Summary: Edited to add chapters to address issues left unresolved. A trip to help an old friend and confronting an old nemesis propels Adam to make a decision that alters the course of his life. None would have anticipated the twists of fate in store for him once he decided to pursue goals that had only been dreams.
Rating: T Word count: 46,865
As Sheriff Roy Coffee was riding to the Ponderosa, he wondered what kind of reception he would get considering the news he was carrying. On the one hand, he raised a finger each time he thought of something positive. The news would likely keep Adam in the area for an indeterminate time. Adam would get a challenge and possibly find someone with whom he could have a long-term relationship which was something he had been sorely lacking recently. On the other hand though, it would likely speed up the process of Adam leaving. Oh, he knew the man was going. Anyone who knew him well had to know that, and by doing this, Roy knew he was making it more likely that he would leave but had to hope the family especially his father would want him to do the right thing. Ben greeted him with curiosity when he arrived not realizing of course he brought tumultuous news.
“Ben, I came to see Adam.”
“Are you sure it’s not Joe? Adam hasn’t been to town in a month except to get supplies so what kind of business could you have with him?
“Ben I got a letter from Judge Blaton to deliver to him.”
“That name is familiar. Yes, he was a fair man and handled cases here, oh, about five years ago.”
“Yes, he handled a case that made a big difference to this whole area, but I got to give the letter to Adam. He’ll have to be the one to tell you what’s in it or not.”
There was a repeat of that conversation when they walked to the barn to find Adam who was working inside there repairing some dry rot. There was a new conclusion though as Roy pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to Adam. After reading it, the eldest Cartwright asked what he was supposed to do.
“It’s from Isabella or Rosita, whichever one you believe her to be. Apparently, Dona Theresa Esperanza chose to accept her without ever verifying which of those she was. Anyway, now that gracious lady has passed away. For some reason that remains a mystery to me, she has named me as the executor of her will. This is a letter from her lawyer requesting my presence for a reading of that will as well as a letter from the lady in question, Isabella, asking for me to please relinquish any role and to turn over my duties to that lawyer or to her.”
“That sounds like what you oughta do, Adam. Hand it over to one of those two cause going down there is likely walking into a hornet’s nest of some sort. I don’t like it at all.” Hoss felt a strong sense of foreboding although he put it quite a bit differently. “I got a bad feeling in my gut.”
“I don’t know, Hoss. She sure was pretty. Adam could do a lot worse than her.” Joe was grinning seeing the chance to tease his older brother and hopefully get a smile from someone. The whole atmosphere in the house was too somber for his taste.
More philosophical by nature, Ben looked at the moral and legal aspects. “Son, she asked you for a reason. Perhaps you could go there and find out. You were the one who brought Dona Theresa here in the first place. She must have had a good reason for wanting to bring you to California to put you in the will like that.”
“I’m going to have to think about this. It’s a major commitment to even go there at this time, and if I agree to the terms of the will, it could be a major undertaking.”
Not much more was said except a few comments about their memories of those days when she and Don Antonio Luga had brought such mayhem to the area. Of course it had been Luga with his main enforcer Sanchez who had wreaked the bloodshed, but she had been responsible thinking that people were taking her birthright from her. Luga had been able to control her and had poisoned her mind with his version of things that she had not seen the awful consequences of what was happening. It had been her conversation with the older woman that had brought about the transformation. She had rejected all claims to the land under the Spanish grant. In a few words to Judge Blaton, the crisis was ended.
With a swish of her skirts, she had walked out of that courtroom and down the street with a regal bearing and a proud tilt to her head. Was she Isabella Maria Ynez Y Castra De La Cuesta? He liked to think that she was, and she could have been. Her decision to walk away from a potential fortune was a noble deed and marked her as deserving of that title even if she wasn’t born to it. But she was also Rosita Morales for he had felt the fire burning within her when he kissed her, the passion barely banked. He would have liked to know her as either Rosita or Isabella, but she needed to find herself before she was ready for love. At the time, he wondered if she would ever come back no matter who she was for he would have welcomed either or both into his life. He had hoped she would return, but as years passed and he heard nothing from her, he had assumed it was another lost dream. She was one more woman who stirred the fire in his blood and had gone from him except she was often there in vivid daydream adventures or the exciting journeys his mind took in sleep.
Now he couldn’t sleep as he was summoned by Dona Theresa’s attorney to be the executor of the estate that most likely was going to pass into the hands of a woman he wanted to love and whose love he desired. It was an opportunity, but what kind, he wasn’t sure. It might be an opportunity to once again face crushing disappointment. Not sure if he wanted to face that, he considered declining the request. At the breakfast table, he said as much without revealing any of his thoughts on the matter before excusing himself to go do some work. Although he expected his father to come out to talk with him about it, it was Hoss who approached him.
“You’re gonna go.”
“What? You think it’s that simple? You and Pa decide I should go and then I go.”
“Pa would rather you didn’t go. At least that’s how I’m reading what I’m getting from him. He’s worried about what this all could do to you. For me, I figure you got to go. You been itching to go anyhow, and ifn you don’t go, you’ll be wondering what woulda happened if you did go and such. You know how you regret things you don’t do, so you gotta do it. It ain’t simple, and like Pa’s feeling, I know it could be hard on ya, but you ain’t never backed away from things because they was hard. Fact is, you need something hard to do right now cause nothing round here is enough for you. She was quite the handful if I remember things right, so it might be what you need to get your head on straight again.”
Sitting down on a crate in the barn, Adam stared at Hoss for a moment before he simply shook his head and then smiled.
Hoss grinned in return. “See, I knew my way of getting to the point would make you get outta that dark place and start thinking more clearly even if it was only to try to make sense out of what I said.”
“I’m not sure I did make sense of it all, but you’re correct that it did bring me out of that dark way of thinking. It’s a good thing you came out here instead of Pa. He has a way of putting arguments to me to try to convince me and then all I want to do is come up with logical reasons why he’s wrong.”
“Yeah, don’t do no good to argue with a man when the real problem is in here.” Hoss put a hand over his heart. “Time to do what you feel is what you need to do, and time to stop worrying about whether you got the right way to say it or ways to explain it. Do it. Explain it later if you can.”
“It will hurt to leave all this and all of you.”
“It’s gonna hurt like all get out to see you go too, but I figure the only way you’ll ever feel comfortable coming back is if you feel comfortable leaving. It’s got to feel like we let you go if you ever wonder if you’ll be welcomed back home.”
“I’m not sure the whole family will accept this as easily as you’ve put it.”
“Oh, they’ll come around.” Hoss saw the way Adam cocked his head to the side showing some doubt. “Course they will when you got a natural born talker like me explaining it all to them.”
“Their heads may be spinning around so much that they won’t know what hit them.”
“Sort of like with you then, huh?”
“I suppose I should go in and talk to Pa about my decision. You can go in later and calm him down.”
“Sounds about right, but maybe it would be best if you waited for Joe to come out and head out to the south pasture with the crew that’s repairing the fence. Not a good idea for you to tell both of them at the same time.”
“I don’t suppose you would consider breaking the news to Joe for me.”
“Nah, and remember what I said about you not ever backing away from something because it was hard to do. Well, you didn’t argue with me about that. This is one of those things.”
“Yeah, it is.”
When they saw the wagon pull up in front of the house and saw Joe climb up on the seat next to the driver, Hoss put a hand on Adam’s shoulder to offer some encouragement. It was time for him to talk to their father. Adam saw Joe look back and guessed that he knew he had been waiting for him to leave. Smart enough to know what that meant, Joe would have most of the day to stew on the news unless he went to see him sooner. It was going to be a difficult day either way.
Sitting at his desk, Ben Cartwright was expecting the visit from his eldest son because Hoss had not come back to report a failure. When Adam walked in and stood before him, Ben said maybe they would be more comfortable talking by the fireplace with some coffee. They spent a couple of hours there talking as Hop Sing made sure they had plenty of coffee. Adam found he had more to say than he thought about what he could do while he was gone, and Ben found he had more advice to offer to a traveling man than he knew he would remember. By the time they finished talking, there was an even stronger bond between the two. Adam had banked his wanderlust for years, and Ben knew how difficult that must be having felt that strongly when he was young. Both knew that Joe was the least likely to understand what was going to happen.
“I think I should go talk to him instead of letting it fester all day.”
“Probably a good idea, but don’t let him go back to work after you talk. Hoss could go with you and take over for him for the afternoon.”
With Hoss and his father being so agreeable, Adam was relaxing about the idea but also preparing for a confrontation with his youngest brother. When he rode out to talk to Joe, he could see him bristling but it wasn’t until they were away from the men and talking that he understood why.
“You came out here to talk to me because you thought I’d be getting up a head of steam and you wanted to be sure to calm me down so I wouldn’t blow. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s why Hoss came with you which means Pa thought about the same thing.”
Taken aback by Joe’s outburst, Adam thought about what his brother had said and began to smile. At first that seemed to make Joe angrier, but as Adam said nothing, he got curious.
“You’re always so full of talk and now you’re quiet. You’re not dying or anything, are you? I mean, if you are, I’m real sorry about what I said.”
“Joe, you never cease to amaze me.”‘
“Well, about time you admit how amazing I am.”
“Not exactly what I said, but we can talk about that another time. So you figured out that I’d decide to leave and go do this thing?”
“Of course. I knew something would come up to make you finally decide it was time to go. You’ve been dragging your feet on making that decision so long, you’ve worn out a couple of pairs of boots. Pa and Hoss keep pussyfooting around the idea not wanting to talk about it like that was going to make it go away. If it was me, I would have decided and done it a couple of years ago probably. When I decide to do something, I do it.”
“Yeah, I guess you do.”
“There’s some advantages to that sometimes. You ought to try it.”
“I’ll have to leave soon, probably as quickly as I can arrange transportation.”
“Well, what are you waiting for? You’ve got the whole afternoon. Heck, with Hoss covering for me, so do I. Want some company on the ride? I can help with anything you need done.”
“Joe, I’d like that.”
Hours later, the two arrived home for dinner finding both Hoss and Ben worried and anxious. When Adam explained what had happened, Ben and Hoss had rather mixed feelings about it, but overall there was relief that all was good with the family. Adam had his tickets so all he had to do was pack up and head out in the morning. He didn’t pack much to take with him, but he did pack more that he could send for later as needed. The finality of that sank in as his family visited his room and saw those items packed up. They all knew the family was beginning a new chapter in their lives with a lot of uncertainty in it, but none as much as Adam. He had sent the lawyer a telegram that he was coming so all he had to do was to arrive and find out what he was expected to do.
There were so many trips that Adam Cartwright had taken around the southern end of Lake Tahoe that he could be excused at not paying attention to the grandeur of some of the vistas or being curious about the unusual rock formations and flora of the region. However he was far more distracted than bored. Hardly aware of the others in the coach, the usual complaints he had about the boredom of conversation with the typical set of passengers, he ignore too the accompanying odors of so many people squashed together for so long without adequate provision for washing in the heat made worse by the close quarters. When asked to take his turn riding on top, he didn’t say a word but climbed up beside the driver and never even asked to be relieved until he had sat through a change of horses and two stops. Even then it was the driver who called out for the next passenger to take a turn. In fact, the driver was a bit bored himself sitting beside the dark-haired man who didn’t talk at all. By the time they reached their destination, some wondered if Adam was able to speak or had a malady that prevented it. He soon answered their concern by asking for directions to the lawyer’s office going there before he even checked into the hotel. He wanted them to know that he had arrived.
“You are very prompt, sir. Unfortunately, the lady is not. She has sent a message that she cannot possibly be here for several more days. What ‘several’ means, we do not know but I assume it is less than a week.”
“I thought she was here on Dona Theresa’s property.”
“Dona Theresa has or had three large properties. This is the smallest one and closest to a city so this is where she did her banking and had her legal work completed. Her rancho is further inland and closer to the mountains. It is cooler there and more peaceful, I would assume with less pressure.”
“Is there a reason that Isabella would need to be concerned about needing peace and avoiding pressure?”
“Sir, there are two men in her life who are trouble. Dona Theresa knew one would be here as soon as she passed. Are you familiar with Senor Luga?” The lawyer saw Adam’s response and continued. “When Dona Theresa became so ill and was unable to do anything for herself, Senor Luga attempted to have himself appointed as caretaker of her. She was still capable of saying no, and Senorita Isabella concurred. Now however, she is alone to stand against him and his claims.”
“Mister Cartwright, why don’t you check into your hotel, get a good meal, and a good night’s sleep. It will take us a long time to explain all that must be explained, but most of it can be summed up in that Senor Luga now claims that he is to marry Isabella and therefore has right of inheritance to all properties once owned by Dona Theresa. We have the will, sir, and I can assure you, as executor of her will, that there is no such provision like that in her will. The formal reading of the entire contents of the will cannot take place until Isabella is present, but we can begin to prepare you for your duties before then because we know what must be done.”
“What is being done to be sure that the will remains safe and secure?”
“That is a good question for an executor to ask. We have a guard here every night.”
“As executor, would it be acceptable for me to authorize a second guard?”
“Yes, I believe we can accommodate that request. Now, sir, what will you do to be sure that you stay safe until the will is read and Senor Luga’s claims are dismissed as the preposterous falsehoods that they are?”
“I had not thought that was necessary, but thank you for the warning. I will be careful.”
“Ah, who is the other man who is a problem for Senorita Isabella?”
“I think it best if she explains that to you when you meet. She will tell you what she wishes you to know.”
Knowing he was dismissed, Adam left the office. At the hotel, after he checked in and had a chance to clean up, he headed to the dining room. It was small but well-appointed and clean. More importantly, the smells coming from it were the kind to stimulate an appetite, and for the first time in many days, he was ravenously hungry. He was finishing his meal when Senor Luga walked in with a Sanchez. Certainly it was not the same one because he was dead, but a replacement probably with a different name but of the same type.
“Senor Cartwright, I am so pleased to see you here so early. I wish to speak with you so that you may return home.”
“No, I’m sorry, Luga, but I have a job to do here, and I intend to stay until it is completed.”
“It is not necessary for you to be here. I will marry Isabella and that will mean the will does not matter for a husband assumes all property rights from his wife. There will be no need for an executor and therefore you may go home.”
“I do not believe that Isabella has any intention of marrying you.”
“Ah, but you see her relatives have agreed that she will. It is not up to her. I have spoken to them, and they have given their blessing as well as all legal authority to me to marry her.”
“This is the United States. They have no right to give her to you in marriage.”
“If she wants to inherit titles and the land in Mexico, then she must abide by Mexican laws. She will marry me. Do not stand in my way again. You stood in my way once. Do not do so again. Dona Theresa did and look what happened to her.”
With that, Luga left, but Adam had a suspicion that someone ought to look into Dona Theresa’s death. It no longer looked at all like the woman had gotten ill naturally. He went to the desk and had them change his room to the third floor with a sheer drop outside his window. No one was going to sneak in the window. He could barricade the door. From this night on, he was going to have to be exceedingly careful. From this point on, he would eat his meals at different restaurants using a random pattern. His schedule would have to be random as well. Until Isabella got there, there was a good chance Senor Luga was going to try to have him killed. He hoped she didn’t take too long and that no innocent people got in the way.
That night, he guessed that it was probably too soon for Luga to have any sophisticated plans for his demise. Pulling a heavy chair in front of the door and keeping his pistol handy seemed like enough precaution. With those safeguards in place, he slept reasonably well. In the morning, he thought about the dining room but wondered if it was safe. A knock at the door interrupted his musing.
“Sir, Mister Hollings, the attorney said you were going to need a good breakfast for the work you were going to be doing today. He ordered up this breakfast for you.”
Almost ready to accept, Adam had one of those gut feelings. “No, thank you. I’m not in the mood for a big breakfast like that. Perhaps you would like to deliver it to Senor Luga. He’s a big eater. He will probably like it.”
“I think he already had his breakfast. I saw his man in the kitchen earlier.”
“As I said, he’s a big eater. Check to see if he wants this one too, please.”
With that, Adam handed the young man a coin and headed out determined to find some other place for his breakfast. When the server took the tray to Senor Luga’s room, he refused the food with an angry retort. The young man took it back down to the kitchen. His boss said it was getting cold by then and to toss it out back to his dog.
When Adam got to Mister Hollings’ office, his suspicions were confirmed. The lawyer had no idea what he was talking about when he mentioned the breakfast. He mentioned his suspicions about what happened to Dona Theresa then.
“Senor Luga implied that Dona Theresa had some help in becoming ill and dying. It was in a thinly disguised threat to me. Did anyone suspect anything when she suddenly became so ill?”
“Honestly, no, we did not, but now that you bring it up, it was sudden. She seemed fine and then she was deathly ill. But she was old, and sometimes people her age get very sick very quickly. I wasn’t suspicious until now. I don’t know that anything can be done. She’s been dead for a week and buried several days now at her ranch in Mexico.”
“Where Isabella is?”
“Yes, it’s where she wanted to be buried.”
“I’d like to see Dona Theresa’s home here. Would that be possible? And perhaps talk to those who cared for her when she was ill?”
“They’re not going to like it if you start accusing them of doing something to her.”
“No, I don’t think they did or at least no knowingly. However like that young man delivering that meal this morning. Something that appeared to be innocent could have been lethal.”
“When you talk like that, you sound like a lawman.”
“I have had a little experience with that job.”
“All right, as long as you don’t go upsetting the people who worked for her, it will be all right. They work for Isabella now, so keep that in mind.”
For a couple of hours, they discussed rather leisurely how Adam would handle the duties of executor and how he would coordinate with the law office. They talked about how to handle communications so they would remain secure, and about cosigning bank transactions to that someone like Luga would be unable to insert himself in the process. By noon, the two men were impressed with each other and certain that they could have a good working relationship. Mister Hollings had checked out Adam’s background and knew he wasn’t doing this for the money. He had suspected as much when he found out that Dona Theresa had selected him but wanted to be sure. Getting hungry, he asked Adam if he would like to continue working over lunch.
“I’ll send a clerk to get lunch. There is no likelihood that they could guess that we would do that because I almost never have lunch in the office so I would assume the food would be safe.”
It seemed to take long time for the clerk to return. When he did, Mister Hollings asked why he had been delayed. “The cook over at the hotel is accusing everybody in the shops and restaurants over there of poisoning his dog. He’s dead as can be and looks like he’s been for some time. You know he barks a lot so the cook figures somebody wanted to shut him up.”
Very quietly, Adam interrupted. “Did you see what kind of food was near him?”
“Yeah, looked like toast a big old ham steak and maybe some eggs. Probably ate most of the eggs.”
“Adam what was on that breakfast tray you refused?”
“I think you know.”
The clerk looked confused by their conversation, but Mister Hollings simply told him to go ahead and have some lunch at his desk. When the door closed, he looked at Adam. “Why don’t you leave the office by the back door after lunch? I’ll draw you a map to her house and give you a key.”
When Adam got to the house, the cook and the housekeeper were at first suspicious. He used his Spanish to good advantage and talked about Dona Theresa and Isabella and how he knew them. Soon they were smiling and walking with him through the house answering any questions he had. Clearly they too had been shocked at the sudden demise of their employer and their friend. With eyes glistening, they spoke of her last good day.
“She was so happy. It was soon to be her birthday and Isabella was due to arrive. Even before she came, she sent a rose and a small box of chocolates. Dona Theresa held that rose in her hands and smiled so beautifully. It was the last time I saw her smile. I fixed a cake and was preparing her favorite foods when I heard the crash. She had fallen. She never woke up. The doctor could do nothing. After three days, she was no more. With no food and no water, she could not live. Isabella arrived and was so sad because she could not even say goodbye. It was terrible.”
It was Dona Theresa’s bedroom that Adam asked for a towel and gathered up a few things. He wasn’t sure if it was all right for him to take things from her house, but they had little to no value in money. They did however have quite a lot of potential value as evidence of what may have been murder. At the hotel, he took a second room. He said it was for a friend, but he was the one who slept there. In the morning, he found his other room had been broken into. No one had been there so no one had been harmed. What it told him though was that he needed help. He packed up everything he had, told Hollings he was going to be gone for a few days, rented a horse, and rode out of town. Luga saw him go and smiled thinking he had won.
However on the day when Isabella Maria Ynez Y Castra De La Cuesta came into town and stepped from the stage, Adam Cartwright walked out of Mister Hollings’ office to greet her. Luga had been crossing the street to do the same and was shocked to see him. With a broad grin, Adam offered his arm and suggested they ought to go to the lawyer’s office first. Quietly he said it was for safety. With eyes wide, Isabella agreed to go with him. Safely inside the office, he explained.
“I spent the last couple of days hiring men to protect you and me. Now that you’re here, we have to give them time to get into position and to watch Luga. A half hour should be plenty of time. Then I will escort you to your room.”
“You think he would kill me?”
“I think he might try.”
“I think he killed Dona Theresa.”
“I think he did too. I sent some things to be tested after I told the sheriff what I found. It won’t be proof, but it will be the start of a case against him. You need to be very careful. Even with others watching out for you, Luga is devious. There is no way to predict what he might do.”
Later, Adam realized the fallacy in his thinking. But at that time, his protective instincts had interfered with his logic. He walked with Isabella to the hotel and escorted her up the stairs and into her room. She wasn’t at all sure that was proper.
“I’m only going to check your room to make sure there are no obvious threats. With Luga, there are so many possibilities.”
With Isabella watching, Adam searched the room thoroughly and found nothing. Her maid servant watched intently as well worried for her employer and wondering what this strange man was doing. Observing her maid as she followed every move that Adam made, Isabella knew she was going to have to explain everything to her. Soon Adam gave the all clear on her room.
“I’d like to have dinner with you and discuss what we will do next if that is acceptable.”
“It is. I wish to rest and then I will dress for dinner.”
“I’ll be back in four hours then. I look forward to it.”
While Adam waited in his room, he got a visit from the sheriff. From the expression on the man’s face, he wasn’t bringing any good news.
“The doc’s tests were positive for poison on the rose and in the box of chocolates you found. She apparently only had one chocolate and probably handled the rose to put it in a vase. It was enough because she was such a small woman. Doc figures the poison mostly affected her heart and brain. Lady never had a chance.”
“I’ve been to the only places in town where anyone could buy chocolates or a rose, and not one remembers Senor Luga ever being in their stores. If he did this, he sent someone to do the purchases. After so long, I doubt any of them could recognize the one who did it.”
“I’ll warn Isabella not to accept any gifts like that unless she knows the sender well.”
“Good idea.” The sheriff paused before plunging ahead with his question. “You’re on a first name basis with her?”
“We met years ago in Virginia City. I’m sure that is why Dona Theresa wanted me as executor. We conducted ourselves honorably with her and Isabella on a legal matter then. She must have expected I would do the same again.”
“Makes sense. I wanted to know how things stood. Always good to know what’s going on. Now, I’ll leave you be.”
Not expecting any trouble so soon, Adam was still vigilant as he escorted Isabella to dinner. As they sat at the table, he scanned the room, but no one seemed to be taking any interest in them. Feeling that they seemed to be in a neutral environment, he turned his attention to his lovely companion.
“Well, finally. I thought you were more interested in all these others than in me.”
“I was looking for anything unusual, but I don’t see anything.”
“Adam, I want to get something clear between us. I am not ready for romance. I have had some unhappy experiences with suitors, and I would like some time to adjust to a world without Dona Theresa before I would consider resuming seeing any man. A proper mourning period will be months.”
“Is there someone else in particular that has upset you so?”
“For a man who knew me for only a short time, you do seem to be able to read me only too well.”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want me to know.”
“Some background might help. There were two reasons that Dona Theresa had you named as executor. One was because you knew Luga and she hoped you would know how to take care of him. The other was because she disapproved of my involvement with one man. I have a child, Adam. Sebastian is the father.”
Pausing briefly, Adam thought he might know who it was. “Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada?”
“You know him?”
“I know of him. His reputation is big enough that anyone paying attention to what happens in Mexico would know of him. If I remember correctly, he was once going to be a priest, but has turned his back on that.”
Although Adam wanted to say more of the reputation the man had of going from woman to woman, his expression must have shown too much because Isabella responded as if he had verbalized his thoughts.
“Yes, I fell under his spell as have so many others. But I love him too, and we have a son. Even though I know he will likely never make a commitment to me, he has protected me and our son. He will continue to do so. I cannot accept a suitor under these circumstances.”
“I understand, but why is it so important to tell me that now?”
“Because Dona Theresa hoped you would come here and renew your romantic interest in me, and now what you did makes it seem that is so.”
“What I did? What did I do that warranted a warning to back off?”
“The rose and chocolates you sent me of course.”
Isabella had no idea why Adam grabbed her arm, threw money on the table, and pulled her from her chair. They were walking toward the doctor’s office before he said anything.
When Isabella heard what Adam had to say, she dug in her heels to stop their headlong rush to the doctor’s office. He turned to her to tell her it was urgent that they see the doctor.
“I never touched the rose and I didn’t eat any chocolate. But Maria put the rose in a vase, and if she gives into temptation, she may eat a chocolate or two.”
The sheriff had been watching and had rushed to them as he saw them leave the restaurant in a hurry. Adam was relieved to see him.
“Take care of Isabella.”
Releasing Isabella’s hands, Adam took off running toward the hotel hoping to get there before Maria could kill herself. He was sure the chocolates were poisoned for he could think of no other reason that someone would send chocolates to Isabella in his name. There was no answer at Isabella’s room. The clerk had followed him up because he had called to him that there might be an emergency in Isabella’s room. The man pulled out his passkey and opened the door. Entering first, Adam found what he had dreaded most. Laying on the floor, Maria appeared to be comatose. He picked her up with the clerk’s help and carried her out and down the stairs. Once he was outside the hotel, there were deputies there who said they would take her to the doctor’s office. Isabella was distraught.
“Isabella, you can’t do anything for her right now. Please come upstairs and tell the sheriff what you told me.”
“Then will you let me go to her?”
In the room, Isabella pointed out the box of chocolates now missing one of the six pieces, the rose in the vase, and the small card that said the items were from Adam Cartwright. Carefully, the sheriff gathered those items and left. Then Adam escorted Isabella to the doctor’s office to find out what they could about Maria’s condition. The news was that there was no news. It would be a waiting game to see if Maria would awaken. She was a much larger woman than Dona Theresa so it was hoped that the amount of poison in her system wasn’t enough to kill her. Isabella refused to leave her side, but she wanted to know if the sheriff had found Luga.
Equally interested in that, Adam left promising to return as soon as he knew anything. However he returned much sooner than that scaring Isabella because he was bleeding profusely. The doctor was summoned and found that luckily it was a shallow wound to his upper back. Once Adam was stitched up, he told the sheriff where to find his assailant.
“In the alley closest to the hotel, you will find Luga’s assistant. He knifed me from behind as I walked to the hotel. I only heard him at the last moment or he would have been successful. I managed to get my pistol out, and as we struggled over the knife after he stabbed me, it took some time, but I got the pistol pointed at him and fired. He dropped to the ground but didn’t die right away.”
“Did he say anything?”
“Yes, he was the one who sent the roses and the chocolates. He was responsible for what happened to Dona Theresa and Maria.”
Shocked, Isabella had only questions. “Him? Why?”
“I asked him the same thing. He said we were the only ones standing in the way of Luga marrying you so he was ordered to do it by Luga.”
The sheriff shook his head at that news. “Now, I never saw that coming. We were asking the wrong questions at those shops. We need to go back and ask the right ones. It shouldn’t take long to verify what he said. He had no motive unless what he said was true. We’ll arrest Luga too.”
Although they tried to arrest Luga, when he found his attempt to bluff them didn’t work, he pulled a small pistol from his pocket and attempted to escape. It wasn’t a good move for the portly man. However he was going to face the death penalty anyway, so being shot down by law enforcement was only a swifter road to the same result. No one was going to mourn his passing. Buried in the boot hill cemetery with a simple marker, he was soon forgotten.
The knife used on Adam was dirty which cause him to develop an infection. He had to spend a week under the doctor’s care. He never was a good patient for anyone, and being forced to stay in bed in a strange town with little to occupy his time made it worse. The only good part of the day was that Isabella was in town. Having a friend visit was the bright spot of his day. She had dinner with him every day and told him what she was doing. He approved of her business decisions and as executor of the will had to sign off on all transactions. It wasn’t difficult.
Finally, Isabella talked about her reasons for returning to Mexico. She had a child there. The main reason she was not ready to marry was that she was devoted to her son at this point and still in mourning. She had not known how to tell Adam that she had been married. He accepted the news calmly even if inside, his heart felt heavy. It was then that he knew that he could not cling to any thoughts of the past.
By the time he was healthy enough to leave, she invited him to travel to see her other properties. He declined. He did agree to stay on at her ranch there until the new owners arrived. As a caretaker of the property, he would have time to relax and think about his future. She left, he stayed, and he got a telegram from his brothers.
That Sad Birthday
Each day, Ben watched as Hoss or Joe brought out another item that reminded him of his oldest son who had left seventeen weeks earlier to help Isabella. He wasn’t at all sure he would ever come back, but it appeared his sons were doing their best to remind him that Adam was part of the family. Joe set up the chess board as if someone was going to play because Adam always had that board ready just in case. Hoss put A Tale of Two Cities on the table by the blue chair. A day later, he put a brand-new harmonica next to it as it someone would soon be playing it. Ben guessed that Adam’s impending birthday had made them more aware of the absence much as he felt that hole in his heart ache a bit more each day. If these little things helped them, he wasn’t going to tell them not to do it even if it made the pangs of loneliness even harder for him. He wouldn’t tell them to stop even if his heart shed tears at every step they took to remember their brother.
On the day of Adam’s birthday, Ben was tired. He hadn’t slept much the night before lost in melancholy thoughts for much of the night. Before dinner, he found himself so tired that he sat in the red leather chair and closed his eyes hoping to get some rest before dinner and the inevitable talk about his absent son and all the troubles they knew he faced. The few telegrams and the one letter had not been reassuring as they learned of the activities of Luga and the danger he posed. With Adam’s gift of understatement, they could only imagine how dire the threats to Adam and to Isabella must be. There was nothing Ben could do to help.
Sleeping fitfully in the chair, Ben was startled awake by a loud bang a short time later. Turning to the door, he saw Joe smiling at him.
“Joseph, how many times have I told you to close that door and not slam it!” Something though was odd about how Joe looked because he smiled when his father bellowed at him. Ben turned to Hoss who was sitting on the settee with a huge grin that was so inappropriate to the situation that Ben frowned. As he turned though, he noticed that there was another man in the room sitting in the blue chair.
“Hi, Pa. Surprise! Joe and Hoss reminded me of my impending birthday and how important it would be to you that I be here. They wanted to keep it a secret, but they helped me get home in time.”
“Oh, my Lord, son, I’m so happy to see you.”
Ben stood and went to his son. “Welcome home, son. Welcome home. Now I understand better why I’ve been smelling cake today. I thought it must be my imagination, but now I believe there was a third person in on this secret.”
Dinner was lighthearted and the conversation centered on everything except what was on all their minds. It was after dinner that Adam finally decided it was time to tell all and did. He explained what had happened in great detail and that Isabella had returned to her child and her home in Mexico but no longer was she threatened by Luga.
“I couldn’t do too much while I was recovering. I contacted Hoss, and he helped me with the arrangements to get home. With the lawyer’s assistance, I finished the paperwork I had to complete as executor and stayed on as caretaker of the ranch after Isabella sold her California. Much of the money is invested for her and will continue to supply revenue. I helped her with that as much as necessary. I did my job, and now I’m home.”
Looking around at the looks his family had, Adam had to be honest.
“It is a visit though. I do not plan to stay. I’ve decided to head east and try my hand at other work for a time.”
Ben waited but there was nothing more to add. Most of what had needed to be said had been said before he left to help Isabella. He took some time before leaving though to talk individually with each member of his family. Then he was gone hoping to find that elusive dream that wasn’t even clear to him yet. He did have a friend, Eliot, in Philadelphia, who had a construction business and had offered him work if he ever wanted to move there. It had possibilities, but perhaps he would like Eliot to introduce him into the community and he could start up his own company. The more he thought about that, the more he liked the idea. Using his skills and training but having independence was appealing. At the same time, he would have the benefits of being in one of the larger cities in the country. That area had always held an attraction for him, and now he could explore the opportunities there. Perhaps he could find a woman to love there who would love him. He wouldn’t give up hope.
Hope – six months later
Leaving a party, Adam was as happy as he could remember being. With a young lady on his arm and his business growing, his dream was coalescing quite well. He had taken some teasing at the pary from his friend Eliot.
“You come to town and I help you, and you end up stealing my girl and half my business.”
“Eliot, you introduced me to Rufina. You must have known we would hit it off. You’re married too. What would your wife say if she heard you talk like this?”
“Adam, it was a joke.”
Wanting to be sure, Adam mentioned that the client he had taken from Eliot had been sent to him by Eliot.
“Yes, because I was too busy at the time to handle all that work. I didn’t know you were going to keep him.”
“If it’s a problem, I’ll let him know he should stay with the firm that was loyal to him for so long.”
“Again, Adam, it was a joke.”
Reassured, Adam took the two cups of punch he had sought and returned to Rufina. He never saw the look of hatred on Eliot’s face when he turned his back. His attention was completely on the young lady he had begun to escort to social events. That evening, she had consented to going on a picnic with him. He hoped to get to know her better and perhaps to see about making their relationship a bit more passionate if she was willing. They had so many interests in common, and he found conversations with her so interesting that he lost track of time. There weren’t many women with whom he had found that to be true. Too often they were more interested in trying to find ways to get him to marry them than in finding out what he thought about anything. She had seen him having a conversation with Eliot.
“I saw you talking with Eliot. He makes me nervous.”
“How does he make you nervous?”
“Whenever I look at him, he’s looking at me.”
“Fina, I look at you too.”
“Not the way he does. But let’s not talk about him.”
“What would you like to talk about?”
“I’d like to leave the party a little early so we would have some time with just the two of us. Father wouldn’t mind us sitting on the porch together for a time if you got me home early enough.” She noticed him smiling and cocked her head to the side as if to ask why.
“It’s funny. It’s been a long time since I was with a woman young enough that I had to be concerned with what her father thought. But, yes, I like your idea. I’ll find our host and we can express our gratitude and then leave.”
On the porch swing, there was a little talking but quite a bit of holding and then touching and kissing. When Rufina returned his passion, Adam knew he had made a good choice. If they hadn’t been on a porch swing where anyone could see them, things might have progressed much further. However, he began to have high hopes for their picnic even though he realized too that she was inexperienced. He was going to have to teach her a number of things and thought he was going to enjoy that as well.
Even though it was quite late by the time he returned to his flat, Adam sat down and penned a letter to his father and one to Hoss. He wanted them to know how happy he was with his career and with his life in the city of Philadelphia. Never mentioning Rufina nor even letting on that he had a woman in his life, he guessed they might surmise that from his general good mood. Joe wasn’t getting a letter because his latest scheme was not to write letters trying to pressure Adam into a face-to-face meeting. Adam did have a trip to Salt Lake City to consult on a project there so he could meet once, but it was likely going to be the only such meeting for a year or two or perhaps forever. He knew with Joe’s curiosity that he would read the letter to their father and the one to Hoss. It might be indirect, but he was writing to the kid too. All he could hope was that they were happy for him and at peace with the decisions they had all made.
Learning to Trust Again
Encounter in Laramie
Candy regarded the dark stranger with some hostility. They had been thrown together by circumstance, and they needed each other to survive. At that moment, if he could have picked anyone else, he would have. The man was as prickly as anyone he had ever met, and didn’t seem to care too much about what he said or the reaction he got.
“You don’t trust me much even if I’ve been watching your back for two days.”
“No, that’s not true. It’s not that I don’t trust you much. I don’t trust you at all. I don’t trust anyone. For all I know, you might turn on me at any time. I’m ready for that to happen if it does.”
Frowning, Candy watched the slope down below for any sign of movement. There wasn’t any and hadn’t been for nearly sixteen hours. The man with him scoured the slope below and then a full circle around them scanning even the cliff above them for a sign of danger or any change in what he could see.
“Why do you keep looking up there? They could never get down to us from there.”
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t any danger. I want to make sure I know what the area looks like so I can see if any part starts to look different to me.”
Candy waited a short time to see if he would say anything. Getting impatient, he had to ask. “Well, does it?”
“Yes? When the hell were you going to say something about it. Shouldn’t we move?”
“If we move too soon, they’ll know we saw what they were doing and won’t do it. Let them commit to this course of action. Be ready to move fast though when it’s time. You may lose your blanket though if they drop down some large rocks which is what I think they plan to do. They have their best shooters out front if we try to get away.”
“So we get squashed or shot? You think we ought to stay here to find out. Now there’s a great plan.”
“No, by the angle of the cliff face and the projections that jut out on the way down, nothing can land within five to ten feet at the base here. When we are under attack, we need to get within that space and stay there. There may be dust and certainly some debris thrown at us. If we face the cliff wall, that should be minimal as far as the damage it will do to us and the horses.”
“And do you have a time for this to happen?”
“Soon. They seem to be very active near the edge now. Why don’t you slip over to the horses like you’re tending to them but take the leads and then get ready to go where I told you.”
“Why should I even think of doing what you said?”
The dark-haired man with the silver flecked beard actually looked a bit surprised. “You should trust me, and it’s the only way for you to stay alive at this point.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“Because you’re carrying a small fortune in your saddlebags, and the first night we were together, I didn’t kill you and steal the money.”
“How do you know that I had money? I never saw you near my saddlebags.”
“It’s my business to know things. Now, enough talk. Go to the horses. The men up above are about to make their play.”
It was enough to convince Candy. He did as the man had suggested and moved the horses closer to the face of the cliff wall. When the attack happened, it was a furious few minutes. Large rocks came tumbling down in a cascade and as they hit rocks on the cliff face, they brought more with them. On impact, some shattered and small shards shot out. Most were not large nor did they go very far. A few hit the two men but did little damage. The horses were spooked, and it took all their efforts to keep them from charging off. There was a lot of dust, and it was difficult to see, but a young man coming down on a rope wasn’t hard to spot. They had him as soon as his feet touched the ground. With an arm around his neck and a pistol to his temple, the dark-haired man whispered in his ear.
“You’re going to yell that it worked, and we’re under the rocks. Do anything else and you’re the first of your friends to die.”
The terrified young man nodded. As soon as he was released enough to speak, he yelled out the required information. The pistol never left his head. There was noise out front then as two men could be heard talking as they approached. The dark-haired man nodded at Candy who moved into position as soon as he tied off the horses. When the two men walked into the area, Candy had his rifle aimed at them. Taken by surprise, they couldn’t do anything but surrender dropping their firearms and laying facedown as ordered. The young man was shoved over near them and ordered to do the same. All three were told to put their hands behind their backs as they lay there.
“There are handcuffs in my saddlebags. I’ll get them.”
Soon those three had their hands cuffed behind their backs and a rope tied all of their ankles together. Then they had a question for the youngest one.
“How many more will be coming down from up above?”
“Just one, my brother. Please don’t shoot him.”
“That’s pretty much up to him.”
The fourth one walked into the area without checking assuming that his friends had taken care of everything. He was disarmed and cuffed as well.
“Not many men ride around with handcuffs in their saddlebags.”
“No, not many do.”
“You’re not going tell me why either, are you?”
Candy didn’t get an answer but hadn’t really expected one. He did get a bit more information than he expected though as they talked, and it was enough to make his mouth drop open.
“I’ll need to take these men to Laramie. We’re still in Wyoming Territory, and that’s where the marshal in this district is headquartered. I’ll probably have to stay for the trial, and I do need you to write out everything that happened including detailing what you are carrying that they wanted to steal. You can sign it and I’ll witness it. If necessary, you may be contacted by telegram to verify that you gave that to me.”
“All right, I can do that. But can you answer at least one question for me. Why did they want to kill you? I know they wanted me dead so they could get the money I’m carrying, but you don’t seem to have anything of value.”
“Oh, I do. I testified against their boss. He’s in prison and scheduled to hang in about a week. If they could kill me, then he could appeal for a new trial and without the main witness, he could have a good chance at getting the conviction overturned by a friendly judge. However, as long as I’m alive, even with all the corruption in the system, he has a big problem.”
“So you were the real target?”
“Yes, you became a convenient second target when they found out how much money you were carrying.”
“Won’t you be a target when you go to Laramie?”
“Can’t be helped.”
“It could be if I went with you.”
“I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You’re not asking. I’m offering. All you need to do is say yes.”
Candy could see the difficulty the man had in saying yes. “All right, you don’t have to say yes. I’m telling you I’m riding with you. Seems the best way to safeguard what I’m carrying at the moment.”
The man shrugged. “I guess that would be all right.”
“Would it kill you to say thank you.”
Candy waited, and then laughed as the other man finally cracked a smile.
“Thank you. It’s not often I get help.”
It took them a few days to get to Laramie. Candy filled out a statement as requested about what had happened and then signed it. The man whom he had fought beside and with whom he had traveled leaned down to witness the document. Candy stared at the signature because until then he had only known the man’s first name. When he straightened up, Candy stared at him.
“Yes, you can tell my family I’ll be a bit delayed in my visit. I will have to stay here for the trial. But I have protection here so you don’t have to worry about me.”
Candy was direct in his response. “When does that man get hanged?”
Adam looked over at the marshal.
“Two days if you’re asking about Kemp.”
“I think I’ll hang around for about two days then.”
With a shake of the head, Adam looked at the marshal. “I think I picked up a mother hen on the trail, Nate.”
“Can’t hurt. Once they hear you’re still alive, they might try one more time.” Nate paused wondering if he should ask the next question, but if Candy was staying, he would find out anyway. “You going to be staying out at your place if I need to find you?”
“Yeah.” Adam paused before turning to Candy. “You want to stay at my place or in town here?”
“You got a clean bed at your place?”
Frowning, Adam looked at Nate who grinned.
“I think you found your match there, Adam.”
With a look back at Candy who was grinning, Adam said only one word.
That got a chuckle from Candy who followed him from the office. He wasn’t chuckling though when they got to Adam’s place. From Hoss mostly, he had heard that the oldest Cartwright had been involved in business ventures and traveling and was doing some work for the government. Apparently his family wasn’t too clear on the details mostly because they didn’t know too many of the details according to Hoss. They certainly weren’t aware of Adam’s place not far from Laramie. The house was quite well built, and there were several large stables and a bunkhouse among other buildings nearly surrounded by a number of sturdy corrals.
“I’ve been building up a horse ranch here for years. When I travel and see good horse stock, I buy some and ship them here. Land was cheap, and it’s peaceful and quiet for the most part. But I have access to the railroad as needed.”
“Looks like you’re doing a good business.”
“Not yet, but I made quite a bit on other ventures so I had enough to invest here as needed. Someday this will make a nice profit, but for now it makes a good living for the people I have working for me.”
Soon Candy began meeting those people too as men with rifles converged on them but smiled as soon as they saw it was Adam. Greeting him and taking the horses, they welcomed him back only asking how long he was likely to be staying. He told them he thought a week but only two days for Candy. Next a woman came from the house and embraced Adam.
“I didn’t expect you back. You didn’t have trouble did you?”
“No, not much.”
“Not much except boulders dropped on our heads and people trying to kill us.”
That earned him a glower that the woman noticed. She shrugged.
“He never tells me much about stuff like that. He comes here with wounds and all sorts of bruises and such and the usual is ‘not much’ happened. Thank you for giving me some context. I guess neither of you got shot. I don’t see anything that looks like it’s bandaged. I’m Gail, by the way.”
“Glad to meet you, Gail. I’m Candy Canaday. And no, ma’am, no wounds, but a few scrapes and bruises.”
“Then perhaps a nice warm bath would be in order. I’ll get the cook working on heating water. There’s not enough in the tank for two baths.”
“We have a large tank we heat for hot water, but we did laundry today, and there’s not enough left for two full baths. So we’ll heat some on the stove too.”
At first while the two talked, Adam was quiet but then began walking ahead of them. Gail told him to follow Adam as she headed into the house so Candy went into the washroom behind Adam and was greatly surprised that is was outfitted as well as any he had seen in a big city. There were two large tubs that could be used for baths or to do laundry. He saw the large tank that Gail had mentioned. Although he was busting with questions, he assumed Adam wasn’t in a mood to talk. They shaved first, and Candy waited until the tubs were filled with water and both men were soaking.
“Is Gail your wife?”
“We’re not married. She lives here.”
“Boy, you sure don’t say much. Are you two together, you know, like a couple?”
“We have no commitment to each other. We’re not a couple in any normal sense of the word.”
While Candy had no idea what that meant, he guessed it was complicated and would better be left alone. Relaxing back into the tub, he let all the tension slip away and almost fell asleep. As the water cooled though, he decided it was time to get out. When he did, he noticed the scars on Adam who got out at the same time. By then, he knew better than to ask, but he was certainly curious. Adam resolved the dilemma though but created a new one.
“Most of these scars I had before I left the Ponderosa. I have a few small ones I acquired since then. The only big one my family has never seen is this jagged one across my midsection.”
“That looks nasty like someone was trying to gut you.”
“I think she was trying to kill me but didn’t know how.”
“Yes, Gail is the one who did that to me. She was trying to protect Kemp more than a year ago. He sent her to kill me. She almost did it. Then she saved my life.”
“So she’s here?”
“In my custody. Otherwise they would have put her in the prison. She can’t leave the ranch.”
“She doesn’t seem to mind.”
“It’s hard to tell.”
When they went out to sit down for dinner, Gail took one look at Candy and knew.
“So he told you the story?”
“The gist of it.”
“He never tells the details of anything. Well if you ever want to hear my side of it, ask. You have two days so that should be just about enough time.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear the story.”
Except Candy wasn’t looking at Gail when he said it. He was looking directly at Adam who stared back at him knowing what he was asking. If he said it was all right, it was the same as saying it was all right for his family to know. Although Adam hadn’t been home for a long time, Candy was aware that he corresponded regularly with his father and with Hoss so he knew a lot of what was happening at home. He would know then that whatever Candy knew, Hoss at least would know. Knowing Hoss, he would tell his father and brothers. Candy waited and got a slight nod from Adam. He looked at Gail. She had seen it too.
Eighteen Months Earlier: Survival
Assigned an office near Donald Kemp, Adam Cartwright, under his alias of Adam Black, was making good progress in his investigation. His job was to be an engineer for the railroad project, but his undercover job was to gather evidence of corruption showing bribes and kickbacks of an enormous scale on the project. Initially, the suspicion had been that there were numerous people involved, but as Adam dug into the case, the only name that came up over and over was Kemp’s. Apparently he was the head of the illegal enterprise siphoning government money away from the legitimate project and into his bank accounts by fattening the bank accounts of several Congressmen, a Senator, and numerous businessmen who provided supplies to the project.
Unfortunately for Adam, Kemp was a suspicious man even when there was no cause for suspicion. So although Adam did nothing to arouse any, Kemp still worried about him as he worried about anyone who had access to his project records. So he put a spy in Adam’s office assigning Gail as his clerk.
“I don’t need another clerk. I have all the help that I need.”
“Sir, I need the job. Please, if you don’t let me work here, then they will let me go.”
“All right, as long as you don’t get in the way. Just ask the others what you can do to help. They’re all trained to do what needs to be done.”
“Thank you, sir. You won’t be disappointed.”
Every day, Gail reported to Kemp as did his other spies. Nothing interesting happened until Gail noticed that Adam stayed until everyone in the office was gone. So, she stayed by hiding in a closet and watched out the crack in the door to see what he would do. He left his office and headed into the main office where he used a small lantern and looked into records copying information into a notebook. He did that for nearly two hours before he packed everything up and left. When she was sure he was gone, Gail headed for where he had been to see what he had been checking. It was too hard to see in the dark so she marked the spot with paper markers and came in early the next morning to see where they were. She noted the spots and picked up the paper.
At the end of the day, Gail waited for Adam to leave and then headed up to Kemp’s office. As usual, it was dark until she knocked. Then a door was opened quickly and she was told to get in before the door was shut. For the first time, she had something to report and wasn’t sure how it would be received.
“Well, same thing as usual?”
Kemp’s head snapped around at that. “What?”
“Mister Black has been doing something unusual that you should know. I watched him last night. He stayed until everyone left and then he went to look at these records. I know because I went there after he left and left paper markers that I could find this morning when it was light enough to see. Then this evening, he did the same except he didn’t stay as long. I left paper markers again. They’re still there if you want to go see.”
“Well, well, well, you are beginning to pay off your debt to me.”
“Yes, sir. I did just as you asked.”
“What did he do while he was there looking at my accounts?”
“He was writing things down in a book he had.”
“And then he left?”
“Did he take any of my papers with him?”
“I couldn’t see. There wasn’t enough light for that, and I couldn’t get close enough because he might see me.”
“All right, you keep watching him the rest of the week and keep leaving those markers. I want to see what he’s stealing from me.”
“Yes, of course. He’s stealing information. He’s probably selling it to my competitors. Now, that’s wrong, isn’t it? That’s just as wrong as you taking that money from my accounts to pay the doctor’s bills for your husband and your son. Except our Mister Black is just plain greedy and is stealing like a common thief. Problem is with information, it’s hard to prove. It’s not like with money. You could go to prison, but he could walk away completely free. Now that’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir, it’s wrong.”
Kemp worked on her for a week dangling that threat of prison for the embezzling she had done and then the prospect that Adam would get away with his crimes. Then there was an accident on the railroad construction when a railroad trestle under construction collapsed. Twelve workers died. Kemp told Gail that Adam had ordered shoddy material and pocketed the difference with the records he had altered in his late-night forays. She believed him.
“Now, he’s committed murder as well as theft, and we can’t prove anything.”
“Someone should do something.”
“Gail, you’re that someone.”
“Yes, you worked in a hospital. You know how to take care of a man.”
“Yes, if I sent you with him to the construction site and made sure the carriage broke down, could you find a way to make sure he never came back?” Kemp saw the shock on her face but that she didn’t run away in horror meant he had a chance. “Your debt to me would be paid. You would be doing a favor to society by ridding it of a scoundrel who has committed murder. You would be advancing justice. You would be an avenging angel.”
“But he’s a big strong man.”
“Who couldn’t fight a small pocket pistol. If you sat beside him in the carriage, you could fire it right into his side. You would know right where to aim. He would never know it was coming. Then you could say robbers attacked you. No one would ever suspect you.”
“I suppose a shot into the liver would kill him.” Then Gail realized what she had said. “But that’s cold-blooded murder.”
“Would you rather I take you to the authorities and tell them about the money you stole from me? I felt sorry for you because your husband and son died, so I gave you the chance to work it off, but if you won’t cooperate.”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“So you would rather go to prison than take care of this evil man who steals and murders?”
Kemp waited and then crooked a finger. A man stepped from the shadows that she didn’t even realize was there.
“I’ll make it easier for you. You kill him or this man will kill you. A criminal is a criminal, and I am tired of having criminals working for me.”
Later, Gail knew she should have gone to the authorities at that point, but she was terrified. Instead, fear drove all reason from her. She went home, had trouble sleeping, and came into work the next day to find that all the arrangements had been made. Adam Black was not at all pleased to find she was to accompany him to the construction site. It meant taking a carriage and going by an indirect route taking far more time. Gail was provided a two-shot pocket pistol. She sat beside Adam and said almost nothing as they drove. He was all right with that because he was so unhappy with the whole situation.
When they were far from town and far from the construction site, she began to stir quite a bit on the seat beside him. He was irritated and told her that it would at least two more hours before they reached their destination. It was the last thing he remembered as a hot blazing pain shot across his midsection and he lost control of the team. Gail had chosen a bad time to pull out that pistol. She held it between them to shoot him and couldn’t. She was going to pull it back and tell him the truth of what was happening as the carriage leaned sharply as the road curved. Hanging onto the pistol so she wouldn’t drop it caused her to discharge it. In horror she watched as Adam collapsed sideways losing the reins, and the carriage overturned throwing both of them. Adam fell hard unable to protect himself, and she landed on top of him. Around the curve was a steep slope. The horses dragged the overturned carriage and careened down that slope tumbling into the rocks below killing both horses.
After the noise, there was sudden eerie silence. Everything had gone horribly wrong but Gail realized Adam was still alive. She had fired both shots simultaneously but they had ripped across his abdomen without damaging any internal organs. He was bleeding profusely however, and was unconscious from being thrown from the carriage. Gail could not sit there and watch a man die. Thinking quickly, she tore cloth from her skirts and used his shirt to bind up his wound. It didn’t stop the bleeding but slowed it significantly. She knew that exposure and thirst were his two greatest immediate threats.
Walking to where the carriage had gone down the slope, she could see the items from the carriage strewn along the slope. There was a blanket there as well as what appeared to be a rifle. She carefully picked her way down to those items and retrieved them. She had hoped to find a water bottle or food, but didn’t see either of those. She headed back up to where Adam lay. Smoothing the blanket out beside him, she folded it over by one quarter. She pushed him up and got that part under him. Going to his other side, she pushed him up from that side and unfolded the blanket so that half the blanket was now under him. Settling him down, she pulled the other half of the blanket up and around him.
The next issue was water. Having lived in the west for over twenty years, she knew how to find it. The problem was she didn’t know how to transport it. But she did know. She simply didn’t want to use that method. However it was the only means available. An hour later, she knelt at Adam’s side and pried his lips open putting her lips to his and depositing water in his mouth. Quite a bit spilled out, but he swallowed some. She stood to go get more. By the time she returned, he was somewhat revived although obviously in pain. When she knelt down to give him water, he understood and opened his mouth. After several more trips, he had a question. His voice was weak but clear.
“Why are you doing this?”
“To save your life.”
“But you shot me.”
So she knew that he understood what had happened.
“We can talk about that later. Now, I need to get more water for you.”
A dozen trips later, she was exhausted, and it was getting dark. Adam was asleep too. She took the rifle and sat at his side. Sometime during the night, she heard his voice. He told her to cock the rifle to be ready if she needed it. Then he was asleep again. She didn’t know when, but at some point, she fell asleep too. She awoke chilled and exhausted.
He was persistent.
“Now tell me.”
Knowing what he wanted to hear, she explained the whole situation. As briefly as he could because he was so weak, he told her how she was wrong. Before he passed out, he told her one thing that was important and made her know he was telling the truth.
“The records are hidden where he can’t find them. If I don’t make it, they will be lost, and he’ll get away with it. They’re wrapped in oilcloth in the loft of the livery stable where I keep my horse. No one else knows they’re under the straw in the back corner. There’s enough to at least get the investigation going again. Without me, it probably won’t be enough to convict him.”
“You’re trusting me?”
“No, you could give them to Kemp. But if you do the right thing, the authorities get them. It’s a gamble, but it’s all I have left.”
Too weak to continue, Adam passed out then and woke up in a bed in a doctor’s office. Gail was there as was another agent and a guard. They had not known what to make of the whole story so they waited to see if Adam would wake up and tell them. They did get the records from the livery stable so they had that.
“Does Kemp know I’m alive?”
“Not yet. After what we heard, the marshal here decided it might be best to keep the whole thing under wraps. It’s why she’s here and not in the jail.”
“She tried to kill me.”
“She admitted that.”
“She saved my life.”
“We weren’t so sure of that part.”
“She told you where the records were?”
“Yes, one of the first things she said to us after we found the two of you. If you’re agreeable to the idea, we’ll take you out to your place as soon as you can travel.”
“She can come too.”
“You sure about that?” Adam’s look was all he needed. “All right. We can probably protect both of you better there than anywhere. It’s quite a trip from here though.”
“Make sure there’s a soft mattress in the wagon.”
Within a week, Adam was on his ranch, and Gail took up residence there and never left. When he was arrested, Kemp found out that Adam Black was an alias and had been a plant by the government. Furious to find out that Adam was alive, Kemp sent out orders for men to find him and kill him. That proved more difficult than expected considering they had to get to his ranch undetected. None managed it, and Adam testified at Kemp’s trial which led to his conviction. Because of some men being captured in forays onto Adam’s ranch, there were additional witnesses to Kemp ordering murders. He got the death penalty. Gail got a suspended sentence and a furlough on Adam’s ranch. Thinking it was finally over, Adam had decided to head home for a long overdue visit when he had met up with Candy. When he had heard the name, he knew who it was and so began their ill-fated trip and then their return to Laramie.
Listening with fascination, Candy had spent most of the first day on the ranch hearing Gail’s story. She had not whitewashed any of it. Moving in and out of the house, Adam heard bits and pieces of it but chose not to participate in the retelling of a story he knew so well.
“How long is your sentence?”
“What does that mean?”
“When Adam goes to court and says I can be trusted or I get married.”
“Anybody I guess. The court seems to think I would be fine as long as I had a husband to watch over me.”
“Do you want to marry her?” Adam had come in the house and heard the last part of the conversation.
Looking at Gail, Candy could see how she felt about what he said. With eyes glistening with tears, she excused herself to go see how dinner was coming along. Candy turned on Adam.
“That was cruel?”
“Why? If you marry her, she’s free to go.”
“Because she so obviously is in love with you.”
“Don’t go there. She tried to kill me. She can’t love me.”
“Why not? When we got here, I thought she was your wife because she looked so happy to see you, and you wrapped an arm around her like you cared. Everything she does shows that she loves you. I don’t know why you don’t see it.”
“He doesn’t trust me. He doesn’t trust anyone.”
Gail had come back into the room after hearing Candy’s angry voice. She turned to Candy.
“Please don’t argue on my behalf. It is what it is. I’m lucky not to be in prison after all that I did. I can’t ask for anything more. Now dinner is almost ready. Let’s drop this topic, please.”
In order to avoid any unpleasant situations, Candy stuck to more pleasant topics including telling Adam about changes on the Ponderosa. Topics were the physical alterations or business operations though because he didn’t want to get into any of the family dynamics guessing those might set off some negative responses. Late the second day, Nate rode into the yard of the ranch with news they had been expecting. Kemp had been executed so they assumed the danger to Adam as well as by extension to Gail was over. Candy made plans to leave the next morning, and Adam told him he would be on the Ponderosa as soon as he could. The trial was scheduled to begin in two days and wouldn’t likely last more than a day. Then he could travel too.
“Maybe Gail would like to see the Ponderosa too.”
“Don’t push that issue.”
“I’m not. I wouldn’t mind seeing her again, and I think she could use a break from being cooped up here on this ranch and never being able to leave.”
“I’m a little gun-shy, you could say, about traveling with her.”
“Aw, that was a long time ago.”
“Maybe she could travel with you. I’ll be there in less than a week. You could explain the whole thing to my family and see what they think.”
That made Candy gulp. “Well, maybe we don’t need to explain it all.” He paused though to consider the offer Adam had made. It was after all a concession even if it wasn’t what he had asked. “All right. She can travel with me. If she wants to go. It’ll be good for her. Do you want to tell her or should I?”
“I’ll tell her.” It was a softer tone of voice than Candy was used to hearing, and he hoped it meant Adam’s attitude was warming to the idea too. Before they left, he had one more question for Adam that wasn’t nearly as important.
“I’m curious about one thing, and you don’t need to answer if you don’t want to.”
“That’s a given.”
“You are the most cantankerous man.”
“Not a good place to go if you want me to answer your question.”
Candy found it nearly infuriating the way Adam had that little smile and leaned up against the stall post as they talked. At that point, he realized how often Adam had gotten him upset, a little or a lot, and got him talking so that he had said a lot more than he intended to say. At that moment, he knew that Adam was doing it on purpose or at least by habit.
“I bet that’s real useful in your job the way you can get people all riled up and talking. You must find out a lot of information that way. I don’t think I like you doing it to me though.”
All he got for that was a smirk. He liked Adam but could see why he had heard those stories about Adam and Joe getting into tangles. With Joe’s temper and the way Adam was, there were bound to be some combustibility. He still wanted to ask his question.
“I know you write to your father and to Hoss. Why not Joe?”
“I do, but not nearly as often. I don’t want to upset him.”
“Why would that upset him?”
Candy watched Adam as he clearly considered whether to answer that question. Apparently he decided it wasn’t giving too much away because he opened up and answered in some depth.
“Perhaps not upset him so much as put him in a quandary. I used to write to all three of them, but he told me in a letter that he preferred face-to-face conversation. In his letter to me, he insisted that on my next trip, he wanted to rendezvous and talk. Well I was making a trip to Salt Lake City so that worked. I think his plan was to manipulate me into visits home. That didn’t work out. He was plotting or scheming to try to get me to set my schedule of travel so that I could visit more. I know his motives were good, but it wasn’t practical for me. Now, if I send a letter, he has to reject it as not the visit I’m supposed to be making or admit his scheme has failed. He hates to admit defeat.”
“He does like to scheme and he sure does hate to lose.”
“Anyway, I assume he knows everything with the letters Pa and Hoss get.”
“I guess he does.”
“So it works for communication.”
“Except for him not getting letters.”
“Yeah, there is that. It is a bit odd, but when I send a letter, I don’t get a reply.”
“Have you sent one lately?”
“No, I’ve been rather preoccupied the last two years.”
Keeping his thoughts to himself on that, Candy went to the house and packed. He helped Gail decide what she would need for the time on the Ponderosa. Then they headed out. He and Gail got to talk quite a bit on the trip. They both drew the same conclusion. Someone and perhaps more than one person had hurt Adam quite seriously, and he had not yet recovered. They wondered whether it was many hurts that cumulatively had created his defensiveness or if there had been one serious blow. It took Hoss to shed some light on that when they got a chance to talk to him about it.
Though the Cartwrights were surprised when Candy arrived with Gail, when he said she was a houseguest of Adam, they simply shrugged. Apparently they were used to not being informed of things in Adam’s life so being surprised was not an unusual occurrence. Hoss though was more interested in Gail than simply as a guest. That was apparent almost immediately as he spent as much time with her as he could. Candy felt that he had a responsibility in her regard so the three of them were often together. Many times they ended up talking about Adam. At that stage, Hoss didn’t mind too much as long as he got to be with her and talk with her.
“You know there were a lot of little events, some our fault, some his, that probably added up to him not being so sure he could trust other people. Along the way, he made some poor choices for friends, that’s for darn sure, but it was for good reasons. He wanted to see the good in people. Wanted to help them, you know. Another problem was we all are guilty one time or another of letting him down pretty badly. But there’s one thing that really changed him.”
Hoss told them then about Laura. Adam had been engaged to marry her, but she took up with their cousin Will behind his back. He ended up giving them his blessing and saying it was for the best.
“But you know, he was never the same after that. She done tore a big hole in his heart especially tearing her daughter Peggy away from him like that, and it never did heal up. He really did love that little gal. Other things happened that only made it worse.” Hoss frowned. “You know though, it hardly seems to be enough even with all that. I’m wondering if there was something else I don’t know about. But I will tell you what I know when there’s time.”
When the telegram arrived announcing that Adam was returning because Kemp had been executed and there was nothing to delay travel, preparations began for his return. In the few days before Adam arrived on the Ponderosa, Candy and Gail learned about some of those other things that had affected his life before he left the ranch originally. They heard the stories of Adam’s failed romances with Rebecca, Ruth, and especially Regina. They learned about Howard, Sam, and other friends who had taken advantage of Adam. Three of his friends, Young Wolf, Ross Marquette, and Carl Regan had even tried to kill him. Then Hoss admitted how he had beaten his brother once because of what he thought Adam had done with Regan whom Hoss had intended to marry. He told them how it hurt his brother when he and their father had doubted Adam when he accused Bill Enders of murder, and how Joe had unfairly accused Adam of attacking Melinda Banning when she lied about kissing Adam. That had all happened within about a six-year period seriously damaging Adam’s confidence and his relationship with the family. Candy and Gail were amazed at the stories.
“So he left because of all that?”
“No, Candy, he said he left because he had things he wanted to do, places he wanted to see, and such as that. But I gotta believe some of what happened helped push him into that decision. I’d hoped he’d find some happiness, but it sure sounds like that didn’t happen. I thought at first maybe he had, but then a couple of years ago, he up and switched what he was doing and went to work for the government. Ain’t told us much at all about what he’s doing, but his letters been rare and kinda gloomy ifn you know what I mean.”
They got the picture. Meanwhile of course, Ben and his sons were insatiably curious about Gail. Respecting Adam’s privacy, neither Candy nor Gail told them much of anything other than that she was a friend of his and had helped him in an important case he had completed. It was clear the family wasn’t that pleased that he was working for the government and didn’t understand why he was doing that. Candy and Gail didn’t know either when they learned that Adam had been working at various engineering and architectural jobs when he suddenly began working for the government giving up what had seemed to be a lucrative and satisfying career. However neither felt it was their place to speculate on his motives or to give out more information that he might not like them knowing. So they waited for his arrival assuming he would tell his family as little or as much as he wanted them to know. It didn’t stop the family from probing nor the discussion from happening though.
“So this wasn’t a choice as a career when he left here but a sudden switch a couple of years ago?”
“Yeah, it surprised us all. Never expected Adam to take up a career with the law although he was always good at figuring out stuff like that. Just never saw him doing it for a job. He seemed like he enjoyed what he was doing in Philadelphia, and then all of a sudden, he didn’t.”
“So something must have happened in your brother’s life that made him change his way of looking at things.”
“Candy, that does seem to be the way of it. Darned if I know what that was. Must have been quite an experience though to make him change his life around so much.”
For Gail, being on the Ponderosa was a life changing experience for she had never seen anything so grand and beautiful in her life. Every day was filled with wonder and delight as Candy and then Hoss showed her around the ranch. She began to see a side of life she had never experienced, and spend time with men who treated her with respect and consideration like she had never received. Hoss asked Candy directly about Adam’s relationship with Gail, but Candy wouldn’t divulge anything.
“You’re a lot like Adam that way. He won’t say nothing neither less he wants me to know it.”
“According to the telegram you got, he should be here late tomorrow. You can ask him yourself and see if you get an answer. I don’t think it’s up to me to tell his family his business.”
The look Hoss gave him let him know that Hoss didn’t expect Adam to explain any more than Candy had. That was true at first when Adam got home, but as Adam saw that Hoss was showing interest in Gail, he began to struggle with how much he should tell his family about her and about what had brought him to the job he had. It was all painful to remember, and at first, he continued to maintain his silence about those things. The more he thought about it though, the more bad dreams assailed him at night. There were so many images that haunted him and then the dreams got worse as he relived some of the worst moments of the previous couple of years. He remembered the confrontations that had led to his abrupt departure from his career, his fiancée, and the men he had thought were his friends, and relived all too often those excruciating hours laying out in the cold thinking he was dying with a horrible gash across his abdomen that was slowly seeping away his blood even as the pain sapped his strength. Those memories began to dominate his dreams and ended his sleep prematurely each night. From their bedroom windows, Hoss and Ben saw him walk across the yard to the barn in the early morning hours. The head down and the slow pace showed a troubled man. Until he was willing to talk though, there wasn’t much they could do to help him.
Thinking he might be able to help, Hoss got up after a few days of that and headed out to the barn. When he got there, he found Adam sitting on a crate and mending some harness by the light of a lantern. Without even looking up, Adam greeted him by name.
“I wondered when I’d get a visit from you. I tried to be quiet, but I figured you and Pa would notice at some point.”
“Been seeing you do this for days now. Finally decided it wasn’t just a one or two-time thing. Best you talk to me about it or none of us gonna be getting any sleep.”
“I figured as much. It was that or you was worried about me and Gail. I ain’t stepping in on you, Adam. I ain’t tried to kiss her or nothing like that. I like her, and I only been trying to make her stay here nice enough.”
“Hoss, you wouldn’t be stepping in on me. You’d be doing me a favor.”
“You ought to kiss her. If you both like, maybe even more.”
“I thought I was being very clear.”
“But she’s in love with you.”
“I don’t know if that’s true, or if she’s grateful. However, I can’t love her, or at least not enough. I can never trust her enough to truly love her.”
“Why not? I know it’s hard for you to trust folks after things you been through, but she doesn’t seem like one you couldn’t trust.”
Cocking his head to the side, Adam made a decision. Unbuttoning his shirt, he knew he was puzzling his brother, but he had to show him. When he pulled his shirt open and showed the jagged scar across his abdomen, Hoss’ eyes got wide.
“That’s why I can’t trust her. Gail tried to kill me, and this is the result. I’m lucky to be alive. Her bad timing and poor aim saved my life. Oh, and her regret over what she’d done so she did what she could to keep me alive until I could get to a doctor helped too.”
So Adam told a speechless Hoss the whole story about Kemp and how he blackmailed Gail into doing it.
“I understand why she did it. I know what kind of pressure she was under. She thought they would kill her if she didn’t kill me. However, you have to understand now why I can never fully trust her. I can forgive her to a point, but never completely.”
“If she did that, why isn’t she in prison?”
“She got a suspended sentence. She is furloughed in my custody. I didn’t think prison was appropriate for her, and I worried about what would happen to her if she went to prison even for a short time. She made a serious mistake but was coerced into it.”
“Forced to do something she didn’t want to do because she was afraid of being killed.”
“Yeah. Well, where does she stay when you’re working cause I know you travel around some?”
Leaning back, Adam closed his eyes because he knew he had talked himself into a corner and had to admit more. Resigned to telling about his life in greater detail than he intended when he started the conversation, he was honest. “She stays at my ranch.”
“What? You got a ranch?”
“I have a small horse ranch in Wyoming. I have had it for quite a while. As I traveled over the years, I saw so many horses I liked, and I wanted to have. I started buying some. I knew Pa doesn’t like horses here that aren’t working horses so I needed a place for them. Land was cheap in Wyoming, and I found a small ranch for sale. I bought it, and I fixed it up some.”
By then, Hoss was grinning. “Fixed it up some, huh? You finally got to put all them things in a ranch you been wanting to do here, didn’t ya?”
At that, Adam had to smile. “Well, some of them.”
“It’s a darn nice place too.” Candy had walked into the barn without either man noticing. “Your father was wondering where the two of you were and asked if I had seen you.”
“I guess we all ought to go in for breakfast. We have been talking so long it even distracted Hoss from eating.”
Hoss had a question first before he followed that advice from Adam. “Adam, how much can I say about what we talked to the rest of the family?”
Thinking about that briefly, Adam decided it would probably be easier for Hoss to tell them than for him to have to do it so he shrugged. “As much as you want to tell, but you should let Gail know first that you know and that you’re going to do that. She’s likely to be uncomfortable about it, but better it come out under friendly circumstances than when something goes wrong. It seems something always goes wrong.”
“Oh, yeah, it’s really about her. I am kinda worried what Pa is gonna say. But you’re right that sooner or later, he’s gonna find out, and better he hears it right off than when something happens. I sure hope nothing bad happens.”
All three of them wondered about that and then about whether Ben could be forgiving of what Gail had done. Then Hoss grinned.
“He forgave the Hoad family and Billy, and both of them tried to kill ya though. One little gal shouldn’t be too much to ask.”
With a glare, Adam punched him in the shoulder for that, but Hoss only laughed. However when Candy heard the names Hoad and Billy when Hoss was explaining why he thought Ben would accept Gail and forgive her past, he had more questions wondering about those stories and about them trying to kill Adam. There were going to be more and more questions now that Adam had opened the door.
The next day was Sunday, and Ben and the family went to church services. Hoss asked Gail to go too, and she accompanied him in a carriage. Adam declined. After making so many revelations at home, he wasn’t at all in the mood to deal with a lot of questions and knew there would be many if he showed up with his family at church.
After church, Ben asked the others if they could find something to do for the afternoon because he had plans. If he could, he wanted to talk with Adam and hoped to pry something out of him. He knew it wouldn’t happen if there were others around. When he arrived home, Adam knew exactly what his father wanted and had been expecting it and going through in his mind how to tell his story. He hoped a bare bones story would be enough and tried that first when his father began his appeal.
“Adam, I know you’re a troubled man. It doesn’t take much to know something went terribly wrong for you a couple of years ago. I’d like to help, but I can’t, no one can, if you won’t tell us what happened.”
“It’s been five years, Pa. A lot has happened. We’re not the same people we were.”
“No, we’re not, but you’re still trying to do what you’ve done your whole life when you didn’t want to talk about something. You start to distract by talking about something else.”
“But all that change does make a difference. You have another son now, and Candy lives here almost like part of the family.”
“That doesn’t change that you are my son, and I am concerned and want to help. So do all the others. It’s no accident that we have some privacy here.”
“I’d rather guessed that.”
“I want to know what happened in your life. Your letters didn’t say much, but the tone changed dramatically a couple of years ago. At the same time, you changed the direction of your life and communication became so infrequent that sometimes we were afraid for you. It does seem that was justified now that we know what happened. Most of the time, you hardly said more in those letters than what a stranger would say. Whatever happened must have hurt you terribly to make you change your life and your behavior so much.”
The way Adam was sitting, his mannerisms, and reactions to every change in the conversation told Ben that he did want to talk. Leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees and his fisted hands at his mouth as he stared ahead, Adam showed his father that he was thinking about what to say. He guessed that Adam hadn’t talked to anyone about this, whatever it was, since it had happened, and he needed a sounding board but hadn’t worked out yet how to tell the story. Without a person he trusted, he was only going to be hearing his own thoughts over and over, and sometimes that put a man in a circle of logic that was hard to break. Without another point of view to point out other issues, it could be impossible to go forward. Ben suspected his son was trapped that way. The next words confirmed his belief that Adam wanted to talk. Delivered softly and almost in a monotone, they had an impact far beyond that.
“It’s an ugly story.”
“I didn’t expect it to be anything but an ugly story. I want to hear it though. I want you to tell me what you can and help me understand.”
“Pa, it started out as a good story. I was ready to send the good news to you except I was a bit embarrassed at some of the details, or rather one of the details.”
When Adam paused with the hint of a smile, Ben had a guess.
“You met a woman and things went further than you expected faster than you anticipated?”
Still smiling slightly, Adam appreciated his father’s kindness in talking about what was such a sensitive topic with him. “That’s such a polite way of saying that. Yes, we were going to be married because she was with child. I met her through my work. She was the daughter of a client, and much younger, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter. We had so many interests in common, and she was willing to travel, to follow me wherever I would go. She said her home was wherever I would be. So even though the marriage wasn’t planned, I liked the idea. I loved her. I more than liked the idea. I thought it was a great idea, and she seemed to think it was good too.”
“That sounds so much like your mother. I understand the attraction. But what went wrong?”
The small smile disappeared. “I never saw it coming. That sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? I got into some rather nasty competition in business. Bids were undercut, work sites were sabotaged and vandalized, and various other methods were used to cause cost overruns and cut profits. I was likely going to lose money on several projects until a prospective partner offered to step in and finance all the projects. He was a friend or so I thought. However the conditions placed on the deal were unacceptable.”
“Definitely, and I would have been tied into the corruption in Philadelphia with no way out. I knew that Eliot had some rather questionable friends and had been involved in equally shady deals, but I never knew how deep in the corruption he was. He was ready to pull me in too. Then they could hold it over me, and I would never be free of them. I said no. I said I would take my losses and keep going even if my company would be smaller or even go bankrupt. I still had my skills. I could go elsewhere and start over. That’s when he hit me with a low blow.”
“What could be worse?”
“Eliot said they would plant documents that I had already done what they wanted me to do so I looked dirty and there would be no way to keep going or start over. And it got worse. He said that I would enjoy raising his bastard child too. I was going to throttle him then, but there were men there who stopped me. He left laughing while they held me back. I went to her and demanded to know if she could swear the child was mine. She couldn’t. She stood there refusing to answer my question.”
“Was she so affronted by the question that she wouldn’t answer?”
“No, I could tell from her reaction that she didn’t want to tell me the truth. She was shocked that I asked her, but she was silent. I saw tears. I guess she knew it was over.”
“I’m so sorry you had to go through that again.”
Both knew Ben was referring to Laura’s betrayal.
“That night, I went to a judge I knew and told him everything I knew. I said it didn’t matter because I was ruined. He called in some federal agents who took down everything I could recall. I had never participated in bribes and kickbacks, but I knew about them: who did what, when, and with whom. I told them what I knew. It turned out her father was one of the men involved. I found that out a few months later. Anyway, it didn’t take long and they offered me a job. There was a man by the name of Kemp who was getting government contracts and was wildly corrupt, but because of bribes and kickbacks, he was getting away with it. They had no idea of all that he was really doing but knew it was substantial. Because of my skills, I could go in as an employee of his and have access to everything there. It worked, and I uncovered what he was doing.”
“What about your fiancé?”
“I haven’t seen her since that night.”
“But Adam, she could have your child.”
“I know, but I don’t know what to do about it.”
“What about Gail?”
“What about her?” Ben noted how his tone of voice changed.
“Surely you can see that Hoss is growing very fond of her. Is that a problem for you? Do you love her? Because anyone can tell she has strong feelings for you.”
“No, I do not love her. I care for her only as much as I would care for a friend, a colleague. She did save my life but only after she tried to kill me. Pa, I could never trust her. I have tried to forgive her, and in most ways, I guess I have, but it’s not complete. It never will be. There will always be a part of me that remembers she took a pistol to my side and pulled the trigger. She may be staying at my house, but I have to tell you, I have a large lock on my bedroom door. From the first night when I found it impossible to sleep, I realized I could never forget that moment when those bullets ripped across my midsection.”
“It was a little two-shot pistol, and when she fired, both little barrels fired at once. It may be another reason why her aim was off. The recoil was probably quite strong with both barrels firing. I know she was under extreme duress, but it doesn’t change what she did to me.”
“She told Hoss she was changing her mind and pulling the pistol away when the carriage went around a corner and she fired with the pressure of hanging onto the pistol.”
“Yes, she’s told me that too, but I don’t know whether to believe her or not.”
“There’s that matter of trust. Hoss believes her, but you doubt her.”
“That’s the gist of it. In my mind, I’ll never be sure of what happened out there.”
“What if Hoss wants to marry her? The way he’s acting with her, I think he may be heading in that direction. I know better than to try to get in the way, but I do hope he’ll come and talk to me about it. She made two serious mistakes in what she did, but both times she was under duress. I think she’s a good person but failed under pressure. I’m worried what will happen if she gets under pressure again. What could she be convinced to do with a threat against her?”
“I think it might be all right with Hoss to watch over her, but don’t ever let her handle money. She needs to avoid temptation. She probably needs someone there too whenever an important decision needs to be made because I don’t think she handles any kind of pressure well. She did all right saving my life, but there was no other choice for her there.”
“You may be right about how to deal with the situation. Thank you for telling me what you did. I assume there may be more you haven’t said, but I think I understand why you are so troubled. Until you settle things with your fiancé, I don’t think you’ll be able to find any peace. I know you find it hard to trust after all that’s happened. Perhaps after what happened with Laura and her betrayal, you may have found it too hard to even consider talking with your fiancé?”
“I don’t know. How could I trust anything she said now?”
“Adam, you have to take the whole person when you judge that. Laura had a habit of concealing the truth. What she did with Will was the most serious, but it was a continuation of a trait she had already exhibited, wasn’t it?”
Frowning, Adam had to nod in agreement.
“All those little lies and hiding the truth showed a character flaw in Laura that only was shown at its worst when she took up with Will. Now, your fiancé, and what is her name? It seems odd to refer to her in such a general way.”
“Rufina, but most call her Fina. She never liked her given name.”
“All right, now had Rufina lied to you in any way before that issue came up?”
“Not that I know.”
“Apparently, you knew her well, and you are the type to notice things, so let’s make that a no. Now, had she done anything else that you would consider immoral or illegal?”
“I get your point.”
“I hope so. We all make mistakes. I certainly made enough with you. I often didn’t understand you or what you were thinking or wanted. But I hope you don’t think that meant I loved you less or cared about you less. I think we can say the same about your brothers.”
Pausing, Adam stared at the fireplace. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes.”
“Perhaps she made a mistake. Perhaps there is another explanation. Doesn’t she deserve at least the right to tell you?”
“After all this time, I don’t know if she would. She’s may be young, but she’s a rather proud and stubborn woman. I didn’t trust her. I was the one to break the bonds between us.”
“At the least, don’t you think you need to find out if you have a child? But before you go, there’s one other thing you need to do.”
“You need to tell Gail that there is no future for the two of you.”
“I have told her.”
“No, tell her as directly as you told me and tell her why. Tell her about the lock on your bedroom door and why it’s there.” Adam looked like he wouldn’t do that. “You don’t have to tell anyone else, but if you tell her that, she will finally understand that you will never trust her. Without trust, there is no love, at least not the love that she wants or any man and woman would want.”
Although Adam didn’t answer, he didn’t say no either so Ben knew he was likely going to do as requested. He would have to work out the best way to accomplish the task, but he was committed to doing it. For the rest of the afternoon, Adam was quiet even as the others returned home and conversation became lively. His somber mood continued through dinner, and then, before Hoss could ask, Adam invited Gail to walk outside with him. She looked pleased, and Hoss was going to say something until Ben put a hand on his arm. He waited until he heard Adam and Gail leave the house.
“We’ve got dessert. There will be plenty for you to have seconds.”
“It will be all right, Hoss. They need to talk.”
About a half hour later, Adam walked inside and motioned to Hoss.
“You should go outside to be with Gail. She should have someone with her right now, and I doubt she wants to be with me. She may or may not want to talk.”
As Hoss stood to go, Ben handed him a large white handkerchief. “Be gentle, son. Now I think this is all going to work out.”
Walking to the brandy, Adam looked at his father who nodded. Candy and Joe both mentioned that they wouldn’t mind. Adam poured four and served them looking at Jamie and assuming their father didn’t let him drink yet. Ben saw the look.
“No, he doesn’t drink yet. Like you and your brothers, he can drink when he’s working full time. Then he will be a man and deserve the right.”
Frowning, Jamie had an objection. “But if I go to college, does that mean I don’t get to drink until I’m done? I’ll be twenty-two by then.”
“That isn’t that long to wait.”
Turning to Adam, Jamie decided to see if he had an ally. “Adam, did you drink when you were in college? I mean, you were there at about the same age as I’ll be when I go.”
“To be honest, yes, I did.”
Jamie looked triumphantly at their father.
“Of course, I was working full time on the ranch by the time I was thirteen. I did my schoolwork in the evenings to pass the tests so I could go to college.”
Ben had some idea it was coming, but Joe and Candy spit out some of their brandy as they laughed at the stricken look on Jamie’s face when he got the addendum to Adam’s original statement.
“Oh, Lord, that was priceless. Joe, your brother has a way with words.”
“I told you that, Candy. He can sling a word arrow in there better than anyone.”
“He’s kinda fun to have around. Why didn’t you keep him when you had him?”
“Sooner or later, he turns on you and you get a hide full of those word arrows. They can sting. Makes you forget how much fun it is when he slings them at other people.”
“Makes you realize it is kinda mean.”
“I’m right here.”
“Sure, Adam, we know. Me and Candy are only giving you a dose of your own medicine. How’s it taste?”
There was more of that until Hoss walked in with Gail. He walked with her to the stairs, and she went up to her room. Shoving his hands into his front pockets, Hoss dropped his head as he ambled over and sat with the others. Looking at Adam, Hoss had a few words but wasn’t upset with him.
“I know you had to tell her. It was good to be honest with her. She’s taking it hard though even if it was the best thing to be up front with her so she knows where she stands. She can go forward now soon as she realizes what she was hanging onto wasn’t real. She was hoping things was gonna change, and now she knows that ain’t gonna happen.”
“I’m sorry she was hurt, but I didn’t know what else to do that wouldn’t hurt her. If it helps at all, I’m going to be taking a trip so I won’t be around for a while. That should let her calm down and get used to the idea.”
Ben looked pleased.
“There is one problem though. She can’t come with me and she’s in my custody. I have to transfer her custody to someone else who has a place for her to stay.”
Before he said any more, Adam’s brothers and Candy were grinning. They knew where he was going with this conversation.
“Pa, I’d like to put her in your custody and assign her to the Ponderosa.”
“But Adam, this place is mostly men.”
“Yes, responsible men, and there is one in particular who, I assume, will watch over her and make sure she stays out of trouble.”
“But you’re based in Wyoming now and that’s where the trial was. Doesn’t she have to go back to Wyoming where the crime was committed and the sentence pronounced?”
“She’s a federal prisoner. She’s in custody as long as she’s in the states and territories this country has. Pa, you can keep making excuses, but if you say no, she has to be sent to a prison until such time as I can resume custody if I wish to do so.”
Raising his hands in surrender, Ben agreed to the plan. Hoss couldn’t wait and went up to tell Gail knocking on her door with some enthusiasm. With the loud knocks, she expected more bad news and answered the door looking worried until she saw his big grin.
“Lordy, Gail, it’s great news. Adam is leaving on a trip.”
“Well, that is a relief, but it’s hardly great news.”
“No, that’s not the great news part. He’s got to give your custody to somebody when he’s gone cause you’re not on his ranch in Wyoming. He picked Pa and the Ponderosa. You’re staying here.”
“You betcha! Ain’t that wonderful? You said you thought we needed more time especially after what Adam said to ya, and now we got it.”
“Hoss, that is wonderful. I can sleep a lot better tonight. Now we can make some plans and not worry about when I’ll have to leave.”
Hoss reached for her hand to pull her closer, and he hoped she would respond. She did, and for the first time, she had no hesitation and yielded to a kiss from Hoss.
“Thank you, Hoss. You are a sweet man. Thank you too for understanding and for being so strong.”
“Gail, I’m gonna sleep right well tonight too. In fact, I ain’t gonna wash these lips at all cause you kissed em.”
Everyone in the house slept well that night except Adam. He dreamed of laying on the ground and listening to swarming flies buzz around the wound in his belly as blood oozed out and dripped into the parched earth. Laying there in the sun and later in the darkness, he thought he was dying and felt more helpless and alone than he had felt in his life except for that time in the desert with Kane. He had almost died that time too and that episode intruded in his dreams as well. He dreamed of a former friend who had turned on him like a venomous snake and spewed a horrible accusation. Of course he also dreamed of the pain of confronting the woman he loved and not getting the answer he so desperately wanted to hear. Because of those dreams, in the morning, he felt more exhausted than when he had gone to bed. Packing for the trip to Philadelphia, he ticked off in his mind the things he had to do. In need of a plan, he was working on it evaluating each part for possible pitfalls.
Asking for Forgiveness
When Adam arrived in Philadelphia, he took a room in an out of the way hotel and went to the federal building where he had first been offered his commission to let them know he was in town. There were a number of men there who remembered him and the role he had played in the investigation that was continuing. Adam did look different in that he had shaved off the facial hair he had when he had lived there previously. He looked more fit and trim, and was even darker with the tan he had. They asked why he was there, and he was honest.
“I have a monumental task. All I have to do is to find a way see my former fiancé, convince her to leave with me, finding a way to do that, and manage it all without being killed when her father lets his associates know I’m in town.”
They wished him luck with that.
“I’m going to need a lot more than luck. I may need your help. I won’t need you to do much of anything except drive a few carriages if it all works out. I have the basics of a plan if Fina agrees. Do you suppose a few of you would be willing to do that part?”
After he explained what he had in mind, they wished him luck again and added that they would help if he managed all the first parts of his plan. In addition, they offered the offices there as safe refuge if he pulled off what he wanted to do. They reminded him that he hadn’t worked out how to get out of the city and how to get to Nevada.
“I admit I have not gotten that far in planning yet. I’ve been making this up as I go, and I need to make arrangements for the carriages too if she agrees to do as I ask. I needed to be here to see what I could do.”
They told him they would work on the escape with him when he got back there to let them know if she agreed to go with him as he hoped. They all knew it would be an escape too because her father wasn’t going to accept Adam whisking his daughter and grandson away.
When Adam arrived at Rufina’s home, a butler answered the door so he knew the family fortune was still substantial even if her father had probably lost quite a bit because of him. Rufina came to the door but did not invite him in.
“Father is home. He’ll know soon that you’re here.”
“I didn’t come to see him.”
“Why did you come?”
“Fina, I wanted to see you and talk to you.”
“It seemed you told me in our last encounter that you were done with me.”
“I was a complete ass and a fool. I cannot take that away, but I would like to talk to you about that situation.”
“Situation? You stand there and have the nerve to call it a situation. I have a child. I am not married. Do you have any idea what that means in this city? Do you have any idea what that means for my child? It was cruel and nasty of you to do what you did. It was heartless not to even let me talk to you about it.”
Rufina was furious, and Adam accepted that he deserved anything she had to spew at him. He had felt relieved when she said she wasn’t married though because he had been worried that she would have married for convenience under the circumstances. She was taken aback though by his response. He seemed meek and not at all what she expected. “You’re awfully quiet. You’re not dying are you?”
“No, I’m not dying, although being in the city does put me at some risk.”
“Then why are you so quiet?”
“I deserve everything you’re saying and a lot more.”
“You knew that before you came to the door, so why did you come here?”
“I want to ask your forgiveness, and I can’t do that until you have punished me to your satisfaction. I don’t know how long that will take, but I’ll have to accept your terms whatever they are because everything that happened to you is my fault.”
“Well, maybe I could have been more direct.”
Any further revelations were cut off by her father who came to the door. “Get off my property or I shall call the authorities and have you arrested. If you have any sense at all, you will leave the city. I will make sure it is well known that you are back.”
The implied threat was there. Rufina heard it too, and Adam could see the surprise in her expression. As he began to turn to leave, he saw her mouth the word ‘tonight’ to him. He had a good guess what she meant and hoped he was correct and that it wasn’t a trap. He had never known her to be duplicitous though so he nodded slightly to let her know he got the message and agreed. Not responding at all to her father, he returned to the carriage he had rented and left. The man waiting there was also a federal marshal.
“So that went well for you.”
“Very funny, but if you want to catch more of the other side in the act of committing mayhem, stick with me. He just, more or less, threatened that there would be men coming after me.”
“Way ahead of you there, boyo. Already got a man staying in the room next to yours, and the ‘assistant’ clerk at the place at night is one of ours. We’re assuming that they have no idea you work for us. They won’t be expecting that you will have help like that. Most likely it will be a two-man team assigned to get rid of you unless they decide to make it look like a street mugging. You’ll have two men following you at night to help in that situation.”
“Not too close tonight though. I’m going to meet Rufina in the garden.”
“You do like to take chances, don’t you?”
“There are some things worth taking chances for. I’m not a gambler at heart, but there are times it is necessary to risk it all. I need to talk to her before he can act against me and set the plan into motion. Acting fast is the only way this can succeed.”
That night, Rufina put her son in his bed and returned to the parlor to sit. She couldn’t concentrate though. Her agitation was obvious to her mother who suggested perhaps she would like some tea.
“I think what I would like is a walk in the garden. Perhaps the cool night air would help.”
“I don’t know that would be safe, dear.”
“Mother, you know as well as I that Father has placed armed guards around the place to watch for him. I will be perfectly safe. In fact, I will be safer tonight in the garden than at any other time I’ve ever gone out there.”
“I suppose, but take a wrap. I don’t want you catching a chill.”
Wrapping herself in a warm shawl, Rufina calmly walked into the darkness of the garden but her heart was racing wondering if Adam was there. Worried for his safety because of the guards, she sat on the garden bench and glanced up at the stars. There was no sign of him, and she dropped her head thinking perhaps she was to be disappointed once more although nothing could match the pain she had already endured. From the house, her parents watched and saw nothing amiss.
“She still loves the scoundrel. After all he did to me.”
“To you? What about what he did to her? He left her with child and unmarried.”
Rufina’s father turned from the window in disgust. “I can’t bear the thought of his child being raised in this household. I still wish she would accept a caller. Someone else could have that bastard if she would marry a proper husband and give me a decent heir.”
“He’s our grandchild too.”
“He stands in the way of her marrying a proper husband and giving us legitimate grandchildren. With him, no one can forget all our shame. Well soon part of that problem will be eliminated. I have some men working on that issue already, and I hope to hear from them soon that they have been successful.”
“You hired men to kill him?”
“It shall be an unfortunate street accident or a mugging if that cannot be arranged.”
“I can’t say that I’m sorry for him, but that does seem extreme.”
“Not after what he did to me. He could have gone very far with my help but decided to stab me in the back instead.”
As he stomped to his office, she made some tea thinking her daughter might need some when she came inside. In the garden, Rufina was chilled, but warmed when she heard his voice from the shadows behind the tree.
“I’m sorry, but they were watching from the window. I didn’t want to startle you. If they saw you jump, they might have guessed someone was here.”
Rufina dropped her head so no one watching could see that she was talking. “I still need to know why you’re here.”
“I was a fool and an ass. I did everything wrong with you. When I realized it, I knew too that it was dangerous for me to return here. It still is. There are men out there who want to kill me. When I left the city, it was because I took a job. By the time I realized that I had to return, I literally couldn’t. When I finally could, I thought it would be too late. I made all sorts of excuses to myself, but the main one, I have to admit, was fear.”
“You’re afraid of me or of my father?”
“Afraid of what you’ll say and what you will decide to do. I have no options except to accept whatever decision you make. However, I do love you. I never stopped loving you. Although I am a deeply flawed person, I do not mean to do harm. I reacted as I did because of something that happened to me before I met you. Feelings I had that were there as a result of another’s action were thrown up at you. It was unfair and awful, and there is no way I can ever ask you to excuse that. I can only ask that you forgive me enough to consider the future for our child.”
That caused a sharp intake of breath by Rufina. “You believe me now without me telling you anything more?”
“I should never have questioned you then. You would have told me if it was something I should know.”
“Adam, I didn’t tell you because he forced himself on me. It was one time so I did still believe that child was ours. What scared me was that if I ever told you what happened, you might kill him. You probably would have killed him. I wanted our child to have a father. If I told you and you killed him, I would lose you, and by not telling you, I lost you anyway.”
Hearing her tell him what he should have heard so much sooner had his heart suffering and tears were in his eyes. “I know that saying I am sorry is not nearly enough. My hearts breaks for you and all that I made you suffer.” Adam paused then not sure if he should say what he wanted to say or not, but he plunged ahead. “I want you to come with me to Nevada. I want us to be a family if you can see it in your heart to do that. I don’t know if it is even possible for you to forgive me, but I have to ask.”
There was silence as Rufina stared at the stars. Adam was ready to hear her say no, but heard instead some small sobs. Although he wanted so much to go to her, he knew he could not without jeopardizing everything he had come to do. Then he could hear her taking what must have been calming breaths.
“I dreamed that I would hear those words someday. Adam, yes, I would like that to happen, but I don’t know how it can. My father will not allow me to marry you now.”
“You’re old enough that he cannot stop you legally from marrying anyone you wish to marry. It may be difficult, but I do have friends here who will help. We’ll have problems to work out, but we can do it together.”
“How do we start?”
“Do you take our child for walks?”
“Yes, we go to the park almost every day when it’s nice.”
“Then pack as many of his necessities as you can without being obvious when you go to the park. You will be contacted, and there will be a carriage there for you. I will be in it. I know they will be watching for me. When it’s time to leave the park, you will be contacted and told which carriage is the one. Then walk to the carriage and get in. There will be someone to help you. They will never expect it, and we can get away from them in the traffic at that time.”
“Oh, my God, you want us to run away with you? That’s how you want us to start our lives together?”
“Rufina, it’s not safe for me in the city. Your father would never let me see you and our son.”
“Adam, his name is Aaron.”
In the darkness, Adam smiled. “That’s a good name.”
“It’s Aaron Charles. I like to call him AC for short and because it infuriates my father.”
That made Adam smile more.
“It’s the closest I could get to Adam Cartwright without being completely obvious about it. Even so, I suspect my father knows why I picked those two names, but not enough to forbid me to name him that.”
“I wish I hadn’t been such an ass.”
“Adam, you hurt me a great deal, but I want you to know that I never stopped loving you. It’s why I didn’t marry anyone. It wouldn’t have been fair to marry a man and still love you. I always hoped you would come back for me and for our son. But we’ll have this between us for a time until we can work it all out. It will take some time for me to trust you again.”
“I understand. I broke the trust between us. I will do all I can to earn it back, but the only way I can do that is if you come with me. If you trust me enough, come with me.”
“Where would we go?”
“To Nevada, to the Ponderosa. We would make a new life there, and raise our son together.”
“It’s a huge step to take.”
“Would your life and Aaron’s life be better if you stayed here or if you took a chance and came with me. I love you. I want to earn your trust again.”
“You’ve made a good start. I should go back inside. Mother will be getting worried by now. Tomorrow then.”
“You’ll come to me then?”
With that, she stood and walked to the house at a leisurely pace as if her heart wasn’t racing and her mind wasn’t in turmoil. She knew sleep was going to be difficult to achieve, but she had a lot to think about anyway. Telling her mother that she was tired and ready for bed, she went upstairs. She got ready for bed and as she did so, she picked out the bare necessities for travel and packed them into a purse. It was going to have to be enough. She realized then that her hasty decision in the garden was her final decision, and she was going to do as Adam asked.
The next day, Rufina did as she usually did and wrapped up her son for a walk to the park and a chance for him to run and play. Her father instructed his hirelings to watch for Adam expecting him to try to contact her there. With extra men watching, he thought it might be the best chance at apprehending Adam who hadn’t been seen yet since he had come to the front door of their house. His men the previous night had failed to apprehend him and stage the accident they had been instructed to carry out.
Following her usual routine, Rufina walked to the park, set Aaron down to run and watched him play. The when it was time to go, she packed him up again and returned to the brick sidewalk to walk back to her home. As she exited the park, a man approached and whispered a few words to her as he passed. She walked down the sidewalk and then suddenly veered to a carriage where the driver opened the door for her to get inside with Aaron as he hastily pushed the tram inside behind her. After slamming the door, he jumped into the driver’s seat and drove off. The watchers were caught off-guard. When they rushed to their carriages in which they had thought to carry off Adam when they grabbed him, they found their way blocked by another carriage because the driver was having trouble with his horse. They yelled at the man to get out of their way, but by the time they were able to leave, there was no sign of the carriage with Rufina and her son, Aaron. They knew their employer was going to be furious.
Inside the carriage, Rufina held her son who was crying because of the rough treatment and the unusual circumstances as well as the strange man who sat across from them. He called them by name though even as he maneuvered the tram so that it was out of their way. When Aaron saw that his mother smiled at the man, he began to be curious. The sniffling stopped as he looked up at his mother.
“Aaron, this is your father. This is Adam Cartwright.”
The little boy stared at Adam who smiled at him. It took a moment and Aaron smiled back. As long as he was safely in his mother’s arms, he was willing to enjoy this new adventure even if he wasn’t so sure about what was happening and the strange men who had been around them. His mother was smiling and talking though so he was all right even if she was tense. He could feel that and hoped she didn’t let him go which she wanted to do when the carriage stopped but his wails prevented it. He stopped crying when she pulled him close again.
“Here, if you turn around, I can lift you out together. Lean back a little and I’ll have you. Trust me.”
Rufina did as she was asked and only later realized how easily she had trusted him to do exactly as he said he would do much as he said he would when he showed up the previous night and when he was at the park. Even though he had been awful to leave her as he did, she realized she did trust him because he did what he said he was going to do even when she didn’t like it.
Fight or Flight
Once they were out of the carriage, Rufina looked around and saw they were at the back of a large building and shielded from the street. Another carriage pulled in behind them, and the men she had seen at the park got out. They escorted them into a building, and she met a number of men all of whom were introduced as federal agents. Surprised at that, she was further surprised to find that Adam was one too.
“It’s the job I took when I left. It’s why I couldn’t return. I was embroiled in a case and had made a commitment to see it through. I got hurt, and that delayed things some, but it’s over. Now these men will help us leave Philadelphia safely.”
The men there told them they thought it best if Adam and Rufina stayed away from major transportation routes at first.
“We’ll get you safely to the Ohio River, and you can take a steamboat downriver. When you get to the Mississippi, take a boat to St. Louis and from there you can get to a train to head west. Each office will forward ahead that you’re coming when you get there. No one will have the overall plan as each office will find out when they get the word and only know one part of your plan.”
“Good. So no one can get ahead of us and wait.”
“It works unless they guess that’s what we’re doing. Your best bet on that is to take your time. If they’re waiting, the more time you take, the better as they will likely assume they were wrong.”
“I have a couple of places where we can stop on the way.”
“The other thing is don’t send a telegram to your family. I know they will be worrying, but no matter how you do it, it will be intercepted. There is no secure messaging that way.”
“I know a way of letting my family know.”
“Your luggage is here. We have some empty luggage for the lady and the boy. I assume you will be purchasing things for them?”
“We will but we will need someone to do the legwork.”
“Give me the list, and I’ll have my wife do it. No one will think it unusual. I’ll leave you alone for a bit now.”
When he left with the others, Adam turned to Rufina. “Fina, you can still say no. Otherwise, this is what it will be like for a while. It will be as if we’re running away. Once we get to Nevada, all will be well.”
“I said I would go. Don’t you dare back out on me now.”
“I wouldn’t think of that. I didn’t come all this way to do that.”
“Adam, you have to realize what you have asked me to do and how difficult this is. I’ve just left my family and all the security and stability I had, and I’m taking a chance on you. But you’re the man who walked out on me once when I needed you so much. I am so afraid that you could do that again, and now I have Aaron.”
“You came with me, so you must mostly believe that I can be trusted. I will not walk out on you and Aaron now. I came across the country to find out if I could somehow make things right. I can’t make up for what I did, but I can give us a new start. That’s what I’m doing, but it will be difficult until we get out of Philadelphia.”
“But Elliot is in prison. So are the men he was working with on those schemes.”
“Not all of them. I cost many men including your father a lot of money then and stopped them from getting more in the future. I was out of their reach for a time, but not at the moment. If they could make an example of me, they will. We have to make a list of things you and Aaron will need on the trip. I’m assuming a valise for each of you and perhaps another bag or satchel if needed will have to do. We will be traveling light at first.”
Soon they had a list and Adam stepped out to give it to the men there. He came back in and closed the door. Looking quite serious, he sat down beside Rufina. She worried about what he was going to say next.
“I know it’s not at all romantic, but I want to marry you. Will you marry me?”
“Of course I will marry you. I came with you because I wanted to marry you.”
“No, I mean right now.”
“Yes, we can have a big party, even a church wedding, and all those other things when we get to Nevada. We can have a wedding night whenever you want me, whenever you’re willing to be with me, but I would like us to marry now. There’s a judge in this building. If he knows the circumstances, I am sure he would marry us.”
“But do you even have a ring?”
With a little grin then, Adam pulled a small velvet bag from his vest, opened it, and dropped a set of rings in her hand after he pulled it open. She stared at them. He pulled a gold chain from the bag and held it for her.
“It’s a twin set. One is very ornate with the diamond and emerald, but there’s a band that is right next to it. You can take off the more elaborate ring for day-to-day wear but have it for more formal occasions. When you’re not wearing the fancy ring, you can keep it on this gold chain if you wish.”
Looking at him in shock, Rufina stammered. “My father said you were ruined.”
Wondering what she meant at first, Adam was amazed too that she had come with him thinking he had no money. “Yet you agreed to all this thinking I had nothing? I’m sorry, but there is no other way to say this. He lied to you about that. I sold my company. My career was ruined, but I had the money from the sale of that and my house. I had my investments, and I still had everything I owned away from here.”
“So you can afford this?”
“Yes, I could afford that ring and much more.”
“Yes, we should marry. As to the rest, we’ll work that out as we go. So much has happened and we still have Aaron and we need to get out of the city. Are we leaving under the cover of darkness tonight?”
“About what they would expect, but no, we’re leaving when the crowds who have finished work leave. One more carriage on the road won’t draw suspicion.”
‘But packed with luggage? Won’t we stand out?”
“Well, that is going to be an issue but in the way you imagine. We’re going to be cramped inside because the luggage has to come in there with us.”
“That’s why you wanted me only to pack necessities. We won’t have room to take anything more.”
“No, we’ll be crowded in there as it is.”
“I understand. Right now though, Aaron needs to nap. Is there a place where he can sleep?”
“Yes, one of the men has a cot in a room he said we can use until we leave. But that will be in about two hours.”
Noticing that she had veered away from the subject of marriage, Adam thought she wasn’t going to accept his idea of marrying before they left. She surprised him though with her next statement once she got Aaron settled into his nap.
“Well, as you said, it isn’t very romantic, but let’s get married so we can get on with all the rest. We’ll simply have to work everything else out as we go. Frankly I’m so numb now, I don’t know that I could laugh or cry if I tried.”
“I’m sorry. About all of this and so much more.”
“I know. I’m sorry too. I could have gone to you too when it happened and explained. I was so mad at you and somehow I thought you would calm down and come back. I guess I should have known that you do what you say you’re going to do. I do know that now.”
“I won’t lie to you.” He paused. “To be completely honest, there are times when I’ve been known to not tell things, but if I tell you something, it will be the truth.”
“And if I ask a question, Adam, what about the answer?”
“Any answer I give will be truthful.”
“And you’re leaving yourself room there not to answer, aren’t you?”
“There could be times when that would be the best course, so yes, I am.”
Rufina said nothing for a moment digesting that and then pointed at the door. It was time to go find that judge. As expected, when he heard the story, he was willing to perform a wedding ceremony. Actually, any of the men who worked there could have done the same, but Adam felt better with a judge officiating and assumed his wife would as well. After the judge signed the official document, one of the men went to get the document registered, and a short time later, they had their notarized copy. Adam had asked the man to complete another task for him. He reported that he was successful. By then, they had returned to the room where Aaron was and were sitting together watching him sleep. The man handed two papers to Adam. It was their first time together as a true family. Contrary to what she had said earlier, Rufina was able to shed a tear. Adam held her as she cried a little and then smiled at him.
“Tell me everything is going to be all right now.” She saw his look and said something before he could respond. “Don’t give me your logical, rational response. Just tell me what I asked.”
“All right: everything is going to be all right now. We’ll travel to Nevada and take our time seeing the country as we go. When we get there, my family is going to be so thrilled to see both of you. We’ll have a wedding ceremony and a nice party.”
“A big party!”
“I can see you and my father are going to be joining forces against me on that one. All right, a big party. We’ll make our home there, and we’ll raise our son where the air is clear and the people around him will teach him right and wrong and how to be a good man.”
“I do like the sound of that.”
“Why don’t you close your eyes and try to get a little sleep. You look exhausted.”
“I am tired. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
With that, she closed her eyes and rested against his chest secure in his arms. It didn’t take long to fall asleep. Adam dropped his chin on her head and closed his eyes. An hour later, the three were awakened.
“Sorry to wake you, but it’s time to go. We’ve got your carriage packed and ready. You’ve got a long ride ahead of you. Hopefully you will be able to get a little more sleep in the carriage tonight.”
In the carriage, Rufina had a question. “I was tired before, but I remember the man giving you two papers. One was our marriage certificate. What was the other one?”
“I took two thousand six hundred and sixty-three dollars out of my investment account and had it put into a bank draft to be sent to the bank in Virginia City to be deposited into the Ponderosa account. It was the receipt for that draft.”
“Why that amount?” But then she realized what he had done because of something he had said earlier. “You let your family know we’re coming. Is that about how far we have to travel?”
“It is. I can do something similar as we get closer so they can keep tabs on our progress. If necessary, I may even be able to send a secure communication with the bank draft as we get closer.”
“That’s very clever.”
“Let’s hope it’s clever enough.”
That night, more than a dozen men were watching roads leading out of the city. Not one saw anything suspicious. They had to report to Rufina’s father the next morning that she and Aaron must still be in the city somewhere. They did report that Adam had withdrawn a large sum of money from an investment account. It only reinforced the belief that he was somewhere in the city.
“Find that scoundrel. He must have them hidden away somewhere. Find him!”
They weren’t going to find him because about that time, they were nearing the Ohio River where they booked passage on a boat that was going to take them to Kentucky. The boat left the next morning. The quarters were small and cramped for someone as tall as Adam. For Rufina and Aaron, the small bunks were comfortable. All of them were glad that the quarters although on an older boat were kept in good repair and clean. The trip was easy in that they could relax knowing that it was highly unlikely anyone expected them to be traveling by this method. It helped too that Aaron was fascinated by being on a boat so he was easily entertained.
Once they arrived in Louisville, Kentucky, Adam got them transportation to a friend’s horse farm. He didn’t want them to spend any time in a larger city where they might be noticed. When they got to the town closest to that farm, he took a room and sent word to his friend that they were in town. Within a few hours, he got a message back inviting them to come stay at the farm. It was late so he sent a message back that they would be there the next day and a thank you for the hospitality.
“Adam, we’re really going to go stay at a farm, all three of us in your friend’s farmhouse?”
“I think you may have the wrong idea of what is meant by the term farm here. You’ll see tomorrow. If it is not to your liking, I’ll make some kind of excuse, and we can come back here. Is that acceptable?”
Somehow she had the feeling he was humoring her, but she didn’t know why. She agreed. They got to have hot baths, sumptuous meals, and soft beds for the night. All of that was so welcome, she didn’t want to say anything negative. On the boat, they had separate bunks so the issue of marital relations had not been even discussed especially with Aaron in the room. Here they had a suite, but the trundle bed for Aaron was in the main room and their bed was in the bedroom. For the first time, they would be together. Now it of course was not the first time, but it was the first that they would do so as husband and wife. They had shared loving kisses but not passionate ones on the trip thus far. Guessing that was about to change, she was nervous and jumped a little when Adam came up behind her and put his hands on her shoulders.
“I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I wasn’t scared. You surprised me.”
Hearing the slight tremor in her voice, he had some idea what had caused it. “We don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. I know we’ve had relations before, but that didn’t happen suddenly one night. It happened after a number of times together and things gradually led up to that. I understand that probably has to happen again. It may take some time. I would like to be with you, but I can wait until you’re ready. There is one thing I need to show you though and explain first.” With that, Adam began to undress unbuttoning his shirt and opening it wide to show the scar across his abdomen. He expected the shock she expressed and the questions she had. Without any further delay, he explained what had happened, and then he hit the touchy topic of his ranch in Laramie and the more explosive topic that Gail was in his custody and stayed there under his supervision.
“She stays there; you mean in the same house as you?”
“Yes, I couldn’t very well put her in the bunkhouse with the hands, and the cook has only a single bed in her quarters.”
“You have a female cook in your house too?”
“The cook is a full-blooded Arapaho who was banished for offenses that I don’t know, but she would cut me from stem to stern if I came anywhere near her like that if I even wanted to do it. As for Gail, I did mention that she tried to kill me. When you get to the ranch, I want you to look at the large lock I put on my bedroom door. It was the only way I felt safe enough to sleep in my own house when she was there. The first night she was in my house, I couldn’t close my eyes. I would hardly ever consider having her anywhere near me when I was vulnerable. There’s an equally large lock on the washroom door too. Now I forgave her or mostly forgave her because she saved my life and helped convict Kemp, but I will never forget she tried to kill me, and I was never attracted to her in the way a man is attracted to a woman. I mean she is a good-looking woman, and you would call me a liar if I ever told you otherwise. No matter how good she may look, I never wanted to be with her and I never was. By the way, she is on the Ponderosa now in my father’s custody, and by now, she’s probably being courted by Hoss.”
“It’s a long story.”
“We have time.”
So, Adam had to explain that whole situation which turned out to be more difficult than he had imagined it would be especially to someone who had never met his father or Hoss and knew how forgiving they could be, too forgiving in his opinion. By the time they finished talking through everything, it was late.
“I think we may have resolved the other issue as well. We need some rest, and that’s about all that we have time to do anymore. Let’s get some sleep if you’re agreeable to that.”
She was tired, so they did go to bed to sleep. In the morning, they had breakfast, packed up their belongings, and headed to the farm. Pulling up to the long tree-lined drive to the house and barns, Rufina was suitably shocked which amused Adam much as he had expected he would be entertained by her reaction. She looked at his grin and slapped his arm in a gesture that said he could have told her more. He only grinned more broadly and drove to the house where he was greeted by his friend, Matthew. Aaron missed it all as his attention was riveted on the horses in the large fenced fields beside the drive.
Looking at Aaron after the introductions had been made, Matthew smiled at the boy and then at Adam. “That boy has excellent taste in horses. He immediately put his eye on the best horses we have.”
“Takes after his father then.” The pride in Rufina’s voice was strong. Matthew noted it and guessed then that Adam was indeed the boy’s father. Adam noticed the slight change in how Matthew spoke after that.
“Well, we’ll make sure Aaron has a chance to see a couple of horses, but not those. I’m afraid one of them might nip him. Those couple there are a bit high-strung. We do have some mellow horses though that run with them in the mornings to make sure they get adequate practice.”
“Yes, Rufina, those horses there are for racing. Now the mellow horses I’m mentioning look every bit as good as these, and in many parts of the country, they would command top dollar. However only the best can win a race.”
“How are sales?”
“Adam, demand for racing horses is down since the War in the states around here, but we’ve been shipping to the northeast, into Illinois and Missouri, and some to California and Colorado. Sales have been good.”
By then, they had reached the steps of the house and Matthew’s wife, Amelia, and their children came out to greet their guests. The children were old enough to think entertaining an eighteen-month old toddler could be great fun. They took him up to their old playroom.
“Amelia would like a few more children and keeps the playroom intact on the chance the Lord Almighty would bless us again. I daresay, Aaron may never want to leave when he sees all that is in there.”
Rufina sighed so audibly the others all chuckled. “I’m sorry, but he is of an age where it is exhausting to keep up with him. I’m so grateful to your children for assuming his care for a time.”
“So, what brings you here, Adam?”
Looking at Rufina who nodded, Adam knew what he had to do. “It’s only fair to tell you the whole truth.” So he did and explained the situation and that they would have to leave within a day or two. “The respite is good, but we can’t risk putting you in danger. If they’re after us, they could track us here. It would likely take them some time, but they could do it.”
“Don’t you worry. We folks in Kentucky got a thing about families. Nobody has a right to mess with a man and a woman and their family. I’ll put the word out in town. Anybody comes looking, we’ll know soon as they show up, and then we’ll deal with them. Meanwhile I’m glad to know you’re not a lazy man.”
“Oh, Amelia, we’re among friends. We can tell them.”
Adam and Rufina were puzzled. Matthew only grinned broader.
“I’m sure you guessed that the two of us wondered about Aaron seeing how old he was and the two of you being married just shy of a week. Well, now we know he is your son so you’re not a lazy man. You see, my father got so mad at my younger brother for not doing his work, he yelled at him once in a particularly colorful way, and the story has stuck around for years. He said, ‘Thomas, you’re so lazy you’re likely to marry a woman already with child.’ I was there, and at first, nobody said anything, and then I couldn’t help it. I started laughing, and then so did the men. Thomas stood there with his mouth hanging open, and then father started laughing too. Thomas was the only who never laughed. He never likes hearing that story. He doesn’t even like hearing the word lazy because it might remind someone to tell that story.”
When Amelia chuckled and blushed a bit, they knew there was more. Adam guessed.
“His wife was with child when they married?”
The four of them burst out laughing at that point. With shared good humor, the four of them quickly became friends and began telling more stories. By that night, Rufina realized she truly did not have any friends that she had left behind and perhaps had a better understanding of why it was so easy to agree to go with Adam. He was the only one she cared about, but now away from her father, she could make real friends. She told him that after they settled Aaron for the night and moved to their bed. She kissed him and realized she wanted more than a kiss. When he understood she was willing to do more, he leaned down and whispered to her.
“If you want me to stop at any point, tell me.”
“I won’t want you to stop. Now kiss me more.”
Though they had been passionate in creating Aaron, Rufina had no idea how much more satisfying it was to be with your husband in bed and enjoying lovemaking when you have time to explore and enjoy all the sensations. They must have made more noise than they realized because of the looks they got at the breakfast table in the morning, but their hosts were too polite to say anything. Their smiles and sideways glances said enough though. Rufina found she was ravenous for the first time since they had begun their trip and the food was delicious. She and Amelia made plans for the day while the children had all sorts of ideas of things they could show Aaron. Amelia and Matthew cautioned them not to go near the horses without a parent though with plans to do that after lunch. For the morning, Matthew planned to show off his horses to Adam who had seen them a few years earlier and had purchased one.
“He’s sired a few yearlings for me now. They’re looking good. I’ve finally been able to hire a good man to keep track of the breeding. Within a few years, we should have some of the finest riding horses anywhere in the west as well as some of the best-looking carriage horses from my other stock.”
“Remember, you promised to sell me the first matched set you get.”
“I will, but you know on a small operation like mine, that could take some time.”
“I know, but I know too that they will be of the best quality when you do get them.”
Listening intently, Rufina realized there was so much she didn’t know about her husband. That night she asked him about the ranch and how long he had owned it.
“I’ve had it almost six years now.”
“And you never told me about it?”
“There are a lot of investments I never told you about. Now that we’re married, all of that information is yours to know.”
“But you wouldn’t tell me before we married?” After thinking that over only briefly, she had a good understanding of why. “I guess what happened shows that was a wise decision. If you told me then, I would have told Father and he would have told the people he worked with. You knew some of them were dishonest, and you didn’t want your information shared with them.”
“That pretty well sums it up.”
“But now you will tell me because you trust me not to tell my father?”
“I trusted that once you knew more about your father, you would be willing to protect our investments from his prying eyes.”
Noting how he said ‘our’ in reference to investments, she smiled. “What else do we own?”
“We have a share of the Ponderosa, of course. I bought shares in a railroad. I sold my mining shares and invested that in a bank. I hold some bonds and have some investments in some small companies that show promise, and we should have a chance at some good returns there if even half of them are successful. I intend to do some work out there too and that will bring in more money that we can use for a house and to invest in any other ventures we choose.”
“You know, Father never talks to Mother this way. He always tells her to go do her fancy work or some other dismissive thing whenever business is discussed. She has some good ideas too because we talked about them sometimes.”
“It’s probably true for many women especially in the east, but in the west, we need every person to lend a hand in order to be successful. Women have to play a bigger role in families and in businesses.”
“I think I’m going to like Nevada.”
“What about the ranch in Wyoming?”
“What about it?”
“Should we sell it?”
“Why would we sell it? It sounds like it is going to be very successful, and I like the idea of having a backup plan.”
“I do love the way you think.”
“I love you.”
She hadn’t paused and her voice was strong when she said it. Adam reached out his hand for her and pulled her into his embrace.
“I’m glad I finally did what was right. I had to get over my pride and come to you. It may be the smartest thing I ever did.”
“I don’t know. We had to sneak out of the city and we’re running away hiding out from my father. Sometimes it doesn’t seem so smart.”
“We’ll get through this, Fina and we’ll have a good life together, the three of us.”
“On a good note, Aaron is starting to warm up to you. Today he saw you riding and that impressed him tremendously.”
“I think you showing some affection to me and being a little more relaxed around me helped even more.”
“Hmm, you may be right about that. I do feel so much more relaxed after last night.”
“Relaxed because you don’t have to be worried about it anymore or because you enjoyed yourself so much?”
“Fina, I know not everything is settled between us, but I feel we’ve made a lot of progress already.”
“We have. I haven’t felt this good in years if ever. I feel hope for the future and even with all the pressure we’re under, I’m not afraid. I believe you will find a way to protect us. I feel safe in your arms. I feel loved.”
He had to grin. “We could repeat the activities to reinforce that for good measure.”
“You can be so devilish, but you do have such good ideas.”
The few days on the horse farm were the closest Adam and Rufina were likely to get to a honeymoon, but then, many couples never got one at all. Both were getting nervous about pursuit and decided it was time to go. Adam wanted to make arrangements to travel downriver again planning to go as far as St. Louis and to get on the train there. Matthew had another idea.
“By now, they may have discovered that you were on the boat. Why don’t you travel across the state stopping at friends’ farms to stay the night.”
“That sounds great Matthew except you’re the only friend I have in this state.”
“Oh, I meant my friends. They would be delighted, I’m sure, to have a Yankee in their house for the night.” He grinned as he said it though. “No, of course, I would tell them you are from Nevada and rescuing a damsel from her evil Yankee father. That will play much better.”
Though he suspected the answer, Adam had to ask. “And how will you be able to tell them this fanciful tale of yours?”
“Why, we’re all coming with you, of course. Amelia and I decided we would go visit your ranch in Laramie and see the potential carriage team in person. Now, before you say anything against it, remember this. They are looking for a couple traveling with a small boy down the river or by rail to St Louis. Who will take notice of two families traveling together across the state?”
Although Adam wanted to argue, he couldn’t think of a fallacy in that logic. Rufina put a hand on his arm.
“You have such wonderful friends.”
“Yes, I do. I made a few bad choices at one point in my life, and that made me forget all the wonderful friendships I made over the years.”
Rufina never got to ask how the two of them met. Adam quickly kissed her and told her it was time to pack. With Matthew hustling Amelia and his children into the house to do the same, she got the picture quite clearly. Someday she was going to get that bit of information out of him guessing that was going to be a very good story.
As the two families travelled together, there were many stories told, but that one that both wives wanted to hear most never seemed to be told no matter how many times they hinted that they wanted to know the answer. Both men seemed to squirm a bit whenever the request was made so it only made them want to hear it more. Finally when they arrived in Laramie and shared a couple of bottles of wine with dinner, and when the children were in bed, tongues were loosened enough for the story to be told.
“We both went to college, but neither of us had enough money to do so without working. Both of us worked in shops when we could, and it seemed every dime was budgeted for expenses.”
“Yes, that makes sense, Matthew, but how did that lead you into some activity that until now you were so reluctant to tell us?”
“Well, I couldn’t afford, ah, companionship.”
At first the ladies seemed not to know and then they knew. “Oh.”
“To be helpful, some classmates happened to mention a woman who didn’t mind a little extra activity with no requirements other than having fun. I went to see her, and she was a bit aggressive, but I actually didn’t mind too much at that point. She had me in her bedroom straightaway.”
Adam snickered at that.
“Just wait. Your part comes soon enough. We were, shall we say, in the midst of our activity, when we heard her name called. She used an expletive about him being early and always so eager. She told me to grab my clothing and get in the wardrobe until he was gone. I had no idea what else to do so I followed her instructions.”
Matthew pointed at Adam then for him to continue.
“I was surprised but pleased to find her waiting and ready for me. It didn’t take long and we were, as Matthew said, in the midst of our activity, and there was another voice calling her name. An expletive along with the information that the man was her husband and that he had returned early from his voyage. She told me to grab my clothing and get into the wardrobe.”
The two ladies couldn’t help snickering then. Adam rolled his eyes, but even Matthew agreed that now the story did seem funny even if for years, it had been so embarrassing.
“Lo, I wasn’t the only one in there wearing nothing and holding my clothing and my boots in hand. We spent an hour there side-by-side naked in that wardrobe. Finally as she had promised, he had done enough and announced he was going to the bathhouse and then to the pub. Of course by the smell, he should have visited the bathhouse first. No wonder she liked having young college students in her bed.”
Holding back their laughter, the ladies wanted to know what the two had done once the husband left.
“We got out of the wardrobe, dressed, and left.”
“Yes, she asked if one of us would stay, but Adam said no in absolute certainty which I questioned later. I said we could have flipped for it. He said that no, we shouldn’t be doing it that way nor should we pay for it. He argued that it had been a mistake. He said honesty, integrity, and hard work would impress the right woman. We’d get to know the right one, and she would be the one we would take to bed and it wouldn’t be a married woman unless it was a woman one of us had married.”
“As it turned out, I was too optimistic, but it did eventually work out.”
It was quiet then as the two ladies looked across the table at the two men. Adam sighed deeply and looked sideways at Matthew who looked worried. He stated his worry to Adam.
“I think they’re imagining us naked and standing side-by-side in that wardrobe, aren’t they?”
“Yes, I would bet they are.”
“We’re going to regret telling them this story, aren’t we?”
Any further conversation was ended by a knock on the door. It was late, so the timing in itself was ominous. The local sheriff was there and looked worried about the news he had to deliver. He hadn’t met the people sitting in Adam’s home, but guessed they were probably in danger too, but there were plans already in place for all of them if they were agreeable.
As soon as Adam invited Nate in and got him seated at the table, the cook had a plate of food there and she had a smile for him. She was so friendly in her greeting that Adam looked from the cook to Nate and back again. Nate grinned.
“She and your new manager were having some issues. I came out here to see what I could do. I speak a little Arapaho so we chatted a bit.”
“You speak Arapaho?”
“Enough. Anyway, she wanted to know if I was Arapaho, and I pointed to my heart and head and said ‘in here I am’ and we’ve been good friends ever since. She’s been teaching me more of the language.”
“I tried to learn some, and she wouldn’t cooperate at all.”
“Adam, you tried to speak in some form of Ute, an enemy language. She thinks of you as an enemy, not just white but Ute too.”
“I can’t help it. It’s where I live. I can speak a little Apache and some Washoe, but I guess that wouldn’t be helpful either.”
“It might. It would tell her you just know the languages.” Nate mentioned that to the cook, and she looked at Adam, frowned, and then nodded to Nate.
“I can tell you the name she was given as a child, Kushala. You are no longer the enemy. She has another name, but you are not trusted enough to know that yet.”
“It will be nice to have a name to call her, and if you would, teach me some of the basic words.”
“I can do that. Now, there’s a reason I’m here beside making sure you’re safe from your cook. There seems to be a lot of interest in you and your family. You need to stay here a bit longer.”
“If they’re closing in, maybe we should head for the Ponderosa.”
“As far as anyone can tell, they don’t seem to know about this place. They’re checking the trains and trying to bribe ticket agents and hotel clerks for information, but no one has asked about you owning any property. A few friends set up a false trail in Denver that should keep them busy a few days. It’s all we need.”
“Your father has a plan. He called in a favor, but it will take a couple of days for help to arrive.”
“Would you just spit it out?”
“The Army is sending troops to the fort at Fort Point in San Francisco as well as sending some artillery pieces left over from the War there too. Some of that artillery and some troops are also going to the Presidio at Monterey. A troop train with all of it and the soldiers is coming through here in two days. You’re going to get a ride on it. I don’t think anyone sent by her father is going to go up against a troop train.”
“I’m not sure riding a troop train is a good idea for my wife and little boy.”
“Oh, did I mention that the favor your father called in was that you get to ride in the general’s personal car with a private sleeping berth as far as Reno. The Ponderosa hands and your brothers will be there to greet you and escort you home.”
“You could have mentioned that earlier.”
“Yeah, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun. As for your friends, if they need help, the two marshals in town are heading back east the day after you leave here safely. I’m sure they would be happy to escort them if they wanted the help.” Nate looked over at Matthew and Amelia and their children who nodded. “I like it when a plan comes together. Working with your father is about the same as working with you, Adam. Now how about you introduce me to everyone while I eat.”
Rufina was no longer surprised by a turn of events like this. She began to assume that being with Adam meant living bigger than she had ever imagined. All she did was tell Aaron they were going to see a lot of soldiers and ride on the train again. It was all it took to get the little boy excited about the trip when it was time to go. Two days later, they bid farewell to Matthew and his family and headed to town to await the troop train although they never actually went to town. They waited a short distance away, and when the troop train stopped, Nate drove their carriage directly to the private car and helped them get aboard with their luggage wishing them well. A short distance away, several men were stymied in their plans because there was nothing they could do because they had no idea their quarry was going to get on a troop train.
All had gone well for Adam and Rufina until they boarded the train car. It was clear by his gruff manner that the general was a bit put out to have to share his car. At least he was until he was charmed by Aaron and by Rufina who had him acting like a doting grandfather in very little time. All Adam had to do was sit back and let the two work their magic on the man. They did make a number of stops along the way as the general had to make some contacts with other officers. That was the only difficult part of the trip because Adam and his family could not safely leave the car. When they finally saw Reno, it was a great relief. They thanked the general profusely and invited him to visit all of them on the Ponderosa when he got the chance. Then they moved to get off the train with their luggage descending to the platform where Adam could see Hoss towering over the small crowd.
Stepping down behind Rufina, Adam was alert for trouble and saw it coming. Several men were converging on them, and he was about to draw his pistol when those men were quickly apprehended. Hoss and Joe grinned.
Hoss stepped forward first. “We knew they was waiting for ya. They only had to make the move so we could be sure. They’ll be in jail for a couple days cooling off. By then, you’ll be home, and they’ll hafta make their report to her papa that things didn’t work out like he wanted.”
“Fina, these are two of my brothers.”
“Yes, this must be Hoss and Joe. Is Jamie here?”
Joe tipped his hat. “No, ma’am, it’s not the sort of thing for someone his age. Pa kept him home to get things ready while me and Hoss came to get you. The man in the red shirt there is Candy. He’s almost like family too. He’ll be driving the big carriage.”
Surprised, Adam asked why they weren’t taking the stage. They explained that the carriage would be more comfortable but more importantly easier to guard and harder to track. He had to agree that was all true. Next, Aaron was introduced to everyone. He tipped his head back as he looked up at Hoss and tipped it back so far he almost fell from Rufina’s arms. He might have been a bit intimidated by the big man except everyone including Hoss laughed at his reaction. He had to believe all was well with all of them so happy. With introductions concluded, all they had left to do was pack up and head out.
For the first time in their lives, Rufina and Aaron were going to spend the night outdoors. Adam guessed that might be interesting. When they rendezvoused with a wagon packed with supplies outside of town, he could see that they had anticipated that and had just about any comforts that could be packed into one wagon jammed in there. Looking at Hoss and Joe, he grinned.
“Is there a cook stove in there and maybe a tent?”
That got his wife’s attention. “Why would we need those?” But then she understood. “We’re going to be spending the night camping out. Oh, you’re going to have to teach me a lot of things tonight, I think.”
“I like teaching you things.”
“Not those kinds of things.”
As they bantered, Hoss and Joe were talking further away. Both were surprised at how young she was even though Adam had mentioned that she was quite a bit younger than he was.
“Hoss, I think she’s younger than I am.”
“Maybe. I gotta admit, she’s not at all what I expected, but they seem real happy, and that boy is a cute one.”
“Pa is going to be happy.”
“He sure is. Now, keep a sharp lookout. We can’t be sure that all the men her pappy hired don’t know what they’re doing out here.”
Apparently those men didn’t know what they were doing because there was no trouble except for Adam convincing his wife that she had to take care of business behind a bush. That did not go well. When they had all the gear out of the wagon and a mattress in the bed of the wagon, she was a little relieved that she wouldn’t have to sleep on the ground like the others. Aaron wanted to stay with her, so Adam told her he would sleep next to the wagon. That seemed agreeable until all the night sounds made her scared. She whispered over the edge of the wagon.
“Adam, I can’t sleep. I thought it would be quiet out here, but the noises are all so strange.”
Without saying much of anything, Adam stood and slipped his boots off before climbing into the wagon to squeeze in and stretch out beside her and Aaron. One by one, he identified the sounds and told her to relax as they were all normal to the area. In the morning, she was snuggled up soundly sleeping in his arms when there was a terrible clatter that woke her and Aaron.
“Time to get up and get ready to travel.”
“But it’s barely dawn.”
“Yes, and it will take quite some time to get the stock watered and get breakfast for everyone and then pack up. We need to start early so we can get a lot of miles in today.”
By that evening, Rufina was catching on to how to manage things and beginning to help out as she saw what the routines were. She mostly had to tend to Aaron though so that limited what she could do. At one point, Hoss took Aaron and asked if he wanted to go pet the horses. He did so she was able to assist the others with meal preparation. After dinner, Hoss complimented her on her cooking.
“Ma’am, you don’t know this, but Hoss doesn’t say that to many people. He’s very fond of food as you might have guessed by the rather large size of him.”
“Joe, now I was being complimentary. Ya don’t hafta go ruin it by insulting me like that.”
“Hoss, it wasn’t an insult. It was an observation.”
“All right, then.”
With a smile, Rufina thanked Hoss and looked to Adam. “They’re so much like you described them.”
Joe frowned. “Now we have a right to defend ourselves. What exactly did he say about us?”
“Adam said that Hoss has a heart as big as the mountains here are tall. If I ever need help, he will be there whether I ask or not. Hoss is the heart of the family and as wise a man as any I will ever meet. His smile shows his pure soul and I should always trust him.”
While Hoss basked in that, Joe was anxious to hear what his oldest brother had said about him. Rufina smiled as she saw him agitated as he waited for his description.
“Now, let me see. I want to remember all that he said about you, Joe.”
“Oh, no, now you’ve got me worried. Honest, I’m not that bad.”
“Why, do you have reason to be concerned about what Adam said to me about you?”
“Well, there might be a thing or two that aren’t so good.”
“Adam said you are the fierce defender of the family. No one should ever mess with a Cartwright when you are around. You have passion and intelligence and love to have a good time. You see the good side of life and remind everyone to laugh and love.”
“Well that doesn’t seem so bad.”
“He did say to stay at least ten feet away if there was any criticism to be delivered.”
Rufina had walked about that far and stood at Hoss’ side before she said that last part. There was general laughter in response and even Joe had to admit that he didn’t take criticism well.
“I do think about any of that though and I usually come around when it’s justified. People have to give me some time.”
“Yeah, it may be the only time he’s not in a hurry.” Hoss chuckled at his own comment.
Candy added one too. “That and when there’s work to be done. Hey, that’s just about every day too, isn’t it?”
“What is this? Pick on Joe night? There’s one thing you forgot to mention. I got Adam to move back home. It took some time, but I didn’t write letters and insisted on meeting face-to-face, and he finally couldn’t stand it, and came back home.”
As Adam rolled his eyes, the others laughed and Joe stood there proud as can be and daring anyone to argue with him. It wasn’t worth the effort though so no one said a thing. Well, no said a thing except Rufina. She wanted to know what the thing was about Joe not writing letters and how that was supposed to get Adam to move home.
“I’ll explain it later. There may have been a few things I left out of the description of Joe.”
That night, Adam and his family settled into the wagon and sleep came more quickly. Travel though was slow, and they were all happy to see the Ponderosa come into view. There were still hours to go, but it was unlikely there was going to be any trouble. Of course it was then that Rufina got her first real understanding of her new home and how big it was as well as how beautiful. She felt blessed and safe and not worried about men her father had sent. She trusted Adam, his brothers, and Candy to protect her.
In fact, the men hired by Rufina’s father had all failed. He was getting that information about the time they arrived at the ranch house. Furious, he threw the telegrams to the floor in his office. He wasn’t about to give up, but he had greatly underestimated Adam Cartwright and his resources. Although he still didn’t know how the man had managed it, he clearly had a number of important people helping him. The troop train maneuver had taken him by complete surprise. He had no idea how the man had managed that. It might take him years, but he vowed that someday he would get his only heir back.
As one grandfather fumed, another basked in his grandson and daughter-in-law and the news that they would be spending most if not all of their time in Nevada. The couple had not yet had the chance to finalize all their plans, but their preliminary ones all centered on the Ponderosa and building a home and a future there.
Aaron turned out to be the most popular Cartwright for a time at least. Joe found out that carrying around a toddler brought a lot of female attention so he didn’t mind at all taking over supervision of Aaron at church services and any social event where the little boy accompanied the family. Ben took every opportunity he could to invite Rufina to take Aaron and ride with him to town when he had errands to run. People coming up to him and asking about the additions to his family was something that he loved and he spent as much time as possible extolling the virtues of the family additions. He had that big party he wanted too and couldn’t have been happier being the proud father celebrating his eldest son’s wedding even if they called it a homecoming celebration to avoid a lot of unpleasant questions. The wedding was a private ceremony with only family and close friends in attendance and was billed as a renewal of wedding vows for Adam and Rufina. Jamie enjoyed not being the youngest in the family any more, and when he paid attention to Aaron, it gave him valuable time with Adam getting to know his oldest brother too either directly or by talking with Rufina. Aaron was quite a mimic, and Hop Sing realized he needed to be more careful of the words he used in the boy’s presence. However there was another possibility and he began teaching the boy Mandarin Chinese words. If Aaron ever got into the world of trade, it would be a major advantage to know that language.
As for Hoss, he decided it was time to get married and have his own children. He proposed to Gail, and had a speech all ready for her. He had talked with his father and having him offer up cautions had helped him focus his own thoughts.
“I know some will say I’m taking too big a chance on you. I know my own brother might be one of those. But I know you got good in your heart, and you did what you did cause you was scared to death. Well, being with me, you’re gonna know that you don’t have to be afraid like that. We all stand together. We got each other and we got our faith. We been through a lot and we’re still here. Now you get in any kind of trouble, you come to me or you come to somebody in the family. Can you promise to do that?”
Gail nodded with tears in her eyes.
“See, that’s what we do. We work together. Now, I ain’t perfect either. We’re gonna grow together, and the two of us are gonna be better as two than either of us are as two separate people. I hope that makes sense to you. It’s like when we build a corral and want the corner post stronger. We use two posts tied together, and it makes it stronger. That’s gonna be us if you say yes. So, will you?”
She accepted. They were thrilled, but Rufina had to admit she was a bit relieved too. Any lingering doubt about Adam and Gail was gone. She had seen that lock on the bedroom door in Laramie, but she had to admit she had a jealous streak and couldn’t help it. When Gail married Hoss, she would have a sister, more or less, and could relax about the whole situation except of course remembering as Adam did that Gail had tried to kill Adam once. She guessed they would talk about that. It was then she realized something else. Adam saw her sitting at the fireplace with a little smile.
“What are you thinking? I see you smiling. I hope you’re thinking about me.”
“Well, yes, I am, but not about you in the way you’re probably hoping. No, I was thinking about Hoss and Gail, and then I recalled what you said to him when he told you he had asked her to marry him and she said yes.”
“Oh, are you thinking about when Hoss asked me to wish him luck?”
“Yes, and you said that it wasn’t luck he needed but raw courage and lots of it. I thought Joe and Candy might never stop laughing. Your father tried to hold back out of respect for Hoss, but I could see he was having difficulty with that.”
“Yes, he may try to be disapproving of some things I say, but he can’t hold back the laughter every time. At least he didn’t give me that glower with the eyebrows coming down like he did to Joe.”
“Well, what Joe said was a bit cruel. It was true, but still on the mean side.”
“Yes, we don’t need any more reminders like that. I will never forget, but I don’t need him bringing it up, and neither do Hoss and Gail.”
Rufina did snicker a little though.
“Fina, you think it’s funny that he said no one should offer to give her shooting lessons as a wedding present?”
“Well, Gail wasn’t there to hear it.” She did have the good grace to put her hand over her mouth to cover her reaction. It was then that something significant dawned on her.
“Now what are you thinking? You’re trying to hide it, but I see your little smile got bigger.”
“All this talk about your brothers and your father, and I was thinking that I haven’t even thought about my father now for weeks. I clearly don’t love him and perhaps never did. He wasn’t much of a father. My mother supported him and didn’t try to stop him from what he was doing so I guess I hold her responsible. She didn’t try to help me at all. It makes me not so sure of her love or of my feelings for her either. Now everyone here has shown me nothing but love and has helped me and supported me. Like you when I first met you, I can trust my family here. This is truly my family. I trust them and I love them. These are the people who should help us raise our son.” Reaching out to Adam, she had one more thing to say. “We’ve made mistakes. I guess we may make more, but we’ll get through anything that happens because I trust you and love you with every part of my self. I know you love me. There really isn’t anything else that’s important, is there?”
Although he had been shot before, the dark-haired man had never been hit like this. Riding along minding his own business, the bullet had seared into his lower back and out his side knocking him from the saddle with the force and the unexpected nature of the encounter. Laying in the thick grass, hidden from view as long as he didn’t try to get up, he had to admit he was no longer upset with the weeks of rain that had kept him trapped inside or forced him to work in soggy clothing slogging through mud. It had made the grass grow unusually tall which at the moment protected him from another shot. He could tell that his assailant had been up on the ridge. It was probably only that which had kept the man from making a kill shot because he was too far away to be accurate. Unfortunately there was the sound of a rider coming closer at a fast pace and he doubted he would be able to defend himself well in his present condition. Getting ready to do his best, he pulled his pistol despite the pain and prepared to make his last stand. The voice he heard though was filled with fear and concern.
“Candy, what happened? I heard a shot.” Joe Cartwright knelt by his side.
“That was me getting shot. I thought it was him coming for me. He’s on that ridge best I can figure.”
Standing, Joe turned and waved at men coming toward them to go to the ridge instead. One came to them instead. Hoss Cartwright wanted to know what had happened.
“Adam and the others can find out who’s up there. What happened here?”
“Somebody shot Candy. Doesn’t look too bad except he’s bleeding a lot. We need a wagon. I’ll go for one. You take good care of him. All right?”
Understanding that Joe could ride faster than he could, Hoss took what he could from Joe to help Candy and then knelt by the wounded man’s side as Joe mounted up and rode toward the ranch house. Soon, Adam joined Hoss to tell him that no one was on that ridge.
“A couple of the men are following some tracks, but my guess is that they’ll lead back to the road and then it won’t matter. What happened?”
“Somebody shot him in the back. Joe went for a wagon. He’s bleeding quite a bit but otherwise it doesn’t look too bad.”
“It hurts like hell, and would you stop talking about me like I’m not here.”
With a smirk, Adam looked at Candy but spoke to Hoss. “He gets mighty feisty when he’s hurt, doesn’t he?”
“If I had the strength, I’d poke you in the nose for that one.”
Hoss knew what his brother was doing and smiled as he pressed a wad of cloth against the exit wound and then another against the entrance wound letting Adam distract Candy as much as possible. It didn’t work completely as Candy gasped with pain, but it did help.
When Joe got there with the wagon, they took Candy to town instead of back to the ranch when Adam suggested the wait for the doctor might be too long. After Doctor Martin worked his magic and Candy was resting comfortably, the three brothers headed to the saloon for a beer to ease the stress somewhat. Hoss was the first to broach the obvious.
“Candy borrowed your new coat. You know that bullet was probably meant for you.”
After draining his glass, Adam nodded. “I know.”
Taking a deep breath and exhaling forcefully indicated that Adam was upset, and the downcast look Hoss had showed his mood even more clearly. Joe wanted to know why he and Hoss thought he was the intended target.
“All right, what do you two know that I don’t?”
“Adam done got a letter from Fina’s father, and he threatened to do something to him in there.”
Turning from Hoss to Adam, Joe didn’t know which one made him angrier. “And you let Candy ride out there wearing your coat?”
“He gave me a deadline of thirty days to comply with his request. Now I can see that was a smokescreen so I would let my guard down. He must have already had someone here.”
“You told Hoss? When did you plan to make this revelation to me?”
“I told Fina first when I got the letter two days ago. Her father wants her and Aaron to return to Philadelphia. I can come with them, but I think we all know what that would eventually mean. Then last night, Fina and I talked with Hoss and Pa about it. You weren’t home or you would have been included. Joe, we weren’t keeping secrets. We thought we had more time to come up with a plan. We didn’t want Aaron to hear anything too worrisome so we’ve only talked about it when he’s been in bed. He’s too young to understand anything, but he would have picked up on the worry we have.”
“Yeah, you know if Adam had suspected it was a big ole trick, he woulda done something about it. He never woulda put anyone in danger. Candy borrowed that coat cause Gail was mending a tear in the sleeve of his, and mine is way too big for him. Adam was planning to stay inside so it seemed a simple thing.”
Thinking about that for only a moment, Joe knew Hoss had told the whole truth. He nodded in acceptance. “What do we do now?”
Adam had the basics of a simple plan already. “How about if you go stay with Candy to make sure there isn’t some plan there that we haven’t guessed. Hoss and I will go talk with the sheriff and let him know the whole picture. When the sun gets low enough, Hoss and I will ride home.”
Even Hoss was surprised by the last part so Adam had to explain.
“The bushwhacker proved he wasn’t a very good shot so let’s make it as difficult as possible for him by riding at dusk. With the sun going down, there will be a lot of glare as well as shadows. We can take advantage of those. I know Pa and the ladies will worry some, but better we get home undamaged.”
“Yeah, and we can send someone into town to back up Joe too for the night.”
“Now that’s good. Takes care of the rest of the plan that we need for now. Joe, what do you think?”
Pleased to be asked, Joe simply asked that whomever came in as his backup bring extra clothing for him and for Candy. After a short pause, he had one more idea he directed at Adam.
“I think both of us should walk with you to the sheriff’s office. Then I’ll go on to the Doc’s place to see about Candy.”
His older brothers simply nodded in agreement recognizing the logic of what Joe had suggested. Finishing their beers, they headed out to carry out the simple plan. It worked as expected and Hoss and Adam got to explain the whole day’s activities to the ladies and Ben that evening. Rufina didn’t like hearing the spin he put on what had happened.
“You don’t know that my father was involved. Anyone could have held a grudge against Candy, and we know there are a lot of people who hold grudges against you.”
“Fina, three days after I receive that letter from your father threatening me?”
“He gave you a month.”
“Yeah, it was a perfect smokescreen so I wouldn’t be on my guard. He set me up to be shot only it was Candy who took the brunt of it. Luckily the man he hired wasn’t good at his job. What about the next one?”
“You think it was all a trick. I refuse to believe this until you have some proof.”
“Hopefully, that will be soon, but it already looks bad. A few days after I got that letter from him, Candy is shot while wearing my coat. He’s about my height with dark hair and was wearing black pants and his black hat. Sound like too much of a coincidence?” Adam paused letting his wife absorb that information. Then he got back to the story. “When we left him, Roy was going to ask the judge if he could monitor telegraph traffic for any message going to Philadelphia or any message that might indicate lack of success in a shooting.”
While Ben looked pleased at that news, Rufina was downcast. She knew that any vestiges of feeling she had for her father were probably about to be destroyed. It left her feeling a loss because although he hadn’t been much of a father, he was the only one she had. Adam wrapped an arm around her suspecting how she felt but knowing too that she had a new family now and one that loved her without reservation. Ben thought perhaps they ought to talk about precautions they should take.
“What do you think we should do to be ready for him? You two know him.”
Ben could see that Adam and Rufina were concerned about that especially with the looks they gave each other. He waited assuming the two had already discussed this issue.
“Pa, we’re thinking that Fina’s father is more powerful than we knew. He may have been the man behind the scenes pulling the strings.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Pa, he lost some of his assets because of deals he had with men who were exposed and went to prison. But, he was never charged with anything. He never was even questioned about anything. Somehow he was insulated from all the scandal except by association. He is either unbelievably lucky or he had the ability to control the situation.”
“And you don’t believe in luck.” Then Ben had another question. “Did you respond to his letter?”
“I did. Fina and I talked it over and thought it might work as a delaying tactic, but now it looks like it wasn’t smart to do it at all. It simply confirmed that I was here.”
“If you what you suspect is true, what do you think he’ll try next?”
“That’s the problem. We don’t have any idea now. We thought we knew, but what has happened has made me wonder if I have any idea of how to plan for him at all.”
“Well, he has to meet you here. That’s your advantage.”
“I wish I had an idea right now of how to use that best. Maybe I should contact my former colleagues to see if they can offer some insight. I’ll send a telegram tomorrow when I go to see Candy to apologize for getting him hurt in my place.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Hoss and Joe are going to bring Candy home tomorrow or the day after as the doctor sees fit. If you get the message written, one of them can send it. You can talk to Candy when he gets here. That will be much safer all around. You and your family should stick close to the ranch house for the foreseeable future.”
Rufina was shocked. “You think they might come after Aaron too?”
Adam responded before Ben could. Obviously he had been thinking the same as his father. “Fina, Aaron is the one he’s focused on. He won’t hurt him. He wants his heir. I’m in the way, but he wants you to care for him. He probably has someone lined up to take my place as well.”
“But that’s crazy.” Rufina thought only for a short time. “But in that instance, what if I had another son?”
Pursing his lips, Adam didn’t want to answer. She knew what that meant.
“We both know though don’t we. Aaron is only the best he’s got at this point. He’s expendable though if a better option was presented.”
“I’m afraid that’s probably true.”
“My father has no heart.”
That despairing statement gave Ben an idea. “Maybe you can exploit that. A man with no heart wouldn’t understand someone with one. He has no empathy for your situation. Make him an offer he can’t refuse to draw him in. You can offer Aaron to him for some consideration. A man like that might believe you would be willing to trade your son for a greater advantage.”
Rufina stood in shock at her father-in-law’s words. “We would never do that. How could you even say those words?”
Pulling his wife close, Adam sought to soothe as well as explain because he understood what his father had intended with those words. “Sweetheart, he can say them because he doesn’t mean them. It’s the idea of drawing your father into a trap.”
“Yes, a trap. We make an offer he would like to get him where we can apprehend him. He wants Aaron so we offer him Aaron. He would do something like that so it wouldn’t surprise him that his daughter would do the same. If he goes for it, we get him. Then it will be over.”
“But we don’t know it is him behind this.”
“I think he is, but we’ll know soon enough.”
The next day had to suffice as soon enough. Sheriff Roy Coffee rode into the yard mid-morning. Greeting Adam and Ben on the porch, he asked if there were any other members of the family who would want to hear what he had found out. Joe and Hoss had already gone to town, but Adam asked for a moment to get his wife. Once she handed Aaron over to Gail, she joined the men to hear what Roy had to say.
“Only one telegram was sent to Philadelphia. Sorry to say, ma’am, it did go to your father. It was clearly addressed to him, Donald Miller.”
Anxious to hear the rest, Adam was insistent. “What did it say?”
“Said the threat had been addressed but not wholly eliminated. From what I could tell from that, they think you got shot but aren’t dead. I put some deputies in charge of watching over Candy. I told them to warn any of your family who come to town too. Adam, I’m real glad to see you was smart enough not to show up there today.”
“That was Pa’s idea.”
“And a good idea it was too.”
“Now what about the man who sent the telegram?”
“Well, I got a good description of him. Seems he’d be called handsome by some except for a big scar running down one side of his face. Dresses like a city man. He’s thin with thinning brown hair. About Ben’s height but thin almost skinny. I had some of my men check, and he couldn’t be the shooter. He was seen in various places in town all of yesterday. Never rented a horse from any livery stable.” Looking from Adam to Rufina, Roy could see there wasn’t even a flicker of anything. Nothing he had said triggered any memory for either of them. “So he’s likely a stranger to you and hired to carry out some plan.”
Adam agreed with Roy’s assessment. “Well it appears he knew enough to make sure he had an alibi. We don’t recognize him though so it seems most likely he was hired by someone and then hired a gunman when he got here.” Thinking for a moment more, Adam amended his statement. “That is unlikely if he’s not from this area unless he has connections with those who know who would do that kind of work, so it’s far more likely he brought someone with him.”
Because he had to get back to town, Roy wasn’t as talkative as usual. “He mighta met someone here sent by the same one who sent him. No one seems to have seen him with anyone. We’ll keep a watch on him because we know he’s involved. I don’t want to arrest him. We need him to get to the shooter.” After stating his piece, he took his leave and returned to town.
There wasn’t much for the others to do except wait for Hoss and Joe to bring Candy home if the doctor had cleared him for travel. Then they could begin planning in earnest.
That evening, Adam worked at writing a lengthy letter to his former colleagues informing them of what had happened and what he needed. Seeking their insights, he didn’t want to give too much away either if the letter was intercepted. Finally pleased with the result, he sealed the letter and then considered how he could get it to them. There seemed to be only one way that would work. It involved some risk but not too much as his trip would be unexpected and difficult to follow. With someone with him, the danger would be minimal especially as he knew he had to be careful. His wife and family didn’t agree though.
“If I get this to the marshal’s office in Carson City, he will make sure it gets through. I can explain it all to them and one way or another, the story will be told.”
Hoss suggested there was another way. “One of us could take the letter and explain things to him.”
“You know that won’t have the same impact as me meeting with him. He has no reason to trust you.”
“Well, he ain’t got no reason not to trust me.”
“Hoss, actually, he does. There is so much underhanded behavior going on that no one is going to trust someone unless they are sure of them. He won’t be sure of you so he won’t be able to trust you.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Yeah, it’s that bad. The corruption reaches into nearly every department of government and keeps expanding. I hope the next president will do something about it, but at this point, I doubt that will happen. It’s entrenched at every level of our government and in every department.”
“Son, you paint an ugly picture of our government.”
“Pa, it’s the only way I know how to tell it. All we can do is try to prevent it from reaching us here.”
“I know, but we need to stay vigilant and know they won’t stop. Greed for money and power drives them.”
“So, under the circumstances, do you think Hoss will be enough protection to go with you?”
“Actually, I was thinking Joe would be a better choice as long as he doesn’t ride Cochise.” Seeing the surprise both brothers had, Adam quickly explained. “I need to keep them guessing as to what I’m doing. Hoss, you’re too recognizable. If anyone is watching, they will recognize you and then could guess I’m the man with you. Joe on another horse won’t be recognizable. I’ll dress differently and take another horse. Does anyone think they’ve been watching us long enough to recognize us if we disguise ourselves?”
Joe added another thought. “And they may not know yet that it’s Candy they shot and not you. They may not be watching at all. Either way, we should be good.”
With the cooler weather, it was much easier to put together the disguises with Joe wearing extra clothing to make him appear larger. Hoss got a wagon ready to pick up Candy for the ride home as the doctor had said he could go home that day. Adam reminded him to say Candy’s name a number of times as he helped him into the wagon so that anyone watching would realize it wasn’t Adam.
“How many outriders are you taking with you?”
“None.” Hoss rather enjoyed the shocked looks on his brothers. “I got men watching on the ridges all the way back though. Hop Sing is gonna ride in the wagon with me in case Candy needs anything.”
At the house, Ben was in charge of keeping the rest of the family safe. There were men stationed at strategic points who appeared to be working at mundane tasks but their main responsibility was to make sure no one approached the house. Jamie normally would have complained at being assigned to chopping and sawing wood except the job was the same for him as the last line of defense for the house. He had a rifle behind the woodpile and plenty of ammunition should he need it. Everyone on the ranch had been alerted to the possibility of an attack because they were all potentially targets if that happened. Ben added ten dollars to everyone’s pay for that month and the next as well as offering them the chance to move on if they didn’t like the situation. Adam suggested that they ought to improve provisions for the month as well and offered to pay for that. He gave a list to Hop Sing and the money to bring back some supplies.
In town, two men waited to see what was going to happen. They had seen the two Cartwright brothers the previous day and expected them to come back for their brother. Neither had spent time in the saloons so they were unaware that the man at the doctor’s office was Candy Canaday and not Adam Cartwright. When they saw Hoss come in with Hop Sing, they were slightly surprised. That increased when the doctor helped Hoss with his patient.
“Now, Mister Canaday, I didn’t patch you up in order to see you tear out my work and start bleeding all over again. Follow my orders, please.”
“Doc, don’t you worry. We’ll make sure Candy does what he should. Candy, you know we will, dontcha?” When Candy didn’t smile, Hoss grinned. “Doc, I think Candy’s sense of humor done got wounded too.”
“Yes, I got that impression as well. In fact, I believe Candy has some fine words he would like to say to your brother.”
“Now that’s a conversation I gotta hear. Candy talking to my brother about something like this is gonna be better than Chinese fireworks.”
Nearby, townspeople had gathered to see what was happening. Behind them, two men stood, one in front of the other seemingly not together. However the one in back was talking quietly. Anyone watching would have seen the scar on his face moving as he talked.
“It may be a trick. It doesn’t matter. Go out to the spot you picked for a better shot this time. Shoot the big one first and then the Chinaman. Then ride up close and make sure the one in the wagon is dead. It may not be him, but it will send the message if it isn’t.”
The would-be assassin left then but was followed by one of Roy’s deputies at Deputy Clem Foster’s instruction. He kept the other man in sight and followed him. The man who left town did go to a good place for an ambush, but he was followed and spotted by the Ponderosa man as well. When he was setting up for kill shots, men were working their way down behind him. As the wagon came into view and he raised his rifle to fire, he felt cold steel at the base of his skull.
“Let go of that rifle or it’s gonna get real ugly here for you when I pull this trigger.”
The man had killed before but had no great wish to die. As he let his weapon drop, he was already thinking of what he could offer in a deal that might get him some clemency. These men had no idea of the bodies he had put in cemeteries in Philadelphia and more recently in Sacramento and San Francisco. He couldn’t give up the man with the scar though. That was certain death for there was no place he could hide from him and his organization. He would have to see how interested they were in dirty politicians. They were always expendable.
In town, the man with the scar waited patiently for the results of his planning. An hour passed before his disappointment. When he saw his man ride in with the deputy and be marched into the jail, he had to worry but not too much. Guessing that his man was more afraid of him than of anything the law could do, he went to the telegraph office to send another missive. This was getting stale. By his estimation, he needed more resources here to accomplish his task. When he read the Territorial Enterprise the next morning with its report of the situation, he had to contact his employer once more to tell him that Adam Cartwright was alive and well. They had shot the wrong man and the shooter was in jail. The first message had upset Donald, the second angered him, and the third led to fury.
“I cannot believe how I am supposed to conduct the business of this organization with such imbeciles as my staff.”
His wife wondered at his words and asked what he meant.
“I sent Eliot to have that Cartwright eliminated so our daughter and grandson could come back home. He’s botched it up. I’ll give him one more try. I had hopes that he could handle this and then help set up my operations in California, but at this rate, all he’s managed is to create a crime spree and get the authorities interested in what’s going on. So far, they have no idea, but if he keeps doing what he’s doing, they may be able to muddle their way through it.”
“No harm will come to Rufina though?”
“No, of course not, as long as she doesn’t make any trouble. Cartwright managed to avoid this attempt, but I’ve set another plan in motion to teach him to have respect for my reach. He thinks he’s so smart for stealing my grandson away from me. I’ll show him and take something from him that he finds valuable. If that doesn’t sink in, I’ll take more.”
That vindictiveness was not the reassurance that she wanted but she knew better than to ask for more. It was a rare situation in which her husband told her this much. Usually she had to listen at the door when he spoke with his associates and underlings. On occasion, when he had too much to drink, she had gone through his papers to see what he was doing so she had a good idea of his activities. Over the years, she had secreted away a stash of papers that she could use to protect herself if she ever found it necessary. Now she wondered if she might need those documents to protect her daughter instead. She had never confided in her daughter hoping to insulate her from the ugliness, but now, she wished she had told her everything because that would make her better prepared to deal with what was coming her way. She had an idea then of how she might communicate some things to her daughter. It was risky, but less so than doing nothing. With the mood her husband was in, she knew Rufina was in danger regardless of what he had said. Waiting the next day until her husband left for his meetings, she got to work. A few days later, she was ready.
“Donald, I have a package I would like to send to our daughter.”
“Yes, a small blanket and pillow I made, and some toys I bought. They’re all for Aaron.”
“Now why would you want to do that? Can’t it wait until he gets here?”
“I’m sorry. I thought if I sent these things now, she and her husband might be less suspicious of us and not think anything underhanded was going to happen.”
Leaning back in his chair, Donald laughed. “Damn, woman, after twenty-eight years of marriage, you finally have a good idea. Yes, have it sent. It will work into my plans quite well. Well, damn, life is full of surprises.”
A few minutes later, his natural suspicion rose and Donald went to where his wife and the butler were packing the items into a large box. He looked over the pillow and blanket, and then examined the toys noting that several were hollow. Looking inside each one, he found they were all empty. His suspicions satisfied, he smiled again and told the butler to get the package out at once. His wife could only sigh in relief when the butler took the box out to their carriage and drove off with it. All those papers so carefully collected for years were now on their way to her daughter. She could only hope that Rufina would realize that pillow was much too heavy and then would understand the importance of those documents especially the ones she had taken from her husband’s secret stash only a few nights earlier. She had done all she could do. After waiting a few more days to be sure the package wasn’t returned, she went up to her room, took a quadruple dose of her sleeping potion, and then a good swallow from the bottle followed by a hefty glass of brandy. She lay back on the bed and thought about her life. Her one accomplishment had been a daughter who was a good person.
All she could do now was to try to protect her and her grandson. Although she knew it was a cowardly act to leave the world this way, she couldn’t bear to face the wrath of her husband when he discovered what she had done. She had a weak heart and knew her death would be attributed to that. The next morning when she did not come down for breakfast, the butler went to her room. When she did not answer his knock, the maid went up and entered the room to find her cold and lifeless. Donald finished his breakfast before going to the office where he told a clerk to make arrangements for the funeral and burial.
The week on the Ponderosa started poorly for Adam and got worse. His first task was to apologize to Candy for what happened. The foreman was in the downstairs bedroom at the Ponderosa until he was well enough to return to his quarters. When there was a quiet moment, Adam went in to talk with him.
“I’m sorry about what happened to you.”
“You mean the bullet I took for you? Took you long enough to get in here to talk to me or were you hoping I’d die so you wouldn’t have to bend your pride a little and apologize?”
“Of course, I’m sorry about the bullet, and no, I never wanted anything bad to happen to you. I waited because I wanted you to be stronger before I dropped any bad memories on you. I had no idea that anyone would do something like that.”
“Well maybe if you hadn’t kept all the news to yourself, someone else would have been smart enough to figure it out.”
“He said we had thirty days. I talked it over with my wife first and then with the family.”
“Well, that was too late for me, wasn’t it? Next time, how about no delays.”
“I don’t want to argue with you. I came to apologize. I did. I think I should leave.”
“That’s what you do when the going gets tough, then?”
With his lips tightly pursed, Adam left the room and walked outside. By the way he left the house, it was clear, he didn’t want any company. Hoss walked to the open door of the bedroom.
“You was kinda hard on him, wasn’t ya? I mean, he really does feel bad already.”
“I know, but I was trying to get some fire in him. Don’t you think he’s lost some of his fire? I mean, when I first met him, there was an attitude there that I don’t see now. He needs it.”
“How much do you know about what’s going on?”
“Pretty much all of it, I guess. Joe and I were talking. He agreed with me that Adam seems to have lost his edge. He’s letting things happen and then reacting instead of taking charge.”
“Yeah. I think it’s because he doesn’t have any idea how to fight this time.”
“He needs to find a way. He needs to get mad and get a plan.”
Ben and Rufina heard that exchange too. With glistening eyes, she turned to her father-in-law.
“Do you agree with them?”
“I’m not sure. There may be some truth in it. What do you think?”
“I think they’re right. In Philadelphia and all the way here, he was in charge. He had a plan and carried it out. There were risks and he explained them, but for each step of our journey, he was ready for what might happen. Now, he’s floundering.”
“He has to do something, but whatever it is, it will likely be dangerous.”
“I know, but that will be better than waiting for danger to come here without warning.”
Surprised, Ben still had to smile. “The two of you are well matched.” Standing, Ben offered his arm to his daughter-in-law. “Let’s go get some coffee. If I know my son, by the time he gets back inside, he’ll have a dangerous ploy in mind.”
While the two of them had coffee, Hoss walked outside to find Adam. He guessed that he had cooled off by then. He found him in back of the house staring into the distance and guessed what he was going to do.
“Going to town?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“Figured it was tearing you up staying here and not knowing who the man with the scar was and what the man who done the shooting looked like. I’ll go with ya.”
“You’ll make us better targets.”
“I’ll put outriders on the ridges again.”
“This is costing a lot of money paying the men extra and then pulling them from their regular work.”
“Don’t you worry about that. Cost don’t mean nothing when it’s family.” Pausing only briefly, Hoss had his next question. “What’s the plan?”
“We’ll see Roy first and he can tell us what he’s found out so far. I’ll get a look at that shooter although I doubt I’ll know him. Being in town and going to the sheriff’s office may draw out that man with the scar. I’d like to see him too.”
When they got to town, Roy wasn’t at all surprised to see them, and was in fact, quite pleased when they walked into his office. It saved him from a long round trip ride. Inviting them to take seats, he told them it might be a bit of a long story.
“The man who thought he was killing you when he shot Candy won’t give up his boss. It’s pretty darn clear he figures he’s a dead man if he does. But, he’s willing to deal so he gave up the name of a few political people who he paid bribes to in order to get certain things done. Now turns out, these men all work for one United States senator. I found that out when a couple of federal agents showed up here and wanted to question my prisoner. They talk about everything in code, but you can figure out a lot if you listen to it and think of the things they say like pieces of a puzzle. This senator they call Decimus. They said he’s connected to Brutus and Cassius, and all three are loyal to Caesar and his business dealings cause it’s making all of them rich.”
“But who are Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar?”
“Think about this story, Adam. This all started because you stole away your wife and son from Philadelphia and your father-in-law is plenty darn mad about it.”
It didn’t take long for Adam to nod. Hoss frowned but then smiled.
“Them two with the funny names is senators from Pennsylvania, ain’t they? And is Caesar old Mister Miller?”
“That’s my guess, Hoss, and I think Adam would agree with that. If they have code names for them, there’s already an active investigation.”
“Why don’t they use their real names then?”
It was Adam’s turn to explain. “They’re using code names because these are powerful men. This whole investigation is probably mostly secret. These men have connections, power, and money. The investigation has to uncover a lot of dirt on them before it can go public or it will be buried and the men conducting it will be at risk.”
“Without realizing it, that shooter in there gave us more valuable information than he realized. If we had found out who hired him, it would have gone down as a revenge plot. But with the names he turned over, the investigation has a better idea of the structure of the organization out here.”
“Well, Roy, can we go take a look at our genius?”
When Adam stood outside the man’s cell, it didn’t take long for the shooter to recognize who he had to be.
“You must be the one I was supposed to shoot.”
“Yes. But why me? There must be a lot easier jobs out there.”
“Yeah, but none that paid as well as this one.”
“I suppose your boss will be upset with you now that didn’t even get hurt.”
“He said there was more than one way to hurt you.”
Frowning at the man as he lounged on the cot in the cell, Adam wondered what he could mean. Miller wouldn’t hurt Aaron and wouldn’t hurt Rufina unless she tried to stop him. There was no point in attacking members of his family when he was right there. Suddenly he knew.
“Hoss, I have to send a telegram.”
With that, Adam turned and rushed from the office. Offering only a shrug to Roy, Hoss followed after. Catching up to Adam despite his older brother’s long strides, Hoss was concerned that Adam wasn’t paying attention to potential danger. He looked around nervously but saw no threat.
“You want to tell me why you rushed out here and took a chance on getting shot?”
“I have to warn the people on my ranch. He said ‘there’s more than one way to hurt me’ and that has to be it.”
“Dadburnit. Yeah, let’s get over to the telegraph office.”
There were two telegrams waiting for Adam as he wrote out the one for Nate. Once that was sent, he opened up the envelopes for the other two. The first one made him expel breath and then look at Hoss as if to ask for help.
“I can’t help ifn you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
“Fina’s mother died. They’re having a funeral in two days. I have to wonder if it’s a trick, but if it isn’t, it will be a difficult time for her.”
“Was she sick?”
“She had some issues, but she wasn’t sick as far as I know.”
“What’s the other telegram?”
“I’ve been discharged from the marshals service. They can no longer help me because I’m a civilian again.”
“I bet someone pulled some strings to make that happen.”
“Yes, and I think we know who.” Although Adam knew he had to tell his wife about her mother, he was in no hurry to do so. He looked at Hoss. “Let’s go get a beer and see if the other one shows up so I can get a look at him.” Turning to the telegraph operator, he told him they might be in town for as much as two hours so he would be back to see if there was a response.
In the saloon, they took seats where they could easily see whomever entered, but they could not be easily seen unless someone stood at the bar. It worked. The man with the scar came to the open door, stood there for over a minute but apparently didn’t see whomever he wanted to see. He moved on.
“You look like you done saw a ghost or maybe the devil.”
“Close enough on that second choice. Yeah, he could pass for that. Fina was afraid I’d kill that bastard and end up in prison. I may kill him, but now, I’ll have a self-defense justification.”
“What did he do?”
“He did the worst a man could do. Betrayal, and the worst thing a man can do to a woman.”
“You got some more bad news for your wife?”
“I may hold off on this second one. He was supposed to be serving twenty years for a variety of offenses. He shouldn’t be out yet. The best bet for now is to tell Roy and let him check that out. We might be able to eliminate one threat without doing anything else.”
“Or maybe it’s better to leave him here for now seeing as how you know who it is. It’d make it a whole lot easier to keep track of who else is in on whatever they got planned.”
“You may be right. It depends on what plan we have. Let’s go talk to Roy and then see if Nate has replied. I can only hope no one was hurt there because of me.”
“Now, there you go again. It ain’t because of you. If bad people do bad things, it’s because of them. Someday you gotta learn that, but I been waiting a long time, and you being stubborn about it and all. But here you go again doing that martyr thing, I think they call it. Being honest, it’s getting a mite tiresome you feeling guilty all the time and me having to talk you out of it. Couldn’t you think about blaming the ones who done it instead of yourself at least this time?”
Despite all his worries, Adam had to smile and wondered if that had been Hoss’ intention. “How about if I start with trying not to say it? Maybe that will be a start on not thinking it or feeling it.”
“That might work.”
It didn’t take long to tell Roy about Eliot and what he was capable of doing. To Hoss’ surprise, Adam had a plan that he outlined to Roy who thought it could work. They discussed it briefly, and then the two brothers headed to the telegraph office. Good news awaited them there.
“It only jest came in about ten minutes ago. I was going to go look for you except there were more messages on the line.”
“That’s all right. Do you have the message?”
Once it was handed to him, Adam quickly scanned it and grinned.
“Now that’s about the last thing I expected ifn you got an answer from your friend.”
“Hoss, it’s funny. Listen to this. ‘Thanks for the warning but a day late. City slickers had no idea how many men work on a ranch nor what an Arapaho woman dan do with a knife in the dark if her man is threatened. Two dead and two in jail. Ranch if fine. All horses are fine.’ Now I wonder if Nate is going to marry her.”
Hoss’ eyes got big. “That’s the part you find most interesting?”
“Well, yes, because the rest is good news, but that other part is what’s interesting.”
“Older brother, I’ve tried, but I may never understand you. You think in some mighty peculiar ways by my reckoning.”
“Let’s go find Eliot so I can walk by him and say howdy. Then we can go home and let everyone know what we found out.
If Eliot thought he knew what would happen when Adam saw him, his shock was genuine. Roy knew what the brothers were planning to do and walked a short distance behind them. All Adam said was ‘Greetings, Eliot. Get tired of the East and want me to beat you again?”
“You never beat me!”
Except Roy walked up behind him as Adam and Hoss strolled away as if Eliot was no threat at all. “Seems to me, he got the pretty lady as his wife, he still has his reputation and a father and brothers who love him, he’s got a family empire to inherit, and all sorts of other things. What do you have?”
As was his usual response to any challenge, Eliot was defiant. “He won’t be so smug when I get through with him.”
“You try anything, I got to tell you, I’ve got a darn good jail here, and it’s not so easy to get out of Nevada state prison neither.”
Faced with so much determination, Eliot felt outnumbered. He hadn’t heard yet that the plan in Wyoming had failed. Worse for him, the two surviving members of the group he hired to destroy that ranch were talking in order to get a good deal. If the man in the Virginia City jail decided to talk, Eliot worried that he might be arrested too and was determined that Adam had to be killed before Eliot had to worry about the same fate. He had no idea that the man was already talking and had surprised the authorities with knowing enough that they could start piecing together the parts of the puzzle of a criminal political enterprise. What they needed though was some tangible evidence of the bribes, the intimidation, the forgeries, and the fraud. Pouring over documents related to schemes in which these men had been involved, they could find little evidence of the corruption they knew had to be there somewhere.
In his hotel room, a furious Eliot paced as he thought about his options and before he grabbed the items he most prized and packed them in a small valise. He headed to the livery stable and rented a fine horse telling the man there that he was going to visit friends on a ranch for a few days. Instead he rode hard after Adam and Hoss. When he saw them in the distance, he veered off to the side and headed up through the hillside until he found the area when he hoped to make one good shot. Eliot was a superb shot and rarely missed anything he aimed at. However in the east, no one ever taught you what to do in the rain or snow, from a hill behind you or in front of you, as well as other things he needed to evaluate. In this case, he aimed expertly but shot Adam in the thigh instead of in the chest. Hoss dismounted and pulled Adam into cover.
“We weren’t careful enough.”
“You noticed. Damn, that stings. Hoss, go get him. It has to be Eliot. By what I did, I wanted to make him mad, however I miscalculated on how much rage he would have as a result.”
“I’ll get him. You all right here?”
“For now. It’s not bleeding too badly so the bullet is in the muscle.”
Within a half hour, Hoss was back with Eliot hog-tied over the saddle of the rented horse. Two Ponderosa riders had rushed to the sound of a rifle and helped. Hoss helped Adam to get onto his horse, and they proceeded slowly the rest of the way home. By the time they neared the house, Adam was slumped down but answered each time Hoss asked. The pain and blood loss were taking a toll. Eliot complained several times about how uncomfortable he was until Hoss had one of the men gag him. The other hand had ridden to town to summon the doctor.
“You’re lucky I’m not dragging you behind your horse. You’re a dirty low-down bushwhacker. It’s where you belong. Ifn I did what I really want to do, you’d be down in the dust and horseshit on the road here.”
The snicker Hoss heard from Adam made that worth the effort. He knew his older brother was doing all right if he could find the humor in such a situation. Of course Gail and Rufina had objected to the two brothers making this foray into town. Facing them was going to be much harder than tracking down this cowardly shooter.
At the house, men were saddling up at Ben’s instruction to head out to find Hoss and Adam. They were long overdue and Ben decided to take action. It worked out well though because those men were there to help get Adam down from his horse and into the house. Hoss told them that they could take the shooter into town and turn him over to Roy. Joe volunteered for the duty.
“Should we untie him and let him ride? It’s quite a ways into town to go hog-tied like that.”
“It is, but he shot our brother and meant to kill him. He’s done worse including hurting Adam’s wife. You still care about if he’s comfortable or not?”
“Nope, he looks plenty comfortable to me. Right men?”
As Hoss turned to go inside, he got a look from Gail that told him he was going to hear about this whole situation later once Adam got the care he needed. At least Adam was going to have the protection of being an invalid for a week or two. Rufina would have to pull her punches. Hoss knew Gail wasn’t going to give him a break. For the time being, she had Aaron with her and said nothing tugging the little boy’s hand to follow her back into the house once the outside excitement had passed. The doctor was needed to dig the bullet out so Hoss had a bit of a reprieve. In the interim, he explained as much as he could about what he and Adam had learned in town leaving out the part about Eliot’s identity. Not sure how Adam would want to let that out, he decided no one needed to know about Eliot yet. When they heard Rufina crying, they assumed Adam had told her about her mother.
“Gail and Hoss, perhaps you could go sit with Adam? I’ll go talk with Fina for a time. She’s got a lot to deal with at the moment. Jamie, if Aaron wakes or needs something, can you take care of it?”
That gave each of them something to do and made the time pass faster, or at least it did for everyone except Adam. Though he wanted to offer comfort to his wife and talk about her loss, he heard every tick of the small clock in the bedroom as his leg felt like it was on fire. The sound of a carriage after ten that night nearly made him cry in relief because although he knew there would be pain with the removal of the bullet, there would finally be relief too. As Doctor Martin was ushered into the room, he shooed everyone else out even Rufina who wanted to stay to help.
“I know you do, but this is fairly straightforward procedure from what I’ve been told about the wound. I won’t need help. As for Adam, I think I know him well enough to know that he doesn’t want any witnesses to the suffering he has to endure. It may be a simple procedure, but that will not make it any the less difficult.”
“Paul, you didn’t have to be quite so direct, did you? I can hear you.”
“I am sorry, Adam, but I did think you wanted your wife out of here.”
Although he had some mixed feelings about that, Adam did want to spare her what was to come. He nodded. She leaned over to kiss his cheek before standing to leave the room. Paul began unwrapping the bandage around Adam’s leg and examining the wound, and as Adam watched the doctor’s face, he didn’t like the expression he saw because it was worse than the pain he felt from the exam. Through gritted teeth he addressed the doctor.
“I don’t think I’m going to like what you’re about to tell me.”
“No, you’re not going to like it. The bullet did only nick the bone, but it split into two pieces as well. Both went deep into the muscle. The good news is that they veered away from the artery when they did that.”
“Yeah, I kinda figured they went deep.”
“To the back of your leg.”
Grimacing, Adam processed what the doctor meant by that. It would be better to cut those pieces out by going into the back of his leg rather than trying to probe deeply through his leg and possibly damaging the large artery that so far had been missed. Paul went to the door and asked for a pen and ink well. He wanted to use it to mark the back of Adam’s leg and the approximate position of each half of the bullet. Because Ben wanted to know the purpose of the ink and pen, Paul had to explain and then left it up to Ben to tell the rest of the family. Only a few minutes later, Hoss came in the room.
“I washed up real well, Doc. I figured with what you gotta do to my brother, he’s gonna need some help in staying still. I’m the best one here for doing that.”
Unable to stop himself, Adam had to comment. “Paul, he only wants to avoid his wife and what she’s going to give him when they’re finally alone. Never thought I would see a Cartwright so afraid of a woman.”
“I ain’t afraid. I’m only being smart giving her time to cool down.”
Even Paul had to smile then, but there was also the serious matter of Adam’s wound. “Hoss, can you help me get him rolled over now?”
With that difficult task done as Adam groaned and grimaced, he put a leather piece in Adam’s mouth so he wouldn’t bite his tongue or break teeth.
“All right, Adam, I’m going to start.”
As Hoss held Adam’s legs so he wouldn’t jerk against what the doctor had to do, he felt his brother tense up. He knew that would make it worse so he told him to try to stay calm knowing that was next to impossible. The painful procedure was about fifteen minutes, but to Adam, it was torture. Even the stitches hurt more than usual it seemed to him. Exhausted, when he got something for the pain, he fell asleep almost immediately. Ben addressed Rufina who wanted to stay with Adam.
“He’ll sleep quite a lot now. You need to get some sleep too because both Aaron and Adam will need you tomorrow. If there is any change in his condition, you will be called.” Then Ben turned his attention to Paul. “Do you want to spend the night? It’s very late and you must be tired.”
“I would like to stay, but you have a full house these days.”
“Jamie and Joe both volunteered to sleep in the bunkhouse so that you and Fina could each have a room all to yourself. Hop Sing put clean linens on the beds.”
In town, a different scenario of going to bed had played out. Eliot sat in a cell next to the man he had hired. He had pointed to the scar on his face and then sliced a finger across his neck earlier to warn the man not to talk. Knowing the sheriff would be listening through the open door, Eliot didn’t even want to whisper and let the sheriff know that the two of them knew each other. After they finished their dinner that evening, the sheriff brought in a drunk and dropped him on a bunk. Then he extinguished all the lanterns in the cell area except one.
“Time for you boys to get some sleep. There’ll be a deputy out here if there’s an emergency. Otherwise, you got a bucket and you got a pitcher of water. It’s all you need until the sun comes up.”
The sheriff left and Eliot sat on his bunk wondering about the drunk. At least he did until the smell of the man wafted over to him. Although he had thought the man could be a spy for the sheriff, no one could fake that kind of sour body odor. He moved over to the cell bars to speak to his hired man.
“Miller will get us lawyers. By now, my other man will know what happened to us and tomorrow morning, he’ll send a telegram letting the boss know that we need some help. I’m guessing the lawyers will come from San Francisco. These hicks won’t stand a chance against them.”
“What do we do until then?”
“Nothing. We say nothing. You haven’t told them anything, have you?”
“Good, because that’s the only way you’re going to stay alive. I worked for Miller for years, and when I ended up in prison, I threatened to talk in order to get out. That night they held me down and sliced a knife down my face. They told me that only my years of service stopped that knife from going across my throat or from cutting off my privates. You don’t have years of service. You talk, and he’ll make sure you die, and it won’t be pretty.”
From the man’s reaction, Eliot could tell he had lied. He had told them something, and it was going to cost him his life. Eliot was going to make sure this man didn’t have a chance to say anything more and began plotting ways that could be done. At the same time, Eliot realized he had made a possibly fatal error in naming their employer before he had ascertained whether this man was trustworthy. He was going to have to fix that or his own life was forfeit. He sat down heavily on the cot and wondered if he would get any sleep at all.
In the third cell, Deputy Clem Foster did his best to write down in a small notebook all that he had heard. The light was dim and he had only two small pencil stubs to use. The smell of the clothing he was wearing was nearly enough to make him puke, but it was a perfect disguise. He had to admit that. The drunk they had taken into custody for disorderly conduct had been pleasantly surprised to learn that his fine was to give up his filthy clothing in exchange for a new clean shirt and pants and to be escorted to his home to sleep it off. Now Clem had invaluable evidence. He had to pay for it though by sleeping in this filthy clothing. In the morning, Roy was there to lead him out.
“I’ll take ya home now and explain to your wife what happened. You’ll get a proper punishment from her, I reckon.”
“Don’t I get breakfast?”
“You wife can feed you. Besides, who can have an appetite smelling like you do.”
“Sheriff, when do we get breakfast?” Eliot did his best to act as if it was only an innocent question.
“You get your breakfast at eight. And don’t get to hollering or nothing cause it won’t get here any sooner. They’ll bring it over when most of their customers are done eating.”
With no one watching, Eliot had slipped off his belt. When the sheriff left with the other man, he edged to the corner of his cell to stare at the door.
“I can’t see very well with this corner post in the way. Is the door shut tight?”
His man quickly came to assist him. Although Eliot regretted having to kill a man so eager to please, he knew the man couldn’t be trusted. As the man stared at the door trying to determine if it was tightly closed, Eliot reached through the bars and dropped the loop of his belt over the man’s head and around his neck jerking him back violently against the bars. He buckled the belt as tightly as he could and then waited until the man was dead before reaching around to unbuckle the dead man’s belt and slip it free. He slid it around his own waist congratulating himself on correctly guessing that the two of them were of the same build. The same holes were worn from use on both belts. It was a bit of work to slide the buckle of his belt around to the side so he could claim the other man had buckled it himself and committed suicide. When he finished, he was proud of what he had accomplished. Calmly, he walked to his cot to grab a bit of sleep before breakfast was served.
Three hours later, Sheriff Coffee and Deputy Foster were at the Ponderosa to discuss what had happened, what they had done, and what they had found out. None had anticipated that Eliot would find a way to kill the other man in the jail. Ben was the most skeptical, but then, he had not met Eliot.
“Roy, are you sure it was murder?”
“Ben, the mark from the buckle was toward the back of the neck where couldn’t have put it himself, but when we found him, the mark was on the front. Doc says it has all the signs of someone being hanged against his will including scratches at the belt trying to pull it off.”
“Horrible thing to do to a man.”
“He’s a horrible man.” Rufina’s words left them silent for a time before she insisted they needed to continue.
“Adam, you are right. Mister Miller is their boss. Clem heard them talking about it and how he’d bring high-priced lawyers into here for them. You were right too about there being a third man. We intercepted the telegram and substituted our own message.”
“What did you say?”
“Caesar needs to cross the Rubicon. Western senator ready to negotiate and take his thirty pieces.”
“That ought to do it.”
Some of those listening were confused. Others nodded in appreciation, but Rufina was upset.
“You’ve invited my father to come. You’re bringing Lucifer, the Evil One, the Great Deceiver here?”
“Fina, we had to get him out of Philadelphia. He’s safe there and always will be. As long as he is safe, we are in danger. Away from the protection he created for himself there, he’s vulnerable. If we can get him to make an overt illegal act here, he can be arrested. The everything can be investigated and maybe he can be put in prison.”
“But he might find a way to take Aaron.”
“He won’t. We’re going to make sure that Aaron is protected at all times.”
“Adam, my father doesn’t give up.”
“He will never take my family away from me. I don’t give up either when it’s my family.”
Ben had to tell her the same. “You’re a Cartwright now. The whole family will do whatever is necessary to protect you.”
“Yes, but Adam still got shot.”
Roy decided it was time to lighten the mood. “We do have one thing that might help you. I know you’re still mourning your mother, but there was a package in town for you. Seems one of the last things your mama did was send a package to you.” Roy handed over the box wrapped in brown paper then.
The ploy worked as Rufina opened the package and smiled through her tears to find the things her mother had sent for Aaron. There was a letter too, but she decided to open that later when she had privacy. “I don’t want to start bawling in front of all of you. I’ll read it and tell you all about it later.”
Sitting on the settee with his leg propped up, Adam had one last question. “What about Eliot and his fancy lawyer?”
“Adam, somehow the operator lost that set of telegrams. They’re on a shelf in his office. He might remember he has them there in say a week or two.”
“Caleb Braden is one of the most honest men I have ever met. How did you ever convince him to pull such a stunt?”
“We told him some of what Eliot has done to innocent people. He’s got a strong sense of righteousness too. He will deliver the telegrams, but he said it might even be at the gallows steps.”
“Eliot deserves nothing more.”
Many heads nodded in agreement at those words. Clem and Roy left, and by the time everyone returned inside the house, Adam was asleep. They moved on to their other tasks to let him sleep. It wasn’t only the physical trauma that had exhausted him. The constant worry about Miller was wearing him down too. The good news had given him a temporary reprieve from all the worries, and all were glad to see he had finally relaxed.
Only two days later, they got a message that Miller was in town. He must have taken the first available train to get there that fast. That he had traveled without his personal rail car was a surprise, but it meant he caught them off-guard too. Adam didn’t like it.
“He’s up to something. He did that deliberately to do just what he’s done. It makes it clear he knows we’re not ready to negotiate anything, and he’s sending the message that he won’t do that either.”
“Son, are you sure? Couldn’t he be anxious to see his daughter and grandson?”
“Pa, don’t think of him in your terms. Think of him in Fina’s terms. She knows him best and knows what he’s capable of doing.”
“Adam’s right. I do know, and I agree with Adam.”
“We will all have to accept it then, but we still have to talk to him if we want to get any idea what he’s planning.”
“Before we do that, I want Fina and Aaron someplace safe where he can’t find them.”
“Adam, I’m not running again.”
“Fina, it’s not running. It’s a war, and putting your forces into defensive positions is what you do in a war.”
“All right, but where could we go that would be safe?”
“You may not like the idea. There’s a lady who lives up on the mountain. She’s very nice if a little eccentric. We let her live on our land because she only traps what she calls varmints, and she keeps an eye on people traveling through.”
“So, you think it would be a good idea for us to stay with her.”
“Yes, but you aren’t really going to be there.”
“It’s our cover story so they believe you aren’t here. There’s no such woman and no such place. However we’ll make it appear that there is and that means he will have to split his forces. We have more than he does anyway, but by breaking his in two, it is still a big help to winning this.”
One of the youngest cowboys on the ranch was short and had a slight build. With a dress on and carrying a bundle that could be a sleeping child, from a distance, one could believe it was Rufina. On the way to the line cabin where they were going to stay to complete the charade, Ben cautioned him to remember to let the man driving the wagon help him into the wagon and out again. From that point on, he was to make only minor appearances such as at the door of the cabin so that anyone watching would believe Rufina was there. Another hand went with him so that it appeared there was an effort to offer protection. Several other hands headed in that general direction and by the end of the day were in position to watch all approaches to the cabin.
At the house, Rufina and Aaron were going to be isolated in an upstairs bedroom with someone there for protection at all times. Candy and another hand moved into the downstairs bedroom. There were men posted in the smokehouse, the hayloft, and in a tree in the orchard. They were not to try to stop any approach to the house but to follow them in so that they were caught with force in front and behind.
While the Cartwrights thought they had it all worked out, there was a big shock when Miller showed up. Apparently, he came alone. Then armed men came into the house from two other directions, through the kitchen and from the upstairs. The ones coming down the stairs made Adam ready to bolt, but he waited to see what had happened.
“Anybody up there?”
“Nope. All the bedrooms are empty.”
“So they are at that cabin. Well, we’ll have her and the brat soon enough. Now to get rid of these so they won’t cause any more trouble.”
Before anything more could happen, Adam shocked his family with a question he addressed to the man they thought was Miller. “Who the hell are you?”
Laughing, the man answered with a smirk. “You must be Adam Cartwright, the one who thinks he’s so smart. Well, smart man, I’m the one who fooled your sheriff into thinking I was Donald Miller. Mister Miller is safely waiting in Philadelphia for us to bring his grandson home, the grandson you kidnapped.”
“I didn’t kidnap him. He’s my son.”
“Well, soon, that won’t matter. Mister Miller has a new proper daddy all lined up for him. You and the rest of the common trash here have caused enough trouble.”
The arrival of horses in the yard caused the man to turn to the door. It was all the distraction that was needed. From behind Ben’s desk, a man rose with a rifle and from the kitchen, two men came in with shotguns. A few others pointed weapons through open windows as Adam and his family pulled weapons from hiding. The four men who had thought they had the upper hand suddenly were outgunned with their pistols against far more dangerous and numerous weapons. When the front door opened, their last hopes died. More help came in for the Cartwrights. The home invaders dropped their weapons and raised their hands.
Candy grinned. “Well, you got the smarter half of ’em. The ones who came at the cabin didn’t give up so easy. Two are dead and the other two could use some doctoring.”
Concerned about the Ponderosa men, Adam asked if any were hurt. None were which was a relief. Then Rufina and Gail appeared at the top of the stairs with Joe.
“Good plan, older brother. They never came close to looking behind those curtains.”
“What curtains?” This was part of the plan Ben didn’t know.
“The stairway to the attic is in the guest room that Fina and I are using. Joe and I took off the door and put in a set of clothing hooks and shelves on a swinging false door. In front of it is a set of curtains matching the ones Fina and Gail made for the windows. If you look in the room, it looks like another window. Pull the false door forward and you can go in and sit on the stairs. Pull the false door closed and the curtains hide where you are.”
As Candy took charge of the home invaders, Joe and Hoss helped usher them out of the house before returning. Once all the bad men were gone, Rufina retrieved Aaron and went down to be with family too. When all had assembled, she waited for the expected response. Gail was the first to mention it.
“For now, we’re safe but for how long?”
“Fina and I have been talking. Maybe we should leave. We’ve talked of traveling and this might be a good time to do that.”
“I don’t want you to go, not like that.”
“Pa, she’s right. As long as we’re here, it puts all of you in danger.”
“We can protect each other.”
“But what if next time they decide to kidnap one and hold that one as a hostage to get what they want. Pa, it won’t work. He’s too powerful.”
“Charges will be brought against him here.”
“They won’t be strong enough to force an extradition.”
All were quiet then for a time as they thought about what had been said. Then Rufina stood and took Aaron by the hand as he clutched two of his new toys. She handed the pillow to Adam. “He needs a nap.”
“Doesn’t he want his new pillow?”
“No, he doesn’t like it. It’s rather heavy and firm. Perhaps you would like it.”
Adam squeezed the pillow a few times and turned it over in his hands. He noticed one seam was crudely done as if the person who did it was in quite a hurry. Pulling a jackknife from his pocket, he slit those threads.
“Adam, what are you doing? That’s from my mother.”
“I think there’s more from your mother inside.”
Pushing the thin stuffing aside, Adam pulled papers and then more papers from the pillow. He set them on the table and then checked to see if there was more. A few more small papers were inside including a note to Rufina. Guessing that there must be a significant purpose behind all those papers inside that pillow, Adam had a suggestion for his wife.
“Sweetheart, perhaps you should go put Aaron down for his nap and then come back. This could take a while.”
By the time Rufina got back, Adam and his father and brothers had sorted the papers somewhat. There were receipts, contracts, letters, and agreements. As they began to look closely at them, they realized that the numbers on one never matched the numbers on the others. As realization hit, Rufina read her note aloud.
“Daughter, I tried to shield you from the ugliness in our lives. I know you thought me cold and distant, but the only way to protect you was to keep you away from your father. The only way to do that was to also keep you away from me. I didn’t know what else to do. Your father underestimated me for years. I acted the dutiful wife so that he would never be suspicious. I eavesdropped. I went through his papers when he fell asleep after drinking too much. I took things from his waste basket. It’s all here. It should be enough that he can finally meet the justice he has so far eluded. I had this insurance all these years to be used when I needed it to protect you because I knew the day would come when I would have to act against him. That day is now, but I find I don’t know how to use what I have collected. You and your Adam will know what to do. Goodbye, my love. Give my love to my grandson, and please speak of me kindly when you tell him about me.”
Holding his wife as she sobbed, Adam thought about what they had. He knew it was, as her mother had said, enough to take Miller down. How best to turn it over was the key issue. He looked over at his father.
“I think we should meet with Hiram. Copies should be made of all of this. Hiram can keep the originals. Copies can be sent to each member of the government we assume is honest.”
It worked. When news of the arrest reached them, they authorized Hiram to hand over the documents to a delegation. Eliot and the Miller impersonator were extradited to Pennsylvania to stand trial with their old boss. Those hired to help in Nevada received short sentences. In Pennsylvania, others implicated in the scandals were quick to cooperate to avoid trial and punishment. Some pleaded guilty to minor offenses and some resigned from their offices. It took months, but it finally was over and Adam and his family could feel safe.
At breakfast on a cool fall morning, Adam announced that he was going to town to buy a new coat.
“What about the one you got last spring?”
“It has a hole in it and Candy’s blood stained it. He can keep that one.”
“Son, does that mean you plan to stay?”
“Yes, Pa, it does. Fina can’t travel in her condition anyway.”
But he knew as he had known with Hoss and Gail. Joe was courting a young lady. Jamie had headed off to school. Life was good. Ben sipped his coffee and thought about how his dream had started so long ago but was coming full circle.
Other Stories by this Author
- Candy’s Opinions (by BettyHT)
- Angelic Visit (by BettyHT)
- Circles (by BettyHT)
- Being Hopeful (by BettyHT)
- A Trust Broken and Fixed (by BettyHT)