Summary: This is a sequel to The Trial of Jessica Hardy. Four months have passed since Adam’s disappearance and presumed death, and life has taken on a more normal flow for the Cartwright’s who have conquered their grief to find joy again. But just as things begin to even out, a series of coincidences and incidents bring them back to the woman accused of causing Adam’s death. The Cartwrights will become instrumental in helping others, while learning the truth of what happened to Adam.
Rating: T – But only for adult themes and conversations. No overt situations
Word Count: 32615
Previously: This is the sequel to The Trial of Jessica Hardy: my story about a woman arriving in Virginia City who involves Adam in her scheme to rob a large bank. While she believed she could entice him into joining her in her criminal pursuits, she’d picked the absolutely wrong man. All evidence at the time of her capture pointed to her having killed Adam following the robbery, even though his body was never found. She was tried for her crimes, and imprisoned in the state prison in Carson City.
As The Trial of Jessica Hardy ends, she is entering the prison, while thinking it felt like being buried alive: the same fate she’d provided for Adam ….
(I’ve included a recurring element in this story. It comes up early in Ben’s memories, and repeats later with a different image creating the same thought. Let me know if you pick up on it.)
One (Four months after Adam’s disappearance.)
Hoss looked up from the checker board, noticing the serious set of his father’s face. Aware of Little Joe’s penchant for cheating, he kept his index finger on the double-stack of black discs he intended to jump over the last two red checkers for the win, and used his free hand to nudge Little Joe’s arm, nodding towards the red chair where their father was reading the newspaper. Joe shrugged, his eyebrows following the same upwards motion as his shoulders.
After completing his sweep of the board, he grinned at Little Joe, now howling in disbelief at losing. “You must’a been thinking more about that pretty young filly you saw in town today, instead of the game. I beat you way too easy.”
Ben lowered the paper, taking time to appreciate the normal post-game foofaraw. Normal was not a guest they’d entertained in this house for a while. He smiled, feeling great love for these two who’d never left his side during the upheaval following Adam’s disappearance, the trial and the life adjustments that had followed.
“What were you readin’ that got you lookin’ so concerned, Pa?” Hoss asked.
“An article caught my eye about plans for the hundred-acres of land near Reno set aside for a state asylum some years back.”1
“Isn’t there an asylum there already?” Little Joe asked as his cheek crept upwards.
“It’s private. Inmates are funded by their families. This article says they operate a farm with patients doing some physical work to keep busy. Most of their clients come from Sacramento and San Francisco.” His left cheek rose. “More money out that way, I suppose. But with Carson and Virginia Cities growing fast, the state wants a public institution they’d operate much like what’s there now.”
Little Joe scratched his head and looked at Hoss. “Didn’t you just tell us something about that place?”
Ben nodded. “It was Hoss’ story that prompted my interest.” When Hoss continued to look puzzled, his father jogged his memory. “Bill Sachs mentioned it when you delivered the heifers out that way last week.”
“Oh yeah!” Hoss’ face lit up. “Bill’s crew was talkin’ about a wildman man hidin’ in the woods over there. Some’a them swore it was a ghost that appeared and disappeared right in front of them. But considerin’ this wildman had an abundance of dark hair and whiskers, others speculated it was the prophet Elijah returned. I told them about the wildman runnin’ around the Ponderosaa couple years back, bein’ a lost girl, and Bill said he figured one of them asylum fellas had wandered off. When he went over there to check, they said they weren’t missin’ no one.”
“It was probably the truth,” Ben supplied with a knowing grin. “They’d probably found him by then, and wouldn’t admit that a confused soul had walked away.”
“Might you be lookin’ towards a lumber bid if they build a new place?” Hoss asked.
“It’ll be years before they break ground.”
Hoss’ cheeks moved upwards until he was squinting. “You do look more like it that article was weighin’ on your mind instead of nudging your financial interest.”
Ben put the paper aside and leaned forward to pour a finger of brandy from the carafe into his empty glass. “I haven’t heard anything about Truckee Farm Asylum in the years it’s been there, but now it’s come up twice in a short period. Coincidences always make me curious.”
Little Joe’s lips pulled to the side. “Now that you mention it, this is the third time I’ve heard about that place. Garret Mills was at the Bucket the other day, looking pretty beat down. He said he’d just come back from his uncle’s place near Sacramento, and found out his aunt was placed there when she got so confused, she’d wander away when she was home alone.”
Ben frowned deeply. “I’m sorry to hear that. Yet, the only negative thing I’ve ever heard, is that the main question they ask at admission is whether there’s money to pay, and the person is released if the money runs out.” Ben glanced over at the clock and chuckled. “That’s enough deep thinking for one day. I’m calling it a night; you two are welcome to remain for a rematch.”
Joe yawned in response to his father’s suggestion. “I know I’m tired when Hoss can beat me. I’ll head up too.”
Ben stood and drained the last amber drops from his glass before carrying it to the kitchen. On his trip back through the living area, he diverted towards the empty blue chair, grasping the top edge for a moment before heading up the stairs.
The two boys wished their father a good night, and waited until they heard his door close above them.
“It’s like he gives that chair a little hug each night,” Joe said quietly.
Hoss nodded. “Truth is, I often walk in the house expectin’ to see Adam sittin’ there like he was that night ….” Hoss swallowed hard. “None of us thought it would be the last time we’d see him.” He ran his sleeve across his cheeks. “Everything seemed fine as frog’s hair. He talked about takin’ a newcomer for a ride. It weren’t even like he was callin’ on her; he was just bein’ neighborly. He couldn’t have suspected she was pure evil.”
Joe nodded. “I worried that Pa would never be the same after hearing the lies she told about Adam during her trial. What saved him, was that no one believed her.”
“I gotta stop you there, little brother, or I’ll be up all night thinkin’ about Adam. And as I recall there’s lots of work to do tomorrow.”
“That’s a good point, Hoss. Seems like you’re the man of logic in our house now. How about I clean up the checkers while you lock up and turn down the lamps?”
This day, like every other for the last four months, weighed heavy on Ben’s bones. He dropped to the edge of his bed, reaching to turn up the lamp and retrieve his journal from the bedside table. He’d learned to keep a log as a young ship’s officer, and started keeping his own thoughts in a private book back then too: a habit he’d continued throughout his life. Most times, he’d add brief notes to the date regarding the weather, business dealings, names of people he’d encountered, and events he might need to recall.
But he’d penned detailed accounts for each day following Adam’s disappearance, spurred on by the conviction that he had to document it all. Along with the cold, hard facts, he’d laid his feelings bare on these pages, using his pencil to say what he could never voice aloud. He’d warred with his emotions since Adam had failed to return home, and he’d found solace in this secret place.
Minutes earlier, he’d celebrated a moment of normalcy between his son. But as he moved his pencil, he wrote of his continuing struggle to accept Adam’s death, and the surety that he wouldn’t have peace until Adam’s body was found. He’d called off the hunt at the homestead where Jessica Hardy had been apprehended. They’d done everything they could: lowered a man into the well; dragged the ponds and a nearby stream, and examined every mound of dirt, low-hanging branch and pile of sticks or leaves in a carefully executed search of the property. He knew in his heart that Adam wasn’t there, and further searching would have been fruitless.
Jessica Hardy’s size, precluded her carrying Adam, and there was no evidence pointing to her dragging Adam from the house, leaving Ben and Roy convinced that he’d still been able to walk out. They’d assumed she’d tricked him into thinking they were heading back to town, or if he had been wounded, she was taking him for help. What seemed most probable, was that she’d driven him away, and left him in some remote place to die, meaning his remains would be found only if someone stumbled across them.
He hadn’t held a funeral, but he paged back to the journal entry telling of a short, meaningful service held at the farmhouse, where their minister had blessed the last known place his son had been, and recited verses of comfort and promise.
He skimmed forward to an entry two months later where his shaky hand had noted an accurate description he’d heard Hoss give Paul Martin, after being asked how the family was doing. His wise and thoughtful middle son had explained that it was like being on a teeter-totter with the devil where he lulls you into thinking he’s playing fair, easing you with a gentle up and down motion until you get used to that rhythm. But that’s when he slips off his seat while you’re in the highest position, and you plummet full speed to the ground. The impact shatters your life, and you lay there stunned, unsure how to stop the pain.
This was exactly how they’d existed those first months: pinned on the ground, too emotionally injured to move—too heartbroken to look upwards. But Hoss had gone on to say that the seat opposite them was now occupied by a sort of healing spirit that had let them rise from the ground until they were nearly even again: their broken hearts balanced by remembering Adam’s life, instead of his death.
A warm smile spread across his face as he found an empty page, and wrote his entry for today.
While settling under the covers a few minutes later, he thought again about how perfect Hoss’ description had been. Yet, maybe it was truer for his sons than for their father. What Ben had noticed, was that every few pages, he had written of a secret: an ember of hope he allowed to glow, based on the fact that Adam’s death couldn’t be confirmed. The hope wasn’t without precedence. Adam had returned from situations where it seemed certain he’d died. Most prominent, was after an ordeal in the desert with Peter Kane, and the second was after an accident when he’d been prevented from getting home by injury and memory loss.*
Yet, he truly understood that Adam’s first return had been a blessing. The second homecoming had been grace. But a third … would require a miracle.
Before closing his eyes, he turned his mind heavenward, and prayed … for a miracle.
Three (Carson City State Prison)
Life for women in prison was hard, and Jessica Hardy had walked through the doors of the Nevada State Prison knowing it would be the same for her … if she allowed it.
What she’d noticed immediately, was the frowsy appearance of the women in her dormitory. They took no care of their hair; their uniforms were stained and hung on them like sacks, and they spent free time curled on their cots like spent shotgun shells.
A few more forward women had sought her out, either to establish their dominance or to relate the horrors she should expect to endure. Jessica promised her allegiance to those thinking they were “in charge” and reacted with wide-eyed dread for the others. In reality, she’d come through the door with a plan to prevent either of these situations from controlling her.
Jessica hadn’t looked towards making friends. She’d approached life in prison the same way she’d done when her parents had abandoned her at the Carthage Female Academy with orders to make the most of the opportunity and to never return home. In that case, she’d quickly spotted those who best suited her purposes, and used them as needed. After finishing her schooling, she’d moved to Texas along with her only friend’s family. It was there that she’d met the James and Younger brothers, and she’d learned from “the best of the worst” how to go after what she wanted; do what she needed, and most of all, to never apologize.
When she’d been introduced to the prison warden on her first day in the penitentiary, she’d decided to go after the biggest fish in the pond, stroking his ego with high praise and bashful, yet suggestive glances. Within days, he’d called her to his office for “tea.” Her “gratitude” for the social visit was duly noted, and since then, she’d skillfully maneuvered him into housing her in a dormitory wing with only two other women. She’d seen that kitchen work was the plumb assignment, and was soon assigned a job there. The work had the added benefit of having first pick of the food—the kind without maggots. The matron in charge of the laundry was instructed to furnish her good uniforms to wear to her teas, and the guards who resided in the vest pocket of the warden, kept her from the rest of the male inmates and secured her dormitory at night.
She played her role of the warden’s consort with feigned enthusiasm, while hating every minute of it. The only thing she hated more was the reason she was there: Adam Cartwright. Her sanity came from one source, knowing that she’d provided Mr. Cartwright with a similarly tortured existence. She was quite sure he’d welcomed his death when it occurred.
Yet she’d never met a man like him. She’d never been in the position to do so. She had honed her skill in spotting weaknesses in others, and using it for her advantage. Adam had been the first person she’d seen in Virginia City, and she’d misread his black clothing and quiet, observant manner, as evidence of a dark nature. In truth, he’d been a good, honest and honorable man who wouldn’t be swayed by a pretty face or the promise of an “exciting” life on the run. Of all the men who would have been exactly what she’d assumed, she picked the one man who wasn’t.
Despite her hatred, it was Adam’s perfect face she pictured when she was forced to endure Warden Finney’s clumsy, grunting intimacy.
It was a certainty that she would fulfill her debt to society on her back: either in the warden’s office, or as a prostitute in the dormitory brothel run by Finney’s favored guards. At least she’d chosen which it would be.
The effects of prison life were already befalling her. Despite her favored status, the lack of sunlight, fresh air and exercise, along with a diet of wretched food, was making her skin dull, and lustrous hair limp. Deep creases were forming in her cheeks and forehead from her near-constant scowl, and her lips were so dry, she used bacon grease to keep them from cracking. The diet of bad meat and the abundance of potatoes, beans and rice, had added a little more padding at her waist. But … for now, she still looked better than those who’d been entombed longer. For now, she stayed the course, knowing her options were limited. For now, she held the only way out of this nightmare in the deepest part of her heart—never saying it out loud for fear of jinxing the possibility.
Ben responded to the sharp knock on the front door, finding Will Krantz, their “oldest” ranch hand, standing at attention with his hat clutched to his chest. While Will was younger than Ben, years of hard living had left him too arthritic to sit a horse for the hours required of a drover. What he lacked in physical stamina, he made up for in his ability to read, write and get things organized for the hands. He’d always praised the Cartwrights for “keeping him on instead of sending him to the glue factory,” and he’d taken on more responsibilities since Adam’s disappearance.
“Is everything all right?” Ben asked, observing Will’s shifting feet and failure to look him in the eye.
“I don’t rightly know how to tell you this, Mr. Cartwright.”
“You’ve got me worried, Will. Did something happen to one of the men?”
“Nothin’ like that, Boss. You know Hoss is bringing them kids and that teacher to the ranch today ….”
Ben nodded. “He should be back with them soon.”
“Hoss said this teacher’s from back east and never learned to ride, and some of the kids ain’t never rid neither. Anyway, he gave me a list of the gentler horses from the far corral to have saddled and waitin’, out there to bring up once the picnic gets goin’.”
“That makes sense.” Ben held back a smile, knowing Will had to tell the whole story before getting to the point.
“I had Marty toss saddles onto a wagon and go do that, but after he got out there, he realized he’d left the list of horses in the tack shed, and ran back fer it.”
Ben was at a loss for where the story was headed, and his impatience showed as he drew himself up to full height and rocked back on his heels. “You best get to the point, Will, or Hoss will be back before I know what happened.”
“It’s just that when Marty was up by the barn, he saw someone in that corral saddling a horse. He took off runnin’ but the guy was fast, and rode away before Marty got there.”
“Might it have been one of the crew changing out their horse?”
Will shook his head. “It weren’t no one Marty recognized.”
“Did he get a good look at this … thief?”
“The guy sat tall in the saddle, and wore a bright plaid flannel shirt, like lumberjacks do. Somethin’ about the way he put his head into the wind at full gallop, seemed familiar to Marty, but he couldn’t say why.” Will chuckled. “Marty said this … a … man had so much hair on his head and face it looked prid’near like a bear in a shirt and dungarees ridin’ off.” The smile disappeared as he looked down. “There’s somethin’ more.”
“You best just say it,” Ben said evenly, even as his curiosity was mounting with the description of the thief that brought to mind the wildman seen near the Sachs’ ranch.
“The horse that got stolen was Sport.”
Ben’s shoulders collapsed forward. “Could Marty trail him?”
“By the time he got another horse saddled, the guy was long gone. We looked some, but with all the ranch hands comin’ and going from that corral, and all them horses having the same brand of shoes, there weren’t no way to pick up one set a prints amongst the others.”
“Don’t worry further, Will. Just make sure the horses are ready for the picnic. Hoss and Joe can take a look later. I’ll tell Sheriff Coffee about it when I see him, and he can alert nearby towns to watch for a bear riding a horse with the Ponderosa brand.”
Will grinned at his boss’ description. “What surprises me most is that Sport let the guy ride him. He never took kindly to anyone but Adam.” Will sighed deeply as he looked up and met his boss’ eyes. “Maybe Sport was just tired of standin’ around waiting for ….” He couldn’t finish his thought as his eyes pooled with sadness. “I best get back to work.”
Ben remained at the door, and shouted, “Wait up.” Will retraced his steps while Ben walked to meet him halfway. “Don’t tell Hoss and Joe about this until later. I don’t want them stewing about it during the picnic.”
The party being held on the Ponderosa had been Hoss’ suggestion, made during a reception to welcome the newly hired teacher, Elly Henry. Ben had observed Hoss’ smile when he’d met the pretty young woman, and suspected this idea had come less from his son’s stated outcome of Elly getting to know her students better, and more from Hoss’ hope of getting to know their teacher better.
Ben rocked back in his desk chair, steepling his fingers on his chest, considering the most recent news about Sport’s absence along with the other losses for his eldest that were coming back into focus with today’s activities
Elly had been hired to replace Abigail Meyer. She’d taught for a year after her marriage to Hank so they could fix up the small ranch they’d purchased. When it came time to start looking for her replacement, Abigail and Adam had sorted through the applications gleaned from an ad placed in a nationally published journal for teachers. They’d both been impressed with an application from Springfield, Missouri. Miss Henry’s letter of introduction included glowing praise from her current school, citing her ability to make every student learn in a way that sparked their enthusiasm.
Adam had been looking forward to meeting their choice, but it proved another unfulfilled opportunity.
The sound of heavy wheels grinding on the stone of the drive leading into the yard alerted Ben that Hoss and his charges were arriving. Grabbing a few papers from his desktop, he opened a side drawer to stow them away. Staring up at him from the dark space, was the wanted poster for Jessica Hardy that Roy had dropped off a few days earlier.
He pulled the sheet out, laid it on the desk and examined the face that had changed life at the Ponderosa forever. He and Roy had initiated the search for Hardy’s real identity when she’d refused to say a word about herself. The Pinkerton agents had made progress, finding a number of similar-sounding robberies committed along the stage lines leading west. But he’d walked away from the investigation after the trial, realizing it made no difference. What did matter, was who’d she’d been the day she’d taken his eldest son from him.
After the Pinkertons turned their information over to the U.S. Marshal service, they’d produce a wanted poster with Hardy’s image to ascertain whether she was the woman involved in the other heists. It had seemed to be true, but there was too much variation over the names. This poster was new, now offering a modest reward for information about Hardy’s background and real name.
What remained puzzling to Ben, was that while she’d surely committed the many robberies, they’d all been penny-ante affairs. What he couldn’t understand was why she’d turned deadly here.
Ben jolted upright from his thoughts, when the front door opened and Hoss stuck his head inside.
“Hey, Pa. Them kids are anxious to get started. You best get out here and say hello.”
He returned Hoss’ smile. He could hear the excited, high-pitched voices of the youngsters outside his window, and rose quickly, taking a deep breath to clear his mind before joining Hoss at the door.
Five (Nevada Penitentiary)
“Come in Miss Hardy.” The prison warden stood as Jessica shut the door behind her and walked to his desk.
“Are you well, today, Mr. Finney?” she asked, flashing him a sweet smile. She’d groomed herself carefully this morning: wetting her hair to encourage its natural curl, and wearing the uniform she kept for trips to this office.
“Yes, thank you, Jessica. And you?”
These pleasantries ate at her soul, yet she had to participate to maintain this man’s favor. It seemed he had to think he was having tea with a willing paramour. “I’m fine as well.” She smiled again as she sat in the hard wooden chair at the front of his desk. “This isn’t our usual day to have tea, but I was thrilled when the guard said you wanted to see me.”
The warden’s height at full stretch was barely five-feet, seven-inches, but he added to that with shoe lifts and pompousness. He strode to the side of the room where he retrieved a wooden crate and a cardboard box from a credenza.
“The matron located your trunk in the storage room, and she pulled a few things for your trip to Arizona.”
Jessica shivered as she watched this spindly fingered man remove her underthings, a pair of stylish shoes, a green, quilted skirt with a matching jacket, and the calico dress she’d worn at her trial in Virginia City. Unsure how these items had survived “inspection” when the trunk had arrived, she supposed her small size might account for the clothing being passed over, while items like her hair clips, hats and shawls had been “appropriated.” Still, the clothing produced a genuine smile of satisfaction over the fortunate turn of fate.
“Thank you, Mr. Finney. You are so kind.”
“There’s more.” The man grinned, raising his eyebrows a few times to indicate his pleasure at what he was about to reveal. Pulling the lid from the white box, he withdrew a blue satin dress with gaudy, shimmering brocade panels and a neckline accentuated with a ruffle of lace. “I saw this at a shop in town, and thought it your size.”
“It’s absolutely lovely.” She still lied easily. At first glance, the dress was a pleasant color and seemed made of good fabric. But its lowcut bodice and overabundance of frills looked more like a costume worn by a courtesan in an 18th century erotic novel. Her next thought was whether the box also contained a bustier, a powdered wig with long ringlets and a soft pencil to provide an intriguing mole on her cheek. “Would you like me to try it on for you?”
“I would indeed.” He quickly exited the room while Jessica changed.
“Always the perfect gentleman,” she mumbled before dropping the thin, shapeless cotton uniform to the floor. The satin garment was actually two pieces, making it simple to don the skirt and tighten the corseting ties of the bodice enough to show off her figure: still good despite a few extra pounds. She blew out a breath as she examined her reflection in the glass door of a cabinet. The odd little man who ran the prison did indeed know her body, the dress fitting as though it had been made to her measurements. She walked to the door where the warden had exited, and knocked to let him know she was ready.
“You look magnificent,” he crowed as he locked the door behind him, and moved around the room to study her from every angle: finally placing his hands at her waist and moving them upwards to cup her breasts.
“Shall we celebrate your kindnesses?” she asked in feigned breathlessness while unbuckling his belt.
Finney stepped back, allowing his instant arousal to abate. “I don’t have time today, but I’ll hold you to it when you return from Arizona. I’m still baffled that they want to proceed in Hardyville, the only city to want a trial based on the inquiries resulting from that wanted poster.” He grew thoughtful. “They must know that even if you’re convicted of the robbery, with the additional charge of contributing to the death of that teller who suffered a heart attack, the sentence here holds precedence.”
“I could wish for nothing better than returning to you.”
“Ah yes; your incarceration has proved fortuitous for both of us. In the future, I’d like you to wear this gown when we meet. You’re much too lovely to attend our teas in a uniform.”
She nodded and smiled. “It will certainly bring a spark of elegance. Is this unexpected surprise your reason for seeing me today?”
Finney shook his head. “I’ve just received notice from the state prison board that I’m to attend a conference in Sacramento later this week, and I must leave immediately.” He grinned widely. “I couldn’t refuse. The board was made aware that I’m to receive an award for the startup of this facility. They want me, and two of my top officers, to attend and accept the award. But that means I’ll be away when you leave for Arizona.”
“How wonderful for you!” Jessica clapped and smiled, even as she wondered what sort of award would be given to a warden and guards who steal the meager possessions of their charges, mistreat those they don’t like, and run a brothel using women prisoners. Her dark thoughts didn’t make it to her expression as her smile continued.
“My trip, and your time away, will keep us from seeing each other for a few weeks. I know of your apprehension over the ordeal of this new trial, and wanted to surprise you with your things, and see you in that dress before I left.” He became thoughtful again. “I sent word to Hardyville that you’ll need an attorney. There seems no response to the request you sent to your previous defender.
“Thank you for anticipating my needs, and everything else you do for me. You are the finest man I’ve met. Before I send you on your way to receive the recognition you deserve, may I ask about the favor I requested from you a several weeks ago?” When the warden stared back blankly, she moved forward, touching his face and trialing her finger down to his lips, before kissing him. “The letter I asked you to post.”
“Oh, yes. I read it, and found nothing to censor, so it went out the same day. You’ve not heard back?”
“My friend travels frequently, and will only receive it if she stops home. The absence of her reply in no way negates your gift of sending it. Thank you again.”
A sharp rap on the locked door made Finney jump back. He hollered, “I’ll be right there,” before gathering the items of clothing from his desk and handing the crate to Jessica. “You must prepare for the outcome in Hardyville. You might be best off to plead guilty and save the arduous journey.”
“I want a chance to tell my story. The jury in Virginia City couldn’t accept the truth, but perhaps these folks will be more open-minded.”
As she walked towards the rear door that exited into the locked hallways beyond, her mind slid back to the reason she was in this position, and she silently spat the name, Adam Cartwright. She turned back, offering a well-rehearsed smile. “Thank you again for your thoughtful concern. I look forward to our next meeting.”
There were freedoms afforded the warden’s mistress, like moving within this building housing the offices and women’s dormitory without a guard. But the swish of the gaudy satin skirt reminded her again of the life she endured because of Adam. “Why?” she voiced quietly. It was the one word that came to mind when thinking about him. Why hadn’t she figured him correctly? Why hadn’t he been swayed by her charms and refuse to accept her promises? And most of all, why had he chosen death over cooperating with her? As always; her questions produced no answers.
The only thing keeping her from screaming in frustration, was Finney’s confirmation that her letter to May had been sent. May was her only friend in the world. May was also a criminal.2 Jessica knew she wouldn’t receive a reply. But she had shown May how and when to assist, by requesting she visit Carson City if ever nearby … except during the dates when she’d be transferred to Arizona. Jessica allowed a sneering smile, knowing that Warden Finney hadn’t a clue that he’d forwarded her request for rescue.
Ben knew he’d be hard pressed to concentrate with the boisterousness of the party going on outside the windows near his desk, so he’d taken his ledgers and correspondence up to Adam’s room, located on the side of house where the noise would be diminished. When Hoss had made the offer of the field day, Ben had asked that he not be included except to make an appearance of welcome and join them for lunch.
He’d fallen so far behind in his bookwork as he’d mourned Adam, the stack had grown into a leaning tower. Hoss had done a good job of excluding him, just as he’d asked. With his greeting completed, he’d trotted up the steps and entered Adam’s room where his work awaited on the sloping desk his eldest had used. He smiled briefly as he realized he could still hear some of the enthusiastic shouting from below, and he took it as a sure indication that Hoss’ party would be a rousing success.
He broke away from his work to enjoy the picnic, grateful to see the happy smiles of the children devouring Hop Sing’s feast. One thing he didn’t see outside, was any interest growing between the teacher and her host. In fact, she’d bypassed Hoss’ company after eating, spending her free moments chatting with Marty.
Hoss had found a perch on the bench outside the barn to relax while the children played simple games and the slower eaters finished their lunch. Ben could see that while his son’s gaze swept the yard to keep an eye on the kids, it often stopped on the teacher and the ranch hand talking by the corral. He joined his son on the bench, nodding to the pair. “They seem to be getting along.”
The big man shrugged. “I can’t say nothin’ against them becomin’ friends.” Hoss kicked the dirt at his feet, and smiled sheepishly at his father. “You probably figgered out that I’m sweet on Miss Henry. But maybe my hopin’ she’ll figure that out because of what I do for her, don’t work as well as just tellin’ her how I feel.” His smile became a snort of laughter. “It’s probably best, Pa. All Miss Elly’s done since I picked her up today, is teach. It’s amazin’ how she gets some bit of learning into everything she says. She kept them kids doing arithmetic usin’ trees, rocks … anything she saw from the wagon. Then she asked them each to make up a story about somethin’ they spied around ‘em. I got so nervous thinkin’ she’d asked me to do the same thing, I started to sweat.”
Ben’s pride in this son swelled as he realized Hoss was once again making the best of a bad situation.
He decided he could get back to his own “afternoon festivities,” when the children began to hover around the bench, asking Hoss what they were doing next. He patted Hoss’ shoulder and wished him a fruitful second half of the day, and headed for the house. Turning back at the door, he saw Hoss, Joe and Marty already demonstrating how to set and throw a lasso. The excited shouts he heard as he headed upstairs, let him know that the lesson had entered the practical application with the men roping the kids instead of fenceposts.
Entirely concentrated on the figures in a lucrative timber contract he’d received, Ben nearly flew from the chair when the bedroom door opened and Hoss entered. Only then did he notice the lengthening shadows on the floor. “Is the party wrapping up?”
A nod. “The wagon is loaded except for the kids, and Joe’s seeing to … you know … making sure they all use the outhouse before we set out. Miss Henry’s downstairs taking a peek at the inside of the house, and hoped for a chance to thank you.”
“Of course; I’ve spent enough time on this for today anyway.” Ben gathered his books and papers before heading into the hallway with his son.
Emily was standing near Ben’s desk when the two Cartwrights descended the steps.
“Your home is beautiful, Mr. Cartwright. It’s spoken of with awe by those who’ve been here, and I see why.” She waited until he set his books down on the table next to the staircase. “Thank you for the kindness your family has shown me since my arrival in Virginia City, and for this wonderful excursion today. I had no idea so many of my students come from mining and merchant families, so they’ve never been on a ranch, ridden a horse or seen such a variety of animals. Their memories will last forever.”
“We’re the ones who should thank you,” Ben replied. “You chose to relocate, bringing your wonderful ideas with you. Please, never be shy to ask us for anything.”
The young woman’s eyes strayed to the wanted poster Ben had left out in his haste to get outside with Hoss. She held it up for reference. “May I ask why you have a wanted poster with Leslie Richter’s picture on it?”
Ben’s face paled as his eyes widened. “You recognize that woman?”
“The sketch resembles a girl I knew back at school in Missouri. But this says it’s a woman in prison for robbery and murder. Might this be a joke?”
“It’s no joke,” Hoss assured her.
Ben hurried to Elly’s side. “Take another look, please. Do you truly think this is the person you knew as … Leslie Richter?”
“I’d have to know more about her to be sure. Leslie was about my size. She was a pretty girl with dark brown hair, and her clothing indicated she came from a family of means.”
“It seems she’d have been well-liked,” Ben mused.
“Not at all. Despite her pretty exterior, Leslie was secretive, aloof and wouldn’t give a straight answer.”
Ben’s heart pounded with Elly’s description. “How did you ….”
A shriek of laughter slipped in with Joe as he entered the house, and stood there impatiently tapping his foot. “Sorry to cut this short, but Marty and I managed to round up the entire passel of kids and get them in the wagon. If we don’t leave now, they’ll scatter again.”
Elly thanked all three Cartwrights again. “I’m sure the kids are not anxious to leave, so we best do as Joe says.”
Ben touched her arm. “It’s been a long day for you, but might we take you to dinner in town later? Everything you said about the woman you knew in school, corresponds to what we saw with the woman on that poster. I’d like to hear more.”
“I suspected that,” Elly told him while placing her hand over his. “I’ve heard a lot of talk about one of your sons since I arrived in town. Might this be the woman who killed him?”
“Then I’ll see you later.”
“Thank you,” Ben said sincerely before turning to his sons. “I’ll head to town after taking care of a few details here, and ask Sheriff Coffee to join us at the International House at seven. We’ll stay the night so there’ll be no need to rush.”
Ben wasn’t surprised when Hop Sing ran up the steps to gather overnight kits for the three Cartwrights, and nearly pushed his boss out the door an hour later. Doing the final cleanup of the picnic with no one under foot, suited his cook just fine.
Ben’s demeanor, while waiting with his sons for their dinner guests to arrive, seemed calm. He’d asked for the round table off in an alcove for privacy, and while he nodded and smiled at other diners, he was displaying his nervousness through continuous adjustments on his chair, and constant realignment of his silverware. Hoss and Joe weren’t immune from nervous tics either. They craned their necks each time the hotel door opened, and then heaved great sighs when the person entering was not Roy or Elly.
“Did Elly tell you anything more on the ride to town?” Ben asked … again.
“Them kids were so whipped up after all the fun, she had to keep their brains thinkin’, so they wouldn’t jump off the wagon,” Hoss replied … again. His face pinched in thought. “Oh, she did ask whether the photograph on your desk was Adam.
Joe nudged Hoss’ arm. “She said she’d heard talk about what had happened, but had tried not to pay attention to what she assumed was more gossip than truth.”
“I’m sure she was right about that. People love to embellish.” Ben nodded to confirm his comment.
Hoss nodded as well. “I could always tell people were talkin’ about us, when it got instantly quiet after I walked into the room. Men in our crews have heard stuff too. Marty told me today that men are still riding out to that farm on their days off, looking for Adam’s grave. They figure you’d show your gratitude quite generously if they find it.”
Ben shook his head and snorted his disgust, but then sighed. “It’s a macabre pastime, but I would be grateful.” He nodded toward the door. “They’re here.”
Initial table-talk took an amiable tone. Elly told Roy about the picnic, including being scared out of her wits while learning to ride a horse. She laughed. “Marty and Hoss kept saying it was a small horse. But nothing seemed small about it when I was sitting that high and had only that little knob to hold onto.”
The wait staff disappeared after taking their orders, and Roy pulled the wanted poster from his pocket, unfolding it on the table. He gave Elly a grandfatherly smile. “Ben came by earlier, sayin’ you might know this woman. Is that still true?”
“Let’s attack this in an orderly fashion,” she said in her teacher’s voice. “Tell me about the woman you know as Jessica Hardy, and then I’ll recount memories that might connect her to the person I knew as Leslie Richter.”
“There’s nothin’ much to tell,” Roy admitted. “She never revealed anything about herself, until her testimony at the trial. And that was all lies.” He shook his head. “Ben hired the Pinkertons to investigate, but they could only track a series of robberies committed by a woman, probably startin’ in Texas. She said she’d come from St. Louis. You’re the first person to put her in Missouri.”
Elly looked down at her napkin, running it through her fingers, while addressing Ben. “I know you’d like to make sense of what this woman did to your son, but I fear I don’t have the answer you need.”
Ben smiled warmly. “All we ask is that you tell us about Leslie Richter, and we’ll see what happens.”
Her head bobbed several times while gathering her thoughts. “I was the youngest, and the only girl in my large family. My brothers treated me like one of them.” A blush brightened her cheeks as she grinned. “That’s why I spent so much time with Marty today. He reminds me of my brother Henry.” She chuckled. “My parents named him Henry Henry, just like Marty is Martin Martin.”
The blush faded, as she continued, “We lived near Kansas City, and as I got older, my mother decided I couldn’t remain a tomboy, and enrolled me in a boarding school called The Carthage Female Academy: a place promising they could turn young women into graceful, well-versed conversationalists while receiving a fine secondary education. I was 13 then, and Leslie began that year too. We were assigned to the same bedroom with two other girls.”
“You must have gotten to know her pretty well then,” Joe offered.
“Not really. Leslie kept to herself until she made friends with another loner named May Shirley. She was the daughter of one of the founders, and had her own room. Those two spent all their free time there, and May eventually took Leslie in as her roommate.”
“Did them two make trouble?” Hoss asked.
A thoughtful pause. “They disdained us and made no effort to hide it, but I can’t say they intentionally hurt anyone. They were smart and did what was expected in class, but they’d disappear together after dinner.” Elly laughed. “I was going to say they were as thick as thieves. Maybe that was true.”
She leaned back in her chair and smiled. “I got to know Leslie a little in drama club. It was the one thing she enjoyed that May didn’t. The fellowship of thesbianism dictated that she at least try to be part of the group. When she was playing a part in a production, she honestly seemed happy. She loved to act, and was very good at it too, usually getting the lead role.” She smiled conspiratorially while leaning forward. “There was something that made us laugh behind her back. When she got a part requiring an accent or a particular persona, she’d drop that characterization into her daily life. She might strut about like a queen, ordering others around in a fussy voice, or slip around furtively if that’s what was required. Imagine her explaining an arithmetic problem in a heavy Cockney accent. It made her a good actress, but it distanced her even further from others who thought her odd.”
“We all said she was playing a well-rehearsed part when she told her story at trial,” Little Joe said while eliciting agreement from the others.
Elly reached to cover Joe’s hand. “That was Leslie! We agreed that everything she did seemed scripted. The only time she was kind to anyone was when she wanted something. She’d act concerned and complimentary, and then returned to her normal disdainful state once she no longer needed you.”
“Do you have any idea where she grew up?” Roy asked.
“Only by accident, so I’m not sure it’s true. On our first day of school, we were each required to stand and talk about ourselves, as a way to begin building confidence in speaking publicly. When it was Leslie’s turn, she rose, looked around the room, and said she’d lived in St. Louis, but the rest of her life was none of our business. The teacher was stunned, but there was something about the look in Leslie’s eyes that made even adults know when to stay silent.”
“What’d ya mean about hearin’ something by accident?” Hoss asked.
“Oh!” she laughed. “I forgot what I was telling you. May and Leslie fought regularly. Mostly it was head butting, and they’d make up quickly. But one of those arguments got nasty. Leslie brooded, and became so vile that May asked to stay in our room for a few days. She was still spitting mad when she moved in, and told us that no one could stand Leslie Richter: not even her own parents. I don’t think she meant to say as much as she did, but she revealed that Leslie’s parents had dropped her off at school, paid her fees for the full four years, and then told her they never wanted to see her again. They’d even arranged for a bank in Carthage to pay her a large sum of cash as long as she graduated. It was her inheritance.”
Four sets of rounded eyes stared at the young woman.
“Did May say why they’d disowned her?” Ben asked.
Elly smiled widely as she recalled the conversation from long ago. “It had something to do with Leslie being incapable of telling the truth, and how her constant lies had made them outcasts in their neighborhood.” A snort of laughter. “May was quick to tell us she’d made everything up after they made amends, and she warned us not repeat what we’d heard.” The young woman’s eyes took a far-away look. “We didn’t have to be told twice to keep our mouths shut.”
The diners quieted as their meals were delivered, but after a few bites, Ben asked, “Have you heard anything about Leslie since then?”
“I left Carthage after two years to get a teaching certificate at a different school. But I ran into a Carthage classmate in Springfield, where I was teaching. She asked if I’d heard what May was doing.”
Hoss inched forward on his chair. “What might that be?”
“Marguerite showed me an article about how May Shirley was arrested while riding with a group of outlaws from Texas. The story said May had moved there … probably around the time she graduated … and had hung out with some young outlaws. Marguerite mentioned hearing that Leslie had moved to Texas with May.”
Roy laid his fork aside. “Miss Henry, you’ve given us more information in twenty-minutes than we’ve been able to hunt down in more’n four months. What I’m gonna do is wire the Marshal Service in St. Louis and have them look for those parents. Miss Hardy claimed her parents were dead, but I’m bettin’ the Ponderosa it was a lie.”
“I’ll back that bet!” Ben offered.
The group was enjoying dessert and coffee when Ben sat up straight and looked at the sheriff. “With all the excitement, I forgot to tell you about having a horse stolen today.”
Hoss swallowed his bite of pie, and quickly washed it down with a swig of coffee. “So that’s what Will and Marty were hidin’ from Joe and me.”
Ben nodded. “It happened while you were getting the kids.”
“What happened, Ben?” Roy asked.
“Someone snuck into the far corral, and used one of the saddles taken out there for Hoss’ get-together. Marty saw him from a distance and couldn’t get back in time to stop him.”
The contented look produced by the fine meal, vanished as Hoss considered the news. “He took Sport, didn’t he?”
“How do you know that?” Joe locked Hoss in an incredulous stare. “You didn’t even know a horse was missing until a minute ago, and you figured out which one it was already?”
The big man sat back, crossing his arms over his chest. “I just know.”
The sheriff interrupted the brothers. “I’m sorry it was Adam’s horse what got taken. Did your man recognize the guy?”
Ben shook his head, and allowed a hint of a grin. “Marty said the guy was dressed like a lumberjack and was so hairy, he looked like a black bear riding off on a horse.”
The description produced a round of laughter.
Roy’s right cheek began to rise. “When you say dressed like a lumberjack, might you mean a plaid shirt and heavy pants?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?” Ben turned, facing Roy directly.
“Seems like we might have a crime spree goin’ on around here.” Roy’s cheeks crinkled into a wide grin. “Becca Lane stopped by a couple days back to report that her husband’s spare set of clothes was taken right off the wash line while she was inside baking bread. Care to guess what was taken?”
“A bright plaid shirt and work pants?” Ben replied: his grin as large as Roy’s.
“And a set of long johns. Becka wasn’t looking for an arrest, but she wanted me to know some needful person might be stealin’ to get by.” Roy’s expression turned serious. “Taking a horse is a big step away from a shirt and underwear.”
“Do the Lane’s live northwest of town … between here and Goat Springs?” Hoss’ lip twitched upwards with the question, and a nod from both Roy and his father prompted another thought. “I done told Pa about talk of a wildman in the hills over at the Sachs’ ranch when I was there. Now we got one here stealin’ clothes and horses. Don’t it seem odd?”
“There might be a connection.” Roy suggested. “That same man could be moving this way. Still …” He paused to scratch his head. “I best send a few telegrams, just to make sure there hasn’t been a jail break. A poor miner needin’ a few worldly goods is one thing; a prisoner on the loose is different.” Roy pushed his chair back. “Thanks for supper, Ben. I should get back to work.” His cheek rose. “I’m thinkin’ I should notify the law and livery owners to look for your brand on horses belongin’ to strangers, as well.”
Signaling for the check, Ben directed his attention to Elly and his sons. “I’ll walk Roy to his office and help him with those telegrams, but you three don’t have to rush away.”
“Thank all of you for your hospitality today,” Elly replied, covering a yawn with her hand. “After the active day, my students are already tucked into bed, and they’ll be raring to go by morning. I should follow their lead or I’ll be so tired, Hoss and Joe will have to come lasso them after I doze off at my desk.”
Three days after Elly had given a name to the woman in the wanted poster, she found herself waiting outside the state prison in Carson City with Sheriff Coffee and Ben Cartwright. Authorities in St. Louis had confirmed a Richter family with a birth record for a daughter named Leslie. But neighbors at the address reported that the parents had moved away some years ago. They’d packed up their belongings, arranged the sale of their house through an agent, and told no one of their destination. One thing the neighbors remembered clearly, was the daughter who lied about everything.
Unable to trace the parents, the Marshal Service requested Miss Henry be brought quickly to Carson City for an in-person look at Hardy. Elly was wary, but after Roy and Ben came up with a plan to keep her from being recognized, she’d agreed.
The heavy iron door opened from the wall surrounding the penitentiary, and the trio was greeted by a tall young man in a blue suit, who introduced himself as Nathan Travis, the “interim warden.”
He’d ushered them quickly into the administration building, and lost his urgent manner once inside the warden’s office, extending his hand to each of them. “Thank you for coming on such short notice.” Three chairs had been placed in an arc at the front of his desk, and he motioned for his guests to sit “You’re anxious to get this done, but let me explain some new developments.”
“Such as?” Ben asked, inching forward on his chair.
“Jessica Hardy was scheduled to leave for Arizona soon to stand trial in a robbery there. It was probably the last heist she did before going to San Francisco, and finally to Virginia City. She still thinks she’s going there, and seems quite anxious for the trip. Why that is, I can’t even speculate. However, we had them drop their charges in order for us to pursue a bigger problem in Carson City. For now, we’re allowing everyone here, including Miss Hardy, to believe nothing has changed.”
“So, you gonna tell us what this big secret is?” Roy asked.
“This penitentiary is fairly new, and designed with barracks for the women in a separate building near prison officials, hoping to avoid the usual abuse faced by women in prisons where they aren’t kept apart. But as always, people find a way to tarnish the good intentions.” Travis blushed. “I’m going to be blunt, Miss Henry, but it will help you understand why we need your help so badly.” The blush eased as he got back to facts. “We expected there’d still be pairing up by the male and female inmates. Unscrupulous guards might even accept bribes by male inmates wanting into the women’s dorms. But we never expected what the top officials have done here.”
“Might this be the reason you’re the ‘interim’ warden?” Roy asked the solemn-looking man.
A solid nod. “We hired a man named Finney as Warden. He espoused high ideals for the just treatment of prisoners, and keeping his house in order. On paper, he’s doing a marvelous job. Inspections always bring glowing reports of how well he’s taking care of his ‘house.’” Travis looked down at his hands and sighed.
Ben shook his head. “That seems good news, so why are you unnerved?”
“A woman released a few months ago, made an accusation that we assumed was her attempt to get even for discipline she received here. But soon others made similar allegations. Based on this, we planted two investigators here as guards.” He shook his head and returned his gaze downward. “They confirmed that Finney and two top guards are running a brothel, using women inmates. They keep the prettiest and newest women for themselves, giving them special treatment for their favors. But the rest are offered up to anyone with money or goods to pay for the service. They’ve gone outside the walls, recruiting customers from the saloons in Carson City. The women comply or face being left unguarded in the yard, where they’d be passed among the inmates who can’t pay. Our inside men report lines of men from town, standing outside the gate on Saturday nights. Finney and his two favorites make enough money to pay others to help.”
Ben’s brows rose. “Do you have enough evidence to move against these men?”
“Enough against those two guards for sure. We know Finney is the brains behind this, but he keeps his hands clean of the brothel operation. Jessica Hardy is pivotal to ensure charges against him.”
Elly broke in softly. “What can she say that the others can’t?”
“To put it bluntly; she’s the warden’s mistress. From what we know, she sought him out as soon as she walked in the gates.”
“If she sought him, how can she testify against him?” Elly asked.
“Finney, as warden, is sworn to protect every inmate. Women prisoners are only required to serve time for their crimes. Our goal was to give these women a safe environment, while teaching them skills like cooking, sewing or working in a laundry, so they can find work afterwards. None of them are required to pay their dues to society by pleasuring the staff. This institution is rotting from the top down, and we need Miss Hardy to confirm what goes on in Finney’s office, and that she’s expected to comply just as those servicing the brothel.”
Travis nodded to Ben and Roy. “You two have experienced Hardy’s ability to lie or at least refuse to help. I don’t expect her to assist us willingly.” Both men nodded. “If she is this Richter woman, we can threaten her with federal prosecution for robbing banks using U.S. currency.3 And since there aren’t any federal prisons nearby, we also have leverage in allowing her to stay here rather than being transferred east.” The young warden shook his head. “I wouldn’t wish those Eastern prisons on my worst enemy. The war left them in a horrible state of affairs.”
“Does your being here mean you’ve already taken steps to remove Finney and his men?” Roy asked.
Travis chuckled. “We told them they were being sent to a conference on prison reform in Sacramento to receive an award. They went happily, but were apprehended when the stage stopped in Genoa. We did it this way so no one would know of the investigation until we cleaned house enough to encourage cooperation from inmates and staff. Those who profited by helping Finney’s men, will be fired, but we won’t press charges if they cooperate. That should loosen tongues.”
The warden picked at a hangnail and chewed it off. “We have to move fast before anyone has time to infiltrate our witness pool with threats or cautions. Our trump card with Hardy is to verify who she is, thus limiting her options.”
Elly looked down at her hands. “Despite what she’s done, I feel sorry for this woman.”
Travis walked around his desk, perching on the corner. His serious look was diminished by his soft tone. “I understand your sympathy. You can’t imagine what being in this situation is like for the women inmates, and it truly should not exist. Our intention is to nip this practice before it gets any worse, and send a message that we will ferret out corruption. But I ask you to remember that every choice in life brings a consequence, and what we know of Hardy … or Richter … proves she is a cold, calculated criminal, who terrorized bank employees from Texas to Nevada without a thought to the pain and suffering she left behind. She went so far as to befriend those same people she stole from, and finally killed Adam Cartwright when he wouldn’t do as she wanted. Even then, instead of telling the truth, she lied blatantly and attempted to ruin a good man’s reputation to free herself, and left the Cartwright family with no way to bring Adam home. It may help ease your conscience in helping us, if you look at your possible identification as a way for us to pry a little truth from someone who rarely speaks it.”
It took a few minutes for Elly to stuff her brown curls into the silver wig Ben had borrowed from the Performing Arts Society of Virginia City.
Ben nodded his approval. “That ages you by years, young lady. Now, for the finishing touches.” He chuckled as he withdrew a small jar of dark makeup from the bag that had held the wig and a small hat. “Bernice, the woman who applies makeup for the plays, gave me a quick lesson in using this; let’s hope I don’t make you look like a raccoon.”
He carefully smudged the greasy, gray material below Elly’s eyes, and then used his thumb to work it in, creating the effect of deeper set, aging eyes. Stepping back, he invited Roy and Travis’ appraisal. The final additions to the teacher’s disguise included a padded bodice that Elly tucked under her jacket; a hat with netting tucked in under her chin and a large shawl.
Elly examined her disguise in the glass cabinet door of the warden’s office and laughed. “If I didn’t know it was me, I wouldn’t recognize myself!”
“I still wouldn’t get close to her,” Ben cautioned. “She’s familiar with the tricks we’ve used, and might spot our attempts.”
Travis rested Elly’s hand in the crook of his elbow. “Miss Hardy is assigned to the kitchen. The prison staff thinks I’m filling in while Finney’s away, and I’ve told them I’m giving an inspection tour to a woman representing the prison board.” He looked down at her and grasped her hand tighter. “I’ll ask Hardy to explain what she does. That way you’ll hear her voice and see her from every angle. Give me a nod once you’ve made your conclusion. Please don’t say anything about it to me until we get back here. Prison walls have ears.”
The team of Cartwright and Coffee shared their thoughts over the dramatic turn of events at the prison after the warden and Elly left to make the identification. But as time dragged with anticipation, their words ended and their bodies began to release their tension. They paced the room, nearly colliding at times. Roy finally stopped by the desk to examine a stack of wanted posters, and Ben positioned himself at the window, watching the prison yard below.
Both men turned when the door opened. Elly blew in on a draft of fresh air and quickly removed the hat and wig, tossing them into the valise while fluffing her own hair back into place. She observed the three expectant faces staring at her, and chuckled softly. “Mr. Travis showed me the women’s dormitory on the way to the kitchen, and it isn’t the dungeon I’d expected. The hallways and dining hall are clean and the kitchen staff was nice. The only disturbing thing was the number of worms and bugs I saw in the open containers of staples, and the poor quality of the meat they were frying up.”
“I explained to Miss Henry that this is common,” Travis said. “Budgets in prisons are tight, but those in charge can buy sub-par supplies instead of first quality. The difference in price is either privately pocketed or used for other needs. They sift out the worst of the infestations, and camouflage the rest with gravy.”
Ben and Roy glanced at each other, with Roy speaking. “That’s very interesting, but we’re hangin’ on a limb, waitin’ to hear Miss Elly’s conclusion.”
Elly removed her outer jacket and stuffed the padding she’d worn into the case with the other props. “Mr. Travis pointed ‘Miss Hardy’ out when we got to the kitchen, but I recognized her immediately.”
“What tipped you off?” Ben asked.
“She was rolling biscuits, wearing a dress resembling a sack with arm holes, a stained apron, and her hair haphazardly tucked in a net with tendrils sticking to her sweaty cheeks. Yet … there was an imperious set to her face that gave me the same goosebumps it did back in school. The cook spoke well of her when she was introduced, but that didn’t surprise me; she always performed to rave reviews.”
Roy’s face crinkled as he blew a deep breath. “That’s great, but it’s still a matter of Elly’s word against Hardy’s. If you can’t prove her identity better’n that, she won’t help.”
“I agree. There’s one further ploy we can use. She’s gotten some favors as Finney’s ‘mistress’ that she’ll lose. We might offer to honor those for her help.” Travis sighed loudly. “Still, it would have been nice to have that one big lever.”
Elly looked up at the three men and grinned. “Who says you don’t have that? I recognized something that can be confirmed by at least one other person. You’ll need to send someone to see Miss Brown, our drama teacher at the Carthage academy. She’s retired, but still lives there.”
“What did you see?” Ben asked. His lower jaw hung slightly open while awaiting an answer.
“We helped each other with costumes for the plays. One time, Leslie asked me to fasten a cape to buttons on the back neckline of her dress. When she lifted her hair, I saw a good-sized, purple birthmark in her hairline that resembled a mitten. Those buttonholes were so tight Miss Brown had to help me, and I asked her later if she thought that was an accurate description of the blemish. She chastised me, but then laughed and agreed.” Elly paused to increase the drama. “I saw that mark when I walked behind her today. She wears a low bun to hide it, but the net was pulling her hair upwards. She was warm, and I saw that bright red, left-handed mitten pulsing on her neck.”
Ben dropped into a chair next to Elly, and took her hand. “Thank you, again!”
Hoss and Joe exited the barn as their father drove their two-seated buggy into the yard. Roy and Elly had met him out on the main road to Carson City, and left their smaller buggy in a shaded grove on the Ponderosa so Ben didn’t have to make the trip into town.
“How’d everything go today?” Hoss called out as the team came to a stop.
Ben gave his sons a quick rundown from the driver’s seat, while they leaned on the horses’ rumps.
“I’m glad we know the truth of who she is,” Joe offered.
Hoss’ cheeks reddened in frustration. “Couldn’t they put pressure on her to tell us where Adam is as part of this deal?”
“They have to use their leverage to clean house,” Ben stated without emotion. “I wouldn’t trust anything she’d tell us anyway. I’ll stick with praying for the answers we need.”
Little Joe noticed the grayness of his father’s complexion, and realized how deeply the loss of Adam still weighed on him every time those memories were poked. “Hop Sing says supper’s nearly ready, Pa. Go clean up while we take care of the horses.”
“What’s going on with you two,” Ben asked once they were eating. “You’re trying to hide something, but you’re both awful at it.”
“It’s just that ….” Hoss found it hard to report the news of the day when his father already looked so worn out.
“Just that what?” Ben’s tone inched towards a demand.
“Well … Joe and me were out in the near pasture this morning branding them new little gals we’re gonna use for milk cows, and Hop Sing had gone to town. We got home mid-afternoon, and found Milt here with that plow he fixed for us. When I got money from the safe to pay him, there was cash missin’.”
“How did you know some was missing?” Ben asked. “I was going to balance out the cash with the receipts tonight, so even I don’t know how much there should have been.”
“I knew because this was in the safe.” He pulled a folded paper from his pocket and handed it across the table.
IOU two-hundred dollars!” was printed on the square of paper.
“There’s more, Pa.” Hoss looked at his brother. “Tell him, Joe.”
“I used my rifle to scare off a coyote, and when I opened the gun cabinet to grab cleaning supplies, I noticed that Adam’s old Colt and holster were missing, and this was in its place.” He handed over another note that read, IOU, a pistol and a horse.
“Someone robbed us while we were gone, and left IOU’s for what he took?” Ben pushed his plate aside to lean his elbows on the table. “Did anyone see a stranger near the house?”
“Wasn’t anyone around to see anything,” Joe concluded.
Ben observed Hoss’ wrinkled forehead. “Something else is bothering you, son. Out with it.”
“The door to Adam’s room was open too, and I know it was closed when we all left. I don’t know his stuff well enough to tell if something is missin’.” He shifted in his chair. “Don’t it seem purely odd this thief could figure the safe combination and find what he wanted without tearin’ things apart lookin’ for ‘em?”
Ben’s forehead crinkled like his son’s. “You’re thinking it might be someone who has been here before?”
Hoss nodded. “Maybe someone we let go, who figured out a way to have some nasty fun with us. They’d have to read and write. The hands that can do that give you notes with herd counts and supply lists, so any chance this printing looks familiar, Pa?”
Ben stood to examine the two papers under the lamp above the table. His breathing froze, while his mind flew back to Cleveland, Ohio, where his four-year-old son had been learning to print. Adam had always been a quick study, and he’d soon begun leaving printed notes everywhere for his father to find. He’d found them on his pillow wishing him a good day when he’d come back from washing up in the morning. And for a few weeks after hearing about IOU’s during a dinner conversation at the boarding house where they’d lived, he’d found IOU’s in his lunch. Ben remembered his absolute favorite of those, promising one hour without Adam asking any questions when he got home: surely a suggestion from the woman of the house, who’d witnessed Adam’s constant barrage of inquiries as soon as Ben walked through the door each evening.
The Ponderosa dining room took shape around him as he pulled from this memory. Adam had stopped printing once he’d learned to write; thinking it more efficient to connect letters in script than to form them individually. He thought back again to those long-ago notes, finally deciding that his long day was allowing him to make connections that couldn’t possibly exist.
“What’s goin’ on, Pa?” Hoss asked. “We lost you for a minute there.”
Ben forced a smile as he resumed his seat. “This seems harmless, even though the monetary loss is mounting. I’ll talk to Will tomorrow; he might have some thoughts about which of our former employees might go this far to cause trouble.”
Despite his exhaustion, Ben made his journal entry describing all that had taken place before crawling into bed. He’d come to a conclusion regarding the thefts. With the stolen items adding up, he’d have to speak with Roy to follow up on past employees.
Jessica Hardy stared open-mouthed at the man sitting across from her at Finney’s desk, trying to slow the tornado of thought spinning in her head.
“So … Warden Finney is being investigated for using his position for unseemly purposes and monetary gain, and you want me to testify that I attend to his … physical needs … when he calls for me?”
“Yes. But we also want to hear about special favors granted for your service.” Travis folded his hands atop the desk, and waited for her reaction.
She finally was able to drag a thought out of the whirlwind, like latching onto branch caught in the swirl. “You said the hearing is convening in two days. I’m leaving for Arizona today, so you’ll have to do this without me.”
Travis controlled the turn of his lips in anticipation of her response to his next statement. “Your trip has been cancelled. This takes precedence.”
The tornado picked up again, sucking away any hope of May’s rescue during her travel to Hardyville. Her face reddened and angry tears pooled at the corners of her eyes, but she refused to cry in front of this man.
No trace of her disappointment was evident when she spoke. “You said this investigation began in response to allegations made by released prisoners. Won’t that ensure the charges against Finney and those guards? It’s far more important to plead my innocence in Arizona for now. I’ll surely be back in time for Finney’s trial, where my testimony will do the most damage.”
“That possibility is gone. Arizona has deferred prosecution to federal authorities because of your crime spree across several states.”
Her laugh was tight. “You’re basing this on the wanted posters sent out after Old Man Cartwright hired the Pinkertons? Warden Finney told me that no towns have given the same name to the woman on that poster. And even more, their recognition of ‘me’ likely comes from the fact that I did stop at many small towns along the way out here. These well-meaning folks are confused. The fact I might have been ‘seen’ in a town during a stage stop, doesn’t mean I robbed their banks.”
“There’s two more things you should know, Miss Richter.” Travis took great joy in watching his prisoner pale and swoon just a bit, before her face turned to stone. “The first is that an enterprising young marshal was able to put all those robberies on a map. That allowed him to draw a pretty clear line from Virginia City all the way back to Texas, following stage routes. The outcome was that when he added in the names ascribed to the woman on that poster, he found that the name used by the woman when she arrived in a town further west on the route, reflected the name of previous city that had been robbed. I’m sure there was a tinge of vanity in that, but it might also have helped her remember the new alias.”
Travis waited for a reply but saw only stone. “The last robbery reported was in Hardy … ville. The use of Hardy as your surname in Virginia City, is the pin that connects you back to all the others.” He chuckled slyly. “Had you not been apprehended; I imagine your next name would have included Virginia.”
Still not evoking a reply, he continued to chip away. “Furthermore, we now know your real name to be Leslie Richter. Following your trail should be easier now.”
Leslie hadn’t heard her own name in so long, it sounded foreign to her ears. The tornado in her brain had changed to an impenetrable fog. “Who recognized me?” She thought back, looking for a clue. “It was that old crone you brought through the kitchen, wasn’t it?”
Travis’ smile revealed his admiration for the work of Ben Cartwright and the young teacher in creating a perfect disguise. “The identification was verified by two people. We know you were born in St. Louis; attended school in Carthage and moved to Texas after that.”
“You’ve surely contacted my parents. How are they?” The question arose from curiosity, not concern.
“We didn’t find them. They disappeared some years back and left no forwarding information. They serve no purpose in this investigation, so there’ll be no further search.”
Leslie’s laugh was loud and unladylike. “They probably left because they feared I’d darken their door one day.” She snorted again. “They had no reason for that. I actually admired them for having the mettle to cut ties. The money they left me was far superior to their company.” The storm in her brain had passed now, the fog had cleared, and a new idea was taking shape. “What will you do for me if I cooperate?”
“We won’t take away the benefits you’ve received. Any of the current staff who participated in the warden’s schemes will be fired, and everyone else will be expected to testify to the true conditions here. Then life will go forward with new staff.”
And what if I don’t help you?”
“You’ll face federal charges for robbing institutions using United States currency. Those charges involve a transfer to a federal prison in the East.”
“When will this hearing take place?” she asked, seemingly resigned to her fate.
“A Board of Review will convene in Carson City, two days from now. We’ll move you to the local jail immediately, allowing the staff to think you’ve gone to Arizona as planned. Meanwhile, we’re bringing in multiple agents immediately to conduct interviews and begin cleaning house. You’ll return here when the hearing ends.”
Leslie nodded. “I know when I’m bested. A couple days away from there will feel good, even if it is just in the gray-bar hotel down the road.”
As Leslie left the warden’s office, her spirits lifted to a higher level that at any time since the day she’d been apprehended outside Virginia City. She was in charge of her own destiny again. The transfer to town would remove walls and fences, and allow her to seize any opportunity to get away. She couldn’t continue living like this. She’d escape … or die trying.
Ben hoped to get through as much ranch paperwork as possible before going to Carson City the next day. Warden Travis had offered a chance for him and Roy to sit in on Leslie Richter’s testimony before the commission. The only reason Ben even considered going was that Travis had raised the possibility of her offering information about Adam to get an even better deal during the hearing.
His sons had decided to go along, and they were trying to complete two days of chores before the trip as well. With Hop Sing off visiting his cousins for the day, he had the house to himself.
He ran upstairs to grab a letter he’d left on his bed, but stopped as he passed Adam’s room. Stepping inside, he used the quiet solitude to make a careful inspection. He’d taken a quick look the evening Hoss had reported the thefts and notes, but truthfully, his eldest had few possessions of monetary value and nothing had seemed missing. Adam’s many books bowed the shelves of his bookcase. Some were first editions worth a great deal. But an average thief wouldn’t know this. Adam’s guitar was still hanging on the wall—a nice one from New York—but not expensive. Opening the top dresser drawer, he saw that the gold cufflinks and a spare silver-studded hatband remained. Still, something seemed off. Another visual sweep provided the answer.
When he’d used this room during the picnic, he’d moved Elizabeth’s picture and music box from the desk to the nightstand, and then left without setting them back in place. Hop Sing must have straightened the room, yet what puzzled him was that now the music box was standing atop Elizabeth’s Bible. Adam had displayed them together in the past, but as the Bible got older and more fragile, he’d stored it inside the desk. Ben had seen it tucked safely into its interior cubby hole the other day while looking for a blank sheet of paper. He hadn’t disturbed it.
A ripped edge of paper protruded beyond the pages, making Ben curious to know what passage Adam might have marked. Carefully separating the nearly translucent onion skin, he found its location in the gospel of John, chapter 13, with verse7 written in Adam’s hand: Jesus answered and said unto him, “What I do, thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” The words, Please be patient, were written beneath that.
“What were you impatient about, Adam?” Ben spoke softly. A quiet chuckle followed. “Your life was predicated on impatience, although most people only saw your calm exterior.” He sighed, secured the Bible inside the desk, and spoke to the room as he exited. “Everything seems accounted for.”
Ben’s stomach growled loudly as he reached the bottom step. His appetite had been off with the strange goings-on in the last week, and he decided to raid the cookie jar before tackling anything else. The aroma of coffee still warming on the stove, sent him first to the cupboard for a mug. Grabbing the lidded crock next, he brought both to the table. After a cautious sip of the hot brew, he reached for a cookie.
Instead of finding baked goods, he found a folded piece of paper in the empty jar. He held it up to read, and saw the same printing as on the other notes his sons had found. Grief he’d held at bay for so long groaned from his soul. Tears blinded him after he read, I took the cookies, and I owe you an explanation.
Roy had spent the night at the Ponderosa, allowing the group to get an early start to Carson City. It was barely 8 A.M. when they rode into town and saw Nate Travis standing outside the courthouse.
“I’m sorry, Ben,” the acting warden told him after their initial exchange. “I wish your sons could attend too, but the commissioners want Miss Richter’s complete focus, and fear that won’t happen if she sees you. To thank you for the help you’ve given us, they will allow you and Sheriff Coffee to sit behind a screen we’ll place in front of the jury area. You’ll have to be hidden away before she’s brought in, and remain absolutely quiet.”
“She is cooperating, then,” Ben asked.
The young warden nodded. “She was rattled when I spoke her real name, but only for a moment. Once she understood her limited options, she agreed to help.”
“You don’t look convinced,” Roy told Travis, prompting a round of nods from the Cartwrights.
“I’m not. She’s an opportunist, so the absence of further demands for her testimony, or to get our offer in writing, makes me wonder if she’ll ask for a better deal today with the full board present.”
Ben blew out a deep breath. “I agree with your prediction. This should be … interesting. When will Roy and I need to be back?”
The quartet had enjoyed Hops Sing’s coffee at the house to get their “joints lubricated” as Roy had put it, but they’d refused a full meal, deciding to get to their destination before having breakfast.
With more than an hour remaining before they needed to be at the courthouse, they headed to the restaurant in the St. Charles Hotel. The two cities near the Ponderosa were nearly equidistant. The family did day-to-day business in Virginia City; took care of things related to the government in Carson and were equally known in both places, which accounted for the hotel staff whisking them to a table as soon as they entered the door.
“You boys must be disappointed you can’t attend,” Ben told his sons once their breakfast orders were placed.
“Not so much, Pa,” Joe responded with a grin. “We’d as soon sit in a nice saloon as in some stuffy courtroom.”
Hoss added, “There’s somethin’ about that woman, just makes my skin crawl. I’m with Joe on this.” His nose crinkled. “Any idea how long it’ll take?”
Roy answered. “All they’re doin’ today is interviewing a couple former prisoners, Leslie and a few of the prison staff who can lend credence to what’s been goin’ on out there. This ain’t a trial, although they do get sworn in. It’ll go quick since there’s no cross examination. Your pa and I’ll leave before the panel starts deliberating on the charges.”
The four men receiving their breakfast orders were being observed by a shaggy, bearded man, wearing a white shirt and dark pants, occupying a table in the far corner of the room. He smiled at seeing the pile of bacon on a plate being delivered to the other group, and took another bite of his own toast, while chewing mentally on a plan to let him hear the testimony to be given later. Despite the hushed nature of hearing, it was the hottest topic in town.
He’d been astonished when he’d walked into town two days ago, and witnessed a prison wagon pull up to the jail. He immediately recognized the woman being transferred inside. Her hair, once shiny like silk, and her skin, nearly iridescent like mother-of-pearl, were both dull. She was hunched at the shoulders to accommodate the chain that ran from her shackled wrists to her ankles, but her chin was thrust forward with a superior expression belying her situation.
He’d stationed himself in the corner of a saloon after that and waited to hear what was happening. Although they would never admit it, saloons were the places men gossiped with the same enthusiasm as women at a church social.
His destination from the start of his sojourn had arisen from his need to visit the exact prisoner he’d seen being transferred. He’d intended to make a surprise visit to the state prison, but with her relocation and the current gossip, he’d decided to wait.
Months of his life had been spent in a haze of drugs, “prescribed” by this woman. The fog had cleared greatly since he’d been unceremoniously released from his imprisonment. The arduous trip eastward on foot had finally eased when he’d managed to “borrow” a horse, some decent clothing, money and a weapon. His stop at the Ponderosa had not only brought him access to some physical comforts, but he’d found something there that had provided him with vital information. It had helped, but it hadn’t set everything right in his head.
It took all his strength to not approach the group eating across the room. He wasn’t even sure why they were in town today, but assumed they’d come to attend the “not-so-secret” hearing as well.
He looked up when he heard the waitress clear her throat and ask, “Is there anything else I can get you, Mr. Miller?”
“I’m all set, Nancy,” he’d told the young woman, handing her a dollar for the thirty-cent check, along with his suggestion that she keep the remainder. Both waitress and diner looked across the room when they heard a loud guffaw.
“That’s Hoss Cartwright laughing,” the young woman explained. “Mary Sue, the girl who’s waiting on them, is kind’a sweet on him, and she just delivered him another full stack of flapjacks. Have you ever heard of the Cartwrights, Mr. Miller?”
“I expect everyone this side of the Rockies, has heard of the Cartwrights,” he answered. “But I’ve been away a while, so I haven’t heard much about them lately.”
Nancy leaned closer. “They’ve not been here in some time. You probably don’t know that Adam Cartwright was killed four … maybe five … months back. The rest of them must have stayed pretty close to home for a while, but I guess they’ve gotten past the loss. They’re acting like their old selves today.” The young woman straightened up and offered a sad smile. I’ll miss Adam stopping in. He was a really good man. Always left a big gratuity too … like you do. If I’m honest; I was sweet on Adam just like Mary Sue’s sweet on Hoss.”
When her blush lessened, she began bussing the table. “Will you be staying on a few more days?”
He grinned up at her and winked. “If I’m here in the morning, I’ll be sure to ask for a table in your area.”
Ben and Roy arrived at the courthouse early enough to get stationed behind two screens set at angles to form a blind.
Travis checked his pocket watch once they were seated. “All right, you two; one of the commissioners just looked through the window. I’ll let them in and they’ll get set up while I bring the witnesses over from the hotel. The last person I’ll gather is Miss Richter from the jail. Unfortunately, Sheriff Clark was forced to deal with a dispute outside town this morning, so I offered to be her escort. You have a few minutes yet, so do whatever you need to keep from fidgeting during the hearing.” He pulled two notepads and pencils from his pocket, extending them to the two men. “I am serious about remaining silent. Use these to communicate.”
Before leaving, Travis walked over to a stoop-shouldered man who’d been straightening the room when he’d arrived earlier. “Everything looks fine. Thank you. You can leave now.”
The hirsute swamper nodded as he grabbed his broom and dustpan, and headed to the janitor’s closet at the far side of the chamber.
The man called Miller by the waitress, was the one doing the sweeping, and he was now hidden away in the janitor’s closet. It had either been luck or providence that provided him the perfect way to be inside the courthouse without being noticed. His original intention was to get into the courtroom before others, and crack open a back-facing window. This would have allowed him to hunker there during the hearing with hopes of hearing some of what was being said. But as he’d rounded the back corner of the building earlier, he’d seen the caretaker exit a door and hang a mop on the porch rail before walking away. A quick look around showed it to be a secondary door, with the official back entrance a little farther west.
With the custodian far enough away, he’d tried the knob of the extra entrance. It opened, revealing a janitor’s closet with a door leading directly into the courtroom.
The deserted building had allowed him to place a chair inside the closet for him to use during the proceedings, and then he’d created some disorder that he could appear to be correcting when other participants began to arrive.
The first arrival had been Sheriff Coffee and Ben Cartwright, along with a third man he hadn’t recognize. He’d kept his head down, busying himself in lining up chairs and sweeping nearby to hear their conversation.
His suspicions that the two Virginia City residents had been allowed to attend because of their familiarity with one major witness, was upheld, yet they were asked to secret themselves from the attendees. The third man was called Travis, and he seemed to be both the substitute warden at the prison outside of town, and the person in charge of this gathering.
When asked to end his cleaning efforts, Miller had walked to the closet, left the door open a crack, and settled onto his chair.
Staying still on the hard chair in dark closet proved uncomfortable, yet not as uncomfortable as listening to the horrifying testimonies given by former woman inmates. He imagined that the two men hiding on the other side of the room, were equally unnerved. The opening statement given by Travis, had told how they’d tried to put in safeguards to avoid abuse, yet they’d been astounded at how quickly the tide had turned towards greed and exploitation.
Deep lines formed in Miler’s forehead while hearing each woman tell of the lasting effects of their incarceration. What they’d endured was best summed up by the last ex-inmate’s articulate testimony.
“I understood I had to pay my debt for stealing fancy things from stores in town. I served my time, but now I’m facin’ a death sentence. Most of us women got the pox doin’ what they made us do. The only thing they checked about those clients, was their wallets. We got it from one man and gave it to the next. There’s no cure, and the doctor I went to see, treated me with his nose raised, looking like he was sucking a pickled egg, and sniping at me about how this was a sure judgment on my way of living.”
When one of the commissioners asked if she’d explained her situation to the doctor, she’d replied, “Why bother. Apparently looking half-dead on the outside and feeling half-dead on the inside, still made me a temptress these men couldn’t resist.” Her laugh was dry and crackled in her throat. Those men payin’ for our service surely carried it home. Kind’a makes you wonder what that fine doctor will tell the faithful, obedient wives, when they show up in his office with the same disease I have.”
Miller leaned back in his dark shelter and sighed, knowing that the “pox” meant syphilis. The Gold Rush had brought many men, but few women to California, making brothels the main source of female companionship while causing an epidemic of the disease. The woman testifying had been right. There was no real treatment, and although it might go dormant, many people would face insanity and horrible disfigurement before the disease finished tormenting them.
It was too small a gesture to these unfortunate souls, but at least the commission announced they’d find a doctor willing to work with them, and pay for any treatment they’d decide to try.
Sitting in the darkness listening to the testimonies, while letting his mind drift off to entertain his own demons between witnesses, left the hidden listener with a flawed sense of passing time. He suspected Leslie would be the last to speak, and was surprised when he heard her called forward to the witness table. There were several members on this commission, and while he couldn’t see them, he’d grown familiar with their voices.
“We’ve cleared the room, Miss Richter, so you can speak freely.” This was said by the commissioner who led each witness examination. “Before we begin, I must alert you to a change. You were tried, convicted and sentenced under the name, Jessica Hardy. With conclusive proof of your identity, all documents using that name will be amended to Leslie Richter. Any other charges, even if you went by another name at the time, will also reflect your true name.”
Leslie said nothing, and the same voice continued, “We understand that you are willing to testify against Warden Finney in return for us dropping the pending federal charges against you.”
A different voice asked the first question. “Miss Richter, please tell us about your meetings with Warden Finney.”
The voice drifting into the confines of the closet, carried the same sneering tone he’d heard the last time he’d been in this woman’s company. With none of the visual distraction that those in the courtroom were seeing, he heard what they couldn’t. Leslie Richter was up to something, and she had no intention of divulging anything.
“I was called into the warden’s office shortly after I arrived at the prison,” she began. “He said he’d noticed my bearing and composure, and thought I might provide him with some intelligent conversation. We arranged to meet for tea at least once a week as a diversion.”
“What did you do during these teas?” another voice inquired.
“We spoke of books we’d both read; where we’d traveled and current events. You see, I’d attended a finishing school for young women, where I was trained to converse in an intelligent manner. I’m also a good listener. Warden Finney felt comfortable telling me about the challenges of running a prison.”
Another voice arose. “Did the warden expect favors of a carnal nature at these visits?”
“He was always a gentleman. What he sought from me was a social diversion from the stress of his position.”
“You were given a good job within the prison. You were also moved into an unoccupied dormitory and given other special favors. Do you expect us to believe that you received this because you were a … good listener?”
“You may believe whatever you wish.”
“May I remind you that you told Warden Travis a far different story when he asked for your help.” The new questioner was nearly shouting. “May I also remind you that you will face the full force of the federal government if you do not cooperate.”
She laughed. “As I see this, you’re threatening me so I’ll say what you want to hear. If I refuse, you’ll take revenge by transferring me someplace vile. I’ll hire a lawyer then who will point out that you’re all just as bad as the men you’re accusing of misconduct. A sympathetic judge might agree that I’m the victim in all of this and he’ll let me go for what I’ve endured.” Her laugh was laced with venom. “How is what you’re doing to me, any different than what Finney did? At least with him, I got a cup of tea before he scre….” Her intended comment was lost amidst the commissioners’ outraged shouting.
The two men behind the screen stared open-mouthed at each other. Ben’s pencil moved across his pad of paper. Could she sway a judge into thinking she’s been treated more unfairly than her crimes deserve?
Roy had paled except for two small spots of red coloring his cheeks. He shrugged and frowned.
Miller chuckled, and spoke a quiet, “Brava.” He now fully understood Richter’s intentions in creating the chaos going on outside his door. His supposition was confirmed, when he heard an angry, highly frustrated voice declare, “Get this woman out of here. Make sure she’s locked up in the general dormitory, and receives no further consideration. She will experience her life-sentence from the same position as everyone else.”
Leslie’s brawling laugh overtook the boisterous commissioner. “And knowing what most men in charge of the prisons demand of women inmates, that position will be on my back with my legs up ….”
The pounding gavel and shouts to remove the prisoner covered Leslie’s final words, and the scape of chair legs on the wooden floor indicated she would soon be leaving the building.
“Warden Travis,” someone said loudly, “The deputy can take her to the jail. He can use the back door so no one sees what’s going on. You stay put while we figure out how to salvage this mess.”
Miller had only moments to act during the ruckus in the main room. Following a streak of light snaking its way from the crack at the bottom of the outside door, he shot out the rear entrance, stopping on the porch only to let his eyes adjust from the darkness he’d left in his wake. No one had yet exited the main door, so he ran across the backstreet and hid in the shadows of an alleyway between two buildings.
He was sure that the chaos Leslie had created was leading to something no one else was expecting. Her vulgarity and refusal to cooperate was designed to cause indignation and get her sent back to the jail with a single escort. She couldn’t have planned on Sheriff Clark’s absence, but it played to her advantage. The young deputy assigned to accompany her was unseasoned with no idea what this woman was capable of doing. It was like a rabbit assigned to escort a coyote.
He swallowed a mournful groan from the shadows, when the main door finally opened, and he saw that in the rush to get her outside, the deputy hadn’t bothered to cuff Richter’s hands.
Leslie waited until they were far enough from the courthouse that a scuffle wouldn’t be heard inside, and then feigned a trip that ended with her sprawled on the ground. She grinned to herself as she lay in the dirt, anticipating her next move.
She’d planned to escape on her own from the moment she’d been relocated to the city jail. She’d mentally kicked herself for not doing just that back in Virginia City, instead of thinking she’d convince a jury to convict the missing Adam Cartwright and set her free.
Things could not have gone better so far. She’d created the reaction she’d wanted, and some demonic intervention on her behalf had sent the sheriff from town. And the most encouraging sign that all would go well, happened as the acting warden had walked her to the courthouse earlier. A woman had ridden past on a tall black horse. She was dressed in trousers and a buckskin jacket instead of her stylish dress, but Leslie had recognized May immediately. Instead of wearing her ammunition as a necklace as she usually did, her presentation today included a rifle tucked into a scabbard on her saddle, and a pistol sitting easy in the holster on her hip.2
May must have received the letter she’d had Finney send, and had arrived in Carson City at the most opportune moment. The enigmatic rider had pulled to the hitch rail up ahead, offering a hint of a smile and a nod when the prisoner walked by. The two old friends hadn’t seen each other in years, but they could still communicate without saying a word.
Leslie decided she had to act now. This was her opportunity to get free of the deputy, and May would surely figure out where she was and provide the means to escape from town.
It was now or never! She groaned while rolling to her back, and sat up to grab at her ankle. “I’m so clumsy sometimes,” she told the deputy in a pained hiss, followed by a crooked smile. “My ankle hurts, but it’s just twisted.” She confirmed her disability with a yelp when she tried to right herself.
The deputy’s face was a wrinkled sheet of confusion and concern. He finally said, “I’ll go back inside and get some help.”
“Wait,” she said as he turned to leave. “I don’t want to make those men any angrier at me than they already are. Lend me your arm, and help me to stand.” She pulled her skirt a little higher, twirling her ankle to show that she had full motion: even though grimacing throughout the maneuver. “I couldn’t do that if it was broken. You can fetch a doctor once I’m resting on my cot in the jail.” The smile returned as she winked at him. “The sheriff will applaud your quick handling of the matter when he returns.”
“That does sound good.” The deputy breathed in relief. “How do we get you on your feet?”
“You’re so strong, it should be easy for you to lend me your arm and pull me upright.” As the deputy got himself set, Leslie noticed the sun’s shimmer on the shot-silk fabric of her green skirt, and turned away to smile. Her spirits had soared when the vile little Finney had produced it.
She’d had this garment made in Texas while she’d learned her criminal trade. The construction assured she’d never be penniless and vulnerable. A woman lifting the dress might note that it “felt” heavier than it looked, but a man wouldn’t have a clue. The weight came from the many hundred-dollar bills5 and packets of potions she’d stashed inside the interior pockets a seamstress had created by quilting the silk to a linen backing before constructing the garment. She’d always received compliments on the uniqueness of the outfit, but no one could have known there was a small fortune and a pharmacy enclosed. Seeing May earlier had assured her escape, but the contents of her skirt would provide a comfortable life after her getaway.
He watched the scene playing out from his hidden vantage point, but Miller didn’t want to make his presence known too soon. His suspicion was that she’d make a pained attempt to stand, followed by the declaration that she couldn’t bear weight after all, and sending the witless deputy to get help. She’d be gone when he returned.
He was wrong.
Everything happened too fast for him to react. Leslie had the young man lean down, pulling him even further towards her by wrapping her right arm around his neck and letting her weight drag him downward as she clumsily attempted to rise. With the kid now too off-balance to react, she shot upright; shed his grip by twisting to his right, and deftly slipping his pistol from its leather, knocking him out cold with the butt of his own gun.
While bemoaning his miscalculation, he now realized he was hidden in the most fortuitous position for stopping the escape. With the deputy in a lump on the street, she did a quick look around, and ran toward the dark alley. The switch from light to dark blinded her, making her screech when she ran straight into his arms. He grabbed her wrist, applying enough pressure to force the pistol from her grip, and then lifted and carried her to the closest building, pinning her against the siding.
“How dare you!” she hissed. “Unhand me before I scream for the authorities.”
The chuckle rose from the deepest recesses of his chest. “We both know you won’t do that, Leslie.”
Her eyes popped open as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The face inches from hers was unfamiliar, but that voice had lived in her mind. “How ….”
“You’re at a loss for words?” He laughed again. “I guess there’s a first time for everything.” He loosened his hold, without giving her any wiggle room. “If you want to know how I come to be here, it’s simple. The medicine you supplied the asylum ran out around the same time as the money for my keep. It’s not a charitable institution, so they kicked me out.”
She eyed him warily. “Why haven’t I heard anything about you …?”
“No one knows except for you.”
“No one’s recognized you?” she asked incredulously.
“You didn’t recognize me, and I’ve stayed away from people who might make a connection, so I could take care of loose ends.”
“Do you plan to kill me as one of those ‘loose ends?”
He sighed loudly. “Of course not.”
“I doubt you were strolling past the courthouse for exercise when you saw me, so you must have known I was in prison here.”
He nodded. “I know a lot more about you now. It seems your lies are finally catching up to you. I heard your testimony just now. If you hadn’t chosen the life of a criminal, you’d have found a career in acting.”
“Listen, ah,” she said with an authoritative tone, before silencing.
He snorted softly. “Surely you remember my name. It’s Tony Miller … your severely demented husband, the one who’d attempted suicide and needed to be drugged and institutionalized to be kept from trying it again.
“I did what I had to do at the time. I needed to get away. I could have killed you outright instead of aiming towards the side.”
“You are so thoughtful. I’ve wondered; how did you know they wouldn’t recognize me at the asylum?”
A tight laugh. “I didn’t, but I’d seen the place when my stage passed by. I always pay attention to those … usable … details, and kept it in the back of my mind. If they had recognized you, I had an alternate story.”
“So … how did you get caught? Seems like you could have made a clean getaway.”
“I’d left the money bag at that house, and figured I had time to go back for it. I shouldn’t have been surprised that I made a mistake. Nothing went right during the time I spent with you, and I have hated you every moment of my life since that day.”
“I can’t say I’m fond of you either.”
“Why don’t you walk me to the jail, and we’ll talk like civilized people.”
His cheek rose, taking his upper lip along for the ride, “I don’t trust anything you say.”
The grin persisted. “I should probably be honest about my intentions towards you that day. That mixture of drugs I gave you knocked you out enough that you couldn’t fight back, but it left you alert long enough to know that I meant for you to die. I would have given you enough to kill you, but I meant for you to suffer before leaving that asylum in a coffin.” A laugh, “I should have known that wouldn’t work out right either.”
He sighed heavily. “Why didn’t you listen to me? I would have helped you if you’d faced what you’d done. Was what you did to me worth ending up imprisoned for life and resorting to the things that were implied in that hearing?”
Her greasy smile evaporated. “I’ve done worse to survive. You do what you have to.”
A nod. “I’m not judging you for those things. I am saying it didn’t have to happen!”
“I didn’t want you to reform me! I wanted you to choose me … accept me … just the way I was. Our life together could have been astounding, and we would have both stayed free.”
“What made you think I would consider leaving behind everything I valued and believed in?” The question was genuine.
“I’d never met anyone as silent about themselves as you were. Your dark eyes and mysterious ways gave me the impression they were hiding a wildness that would welcome a chance to be free of your mundane life.” Her line of sight rose to a place above his shoulder, producing a gentle grin. “Since no one knows you’re alive, why don’t you come with me this time. Leave what’s dead, dead. We’ll head to Mexico. I’m not proposing to you. You’re free to leave whenever you want, but we’ll have fun until then.”
He stared at her: his mouth dropping open to let a frustrated sigh escape. “There’s a deputy on the ground needing attention. You just admitted that you’d intended me to die, and above all, knowing what you do of me, why would you repeat the same offer I’ve already refused?”
“Why can’t you just try something different?” she hissed.
“Why? My life—as boring as it must seem to you—is grounded in truth, and it suits me. I’ve always given people second chances. I offered that to you too, and I offer it again. You might escape today, but you’ll never be free.” He paused, receiving her sidelong glance and a laugh as an answer. “I’ve dealt with others like you before. It’s like talking to a board, because you are incapable of choosing right over wrong. The plain truth is that the person you need saving from, is you!” He loosened his grip. “We’re going to the jail now. Once you’re locked up, I’ll make sure the deputy’s doing all right, and then I’ll give my statement.”
“You’re such a bag of hot air … Tony,” she sneered, as her eyes strayed past his shoulders into the dark shadows again.
“At least I’m an honest bag of air.” He turned her around to pull her arms behind her for optimal control. “One last question. You had a chance to help yourself today at that hearing. Why didn’t you?”
She wrenched herself around enough to bore a hole into his forehead with her glare. “I don’t trust anyone but myself. They’ll replace Finney, but do you really suppose the next warden will be any different? They all come in thinking they’ll save us, but then corrupt so easily. Weighing my options, I decided to escape. You ruined that. You ruin everything!”
“You hate me because I hold you accountable.”
Leslie laughed. “It’s not that; I’m just talking so you pay attention to me instead of what’s behind you. Sweet dreams!”
He hadn’t heard anyone sneaking up behind him, but he did hear the sound of metal hitting bone as a weapon connected with his skull. He dropped like a sandbag testing the trap door of a gallows, and heard two women laughing as he passed out.
“Thanks May,” Leslie said sincerely as she and her old friend scurried towards the far end of the dark passage to the horses May had waiting.
“You’d do the same for me, Leslie. I was glad you saw me today. I was peering into the windows of the courthouse when you were taken out. Sorry it took so long to grab the horses and get them around back. Looks like you did fine without me, though.” She mounted her horse and turned to her companion. “Who was that guy you were talking with?” she asked as they threaded their horses between buildings to the edge of town.
“The perfect man.” Leslie laughed.
Ben and Roy left the proceedings once Leslie was removed, and they joined Hoss and Joe at the saloon. While sipping on cold beers, they told of the testimony they’d heard, along with the unexpected outcome of Leslie’s outbursts.
The four of them were curious about the charges being drawn, yet not enough so to remain in town. If they left soon, they’d be home by mid-afternoon. The decision to go came easily, and they were mounting up a few minutes later when they spotted Sheriff Clark tying up in front the jail.
Clark smiled at the group as they rode over. “The hearing done already? I’d hoped to make it back in time for some of it.”
“The deliberations are still goin’ on,” Roy explained. “We left when the witnesses were done.”
Sheriff Clark removed his rifle and angled it onto his shoulder, holding the butt with his palm. “Did something go wrong?” You four look like you know something I don’t.”
Ben chuckled. “Miss Richter did not disappoint. We’ll come inside and tell you about it if you have time.”
“I’d enjoy hearing your take.”
The five men entered a decidedly quiet office. The door to the cell block was open, and Ben’s quick look inside confirmed it was empty. “Something’s wrong,” he told the others. “She’s not in there.”
“Were you expecting her to be?” The sheriff asked; his brows dipping downwards to form a V.
“She refused to say anything against the warden, and told them they were just as bad as he was in threatening her,” Roy explained. “They sent her back here with your deputy a good hour ago.”
“Maybe they’ve already transferred her to the prison or called her back to the hearing to try again?” Clark suggested.
“I didn’t see the prison’s transport in town, but we should check if she’s back at the courthouse. We’d have seen her if she’d been taken down main street, so we should go the back way.”
Hoss pointed as soon as his eyes adjusted to the sunlight behind the jail. “There’s a man down, just this side of the courthouse.”
Little Joe was the fastest, arriving a few strides before the others. “He’s breathing, but he’s got a goose egg on the side of his head. Hoss and I can get him to the doctor while you tell the people at the courthouse what’s happened.”
“She can’t have gotten far on foot,” Ben told the two sheriffs once his sons had the deputy between them, heading up the stairs to the doctor’s office a few buildings down.
“Let’s take a quick look around before we say anything,” Sheriff Clark suggested.
Ben wasn’t as skilled a tracker as his sons, but it was easy to see Leslie’s small footprints headed between two buildings. They’d barely entered the alley when Roy stumbled over something in the shadows. “It’s another body!” he shouted as he realized what had caused his fall.
They relocated the second victim to a spot where they’d get a better look. “Isn’t that the guy who was straightening the courtroom this morning, Roy?” Ben asked.
“Seems to be. Maybe he was coming back to work, and tried to help the deputy.” Roy shivered. “Let’s leave him on his side. That gash in his head looks bad and I don’t want more dirt in there.”
Ben put his hand close to the man’s nose and felt the warmth of his breath. “He’s breathing fine. Let’s get him to the doctor too.”
“Stay put,” Sheriff Clark ordered them. “I’ll get help for that, and we’ll keep looking for Richter.” He returned a few minutes later with four men commandeered from a nearby saloon. As soon as they were on their way with the injured Good Samaritan, Sheriff Clark led the other two men back into the shadows.
“Well I’ll be doggoned!” Roy said when they exited the passage on the far end. “She had help. Looks like a set of woman’s prints going into that passage from this end, and two sets coming out. Whoever it was, had horses waiting. She’s not on foot like we thought.”
Clark shook his head, sighed, and finally laughed sourly. “I’ll round up a posse, but I doubt she’s waiting around for us to find her. She’s smart. Even managed to let someone on the outside know how and when to help.” He nodded at Roy. “While I gather a few riders, maybe you and Ben could send telegrams alerting nearby towns of the escape. That Travis fella from the prison can inform the federal agents and get them headed here to take over.” He rubbed his whiskered jaw. “Might I ask one more favor? See to it that those men by Doc Oleson get whatever they need.” His cheek drew upwards. “Wait … did you two say the second guy was cleaning at the courthouse?”
Both men nodded. “Why do you ask?” Ben inquired.
“Rufus James is the caretaker. I’ve never seen that other man before.” He shrugged. “Maybe Rufus couldn’t work today.” Clark placed his hands on his hips and took a last look around. “I’m about to go give those commissioners a good piece of my mind for underestimating that woman. Would you two care to come along?”
The two women came to a stop after riding for 20 minutes.
“Thanks again, May. When they said I wasn’t going to Hardyville, I figured you wouldn’t be able to help, even if you had received my letter.”
They dismounted and led their horses to the shade of a few scraggly trees. “You’re the only person who still calls me May. I’m known as Belle now.” The young woman outlaw pulled her face into a sour pucker. “My father got your letter, and he wired enough of what you’d written for me to know you needed help. How’d you end up in such a predicament, Leslie?”
Leslie laughed. “It was that man you conked.”
“It’s always a man when things go that bad.” May’s laugh echoed in the quiet landscape, but then her eyebrows rose towards her hairline. “That, uh, hairy guy? I wouldn’t have figured him as your type.”
“He wasn’t. But that’s what made him interesting. He was upright and good—two characteristic I don’t possess—and there was nothing I could say to turn him. In his defense, he only looked the way he did because I poisoned him and left him in a mental asylum to die. He escaped too.” She chuckled softly. “I figured he’d come back to haunt me as a ghost, not in person.”
Leslie looked directly at her only friend. “It’s unfortunate you didn’t see him with a shave and haircut.” A deep breath. “He is a powerfully handsome man.”
May shook her head and laughed. “I’m just glad I decided to snatch you on the way to Arizona instead of on the way back. Imagine my surprise when I saw you being led into the town jail my first day in town, wearing those stylish handcuffs.” May grinned. “I’ve worn those same bracelets a few times already, but they couldn’t make the charges stick.”
The two friends allowed a few moments to catch up on each their lives, before Leslie scanned the horizon from the direction they’d come. “No dust cloud yet. The sheriff was away, and with the deputy down, we should have a good head start. But … things haven’t been going my way in the last few months, so what we do next.”
May grinned widely. “There’s a good reason the sheriff was gone. My gang was with me the other day when I first saw you, and there was talk of a hearing. Seems you bring interest Leslie, even though they were calling you Hardy. Speculation was you’d been brought in from the prison to testify against the warden. We decided it was the perfect chance to get you out, and I assumed you’d have a similar mindset. One of our men rode in this morning to report some suspicious goings-on he’d seen on his way into town, and send that sheriff on a goose chase. I didn’t want to call attention to my gang, so I said I’d get you free alone, simply and quietly. Once you saw me, you knew to make your move.” May’s expression dropped to a frown. “We’re camped south east of here, so we’ll go that way now, and then we’ll each ride out in a different direction. If the sheriff does form a posse, they’ll chase their tails for days.”
When her friend fidgeted in her saddle, Leslie asked, “What aren’t you telling me, May.”
“I’d ask you to join up with us, but we’re heading towards Missouri to settle down a while. I’m pretty sure I’m expecting a baby—got all the symptoms—so I can’t get caught for helping you escape or hiding you. I don’t want my baby born in a prison.”
May pointed to the large duffle strapped to the back of the saddle on Leslie’s horse. “I brought everything you’ll need to get away clean. There’s a set of man’s clothes, and makeup … a bushy beard you can glue on … and even a pair of gloves to hide your hands. You’ll be a small man, but you’ll convince people you’re a male just fine. There’re women’s clothes too, a blonde wig and veiled hat, so you can switch out to cover your tracks. You always were a good actress.”
“Congratulations on the baby!” Leslie offered with a genuine smile. “And don’t worry; I just needed you to help me get away. I didn’t expect you to adopt me. I’ve always worked best alone.”
“Have they figured out who you really are?” May asked.
A nod. “Another good reason for us to part ways. They already looked for my parents. They’ll find out we were friends, and come calling on you too.”
“Don’t worry about us, Leslie. We have the law back home on our payroll.”
Roy and Ben decided against accompanying the sheriff to the commission, and headed up the steep flight of steps to the doctor’s office.
“The doc’s in the back room with his wife,” Hoss told them from his chair in the waiting room. “She came out a few minutes ago saying that Larry, the deputy, is awake now, but he ain’t feelin’ too good. Doc Oleson is working on the other one. He’s still out cold.”
The door to the examination room opened, with the doctor’s wife exiting, carrying a pan of bloody rags and instruments. She stopped short at seeing the packed room. “Oh!” she cried out, while flipping her apron up over the macabre display. “Mr. Cartwright … Sheriff Coffee, how nice to see you both, even under these circumstances. Your sons told me what happened out there. Were you able to find the escapee?”
Both men shook their heads. “She had help, probably from another woman,” Ben told her. “They left town on horseback. The sheriff will raise a posse, but isn’t hopeful of catching her.”
“Another woman got Richter free?” Hoss said while shaking his head. “Ain’t that something!”
He gave his son an eyeroll and sigh. “How’s the second man doing?” Ben asked Mrs. Oleson.
“The doctor put stitches in that gaping wound and there’s no evidence of his skull being damaged. He has a strong pulse and he’s breathing fine, so it’s a matter of time until he comes to. He’ll have worse headache than Larry.”
With nothing to do but wait, Ben sent his sons to get a table for lunch at a small cafe while he and Roy stopped at the telegraph office.
“So, what do we do next?” Roy asked as they exited Western Union.
“We eat and then go check on those men again. I’d like to know they’re both on the mend before we make further plans.”
“If they’re up to it, we can get their statements written up for Sheriff Clark. I don’t envy him gatherin’ a posse with all that paperwork pilin’ up too.” Roy grinned sheepishly. “A part of me wants to ride out and catch that woman; the other part of me wants to be over and done with her. I’ll stick around to help Clark, but don’t let that stop you from heading home.”
“You’re mighty quiet, Pa, and you ain’t eaten much either.” Hoss observed. “What’re you thinking about?”
Ben scratched the back of his head, pushed his half-finished lunch aside and leaned forward. “Some odd things have been running through my head. You’re going to think I’m crazy, but listen with an open mind.”
Joe’s eyes popped open. “This sounds serious, Pa.”
“For nearly five months, we’ve been stuck in the web created by that woman. We’ve tried to distance ourselves from her, but we keep getting pulled in again.”
Hoss groaned, “Aw, Pa, it’s just coincidence,” before remembering his promise to listen. “Sorry, go on.”
Ben’s gaze drifted to his hands, unable to watch the doubtful expressions taking shape on the faces of his companions. “I don’t think any of what’s happened recently, is a coincidence.”
He heaved a sigh. “Leslie didn’t speak the truth this morning, but she wasn’t outright lying either. She did the same thing in Virginia City by never denying being a party to what happened, just twisting the unsavory facts to Adam. Through everything, she’s maintained that she didn’t ‘bury’ Adam anywhere. What if that part is true? Might she have done something to him that prevented him from coming home, rather than end his life ….” The idea floated as he chanced a look up to find interest replacing the indulgence.
“She claimed Adam had put animal blood around to indicate his death. Why couldn’t she have done that just as easily! I don’t know how she made him cooperate, but he must have for her to get him away from that farm. Maybe she lured him to the buggy, and then smacked him on the head like she did those two men in the alley. She could have driven away and then dumped him. He might have survived.”
Roy held up a hand. “I had them same thoughts at one time, Ben. But if he did, where’s Adam been all this while?”
“That’s what’s kept me from saying anything.” Ben sighed again, and slouched backwards in his chair. “It’s a longshot, but what if she left him somewhere he couldn’t leave?”
“Where do you mean?” Hoss’ doubtful tone matched Roy’s.
“You told us about the wildman at the Sachs’ ranch. He was described as wearing white pajamas. That could have been a uniform worn by people in that asylum.”
“They denied having anyone missin’, Pa,” Hoss reminded him.
“I’m not saying that the wildman was Adam, but it brings to mind that there are places a person might be stashed, like an asylum. I don’t have all the answers, only ideas that don’t add up correctly, no matter how often I calculate them.”
Hoss squinted as he gave his father’s thought serious consideration. “There could be somethin’ to yer theory, Pa. It could even be it was the same person seen at the Sach’s place, moved towards the Ponderosa stealing clothes, then Sport and finally the stuff at our house.” He swallowed hard. “Yet if it was Adam, why wouldn’t he just come home, or at least stay put when he did get there?”
Ben’s head wagged sadly. “Think back to how confused and even ashamed he felt after his time with Kane. We found him … helped him … made sure he felt safe, but he was mentally and physically exhausted and nearly didn’t survive. When his health improved, he went right back to work, but had trouble later when memories of that miserable time, tortured him again.5 It could be that whatever happened to him recently, opened those wounds again.”
Roy pulled his lips together and inhaled a whistling breath. “You want to believe this, Ben, but to keep thinking this way is gonna end up hurtin’ you. You just have to get home and forget Leslie Richter.”
“You might be right, Roy, but bear with me. The person who stole from our house figured out the combination to the safe. He picked Sport, the only cantankerous, one-man horse, from a corral filled with gentler animals. A true thief wouldn’t have taken only a portion of what was in the safe, or leave IOUs.” Ben shook his head. “You’ll think me even more daft, but those notes …. reminded me of something Adam did when he was very young. And I didn’t tell you about the IOU I found in the cookie jar yesterday, promising an explanation.”
Roy sat forward, leaning on the table to address his friend. “Think on this, Ben. Why would Adam, who has a particular dislike for mind games since his tussle with that Kane fella, and after experiencing the absolute horror of what happened with his friend Ross, play those kinds of games with you? Your theory that it was a fired employee causin’ you trouble, makes more sense. They could have stood close enough to your desk when they worked for you to see the combination you used. You ain’t exactly secretive about what you’re doing. They knew you were grieving, and set out to hurt you even more for getting rid of them.”
“What if the notes weren’t a game, but were meant as a message for me. If it was him, I’d wager he came to Carson City, hoping for a chance to surprise Richter and get some straight answers before anyone knew he was alive.”
Ben stood suddenly. “That man sweeping in the courthouse this morning, who got hurt trying to stop Richter’s escape. The sheriff said he’d never seen him before!”
“He wasn’t wearing a red plaid shirt,” Roy added, his voice now catching Ben’s enthusiasm. “But he sure looked like the guy everyone’s been describing! Do you really think it might be Adam up there getting’ his head sewed back together?”
“I don’t know for sure, but if it’s not, maybe he knew Adam, and there’s only one way to find out.”
The four men nearly tripped each other trying to get up the stairs, and into the doctor’s office. Mrs. Oleson eyed them sternly from the desk where she was working. “You nearly scared the life out of me! This is a doctor’s office, not a saloon. Show some decorum.”
“I’m sorry we startled you, but has the second man awakened yet?” Ben asked, after catching his breath.
“Yes, shortly after you left.”
“Did he tell you his name … anything about himself?” Roy asked, just as anxious to know the truth as the Cartwrights.
“Tony.” She closed her eyes in thought. “No last name yet, and before you ask, he wasn’t able to say anything about how this happened before he drifted off again. He was dizzy and nauseated.” She viewed the disappointed faces of the group. “Do you think you know him?”
“We hoped we might.” Ben’s voice was little more than a whisper.
“Larry’s awake.” She offered. “He doesn’t recognize the other man, and only remembers trying to help that woman stand up after she’d tripped, and somehow getting hit with his own gun. She was alone at the time.”
“Might we speak to the deputy?” Roy asked while Ben nodded.
“My husband wants both men to rest more before getting them riled up with questions.” She pursed her lips. “But … instead of waiting around here, you could figure out where Tony is staying, and see if he might have a clean set of clothes. The items he was wearing are soaked with blood and the water I used to clean him up. Maybe you’ll find a little more about him that way.”
The trip down the stairs was taken at a pace indicating their disappointment.
Roy stopped the Cartwrights at the bottom. “I’m sorry this didn’t end the way you wanted, but there’s still the chance this is the person who stole from you, and maybe he has information. We should split up to check the hotels. That’s if he’s stayin’ at one, not camping outside’a town.”
Hoss looked up; the sun making his blue eyes sparkle like a summer lake as an idea took shape. “Don’t know why I didn’t think of this before. I was sittin’ where I could see the other tables in the restaurant this morning. I’m purd’near sure that guy was across the room eatin’ too. He was gone when I looked up later. You wouldn’t stay at a cheap hotel and then go to an expensive one for breakfast.”
“Yes, he’s staying here,” the desk clerk replied after Roy used his badge to inquire. The middle-aged man swung the guest register around, running his finger down the signatures. “Here it is. Checked in a couple days ago as Tony Miller.”
Ben leaned forward for a better look at the signature. It didn’t resemble Adam’s scrawl. “Do you know anything about him?”
The clerk shook his head. “He’s not been chatty, but he’s not unfriendly either. I recall thinking he wasn’t feeling great. He had meals delivered to his room at first. But he looked much better this morning when he came down for breakfast. I haven’t seen him go anywhere, but many guests use the back stairs.” His cheeks puckered and his lips twisted sourly, making it look like remembering was painful. “There was one thing. I hadn’t seen him here before, but he asked for room 204 or 304 when he checked in.” He chuckled. “Those are the same rooms you reserve when you stay here, Mr. Cartwright. You told me once they’re the biggest, and the only two facing the street.” The chuckle returned. “I call them the ‘Cartwright suites.’”
Hoss motioned for the others to wait after the clerk gave them a spare key to room 204. “Did this fella ask you to board his horse?”
“No, and I haven’t seen any horses tied out front overnight either. I assumed he’d arrived by stage.”
Ben’s arms dropped to his sides after sliding out the top dresser drawer. “Well, this is the man who stole from us.”
Little Joe removed the evidence from the drawer; setting out the Colt and holster, a small roll of cash, two white shirts and a pair of pants bearing the Ponderosa laundry mark. “The only thing missing is Sport.”
“Anybody stealing a horse from the Ponderosa is gonna know that others would recognize our brand,” Hoss told the others. “He might’a sold Sport to a drifter: someone who didn’t care about that if the price was right.”
Ben took a better look around the room, and made the discovery that upheld the rest of his theory. Hanging on the back of the door, were a red plaid shirt and tan pants. “We need to talk to this … Tony.”
“Let’s go,” Roy said with authority, stopping his friend from treading down a path of sadness without knowing if it was going the right direction. “We know he’s a thief. We’ll use the threat of prosecution as a lever to get answers.”
“Let me ask the questions when we get up there,” Roy told the others as they climbed the doctor’s stairs. He led the group into the exam room after explaining to Mrs. Oleson that they couldn’t wait any longer to speak to Tony.
While the doctor had allowed the deputy to head home after feeling steady when he woke the second time, Tony was still sound asleep on the treatment table with a sheet tucked up under his chin, and a muslin bandage wrapped around his head.
Roy shook the sheet-encased shoulder. “Wake up, Mr. Miller.” His voice wasn’t unkind, but his authority as a lawman was audible. “I need to talk to you.”
The patient’s eyes opened slowly, and he freed his bare arms from the sheet to rub the blurriness away.
“Wha’s wrong?” he asked sleepily, while exploring the head bandage with his fingertips.
“We found evidence in your hotel room to indicate you’re the one who took a horse from the Cartwrights, and later broke into their home. Do you admit to this?”
His voice was still thick. “Yes. But I promised to return them.”
Roy cast a quick look towards Ben and shrugged. “You’ll have your say in court Mr. Miller. The Cartwrights might even look favorably on your situation once they hear why you did it, but for now, I’m placing you under arrest.” His eyes popped open when the only reaction to this, was a low chuckle.
“I’d think you’d be more interested in the prisoner who got away today.” The newly arrested man said in a dry voice, giving him a frog-like croak. “Did you find her? I got clobbered from behind while facing her, so she must have had help.”
“She did,” Roy confirmed. “Another woman, from the size of the prints. I’m sure the court will consider your case favorably in light of your assistance.”
Ben took a step forward while Roy spoke. He’d seen something when this “horse thief” had raised his bare arms to his head: a small, brown birthmark towards the lower end of his armpit. “They’re forming a posse,” Ben explained. “But Sheriff Clark doesn’t think she’ll be found.”
“I’d nod my agreement, but it makes me dizzy. Why do people always hit so hard? It doesn’t take more’n a good tap if they know what they’re doing. When I’m older, my bald head’s gonna look like it’s got craters and valleys from all the knocks it’s taken.”
Ben looked over at Hoss and Joe, and surreptitiously pointed toward the mark. When he saw the smiles forming, he raised his eyebrows, warning them to keep silent.
Ben addressed Roy. “I know this man is a thief, but the thought of him lounging around in jail awaiting a court date chaps my hide. He intended to pay us back, so how about we let him work off what he owes. We can always use a strong back in the bunk house.”
Hoss grinned toothily. “That horse you took is worth a pretty penny. We can keep you workin’ for nearly a year just to pay that off. By the way, where’d ya leave him?”
“I couldn’t bring him into town, so once I got near, I gave him a swat on the rump. He’s either running around feeling his oats, or he’s back at your house waiting for someone to feed him oats.” His smile turned into a grin to match the ones he saw on the three faces above him. “I think I’d prefer to be arrested, if you don’t mind. I’ve heard how hard everyone works on the Ponderosa. A good rest in a cell sounds more pleasant.”
Roy’s focus moved from Miller to the Cartwrights and back again. He shook his head and blew out a frustrated breath. “So, you’re telling me you’d rather hire him than arrest him?”
“You can charge him as a horse thief if you’ve a mind to,” Ben suggested. “But a jury just might hang him for that and we’d get nothing out of it.”
“Now, Ben … let’s hear what he’s got to say first. He’s obviously had some trouble that forced his hand to thievery.”
Joe pinched his lips, and when he spoke, his voice was decidedly less teasing. “Tony needs to tell us where’s he’s been for 5 months.”
“So, what gave me away?” Adam asked turning his head gingerly to view his family.
“Your birthmark.” Ben answered as he lay his hand on the unruly mop of hair sticking up from the bandage. “I can’t tell you how many times I thought it was dirt and tried to scrub it off when you were little.”
Roy’s glance around the group ended with the man on the table. “How can a man look so different just by adding hair?”
“I’m an expert at growing hair,” Adam replied with a half-grin. “I keep my hair short and beard shaved because if I didn’t, I’d resemble a tree covered with black moss in no time. Don’t feel bad that you didn’t recognize me. I saw my reflection in the glass cabinets behind Pa’s desk the other day, and I drew down on myself.”
Dr. Oleson and his wife were astonished when Adam’s identity was revealed, but they quickly raised the head of the examination couch so he could see better and begin reclaiming his equilibrium. While they rounded up chairs for everyone, they anticipated hearing how a man who was thought dead, had ended up in their office, a little worse for wear, but alive.
Sitting up involved some retching and sips of water to calm Adam’s gag reflex, but eventually he was comfortable enough to talk. The patient grimaced. “Let the inquisition begin!”
Roy took the lead. “Why’d you tell the doctor your name was Tony Miller?”
“It was what they called me at the asylum … that farm over near Reno … where I was the first four months.”
“Pa was right!” Hoss gave his father a look of admiration. “He took all them things that happened lately, and suspected that if you weren’t really dead, you’d been somewhere you couldn’t leave.”
Adam produced another lopsided smile. “I was hoping the notes might spark something, while still giving me time to get here and surprise Jessica … Leslie. I figured she might give me a truthful explanation of what she’d done if she didn’t have time to lie.”
Ben’s smile grew as he nodded. “I suspected that if I was right about the rest of it, then that was your goal.”
Joe’s expression did not bear the welcoming ease of the others. He rose from his chair, walked around it, and leaned against the back while folding his arms across his chest like armor. “I’m not sure yet how you ended up at that asylum, but why stay there all that time? Why didn’t you tell them who you were, and demand your release? And when you did get out, why make your way home on foot, instead of flagging someone down on the road?”
Joe caught a quick breath, while the others stared at him. “And when you did get home, why’d you play games with Pa, hoping he’d figure out that you were alive? Hoss and I watched Pa suffer and grieve for nearly five months while you were gone. Why would you let that go on any longer than it had to? Why be so cruel!”
Adam closed his eyes and bit his upper lip. “I’m sorry you all went through what you did, but there’s a lot you don’t understand yet, Joe. It’s not like I was on a vacation.”
The youngest brother’s tone no longer sounded angry, but the next question seemed to come from a place of continued torment. “You know what I really don’t understand, is how you got into such a predicament in the first place. Richter was a lying conniver, but she’s a wisp of a woman. How did she get you to drive to that farm, and stay there till she did what … drop you off at the asylum? People who stuck up for you at that trial are going to laugh behind your back when they hear this: probably think you were a coward who wouldn’t stand up to a woman.”
Adam expression turned to the granite mask he wore when hiding his feelings. “I understand your confusion, Joe. But take your confusion and multiply by a thousand, and then you’ll know what I’m feeling. And worst of all, there’s a block of memory missing now. I can’t tell if it was always missing or if it happened after getting smacked in the head today.”
His breath came faster. “I’m sorry you’ll face the distasteful decision to hear me out as I remember it all, or to side with those who also weren’t there, and label my actions as cowardice.”
Ben reached forward and patted Adam’s arm, finally finding his voice. “It’s all right, Adam. Just tell us what you do recall, Son.”
“This much I remember clearly; I never wanted to take that woman for a ride …” he began and paused to build up steam like a locomotive trying to move a full row of railcars from the inertia of a dead stop. “But she wheedled at me until I agreed. I assumed she’d checked up on me after she forced the meeting at the stage office—I know she tripped on purpose—and I figured she had etched an eligible bachelor tattoo on my forehead by the time I met her for coffee.”
“I think schemin’ women see that tattoo on all our foreheads,” Hoss said with an honest laug, “Along with dollar signs.”
“I wasn’t alerted to anything being wrong when she asked to stop at the bank, or by her request that I introduce her inside. But she had my gun freed of the holster, shoved into my ribs, and was demanding money while threatening to kill me, as soon as we got to the counter. She was good with that gun, and something in her eyes and the change to her personality once she held it, led me to believe she’d use it if cornered. I didn’t want anyone in the bank to get hurt, and I complied.”
He paused again, seeing the next part play out in his head. “She’d planned everything, down to checking with the agent in town to make sure that farm she’d seen for sale on the stage ride in, was deserted. She insisted I take a circuitous route out there, and when we finally arrived, I can recall trying to get her to think rationally and go back. I even promised to put the incident in the best light possible so she’d avoid going to prison. She refused. That’s where my memories end until much later.”
Ben prodded him along. “What is the next thing you do remember?”
“Waking up in the asylum, where they called me Tony. I tried telling them I didn’t think my name was Tony, but my words were jumbled. They’d adopt their practiced look of tolerance while patting my hand; call me Tony again, and tell me not to worry and everything would be all right. By the time I knew I definitely wasn’t Tony Miller, I had other clues that made me assume no one really cared who I was, and didn’t challenge it.”
“What do you mean by thinkin’ nobody cared?” Hoss asked, his concerned frown holding no condemnation.
Adam had been energized by seeing his family, but he now realized he didn’t have the words to adequately describe what experienced. None of what he was going to say sounded like the man previously known as Adam Cartwright. His struggle to remember and explain was producing deep shame, and he wanted to stop.
“Don’t worry; just keep going, Son. Everything will be all right.” Ben encouraged with another a few pats to Adam’s hand.
Adam’s line of sight fell to the side of the table where his father was placating him in the same manner as the orderlies did at the asylum. He yanked his hand away. The words forming in his mind felt like shards of glass as they made it to his vocal cords, yet he knew there was expectation that he continue. “I had no idea how long I’d been in that place at first or why I was there. And please keep in mind that I hadn’t a clue about what had gone on outside those walls during that same timeframe. When I was released, I didn’t feel comfortable just walking back into the house and saying, ‘Tada! I’m alive.’”
Ben nodded, but his eyes became slits as confusion distorted his face. “Why would think we might not welcome you home?”
His volume lessened in an effort to decrease the rawness his spoken words were producing. It might have been the head injury causing his pain, but stitches in his scalp shouldn’t be causing his chest to ache as he forced himself to speak what he wasn’t ready to say. “It’s just that ….”
He knew they were waiting, and he swallowed hard, tasting a metallic tinge in his saliva. It made him wonder if his words were actually causing his mouth and throat to bleed.
“I have a shadowy memory of swallowing something at that farm after she promised it would ‘help with my pain.’ Why she’d offered it to me is an enigma though. Whatever the reason, it’s what started a long journey through a type of insanity.”
“Go on,” Ben encouraged.
“Once I was awake more and could listen rationally, my orderly finally explained how I’d come to be there. He said my wife, Virginia Miller, had dropped me off in a comatose state, telling the doctor she had to find me a safe place after my personal physician in Sacramento declared I’d become ‘mentally lost.’ She gave them a few bottles of an elixir supposedly prescribed to keep me calm, since I’d get angry when I had trouble remembering. She’d also said I’d tried to take my own life the day before arriving there, when I’d figured out where we were headed. She’d kept me fully dosed after that and recommended they do the same. She paid them for a few months and promised to have more medicine sent from Sacramento.”
Joe’s eyes flashed. “How did she get you to take it in the first place. It’s not like she was strong enough to sit on you and pinch your nose.”
Adam sighed. “I guess I either took it willingly or something happened to prevent me from fighting back.” Another sigh. “The orderly said they fed me when I did wake, and then quickly dosed me, keeping me out cold for a couple of weeks. But the staff eventually asked the staff doctor to lessen the dosage and see how I’d do. They’d grown tired of tending to me as dead weight. When my behavior remained benign, they kept reducing the dose until I only took it at bedtime. I became more lucid and was able to care for myself, even though I was still in a deep fog. There wasn’t any relief in being awake, though. In those hours, I felt constant anxiety that tied my brain and insides in knots.”
“Did they mistreat you, Son?”
“Why’d you keep taking that stuff if it made you feel that way? Why not refuse and demand to leave?” Joe asked before Adam could answer his father. His outburst netted him a stern, questioning look from Ben, but no verbal request for restraint.
“They treated me fine, Pa.” He glanced around the room. “Before I answer Joe’s question, maybe you’d like Roy and the Olesons to leave.”
Ben looked toward the sheriff and the couple. “I’m sure they will honor the confidentiality of this conversation, and they might offer a helpful perspective.”
Adam gave up trying to soften what he’d say next. Since everyone seemed to want the truth, he’d tell it. “I already mentioned that I didn’t have a sense for how much time had passed during what I’d call non-aware wakefulness, and was shocked to find the truth. The day I left for that ride it was still spring. Trees were leafed out and the grass was green. It was cool and there were still mountain runoffs from snow melt. The asylum is a working farm, and once I was abler, they asked if I’d like to work with the horses. When I ventured outdoors, I saw that it was clearly summer. Streambeds were dry and cracked from heat and lack of rain. Field crops were so mature it had to have been late July. This passage of months, not days or weeks, made me wonder why no one had come looking for me.”
“We thought you were dead,” Joe said quietly.
“I know that now, and I’m sorry if my words will offend any of you, but you thought I was dead when I disappeared outside East Gate, and you kept looking. And you thought I was dead after not returning from Nevada City, and you came looking ….” His eyes sought his father’s, looking for understanding. “Pa, you told me that you’d never stop looking for any of us, no matter how low the odds were of finding us. So … while I realized I was Adam Cartwright, I had to assume that you either hadn’t bothered to look, or you had found me there, and seeing nothing to indicate I’d ever be normal again, you allowed me to remain there as Tony Miller, while fabricating a story to explain my absence from the ranch.” He saw a hard look pass across his father’s face, but couldn’t determine the origin. “The reason I kept taking that medicine at night was because it allowed me to sleep without dreaming about a home where I wouldn’t be welcomed, and a family who’d adjusted just fine to my absence.”
“Did you ever ask that orderly if anyone had come looking for you?” Joe’s words were pointed, yet not unkind.
“The anxiety I felt was so pronounced that I couldn’t ask. Having it confirmed as truth seemed far worse than suspecting it.”
The room echoed with its silence, but Dr. Oleson saw a chance to provide the perspective Ben had mentioned. “From the facts you’ve given so far, Adam, I’d predict that medicine was a strong narcotic given in extreme doses. I am surprised you survived at all.” He looked around the room making sure everyone was listening. “The word narcotic means numb, and it corresponds to what Adam is saying about those first months of utter nothingness, and later, of actually seeking the numb feeling that allowed him to sleep. Another side effect noted in medical journals, is a devastating sense of wariness, or as Adam called it, anxiety. You all thought he was dead. Without knowing that, Adam’s wounded mind constructed an erroneous script that seemed absolutely real to him.”
“Thank you. That explains a lot.” Adam took his first deep, painless breath since he’s started talking.
“I have a further thought,” Dr. Oleson interjected. “I have to believe the doctor at the hospital noted something worrisome in your condition early on, making him reduce the amount you were getting sooner than you think. A dose strong enough to keep you comatose, would also have affected your respiratory system. You would have simply stopped breathing if he hadn’t intervened.”
Adam nodded as best he could without setting the room spinning. “I spoke to Leslie today when I caught her in the alley after she’d incapacitated the deputy. You’ve probably figured out that I was in the courthouse, and saw what she was up to in time to get outside and thwart her efforts … until her help arrived. I remember some of that conversation, but not all, leaving me to think the current head bang is the biggest culprit in my memory problems. She admitted she’d wanted me to die, and had expected I’d be dead from that ‘medicine’ before they figured out it was killing me. She did it that way because she couldn’t have moved my body by herself.”
Hoss scrubbed at his face. “I’m glad someone saw somethin’ to make them ease up the dose. I guess I’d like ta hear how you finally did get outta there.”
“Jessica … Leslie didn’t send more medicine or money, and their attempts to reach her had failed. Since I was doing well enough, they decided to release me rather than transferring me to the state asylum in Stockton. They concluded that my ‘wife’ had wanted out of the marriage and had left me there before taking off. Yet they explained that they owed me no more than the care they’d rendered, and I was walked to the gate, handed a bag of sandwiches and a few dollars, and pointed towards Reno to catch a stage home. My original clothes had been ruined so all I had to wear was their uniform.”
He stopped for a deep breath. “I wasn’t feeling well the day I was expelled, so I headed for the woods, found a sheltered area near the Truckee, and hunkered in like a wounded animal. I slept for days between periods of feeling like someone was doing surgery on my insides with no anesthetic. Once that passed, I started walking towards home. And before you ask, I still had no idea what had transpired during those months away. I regained some ability to fend for myself, and managed to set snares and find enough berries to eat. Even found a rock I honed enough to use as a knife.”
A deep breath. “It calmed me to do those very things. When I got to the Ponderosa, I saw a chance to get Sport, but then stuck around, observing from a distance. I saw the party you had that day, and the easy way you were with each other and the crew. Everything seemed so normal. That night you all went to town, and were all smiles the next morning when you returned. It won’t sound fair, but the normalcy confirmed the fears I’d had in the hospital. I’d thought about riding in to tell you I was home, but what I saw made me decide it would be best to leave things as they were.”
Ben’s quiet groan floated towards his son, but Adam soldiered on. “The morning I planned to leave for good, I saw that everyone had left the ranch, and decided I could take a few things to make traveling easier. I’d taken the cash and the gun, but when I went up for some of my clothes, I detoured into Pa’s room, where I found and read his journal.” He finally looked towards his father. “I’m sorry for snooping, but your detailed notes explained everything I didn’t know. Reading all that let me feel sane for the first time in months.”
“No apologies needed. I felt compelled to write it all down, as though memorializing it for someone other than me. Now I know why.” He touched Adam’s hand again, and this time his son didn’t pull away.
“So, after you read the truth, and understood that things probably weren’t as normal as you thought, you decided to leave those notes … clues … as you and Pa describe them, and took off again? Seeing that woman was more important than seeing us?” Joe’s words ended the brief father-son moment of connection. “You should have stayed home then!”
Adam looked away again, not wishing to expose the emotional upheaval these memories were causing. “I didn’t value her more than you. After reading what she’d said at the trial, I had to know why she’d chosen me, lied about me and left me to die like that! I’d already decided it was best to stay dead instead of upsetting things more, so I don’t even know why I went back and left those notes. It made sense then, but you’re right, Joe. It was a mistake.” He chanced a quick look at his father. “I’m sorry, Pa. I’ve ruined everything.”
Undaunted, Joe asked. “How could you think the worst of us, Adam? This whole story sounds like you decided to punish us for something we didn’t do.”
Adam shifted on the exam table and pulled the sheet up to his chin, creating a white cocoon, and turned away without answering.
“You know what I need to know, Big Brother?” Joe said calmly. “Is the only reason we’re having this reunion because Roy literally stumbled onto you?”
He never looked back towards his family. “I’m not sure, but it seems you might have preferred that he hadn’t.”
Hoss took a good look at his family. His father was uncharacteristically quiet. He’d expected him to put Joe in his place after the first accusatory jab, and when he still hadn’t after several thrusts, Hoss wondered if he’d decided it best to let Joe have his say instead of letting it fester. Yet even after the last perry, Ben Cartwright said nothing. He looked stunned and frozen.
Joe’s jaw was set tight, but it was what Hoss saw on Adam’s face that made him shiver most. There was exhaustion in the drooping of his cheeks and eyes, but most worrisome, was that there was nothing else. His brother had left the room or at least his mind had.
He finally stood, and stepped toward his brother. “I don’t rightly know what you’ve been through, Adam. All I know fer sure is that I’m thankful yer alive, and that Pa wrote them words so you’d know what was in our hearts, even if it’s not exactly matchin’ what’s coming outta our mouths just now. Let me be the first to say what we should’a said right away. Welcome home.”
His fear that something bad-bad had happened in this room was confirmed when Adam’s response was a gentle lift of his left cheek when no one else joined in the welcome.
Roy knew he’d witnessed a fracture in the Cartwright family. He’d known them since he’d first come to the area, and they’d been instrumental in getting him elected sheriff some years ago. He wasn’t sure where this reunion had gone wrong, but there was no doubt that it had. He even understood that Joe’s questions weren’t wrong. It was only that his impulsive nature had let him speak without considering the timing or his delivery.
He couldn’t thaw the frost that had settled over the scene, but maybe he could get them talking again.
“I’ll need to know the details of what happened at the bank and afterwards, Adam. Are you able tell us more?”
The white sheet rose and fell as he made eye contact with the sheriff. Adam’s eye snapped shut again when the room began to spin. “I’ll write up a statement later.”
“Mr. Cartwright needs to rest,” Dr. Oleson said as he walked to Adam’s side. “I have a bed in the back room where he can rest more comfortably.” He addressed Ben directly. “Please help me walk him there and we’ll get him settled.
As they helped Adam to stand, Oleson turned to the others. “The rest of you can wait in the outer office.”
“Is he going to be all right?” Hoss asked as soon as the doctor and his father entered the waiting room.
“That depends.” Dr. Oleson looked around at the expectant faces. “I have to wonder if his mental wounds will heal as well as the physical ones. Everything he said rang true for what he’s been through. He was drugged to within an inch of his life, and there’s a word being used now to describe those dark feelings of betrayal and abandonment associated with the continued administration of those drugs. It’s called paranoia. It convinces a person that something is real. I’m sure Adam felt truly alone, and believed that you’d all given up on him. It wasn’t his choice to believe that. It was a demand his wounded brain made of him to explain what he couldn’t.”
Oleson’s eyes focused on Joe. “I understand how you might question how a strong man like your brother could have let this happen, but the tenor of your questions wounded him as certainly as the butt of the gun that split his scalp. Didn’t you notice him turning away, unable to face any of you at times?”
Joe shifted uneasily. “I don’t know why I said those things, except I couldn’t imagine Adam letting a woman get the best of him.”
Hoss snorted. “That’s funny comin’ from you, Joe. Seems you’ve been led into some horrible situations by a pretty face coverin’ a dark soul.”
“All right, I’ll admit that can happen, but how could he believe we’d let him stay in that asylum? I had to stand up for us, and defend Pa against that accusation.”
“You didn’t have to defend me, Joe. You didn’t have to defend any of us,” Ben said quietly. “But I understand. What you did was the same thing I was doing: we couldn’t listen to what he was saying with an open mind, because we feel guilty.”
“Guilty?” Joe squeaked. “What do we have to feel guilty about!”
“It’s easier to blame Adam for not doing enough, than it is to admit we might not have done enough.”
“I kind of remember us feelin’ like that after finding Adam with Kane,” Hoss told the others. “Paul told us we felt guilty for not getting to him sooner, especially after hearin’ that we’d been so close to savin’ him and rode away, never getting’ off our horses to look over the side of that canyon. It poked me deep to think of him layin’ mostly dead at that asylum, needing us to keep lookin’ for him while we were only looking fer a grave.”
Ben nodded. “Roy and I knew from the beginning that Richter was not a novice. The comparison of her size her lawyer did at trial was effective. But today, she overtook a deputy who was also taller and heavier. She hammered him with his own gun within a few feet of the courthouse, silently and efficiently. We have always known she was a skilled manipulator.”
Ben walked to the window and looked out, unable to face his sons. “For months I told myself I’d done as much as I could, all while he needed us … me ….” He turned to face them again. “That’s the only thing that hurts me, Joe. That’s what left me speechless.”
Hoss pursed his lips. “The one thing we can’t forget, is that Paul confirmed he’d died, Pa. What went wrong just now is that we must’a sounded like we only cared about what he hadn’t done to get himself outa a bad situation, and didn’t care about what she might’a done to get him into it.”
Dr. Oleson listened silently, unwilling to break into the important conversation occurring between Ben and his sons. But with Hoss mentioning Dr. Martin’s testimony, he finally spoke. “I’ve already mentioned the severe problems Adam experienced due to the drugs he was given. But I think I can shed light on what Adam isn’t remembering or more properly, what he’s put out of his mind.” He walked over to Ben. “I asked you to assist me, so you’d see Adam’s abdomen when you helped him that with gown. Did you notice the scar running several inches along his left side?”
A nod. “Did he get hurt at that hospital?”
“What’s it from, then?” Ben asked.
“The blood found at the farmhouse was surely Adam’s. The degree of healing in that scar corresponds to the length of time he’s been gone, and further, I know he was shot … up close … because there’s a deep, ragged channel where the bullet passed, with the entry point seeming burned.”
Dr. Oleson used his hand as a stand-in for a weapon, and walked up to Little Joe, poking him in his side as a demonstration. “I’d presume she was holding his gun on him like this, and shot him when he tried to take it away. The bullet cut across a long swath of skin and it would have bled profusely.”
“Why didn’t he tell us that,” Joe said softly.
“You’d think that scar would remind him, but he’s blocking it out,” the doctor explained. “Being shot explains why he took what she offered him to help with the pain. Or, it can account for why he wasn’t able to fight her off when she dosed him. He gave us another clue to this being true. The orderly told him the woman who’d dropped him off said he’d attempted suicide. It was undoubtedly her excuse for his condition. He may have put the wound out of his mind at the asylum or there could be a modified amnesia after being struck in the head earlier. The important part of this is that you demanding a clear, and even heroic explanation, for his absence. He couldn’t give you that. I’ve no doubt that he was reduced to shame for his actions, when he viewed them from your perspective.”
The doctor watched as the faces around him registered the truth of his suppositions. “Adam will recover. But he’ll need a family who can get past blaming themselves for what a soulless woman did, and stop worrying about how to explain his survival to others.” Oleson walked to the outside door and stopped with his hand on the knob. “Trying to remember the things he’s locked away will be difficult. But I will tell him what I’ve just told you once he wakes up, and help him recover as much as he can. I’ll keep him here tonight. Why don’t you plan to stop back and check on him this evening, after I’ve had a chance to talk with him. Perhaps you can start over then.”
The group made their way down the steps in silence.
“I’m going to the jail to see what needs to be done. You’re all welcome to join me, since you’ll be sticking around until morning,” Roy told them once they reached the street.
“That’s a good idea,” Ben answered in an appreciative tone. “That didn’t go the way I’d have thought, but there’s nothing to do until he’s feeling better. He was looking gray when we finally got him into bed, and the best cure is rest.”
Sheriff Clark was already back by time the Cartwrights and Roy made it to the jail, and they’d barely found a seat when Travis came through the back door.
After hearing the Cartwright’s astounding news, Sheriff Clark pulled his emergency bottle of whisky from the desk drawer and passed out shot glasses that he filled to the rim with the brown elixir. “It hardly seems appropriate to offer congratulations, so I’ll just offer a toast to life!” Clark raised his glass in a salute, and then downed the liquid in one toss.
“You’re back pretty fast,” Roy offered as Clark refilled everyone’s glass. “I don’t suppose you found her waiting for you at the side of the road.”
The sheriff laughed loudly. “We followed two horses from the back street to a spot about ten-miles from town. They cut across country then, and we picked them up hit-or-miss, until they joined up with several other horses at the remnants of a camp. From there, eight horses left in separate directions. I decided it made more sense to get back and alert the Marshal Service of what we found. I didn’t want townspeople tracking them any further, and I surely didn’t want my men shooting it out with a couple of women. It’ll take more investigation than tracking to find her now.”
“That makes sense,” Travis said as he lifted his glass to make his own toast, “To Leslie Richter, a deadly snake wrapped up in a pretty package. May she be found hiding under a rock with the other vipers, and imprisoned for the rest of her life.” He drained his glass, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and looked towards Ben. “I am thankful your son survived. She hadn’t killed before, but this is a major step towards doing that. I believe she enjoyed knowing he was suffering. It was a deadly adaptation of the game she played by using the towns’ money to throw herself a party. And … it means she’s going to need a whole new kind of excitement from now on.”
“You seem pretty knowledgeable about criminals,” Roy told Travis. “Is she capable of staying out of trouble for the time it’ll takes the marshals to tire of chasing her?”
Holding his glass out for a refill, Travis raised it again. “A toast to your astute question, Sheriff Coffee.” He downed it, and finally sat back, his shoulders slumping forward to lean his arms on his knees. “Once they find a replacement for Finney, I’m going back to my own work. I’ve interviewed a lot of men who are stone-cold, just like Richter. They are incapable of walking away. I’ve never studied a woman with the same characteristics. We want to think women are delicate and unable to perpetrate such heinousness. But Leslie’s living proof that this isn’t true.”
Ben’s cheek rose. “What do you hope to accomplish with your study?”
“Not a lick,” Travis replied with a chuckle. “Prison is a function of punishment not reform. I’d think some prisoners could be rehabilitated, but there are those who live for the evil they produce. I only hope my reports will make a difference one day. This isn’t that day.” The young man sat back, making a visual sweep of the group. “What I do know for sure is that Leslie Richter will no longer leave her victims unharmed. She unleashed the hounds of hell in her soul when she decided to set Adam’s death in motion for his lack of cooperation.”
Ben had requested that his sons not accompany him back to the Oleson’s after dinner, hoping he might say the things he’d meant to earlier, and hold onto his son until he absolutely understood that his being alive was the single perfect answer to his father’s secret prayers.
He’d approached the stairway leading up to his son with great hope. His descent had been less so, after receiving the news that Adam had fallen asleep again, along with the stinging news that he’d asked not to be disturbed.
Dawn had barely stuck a narrow tentacle of light beneath the shade on the east facing window of their hotel room when Ben slipped from bed to wash up before rousting Hoss and Joe.
“I’ll go see if Adam’s ready to travel,” he said with a cheerier tone than he felt. “While I’m gone, you two can arrange to have our horses readied and rent one for Adam. Plan to meet here for breakfast in about an hour. Adam will need to give his statement to the sheriffs, and then we’ll head home.”
He waited until he’d made it into the hall before releasing the worry that had kept him tossing in his bed until early morning. He’d rehearsed the words he’d say to Adam, hoping it would be enough to wash the slate clean. He raised his eyes and murmured, “Please let him be willing to listen now that’s he’s slept well.”
Dr. Oleson exited his exam room at hearing someone enter the outer office, his eyes widening in surprise at seeing Ben. “If you’ve come to settle Adam’s expenses, there are none. Sheriff Clark told me to bill the city.”
Ben’s cheek rose as his corresponding eyebrow dove. “I’m here for Adam. Did I come too early?”
The doctor’s expression mirrored Ben’s. “He awoke shortly after you stopped last night; asked for paper to write his statement and had me witness it when he finished. Then he said he’d prefer to sleep at the hotel. He looked better and claimed to feel fine, so I walked him there. He stopped at the desk to see if you were staying there as well, and was told that you all had gone to your room some time earlier.”
The pounding in Ben’s ears was deafening, even while reassuring himself he’d find Adam at the hotel. “Thanks for your fine care and good advice.” He stepped forward to shake the doctor’s hand, and then rushed out the door and back down the stairs.
“Good morning, Saul,” Ben greeted the clerk when he arrived back at the hotel. “Has Adam come down yet?”
“Adam? Adam, who?” Saul’s eyes widened.
A chuckle rose in Ben’s chest despite his anxiety. “I’m sorry; you haven’t heard yet. Adam is the man registered as Tony Miller. I don’t have time to explain, but has that man come down yet?”
Saul rifled through a pile of things stacked nearby on the counter, and pulled out a large envelope. “I didn’t see him, but the night clerk said Tony Miller left around 4 AM, and he had him hold this for you.”
“Did you say he went our or checked out at that hour?”
“I sent the maid up to see if she could get an early start turning over the room, and she confirmed it was empty.” Saul squinted and then pointed to the envelope Ben was holding. “Maybe he left you a message in there.”
“Thank you.” Ben’s response was as weak as his knees felt. He found a lobby chair near the window, undid the clasp on the thick envelope and withdrew the contents.
A blank sheet was folded around all but one of the pages. Adam’s scrawl indicated the multi-paged grouping contained his statement for the initial incident and the escape. Scanning through the first sheet, Ben realized it was truly the affidavit promised to Roy, and he read through to the end. It was a concise, but unabridged story that included his reasoning for his actions. His words explained that he’d worried others might have been hurt had he tried to overpower her at the bank. And while she’d continued to hold his gun on him throughout the remainder of their time together, he’d truly thought he could convince her to return with him and set things straight. When he realized she wouldn’t—or couldn’t—do that, he’d finally tried to overpower her for the gun.
Ben’s heart ached when he read the next part—the part Adam hadn’t remembered until Dr. Oleson showed him the scar and pressed him to recall how he’d gotten it. Adam’s written words made him breathe faster as he imagined what played out next.
As soon as he stepped towards her, she’d realized his intent, and pulled the trigger. There’d been no struggle or inadvertent discharge. She’d simply shot him without so much as a change of expression. She’d been unrepentant afterwards, blaming him for “making” her shoot, and she’d left him tied up on the dirty mattress, bleeding all night. The following morning she’d said she’d take him for help, if he could walk to the buggy. After inching his way out there and getting up to the seat, she’d pulled a brown bottle from her picnic basket, pulled his head back and flooded his mouth with the elixir. He’d been comatose by the time she dumped him at the asylum, and he’d remained that way for an undetermined time.
Adam’s story of the asylum contained only the facts of his stay as he remembered them, including his inability to reason at all at first, followed by the constant fogginess and the absence of feeling the passage of time. There was a brief description of how he’d been released and the fact that he’d been ill and unfocused for much of the next couple week. His stop at the Ponderosa was mentioned to reference how he’d found out what had happened in his absence.
The remaining paragraphs told of his intention of seeing Richter in Carson City, and finding himself in a position to stop her escape and what followed. He did describe his brief conversation with Richter, where she’d admitted to an expectation that he would die from the drugs, while hoping he’d suffer first. The affidavit bore two signatures; Adam’s, and Dr. Oleson’s.
Ben retrieved the separate sheet of paper from the table where he’d set it, and saw, Dear Pa. He wanted to crumple it into a ball, hoping that if he didn’t read it, none of it would be true.
Instead, he clutched it tightly and began to read.
Thank you again for documenting what happened while I was away. Your words gave me the first foothold on the deck of the rolling ship I’d been sailing for so many months.
Please know that my decision to approach Leslie Richter before telling you I was alive, stemmed from needing to know “why” she’d done this to me. With that answered, I expected I’d be fine, and would just resume my life.
I’m not fine. And after yesterday’s reunion, I suspect the rest of you aren’t fine either.
Joe’s questions were valid. He’s always been direct, and he doesn’t hold back when he punches. I’m the one who taught him to do that in a fistfight … and in life. I admire that he’s comfortable saying what he thinks.
What proved to me that I’m not all right, was hearing myself give answers that confused me as much as everyone else. I have to sort through this. Dr. Oleson helped me remember the parts of the story that I’d hidden away, and he explained why that might happen. Mulling over what he told me, I realize what’s bothering me is deeper than putting something out of mind. Knowing that she shot me, doesn’t eliminate the shame I feel for not doing as Joe said: refuse the drugs once I woke up at the asylum, tell them who I was, and walk out of that place. The truth is, I couldn’t answer him. I’m not the Adam Cartwright I knew six months ago, and I don’t know why. I’m scared. And I don’t want you three to watch me fall apart if I can’t find that person again.
Please know that I leave for my own reasons. I own and attest to my shortcomings, and the last thing I want any of you to feel is an obligation to defend me for staying alive because I was too weak to stand up for myself, or too weak to allow death to end the matter quietly, with some dignity—just as others assumed had happened. You will face the judgment of others who see no victory in having a son or brother return after being bested by a woman and then hiding away in an asylum. It has led me to believe that my death would have been the better outcome. I can’t recap the bottle on the news that I survived, but the ugly gossip will end faster this way.
I’d ask that you, Hoss and Joe read my affidavit before you turn it in. It is the best explanation I can give right now, and does answer some of the questions Joe asked. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know “why” it happened. That information is held only in Leslie Richter’s mind, and I’m not sure she knows why she did it either. Why did Kane do what he did to me …. I can’t control people who have no soul, yet I have to figure out how to live with the damage they inflict.
Despite your journal entries noting your continued prayers that I had survived; you and my brothers had reached a point of finding normal life again. I saw it clearly at the house. Even the waitress at the hotel where I watched you eat breakfast, was glad to see you three looking so happy again. I grieve ruining that. Leslie did say I ruin everything. I guess she was accurate.
Moving toward practical matters; I assume that without a body, my death certificate is still pending, but my bank accounts are on hold. I’d ask that you please reinstate the accounts so I can support myself. Further, please withdraw fifty-dollars and get it to the Lane’s for the clothing I took.
I promise to come home if I can resolve this without making things worse for anyone else.
I don’t want you to worry, so I promise to write. If there’s an emergency, wire Frankie Wadsworth in San Francisco. I’ve trusted him unreservedly since he was my roommate in college. He’ll be our stable go-between even if I move around.
I’m sorry I said anything about wondering why you hadn’t come looking for me. I didn’t mean to accuse, judge or hurt you. I know now that my emotions had been distorted by the drugs, yet yesterday I was trying to explain what seemed unexplainable.
I ask that this time, you not come looking for me, and I promise to tell you if I need help.
I don’t say that I love you often enough, Pa. But is the absolute truth today and always.
Ben folded the letter and tucked it in his shirt pocket. He understood his oldest son’s need to work through what had happened on his own. It was his way. Adam’s promise to keep in touch made this easier in some ways. He was always good to his word. But this wasn’t enough to relieve the pain that was shredding his heart apart like riding full speed into barbed wire. It was the what-ifs that added to agony in the torn muscle in his chest. What if he’d have put an end to the questioning yesterday. What if he’d just rejoiced in his son being alive, rather than expecting an immediate accounting. What if they’d simply embraced him, and brought him home to heal until he felt comfortable telling what had happened. What if ….
Thoughts of all the times Adam had suffered at the hands of others intent on changing him, punishing him or breaking him, simply because he was who he was, flooded his mind. Adam had faced those, alone at first, and then with his family’s solidarity. The result had been that he’d always found peace. But this time was different. His son had effectively been dead for five months, lost in the darkness of drugs, physical injury and unrelenting fear triggered by his condition. He’d survived, but he hadn’t recovered.
Ben held his breath as he imagined the empty coffin his son had managed to escape after that evil woman had laid him inside and sunk him six-feet down, waiting for the circumstances she’d created to complete the interment. It seemed clear that the empty casket was still available with the name Adam Cartwright etched in the brass plate on the lid.
The stricken father shook his head rapidly, trying to shatter that image and the omen it held. Adam would have to overcome his demons to destroy that box—burn it to ashes in a pyre—after figuring out that he’d been strong enough; had done enough; had been more than enough of a man in handling this latest assault, and most of all, that he would always have enough honor and courage to face what life sent his way.
The unthinkable alternative, keeping Ben from catching a decent breath, was the final, “what if.” What if this last incident had left its wound while opening up the others again, causing pain so deep and lasting, his son couldn’t recover. Would Leslie Richter’s intent still produce the results she’d sought? What if Adam sought that empty casket as the only place to find his peace. If that happened, the lid would lower over his son forever.
“Oh, Adam,” he groaned quietly.
The Garnerville way-station operator, Ralph Sinclair, looked up to see a rider approaching from the northeast, while he readied a team to change out the early morning southbound coach. Located 20 miles due south of Carson City, Garnerville had never grown beyond a small town with a few necessary businesses serving the surrounding farms and ranches. Its greatest value came from providing a change of teams for stages heading into the Sierras or those taking southern routes towards Arizona and beyond. It was also a last place for wagon trains to stock up before heading into California.
It wasn’t unusual for lone riders to come in around the time the stages were due. Locals preferred leaving their horses or wagons with him rather than in the “big city” of Carson. What Ralph noted about this rider, was that his stirrups barely dropped past the wide-bodied horse’s midsection. What made the sight even odder, was that the cowboy himself seemed as wide as he was short, and therefore looked nearly square sitting in the saddle. Ralph wasn’t judging. He was a little square himself from his wife’s good cooking.
“Howdy,” the stranger called to him when he pulled up to the corral. “The southbound come through yet?”
“Nope. Expect it shortly, if they’re running on time. You wanting to catch it?” Ralph asked.
The rider nodded. “Got a letter sayin’ my ma is sick down in Bishop Creek. The stage’ll be faster than horseback.” He looked around. “The guys I work with said I can leave my horse with you until I get back.”
“How about we start with a name and where you work.”
“Name’s Reno Adams. I work on the Double K, some miles east of here.”
“Heard of it,” Ralph confirmed. “How long you expect to be gone?”
“Might be two weeks; might be longer, depending.”
“That’s gonna cost you thirty-cents a day for three weeks, payable in advance. I’ll refund any extra if you get back sooner, and I’ll get someone from the Double K to take it back there if you’re gone longer.” Ralph had Reno lead his horse into the enclosure, and then grab his gear to follow him towards the house where they squared away the livery fee and a ticket.
The stage pulled to a stop outside as the two men exited the station, creating a cloud of dust that settled on every surface and made both of them cough.
“You go ahead and board,” Ralph told his customer between choking. “This ain’t a meal stop for the driver, so he’ll be ready to roll soon.”
With the team changed and the driver checking the harnessing before climbing up, Ralph walked to the window where Reno had settled inside the coach. “Hope you find your ma in good health. You sure you don’t want me to toss your bag in the boot so it’s outta the way?”
“Thanks, but It’s soft enough to use as a pillow, and with no one else in here on this leg, I’m gonna get some shuteye.” Reno stuck his head out the window and gave a quick salute as the stage lurched forward.
Once on the open road, the cowboy removed his gloves and checked his fingernails, giving a disgusted cluck at how dirty they were even with being covered. “That dust makes a mess of everything,” he grumbled while swatting the coating of gray from his hat and shoulders, and lowering the leather shade on the window to keep some of the countryside from blowing in.
A smile replaced the sour look once the coach hit the open road. “I’m as good as ever. That rube didn’t have a clue I wasn’t a short, fat cowhand.”
Leslie opened a few buttons of her shirt to loosen the ties holding her padded belly in place. The beard and short wig would be too difficult to reapply in a moving vehicle, so she carefully scratched at the itchiness these items were causing, before setting the bag with her money-laden dress and the other disguises next to her on the bench, and curled up. The rocking motion of the carriage soothed her, removing the tension of the last two days.
She thought back to confronting Adam Cartwright in that dark alley. While surprised he was still alive after her careful efforts to cut his life short, she’d been excited to see him again. It made her breathe faster to conjure up an image of meeting him again one day—after he’d had time to shave and get a haircut.
And yet, the complete change in his appearance from the addition of his face-encompassing beard, encouraged her, making her realize he could adapt to disguises as well as she could. Now … if she could just convince him to join her, everything would be perfect.
Her eyelashes fluttered to her cheeks as she drifted to sleep; her last conscious thought pondering whether Adam ever thought of her, and perhaps wished he hadn’t declined her offers. She yawned and mumbled, “Maybe next time, Adam Cartwright … maybe next time.”
The End (Until Next Time)
(There will be one last story. Can Adam turn things around…)
*From my story, Sunny, With a Chance of Rain.
1 In the early 1800’s, land was set aside, and the Nevada Insane Asylum opened its doors in 1882. It did use farming as therapy for their patients (called inmates). A note mentioned that the patients “came back” from Stockton when the “new buildings” were completed. There’s no mention of what was originally there, so I’ve created a private institution catering to families with money.
2 The letter was written to Maybelle Shirley, a historic bandit/criminal who later called herself Belle Starr. In the prequel to this story, these two women were friends at the Carthage Female Academy, an actual school May Shirley attended in Missouri. My character, Jessica/Leslie is fictional, and a psychopath who is not affected by the trauma she causes.
3 Congress passed the National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864, creating the United States National Banking System. This finally began a system of federally chartered banks using a national currency backed by U.S. Treasury securities. Until then, free banks existed that were often underfunded and overextended, with insufficient funds to back their deposits. It was why robberies were devastating to the towns.
4Printing of $100 bills didn’t come about until 1862, but it’s close enough to use.
5 From my story, The Healing
Other Stories by this Author
- In Defense of Innocence (By MissJudy)
- A Simple Favor (By Missjudy)
- A Moment Before Leaving (by MissJudy)
- One of a Kind (by MissJudy)
- The Christmas Afghan (by Missjudy)