nothing to lose to go back to New Orleans and make sure the whole world knows the story. But you, your family reputation means everything to you. Not to mention your family wealth.”

Angelique forced herself to slowly sip the brandy instead of gulping it down. Clay watched her as she struggled to keep herself in control and he wondered if maybe he had managed to push hard enough to get what he needed.

“I could demand that telegram from you, but there is nothing stopping you getting another one from whoever you paid to send you that one.”

“I didn’t need to pay anybody. Your grandmother was evil and so are you!”

Angelique’s lip twitched at the insult, but she managed to keep her voice steady as she answered.

“I will consider your … request … with one more condition attached.”

“And what’s that?”

Angelique stepped closer and Clay felt himself itching to step back. He held his ground as she pointed a finger in his face.

“You disappear! You never return to New Orleans and you leave Virginia City tonight. You write a letter of your own stating you have no legal claim on my family or our money. Not now and not ever again. I will leave instructions with my lawyer that if you ever come back to Virginia City, he will reinstate the charges against Joe. I will come back and tell everybody that you threatened to kill me if I didn’t drop the charges.”

Clay stalked towards the decanter and poured himself a glass of brandy without bothering to ask. Angelique made no comment as he did so and he slowly nodded as he looked back towards her.

“All right. But we are going to need something binding and somebody to oversee it.

“Who would you suggest?”

“Hiram Wood.”

“The Cartwrights’ lawyer! Why would I trust him?”

“Because his job was to get Joe acquitted. Getting the charges dropped altogether would be even better.”

Angelique stared at him as he waited to see if she would take the deal.

“All right. But you do it tonight and you leave town tonight. Otherwise I will instruct my lawyer to recommence proceedings as soon as possible.”

“Done.” Clay felt his skin crawl as he noted the look on Angelique’s face. He didn’t bother to say anything further as he made his way to the door and yanked it open. “I’ll be back soon.”

Hiram sat at his desk with a large glass of whiskey that was almost empty. He’d been to see Roy already and had heard the news about Ben and he figured his day certainly warranted a drink. Or two. He slammed a fist onto the table as he ran over the day’s events in his mind yet again, looking for something that would explain how it all went so terribly wrong. His friend should be sitting down to a meal with his family, celebrating his son’s freedom, not lying in Paul’s surgery at death’s door. He was startled out of his thoughts by pounding on the front door and he hurried to answer it. He prayed that it wasn’t the bad news he’d been dreading and was stunned to see Clay standing on his porch.

“What can I do for you, son?”

“Help me get Joe off the hook.”

“I already plan to file for a dismissal of charges tomorrow.”

Clay shook his head at the comment and hurried on before he had any more time to rethink his plan and change his mind.

“Angelique intends to push for a new trial. Unless we stop her.”

“I think you’d better come in and tell me what’s going on.”

Paul had said it could be some time before they knew anything, but each of them could see the colour slowly returning to Ben’s face. Joe had not let go of his father’s hand other than to allow Hoss to lift him from the surgery table and place him gently into a nearby bed. The doctor had been keeping a close eye on his patient and seemed satisfied that at least nothing was getting any worse. As they sat and waited, the time seemed to slow to a crawl. There were no words that would make any difference and each of them sat, absorbed in their own thoughts.

Joe felt his thoughts running around like wild horses in the corral. They were untamed and unwilling to be caught as he tried to grasp hold of something, anything that made sense. He felt his gut churning with the fear he would never get to tell his father the things he needed to or to take back the angry words of doubt and distrust. It seemed impossible that he had ever doubted his father was anything other than completely on his side and yet he’d said some ugly things. As he dared a look up at his brothers, he knew he’d said some ugly things there too.

“I’m sorry.”

Hoss startled out of his own dark thoughts and looked up at his brother. “What for?”

Joe looked down as he considered how to fix things. “For doubting you all. For blaming you.”

Adam sat and waited to see if there would be any more as there usually was. Joe might not always see the truth of things in the heat of the moment, but once he did, he wouldn’t hold back. It was one of the things Adam admired about his brother that he usually tried to make amends when he got it wrong. If only he wasn’t so quick to jump to wrong conclusions or make hasty decisions in the first place!

“It’s all right, little brother.” Hoss managed a small smile as he leaned closer. “I know you didn’t mean nothin’ by any of it.”

Joe squirmed under the combined gaze of both brothers and wondered if Adam would respond. “Yes, I did. At least, I thought I did.”

“Maybe you did for a time, but Angelique and Hetty did a real number on you, Joe. They would have had anybody believing that up was down.”

“Still … I should have known better.” As Joe tried to squash down the uncomfortable thoughts, another random one slipped out. “Hey, anybody know where Clay got to?”

Before either of them could answer, Joe groaned. “He’s not here because of me. Because of what I said!”

Adam stood up and laid a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Why don’t I go and find him. In the meantime, you two keep Pa company.”

“When you find him, tell him … tell him …”

“How about you tell him yourself?”

Joe nodded as he wondered just what he would tell his brother. There was so much left to be said and he didn’t know that he had the right words. Still, Clay belonged with them and should be there instead of outside.

“Sure.” The answer sounded so much more confident than he felt as he watched Adam slip out the door.

Adam was shocked to see how dark it was outside. So much had happened in just a few hours. He stood on the boardwalk and wondered where to start looking. With no better idea, he decided the sheriff’s office would be as good a place as any and he stepped down onto the street. A few minutes later, he was surprised to find not only Roy, but Hiram sitting at the sheriff’s desk alongside Angelique’s lawyer.

“What’s going on?”

Roy stood up and waved a piece of paper at him. “Your brother is a free man. The charges have been dropped. I was just about to head on over and tell you all.”

Adam looked around the group and noted that Hiram didn’t look as pleased as he should, given the situation. The lawyer gave a slight shake of his head and Adam looked back towards the sheriff.

“Hardly surprising, given Angelique has no credibility left in this town.”

Andrews had the good grace to not respond as Adam stared at him.

“It’s just a shame that Joe and my family had to go through hell anyway before her lies came unstuck.”

“I’d have to agree with that. And I’m right sorry I had to arrest Little Joe in the first place.”

Adam knew it had to have been hard on the sheriff to do so and he nodded at the comment. “We know.”

“How’s your Pa doing?”

“Holding on.”

It wasn’t the answer he’d hoped for, but Roy smiled anyway. “He ain’t gonna give up and now you can give him some good news.”

“I will. Thanks Roy. I don’t suppose you’ve seen Clay anywhere, have you?”

“No, not for a few hours. I thought he’d be with you all.” Roy frowned as he wondered why.

“That’s all right. Let him know I’m looking for him if you do.”

“Sure thing.”

As Adam made his way back out to the street, he was surprised to see Hiram come hurrying after him.

“Adam, you didn’t hear this from me, but you need to find him. Stop him from leaving.”

“Leaving? Why would he leave now? The charges are dropped and Pa will pull through. He has to.”

“Let’s just say that he made a deal with the devil.”

“To get her to drop the charges?”

“Yes. To save your brother.”

Adam clapped Hiram’s shoulder as he turned away. “Thanks.”

He hurried down the street towards the livery, praying he wasn’t too late. In the few minutes it took him to walk the length of the street he was scanning both sides for any sign of Clay and his horse.

“Hey, Jake! You here?” Adam pushed through the livery doors and pulled up short as there was no sign of Clay’s horse where it should have been. Jake wandered through the back door with an armload of hay.

“Where’s the fire?”

“Jake, have you seen Clay?”

Jake dropped his load and nodded at the door Adam had just come through. “He left about half an hour ago. Settled up with me and left. Seemed in a right hurry and didn’t want to talk. I wondered if it was your pa. Is Ben gonna be alright?”

Adam slammed a hand onto the railing as he shook his head. “Did he say anything about where he was going?”

“Nope. Like I said, he didn’t want to talk. Just left with his gear. Is somethin’ wrong?”

“Yes.” Adam was half way to the door before he turned around again. “Thanks. And Pa is going to be fine.”

“Good to …. hear.” Jake found himself talking to thin air and wandered over to grab a load of hay to start distributing amongst the stalls.

Adam stopped on the street and found himself pulled in two directions. He couldn’t just let Joe’s brother be run out of town, but he couldn’t afford to go chasing after him either. Paul had said the transfusion seemed to be working, but he might need to do another one. As he turned back towards the surgery, he chewed over just how he would explain things. For the time being, he decided that Joe didn’t need to know anything other than the fact the charges had been dropped.

“Joseph, get your boots off that table.” The gentle rebuke earned Ben a grin as his son hastily dropped his feet to the floor.

“You must be feeling better, Pa.”

“Why? Because I care about where your dirty boots go or how Hop Sing will have to clean the table again?”

“Because you are almost back to normal.”

Ben stared at his son until Joe squirmed before smiling at him.

“It’s good to have you back, Pa.” The smile turned serious as Joe dropped his head. His father was a long way from well and he sat in his robe with a blanket wrapped firmly around his legs. Still, it was a far cry from the previous two weeks and he was grateful for the slow turnaround.

“Joseph, you can’t be rid of me that easily.”

Joe tried to smile at the comment, but his breath hitched in his throat. Finally he stood up and moved across the room to settle himself on the hearth beside his father.

“I don’t ever want to be rid of you. I know I make you mad sometimes, but I don’t ever … I don’t ….”

Ben reached a hand to grasp his son’s and he could feel the tremors as he wrapped his hand over Joe’s.

“I’m sorry. I wish I’d handled this whole mess so differently.”

“Son, you couldn’t have known what you were up against. Angelique came from a family that felt justified in doing whatever they wanted to in order to get whatever they wanted. And they were all used to getting their own way regardless of the cost.”

“She got away with it. She lied and she got away with it all!”

“Did she really? She’s lost every person she loved and has gone home to nothing but her money. I can’t imagine how she won.”

Joe stared at his feet as he considered that thought. He’d seen the grave in the Virginia City cemetery that marked Hetty’s final resting place. He’d also seen Angelique climb aboard the stagecoach and leave town nearly two weeks earlier. He wanted to demand Roy do something to stop her, but Adam had held him back. Without Clay to lay any assault and conspiracy charges against her, she was free to leave town. Perjury was the best Roy could do and she had paid the fine as she sneered at him before flouncing out of his office.


“Hmmm?” He’d missed whatever his father had just said.

“Joe, Madame de Marigny had all the money in the world and look what it bought her. Certainly not happiness or love. But her loss was our gain and I never would have met or married your mother or had you for a son if not for her. So sometimes, good can come from evil.”

“What about Clay?”

Ben tightened his grip on his son’s hand. “I know Adam told you all the details. While I don’t agree with all of Clay’s decisions, I do understand the reasoning behind them. He was doing what a brother does for another and what he thought was best for you.”

Joe finally looked up. “Do you think I will ever see him again?”

Ben squeezed his hand as he smiled. “God willing.”

“You are a hard man to track down, Mister Stafford.”

Clay sat with his back to the wall and held his pulque in his hand with his other hand resting on his gun under the table.

“Who are you?”

The stranger smiled at him and raised both hands to show he wasn’t a threat. In one hand was a leather travel satchel and the other was empty. Still, the gun in his holster was real enough and it wouldn’t take much for the situation to change.

“Somebody you are going to want to listen to. I have come a long way to find you.”


“Straight to the point. I like that. My name is Reginald Wilson and I came to find you on the instructions of the executor of the de Marigny estate.”

“Well then, I guess you had a long ride for nothing. So I suggest you get back on your horse and head back to the swamp you came from.”

“Mister Stafford, you don’t understand. You are the first heir we could identify to inherit the estate and I was sent by the executor to find you and bring you back to New Orleans.”

“As if Angelique would allow me one cent of that money. She will fight you tooth and nail and I have no wish to ever see my dear cousin again. So once more, get on your horse and leave me alone!”

Clay took another swallow of his pulque and shifted his hand on his gun.

“You really don’t understand. Miss Johnson is dead.”

“What?” Clay leaned forward in his seat.

“May I sit? I have quite a story to tell you.”

Clay nodded as he took another drink.

“It seems that Miss Johnson created a few enemies in her time in Virginia City.”

Clay snorted at the statement. “That’s one way to put it.”

“I spoke at length with Sheriff Coffee and he said that she hired two men to beat you up and threaten the life of your brother. He tried to have them charged, but when you left town so abruptly, he couldn’t do anything further. Apparently there were two youngsters who were willing to testify that they were also attempting to blackmail Miss Hetty Smith, but without a living victim, there was no grounds to continue on those charges either.”

“So he let them both go.”

“He had no other reason to hold them. So the two of them left town and nobody paid any mind to where they went. Except Miss Johnson should have as it seems that they followed the stagecoach and a week later they caught up with her at a waystation. They tried to extract money from her for their time in jail and money they claimed was due to them. After my conversation with the sheriff, I can safely assume it was money they felt they were owed for their attack on you.”

“Let me guess; Angelique tried to outwit them.”

“She tried to entice another passenger to defend her and he tried to before both of them were shot dead. The two men were apprehended some days later after a posse caught up with them and since they had items of hers in their possession, they were found guilty of murder and hung.”

Clay waved the bartender over and asked for another pulque and one for Reginald. As the man returned with two jugs and placed it before them, Clay took another long gulp.

“So how in the world did you come looking for me?”

“Miss Johnson had some paperwork in her trunk that was delivered to the house after her death. My employer is the family lawyer and he read through her paperwork and personal documents. He decided to send me to find you.”

“Really? A lawyer working for the de Marigny’s with a conscience.”

Reginald smiled at the insult as he took a taste of his pulque. He pulled a face as he felt the heat of the alcohol going down and slowly took another drink. It could become an acquired taste if he stayed around long enough, but he wouldn’t be staying. He’d spent enough time away from New Orleans and intended to leave with or without the young man sitting across from him.

“My employer has only recently stepped into the role, having replaced his father upon his death.”

“That so?”

“Mister Stafford, I need to warn you that there are others laying claim to the estate, but as the grandson of Madame de Marigny, you should have inherited half the estate upon her death. You had every right to challenge the estate then and can certainly lay claim to it now.

“Mister Wilson, I assume you have something for me to sign.”

The man reached for the satchel leaning up against his chair and pulled out a sheaf of papers. “Of course! You just need to sign these and my employer can commence proceedings to get you what is rightfully yours.”

“For a fee, of course.”

“Well, yes, that is listed here on page four.” He flipped the pages and pointed to the relevant paragraph.

“Let me save you the bother. I am not a de Marigny. I’m a Stafford. I want no part of anything from that family or city ever again. So give me something to sign to show your boss that I declined and leave me alone.”

“But … you can’t be serious! I don’t think you know what kind of money is involved here!”

“I am perfectly serious. I don’t want anybody’s blood money so you can give it all to the vultures that are circling.”

Clay turned his horse’s head to the left and slowly headed down the last stretch of road to the Ponderosa. In all the miles between Mexico and Nevada, he had second-guessed himself a thousand times. Would he be welcomed back or turned away? Would Adam have put the pieces together and figured out why he left in the night? Was Ben even alive to greet him at the door? Finally he turned into the yard and dropped out of the saddle before slipping his reins over the hitching rail.

The house looked the same as he had recalled it in his dreams. The smell of freshly baked apple pie wafted from a window and he smiled as he heard voices carry out on the still night air. Joe had done something to upset his brother as Hoss threatened to pound him into the ground. Nothing much had changed it seemed. He stood still and waited, unsure of what was holding him back. If he moved, he would break the spell and it would all evaporate into thin air. Before he could decide to go or stay, the door flung open and Joe stomped out, followed closely by Hoss.

“You can’t get away with that, you ornery little cuss! You come back here so I can pound you!”

Joe laughed as he marched off the porch and headed for the barn.

“Sounds like you need a bodyguard.” Clay stepped out of the shadows and smiled as Joe pulled up short and Hoss ran into him from behind.

“Clay?” He barely breathed the word as if afraid he was imagining things.


Clay was almost bowled over as Joe flung himself at him and grasped hold of his shoulders.

“Pa said you’d come back!”

The last eleven months melted away as Clay grabbed hold of his brother. The long road filled with doubts disappeared as both Adam and Ben appeared behind Hoss.

“Welcome home, son.”


Tags: Adam Cartwright, Angst, Ben Cartwright, brothers, Clay Stafford, ESA, ESB, ESH, ESJ, Family, Hoss Cartwright, jail / jailed, JAM, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, JPM, Mitch Devlin, Paul Martin, revenge, Roy Coffee, SJS, Trial

Other Stories by this Author


Author: Questfan

24 thoughts on “A Dish Served Cold (by Questfan)

  1. Wow! How did you manage to pack so much into this story? That was quite a history of the de Marigny family, and giving so much more of Clay’s story was icing on the cake. The villains were nailbitingly scary, and yes, I wanted to take them out a time or two. You put the C’s through the ringer, and not just once or twice but they showed their strength when it truly mattered the most. Once I began reading I couldn’t put it down, and the closer it got to the end, well, let’s just say I couldn’t read fast enough.

    1. I always thought Madame de Marigny was an intriguing character who had to have a backstory to explain her actions and coldness and she finally told me about it. I have come across a couple of man-haters and they are scary, but also have a story of their own as to why. Clay was just unlucky enough to be riding by as I started plotting! Thank you for such a detailed review and I’m glad you enjoyed it so much.

  2. I found this AU absorbing and suspenseful. I like your characterization of Clay very much. A spot or two along the way weren’t quite believable. (No real reason for Clay to leave town, for instance; she had no credibility by that time.) But I still enjoyed the journey and, particularly, the conclusion, which seemed just right. Well done!

    1. Thank you. I wanted to explore Madame de Marigny more and Clay got caught in the web. I guess I need to have another look at those bits as I was trying to keep in line a little with the episode and have him leave at some point. Clay always intrigued me how he would fit in and now I might just need to write about it. Thanks again.

  3. An opening that instantly hooks the reader, OCs dripping with venom, and a revelatory view of Clay Stafford’s past highlight an intriguing alternate version of “The Firstborn” where family bonds are tested yet again. Through it all we have the Cartwrights in true form, and though I had a feeling about the outcome, the story kept me engaged to the end. I still don’t know how you were able to pull off this monumental project during such a busy year, but good on ya, and thanks for writing! 🙂

    1. Thank you for such a detailed review. I think writing during that period saved my sanity! Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed this wander into a rather AU look at a very messed up family. I always thought Madame de Marigny had more skeletons in the closet!

  4. Wonderful written story. I love how you bought the New Orleans family to the Ponderosa even when I wanted, in times, to shoot them. Also great was that your story has had two twists in it I haven’t seen coming. Every part brought me feelings like sad, mad, angry and so on. Love it!

    1. I think we all wanted to shoot them! I thought it would be a good change to explore rather than having anyone go to New Orleans. I’m glad it stirred up emotions for you as their story unrolled. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  5. That was quite a story. You kept me wanting more, and I could feel the frustration and outrage of the characters as events unfolded. Your AU was perfectly realized and Clay was a real, well-rounded person – the best Clay I’ve read so far. Thank you Questfan for a terrific story.

    1. That’s quite a compliment as there have been quite a few stories about Clay. I tried to draw on the episodes without leaving out the key bits. I’m glad you enjoyed it and there were a few times I wanted to reach into the keyboard and throw a few punches myself!

  6. Some truly malevolent OCs but a quite exciting climax and a satisfying resolution. Thank you for an amazing journey through this twisted tale.

    1. They got worse the more I found out about them! Thanks for coming along and I’m glad you found it satisfying as it was hard to decide how to wind it up without it being too cliched or obvious. I felt a bit like a reporter uncovering a breaking story.

  7. Awesome story. Great to find one that I can sink my teeth into. Brilliant OC’s that creeped me out and couldn’t wait to find out how it turned out. Really enjoyed this. Thanks for writing.

    1. They creeped me out as I dug up the truth of their actions! Nasty people all round really. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  8. You really challenged yourself with this one, Q. Great OC’s – a bit sick in the head – but I enjoyed watching them come to life. Do I see signs of a sequel with this rather open-ending? Nice job. A great read!

    1. Thank you. I always thought that Madame de Marigny was a particularly cold woman who had much more to her character and I wanted to know why. Once I started digging, a few skeletons fell out of the closet! I do have an idea for a sequel, but figured it needed to end where it was. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  9. Complex and suspenseful story that really puts the Cartwrights to the test! I particularly enjoyed the way you fleshed out Clay’s character. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Thank you. Clay just kept popping up telling me new snippets of background so I figured he wanted his story told. Much the same way that Angelique didn’t!

    1. Thank you so much. I always appreciate the extra effort it takes for you to read my stories and let me know your thoughts.

  10. Wow!!! What a story. Well done – great drama – had me hooked from the first line. Thanks for sharing this! Jane 🙂

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