The Empty Casket (by Missjudy)

Summary: The final story of the trilogy of stories:  Trial of Jessica Hardy, Buried Alive, and now, The Empty Casket.  The first two stories told of Adam’s disappearance after being taken as a hostage by a woman bank robber, and then his return after months spent drugged in a mental hospital. When Buried Alive ended, Adam had left Carson City following a frosty reunion with his family that had left him feeling that for everyone’s sake, he should have died as Jessica Hardy, AKA Leslie Richter, meant for him to do.  This story picks up in San Francisco, where he has gone, hoping to find something about himself that is worth saving.  He meets someone who just might understand what he’s feeling, and recognize what he’s planning to do. Can this other “man in black” save Adam from himself?

Rating: K+

Word Count: 28,000

Note: If you are unfamiliar with the western, Have Gun Will Travel – see Footnote 5. The footnote and the context in this story, will introduce you to the other man in black, who becomes instrumental in Adam making the most important decision of his life.  The Empty Casket completes the trilogy of The Trial of Jessica Hardy, where Adam was taken as a hostage by a deadly woman bank robber. When he fails to show up afterwards, Jessica Hardy (later revealed as Leslie Richter) stand trial for his murder.  The second story, Buried Alive, reveals that Adam was not dead, but rather left by Leslie at a mental asylum, drugged to within an inch of his life, where she’d expected him to die in time. He is released, but finds that he is not recovering from his ordeal, and after a miserable reunion with his family, leaves them and heads to San Francisco, where this story begins …

The Empty Casket—One

“Welcome back, Sir!” Matthews, the front desk clerk at the San Francisco Carlton Hotel called out as a man in an impeccably tailored gray suit approached. “I was beginning to suspect you’d be delayed until tomorrow.”

The returning guest set his hat next to his leather valise on the counter. “My stage was delayed some hours in Stockton.” His left upper lip rose wryly. “Instead of waiting at the station, I went to the saloon and played poker. It was payday for a nearby ranch, and I saw it as a public service to keep the crew from squandering all their wages on whiskey, bad decisions and bail.”

“Your concern for others is notable.” The clerk matched his customer’s grin and they both laughed. “You are a fair man. I’m sure you left them with enough to pay their bills and get by.” He turned to grab a key from the cubby holes behind him. “I had your mail taken to your room,” Matthews said as he handed over the brass fob. “The dining room is closed, but Andre is still working in the kitchen and has a plate warming in case you arrived. We can serve it in the salon or Peter can bring it to your room.”

Shoving his bag and hat forward with one hand, he reached into his pocket with the other, producing a few bills which he laid atop his bundle. “Have Peter take these to my suite. I’ll eat at the bar, and have a nightcap before heading upstairs.” A quick glance at the array of keys behind the clerk, made his cheek rise again. “The key’s missing from the suite next to mine. Did someone take a lease?”

A nod. “A gentleman took it during your absence.”

“Does the ‘gentleman’ have a name?”

“The register says he’s John Smith.”

“But he’s not John Smith?”

“He is to the staff at the Carlton. You would question my confidentiality if I say more.”

“I do love a good mystery. I also respect your discretion.” He’d begun his walk to the salon when he turned back. “Is the lovely Miss Crenshaw still in residence?”

“Sadly, no. Shortly after you left, her father wired, saying he was cutting off payments.” Matthews chuckled. “I’m not being indiscrete in telling you this, since she told anyone with ears of the ‘unfair’ ultimatum issued by, ‘Daddy.’” Another chuckle. “I’ve met the man. He doesn’t make empty threats. She left unhappily, but straightaway.”

***

The Carlton Hotel was known for its luxurious overnight accommodations, but had large residential suites available for lease as well. As Matthews moved the fine leather case of his returning resident to the end of the counter, he noted the etching of a knight’s chess piece in the metal latch. He smiled, thinking back to his first dealings with the man who’d been leasing his suite for over a year now.

Prior to his residency, he’d attended high-stakes poker games in the same suite he now occupied. Matthews had never heard the man called by his actual name back then, but what he’d observed was a young man who was brash, furtive and usually sliding towards inebriation by the time he arrived.

That had been two years back, and the man hosting the games had left—or rather had been asked to leave—meaning the arrogant young man had stopped coming too.  A few months passed, and one day that same young man returned. Matthews had instantly noted his transformation. This man was sober and gentile; in control—sure of himself—but humble now. He had money and had taken the suite where he’d once played poker. The man’s furtiveness had been replaced by a gracious, patient and kind nature.

Matthews was aware that his current wealth came from some wise, and one windfall, investment. Yet he had a business card featuring the etching of knight, offering his services for a fee. The actual “services” he performed were nebulous, but also monetarily successful, and required his extended absence at times.

Matthews had come to admire the man who used a single name taken from the twelve knights of Charlamagne. It didn’t matter whether it held a familial connection or was merely an alias, because it suited him. Matthews had come to trust “this man” completely.

He rang the bell on his counter, waving over the bell captain. “Please find Peter. Tell him Mr. Paladin is back and will be in his room after dinner.”

Two

Paladin stopped as he entered the salon, observing the man sprawled over the billiard table, snoring softly. His brows moved upwards and he chuckled while taking a seat at the highly polished bar.

“You made it after all!” the bartender said in greeting.

A nod. “Matthews said Andre has a meal warming. I’d appreciate that along with a cool glass of water and a shot of bourbon.” He nodded toward the billiard table. “Tired … or drunk.”

A shrug. “He gets this way every evening.””

“Who is he?”

“Goes by John Smith. He’s your neighbor.” The young man’s lips puckered. “He doesn’t drink much. It’s more like he loses the will to stay awake. A pity. He’s a good billiards player. He quotes stuff I don’t understand, and has a dry sense of humor.” He winked at his customer. “Kind of reminds me of you. I’ve thought that you two might find lots to talk about once you got back, and that might keep him awake.”

“Have you figured out who he really is?”

Another shrug, accompanied by the hint of a smile. “He’s John Smith until he says otherwise.”

“You said he’s not drunk?”

“Only had two drinks before he passed out. A man his size should handle a couple shots, easy. It’s the same each night. Normally sleeps on the bar or a table though.” Jimmy scratched his head. “Could be he drinks before he comes down, but I never notice it on his breath. And when I wake him at closing and walk with him to the stairs, there’s no indication he’s drunk. Can’t rightly figure it out.”

“I’ll wake him up and have him join us at the bar while you grab my dinner. Ask Andre for a few extra rolls, and an extra dessert. Maybe Mr. Smith needs a little nourishment.”

After a quick sip of both the water and bourbon Jimmy had supplied, he walked over to the affected guest, and shook his shoulders. “C’mon Smith. It’s unseemly to use the gaming table as a bed. Besides, drool ruins the felt.”

Smith opened one eye to observe the interloper. “What?”

“I’m asking you to join Jimmy and me at the bar. A little water and something to eat will help what ails you.”

Smith pushed himself up, groaning as he straightened. “That was not a good place to bed down,” he said with a grimace. After stretching, he walked easily, and steadily to the bar.

Both men were taking their seats when Jimmy returned with a tray bearing a small feast. He laughed as he set it down. “The chef pretty much cleaned out the kitchen for you two. Enjoy!”

“To whom do I owe my thanks for getting me off that rack?” Smith asked. “Any longer and I wouldn’t have been able to stand upright.”

Able to get a good, full-on look at his dinner guest, the long-time resident of the Carlton drew his cheek upwards in puzzlement. He withdrew a business card and slid it along the bar.

Smith squinted and rubbed his eyes. “Paladin? Is that your first name or last?”

“I use one name. Makes things easier.” He grinned. “How about I call you, Smith? That’ll put us on equal footing.”

The look returned was confused. “Oh… Yeah …. Smith is good.”

“Have you eaten anything tonight?” Paladin asked his new companion.

“I went to a concert. Haydn, I think it was. Might have had something before that.” His face pulled into a serious-looking pucker. “Nope. Wasn’t hungry then.”

Paladin took another good look at the man next to him and understood Jimmy’s shrugs. Smith looked very familiar, and he wasn’t drunk. Perhaps drinking on an empty stomach allowed the alcohol to go straight to his head. Yet, he doubted that too. Smith looked lost at sea without a life ring or rescue boat in sight.

“Try some of the bread, Smith. Andre makes the finest French breads and pastries in San Francisco.” He pointed to the second glass of water Jimmy had set on the counter. “Drink that too. Jimmy will be offended if you don’t.” He smiled at the bartender.

“It’s true. I have to carry that water from the kitchen, so I don’t take kindly to providing it and then seeing it go unused.” He ended his thought with a hearty laugh.

“Did you enjoy the concert?” Paladin asked when Jimmy moved away to serve a newly arrived customer.

“I did, although I dozed off. Being unable to stay awake is a common malady lately.”

“I think concert promoters feel a ticket’s value is best measured by quantity. They stick us elbow-to-elbow in our fine wool suits in a dark, airless hall for three hours.  Even fine ladies who would never be so uncouth as to nap during a social function find themselves yawning behind their fans. There’s little hope for me remaining awake through the entirety unless it is an awe-inspiring … or loud … presentation.” His comment produced a brief chuckle from his guest. When he still didn’t avail himself of the food, Paladin buttered a roll and handed it to him. “Eat!”

Smith bit into the soft roll, and chewed. “I haven’t seen you around here, have I?”

“Just got back from a job.”

“Your card reads, Have gun will travel. Are you a bounty hunter?”

“No, but I’ll collect a bounty if it’s available. I think of myself as an investigator. Most times I figure out who’s being the most truthful in the matter I’ve been hired to mitigate, and reintroduce people to the way they should act as decent human beings. Having a gun and the ability to use it reinforces my words. I’ll tell you more about it tomorrow at breakfast.”

“Breakfast?”

“From the Old English morgenmete, meaning morning meat, and later becoming break-fast as in eating after many hours of nonindulgence.”

“I remember what it means.” Smith produced a thoughtful frown. “But I haven’t partaken in morgenmete on regular basis lately.”

“Then give me a chance to reintroduce you. Join me in my room at 8 AM. We’re neighbors, so the trip won’t exhaust you.”

The comments finally produced a grudging smile. “That does sound … nice.”

“I’ll make sure the morning valet wakes you in time to be ready.”

“Morning valet?”

“Matthews, the evening desk clerk and self-appointed major domo of this establishment, said the room next to mine has been occupied for a while.  Didn’t the hotel manager explain that the residential suites come with an attendant? It’s Peter now, but Jackson in the morning. They’ll act as a butler, valet, concierge, confidant ….  Haven’t they been taking care of you?”

“Hunh. So that’s why they keep showing up in my room offering their assistance. But ….”

“But you refused. They will offer; they won’t intrude.”

“I made sure of that.” Smith’s chagrined expression over his faux pas was accented by the pinking of his cheeks above his trim beard. Turning to the bartender, he changed the subject. “Jimmy, would you check if there’s any hot coffee. I’d appreciate it.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Smith.”

Two

Paladin entered his suite after dropping Smith off at his door. The new acquaintances had left the bar together after finishing every bit of food offered, drinking the pot of coffee and talking about subjects in which they had mutual interest. A challenge was issued for a tournament of pocket billiards and chess to be played in the coming days.

Peter was turning down the bed in Paladin’s bedroom, and issued his greeting when the returning resident walked in. “So nice to have you back, sir. I’ve put everything as you like it, and will leave you to a good night’s sleep, unless you have further need of me.”

“One thing, Peter. Please go next door and tuck Mr. Smith in for the night.”

Peter’s expression bore various shades of skepticism. “I assure you’ve I’ve tried to assist Mr. Smith during his stay, and he has always refused.”

“He confessed as much, but he may be more receptive tonight. At a minimum, he’ll need you to take his suit down for a press. Start with that, and ease into the rest.”

“As you say, sir. He seems a fine gentleman, yet ….”

“Yet what?”

“Mr. Paladin, you appreciate the quiet and order of your apartment, and often wish to be undisturbed. Mr. Smith is like that too …. If I may speak freely, sir?

A nod. “I would appreciate your impressions. Your discretion will disallow revealing anything confidential.”

“My actual title in this hotel should be the Keeper of Secrets.” Peter smiled. “Mr. Smith is a pleasant looking man. He turns the head of every woman in the lobby when he walks through, but he doesn’t notice. His manners are impeccable, except for falling asleep in the salon, but he seems lonely, even uncomfortable with himself at times. I believe he might do well having a friend.” The smile returned.

“I think you’re right, Peter. Please leave a note for Jackson to wake Smith up at 7 tomorrow, and deliver him to my suite at 8. Also, please arrange for the kitchen to deliver my usual breakfast at that hour, but make it for two. Thank you.”

***

After changing from his traveling clothes and depositing them in a laundry bag outside his door where Peter would gather them on his way downstairs, Paladin unpacked his case, placing the San Francisco Examiners he’d been perusing in the stage on the table next to his favorite chair. After everything was in order, he sunk into the familiar seat, turned up the lamp, and opened a paper to the business news.

When he’d taken a careful look at the man who’d joined him at the bar, he’d instantly made an identification that made no earthly sense. From the guarded responses of Jimmy, Matthews and Peter, he suspected they may have had a similar thought. What made their idea impossible, was that the man they might all think Smith to be, had been murdered several months ago. The story of his death and the subsequent trial of his murderess had been heavily covered by the San Francisco press. The articles often included pictures of the man whose body had never been found.

Having been gone for nearly three weeks, Paladin’s awareness of current events was sorely lacking. The small town he’d been in had no newspapers for sale. He’d managed to pick up a few days’ worth of the San Francisco Examiner during the delay in Stockton, but the crowded condition on the stage precluded doing more than skimming headlines. What had niggled at the back of his mind since he’d seen the man in the salon, was a headline he’d passed by in one of the Chronicle’s business section from a few days ago.

A quick glance trough the various papers, brought him to the two-column article with the headline: Nevada Rancher Found Alive. The name of the Nevada rancher made him wonder why the story was buried in the business news rather than on the front page. It was soon clear that this article was based on leaked information, probably sold to the Territorial Express by someone who’d seen or handled the affidavit written by the prominent citizen, and then picked up by other papers. There was no confirmation of the facts from the Nevadan rancher himself, and while his family had confirmed he was alive, their only comment was that he was away on an extended business trip.

Paladin cringed as he read excerpts copied directly from the affidavit, and he began to understand why Peter had described his neighbor as being uncomfortable with himself and needing a friend. What this article told was facts. What couldn’t possibly be told was the mental plague that had driven Adam Cartwright to hiding himself in San Francisco under an alias.

He sighed deeply as he folded the paper to leave the story exposed, and placed it on the table where “John Smith” would see it come morning. He wasn’t certain how he could help, but he was certain that the man next door had been put there for a reason. There was only a wall separating Adam Cartwright from a man who’d walked through his own valley of darkness. But in that valley, he had experienced the grace of a new life. His time with a mysterious man named Smoke had brought him an undeserved second chance. It was time to do the same for another.*

Three

“Good morning, Smith.” Paladin greeted his guest as he opened the door to his suite within minutes of the mantel clock striking eight. “Come in.” A quick perusal of the man in the hall made the host smile. Smith was attired in a crisp white shirt and dark pants. His beard had been trimmed shorter still, and his hair was smoothed back with pomade, even though wayward strands slipped forward at will. “Does your timeliness indicate that you accepted Jackson’s assistance?”

“He’s most efficient … as was Peter last night. I assume I have you to thank for them giving me a second chance.”

As his guest entered the room, bright with early morning sunshine, Paladin noticed a few more things about his guest. The eyes that had seemed nearly black the evening before, were actually a golden brown with shots of green and gold. The shoulders that had held the hunch of an aged man, were now pulled back, making the two of them equal in height. “There’s a pot of coffee on the table. Help yourself. Our meal will arrive shortly.”

Adam caught sight of the newspaper left by his host as he reached for the cup and pot. His hand froze on the handle of the silver server.

“You look good for a man who’s been dead several months,” Paladin said evenly when noting the reaction.

“Who says I’m alive now.” His arms, now working again, filled his cup. He blew on the hot liquid before taking a sip.

“Your comment is esoteric, but I’ll answer. I followed the stories of the trial for the woman who was thought to have killed you, just as everyone else in the West. I suspected who you were last night, yet it didn’t fit the facts until I found that article buried in the business section. It’s a reprint of what was run in your hometown paper.”

Adam eyed his host over the rim of his cup as he took another sip. “What do you plan to do with the information? You can’t think I’d pay to keep my identity secret.”

Paladin laughed hard. “Mr. Cartwright, I assure you that everyone who works in this building knows who you are.”

“That’s just dandy.” His posture dropped back to the hunch. “I’d hoped my anonymity might last a little longer.”

“You chose this hotel, as opposed to one nearer the commodities market and cattle-baron clubs where your family normally stays, so you wouldn’t be recognized as easily. And you chose well. Even if you confirm your identity to the staff here, they will continue to honor your alias.”

“How is it you know so much about me, and I know nothing of you?”

“We’ve never met formally, but you and your family are often featured in the Chronicle’s society and business sections, and in every other paper I read each day, including the Territorial Express. I’ve also seen you at plays, concerts and restaurants here, and you come to the stock exchange.”

Paladin chuckled. “The longer hair and beard might give others pause, but my new profession makes me very observant. I recognize the tells people exhibit when they’re uncomfortable. You’re used to a clean shave and shorter hair, so you keep brushing those longer strands from your face, and you fiddle with your beard.”

“I’d like to say that’s nonsense, but I can’t.” He blew out a long breath. “I could get used to having a beard, but the hair thing … drives me nuts. And the problem with using an alias is that it never sounds right. I’ve ignored so many people calling me Smith that they assume I’m deaf.”

A knock at the door broke off the laughter from Adam’s comment.

“Take a seat Cartwright. That’ll be our breakfast.”

***

Paladin witnessed his meal companion change back into the guarded, lost man he’d rescued from the billiard table, and he worried he might have pushed him to the truth too fast. After watching him stare at his plate of perfectly poached eggs, toast and bacon without applying a fork to it, he finally put his own silverware aside and leaned his elbows onto the table.

“Cartwright!”

Adam sat up straighter, and blinked several times to pull from his thoughts.

“I invited you here for breakfast, but I draw the line at feeding you.” His grin produced a similar expression on his guest. “According to that article, you’ve been out of that asylum for over a month. It’s clear you haven’t been taking care of yourself. You’re hiding out here instead of being home in the care of what I had always assumed was a very close family, and you have no life in you. I can’t change what happened to you, and I assume those drugs are still causing mental and physical problems. But right now, I see a man who has to eat. So, pick up that toast, stick it into the yoke and enjoy the fine meal.”

A long, deep sigh was followed with compliance. “I’ve forgotten how satisfying food can be.” After finishing both eggs and the toast, he pushed his plate aside. “I’m not in the mood for bacon, but maybe a pastry,” he said as he picked a roll from the selection on a separate plate. After a near swooning bite and swallow, he closed his eyes and smiled. “Andre is a genius!”

The smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “May I ask why you care who I am or that I haven’t been eating?”

“Someone has to. I told you I can read a man’s tells. Not only are you uncomfortable with your hair, you’re uncomfortable in your skin. You didn’t just come here to hide out. You came here to decide whether Adam Cartwright is just someone you used to know.”

“How ….” Adam’s eyes flashed in anger as he sat forward and pounded his fist on the table. The anger abated as quickly as it had arisen, and he added, “do you know that?”

“When you look at me, you’re seeing the person I’ve become. But two years ago, I was just as confused and uncomfortable with myself as you are.”

“What … why ….”

“The what, is that I’ve been where you are now even though for different reasons, and I don’t want you making bad decisions because you’re not thinking straight. The why, is that the world will lose a very good man if I allow you to continue down the path you’re fully intending to follow.”

Adam leaned back in the chair. “Maybe I don’t want your help.”

“I’m sure you don’t. But I can’t not try. I owe it—if not to you—then to the man who helped me. Think of me as a meddlesome friend for now. As such I’m going to remind you what it’s like to be alive and looking towards the next hour … the next great meal … the next day … and past what’s making you think there is no reason to do so.”

“And how are you going to do that?”

“You’ll go next door to get a coat and tie, and then we’ll head to the stock market. I should tell you that my ability to stay in this hotel is based on some good investments I’ve made. That include a few Virginia City silver mines you’re connected with, and buildings here constructed by the Wadsworth Company. I know you and Frank Wadsworth are friends. I’ve seen you two at functions and prospectus meetings for ventures you’ve engineered.”

“Frankie and I were roommates in college. I work winters with him when I can get away from the ranch.” A hint of a smile grew at the edges of his lips. “Might I take you to lunch later as a way of thanking you?”

“We’ll go to one of my favorites on the waterfront for a mid-afternoon meal—which you’ll pay for—and get back here to change for an evening performance by Adelinia Patti1. She’s performing a solo concert of her favorite arias and folksongs.” Paladin chuckled deeply. “If listening to her doesn’t touch your soul and make you feel something, then you are beyond saving, my friend.”

Adam pushed back from the table. “With that article posted locally, others may start making the connection too. I’m not sure I’m ready for the scrutiny and questioning.”

“You and I are about the same height. We’re both dark-haired, so we can pass as relatives. I’ll introduce you as my cousin, John Smith, from Boston. It’s a common enough name back East, and since you attended college there, you can field questions about the city.” He scratched at his eyebrow before adding, “I don’t suppose you can mimic one of those ‘non-rhotic’ Bostonian accents to add to your disguise.”

Adam grinned. “I was in Bahstan for five ye-ahs, and nevah picked up on it. I lived in a dahm on the yahd, but not even my Havahd professahs spoke that way.” The grin became a laugh. “Seriously, I noticed it, but never adopted it. My grandfather, who’d always lived there, had a trace of something, but not the “r” drop. I can fake it if you’re serious.”

A devilish look appeared in Paladin’s eyes. “Sounds like fun. We’ll see how it goes. If people look at you questioningly, I’d say use it to confuse them.” The twinkle continued. “You pulled that off pretty easily. Were you a member of the Hasty Pudding Society?”

“When time permitted. I was in the first engineering class there, and we were expected to set a high standard.” Adam’s eyes were drawn to the bookshelves on the side of the sitting room. “From the titles of those tomes and the way you express yourself, I’d wager you’ve had a good formal education.”

“Private schools and then West Point,” he verified. “We’ll talk about that later. For now, get dressed and knock on my door when you’re ready.”

Four

Will, the ranch hand in charge of the maintenance chores at the Ponderosa, had brought the Cartwright’s mail from town shortly after noon. His delivery had left Ben longing to open the envelope bearing Adam’s handwriting. Yet, with ranch details needing attention, he’d opted to wait until he could read it without distraction. Several hours had flown by before he finally sat back in his red chair, letting the roaring fire chase the early fall chill from his bones. He slipped his finger beneath the flap, and unfolded the single sheet enclosed.

Dear Pa, Hoss and Little Joe,

I apologize again for my abrupt departure, and hope you understood why I had to go. To let you know; I’m settled in San Francisco.

Thank you for resupplying my bank accounts, Pa. Having cash again, I was able to find a comfortable place to stay and purchase everything I needed. I’ve contacted Frankie to watch for your correspondence, and I will stop at his office twice a week. I’ve not told him where I’m staying either and the further truth is that I’m using an alias to ensure some initial privacy. It amazes me that Leslie Richter was able to adapt so easily to a new name in every town. I often ignore greetings, not recognizing the name I’ve chosen.   

As you read this, Pa, I know you’re looking between the lines to assess how I’m doing. I feel stronger physically. As to the rest, I admit to finding distractions that remind me of what I once enjoyed. That’s a start. No one has recognized me, but then I haven’t seen any news articles about me being “back from the dead” either. I assume you’ve been instrumental in this, although I know it won’t last. Someone will tell—more probably—sell what they know. But I appreciate these blessed days of quiet.

I will write next week, and look forward to your reply.

With love,

Adam

Hoss strode in through the main door just as his father looked up from the letter. “What you got there, Pa?”

“A note from your brother.”

“Can I see?” He continued his progress, sitting on the hearth table to read the page his father handed him. “This seems good, from what little there is. Did you see anything between them lines, like he said you would?”

Ben pursed his lips. “Your brother never lies. But he softens things, like saying his health is improving; he’s comfortable; has the things he needs and has found some diversion. What’s missing is that he’s made any progress towards understanding why he feels so distanced from himself—the reason he gave for going. What I see between the lines is that he’s struggling, and he’s doing it alone. There’s no buffer: no one to offer him hope or assure him that he’s the same man he always was.”

“But Adam’s got ways of keeping his own company, Pa. I’d bet he bought a stack of books and carries one around to read wherever he ends up. He finds company and peace in them pages. The way I see it; once he finds them first thing about himself still workin’ the way they used ta, he’ll get goin’ on the rest.”

“Thanks for replacing what I was imagining with that image of him, Hoss.” Ben folded the letter back into the envelope, laid it next to the newspaper on the table by Hoss, and pointed to the front-page banner of the Territorial Express he’d gotten a few days earlier, proclaiming: Adam Cartwright Alive!

“Adam couldn’t have known about this when he wrote. With his affidavit exposed, other papers will publish it too. I’d like to throttle the person who copied his report and sold it. Yet, I’m glad it’s out. People were becoming aware that Adam was alive, and without the facts, the speculation must have been mostly ugly gossip.” He sighed long and loudly. “I appreciate that Joe Goodman2 warned me about printing that.” He pointed again towards the paper. “He apologized, but said if he hadn’t purchased the information, someone else would have, and they might have created a more sensational story where Adam’s character was maligned. At least Goodman gave it a fair telling, and ran his own editorial warning readers to keep from making judgments about things they couldn’t possibly understand.”

Hoss nodded. “I wonder if Adam’s seen it yet?”

A shrug. “Goodman said he contacted the Chronicle in San Francisco, giving them first rights to repost it along with their agreement to put in the business section. Whatever the case, he’ll know about it soon enough.” Ben’s eyes narrowed. “Did you hear any gossip when you were in town the other day?”

Hoss’ cheeks became rosy. “Folks mostly feel plum awful for what Adam went through. and wonder why he didn’t come home. Some speculate he must’a not healed up from the gunshot and is dyin’ in hospital somewhere. Others think he’s left the ranch for good.” His cheek pulled to the side. “Some ways, I wish Adam’d just come home and faced it all dead on. But the other part knows he wasn’t ready to do that, and I shudder to think what might’a happened if he had. I know he said not to go lookin’ for him, but if we don’t hear any good news soon, I’m gonna search San Francisco until I find him; toss him over my shoulder if need be, and bring him home.”

Ben grinned. “I don’t believe this is something he can fix alone, but we’ll honor his request … a little longer. Then we’ll do what you suggested.”

Five

He couldn’t sleep. It was after midnight following an active day, yet sleep remained elusive. Stretching his arms behind his head, he thought back over all he’d done since rising that morning. The trip to the stock exchange, lunch on the waterfront, an evening at the opera house …. The time had flown, and occasionally he’d been able to ignore the underlying caution that he didn’t deserve any of it. He’d used the “Bahston” accent at a few places where he’d received questioning looks, convincing everyone that he was truly a visiting relative with a slight resemblance to Adam Cartwright. Those hours had left him feeling more “alive” than he had in months.

The aura of normalcy had soothed him until Miss Patti had offered a closing song: her own rendition of a number written for Jenny Lind, called, By the Sad Sea Waves.3 The lyrics had impaled his heart, and it had taken every ounce of his composure to keep from weeping in the theater. He’d seen his companion steal several glances at him as she’d sung, undoubtedly aware of the lyrics.

Paladin had brought it up on their walk back to the Carlton by mentioning that he’d heard Lind herself sing it in 1850 when she’d toured the East Coast, before asking whether Adam had heard it before.

He’d quickly replied that he had, but hadn’t remembered it until tonight, and then suggested they stop for a nightcap and light supper before turning in, artfully avoiding the subject during the meal.

Now in the quiet dark, the elegiacal lyrics sunk their talons into his brain, unbidden, yet demanding his attention.

By the sad sea-waves I listen, while they moan, a lament o’er graves of hope and pleasure gone.

I am young-I was fair, I had once not a care. From the rising of the morn to the setting of the sun,

I pine in my grave by the sad sea-wave.

From my care, last night, by holy sleep beguiled. In the fair dream-light my home upon me smiled;

Oh, how sweet, ‘mid the dew, every flower that I knew, breathed a gentle welcome back to the worn and weary child.

Yet I wake in my grave by the sad sea-wave.

Even the chorus left its sting:

Come again, bright days of hope and pleasure gone.

Adam had arrived in San Francisco three weeks ago, and he hadn’t slept soundly before or since. Unplanned naps and exhausted thrashing might occupy a few hours. Every dream involved waking in an open casket, sunk deep in an unfilled grave where every movement caused an avalanche of soil to fall atop him. While paralyzed in place to keep more dirt from shifting, people from his life stood above him, beckoning him to rise from his confinement, while offering no assistance. His family among them, smiled down at him, holding coiled ropes they wouldn’t throw, yet encouraged his exit. He’d awake, a sweating shell, certain that all he’d had or been, was out of reach.

He went through the motions of living, sans feeling alive. But now, as he recalled the fine soprano giving words to his emptiness, salty streams began wetting his cheeks and bedlinens, until he was exhausted with sorrow. Hope that the catharsis would finally allow sleep went unrealized, so he rose and dressed.

When they’d walked to the harbor for lunch earlier, they’d passed by a street bearing the distinctive vinegary odor associated with smoked opium. He’d also seen clientele entering and exiting the houses in various stages of need or surfeit.

Slipping quietly from his room, he headed outside and gave the Hansom driver a street name before burying himself in an interior corner of the vehicle. It was a chilly night, so he’d grabbed the new mustard-colored coat he’d purchased to replace the one ruined by blood after Leslie had shot him. As he slid his hands into the pockets for warmth, he found a folded paper. It was Leslie’s wanted poster: the one he’d seen in Carson City for Jessica Hardy, asking for information as to her true identity. A half grin replaced his worn frown as an idea took shape.

***

A knock at Paladin’s door brought his instant reply. He never needed more than five hours of sleep, and tended to remain up until the wee hours, rather than rising early.

“Peter?” Paladin’s eyes widened. “I thought you’d be home by this hour.”

“I was waiting out front for my brother-in-law to come by from his evening job. We walk home together. I saw … ah … and heard something out there I think you should know.”

“You’ve got my attention.”

“You and Mr. Smith spent the day together and he seemed genuinely better this evening when I stopped in to collect his suit.” Peter stalled. “I’m not sure I should be saying this.”

Paladin smiled. “You haven’t said anything yet, Peter. What did you see and hear that prompted coming to me?”

“Sir, we all saw that article in the paper, and know why Mr. Smith is in such awful shape.”

“That’s astute, Peter, but what’s got you stammering and upset?”

“When I wait for my brother, I stand off to the side where I’m not seen by hotel patrons. I was in the shadows, lighting my pipe when Mr. Smith exited a few minutes ago and hired a cab. There’s just enough breeze that the destination he gave the driver drifted to me.”

“I doubt you’d care if he was headed for a brothel, so it’s got to be somewhere you fear for him.”

Peter nodded, and named the street. “I know there are clubs and restaurants further on, but no one goes to that street at night unless they’re looking for trouble.”

“You think our Mr. Smith is in trouble.”

“With every bone in my body.”

***

Paladin rewarded Peter, and quickly tossed his smoking jacket aside to don an overcoat and shoes

The observant Peter had a cab waiting when Paladin exited the hotel. The trip to Chinatown was brief and wouldn’t have taken much longer walking, but parts of San Francisco that could be navigated by foot during the day, brought great danger after dark. Robbers snuck up on anyone looking like they’d have cash or jewelry, and they wouldn’t think twice about sinking a knife in the back of their prey to make them more cooperative. Shanghai teams were out too, looking to meet their quotas. Paladin gave thanks that Adam had the sense to take a cab.

Every opium den along this stretch was known to offer the same product. It was only the quality of the setting and proprietor that varied. He saw no one on the street, and with no idea which house Adam had entered, he decided to stay put for a bit. He had a good idea what had brought his neighbor here, yet Paladin doubted he’d complete his intention in one of these places. There was clearly an estrangement going on in the Cartwright family, but each time Adam had spoken of them, his expression had indicated his love and respect. This oldest son would never embarrass his father by being found dead in one of these places.4

Handing over a goodly sum to the cabbie, he requested him to remain curbside for as long as it took for the wayward Cartwright to exit. It wasn’t long before a door opened two houses away from where Paladin waited in the shadow of the cab. Adam stepped out. Considering Peter’s prompt report, he knew he’d been correct in assessing that there’d been no indulgence in a pipe at the establishment. This was upheld by Adam’s unaffected gait as he moved easily down the steps and onto the walk.

He waited for him to near the cab before showing himself. “Need a ride?”

“It’s not far; I’ll walk.” Adam’s tone was testy.

“Listen, Cartwright. No one walks here without having a death wish.”

“Who says I don’t?”

“Get inside or I’ll toss you in. I’m not going to let you get killed or shanghaied. Quiet neighbors are hard to come by.”

The two rode in silence until reaching the Carlton. The late hour meant the main desk and salon were unoccupied. Paladin tugged Adam’s sleeve when he headed for the grand stairway. “Let’s go in here,” he said, indicating the empty barroom. “I’ll grab a bottle and a couple glasses and square up with Jimmy tomorrow.”

Adam resigned himself to listen to the man’s sermon about the evils of opium, and headed towards a table tucked into the corner under a lighted sconce. He shook his head as he considered that he’d only met this man a little over 24 hours earlier. There hadn’t been enough time to build trust in a normal experiential way, but he still trusted him. Paladin had no idea who he was pulling from the pool table, and had extended kindness without expectation. Even the recognition of his actual identity had been openly revealed, and no ulterior motive had emerged.

Something Paladin had mentioned the night before was bumping in his mind like a banked cue ball, but he pulled his mind back to the confines of the dimly lit room when his companion cleared his throat.

“The article said you’d been given heavy narcotics in that hospital over a several months,” Paladin said without small talk. “Are you still addicted?”

Adam appreciated the candor, yet wondered how much he owed this man. The answer seemed to be that he might end up owing him his life. “I haven’t taken anything since the asylum.” He pulled a small brown bottle from his inside coat pocket. “My original intent was to get this because I can’t sleep.” A long sigh. “I’m so tired.”

“Was it meant to make you sleep for the night … or permanently?”

A chuckle erupted as Adam’s cheeks brightened to crimson. “How do you see into my thoughts?” He shifted in his seat, sliding down until his legs were stretched fully with his hands resting on the table, still clutching the brown bottle. “I spent two weeks on my own in the wilderness after getting released from the asylum, sicker’n a dog the whole time. If I’m correct, that was the actual drug leaving my system in sweat and agony while my body screamed for more.”

Paladin nodded. “That’s what I’ve read about opium.”

“A doctor told me there’s a danger of the need returning. What has saved me is that I didn’t want to go through that misery again, and I value clarity and reason. Opium leaves you numb and thoughtless. I still have remnants of that feeling. I’m always tired, yet I can’t sleep. I drift off when I want to be awake but can’t fall soundly asleep when I desperately try to.  I’m beginning to think the only way to escape this endless fatigue is to sleep forever.” He took a long, ragged breath. “I remembered seeing the dens today, and decided I’d try just enough to rest. It was the one thing that I did appreciate at the hospital. It produced dreamless sleep. I’d hoped that with rest I would function better. And if not, then I’d finish it off and shuffle off this mortal coil. But on the way there, an idea took shape. It was the first clear thought I’ve had in so long!”

Paladin’s eyebrows rose. “Tell me more.”

“I found this in my pocket in the cab.” He pulled the wanted poster out and handed it to his companion. “Jessica Hardy, the woman from my saga who was actually Leslie Richter, lied about everything. Yet some lies held bits of truth. When we first talked, she mentioned coming to Virginia City from San Francisco. Tonight, the mathematics of what happened became clear.”

“What does mathematics have to do with this?”

“A simple equation!” Adam laughed softly. “You know … two plus two equals four. When she left me at the asylum, she gave them several bottles of that drug to do me in over time. There’s no place a woman could buy that in Virginia City.”

A nod from Paladin. “The concentration also makes it something you can’t pick up at an apothecary.”

“She had to have purchased it before she left here. I showed her poster at the first house I went into. They directed me to a place more appropriate for an unaccompanied woman to use. The proprietress of that house recognized her picture immediately. She explained, in a mixture of English and Chinese that the woman said she couldn’t sleep since her husband’s death. Our cook is Chinese, so I picked up enough to know she was concerned about the large amount Leslie purchased: enough to kill a herd of charging yaks as she described it. She made her promise to take only a spoonful at a time.”

“She bought the drugs … before she ever knew you.”

“Exactly. She got on the stage to Virginia City fully prepared to do someone harm. What’s not clear is why she chose me.”

“It’s obvious you struggle with that ‘why.’”

It was so unlike him, but Adam didn’t hold back. “Without knowing the why, I’m left doubting myself, and see only the parts of me that are unusable … defeated … cowardly.”

“You no longer feel able to control your present or your future ….”

“I always thought I could handle anything. But nothing I tried with Leslie Richter made a lick of difference. I was convinced I was dying after she shot me. But she still wasn’t done with me. The only encouraging thing about that bank robbery and what followed, was that no one else got hurt. No one else valued that though. They only saw my cowardice in allowing a small woman to get the better of me.” Adam took a quick breath and smiled wryly. “it’s best not to dwell on the past.”

“Don’t’ do that,” his companion said pointedly.

“Don’t do what?” His rising cheek pushed his brows nearly into his hairline.

“Wipe away what happened to you like condensation from a window. All that does is push the mess around without giving you a clearer view.” Paladin slumped forward onto the table; his serious thoughts evident in the tight set of his jaw. “All those things you described, Cartwright, have to be faced and understood. I’m not spouting platitudes. There was a time when I felt I controlled everything too, until I was forced to face that I couldn’t.” The gentleman grew silent.

“I’d like to hear about it. In fact, I’m pretty sure I need to hear about it.”

Paladin poured two glasses of bourbon. “Drink up. We’re both gonna need it.”

When both glasses were empty, Paladin sat back. “I was taught humility and given a fresh start to life by a man I ended up killing. Fairly, I should add. But the story begins long before that final drawdown. I’ll not mention exact dates. And even though you’re smart enough to make mathematical calculations that would lead you to my real name, I’d ask that you promise not to. I assume we’ve both experienced people’s snide questions and ‘righteous judgments’ about things they can’t possibly understand.”

Adam extended his hand to seal his vow. “Agreed.”

The man with the deeply clefted chin poured a refill for each of them. “Liquid courage,” he proclaimed as he took a swallow. “Unlike your beginnings, I came from a family of means back East. My education was exceptional, and I was referred to West Point by a family friend who served in congress.5 West Point trained civil engineers, but I was enrolled in the first classes training officers for military assignments.” He grinned at Adam. “That was fortunate since I am not mathematically inclined.6

“May I ask where you were stationed after graduation?”

“In Maryland, teaching military strategy to noncommissioned officers. As talk of civil war increased, so did our efforts. We soon realized our troops were ill-prepared for combat against an army of rebels. After experiencing mass casualties at Bull Run, I was recommissioned to train the influx of callow recruits to the Union army. We no longer taught close-order maneuvers or parading. We trained soldiers in hand-to-hand combat and field awareness. Eventually I led these trainees into battle.

Paladin took a breath, and a sip. “At that point, we still lacked solid intelligence about the movements of rebel troops. My division was ambushed in a canon attack that decimated us. I was up front with my men when the first shots hit. I suffered a severe concussion and facial lacerations that laid me up for weeks: first in a coma, followed by debilitating bouts of dizziness, nausea and ringing ears. In that time, I found myself stuck in unending circular reflection, much like what you’re doing now.”

“What bothered you the most?”

“My men—the ones who weren’t instantly killed—lost limbs or died later with infections from their wounds. I didn’t understand why I should live when those I’d led had perished. I wondered what I’d missed; what I’d failed to see that allowed me to lead them into a trap. But the why had nothing to do with me. One of the Rebel informants, someone above me in rank had paid for information, lied for the sole intent of causing Union casualties. In the end, I was cited for bravery, when despite being injured, I apparently led my men to safety and went back to retrieve others who couldn’t walk. I say apparently because I don’t remember any of that.  In the dark hours of recouperation, I concluded that a real display of courage would have been for me to die with my men. When I was well enough to leave the hospital, I was discharged from service.”

“Discharged?”

A low chuckle. “My face resembled Steak Tartar for some time. Shrapnel continued to work its way out, causing infections just below the skin, until it would finally pop out.” Another chuckle, humorous this time. “Oddly, the scarring seems quite attractive to the fairer sex now. But I was discharged because I remained dizzy, unable to sit a horse without vomiting or sliding off. I felt like I was on the deck of a listing ship.”

“Hunh. That description sounds familiar. I’m pretty sure I used the same analogy as I recovered from the drugs. How’d you end up in California?”

“Asking myself why it happened turned into asking why I’d been spared when men better, with more to live for, hadn’t. I became wild, jousting with the darker parts of life, with the expectation that life would win, and I’d be out of my misery.” Paladin’s expression became contemplative. “Smoke saw that in me. It’s why he called me Paladin. He knew I was a dark knight, participating in a deadly contest for which I had no preparation.”

“Who, or what, is smoke?”

“Patience, Adam, I’ll get there in a minute. Following the discharge, my death wish allowed me to function with no discretion. I drank too much, gambled too much, and embarrassed my family. Their initial attempts to comfort and help, turned quickly to judgments when I could neither explain why I was acting as I was, nor affect a change. They requested I leave. I agreed. Despite the dissolution, they were still generous in providing living expenses, as long as I lived far away. I headed west. The relocation made no difference. The bad behavior intensified when I no longer had to worry about its effect. I am a good poker player, but when I got here, I was driven to it.” He met Adam’s gaze. “Never play poker when you have nothing to lose. The game shows no mercy.”

Adam gave a slight nod to confirm his understanding. This man across from him might be revealing a different story than what Adam had experienced, but it was abundantly clear that Paladin once fought a battle against himself, intending to lose. He leaned forward. “Please, go on.”

“I played a high-stakes game in this very hotel one night and ended up so far in debt, the only way out was to accept a job from the man I owed. He sent me to fight a man named Smoke. I was told this man was keeping a town hostage from my debt holder. My job was to push Smoke into a gunfight and kill him.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting that!” Adam said with a grin. “Were you good with a gun?”

“Not then. When I arrived at Smoke’s domain in my citified clothes and military pistol, the man I’d been sent to kill knew it too.” Paladin sighed. “Here’s the thing. Despite his knowing how ill-prepared I was, and that he could have gunned me down instantly, he corralled me and taught me how to draw fast. More importantly, he taught other lessons about motives, gallantry and being prepared to listen before acting. He wanted me to know that not everyone spoke the truth even when the story seemed valid.”

“He sounds interesting.”

“Interesting? Yes, but he confused me greatly. With no way out, I began to listen and practice. He called me Paladin, and like I mentioned, he knew I was facing myself as surely as I was about to face him in that deadly battle.  He wanted me to have a fighting chance—against both of us.”

“You must have drawn faster since you’re still here.”

A long nod. “My military experience made me a good shot. Smoke was surprised by how well I aimed once he helped me with the draw.”

“He doesn’t fit the description you were given of him being an ogre.”

“Exactly. The most valuable lesson he gave me, was to seek truth … always, even when it’s inconvenient. It’s not always obvious. Turned out Smoke wasn’t holding that town captive. He was protecting those people from the man I owed. I would feel worse about Smoke’s demise, but I found out he was dying f consumption. Maybe he wanted to do one last redeeming thing before he died; maybe he was just a very good man. Chances are it was both. He sensed that I wasn’t a killer by choice, and he used his last days to help me become a discerning and decent man. I started my ‘consulting’ business after that encounter because Smoke set me on a noble pursuit instead of living in a grave of pain.”

“So, part of your purpose is to help me as Smoke helped you?”

“Maybe. I won’t challenge you to a gunfight, but I can help you face the demon keeping you up at night and whispering in your ear that you’d be better off dead. What Smoke taught me is that sometimes there’s absolutely nothing you could have done differently. Bad things happen to us even when we’re doing our darndest to be decent people.”

Adam’s eyes went even darker in the dim lighting. “You’ve known me for two days, and you think you can fix me?”

“Nope. You have to fix yourself. What I can offer is a path: a training ground. That’s what Smoke offered me.”

The dark expression remained, but the set of his jaw relaxed. “I’m already good and fast with a pistol, so you can’t help me with that. So, what do you suggest I do to find my answers?”

“We find the woman on this poster, and bring her in.”

“We?” He received a nod. “How do ‘we’ do what the US Marshals can’t?”

“I’ve been investigating long enough to know that law enforcement only “follows.” When the obvious tracks run out, they wait for clues. We’ll review the time you spent with her and ferret out the commonalities of her methods. Then we search for clues rather than wait for them.”

Paladin waited for Adam’s decision.

“Am I hiring you?” Adam’s darkness was being replaced with growing interest.

“I’ll take any cash reward; your reward will be answers.”

The idea made sense, and his decision was simple. “When do we start?”

Six

“I’ll get it,” Hoss told his family as he rose from the breakfast table to answer a knock at the front door. “I’m done anyway.”

He dug in his pocket for a folded dollar when he found Cal, the courier used by the Western Union office to deliver telegrams to outlying areas.

“It’s from San Francisco,” Cal explained. “Thought Ben’d want it fast.”

“Thanks, Cal.” Hoss handed over the bill, and closed the door as the courier left the yard as quickly as he’d come. He held it up as he approached the table. “Wonder if it’s from Adam.”

Ben’s pocket knife was at the ready by the time Hoss handed him the small envelope. He nodded as he slit the seal and read the short message. “Adam’s leaving the city for an undetermined time. He promises to wire when he gets the chance.”

“Any reason for leaving?” Joe asked.

“No, but he says he’s doing better, and not to worry.”

“But you will,” Hoss said with a chuckle.

“It’s my right to worry,” Ben reminded his middle son before reading the telegram again. Movement … action … for his eldest was a very good sign. Adam was not a person who thrived on endless contemplation or rumination. Something had spurred him towards progress, and he offered his thanks before mentally ticking off the possibilities for his son leaving his “comfortable” place in the bay city. The one making most sense, was that he was going into battle against the enemy that had wounded him. Ben wanted to celebrate that decision, yet a cloud of worry gathered above him. If … if Adam had decided to find Leslie Richter; he would now pursue her to Hell’s gate.

Seven

The two men who’d made their wee-hours decision to find Leslie Richter, rose after a few hours of sleep and moved ahead with gathering information. A stop at the Marshals office in San Francisco brought some news, but no insight.

The man in charge revealed that their best trackers had arrived in Carson City two days after Leslie’s escape. They’d still been able to pick up helter-skelter prints leading from the camp where the two women had joined others, and followed some of them to the Double K horse ranch southeast of Carson.

The trail ended there. The gang had arrived quietly in the night and released a large herd of horses from the corral. They weren’t stampeded, just led out the open gate, with the gang’s animals intermingling with the herd. Had they been wild horses, it might have been different. But this group had been sold to the Cavalry, with the stipulation that they be broken and shod for pickup. Neither the shoes of the gang nor those of the herd bore distinguishing markings, leaving the marshals with too many trails to follow—like finding a certain bent piece of straw in a bale.

They’d concluded the most likely culprit in the escape was Belle Starr, Leslie’s boarding school roommate. The bad news was there was no evidence that her gang had ever come this far west, and there were no wanted posters on them in Arizona or Nevada. No one in Carson reported seeing a group of strangers in town or even a woman on horseback.

For now, the marshals were watching the Starr home in Missouri, even though there’d been nothing to implicate them so far.

Paladin had been right about a reward. Offering $3000 for her capture would encourage actual bounty hunters to find her, and in their case, it would help with expenses and money they’d spend loosening tongues and memories.  Before leaving, Adam asked for a few of the updated wanted posters bearing Leslie’s image: the only assistance the marshals could offer.

***

Paladin had other matters to attend to during the afternoon, but over dinner in Adam’s room that evening, they dissected Adam’s experience with Leslie. He’d dreaded this moment, yet as he spoke, a heavy weight began rising from his shoulders, and the boulder in his gut that had limited his ability to eat, shifted and ground into stones that could finally be digested.

Paladin rubbed his chin when his host finished. “What an unredeemably horrible woman. That couldn’t have ended any other way unless you’d managed to kill her.” He took a long breath. “However, you said a number of interesting things.”

“Such as?” Adam asked as he leaned forward expectantly.

“This woman works alone. She may have spent time with people who formed gangs, but she went out on her own, apparently by choice not conflict, since she was able to ask them for help.”

“I agree.”

“She robbed banks at will with a … uh … creative approach that she honed.”

Adam chuckled. “The word you’re searching for is devious. I believe all her acting, costuming and scene setting was meant for diversion as much as disguise.”

“Two more traits are her fearlessness and lack of remorse,” Paladin continued. “Imagine the gall it took to charm the people in those towns, manipulating them until she got the information she required to take their savings.”

Another nod. “So, what changed when she got to Virginia City?” Adam pondered quietly.

“She hadn’t changed her methods since starting out. Maybe the small heists no longer excited her. A bank in Virginia City would have more cash available, but it wouldn’t be so well-guarded as a bank in a San Francisco. Even with one guard or two employees, she’d have found it hard to keep them in line without having some sort of guarantee that they’d tread carefully. You filled that requirement. By the time you picked her up that day, she knew exactly who you were and that you’d get great respect.”

“Doesn’t her wanting me to come with her afterwards negate her need to work alone.”

“Mr. Cartwright; you must know by now that you were never leaving that farm on your own two feet. She had that elixir and your gun.” Paladin laughed loudly as a thought shot through his mind. “She might have picked you because you were the first man she saw in Virginia City. Or … maybe she figured if she was taking a hostage, he might as well be good looking and important.”

Adam’s grimace at his friend’s conclusion turned into a grin. “Maybe she did say something to that fact. But back to business. As a loner, what would she have done once that gang got her out of Carson City?”

“Take off cross-country on her own?”

“Unlikely.” Adam chewed his bottom lip. “I saw her disgust over the dirty conditions in that farmhouse. She couldn’t sit in the chair until she’d spread the picnic blanket over it. A woman with no stomach for dust and cobwebs would never tend a horse or camp in the wild.”

Paladin drummed his fingers on the table. “Those early robberies followed stage routes?” Adam nodded. “The Marshal Service gave no indication they considered that in their pursuit.”

Adam’s eyes widened as he smiled. “They wouldn’t think anyone brazen enough to take a stage out of town after a prison escape. But that’s where knowing her pays dividends. I know she’s brazen, and feels superior to anyone she considers beneath her … and everyone is beneath her.”

“We have a starting point!” Paladin concluded as he landed his hand on the table with enough force to make the china bounce.

***

The detective team of Cartwright and Paladin took an after-dinner walk to the Overland office to pick up schedules for stage routes with stops near Carson City.  While Adam was familiar with those going to and from the coast, he wasn’t sure about the southbound routes. Trips to southern California or Arizona were usually for stock purchases and made on horseback.

Taking the same table in the bar as the previous night, they sipped brandy while deciding on the most likely place Leslie would have boarded the stage. It was a small settlement called Gardnerville, about 10 miles west of the Double K ranch where the gang’s tracks had ended. A southbound stage boarded there would reach other route hubs within hours.”

Paladin sat back, hooking his thumbs in the pockets of his vest. “Well done, Mr. Smith.”

***

Adam had fallen asleep fast; slept well enough for a few hours, and was up early, eager to get started. He had a purpose, a plan and a partner in crime. It felt amazing.

They’d found a stage to Sacramento with a connection to Placerville and finally Gardnerville, leaving at noon.  While Paladin went to purchase the tickets, Adam sent a note to Frankie’s office explaining his absence. He’d notified his family of his departure last night when he’d committed to the chase, but today he had three further errands; the first to have his beard shaved and have his hair cut; then to the gunsmith for the new pistol and gun belt to replace the older items he’d taken from home, and finally he’d picked up the custom shirts he’d had made to fit his longer arms and torso.

***

As their time to departure neared, Adam slipped into a new black shirt, and packed a few changes of clothes into his valise. The trip by stage would be quicker than going horseback, but the unending hours of confinement required diversion. To fill the time, he also packed books he’d purchased, the latest newspapers from the stand in the hotel lobby, and a drawing pad to go with the soft-leaded pencils and Leslie’s wanted posters.

Satisfied that he was ready, Adam grabbed his things and headed next door.

***

“Dear lord,” Paladin groaned after giving Adam a once-over at the door. “We’re twins.” He grabbed Adam’s arm, pulling him inside. “Why are you dressed like that!”

“I’ve dressed like this for several years,” Adam croaked. “Black lets you shake the dust off your clothes and they still look all right when you don’t have clean ones.” He gave the other man a head-to-toe perusal. “Why are you dressed in black?”

“They’re my work clothes. Listen, Cartwright, you need to change. Our shirts are a little different, but people won’t take us seriously if we’re dressed like twins.”

A sly grin turned the corners of Adam’s mouth. “You’ve only been doing this work for a year. I’ve dressed this way for at least three. I’ve got seniority.” He intended to tease his new friend more, but he noticed a haunted look cloud the other man’s eyes. A quick recall of all they’d discussed over the last three days, provided the answer. “This,” he gestured to Paladin’s clothing, “has something to do with the man who saved you.”

“He dressed similarly, and it fits with being a black knight. That doesn’t mean I’m on the side of evil; it lets people know I’m not going to charge into a situation until I know the truth.” He grinned wryly. “In some ways I’m like the woman we’re about to chase. I wear a costume, play a part and adjust my role to fit the situation. But in my case, it’s to create truth and help not hurt.”

“I’ve got a couple other shirts I can wear,” Adam called back as he walked to his room. “Give me a minute to repack.”

Eight

After being stuck in various forms of constriction within the stage for three days, Paladin and Adam were the only passengers on the final leg to Gardnerville. They’d arranged to spend the night there, knowing the necessity of a decent sleep before pursuing Leslie further. They also thought it best not to rush through questioning the station attendant either. To ensure this, they’d wired the station manager in Gardnerville of their need for rooms and his time.

With the blessed solitude and space inside the coach, the two had spread out, reviewing their line of questioning to make the best use of this first stop in figuring out Leslie’s movements. If the station manager couldn’t confirm her departure, he might help them determine the next most likely place she might have gone. With this settled, they’d each pulled out a book and read.

Paladin’s attention was drawn outside as the stage passed a sign noting their entrance into Nevada. He nudged Adam’s foot with his. “Is your ranch near here? I’ve read that it’s east of Lake Tahoe.”

“It’s north of here.”

“How far north?”

Adam chuckled. “As far as you can see, and then a lot more after that.”

Paladin laughed. “That’s a lot of land.”

Pa sets it at a thousand square miles.”

His left eye slipped shut as he made the mental calculation. “You’re talking well over 600,000 acres!”

“Your math skills are better than you claim,” Adam said with a lingering grin.

“Back East, people are rich from family fortunes made over generations. No one has land like this.” Paladin took another long look out the window. “Why don’t I see cattle grazing?”

“It’s the wrong time of the year.”

“Cattle have ‘times of year’?”

Adam angled himself into the corner of the coach. “Do you really want a lesson in cattle ranching?”

“It’d pass the time.”

“Don’t blame me when your eyes glaze over and you’re forcing yourself to stay awake out of politeness.”

“I’m not that polite.”

“All right then. Our house sits in the Sierra foothills. But the terrain around here varies greatly as does the weather. It takes a few days to ride the entirety of the Ponderosa, and often no two days would feel the same. Being set high, we have snowy winters. Come spring we’re lush with rain and snowmelt, but summer can bring long, hot, dry spells, and near desert conditions on the flats. Where we graze cattle depends on the time of year.”

“So when would I see them here?”

“Spring, when rain greens this grass. But once it’s warmer, they have to go higher where snow melt keeps the grass in good shape for summer.  They’ll get moved to keep them eating well, and to maintain good pasture by not overusing them. By fall, we’ll sell about half of them. The young steers need another year to grow, and of course we breed cows and heifers to replenish the herd come spring.”

Paladin grimaced as he angled himself in the opposite direction of his companion. “Sounds like a lot of work.”

“That’s only the cattle. We do timbering, some farming and there’s always equipment needing upkeep or repair. It’s all part of being a Cartwright. When we settled here, Pa ran trap lines up along streams in the hill country, selling the pelts and using any extra to buy land and his first steers. He’s always maintained that working towards a dream makes the load easier.” Adam sighed and shook his head. “Each one of us still does whatever needs to be done, but success has allowed the hiring of many ranch hands to help. Pa hired a cook several years ago too. Hop Sing runs a tight ship and he’s provided us with an orderly, peaceful home with fine meals. Without him, our family would never have come so far.”

“I’m exhausted just listening.”

Adam leaned his head back in the corner and covered his face with his hat. “I’m exhausted just talking about it. I think I’ll conserve my strength for a few minutes.”

***

It was late afternoon when the stage pulled into Gardnerville. The two tall men were grateful they’d have the night to stretch out and gather information. They’d received a telegram at a previous stop confirming that the boarding house was holding two rooms for the night. The straw ticking at such places was often flat or lumpy, but it still beat an uncomfortable, often bug infested stuffed chair or hard wooden bunk considered beds in a way station.

Ralph Sinclair opened the stage door after placing the step. “Howdy gentlemen,” he greeted them, flashing a broad smile. “Might you be the ones who wired ahead about talkin’ to me and staying over?”

“That’s us,” Adam answered as he jumped to the ground and reached up to grab his bag from the driver.

“I gotta change out his team, get the driver fed, and load some freight before I can talk. Why don’t you mosey over to the boardin’ house. Milly’s waitin’ supper on you, and she puts out a good meal. We’ll talk when you get back.”

***

The station manager held Leslie Richter’s wanted poster closer to the lamp on the kitchen table, and gave a quick look back to the cupboard where his wife was washing dishes. When he returned his attention to his guests, he winked. “Not that I care a lick about how pretty another woman is when my Sally is a beauty inside and out, but I’d recall someone this nice looking showing up to catch the stage. Locals come in for supplies; Sally does sewing for prid’near everyone and I do blacksmithing. We know those people. A stranger ticketing here—particularly a woman—would’a been memorable.” He bent in for a closer inspection. “You say it was a month or so back?”

Adam nodded. “When that woman escaped from the state prison in Carson City.”

“I do recall readin’ on that. Some lawmen came around back then, askin’ if we’d seen any strangers ride through or stop for supplies. We hadn’t. We asked around at the store and they hadn’t either.”

“Did a stranger–woman or man—take a stage since then?” Paladin asked. He looked towards Adam. “It’s possible she laid low a few days before leaving.”

Ralph’s cheeks took on the wrinkled look of a spoiling melon. “There was a ranch hand from the Double K who left then. Said he’d got word his ma was sick down in Arizona. I told them lawmen about him, but they figured he was all right since he’d left his horse with me and paid the livery for the three weeks he’d be gone.”

Ralph’s wife wiped her hands on her apron as she looked over her husband’s shoulder at the poster. “You say this gal’s about my height and slight built?”

“That’s right. Something those other lawmen might not have considered is that she’s adept at using disguises,” Adam revealed. “Is something coming to mind?”

Ralph shook his head, but his wife took the fourth chair, and pulled the poster closer. “Something struck me odd about that ranch hand.” She nudged her husband’s arm. “Tell them about that horse.”

The expression on the station manager’s face became wary. “I understand the lawmen comin’ round, but what’s yer stake in this? This poster says there’s a bounty. Is that what you’re after?”

Sally touched her husband’s arm. “This is Adam Cartwright, Ralph. The Cartwrights own the Ponderosa up north of here. He’s the man that woman was in prison for killing.” She glanced over at Adam. “I saw the article about what really happened to you. Such evil in a woman! I can see why you want to find her and get her back to prison.”

“The marshals are no longer searching for her, but Mr. Paladin and I are following our own theory of how she got away. I will happily offer a generous reward for your information.”

“You’re our neighbor, Mr. Cartwright. We don’t take kindly to people hurtin’ our neighbors,” Ralph said solemnly. “We’ll help any way we can, and you won’t owe us nothin’.”

The lamp light reflected in Ralph’s eyes. “That ranch hand who left from here was short, but hefty around his gut. He had chin-length, scraggly hair and a fuzzy beard.” He looked towards his wife as his cheek drew upwards. “Is it possible it was this woman in a costume?”

Adam pulled a blank sheet of paper and a pencil from his folder, and did a quick sketch of just Leslie’s facial features. “Describe this man again, and I’ll add it in.”

Within minutes, the rough image of the small ranch hand appeared on Adam’s paper.

“That’s him! Or, I guess it’s her!” Ralph shouted. “It helps explains a few things.”

“Like what?” Paladin asked.

“Like his tale of working at the Double K. Said his name was …” Ralph looked at his wife.

“Reno Adams,” she supplied.

“That’s right! When his payment for the livery ran out, I asked a couple of Double K hands in town to take the horse back with them. Sally and me thought this Reno had ended up staying longer with his ma. They said the horse didn’t belong to anyone at the ranch and no Reno had ever worked there.” Ralph shook his head. “Didn’t know what to make of that.”

“Something bothered me about that guy from the beginning,” Sally offered. “He kept his gloves on when he was trying to get money out of his pockets to pay the livery and ticket fees, even when they kept catching on the fabric, making it near impossible to fish the coins out. Another thing I couldn’t fathom; the guy’s big belly moved upwards when he bent down to grab his stuff, pushing his shirt up at the shoulder. It gave me the creeping willies, but It makes sense if it was padding tied to her middle that was shifting.”

Adam looked over at his fellow investigator. “I think Sally would make a good detective.” The smile he gave the station manager’s wife was filled with respect. “Not many people pay attention to details.” Turning again to Paladin. “So, was Reno Adams, Leslie Righter?”

“It fits. She referenced the Double-K because she knew of it from the gambit the gang used.” He took a moment to fill the Sinclairs in on what they suspected about Leslie’s rescue and subsequent actions. “If Belle Starr’s gang was behind this, she knew how Leslie worked and probably provided the disguises she needed to get away on her own while they headed home, denying any involvement.”

Ralph hung his head. “If I’d’a thought more about that guy, the law might’a caught her right off.”

“They were only looking for a woman or the gang,” Adam told him. “It wasn’t until this Reno failed to return that you began to wonder about him. It took time for that to happen, and now we can follow her forward to where she ended up. Being a month behind is good because she’ll have let her guard down, thinking she got away clean.” Adam pulled a stage schedule from his folder. “We’ll need to know which stage she took from here. Chances are she changed her disguise at some point and booked onto a different route, so we’ll appreciate your thoughts on where that would be possible.”

***

The Paladin, Cartwright team spent a few minutes at the dining room table of the boarding house laying out their new plans before heading to bed. The stage Leslie had taken was due in Gardnerville in the morning, and they’d booked passage. Coleville was the next stop: a place Ralph had described as in the middle of nowhere. The most likely station for a change of route and disguise would be Sonora Junction, a small community serving as a hub for routes heading in every direction. It was also a place a stranger could board without raising an eyebrow, since it served a wide area.  She could easily leave as a cowboy and board a different stage later wearing a new disguise.

Adam smiled as he settled into the remarkably comfortable boarding house bed. The expression actually hurt, and he realized his facial muscles hadn’t been forced into this position in some time. His lashes drifted down to rest on his cheeks as his body drifted towards sleep. This simple act of releasing consciousness was another thing that had started to return since his decision to do this. It was a dichotomy that puzzled him.  Facing that he had to find Leslie made him feel more “awake” and spurred from his malaise than he had in months, yet the focus allowed his mind to shut itself down instead of swirling in constant introspection. Whatever was happening; he gratefully accepted it.

***

The on-time stage out of Gardnerville brought them to Sonora Junction by mid-afternoon. Ralph had wired ahead alerting Louie, the manager there, to expect the men and their questions.

Louie laughed while recounting his memory of catching the rotund cowhand when he’d nearly fallen from the coach on exiting. “His big belly made him front-heavy and he shot forward when his short legs didn’t reach the step. I stiffened up when I grabbed him, expecting his weight to knock me back some, but he was light as a feather, and his belly felt … fluffy.” He laughed again and shook his head, “Once he was upright on the ground, he started telling me how he would be leaving as soon as he rented a horse to get to his ma’s house.” Louie’s expression turned sour. “Most passengers don’t say much, and that’s the way I like it. Keeps things moving. But now and then someone gives us their life story.”

As they’d expected, Louie reported that a short, slightly chubby blond woman arrived the next morning, and caught the west bound stage to Sonora, California. “I don’t pay no mind to where the passengers go after they leave the stage or how they get here to take it. Ain’t my business, but thinkin’ on it, I should’a made a connection when this woman started talking my ear off about arriving some months ago by wagon train to visit her sister, and how she was heading to Los Angeles to take a ship home. She was purdy enough, so I didn’t mind her being around.” Louie shivered visibly. “You’re saying she’s a stone-cold criminal? Who’d a thought.”

With minimal adjustments to the face on the wanted poster, Louie confirmed Leslie as the chubby blond. In this iteration, she’d used some waistline padding, the wig and a hat with lightweight facial netting to further disguise herself.

***

The detective team took the stage Leslie had booked, going northwest to Sonora, another hub.  The manager there reported that the chubby blond hadn’t connected towards southern California; she’d purchased a ticket for Stockton. Leslie hadn’t altered her disguise there, only the story she told the ticket agent.

It was astounding for both men to confront Leslie’s fearless adaptability. They weren’t sure why she constructed these elaborate recitals to explain her travel and destinations. Adam concluded she did it because she enjoyed performing and got a sick pleasure out of drawing people to her “plight.” So far, and despite their admissions that her chatter had been a distracting irritant, Ralph, Louie and the Senora manager all admitted to believing her story and making an extra effort to wish him … and her … well before the stage pulled away.

Nine

The final piece to the Leslie Richter puzzle was put in place at the Stockton station.

The blond had left the stage in Stockton after gushing heartfelt thanks and goodbyes to her drivers and fellow passengers, asking them to pray for her as she assumed her new position as housekeeper for a widower in the area.

The next day, a petite older woman, so arthritic she’d needed to be lifted up to the coach, had purchased a ticket … to San Francisco. The ticket agent thought she was gray-haired, but she wore a dark veil pinned to her hat so it was difficult to see much. But the general description had matched too closely to be anyone but Leslie. “I swore she was old,” the agent told the duo. “Her voice was so reedy and soft, I nearly had to put my ear next to her lips to hear her request.”

***

The two men had a good laugh over their circuitous chase, and spent the night in Stockton when the San Francisco stage arrived late, and a light fog precluded it from traveling further.

It was at a Stockton saloon where Adam learned a little more about Paladin. Four hands from the Barclay operation recognized the detective and came to the table to say hello. The greeting turned to teasing him about his timing being bad, since payday wasn’t until the following week.

They noted Adam’s questioning look, and explained how Mr. Paladin had been in town a few weeks earlier and relieved them of some of their wages. Neither a trace of animosity nor accusation was present in the description of their loss.

The most vocal of them shuffled his feet a bit before removing his hat and holding it to his chest. “I just want ta tell Mr. Paladin that I remembered what he taught us about playin’ poker after his games with us. I followed everything he said when we played in the bunk house. I won!”

“Glad to hear,” Paladin offered with a pat to the man’s arm. “You might not always win, but you won’t lose as much if you pay attention and stay sober.”

“What was that about,” Adam asked after the foursome moved to the bar.

“My stage was delayed here the day before I got back to San Francisco and met you. Winning against those men came too easily, so after I took a few hands to pay for my drinks and dinner, I stopped the game and gave them a lesson in why they’d lost.”

“I’ve done the same thing when the local cowhands and miners play badly,” Adam admitted. “They come to town already tired from work and head straight to the bar. By the time they sit to play poker, they’re mostly drunk and half asleep, putting them at the mercy of any sharp intent on mining the silver in their pockets. I don’t enjoy winning like that either, and after taking a little of their money to teach them a lesson, I’ll explain how they put themselves in the position to lose everything when they play in that condition.”

***

“Do you feel like a dog chasing its tail?” Paladin asked when they started up the steps to their rooms at the Stockton Hotel that evening.

“Yes and no. Going back to a place she’s been before is gutsier than I figured she’d be. Then again, San Francisco is big enough and the law is looking for her in Missouri. She can hide just fine as long as she stays out of trouble.”

Paladin leaned against the stair rail. “Staying out of trouble is the problem. She’s probably planning something as we speak.” His head tipped as he examined his companion. “You’ve come a long way since I found you sleeping on the pool table, Cartwright, but there’s something you still have to do.”

Adam’s left upper lip curled. “What’s that?”

They continued up the steps. “I’m not making a judgment, because I’ve gone through family troubles too,” Paladin offered. “But my behavior caused my family to ask me to leave. You told me you walked away from yours because you felt you’d disappointed them. Big difference. I’ve seen the scales fall from your eyes during this trip and you’re back among the living with a new understanding of the deadly viper known as Miss Richter. Are you in the frame of mind now to give you family another chance?”

Adam’s response was snappish. “What does that have to do with finding Leslie?”

“San Francisco is a big place, Cartwright. We need help. Another three people ought to do it.” Paladin watched for his companion’s reaction. It showed up as a wry grin.

“The Cartwrights always accomplish more working together than we do trying to talk things out. I’ll wire them to meet us at the Carlton as soon as they can get there.”

Eleven

There’d been no embraces offered when Adam welcomed his family into his suite at the Carlton. But the greetings had come with an ease absent at Dr. Oleson’s office in Carson City.

Adam noted his family’s genuine curiosity about the well-dressed, amiable, mysterious man he’d introduced. It had taken nearly two hours to catch up on the goings on from the ranch, and then for the detective duo to explain their circular efforts in tracking Leslie to San Francisco.

“Why d’you suppose she came back here, Adam?” Hoss asked. “Seems like she’d a been better off high-tailin’ it far away.”

“She has mannerisms and the looks to blend into a bigger place, whereas she’d eventually stick out like a sore thumb in small town,” Adam explained. “I suppose San Francisco was the closest destination where she’d feel confident hiding.”

“How do you suppose she’s paying for things?” Joe asked.

“She may have gotten money from the woman who abetted her escape, or …” Adam laughed while shaking his head. “I read recently about a fast-thinking bank agent and a preacher who thwarted a robbery by pinning a large shipment of money into the petticoats of the dancing girls they were transporting on the stage along with the strong box. Maybe Leslie has money stashed the same way.”

“Where and when do we start looking?” Ben cut in. “I’m anxious to catch her before she gets wind that we’re looking and disappears again.”

Paladin and Adam had already divided the nicer San Francisco hotels into five lists.

“We’ll start on these tomorrow, with scheduled meet-ups for updates,” Adam told them while distributing the lists. “No one will take her on alone!” He stood wide-legged with his fists on his hips, looking much like his father did when taking charge. His line of sight rested on his youngest brother. “I’m dead serious about this. She’s as slippery as an eel and venomous as cobra. She can slip away from one of us, but she won’t get away from all of us.”

“What should we do if we see her?” Joe asked. “It’d be a shame to let her get away.”

“Follow her,” Paladin supplied. “But at a distance. Adam has told you that he found a place that sold her the opium elixir she used on him, and that she’s been back for more. Remember, she shot Adam without a blink, and she knows this drug is deadly. If anyone takes her alone, she’ll shoot for the heart or make sure to administer a fatal dose.”

Ben rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Maybe we should turn your information over to the Marshal Service, and let them handle it. You’ve always advocated using lawful authority, Adam.”

Paladin shot Adam a look indicating he would answer. “My line of work is investigating. Often times I’m following up on cases where the law made initial efforts but stopped when they hit dead ends or had to handle more pressing matters. That’s what’s happened here. They’ve stopped looking for her in favor of watching the Starrs in Missouri, hoping for a connection.” He looked again towards Adam. “We’ll alert the law once we have her located. The footwork is up to us.”

Ben’s expression remained unconvinced. “I’d still prefer working within the law.”

“There’s a bounty on her now,” Adam reminded his father. “That allows us to apprehend her on our own. Bringing others in at this time could result in a blunder that would spook her. We’ll quickly and quietly spread a big net over the city.”

***

Adam’s small suite had only one bed, so he’d arranged for his family to occupy an available set of rooms across the hall. He handed them the key at the end of their reunion and planning session, suggesting they relax until dinner.

The idea brought easy agreement, but as they headed to the door, he said, “Pa, could you stay back a few minutes?”

Father and son sat facing each other once the room was empty.

“You are doing well, Son,” Ben began. “I apologize for how things went in Carson City. The note you wrote was spot on, and I grieved not being able to set things straight before you left.”

“I know.” Adam closed his eyes and sighed. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you warning. I just had to go.”

“This man … Paladin …. Is he mostly a bounty hunter?”

“His motive in taking a job is never money. I’m sure those who hire him thinking he’ll believe everything they say because they’re paying him, are surprised when he finds their lies and exposes the truth.” He looked in the direction of the adjoining apartment. “He’s had some rough times too, Pa.”

“How so?”

“He isn’t forthcoming about it so I won’t divulge what I know. For now, I’d ask that you take him as you find him, and judge him only on his actions.” A chuckle. “That may sound more ominous than I meant it to. He’s not a criminal, just a man who lost himself for a while.” A grin pulled his lips to the left. “Sound familiar?”

“Are you his client?”

Adam shrugged. “I believe he’s doing it as a friend: a way to honor a man who helped him when he’d hit rock bottom.” Adam looked up, meeting his father’s eyes. “You felt compelled to document every detail of what had happened after I disappeared, certain it was meant for someone else’s eyes. I believe ….” He looked down.

“Believe what, Adam?”

“I believe I was led home to see your journal, just as I was led here.” He scrubbed his face when he looked up. “Heck, Pa, I’ve never been to this hotel. But after staying in a couple horrible places to keep people from recognizing me, I was walking by the Carlton; came inside and immediately rented this suite. Paladin wasn’t around then, and my attempts to get myself back on track failed miserably. Each night, I’d awake in what felt like an airless grave I couldn’t get out of, and each day seemed more fruitless. When Paladin returned, he just kept at me until I took a deep breath of good air again.” The face scrubbing returned. “That man next door … he knows what it feels like to be dead, even while your heart continues to beat.”

Ben placed his hand on Adam’s knee. “I’m thankful for whatever led you here, Son. What brought you out of that walking death you describe?”

“Simple things at first, like eating better and getting out. And then, he told me that I needed to find Leslie Richter.” His slow-forming smile created a wide, toothy arc. “And once we’d gotten a bead on her, he reminded me that I needed to get things right with you.”

“Mr. Paladin seems a thoughtful and kind man.”

Adam nodded. “May I … ah … ask about what happened after I left?”

“Regarding?” Ben replied

“Was Joe right? Did the gossip over my survival get ugly?”

“There was gossip, but it never developed steam. The newspaper article taken from your affidavit made people aware of all you’d been through. There are always those who believe the worst, but after that was published, the feeling moved towards concern.”

A smile again softened the stone-like expression Adam had steeled on his face when asking these questions.

“It’s good to see you smile,” Ben told his son as he rose. “Stand up,” he ordered.

The compliance was accompanied by a wary look. “All right, I’m up. Now what?”

“I’m going to do what I should have done in that doctor’s office.” He stepped forward, wrapping his arms around his son’s shoulders and pulled him close. “Welcome home, Adam.”

Adam was caught off guard, stiffening at the embrace, his arms hanging straight at his sides. His first impulse was to pull away, unsure that he was ready for this. “I’m not home yet,” he whispered.

“You’re home in my heart, Adam. Where we’re standing is irrelevant.”

His resistance ended as he finally found the proper use for his flaccid upper limbs. He wrapped them tightly around his father’s back, and released of a long, thankful sigh.

Twelve

The Cartwrights and Paladin enjoyed a fine repast at the Carlton that evening after determining not to mention Leslie Richter. Following the meal, the group adjourned to the salon where the earlier challenges issued between the rancher and the detective were finally resolved with Ben, Hoss and Joe as their judges.

Adam won two out of three games of billiards, citing the advantage of his engineering work with angles and vectors. Paladin took the chess match in two games, reasoning that his experience in the military made him a superior strategist.

***

Final plans for the morning were rehashed at breakfast in Adam’s suite before they proceeded to the Carlton’s front entrance.

“Remember, we’re after information, not confrontation,” Adam reminded his youngest brother while closing the door of Joe’s cab.

“I know, I know,” Joe grumbled as he shook his head. “I’ll see you at lunch.”

***

The Cattlemen’s club was accommodating to the Cartwrights, quickly ushering the family-plus-one into a private dining room, and sending staff in to handle the meal.

After they’d ordered, each member of the investigative team reported their findings.

“She’s been a busy bee,” Ben concluded. “Adam, Joe and Hoss each found one hotel where someone matching her general description stayed for a night or two. Is she moving to avoid getting caught?”

Paladin stroked his chin. “I wouldn’t think so. She’s unaware anyone’s looking for her.”

“I think she’s casing areas like she did in those cities along the stage routes and then in Virginia City.” Adam suggested.

Ben added, “Does her movement indicate that she’s not found the right opportunity?”

“Good thought, Pa.” Adam looked towards Paladin. “Can you tell if her moves indicate she’s homing in on something?”

Paladin used the back of a wanted poster to draw a rudimentary map of San Francisco, adding in the hotels where she’d been identified. “Give me the dates of her stays,” he told the others, adding them to the map and connecting them from first to latest. “She started in the banking district, but she’s near the theaters now.”

“What good does that do her?” Joe asked.

“A theater could have robust ticket sales for a good show,” Paladin suggested. “Security is nonexistent because no one expects a robbery around so many witnesses. Miss Richter can dress for the evening, mingle into the crowd, and then perform a brazen heist.”

“That makes sense!” Ben said enthusiastically. “We know she delights in creating her own drama. How better to experience that than amidst the spectacle of a theater.”

Adam grimaced. “There’s one problem. She’d look out of place unaccompanied. She’ll have to use an accomplice: one she’ll entice with promises of lusty nights and exciting days. The unfortunate thing for anyone who takes her up on it, is that he’ll experience what we’ve concluded about Leslie. She’ll neither keep him nor leave a witness.”

“You really think we’re closing in on her?” Joe asked. “This almost seems too easy.”

“It’s easy … now,” Adam laughed. “Before we tracked her here, she could have been anywhere.”

Joe’s face shadowed as he sat straighter. “You’ve done some good work, Older Brother. But it would seem we could have caught her right away if you hadn’t bolted from Carson City.”

Ben’s stern, “Joseph!” was accompanied by Paladin leaning forward onto the table, sending the youngest Cartwright a blazing stare.

“Let me guess. You’ve read a how to be a detective manual where the detective is smarter and one step ahead of every criminal, and clues comes through at the exact right moment.” He laughed at Joe’s blush, knowing he’d hit a bit of truth. He looked over at Adam. “Those of us carrying a few more years know that things seldom happen how they’re supposed to or on our timetable.”

“What do you mean by that?” Joe’s tone was as tense as his cheek muscles.

Adam nodded at his fellow detective. “It means that you can’t always control circumstances when they’re happening. In Carson City you said that I should have seen what Leslie was up to and gotten the upper hand.  The implication being that my actual response was ineffectual … cowardly … or both.” He breathed heavily, his face setting in stone. “I … bolted, as you put it … because I agreed. Those drugs left me dead inside and it felt like I had mental gangrene eating away at my thoughts.

“Adam …” Joe said. “I … “

“I know, Joe. I’m only trying to make a point about things you haven’t experienced, and I never want you to. You’ve faced some serious, even deadly situations, but you’ve never gone up against a person like Peter Kane, Leslie Richter and even Ross towards the end of his life. Their brains … consciences, or lack of one … makes everything different. They say and do whatever they want, manufacturing facts to match their lies. You can’t reason with them. Their brains flip from one thing to the next, adapting their truth minute-by-minute. They’re charming, even disarming at first. But their satisfaction comes from pulling the rug out from under you, watching you fall on your face and then stepping on your neck when you’re down.”

“You’re better now,” Hoss broke in. “How’d you get past them dark thoughts you had?”

“Time. I learned that the effects of opium can go on long after the consumption stops, especially when you don’t eat and sleep enough. And I accepted that there was nothing I could have done to change the outcome with Leslie Richter.”

“You could have gone with her,” Joe suggested.

Adam shook his head. “The ending was inevitable. She’d traveled to Virginia City with a suitcase full of poison and a plan to use it on someone.”

“But If you’d at least tried …. She might have dropped her guard long enough for you to get the gun or pin her down.”

Paladin chuckled. “That would never have happened.”

“I finally understand,” Ben interjected as he pushed back from the table and leaned forward on his hands to address the group. “Adam was doomed from the moment he agreed to take Leslie Richter on that ride. If he had agreed to go with her after she robbed the bank, she’d have seen him as weak, allowing her to dispose of him for that. Her continued attempts to get him to change his mind gave her the thrill of manipulating an honest man into abandoning his moral certainty just to survive.” He nodded towards his son. “But had you agreed to live by her rules; she would have seen this as an even greater weakness with the same outcome. Remaining true to yourself chafed her, thus making it certain she’d kill you. There was no way out. The saving grace was that she’d never killed anyone outright, and had found something about you that lessened her determination for an onsite death. You fought back and she needed to punish you for that. How better than to make your death a living hell, and watch your family suffer the grief of not knowing your outcome. You can’t fight that kind of insanity.”

“What’d you think when she pulled that trigger, Adam?” Hoss asked quietly.

Adam took time to think through his answer. This discussion with his family was hard, but he could see the honest attempt to understand this time. “I wasn’t sure why she shot wide. An inch towards the center of my torso, and she’d have sent that bullet somewhere causing near-instant death. She didn’t want that to happen.” He huffed. “Not that she was exhibiting pity. A corpse would have simply been harder to handle.”

“It sounds like this has all come full round for you, Adam,” Hoss concluded. “Yer using what you learned about her to hunt her. We’re getting’ so close to bringin’ her in that the hairs on my back are standin’ straight up.”

“That’s a lot of hair standing at attention,” Adam teased. “We should get going.” He looked at Paladin. “There’s only a few hotels to check. Where would you suggest we meet at three?”

“The hotels are near the bay so let’s meet at Jonah’s Café. Adam mentioned that all have been there before.”

“What if we do find where she’s stayin’ and need to stay put?” Hoss asked.

“Hotels have messenger services,” Ben suggested. “If you discover her location; send a note to Jonah’s, and continue to observe … from a distance. We’ll get there as fast as we can.”

Adam looked pointedly at his youngest brother. “Remember, Joe. You might surprise her, but you can’t control her.”

Thirteen

Little Joe awoke feeling groggy, dizzy and nauseous. With a large knot of cloth wedged between his teeth and secured behind his head, controlling the nausea was his first priority.

His hands and feet were tied, connected together behind him, making his shoulders ache with the constant pull. The nausea was tweaked by the smell of rotting seaweed and fish, drifting in on a breeze above him. The sensation of sideways sliding, followed by an abrupt stop and tug, had the familiar feel of being in a moored boat.

The most troubling of his current issues was that his mind was as foggy as the San Francisco harbor on a humid night. He couldn’t remember what had preceded his waking up like this. With a few deep breaths, the swirling in his head and gut eased, allowing him to open his eyes and move his head enough to verify that he was on a berth in a small cabin with a portal above him. Drifting in with the fetid breeze was a conversation between two men talking in a mixture of English and Spanish. He picked up just enough to know they were getting ready to cast off.

As he sought lucidity, an image of Adam in Dr. Oleson’s office fought to be recognized. Joe could now clearly see his brother’s struggle to explain what had happened to him. He understood the “fog” that had kept Adam from answering the barrage of questions his family had asked.

Accompanying his mental ineptitude, was a sharp, throbbing pain on the side of his head, making his eyes water. Everything hurt, including thinking, but pieces of his odyssey finally began to fit together.

His inquiries at the last hotel on his list, had brought success when the clerk indicated that a woman matching the description was staying there. However, she’d given notice of her need to depart within the hour.

The clerk had refused to reveal “Miss Stockton’s” room number. What he had offered, with his hand extended for a monetary incentive, was to send a bellhop to her room with a message.

Joe had quickly penned his request for her to meet him in the lobby, signing it Adam Cartwright for bigger impact. His initial thought of following the messenger was replaced by a plan more in keeping with his family’s cautions. Leslie was unlikely to want to see or speak to his brother, and thinking he was waiting downstairs, she was sure to exit another door. With the message on its way, he’d ducked outside to make a quick perusal of the building’s exterior.

He’d found an alley with a large loading dock and an adjacent door into the hotel. Checking inside, he’d seen a stairway leading up, a good sign it was the back exit. He’d barely found a shadowed hiding spot in the alley, when the door had opened and Leslie Richter had pushed her way out carrying a bulky satchel in each hand. He’d forgotten every warning and directive his family had issued when he’d realized she was on the move. He’d drawn his gun and stepped into the light.

She’d yipped when she looked up and saw him standing there. He’d thought immediately to his brother’s admonitions about how quickly she could adapt, and witnessed it firsthand when she’d taken a deep breath, set her bags down and stood straight, sending him a deprecating look.

A squint had wrinkled her face before she’d laughed. “You’re one of the Cartwrights from my trial. Don’t they call you Tiny Tim or something?”

“Little Joe.” He hadn’t blinked at her attempt to poke fun at his name.

“So, Adam sent his little brother to do a man’s work?” she’d fired. “How is the resurrected eldest Cartwright son?”

“He’s just fine, ma’am, and waiting with the rest of my family.” He flicked his pistol towards the end of the alley. “Walk ahead of me and we’ll catch a cab to join them.” He’d known he’d made a major error as soon as the words left his mouth. His bravado had let her know he was alone.

She’d laughed again. “I’ll scream and say you’re molesting me. The hotel knows me, and will assume you’re the criminal. I’ll be far away before you convince them that they’re holding the wrong person.” A knowing, crooked smile had appeared them. “If you’re anything like your older brother, you’ve been taught to respect women. Your sense of honor won’t allow you to shoot.” Her grin became a sneer. “You may have the gun, Baby Brother, but I have the upper hand.”

Joe moaned quietly as he remembered paying sole attention to Leslie’s monologue, while missing the fact that the door hadn’t completely closed behind her. He’d been completely surprised when a man the size of Hoss, but with more muscle than girth, stepped out of the exit with a pistol pointing directly at him. Even more unnerving, was that the guy had handed the pistol to Leslie and moved out of his line of sight. He’d faced two threats, and hadn’t been sure which one to watch.

She’d flicked the pistol towards the guy. “I hired Goliath—or at least that’s what I call him—to play the part of my hostage when I robbed the theaters. I suppose your big brother heard about that and figured it was me.”

Joe hadn’t heard any such thing, but he’d had presence of mind to pretend that he had.

“I saw your brother on the street a few weeks ago. Even followed him to his hotel and watched that place for a few days. He’d come and go, mostly taking aimless walks. He seemed unfocused and had the pallor of someone nearing the end of a fatal disease, although at least he’d trimmed his beard and combed his hair since I’d last seen him. I was convinced he didn’t have a clue that I was in town too, and that he didn’t possess the stamina to be chasing me. So … I kept looking for something exciting to do.” A sigh. “I should have learned not to underestimate Adam’s doggedness.”

Joe had witnessed Leslie’s momentary lapse of determination as she’d spoken about Adam, but she shook her head like a dog coming out of a pond, and resumed her defiant pose. “Adam must have told you that I shot him point blank without a second thought. Well … maybe there was one second thought that made me aim a little wider so he wouldn’t die right there. I couldn’t have moved his corpse, just like my attorney mentioned at the trial.” She’d laughed gutturally. “You know, it could be exciting to watch you attempt to overcome your distaste for killing a woman, while I pull my trigger first. I got the same thrill watching Adam’s surprise when I shot him.”

Joe breathed as deeply as the gag allowed. He could feel his cheeks reddening as he recalled how he’d allowed her to manipulate his attention again by making him measure the morality of defending himself. Meanwhile, Goliath had eased around his side, getting near enough to jam his thick fist into Joe’s right temple: felling him like an axe taking down a sapling. He’d crumbled to the ground, too stunned to move, and too weak to fight off the large arms that held him down while Leslie had produced a brown bottle from a pocket of her green dress; held his nose, and poured a foul liquid into his mouth. He’d managed to spit some out before choking down the rest to breath.

What he didn’t understand was why he was still alive after ingesting the elixir. Something else didn’t make sense. After the initial fogginess, he was thinking pretty clearly again, leaving him to consider whether she’d given him something less deadly than what she’d given Adam, or if he’d only gotten a minimal amount, knocking him out just long enough for her to sell him into service on a departing ship?

These ponderings were interrupted by the grating of a metal key turning in the lock. Leslie slipped inside.

“You’re awake, Joselito! After taking that punch and the medicine, I thought you’d be out longer. You’re certainly as tough as your brother, even if not quite as handsome.” She chuckled, low and menacingly. “I imagine you’d like that gag out of your mouth.” She tapped her index finger to her cheek. “I’ll do it, but don’t get any ideas about calling for help. I’ve paid well for privacy, and the deck hands are readying to cast off.”

“Where’s Goliath?” he asked once his tongue was free.

“Oh, the poor guy had an accident after he helped me get you onto the ship. The two of us told the crew that you were afraid to sail, and had imbibed until you’d passed out.  But once Goliath got you ‘settled in,’ I went back to shore with him, and found an alley next to a rowdy saloon to say our goodbyes and share the take from the theaters. The police won’t think twice about a stiff found in this part of town.” She tossed the gag onto a dresser next to the berth and laughed quietly. “I would have handled you that way too, but the law would investigate the death of a Cartwright.” Leslie stabbed her fingernail into his chest to emphasize her point, laughing again when he grimaced.

“What do you plan to do with me?” he asked as calmly as he could muster.

“I’d booked passage on this ship when I first got to San Francisco, knowing I’d have to flee after whatever fun I finally decided on. The robberies last night coincided with the ship sailing today. The crew easily bought the story about your fear of the ocean, and your penchant for drinking to relieve that fear. They won’t question that you fell overboard in a blind drunk during the night. You’ll be declared lost at sea, under an alias of course.”

Joe could only describe the expression lighting her face, as eerie.

“I’ll enjoy your family always wondering whether you’re alive or dead, hoping you’ll show up one day like Adam. When that doesn’t happen, they’ll blame Adam for bringing me into your lives. It will be my final insult for him. Your father will grow to hate him, and wish he’d have stayed dead to save you.”

She tipped her head, observing Joe’s face. “Are you thinking about your family now? Adam had that same expression when he thought he was dying. He mumbled something about saying goodbye.”

Joe drew a deep breath despite the pain it caused. “Of course, I’m thinking about them. I wish I could see Adam a last time to apologize. I called him a coward for not overpowering you. He warned me you were an evil, slippery devil, but I still thought I could anticipate every move you’d make.”

Leslie’s head snapped towards him as her eyes rounded. “You called Adam a coward? You stupid child. I manipulate people, kid. It’s my finest skill. I knew from the moment I pulled your brother’s gun on him at the bank that I was putting him into a moral dilemma. He repeatedly offered to help set things straight if I’d go back. He was genuine in that, but I had no intention of setting anything straight. Through all my threats and shameless inveigling, he remained true to his principles, knowing he was going to die for them. That’s courage.”

She grew quiet, her tone softening. “Adam was the first person to stand up to me. I’ve wondered since meeting him whether I’d be a different person if someone had done that when I was young.”

Leslie’s voice returned to her brashest bawl. “And believing you could outthink me? Ha! I do whatever pleases me at a given moment. Today what pleases me is to destroy the Cartwrights.”

***

Adam and Ben paced the front of Jonah’s Café while their frequently appearing pocket watches ticked off the minutes pointing to Little Joe being in trouble.

“I shouldn’t have let him go alone,” Adam nearly moaned.

“Paladin isn’t here either, so there might be a simple reason for Joe’s delay,” Ben told his sons before continuing to pace.

Adam’s low chuckle sounded much like another moan.  “There’s nothing simple about Joe, Pa. That’s what has us wearing out the soles of our boots.”

Hoss was leaning against a lamp post, knowing that if he’d join the pacing, they’d all end up in a pile. He straightened suddenly, pointing down the street. “Mr. Paladin’s comin’.”

The gray-suited man was walking as fast as he could without knocking over other pedestrians. He waved to Hoss, and noticed the worried expressions as he reached the family. A quick headcount provided the answer. “Joe’s missing?”

“We haven’t heard from him either,” Ben replied.

“I’m afraid he found her and did something stupid.” Adam’s mouth was so dry with fear, his words sounded sticky.

Paladin nodded, and then handed Adam the papers he had tucked under his arm. I saw these at a news stand.

Adam’s eye flew over the headlines and settled on a small banner in the lower right corner. “Well, I’ll be!”

Ben found a similar article in the Chronicle’s afternoon edition, and read it aloud.

Managers at the California Theater and The San Francisco Opera House report the theft of their box office receipts last night, just as the crowd was entering the auditorium. Both indicate the thief was a small blonde woman wearing a netted hat, who’d held a hostage at gunpoint while demanding the ticket revenue. After receiving the cash, she told the staff to stay put, threatening to shoot the hostage if she saw any attempts at contacting the authorities before she got away. Her escape was facilitated by mingling into the throng of patrons in the lobby while keeping the hostage at gunpoint with a small pistol hidden in her purse. Police were summoned quickly after the first robbery, and while officers were investigating at the California, she hit the Opera House in the same manner. A thorough investigation has turned up no further sign of her movements following the second robbery.

“How avantgarde for a woman to hit two places in the same area on the same night,” Adam said with a sneer.

“Do you think it’s an actual hostage like you were?” Ben asked.

Adam shook her head. “Her experience with me proved you can’t count on a hostage to cooperate.”

“Won’t this mean she’s gotta get out of town?” Hoss asked. “If them marshals are worth their salt; them robberies should poke their memories some.” He shook his head as he blew a deep breath. “Or is this city big enough she can hide out til things cool off.”

Paladin nodded towards the tallest Cartwright. “I’d go with your first conclusion. There are so few women criminals—especially with enough guts to pull such a public theft—that every law agency will be called into the search. Wanted poster noting her disguises, will be distributed to hotels, stage and train stations, and businesses.  She knows she’ll be hunted.”

Ben’s voice echoed with dread. “If Joseph did stumble onto her while she was trying to leave. He would have felt compelled to follow her.”

“That’s most probable,” Paladin told the others. “We’ll check the two hotels Joe was assigned, and pray for a clue.” He stuck his hand in his pockets, and steeled his spine. “This sounds callous, but I’ll go to those hotels. I can avoid the emotion that would influence your reaction with the staffs.” He focused on Ben and his middle son. “You two remain calm and stay put. Maybe Joe’s delay is benign and he’ll show up. I’ll take Adam but only so he can return here with updates.”

“Hoss can stay here. I’ll check the stage depot,” Ben told them in his no-backtalk voice.

Adam took his father’s shoulders and stepped closer. “You want to do something, Pa, but this time waiting is that something. She won’t take a stage because she needs speed, distance and far more diversion. The train’s an option, but the station’s too big to cover alone. Let’s see what we uncover, and then focus our efforts.”

***

Left alone while Leslie was outside checking the crew’s progress, Joe noticed the absence of the tug and slide, an indication that shore-lines had been dropped. He heard the click and swish of metal rings moving against rope and the snap of canvas as sails were raised, yet there seemed no forward movement. The fragile hope of his family finding him would end as soon as the ship sailed, so he gave thanks for whatever was stalling their departure.

His thoughts turned uneasily to Leslie’s promise that he wouldn’t survive to see the next port. Drumming at his conscience was his accusation that Adam’s inaction had set their father on a tortured journey of grief.  He was overcome by shame as those same words now convicted him. Not knowing the truth, Pa would pray for another miraculous restoration of his family, only to be left with eternal unfilled expectation.

He finally realized what Adam had experienced. There was no way to convince a crazy person to make a rational decision, and his brother had faced his fate bravely, and continued to fight through every horrid minute of his life for months afterwards.

His eyes pooled, and quiet tears of regret trickled down his cheek, making him rub his face against the blanket to remove the evidence. But in those tears, he found the strength to keep trying too. Pa always said that where there was life, there was hope.

***

It seemed an eternity for Ben and Hoss, but Adam and Paladin were soon heading towards them.

The two men were still in stride when Ben demanded, “What did you find?”

Adam pulled his father away from the foot traffic on the walk. “She was staying at the first hotel we checked. The clerk said he was loath to reveal private information, while simultaneously holding his hand out for an incentive to overcome his reluctance. The cash allowed his revelation that a woman matching Leslie’s description had stayed there … and left … an hour earlier after a man named Adam Cartwright had come to see her. He’d sent a note up to Miss Stockton’s room alerting her of the visitor. He never saw her come down and the visitor disappeared too. A check on her room after departure time had passed, found it emptied.”

Paladin picked up the story before Ben could comment. “We questioned the doorman whose discretion was also alleviated by a few dollars. He’d hailed a cab for her after she’d appeared from the side of the building, making him think she’d exited the back stairs. She was accompanied by two men, one of whom was carrying the other over his shoulder. While waiting for the cab to pull up, she’d made a loud show of explaining that the men were sailors—the smaller of the two, her brother—and how they’d come to see her in such an inebriated state, she’d made them stay the night. Her brother was still under-the-weather, and her intention was to drop them both at their ship before she caught a train.”

Ben’s voice bore both grief and anger. “She does have him, and he’s in big trouble. Do you believe she was going to the harbor?”

Adam looked towards his companion. “We do. The story was another diversional history meant to confound anyone trying to follow her. She mentioned the train, but the ship gets her away faster with no means of it being contacted. Those crews are used to turning a blind eye, especially if she bribes them to do so.”

“She knows we’re onto her, and ….” Ben stopped talking as the impact of his words made him sway.

Paladin’s tone was soothing. “It’s unlikely she’d leave a Cartwright in some back alley to cause a stir. He’s on the ship with her. You three go figure out which one. I’ll grab the police, and bring them to the docks for a show of force.” His parting smile was warm. “The Cartwright clan can do this part without my help.”

Fourteen

Leslie slammed the cabin door behind her when she returned. She’d stuck the gag back into Joe’s mouth before leaving, and yanked it out with enough force to set his front teeth tingling.

“What’s going on?” he asked the woman who was pacing the small room.

“Stupid wind,” she spat. “It’s always blowing down here—nearly blew my wig off when I purchased the ticket—but today there’s nothing and the ship’s becalmed in the harbor basin.”

“That explains why we’re bobbing like a cork.”

“Do you know what they have to do to get underway?” she nearly screeched.

“I’ve no idea, but it’s clearly making you jittery. Why is that?”

She didn’t answer, launching into another tirade. “While we’re stuck here, your brother is catching up to us. He’ll retrace your steps once you don’t show up wherever you were supposed to meet. I didn’t care about that when I thought this wooden tub would be out to sea.”

“You said you paid the crew to deny you’re here.”

“But your family can pay them even better to say I am. The loyalty on one of these vessels extends to the person with the most cash in their hand.” She stomped her foot. “What is it about your crazy family that they cause me nothing but trouble?”

Joe smiled mockingly. “We’re just special that way.”

Leslie’s lips formed a thin, hard line as she breathed deeply to regain her composure … and her position of control. She pushed in next to him on the narrow berth, adopting a sleezy smile. “Is there a reason they call you Little Joe?” A wicked laugh accompanied the movement of her hand upwards along his inner thigh. She laughed louder when Joe tensed at her touch. “Relax, Joselito. I’m simply checking to make sure your name isn’t warranted because of a physical deficiency.”

Joe bit the insides of his cheeks and let his mind wander to other things as her hand neared the top of his leg. He knew she wanted him to squirm, register his outrage, or even worse, to react to her touch.

Her hands moved to his belt where she worked the buckle. “We have a little unoccupied time before you dive overboard. I’m thinking there’s a good way to investigate the size of your … equipment.”

“I want nothing to do with you,” he said evenly.

“Men have little control when it comes to this. A gentle puff of breath, a stroke of my hand, and you won’t be able to resist.” She watched Joe’s cheeks turn bright red. “Right about now, you’re wondering if I did the same thing to Adam.” Her laugh was low and menacing. “Do the Cartwright boys share their women like they do other things?”

“Take your hand off me or I’ll bite it off if I have to,” Joe growled.

“Oh, my. I’ve offended you.” The laugh returned. “I don’t kiss and tell. Suffice it to say that memories of Adam kept me from losing my mind in that prison. But it’s not what you’re thinking. What I loved to remember, was his eyes registering surprise, horror and finally acceptance of his death as he lost consciousness. I was in complete control of a very mindful, rational man. I counted the days, first in that stinking Virginia City jail and then in the prison, and I felt absolute ecstasy when I figured enough time had passed that he’d died. I imagined him waking occasionally wondering what was happening to him, yet being too drugged to speak up. I relished his absolute terror when they’d force more ‘medicine’ down his throat until he finally didn’t wake up again.” She huffed disgustedly. “He wouldn’t die though.” She clucked and sighed. “He refused to play fair.”

Joe’s nausea at what his predicament meant for his family returned, prodding him to end this discussion before his emotions got the upper hand. “You said they were doing something to get moving?”

Leslie jumped up to gaze out the porthole and chatted on about boats and the anchor as though they’d been having an amiable discussion in the preceding minutes. He let his mind drift away to his family, praying they’d find normalcy one day when the loss was less raw, just as Adam had wanted for them when he’d left them in Carson.

***

The Cartwrights found four ships docked in the harbor, with one more at sail, but unmoving, halfway to the harbor entrance. They could make quick work of investigating, but their biggest fear was that the delay in figuring Leslie’s intention may have allowed her ship to sail.

The harbor was bustling as cargo was offloaded or stowed with pulleys and booms, while smaller stores were being hand-carried onto the vessels by surefooted crew who maneuvered the slippery, narrow gangplanks like mountain goats. Visitors trying to get a good look at things, mixed in among the sailors adding to the possibility of someone ending up in the drink.

Adam, Ben and Hoss made their way down the dock together, asking as many people as possible about the arrival or boarding of a woman along with two men, one of them carrying the other.

“Now what?” Hoss demanded in a frustrated tone when they reached the far end without a single sighting. “We gotta figger this out!”

Adam turned in an arc, taking in the entire harbor again. “I’m convinced she’s here, but it’s not surprising no one saw her. It’s dangerous and hectic, so people pay attention only to what’s in front of their nose.”

He nodded sideways, indicating they should move towards a quieter spot.  “If she is on one of these boats, she’s paid the crew for their silence. Think back to everyone you spoke with.  Did anyone seem guarded or hesitant about talking? They may have looked away or down or seemed more uneasy than necessary.”

Both men shook their heads. “Mostly they were anxious to get back to what they were doin’,” Hoss answered. “But no one acted like they was lyin’.”

“The same for me,” Ben confirmed.”

“Maybe I’m wrong, then.” Adam looked again at the bay, and pointed. “What’s going on with that vessel, Pa? Sails are up, but they’re not moving. Is it moored there waiting for a dock?”

Ben looked around, and pointed toward a pole where a flag hung limply. “There’s not enough wind in the basin to fill the sails and get going. That happened only once when I was with Abel. What they do is send tender boats forward with the anchor in tow. They drop it in once they have a good length of rode, and the men aboard inch the ship forward against that line. They’ll repeat the process until they make the mouth of the harbor where she can catch a better wind.  His eyes widened. “I’d assume they’ve been at this for a bit, making it likely it was still at dock when Leslie showed up. We’ll have to ask after that one now.”

Adam was nodding when a mostly toothless old salt in a torn naval-style coat tapped on his shoulder.

“I heard you askin’ around about a woman boarding a ship. I come down here every morning hopin’ a ship’ll hire me to watch their cargo, so nothin’ disappears during loading or unloading. No one hired me today, so I sat here all morning … watchin’ things. I might’a seen somethin’ helpful, but I gotta make some cash or I won’t eat.”

“Won’t drink, is more like it,” Ben chuckled as he withdrew his wallet and peeled off a few bills. The old sailor grabbed for it, but Ben withdrew his hand. “You have to earn this.”

“Fair enough,” he muttered before pointing towards the becalmed vessel. “I took a bench in front of The Nomad when I got here. That ship flies a Spanish flag, but its route goes round the horn and up to New York and Boston. Once a year it crosses to her home port. Big cargo hauler, but it’s got a couple nice passenger cabins too.”

“This is interesting, but not helpful,” Ben prodded.

“Add a few bills to my pay, and I’ll get to the helpful stuff.”

Ben’s wallet reappeared. He shoved the singles back inside, withdrawing one of higher denomination.

The old salt’ licked his lips greedily. “One of them Handsom cabs dropped a purdy woman and two men off earlier. The one guy was a bigun’ like this one here.” He nodded at Hoss. “He tossed the smaller guy over his shoulder and carried him onto the Nomad. I heard the gal sayin’ something about her husband gettin’ drunk, and was still out cold.”

“Joe,” Ben stated as his chest rose. “Did they all sail on that ship?”

“Naw, the woman came off with the big fella and they walked towards the buildings over yonder.” He pointed at the bars along the main street behind them. She came back alone just before they cast lines. There ain’t enough breeze to get them going though, so they’re pullin’ themselves out.”

Ben found it impossible to stand still, shifting foot-to-foot like a wound-up mechanical man. “Was the man being carried wearing a green jacket and have curly hair?”

“E-yup.” The old man laughed. “Didn’t know what to make of that woman. I seen her slip money to the purser and the crew before leaving with the big guy, asking them to keep her arrival a secret. But she gave me a snooty look as she passed by, forgetting that I’d seen everything too. I’m guessin’ she’ll regret that.”

Ben reached for the man’s hand, shaking it vigorously before removing his wallet a final time to add to the payment. “Thank you. You might have saved my son’s life.”

***

While his father paid their informant, Adam looked for a way to reach the Nomad. He spied a row of tender boats tied up nearby and was heading there when he caught sight of Paladin leading a small army of police towards the docks.

“That was fast,” Adam shouted as he waved the reinforcements over.”

“There’s a station nearby. It was shift change. When they heard we might have cornered the thief from last night, they all came. One of them headed into town to alert the Marshals. What did you find out?”

Adam pointed towards the bay. “She’s got Joe on that ship. It’s not making a speedy getaway so we can catch it with a few strong rowers.” His excitement turned solemn as he sighed.  “She showed up with a big guy too. The man who saw Leslie arrive, said she went with that man into the tavern district and came back alone.”

Taking visual stock of the strongest looking of the police, Adam assigned them to rowing duty. Turning to Paladin and the remainder of officers, he said, “The rest of you search the alleys. You’re bound to find a body there.”

***

The two confiscated boats had three sets of oars each. Putting their backs into the rowing, the Cartwrights and police closed the distance to the Nomad in minutes.

***

Leslie felt the solid clunk of something impacting the starboard side of the ship. That was followed by raised voices shouting, “Policia,” and the rush of footsteps past the porthole. Unable to dampen her growing sense of doom, she growled at Joe to keep quiet and stuffed the gag back in his mouth before bolting from the room again.

She stopped at the corner of the deck cabins, and stole a quick look down the length of the ship. “Damn!” she spat quietly. “I knew you’d be my ruin, Adam.”

***

Adam was the first one up the cargo net and over the rail. He wasted no time in finding a man with insignias on his coat indicating some authority. “Where’s the woman!” he demanded.

The officer shrugged. “No hablo ingles.”

“I find that unlikely, but I speak enough Spanish to make this clear.” He grabbed the man’s lapels, drawing him forward until they were nose-to-nose. “Donde … esta … la … mujer!” he said with enough vitriol to make his point. “La mujer tiene un rehen. Hablame ahora o la policía te arrestará.”

The group was now joined by man who identified himself as Captain Miquel Tarke, who spoke perfect English with a soft Castilian accent. “There is no need to arrest anyone. I’ll take you to the woman. Our protection was afforded her because she avowed pursuit by her former husband who was unhappy with her marriage to the young man she brought aboard.”

***

Leslie locked the cabin door when she’d returned and paced frantically. Her steps were punctuated by oaths damning Adam and the Cartwright to the depths of hell. Stopping abruptly, she swung towards Little Joe. “You’ve probably figured out that your family is out there, and they’ve brought the police. There’s too many of them for me to get away and I won’t go back to prison. I’m not getting out of this alive.” An ugly laugh. “But you aren’t either. I’ll shoot you when your family breaks through that door and leave them with the image of your head exploding every time they close their eyes.”

She hurried to the dresser, pulling her handbag from the bottom drawer. Her uneven push to shut it again, left it crooked with a sharp corner sticking out several inches. She yipped when her ankle connected with the protruding wood as she turned, but she didn’t stop to examine the bruise, rummaging through her bag instead. She retrieved a brown flask, raised it to her lips and emptied in a few swallows. The bottle dropped from her hand, rolling along the floor just as the door frame splintered, nearly ripping the barrier from its hinges with the kick given from the outside. With presence of mind amid the unfolding scene, she grabbed Joe’s pistol from the bedside stand and pointed it at the youngest Cartwright as Adam led the group inside. “Stop right there, and drop the guns or I’ll shoot him.”

Adam lowered his pistol to the floor and turned to address those behind him. “Back away; she’s serious.”

Taking a better look at Leslie, he noticed her skin flushing from her neck upwards, and she was pressed back against the bunk like a cornered animal—a posture he’d never witnessed before.

The gun she’d pointed at Joe, slowly swung around towards Adam’s chest. “Adam can stay, but the rest of you get out now; shut that door the best you can and wait on deck. If you try anything, I’ll have both Cartwrights dead before you get back inside.”

***

“Give me the gun, Leslie,” Adam said soothingly once the others were gone. “There’s no way out this time.”

“Not for any of us, I fear.”

Her words exited with a slight slur and hesitation, and Adam noted that her cheeks were now bright red and her eyes were glassy; her pupils constricted to the size of pinheads despite the paucity of sunlight in the cabin. He could tell that her concentration was waning too.

Joe was gagged and trussed up, but his eyes were trained on Leslie. Adam admired Joe’s control, knowing he was remaining still to keep from drawing her attention back to him.

What Leslie couldn’t see, was that Joe began inching his way to the edge of the berth. The Cartwright sons had been typical brothers growing up. There’d been disagreements and all out brawls replete with bruised bodies and feelings. Despite this, they’d developed the ability to communicate wordlessly, especially when their father was asking questions or issuing punishments. Adam’s nod was so slight Leslie didn’t notice, but he was able confirm that he knew—and agreed with—what Joe was about to do.

When Joe reached his launch point, he gave a warrior’s yell despite the gag, and propelled himself towards Leslie’s back. The accompanying noise startled her, allowing Joe’s body to impact the back of her legs, undercutting her balance and launching her forward. The thing neither Cartwright had considered was that her fingers would clench on the trigger as she toppled, sending a bullet towards Adam.

***

“Dear lord!” Ben hollered with the explosion and charged back to the cabin with his gun drawn, slamming through the door to find three bodies on the floor. The only indication of the bullet reaching a target was a circle of blood growing rapidly on the back of Adam’s white shirt. He ran for his eldest while Hoss grabbed the gun that had flown from Leslie’s hand, and went to Joe.

“You hurt Little Brother?” Hoss asked as he removed the gag and worked the knots loose.

“Just bruised, Hoss. Adam was at the business end of the gun when it went off.”

Adam used his father’s arm to pull himself to a sitting position. “I think I’m fine too. I knew Joe was going to knock her over, and when he launched, I dove to the floor.”

“There’s blood on your back, Son,” Ben said as he pulled Adam’s collar away from his neck to take a look. “Did she get you?”

Adam shook his head and used his thumb to point behind him. “There’s a drawer ajar on that dresser, and dang if I didn’t catch the corner on the way down. Hurts like a son-of-a-gun.” Adam smiled up at Joe, now free of the ropes and able to stand. Satisfied that the youngest of the Cartwrights had made it through the ordeal unharmed, he turned his attention to the unmoving woman between them.

“We only heard one shot. Did you shoot her?” Ben asked his eldest.

“She was the only one with a gun, Pa. I’m not sure what’s wrong with her.”

“I know.” Joe retrieved the brown container from where it had rolled. “After she saw all of you boarding the boat, she drank the whole bottle of this.”

Adam slid over to Leslie and felt her wrist for a pulse.

“I’m still alive, Adam, but I won’t be for long,” she said sarcastically. “Give me a hand, I don’t have the strength to sit up.”

Adam got to his knees, helping Leslie to a sitting position, and then turned toward his father again. “They must have ipecac on board. We can make her vomit.”

Leslie raised her hand, and it drooped limply forward on her wrist. “Don’t save me! I killed Goliath before boarding, so they’ll hang me anyway. Let me go instead of allowing the spectacle.” A grimace and groan became a peaceful smile. “This is a lovely way to die, isn’t it, Adam. You float above your body and nothing matters anymore. Too bad you fought it. You must have suffered greatly for that choice.” Her eyes moved lazily around the room. “Could I be alone with Adam while I die?” Her eyes sought the man she wanted to spend her last moments with. “You’ll stay with me, won’t you? You promised to stick with me back at that farmhouse. I’ll take you up on that now.”

“Leave us,” he told the others. “She can’t hurt me now.”

Ben gave his son a wary look, but ushered everyone from the room.

“You sure you want to leave her with Adam, Pa?” Hoss asked outside the door.

“She’s dying, Hoss. Maybe she’ll finally give your brother some truthful answers.”

***

“Is there anyone I should notify of your death?” Adam asked, as her cheek color began changing from red to pasty gray.

“My parents won’t care, but you could let Belle Starr know. I called her May. She was the only friend I ever had.”

“Was she the one who cracked my skull in Carson City?”

“I won’t help you implicate her in that. She was a good and faithful friend who may even grieve for me.” Leslie drew a shuddering breath. “Your brother admitted he called you a coward, Adam. I’m sorry people thought that of you. The reason I did you so dirty was because I admired you.”

Adam chuckled softly. “You have a strange way of showing admiration.”

“You were the only person who ever stood up to me. I couldn’t let that stand.”

She stopped to catch her breath. “If I’d been a different sort of woman or able to change, you might have loved me.”

“There’s still time to get that stuff out of your stomach, Leslie. I’ll help you plead your case for some leniency and you can change.”

“You know that won’t ever happen, Adam. There’s something wrong with me. I’m not like other people. Nothing normal makes sense to me and I accept no truth except what I decide is truth. I tried prison; it’s not for me.” Her laugh was thready. “This is best.”

Adam knew she was right. Even as one of her victims, he didn’t need revenge, nor did he want her put on public display. Maybe what affected her brain was like mental cancer, a disease that ate away at the healthy parts of her mind and had no cure. He finally smiled. “I’ll always remember you, Leslie. Maybe I’ll write a book. I have the notion you’d like that.”

She nodded while adjusting her position enough to get her hands to her side as though supporting herself. “There’s just one last thing, Adam.” Her voice took on strength and her spine solidified as she leaned forward. “The two of us couldn’t be a couple in life, but maybe there’s a chance in death.” Leslie smiled at seeing Adam’s nearing brows as he realized his error. She didn’t even withdraw the Derringer from her pocket. She shot through the fabric. The bullet caliper was ineffective at a distance, but at this range it would tear a hole in his chest, just as it had with Goliath.

***

“What the ….  Not again!” Ben shouted as a shot range out from inside the cabin. He led the cadre of sons and police back to the room with guns drawn to find Leslie’s lifeless body sprawled on the floor with her head crookedly against the berth.

Joe reached to check her neck for a pulse. “Her cold heart is still beating, but it’s slow.”

Ben did a thorough perusal of his eldest son, seeing no new blood on his clothing. “What happened? We heard a shot.”

Adam’s head wagged as he released a sigh that became a sardonic chuckle. “She tried to shoot me … again. This time so we could haunt eternity together.” Adam nodded towards the hole in her dress where the muzzle of the gun was exposed. “She waited too long, and didn’t have the strength to hold her aim.” He lifted his foot. “She managed to clip a little leather from my boot though.”

“What’a ya want us to do now, Adam?” Hoss asked.

“We’ll get her to shore. If she’s still alive then, the police can take her to a hospital. She might survive if they get enough out of her.”

Fifteen

It took some time to lower Leslie into the tender and get everyone back to shore, allowing Paladin adequate time to coordinate the next steps. He met the boat as it docked, and Leslie was transferred to the police wagon that held the body they’d found in the alley.

“You’re sure this was the guy who helped her?” Adam asked.

Paladin nodded. “When I told the precinct captain we’d found the woman responsible for last night’s heists, he sent an officer to gather the theater staff to make an identification. They recognized the dead man as the ‘hostage.’ That myth was dismissed once I revealed his presence with her at the hotel and docks, showing no indication of duress.”  He looked over as the doors were closed on the wagon. “Is she still alive?”

“Barely,” Adam replied. “They may save her. It might be best if they can’t.”

Paladin’s smile was wry. “Did you get the answers you needed?”

Adam eyed his friend thoughtfully. “There are no answers. No good ones at least. But I expect you knew that all along.”

Sixteen

Adam retrieved the newspaper from the hall outside his door and read the main banner. Woman Sought in Theater Robberies Takes Own Life.

He blew out a long breath along with his prayer of thanks that Leslie Richter’s intrusion into his family’s life had ended. “Rest easy, Leslie,” he spoke softly. “Heaven knows you didn’t live easy.” He was left to wonder at people like her … and Kane … and Eli6, the original crazy man he’d dealt with as a kid. Were they born that way? Or was it as Leslie had wondered. Did her parents’ failure to stand up to her, help to create her? Or … maybe it was it as he’d imagined yesterday that the brain of these people was simply sick with a fatal flaw that ate away their ability to think as others. No matter the cause, the results were the same for those who had to deal with the monsters they became.

He was still near the door when he heard a soft knock, and surprised Joe with his quick response.

“Were you waiting here in case I’d come by?” he teased.

“Would it disappoint you if I said no?” Adam replied in the same tone. “C’mon in.”

“I never got to talk to you yesterday,” Joe began as he got inside. “By the time we finished making our statements, it was time for dinner and bed. It’s strange though; I felt exhausted … but couldn’t sleep.”

“I felt that way for many months, Joe. But last night, I slept soundly.”

“You felt vindicated?” Joe suggested.

“More so, lightened. Why couldn’t you sleep?”

The young man sat on the sofa, but kept readjusting his position.  “I let her get the best of me even after your warnings. Before I knew it, I was fully enmeshed in her distraction and control.”

“There is … was … no way to anticipate what she’d do, Joe. Sometimes you have to experience it to believe it. You did the best you could, staying alive until we could find you, and then saving both of us when you flew off that bunk.”

The younger man’s eyes revealed his agony. “We shouldn’t have been in that predicament in the first place, Adam. I’m sorry for what I said to you in Carson City … and here. I didn’t understand; I didn’t even try to understand.”

“And now you think you understand everything?”

“Enough to know I was wrong. She had me pinned and swallowing that stuff within minutes of stopping her outside that hotel. Back in Carson, I thought you were using that elixir as an excuse for not doing more. But one swig left me unable to think or speak coherently for a little while. A larger initial dose followed by constant medicating, would wipe out most everything from your mind. I also experienced her ease in lying. Being with her was like being stuck in an endless whirlwind randomly pulling stuff in and spitting things out.”

“There was one truth you could believe, Kid. She meant to kill you, and then both of us before she died.”

Joe nodded and gulped a breath of air as his hands began to shake. “Adam … I thought I was going to die alone out in the ocean, and while I never let her see it; I was … afraid …. Does that make me a coward?”

“Fear is a natural reaction to terrorizing situations, and being afraid never makes you a coward. While you felt fear, it didn’t paralyze you or shut down your reasoning.” Adam had remained standing through his brother’s confession, but now pulled a chair over to face him at eye level.  He winked and looked over his shoulder as though checking for eavesdroppers.

“You can never use this against me or tell Pa that I told you this. There was a time before you were born that I misunderstood something Pa and your mother were talking over, and I took off for a while, thinking I could make a life on my own. Mind you, I was 12 at the time.” He chuckled at Joe’s wide-eyed stare. “Yup, Pa and I have a long history of not communicating. Anyway, A crazy stranger saw that I was alone, and used my naivete’ to play tricks on me that I believed wholeheartedly would end with him killing me. When I assumed he’d reached that point, I was so afraid I wet my pants.”7

Joe grimaced and reared back. “He was really going to kill you?”

“No. Pa said the guy was taking sick pleasure in watching my fear, just as Leslie liked to do. Fortunately, Pa found me right then and ended the torture. My relief at being rescued ended when Pa had to carry me inside while I was saturated with evidence of my cowardice.”

Joe inched forward on the sofa cushion. “How’d Pa stop you from thinking like that?”

“He cleaned me up, took care of my injuries and sat next to me while I rested. But when my shame wouldn’t let me look at him, he told me about his first experience at sea. Abel knew Pa was a kid who’d never been on a boat, but he hired him for his grit. On that initial voyage, they got into a mighty storm where the ship slipped sideways into the trough of a wave and came so close to flipping over that Pa did more than wet his pants. He went below when he could to clean up, and then buried those pants at sea, before heading back on deck to face the storm. He said it’s not the fear that defines us. It’s what we do in spite of our fear.”

“You’re telling me Pa soiled his pants?” Joe said, unable to hold back his laughter.

“That’s what you got out of that story?” Adam crowed, even while unable to keep from smiling, and was soon laughing along with his brother.

“Adam?” Joe’s voice turned apologetic again. “I’m sorry I said so many hurtful things.”

“You thought you were helping by forcing me to think things through, but I just wasn’t ready.”

The younger man nodded. “You and Paladin have become good friends in a short time. How was he able to help you when we couldn’t?”

“He had no stake in what I’d been through and didn’t know me enough to have any expectation for how I’d normally act under such situations. You need to know that I never told him anything you said.”

Joe nodded. “He’s a smart guy. It wasn’t hard to tell there was unfinished business between us when I started poking again yesterday. Are we all right, Adam? No grudges or hard feelings?”

“There never were, Joe.”

Another knock at the door was followed by Ben and Hoss entering.

“I saw Paladin down in the lobby. He had an early appointment, but he’ll meet us in the dining room for breakfast at nine,” Ben told his sons. “That gives us a few minutes to plan our next step.”

***

The Cartwrights and Paladin shared a cab to the Overland station on the morning of their departures. Paladin was leaving for a job he’d received after the owner of The California theater heard about his work finding Leslie. He hired him to trace the daughter who’d run off with a penniless man her father had forbidden her to court.

The other four had found an express stage to Carson City that changed out drivers as well as horses and only stopped if it got too dark to see the road. If the weather and the moon cooperated, they’d be home in two days.

After reaching the station and verifying their departure times, the two new friends walked outside for a final conversation.

***

“You sure you’re ready to go home? Paladin asked.

“It’s time. You saw the article in the Chronicle proclaiming me a hero for tracking Leslie Richter down.” He winked. “Why, they’ll probably lay laurel branches in front of my stage when it pulls into town.”

Paladin’s laugh exploded. “They just might.” A sigh. “It was good working with you, John Smith. Let me know when you’re back in town. We’ll collaborate again.”

“Don’t forget you’re visiting the Ponderosa in spring for an unending lesson in ranching.”

The non-Cartwright pursed his lips. “Time’s short, so I’m going to speak frankly as I always have with you.” He watched his friend’s eyes widen warily. “We talked about a lot of things while chasing Richter around Nevada and California. I heard clearly that you love the Ponderosa, and your family. You speak of it all with pride, yet you always reference it as your father’s dream; your father’s ranch.”

Adam’s left cheek rose as his eyes darkened. “So?”

Paladin pursed his lips again, deciding what to say. “Ranching is not your dream. I noticed a distinct difference when you spoke about being an engineer. You sat taller and you smiled more when you told me about helping Wadsworth with the Embarcadero in Sacramento and collaborating on buildings in San Francisco.”

“It’s not that I don’t like being a rancher,” Adam said thoughtfully. “But sometimes I feel I’m not doing what seems as natural to me as ranching is to Pa.”

“I’ll bet that when you do indicate that you might have another career in mind, people look at you like you have a horn growing on your forehead. They can’t understand how you’d leave the name, the power and the money to do something on your own.”

“I guess that’s true.”

Paladin smiled before turning serious again. “After seeing your family together, I understand why it would be difficult to pull away from your father’s dream and your family’s business. They’re good men; honest and real, and you are devoted to one another.” He took a deep breath. “Adam, being different—wanting a life that follows your dream is not cause for apologies. Being educated; having ambitions and talents that reflect who you are shouldn’t need to be hidden or explained away.” He could see the strained look on his companion and knew he’d hit a mother-lode of truth. “Your brothers are content being ranchers. Hoss loves the land and Joe’s going to command respect across the bargaining table. But if you continue to settle for being what others expect of you, you’ll end up resentful, and trying to ‘fit in’ will lead to bad decisions.”  He grasped Adam’s shoulder. “And the best part to all of this: the part you need to believe, is that from what I’ve witnessed; your family will accept and support your decisions, no matter what you decide. That’s a powerful gift.”

“How’d you come to all these conclusions?” Adam’s face settled into a granite-like clench, but released in a sigh.

“I’m a good detective.”

The conversation was cut off when a stage rounded the corner and thundered to a stop at the station. Ben, Hoss and Joe exited the waiting room and headed towards Adam.

“This one’s ours,” Ben told his son. “They want us to board quickly to clear the street for the next inbound.” He reached forward to grasp Paladin’s hand. “It’s been an honor and pleasure getting to know you. We’ll look forward to your visit.”

Hoss and Joe followed suit, with Joe adding thanks for his rescue. The “all aboard” shout sent three of the Cartwrights to the stage while Adam lingered.

“You’re an astute man, Paladin, and have given me much to consider.  You knew I came here to outrun my demons. I couldn’t, and saw one way out. You tossed me a rope without making any judgments and never let go of the other end.” His cheek rose. “Suspecting what I’d come here to do, you didn’t try to talk me out of dying. You reminded me how to live instead.” Adam looked down and sighed before meeting his friend’s eyes a last time. “Thank you.”

***

Ben looked across the coach as it neared Carson City. The journey had been long: not just this ride, but from the day his oldest son had left home to give a stranger a tour of the countryside, and he gave thanks. Adam looked physically healthy again, and the haunted look was gone.

But now Ben saw shadows on his youngest son’s features. While Adam had needed distance from his family to heal, for Joe, returning home would provide what he needed.

One thing nagged at Ben’s heart. Adam’s expression, when he thought no one was watching, was distant. Ben saw resignation more than determination. The unavoidable truth was that His son still had a lot to think over. A shiver rippled across his shoulders.

For now, he accepted the grace of the current moment and would let tomorrow take care of itself. For now, he’d give thanks that his prayers had been answered in ways nearly miraculous. He’d learned much in this odyssey, the greatest being to wait for answers that were too difficult to give immediately. Joe would seek his counsel  soon or with a little prompting.  But Adam might never divulge more about his experience with the man who’d offered his hand, and in this, had pulled his son from the grave, leaving behind an empty casket. For now … his family was whole.

The End.

1Adelina Patti (10 February 1843 – 27 September 1919)[1] was an Italian 19th-century opera singer, earning huge fees at the height of her career in the music capitals of Europe and America.

2Joe Goodman was the owner of the Territorial Express in Virginia City during the 1860s.

3The Sad Sea Waves: From Jules Benedict’s opera, The Brides of Venice (1844) written for Jenny Lind.

4Opium dens first sprung up in the Chinatown district of San Francisco in the 19th century. While they were eventually outlawed, these lounge-like establishments flourished for nearly a century.

5The background of Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel was always nebulous to create this mysterious man. Information from various episodes revealed that he attended West Point and served in the Civil War. In the episode called Genesis, Paladin explains the circumstances that turned him from a rogue to a knight, saying it occurred 10 years earlier. The show is set in the early 1870s, so for this to happen in his timeframe, he must have exited the war before its conclusion. In the story he tells Adam, I took creative liberty in explaining why he was discharged early. The rest of the information he gives Adam is taken directly from the from the Genesis episode—a flashback to when and how he met the man who saved hi from himself. I place his meeting Adam into his second year as being “Paladin” while he’s still perfecting his new role. His actual name is never given. While on a job, Paladin often wore a black shirt, pants and hat, with black leather belts. His holster and hat band were emblazoned with a silver knight chess piece. A young Pernell Roberts was a guest on Paladin playing a character Paladin did not admire.

6Was Adam was an engineer or an architect? He was referred to as both in different episode. However, the earliest school of architecture, originated at MIT, in 1868. Architects were often engineers who designed buildings as well as the inner workings. A “architect” at this time had probably apprenticed with established architects.

7 Eli was a psychopath who tormented Adam in my story Sacred Promises: Malicious Games.

8 Unlike most illicit drugs that dilate the pupils, opiates constrict them.

 

Finally: Thanks To BHT for creating the image for this story.

Other Stories by this Author

Bookmark(0)

No account yet? Register

Author: missjudy

I'm from Southeastern Wisconsin, and have been writing Bonanza fanfic for several years. Adam's my favorite character, but I always to write in a way that will honor the men behind the roles.

11 thoughts on “The Empty Casket (by Missjudy)

  1. I was captivated by this story, reading it cover to cover all afternoon and part of the evening, with barely a few minutes taken to close doors and windows before dark. The characters and places are so well described like a movie unfolding. Everything is there ! And the thrilling adventures gave me no respite. Several times tears came to my eyes, feeling the pain of Adam and Ben. Thank you for this great time! I will not soon forget this story! and I can’t wait to read more!

  2. Well done on completing your trilogy! I was impressed with the speed you published each one – it would have taken me years! 🙂 I liked the introduction of Paladin. I will admit I’ve only seen one episode of Have Gun, Will Travel – can you guess which one? Heehee! But he’s a great character. The scene where they are both wearing black is wonderful. You delved deeply into Adam’s mind and let us see how he was suffering after all he’d been through. Paladin’s assesment of Adam at the end is very poignant and I was reading alot into that scene, and not just about Adam either, but more about the man who played him… But methinks this ain’t the last we’ve seen of a certain lady 😉

    1. Thank you Sierra Girl! You nailed everything you commented on. I’m sure you find that “writing” the story goes easily…: ti’s going back and figuring out what you were trying to say that takes the time. 🙂 It is interesting that fanfiction writers are able to see/write in the Adam character much of what was going on in Pernell’s mind at the time. If only the writers had been able to make the same connections. The what-if’s are always so sad.
      I had to laugh because you are so perceptive, and it’s hard to let a good character go. I actually had Adam get a letter from Paladin after he was home letting him know that he’d heard that Leslie’s body had disappeared from the hospital, but it was felt that some of her “fans” had read articles about her. and wanted to bury her as their saint-like character But it ruined the ending and will have to wait.

      My son writes too and has been shopping a book he wrote around. I let him read the first of these stories and he is now adamant that I turn this into an actual novel. I’d have to get rid of the Ponderosa, and focus on Leslie. He says there’s a sturdy market for female written westerns with a woman protagonist of unsuitable character with ties to historic people: in this case Belle Starr. I’m considering it.

      Thanks again.

  3. I liked the story and the solution very much. It was interesting how you wrote in another western character in it and he was a great friend for Adam, when his family didn´t really understand him. Like always in your stories I like how you make connections between your former stories and just recently I did read “Sacred Promises / Malicious Games” again and I recognized the references at the end of this story when Adam talked to Joe.

    Now I have to watch that other TV program. I just saw the episode with Pernell Roberts in it.

  4. Thank you so much, AC. I did have a good time writing this, and thinking about how Adam, in his organized, intuitive and rational mind, would manage to handle this, especially when his family wasn’t handling it either. It was also fun to dress them alike for the one scene. I mean they both had the black (although I read that Paladin’s clothes were dark blue to look blacker in B&W.) Actually sometimes Adam’s look a little dark blue too. But they both wore black hats, and black belts and gun belts. Paladin rode a black horse though, I think….

    But thank you again for your support. I’d love to bring Paladin to the Ponderosa. Just gotta come up with a plot. It could be lots of fun though.

  5. Wow! I am blown away by how well this wrapped up the trilogy and fitting Paladin into the story with Adam was genius. Those two make a great pair and I can see a good friendship down the road. I’m fascinated by how Paladin cut to the heart of Adam’s problems (step by step) yet left the choices up to him. That’s powerful considering how stubborn Adam can be. You gave us a wonderful peek into Adam’s psyche, as well as that of the family as they all healed from the ordeal. Absolutely loved the scene when both men were dressed and ready to work on finding Leslie; it was priceless. Leslie was a piece of work all the way to the end. And I love how you tied it to your other works with subtle connections. The twists kept me hooked and I couldn’t put it down. I have to say I was sad to see it end as it was a grand adventure to see if Adam could find himself, or a new self, again, and if Leslie would ever cease to haunt him. Once again, well done!

    1. Thank you so much, AC. I did have a good time writing this, and thinking about how Adam, in his organized, intuitive and rational mind, would manage to handle this, especially when his family wasn’t handling it either. It was also fun to dress them alike for the one scene. I mean they both had the black (although I read that Paladin’s clothes were dark blue to look blacker in B&W.) Actually sometimes Adam’s look a little dark blue too. But they both wore black hats, and black belts and gun belts. Paladin rode a black horse though, I think….

      But thank you again for your support. I’d love to bring Paladin to the Ponderosa. Just gotta come up with a plot. It could be lots of fun though.

  6. Thanks Betty. It was great fun to write. These two characters were completely different, yet cut from the same cloth. And thank you for the artwork for the posting! It’s great.

  7. This was a great closure for a great trilogy. Lot of action adventure in this story. Adam and Paladin Were great together. Paladin was one heck of a Detective. thanks

    1. Thank you, Hope. I appreciate you sticking through the trilogy. I’m always so happy to see your name pop up in the comments.

  8. This is a fantastic story. To me, it is the best in the series getting into the inner workings of the mind. Paladin and Adam together is a winning combination as the two can talk in the same kind of context about almost everything. Including Paladin’s story as a parallel to Adam’s was a brilliant way to work the theme of this story. There were so many little twists in this one, that I couldn’t ever relax knowing there might be another unexpected turn coming up. I started and had to read to the end.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.