Summary: Adam is accused of things he didn’t do. When he finds a strange message left behind in Virginia City, he starts out on a quest to save his identity.
Rating PG. Word count 14,248
Author’s Note: This is the 2020 edit, first time on Brand.
Inspired by the episode The Search. I was disappointed that Pernell didn’t get to play his double, as Landon and Blocker had, so I’ve taken some liberties with this storyline to show how I would have written it.
The stranger limped down the dirt road, his knee and ankle aching from the leap off the runaway stagecoach. Seems his luck was holding up, all right, and all bad. He’d gotten loose from that Union prison only the week before and could vividly recall the oath he made to himself — accept nothing less than good fortune from here on. Thought he had it, too, when he snagged the last ticket on the stage headed west.
Then came the thwarted stagecoach robbery attempt where the driver was shot and the horses bolted. He didn’t even have a gun, and he wasn’t about to risk death on his first day of freedom after so many years of bloody hell. Bad luck being on that payroll stage, but he knew enough to make his own luck now, and jumped off. The stage robbers got whatever was on that stage but they didn’t get him.
He had never much traveled this particular part of Nevada on foot before but had faith he’d stumble across a homestead sooner or later, and sure enough, he heard the whinny of corralled horses even before he rounded the bend and saw the old bachelor’s setup. The horses weren’t much to look at, either, fed on scrub and mostly swayback, but four feet beat two feet any day.
He walked up to the fence and leaned on it, relieved. He wiped a beige-shirted arm across his forehead and grimaced at the dirt on the once clean new shirt that he’d helped himself to before getting on this last stage.
“Well, Adam Cartwright, what in thunder happened to you?”
The stranger, ready to embrace good fortune in whatever form it traveled as long as it aided his freedom and survival, used his sleeve to move the dirt and sweat around on his face, as though hoping not to reveal the mistake in whatever countenance this fellow took him for.
“Met some trouble on the stage, lucky to get out with my hide intact. Guess I got a little banged up from my fall. Sure glad I stumbled onto your place.”
“Stumbled? Well, I been here all along, you know that.”
He swallowed hard and rubbed his mouth. “Sure could use some water, if you got some handy.” After wetting his parched throat the stranger eyed up the horses with what he hoped was the air of an expert rather than a desperate Confederate wrangler. “Mind if I buy that saddlebred over there?”
“That one? One of the oldest, slowest plugs I got. Was thinking of putting him out to pasture. Doggone, Adam, thought you were a better judge of horseflesh than that.”
The stranger scratched his head. “Well, I believe I am but you see, I didn’t figure you to want to be selling your best horse to someone who’s already got one too many.”
“Ha! Well, I’ll tell ya, since a number of those horses I got coz of your family, I reckon I owe ya.”
“Great!” He started forward, but the old timer stopped him.
“Not so fast. $50.00.”
“$50.00! I thought you said you owed us.”
“Don’t mean you can have one of my best horses for nothing.”
The stranger grinned at the old man’s sudden bargaining prowess. “I reckon not.” He felt his pants pockets. “I just don’t have any cash on me right now.” He affected a melancholy look fitting of a family this fellow held in such high esteem.
“Well, don’t you worry none, coz I know where you live.” He laughed a good bit about this one as they saddled up the horse.
Hoss practically leaped down the last two steps in his anxiousness to get to the dining table before the flapjacks cooled. As he plunked himself down and forked one, he noticed his little brother’s plate already dirtied and pushed aside.
Ben looked up from the letter he was writing to grin at his oversized middle son’s exuberance for mealtime.
“Joe out already, Pa? Ain’t like him.”
“He’s taking Becca on a picnic today. Told him chores had to be done first.”
“Hah! That’ll do it.”
“Your other brother left even earlier without eating.”
Hoss didn’t match his Pa’s grin. “He’s got something on his mind, Pa. Don’t reckon you know what it is?”
“No, but he’ll work it out, whatever it is.”
“Mebbe. Or mebbe one of these days keeping to himself will just get ‘im into trouble.”
“What’s on your mind, Hoss?” Ben put his pen down.
“I ain’t sure. Only I don’t like the way he’s been treating everyone and everything around him. Like we was all diseased or something, I don’t know.” Hoss didn’t slow in his chewing to express his views and for once Ben was more absorbed in what Hoss was saying to criticize.
Ben sat back. “Now come to think of it, he does seem preoccupied. A couple days ago, I heard him mutter, as he bunkered his house, Don’t know how much longer this can last. I thought at the time he was talking about the sunshine, but that wasn’t it at all.
“Pa, you think Adam’s sick?”
“Not sick, no. Not like that. You know, Hoss, I’ve always trusted Adam to settle his own accounts.” Ben finished his coffee and wiped his mouth with a napkin before standing. “This time I don’t think it’ll hurt any to nose around a little.”
“Joe! Over here!”
Little Joe had ridden into town and was headed for the boarding house where he was supposed to meet Becca when he heard her call out behind him in front of the hotel. He steered the buggy around as a cocky grin swept across his boyish face. This was a big day for him and he’d admit to feeling nervous, but he sure wasn’t about to show it. He’d been meeting Becca in town every week for a month and finally she decided he should meet her mother. She had met his Pa and brothers a few weeks ago but her ma had been feeling poorly.
Now today was the big day, and he wore his finest for this luncheon. He planned to be so charming that Becca would beam with pride and think of nothing but being with him.
He leaped off the buggy with finesse and a grin and tied the horse, sensing as he did that Becca was behind him, ready for him to turn into her arms …
“Joe! You should have seen your brother!”
Joe tensed as he turned, his cocky grin faltering. “My … brother?”
“Yes, Adam. Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected behavior like that from a Cartwright.”
“My brother …” His voice squeaked so he took a breath. “Adam?”
“I know men in these parts take to whiskey any time of day but to get drunk so fast! Like he hadn’t seen a drink in 10 years! Or like a Paiute even.”
“My brother Adam?”
“Joe, is that all you can say?” Becca flattened her blue bonnet down on her head to keep it from flapping off in the wind. Her hazel eyes snapped angrily but her brown hair drifted softly around her shoulders, as the wind played like an energetic boyfriend with her tresses.
He simply melted in her presence, no matter what her mood. He wanted to say, “Forget about Adam and think about me,” but didn’t dare. “Well, where is he now?”
“Oh, I don’t know, that was yesterday.”
“Yesterday? Adam said he had some fencing to check yesterday.”
“Well, I don’t know about that, but I know your brother when I see him.”
“You sure? I mean, Adam doesn’t—.”
“My brother doesn’t drink. Not like that.”
“Obviously. But I’m not mistaken. And that’s not all, either.”
Joe looked to the heavens for support. “What else?”
“Three women, Joe. He took three of those women up the stairs.”
“Up the stairs?”
“My brother Adam?”
“Oh, Joe, I don’t know how I can introduce you to Mother now. Not after the scene a Cartwright made. Joe, it’s all over town!”
For what could be the first time in his life, Joe didn’t know what to say.
“Goodbye, Little Joe. Take care of your brother. He needs help.”
Joe felt his knees go weak as Becca walked away. This was love — the real thing — and there she went. He untied his horse’s reins but, instead of mounting, sank down on the wooden walk as the good citizens strolled past him without comment. He could almost hear what they were thinking. Alas, poor mighty Cartwright, look at the hard times they’ve fallen into.”
“Well, by golly, I’ve not fallen into anything!” Joe muttered as he stood. “Maybe Adam has, maybe that New England sullenness has finally made him crack. But not me, oh no, not Joe Cartwright, uh-uh.” Joe drew himself up, stepped a left foot on the walk, hitched up his gunbelt and missed the step with his right foot, stumbling into a post.
“You okay, Joe? Too much to drink?” The older fellow, one of Pa’s friends, Joe supposed, moved on, disgruntled.
“I haven’t drank anything!” But the man didn’t turn back. “Great. Now I annoyed someone Pa’s probably doing business with. Will this day ever end?”
He eyed up the saloon across the street, thinking a good card game and a beer would help his troubles, when a horse and rider on the street caught his attention. Not a familiar horse, but something about the rider … maybe because he had Adam on the mind, because the rider wasn’t dressed like Adam, didn’t sit the horse like Adam, but…
The rider looked at Joe but without a twinkling of recognition.
“He’s lost his mind, maybe.” But anger over losing Becca took over and he stepped into the street, his voice loud and clear. “Brother, if we weren’t kin right now I’d take you down right there in the street!”
But as Joe approached him, the rider spurred the horse and rode off at a fast gallop down the road and out of town.
“Hey! Don’t let Roy catch you ripping through town like that!” Joe shook his head, vowing to tell Pa all about this. After a card game and a beer, of course. If he were home right now he’d sulk in his room for half a day to forget a gal. Here in town, he had to keep up appearances.
Odd that Adam forgot about that.
The stranger rode hard out of town. He knew he wasn’t this Adam fellow, but with most people he could get away with it. Now this last fellow was a little too familiar to chance pulling off this switched identity. Time to stop living on the generous nature of Virginia City residents and move on. At least his rich double ought to be a little appeased by the apology he left at the Cartwright post box.
“I said get away from that stream.” Adam had his gun out but not yet threatening.
The two men, with pans out for gold, slowly stood, one tossing his pan down, the other more defiant. “I think we got a right to get ourselves a drink.”
“You’re not drinking, you’re panning.”
“So what’s your problem?”
“You’re on Ponderosa land. If you had bothered staking a claim, you would have found out.”
“Look, this is open water. Runs right through to the lake, we checked. You can’t own a stream.”
Adam climbed slowly off his horse, gun aiming easy. “And you’re not standing in the water there, are you. You know what happens to land that’s dug up for gold? You know what could happen to that lake? You’re going to have to leave, now. And if I ever catch you here again, I will have you arrested.”
“Come on, George, there’s nothing in that stream but dirt, anyhow.”
“Yeah,” George agreed. “Nothing around here but dirt.” With a deliberate glare at Adam still pointing the gun he mounted up behind his partner and rode off.
Adam walked up to the stream, sank down on his haunches and splashed water on his face. It had been a long week and he was tired. But he didn’t feel like going home yet. He still hadn’t figured it out. The worst thing about not figuring it out was not knowing what he was trying to figure out. He stood, with a slight grimace, hand pressing against his hip. Sometimes he wished he was still in that wheelchair. Then he wouldn’t have so many decisions to make.
He checked his saddlebag. He’s been long out of grub, but it wasn’t hunger eating at him. He hated not knowing what was itching at the back of his skull and didn’t like the thought of going home this way. He’d long thought he could handle anything that came along with just a little extra thought and precaution. Now he wasn’t so sure, because he’d been doing nothing but thinking and going around in circles. It was enough to make a grown man weep. He wasn’t in the weeping mood.
He was in the traveling mood. He’d go home, all right, but he wouldn’t stay.
Small movement in the bushes caught his eye. Could be the game he’d need to make the journey home. Adam moved slowly and pulled his rifle. Whatever it was, it wasn’t in a hurry to come out. He took aim but shooting into the bushes could be wasted ammunition. He waited, braced another minute to shoot, jaw clenching.
He finally sighed and lowered the rifle. Probably nothing. He turned to scan the horizon in the direction home. He could make the trek without any food. He slipped the rifle back into the scabbard on the saddle, not noticing as a snake slithered from the bush and wrapped itself around the horse’s rear foot.
The horse suddenly screamed and reared, knocking Adam backward. Before he could grab the reins the horse bolted off, headed home without him. Disgruntled, Adam pulled his gun and shot the snake as it half-slipped into its hole. “Seems I’m was going to need some nourishment after all.”
Adam picked up the snake and started walking. Maybe he’d find the horse waiting for him somewhere along the walk home. But he wasn’t in any rush to get anywhere. Just follow the stream and he’d be home soon enough. Maybe in a better frame of mind, too, found in the brush along the way.
Joe joined Ben and Hoss at the supper table, still fuming from his spoiled date with Becca. “Where’s Adam?”
“Haven’t seen him for a few days. He was going up north to fix fencing and replant some trees that were crowding out.” Ben paid no note of Joe’s temper. He and Hoss exchanged glances.
Hoss noticed Joe’s troubled look first. “Yeah, that burnt out patch behind the old corral. Pa, you were going to go looking for Adam today, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but I got sidetracked. We got some cows down, don’t know what’s ailing them. I’ve isolated them, only hope they don’t have to be shot and buried. Waste of good beef. I’m getting McAndrews up here to look at them tomorrow.” He reached for the coffee but noticed the anger in Joe’s face. “Something wrong, son?”
“He ain’t where you think, Pa. He must’ve decided to just go ahead and take that vacation he griped about last week.”
“Oh, it ain’t like Adam to lie about something like that.” Hoss reached for the water pitcher but Joe was too quick and got it first.
“Yeah, well, I saw him today. In Virginia City. Acted real guilty, too.” Joe laughed, suddenly enjoying the idea of his brother drunk and playing with loose women. “Maybe had a reason to, too.” He winked at Hoss, who didn’t get it.
Ben frowned. “Joe, stop teasing, and out with it.”
Joe told the whole story, embellishing just enough to get Adam in trouble for making him lose his girl. “Pa, I have never known Adam to take girls up the stairs.”
Hoss threw his napkin down and stood. “I’m going to go look for him.”
Ben put up a hand. “No, you’re not, son.”
“But Pa, he could be—.”
“I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and I’ll do the looking. He’ll resent any intrusion. You’re all men, all three of you, and deserve your own lives. But ever since he lost Laura, he’s seemed out of sorts, like he’s waiting for something that he knows will never come. Sometimes…” Ben sighed and picked up his coffee cup. “Sometimes I think the Ponderosa isn’t big enough for him anymore. I’m going to find him and ask him to run an errand for me over in St. Louis. Get him away from here for a while, a month or two.”
“A month or two?” Joe’s face sagged at the thought of losing the extra hand on the ranch. That wasn’t the punishment he had in mind.
“It’s either that or lose him for good.”
Ben paced in Roy’s office in Virginia City, waiting until Roy got the drunk who’d been shooting up the nearby saloon settled down. He’d laid it all out for Roy, all that he’d heard, knowing full well that Joe’s been known to turn a tale by the tail a time or two.
“Ben, wouldja simmer down now. I ain’t got the funds to be putting new floorboard down.” Roy closed the door to the jail and stood facing him, keys clasped in his hands. “Now what’s this you want to know about Adam?”
“Sorry, Roy, but when Joe told me he had been drunk—.”
“Oh, that he was. I told him to get a room for the night when I saw him. And then saw him do just that.” Roy had a twinkling grin on his friendly and wrinkled face.
Ben dropped into a chair, fist in mouth. “Roy, can you sit a minute?”
Roy frowned briefly. He wasn’t often asked to sit in his own office. “Sure, Ben, sure.” He sat. “Did I look near to falling?”
Ben sat on the desk. “No, it’s just…” He lowered his voice. “What do you know, Roy?”
“Oh. You heard some rumors, huh? That what’s got under your hide?”
“Rumors? What kind of rumors? It’s not like Adam to get drunk. Has he said anything to you?”
“Ben, I’ve always envied you your sons. You know that. But there comes a time when you gotta leave well enough alone.”
“Roy, something’s bothering him. Is there something wrong with me wanting to—.”
“And you figure he needs your help?”
“It’s been nearly 10 days since I’ve seen him, Roy!”
“Well, then, I can put your mind at rest. He appeared just fine to me. Different, true. But not sick or … anything like that.”
Both of them spent a minute remembering Adam’s old friend Ross. “Not like that, Roy?”
“Not at all.”
“But if he’s getting drunk and causing trouble—.”
Roy stood, putting up a hand. “Now, Ben, nothing I could arrest him for!”
Ben jumped up and leaned over Roy’s desk. “Roy, he’s a Cartwright!” Ben slapped his hat against his thigh and turned to the door.
“And that about makes him a saint, don’t it.” Roy watched with a grin as Ben tensed, finding no argument in response. “Ben, I never could tell you how to be a pa to your boys. You always done good by them. Is there a time when your doing is done?”
Roy crossed his arms, not expecting a reply and not getting one as Ben grunted and walked out.
“Well, Tom Burns, I’m surprised to see you back. I thought once they let you out of that Union prison you’d be headed north, not back here.”
The stranger who had begun to think of himself as Adam stiffened at the sound of the familiar voice calling out to him so soon after he arrived back in Placerville. Finally he turned. “I came back for Valerie. My wife. Don’t think I’ve forgotten everything.”
“You think she wants you?” Jason climbed into his wagon, which sat close to where Burns had stopped his horse on hearing his name. Jason had nearly missed his step because he had taken too many libations with lunch, more than usual but at least his nagging mind had settled.
Then he had to go and see Burns ride in — someone he never expected to see again. “Surprised some Union soldier didn’t do you in.”
“Guess the war didn’t last long enough for that.” Tom walked to the saloon, before turning back with a question burning in his throat. “She waited for me, didn’t she?”
“Guess you’ll have to ask her and find out.” Jason gave a loud ‘hyah’ and rode off.
Tom figured Jason knew something about the money that turned up missing, but now was not the time to ask. Besides, he might get all he needed to know from Valerie. What happened to our bank account, my love? He went off to fight the war for her father and brothers, but if she did nothing here but spend his money, he’d have the right to wring her pretty neck, and get away with it.
The saloon seemed crowded to an ex-confederate soldier, but Tom Burns using an alias had made himself very comfortable in a crowd back in Virginia City. People will know him here, but at least he didn’t feel as distressed by crowds as he might have, being from the losing army and all. No one could smell that loss on his breath, anyway, not with enough whiskey in him. Before he rode over to her house he needed to loose his trail nerves.
Jason might know something, all right, but his reaction could have been honest and nothing to do with anything.
Maybe Valerie thought her beloved husband as guilty as everyone else did, even though she said she’d wait for him. But did she wait? He didn’t really think so. And running off to the army two years back didn’t mean he was innocent, either.
Tom was on his second whiskey when he saw a fetching saloon girl staring at him. He rubbed a hand across his mouth and turned to her, leaning up against the bar. He was no fool — he knew he could catch a girl’s attention with no more than a glance, and he often glanced. He wondered if his compadre, ‘Adam,’ had the same kind of luck with the same kind of dark and intense looks.
“You’re new in town,” she said. “Mind buying me a drink so we can get acquainted?”
“No, I don’t mind. But I’m an old-timer here, so you’re the one who’s new.”
“Ah, giving me the double talk, now. I’m Anne. What’s your name?”
Tom hesitated. Everyone knew him here, wasn’t any good playing a Cartwright anymore. Besides, Anne seemed like one dame he could be himself with. “Name’s Tom Burns. Just got out of an army prison.”
“Aaaah, were you innocent?”
“Of killing? No. None of us were.”
“Is that why you were in an army prison?”
Tom winked at her. “A smart one, aren’t you. I was framed. And I’m going to prove it.”
“Oh, now there’s a new one. Framed for being a bloody killing soldier?”
“Buy me a drink if you want my story.”
Anne led him to a table to sit, pushing aside the empty glasses. “You’ve got nice eyes, Tom Burns. If you’re looking for someone to listen, I just might have the time.”
Ben rode slowly into the yard, his body aching more than usual. He knew it was because his mind was stinging from the talking to he got from Roy. Of course he treated his boys like men. He knew they were grown and could handle themselves. That didn’t mean he stopped being their father, just like that. He could still show his concern, no matter how old they got. And not finding Adam anywhere didn’t help his temper much, so now his muscles felt stiff all over. Never did the body any good to have too much on the mind while riding.
He heard the noise long before he saw the source of it — Little Joe was actually sawing wood without a reminder. But then, maybe Hoss dragged him out because Hoss was there too, sitting on the log to steady it. Ben was tired, nearly too tired to think about it, but managed to offer them a thanks as he walked inside, and once inside, saw his maverick son Adam packing a bedroll. The idea that he was packing didn’t register at first — only his delight at seeing Adam again after all the worry. Not even the haggard look in Adam’s eyes registered at first.
“Adam! Well, the prodigal son has—.”
“I’m leaving again, Pa.”
“Leaving?” Then he saw it, the bedroll, the gear packed, and on Adam’s face the frown, the eyes that didn’t see what he might be leaving behind. “Where to this time? You’ve already been gone so long. I thought we could talk—.”
“Just a short trip, Pa, a few weeks, that’s all. To St. Louis.”
Ben breathed a sigh, hoping it didn’t sound like relief, and leaned against the settee. “That’s not a bad idea, son, I was thinking of having a few papers delivered to a friend of mine there.”
“Then send Joe or Hoss. This trip is just for me.”
Ben was taken aback, but before his temper could rise Joe came in the house.
“Adam? Old Abe Jenkins is out front, says he’s got to see you right away.”
“Abe?” Adam looked puzzled but shrugged. “I haven’t seen him in ages.” He left his pa still reeling from his son’s rejection to duty and went outside with his bedroll and gear.
Ben wanted to follow but Joe stopped him, asking what he’d found out in town. Not much, Ben had to admit. “Roy said he saw Adam drunk and made him take a room at the hotel. That’s about all.”
Hoss came and told them what happened about the horse and the man who pretended to be Adam. “Adam lied to Abe, Pa. Told him he’d been here for a week or more. Why would he lie? He ain’t been here.”
Joe was more interested in the story about the potential double. “Isn’t Abe way north of the Truckee? So then that couldn’t have been Adam in town, right? Wait til I tell Becca!”
“Where’s Adam now, Hoss?”
“He’s left again.” Hoss’s face drooped, giving him a sad dog expression. “Pa, I done teased him about getting hitched. I was kidding, and then I realized what I said and waited for him to get mad, but instead he acted like he didn’t care.”
“Maybe we should go after him, Pa.” Joe said, standing. “This guy who’s using Adam’s name could be dangerous, especially if Adam should suddenly find himself confronted with his double.”
“Well, I have to admit, Joe, I was relieved at first, too, to hear Adam hadn’t lost his mind in town, but something is still eating at him that he doesn’t feel like sharing with us. You said he’s going to look for this so-called double, Hoss?”
“Then maybe this is the kind of diversion he needs. He told me he needed to go to St. Louis for awhile, but I got the feeling he just needed some time to himself. He’ll likely find it this way.”
“Pa, if that man is dangerous—.”
“Adam can handle himself.” Ben frowned, feeling more like Roy talking than himself. He always trusted Adam to handle things his own way, but this had a different feel, the kind of gut feel that always made his neck itch. “Now go on, back to work.”
When the door shut behind them, Ben slouched onto the settee. He wasn’t so sure, anymore. The hardest thing a father had to do was let go. Why had he picked up all this land, only to have his sons dissatisfied with their life here? Because it was sinking into his gut that Adam wanted a life of his own, away from them. Ben knew he’d do anything to keep from losing his son — especially to the east coast. Having that ‘double’ show up when he did was almost like a stroke of luck.
Ben opened the front door and watched Joe and Hoss arguing whether the ax needed honing. Allowing a small smile to slip over his face, he realized that in a way, Roy was smarter than he was. Of course Adam needed space, and that’s why the Ponderosa was so big. Adam had lost a very close chance at having his own family and it still bothered him. Adam needed his own world, and he needed his father to understand that. Ben thought he might just have a way to give Adam what he needed and keep him close by, at the same time.
“Well, Valerie, how are you?” Tom leaned against the doorway in his wife’s bedroom, watching her as she stirred. Just as lovely as ever, even with another man next to her.
“Tom! What are you doing out of jail?”
“You mean alive, don’t you? Any idea who got my release and then tried to kill me? Only you knew I went to Mississippi, my love, until the dust settled. Got me that Confederate uniform and a huge story about needing to save Lee’s army. Come on, think hard. I’ll bet you know.”
“If you’re so sure it was me, why come back here?” She pushed at the man who gaped at Tom without moving. He finally went scrambling, watching his back as he gathered his clothes.
But Tom made no move toward him. “You’d like it if I killed your lover, wouldn’t you? Then you’d have something on me for sure.”
“Oh, Tom. I can’t get over seeing you standing there. Come on, sit down.” She wrapped her bedding gown tight against her loose bosom. “You can’t blame me for him. I thought you were dead.”
He smiled and with some forethought sat next to her. “Well, you know, Valerie, you should always expect to see me again. Because a man only gets fooled once.”
“I didn’t set you up, Tom. You know I didn’t. Not two years ago, and not two months ago.”
“No, I don’t know it. Why don’t you try and convince me?” He grabbed her roughly and kissed her. “I want the truth.”
“The truth is…” She ran her fingers through his hair. “I still love you. Seeing you again, like this, I know it.” And, kissing him roughly in return, she pushed him back on the bed.
Adam rode into Placerville, following the lead he picked up back in Virginia City. This double of his was smooth, talkative and fond of spending Cartwright money. All along the trail he knew he was on the right track because of the way people looked at him, or seemed to know him. Following a man who closely resembled him gave him that much advantage. Why had they never crossed paths before? Placerville wasn’t so far from Virginia City.
Adam nodded at the Placerville liveryman as he rode up and alighted. “Got one to loan out? Mine needs some keeping for a day or two.”
“For you? Payment up front.”
“Hmmm.” Adam dug in his pocket and deliberately pulled out a fistful of notes, brandishing his wealth in a way he felt sure Burns would, judging by the note he’d left behind. “Name your price.”
“Well, I declare, Burns.” The liveryman scratched his head as he looked it over. “I woulda swore the likes of you would never come up with something like that again. Maybe once, like you done earlier. Appearing broke when you got to town and then …” He shrugged. “What you do is not my business. You’ll find a fair mount over yonder.”
Adam didn’t much care for the sound of this man’s disdain for Burns. “I’ll be back day after tomorrow. Take care you don’t loan this one out,” he said sternly as he handed his horse’s reins over.
Adam resisted the urge to grab the man’s collar and demand a little respect. He couldn’t understand his own temper lately, why on a moment’s notice he felt ready to boil over. Just because others are now treating him like this other fellow was no excuse for this anger. He felt like a simmering kettle even before he’d heard of this Burns fellow.
With the new horse reined and saddled he rode over to the first saloon he saw. As he tied the horse up he looked around at the town he usually only rode through on the way to Sacramento — a town of total lawlessness, giving it the name of Hangtown before the marshal arrived and cleaned out the rafters.
Adam turned to walk into the Lucky Eye and found himself the object of a comely saloon girl’s attention.
“Tom, where you been? I’ve missed you.”
“Ah, really?” Adam hesitated but she strolled up to him and made herself immediately familiar in a way that was not unpleasant. “Has it been awhile since—.” But he didn’t get to finish as she tilted her head back, demanding and receiving a long warm kiss, enjoying the way she moved into him, as though she knew every part of him. And before he let her go, he realized she did. Or thought she did. This Tom Burns chooses well.
“It’s been at least a day.” She pulled him over to a table and sat. “Oh, I hope you haven’t changed your mind. I know you’re still married, but we have something together, don’t we? You said it’s over with her, anyway. And I don’t blame you. She’s been a piece of work without you around.” She ordered them each a whiskey. “And the way you shared your soul and your troubles with me, too.”
Adam toasted her with the shot, and with whiskey still on his lips leaned over and kissed her, enjoying what he perceived was Tom’s character. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he said softly before pulling away from her. “I haven’t been myself lately. Why don’t we get reacquainted?” Carefully, watching what he said and letting her lead, he found her to be open, honest, and not in the least suspicious, and got her name quietly when the bartender called her back to work.
For now, at least, it suited him to pretend to be Tom in return.
“What are you looking at, Tom?”
“Oh, just someone I thought I knew, Val.” Tom stood on the porch of the house and saw Anne take that fellow into the saloon who could just be his look-alike, coming after him. He hadn’t thought the character whose identity he adopted in Virginia City had this kind of guts.
He swallowed his broad grin at the thought of a sudden scheme before turning to his wife, who had come out behind him. He grabbed her hand and pulled her back inside. “Valerie, I gotta leave town for a few days. But I want you to cover for me and tell people that I’m around, taking care of business, you got that?”
“Tom, honey, you’re not going to double-deal on me, are you? I thought we had an understanding, now that you’re home again.”
Tom grabbed her hair and forced her backward against the wall. “Can I trust you? For once in my life?”
“You know it. You saw how I handled Jason. He paid back everything he owed you.”
“That he did.” He kissed her cheek lightly and left.
Tom planned his next 12 hours carefully, keeping out of way of the stranger who would undoubtedly call himself Cartwright once he found out enough about Tom Burns. This Adam was an unexpected glitch in his plans but could perhaps be used with great purpose. When he was ready.
Tom stopped in at the sheriff’s office and hinted that he might be looking for revenge for being set up. He found two of Valerie’s old friends and picked a fight with one, leaving him needing a doctor. He rented a room at the boarding house to give himself privacy away from Valerie.
And then he went to find Anne.
“Tom, you’re back,” she said when he grabbed her from behind. “Ohh, and with cologne on. That’s nice.” She turned around and he planted one on her lips. She wiped at her lips and took a step back, puzzled. “I thought you were going to settle for the night.”
“I couldn’t stay away. Order us a whiskey.”
“I swear, you are the odd one. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were two different people, having fun with me.”
“Now what are the odds of that? Come back with me to my room?”
She pushed him away. “I don’t like to be teased. I told you that.”
“That’s why I’m back.” Apparently Cartwright didn’t know what a jewel she was. As soon as he was through with Valerie he was going to take Anne away from here where they could start fresh, together. “I don’t want you getting any mixed messages. So let me lay it on the line clear. I love you.” He looked around. “Let’s go where we can have some privacy.”
Ben couldn’t get over the look of the table with Adam’s empty chair. It’d been empty on enough occasions but the feel of this emptiness came from somewhere else. Hoss and Joe ate quietly as well, knowing Ben would share when he was ready. The clinking of silverware began to grate on Ben’s nerves until finally he put down his fork and sat back.
“Boys, I’ve been thinking.”
“We could tell, Pa,” Hoss said as he reached for his water glass.
“I’m sure you could. With Adam gone, and the temper he left in, it occurred to me just today that maybe I’ve been unfair to you boys.”
“Unfair, Pa? How?” It didn’t surprise Ben that Joe asked this. As the youngest Joe would never feel as old as his two older brothers. Adam had nearly 14 years on him, which, when Ben took the time to think about it, was considerable.
“The Ponderosa has gotten too big for one man to operate effectively. I think the time has come to divide it up.”
“You’re going to sell some land, Pa?”
“Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. But I have only three specific buyers in mind.”
Both sons stared at him. Ben stood and waved them over to his desk. “The way I look at it, the ranch land can be divided up into four quadrants. Now I’ve been paying attention over the years to which sections of the ranch each of you would prefer. Joe, I figure to give you the southern section, Hoss you will take this here, and Adam will get the northern most share. I’ll retain this area that the house sits on.”
“That’s not much for you, Pa.”
“Maybe not, but at the same time, I’m getting older, too.” He waited a second for them to object but for once they didn’t. “I know this is coming out of the blue, but I have been thinking about it for awhile. There’s no need for all of us to live together like we’re all connected to the same cornstalk. There’s a lot of land here, and you boys should each manage a portion of it. Your own ideas, your own families.”
“This have something to do with Adam, Pa?” Joe voiced it but Hoss nodded, wanting the same answer.
“Yeah, I guess it does. Your brother is 35 now. Joe, you’re 22. For you, the timing is right. For Adam, I’m afraid it may be past time. I just don’t want to see this same discouragement appear in your lives, too.”
Hoss and Joe exchanged a glance, and each stood on one side of Ben studying the map as he began to draw in the boundaries. Neither would voice it, but all of a sudden the Ponderosa began to look very small.
Adam didn’t know what his next move should be. He felt trapped and restless, like a cougar who’d chased prey into a canyon only to lose the way out. Everyone here now called him by the name of Burns, and Anne felt awfully good in his arms, but she called him Tom, too. It was his own doing. He should have been straight, from the start.
He sensed Tom was close by, maybe watching him, letting Adam pretend to be him the way he pretended to be Adam, but for what reason? Every minute of the day Adam expected to be tripped up by someone, but so far taking on a new identity seemed easy enough, except that every now and then Adam met someone who thought they’d seen Tom only five minutes ago wearing something else. He was getting used to working his way around that, though, with only a mention of having stopped at the barber and/or clothier. People did not consider the idea of two men in town so approximate in appearance, so any reasonable explanation was accepted.
Adam knew what the next step had to be. Confront Burns himself. And in public. Once they were seen together the resemblance would likely fade into imagination. But so far he’s been unable to trap this Burns anywhere. Like Burns knew his every move. As long as Burns was busy watching him, he wasn’t out ruining the Cartwright name.
Adam walked past the saloon where Anne worked instead of stopping in. He didn’t want to keep leading her on, so it was best to avoid her altogether.
He thought just to keep going, but the sound of her voice reeled him in like an invisible fishing line. He couldn’t help himself around her, and pretty soon, he thought he might become Tom Burns just to make her happy.
Anne ran out of the saloon and slipped her arm around his waist. “I thought you were laying low for awhile, Tom.” She lifted herself up as Adam bent down, for a moment the two hearts beating as one.
When she finally let him go he looked into her eyes. “Anne, if I’m not mistaken, you’re trying to raise our acquaintance to the next level.”
Before she could respond two men pulled him away, one delivering a solid blow to his jaw, sending him reeling to the ground. He shook off the stinging surprise and started to get to his feet when a right boot clipped him under the chin, sending him backward. He could feel the blood trickling out his mouth but braced for another blow and when the foot veered to stomp on his head, he grabbed the foot and flipped the man to the ground. He jumped up with an immediate fist to the other man’s gut and threw him down into the first man, relishing the sound of cracking skulls when at least one of them got knocked against something.
“All right, hold on.”
Adam, still tensed, whirled around, ready to lash out again as his anger of the past few weeks relished. The sheriff stood with his gun out at him.
“Well, Tom Burns. I declare. You know when you seek vengeance, it does tend to seek back.”
Anne ran forward. “Sheriff, it wasn’t his fault. These men jumped him.”
“Yeah, and I have the feeling it’s because of the beating he gave Ed the other day. Come on, Burns. I’m taking you to jail.” He looked back at Anne before shoving Adam forward. “You need to learn how to pick men better, Anne.”
Adam resisted the idea of being thrown in jail but figured he could end up dead now as Burns just as easily as anytime. Time to end the charade. He could feel Anne’s eyes on him. She was now an integral part of his only way out of this mess.
What was it he once told Mark Twain, when the conniving journalist printed wild stories in the Territorial Enterprise? “If you always tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
He stood in the jail cell and leaned on the bars, contemplating what to say to this sheriff, knowing he should have seen this coming. What was that Burns up to?
Roy ran out of the sheriff’s office when he saw Ben riding through town. “Ben, have you heard the news about Adam?”
Ben pulled up short. “I haven’t heard a word since he rode off almost a month ago, Roy.” He jumped down and tied his horse. “Where is he? Does he need help?”
“No, I don’t reckon so. That son of yours seems to have things well in hand. Got himself in a speck of trouble and got himself right back out again.”
“How’s that?” Ben leaned against the hitching post, seeing no need for privacy since the news was good.
“Got himself arrested on a case of mistaken identity. Relief for you to hear the fellow here last week wasn’t Adam, eh?”
“What’s the story, Roy?” Ben was too tired for long, drawn-out explanations.
“Over to Placerville, Adam got thrown in jail, being mistaken for this Tom Burns fellow. To prove it was really him, I said to have him give the birth place of Hop Sing. If it was Adam, he’s freed by now, probably halfway home. The Placerville sheriff is a fine man.”
“Placerville.” Before Roy could object, Ben put up a hand. “Adam made it plain before he left that he could handle things.”
“Where are Hoss and Joe, you in town alone?”
“I left them at the land office.” Ben looked off toward the road leading back home, trying to remember the argument he’d had with his two younger sons on the way in.
“Picking up more land?”
“No, sectioning what I … what we have, putting up boundaries.”
Ben thought maybe he said too much already. But Roy was an old friend, and he needed to voice this idea out loud to see if it sounded as bad as he thought it did. “I decided to divide the Ponderosa up into quadrants so each of the boys can have their own land to manage.”
“An interesting idea, Ben. You don’t reckon that to cause any trouble, do you?”
“Well, I’ve given it enough thought. They need to be in charge of their lives, not cowtow to me all the time. It’s no secret that I picked up all this land with them in mind. There may be some complications when they realize what these boundaries mean, but they’re mature men and will find a way to work through … oh, confound it, Roy!” Ben took off his hat and nearly punched a hole right through it. “All Hoss and Joe have been doing is arguing. There isn’t any one section of land they like enough to be confined to it.”
“Confound it! Confined! They have too many memories all across the Ponderosa and are afraid to give any of it up!”
“Well, then, what are the boundaries for?”
“Why, to keep my family together, of course.” Ben turned to leave. “Or so I thought.”
By the time Ben left Roy’s office, he had a splitting headache. He tried hard not to think, so running into Joe on the walk caught him by surprise. “Joe! Where’s Hoss?”
“Do I care? I’ve always found him difficult to lose, anyhow.”
“Enough of that now. I’m not in the mood for your jokes.”
“You know what he said!?” Joe gestured wildly back at the saloon. “He said when he has his house built I have to send a messenger ahead when I want to come visit! Hah! Like I’d ever do that anyway!”
Ben looked back at the saloon. “Doesn’t sound like Hoss. What did you say to set him off?”
“What did I say? Oh, sure. Blame the youngest. The troublemaker. The one who’s still wet behind the ears!”
“Now, come on, Joseph, you’ve hardly a clean record when it comes to giving your brothers a hard time.”
“You know whose fault this is? It’s Adam’s fault, that’s whose. He gets a double and we get cut off from each other. I don’t see why we have to all change our lifestyles for him. Seems to me he can damn well change for us. Or he can find somewhere else to live.”
Ben nearly blew his top, but part of what Joe said made sense. “Come on, let’s get Hoss and go home. Seems we better give this idea some further consideration.”
Anne stood outside the sheriff’s office, not too close because she didn’t want Adam to think she was waiting for him. She was pretty well mad at him for leading her to think he was Tom. Worse than finding that out was wondering where the real Tom was, or which one of the two men she liked better.
She backed up toward the saloon when Adam came out of the sheriff’s office and shook the sheriff’s hand. Good buddies now, just because he affected a name change. Just like that.
Okay, so she didn’t know Tom well enough to tell the difference right off. But how many attractive men with dark brooding eyes and that slow sensual smile could there be in the world? In a different time, a different place, she could fall madly for Adam.
Adam approached her and though she turned away, she stood her ground. “Anne. Let me apologize.”
“For what, Mr. Cartwright?”
“I’m sorry I led you on. But I needed to see what I could learn about this man who stole my identity. I needed to know what kind of threat he posed to me. A man who would take another’s identity once would do it again.”
“And that’s all that matters to you, isn’t it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your own precious life is all you’re concerned about. What about Tom?”
“I’m not sure why Tom should mean any more to me than I mean to him. I just want to get this in the open. Now tell me where I can find him.”
“You don’t know Tom Burns at all.” Anne wheeled about on her heels and left him standing in the street.
Inside the saloon she let her shaking legs lead her to a table. She put her head down briefly on her arms but didn’t cry as she expected to. She saw something in Adam’s eyes, something she didn’t expect to ever see in a man’s eyes, not since Emil died so long ago. Hunger. Desperation. A man looking for complicated answers in a simple world.
If she read him right, he’d still be in town come tomorrow. And by then, if she read him right, he’d be ready to help. Because Tom was hiding, and she felt she knew why.
From what Adam could tell, Burns was keeping to the outskirts of town so that they would never been seen at the same time by any one person. If they were to have a showdown, it would be on Tom’s terms outside of town. No sense delaying it. Adam packed some grub for an overnighter out in the hills. At least his own horse was rested up and ready for some new adventure. He liked the advantage of a familiar mount, knowing the response of heel to belly right off.
Whatever Burns’s intentions were, it was time to find out. What was this revenge the sheriff mentioned? He only knew it had to do with getting thrown in prison after he enlisted in the Confederate army. If he thought he was going to get himself a permanent Cartwright identity, he was going to find a fight on his hands.
Tom sat up in the rocks, watching Cartwright build his campfire.
He saw the tense attitude, the quick move to his gun at the slightest sound, and waited for him to let down his guard. He knew Adam was waiting for him, which made it even more important that he get the advantage early and keep it.
Tom took his time conjuring a plan. Not usually a patient man, he prided himself this once on taking his time. Because as much as this Adam fellow wanted to know Tom’s intent, Tom wanted information about the man whose life he was about to take and keep.
Adam dumped his leftover coffee on the fire and kicked apart the remaining embers.
When he heard the rocks tumbling, he smiled briefly to himself. He knew pretending to let his guard down would smoke the fellow out.
Adam pulled his gun out of the holster on the ground and stood. He knew he ought to let the man come to him, but he was feeling a little impatient to get this over with. A little guilty, perhaps, over the game he played with Anne, and maybe even more over what he left back at the ranch.
With eyes darting in every direction he crept along the rock, attempting to sense the direction Burns might be hidden. Was he planning an attack or just a dramatic entrance?
But before Adam could conjure an answer to this question, cold steel connected with his skull and he was down and out.
Tom had a campfire going by the time Adam came to and found his hands bound behind him. “Howdy, stranger.”
Adam grunted in return and struggled to sit up. “Can’t understand it at all.” He said and spat the dirt out of his mouth. His head throbbed but he’d been hit harder.
“Can’t understand what?”
“How anyone could mistake you for me.” Adam wasn’t sure what he expected when he first met his ‘double’ face to face. This Burns had a much wilder, more uncontrolled look to him. Sure, he was dark, with a firm jaw that clenched easily and eyes that seemed to look right through a person. But the nose was wrong, and he was thinner.
Tom laughed heartily. “Looks are more than just attitude, friend. People see what they want to see.” He offered Adam a drink from his canteen and Adam accepted.
“Now?” Burns paused. “Now I find out a little something about you.”
“So people can see me close up and still call me Adam, such as that young one who called you brother back in the city. See, I’ve been studying your actions, your movements. Now I just need to know something more about your life.”
Adam swallowed hard. He got the sudden sinking feeling they’d find this fellow an improvement. “It won’t work.” That came out with more conviction than he felt.
“I could always feign amnesia if you don’t tell me anything. And kill any of them that gets suspicious. So if you want to save your family, you’ll cooperate.”
“Why not just keep your own life? You can’t live a lie forever.”
“Won’t have to. Once they’re convinced enough for me to get free access to that bank account of yours, I’ll be out of their lives for good.”
“What about Anne?”
“Anne? Who’s Anne?”
“The girl who loves you.”
“What kind of fat you frying? My wife’s name is Valerie.”
Adam shook his head. “There’s a lovely lady back in town who believes you are worth caring over. I made the mistake of thinking her a good judge of character.”
“You talking about that saloon girl?”
“Anne. Hmmmph. Likes me, you say?”
“Can’t say as I see why.”
“You don’t know anything about me! What I’ve been through!” Tom grabbed the coffeepot off the fire and yelped at being burnt. “Damnit! I don’t like being upset. Gotta keep control of emotions. They do you in every time.”
“Guess we are alike in some ways.” Once that image hit him, of what happens to him when he loses his temper, he felt eerily odd but also cautiously hopeful. Maybe there was a way out of this mess – and he didn’t mean with Tom. Somehow he didn’t think Tom was a killer. “So what’s the story with your wife?”
“What makes you think there’s a story?”
“Obviously something made you turn to Anne.”
“All right, I’ll tell you. My wife conspired with my business partner to steal funds and pin it on me. I went off to join the Confederate Army because Jason told me that way I could come back free and clear to all this dough, but then I get arrested there. Obviously had me pegged as the pigeon right off. Valerie won’t admit it, acts like she’s glad to have me back. But I’m going to find a way to prove it. You just happened along at a good time. With your identity the proving will be easier.” He laughed. “Or at least easier for me to get away once I’ve had my vengeance.”
“Does Anne know?”
“You sure are nosy about Anne. You got a thing for her yourself?”
“Curious, that’s all.”
“Look, the lady means nothing to me. She just happened to be there when I needed someone to talk to. I was feeling vulnerable, and I’m over it now.”
“You convinced her she meant something to you.”
“Well, she doesn’t!” Tom stood and kicked the coffeepot, sending the hot liquid against the rocks. He turned on Adam. “You were playing Burns to her. It’s all your fault.”
Adam winced, imagining a poorly doused fire sparking a dry bush close by. Weird how the mind made unexpected connections. That’s what his discomfort of the past few months had been, he suddenly realized. Unexpected connections. Like living with Pa meant being half a man. He thought he had to find out who he was somewhere out there, beyond the Ponderosa. But that isn’t where he is, at all.
“Valerie taught me a lesson, friend. Women are users, unless you use them first. But what do you know? You ever been married?”
Adam hesitated. “No.” He realized he was in control after all. “Never even came close.”
“Shame. Good looking fellow like you.” Tom laughed and put his gun back in his holster. “Well, friend, I expect I knew all along I wouldn’t get away with this. Besides, how could I kill someone who looks so much like me?” Tom crouched behind Adam and untied his wrists. “And I think you’re noble enough to give me the same consideration.”
Tom threw the rope aside and turned his back to Adam, until he heard the click of Adam’s gun.
“Turn around and sit down.”
Tom put up his hands. “I thought we had us a draw, you get your life, I get mine.”
“That’s not what you want at all, is it? I ride out of here, you follow and shoot me in the back?”
Tom drew his gun and Adam pulled the trigger. Tom threw himself to the ground with a yell, and was slow to sit back up, holding his arm and wincing as he did. Blood seeped through his fingers.
“Had to do it, huh?”
“Guess so, when a man draws on me.”
A small smile drifted across Adam’s face. “At least now I can tell us apart.” Adam took Tom’s gun. “I think we came to an understanding just a minute ago. You go back to your life and I’ll go back to mine. Because if I ever catch you using my name and bank account again I will kill you. Leaving an apologetic note takes no effort at all.” He went to the horses and untied them both. “You can walk back. That’ll give me enough time to get far from here.”
“Fair enough.” Tom accepted the bandanna Adam held out and pressed it against his arm. “Thanks for only winging me.”
“One other thing.” Adam waited but Tom didn’t turn back. “When you see Anne again, tell her the truth.”
“That I don’t love her? You know what? Somehow, after you’re gone, I think I could.”
Adam waited in his hotel room for Anne. He sent the message down but wasn’t sure how she’d respond. He told her he had news about Tom, but figured she might have already given up on him. If she came, it would be for him, and not Burns, and he hoped that, too. He could take her from here, back home with him. That alone could ease the ache he’s felt since Laura left. Maybe Anne was the only one who could Having her choose him over Tom would also help.
He heard her slender knock and leaped to the door. She stood on the other side, hesitant.
Adam leaned on the doorframe expectantly. “Yes?”
“Adam! I got your message. I need your help. I don’t know where else to turn.”
“Disappeared?” Adam grinned. “No, he’s fine. I left him out there without a horse. He’ll be back.”
“Oh, Adam, why?”
“Well, he wanted to kill me, for one.” This wasn’t going the way he hoped. “Listen, I have to get back to Nevada. I was hoping to ask you to come with me.” He wrapped his arms around her and gave her a longing kiss, one that she responded to with as much passion as he’d hoped.
When they broke away to take a breath, she took one. ‘Oh, Tom …” And then broke away from him. “Oh, Adam. I’m sorry.”
“No, no, you answered my question for me. Come on. We’ll go out there and help him get home. Could have bled to death by now.”
“Never mind. Just let me pack up for the trip home.”
“Adam, he might be in trouble. I think his wife and business partner might try to kill him. You have to forgive him if he was trying to use you to get away. He wouldn’t kill you. I’m sure of that.”
“I wish I were.”
“Look, help me find Tom. Help us clear his name. If you don’t, there’s always that chance you’ll get mistaken for him. Tom’s a decent man, I know he is. And I know you are. But I need to see things to the end with Tom first.” She placed a hand on his shoulder and moved closed, lowering her voice. “You understand that, don’t you?”
As Adam kept packing, Anne turned to the door. “Thank you anyway. I can work this out myself.”
“Wait.” Adam sat on the bed and waved her over. “What you said before made sense. If he’s innocent, he has the right to prove it. I’ve come this far, I may as well finish it. I’m going to take you to find him and the three of us will figure something out.”
Anne sat next to him and wrapped her arms around him. “Thank you so much.”
She kissed him and though he wanted that more than he needed to admit, he pushed her away and stood. “By the time this is over you’re going to understand the difference between me and Tom Burns.”
Ben couldn’t find the words to quell the anger that Hoss and Joe brought to the dinner table. They simply refused to look at each other. He had never given much thought to the idea that eventually he’d want to parcel the land out, and now they equated it with no longer being a family.
Joe finished eating before anyone else and stood.
“Joe, you didn’t ask to be excused.”
Joe didn’t sit again. “I think I’m old enough to excuse myself.”
“Not before I discuss with the two of you the chores for tomorrow.”
“Yeah, hah!” Hoss said with a smirk. “But once we got our own places, we can make our own schedules, our own chores and our own mistakes.”
“Maybe you will,” Joe said with a smirk. “My ranch will run like a downhill river.”
Ben put his hands up. “All right. Here’s the plan. I have fifty acres up to the northeast that I was thinking of giving Adam but I don’t know if it’s any good for cattle grazing or timbering. I also wonder if there’s any mining possibilities in the area. I want the two of you to scout the area and bring me back a detailed report.”
“Oh, great. You want us to spend a week on busy work for a brother who doesn’t even bother letting us know if he’s still alive?”
“As a matter of fact, I got a telegram from him just yesterday.” Ben hated lying but he didn’t know that he had any choice. At least they did know that he was released from jail in Placerville last week. “He’s had some luck locating the … stranger and is preparing for a showdown. He’ll either get the money back that was taken from us, or have the fellow thrown in jail. He’ll see us shortly.”
“I’d love to see that showdown. Adam against himself.” Hoss stabbed another chicken leg. “Come to think of it, Pa, seems like the universe might be telling him something. Maybe he’ll come back all in one piece.”
“Doesn’t mean we have to scout land for him,” Joe muttered.
“Yeah, well, at least we can argue over his land for a change and not our own.”
Joe threw down his napkin and stormed outside.
“Still didn’t get excused, Pa.”
Ben shrugged. He could only hope this all worked out in the end. Either he instilled in them the pride in family strength even more than love of land, or he failed. Time will tell.
They had to travel long into the night, with no sign of Burns where Adam had left him, and Anne taking them on a route that headed in a different direction from Placerville. Adam offered to find a place to bed down but Anne insisted she wasn’t tired. Adam thought the route Anne chose to follow was an odd one — a cabin Tom told her about where he and Valerie had lived when they were first mining, trying to make some money. The banking operation that Tom had been accused of stealing from was a natural extension of this successful mining venture. Could Tom have lied to him about using Anne? Anne was a sharp woman and she didn’t feel used. But it could be that she and Tom were made of the same cloth, could be they were using each other and unable to be hurt by it.
Adam never thought he could be hurt by attitudes of someone else. We are responsible only for our own reactions, Adam knew, a lesson he learned early enough. He would be used only if he allowed it.
Halfway to the cabin — a benchmark Anne used and remarked on because the rock had such a distinct shape — Adam felt they were being followed. He tensed in the saddle, sat up straighter, but not so visibly as to be noticeable even by Anne, especially not at this time of night.
“And then, Adam, my father told my mother that he’d never come west to pan, that since it was her dream she ought to just do it, and he handed her all the mining gear he’d bought back in St. Louis and ran off. We never saw him again.”
Adam grunted sympathetically, wondering who might be on their trail. If Valerie had partners who felt threatened, they could be preparing to attack. At the same time, Anne could be trying to lead them off Tom’s trail by using him as a decoy, so they’d think she was with Tom. With clenched jaw he suddenly pulled on the reins, making his horse cry out as it reared back.
“Adam, what’s wrong!?”
But Adam jumped down off his horse, his gun drawn.
“Adam, don’t! You’ll ruin everything!”
“Ruin it how? By saving my own hide?” He ducked into the brush. He knew he’d heard other horses and had a keen sense of their direction. He pushed into a clearing and found the unmistakable hoof marks, fresh and jumbled, under the bright clear sky night, leading up into the hills. They were staying well hidden by the night and the brush, obviously intent on protecting their own necks.
He replaced his gun and turned to go back to Anne, suddenly unsure he’d still find her waiting.
He wondered why Tom couldn’t just expect him to help out. Seems now his only purpose was as decoy. Adam realized with a stab of pain that since Laura left him he’d begun to question everyone’s motives but his own. If he was needed to be a decoy so that Tom could prove his innocence, so be it. Humans have often been used for less noble reasons and survived.
He pushed through the brush back onto the trail to find Anne waiting for him. She breathed a sigh of relief. “Did you find anyone?”
“No. Did you think I would?”
“What did you hear?”
“We’re being followed, Anne. And what’s worse is that you know it.”
“No. I only thought we might be.”
“I understand that Tom took to dressing like me back in Virginia City. Was he already conjuring this scheme, expecting me to get on his trail?”
“No, Adam, you’re wrong. That’s not what this is about.”
“Isn’t it? Isn’t there an ambush waiting for me down river? If I’m mistaken as Tom and killed, doesn’t that leave him free to get on with his life? As me?”
“I told you, we want to clear his name. Punish those who are guilty. There is only one way to accomplish that. Please just believe me and follow my lead.”
Adam took her hand and guided her off her horse and into his arms. “Convince me.” Even embraced in a passionate kiss he thought about needing to trust again. “All right. Take the lead. I’ll believe that Tom’s plan doesn’t include either of us getting killed.”
“I believe in happy endings, too, Adam.” Anne mounted again. “Come on, daylight’s gonna beat us to the cabin.”
Hoss and Joe rode several breasts apart for most of the day. Hoss pretended he was inspecting different territory than Joe, while Joe didn’t pretend to be anything but miserable. How was he supposed to get over being mad at Adam when they didn’t get to have it out face to face? And now, because of Adam, the whole family was falling apart. Now, because they were considered ‘old enough,’ they had to divvy up the acres of the Ponderosa as though nothing more than cattle hides. But he didn’t expect being old enough had a whole lot to do with anything, or Adam would have gotten his own quarter of land years ago.
And even while he was building his house for Laura, they had still considered the land as belonging to all of them. Adam never said anything about putting fencing up to delineate boundaries the way Pa talked now. Since when weren’t they a family anymore? Right now he wanted to see Adam more than anything so he could get over being angry.
Hoss got down off his horse to study the ground. Was this good grazing for cattle? As far as Joe could tell, it was good enough. But there was Hoss, peering into the tall grasses like he was naming them. Sure, he was always able to tell grasses apart better than anyone else. But did that naturally make him an expert?
Joe rode deliberately away from Hoss over to the pines standing near the creek. From what he could see of the woods beyond, only a few stood tall enough for timbering. The rest wouldn’t be good enough yet until Adam had grandchildren. He chuckled to himself. If ever.
Joe hadn’t thought he’d ever find a time when he couldn’t talk to Hoss about something. This was that time. He had been hoping that he and Hoss could share the favorite southwestern end of the lake even though that section was in Hoss’s quadrant. When he made the simple suggestion that they not put up fencing between their lands Hoss seemed quite agreeable. But then Joe asked if Hoss planned to sell any of his land to strangers because Joe didn’t care for the idea of other people putting up fencing.
And before he knew it, they were coming to blows. Okay, he understood that when they each took a bride they might likely give some of their land out to relatives, and they couldn’t exactly deny anyone the right to fencing. But Hoss got so darned ornery about it.
And now here they both were, angry over something that hadn’t even happened yet.
Hoss was still studying the ground. Joe was tempted to ride back to him when he heard the unmistakable sound of wagon wheels — looked like a family of squatters and they were headed Hoss’s way. One man pulled a rifle.
But Hoss didn’t notice, he didn’t even look up, so intent was he on studying the grasses.
“Hoss! Hey, Hoss!” Joe yelled, just as the man fired.
The cabin wasn’t in bad shape for its years of neglect. There was even, in consideration of privacy, a water closet built out the back door. Adam realized, as Anne jumped down and ran for it, how little they’d been apart the past day and a half. He felt closer to her than he ever intended to, and for good reason. She told him, with some emotion, how she came to earn a living as saloon girl. He always thought it a choice that women made freely but she convinced him otherwise. He wanted even more to help her escape that life and not let her get hurt by the likes of Tom Burns.
“Is that the mine Tom got rich on? Not in a very likely location,” he told her when Anne joined him inside the cabin.
“That mine was his primary investment and paid off hugely. When he went off the army he was told the mine had played out. But then his partner had him arrested there for running off with money for the Confederates. He’s been wanting to clear his name ever since.”
“You mean revenge.”
“Well, that, too. He just wants what’s his.”
“Is that the real story? Because I hear it different every time it’s told.”
“As close as I can figure.” She lit a candle and rubbed her arms. “Oh, I know I sound foolish for believing in him. I just can’t help it. Ever since I saw him, looking so sad and vulnerable when he walked in the saloon.”
Adam scratched his neck. “Yeah, we do have that affect.” This made them both laugh.
“Let’s take that candle and go check out the inside of this mine. You game?”
“I’m not sure I could sleep anyway.”
Inside the mine, Adam first tested the timbers, finding them stiff and hardy, without any sogginess, and the walls of the mine were soft and cool to the touch, but without a trace of mineable ore. “Definitely a going concern at one time. Here, feel this.” He took Anne’s hand and ran it across the rough gored surface. “Notice how you can feel, even with your eyes closed, where silver had been removed, where granite had been penetrated.”
He pulled her to him and kissed her hard. “Oh Anne, forget Tom and come away with me.” He kissed her again before she could protest. He could feel her body melting into his, her form molding against him as though as anxious to be one with him. He pulled her deeper into the mine shaft, where no light penetrated, where their hands could explore that which remained untouched but screaming with desire. “I can show you love like you’ve never known.” Anne’s hands unfastened his shirt as her lips slid from his cheek to his neck. “Tell me you love me, Anne.”
“Oh, I do. I do love you, Adam.” And together, as one, they sank to the floor of the mine.
Adam winced into the light as he led Anne back out, both disheveled but otherwise intact, to find three men on horseback waiting for them.
“Well, Adam, trying to steal my girl, eh?” Tom stepped down from the saddle, his arm bandaged. The other two men sat mounted and grinning.
“Didn’t expect to see you here, Tom. Rather expected to see the men who wanted you killed. I take it that wouldn’t be these two.”
“Ah, Adam, still thinking me guilty. Anne, I thought you were going to wait for me. Decided this one is a pretty good imitation?”
“Adam convinced me that you’re good at lying. Seems he’s right.”
“Neither of you know what I’m up against! But I guess we all need to know who our true friends are.”
Anne started forward. “Tom …”
Adam pulled her back again. “Given up on trying to prove your innocence?”
“Come on, you can do better than that. Guess why I’m really here.”
“To save my life?”
“Oh, hardly, friend. Since Valerie and her friends are after us, I thought I would drop your corpse here and let her think that she’s won.”
“No!” But Anne turned between the two men, stuck helplessly in the middle.
“Let her go. She’s not part of this.”
“Oh, but she is. She’s a loose end I cannot afford. The only one who knows both of us.”
“Then she reveals where she’s hid all the money and I take it back, without her seeing me, of course.”
“I really don’t think you understand what you’re up against.” Adam saw movement out beyond the trees, and felt he need stall only a little longer. “I see the one flaw in your plan.”
“And what’s that?”
“All right this is the sheriff, everybody drop ‘em!”
Adam pushed her aside as the other three started shooting.
“Hoss! HOSS!” Joe bent over his brother on the ground. Why would those people shoot at him like that?
Joe pulled off his bandanna and pressed it against the wound, even though his instinct was to run after that wagon now kicking off hard in the distance. He had tried to fire back but oddly enough didn’t have any bullets in his gun. And he couldn’t go after them and leave his brother to bleed to death. “Why would anyone do that? They looked like simple homesteaders. Come on, Hoss, speak to me.”
The bullet looked like it hit his heart. “Please, Hoss, don’t die. Come on, you know I can’t save you. I can’t take a bullet out. Please don’t die.” Fellow was an awful good shot, too, hitting Hoss from so far off. “I’ll never forgive myself if I never hear your voice again.”
Hoss’s shoulders started to shake, as though he was having a fit, but Joe was distracted by a little speck of white coming out in the blood. “Oh no, it looks really serious, it looks like …” He sniffed and then licked his finger. “Tomato?”
Hoss let out a big guffaw. “Yup!” was all he could manage because he was laughing so hard.
Joe jumped away. “Why, you big ox! You did that on purpose? Just to scare me?”
Hoss sat up and wiped his eyes as he tried to stop laughing. “Hey, hey, Joe. We were forgetting something, that’s all. Pa was giving us this land to go off on our own, but that didn’t mean we were being expected to stand alone. This land, that ain’t us. We are the land. I think we were forgetting it, that’s all.”
Joe sat down next to Hoss. “I wasn’t forgetting that, Hoss. But doggonit, it seems like Adam always gets his own way, and we can’t say anything about it.”
“You think so? He’s off chasing someone who tried to steal his life. You want him to put up with something like that? Was it his fault you lost Becca?”
Startled, Joe couldn’t hide his embarrassed grin. He was so mad over losing Becca and thinking he’d never get hitched that he’d plum forgot it wasn’t Adam’s fault at all. “I guess I do tend to act a little too quick against him sometimes. Because … doggonit.”
“He’s older and smarter?” They laughed at this. Hoss stood and shook out the flattened tomato inside his shirt. At first Joe thought he was going to pick it up to eat, but it seemed even Hoss had limits. “Come on, let’s go home.”
“No, wait, Hoss. I got a better idea.”
Adam pushed Anne to the ground and flung himself the other way as he pulled his gun and fired up at Tom. Tom backed up toward his horse and fired one back, and the two on the horses pulled their guns as well but Adam shot one off the saddle as Tom’s bullet zinged his ear.
Adam shot at Tom again and turned his gun on the other friend who flung himself out of his saddle and scrambled into the cabin. He tried to fire at Tom again but had no bullets left. Didn’t need them. The sheriff and two deputies took Tom down.
“Anne, are you all right?” Adam rolled in the dirt away from his dying double and stood.
But Anne was gone.
Adam holstered his gun as the sheriff came over. “Thank for the tip, Adam.”
“Glad you were able to stay on our trail.”
“If you’re looking for your lady friend, she’s right over there.”
Though Adam knew he should just get on his horse and ride on out, he couldn’t let her go so easily.
“Adam.” She was standing outside the cabin. “I was frightened back there.”
“I don’t blame you.”
“You had the sheriff following us?”
“Thought we could use the protection.”
“So you never really trusted me.”
“No. I guess not.”
“Adam? That’s it, then? Will you at least let me apologize?”
“For what? For loving a man who just happened to look like me? For agreeing to bring me to him so he could kill me in the mine?”
“If … If only I had met you first.”
“Somehow I don’t believe it would have made any difference.” He mounted up. “But I’ll never forget you, Anne. If I had been Tom, I think we could have been happy.”
He rode off without looking back. That way he could imagine that she shed a tear or two over seeing the right one, the one who survived, get away.
Hoss saw Adam riding toward them but allowed Joe to make the discovery in order to see his honest reaction. Joe had been quiet after telling Hoss he wanted to meet Adam so they could all ride home together, so Hoss didn’t really know what was behind this seeming change of heart.
“Hoss! I see Adam! Come on!”
Hoss grinned behind Joe as he followed.
Ben ran out of the house at the first sound of horse hooves and stopped short when he saw all three sons riding in with big grins on their faces. For a brief moment he flashed back in years to long before any of them had thoughts of leaving home. “Well, look what the wind has blown in. Must have been a real storm brewing to find all three of you at once.”
Joe jumped off his horse and ran to Ben. “Pa, wait till you hear the story about Tom Burns. Boy, Adam sure had his hands full with that one.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t think it was much worse than when Hoss had amnesia. Remember that, we almost lost him for good,” Adam said with a grin.
“Hah! Or how about the time Joe almost took to living with ghosts. Now there was a story.”
“Oh, you want a story, huh. How about the big bull story? I’ve never heard such tall tales coming out of the mouths of two younger brothers before.” Adam couldn’t hide a quirky grin, but they didn’t know what it meant — that if he ever did decide to leave the ranch, it will be because he knows what he wants, and not because he doesn’t.
“Why don’t we reminisce over some brandy? Adam, I’d love to hear about Tom Burns. And then there are some aspects on the size of our ranch that…I need to talk over with you.” Ben let his boys walk in ahead of him so they wouldn’t hear his sigh of relief. The day might come yet when they would divide up the land. But that day was not today.
Author’s Note: Download a copy of “Cartwright Saga,” an 8-story anthology, at www.grimm2etc.com
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