Opportunity (by BettyHT)

Summary:  A tragedy in Arizona, mistaken identification of a dying man, and financial troubles for the Ponderosa are the beginnings of a rift between Adam and his father.

Rating:  T   Word count:  25,789

Adam and Anne series:
Opportunity (by BettyHT)
Bridges (by BettyHT)
Circles (by BettyHT)

Opportunity

Chapter 1

Shock was too mild a term to describe what Ben Cartwright was feeling. He had been summoned with the news that the Army had rescued his son from renegades in the Arizona Territory. Now he stood in the infirmary and understood what the commander of that force had meant when he said the rescue hadn’t been soon enough. The list of horrendous injuries was almost too awful to even contemplate. He listened as the list of injuries to the patient was described with each one like a hard blow to the gut almost doubling him over with the pain of hearing the words and almost unable to imagine the pain of actually suffering this torture. It started with the fact that both eyes had been gouged. His lips were severely burned and the end of his tongue cut off. Sharpened bone had been pushed into his ears. Skin had been peeled back in a number of places. Several fingers were severed on each hand and the others were damaged. There were a number of severe burns. You could hear him trying to breathe and see the effort it took him to do so. The doctor gave his assessment then.

“He will take liquids when we offer them but only enough to soothe his mouth and throat. He refuses all food. From what I can tell, his mind is not affected, and he has made his choice. We keep him quiet and as comfortable as a man with his injuries can be. He will die here in another day or two at most. With his injuries and the lack of fluids, it could be at any time though even within the hour. I have said this to him, but I don’t think he can hear a word anyone says. He doesn’t respond even to loud noises. His mind may be unaffected, but we have no way to reach it.”

“What about touch?”

“We avoid touching him as much as possible. With the burns, cuts, tears, bruises, and abrasions, any touch is painful. Even if we could somehow communicate with him that way, he has no way to respond. I’m afraid all we can do is to ease his way as much as possible.”

After those words, Ben sagged, and Hoss and Joe eased him into a chair. Both sons had no words for what they saw before them. Joe was in nearly as bad a shape because he was feeling responsible for what had happened. It was his idea, in fact, his impetuous act which had taken them on the route that led through the renegades’ territory and directly into their path. Adam had told Joe to ride one way and he rode the other. It wasn’t until miles later that Joe had realized Adam had purposefully ridden more toward the renegades to draw them away from his younger brother before fleeing. Joe had headed toward the Army fort, but they had been unable to track down the renegades for four full days. By that time, Ben and Hoss had arrived to begin their own search only to hear the Army patrols had rescued Adam. However, they said it was too late, and when they reached the infirmary where he was, they all knew what that meant. As they waited for the inevitable, Hoss questioned his father.

“Pa, are we sure this is Adam? I mean, couldn’t it be somebody that looks like him?”

“Hoss, those are his clothes or what’s left of them, his gun, his boots. Dark hair even if it’s matted with blood. What else do you need to see?”

“Pa, Adam’s got some scars and such that would let us know if it’s really him. We could, you know, look under some of them bandages to see if those scars are there.”

“You want us to hurt him more just to prove what we already know? I won’t do that. It’s cruel.”

Adamant in his refusal to do anything like what Hoss had suggested, Ben sat silently with his younger sons for another day until the death that was predicted mercifully came to pass. Those last hours listening to those tortured breaths was so painful for each of them. Each tortured breath that rattled in that chest, each moan, and every contortion of the body in reaction to pain that morphine couldn’t cover brought tears to their eyes. They buried him there in Arizona knowing, in the heat of summer, taking the body home would have been horrible. The trip home was unlike anything any of them had ever done because it was like traveling into another world, one in which everything had changed because now it was the three of them when it had always been four. When they reached Virginia City, they learned the news had preceded them, and there were many who offered condolences.

Many miles away, for Adam, life had become a quandary. He had told the truth, and no one there believed him. If he lived the lie, they would believe him, but his family would continue to mourn him and suffer the pain of loss. Of course, the way things had been going at home, he wasn’t so sure the pain his family felt was that great and suspected there was a bit of relief there too. His father had questioned his integrity and his judgment so often, he had bristled at almost any hint of criticism by the time of his disappearance. He had lost a lot of his connection with his middle brother when he had attempted to intervene and save him from a disastrous marriage only to mess things up entirely when the woman had tried to seduce him instead. As for his youngest brother, the resentment and jealousy was palpable. He knew there was love there too from all three, but it hadn’t been enough to offset the negative feelings they all had or at least that was how he had felt. Over the last couple of years, he had become more and more isolated within his own family feeling that it was a three against one situation. When he had been betrayed by Laura, he had questioned his own worth as a man especially because of all the gossip which he had let affect him bristling at comments made which only meant there were even more of them. Now all he had to do was move on and let the story of his death stand, and he could recreate himself into whatever he wanted. When he had found out that he was supposed to be dead, he had been shocked into silence and now considered whether it might be best to maintain it.

In the Territorial Enterprise there was the feature story of the wealthy family who lost a son to the renegade force recently subdued in Arizona Territory. There had been dozens of whites killed, and many of them had been tortured and mutilated. The renegade force seemed to rear its ugly head for a few months every winter, but this winter had been far worse because they had teamed up with Apache renegades who had been banished from their tribes. The level of brutality had been ten times worse. Of their victims, none had been found alive except one. His middle brother supplied the main quote included in the lengthy piece.

“We got to that Army post as fast as we could. We got inside expecting to go to their infirmary right off, but they kept making excuses why they couldn’t take us there. We ended up in the commanding major’s office where he explained the delay. He said my brother wasn’t in no shape to see visitors. My father challenged him on that of course because we wanted to see him so bad. The conversation they had went pretty darn loud for a while but finally we got in to see him after they talked it out.”

“How could he not benefit from seeing his family?”

“He won’t know you, and it will only make him agitated.”

“I thought you said in your message that he was awake.”

“He is, but he is not aware of who is with him. You will only upset him by interfering with his routine in the day or so he has left.”

“Left?”

“I am sorry to have to tell you, but he is dying and there is nothing that can be done. When you do see him, you will understand that is probably for the best.”

The stark nature of the doctor’s statement was shocking to all who read it and knew what it must have been like for the family to hear that. In the article, Hoss next explained in fairly general terms what their father’s reaction had been. Knowing Hoss as well as he did, Adam was sure he was sensitive to the readers as well as to his father’s privacy and pride and didn’t quote directly. Anyway the next part described the condition of the man in the infirmary which made Adam realize how lucky he had been. He had not felt lucky at the time. For almost two days, he had used every trick he knew to elude the renegades after leading them away from Joe. He was fortunate in that they did not seem to know that area any better than he did. By the end of the second day, from a hiding place high on a ridge, he watched the renegades turn and ride away apparently giving up on finding him and probably hoping to find easier prey. He watched from that spot for quite a while until he was sure it was no trick.

Then he rode north toward home, but he let down his guard not realizing there were other groups and individuals in those barren hills hiding out for similar reasons. He had been so tired after fleeing the renegades and almost certain and horrible death. He was sweat-soaked, hungry, thirsty, but most of all sleep deprived. Later he would blame the lack of sleep for his bad judgment. Two of them ambushed him, took his horse, his weapons, and even his clothing. Those greedy men fought when they found the money in his saddle bag and one killed the other. However, it was too late to be of any benefit to him. They had already beaten him and all he could do was lay there helplessly and watch through eyes barely open with the swelling from blows to the face. The one who survived wasn’t satisfied with the money. He pulled his boots, hat, and belt from him, and then apparently decided that Adam’s clothing was of better quality than what he was wearing or at least gave him a second set of clothing. After stripping his former partner of nearly all his clothing, he left Adam naked, unarmed, without a horse, and bleeding from his shallow wounds. The blows to his head were the worst problem for him though as he found walking difficult. After taking the pants from the dead man which was all he had left, Adam managed to go only a short distance that first day before he had to seek out a place to spend the night. His prospects for survival were not good. During that day, he swore a number of times hurling the words in the general direction of the man who had bushwhacked him and then rode due south. It was later that he realized the man rode in the same direction the renegades had gone. He hoped they might find each other. There was some satisfaction when he found out later that they had.

Stumbling along that day, Adam managed to find some vegetation green enough to indicate water. Laying on his belly, he scooped water into his mouth but found he couldn’t tolerate much. He fell asleep, and when he woke, he drank more. Unfortunately he had gotten even more sunburned laying there and had even more problems. Because it was late in the day, he found some rocks to serve as a backdrop for him to spend the night. Stumbling about the area, he used up what strength he had left and gathered wood and kindling and made a fire using stones he found that could make a spark. The longest stout stick he could find was turned into a spear by using stones to sharpen the end and fire to harden it. His biggest worry was that although the temperature was dropping, he was still warm. A fever could mean he wouldn’t make it so he prayed it was all the exertion that caused him to feel so warm. He knew there were probably things he should be doing, but he was too weak and tired to think of what they were.

In the morning, he had trouble waking, and then thinking and then standing. He gradually came to the realization that it was fever that had taken over. He drank more water and sat by his fire trying to build up enough reserve of strength to begin walking again. He had one thought and that was to summon help and knew only one way to do it. He never remembered carrying through on that plan, but the next thing he knew, he woke up days later in a wagon heading north. Freight haulers had seen the smoke of his dwindling campfire and picked him up. They saved his life, but for several days, all he could do was sleep and drink water and broth. By the time he was able to make sense and they asked him his name, he said ‘Adam’. When they got to their next stop, the company headquarters to offload the goods they were carrying up from Arizona and resupply for their next run, their boss asked the same question, and he replied ‘Adam Cartwright’ making the boss laugh.

“If you’re going to make believe you’re somebody, you know you could at least pick somebody who’s alive. You did a good job getting us to find you to save your hide. No need to lie to us now.”

Confused, Adam only stared at the man. When he said nothing, the man walked into his office and came back out with a newspaper thrusting it into Adam’s hands. It was there that Adam saw the article outlining the details of his death when that man pushed the newspaper to him. Adam tried to understand what had happened, but he was too exhausted to make sense of it. He fell back and slept again. When he woke again, it was apparently a new day. That paper was on a table by the bed where he was laying. He picked it up and began reading the article he had only scanned previously. When he finished, he thought for only a moment before he knew what must have happened. There was no sorrow for the bushwhacker, but it was a quandary. Should he go home and clear up the misconception, or should he use this opportunity to create a new life for himself. He wasn’t sure what to do, but he was in no shape to travel at that point. They must have heard him stirring because a man and a woman came into the room.

“Good to see you looking like you’re gonna make it. I’d hate for all that work we did be for nothing.”

“Rudy, be nice. Now, Adam, here is some broth. If you can keep that down, I have some real food for you.”

“And if you keep that down, I’m wondering if you could help me out while you sit in bed there. Can you read and write? I know you can’t work the freight or drive a wagon but there’s a lot of paperwork that has to be done too.”

“I can. My hand hurts though so I don’t know how well I can write at this point. It might be kind of shaky looking.”

“I only want you to enter numbers on a ledger.”

“I’m sure I can manage that.”

So, Adam had a job as the freight company boss gave him a job first doing bills, tracking inventory, and light work until he felt better. That meant he could stay there until he was healthy enough to move on, or he could stay and keep working. That gave him time to make up his mind of what to do.

With no place to stay once he recovered, he slept in the freight office on a cot. The manager, Rudy Klug, said he would pay him a fee to do that as it afforded the office some security at night as long as Adam knew how to shoot. Rudy got Adam a pistol rig and a rifle and took him out back to have him show his skills. Suitably impressed with Adam’s skill level despite his injuries, Rudy threw in the cost of the clothing Adam had gotten too as long as he agreed to work for at least those two months. The men there had saved his life and now had given him room, board, clothing, and weapons to use. Even though the items he got were used, there were in good condition, and Adam couldn’t say no. He needed all of those things, and he needed the job too. There was time to think as well, but he needed something more.

“Do you know anyone around here who has a book or two they might be willing to loan to me while I’m here?”

“We have a minister who is here every other Sunday, and he has books, probably religious ones. The owner of the general store has books for sale but most are dime novels. My wife, Amy, has some, but they’re those fancy books you get from out east or from England. She grabs up any that come in here.” He saw Adam perk up at that. “You like to read those fancy books?”

“It depends, but probably if she’ll trust me with them.”

“Oh, I bet she will, and then she’ll talk your ear off about them. She’s always trying to talk to me about them, but I ain’t much for reading. She’s pretty bored right now too. She used to do the job you’re doing, but she’s gonna have our first child, and the doctor says she needs to take it easy. She lost the first two so it’s careful, real careful, this time. It’ll be good for her to have something to look forward to doing each week.”

So, Adam soon had books to read because it was exactly as he had predicted: she had books he wanted to read. He also had someone with whom to discuss literature. Sunday afternoons were spent talking about whatever book he had borrowed that week. On the third Sunday afternoon, they discussed a book, and she ended the afternoon with a personal question.

“My husband told me that you said you were Adam Cartwright. He laughed about it, but I think you are him. You are, aren’t you?”

Silent for a minute, Adam finally looked at her and nodded.

“You’re not sure what to do.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Were you planning to leave your home anyway, then?”

“Are you a mind reader?”

“No, but I’ve been thinking about this since the first afternoon we discussed literature. After what my husband told me, and then when I found out how educated you were, I guess I knew you must have told him the truth. I tried to come up with a reason why you wouldn’t have gone home as soon as you were able. The only reason I could fathom was that you wanted to leave your home anyway. I know you didn’t have any money, but if you’re Adam Cartwright, you could have sent for some. If you wanted to avoid going home as your goal, it’s been accomplished. People who are successful tend to focus on goals, and you seem to be the kind of man who desires to achieve success. It would seem too that this goal of leaving home must be the one that had top priority with you for it has received most favorable status in your decision making.”

“I’m not sure it has. I’m still wrestling with that. Should I go home to let my family know I’m alive and then leave and make them upset all over again? It’s a quandary that’s not easy to resolve.”

“I do think you should let them know you’re alive even if you don’t go home.”

“Send them a telegram and say, oh, by the way, I’m alive?”

“You don’t need to be so snide with me. I’m trying to help.”

“I’m sorry. I tend to do that when I’m frustrated.”

“I thought a letter explaining what had happened to you and your belief that you owed an obligation to those who rescued you would help explain your current absence.”

“You’re good. You should be a diplomat.”

“Yes, well, we have identified your top goal, you have accepted that you have a decision to make in regard to that goal, and now you have time to make that decision. Next, you need to consider momentum. You are moving in one direction. You need to consider the benefits and harm of continuing in that direction, and the benefits and harm of reversing your momentum and returning home.”

“I don’t think I want to do that.”

Blurting that out, Adam hadn’t even realized until that moment that he felt so strongly about it, but the thought of returning to a situation that caused such melancholy was not at all attractive. Amy sat back and regarded him with sympathy.

“I am guessing you had no idea you were going to make that decision so vehemently. That one came right from the heart. I am impressed though. So many men would have adjusted their goal downward, but you did not. You are no longer willing to let anyone else but especially your father control your decisions, but you know now what you have to do, don’t you?”

“I guess I’ll be writing a very long letter over the next week or so.”

“But you will stay here and finish the two months my husband asked you to work here?”

“At least that long. I made a promise. I may have to stay longer too in order to earn some money to afford to go where I want to go or even to be sure what it is that I want to do. I’m going to try to access my bank accounts but that may not be possible. I’ve made a decision, and I need to take the steps to get to the rest of what I want to do.”

“Now you sound a lot like Rudy. It’s how successful people sound.”

That brought a smile from Adam. It was as broad a smile as she had seen since he had first perused the books she had. Rudy and the others noted Adam smiling more too. Rudy had to ask one question which precipitated a fight with his wife who was insulted when he asked if she had kissed Adam. Realizing how his jealousy had made him far too suspicious, he had to apologize profusely for that, but wondered why she had not. So when he got up the courage, he asked her.

“Well, first of all, I love you, you big lug. But even if I was inclined to want to kiss him, he’s not interested in me. He’s not the kind of man to be interested in a married woman. Besides, right now, he has a lot of other things on his mind.”

“Like what?”

So Amy told Rudy who Adam was and what he planned to do and why. Rudy wanted to know if Adam could identify any of the renegades who had chased after him.

“No, he said he wouldn’t know any of them even if they walked in the door of the office here. He knows the Army caught up to the Apache contingent and has no idea about the rest of them.”

“Good, so he’s done with that and never has to be concerned about it again. If he can’t identify any of them, they have nothing to fear from him.”

In the freight office, for several nights, Adam worked on a letter to his father. It was difficult on many levels. He always had a difficult time opening up about his feelings and there were things he knew he had to tell his father that the older man would not like to read. He explained as much as he could about why he couldn’t live under his father’s authority any longer and why it was taking him so long to make contact. He had saved Joe’s life and had been injured so he hoped that counted for enough to gain him some forbearance for the delay in letting them know he was alive. Never one to let fear dictate his actions, Adam was a pragmatic man, and he posted two letters when he was finished. It would take a while for them to get to Virginia City, and it might take quite a long time to get a reply or replies so he did his best to immerse himself in work to keep his mind occupied.

 

Chapter 2

At his accustomed perch for eavesdropping, Joe was trying to listen to his father and Sheriff Roy Coffee talk but it wasn’t easy with his father yelling and nearly drowning out any responses his friend might be trying to make. Hoss came up to the house and leaned in trying to hear too.

“Did I hear that right, Joe? Did Roy get a letter too?”

“He did. Now, that almost sounds like it could be Adam. If it wasn’t for us seeing him down there in Arizona in that Army infirmary, I’d wonder about these letters.”

“I wish Pa would have let us read that letter before he got so gosh darned upset and threw it in the fire.”

“I know. There wasn’t much left to look at. It didn’t look much like Adam’s writing though. Like he said, it was kind of like somebody trying to copy his writing.”

“What’s Roy saying about all of it?”

“He thinks somebody ought to go down there and talk to whoever wrote these letters and at least find out how they know so much about Adam.”

“Maybe he’s wondering if maybe this could be Adam?”

“I don’t know. It’s so hard to tell with the way Pa’s yelling in there.” As Hoss walked away, Joe got worried. “Hey, where you going?”

“Inside. This concerns us too, and it’s time for us to be in this here conversation. If Roy brought his letter along, I want to see it before it gets tossed in a fire.”

When Hoss and Joe walked in, Ben stopped talking for a moment. He was going to resume when Hoss took over.

“I want to know what was in that letter, Pa, and I want to know what’s in that letter to Roy. If there’s a chance Adam is alive, I want to know it.”

“There’s no chance, Hoss. We saw him.” Ben paused and looked from son to son. “We saw him.”

Ben couldn’t even say the word ‘die’ in regard to his eldest son. Joe was equally tongue tied on that subject feeling so guilty about pushing Adam to take that route instead of the longer freight road all because he wanted to get home in time for a dance. Hoss turned to Roy before his father could say anything more.

“What’s in the letter, Roy, that brought you out here?”

“It seemed odd, Hoss. It don’t look exactly like Adam’s writing to me either, but it does look some like it. In this letter, it says he was hurt and is still healing up. Now that could account for a man not writing the same, couldn’t it.”

“It also says he’s working for a freight company, Klug Freight Haulers, to pay for the things he needs. How does an injured man work for a freight company but can’t even write decently?”

“Well, I admit that seems a bit odd, but we don’t know what kind of job it is. Ben, don’t you even want to find out if your boy is alive?”

“Why don’t you tell them about what he asked you to do?”

It was clear Roy didn’t want to tell the brothers about that part but did.

“He asked me to show his signature to the bank so they would release money to him because he said he didn’t have enough to buy a horse and saddle much less a pistol and rifle.”

“So, you see, it’s about getting money. We let him have that, and then it will be more until he’s gotten as much as he can, and then that will be all we hear from him. It’s cruel what he’s doing, and he should be arrested. Roy, why don’t you send that message to him, and then see how he responds. Tell him if he isn’t Adam, he’s going to be arrested for fraud. Then let’s see if he writes another letter claiming to be Adam. Let him prove himself beyond a reasonable doubt then.”

“I can do that, Ben, but it’s a risky game you’re thinking on playing. Adam is a proud man. If this is him, he’s as likely to be mad as anything to have us send a letter back with that in it. You might never hear from him again.”

“Oh, if it’s Adam, we’ll hear from him, but it isn’t, so there will be silence.”

Hoss addressed Roy again asking to read the letter he had gotten. Roy handed it to him but had his own question.

“It’s short. There must have been more than that in the letter he sent here.”

“Yeah, well I never got to read that one. It got burned up mostly.”

Frowning, Roy stared at Ben until Ben had to break off. He did feel guilty about his impetuous and probably unforgivable act. The emotional impact of that letter had pushed him over the edge causing him to act irrationally. Even now he was trying to justify his behavior and couldn’t. He felt as responsible for Adam’s death as Joe did. His last conversation with his eldest son was the reason Adam had gone with Joe to Arizona instead of two of the wranglers. Adam had wanted to get away from the Ponderosa and his father before anything worse was said between them. The way Joe looked at him now and the way he had regarded him in Arizona led Ben to believe that Adam had told him at least part of that story. Ben would carry that guilt for the rest of his life and the memory of a conversation and accusation he could never take back. Joe finally asked him if he was ready to talk.

“Talk about what?”

“About the reason you’re so upset anytime Adam’s trip to Arizona comes up and what happened there is remembered. Adam told me some of it so I can talk about it if you’re not willing, but I think Hoss and Roy both should know.”

Ben stared at Joe hoping to intimidate him but could see in his stance and in his eyes that it wasn’t going to work this time. He was going to have to humble himself with the truth. He had caused his son’s death. At least that was the dark stain he felt was on his heart and on his soul.

“The ranch was in financial difficulty. We really needed that contract Adam went after. When he came back and said he didn’t get it because the low bid was too low, and we would have lost money trying to complete it, I lashed out at him. I told him that if that was the best he could do, maybe Joe should take over negotiating our contracts because at least he wasn’t afraid to take on a challenge.”

“Pa, tell them the rest.”

“I said he had failed me, failed the Ponderosa, and failed this family.”

Hoss and Roy stood with shocked looks.

“I wanted him to come up with something, anything, to get us out of our trouble. He had come up with solutions so many times before. Instead, he told me about warning me against spending down our available cash and about borrowing too much. My temper exploded. I told him that he wasn’t perfect no matter what he thought. I told him he made plenty of mistakes. I told him it was my ranch, and somebody had to be in charge to make decisions. It got worse from there.”

“Worse? Pa, how could it be worse?”

“Hoss, I had a few drinks that afternoon worried about what to do. I have to tell you I’m not even sure of all the things I may have said. I know your brother told me he was going to Arizona with Joe because he needed some time to think about his future and what he was going to do next.”

“Lordy, Pa, is there any more?”

“I’m afraid so. If that, by some miracle, is Adam. He won’t forgive me for what I’ve done. I took his investment accounts and paid off the Ponderosa debts. I had the legal right to do so. With what we had from Arizona, the bank accepted my signature.”

The other three men were quiet knowing there was nothing to put back into those accounts. Roy picked up his hat to send the message Ben wanted sent. All they could do was wait to hear the answer. No answer came.

When Adam got the letter from Roy, he sat at his desk in the freight office unmoving and with a blank stare. Of all the possible replies, being threatened with arrest had not been one he had considered. Rudy came in and asked him if he had the bills ready and he snapped at him that he would get to them. He began working then which delayed the wagons leaving by a half-hour. Rudy wasn’t happy with him, but he could tell something was very wrong and waited for the wagons to leave before he said anything. Adam simply handed him the letter he had received from Sheriff Roy Coffee. Rudy read it and whistled.

“That’s cold.”

“I said more in my letter to my father than most men would ever admit. I don’t think he even read it. He dismissed me like he did before I left. I’ll have to go directly to one of the banks where we have accounts to try to access my investments. When my time is done here, I’ll be leaving. I don’t want to give them an easy target to find.”

“We’d stand by you.”

“No need to stir things up. You have enough on your hands.”

“I got one man who knows a bit about ciphering. Could you start training him in what you do so he could take over when you leave. I mean he may not be able to do it all, but if he could enter all the numbers and add and subtract, that would be a big help.”

“Sure, send him to me, and I’ll make sure he knows what goes where.”

“If you need a horse and saddle, I’ll get one for you.”

“I would rather not travel alone through this country, and I’m sure you know why. I was hoping to work my way south on one of your freight runs.”

“That would work out well. You can do that. We always need more guards taking freight down south than we need anyone bringing hides back up this way.”

Two weeks later, Adam bid Rudy and Amy goodbye, they wished him well, and he was on his way south. He left two letters with them in case they ever got visitors looking for him. It was a week and a half later that a big man with a big hat and a small man on a pinto rode into the small town. They had decided that three weeks with no reply to Roy’s letter was long enough and had come to meet the man who had written the letters claiming to be their brother. From the freight office window, Rudy saw them ride in and knew immediately who they must be. He saw them look around until they located his freight business and then ride over, dismount, and walk up to the door looking apprehensive. He stepped out to greet them.

“What can I do for you two men? I assume you must be Hoss Cartwright and Joe Cartwright.”

Joe was wary of Rudy. “How did you know that?”

“Your brother described you well. Here, these are for you.” Rudy handed the two letters to the brothers, one addressed to each of them.

They both knew the truth, but Hoss was the first to respond. “He’s gone?”

“Left about a week and a half ago heading south. Planned to go over to California and north. Said after he got in touch with a bank and got some money out of his accounts, he planned to live in San Francisco for a time, maybe start up a business there. If you wanted to see him, you could find him there.”

Rudy saw their looks then and knew something was wrong. He asked exactly that.

“Pa took the money out of Adam’s accounts. He won’t find anything when he goes to the banks.”

“He took his son’s money?”

“We thought Adam was dead.”

“Don’t you have to wait to see if there’s a will or something?”

“Pa was feeling desperate.”

“Listen, I have to tell you, I hope I never meet your father in person. I feel I owe him something on behalf of Adam.”

“You only knew Adam a short time, and you feel that way?” Joe wondered what had happened.

“Listen, we just had a baby. My wife was having a rough go of it. While Adam was recovering from his injuries, he took time to read books and have long talks with my wife. It helped her so much to have that. It really helped her through these last couple of months. He took over doing the books for me. He was hurting too, but that didn’t stop him. He did everything he could to help us out. He felt like he owed us, but we’re the ones who owe him. We owe him a lot. He did an awful lot here and never complained. Did his best to help out. Did good work. I don’t know why your father had an issue with him. Doesn’t seem right.”

“Mister, don’t seem right to us neither.”

“Those letters give you any answers?”

“Not really. He apologized for some things in the past and thanked us for coming down here and trusting his word. That was always important to him.”

“Listen, why don’t you come on inside. I got some brandy and a few cigars left from celebrating my son’s birth. We’ll toast your brother, and I’ll tell you about his time here and how he got here.”

“And how you knew us?”

“He talked about you two quite often but not after that letter came back. No, he didn’t talk much at all after that.”

“You think there’s any chance we could catch up to him?”

“No, not after this long. By now, he’s heading across to California. Unless you know who he knows over there, you won’t find him. He said he had friends he needed to stop and see but he never said any names.”

“Hoss, we could head over there and split up. Maybe one of us could run across him.”

“Joe, it’s an awful big area, and we don’t even know if he’s going by ship or by road. And if by road, is he riding or taking the stage? There’s too many ways for only two of us to know.”

“He’s not riding. I offered him a horse and he said no.”

“It’s the stage line or by ship then. Hoss, let’s ride over and try to check the stage line. We can’t catch him if he gets on a ship, but we can find out if he’s on a stage.”

“All right, tomorrow, we’ll head directly across. It’s a hard ride, but we should be able to get ahead of him. Dadburnit, I hope this works.”

“I hope it does too. Your brother seemed real unhappy when he left. You know, not on the outside, but on the inside.”

As unhappy as Adam was when he left Rudy and Amy, he was stunned to the point of despair in California at the bank.

“I’m sorry, Mister Cartwright, but there are no assets in any of your accounts. They have all been closed. We could wire the bank to see if you could have access to the Ponderosa account, but that would take a few days probably.”

Walking out of the bank, Adam’s stomach was churning. He sat on a bench still in the sun and counted the money he had. It wasn’t enough to pay for the stage ride to San Francisco, and without his accounts, there was no point in going there anyway. Penniless, he couldn’t start a business. He didn’t have enough to buy a horse and saddle. What he had were the clothes he was wearing, a pistol rig, a small bag with personal items like his shaving kit, and less than ten dollars. Murmuring to himself, he called himself a saddle tramp because in his mind, it was what he had been reduced to in status. He found a general store and bought a blanket and a slicker before he went to a saloon for a beer which got him a free sandwich. He must have looked surly enough because no one approached him. As twilight descended, he hiked outside of town to a small grove of trees and found what appeared to be a reasonably safe place to sleep with his back up against a thick tree and boulders to either side of him. Pulling his pistol, he rested it on his leg after wrapping himself in his blanket and then pulling his slicker over that. Some pine boughs dragged around him completed his bed. He had not noticed, but there were several men who were walking about the grove apparently looking for him. He heard them talking.

“I saw him go in here. He must still be here.”

“Well, did he climb a tree? He ain’t here.”

“He didn’t look like he had much money anyway.”

“He had a pistol and he must of had something in that bag he carried.”

“Yeah, we take the pistol, his money, and that bag, and then roll him in that blanket and slicker we saw him buy. No one will find him for a while.”

“Hey, I could use a new slicker.”

“All right, we’ll roll him up in the blanket and put some branches and stuff over him.”

“Yeah, we could drag the other one out here and do the same. That way our nosy sheriff won’t be poking around trying to figure out how the man died in the livery stable.”

By his best estimation of their conversation, there were three of them. He waited until their voices began to move away, and then he got up and followed them until he could see them reasonably well once they moved out from the trees. He would have gone back to his little spot then except for what they said next. They apparently had a second target in mind. He followed them back into town then and to the livery stable. They entered the front and he found the back door easing it open carefully as he heard them whispering at the front. Inside, a man’s worried voice spoke out.

“You’re not the law, are you? I only needed a place to sleep the night.”

“No, but keep your voice down. There are three men outside who mean to rob you and maybe worse. They just tried it with me but couldn’t find me so they’re looking for you.”

“Why did you come to help me?”

“I didn’t like the odds, and I didn’t take kindly to what they planned for me.”

“How do you know what they were planning to do to you?”

“I was close enough to hear them. Then I followed them back here and heard their plans for you. Are you wearing a pistol?”

“No.”

“Then find some things we can throw. We want them to shoot at those things and bring the law. I’ve got a pistol, but I don’t think I can outshoot three of them.”

“Why don’t we go out like you came in?”

“Because after I came in, I heard some noise out there. They’re not stupid. They sent someone around to the back. And keep your voice down. You don’t want them to hear you and realize there’s more than one in here.”

There was a slight creak then as the two at the main door eased it open. A sliver of moonlight signaled that another was coming in the back door. The man next to Adam suddenly changed in demeanor.

“Stay down and don’t do anything rash. Follow my lead. I’m a U.S. Marshal and there are two other men in here working with me.”

He had a rifle in his hands that he had pulled from the straw. One of the would-be robbers lit a lantern and that was all that was needed. Three rifles and a pistol were trained on the criminals as the Marshal told them to drop their weapons. From outside the door, the sheriff said he was coming in and soon he was inside with his deputy. The three robbers were disarmed and marched off to jail. The Marshal turned to Adam who already understood what had happened.

“I guess you didn’t need my help. You were talking so loud so that your partners in here could hear, right?”

“Yes, we wondered which side you were on. You cleared that up quickly enough. A number of men have been found murdered in this area. All of them men passing through with only a little money and not much else. For a while, no many here cared, but the numbers started to rise, and the sheriff never did like it. He figured he had a pack of murderers in his town and wanted to catch them. With one deputy, it was too hard so he asked for our help.”

“But all you caught them for was attempted robbery.”

“Two counts with the attempt on you. We’ll search their places. I’m sure they have property that belonged to the murdered men. All we need are a few things and they’ll be charged with multiple robberies and murders.”

“Glad I could help even a little.”

“And thank you. It did help to know they were on the way and to know how many.” As Adam turned to walk away, the Marshal added one more thing. “We’ll pay for a room for you tonight for your help.”

“I didn’t do enough to earn that.”

As Adam walked off into the darkness, the other three talked. In the morning, when he returned to town, one of the men intercepted him and invited him to breakfast. He was going to decline, but the man said it wasn’t charity but it was to discuss a job offer. They had understood his reason for declining the offer of a room, and they knew how to get him to breakfast.

 

Chapter 3

As the three men sat at the table with Adam, they did a quick inventory of the man. He was in wrinkled clothing that hadn’t been washed in some time. His beard was thick, and his hair was in need of a trim. He was perfect for the job they had in mind. However the first question nearly sank the job interview.

“So, what’s your name?”

“Adam Cartwright.”

The three men laughed. When Adam didn’t, they frowned. He stared and they waited.

“I know it was in all the papers. Even my family won’t believe me. It doesn’t mean I’m changing my story. I could go back to Virginia City and make an issue of it.”

“But you’re mad?”

“Well, there is that. My father emptied my bank accounts. That’s what really made me angry, but I was upset with him before I knew that. No, I was thinking of leaving and striking out on my own before this happened. I was in Arizona because I was thinking of what I should do.”

“You’re starting to make me think you might actually be telling the truth.”

“I wrote a letter to my family and to Sheriff Roy Coffee to tell them what happened. I got one back that said if I continued with my charade, they would have me arrested for fraud. Now that wouldn’t last long, but the thought that they would even send a letter.”

“Made you damn mad?”

“You’re not only starting to believe me. You starting to understand me. I wish my father did. Anyway, I decided to go to California and start up my own business except that’s when I found out I had no money to do that either, and here I am.”

“So what did happen in Arizona that meant your family thought you were dead but you aren’t?”

“My brother Joe and I were coming back from selling horses. He wanted to take a short cut instead of using the freight road. We got chased by the renegades that the Army has since caught, chased off, or otherwise neutralized. I sent him one way and I headed another, but I rode so they would come after me and let him go. I spent two days getting away from them. I was exhausted. It led to me making a big mistake. I found a place for a camp, went to sleep, and woke up with guns in my face. They took everything and beat the shit out of me. However, they fought over the money I had, and one shot the other. The darker and hairier of the two rode off with my clothing, my horse, and everything else I had with me. I heard about what the renegades did to him. I don’t think I would recognize myself after that. He had dark wavy hair, dark skin, hair everywhere, and he was wearing my clothing.”

“It’s understandable.”

“Yes, but I don’t have to like it. They could have checked further.”

“And should have, but I guess the shock may have been too much.”

“And not much faith in me either.”

“Those men last night didn’t find you, but you were there. Then you followed them, and they didn’t know. How did you do that?”

“I grew up among the Paiute, the Bannock, and the Washoe. You learn things.”

“Apparently you learn well.”

“So besides your family and that sheriff you wrote, who knows you’re still alive or who did you tell?”

“The owners of the freight company who rescued me. They brought me in and took care of me for weeks and let me work there as I got my strength back.”

“So, you’re from the Ponderosa. Can you break horses, herd cattle, and all those other things cowboys do?”

“I can.”

“Well, we have a job offer for you. We need to put someone on a ranch, and none of us are that good at any of those things. I mean we could, but it hasn’t been the kind of work we’ve done for ten or fifteen years. It would show. You look the part, and you say you can do it too. We want you to go in and be a cowboy on a ranch where we suspect the ranch or men there are involved in a major cattle and horse rustling operation.”

“As a deputy marshal or just a spy?”

“A deputy marshal if you’re willing to take the oath of office. You’ll get paid as a deputy marshal and get to keep whatever wages you get paid for the work you do on the ranch. If there are expenses, those are covered.”

“I don’t have a horse or a saddle.”

“That would be covered. I don’t see you carrying a rifle. That would be covered too. Meals, room, and travel are covered too. While you are working on the ranch, they wouldn’t be because the ranch would cover those. Oh, and one requirement is that you don’t shave. We want you in that beard. You can trim it some so you don’t look like a saddle tramp. We’d rather have you look like a ranch hand who needs a job, but we can’t have anyone recognize you. Anything you can do to be different than Adam Cartwright would help.”

So Adam Cartwright who had set out to be recognized by his family now had an opportunity where he could to hide from everyone who knew him. No one was likely to see in this dark-haired bearded cowboy any strong resemblance to the eldest son of the Cartwright family. They gave him the rest of the day to make up his mind as they went to search for evidence on the men they had arrested.

The Marshal and his deputies were curious as to why Adam didn’t go home if he was willing to work on a ranch. He accepted their offer. They all had secrets though so no one asked anything taking his answer at face value. He said he needed to put some money together and had no other prospect that sounded as good as what they were offering. He could resign at any time other than in the middle of an active case so that worked out for him too. Adam wasn’t sure how long such an investigation would last, but didn’t think it could be too long. However, he did think he needed to do one thing before it started and asked the Marshal if he could.

“As long as you make it clear that the information is not to be made public. The key here is that people aren’t going to be thinking about finding you or thinking you’re alive. If someone happens to think you look or sound like Adam Cartwright, well we all look or sound like others.”

As they traveled to their destination, Adam carefully penned a letter to each of his family. Those to his brothers closely mirrored the one he wrote to his father. Because he wasn’t even sure his father had read that first one, he wanted to be sure his brothers got a chance to read his message.

“I was angry when I wrote that last letter. It was unfair to blame any of you because none of you came looking for me. When I found out what the Army had told you, I thought you should have known it wasn’t me. Well, anyone can make a mistake. However, I do not lie, and when you did not believe my letter, I was upset. That did not compare to the fury I felt when I went to the bank and found my accounts empty. When I look at those actions from your side, I can see how they might be justified but only with a lack of faith in me. You did not doubt that I had been unable to elude those renegades and did not wait even a short interval to see if there was a chance I could be alive. You refused to believe my story when I wrote to you. Well, your ranch is now solvent. At the same time, I must tell you I will not be coming back to your ranch anytime soon. I have secured employment and will earn money to stake my own future. You will not have to worry about me pestering you with ideas about improving your ranch. From now on, I will seek my own counsel for my future. If this sounds somewhat bitter, at this point, it is. I’ll get over it though because I know that much of what happened is my responsibility or fault too. When I was younger, I did what I had to do because I was afraid of my father and what he would do to me if I didn’t. As I got older, I felt that I was becoming a partner in the ranch, and I acted out of a sense of pride, responsibility, and respect. However reminded again and again that I had rules to obey and orders to follow, it became clear that the only actions required of me were by duty. I lost all sense of what I was and what I wanted for my life. What I need is to live a life in which I have freedom and choice. I don’t know what my future holds, but now I can take some chances and try some things. I need to set my own goals if I can and fashion my own dream if I can still find one. Whatever happens to me now is my responsibility and by my choice. No one else needs to be concerned that their actions or inaction played any role in my decisions. I wish you well, but I have a job that requires that you keep this communication private. I hope you understand.”

There was no signature and no salutation at the beginning or end of each message. The only major difference in the letters to his brothers was that he referred to the ranch as their father’s ranch. As soon as he could, Adam sent the messages off to Virginia City. He felt like a weight had been lifted as soon as he did that. Each day, he felt stronger and healthier as the effects of his ordeal diminished or were gone. His honesty with his family members was the last step he needed in being free although he was sorry in that he knew some of his words would hurt. He had to be honest though for they had to know how he felt and what he was thinking. Most importantly, he didn’t want any of them looking for him. If they did and he was working as a deputy marshal, they could get him hurt or killed.

Next up, Adam needed a name to use. They told him it should be a name that he would answer if called. He wanted to use Abel Stoddard, his grandfather’s name, but he realized that in California, there were enough people from New England that there was a chance someone might recognize that name. Instead, he chose Abel Wolf. The three men joked that it might make some think he was a half-breed, but he stroked his beard and grinned.

A few days later, Adam split up from the three so he could seek out a job as a cowboy. Riding with the marshals wasn’t going to look good for that kind of future employment. He rode into town alone, headed to the saloon, got a beer, and asked if anyone was hiring. As he hoped, one of the ranches named was the one where he wanted to get work.

“Which of those is the largest ranch?”

“The Rocking Bar M, but you don’t look like the kind of hand they hire. They only hire top hands.”

“What makes you think I’m not a top hand?”

“Just saying, mister. Didn’t mean anything by it.”

Except of course the man did, and Adam’s response was a little too strong for him to challenge. He got the distinct impression that he didn’t want to mess with the new man in town. His friends at the table smiled and turned back to their game. Adam finished his beer and asked the bartender for directions to the Rocking Bar M. He got them and walked out as the three men at the table snickered at the one who had backed down.

“Good thing you backed off on that one, Marty.”

“Yeah, he’s got the look of a Mojave sidewinder.”

“Oh, I coulda taken him.”

“You think so? He’s killed before, and you would have been the next one.”

“How do you know that?”

“He walked in here carrying everything in his left arm. Kept his right arm free and easy the whole time. Stood at the bar up there, and it was the same thing. Didn’t you notice? The man has used that pistol before in shootouts. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a gunman and a cowboy. I wonder if the Bar M is hiring gunmen now with the rustling getting so bad.”

“Could be. Some of their hands sure do look it.”

Arriving on the Rocking Bar M, Adam had the same impression as the men in the saloon had. He asked for a job and was put through his paces that first day before he was hired. They did give him a cutting horse because the one he was riding wasn’t up to the job. At the end of the day, he was sent up to the main house to talk to the foreman and the owner.

“You wanted for anything?”

“Not by the government anywhere.”

“Any of those private citizens you bothered likely to be looking for you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“My foreman says you do the work of a top hand, but your equipment says otherwise especially your horse. Want to explain that?”

“I got bushwhacked a while back. I was traveling alone to get out of Arizona and wasn’t careful enough. They took everything I had. I’ve had to work odd jobs to build back to where I am now.”

“Heard there was a lot of trouble down there. We’ve got our own trouble here. We’ve got some trying to rustle away our stock. You ready to use that pistol to help me protect my property?”

“I figure if it’s rustlers and I’m working for you, I’d be protecting myself too, so yes.”

“You wear it like you know how to use it. You any good?”

“Good enough.”

“How about with a rifle?”

“Better than with the pistol.”

“We do a little target practicing to see who gets what jobs. It’s on Saturday afternoons. We supply the ammunition.”

“So I’m hired?”

“They should have told you that. Getting sent here to the main house is for all new hires. Otherwise, you would have been sent on your way with a day’s wages.”

“Thank you.”

“No thanks necessary. You’ll earn every dollar you earn here. Go on and get something to eat and claim a spot in the bunkhouse.”

After Adam left the house, the owner and foreman looked at each other and wondered if he would have a problem in the bunkhouse. When Adam got there, he asked which cot was open. The men pointed at one in the corner so he claimed it. The men got quiet so he turned around.

“Is there a problem with me taking this one?”

“Only that the last man who had it got shot and killed on the ranch here.”

“So he won’t mind me taking it. Is it going to bother any of you?”

“No, but don’t it bother you none?”

“I’m not superstitious.”

“Huh?”

“I don’t believe in bad luck. I make my own luck. I make good decisions and bad ones. If I make a bad one, I could end up like this man did. Hopefully, I’ll make good ones. Only time will tell.”

Too laid back and calm to invite an argument, the men got back to what they were doing and let him put his few things away. He engaged in a bit of small talk before stretching out to get some sleep. There were a few wary eyes among the men there. Adam noted that and wondered why realizing he was already beginning to think like a lawman.

Over the next month, Adam worked hard as a ranch hand, lost weight, built up muscle, and learned what it meant to sleep hard every night. He saw nothing to alert him to any rustling activity. What he did note was that the three men who looked wary that first night did spend a lot of time together and seemed to have many conversations away from everyone else. It was suspicious but didn’t tell him anything. At the end of the month, in town, he walked to the saloon to meet some of the other hands on a Saturday night when he was grabbed from behind and pulled into an alley. Struggling at first, he was relieved to recognize the Marshal’s voice.

“You sure are difficult to contact.”

“Sorry, but I’ve got almost nothing. I haven’t seen a thing since I got there.”

“Nothing?”

“Well, there are three hands that act suspicious, but they haven’t done anything that I can see. They keep to themselves, talk among themselves away from everyone else, and no one there seems to like them much. I don’t think you can arrest them for that.”

“No, but since we got here and alerted the sheriff to us being here and getting you hired on that ranch, there hasn’t been a single incident of rustling in the area. They’re laying low.”

“Do you think they suspect me?”

“I doubt it. No reason for them to do that, but they may be waiting us out to see if we’ll leave. If I was a betting man, I’d put money on them leaving first. There are other places they can go to do the same thing they did here. Nevada, Wyoming, Texas, Colorado, and Montana could be easy pickings for a short time too.”

“So they’ll quit and head out to a new place for a job?”

“Most likely.”

“What do I do? It would be a big coincidence for me to show up at the same ranch they do.”

“If they say they’re going to leave, you’re going to get fired when the time is right.”

“What? How?”

“The man hired as a cook’s helper two weeks ago is one of ours. He gave us the same report you just did. He’ll get you fired when necessary or maybe you’ll be let go if the whole thing plays out long enough. If you get fired, we’re hoping that the three will decide that you would make a good recruit. A man in need of money, good with a gun, and mad should work out for them. Then you go with them and let us know where they go, who they meet up with, and what the plan is. We’ll get some men together and meet them wherever they go if they’re part of this group.”

The Marshal’s prediction failed to materialize. Adam ended up working on the ranch two more months and was let go when things slowed down and as last hired, he was let go. Because he had worked hard and well, he was told he could come back in three months with the likelihood of being able to stay employed longer. He thanked them for that as if he would and headed out to meet up with the other marshals whenever they chose to make themselves known to him. That was a few days later as he camped out waiting for a contact. They came into camp thinking they were surprising him as he slept, but he stepped from cover as they held they approached his blanket wrapped around brush near a small campfire. They jumped at his voice.

“You know, if you want to sneak up on someone, you need to walk further or your horses give you away every time.”

“Our horses?”

“I heard them when they smelled mine and couldn’t help making a bit of noise.”

“Damn, you ‘re good out here in the middle of nowhere. Well, those skills could help in our next job. We failed on the rustling one so now we have to go root out some who ran away into the mountains and failing that we’re headed back to Arizona as the renegades’ annual activity is back up. Chasing down men in the wilderness is not exactly among our best skills.”

Unable to help himself, Adam had to chuckle at that.

“We figure you’re going to have to take the lead on the best way to find them.”

“What did they do?”

“Killed some people in Placerville and headed into the mountains coming this way. They were never spotted in California though. They may be up there yet or most likely headed south. Can’t imagine they would head north with winter coming. We’ll head through the mountains to see if we pick up anything and then go to the town first and find out whatever we can. We have to do all we can to see if we can find them. No one has seen a trace of them since so they think they’re still in those mountains. That’s why it won’t hurt to head through the mountains to get to Placerville either. If they’re hiding out, we might pick up a trace of them, and coming from the west, they wouldn’t be too suspicious of us, I would think. They would expect pursuit to come from the east.”

“With winter getting close, the bosses think this would be a good time to go looking for them?”

“We did tell you our bosses aren’t happy with us, and what do you mean winter is getting close?”

Looking around critically at the other three, Adam shrugged. “They aren’t going to be happy with your expense accounts either. If we’re going into the mountains, the three of you are going to need some new clothes. Winter comes early to this part of the high Sierras.”

“All right. We didn’t know that, any of that. You won’t need new clothes?”

“I’ll need more clothes, but your flimsy shirts and pants aren’t suitable to what we’re going to face up there. You’ll need everything new. And from now on, no shaving and no haircuts. They’ll mark you as lawmen to anyone we see up there. Four grubby men traveling through won’t draw much attention.”

The four rode into Placerville over a week later and headed to the saloon. It was then that Adam found out that apparently when you’ve been intimate with a woman if only briefly, she remembers you quite well even with a beard, longer hair, and completely different clothing. Anne paused only a moment when Adam walked into the saloon and then was going to blurt out his name. She got the A out, but Adam turned the tables on her and kissed her passionately before she could say more. He whispered in her ear to call him Abel and then pulled back only a little. She stared into his eyes and knew that all she wanted was to do what he asked.

“Abel, where the hell have you been?”

“Sweetheart, you know no matter where I’ve been, I couldn’t stay away forever.”

“It’s been too damn long though. I wasn’t even sure that was you. It’s been years.”

“It took that long to work my way around to getting back here.”

The others had to ask then and wondered what the story was as did all the other patrons in the saloon because they knew Anne. She told a story then of knowing Adam long before she ever came to Placerville. He cut her off before she offered too many details and said he and his friends were thirsty. As that was about what anyone would expect from four saddle tramps, no one questioned the way things had gone and soon all five were at a table with drinks. Adam’s companion were curious as to how he knew Anne but he couldn’t tell them there. Instead, he planned to tell them later in the rooms they had taken. However that didn’t work out either. Anne invited them to have breakfast at her house. She leaned over to whisper to Adam and he nodded.

“I’ll talk to you all at breakfast. I have a better offer for tonight.”

All the three could do was shrug. Adam Cartwright was full of surprises.

 

Chapter 4

The first thing Anne did at her house was heat water so Adam could bathe. While they waited, he asked her why she had a house instead of the place about the saloon.

“There was a shooting a while back. Men were killed and I was there. I’m the witness. I could have been killed, but now, if they come back to get rid of the witness, that’s the first place they would look. At least here in this little house I’ve rented, I have a chance. There I would have none.”

“You have no protection?”

“No one knows where they are or if they’re coming back.”

“There should still be some protection for you if you’re the witness.”

“At night, there is. A deputy keeps watch but he’s not there all the time. Now, you need to explain this whole situation like why do you have that beard hiding your face or most of it? Why aren’t you on the Ponderosa instead of riding around with three men who look like outlaws? What’s happened to you?”

“First of all, none of us are outlaws or gunmen or anything like that. I need this beard so that no one knows I’m Adam Cartwright. It’s important so you can’t tell anyone. Now as to why I’m not on the Ponderosa, that’s going to take a much longer explanation and will likely put me in a poor frame of mind. Probably best to put that discussion off until after.”

“After what?”

While Adam had been talking, he had been undressing. He moved toward Anne, pulled her close, and kissed her. Holding her cheek gently, he began unbuttoning her dress and then sliding if down off her shoulders.

“Do you think that water is hot enough yet?”

“It will be.” Anne paused and had to ask because Adam had avoided answering her once already. “Adam, why didn’t you come back?”

“I didn’t know if you wanted me to come back. You didn’t ask then.”

Saying nothing more because he didn’t want to admit how fragile his heart was, he kissed her. He couldn’t tell her how his heart was encased in ice so no one could get to it anymore. Seeing her though was melting that fast and making him vulnerable which made him unable to tell her much for fear of showing what he saw as weakness.

“I wanted you to come back. I wanted you to stay, but I knew you couldn’t. I didn’t think you would come back for a saloon girl either. I guess it was all too complicated. Then I saw you today, and none of that mattered. You’re here now and you’re with me, and that’s all that matters now.” Seeing his look, she made an amendment. “I know you can’t stay, but we have this time.”

Things had gone from playful to serious but didn’t stop their lovemaking. Adam stood in the washtub first, lathered up and was rinsed clean by Anne. Then he said it was her turn, but he lathered her up taking special time on certain areas until he was in need of being rinsed too. Once they accomplished that, it was a trip to her bedroom and a short tussle to pull back the sheets. Afterwards, Anne lay in his arms and enjoyed the sound of his heart beating against her ear as her head rested on his chest.

“Now will you tell me why you’re here, dressed as you were, and not on your ranch?”

“Let’s start by saying that my father made it clear to me that it was his ranch. Things got worse from there.” So Adam explained his differences of opinion with his father and what had made him walk away, his hurt over what had happened, and then his part in the disputes. “I know some of it is my fault. I never could stand to be taking orders all the time. I couldn’t stand to be living in his shadow. I wanted to be first, to be in charge, or at least to be able to make my own decisions.”

“But aren’t you working for someone now and taking their orders?”

“It’s ironic, but there is a difference. It was my choice, and I can leave at any time. If things don’t suit me, I can go. They listen to me too. There are things I get to decide. They won’t give me a look in the morning condemning me for the choice I made to spend time with you.”

“Your father would have?”

“Your conclusion earlier would have been a bullseye. Even though my father married a woman with a somewhat questionable reputation, he has always been quite judgmental whenever any of his sons have become involved with any woman with less than a stellar reputation.”

“How much can you tell me about the men you are with?”

“Not much, but you were correct when you said I worked for them. That was a good guess. We’re not doing anything illegal, but there is a good reason that I have a name other than the one I legally have. Are you going to have a difficult time explaining to people why you spent the night with Abel Wolf?”

“It’s really none of their business. Only the sheriff is likely to be curious especially as you rode into town with three unknown men. He was probably worried about that as he is worried about my safety. When I knew you, that most likely made him relax, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he or a deputy isn’t outside watching.”

That made Adam a bit embarrassed. “So they might have seen things through your kitchen window?”

“Maybe, but I don’t think that he would be that intrusive.” Thinking about things for a time though, she changed her mind. “It does depend though on how worried he was. So I guess he might have seen things. I wasn’t thinking about that at the time because I didn’t anticipate anything happening in the kitchen like it did.”

At that point, Adam decided that having the lamp burning brightly wasn’t as good an idea as he had thought. He turned that down, and the two of them talked a bit more before they fell asleep. In the morning, they expected company for breakfast but no one arrived. He has his horse in Anne’s small stable and went out to take care of him. When he reached for a bucket to get water, a pistol was pressed into his back.

“What are you doing following us?”

Unarmed, he straightened up slowly. Although he recognized the voice, he didn’t want to admit that. Instead, he guessed acting ignorant was a better way to go.

“I’m not following anyone. Who the hell are you?”

“You know who we are?”

“I do?”

“Of course, you do.”

“Maybe you could refresh my memory then because I seem to have forgotten.”

“You see, I told you. He wasn’t following us. We would have seen him if he was. Besides, if he was following us, how did he get here before we did?”

“I guess so. It’s just a darn weird coincidence.”

Turning back to Adam, the man with the pistol told him to turn around. Adam did his best to look surprised when he saw the three men. He had no idea where the marshals were but assumed they had some idea what was happening.

“Oh, it’s you guys. I remember you now. I saw you on the Rocking Bar M, but we never talked or not about anything but work if I recall rightly. Why would you think I would follow you? Or follow anybody for that matter?”

“What are you doing here then?”

“Well, I spent last night with a lady, but you must know that.”

“She ain’t much of a lady to take you to bed.”

“Hey!”

“All right, but why are you here?”

“I needed some money, and there were three men who wanted to get to Placerville except they didn’t want to use the road probably cause somebody was looking for them. I told them I could take them through the hills. I’ve been on cattle drives through these mountains. I figured I could go the opposite way. So I got them here. I was supposed to see them here for breakfast and get paid, but so far they haven’t showed.”

The three men started to laugh. The one who had poked the pistol into his back holstered it then.

“Mister, you are stupid. They ain’t gonna show. You should have been paid up front to do a job like that.”

“What?”

“You’re a sucker. They got you to do a job for nothing. You ain’t gonna see them three ever again.”

“Damn, I needed the money. The Bar M said to come back in a few months to hire on again, but I don’t have any money for now.”

“How did you get a woman to take you to bed so fast?”

“Oh we knew each other a long time ago. I didn’t know she was here. It was a big surprise when I walked into that saloon and saw her. I gave her a big kiss and she said she missed me, and well, later, she invited me to have breakfast with her, well, you know.”

The apparent leader of the group looked at the others, who were grinning, as if for agreement, and they nodded. “Let’s go inside for that breakfast, and maybe we have a way for you to have some money.”

Hoping that Anne could act well, Adam led the three men inside announcing that they were there for breakfast. Anne did hide her surprise well and got plates on the table with food quickly. The men questioned her about how she knew Adam and she told the story about like he did but added a bit more detail. It was believable in the matter of fact way she narrated it as she made coffee and poured it before telling Adam she needed to go to the general store for more coffee. The men told her to go as they had something to talk over with Adam anyway. At the store, the sheriff pulled Anne aside and basically asked her what the hell was going on.

“I don’t know, but I need to get back to the house before they get suspicious.”

“Anne, are you in danger?”

“No, but Adam is.”

“Adam?”

“Yes, Abel Wolf is Adam and something very strange is going on. You need to find those three men he rode in with last night and find out what is happening.”

As Anne hurried back to her house, the three men found the sheriff so he didn’t have to go looking very far. They pulled him into the alley behind the livery stable and told him the basics of what they needed after telling him who they were. Then they left town not wanting to take a chance on compromising Adam’s position and putting him and possibly Anne into jeopardy. There was only one way that Adam knew to communicate with the sheriff. That evening in the saloon, he instigated some trouble while he and his three new friends were playing faro. A fight broke out, and when the sheriff got there and demanded they all pay up for damages, Adam was the only one without money. The sheriff said that meant a night in jail so he marched him off as his three so-called friends laughed. The sheriff did tell Anne she could pay his fine to get him out when she was done with work if she wanted to do that. That led to a lot of ribald comments that Adam wanted to respond to but couldn’t. In the sheriff’s office, he was locked in a cell and then the sheriff looked at him and told him what he knew.

“Now tell me what’s going on so I can go tell your marshal friends in the morning.”

“I’m heading down to Arizona with these three. The rest of the gang that’s been doing all the rustling is down there for the winter. The men who did those murders here are down there too. The gang down there has been doing some raiding and robberies. Now these three will join up with them and they’ll hire themselves out as protection against the outlaws.”

“So protection against themselves.”

“Yes, the raids will stop mostly so they get paid. Now the men who did the murders are going to be the scapegoats. They’re going to brought in dead as evidence of how well these men are doing their job of protecting the good citizens plus they’ll collect the rewards that are offered for those men here. I’ll be one of the replacements because that will leave them shorthanded when they come back here to get into rustling horses and cattle again in the spring.”

“Who’s running this operation?”

“Can’t be these three. Must be one of the men in Arizona. He’s having his men join him down there in twos and threes so no one gets suspicious of a group of men traveling together down there. He must have a camp in those mountains though. Maybe some of those Apache scouts the Army has could find it.”

“If they do, and you’re down there, you’re going to be in the middle of a hornet’s nest.”

“I’ve got a badge in a secret pocket in my saddle. I’ll have to hope it’s enough if the shooting starts. I’ll surrender if I can’t get away.”

“You’ll be walking a fine line. You can’t break any laws when you’re with them.”

“I know. It’s going to be dangerous.”

“Close to suicidal.”

“It’s something that needs doing.”

“Yeah, but someday I hope you’ll tell me why you’re the one who’s doing it. I am surprised they told you so much about what they’re doing.”

“Some I figured out from what I’ve overheard and some they told me because they don’t think I’ll understand too much as they don’t think I’m very smart.”

The sheriff’s look said he had a similar opinion about that considering what Adam was planning to do. All Adam could do was shrug and then add in a few more details about what he knew as he remembered more. About the time they finished talking, Anne showed up to get Adam out of jail. He refused.

“You’ll be safer if I stay in here. Anne, I’ll come back this time. I will. Now go on home. I’m sure the sheriff will see that you get there.”

Although Anne didn’t like it, the sheriff and Adam didn’t give her a choice. When the sheriff left her at her house, three men turned away and walked back to the room they had taken assured that she wasn’t a threat. Assuming Adam couldn’t tell her anything if he was locked up, they figured they would collect him the next morning and head out of town. Back at the jail, the sheriff told Adam that Anne was safe at home.

“I can assume then that you have someone watching over her?”

The sheriff nodded.

“And he was watching last night?”

The sheriff nodded again.

“So you know.”

Adam didn’t have to say any more. The sheriff said he would sleep on the cot in the office so there wouldn’t be any surprises. Adam told him that after he left with the three outlaws, the marshals would likely be back to find out what the sheriff knew.

“But how will they contact you?”

“They’ve managed so far. I guess they’ll have to find ways. If I can, I will find ways to send messages to them. We were supposed to find the men who did the murders here and this is part of that investigation. I don’t think anyone knew it was tied into that rustling case.”

“All right, but you sure got yourself mixed up in some risky business. At least three murderers are going to be taken care of. I would rather see them go to trial, but justice is justice, I guess, no matter how it’s done.”

“It isn’t, but at this point, I can’t see another way. If I can, I will.”

In the morning, the sheriff unlocked Adam’s cell and escorted him outside telling him he would rather he not return to his town. Then he told him to be gone before sundown before he went back into his office and slammed the door. Sneering, Adam headed down the street toward Anne’s house only to be intercepted by his new associates.

“We got your stuff and your horse. We’re ready to leave.”

“I haven’t had any breakfast. That damn sheriff wouldn’t give me any. He wouldn’t let Anne bail me out last night either. That cot in there was damned uncomfortable.” Strapping on his pistol, he looked back at the sheriff’s office. “I should go right back there and shoot him.”

“Nah, don’t do that. We’ll get some breakfast and then we’ll leave. All right?”

“All right.”

The trip to Arizona was uneventful as the men said they had been told to keep a low profile and not get in any trouble. Adam asked if his night in jail was going to be a problem and they laughed at him again telling him that wasn’t what was considered trouble in their circles.

On arrival in Arizona, they camped in the same spot for two days. When Adam asked why, they said they were waiting to be contacted. On the third day, they were when a group of men rode into their camp and greeted the other three by name. Adam was introduced to the man leading the group.

“This is the one you said you brought along as an extra?”

“Sure is. He does what he’s told to do.”

“Good. You come with me. We have some planning to do. Your other two men and him can go on patrol with three other men I’ll leave with them. You can brief them on what to do. You know what the plan is, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“Very well, then, pack your things, and do what you have to do. You have any coffee left?”

Adam was delegated to serve coffee to the boss and to make more. The boss took to calling him dumb and soon he had a new nickname. When he didn’t get mad or object in any way, one of the men asked him if he had any backbone although his words were far more earthy than that.

“It don’t bother me none you calling me that cause it’s true. Now if you were to say I wasn’t any good with women or couldn’t hold my liquor or couldn’t ride better than most, I’d get mad cause that ain’t true. No reason to be mad about telling the truth though. I ain’t never been too smart so no need to get in a fight about something I can’t change.”

“You’re good with women?”

“He is. You should have seen the one he had in bed the first night he was in Placerville, and darned if she wasn’t smiling pretty darn nice at him the whole next day.”

The whole tone of the conversation changed then, and it seemed Adam was accepted in the group as the talk shifted to descriptions of Anne, and then to the drinking Adam had done and the fighting that had landed him in jail for a night.

“Yeah, he wanted to go shoot that sheriff, but we offered him breakfast, and he said he was all right with that instead.”

The men laughed then and even the boss cracked a smile. He had been a bit suspicious of the new man as he was of every new man who came in, but this one was too harmless to hold his attention that way for long. He had other matters to hold his attention. A few days later, he was regretting that decision as they were looking for Adam and two of their men who had come down with him. They found him alone at the campsite where the boss had first met him. He was grabbed and disarmed and held for the boss to interrogate as the man who had brought him there waited beside him.

“What the hell have you been doing?”

“I came here to wait for you because I didn’t know where else to go.”

“I mean what happened to the other men?”

“They’re dead.”

“What? Who killed them?”

“I did.”

“You? How the hell did that happen? You killed all five of them?”

“No, I killed two of them. They were going to kill me.”

“All right. Explain from the start. You went out on patrol with five other men. What happened?”

“Well, everything went fine until after two days. Then Jace and Howie told me we had orders to kill the other three and bring them in for reward money as they was murderers. I didn’t know that, but orders is orders. So we got the lowdown on them and shot them. We rolled them up in their bedrolls and loaded them up on their horses to take them to town.”

“All right, that was the plan. What went wrong?”

“Jace and Howie started talking. They didn’t think I’d understand, but I did. They said they was gonna head on out after getting the reward, but they didn’t want to leave no bird singing afterward. I knew they meant me. They said they could get a reward for turning in an outlaw too. They said dead birds don’t sing. I was ready for them when they came. I pulled my gun out when they came to shoot me and I got them first.”

“You outdrew two of them? I don’t believe that.”

“But Boss, you believe Jace and Howie would cheat you?”

“I believe anybody could for that much money. He’s back here waiting for us, ain’t he. Let’s see what else he has to say before we shoot him.”

“Hey, I brought the money back to you. I didn’t steal nothing from you.”

“Where is it then?”

“Right here.” Adam pulled money from his pocket and three sheets of paper.

“What’s this?”

“They said you turn that in to the people in California to get paid. The other money is for Jace and Howie. They said that what they did meant they was outlaws and there was a reward for them.”

“What do you mean about what they did?”

“I couldn’t just say I shot them so I said I was bringing in the other three and these two tried to stop me and I shot them. I didn’t know what else to say.”

“I do. It’s time for a test.”

The boss had a man set up six targets and had another man give Adam’s pistol back to him. Then he told him to draw and fire but put some pressure on him telling him if he missed any of the targets, he was probably going to die right there. He drew, fired, and hit all six.

“Well, not only are you fast and good, you got some ice, Dummy. All right, I do believe you. It’s not convenient to have to collect this money in Placerville, but it’ll do. It’s like having a bank account I can draw on.”

As Adam rode away with the gang, three marshals with rifles a quarter mile away relaxed. It would have been a nasty fight if they had to intervene, but everything had worked out. They had five of the outlaws locked up in an Army stockade with three ready to be transported to California for trial as soon as the rest of the gang was taken into custody. That was likely to happen soon as scouts were out looking for the main camp. Adam was going to do his best to leave clues for them if he ever went to that camp. It was assumed he would be going there which was the only reason he had gone back to the outlaws. It was a big risk but also the best chance to get all of them.

 

Chapter 5

Every time they camped, stopped for water, rested the horses or anything else, Adam got in the habit of sitting back against a boulder or scrub tree piling little stones on top of one another balancing them to see how many he could get to stay in one tower. It seemed that no matter how well he did, there was always three or four left there when he finished. No matter the terrain, sand, rock, or anything else, he did the same. In difficult terrain, the scouts started watching for the little rock piles as clues to help direct their searches. After a time, they would smile at one another when they found the small rock piles even in unusual spots knowing their man on the inside must be carrying small stones in his pocket to be able to do what he was doing.

Gradually the search was narrowing in on where the central camp must be. The scouts sent back word that they were getting close and reinforcements should get ready to close in. Adam too knew they were getting ready to head into the main camp as their patrols were getting shorter and less likely to involve any time spent in a town. Then one day they headed straight into the hills and through a narrow gorge at the end of the day. What he saw was a set of wagons loaded with the goods they had stolen, but what surprised him most was that the wagons were all Klug Freight. It was something so completely unexpected that he almost lost his persona of Abel Wolf and said something that would have given him away. All those months though without a haircut and growing out that beard as well as the dusty garb concealed his identity enough that Rudy didn’t recognize him.

The first night, Adam was sent out to be a perimeter guard. He guessed he better not come back in the morning. If he did, it was only a matter of time before Rudy or one of his drivers recognized him. Heading out in the dark into the desert wasn’t a promising prospect as he didn’t know the area, but he scanned it as well as he could before the sun went down so that he had some idea where he would be going.

In camp, one of Rudy’s drivers was mentioning to him that he thought he had recognized Adam but hadn’t been able to place him earlier. It was only after he thought about it that he realized who it must have been. They went to the boss to explain and told him they ought to pull out before Adam could bring help because they had no doubt he was going to do just that.

“I have a better idea. We’ll take care of him before he can bring help.”

Men were sent to kill Adam. They found he was gone from his post, and set out to find him. The chase was on, but these men knew the area, and Adam did not. The scouts were there though and when they saw the chase, they guessed correctly that their man was the one being pursued. They had to be careful how they helped him though or the whole operation would be in jeopardy. Two of them got ahead of him and pulled him from his horse as the third took his horse and rode away. One of the two who had him whispered that they were friends and were trying to save his life. He calmed down knowing if they had wanted to kill him, he would already be dead. In a few moments, they were effectively camouflaged and hidden from pursuers who came by and rode on following the horse ridden by their companion. Once the pursuers were well away, they talked quietly.

“Your horse will be found riderless next to a drop-off. They will assume you went over the side but won’t be able to see you. They will bring your horse back and tell their boss you are no longer a problem. We will stay here until they ride back. Your friends are on the way.”

The operation from that point on went about as expected. Adam rode in with the force that was assembled to take the outlaws into custody. Their camp in the hills was well hidden, secure, and safe, but had one huge drawback. There was no way out if someone was coming in the main gorge and had neutralized the sentries. With Adam and the scouts taking care of the sentries, the rest of it was relatively easy. After it was over, Adam walked up to Rudy Klug as he was being put into one of his own wagons. His wrists and ankles were in shackles and he had at least the good grace to look embarrassed.

“Why? You have a good business, a wife, a son. Why do this?”

“It was easy money. All I had to do was haul it back and sell it for them. I didn’t help steal any of it. I didn’t hurt anyone, and it meant I kept a lot of men working, a lot of food on the tables for a lot of women and children.”

“It’s a crime to receive and sell stolen property. Without people like you, raiders like these couldn’t exist. You’re going to prison. You’re going to lose it all.”

“I know. Can you help me?”

“I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”

“I helped you when you needed it.”

“I know, and I thanked you, and I did all I could to repay you. I helped you then when you didn’t even know it. That used pistol rig you let me have. It was mine. I could have turned you in then but didn’t. I still hoped you weren’t so deeply involved and maybe you had made a purchase from a third party. But that wasn’t it. You were part of the reason I was in all that trouble in the first place. Without men like you buying up all that they steal, all those renegades and marauders wouldn’t be there. You’re responsible for a lot of hurting and dying. I can help Amy out. I can see what I can do for her, but I can’t help you in any other way.”

“You’re a damn ungrateful bastard then. Stay away from my wife and son. They can take care of themselves. I don’t think she’ll want anything to do with you when she finds out what you’ve done.”

The marshal witnessed the exchange and walked up to him after it was over and the wagon pulled away. “Don’t feel too bad. From what we’ve found out so far, he’s been doing this for a couple of years. She probably knows about it already. How else would he explain what he’s bringing back for sale when he usually brings back hides?”

“You think she knows?”

“You met her. Did you think she was stupid? If she isn’t, she had to have some idea what was going on.”

“Hard to figure people. Hard to understand why she would accept him doing that.”

“Yes, it is. Like I can’t figure you out at all. But here you are. People are complicated, and sometimes contradictory in what they do. Keeps life interesting. So we have some bad people and some good people doing bad things, and they’re all working together.”

“So what’s next for you?”

“You say that like you’re not part of us.”

“I’m not part of you. I worked with you for all of this, and it made me realize I don’t want to do this anymore. It felt good to do good, but the risks were too great. The deceit never felt right. I can’t do this job and feel good about myself. The sheriff in Placerville told me I would be walking a fine line which I knew, but I didn’t know how difficult it really was going to be. I almost got in a situation down here where I would have had to murder three men or be killed. I know duress is no defense for murder. What would you have done? That’s not a moral quandary I ever want to have to contemplate again if I can help it. No, I’m resigning.”

“Going back to Placerville?”

“That’s the only thing I’m sure I’m going to be doing.”

“At least you’ll have money this time.”

“Did our salaries finally catch up to us?”

“No, not yet. We’re always months behind on that. What I was talking about are the bounties. We get to keep those. You earned five with the men you brought in by yourself. And you get a share for all of these men. You’re going to have a nice amount of money to put in the bank in Placerville. We took the money from the boss here that you gave him and the letters to the sheriff in Placerville. You get that and when we get all these men locked up, you get a share of that too.”

“Making plans will be easier with some funds.”

“You’re not going home?”

“I don’t have a home.”

“There’s more to that than what happened down there in Arizona, isn’t there?” He looked at that stone face Adam could do so well. “But you’re not going to tell me. I have one thing to tell you. Someday you will regret not forgiving them. I can tell you that from experience. I hope you understand that sooner than I did.”

Before Adam left to head north, he stopped where the marshal was talking with his deputies. He wanted to clarify something with him.

“I wanted you to know. I have forgiven them. What I can’t do is tell them until I can stand toe-to-toe with them and look them in the eye and tell them. I have to make it on my own, on my own merits, first before I can do that.”

“I wish you luck then, my friend. You have set a high bar for yourself.”

“If you don’t set it high, you don’t go far.”

“Where shall I look for you next?”

“I’m hoping to convince Anne to go to Sacramento. Try there.”

When Adam arrived in Placerville, he was exhausted. Having pushed hard to get there, he had almost no energy left especially after the emotionally demanding role he had played with the outlaws never sure when they might uncover what he was doing. At the same time, he worried about the moral dilemma he was in and what he would do if confronted with faced with an order to break the law. When it had happened, he had been able to avoid committing murder only by the slimmest of margins. His two companions had disarmed the three they intended to kill when Adam had turned on the two shocking them. Because they regarded him as stupid, they had never considered him a threat. It gave him an edge. He made the three unarmed men tie up the two which they were happy to do and not without some well-placed blows and kicks. Then at gunpoint, he told them to tie up each other until he had all five secured. Next, it was a matter of getting them to the fort without being spotted by any of the other outlaws. If there had been anyone watching them, his life would have been forfeit.

At the fort, he had gotten word to town and the marshal had been summoned so they could work out the rest of the plan. He accepted the risk of returning to the camp to help guide the force in to arrest them. When he was recognized, that fell apart making him have to escape to save his life. It was much too close. He didn’t want to purposefully put himself into such a situation again.

Although he had been in tight spots before, it had never been quite so intense for so long. The longest had been during the Paiute Wars, but even that ordeal had not lasted so long. The worst had been with Kane in the desert and that hadn’t been as long either though it had felt like it. The more he had thought about it, the more he knew he didn’t want any more of that kind of life. He wanted to be able to spend his nights in bed with his wife. When he thought that, he shocked himself. Until then, he had not realized how much he wanted a wife. He knew too who he wanted his wife to be. Then he had pushed even harder to get to Placerville.

It was the late afternoon when he arrived so he knew Anne would be at work. After a few stops at stores, he headed to the barber shop to get cleaned up knowing he would look quite different with all that extra hair removed. With a grin, he told the barber to get a bath ready in the back because he was going to need it. From the look he got, the barber agreed. Two hours after he arrived, Adam was dressed in clean clothing, was shaved and had his hair trimmed. Walking to the saloon, he felt better than he had in a long time and only hoped he would feel that way or better in fifteen minutes. Anne was shocked to see him with the changes and because he had come back as he had promised. She had been disappointed so many times in her life, she had been ready to be disappointed again plus she knew that he was involved in a dangerous occupation.

“Aren’t you going to kiss me? I thought we had a tradition going here.”

Rushing into his arms, Anne let everyone know she was thrilled to see him there even if there were tears flowing. Adam held her close and whispered in her ear making her pull back and stare into his eyes. She had to know if she had heard him correctly.

“Yes, that’s what I said. I’ll say it louder if you need it repeated.” She stared so he said it again. “Anne, will you marry me? You are the woman I want by my side for the rest of my life.”

It was the most silent that saloon was except for Sunday mornings when it was sometimes used for religious services. Some men even realized they were holding their breath wondering if their friend was going to say yes. They rather hoped she would so she would be happy, and at the same time, hoped she wouldn’t because they would miss her.

“Yes, Adam, I will marry you.”

Speaking so softly that almost no one but Adam could hear her, men all over the saloon were asking each other what she said. Then it was obvious. Adam pulled her into a kiss that made it clear her answer had been affirmative. There was a cheer then, but a couple of men looked around and had a second question.

“What about that Abel Wolf? Ain’t he gonna be mad?”

So others who had figured it out had to explain it to them. Once everyone was clear on that issue, Adam bought drinks for the house, and then Anne took the rest of the night off telling the men there she wasn’t sure when or if she was coming back. The last thing that happened before they left was that Adam pulled a small velvet bag from his pocket, opened it, and offered a ring to Anne. She accepted and there was another cheer as the two exited the saloon together.

“You do like to be dramatic, don’t you?”

“I do. I enjoyed that. Didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did. Thank you.”

“May I assume I can stay with you tonight?”

“A bit presumptuous but correct. Where’s your horse?”

“I sold him.”

“Is that how you got the money to do all this?”

“No, but he wasn’t a very good horse, and I didn’t need him anymore. Tomorrow, I will tell you all about what I’ve been doing, and we can talk all about our future. Tonight, can we hold each other and be together?”

Quite clear on what he meant by that, she smiled. “That would be wonderful.”

Worried that things wouldn’t be what he had been imagining in all the time he was gone, Adam was relieved to find they were better than expected. With his proposal, Anne was more relaxed with him and more passionate not holding back anything. In the morning, they made love again before breakfast which surprised him. When he expressed that, she smiled.

“You said you wanted to talk about our future. Well, mister, if we were talking about our future, all I was going to be thinking about was going to be our future here in bed. You’ve been gone too long, and I missed you too much. This way, I can concentrate on our future. I thought perhaps it would be the same for you.”

“Oh, it is, or was. I’m only surprised to find you thinking the same way. We really do have many of the same ideas.”

“I hope that comes in handy when we start talking about our future. It might not be the easiest thing to reconcile what each of sees for the future when we’ve each had all these years to come up with ideas of what that future looks like.” Anne paused. Before we talk about the future, do you want to get rid of that pesky past and tell me what’s been bothering you so much and what happened to make you propose to me last night?”

There was so much to tell that Adam and Anne didn’t start talking about their future until they were having lunch together.

“First of all, you may not like what I have to say. I don’t want you working in a saloon. I want to marry you, and I have nothing against you being a saloon girl. But once you’re my wife, I don’t think I could handle other men lusting after you night after night.”

“I can understand that, but Adam, after all this time, I can’t stay home and cook and clean and act the part of a dutiful wife either.”

“I was thinking that maybe you could have some other kind of business. If you took whatever money you have here, and I took what I have, we could start up a business, and I could get a job and hopefully one that pays well. We could do pretty well together.”

“You’re not thinking of staying here, are you?”

“No, I wasn’t. If we want opportunity, we need to move, and I think Sacramento offers us the best options right now. I don’t have enough resources to compete in San Francisco at the moment, but Sacramento is a smaller market. At the same time, a lot of important people go there.”

“What are you thinking? A gentleman’s club? A restaurant? A hotel?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

“All of those, or at least eventually all of those. I can design something that could be expanded. Let’s say we start small and offer luxury services to attract the best clientele. I do the construction, the financing, and so on while you take care of the services such a business would need to have to accommodate customers.”

“I would love that, but what do you mean by luxury services. I don’t want to get into some of that other stuff.”

He smiled knowing what she meant. “No, it would all be legitimate. A fine but small restaurant at first with a gentleman’s smoking room or perhaps a gaming room with drinks and a membership to enter. A few rooms upstairs that would be outfitted with the latest improvements. Then each area would be expanded as we made money. It would be a tremendous amount of work at first. Buying all sorts of things but not much quantity because our resources are limited so managing the inventory would be key.”

“I do that now at the saloon. It would be on a grander scale but at first, probably not much different. I have some money in the bank here. I own a share in the saloon too.”

“I’ve got some bounties to collect, and I’ve got some salary coming to me yet. I think we’ve got enough to get this started.”

“Adam, you haven’t said anything about a family. Don’t you want to have children? Is that going to be an issue with us?”

Looking more serious than he had even when talking about his experiences in Arizona with the outlaws earlier that morning, Adam had her worried until she realized he wanted her to know he was sincere.

“I’m older. You’re older. I’m well aware that we might never have a baby or that it could be quite a while until we do. I will accept whatever happens. If you are with child at any point, I will be filled with joy. If that never happens, then it is fate. Either way, life is good because you are with me. You are the one I need.”

“I want a baby too. I would like to have children, but I know too that it might be too late.”

“There are other ways to have children. When we’re in Sacramento, you’ll see there are children who need a family. If at any point, we decide we’re not waiting anymore for a miracle to occur, there is the option to adopt children to be ours.”

Grinning broadly, Anne had to shake her head in amazement. “Here I was afraid to bring that up thinking a Cartwright would only want children of his own, and you surprise me again. This marriage is going to be so interesting. You are a complex and wonderful man, Adam Cartwright.”

“Any child we take into our family will be our own.”

“Adam, there is something I have to confess to you. You know almost everything you need to know about me, but there is one more thing. I have or had a common law husband when I was young.”

“You’re married?”

“No, he left me more than a dozen years ago. Before I invested in this saloon, I wanted to be sure he couldn’t come back and take it from me so I went to a lawyer. He said even if we never had a marriage ceremony, I needed a divorce. So I paid him and went before a judge and got a divorce. I have the papers at my house.”

“Thank the Lord, I was worried it was going to be a real problem.”

“It’s not a problem for you then?”

“Not at all. I’m marrying who you are now not who you were. You get the same deal.”

They would have spent more time celebrating their marriage, but they had to run some errands. They went to the bank to notify them to prepare to liquidate Anne’s accounts. They stopped by the saloon to give them notice that Anne was done working there. Then they headed to the sheriff’s office for two tasks. Adam turned in the letters he had that authorized payment of three bounties. The sheriff accepted those and began the paperwork necessary to release the funds to Adam. Then Anne offered to sell her share of the saloon to the sheriff because she was aware he wanted to retire. His grin couldn’t have been broader either as he accepted the offer. They settled on a price quickly and made arrangements to conclude that sale the next day at the lawyer’s office. Everything had fallen into place quickly. After they returned to Anne’s rented home and Adam saw the papers dissolving the marriage between Jasper Henry and Anne Henry, he had only one thing to say.

“Do you want to get married here or in Sacramento?”

“Yes.”

“What?”

“I would like to be married here with my friends able to attend. But I would like to have a marriage in one of those big churches too like they have in Sacramento so could we do it twice?”

“Anything to make you happy. Yes, we can get married twice. I don’t know many people in Sacramento though. There won’t be many guests.”

“Will you invite your family?”

Frowning, Adam said nothing. His silence lasted for a half-hour. When he answered her, it was what she expected but not for the reason she expected.

“Not yet. I don’t want to have to explain anything to them. I know what would happen. When I next see them, it has to be on an equal footing. I want to build something of my life first. I want to show them what I’ve done. They will have to accept what I’ve done and who I am. That wouldn’t be true now.”

“You think there would be recriminations because you’ve been gone so long and you haven’t been communicating with them?”

“Yes, I think there would be. Now that I have quit that job, I can send another letter, but I will only tell them what I am doing not where I am. I do not want to encourage a meeting.”

“You’re going to marry me, and we have all these plans to do things, and you hardly know me. Yet your family that you know so well you hardly communicate with.”

“I trust you. You trust me. I don’t have that with my family now. When that’s been lost, it’s difficult to get back. If they would have at least put some money back in my accounts for me, but there was nothing. I checked more than once. That hurt perhaps the worst of all because it meant that the things I dreamed of doing, I couldn’t do. I was penniless. I could go home that way and submit to my father’s will and accept what he had done, or I could do what I did. There was no other option I could see.”

“I guess I didn’t understand it that way until now. I didn’t see the long-term impact. Maybe they didn’t either. Maybe they do now. Unless you let them communicate with you, you’re not going to know.”

After another long pause, Adam had to agree with her. “All right. After we get settled in Sacramento, I’ll let them know how to get in touch with me. We’ll see what happens then.” She remembered this conversation later and that he never specified a time period for getting settled. She did have a few more questions for him though.

Adam, what took so long?”

Putting his head down, Adam reached across with his right hand and tugged on his left ear lobe. It was a gesture Anne had seen a few times. She knew it meant that whatever Adam was going to talk about was emotionally charged but something too he had thought about at great length.

“It may seem odd, but my father may have been part of the reason. He casts a big shadow. He has big dreams. From the start, I believe he thought I was destined to carry the mantle of his dreams when he passed so that his dream would live on past his death. And I can see your little smile because you have already guessed at some of what I’m going to say. Yes, any attempt by me to follow another path threatened his plan. I don’t know if he was even aware of how he destroyed my dreams by pursuing his. He is so determined and single-minded, I doubt he has ever given thought to what his dream has done to me.”

“So, if you wanted to marry me, how would that have threatened his dream?”

“Not only you, Anne, but anyone. When I was involved with a woman, I had doubts of course. That is a big step in any man’s life. He would always ask things like if I was sure or if she was right for me or if her background was suitable for what I needed or would her religion be an issue and so on. Now, I do not hold him responsible because in each case, the decision was mine. I can look back though and see how he helped steer me toward the negative outcome. I let myself be steered, and that is on me. I somehow must have lacked something in myself to let that happen.”

“He reinforced your doubts until you backed away from whomever it was.”

“Yes, I’m afraid that’s what I’m thinking now. When I was supposed to marry Laura, he helped convince me that my doubts were the truth. The belief that I never loved her but felt a sense of duty to her and to her daughter led me to push her into Will’s willing arms. Anne, I will never know the truth of some of these things. It doesn’t matter anymore. We are going to be married. I love you. No one can come between us. And there are no regrets, no recriminations, because no matter what happened, my failures forced me to take a look at myself and make the changes I needed to make. The hurts made me take the steps I needed to take to help myself.”

“So why me? Of any of the women you could have gone back to see, why me?”

“Because you were in my dreams. When I was asleep or when I was awake, there you were. I wondered what you were doing. I wondered if you thought about me. I had to find out.”

“I dreamed about you too. I cried at night.”

“I’m sorry.”

“There’s no need to be sorry. It was my fault you left the way you did. If I had been more supportive of you, you might have had a better feeling about me then and been more sure of my feeling for you. But that is behind us now. We can go forward.”

“Yes, we can, but I have another question. Adam, why is it so important for you to build something. I mean, you have already done things that would make many men proud. Why does it have to be a thing?”

Wrapping an arm around her, Adam spoke softly. “For a time, I wasn’t so sure of that answer either. I’ve thought about that a lot. I had a conversation with Hoss about two years ago. We had been out working on clearing some downed timber on our property line with the McCarron ranch. Todd McCarron was with us. He was a friend of mine since we were boys.” Anne ignored the past tense of that sentence. “While we worked, Todd looked down at a pond overgrown with weeds now and remembered how he and I and two others, Ross Marquette and Carl Reagan used to go swimming there when it was very hot. It was shallow so no one could drown. It was safe. Our parents didn’t worry about us there. Then Todd said something that made me start thinking about my life. He said they would never have guessed back then that I would kill both Ross and Carl and threaten to do the same to Todd.”

That was shocking news to Anne who had never thought of Adam as a violent man like that. He had to explain that Carl had turned outlaw and tried to kill Adam. Ross had lost his mind, killed his wife, and become a murderer also trying to kill Adam. Todd got in a fighting mood because of greed and jealousy.

“I don’t think Todd would really have gone through with a gunfight with me. I think he would have known better.”

“Because you’re good enough to have killed him?”

“Anne, that’s not the point of any of this. What happened could all be justified, but when I talked with Hoss, there were so many other things like that. He said it was justice. I asked him what was balancing out the other side. Everyone out here has to make tough choices, some they never thought they would have to make. My father did, but he had three wives, got three sons, and a huge ranch as well as status and respect. It balanced out. What did I get? I need to get something. I need to balance the scales.”

“I understand and I will do everything I can to help.”

Everything Adam hoped to find in a relationship, he had found.

 

Chapter 6

The wedding in Placerville was about what you would expect when most of the guests were men who knew Anne from the saloon. The wedding in Sacramento had a much smaller guest list and was much more sedate. Anne enjoyed both, and so did Adam because his wife was happy.

Progress on their business proceeded well with their opening only two months after they moved to the city. Word of their services spread quickly and they were at capacity almost every day which wasn’t a surprise because they only had six rooms. But the club membership list grew which gave them necessary capital too and meant they soon had enough money to add on. Adam had set up the plans for the building so that it could be built in stages with each one making the building taller and more impressive in appearance. All the money they made went right back into the property. They lived in the building so they were able to put more money into property development. One exception occurred when they heard some guests talking about an investment opportunity that was likely to bring a quick turnaround in profits and dividends for investors. They jumped on that one and it turned out to be a lucrative choice. After that they paid close attention to what some of their well-connected guests might say in an unguarded moment. Unexpected events and change were on the way though, and adjustments were going to have to be made.

Nothing let Ben Cartwright know that his eldest son had thoroughly cut ties to the Ponderosa than finding out his son had married and not even informed him. On a trip to California, Joe stopped in Placerville during some bad weather. Someone asked why he and his family had not been at the wedding. Informed that his oldest brother had married there, he scoffed at the news until a small newspaper account was found and delivered to him. It was that news and the newspaper that he brought home. He wanted to hold both until he had a chance to talk it over with Hoss but knew his father would see it as a betrayal by him so he couldn’t. Instead he told his father and Hoss that he had some news of Adam and they were going to like it but not like it, and he hoped there was more of the former and not so much of the latter.

It was into this poisoned atmosphere that Adam’s letters informing his family of his marriage and his plans for the future arrived. He gave them a lawyer’s address to communicate with him not wanting them to show up in person yet. He needed to have some success first, some substantial success. That desire to stand toe-to-toe on what he saw as an equal footing was still significant to him.

What Adam didn’t understand about the letters he had written to his family was that the timing was being interpreted quite differently by them especially by his father than how he saw it. Adam knew winter was difficult in Virginia City or could be so he had not expected an answer to arrive for months. When Anne expressed concern about the lack of response, that was his answer to her. When no response came though after spring arrived and then summer, he had no answer for her. She began to have a similar view of his family as he had. Although Adam accepted that he was partly responsible for the break with his family, she and Adam thought the lack of reconciliation seemed to rest wholly on the rest of the family. It was something more to stoke the resentment and anger that still smoldered in Adam even though he knew the break with his family had been the best course of action for him and that his personality had led inevitably to that break. There was going to be a confrontation between the two, and no one could have predicted it would end with the victor walking away having defeated the other with a tip of his hat. On the Ponderosa as winter hit hard, the arrival of those letters only fueled Ben Cartwright’s anger. His worry over his eldest son and his guilt over what he had done had melded into frustration. Over time that had become anger. Hoss and Joe couldn’t understand it and were even less able to do anything about it. What it was of course was a startling realization on Ben’s part that he could not control Adam. He had depended on his first-born son for so long, it felt as if a part of him had gone. So desirous of having things the way they were, he blamed Adam for his losses. Everything he missed and all the troubles that visited the ranch, because they always did, he found a way to make it because Adam had left. It eased his guilt over things he had done. Then when the letters arrived, as had those in the past, it stirred up all those bad feelings he kept locked up. It got so bad that Sheriff Coffee and Doctor Martin tried to intervene and get Ben to see a more reasonable way of looking at things.

“No, it’s just like these damn letters. He sent them in winter so we couldn’t respond or go see him. He’s the one making things as difficult as possible. Well, it won’t work. He can sit there in that swampy city for all I care. He probably only wants money anyway now that he’s married. What was he thinking marrying a saloon girl? And don’t give me that line about how noble it was that he told me that up front.”

Finally in the fall, there was a cattle drive to thin out the herds for winter, and Ben told his younger sons that they could be happy because he would see Adam if that would make them happy. They were relieved and said it would.

“Well, one of you send him a letter telling him we’ll be there. Make some hotel reservations too. We can stay an extra day.”

“One day?”

“All right, make it for two, but remember we have a ranch to run. We can’t spend all of our time there. We can’t be sure of the arrival date so you’ll have to make the arrival date a floating one.”

The drive seemed interminably long Hoss and Joe anxious to see their brother and increasingly irritated at their father and his grumbling. Finally they arrived in Sacramento and sold the cows they had brought in. After putting their horses in the livery stable nearest the new hotel where they had rooms, they walked across the street to the new place. They saw Adam was out working with a crew which was adding an additional restaurant to the hotel. It was impossible for Ben and his younger sons not to recognize Adam. Stopping there, they waited as Adam made his way toward them. It was not the reunion any of them had imagined.

“This is what you abandoned your family and your heritage to become, a common laborer? You should have come home. We would have forgiven you and taken you back in. You wouldn’t have had to do this.”

The men working with Adam were shocked to hear someone speak to him in such a condescending manner. They couldn’t understand why anyone would say such things to him either especially as the man seemed to be his father. Adam was furious although only his family there could probably tell. He turned to his crew and told them to take their lunch break early. Then he turned his back on his family and walked away too angry to say a word to them. His father called out to him.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said those things especially in front of those other men. Please come back so we can talk.”

Stopping, Adam turned to face them and only said one word. “Later.” Then he disappeared around the corner of the hotel.

“Pa, I’d say I’d go after him, but dadburnit, I don’t think the Lord himself could get him to walk back here right now. You spewed out all your bad feelings there. Did that make you feel any better cause it sure made your sons right awful upset with you. And what was that about forgiving him. I don’t rightly know what he has to be forgiven for at this point.”

Looking from Hoss to Joe, Ben had nothing to say. Joe looked at him and started walking to the hotel with his response clearly letting him know he didn’t want to talk to his father at that moment. Ben hurried to catch up with Joe, and Hoss followed behind with one last look to where Adam had disappeared. He worried that whatever ties there were had been severed with those cruel words. To him, it didn’t matter what job Adam had. In fact as Hoss saw it, considering that Adam had been left without money, it was logical that he would be working in construction because he always liked building things. When they checked in at the hotel, they each received a token to the gaming room and a one day pass to the gentleman’s club. Hoss and Joe were pleased with those and asked if every guest got them.

“It is at the discretion of Mister Abel Wolf. He does not tell us why only to whom the tokens and passes go.”

“Who is Abel Wolf?”

“He is the man who put up the money to start this development. The story is that he got it from bounties for bringing in prisoners when he worked as a marshal.”

“Lordy, he must have brought in quite a few.”

“The hotel started small, but what is done now is that profits are reinvested back into the hotel. You must have walked by the construction of our new restaurant. It will seat twice as many as our current restaurant. We will keep the one that is there for meetings.”

“You talk about ‘we’ like you own the place.” Joe was curious about the man’s attitude toward his employer.

“We are treated well here. Our ideas are heard, and we are respected. Our employers feel that a valuable employee is more like a friend than anything else and act accordingly. Those who work for them are exceedingly loyal as a result.”

The clerk had been briefed not to give away any information about Adam and Anne. He was known for his discretion, and that was why he had the job he did managing all hotel operations from behind that front desk. He asked if they needed help with their bags, but as they only had small valises, they declined and headed to their suite. After freshening up, they went down to lunch, and while they were eating, Adam came to their table with Anne beside him. He had not changed and Anne had been helping in the kitchen so she was dressed accordingly. Tersely, Adam introduced Anne to his family and told them briefly about her. He mentioned only that he had worked as a marshal before coming to Sacramento.

“Did you know this Abel Wolf fellow when you was a marshal?”

Hoss’ look said he had no idea what he was asking. Anne looked at Adam who had a slight smile then. He held up two fingers twisted together.

“You could say we were as close as this.”

Before Adam could say more, Ben interjected a question asking when they could spend more time together because they only had one more night in Sacramento. Adam explained that they were tied up because of the governor’s fall party. Ben, Hoss, and Joe assumed Adam and Anne were working the party never guessing they were invited guests because of the significance of their hotel development as well as work they were doing with the government.

“Well, then, I guess we could head for home today. There’s no point in staying here if we won’t even be able to spend any time together.”

“Perhaps next time when the air is clearer.”

There was a subtle hint there that Ben did not miss. Adam wasn’t going to make this easy for him after what he had said. But as there was nothing to be gained by discussing that further, he said nothing more feeling he had made his point. He only said it was good to know his son was healthy and happily married.

“Yes, that was in my letters to you.”

Left unsaid was that there had never been a response. Anne filled that in because she wasn’t going to let that go.

“Yes, we did worry about you when we didn’t hear anything after all those months and months and months.”

Although Ben wanted to respond in anger at being addressed that way by her, he had to admit, he had been at fault for that and had no excuse. It turned out he was the one apologizing, and it bothered him immensely. As a result, his apology came out as less than sincere. He had to backtrack.

“Listen, none of this is what I meant to say. I want you to come home. I never wanted you to leave. I miss you terribly. I feel so bad about everything that happened, and I want to make things better, but I can’t while you live here and we live there.”

Deciding to try to be a peacemaker, Anne offered a compromise. “After Christmas, it probably won’t be very busy here. Maybe we could schedule some time together then.”

Hoss picked up on that wanting exactly what she wanted. “Yeah, and I wouldn’t mind getting off the ranch then neither. I bet Joe wouldn’t mind meeting some of these Sacramento gals too.”

“Why can’t you come to the Ponderosa for a visit?”

“Pa, we have commitments here that make it difficult to get away for weeks at a time.” Adam could see his father was going to scoff at that. “If you could take more than a day here, we could find time to meet with you and tell you what we do here. Then you would understand. However, we have things to do tonight that we cannot miss. We didn’t know when you would be here so we couldn’t schedule anything with you.”

“We had reservations here at the hotel.”

“Yes, but you had them open-ended so we were not sure when you were arriving or leaving in a two-week window.”

Ben had to admit that would make scheduling difficult. Rescinding his earlier outburst, he agreed that he, Hoss, and Joe could stay an extra day. They were making progress and all five began to relax a little. Adam and Anne left and Ben asked for the bill for their lunch. Their waiter said the hotel was picking up the tab for all their meals.

“Why?”

“I was not told why. I was only told that your meals were gratis.”

Joe was getting into his detective mode of thinking. “Pa, do you get the feeling something funny is going on, and we don’t know everything we should know?”

“None of this has ever made that much sense to me. I need to take care of a few things at the bank. You two can relax however you wish. Apparently we have some free time until tomorrow.”

After Ben walked away, Joe looked at Hoss. “Abel as in Abel Stoddard?”

“Wolf as in Young Wolf. It could be, Joe. It could be. It would be just like Adam to do something like this. All those men out there acted like he was the boss.”

“Yeah, and he walked in here dressed like a common workingman, and in a fancy place like this, no one paid any attention at all like it was the most ordinary thing. Anne too came out of the kitchen, but you noticed no one called her back.”

“Our meals are free.”

“We got special tokens.”

That night, as Ben, Hoss, and Joe were entering the dining room for dinner, an elegant couple was on the way through the lobby. Amazingly, they heard a chorus of praise for how beautiful Missus Cartwright was and how handsome Mister Cartwright looked. Turning in shock, Ben watched his eldest son and his wife cross the lobby. At the door, Adam turned, tipped his top hat, and grinned before exiting. Turning back to Hoss and Joe, Ben was incredulous.

“Did you see that?”

“Pa, we kinda been figuring on that all afternoon. We didn’t say nothing thinking you would think we were crazy.”

“Yeah, Pa, we think Adam and Anne own this whole place.”

“But . . .”

So Hoss and Joe explained what they had figured out, and Ben had to admit it made sense. The next day, Adam and Anne had lunch with them in their suite and confirmed the theory.

“Why all the secrecy?”

“Some of it was out of anger for how you greeted me yesterday. I would have told you, but the way you spoke to me was disrespectful.”

“You don’t pull any punches, do you?”

“I’m not in your house. There are none of your rules.”

“You could still show some respect.”

“I did. Anyone else who talked to me the way you did would have found out what happens when I do not show respect. I did come in and introduce Anne to you despite not having any of my letters answered for a very long time.”

“You’re right again. I have been acting poorly.”

“Now, last night was the governor’s party. We were there because I have an important engagement immediately after Christmas. One thing that happens here is that occasionally people say things in front of us as if we don’t exist. There have been some good investments that we have made because of that. They also say other things that the government is interested in hearing. Some of our employees also work for the government. If they hear things that are significant, they report it.”

“You got tattletales working for you?” Joe didn’t like the idea.

“Now, not every little thing is reported. We don’t have tattletales. This is about significant things. One of our men heard a conspiracy being hatched. It involved murder and an attempt to overthrow the governor and get someone in who would work at the direction of corrupt interests. That man came and got me. We worked together to serve drinks and offer cigars and food to the group that was meeting in our gentlemen’s club. We heard enough to know that the conspiracy is big and involves the assassination of leaders of the state government. We knew who hatched the plan and gave the orders.”

“I saw where they arrested a bunch of people for that.”

“Yes, and so far, they don’t know how they were found out. Any conspiracy that large involves a lot of people, so it could be any number who did it. If they find out, they’ll kill those who turned in the leaders. It cost many greedy men the opportunity to make a lot of money.”

“So you and the other guy are at grave risk. Adam, come to the Ponderosa until this is over. You told us, Anne is with child. Protect her and the baby by getting them out of here.”

“Pa, it takes two witnesses to a conspiracy to get a conviction. If I leave, those men walk away free or they may guess that I am one of the witnesses putting me and Anne and perhaps all of you at even greater risk. But all of you have to keep this absolutely a secret. Don’t even talk about it among yourselves. You have no way of knowing who is listening. It could be in the least likely places.”

“You really are worried about this, aren’t you, older brother?”

“Joe, I am scared. We’re not going to do this anymore after this. It is too dangerous.”

“Where’s the other guy?”

“Staying in the suite next to our suite. He’s too scared to come out. I think he would give it away with his nervousness.”

“Son, maybe we could come back for Christmas then at least briefly.”

Looking at Anne who nodded, Adam agreed. There were nervous smiles all around then. It would be difficult, but in time, the wounds would be healed. The family spent some time together that afternoon visiting and finding out all that had happened at least in outline form that they didn’t know about the past year or so. Then it was a late dinner and time to say goodbyes with Ben and his younger sons leaving early the next morning.

Ben got up grumpy though after having had a bit too much to drink. Grumbling about almost everything, he let his sons know he was going to miss Adam all over again. At the livery stable, he voiced his concerns.

“If it wasn’t for that damned trial, he could come home for a real visit.”

“Pa, we’re not supposed to talk about that.”

“I know, but it’s so difficult.”

Nothing more was said, but the damage was done. The info went into the organization, and it stimulated a discussion.

“Yeah, he was there when we had that meeting. Who would think a servant at a hotel would pick up on things like that.”

“He ain’t no damn servant. We should of figured out something was up when he came in to help out. He owns the damn place. There must be another one who works there who is the other witness.”

Plans were made to eliminate the threat. These were men who didn’t care what the cost was to property or to innocent lives.

A few days later, the tragic news of what they had done reached Virginia City and the telegram was delivered to the Ponderosa. “Luna Hotel and Restaurant destroyed in fire. Only few guests escaped. No other survivors.”

Luckily an express letter had been delivered the same day. In the confidential communication delivered by government courier, Adam informed his family that he and Anne had survived. With help, they had been rescued and moved out of the city and away from danger. He told them he had minor injuries but that Anne was not harmed. However, exile was their only option temporarily because it was believed that if the syndicate found he had survived, they would want to kill him to make an example of him. Even as a single surviving witness, he posed some threat too. Ben was going to live with more guilt as Adam’s letter mentioned that they didn’t know how the syndicate had found out, but someone must have said something that was passed on and triggered their memories of the meeting at the hotel and who had served them that night.

Standing at the railing of the ship taking them to Australia, Adam had his arm around his wife. He needed some help with meals because of burns to his hands, but otherwise, he was not hurt. He had been thankful that he had never moved from that second-floor suite they had occupied when the hotel was built.

“By now, your family must have the news. I hope they got your letter before the official telegram got to them.”

“If not, they got it the same day.”

“I hope your father doesn’t tell people where we’re going. The statute of limitations they said won’t run out for five years so we have to keep things quiet until then.”

“Oh, he will talk about it. Inevitably, he will confide it in someone close to the family and swear them to secrecy about it. But then that person will confide in someone else close to them and swear them to secrecy, and so on and so on. Slowly, perhaps at a glacial pace, the word will get out.”

“But your brothers won’t tell anyone?”

“No, they may talk about it with each other but only if they’re sure no one can hear them. Their silence and their conspiratorial whispering will only confirm to others that my father’s secret is true. If they have too much to drink, they may say they know a secret, but that’s as far as it will go. It will take a long time for anyone in California to find out where we’re going. After all, this is all happening in Virginia City.”

“Adam, no. I can’t live with danger like that especially when the baby comes. With the timing of what happened, I thought we agreed it was probably your father who let something slip about you being a witness. Now this?” Adam though looked so calm, Anne knew there had to be more to this story. “Aren’t we going to Australia?”

“Anne, it’s all right. We’re going to Australia as we planned. But I told my family we were moving to France.”

 

Tags:  Adam Cartwright, Angst, Ben Cartwright, Family, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright

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Author: BettyHT

I watched Bonanza when it first aired. In 2012, I discovered Bonanza fan fiction, and started writing stories as a fun hobby. I have hundreds of stories now. If I am unavailable and anyone needs permission to post one or more of my stories on a site such as Bonanza Brand, AC1830 and/or Mo1427 are authorized to give permission in my absence.

10 thoughts on “Opportunity (by BettyHT)

  1. This is a very good very intense story. Lots of Action and problems for Adam. I hope Pa and Adam will be Pa and Son and the family gets back together again. This is not the loving family we all know. thanks

    1. Thank you so much. Yes, the story is part of a series so some of the getting back together again will occur in the second story.

  2. This story points to the fact that Adam’s leaving was not from just one thing – his desire to see or make his mark in the world. There were many little things that actually were in the episodes if one were to connect the dots (and how you managed to pick up on them, Betty, I salute you). Adam would of course do what needed to be done, and breaking out from under Ben’s rule would be one of the hardest. It’s hard to see the rift growing but Hoss and Joe, being caught in the middle, figure out the right time to try to bring healing. I hope their next adventure is a bit safer, but we’ll have to wait for the next part to find out.

    1. Thank you so much for your insightful comments. As for picking up on them, our discussions certainly have helped as I haven’t done it by myself. Yes, Hoss and Joe do their best to help and probably see things more realistically because they feel some of the same things but not to the same degree as their older brother. Adam has some adapting and changing to do, but Ben will have to do the same. Their reconciliation depends on both doing so and the next story will reveal whether one or both have accomplished that.

  3. Interesting and well-worked out analysis of Adam’s reasons for leaving the Ponderosa–and for all the inconsistencies in the show about where he was later on! I’ll enjoy seeing what he and Anne do with the rest of their lives. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. With Adam’s personality in mind, I tried to work out what kind of things would have to happen to make him leave. Yes, there will be more about his life with Anne and further adventures.

    1. Thank you so much and very perceptive of you to know this is the first story. The second one is under construction and will follow as soon as possible.

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