Summary: The boys must take unusual measures to save their father when his life is threatened.
Rated: T (20,960 words)
Three brothers walked up to the front desk of their customary hotel, laughingly pushing and shoving each other as they talked and joked together loudly. To the casual observer, they could not have been more different. One was medium height with brown curls and laughing green eyes and there was a sense of elfin mischief lurking in his every look and gesture. One was tall and dark in every way from his hair and eyes to the clothes he wore and seemed to carry an aura of seriousness with him even as he joked with the other two. The third man was tall and broad with blue eyes, sandy hair and a bright lively cherub’s face. They looked nothing alike and yet something about them proclaimed that they were family as clearly as if they’d been wearing signs around their necks saying so.
“Soon as you get that wire off to Pa, Adam, you and me and little brother here are gonna go someplace and find us the biggest, thickest, juiciest set of steaks in San Francisco and a few nice cold beers to wash ‘em down with,” the big man declared. “I don’t want to hear no more about it. Them museums and dancin’ girls of yours can just wait until we’ve fed up.”
“Well, okay,” the man in black agreed reluctantly. “But if you’re going to insist, then I think you should be the one buying. Don’t you agree, Joe?”
“Now just hold on a dang minute,” the big man protested. “I didn’t say nothin’ about paying for you two. In fact, I think you should be the one to buy, cause if you hadn’t delayed us at the stockyards for an hour haggling over the price of them dozen extra steers we brought in, we’d have et by now and I wouldn’t be feeling so faint.”
The big man swayed theatrically and made as if to fall over right on top of his younger brother. Joe parried by jumping out of the way and darting over to the other side, yelling, “Timber!” The big man caught himself and took a playful swipe at his laughing brother’s head.
“Well, Hoss, now that you mention our reason for being late, I think Little Joe should be buying,” Adam countered. “After all, he’s the one who insisted he knew the way to this place then got us lost clear across town when he decided to follow that cute little gal in the blue dress for six blocks in the wrong direction.”
Hoss guffawed. “Yeah, just far enough for us to see her husband and two little young’uns rush out to greet her comin’ home. I think you’re right, Adam. Joe, you’re buyin’.”
Little Joe squawked and protested, but gave in fairly easily. “Okay, fine, I’ll buy, but you two owe me for this. Hurry up and check us in and send that wire, Adam. Now that we’ve got some plans in mind I’m for finding a good place to eat and tucking in. Hoss ain’t the only one around here who’s starving!”
Adam gave the desk clerk their names and signed them in and all three were surprised to find a message waiting for them. Adam accepted the paper the clerk handed him and scanned it carefully. “Huh, what do you know? Looks like we won’t have to wire Pa. He’s meeting us here!”
Hoss and Joe looked at each other, open-mouthed. “Why?” blurted Joe. “I thought Pa wanted to stay home this trip. Especially after that long speech he gave us about how the Ponderosa can’t run herself and how we can’t all four just go gallivanting off at a moment’s notice!”
Adam chuckled at his exasperated tone. “I don’t think he had any choice. You remember when he agreed to speak to the local labor commission about all the Chinese dockworkers practically being used as slave labor?” His brothers nodded. They had been glad to stand behind that decision both because many of the workers were friends and relatives of their cook Hop Sing, and because it was the right thing to do. “Well, it seems the problem has escalated somehow and an emergency session of the board has been convened right here in Frisco tonight. Pa writes that he took the faster mountain shortcut to make it on time and he’ll meet us all here to let us know how it went.”
“He shouldn’t ought to have done that,” Hoss protested. “Them mountains is dangerous for a man alone and Pa knows it. He should have wired us to attend that there meeting in his place!”
“No,” Joe said unexpectedly. “He couldn’t have done that. There was no way for Pa to know if we’d make it here on time and besides, he made a promise to Hop Sing. You know Pa doesn’t break his promises if there’s anyway to keep them.”
Hoss sighed. “I know, but I still don’t like the idea. Wonder what the problem was that made those fellas so anxious to hold that meeting right now, though? It’s sure fire that some of the people who’d like to attend wouldn’t have been able to make it here in time.”
“Maybe that’s the idea,” Adam guessed grimly. “I don’t know the situation, but if there’s some sort of vote involved, it might be to the benefit of those opposing the fair labor standards act that Pa and the other men are trying to get passed.”
“Excuse me,” interrupted the man behind the desk. “I don’t mean to eavesdrop, but are you gentlemen talking about that big brouhaha that’s been going on down at the wharves over those Chinese battling with the other immigrants over their jobs?”
They looked at him, interest growing as all three brothers realized that they might have found a source of information. “Could be,” Adam said carefully. “You know anything about what’s going on?”
The clerk pulled a newspaper out from behind the desk and plopped it down on the desk, pointing to a front page article and accompanying sketch of irate Chinese armed with cleavers and knives battling an equally angry group of whites armed with clubs and guns. Adam quickly scanned the paper and passed it on to Joe. He read, as well, with Hoss peering over his shoulder to check out the article. When they had finished, they exchanged grim looks with Adam. “Somebody is trying to drive those poor little Chinese fellers out of the measly little money they’re getting working on them docks by bringing in immigrant labor from other places,” Hoss concluded in disbelief.
“That ain’t fair. Those fellas have been working here longer than anybody else has. They deserve a raise in pay, not being muscled out of their jobs!” Joe added. Hoss nodded vehemently, his kind blue eyes flashing angrily. If there was one thing the big man could not abide, it was a bully. Little Joe scanned the article again quickly. “It doesn’t say who’s bringing in the other men or who’s paying off these gangs it says have been beating up the men at the dock.”
“I noticed that too,” said Adam. “It bothers me too, because anybody who can keep their name out of something this big can only be considered dangerous.”
Little Joe paled a bit. “You think Pa’s in any danger? Maybe we ought to go down to that meeting and make sure he’s okay.”
Adam laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Simmer down, Joe. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. Pa was taking care of himself long before any of us came along and I’m sure he knows enough to be cautious. He wouldn’t thank us for rushing down there to try and nursemaid him through a board meeting!” He released a laugh he did not feel, trying to hide his concern. “We’ll talk it over with Pa as soon as he gets back tonight. In the meantime, I believe you still owe your older brothers some dinner, youngster.”
Joe smiled and allowed himself to be comforted as he flinched away from Adam’s attempt to ruffle the curls sticking out from the front of his tan hat. “You’re right, I’m just being over protective I guess. Okay, let’s go drop our stuff off in our rooms and get going.”
Adam accepted a set of room keys from the desk clerk, thanking him for the paper and the three Cartwright brothers trudged up to the suite of rooms their father had already arranged for the family to stay in during their visit. Soon they found themselves seated at a nearby restaurant with the aforementioned steak dinners before them. Each of them ate quickly, trying to pretend they were having a good time, but awkward silences fell repeatedly over their conversation as they wondered about their father’s situation. Finally Hoss could no longer stand it and declared his intention to go back to the hotel and relax, but his brothers both knew his intention was not to sleep, but rather to wait for Pa and both secretly wished they’d thought of the excuse first. They were all thinking the same thing, but not one of them would openly admit their worry. As soon as Hoss left, Adam and Joe sat staring at each other, each waiting on the other to make a move.
At last Joe sighed and abruptly plunked his elbow down on the table to rest his chin atop his fist. “Do you think we’re overreacting to this whole thing? After all, Pa might not be in any trouble at all. He might be just sitting there, bored out of his wits right now. Whoever is causing all the trouble down at the docks probably doesn’t care if he’s there or not anyway, right?”
Adam smiled ruefully. “I’m sure you’re right. I can’t seem to shake that uneasy feeling that’s been nagging at me ever since we read that newspaper article, and I don’t know why.”
“I don’t know, but I think we’re acting crazy,” Joe declared. “What do you say we split up and walk around for awhile, maybe see if we can pick up any news about what’s going on? If we don’t find anything, which we probably won’t, we can meet back up at that saloon we had such a good time in the last time we visited the city. Remember it?”
“I certainly do,” Adam confirmed, looking suddenly much more relaxed as he smiled at his little brother’s suggestion. “Good idea, Joe.” Joe paid the bill and the two remaining brothers departed, each taking a different direction as they headed out the door.
An hour later, Joe was convinced he’d been right and he and his brothers were all acting like a bunch of fussy old hens. All he had learned from asking around was that nobody wanted to discuss the topic and that nobody seemed overly concerned whether the dock workers got a fair shake or not. Feeling disgusted, he headed back toward his rendezvous with Adam.
Three blocks away from where they had agreed to meet, Joe spotted Adam standing about 50 yards ahead of him, leaning against the corner of a building. He trotted up to him and started to say hello, when Adam unceremoniously clapped a hand over his mouth and gestured for him to look around the corner. Startled, Joe peeked out then ducked back as he saw two men talking together. The two men were glancing around suspiciously and Joe hoped he had not been spotted. “What’s going on?” he mouthed to Adam. Adam tapped his ear, indicating that Joe should listen.
“Come on, Walters,” one man, a short redhead with an ugly frog-like face said disgustedly. “There’s nobody around to hear us. The whole point of meeting out here away from the office was to get some privacy, so out with it. What do you think we ought to do about Cartwright?”
“We’ll kill him, of course,” Walters said calmly. Unlike his companion, who would have fit in with any group of rowdies in any town in America, Walters exuded an air of quietly dangerous sophistication. “The only question, Mr. Keith, is how long do we have before he goes to the law with what he knows?”
“Not long.” Keith lit a cigar and tossed the match away in disgust. “That damned Patrick Crowley has been looking to catch us with out hands dirty for months, but he couldn’t find anybody who had proof and was willing to testify. Cartwright doesn’t strike me as a man who backs down easily. If we don’t get rid of him by tomorrow night it’ll be too late.”
“So we’ll do it in the morning,” Walters declared. “Nice and quiet, without a trace. That meeting of the labor board will keep him busy for several hours tonight and we can’t dispose of him before then without it being noticed. We’ll just wait until morning and let everyone assume he went back home to his little cows.” Contempt dripped off every word and the cold smile the man delivered with Ben Cartwright’s death warrant sent shivers up the spines of both of his hidden eavesdroppers. “They’ll think he changed his mind about helping those Chinese workers and nobody will ever be the wiser.”
“What about his sons?” Keith said quietly. “The man we had watching old man Cartwright’s hotel reported that all three of them got here earlier tonight. One, the big one, is back there now, and the other two will probably be back soon enough. You know they won’t just leave quietly when their old man disappears. Maybe we’d better make Cartwright’s disappearance look like a Shanghai; give them another trail to follow.”
An evil grin lifted Walters’ lips. “Why not just let some of the boys help Cartwright’s sons look for him, then? Those ship captains down the Barbary Coast way are always looking for new hands. I’m sure a set of three strong backs would be a welcome addition, and if they won’t cooperate, I’m equally sure it would be no trouble at all to slit their throats. Then our dear friend, Chief Crowley would have no witnesses at all. Just one more set of mysterious disappearances to add to his record books.”
The two men laughed heartily and moved off into the night, leaving two angry and shaken young men standing behind them in the dark alley. Joe made a motion to start after them and Adam grabbed him by the arm. “No, Joe! We can’t let them know we were here.”
“But, Adam, if we stop them now, they won’t be able to do anything to Pa,” Joe argued.
“We can’t just walk up and shoot them,” Adam pointed out. “That would make us no better than they are. Besides, you know there’s a lot more to this whole racket than just two men. Do you know who those two are?” Joe shook his head. “Mike Walters and Len Keith are two of the men who worked for Stan Butler when he was down our way a few years ago.”
Joe’s eyes widened at the mention of Butler. “I remember that name. Isn’t that the man who was trying to work up that big stink between the miners when all those Irish and Chinese workers started turning up dead?”
“That’s the one,” Adam confirmed grimly. “Everyone suspected he had set up the whole incident to begin with, and it’s certain he was eating up the profits from it by supplying enough weapons and bad feelings among those men to start his own civil war. Pa is the one who finally found the proof of Butler’s involvement, but his evidence was circumstantial at best. Butler didn’t go to prison, but his reputation was ruined. Butler and his men disappeared one night without a trace and everything got back to normal. I never thought we’d see any of them again, but it looks like they just moved on to greener pastures. If Stan Butler is the one who’s really behind all this, then he must be willing to do whatever it takes to protect his interests.”
“And Pa knows enough to put his plans in danger again, doesn’t he?” Joe asked quietly. “That’s why they want to kill him.”
“Yeah,” Adam breathed. “Pa found even more evidence against Butler after he lit out of Nevada, enough to send him to prison, certainly. Maybe even enough to send him to the gallows. You heard those men as well as I did, Joe. They’ve been watching Pa and they know he’s the only one of us who can put their boss away. We’ve got to get to the law and tell them what we heard here tonight.”
“Adam, we’ve got to do more than that,” Joe declared. “They’re gonna murder Pa! Our going to the police isn’t going to prevent that!”
Adam shook his younger brother by the shoulders. “Joe, calm down! It will prevent that, because if we go to the law now, they can help protect Pa. We’ll have Hoss stay behind at the hotel to warn Pa as soon as he comes back from that meeting. Then the two of them can meet us at the police station.”
Joe grimaced. “Assuming Butler’s men don’t see us going over there and kill us first. Something tells me that a man like that doesn’t get where he is without being extra cautious. He’s probably got men watching the station too, in case Pa decides to go over before coming back from the meeting.”
Although he knew that Joe was correct, Adam tried to be reassuring. “Don’t worry about Pa. He can take care of himself, especially if we’re there to help him, and as for there being men watching for us, nobody knows we heard anything. They won’t be looking to stop us yet.”
Just then a voice rang out, “There! I told you I heard somebody. It’s two of Cartwright’s boys. Get them!” Walters and Keith had circled around the back of the building and were now bearing down on the brothers with guns drawn. Keith aimed and shot, missing Joe by inches as he ducked away.
“Adam, let’s get the hell out of here!” Joe grabbed his brother’s arm and started to run. They ran as fast as they could, their youth and strength combining with the speed of fear to propel them away from their pursuers. A few more shots rang out behind them, but fortunately none connected and the brothers dove into the busy, crowded streets, using the amassed public to hide in until they could slip out of the crowd and into the first open door they came to. They collapsed against the inner wall, eyes closed, chests heaving for breath. Joe bent down, resting his hands upon his knees and hanging his head. “That was close.”
“Anything special we can do for you boys tonight?” a female voice asked, causing the brothers’ heads to snap up. For the first time they took a good look at the room they had so quickly ducked into and realized that it was the entry of a brothel. A plump and pretty older woman was standing with her hands on her hips, watching them with a smile. Her eyes widened as she got a good look at their faces. “Well, I declare! What brings you Cartwright boys all the way from Nevada?”
Simultaneously, Joe and Adam exclaimed, “Angie!” They had met Angela Bartlett, owner and mistress of the Golden Slipper saloon and brothel over a year ago on the road to Virginia City. Her stagecoach had been wrecked, the driver killed after being flung from his perch, and the Cartwright brothers had come to the aid of the lone passenger. They had refused her offers of money or other more personal payment, but had managed to strike up a friendship. Before Angie had left Virginia City to go back to San Francisco, she had extracted a promise to come visit the next time they were in her city. Anything she or her girls could ever do to repay them for their help, she had said, they had only to ask. Adam and Joe exchanged a glance, realizing that she might just get her chance.
Angie watched the exchange and pretended to pout. “Well, obviously you fellas didn’t come to see me on purpose, or you wouldn’t be so all fired surprised to see me.” Then she smiled again and came forward to give them each a warm hug and a kiss, leaving a red outline of her lips on each man’s cheek. “I don’t care why you’re here. I’m just delighted that you are.”
The men smiled at her warmly, reaching up to scrub away the mark of her kisses. “We didn’t expect to wind up here, Angie,” Adam confessed. “In fact, until you spoke, we didn’t even realize where we had run into. Joe and I were trying to escape a couple of gunmen.”
“Gunmen!” she cried. “Why, whoever would be shooting at a couple of good boys like you? Come over here and tell me all about it.” Without waiting for a reply, Angie grasped each of them by the wrist and hauled them over to a small table with four chairs surrounding it. There was a decanter and glasses in the center of the table, and Angie poured each of them a drink before sitting down and leaning forward with her clasped hands before her, eagerly waiting to hear their story.
A few minutes and several interested questions from the madam later, the story was fully recounted and Joe finished by saying, “We’ve got to get to Pa and Hoss and warn them about Butler, but we know there are men watching our hotel.”
Angie bit her lip thoughtfully, then said, “Tell you what. I’ll send a couple of my girls over to fetch them here in a jiffy. Believe me when I tell you that those monsters that Butler hired will never be able to follow the route my girls will take. We pride ourselves on our discretion around here!” She winked and jumped up, bustling out of sight before the startled Cartwrights had time to protest.
Adam grinned. “Hasn’t changed much, has she?”
Joe laughed and shook his head. “Nope, not a bit. I don’t really like the idea of letting her girls take this kind of risk for us, but they do know this city a lot better than we do, so it’s probably for the best. Besides, I can’t imagine how we’d talk Angie of doing anything once she’s made up her mind.”
The brothers were moved into an upstairs bedroom, safe from the prying eyes of Angie’s customers and there they waited. True to her word, Angie’s girls left for the hotel and returned in just under one hour with Hoss in tow. He looked a bit bemused by the whole situation, but his relief at seeing his brothers was obvious. “Dadburn, if I ain’t glad to see you two,” he exclaimed. “When these here two little gals showed up the hotel saying you’d been shot at, I didn’t know what to think. Then they led me here by the confusingest dadblamed route you ever saw. Ain’t no chance anybody followed us here.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” Adam said, “but where’s Pa? We thought he’d be coming with you.”
Hoss removed his large white hat and slapped it down on the table in consternation. “That there meetin’ is still in full swing, I guess. I ain’t seen hide nor hair of Pa since I went back to wait for him and I was startin’ to worry. Shoot! Why couldn’t we have got here just a few hours sooner, in time to keep Pa safe away from that place?”
“Don’t feel bad, Hoss,” Adam told him. “If Pa hadn’t gone, Butler probably would have gone after him that much sooner. As long as that meeting goes on, he’s safe, but we’ve got to get to the police before it breaks up. They’ll help us protect Pa.”
“How do we know for sure that the police ain’t in Butler’s pocket?” Hoss asked worriedly. “It wouldn’t be the first time some rich high-falutin’ polecat got his claws into the law.”
“Because Keith seemed worried about a Chief Patrick Crowley,” said Joe. “Said he’d been trying to pin something on Butler’s gang for quite a while. I’d say he’s the man we’ve got to go see.”
Just then, one of Angie’s girls came back in and whispered rapidly into her ear. Worry tinged Angela’s expression as she told the brothers, “Leaving here just may be a problem, boys. Anna just got word that Butler has men fanned out from here to the Barbary Coast looking for you. They’re staked out everywhere, and unfortunately, the police station is one place I don’t happen to know any secret routes to. The only way in or out is through the front entrance and if you go that way, you’re liable to get shot before you can get to Patrick. Anna, go back downstairs and keep an eye out for trouble.” The girl nodded and silently disappeared out the back way.
Joe, though worried by the news, could not help chuckling a bit. “What do you have here, Angie? A spy ring set up throughout the city? I thought this was a cat house, not Pinkerton’s!” Angie grinned, keeping her secrets to herself.
“Dadburnit, we got to hurry before Pa gets out of that meeting. We just need a distraction and a good place to hide until we can make a break for the police.” Hoss turned to the hostess. “Miss Angie, ain’t there any place you ain’t thought of?”
She thought quietly for a moment, frustration clearly showing in her face, then her eyes fell on Joe and she tipped her head to one side, studying him intently as he paced through the room. He noticed her watching and stopped, looking a little uncertain as he watched a strange smile creep over her lips. “How does plain sight strike you?”
“What are you thinking?” Adam asked, watching the thoughts flickering rapidly across Angie’s expressive face as her smile grew wider.
“You know…” she said slowly, “I’ll bet most of the fellas looking for you boys are only on the lookout for men matching your descriptions. The only people who can solidly identify you are Walters, Keith and Butler himself.” Angie’s smile grew almost wicked as she took a step closer to Little Joe and softly repeated. “They’re looking for three men.”
A quiet chuckle left Adam, who caught on immediately, but Joe and Hoss looked puzzled. Joe began to feel very nervous, backing away a few steps as he saw his eldest brother also advancing toward him with a strange smile. “Wh…what are you looking at me like that for?” he stammered.
“I tell ya, I ain’t gonna do it!” The words exploded angrily from the lips of Little Joe Cartwright as his two brothers propelled his unwilling body through the door of Angie’s private suite. She had ordered them to meet her there; knowing it would take some convincing on the part of Adam and Hoss to get Joe to go along with their plan.
“Now, Dadburnit, Joe, you know them fellers is looking for three men matching our descriptions,” countered Hoss in his best wheedling voice. “Now Miss Angie is right about this. The only way we’re gonna make it to the Sheriff’s office without getting shot is to rearrange the deck a little in our favor.”
“He’s right, buddy,” chimed in Adam. “They’ll be looking for a joker, not a queen.” Adam grinned wickedly as he continued his younger brother’s analogy, receiving a murderous glance from Little Joe. His face became more serious as he added, “You know if we don’t get to the law with what we know soon, Pa will be out in the open, unprotected, and we can’t give Butler and his men the chance to get to Pa.”
A worried expression replaced the angry scowl on Joe’s face as he was reminded of the reason for all this and he sighed in defeat, muttering, “I know, but I still don’t see why I have to be the one.”
Hoss chuckled, “Now, little brother, you know I ain’t small enough to fit into no dress and Adam here just ain’t pretty enough to pass for a gal. You, on the other hand…” He let the comment go unfinished and playfully ducked as Joe took a half-hearted swing at his head.
“Don’t worry, Joe. I promise you nobody will ever know about this except me, Hoss, Angie and her girls and the police,” Adam assured him, secretly thanking God that Joe and not he had always been considered the ‘cute’ member of the family.
Joe scowled defiantly, flashing black looks at both of his brothers. Finally, though, he heaved another long-suffering sigh. “You know if it wasn’t to save Pa, there’s no way I’d let you talk me into something like this.”
Hoss slapped him heartily on the shoulder and his voice became serious for a moment. “If it wasn’t to save Pa, we wouldn’t ask you to, little brother. Don’t you worry none, though. Like Adam says, nobody’s got to know anything about this unless you want to tell ‘em. Not even Pa.”
“They’d better not,” Joe muttered darkly.
A feminine voice interrupted the brothers. “It’s about time you three showed up! I’ve had my girls scrambling around for disguise material for the last half-hour. Now get in here before somebody sees you!” Angela Bartlett attached a vice grip on Little Joe’s shirtfront and dragged him inside, shutting the door firmly behind her.
The Cartwrights soon found themselves in a large, brightly-lit bedroom filled to capacity with young ladies of every shape and size. The men grinned at each other, doffing their hats politely to the women who grinned back and advanced on them. One of them, a well endowed blonde with tightly curled tresses and too much makeup sidled up to Little Joe and removed his hat to plant a warm kiss on his mouth. Joe barely had time to get over his surprise and begin to return the welcome before she pulled away. Practically gluing herself to his side, she pulled him forward into the midst of the other girls. “Now my name is Laurie and I’m gonna take good care of you. Angie says you’re in need of some special help, so you just come with us, honey. We’ll make sure nobody recognizes you for a while.”
Joe stopped moving, his irritation coming through clearly as he asked, “What makes you so sure I’m the one you’re supposed to be helping.”
Laurie glanced back over her shoulder and winked at the two bemused cowboys standing with Angie. “Oh, I’m sure. You just come on back here now.” She reached a hand down and squeezed one of Little Joe’s firm buttocks, causing him to jump forward in shock to where the other ladies of the evening were waiting with smiles and giggles. They dragged Joe behind a large concealing screen and went to work.
Adam and Hoss stood back against the far wall, leaning on either side of a large dresser covered with ribbons, makeup and all manner of fancy perfumes and things they couldn’t even identify. They both grinned from ear to ear, snickering occasionally as they heard the sounds emanating from behind the screen. Lots of rustling and giggling floated out to them and every now and then the air was punctuated with a groan or a grumble from Little Joe. Sentences could be made out now and then, and soon Adam and Hoss were laughing fit to kill as they tried to picture the scenes that prompted their brother’s exclamations of “I ain’t taking them off!” or “Don’t you put that thing on me!” and the one that really set them off, “A corset?!!!”
The firm voice of Angie answered the last shrill question loudly enough for Joe’s brothers to hear clearly. “This is the only dress we could find long enough on such short notice and it’s not designed to fit without a corset. Now, don’t be a baby; women do this everyday and you don’t hear us complaining about it. Take a breath and hold it!” The gasp and yelp that followed were enough to give proof to who had won the argument.
“Oh, Adam,” Hoss giggled, wiping tears away from his cheeks. “Little Joe ain’t never gonna forgive us for this!”
Adam fought to suck in a deep enough breath to answer past his wheezing laughter. “Oh, we’re gonna owe him for this one, no question about it.” He struggled to regain a more serious demeanor as he told Hoss, “We really shouldn’t be laughing, you know. Joe is putting up with this just to help Pa, and if it was either on of us behind that screen, we’d be humiliated enough without knowing our brothers were out here laughing at us.”
Hoss schooled his own expression to match Adam’s, though his lips still twitched occasionally. “I guess you’re right. It’s awful hard, though. You think he’ll be all right?”
They were interrupted by the latest in a steady stream of young ladies who had been brushing past them for the past half hour, grabbing items off the bureau before scuttling back behind the screen. “Here, you fellas might want to put these someplace safe for your brother,” the new girl said. She handed them a pile of clothing then grabbed a small case off the bureau and hurried away.
Hoss raised his eyebrows at Adam when he realized that he was holding the shirt, boots, hat and even pants of his younger brother, but not his gunbelt. “You don’t suppose Joe’s holding a gun on them gals so he can keep his underwear, do you?” he asked, blue eyes sparkling. Adam snorted and the two of them promptly lost their battle to remain serious and began shaking once again with silent laughter.
A few more minutes went by with increased activity from the women making trips to the dresser. Several whisperings of “Pin that right there, over the left ear,” and “Hold still, this will only take a second,” and “Careful, you’re supposed to hold that up, not let it drag that way” were overheard.
“What do you suppose is going on back there?” Adam asked as the time ticked by and their brother did not reappear. They paid no attention when another young woman appeared before them. They expected her to grab something off the bureau and move away, but when she remained in place, their attention focused on her.
“If you breathe one word of this back in Virginia City, I promise you’ll wish Butler had shot you,” the girl hissed angrily. The mouths of the two Cartwright brothers sagged open in disbelief. The girl before them was tall and slender. She was dressed in a full-skirted dress of deep green satin with black lace trim and a matching black lace choker. Her face was made up, with softly red lips and pink cheeks and some sort of greenish shadow on her upper eyelids. Thin black liner around her eyes helped to accentuate their pretty emerald color and her hair fell in soft chestnut curls to her shoulders, held in place by a green headband. Two small lovelocks fell gracefully above her ears on either side, hiding them from view, except for the lobes, which sported small dangling emerald earrings. She was beautiful, and she spoke with their youngest brother’s voice.
Hoss gaped like a landed fish for several moments, then said in a shaken voice, “Well, I’ll be a suck egg mule! Joseph, is that you?”
Adam shook his head to clear it. It bothered him more than he wanted to admit to realize that under any other circumstances he would have instantly put a few courting moves on a woman who looked like this, but that underneath the dress and frills was a young man. His own baby brother! “I can’t believe it,” he muttered. “I just can’t believe it!”
Joe laughed, surprised by their reactions to him. “Oh, come on, brothers! I can’t look that different! I probably look ridiculous. Do you think we can get away with this?”
Adam grinned as he figured out that Joe had not yet seen himself in a mirror. “Come here and see for yourself, Joe.” He steered his brother over to a large vanity table with a huge round attached mirror.
Joe’s eyes widened with a mixture of astonishment and dismay as he got a good look. He had never been more uncomfortable in his life, but he had to admit that the saloon girls, themselves among the best dressed of their kind he had ever seen, had done a fantastic job. He looked so feminine that he almost didn’t recognize himself and that bothered him a great deal. There was no way a man should look that good in women’s clothing! Joe twisted to get a better look at his disguise. The dress was tightly fitted against a body held into unnatural curves by the rib-crushing corset and the painful undergarment also heightened his color considerably. The green dress perfectly suited his dark hair and green eyes and the choker did an admirable job of hiding his Adam’s apple. He turned his head to look at the fall of extra hair Laurie had contributed to his disguise. It was attached to his own hair by pins with the headband holding it secure against his head. He had to admit, the color match was very good and the lovelocks blended right in with his own exposed front curls. Even his rather thick eyebrows did not detract from the overall effect. Somehow, the saloon girl who had applied his eye makeup had smoothed the brows enough to produce a naturally sultry, come-hither look that Joe found somewhat shocking. “Oh my God!” he breathed. “I’d be on me in a second!”
To Joe’s annoyance, his brothers seemed to find his pronouncement hysterically funny. He spun around and took a step toward them, but nearly tripped headlong over his long skirt which only furthered his brothers’ amusement. Hoss caught his arm and steadied him. “Shucks, little lady, you gotta be more careful,” he warned, then guffawed loudly. Joe cursed under his breath and jerked the skirt out from under his foot.
With a playful grin Adam shook his finger in Joe’s face. “Now, that’s no way for a properly brought up young lady to talk,” he hesitated, then added the name, “Josephine.” Joe’s jaw and fists clenched and his face suffused with color, making his green eyes even more brilliant within their frame of cosmetics. Adam saw it and could not resist another jab. “Have I ever told you you’re beautiful when you’re angry?”
Seeing that Joe was on the verge of losing control and ruining all of her careful work, Angie cleared her throat. “That’s enough now, boys. Don’t forget the reason you’re doing this.” The young men sobered a bit and turned to listen as Angie gave some much-needed advice to Little Joe. “Now, Joe, you’ve got to commit yourself to this if you’re going to get through tonight. This plan is dependent on your being able to pull off the masquerade of being a woman just long enough to get the three of you past Stan Butler’s gang and into the police office. You can explain the reason behind it to Chief Crowley once you get there. He may not take you seriously at first, but tell him I sent you and he’ll understand. Patrick has done a favor or two for me in the past and I know he’ll be anxious to hear what you’ve got to say. You’ll only get one shot at this, so listen close.” Joe nodded attentively. “When you walk, pick up that skirt a few inches and try your best not to stomp. Let the shoes work for you. The reason they have that high boot heel is to help you walk forward on your toes. You’ll look a lot more graceful that way. Also, try not to talk to anyone if you don’t absolutely need to. You look great, but your voice might give you away if you’re not careful. If you do need to talk, then pitch your voice softer, not higher. Got all that?” He nodded again, looking more than a little apprehensive and Angie patted his arm fondly. “Don’t you worry, honey. You’ll do just fine.”
“Somehow,” Joe paused, pursed his lips in annoyance then cleared his throat and tried again, his voice sounding a little lighter and much softer and breathier than usual. “Somehow, I’m not sure I want to do just fine. I’d hate to think I could easily fool a pack of strangers into thinking I’m really a woman.”
Hoss grinned at him, shaking his head and crossing his arms over his chest. “I don’t know about a lot of strangers, Little Joe, but you sure in tarnation could fool me if I didn’t know any better.”
Adam’s eyebrow quirked up above his dancing eyes. “I’m sorry, Joe, but I have to agree with Hoss. You really do make a good-looking woman and with your voice pitched like that, it’s really a great con job. What’s with the accent, though?”
“What accent?” Joe asked in his normal voice. He hadn’t much cared for the idea of his brothers thinking him beautiful. He disliked the admiring way they were staring at him, too, as if he were some fancy piece of artwork instead of a person. It made him feel all squirmy inside, and he had to fight the impulse to rip all this junk off and go find a hot bath and a wire brush to scrub with.
“When you were talking before, you had some sort of accent,” Adam insisted. “Say something else in that tone.” Though he looked dubious, Joe complied, then shrugged, not having heard anything odd. Adam looked at Hoss, holding out a hand in a clearly questioning gesture.
Hoss nodded. He had heard it too. “Adam’s right, little brother. For some reason, you get you kind of a southern drawl every time you talk higher.”
Joe rolled his eyes and plopped down in a nearby wooden chair. “Great, so now I’m a southern belle. Can we just get on with this so I can get my own clothes back on? Pa will be done with his meeting pretty soon and I don’t want him to see me like this!” A pouting expression came over Joe’s face as he sat back, crossing his legs and folding his arms to show his displeasure with the entire situation. Angie reached out with her closed fan and rapped him sharply on the knee. Joe yelped and sat up straight. “Hey, what did you do that for?”
“Joseph, as much as it must pain you to do so, you will simply have to behave like a young lady if your disguise is to be successful,” Angie said, exasperated. “If you must cross your legs, do it at the ankle and do not cross your arms over your chest! Just fold your hands into your lap; which reminds me. Jenny just found these gloves.” She brandished a pair of finely knit black lace mitts. Joe made a face. Angie patted his cheek with a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry, Joe, but your hands don’t quite match the rest of you.” Joe was clearly unhappy, but complied by pulling on the fingerless gloves.
“They’re really tight,” he protested, trying to flex his hands. “I don’t think I can cock and fire my gun with these things on. At least not without ripping them to shreds.”
“That’s a chance we’ll have to take,” Angie said with a smile. “They’re the biggest I have on hand. If they rip I’ll just have to knit another pair.”
Hoss had listened to their exchange with a puzzled look. “Say, Joe. Just where is your gunbelt, anyhow? It wasn’t with your other things when that gal handed ‘em to me.”
Joe grinned. “That’s one thing that had me worried until one of Angie’s girls did a little quick alteration work on this dress.” He stood, reached down to his left side and pulled back the stylishly deep hem of the dress’ bodice, which overlapped the top of the skirt by about eight inches. Beneath the flap of green silk the pearl handled hilt of Joe’s revolver was visible through a slit in the underlying skirt. He made a quick motion and the pistol was in his hand. He winked at his startled brothers then with Angie’s aid, restored the gun to its hiding place. “Pretty neat trick, eh?”
“Nearly all the girls are armed in one way or another.” Angie laughed at the men’s expressions. “Don’t look so shocked, boys. San Francisco is a big and dangerous city. I like my girls to be able to protect themselves. Only a few carry guns, but many of the others have knives hidden on them as well.” She indicated her ample cleavage and Hoss blushed. Angie chuckled again. “With Joe here, the knife wasn’t an option.”
Both brothers involuntarily glanced at Joe’s chest and frowned. There was definitely something there beneath the shiny material. “What exactly did you stick in that dress to fill it out like that,” Adam finally asked.
Joe gritted his teeth. “Powder puffs.” Adam snorted and Hoss whimpered as they fought to suppress another wild spate of laughter. Joe glared at them, but held onto the reins of his temper with both hands and turned back to Angie, dropping a quick kiss on her plump cheek. “You’ve been great, and we just might owe you our lives within the next hour, Angie. Thanks for everything.”
Angie laid a hand on his cheek. “I’m glad I was able to find some way to pay you back for saving my life back in Virginia City. You be careful now, honey. That goes for all of you. I’d hate to have to tell your Pa what happened if you weren’t. Besides,” her eyes twinkled, “that dress cost a fortune and I’d like to have it back!”
Joe smiled stiffly and lifted his head high. Gathering his borrowed skirts, he walked carefully toward the door without a glance at his still-snickering kin. “Laurie suggested I go downstairs for a little test run and a look around before we head out,” he said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
The door slammed behind Joe and his brothers felt free to let loose the laughter they had been trying in vain to suppress. “Oooh, Lordy!” Hoss said, wiping at his eyes with his shirtsleeve. “Miss Angie, if we get out of this mess alive, you’ve just given Adam and me enough material to blackmail Joseph with for years to come. I reckon he’d do just about anything to keep this from getting out back home.”
Adam took a deep breath, attempting to calm himself. “I don’t think I’d want to tell anybody, actually. I’d hate to have to admit that our little brother looks better in that getup than half the women in Virginia City. I don’t know who’d be more insulted, Joe or the women!”
Soon the door opened again, but instead of Joe, it was Anna, the same girl who had delivered the last message concerning the pattern of Butler’s men. Once again she whispered something to Angie then scurried away. Angie let loose her throaty chuckle. “This is definitely going to work. Anna says that Len Keith is in here looking around, and he walked right up to your brother and asked about you without ever guessing who Joe was!”
Exchanging a grin, Hoss and Adam followed the madam down the back staircase and into a dark passageway, emerging behind a red damask curtain. She placed a finger to her lips and pulled a cord opening the curtain. Hoss’ eyes widened as he saw that they were looking through a large window into the main room. A man walked right up to the window and began straightening his neck cloth without showing any sign of seeing anyone. Adam stretched up to whisper in Hoss’ ear; “It’s a two way mirror, specially treated so that we can see them, but they can’t see us.”
Hoss let go a soft whistle. He had never seen anything like this in his life. Angie’s place was becoming more and more intriguing by the minute. He nudged his brother and nodded toward the bar where their little brother was lounging back against the wood, rolling a whiskey glass between his gloved hands. There was a small smile on his face as he spoke with Len Keith. Keith was leaning close and staring intently into Joe’s face, but it was clearly obvious to the observers that it was not due to his having penetrated Joseph’s disguise. The man was practically drooling. Angie gestured to a panel next to the mirror and slid it open, again motioning the Cartwright brothers to silence. As soon as the panel was opened, the muffled voices in the main room became much more clearly audible.
“I’ve been coming here for a long time now, Missy,” Keith was saying. “How is it that I’ve missed seeing a pretty little thing like you before? What’s your name, darlin’?”
Joe’s brothers did not miss the small grimace of distaste on Joe’s face as the man leaned even closer to pay his compliment to the girl in green, but fortunately Keith did. Joe reached out one hand and brushed Keith’s jaw, incidentally pushing him a few inches away. “My name is Jo…sie.”
Keith never seemed to notice the tiny pause in the name as Joe hastily remembered to tack on the suffix. “Josie, huh? That’s a real pretty name. How long have you worked here?”
Joe ducked his head as the man reached to touch his chin and looked at him through fluttering cosmetically enhanced eyelashes. “Angie just hired me,” he said coyly. “Too bad we don’t have time to get better aquainted right now.”
Keith smiled toothily and caught Joe’s hand, kissing the lace-covered knuckles. “Why don’t I just tell my companions to search further on down the street while I take a more thorough look around the premises,” he suggested. “After all, I wouldn’t want those no-account Cartwrights coming by here and trying to harm you ladies.”
Joe’s eyes widened and he yanked his hand out of Keith’s, placing it to his chest. “You don’t think we’re in danger, do you?” he asked anxiously. Hoss and Adam nearly gave themselves away by laughing at Joe’s performance, which Keith was clearly eating up with a spoon.
“Not with me here to protect you,” he said with a wink. “What do you say I send the boys on and then I search your room first?” Keith did not wait for an affirmative. He swatted his new ‘friend’ on the backside and went to speak to his men. Joe’s jaw tightened and his eyes sparked like flint. He took a step toward the retreating gunman before one of Angela’s real working girls grabbed his arm, reminding him of the reason he had to go along with the man’s treatment, at least for the moment. He settled back against the bar and behind their mirror shield, Adam and Hoss breathed a sigh of relief.
Keith returned quickly, rubbing his hands eagerly together. He reached for Joe, who neatly sidestepped the grab. “You wait right here for just a second,” Joe said sweetly. “There’s one little thing I have to do first.”
“I’ll be waiting,” Keith promised, helping himself to the drink waiting for him on the bar.
Joe moved over to a cluster of women as fast as his unfamiliar attire would allow and there was a quick conference with lots of hand gesturing, which Joe’s hidden brothers could not make out. Laurie glanced back at Len Keith and whispered something in Joe’s ear, which brought a smile back to his face. He nodded and walked back to his waiting customer. Adam’s eyebrows rose as he recognized the pattern of Joe’s walk. It was the slow, languid motion that took over his baby brother whenever he was approaching a dangerous situation, knowing he was likely to enjoy it. Casual and deceptively slow, the movement reminded Adam of a stalking panther, for he knew Joe could move to attack or defend himself lightning fast from that stance. With the added sway in his step produced by the small boot heels on his borrowed shoes, Joe’s forward motion was very sensual and his brothers grinned to see Joe’s prey ogling away without any idea how much trouble he was in.
Joe offered his hand to Keith with a smile. “Shall we?” Keith needed no further invitation. He tossed back his drink and slipped Joe’s right arm through his. As Joe led the man out of the main room, Laurie passed in front of the two-way mirror and adjusted her earrings. Angie immediately shut the listening panel and led the Cartwrights away, closing the mirror curtain behind them.
“Where are we going?” whispered Hoss.
Angie grinned. “Didn’t you see Joe invite that rotten skunk of Butler’s to go with him?” She laughed. “Course Len doesn’t realize he’s going to a party.” Hoss and Adam smiled in a predatory way, each looking forward to meeting one of the men who had threatened to kill their father.
Joe produced a small brass key that Laurie had slipped into his hand and unlocked one of the private upstairs suites. The room was empty, but there was a tray waiting with a bottle of champagne on ice. Keith eyed it appreciatively. “Now this is a nice surprise. Champagne is one thing I’ve never had here before. I can tell you’re going to be a special experience.”
A peculiar look crossed Joe’s face. “Oh, I assure you, I’ve got a few more surprises than you’ve ever had here before.”
Keith reached into his pocket and laid several bills on the dresser by the bed. “That ought to be more than enough for what I’ve got in mind.” His eyes gleamed, and he advanced on Joe, who quickly moved away, glancing toward the closet with a nervous expression. “What’s the matter, honey?” Keith leered. “You like playing hard to get?”
Joe’s eyes widened, and he jumped out of the man’s reach yet again as Keith lunged for him, landing on the bed instead. Joe backed toward the corner, looking for something to block the man’s advances. Keith laughed and scrambled off the bed, enjoying the game. “Hurry up,” Joe pleaded under his breath. Keith obviously thought Joe had been addressing him because he jumped at Joe, pinning him into the corner. Joe cringed and squeezed his eyes shut as he saw the big ugly face of Len Keith puckering up to kiss him. The man was pressed up far too close to allow Joe to pull out his hidden handgun. There was nowhere to go and then, like the answer to a prayer, the closet door slammed open and Hoss and Angie came barreling through from the hidden passage behind the wall.
Keith spun toward the sound, reaching for his gun, then stopped as he felt a barrel being pressed into his back. “Don’t,” Joe said quietly. The sight of two more guns pointed straight at him in addition to the one in his back made Len Keith decide to take no chances. He eased his gun down to the floor and kicked it away without being ordered. Joe grabbed him by the collar and shoved him into the wooden chair by the wash table with more force than strictly necessary and began to tie him up with the rope Laurie had told him he would find hidden inside the bureau drawer.
“Good job, little brother,” Hoss said. “Angie, you think your girls can look after Mr. Keith here until we can get out and do what we need to?”
“No problem, honey,” smiled Angie. “It’ll be our pleasure, though, I don’t think our guest will enjoy his time here nearly as much as he expected to.”
Joe glanced around the room and shot Hoss a questioning look. “Where’s Adam?”
Angie answered before Hoss could open his mouth. “The girls are getting him ready to escort you to the police station. We’ve got to hurry or your father doesn’t stand a chance.”
Keith, who had been listening, strained against his bonds, red-faced with outrage. “You whores set me up for the Cartwrights! Wait until Butler hears about this! Ben Cartwright is as good as dead the minute Butler realizes I’m gone.”
Joe grinned at the captive. “How’s he gonna find out? You sent your men away and told them not to expect you for a couple hours.” He laughed at the shock on Keith’s face, wondering if it stemmed from his realization that he had sent away his only source of aid or from the fact that Joe was now speaking in his normal tone of voice. Reaching over to pick up the money beside the bed, Joe tossed it into Keith’s lap and gave him a hard pat on the cheek. “Maybe you’d better be more careful who you offer your money to in the future, Keith. I’m definitely not your kinda girl.”
Hoss burst out laughing, slapping Joe on the back, as Keith jerked at his bonds in impotent rage. His shouts of “Cartwright, I’m gonna kill you for this!” were quickly muffled as Angie stuffed a gag in his mouth and the two brothers made their way back out through the closet.
“What did she mean about Adam getting ready to escort me?” Joe whispered as he crept along the dark corridor behind Hoss. Unable to see where he was going and struggling not to trip over the edge of his long skirt, Joe reached out to place a hand on his brother’s broad back. “Angie didn’t change her mind and stuff him into a dress, too, did she?”
Hoss chuckled quietly. “No, but we’re hoping if we dandy him up a little, he won’t be spotted walking with you to talk to the police.”
Joe stopped walking, and Hoss stopped, too, as he felt the hand leave his back. “It sounds like you won’t be coming with us to the police station,” Joe observed, his voice sounding unhappy. “Where are you going to be?”
“Since it was only you and Adam who actually heard those fellas threaten to kill Pa, you got to go, but Adam thinks it would be better if I let Miss Angie’s ladies sneak me back to the meeting hall to keep an eye out for Pa. That meeting of his ought to be breaking up any time now, and one of us has got to keep him safe,” Hoss explained.
Joe did not answer verbally, but a solid pat on Hoss’ shoulder indicated that he understood. The two brothers moved quickly through the narrow corridor and back out into the passage behind the main room. Laurie was waiting for them and she led them into a small cloakroom where they found Adam. He was dressed in a very finely made light gray broadcloth suit with accompanying black silk cravat and top hat. Unfortunately, his disguise did not appear to fit very well and Adam was shifting and squirming as he tried to settle his borrowed clothes more comfortably. One of the girls swatted his hands away from the cravat and settled it into smooth impeccability around Adam’s neck. “Stop fidgeting!” she said in a clearly exasperated tone. “I swear, you’re worse than the other one!”
Joe chuckled at her assessment, remembering all the times he had received similar admonishments from his father and brothers growing up. “Better do as she says, Adam. Doris doesn’t take any guff. She just kept pulling these corset strings tighter until I thought I was gonna pop. No telling what she’ll do to you!” Adam turned his head to look at him and Joe exchanged a delighted grin with Hoss. A false black goatee and moustache had been glued around Adam’s mouth, and with the top hat rakishly settled over his brow he looked positively Machiavellian, and not at all like the cowboy Butler’s men were undoubtedly looking for.
“Come over here, you two,” Hoss ordered gleefully, grabbing Adam’s arm and steering him over to stand next to Joe before the room’s full length mirror. Joe was still a bit disconcerted by his reflection, but he was getting used to it and as he moved closer to stand slightly in front of Adam, he could not help the smile that spread over his face. Hoss grinned hugely. “There ain’t no way anybody will figure you fellas out dressed like that.”
Adam gave a brief nod of satisfaction, then presented his left arm to Joe with an upraised eyebrow. “Shall we?”
Joe’s eyes twinkled. He was worried about his father, but the humor of the whole situation was beginning to appeal to him, and now that Adam was disguised, as well, he no longer felt quite so ridiculous in his feminine attire. He dropped a mocking curtsy toward Adam and accepted his arm. “Let’s go.”
The progress of the two Cartwrights was slow and measured as they walked the few short blocks to the police station. They tensed at every strange sound or furtive shadow, ready to make a run for it if someone should happen to penetrate their disguise. Little Joe mumbled and cursed repeatedly as he tottered along, his desire to let go of Adam’s supporting arm and end at least a portion of this indignity impossible as he was forced to keep a death-grip on his brother just to hold his balance. They were about halfway to their destination when Adam noticed that his brother was puffing a bit and that his face was unnaturally flushed. He paused and scooted Joe back against an empty doorway for a brief moment. “Are you okay?”
Joe pressed one hand to his stomach and took a long slow breath. “I’m all right, but I’ll be a whole lot better once I get out of this stupid corset. I can’t believe women put up with wearing these things all the time. It’s like some sort of torture device, and I don’t even want to get started on the shoes!”
Adam cast a surreptitious glance around him, noticing an armed man watching them closely from across the street. He did not think they had been recognized, but knew their behavior probably looked a little odd and that anyone looking for him and Joe would probably have been alerted to watch for anything at all out of the ordinary. “Joe, I think we’re being watched. You think you can make it the rest of the way to the police station? It’s just a little further.”
Joe peered over Adam’s shoulder and he, too, saw the gunman, who now was leaning forward to look at them with piercing eyes. “I can make it,” he whispered. They started out again, and Joe could feel the man’s eyes following him. He chanced a glance over his shoulder, and, sure enough, the fellow caught his eye and smiled, touching his hat brim with a nod. A trickle of sweat rolled down Joe’s spine. “Adam, he’s still watching me. I think he knows!”
Alarmed, Adam looked back again. The man did not seem aware of any return observation though, and after a moment Adam released a dry relieved chuckle and whispered. “Don’t worry about it, Joe. I think he’s just checking out your bustle.”
“But I’m not wearing a…” Joe ended his sentence with a soft groan as he caught the gist of his brother’s sentence. His face reddened as he set his jaw and tossed his head back, increasing his pace, almost stalking toward the police station, no longer caring if hurrying hurt or not. He merely wanted to not spend one more second than necessary in this ridiculous outfit. Adam hurried along beside him.
Twice more before they reached their destination, they spotted men who were obviously on the lookout for someone, but at last the police station came into sight. A young police officer was pacing casually in front of the steps, as though taking in the evening air, but a suspicious darting gaze belied his casual body language. It was clear that he was on the alert and the Cartwrights were delighted to see it. They were not as pleased when he stepped in front of them, blocking their access to the front door as they made for the stairs. His eyes swept over the two of them from head to toe, and his blue eyes flashed with a look of contempt that he did not bother to hide as he asked, “Do you have some business here?”
“We’re here to see Chief Crowley,” Adam offered smoothly, squeezing the forearm he’d felt tense inside of Joe’s green silk sleeve. “Angela Bartlett sent us. It’s urgent.”
The officer’s brow climbed as he tipped his head and regarded them with even greater suspicion. “And just what business could two such as yourselves have with the Chief? He’s a busy man and hasn’t time to waste on foolishness.”
Eyes narrowing, Joe reached out his left hand and brushed his fingertips over the shoulder of the cop until his palm settled over the muscles connecting the man’s shoulder to his neck. Then, with a charming smile, he squeezed with all his strength. To anyone observing, it was merely a familiar gesture of flirtation or affection, but the young policeman’s eyes nearly popped out of his head with the shock of being so manhandled by a woman. Joe did not bother to disguise his voice as he growled. “This is a matter of life and death, officer. My father is going to be murdered tonight by two men my brother here and I believe work for Stan Butler. We’ve been told that Chief Crowley will want to help us prevent that from happening. Now are you going to let us in or not?”
Joe released his grip and brushed a bit of lint off the officer’s blue wool coat. The young man looked stunned, not quite sure what to make of this creature standing before him, but one thing was clear. If these two had any kind of information that might implicate Stan Butler in a crime, or prevent him from committing another one, the chief would certainly want to see them. He gestured curtly and mounted the steps. “Follow me.” With very little preamble, and only a few minutes of waiting, Adam and Joe were led into a small office where a short serious-looking man with a moustache and beard and graying reddish brown hair sat behind a desk waiting for them. He gestured to a pair of chairs. When he spoke, he evidenced a brusque, no-nonsense manner that urged them to get to the point. “Officer Brent tells me you have information on an attempt that will be made on a man’s life tonight. Is that right?”
Joe repeated what he had told the young man outside, and a puzzled expression flitted across Crowley’s face. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but what makes you so sure about this alleged murder threat, and why do you think Butler is involved?”
“My brother and I overheard two men, Len Keith and Mike Walters, discussing it earlier this evening,” Adam interrupted. “I recognized them as having been two of the men who worked for Butler when he was stirring up trouble in Virginia City a while back. Our father was instrumental in driving that gang out of town then, and he has evidence that could sent them to jail or worse even now. Joe and I had to make a run for it when Walters and Keith caught us eavesdropping and we wound up at Miss Angela’s place.”
Crowley glowered and slapped his palm on the desk. “Well, confound it, man! Why didn’t you bring your brother with you? I’ll need statements from both of you as to what you heard.”
“I’m his brother,” Joe said exasperatedly and perhaps a tad louder than necessary. “My name is Joseph Cartwright.”
Adam watched the man’s face twist through a series of visible reactions to his brother’s words: surprise, disbelief, calculation, acceptance, and finally a mixture of puzzlement and revulsion. Realizing what he must be thinking, Adam hastened to correct the policeman’s assumption. “Chief, I assure you that Joe isn’t normally in the habit of dressing like a woman. In fact, my other brother and I had to do some fancy talking to get him to go along with this disguise when Angela proposed it. It was simply the easiest way to get here without getting ourselves shot. Our father is in danger and my brother here did what he needed to do to protect Pa.”
Joe made a face as he recognized the inference in Adam’s hasty explanation. “Believe me, Chief, the sooner I get out of this stupid dress and back into my own clothes, the happier I’m gonna be,” he vowed, shifting to adjust the itchy lace scratching against his shoulder. “Right now, the important thing is our Pa. Our other brother, Hoss, has gone to the meeting hall to try and keep an eye on him, but we haven’t got much time.”
The brothers explained in much greater detail all that had gone on since their arrival in San Francisco as another policeman took down their statements and Chief Crowley grew steadily more interested, asking frequent questions. His sympathy and admiration for Joe’s willingness to sacrifice his dignity for the sake of his father grew, as well, though it was clear that he was having difficulty looking at the boy in the dress without breaking into a smile. Suddenly, they were interrupted by a great commotion outside. Crowley stood and moved to the door of his office just as Officer Brent returned with Laurie from the Golden Slipper at his side. Adam and Joe exchanged a fearful gaze. Laurie had been with Hoss the last time they’d seen her. The minute she saw them, the woman leapt forward and grasped Joe by the arm. “They’ve got him! Oh, boys, I’m sorry. I tried to lead Hoss to your Pa by the safest route we know, but we must’ve been seen. Hoss was jumped by a half dozen of those thugs we’ve been seeing everywhere and clubbed over the head. They dragged him off and I just barely managed to get away. I’m so sorry!”
Adam grasped her shoulders and shook her a little to calm her down. “Laurie! Do you know where they took him? Do those men know you’ve all been helping us?”
“No…no, I don’t think so,” she stammered. “I ducked into an alleyway and I heard one of them laughing and telling your brother he should’ve been thinking about something other than bedding down with a high-priced whore. I’m pretty sure they thought that was all I was. They didn’t even chase me. I followed them long enough to find out where they were taking Hoss, and I’m sure I can find my way back there, but first I had to come here to let you know what’s going on.”
Joe raised his hands to rub at his face and hair as was his habit when mentally distressed and Adam and Laurie each grabbed one of his wrists and shouted, “Don’t!” Joe was momentarily startled, then remembered his carefully made up face. He jerked his hands away from them and scowled.
“I don’t see much point in keeping this disguise intact now,” he grumbled. “We’ve got two of our family in danger now, and after seeing Laurie here race into the police station, those men have to know the law is on to them.”
“Maybe not,” Officer Brent piped up unexpectedly. “The Chief sent me out to patrol the area after you two arrived and I found Miss Laurie, or rather she found me, and after she explained everything I brought her in under the guise of arresting her for theft in case anyone asks.”
“Good thinking, Brent,” Crowley approved. He steepled his fingers and pondered the situation for a few seconds. He had been trying to get his hands on Stanley Butler and his band of rabble for nearly a year and somehow the man always seemed to slip through his fingers. If the extraordinary tale he had been told this night was true, then this Ben Cartwright must be protected. He sighed. Unfortunately, that might prove to be a tall order. He looked at Adam. “Mr. Cartwright, we have a problem. I can’t arrest those two fellows you and your brother eavesdropped on for just talking. Plotting murder isn’t something we approve of in this city, but unfortunately unless they do something I can’t arrest them for it. Now, if your father were to come in and give me a statement about all he knows on Butler, I think it might be enough to arrest all of them and, I suspect, end that trouble with the riots down on the wharf, as well, but first we need to get him here. I’m afraid that if I or one of my men show up, it might provoke those men into acting hastily and get either your father or brother killed.”
Both young men looked deflated as they realized the truth in the police chief’s words, then with a deep sigh, Joe sat up straight in his chair and adjusted his borrowed clothes into place with a determinedly resigned expression on his face. “Then there’s only one way. One of us is going to have to go after Hoss while the other goes to Pa. Do you remember the last time he was here when Pa told us about all the women offering favors to the well-to-do businessmen? Well, I guess that means I’ve got a pretty good shot at finding Pa before anyone else does if I go down there dressed like this.”
Adam’s brow wrinkled in concern. “Joe, you can’t go by yourself. It’s too dangerous!” Any mirth Adam had found in his brother’s appearance earlier in the evening had long since faded, and now he felt only concern that another of his family members should be putting himself in danger. “There must be another way.”
“Adam, you know there isn’t,” Joe insisted. “Laurie can lead you and the Chief or some of his men back to where Hoss is being held without being seen. I’m Pa’s best chance and you know it, but only if I go alone. I’ll be careful, Adam. I promise.” He patted the gun hidden on his left hip.
Drawing a deep breath, Adam squeezed his shoulder and muttered, “You’d better be. If you’re going, though, you’d better hurry. Good luck, Joe.”
Joe scanned the area carefully, moving just his eyes as he walked away from the police station. He tried to appear confident and walk the way Angie had instructed him to, head high and shoulders back and he found that if he kept a careful hold on his skirt and lifted it a bit, he could move without tripping. The shoes still pinched and made him feel as though he were about to pitch forward onto his nose any second, and the corset was still making it terribly hard to breathe deeply, but he began to feel like he might be getting the hang of it. He was panting hard by the time he was halfway to his destination, but an increasing sense of urgency kept him at a near jog when he wanted to stop and catch his breath. A sudden voice coming out of an alley to his right nearly gave him heart failure. “What’s your hurry, little lady?”
Joe looked over his shoulder, eyes wide as he stumbled to a halt. He thought of going on and pretending he had not heard, but if the voice belonged to one of his enemies he knew he had a better chance of bluffing his way out of the situation than trying to outrun anyone. An unkempt middle-aged man with red-rimmed eyes lurched out of the alley and smiled at Joe with a mouthful of half-rotted teeth and a cloud of breath that could have felled a stampeding buffalo. Joe fell back a step and clapped a hand to his nose and mouth. It was nothing but an old drunk. The odoriferous fellow seemed oblivious to his repulsive appearance as he tried to put an arm around Joe and offered a swig of the whiskey in his shaking hand. “No thanks,” Joe said, pushing away hard enough to send the drunk staggering back into the alleyway. Before the man could make another try, Joe picked up his skirts, hiking them up to his knees and ran as fast as he could manage, the protests of the drunk following him all the way down the street. Joe silently prayed that no one else would try to stop him. Time was running out.
Ben Cartwright glanced at the large grandfather clock across the room for what must have been the fiftieth time that night and stifled an impatient sigh. This meeting had lasted for hours, far longer than he had expected, and they were no nearer to solving the pertinent issue at hand than they had been at the start. In fact, it seemed as though half the attendees had forgotten the reason they had all gathered in the first place. At present two of the biggest loudest windbags in the entire assembly were on their feet shouting at each other about the price of buying grain locally versus hiring men to ship it in from elsewhere. They had been arguing the same issue off and on all night with varying levels of passion. Finally, Ben could stand no more. Rising to his feet, he pitched his voice to a decibel level that could stop the most passionate of arguments cold. “Enough! Gentlemen, please, I realize that this matter is very important to you but I don’t believe anything will be settled here tonight. Why don’t you set up a separate meeting to discuss it and we can all read the result in the next publication of the Labor Press.” There were several murmurs of agreement from around the room and the two men reluctantly reclaimed their seats. Ben took a long look around the room and into the sudden total silence, said, “I wish to remind all of you that we were called here to discuss the Chinese and other immigrant labor problems here in San Francisco. Now, we all know that somebody is stirring those workers up to riot proportions by bringing in more laborers than this city has jobs for. Supply lines are being disrupted, violence is breaking out everywhere and, worst of all, the simple human dignity of those Chinese workers is being taken away by their being hired as virtual slave labor. Something has to be done.”
“I agree,” piped up one of the others, a man by the name of Fred Bailey. “I heard there was another killing last night down on the wharf. A couple of those Irish fellows got into it with Ling Pao’s gang and one of the Chinese boys got clubbed in the head and died, but, as usual, nobody seems to know how it got started or who was at fault.”
Ben frowned deeply. He had not heard about the incident and reluctantly chalked it up to one more thing he would have to report back to Hop Sing. His cook had practically begged him to do something to stop this problem, especially as several of his myriad cousins worked on the San Francisco docks. Ben only hoped the dead man was not one of the family. “Does anyone at least have some idea of who is bringing in all these extra workers and starting these riots?” His question was met with uncomfortable silence. Either no one knew or no one was talking.
The meeting dragged on for another 15 minutes or so before it became absolutely clear to every man there that there was simply no way to proceed any further until they had more information. The chairman closed the meeting, asking them to learn all they could before the board met again in three days time.
A dozen small discussions immediately broke out as men began filing out of the meeting hall. Ben shook his head grimly as he jammed his hat upon his head. He had had enough for now. The thing to do was get back to the hotel. Hopefully, the boys had made it in by now, and he could fill them in and discuss the matter. Perhaps a fresh perspective would help him think of something new that could be of help. As he made one last check of the time, Ben was dismayed to see that it was almost eleven o’clock. He emerged from the hall into the usual commotion of some men arguing while others made deals with the ladies of the evening who always seemed to show up after these things. He shoved his way past several of them, then was surprised to feel a tight grip on his arm and turned to see that he had been seized by a tall attractive brunette. She was looking at him with determined eyes and an expression that seemed embarrassed and a little unsure. Ben tried to disentangle himself. “I’m sorry, miss. I’m not interested.” He pulled his arm away sharply and strode away. He thought he heard someone else immediately offer to take his place and so was considerably shocked when the young woman ran after him and hustled him over to one side of the room. Beginning to grow somewhat annoyed with her persistence, Ben roughly turned her toward him and looked her full in the face for the first time. His intention to deliver a stinging refusal faded as he got a good look. She looked much younger than he had first thought and her expression was not the sultry come-on he had expected to see. There was something both pleading and expectant in her eyes and the color was visibly rising in her face. Ben was struck with a sense of familiarity. Unsure what to say, he allowed his paternal instincts to surface and asked in a much gentler voice than he had started to use a moment ago, “Is there something I can do for you, young lady?”
Joe’s face fell as he realized that his father did not recognize him. “Pa, it’s me!” he hissed.
Ben’s brow crinkled in confusion, then his eyes grew wide as he put the pieces together. “Joe?” he breathed, his tone disbelieving. It couldn’t be! Good heavens, no wonder those green eyes had looked so familiar, and now he understood why he had instinctively gentled at the sight of that face. Whatever the reason for this shocking masquerade, the result was a taller darker version of his late wife Marie! Mouth hanging open, Ben gestured helplessly at the boy and asked, “Joseph, what in the name of all that’s decent are you doing here dressed like, like…”
Glancing guardedly around him, Joe issued a sharp hushing noise and said, “Pa, don’t call me Joseph! Nobody is supposed to know who I am. We’ve got to get out of here and to the police station. Hopefully, Adam and Hoss will be able to meet us there.”
“Adam and Hoss?” Ben rolled his eyes and dropped his voice to a lower pitch as his son shot him a desperate look. “What do your brothers have to do with this? Was it their idea to send you here dressed as a woman?” He was seriously confused, but not sure whether he wanted to react in anger or amusement.
“Well, sort of,” Joe answered him. “I mean, it wasn’t actually their idea but they did talk me into wearing it. Adam and I had been shot at already because of something we overheard, and this was the only way to get to you without getting you or ourselves killed.”
The sarcastic comment that had been on Ben Cartwright’s lips died as he realized that Joe was completely serious. “I’m not sure I understand, but I think I’d better hear this whole story right now. Come with me, son.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “Or should I say, daughter?”
Joe pursed his lips and sighed. “Until we’re someplace nobody can hear us, I suppose you’d better call me Josie. You know any place safe where we can talk?”
Fighting the urge to ask any more questions, Ben led Joe down a back hallway filled with closed doors. Presumably, the rooms had been included in the building’s original design for some innocent purpose, but Ben knew they were used now for ‘entertaining’, though he had never been back there before this night. A man emerged from one of the rooms with a rumpled and rather unattractive prostitute in tow. The fellow jerked his thumb back towards the door. “That one’s free, mister.” Both the man and woman shot Joe a glance, the man clearly thinking Ben had gotten a much better choice than he himself could afford, and the woman shooting daggers at the pretty, well-dressed young woman who could snag such an attractive and wealthy client. It was all Joe could do not to squirm under their scrutiny and he had to fight the desire to run after them and explain that they had it all wrong. Unfortunately, all he could do was follow his father into the dark sparsely furnished little room and try to find someplace to sit. All that was available was a chair, a wooden footstool and a narrow bed, and after what he had just seen, Joe wouldn’t have sat on that bed if he’d been paid enough to buy a second Ponderosa.
Ben immediately closed the door and crossed his arms over his chest. “All right, we’re alone. Now, would you please explain to me what is going on? Who was shooting at you? Why does someone want to kill me? Where are your two brothers and, above all, why are you dressed as a high class prostitute?”
Joe opened his mouth and closed it again, not quite sure where to begin. With a deep sigh he pulled up the footstool and carefully perched himself on it, gesturing towards the chair with his left hand. “Have a seat, Pa. I think this is going to take a while.”
Meanwhile, across town, Adam, Laurie, Office Brent and two other police officers were crouched in an alley, only a few blocks from the spot on the wharf where the latest round of fighting had taken place between the workers. The alley was dark and stank of garbage, urine and a few other things that did not bear too much thinking about, but it did afford a choice view of a small warehouse.
“They’re in there,” Laurie whispered. “I saw them drag Hoss inside not more than thirty minutes ago.”
“How many of them were there?” Adam asked softly.
“I don’t know for sure, about half a dozen. Do you think you can handle that many?”
“Before anybody handles anything, I think we’d better try to find your brother and make sure he’s not in a position to be hurt worse or killed,” Brent said firmly. “You two men stay here with Miss Laurie and keep a sharp eye out. They’ve likely got sentries posted and we don’t want any company if we can help it. Mr. Cartwright and I will go have a look.”
Adam readily agreed, and followed the officer as they moved stealthily across the street and to the cramped doorway of the building. They looked around furtively the entire way, but amazingly encountered no resistance. Brent carefully tried the door, which gave easily. He shot a puzzled look at his companion and pushed it open, gun drawn, as was Adam’s. Voices floated out to them from inside. The two men peeked around the corner and saw a light down at the end of dingy, barely lit hallway.
“This better be worth as much as Walters claimed,” one voice was griping. “I about broke my back dragging that fella in here. He must weigh three hundred pounds!”
“Aw, quit your whining,” another barked. “It ain’t like you had to cart him around all by yourself. The rest of us did our share, and we’re gonna get our share of the cash for this job too! Walters says Mr. Butler is real anxious to get rid of all these Cartwrights.”
The first voice laughed drunkenly. “I’ll bet he ain’t never seen a one of them face to face, but he’s still offering a thousand bucks for the old man and five hundred for any of the younger ones. Hell, for that kind of money I’d kill my own Pa and brothers!”
“I thought you already did that,” the second man joked, sending his friend into spasms of laughter. “Soon as we get the word, it’ll be a pleasure to do away with Big Boy here. The son of a bitch broke my nose and bruised a couple of my ribs before Davis cracked him over the head with that gun butt. Bastard!”
The sound of a thunk against something soft but unyielding came to Adam and Brent. The police officer clamped a hand around Adam’s bicep as he stiffened in rage, realizing the sound had to have been one of the men kicking their helpless prisoner. At least they knew Hoss wasn’t dead.
“Speaking of Davis,” the first man said as the crash of a bottle breaking against a wall or furniture sounded. “When you s’pose he and McKinley are gonna get back here? I’m getting tired of waiting around this dump.”
“Shut up,” the second voice growled. “They ain’t been gone long. Soon as they get back, we’ll kill Cartwright and get out of here. Then there won’t be anything left but to sit back and wait for our pay.”
A chorus of loud, cheerful agreement greeted this statement, alerting the two men in the hall that there were still several men inside. Motioning Adam to remain, Brent crept back to the door and signaled his men to go around the building and cover any other exits. Laurie remained in place, signing that she would continue to keep an eye out. With a nod to Adam, the policeman silently counted to three, and the two men burst into the room, guns aloft. Four sorry-looking toughs waited inside and instantly drew guns of their own and began shooting the moment they realized their hideout had been compromised. Fortunately, their reactions were slowed considerably, due to both the element of surprise and their senses being blunted with cheap booze. Adam got off two shots, killing one man and badly wounding another without any of the outlaws’ bullets even coming close to hitting him. Brent was faring equally well as a third man fell to the floor, clutching a bloody chest wound. A scream sounded from outside, and Adam and the policeman both automatically turned at the sound, just as the remaining outlaw cocked his gun.
“Hold it!” barked a voice from the doorway. The fourth man froze in his tracks, dropping his gun from nerveless fingers as one of Brent’s men came inside, the muzzle of a rifle aimed directly between his target’s eyes. The policeman never took his eyes off him as he turned his head to talk to Brent. “We just caught another two outside. They almost snuck right past us, but the girl spotted them and yelled out. Distracted them long enough for O’Herlihy to cover them.”
“Good work, boys,” Brent approved. “You’d better check on your brother, Mr. Cartwright.”
There was no need of the advice as Adam was already at Hoss’ side, busily untying the ropes that bound him and gently slapping his cheeks as he tried to restore the big man to consciousness. After a few seconds, Hoss grunted and pulled back, grimacing as he placed a hand to his head and squinted up into the concerned, but greatly relieved face of his older brother. “Oh, Lordy, my head feels like somebody’s been using it for a blacksmith’s anvil. What’s going on?”
Adam smiled and helped him up, seeing that the damage was not too severe. Thankfully, Hoss had a very hard head. “Seems you went and got yourself kidnapped,” he said lightly. “Fortunately, Laurie saw where you were taken and came to get help before you could go and get yourself killed.”
“Is she okay?” Hoss asked anxiously, remembering his last sight of her, struggling with one of his assailants. “And what about Pa and Joe? Are they safe?”
“Laurie is fine,” answered the girl in question as she entered the room and immediately crossed to Hoss’ side, checking his wound with great care. “And your brother has gone to fetch your Pa and bring him back to the police station.”
“I think we’d better go down there and help him, Adam, don’t you?” Hoss asked, impatiently pushing Laurie’s hands away from his head. “Them fellers that kidnapped me weren’t just playing games. They had orders to kill us all if they got the chance. I heard that much before they hit me for the last time.”
“I know,” said Adam grimly. “Officer Brent and I heard the same thing. In fact, these were just waiting for word to finish you off. Likely that’s what those other men the police captured were about to deliver.”
Hoss looked around and fished his battered white hat off the floor, setting it low on his brow with a fierce glower. “All the more reason we’d better meet up with Pa and Little Joe and see them safely back to the police station. If they’re already there, it won’t do no harm and if they ain’t, they’ll need us.”
“We’ve got to get these men back to the station and the dead ones to the undertaker,” Brent said, taking stock of the situation. “It isn’t safe for you two to be prowling the streets trying to get yourselves killed playing heroes.”
Adam placed a friendly hand on the officer’s back, turning him around toward the door as he said reasonably, “You have work to do and so do we. There’s no way my brother and I can stand by and wait while half our family is still in danger. Why don’t you get these men taken care of, then if we’re not back by the time you’re done, come help us.”
The policeman obviously did not approve and he did voice a few more objections as he was ‘helped’ out the door. There was no arguing with two Cartwrights, however and, at last, he reluctantly agreed. “Be careful.”
“We will,” Adam assured him. He turned to Hoss. “Sure you’re up to this?”
“Let’s go,” Hoss said flatly.
“And that’s it,” Joe finished, shrugging as he finished his recitation of the evening’s events. His father had listened in silent fascination as his son outlined the entire tangled mess. “Butler is probably up to his neck in the labor problems going on around here, and if Keith and Walters are any indication of the kind of men he hires, then I’m sure the murders down on the wharf were no accident. What do you think, Pa?”
Ben carefully considered what he had heard. It had never crossed his mind that the same troublemakers he had helped chase out of Virginia City all those years ago could be behind the current difficulties, but as he considered the similarities between the two cases, there was a definite pattern. He wondered in retrospect how he could have missed it “I think you’re absolutely right, Joe, and you can rest assured that I will be more than happy to give a full accounting of Stan Butler’s activities to the police. In fact, I think it would be an excellent idea to wire my lawyer first thing and have him wire all the evidence the sheriff, your brother Adam and I collected to us immediately. First, though, we have to get to the station.” He finally allowed his carefully guarded smile to show as he looked once again at Joe’s incredible disguise. The boy was straddling his low footstool in a very unfeminine but very Joe-like way that would have given away his identity to his father no matter what he looked like. Ben reached out and took Joe’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, turning his face gently from side to side as he admired the detail of whoever had done this to his son. He chuckled a bit as Joe pulled away and squirmed, embarrassed. “After we get this mess sorted out at the police station, young man, I think the first thing we’d better do is find you something else to wear and get you into a hot tub with lots and lots of soap.”
Joe grinned ruefully as he stood and tugged his bodice down into place. “Pa, that is the best offer I’ve had all night and, believe me, I’ve had plenty!” The two laughed and began to plan their escape.
“Gosh darn it, Adam. Don’t go so fast,” Hoss grumbled as he jogged a few paces behind his older brother. “My head’s still awful sore and this pace ain’t helpin’ me a bit.”
“Sorry, big fella, but we’re almost there. The meeting hall is right around the next block.” As they reached the end of the street, the brothers ducked into an alley, one that fortunately smelled a great deal fresher than the last one. They peered out, looking carefully at the darkened hall for any sign of trouble or movement. There was no one around.
“It’s pretty late, Adam,” Hoss observed, craning his head over Adam’s for a good look. “Everybody’s probably gone.” His observation was interrupted by the sounds of scuffling and shouting in the distance. Exchanging a quick, worried glance, the two Cartwrights took off at a dead run toward the sound with Hoss in the lead, his headache entirely forgotten.
As they departed the deserted building, strolling carefully arm in arm like any couple out for a midnight walk, Ben and Joe began to relax just a bit. So far, so good. Then it came; a shout of, “There! Get the old man and leave the other one to me!”
Joe uttered a curse that would have earned him a sharp rebuke under any other circumstances as he recognized the gravelly voice, now filled with murderous rage, of Len Keith. “Pa, it’s Keith,” he exclaimed. “He must have escaped from Angela’s somehow and he knows who I really am. We’ve got to find a place to hole up.” Before the words had fully left his lips, men erupted from everywhere, cutting off every escape route. The captives exchanged a helpless look. “I’m sorry, Pa. Guess Adam was right when he said I shouldn’t have tried coming for you alone.”
Ben squeezed his shoulder. “You did the best you could, son. There’s just too many for two of us to handle.”
“That’s why there’s four of us, Pa!” Hoss’ booming voice announced gleefully as he clunked the heads of two gunmen together and cold-cocked a third before his presence had hardly registered. Adam spun another man to face him and threw a solid punch to his jaw at the same moment. Ben and Joe instantly sprang into action, disarming the final three assailants with a swift attack. Guns scattered everywhere harmlessly, as the thugs, more used to fighting with fists or clubs than guns, reacted instinctively. Soon fists were flying with abandon as more men joined the fray against the four Cartwrights. Acting as one, the family moved to stand in a kind of loose square, backs together at the center of the melee, desperately seeking to protect each other as they fought for their lives.
Joe quickly discovered that there were both pros and cons to fighting dressed as he was. The clothes were constrictive and difficult to manage and the tight back and shoulder seams had already given part way as they were subjected to stresses they were never intended for. On the plus side, however, he had discovered that his sharp boot heels made excellent weapons when brought down hard on a man’s foot. Likewise, he had discovered an interesting reluctance on the part of many of his opponents to strike him. They must surely all know that he was a man by now, but they could not stop their deeply ingrained reaction to the evidence of their eyes. Joe, experiencing no such problem, punched, kicked, stomped and even bit with total abandon.
Ben, Adam and Hoss seemed to be doing an equal amount of damage, and their foes had depleted considerably into a pile of unconscious bodies at their feet. Adam spotted an opening and signaled Hoss. Joe saw it, as well, and helped his brother shove their father toward Adam, inadvertently taking a hard crack to the mouth that had been intended for Ben as he did so. Staggered, but undefeated, Hoss and Joe closed ranks and put everything they had into the brawl, pummeling and striking savagely to provide cover for Adam to get their father to safety.
Ben protested his sons’ actions, not wanting to leave his two youngest to face the remainder of the gang alone, but Adam would not be swayed. “It’s you they’re after, Pa. Hoss and Joe can handle what’s left and you won’t do us or those dock workers any good by getting yourself killed!”
Reluctantly, knowing his son was probably right, Ben allowed himself to be pulled back into the relative safety of another dead-end alley. He spun back in horror when the overlapping sound of several gunshots suddenly rang through the night. For an eternal, unreal moment everything went absolutely still and quiet, only the thin plumes of smoke from the discharged pistols moving.
The moment was broken as the first body fell to the ground, blood pumping grotesquely from the chest of a surprised-looking Len Keith. One of the smoking weapons dropped with a clatter from his limp fingers. Before Ben and Adam could do more than take a couple of running steps forward, they were overtaken by a squad of police officers, all armed and purposefully advancing on the scene of the brawl, led by Laurie and police chief Crowley. The Cartwrights’ attackers were swiftly rounded up and carted roughly away while Adam tried to answer the questions that were pelting him from all sides. Ben struggled to get through the crowd to find his other two sons, desperate to make sure they were all right. Before his line of sight had been blocked, he was sure he had seen a figure in a tall white hat drop to his knees. His fear for Hoss left no room for answering questions from the police. Finally, he broke through, only to have his relief at seeing Hoss alive and apparently well turn to cold fear as he realized his strapping middle boy was cradling a limp body in his arms. A body in what remained of a ripped and bloodstained green dress.
Adam spotted the frightful sight at the same moment his father did and cut off his statement to Chief Crowley in mid-word, with a strangled cry of, “Joe!” He hurled himself past the officer at his side and stumbled to his knees beside his brothers. “What happened, Hoss?”
Chief Crowley knelt down beside them. He wanted to hear the answer to that question as much as Adam did, but sensitive to the shock and distress of this brave family, he first interrupted to say, “I’ve sent someone to fetch a doctor. How’s the boy?”
“He’s alive, sir. That’s all I’m sure about for now,” Hoss said shakily. He had refused to relinquish Little Joe to his father and was idly stroking his thick fingers over the ripped out seam baring the cold skin of his brother’s left shoulder. “One of them fellers was takin’ dead aim at Pa’s back with a .45. Joe spotted him and sprung that trick holster he had rigged up under his skirt. Shot that man dead just as he pulled the trigger and the bullet hit the ground instead of Pa. I saw Keith when Joe turned to fire. He gave Joe a look that could’ve melted stone, then grinned all funny like and pulled a gun out of nowhere. I yelled for Joe to watch out and pulled my gun. Joe had only about half-turned when Keith and I both fired. Then both of them fell. If only I’d a been one second faster!” He hung his head sorrowfully as several tears tracked down his bruised and dirty cheeks.
A low groan sounded from under the bowed white hat and Hoss whipped his head up to look into Little Joe’s face. Joe’s eyes were open and he offered a painful smile to his gathered family and grunted, “Will you quit bawling on me, Hoss? You’re getting me all wet.”
“Joe!” Hoss bellowed. “Punkin’! You all right?” He gave his brother a joyful hug and Joe could not help it as he cried out in pain, his face going very pale.
“Not quite all right,” he gasped, as Hoss hastily released him. “I’m alive though, thanks to you.”
“A doctor is on his way, Joseph,” Ben said, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder, both to reassure him and to keep him still as he tried to twist around to see. “You just rest until he gets here. You’re going to be just fine.”
Relief sprang into Joe’s eyes as he saw that his father was alive and well. He craned his neck to see Adam and finally relaxed a little as he realized that the only injury had been to himself. “I know I am, Pa. The bullet hit me in the side, but if Hoss hadn’t yelled out it would have hit me in the back. It hurts like the dickens, but I don’t think I’m too bad.”
Adam checked the cloth he had been holding tight to the wound and nodded. “I think you’re right, Joe. The wound is still bleeding but it’s slowing down considerably.”
Ben smiled at Hoss. “If you hadn’t warned him, I’ll wager Joe would be a lot worse off than he is now. Thank you, son.”
The last doubt and trace of fear melted from Hoss’ kind face as Joe fluttered his lashes and made a kissy face at him, cooing, “My hero.” Hoss laughed loudly and Joe gave a single snicker, then yelped and clutched his bleeding side, choking back the rest of his amusement as the pain increased. He gritted his teeth and willed it to subside. “Maybe I’d better not do too much laughing until that doctor arrives.”
Hoss smiled and pushed Joe’s disheveled bangs out of his eyes. “Them pretty looks you was sportin’ an hour or two ago wouldn’t impress a feller now anyway, Little Joe. You’re a sight!”
Joe grinned. “You three ain’t exactly a bouquet of daisies yourselves.”
Ben chuckled at the comment. He could feel a split lip and at least one good shiner blooming on his own face. Hoss’ face was puffy and already turning black and blue, though some of that damage could have happened earlier in the evening, and Adam had a cut across his cheek, swelling at that corner of his mouth and a thin stream of blood crusting down from his nose. Still, Joe was undoubtedly the worst looking at this moment, for in addition to plentiful bruises, he had various kinds of makeup smeared all over his face. Combined with the unnatural pallor produced by pain and blood loss, he looked absolutely ghoulish.
A few moments later a wagon pulled up, and a sleepy-looking young man with a black doctor’s bag clutched in his hand got out. A policeman greeted him and directed him right over to the Cartwrights. He took a quick look at the three men kneeling on the ground and gave a sharp nod, assessing them to be healthy enough to ignore for the present, then turned his full attention to Little Joe. Hoss helped him lay the patient down flat atop a blanket someone handed over. “Can we get some more light over here, please?” the doctor requested. Lanterns were brought and held carefully into place by Adam and Ben as the doctor carefully probed Joe’s side. Joe gritted his teeth at the pain, but made no protest, trying to focus instead on the young physician’s voice. “I’ve been half expecting that I’d be treating one or more of you tonight. Madame Bartlett came to see me earlier this evening and told me all about this evening’s little adventure. Sounds like you’ve had quite an interesting night.”
It took Joe a second to realize that the man was talking about Miss Angela and he relaxed a bit with the knowledge. If Angela trusted this man enough to confide in him, then obviously he was someone to be trusted. “Guess so,” he grunted, flinching as the probing hands found a particularly painful spot. “How am I doing, Doc?”
“Not too bad, considering that you still have a bullet in your side,” the doctor said dryly. “I think it’s safe to leave it there until we can get you back to my office. Will some of you men please help me lift my patient into the back of that wagon?” He found plenty of volunteers as he asked the question, and within seconds, Joe had been carefully lifted and eased into the well-cushioned bed of the wagon the doctor had arrived in. Ben climbed into the back with his son.
“We’ll be along in a while, Pa,” Adam said in answer to the silent question in Ben’s eyes. Ben nodded, turning his attention back toward his youngest and the wagon started off.
Joe drifted in and out of sleep all during the journey, aided by the pain medication the doctor had given him. He did not awaken fully until he was settled on the treatment table of a brightly-lit doctor’s office. The first person he saw when he opened his eyes was Angela. He watched her flutter around the office, laying out instruments and getting things ready. “What are you doing here?” he asked sleepily, gathering her attention.
Angela smiled and quickly crossed to his side. “Doctor Grant is a friend of mine. I’m going to help him patch you up and then you’re going to stay safe at my place until he gives you permission to be up and around.” She saw the surprised look Joe exchanged with his father, who was hovering nearby, and added, “It’s really the safest place, not to mention the most comfortable.”
“Thanks,” Joe said, reaching out to take her hand and press it to his lips as he closed his eyes again and mumbled, “I’m sorry I wrecked your dress.”
Angie grinned and lightly patted his bruised cheek. “Bless your heart, sweetie, I don’t care about that. The dress doesn’t matter to me a bit as long as you and your family are all right, and I’ll prove it to you right now.” She rummaged on a table and produced a pair of long shears, which she used to cut away the ruined remains of the gown’s bodice, then flicked the still salvageable skirt free with a couple of expert snips and tugs. The jewelry, gloves, choker, stockings and shoes, along with Joe’s gunbelt and the false additions to his hair and chest, were removed equally as fast, leaving only the corset and Joe’s own knee length underwear.
Carefully, so as not to aggravate the wound in his side, Angela and Dr. Grant unhooked the steel fasteners closing the front of Joe’s borrowed corset and eased him out of the thing. Joe groaned loudly enough to alarm his father, but waved off his concern when Ben sprang to his side. “I’m okay, Pa. I just forgot how nice breathing could be. When we get home, remind me never to make fun of Bessie Sue for wearing pants again, will you? She just might be the smartest woman in Virginia City.”
Ben grinned. “I’ll do that.”
“Actually, Joe, you should be grateful you were wearing it,” the doctor told him. “These metal stays appear to have deflected the path of the bullet just enough to prevent you from getting a much more serious wound. The bullet cracked a couple of ribs and tore up some flesh, but it doesn’t appear to have hit anything vital.”
“I’m still glad it’s over,” Joe muttered, falling asleep as he succumbed to a second dose of medicine.
The doctor removed the bullet with no complications, and before long, stitched, bandaged and sponge-bathed into a much more normal state of being, Joe was tucked snugly into one of the beds at the Golden Slipper, sleeping soundly.
Dawn had just broken when one of Angie’s girls appeared at the door of Joe’s room, knocking softly to awaken Ben from his doze in a chair next to his son’s bed. He came to awareness with a start, immediately checking on Joe. The young man still slept, and Doctor Grant was with him, quietly changing his bandages, so Ben turned his attention toward the girl and asked, “Yes?”
“Mr. Cartwright, your sons are here with Chief Crowley. They want to know if they can come in and see Joe for a little while.”
Ben looked at the doctor, who smiled and said, “He hasn’t woken since I’ve been here so it’s likely he’ll sleep right through the visit, but if it will ease their minds to see him, I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. There, that should do it,” he added, as he pinned the edge of the last bandage into place. The young man tipped his hat and gathered his bag, opening the door the rest of the way and gesturing the anxious men in the hallway inside as he departed.
Hoss and Adam instantly moved to their brother’s bedside to check on him. He looked very young as he slept and except for the swelling and discoloration on his face, and the scraped knuckles on the hand lightly grasping the blankets to his chest, very peaceful. Adam smiled and tucked the covers down a bit. “I see Sleeping Beauty has transformed back into our handsome prince.” He chuckled a bit as he brushed Joe’s hair out of his eyes and looked at Hoss. “If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget that moment he came out from behind that screen looking like a life-sized porcelain doll.”
Hoss grinned and patted his little brother softly on the arm. “Me, neither. I’m gonna remind of it the next time he’s sizing up a roomful of gals at a dance. Maybe he can offer ’em some primping advice.”
Adam’s brown eyes twinkled. “Free hair and makeup tips from the Belle of San Francisco.”
Ben cleared his throat meaningfully, and his sons sobered, remembering the reason for Joe’s sacrifice of dignity and the price he had almost paid for his bravery. “Is he really all right, Pa?” Hoss asked in a low voice.
“Yes, he is. As long as he doesn’t push himself too hard and stays in bed for a few days, the doctor says he’ll be as good as new in a couple of weeks.”
“That’s wonderful news,” said the police chief, reminding the family of his presence. “And I have some more for you. My men captured Walters not more than an hour after we nabbed the others. Once he heard that all you men were safe and willing to testify he couldn’t begin pointing the finger fast enough. More interested in saving his own miserable hide than in any loyalty he might owe anybody else. That man is as smart and slick as they come when it comes to turning a dishonest profit, but he doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about anyone’s life but his own. Tried to blame everything on his late partner, only Mr. Keith turned out to have a little life left in him after all. He lasted just long enough to pass on a certain combination to a certain safe containing all sorts of incriminating goodies. Guess he didn’t want to burn in the fiery pits all by his lonesome.”
“That’s wonderful, Chief,” Ben said happily, “but what about Butler?”
Patrick Crowley grinned predatorily. “Combined with your evidence and testimony, Mr. Cartwright, I have no doubt he’ll be going away to prison for a very long time. Unless the judge just hangs him and saves the tax payers a few dollars, of course.”
“You seem pleased by that prospect,” Adam observed coolly. He wanted justice as much as anyone else for all that Stan Butler had put his family and the people of San Francisco through, but Adam’s nature was not blood thirsty enough to take pleasure in the thought of another man’s death. He could accept that it was necessary and right, but he did not find the prospect of an execution enjoyable.
Crowley gave him a hard look. “I am pleased,” he said bluntly. “Nothing disgusts me more than a coward, unless it’s a mercenary coward. Stan Butler is just that. He never shows his face, never gets hands dirty, never sees first hand all the blood and terror and heartbreak his orders cause, and he doesn’t care. He just sits back like a fat spider in his web, pulling the strings and collecting the profits, safe in the knowledge that someone else will always swing in his place. Well, not this time! If I have my way, he’ll get a good long look at all the folks he’s climbed over to get to the top. Just before the platform drops out from under him.”
Adam nodded, realizing that the Chief also saw this as a matter of justice. He was simply a bit more zealous in his pursuit of it. Undoubtedly the reason Crowley was a lawman and Adam was content to be an ordinary-citizen. Ben asked, “Have you arrested him yet?”
“It was my personal pleasure to do so first thing this morning. Naturally, his lawyers will do all they can to get him off, but somehow I don’t think things will work out his way this time.” The police chief tipped his hat to the room. “I must be off now, gents. I’ll leave an officer out front to escort you when you’re ready to come by and give us your statement, Mr. Cartwright. We can’t be too careful with our star witness. And you get yourself well, lad! You did a fine and brave job last night and we’re all grateful.” With that took his leave and Joe’s family turned to find him awake and smiling at the policeman’s retreating back.
“How much of that were you awake for?” Hoss asked curiously.
Joe shifted his weight and grimaced, smiling at his brothers as they moved to help prop him up against some pillows. “Thanks. I heard most of it. Sounds as if everything worked out pretty well, all things considered.”
Ben smiled at him. “It did, thanks to all of you. I’m proud of you, boys, though there are one or two things about this trip I might’ve changed if I could.”
Joe ruefully pressed a hand to his sore side and returned his father’s smile. “Me, too. Not the least of which is finding out first hand how the other-half lives.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Joe,” Adam teased. “Think of how much more sensitive you’ll appear to the gals back home when they find out.”
Alarm sprang into Joe’s eyes. “You’re not going to spread this around, are you? Adam, you promised! Hoss, you won’t let him, will you?”
Hoss looked thoughtful. “I dunno, little brother. Depends on whether or not you can stay on our good sides long enough for the memories of you rigged out like a filly to fade away.”
“And how long will that take?” Joe looked from one to the other apprehensively.
“Years,” Adam said solemnly. “Years and years and years.”
“Pa, you won’t let ’em spread this story all over Virginia City, will you?” Joe pleaded, clutching his father’s arm. “I’ll never be able to show my face in town again!”
Ben smiled at his dramatics. “Now, Joseph, you know they’re only teasing you. Besides, you’re not going anywhere near Virginia City or any other place until that side of yours heals. He stood and motioned his sons out the door. “I’m going to go deliver my statement and wire my attorney for those papers now. Joseph, you are not to budge on inch from that bed while I’m gone. Do I make myself clear?”
Joe grimaced, wondering if his father would ever stop saying things like that to him. “I won’t, Pa. See you guys later.”
Calls of, “See you, little sister,” and “Bye, Josie,” floated back to him and Joe’s aggravated howl of, “Pa!” could be heard echoing all the way down the hall.
“Boys, you aren’t going to tell anyone back home about this, are you?” Ben asked his grinning progeny with a sigh.
Hoss laughed. “Of course not, Pa. Who’d believe a story like this one anyway? We ain’t gonna tell a soul.”
“But Joe doesn’t have to know that,” Adam added, a devilish smile lighting his face. “It should be a potent enough threat to keep him on his best behavior until the doctor says he’s well enough to get up anyway.”
Ben laughed, softly at first, then in great hearty peals at his sons’ devious solution to a lifelong problem. He was still chuckling when he caught sight of Laurie, Anna and two other young ladies heading toward them. They carried among them a well-filled breakfast tray, a basin of steaming water, towels and various other items. Ben and his sons backed against the wall to keep from being run over. “Are all those things for Joe?”
Laurie beamed a smile at him. “Yes, sir! We’re going to take real good care of him.”
“Yeah,” giggled Anna. “Real good care.”
“You know, Joe ain’t supposed to move around too much with them busted ribs,” Hoss offered, blushing when Adam poked him sharply in the side, shooting a significant look toward their father.
The girls giggled and one of them winked at Hoss. “Don’t you worry. We’ll make sure he stays flat on his back and lets us handle whatever’s needed to help him get better.”
“Joe is a hero,” added the fourth girl with a dreamy sigh. “We owe it to him.”
“How’s that?” Ben asked, finally finding his voice again after gaping at the women for several long seconds.
A mischievous smile played over Laurie’s face. “Last night we showed Joe how it felt to be a woman. We’re going to make sure he forgets all about that today.” Waving her fingers airily at the dumbfounded ranchers, Laurie resumed her journey toward Joe’s door, calling, “See you later, boys.”
The three men stood gawking in the hallway as they listened to the door slam decisively shut, and slowly they began moving toward the stairs again, each of them wondering if they should go intervene and not one of them having the heart to do so.
“Maybe Joe didn’t get the worst of the deal last night, after all,” Hoss said after a moment.
Adam nodded thoughtfully. “Well, one thing’s for sure.”
“And what is that?” Ben asked, still glancing behind him from time to time, sternly reminding himself that his youngest son was a grown man, entitled to do whatever he chose.
Casting one last speculative look back the way they had come, Adam grinned. “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble getting him to stay in bed!”
The chief of police in this story is a real live historical figure. Patrick Crowley was chief of the SFPD in the latter half of the 1860s, and was the inspiration for part of this story. To learn more about him go to http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist3/crowley.html
As for the mysterious spy ring/brothel, well, I made that up. I may write more about them in the future. Ditto with the mysterious, never-seen Mr. Butler. I just wanted the Cartwrights to deal with something kind of fun, in the style of “The Wild Wild West”, with two way mirrors, cartoon villains, and nobody being quite what they seem.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
Other Stories by this Author
- Sanctuary (by Helen A)
- Strawberries (by Helen A)
- The Palace (by Helen A)
- The Babysitter (by Helen A)
- Needed Strength (by Helen A)