The Lovelee Sisters (by MissJudy)

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Summary: How can two lovely women showing up in Virginia City, a meeting to award a lucrative timber contract for the Transcontinental Railroad and the Cartwrights fit together? Find out in this mystery.

Rating: K     Word Count: 50488

The Lovelee Sisters

One

Ralph Bertrand heard the shrill whistle of the driver and the pounding hooves of the four-horse team slowing as the stage neared the Overland office. It was nearly 8 AM, making this twice-weekly arrival of the San Francisco/Virginia City/Sacramento route over an hour late. But with the boggy roads produced by recent rain, Ralph was impressed it was this timely. “Caleb, come in here,” he hollered towards the back room. A sturdy teen-aged boy appeared in the doorway and leaned against the jamb. “The stage is here, Son. Go help the passengers and I’ll be out as soon as I finish the manifest for these last-minute packages going to Sacramento.”

Caleb trotted outside just as the Overland coach slid to a stop, and placed the debarking step. His jaw dropped to an open-mouthed gape as he looked up and took the gloved hand of the first passenger; a woman he thought the prettiest he’d ever seen. His changing voice betrayed him, when his, “Careful, miss. It’s a long drop down,” squeaked and crackled instead of carrying the manly intonation he’d intended. A heat he’d never experienced rippled through his lower abdomen when her skirt caught on the door hinge causing her to lean heavily against him while the passenger behind her freed the fabric. His head nearly spun as he drew a deep breath of her perfume while lifting her to the ground.

“My, you’re strong,” she cooed, before placing light kiss on his cheek. “Thank you for rescuing me.”

He was blushing deeply as he mumbled, “Twern’t nothin’,” and then reached up to help the next person. This is my lucky day, he thought when the next passenger was just as pretty as the first. He was still staring open-mouthed at the women when his father came up behind him and pulled him toward the luggage boot.

“Women like those two bring nothin’ but trouble, Son,” he said directly into the boy’s ear. “Get their bags.”

Caleb deposited two satchels at the feet of the beauties. “I’ll carry these if you’d like,” he offered with the eager look of a puppy.

“Thank you,” the first woman said in a voice as smooth as fresh butter. “My sister and I can manage.” She nodded towards the man who’d crawled to the top of the stage. “Besides, your boss won’t be happy if you abandon him.” She chuckled as he blushed again. “Could you direct us to the International House?”

“It’s four blocks that way, on the corner.” He pointed and then looked down at his feet. “You two must be visiting since I ain’t never seen you before. I work here for my pa, so maybe I’ll see you when you head for home.”

“You’re observant. We are visiting for the first time,” the younger woman told Caleb before kissing his cheek as her sister had. “You’d best go back to work before you get in trouble.”

Ralph Bertrand recognized his son’s smitten, ear-to-ear smile when the boy came back to help. “Get your mind on what you’re doing, Caleb, or one of these heavy boxes will land on your head.” Still, the older man cast one last look at the two women moving down the boardwalk—his smile matching his son’s—as he tossed down the first parcel.

***

The two fair-skinned, dark-haired beauties giggled about the effect they’d had on the young man as they headed towards the hotel. They received with the same wide-eyed stares from other men they passed on the boardwalk. Men on horseback whistled their appreciation as they rode by, and even older men tipped their hats, offering wistful smiles.

A middle-aged man exiting the telegraph office bowed and addressed the women. “It’s a fine morning, made finer still with you two gracing the streets.” Following a tip of his hat, he turned and made his way ahead of them toward the International house. He waved to the desk clerk after entering, and walked directly to two men having coffee in the restaurant, issuing a boisterous, “Hoss…Joe,” as he neared the table. “I sent my telegram, and wonder if there’s still time to go to my room before we leave?

“Take your time,” Little Joe replied. “That railroad meeting at the Ponderosa can’t start until we get you and the other four men out there, and the livery is late delivering the big carriage we rented.”

Hoss added, “I’ll leave as soon the lady who’s helping us out gets here, but everyone else is comin’ with Joe.”

“That makes sense. No one can claim favoritism if we arrive simultaneously.” The man realized neither Cartwright had heard a word he’d said. Both of them were staring at two young women by the desk. He nudged Hoss’s shoulder. “There’s something you don’t see every day: two perfect roses in a wasteland of miners and cowboys. I spoke to them on the street and would have accompanied them had I known they were coming here.” He smiled at the brothers. “Sadly, I’m too old to win their favor, so I’ll go to my room.”

Two

The first woman looked toward the dining room as she made her way to the far end of the check-in desk, and made eye-contact with Hoss. The smile she sent his way lingered as she turned her attention to the young man across the desk. Picking up the brass nameplate with “Jake Williams” written boldly on the heavy paper fit into its frame, she said, “Jake, this town is blessed with handsome young men, but you’re the pick of the litter.” She allowed him to blush while she set her valise down and fanned her face daintily with her white-gloved hand. “That trip was long and hard! I thought the stage would never get here, but now we need a room to rest and freshen up.”

Jake’s blush faded as he focused on business. “What’s your name, Miss?” He pulled out a stack of telegrams and spread them across the counter.

“I’m Sylvia Lovelee, and this is my younger sister, Desiree.” She indicated the silent young woman standing next to her.

“We’re expecting a rush of people today.” Jake’s face took a puzzled turn as he set aside the last telegram without matching one to the name she’d given. “Might your reservation be under another name?”

Sylvia’s smile retreated as her eyebrows rose. “We didn’t make a reservation. The trip came up suddenly when we received word from a dressmaker in Virginia City, stating she had an unexpected opening for a consultation and fittings tomorrow. We confirmed the appointment by wire and caught the next stage.” A serious frown formed as her voice took on a concerned tone. “Surely we don’t need a reservation in this town.”

“Um…ah…well.” Jake frowned while he looked over the telegrams, comparing them to the remaining keys. “Normally you wouldn’t, but we have bankers in town for a conference; a railroad meeting starts today, and others are coming in for a mining meeting tomorrow. Those events, added to our normal business, have us booked to the rafters—at least today.” He coughed nervously. “In fact, I don’t think there a hotel in town that isn’t full. If it isn’t, you wouldn’t want to stay there.”

Desiree moved behind her sister to be fully visible to those in the restaurant, bracing herself against the last remnant of counter. “Are you saying there isn’t a room for us?”

Jake’s frown turned into a smile as he considered the predicament. “Not for tonight, but there are a couple of nice boarding houses in town that take overflow from the hotels. I could …” He stopped when the younger woman buried her head in her hands and began to sway and moan.

“I can’t stay at a boarding house, Sylvie! You know I can’t!” The sobbing was loud enough to alert the dining patrons of her plight.

Sylvia embraced her sister, patting her back. “Don’t cry, Des. We’ll take the next stage home. I’m sure Jake will let us stay safely in the lobby until then.”

The woman continued to sob as Jake asked, “Where is home for you ladies?”

“Stockton,” Sylvia said loudly to be heard over her sister’s tears.

“That’s southeast of San Francisco?”

“Yes,” Sylvia answered, tilting her head. “Does that make a difference?”

“Several coaches come to town every day, but from different routes. A stage won’t come through for the San Francisco route until tomorrow … and  …”

“And what?” Sylvia’s gloved fingers played a muted rhythm on the counter.

“Ralph, from Overland, told me that larger coaches are coming for the next couple of days, because of the big meetings here. But every seat is sold both coming and going, with a couple of the men needing to ride up with the driver. I’m surprised Overland didn’t warn you about that when you bought your tickets.”

“We planned on staying until our dresses were ready for a fitting, so we never asked about a return stage.” She smiled disarmingly at the man across the counter. “This seamstress is in demand, and we had to come now or wait months for another opening.”

Jake nodded and screwed his mouth into a pucker. “You must mean Mary Rodgers.” He thought a moment. “I’d suggest making do at a boarding house tonight. The bankers leave tomorrow; I’ll hold a room for you, and then you can stay as long as you want.”

Sylvia’s concerned look deepened to despair as the volume of Desiree’s sobbing increased. “Are either of those places exclusively female?”

Jake shook his head. There were all-woman boarding house in town … occupied by saloon girls. “The two best houses are run by women who keep a close watch, and the rooms have locks.”

“It really doesn’t matter.” Sylvia pouted. “We promised Father we’d only stay here. He’s been to Virginia City, and said only this hotel was safe enough for young women.” She sighed softly into an angelic smile and batted her eyes flirtily. “Isn’t there something you can do? Don’t hotels keep a room for unexpected dignitaries, or …” She winked at Jake and jabbed her finger onto the pile of telegrams. “You could tell one of these men that their wire was lost, and direct them to a boarding house for the night. We can pay well for the … mix-up.”

These sisters were pretty, but Jake was tiring of the histrionics from the one and the wheedling of the other. “We are full, and I don’t give rooms to the highest bidder. The International House has a good reputation precisely because we don’t do things like that.” Jake stabbed the telegram stack just as Sylvia had done. “These people thought ahead to reserve a room, and they will have one.” He pulled a piece of paper from under the counter and began drawing a grid of the city streets. “I’m sure you’re tired, so I’ll show you where to find the two places I mentioned. Let me know which one you’re at, I’ll send word should a room here open unexpectedly.”

Desiree snatched the hand-drawn map from the desk and ripped it in two. “Please, Sylvie,” she cried loudly. “I cannot stay at a boarding house.” Her sobs ended when she moaned plaintively and slumped down to the floor in a faint.

Sylvia let out a high-pitched yelp of her own before kneeling to gather the unconscious sister into her arms, pleading with her to wake up. Hoss was up and running so fast that his chair flew backwards, knocking the cup out of the hand of the patron at the next table. He scooped the woman from the floor and carried her to a couch at the side of the lobby.

Little Joe followed … after righting the chair, uttering a quick apology, and handing the dripping customer a couple of bills to assuage his outrage.

Remaining behind the counter, Jake shook his head and sighed. He knew the whole scene was orchestrated to elicit sympathy and reaction, because he’d witnessed the “faint” close up. The younger woman reached out to grip the edge of the counter as she supposedly lost consciousness. Only when she was low enough to avoid hurting herself, did she let go and drop to the floor. He went so far as to allow that it “might” have been an instinctual grab as she fell, except that when he looked over the desk, he saw the supposedly unconscious woman wink at her older sister before closing her eyes. Jake gave the two a silent “Brava” for the performance. He’d worked the front desk since he was 17, and he’d seen the same tactics used by those who either needed a room or were trying to get out of paying for the one they’d used. No one had done a better job than these two.

Looking across the lobby as Hoss and Little Joe hovered and fussed over the damsels, Jake began to wonder whether the drama had been about getting a room, or to encourage the participation of the two prominent male citizens having coffee. He smiled with respect for how quickly the beauties had gone fishing, and how easily they’d made a catch. It all made sense. The Lovelees hadn’t stopped to check in where the register book was located. They’d moved to the far end of the desk where they’d be easily seen and heard by those in the restaurant. With further thought, he realized that Sylvia had looked at him only when she needed to; directing her voice toward her sister and their audience the remainder of the time.

This possibility wasn’t unprecedented either. The International House was considered the nicest hotel in town, and it was known for hosting affluent visitors and locals. This wasn’t the first time Jake had seen fair-looking women swoop down on the hotel’s unknowing patrons in hopes of finding a husband of means. If the Lovelee sisters had done their homework, they’d know the names of the moneyed patrons attending the meetings, as well as those of the better-heeled citizenry. Hoss and Joe Cartwright were a pair easily identified by their physical characteristics, and would be good targets based on their vast holdings, and their willingness to help a pretty woman in need. “I think those Cartwright boys just got themselves hooked deep in the gills,” he whispered in a chuckle as he matched up keys with the telegrams along the back counter for easy access.

Jake glanced up again, noting that the nearly-dead woman had returned to life and was sobbing in a most heart-wrenching manner while describing her previous monstrous experience at a boarding house. Part of his job was ensuring that hotel guests didn’t become dupes. He considered pulling Hoss and Joe aside, yet their looks of concerned adoration as they hung on every word being said, proved that such warnings would be futile. He whistled quietly, picturing what Ben and Adam would say when the younger brothers showed up at home with these two … and their fishing line still dangling from their mouths.

Three

Adam set a stack of plates on the table he’d pushed against the wall to hold the lunch buffet. The weather was comfortably warm, yet his face was beet red and his exertion was evidenced in the growing patches of sweat-soaked fabric under each arm and down his back. He would wash up and change soon, but with the guests arriving for the first day of the railroad contract meeting within the hour, he had to keep moving.

His responsibilities for this important gathering had gone from being host and participant, to scullery maid, after he’d found Hop Sing still in bed when he’d come down for breakfast. The small powerhouse didn’t want to abandon his duties, but his pallor, accompanied by miserable groans as he grabbed at his abdomen, made Adam order him to stay put.

There were two things keeping Adam from panicking. Hop Sing had prepared most of the food the previous day, and since there was far too much work for one person with the number of people attending the meeting, he’d hired Maggie Lewis, a young widow known for her hostess skills, to help. But she lived in Virginia City and wouldn’t arrive until his brothers returned with the other guests.

It wasn’t Adam’s nature to think much about the physical details of party preparations. But he’d helped Hop Sing when he’d needed a hand with other events at the Ponderosa, and he had some idea of how things were set in order to accommodate a crowd. Thanks to Hop Sing’s peerless organization, he’d already rearranged the furniture and located the linens, and the sets of plates and silverware they used for large gatherings. Maggie Lewis was a formidable woman, and not easily shaken by changes. Yet even with what he’d accomplished, she’d be hard pressed to have everything ready by noon. There was only one solution. His brothers would balk at being drafted into domestic service when they returned, but there was a storm of responsibility hitting the Ponderosa today, and it called for all hands-on-deck.

Imagining Hoss’ longing expression as he was forced to “serve” food he’d rather be eating, made Adam grin, while a visual sweep of the room confirmed that the setting was perfect. He’d arranged chairs in a half-circle by Ben’s desk, where the contract updates would be presented in detail. The seating by the hearth remained as usual to provide a gathering place to relax and talk. With the dining table being used to serve the meal, he’d swept the front porch and added a cloth and flowers to the outdoor table so guests could eat in the fresh air.

The satisfaction in his accomplishments dimmed when he remembered one major thing that was missing. His father was in Carson City testifying in a boundary dispute between two neighbors. As the first to settle in the territory, Ben had witnessed many of the handshake deals setting property lines. As often happened, those friendly agreements turned contentious when valuable resources were discovered near those boundaries. His father’s recollections in such matters were highly respected in determining true ownership. It also helped that his father’s “word” was backed up by notations he’d make about such agreements in his daily journals—a habit he’d retained from keeping ship logs.

Adam shot a request heavenward for a quick settlement, allowing for his father’s return to participate in some of the events occurring over the next 48 hours. This meeting was historic, since it would ensure the future of commerce in the West. The growing need for a coast-to-coast railway system had prompted the Pacific Railroad Survey Plans. Although completed six years ago, nothing had come from it until The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 funded the east-bound route from the West Coast to Utah.

The Central Pacific Railroad Company—or CPRC, as it was known—was given the responsibility for the construction, and the Cartwrights had been one of several operations to express interest in providing ties and cut-to-order trestle lumber for the miles of track. The six bidders invited to this meeting had been thoroughly scrutinized and deemed reliable and competitive enough to compete for the final contract. It also helped that Cartwright Enterprises had provided lumber for a CPRC trestle in the past. But since the Cartwrights planned to harvest only their timber for this new, huge project, CPRC officials had come around last fall to assess the ampleness of their resources.

The representatives who’d toured the Ponderosa told the meeting organizers of the peaceful surroundings at the ranch, and the Cartwrights had been approached about using their home for the initial meeting. To keep accusations of special favors from surfacing, the railroad had made the arrangements through a third party, and the CPRC men who were overseeing the meeting would avoid prior contact with the family by coming to the house at the same time as the bidders.

Adam musings on the magnitude of this event ended when the ticking of the clock in the silent room made him glance at the time. The early morning had flown by, and the arrival of guests was imminent.  He exited the house and scanned the horizon for dust clouds indicating an approaching vehicle. A shiver of unease rippled across his damp back as he thought about his brothers bearing the responsibility for safe transport. “What could possibly go wrong?” he said aloud with a certainty that faded quickly as he imagined Hoss and Joe collaborating on any task.

He dabbed at the sweat trickling down his temples with a corner of the large white apron he’d donned to keep his slacks clean, and let his mind drift to the figures he’d written on the papers stowed away in the safe. Their bid would come down to one final number, just as the others did, but the Cartwright’s number reflected a completely different way of accomplishing the terms of the contract.

The other bidders were brokers who’d made secondary contracts with growers, transporters and mills. But Adam and Ben had to establish the costs for harvesting their product. They’d come up with a viable and profitable plan, but there were now rumors circulating that might blow those figures to bits. Recent articles in the San Francisco and Sacramento papers had reported the CPRC’s intent to have the entire length of these tracks under construction within a year. That had not been reflected in the contract specifications they’d used. The rumors of the new specs seemed borne out in the letter they’d received prior to the meeting, including a caveat that they should be prepared for a number of changes to the final contract up for bid.

The rumors had made their way to Ben and Adam’s ear soon enough that they’d had time to rethink their methods. They’d had a small mill for some time, but it couldn’t accommodate the amount of lumber needed.  To keep up with a schedule as tight as the specs indicated, Ben and Adam had looked towards enlarging the mill to do a good portion of the finish work, thus reducing time needed to transport lumber to other milling operations. Adam had already done a blueprint for a simple addition, and written up an order for the mechanical needs. But … without this contract, they didn’t need a mill of that size, so they had to delay construction until they knew whether they won the contract.

Adam’s stomach clenched into a ball, as it was prone to do when he didn’t know something for sure. Revisions in the timetable, especially a shorter lead-time before product was due at construction sites would eliminate any possibility of enlarging the mill. There was more to consider though. They’d figured one large harvesting crew into their bid, and there was enough cash available to absorb those costs until payments came in. But if what they’d heard was true, it would require multiple harvesting sites to supply ready lumber to multiple construction locations. This translated to far greater upfront costs in hiring and supplying crews, and it would require a loan. If anything went wrong, it would leave the ranch financially vulnerable.

Neither father nor son liked reacting to “possibilities,” but in this case, the rumors were sound enough that they’d had to address them.  With the almost certain need to redo everything in their bid after hearing the new details today, there was one thing Adam knew for sure: once he removed the apron he was wearing, he would need to set his attention on the presentation and nothing else.

The rumbling of wheels at the far end of the yard made him mentally kick himself for spending time in thought rather than getting cleaned up. He whistled a relieved breath when Hoss pulled the surrey around the corner of the barn … and no other vehicles followed.

Four

Hoss brought the fringe-topped carriage with its three passengers to a stop a good distance from the house, and looked over his shoulder at the two young women. “Miss Maggie and me’ll go first so’s I can explain about you ladies. I’ll give you a wave when you should come over.”

The big man jumped down and hurried to help Maggie, before lifting out the box of homemade pies she’d brought. The two laughed when they got close enough to observe Adam’s rumpled state.

“I’m judging from the way you look that Hop Sing’s still feelin’ poorly,” Hoss said.

“You’d judge rightly. I’ve never seen him this sick.” Adam extended his hand to Maggie. “You, my lady, are going to be busy, and I’ve never been happier to see anyone. Things are set up as best I could, but you’ll be relieved to know that I stayed out of the kitchen.”

“I’m sure you’ve given me a good head start. Knowing Hop Sing, he has most things ready to heat up or put out. Is he able to give me a few pointers?

“He’s sleeping, but before he would rest, he told me everything he’s already made; where he has it stashed, and how he planned to serve it. Some things need to be warmed. I left a written set of his orders on the kitchen table.” He squinted as he looked past Maggie and Hoss towards the surrey. A smile lifted his sweat-streaked cheeks. “What a good idea to hire some extra help! I don’t know how you managed that, but let’s get them inside and go through what they should do.”

Maggie Lewis patted Adam’s arm, and rolled her eyes as she moved past him to take her pies from Hoss. “I wish that was true, but I’ll go get started while your brother tells the sad story of the Lovelee sisters.” She was chuckling as she walked to the door, and let out a mighty laugh once she got inside.

Adam’s smile changed into a glare directed at Hoss. “What’d she mean by that?” His tight jaw and tone of voice indicated he had little patience for what he was about to hear.

Hoss drew circles in the dust with his boot heel, as he stuttered, “Ah, well … you see ….”

“Out with it!” Adam commanded, making his brother cringe.

“Joe and me was havin’ breakfast at the hotel while waitin’ for Maggie and the rig to get there, when these two purdy gals came in. We could see somethin’ was wrong right off.” He looked up at his brother, and smiled dreamily, “Their names are Sylvia and Desiree Lovelee. That’s Love-lee with two e’s at the end instead of a Y. Ain’t it interestin’ how they fit their name?”

“Yeah; interesting,” Adam snarled. “How’d they get from the hotel lobby to our house?”

Hoss’s nervousness switched from his feet to turning his hat in his hands. “They came to town to see Miss Rogers about some dresses, and they didn’t send ahead for a room at the International House. What with all the meetings goin’ on, there isn’t a room left at any decent hotel.”

Adam’s left eye twitched as he bit his upper lip. “What about Clementine’s or Mrs. Whipple’s boarding houses?”

“That poor Desire; the one in the blue dress.” Hoss nodded toward the women in the surrey. “She had a bad experience at a boardin’ house when a couple drunks stayin’ there broke into her room, wanting to force, ah, you know, ah, their affections on her.” Hoss shuddered and frowned. “She was so upset just thinkin’ of it that she fainted right there in the lobby.”

“And you two came to her rescue.” Adam shook his head as he blew out a long breath.

“We had to, Adam! When she came to, she got to cryin’ so hard that we knew we had to do somethin’ more’n pat their hands.”

“And that somethin’ was to bring them here?”

“You’d a done the same thing if you’d a seen her. She’s just a sprig of a gal.”

Adam pinched the bridge of his nose as his earlier question of what could possibly go wrong, came back to haunt him. “Let’s go through this so you see why I wouldn’t have done the same thing. You said they came to town to … shop for dresses?”

Hoss nodded. “Sylvia, the older one, said they’d been waitin’ to see Mary Rogers for some time, and got a wire saying she had an appointment open. Their pa’s been here before and said they could come but they had to stay at the International house. Jake couldn’t squeeze them in and Sylvia would’a caught the stage home, but the stages are booked full the next few days too.” He smiled triumphantly. “We couldn’t let them sit in the lobby all that time.”

Adam grabbed his brother’s sleeve and tugged him closer to the house where they wouldn’t be overheard. His voice was pitched low and stern. “Doesn’t this story sound a little off? If they could only stay at one hotel in a town far away from their home, and this girl was previously traumatized to the point where the mere thought of staying at a different location caused her to faint, then why leave such a vital detail to chance?”

“They’s gals, Adam. They got excited and didn’t think about that.”

“Even if you overlook their lack of foresight, there’s the matter of their father. If I had beautiful daughters who’d already had a bad experience, I’d have ensured their lodging before allowing them to leave.”

Hoss’s face reddened while his hands balled into fists at his side. “You’re always suspicious of anything Joe and I do. I’ve known you to take a stranger into your care with no more information than we got about these girls.” His eyes narrowed. “I also recall that you almost got yerself killed a couple of times because of it. Maybe that was different because it was you instead of us.”

A grin tugged up one corner of Adam’s mouth, “You make a valid point. The Cartwrights always lend a hand, and you had every right to invite these people out here … except …”

“Except what?” Hoss’ question was prompted by curiosity rather than anger. His hands relaxed as he waited for an answer, and his cheeks lost their flush.

“I worry about things that seem unrelated and yet feel connected. Dramatic situations calling for action without enough time to consider the inconsistencies and complications, also leave me uneasy. We are hosting a major event in the development of this country today, and suddenly you and Joe were presented with a scene that prompted you to include two strangers. It seems innocent, and yet far too staged.”

“I s’pose there are few details that don’t hold up when you think it over. Should I take them back to town?”

Adam sighed and considered Hoss’ offer. “There’s no time. With all the meal preparations falling on Maggie, I’ll need you and Joe to help her.”

Hoss’s cheeks puckered into a question mark. “Do you really think them sisters are up to somethin’?”

The older brother shrugged. “Think about this, Hoss. The young one fainted at the thought of a boarding house, yet she came with you, knowing nothing of where you were taking her, or even who you were.  Did she ask whether there were other women living here?”

“No.” The blush crept back up Hoss’ cheeks as he realized how his offer of help hadn’t been well thought out. “We might’a said Maggie was comin’ out with us.”

“Even so, they easily accepted an unknown living arrangement. Did they resist the invitation at first or might someone have vouched for you two?”

Hoss shook his head, and mumbled, “Not so’s I recall.”

“Did Jake assure them that the Cartwrights often took in strangers?”

“He’d gone upstairs.”

“That’s a lot of unwarranted trust, Hoss.”

“I thought they just knew we meant them no harm.” Hoss looked towards his feet. “What might they have in mind to do, if they ain’t what they seem to be?”

“They knew how to garner sympathy and provoke your natural tendency to offer help. They may have capitalized on those qualities to be in a position to make later accusations about staying here—just as they did about those boarding houses. Or in a completely different realm, they might relay information about our valuables and habits to cohorts and set up a robbery later.” Adam pursed his lips tightly. My biggest concern is them showing up out here on the day of this meeting.”

“It’s lucky then that Maggie’s staying all night. She’ll see what goes on, and I’ll sleep in the bunkhouse.”

“We’ll make the upstairs off-limits to all of—” He stopped when he saw the two women approaching.

“I’m Sylvia Lovelee.” The woman Hoss had identified as the older of the two, extended her hand to Adam. She nodded toward her companion. “This is my sister, Desiree. We couldn’t hear you, but I presume that since it’s taking so long for Hoss to explain our presence, you are unhappy about two unexpected guests. Your brothers told us about the meeting you’re hosting.”

“I don’t mean to be unwelcoming. But the meeting is foremost in my mind.” Adam breathed deeply, and smiled. “You are welcome to stay, but I’d ask that you avoid the main floor during the event, except to join us for lunch. Once the meeting concludes, you’ll have free range of the house and yard, and we’ll extend our hospitality more graciously” His smile continued even as his fingers beat a worried rhythm against his legs.

“We can do better than that.” Sylvia pulled her shoulders back before offering Adam a wink and one-sided grin. “Hoss said your cook is ill and Mrs. Lewis will have her hands full. Our mother was of fragile health, so we became experts at helping with parties and organizing our father’s business gatherings. Please allow us to welcome your guests, assist Mrs. Lewis with the food, and help clean up, as a way to repay your kindness.”

His sense that the arrival of these sisters and their much-needed skills was a bad omen, made Adam’s neck tingle as though brushed by an unseen hand. Yet Maggie did need help. They were already here, and their looks and experience would lend a spirit of gentility. His need finally trumped his misgivings. “Thank you. Your assistance will be appreciated.” He looked over at Hoss who seemed to be holding in his stomach while displaying a nearly pained smile from the effort. “Why don’t you show Sylvia and Desiree to the upstairs guest room. I’ll tell Maggie what’s going on and then get cleaned up.” He turned back to the women, offering his hand, and thanks, to each of them. “It’s going to be a busy day, ladies, so let’s meet by the fireplace in a few minutes to go over the schedule.”

Five

Maggie continued slicing bread while listening to Adam’s explanation of how she came to have assistants. “So, they disarmed you too.” She grinned wryly, and then laughed. “I thought you’d send them back to town.”

His cheek colored to a peachy golden. “I would, but there isn’t time.” He shook his head and grinned back. “And it was either them…or enlisting my brothers.” His brows neared in thought. “You were pretty sure I wouldn’t be pleased with Hoss’ surprise. Care to tell me why?”

“Those women told me their woeful tale as we left town, but then I became invisible. The younger one dozed, and the older one doted on Hoss; repeatedly proclaiming him the sweetest, most understanding, take-charge kind of man; an angel in their time of need.” She slapped Adam’s arm playfully. “If I hadn’t been there, he might have proposed before they got to the ranch.”

Adam laughed loudly, and then checked to make sure the other three were still upstairs. “What do you think they’re up to?”

“First off, doesn’t their story about not checking ahead for a room at the one hotel they could stay at, smell fishy?”

“Like bullheads left on a river bank in August.” Adam leaned towards Maggie as she motioned him closer.

“I believe they knew what was going on in town, and who might be here because of it. Jake, from the hotel, pulled me aside while your brothers took the girls out to the surrey, and told me those two performed a well-rehearsed bit of tearful, swooning theater for Hoss and Joe.” Maggie’s eyes grew round as she shook her head. “Jake said this happen on a regular basis for varying reasons. At first, he really thought their aim was to get a room. But then he noticed their true audience, and it wasn’t him. By the end he’d become sure that had he actually offered them a room; they would have found some panic-inducing reason they couldn’t stay in it. His estimation was that the forlorn drift to the floor was the predetermined finale.”

Adam mulled over this latest information. “Jake thinks they targeted my brothers?”

“He wasn’t sure. Another guest walked in ahead of the women, and he called Hoss and Joe by name. Jake admitted he’s become jaded, and suspects the ladies quickly matched the Cartwright brothers to the Cartwright bank account.” She laughed softly. “I think the Lovelee sisters came here to have dresses made, all right—wedding dresses.”

Adam’s head bobbed. “Hoss says I’m too suspicious, and I’ve got so much on my shoulders right now, I’ll have to assume their intentions are pure, and every inconsistency can be explained.” He wrapped his arm around Maggie’s shoulder. “You’re a good judge of people, Maggie. Keep an eye out for clues about their intentions, and we’ll compare notes this evening.”

Six

The sisters were already helping Maggie in the kitchen by the time Adam returned in a fresh shirt, smelling of soap. He checked that Maggie was set for a few minutes, and then reviewed one of his biggest concerns with the Lovelee sisters as he walked them into the dining area.

“Please offer coffee or punch to start,” he said solemnly. “These men believe they are better for a little alcohol, but I’ve attended events where participants were pie-eyed before the meeting was called to order.” He pointed to the array of bottles on the credenza. “It’s here if they insist, but I’d like to keep them sober as long as possible.”

Maggie joined the others for a run-through of the meeting schedule, and they’d just finished when Adam shushed them, straining forward to listen.  The sound of voices and the sturdy footfalls of large carriage horses drifted in through the open windows.  After a final preemptive thanks for their assistance, he said, “To your battle stations!” before hurrying outside.

***

Little Joe brought the large carriage to a stop, and hopped down to assist the passengers; introducing each of the five to Adam as they stepped to the ground.

After the last man was properly welcomed, Adam sent them to the door where Sylvia was waiting. He nudged Joe and smiled. “You did a fine job with their names. Thank you.” He moved closer and lowered his voice, “I recognized three of them from other projects, but Roger Taggert and Al Munson are new. Did you hear anything on the way that I might find helpful?”

Joe shook his head. “They got impatient when the rig was late in getting there, but no one got upset. The conversations on the way here were about where they’d gone to dinner last night and the brawls they’d seen in the saloons.” He nodded toward the last man entering the house. “Did you notice Munson’s hand when you shook it?”

“You mean the syndactyly?” He clarified his response to, “Webbed fingers,” when Joe looked confused.

“I wonder what causes that?”

Adam shrugged. “I only know what it’s called because I had a college friend with the condition. He told me it was a common trait in some Boston families.” He chuckled softly. “If this was a century ago, Munson would be shunned for bearing the mark of Satan.”

Joe poked his brother’s shoulder. “I guess you’ll find out if he’s got the devil in him once you fellas make your bids.”

Adam’s smile at the comment turned into a frown when Joe asked what he thought of Hoss’ surprise. His stern, “I have serious concerns about them,” softened as he added, “but they offered to help and I accepted.” Adam grabbed his brother’s arm as he tried to climb back on the carriage. “We will discuss the decision to bring them out here later. There’s a year’s worth of work and plans in this bid, and Pa will tar and feather us if two people who shouldn’t be here, jeopardize the outcome.”

“Us? Don’t you mean me and Hoss?”

“I mean us. You two invited them, but I let them stay.”

Little Joe was still chuckling as he climbed to the driver’s seat and pulled his team ahead to make room for another wagon entering the yard. Adam replaced his frown with a welcoming smile and moved forward to greet the railroad representatives who’d driven out on their own.

“Hello, Adam,” Nels Nelson called as he pulled the double-seated buckboard to a stop. “We had to stay well behind your brother. That rig kicked up a lot of dust.” The young man in charge of this event had Scandinavian good looks to complement his lumberjack build. Nels had been one of the people to view the timber previously, and he gave the horizon a sweeping glance while taking a deep breath. “I’m still amazed at the natural beauty of this ranch. I can smell the pine.”

Adam chuckled. “You’d better get your nose checked. With the wind coming out of the southeast, you’re smelling livestock, not pine.”

Nels jumped from the wagon and pointed toward the empty carriage in front of him. “I assume the others are inside?” he asked while removing boxes from the buckboard, and handing them to the men with him. Receiving Adam’s nod, he began the introductions, finishing with, “Thank you again for hosting this. I am sorry to hear that your father is away.”

“He hopes to join us tomorrow. Pa always laments that weeks can go by with no engagements, and then several things overlap.”

“I look forward to seeing him again.” Nels went silent as he thought about the importance of this meeting. He’d joined the CPRC when the first talks of connecting the continent had commenced. His skill in organizing people and materials, along with a background in engineering, had soon singled him out to spearhead this final step to getting the eastbound railway under construction.

Adam watched with interest as a myriad of expressions played across Nels’ face. The one that lingered, was concern. The emotion was contagious, and Adam felt the icy chill across his shoulders again. When Nels said nothing more, Adam executed a sweeping gesture towards the door. “We’d better get in there before they decide to dispense with the meeting and spend the day relaxing in the country.”

Seven

The atmosphere in the house “looked” like any other social gathering at the Ponderosa. The bidders and railroad men were talking in small groups, with an occasional laugh rising above the murmurs. But this wasn’t a party. It was an arena where each man was sizing up the competition. These impressions would be interesting and informative, but the person who’d win the contract would listen carefully, figure their costs, and make a reasoned offer … or at least the best guess.

The art of the deal took his thoughts back to his father. Adam’s decisive and organized method of figuring a bid had incubated at his father’s side. Ben Cartwright was a born negotiator whose external performance reminded his son of Lake Tahoe in October. The massive expanse of water appeared mirror-like and undisturbed. But as the cooler air dropped the surface temperature of the lake, that layer of water became heavy and sank in a powerful process known as turnover. Ben Cartwright might experience equal upheaval beneath the surface during negotiations, but no one witnessed this at the bargaining table.

Through his years of learning the ranch business, Adam had developed his own style, but he always displayed this same undisturbed—occasionally icy—composure. With so many decisions to make about this bid, uncertainty was churning beneath his calm exterior like an eggbeater.

***

Sylvia approached Adam; her right arm draped with suitcoats while she skillfully handled an assortment of hats with her left hand. “Should I put these in a bedroom upstairs?”

Adam heard her question, but his eyes narrowed to slits as he focused on the credenza where some guests were already adding alcohol to their coffee cups, while a couple were filling water glasses with their spirit of choice. He detoured Sylvia around the logjam of men, slipping between the settee and coffee table, into the dining area. “Let’s put them in here,” he said, opening the door to their downstairs guest room. Inside, he took the hats, placing them along the dresser, and helped her lay the coats neatly on the bed.  Their return to the party was accompanied by Adam’s glare and nod towards the assembly by the liquor. Leaning closer, he said, “I asked you to control that.”

“They’re your guests, Mr. Cartwright.” She tipped her head and smiled knowingly. “Your earlier warning revealed that you suspected they’d behave exactly as they are. But if you were truly concerned about the ill effects, you would have kept the alcohol secured until later.”

His cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry I scolded you. They would be very unhappy if it wasn’t out, and I wasn’t fair in putting you in the position of libation monitor. I’d hoped for better judgment on their part.” His eyebrows rose. “I prefer to keep my wits about me.”

“I’m sure you do.” She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath. “I will keep an eye on the situation. Or—” She grinned, “I can water down the booze when their backs are turned.” She waited for Adam’s scowl to ease into a grin. “Let us do our job, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Thank you.” He indicated the tall man setting up easels and maps by the desk. “That’s Nels; he’s in charge today. You can come to either of us if there’s any trouble.”

When Maggie came to ask for Sylvia’s help in the kitchen, he took a moment to consider that his brief interlude with the older sister showed her to be organized, intuitive and unafraid to speak her mind: traits which didn’t support her claim of flightiness in leaving important things like reserving a room in a strange town to chance. But he was already wearing too many hats at this meeting, so he set this mystery aside for now, lest it bring his stack of figurative headwear tumbling to his feet.

Eight

Adam tucked his hands in his pockets; drew in a long, deep breath, and released it slowly. As he’d expected … and feared … the final contract presented by the railroad during the morning meeting, left the bid he and his father had drawn up, worthless as anything except tinder for the fire. His head swam as he flipped through the notes he’d made, and he grimaced with the realization that he would be up a good portion of the night comparing the new specs to the various options they’d set up to help recalculate, should their worst fears be realized today. The rumors were proven true: multiple sites now needed to be supplied with product simultaneously, with first deliveries of tie lumber due two months from the contract signing. Adam’s job tonight, was to refigure risk to profit in deciding whether this project was worth the financial exposure required.

Despite the prospect of a sleepless night, Adam’s engineering background allowed for his immense respect of those who’d solved the mathematical nightmare that would allow all these short sections of construction to meet perfectly, forming one long ribbon of track. And further, one day the same piecemeal process would join the tracks heading east with those heading west.

A quick glance around the room verified that the others were still involved in quiet conversations. The lull spurred him to pull a sheet of paper from the desk and make a hasty drawing of the slightly different route; adding in the names of the towns where the lumber deliveries were to be made, and the number of miles between them. Once he had what he needed, he slipped the notes and drawings into the desk and went to check on lunch.

***

Eying the emptying liquor bottles as he passed by on his way to the kitchen, made him wish for something that might settle his mind and stomach.  “How’s everything going in here?” he asked Maggie. “Something sure smells good.”

“That’s the beef.” She used her hand as a fan to cool her red cheeks, and nodded toward the doorway. “Those two women have done a good job out there, allowing me to get the food ready.” Her face wrinkled in thought before she laughed. “I remember what I wanted to tell you. Hop Sing wobbled through about an hour ago, saying it was too noisy so he was going to the bunkhouse. He looked around, but didn’t issue a single order. He must be very sick.”

“He wouldn’t abandon his kitchen if he didn’t trust you, and I’m thankful our unexpected houseguests have been helpful.” He grabbed a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water from the pump.

Maggie’s lips turned upward in a curious smile. “We have punch, coffee, and liquor, and you’re drinking water?”

“I’ve had too much coffee; the punch is too sweet, and I’m staying clear of the other option.” He drained the contents of his glass and refilled it. “How soon will you be ready for lunch? I saw the men eyeing what’s already on the table like wolves watching a herd of limping sheep.”

“A few minutes should do it.” She swatted his shoulder playfully as she passed by. “The buffet isn’t the only thing those men are watching. They’re staring at our young ladies like kids looking over the candy jars in Wilson’s Mercantile.” They both laughed before she gave him a shove towards the doorway. “Get back out there and keep the wolves at bay. And please ask those two sweet confections to come in here and we’ll get the rest on the table.”

“Thanks, Maggie.” He smiled as he took her hand. “I don’t know what I would have done today without you.”

***

Lunch was served within minutes, and its success was evident in the loaded plates and return trips for “just a taste more.” Adam mingled a bit and then took up his post again near the door. He chuckled inwardly as he considered how the frequently refilled glasses of bourbon and brandy, along with the sedative effects of the meal, would have most of his guests feeling loose-tongued and downright drowsy soon. On the other hand, he’d eaten only enough to satisfy his hunger, and he’d stuck with water, so his powers of reason remained unaffected.

With the Lovelee’s assistance secured, Hoss and Joe had left to check on a few steers their foreman had reported getting torn up after wandering into a section thorny brush.  But the two had gotten back for lunch and were now entertaining the others with their stories of life on the Ponderosa. Hoss’s easy charm, Little Joe’s infectious laugh, and the Lovelee sisters’ ministrations, had the entire group in fine fettle.

“The meeting is going very well.”

Adam had been so deep in thought that he jumped at hearing a voice next to him. “Thank you, Nels.”

The railroad man smiled. “I notice you’re staying away from certain beverages too. I’ll never understand how these men think they’re at top form when they’re half-in–the-bag.”

A deep chuckle accompanied Adam’s nod. “I suspect they’re used to it.”

Nels pursed his lips, and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry I couldn’t warn you about all the changes to the specs and timeframe. They will impact you the most.”

“Don’t apologize. I would never ask for that consideration, and I would trust you less if you had given it.”

Nels raised his coffee cup for a sip, and eyed Adam over the lip as he blew away the curling steam. “So, are the Cartwrights ready to become timber barons instead of cattlemen?”

“The Cartwrights will always be cattlemen.” Adam matched Nels’ smile. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t harvest a few trees for the railroad.” He nodded toward the group listening to Little Joe. “I know Frank Fillmore, Lester Sloan, and Rick Spindler. Taggert and Munson are new.”

“Roger Taggert was Gus Obermeyer’s deal-maker at West Coast Timber. But Gus is a hard man to work for, and Roger got fed up. He started his own business, doing exactly what he did for the old-man. Roger is smart enough not to bid against West Coast, so the suppliers and mills that Gus used are willing to work with him. He got up-and-running quickly and profitably.”

“I’d heard about a ‘defection’ at West Coast, but they work in southern California, so we haven’t bid against them.”

“Munson’s a different story,” Nels continued. “No one’s really heard much about him before. His office is in San Francisco, and he possessed the right credentials to make him a viable candidate. I checked his references, and he’s done enough work north of the Bay area in the last few years to prove he can deliver his contracts.”

“He’s been quiet today.”

Nels nodded vigorously. “That’s not like him. He usually talks big. Then again, all these men act like they’re hiding an ace up their sleeve. You know, Adam, I have a bad feeling in my gut. There’s so much money at stake, and there’s been trouble at these bidding meeting in the Eastern states. It makes me feel like—”

“Something’s not right?” Adam supplied, garnering another nod from his companion. His earlier misgivings over Hop Sing’s illness and the Lovelees showing up to fill the need, poked at his own concern. “I’ve had a few misgivings too.” He saw the questioning look, and added, “I won’t advance theories without more proof.”

“Do you think there’s a connection between our uncertainties?”

“You’ll be the first to know if I find one.” Adam sighed and stood up straighter. “Right now, I best get back to the others.”

The laughter at one of Joe’s stories ended and Roger Taggert locked his gaze on Adam as he moved toward the group. “Word is you Cartwrights have enough timber to supply the entire west side of this country.”

Adam chuckled. “That’s an exaggeration, but we are blessed with an abundance.”

Taggert stood as he continued to address his host. “We rode an hour to get here, and all I saw were a few stands of gnarled pine and scraggly oak; hardly enough to build a house, much less a railroad. I’ve heard that the Ponderosa is a big ranch, but you’d think that even with a few thousand acres we’d see some forestation from here.”

Hoss’s loud guffaw filled the room. “I think you done heard wrong about a few things. The Ponderosa ain’t a few thousand acres; its’…” He was silenced by his older brother’s hand coming to rest on his shoulder: the Cartwright family’s signal to stop talking.

“You came from town, so you saw the foothills of Mount Davidson, and then some grazing land as you rose towards our house,” Adam explained. Our timber is west of here around Lake Tahoe. You can see some of the alpine lake and trees from the window in the dining room.”

Another guest asked, “What do you mean by an alpine lake?”

Little Joe spoke up. “It formed high, inside peaks of the Sierra Nevada range.”

“Prettiest lake you ever seen,” Hoss added. “It’s surrounded by hillsides of Jeffrey, Lodgepole, and Ponderosa pine, and the lake is so blue and clear, it acts like a mirror to reflect everything at its edge. You can see a ways down into it, but it’s deep and cold.”

Taggert took up his questioning as Hoss finished. “Is it wise to harvest as much as this project needs?  Eventually those hillsides will become bare.”

“Nah,” Hoss snorted. “You’d have to know our pa to understand that he never lets us cut a tree without plantin’ one. Before we harvest, we dig out the trees tryin’ to spring up in the shadows of their big brothers. That way we don’t mess them up while getting at the full-grown ones. Then we stick them little guys back in the ground where they started and let ‘em grow tall and strong too.”

“We don’t clear-cut either,” Joe added. “Pa and Adam mark what we can take in an area. It’s important to leave good roots in the ground to prevent soil from running off during rain and spring melts.”

“Pa says we’re building a legacy here, and that means we don’t take without givin’ back.” Hoss grinned widely. “We own a deed to our land; protect what we got with everything we got, and make a good livin’, but we see ourselves as caretakers.” He indicated their property with a sweep of his arm. “When we’re gone from this earth, we want to make sure this land’s in as good a shape as it was when we got here.”

One of the railroad men cleared his throat. “I wish others felt as your family does. It seems that there’s enough timber out here to build an empire and still have plenty left over, but I’m already seeing lumber firms leave areas barren. I suppose nature will take care of that and seeds will sprout into trees again, but it takes time, and during the process that soil is prone to erosion that can change the landscape dramatically.”

Frank Fillmore had moved to the credenza to refill his glass with brandy. “Still, we can’t worry about how our suppliers get the wood.” Heads turned toward him as he continued. “We need lumber, and there are only so many firms with crews and equipment to do that on a large scale. The Cartwrights have high ideals and I applaud them, but progress demands that we turn a blind eye to the methods for the time being. The same thing happened back East when cities began growing. Now you can’t even tell where all that lumber came from.”

A loud, dry laugh brought the group’s attention to Lester Sloan. He clapped loudly as the laugh continued. “There, I’ve given the Cartwrights their bravo. But that’s all they’ll get for their efforts.” He looked pointedly at Nels, and continued. “The railroad doesn’t allow for resupplying the forests in our bids. They want it cheap and on time.”

Nels blushed as he choked on the sip of coffee he’d just swallowed. When he could breathe without coughing, he replied, “We don’t put any stipulations on how the wood is obtained, and that may prove a mistake. But for now, we need to build a railroad and it’s moving ahead quickly.”

Sloan stared at Adam with a superior smile, and snorted. “That puts the rest of us in a good position. It must be costly for the Cartwrights to do that extra work…and it will probably make their bid too high.”

“You’ll each bid as you see fit.” Nels said as the laughter over Sloan’s conclusion ended. He walked to the front of the group and set his cup on the ledge of the hearth. “As long as the subject has come up, we might as well go over that process now. My engineers and foremen went over the specifications of the contract this morning, and now I’ll discuss the penalties for delays, and tell you about the bid process.”

Nels nodded towards one of his men who brought a cloth bag forward. “You’ll each have a private hour with us tomorrow so you can ask questions. We’ll see the first person in our suite at nine o’clock, with the rest following at hour intervals. All bids are due by 5 P.M.” He held the bag up. “There are six slips in here with meeting times. You will each draw one.”

The bag was passed around until each man had picked. “You must come to see us whether you have questions or not, because it’s when you’ll receive your official bid forms. Once the bidding is closed, I’ll wire the CPRC offices in San Francisco and ask for confirmation that we can award the contract the next morning at our final gathering. Should your bid be lowest, we’ll ask for your supporting documents and worksheets to prove you have the proper backing to complete the job.”

Al Munson raised his hand. “Why must we use your form?”

“Good question.” Nels motioned another of his men forward. “Nathaniel will explain it.”

The young man cleared his throat. “The CPRC’s wants to ensure the integrity of this process. Our form is printed on watermarked paper and embossed with the CPRC seal, so it can’t be duplicated. In the case of an error or damage, the original can be returned for a replacement.”

“Thanks, Nate.” Nels said over the murmuring.

This news didn’t bother Adam. Similar authentication methods were used when bidding with the Cavalry. The only thing that mattered about using this special form, was the amount of work still required to find a reasonable number to write on it.

Nels completed the day’s agenda by revealing the contractual penalties. They were stiffer than usual, but also as usual, they were given upfront so they could be absorbed a bit in the bids.

***

Attendees didn’t seem anxious to leave even when the meeting adjourned. Hoss and Joe had remained for the afternoon, and they were pressed into telling more stories about the perils of ranching. Lester Sloan was the first to succumb to the sedation effects of good food and liquor, and was sleeping soundly, hunkered into one of the comfortable red leather chairs.

Conversation continued as the afternoon reached an hour that Maggie pronounced was “Ponderosa tea time,” when she and her helpers reset the table with plates of small sandwiches and a variety of sweets. Sylvia encouraged everyone to indulge in some sustenance to prepare them for their “arduous journey” back to town. Although there’d been laughter and protestations that they were still full from lunch, the table was nearly cleared of its offerings an hour later when they prepared to leave.

***

Adam pulled his brothers to the side as the guests yawned, stretched, and finally began talking about heading out. “You’re going to ride Cochise and trail Chubby for Hoss to ride home?” he asked Little Joe.

“Yup. And we’ll hightail it back,” he replied with a pronounced sigh and eye-roll.

The oldest brother’s eyes were drawn to the Lovelee sisters who were talking with the guests and accepting their thanks for their fine service. He puffed his cheeks, and blew out a whistling breath. “You’re sure there’re no rooms at the hotel?”

“Aw, Adam, let them be, will ya!” Hoss seldom argued with his older brother, but his face was set in a determined scowl as his cheeks blazed to a red that matched the geraniums outside. “They helped out real good, and we’ll be takin’ them with us in the mornin’ cuz they got that dress appointment. We’ll check at the hotel when we drop these guys off and make sure they hold a room if one comes open fer tomorrow.”

Hoss’s outburst confirmed Maggie’s earlier assessment that Sylvia’s fawning over his middle brother had solidified his role as her champion. Adam tread more gently. “They were extremely helpful, Hoss, and did a wonderful job. But you and Joe weren’t here this morning, so you don’t understand how long it will take to review all the changes to the contract. That’s my only job tonight.” He nudged Hoss’s arm. “And I thought the ladies might enjoy accompanying you to town for a nice dinner, and maybe take in the revue that’s touring, instead of tiptoeing around here while I do paperwork.

“That would’a been nice if there was a chance at staying in town afterwards.” Hoss smiled as he watched the sisters laughing at something the men from the railroad had said. “Ain’t they pretty though,” came out in an absentminded sigh. When he shook free of his thoughts, he found Adam grinning at him. “The only problem is that they’s pretty much spent from the long day, so I wouldn’t ask them to come along only to have ta head back here again.”

Adam nodded absentmindedly as his thoughts returned to his earlier theory that this arithmetic problem of unexpected illness and miraculous assistance didn’t add up to the right answer.

Little Joe had listened to his brothers and finally offered, “We’ll be back before eight if we get going, and they told Maggie they’ll help clean up while we’re gone. And … we’ll warn them to stay clear of you.”

Hoss added, “I’ll tell ‘em about what you’re like when you got somethin’ to get done.”

The oldest brother laughed. “I’d appreciate that.” Their conversation ended as Nels approached.

“We’ll leave first to get ahead of that dust machine.” He looked back to where the sisters were distributing the suit jackets they’d retrieved from the spare room. “My sincere thanks to all of you. The day went well. The truth is, I’d love to stay behind to hear more about the Cartwright way of doing business and enjoy the ranch a while longer. But,” he grimaced, “That might be looked at as favoritism.”

Adam was suggesting that Nels and his men come for dinner the evening after the contract was awarded, when they were interrupted by a commotion at the center of the room.

Frank Fillmore tucked his hands into the pockets of his coat, after Sylvia helped slip it up his arms. “My wallet is missing,” he called after the young woman who was trying to assist the sleepy Lester Sloan with his jacket. “It must have fallen out in the other room.”

With Frank’s announcement, the others began checking their pockets too. Sloan was suddenly wide awake as his pat-down produced a similar loss.

Rick Spindler’s face took on an edge as hard as any railroad tie when he examined the inner pocket of his coat. “My wallet is missing too.” He glared at Adam. “What’s going on here, Cartwright? Surely you didn’t have to pilfer our pockets to pay for this soirée!”

All his earlier fears exploded in Adam’s mind while he fought to understand what was happening. “I’m sure there’s a simple explanation.”

“I haven’t looked in my pockets yet,” Al Munson snarled as he grabbed for the remaining coat in Sylvia’s arms. She tried holding it out for him, but as she did, it slipped from her grasp and fell to the floor. Both parties bent to retrieve it, bumping heads in the process. When they stood, each of them was holding a section of the bottom hem while the coat stretched upside-down between them.

The room grew silent except for the plopping sound made as five wallets slid from front pockets of the suspended garment and struck the wooden floor. Sylvia and Munson stared down at the pile. The young woman gave a sharp cry; dropped her edge of the coat, and ran to her sister.

Sloan’s glare moved from his host to his fellow bidder. He sneered, “I guess Cartwright didn’t need money after all.” He shook his head and spoke in a derisive tone. “But now we know who did.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Munson sputtered. “If I wanted your cash, I’d have removed it rather than take the entire wallet! Even if they hadn’t fallen out, the bulges in my pockets would have been visible once I donned my jacket.”

“Maybe you didn’t have time to go through them, and figured we wouldn’t realize they were missing until later,” Sloan spat back at him. “We wouldn’t have noticed if you’d have carried your coat rather than putting it on. The theft was only exposed because the girl dropped it.”

Munson straightened his shoulders and glared back at Sloan. “Your accusations are uncalled for, Sir.”

“Maybe it wasn’t about money,” Roger Taggert broke in. “None of us ever heard of you before this meeting, Munson. Perhaps you thought there’d be something more valuable in those wallets.”

“What are you talking about?” Munson shouted.

Frank spoke up. “I understand what Roger’s implying. You might have thought we’d have information about our bids in them. I don’t leave important papers in my hotel room while I’m away. In fact, I mentioned during lunch today that I always keep my figures with me. It would have been easy enough for you to slip into that room during the day, and remove our things, hoping to see our costs.”

Nels retrieved the wallets from the floor, and went around the room returning them to their owners. “Please make sure there’s nothing missing. I’ll caution all of you to withhold judgement of what just happened. As Adam suggested, there’s probably a simple explanation.”

Munson raised his arm, curling his webbed finger to his palm and aimed a shaking fist at Adam. “If there’s a ‘simple explanation’ then he’d better tell us what it is! I think I’m being set up—if not by all of you, then by our host.” He turned his fist toward Taggert. “As you said, none of you know me. That makes me the newcomer—the outsider—and the unknown factor in this bid. It would help all of you to discredit me, and get me disqualified.” He turned again until he could see the two young women huddled together near the credenza. “How do I know that Cartwright isn’t the one who had these young women seed my coat with evidence showing that I’m a ‘thief?’” He took a step toward Sylvia and Desiree, making them cower. “How much were you paid to impeach me?” Munson’s anger continued to build as he turned toward the group again. “Be careful Taggert! You’ll be next on the chopping block if you’re not careful. You’re the other person these men don’t know as well.”

Nels hollered for order, while Hoss stepped between the Lovelee sisters and Munson.

The middle Cartwright’s voice boomed, silencing everyone. “I got to stop you all before any more gets said. It was me who caused this mess, and I would have owned up to it right away if y’all didn’t get to shoutin’.” He nodded toward Adam. “There is an easy answer.  Little Joe and me came in through the outside doors in that spare room when we came in for lunch, so’s not to disturb the meetin’. With my size I can be a bull in a china shop, and I was talkin’ to Joe instead a watchin’ where I was walkin’, and I knocked into the bed where yer coats were piled. Them jackets slid off that slippery spread, and I got tangled in ‘em. Joe and I started in grabbin’ them up, but stuff fell outta them pockets just like now. We should have paid more attention when we tried to put things right, but it was just bad luck that we each stuck wallets into the same coat. No one’s tryin’ to do nothin’ to nobody.” His eyes met Little Joe’s as he sought agreement. “Ain’t that how it happened, Joe?”

Joe’s eyes flew open as he heard Hoss’s request to back him up. Yet he knew that if he gave any other indication that the “incident” his brother had just described was as new to him as it was to everyone else in the room, there would be mayhem. His mind raced as he walked over and clapped his brother on the back. “We just spent a couple hours telling you how the things Hoss and I do together often go wrong, so this shouldn’t surprise you. You saw how much Hoss ate, so it also shouldn’t surprise you that he rushed through cleaning up that mess of coats standing between him and his lunch.”

The tension in the room broke as the men laughed. Munson laughed too, and when he spoke, his voice bore the repentance that his red cheeks confirmed. “I shot a little long and wide with my accusations.” The apologetic tone vanished. “On the other hand, I am owed an apology for being accused without proof.”

Taggert walked over with his hand extended. “I am sorry. There’s so much at stake it makes good men a little jittery.”

Sloan and the others were offering their apologies as Adam ushered Nels and his men outside. “I’m going to see you off and get these men back to town before anything else goes wrong.”

“What do you make of that?” Nels asked with a suspicious tone when his men went ahead to the buckboard. “Did your brothers really do what they said?”

“I remember them coming through the front door.” Adam grinned. “I suspect their confession stemmed from a desire to protect those two handsome women, who probably did pretty much the same as he described when they went to grab the coats. In truth, I was about to make a similar confession, just to end the finger pointing.”

“What do you think really happened?” Nels’ complexion turned decidedly gray as his forehead furrowed. “I can’t believe anyone would be foolish enough to take those wallets, even if they contained valuable information. So … is  it possible that someone would go that far to discredit a fellow bidder?” Nels chewed his lip. “Your brother mentioned outside doors in that room. Could someone have slipped in that way?”

Adam’s eyes narrowed as he drew a long breath. “I ensured they were locked before anyone arrived, and again during the lunch break. They can only be unlatched from the inside, and since it’s a direct entry into the house, we have a secondary lock in place to prevent jimmying from the outside. The extra lock is behind the curtain and isn’t easily disengaged. Those doors were never opened today.” He paused to let this information settle. “That mess was created by someone who entered from inside. I don’t think this was about theft. It was meant as a diversion…a distraction from the good feelings developed during the meeting.”

Nels began walking to the wagon, but stopped to look squarely at Adam. “For what purpose?”

“I expected gamesmanship and some nasty digs at each other, disguised as humor. Now I wonder if winning is so important to one of these men that they’d attempt to steal the process.”

“I still don’t understand.” Nels’ look remained puzzled.

Adam closed his eyes as he thought. “Those men laughed off what happened, agreeing it was a mistake. But for a few minutes they each believed there was a fox in the henhouse. My sense is that this was meant to raise tensions and suspicion that will set the stage for a bigger accusation to come.”

Nels nodded. “Do you have any idea what that would be?”

Adam shivered. “If this was only about winning, there’d be a simple attempt to get at the bids, and then alter theirs to win. Getting the contract might be the goal, but it feels personal.”  Adam leaned in to speak to more quietly. “But to err on the safe side; tampering with the bids can be easily foiled. I have a suggestion—”

Nine

Adam waved as the buckboard left the yard, and then took his brothers aside as the rest of the group exited the house. “I know you both lied about that wallet fiasco, and I’m glad you did. Things could get tense if it’s mentioned on the trip.” He looked directly at Hoss. “With the amount of liquor and food they’ve consumed, they might all doze off. He gave Hoss a gentle shove towards the carriage. “Keep talking until they get drowsy.”

“What’ll I say to them?” Hoss asked as he frowned deeply.

“Tell them what it was like when we first moved here, and how it changed when silver was found. Or explain how we pasture the steers; point out the miles of fences we maintain…even where our timber is, but nothing else about it.” A good-natured smile appeared. “You’re good at this, Hoss. People enjoy listening to your stories.”

***

After sending his fellow bidders on their way, Adam returned to the house through the kitchen door. He whistled when he saw stacks of dirty dishes occupying every surface in the room. “If the amount of cleanup needed attests to the success of a party, then this one was monumental. Looks like you’ll be washing dishes till bedtime, Maggie!”

The flushed woman used her shoulder to push back the stray hair dangling in her face. “I don’t know how the meeting went, but those men certainly enjoyed the food. My two helpers have gone upstairs to change, but they’re coming back to tackle the leaning towers of china.” Maggie moved to the stove and stirred a steaming pot. “I made soup from the beef broth. If you get Hop Sing back in now, he can eat some of it and relax in his own bed.” She peeked around the corner into the main rooms. “Looks like we’ve got the tables cleared. You can give me a hand moving the furniture back into place, and once that’s done, you’ll be free to work in peace.”

“I can do the furniture alone. The first thing I’ll do is stow the liquor to avoid temptation.”

Maggie laughed. “I might give in to that temptation myself, but then I’d be too woozy to put Ben’s china away without breaking it.” A devilish grin played on her lips as she lowered her voice. “What do you think happened with those coats? I listened from the kitchen when I heard the commotion.”

Adam adopted an innocent expression. “You didn’t believe Hoss’s confession?”

Maggie prefaced her answer with an unladylike snort. “I was putting things on the table when your brothers came in … through the front door, and right past you.” She winked at Adam. “I also slipped in to check that door after Hoss confessed. Both locks were engaged, and those drapes hadn’t been disturbed enough for someone to have worked that special contraption.”

“I checked too, and saw the same thing.”

“So why did Hoss lie?” she asked.

“To protect the ladies, I’d gather. He saw their discomfort, and must have figured they’d done it—even though he assumed it was accidental.” He dropped his voice to little more than a whisper. “You could see that door more than anyone else while going to and from the kitchen. Did you notice any of the guests going in there?” She shook her head. “Then we both know who did it. The question is whether it was an innocent mix-up, or a well-planned, perfectly executed distraction.” He sighed and gave Maggie a sour smile. “We’ll still keep our ears and eyes open. But for now, I’ll get Hop Sing.” He rested his hands on her shoulders. “You did a remarkable job today.”

***

Hop Sing was sitting on the edge of the bunk, looking more like himself when Adam entered. “Everyone is gone,” Adam told him. “Maggie has soup for you, and you can rest in your own room.”

As the two walked towards the house, Adam slipped his arm around the small man’s shoulders. “It’s a shame you felt so miserable and didn’t get to see how much your cooking was appreciated. Whatever you had, sure came on fast and hit you hard.” A thought swam through his head as he pictured the other things that had “come on fast” in the last 24-hours. He had no reason to suspect foul-play, yet he asked, “Did anything unusual happen yesterday?”

Hop Sing stopped walking and squinted up at Adam. “Only one thing different. Man who bring supplies from store not Reggie. Nice man. Carry boxes inside for me. He say he at store when Wilson find out Reggie not come. Man offer to drive out.”

“Wilson allowed a stranger to deliver our supplies?”

“Don’t remember name, but he say he new here, and want to be nice to neighbors.”

“Was your order complete?” Adam asked evenly.

Hop Sing gave a sturdy nod.  “Wilson even send new tea to try and say if I like.”

Adam stopped their progress at the back door. “Rest tonight. Maggie and other two ladies who are staying here, will clean up. You can take over in the morning if you’re well enough.” He touched Hop Sing’s arm. “Did you try that tea?”

A quick nod brought along a wrinkled nose. “Too bitter; taste like medicine. Put rest in garbage.”

After sending Hop Sing inside, he walked around to the front, and checked the French doors from the outside again before heading in. He set the furniture back in order before pulling his maps and notes from the desk drawer and arranging them on the flat surface. He was so engrossed in reading his notes that he was startled to hear someone clear their throat.

“I was wondering how long it would take you to notice me.” Maggie laughed and leaned forward on the front edge of the desk. “I wouldn’t bother you except that you didn’t eat much for lunch, and I wondered if you’d like some soup before I put it away.”

His eyebrows rose as his stomach growled. “That’s exactly what I’d like. I’ll come and get it. You’ve done enough running.”

***

Maggie had an empty plate with the bowl of steaming soup on a tray in the kitchen. “There’s bread and meat if you’d like a sandwich, and plenty of sweets left to pick from.”

He added a slice of crusty bread with butter, and a piece of his favorite cake to the plate and headed back out, stopping short when he saw Sylvia looking over the papers he’d left on the desk.

“May I help you?” he asked, moving forward again.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Cartwright,” she laughed. “I have no idea what I’m looking at. I wish I did though.”

“Why is that?”

She picked up the hand-drawn map. “I know men think I’m pretty, but I’d rather they thought of me as smart.”

He set his tray down and slipped the map from her hand, returning it to its proper pile. “Being lovely doesn’t disqualify you from being intelligent.”

“Men are not interested in what I know.” Sylvia watched Adam’s brows nearly meet as he frowned, and she laughed wryly. “I don’t think I meant what you might be imagining. It’s just that I’ve been told to not worry my pretty head when I’ve offered a suggestion or idea. And the men who’ve taken me to dinner or parties wanted me to turn heads … and keep my thoughts and opinions to myself.”

“I’m sorry you’ve experienced that, but there are men who value intelligence as much as beauty.”

“Like you?” She asked while moving behind the green leather chair where he’d taken a seat.

“Like all of the Cartwrights, and far more men than you seem to realize.” He turned the chair to face her. “One of the strongest women I know is Euphemia Hill. She was a young woman when her husband was killed, leaving her with a big ranch and three children.* Euphemia is a lovely woman, yet people take notice of her strength of character and fair business practices.”

“She sounds wonderful. Does she live near here?”

His left brow dipped as his lips twitched into a one-sided smile. Euphemia Hill owned the biggest business in Stockton: the place Hoss said the Lovelee sisters called home. It seemed unlikely that anyone living there wouldn’t have heard of the woman who employed a good number of Stockton residents in her chrysanthemum fields and factory, turning the flowers into the insecticide, buhach.  Adam wouldn’t label Sylvia a fraud based solely on this lapse, but it was certainly one more oddity in the series. “I can recommend a few fine schools that accept women. What would you be interested in learning?”

There was no hesitation. “Business. I’d like to know what you’re doing with all these notes to make a bid on the project they talked about today.”

He chuckled. “To learn about business, I’d suggest working with someone who runs one successfully. I have a college degree and my education plays an important part in how I approach all this information. But being able to discern numbers and trends is only the start. The bids we make are complicated, and use predictable factors gleaned from many sources. But my father taught me to never discount what we sense about people either.”

He thought a moment. “You mentioned that your father is in business. Perhaps he would take you under his wing if he knew of your interest.”

She walked toward the window; inordinately interested in the flowers on the outside sill. Her sad sigh was audible. “My father does use what he thinks I have to offer: as distraction.”

Adam’s eyes widened for an instant. Had he just heard a confirmation that the wallet exchange was a “distraction?” His question then became whether the sisters were working with one of the bidders or for an outside party? He considered those who’d been there earlier, looking for a familial resemblance. There was nothing obvious, and he’d seen no visible interaction pointing towards familiarity.

One thing was sure; It was time to move on. Sylvia wasn’t about to dissolve into a teary confession, and the evening was slipping by. “I do hope you’ll pursue your ambition.”

As she moved from the window, he tried to pull the tray with his rapidly-cooling soup towards his side of the desk, setting the glass of water into motion. Sylvia was near enough to grab it before it tipped.

“Thank you!” He took the glass from her hand and placed it safely to the side. “You saved me from a disaster.”

“Glad to be of service.”

“You’ve stepped in to help a few times already today.” They exchanged smiles. “Is that a new dress style out of San Francisco?” he asked as he sat back in the chair.

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“You’ve worn two dresses today, both with matching fabric attachments that covers your hands. I haven’t been to San Francisco lately, and wondered if it might be a fashion detail that’s popular over there.”

Sylvia looked down at her hands where only the tips of her fingers were visible below the addition Adam mentioned. “This would hardly be a fashion trend.” She crossed her arms, tucking her hands out of sight. “I have an unsightly skin condition. Fortunately, it affects my limbs and not my face, so I can keep it hidden.” Her chin rose as her shoulders squared. “It’s the worst on my hands. I always wear gloves when I’m out, and I’ve added these removeable hand covers to wear when others are around. They leave my fingertips exposed so I can handle things better. One reason I want to see that seamstress is to get her suggestion for a better fit.”

“You don’t have to hide anything here,” Adam said sincerely. “Please be comfortable.”

Her back stiffened further. “I’ve experienced people who claim to be open-minded, and then back away when they see the rash, acting like I have leprosy.” She looked directly at him for an instant and gave him a sad smile. “I should get in the kitchen. Desiree must have dishes ready to dry.”

A twinge of regret poked at him for asking about the dress, yet he’d asked only because he assumed it was fashion, rather than concealment. He shook off his guilt by reminding himself that Sylvia Lovelee was hiding more than a rash. He enjoyed a good mystery, but now he had a more important enigma to solve: what to ask for their timber.

Ten

Desiree looked up from the dishpan when Sylvia entered the kitchen, and motioned her over with a soapy hand. “Maggie is with that little Chinese guy, talking about the party, so hurry and tell me about that older brother.”

“He’s smart and perceptive, just as we were warned he’d be.”

“I didn’t expect him to be so handsome.” Desiree inhaled deeply and sighed. “I like Little Joe. He’s cute and funny. But I bet you’d rather be flirting with the one out there instead of Hoss.”

“I actually prefer Hoss,” Sylvia stated with conviction. “He’s sweeter and kinder than any man I’ve ever known, and maybe not being as handsome as his brothers makes him more understanding of others who aren’t perfect either.”

“He does have a ‘happy puppy’ expression every time he looks at you.” Desiree nudged her sister and grinned. “He’s the sort of man who would adore you forever—not that it matters.”

Sylvia grabbed a towel and began to dry a plate. “Forever could matter, if we weren’t neck deep in this mess with Papa.”

“Speaking of that, does Adam suspect anything?” Desiree asked.

“Of course he does,” Sylvia hissed; immediately regretting her response when she saw her sister’s fearful expression. “I’m sorry, Des. I’m on edge. Everything went so well with Little Joe and Hoss, but Adam suspected something as soon as he saw us.  And he’s not the only one.”

Desiree dried her hands on her apron and rested them on her hips. “What do you mean by that?”

The older sister walked over to make sure Maggie was still talking in the other room and motioned Desiree to a far corner of the kitchen. “Maggie rolled her eyes after we told our story on the way here. Then when I was helping her clear the table, she talked about how the Cartwrights watch out for one another, and then explained in detail how that has thwarted several attempts by women trying to trick one of them into marriage. She knows we’re up to something.” She paused a moment and crossed her arms in an instinctual movement, as she had in the other room. “Adam’s suspicions are different.”

“How so?” Desiree asked breathlessly.

That talk he had with Hoss when we got here went on for some time, and he looked annoyed.” She chewed her lower lip. “And just now, I swear he was putting every word I said to some test. He’s polished about it, so you don’t even realize it’s all a trap until you step in.”

Desiree’s eyes rounded. “Papa isn’t going to be happy if you gave anything away.”

“It wasn’t that bad. Adam caught me looking over his papers, so I said I’d like to learn how to run a business. He said I could learn, and encouraged me with a story about a young widow he knows who runs a successful one. It lowered my guard, and I spoke before considering that he chose her for a reason. His expression never wavered when I asked if she lived nearby, but I saw his eyes register the jaw trap closing around my ankle.” She twisted the towel in her hands. “He knows we orchestrated that mess with the wallets too.”

“Did he say that?”

“I watched him when Hoss came to our rescue. Adam knew it was a lie, but he kept quiet. I saw him check the lock on those fancy bedroom doors right afterwards, so he knows no one snuck in. And if he thought one of the guests had done it, he’d have questioned us  once they’d gone.  That eliminates everyone but us. He can’t prove it though, and if he had any inkling of what we’re up to, he’d have tossed a rope around us and dragged us back to town. He’s watching every move now, so we need to be more careful.”

 

 

Eleven (Day 2)

Adam walked into the house and headed back to the table for another cup of coffee. He’d just sent his brothers, Maggie, and the Lovelee sisters on their way to Virginia City, but since his appointment with Nels wasn’t until two o’clock, he didn’t have to rush.

He’ been relieved when Hoss and Joe had returned quickly last evening, bringing the good news that Sylvia and Desiree would have a room today. But they’d also brought a telegram from their father saying the court case would conclude by early afternoon, after which he would to ride directly to Virginia City and join them for dinner. Adam was happy his father would make it back for some of the event, but his arrival after the bids were due had led to a wee-hours decision.

The reworking of the new contract had gelled into a useable multiplier shortly after midnight. The numbers he’d reached were accurate and probably competitive, yet they indicated a decision he wanted his father to know about. After condensing all the changes he’d accommodated into a few paragraphs, and copying the figures he’d used to support their bid, he’d outlined the pros and cons … along with his conclusion.

He’d then stuffed these pages into an envelope and made a trip to the bunkhouse around 1 A.M., where he’d quietly awakened the best horseman on their crew, luring him from his warm bed with a sizeable financial incentive for a moonlit ride to Carson City.

With that on its way, Adam had tossed-and-turned in an attempt to rest on the settee, until noise from the kitchen had given him an excuse to get up and check on the obviously recovered cook.  He’d found Hop Sing getting things ready for breakfast, and claiming to have no ill-effects from his previous day’s illness.

His thoughts had just returned to his present circumstances and what he might still do before leaving for town, when he heard Hop Sing talking loudly to himself in the kitchen. Adam understood just enough of their cook’s Chinese-English mix to know he was frustrated that his meticulous organization had been blown to bits by his stand-ins during the party. Hop Sing had  graciously offered the three women his sincere thanks when they’d come down for breakfast …  just before asking them to leave the kitchen. And while he sounded upset now, Adam suspected he was enjoying the search, recovery, and reset of each displaced item as he restored order.

The idea of a quick nap was quickly dispelled when he realized he wouldn’t be able to quiet his mind enough to sleep anyway, and his eyes drifted to the remaining fresh biscuit on the serving plate. “Hop Sing will be unhappy if anything is left,” he said softly as he reached for it, and slathered it with butter and honey. He’d taken his first bite when a solid knock on the front door made him chew faster and wash it down with a gulp of coffee.

The man waiting outside the door handed over the same envelope he left with earlier. “Sorry it took so long to get back, Mr. Cartwright, but your pa took some time getting this ready,” he said before yawning loudly.

“You did fine, Wes. Thank you.” Adam smiled at the man who’d been out all night. “Was he surprised to see you?”

“Not so much as I thought,” the young cowhand answered. “Fact is, he said he weren’t able to sleep anyway, and acted happy to see what was in that envelope. He gave me money and sent me to a restaurant by the stage office what stays open all night, saying I should fill up for the ride back.” The tall, lanky man’s cheeks blazed pink. “I said you gave me plenty already. But he told me to buy biggest steak they had.”

Adam chuckled. “I appreciate your honesty. Stay at the ranch today. Once everyone’s out working, you can slip into the bunkhouse for a nap.”

Adam opened the envelope while waiting for the young rider to clear the porch. He shut the door with his foot, and leaned back against it while reading the reply. His satisfied grin spread into a wide smile when he finished. He knew his father would have supported any conclusion he made, yet this confirmed his next step. A separate note penned by his father contained more news that brought one of Ben Cartwright’s favorite novels to Adam’s mind. “Well, Pa,” he said softly. “As Don Quixote told Sancho, ‘Where one door shuts, another opens.’”

Twelve

“I’ll be back mid-afternoon tomorrow,” Adam told Angus as he handed over Sport’s reins at the livery in town.

“That’s when yer brothers want the wagon too.” Angus was a wiry young man who tended the stable in exchange for sleeping in the loft. “I saw them two women Hoss and Little Joe had with them this morning. They’re sure some lookers.”

“That seems to be the consensus.”

Angus’s upper lip curled as he squinted at Adam. “What’s con-sen-sus mean?”

“It means most people agree that they’re good looking.”

“Ya’d have to be blind not to,” the young man snorted. “Ya want oats for Sport?”

“Hay is fine. He’d appreciate a wash and brush if you’ve got time.”

“I always got time for the Cartwright horses. You might’a noticed yer wagon team is looking pretty fine.”

Adam grabbed his satchel from the saddle horn, and walked over to the stalls with the Ponderosa horses. “You did a good job, Angus. They’re looking just as pretty as those two ladies with my brothers.”

“Aw, shucks, Mr. Cartwright. Now yer just funning with me.” Angus’s looked down at his feet and kicked a pile of straw.

“I’m not teasing you. I respect a person who cares for animals as well as you do. That’s a quality to be praised far more than the good fortune of being born with a pretty face.” Adam tossed the teenager a silver dollar. “That’s for you. My father will be coming in towards evening; give Buck the same treatment. We’ll pay the full bill tomorrow.”

***

Adam swore there were sunbeams glinting off Hoss’s teeth when he spotted his brothers at a table in the hotel restaurant. Accompanying the toothy smile was the same doe-eyed, dreamy look he’d noticed when Hoss arrived with the Lovelee sisters the previous day. Sylvia seemed to hang on each word his middle brother spoke, making Adam hope with all his whole heart that this wasn’t another case of Hoss being used by an attractive woman with unattractive motives.

He headed towards the table when Hoss waved him over. “Did you make it in time for your dress appointment?” he asked the sisters as he pulled a chair over from a nearby table.

“We sure did,” Desiree chirped as she leaned closer to Joe. “Your brother controlled that wagon so well I swore those horses had sprouted wings.”

Sylvia laughed and shook her head. “The trip was accomplished quickly, although I’m quite sure there were no horse-feathers involved.” She moved a stray hair aside before returning her gloved hands to her lap. “It would seem that Mary Rogers’ reputation is warranted.”

“Could she provide the guidance you wanted?” Adam asked without explaining further.

Her chin jutted forward. “You don’t need to speak in code, Adam. I’ve told Hoss and Little Joe about my condition too. Miss Rogers was most kind and helpful.”

“Then your trip is going well, even though it got off to a rocky start.” Adam looked towards Hoss and Little Joe. “If it hasn’t already been offered, the Cartwright family would be honored to purchase your dresses in gratitude for your assistance. Your serendipitous arrival saved Maggie from having Hoss and Joe as her helpers.”

“We’re the ones who owe gratitude,” Sylvia responded quickly. “Helping out was more fun than work, and Papa would be upset if we allowed you to pay our bills.”

“Hey, Adam. You hungry?” Hoss asked as the waitress cleared their plates. We was gonna take the ladies on a tour of the town, but we’ll hang back and talk a might longer while you eat.”

Adam patted his stomach. “Hop Sing brought out more biscuits after you left and I couldn’t disappoint him by not finishing them.” He grinned at the group. “I’m fine until supper. Pa should be here then, so let’s all go out together. I’ll get a table at the Cattlemen’s Club. The food’s excellent, and it won’t be as crowded and noisy as a restaurant.” He rose and assisted Sylvia and Desiree with their chairs. “You four have fun. I’ll drop my things in our suite and then head over to make a reservation and talk steers until it’s time to meet with Nels.”

***

Adam hadn’t lied to his brothers, exactly. He did go to the club to reserve a private room for dinner, and another one for a business lunch next week, as his father’s note had asked him to do. He’d stuck around long enough to join a table of ranchers who were finishing lunch, and a bottle of good bourbon.  He held a cup of coffee aloft instead, to toast the birth of a new bull at the Circle 8. He even offered a few vague answers to their queries about the railroad meeting. These ranchers had no stake in the timber business. But they were interested in how the railroad might change how cattle was moved in the future.

There was another, slightly less noble reason for their curiosity. Adam knew these “friends” would view his family winning a large railroad deal to their advantage, since it might reduce the Cartwrights’ ability to bid cattle contracts for a time.

He’d excused himself as soon as the shots of bourbon, and his gulp of coffee were downed, and exited the back door. Familiarity with the town’s layout allowed him to dart through the alleys and back streets, emerging next to Mary Rogers’ dress shop. He stayed in the shadows while checking the street, and spotted his brothers and the sisters walking the opposite direction.

Mary Rogers’ head popped up from behind the counter when she heard the doorbell jingle. “Adam Cartwright! It’s been some time since I’ve seen any of your family, and now I’ve seen three of you in one day.”

“Did my brothers introduce the young ladies who came to see you?”

The middle-aged seamstress’ head moved side-to-side. “I said I saw them. I didn’t talk to them. They stopped out front mid-morning, but the two women stood in the door and told them to go on their way, and they’d meet for lunch at the hotel.”

Adam’s brows drew close. “I’d have thought they would appreciate an introduction, but then again Hoss and Joe were probably happy to stay outside.” He cleared his throat, and his eyes widened as he looked around at the hats, combs, undergarments and various doodads sitting on the counters. “I understand their discomfort in being surrounded by things we have no idea about. But I’m on a secret mission. Sylvia and Desiree helped us out yesterday, but refused our offer to pay for the dresses you’re making for them. I’ll respect that, but I’d like you to choose a nice item or two to complement their ensembles, and include it with their order as our gift.”

Mary’s eyes nearly disappeared as she scowled at him. “Who are Sylvia and Desiree?”

“Those women with my brothers.” When Mary’s confused look persisted, Adam groaned. “They said they had an appointment with you today.”

“They lingered a long while looking at everything. The older one purchased gloves in several colors, but that was the extent of their visit.”

He scrubbed his face and sighed loudly. “They arrived by stage yesterday, claiming you had a last-minute appointment open up for today. In their rush to keep it, the poor damsels set out without wiring ahead for a hotel room. When no rooms were available, it prompted such a teary performance at the International House that Hoss and Joe brought them home for the night.”

Mary’s scowl reappeared. “Why would they have an appointment with me?”

“They say you are well-known for fitting things perfectly and adapting special features.”

Mary nodded. “What they say is true, but I doubt I’m known much beyond here and Carson. I did remark about the matching glove thing in that one woman’s sleeves, and she pulled the cuff back to show me how it buttoned in. She asked if I could suggest a better way of doing it—something less bulky.”

“Did she say why she had them?” Adam asked.

“Something about a skin condition.” Mary stopped talking abruptly, waiting until a woman looking through her window moved along rather than coming inside. “Once I walked away, she did slip one of the cover-things off to try on gloves.” She pointed upwards indicating mirrors attached near the ceiling at varying angles around the store. “I hung those so I can see what’s going on from the doorway when I work in back. I’ve actually caught a number of people slipping small accessories into their purses when they thought they were alone.”

“Could you see her hands?”

A nod. “They were bright red and the skin looked thick and sore. Even a beautiful face like hers wouldn’t deter people from staring at them.” She paused, hoping Adam would explain why he’d asked about this. She finally sighed. “You aren’t going to tell me what’s going on?”

This newest information about the Lovelee sisters compounded his concern. Yet it gave no information as to their intentions. He checked his pocket watch, finding he had enough time to follow another suspicion. “I’m not sure about anything yet, but it’s imperative for you to be discreet. I’ll use your back door to leave.”

Mary chuckled. “I won’t say anything, but I like mysteries too, so you better tell me what happens.”

“I promise.” He raised his hand to signal his oath. “This is probably an innocent misunderstanding, but be on the alert if a stranger comes in, especially a young man.”

“Don’t fret about me, Adam. I may own a woman’s apparel shop, but I protect it like a man. There’s a Deringer tucked in my dress pocket. It probably won’t kill anyone, but it’d give me time to grab a shotgun from behind the counter or the one in my workroom.” Mary laughed when noting Adam’s shocked, yet admiring expression. “Virginia City is a tough mining and cattle town. Not every man is like the Cartwrights.”

 

***

Adam reentered the shadowed alleys and backstreets, and exited near Wilson’s Mercantile. Larry Wilson had purchased the store from Will Cass after the incident with Ed Payson had left the shopkeeper a broken man. The outcome had caused a rift between Cass and his daughter that couldn’t be healed, and Will’s underhanded method of pushing his daughter’s suitor into killing Payson, had alienated enough people in Virginia City that he’d had to sell and move somewhere his memories weren’t as potent.

Larry waved when Adam walked in, and joined him once he finished with his customer. “How’d the party go yesterday?” he asked good-naturedly.

“Great. Thank you for delivering those supplies. It allowed Hop Sing to get a head start on preparations, and that was a blessing since he took ill.” Adam walked over to the shelves with bags of tea and coffee. “I heard that your regular delivery man was ill too, and a customer volunteered to help. I’d appreciate his name so I can thank him personally.”

The left side of Larry’s cheek rose. “That was the strangest thing. I’ve had Reggie doing deliveries since I bought the store. He doesn’t want a regular job, but he earns drinking money for deliveries and sweeping the boardwalk and storeroom each day. But that day, a kid brought a note from Reggie saying he was sick. Someone must have done it for him since Reggie can’t read or write. He hasn’t been back since.”

“Are you worried about him?”

Wilson’s bushy brows formed a solid line as he scowled. “I am. Reggie drinks too much, but never so much he can’t sober up by morning. I checked at his favorite saloons on my way in today, and he hasn’t been in. I went to the old shack he sleeps in on the outskirts of town, and he wasn’t there either. Cosmo, at the Bucket, said Reggie was celebrating there a couple of days back. He had cash in his pockets and bought a round for everyone, before leaving with his old pal Chester. They each had their arms and pockets stuffed with bottles of the cheap whiskey.”

“They’re probably sleeping off a couple-day bender on a river bank,” Adam suggested.

Larry nodded. “I was glad that customer was here when Reggie’s note came. He could see I was upset and I explained that I’d have to shut down to deliver your order. Then he said he was going to look at some land for sale out that way, and would be glad to stop by your ranch.”

“Do you know him?”

“He’d been in a couple of times recently, but I don’t know much about him. Seemed nice enough.” His forehead puckered. “What land is for sale out by you?”

“I’m not aware of any.” Adam let that information linger a moment. “What’s his name?”

“Linc Barlow. Says he’s staying at a hotel while he looks around.” Larry scratched his head. “He didn’t say which hotel.”

Adam sighed inwardly. His intuition told him there’d be no Linc Barlow registered at any hotel in Virginia City. The same intuition prodded him to say, “Hop Sing wanted me to tell you that the tea you sent with that order was bitter, and not something he’d purchase.”

The young shopkeeper stood up straighter as he gave Adam a wary look. “What are you talking about?”

“Barlow told Hop Sing you’d sent tea for him to try, and that he should let you what he thought of it.”

The wary look persisted. “Virginia City is a coffee drinking town, Adam. I like Hop Sing, and while I might ask him to try a new blend, I didn’t send anything with that order.” He walked nearer Adam and lowered his voice as a customer came into the store. “Why would Barlow add something to the order and lie about it?”

Adam’s heart beat heavily, but he kept his uneasiness in check, forcing a soft chuckle.  “He’s probably a salesman who added a sample of something he sells, hoping we’d like it enough to ask for it. He’ll probably come back now offering a new line of tea for you to carry.”

“I’d have helped him if he’d have been up front, but I don’t abide games.”

Adam nodded, and looked again at his watch. “No one appreciates underhanded tactics. I have to run; thanks again.” The rancher and shopkeeper shook hands before Adam headed towards the door. Another piece of this confusing drama had been set in place, yet the plot remained obscure. There was still time before his meeting, so he took to the alleys again and entered the back door of the Overland office.

“Hi Caleb.” Adam greeted the surprised young man sweeping the storage room. “I took a shortcut instead of going all the way around to the front,” he explained. “Is you father here?”

“Yeah, sure.” He nodded towards the front office. “Nice to see you, Mr. Cartwright …” Caleb started to giggle. “Even if you nearly made me wet my pants by comin’ out of nowhere like that.”

“Adam!” Ralph Bertrand opened the door between the two rooms of the stage office. “I thought I heard Caleb talking to someone, but I sure didn’t expect to find you back here.”

“May I speak with you.”

Ralph noted Adam’s concerned look and his slight nod towards the boy. “It looks good in here, Son. Stack those empty boxes out back, and then head home to help your mother.”

Ralph led his unexpected visitor up front. “What’s bothering you, Adam?”

“I need information, and I can’t explain why.”

“Since you’re the one asking, I know it’s important. I won’t pry.”

“Do you recall two young, pretty women arriving on the morning stage yesterday?”

Ralph laughed loudly. “Caleb nearly tripped over his jaw when he was helping them.”

Adam grinned at his companion. “They do have that effect on men. I need to know where they boarded that stage.”

“That’s simple.” Ralph walked behind the counter and pulled a stack of papers from his desk, shuffling through it until he found what he needed. “Bill, the driver of that stage, couldn’t help but comment on the passengers he picked up in Reno.” He pointed to the sheet in his hand. “His paperwork confirms taking on two passengers there in the early hours. He did mention that they seemed mighty determined that he arrive on time, so he pushed the team hard. Bill had the feeling they’d been in Reno a couple of days already, and it made him wonder why they hadn’t caught an earlier stage rather than taking a chance on being late.”

“Where did their trip originate?”

Ralph pursed his lips. “I’d have to wire the Reno station and ask. It won’t be any trouble. I’ll go next door to Western Union and have Clancy send a wire.”

“I’d appreciate that! Please have Clancy ask where those women first boarded; where, and how long they stayed in Reno, and whether anyone else was with them there.”

“Got it! Where should Clancy bring the reply?”

“I’ll be at the International House all afternoon, but have Clancy hand it to me directly rather than leaving it at the desk. I’ll make sure Jake knows where I’ll be. Thanks for the help, and for not asking questions.” Adam was headed toward the back room when he retraced his steps. “You and Clancy are used to handling sensitive information, and I’d ask you treat this as such.  I’m following a suspicion, and those involved would be most unhappy to discover I’m collecting information about them.”

Thirteen

Adam made a final stop and still got back to the International House with time before his meeting with Nels. He nodded to Jake as he entered, but stopped abruptly when he saw his brothers with the sisters at a table adjoining the lobby, involved in an animated conversation. Since none of them looked up when he walked in, Adam quickly exited and made his way around the corner to the saloon’s entrance. He silenced the whispering in his ear saying it was unseemly to eavesdrop, by reasserting his need to gather information. The bar had few patrons—none of them familiar—allowing him to hurry through. He slipped into a chair near his brothers’ table, yet concealed from view by a heavy drape, and a pedestal holding a massive fern with wide-spreading fronds. He missed Joe’s comment, but clearly heard the laughter following it. Satisfied with his vantage point, he grabbed a newspaper from the table next to him, and used its opened pages to complete his camouflage.

Unlike the Cartwrights, who each had a distinctive voice, Desiree and Sylvia had a similar pitch and cadence when they spoke naturally. The one noticeable difference could be heard in the exaggerated lilt Desiree used when performing in her role of ingénue. It was this voice Adam heard taking up the conversation.

“We’ve run into all the men who were at that meeting yesterday, and they were in good moods. Except Adam, who seemed so stern … nearly grumpy, when he came by!”

Joe’s laugh exploded in a loud burst, but he pulled it back to a giggle. “Try facing that somber face your whole life. You should see the look he gives us when he finds out we’ve done something wrong. His standards are set so high he gets a nose bleed when he looks down at us.”

Adam sighed quietly behind his paper. He understood that this was all part of Joe’s comedic repertoire regarding his oldest brother, but that didn’t make it easier to hear.

“It seems to me Adam has a lot of responsibility in your family, and maybe that accounts for his seriousness,” Sylvia countered, bringing the laughter to an end. “He was in charge yesterday, and then he had to refigure your family’s bid. I think he looks more tired than grumpy. And while he’s quiet and observant, I don’t think he feels superior to others. I spoke with him while you took the guests back to town yesterday. He paid full attention, and his words were thoughtful, encouraging and kind.”

“You described our older brother pretty straight on,” Hoss said. “There’s a 12 year span between Adam and Joe, so he always had a lot of responsibility—running things and lookin’ after us when Pa was away—when he was still just a kid himself. And Joe and me were a handful. If we saw Adam’s stern face a lot, it was because we deserved it.”

“Okay, I admit it. Adam’s a good guy.” Joe chuckled. “Maybe he wouldn’t be so serious now if I hadn’t been such a problem kid.”

“I admire your brotherly loyalty,” Desiree offered. “But Adam didn’t have to do any more than the rest of those men, and they’re all enjoying their day off.”

“That ain’t quite true.” Hoss paused. “I don’t bid jobs our jobs, but I help sort out what goes into them. The other men you see relaxin’, are brokers: middlemen. The people supplyin’ the timber and processin’ are the ones who set the price. Last night, those men just had to readjust their bids for the changes they heard about. They’ll just push them off on them other folks.”

“But isn’t that what Adam did?” Desiree asked in a pouty tone.

“You heard the talk yesterday about how we’re gonna use our own trees,” Hoss explained. “When he heard that them ties are needed faster and in larger amounts right from the get-go, it meant he had to refigure the cost from before a saw ever hits the bark, until that finished piece of lumber gets dropped off at the railbed.” Hoss leaned in to speak more quietly. “It’s even more’n that. Pa and Adam were hopin’ to build a big mill so we can …”

Adam’s eye flew open, and he quickly deposited the paper and headed around the fern. The middle Cartwright nearly jumped out of his chair when he heard his older brother’s voice behind him.

“Hoss,” Adam said with a tight smile toward the group. “May I speak with you before I go upstairs.”

Adam led a pink-faced Hoss to a table in an unoccupied corner of the saloon.

Hoss said sheepishly, “You came up kind’a fast like, and must’a heard what I was tellin’ about, so I know you’re gonna say.”

“That it’s never a good to talk business with people you don’t know very well?”

“Maybe you don’t know them, Adam, but I’m gettin’ to know them real fine.” Hoss’s eye rounded into two blue pools in a sea of white, as he smiled angelically. “I’m sort of thinking of them as family, and they’ll be that officially as soon as I ask for Sylvia’s hand. All I gotta do is to I run over to Stockton and meet her pa.”

Adam shut his eyes and sighed inwardly. He hated knowing that his trusting, hopeful bother would soon face some startling truths about the woman he hoped to marry. There’d already been two times when he’d had to intervene after Hoss had proposed to women with questionable intentions. He considered whether to confide his findings now, but he knew Hoss wouldn’t believe it was a scheme, and he’d go to Sylvia about the “misunderstanding.”

Whenever it finally came out, he expected that exposing the lies would create another rift between them.  He and Hoss knew each other so well they could feel the unspoken pain the other was experiencing. Yet Hoss’ tendency to make ill-advised decisions regarding women, and Adam’s tendency to protect him, had split them apart like kindling from a dried log during those previous episodes. The wounds had healed with time and thoughtful consideration of the facts. This time was different, and Adam prayed this wouldn’t cause a split that couldn’t be repaired.

Hoss’s lips twitched into an angry frown when his news brought no response. “I know what you’re thinkin’, Adam: what does a beautiful woman like Sylvia want with a big-ol’ ugly bear like me.  I don’t know, but I’m plumb happy she does. Maybe them hands of hers make other men shy off, but she’s perfect, and she won’t never have to hide anything from me.”

A smile eased Adam’s worn look, even as he considered all that was being hidden. “Sylvia is fortunate for your affection.” He waited as Hoss relaxed and sat back in his chair. “I’ve just one caution. While you’re certain of your feelings, women like to be courted. This period of getting to know each other and growing fonder, can be a special time … or so I’ve been told.” Adam grinned lopsidedly. “Don’t rush her through this.”

A deep blush crept up Hoss’s neck and into his cheeks. “Yer right. I expect Pa will say the same when I talk to him about it later. But I do want her to know I think highly of her.”

Adam nodded, and gave his brother’s arm a solid nudge. “Is Joe as taken with Desiree as you are with Sylvia?”

“He likes the jealous looks he gets when he’s with her, but nothin’ more.”

Another nod. “It’s about time for my meeting with Nels. What do you four have planned for the afternoon?”

“We’re gonna see a matinee of that revue you mentioned. It ends around 5.”

“Pa should be here by then. I hope to sneak in a nap after the meeting or I’ll fall asleep over dinner. Our reservation is at 7:00, so plan enough time back here for the ladies to get ready.” He stood suddenly and waved over a man standing in the lobby doorway.

Hoss rose to shake the hand of the newcomer, while giving Adam a questioning side-glance.

“I asked Judge Harris to accompany me upstairs to pose a few legal questions about the contract,” Adam explained to Hoss as he ushered the judge forward. “Tell the others I’ll see them later, and have a nice time at the revue,” he called back before disappearing through the swinging doors.

Fourteen

Adam’s actual reason for inviting the judge to the meeting had nothing to do with the contract. The information he’d gleaned in the last couple of hours had prompted a final stop to ask the well-respected adjudicator to join him as a discerning ear.

Judge Harris had served the territory in the federal circuit court since Virginia City had sent its first shoots into the silver-laden hillsides. But when traveling had proved physically straining for the aging judge, Ben Cartwright had pressed the city to hire him to hear mining disputes. Early disagreements over claims had been handled by respected, fair-minded citizens like Ben. But as the value of the Comstock lode became known, corporations bought out local miners and the disputes grew complicated and contentious. Hiring the judge had proved an investment in civility, as he’d lawfully settled many arbitrations that might otherwise have led to bloodshed.

Adam admired the judge’s ability to drill to the roots of truth in the cases presented, and he hoped for the same insight after he presented his suspicions and findings.

***

Once in the CPRC’s suite, Adam made introductions, and withdrew a white envelope from the inside pocket of his jacket, laying it next to him on the table where he’d perched. “My bid is ready to go, so if you provide the form, I’ll complete that.”

Nels’ questioning look formed and persisted as he handed over the sheet bearing the railroad’s logo, and Adam quickly turned away to pen a figure. “That seemed painless,” the Swede commented while slipping the folded bid into an envelope, and then into a leather pouch.

Adam handed Nels the white envelope next. “Please keep this safe, but separate from the entries until tomorrow. You’ll need to read it aloud once all the bids are known. But hold off until you’re sure no one makes a claim of foul play.”

“All right,” Nels said as his eyebrows rose a good inch. “Are you expecting a someone to complain?”

“The information in there must be made known, but I believe its contents will provide some leverage in solving such a complaint.” He smiled in response to the wide-eyed stares being sent his way. “That’s all I can say for now.” He turned towards the other men from the railroad. “I’d appreciate your support by allowing Judge Harris and me to speak privately with Nels for the remainder of my hour.”

“Why can’t we hear what you have to say?” one of the foremen asked.

“You all witnessed the scene at our house yesterday, and I’m sure you wondered about it.”

The same man spoke: his tone interested now, rather than peevish. “Have you figured out why it happened?”

Adam shook his head. “But there is new information I’d like to run past your boss. It’s confusing and doesn’t point to anyone or thing. Nels will share any conclusions or plans that come from our discussion.”

***

Nels shook his head and blew out a long, noisy breath after Adam shared what he’d discovered about the two women who’d inserted themselves into the meeting. “I’m at a loss as to what their actions and lies have to with the contract.” He allowed a grin. “But I did take your suggestion to heart and marked the bid forms last night.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Judge Harris can verify that only you and your men know how you’ve marked them.”

“I’m the only one who knows what I did,” Nels pointed out. “I trust my men, but they could let something slip. There is one other person who knows, and he’ll come forward tomorrow if there’s trouble.

Judge Harris nodded. “That was good thinking, young man.”

A sharp knock on the door brought Adam to his feet. “That might be for me.”

“Hi, Adam,” Clancy said as the door opened. “Ralph said I should hand this wire to you.”

“Your timing is perfect.” He dug a bill from his pocket and exchanged it for the hand-written note. “Thank you.”

“Is that from Reno?” the judge asked.

Adam nodded as he scanned the information. “It seems the young women who were too traumatized  to stay at a boarding house here, resided at one in Reno for nearly a week before catching the stage to Virginia City. Their ticket originated in San Francisco, and they arrived in Reno with a young man. He bought a wagon and team there, and left the next day.” He handed the telegram to Nels. “I’m betting it’s Linc Barlow, the convenient stranger I mentioned, who delivered our supplies. The Western Union operator in Reno, reports taking several telegrams from Virginia City to the women during their stay, but he can’t divulge the contents.”

Nels sighed again. “The information is interesting but sheds no further light. I’d heard that Gus Obermeyer was enraged when Roger Taggert left his firm. But this plan is too elaborate for that old coot. Gus would have simply pressured suppliers to pull their support from Roger.”

Judge Harris rubbed his chin as he nodded towards Nels, and then focused on Adam. “You asked me to draw from my experience to see what you two are missing. The contract is the focus of this gathering, but I believe this external conniving is a separate issue. It reminds me of a case I helped on a few years ago.”

“Please tell us more, Judge.” Adam encouraged.

“Let’s lay some groundwork first. If this was about the contract, an accomplice could have easily searched the hotel rooms for information while the participants were away yesterday. Or, as Nels mentioned, if this was aimed at a particular person, lies and coercion could have forced suppliers to withdraw, leaving the bidder unable to proceed. Instead, we have a drama being driven by two women adhering to a tight schedule. Their intent was getting to Virginia City at an exact time, with a convincing story that would soften the hearts of your brothers, and secure an invitation to the Ponderosa. Once there, Hop Sing’s illness allowed them to step into a situation where they were able to run that bit of drama with the coats. And finally, instead of dismissing Hoss and Joe and going on with their intended business today, they’ve wandered around town in a most visible manner in the company the Cartwrights.”

Both Nels and Adam nodded, while remaining silent.

“The young man must have come ahead to set things up. Since only participants knew of the meeting schedule, it points to someone in this group of bidders feeding these three the information about when to arrive, where to go, and whom to target.”

“I agree, but why are they doing this,” Nels nearly groaned.

“The case I mentioned involved two men who had been business competitors for years without animosity. But a poorly phrased comment from one, created ill-will in the other, who then grew it into something far bigger. While he gave no clue to his change of attitude, his anger led him to hire someone to infiltrate the other man’s business and create havoc. Once the planted employee had the client lists, he sent out letters ‘alerting’ them of what he perceived were underhanded practices going on at the company, and then he ‘fixed the books’ and turned them in to the federal agency that oversee money transactions. The man whose business was under fire, came to my friend to fight these claims, and I was asked to help. Our investigation led quickly to the originator, and while we managed to get all charges dropped and even send out new letters explaining the subterfuge; the damage was done. His clients still wondered if there’d been at least some truth in the accusations, and they stayed with their current suppliers rather than returning. There wasn’t much left to sell off, but this innocent man got what he could, and moved back East.”

Adam considered the take-away from the story before speaking. “You think one of the bidders is being set up to scratch a personal itch?”

“Think carefully, Adam” the judge said sadly. “Why does the story I just told sound so familiar?”

Adam blanched. “It sounds similar to what’s happening to us. There are people who have insinuated themselves into our life, and we welcomed them in.”

“Exactly! The person they’re working for wants a lot more than a contract. Your family should be prepared to face some scathing accusations tomorrow. Talk this out with your father when he arrives. He might recall some instance where he dealt with one of these men in a matter that didn’t go well.”

Adam rose and began to pace. “I doubt there’s anything so striking as to provoke someone to ruin us. We’ve lost bids many times, and we always played fair when we won them.”

The judge met Adam’s worried look with one of his own. “Stop thinking just business. This is personal. What set the man off in my story, was an innocent comment said in jest at a party both men attended. Unfortunately, it provoked embarrassment that led to anger, then spite, and finally the need for revenge. Whoever’s behind this, they’re going through those same steps, and are at the point of getting even.”

Nels glanced at the clock. “Hopefully Ben will recall something or someone, but our time is nearly up, so let’s discuss how to proceed.”

“We could withdraw from the competition now, and take away their forum,” Adam suggested without conviction. “But if Judge Harris is right, that would pour kerosene on the flames rather than put out a fire. Then we’d have to wonder whether the same thing would happen each time we looked at a job.”

“I agree,” Nels said. “I still have a gut feeling that the bids will play a role in this theatrical performance. I usually keep this portfolio in my room.” Nels indicated the leather sleeve holding the bids already submitted. “But I’ll make a public show of stowing it in the hotel safe before we leave for dinner. That should increase the difficulty of getting at them.”

Judge Harris shook Nels’ hand. “You seem wise beyond your years, young man. A less astute representative might have dismissed Adam’s concerns, thinking he was over-zealous about a couple of pretty women.”

Nels escorted his guests to the door. “Would you please attend the breakfast, Judge? Sit with me, and poke me if anything seems amiss.”

Judge Harris grinned. “I was hoping you’d ask. Let me give you some quick advice. I’d expect that whatever happens will be swift and shocking, and those women are going to be witnesses to whatever is alleged. Your inclination will be to settle things immediately by checking the bids for your marks. Don’t. You need to let this play out.”

“So what should I do?” Nels asked.

“Recess the meeting; send for Sheriff Coffee, and gather the players. While that happens, check the bid markings privately, and let me know what you find. When you reconvene, ask questions rather than letting the witnesses prattle. Take away their ability to play to the audience by interrupting and clarifying. And finally, if your markings prove conclusive lies; use it. I’ll help any way I can.”

“There’s a couple more things,” Adam told the other two. “I haven’t shared any of this information with my brothers. Pa needs to know, but the fewer aware that we suspect anything, the better.” Adam paused before opening the door. “Start the meeting on time tomorrow, even if I’m not there.”

Nels frowned deeply. “Why wouldn’t you be there?”

“Call it a hunch.”

Fifteen

Judge Harris took the back stairway from the hotel, while Adam headed to the lobby, and straight into the saloon, where he purchased a bottle of good whiskey.

With bottle in hand, he made his way up to his family’s empty suite and released his pent-up stress in a long sigh. His rapidly undone tie was flung across the back of a chair, and he made quick work of loosening the top buttons of his shirt before opening the bottle he’d brought up. The water glass he carried to the sofa contained two-fingers of the aged liquor, which he downed in a single long swallow before kicking off his boots and reclining.

He wasn’t a heavy drinker, but he did appreciate the instant warmth a straight shot of whiskey created along the back of his throat, before spreading rapidly to his fingertips. As tired as he was, one shot was all he needed to shut down his racing thoughts and relax.

***

Ben heard the soft, nasal breathing of his oldest as soon as he stepped into their suite. He moved quietly to stow his gear in the bedroom bearing no signs of occupancy, and washed the trail dust from his cheeks before donning a clean shirt and draping a tie around his neck for later.

When he reentered the parlor, the late afternoon sun was creating a prism as it passed through the golden liquid in the whiskey bottle. The effect was so alluring that Ben grabbed a clean glass from the tray on the mantle and poured a bracer.

Adam’s eyes flew open when he heard the clink of the bottle against the glass. He smiled sleepily after a long yawn. “I sure am glad to see you.”

“I saw Sport and our rig at the livery and thought your brothers would be here too.”

“Yeah…about that, Pa.” He inhaled deeply and blew out a long breath. “There’s a lot to tell you.”

Condensing the long story to its most significant points allowed Adam to relate it in a matter of minutes.

Ben’s face took on a near-accusatory edge as he sought confirmation on the part that most bothered him. “Your brothers are out with those … liars … unaware of what you’ve discovered?” When Adam nodded, Ben asked. “Is there a good reason you haven’t told them?”

“Hoss is besotted with Sylvia, the older one, and he’ll—”

“Defend her, and say it’s all a mistake,” Ben interjected with a nod of understanding.

“Even the hint that something’s wrong would show in his reactions, and she’d know her ruse was over.”

Ben sighed and sat further back in his chair. “Your brother will be deeply hurt … again.”

“I’m sorry for that. But he’s known my concern from the moment he got home with them. He accused me of being too suspicious and judgmental, and he’s already lied to keep them out of trouble. To him, they are innocent of anything, except bad planning.” Adam thought back to the previous evening. “I spoke with Sylvia after everyone was gone yesterday. She’s likeable despite her many secrets, and I don’t think she’s happy about what they’re doing.”

“Yet not unhappy enough to change her course of action?”

Adam shrugged. “There must be a powerful reason to continue.”

“I’ll get a feeling for them at dinner tonight.” Ben sighed heavily. “And if I suspect that anything they’re doing will impugn your brothers’ characters, I will  intervene.”

“I agree, Pa.” Adam wrote out the names of the other five bidders and handed the list to his father. “Do any of these names bring to mind some old deal or conversation that went sour?”

“I recognize them, but nothing more.” He reread the list. “You suspect one of these men are behind this?”

Adam nodded. “I’d hoped you’d see a name that stood out.”

Ben crossed his arms and harrumphed. “I remember when the Central Pacific began building its own tracks a few years back. Barney Fuller and I always ended up head-to-head for the contracts. He was a smart competitor—sneaky too—in a likeable way. His death ended an era where men put their sweat into fulfilling a contract. Now our competitors are all contractors who know nothing of the work required to build something.”

“Barney was a character,” Adam said warmly. “I know how much you miss him.”  He stood and stretched before walking to the window. “The prodigal sons are on their way back with the Lovelee sisters.”

Ben joined him. “They do live up to their name.”

“Let’s go down to meet them,” Adam suggested as he adjusted the ends of his tie until they were even. “We’ll wait downstairs while the girls change. The other bidders will pass through the lobby on their way to dinner. Maybe seeing their faces will prompt a memory.”

“Before we go, I’d like to know how you feel about our decision.”

“I was relieved that you agreed with me, and the rest was … unexpected … and gratifying. Let’s get through tomorrow morning, and then we’ll celebrate.”

Sixteen

Dinner at the Cattlemen’s Club was pleasant. Hoss continued his pie-eyed stare at Sylvia, and completely missed the subtle eyebrow lifts exchanged between his father and older brother. Little Joe enjoyed the lavish attention of the younger sister, while parrying her romantic swoons with humor: a clear indication he had no long-term interest.

Ben and Adam’s ability to play poker well came in handy as they feigned interest in the sisters’ embellishments about meeting with Mary Rogers, including details about selecting fabric and taking measurements: a process they deemed a torture worthy of a mediaeval novel. There were a few instances when the lies became so outrageous that Adam came near to laughing, requiring a raised napkin to cover his grin. Sylvia did catch him rolling his eyes, but he quickly explained it by relating his similar torment at the hands of an over-zealous tailor.

***

Unwilling to end the evening, Hoss suggested they have a nightcap at the hotel. Being attached to the nicest hotel in town, the saloon inside the International House was called a ‘drinking establishment,’ and the higher prices they charged for that designation ensured a nighttime clientele sans miners, ranch-hands and “regulars.” The fancier name didn’t mean there weren’t drunken disagreements or accusations of cheating at cards, but it was usually quiet enough for women guests to join their escorts for a light drink at a table away from the bar.

Adam stopped as he entered the lobby. “I’m dead on my feet,” he told the others. He kissed the gloved hand of each sister. “Thank you for joining us. The Cartwrights were most fortunate to have your company.”

When Ben issued a similar excuse, Hoss pulled Adam aside. “Could you give me a minute alone with Pa?”

His poker face came in handy again as he cringed inwardly. He “thought” he’d procured his brother’s agreement to slow his courtship when they’d spoken earlier. But he’d also seen Hoss’ obvious adoration of the young woman throughout the evening, and realized his father would need to provide another tamping of those growing flames. “Go ahead,” he said with more generosity than he felt. “Joe and I will keep the ladies entertained.”

Seventeen

“You were right about Hoss being smitten,” Ben told Adam when he entered the suite.

“What did he say?”

“He wants to accompany Sylvia to Stockton and meet her father.”

Adam shook his head. “What did you tell him?”

“I said she was lovely and he has every right to enjoy this time of getting to know her.” He yawned loudly. “But then I reminded him that we all agreed to be available should we win the contract, so plans for all of us are on hold until we know our next step. This still holds true, even if it’s not this contract.”

“How’d he handle that?”

“He was disappointed. But he perked up when I reminded him that the sisters haven’t even set a date for going home, so things might change by then.” Ben paced in front of the fireplace. “I don’t feel right not telling him what we suspect. Are you absolutely sure …”

“That she’s a conniving liar?” The tired son supplied, as he dropped into an overstuffed chair. “You heard her during dinner. None of that was true! What I find odd is that they didn’t bother covering their background story by ordering a couple of dresses.”

“That’s simple. They didn’t expect anyone to check. They have your brothers harnessed on a short lead, and you went by Mary to arrange for a gift, not to check up on them. It was an accident that allowed you to pick up a loose thread and unravel all their lies.” Ben sat across from his son, and rubbed the top of his head as he yawned again. “I am beat son. There’s nothing more to do about this tonight; I’m going to bed.”

***

The two couples lingered over their nightcap until the conversation stalled, and Hoss pulled his younger brother along up to the bar to settle their tab. Hoss tugged Little Joe closer while they waited, and leaned in so as not to be overheard. “When we get the ladies to their room, I want you to say goodnight real quick and mosey on.”

Joe punched Hoss’s shoulder. “You old dog! You wanna kiss Sylvia, don’t you?”

The big man looked down at his boots. “I sure hope ta.”

“Here ya go, Les,” Joe said loudly as he held up a couple of silver coins and then slid them down the highly waxed surface to the bartender. “This should cover whatever we owe.” He took Hoss by the arm, and leaned in close again so only his brother could hear. “C’mon. Let’s get outa here so you can do a little smoochin’.”

***

Joe was good to his word. He issued a quick thanks to both ladies, kissed Desiree’s cheek, and then nearly pushed her into the room and shut the door, before making his exit. He sighed when he glanced back before heading up the stairs, and saw Hoss with his hands in his pockets looking up at the ceiling. The poor guy had always been shy with women, and Joe knew that Hoss’ discouraging romances with Regan and Helen had left him even more unsure.

***

Hoss waited until he heard Joe bound up the steps. “I’ve been happier the last two days than in a long while,” he told Sylvia. “I’d like to keep callin’ on you while you’re in town, and …” He stopped when he remembered his father’s request to hold back on future plans. “And it’s been a long day, so I imagine you’d like ta turn in.”

“I’ve enjoyed your company too, Hoss. Thank you for rescuing us yesterday and showing us a good time today. Your family is wonderful, but you’re the pick-of-the-litter.”

His fair complexion glowed pinker as he drew into himself and grinned. His next movements weren’t smooth or artful, but he did manage to get his arms around Sylvia, and he pulled her a little closer. “I was wonderin’ if I might give you a kiss.”

Sylvia pulled away, planted her hands on her hips, and stared at him. “Hoss Cartwright. I like that you’re gentle and kind. I appreciate that you have good manners and don’t get overly affectionate without my consent. But … when a day has gone well, and a man feels strongly about a woman, that man shouldn’t seek permission for a kiss. He should just take charge.”

***

Hoss whistled under-his-breath on the way to his family’s suite. He stopped when he entered the short alcove leading to their door, and recalled the sensations that had excited every inch of him as he’d kissed Sylvia, hard and deep, and the near ecstasy in feeling the warmth of her lips as she’d returned his affection. He’d kissed women before, but never like this. His body began to react with the memory of her leaning into him and wrapping her arms around his waist. The surge of emotion accompanied by his growing physical need hit with such force that he gripped the door jamb on both sides and allowed it to wash over him for the first time in so long.  He shivered as the flood of feelings subsided and his body and mind settled back to normal.

Placing his ear to the door, he hoped the absence of voices meant that everyone was in bed.

“Whoa there, Adam! It’s just me gettin’ in a little late,” he said soothingly when the squeak of the door hinge woke his brother, sending him upright with a pistol pointed in Hoss’ direction.

“Sorry about that,” Adam apologized. “I dozed off and thought someone was breaking in.”

“No harm. Why aren’t you in bed?”

“Pa was exhausted, and I didn’t want to disturb him.” Adam squinted at his brother. “Was I dreaming a while ago when I thought I heard the door?”

“That must’a been Joe. I stayed on a little longer, talkin’ to Sylvia.”

Adam eyed his brother curiously. “You’re flushed and sweaty. Are you feeling all right?”

“Just tired.” He rotated the brim of the hat he was holding at waist level as he was prone to do when uneasy. “I reckon none of us got much sleep last night. Them bunks are too danged short.” As he spoke he sidestepped toward the room where he and Joe were staying, and paused at the door to say, “Goodnight, Adam. See you in the morning.” He gave thanks when he heard Joe snoring and realized he’d get to bed without questions or teasing.

Eighteen

Sylvia gave a small yip as she closed the door to her room, and saw the man standing behind it. “Papa! You scared me half-to-death!”

“I assumed you’d be expecting me. I only hid because I was afraid that big oaf might try to follow you in.”

“He wouldn’t do that, Papa. Hoss is a decent man.”

Desiree was sitting on the bed, and shot her sister a puzzled look. “You look tired, Sylvia. Come sit down so Papa can give us his news.”

The middle-aged man stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and smiled. “This is going better than I ever expected. They even moved the bids to the safe, as we hoped they would.” He scratched his head. “How’s it going from your point of view, girls?”

“We were seen all over town with Little Joe and Hoss today, Desiree told him. “And the oldest brother stayed away except for dinner.”

“And your thoughts, Sylvie?”

“Adam suspected something at first, but he appreciated our help. And we had fun with the whole family at dinner tonight.”

The father nodded. “Creating that mess with the coats yesterday, and that big one taking the blame for it, was perfect! The tearful confessions tomorrow by the innocent young women who were forced to assist the Cartwrights in trying to discredit a bidder, and then being kept captive today so you couldn’t tell anyone of their plot, should prove that Ben and his boys are rabid wolves.” He sighed and smacked his lips. “Soon Ben Cartwright will suffer as much as I have.” He listened at the door and cracked it enough to make sure no one was in the hall.

“Are there any changes for tonight, Papa?” Sylvia asked before he opened the door any wider.

“We’ll go as we rehearsed at home. Come to my room if there are problems. Liam is in there already, and he’ll come down the back stairs to keep a lookout when Sylvia opens the safe.” His voice turned nearly giddy. “I can’t wait for tomorrow!”

After a final check of the hallway, he ducked out.

***

With their father gone, Desiree took her sister’s hands. “Papa got so red I thought he’d explode when he heard what you said to Hoss outside the door. But then he mumbled how you played your part well.”

Sylvia pulled her hands free and turned away as her complexion colored as scarlet as her father’s must have been. “Give me a hand with these back buttons, Des. I have to change out of this dress.” She forced a chuckle. “The satin makes too much noise for a stealthy operation.”

The younger woman wasn’t going to allow a subject change. “So…did you actually kiss him?” she asked while prying the clear bead buttons through the tight holes.

Sylvia nodded and faced Desiree again. “Hoss is … wonderful. He’s always concerned about making me happy and comfortable. His formidable size gives the false impression of fierceness, but he’s patient, shy and accepting. I feel completely safe with him.”

Desiree’s mouth puckered sourly. “But Hoss is so unrefined compared to Adam.”

“I watched Adam during dinner tonight. He never stopped analyzing what we said. But Hoss was happy just being there. A touch of my hand would make him look at me with such tenderness. I pushed him to kiss me as a man, not some shy schoolboy. And when he did, I felt completely adored. He loves me, Des, and I wish I could love him too. What we’re about to do to him and his family breaks my heart.” She caught her breath in a near sob and grabbed Desiree’s shoulders. “I want to walk away from this.” Sylvia looked directly into her sister’s eyes. “Come with me, and we’ll confess everything to the Cartwrights before it’s too late.”

Desiree squirmed from Sylvia’s grasp. “If you tell them, you betray Papa. You know the pain he’s been in. He’ll never have peace if we don’t finish this.”

“Does it occur to you that the Cartwrights are innocent? Papa couldn’t hurt the person responsible, so he decided to destroy the object of Mother’s insanity. Revenge never brings the intended results, and we’re doing the same thing to this family that Mother did to ours.”

“By noon tomorrow, we’ll both be free of our obligation, and in a wagon on the way to our new lives. The Cartwrights will sort things out eventually. Their pain will be momentary compared to what we’ve endured.”

“What makes you think Hoss wont’ come after us?” Sylvia said sadly. “He’ll want answers, and he isn’t going to care that I considered not doing it because of him.”

Desiree huffed and tapped her foot impatiently. “You weren’t supposed become attached to him!” The rate of the foot-tapping increased as she thought. “We need to deal with Hoss first thing tomorrow. I’ll find him before that meeting starts, and tell him a story about why you can’t see him again.  He might rush up to our room, so you’ll need to hide in Papa’s.” She bit her cheek and huffed again. “It’ll be best if you just stay out of sight tomorrow, and I’ll give another excuse for why you can’t be at the meeting.” She gave her sister a look of veiled disgust. “We had this so well planned!”  Her tone softened. “I’ll sneak over to Papa’s room now and alert him to the change.”  Desiree stopped at the door and looked back. “You made a big mistake and now I have to fix it, so don’t you dare say a thing about how I do it. Besides, when I get done with the Cartwrights tomorrow, Hoss will know he was a fool. No man would make a bigger fool of himself by following after you!”

Nineteen

Figuring nothing would happen until the hotel quieted for the night, Adam had arranged for the bartender to knock on their door before he went home. Other saloons stayed open all night, but the International House shooed its patrons out by 1:00 A.M. on weeknights. This was late enough for hotel patrons to feel satisfied, and early enough to move those bent on an all-nighter to other establishments before getting sick or belligerent.

His eyes felt weighted as Adam shook off the stupor of his abbreviated rest. He’d heard the sturdy pound on their door, and had risen to don his shirt, boots and gun belt. He’d asked Les to leave the door to the kitchen unlocked as well.

Since the Cartwrights had supported the International house since it first opened, with its guest room in the basement, and the bar and restaurant on ground level; his request to access a late-night snack hadn’t even raised the bartender’s eyebrows.

Adam slipped down the back stairs, entered the bar and stealthily made his way to the door connecting to the kitchen. The dark room smelled of yeast from the mounds of dough left rising for bread and sweet rolls. The lingering aroma of braised meat made his stomach growl, and he considered appropriating something to make his vigil a little more palatable. Unable to find anything without being heard, he cracked open the door to the dining room and checked for a good place to hide. With the restaurant and bar closed and most guests in for the night, the first floor was deserted. Since subterfuge required privacy, Adam reasoned that if something was going to happen, it would be now.

Seeing no one, he quickly made his way along the dark back wall to a set of heavy curtains that gave a visual boundary between the dining room and lobby. He quietly tucked a chair in one of the large velvet folds, using the abundant fabric as camouflage, and took his post. From his vantage point, he could see everything except the doorway to the bar.

The solitary employee for the deep-night hours, Theo Sparks, was a conscientious young man who’d held the position since the hotel had opened. The completion of a three-story addition to the original hotel, had tripled the number of rooms … and chores for this sole employee to accomplish during the early morning hours.  Theo wasn’t at the desk, but he soon entered the front door carrying a broom and dustpan. Adam froze like a body in rigor when Theo walked past him into the bar, and returned with a watering can to tend the fern just beyond the drapery where he was concealed. He breathed again when the young man moved to the fern in the center of the lobby, but he chanced a look towards the stairs when he heard soft footfalls.

Desiree Lovelee stretched and yawned as she completed her descent, and then flashed a charming smile at the clerk. “Hello there,” she purred. “I knew someone stayed on duty all night, but I never expected such a young, handsome man to be in charge.”

Theo absorbed the exaggerated compliment with a shy smile. “Can I help you, miss?”

“I’m having trouble sleeping.”

“There’s not much I can do much about that,” Theo replied, while enlarging his smile.

“You might be able to help, if you can you open the safe.”

“For what purpose?”

Adam heard the tone of Theo’s voice change from playful to wary. He wondered if the young man could see beyond the pretty face, to the fact that the hem of a dress was hanging below her flouncy robe, and that she wore shoes and stockings rather than slippers. He tried to get more comfortable to watch the resumption of the ongoing drama. This time, he had the front-row seat.

“My sister forgot to bring our necklaces down to the safe when we got back from dinner. I worry every time I hear voices or footsteps outside our door, but I’ll relax if I get them stored.”

“Do you have the necklaces with you?” Theo asked as he made his way behind the check-in desk.

Desiree pulled one sparkling bauble from each pocket and held them up to catch the light from the chandelier above her. “One is emerald, the other rubies, and they both have diamonds.” she proclaimed proudly. “They were gifts from our father on our eighteenth birthdays.”

Adam bit his lips to keep from laughing. There were a few things Adam knew by sight: A good horse, good cattle, good land, and real jewelry. These necklaces—the same ones they’d worn to dinner—were fashionable and attractive, with their elements highly-polished to catch the light. But they were colored glass and gilded metal—as fake as everything else about these two women.

She continued to dangle the jewelry in front of her as she made her way behind the desk. “By the way, my name is Desiree. What should I call you?”

“Theo, Miss. Short for Theodore.” When she continued towards him, he said, “Um, you can’t be back here.”

The warning had no effect, as Desiree moved so close, she had to look up at him. “I would call you Teddy if you were my beau,” she said with a soft laugh. “Theo sounds old and dour.” She made a final step, coming within inches of the blushing young man. “Are you married, Teddy, or keeping the company of a young lady?”

“No.” Theo continued moving backwards, with Desiree following, step-for-step.

“Well then,” Desiree said coyly, “you can take me to supper on your day off.”

Theo’s face bunched into a snarl of confusion. “I saw you on Little Joe Cartwright’s arm when you came in tonight. I would never horn in on Joe’s girl. He packs a punch and his family’s too rich to fool with.”

Adam choked back a laugh. Her disarming of Theo was giving him insight into how his brothers had been so easily swayed. Both women were competent actors who used their physical attributes to keep their target’s mind off the bigger concerns.

“Little Joe is only a friend, Teddy.” She ran her finger down his cheek and smiled. “Let’s get these necklaces put away so I can get my beauty sleep.”

The young clerk moved around her and crouched in front of the substantial floor safe. Desiree again followed, stopping behind him. “I don’t know how people remember combinations,” she said, using a tone reminiscent of a petulant schoolgirl. “I’d get flustered just trying to remember which way that nob had to be turned.”

“Miss Desiree, you have to move to the other side of the counter while I do the combination.”

“Don’t worry, Teddy, I’ll turn away and promise not to peek.”

Adam saw that while Desiree did move to the left and faced away, she positioned herself to cast a shadow over the dial, requiring Theo to grab a lamp from the back counter.

The young man did stand up to make sure his companion was still facing away, but when the clicking of the dial began, Desiree removed a small mirror from her pocket and held it at an angle to see what Theo was doing behind her. It didn’t seem possible that she’d be able to see the numbers from that distance and in reverse, but its value became clear. She watched to see when Theo stopped turning the knob, and then immediately began chatting; asking questions to make him pause and remove his hand until she looked away again. The process repeated at the next two stops. Adam’s leaned back in his chair, awed by what he’d just witnessed. A bit of flattery had lowered Theo’s guard. Then her creative positioning had made him illuminate the dial, and her questions had allowed a quick look at the number. It had taken mere minutes for her to dupe a conscientious employee into revealing the combination.

Adam issued a silent, “Brava.”

Once the heavy door stood open, she bent down to hand Theo her jewels … and take a quick look inside, and concluded the scene with her breathy thanks, and a peck to Theo’s cheek.

Theo whistled a peppy melody as he returned to his chores, making Adam grin. The odd music suited this intr’acte period perfectly. He crossed his arms, considering the proficiency of the performance, leading him to consider that those involved must have trained for various scenarios. The bids were to have been kept in the CPRC suite, yet Desiree had been flawless in gaining access to the safe instead.

The thought, that hidden in the small group of bidders, was the director who’d meticulously prepared these women in advance, made him shiver. If Judge Harris was right, and this was an act of retribution, then the hatred pushing this person was colossal.

Remaining still and craning forward had left his back aching. In the midst of an intense stretch, his stomach rumbled softly, making him wish he’d tried a little harder to find a snack. He glanced towards the kitchen door and considered a quick expedition, but such plans ended abruptly at hearing hurried footsteps on the stairs, and he resumed his uncomfortable position for the next scene.

Desiree’s descent was accompanied by a call for, “Teddy” to come quickly. She fanned her face, creating a waft of air that carried the scent of her newly applied perfume across the lobby. Adam had always appreciated how a dab of good cologne at a woman’s neck and wrist would come to life when her pulse quickened while they kissed, but strong fragrances made him sneeze. He pinched his nose as Desiree’s flowery scent began tickling his nasal passages.

“I was barely in bed when I smelled smoke,” She told Theo. “I cracked our door, wondering if someone was puffing a cigar on the way to their room, but no one was out there.”

“Was the odor stronger in the hall?” The young man’s voice held a tremor, as he continued, “Did you see any smoke?”

It struck Adam again how well-rehearsed this was. Her wide-eyed concern over smoke had spurred Theo to instant and complete attention. Nothing was more frightening than fire in a wooden building housing guests spread out over multiple rooms and floors.

“I don’t notice it down here,” she told him in a calmer tone while snuggling up and laying her head on his chest for a moment. Stepping back, she took his hand and tugged him up the first step. “I’m sure everything is fine, but we should make sure there isn’t something smoldering upstairs!”

Adam now wondered if Sylvia would run ahead of the newly formed inspection team carrying a smoldering pot of embers. He took a deep breath hoping to distinguish any hint of smoke. It was fruitless. The only thing he smelled was Desiree’s perfume. The left corner of his lips twitched into a grudging smile as he realized the heavy dose of perfume was a prop for this scene. Theo’s sense of smell would be so hampered by it, he’d be forced to rely on Desiree’s word for the presence of smoke.

Sylvia’s role was soon revealed as far more important.  She hurried down the steps as soon as Desiree and Theo were out of sight, and flew across the lobby to duck behind the check-in counter. Adam chuckled silently when he saw her hand extend upwards to reach for the same lamp Theo had used.

His grudging respect was activated again when Sylvia stood within seconds, holding the pouch Nels had stowed in the safe. The smile became one of satisfaction after she set the lamp on the desk to inspect the folder. Not expecting an audience, Sylvia had dropped her guard, and was working bare-handed. Even in the low light, Adam could see the proof of her connection to one of the bidders. Each finger on her right hand bore thick red scars. It was similar on her left hand, except the separation of those fingers was not as complete—showing the deformity she shared with her father.

He felt no need to continue this to a finale’. The motive still eluded him, but he no longer cared. He stepped from the folds of the curtains and approached Sylvia as she rounded the end of the check-in desk. She stopped short and gave a high-pitched cry when she saw him.

“I suppose you saw everything, so I won’t bother lying.”

“Why stop lying now, Miss Munson. You’re so good at it”

“How long have you known who we really are?”

“I always suspected you were connected to a bidder. There was one coincidence I found odd: the likelihood of two complete strangers showing up at the same place: both with hand issues. I had to see your ‘rash’ to make the absolute connection. It must be disheartening that your attempt to correct the inherited defect, turned out even more noticeable.”

Her upper lip curled as she snarled, “My father warned us to be careful around you, but you seemed preoccupied. I assumed you weren’t thinking about us, and that was a mistake.”

A satisfied grin grew as he withdrew the CPRC folder from her hands. “People often mistake my being quiet for being disinterested. It’s quite the opposite. Others, like my brothers, can discard inconsistency and coincidence if it interferes with what they want to believe. That usually ends with the truth crashing down on their heads when they least expect it.”

“You mean … like this—” she said, tipping her head and flashing him a toothy smile.

Adam stared back, not understanding her reply until he heard the loud crack echoing through his head from the point of impact. A bolt of pain shot through his skull, and he felt the warmth of his blood oozing from the wound. His head was suddenly ablaze with so much pain, the insignificant pressure of that blood moving along his scalp, caused agony. He thought he was screaming; his mouth was open and he was pushing air from his lungs, yet he heard no sound. The pain, accompanied by the assault of nausea, vertigo and the cacophony of the huge bells peeling inside his skull, led him to him believe that his head had stopped a bullet rather than an implement. It doesn’t matter; I’ dead either way, zigzagged through his rapidly muddling thoughts as he dropped to the floor.

Twenty

Ben strode into the parlor of their suite, shouting that it was time to head downstairs. “Adam must have gone down already,” he said when Hoss and Little Joe rushed from their bedroom still tucking in their shirts. “Did either of you see him this morning? His bed wasn’t slept in.”

“He was sleepin’ on the couch when I came in last night,” Hoss told him. “He said he was gonna stay there so as not to disturb you.”

Ben released the breath he’d been holding since noting Adam’s absence, and grinned as he gave the two a looking over. “You both need to look in the mirror. You forgot to comb your hair, Joe, and, Hoss, your shirt is buttoned wrong.” The grin deepened. “Just how late were you out last night?”

“I came in an hour after you left, Pa.” Little Joe’s devilish smile appeared as he punched Hoss in the arm. “But my older brother stuck around a little longer for a goodnight kiss.”

“Aww, Joe,” Hoss lamented. “You didn’t have to say nothin’ about that.”

Ben’s shook his head and laughed. “Finish pulling yourselves together, and come down.” He paused at the door. “And don’t dawdle!”

***

Ben’s worry returned full-force when he didn’t spot his missing son in the restaurant, and he walked directly to Nels. “Have you seen Adam?”

The young Swede’s face puckered in thought. “I don’t think I have. Is there a problem, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I don’t know. He told me about his detective work yesterday. It would be like him to go back to chasing down information and forget the time.”

Recalling the last thing Adam had told him, produced a look of worry that matched Ben’s. “He brought up the possibility of not being here when we talked yesterday. Maybe he is still following a lead.” He looked around the room and saw that the other five bidders were present. “Adam said to start on time, so I’ll get thing going in a minute.”

“I agree.” The anxious look remained firmly fixed on Ben’s face.

Nels leaned in, lowering his voice. “Do you recognize anyone that might want to get back at you?

Ben shook his head slowly. “I wish I did.”

***

“Where’s Hoss?” Ben demanded when Joe came to the table alone.

“Desiree was waiting in the lobby with a message from Sylvia.” Joe looked towards where he’d last seen his brother and then wrinkled his nose when he saw the big man standing alone with his head down. He nudged his father and pointed in Hoss’s direction. “What’da’ya make of that?”

“Go get him, Joseph. Unless he’s ill, he needs to be here … now!”

***

Joe waited for Hoss to look up when he reached him, but finally poked his arm. “Pa wants us at the table.”

Normally, their father’s wish would get Hoss moving, but he remained immobile, making Joe lean in closer to his ear. “What’s wrong, Hoss? You look like you had the wind kicked out of you.”

“That’s about right,” the big man muttered, finally looking at his brother. “Sylvia sent word she don’t want to see me again.”

“What?” Joe’s pitch rose a good octave. “You two were getting along fine last night.” He eyed Hoss suspiciously. “What’d you do after I left?”

“I kissed her. She even told me to.” Hoss looked around to make sure no one was listening. “It weren’t no peck on the cheek neither, and she was fine with it.”

Joe’s cheek rose. “Did Desiree say what was wrong?”

“I thought she was kidding at first, but she said Sylvia’s been courtin’ a guy back home, and they plan on marryin’ soon after they get back. Desiree told me straight, that Sylvia was just bein’ nice to be nice to me for takin’ them in, and she would never pick a guy like me for anything serious.” Hoss sniffed loudly and hung his head again. “I guess I got fooled again.”

Joe offered a half-hearted smile. “I thought she liked you, but you might have let your heart get a little ahead of things.”

Hoss nodded. “I weren’t about to pop the question, but I was thinkin’ I’d go meet her pa.” Pain rolled across his face like a wave. “I’m gonna go up to see her. She might just be scared of what she’s feeling. The way I see it, nobody who’s engaged should’a kissed me like that … unless they ain’t entirely sure about things.”

Joe’s mind was racing like a thoroughbred towards the finish line. He needed the right words to settle Hoss enough to listen. “You can’t push at her now, Hoss, or you’ll ruin any chance with her.”

“So what should I do?” Hoss moaned miserably.

“You attend the meeting with Pa and me like we planned. Afterwards, you’ll send flowers to her room along with a note asking her to meet you in the lobby for a few minutes—just to talk—in a public place.”

Hoss bit his cheek as he considered Joe’s idea. “That sounds good.”

The sharp rap of the gavel echoed from the dining room. “C’mon, Hoss,” Joe said while tugging at his sleeve. “The meeting’s starting.”

Twenty-One

With the meeting formally opened, Nels had the staff serve breakfast while he went to retrieve the bids from the safe.

“Here ya go,” Jake said cheerfully as he handed over the pouch.

Nels thanked him, and returned to his table, where he placed the six bid envelopes on the table. He’d kept Adam’s letter in the suite for fear that if someone did tamper with the bids, they’d read that too. He pulled it from his pocket now and placed it under the Cartwright bid.

Whereas there’d been camaraderie at the opening meeting, today participants ate hurriedly, anxious to know the outcome. The tables were soon being cleared, prompting Nels to rise and hold a telegram aloft for everyone to see. “Early this morning, I received a wire from the director of the CPRC, giving his go-ahead to award this contract.” While the attendees applauded, he picked up the first beige envelope. “I’ll open these randomly to read aloud.” Nel slipped the tip of his pocket knife in the corner of the flap and slit the top fold of the top envelope. The bid from Frank Fillmore brought a groan from Lester Sloan, but silence from the rest of the competition.

The results after four envelopes were opened put Roger Taggert and Rick Spindler in contention with bids that were only a few dollars apart. “There are two submissions remaining, gentlemen,” Nels told the group. “The first of those is from the Cartwrights.” The figure read aloud brought a full round of groans.

Roger Taggert slapped his hand on the table and laughed. “It’s as we figured, men. Those tree-covered hillsides gave the Cartwrights an advantage.” He amended his thought to, “A really big advantage.” He looked over at Al Munson, sending him a good-natured smile. “You’re a middle man like us, Al, so unless you have an ace up your sleeve, this contract is staying in Nevada.”

Nels took a moment to observe the competitors who’d just had their expectations shattered. He saw disappointment, but no malice. It made him wonder whether the sisters at the center of their concerns, were simply immature young women looking for some excitement. Nels assumed Al Munson’s bid would be on the high end for the same reason Taggert had mentioned, and he’d soon award the contract to the Cartwrights.

Every hope for an easy conclusion ended after opening Munson’s bid. His heart pounded in his chest, while he inhaled deeply to be able to speak in an unwavering voice. “Would Al please rise.” The number Nels read aloud was significantly lower than Adam’s. Continuing the performance of his life, Nels said, “Allowing that your paperwork is in order, you’re our winner, Al. Congratulations!”

The look on Al Munson’s face reflected no joy at the declaration of victory. His cheeks flushed purple, and his fist was shaking as he aimed it at Nels. “This is an outrage!”

“What do you mean?” Nels asked innocently. “You won.”

“Someone has changed my bid! The one I submitted was a few dollars higher than Cartwright’s. That number you just read is ridiculously low, and everyone knows it.”

Nels feigned a puzzled look. “Are you alleging that someone broke into the hotel safe to replace your bid with one that would win?” He did a quick visual sweep of the room, noting the incredulous looks being sent Munson’s way. His eyes locked on Ben, the only person who didn’t look surprised, and gave him a slight nod before addressing Munson again. “Why would anyone commit theft and fraud to benefit you?”

“This is an attempt to discredit me, not help me! And it’s coming from the Cartwrights!”

“But you’ve just won a lucrative contract,” Nels stated firmly. “How does this discredit you?”

“Don’t you see,” Munson wailed. “I haven’t won it. My worksheets can’t possibly support that figure, so my bid will be discarded, and the contract will go to the Cartwrights.”

Nels’ voice held a tight edge while concealing the fact that he’d expected this trouble. “You’re saying that even though the Cartwrights had the lowest bid, they’d risk doing this just to make you look … foolish?” He checked to see that his comments were being understood by everyone else. “Had you spoken to me privately, Al, we could have gone through your concerns with no one the wiser. And if you have evidence of Cartwright tampering, along with documentation showing conclusively what you would have bid, I could still have awarded the contract to you, and disqualified the Cartwrights. That would have discredited them, not you.”

“How would you react if someone was out to ruin you?” Munson shouted. “I’m accusing the Cartwrights of fraud, and I have to do it publicly. It’s a sure bet that even if I’d have done as you suggested, they’d have spread rumors afterwards, saying I’d lied to cover my inability to correctly bid a job. People would believe the Cartwrights over me. I had to stick up for myself now!”

Nels called for silence, and when Ben rose, looking like a bull working up to a charge, he issued a stern, “Sit down, Ben. You’ll have a chance to speak, but not now.” Nels refocused on Munson. “For the record, you are accusing Ben of altering your bid—actually changing out the form that was in your envelope?”

“Yes.”

“Why would the Cartwrights risk their future in this business to cause a momentary embarrassment to you?”

Ben rose again and this time Nels didn’t stop him. “I’ll ask the same question. I have no reason to harm you, Munson. I don’t even know you. And this theory is preposterous. It is more likely that you orchestrated this in an effort to discredit us.”

Ben’s comment caught Munson off guard, and looking out at the group, is was obvious that he was losing his advantage. He slammed his hand on the table for effect. “You’re even more devious than I gave you credit for, Ben, and your plan is working perfectly. It will be your word against mine, and the person who undoubtedly did the actual dirty work for you, is conveniently absent.” Munson bowed his head and sighed before looking up, wearing a forlorn look. “I wish you had come to me and faced me like a man instead of stooping to these theatrics.”

A look of confusion swept across Ben’s face. “What have I ever done to you?”

Al Munson stood straighter and made eye contact with each of the others staring at him. “You are all enamored with the Cartwrights. During this gathering you ate their fine food, drank their liquor and praised their business practices. You believe they’re beyond reproach and would never let anything stick in their craw so long that they’d go to these lengths to crush someone who bested them in the past. But you’re wrong.” He dropped into his chair as though too fatigued to stand a moment longer. His voice cracked with emotion. “I’ve known Ben Cartwright since we both courted the same woman back in Boston. He never got over the fact that she chose and married me. He went so far as to beg her to leave me after his own wife died, leaving him with a child he didn’t care to raise alone.” Munson withdrew his handkerchief, dabbing at his eyes and nose.

Judge Harris could see Ben’s anger fomenting, and tried to convey the necessity of remaining patient with a raised brow and wink.

“Once Ben left Boston,” Munson began again, “my poor dear slowly regained her confidence after the abuse he laid on her for not doing as he demanded. We thought no more of him, until we moved to San Francisco. He must have read of our coming in the paper, and he began harassing her again. When she denied his advances once more, he threatened her and our family. She went to meet him a final time, hoping to convince him to forget her, but he caused such a scene that she had to be rescued by the hotel staff. My wife despaired of ever being free of him and took her own life to escape him and protect us.”

The collective hiss at this information, made Munson raise his handkerchief again—this time to hide his satisfied grin. Receiving sympathetic glances from the others, Munson pointed at Ben; his webbed fingers forming an arrow. “Ben Cartwright had no remorse over her death, and in fact continued to hold a grudge. He must have seen his chance to ruin me when he discovered I was bidding on this contract.”

“You are insane.” Ben’s tone was solid steel as he stared Munson down. “I’m sorry for the loss of your wife. But I don’t even know who she was, and I had no part in it.  Your grief is corrupting your thoughts.” Ben struggled to maintain his composure. “I also deny that I did anything to the interfere with your bid.”

Munson smiled eerily. “Then it is fortunate I can produce a witness to verify what you, or rather your sons have done for you. Once they are heard, there will be no doubt about your true character.”

Ben thundered, “Bring this evidence forward. In fact, get Sheriff Coffee here before we go any further, so he can arrest me if any of this is true.”

Nels remembered Judge Harris’ admonition to call for a delay. “Both of you be seated!” he shouted above the din of speculation. “I’ll send a man for the sheriff, and for this witness. Everyone else remain here until we reconvene.”  With order restored, he moved to Munson’s table. “I’ll need the name of that person, and one of my men will accompany you to your room to retrieve the paperwork you claim supports your original bid.”

Twenty-Two

The rancid odors of sweat, urine, vomit and dried blood assaulted his nose. He considered that either he hadn’t died after all or hell had the stench of a mattress at one of the flea-ridden flops at the edge of town where he’d retrieved Ponderosa drovers sleeping off a paralyzing drunk. At the moment, Adam envied Sport’s accommodations at the livery. Remaining unconscious would have been preferable to this nauseating stew of nasal assault, but he abandoned the darkness, clawing his way back to mindfulness. Returning auditory awareness proved less assailing, except for the clang of a sledgehammer reverberating inside his skull with each heartbeat.

Taking a deeper breath, he noted one pleasant smell amid the garbage pile. It was Sylvia’s scent: light and fresh, unlike her sister’s potent fragrance. He’d have to open his eyes to know if it was her, but he wasn’t sure he could. With his hands tied behind his back, there was no way to scrub away the crustiness that currently glued his eyelids together. Applying force in opposite directions accomplished nothing, but reversing the maneuver to squeeze his eyes tightly, created enough moisture to dissolve the adhesion.

He was relieved that he had full recall of events leading to skull-cracking blow he’d received during the night. Not sure of the time, he reasoned the force of the strike had guaranteed a long “rest.”  The world beyond his closed eyelids was bright enough to indicate daylight, and the angle of the sun’s warmth on his cheek made it mid-morning. He swallowed a groan when he moved his head, causing pain to shoot from the throbbing wound on the back of his head, through his skull to his temples.

A rustling of fabric accompanied by another waft of scent made him open his eyes enough to scan his immediate surroundings. Sylvia was there as he predicted; her back towards him while staring out the filthy window. He was on his side with ropes securing his wrists and ankles. Every long muscle in his back ached with the need to stretch and relax, and his entire scalp was extremely sensitive. Each time Sylvia moved; she created a waft of air that stung like a swarm of wasps attacking his head.

There seemed no evidence of anyone else in the room, but continued to listen a bit longer. Convinced that he and Sylvia were alone, he said, “You have me at a disadvantage.” His scratchy voice made Sylvia jump and turn. “Is there water in here? I could use a swallow.”

“Does your head hurt?” She witnessed his painful grimace. “Never mind; I see that it does.”

“Everything hurts.” The dryness in his throat caused a cough that ended in a pained moan. “About that water?”

“There’s none here, and I’m not going anywhere in this place.” She shrugged and attempted a grin. “You’ll make more saliva now that you’re awake.”

Adam forced himself to inch onto over his other side when a door behind him opened. He gave the tall young man a head-to-toe perusal. “Ah, the missing Linc, I presume. You must be the willing volunteer who took supplies to our house after arranging Reggie’s disappearance … and the one who put the dent in my head. Are you Munson’s son?”

“My name’s Liam, but I’m not related … yet. I’m engaged to Desiree.”

Even in his current situation, Adam continued to observe small details, like the way Sylvia moved from the window to position herself between the two men before addressing her future brother-in-law. “How’s it going at the meeting?”

Adam interrupted before Liam could answer. “I’ve told others about the lies Sylvia and Desiree have told, as well as my theories about their male accomplice. Nels and my father expect an uproar so anything Munson says will be met with skepticism. Since I’m missing, they know I’m in trouble and they’re already out looking for me.”

Liam laughed. “I’m pretty sure no one cared that you’re weren’t there. Your family was sitting together looking smug and unworried, until Al spoke up, that is. He even capitalized on your absence, saying you rigged the bids to make him look like a fool, and are staying away so no one can question you. Your father was backed against the ropes with Al delivering punch after punch that your old man couldn’t defend. That guy in charge had to stop things and send his men for the sheriff.”

Adam began sweating as he fought against the ropes; willing the knots to dissolve, thereby allowing him to pin this vile man to the wall and punch that snide grin off his face.

“You’ll like this part.” Liam looked at Adam and laughed again. “It’s almost showtime for Desiree. She’s Munson’s witness and she going to reveal how you and your brothers forced them out to your house, and made them work at that meeting. Then you threatened to spread lies about them if they didn’t help with your plans to embarrass Al. The saddest part will come when she’ll say that her sister can’t speak for herself because she’s too afraid. Seems your big horse of a brother tried to take advantage of her last night, and then became outraged when she got away. When Desiree is done, those men at the meeting won’t even be able to look at your family.”

Sylvia’s gaze rested on Adam as Liam spoke, and she saw the mix of pain, confusion, and building rage reflecting back at her. She’d assisted her father in his plans to take down the Cartwrights, believing that this family was of questionable character. He’d professed that no man could amass land and fortune if he wasn’t underhanded.

It had taken little time with the Cartwrights before she knew her father had been wrong. Her chest began to hurt as she heard Liam continue to bait Adam with his story of the damage the Munsons meant to inflict. She couldn’t let this continue, and moved towards Liam, wrapping her arm around his back, and ushering him towards the door. “Thanks for checking on me, but Papa is going to need you.”

Liam glared at Adam. “I have to go, but I’ll be back to take care of you.”

Adam returned his menacing stare. “Won’t it raise suspicions about my guilt in this story, if I’m found dead with my head bashed in?”

“There won’t be enough left of your head to raise suspicions,” the young man said with a wide, eerie grin. “Plagued by guilt, Adam Cartwright will blow his brains out, leaving behind a note to explain his attempt at atonement.”

“I’ve read a couple of dime novels, and their plots were more believable,” Adam spat back. “The sheriff, the railroad, and especially my father will figure out what you’re all doing.”

Liam’s snakelike smile reappeared during Adam’s response. “Your family will deny it, and they’ll even disprove it—eventually. But not before those men at that meeting head home and spread the story far and wide. Isn’t there a saying about closing the barn door after the animals are already out? Those rumors will always linger, and make anyone considering a deal with your family scrutinize every word you say. The old biddies in this town will have a wonderful time spreading the gossip—each adding their own nasty tidbits about anything they ever heard about your father, until the nice folks who once valued Ben Cartwright’s business and sought his opinion, will look away and whisper when he walks past.”

***

The young man’s unnerving laughter lingered in the room after Liam left, making Adam close his eyes, to limit the whirl of thoughts clamoring for attention in his throbbing head. With his emotions in check and his next step planned, he opened them to find Sylvia staring at him. Noticing how pale and drawn she looked, he said, “You and Desiree are skilled actresses and manipulators, but I never thought you capable of murder.”

She sighed as pulled a chair near the bed and dropped onto it. “Liam’s all talk.” A shy grin made a brief appearance. “He nearly soiled his pants when he thought he’d killed you last night. He’s an actor who’s overplaying his role. There were no plans to harm anyone physically, until you interfered. Liam wanted to knock you out, but he swung so hard, I actually thought he’d cracked your skull. We didn’t know what to do, but Liam took this room so we could stash you somewhere. He paid for two nights. They’ll find you tomorrow, well after we’re gone.”

“I’m not sure you’re right about him. I suspect he murdered the delivery man, so he could take supplies to our house. No one’s seen Reggie in days. And he probably gave Hop Sing a poisoned tea.”

Sylvia’s frown was accompanied by a tightening jaw. “I don’t know anything about that, but it doesn’t sound like him. Desiree met him at a local playhouse, and she suggested we bring him in on our plan. We needed a young man to do legwork.”

“When did he first come to Virginia City?”

“A month ago. He spent his time in the saloon buying drinks for anyone who’d share stories about the Cartwrights. He stayed at the International House. That’s how he found out the hotel was full this week, and he observed how many people worked at night, and tried to judge Jake’s ability to withstand being corrupted by a pretty face or cash. He passed inspection, and once Papa got the meeting agenda, we finalized our plans.” She pulled her shoulders back and added swagger to her tone. “You may not think much of what we came up with, but it has worked perfectly.”

“Not quite. I knew something was wrong from the moment you showed up at our house. But Hoss vouched for you and—” The mention of his brother’s name produced a tight frown. He inched himself to the edge of the bed, swung his legs down while pulling his torso upwards to sit. “I’m sure Liam found out that Hoss has a tender heart, and he’d be easy to manipulate. Joe would be easily swayed too if a pretty girl was involved.”

Sylvia nodded.

“You say Liam got carried away by his role, but didn’t you do that too with Hoss? You could have been sweet towards him without encouraging his affection.  He never expects ulterior motives and accepts people at face value. He believes you care deeply for him!”

“I meant to enlist his sympathy and then his cooperation, but he was so different that I grew genuinely fond of him. Hurting him is my greatest regret.”

He gave her a wry smile. “Well-done Sylvia. I nearly believed that.”

She wiped her bare hand against her cheeks to dry the tears that had escaped. “That’s the one thing you can believe.” A heavy sigh. “I wish I knew how to end this without anyone else getting hurt.”

“Untie me and we’ll go to the hotel.”

Her nod was half-hearted. “I would, except we’ll all be arrested.”

“We’ll speak for you, Sylvia. You lied to us, but that’s not a crime. It only becomes defamation if you lie publicly about us. The more serious crime is interfering with the bids. I don’t know what you did, but we can stop this before it comes out!”

“Stop!” Her lips formed a thin, hard line. “We’ll be done and gone in an hour. Desiree plans to walk out as soon as she tells her story. Liam will leave to check on her, and Papa will talk until he’s sure the others believe what they’re hearing about your family. Then he’ll storm out, claiming he’s so upset that he wants nothing more to do with any of it. Things will be in such an uproar that we’ll be gone before anyone asks questions.”

“Why does your father hate us?”

Sylvia walked to the window, assuring herself that Liam was moving down the street. “Papa’s telling those men that your father had feelings for my mother back in Boston, and then chased after her and tormented her for staying with my father. She eventually killed herself to be free of him.”

Adam laughed loudly and rocked forward, nearly tumbling to the floor before he managed to set his tied ankles far enough apart to balance. “Anyone who knows Pa would find that ridiculous.”

She stood straighter and raised her chin regally. “My mother is dead; my father’s grief is real, and there’s only your father’s denial to offset that.”

“But the denial of a good man…”

“May get a tad more consideration,” she asserted. “But in the end, a good accusation leaves a stain that sets. People love to believe the worst, especially about a good man.”

“There’s no time for philosophical debate. You said this is what your father is telling people. What’s the real story.”

Sylvia paced as she considered whether to reveal the sordid truth. “My father was mortally wounded by my mother, and somewhere in his never-ceasing pain, he concluded that destroying your father was the only treatment to heal him.

He stretched his arms back to ease the pressure in his shoulders. “What did she do?”

“She betrayed him, but not in the usual manner. Papa never denied that our mother was a dreamer—a most sensitive and enigmatic soul—who could be joyous at breakfast, and drowning in melancholy by dinner. But he loved her fiercely, and spent years trying to understand and encourage her. It was after she died that Papa found out the actual cause of the upheavals in her spirit.”

Adam grew impatient. If the accusations against his father had already been made, then the truth had to come out before the lies began growing roots. Yet shouting at Sylvia to hurry would be fruitless. Concentrating had kept his pain at bay … at first … but his head wound must have reopened when he turned over, and he could feel a trickle of sticky warmth tracing down his neck. Sitting up wasn’t helpful either, and he was becoming more nauseated with each movement of his head. He struggled for calm as he reassured her. “I promise to keep an open mind; please finish the story.”

She nodded curtly and wrapped her arms around herself protectively. “To those observing, we had the perfect family in Boston. Papa provided a good income and lovely things, but my mother ignored all of us. She spent hours in her room, and only ventured out to the harbor, where she’d sit across from a particular house, pub or store. She took me along once when I was little, and I can remember her approaching a man who came out of that store.” Her laugh was dry. “I remember he had the strangest beard. A large ‘goatee,’ mother called it, and it did look a bit like a Billie-goat’s beard.”

One eyebrow arched at the description.

“Eight years ago, Mother decided we should move to San Francisco. Papa was shocked, but Desiree and I were young women already, so we came. Things seemed better out here. Mother started paying more attention to her looks again, and she walked downtown to the hotels for tea, and read the newspaper. She was still distant, but she was focused … or so we thought. One day the police delivered Mother to the house. They told us they’d been summoned to a hotel where she’d been harassing a guest. This man hadn’t pressed charges and the hotel had simply sent her home with the police escort, and a warning not to return.”

“How does my father fit into any of this,” Adam broke in, impatiently.  “I do recall an incident with a woman weeping over Pa in a hotel lobby some years back, but he said he had no idea who she was.”

“That was her.” Silvia signed before continuing the story. “We called the doctor who declared Mother to be experiencing a mental collapse, and in need of rest. He left a bottle of sleeping elixir, and Mother swallowed the entire thing that night. We found her dead in the morning, clutching journals she’d written over 30 years.”

“Was it the content of those journals that hurt your father?” Adam encouraged.

She nodded. “Those personal books told the story about her and your father.”

“How could it be about him if he didn’t know her?”

“They met one day at the Boston docks. Mother tripped, Ben Cartwright helped her up, and he stayed until he was sure she was able to move on. Those 10 minutes began a lifelong obsession. He sailed with a merchant ship the next day, and Mother’s writing revealed that she was sure he’d come back, see her waiting on the dock, and drop to his knee to propose.”

Adam’s disbelief came out in a loud snort, followed by a groan of pain. “My father was in love with my mother by then.”

“It wouldn’t have mattered, Adam. No one knew how insane she was. She didn’t even realize those ships were gone for months, so she’d check at the docks every week, asking if he was back. Some old sailors finally told her the ship had been lost at sea. She believed them, and married my father shortly after that. Al Munson was no Ben Cartwright, she wrote in an early journal, but he was rich, and she was getting too old to be single.”

“I’m sure it hurt your father to find he’d run a distant second to a dead-man.”

“If that was the extent, he might have laughed it off. But Mother went to the harbor on the second anniversary of meeting Ben, and saw that not only was he was alive, but he had a wife who was expecting. Mother was also expecting, but she miscarried right after that. Father assumed that her dispirited state was due to that loss. He was wrong.” She stopped and reared back a bit. “I guess that’s where you enter this story!”

He would have rolled his eyes, but it hurt too much.

“Her next entry revealed that she was relieved to have lost the child, because Ben’s wife had died in childbirth. This was her sign that she was to become your mother, and your father’s new wife.  She went to Ben and offered herself, but he spurned the offer. Rather than hating Ben, she blamed my father for ruining everything. After your father left Boston, she wrote that she’d as soon die as stay married to Papa, but why leave when you can feign grief over a lost child and have no expectations placed on her other than to accept the gifts of a wealthy spouse.”

Adam’s stomach turned in a mixture of vertigo and horror. “She left all this for him to read when she died?”

Sylvia nodded. “She even told of going through that bearded man’s mail, hoping to find letters from your father.” She stopped and squinted. “Was that man your grandfather?”

A nod. “Abel Stoddard. Did she find what she wanted?”

This time her head moved side-to-side. “With no results, Mother began ‘bumping into’ him … Abel, on the street, claiming she was a friend of Ben and his wife. Her writings said he offered no information as to Ben’s whereabouts, and that made her furious.”

“I doubt he knew where we were. Pa wanted to head straight west, but revised that to let me grow a bit. We stayed wherever Pa could find a job and learn some new skill. By the time a letter got to Abel, we were probably somewhere else. It took even longer to get mail to its destination once we settled out here.”

She nodded. “With no actual news about your father, Mother filled her journals with fantasies about him. There were stories about how he’d return each year on the day they’d originally met, and in those few hours together, he’d vow his love and desire for her. She remained certain they would be together one day.

“My mother spent those years pining and sleep-walking through her actual life. She was distant, but Des and I believed she loved us. Even that was torn away from us in her journal when she wished she’d had no children, as they obviously deterred Ben from seeing her as a youthful and available partner.”

Adam remained very still to keep the dizziness at bay, but he did allow a slack-jawed grunt. “She reduced your father to an open wallet, and you girls to a regret. I am sorry this happened, but again, my father had no part in it.”

“It was the last entries that hit Father the hardest. Moving out here was only a ploy. After seeing an article about Ben in a newspaper back in Boston, she decided she had one last chance with him, and suggested the move. This was to be her finest hour when everything she’d dreamed of would come true.  But after the fiasco at the hotel, she wrote a final love note to Ben, forgiving him, and citing her husband’s evil in keeping them apart too long. She saved her anger for Papa, writing of her absolute hatred of him, and telling him that she could only get through the years of their marriage by imagining he was Ben any time he sought her affection. Picturing your father was the only thing that allowed her not to kill him in his sleep along with the children she’d never wanted.”

“She was obviously ill. So why continue the insanity and hurt others?”

“He’d given 30 years to Mother: satisfied every whim, and loved her through every deep pit. After Papa found those journals, he studied them like unholy scripture, committing each ugly verse to memory. At first, he only set out to find Ben Cartwright, and take stock of the man who’d been Mother’s measuring stick. He’d hoped to find a pitiable man, but it was quite the opposite. Then he worked hard to be in a position to go up against the Ponderosa in business. But that took time, and Mother’s evil epistles began to fester like Job’s boils. To keep going, he made your father the potshard he used to scratch at those wounds. The ruination of Ben Cartwright was the only balm for his tortured soul.”

Adam risked a stomach upheaval to look over at her. “But you’re having second thoughts about helping him. I know you want more from life, and you’ve figured something out—something conclusive that refutes your father’s entire premise.”

She nodded while drawing a deep breath.  “Desiree is the image of my mother. I reminded Papa of this when he first proposed this scheme. If Ben Cartwright was as enamored with Mother as Papa believed, he would surely be reminded of her as soon as he saw Desiree. Papa said not to worry, and now I know why. I watched your father when he met my sister, expecting to see some hint of recognition; perhaps cautious glances that would reveal a returning memory. There was nothing. Papa demonized your father. But the man I met and dined with last night; the man who raised the sons I’ve gotten to know, is a good, kind and highly respected man. His sons are as well.”

“And you’ll still participate in this? Your father is crossing a line of insanity and the law, and if you step over with him, you’ll pay the same price.” Adam drew a long breath as he visualized the last few minutes. He was sitting on the bed, while Sylvia sat next to him in a confessional pose. Yet she stopped short of asking for absolution.

She suddenly held up both hands, spreading her fingers to expose the scars. “Perhaps one reason I continue to help Papa, is that I’m eternally joined to him by these. My mother didn’t spare either of our conditions in her hateful rants. She called Papa, Satan, and me the spawn of Satan. You think I tried to rid myself of the stigma with surgery.” A loud laugh rocked the tiny room. “Mother had been haunting the harbors alone for years. But I was a cute little girl, and she came up with a new scheme, thinking your grandfather would be more likely to reveal information if she had me along to disarm him.”

Sylvia scrubbed at the scars between her fingers. “He did respond as she’d predicted. He was kind, and he took my hand in greeting. But in mother’s mind, he paused an instant too long looking at my fingers. She was horrified, and assumed he saw me as a deformed freak. When we got home, Mother pinned me on the kitchen table, and performed surgery on me with a butcher knife, severing the skin between my fingers. I screamed in absolute terror as she hacked, so she stuck a towel in my mouth, and smiled as she explained that she had to do it because, ‘he’ would never love her if her daughter wasn’t normal.  My father lied to the doctor, saying I’d gotten hold of the knife. The poor man did what he could to repair the mess, but he had no idea how to ‘fix’ it. After it healed so horribly, Mother insisted I cover my hands so she didn’t have to view ‘such ugliness.’”

Adams sigh was anguished. “You must see that your father is using you just as your mother did. He wants restitution for his grief. Yet he wants payment from someone who owes him nothing.”

“Papa doesn’t see it that way. One person drove Mother’s fantasies, and to him, that man is responsible. The only happiness he’s known since finding the journals, has come while working on this plan.”

“I do admit that you were well prepared. You adapted flawlessly when Nels put the bids in the safe instead of keeping them in his room.”

Sylvia chuckled as her dour look melted for a moment. “That wasn’t a change of plans, Adam. We wanted the bids in the safe. Getting a combination from that clueless young man was infinitely simpler than clearing the railroad men from their suite long enough for Papa to check the other bids and then finish his. The reason we arrived here when we did was to get to your house and do something that raised enough suspicion that the railroad would want those bids secured, and to create the first suspicions about your family.”

One eye dropped to a squint as Adam’s lips formed a begrudging smile. “Well played,” he said, even as something she’d said pushed for recognition. “You said your father ‘finished’ his bid? I assume the one he turned in was blank, and the figure he added was absurdly low so he could claim someone was attempting to make him look foolish? How’d you manage that without damaging the other bids?”

Another laugh, softer this time. “That stationery seemed thick, but the written numbers were easily seen with the aid of a bright flame. And he asked to put his own bid in the envelope at his meeting, and barely sealed it so he could add a number later. It saved a few minutes that way since all he had to do was remove one of the spares to appear there’d been a substitution.  He then used your figure to doctor his worksheets and make them look legitimate enough to uphold his claims.”

A grin took shape as Adam listened. He didn’t raise his head: only his voice. “We need to go to the hotel. Your father made a fatal error, and he’ll be exposed whether you tell the truth or not.”

Her cheeks paled. “What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure how he did it, but Nels marked each of those forms. He’ll know there’s been no substitution. Once he reveals that, they’ll round up all the people from town to expose the lies you’ve told, and make Liam’s connection known too. Your sister, your father and Liam will be immediately arrested for fraud. They’ll come for you then, adding kidnapping and attempted murder to the charges.”

Her eyes overflowed but she remained immobile. Adam could see she was stuck on an emotional fence, considering whether her family might still pull this off and escape unscathed.

“We can help if we go now!” he said loudly enough to shock her into a decision. “There are extenuating circumstances that will lead towards leniency.”

“All right!” Sylvia moved next to him and began working at the knots around his wrists. “If you hadn’t been pulling at these while we talked, they’d be easier to undo,” she scolded.

Adam bent to untie the rope around his ankles once his hands were free, but had to stop when the room began spinning and he felt himself falling sideways.

Noticing his problem, Sylvia grabbed his shoulder and pulled him upright, and then squatted to release his ankles. As the last knot slipped loose, she said, “I’m trusting you, Adam Cartwright. You better not be lying.”

“I’m not.” His legs felt wobbly as he stood, and his head spun again, but he managed to get an arm around Sylvia’s shoulders and leaned against her to let the vertigo pass. He took a few steps before a gray cloud and streaks of shooting light clouded his vision. His intent was to crouch in order to stem the impending blackout, but a wave of vertigo kept him moving forward until he hit the floor. Sylvia was shouting his name, but each repetition seemed further away until all he heard was the sound of waves crashing inside his skull.

Twenty-Three

Ben blew a burst of air upwards, resetting the silver strands that had drifted to his forehead when he’d run his hands through his hair. He’d been prepared for something to happen, but not this. Munson had vilified Ben’s moral character, accused him of cheating and fraud, and indicted his sons for similar crimes. The man’s tactics were ugly … and effective. Although he’d offered no proof, Munson had created sympathy in the audience. They were primed to believe the promised witness who would undoubtedly cast more shadows on his family’s credibility, and leave him without defense—except to claim his innocence.

A different concern struck him as he looked over at his sons. He’d appreciated Hoss and Little Joe’s silent restraint when Munson was issuing his claims. But with the meeting in recess, he wondered why they remained silent. Little Joe was seated next to him. The boy’s rigid posture, foot tapping, and the tight grip he held on the edge of the table cloth—nearly separating the woven thread of the white linen—spoke to his difficulty in keeping a calm exterior in the face of Munson’s assault.

Ben allowed himself a moment of pride in watching his youngest fight against his hot nature to realize that making a scene would only make things worse. He grasped the boy’s arm and nodded, hoping the gesture would reassure him and secure his continued efforts.

He looked next to his middle son who was obviously bothered by something beyond the current dilemma. Hoss’ elbows rested on the table, and he seemed unable to hold his head up except to lean his forehead against his balled fists.

Ben leaned closer to Little Joe. “What’s going on with Hoss?”

Joe’s left cheek rose in a wince. “Desiree grabbed him just before we came in here, and said Sylvia wants nothing more to do with him.”

Ben’s brows shot upwards as his lower jaw sagged. He was moved by fatherly concern even as he remembered Adam’s warnings about the sisters. “Did she explain why?”

Joe shrugged and then leaned closer and lowered his voice. “We knew nothing about those girls when we offered to help them. I’ve been thinking on that, Pa, and after spending nearly two days with them, we still know nothing. They talked a lot, but said nothing. Hoss wanted to storm up there to demand answers, but I convinced him to wait—”   Joe’s voice trailed off as he looked toward the lobby and saw Roy Coffee leading Desiree and a young man into the room. He nudged his father, nodding towards the trio. “That’s interesting.”

Ben nodded sagely. “Munson’s witnesses, I presume.”

Joe poked Hoss, telling him to look up. The huge, gray shawl draped from Desiree’s shoulders dwarfed her, making her appear waiflike.

While she scanned the room, she pulled the shawl tighter, creating a cocoon, and finally tugged on Roy’s sleeve. She whispered in the sheriff’s ear prior to aiming her trembling finger toward the Cartwright table. The conversation and identification seemed to take every bit of her energy, and she slumped, making Roy catch her before she went down.

Hoss stared unblinking at the scene unfolding; his cheeks coloring to scarlet as the truth burned into his mind and heart. “You both know what she’s sayin’.”

“That we tricked them into to coming to the Ponderosa, and then forced them help us discredit that slimy Munson?” Joe offered.

Hoss nodded as his frown deepened to a scowl. “He tried to warn me, but I wouldn’t listen.”

“Who tried to warn you about what,” Ben asked as he pulled his chair between his sons to hear better.

“Adam.” Hoss dropped his head, releasing a ragged sigh. “He said right off their story didn’t make sense. I got mad at him, Pa, and accused him of bein’ jealous that a purdy girl might be sweet on me for a change.” He groaned. “He gave in and let them stay. I should’a trusted him, but gosh, Sylvia was so …. Do you think he figured somethin’ out about them, and that’s why he’s not here?”

“All we know for sure is that Desiree is up there pointing at us,” Joe told him. “We might be wrong about what she’s saying,” he added unconvincingly.

Ben knew It was time for honesty. “Hoss is right,” he said without preamble. “I’m going explain what I know, and you need to just listen.” After organizing his thoughts, he launched into the details. As he got to the part where the sisters’ lies would be exposed, he tempered his comments. “It seems Adam’s suspicions were sound, but Hoss, you need to know that your brother didn’t intend go searching for condemning information. He stumbled into the truth.” He went on to reveal all that had been gleaned from Mary, Wilson, and Ralph, and then he pulled the telegram from his pocket for them to read.

Ben watched bewildered looks developing on both sons. “I’d presume the young man up there comforting Desiree is the one mentioned in the telegram,” Joe offered.

“Why didn’t Adam tell me this yesterday when I was goin’ on about wantin’ to marry Sylvia?” Hoss asked.

“He had proof of lies, but not of an intent to harm us.” Ben laid his hand on Hoss’s back. “He hoped there’d be a reasonable explanation, and wouldn’t condemn them without all the facts.”

Hoss nodded. “This one’s on me, Pa. I got blinded by some sweet words and a pretty face. Now that I think on it, Adam did try to warn me again yesterday afternoon by sayin’ I should slow down some. I didn’t want to listen.”

Joe thought back to all he’d observed the last two days, and smacked the table with his fist. “I’ve got it. Look at Al Munson. See how he always keeps his hands tucked under his arms or in his pockets. It’s a habit he’s developed to hide those weird fingers. Adam told me he’d seen others with fingers like that, and the condition can run in some families. Think about someone else who keeps her hands covered or tucked away.” He paused for effect. “I’ll bet the ranch on Sylvia’s fingers being connected just like Munson’s.”

Hoss’s cheek turned even redder. “You’re sayin’ them sisters are Munson’s daughters?”

“Maybe Adam figured that out during the night,” Ben stated excitedly. “Adam suspects Reggie, from Wilson’s store, was killed to keep him from telling how he was paid to be sick the day before the party, and ….” He shivered. “If Adam figured it out, they might have done something to keep him from talking too.”

Hoss rose, looking down at his father and Joe. “He went missing during the night, so they haven’t had much time to …” Hoss paled to gray. “He’s got to be nearby. Joe and me know this town better’n anyone, and maybe we can find him before the Munsons get away with whatever it is they’re pullin’.” He grabbed his brother’s arm. “Sorry you have to face what’s comin’ on your own, Pa, but we gotta look for Adam.”

Ben walked them to the lobby, listing a few places they could try. He slowed when they neared the check-in desk, pointing to a dark stain on the wood floor at the edge of a throw rug. “I don’t recall a rug ever being here, do you?”

Little Joe looked around. “Someone moved it here from the entrance. You can see the outline of where it used to be.”  He crouched, pulling the rug aside to reveal a wet circle where an attempt had been made to remove a burgundy-colored stain.

All color drained from Ben’s face. He laid a hand on each sons’ shoulder. “Hurry!”

***

Ben spoke to Jake before returning to the dining room to find Nels. The two men moved to an unoccupied table for privacy, where Ben related the connection between Munson and the girls. “I believe that Adam figured it out and confronted them during the night—maybe when they were going into the safe.” His shoulders rose as he took a deep breath to calm himself. “I asked Jake if the night clerk reported anything unusual, and he said Theo was upset about spending an hour with Desiree, chasing down the smell of smoke that only she could detect. When she finally admitted the scent was gone, he returned to the desk where he found a guest picking up shard of glass, claiming he’d dropped his glass of wine when he came down for some air.” Ben gave Nels a moment to make the connection. “Who do you suppose it was?”

Nels groaned. “Al Munson.”

“There’s a large stain on the floor, and Jake thinks it looks more like blood than wine, but Munson had a excuse for that too. He had his hand wrapped in a handkerchief and he told Theo he’d cut it on the glass.”

“Isn’t it odd that a wound so severe as to create a puddle would be completely healed this morning?” Nels said in a heated tone. “Munson’s been gesturing with both hands, and there’s no evidence of a wound.”

Ben nodded slowly. “It seems likely that Adam won’t be coming back before this is over, if at ….” He stopped before concluding his thought. “Hoss and Joe left to search for him.”

“I understand the strength if takes for you to stay put, Ben, but we have to finish this and expose Munson as a liar.” He touched Ben’s arm. “I have to ask, Ben. Did you know Munson’s wife?”

“Not that I recall. What I do know for sure, is that what else he’s alleging is completely false.”

“Good.” Nels cleared his throat, returned to his table and called for attention. “I’m going to ask Judge Harris, who is known for his years of service in the federal courts, to serve a moderator. Sheriff Coffee will keep order.”

He waited for the murmuring to die down before addressing Al Munson. “You’ve accused Adam and Ben Cartwright of bid tampering in an attempt to defame you. You’ve also given your opinion as to a motive, and produced witnesses who might corroborate your accusations. Let’s begin with the charge.” Nels held up the Munson and Cartwright bids, and reread the figure from each. “Please restate your allegation about these, Mr. Munson.”

Munson rose slowly. “The bid I handed in yesterday was within dollars of the Cartwrights.” He held several pages aloft. “I have my worksheets to prove it. Further, I believe Adam Cartwright entered the safe last night, and replaced my bid with the fake one you’re holding, since a witness—the young man with the sheriff—saw him come out from behind the desk during the night.”

Judge Harris looked to Nels. “Is one of your extra forms missing?”

Nel’s nod brought a hiss of excitement from the room. Quieting them, he asked Roy to bring the young man forward. “Please state your name and what you saw?”

“I’m Liam Barnum. I stopped in Virginia city on my way to San Francisco, and stayed when I realized there was always a game of poker being played here. Gambling is how I make my money. Last night I came back after a late game and saw a guy sort of hiding behind the counter. I’d seem him around the lobby and heard him called Adam, so thought he might work here nights. He didn’t say anything; just waited for me to go upstairs. I didn’t think anything of it until I was eating this morning and heard that man shouting about someone getting into the safe. I sent that guy a note letting him know what I saw.”

“Was the safe open or was Adam holding anything when you saw him?” Roy asked.

“His hands were empty, but I heard a heavy clunk just as I walked in. It could have been the safe door closing.”

“Thank you,” Nels said, dismissing Liam. “Please stay with the sheriff for now.” He looked to the young woman still with Roy. “We might as well hear what you have to say Miss Lovelee.”

Desiree smiled shyly. “You all recognize me from the other day.” She sniffed loudly and blinked as though holding back tears. “When we got to town and had no place to stay, Hoss and Joe Cartwright offered us a room at their house. But when we got out there, Adam demanded we help with that party. It wasn’t bad until after lunch when he took us in that room and said we should go through all the men’s coats and put every wallet or valuable into the one coat he gave us. It turned out to be Mr. Munson’s. Adam claimed it was a joke, and it would be even funnier if we could make those wallets fall out when we handed Munson the coat. When I saw how mad Mr. Munson got, I knew it hadn’t been a joke at all. My sister and I wanted to go back to town right then, but the Cartwrights wouldn’t allow it.”

She dabbed at her eyes and sniffed. “When Hoss and Joe got back that evening, they started to get friendly with us, if you know what I mean. They threatened to say horrible things about us in town when we deferred their attentions. But then when we acted kindly towards them to ease the tension, Hoss got to believing that Sylvia actually liked him! Can you imagine my beautiful sister liking that giant! We hoped we’d get away yesterday when we got to town, but they wouldn’t let us out of their sight. And last night…” Desiree’s voice broke as she fought to keep her composure. “Last night Hoss forced himself on Sylvia. I heard what was going on, and managed to get her into our room. We locked ourselves in for the rest of the night, and she’s still afraid to come out.”

Roy’s eye bulged as he tried not to laugh. He took note that others in the room were sending ugly glances toward Ben. It proved an advantage that the CPRC engineer who’d come for Roy, had given him a quick explanation of what was going on, as well as their certainty that it was a setup. Those suspicions had been confirmed for him when Desiree had sunk into the swoon after pointing out Joe and Hoss for their misdeeds. Holding a good-smelling woman close-up might be a nice experience in the right situation, but this was pure performance, and Roy knew it. Desiree’s muscles had tightened as she dropped against him, instead of going limp as they would if she was truly fainting.

This young woman wasn’t the first to make accusations against the Cartwright boys since he’d become sheriff either. But in each case, their innocence had been proven convincingly, and Roy knew this would end the same way. Accusing Hoss of impropriety was the icing on this lie. The big man was painfully shy when it came to women, and Roy had already received a dirty look from Desiree when he’d asked, “You sure you mean Hoss Cartwright?” when she’d aimed her trembling finger towards the middle son.

Roy shook his head over what was going on. The railroad man had told him about the charge made against Ben for abusing the wife of the guy doing all the hollering. He gave a soft snort at the thought of such a thing. There were four things Ben loved more than life itself: each of his sons, and the Ponderosa. He’d never jeopardize that over some unrequited affair.

It was a sheriff’s duty to keep an open mind, but in this case, duty be damned. He kept silent only to honor the request of the railroad in order to see how deep these folks would bury themselves.

***

Judge Harris rose and quieted the whispering before speaking to Desiree. “Thank you, Miss. You may relax, but you must stay with the sheriff. He’ll need to take a statement when this meeting is done.” With a sweep of his hand, he waved Nels forward. “I believe Mr. Nelson also has testimony to share at this time.”

Nels adjusted the large hurricane lamp he’d set on his table during the break. While the flame crept deeper onto the wick, forming a bright ball of light in the clear chimney, he pulled six sheets of paper from his portfolio and laid them on the table. Next to those, he placed a large yellow envelope. “Your bids,” he said, sticking his finger onto the pile he’d set aside, “were examined during the break and then put in Judge Harris’ care.” He held the envelope up. “This contains the spare forms. We were given 18 official forms for the event. Six were given to you, leaving twelve blanks.”

Nels extracted the contents of the envelope and counted each sheet, ending at eleven. “There is one bid missing, and Al Munson has accused the Cartwrights of using that one to replace his original sheet with a low-ball bid.” He looked over at Roy. “That wallet incident at the Ponderosa prompted a further step to ensure the integrity of our forms. When I returned that evening, I took all 18 blank bids to Sheriff Coffee’s office, and while he watched, I marked them. The six original bids were marked to correspond to the bidder they’d be given to the next day.”

Rick Spindler interrupted, “I looked that form over carefully and didn’t see any mark.”

A wry grin spread across Nels’ face. “That’s correct. But if the mark had been visible, it could have been duplicated. Even my men weren’t told how I’d marked them. Sheriff Coffee and I experimented with a few formulas for disappearing ink, and found lemon juice worked best. The juice dried clear, didn’t wrinkle the paper, and darkened quickly when warmed.” Nels removed the lamp’s chimney with a flourish, and held the first bid over the flame until the number 2 appeared in the top, right corner. The whispers started up again as the next three bids revealed a 1, 4 and 6.

“What do those numbers mean?” Roger Taggert asked, loudly.

“Remember that your names were already on the bids when you received them. Each was marked with a number corresponding to the one you drew for your private meeting.” Nels picked up the fifth form. “There are only two bids left to test This is the Cartwright bid. It should be marked with a five since Adam was the fifth to come upstairs.” The page heated, and a number appeared. He made a tour of tables showing each participant the clear number five. “Five of your bids have been proven original. I’ve saved Al’s bid for last.  An X should appear on that one, since that’s how I marked all the ‘extra’ sheets.”

Munson stood suddenly as Nels reached for the final bid. “This is insane. Are we school children that you’d resort to such a ridiculous stunt?”

“It might be a simple method, but it has proved effective so far,” Judge Harris stated calmly.

The pitch and volume of Munson’s voice rose. “I suspect you’re in league with the Cartwrights, Nelson! You seemed mighty cozy with them out at their house!”

Judge Harris held his hand up and ordered Munson to silence. “Are you now widening your claim to include the representatives of the CPRC in trying to discredit you? You’ve said Ben Cartwright had a particular motive, but these railroad men don’t care who wins, just that the process is fair.”

“The Cartwrights must be paying him.” Munson shouted.

The judge pounded his fist on the table. “Choose your next words carefully, sir, lest you slander these men any further.” The look he sent Munson’s way, was flint and spark. “It’s interesting that you’re claiming trickery before the mark on your bid has been revealed.  Such a reaction might indicate you already know what’s there, and it doesn’t support your claim.”

Ben appreciated that Munson’s undoing was beginning. The one who’d pointed a finger at him, was now cowering like a rat trapped in a corner. But his satisfaction was clouded by other possibilities. He’d turned towards the lobby several times as the door had opened. The disappointment at it not being his sons was tempered by the fact that Hoss and Joe hadn’t been gone long. There was only one thing he could do. He beseeched Heaven for guidance in the search, and then concentrated on the meeting again.

Nels pulled a long envelope from his coat’s inner pockets. “When Adam Cartwright turned in his bid, he gave me a second envelope, and asked that I read it this morning once all the bids were known. I’ll do this now.” He unfolded the page he extracted and skimmed it quickly before looking up at the group. “Judge Harris witnessed Adam’s transfer of this to me yesterday, and I certify that this has been in my possession since then, so nothing was changed. Adam writes: After thoughtful consideration, the Cartwright family respectfully withdraws from this competition. We could have entered a competitive bid, yet it would have meant altering the way we harvest our trees, and over-extending our financial resources. We are grateful to have participated in this opportunity. Congratulations to the winner.”

Judge Harris turned to Ben. “That letter was delivered before you arrived yesterday. Will you confirm that the withdrawal is still valid?”

“It’ true.” Ben looked around the room. “The restructured contract favors brokers who can work with several timber providers and mills at once. We were anxious to participate, but complying with the changes was not supported by the costs. And as things often work, another opportunity arose while I was in Carson City. Colonel Fredericks from the Calvary, spotted me there and said he’d planned to stop at the Ponderosa with an offer of timber work for a number of new forts they’ll be putting up in Nevada to protect the railroad.*** The building project is spread over several years, thus allowing us to continue our conservation methods.”

The other men began nodding, and the questioning glances they’d given Ben earlier were turned on Munson. Frank Fillmore finally spoke out. “So why did Adam submit a bid anyway?”

“My son felt strongly that something odd was going on. He entered a low bid as bait. If someone was going to commit fraud to win, he wanted to make sure it was obvious. Just for reference, our actual bid would have been ‘near’ the other four of you, but definitely higher.”

Frank looked at his fellow contenders. “I thought Adam’s bid was low, but then figured your operation could save on transportation costs, and doing it yourselves did away with commissions. Our base figures are set by our suppliers. Those didn’t’ change with the new requirements, but we did have to add in incentives for the rapid schedule, and for the probability of having to bring in other suppliers to meet needs.” He took a deep breath and stared at Munson. “This is standard practice in the industry. In my case I lowered my profits to remain competitive, just as the others must have. That begs a question, Munson: how could your original bid have been only a ‘few dollars’ more than Adam’s fake amount. Yours should have been closer to ours than his!”

“Let’s reveal the mark on this final bid,” Nels said loudly to quiet the group and move to a conclusion. “Why don’t you all come over here and watch as I put it to the heat.”

Twenty-Four

Hoss and Joe went first to saloons with feral customers, asking if they’d seen Adam during the night. Their question was met by glassy eyed stares and shaking heads, except for one old-timer who reported seeing two men dragging a third through the alley when he’d slipped out for a nap. He hadn’t recognized them, but they’d been headed towards the edge of town.

Following their only lead, the brothers headed out back. Hoss crouched to point out two sets of footprints flanking what could have been the drag-marks created by the toes of another man’s boots. “Moses was right about what he saw,” Hoss told his brother. “It was probably just a drunk miner or cowboy gettin’ a tow to his horse, but it’s something we should follow.”

“If these two furrows do indicate someone being dragged, that man had boots with rounded toes rather than pointy ones,” Joe said quietly. “Just like Adam wears …”

Hoss lifted his hat to scratch his head and turned in a circle to see what was nearby. “If it they had Adam, they must’a been on their way to stash him somewhere.”

They continued to follow the imprints until they ended at the next intersection, where the dirt became hard-packed. “It’s too dark in this alley to see any other clues, and I don’t recognize which of these buildings might make a good hidin’ place from the back,” Hoss told Joe. “Let’s head out to the street where we can see better.”

Their eyes were still adjusting to the bright sunlight as they exited the shadowed side street, when they heard shouting.

Hoss didn’t need to see who was calling; he recognized the voice, and called out, “Sylvia?”

She was breathless when she stopped in front of them, and she had to bend down and gulp air to speak. “He … needs … help!”

Hoss gripped her shoulders. “Just get ta breathin’ better, and then talk. His head snapped up when she took hold of his arms to steady herself. The scars where her fingers had been cut apart were flushed red with her exertion. “I didn’t want to believe it, but you really are Munson’s daughter.” His grip tightened, and his voice became ice. “Where’s Adam?”

Sylvia pointed in the direction she’d come from. “Down there. He figured out who I was during the night and Liam hit him in the head to keep him quiet. I’ve been with him since then, but he’s hurt … real bad.” She shivered as she looked down at the blood covering the sleeves and bodice of her dress.

Following her gaze, Hoss’s face became a mask of fear. “Is he alive or dead?”

“I’m not sure. He was out cold all night, but he came to a while ago, and we had a good talk. He convinced me to stop Papa. I was going to help him walk to the hotel, but he took a few steps and collapsed. His head was bleeding again and I got covered with blood when I tried to make him comfortable. I couldn’t wake him up, so …” Sylvia’s eyes rounded; a single blink releasing a flood of tears. “Checking his pulse wouldn’t have made any difference if he was dead, and it would have delayed help if he wasn’t, so I left him there and came to find you.”

Joe could see that Hoss was frozen by what he’d just heard, and knew he had to take charge. “Take us to him!” he commanded.

“I have to stop Papa from the biggest mistake of his life.” She chewed on her lip like a piece of jerky. “Adam’s at a hotel … Easy’s … I think it’s called.”

Hoss pulled from his stupor and he drew himself to his full height, staring down at Sylvia. “You took my wounded brother to that filthy hole? If he isn’t dead, he’ll probably die from somethin’ he’ll get from layin’ on an infested mattress!”

Joe pulled at Hoss’s arm. “Let’s get Adam. You can yell at her later.”

“You’re right, Joe, she’s not worth the breath.” He grabbed Sylvia’s shoulders a last time. “What room?”

“Six. At the back corner.” She touched Hoss’s arm. “You won’t believe me yet, but I am sorry.”

Hoss turned away without comment. “You’re faster’n me, Joe. Go get Paul.”  Taking a final look back, he saw Sylvia making her way past the horses and people on the street, and wondered whether she was truly going to the hotel, or making an escape.

Twenty – Five

Munson’s face was nearly purple. “There’s some mistake,” he cried out when the heat of the lamp produced a five rather than the X. “The Cartwrights must have been able to remove my figure and pen in another.”

“Any attempt to erase on that fibrous paper would show up clearly, and there isn’t any evidence of that,” Roger Taggert offered as he looked over Nels’ shoulder. “Perhaps you wrote your original number in disappearing ink too, Al?”

The hue of Munson’s face deepened to nearly black when the others laughed at Taggert’s comment, and he began sweating as he looked towards the restaurant’s entrance.  One of Nels’ men was ushering in three people. Al didn’t recognize the woman, but he knew one of the men operated the stage office. His fear that something was wrong, was confirmed when he looked towards his daughter and Liam, and he saw that they recognized the others. Uncertain as to what these newcomers could divulge, he decided to keep playing the game. “I’m not sure what happened, but those two witnesses just told you what the Cartwrights are capable of doing!”

Nels ignored the comment and motioned for his engineer to bring the newest participants forward. “I’d like to introduce three additional witnesses. Mary Rogers is a seamstress in town, Wilson owns a store, and Ralph Bertrand runs the stage office.

Desiree couldn’t sit still, and as interest turned toward the newcomers, she slipped from her seat and headed toward the exit.

Judge Harris’ concern wasn’t with the new witnesses. He kept his eyes on the two who’d already spoken. When he saw Desiree’s escape attempt, he shouted for Roy to stop her. With the young woman pushed back onto her chair, the judge addressed her. Miss … uh … Lovelee, you gave a moving account of being manipulated and abused by the Cartwrights, but let’s clarify a few things. You told a several people that you came to town for an appointment with Mary Rogers. Was that true?”

Desiree’s fidgeting resumed. “All right,” she snapped back. “We lied about that. We wanted some fun away from home, and our father had talked about Virginia City. When we got here and there were only rooms at a boarding house, we felt foolish, and concocted the story to elicit sympathy. We did go to that woman’s shop.” Her nose twitched upwards in haughty disdain, before completing her thought. “And we were unimpressed.” While she had paled with this new wrinkle of circumstance, her voice never wavered.

“You made a scene at this hotel when it was suggested you stay at a boarding house. Why was that”” the judge asked.

Her eyes fluttered before she looked down at her hands. “I don’t stay at those establishments, since I was assaulted in one. The memory of that is too horrible.”

“Then I find it odd that you stayed at a boarding house in Reno for nearly a week before catching a stage here on the day of the railroad meeting.”

Desiree’s eyes nearly popped out with this revelation, and although her mouth opened in a most grotesque expression, she remained silent.

“You don’t need to answer, Miss Lovelee,” the judge said as she continued to sputter. “Ralph Bertram wired the Reno office for the information I revealed. You see, everyone from San Francisco, where you bordered the stage, to Reno where you stayed, remembered the two beautiful sisters.”

“I’ll not stay here and be accused!” she finally screeched. “I never said we were without faults, and it doesn’t change what the Cartwrights did.”

“You do need to stay,” Roy told her. “You made some serious allegations about a family known for their kindness. It’s out of character for them to do what you said, and after hearing that nearly everything else you’ve said since gettin’ here is lies, I’m thinkin’ you lied about them too.”

I’ll address Liam next,” the judge stated. “You said you’re a gambler who just stopped here on a whim. Yet Larry Wilson revealed that you’ve been here for some time already, and gave him the impression that you were buying land next to the Cartwrights. You even managed to offer your services when Larry’s regular man couldn’t take supplies out to the Ponderosa before the meeting. We also know the sisters received telegrams while in Reno, and I’m betting that if subpoenaed, Clancy from Western Union, would verify that they originated from you.”

Liam said nothing, although his composure slipped away along with his spine, making him nearly slide from his chair.

“Enough!” Munson thundered. “I can’t speak to why these people would lie for me, but I know Ben Cartwright is behind it.”

Everyone in the dining room was so focused on the proceedings that no one noticed Sylvia enter the hotel. She stopped near the desk to listen to the accusations against her sister and Liam, and finally her father’s attempt to save his own skin. She headed directly to her father’s side like a locomotive under full steam. “Stop this, Papa!” she shouted. “You’re just making a fool of yourself.

Munson swung around, staring in shock at his daughter. “Sylvia…” he moaned. “Ben Cartwright has to pay!”

Sylvia was aware of everyone staring, and drew a deep breath to compose herself. “We’ve been lying about everything. Desiree and I are Al Munson’s daughters, and none of the Cartwrights harmed us. They’ve been gentlemen since the moment we met them. This is all a horrible, ugly mistake. I apologize for what we’ve done, and beg you to understand how it came about.”

“What do you mean by a mistake?” Judge Harris asked gently.

“My father has told you that Ben Cartwright was enamored with my mother. The truth is that she met him only once in Boston, before  either of them were married. The exchange was so insignificant that he can’t recall it. But my mother was … mentally unstable, and Ben’s one act of kindness formed into her lifelong obsession.  She did take her life, but not for the reasons Papa said. And when she did, she left behind a lifetime of writings for Papa to find. The stories and conclusions she’d made about him were so ugly that they tore him apart. He turned that grief into a need to reclaim his honor.”

The judge’s voice remained soothing. “Was there any contact between Ben and your mother, as your father alleged?”

Sylvia’s laugh sounded like a gurgling moan. “No. But that didn’t stop her from writing stories about it … and believing her own fiction. Ben couldn’t have participated. He had a ranch, a life and three sons across the country from Boston; a journey that would have taken months each way. She didn’t know where he was until she saw a newspaper from San Francisco, and then quickly convinced Papa to move out here. She figured out which hotel he was at, and made a scene.”

Ben rose slowly. “I remember an incident in a hotel several years ago. The woman was muttering incoherently. What was your mother’s maiden name?”

“Imogene Franklin.” Sylvia held her breath, wondering if the name would light a spark. She wasn’t sure how to feel when she saw none.

Ben’s head moved side-to-side. “I am sorry for your loss, and had I known how badly my lack of memory would affect her, I might have tried a little harder to recall that first meeting. Thank you for your honesty, Sylvia. The decision to intervene today could not have come easily.”

“I thank you as well,” Nels told the young woman before turning to her father and addressing him in an authoritative voice. “But I’m struggling to understand why you chose this opportunity to get even, Al. Your plan didn’t just impact the Cartwrights. Your vendetta may have ruined months of careful planning by every other bidder in this contest.”

Al Munson was down for the count. He stared blankly at Nels, as though suddenly deaf and mute.

“I’ll try to explain,” Sylvia offered. “You’d need to understand my father’s misery. He couldn’t blame Mother anymore, so he set on getting revenge for a wasted life from the person who’d been at the center of his agony.  Pain and embarrassment can do horrible things without viewing the greater consequences.” She looked over at Ben and then back to Nels and the judge. “I’m not sure what you’ll do about your meeting, Mr. Nelson, but I would appreciate if we could give further statements privately. I have a few of those journals with me, and perhaps they will allow you to view our situation more kindly.”

Ben pulled himself from the grips of the story he’d just heard. Only then did he notice the dried stains on Sylvia’s dress. “You’re covered in blood!” He stated as he strode towards her. “Does that have anything to do with why Adam isn’t here?  Have you harmed him?”

Sylvia’s hand flew to cover her mouth and she groaned. “I’m so sorry.  I don’t know how he is, but he’s with Hoss and Joe.” She wrapped her arms around herself and began to cry.

A commotion near the front desk, drew Ben’s attention and sent him running to the tall man in the blood saturated shirt who’d just entered. Adam was ghostly pale, but he was on his own two feet, sort of. Hoss’s strong arm was wrapped around his brother’s waist, holding him up by his belt, while Joe provided a similar service from the opposite side. Paul followed the trio, dabbing the blood from the back of Adam’s head.

Paul Martin took a look at Ben and knew he had to speak fast or he’d have two patients. “He’ll be all right, Ben,” Paul said as the brothers maneuvered Adam onto a chair. “It’s a serious wound, and he might have a concussion, but right now, he needs to be cleaned up and have a few stitches to stop the bleeding.” The family’s physician began to chuckle. “You know your son well enough to figure that he refused treatment until he could see what was happening here.”

Hoss’s face took on a sour grimace as he shivered. “They had him stashed at Easy’s, Pa. I swear they don’t never clean that place. I feel itchy from just standin’ in there.”

Ben’s face reddened with rage. “Thankfully, Munson’s lies have already come out. Now it’s a matter of knowing what to do with these people. He bent down to rest his hand on his eldest’s son cheek before saying, “Take Adam to our room and give Paul a hand. I’ll have Roy and the railroad men bring the Munsons and that young man up soon, and once Nels can get away, he’ll join us and we’ll settle this.”

***

Hoss helped Adam stand up again once their father had gone back into the dining room, bet when he tried to steer him towards the steps, Adam refused to budge.

“Hang on a minute!” The pained look that seemed permanently etched on Adam’s features, took on edges of a grin. “When Pa looks like that, there’s going to be fireworks. We don’t want to miss this!”

Ben’s long strides led directly to Munson’s table. He dragged the surprised man up by his lapels until they were face-to-face. “You used your bad fortune as an excuse to hurt us and others. Your ill-conceived plan could have resulted in Adam’s death. And when the truth came out, you weren’t enough of a man to speak up, making your daughter offer your pitiful excuses. What do you have to say for yourself?” When Munson remained mute, Ben issued a non-verbal comment of his own, laying the man out cold with one solid blow to the chin.

Applause broke out from diners seated at outside tables of the restaurant, who having finished their breakfasts, remained glued to their chairs to watch the drama playing out. Actual cheers rose from the other bidders.

Twenty – Six

Paul Martin drew Ben aside as he entered the suite “Hoss held Adam down just long enough to get him cleaned up and changed, and I managed to wrap some gauze over the wound. But that’s all he’ll allow for now.”

Ben sighed—the long-suffering variety—prompted by his eldest’s son’s normal reaction to being ill or injured. “I’m sure you did your best. We’ll hurry this along so you can patch him up.” He chuckled inwardly as he spotted the massive white wrap around Adam’s head. The surfeit of bandaging made Ben wonder if Paul charged them by the foot. But he’d pay anything required for the relief of seeing the man in the gauze turban, slouched into a comfortable chair near the fireplace.

A quick glance around the room, revealed an absence that made him ask, “Where are Joe and Sylvia?”

“Roy let him go with her to get some books she wants you to see,” Hoss told his father.

Ben noted the same mixture of pain and anger in his middle son’s voice that he’d heard earlier. He also knew this day wasn’t going to get any easier. Fatherly pride buoyed him, as he realized his family was “dealing” with these unexpected circumstances like they did with every challenge they faced. He’d been beaten down by false accusations; Hoss had sustained a wound to his heart, and Adam had been pistol-whipped to within inches of surviving. They’d all recover, but he understood that one of these injuries would heal harder than the rest.

Ben’s line of sight was drawn to the Munsons, and it hit him solidly that their plan could have worked if Nels and Adam hadn’t paid attention. Without the clues and legwork done ahead of the meeting, their accusations would have left the Cartwrights fighting an uphill battle, trying to defend something that had never happened. The scheming, lying, and finally the exposing of it all, appeared to have sapped all energy from Desiree and her father. The two were wedged on opposite sides of a small settee at the side of the room, each staring ahead blankly. While he was still looking their way, Munson reached up to rub his reddened jaw. The obvious discomfort it was causing didn’t bother Ben at all. He actually wished Munson had remained standing long enough for a second blow.

The mantel clock chimed ten times as Ben walked to Adam’s chair, leaving him astounded that it had been only two hours since the meeting had begun. Crouching next to his son, he asked. “How are you doing?”

“I need a bath to get the stench of that … place … off me, but at least I changed clothes. I can smell Hop Sing’s lye soap more than … other things for now.”

“And your head? You look tired.”

Adam’s chuckle was low and rumbly.

“What’s so funny?” Ben asked as he reached up to check his son’s forehead for heat.

“My two rescuers and physician knew they had to hurry, so Paul was cleaning what feels like a deep crater on the back of my head, while Joe was scrubbing the blood off my face and neck. Meanwhile Hoss was stripping off my shirt and pants. Never have I felt more cared for … or more manhandled at the same time.”

“I was worried when you didn’t show up at breakfast. And when you didn’t arrive for the meeting, I knew something bad had happened. Thank God that young man didn’t swing any harder.”

“He must have hit with the edge of the grip, making it act like a dull hatchet hitting a ripe tomatoe.” He pressed the top of his head with both hands and grimaced. “The headache is easing, but whatever Paul used to clean it has left it burning like it’s on fire. The good doctor offered something for the pain, but he’d have knocked me out for sure, and I want a clear mind for a while yet.” A wistful look towards the small table holding the half-full whiskey bottle from the previous day, produced a sigh. “I’d like some of that  for the pain, but Paul ‘suggested’ sticking to water.”

There was one clean glass remaining on the mantel, so Ben procured it and filled it with liquor. “Here,” he told Adam after a check to make sure Paul wasn’t looking. “Take a swallow or two, and I’ll finish it.”

Adam drew the back of his hand across his lips, while handing the half-empty glass to his father. “Thanks, Pa.  How’re you doing? Hoss told me Munson said some pretty awful things about you, and Sylvia told me the real story while holding me in that room. Hearing it out loud finally convinced her how insane it was, and it made her act.”

Ben nodded. “I’m glad she came around before it was too late. What astounded me, was that as preposterous as Munson’s accusation sounded, those other men showed signs of believing him at first. And those were all men who know us.”

“That was the plan, Pa. The Munsons didn’t care about the contract: they meant to discredit an honorable man, and tear our family apart. Sylvia admitted that they knew we’d be able to counter the lies and prove our innocence. It would take time though, and the rumors about the Cartwrights would have blown in the wind like seeds seeking fertile ground.”

“Sylvia mentioned some journals, and while I want to see them, it will only be to verify their motive. From what she said about the situation, I believe Al was a decent man until he allowed his disappointment to rot his soul.”

“What do you think will happen now?” Adam asked.

Ben stroked his chin and blew out a long breath. “I’m not sure. He meddled in the bid, but he didn’t intend to profit from it. I’d expect hefty fines. But they’re also guilty of assaulting you and holding you against your will, and probably some other things I can’t even think of yet.”

All eyes turned when the door opened and Nels entered, accompanied by two other men. Both strangers wore suits, but the taller one was wearing a large-brimmed Stetson, and had a US Marshal star pinned to his lapel. Ben’s eyebrows lifted as he looked at Adam.

Nels moved to the center of the room, but his introduction was interrupted when Sylvia and Joe came in. Joe nodded to Nels issuing an apology, and pointed out two empty chairs near Hoss. The young woman shook her head, and slipped between her father and Desiree.

“When Adam mentioned a few odd, and far too coincidental things that happened on the first day of our gathering, I sent a telegram to the CPRC in San Francisco,” Nels began. “The railroad shared my concern and contacted the US Marshal Service4 that serves the Western District. Two representatives headed here immediately from Sacramento to be here in time, should there be any problems today. Jim Spears is from the railroad,” Nels indicated the man to his left. “And this is Cliff Rainier, a sworn officer of the federal government. I was advised to keep their pending arrival secret, to prevent an abortion of the plans in progress. These men arrived early this morning, and positioned themselves as guests in the restaurant to watch the proceedings. Even I wasn’t aware they were here. They gave me a wide berth in handling the situation, but they will handle the outcome. Jim Spears will arrange a future meeting with the other bidders to award the contract, but Marshal Rainier will be taking four people into custody today.”

The federal officer was lean and muscular, with eyes the color of steel. He looked around the room, finally settling on the Munson family. “Mr. Munson,” he began in an authoritative tone. “On the surface, it would seem you undertook a personal cause, rather than attempting to defraud the railroad for financial gain. But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen your name come through the Marshal Service office. We received complaints from two of the vendors you were courting as subcontractors for your bid, both claiming you used questionable tactics when they refused to back you. The owner of a large mill alleged that you had your daughter attempt to seduce him. He assumed you would have blackmailed him if he’d have complied. So, when Nels’ telegram mentioned the unexpected intrusion of two pretty women, my thoughts turned immediately to you.”

Hoss moaned like a wounded animal as he stood and turned towards the settee where the Munsons were sitting. “What kind of man uses his daughters like that? Pa’s are supposed to protect their children, not put them up as …”

“For heaven’s sake, Hoss,” Desiree said with an exaggerated sigh. “All I did was flirt with a homely, worn-out old codger. He should have been happy that a beautiful woman even looked at him.”

The horror on Hoss’s face collapsed into a look of pure sorrow. “I guess your sister played that same game on me, but I fell for it.” He scrubbed his face with both hands. “I’m sorry yer pa did this to you … to both of you, but you’re old enough to know it’s wrong, and that makes you even worse!” He began walking toward the bedroom door, pausing to say, “I can’t listen to no more of this.”

Ben saw his Joe begin to rise, and said, “Let him go, Son.”

Adam cleared his throat to draw attention away from his brother. “If the Marshal Service had these complaints, why was Munson allowed into the final bid?”

Rainier shoved his hands in his pockets. “Strong-arming is often part of negotiations to get suppliers to back one company over another.”

“You might be surprised to know that ‘allegations’ of strong-arming were made against two other bidders from this group,” Jim Spears admitted. “We check on them to make sure there’s nothing illegal, but sometimes claims are made by the vendors as revenge when things don’t go as they hoped.  Bidders can feel secure in knowing that the CPRC requires clear evidence of wrongdoing before disallowing anyone.”

“Getting back to today,” Marshal Rainier broke in before more questions could be asked. “When your plot unraveled and your lies were exposed, your daughter gave a compelling explanation of what drove you to this, Mr. Munson. Your agenda was slanderous towards the Cartwrights, but thanks to Nels’ forward thinking, the contract can still be awarded. Because of this, you might think we’d be moved towards leniency in dealing with all of you.”

Adam’s brows rose as he listened carefully to the marshal’s statements. His father was seated next to him on the arm of his chair and he tugged his shirtsleeve, indicating he should lean down. “He’s leading up to something,” he whispered, “and there’s no leniency involved.”

“What you didn’t take into account, sir,” Rainier continued, “is that the although the CPRC is managing this section of the cross-country rail project, the mandate to build it came out of the Pacific Railroad Act: a law signed by President Lincoln, and therefore, funded by the United States government. That makes this a federal project … and crime. The charges brought against you by the Marshal Service will ensure that you become an example of what happens to those who attempt to interfere in a project involving the security and commerce of this nation.”

Roy raised his hand. “This is all interestin’, but I’ve got to get back to my office. What are you gonna do with these people?”

“They’ll go with me to San Francisco to face charges.”

“What about the women?” Adam asked.

Rainier shook his head. “I’ll have the attorneys review their role, but the truth is that they’re of age, and they, and the young man should be charged equally.”

“That’s where I gotta step in,” Roy said with conviction. “That … young man … knocked Adam unconscious. From what I could see of that wound, I might go so far as to say he intended to kill him.”

“There’s more, Roy,” Adam broke in. He went on to explain Liam’s part in the probable poisoning of Hop Sing, and the fear that Reggie’s disappearance indicated he might have been permanently silenced.

Laim’s eye’s rounded to saucers. “I didn’t kill that old drunk!” He whined. “I gave him cash to buy enough booze to keep him out of town for a few days. He was going to take his friend fishing! He should be back today. And I didn’t poison anyone!”

“What did you do?” Adam demanded. “Hop Sing became ill after drinking tea you’d provided.”

“It was just tea form the Chinese store. I told him I needed something to—” the young man turned red as a beet, and silenced.

“Something to do what!” Adam’s no-nonsense voice, learned from his father, was known to provoke answers. It did.

“Something to make me go … like castor oil … you know …. It was only to make him uncomfortable enough to welcome some help with that meeting.”

“I’ll check on Reggie,” Roy said firmly. “But if something you slipped Hop Sing sickened him, I’d say that’s assault too.”

“Federal crimes trump local, Sheriff Coffee,” the marshal told Roy. “Since it was all part of the overall plot, I’ll include these assaults into the charges against everyone. It will take three days to get a secure coach over here, so I’ll need your jail.”

Roy mentally sorted through a solution for the sisters. “The men can stay there, but I’ll have to put the ladies up at Clementine Hawkins’ boarding house. She’s a pretty sharp woman who’ll watch them like a hawk, and I’ll swear in a deputy to stay there.”

Joe had remained quiet while listening to the story unfold. But he found humor in the irony of the proposed housing for the sisters. He looked at Desiree and started to laugh. It started as a chuckle and grew into a loud roar.

“What’s so funny, Joseph?” Ben asked sternly.

The youngest son pointed toward the settee. “We’re back where we started. I’m waiting for Desiree to faint at the thought of spending three nights in a boarding house!”

***

While the proceedings interested him, Dr. Martin’s focus was his patient. Joe’s comment struck Adam as being funny, but when his chuckle turned into a laugh, he grabbed at his head and leaned forward with a groan. The reaction brought both Paul and Ben to their feet.

“Adam needs to rest!” the doctor announced. “You’ve reached a conclusion as to what can be done for now, so let’s clear the room.”

Roy pushed Liam to his feet. “I’ll need some help movin’ everyone to the jail for now. The ladies can stay there until we arrange things with Clementine.”

Marshal Rainier and Joe offered to accompany Roy and they began rounding up the family, while Nels and the CPRC representative stated their intention to find the remaining four bidders and make arrangements with them. With the rapid preparations to leave, no one noticed Hoss step back into the room.

“I’d like to walk Sylvia to the jail, privately. It might take a bit, but I’ll get her there.”

The marshal looked to Roy who gave a sturdy nod. “The sheriff trusts you, young man. Don’t make him regret that.”

***

With the room cleared, Adam groaned loudly, and then raised his arms in surrender. “Let the torture commence.”

“From the bits and pieces I heard in the last hour, I assume those people performed theatrics of sorts, to discredit the Cartwrights?” Paul drawled, before looking directly at Adam “Maybe you should join them next time, Adam. You tend towards the dramatic too.” Paul took silent pleasure in watching his patient’s cheeks turn red, and additional pleasure from the wink sent his way by Ben. “You want me to knock you out before I stitch you up?”

“Just get it over with. Now that I’ve been awake a while, I’m hungry.” He looked at his father. “Could you get something from the restaurant while Paul repairs my torn seam?”

“Good idea, Ben,” Paul added. “You don’t want to stick around here and listen to the howling. Get me something too. Joe got to my house just as I was finally sitting down to breakfast.”

***

Adam became listless and drowsy after finishing his meal, finally allowing the medication he’d taken to do its job. Paul grabbed the plate sliding from his patient’s lap as his muscles went limp.

“What’d you give him?” Ben asked, while helping get his son onto his side to sleep on the couch.

“A mild sleeping powder. Sometimes just knowing an ordeal is over allows a person to give in to what their body needs most.”

Ben grabbed a blanket from the other room. With Adam tucked in, he motioned Paul to the settee the Munsons had vacated, and quietly filled him in on what had happened the last few days.

“Grief can be faced and overcome, or allowed to grow into sickness,” Paul commented when the story was complete. “It’s a shame that man took the latter option.” He watched as Ben’s eyes lingered a little long in a blink. You’re tired too, Ben; take a nap. I’m sure you’re anxious to head home, but stay put until tomorrow. I’ll return around dinnertime to see how Adam’s doing. His head’s going to be sore for some time, but if all is well in the morning, you can leave with my blessing.” He’d gathered his bag and was reaching for the knob when the door opened towards him, forcing a quick sideways jump to avoid being struck. Paul gave Hoss’ hand a solid grasp as he entered, while doing visual once-over. “Ben told me what you’ve all been through, and you look exhausted too. I want everyone in this room resting in short order—and no excuses!”

***

Ben immediately noticed the deep furrows created by Hoss’s frown. It was an expression infrequently seen on this son, and it made his heart ache. “Did you see Joe at Roy’s office?” He asked, easing into conversation.

“He went to introduce that marshal to Clementine and help with arrangements.” He nodded toward the sofa. “How’s Adam?”

“He’ll sleep for a while now, and he’ll be fine in time.” Ben waited for Hoss to talk, but finally had to ask, “How did it go with Sylvia?”

“I don’t understand, Pa.” The big man dropped onto the settee next to his father. “She said she was sorry about everything, but sorriest for hurtin’ me and ruinin’ a chance between us. But then she claimed loyalty to her family came first, and that I should understand, because it’s how we are too.” He slid forward to lean his head back on the sofa. “Maybe she just said that so I wouldn’t be so mad. She’s told so many lies.”

“Sylvia lost her way, Hoss. I paged through one of her mother’s journals while Paul finished with Adam.” He shook his head. “The fantasies were bad enough, but the things she wrote about her husband and daughters were thoughtless and cruel. It must have been devastating for all of them. Al Munson was good to his wife. Her words admitted to having a fine life, except for the man who provided it. I did nothing for her—couldn’t even remember meeting her—yet I was her only reason to go on. I don’t know how I’d have reacted if that had happened to me.”

“You would’a blamed the right person, Pa. You would’a taken the grief, the anger and the horror of it, and worked it out on the ranch, like you always do when yer mind’s in a bad place.” Hoss pulled forward until leaning on his knees. “The worst part of this is that if I’d a met Sylvia under normal circumstances, we’d be getting’ married now, instead of her goin’ to jail and me feelin’ gut shot.”

“She was forced to make a miserable decision.” Ben squeezed Hoss’s arm. “You’ll do well to forgive her, Son. It won’t hurt less, but it’s important if you want to get over this.”

“I already forgave her.” The big man scrubbed his face and sighed. “When the marshal mentioned that letter accusing Munson of using his daughters to finagle cooperation, I nearly got sick. I knew then this sickness ran so deep that there won’t be no chance for them girls until they get away from their own Pa. Adam, Joe and me would stand with you even if it meant fightin’ to the last. But you’d never ask us to do nothing’ just to hurt someone.” This sigh was so long, it seemed to deflate him. “Do you think I’ll ever meet a gal who isn’t usin’ me?”

“I’m proud of how you handled yourself through this. It takes a powerful man to show restraint when things start falling apart, and a stronger one still to keep an open heart. One day someone’s going to find her home in that heart.”

Epilogue

Ben leaned back in his desk chair to check through the mail one of the hands had dropped off earlier. There were three items of interest he hoped to look at before dinner. His sons had already returned from their day of checking pasture grass for the next shift of the herds, but he figured there’d still be time while they settled their horses and washed up. Choosing the envelope with the CPRC symbol in the return address, he made quick work of opening it and reading the two-page letter it contained.

He looked up when he heard the latch activate, surprised to see Adam enter first. Considering it was dinner time, he’d expected Hoss to beat the other two inside: drying his freshly washed hands on his dusty pants before slipping off his gun belt, ditching his hat and moving straight to the table.

Adam, on the other hand, never hurried. Even now he ambled in, greeted his father and then stretched before moving from the door. Stopping where he did, put him directly between Hoss and the dining room, and he was nearly knocked off his feet when his younger brother pushed through the partially open door.

“Slow down, Hoss. Hop Sing doesn’t even have food out yet,” Adam teased, while moving aside to let his brother pass. While Hoss deposited his things on the credenza, Adam exchanged a smile with his father over the near collision. “What’s that you’re reading, Pa?”

“I’ll tell you about it during dinner.” The smile faded as Ben retrieved a smaller envelope from the desk top and held it up. “A letter came for you, Hoss. It’s from Sylvia.”

Hoss made a detour to the desk; retrieved the envelope, and said a quiet, “Thanks, Pa,” before taking a seat on the blue velvet chair to read it privately.

“Where’s Little Joe?” Ben asked Adam.

“The grass was already dewy when we came down that rise about a mile from home, and Cochise slipped. He seemed fine, but Joe is rubbing liniment into his front legs so they don’t get stiff.”

Both men turned towards the hearth when they heard the crinkling of paper as Hoss refolded his letter and stuck it in his pocket. He remained silent, but when the door opened and the last brother entered, Hoss said, “Joe’s here now. Let’s eat.”

Ben winked at Adam and shrugged. “You heard him; let’s eat.”

***

Their conversation while they waited for Hop Sing to finish bringing out their food, centered around the condition of the fields the sons had checked, and Ben relating how the men found some rotting boards on the shady side of the barn. But the room silenced once their plates were full and they began to eat.

Whatever Sylvia had written, had no effect on Hoss’ appetite. The large bowls of beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and the platter of sliced beef were quickly emptied—mostly by the middle son who was on his second helpings before the rest of the family finished their first.

Adam finally broke the silence when the pace of consumption began to slow. “You were going to tell us about the letter, Pa.”

Ben nodded as he wiped his mouth with the checkered napkin. “It’s from Nels. He wanted to let us know what finally happened with the contract, and the outcome of the court case against the Munsons.”

Three forks came to rest on their plates.

“Who won the contract?” Adam asked.

“Before Nels and the representative left Virginia City, they arranged for the remaining four men to come to the CPRC offices in San Francisco. That meeting was last week and the railroad was able to make an arrangement for each of them.” Ben paused for effect and he smiled when his sons rolled their eyes. “The main contract went to Roger Taggert and Rick Spindler.”

“Both of them?” Joe asked the question as his forehead wrinkled. “How’s that gonna work?”

“Roger realized that Munson’s stunt put the project behind, leaving him already in a hole against a tight schedule, and he was grateful to have the contract split. His suppliers are mostly from central California, so he’ll deliver timber to construction sites from Oakland into Nevada. Rick works with timber men and mills to the northeast of San Francisco, so he’ll supply the sites through to Utah. Even Frank and Lester were given small, yet lucrative contracts for side tracks and railcar boards.” Ben looked at Adam. “It was Nels’ suggestion to mete out the work so no one would be left with sour memories.”

“It seems equitable.” The left side of Adam’s lip rose in a mild grimace as he posed the next question. “What happened to the Munsons?”

“Their actions were deemed an act of malicious mischief rather than an attempt to defraud the government. They fined Munson heavily. He will serve a year in prison for tampering with the bids and being linked to the assault on Adam. He’s also barred from bidding any future government contracts.” Ben shook his head as he looked up. “He could try for private work, but it’s unlikely anyone will be willing to trust him. Most people in the business will hear about this; he’ll never outrun it.”

“That’s exactly what he’d planned for you, Pa,” Adam reminded everyone. “The difference would have been that you were innocent.”

“It would’a happened just like they’d hoped, except Sylvia told the truth,” Hoss added. He sat up straighter and his eyes shone brighter than they had in some time. “Her letter said her father admitted he’d lost himself in hate, and he done everything he could to get the girls out of the mess. He told the Marshal Service he forced his daughters to help; making them victims, not criminals. They agreed there’d be no value in bringing charges against them.”

“What about that other guy?” Joe asked.

Ben pulled the letter from the pocket of his vest, and scanned through it again. “I wanted to make sure I have this right. Liam wasn’t charged with harming Hop Sing. They checked on that tea. It shouldn’t have caused a severe illness, so the result, as bad as it was, was not intended. I don’t think that’s right, but it’s how laws are for now. And we know that Reggie did show up in town, unaware of the role he’d played. Liam pled guilty to a near-deadly assault, resulting in a six-month sentence at San Quentin. He was offered the option of working on a digging crew to set the roadbed for the railroad instead, and he accepted.”

Hop Sing served dessert after Ben called him in to explain the outcome of the case as it pertained to him. When he returned to the kitchen, the Cartwright forks went back into action for a few minutes. Ben pursed his lips once his plate was empty and considered whether he should ask the next question. Curiosity won out. “Hoss…was there anything in Sylvia’s letter about what she and her sister will do now?”

Hoss nodded while swallowing his last bite. “Her pa plans to move back to Boston when he’s done his time. He’s still got money enough to find a different kind of business there. Desiree’s gonna stay in San Francisco. She got a job at a theater, and she’s plannin’ to wait for Liam to finish up his sentence—” His voice trailed off, and his line of sight rose towards the ceiling, while his cheeks took on a pink glow.

“Hoss?” Ben said softly. “Is there more?”

“Sylvia asked if I’d return the journals she left with you. Did you ever read them, Pa?”

“Just the first one where she related meeting me, up to when I left Boston, and the final pages she wrote before her death. I didn’t care to see more.”

Adam cleared his throat. “There is something I wanted to ask, Pa. When Sylvia recounted what had driven her father’s revenge, she told me that her mother came to you after my mother died, offering to leave Munson; marry you and raise me. That proposal seems so bizarre, I’m surprised you didn’t remember her for that.”

“The explanation is simple, Son.” Ben sighed. “It’s not that I didn’t recall the offer, it’s just that she wasn’t the only one to make it, and she didn’t stand out from the rest. A young widower with a baby to raise, proved quite the magnet for lonely, sad women hoping to garner an instant family from the ashes of loss. Once Abel realized what these women were coming for, he shooed them away to let me grieve in peace.”

The oldest son sat back and shook his head. “It must have been an odd time for you, and I understand that you wouldn’t care to remember it.” Adam turned to Hoss. “Sorry I interrupted you, please tell us more about your letter.”

Hoss nodded. “No problem.” He thought a minute. “There was a matron at the place they was staying while waitin’ to be charged, who’d worked with a doctor in Chicago that does, ah …” He used his finger to scroll through the page of the letter he tugged from his pocket, until coming to the word he couldn’t recall. “Reconstruction is what she calls it.  Sounds like he might take them thick scars down a bit and make her hands looks better.” He put the letter next to his plate. “Sylvia’s headin’ there next week, and wants the diary so she can work on a story about her mother’s illness. She asked if I’d meet her stage in Carson City. She’ll stay a day until the next eastbound stage comes through, so we can talk.”

Ben’s forehead rose along with the corners of his mouth. “Can’t you can hand it to her through the stage window when it slows down on the way through Carson?”

“Aw, Pa.” Color rose in Hoss’s cheeks. “She ain’t comin’ back after Chicago, and said that if I’m ready to listen, she’d like ta apologize rightly to get my forgiveness.  I forgave her back when it happened, but I’d still like to hear what she’s got to say. Maybe then we can both go our way with free hearts.”

Joe noticed the look of pain that shadowed Hoss’s face for an instant when he finished, and he gave Adam’s foot a nudge under the table, nodding towards their middle brother.

Adam stretched and addressed Joe casually. “How was Cochise after the liniment rubdown?”

Joe blew out a thankful breath. “I rubbed it in good, but I think he favored his right leg when I walked him. Would you come out and take a look, Hoss? Maybe there’s more we can do yet tonight.”

“I’d be glad ta,” Hoss answered, while rising quickly and heading towards the door.

Once the younger sons were on their way to the barn, Ben went to Adam, leaned against his shoulder, and inspected the back of his head. “Your hair’s growing back well. Pretty soon you won’t even know there’s a scar.” His voice became excited as it did when he talked about business. “Something else came in the mail today.”

“What’s that?”

“The specification for the first Calvary post. How about we look at those while your brothers tend to Cochise.”

Adam glanced longingly at the new book he’d left on the table by his favorite chair in the living area, and then back up at his father. “Sure, Pa.” He returned his father’s eager smile. “There’s nothing I’d rather do.”

The End.

***EARLY NEVADA FORTS – https://www.northamericanforts.com/West/nv.html  This site tells of the many forts cavalry forts built in Nevada in the 1860s. There would have been great need for lumber products for such a large endeavor.

*Euphemia Hill was a business woman from Stockton who ran her own industry after her husband was killed. She’s thought to be the model for Victoria Barkley in The Big Valley.

***EARLY NEVADA FORTS – https://www.northamericanforts.com/West/nv.html  This site tells of the many forts cavalry forts built in Nevada in the 1860s. There would have been great need for lumber products for such a large endeavor.

4 The United States Marshals Service is a federal law enforcement agency within the U.S. Department of Justice. It is the oldest American federal law enforcement agency and was created by the Judiciary Act of 1789 during the presidency of George Washington. The first 13 Marshals were appointed on September 24, 1789.

From the nation’s earliest days, marshals were permitted to recruit special deputies as local hires, or as temporary transfers to the Marshals Service. Marshals were also authorized to swear in a posse to assist with manhunts, and other duties. Marshals were given extensive authority to support the federal courts within their judicial districts, and to carry out all lawful orders issued by federal judges, Congress, or the President. Federal marshals were by far the most important government officials in territorial jurisdictions. Local law enforcement officials were often called “marshals” so there is often an ambiguity whether someone was a federal or a local official.

(From Wikipedia and History of the US Marshall Service)

 

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Author: missjudy

I'm from Southeastern Wisconsin, and have been writing Bonanza fanfic for several years. Adam's my favorite character, but I always to write in a way that will honor the men behind the roles.

4 thoughts on “The Lovelee Sisters (by MissJudy)

  1. I really enjoyed this – I got up very late this morning in order to finish it! What I liked was how this is one of the few stories I’ve read where we get the Cartwrights as full-on business men, rather than ranchers or mine owners or timber barons. This shows all the complexity and difficulty involved in bidding for contracts, and going up against rivals. It sounds dry, but isn’t wasn’t. Because, of course, being the Cartwrights, things aren’t going to run smoothly, so we also get two beautiful sisters, Adam as detective and Hoss putting his heart on the line. I really enjoyed the intricacies of the plot, and the cast of characters was vast but different enough that you could keep track of who everyone was. Well done, MissJudy, this proved a really satisfying read.

    One teeny tiny thing, chapter 19 appears twice. Just thought I’d better point that out…

    1. Thanks Sierra! I appreciate your take on,and understanding of this story. The Cartwrights did have to take care of business, but we only saw the outcome, not the amount of work involved in being in business. This I learned from real life where a family business means you’re always working, always planning the next step and praying that the money comes in before the next payroll comes around. So glad you enjoyed it.
      And thanks for the info on the chapter copy. I have no idea how that happened. Not even sure how to fix it, but there’s go to be an edit function somewhere. :o)

  2. A delightful mystery in which the tension is built up so well and clues are laid down skillfully. The resolution is exciting and satisfying. Love the variety of OCs in this one and the possibilities left open at the end.

    1. Thank you so much, Betty. Hmmm. Hadn’t thought about a sequel, but now…. there might be something there after all…

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