Whose Sin Is Her Love (mcfair_58)

Summary:  Adah Menken and John C. Regan return to Virginia City stirring up old emotions and creating new trouble for the Cartwrights. A sequel to my story ‘I’ll See You Outside’ – extended

Rated PG-13 for western brutality, violence and adult situations, see author’s note at the end.

Word count: 55, 282

Whose Sin is Her Love

 

ONE

“Pa.  Pa!”  Footsteps sounded as a lone figure in black crossed the well-worn boards of the Ponderosa ranch house and headed for the massive stone fireplace that was the center of his home.  “PA!”

“What you yell for?  Mistah Adam yell like father!”  Hop Sing bustled into the room and over to him, hands and apron flapping.  “You wake up Little Joe!”

“Joe?  Upstairs?” Adam looked toward the staircase.  “I thought Joe was out mending fences.”

“Little Joe come home early.  He yell at Hop Sing too.  Stomp up stairs.”  The Asian man shook his head.  “Hop Sing quit soon.  Go some place quiet.”

“Ah, come on now,” he said as he placed a hand on the older man’s shoulder.  “You couldn’t live without us and you know it.”

“Hop Sing can try.”

Adam chuckled as he removed his hand.  “What was Joe mad about?”

“He couldn’t do the work.”  The man in black pivoted toward the staircase as his father appeared at its top.  “I tried to talk to him.  Joseph was so sullen and angry it wasn’t any use.  I left him in his room to stew in his own juices.”

“Stew!  Juices?!  Hop Sing forget food!”  The little man turned on his heel and headed for the kitchen.  He stopped when he reached the table.  “Mistah Ben tell number three son come down and eat.  Boy too skinny.  Need stew and juices!”

“I’d do that, but he’s sound asleep,” the older man replied as he reached the main floor.

“Asleep?”  Adam was surprised.  “In the middle of the day?  Is he all right?

“Your brother is still recovering, Adam, not that he will admit it.  He pushes himself too hard.”  Pa plopped down in the red chair before the fire.  “Do I expect too much?  Is that why Joseph feels he has to prove himself day after day?”

He took a seat across from his father.  “Did he hurt himself?”

“Almost.  I sent Joseph out to work with Jim and Dan.  Jim told me Joe had just finished placing a post when he turned and stumbled.  When Jim suggested your brother take a break, that little scamp told him – in no uncertain terms – where he could put the sledge he was holding and stormed off in a huff.  According to Jim, your brother swung up onto Cochise and went right over the other side!”  His father shook his head.  “Jim said Little Joe was out for thirty seconds.  Dan came over and ordered him to head for home.”

“And Joe listened to him?”

“Your brother respects Dan.  Sometimes, I think, more than he respects me.”  Pa sighed.  “At least he listens to Dan better.”

“Do you think this has to do with what happened last month?  You know, in the desert?”

Adam shuddered with the memory of the tragedy that had almost occurred.  He and Hoss had arrived too late to see their little brother lying on the boiling sand, trussed up like a steer waiting for the kill.  Just like they’d missed Little Joe’s feeble attempts to beg water from the man who meant to kill him.  What they hadn’t missed was the ride home.  Little Joe nearly died from what Sam Wolfe did to him.  If it hadn’t been for the soldiers they’d come across along the way, they would have lost him.  As it was, they only just got him to Yuma in time.  The doctor there diagnosed his brother as suffering from sunstroke, dehydration, and a myriad of other ills.  Once the crisis passed, the man told them it would be at least a month before the teenager even approached normal.

Joe, of course, being Joe turned those four weeks into three.  On the twenty-first day the kid rose from his bed and came downstairs – without permission, mind you!  On the twenty-third, Pa relented and allowed him to rejoin the living.  He gave Joe a  few chores, light work mostly, in the yard and around the house.  This morning – day twenty-five – Joe’d insisted he was ‘fine’ and complained and cajoled until their father gave him permission to ride fence with Dan and Jim.

That had gone swimmingly.

“You mean what happened with Sam Wolfe?”  Pa shrugged.  “You know your brother.  He holds himself responsible.”

“For Emiliano’s death?”

“For not being smart enough or fast enough or strong enough.  For not stopping Sam Wolfe on his own.  And, yes, for Emiliano’s death.”

Adam hesitated.  Still, it had to be said.  “I’m amazed Joe held his own as well as he did.  He’s just a kid.”

Pa’s gaze flicked to the stair.  Adam winced as his followed.  Fortunately, there was no irate little brother standing there, fists formed and nostrils flaring, ready to start a fight.  A slow smile curled his father’s lips as he agreed.  “Yes, he is.  But don’t you ever tell your brother I said that.”

The man in black frowned as a vision of that ‘kid’ swaying in the saddle and almost toppling off on the way back to Yuma flashed before his eyes.

“Maybe I should go check on him.  That must have been a bad fall…”

“I looked in before I came down, but I don’t think it would hurt for you to do so.”  Pa rose and headed for the kitchen.  “I have a couple of things to go over with Hop Sing before supper.  If Little Joe’s awake, see if you can get him to come down and eat.”

“Sure thing, Pa.”  Adam headed for the stair.  As his foot hit the bottom step, his father called him back.

“Adam?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“I forgot.  You were looking for me.  Was it something important?”

He stiffened.  Dear Lord!  How could he have forgotten?

His father sensed the shift in his mood and came closer.  “What is it, son?”

Adam reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper.  He held it out to his father and watched as the older man quickly scanned the type-set it contained.

The look of surprise on Pa’s face was to be expected.

“Adah?  She’s back in town?”

The paper was a playbill he’d snatched off the side of the Palace Theatre.  It announced that Adah Menken or, ‘The Menken’ as she was now known, was due in Virginia City for a return engagement.  The beautiful woman was displayed in all her dubious glory, seemingly naked and bound astride a charger.  The copy read: ‘THE PALACE, unprecedented success, Miss Adah Isaacs Menken Regan as Mazeppa!’

Adam shuddered.

Adah Regan.

He found his voice a moment later.  “She’ll be here shortly.  The engagement lasts a week.”

His father frowned at the playbill and then looked up at him.  “I want you to know, son, that any feelings I had for Adah were driven out by her callous behavior.  First of all, she left with that man and, secondly, she did so without knowing whether your brother had survived the beating he took at John C. Regan’s hands.”

Adam winced.  “Read it again, Pa,” he said.  “Be careful to pay attention to the banner at the bottom.”

His father stared at him and then did as he asked.  Pa’s near-black eyes ran over the copy at the top once more and then moved to the smaller print at the bottom.

His hands started shaking.

“How could…?”  The older man looked up with a mixture of incredulity, and a bit of the wrath of God in his near-black eyes  “How dare he?” he roared.

Adah wasn’t the only one coming back for a return engagement.  Her husband was traveling with her.

John C. Regan was coming back to town.

 

Little Joe Cartwright sucked in the agony that was his body and shifted so his feet were off the bed.  Pa’d thought he was acting like a four-year-old when he came into the house and told him so.  He didn’t care.  Making Pa angry kept the older man from seeing just how bad off he was.  From the time the White One’s hooves had made contact with Cash Wolfe’s body everything had gone downhill – he’d had a gun turned on him by a friend, been chased through the desert on the back of Colonel Greene’s horse, watched that magnificent animal die by his hand, and then been treated like an animal himself, trussed up and ready for the kill.

He’d killed Emiliano.

He hadn’t held the gun that shot the vaquero, but he might as well have.  Emiliano had taken that bullet for him.

So he could live.

There were times when that was okay.  When he understood.  He’d have done the same thing for the other man.  But there were times – like today – when he was wore out and couldn’t even lift a sledge that made him feel like a complete and total failure.  ‘Little’ Joe.  Little boy.  So young he had to have someone look out for him.

So young, he had to be protected.

“Damn!” Joe snarled as he pushed himself to his feet and headed for the window.  He was nearly eighteen, after all, and a man.  He was old enough to be married and practically old enough to have children of his own!  He wasn’t a kid or a little boy anymore and yet everyone treated him like he was and he was sick of it!  So what if he was a little weak?  He’d seen Pa take a bullet and be up and out of bed in two days.  Adam and Hoss and Pa would have tied him down to the bed rails and fed him soft food for a month if it had been him!  Hoss and Adam didn’t give up when they were a little sore.  Why did Pa think he needed to go to bed just ‘cause he’d fallen off his horse?  It was unfair and aggravating and just….

Joe took hold of the blown glass aftershave bottle on his dresser and threw it so hard it crashed against the wall.  He stood, panting, watching the oil run down and ruin the wallpaper until someone cleared their throat.  The sound made him turn toward the door.

Adam stood there, one shoulder propped against the side-jamb.  “Feel better?” he asked.

Joe’s nostrils flared.  He nodded his head.  “Yes.”

His brother entered the room.  “You won’t feel so good when Pa makes you strip and replace – and pay for – that strip of paper.”

Pa had good taste.  The paper was hand-blocked – and expensive.

He swallowed hard.  “I got savings.”

“I’m sure you do, and probably have a much better use for them than buying wallpaper.”  Adam sat on the edge of the bed.  “Joe, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he snapped as he turned back to the window.

“The shattered glass at your feet begs to differ.”

Joe closed his eyes and counted to ten.  His relationship with Adam was odd, to put it mildly.  There were times when that tone set him off, making him mad as a rattler on a spit, but there were other times – like now – when it brought back memories of his childhood and the supportive talks he’d had with his older brother.  Along with that came a warm rush of feelings – love, feeling safe.

Being protected.

The handsome teenager glanced at his brother.  He forced a smile.  “Just feeling, well, like….”

“Like a fledgling held under the wing when it knows it can fly?”

The smile broadened.

“Come and sit down, okay?” Adam asked.  “You’re making me nervous.”

“How come?”

“You’re old enough to fly, Joe, but not out of a two-story window.”

There was more to that statement and he knew it.

Joe plunked down on the bed.  “So what do you want to talk about?”

“You.”

“Adam….”

His brother held up a hand.  “Give me a chance.”

Joe crossed his arms and leaned back against the headboard.  “Okay.   Shoot.”

Adam smiled.  “How do you feel?”

“I’m fine.”

“Joe, it’s me.  Really.  How do you feel?”

The teenager twisted his lips.  “I hurt like hell.”

“You’ve been doing too much.”

“Adam, I can’t sit around all day and heal.  I’ll go nuts!”

“Granted,” his brother answered.  “How do you hurt?  I mean, should I go get Doctor Martin?”

“For land’s sake, Adam, I wouldn’t have told you if I thought you were gonna –”

“Just give me an honest answer.”

Joe thought a moment.  “No.  And that is the truth.  I’ve been having headaches.  They make it hard for me to concentrate sometimes.  I get tired kind of easy and my muscles cramp.  None of that is bad enough to need a doctor.  I’ve seen you and Pa in worse shape and you kept going.”

“You’re right.  You’re not a boy anymore, you’re a man, and we have to trust you to know when something is too much for you.”  His brother pursed his lips.  “Can I trust you on that?”

“Sure, you can.”

“All right then.  I didn’t come up here just to check on you – though Pa thought I did.  I came up here to ask you to ride the line with me and check out the shacks before winter sets in.  But I have to know I can count on you and that you aren’t going to keel over on me.  We’re going to be a long way from help, little brother.  We’ll have to rely on each other and ourselves.”

Joe brightened visibly.  “Really?  You want to take me along?”

“I can’t think of anyone else I would rather have at my side.”

Joe frowned, suspicious.  “What about Hoss?  How come you didn’t ask him to go?”

Adam looked him straight in the eye.  “Because I want to take you.  We’ve never done it together before – at least, without someone else along.  It will give us time to get to know each other.”

The teenager snorted.  “You’ve been back from college for seven years, Adam.  I think we know each other pretty well.”

His brother rose to his feet.  “I’ll admit I know ‘Little’ Joe, my baby brother, but I want to get to know Joe Cartwright, the man.”

He was touched – and a bit astonished.

“Gosh, Adam….  I don’t know what to say.”

“Don’t say anything,” Adam replied.  “Just be ready at 5 o’clock tomorrow morning to head out.”

“Five?!?”

His brother pinned him with his whiskey-brown eyes.  “Unless you’d prefer four?”

“No…five…is fine.”

“I’ll have Hop Sing prepare us a couple of kits.  We’ll be gone for about three weeks.”

Three weeks away from his mother hen of a father.  He’d miss Pa, but he sure would enjoy being treated like a man instead of that little boy.

“Thanks, Adam.”

The man in black had reached the door.  He turned back with a smile.  “No thanks needed.  I’m looking forward to it, and Joe….”

“Yeah?”

“You might want to take it easy until we leave.”

He started to protest, but knew his brother was right.  “What am I gonna tell Pa?  He’ll think I’m sick if I skip my chores tonight.”

“Eat supper and then ask to be excused.  Pa already thinks you’re pushing too hard.  Hoss and I can handle the chores.”  Adam pointed a finger at him.  “And remember, I expect you to be dressed as well as bright eyed and bushy-tailed when I knock on your door at four-forty-five.”

 

Adam closed the door to his brother’s room and leaned against it.  He felt like a louse.  It was true the line-shacks needed looking after and that he’d intended to do it soon – as in, about a month from now.  It was also true that he’d intended to take Hoss with him.  Traveling with Hoss was like wearing an old shoe – comfortable and easy.  He and Hoss could ride for hours in companionable silence, enjoying the scenery and their own thoughts.

Traveling with Little Joe was like pulling on a brand new pair of store-bought boots.  They protested when you shoved your feet in and continued to complain with every step you took for the next few weeks.

Joe was a man now, but he was a young one.  Depending on the month, there were twelve years between them and, at times, he felt like it might as well have been twenty.  His brother was excitable and unpredictable, on top of the mountain one minute and at the bottom of a chasm the next; feisty and funny and absolutely irritating at one and the same time.  You couldn’t help but love him, but most of the time Joe made you want to do one of two things – gag him or smack him upside the head.

That was, if you didn’t want to hug him.

Adam let out a sigh as he pushed off the door and headed downstairs.  He’d heard Hoss return.  It surprised him to find that middle brother still had his coat on and was planning on heading back out to take care of a few things in the barn before supper.  He decided to join him.

So they could talk.

“So he bought it, eh?  Hook, line, and sinker?” Hoss asked as he reached for a pitchfork to toss some hay.

Adam pushed the door closed behind them and even took the extra precaution of dropping the bar into place.

“Yes.  I told Joe we’d been gone about three weeks.”

His brother nodded.  “That’s more than enough time for Miss Menken and that there Regan feller to do what they gotta do and get out of Virginia City.”

Adam studied his brother.  “Thanks for suggesting Joe come with me instead of you.  It’s an elegant solution to the problem.  Or to one problem, at least.”

Hoss stopped in mid-pitch.  “You got more?”

“Yes, I do.  You.”

Joe might look like an angel, but Hoss won hands-down for the best ‘Who me?’ innocent look.  “What do you mean me?”

“I need a promise from you.”

His brother was wary.  “What promise?”

“That you won’t go after Regan.”

The big man let out a sigh.  “You know I can’t promise you that, Adam.  That man done near killed little brother the last time he was in town.  I ain’t gonna let that bully go and get by with doin’– ”

He placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “Yes, you are, and, yes, you will.”

“Adam….”

“I want a promise that you won’t take on Regan while I’m gone.  Otherwise, I won’t take Joe with me.”

“But Adam, you gotta!”  Hoss tossed the rake to the barn floor.  “If Little brother gets wind that prizefighter is in town, he’ll go try and take him on.  You heard what Little Joe said last year after it happened.  Regan told him if he ever saw him again, he’d kill ‘im!”

Adam crossed his arms.  “Nevertheless, I won’t take him.”

“You’re joshin’.”

“No, I’m not.  I will not take one brother up into the high country to save his life, just to sacrifice the life of my other brother.”  He met the big man’s incredulous stare.  “I need that promise and I need it now.”

Hoss muttered under his breath for a few seconds before nodding his head.  “Okay, you got it.”

“I got what?”

The big man sighed.  “I won’t take on John C. Regan alone.”

“Or in any way.”

“Or in any way.  Gol-darn it, Adam!”

“I need another promise.”

“What else do you want?  I done said I’d leave that there monster alone!”

He nodded.  “And I believe you,  The second promise doesn’t have to do with you, Hoss.”

“Who’s it got to do with then?”

“I need you to promise me that you’ll make sure Pa doesn’t take on Regan either.”

Their father had vowed revenge that night as he sat at Little Joe’s side – they all had.  The boy had been so battered he was almost unrecognizable.  Pa swore then that if Regan ever came back to Virginia City, he’d make sure justice was done.

Trouble was, Pa believed in frontier justice.

“I’ll try, Adam.  But you know Pa.”

“Yes, I do, and unfortunately there was no way of getting around telling him that Adah was coming back to town – with Regan.  I knew someone else would let him know if I didn’t, or he would see the posters the next time we went to town.  I spoke to Roy briefly before I left and asked him to keep an eye out for any trouble.”  Adam grinned.  “If it comes to it, Roy said he would trump up a charge and toss Pa in jail and keep him there until Adah and her entourage leave.”

Hoss couldn’t help it.  He grinned too.  “Pa in jail?”

Adam nodded.

“It’s better than in the ground.”

 

TWO

Ben Cartwright watched as his youngest and eldest son took off together and then turned to their brother.  Hoss had his hand raised to shield his eyes and was following his brothers’ departure.  The big man was dressed for travel, as was he, in his winter coat and gloves.  It was a good thing Adam had chosen to move up the trip to the check out the line shacks.  It looked like winter might make an early appearance this year and the inventory needed to be taken and repairs made before the snow flew and trapped them all.

“They’ll be fine,” he said.

Hoss dropped his hand and looked at him.  “I’m just glad to see Little Joe ridin’ off in the opposite direction of town and trouble.”

Adah was set to arrive in Virginia City today, along with her entourage.  Some of the ranch hands – who were enthusiasts of prize fighting – had told him that the monster known as the ‘Benecia Boy’, John C. Regan, wouldn’t make his appearance until a few days later.

He wanted to talk to Adah before he did.

Ben nodded.  It had been imperative that they keep the news of the pugilist’s arrival from Little Joe.  Even at full strength – and Joseph was far from that – his slender, one hundred and thirty pound boy had no hope of surviving a bout with Regan, who was nearly a foot taller and over twice his weight.  It had been all Hoss could do to come out alive.  Regan, along with being a fighter, was a hired thug – a strong-arm man who ‘protected’ shady businessmen and the like, pulverizing and, if the rumors were true, at times killing for money.  Within the last year he had become the toast of Europe.  The ‘boy’, as Regan was called, had fought another contender and, though the match had been a draw, gained notoriety and fame by claiming he had won and was now ‘champion’ of the world.  The odd thing was, the man he ‘beat’ was now traveling with him; the two of them appearing in exhibition fights.

Apparently Virginia City was their next venue.

“Pa?”

“Sorry, son.  I was lost in my thoughts.”

Hoss eyed him.  “You think it’s right smart to go into town?”

“I need to speak to Adah.”

“How come?  I mean, I know you ain’t gotta tell me, but I’ve been wonderin’.  I thought you said you was done with her after what happened to Little Joe.”

He was ‘done with her’.  Any feelings he’d entertained for Adah had been driven out when he realized that, not only was she remaining with Regan, but that she showed no remorse for what the bully had done to his boy.  He could never love such a woman.  The attachment had begun innocently enough.  Adah, a Creole beauty, reminded him of Joseph’s mother.  She was high-spirited, knew her mind, and was not afraid to speak it.  The actress was also vulnerable; helpless, in a way, to help herself.  Like Marie, life had not treated her kindly.  Adah had been used and abused by a long line of relatives and lovers. Being Creole meant that she was often rejected; considered worthless as Joseph’s mother had been.  The theater offered her a chance at redemption.  People cared little about the pedigree of one who entertained them – so long as they kept them entertained.  Adah Isaacs Menken was the toast of America, traveling from coast to coast; performing a dozen different plays at once.  She made people forget their troubles, if only for the hour or two that the gaslights were lit.

Sadly, Adah found no such release.

Early on she’d married Isaac Menken, a Jewish merchant from Cincinnati.  From what he understood the man deeply loved Adah, but there was something wild in her that would not let her be tamed and so the match did not last.  After that, like a beautiful butterfly, the actress flitted from man to man until she settled on John C. Regan.  Impossible as it was to believe, it seemed she truly loved him.  Adah married Regan and for a time it appeared, from what the papers reported at least, that she’d found happiness.

It proved fleeting.

All too soon the rumors began to fly.  Adah had not officially divorced Menken before marrying the prize fighter.  The critics who had praised her now called her a ‘whore’ and ‘bigamist’ and sought to destroy her.  Her public – those who had cheered her – turned like the crowd did on Christ and called for her blood.  Perhaps that was why she’d returned to the West.  Perhaps Adah felt a kinship with the women who peopled the bawdy houses, those who were maltreated and misunderstood, and who – in time – were tossed away as refuse.

Or maybe she was hoping to make a new start.

“As I told your brother, there are many kinds of love,” Ben replied.  He paused, seeking the words that would communicate his inmost feelings.  “I still love, Adah, but not as a man loves a woman he would marry. More as a friend or, perhaps, a father.  She is as much a child as your teenage brother.  Adah needs someone to guide her, to make her see that the road she is walking can only have one end.”

“What end is that, Pa?”

He was a perceptive man.  Everyone would tell you so and none more than his sons.  His feelings and intuitions had saved them from harm more times than he could recall.  Ben’s intuitions were alive now with fear for this woman he had loved and lost, because she would not – and could not – love herself.

How would it end?

He had no idea, but he knew it would not be well.

 

Adam glanced at his youngest brother.  Joe was chipper and chattering away like the group of New World Warblers that had recently winged over their heads.  Anytime they escaped the confines of the Ponderosa – and got away from Pa and Hop Sing, whom his little brother regarded as mother hens – Joe’s naturally ebullient nature surfaced.  The only problem was, it faded just as quickly as it appeared.  Joe could be footloose and fancy-free for an hour or two – maybe even a day or two – but it never lasted long.  His brother’s highs were matched by his lows.  The kid thought he had everybody fooled, but he and Hoss knew better.  Little Joe Cartwright lived his life waiting for the other boot to drop.  He’d watched him as a child and noted the change every time they rode away without him.

Every time they did, Little Joe was sure one of them would die.

It was understandable.  He’d felt that way as a kid after Inger passed, but life hadn’t given him time to wallow in his fears.  He had to get on with being a man – at the age of eight.

Adam glanced at his brother again and smiled.

Thank God Joe had been given more time.

“You see something funny?” Joe asked with no edge to his voice.

“Yeah, you.”  Adam chuckled.  “You bounce one more time in that saddle and Cochise is going to move out from under you and let you fall.”

Joe tossed his head to free his eyes of wind-blown curls.  Little brother wasn’t wearing his hat – or his gray corduroy coat or gloves.  Joe loved cold weather and fare thrived on it.  The color was up in his cheeks and his green eyes were bright as the sun on the pines.  He was dressed today in a dark blue shirt and gray pants with black belt and boots.  He cut quite a dashing figure.

Fortunately, out here at the edge of their property, there weren’t any pretty girls to notice.

“Older brother, you gotta get your nose out of those boring old books of yours more often.”

“I’m perfectly happy with my ‘boring old books’, thank you.”

Joe cocked his head.  “Don’t you know?  All work and no play makes Adam a dull boy.”

The man in black clucked as he urged his mount around a pile of rocks that had tumbled onto his side of the trail.  They hadn’t been up this way since the late spring rains, so there were bound to be obstacles they would have to pass.  He hoped all were as easy as that last one.

“You should try being a ‘dull’ boy now and then, Joe.  It has its own rewards.”

“You mean you think I should be like you?  A man of culture and intellect?”  Joe had his nose in the air.  “No thank you, brother!  Not if it puts a gal like Abigail Jones on my tale.”

Adam resisted groaning.  The last time they’d gone to town Miss Jones had actually tracked him down.  Her excuse was that she wanted him to help judge the annual spelling bee, but by the way she took hold of his arm like a grizzly sinking its teeth into a trout, he – and everyone around him – knew it was much more.

“You think Pa’d like to have Miss Jones as a daughter-in-law?”

“Joe….”

“One thing for sure, your kids would have a long way to look down their noses!”

That did it.

Adam took a swipe at his brother, but Joe was already gone.  Trailing back, along with the dust and cold wind, were words.

“Catch me if you can, old man!”

 

Ben hesitated outside of the Palace Hotel, his tall figure lit by the streetlight and his eyes trained on the window of its best suite.  It was a familiar spot, one that had been occupied by Lotta Crabtree and Adah Menken during their visits to town.  There was a great deal of similarity between the two women.  Both had come from middle class families and gone on to know wealth and fame.  While Lotta’s origins were known – the beautiful woman had been born in the gold mining hills of California – the reports of Adah’s varied greatly.  Most believed she was the legitimate daughter of Auguste Théodore, a free man of color and his wife, Magdaleine Jean Louis Janneaux, also a Louisiana Creole.  Adah had been reared Catholic, but embraced her Jewish heritage.  As such – a Creole, a Catholic, and a Jew – she was often disparaged and had spent most of her adult life unaccepted on one level or another.  Both Lotta and Adah became performers at a very young age and found the acceptance they longed for in the theatrical world.  Both could sing and dance and act with a vitality and ability that made them the toast of two continents.

Both were utterly miserable.

He had done his best to instill three things in his sons.  Faith, belief in, and obedience to the Almighty was the first.  Honor and loyalty to country and home, the second.  Third?  That they had worth.  He wanted his boys to know that they were loved unconditionally and would be accepted no matter what mistakes they made or errant paths they chose.

These two women had none of these things.

For Adah, the lack of these values meant a life of extremes.  She had fame and the adulation of thousands on one hand, and a string of broken relationships and bouts of melancholia on the other.  He’d seen her first when, as a young man, the ship he sailed had put into a port in Cuba.  At that time she’d been a dancer.  There was a brief marriage to a man before Menken and he’d met her between husbands.  They’d shared a table and a brief exchange and then he had pulled out of port, never dreaming he would see her again.  Their second encounter came many years later after Inger had been killed.  On his way to New Orleans to pay the debt he owed John Di Marigny, he’d gone to the theater in Houston, Texas and been surprised to find Adah on the bill.  By then she’d become an actress and was, by all accounts one of the best.  He’d gone to her dressing room and invited her to dinner.  The evening proved to be both pleasant and disturbing.  He had feelings for her, but she was already married again.  Ben chuckled.  He should have heard the alarum bells sounding then.

Two husbands in barely two years!

Adah’s relationship with Isaac Menken was destined to be short-lived.  By the time she’d come to Virginia City – about a year back – she’d left the merchant and become engaged to John C. Regan.  He hadn’t known it at the time, though it was readily apparent, that the two were so close.  Ben blew out a sigh.  He supposed he’d hoped he could change her mind – that he could make Adah see that she had worth, at least in his eyes.  Before Joseph’s attack, he had even thought of following her to her next venue to continue the pursuit, hoping he could talk her away from the thug and bully who dominated her life.

As he hoped to do now.

The light had gone on in her suite.

It was time.

 

The harsh weather had done a number all right.  The second shack they came across – just as the sun was setting behind the mountains – had been hit by a rock slide, driven no doubt by a rush of water overflowing the nearby stream’s banks.  The complex, that consisted of a small wooden building with two rooms, a work shed, and an outside privy, had taken a direct hit.  While the shack was standing – albeit a bit crooked – the fencing around the complex as well as the work shed were in shambles.

Fortunately, the privy was intact!

Adam placed his hands on his hips and blew out a sigh.  He’d hoped to get farther away from the ranch before they had a reason to remain in one place for more than a few hours.  They’d put less than half a day between them and the trouble that awaited his kid brother in Virginia City.  It would be all too easy for a passerby to stop and mention that John C. Regan was back in town.  He’d tried to convince baby brother to keep going, saying they could catch this one on the way back.  Joe had refused, citing their father’s almost preternatural sense when it came to him shirking his duty.

He couldn’t really argue with that.

After a slightly heated discussion, they’d divvied up tasks.  Joe would take care of the horses and secure something for their supper, while he made sure the shack was structurally sound and fit for them to sleep in.  The foundation was stable enough.  The force of the rockslide had pushed the upper part of the structure an inch or two to the side, but he didn’t think it was in danger of collapsing.  Tomorrow they would have to set about removing the roof and re-setting the beams and planks and securing them against another such attack.  These shacks were absolutely essential for the winter, especially one this close to the house.  Nevada was a fickle mistress.  One day she would kiss and caress you, and the next cuff your head and crown you.

You never knew what you would get.

Adam glanced out the door.  It was a little disconcerting to see the world beyond it at a ten to fifteen degree angle, so he cocked his head to make it right and frowned as the sun descended behind the mountains.

Joe should have been back.

The man in black caught his rifle up from where he’d propped it beside the door and stepped outside.  The light was almost gone.  It would be hard soon – no, nearly impossible – to track his brother should the need arise.  Adam stifled a sigh as he stepped over one of the beams that belonged to the shed and headed out of the yard.

“Joe?  Little Joe?!  Answer me!”

The wind howled, carrying with it the sounds of the forest but nothing else.

He advanced a yard or two and tried again.  “Joe?”

Something.

A sound.

No, a cry.

He started running.  “Joe?  Where are you?  Little Joe?!”

“Adam?”

The man in black halted.  He drank in air before replying; his heart pounding.  “I’m here!  Where are you?!”

“Adam!  God!  Adam, help!!”

Help?

What had the kid gotten himself into this time?

The woods grew thicker as he ran.  He was blind as a man in love but fear drove him forward.  Each time his brother called, his voice was feebler, as if Joe was weakening.

‘Think, man!’ he told himself.  ‘Think!’

Then, he had it.

Turning sharply to the right Adam began to climb, leaving the land and the swollen stream behind.  They’d camped at the bottom of what was a high bluff.  As a kid he’d taken on the challenge and pushed to the top so he could stand and look out over the land that would – one day – be his.  Joe probably did the same.  The sun’s rays cut through the trees as he reached the summit, yielding control and setting the pines afire.  The sight of it was breathtaking.

Or would have been, if he hadn’t been so afraid.

At first the man in black was surprised.  There was no one there.  Then a whimper made him spin around and suck in a breath.  A second later he was stretched out to full length and looking down.

God was good.  Little Joe was there.

Hanging on by a thread.

 

The sight of her was intoxicating – for one or two beats of his heart.  Adah was a beautiful woman with deep chestnut hair, naturally golden skin, and a waist a man could span with both hands.  Her hair was piled high on her head and held in place by a pair of gold combs dotted with rubies and pearls.  She still wore her traveling dress; one made of a rich garnet taffeta with a tartan plaid overskirt.  Her feathered hat lay on the table behind her, along with her velvet cloak.  If he hadn’t known her like he did, he would have mistaken her for a well-off woman.

But he did know her.

Adah had carried a sadness with her the year before when she arrived in Virginia City.  He’d thought it intriguing then.  Now, that sadness had ripened into despair.  Lines marred her heavenly face.  They cradled her deep-set eyes and formed channels on either side of her painted lips.  Adah had lost weight and not in a good way.  She was gaunt.

In fact, she looked like a ghost.

The woman he’d loved smiled.  “Ben,” she said.  “It’s good to see you.”

She’d said it, but he doubted she meant it.

“Adah.”

The actress let out a little sigh.  “I’m tired.  It was a long ride from Placerville.  Perhaps tomorrow…?”

“What I have to say will only take a minute.”  He paused.  “Will Regan be here tomorrow?”

The lines on her forehead appeared.  “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?  You’re married to the man, aren’t you?”

Adah met his stare and then turned and moved into the room.  “Come in, Ben, since it seems you won’t go away.”

He closed the door behind him.  By that time the actress had taken a seat on the settee that graced the room’s eastern wall.  Adah met his gaze, defiant, but only for a second.  Then she lowered her head into her hands.

“Oh, Ben….  What have I done?”

He went to her side.  His urge was to kneel – to take her hand in his and comfort her – but he wouldn’t do that.

For Joe.

“You tell me,” he said, somewhat sternly.

She glanced up at him.  “I thought…I’d hoped….”  Adah leaned back.  “I was a fool.”

“For thinking a brute and a bully could be something other than what he is?”

The actress winced.  “You don’t know John.  He’s –”

“The kind of a man who would kill a seventeen-year-old boy to take revenge on another man who had done nothing to him; nothing but offer the woman he loved a better chance at life.”

She leaned her chin on her hand and looked toward the window.  “I told you, Ben.  I don’t deserve a chance at life.”

“But Joseph did – and does.”

She looked right at him.  “I’m sure John doesn’t intend to –”

“Are you?  Are you sure?”  Ben walked to the window, drew the curtain aside, and looked out on the near empty street.  “Are you certain Regan is not coming back here to follow-up on the promise he made?”

Adah rose and came to his side.  “What promise?”

He faced her.  “You don’t know?”

“No.  Did John make you a promise before we left?”

“The promise was made to my son.  Regan told Joseph that if he survived the beating, he would come back and kill him.”

Her hand flew to her lips.  “No!  Ben.  I’m sure John spoke out of anger.”

He fought to rein in his own fury.  “Unlike other bullies, John C. Regan is a pugilist.  His ‘anger’ is his weapon, and his weapon is his fists!  He used those fists to batter and bruise and break my boy until Joseph was terrified to leave his house – his room – to live his life!”  The rancher gripped her arm.  “Do you know how long it took the boy to get over it?  Do you?!  I’m not certain Little Joe is over it even now.  Regan…broke him.”  Ben choked.  “Any man who would do that to a boy on the cusp of manhood deserves to rot in Hell!”

Adah pressed her head into his chest.  “You’re right, Ben.  You’re right.  And I deserve to rot there alongside him!”

The feel of her heart pounding against his own and the honest tears that wet his shirt took the edge off of his righteous anger.  Ben hesitated, and then placed his hand on the actress’ silken hair.  “I’m sorry, Adah.  I didn’t mean….”

“Yes, yes, you did.”  Her voice was muffled against his shirt.  “And you were right to.  John C. Regan is a brute and a bully and….”

“And you love him.”

She sobbed audibly.  “God help me!  I do.”

Ben took Adah’s hand and drew her over to the bed and sat beside her.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief and used it to dab the tears from her cheeks before handing it to her.  After she had blown her nose and quieted a bit, he spoke.

“Why, Adah?  Do you know?”

She shook her head and then, seeking permission with her eyes, leaned into him.  “When…when he wants to be, John can be charming and debonair.”  Her lips curled slightly.  “He knows how to show a girl the town.  He’s strong and able.  He protects me.  He….”

“Needs you like I don’t?”

That took her aback, but then she nodded.  “Yes, he needs me.”

Ben refused the handkerchief when she offered it back.  He took his thumb and wiped away another tear.

“Adah, I wish I had words to give you that would make you see yourself as I do.  You are a beautiful and talented woman.  You have so much to give.”  Ben leaned back.  “But there is a difference between accepting that gift and needing it.  John C. Regan’s only way to fill his ‘need’ is to suck dry the well of your happiness and joy.”

She straightened up.  “You’re wrong, Ben.”

“Oh?”

“That well went dry many years ago.”

 

“Little Joe?  Joe!  Hang on!”

Adam was reaching down as far as he could.  With the light gone, he could barely see his brother.  Little Joe was about ten feet down.  The only thing that was holding his brother in place was Joe’s fingers.  The kid had them entwined in the roots of a tree that stuck out from the side of the crumbling hill.

His own position was, to say the least, precarious.

“Adam!  Forget…it!” Joe called out, his tone losing its desperation and passing into acceptance.  “You’re…gonna fall…too.  Let me…go.”

The man in black shifted his gaze to the stream some thirty feet below as he stretched out even farther and felt the ground shift beneath him.

“Little brother, I made Marie a promise when you were born.”  His fingertips brushed his brother’s.  “I won’t ever let you go!”

Joe’s face was hidden, but his eyes shone with tears.  “Adam….”

“Shut up!  And that’s an order!”  Adam shinnied forward a bit more until he felt Joe’s hand within his grasp.  “For once, do what you’re told!”

“Adam, I….!”

He held his breath as part of the ridge jutting out over the stream crumbled away; pebbles and dirt tumbling toward the water below.

“Can you anchor your feet on anything to help me?” he asked.

“Maybe…the tree?”

“Stick the toe of your boot in the roots.  Anchor yourself.  Do it, Joe!”

There was a moment of silence.  “Got…it.”

“Now, see if you can reach up and take hold of my arm.”

Joe did as he was told.  It was a good thing too because the moment he felt his brother’s touch, more of the ridge gave way.

“Use both hands!” he yelled.

“Adam….”

No back-talk.  Do it now!

Ten fingers wrapped around his wrist like a vise.  There was a horrible moment when Adam had to take on Joe’s whole weight and he thought he was going to drop the kid – but it was over in a flash and they both were lying on the sopping wet ground.  An ominous rumble warned him that they needed to move and so, exhausted as he was, he took hold of his baby brother’s thin frame and tossed him – and then scrambled after him just as the edge of the ridge gave way and tumbled down in a steady stream of rock and dirt to the water below.

It took several minutes before he found the wind to ask, “How are you?”

Little Joe was silent a second too long.  “I’m fine.”

How fine?”

“I’m alive, aren’t I?” his brother snapped.

It was pointless.  Once they got to the cabin he’d check him out.

“Can you walk?” Adam asked as he climbed shakily to his feet.

Joe deflected, as usual.  “Aren’t you gonna ask how I ended up down there?”

He put his hands on his hips.  “Look, Joe, I can ask you here or I can ask you at the line shack where there’s food and a fire.  Now, answer me.  Can you walk?”

“I can walk,” his brother replied – just before he sucked in air like a drowning man and groaned.

“What did you do?”

“I stood up.  What do you think I did?!”

“Joe….”

His brother sighed.  “I don’t know whether I should kick or kiss that tree.  It kept me from falling but, well, I scraped my leg good on it on the way down.”

“Is that all?  You ‘scraped’ it?”

His brother gulped audibly.  “I think that’s all.”

Adam reached out blindly, moving forward until he encountered his brother’s form.  Joe was trembling like a sapling in a Nor’easter.

Good Lord!  Now what?

With a sigh, he lifted the kid’s arm and draped it over his shoulder.

“Hey!  I said I can walk!  I don’t need –”

“Yes, you do!” Adam snapped.  “I’m tired and hungry and you’re going to do what you’re told until we reach the shack – and after.  And if you don’t….”

“If I don’t what?”

A sly smile curled his lips.

“We’ll see just how dull a boy Jack is!”

 

THREE

Hoss Cartwright occupied a chair in the saloon across from the Palace Theatre.  The hustle and bustle that filled the establishment earlier had faded with the sun.  When all the gals was swishin’ their skirts and smilin’ pretty, the piano playin’, and the drinks and cards flyin’ fast and free, it seemed a right happy place.

Now it was sad and sorry.

The big man turned his beer glass with his fingers.  He’d drunk about half and then lost his thirst.  As he sat there starin’ at the batwing doors and waitin’ for his pa to appear, he couldn’t help but remember the commotion that had filled this very room nigh onto a year before.  He’d been tossin’ back a second drink when Little Joe came bustin’ in fit as a rogue calf waitin’ to be tied.  Joe’d got into a lot of fights in just over seventeen years.  Some with good reason, like when some no-good low-down snake said somethin’ bad about his mama.  Maybe that was why little brother was so all-fired up about Miss Menken, her being from New Orleans and all.  He’d laughed at Joe, of course, and thought he was right cute for poppin’ him on the chin.

Hoss took a swig of warm beer as he shuddered with the memory.  When he found Little Joe in that alley, he sure enough thought baby brother was dead.

Little Joe’d lived, no thanks to Mister John C. Regan, and no thanks to that there actress neither.  Hoss blew out a bit of foam as he leaned back in his chair.  No thanks to him neither!  He’d taken that prizefighter on and near gone down himself.   It was brother Adam – Hoss snorted, ‘sneaky’ brother Adam – who saved the day by tellin’ him to forget fightin’ him and squeeze that there bully like a sack of grain.

“You want another one, Hoss?”

The big man looked up to find the bartender, Sam, standin’ by him with a couple of mugs of beer in hand.

“Yeah,” he said, shoving the near empty-glass away.  “But make it a whiskey this time.”

The barkeep’s black brows edged toward his graying hair, but he said nothing.  A minute later Sam reappeared and placed a shot glass in front of him.  Hoss eyed it like it was a rattlesnake and then downed the fiery liquid in one gulp.

“My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,” a quiet voice said.

Hoss looked up to find his father standing beside him.  He favored the older man with a half-hearted smile.  “For a minute there, I thought older brother was back.”

Pa took a seat.  He indicated the empty glass.  “Whiskey?”

The big man pursed his lips and nodded.

His father turned toward the front and caught Sam’s eye.  He held up two fingers. The barkeep arrived a minute later with two glasses – a full one for Pa and another half-full for him.

“Figured you might need this, Ben,” Sam said.

He would know.  The saloon owner would have heard that Adah was back in town and, of all people, he’d know the painful memories that came with her.

Sam loved Little Joe too.

“Thanks,” Pa said.

“Saloon’s open ‘til two.”

The older man nodded as the barkeep walked away.  Pa sipped his whiskey and then let out a sigh.

“To women?” Hoss asked as he raised his glass.

Pa chuckled as his met it.  “To women.”

They fell silent after that, each lost in his own thoughts.  Finally Hoss mustered up enough courage to ask.

“How’d it go with Miss Menken?”

His father shook his head.  “As expected.”

“She still defending Regan?”

Pa looked at him.  “No.”

“No?”

“Still loving him.”

Goldarnit, Pa!”  He banged his hand on the table so hard his empty glass jumped.  “How can she after what that monster done to Little Joe?  How can she even stand to look at him?”

The older man shook his head.  “I’m not sure your brother understood what I meant that night when I said there were ‘many kinds of love’.  Not all of them are wholesome or healthy.  Adah fears being hurt, Hoss, so she chooses a man she cannot trust – knowing he will hurt her.  It’s too much to think of loving a man she believes in.  Because of all she has suffered, she believes such a man will ultimately betray her and that kind of wound she cannot survive.”

He scratched his head and admitted, “I ain’t sure I understand that, sir.”

“Neither am I,” his father replied as he stood up.

Hoss followed.  “You plannin’ on headin’ home?”

“No.  I rented two rooms for us at the hotel.  It’s too late to travel.  The weather is shifting.  It began to sleet as I walked over here.”

“Sleet?”  The big man’s gaze went involuntarily to the batwing doors and beyond them to the northern land his brothers inhabited.  “You think Adam and Little Joe is gonna be all right?”

“I’m sure they will be.  There are at least two line shacks within a day’s ride of the house.  I imagine they’ve taken shelter in one of them.”

“You don’t think they’d head back home, do you?”

“No.  Adam knows what is at stake.  He’ll find a way to keep your younger brother out of town and out of harm’s way – in spite of the weather.”  Pa’s black brows peaked.  “At least until Regan and his exhibition have come and gone.”

Hoss beamed.  “Yeah.  Adam can be right sneaky when he has a mind to.”  He paused.  “I wonder where older brother gets that from?”

Pa dropped an arm around his shoulder and gave him his best innocent look.

“I was warned about Elizabeth….”

 

He needed to take his brother home.

He couldn’t take his brother home.

Damn!

Adam plopped down on the floor of the shack where he’d laid his bedding.  He was bone-weary.  Due to the shift in the weather the trip from the ridge had taken twice as long as usual, and the two of them had been thoroughly soaked by the time they arrived.  Little Joe, of course, had been wearing nothing but his thin shirt and pants.  It was unclear as they made their way slowly through the woods whether Joe’s shivers came from that or from the fright he had taken.

The kid could have died.

Sudden death was to be expected in the West.  He’d learned that as a young man – no, as a boy really.  One of the greatest scourges of the westward journey had been cholera.  They’d held a celebration one night, marking an important victory in their trip.  Most of the company drank coffee, but a few had consumed an herbal tea.

All of the tea-drinkers were dead by the following night.

Life was brilliant but brutal here.  There was nothing like the scent of pine and wood-smoke, the vast and unending mountain ranges, the blue skies, and the almost Elysian beauty of both sunrise and sunset.  It was magnificent.  Beautiful.  Such beauty, though, commanded a high price.  All it took was one misstep.  One mistake.

He glanced at his brother where he lay on the shack’s cot.

Or one injury.

Considering Little Joe could easily have died, the teenager had come out of the whole thing relatively unscathed.  Little brother had chosen to do the same thing he’d done as a kid – stand on the edge of the ridge and stare out at that magnificent view – when suddenly the edge gave way and sent him plummeting toward the stream below.  Joe’d managed to swivel – the kid was agile as a mountain cat – and catch hold of the tree roots that were jutting out of the cliff-face, saving himself from a messy death.

The trouble came on the way down.

Unfortunately, the tree roots were old and nearly petrified.  Little Joe’s lower leg encountered one that sliced through the fabric of his pants – and his skin – easy as a knife through warm butter.  The cascade of dirt that followed peppered debris into the open wound.  Adam ran a hand through his hair and leaned his head back against the wall.  He’d done his best to clean the cut out.  Maybe even done it well enough.  So far – at least – little brother had no fever.  The man in black glanced at his brother again.  After suffering the agony of having half of the shack’s store of alcohol poured into the wound, the exhausted teen had curled up into a ball and fallen into a deep sleep.

Adam let out a sigh as he straightened up.  He had a decision to make – one that was nearly as profound as Hamlet’s query about whether to live or make his quietus with a bare bodkin.

To go home or not to go home.

Aye, there was the rub.

Little Joe said he was fine.  Of course, the kid always said he was fine.  If little brother was able to help finish the work here tomorrow, the next shack was only a day away.  That would put them barely more than two days away from the house should anything…happen.  Surely, he would note any sign of his brother’s condition worsening.  Joe couldn’t hide a rising fever or debilitating weakness.  Still, the idea of heading further out bothered him.  He could be putting his little brother’s life at risk just as much as if he’d left him hanging on the edge of that cliff.

Or let him go to town to face John C. Regan.

“Adam?”

He started.  He’d thought his brother was asleep.  “Yeah?”

“Sorry.”

“What for?”

There was a pause.  “For being the little kid who always needs to be saved.”

“Don’t worry about it, Joe.  We all need saved from time to time.  I take it you didn’t deliberately jump over the edge of that cliff and drag your leg across a rock-hard root.”

“What do you think I am?  Stupid?”

He sighed.  The kid could turn anything around.

“No. I don’t think you’re stupid.”  Accident-prone, maybe, but not stupid.  “It could happen to anyone.”

“Yeah, but it didn’t.  It happened to me.”  His brother’s voice cracked.  “It always happens to me.”

Adam thought a moment before replying.  “Can I tell you a story?”

Joe stirred.  He thought maybe the kid sat up.  They’d put out the lamp so it was hard to tell.

“Okay.”

“I was, I don’t know, somewhere in my early teens.  Pa wanted to look at a plot of land that was for sale.  We rode out together to see it.  The man who owned it had come west to find his fortune, but gave up and went back East.”  Adam shifted so his dicey back was braced better.  “We decided to stay overnight.”

“So you camped out?”

“Sort of.  There was a shack on the property, kind of like this one.  A storm had taken part of the roof off and it was open to the sky, but it sheltered us from the wind.  Pa told me before we went to sleep to stay put.”

Something in his voice must have alerted his brother.  “But you didn’t.”

“Nope.  I woke up midway through the night and needed to take a piss.  That was all right.  What I did next wasn’t.”

“Which was?”

He grinned at the memory.  “I went exploring.  Before we left, one of the men told me there was silver on that land.  So I went looking for it.”

“I take it, it didn’t go well?” Joe asked, his tone brighter.

“Hardly.  I failed to see the rotten boards covering the top of an old well.  I stepped on them and went right through.  My leg broke when I hit bottom.”  He frowned.  “It took Pa a couple of hours to get me out.”

“Older brother, you make me feel like a genius!” Joe giggled.  “I stopped wandering away and fallin’ into wells before I was ten!”

Adam masked the smile in his voice.  “The point is, Joe, you didn’t intend to fall over that ridge any more than I intended to end up at the bottom of that well.  It just happened.  So stop kicking yourself and get some sleep.”

“Did Pa kick you?

The man in black slid down into his bedding.

“All the way back to the Ponderosa.”

 

Ben wasn’t sure what time it was when he woke up.  He went to the window and pulled back the curtain so he could look out on the scene below.  It was then he realized the sun was up, but was veiled by a thick gray haze.  A glance at the building next door told the story as the rail out front glistened like the hard-worked forehead of morning.  Sleet.  Or ice.  Neither was welcome.  Either would make the journey home difficult.  The rancher turned and headed for the stand by the bed.  He’d slept in his clothes, shedding only his belt and shoes.  He imagined Hoss had done the same.  Just as he imagined the big man was already up and moving as he was.  The life of a rancher rarely afforded a man the luxury of malingering in bed.  Not unless he was sick.  The older man chuckled

Or named Joseph Francis Cartwright.

As he pulled on his belt and buckled it, Ben’s thoughts flew to his missing sons.  A line shack provided shelter, but very few creature comforts.  It would have been a cold night for them.  Still, while both Adam and Joe enjoyed the comfortable home he had made for them, they were young and also enjoyed roughing it.

“Not so this old man,” Ben muttered as he tied his tie.

The expected knock on the door came a second later.  “Pa?  You up?”

There was something in his son’s tone.  “Hoss?” he asked as he opened it.  “Is something wrong?”

Rage was written into every line of Hoss’ massive frame.

“You could say so, Pa,” he growled.  “John C. Regan’s in the dining room.”

 

It took Ben ten minutes to arrive.  He’d had to restrain Hoss and, in the end, sent his son to the livery to fetch their horses to keep him out of harm’s way.  Before doing anything else, he stopped at the front desk and asked the clerk about Regan.  The man said the pugilist and his entourage had pulled in sometime after midnight.  The rancher steeled himself as he approached the dining room.  John C. Regan had a big voice and an even bigger ego.  The prize fighter was holding court, regaling the hapless hotel guests with tales of his prowess and power.  Ben drew a deep breath and let it out.  Then he took another.

Then he showed himself in the archway.

“Why don’t you tell these good people about your greatest victory?” Ben suggested, pitching his voice so all could hear.  ‘About how, just under a year ago – in this fair city – you accosted and nearly beat to death a defenseless teenager!”

John Regan was an enormous man.  He stood six-feet-seven and weighed nearly three hundred pounds.  Regan had a face only a mother could love.  Due to his vocation, the flesh had been pounded and punished and pushed in a dozen directions until it resembled a lump of dough.  Set directly in the middle of that misshapen mass were a pair of narrow, nut-brown eyes.  The bully hadn’t even bothered to remove his hat before dining.  It sat on his head, pushed back at a jaunty angle, and spoke loudly of the kind of man he was.

Bold, brassy, brazen, and brutal.

The prizefighter pushed his chair back and rose to his feet with unnecessary noise.  “Well, now, if it isn’t Ben Cartwright.”  Regan indicated the empty chair next to him.  “Care to join me?”

“Certainly,” he said, taking satisfaction in seeing surprise register on the other man’s face.  As he approached, the rancher noted how the other patrons began to move away.  He had pushed back his coat and made it abundantly clear that he was wearing a gun.

Sadly, Regan wasn’t.

The pugilist recovered quickly.  He shoved the extra chair away from the table with his foot before plunking his considerable bulk in its mate.

“I was just having breakfast,” he said.  “Molly, bring Mr. Cartwright whatever he wants.”

“Molly won’t have what I want,” Ben said as he took his seat.

Regan’s brows popped up.  “Oh?”

“No.  I don’t think the dining room has justice on its menu.”

The bully picked up his napkin and tucked it under his chin.  “Justice?” he repeated as he jammed a bit of meat into his mouth – again, with unnecessary force.  “I don’t know what story that kid of yours told you, but he was asking for it.”

Ben’s fingers gripped the table’s edge.  “Would you care to explain yourself?”

“Now, I know boys will be boys,” Regan drawled, “but that young one of yours?  Who-ee!  I caught him in Adah’s room.  He tried to take advantage of her.”  The pugilist popped another bit of beef into his mouth and began to chew.  “Just ask her.”

“Adah said nothing of it.”

“Women,” he snorted.  “Probably found it flattering.”  The bully swallowed and then washed the beef down with a swig from his glass.  “What was I supposed to do?  I had to defend her honor.”

“By nearly killing a seventeen-year-old boy?”

Regan leaned in close and lowered his voice.  “Seven or seventeen, Ben,” he said with a wink, “any man knows how to open the gate and bring the ship snugly into harbor.”

The rancher shook his head as Molly attempted to put a plate of steaming food in front of him.

He thought he might vomit.

“You, are as pathetic an excuse for a human being as I have ever encountered,” Ben snarled.

John Regan’s gaze went to the weapon on his hip.  “You gonna shoot me?  An unarmed man?”

Ben was on his feet before he knew it.

“You have a gun.  Go get it.”

The brute rose as well.  He laid his napkin down and raised his fists.  “How about we try it my way, cowboy?”

As Ben released the strap on his holster, he called out to the concierge.  “You can place the cost of any damages on my bill.”

“How about reimbursing the city for a day and night in jail?”

The rancher pivoted on his heel.  His temper flared when he saw Roy Coffee step into the dining room.

It flared even higher when Hoss followed.

“How dare you?!” he demanded.

Hoss was eyeing Regan like he was a cougar crouched to kill.  “Pa, this ain’t the way.  You said so yourself.”

Roy nodded.  “Now, Ben, you just come away from that table nice and easy.”

“You have no right to stop two men from settling their differences with their fists.”

Roy pulled at his whiskers.  “Well now, Ben, I hate to tell you, but you’re wrong.  Seems the city’s got an ordinance – fact is, I think you helped to draft it – says no violence will be tolerated in public places.”

He eyed Regan who was eyeing him back – and sneering.

“Then we’ll take it into the street.”

“Can’t do that either, Ben.  That’d be public brawlin’ and I’d be forced to arrest you and Mr. Regan here.”

The pugilist snorted.  He looked at Roy with disdain.  “I’d like to see you try.”

Roy scratched his head.  “Well, sir, I’m sure you could overpower me and probably two or three of my deputies at one time.  That’d be all right.  I’d just take my black eye and sore back over to the office and serve a warrant on that there show of yours and shut it down.”  The sheriff paused.  “Course, I’d have to confiscate the box office take and all that money that’s been laid down on whether you or that English feller wins.  Seems like that might amount to a couple thousand dollars.  I imagine that’d be enough to give the office a nice re-do.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

Roy drew his gun and pointed it at the prize fighter.  “Just you try me.”

“Stay out of this, Roy,” Ben warned.

“Can’t do that, Ben.  It’s my job to uphold the law.”  The sheriff came close and laid a hand on his shoulder.  “And to keep someone I love and respect from bein’ bull-headed and dab-blamed foolish enough to get himself killed.”

“Pa,” Hoss said, “he’ll kill ya.  Plain and simple.  You gotta think of Joe.  He’s just a little feller. He needs you.  We all need you.”

Again, the horror of what had happened the year before shuddered through Ben.  He was five-feet-eleven and two-hundred and fifty pounds.  Hoss was six-foot-four and over three hundred.  Joseph weighed in on the shy side of one forty and was barely five-foot-nine.

It was only by the grace of God that his youngest still walked the earth.

Ben drew a deep breath, pulled his hand away from his gun, and turned and headed for the door.

“This isn’t over, Cartwright,” John C. Regan called after him. “I haven’t forgotten – or forgiven – what you did to me.  You and your sons.”

“Is that a threat?” Roy asked.

The pugilist sneered.  “No, sheriff, it’s not.

“It’s a promise.”

 

“You’re certain you’re all right?”

Joe Cartwright rolled his eyes.  “I swear, Adam, you’re as much of a mother hen as Pa and Hop Sing!  You took a look at my leg this morning.  You said it looked good.”

“I said it didn’t look bad.  There’s a difference.”

Adam was back on the shack’s roof.  They’d risen early and removed the old one without too much difficulty and spent the better part of the morning shoring up the walls before replacing it.  Fortunately, there’d been enough wood lying around that they didn’t have to cut any.  Since the shack would be sound and the privy was usable, they’d decided to forgo repairing the shed until their return trip.  There were still a lot of shacks to go and the weather wasn’t looking too pretty.  There had been more sleet overnight.  In fact, Joe was surprised older brother hadn’t thrown in the towel and headed for home.  After all, he was just a kid and would probably be stupid enough to go out in the snow to pee and then decide he was some kind of explorer and go looking for silver or something, but Adam?

Joe snorted and then he sneezed.

“What was that?”

He winced.  “Got somethin’ in my nose.”

“Like a cold?”

“I haven’t got a cold and I haven’t got much patience either!  You gonna take this beam and finish that roof or make me stand here so long I take root?”

Adam caught the other end and took it from him.  His brother stared at him a moment before returning to work.

“What?”

Adam scowled. “What ‘what’?”

“What are you looking at me like that for?”

“So now I’m not allowed to look at my brother?”

“Not like that!” he snapped.

“Like how?”

“Like there’s something wrong with me.”

Adam laughed as he hammered in a pair of nails.  “Shows what you know.”

Joe waited a few seconds.  “Well, are you gonna tell me or not?”

His brother halted what he was doing and then put the hammer down and turned toward him.  “You want the truth, I suppose.”

“It wouldn’t hurt.”

Adam slid so his feet were dangling off the shack’s roof.  “I intended to bring Hoss with me on this trip.”

Joe felt deflated.  “So, I was second choice.”

“Don’t take it wrong, Joe.  Hoss is, well…  You have to admit he could have moved this whole building back onto its foundation by himself in less than a minute.  When I travel the line, he’s a great help.”

“And I’m not?” he squeaked.

His brother slid off the roof and came to his side.  “When I was looking at you, I was thinking the exact opposite.  I would have missed something special if you hadn’t come along.  I’ve enjoyed the time we’ve spent together immensely.”  Adam grinned.  “With the exception of the little detour over the edge of the ridge.”

“So what you’re saying is that what I lack in size I more than make up in enthusiasm?”

“Right….”  Adam laughed as he placed a hand on his shoulder.  All too quickly, the smile on his face was replaced with a frown.  “Joe…?”

He stepped back, shaking off his brother’s hand, but Adam was not to be put off.  Older brother followed him and this time that hand landed on his forehead.

“You’ve got a fever.”

Joe wrinkled his nose.  “It’s only a little one.”

Adam puffed out a sigh.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I knew you’d make a big thing out of it like you are!”  Joe threw his hands in the air.  “I’m fine!”

Older brother continued to stare at him for several heartbeats before he nodded.  “Okay.  Just let me know if it goes any higher.”

And with that, he returned to the roof.

Joe stood there, mouth agape.  Not only was he stunned, but he was something else for the first time since he and Adam had ridden away from the ranch.

Suspicious.

 

FOUR

There was a knock on the door.  Adah left what she was doing and went to answer it.  A small part of her hoped Ben Cartwright had returned.  He was the best man she knew – kind, generous, gentle, and loving.  Life to him was a gift, a blessed thing; something to cherish and nurture.  That was the reason she’d turned him down when he proposed.  Isaac Menken had been such a man.  They’d been happy for a time, but then the discontentment – the longing and need for something more – had risen up within her and spewed forth, black as bile, poisoning everything they had.  Isaac asked for a divorce.  She gave it to him.

She had to admit the prison she lived in was of her own devising.  It was her personal and private hell.  There was enough goodness left within her that she would not condemn another to it, not unless they deserved it.

Like the man waiting outside the door.

She’d seen his carriage roll into town and stop beneath her window.  She knew the large dark shadow that disembarked as well as she knew herself, and knew as well that she didn’t have the power to resist him.

Adah drew a breath and turned the knob.

“John,” she said.

When she said nothing more, he pushed past her.  Without pause, the mountain of a man made his way to the decanter of expensive champagne that sat on the hotel’s table and poured himself a glass.  After he tossed it back, he indicated the bottle with a nod.

“Cartwright?”

She shook her head.  “It’s from the management of the theater.”

John dropped into the chair beside the table and reached for the bottle again.  “They’ve got taste.”

“You would know,” she said, her tone curt.  “After all you’ve been wined and dined by the finest in the United Kingdom.”

“You could have been there with me, Adah.”

“You know why I didn’t go!  Why I couldn’t!”

He pretended to look around.  “You have the brat hidden somewhere?”

Adah sobbed.  Her hand went to her now empty womb.  The silence there echoed the despair in her heart.  “Don’t be cruel.  You know.  Your child…our child is dead.”

John put the bottle down and rose to his feet.  Once he reached her side, he stopped; his shadow covering her like a blight.

“Get this straight.”  His words were meant to hurt.  “You and I were never married.  If you had some man’s brat, it sure as Hell wasn’t mine!”

“I have the papers to prove we’re married!”

“Those papers mean nothing.  Even if there was a ceremony, it wasn’t legal”  His finger shot out and punched her in the shoulder.  The contact was painful.  “You lied to me.  You were still married to Menken.”

“I did not!  Isaac and I were divorced….”

“By a rabbi?”  He sneered.  “Don’t tell me you were gullible enough to believe a Rabbinic divorce would hold up in a Christian court.”

“We are married!” she shouted as she took hold of his vest.  “John , we are!  Our child was legitimate!”

“Your child was a bastard, fathered by some fool stupid enough to believe he loved you.”  He caught her by the throat.  “Some fool stupid enough to think you know what love is.  Face it, Adah.  It’s all about you.  It’s always been about you.  There’s no room in your heart for anyone else.”

“You’re wrong!”

“Am I?”  He pulled her close.  “What about Ben Cartwright?  You could have had him and his money.  Why’d you turn him down?”

“I…was in love with you.  I’m not anymore.  You’re despicable!   Ben was here.  He….”

John’s grip tightened.  “I know he was here.  He and I had…words.”  He snarled.  “Ben Cartwright will never look on you with anything but horror and disgust.  I nearly killed his precious boy and you did nothing!  You were in my bed within the hour!”

“I…  I….”  She sobbed.  “I was frightened.”

“Were you?  Or were you aroused by the violence – the power?”  John’s grip tightened as he gazed into her eyes – before he released her and shoved her to the ground.  “Face it, Adah, you’re worthless.  Whoever’s kid that was, it was lucky it died.  I can’t imagine you as a mother!  You would have sucked it dry and spit it out before it turned two!”

“John, no….”

He stepped over her and went to the door.  “I came here to tell you that, just because I am riding your coattails, doesn’t mean I want anything to do with you.  You’re all washed up, Adah.  I know you had to come out West because none of the reputable theaters in the East would have you, and that’s saying a lot considering the type of women who take to the stage.”  John paused with his hand on the knob.  “Come to think of it, you’ll fit in here just fine here.  I hear Virginia City has more whores than the Barbary Coast.”

His words were a knife to her soul.  Adah raised her hands above her head to ward them off.

“What a pathetic excuse for a human being you are.  Why don’t you just end it and put us all out of our misery?”

With those words, her husband, her lover – her taunter and tormentor, was gone.

Adah lay where she had fallen as the sun passed its zenith and began its descent, heralding the end of another day of desolation and despair.  Her fingers clutched the thick lush fibers of the Oriental carpet she lay upon.  She used them to drag her weary body up and onto the settee.  Beside it lay the leather-bound journal she used to record her thoughts.  Her hand shook as she took up the pen and opened the journal and began to write.

Where is the promise of my years;

Once written on my brow?

Ere errors, agonies and fears

Brought with them all that speaks in tears,

Ere I had sunk beneath my peers;

Where sleeps that promise now?

 

I can but own my life is vain

A desert void of peace;

I missed the goal I sought to gain,

I missed the measure of the strain

That lulls Fame’s fever in the brain,

And bids Earth’s tumult cease.

 

Myself! alas for theme so poor

A theme but rich in Fear;

I stand a wreck on Error’s shore,

A spectre not within the door,

A houseless shadow evermore,

An exile lingering here.*

 

The pen dropped.  Trembling, her hands went to her face.  Adah drew in a long breath and then rose and went to her valise where it lay open on the bed.  She set the lavish clothing aside and removed from its false bottom the casket that held her jewels.  Beneath that casket was another smaller one.  It held two things: a silver rattle that belonged to her dead son and an elegant cobalt blue tear catcher bottle over-laid with gold and dotted with pearls.  Lotta Crabtree had given the bottle to her.  The other woman understood.  Tears were precious to the Lord God of Israel and between them they had shed enough to flood the river Jordon.

A river she would – sooner than later – have to cross.

 

“Back so soon?” a husky voice asked.  Hoss turned his head toward the bar where Sam occupied his usual spot.  “Seems funny seeing you without your brothers,” the barkeep said.

The big man nodded.  He felt funny without his brothers – kind of like a part of him was missin’.  The saloon was fairly full, but it felt empty without them at his side.  Most of the occupants were local.  There were only a few he didn’t recognize.

“Pa’s havin’ a ‘talk’ with Roy Coffee,” he said as he took a seat at an empty table.

“Don’t tell me your father broke the law!”

The big man leaned back.  “Not yet.”

“You want a beer?”

“Just a sarsaparilla.  Thanks.  I done had enough liquor for one visit to town.”  Hoss frowned as his stomach let off a long, loud growl.  “Fact is, I’m right hungry.  I ain’t et anythin’ today.  You got any vittles?”

“Cheese and salami.  If you give me a minute I might be able to rustle up some crackers to go with them.”

“You’re a lifesaver, Sam!”

“That Pa of yours not feeding you?” the older man asked as he began to hunt.

He didn’t really want to go into why they hadn’t eaten at the hotel.  “You know Pa.  He’s all about business.”

The sound of the barkeep scrounging around was shortly followed by an ‘aha’!  A minute later Sam came to the table with a big old hunk of cheddar, half a salami, and a bowl of crackers.

“I keep ‘em for the poker games, but you can have them. You look like you might just fade away from hunger.”

“I sure do feel like a ghost.”  Hoss patted his stomach.  “Ain’t gonna be anythin’ left of me soon.”

Sam laughed as he returned to the counter.  He’d been polishing glasses for several minutes before he asked, “Where are those brothers of yours?”

“Riding line up north,” the big man answered as he dug into the vittles.  The cheese was sharp, just like he liked it, and the crackers some of Beth Riley’s best.

“Making sure the shacks are stocked before winter, eh?”

“Yep.  You know Pa.  He wants them shacks fit as a fiddle and ready to go in case anyone needs them to hold up in durin’ the cold weather.  Us included!”

“Don’t you usually go with Adam?  Seems to me I remember Little Joe sitting here pouting about being left behind just about this time of year.”

Hoss laughed.  “That’d be little brother.  Pa probably brought him to town to keep him out of trouble.”

“How old is Joe now?”

“He’ll turn eighteen on the thirty-first.”

“All Hallows Eve, eh?”  Sam grinned.  “Somebody trying to send a message?”

Hoss snorted his sarsaparilla through his nose.  “Don’t you let little brother hear you say that.  He’ll pop you in the nose.”

“Like he did you a year back?”

Something clutched his heart.  Like a hand closing hard.

“Sorry, Hoss.  I didn’t mean to bring back bad memories.”  Sam paused.  “I hear Regan’s back in town.”

“You seen him?”

The barkeep shook his head.  “No, and he’d better not darken my doorstep again.  I don’t serve bullies and would-be murderers.”

Murder.  That’s what John C. Regan had tried to do to Little Joe.  Kill him.  And he’d stopped his father from taking revenge.  Twice.

It was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

“You all right, Hoss?”

“I sure am.  I just think, well, I better check on Pa.  He was right upset this morning.  Sheriff Roy took him over to the jail to cool off.”

Sam’s grizzled brows rose.  “Oh?  With or without a key?”

Hoss shrugged.  He didn’t rightly know.

 

“You will let me out of here, and you will let me out of here now!”

“Now, Ben, I’ll let you out of that there cell just as soon as you cool down.”

The rancher’s fingers gripped the cell bars.  “I am not going to ‘cool down’ so long as I am unjustly incarcerated!”

Roy pulled at his chin.  “Well, let’s see.  Threatening to do bodily harm to another man and pulling a weapon in a public place….”

“I did not pull my weapon in a public place!  You stopped me before I could!”

“Well then, thinking about pulling it!  There’s got to be a law against that somewhere in the books.”

The rancher leaned his head against the bars.  “Look, Roy, if I promise I won’t tear John C. Regan limb from limb, will you unlock the door?”

“I would, Ben, but I don’t know as I can trust you.”  At his look Roy added, his tone grim. “It’s just about all I can do to trust myself not to shoot the sorry bastard.”

“What?”

“I may not have seen that boy of yours, but I saw that alley, Ben.  There was so much blood in it, it looked like a pig had been stuck.”  The lawman swallowed.  “The law’s fair and just, but there are times it ain’t right.  Sad to say there’s nothin’ either of us can do, lessen Regan does somethin’ stupid.”

“Like trying to kill Little Joe again?”

“Has he threatened to do that?”

The rancher ran a hand through his thick white hair, forcing it back from his forehead.  “He did, last year.  Joseph told me.”

“Would Little Joe make a statement and swear to that?”

“He would if he was here, but he’s not.  I sent him away.”  Ben dropped onto the bed in the cell.  “He and Adam are riding the line, checking the shacks.  I wanted him nowhere near John C. Regan.”

“You afraid the boy will try to take that monster on by himself?”

Ben snorted.  “I know he will try to take him on.  Joseph has never truly recovered from what happened before.  It left him…vulnerable in so many ways.  Roy, my son is no weakling.  Little Joe can take on a man twice his size and win – if the fight is fair.”  He ran a hand over his jaw.  “John C. Regan doesn’t know the meaning of the word.”

A sound alerted the lawman to the fact that someone had entered the jail.  Hoss’ massive form appeared in the cell block doorway a moment later.

“You come to take your pa home?” Roy asked with a grin.

“You gonna let him go?”

The lawman shrugged.  “I’m thinkin’ about it.”

“Roy, look,” Ben began.  “I can’t promise I won’t confront Regan.  He tried to kill my boy and the man needs to pay for what he did.”  At his friend’s look, he went on.  “But I can promise you this, I will not kill him.  Much as I want to, if I did, I would be no better than him.”

One side of Roy’s face twitched.  He turned to Hoss.  “What about you, boy?”

His son frowned.  “I want to kill Regan with my bare hands, Sheriff Roy, but Pa’s right.  That’d be wrong.”

“How about poundin’ the livin’ daylights out of him?”

Hoss winkled his nose.  “I cain’t for sure swear I won’t take a swing at him if I get a chance.”

Roy nodded.  “Good enough.”  A second later he jammed the key into the lock and opened the door.

“You’re going to let us go?  After what Hoss just said?”

“I am.”  The sheriff pointed the key at his son.  “Just you make sure that any poundin’ you do is out of my jurisdiction.  You understand?”

Hoss grinned.  “You got it.”

“And Hoss?”

The big man raised his eyebrows.  “What is it, Sheriff Roy?”

“You be sure to give that arrogant bastard a good one for me.”

 

It was late by the time he was liberated and so they decided to stay in town again.  Ben wanted to avoid the hotel where Adah was staying, but the performers and crew that accompanied both her and Regan had filled the lower price establishments.  All that was left was an expensive suite directly across from hers.  The rancher made a vow as he and his son wearily climbed the stairs that he would not seek her out.  He’d stated his intentions and made himself clear that morning.  There was no need for another confrontation.

Sadly, he found himself drawn to her like a moth to flame.

Fortunately, the suite had two rooms.  Hoss was already asleep and snoring away behind a closed door.  He loved his son dearly, but sharing a room with the big man and getting a peaceful night’s rest was tantamount to getting old chief Winnemucca to allow his daughter to attend the harvest ball!

Ben sat on the bed and reached for his boots, but stopped and walked to the window instead.  He’d noted it before as they approached the hotel – a large tent being erected at the edge of town.  No doubt it was for the exhibition match between John C. Regan and Tom Sayers, which was set for early Sunday afternoon.  Nearly every post and pillar they passed had been plastered with handbills, announcing either the match or Adah’s performance.  Virginia City’s streets were lined with hawkers selling tickets and souvenirs.  Little boys made boxing gloves out of paper sacks and strings and pretended to spar with one another, while the little girls adopted Adah’s latest hairstyle – shoulder-length sausage curls – and sang and danced hoping, just maybe, they too would be discovered and transported to the world of fame and fortune as she had been.

A world that bore very little resemblance to the bleak one ‘The Menken’ inhabited.

The rancher lifted his eyes to the land beyond the town, to the tall pine trees that were barely visible and stood as mute sentinels pointing the way home.  He missed his home.  He missed his boys.  By now Adam would have Joseph far beyond John C. Regan’s hatred and his reach.  Joseph would be angry when he returned home and realized what they had done.

Still, he’d rather have an angry and alive son than a dead one.

An unexpected knock on the door brought him out of his reverie.  Ben frowned as he headed for it, wondering who waited on the other side.  It was the hotel manager.  They knew each other well enough for him to see that the man was troubled.

“Is something wrong, Matt?”

The young man pulled at his collar.  Embarrassment colored his peach-fuzz cheeks red.   “Forgive my presumption, Mister Cartwright, but I couldn’t help but hear the other day.  I take it you know Miss Menken…well?”

He nodded.  “We are of old acquaintance.  Why?”

“I’m not sure.  She refused her lunch and, when the girl went to take her supper, she found the door locked.  Miss Menken gave no response to her calls.  Molly left the tray outside but it’s gone untouched.”

“Adah didn’t respond at all?”

“No, sir, and there is no light on in her room.”

A chill snaked through him, almost a premonition.

“You have a master key I presume?”

Matt pulled it from his pocket.  “Yes, sir.  I hesitated to go in.  You know actresses.  They can be as unpredictable as they are temperamental.”  The young man frowned.  “No offense meant.”

“None taken.”

“Pa, is somethin’ wrong?”

Ben turned to find the suite door open and Hoss standing in it.  His son’s feathery hair winged out on both sides, giving him the appearance of a bird in flight.

“Nothing I can’t handle.  Go back to bed, son.”

The big man was staring at the hotel manager.  “You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

His son shrugged.  “Okay.  You let me know if you need anything.”

“I will.  Now go back to sleep.”

Hoss yawned widely – and loudly – and did as he was told.

Turning back to Matt, Ben said, “Give me the key.”

“Would you like me to accompany you?”

He shook his head. Whatever was wrong, he wanted to do his best to give Adah her privacy and preserve whatever dignity remained.

“Very well,  I will go back downstairs.  There’s a bell pull in her suite like there is in yours.  Use it and I will come immediately.”

“Thank you, Matt.  I’m sure I can handle it on my own.”

A moment later Ben was headed across the hall.  Adah’s door was at the opposite end of the suite from his.  He paused outside it and struck the painted surface with his hand.

“Adah?  Adah, it’s Ben.  Let me in.”

There was no reply.

“Adah?”

Again, nothing.

Ben hesitated to use the key.  Adah was a woman, after all, and could be in various states of undress or going about her personal business.  She might have taken a draft and fallen asleep and would not welcome his intrusion.  Still, the sense that told him when his boys were in danger was tingling.  There was nothing to back it up, but he had a feeling something was terribly and horribly wrong.

He knocked again.  Harder this time.

“Adah?”

The silence was all.

Ben placed the key firmly in the lock and turned it.  Adah’s door swung open with ease.  He stepped into the room and waited for his eyes to adjust.  The curtains were drawn and it was black as a night without stars.  Once he had his bearings the rancher walked to the window and pulled the drapes to one side, allowing the moonlight to stream in.  He turned – and then he saw her.  Adah lay on the bed.  She was still dressed.  One arm was thrown haphazardly to the side, while the other lay on her chest, clutching something.  Her skin was white as marble; her lips lapis lazuli blue. With dread and caution he approached her.  It could have been the moonlight, but he didn’t think it was.  She didn’t seem to be breathing.

Ben clutched the brass footboard, his knuckles gone white.

“Adah,” he breathed, ‘what have you done?”

“He had no idea what he done,” the weaselly little man said.  “I was pretty slick.  Slipped in and out of the saloon without him even knowin’.”

“Spare me the details of your prowess.  Just give me the facts,” John C. Regan said.  “Otherwise, no money.”

The cowboy nodded.  “I was sittin’ there when that big ape started talkin’ to the bar-keep.  He spilled the beans right there and then.”

The pugilist’s hand shot out to catch the slat-thin man’s collar in his hand.  He lifted him up and off the ground.

“Where…is…Little Joe Cartwright?”

“R…ridin’ line, Mr. Regan.  Him and his brother.  They’re on the north side of the Ponderosa.  I…I worked for old Ben a few years back.  I can take you to right where he is.”

“You’d betray the man you worked for?”

His informant spat as his feet touched the ground.  “Old Ben fired me ‘cause of them brats of his.  All them Cartwrights can stand to be took down a peg or two.”

“How long will it take to get there?”

The man shrugged.  “Depends on how far they traveled today and what they found. There’s a lot of damage from the spring floods.  My guess is him and Adam aren’t too far along the line.  A day.  Maybe two.”

Nature intended a smile to be an expression of happiness, so the look on John C. Regan’s face could only be described as a sneer.

“Show me the way there and you’ll get your money.  Assist me – and keep your mouth shut – and I’ll double the amount.”

“What are you gonna do?”

The pugilist ground his hands together in anticipation.

“No one  – and I mean no one – makes a fool of John C. Regan and lives.”

 

FIVE

“Why don’t you go check inside the shack while I take care of the horses?”

Joe Cartwright turned toward his brother and waved his agreement.  Words just wouldn’t come.  He was dog tired and, if the truth was known, hurting.  There was no way he was going to admit it to older brother, but his injured leg was bothering him.  The cut was throbbing and his boot felt tighter on that leg than the other one.  He’d been wracking his brain all day trying to figure out a way to keep Adam from noticing.  Older brother was sure to see his calf when he took off his boots in order to sleep.  Of course, he could just flop down on whatever the shack had that passed for a bed and pretend to fall asleep with his boots on.

Joe ran a hand a hand over his slightly wet forehead and sighed.

It wouldn’t take much pretending!

They’d used the morning up finishing repairs at the shack the mudslide hit, shared a cold lunch, and then headed for its nearest neighbor.  The shacks were about a half day’s ride apart, so they’d traveled at most forty miles.  He hadn’t slept well the night before and felt like he’d been ridin’ drag for a week or more.

It was a good thing the sun was going down ‘cause he wasn’t worth a barrel of shucks.

“You okay, Joe?”

The curly-haired man winced.  He turned to look at his brother who stood outside of the stable attached to the shack.

“Just tired,” he called back.

“Well then, go inside and lay down.”  Adam said as he moved into the stable.  “And take your boots off.  I want to take a look at that leg of yours when I get there.”

Dang!

Joe turned toward the small building with a resigned sigh.  He hadn’t gone two feet when the door opened from the inside and the barrel of a shotgun filled the gap.

“You stay right where you are!” an odd voice ordered.  “Don’t you move!”

Joe blew out a breath.  “Look, whoever you are, this is Ponderosa land and you’re – ”

“I’d suggest you get your hands up if you want to keep that pretty head of yours!”

Pretty’ head?

“And tell that other feller to come here too.  I can see him hidin’ in the stable.”  After a pause, whoever it was called out.  “You hear me?  You’ll come out now if you don’t want to see this little feller here end up with a hole in him big enough to drive a herd of longhorns through!”

Joe swallowed as he heard the unseen weapon ‘click’.

“Adam?  I think you better do what…whoever-it-is says.”

His brother left the stable and advanced toward him, hands held high.  “I assume my younger brother here told you that you are trespassing on our land?  I –”

“There weren’t no fences and I didn’t see no signs.  How do I know you ain’t the ones trespassin’?”

“Our father owns this land.”

“Is your father here?”

Adam glanced at him.  “Well, no….”

“Don’t mean much then, does it?”

Joe squinted in an attempt to see past the rifle and into the darkness to whoever it was who held the weapon.  He could just make out their hands.  They were small.

He was beginning to think it was a woman.

“If you need help, we’ll be happy to give it to you,” he offered.  “We’ve got plenty of provisions in the wagon.”

“I don’t need no help.  I can take care of myself.”

“A familiar mantra,” Adam muttered while rolling his eyes.

Joe wrinkled his nose and rolled his too.

“Look,” older brother said, “my arms are getting tired.  How about you put that rifle down and we come inside and discuss this like civilized human beings?”

“I ain’t puttin’ Matilda down.  I know about men.  You’re all worthless as a pail of hot spit.”

The curly-haired man scowled.  “I think we’ve been insulted.”

“I know we have,” Adam agreed.  “Will you at least come out where we can see you?”

Joe didn’t know what he expected, but it wasn’t what he got.  The person holding the rifle might have been five-foot-five and was obviously a woman.  She was dressed as a man in a long plaid shirt, blue janes, and a pair of rough work boots two sizes too big and looked like she hadn’t seen the inside of a bath tub in a month of Sundays.  He couldn’t even tell what color her hair was.  It looked dishwater blond, but that was probably because it hadn’t seen a bar of soap in twice as long!  A small bump under that large shirt revealed another thing.

She was pregnant.

Joe started to lower his arms.  “Look, ma’am….”

The gun swung directly toward him.  “Do I look like a ‘ma’am’?”

“No, ma’am, I mean, no…Miss?”  Joe sighed as he thrust his hands back into the air.  “I don’t know what I mean.”

“I don’t see a ring,” Adam muttered under his breath.

“Ma’am,” Joe tried again, changing it at her look to, “Miss….Miss….?”

She glared at him over the rifle.  “Temperance Flowerdew.”

He and Adam exchanged a look.  “I beg your pardon?”

“My friends call me ‘Tempy’, but since you ain’t a friend you better just make it Miss Flowerdew.”

His brother cleared his throat.  “Miss…er…Flowerdew, as you may have noticed the sun is nearly down and it’s growing very cold.  Could we please go inside to discuss this?”

She shook her head.  “You can sleep with the horses.  We can talk right here in the morning.”

Joe felt his heart sink to his toes.  He had really been looking forward to sleeping on a cot placed right next to a fully-stoked wood stove.  He would never admit it to Adam – or Miss Flowerdew – but he felt ice-cold.

Adam stepped in front of him, arms still raised.  “Miss Flowerdew, may I have a word with you?” he asked in that tone he had; the one that could melt a heart of stone.  “Alone?”

“Whatever for?”

His brother’s head inclined toward him.

What was Adam up to?

“I suppose,” ‘Tempy’ said and backed up.  “You can come up onto the porch, but no further.”

Joe waited, not so patiently, while the pair talked in low tones.  Every so often Temperance – what a name! – would look over big brother’s shoulder at him.  Finally, somewhat reluctantly, she nodded.  The rifle went down and she stepped into the shack.

The door remained open.

His brother came to his side.

“What’d you tell her?” Joe asked.

“That you’re sick and likely to catch your death if you have to sleep in the stable.”  Adam pinned him with that same look Pa had.  “I wasn’t lying, was I?”

“I’m –”

“Fine?”  Big brother sighed.  “ No, you’re not Joe.  Your face is flushed and you’re shivering.”  His hand shot out to touch his forehead.  “Just when were you going to tell me about this fever?”

“It’s the same fever I had last night,” he snapped back, his dander up. “ I didn’t figure I had to tell you!”

Adam’s gaze dropped to his boot.  “Your leg is swollen.”

“Maybe.”

“Look, Joe, I know you hate to admit you’re sick, but you’re going to have to play it up inside.  I need you to make Miss Flowerdew feel sorry for you.”

“Why?”

“You know women.  They can’t resist mothering a man when he’s sick.”

“Are you two gonna stand there jawin’ all night?”  Temperance was back on the porch, rifle in hand.  “If you are, I’m gonna go ahead and lock this here door and you and your skinny little brother can take your chances with the horses.”

Adam grabbed his arm.  “On our way.”

As Joe shrugged free, his brother placed a hand on his shoulder. “And Joe, one more thing.”

Now what?”

“I need you to turn on the charm.”

The curly-haired man rolled his eyes.  “It might come as a surprise, older brother, but I don’t find myself particularly attracted to a pregnant woman who looks like she spent a month in a pig sty, and probably doesn’t smell much better!”

Adam grinned.  “You know what they say, little brother, beauty is only skin deep.”

Joe sighed as his brother stepped onto the porch.

If it was, it was gonna take an awful lot of scrubbing to find it.

 

The night was a dark as the soul of the woman he had loved.

Ben ascertained first that Adah was still breathing, and then bounded down the hall to rouse Hoss and send him for the doctor.  The first thing he did when he returned to her suite was go to the window and toss the curtains aside so the moonlight could find its way in.  Then he lit a lamp and then….

He went to work.

Thank God he had spent as many years as he had as Paul Martin’s friend!  They’d spoken about everything and anything medical from how best to apply a tourniquet, to what to do in case of poisoning.  He had no idea what Adah had taken, though the room had a scent he recognized as he stepped in – something like the kitchen when Hop Sing baked spice cake.  As time progressed he noted an underlying medical smell and guessed it was laudanum.

Thank God!  If Adah had taken arsenic, there would have been no hope.

Ben sat on the side of the bed and spoke to the unconscious woman as he went about checking her vitals.  So far she’d been unresponsive to both his voice and touch.  Adah’s breathing was slow; shallow and erratic.  Her ivory skin had turned a sickening shade of bluish-purple, as had her fingernails and lips.  She had a pulse but it was slow.  In fact, it was almost undetectable.

He placed a hand on her cheek and called her.

“Adah.  Adah, can you hear me?”

A slight tremor shivered through the actress’ slender frame.  Otherwise there was no response.

“Adah, it’s Ben.”  He patted her cheek.  “Adah?”

Her head turned to the side and she moaned.

“Good.  Good, you can hear me.”  Ben shook her gently.  “Adah, I need you to wake up and confirm what you took.”

‘Why’ she took it would have to wait for later.

When Adah failed to respond, he took hold of her shoulders and shook her.  “Adah!  Answer me!”

Her eyes flickered open.  Just enough that he could see the pupils in the moonlight.  They were contracted and far too small, as if she were gazing into a bright light.

He hesitated to do what Paul Martin had shown him.  After all, the lesson had been given in case one of his sons – three strong young men – ever ingested something harmful.  Ben drew a breath, whispered a quiet apology, and then ripped the bodice of her dress apart, revealing Adah’s corset and the full, round breasts it held captive.

“Sorry,” he apologized unnecessarily, and then took his knuckles and placed them where the dying woman’s chest met her ribs and began to move them in a circular motion.  A few seconds later, he moved to her upper lip and did the same.

“Pa?”

Ben turned toward the door.  Hoss’ massive form was framed within it.

“Did you find Paul?”

“He had to finish up what he was doin’.  He should be here in ten minutes or so.”  Hoss advanced into the room.  “How’s Miss Menken?”

Ben turned back to the quiescent form on the bed.  “Alive,” he replied.  “For now.”

“Can I do anythin’ to help, Pa?”

“Come here.  We need to turn her on her side in case she vomits.”

Ben inched forward and took hold of the supine woman as his son came to his side.  Adah was limp in his arms.  Her eyes opened and stared at him as they turned her onto her side and bent her knees, but there was no recognition in them.

“What do you think happened, Pa?” Hoss asked as he used his big hands to lay her down.  “You think it was an accident?”

Ben’s gaze went to the bedside table.  He’d noticed the note before but had no time to read it.  Turning back, he showed his son the small blue bottle he had pried out of the actress’ hand.

“This was no accident, son.”  Unstopping the tear catcher, he sniffed the remnants of the liquid it contained.  “It’s laudanum.”

“You mean….?”  Hoss looked ill.  “You mean Miss Menken tried to kill herself?  Why would she do that?”

Why?

It was hard for someone like Hoss to understand.  It was hard enough for him.  To be driven to despair, to have so little hope – to feel so much pain – that you couldn’t bear the thought of another day.  He’d been close several times in his life, but had managed to cling to the hope of a new sunrise eclipsing the dark night of his soul.

“It’s hard for you and me to know why, Hoss.  Maybe it’s living where we do, where each new day offers so many endless possibilities.”  Ben took Adah’s hand in his own.  “Or maybe it’s the ability to see those possibilities and to reach out and grasp them.  Whatever it is, I am afraid Adah does not possess it.”

“Good Lord!” came the exclamation of a familiar voice.

Ben rose and turned toward the door.  “Paul.”

“Make way,” the physician said, all business.  He put his bag on the table by the bed, dislodging the note that lay there so it fluttered to the floor.  “Has she responded at all?”

“Adah moaned once and turned toward me, but I don’t think she knew I was there.”

“There’s nothing blocking her air passages.”  Paul looked at him.  “Has she vomited?”

“No.”

His friend leaned in close and sniffed.  “Laudanum,” the physician pronounced, confirming what he already knew.  “We’re going to have to get it out of her.  At least as much as we can.”

Paul was already reaching for his bag and what it contained.  “I’ll mix a concoction that will make Miss Menken empty her stomach.  After that we need to get her on her feet and keep her on them.  It’s imperative we don’t let her drift away.”  The doctor turned to his son.  “Hoss, go ask someone to brew several pots of hot black coffee and bring them here.”

“For Miss Menken?” his son asked.

Paul’s lips curled in a tight smile.  “Yes, and for your father and me.  It’s going to be a long night.”

 

Adam glanced up from what he was doing to look at their ‘guest’.  Temperance was watching them from the doorway with the eyes of a hawk.  She still had the rifle in hand.  Upon his arrival, he’d forced Joe to sit down at the table that occupied nearly half of the line shack’s common room and taken off his boot and sock.

He didn’t like what he saw.

Redness radiated out from both edges of the deep cut that ran the length of Joe’s lower leg.  The wound was hot to the touch and the limb, swollen.  He’d noted as well that his brother’s eyes were slightly glazed and Joe’s cheeks were high in color.

“You should have said something earlier,” Adam sighed as he rocked back on his heels.

“So you could do what?”  Joe smiled triumphantly at his silence.  “Face it, Adam.  I just gotta ride it out.”

‘Ride it out’ indeed.  That was precisely what he needed his brother to do.  The last thing he wanted to do was to take Joe back to Virginia City.

Where John C. Regan was waiting.

“Aren’t you gonna argue with me or something?”

“No.  You’re right.  We’ll just…ride it out.”  Adam turned toward Temperance.  “Did you find any whiskey?”

She shifted her grip on the rifle and held out a bottle.  “How come your Pa stocks whiskey in his shacks?”

“For an emergency like this,” the man in black responded shortly as he stood up.  He hadn’t taken a step when his brother’s hand caught his arm.

“Adam.  What’s going on?”

He scowled.  “What do you mean, ‘what’s going on’?”

Joe’s jaw was thrust out.  Never a good sign.

“First of all you don’t argue with me when I tell you I’m fine, and now you agree to not going back to town even though it’s pretty clear my leg’s infected.”  His brother winced at the admission.  “Might become infected.”

He touched Joe’s forehead.  “Your fever’s higher.”

“So what?  It’s also clear that you won’t take me back and I want to know why!”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

Joe turned toward Temperance.

“Am I being ridiculous?”

She shrugged.

“See?  Temperance agrees with me.”

“I didn’t say I agreed with you.”

“Well, you didn’t say you didn’t!”

Adam held up a hand.  “Kids.  We’ve got enough trouble without the two of you sparring.”

They’d decided between them that Temperance was close to Joe’s age.  Seventeen, maybe eighteen.  Up close he’d been able to take a better account of her.  She was fairly fit.  Her teeth were straight and white, indicating she came from a decent family with some money.  Her clothing, though obviously borrowed and worn to death, was store bought and well-made.  His guess was that she’d found herself ‘in the family way’, and had either been turned out or run away.  As he noted before, she had no ring, but then again that wasn’t sure proof that she wasn’t married.

It just meant she wasn’t wearing a ring.

“I’m not being ridiculous!” Joe proclaimed as he rose to his feet.  “You’re hiding something and I want to know…what….”

The kid suddenly went green.

Adam was on his feet in a second.  He caught his brother by the arms.  “What’s wrong?”

Little Joe swallowed.  “Just feelin’ sort of…sick….  Adam, you better….”

Joe pushed past him and headed for the door.

“I’m sorry,” Temperance said as Joe disappeared into the night.

Adam turned to face her.  “Beg pardon?”

“I thought you were lying.  I didn’t believe Joe was really sick.”  She hesitated, and then lowered the rifle and anchored it against the wall by the door.  “You should go after him.”

He could hear Joe retching outside.  “So, we’re okay then that Joe and I aren’t a threat?”

“I don’t know about that,” she said, hedging.

“Temperance, we told you the truth.  Our father owns this shack and we came here to make sure it was provisioned for winter.  You have nothing to fear from us.  In fact, we’ll help you if you let us.”

Her eyes, which he’d noted were an unusual shade of gray, moved  to the open door.  “You better check on your brother.”

Five minutes later, when he returned to the shack with a very pale and trembling Little Joe on his arm, Adam was pleased to see that the rifle was still in the same spot and Temperance had lit the stove and put on a pot of coffee.

“I turned the bed down,” she said.  “I figured Joe would need it.”

“Thank you”, he said as he directed his less than stable brother toward the cot.

“I’m fixing some coffee.  I figured you both might need that.”

Adam nodded.  With Joe sick, it looked like it might be a long night and he was already weary from the work and worry of the day.  “I appreciate it.  Thank you.”

“I put a few blankets on the floor by the cot.  You can sleep there.  I’ll sleep in the other room.”  The young woman paused.  “I got my rifle, so don’t you get any funny notions in your head.”

“Temperance, please believe me when I say you are completely safe with us.  As I told you before, our only ‘notion’ is to help you.”  He ran a hand over his stubbled chin.  “You look like you could use a friend.”

She blinked and sniffed.  A second later a tear marked a clean trail down her dirty cheek.  “I can take care of myself.  You just mind your brother.”

“How old are you?”

The question seemed to take her by surprise.  “Twenty,” she said.

He laughed.  “Try again.”

“Eighteen.”

“Okay, we’ll play it your way.  Eighteen.  That makes you a little older – but just as young – as baby brother.”

“And I suppose you’re ancient.”

“At thirty, I feel ancient enough,” he replied.

Temperance inclined her head toward the cot where Joe lay softly moaning.  “You’re worried about him.”

He nodded.  “He’s got a nasty cut.  Took it in a fall.  I’ll need to clean the wound again to see if I can get his fever down.”

“I can help.  I took care of my ma when she was sick.  She…didn’t make it.”

“You live with your father then?”

“I did.”  She sniffed again, in dismissal this time.  “’Til he kicked me out.”

“I’m sorry.”

She gave him an odd look.  “I’m not.  Coffee’s ready.  You want some?”

“That would be wonderful.”

As Temperance headed for the stove, Adam headed for his brother.  When he got to the cot he discovered that Joe’s skin was dry.  The color in his cheeks was higher, as was the fever.

“How are you feeling?” he asked as he sat down.

Joe ignored the question.  He nodded his head feebly in Temperance’s direction.  “Did you find out anything else about her?”

“Only what we thought.  Her mother’s dead.  Her father kicked her out, no doubt due to her condition.”  He frowned.  “You didn’t answer me.”

“I’m okay, Adam.  No need to worry.  I don’t know what happened.  Must have been somethin’ I ate.”

He knew, but he let it go.  “Get some sleep, little brother.  Let’s hope you feel better in the morning.”

“I will.  Hey, Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“I need you to be honest with me.”  Joe scooted up a bit in the bed.  “What’s going on?  Why are we here?  How come you don’t want to go home?”

He considered the questions.  “Joe, do you trust me?”

“That ain’t fair, Adam.”

“Nevertheless, do you?”

It took a second.  “You know I do.”

“It’s for the best.  That’s all I can say.”

“Pa thinks the same?”

He nodded.

Joe leaned back and closed his eyes.  “The two of you are always treating me like a kid.”

No, Adam thought as he pulled the thin blanket up over his brother’s shoulders.

The two of us are always trying to keep you alive.

 

SIX

Hoss returned with the coffee and, true to Paul Martin’s prediction, it was indeed a very long night.

Ben scrubbed his hands over his stubbly cheeks and let out a sigh as he headed for the window.  The sun wasn’t up yet, but its rising light was gilding the tips of the mountains, so it would be soon.  He figured it was around six in the morning and he hadn’t slept a wink.

It felt remarkably like one of the nights he’d spent waiting for Joseph to come home.

The coffee in the pot on the table was cold now.  He poured himself another cup in spite of that and sipped it as he pulled the curtains aside and looked out on the waking town.  It had always stuck him as odd how a momentous thing could happen and the world went on as if nothing had occurred.  It was foolish, he knew.  There wasn’t a single man, woman, or child on the street who knew what had happened in this room.  Only him, Hoss, and Paul Martin.

And, of course, God.

Ben turned to look at the sleeping form on the bed and then lowered himself into the chair pressed up against the table.  Adah made it through the night, but it had been – as the Bard she was so found of might have put it – a battle joined.

When Adah first woke, she was non-responsive.  The actress had been put through the mill by then, with Paul insisting he had to purge the contents of her stomach a second time in order to be certain the poison was out.  The physician then ordered Adah be lifted from the bed and the two of them had taken turns walking her around the room to keep her both awake and alive.  When she started to become aware of her surroundings, she fought them with a strength and resilience that had both surprised and shocked his friend.  Adah did not want to live.  She made that quite clear.  The rancher reached up, touched his cheek, and sighed.  Just before she fell into an exhausted sleep she had slapped him hard and told him in no uncertain terms that he had no right to interfere with her life  – or death – and that she hated him.

Ben raised his cup and found he had to stifle the instinct to blow on the dark liquid to cool it.

Instinct.  The instinct of a man – or woman – was to live and not to die.  He could only guess what had driven this beautiful, vivacious, and intelligent woman to seek to end her life.

Then again, no, he didn’t have to guess.  He knew.

John C. Regan.

The rancher ran a hand over his eyes.  It wasn’t within him to hate, but he did.  He hated Regan.

God help him.  He wanted the man to die.

“Ben?”

The weary man turned toward the door.  It was open enough to allow Paul Martin to peek in.  “I thought you were sleeping,” he told the doctor as he crossed to it.

“Just woke up,” the other man replied.  Paul’s eyes went to the supine figure on the bed.  “How is she?”

He looked too.  He’d pulled the covers up to Adah’s chin and left her to sleep.  Her face was pale and drawn; her breathing still a bit shallow.  His friend had assured him that was normal.

“About the same,” he said.

Paul nodded.  “I wanted to check in before I got some breakfast.  After that, I will come back and spell you so you can get some sleep.”  The physician’s eyes crinkled with worry.  “You look dreadful.”

Ben snorted.  “I imagine I look like a man who went a night without sleep.”

“More than that, you look like a man who came close to losing someone he loves.”

After Paul left, Ben closed the door and leaned on it.  Loves?  Did he still love Adah?  He’d told himself he didn’t – that what had happened to Joseph and the actress’s nonchalance about the attack had driven out any feelings he had for her.

But had it?

“…Ben…”

The rancher turned toward the bed.  Adah was awake and looking at him. He went over to her and anchored a hip on the edge of the feather tick.

“How are you feeling?”

Adah closed her eyes and turned her face away from him.  Her voice was rough with disuse.  “Like a failure.”

One of her hands lay on the top of the coverlet.  He took it in his.  “Because you didn’t die?”

A tear streamed down her cheek.  “Yes.”

“But there’s more?”

She glanced at him.  “…yes.”

“Tell me.”

Adah shook her head.

Ben drew in a breath.  She was weak.  Did he have a right to press her?  And yet, if he didn’t. would she ever be able to speak of what had driven her to this pass?   If not, would she attempt to take her life again?

“It has to do with Regan.”

The actress’ jaw tightened.  “Don’t…mention that brute to me,” she said, with a little of the fire he knew.  “He’s…the Devil incarnate!”

“I tend to agree.”

Adah sucked in air as more tears flowed.  “Oh, Ben, I am so…sorry.  I….”  Her long lashes fluttered against her too-white cheeks.  “I was a coward.”

“To try to take your life?”

She shook her head.  “About…Little Joe.”

“Did Regan threaten you?”  He needed to know.  “Adam said he struck you.  Were you afraid…?”

She was still shaking her head.

What then?”

“John threatened….”  She sucked in air.  “John threatened to finish…what he’d begun if I did anything other than go with him.”  Adah’s gaze returned to him.  “He said he would kill Little Joe…and then…you.  All I could do was to get him away from Virginia City as fast as I could.”  The beautiful woman began to sob.  “Oh, Ben!  He’s a monster!  How could I….  How could I be so blind?!”

Ben reached out to touch her silken hair and then brushed a stray lock of the fine brown stuff off her forehead.  In many ways, Adah was a child.  Though she pretended to be sophisticated and worldly, she was an innocent.  Belief.  Hope. Trust.  These were the things she gave.  What she got in return was doubt, despair, and duplicity.   He had tried to rescue her from it.

Tried and failed.

“An old friend told me once that those who trust can never be betrayed,” he said softly, “only mistaken.”

She made a noise low in her throat.  “You should have let me…die, Ben.  I will never be free of him.”

It had come out overnight, the tale of all this man had put her through.  At first John C. Regan appeared to be a doting husband.  The reason soon became apparent.  As the husband of ‘The Menken’ he could bask in Adah’s limelight and ride the wave of her success to glory.  At first he’d treated her decently enough, but then the abuse began; mental and emotional at first, but gradually turning physical.  Regan kept her cowed.  He made her believe no one would ever love or want her if they knew what a wretch she was.  Adah was no stranger to alcohol or drugs.  He’d known that when he asked her to marry him.  He had thought – hoped – that the clean fresh hope of Nevada might heal her.

Talk about a fool.

When Adah’s star began to wane and his to rise, John C. Regan found he had less need of her.  The prizefighter promised he would follow when her career called her back to the States.  Instead he brought in the press, announced that she had never divorced Isaac Menken – that she was married to two men at one time – and took up with a mistress.  By this time Adah was pregnant.  She had – and lost – their child alone and in secret.  As surely as the pugilist’s fists had sought to end his young son’s life, Regan’s words were meant to destroy this sad and beautiful woman.  Shortly before she came to Virginia City, Adah had a confrontation with him.  Regan paid her back by telling her he was taking it to the courts.  Everything about her life would be exposed and laid bare.  No one would want her anymore.  No theater would hire such a notorious strumpet and bigamist.

Death must have seemed the only way out.

“Mistaken,” Adah muttered as sleep began to take her.  “They whose guilt within their bosom lies… imagine every eye…beholds their…blame.”

Shakespeare.  Of course.

Ben’s hand remained on Adah’s hair as sleep blissfully took her away from the unbearable ache her life had become.  He remained where he was for a moment and then rose and returned to the table.  On its surface lay the note he had found on the floor.  He’d scanned it earlier.

He read it now with deeper insight.

‘I feel called upon to make an explanation of the rash step I have taken in defense of all law, human and divine, because I know that many things will be said of me, some good and very many bad, and perhaps blame attached to those who are innocent.  God forgive those who hate me, and bless all who have one kind thought left for a poor reckless loving woman who cast her soul out upon the broad ocean of human love, where it was the sport of the happy waves for a few short hours, and then was left to drift helpless against the cold rocks, until she learned to love death better than life.

Because I am homeless, poor and friendless, and so unloved, I leave this world. Because I have forgotten to look up to the God of my childhood prayers, and ceased to remember the counsel of my dear old mother – and because one of God’s greatest handiworks – one of his glorious creatures, lifted up my poor weary soul to see the light of his love, and the greatness of his brave heart, until his sweet words of truth and promise, drank out all my life – absorbed all of the good and beauty, and left me alone, desolate to die.  I am not afraid to die.  I have suffered so much that there cannot be anymore for me. 

I go prayerless, therefore pity and do not condemn me,

My worthless life has long since left me and gone to dwell in the breast of the man, who by foul suspicion of my love and truth for him, has thus ushered me up to the bar of the Almighty, where I shall pray for his forgiveness for the cruel and wrong he has done the weak and defenseless being whose sin is her love for him, as my death proves.  God bless him, and pity me.”

It was signed, Adah Isaacs Menken, and dated the day before.

He was going to take her to the Ponderosa, if she would go.  He felt – no, knew – that Adah needed time away from prying eyes to recover.  It also concerned him that John C. Regan was in the area.  No doubt the brute would try to bully her again.  Ben was sure it would delight the prizefighter no end to know he had brought Adah low enough that she had made an attempt to take he life.  At the Ponderosa Hop Sing could look after her when he was gone and, once the boys came home, she could join in and see what family was all about.  Somewhere, over the years, Adah had lost her way.  It would be a bit uncomfortable at first between her and Little Joe, but he knew his son.  He knew the boy would be forgiving and that, perhaps, Joseph’s unconditional love could help this poor weary creature to heal.

Ben returned to Adah’s side and laid his hand on the actress’ arm.  Leaning in, he planted a kiss on her cheek.  As he did Paul Martin returned and ordered him to bed.

He didn’t argue.  He was weary too.

 

Adam stopped what he was doing.  He raised a hand to shield his eyes as he looked west toward the sound of an approaching horse.  He’d risen early and left the shack to chop wood.  It was cold inside and neither Temperance, who was in a maternal condition, nor his brother who was injured, needed to be cold.  Joe was still sleeping when he finished breakfast and he’d checked on him before leaving the shack.  His brother’s fever was no higher.  The trouble was, it wasn’t any lower either.  Most likely it was caused by Joe’s body fighting to throw off the infection in his leg.  Still, that meant there was infection and that had him worried.

“You sound just like your father,” the man in black muttered under his breath.

A second later the rider came into view.  He was as run of the mill as they came.  The man was neither short nor tall, and neither thick nor thin.  His hair was the color of mud and, from what he could tell, his eyes were the same – with, perhaps, a splash of reflected sky thrown in.  The stranger was dressed as a typical cowboy in brown twill pants and a tan shirt that had seen better days.  A well-worn hide vest had been tossed over the shirt and he wore a red bandana around his throat – the only splash of color in an otherwise monotonous ensemble.  The rider might have been forty or fifty, or somewhere in-between.  It was hard to tell.

“Howdy, stranger,” Adam said as his gaze flicked to the rifle he’d leaned against the pile of wood he’d just created.  “Can I help you?”

“I’m lookin’ for the Ponderosa.  I heard Ben Cartwright can always use hands and I’m in need of work.”

“I see.”  Adam put the ax down and took a step forward.  “Are you a wrangler?”

“Heck, no, but I know about carpentry and construction.”  The man nodded toward the shack.  “I could build you one of those in a couple of days.”

“A tradesman, eh?”  Adam began to roll his sleeves down.  “That’s better than a wrangler.”

“What do you know about it?  You know Ben Cartwright?”

“I should.  He’s my father.”  The man in black bent over the water bucket and came back with a ladle full.  “Drink?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” the stranger said as he reached down.  “How far is it to the Ponderosa?”

“About a day and a half, if you keep a good pace.”

“What’re you doin’ out here, if you don’t mind my askin’?” the man asked as he handed the ladle back.  “Seems the boss’ son should be, well, I don’t know…sittin’ somewhere with his feet up, smokin’ a cigar and sippin’ whiskey.”

Adam continued to assess the stranger.  He didn’t look like a carpenter.  His arms, where they showed, weren’t muscled, and his hands appeared to be smooth and unblemished.  Temperance hadn’t given a description of the man following her, but this could be him.

“Not this boss’ son.  I work for wages just like everyone else, though I do get to enjoy a glass of his French brandy from time to time.”

“Brandy?  Yuck.”

Adam laughed.  “It’s an acquired taste.”  He turned and pointed to the southeast.  “Head that way.  You’re already on Ponderosa land.  You’ll probably run into some of the hands this evening.”

“Already on it?  Just how big is it?”

It was his father’s crowning achievement.  “A thousand square acres.”

The stranger whistled.  “That’s half the state of Nevada.”

“Just about.”  Adam drew a breath.  He’d heard motion inside the cabin.

The man heard it to. “I thought you were alone.”

“My kid brother’s with me.  We’re readying the line shacks for winter.”

“It just the two of you?”

Ah.  Here we go.

“Yes.”

“You see anyone else in these parts?”

“No.  Why do you want to know?”

The man took hold of his horse’s reins and pulled them to one side, urging the horse to the left and around him.

“You can’t be too careful out here.  A man’s pretty far from help.  Just checkin’ so as I know what I’m in for.”

As Adam watched the stranger depart, it dawned on him that he hadn’t got a name.  Then again, if the man was headed to the Ponderosa, he’d know soon enough.  If not, and he was the one who was searching for Temperance, it was best to be rid of him as quickly as possible.  That way he could warn her.  Though, what he was going to do to protect her, he didn’t know.

Drop the bar into place and poke the nose of his rifle out the loophole he supposed.

“Adam?”

He turned to find his kid brother standing in the partially open door.  “You should be in bed, Joe,” he said.

“Good morning to you too,” the teenager snorted.  “I’m feeling better.”

Adam’s trained eye assessed him.  There were circles under the circles cradling Joe’s green eyes and his color was off.  “You don’t look better.”

“Says Doctor Cartwright.”  His brother blew out a breath as he left the shack.  “I came out to get some wood.  Tempy is cold.”

“Tempy?”  Adam’s dark brows danced.  “Have we turned on the charm as requested?”

“There’s nothing too charming about a woman losing her breakfast.”

“She threw up?”

Joe rolled his eyes.  “No, she ‘lost’ it ‘cause it up and walked away.”

“Ha ha.”

Baby brother did that ‘thing’ he did, where he twisted his lips, flared his nostrils, and sent his mobile brows flying.

“Joe?”

Joe was gathering wood.  “Yeah?”

“Tell Temperance to stay inside.”

His brother came to stand beside him.  “How come?”

“We had a visitor.  Said he was headed to the Ponderosa for work.”

“You don’t think he was?”

“I’m not sure, but just in case.”

“Okay, I’ll tell her.”  Joe turned with the wood in his arms.  “I’ll take this inside and get the stove stoked.  I got her in the bed now and she’s shivering.  Will you check on her in a few minutes?”

“Why?  Where are you going?”

Little brother scowled. “Tempy’s breakfast may not have walked away, but I’m gonna float away if I don’t go take care of business.”

“Alone?”

“For gosh sakes, Adam, of course ‘alone’!  You haven’t had to escort me to the privy since I was four!”

“Try ten.”

“Well, I’m eighteen now and I sure as hell can find my way to a tree and back!”

Almost eighteen.”

Joe’s temper was rising.  “Adam….”

“Okay, okay.  Just…be careful.  I don’t know why, but I’ve got a feeling that man was after something other than a job.  Plus it looks like a storm is brewing.”

“And it has to be me?  Is that it?”

Until that moment he hadn’t thought of that.  He was thinking about Temperance.  Even if Regan knew they were running the line, there was no way the bully could know exactly where they were.  As he’d told the stranger, there were a thousand square acres of land to vanish into.

“I didn’t mean that, Joe.  I just meant…well…I meant be careful.  You never know what’s in the woods.

“Joe?” a light feminine voice called.

“Coming!”  Looking back over his shoulder, Joe added, “Tempy could use some help, Adam.  I didn’t….  Well, I didn’t want to help her out of her clothes and they’re smelling pretty bad.”

“Oh?  But I can?”

Joe looked at him like he was an idiot.  “You’re old.  She’s not gonna worry about you.”

With that insult, his brother disappeared into the shack.

Adam ran a hand over his face and raised his eyes to the sky.

All he got in answer to his unspoken prayer was a distant rumble of thunder that sounded remarkably like God laughing.

 

Joe glanced up as he stepped out of the shack.  Adam was right.  There was a storm approaching, so he’d better hurry.  He dropped a couple of extra pieces of wood back on the pile and then turned toward the woods and relief.  Older brother had insisted he remain while Tempy shed her soiled clothes and then had him help her ease into a large shirt left behind by one of the shack’s former tenants.  She’d shinnied into a pair of jeans two sizes too big for her too and then allowed Adam to help her to bed.  When big brother pulled the covers up to her chin, he’d announced his intention to make the long-needed trip into the woods.  Adam had given him that ‘look’ – like he was four-years-old and didn’t know which end to wipe – and then sent him out the door with another warning to be ‘careful’.

What did big brother think there was in the woods?  A great big old grizzly bear waitin’ to eat him up?  Or maybe a mountain cat that caught his scent and was hiding up in the branches of the tree he was gonna take a piss on?  For gosh sakes….  No, hell’s bells!  He was tired of everybody treating him like he was a snot-nosed kid still wearin’ a dress.  He was gonna be eighteen in a few days.  Everybody told him that meant he was gonna be a man.  Well, everyone but Pa who said it meant he was old enough to be ‘considered’ a man.  Pa said his actions would prove whether or not he was.  He sure wanted to prove to Pa that he was all grown up – and to Adam and Hoss as well.  He’d looked up to them his whole life and now it was time to stand as an equal, even if he was three, or four, or well, somewhere around six inches shorter – in boots.

Joe sighed.

It was hopeless.

While he sought a suitable tree – as if there was some rule about which one to pee on – Joe considered the last year.  It had been a tough one.  He’d loved and lost first Julia and then Amy, faced down outlaws, been mistaken for a bank robber and nearly shot, and dealt with a dozen other things that would have made most men turn tail and head back East.  The worse of them had been John C. Regan.  Regan had used him to get to his pa and nearly killed him in the bargain.  He still felt, well, shamed that he hadn’t been able to defend himself – that it had taken Hoss to do it for him.  Oh, he understood well enough that Regan was half-again as tall, twice his weight, and meaner than a rattler on a spit, but there should have been something he could have done!  His brothers taught him how to use his smaller size to his advantage.  He was fast – really fast.  If Regan had taken him on in a fair fight he would have won.  Might have won.

Could have won.

Maybe.

Joe unbuttoned his trousers and took aim.  When he did, the thunder cracked overhead, almost like an omen, and rain began to fall.  They were in for a storm for sure.  He finished his business, fastened his flap, and turned back toward the shack just as a second thunder-clap split the night.  The lightning flashed, illuminating the forest.  It was followed by a profound darkness.

Joe swallowed hard and looked up.

And up.

“The name’s Regan,” the giant of a man who had haunted his dreams for nearly a year said as he cracked his knuckles.  “John C. Regan.  I’ll be sure they tell your pa so he can write it on your gravestone.”

 

SEVEN

Adam stared at their unexpected guest.  Tempy, as Joe called her, or Temperance had returned to the common room.  She’d tried to lie down but had grown uncomfortable and decided walking around might help.  He’d left the outer door open a crack so he could listen for his brother’s return and hoped the cold breeze blowing off the rain wasn’t too much for her.  He wasn’t worried about Joe – so far.  It was his youngest brother’s habit, whenever he was outside, to make a detour to the stable before coming in.  Tonight would be no different.  The kid would want to personally make sure that his beloved Cochise was well fed and bedded down properly.  The man in black pulled his pocket watch out, noting the time.

If Joe didn’t show in ten minutes, he was going looking.

“My pa has one of those,” Temperance said as she halted by the table.  “He looked at it all the time.  He liked to say, ‘When you kill time, remember it has no resurrection.’”

“That’s an unusual choice of words.”

The young woman shrugged.  “He’s a preacher.”

“And he threw you out?”

Her hand landed on the bump at her middle.  “I ain’t married.”

As a young man he’d been puzzled by a scripture their parson often quoted.  It was in the seventh chapter of Matthew.  ‘Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.  Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name, and in thy name have cast out devils, and in thy name done many wonderful works?  And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.’  He couldn’t figure out how someone could sit in the pew week after week and call themselves a ‘believer’ and not, well, believe.

Later, he’d found out that parson was one of them.

“I take it your pa doesn’t understand grace.”

Temperance rolled her eyes.  “All my pa knows is the law.  He’s got a long list and he’s checked everythin’ off and that means he’s a good man.”  Her lips curled with a smile that reminded him of his ornery little brother.  “Pa gave me that list.  I made sure I un-checked all of them.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, do you know who the father of the baby is?”

She shot him a look that could have killed.  “It ain’t like I took on every stallion in the stable.  Of course, I know.”  She moved to the window.  “He don’t want nothin’ to do with me, or the baby neither.”

“I’m sorry.”

Temperance turned back to stare at him.  “Why?”

“Why what?”

Why are you sorry?  You don’t know me from Adam.”

He chuckled, which didn’t help her disposition any.  “Look, Temperance, I know you’d rather be alone, but Joe and I are here to do a job and we’re not leaving until it’s done.”  Never mind that he was not about to leave a pregnant woman on her own.  “So why don’t you cut out the ‘tough as nails’ act and make it easier on us all.”

Her jaw tightened in defiance.  “What makes you think it’s an act?”

He snorted.  “Did you notice my baby brother?”

Temperance’s gaze went to the door.  It was wistful.

Yeah, she’d noticed.

“He’s…nice,” she said at last.

“Joe?  Yes, he can be.  He’s also stubborn and willful and as close-mouthed as a clam.”  Adam grinned.  “Sound familiar?”

That got a smile.  A little one.

“What’s with the disguise?” he asked a few seconds later.

“What disguise?”

“The cowpoke clothes.  The dirt.”  He paused.  “The fake dialect.”

She frowned.

“A while back you weren’t dropping any ‘gs’ and forgot to use ‘ain’t’ a few times.”

Temperance glared at him and then seemed to deflate.  “It’s a sure bet that you’ve never traveled alone as a woman.  You should try it some time.  It ain’t…it isn’t easy.”

“So where are you from?”

She’d moved to the stove and was fingering one of the towels that hung from the rack on its side.  “Lots of places.  Sacramento was the last stop.  My father had a call to one of the big churches there.”

“Is your real name Temperance Flowerdew?”

The young woman looked at him like he was an idiot.  “Yes.  Is there something wrong with that?”

He shook his head.  “No.  It’s just…unusual.”

“My father says it was originally ‘flower dieu’, like in the flower of God.”  She made a disgusted noise.  “That’s what he called me and my younger sister, Chastity, his little flowers from God.”

“Where’s Chastity?”

There was something in her eyes – a darkness that moved in as if heralding a storm.  “Dead.  Like my ma.  I’m all that’s left.”

Sensing the subject was a tender one, Adam shifted to another.  “So, who’s after you?  You said the father of the baby wanted nothing to do with you.  Is it your father?”

“My father is a saint sent straight from Heaven to light the way for all of us poor ignorant souls who walk in darkness, or so he says.”  Temperance turned to look at him.  “If you ask me, he’s a demon from Hell.  He’d as soon kill me as anything since I darkened the name of Flowerdew.”

Good Lord!  What had they gotten themselves into?

Themselves….

Joe.

The man in black rocketed out of his chair and headed for the door.  “I need to check on my brother.”

“Why?  Joe’s old enough to take care of himself.”

Adam turned to face her.  “It appears that your home life was hell, Temperance, and I’m sorry.  There are families who care about one another and look out for each other and mine happens to be one of them.  My brother has been gone too long.”  He swallowed over a lump of fear.  “Something’s wrong.”

Adam grabbed his coat.  He thrust his arms into it before opening the door onto the tempestuous night.

Then, he froze.

“Back up real slow, Mister Cartwright,” the stranger who had been going to the Ponderosa said as he leveled a pistol at his belly.  “You ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

 

It was beneath his dignity – not to mention his pride – but he ran like hell.

Joe stopped, breathing hard, and looked back over his shoulder.  One good thing about John C. Regan was he was big as a moose and just about as stupid.  The people in Reno could have heard him as he charged through the underbrush.  Apparently, you didn’t have to know much about finesse to be champion of the world.

Then again, there wasn’t much need of finesse when you were six-foot-seven and weighed over three hundred pounds.

The teenager shuddered with the memory of those three-hundred pounds slamming into him.  It had been nearly a year since the beating, but it might as well have been yesterday.  For a split second pride had demanded he face the brute down and stand his ground.  Fortunately, common sense and brother Adam’s voice in his ear quoting that damn saying about ‘the better part of valor’ won out.  Pride be damned!  He’d taken off like a jackrabbit that sighted a coyote. His slight size proved an advantage when it came to running.  He could fit in – and through – places that stopped big men cold.  Unfortunately, he had his dang leg to contend with.  The wound was throbbing like Hell.  Still, Joe knew the pain in his leg was nothing compared to the pain he would feel should John C. Regan get hold of him.

The teenager started running again, moving quickly but pacing himself so he wouldn’t wear out too soon.  Lord!  Where in the Hell had Regan come from anyway?  The last he’d heard about the prizefighter, he’d been in London.  He’d found a New York newspaper lying on Pa’s desk one day.  When he opened it and read the front page, his heart near skipped a beat.  There was a photo of Adah Menken.  Standing next to her was her husband, John C. Regan, the ‘Bencia Boy’.  The article said they were headed overseas on a European tour.

Maybe Europe threw him back.

The teenager turned a bend and kept running.  His plan was to double-back and reach the line shack before Regan did.  It seemed the smartest course.  He’d stepped out to pee, not to take a hike or go hunting, and hadn’t bothered to put on his gun belt.  He was without a coat or gloves and the rain was steadily coming down.  Adam was at that shack and, much as he hated to admit he wanted older brother at his side, when it came to dealing Regan he could swallow that too!  Together they could make the prizefighter back down – or maybe even take him out.

That would take out most of his nightmares as well.

CARTWRIGHT!” the moose bellowed from close behind him.

Time to hop.

 

“Don’t try it!” the dripping stranger snarled as he stepped into the shack.  “I’ll shoot you where you stand.”

Adam’s brows folded toward the center.  He hadn’t tried anything.  Then he realized the man was looking beyond him and turned to see Temperance lowering her rifle.

Good’, he thought.  ‘She’s got spunk.  I can count on her in a tight spot.’

“Leave that rifle where it is and move to the other side of the room, woman,” the stranger ordered.  “And don’t think I won’t shoot just ‘cause you’re a woman in a maternal way.”

Temperance made a face and did as she was told.

The man turned back to him.  “Take a seat, Cartwright.”

“At the table or on the cot?”

“Don’t you get smart with me!”

“I’m not.  I’m simply attempting to clarify what your desire is.”

And stalling for time, of course.

“My ‘desire’ is for you to shut your yap and plant your butt on that there chair!”

He could probably take the man.  The stranger was jittery as a bee-stung stallion.  Sadly, Temperance was in the line of fire.

As was her unborn child.

Adam sat at the table.

The man produced a length of rope from his pocket and held it out.  “You, woman!  Get over here and tie him up.  And make it tight!”

Temperance took the rope.  She groaned as she bent over to bind his hands.

“I got more for his feet,” the man said.

The expectant mother straightened up and looked directly at the stranger.  “If you think I’m going to bend all the way over and tie his feet, you got another think coming!”

“You’ll do as I say!”

“Or what?  You’ll kill me?”  Temperance glared at him.  “Go ahead.  Do me a favor!”

Their captor had no reply for that.

As the blonde woman moved away, Adam looked longingly at the door.  The stranger had pushed it to after coming in.  It was his hope – his prayer, really – that his little brother didn’t suddenly push it open and walk in unaware of danger.

“You looking for the kid?”

“No.”  Adam glanced at his captor.  “Just admiring the sunset through the window.”

The man shook his hair free of rain.  “It’s the last one that skinny little runt will ever see.”

“What have you got against my brother?”

“It ain’t just your brother.  It’s all you Cartwrights!”  The stranger pointed the gun directly at him.  “So high and mighty.  So sure of yourselves.  We’ll see how high and mighty your old man feels when he buries that smart-ass kid of his.”

Adam thought back over the conversation he’d had earlier with this man.  So the threat here was to Joe and not to Temperance.  Good Lord!  How could he have gotten it so wrong?  He’d been  so concerned about protecting the pregnant woman from danger, that he had unknowingly placed his little brother directly in the line of it!

“You’re working for John C. Regan.”

“Maybe I am, and maybe I ain’t.”  The stranger sneered.  “I’m bein’ paid to keep you inside.  Ain’t none of my business what’s goin’ on outside.”

“If Regan…kills my brother that will make you an accessory to murder.”

“Says who?”

“Says me!”  Adam inclined his head toward the woman behind him.  “Says Temperance.  There are two witnesses!”

“You can’t prove nothin’.  If I go to jail, it’ll be for a few days for holdin’ a gun on you.  Nothin’ more.”

He was right, of course.

Damn him!

Adam licked his lips.  “Look.  I have a good deal of money.  Whatever Regan is paying you, I’ll double it –”

“You don’t get it, do you, Cartwright?  This ain’t about money alone.  It’s about takin’ you and yours down a notch of two.”  His captor paused.  “You don’t remember me, do you?”

Adam studied the non-descript man before him.  “No.”

“Well, I remember you –  always ridin’ at your pa’s side like you was some kind of a prince, shoutin’ orders and makin’ everybody hop.  You hadn’t been home a month from that high-faultin’ school back East and already you was actin’ like you was the boss of everyone.”

It was true Pa had given him a lot of responsibility very quickly and he had been a little high-handed at times.

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” he said and meant it.  “I was a kid.  Not that much older than my little brother,” he added with meaning.

The stranger looked a bit uncomfortable.  “Your pa should have known better.”

As he’d noted before, the man was rail-thin with dull brown hair and muddy eyes.  He could see his face now and there was something familiar about it.  The thin lips.  The downward cast of his eyes that made him look shifty.  A cruel mouth.  It was coming back.  This man had worked for them at one of the timber camps.  There was a conflict of some sort.  Something to do with a choice the man made that put others in danger.  Pa had been furious and fired him on the spot.

“Brig Louden,” he said.

“So you do remember me.”

Oh, yes, he remembered him.  He’d told Brig that the cable he was using to restrain a load of timber was damaged and would not hold.  The camp had been in his care that day and he’d ordered the logger to cease working until a new one could be secured.  The problem was, Pa had promised a bonus to the crew who finished first – within safety limits, of course.  Brig defied him and continued to work.  The cable snapped soon after he left, sending an avalanche of two ton trees crashing down the hill.

Five minutes before the timber hit the ground, Pa’s foreman had been standing at the bottom of that hill with sixteen-year-old Hoss and ten-year-old Little Joe, explaining how the timber business worked.

“You nearly got my brothers killed.”

Brig sneered.

“Almost did then.  It’s for sure one of them is gonna die now.”

 

Joe turned and looked over his shoulder as he slipped through a narrow passage between rocks.  It was clear as a bell John C. Regan didn’t like to lose.  The prizefighter cursed up one side and down the other – using words that should have set the trees on fire – as he continued to elude him.  This time it was different from that night in the alley.  That night Regan caught him off-guard.  He’d been thinking about Adah and his pa and not payin’ attention to what was going on around him.  This time he was keenly aware, just as the other animals in the forest were aware, that he was being stalked.  Like them – like any animal being pursued by a predator twice its size – his senses were heightened.  He could hear Regan’s threats – the almost bestial howls of frustration – and feel the forest floor shake beneath the giant’s boots.  He smelled his pursuer’s cheap cologne and whiskey, and cigar-stained breath on the breeze.  In contrast, he’d become preternaturally quiet.  Joe moved with stealth and secrecy, determined to conceal any signs of his presence.

The weary teenager halted for a second to wipe sweat from his eyes.  He’d been traveling in one direction for a while, running along the bottom of a ridge and clearly making for the high ground.  The high bank of earth was dotted with caves where a man could hide.  He wanted Regan to think he was a coward.  Big men tended to dismiss slender wiry men like him and to underestimate them in size and speed – and courage.  Cautiously, he began to climb and, after a few minutes in the rocks, turned back the way he had come.  If his gambit worked, he would soon pass over the prizefighter’s head and leave John C. Regan stumbling through the dark in a vain quest for a prey that had both outsmarted and outwitted him.

It would have worked too if one of those other animals in the forest hadn’t decided to make an appearance at that moment.  Joe jerked back as a mountain cat’s paw swung at him out of the dark.  He yelped as his foot hit a slippery rock and he dropped to the ground – thirty feet behind John C. Regan.

The prizefighter heard him.  Regan swung around and bellowed, “CARTWRIGHT, YOU’RE DEAD!”

He would have been too.

If it hadn’t been for that cat.

 

Adam had nothing to do, so he was resting his head on his chest.  It came up at a sound.  The man in black winced at a cry that was one of mingled horror and pain.  His instant response was to shoot to his feet and run out the door, but he couldn’t.  Damnably, he was held firmly in place by the ropes Brig had used to bind him to the chair.

“Did you hear that?” he demanded.

“Yeah, I heard it.”

“Someone is in trouble!”

The cowboy sneered.  “Yeah….”

“Good God, man!” he cried.  “You don’t know who it is.  It could be – ”

Brig snorted.  “I know who it is, Cartwright.  That’s the sound of your baby brother goin’ down.”

Adam closed his eyes and drew a deep, steadying breath.  When he did, a scene flashed before them – him coming into the hotel lobby that night, turning the corner and seeing his baby brother stretched out on the settee more dead than alive.  Joe’s body was broken and his face battered almost beyond recognition.  John C. Regan had no more than a few moments in that alley.  He could have been caught – jailed – and punished for what he did.

Out here there was no law.

No hope.

Adam’s eyes popped open when someone started pounding on the door.

“Open up!” a gruff voice called.

“That you, John?” Brig asked as he went to it and lifted the bar.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“You take care of the kid?”

“I took care of him.”

Brig turned back to shoot him a triumph look.  He was caught off guard a second later as the door burst in and slammed him into the wall, knocking the gun out of his hand.  The fact that the outlaw was now powerless barely had time to register before a bedraggled, wild-eyed figure rushed into the room.  Little Joe eyed the weapon and the downed man.  It surprised Adam when, instead of picking up the pistol and pointing it at Brig, his brother took the time to close the door and slam the safety bar back into place.

“Joe, look out!” he cried.

Brig was reaching for the gun.  Joe’s boot came down on his hand with force.

Just as a fierce banging began.

“Trouble?” he asked.

Baby brother placed his back against the door and nodded.

“With a capital J.C. Regan!.”

 

EIGHT

Ben opened the ranch house door and ushered in a cloaked and hooded figure.  They’d traveled through the rainy night in order to protect his guest from prying eyes and arrived just as the sun broke on the horizon.  He’d had no way to alert Hop Sing, so the house was dark, the windows shuttered, and the fire banked.  No doubt the Asian man was still in bed.

Which suited him just fine.

The rancher closed the door behind them and hung his hat and coat on the peg.  When he turned into the room, what he found gave him pause.  Adah had removed her cloak and gone to the hearth.

Many years had passed since a woman he loved stood before that fire.

Had loved.

Adah turned to look at him.  “Thank you, Ben.  For everything.”

He went to her side.  “Do you mean that, Adah?”

“Yes.  I…didn’t really want to die, but I did want it to end.  I….”  She drew a breath.  “I couldn’t – I still can’t see any other way out.”

He touched her cheek.  “There’s always a way.”

Adah pulled back.  “You don’t know!” she snapped.  “You have no idea what that man is capable of!”

He held her gaze.  “Is that so?”

“Oh, Ben.”  The beautiful woman rested her head on his chest.  “I’m so sorry.  I was…such a coward.  Your beautiful son….”

“Is alive.”  Ben breathed out his relief.  “Joseph is alive.”

Adah’s head jerked back and her eyes went wide with a sudden thought.  “Little Joe.  Where is he?  Is he here?  John threatened – ”

He brushed a stray lock of hair from her forehead.  “I sent Joseph away with his older brother.  Adam knows not to bring him home until after Regan leaves Virginia City.”

“That won’t be until after the bout with Sawyer.”

“A week or less.  It will take them at least three to run the line on this end of the Ponderosa.”

“But if John finds out he’ll….”

“Happening on Joseph in Virginia City is one thing.  But tracking him down?  Taking that risk?”  The rancher shook his head.  “No, Adah.  I can’t believe any man – even John C. Regan – is vindictive enough to risk everything just to pay a seventeen-year-old boy back for surviving.”

“It won’t be to pay Little Joe back,” she said.

“No?”

“It will be to pay you back for offering hope where there is none.  For daring to love the woman he owns.”

“Regan can’t own you unless you let him.”

Adah’s jaw grew tight.  “Have you never known such a love, Ben?  Surely with three wives you have.  A love that possesses you, body and soul?  One that takes your breath and steals the very beat of your heart?  It is such a love as the bards speak of – that the minstrels sing.  A love without which you cannot live.  A love –”

“Adah,” he said.  “John C. Regan is a monster.”

Tears kissed her eyes before she lowered her head.  “Ah, yes.  But he is my monster.”

He’d believed she was like Marie when he met her – willful, vivacious, battered but unbroken.  He’d been wrong.  Adah was nothing like Marie.

How could he have ever thought he loved her?

“Ben, I’m tired,” Adah said, her voice utterly weary.  “If it’s all right with you, I’d like to lie down.”

“Mistah Ben?  What you do home?”  They both turned.  Hop sing was coming out of the kitchen wing, linens in hand.  “You tell Hop Sing you not come home ‘til tomorrow night!”  The Asian man halted when he saw Adah.  “Forgive this one,” he said with a bow.  “He not see honorable guest.”

“Hop Sing, this is Adah Menken.  She’ll be staying with us for a few days.  Please show her to the guest room.”

“This one happy to do so.  Hop Sing make guest room fresh last night.”  The man from China passed them and headed for the stair.  “Missy Adah please come this way.”

Adah gave him one last long look, as if pleading with him to understand, and then ‘The Menken’ – as she was known by literally hundreds of thousands of souls around the world – made her weary and woebegone way up the stairs.

Ben turned back to the hearth after she turned the corner.  He took a moment to tend it, stoking the coals and adding fresh wood, and then sat on the table before it and stared into the flames.  Fame.  So many sought it.  Like the smoke rising up the chimney to dissipate on the wind, it eluded most.  The few who found it were counted lucky, even blessed, but that too was an illusion.  Like the flames that leapt before him fame burned bright, drawing everyone’s attention, and yet, just like those flames, it contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction.  As wood burned, it was consumed.  The rancher’s gaze followed the path his houseguest had taken.  Paul told him before they left that, if Adah had ingested the entire bottle of laudanum, there would have been nothing he could have done to save her.  The beautiful woman would be dead and John C. Regan free to go on with his egocentric and dissipated life.  The actress’ death would be laid at her own feet and not his, even though Regan was her murderer.

As he had almost been his son’s.

Ben’s fists clenched in rage.  Seldom, if ever, had he felt such hate for another human being.  He supposed it had been too much to hope that the prizefighter would never darken Virginia City’s streets again.  To others John C. Regan was the ‘Benecia Boy’, the self-proclaimed fighting champion of the world.  Men wanted to be like him. Women dreamed of being with him.  They didn’t know that the man was an ignorant brute whose off-hand, arrogant, and self-serving nature sucked up and spit out any who dared to cross him.  And worse than that?  What the crowd saw was a three-hundred pound man taking on an equal opponent, duking it out in the ring, and emerging as a winner and hero.  His son was a slight teenager.  Adah, a tender woman.

John C. Regan was a coward.

Ben released the fists he had made as he heard the front door open.  He rose and went to greet his son.

“Hoss.  I didn’t expect you home so soon.”  His son had remained behind in town to deal with business.

“Buck’s in the stable, Pa.  I took real good care of him.  And I gave some extra oats to that filly what pulled the carriage you rented.  Made her right happy!”  The big man’s smile turned into a frown.  “I left town before first light.  I wanted to get home so’s I could head out again as soon as possible.”

“Oh?”  Ben was wary.  “What for?”

Hoss’ beefy face showed a mixture of emotions – disbelief, anger…fear.   “I gotta go after Adam and Little Joe, Pa.  I just know they’re in a heap of trouble.”

“Breakfast ready soon, Mistah Cartwright.”  Hop Sing halted when he saw his son.  “Mistah Hoss, good to see you home.  I set another place.”

“I ain’t got time to eat, Hop Sing.  I’m gonna get a couple of things and head back out lickety –”

Ben placed a hand on his son’s arm.  “Hoss, come eat.  You need your strength.  Plus you can tell me about whatever it is that has you so riled up that you’d be willing to skip a meal!”

“Pa….”  He chewed his lip.  “I ain’t sure I should wait.”

His son’s anxiety was rubbing off on him.  “Is it that imperative?”

Hoss held his ‘ready for action’ pose a moment longer and then seemed to deflate.  “I don’t know.  I just….  Well, I don’t like the idea of Adam and Little Joe out there alone when no one knows where that dang Regan feller is.”

“Mistah Hoss no go look for brothers on empty stomach,” Hop Sing chided as he placed a pot of coffee on the table.  He looked right at him.  “Mistah Ben no go without food either.”

Was he so easy to read?

“Come on, son,” Ben said.  “We’ll both do better on full stomachs.”

The big man hesitated.  Then the smile returned to his face.  “You’re right, Pa.  And, Hop Sing, that breakfast sure does smell good!”

Ben took his seat and placed a napkin on his lap.  “Now, what is this about Regan?”

Hoss was sipping coffee.  “Ain’t no one seen that bully in near a whole day.  When I went to the livery last night to check on Buck, the man there mentioned how surprised he was to see two giants in one day.”

“It wasn’t the owner?”

“Nope, some little feller fillin’ in for him.  I told him who I was and asked who the other big man was?  He told me the man didn’t give no name, but he was with some other fellow name of Brig.”

It was an unusual name.  “Not…Brig Louden?”

Hoss smiled his thanks as Hop Sing placed a plate of flapjacks before him.  “Yes, sir.  That mean somethin’ to you?”

“Mm-hm.  Brig Louden worked for me around ten years back.  He was a good worker, but about as arrogant as they came.  Thank you, Hop Sing”, he said as he received the same.  “I ended up firing him.  He left the territory.”

“I wonder why he’s back?”

“Who knows?  I imagine he’s still drifting.  A man like that doesn’t change.”

“Well, if it was him, he was with a man ‘big as a mountain’, as the feller at the stable put it.”  Hoss reached for the syrup.  “Said they rented two horses and took off around midday.”

“And you think the other man was Regan?”

“I know it was.  Brig let slip he was a prizefighter.”  Hoss looked at his plate and then shoved it away.  “That Regan feller’s gone after Little Joe, Pa.  I’m sure of it!”

In spite of his words to Adah, Ben feared it might be so.  “But how would Regan know where your brother is?”

“You said Brig used to work here.  Maybe he ran into one of the hands he knew.  Maybe they told him.”

They’d kept it as quiet as they could, but still, some of the men knew what Adam and Joseph were about.  Riding the line was hardly a secret.  Someone could have said something.  Still, it astonished him and seemed a bit absurd, that a full-grown man could harbor such hatred and ill-will for a young man – a boy, really – who had done nothing to him; that Regan would be willing to risk everything – his freedom, his life, his career – to take revenge.

Then again, that hatred was not directed at Joseph, but at him.

Hop Sing arrived with a new pot of coffee.  Ben raised a hand to stop him filling his cup.  “If you would, Hop Sing, please put that in a container and prepare two days rations for both Hoss and I.”

The man from Asia eyed their uneaten breakfast with a sigh.  “You go check on Mistah Adam and Little Joe?”

“Yes,” he said as he rose to his feet.

“Pack extra for them.  They tired of beans and jerky by now.  When you go?”

Ben looked at Hoss and saw reflected in his middle boy’s eyes the dread he knew was radiating from his own.

“As soon as we can.”

 

Adam crossed the floor in five long strides.  He snatched the gun from beneath his brother’s foot and aimed it at Brig before addressing Joe.

“What happened to you?”

The teenager was a mess.  His wet hair was strewn with bracken.  The shirt he wore was shredded, revealing his skin, which was caked with mud and blood.  Little Joe was bleeding – just about everywhere – from a myriad of cuts.  There was one on his arm that was deep.

His brother scowled as the hammering continued.  “I told you.  Regan!”

Adam looked at the safety bar.  It was shuddering but held fast.  “You mean you ran into John C. Regan while you were peeing?”

To say that Joe was not happy would have been putting it mildly.

“You knew, didn’t you?” he demanded.  “You knew he was here!  You and Pa!”

“Joe, we –”

“Open up, Cartwright!  I know you’re in there!”

Little brother sighed.  “I suppose it would be wishful thinking to hope he meant you.”

Adam turned to look at the fourth inhabitant of the shed.  The blonde woman wasn’t cowering, but she’d backed into the corner of the shack and had her hand on her belly.  “Temperance, I know you can hold a rifle.  I need you to take care of Brig.  Tie him up and then keep it aimed at him.”

“Look, Cartwright, I ain’t got anythin’ against you or your brother here,” the weaselly man announced from the floor.  “I gotta make a livin’ and Regan paid me to show him where you were.  I didn’t know what he was gonna do.  Honest.  You pay me more and I’ll switch to your side.”

From what he remembered of Brig Louden, ‘honest’ was not in his vocabulary – nor ‘trustworthy’.

Adam pointed the pistol he held at him.  “How about I don’t kill you and you keep out of it?”

Louden swallowed hard.  “That works too.”

“Temperance?”

CARTWRIGHT!” Regan bellowed louder.  “Let me in, you sniveling little coward!”

Joe wrinkled his nose.  “So he thinks if he asks nice, I’ll let him in?”

Regan wasn’t thinking.  At this point the man was pure instinct, and that ‘instinct’ was to kill Little Joe.

Adam caught Brig’s collar and roughly hauled him up.  He passed him on to Temperance and watched a she pushed the scum onto the cot and then sat in the chair beside it and began to bind his knees together.

He gestured his brother out of the way and moved to the door.  “Regan!  This is Adam Cartwright!”

So?!”

“So…you are going to listen to me.”

“Adam….” Joe began.

He shushed him.  “Joe and I are not alone in here.  Brig Louden is with us.”

That precipitated a moment of silence.

Who’s that?”

“You know full well ‘who’ and unless you want me to turn Brig over to the sheriff and have him tell everything he knows, you will cease and desist and climb back up onto whatever beast brought you here and return to town.”  He paused to let that sink in.  “You have a lot to lose, Benicia Boy.  Think about it.”

“Adam what are you….?”

He turned to his brother.  “Joe, think about it.  It’s your word against his.  Regan could just as easily say that you came after him to pay him back for beating you.”

“With what?  A mountain cat?”

“Cartwright?”

“What?”

I could burn you out.”

The words hung in the air a moment.  “You could,” he replied, “but you’d be murdering four people.  I don’t think even you could escape the law for that.”

What do you mean ‘four’?”

“There’s a woman in here.  A pregnant woman.”

“I don’t believe you.  You’re just protecting that runt of a brother of yours.”

Joe bristled at the term, but held his tongue.

“Temperance?” Adam asked.

“I’d be happy to come out there and blow your head off, if you’d like,” she shouted.

As Joe’s eye went wide, Adam chuckled.  “Not quite the wilting flower we had her pegged for, is she?”

What’s a woman doing in there?”

Holding her own quite nicely, he thought.

“Admit it, Regan.  You’re out of luck.  Take your ego and animosity back to Virginia City and keep it there.  And once you leave town, don’t take any more engagements in Nevada.”

Or what?”

Adam turned toward his brother.  Little Joe had that look – the one that said he was pissed as hell to have him fighting his battles for him.  Coupled with it was something else; a glint in Joe’s green eyes that acknowledged this was one battle he knew he could not win by himself.

“Or else you’ll have to deal with the Cartwrights!”  He held his brother’s gaze.  “Not one, not two or even three, but with all four of us, and I can tell you, mister, that there is nothing on the face of God’s green earth that can stand against that!”

Regan let out a guttural sound.  “This isn’t over,’ he announced.  He and Joe waited, breath drawn, as silence fell.  They only let them out when they heard the sound of Regan’s horse galloping away.

Joe favored him with a grin – and then silently and unceremoniously slid to the floor.

Adam knelt beside him.  “You okay, buddy?”  When his brother nodded, he went on.  “Look, I’m sorry Pa and I devised this little trick.  We were afraid you would try to take Regan on by yourself.”

Joe leaned his head against the wall.  “You were right.  I would have.  I….”

“Yeah?”

“I forgot just how big he is.  All I can say is it’s a good thing that cougar came along.”

Adam fingered his brother’s shredded sleeve.  “Courtesy of the cougar?”

Joe nodded.  “You should see Regan.!  He won’t be turnin’ the ladies heads anytime soon.”

“Here, let me see to that.”

They both looked up.  Temperance was standing beside them.  Adam’s gaze shot to Brig.  The man was thoroughly lashed to the cot and going nowhere.

“I can take care of it myself,” Joe insisted.

Temperance held out her hand.  “You could, but you don’t need to.”

Little brother smiled his killer smile as he took it and rose to his feet.

Adam watched the pair of them move off toward the room where Temperance slept.  Once they’d disappeared, he went to the door and cautiously lifted the bar and looked outside.  It was his hope that John C. Regan had more between his ears than muscle, and that the strong-arm man realized he was beaten.  The exhibition bout in Virginia City was the day after next.  The prizefighter would need to lick his wounds and prepare for that.  He remained where he was for a minute and then closed the door and dropped the bar back into place.

Once the bout was done, Regan would pack up, board a stage, and go away.

In a pig’s eye.

 

NINE

Early the next morning Adah made her way downstairs.  She’d been exhausted, really, but more than that too shamed to face Ben.  He’d come to her door and knocked once midday, but she’d sent him away.  She had no desire to talk.

She had too much thinking to do.

Two nights before she’d wanted it to end.  Life seemed too much to bear.  That was why she’d taken the laudanum.  One year ago she’d had everything she wanted.  She was at the height of her career, adored by thousands and able to command a portion of the house take as well as her usual pay.  That made her the richest actress in America.  Her performances were the toast of not one, but two continents.  Even more important – and this was what had made her heart soar – she’d married the man she loved and was expecting his child.  John told her how happy, how content he was before he left for England.

Then, it all fell apart.

While in England her husband declared their marriage a farce – if and when he admitted they’d been married at all.  John told the newspapers she’d never divorced Isaac Menken and declared her both a bigamist and whore.  He said she’d pretended they were married so she could ‘ride on the coattails’ of his fame.  As if she needed it!  Worst of all, John denied their child was his.  Heartbroken, she had taken solace in her son’s presence and found hope in his innocence.  Then, even that had been taken away.  The boy died before his first birthday, leaving her alone and bereft.  She’d refused to take any engagements until necessity drove her to it.

The necessity of paying her bills and of seeing Ben Cartwright again.

She had no idea what she’d thought Ben could do for her.  Perhaps it was a need to be surrounded by goodness; to be close to someone she knew she could trust.  Adah’s sighs were dramatic and she released one as she draped herself across the arm of the settee.

What was there within her character that longed for, but would not allow her to love an honorable man?

“Good morning, Missy Adah,” a soft voice said.  “Can Hop Sing get nice lady anything?”

Ben’s cook was setting the breakfast table.  She rose and went to greet him.  “Good morning, Hop Sing.  Forgive me, I didn’t see you there.”

“Not mean to make Missy uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t.  I’m glad for the company.”  Adah glanced at the table and was surprised to see only one setting.  “Has Ben gone somewhere?”

“Mistah Ben go with middle son to find Mistahs Adam and Little Joe.”

“Did something happen?”  Perhaps Ben’s knock on her door midday had been to tell her he was leaving.  “Are they in danger?”

The man from Asia shook his head sadly.  “Mistah Ben not know.  He go to find out.”

In the play ‘Marzeppa’, she had embodied the spirit of a warrior prince.  In reality she was a woman and relegated by her sex to the role of waiting.

She hated it.

“When will they return?”

“Mistah Ben not sure.  He think number one and three sons could be three days away by now.  He go….”  Hop Sing’s voice trailed off as he turned toward the door.  He must have heard the same thing she had – multiple horses pulling into the yard.

Could Ben be back already?

Before she could reach it, the door opened and Ben walked in, closely followed by Adam.  Behind them came Hoss – carrying Little Joe.

Who was protesting fiercely.

“You put me down, you big galoot!” the boy shouted.  “I can walk!”

“Not on that leg, you cain’t, little brother!” the big man replied as he headed for the stair.

“The cougar didn’t get me in the leg!  That’s the arm you’re squashing!”

“Your arm ain’t infected.”

“My leg isn’t either!”

As they rounded the corner at the top, Hoss’ voice drifted back.  “I guess you’re right, punkin.  Must be your head!”

Adah went to Ben.  He looked exhausted.  “Is Little Joe all right?” she asked.

“No thanks to John C. Regan,” Adam said.  The angry young man held her gaze for a moment before following his brothers up the stairs.

“I’ll send Hop Sing up with some water and bandages,” Ben called after his son.

She touched his arm.  “Ben, tell me what happened.”

The actress saw no trace of love in his look, only condemnation.  “You were right in your fear.  Regan went gunning for Little Joe.  He meant to finish what he’d begun.”

She’d said it, but hadn’t really believed it.

“John wouldn’t be so foolish!”

The rancher shook free of her hand.  “What will it take to get it through your head, Adah?  The man is a killer.  It’s a known fact.  We have only the grace of God to thank that Joseph was carried in here kicking and screaming and not in a box!”

“No.  Ben….”

Yes, Adah.  Adam did some research.  Since you parted, the ‘Benecia Boy’ has been hiring himself out as a strong arm for the mobs.  John C. Regan is an enforcer: a man who kills for money and for pleasure.”  Ben stared at her for several heartbeats.  “I thought I knew you.  I…thought I loved you.  I realize now, I never knew you at all.”

His words were the stab of a knife to her heart.

“Perhaps…perhaps I should go,” she said.

“Pa?”

They both turned toward the staircase.  Adam stood at the top.

“What is it, son?”

“You know Little Joe.  He’s….”  The young man’s gaze shifted to her.  “He needs you.”

“Go to him, Ben.  Take care of your own, while I take care of mine.”

“Regan?” he asked her.

She nodded.  “It won’t be easy, but I’ll talk to John.  I’ll ask…. No, I’ll tell him to leave.”

“What makes you think he will listen to you?”

“Nothing,” she admitted.  “Nothing but the spark of what might have been.”

“All right.  I’ll arrange for one of the men to take you back to town.”

“I’ll do it, Pa,” Adam said as he came to his side.

“What about your brother?”

The young man huffed.  “Joe and I have said everything to each other there is to say.  I think the best thing I can do for him now is to go with Adah and see that Regan leaves town.”

“Your brother?”

“Is determined to face him again.” Adam shrugged.  “You can’t blame him, Pa.  Joe needs to feel like a man.  I….”

“Yes?”

“I told Joe I’d stand by him if he did – that we all would.  And that there was nothing on this earth that could stop the four of us when we’re together.”

Ben’s smile was weary.  “But you’d rather prevent it?”

“Yes, sir.  I’m hoping…together…Miss Menken and I can prevail upon Regan to see another way.”

“Adah?”

“Oh, yes, Ben.  I will do everything in my power to get John to leave town immediately after the match.”

“Will you go with him?”

The question shamed her.  “I don’t know.”

Ben asked his son to harness the rented rig and watched him depart before turning back to her.  He took hold of both shoulders.  “Adah, you need to look deep inside yourself and discover what it is that really drives you – just what it is that compels you to love a man who is not only completely untrustworthy, but who chooses to tear you down.  You are beautiful and intelligent, loving, and amazingly talented.  I know you don’t believe that, but you are.”  His hand touched her cheek.  “I know you feel unworthy.  The trouble is, the only one who can make you feel ‘worthy’ is you.  Please, even if it’s only for a year, or even for six months, stay away from that man.  Find someone who loves you for who you are, Adah, and not for who they tell you that you are.”

“Pa?  Are you comin’?”  Hoss was standin’ at the top of the stair.  “Little Joe’s fightin’ like a wildcat to keep me from takin’ his shirt off.  I got a feelin’ he’d hidin’ somethin’.”

“On my way.”

As Ben brushed past her, she touched his arm.  “Our lives are like rivers, Ben.  Eventually they go where they must and not where we want them to.  Or, at least, that’s how it is for me.”

The pity in his eyes did not reach his lips.  “Goodbye, Adah.”

“Goodbye, Ben.”

Adam opened the front door a moment later.  “The carriage is ready whenever you are, Miss Menken.”

“I’m ready now,” she said as she reached for her cloak.

“What about your other things?”

“I have plenty at the hotel.  I’ll send an address back with you.  Ben can forward them.”

“Is that it then?”

Goodbye, Adah’, not farewell.

“Yes,” she replied as she made her way out the door, “that’s it.”

 

“Get off me, you big lug!  I’ve been takin’ my own clothes off for at least fifteen years, I don’t need you nurse-maiding –”

“Joseph.”

His youngest son turned and looked at him.  His tone was sheepish.  “Hey, Pa.”

Ben’s gaze went to his middle child.  “Hoss, why don’t you go and see if our other guest has arrived yet while I take care of your brother?”

They’d left Temperance Flowerdew behind to wait for one of the men to fetch her in a wagon.  She was far to advanced in her maternity to sit a horse.

“Sure thing, Pa,” Hoss said.  “You let me know how the little squirt is as soon as you can.  Okay?”

“I will.”

When Hoss disappeared, Joe felt free to express his displeasure.  “Pa, I just got done tellin’ Hoss.  I don’t need looking after.  I can take care of myself.  I’m just…tired.  A good long sleep will set right what’s wrong with me.”

The older man’s gaze settled on his son.  The boy was a wreck.  There were cuts and bruises on Little Joe’s face, as well as on most of his exposed skin.  There were several deep gashes on one arm as well, caused by the cat’s claws.  He was covered in dried blood and dirt, which meant infection was a possibility.

There was no way he was going to let him ‘look after’ himself.

“Why don’t you let me be the judge of that,” Ben said as he went to the washstand to fetch the pitcher and a cloth.  “Shed those clothes, son, and let’s see what damage had been done.”

“Ah, Pa….”

“Don’t ‘ah, Pa’ me,” he said sternly.  “Just do as I say.”  Ben waited as his son shinnied out of his torn pants.  He winced at the sight of the wound Adam had mentioned.  “Now, the shirt.”

With a sigh, his son obeyed.  Ben sucked in a breath at what he saw when Joe turned.

Bruises.  Deep and dark and spreading all over the boy’s back.

“Joseph…!?”

The teenager looked at him through a tangle of muddy curls.  “Sorry, Pa.”

Ben sat beside him.  “For what?” he asked as he dipped the cloth in the tepid water and rung it out.

Joe shrugged.  “First, for being angry, I guess.”

“At Regan?” he asked as he gently dabbed at the first of a half-a-dozen cuts.

“No.  At you.”  Joe winced.  “Ouch.”

“Why were you angry with me?”

“For sending me away.  For…not thinking I could take Regan on if it came to it.”

“I see.”  Ben shifted to the boy’s back where the worst of the bruises were.  “And were you able to ‘take him on’ when you had the chance?”

Joe’s head dropped.  He looked at his hands.  “I…kind of forgot how big he was.”

“Joseph, look at me.”

The boy glanced up.

“There is no shame in being unable to defeat a man twice your size.”

“I know.  And I know he almost beat Hoss.  But Pa….” Little Joe flashed a grin.  “I almost did take him down.”

Fear had his heart beating hard.  He did the best to keep it from of his voice.  “Oh?”

“I didn’t go looking for trouble, I promise.  I went out to take a piss and there he was, loomin’ over me like a grizzly come to call.”

Ben wrung the cloth out, noting with relief only a faint tinge of red to the water.  “I suppose you plowed right into him?” he asked as he returned to cleaning his son’s skin.

“Heck, no.  I ran for the hills!”  Joe pinned him with a look.  “I’m not stupid, you know.”

Thank God for that!

“So how did you come to…confront him?”

“Regan chased me like a mad bull all the way up into the hills.  I started to double back.  I figured gettin’ to Adam and the shack was the smartest thing I could do, though I felt kind of bad about it since I knew Tempy was there.”

Ah, yes, ‘Tempy’ or Temperance Flowerdew.

“She seems to be a young lady who can take care of herself,” the rancher remarked as he turned the boy to face him.

“You should have seen her wield that rifle, Pa!”

As he understood it, that ‘rifle’ had first been aimed at his sons!

“You said you ‘started’ to double back?”

“Regan figured it out.  He almost caught me.  He would have if it hadn’t been for that cat.”

“The cat that made these marks?”  Paul was going to have to look at them.  Both they and the long scratch on Joseph’s leg were inflamed.

“I didn’t think a prize fighter would be stupid enough to try to take on a mountain cat, but Regan did.  He came off a whole lot worse than me!”

Ben’s whispered prayer of thanks was silent.

“What happened next?”

“We were both layin’ there, panting and coughing, and then danged if Regan didn’t push himself up off the ground and start hurling insults at me!”

Ben shook his head even as he wrung the rag a second time, noting a deeper red.  “And this time you didn’t run.”

“No, sir.  He was sayin’ all kinds of things.  None of them were true.”  Joe ran a hand along the backside of his neck.  “I guess I wasn’t seeing straight.”

“I guess you weren’t.  He could have killed you!”

“Pa, he had me hopping mad!”

“Joseph.  How many times have I told you that your temper will be your downfall?  You can’t fly off the handle every time a man hurls insults at you.  You have to be….”  Ben stopped.  “What is it?”

The boy was staring at him like he had two heads.

“What?”

“Regan….  He wasn’t talking about me.”  Joseph frowned.  “He was…talking about you and Miss Menken, Pa.  He was saying some awful things.  I couldn’t….  I wasn’t gonna let him get by with it.”

“About me?”

“Yes, sir.”

Ben looked at his son’s battered body.  “I can take a few insults,” he said softly.

“Well, I can’t, Pa!  Not that kind!”  Joe winced again as he straightened up.  “Like you say, we’re Cartwrights and we look after our own!”

“What happened after that?”

“That old cat slowed him down, but I knew I had to skedaddle before Regan got his breath back.  I gave him a few good licks and took off like a jackrabbit.”

He frowned at his son’s back.  “Looks like he gave you a few ‘good licks’ too.”

Joe tried to look.  “I guess he got lucky a couple of times.”

Ben stared at his son and then cupped the boy’s head in his hand and drew him forward so he could place his chin on those curls, knowing it was probably the only place on Little Joe that didn’t hurt.

“Thank you, son, and don’t you ever do something like that again!”

Joseph squirmed a bit.  “I’m not makin’ promises I can’t keep.”

Ben leaned back.  “All right, will you make me this promise at least?  The next time anyone in this family takes John Regan on, we do it together – as Cartwrights.”

Joe’s tone was wistful.  “Is that a deal, Pa?”

Ben’s jaw was set.

“No.  It’s a promise.”

 

TEN

Adam helped Adah down from the carriage and then cast a glance around to see who was watching.  It was midday and Virginia City’s streets were a hive of activity.  There were more people in town now that word of the actress’ performances and the upcoming bout between Regan and Sawyer had had time to circulate.  He hoped the head of the touring company had maintained Adah’s suite, otherwise she might have nowhere to go but back to the Ponderosa.

He really didn’t want to see that happen.

“Thank you, Adam,” Adah said as she turned toward him.  “I’ll be fine on my own now.”

He shook his head.  “We need to make sure your room is still there.  It’s been two days.”

“The company paid for the suite for two weeks.  It will be.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I am.”  The actress stared at him.  “I owe you an apology too.”

“For what?”

“For everything!”

“That’s a pretty big apology.”  Adam shifted his hat back on his head.  “Look, Adah, your life is your own to live as you wish.  It’s hard for my father to see that.  Pa sees something wrong and he digs in and sets out to make it right.”

“He can’t make this right.”

“I know that.”

“But I can try.  I’ll talk to John.  I’ll make him see the light!”

“You do that.  And when you do, remind him about Brig Louden.”

“Brig Louden?  Who’s he?”

Adam’s lips curled with a satisfied smile.  “Regan will know.  Give him this message for me when you see him.  Louden is safe and sound and enjoying bed and breakfast at the territory’s expense.  Oh, and tell him the man’s writing his memoirs.”

“I don’t understand.”

“He will.”

“All right.  I’ll tell him.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.  I’ll just be on my way then.”

“Adam?”

He turned back.  “Yes.”

“Tell Little Joe…. Well, tell him I wish him the best.”

Adam didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing and went on his way.

He’d sent one of the ranch hands to bring Brig Louden into town and deliver him to the Sheriff’s office.  His first stop would be there.  Roy was going to question the man.

He just hoped he let him do the interrogating.

When he opened the door, the sheriff called out a hearty greeting.  “Hey there, Adam.  What brings you into town so early in the morning?”

“I had a…package to deliver.”  His gaze shot to the back room where the cells were. “Plus, I wanted to have a little ‘chat’ with your guest.”

“I take it by ‘chat’, you mean you want to talk?”

Roy went by the letter of the law.  The trouble was, the ‘letter of the law’ often produced less than satisfactory results.  On the Ponderosa, they’d had to become a law unto themselves.

It was hard to surrender that authority.

“Sure.  I want to ‘talk’.”

“You can do that from this side of the bars,” the older man said as he walked to the far side of the room and reached for the key to the cell block hanging on the wall.  “Brig ain’t gonna be too happy to see you.  He’s been tellin’ me all night how you and Little Joe used and abused him.”

“We didn’t.”  Adam grinned.  “But I’d be happy to oblige.”

“Now, you listen here, Adam Cartwright.  I know you’re angry and you got a right to be.  The ranch hand what you sent in with Brig told me all about what happened – how Louden’s working with Regan and Regan tried to kill Little Joe again.  You got any proof of that?”

“Brig’s hands aren’t clean.  He held me hostage and threatened a pregnant woman with a rifle.”

“All right then.  You know I’m gonna need a statement from that little gal to back up your claims?”

“I’ll get it once Temperance arrives and send it in with one of the men.”

They’d reached the door.  Roy opened it and they stepped into the block.  Brig was snoring or, more likely, pretending to snore.  They’d made a lot of noise coming in.

Roy didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt.  He took the ring of keys and ran them across the bars.

“Time to wake up, Louden!”

There was a growl.  “Leave me alone.”

“Can’t do that.  You’ve got company.”

Louden had his hat over his eyes.  He shifted it and peered out.  Then he dropped it back into place.  “I ain’t talkin’ to him.”

“Now, that’s right un-neighborly of you.  Adam here just come in for some friendly conversation.”

“I got my rights.”

“You don’t have any rights,” Adam growled.  “You tied me up.  You threatened my brother’s life.  You even threatened a pregnant woman!”

Brig sat up on the cot.

“She was holdin’ a gun on me!  A man’s got a right to defend himself.”

“You’re not a man.  You’re good-for-nothing, scum!”

Louden was on his feet.  “I don’t got to listen to this!  You get him out of here, Sheriff!  He’s plumb loco!”

It was a routine he and Roy fell into easily.  Good sheriff, bad sheriff, as it were.  Adam thrust an arm through the bars, as if he would catch the outlaw and tear him limb from limb.

“I’ll show you who’s crazy!”

“Adam, hold your horses!”  Roy took hold of him and pulled him back.  “You ain’t got any right to harm Mr. Louden.  Ain’t nothin’ been proved yet.”

“It will be.”  He stepped back, breathing hard.  “And then my father and brothers and I will take intense enjoyment from seeing him hanged!”

“What do you mean ‘hanged’?”  Brig asked.  “I ain’t done nothin’ worth hangin’.”

Roy pulled at his chin.  “Maybe not hangin’, but you’ll sure get life in prison.”

“For what?”

Adam grinned.  “Accessory to murder.”

“The kid ain’t dead!”

“Attempted murder then,” the sheriff said.  “So…twenty to life.”

Louden remained where he was for a few seconds and then dropped onto the cot.  “Look,” he said, “all I did was tell Regan where those two were.”

“I’d say that’s about the same thing as holdin’ the horses durin’ a robbery, wouldn’t you, Adam?” the lawman asked.

“I’d say.”

Roy turned back to Brig.  “Now, if’n you was to cooperate and admit what that there prizefighter hired you to do, I just might be able to put a good word in for you with the circuit judge.”  The older man shrugged.  “Then again, that’s up to you.”

Brig scowled.

Then, he began to talk.

 

“Good morning, young lady, and how are you today?”

Temperance nearly jumped out of her skin.  She’d been unable to sleep and had come down to sit before the fire, meaning to return to her room before anyone else in the Cartwright household was up.

She’d forgotten how early ranchers left their beds.

“Good morning, Mister Cartwright.”

The older man smiled at her.  “Ben, please.”

“Okay.”

“Was the room to your liking?”

“It was fine – more than fine,” she replied even as she let out a little cry.

Ben Cartwright came to her side.  “Is everything all right?”

“It’s this little one of mine.  He’s got a mean kick.”

The rancher laughed.  “So you know it’s a boy?”

“My Ma told me you carry boys low and girls high, and he’s a big one.”  She paused.  “I guess I hope it isn’t a girl.  She’d be tall as the trees!”

He sat down.  “We have a neighbor, Bessy Sue.  Hoss has to look up to her.”

Temperance was startled; then she laughed.  “You’re joshing.”

He laughed too.  “Mostly.”

They fell silent after that and remained so until the Cartwright’s servant had come and gone, bringing tea.  She accepted a cup and sipped the brew.  It helped settle her stomach.  She wondered if the Chinese man had done that on purpose.

“May I ask you a question?”

Temperance knew what was coming.  “Mister Cartwright….  Ben, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“I wasn’t going to ask about your maternity.  I wanted to know if there is anything we can do to help you?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

“Because you’re in need.”

“I can take care of myself.”

Ben put his cup on the table before leaning back in his chair.  The rancher fixed her with his near-black gaze.

“But can your little one?”

“He’ll have me,” she answered defensively.

“So you intend to move on?”

Temperance nodded.  “I got family in Illinois.”

“That’s a long way.”

“I know.”  She rose and began to pace, seeking to ease the constant pain in her side.  “Aunt Addie’s there.  She’ll help us.”

“Does your aunt know you’re coming?”

The young woman stopped.  “No.”

“Are you certain she’s alive?”

Her jaw grew tight.  “No.”

Ben rose and came to her side.  “Temperance, while I admire your independent spirit, you have to remember that you are responsible for more than one life now; a life that can in no way defend itself.  Let me wire your aunt.  You can stay with us until we get an answer.”

“Why would you do that?”

The older man smiled.  “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Morning, Pa.  Tempy.”

“Joseph!  What are you doing out of bed?”

Ben walked over to the stairs, which his youngest son was hopping down.

“You don’t expect me to stay in my room when there’s a beautiful woman in the house who needs entertaining, do you, Pa?” Little Joe answered with a wink.

“You need to keep off that leg.”

“I am off it!” Joe declared as he maneuvered the last step.  “I can sit on the settee, can’t I?  That way I can keep Tempy company.”

Temperance hid her smile.  It was obvious the young man had his father wrapped around his finger.

“I’d like that,” she said.

The older man shook his head.  A moment later he placed a hand on his son’s neck and pulled him into an embrace.  “Joseph, you know I could have lost you.”

“But you didn’t, Pa.”

There were tears in Ben Cartwright’s eyes.  “You sit down and stay down.  I’ll go get the two of you a tray.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

Joe plunked down and used both hands to lift his leg and brace it on the table.  “I don’t think Pa will say anythin’ if I have my feet on the furniture this time,” he said with a cheeky smile.

“You have a wonderful father.  It’s obvious he loves you very much.”

The handsome man nodded.  “There’s not one better.”  Joe sobered.  “Tempy, what’s your Pa like?”

“He’s hard to please and even harder to love,” she said.  “At least since Ma died.”

“What happened to your ma?”

“A sickness.  It took her and my little sister.”  She frowned.  “Where’s your ma?  When do I get to meet her?”

Joe let out a little sigh.  “My mama’s dead too.  She died when I was just shy of five.”

“Oh, Joe!  I’m sorry.”

“So am I.”  Joe winced as he turned so he could look straight at her.  “Tempy, don’t get mad.”

“Why would I get mad?”

He was looking at her belly.  “If I had a baby on the way, I’d want to know about it.  I’d want to be a part of its life.”

“I told you the father doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

“Is that true.  Or are you protecting him?”

“From what?”

“From your Pa.”  She started to get up – to escape – but Joe caught her hand and stopped her.  “That’s it, isn’t it?  He didn’t kick you out.  You ran.”

Tears welled in her eyes.  Words wouldn’t come, so she nodded.

“Do you think your father knows where you are?”

She feared it.  Pa would know she would head for Aunt Addie’s.  Addie was his sister, but she was nothing like him.  Her aunt was as welcoming and loving as the Cartwrights.

“I’m not sure.”

“It sounds like you do need protection, young lady,” Joe’s father said as he returned with the tray.  “Or at the least, a safe harbor from the storm.”

“I don’t want to cause you any trouble.  If my pa should find me here….”

“We can handle him,” Ben said as he handed her a plate.  “We won’t let him take you if you don’t want to go.”

She looked at him and then at Joe.  “I lied.”

“About what?” Joe asked.

“My age.”  The young woman swallowed.  “I’m only sixteen.”

“Well, that’s still old enough to know your mind,” Ben said. “There are girls who are married by sixteen.”

“We wanted to get married!” she blurted out.  “Pa wouldn’t let us.  Caleb begged him, but Pa ran him off with a shotgun!”

“That’s your young man?”

She nodded.  “Caleb Abram.”

“Abram?”  Ben thought a moment.  “Would he happen to be Jewish?”

Temperance steeled herself.  She wasn’t ready for more rejection.

“Yes.”

“That’s why your Pa hates him?” Joe asked, incredulous.  “Just because he’s Jewish?”

“Pa says the Jews killed Jesus.  He doesn’t want any part of them.”

Joe’s father sighed.  “Such ignorance.  Our Lord was Jewish.  The men who killed him were evil men.  It wouldn’t have mattered what their faith.”

“I wish my father felt that way.  He ran Caleb off and then told me that, if I ever so much as looked at him again, he’d kill him.  I couldn’t take a chance pa would find out we were still seeing each other.  I love him too much….  So, I ran.”

Joe took hold of her hand.  “Tempy, if I knew I had a baby on the way and the woman I loved disappeared, I’d turn over Heaven and Earth to find her.”  He glanced at his pa.  “And no one could stop me.”

“I know.”  Her voice was small; robbed of strength by fear.  “I’m scared he’s coming after me.”

“Your Pa or Caleb?”

Her tears began to flow.

“Both.”

 

Adam took a seat in the chair facing Roy Coffee’s desk.

“So what can we do?”

Roy shook his head.  “Sorry to say, Adam, there ain’t much.”

“What do you mean, ‘there ain’t much’?  John C. Regan makes an attempt on my brother’s life and there’s nothing you can do?!”

“You say he did.  Joe says so.  But you ain’t got no one to back you up.”

“What about Temperance?”

“She’s hearsay.  She didn’t see anythin’.”

“She was there when Regan tried to take the door down to get to Joe.”

“But he didn’t.”

Adam snarled and then jumped to his feet and began to pace.  “So what you’re telling me is that Regan has to kill Little Joe before you can do anything?  What good is the law, if that’s the case?”

Roy came to face him.  “Now, you listen to me, and you listen to me well, son.  The law’s the only impartial juror in the box.  It’s the same for John C. Regan as it is for you.  A man’s innocent until he’s proven guilty.”  The sheriff reached out to tap his chest.  “Or would you want it the other way round?”

“What I want is to make certain that monster doesn’t kill my baby brother and get away with it.”

The lawman was eyeing him.  “Adam, don’t you go doin’ nothin’ rash.  You or your pa.”

“You don’t have to worry that I will do anything rash, Roy.  Whatever I do – whatever we do – I promise you that it will be well thought out and calculated.”

“I can put you in that there cell next to Brig!” Roy warned.

Adam smiled before heading to the door.

“Oh, no you can’t.  Not until I do something.”

 

“What’re we gonna do, Pa?  About Little Joe and Regan, I mean?”

Ben looked up from his paper at his middle boy.  It was late and they were awaiting Adam’s return.  Joseph had gone to bed.  The trip down the stairs had exhausted him more than he cared to admit.  When he’d escorted Temperance back upstairs, he’d stayed there.

He’d checked in on his son later to make sure it was so.

“You know, tomorrow’s that exhibition bout.”

The rancher folded the newspaper and laid his hands on top of it.  “I’ve been thinking about it,  I think we should go – all four of us.”

“Go to the fight?”

“Yes.  I think we need to show Regan we are not afraid and to show him as well that, if he targets one of us, he’ll get us all.”

“Have you talked to Little Joe about this yet?”

“A bit, but nothing in detail.”

“How’s punkin’ doin?”

Ben chuckled at his son’s use of Little Joe’s pet name.  “Your brother is hurting, but I don’t think there was any real damage.  Paul treated his leg and the cut on his arm.  He seems to think the infection in both is mild and will clear quickly.”

“You think Joe will want to go?”

“I’m sure he will.  You know your brother.  He’s not one to back down – even when he should.”

Hoss grinned.  “He sure is a little stinker!”

“Who you calling ‘a stinker’?”

The older man let out a sigh.  “I thought you were asleep.”

“I was,” Little Joe said as he came down the stairs – slowly this time.  “I couldn’t stay that way.  I thought I’d come down for a glass of milk and about a dozen of those chocolate cookies Hop Sing made for Hoss.”

“You leave them cookies alone!”

Joe was at his brother’s side.  He popped Hoss in the middle.  “Looks like you already ate two dozen!”

It was good to see Joe bantering with his brother, but the spark wasn’t there.  It was as if he was going through the motions.

“Would you care to tell us why you couldn’t sleep?  Were you having night terrors?”

“Not tonight.  My arm was hurting.  I got to thinking about ‘why’ it was hurting and I got mad.”  Joe shrugged. “It’s kind of hard to sleep when you’re mad.”

“You heard what I said to your brother?”

The boy nodded.  “I’m ready for it, Pa.  I want to look that monster in the eye.”

“Just so’s you don’t go spittin’ in it, little brother.”

Joe shook his head.  “You don’t have to worry about that.  I don’t intend to get that close.”

Ben rose and went to stand by his son.  “Is that a promise?”

The teenager thought a moment.  “Yeah, Pa, it is.  I remember what you said.  The only way to beat Regan is for all of us to stand together.”

“And that’s what we’ll do,” a fresh voice said.  “After all, we are family.”

Ben turned to find his eldest standing just inside the front door.  Adam was home, the circle was complete.

They were ready for the contest to come.

 

ELEVEN

Adah Menken pushed the thick curtain aside and looked out of her hotel window.  It was early in the morning and the streets of Virginia City were already crammed with raucous miners and rowdy cowboys who had taken the day off to attend the exhibition fight, which was to take place at one.  She’d tried to see John the night before – to talk to him – but been turned away as if she was a sycophant or one of the dozens of fawning women who trailed in her husband’s wake from continent to continent.  She doubted it would have made a difference anyway.  John was beyond listening to her.  He had the crowds and the adulation of tens of thousands.  That was why it surprised, or really, shocked her that he was hell-bent to take revenge on one young boy and his father.

Then again, John’s pettiness should not have surprised her.  Look at what he had done to her and to their son!  She would be happy to be shed of him.  After this, the prizefighters’ exhibition moved to the coast and then across the ocean to another part of the world.  She was bound for New York to talk to her agents and to arrange her next tour.  Her head told her to rejoice.  She would never see him again.

Her heart was breaking.

The actress dropped the curtain and turned into the room – only to turn back as the street went quiet.  She looked and saw that the crowd had parted, like the Red Sea, leaving a barren path in its wake.  Four horsemen rode into the breach.  Adah drew a breath as she recognized them.

The Cartwrights had come to town.

 

Adam kept his eyes firmly fixed on the crowd.  There were friends there, but even more strangers and possible enemies.  They were outsiders to most who walked the streets of Virginia City.  Pa had deliberately cultivated a myth in order to protect them and their land.  Many who watched them ride by would speak in hushed whispers as they passed, wondering who they were here to kill.

The irony was they had never killed anyone who trespassed on their land – unless they drew their guns first.

He looked at his brothers.  Both were to his left.  Hoss kept Chubby a bit closer to Cochise and Little Joe than was advisable; ready to act should the need arise.  Pa was on his other side.  He noticed the older man look up as they rode past the hotel, his gaze seeking the suite Adah occupied.  There was movement in the window.  She was there, watching.

He wondered if she would come to the bout.

They were going – in force and as a family.  Pa’d decided to present a united front and he’d agreed.  Little Joe had almost backed out, not because he was afraid of facing Regan, but because he was feeling unwell.  That large cut on his arm had grown inflamed overnight.  After the exhibition bout ended, Pa was taking him straight to Paul Martin.  The doctor would be in attendance at the fight, not as a spectator – which was normal for the West – but to make certain neither man was beaten beyond repair.  He’d have his hands full with that.

“Adam.”

Adam glanced at Hoss, who had called his name, and then behind.  The miners and cowboys and other spectators had closed ranks and were following in their wake.  By circumstance rather than choice they led a parade down the main street of town toward the exhibition.  Several days before, a space of twenty-four feet had been roped off to define the battlefield.  A large tent was erected around it to hold the ‘Fancy’ or spectators.  John C. Regan, the Benecia Boy, born and reared in Ireland, would be facing off against Tom Sawyer, the English champion of bare-knuckling fighting.  They’d met before in England and nearly killed one another.  Now they traveled the world together, managing to stay alive while giving the audience what they wanted.

Blood and guts.

It was a brutal sport, one he was ashamed to admit he found intriguing.  Everyone knew Adam Cartwright was a man of letters.  He preferred a pen to a pistol.  Still, there was something about watching one man pit himself against another with nothing but his fists.  It was intoxicating and exhilarating in a strange way.

Adam glanced at his baby brother who rode ramrod straight beside him.

When the contestants were evenly matched.

Adam nodded and he and Hoss closed ranks around their brother.  There was something in the air – a thing indefinable.  He felt it as he knew Hoss did.  Pa inclined his head and picked up the pace, so the older man was aware of it too.  It was electric, like a sunny sky that is suddenly split by lightning.

On the other hand, Little Joe seemed completely unaware.  His gaze rested on the tent before them and his thoughts, no doubt, on the man within.  The kid had guts.  It took a lot to face down a man who had beaten you to within an inch of your life, especially one who had a license to kill, so to speak.  Joe was a little green around the gills.

They’d have to watch him.

The crowd grew hushed as they stopped their horses and dismounted.  Maybe they thought they’d come here to confront and kill Regan.  Who knew?  They started to talk again as their father went to buy their tickets proving they were there, just like everyone else, as observers and spectators.  Pa nodded and he and Joe passed into the tent.  Adam made to follow when he felt someone take hold of his arm.

“Roy?”

The sheriff nodded.  “I need you to tell your pa somethin’ for me.”

“What’s that?”

The older man hesitated.  “I had to let Brig Louden go.”

“You what?”

“Keep your voice down, son.”  Roy looked from side to side to see if anyone had noticed.  “Regan came lookin’ for him.  Since I didn’t have anythin’ concrete to hold against him, I had to release him.”

“Do you know where Louden is?”

The lawman was abashed.  “Somewheres around here, I imagine.  That’s why I wanted to give your Pa a heads-up, considerin’.”

Considering the man had been involved in the plot to kill his brother.

“Okay…thanks, Roy.”

“Sorry I couldn’t have done more. The law….”

He nodded.

The law.  It had been written to protect the innocent, but all too often it shielded the guilty instead.

Adam winced as he entered the arena.  The noise within was all but overwhelming.  He looked around and finally spotted his family – front row and center.  Pa must have paid through the nose for the seats.

As he settled into one, the man in black cast a look at his youngest brother.  Joe was seated on his opposite side by their father.  He leaned over to talk to Hoss.  “How’s he doing?” he asked with a nod in Joe’s direction.

Hoss shrugged.  “Little Joe?  You know him.  He’s one tough little cuss.”

“Well, to me, that ‘tough little cuss’ looks like he’s about to faint.”

“Pa offered to take him home, but he ain’t gonna budge,” the big man admitted with a sigh.  “Joe wants Regan to see him.”

Adam grinned.  “Maybe it will unnerve him enough that he’ll lose.”

Hoss nodded toward the ring.  “Here he comes.”

Adam turned to find both contestants entering the ring.  Tom Sawyer was shorter than Regan by a good half-foot, with a stocky build and a face that looked like it had been run over in a stampede.  He was followed by his second.  John C. Regan came next with his man.  He entered to a chorus of men’s low cheers and women’s high-pitched shrieks.  Regan strutted around the ring with his chest puffed out and his colorful red and blue satin robe flashing like a cock’s feathers.  When he came to the center aisle, he paused and looked directly at Little Joe.  Joe went rigid.  All the color drained out of his face.

But the kid held his ground.

Seconds later the announcer began to speak, heralding the contest to come.  His rhetoric was to be expected and meant to arouse the crowd.  Sober men didn’t place bets well beyond their means and that’s what this was really about.  Profit.  A huge amount of the interest in prizefighting was the money placed on on the fight.  Most fighters bet on themselves.  They made far more money that way than from claiming the purse.

Sawyer and Regan had stripped off their robes.  The challenger was the one to throw his hat into the ring.  In this case, since America was America and still held a grudge against Great Britain, it was Regan who did so.

Bare-knuckle bouts had no fixed length of time.  They ran from one to four hours.  This one was bound to go long as it wasn’t really a fight, but an event.  The longer the two contestants could hold out, the more liquor and food could be hawked, and the more bets laid.  Fighting continued until there was a knock-out, at which time the man down had thirty seconds to recover and then an additional eight seconds in which to make it from his corner to the scratch line.

The bell sounded and the fight began.  Part of the reason it could take hours was, especially in an exhibition, something called ‘milling’.  Much of the round was spent with the two combatants circling one another, feinting, and looking for openings in which to deliver a ‘leveler’ that would take their opponent out.  Counter punching was the heart of the science.  Blocking or evading the other man’s blow and making him pay dearly for it was the most efficient way to win.

Regan and Sawyer were masters at it.

The two men squared off and began to dance.  To the trained eye, it seemed deliberate, almost as if they had rehearsed.  Of course, when the object was to travel from town to town together making money, the goal shifted from winning to remaining on your feet as long as you could. Every so often one of the contestants would make a move, as if to kill the other, but always the action shifted and they ended up grappling and punching and then backing off.

The bell had sounded three times and they were on round four when Little Joe rose to his feet.

“Joseph?  Are you all right?” Pa asked.

The kid looked anything but.

“I’m fine, Pa.  I gotta go.”  Joe gave them a limp smile.  “I guess that last beer was one too many.”

“Hoss, go with your brother.”

Joe’s temper flared.  “Pa, I can find the privy on my own!”

“I know, son, but –”

Joe was snorting fire.  “But what?  You want to make me a laughing stock?  What do you think Regan’s gonna do, jump out of that ring, find me with my pants down, and kill me in front of a hundred people?”

It did seem absurd.

Still….

Pa hesitated, and then agreed.  “All right, son.  But be quick about it,  Your old man’s heart can only take so much.”

Joe glanced at the ring where Regan was still dancing.  He gave Pa a nod and then headed out to one of the dozens of privies that had been built for the event.

Their father watched him go before turning to him.  “Adam?”

“I know,” he said.  “Five minutes and then I go looking.”

 

Joe Cartwright was fuming.  Was he ever gonna live it down?  Ever since Regan had beaten him, his pa and brothers had treated him like he was made of glass.  He knew they loved him, but a man could only take so much!  He’d seen Sally Ann and another girl he’d sparked walking around outside lookin’ in the vendors’ booths.  What if one of them saw him being escorted to the privy by his older brother?

He’d never live it down!

It was funny to see so many privies lined up in a row.  Then again, there were thousands of people come to Virginia City just for the fight.  Without the outhouses, the town would have been swimmin’ in something worse than people, that’s for sure!  Joe passed the first few as they were occupied, and headed for one near the back of the tent.  Truth was, he’d needed a breath of fresh air.  Every blow Regan struck – each one that hit Tom Sawyer – might as well have been aimed at him.  It was like he was in that ring, taking those punches just like he had in that alley the year before.  If he was gonna make it through the fight, he had to get hold of himself.  And he had to make it through the fight.

There was no way he was gonna let John C. Regan win.

Joe nodded at the man who’d finished and stepped into the privy.  He did his business quick as he could, since he knew his pa would be worried and most like would send one of his brothers to fetch him like a unweaned puppy.  He’d just stepped out of the outhouse and turned to close the door when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Cartwright?”

Joe turned to see who it was.

Brig Louden grinned from ear to ear.

“Nighty-night.”

 

At five minutes, he began to worry.  By seven, he was concerned.  At ten Ben Cartwright and his boys fled the arena and fanned out, looking for their wayward child.  The privies lined both sides of the large tent, so he went one way and Hoss and Adam went the other.

When they met at the back, they feared the worst.

“You know Little Joe.  Maybe he done took up with some little filly he ran into,” Hoss said.  “There’s a whole passel of ‘em here.  Could be he’s off somewheres sparkin’.”

“Maybe he went to the food stands,” Adam suggested.

Ben nodded.  He understood what his sons were doing, but in his heart of hearts he knew what had happened.

“Did either of you see Brig Louden?” he asked.

The boys shook their heads.

“What about Roy?”

“He’s inside, Pa.  Keeping watch on the proceedings,” his eldest replied.  “Roy’s got men in the field, but they wouldn’t have known to keep an eye out for Little Joe unless he told them to.”

A sudden roar made them all turn toward the tent.  A moment later men and women began to pour out, headed for the booth where they’d made their wagers.

“Looks like the fight’s over.  I wonder who won?” Hoss said.

Ben didn’t.  He knew who had won.

John C. Regan had his son.

 

It was late October so the night fell swiftly.  The bout had taken until five o’clock and by the time the field had cleared, it was well after seven.  Adah Menken pulled her cloak tightly about her shoulders to stave off the chill and headed for the exhibition venue.  John was a creature of habit.  If the bout was more of a game than a fight like this one, after it was over he and his opponent would retire to his ‘ready room’ to trade ‘war’ stories and share a smoke and a bottle of whiskey.  The room was really nothing more than a cordoned off area with curtains, but it shielded him from the crowd and their prying eyes.  He liked to wait until the area cleared before returning to his hotel room.

John C. Regan liked crowds, but only when he had control of them.

She’d decided to try to talk to him one last time, in the hopes that he would put aside any foolish notion of getting even with Ben Cartwright before he left Virginia City.  She knew most of his strong-arm men as she had traveled with them before.  She was almost certain she could get one of them to let her in.  She had to make John understand.  Ben Cartwright felt nothing for her.

Whether or not she felt anything for the handsome rancher was immaterial.

By the time she reached the area where the exhibition had taken place, there were only a few dozen people remaining.  John never exited through the front, but used a door cut into the thick hide tent at the back.  She headed for it.  One way or the other she was going to talk to him.  Either she’d make it past the guards or she’d wait for him outside.  She had to do something.  This foolish vendetta had gone too far.  She had to make him see that –

Someone caught her about the waist and drew her back into the shadows.  She started to scream, but a hand over her mouth stopped that.  The man who held her leaned in close to her ear and whispered.

“Adah.  It’s me.  Ben.”

Ben.

The fear shivered out of her and she nodded.  Once he’d released her, she turned to look at him.  “What are you doing here?”

His jaw was tight.  “Waiting on Regan.”

“Why?  Why would you want to come anywhere close to that monster?”

“He has my son.”

She gasped.  “Little Joe?  No.  John couldn’t be so foolish!”

“A fool must follow his natural bent.”  The handsome rancher frowned.  “The man is evil, Adah.  I’m afraid for my boy.”

“What can I do?” she asked.  “Is there anything I can do?  Do you want me to talk to John?”

“No.”  He touched her cheek.  “I want you to go back to your hotel room and stay there.”

Fear gripped her heart.  “What do you intend to do?  Not – ”

“I intend to get my boy back – no matter what it takes.”

“If you let John drive you to…murder…you will have ruined your life and your sons’.  There must be another way.”

“It’s not my wish to kill the man, but if it comes to it and Little Joe’s life is at stake….”  He paused.  “You know I will.”

She dropped her head so it rested on his chest.  “Would God I could have loved you, Ben.  Would God I had taken your hand and never looked back that day in the saloon.”

He brushed her hair away from her face and then placed a finger under her chin and lifted her head.  “There are times, Adah, when it seems like pain and regret are your only friends.”  Ben bent and brushed her lips with his.  “Now, go.  Please.  I need to find my son.  I can’t..do that if I’m worried about you.”

The actress blinked back tears.  “All right, Ben.  But, please, be careful.

“Pa.”

Adah turned along with the rancher.  Adam was standing half in and half out of the shadows.  “Regan’s coming out.”

“Go.  Now.” Ben repeated.

Her heart lamenting what could have been, she obeyed.

 

John C. Regan emerged from the exhibition tent – to face the barrel of a gun.  Adam glanced from the prizefighter to his father and back.  Regan didn’t look surprised.

In fact, he looked rather pleased.

“Good evening, Ben,” the Benecia Boy said, as though they were old friends who had chanced upon one another in the street.

“Where is my son?”

“There, beside you.”

“My youngest son.”

The prizefighter frowned, as if puzzled.  Then his brown brows made an exaggerated leap.  “Little Joe?  Haven’t seen him.”  He started to move forward.  “Now if you don’t mind….”

Pa cocked the hammer.  “You aren’t going anywhere.”

“Is that a threat, Cartwright?  Because if it is, I have a witness.”

One of Regan’s seconds from the contest stood at his side.  The man’s feet were as shifty as his eyes.

Pa’s were black steel.

“My son never came back to the tent.  You and I both know Brig Louden took him.”

Regan snorted.  “I know no such thing.  I haven’t seen Louden since I freed him from the cell your eldest son’s accusations unjustly put him in!”

“Louden is no more innocent that you are,” Adam growled.  “Tell me where my little brother is and maybe, just maybe, you’ll walk out of this town on two feet.”

“Another threat!  Are you writing these down, Jacobs?”

The pugilist’s second looked lost.  “I don’t have no paper or pen, Mister Regan.”

A back-hand nearly sent him to the ground.

Regan edged closer to Pa.

“Look, Mister Cartwright, either you get out of my way or I send Jacobs here to fetch the local constabulary, and it will be you and your remaining sons who end up in jail!”

Pa paled on that word.

Remaining.

“What have you done to Joseph?”

“Me?  Nothing.”  Regan sneered.  “Not this time.”

His father started forward.  Adam caught his arm and held him back.  “Pa, this is not the way.”

“You better listen to your boy.”  The prizefighter paused.  “Jacobs?”

“Yes, Mister Regan?”

“Why don’t you take a stroll over to the sheriff’s office and see if he’s in?  Tell him there’s some riff-raff in his town that needs removed.”

Pa’s gun swung to target Regan’s henchman.  “I wouldn’t advise it if I was you.”

The pugilist threw his arms wide.  “I haven’t done anything, Ben.  This is most unfair –”

Pa moved like a rattler striking out of the shadows to press the gun under John Regan’s chin.  “I’ll tell you what’s unfair!  A six-foot-six three-hundred-pound man assaulting a teenage boy!”

“You really gonna shoot me?  An unarmed man?  I always heard Ben Cartwright was fair and honest.”  Regan’s lips curled with cruel pleasure.  “Take me on, Ben.  Man to man.”

“Pa,” Adam said.  “Pa, you gotta put the gun down.  Killing Regan isn’t going to help Little Joe and you know that.  Come on.”

“You better listen to your boy, Ben.  Sounds like he’s the smart one in the family.”  Regan puffed up even more.  “You touch one hair on my head and I will have you slapped in jail so fast yours will spin!”

Pa remained as he was for several heartbeats, and then returned the gun to his holster.  Almost immediately John Regan struck out, taking him on the chin and driving the older man to the ground.

Then he stepped over him.

“You better go looking for that brat of yours,” the prizefighter snorted.  “Don’t you know, it isn’t safe for little boys to be out alone?”

Adam knelt beside his father and placed an arm around his shoulders as he started to rise.  “Are you okay, Pa?” he asked.

The older man shifted his jaw from side to side.  “Nothing broken, at least that I can tell.”  Pa looked in the direction Regan had gone.  “Your brother?” he asked.

Hoss was there in the shadows, along with one of their men, waiting for Regan to make a move.  When he did, middle brother would tail him.  If…when Hoss found Little Joe, he would send back word and they would follow.

He only prayed they made it in time.

 

TWELVE

He felt like someone slipped something into his drink.

Except, he hadn’t had anything to drink.

Joe Cartwright moaned and groaned and immediately regretted it as someone put a boot in his side.

“Shud-dup!” they drawled.

The kick in the side hurt, but not nearly as much as his head – and neither hurt as much as his pride.  How stupid could he be?

Then again, a man didn’t expect someone to waylay him with his pants down.

Well, just pulled up.

A cloth had been placed between his teeth; a sweat-stained filthy one that made him want to gag.  His eyes were blindfolded and he was bound to a tree.  For some reason Brig had removed his shirt too, so he was shivering.

Coupled with his aching leg and the infected cut on his arm, that put him in a really bad mood!

Out of sheer frustration, the aggravated teenager growled and pulled at his bonds.

“I was in the Navy before I became a cowboy, Cartwright,” Brig Louden said.  “You ain’t goin’ nowhere.  Least not until the boss gets here.”

“Rr-gnnn,” he managed to snarl.

“I ain’t sayin’ who. That way, you ain’t got nothin’ to tell.”

Louden was a fool if he thought John C. Regan would let him live.  Big men didn’t let smaller men show them up.  He’d bested Regan in the woods and he’d gotten away.

He was dead.

Twisting so his head was against his shoulder Joe tried to push the blindfold up.  “Tk ths ot!” he demanded.

“Why should I?  You ain’t got anythin’ to say I want to hear.”

“M-nn-y.”

“What’s that?”

Joe sighed in frustration.  “Pa…lts of…m-nn-y.”

The outlaw bellowed.  “Cartwright, you can just shut your yap.  There ain’t enough money in this here territory for me to cross that prizefighter.  I let you go, he’ll truss me up and kill me in your place!”

“…mrdr…” he managed.

There was a pause.  “Nothin’ new there.  I already got charges against me in Californey.  They can’t hang a man twice.”

Joe’s shoulders slumped.  He was running out of ideas.  Finally, at a loss and at the point of tears, he asked clearly, “Why?”

Joe could hear Brig moving.  The outlaw came close and knelt before him.  “It’s like this, Cartwright.  I already told that older brother of yours.  I ain’t in it for the money.  Someone needs to take that high-handed puffed-up son of a bitch of a pa you got down a peg or two.”  He laughed.  “Who better to do it than Brig Louden?”

“Who indeed?”

Joe froze.  He knew that voice.

It was John C. Regan.

A second later a hand took hold of his head and jerked it back with near enough force to snap his neck.

“Is the little boy crying because his papa hasn’t come to save him?”

Joe tensed and began to thrash – anything to get that hand off of him!  Regan waited until he’d exhausted himself and then put a stop to it – by jamming the back of his head into the tree.

The bully bent and spoke close to his ear.  “You’re papa isn’t coming, boy.  He doesn’t know where you are.  You’re going to die alone.”

Joe tried to hold back the tears – really, he did – but that was the one thing he was afraid of.  In all the world there was nothing that terrified him more than that word.

Alone.

“Untie him, Brig, and get the kid to his feet.”

Joe’s arms screamed when they were released – and howled when Brig took him by both and roughly drew him up.  His legs wobbled and he almost fell down but the outlaw caught him.  A second later Louden shoved him forward so hard he stumbled and fell to the ground.

The two men’s laughter enraged him.

Joe heard someone approach.  He tensed, fully expecting to be kicked again.  Instead the blindfold was pulled off and the gag ripped out of his mouth.

“Get up!” Regan ordered.

The teenager gritted his teeth and did as he was told.  He looked straight at the pugilist even as he wobbled – well, up at the pugilist – and didn’t look away.

“You got guts, kid.”

“Unlike you who send other men to do your dirty work for you!” Joe spat.  “You’re a coward, Regan!”

The big man snorted as he started to circle him.  “You know, Cartwright, my sometimes wife is a poet.  I can’t tell you how many times Adah nearly bored me to death with words. I know the meaning of ‘coward’.”  Regan stopped in front of him.  ‘A person who lacks the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things.’”  The giant of a man leaned in.  “Maybe I am a coward.  After all, killing you is going to be a pleasure.”

“You gonna just…pound me into the ground, or give me a chance to defend myself?”

“Listen to him, Boss, that runt thinks he can take you on,” Brigs scoffed.

Regan held up a hand.  “Is that a challenge, Mister Cartwright?”

Joe swallowed over his fear.  If he was gonna die, it was gonna be as a man.  He nodded.
“You bet it is.”

The prizefighter stared at him and then threw his head back and bellowed.  “You won’t last one round!”

“Why don’t you try me?” Joe snarled.   “Or are you afraid I’ll win?”

If anyone had been passing by then, they would have felt compelled to remark on this most remarkable scene.  It was like something out of myth.  Within a secluded glade two men stood– one a giant and the other a tender youth.  There was at least a foot between them in height and the giant outweighed the boy by two hundred pounds.  The giant’s face was battered, bruised; his features swollen so he appeared to be something other than human.  The youth had the face of one of God’s angelic host.  The giant’s fingers formed massive fists.  The youth’s supple digits drummed against his thigh, tapping out a tune of determination and dread.  It was the picture of David and Goliath.

Then as now, only God knew who would win.

 

Hoss Cartwright gripped the branch before him with the same force he’d use to stop a runaway team.  He’d arrived just as Brig Louden kicked his little brother in the side and sent the cowboy who’d come with him – Sam Jacobs – flyin’ lickety-split back to town to get Adam and his pa.  He was countin’ the minutes ‘til they arrived.  They hadn’t got too far out of Virginia City before spottin’ Regan’s camp.  The prizefighter didn’t think no one could catch him, so he hadn’t done much to cover his trail.  Pa said they’d be waitin’ at Beth’s shop and so that was where he’d sent Sam.  Ridin’ fast as they could, it’d take him and Adam at least ten minutes to arrive.

He didn’t know if Little Joe had that long to live.

Regan was circlin’ baby brother like a cat playin’ with a mouse.  Little Joe had his fists up and was followin’ the prizefighter’s every move.  Now and then Regan would dart forward and hit him.  Then he’d retreat out of Joe’s reach.  It was the same thing he done in the ring with Tom Sawyer, and he was good at it.

Baby brother was growin’ tired.

Hoss narrowed his eyes and switched his gaze to Brig Louden.  The scum was leanin’ on a tree, cheerin’ Regan on and laughin’ at little brother’s attempts to defend himself.  It made him mad enough to spit nails!  Louden had a gun in his hand but wasn’t payin’ no attention to it.  If he could get that gun – and take that scruffy good-for-nothin’ out – then he’d be free to pitch in and help Joe.

With a stealth that belied his size, Hoss began to work his way around the perimeter of the glade.

 

“You can do better than that, boy!” Regan sneered.  “You better, or you’re gonna be dead.”

Joe sucked in a breath and let it out slowly – and painfully.  The prizefighter was right.  He was slowing down and if he slowed down anymore, the brute was going to kill him.  He’d already taken a jab to his kidneys and another one to his lower torso that came close to making him sing soprano for the next week.  It shouldn’t have come as a surprise him that Regan fought dirty.  After all, there were no rules in bare-knuckle fighting.

Or at least none that were obeyed.

“Come and get me if you can, little boy.”

The pugilist’s tone was taunting.  He was trying to make him lose his temper and doing a pretty good job of it.  Joe kept Hoss and Adam’s voices in his ear.  ‘Your strength lies in your speed and size,’ middle brother said.  ‘Move in quick and get out just as quick, and hit them where it counts,’ Adam had added.

They trouble was, he was so tired his ‘quick’ was slow as molasses.  He’d got in a few good licks in the beginning, but the rock-hard muscle his knuckles encountered had left them bruised.  John C. Regan was a professional who’d just trained for a championship bout.

There was no way he was going to win.

Still, he could make his pa and brothers proud.

“I…may be…a little boy, but – unlike you – I’m big where it counts,” the weary teen said, each breath coming hard.  “You just ask Miss Adah.”

Regan bellowed like a bull in heat and charged him.

Joe closed his eyes.

At least it would be quick.

 

Ben glanced at his son Adam.  They were mounted and riding as fast as they could for the glade Sam described.  John C. Regan was there, with his boy.  Hoss was there too, the rancher reminded himself.  He had to trust that Little Joe’s brother wouldn’t let anything happen to him.

He had to have faith.

They’d been drinking coffee at Beth’s shop when Sam arrived to tell them that he and Hoss had located Joseph.  Beth shoved a sack into his hands containing bandages and salve, and then gave him a peck on the cheek for good luck before shoving him out the door.  On foot, the glade was a good twenty minutes away.  Mounted, it would take ten at least.

Adam nodded, his young face grim.  “Almost there,’ he said.

Almost there.

They knew the glade well.  It was often used as a backdrop for festivals and church picnics.  He’d taken Marie there when they first arrived in the settlement that was to become Virginia City, to introduce her to the inhabitants of the rough and ready settlement.  The thought that Marie’s son could…die…there took his breath and leeched the strength from his aging bones.  He should have shot the villain behind the tent and taken the consequences.  Better him in jail and his boy alive.

Little Joe had to be alive.

“Pa!”

Ben reined his horse in even as eldest pointed toward the circled trees.  Through them, he could see men moving.  It was too far away to tell who they were.  Still, his father’s heart told him that he was viewing a contest never meant to be fought.

One between John C. Regan and his youngest son.

 

Hoss was right behind Louden.  It was all he could do not to run right out and charge into the fight.  Joe was hurtin’.  He was limpin’ bad.  Worse than that, he was bleedin’ from all kinds of places.  An unexpected smile curled the big man’s lips as his gaze shifted to the prizefighter.

Regan was bleedin’ too.

“You go get him, little brother,” he whispered.

Brig must of heard him.  The man frowned and turned – and then yelped as he got himself drug into the trees and stomped on.  With a mite too much pleasure, Hoss brought his boot down on the other man’s arm and snatched the pistol out of his hand.

It was at that moment baby brother screamed.

 

Ben’s hand shot out to grip his son’s arm.  “Regan is killing him!” he announced before taking off like a shot.  Adam was right beside him.  The rancher noted that his son drew his pistol as they moved.

There was no way to know if there would be a chance for a clean shot.

The branches struck them as they ran, drawing blood from their cheeks and hands.  Neither of them paid any attention.  Their goal – their need – was to reach that glade before John C. Regan, the Benecia Boy – a grown man trained to use his fists – beat the last breath out of the boy they loved.  He and Adam broke into the glade just as Hoss stepped out of the trees.  He deliberately place himself between Joseph – who was clinging to a tree and gasping – and the monster who attacked him.

“Now you just back off real easy, mister,”  the big man said.  When Regan continued to advance, Hoss raised the gun he held and pointed it at the pugilist.  “I mean it.  I’ll shoot you down and won’t think nothin’ of it.”

The prizefighter reached up to wipe blood and spit from his lips.  He glared at Joe who had moved to stand behind him.

“No, you won’t.”  Regan staggered back.  “You’re too good, Cartwright.”

“Let me…finish it, Hoss,” Joe demanded.  “I can…take him.”

The boy was nearly dead on his feet.  His chest pumped; his lungs seeking air.  He had to brace himself just to stay upright.

Regan spit blood.  “I thought you…Cartwrights…were all about honor…and fair play.”  The pugilist held up his bloody hands.  “Do you see a gun?  Are you gonna shoot an unarmed man?”

Hoss began to answer, but he cut him short.  “He’s right, son.”

Ben heard Adam suck in air.  Both Hoss and Joe turned to stare at him as if he had just grown a second head.

“Pa, you ain’t gonna let him go?” Hoss asked.  “Not after what he done to Little Joe?!”

The rancher passed John Regan and didn’t stop until he was standing in front of his middle boy.  He caught Hoss’ eye and held out his hand.  “Give me the gun, Hoss.”

Regan chuckled.  “Where’s your backbone, Ben?  You let me walk away, I’ll be back.”

The older man turned toward the horror that stood before him.  “No, you won’t.”

“No?”

“No, because you aren’t going to walk away.”

“What makes you think you can stop me?”

Ben’s gaze went to each of his sons in turn.  He held Adam’s longest as he deliberately laid the pistol on the ground and began to roll up his sleeves.  “I don’t know about you, boys, but it seems to me that Mr. Regan here has a lesson to learn.”

“What’s that, Pa?” Joe asked as he came alongside him.

“You take on one of us – you take on us all.”

 

Adah Menken picked her way cautiously through the woods.  Ben had ordered her to return to her room, but she was not a woman who obeyed orders.  All her life she’d defied convention.  Women simply didn’t do what she’d done – become an actress, publish brutally honest poetry, travel the world; get divorced.  She was a rebel and she knew it.  It set her apart from most everyone and everything.  Perhaps that was why she had been attracted to John Carmel Regan.  He served as her protector – her living shield against a cruel world.

Until he too became cruel.

When she’d returned to the exhibition tent, hoping John would still be there, she’d run into Ben’s ranch hand.  The man’s name was Sam and he’d been headed to the sheriff’s office.  Sam told her John did indeed have Little Joe and that Ben and his sons had gone to confront him.  Her hope had been to talk to the man she loved and to get him to see reason.

She could still do that.

And so, she’d mounted a horse – she had no idea whose – and taken off for the glade the Jacobs man described.  She’d left the animal tethered about one hundred yards back and was now on foot.  She would enter the stage in her own fashion and at her own time, and not because she had foolishly revealed herself.

The first thing Adah noticed was a flash of white among the trees.  Then she saw several men, Ben Cartwright among them.  One man lay on the ground.  At first she feared it was Little Joe, but then she realized it couldn’t be.  Little Joe was standing, leaning against his giant of a brother, Hoss.  Serious and stolid Adam hovered close by.

So who was the man on the ground?

With gut-wrenching clarity she realized it was John.

“You can come out, Adah.  I know you’re there.”

The actress drew a breath and did something she seldom did – obeyed.  Her hand went to her throat as she looked at her husband.  She’d witnessed dozens of prize fights.  They often ended with John battered and bruised, at times beyond recognition.

This was far worse.

“What have you done?!” she breathed.

Ben’s jaw grew tight as he quoted the Bible.  “And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death; breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  As he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.” 

Her eyes shot to John’s broken form.  “Have you…killed him?”

“No,” the rancher replied as he approached.  “Merely served him his own medicine.”

She looked at each of his boys in turn.  They were all bloodied and battered – Little Joe most of all.

“That…monster was about to kill my teenage son.”  Ben indicated his sons.  “Together, we leveled the field.”

In other words, they all took John on at once.

“…Adah….”

She turned.  John was stirring.  He groaned and lifted a hand to reach out to her.

“Adah…please….”

The actress glanced at the man beside her before kneeling at her husband’s side.  “Yes, John?”

“Go…get the…sheriff.  Bring him….”  The Benecia Boy sucked in unexpected pain.  “Bring him…here….”  John’s gaze focused on Ben.  “…Hell to pay.”

Adah puffed out a breath.  “It looks to me, John, like Hell has already been paid.”

“You…no!  Adah!  You’ll…do as I…say.”  A light she knew all too well – one that proceeded the blows and curses she had endured for two years entered his eyes.  “I…own you!”

“Not anymore, John,” she said, her jaw set.  “Not anymore.”

Ben touched her shoulder.  “Adah, come away.”

She rose to her feet and faced him.  “What will you do?  John will press charges.”

“We’ll press counter-charges if we must.”  The rancher nodded toward the shadows nearby.  “We have Louden.  Brig knows it is in his best interest to tell the truth.”

“How is Little Joe?”

“I’m…fine…Ma’am.”

Hoss was walking the boy to where their horses were tethered.  The big man rolled his eyes as his brother stumbled and then swept the boy off his feet and into his arms.

“Hey!”

“You just hush little brother.  You ain’t as good an actor as Miss Menken here.”

She watched them go before turning back to their father.  “Will Little Joe be all right?”

“In time.”  Ben touched her cheek.  “Will you?”

The actress turned to look at the man she had married, and then returned her attention to the one before her – the man she truly loved, but would never doom to be tied to such a creature as her.

“ Yes.  Thanks to you, Ben, and your boys, I am finally free.”

 

THIRTEEN

Tempy started at the sound of horses’ hooves and worked her way to her feet slowly.  By the time she managed to waddle to the door the hooves had grown silent, only to be replaced by the sound of men’s deep resonant voices.  She opened the door to find Ben Cartwright standing on the porch.  Her gaze went from the older man to his sons, who were still in the yard.  Little Joe was seated on Cochise and his brothers were arguing about who would help him down.

Joe was complaining that he could do it himself.

Her eyes returned the figure of the patriarch of the Ponderosa.  The toll of the last few hours was written upon his bruised and battered face.  Indignation stiffened the rancher’s tall form as he watched the slow and painful process of his youngest son dismounting.  Ben jerked as Joe’s knees gave out and started forward, but held himself in check as Hoss and Adam took charge.  This time it was Adam who caught his slender, handsome brother in his arms and lifted him from the ground.  Joe didn’t protest – until he saw her watching – and then it was mostly for show.  Tempy stepped aside, even as Joe’s father did, to make room for the brothers to enter the house.  Once inside, Adam hesitated.  She took advantage of the moment to take the handsome teen by the hand.  When Joe turned to look at her, she smiled.

“I bet Regan looks worse than you,” she said, her tone softened by the horror of what she saw.

It was Adam who replied.

“That’s one bet you’d win.”  The man in black rolled his eyes over, indicating Little Joe, before adding with a grin.  “Now, come on, little brother, let’s get you cleaned up so you can impress the ladies again.”

They were a mess – all four of them.  Hair askew.  Brows, eyes, and lips bruising.  Faces cut.

Blood spatter everywhere.

“Regan’s alive,” Ben said as the pair disappeared up the stairs.  “More’s the pity”

“You took him on?” she asked, her gaze moving to an equally disheveled Hoss as he entered the house.  “All of you?”

The older man moved past her and headed for the hearth.  Once there, Ben dropped into his favorite chair.  A gesture called her over.

“We took him on,” he confirmed as she sat down.  “It’s not something I’m proud of – four against one – but it had to be done.  The man is a brute and a bully.  The only thing John C. Regan understands is physical strength.”  The rancher scowled.  “The only thing he respects is a physical strength greater than his own.”

Her pa was like that.  He might not look like it, but Ichabod Flowerdew was a powerful man.  He’d taken a hand to her once in Caleb’s presence.

That was when the trouble began.

“Do you think…,” she began haltingly.

Ben turned from the fire.  “Yes?”

“Do you think this will end it?  What’s between Regan and Joe, I mean?”

He closed his eyes and let out a sigh.

“We can only pray.”

 

Adam took a moment to clean up before heading down the hall to Hoss’ room.  He knew the big man was struggling with what had happened.  There’d come a point – in the heat of the moment and the midst of battle – where he’d had to restrain him, otherwise he might have killed John C. Regan.

He was that enraged.

Hoss was a gentle soul.  It took a lot to rouse the latent beast within him, but – once roused – it was just as difficult to get it back into the cage.  Hoss was livid.  He broke free, whirled, and raised a hand to strike him.  Time slowed as he looked at that massive fist, knowing that less than one heartbeat stood between him being on his feet and being felled by what was certainly a killing force.  Fortunately, Hoss got hold of himself.  He actually witnessed the moment when the big man realized what could have happened.

Since then, his brother hadn’t said a word to him.

Adam brought his hand down on the door.  “Hoss!  Hoss?  Answer me,  I know you’re in there.”

“Go away.  I don’t want to talk to no one.”

The man in black’s lips curled at one end.  One eye twitched.  “Be that as it may, I think we need to talk.”

“We can talk tomorrow.”

And let the wound fester overnight?  No way.

What would entice him?

Ah….

“Look, Hoss, you need to open the door.  I’m worried about Joe.”

For a moment there was nothing.  Then he heard the sounds of the big man stirring.  A second later the door opened.  Hoss looked him up and down and announced.

“You look like somethin’ the cat tossed back.”

Hoss had come out of the brawl with the least injuries – visible ones, that was.  His fists had flown so fast Regan barely had time to retaliate.  Adam glanced at his own hands.  They looked a bit like something Hop Sing had taken a tenderizer to.  He’d gotten in a few good licks, as had Pa, but had paid the price for taking on a professional prizefighter.

He lifted his bruised hand to his bruised jaw and said, “Ouch.”

“You better have Hop Sing put some liniment on them bruises afore they overtake that five o’clock shadow of yours,” Hoss said.  “Now, what’s this about Joe?”

“Like I said, I’m concerned about him.”

The big man frowned.  “When I left him in his room, he seemed okay.  Is he hurtin’ bad or somethin’?”

Adam’s gaze flicked to his brother’s right hand.  The cuts on Hoss’ knuckles were scabbing over.

He hoped they stayed that way.

“Joe’s fine,” he admitted.  “I lied.  I needed you to open the door.”

Hoss glared at him, anger flicking through the crystal blue field of his eyes.  He winced as his fingers formed a fist, and then let his pain out in a sigh.

“Dag blast it, Adam!  I could’a killed you!”

He stepped into the room, following his brother.  “But you didn’t.  You stopped yourself.  That’s not easy to do in the midst of battle.”

Hoss had taken a seat on his bed.  He looked up from his hands, which he had been studying.  “What do you mean ‘battle’?  That weren’t no battle, it was just one hum-dinger of a fight!”

“I beg to differ.”  Adam took hold of his desk chair, swung it around, and pulled it close to the bed before taking a seat.  “It was a battle.  Two opposing sides taking up arms – so to speak – to struggle tenaciously to achieve something.”

“You and them high-falutin’ words of yours,” Hoss sighed.  “All I was trying to achieve was keepin’ Little Joe alive.”

“A worthy cause,” he said softly.

Hoss’ gaze went to the door and beyond it to their baby brother’s room.  As it did, his face changed; the expression going from regret to rage.

“You didn’t see ‘em, Adam.  Brig and Regan.  They was tauntin’ Joe, callin’ him all kinds of things and threatenin’ to kill him!  I had to stand by and watch ‘til I could take Louden out on account of he had a gun.”  The fists formed again, this time breaking open a few of the fresh scabs.  “I wasn’t fast enough.  I….”  Tears formed in his eyes.  “I heard Joe scream.”

The toll on their baby brother was bad.  Even after such treatment, the teenager had insisted on taking part in the fight.  There’d been little time to pay any attention to anything other than managing to stay out of the range of those licensed fists, but he’d seen him go down a couple of times.  Unbeknownst to Little Joe, Pa had dispatched one of the men for Doc Martin.  Adam’s lips quirked as he reached up and felt the skin around his left eye, which was twice the size it should have been.

Paul’s visit would benefit them all.

“What have you got to smile about?” Hoss groused.

“I was just considering Joe’s reaction to Paul showing up – again.”  Adam stood.  “So, can I assume you will stop beating yourself up?  After all, Regan did a good enough job of that for all of us.”

“It ain’t easy, Adam, bein’ big like I am….”  Hoss held out his battered hands.  “Having so much power in my fists.”

Adam reached out to place a hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “Your ‘power’, brother, isn’t in your fists – it’s in the heart that propels them.  You would do well to remember that.”

Hoss gave him a half-hearted smile.  “Okay.  Thanks.”  He paused a second and then asked, “So, do you think I should go check on Little Joe?”

“I’ll do that.  I’m going downstairs anyhow.”  Adam headed for the door, but turned back.  “Oh, I forgot.  Pa asked Hop Sing to fix some food.  It will be ready in about an hour.”

His brother brightened.  “You know, Adam, I was just about to take my life in my hands and sneak down to the larder and see if I could rustle up somethin’ without Hop Sing knowin’. Ain’t nothing like a fight….”  He corrected himself.  “…a ‘battle’ to build up a man’s appetite!”

Adam nodded his agreement before moving into the hall.  As he advanced down it, toward his baby brother’s room, he sucked in a breath and steeled himself.  Talking to Joe when he was in a ‘mood’ was always a challenge.

Or you could say, a ‘battle’.

If things went as they usually did, he’d certainly have a good appetite soon!

 

Ben Cartwright observed their guest from his chair near the fire.  It was late and they both should have been abed, but the events of the day had created in him a restiveness, which the young woman seemed to either sense or share.

He was pleased to see that Temperance had blossomed in the few days she had been at the Ponderosa.  Clothing for the young woman had proven a challenge, but he’d been determined the young mother would not spend her days in his house dressed as a tramp.  He’d gone through a few trunks that contained some of Marie’s effects, but had found nothing to suit.  His late wife had been about the same size as their guest, but had disdained the months when she had grown ‘fat as one of your steers’ as she put it, and kept no clothing from her maternal period.  In the end he’d sent one of the men to their neighbor’s house to see if Mrs. Anderson had any clothing that would suit.  The woman had twelve children, so he figured it was a safe bet!  Hank had returned with a trousseau of two dresses and the appropriate underpinnings, as well as a night gown.  Today Temperance was wearing a lovely teal dress that set off her eyes and her freshly washed and coifed golden-blonde hair.  The fullness of maternity suited her face, which he surmised was usually a bit thin.  All in all she was a very pretty girl.

“Temperance,” he said.

She looked up from the book she was reading.  “Yes?”

“If you would, I’d like to hear your story.”

The girl paled a bit and then closed the book and folded her hands over it.  “I suppose I owe you that much at least.”

Ben straightened in his chair.  “No, you owe me – us – nothing.  It’s only that, well,” he smiled, “I’ve come to care for you and I would like to help.”

That brought tears.  She started to speak, choked, and shook her head.

He felt like a heel.  “It’s all right.  You don’t have to –”

Temperance put up a hand.  “No, I want to.  It’s just….”  She drew in a breath.  “I wish you had been my father.”

“Thank you,” he said, touched.

“Pa wasn’t always so bad,” she said as a faraway look came into her eyes.  “I probably make him sound like a demon.  I mean, he’s always been strict and ruled the house with an iron hand, but Ma knew how to handle him.  When we were little, it wasn’t so bad.”

“Before you were old enough to challenge him.”

She nodded.  “It happened about the same time.  I grew up and my Ma and sister died.  Since then Pa’s been…well….”

Her head dropped and the tears fell.

Ben moved to the table before the settee where he reached out and took her hand.  “Sadly, it’s an old story,” he said.  “A man like your father, that is – one who feels the need to control – believes that he is losing everything when his authority is challenged.  Such men usually think the  answer is to exert even more authority – to take ever tighter control.”

“After Ma died Pa barely let me out of his sight.  He kept watch over me all the time.”

Ben glanced at her burgeoning middle and smiled, “All the time?”

Temperance placed a hand on her belly.  “I had to go out to tend the sheep.  I’d do that while Pa was doing his studies.  And he had to make trips to parishioners’ houses.  Most times he made me go, but there were times when things needed looking after and I was left alone.”

“Planting and harvesting season.”

“For the most part,” she agreed.  “One day, I was working in the garden when I heard a voice call out.  I don’t know where he came from, but there he was, standing on the other side of the fence.”

“Your young man?”

Temperance beamed.  “Caleb’s got a head of curls, just like Joe.  Only they’re black as coal.  The sun sinking toward the horizon kind of turned them bronze.  I couldn’t really see his face, but I could see his smile.”  Her eyes told him how important this was.  “He looked…kind.”

“Had he come to see your father?”

“No.  He was just passing through from one settlement to the next.  Caleb’s a scholar, Ben.  He’s a teacher, so he goes where he’s needed.  He’d just gotten an appointment in the town over the hill from our farm.  He saw me working and stopped to ask for water.  I thought that was the last I’d see of him.”

“But it wasn’t.”

“He kept coming back, every couple of weeks.  I was scared, so I told him not to, but he did anyway.  Later, Caleb told me he stopped by once or twice a week, but only came to the house when he knew Pa was gone.”  She shuddered.  “Then, there came that terrible day.”

“Go on.”

Temperance sucked in air and plunged forward.  “We thought Pa was gone.  We couldn’t know that his horse had gone lame and he was headed back home.  We weren’t doing anything wrong, I swear!  We were just sitting outside talking when Pa stormed up in a fury quoting scriptures and started calling me all sorts of things, ‘the whore of Babylon’ among them.”  A curious light entered her eyes.  He might have named it ‘pride’.  “Caleb didn’t like that.”

“I imagine not.”

A smile with a touch of defiance broke on her face.  “Caleb went toe-to-toe with him.  He can quote scripture better’n Pa and he can do it in Hebrew!  That’s how Pa realized he was Jewish.”  The smile faded.  “Pa was so mad!  He raised a hand and I thought he was going to strike Caleb, but he turned and slapped me instead and told me if I ever saw him again I would be disowned.”  Temperance paused.  “Caleb wanted me to leave right there and then with him.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I was…scared.  I….”  She sniffed.  “I hardly knew him and, well, Ben, I love my Pa.  Really, I do.  I was hoping….”

“So, how did you come to…this?”  He indicated her belly.

“That day changed things.  Caleb still came, but we never met at the house.  Pa watched me real close for a month or two, but eventually his duties forced him to leave me alone again.  We had a signal.  I’d put a light in the window, and then Caleb would meet me out in the field.  One day, well….”

“You don’t need to say anymore.  I knew all about the birds and bees,” Ben said with a wink.  Then he sobered.  “So where do you think your young man is now?”

She let out a sigh.  “I don’t know.  Once Pa realized I was expecting, he packed us up and took off for another town.  I tried to get a letter to Caleb, but Pa found it and tore it into pieces.  He told me if I ever contacted Caleb again, he’d kill him!  He said Caleb had taken me away from him and so he had a right to do away with him.  A life for a life – an eye for an eye, he said.”

It was amazing how mankind managed to use God’s scripture – out of context – to its own advantage.

“So you’re father didn’t cast you out?  You ran away?”

“That’s right.  Pa made up a story to tell the neighbors, about me being married and my husband being dead.  He told me I’d never get away, and that he was duty-bound as my father to show me the light.”  Temperance scowled.  “I showed him instead.  The next time he went on his rounds I packed up and took off.  Pa didn’t think I’d do it.  He always said I needed looking after.”  The young woman grinned.  “I showed him.  I’ve been looking after myself just fine!”

“You certainly have.  Now, tell me, are you still set on going to your aunt’s?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t want to try to contact the baby’s father?  I’m sure we could find –”

“No.  Caleb doesn’t know.”  She frowned.  “He didn’t want to…well, you know.  It was me.  I was the one who…”  The young woman straightened up.  “I got myself into this mess and I will get myself out.”

“Very well,” Ben said as he rose.  “I’ll send one of the men into town in the morning to check the telegraph office.  Let’s hope your aunt has sent a reply.”

 

Adam tapped on his baby brother’s door.  “Joe, are you awake?”

His reply was a mumble that seemed to indicate that he was.  The man in black pushed two fingers against the partially open door and went in.  Little Joe was lying on his bed, curled on his side.  One hand clutched his middle.

“Are you in pain?”

Joe’s look was defiant.  “Are you?”

“Touché.”   He advanced into the room and pointed at the desk chair.  “May I?”

“Suit yourself.”

“Glad to see your sunny disposition is still intact,” he remarked as he took his seat.

“The sun’s down,” Joe replied as he closed his eyes.  “Leave me alone, will you?  I just want to sleep.”

“I’ll leave you alone after you answer one question.”

The teenager sighed.  Joe lifted his head and then – gingerly – dragged his body up until he was propped against his pillows.  “Yes, I’m in pain.  Are you satisfied?  And I’m in even more pain now that I had to sit up!”

“That’s not the question.”

His brother was growing exasperated.  “That’s the one you asked!”

“And you already answered it.  Succinctly.”  He raised a brow.  “However, I have another one.”

Joe sighed.  “Geez, Adam.  What is it?”

Here it came.

“Are you all right?”

“What do you mean?  I just told you I hurt….”  Joe paled.  “Oh.”

Adam leaned forward and dropped his hands between his knees.  “Look, Joe.  The four of us together gave John C. Regan what he deserved and sent him running back to Virginia City with his tail between his legs, but he’s still walking the earth.  The threat is still there.  I want to know how that makes you feel.”

“Why?”

“Why?”  Adam burst out of his chair and began to pace.   “How can you ask that?  Because –”

“Because you need to make it all right?  Because it’s older brother’s responsibility to make sure the bogeyman is gone?”  Joe straightened up, still clutching his middle with his hand.  “Let’s face it, Adam, the bogeyman isn’t ever going to be gone, and there’s nothing Hoss or Pa or you can do to make it any different!  What are you gonna do, sneak into town and put a bullet in Regan’s head when no one is looking?”

He shrugged.

He’d seriously considered it.

“Look, Adam,” Joe said, his young face so serious and so earnest that it made him look like that little boy he’d beaten up bullies for before, “I’m a big boy now.  I know how things are.  Sometimes there isn’t justice.  Sometimes the bad guys win.  I’ll just have to…learn how to live with that.”

That quaver.

That…hesitation.

It steeled his resolve.

Adam didn’t say it as he closed the door and walked out of the room, but he thought it.

Like Hell you will!

 

FOURTEEN

Their ranks were thin.

Ben Cartwright’s gaze went from the chair next to him they’d added to the table for Temperance, which held the young mother-to-be, to the empty one next to her, and then beyond it to Hoss, who sat at the opposite end of the table.  Then it moved on to the next empty chair where his eldest son should be.

“I checked on Little Joe,” Hoss said, reading his mind.  “He said he didn’t feel like eatin’ nothin’.”

“I’ll be glad when Paul gets here,” the older man replied, his tone worried.  “You know your brother.  It’s like pulling hen’s teeth to get him to admit he needs help.”

“Joe’s hurting,” Temperance said.  As they both turned toward her, she went on.  “I stopped in to see how he was doing and he said he has a pain here.”  She touched her right side just below the ribs and then winced.

“Have you got a pain there, Miss Tempy?” Hoss asked.

“It’s nothing,” she replied as she reached for her glass of water.  “Little one likes to hitch his heels there.”

“Is the baby due soon?” Hoss asked.

Temperance was undernourished, so it was hard to tell how far along she was.

She shrugged.  “I figure I got about a month.”

Ben exchanged a worried look with his son.  From the look of her – and what he remembered – a ‘month’ seemed to be stretching it.  “Doctor Martin will be here sometime this morning to check on Joseph,” he said as Hops Sing arrived with the steak.  “You could talk to him, if you like.  He might be able to give you a more exact date.  If you intend to travel to your aunt’s, you’ll want to know.”

“Make five plates for breakfast,” his Asian housekeeper groused as he reappeared.  “Why only need three at table?”

“Little Joe ain’t feelin’ so good, Hop Sing,” Hoss said with a grin.  “So you can just serve me his steak.”

“What about Mistah Adam?”

Ah, yes.  What about Mister Adam?

“Do you know where your older brother is, Hoss?” Ben asked.

His son swallowed his coffee before speaking.  “No, sir.  Last I saw him was late yesterday.  He was gone by the time I got up this mornin’.”

“Did he say where he was going?”

“Sure didn’t.”  Hoss grinned as Hop Sing placed the extra steak on top of his own.  “Now that’s more like it!”

Ben’s gaze had gone to the front door.  There were plenty of chores to be about, and there was that trouble up at the logging camp – something to do with the logistics of moving a large load of timber.  Still, Adam usually left such things until after breakfast, and almost always let him know what he was up to.

“I saw him,” Temperance said.

“Adam?”

“I can only sleep a couple of hours at a time.  I like to walk, so I came down to the great room and Adam was there.”

“When was this?”

She thought a moment.  “Around three.  I thought it was kind of funny.  He was dressed and was walking back and forth in front of the fire.”

“Sounds like older brother was thinkin’.”

Ben nodded.  It did indeed.  But about what?

The older man’s gaze returned to the stair and progressed up it to his other missing son.

“Good Lord!” he declared as he dropped his napkin and rose.

Hoss paused with a piece of steak halfway to his mouth.  “What is it, Pa?”

“I can’t be certain, but….”  Ben headed for the door.  “I have to go to town.”

“What for?”  The big man placed his fork on the plate and followed.  “Pa, what is it?  Older brother’s probably gone for the mail or…somethin’….”  Hoss swallowed hard.  “You think he’s gone after Regan.”

Ben had his coat on and was reaching for his hat.  “I hope I’m wrong, but….”

“I’m comin’ with you.”

The rancher shook his head.  He caught his son’s gaze and inclined his head toward the table.  “I’ve been through this before.  If Temperance has a week before that baby comes, I’d be surprised.  No, you’re needed here to help her – and to mind your younger brother.  Don’t, under any circumstances, let Joseph know about Adam’s disappearance or my going after him.  Do you understand me?”

Hoss looked deflated, but he nodded.  “I suppose someone’s got to be here to sit on little brother when Doc Martin examines him,” he said with a grin.

Good solid, stable, reliable Hoss.  He didn’t know what he’d do without him.

Just as his hand contacted the latch, Ben heard Temperance whimper.  He glanced at her and noted she was panting.

Paul couldn’t arrive too soon.

 

Adam Cartwright stood in the shadows watching the roustabouts dismantle and pack the exhibition tent where John C. Regan and Tom Sawyers had duked it out the day before.  He’d found no rest, his sleep as deeply troubled by his baby brother’s words as he’d been.  Little Joe would turn eighteen in a few weeks.  He was at an impressionable age, one where a single traumatic event could mark him for life.  If Joe believed – truly believed – that good could not triumph over evil and justice was left undone, that would change him, and not for the better.

The man in black snorted.

God, help him!  Little Joe might grow as jaded as him.

It was early in the day.  He’d left the Ponderosa while it was still dark, intent on reaching Virginia City before its population roused.  Once in town he’d made a couple of stops – apologetically – and then took up his current position in the alley beside the mercantile.  There were very few people on the streets.  One of the early risers was, of course, Sheriff Coffee.  He’d been watching the older man for some time now as he made his rounds, waiting for the moment when Roy would turn down a side street and disappear.

Which had just happened.

Adam lifted his eyes to the balcony on the building next to the theater and winced at the thought of the punishment his back would take.  Still, if baby brother had managed to drop off of it without injury, he should be able to scale it.  He’d asked Sam, who was out sweeping the boardwalk in front of the saloon, what the word was on John C. Regan and his whereabouts.  The ‘word’, the barkeep said, was that Adah Menken had packed up and left the night before and Regan had taken up residence in the palatial suite her backers had financed for his remaining time in town. Adam’s full lips curled with a smile.  That was a good thing.  He knew that suite like the back of his hand from the time Lotta Crabtree had occupied it.  There was a nice little alcove right off the main room with a window of its own.

Adam thought a moment and then removed his coat and gun belt.  He took his pistol from the belt before wrapping it in the coat and tucking both behind a barrel in the alley.  Then, he anchored the gun behind his waist-band.

Seconds later, with a steely resolve glinting in his hazel eyes, the man in black jogged across the street.

 

The sound of footsteps on the stair caused Hoss to put down his book and rise to his feet.  It struck him as odd at that moment, how it brought with it both worry and fear.  It hadn’t always been that way.  Before Joe’s mama died, he’d looked forward to that sound.  It meant Pa and Ma was comin’ down in their finest to head into town, or maybe little brother had escaped from his room and was runnin’ down just out of Mama’s reach.  Life sure was a funny thing.  You could have a thousand good memories and just one bad one, and it was the bad one stuck with you.  He’d never forget that  night.  He’d heard those steps and turned to see Pa comin’ down the stairs with Paul Martin on his heels.  Pa’s face was long.  He shook his head.

Mama was dead.

“Hoss?  Are you all right?”

The big man blinked.  An older version of Paul Martin was standing there, scrutinizing him.  “Sorry, Doc.  I guess I got lost in my thoughts.”

“I wouldn’t advise you do it too often.  It doesn’t appear to be a pleasant place to wander.”

“No, sir.  Not that thought at least,” he agreed.  “How’s Little Joe?”

“Bruised and battered and defiant as ever,” the older man said as he reached the floor.  “There’s some bruising on his abdomen on the right side, but I’m pretty sure it will clear.”

“Anythin’ else?”

Paul’s white brows peaked.  “Would you like a catalog?  It would be longer than Hop Sing’s winter shopping list!”  At his look, the doctor relented.  “Joe will be fine, Hoss.  He’s going to hurt for some time, but there’s nothing to worry about.”  The doctor laughed.  “I imagine I could say the same thing for all of you!”

“Ah, gosh, I’m okay,” the big man replied as he flexed his healing knuckles.  “Pa and Adam’s got nice shiners, though!”

“I prescribe steak – on the eye and inside the stomach.  And perhaps, no more trips into town until John C. Regan makes his departure?”

Hoss hesitated before replying.  “Yes, sir.”

Paul Martin was shrewd.  He turned in a circle, looking.  “Where is Ben anyway?  And Adam, for that matter.  It’s not like you Cartwrights to be anywhere else when one of you is hurting.”

He thought about lying, but decided the older man would figure that out too.  “Pa went to town.  We don’t know where Adam is.”

“But your father has reason to think he’s in town?”

It was no use.

“Yes, sir.”

“Good grief!  Have both of them taken leave of their senses?  They’re just asking for trouble.”

Pa might be asking for it, but his fear was that Adam had gone looking for it.

The doctor sighed as he headed for the door.  “I’d best get to town in case there are any other Cartwrights who need to be put back together.  You take care Hoss – and stay put!”

He grinned.  “I will, Doc.  Pa told me to keep Little Joe nailed down and I mean to.  Plus I gotta keep an eye on Miss Tempy.”

“Oh.  That reminds me,” Paul said turning back.  “About that young woman.  You said your father wanted to know when the baby was coming?”

“He sure did.”

The physician’s gaze went to the stair before fixing on him.

“Let’s hope your Pa doesn’t linger in town.  It could be any time now.”

 

John C. Regan splashed cold water on his face, wiped it with a towel, and then looked in the mirror.  The early morning light that spilled in the open window lit the washstand’s bowl and basin.  He snarled at what looked back at him.  He’d seen his mug look like a slab of meat before, but he’d always given as good as he got – if not better.  Rage invested ever line, each bruise and crusted-over cut, as he thought of the take-down of the night before.

His take-down at the hands of the Cartwrights.

They were a bunch of sniveling cowards, the lot of them!  The old man, the worst.  They’d only beat him because they all took him on.  Not one of them was man enough to do it alone!  The prizefighter snorted as he tossed aside the slightly bloodied cloth.  No, he took that back.  The kid – that crazy loco kid – was the only one brave enough to go one-on-one with him.  He had to admit that took guts.

Too bad he felt an insatiable desire to spill them.

It rankled, the fact that a one hundred and thirty pound boy with a girlish waist and giggle, was the only target he’d selected that had managed to walk away on two feet.  And everyone knew it!  If he let it stand he’d be the laughing stock of the Comstock!  It wasn’t just that the kid was a pain in his side, it was the fact that his reputation was at stake.  Who’d pay to watch a pugilist who couldn’t take out a milksop teenager?  Four against one he could explain away, but the Cartwright kid….

Something had to be done about him.

The prizefighter took another look in the mirror, considered shaving, and then decided it wasn’t worth it.  The fight had left too many hills and gullies to easily navigate.  Instead, he turned and reached for the shirt that he’d hung over the chair beside the washstand.  As he did, something glinted.  Must have been the light catching on the water in the basin, he decided, as he slung the shirt over his massive frame.

Then he froze as something cold made contact with the back of his neck.

 

A muscle in his face twitched.

So did his finger on the trigger.

“Over there,” Adam ordered  “Don’t look, just get your hands up.  You know who it is.”

“Yeah, I know,” the pugilist grunted.

“I told you to move.  I want you in that chair by the table.”

Regan scoffed.  “What’re you gonna do if I don’t move?  Shoot me?”

“Yes,” he said without pause.

The pugilist glanced over his shoulder.  “An unarmed man?  You’ll hang, Cartwright.”

“I don’t think so.  I checked.  Those fists of yours are licensed.  Now, get them up.”

“So you’re gonna lie,” Regan countered sharply.  “Tell the law I attacked you?”

Adam fingered his jaw.  “It won’t be a lie.  I have the bruises to prove it.”

That took a little of the wind out of the big man’s sails.

“Look, Cartwright, I’m sure you and I can settle this peacefully.”  He dropped his arms and began to turn.  “Let’s talk,”

Adam had anticipated the move and was several feet back.

“Good try.”  He gestured with the gun.  “Now, get over there.”

With a growl, the brute did as he was told.

Adam moved to the other side of the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down.  His gun never wavered.   “Now, I’m going to do the talking and you’re going to listen, is that clear?”

Regan crossed his arms over his massive chest.  “Go ahead.  Speak your piece.”

With his free hand, the man in black reached into his shirt and pulled out a moderate-size envelope, which he tossed on the table.

“What’s that?” the pugilist demanded.  “You trying to buy me off?”

“I spent the best part of last night pacing before the fire and trying to decide what to do with you, but I can assure you that paying you off did not enter into the picture.”  Adam’s jaw tightened.  “Plainly put, you don’t deserve to walk the same earth as my little brother.  You are a user and an abuser; a piece of filth that should be tossed on the trash heap and left to rot.  I seriously considered whether or not it was worth my freedom to make sure that happened.”  He drew a breath.  “But then, I realized, you’re not.”

“You’re pushin’ it, Cartwright!”

I’m pushing it?  You couldn’t be content with almost beating a teenage boy to death once!  You had to go after Little Joe again, and to prove what?  What a big man you are?  That you could take on a child and come out the winner?”  His finger twitched again.  He drew a calming breath.  “I’ll tell you why you had to take on Joe again, not because you had to beat him as some salve to your fighter’s conscience, but because you are the one who is small.  And you know it.”  Adam sneered.  “The Benicia Boy, adored by thousands, and he can’t even keep one woman satisfied.”

Regan reared up in his chair.

“Come at me,” he said coolly.  “Give me an excuse.”

The pugilist sank back into his chair.  “I don’t have to listen to this.”

“Yes, you do.”  He dipped the gun.  “Now pick that up and look at what’s inside.”

Regan crossed his arms.  “Why should I?”

“All right.  Don’t.  I’ll tell you what’s in there.  If you remember, when we met a year ago – after you’d attacked Little Joe in that alley – I told you I that no matter how long it took, or what it took, I would track you down and make you pay.”

“Yeah, I remember.  I was shakin’ in my boots.”

Adam’s lips curled with amusement.  “Good.  You should have been.  In that envelope is proof positive of your dirty gambling deals and of several contracts you undertook to ‘eliminate’ your employer’s competition.  It contains as well as verbatim record of Brig Louden’s confession to Roy Coffee stating how you paid him to finger Little Joe, and then paid him even more to assist you in kidnapping and killing my brother.”

“That’s a lie!”

“Be that as it may.  It’s Brig’s word against yours.”

“Brig ain’t nobody!”

“No, he’s not.”  Adam shifted forward.  “But you are.  Therefore everyone, everywhere knows about you.  You’re not inconspicuous, John.  There are plenty of witnesses, some of which, I understand, will be only too happy to see you rot in prison for the rest of your days.”  He leaned back.  “So, here’s where it stands.  Copies of the contents of this envelope are locked in the safe in my father’s lawyer’s office here in Virginia City.  If anything happens to either Little Joe or my father while you are in the area, I have left instructions with Hiram that he is to take them to the law immediately – as well as to the editor of the Territorial Express.  You’ll have a taste of what you’ve done to Adah.  You’ll be ruined.  Do I make myself clear?”

The pugilist’s jaw was thrust out.  His piggy eyes blazed.

What was that old expression?

‘If looks could kill….”

“I said, ‘Do I make myself clear?’”

“Crystal,” Regan grunted.

“Good.”  Adam rose and walked to the door.  With his hand on the latch, he said, “I expect you to leave town at the earliest opportunity and to never come back.”

“Cartwright!”

He turned back into the room.  “Yes?”

“Okay.  I admit it.  You won.”

The man in black shook his head.  “I know you don’t understand, John, but this isn’t about winning or losing.”

“Then what’s it about?”

He saw his kid brother, sitting in that bed, clutching his middle; fear and tears in his eyes.

“Justice.”

 

Ben Cartwright turned when he heard his name called.  He’d just entered the hotel and crossed to the desk to inquire of the clerk whether or not he had seen his son.

It brought immense pleasure – and relief – when he realized it was Adam.

The rancher went over to his son and took him by the arm.  “Are you all right?” he asked.  The young man appeared to be exhausted.  Like him, his face was battered and his skin bruised and broken in a half-dozen places, but there was something else.  Ben recognized the outward signs of an inward battle.

He wondered which side of his boy had won.

“I’m fine, Pa.”

“Regan?” he asked, trying but failing to mask the fear in his voice.

“He’s fine too.”  Adam smirked.  “He’ll be leaving town on the next stage.”

Ben’s eyes went to his son’s hip.  There was no gun there.  Then he saw the one anchored behind his belt.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Persuasion,” Adam replied with a weary smile.  “One doesn’t take on a mountain without a stick of dynamite.”

Ben locked eyes with him.  “So it’s over?”  He knew Adam would understand the world of worry contained in that short question.

“It’s over.  Little Joe’s safe.”

He couldn’t let it go – not yet.  “Are you?  Did you…?”

“You don’t have to worry, Pa.  I didn’t hurt him.  I just made certain Regan understood where things stand.  Little Joe won’t ever have to look over his shoulder again, at least so far as the Benecia Boy is concerned.”  He flashed a smile.  “Now, I can’t make the same guarantee when it comes to the neighbor girl’s father….”

Laughing, relieved – free – the pair walked out of the hotel and headed home.

 

FIFTEEN

As Adam rode home at his father’s side, he realized just how exhausted he was.  He’d had, at most, three hours sleep and his interview with John C. Regan – if you could call it that – had been draining.  It was not so much due to what transpired as what might have occurred.

For a moment there he’d really wanted to pull that trigger.

It happened early on, while he was standing in the alcove waiting in the dark for the pugilist to finish with his morning ablutions.  The climb to the balcony had aggravated his injuries from the night before and put him in a dark mood.  As he stood there, watching the water droplets fall from the bully’s face in a sort of slow motion ballet, they turned to blood.

His brother’s blood.

Three times.  The first in that alley, the second in the woods, and the third, the night before when Brig Louden had snatched Joe out from under their noses.  That made three times the brute had laid hands on his kid brother.  The night of the battle  everything happened so fast there’d been little time to focus on anything in particular.  Standing there, in the quiet and the dark, watching the prizefighter go about his life as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, was hard enough, but it had been the sneer on his face that had done it.  Somehow he’d known that sneer was aimed at Little Joe.  At that moment it had seemed the easiest thing in the world to pull the trigger and then slip back out the window and mount his horse and ride home.

He didn’t do it because he knew once he got home, he’d have to face Little Joe – over breakfast, in the field; sitting on a fence watching the kid bust a bronco.  At some point he would have to tell the teenager what he had done.  He would have to admit that he’d taken the law into his own hands and that was something he just couldn’t do.  Joe was already walking a balancing act between his temper and his temperament.

Something like that could push him over the edge.

“A penny for your thoughts,” his father said, cutting into his reverie.

“Is that all?” he asked the older man who rode at his side.  “Apparently, you don’t think they’re worth much.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”  His father smiled.  “Time was a penny could buy a man a loaf of bread and a cup of coffee with change left over.”

“And, when you were a kid, you walked all the way uphill on a dirt road to the one room schoolhouse in your bare feet.”

“Actually, I wore boots and the streets were cobblestone.”  Pa chuckled, but sobered quickly.  “I didn’t thank you before, son, for what you did.  I am now.”

“Not killing Regan, you mean?” he asked with a lift of one brow.

His father blew out a breath.  “That too.  But no, I meant for looking out for your brother.  You boys make me proud.”

“I couldn’t have the kid looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life.  He’s too young to carry a burden like that.”

“You’re young too, son, though I know you don’t feel it today.”

“Not that young,” he replied.  “I was never that young.  Little Joe’s well, he’s…elemental, if you understand what I mean.  Don’t take this the wrong way, Pa, but Joe’s like this land, wild and untamed.”

“Your youngest brother is filled with the exuberance of life, or he will be now that you have given it back to him again.”

They were almost home.  Adam couldn’t think of a time when he’d felt happier to approach the low ridge before the house.  The first thing he was going to do was go straight upstairs and fall into bed.  He wasn’t even going to wait for supper.  Talking to Joe would have to wait for tomorrow.

He’d probably make more sense by then anyhow.

“Adam, do you know that horse and buggy?” Pa asked, causing him to look.

At first he thought it was Doc Martin’s rig parked by the railing, but then he realized the vehicle was older and in poor repair.  Paul Martin was as meticulous about his transportation as he was about his medical instruments.

“No.  I wonder who –”

A cry brought them both to a halt.

“What was that?” Pa asked.  “Did you…?”

He shook his head.  “I couldn’t catch it.  Come on, let’s –”

Then he did.  Catch the words that was.

Someone was screaming Joe’s name.

 

It wasn’t the way a man liked to wake up.  No sir-ree.

Joe had a sort of ritual for his days off.  The night before he’d close his drapes, leaving only the tiniest gap.  That way he could sleep in until the sun rose high enough to creep between them.  The warmth of the sunbeam would strike his eyelids and he’d open them slowly a few times and stretch, and then lay there starin’ at the  ceiling and thinking about things he seldom if ever had time to think about –  like how the moonlight made Brianna MacDonald’s red hair turn to bronze.  You just didn’t think about that kind of thing when you were sitting on the back of a bronco and hanging on for dear life.  Or when you were thigh-high in muck at the bottom of a dirty watering hole.  Slowly, the light would rise and he’d come awake enough to sit up in bed and maybe toss his legs over the side.  Slippers were for lazy mornings like that.

Not for ones like this.

Joe blinked and fought to stay upright.  He’d been deeply asleep thanks to Doctor’s Martin’s prescription of two drops of laudanum in his milk the night before, when a mountain lion set to caterwauling outside his window and brought him bolt upright.  Or, at least that’s what he’d thought had happened.  Turns out what he’d really heard was Hop Sing flying down the upstairs hallway shouting in Chinese as he hammered on their bedroom doors.  Trouble was, Hoss was already up and out and he was still in his nightshirt.

That was another thing a man shouldn’t have to do – stare death in the face in his night shirt and bare feet.

Like he was doing now.

“I told you, boy, you get out of my way or I will take you out of it!” the man facing him – who, by the way was holding a rifle that looked an awful lot like the one Tempy had been toting when they first met her – threatened.

Joe glanced at Tempy where she huddled behind him.  She looked as green as he felt.  Then he turned back to her father, the right Reverend Ichabod Gabriel Flowerdew and held out a finger and waved it.

He waved it because there seemed to be two Reverend Flowerdews.

“And I’m telling you that Tempy’s old enough to make up her own mind, and she says she’s not going with you!”  Joe blinked in a vain attempt to make the two gun-toting parsons in front of him merge.  “This is Ponderosa property and you’re the one who’s trespassin’, so you just need to…vamoose.”

Did he really say that?

The reverend glared at him over the barrel of the gun.

Tempy was right.  Her father wasn’t a pleasant man.  He had white hair like Pa, but that was where the comparison ended.  Pa was big and strong.  Ichabod Flowerdew was thin and wiry and sort of shriveled, like he’d had all the light and life and laughter sucked right out of him.  His eyes were a pale shade of blue, like a wolf’s, and wild as the country it ran through.  But the worst thing was his mouth, which was a cruel unyielding line.

No, that wasn’t the worst thing.

The worst thing was the way his finger twitched on the trigger.

The reverend finished quoting his twentieth scripture.  He fell silent as he assessed the two of them and then began to nod.  “I see.  Now, I see.  I have been enlightened.”

“Enlightened about what?” Joe asked.

“The truth.  You shall know it and you shall be set free!  All this time I thought it was that Jew, but I was wrong.  All this time, I was wrong.”

Tempy gasped.  “Pa, no!”

The reverend took deadly aim – right at the center of his chest.

“It was YOU!!”

“Me?”  Joe frowned.  “What do you mean, me?”  Joe glanced at Tempy.  “Now wait a minute!  You don’t think….”

“Joe, let me past,” the young woman said.  “I won’t let him hurt you!”

“Tempy, no,” he said as he took hold of her arm.  “You keep behind me where you’re safe!”

“No, Joe.  I’m not the one in danger.  You are!”  Tempy struggled in his grasp.  Briefly.  Then her eyes went wide.  “Pa, no!  Joe!  No!  Joe!!”

 

It was at that moment that Adam slammed his shoulder into the front door and thrust it open.  He’d beaten his father to it by mere seconds.  The scene that confronted him as he stepped into the room would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so deadly.  Somewhere in the distance Hop Sing was shouting in Cantonese.  His shouts accompanied by a strange hollow banging.  Little Joe – his chestnut curls and his night clothes three-sheets to the wind – stood in front of the hearth.  Behind him was Temperance who looked about to burst.

On the other side of the pair, near Pa’s chair, stood a middle-aged man holding a rifle who was absurdly quoting scripture.

He’d have to remember later to tell pa that – apparently – he’d become clairvoyant.   He’d saved his kid brother from John C. Regan only to come home and find him at the end of an irate father’s gun.

The irony was, of course, that this time he didn’t deserve it.

Astoundingly, none of them seemed to notice he was there.  Or saw Pa as he too came in the door.  The three were locked in a contest he was afraid his kid brother was going to lose.  Little Joe had turned away from the stranger toward Temperance, desperate to get her out of harm’s way.  You would have thought she loved him, the way she fought to get free and place herself between him and what was sure to come.  Joe was just as determined that she wouldn’t.  At the last moment, as Pa shouted his brother’s name and began to run, the gun went off.

The sound of the shot reverberated through the suddenly silent room.

Pa snatched the gun from the stranger’s hands and glared him into the corner.  The man was shaking like a leaf.  As Adam watched, the reverend placed his hands over his face and fell to his knees.  In the background, he could hear Temperance sobbing.  She was sitting on the floor next to Joe.

Little Joe was lying on it.

“Check your brother!” Pa ordered.

Adam willed his feet to move.  In two strides he was at his brother’s side and kneeling.  Joe was lying prone, with his face pushed into the carpet.  The man in black sucked in a breath as he took hold of the teenager’s shoulder and rolled him over – and let it out in a sigh of relief as Joe moaned.

“What…what hit me?” Joe asked.

“Thankfully not a bullet,” he replied as he noted a thin crease along the right side of the teen’s forehead.

It had been that close.

Jo blinked a couple of times.  “Is Tempy okay?”

“Turn around.  She’s right there beside you.”

His brother glanced at the blonde woman and then turned back to look at him.   “Dang laudanum!” he groused.

“What do you mean?”

“Doc Martin gave me a dose last night.  My head’s so funny that when I turned back to grab the reverend’s gun, I lost my balance.”

“That ‘dang’ laudanum’ probably saved your life,” he said softly as he touched his brother’s head.

Joe reached up.  It was only as he felt the blood trickling down his forehead that the teenager realized what had happened.  “He really did it!  He shot me!”

Adam glanced at the corner again.  His father and the reverend were gone.  He found them over by the dining table.  Flowerdew was seated in one of the chairs and Pa was talking.

“What do you suppose that’s all about?”  His brother started to stand up.  “Whoa…oh…”

Adam braced him.  “Take it easy, little buddy.”

Joe nodded.  Then he glanced at the open door.  “Is it raining?” he asked.

“Excuse me?”  Adam frowned himself.  “What do you mean ‘is it raining?’ A madman just took a shot and nearly killed you and you’re asking about the weather?!”

“It’s just that my feet are wet….”

Joe looked down.

He looked down.

Temperance looked up.

“The baby,” she whispered.  “It’s coming.”

 

Things got better after they let Hop Sing out of the larder where the Reverend Flowerdew had trapped him.  The Asian man had assisted Paul Martin with Joe’s birth, so he had a better idea of what to do than any of them.

Including him.

After seeing Temperance to her room – and Joseph to the settee – he’d put the reverend in Adam’s care and sent the pair or them to Roy Coffee in town.  He didn’t know what he’d expected, but the man seemed truly repentant for what he had done.  Temperance’s father seemed to break when he realized how close he had come to killing his daughter and his unborn grandchild.  He’d quickly moved from unrighteous anger through fear to an almost comatose state.  Most likely it was shock.

Ben ran a hand over his face and blew out a breath.  He knew all about that.  He’d felt it when he’d seen his youngest fall to the ground.

Thank God Joseph had only been grazed!

“Hot water ready, Mistah Cartwright,” Hop Sing said as he stopped at his side, his arms laden with linens.  “You find Mistah Hoss yet?”

He’d asked Joseph about it.  The boy was half-asleep, but managed to tell him that Hoss had left at the crack of dawn, eager to get the day’s chores out of the way.  Probably so he could spend the majority of it at home.  The big man should have returned by now.  He prayed nothing was wrong.

Nothing more was wrong.

“Hop Sing could use number two son’s help.  Mistah Hoss good with babies.”

Baby horses, perhaps, or baby cows, but he had a feeling his gentle giant of a son might blanch at the pain a woman had to endure to bring a child into the world.

“I’m sure he’ll show up soon.  How is Temperance?”

“She strong lady.  Much pain come fast.  Baby be here soon.”

“I..can…help, Pa.”

Ben turned to find his youngest son sitting up on the settee.

“You will stay put, young man.  You just had a bullet graze your head!”

“Ah, I’m fine, Pa,” Joe said as he gained his feet – and then immediately sat back down.  He gave them both a weak smile.  “How about I sit here and fold towels?”

“What’s this I hear?  Another injury?” a fresh voice asked.

A familiar voice.

“Paul!” Ben exclaimed as he headed for the door.  “I can’t tell you what a welcome sight you are!”

“Me, or my medical bag?” the physician asked, holding it up.

“Both!” he laughed, and then he saw his son trailing in the physician’s wake.  “Hoss, you’re okay!”

“Yes, sir,” the big man said as he removed his hat.  “I was on my way home and ran into the doc at the fork in the road.”

“I had just started my rounds this morning when my buggy broke down.  By the time we got it fixed, we both were famished!  Hoss invited me to breakfast and I accepted.  I wanted to check in on the young lady again in any case.”  Paul looked around the room.  “Where is she?”

A wail went up at that moment, like to wake the dead.

“Ah.  I see.”  Paul grinned.  “Another birth in the room up the stairs.  Hop Sing?”

“Very good.  Very very good!  Hop Sing lead way.  These two,” his cook and friend looked at Joe and then at him, “they no good.  This one happy ancestors hear prayer and bring you!.”

“Thank you very much!” Ben said, only half-meaning it.

“Shortshanks, what happened to your head?” Hoss asked as he noted the bandage tied about his brother’s curls.  “I cain’t go off and leave you alone for a minute, can I, without you getting’ into some kind of trouble!”

“Hey!  It’s not like I went out looking for an irate father with a shotgun,” Joe protested.

Hoss blinked and then looked at him.

“Did I miss somethin’?”

Ben shook his head.  “No son, it’s just another ordinary day at the Ponderosa.”

 

“Can’t sleep?” Ben asked.

His son started and laughed nervously.   “Oh, hi, Pa.  I didn’t see you there.”

“Head hurting?”

Joe nodded, and then looked like he regretted it.  “It feels like somebody hit me with a brick.”

“Did you take the laudanum Paul left?”

The teenager ‘s eyes went wide.  “No, sir!  I’ve had enough of that stuff.  The way things are around here a man needs to keep his wits about him.”

‘The way things are around here.’

Ben laughed.  “We do seem to have more than our fair share of excitement.”

“You can say that again.”  Joe plopped down onto the settee.  He was silent a minute before asking,  “Is it always so hard?”

“Is what so hard?  Life?”

Joe smiled.  “That too, but, no.  Having a baby, I mean.  From the noise Tempy’s been making, I would have thought it would have been here by now.”

“It depends.  Your mother’s labor was brief and intense, but many women go through hours of it.  Sometimes days.”

“Days?!  Hollerin’ like that?”  Joe blew out a breath.  “Shoot, Pa.  We men ain’t got anything over women.”

“Ah, yes.  The ‘weaker’ vessel.”

Joe fell silent again.  For a minute or so, he studied his hands.  Then he looked up and said, “I’ve been thinking, Pa.”

So it wasn’t just the pain or the sound of Tempy’s labor that had kept the boy awake.

“Oh?  About what?”

“What is it that goes wrong?”

“Wrong how?”

Joe leaned back on the settee.  “I was thinking about Regan.  You know, about how he wanted to…hurt me…even though I didn’t do anything to him.  I mean, he had a ma once.  He was a little boy.  What went wrong?”

Ben moved from the chair to sit on the table in front of his son.  Joe had a great need of physical contact, so he placed a hand on his knee.

“There’s no way of knowing.  I imagine that, somewhere along the way, someone didn’t give him what he needed or – more importantly – what he thought he needed.  Perhaps his mother died young and he had an demanding father like Temperance.  One he couldn’t please.  Or perhaps, as a child, Regan was bullied for his size and he had to learn to fight back to survive.”

“I never thought of that,” Joe said with a lop-sided smile.  “Seems kind of funny, being bullied for being big.”

“Like your brother,” Ben replied as he recalled the taunts, and the tears his middle son had shed because of them.  “But unlike your brother, at some point, John Regan chose to be a bully himself.”

“I wonder what it will be like for Tempy’s baby?  Without a pa, I mean.”

Ben leaned back.  “It sounds like her aunt is a wonderful woman.  And it is possible for a woman to raise a child on her own.”  He rustled his son’s hair.  “Or a man, for that matter!”

“I know, but….”

“Yes?”

“I guess if it’s a girl that’d be okay, but Tempy thinks it’s a boy.  I don’t know….”  His son dipped his head shyly.  “I don’t know what I would have done without you, Pa.”

Ben shifted to the settee where he could place an arm around his son’s shoulders.  “You would have survived.  Your mother was a wonderful person.  She would have managed.”

“But, Adam said….”

“What did Adam say?”

Joe looked horrified.  “He said the way Ma liked to dress me up in fancy suits, I probably would have grown up to be a banker!”

Dear Lord!  How he loved this boy!

“Joseph, your mother….”

Joe’s head turned toward the door.  “Did I just hear someone knock?”

Ben glanced at the clock as he rose.  12:01.

It seemed today’s surprises were about to begin.

The knock came again as he walked to the door – light, tentative.  He opened it to find a young man standing on the porch holding his hat in his hands.  He appeared to be in his mid-twenties and had quite a head of curly hair on him.

“Mister Cartwright?” he asked.

“Yes.”  Ben glanced at Joe who had come up behind him before replying.  “Can I help you?”

“I’m sorry to disturb you so late, sir, but I ran into your son, Adam, in town and he said it would be all right.”

“Adam?”  Joe brightened.  “You met older brother?”

The stranger nodded.  “Yes.  I went to the constabulary to speak with the sheriff and Adam was there.”  His look darkened.  “As was the reverend.”

“I see,” Ben said, even though he didn’t.   “Now, is there some way we can assist you –”

“Hey!” Joe declared suddenly.  “I know who you are!  You’re Caleb, aren’t you?”

The young man looked slightly stunned.  “Then it’s true?  Temperance is here?”

The teenager grinned.  “Sure, she’s here.  She’s upstairs having your baby!”

“Joseph….”

“My…?  I…have a baby?!”  Caleb gulped.  “May I see her?”

“I don’t know,” Joe said, growing suddenly sober.  “You’ll have to get past old grim and gray first.”

“Old…grim and gray?”

Ben turned to look at his son.

“Doctor Martin.  He doesn’t cotton to having men in a birthing room, except Hop Sing.”

“Who’s Hop Sing?”

“Our Chinese cook,” Ben interjected.

Caleb appeared completely bamboozled.  “Your…Chinese cook is assisting in the birth of my child?”

“He or she couldn’t be in better hands!”  Joe grabbed the rather stupefied young man by the arm and began to pull him toward the stairs.  “Hop Sing’s a wiz with hot water and towels!”

Ah yes, Ben thought as the pair disappeared around the corner, headed for the birthing room.

Just another ordinary day at the Ponderosa.

 

EPILOGUE

“Pa!”
“Why you yell? Always yell like father.” Hop Sing shook his head as he continued setting the table. “Hop Sing go somewhere quiet soon. You cook for self!”
“Coffee and beans for everyone!” Little Joe declared as he flung his hat at the rack and scored a hit.
“Joseph!”
His young son turned, somewhat cowed. “Sorry, Pa. I’m just feelin’ good today! I got a letter from Tempy. She and Caleb arrived at her aunt’s house. She said little Benjamin Joseph is doing fine.”
Ben thought back to the day Temperance’s baby arrived. The young woman had been overjoyed to find Caleb at her side, if somewhat frightened. Early the next morning, over a glass of much-needed brandy, her young man explained how he’d found her. Apparently, the Reverend Flowerdew set out almost immediately to bring his daughter home. Caleb simply followed him. Temperance thought she’d hid her trail well but, being a young and inexperienced girl, she didn’t hide it well enough! The reverend arrived in Virginia City that morning and was informed by one of their neighbors of the young woman’s presence at the Ponderosa. Adam, of course, pointed the way for Caleb.
Just before they retired, the young man expressed his concern that the reverend would soon trouble them again. The rancher smiled. That was one worry he was happy to remove! Roy was holding Temperance’s father on a charge of attempted murder. It would be at least twelve weeks before the circuit judge arrived, which gave the young family time to recover and move on. He seriously doubted the reverend would be sentenced. It was his hope, in time, that the rift between father and daughter could be mended. From what he had seen – and heard – it seemed the near tragedy had taught the man of God a valuable lesson.
Plus, he had plenty of time to go into town and bend the man’s ear!
“You know what I think, Pa?”
“No, Joseph, what do you think?”
“I think all’s right with the world!”
It was November and, though the brilliant colors of fall were fading outside, the color was high in his young son’s cheeks. There were still traces on those cheeks of the beating he had taken the month before, but unlike the first time John C. Regan had left him battered and bruised in a back alley, this time – together – they had triumphed and it seemed the boy had finally moved on.
“What has you feeling so good? It’s not just Temperance’s news, I’m sure,” Ben said with a trace of a smile, though he was pretty sure he knew. The path to town was clear and the harvest dance was tonight.
“Sally Ann accept your invitation to the dance?” Adam asked as he came down the stairs.
Joe looked shocked. “Sally Ann? Who’s that, brother? I’m takin’ Bree McDonald.”
“That pretty little redhead with eyes blue as berry pie?” Hoss inquired as he came in from the kitchen with said pie in hand.
“You put pie down! Not eat until after meal!” Hop Sing shouted before retreating to the kitchen.
“Dang it! He sure knows how to take the spring out of a feller’s step,” the big man sighed as he placed the pie on the sideboard.
“Ain’t nothin’….” Joe looked at his father, cleared his throat, and went on. “There isn’t anything gonna take the spring out of my step, brother.” Hoss was standing at the end of the table. Joe caught him in his arms and swung him around and executed a short bow – just before he took off for the stairs – barely missing the ‘smack’ his brother had aimed at his rear.
“He’s in high spirits,” Adam remarked from the hearth area as Joe disappeared around the corner.
Ben nodded. “It’s good to see. It’s been a long road back.”
“Did you show him…?” Adam indicated the paper laying on the settee table with a nod.
The rancher picked it up and folded it in half. “No. And I think the best thing we can do for your brother is make this particular issue disappear. There’s no need to dig up the corpse.”
John C. Regan was on top of the world. In spite of a damaged hand and arm – a result of the battle with them – he’d managed to win most of the fights on the Scottish and Irish leg of his exhibition tour and had been once again proclaimed ‘Champion of the World’. The article went on to say that the Benecia Boy had been awarded a jeweled belt, but was forced to leave it behind as security against a sum of money advanced to the jeweler who made the belt. Still, in spite of this, when Sawyer arrived with his little boy to bid farewell to Regan, the article said that there ‘commenced such cheering as had never been heard before between the walls of that station’.
The public’s thirst for sensation and scandal was unquenchable.
“Does it say anything about Miss Menken?” Hoss asked as he came to join him and Adam.
Ah, Adah.
“There’s a small piece,” he said. “A follow-up to her appearance here. Nothing unusual or newsworthy.” The reporter mentioned that Adah had returned to the stage and was a triumph in a revival of Marzeppa – the role that had brought her to glory. He’d grown concerned when it mentioned the fact that she had been thrown from her horse as it climbed the four-story mountain in the play, but then dismissed it – and his lingering feelings. Adah was gone. That part of his life was over.
It was time for him to move on as well.
Little Joe must have thrown his fresh clothes on. He was already coming down the stairs. “Hey, Pa!” he said with a cheeky grin. “I heard you’re comin’ to the dance.”
Ben shoved the folded paper under one of the books on the sofa table. “Now, what makes you think that?”
“Well,” Joe said as he ambled up to him, “Bree’s about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen – and her ma’s ever prettier.”
“You better not let Bree hear you say that,” Adam warned.
“What about her father?” he asked.
Joe’s brows popped. “You’re gonna let a little thing like that stop you?” He chuckled before adding more soberly, “Bree’s father died about two years back. You know, Pa? I really think you ought to give it a go.”
“And why is that, beyond the obvious reason that it would bring the young lady into our house?”
“Don’t you know?” his youngest son asked as he plucked an apple out of the bowl and began to polish it on his shirt. “There’s five McDonald girls – every one of them a beauty with hair red as fire. Don’t you think the Ponderosa could use some women?”
“I’ll tell you what I think. I think three boys is more than enough trouble for this old man!”
“Oh, come on now, Pa. We aren’t any trouble…are we?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss added. “I mean, when have we ever cost you a night’s sleep?”
Trouble? No.
They were a joy.
But he wasn’t about to let them know that.
“Maybe I will go to the dance.”
“Really?” Joe asked. “I can introduce you to Ciara.”
“I would be pleased if you would do that, Joseph.”
His son suddenly looked suspicious. “You would?”
“Certainly. I’m thinking we could make a deal.”
“What kind of deal, Pa?” Hoss asked.
“I’ll take those five girls of hers and she can have the three of you for a week. After seven days of a mother’s tender loving care, I’m thinking all of you will stop complaining and come to truly appreciate your father.”
“I for one appreciate you now, Pa,” Adam said as he moved toward the table. “After all, look at the lovely home you’ve provided for us.”
“Yeah, and hirin’ Hop Sing was a stroke of pure genius!” Hoss said as he joined him.
His youngest boy was hanging at his side. “What about you, Joseph? What do you appreciate about your old man?”
Joe looked at him. The sincerity in his eyes was both startling and completely genuine.
“Everything, Pa,” he said. “Just…everything.”
He gave the boy a hug.
His youngest, incorrigible as ever, grinned.
“So about divvying up those girls….”
*******************************************************************************
Author’s note: This story is based on fact, altered to fit the Bonanza timeline and world. Adah Menken did indeed attempt to take her life. She was saved by the intervention of an unnamed ‘friend’. I chose to place her in Virginia City and make that ‘friend’ be Ben Cartwright.
Adah Menken’s star ascended and descended at lightning speed. Her acting career began in app. 1856 at the age of 21 and ended a short time before her death at 33 in 1868. The fall she took from her horse while rehearsing a return of ‘Marzeppa’ was partially blamed, though she succumbed to tuberculosis as so many in the 19th century did. John C. Heenan (Regan in the world of the Cartwrights) did indeed wed and bed her – producing a child he denied, who in turn died – and then turned on her, accusing her of bigamy, which in turn led to her suicide attempt. Heenan continued to fight until all his injuries caught up to him and he retired in 1864, never to fight again. After that he set himself up as a bookie and was somewhat successful until he was badly injured in a railroad accident. Seeking to improve his health, he moved West to Wyoming and died there in 1874. His body was returned to New York where he was buried. John Carmel Heenan was 39.

 

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

3 thoughts on “Whose Sin Is Her Love (mcfair_58)

  1. Just an ordinary day at the Ponderosa, indeed! To no one but the Cartwrights could it happen . . . or be survived. A very interesting WHN for the episode.

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