Mud in Your Eye (by BettyHT)

Summary:  On a trip via muddy roads, Adam gets to know a feisty young woman, and their verbal jousting begins but doesn’t stop there.  However there are numerous twists and turns in this story with the rest of the family getting involved too, some in a good way, and some not so good.
Rating: T  Word Count: 20,439


Mud In Your Eye

Chapter 1

Usually, the chance to take a trip to town would have meant fighting to win the chance. In this case, the three brothers were each hoping someone else drew the short straw. Adam saw the look of glee Joe had when he realized he didn’t have it, and then Hoss heaved a sigh of relief. Adam didn’t even need to look at his pull to know he had the short one.

“I’m sorry, son, but someone has to fetch the accountant. We need to get all these papers in order for the meeting here with the railroad people on Saturday. The telegram said the accountant would arrive in town today and they expected accommodations would be made available here on the ranch. Those contracts are too important for us not to follow their instructions.”

Although Adam knew all that, it didn’t help. It had rained for two days and the roads were muddy and the bridge they usually used was not available. He would have to go the long way around both ways, and he would have to take a wagon. The wider wheels would do better in these road conditions than the narrow carriage wheels. It would be exhausting to do it all in one day, and he would have to hope there were no complications. His father anticipated that and suggested a rider go with him.

“Maybe you could send one of my brothers along.”

That earned Adam some sour looks, but Ben deftly handled the situation mentioning that he had already offered a bonus and one of the hands had accepted the chance to earn some extra money. That got Adam more smirks from his brothers. He ignored them and went to his room to get clothing more suitable to the weather. Although his father had hoped he might look a bit more formal, he could hardly request that under the circumstances. Instead, he said the only thing that was appropriate.

“Thank you. You will have earned some time off by the time this whole project is done.”

Facing such an unpleasant task, even that promise did little to soothe the irritation of this task. Adam did admonish himself not to take it out on the man helping him because it wasn’t his fault, and he might need Mac’s help and wanted it freely offered. As expected, the trip took much longer than normal, and it was difficult. Twice the wagon got bogged down and Adam and Mac had to get behind the wagon and push as the team pulled. It validated Adam’s earlier assertion that the task required he wear heavy warm clothing meant for working outside rather than business attire. By the position of the sun, he knew too that he was going to be late in meeting the stage unless it too was delayed by the conditions. However even if the stage was slowed by the muddy roads, with a six or eight horse team, it wouldn’t have gotten stuck. No matter how he reasoned it out, he was going to be late. He was also going to arrive alone. The strain on the horse being ridden by the hand was too much and he pulled up lame just outside the city.

“Mac, what happened?”

“I thought he might be favoring that leg, but when I checked, there was nothing there.”

“A strain injury then. There’s only one thing to do. It would be too hard to make him go all the way back in that condition. You need to take him to the livery stable and keep him there a couple of days. Do you know how to care for that kind of problem?”

“Yes, I do. What about, you know?”

“You can put meals and a room on the ranch tab. Drinks and anything else is on you.”

“If Moe lets me sleep in the loft at the stable, can I put a few beers on the tab? It could get mighty boring sitting in town, and I didn’t bring any money with me. Didn’t think I’d have any time to spend any.”

“That’s all right, Mac. Get a room, and you can get a few beers too. Tell Cosmo, the beers are on my tab. I don’t want my father to see that tab on the ranch accounts.”

“Thanks, Adam.”

With a wave to Mac, Adam headed to the stage depot pulling up in front but seeing only a woman sitting there waiting. Any others he saw worked there or lived in town. He would have asked her if she had seen a businessman waiting too, but the look she had told him it was safer not to start a conversation. She didn’t appear to notice him anyway. However, he noticed her and spent a bit of time surreptitiously studying her to occupy the time until the accountant he was supposed to pick up chose to show up. Pretty enough, she had a nervous energy about her that he knew would irritate him eventually or perhaps sooner than that. She seemed to enjoy barking out orders at those around her or actually everything she said sounded like an order. Soon she directed her commands at him.

“You there, muddy cowboy, do you want a job?”
“I am already gainfully employed.”

Ignoring the evidence in that statement that indicated he was a man who was educated too, she plunged ahead on her quest surprising him.

“I only need your services for a short time.”

“Ma’am, I don’t hire out for anything that isn’t moral and legal.”

Adam was pleased to see her first a bit flustered and then angry. He didn’t like her attitude and had decided to give her a little trouble for it.

“I was not suggesting anything of the sort, and you are quite crass to insinuate that I was. All I need is transportation as it seems my ride is as unreliable as one would expect out here.”

That got Adam’s attention and gave him a sinking feeling.

“I need to go to the Ponderosa Ranch. Do you know where it is and could you find it?”

“Yes, to both, but I …”

Without giving him a chance to finish, she continued on.

“I will pay you several dollars to give me a ride there in that contraption you drove up here.”

“How many dollars exactly are we talking?”

“You do not need to haggle over the price. I will give you ten dollars and no more. That is an exorbitant amount so do not dare push for more. I only offer that because I need the ride and see no other option.”

“Ma’am, I was not haggling. I can assure you of that. I was merely making an inquiry. Now, you are offering to give me ten dollars, and all you are requesting is that I give you a ride to the Ponderosa Ranch?”

“Yes, that is what I said.”

“Very well. We shall do what you said, Ma’am.”

“Good, and I am not married so please refer to me as Miss from now on.”

“Yes, Miss. Your wish is my command.”

She was getting a sneaking suspicion that this cowboy was better educated or at least smarter than his appearance told her. It didn’t matter though as he was going to get her where she needed to go.

“Do you suppose you could clean some of the mud from yourself before I have to sit next to you?”

“Yes, Miss, I could do that. Would you like me to do that?”

“Yes, I would.”

With an expectant look, he waited, and with a frown, she muttered a furious response.

“Please.”

Not letting her see his grin, he knocked as much mud from his boots as he could. Then he stepped up to the platform to grab her bags and took them to the wagon. She walked with as much dignity as she could muster to the wagon where he offered her a hand up. It was their best wagon, and he had padded the seat before leaving that morning much to the amusement of his brothers. She didn’t seem to appreciate the gesture though moving around as if to find a comfortable way to sit. After a moment, he realized it was her dress with all the extra paraphernalia that was causing the trouble.

“Perhaps you would like to change into more comfortable traveling clothing?”

“These are my traveling clothes. I didn’t realize how crude the accommodations for travel might be though.”

“We can stop at the dress shop. I’m sure the ladies there can assist you in making some adaptations for the crude accommodations.”

Climbing up beside her, he got the team moving before she had a chance to respond. It took about twenty minutes at the dress shop and she did seem more comfortable sitting beside him. Many people waved or yelled out greetings to him as they exited town. She wondered at that, but she guessed there could be many reasons why a cowboy could be so popular out in the hinterlands.

The ride back was as difficult as the ride to town had been except Adam had no one to help him when the wagon was stuck so he was especially careful in those two spots on the way back. However he found another spot to get stuck he had missed the first time. When he climbed back into the wagon, the wet mud on his boots and splattered on his pants made her pull as far to the side as she could go.

“You’re going to get my dress dirty.”

“Can’t be helped unless you have a way for me to clean up out here in the hinterlands.”

“Can’t you at least scrape some of it off?”

“With what?”

“I don’t know. With leaves and sticks and whatever you people use out here.”

More than a little irritated, Adam jumped down from the wagon and scraped his boots against a rock nearby determined not to use a stick or anything near what she had said. Then he climbed back in and turned to her.

“Better, Your Majesty?”

“I was only asking for simple consideration.”

“I don’t believe you asked for anything. You command and without the usual forms of polite speech too.”

Realizing her failure, she did try to correct it, but couldn’t help irritation that this cowboy had caught her in a failure again.

“Thank you for what you did. Please, may we continue?”

“Of course because I want this trip to be over as much as you do or maybe more.”

Going down a steep incline a short time later, she had to grasp for handholds to prevent falling from the wagon. She noticed he had his legs braced against the front of the wagon and had no such difficulties. Her legs were much too short to do that, and decorum said a woman did not sit like that.

“Could you please drive more safely. I almost fell off the wagon.”

“That is about as safe as anyone can drive a wagon down a hill. Any slower and we would have damaged the brake. Now, if you find yourself slipping, just hang onto me. I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’m not going to put my hands on you.”

With a strong tone of sarcasm, he answered her.

“Believe me, I don’t want that either. I said hang onto me as in you should grab my arm. Better yet, slip a hand around my belt and hold on tight so you don’t interfere with me driving the team.”

Although she was determined not to do so, the next hill was even steeper. She slid closer and hooked her fingers in his belt. She had to admit when they got to the bottom, she had felt safe for the whole time. They rode for several more minutes before she realized she still had her hand holding his belt. As she pulled it free, she heard his chuckle. She wanted to hit him, but was happy to hear him say they were nearing their destination. Pulling into the yard of the Ponderosa, she was pleased to see it wasn’t nearly as primitive as she had feared. Her father had told her he had been there once and it was quite nice. As the hours had gone by, she had wondered though.

Her driver climbed down and came around to help her from the wagon even as three men came from the house. She assumed they must be the Cartwrights. Hearing a cough, she turned back to see a hand out. Reaching into her purse, she pulled out a ten-dollar gold coin and dropped it into his hand just as the three men reached them. They seemed perplexed over her action.

“Adam, what is going on?”

“This is the guest you were expecting. She offered to give me ten dollars for my services, and I graciously accepted. She just paid me.”

“This is our guest? But I asked you to give a ride to our guest, why would you get money for it?”

“She made the offer and told me not to haggle. I didn’t ask for any money.”

“Could you at least introduce us?”

“Actually, I can’t. She never introduced herself to me.”

At that point, she was getting upset. It seemed she had been taken for a fool, and she didn’t like that at all. Turning to him, she asked what she knew she should have asked hours earlier.

“Who are you?”

“Ah, you do remember your manners. I’m Adam Cartwright, Miss. And who do I have the honor of presenting to my father, Ben Cartwright?”

Furious at this turn of events, there was nothing she could say without condemning her own behavior. Impatient and discourteous, she had never asked him his name or why he had stopped at the stage depot. It was irritating to the utmost degree to see his smirk and know he knew the quandary she was in. To rail about his behavior, she needed to admit her own. She wasn’t about to do that. Turning her back on Adam, she presented a smile to Ben and offered her hand.

“I’m Meriweather Lewis. You know my father, Franklin Lewis who will be here with the others you are expecting.”

Except for a look to Adam that said they would talk later and that he expected there would be an explanation of that ten-dollar gold piece, Ben ignored him and proceeded with the usual pleasantries. Adam grinned not at all contrite about his actions.

“Very good to meet you. You have already met my eldest son. This is Eric, my middle son, and this is Joseph, my youngest son. Would you please come in the house. We have tea and coffee, and you can have a chance to freshen up after what must have been a trying trip out here.”

Once more, Adam got a glare from Meriweather and Ben gave him a frown. Joe and Hoss each grabbed a bag and offered an arm to the pretty Meriweather, but she took the one held out by Ben. The three walked into the house leaving a chuckling Adam in their wake. That she could probably hear him made it even better. At least he was laughing until he looked at the muddy horses, muddy harness, and muddy wagon that had to be cleaned up before he could take care of his muddy condition. He shrugged. At least he had gotten ten dollars out of it. He knew he should give it back, but he began to plan on how to make that more an act of revenge than anything like making amends especially when neither of his brothers came out to help him with his clean-up.

 

Chapter 2

After spending so much time cleaning up the horses, harness, and wagon, Adam got to the washroom only to be met by his father who admonished him for being late.

“I don’t know what kind of reception you gave our guest today, but being late for dinner is hardly improving the situation. Could you please hurry along and get to the table?”

Before Adam could say anything about the lack of assistance in the tasks he had done, his father continued.

“I’ll send one of your brothers for some proper clothing. Now Hop Sing doesn’t have time to heat water for a bath. You’ll have to wash with cold water.”

“Maybe I should just go jump in a horse trough.”

“There’s no need to be sarcastic.”

“That depends entirely on which point of view you may be considering.”

“You are wasting more time. Please do as I ask.”

“You didn’t ask anything.”

Throwing up his hands in defeat, Ben turned to leave.

“I’ll send clothes for you.”

Rubbing the dirt from his hands and arms, Adam aggravated a spot where he had pulled a splinter he had received while cleaning up the wagon. It began to bleed and he held the towel to the spot to stop it. About that time, Joe arrived with dress clothing for Adam, but he had a sour look too.

“I was having a real nice time out there until you got Pa upset, and then he made me go get these for you. You could hurry a little instead of standing around. Everyone is waiting dinner on you.”

“Oh, thank you so much for being so helpful. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

“You’re a jackass.”

With that, Joe left. Adam took the handkerchief that was with the clothing and used it to tie a pad of cloth over the offending small wound. Then he dressed and hoped he would be acceptably clean for dinner even though he had not had a chance to shave. He guessed his father wouldn’t like that, but it was that or be even later to the table. That was about how it played out too. Ben whispered to him as they moved to the dining table.

“You could look a bit more civilized if you had shaved.”

“I could be here now or it could take even longer. It wasn’t going to make you happy either way.”

Dinner proceeded reasonably well. Adam was tired so he said little except in answering any questions posed to him. Hoss and Joe were clearly enchanted by Meriweather so Adam didn’t have to expend any energy on conversing with her. Although he had enjoyed the challenge, it took quite a lot to maintain that kind of exchange, and he was tired from the day’s exertions. Slightly distracted by his own thoughts, he was brought back to the table talk as he heard his brothers talking about him being old and realized the yawn he had stifled had been noticed.

“Yeah, our older brother here has to get his sleep when he does a full day’s work. Right, Adam?”

Hoss slapped Adam’s arm then in a friendly gesture. Unfortunately, it was right on the spot where the splinter had been. Adam jerked his arm away.

“Jackass, keep your hands to yourself.”

“Adam, apologize for your language and especially you need to offer your sincere regrets to the lady.”

With a fierce look at his father, Adam wanted to say so many things. What he did say was to keep the peace which was what he usually did.

“I am sorry if I offended you, Miss Lewis. It was not what I intended. Now, if I may be excused.”

Not waiting for an answer, Adam stood to leave. Ben didn’t want to provoke a major argument so he said nothing more. The others noted the bloodstain spreading on his right shirtsleeve, but no one said anything about that either. The look Adam was warning enough that saying something was going to be a huge mistake. Hoss waited to say anything until they heard the front door close quietly. The way that happened was the worst sign. When Adam was barely controlling an outburst, he was quiet like that.

“I guess I’ll wait a couple of minutes and then go find him. I’m sorry I set him off like that. I know he was upset by things already and we shouldn’t have pushed him so hard.”

Joe was defensive.

“How did we push him so hard.”

“Joe, we know how tough it had to be to take that wagon on those muddy roads today and then back again. But we left him to clean everything up all by himself and came inside with Miss Meriweather. We thought it was kind of funny at the time, but looking back, it was kind of mean. Looks like he hurt his arm too.”

“Well, when you put it like that, I suppose it was kinda mean. Guess I didn’t talk too nice to him either when I told him to hurry up to dinner.”

Not wanting to admit his failures in front of their guest, Ben offered another solution.

“Perhaps instead of family business, we should discuss ranch business? Miss Lewis is not here to listen to our problems in the family.”

Oh, but Miss Lewis was absorbing every detail she could. Her father had told her how skilled Adam was at negotiating but now she was seeing a way to make him vulnerable. His family was giving her and her father an ace in the hole. Capitalizing on these rifts in the family and the personal irritations each one had were certainly going to be useful. She had learned so much and had only been on the ranch a few hours. Ben was a very proud man who would do whatever he could to advance his ranch and would likely do anything to avoid admitting a mistake. Hoss was sensitive to the needs of the other family members but could be blinded by a pretty face who paid attention to him. He needed to feel that he had value. Joe was impulsive and emotional and probably easily manipulated. He seemed either resentful or jealous of his oldest brother or perhaps a bit of both. That was difficult to tell. Adam was the most complex of all with a sarcastic wit but a sensitive nature he tried to hide. Smart and perceptive, he would be hard to trick but he could be driven to anger and poor decisions by demeaning comments that mirrored his father’s demands.

“It’s been a long day. Maybe I could retire to my room. It would give all of you time to relax and resolve any issues you have before we start talking numbers tomorrow.”

“Yes, of course, I should have been more considerate. Please, Joe, would you show Miss Lewis to her room.”

“It’s all right, Mister Cartwright. I can find my way back. I was up there to freshen up for dinner. I thank you for all you hospitality already, and I look forward to pleasant discussions tomorrow.”

Meriweather knew her request for pleasant discussions would make Ben Cartwright feel guilty and probably make him try too hard the next day to keep her happy. It was move one in the chess match of negotiations, and she already had an advantage. In the guest room, she looked out the window and saw Adam sitting on a bench with his head down and looking forlorn. For a moment, she felt some sympathy for him, but then she fought that back. Her father had taught her to never let emotions interfere with negotiations.

Outside, Hoss walked up and sat beside his older brother. When Adam slid over on the bench to give him more room, Hoss knew it was all right for him to be there.

“I’m sorry for what I said, didn’t do, and for what I did. We was way out-of-line.”

When Adam only nodded and said nothing, Hoss knew he wasn’t the reason Adam had been so upset.

“Pa, again.”

There was that nod again.

“What is it about Pa that sets you off so much?”

“I am tired of being treated as a boy. It’s been too long. If he won’t change, then maybe I have to change things.”

“You thinking of leaving, again?”

“It’s not again. It’s still. It’s on my mind quite a lot. Sometimes I think it’s the only thing that will make Pa understand how strongly I feel about how he treats me, treats us. But then I realize the only way is if I actually leave, and I’m not sure I’m ready to do that.”

“I don’t want you to leave. I spent my whole life with you by my side. I don’t want to think of my life with you gone.”

“I was away at school once.”

“That was different. I knew you was coming back. If you leave now, I don’t know that will be true.”

“Hoss, things change in life. Well, they do everywhere except here. Here, Pa tries to make sure nothing changes. Pa has already put me in an inferior position negotiating with Meriweather tomorrow. He treated me like a hired hand he could order around and criticize in front of her as well as you and Joe. What kind of respect do you think she will show me after that. I worked on her on the ride back here to make her respect me and worry about what I would say next. I doubt she has any concerns about me now. She’s probably thinking she can twirl me around her little finger like a toy. She knows she can manipulate Pa. She already had the three of you enthralled by dinnertime.”

“You think it was all an act? Adam, she’s a real nice lady. I don’t think you got call to say mean things about her.”

“And there it is.”

“What is?”

“Proof of how well she had spun her web and pulled you all into it. Hoss, you knew her for what, a couple of hours, and yet you think you know her that well? Think back on your history with women, on our history with women. What does that tell you we ought to be doing right now.”

“Well, I can’t help it.”

“I know. She’s counting on that especially with Pa. Wait until tomorrow. I would guess he won’t accept my observation on this anymore than you did. I’m not being mean. I’m being realistic and trying to see what she’s doing and how. She’s very good at it too.”

Hoss chuckled. Then he remembered Adam’s arm.

“Say, what happened to your arm?”

“A nasty splinter when I was cleaning up the wagon.”

“Let’s get you inside and get that cleaned up. You know how a little thing like that can fester and become a big thing.”

Hoss looked at Adam who had a broad smirk and realized how what he had said applied to their earlier conversation. He nodded. Yes, he could understand how all those little things their father did could add up to a festering problem especially after years of them.

“I don’t suppose soap and water would clean up that other problem.”

“No, not unless you could dunk his head under every time he wants to spout off with one of those things.”

“Adam, don’t that kinda remind you of when he threatened to wash our mouths out with soap when we used bad words.”

“Yeah, but my list of banned words would be quite a bit different than Pa’s. Damn it all to hell, who gets to decide which shitty words are bad and which aren’t anyway?”

With a big belly laugh, Hoss wrapped an arm around Adam and the two headed to the house. Upstairs in the guest room, Meriweather watched and realized that things were not as simple as she had hoped. If Adam and his father reconciled that easily, her job was going to be far more difficult. She was getting a better idea of what she was facing. Her father had warned her not to underestimate the Cartwrights, and she realized she already had.

The next morning, Meriweather thought she had found another weakness though. Ben had left most of the work with the numbers to her and Adam to discuss. She thought she had found some discrepancies in their expenses for transporting the timber they needed.

“It appears you have duplicated the numbers to make your expenses seem greater than they are to justify asking for a higher price for what we want delivered to our locations as specified. You will need to recalculate from your side, and I have an offer ready for you to consider based on your lower costs. I would have thought a college educated man could do this simple math so I assume one of you did it on purpose to see if I would see your subterfuge.”

She smiled at Ben when she said it to indicate he was the one who had tried to fool her and that Adam had been the one who didn’t see the error in the accounting. Adam saw the trap she had skillfully laid for his father and tried to steer him away from falling into it.

“I doubt my father would be so foolish as to purposefully manipulate numbers just to test your skills.”

“Oh, a wily negotiator is hardly a fool. I don’t think it was kind of you to call your father a fool.”

Adam had not done that and knew she was playing them one against the other. Clearly she had picked up on the animosity the night before and was trying to use it. His father still was charmed by her and didn’t see the traps.

“My son seems to think that I am no longer capable of running this ranch. He would like to make the decisions here. I guess thinking of me as a fool helps in that regard.”

Ben was revealing far too much to Meriweather, and in many ways, too much to Adam too. Realizing the direction of the conversation, Adam had to steer it in another or face disaster on several levels.

“If the numbers are suspect, perhaps it would be best if I redid them and we reconvened later this afternoon?”

“Now finally that is a good idea. Meriweather, would you be interested in a stroll outside so I can show you more of my ranch?”

Meriweather stood and patted Adam on the back as she passed his chair to take Ben’s arm. If Adam could have, he would have swatted her hand and stated his objections to her touching him. Instead, he had a better idea coalescing in his head and hoped what he thought was true in the numbers was there. An hour later, he had everything he needed. A short time later Ben walked in with Meriweather who was talking in excited terms praising the ranch and how wonderful it was. Adam rolled his eyes at the obvious ploys she was using to manipulate his father. She addressed him when they got near the desk.

“Have you been able to finish your arithmetic homework? I hope it wasn’t too difficult to manage the calculations on your own with no help but your father is such a wonderful host. I couldn’t bear to ask him to cut the tour short.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right. So please my lady, I might not be admitted, but from my lady I do return this answer.”

She knew he had been paraphrasing a play most likely Shakespeare but didn’t know which one. It irritated her that he knew something she did not know. What she heard next was devastating.

“I have gone over our numbers, and I have found that they are in fact incorrect.”

Her brief victory smile was not to be enjoyed for long.

“We calculated them on the delivery being made to one location. However you mentioned multiple locations before you took your tour so I had to look at the contracts you have brought with you that were based on our initial negotiations. It seems our rough draft copies do not include the multiple locations listed in the fine print of the formal contract. Therefore, I recalculated the transportation costs which are quite extensive considering where these deliveries have to be made. Here are the new numbers.”

“I had no idea you would do all of that. I was not aware of how changes might have been made between our negotiations and my arrival here with the contracts.”

“Yes, I was not accusing you of cheating or ignorance. I only believe it would take someone with an education to see it.”

She saw the trap and wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of answering that. To admit anything at this point mean a complete concession which would make her father furious. She was supposed to have done her best to conceal those changes in the contracts and instead had pushed him directly to track the changes. She wasn’t sure exactly how that had happened, but she did want to slap that smirk off his face. Looking up, she saw that Ben looked both proud and a little confused but wisely was saying nothing. These two made quite a team. Ben had kept her occupied while Adam had done the dirty work.

“Now, if you will excuse me, I think I should like to freshen up. It’s been quite a busy morning.”

Ben nodded. “Yes, we will have lunch in about an hour if you would like to rest a bit.”

Although she agreed, what she really wanted was one of those books she had heard were in Adam’s room. She made that detour on the way to her guest room. By the time she came down to lunch, she had identified the play.

“Ah, Adam, I have been thinking about you and will believe thou hast a mind that suits with a fair and outward character.”

“Has someone taken me up on my offer of borrowing books from my room?”

“Only one. It was all that I needed.”

“Wanted or needed. Sometimes they’re about the same.”

With no idea what they were discussing, Ben took the conversation in another direction. He had thanked Adam for the work on the delivery costs. Now he wanted to have lunch and bring things back to a more pleasant atmosphere.

“Hop Sing is waiting for us to be seated. He has prepared a special lunch for your first day here on the Ponderosa.”

So lunch was served and was as delicious as promised. Meriweather hardly tasted it after the first bites though. Her mind was on what she would have to tell her father on Friday. Her task in these negotiations although ostensibly to check over all the calculations was really to win over the men with whom they were negotiating not to cheat them but to make them amenable to the best possible contract for her father’s company. She had Ben already. It had been fairly easy. However she thought it was perhaps because of how she and Adam had met, that task was going to be far more complex. She needed to pour all of her efforts into winning over Adam. It would be difficult though when all she wanted was revenge for the barbs he had sent her way and with his brothers trying to be romantic. It had to be done. With only success at this kind of task in the past, she had no idea how she could tell her father she had failed.

So far, she had been made a fool by Adam on her trip to the ranch. Then she had been bested by him on the calculations. To make things worse, he had tested her knowledge and she had failed the test having to get a book to find the play he had quoted. She had seen the chess board and wanted to challenge him to a match hoping to impress him there with her skill, but there was something holding her back. Suspicion that he might be a skilled player and could possibly defeat her gnawed at her because she couldn’t tolerate the thought of that. She thought of a new strategy though and decided to test it at the first opportunity.

 

Chapter 3

It was time to take another look at the numbers in the contract but this time for the actual product being delivered. Before they got to that, Meriweather asked if they could use a table in the room instead of Ben’s desk as the light was better and they would be able to sit more comfortably. As expected, Ben was apologetic for not thinking of her comfort as they worked. When she suggested the table where the chess board sat, he was agreeable. Adam went to get one more chair.

“Do you play much chess, Mister Cartwright?”

“Not as much as I used to play, but yes, I do enjoy the game.”

“How do you find anyone out here for a challenging match?”

“Adam is quite a challenging match.”

“So you let him win now and then so he will continue to play with you?”

That brought a loud chuckle from Adam as he brought the third chair to the table and Ben removed the chess set and board. She could see the merriment in Adam’s eyes and the smoldering resentment in Ben’s.

“Miss Lewis, no one has to let me win.”

“So you don’t mind losing?”

That brought a chuckle from Ben and pursed lips from Adam. Ben decided to get in on the conversation.

“Adam has a unique style blending the traditional gambits with his own creative ones. He is difficult to defeat.”

“But he still loses his matches to you?”

“I do not.” Adam was defensive.

“I’m sorry. You do win one occasionally?”

Not prone to bragging, Adam wasn’t sure how to answer that one, but Joe did. He had come in the house to hear some of the conversation.

“Sure, he wins. He cheats.”

“I do not cheat.”

Laughing, Joe continued on to the kitchen. He knew Adam wouldn’t want to get into an argument with him in front of Meriweather so that accusation would hang there. He was rather enjoying watching Adam and Meriweather joust with each other. Anything to keep that going was worth making his brother a little angry with him.

Knowing that protesting too much would make him look guilty but saying nothing let the accusations stand, Adam wasn’t at all sure how to get out of the dilemma.

“I think I would rather have the test of Sisyphus rather than this conversation.”

Caught once again not knowing to what he referred, Meriweather was unable to continue. Her silence made Adam look at her wondering why she had no barb in response and correctly guessed she did not know who Sisyphus was. His father looked equally at a loss.

“You know, Pa, how it is. The king of Corinth doomed to roll a beastly heavy boulder up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again as he gets it near the top. He cannot win but can only struggle forever.”

“As a sailor, being between Scylla and Charybdis would have seemed more appropriate to me.”

Sneaking a look at Meriweather, Adam was pleased to see she was even more perplexed. To make her feel even less confident, he planned to explain that one too as he had already explained Sisyphus. First he decided to let his father show off his knowledge a bit too.

“Did you ever sail the Strait of Messina?”

“No, I never did, but I certainly faced those kinds of decisions as when we were facing a big storm. We had to decide if we would stay in port and take a chance on having our ship beached and possibly damaged beyond repair or certainly badly damaged or go to sea to outrun it but failing that being lost at sea. Disaster lurked either way.”

“Yes, the choice between the rock shoal and the whirlpool. There is no easy way.”

“It reminds me of what you went through when we took those cattle across the American River when it was flooding. Waiting was a terrible option and as it turned out, going across was a worse option and a tragic one.”

Immediately Ben knew he shouldn’t have brought up that incident from years earlier. A young man had died. It had not been Adam’s fault, but he blamed himself and some of the hands blamed him because he had followed his father’s orders. That had been the ultimate cause of what happened and Ben had accepted responsibility, but the young man’s brother had sworn revenge on Adam. Nothing had happened, but it was a sour memory he should not have reminded Adam about especially during these negotiations. As for Meriweather, she was amazed at the transformation of Adam because he went from animated and almost jovial to what could only be called stone-faced. He said nothing more but pushed the chair at the table and went to the desk to get the papers they needed. For the next few hours, they had a subdued conversation about numbers with Ben and Adam saying only what needed to be said about the math and nothing more. Meriweather made no progress in her goals because she could provoke no reaction from either of them.

The tension was broken finally when Joe and Hoss returned from their tasks and all of them prepared for dinner. Conversation turned light and was dominated by the two younger brothers who seemed to be in competition to tell the most interesting things to their guest. As it turned out, Hoss’ stories about animals were the most intriguing to Meriweather so she asked Hoss more questions and asked him for more stories. By the end of the evening, Hoss was grinning broadly. Joe was disappointed but not too much so. Meriweather was too much of a challenge in a conversation. He liked women who were more interested in fun and less interested in business. As dinner progressed, he saw her looking around the table at all four of them watching them during conversations as if judging and evaluating what was said. By his observations of her, he guessed she was most interested in Adam but her motives were not clear. After dinner, Hoss eagerly proposed that Meriweather might like to take a walk to see the foals he had mentioned at dinner. She glanced at Adam as she accepted as if to see what he would say. There was no response not even a reaction. That disappointed her, but at least she could look forward to a pleasant walk with his brother.

When Hoss and Meriweather got back to the house, Adam and Joe were playing chess and Ben was reading the newspaper. Meriweather watched the chess match for a short time and noted the skill level of each player suspecting that Adam had far more than what he was exhibiting in playing his youngest brother. He set up and passed up several opportunities for checkmate. Finally he carried through on one after Joe’s pieces had been decimated by a number of attacks. Joe was ready to give up at that point anyway so checkmate was the merciful conclusion to the match.

The next morning, negotiations hit a major snag. Adam insisted that the expenses that would be incurred by the Ponderosa would be far too much for the price being offered for delivery especially with the strict stipulations that were being proposed by Meriweather apparently at her father’s suggestion. There were penalties built into almost every phase of the contract she wanted them to accept.

“We would be far better off letting that timber stand.”

“You wouldn’t make any money that way.”

“We won’t make any money your way either unless the weather is perfect and there are absolutely no setbacks with equipment and terrain. It’s better to not make money than to lose money by working and delivering product so you can profit at our expense.”

“You’re doing this to spite me. You don’t want to work with me. That’s what this is about and has been from the moment we met and you realized you would have to negotiate with a woman.”

“It’s not you being a woman that I find difficult to accept.”

With no idea what had happened, Ben decided a break was in order. “I think we need to have lunch and take a few hours away from this. The two of you need to develop a better working relationship if we’re ever going to get this done. I suggest after lunch that you take a carriage ride together so Adam can show you some of the sights of the Ponderosa. No business is to be discussed. It’s time to do a little relaxing and forget about business.”

It was a suggestion not an order so Adam didn’t have his usual complaint to fall back on in order to decline. Besides, he was ready to get out of the house for a time. Ben was so sincere that Meriweather couldn’t bring herself to say no either. She had failed in her ploy to set father and son against each other enough for her to gain an advantage. Instead, she had slipped into the antagonistic mode with Adam.

There were two quite distinctly reluctant agreements to Ben’s plan. He was pleased. Lunch was pleasant. Then the two headed off for a carriage ride, and only Hoss was disappointed. Watching the carriage disappear in the distance, Hoss decided though that it was a good opportunity to talk to Joe about Meriweather.

“Joe, you got a lot of gals who like you, don’t ya?”

With a rather smug look, Joe agreed.

“Well, I really like Miss Meriweather, and I’m telling you, I think you need to stay away from her. She seems to like me too, and I don’t want you trying to use your charms on her.”

“You really like her? Hoss, she’s a real city gal. You sure you want to hook up with a city gal?”

“Well, I don’t know why not. Your ma was a city gal, and she got used to the Ponderosa. She loved it here.”

“I guess it could work. You don’t have to worry about me going after her. She’s a little too much business and such for me. As far as I’m concerned, she’s all yours.”

Except Joe was surprised. Based on what he had seen, Meriweather seemed to be far more interested in Adam than she was in Hoss. Oh, she was quite sweet to Hoss, but she had been very nice to him and to their father as well. It was with Adam though that there seemed to be a spark. He hoped that it wasn’t going to set anything off between Adam and Hoss though.

On the carriage ride, Adam was fairly quiet only talking mostly as needed. Meriweather was a little embarrassed by her outburst earlier but didn’t know how to make things better. As they rode, a little small talk seemed appropriate.

“This is much more comfortable than the wagon.”

“Yes, I would have taken the carriage to pick you up in town if the roads had been less muddy.”

“I know that now. It is a little cool for a ride though. I guess your father thought cooling off might be good for both of us.”

That at least got a smile from Adam. Pulling the carriage to a stop, he reached into the back and pulled a blanket to the front. Opening it a little, he spread it across Meriweather’s legs up to her waist.

“Thank you. That is quite a bit better. But what about you?”

“I didn’t want to be too forward and suggest we share.”

“I guess that’s up to me then.”

Opening the blanket a bit more, Meriweather moved to spread it over Adam’s legs too and in the process accidentally brushed him rather intimately.

“Oh, I’m so sorry.”

There was a slight pause and then a full dimpled grin. “I’m not.”

“You’re terrible.”

“I can be, but I don’t think you regarded that as particularly terrible.”

“Well, now that we got that out of the way, can I sit closer to you. I am chilled.”

“Don’t you own a coat? A shawl is hardly enough out here.”

“San Francisco and other cities where I usually am don’t have weather like this.”

Adam unbuttoned his coat.

“No, you don’t have to give me your coat.”

“I wasn’t going to. Snuggle inside with me and we can both be warm.”

“That’s quite a sneaky way to get a hug from a woman.”

“It’s not sneaky. It’s smart.”

She laughed. He grinned. The ice had thawed. They were ready to be friends, or she was thinking perhaps more than that in time. When they got back to the house, they talked over the same numbers and still failed to reach any agreement, but the conversation was reasonable and there were no nasty exchanges. Ben was rather proud of himself for having astutely handled the situation.

But Hoss wasn’t happy at all about the turn of events. The sarcastic comments between the two meant that she wasn’t interested in his older brother nor he for her was what Hoss had assumed. All those assumptions were about to be tested, and Hoss had a feeling he was the one who wasn’t going to like the way it turned out at the end.

Negotiations proceeded smoothly for the next two days. However no more progress was made. Ben and Adam would not concede anything on the stipulations and penalty clauses even after Meriweather increased the price they would get for timber. She was going to have to wait for her father’s approval to make any changes in the stipulations and penalty clauses though so the talks over the contracts stalled. They had agreement on deliveries and on the amount that could be delivered to each place and by what time so quite a lot had been accomplished. Prices to be paid and whether there would be any penalties and stipulations were going to have to be left to her father to work out with them.

Meriweather wanted to go with Ben when he went to town to pick up her father and his assistant, but he reminded her of the difficulties of travel as well as how uncomfortable it might be with four of them in the carriage with all the luggage they would be bringing. She sighed in agreement.

“I guess that means I have to stay here with Adam.”

“I’m sorry, my dear, but I’m afraid that’s true. I’m sure your father will appreciate your sacrifice.”

With a grin, Ben left, and Meriweather turned to Adam expecting a scowl but saw only his answering smile. Sitting at the table where they had met that week, he nodded in appreciation of her sarcasm and looked down again at the contracts in his hands. She walked over behind him and leaned down to see what he was studying.

“Getting ready to do battle with my father?”

Slightly distracted by her proximity, he hesitated in answering. She liked that she could have that effect on him and leaned on his shoulder to supposedly get a closer look. He turned his head to the side and up which put their faces only inches apart. Speaking softly, he made her heart beat faster.

“I would rather battle you and especially in close quarters.”

Meriweather jerked back a bit overwhelmed by him and didn’t know how to respond. Like in chess, he had moves she did not know how to counter.

Unable to suppress his smirk, he let it shift to a gentle smile. “I don’t know why you are so surprised. You intended to get a response from me. You got one.”

Moving to the opposite side of the table as if she needed something between them for protection, Meriweather sat down and then stared at Adam.

“It is such a pleasure working with you. You are such a gentleman and a scholar.”

“Thank you. I try to be, and it is also a pleasure to work with you. You are such a proper young lady.”

“Thank you. I try to be.”

It was all the façade they could manage and both began to chuckle. Knowing they wouldn’t make any progress on the contracts anyway until Franklin arrived, Adam stacked the papers to the side and slid the chessboard to the center.

“Match?”

“Only if you’re ready to lose again.” Her bravado was commendable perhaps but had not been equaled by her play.

“You haven’t beaten me yet.”

“This time I will. I was giving you fair warning.”

“Your greatest weapons against me are making me overconfident and the potential boredom of the match.”

She knew he was trying to make her angry and get her to respond, but this one at least she managed to ignore. The smirk was there though so she knew he was aware he had gotten under her skin anyway. It was maddening.

Later, the two were so engrossed in the match, they never heard Ben arrive with Franklin and his assistant. The men came inside a bit worried that something might be wrong and then Franklin shrugged but did have a bit of a smile pleased to see his daughter with Adam. Walking to the table, he looked at the board and shrugged again.

“My dear Meri, he has you in two moves.”

Startled, Meriweather stood and rushed to her father.

“I’m so sorry I didn’t realize you were here. I was trying so hard to come up with a solution.”

“I can see that. I can see you took both bishops, a knight, and a rook from him. Bravo, my daughter.”

Meriweather was proud of that, but despite her gains, she had lost more as the match went on. She had no idea why.

“That was good play or would be with many players, but he lured you into a trap with those sacrifices. I do not see a way out.”

“He must know there is a way out or he would have called checkmate already. He always calls it prematurely.”

“And then?”

“And then he wins, but that’s not the point, Papa. It is his arrogance to declare it too soon.”

“And now he has not?” Franklin turned his attention to the board. “Hmm, let me see. I could not tell you, mind you, even if I see it.” Soon, he saw it. “Ah, you must be getting better at this. It is an elaborate trap, but he could certainly use another piece to guarantee it.”

Although she appreciated her father’s reassurance that her reasoning was correct, she could not find the way out of her dilemma. She had to concede.

“All right, what did I miss?”

“I needed my bishop to close the trap. If you had backed up, I would have had to follow.”

“Isn’t that the same as losing? I mean I would have been in retreat.”

“You would have been regrouping and my trap would have failed. I would have had to try a different strategy.”

Although she understood then, she didn’t want to say it. Far too often, that had happened already. She would think she was managing things only to find out she was the one being managed.

“Thank you for the match.”

Next, she greeted Clark who gave her as well as Adam a neutral greeting. Adam showed both men up to guest rooms and returned to the main room.

“Did I do something to your father’s assistant somehow? He seems to have taken a dislike to me already.”

“I suppose it usually takes longer for people to dislike you.”

Hoss had come inside with more luggage and began laughing at that one. Raising his hands in surrender, Adam sat again at the table and began putting the chess set away. They would need the additional space with five at the table now instead of three. Upstairs, Clark was fuming. He and his family had hated Adam Cartwright for years, and now he had come between Clark and the woman he intended to marry. He had seen how she looked at him and how she talked. He knew she was falling in love with him. In his mind, it was time to take revenge regardless of repercussions.

 

Chapter 4

The next day, Joe sought out his father because he was concerned about what might happen between Hoss and Adam. He got his opportunity when Ben was outside getting a little fresh air before dinner. Mostly he wanted to smoke his pipe and didn’t think he should inside with Meriweather present.

“Pa, Hoss had a little talk with me about Meriweather.”

“He had a talk with you about Meriweather? Why?”

“He wanted to warn me off because he’s interested in her and didn’t want me to try romancing her. I told him she wasn’t the type of lady I would likely want to romance so he had nothing to worry about from me.”

“That’s a surprise.”

“About me or about him?”

“About both of you, I guess. Why are you telling me this?”

“Hoss doesn’t want me to try romancing her, but, from what I’ve seen, she’s a lot more interested in Adam than anyone else. I mean, she’s friendly enough to Hoss and to me and to you, but she’s got her eyes on Adam most of the time. I would hate for there to be trouble between Hoss and Adam because of this.”

“Well, this could turn into a can of worms, couldn’t it. Yes, I agree with you, Joe. I have the distinct feeling she is interested in Adam, and if he starts to pay more attention, he may decide he’s interested in her.”

“He’s a little slow sometimes in seeing things like that.”

“I wouldn’t say slow. I would say reluctant. I have no idea why but he doesn’t seem to want women to take an interest in him. He seems to prefer to be the one to initiate the contact.”

“So, you’re saying it has to be his idea.”

“Perhaps not has to be, but he certainly seems to prefer it that way. Women who have pursued him have found him to be, shall we say, elusive.”

“From what I can see, he needs to let her know how he feels before there’s a mess with Hoss.”

“That may be a problem. I don’t think he knows how he feels. Did you say any of this to Hoss?”

“No, I was too surprised at first, and then I wasn’t sure how to say something like that. I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”

“Not knowing could cause more hurt. But I should probably be the one to talk with Hoss. He’s inside. Would you ask him to come out here to see me for a moment, please.”

With Meriweather and her father in a serious discussion of some kind, Joe came back out with Hoss. As Hoss sat down next to Ben, Joe went to work on stacking kindling to keep busy. He knew all the details so there was no reason not to be there. It wasn’t as if there were any secrets to be divulged. After a time, the kindling was stacked so Joe headed to the smithy to put tools away. While he kept busy, Hoss and Ben talked.

“Pa, it’s just that he’s kinda mean to her in what he says. He don’t treat her like a lady ought to be treated.”

“Hoss, that’s just his way. And Meriweather has been doing plenty of that kind of talk too directed at Adam. That first day here if you recall, she had a number of comments about him.”

“As ornery as he can be, she was probably getting even for that ride out here. Pa, it ain’t right. I’d treat her a whole lot better than Adam does.”

“You care for her that much? You have hardly spent any time together at all.”

“I know, but whenever I’m close to her, my heart beats faster. I’d like to spend more time with her. I’d like to do things for her to make her smile.”

“Hoss, you can’t make someone care for you especially if they’re looking at another.”

“You’re talking about Adam again. Why can’t you think about her and me together?”

“Hoss, I want you to try to think about this realistically. Try to imagine a future life together with her. What have the two of you got in common?”

“She likes to take a walk and look at the babies in the barn.”

“And then come back to the house to play chess with Adam, or discuss history with him, or borrow one of his books to read or talk about one of the books they have both read or about places they have both traveled.”

“But I think she’s really starting to like me.”

“Please don’t mistake the affection of friendship for the love a woman may develop for a man.”

“Pa, you could be wrong, you know.”

“I could be, but I doubt that I am in this case. I’ve worked with the two of them every day for a week now. I think my powers of observation are pretty good.”

“Why don’t Adam make a play for her then?”

“I think your brother is reluctant to admit if he has feelings for her. He’s gun-shy.”

“Kinda funny to think of Adam being afraid of a little thing like her.”

“He’s been hurt as much as you have. The two of you have been targeted by some of the more conniving women out here. I hope neither of you has to endure anything like that again.”

“You don’t think Miss Meriweather is conniving, do you?”

“No, I find her refreshingly honest, but she does think she can make men do what she wants. This week she has found someone she cannot manipulate. I think I would have a difficult time with her, but then I think she’s just about right for your brother to handle.”

“Yeah, he does like them feisty, doesn’t he?”

After thinking for a short time, Hoss smiled at his father.

“You know, you’re probably right about all this. She’d like to wear me out after a bit with all that fire in her.”

“There you go. Now you’re seeing what I see.”

“Uh, Pa, there is one problem. I might have said something to Adam about backing off from Miss Meriweather because I was interested in her. You don’t think that can cause any problems, do you?”

“Oh, Hoss. You might have said something?”

“Well, I didn’t say much, but, yeah, I said it just a little bit ago. After what happened with us in the past, I figured I didn’t have to say much.”

Both of them thought about Regan and how Adam had interfered and caused a major issue with his brother or how he had interfered with Helen and upset Hoss that time too. It was likely he would back away from Meriweather rather than risk any alienation of his brother.

“I don’t know now how to say never mind after what I already said to him.”

“Let’s talk after dinner. Maybe something reasonable will suggest itself by then. Tell your brothers to come to the table. Hop Sing will be upset if we aren’t there on time tonight after he spent so much time today preparing a special meal in honor of our guests. He seems to like Meriweather and wanted to make her happy. He won’t like it if we aren’t there promptly.”

Hoss walked out into the yard and told Joe that dinner was soon to be served.

“Pa and me had a good talk. It’s gonna be all right between me and Adam as soon as I figure out a way to tell him I was wrong. Ain’t never easy to say that to our older brother. Where is he, anyway?”

“Haven’t seen him in a while. He might have gone for a walk or a ride to get his thoughts settled.”

“Yeah, maybe he did.” After calling Adam’s name several times, Hoss turned with Joe and joined their father near the house. “I don’t know where he is, Pa. If he went for a walk, nobody saw him go.”

“We’ll let him have time if he needs it. Let’s go have dinner.”

At dinner, Ben made a vague excuse for Adam that he had something else to do. He could see that Meriweather was disappointed, and Franklin was skeptical at best probably wondering what was going on. If anything, Clark seemed pleased that Adam wasn’t there. After dinner, when Adam still wasn’t in the house and it was getting close to dusk, Ben got a little worried and sent Joe to see if Sport was still in the barn. Joe checked the barn and all the horses were there.

“He didn’t go riding and his coat is still there. It was reasonably warm this afternoon, but the temperature is already dropping. It’s going to be freezing out there tonight. I have to wonder where he is.”

Only one person knew where he was. After witnessing all the quips by Meriweather and Adam, and all the smiles they gave to one another, Clark had seen enough. It would have been enough, but they kept looking at one another whenever anyone said anything and especially if one of them was talking. He had to keep smiling and going along with it, but he was furious. Her father too was at fault as far as he could see letting a cowboy out here in the wilderness so openly flirt with his daughter or what he saw as flirting. Although he had planned to come up with some elaborate plan involving perhaps a fatal accident, he wasn’t going to wait any longer. One day had been enough. No one ever paid much attention to him so it was easy to slip away when Adam walked out that afternoon. Clark found Adam leaning on the fence rails behind the barn when Clark caught up with him. Adam must have thought his brother was approaching because he said his name right before Clark hit him in the head with a piece of wood.

“Oh, that ought to keep you away from Meriweather, say, for eternity.”

Looking down at Adam unmoving on the ground, Clark was quite proud of himself. Oh, he was supposed to be so strong and so alert and intelligent. Well, as far as Clark was concerned, he wasn’t. Easier to get rid of him than of any man Clark had ever assaulted. He told him what he thought and gave him a few extra kicks to make sure he wasn’t faking being unconscious and assumed with the injury and the cold, he would be dead in a short time. Then he tossed the thick piece of wood into the grass beside him and backed away circling around the house to sit in the garden for a time observing carefully. His plan was to describe the garden in great detail to support the idea that he had been there the whole time he had been outside.

Now after dinner, Ben asked the obvious question. “Clark, you were in the garden. Did you see Adam back there?”

“No, sir, Mister Cartwright, I did not see him back there at all.”

“We’ll have to start a search. Boys, get some lanterns and alert the hands.”

Confused by the worry about a man who had gone on a walk, Meriweather asked why there was so much concern. Hoss answered her.

“There’s lots that can happen to a man if he’s thinking on other things. He could step in a hole from a rabbit or some other critter and hurt his leg. There are snakes and things. Anyway, no need to worry too much until we find out why he didn’t walk back.”

Except that answer started her worrying in full force where before it had only been a bit of unease. Franklin wrapped an arm around her.

“I’m sure they will find him.”

“Please, Lord, I hope so, and I hope that he’s all right.”

At that point, if Clark could have gone out there and hit Adam again, he would have. Instead he tried to take advantage of the opportunity.

“Miss Lewis, would you like to try a game of chess to take your mind off the search and help the time pass?”

“No, thank you, Clark. I couldn’t concentrate on playing a game right now. I’m too worried.”

Holding his fury inside was difficult, but Clark managed. He decided right there that as soon as they found Adam’s body, he would offer his soothing arms to her and declare his love. It was time that she knew and she could learn that he was the best one for her. He would simply have to wait for them to find that body hidden in the long grass as they searched in the darkness. As it was, it wasn’t long before they heard something, and it was Hoss shouting for help. He had found Adam.

Knowing Adam sometimes walked out in the pasture behind the barn, Hoss had headed in that direction to see if he could find a trace of his older brother. When he called his name, he thought he heard something and called again. Shocked to find him injured so badly, Hoss yelled for the others but the yelling seemed to cause Adam pain.

“I’m sorry.”

“Why did you do it?”

“I didn’t want to leave you alone.”

It was all too confusing to Adam who closed his eyes and drifted off again even as he heard Hoss call his name softly several more times.

Ben and the others arrived then and wondered what had happened.

“I don’t know, Pa, but he’s got a lump on the back of his head and it’s bloody. We need a doctor and we need to get him into the house too. He’s really cold.”

About midnight, Doctor Martin walked down the stairs to give them his prognosis.

“Another hour out in that cold, and you would be planning a funeral right now. Whoever did this meant to kill him. I’m sure of it.”

“Wait. He was hit? It wasn’t a fall?”

“No, he was hit. Any doubt I might have had was gone when I saw that he had been kicked twice probably as he lay helpless on the ground. However, the good news is that I expect Adam to make a full recovery although it will take some time. He must have been moving or turning when he got hit. There’s a severe abrasion where he was hit indicating the blow hit a moving target. Maybe somehow he sensed it coming. I can’t explain it, but whatever the reason, that saved his life. There is no fracture of the skull but he is concussed. By now, you know what to do.”

“No loud noises, no bright lights. Keep it quiet and calm, and make sure he rests. He’s not to do anything out of bed without someone there helping so he doesn’t fall.”

“There, I was certain you would know what to do. Hop Sing is with him and will stay there until you figure out your rotation for having someone sit with him tonight.”

“We’ll do all of that, Paul. Will you tell Sheriff Coffee what you told us? We’re going to have to take a look at what’s gone on here too to try to figure out what happened.”

“Adam may not remember any of it, and don’t push him too hard to try. Remember that he needs to stay calm and relaxed.”

“Paul, it’s very late. Why don’t you stay the night?”

When Ben organized the sleeping arrangements so that Paul had his own room, he then split the duty of sitting with Adam with his sons. Meriweather offered to take a shift. Ben told her she didn’t have to do that especially as she was a guest, but she insisted. Ben agreed to her request, and Clark fumed.

Because of all that had happened, negotiations were suspended for a couple of days. Meriweather volunteered to take over much of the time during the day of helping Adam. While she had found him sensual as well as intimidating when she first met him as well as a bit snarky in some of his comments. When he was hurt, she was reminded of a boy as the innocence and the gentle nature of the man shone through with his face relaxed in sleep. She realized she didn’t just like him but might be falling in love with him. It was such a lucky thing that she had been able to spend that extra week with him before her father arrived. Then she began to wonder about those unusual arrangements and who had made them and why.

 

Chapter 5

Despite the doctor’s warning not to press Adam for information, Ben thought it was important to know who wanted to kill Adam. Someone on his ranch must have done it for Hoss had found no tracks of anyone coming onto the ranch or leaving that area. The only tracks were from the yard and back to the yard. Unfortunately by the time Hoss looked, the tracks of the attacker were mixed in with those of everyone who had gone to help Adam and bring him to the house. The lack of tracks going anywhere else though was damning. Ben told Adam that much and then asked what he remembered.

“I heard Hoss calling my name. After all that had happened, I didn’t want to see anyone right about that time and walked away behind the barn. I went quite a distance until the sun dropped low, and then I leaned on the fence before heading back to the house.”

“Hoss went out to look for you at dinner time. He couldn’t find you. I saw him and he never left the yard. When it started to get dark and you hadn’t returned, your brothers decided to go out to find you and maybe talk. Well, I pushed for a search. That’s when Hoss found you.”

“So it was a little while after I got hit?”

“Son, we had dinner and then it got dark. Hours had gone by. I know your head injury is making this all difficult to understand, but you need to try to see if you can tell us anything else about what happened to you.”

“I remember hearing Hoss, or I guess someone I thought was Hoss, walking up toward me. I was going to turn around, and then I woke up and Hoss was there. Next thing I remember I woke up here in my bed. Wait.” Squeezing his eyes shut, Adam did his best to concentrate which he found very difficult at that moment. “I heard some tell me I should have stayed away from Miss Lewis and I didn’t deserve happiness with her. He said I got what was coming to me after all these years too and I was finally going away forever. The next thing I knew, Hoss was shaking my shoulder and I looked up at him.” Looking at his father, Adam could only wonder what all of that meant. “It doesn’t make much sense. Maybe that part was a dream. I haven’t been chasing after her. I don’t even know how I feel about her.”

“We’ll talk more later. You look tired now. Why don’t you try to get some rest.”

“I will, but Pa, what about Hoss and Meriweather?”

“What about them?”

“Hoss said to stay away from her, but that is going to be difficult. Or perhaps it won’t be that difficult considering I’m stuck here in bed for a bit.”

“I had a long talk with Hoss. He’s sorry for what he said to you and wishes he could take that back. By now, he understands that you and Meriweather might be suited to each other than he is with her. He mistook her friendship for something more.”

“Wait, you’re assuming I want to be with her?”

“Perhaps, but she isn’t a good match for Hoss.”

“Pa, aren’t you assuming a lot?”

“Son, I’m not assuming anything. I’ve only been observant. She’s in here as much as possible. It might be more difficult than you think to stay away from her because she sits with you, talks with you, and cares for you whenever she has the chance. What more do you need to know?”

“It seems I should be more observant or at least more confident. But I still don’t know how I feel about her.”

“Optimism might be in order too. Whatever you may be feeling for her is reflected in her in equal or greater amounts. Now get some rest. I’ll send someone to wake you when your dinner is ready.”

Closing his eyes then, the next sensation Adam had was a small warm hand caressing his face. Then even better, that hand moved to his chest and caressed him there moving in circles gently for a time before stopping and resting over his beating heart.

“My goodness, it does take a lot to wake you.” Meriweather saw the small smile then. “You are awake. Why didn’t you open your eyes?”

“I was enjoying the caresses. I wondered what you might touch next.”

Standing abruptly, Meriweather looked about as fierce as she could. “You are terrible. I brought your dinner, but I ought to dump it on your head.”

“You’re even more beautiful when you’re angry. It brings out your color more.”

Staring at him in surprise, Meriweather had no idea what to say at first. He grinned then, and it was so disarming, that she sat back down. Adam patted the bed next to him.

“I’m not sitting next to you. You are lecherous.

“I am sorry for making you angry. I only meant to try to make you smile. Everyone who comes in here looks so deadly serious. Makes me worried about my future.”

“You talk to me like that again, and I’ll give you reasons to worry about your future.”

The words were tough, but the look was not. She moved from the chair to sit on the bed beside him.

“Now why did you want me to sit here?”

“One, everything is fuzzy because there are two of everything. Up close, I can see you better. And I wanted to try this.”

Adam reached up to touch her cheek and then caressed it with his thumb. She leaned forward, and that was about all the encouragement he needed. He tugged her closer and kissed her softly. With her close, he spoke just as softly.

“I hope you didn’t mind, but I wanted to do that. I didn’t know if you would permit me the pleasure.”

“I admit I wanted you to do that too. But I have to tell you I had men in San Francisco who tried to kiss me harder than that at dances and socials.”

With a wicked gleam in his eye, Adam had an answer for her.

“I could do more. You’re already in my bed, more or less.”

She got up and moved back to the chair. “You don’t know your limits, do you?”

“It was worth a try.”

“Rest, while I bring your food over here. Then I’ll help you sit up to eat.”

The minor exertions had tired him. He leaned back and closed his eyes.

“I may need help to stay sitting up.”

“Is that a ploy to get a hug or try for another kiss?”

That earned her another grin even as he lay with his eyes still closed. She didn’t mind though. She rather liked this playful version of Adam. Hoss came in about the time Adam was finishing his light meal. Seeing them sitting side-by-side on the bed with her arm around his waist, Hoss didn’t want to intrude.

“Maybe I should come back later.”

“No, Hoss, this is a perfect time for you to arrive. I helped him sit up and stay that way to eat, but that is all this is. He needs something you can help him do and then get him back in bed?”

Quickly picking up on what she meant, Hoss agreed. While Meriweather got the dishes back on the tray, Hoss made sure Adam didn’t fall and then helped him do what was necessary before helping him back into bed. Propping up pillows behind him, he made sure Adam was comfortable. When Adam closed his eyes, Hoss was going to leave.

“No, don’t go. I only need a moment to recover from the exertions. I would like to talk with you.”

“I’d like to talk with you too, but I don’t want to tire you out. Doc says you need to rest a lot.”

“I am rested, but I’ll rest even better if we get things right between us again. I’m sorry I thought it was you who hit me. I have to blame my addled brain for that.”

“Pa told me what you remembered. I kin see why you thought what you did after what I said to you. I’m real sorry for what I said, and I’d take it back if I could. There was one thing I thought was real odd though about what you told Pa. Whoever it was called her Miss Lewis?”

Frowning, Adam thought about that. “Yes, he did. I didn’t realize it, but you’re right. That is odd. Everyone here has been calling her Meriweather as she asked us to do. Even Hop Sing calls her Miss Meriweather.”

“Yeah, that’s what I hear the hands call her when there’s a situation where they see her. None of them probably even know her last name. We introduced her as Meriweather.”

“That narrows down the field, doesn’t it?”

“He’s a big man too, nearly as big as I am. Likely would sound a lot like me walking up behind you if footsteps was all you had to go by.”

“That’s good work, detective Hoss.”

“Maybe I ought to talk to Meriweather to see what she thinks about who attacked you. If she mentions him, that would about put the lid on the coffin.”

“Maybe Pa could talk with Franklin to see what he says. That could really nail it down.”

Hoss nodded, and looked up from with hooded eyes and a hint of a smile. “What I saw when I got here. Does that mean the two of you are finding out you like each other a more than you thought at first?”

Adam gave the only answer he could truthfully give.

“I don’t know. I like to tease her, talk with her, and be with her. I don’t know if I want a future with her. Hoss, she’s a lot younger, and I don’t know that our future plans will be compatible.”

“You’re still thinking on leaving, ain’t you?”

“Yes. I think it’s probably my best course.”

“You talked to Pa about it yet?”

“Not directly.”

“Yeah, that’s going to be a tough one. Any talk with Pa can be a tough one. He talked to me about you and Meriweather.”

“He what?”

“Well, after I warned you off and warned off Joe, Joe talked to Pa about it. So Pa talked to me and explained to me how Meriweather was a better match to you. The way he explained it all, it made a lot of sense to me. So, I gotta say I’m sorry about what I said to you about that. If I could take it back, I would. Me and Meriweather are just friends. That’s all it will ever be.”

“According to Pa?”

“Well, yeah, and I thought according to you too, but now I’m not so sure.”

“I’m getting less sure by the minute. Pa talked to me about her too. I’m getting the feeling I’m being set up to be with her. I wonder if she knows.”

“You think her father has something to do with it?”

“All along I thought it was odd that we were holding the negotiations here and that she was coming here a week early. It’s beginning to look more like a plot now.”

“You don’t think she’s that conniving, do you?”

“No, but I know at least one conniving old pirate who would do something like this, and I think he has a willing partner.”

“Pa and Franklin?”

“Who else? Throwing the two of us together and then making sure you and Joe stay away. Now what other reason could there be for that?”

“When you put it like that, it does seem kinda suspicious.”

“It’s a hell of a lot more than suspicious. I wonder if Franklin was worried about Clark and wanted to get her away from him too.”

“Well, that would be a better idea for what he did rather than just matchmaking. Now, getting back to Clark hitting you. Why do you think he did that? If you’re right about the rest of this, it could be jealousy?”

“I guess you need to bring this up with Pa and with Franklin and Meriweather. Maybe they could understand all of this better than we can. But to be safe, don’t let him come upstairs unless there’s someone with me. I don’t think I could fight off anyone about now.”

“I’m thinking there might be one you don’t even want to fight off.”

If Adam had been capable, he would have thrown something at Hoss. However he wasn’t, and Hoss left the room with a grin only to step back in a moment later. Pointing down the hall, he gave a look that indicated something unpleasant. Adam guessed Clark was upstairs. Hoss left the door partly open and stayed in the room. A short time later, Clark stopped outside the door and looked in. He saw Hoss and then continued on his way. He said nothing and his look had been as neutral as he could make it but the feeling had been hostility. Both Adam and Hoss felt it. Hoss headed downstairs to get a quiet word with their father, but he sent Joe upstairs before he did anything else telling him Adam would explain. Then Hoss went looking for his father. Conveniently, he found him talking with Franklin. Both thought Meriweather was taking a walk behind the house and probably chatting with Hop Sing.

“Why? Is there something wrong?”

“Me and Adam were talking. Pa, what Adam told you and you told me had one odd thing in it. Whoever hit him called Meriweather ‘Miss Lewis’ and nobody here on the ranch does that.”

Franklin had an answer to that. “Clark calls her that. He always has.”

It was only a moment before both men drew the same conclusion that Adam and Hoss had drawn, but Franklin didn’t want to believe it. Hoss said he needed to go find Meriweather and get her in the conversation. He left his father and Franklin talking to go find the young lady.

 

Chapter 6

After Ben suggested that he and Franklin should be careful not to be overheard by Clark, they walked further away from the buildings but still in sight for when Hoss returned with Meriweather. That didn’t take long and the four began to talk.

“Clark’s family is from Nevada, and he has told me some of the tales of how wild things could be here, but I never imagined anything like this.”

“What is Clark’s full name, Franklin? I have only ever heard you refer to him as Clark.”

“His name is something he has forbidden me to use because he never liked his family surname. He said so many people make fun of it and he found it embarrassing on its own regardless of what people said.”

Ben had a premonition then.

“It wouldn’t be Cripple, would it?”

Anyone seeing Franklin’s face wouldn’t need to hear an answer. His surprise was enough to answer the question.

“How did you know?”

“Years ago, I gave Adam an order on a cattle drive that was poorly conceived, and I insisted he follow it. I pitted one son against another in the process so that he had no real choice. Because of what I did, a tragedy resulted and a young man died. His family blamed Adam. I told them when I could that I had been the one at fault, but he carried out the order, so they held him to blame. Adam has carried that burden of guilt too. The family said that someday, there would be justice and Adam would pay the price for what he had done. The young man had brothers but except for one, they were much too young to do anything.”

“And the other one, the one who was a bit older?”

“Challenged Adam to a gunfight in the streets of town. Adam tried to get him to back down, but the boy knew enough that if he waited, Sheriff Coffee would stop the fight. He drew while Adam was talking to him. Adam had to draw too to defend himself. He killed that boy. The boy was only sixteen. The family vowed revenge but moved away. I’m afraid at least one is back now.”

“And I brought him to you. I am so sorry. I wanted Meriweather to meet Adam because Clark was showing interest in her, and I did feel there was something a bit off about him. I wanted her to see what other men could be. I set this awful chain of events in motion.”

“No, I agreed with your plan and thought it was a good idea. I’m afraid too that I was the start of this awful chain of events with what I did that with that cattle drive all those years ago. The trouble started with an unreasonable order and I wouldn’t listen to his objections.”

“What happened?”

“We had a cattle drive and all my boys worked it. For the first time, Little Joe came along. It led to a bad situation when the cattle drive had to cross a flooded river. Adam was in charge, and he instructed the men to stay in line and stay tight to the cattle when they crossed. He had a good plan, but I didn’t see it. I was blinded by other concerns.”

Flashback:

“We have to keep them headed directly to the other side. Don’t let any of them turn and keep them moving. If any turn or slow down, we’ll have others jumping on them. If that happens, we could lose a lot of them. To keep enough men pushing cows across, I’m picking ten who will double back every time they cross, and do it again. I’ll have another set of ten who will do the same. The others will string the herd out on the other side with some holding the rest on this side until they’re needed on the other side as we get more cattle across.

When Adam finished explaining that, he designated the two teams, and then assigned those who would take charge of the herd on the other side and that included Hoss. He saw Hoss’ look and explained.

“I’m going to be at the river. We need a family member with the herd. Pa’s not up to this kind of thing.”

“I understand. Thanks for trusting me to take charge of the herd.”

“What about me?” Little Joe didn’t have an assignment.”

“I want you to help Hop Sing get the wagons across.”

“No, I’m riding with the drovers.”

“You don’t have enough experience to do this. You need to follow orders.”

“I’m going to talk to Pa about how you’re acting. He won’t let you get away with this.”

Ben sympathized with Little Joe and insisted Adam include him in the crossing. Adam said there wasn’t time to train him so Ben said to find a way to watch out for him. Adam said that wasn’t possible. Ben said he better make it possible. Adam talked to his best drovers and asked if he could count on them to help with Little Joe. They were shocked. He explained briefly why he had to include little Joe. They didn’t want him.

“Adam you’re asking for trouble.”

“This could be a disaster. One mistake could start a stampede and a mess. He’s going to make one mistake. You know he will.”

‘I don’t see a way out of it. Maybe he could join in the last group.”

“Then none of us want to be in the last group. I don’t want to die because you can’t stand up your father.”

Bristling but unable to deny that, Adam offered a bonus to anyone who would ride in the last group. Three accepted what amounted to a bribe. With Adam, Little Joe, and their father, that was the minimum they could use. Adam thanked the three of them and went to tell Little Joe who exploded in anger again. When Adam finished telling him he would stay with the herd until the last group would cross, Little Joe stormed off to talk to their father again. It didn’t take long for Ben show up.

“Why can’t you learn to work with Little Joe? He’s your brother. I wish you wo9uld remember that,.”

“How about asking him why he can’t learn how to work with me? Or how to work with anyone else?”

“He’s a hard worker.”

“In your opinion.”

“I’m telling you to put him in the rotation.”

“I’m telling you I made the assignments based on skill and they stand. He shouldn’t even be part of it. I had to pay bonuses to get anyone to work with him even in the last group.”

“You authorized bonuses without asking me?”

“That’s the part you think is important?”

“I’m boss of this drive.”

“Yes, and you made me ramrod. I have to get the job done. I’m doing it by the only means possible.”

“It’s too late to change those bonuses now, but don’t you do anything like that again without consulting me.”

“We’re supposed to talk over major decisions, but you seem to have forgotten that part.”

“We’ll talk about this later.”

Ben’s tone and the volume of his response left no doubt that the conversation was over. It was time to do the risky river crossing. If all went well, in less than two hours, they would be on their way on the other side. The alternative was not something they wanted to consider.

Adam knew Little Joe would be furious that he wasn’t in the rotation and got the angry looks he expected when he told the men to go to their assignments informing Little Joe nothing had changed. Hoss went with his men in the first group to cross so they could handle the herd on the other side getting them moving to the trail. Adam watched anxiously until he saw that first group ride up the bank on the other side. Then he signaled the second group to go.

Ben worked with the men holding the herd back so only one portion of the cows were driven into the river at a time. Adam had designated a dozen cuts of the herd with about ten minutes for each group to get across the river. As the first set of drovers finished with their group, the next set started the next group. As there were extra men, they helped the groups across and then went to help Hoss with the growing herd on the other side. If all went well, finally it would be Joe and Ben with the last group which was the smallest and included the weakest and smallest cows in the herd.

As more groups headed to the river for the dangerous crossing, it got harder to hold the herd because they wanted to follow the leaders. Little Joe had trouble with some cows who were trying to break to the river, and he decided it made more sense to let them go. He wanted to anyway, and followed them making for the river. The cows and Joe plunged into the river well after the group that was already halfway across. With only the inexperienced young man, the cows began to rush. A couple fell and couldn’t regain their footing banging into the others. Drovers up ahead saw what happened and tried to come back to help driving the cows to the other side. Driving the groups across the river was easy compared to trying to lead panicked animals. One thrashing animal managed to get to her feet and charged a young cowboy banging into his horse knocking both of them over into the river. The cowboy could be seen bobbing in the water among the panicked cows and the horse. They knew he was gone. Adam rode in and yelled to the drovers to ride to the riverbank and let the cows go. Little Joe was going to argue so Adam grabbed the reins of his horse and led him out. Once on the dry bank, he sent men downriver to find the missing drover. They brought his battered body back a few hours later.

Ben was furious at the loss of the cows and the horse and that a man had died. He accused Adam of making a disaster of the river crossing. Hoss asked Adam if it was necessary to embarrass Little Joe that way. The other drovers blamed Adam because a man died. Eventually they all apologized, but that was a little comfort after so much pain.

Upon returning to Nevada, Adam went to the drover’s family to inform them that the had died in a river crossing. They said they already heard about what had happened and they would get even although it might take a while. It was less than a week later that the young man’s 16-year-old brother called Adam out as he walked across a street in town.

“You don’t want to do this. Your family has enough pain already.”

“You so sure you’re going to win. I’m pretty fast. I’ll get you.”

“I’ve done this before. You need to think about what you’re doing”

Adam never got to say anything more as the young man drew. Adam drew in response as the young man fired. He fired back. The young man missed. Adam’s shot did not. Sheriff Coffee got there about the same time as the boy’s father made it to town. He saw the crowd and guessed what had happened.

“Sheriff, are you going to arrest him for murdering my son? My boy was only sixteen.”

“He might have been only sixteen, but witnesses say he fired first.”

“He didn’t have to kill him.”

“Even a boy of sixteen can kill. No man has to let someone kill him because he’s young.”

“People will lie for him. Just like men on that cattle drive lied. He’s got it in for my family. I don’t know why. Maybe the Ponderosa wants my land. He’s killed two of my boys now.”

Within a few weeks, the Cripple family had moved away.

Back on the Ponderosa:

Ben continued the narration. “Nothing more had been heard from that family until now. Clark must be one of the younger sons in the family that vowed to seek vengeance against Adam. After all these years, I thought it would never happen. Apparently he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get revenge when this possibility presented itself.”

Now they wondered where he was. Hoss went to look and came back to tell them that Clark’s room was cleaned out. He was gone. They guessed if they checked, they would likely find that a horse and saddle were missing too. Franklin turned to Ben and his pain was visible in his features with his eyes squeezed nearly shut with a frown that pushed his eyebrows down.

“This would never have happened if I had not brought Clark here. Ben, what have we set in motion here?”

Hoss knew what he meant after having the discussion with Adam, but Meriweather was surprised at his comment.

“What do you mean by that? What have you set in motion here?”

“We only meant well. We thought it would be the best for the two of you.” Franklin was sincere and moved toward his daughter who frowned at him.

“Oh, no. You didn’t. I can’t believe this.”

Ben tried to help and still wanted to try to salvage something from the situation. “Adam didn’t know. We only thought to let things happen naturally, if they would, once the two of you were together.”

“How could you humiliate me like this?” That was aimed at her father. “This was never about negotiations then? You wanted to throw me at Adam and hope he would find me attractive. Oh, I wondered at the unusual arrangements and why things were set up this way, but I never suspected anything so underhanded and insulting to me and to Adam. It was so dishonest too. You knew about Clark but didn’t tell me. You didn’t tell Adam either when he asked about why Clark might dislike him. No, you wanted a son-in-law who would be useful and one that you decided would be a good asset for you. Never mind what I wanted. And in the process you almost got Adam killed.”

Then she turned to Ben. “You’re so much worse. I tried to manipulate you and Adam for business purposes. It’s done in the business world all the time. But you have done it to him in a personal way. The story you told shows how far back that goes. You tried to match him up with me to get him married, maybe with children, to tie him here, didn’t you, because that’s what you want? It seems what he wants never matters. I’ve seen more of that while I’ve been here, and it’s only been a couple of weeks now. I don’t know how anyone could blame him for wanting to leave. Frankly, I’m surprised he’s still here. As far as anything developing between us, I don’t think I could bear to face him again.”

As she walked back toward the house with her shoulders slumped, Hoss looked at the two fathers who were shocked by what she had said. He nodded and turned to follow her to the house because he guessed she needed a friend about now.

 

Chapter 7

Inside the house, Meriweather was crying. Hoss went to her and enveloped her in a gentle hug until she looked up at him.

“I want to go to town. I don’t want to stay here anymore.”

“It’s kinda late to go anywhere today, and I think we probably need to find out where this Clark fella is before you go to town. We need to keep you safe.”

“But what about Adam? Won’t he be upset?”

“I think you ought to go talk with Adam. You may be surprised at how well he understands these things.”

Stepping back from Hoss, Meriweather was getting upset again. “You knew, didn’t you? You knew what they were trying to do, and you didn’t tell me.”

“Adam suspected something like it. He told me what he was thinking. We didn’t say nothing to you because we couldn’t be sure, and besides, anybody who knows anything knows you don’t ever try to get between a father and his child, and not between any members of a family.”

Pausing only briefly, she smiled with affection at Hoss. “You’re right. If you had voiced suspicion of my father, I would have been angry at you, and he’s the one who deserves my anger.”

“Listen, if you still feel the same way tomorrow about going to town, maybe Adam could drive you in. The roads are better, and he’s itching to get out of the house. I got some errands to do in town too so I could meet him there and ride home with him. He may think he can handle something like that, but I know he can’t.”

“Sometimes I think you’re the smartest one here.”

“Nah, that’s Adam, but he says I got more common sense than anybody he knows including himself.”

“I have another name for what you have. You have wisdom. You are a wise man, Hoss Cartwright.”

“Then take it from me, you should go talk to Adam before you go and not just on that ride to town in the carriage. He ain’t going to hold none of this against you. He understands pretty darn well what happened here.”

“I don’t think our fathers know what they have done.”

“You talking about Adam or about you?”

“Both of us. Things will never be the same after all this, will they?”

“No, I don’t think Pa understood what was going to happen because of what he did.”

“You think your brother will leave now?”

“I thought he was probably going to leave. Now I’m sure of it.”

“That’s sad.”

“It is for us, but I’m happy he’ll finally get to do things he’s dreamed about doing. Let’s go up and talk to him now. He’s got to be curious about what’s been going on, and I bet Joe’s just been dying to know what we were all talking about outside.”

When she agreed, Hoss offered her his arm, and they went upstairs to tell the whole story to Adam and Joe. Joe was a bit embarrassed when the story of the Cripple man being killed.

“Joe, if Pa had treated you the way he should have, you wouldn’t have made a mistake like that. Hoss was twenty and ready for some responsibility. The men were willing to work with him. You were fourteen. You should have had the job I originally assigned. If that had happened, things would have worked more smoothly. You made a mistake, but that was why you weren’t assigned to the crossing, and it was wrong to have you there.”

Hoss had a question then. “Pa said that later he accepted responsibility for the bad decision. Did he say that to you or to everybody?”

Adam’s silence and the look he had were all the answer they needed. Their father’s pride had gotten in the way most likely. Adam had shouldered the burden of his father’s error in judgment. Not realizing how sensitive a subject it might be with Joe, Meriweather asked Adam a pointed question.

“Have you had enough? Are you going to leave now?”

Joe’s head jerked around first to Meriweather and then to Adam who had not wanted to be so abrupt in announcing his decision. There was no choice now.

“Yes, I plan on leaving.”

Joe opened his mouth and then closed it. He made an excuse about needing to go get some fresh air and left. Meriweather realized she had made another error in judgement and apologized to Adam.

“I assumed things I should not have assumed.”

“Yes, you did. Now, I have a question for you. Will you come with me?”

It was her turn to open her mouth and then close it.

“Ah, Adam, I thought it was clear we were only thrown together by our fathers on some misguided matchmaking effort.”

“Yes, but you’re not going to continue to work with your father, are you?”

“How did you know that?”

“See, Miss Meriweather, I told you Adam was real smart.”

“He may be, but he’s not so smart if he thinks I would want to go with him.”

“No, I didn’t think you would go with me, but I had to ask to make sure there was no doubt that might surface later. You want to stay here with Hoss.”

“What?”

Hoss and Meriweather said it in unison making Adam grin. He looked at her first.

“Who came in first to comfort you? Who did you talk to about this without reservation? Who do you smile at whenever you see him?”

Then Adam turned his attention to Hoss.

“What did you think about your future with her when you first met her? What do you want to do for her when you see her unhappy? What would you do to anyone who tried to hurt her?”

Hoss and Meriweather looked like they were in shock.

“Now, yes, I would like that carriage ride to town. I think if I tried to ride a horse, I would fall off. But, I’ll be the one staying in town. I want to make some arrangements and it could take a couple of days. I don’t want to have to travel back and forth. You two could have a nice meal together and maybe do some shopping. You certainly would have some time for talking without some interfering relatives around. So, what do you think?”

“Older brother, you wouldn’t leave now without saying goodbye, would you?”

“No, I don’t want this to be an occasion of ill feeling or rancor.”

“Huh?”

“I’ll say goodbye.”

“All right. I think we settled everything we could get settled. Now, if you kin take a carriage ride, you must be ready to head downstairs. We don’t need to protect you from Clark because he’s gone. So how about we get you downstairs?”

“You want reinforcements when Pa and Franklin come inside.”

“You said I got a lot of common sense.”

Meriweather excused herself to go to her room to rest for a time. She was exhausted by all the talk that had swirled around her and needed some down time. Hoss stayed with Adam to help him but had an ulterior motive. He had questions that he didn’t want to ask when anyone else was around.

“You sure you got no feelings for Meriweather?”

“Hoss, I like her. We have a lot in common. We enjoy many of the same activities. I have to admit, I did kiss her.”

“You ain’t exactly helping my confidence none.”

“No, but if you would let me finish, I think I could. No matter what she and I do, we have to best each other, we bicker, and we send barbs toward each other. It is all quite entertaining, for a time. Could you imagine what life would be like if we were always together? No, thank you, but she needs some smoothing out, some taming, and some gentling. Who better to do that than you to help her grow into the woman she could be?”

“So Pa got it wrong. He thought you would want a feisty woman who could challenge you.”

“No, he got that right because that sounds about like who I would like, but not one who challenges me on everything. She will need to have some restraint and not be spoiled. I need a partner too. I need someone to stand by my side and encourage me, someone who can dream dreams like I do.”

“You think there’s somebody like that out there?”

“I’m going to find her, Hoss, and I’m going to dream dreams.”

“And you’re going to leave me here to handle Pa.”

“Hoss, when I leave, he’ll be forced to change. That’s when you make your demands.”

“He’s going to guess you’re the one behind that.”

“Does it matter? A smart man takes his lessons from anyone who offers help.”

“I’m really going to miss this, the chance to talk things over with you.”

There was nothing really to say to that. Adam was going to miss many things, but there were many other things he wished to have and couldn’t until he left. They both knew that. For the moment, they could concentrate on what had to be done. A successful excursion downstairs set the stage for the ride to town the next day. Ben was going to object but a look from his sons and he remained silent. This was not a time he could expect any of them to do as he asked much less could he order anything. Franklin was not invited along to town so he also wisely said nothing. Both fathers were uncharacteristically quiet for the whole evening.

In the morning, Hoss hitched up the carriage and brought it close to the house. After loading a couple of valises for Adam, he escorted Meriweather outside and into the carriage. Adam followed and took the reins.

“I’ll be along in a short time. I’ll ride faster than you’ll be going so I’ll give you a generous head start.”

The expectation was that Adam would drive slowly. That was for his benefit and also so that he and Meriweather could talk. Then in town, Adam would take a room, and Hoss and Meriweather would go to lunch where they could talk and possibly make decide on what they would do next. Things don’t always work out according to plans though. At the crossroads at the edge of the Ponderosa, Clark intercepted the carriage.

“I been waiting for a long time for you. I figured sooner or later one of you would show up. I never figured on being lucky enough to snare both of you.”

Holding a gun on them, Clark had Adam and Meriweather at a distinct disadvantage. Adam wasn’t wearing a pistol. There was a rifle in the carriage, but he wouldn’t be able to get it without Clark having the opportunity to shoot. Clark dismounted and walked to the carriage. Pointing at Meriweather, he gestured to the back of the carriage.

“Get in the back. I’m going to sit with you there, and he’s going to drive where I tell him to go.”

“What do you plan to do?”

“Well, Miss Lewis, I have had a number of ideas, but I just had a new one. I think I’m going to tie him up and let him watch as you show me what kind of wife you would make me. You know, in bed and such. Then if you do everything I asked you to do, I’ll let him live with those memories and you can come with me to the minister and get married. After I tell him what we did, he’ll marry us. No other man would want you after what I have planned for you.”

After Clark tied his horse to the carriage and climbed in the back with Meriweather, he told Adam to turn the carriage and take the road away from Virginia City. With his pistol trained on Meriweather’s head, Clark made sure Adam knew he had no choice. Once Adam got the team moving, Clark couldn’t believe he was being so successful and turned his attention to Meriweather. The carriage creaked as Adam turned it and rolled over some rough ground making the turn.

“Be careful, you damn fool. Can’t you even drive a carriage decently?”

“Sorry, but you said to turn it and there wasn’t enough room for a full turn on the road so I had to go off the road some.”

“Just finish and keep driving. I’ve got a place quite a few miles down that road. No one is going to be able to find us.”

Then Clark once more turned his attention to Meriweather leaning in to kiss her cheek and her neck even as he kept the pistol out. She was glad of that because it meant at least for a time, he would do nothing else. Then she was a little upset that Adam had not at least argued on her behalf. She almost wanted to say something until she realized how the sun was hitting the carriage. Looking out, she realized he had turned the carriage completely around while Clark was preoccupied. They were driving back to the Ponderosa.

Coming down the road, Hoss was surprised to see the carriage returning. Then he saw the horse and knew something was wrong. However Adam was driving and wasn’t going very fast. He rode off the road and waited for them to get closer even as he nudged his horse into cover. When he saw Clark in the back with Meriweather, he nearly panicked but instead followed the carriage until it stopped. He heard Adam.

“Your horse is loose. It must have gotten untied somehow.”

Moving up quickly, Hoss untied the horse to let it loose. Clark climbed out of the carriage and saw his horse was loose but then saw Hoss. He pulled his pistol up and aimed it at the back of the carriage even as Hoss aimed at him. It was a standoff.

“Let me go, and I won’t shoot her.”

Adam answered. “Yes, we’ll let you go. Hoss lower your gun if he lowers his.”

“Promise you won’t shoot me in the back as I ride away. I know they say you Cartwrights don’t lie and you keep your promises.”

“I promise we will not shoot you in the back as you ride away.”

Grabbing the reins of his horse, Clark quickly mounted up and rode away. Adam took the rifle from under the carriage seat and took careful aim at the retreating rider.

“Adam, we promised.”

“Only that we wouldn’t shoot him in the back. I won’t, but that damned bastard tried to kill me. He’s not riding away.”

Adam took very careful aim before he fired. With Adam’s shot, Clark twisted in the saddle, leaned forward, and then toppled from his horse as he lost his balance. They took the carriage and went to him where he lay struggling in the dirt and unable to stand.

“Damn you. You promised you wouldn’t shoot me in the back.”

“I didn’t shoot you in the back. I shot you in the ass.”

“I’m bleeding, and it hurts like hell.”

“That may be true, and if it is, well, there is a measure of justice in that. You certainly have been that to me.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

It further irritated Clark that Hoss and Meriweather were chuckling about what Adam had said as if there was a joke there that he didn’t get. There was.

Rummaging in his valises, Adam came up with enough cloth from his clothing to make a bandage pad. He told Hoss they should make Clark ride to keep the pad in place and put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding.

“Adam, that’s harsh.”

“All right, this is what he said he was going to do to us.” And Adam repeated the threats that Clark had made.

“Riding to town is the way to do it then, isn’t it.”

It was a long slow painful ride for Clark before they dropped him off at the jail. Adam and Meriweather did get a good opportunity to talk, and he gave her some valuable advice. Most of it had to do with two topics. Some was the result of personal experience of living with an overbearing father and accepting far too much because he loved him. The other was that if you loved someone and liked them too, it was probable that you could work out any other differences. Then they talked for quite some time about Hoss. As a result, Adam delayed his departure for six weeks so he could be there for Hoss’ wedding.

One evening, Ben tried to tell Hoss the negatives about his planned nuptials because he was concerned about how quickly it had all happened and how different the two were in background.

“Pa, don’t you never say nothing against her. You lost that right, and you ain’t never getting it back. It’s my life. I’ll make my own decisions about what my future is going to be and that includes the woman who is going to share it with me. That decision is already made. I’m smart enough to know what I need to know, and don’t you go putting me down by thinking you know more than I do about me.”

“I only want to help. I have more experience.”

“Yeah, like you had more experience with cattle drives. Isn’t that what you used on Adam all them years ago. You knew more, except he was right and he was smarter, and you ain’t never admitted that. It’s way past time you did except it’s too late, ain’t it cause he’s leaving.”

Although Adam had not yet left, Ben knew his decision to go had already had an impact on the family. Hoss was more independent and far more willing to challenge his father. Under those circumstances, he could only wonder how quickly the same would be true of his youngest son. He had no choice and was going to have to change. He tried to have a conversation with Adam to offer his mea culpas for things he had done wrong, but he found it was likely to only make things worse as he kept trying to offer excuses with his admissions. Finally he told Adam he would write and could see that Adam understood him better than he understood his son. Admitting his shortcomings was going to be torturous for him, and Adam’s slight smile or smirk showed he knew it too.

At the wedding celebration, the three brothers stood together to toast Hoss’ wedding and Adam’s planned departure.

“I’ll be in San Francisco for a while until I decide what I want to do next and where I want to do it. Until then, I can still handle some ranch business there if you need me. Anything you want, let me know.”

“Maybe we won’t need you at all, you old granite-head.”

“Even better. Then I can have more fun.”

“Seriously, Adam, Hoss and I are really going to miss you, but I’m glad you get to do what you want to do.”

“Thank you, Joe. It means a lot to hear that.”

Hoss refilled their glasses. “All right, one last time before you go. Here’s mud in your eye.”

The three brothers downed their drinks in unison.

THE END

Note: ‘Here’s mud in your eye’ is probably a toast that was used before the early 1900s, but its first known use in print was in 1911. Its original meaning is disputed with some claiming a Biblical connection and others tying it to horse racing or other activities.

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Author: BettyHT

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

3 thoughts on “Mud in Your Eye (by BettyHT)

  1. What a fun story and full of twists and turns through the whole thing. You definitely had me guessing until the very end at how it would all finish.

    1. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment here too. I do like to put those twists in a story so you don’t know where it’s going.

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