Summary: A kind action by Ben as a young man has unintended consequences for him and his family many years later. The family has to pull together to solve the mystery and prevent any more tragedy.
Rating: T Word count: 17,044
The Lord Is My Judge
“Bibiana, I can’t do anything more for you. Captain Stoddard says that we leave on the morning tide. The repairs on the ship are completed. I’m sorry, so very sorry, for what Carson has done.”
“He said I could go with him to America.”
“Captain Stoddard would not allow him to do that. There is no room aboard for the men to take women with them especially women who are not their wives.”
“But he will marry me. He said that he loved me.”
“He cannot marry you. He lied.”
“No, he said that he loved me in only the short time he knew me. He said he could take me to America and he could marry me there.”
“No, he cannot marry you there. I’m sorry. I have to tell you the truth even if he will not. He is already married. He has a wife in Boston.”
“But I carry his child.”
“You cannot know that already. It has only been a few weeks that you were together.”
“But I do know. A woman knows. Perhaps you can marry me and give my child a father.”
“I’m sorry, but I already have a woman I love and hope to marry someday if she’ll have me.”
“Ben, you are a good man so maybe then you can take me to America.”
“I cannot do that either. I told you that the Captain will not allow it. I have given you all that I can. I gave you all the money I have, my extra blanket, my knife, and extra food. I know it isn’t enough, but it is all that I have to give to you.”
“I hope that I bear a son, and I will tell him to find Carson and kill him for what he has done.”
“Please do not poison your child with the troubles that occurred between you and Carson. Let his life be as untroubled as it can be.”
“Untroubled? What kind of life will he have with no father, no name? He will be shamed from the moment of his birth. No, he will be the sword of the Lord and bring judgment down on the wicked man who betrayed us.”
the Ponderosa, decades later
Ignoring the brilliant blue sky with the puffy white clouds floating like leaves on a pond with a light wind that day, Ben Cartwright stormed out of the bank and nearly collided with his youngest son who had come to see why his father was delayed. He too had no appreciation of the beauty of that summer day, the mild temperature, light breeze, and fresh smell in the air after the rain the day before. Like his father, his attention was focused almost solely on business because they were locked in a fierce competition with wily Gil Warren. The man seemingly had no morals from what they could tell by his business practices and used every underhanded trick and every type of chicanery and underhanded though not illegal methods he could find to outbid his competition.
Only one of them could get the contract to supply beef to the railroad that planned to ship beef on a regular basis to Sacramento and San Francisco and bring fresh produce and seafood by return trips to cities in Nevada especially to Virginia City growing exponentially with the silver boom. The Ponderosa was already selling beef at a very good profit to restaurants and other venues in the area, but they could establish a market that would outlast the boom if they could win the long tem contract with the railroad which would also eliminate the drives and the expenses associated with them improving their profits twofold. Adam was working the negotiations on the California side giving them an edge, but Warren was pulling out all the stops on the Nevada end to try to offset that. His latest move had been to try to undermine Ben’s attempt to get a loan to expand the lumber operations on the Ponderosa. It was unrelated to the beef business but showed that Warren would do anything to try to get his way by weakening the Ponderosa financially.
“You look like that meeting didn’t go very well.”
“That meeting didn’t go very well because Warren tried to use his investment in the Bank of California to put pressure on the branch here to have the loan disapproved. I had to remind them that Adam is an investor too. He may live in California, but he owns as many or more shares than Warren, and he knows most of the Bank’s directors personally.”
“Didn’t Adam try to get you to invest in that Bank too?”
Irritated a bit to be reminded of that suggestion that now turned out to have been a wise idea that he had ignored, Ben was a bit short with Joe when he answered. “That doesn’t matter now. We got the loan. Now we need to move on with that lumber project.” Then using a strategy his sons had learned from him, he changed the subject. “Where’s Hoss? I need to talk to him about the cattle and whether he has time to go up to the timber camps to mark some trees.”
“He has to be the one to go.”
“Why does he have to be the one to go?”
“I have that Army contract to finish, and we have to fulfill that contract or lose the chance to do any business with them in the future. I still have about twenty horses to get ready for them, and some haven’t even had a saddle on their backs yet.” After a pause, Joe brought up a touchy subject. “We sure could use Adam’s help about now.”
Sighing partly in exasperation and partly in resignation, Ben knew there was only one response to give to that. “Adam has his own life now. He has responsibilities there that he has to fulfill. It wouldn’t be fair to ask him to drop those to come here to help us with ours.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to ask him if he has time to help out, would it?”
“No, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to ask if he has the time to help us out now, but you have to accept that he has the right to say no.”
With that eager look that said he was agreeable to anything, Joe went to send a telegram to Adam while Ben went in search of Hoss who had a similar request to Joe’s when he found him. Hoss was pleased to find out that Joe was already sending a message to Adam to ask for his help. The two went to rendezvous with Joe who had met up with Candy who had some unsettling news.
“Some of Warren’s men are in the saloon right now. I stopped in for a quick beer and I doubt they even noticed I was there. They were talking pretty nasty.” Candy paused there not certain how specific he ought to be with the rest of the story but Joe told him to tell it all.
“They need to know what we might be dealing with.”
“Well, a few of them were saying that maybe if something happened to a couple of them Cartwrights to get them out of the way or make the others so busy with a funeral that they didn’t have time for anything else, then maybe Mister Warren could get the upper hand and they could keep their jobs.”
“Warren’s men are threatening us! But why would that help them keep their jobs?” Ben wondered how one tied to the other even as he was furious about the threat.
“Yeah, it seems Warren has told them that if he loses this bid, he’ll have to let most of them go.”
Incensed, Joe wondered how far Warren would go. “I never thought he was the type to resort to killing to get a contract but this is worse than any rabid dog. He ought to be shot on sight.”
“Son, I have to wonder if he ordered that his men kill Cartwrights or if the men had decided that was a way for them to keep their jobs.”
“Yeah, Pa, I was wondering the same thing. That jasper never seemed the type to do that sort of thing. I don’t think he would ever do anything against any of us like that.” Hoss was skeptical of the whole story. “Mighta jest been the beer talkin’ in there with some of his men.”
“It might have been the beer talking, but we should take precautions. Candy, when we get back home, I want you to set a watch at night. During the day, I want a patrol on the lookout for anything unusual. You know the routine when we’re facing a threat. Everyone needs to keep a lookout for anything suspicious or out of the ordinary.”
At dinner that evening, the whole situation was explained to Amelia too as the family discussed precautions they should take considering that the threat might be real. Amelia raised another concern.
“Adam is part of the family too. He’s part of this deal too by doing the negotiating for us in California. Wouldn’t it be especially disruptive if something happened to him or to Brenda or Abel?”
There was silence for only a moment as the men considered her comments and realized how correct she was in her analysis of the situation. If Warren wanted to disrupt things, the one he could hurt who would disrupt things the most was Adam. Ben spoke first.
“That will be remedied tomorrow. Joe, go to town tomorrow. Take Candy and another man with you. Send a telegram to Adam. I’ll write a more detailed version in a letter and you can post that. Then I would like you to explain all of this to Roy so that he can look into this from his end too.”
the Dodge Ranch, California
Still bothered by some occasional bouts of mild dizziness, Brenda didn’t ride though she dearly wanted to do that very much, but she had a young son who needed her. Survival was more important than the joy of riding. She held Abel in her arms as she watched her husband ride off on a tour of the ranch with her friend who had been staying with them for a week. Lydia’s husband had died two months earlier leaving the woman in a severe state of depression. Brenda had invited her to the ranch thinking it would help her break out of the sorrow that had seized her and get her to start thinking of the future again. It got her out of her house and seemed to be working because today she had asked to see the ranch. The best way to view the Dodge Ranch was by horseback so Brenda had asked Adam to take a break from his design project and escort her friend around the ranch for the day. Nearly done with the project and knowing he would finish well in advance of the deadline, Adam had agreed to her request. Brenda smiled and took Abel to the shade of the trees by the side of the house to let him play.
Three hours later, Adam rode back to the house with bloodstains on his blue shirt from his throat to his waist. Brenda choked on the screams that wanted to erupt from her throat because he dismounted with ease and walked to her. She could only wait in stunned silence for an explanation.
“I’m sorry that there is no easier way to do this. I’m not hurt. It isn’t my blood. It’s Lydia’s. I am so sorry, Brenda, but she’s dead.”
“Someone took a shot at us and hit her. The bullet went through her and splattered me with her blood. I grabbed her and pulled her to cover, but it was too late to help her. She died a minute later in my arms as the blood poured from her. I only had my pistol and the assassin had a rifle. He fired a few more shots but couldn’t get me out in the open. He couldn’t come any closer because then I could have hit him with the pistol.”
“How did you get away?”
“I fired three shots and waited for help to arrive. It took some time, but some of our hands came to find out what was wrong. Whoever it was who fired on us had left by then. He probably saw the men coming toward that location.”
“Where is she?”
“The men are bringing her in on the horse she was riding. I wanted to tell you. I would have cleaned up more, but I had nothing else to wear.”
“She has no one left. That was part of her sorrow. She had no family, no children, and then no husband. Why would anyone want to hurt her?”
“Maybe she wasn’t the target. She moved in front of me rather suddenly when we were watering the horses. It was a long distance shot. The assassin might have been aiming at me. I told the men to look around to see if they could track the man or see where he had been, but he was up on that rocky outcropping so it’s unlikely there are any tracks.”
Luckily, Abel was taking a nap and never saw Adam with the bloodstains. He didn’t notice that Lydia was absent, and had no idea why his parents seemed so sad or so worried. They did their best to hide it from him and play with him, but it was clear he sensed something was wrong by how he hugged them. The men found no sign of where the man had gone leaving Adam and Brenda even more worried. When Chambers brought a telegram from town the next day, Adam’s sorrow and worry was tinged with a bit of anger.
“Pa should have let us know sooner that there was potential trouble. We could have taken more precautions. As it is, we had no idea anyone was watching the place and waiting to do something like this.”
“Adam, read the telegram carefully. They didn’t find out until yesterday. The shooting took place even as they found out that there was a danger. It happened the same day they found out. If they had sent the warning immediately, it would still have been too late.” Adam frowned but knew she was correct. “The question is, what do we do now?”
“I want to find that man. I think I’m going hunting.”
On that same day, Ben was in town with Hoss to find out if they got the contract. They did. Warren walked out of the meeting and turned to look back at Ben who had called his name.
“Your threats didn’t stop us. We don’t run away from a fight. We watch out for our own here and made sure that everyone was safe.”
“Oh, you did, did you? I didn’t think you would forget him so easily.” Warren turned to walk away then after making that chilling pronouncement that left only one conclusion for Ben and Hoss to draw.
“He can’t mean it, Pa. He’d be too darn scared to try anything against Adam. He knows Adam would come after him. He’s always been terrified of Adam. Heck, he crosses the street to walk on the other side ifn he sees Adam coming ever since they had that trouble over Adam saying he cheated on contract bids and then proving it.”
“But what if he sent someone after Adam? Hoss, we need to send someone to Adam now. I don’t trust telegrams and letters.”
“Pa, ifn you kin spare me, I can leave right now.”
“I’d want you to take Candy with you.”
“I don’t want you riding on home alone.”
“You can ride with me to the crossroads. I’ll be fine from there and the two of you can head out toward California. Why don’t you go get some supplies. I’ll find Candy and let him know the plan.”
“He’s probably still over at the hall where we left him trying to hire more men. Joe will have to take over that job while we’re gone. I know he’s busy, but maybe he can find some wranglers too.”
By midday, Hoss and Candy were on their way to California, and Ben was headed home to tell Joe that he had one more job to do. Riding as hard as they could, Hoss and Candy hoped to make it to Adam’s ranch within a few days. When they got there, they were surprised to find that Adam was gone. Brenda was upset.
“I tried to talk him out of it. He was so upset though and said he was the best tracker on the ranch. I knew that was true so I couldn’t argue against that. He took the best men we had for hunting and went after the man who tried to kill him. He killed a friend of ours. She’s buried up on the hill now.”
Shocked, all Hoss could do was ask if Adam or anyone else was hurt. Brenda said that no one was, and that the ranch patrols were back in full force with sentries at night to protect her and Abel. Additionally she told them that the Chambers had moved into the main house temporarily.
“With the three of them in there with us, we think we have enough to stop any intruder. You’re welcome to stay here until Adam gets back.”
Hoss could tell how worried she was though. “Naw, I think maybe we’ll head out after Adam and the others. We’re not tracking so we should make good time. Can we take fresh horses? Ours are beat.”
“Of course you can. I’ll have one of the men show you the best ones for a long ride.”
Just over a day later, Hoss and Candy caught up to Adam and his men who welcomed them even as he was surprised. “What are you two doing here?”
“We figured you might be in danger and might need help so we came. From what Brenda said, we shoulda been here sooner cept we didn’t know we needed to be worried, and I’m real sorry about that, older brother.”
“It’s all right. I was upset at first, but Brenda talked me down. There was no way the warning could have gotten here in time. Whoever was there, was already waiting for us by the time you were threatened. Next up, we have to confront Warren, because we took so long finding this trail that we’ll never catch up to this one, but he’s heading back toward Virginia City and his boss.”
“You thinking on just you coming with us back there or taking Brenda and Abel too?”
That caused Adam to stop and think for a time. He looked at the mountains ahead and then back toward the ranch. “I guess I better go back and talk to Brenda about this. Do you want to come with me or head on home?”
“I think we’ll stick with you a bit at least until you make your decision. Ifn you was to come back to the Ponderosa, we’ll all travel together.”
Late the next day, the group arrived back at the ranch. Brenda had been waiting for any sign of the men returning and was waiting for Adam outside the house when he arrived. She rushed into his arms not caring that there were other men there watching and he might be embarrassed by the show of affection. Uncharacteristically, he kissed her and held her close despite the many witnesses which showed how worried he had been as well.
“I told Saunders to get water heating. There should be warm baths ready for you, Hoss, and Candy soon although Hoss and Candy will have to decide who goes first.”
Hoss pulled a coin first before Candy could. “I don’t trust you no more than I trust Joe when it comes to a coin toss. Here, we’ll use mine. You call it.”
“All right. Heads I win, tails you lose.”
“All right.” Hoss flipped the coin and it came up tails. “Dang!” He thought a moment. “Hey, wait a minute. That was cheating. I couldn’t win.”
“You agreed to the terms, Hoss. You can’t take it back now. That’s like cheating.”
“But you started it.”
Wrapping an arm around Brenda’s waist, Adam steered her into the house and away from the two men. Once inside, he kissed her more passionately. “I missed you so much. I was so worried about you.”
“I felt the same way. Did you find the man who killed Lydia?” Brenda didn’t need to hear the answer because she could see it in his expression. “What will we do now?”
“We need to talk about that. Where’s Abel?”
“In the kitchen with Saunders. He’s eating.”
“I’ll go see him while you get some clean clothing for me if you will. I’ll meet you in our washroom, and we can talk while I bathe and get rid of this beard.”
Gently rubbing her own face, Brenda thanked him for that with a smile before she turned to get his clothing as he went to the kitchen. Hoss triumphantly entered the house having vanquished Candy somehow in their argument and headed toward the kitchen with Adam. Both greeted Abel and Hoss stayed there for some snacks as Adam headed for his bath. He and Brenda had a lot to discuss.
“I can’t believe that Warren is behind this. He has reason probably, but he never had the backbone before now. I caught him cheating on bids. I got the evidence and exposed him. He was humiliated, but when I confronted him, he nearly wet himself. I told him if he ever crossed paths with me again, I would beat him within a hair of killing him.”
“I did, but it was the anger talking. I say some things when I’m mad that I regret later.”
With a small grin, Brenda nodded. “I know. I don’t suppose you made up with him the way you make up with me though, did you?”
“You can be quite a saucy wench even when we’re having a serious conversation, can’t you?”
“It seemed like a good time to lighten things up.”
“If we had time, I would like to pursue that further, but Hoss and Candy are anxious to get back to the Ponderosa so we need to give them an answer as to whether we stay here or whether we go back with them.”
“Yes, I wouldn’t be able to leave you here and go. All the while I was chasing whoever took that shot, I was worried about you here. I want to be with you or have you where I know you’re safe.”
“I’m safe here.”
“Yes, but it’s too far. I wouldn’t be able to know that.”
After talking about the pluses and the minuses of staying or leaving, they decided the best solution was for all of them to go to the Ponderosa. Hoss agreed when they told him of their decision.
“Yup, Pa always says nobody can stand against us when we all stand together.”
That night, Adam and Brenda packed up what they thought they would need for the three of them and had the bags sitting by the front door ready to go. They retired early, but Adam had more on his mind than sleeping.
“Adam, we have a hard journey ahead of us and need to get a good night’s sleep.”
“Hmm, if we do this, I know I’ll sleep better.”
Unable to feign resistance to his advances any longer, Brenda snuggled her face into his chest and let her hands give him his answer. He liked her way of communicating, and they did sleep very well even if they fell asleep later than they had originally planned. The next morning, packed up and ready to go, they only had to dress and have breakfast. Missus Saunders decided that she would like to make the trip to see the Ponderosa she had heard about so much and to help out with Abel so she had packed as well. Brenda was glad for the companionship and the help. Several days later they arrived on the Ponderosa after traveling as fast as they could with a carriage and a small boy. Ben was very relieved to see them and greeted them with news that their rooms were ready for them. Candy had gone ahead once they reached Ponderosa land and they could feel reasonably safe.
“Get settled in your rooms, and then we’ll talk about what’s happened here since Hoss went to help out.”
“No more bad news, I hope.”
“No, not bad news, but news that is confusing. Well, go get settled and then we’ll talk about it.”
That news was somewhat unsettling because it undermined the major theory under which they had been operating that Warren was behind the shooting at Adam that killed Lydia. Warren had an alibi as did his partners, and after a thorough investigation, Sheriff Coffee had been able to determine that each of Warren’s men could be accounted for as well. All were in Virginia City or near it when the shooting occurred in California. In talking to Warren, Roy got his admission that he had made some threats but he claimed that they were to make Ben worry only. Warren said that he was upset and wanted to exact some revenge on Ben for losing the contract to him even though he knew he probably would anyway. He reminded Roy that although he had been known to use some underhanded tactics in the past, no one had ever accused him of any kind of strong-armed tactics including threats to get anything done. He had no employees known to engage in that type of behavior and never had. Although reluctant to agree, Ben had agreed with Roy and Adam and Hoss had to do so just as reluctantly.
Hoss had nodded as Ben spoke. “You know that’s true. That jasper is as crooked as a sidewinder’s trail, but I ain’t never heard nobody ever say he done anything to hurt somebody directly. No, I betcha whoever done this is a lot more dangerous kind of cuss.”
There was silence in the room for quite a bit longer as everyone thought about that problem until Adam spoke. “If it’s not Warren, could it be one of his partners working on his behalf? Maybe we ought to have a talk with them or with Warren about that possibility to see how he reacts.”
“Son, that’s a possibility. Let’s think about it though for a bit and wait him out. Let him sweat some about what we’re doing first and let Roy keep checking. Then you and I can make a trip to town to talk with him. Meanwhile, we’ve got a lot of work to get done here, and we’ve lost time with all this trouble.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“I thought you’d never ask.” Joe giggled when he finished and the others laughed.
“Why is it that I think I just walked into an unpleasant workload with my eyes wide open?”
“Mebbe cause you did, older brother. Jest remember that you volunteered.” Hoss laughed again. It felt good to have them all together again even temporarily.
The next day, Hoss and Adam headed up to the timber camps. Too many of the men didn’t know Adam so Hoss was going to be there to make sure that they knew that Adam had the full authority of the Ponderosa behind him. On the second day, Hoss left as Adam headed out to start marking trees and mapping a plan for cutting. He guessed it would take five days for him to complete that work. Hoss said he would tell Brenda and the others to expect to see Adam in six days.
“You don’t come riding in on that sixth day, you better know there’s gonna be a search party out lookin’ for ya so don’t be takin’ any extra time gettin’ back.” With Adam’s promise to be prompt, Hoss headed out.
On the Ponderosa, Joe had taken over the hiring duties because Hoss was busy, and he had found it difficult with so many men tied up in the silver boom. He had managed to find five cowhands Candy approved and about ten men he could send to the lumber mill to work. The best hire was a skilled wrangler by the name of Delmar Danilo of mixed Anglo and Mexican blood. He told Joe he was from far southern Mexico but had worked his way north working horses on many ranchos and had worked on ranches in California too. Lots of wranglers tended to move around a lot so that wasn’t an unusual background. Del and Joe hit if off right away competing in breaking horses and then in training them. With Del’s help, Joe was confident he was going to meet the Army contract with time to spare.
Pleased to see so much progress being made, Ben was especially happy to have his grandson and his daughters-in-law in his house for an extended stay. He enjoyed having Missus Saunders there too because it was a rare experience to have someone his own age on the Ponderosa. The house full of family was a pleasure even if the reason for it was tragic. Brenda talked with him about Lydia’s death and the guilt she felt about that.
“Papa Ben, Adam and I both think that bullet was probably meant for him and hit Lydia by mistake. She had no enemies and no one gained by her death. He feels responsible and so do I. We got her killed. We need to find the man who did it.”
“Let me stop you right there. You cannot be responsible for the evil that is done by others. You did a very good thing in trying to help your friend. She needed you, and you opened your home and your heart to her. No one could have anticipated what was going to happen.”
“But I feel so bad about it.”
“I think we all feel sorrow about it, but we should not feel guilt. We are not responsible. All we can do is the best we can do in this life. What others do is their responsibility. You did your best.”
“I’m afraid too that this isn’t over. I fear for Abel. What if Adam had been holding Abel when that shot was fired?”
“We can’t let ourselves be consumed with dark thoughts. I know. I fell into that trap when Marie died. Adam can tell you what that was like. I saw all that I lost and all that was wrong, and it made me lose sight of what I had and what was right and good.”
After their talk, Ben thought he detected a lighter mood in the house and more laughter. It seemed the pall had lifted. It was even better when Adam returned, and the whole family was together again with all operations on the ranch working smoothly. The only negative for Ben was that he started to have bad dreams. He had no idea why, but he began dreaming of his ship being caught in a hurricane and pushed many hundreds of miles off course. It had been the one time he feared being lost at sea but he remembered too Captain Stoddard being forced to seek shelter in a small Mexican port with limited repair facilities and a lack of supplies. Because of that, it took nearly a month for the ship to be repaired enough so that they could resume their voyage. In that small port, Ben remembered the trouble his good friend Carson got into with a local woman despite Captain Stoddard warning them against fraternizing. He wondered what had happened to Bibiana and to the child she had if she had been correct that Carson had fathered one with her. He knew what had happened to Carson. His sexual habits had caused him to contract a disease, which he passed on to his unsuspecting wife. She died first in horrible physical pain, but the last Ben had seen of Carson, he was dying slowly as the disease attacked his brain and body. Ben had thought at the time that it was a shame that he had done such a thing to himself and his wife but wondered too how many others he may have infected once he was infected. Why he was remembering all of these things in bad dreams was a mystery to Ben, but on his return from the timber camps, Adam did notice that his father looked unusually tired as they worked together on some legal papers.
“Has the worry about Warren been interfering with your sleep?”
“No, I haven’t been worrying about him.”
“Something seems to be bothering you.”
“Only bad dreams of things from long ago. I don’t even know why I would dream of things from forty or more years ago.”
“Maybe something reminded you of events from that time.”
“I don’t know of anything here that would remind me of the sea, a hurricane, and a small foreign port.” Ben could see that Adam was intrigued by that puzzle and smiled as he knew that he would be thinking about that until he could formulate a theory as to why it had happened. However there were more immediate concerns so he brought those up next. “We need to talk about going to see Warren and asking him about the attack at your ranch.”
“We should do that soon. His reaction will tell us a lot about whether he was involved or not.”
“I’m not sure though any more whether you should be with me when I see him. He’s so afraid of you that it might affect his reaction. It might be that he will be worried about you and not about being caught for doing something illegal.”
“That might be true, but I would still like to see how he reacts to me. If it looks like it is only a fear reaction and nothing more, then that in itself will tell us something won’t it?”
“You’re probably right about that. All right, let’s try it. If he reacts only to you though, I’ll try seeing him without you and compare the reactions. I’m no longer convinced he’s involved.”
“If he isn’t, then we have a bigger and more sinister problem.” Ben could only nod in agreement to that.
The next day, Ben and Adam rode to town to see Warren. They confronted him in his office where he denied any involvement in shooting Lydia nor any intent to do anyone harm.
“Ben Cartwright, I know what you and your son think of me, but have you ever known me to harm anyone directly? Have you ever known me to be violent or to condone the use of violence in the conduct of business?”
“There’s always a first time.” Ben knew it was hollow when he said it. Turning to leave, he saw the slight smirk Adam had and knew that he would hear about that comment at some point. Outside Warren’s office, the two of them discussed what had happened inside and concluded that the man seemed to be as innocent as he claimed to be.
“Pa, I don’t think he’s that good an actor to fool both of us, and he seemed genuine. Yes, he was worried about both of us being there, and he might have nearly wet himself over that, but he did not get any more nervous, and in fact, he didn’t show any additional reaction at all when we brought up what happened in California or that Roy continued to investigate.”
They rode home concerned about who could have taken that shot then and whom their unknown enemy could be. The rest of the family was as concerned when they heard their evaluation of Warren because none of them had any idea who else would want any of them dead. At this point, all they could think to do was to continue to take precautions for their safety and watch for any additional signs of trouble.
After dinner, most of them got some entertainment as Adam played with Abel. He wanted Adam down on his level so the two of them were on a rug in the middle of the great room. Abel would push Adam who would resist a little but then fall down with Abel on top of him giggling and laughing at being able to wrestle his father down. Brenda had seen the game many times before, smiled as she watched a short time, and then relaxed on the settee to talk with Missus Saunders and Amelia. Ben was captivated by the scene though and leaned against his desk to watch. Soon, Joe was leaning against the desk on one side of him as Hoss was leaning on the opposite site. Each had their arms crossed and one leg crossed over the other and had nearly identical amused smiles as they watched Abel and Adam play.
“Pa, I didn’t think he had it in him.”
“Who? Adam? Joe, he played with you a lot like that when you were that age.” Then Joe was a bit embarrassed.
Hoss laughed out loud when he saw Joe’s expression. “Ya done walked right into that one, Little Joe. You better be careful what you say or Pa’ll be talkin’ bout Adam cleaning up your behind when you was a young’un.”
“Oh, I don’t know that you ought to be so sure gleeful about that advice, Hoss. Adam did have to clean up your behind a time or two or more when you was a young’un.” Ben smiled as Hoss took his turn at being a bit embarrassed and Little Joe enjoyed the turn around. Ben continued to watch his eldest son play with Abel.
Anxious to change the subject, Hoss had a question for his father. “Have you missed having children in the house, Pa, even with the crying and the commotion that happens some times?”
“I do, Hoss. I miss having ladies in the house too.”
“Pa, ya got married three times. Why not again?”
Ben smiled gently and took his time thinking about his answer. “I guess I could never be sure of the woman to bring into this house, and the one time I was sure, she couldn’t say yes.”
All of them thought about Katherine then and wondered what she was doing. They had lost contact with her as her letters had dwindled and then stopped. All hoped she had found a fulfilling life. Hoss had a question for his father that surprised Joe.
“Are you lonely, Pa?”
With a slightly rueful smile, Ben nodded. “Yes, there are times that I am. Memories only help some of the time. There are other times when it feels very lonely to crawl into a cold bed alone or have some wonderful news especially about one of you boys and have no one to share it with. Yes, sometimes I am lonely, but less so now with an even bigger family. I hope that it continues to grow too.” Ben gave a look to Hoss that was both query and encouragement.
“I don’t know, Pa. I guess, like you, I ain’t found the one who’s right to bring into this family yet. It don’t mean I ain’t lookin’ though. I been lookin’ plenty.”
As they watched, Abel grew noticeably tired, and finally Adam pulled him into his arms and rubbed his back. Abel snuggled in to his father’s chest and closed his eyes. Brenda, who had been checking on the two periodically, saw the change, smiled, and rose to get her son to take him up to bed, but Adam held up a hand to stop her as he struggled to his feet while carefully holding his precious burden. He mouthed that he would take Abel to bed and walked upstairs slowly. One by one, the others joined them until Ben was the only one left up. He lit his pipe to enjoy some peaceful quiet reflection before bedtime.
It was a peaceful night on the Ponderosa until nearly midnight when Ben was awakened by knocking on the door. He had fallen asleep sitting in that red leather chair by the fireplace. Candy was at the door. He and some of the hands had gone to town for a few drinks and some fun. He didn’t look like a man who had been having fun though. He was sweating and obviously upset about something.
“Mister Cartwright, I have some bad news. Gil Warren has been murdered. Shot down in the street. Witnesses are saying the man who did it was dressed in all black and rode a tall chestnut horse with three white socks.”
“Did he get away then?”
“Yes, he shot Warren dead and then rode off into the night in this direction according to witnesses. He made a big show of riding out of town. Most people didn’t know he had murdered someone only a minute before but they saw him galloping down the middle of the street and heading out of town riding like it didn’t matter or like he had done it a thousand times so he knew the way.”
“It wasn’t Adam.”
“I know that, but you know in town they’re already saying it was. The man was a great horseman, a great shot, and wore all black. Who else like that hated Warren?”
“I’m sure many people did, but I didn’t kill him.” Descending the stairs and followed by a sleepy Joe and Hoss who looked upset, Adam declared his innocence immediately. “I haven’t been out of this house tonight.”
“I’m glad because people are going to be asking a lot of questions.” After thinking for a moment, Candy had another question. “Know anyone else who has a tall chestnut horse with three white socks?”
None of them did so Candy suggested they ought to go out and check on Sport. What they found shocked all of them. Sport was in his stall as expected, but he was winded and wet. Someone had ridden him hard, groomed him quickly, and gotten out of that stable before they could be detected. If no one had checked on Sport before the morning, they would not likely have realized that the horse had been ridden that night. Unfortunately, this did make it look worse for Adam in some ways because it was probably his horse that had been seen.
“Now what jasper snuck in here and used Adam’s horse to go murder that dadblamed Warren so they could blame it on Adam?”
“Someone who works here probably.”
Adam’s words silenced the whole group. It was the most likely scenario but the one they didn’t want to accept. It meant that whomever they were guarding against could already be in their midst and among those they were depending on to protect them from the threat against them. Ben came up with a plan.
“We need to separate the men who came to work here most recently and make sure they’re paired with men we know we can trust. Candy, you need to talk to those hands we’re sure are loyal and have them keep an eye on everyone else. We may have a traitor or an assassin in our midst.”
By the time the men got back inside, the ladies were up and wondering what had happened. After hearing everything and having a chance to think about it, Brenda turned to Adam but everyone heard what she said because it was so quiet in the room.
“When you lost the trail of the man who murdered Lydia, you said it appeared that he had headed back here to his ‘boss’ as you called him. But now we’re fairly certain that Gil Warren wasn’t part of it. What if that man was headed back here for another purpose?”
Catching on to her train of logic immediately, Adam finished it by answering the question. “By perhaps getting closer to the Cartwrights or even getting himself hired on the Ponderosa. That would certainly make it easier to kill one or more of them if that is the goal.”
Confused by that scenario in light of what had happened that night, Hoss had a question. “Yeah, but how does killing Gil Warren have anything to do with all of that?”
By that point, Ben too had bought into the new theory. “Because getting a Cartwright hanged for murder would be just as effective and perhaps even more satisfying to have us go through the humiliation as well as the grief. The additional pain of the false accusation would apparently give great satisfaction to someone.”
“So the men I hired probably include a man who wants to kill us and has probably already tried to kill Adam?” Joe was feeling terribly guilty but everyone reassured him that he was not at fault. “Even you, Adam?”
“Joe, I would have hired those men too. Until tonight, we had no idea that someone would be so brazen as to try something like this. It took a lot for him to take Sport to town to do this and then bring him back and put him in the stable. Whoever it is, he’s a dangerous and very clever man. It’s going to take all of us to find out who it is and take him down.”
Relieved that no one blamed him, Joe got back to practical matters. “It’s going to be hard to narrow it down. All the men went to town tonight, and with drinking, who’s going to remember who was where and did what?”
“I guess all we can do is follow the plan we talked about earlier. We’ll separate the new men and pair them up with men we know we can trust. We’ll keep a watch on them. We need to find out what we can about each one of them. Maybe we can find out if somehow we’ve crossed paths with them in the past. Other than that, all of you should head back to bed. Candy can go to his quarters, and I’m finally going to go to bed. We can talk again in the morning if anyone has any new ideas.”
Everyone followed Ben’s suggestion, but in the morning, no one had any new ideas. Ben did suggest that because Adam seemed to be the focal point of what was happening that he should stay in or near the house until they knew more. Adam didn’t like the thought of what he termed ‘hiding out’, but Brenda immediately endorsed that idea and the others concurred that it was a good idea. Ben told a reluctant Adam that it was no sign of cowardice but was a sign of good solid common sense.
Later that morning, they wondered if Adam was losing that though. Adam had set a ladder so that he could go up to fix a leak near the chimney. It was a simple but time consuming job. When he returned to the ladder to descend, the ladder tilted violently to one side and would have toppled completely throwing Adam twenty feet and onto the wood pile, but the ladder caught on part of a roof joist. That let Adam grab the edge of the roof to prevent the ladder from tipping any further. He called for help, and Ben came outside and quickly repositioned the ladder allowing Adam to descend safely. One of Adam’s hands was bleeding from being scraped, but he was otherwise unharmed. Once Ben saw that, he admonished Adam for setting a ladder leg in mud. Standing and staring at the mud for quite some time, Adam slowly turned to his father.
“Of the new hires, who’s been working near the house today?”
“Why would you need to know who’s working near the house today?”
“Because when I set the ladder here two hours ago, the dirt was solid and dry. If you look, you can still see some shovel marks where the soil was loosened so it could better absorb the water. I guess this time I was supposed to die in an accident.”
About to ask Adam if he was sure about that, Ben bit that question back. He knew of course that Adam was sure about that. The real question was whether he was going to tell Brenda. He didn’t want to tell her, but with a sigh, he told his father he had to tell her.
“I can’t keep secrets like that and keep her trust, and without her trust, I could lose her love. I can’t take that chance.”
“You’re a braver man than I.”
“Pa, there’s nothing to be gained by lying to the woman you love even if it’s lying by omission, and there’s so much to be lost. It’s not bravery. It’s good common sense.”
As Adam walked into the house, Ben was reminded of Carson and how he routinely had lied to the women he said he loved. Ben wondered if he had ever loved any of them. Then he wondered why he was again thinking about Carson. As he pondered that, he noticed Joe and Del ride into the yard and walk into the stable. He noticed how much Del reminded him of Carson. He had the same build, a similar walk, and the same look about him. Although he had a much darker skin tone, Del’s face was similar to Carson’s too with a long nose and broad bow shaped lips. He had those same big white teeth that made his smile seem so bright and charming too. Ben thought perhaps Del was the reason he had started to have those dreams about that time so many decades earlier. When he met Del, he must have been reminded of Carson and that had triggered the dreams. Now that he had figured that out, he wondered if the dreams would stop.
The difficult day for Adam wasn’t over yet though because Sheriff Roy Coffee showed up after lunch. He knew it was going to be a difficult interview with Adam but also knew it had to be done. It was part of his job and he would be remiss if he didn’t do it.
“Adam, I know you’re gonna be plumb irritated by this, but I gotta ask you some questions about last night.”
“I was expecting you, Roy. I wasn’t in town. I didn’t shoot Gil Warren. I didn’t want him dead and had no reason to shoot him. Pa and I settled things with him at his office. Is there anything else?”
“Now you know there is. Why don’t you let me ask the questions?” Adam shrugged so Roy continued. “Now you say you weren’t in town. Were you here?”
“Yes, I was here all night.”
“Do you have witnesses to that?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Were those witnesses awake? Now you can give me that look ifn you want, but in a courtroom, a district attorney would ask a question like that. It ain’t an alibi if your witness was sleeping.”
“All right, my witness was awake until about eleven.” Ben’s eyebrows went up at that because Adam and Brenda had gone up to bed much earlier than that and in fact well before ten. Adam noticed his father’s reaction and had his own irritated look. He didn’t like his personal life being open to scrutiny of any kind, but in this case, he had no choice. He continued his narrative. “Then my wife who is also my witness was awakened about midnight when Candy came to the house with the news that Warren had been killed. One hour is not enough time to saddle my horse, ride to town, murder someone, ride back, unsaddle and groom the horse, and get back in bed before she wakes up.”
“Did anyone else see you in the house at about ten or later?”
“Yes, I came downstairs for a some water and Pa was lighting his pipe and sitting in his red chair by the fireplace.”
“Who saw you at midnight?”
“Candy, Joe, Hoss, Pa, my wife, Amelia, and Missus Saunders.”
“All right then. By what the witnesses have said, Gil was shot about twenty minutes after ten. The rider was out of town by ten-thirty. You have an alibi for that. But what about your horse? I don’t know of anybody who has a horse like that anywhere in this whole county so I can’t explain how the witnesses all gave the exact same description of that horse and it sounds exactly like your horse.”
Looking over at his father, Adam knew this was where it was going to get tricky. “Well, Roy, you see that’s where we have a problem. We think it was Sport that the witnesses saw.” Roy’s mouth literally dropped open then for he had not expected that answer at all. Adam hurried through the rest before Roy could ask any more questions. He explained that once Candy had mentioned the horse that they had gone to the stable to find that Sport had been ridden hard and brought back to the stable where he had been hurriedly groomed.
“Now, Adam, that looks bad for you.”
“No, it looks bad for someone on the Ponderosa. We don’t know who that is yet though.” Next up Adam had to explain their theory and the other things that had happened and how they had put together that particular explanation.
“Well, it all makes sense, but you can’t prove anything with what you have. How are you going to be able to prove anything?”
“I wish we knew, Roy. That’s going to be the hardest part, and catching him is hard enough.”
So the rest of the visit was explaining to Roy what they planned to do and what they hoped to find out. Brenda brought mentioned the ladder incident when it seemed that both Adam and Ben were going to ignore it. That made Roy take special notice.
“Now, Adam, all these attempts seem focused on you. Is there anybody we should be looking at that might want to see you dead for some reason? Maybe somebody thinks you done him wrong in business somehow? We got to look at all the possibilities. I know we thought it was the Cartwrights they was after but that’s three things that happened, and you been the center of all three. Maybe we lost focus on what this is really about.”
Ben and Adam looked at each other and then back at Roy before nodding. Maybe they had miscalculated the threat. Maybe it was Adam who was the only target. Unfortunately they didn’t know enough to be sure of that either which is what they told Roy. Nothing was settled by Roy’s visit except he could write an official report detailing Adam’s alibi for the shooting of Gil Warren. That was all that was settled. Mostly the events that occurred were unsettling with no answers.
For the rest of the week, nothing happened. No one found out anything incriminating. No one did anything even remotely suspicious. On Saturday morning, Ben and Adam sat on the porch silently drinking their coffee and enjoying the early morning peace. Ben noticed how haggard Adam looked after his work on the ranch and his worry about the situation they faced.
“Son, you don’t look like you’re getting enough rest.”
“You know how I am, Pa. I have a hard time sleeping when there’s a problem that keeps twisting around in my mind demanding a solution and I don’t have one. You don’t look like you’ve gotten much good sleep either.”
Knowing it wouldn’t do any good to try to deny it with Adam, Ben admitted it and decided to explain why before the inevitable questioning began. “I’ve been having some troubling dreams. They have been about a time from my days with Captain Stoddard well before you were born and even before I married your mother.”
“What happened that was troubling?”
“We were in a hurricane. That was the worst of it at the time, but what has been bothering me more now is what happened after that. We were nearly lost and had to take refuge in a small backwater port. Because of that, we were there nearly a month until the ship could be properly repaired and refitted. The Captain warned the men against fraternizing but one of my friends by the name of Carson got involved with a local woman. According to her, he promised to take her to America and marry her. She also claimed to be with child.”
Frowning, Adam thought about all that his father had said. “How could she know so quickly?”
“I asked her that. She said she knew. I tried to help her as much as I could. I gave her everything I could give her to help her out before we left. Carson turned his back on her as soon as he knew we were leaving.”
“He made no attempt to bring her to America or marry her?”
“He was already married.” Adam waited for his father to continue for he knew he would. The Captain let Carson go at the end of that voyage. He didn’t want a man like that on his ship. I kept in touch with Carson but the news was tragic. His wife died in horrible pain about six months later of a terrible disease, and Carson was affected too but died slowly.”
“He brought it on himself, but sadly he killed her too. I wonder how many others he infected along the way. Perhaps he infected that poor woman he left behind too.”
“I’ve thought about that. He may have. No one knows how long he was sick. Because he was dying slowly, he may have been already sick for some time and we didn’t know it. He had been complaining of headaches and pains. We said he was getting old before his time.”
“A tragic tale but why do you think you’re dreaming about it now?”
“I think I know. Delmar reminds me a great deal of Carson. I had the first dreams after meeting the young man. I didn’t know why at first, but the other day when he rode in with Joe and I saw him walk to the stable, it hit me that he walked and looked so much like Carson. That’s when I remembered that the first dreams happened to occur at the same time he arrived on the Ponderosa.”
Frowning in thought, Adam stared toward the bunkhouse. Ben asked him what he was thinking about so hard.
“Oh, nothing so much as coincidences are rarely only coincidences except I can make no connection here between what you’ve told me and attempts on my life. He is one of the new hires though so however odd it may seem, maybe there is a connection in all of this.”
“Adam, I hardly think that a horse wrangler from California and a sailor from Boston are likely to be connected.”
“Oh, and a rancher from California and a sailor from Boston can be?”
“All right, point taken. I won’t rule anything out, but it seems preposterous.”
“We’ve dealt with a few other preposterous situations. Lady Chadwick? Deborah Banning? Colonel Jonathan Bragg?”
“Another point made, but that doesn’t mean that any of this is real.”
“But it does mean we ought to keep a close eye on Del. Joe needs to be told the whole story too so he has a better idea of what is going on.” Seeing his father’s expression, Adam nodded. “I know, I know. He’s going to be upset with me for casting suspicion on his new friend, but he’ll get over it. He’s a husband now too, and a danger to this family means a danger to Amelia as well as the rest of us. He needs to remember that too.”
“He needs to remember what too? I heard Amelia mentioned so you must mean me. What have you two been discussing anyway?” Joe came out to the porch with Hoss behind him. They had caught the tail end of the conversation.
“Joe, I’m going to tell you a story Pa told me and then I’m going to tell you what I think about it. I would appreciate it very much if you let me finish before you get mad enough to hit me or tell me how stupid my ideas are. Can you do that?” Joe looked to Ben who nodded. Joe looked suspicious but agreed. “All right, I’m also going to speak fairly softly because I don’t want to be overheard. I ask that no matter what you have to say to me that you do the same.”
Joe nodded in agreement but was already getting angry at Adam’s tone, and was very upset by the time Adam finished what he had to say. Seeing that, Ben suggested they all go inside before anyone said any more. Stiffly, Joe marched inside and Hoss poked Adam in the chest.
“I hope you know what you’re doing. This family was getting along pretty good. I don’t want to see anything mess that up.”
“Hoss, I only want him to watch Del. I’m not accusing him of anything.”
“It sure sounded like you were.”
“Only because I wanted it to sound as bad as it could be. What if he is the one who wants me or one of us dead?”
“You didn’t say that.”
“No, because both Pa and Joe would reject that idea out of hand because there’s no evidence, but it’s possible. Now I have reasons to believe he may be here to hurt Pa.”
“But why Pa if all the trouble has been aimed at you so far?”
“That would be the big question I have to answer, now wouldn’t it? You help me settle Joe down, and I’ll see what Pa is thinking later. We need to consider getting some detectives working on this case and looking into his background. I need to know more before I can say any more.”
“Adam, why you so sure that something is up with this Del?”
“He said he was in California working before he came here. The man who killed Lydia in California headed in this direction too. He got hired here and then trouble started here. He resembles a man Pa worked with under Captain Stoddard. That’s a lot of coincidences. Some of them may be actual coincidences but it seems unlikely that all of them are only that.”
“Well when you say it like that, it does seem kind of odd.”
“Now let’s go inside. Little brother is probably building up quite a head of steam by now. You need to help him blow off some of it so we can look at this more reasonably.”
Near the stable, a pair of eyes had watched everything and heard a name now and then. It was enough to know that there was something serious being discussed. The question was what was being discussed. He needed to know more, but there was no way to get closer to the house to find out. The next part of the plan was going to have to be triggered. He wondered what they would make of it.
As expected, Joe was upset that Adam was so suspicious of Del. However their father reminded him that Del was one of the new hires and that all of them had agreed that all the new hires were suspect. Joe still didn’t like that Adam seemed to singling Del out for special attention, but he did agree to see if he could find out anything about Del’s background.
The next day at church, the family became aware that there had been a distinct change that week in the strategy of the assault on the Cartwrights, especially Adam. Apparently rumors of questionable behavior were spreading all over town. The most salacious story was that Adam was the father of Bradley Davister’s children. The blond man had two children, a daughter and a son, and both had curly dark hair and dimples. For years, he had been teased that someone had been visiting his wife while he was gone. That his wife, Geraldine, had been involved with Adam Cartwright before Brad and Geraldine had married now had morphed into a tale of how Adam had continued the relationship and fathered those two children. Ignored in the whole tale was that Geraldine had dark hair or at least did before it turned prematurely gray when she was only in her thirties. It made the two dark haired children stand out even more by contrast when people saw the family anywhere. That fed the rumor and the whole thing was turning very nasty as Brad was being poked with comments about it whenever he went near a saloon or anywhere men gathered.
That story had stimulated the gossips to bring up every other unsavory story they could remember to tell about the Cartwrights. Many of those tales had never been told to Amelia or Brenda who were shocked to hear some of the comments whispered or boldly stated that Sunday or on Monday when they went to town with their husbands to get supplies. When Roy saw Adam in town again, he clearly looked concerned and came to talk with him.
“Now, Adam, I thought you had more sense than this. With all the talk about you maybe killing Warren and now these stories about you and the Davisters, why would you want to be here and stir things up?”
“If I hide away, doesn’t that make it look like the stories are true? Roy, there isn’t a shred of truth in either tale, and you know it too.”
“I do, but not all these people do. I’m afraid what some of them might do. I’m especially worried about that Brad Davister now. He’s been saying that maybe it wasn’t Warren you should have been gunning for. Seems like he wants to take credit for being the one who’s got you scared enough to come on home to the Ponderosa.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?”
“Course I don’t, but some folks might. Brad’s saying that cause people been questioning his manhood and he thinks it makes him seem like he’s still got ’em. But, Adam, he’s gonna be a problem now. He’s as cantankerous as can be since those stories started going round.”
“When did those stories start going around?”
“I don’t rightly know when they started, but I heard a lot about them this past week. Somebody sure has it in for you and stirred up a hornet’s nest with talk about you.”
“So someone has been doing some checking on me and learning about the past, digging up what they can, and somehow getting the gossips to start talking. I would like to know who that is and I would definitely like to have a talk with him.”
“Him? You think a man is behind all of this talk? That seems odd. Usually it’s the women doing the talking about things like this.”
“Maybe they are, but if we could get to where it started, I have a feeling there might be a man who got things rolling.”
Looking with that sly look of his, Roy evaluated how Adam was looking out over the town. “You think it’s the same man you hired on the Ponderosa who mighta took a shot at you in California and killed your friend instead, don’t you?”
“Roy, so many things don’t add up, and so many coincidences are occurring, I know they’re all related. I wish I could understand how.”
They parted with Roy agreeing to check into the origins of the rumors, and Adam promising that he and Joe would be heading home with their wives after lunch. It almost happened like that except as they rode out of town, Brad Davister rode in having been alerted by someone that Adam was in town. He rode his horse directly at the rig Adam was driving forcing him to pull up.
“Cartwright, I’m calling you out right now. Get down and face me for what you done.”
“Brad, you know as well as anyone that I didn’t do anything. Do you know how it shames your wife to make these statements. Go home and tell her you’re sorry. I was never with her.”
“Those two children look like you.”
“Those two children look like you if you pay attention and they have your wife’s hair color. Don’t let gossips ruin what you have. You should be smarter than this.”
“You saying I’m stupid too?”
“If you believe that your wife would have anything to do with me while she was married to you, then that’s stupid, don’t you think? Do you know a more God-fearing woman than Geraldine? Do you know a woman with a stronger sense of right and wrong than her? What has she been telling you about all this nonsense?”
“But everybody says . . .”
“It doesn’t matter what everybody says. It matters what the people you love say. Go home and talk to her. Ask her. Trust her. If she says I’m the father, I’ll let you shoot me. Heck, Brenda might shoot me herself.”
Shocked by that, Brad had nothing more to say for a moment. Joe stepped in to the conversation.
“Brad, if Geraldine says he’s the father, I’ll help you shoot him.”
“Heck, I’ve been looking for a good reason to shoot him for years. I don’t think it’s going to work, but you know, I’ll be willing to take the chance if you will.”
“Then I’ll do that. I’ll let you know. Adam, you’ll be hearing from me.”
As he rode away, Brenda turned to Adam. “Do you think you’ll be hearing from him?”
“I doubt it. I think he’s been drinking because of all this. If he listens to Geraldine and accepts the truth, he’ll also get a good tongue-lashing from her for the drinking.” Turning to Joe, Adam frowned. “Waiting for years for a good reason to shoot me?”
“Hey, I was only playing along with you and Brad. It seemed to work too.”
“Oh, yeah, playing along. Sometimes I wonder.”
“That’s good. I like it when I can make you wonder.”
The conversation continued in that vein all the way back to the Ponderosa.
Hoss got quite a good laugh from Joe’s version of what happened with Brad but Ben wasn’t as amused. He was more concerned that now they were being attacked on another front and that meant that whoever had this vendetta against them hadn’t given up. Adam decided it was a good time to bring up his idea.
“Pa, do you think we should consider getting some detectives to start investigating this situation and perhaps looking into Del’s background?”
Surprised a little by the request, Ben agreed with the general idea but had a question. “Why Del? Why single him out?”
“Because there are too many coincidences so some of them may not be coincidences. First of all, he said he was in California working before he came here so he was there when Lydia was killed. That man who did that headed in this direction too. He got hired here and then trouble started here. He resembles a man you worked with under Captain Stoddard. That’s a lot of coincidences to accept without question.”
“And you think all of that is connected somehow?”
“I think that some of it definitely is connected somehow but I don’t know what is connected or how. I know that you don’t like that I have no evidence to back my theory, but it’s still a sound idea to pursue. I’ve drawn no conclusions except that something seems strange there and that we need help to find who is doing all of this. They’re obviously very dangerous.”
After more discussion, it was decided that Adam and Ben would go to Carson City to try to engage some detectives to work on their behalf while Candy and Joe did some detective work on the Ponderosa. The plan was that Hoss would spend his efforts on keeping the family home safe while the others were away. The next morning, Candy and Joe rode out to watch the roads to make sure that no one was shadowing Ben and Adam as they left. When it was clear that they were not being followed, the two men returned to the ranchhouse to begin their day.
The first order of business was getting the work done, but while they were doing that, Candy and Joe had some questions to ask of the men. It was going to be more difficult for Joe because Del worked on his crew, and that was even more of a problem that day when Del and one of the other men, Grady, got in a fight that morning. Del seemed to be in a bad mood and the two men disagreed on a number of things as they worked with the horses. Finally it developed into a shouting match and before Joe could intervene, Del threw some punches knocking the Grady down. When Grady scrambled to his feet to defend himself, Joe was there but it was then rather late for one man to separate two men furiously swinging fists into each other. He had to wait for others to get there to separate the two combatants. Grady was injured and had to be sent to the bunkhouse with one more hand to take care of him.
“Del, there’s no fighting on the Ponderosa. You know that, and now you cost me two hands for the rest of the day at least. Anything else like that, and I’ll have to let you go.”
“A man has to do what’s right and stand up for himself.”
“Disagreeing about how to do work is not a reason to hit another man.”
“He called me ‘stupid’ and nobody ever gets to do that and get away with it.”
Surprised that Grady would ever say anything like that, Joe questioned Del further until Del admitted that Grady had said that what Del wanted to do was stupid not that Del himself was stupid.
“It’s the same thing.”
“No, it isn’t. Anyone can do a stupid thing. He was only giving you good advice. Now, you’ve been warned. No more fighting or I have to let you go. You know the rules around here. You follow them or you’re gone. We don’t pay the best wages on the Comstock to have less than the best hands working for us.”
“All right, boss. I thought we were friends, but I can see you’re just like your brother.”
“Yeah, your brother, Adam, acts like the big boss too all the time strutting around like he owns the world showing off the pretty wife of his and all. And your father sitting in the house like king watching over his kingdom and letting the people do all the work. You’re just like them, aren’t you?”
“If you think so little of us, why did you want to work here?”
“Like you said, you pay the best wages in the Comstock. Now I’ll get back to work if the lecture is over, boss.”
With that, Del turned to walk away and Joe had nothing more to say to him. He wished that he did, but knew there was no way to change the man’s opinion of them. It was similar to what some others thought. Meanwhile, Candy found out information that he shared with Joe later and then both shared their news with Hoss at dinner. Candy’s news was more unsettling than Joe’s.
“Yeah, when I talked with the men while we were out working with the cattle today, they had a lot to say about Del. At first, he was fairly quiet and they liked him, but then he started asking questions and that wasn’t bad but apparently he’s been asking so many questions now that the men are getting uneasy about it.”
“Why are they getting uneasy bout jest questions, Candy? I mean, ifn all they got to do is answer or not answer, it don’t seem like that so much of a problem, now is it?”
“Hoss, it was more the subject of the questions. At first, the questions were about the family or about all the family like why the three sons don’t look much alike. Now that’s a question a lot of people might ask. Then of course what happened to the mothers. But it progressed into Adam and Joe being handsome and attracting a lot of ladies so what kind of lady trouble did they have before they got hitched. Then it started to focus only on Adam like why he wore his pistol rig so low, and did he always wear all black and what kind of trouble has he been in around here, and things like that. He seemed to want to know everything he could about Adam for some reason.”
“Yes, so probably it was because he was targeting Adam for some reason and needed that information. He has to be the one who shot Warren and the one who started those rumors flying.” Brenda was obviously angry and would have liked to go do some harm to Del herself.
“Yeah, it looks bad. I didn’t want to believe it, but what I saw today let me see a side of Del he never let me see before and it’s ugly. Those detectives Pa and Adam hire are probably going to find some background on Del to explain this, but will it be in time? He’s really angry.”
“What can we do?” Candy’s question was the most pertinent of course.
Hoss’ answer was that they had to let Adam and Ben know that they were fairly certain the man who was behind all of this was Del. Adam’s suspicions had been on the right track after all. “Tomorrow, Joe, you and Candy ought to ride to Carson City to let Pa and Adam know all this and stick with them until they get back here. I don’t think Del will try anything against the four of you. We’ll keep an eye on him here.”
When Del had walked into the bunkhouse that evening, Grady had glared at him from across the room and the talk in the room ceased. Del paused and then grabbed his bedroll and belongings. “Think I’ll go outside and sleep under the stars tonight if you gentlemen don’t mind. I think the weather is going to be fine, and you all will enjoy the evening more without me.”
There were a few murmurs saying that it wasn’t necessary, but Del said he was sorry for the trouble and headed outside. It was working much as he had hoped. No one would know he was gone until the next morning when he didn’t report for work. He waited a short time until he was sure no one would come to check on him and then went to get his horse and take that ride to Carson City. He had the telegram in his pocket that he had taken from the messenger earlier that day when he had ridden onto the Ponderosa to deliver it. Del had said he would bring it to the house and gave the young man a dollar saying he knew the family would reimburse him. With a smile the messenger had turned to ride back to Virginia City as Del read the message that said Adam and Ben would be leaving Carson City the next morning to ride home. Del had smiled then and began to work out the rest of his plan that was now working to perfection.
Before dawn, Del was in position to watch for Ben and Adam leaving the city. A few hours later when he saw them walk to the livery stable to get their horses, he mounted up and rode back to the spot he had selected for his ambush. He knew about how long it would take for them to get there, and he had a place picked out to bring them too.
About that time on the Ponderosa, Hoss and Candy discovered that Del was missing. They heard what the men had to say about it and realized Del had probably been gone since the last evening. Quickly they alerted Joe, and the three of them got their horses and rode hard for Carson City even as some of the men were sent to Virginia City to alert Roy and to have him send telegrams to Carson City to try to alert Ben and Adam. They had no way of knowing Ben and Adam had already left the city and were on the road home.
“Son, you seem kind of nervous, and it’s making your horse more skittish than usual.”
“Maybe it’s because I am. I feel like we’re riding back into the lion’s den.”
“We don’t know any more than we did before we went to Carson City.”
“No, we don’t but to sit there and tell your theory to an experienced detective and have him say to you exactly what you’ve been thinking is a bit unnerving. He agreed that there were too many coincidences and that it was highly suspicious. He couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into this case. That makes me nervous. We left Del on the Ponderosa, and I left my wife and son there too.”
“And Hoss and Joe, and they would never let anything happen to either one of them. Besides, if I recall correctly, Brenda is a very good shot herself.”
“Yes, she is, but I hope she never has to prove it again.”
About that time, a horseman rode out behind them as they rounded a bend in the road near an outcropping. With no time to react, they found themselves at the mercy of the man who ordered them to raise their right hands and ride as he directed them away from the road and to a copse of trees off to the left. Once there, he ordered them to be silent and told them one at a time to reach down and drop their pistols on the ground. Once disarmed, he had them dismount one at a time and walk away from their horses standing near each other with their backs to him. He got their horses and tied them to a tree and collected their pistols. It was only then that he allowed them to turn to face him and say anything. Ben spoke first as Adam studied the man trying still to fathom what was motivating him and finding no answer.
“What do you want, Del?”
“I got what I want. Now, I want you to tie him to that tree.” Del point to a tree a few feet from where Ben and Adam stood.
“Now that shouldn’t matter too much to you right now because if you don’t tie him to that tree, I’m going to shoot him in the head and then turn my attention to you. You got any more questions?”
Moving to the tree, Adam looked to his father for his cooperation. “C’mon, Pa, an old sailor like you ought to know how to tie a man to a tree.”
Seeing Adam’s expression, Ben knew what he meant but could only hope that Del didn’t.
“Hurry up. I told you what to do.”
Moving to comply, Ben worked as quickly as he could. Del ordered him to step back and then jerked on the rope securing Adam to the tree. It was wound around the tree twice and knotted in the back where Adam’s hands were tied by it. Nodding with satisfaction, Del turned to Ben.
“He’s right. You do know how to tie a man to a tree. Now step back over there.”
“Why? Del, what do you want?”
“I said no more questions but I guess I can tell you part of it now. I’m going to kill him with your knife right before your eyes. I’ve tried twice already, but the damn fool has more lives than a cat.”
Both Adam and Ben were shocked. “But why kill me? What have I ever done to you?”
Without looking at Adam but staring intently at Ben, Del answered Adam’s question with a mystery. “You took my place, my birthright. I should have been here as the firstborn. No, you never did anything to me personally, and that’s why your death was supposed to be quick. I’ll kill you quick now too. It’s not your fault. It’s his fault so he’ll be the one to suffer.”
“Del, I don’t understand. Adam is my firstborn. I had no children before him.”
“None you ever acknowledged, you mean. You left your knife with my mother. She gave it to me before she died. I was only eight years old and she had been sick for years. She knew her time was close, and she opened her bureau and took out her precious things. A blanket, your knife that had your name on it, and not much else. She told me you were the only good man she had ever known. She said she asked you to take her to America but you said you couldn’t because you had another woman you were going to marry. She was so sad. Then she died. I swore then that I was going to find you one day and make you pay. The people in the village remembered the ship and the Captain’s name and the city he said he was going to. I had nothing except the little she left me. I had the name she gave me: Delmar, from the sea. I worked my way to America and found out that you were no longer in Boston. I found out where you were. Now I’m here. I gave myself a name because you denied me yours. I took Danilo: it means the Lord is my judge. I will do what I do, and only He will say if what I have done is just.”
“Delmar, you don’t know the whole story. I am not your father. I did try to help your mother, but it was another man, Carson Weatherford who was your father. Carson abandoned her, and I felt sorry for her. I did what I could, but I could not take her to America.”
“You’re a liar too. I knew that you would lie and try to tell me you didn’t do it. Well, I know you did. He’s going to die, and then you will die slowly and painfully. I have your knife here. I’m going to put it in your son’s heart and you will see him die.”
Del rushed toward Adam with the knife raised. Adam had been working at the slip knot Ben had left in his hands and frantically worked to shed the ropes binding him to the tree as Ben roared and charged Del too. Shocked to see Adam getting loose and Ben charging him, Del turned to face Ben and slashed at him with the knife connecting with his arm. Ben grabbed his arm and went down as Adam tackled Del and the two men wrestled in the dirt with the knife flashing in the sun several times before Adam buried it in Del’s chest. Heaving in exhaustion, Adam collapsed on his back next to the dying man and lay there for a minute sucking in deep breaths before he rolled over and got up on all fours to look over at his father. Seeing Ben’s pale face made Adam stand although a bit unsteadily and hurry to his father’s side. Ben had a tight grip on his upper arm but the bleeding was still too much.
“Pa, we have to get a tourniquet on that arm. Here, I’m going to pull off your belt to use.” Moving quickly and efficiently, Adam got the tourniquet secured on Ben’s arm and watched the blood flow diminish and stop. “You had me scared there, Pa. How are you feeling?”
“Not too bad. How’s he? Dead?”
Adam lay back then beside his father, and Ben noticed how pale he was. He saw the growing stain in the dirt at Adam’s side.
In a voice that was sounding weak and shaky, Adam still had his dark sense of humor. “Brenda is going to be very upset with you, Pa. You let somebody stab me again.”
With his good arm, Ben pulled Adam’s shirt from his pants and pushed the shirt up to uncover the wound. It was a shallow wound but long and gaping open. Taking a good look at it, he knew what had to be done. With some difficulty, he managed to get to their horses and come back with a shirt. He tore part of the shirt and then wadded the rest up as a thick bandage which he pressed against the cut and used the torn piece to bind it in place.
“It’s more a slice than a stab. It looks awful and it’s bleeding quite a lot right now, but I think we can get that to stop. A swordsman would brag about the kind of scar you’re going to have from this one.”
Adam nodded and then closed his eyes.
Stabbing light assaulted Adam’s eyes, and he tried to turn away but hands held him and wouldn’t allow him to escape. He heard Brenda’s voice then and stopped struggling as she called to him to open his eyes. To reach her, he tried even if it did hurt. Blinking repeatedly against the glare, he frowned first at the man who was holding a reflecting candle so close to his eyes. He did take it away once it was clear that Adam was fully conscious.
“I’m sorry, Adam, but I had to see if I could bring you around. I’m Doctor Grace. I’ve been taking care of you and your father since they brought you in here. Your wife and brothers very much wanted to talk with you, and I thought it was time to wake you up. How are you feeling?”
“My eyes are burning because someone just had light stuck practically in them, my head is pounding, and I feel like a herd of horses ran over me, but otherwise, I’m fine.”
“Doc, my brother must be feeling a ton better cause he’s already ornery.”
“His wound is superficial, but he did lose a lot of blood and that’s serious. A few more days in bed, and he’ll be feeling quite a bit better. Then you can take him out of here.”
“Pa?” Adam wanted to know that more than anything.
“Pa’s in the next room. Joe’s sitting with him right now. He’s pretty weak, and the doc don’t want him moving around at all. He’s got the same orders as you to stay in bed two days. Doc says you saved his life with your quick work with that tourniquet and it kept him from losing too much blood. The doc was amazed you could do it with that slice in your side. Guess it’s cause he don’t know you so well. That is quite a slice, by the way.”
“Yeah, Pa said a swordsman would carry this scar as a mark of honor.”
Brenda had been sitting quietly until then. “You can tell him you’ve been honored enough. You could have done without this one. You have enough scars.”
Adam reached out to take Brenda’s hand because he could tell how upset she was. He tugged a little until she leaned over and put her head on his shoulder. He reached up with his other arm to hold her. “I’m all right. Everything’s going to be fine.”
Hoss had to ask the question he was burning to ask though. “Why did Del want to kill you and Pa though. I can’t rightly figure a reason for him doing that.”
“It’s a long story. I’m too tired to tell it all right now. Pa needs to tell some of it because he knows more of the details. What I want to know is how you found us. I remember laying on the ground next to Pa, and he wouldn’t let me get up to try to do anything because every time I moved, it seemed I started to bleed rather badly.”
“Well, Pa said he could tell he was getting kinda weak too so before he got so bad off that he couldn’t move either, he got the pistols from all three of you and sat down next to you. He started firing off a few shots at a time trying to get somebody to come check out what was going on. You two weren’t too far from town so some folks did go to the sheriff to say there was some shooting going on out there. He went out to check it out and found you two and Del’s body. He got enough of the story from Pa and saw the ropes and such to see what had happened. It took a while to get both of you hauled back here to the doc’s. Joe and me and Candy got here a short time after that. Me and Candy went back for Brenda while Joe stayed with you two. That’s about it.”
Even as Adam said “Thank you”, his eyes were closing and soon he was asleep again. He awoke hours later, hungry and thirsty. He drank quite a bit which pleased the doctor and then ate a little. He asked about his father again and got an update that Ben was sleeping far more than he was. The doctor told him not to worry though.
“He’s twenty years older and had a serious wound and lost a lot of blood too. He will take some time to recover, but I don’t expect any problems. I had said two days in bed but now perhaps five days might be a better prescription.”
“Not for me though?”
“No, you’re recovering much as I expected. You can get out of that bed after another full day of rest. So not tomorrow but the day after tomorrow, I’ll release you from that bed.”
A little disappointed, Adam agreed. After a pause, he had a question. “Where’s Abel?”
Brenda answered. “At home with Amelia and Missus Saunders. Thank goodness for them.”
“Let’s go home then.”
“Adam, the doctor just told you he wants you in bed until the day after tomorrow. He said that wound in your side could open up and bleed if you move around.”
“He said I had to stay in bed. He didn’t say where the bed had to be. Hoss, can you rig a wagon with beds like the Army does a hospital wagon?”
With a grin, Hoss nodded. “You bet I can. You give me a couple of hours and I can be back.”
“Doctor, would that be agreeable? Could we take our father home in a bed on a wagon?”
“If you have a wagon with springs and take it slow, yes, I would agree to that.”
True to his word, Hoss was back by the end of the day with the wagon outfitted with two beds. Adam could use one and Ben the other. Both men were agreeable to riding home that way and getting out of the doctor’s office. The next morning, both were carried on stretchers to the wagon and helped into the beds although Ben was mostly lifted into his and Adam moved more on his own. Brenda sat beside Hoss on the seat as Joe and Candy rode their horses beside the wagon. It took them all day and into the early evening but they arrived at the Ponderosa ranch house in time for a late dinner. Ben was carried to his room, but Adam walked in leaning on Hoss’ shoulder with his two days of rest nearly done. In the comfort and security of his own home and surrounded by his family, Ben slept a full twelve hours. He had a good Hop Sing meal when he awoke and felt like he had recovered quite a bit because of it. He thanked his sons once more for getting him back home, and once more thanked Adam for saving his life, twice. Then he had to explain that to everyone who gathered in his room to hear the story. Ben told them then the tragic story of Bibiana and how she had never told her son about his father.
“She probably hated Carson by then and never wanted to speak about him. She didn’t want to poison her son’s mind. But I think Carson must have infected her too as he did his wife and who knows how many other women. She was sick a long time according to Del. Her mind may have been affected too. She gave him what she had which included the things that I had given her. She told him that I had been the only good man she had ever known, but that I wouldn’t take her to America and that even though she asked me, I wouldn’t marry her because I already loved another and wanted to marry her. He got the idea that I was his father, and when he found out who I had married and that I had a son with her, he thought that son had taken his place as the firstborn. He wanted to kill Adam for that, and he wanted to make me watch him die. Then he was going to kill me too, and both of us were supposed to die after being stabbed with my old knife.”
“How’d he get both of you, and how’d you get to fightin’ with him?”
“He got the drop on me and Pa by coming up behind us at the turn by that big outcropping near the crossroads where we were found. He made us ride to that grove of trees and had Pa tie me to a tree.”
“Like I said: how did you both fight him then?”
“Pa tied my hands with a slip knot. I worked it loose and was able to get out of the ropes in time. Pa charged him and that was enough of a distraction that I got the last of the ropes off of me and we fought. He was like a madman but I was fighting not only for my life but Pa too. I knew he was hurt and needed help.”
Slowly over the next few days, more details were shared until the family was satisfied that they knew all that had happened. It was a sad tragic tale. Over a misunderstood story heard by a child, Lydia and Gil Warren had both died, and then so did Delmar himself. So much intelligence and talent lost because of a quest for revenge for a wrong that could never be avenged. He didn’t know that though and never would.
Late at night at the end of that week, Adam lay beside Brenda holding her and softly stroking her skin under her gown as they talked.
“We can go home now. Pa is out of bed and starting to feel better. There’s no more danger. I’d like to go home and get back to work on the projects I left sitting unfinished.”
Noticing how Adam’s hand kept sliding back to her lower abdomen, Brenda waited for him to ask. When he didn’t, she decided to push a little. “I think we can go after we share our news.”
His hand stopped roaming. “News?” He didn’t say anything but slowly his hand explored again and then he knew. “When were you going to tell me?”
“I was going to tell you a couple of weeks ago but things got very hectic and very serious. It didn’t seem like the right time to talk about having another baby. In about five months from now, I think.”
“So, we’ll be back home after Christmas for the baby to arrive. Good. I like that plan. We can tell the family tomorrow, and then we can tell them we’re going home until Christmas.”
So the next morning, after everyone had gathered at the breakfast table, Adam announced that they were going home until Christmas but said he had some news that they ought to discuss first. “There’s going to be another Cartwright baby.”
Shocked, Joe looked at him. “How did you know? Amelia only told me last night.”
“She told you that Brenda and I were having a baby?”
“No, of course not. She told me that we’re having a baby.”
“Yes, isn’t that what you meant. Oh wait, you’re having one too?”
Ben Cartwright was recovering from a serious wound but no one would have known it at that moment as he rose from his chair to hug Joe and then Adam and then Amelia and then Brenda. He couldn’t imagine being happier except if Hoss said he was getting married. He looked over at Hoss and asked him exactly that.
“Well, there is this gal I’m thinkin’ on asking.”
All of the turmoil and trouble of the past weeks was forgotten as the hopes for the future became the subject of conversation. All was good with the family that was strongest when they all stood together.
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright
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