Trouble Comes Looking (by BettyHT)

Summary: The story is set five years later than A Fight You Do Not Want, and Adam has to recover from a tragedy and find a way to move his life forward.  He has made some terrible mistakes in doing that and has to figure out how to make his life better.
Rating T and Word count 28,726

A Fight and Trouble series
A Fight You Do Not Want (by BettyHT)
Trouble Comes Looking (by BettyHT)


TROUBLE COMES LOOKING

CHAPTER 1

Sometimes trouble does come looking for you. I’m afraid, my younger brother used that as an excuse far too many times as he was growing up. How could trouble come looking for you? Surely you have to do something foolish to get yourself into predicaments like the ones in which he frequently found himself. Yet now I know it could happen because here I stood facing a pimply-faced kid with his hand poised over his pistol. I didn’t dare turn to walk away unless I wanted to risk a bullet in my back. All I could do was try to stare him down as I did my best to talk him out of trying to make a reputation by killing me in a gunfight.

Meanwhile sweat was running down the middle of my back as I waited for the local sheriff to show up and end this before I had to kill this boy or he got off a lucky shot and made my little brother a sad man today. Of course, he wouldn’t hear about it for weeks or even months. He lived a thousand miles or so away. It’s weird what runs through your mind at a time like this. One would suppose you’re supposed to have deep thoughts or think about your life. I think about things like that. Maybe that’s what has always given me an edge in these confrontations. My opponents seem to want me to look scared or worried about meeting my Maker. Instead, I have odd thoughts they probably can’t imagine I’m having. Like right now I’m thinking the sheriff of this hot and dusty Arizona town always has his nose in the middle of things so where is he when I need him to be nosy?

It’s not easy to talk to a boy who’s intent on ending my life. It’s probably because he heard I shot six men to death over the past two years. Not much time to see that many graves adding up on my account. He’s got that dime novel idea in his head about gun fights. Fool thinks men stand in the street and shoot at each other. Maybe they do when they’ve had too much to drink and don’t know any better. A man who wants to live gets himself behind something solid and usually wants his rifle not his pistol. He thinks he’s going to be famous if he kills me, but more likely he’ll be hanging by the neck before a week is up. This town doesn’t take kindly to boys shooting the U.S. Marshal or anyone else who brought back the money outlaws took from the bank. He’s not from here. Justice for a stranger in town usually isn’t pretty. It’s not fair. It’s the way it is.

I’ve been trying to tell him all of this, but educating a boy who’s intent on becoming a man by walking on your bones is nigh onto impossible. I see his hand start to move and know I’ve lost my chance to talk him out of this. That little twitch says he’s ready to draw. I relax my gun hand and hope I’m fast enough. If I’m not, everyone will learn my secret. Of course, if I’m dead, I’ll be beyond caring.

The next thing I felt was a shotgun poking me in the side and heard the orders to raise my hand away from my pistol. I did because you don’t want to argue with a man holding a scattergun. That would be stupid. I did take a look and found myself staring into the eyes of the sheriff. There was that little crinkle around the eyes that told me he was enjoying this. I assumed the other tall shadow looming over me was his deputy, Aaron.

“Got yourself into a bit of a pickle, ain’t ya, Van?”

“Sheriff, I was minding my own business when this boy called me out.”

“You didn’t have to oblige him.”

“I was in the middle of the street with nowhere to rush off to. Damn kid had me dead to rights.”

The sheriff’s senior deputy had to join in on the fun. “You losing your edge, Van?”

The boy was mighty irritated by all of it. “Hey, you two are in the way. Move aside.”

Another tall dark shadow moved between me and the boy. Marshall Adam Black was in town. I didn’t know that. He had a stare that could silence almost anybody. It worked on this boy too at least for a bit.

Two other men moved in and disarmed the boy grabbing his arms and dragging him over to the sheriff. He started yelling then and sputtering whatever vile words he knew until he was brought to a halt next to the sheriff. Adam pulled off the boy’s bandana and by a simple gesture let him know what he would do with it if the boy didn’t quiet down some. That worked. Now this sheriff stands a couple of inches over six feet and towers over any crowd. Aaron, his deputy, and Adam were about the same size. The other two deputies were about my height or maybe a bit taller, about the height of average men.

“Boy, we got a law against shooting off guns in this town. You were going to break that rule so I had every right to stop you. Nice gun you got, but you don’t get to use it here. Now, you owe a few fines for your behavior.”

“Sheriff, you gotta give me my gun back. I paid forty dollars for that pistol.”

“How much for the belt and holster?”

“That was about another five.”

“Aaron, how much are the fines for inciting mayhem, disturbing the peace, and in general, causing a nuisance?”

“That would be about twenty, twenty, and ten, Sheriff.”

“So fifty total. Boy, you got fifty dollars?”

“Of course I don’t have fifty dollars.”

Then I’ll take your pistol and rig as payment of your fines. You’re five dollars short but I’ll let that go. You get on your horse and ride on outta here. Don’t you never come back neither.”

“That ain’t fair. I need my gun.”

“Oh, I think it’s fair. We saved your life, and we ain’t locking you up. You got a rifle there on your saddle from what I can see. That’s all you need. Now get on out of here before I change my mind on that second thing and lock you up. Seems you could use some time to cool down by my reckoning.”

“You didn’t save my life. I coulda took him.”

“You think like that, and you’ll soon be toes up. Van here already took care of some young guns like you. If you took out Van by some major miracle, Adam Black here would not have taken kindly to it and you know what he would have done. If he didn’t kill you for it, we would have. Now git.”

The boy paled after hearing all that. When the deputies released him, we watched that boy walk stiff-legged to his horse, tighten the cinch, and mount up. He rode off without looking back. I guess he was doing his best to try to preserve what was left of his dignity at least in his mind. Most who had been close enough to hear everything smirked or snickered before walking off now that the fun was over. I was grateful but had to preserve my pride too.

“Sheriff, I’m bound to have trouble with that boy again.”

“Not until he gets forty or fifty dollars together to buy another pistol, and who knows where you’ll be by then. At least you probably won’t be in this town. Van, you know why I got three deputies. The folks here got real tired of dodging bullets fired by some drunken cowhands fighting over a saloon girl or because of some insult they thought they heard. Now, you gonna come on in the office, have some coffee, and tell us why you’re here?”

Sheriff Rand Everly was about as curious a man as I had ever met. I know he had questions about me, but as long as I did my job and gave him no trouble, he wasn’t going to push on those. So I agreed to some coffee and some talk not that I was going to tell them the real reason I was there. He probably knew that too. Too many people knowing what I was doing would likely mean I’d fail and maybe die in the process. I didn’t much like the prospect of either of those especially the latter so as we walked, I came up with a story. With a cup of coffee in my hand a short time later, I offered it up.

“I’m on my way to Yuma Prison. There’s a man there who might enjoy a shorter sentence, and I might be able to pull some strings and get it for him if he’s willing to part with some information I think he has.”

Aaron was skeptical. “What makes you think he’d tell you the truth?”

“Nothing. But if what he says doesn’t check out, I don’t intercede with the territorial governor on his behalf and he spends another five years there and maybe some of it in solitary for sending me on a wild goose chase. I know I might be wasting my time, but El Tigre is worth catching.”

“Whoa, that’s who you’re after? He’s got probably five men with him; maybe more.”

It was clear they didn’t think I could manage this on my own. Adam didn’t say anything but I could guess what he was thinking by the look he had. We had worked together on a few cases so his various smirks were familiar to me. He had one now. Like usual, his eyes never left me. With his hat pulled down and the beard and longish hair, it was difficult to see all of his expression, but you couldn’t miss the eyes or what those lips were doing. Another thing was that he had the most unnerving habit of following me with his eyes no matter where I went or what I did whenever he was around. I never saw him do that to anyone else and didn’t know why I got his special attention. Well, he did watch people, but he didn’t watch his friends and colleagues. I was the only one of those who got that attention. I was afraid to ask him and stir up any suspicion if there was none. What worried me was that he might already be suspicious. He was probably the best Marshal at tracking down fugitives because he was so good at figuring things out. I had too much to hide to take any risks like making him wonder about me by seeming worried about him watching me so much. So I never asked him about it and tried not to act like I even noticed. Now Aaron I could go back and forth with because he never seemed suspicious of anything I said. He would accept what I said without digging deeper.

“If I find out what I need to know, I’ll get some help. There’s enough of a bounty on him and his men that if I can get together a good group, and they’ll be well paid if we’re successful.”

“He’s probably in Apache country. Oh, yeah, but I guess that’s not such a problem for you.”

Aaron remembered my supposed Apache heritage at that point. It was how I explained my lack of facial hair, my darker skin, my height, and being thin. I wore my hair long too to accentuate that supposed heritage telling everyone who cared to listen that my mother was Apache. Rand was the only one other than Adam who had ever looked at me with a bit of a frown when I told that story. I think he too saw my hazel eyes and guessed there was more to my story that I wasn’t telling. It was pretty unlikely to be half-Apache and have anything except brown eyes. They knew that but at least never questioned my story regardless of any doubts they had. They trusted me, and they knew a lot of people out here had stories because they had a past they needed to escape. They would probably have sympathy for me if they knew my story, but they would never let me continue in the job I had.

Truth was my mother was a light-skinned mulatto and my father was a white man. They came west as the only way to be together but fate stepped in and they were caught in a riot in a mining town. My mother was targeted because of her skin color, and my father came to her defense. My brother and I were orphaned that night and fled with all the others chased out of town by white miners intent on maintaining their monopoly of underground mining jobs thinking somehow we were competition. The difference between me and my brother was that I never went back. At fifteen years old, I struck out on my own, and the safest way to live was to dress and act like a male, so I did. My brother was taken in a by a family who wanted a boy because no matter how often they tried, they had only girls. Anyone who wanted me had far less than pure reasons if you know what I mean. Hitting the road was a better choice for me.

At first, I did every job a youth might get swabbing out saloons and digging graves. I ended up in Virginia City for a time as it was starting out. It grew fast which meant opportunity for me. I took meals to men in jail and got paid well to bring tins of beer to workmen there. I mucked out livery stables and learned to ride fairly well. Using some of my wages, I bought a gun and got some men to teach me to shoot and found out I was a natural at it. The hard work I did gave me the strength needed to handle a pistol that most women couldn’t do. To make more money, I signed on as a guard for freight wagons carrying silver out of that city. They gave me a scattergun to use and showed me how. When I showed them I was good with that, they taught me how to use a rifle. With those skills and that experience, eventually, I offered my services to the U.S. Marshals service who accepted me. I was using a shortened version of my name, Van for Savannah. I answered to it easily enough. It was what my father had called me since I was a toddler. Well he had called me Vannah which got to be ‘my little Vanny’ and eventually just Vanny. Shortening that to Van to sound more like what a man would want to be called was easy. I was naturally a loner so staying by myself allowed me to keep my secret rather easily.

There were times I got lonely, but I got pretty good at being alone without being lonely. Mostly I worried about my little brother. At first, I knew he had a family and all, but he was a handful even at fourteen and I had to wonder if the parents with only experience with girls could manage him. The few times I was able to visit him or get a letter from him, the news was enough to make me worry. Oh he always made light of things, but it seemed he knew the sheriff all too well and had talks with him on a regular basis. When that family let him leave at seventeen, I guessed he had worn out his welcome. I never did find out why, but I could guess what it was with a house full of females and a boy who didn’t know his limits. He let me know he had found some friends as he called them who watched out for him. I worried about that too, but he never got arrested. I only visited him once after he left that family. His friends made me uneasy. But, from what I could tell, he seemed to have all his needs taken care of which wasn’t always true for me. I had to learn to take care of myself, but I got to know some good men who became good friends and helped me. Rand was one of those.

That night in town, after we talked a bit more and had dinner, Rand sent his deputies off to do rounds giving us a chance to speak privately. He had a concern and wanted my opinion. He talked, and it was probably equal to all the words he ever uttered in a conversation with me.

“Van, I was thinking of my deputies and my dream of finding a woman and having a family. They’re good men, but they ain’t no substitute for a real family. I met a woman. Barbara is her name. She’s the one who brung us our dinner tonight. I plan on retiring from this job, marrying her, and raising my children among the tall trees away from all this heat and dust. But I feel an obligation to this town after all the years I spent here. What I don’t know is which of my deputies to recommend for my job. Aaron is the hickory. You can see him standing out there leaning against a post talking to Barbara, and he’s a smart one. He bends but never breaks. Got a bit of a temper though. There’s Jace talking to the men throwing horseshoes, and he’s like an oak. He can take so much without hardly sweating. Nobody can rile him. He keeps cool under pressure. Finally there’s the young one, Dave, who’s still learning the ropes so he’s probably not ready although he’s the one who wants the job. I’m thinking if he doesn’t get the job, he will probably quit. I know it may seem strange asking you for your opinion, but I respect what you have to say about things. You seem to have a calm way of looking at a situation.”

“Rand, you already know Dave is too eager and has too much to learn. If he quits because he doesn’t get the job, it just means he really wasn’t ready for it. If he learns to think before doing, he could be good at it someday. Between the other two, I favor Aaron because he’s the smarter of the two. Both are strong, but Jace will always be a solid number two because he doesn’t think things through like Aaron. They’ll make a good team if Jace can accept being second in command.”

“How’d you get so smart at your age? You’re even younger than Dave.”

“Probably because I’ve been on my own since I was fifteen. I’ve done a lot more living than Dave has and seen a lot more of the darkness in this world. It makes a person take a closer look at what’s going on around them.”

“Do you ever miss your family or wish you could start one of our own?”

“The only family I have is a younger brother, and I’m not ready to stay in one place long enough to start up a family like you are.”

Not ready to call it a night, Rand was in a mood to talk, and in this case, ask me more questions. It wasn’t his usual way, but maybe it was because he was about to leave this job and might not see me again.

“Do you worry about your little brother? Leaving him behind must have been hard. Is he with the Apache or the white man?”

I was a little startled by that question. Even though I should have, I had never thought about somebody asking me that. I hoped I hid my reaction well enough, but it was too late to worry about it. I had an answer that was enough truth that I wasn’t lying, but it was obscuring the truth.

“A family took him in. He stayed with them for about three years. I heard he’s struck out on his own now taking care of himself like I am. He’s made friends too who can help him like I have.”

“That’s good. You do have friends here, Van. I like to think of you as a friend and I think Adam is a good friend too. He’s a good man. He’s the kind will always be there when you need him. Aaron and Jace like you a lot too. You need anything, all you need to do is ask one of us. You know that, don’t you?”

I agreed that I did and I would. It sounded like he wanted me to consider being a partner with Adam. As attractive as that was, I couldn’t do it. Being with someone day and night, I would never be able to keep my secret. I simply didn’t follow up on that line of the conversation and Rand didn’t push it. As usual though, Rand offered me a place to sleep even if it’s only the extra bunk at the office. It saves me some money to bunk in there, and it’s quieter than the rooms to let above the saloon. I thanked him and wondered again why Rand was always so nice to me. I had no answer to that either and spent the evening visiting with Aaron who had the night shift.

“Why do you keep doing this, Van?”

“It’s my job.”

Aaron nodded like he understood, and maybe he did. What he said next led me to believe he understood and was the right man for this job.

“We don’t always get the job done, and that hurts. But we do our best, and we’d feel awful not doing the job so we hafta keep trying. Then somebody smiles and says thank you, or you see somebody go on home who wouldn’t have had that chance without you doing what you did, and it makes it all worth it.”

I know what he means by that. I have to do this, but sometimes I still feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Then a laugh or a kind word of gratitude from somebody makes me feel so much better. I wonder if they know how important they are to me. I have a difficult time saying it to people. Do they know that when I yell or argue, it’s because I care? Do they know the tears that I shed inside each time one of them is hurt or killed? I worry a lot, but what keeps me going are the treasures in my heart. Those are forever mine. It’s funny because I don’t have a family except the brother I rarely see, but I feel all the good people are my family. I want to protect them from what happened to my parents. Whenever I think I’ve done something to advance that cause, then, I feel good inside. It’s a hard thing to explain to others, and I don’t think many will understand. There are times I wish I could find one man who could stand at my side and share that feeling, but it’s a pipe dream. I know there isn’t really a man like that out there.

CHAPTER 2

In the morning, I headed out of town like I was going to Yuma. Five miles down the road, I veered off to go north. I only went a short distance though before I took cover and waited for the man who had been following me to see if he actually was or it was coincidence. I might mention that I don’t believe in coincidence. He turned off where I had and followed my track slowing when he saw I had slowed. I had to smile a little at that point wondering why he was there. He stopped his horse, pulled off his hat, and waited. I watched him closely. He always looked so relaxed, but I knew that he only hid the tension well. After he let the breeze dry his forehead, he put his hat back on, and I could swear I saw him smile. It wasn’t a big smile. It was the little one he had when he was pleased and it was like he knew I was watching him.

After about five minutes, he rather lazily slid from the saddle and loosened the cinch talking softly to his horse. I couldn’t hear the words, but I could understand the intent. He was telling his horse to be calm. Damn, then he was gone. I suspected he was going to do that, and I still missed it. I didn’t move. I didn’t hardly breathe waiting to hear the noises that said he was approaching. The turn of a pebble or the crunch in the sand would announce he was close. Perhaps a twig cracking would help notify me. None of that happened. The first thing I heard made my heart pound.

“You didn’t come to see me so I came to see what was keeping you or what you were up to.”

Maybe I was the one who claimed Apache heritage, but I was sure Adam Black had some kind of native blood in him by the way he could move. I even wondered if he was raised by Indians or lived with them for a long time.

“Maybe I was testing you to see if you could find me.”

He stared at me with those dark eyes of his, but I refused to break. With a smirk, he gave in. He didn’t have to do that. All the Marshals knew stories about him and how he could stand his ground or stick to his goal no matter what happened. He had such dogged determination that two men he had been assigned to bring in once had surrendered when they found out he was chasing them. They were worried about what he might do and decided a few years in prison was a better option. That had all the Marshals telling that story and grinning for weeks afterwards. Here, he likely wanted to save time so he had to finally say something.

“You planning to go after that little bastard on your own?”

“What little bastard would that be?”

“Don’t play games with me. I know you too well. You’ve been asking around about El Tigre and then you take off without any word to anyone about where you were going. I drew the logical conclusion. He’s got four or five men with him. You’re going to get us killed.”

“Us?”

“I’m not letting you try this alone. That’s what friends do, Van. I got your back on this even if it’s a fool stunt, and I must be crazy to go with you.”

Stunned, I was quiet for a bit staring at him and realizing for the first time, I guess, how good a friend he had become. We’d worked together on a few cases, but I didn’t know Adam would risk his life to help me like this. He deserved some honesty from me.

If I could let anyone know my secret, this man would be the one I would want to be with or someone like him. I have to control my feelings at times when I’m around Adam. He can cause reactions in me that I have a hard time tamping down. He’s strong and tough, but unlike other men out here with those qualities who were sometimes mean, he was fair and reasonable. He had plenty to boast about but never did. He wore nice clothes and had quality things but wore nothing flashy. Our styles matched in a lot of ways. Our manner of doing things was similar and meant we worked well together. It’s why I had so little hesitation in explaining to him what I planned to do and what I had found out.

“He’s alone. Well, not alone exactly, but none of his men are there.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’ve got some information. When he gets enough money and has had enough excitement for a while, he visits a woman in a mountain hideout he has. The only ones there are him and her and the men and women who do the work around the place. He has guards but not his regular men. The workers at the hideout could probably use guns if they had to, but they’re not in the habit of using them. I figured to go in hard and fast and take him before they have a chance to react.”

“Why not a posse?”

“Putting out the word for a posse in town?”

“Yeah, I get it. Somebody would be bound to run out there to tell him to try to get some money for their trouble. He’d be long gone before you ever got there.”

“And quite possibly leave me a little reception committee for my trouble.”

“So even better with the two of us. The odds are definitely in our favor.”

He had that smile of his that made it look like the canary that swallowed the cat.

“Our favor? I still don’t recall agreeing to you coming along with me. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone else being hurt.”

“I decide where I go, Van, and I’m responsible for me. Now, tell me where this place is, how we’re going to surprise him, and where we’re taking him after we get him. I know you plan everything as much as I do so tell me what it is.”

“The place he’s got and the woman he favors are in the Big Horns.”

Whistling softly, he frowned as he thought about that.

“Damn tough to get in there without being seen. You must have more to your plan that takes care of that issue or it wouldn’t even be worth considering.”

“Yeah, tough to get in there especially since he has men stationed to watch too. Except they only watch for anyone coming from the north, south, or east.”

“You don’t plan to go through the mountains to get to him?”

“It’s exactly how I plan to do it. They don’t expect anyone coming that way so they don’t watch. I’ll dress a lot like an Apache and travel light. No one will likely pay much attention. Once I’ve got him, I’ll backtrack and then head straight down to Yuma. It’s where he’ll hang anyway once the trial is done.”

“How do you plan to snatch him out of his compound? He’s not exactly going to come along quietly.”

“I’ll have to work all the details of that out when I see the place. I’ve got some ideas, but I haven’t gotten close enough yet to see the layout. I didn’t want to alert them that anyone knew about his hideout by nosing around too close.”

“There’s some question marks in your plan, but I like the overall feel of it. It should work. Let’s go.”

“I still didn’t agree to you going with me.”

“Of course you did. You told me the whole plan. Now stop being stubborn, and let’s get going. It’s hot out here and it’s going to get worse. Today is going to have to be a short travel day unless we make good time before the sun bakes us thoroughly.”

Staring at him, I couldn’t help the thought that he grew up out of the land with the spare color and elemental power about him so much like the desert and the tough plants that grew there. There was no resisting him either. I’d seen saguaro take root on a small ledge on a sheer wall of rock and flourish there. He was like that; able to grab on to the smallest thing and take hold. There was no way I was going to dislodge him. I had no choice in the matter so I got on my horse, wheeled her around, and headed in the direction of the spot I had already scoped out for my camp for the first night. We didn’t talk as we rode to that first camp. I was in too much turmoil, and Adam was a patient man. He would wait with his questions. I didn’t know how many more there would be.

The first night’s campsite was shielded on three sides by rocks so no light was going to show to the north and give away my campsite. The next camps were likely to be cold camps even though they were shielded much as this one was. I didn’t want to be spotted moving in the direction of El Tigre’s hideout.

We didn’t talk much that night as it was late afternoon by the time we got to the place I had chosen, but the heat had sapped our energy. Adam and I split the camp chores and took turns sleeping. It was the bonus of having a partner on the mission. Without him, I would have found sleep a lot more difficult.

In the morning, Adam did as I did throwing his blanket over his saddle to disguise it. He pulled his cream-colored shirt out of his pants letting it hang loose and let his long dark brown hair hang loose tying a bandana around his head after wetting it. He had folded his hat and put it in his saddlebags. We packed up the cooking gear in its sack and stowed it behind some bushes knowing we wouldn’t be using it until we got back at least this far. We would retrieve it on the way back if we could. We had cooked extra biscuits and beans for breakfast and packed them up as well as we could in small tins I had along. From a distance, we would look quite a bit like two Apache riding toward the mountains. No one would likely pay much attention to us. Two were not a threat, and Apache were often seen in this area. Adam was a bit tall for an Apache but from a distance, no one was likely to pay enough attention to notice.

If we had spare horses, we could have made much better time, but that would have drawn attention we didn’t want. It took us three days to get to the mountains and begin our trek toward El Tigre’s mountain hideout. We went even more slowly there scouting ahead carefully one at a time before the other advanced. We hunted and gathered as we went which made our travel slower but make it look more natural too. Almost a week after we began, we hid behind rocks on a ridge and surveyed the compound. Neither of us said anything for perhaps two hours as we observed the routine in the place. Then we slid back down the slope and talked about what we would do.

“It looks like we can approach to within about a quarter mile by horse. Then it’s on foot from there. That’s not the hard part. Van, we have to get him back that quarter mile, and he’s going to be fighting us the whole way.”

“Not if he’s gagged and tied.”

“We can’t carry him. The terrain is too difficult.”

“No, but I saw donkeys in that compound. If we get one and pack him on top of it, we could lead it down there, and then use it to pack him out too.”

“That’s a lot of weight for a donkey.”

“So, we take two and switch them off.”

“Damn, you know, that could work.”

“We’ll tie up anyone in the compound. I didn’t see anyone armed there. I think all the guards are out on the perimeter watching the approaches.”

“Van, we’ll have to be quiet though so we don’t draw attention. That’s going to be difficult.”

“Adam, it won’t be if we can get this in the water.”

I held up my ace in the hole. It was two bottles of sleeping medicine I had gotten from a doctor under false pretenses. I hoped to get it into the water in the house at night and then get inside to take out our outlaw.

“Sleeping powder? What if someone gets too much? They could die.”

“I’d say that is part of the risk of working for someone like El Tigre.”

“That’s cold.”

“Yes, but how many has he murdered or kidnapped and sold into slavery?”

The look on Adam’s face changed with that. I saw the mask drop down and his face showed no expression. There was some history there I didn’t know and he wasn’t going to share.

“Some of what he has done is beyond what any human should be able to stomach, but from all accounts, he enjoys it. Yet, these people are with him. They have to know they’re taking a risk working for such a man.”

“I guess that’s true, and he has to be stopped. But how will you get it into the water without being seen?”

I didn’t want to admit it but that was the weak part of my plan. I had to hope to get close enough to the kitchen and maybe even inside of it to put the powder into the drinking water.

“That’s the tricky part. I’ll have to sneak in there at dusk. I hope you’ll watch, and if it all goes bad, give me cover to try to get out.”

I told him all of what was in the plan then including what might and might not work.

“That’s not a very good plan.”

“It’s the best I’ve got. Don’t sound so worried, Adam. It’s the life we signed on to do. You’ve come this far with me. We can’t turn back now, can we?”

“We damn well should.”

“But we won’t, will we?”

Adam didn’t seem convinced and gave me a look of profound sadness that I found difficult to understand. It was our plan though, and a few hours later, I began a stealthy approach to the compound. I got close without being seen much as I expected because no one was watching the direction from which we approached. Then I waited for dusk and the chance to get to the kitchen window once everyone was indoors. I watched as the food was prepared and carried into the dining area. The problem was that there was always one in the kitchen so there was no chance to get to the pitchers on the serving table until they needed more water. Then one was sent to the well with a bucket as the other two moved with more platters into the other room. It was tight, but I had a minute. I rushed into the kitchen opening the bottles as I moved, poured powder into each pitcher and swished it around a little. Then when I heard the boy with the bucket coming back and had no alternative. I ducked under that table.

One advantage of being on the small, thin side is that I can do things like that. Intent on filling the pitchers, that boy never saw me. The other two coming back in focused on the boy and the pitchers of water. He watched them leave as I scrabbled to the door and slipped outside. I looked in the window when I had a chance, and he was staring at the door as if he might have seen something but wasn’t sure. I made no noise and waited. When the other two returned, he said nothing. My heart stopped trying to pound its way out of my chest.

That only worked a second though as Adam whispered in my ear a moment later and nearly made me cry out. A hand across my mouth stopped that and let me get my wits about me again. When I relaxed because I knew who it was, he released me.

“Damn, why did you do that?”

“I couldn’t see you any more as it got darker. The only way to cover you was to get here too. Now, were you successful?”

“Yes, let’s hope they all drink some water.”

In the kitchen, they did. We watched and soon the staff began to stagger a bit and then sat in chairs clearly woozy. One by one, they dropped their heads on their arms or fell against the table and slept. We entered the kitchen then and doused the lamps moving to the door to the dining room and pushing it open cautiously. El Tigre must not have had much water because he was awake but clearly affected. His woman was asleep and he was attempting to wake her, but his words were slurred. We subdued him with Adam grabbing his arms and pinning him down on the table so I could gag him. Then I tied his hands behind his back. We were actually somewhat grateful he wasn’t sleeping because we didn’t have to carry him. We forced the gagged and tied man to walk to the small stable. There we got two donkeys and were getting him on one when another man showed up. He was carrying a shotgun, saw us, and fired as Adam did. I was hit by some stray shot.

“You’re hurt.”

“Not as bad as I will be if we stay here. Get another donkey. We’re all going to have to ride out of here.”

El Tigre’s eyes said he didn’t think we could outride his men especially as we would be on donkeys. He had no idea what direction we were planning to go. When we turned to the west, he twisted around looking for his men. They weren’t there yet, but we could hear the sounds that said they were coming. We were heading down the slope when we heard their voices, the shouts for their boss, and the confusion in their yells to each other. It seemed to them that their boss had disappeared, and yet everyone seemed to be sleeping. We got to our horses and began the hard trek out of the mountains. Except to rest the horses and the donkeys, we traveled without stopping until late the next day. By then, I was weak and feverish. Adam was furious with me, but until then I wouldn’t stop. We had argued about it.

“I know I’m taking a risk of infection. But if we stop to do something about the shot in me, I’m taking a risk that both of us will die of lead poisoning, a rather severe case of it too probably. We have no more than eight to twelve hours head start on them before they figure out where we went and how. We need to keep that advantage.”

“We don’t know that they’re following us.”

“You want to bet our lives on that?”

Reluctantly, Adam accepted that we had to keep going until I began to sway in the saddle. Then nothing was going to stop him from calling a halt. It was at one of the sheltered campsites we had used on the way in. At least, we could make a fire. About all I could manage was getting off my horse and sitting down. Adam had to do everything else. He tied El Tigre even more securely and we were both glad the man was gagged so we didn’t have to listen to the epithets we would have heard about that. We still heard some each time Adam removed his gag to give him water.

Seeing Adam squint and look off to the horizon, I was worried that we had lost our advantage. However he didn’t check his pistol or his rifle. Instead, he went to get the horses and brought them to me telling me to hold the reins tightly. Then he got the donkeys and brought them in close too tying them off to a small tree. With a suspicion about what was about to happen, I waited. He took a blanket and threw it over El Tigre who threw it off.

“Fool! There’s a sandstorm coming. If you don’t want the skin sheered right off of you and lungs full of sand, you’ll pull that blanket back up over your head.”

El Tigre complied then as Adam got our other two blankets and moved to sit beside me as I leaned against the rock wall. He took the horses’ reins from me and threw the blanket over my head. Pulled the other end over his and wrapped the other one around the heads of the horses as he pulled them down. The horses must have known trouble was coming and were remarkably compliant. We could hear the donkeys braying and then it was only the noise of the wind and sand. We didn’t have much protection, but it was enough with the rock wall, the blankets, and the bulk of the horses standing with us. When it was over, I felt like there was sand everywhere, but I could breathe which was the most important. The horses were still there too although not in the best of shape. El Tigre was gone. The ropes were cut.

“Damn, he must have had a knife in his boot or someplace. I never took the time to look.”

It wasn’t important. I wanted to say that, but I was too weak. The loss of blood, the pain, the riding, and the storm had taken the last of my reserves. I leaned back, closed my eyes, and moaned. Adam was at my side in a moment helping me to stretch out. He shook out a blanket and assisted me to lay on it.

“He took the donkeys, but I can’t believe he survived out there. Right now though, you need some help. I’m going to make a fire, heat a knife, and take that shot out of you. Those wounds are festering.”

That sounded all right until he came back and began unbuttoning my shirt. I put a hand up to stop him.

“Cut the sleeve. You can get at all of them that way.”

“Van, I know you’re a woman so don’t worry.”

“What?”

The shock of that on top of everything else affecting me nearly made me pass out.

“Don’t worry. I’m your friend. I won’t do anything to hurt you. I only want to help. Now let me take off this shirt and clean you up so I can take out that shot and bandage you up properly.”

My pain was matched then by my heart pounding so hard it hurt. I had no idea anyone knew. He was a gentleman though doing nothing with the bindings I had around my chest but carefully and diligently cleaning up the places where the shot had penetrated and then digging out each one. He put a pad of cloth over each hole and then wrapped a makeshift bandage around the whole area.

CHAPTER 3

Once the pain subsided enough that I could talk, I had a few questions. I kept it neutral enough at first as I tried to get a feel for his thoughts.

“Where did you get a bandage?”

“It’s your clean shirt. I know you always carry one with you. It’s why I didn’t want to cut up the one you’re wearing. I wanted the clean one for bandages.”

Now it was time for the most important question.

“How did you know?”

“Oh, I didn’t at first. I have to admit, you had me questioning myself to the very core of my being. Every time I was around you, my pants got too tight, and you know what I mean even if you are a lady. You’re around men enough. I’m not sure how you pulled it off doing all the things you’ve done, but I wondered how I could be so attracted to a man, even such an attractive man. Then, I paid extra attention to you. After some time and some deep thinking, I knew there was another answer. It made everything make a whole lot more sense. You always worked alone. Then there was way I feel when I’m near you. I saw the way you’re never after the gals in the saloons we visit. You always stay off by yourself all the time. You claim to be half Apache, and you are the least Apache of any half Apache I’ve ever known. You really knew nothing about them when you got here.”

“Does anyone else know?”

“That’s all you have to say to me?”

Dropping my head with the onset of what promised to be a fierce headache, I didn’t have anything else to say. All my words were so twisted up in turmoil, there was no possible way to form a sentence. Then I didn’t have to say anything anyway. Adam pulled me to him and wrapped those strong arms gently around me. He was a bit tentative so he must have been wondering if I would struggle. I wasn’t planning to fight him at all. Surrendering to his embrace, I waited for the kiss that didn’t come and finally looked up into his face. He spoke so softly I had to strain to hear. I figured out later it was because it was so hard for him to say what was in his heart. He was taking a big chance talking to me like this and thank the Lord, I didn’t hurt him that day. I listened and I told him too what was in my heart.

It hurt a little to do so, but I reached out to touch his cheek and leaned in closer to hear him.

“I love you. I didn’t want to love you. I didn’t want to love anyone ever again. That’s never worked out well for me or anyone I’ve loved. But I couldn’t help myself. I want to care for you. I want to be with you, but I won’t ask you to change. Maybe when you trust me enough, you’ll tell me why you chose to live like this. For me, it’s enough if you’ll take a chance and agree to be my partner so we can be together. Maybe you could even learn to love me and agree to be with me.”

Trembling in his arms with all that had happened, I made him wait for my answer. Pain, weakness from my injuries, and his words had put a lot of pressure on me. I needed some time to be sure I was making the right decision for me. I knew he would only worry until I answered, but this was too important to rush too much. I didn’t know then how much he was worrying. If I had, I might have answered faster. If I said no, I guessed he would resign. It would be impossible to work near each other and not be together after all this and with what he knew. I had one important question I needed answered. It was the linchpin at this point.

“Partners, in everything?”

“Everything.”

His answer was quick and sure. He meant what he said that he wasn’t going to make me change. He accepted me as I was.

“I’d like that.”

There was more I had to say too.

“As long as there are admissions to be made. I have been attracted to you almost from the moment I first met you. If I ever had a chance to be with a man, I always thought I wanted that man to be you. I’ve never been in love, and I don’t know what being in love is, but I think it must be the way I feel about you. I dream about you.”

Then he did kiss me knowing that was my answer to everything he had suggested.

“Do you want to do more?”

“I want to do everything. I’ve waited a long time.”

“Are you sure?”

My shirt was still unbuttoned. I moved to slip it off my shoulders and he helped. Then for the first time in many years, those bindings came off and stayed off for the night. He took his time with me being gentle at first until my passion matched his. I’d never kissed anyone before that moment, and he must have known that teaching me about kissing. Then he taught me a lot more. I thought I knew quite a bit after having heard talk and witnessing some things, but Adam let me know that there was a whole bunch that I had yet to learn. I enjoyed the education very much and liked repeating the lessons to make sure I understood. It was our little joke from that day on to talk about our intimacy in school terms.

We both knew we were treading a difficult path, but as long as we did our jobs, no one was likely to question us much. We were going to have to count on that. Adam wasn’t one for a hugging and lots of affectionate touching and neither was I. That was going to be a big help to us in those days because we weren’t likely to do anything to raise any suspicion. At least that’s what we thought and tried to maintain. From that point on, Adam was always watching people to see what kind of looks they had. He would know if anyone started giving us the slanted eye that said they wondered about us being more than friends and partners. It was the kind of thing he did anyway so it wasn’t going to make people wonder.

There was one person we didn’t have to worry about. Adam said he thought Rand knew. Eventually a private conversation with the former sheriff confirmed that. He said he had done what he could to protect me because he knew, but had seen how Adam watched out for me too. He guessed what was going to happen and it did.

Our partnership started well. After spending another day in camp so I could rest, we headed out backtracking on our original path. We found El Tigre’s body or what was left of it and brought it in. With the announcement of his death, his gang broke up and scattered. Without his leadership, robberies, kidnappings, and murders diminished in the region. We each got a commendation, and we got approval to work as a team based on our success working together. We were doing a lot more than working together, but that wasn’t for anyone else to know. Cold nights on the trail weren’t going to be so cold any more however. We needed some time to talk though so the first thing we did was take a job that meant a lot of travel. We had to travel over two hundred miles to pick up a prisoner and bring him back for trial. It was a chance for both of us to ask some questions and get some answers. That only worked out for one of us though.

Over the last years, I’ve faced gunmen. I have been in shootouts with outlaws who wanted me dead. I was ambushed once and lucky to have survived with only a minor wound. None of that though ever made me as nervous or ready to go behind a bush and relieve myself as the looks I got when I pushed Adam to talk about his past. Now the first time, I didn’t see his face. It was dark and I was resting in his arms as I was prone to do after he wore me out with his attentions as you surely know what I mean. I talked some about my little brother. I see him rarely but I do see him. Each time it seems that he’s been in trouble again and somehow managed to avoid any serious consequences though. The boy has the charm of a traveling snake-oil charlatan and the luck of a cat with at least nine lives. When I finished my little chain of stories about my brother, I asked Adam if he had any brothers or sisters. Maybe I should have known something was wrong when he was quiet during my storytelling without any of his usual comments and no questions. Now he can be a bit snide or sarcastic at times, but most of the time, his comments were funny, but he always has questions. The man must have been born curious. To be silent was odd and I should have noticed. When I asked my question, he said only one thing and with that low intensity that said there would be no more..

“Two brothers. Well, I guess three now, but I don’t know the third one.”

“Why don’t you tell me about them?”

All I got was silence that I couldn’t misread because I felt his body tense up all along mine. His arm around me and his hand that had been so tender holding me turned rock hard and then were taken away. Without a word he pulled his pants up to his waist, tightened his belt, and settled into the blankets making it clear he was ready to sleep. I didn’t know why he wouldn’t talk. I thought maybe it was a tragedy holding him back at that point because I couldn’t see his face. It was later when I asked the question in the light of day that I came to understand the smoldering anger that was inside the man I loved. It was that look I mentioned earlier. It could freeze most men in their tracks. He loved me, but I knew that wouldn’t stop him from walking away from me if I pushed him too hard.

The more I thought about what had happened, the more I guessed I knew. I figured he had at least one brother who most likely was a lot like mine. That was a guess but I knew nothing more. There was some kind of trouble in his family, but it sounded from how he answered me like they were still alive. That would explain the silence and the lack of response. I wished I knew more of his past. Then I remembered what had happened once when Rand and Aaron bought some horses that were supposedly green-broke but weren’t. They were capable of finishing a job with horses that were ready for it, but neither of them knew how to break a truly wild horse. Nobody in that little town was a horsebreaker. Watching those four horses in the corral, Aaron had called out to Adam.

“Hey, Adam, how about you? You look like more of a horseman than anybody around here. You ride better than anybody in the service. Can you at least get these horses broken a little so we have a chance at using them? Otherwise Rand and I threw away a lot of money.”

“How much?”

Both Rand and Aaron hadn’t considered that. They had already paid fifty dollars each for the four horses. Of course, once they were ready to ride, the horses would be worth at least two hundred each. They were that good. The two stared at each other until they nodded and Rand stated a price.

“Ten dollars.”

Adam surprised them or maybe shocked is a better word. “Fifteen for each.”

“Each?

Their mouths had dropped open. But they had no better alternative and everyone knew it. They agreed to the price. Adam asked them to get saddles and put them on all four and leave them on until the next day. He said bright and early, he would get to work breaking the horses. Meanwhile, he asked that they haul lots of sand into the corral. We figured he wanted something soft to land on, and there were plenty of jokes about that. The next day we saw his purpose was quite different. It was hard work for the animals to kick through all that loose sand as well as maneuver around the other horses. I must say he looked darn good doing the breaking of those horses too. By the end of the day, he had all four horses done with two almost ready to ride and the other two were green-broke as promised. Now this was before Adam and I were hooked up together. He took his money and headed out of town because he had a job he was assigned to do. I was between jobs and hung around a few more days. I got to talking with Aaron.

“Why did you call out Adam to do the horsebreaking? Why did you think he could?”

“He’s got a saddle with a Ponderosa brand on it and saddlebags with that brand too. I figured anybody who was top hand there probably knew something about horses or at least a lot more than we did.”

Then I asked my second question.

“Why would you think he was a top hand?”

“He’s got the saddle and saddlebags with the Ponderosa brand. That cost some money. Ordinary cowhands don’t get that kind of gear.”

“The Ponderosa is that big ranch up by Virginia City, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Rich family called the Cartwrights own it.”

“I remember that some. I worked in Virginia City for a time when I was younger and still moving around a lot.”

“So you never saw Adam there?”

“Not that I recall. I was a stable boy, and ran meals and buckets of beer for a nickel a run. I slept in the stable loft. Not a place to meet a top hand or anyone else. Most ranch hands wouldn’t have put their horses in the stable. They wouldn’t have needed beer or a meal delivered either. So it wasn’t likely I would have seen any of them. Mostly I kept to myself when I wasn’t working.”

“Yeah, safer that way in a rough town.”

“Actually, it was a pretty nice town. The money was good for a boy, but I couldn’t see a future for me living on nickels. I struck out to find a better job.”

Aaron laughed then and didn’t have to say anything considering what I ended up doing. But what he had said then got me to thinking now. I needed to find out more about the Ponderosa and what Adam had done there. If he had that saddle and those saddlebags, they were important to Adam somehow. I guess I thought they might be a key to Adam’s past, and I wanted to know why. And why would a top hand go off to be a U.S. Marshal when he could make more money as a top hand or even be a foreman or maybe get his own little ranch. Heck, I know trail bosses who make five times what we make. He could have done that too. There had to be a lot more to his story but I did know quite a bit about his past. Maybe I was born curious too because I felt compelled to find out what the rest of the story was. The big problem I had was that I couldn’t go behind his back. I knew enough about him to know that trust was very important. I had to be honest with him or lose him. The opportunity to do both happened sooner than I expected and not at all in a way that I ever anticipated or wanted.

We got to the little mining town where we were supposed to pick up our prisoner. Turned out it was three prisoners. That was going to be a much more difficult trip back than we had anticipated. We had to wait in that town for money to arrive so we could buy two more horses, gear, and supplies. We had brought only enough to transport one prisoner. Stores and stables weren’t friendly to the idea of credit to the government. It wasn’t that they didn’t get paid, but it was a lot like our salaries. It could take months to get the money that was owed. We didn’t need much and often got free meals because of the work we did and services we provided, but stores and stables couldn’t afford to carry that kind of credit for that long. So instead we had to wait and hope the money would come through in a timely fashion.

We couldn’t do much and we certainly couldn’t do the kinds of things we had been doing as we traveled to that town. We slept in a room where the walls were thin and the sounds of what we did could not be masked. We were both too private and careful to think we could fool everyone. We talked about school at breakfast one morning still waiting for money to arrive to get what we needed.

“A school break from April to October is too damn long.”

“It is. It’s like forgetting everything and having to learn all over again when school starts up again.”

“Well, that may be good for the teacher.”

“The student might not mind either, but in the meantime, both have to survive the boredom.”

“There are the memories.”

Adam got that odd look then that he sometimes gets when I use words like that. Memories, regrets, home, family, and children always get that same reaction from him. So when I see it, I know to change the subject. Somehow there’s pain there that hasn’t healed.

“Of course, the dreams for the future and what will happen are far more exciting. I like to think about what comes next and start planning for that.”

“Oh, and do you have some plans?”

“Yes, I do have some plans. Not that anything will happen until we get these three back for trial, but then I have high hopes for some good times teaching some lessons especially as some tutoring may have to take place.”

The place where we were taking our meal served as a saloon, restaurant, and hotel lobby with rooms to let upstairs. We had one of those rooms and took our meals there in the same building most days. The cook was decent and most importantly, the best in town. We had gotten to know the bartender a little and he felt he could offer some advice.

“If it’s good times you want, the three houses at the end of the street to the west have plenty of that and they wash the sheets at least once a week.”

I gave him the slanted eye while Adam stroked his beard like he might be thinking about it. I kicked him under the table making him slam his hands down. Then he grinned and gave his answer.

“Probably not yet.”

The bartender shrugged. “Nah, I don’t either. I’d like to, but too many of the men here complain of the pox and swear that’s where they got it. I don’t want to take the chance.”

I pretty much expected Adam to toy with the man then using that scary look and voice he has to say something about how the man was going to send us to a place that gives out the pox. But he said nothing. I turned to look at him and he was staring at the door and had slid his hand to his pistol. I looked back over my shoulder to see that pimply faced kid who had called me out had walked into the place. With a rifle at the ready, he had surveyed the room and spotted Adam already.

“Van, don’t turn around. Move to the bar.”

I trusted him. I did what he said and then turned to give him some cover. The kid saw me then. He didn’t swing his rifle away from Adam though keeping it pointed straight at him as he had when he came through the door. This was an ambush. He knew we were there and had come for us.

“That sheriff said my rifle was all I needed. I thought about that. He was right.”

The boy’s hand twitched and we all knew what it meant. Adam moved and drew but it was too late. The rifle bullet threw him to the floor. My bullet took the boy in the throat making him drop his rifle and the bartender’s scatttergun blast knocked him back out the door in a red haze. I rushed to Adam who was moaning and already coughing with the damage to his ribs on the left side. Moving had saved his life because the bullet had missed his heart, but it had hit ribs and broken them sending shards deeper into him. I had seen his scars and knew he had been seriously wounded a number of times. I didn’t want this to be the last time or rather yes, the last time, but not the end of his life. Men came rushing in to find out what had happened. The boy was dead and the bartender gave the details. I asked if some of the men could carry Adam up to our room. To his credit, the bartender didn’t even complain about how the blood was going to stain the bedding and the mattress.

“He needs a doctor.”

“Marshal, this town ain’t got no doctor. Closest is twenty-five miles away when he’s there. He makes rounds of some of the towns, and he’s only there once every couple of weeks.”

“But Adam needs a doctor now.”

“We got a woman does some doctoring. We’ll get her.”

The healer is what I call her because I don’t know what else to call her. She brought some herbs for stomach ailments and some salves for rashes. She knows how to treat a rattlesnake bite, and can bind up a broken bone in a splint or put on a proper bandage. All of her supplies were in a big satchel she carted into the room and dropped on the floor. One look at Adam and a shake of the head said she couldn’t do anything for him. Her words were unnecessary.

“He needs a real doc. I don’t do no cutting on a body like that. Ain’t much call for it here. When there is, they haul the one by wagon to the next town and hope the doc gets there in time.”

“We can’t haul him. Those bone shards would do more damage than they already have. He needs to stay right where he is.”

“Then he’ll die there.”

I had to ask.

“What would it take to get a doctor here?”

“A fortune.”

“I don’t have a fortune.”

Another voice interrupted with an alternative point of view that offered hope.

“There might be a way.”

Our territorial supervisor, Lew Wright, stepped into the room. He asked or rather told everyone there except me to leave. When they were gone, he closed the door and sat down on the chair by the bed.

CHAPTER 4

Lew was direct in his question. He wasn’t the kind of man for dancing around anything.

“Does he have a chance?”

“I think so. I saw some injuries like this in a riot once. With proper care, the men lived.”

“Proper care being a surgeon who could get at those shards and remove them?”

I nodded knowing the hopelessness of the situation. They had said a fortune. We didn’t have that kind of money.

“My guess is that the money you probably brought for horses and supplies wouldn’t be enough to get a doctor and all his supplies and equipment here on time.”

“No, I don’t have enough, and you don’t have enough.” Then he looked at Adam. “But he does.”

“What?”

“One of the requirements of the U.S. Marshal’s service is that regardless of the name you use, you have to give your proper legal name to the service. He comes from a wealthy family and has the money to pay for what he needs.”

“Why would a wealthy man be working as a U.S. Marshal?”

“I know some of the story but not all of it. It would be up to Adam to tell you if he wanted to tell you. In fact, it will be up to him now because he’ll have to tell some of it to get the credit for the money we need to save his life. So, Adam, what do you say. I can tell you’re not unconscious just nearly so because of the pain. Do I have to repeat any of this or can you answer me? Can we tell the bank your name and get all the money we have to have to bring a doctor and everything he needs here or are you ready to die?”

“I don’t want to die.”

“Van, you’re going to have to be my witness on this. Did you hear that clearly enough to swear to it if there’s a dispute later?”

“I did.”

“Adam, then can I go to the bank right now and tell them you’re Adam Cartwright and request a line of credit in your name to get a doctor here to treat you?”

“Yes.”

Lew looked at me and I nodded. I had heard that clearly. I was in shock but still able to think. He stood and put on his hat.

“I’m going to the bank then to get this started. If we’re lucky and the doctor is in the next town now, he could be here tomorrow.”

“If he isn’t?”

“Let’s not think about that, all right?”

The bank was a little reluctant, but they couldn’t give an outright no to the head of the service that protected the banks, the transport of bank documents and cash, and the shipments of ore from the mines. They agreed to the line of credit. Lew headed out to get the doctor and to send a wire to Virginia City to verify the line of credit. There was going to be a maelstrom, but at least Adam was going to be alive. In my heart, that was my prayer.

Staring at Adam who lay there suffering, I was mad at him, and mad about nearly everything. Lew had given me a look when he talked about giving your rightful name when signing up to be a U.S. Marshall. I couldn’t do that of course so I had told the truth as far as it went. My parents were killed in a riot in a mining camp. I had been on my own ever since then. I gave my name as Van. As Savannah, I would not have been hired. Thinking back over the last months, I couldn’t understand why Lew would have any concern about that now when he hadn’t had any in the past.

Then of course there was the revelation about Adam. I lived a secret, but he had one nearly as big and never had even hinted at that with me. For a man who said he valued trust, honor, and integrity, he sure hadn’t shown much of that to me on that personal level. I had to wonder if there was any future for us. The more I thought about it, the more it irritated me that maybe I was only a convenient partner for him and I would be discarded when he was ready to shed this little charade of his. With his money, he could do whatever he wanted to do.

The worst problem of all was that I loved that damn bastard laying there suffering in that bed. I loved him like I had never loved anyone in my life. He had told me to move to the bar to keep me out of that boy’s line of fire. He wanted that rifle aimed at him so the boy wouldn’t shoot me. How could I not love a man who would put his life before mine?

There wasn’t much time to dwell on things like that though. Adam began to struggle more with his breathing and said my name several times. I moved closer to him.

“Adam, what can I do for you?”

It was difficult to understand him especially as he spit out one or two words between each labored breath he took. Finally I asked him if I had it right.

“You want me to prop you upright more so it will hopefully be easier for you to breathe?”

He nodded.

“Wouldn’t it be better to wait for the bartender or someone else to come back in here and have him help me do that?”

“No. Can’t. Wait.”

I had a pretty damn good idea what that meant and not many things scared me. That scared me. I did grab a couple of pillows that had been brought in as well as an extra blanket that was there. I put them in as close a spot as I could to where I would have to be to pull Adam up. When I was ready, I told him we had to do it slowly and he nodded his agreement. He barely moved his head and his eyes were still squeezed shut against the pain and trouble he had breathing. He was probably getting ready for what he knew was coming too. It wasn’t going to be easy. He knew it. I used his shirt that was unbuttoned and pulled him. His head dropped back, and I had to lower him again.

“Adam, you’ll have to tuck your chin against your chest and hold it there as well as you can. I’ll see if I can help some but you’ll likely be doing most of the work holding your head up. I can’t do it all. I am sorry about that.”

Trying it again, I got him more upright and held him with one arm as best I could as I put the two pillows behind him. I eased him back against those as his head fell back again. I was going to say something, but he wasn’t aware anymore. I did what I could to prop up his head and was relieved to hear his breathing sounded less labored. It hit me then that he had passed out because finally he could breathe more easily so he had been able to give into the exhaustion and rest. More than anything, I wanted to kiss him and tell him I loved him. I wanted to lay down beside him and hold him. I couldn’t do any of that. In many ways, I longed for us to have a more normal relationship. It was mostly because of me that we couldn’t. I only had myself to blame for what I didn’t have. I had lots of time to think about that too and couldn’t come up with any better way to do things at least until Adam recovered and told me what he was thinking. That might be a lot different too especially if his family showed up. That was going to be another big test. I wondered what they would be like.

Thinking back to my time in Virginia City, I tried to remember the Cartwrights. I had some vague memories that came together some as I had time to recollect my days in that town. I did remember the four of them coming into the livery stable a few times. At first, I tried to picture Adam in that group, but the way he looked now simply didn’t fit. So I did my best to picture the four men I recalled, and with a start, I knew which one he was. The quiet one, the one who usually was the one who paid the money to me and said a quiet thank you was the one laying in the bed by me now. The big one with the big smile joshing with the little one who cackled and poked fun were his younger brothers. They had to be. The gray-haired man who gave orders in that boss-man kind of voice had to be his father. I did not recall the names, but I knew now who might be coming to visit.

Adam didn’t wake for hours, and when he did, he looked at me with no recognition of who I was. He even asked me that and asked where he was. He asked why he hurt. I knew he was in big trouble and prayed that doctor was in that nearby town. Hopefully Lew was on his way back already. By morning, Adam could be too weak to make it. However, once more he surprised me. In the morning, he was about the same as late at night. I had hardly slept at all hearing that labored breathing that tore at my heart, and I wished I didn’t have to be tortured with that sound, Yet, I was terrified that it would stop.

I tried to get Adam to drink something. He would take spoonfuls of water and sometimes a little broth, but had little energy left to do that. Most of his strength was gone used already to fight to breathe and sapped by terrible pain. I kept checking the street below praying to see a wagon or carriage arrive with a doctor. I had all but given up hope when late in the afternoon, a wagon drove in with exhausted men hurrying toward us almost immediately. I turned to Adam to tell him but he was unaware, either asleep or unconscious. It was difficult to tell.

When the doctor arrived, he was surly but by his actions showed his competence too. An older man, he had served in the War and gotten fed up with too many things. Hoping to do some good, he had come to Arizona only to find more mayhem and violence than he had expected or forget. To find a man hurt like so many had been in the War put him in a state of depression or perhaps a mood would be a better description. It didn’t mean he couldn’t do his job. I had spent enough time with Adam to know that a moody man could still be clear-headed and efficient in what he did. The doctor wanted a firm surface on which to work but also wanted to keep Adam propped up as he was. There was no proper surgical table in town so the door to the room was taken down, wrapped in a blanket, and slid under Adam. It caused him pain but the men were careful not to disturb him too much. The doctor washed Adam’s chest with alcohol being careful not to get any in the wound. When he was ready to operate, he asked who would assist.

“I need someone to give him drops through a mask so he sleeps. I’ll tell you exactly what to do so that won’t be the problem. Watching what I do will be the issue. I’ll need someone else to assist me by handing me things I need and fetching water or anything else I ask for. So who will help?”

Lew and I immediately volunteered and then the bartender said he would help too. He said Adam had acted in a way toward him that deserved him doing this for him. Everyone else was told to leave. Once they were gone and I had followed the doctor’s instructions so that Adam was out cold, the doctor was brutally honest.

“He may not make it no matter what I do. I can see how feverish he is so there may be infection already. Now the fever could be from other causes. He has obviously been fighting a lot of pain and probably hasn’t had much rest. But there’s a lot of blood loss too as those bandages can attest. I can make no guarantees. I will do my best, but I’ve seen men die of lesser wounds.”

Lew spoke up because I couldn’t.

“He’s one of the toughest men I ever met.”

“I can see some scars that say he’s survived some previous encounters with bullets. You should all pray he can do it again.”

I thought the next hour was the most horrendous hour I would ever spend in my lifetime. It was slow torture. I had heard of how the Apaches torture some of their victims preferring to let them die slowly rather than a quick death. Even relatively minor wounds could become fatal if left to bleed and fester. That’s what this was like. It seemed to go on and on with the blood and the cutting. Then finally mercifully it was done, except the torture wasn’t over. I didn’t realize how much the surgery would take from Adam. He was gray and cool when it was over. I was almost afraid to ask if he was dying. The doctor seemed to know what I was thinking.

“He’s not dying or at least not yet. His body is in shock. We need to keep him warm now and try to get fluids into him as well as we can or as well as you can. I’ve done everything I could. Now it’s time and God and his friends who will decide his fate.”

“When will he wake up?”

“That’s a difficult question with no sure answer.”

I knew what he meant then. He might never wake up. The bartender was there with a clean sheet and some blankets. We tucked those around Adam and then the vigil began. When he seemed to stir at least a little, we put small amounts of water in his mouth. Sometimes it ran out and sometimes he swallowed. If he swallowed, we gave him another sip. It was all we could do. At one point, Lew sat with me and was quiet like he wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted to say.

“You may as well spit it out.”

“I know. It’s that I don’t know how you’re going to take it, but here goes. With Adam’s family likely on the way, things will probably change. If he quits, will you go with him?”

That made my heart pound. It sounded a lot like Lew knew. I looked him square in the eye then and he was looking straight back at me.

“Yes, Van, I know.”

“But how?”

“A few little things, but mostly because Rand slipped in conversation. Then it kind of all made sense.”

“Rand?”

“He figured it out some time ago. He found himself attracted to you and it made him worry so he started to pay a lot of attention to you. In his mind, things didn’t add up unless you were a woman. But, you did your job, and you obviously had a reason for what you were doing. He respected you and didn’t say anything. I didn’t figure it out, but I was talking to Rand about how you take so many chances. He slipped up then. He said it would be all right now because you were with Adam. Well what he said was ‘Adam will take care of her’ and I shouldn’t worry too much anymore. Then we both realized what he had said. He explained and here I am.”

“I wondered why it was you who brought the money.”

“I wanted to talk to the two of you and see what we could do about things. I thought out here it could be more private than having to do it at headquarters.”

“Are you going to fire me?”

“I have to do that, but if Adam stays, there’s no rule about someone accompanying him on jobs. You could get paid to assist, share in bounties and fees, and so on. Your working relationship would not have to change. You could still be Van as you are now if you wished. But officially, you cannot wear the badge.”

Looking at Adam laying there on the bed propped up on pillows and so still and gray, I wondered if he had heard any of this.

“All right. When Adam wakes up, we’ll talk about how we want to work it.”

Of course, that was far too simple to ever work. His family arrived, and much as I should have expected, old Ben Cartwright moved in and took over. He dismissed me with a thank you and sat beside the bed. I could hardly do anything about it even though I had this insane desire to pull my pistol and shoot him. I think the big brother, Hoss, I believe, must have seen it in my look. He stepped to the door and talked softly to me.

“He’s just so worried about Adam. He’ll apologize later. I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all you done for my brother. He don’t look much like the brother I remember, but it’s damn good to finally see him again after all this time. We got you to thank for that.”

I don’t drink, or at least, usually I don’t drink mostly because I’m worried that my secret could be revealed. But, hell, my secret was getting out anyway, and I felt I had a damn good reason to drink. I headed down to the bar and ordered a whisky. The bartender was not particularly obliging.

“Van, you’re exhausted and ain’t had a decent meal in days. How about I get you a sandwich at least and you eat that before you have a whisky?”

He was so darn nice about it and Lew came up and pushed me to a table. So I sat and had a meal that I couldn’t hardly taste and then I had a whisky. Next thing I know, I was nodding off just sitting there.

“You need to get some sleep.”

“Where? In my room upstairs is a man who is going to live or die and his family who kicked me out.”

“You can sleep in my room until tonight. Then we’ll see what’s going to happen next. I’ll wake you if there’s any change in Adam’s condition. They won’t be kicking me out.”

“Would you get my things for me then?”

“Nope. Best leave them there. It will be a good reason for you to go back in there later.”

“Won’t they wonder about that? I mean me and Adam sharing a room when there’s only that one bed in there?”

“Let them wonder.”

“I’d like to do that, but I don’t want to put Adam in that spot.”

“They’re going to wonder anyway even if I go get them now.”

“Yeah, I suppose they will. Damn. I guess I’ll leave them there until I can get them when no one is there. I can get by without until then.”

“Here’s some money. Go to the store. Pick up what you need.”

“Thank you. And thank you for the loan of your room too.”

“By tomorrow, you can have that room. I’m leaving as soon as the other men get here to transport those prisoners. I’ll leave you here in charge of Adam until he decides what he wants to do. We don’t leave a man alone when he’s hurt.”

“Thank you for that too.”

I slept most of the day although pretty restlessly in Lew’s room. We had dinner together even if I found it damn difficult to swallow worrying about Adam. Halfway through our meal, his two brothers came down and asked about dinner. Then Hoss came over to tell us that Adam was stirring and had opened his eyes a few times but hadn’t spoken.

“He looked surprised to see us and looked around like he was looking for somebody else. I told Pa it was probably you two, but he’s stubborn. Thinks it’s time for family. I think after all this time, maybe you’re more like family than we are. I say you ought to go on up there and make yourselves comfortable and tell my Pa to get himself down here to have some dinner. All right?”

Lew nodded, and we stood casually like we weren’t pretty damned interested in doing that. At least I had a hard time not running up those stairs. Lew went first though cause I held myself back which was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life to that point. In the room, Mister Ben Cartwright still sat by the bed in the chair he had kicked me out of. Lew ordered him to go down to get some dinner and said we would look after our colleague for a time.

“He’s my son.”

“He ain’t no snot-nosed boy. He’s a man been working for me for years, and we been taking care of him for days. We can handle a couple of hours while you get some dinner and some sleep. Now go.”

Lew ain’t the biggest man around, but he’s damn tough. Ole Ben Cartwright may be a big powerful man, but he ain’t a match for Lew, and he knew it right there. He gave in even if he wanted to say he was right.

“I do need to get something to eat, but I’ll be back when I’m done.”

As soon as he left, Lew had me get my things and put them in his room. Then we checked on Adam who seemed to have a small smile. When I talked to him and said his name, he opened his eyes.

“I. Liked. That.”

I wanted to kiss him, but I wouldn’t with Lew right there. I think Lew knew it too.

“Good to see you’re going to make it. I think I’ll step outside for a moment. That dinner has made me a bit gassy, and you got enough problems right now.”

Adam’s beard wasn’t trimmed like he usually kept it, and his hair was all a mess, but his color was better than it had been. I had to kiss him so I did. It was a soft kiss, but he seemed to like it.

“More.”

I kissed him again, but then said that had to be enough for now. I saw the cup of water and a spoon. I was going to offer up more of that, but he had a request.

“Sugar?”

I called out to Lew to ask if he could bring some sugar or some honey.

“That’s going to be expensive in a town like this.”

“Ask his father to pay for it.”

Lew’s chuckle echoed as he walked away to get what he could. Adam was smiling again. It was only a slight smile, but it was the most beautiful thing I could imagine seeing right now.

CHAPTER 5

When Lew came back, he had a tray with honey in a small cup, fresh water in a small pitcher, and a half cup of broth with potato in it. Adam frowned at the thought of the potato in the broth, but I suggested I could mash it up. He looked willing to try it, and I alternated between spoonfuls of honey water and broth with potato. It was slow going as weak as he was, but he had an appetite. That was another great sign. He wasn’t coughing either. About ten spoonfuls of each, and he was done. He closed his eyes. I kissed him one more time not knowing when I might get another chance. I saw the little smile once more. It was still there a moment later as his father and brothers returned. I spoke softly and didn’t get up to relinquish my chair.

“I’m back. I can watch over my son again.”

“He’s fine. He had some honey water and broth with potato, but now he’s tired and going to sleep. You should get some sleep too.”

Ben didn’t look like he was going to agree, but his sons pushed him to do as I requested. He argued that he ought to be with his son. They said one of them would stay with Adam at all times if their father would go get some sleep. He had to give in then. Hoss elected to be the first to stay. He pushed the door closed when they all left and slid down to sit on the floor leaning back against the wall. He was quiet until I turned to him. Then he spoke almost in a whisper so he wouldn’t disturb his brother.

“I saw he had that little smile he has when we first walked in the room. Wasn’t sure I would ever see that again. It disappeared as soon as Pa talked. He even frowned some until Pa left. Then he relaxed as soon as he knew Pa was gone. I should have expected that and I guess that may never change. I wish it could, but the way things happened, maybe it can’t. He must like you a lot though cause he smiled with you and he’s damn relaxed around you.”

“I’m his partner.”

Hoss nodded almost as if he knew there was more to that than two Marshals working together.

“I’m real glad he’s got a friend. I was afraid he might be all alone in the world, and that made me sad.” He got a funny look then. “You ain’t gonna ask no questions? Do you know all the answers already or you afraid to ask?”

“Neither. If Adam wants me to know something, he’ll tell me.”

“Hmm, it seems you know my older brother pretty damn well already.”

With that, Hoss closed his eyes and dropped his head. We needed to be quiet to let Adam rest. At that point, I wanted to hold Adam’s hand to comfort him if I could, but Hoss was too smart. I had to make do with occasionally touching his cheek or forehead to check for fever.

At about midnight, the younger brother came in to say that he would take over and it might be best if I wasn’t there when their father arrived. He doubted it would be more than an hour or two before he showed up. That was what we did for a few days then with me sitting when the sons were able to get their father from the room and then Hoss sitting with me for a time. Joe would come in to warn us when Ben’s arrival was imminent. Their father was smart enough to figure it out though, and came early after a few sessions to apologize to me for his earlier behavior. He made his excuses about being tired, worried, and maybe even a bit scared for his son which took away from the apology. I guess he didn’t understand that part of apologizing. I doubt he would have accepted it from someone else. More and more I was seeing the trouble that had developed between father and son. I was enough like Adam to know I would be irritated by the same kinds of things that bothered him. Hoss and Joe saw it too. I saw the looks they had after their father’s apology.

The tension was still there between Adam and his father. Adam did his best to sleep when his father was in the room or he made like he was sleeping. He didn’t want to talk with his father. He did want to talk with me. After one session of sitting with Hoss while I went to get some dinner, he told everyone else to leave the room. Ben didn’t want to go.

“I want to talk with Van.”

Hoss and Joe got their father to leave. When the door closed, Adam asked me to sit by him and he took my hand but had trouble looking at me. I guessed it was time for the truth.

“Are you strong enough for this conversation.”

“I have to be although it may not be as much as you think it will be.”

That worried me a bit.

“I’ve kept a lot of secrets from you.”

“Yeah, you have.”

“I was worried that if you knew more about my past, you wouldn’t want me. If you accepted me the way I am, I hoped maybe you could ignore my past. Then here it is, and there is no ignoring it. I don’t have the energy or the will to tell you all about it. I asked Hoss if he would. He’ll tell it with less bitterness than I would and maybe a little more kindness than I deserve.”

“You want me to ask Hoss to tell me about you?”

“About why I’m here, yes. If you still want to be with me after that, there will be time for me to share the better parts of my past with you. He’ll tell you the ugly things though, and if you want to walk away from me then, the rest of my past won’t matter. If you can stand to look at me after you two talk, I’ll still be here.”

“When will we have this talk?”

“Right now if you’re willing. Hoss is already worried so waiting is only going to make it worse for him. It can’t be easy for you either, and I don’t think I have the strength to do that much talking. Would you tell my family that I would like to be alone though while you and Hoss talk? I’m strong enough now that I don’t need someone sitting with me.”

So I stepped out and closed the door telling them that Adam wanted to be alone to sleep. I doubted that would happen. Hoss and I left to talk. Joe asked his father to go downstairs where he hoped to find a checkers game or cribbage board. Down the street a short way was a bench by a misshapen old tree that had survived a lot. I hoped my future with Adam was going to survive the information Hoss was going to reveal. He sat down beside me and with a big sigh, he began.

“The best way is probably to just plow right into it. My brother Adam had his fair share of failed romances. He couldn’t ever seem to stick with a woman long enough to get married. There was always something that got in the way whether it was religion or something else. Then he got tired of being on the Ponderosa. He felt he had to strike out on his own, but it didn’t work out neither. He’s got high standards, and not everyone else does. They didn’t like that he wants things done right. When he was at his lowest, he met a woman, and they hit it off. He got a job too where he could do good things. He helped the government get counterfeiters. He and Joelle got married and came out to Nevada. They were happy. She was a beautiful woman, and they had a baby.”

“I don’t see how this is the ugly past Adam was afraid I would hear.”

“Nah, it ain’t. This is the part leading up to the ugly stuff. You see, Joelle was so darn pretty that men were always looking at her. One man wanted her. He tried to have Adam killed so he could get her. She was carrying their baby at the time. Adam was hurt but not killed, and he had some idea who was behind it all. The man knew it too so he struck before Adam could. He had Joelle kidnapped. It wasn’t long after the baby was born. As soon as he could, Adam went after her when the law couldn’t find her or the men who took her. He never found her neither. Nobody could. He did find the men who kidnapped her. He killed four of them and in pretty darn nasty ways although he kept it legal. When he found the first two, he broke both of one man’s arms when he was fighting with him. That one died of infection because he wouldn’t have his arms amputated. In the same fight, Adam smashed the other man in the throat, and that one died trying to breathe but it took days. By the time Adam brought them into a town, it was too late for a doctor to save either one. Adam went after the others, and two were shot trying to get away from him. Now they were wanted men and it was two to one, but shooting men who are running away didn’t sit right with a lot of people.”

“In the back then?”

Hoss nodded and was quiet for a time.

“Were there any others?”

“There were at least two more. He brought them in alive, but they were beaten nearly to death. His fists showed he had done the beating. He told the sheriff when he brought them in that they didn’t know anything about the man who had hired them to kidnap his wife. They did talk and gave the names of those who had taken bribes to give information or help in some other way. A couple of men on the Ponderosa were named.”

“So that’s all he found out? They were men who took money to kidnap his wife or helped but not a hint of how to find the one who was behind it all?”

“That’s it. He never found a trace of her or the man who wanted her so bad. Pa thinks the man probably left the country with her or even had her killed. None of us think Adam will ever find her. Why he’s down here is probably because this is where he lost the trail. Maybe he’s hoping to find a clue someday or maybe it’s only the last place he was and he’s got nowhere else to go.”

“But why is he so angry at his father, and why doesn’t he go home to the Ponderosa?”

When Hoss hung his head a bit then, I knew he had a part in that. I waited.

“I told Adam that I didn’t know what Pa had said to him until after he left. I told him I never would have put up with it. He said if he hadn’t been in such a temper, he would have known that. I guess we’re good now, but I don’t think he and Pa are ever gonna be good again.”

I waited for the rest of the story.

“I married up with Joelle’s sister Jenny. When Adam was gone, she took care of his son. We had lost our baby. He came early and was stillborn. It did mean that Jenny could wetnurse Nathan and she doted on that little one. She had lost her sister and her baby. I think she was desperate to hold onto Nathan. When Adam came home, Nathan was almost a year old. Pa told him he couldn’t take him away from the only family he ever knew. He said if Adam tried to do it, he would fight him and take him to court if he had to. Said he had abandoned his son and had no right to him. He told Adam he had been selfish to do all the things he had done for years, and that this latest year had been more of the same. Taking his son would be only more selfishness according to Pa. Adam left. Now I never would have accepted that. I wouldn’t have kept Adam from his son. I wanted Jenny to keep mothering him, yes, but they both needed that. A son needs his father. When I found out what Pa said, I wanted to go after my brother, but I had no idea where to look. I tried to find information, but I never found anything. He disappeared.”

“You didn’t think about him changing both his name and occupation.”

“And his whole look. I coulda passed him on the street the way he looks now and might not have recognized him unless he talked to me. There’s really nothing about him that resembles the man I knew.”

“I think there is, but you have to look harder.”

“Yeah, the heart and soul of a man don’t change. You know I know about you, don’t you?”

“I figured you did when Adam said he wanted you to talk to me about his ugly past. How did you know?”

“When Pa ordered you from the room, you looked like you wanted to shoot him. It was an Adam kind of look. It was also a look of love for my brother. It made me pay attention to you. I saw how you looked at him especially when no one else was watching. You love him. He loves you. So I’m hoping the two of you can find a way to stay together.”

“What about Nathan?”

“Me and Adam will have to talk about that. Nathan is four years old now. It would be difficult to make him leave the Ponderosa, and it might be impossible for Adam to come back to it. I don’t know what’s best now.”

“What would it take for Adam to forgive your father?”

“That’s a tough one. I don’t know if he can do enough for real forgiveness. I mean Adam can forgive what he did, but he can never forget it. It’s always gonna be between them. At least, now, Pa knows that he can’t make Adam do anything. He mentioned that he ought to shave him or cut his hair and then he said Adam would probably kill him if he did that. That was a mite extreme, but we knew what he meant. He’s got to watch his step around him. It ain’t lost on him that Adam sleeps or acts like he is when Pa’s around. My guess is there’s a little speech gonna come from Pa soon and then I think he’ll go back home and pray for the best.”

The prediction by Hoss was accurate. They needed to make plans and met in the small room after breakfast early the next day. Ben surprised them and made his little speech. It was better than they had expected.

“I’m going to head home. I would like Hoss or Joe to stay until you’re up and it’s clear your recovery is going to end well. I wish you well and I won’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to do. If you ever decide to visit the Ponderosa again, I think you ought to do what you didn’t do that night when I said those terrible things. I think it’s time you hit me square in the face and take me down a peg or two. You may be the only one who can do it. I know how overbearing and selfish I can be, and I attributed those things to you. That was wrong. I made everything worse. I can’t fix it either. Only you can do that, or rather, you and Hoss can do that or at least fix things as well as they can be fixed. I trust you two to come up with something. I love you, son, even if I have done a damn poor job of showing it at times. There’s some other things, but Hoss and Joe know so they can tell you. I don’t want to burden you with my presence any longer.”

At the door he paused to tell Hoss and Joe he was going to pack and to ask them to decide if one was going to stay. It only took a moment for Joe to say it should be Hoss mostly because of Nathan. That made sense so Joe turned and followed his father from the room.

“You could have said something to Pa when he finally apologized to you.”

“Why? It took him four years to do it. He can wait for forgiveness for a while.”

“But he didn’t know where you were.”

“Maybe, but he knew how to find me.”

“What?”

“I have investments. I have to check in with my broker and the bank several times a year so they don’t have me declared dead and take my money.”

Hoss stared at Adam for only a moment before storming from the room to confront his father. We could hear the loud voices for quite some time. Most of the talking was done by Hoss. Before he came back, Adam made a comment.

“He was wrong.”

“Who was wrong?”

“Pa was wrong. He said I was the only one who could take him down a peg or two. He found out that Hoss can do it too and just did.”

When Hoss came back, he seemed to stand a bit taller. He looked at Adam and shrugged.

“You and Van got things to work out. We got things to work out as a family. I think you ought to come see your son. When you do, it will give you a way of seeing how maybe we can go forward with him. You think on that and let me know. I’m heading home too. I got a family I want to see. I never got around to telling you that me and Jenny had twin girls, and she’s carrying another one right now. I’d like my children to meet their uncle too. You will let me know, won’t you?”

So that night, I got to do what I had wanted to do for days. I got into bed with my love and snuggled up against him to sleep. That’s about all we could do, but it was a great night anyway. In the morning, Lew was back. He had an offer he said was too good to refuse.

“I’ve been offered a promotion. It means a move to Denver, more money, and less field work. I’m taking it. I want to recommend you, Adam, to take my job here. You would be in charge of the whole region which includes Nevada. For you, it would mean more money and less field work but there would still be some. You would get to have a house to live in though, and there would be paperwork and meetings you would have to attend. Van could be your assistant, and in that job, she could be paid as a government employee. She would be expected to dress as a lady in the office or at formal functions, but in the field, she could choose how to dress. The two of you could work that out. I have to leave in two weeks so I need your answer in a day or so especially if you’re going to say no so I can ask someone else.”

Adam looked at me to see what I thought. I liked the idea and told him so. He looked at Lew and nodded.

“We’ll do it.”

“Great! Now I know it won’t be easy for you, but I need you to be at headquarters as soon as you can get there. When you get there, I can leave. I’m already packed. I’m leaving all the furniture and such. None of it is worth hauling to Denver. After all these years in the desert, it’s seen better days. So your house will be furnished if you want the one I have now.”

“We do.”

“I have to warn you that I was never much of a housekeeper and never had a woman there with me. You’re going to have to clean up the place some.”

We were a bit skeptical that it could be that big a job, but when we got there after a grueling trip for Adam, it was worse than anticipated. I asked if there were people who did cleaning work and got sent to the little Chinatown there. I hired a small crew and headed back to the house. Once inside, they looked around and named a price. Adam said it was too much and told them another number. They accepted with a smile so I knew he was still being generous. However he didn’t smile as they began talking. All of a sudden he barked out some words in what I assumed had to be Chinese scaring the men who were there. Their shocked expressions told the whole story. They had been saying things they should not have been saying never expecting a white man to understand Chinese. Bowing and issuing profuse apologies, they got to work.

Adam suggested we go to the store to get new sheets, tablecloth, and towels. I agreed. The dingy ones there reminded me of the worst hotels I had ever stayed in. As we walked, I asked him about his confrontation with the Chinese workers.

“I didn’t know you could speak Chinese.”

“I can’t really. But I do know enough words to know they were saying unkind things about us. I also know how to bark out a few epithets about being respectful. I learned that much from our cook on the Ponderosa, Hop Sing. He was a friend and taught me the basics. So now they think I know how to speak Chinese and they will be careful what they say.”

“You are amazing.”

He got one of those lecherous looks he can use and made me laugh. We got back and gave those to the cleaning crew. By the time Lew walked into his house at the end of the day, he stood speechless. At first, he thought he was in the wrong house but saw us sitting there and knew it was his house. We went to the bank and land office then to transfer the house title to us. Then, Lew said he would bunk in at the office and catch the stage from there the next morning. We wished him well and said goodbye. Adam told me there was one more task for the day. I wondered what it was, but he said it would be obvious in good time. A few minutes later, he pulled the carriage to a stop outside a church.

“Van, will you marry me?”

I wanted to say he didn’t have to marry me. I wanted to say we could wait. What I said was yes. He climbed down from the carriage we had rented for the day and reached up to take my hand like I was a lady.

“Let’s go inside to see if the minister will oblige us.”

The minister was less than enthusiastic about performing a wedding ceremony on such short notice until Adam told him we were already doing everything a husband and wife did together and mentioned we were buying a house. He mentioned there would be official functions we would have to attend and that we would be introduced as husband and wife. He didn’t think we ought to be faking that. It was quite a persuasive speech, and the minister agreed then and called his wife to be a witness. Adam pulled out a ring and I could only hope it wasn’t one from his previous wife. When it was time to put that ring on my finger, I think Adam sensed my nervousness which had nothing to do with getting married. The minister misunderstood and asked if I was all right. I told him everything was fine but it had been a very long day already and it wasn’t nearly over yet. Adam grinned and the minister’s wife rolled her eyes but she did smile a little too. Then it was done and we were married.

CHAPTER 6

Of course, I couldn’t control my curiosity so later I asked about the ring. It wasn’t Joelle’s ring. I was relieved about that at least.

“This was my mother’s ring. Hoss brought a few things like that with him and left them. I have my mother’s music box, and a few of my most favorite books.”

“That’s what was in that leather satchel?”

“Yes. And now the ring is on your finger. We’ll buy you a ring of your own design but until then you have that one to wear. I would never give you a ring I gave to Joelle. If I give you something, it will be something for you and only you. Before you ask, yes, I still love her. I always will, but it’s a different kind of love now. She will always have a place in my heart, but you are the one who’s taken up residence there now. I hope you understand.”

“I think I do even if I have never been in that kind of situation. I still love my parents and they’re gone. I love my little brother and I haven’t seen him in a couple of years. I worry about him but there’s not much I can do about it.”

“Why do you worry?”

“I met his friends. They’re the kind that make you check your belongings when they leave to make sure it’s all still there.”

“Is he mixed up in anything illegal?”

“I don’t think so, but with him, there’s no way to be sure. He can charm almost anyone, and he’s got the most innocent little boy look about him. People trust him and like him even when they probably shouldn’t.”

Adam got a funny look then, but said nothing about what he was thinking. Instead it was back to errands.

“There are a couple of stops before we head home.”

Of all places, he stopped at a dressmakers shop. I had never been in one, but I knew enough and protested that there wasn’t enough time to be fitted. However within a minute, the shop owner came out with a stack of packages which Adam took and placed in the carriage. She said if there was any fitting needed I was to come back when convenient. We stopped at a pastry shop and got one package there. I had no idea how he had managed all that. He said while I was gone to Chinatown, he had asked a couple of neighbors for help, and they had arranged things for him sending daughters to deliver his written lists. He had paid a generous tip to each daughter making the mothers happy too. The surprises were not over. Dinner was delivered by our neighbors shortly after we arrived back home again. It was turning into a magical day. We had a washroom where we filled the tub after dinner so we could get clean. Adam let me go first saying he would soak while I tried on my new clothes. I liked that idea. There were so many underthings, I wasn’t sure which went on first. Later Adam said he could help me. He had such a look on his face when he said it that I laughed.

“I’m fairly sure you have never put any of these things on.”

“No, but I have taken them off.”

Knowing what he meant actually made me blush. I’m not sure why after we had been intimate so many times but this seemed different. It wasn’t a stolen moment in the blankets on the trail. Adam said about the same thing I was thinking. Like usual though, he could say things so much better than I could.

“Finally, I get to see all of you. I get to lay in a clean bed with you by my side for the whole night. There are no worries about being seen or found out. We can relax and do whatever we want to do together. The thought of it is intoxicating.”

He helped me to dress, and then after we indulged in those pastries he had purchased, he helped me to undress. We had a wonderful night and a beautiful way to begin our marriage. We had to spend more time talking. I still had to get over him hiding all of his past as he had done. I forgave him, but there was a lot a wanted to know, and he had to tell me. He knew that and didn’t hold back when I asked questions. It rebuilt the trust between us because I understood his reasons for hiding his past as much as he understood why I had hidden mine. But now I let him know there was to be no hiding of anything. He agreed. Our relationship kept getting stronger because the more we shared, the more we found common ground on how we looked at the world around us.

On our wedding night, I had discovered that hidden talent of my husband. He was excellent at disrobing a woman. He knew how to do it in a way that made me want him to keep going and going. He knew that too. Over the next months, if I wasn’t in the mood or a bit reluctant, a few buttons later or a ribbon untied and a strap undone, and I was lost to his charms. It was no surprise then that within six months, after a nice session together, he was caressing my abdomen and thought it seemed a bit more full.

“Is there something you haven’t told me?”

“About what?”

“About this?”

“I know. All this rich food and not running about the countryside chasing after outlaws and missing meals as often as eating them, and I’m putting on weight. My clothes are not fitting as well.”

“Van, it could be something else. You don’t seem to be packing on weight anywhere else except well, you are a bit more endowed and that made me wonder too. Didn’t you notice a change?”

“I’ve never been regular. I thought it was just the usual misses.”

“I don’t think there’s anything usual about this.”

That was a shock, but it was a good one. I knew it was possible but hadn’t really given it much thought. There had been so many other things happening. It brought some other changes too. It must have been the idea of the impending fatherhood again that made Adam change his mind about something very important. He suggested perhaps it was time to visit the Ponderosa so I could meet Nathan and he could see his son again.

That was a huge surprise because whenever I had brought that up in conversation, he had made it clear he wasn’t ready for that. Now suddenly he was. He had gotten himself well-established in his job and had made a good impression all around so there would be no issue with taking a little time to go visit his family. He had hired some good men to work with him too. They would be able to handle anything that came up and would certainly contact him if they thought it was necessary to do so. It was a big surprise in the office when he told them too especially as some didn’t know his family name. We thought it was best for his family if that wasn’t general knowledge.

I had been trying to get in touch with my brother to let him know I had gotten married and that my life had changed quite a lot. I had been unsuccessful which made me worry when the weeks became months with no replies to my letters. I sent a final letter to try to get a response telling him that we would be traveling to Virginia City to visit with Adam’s family. At that point, I finally got a response that he would meet us there.

“Perfect STOP See you there STOP Macon STOP”

It was all very strange, but when I told Adam, he said it was more than that. He thought it was suspicious behavior. I didn’t want to hear that, and we argued some about it. However, I had to be honest with myself and finally with him. It was suspicious.

“But what can we do about it?”

“We can’t do anything because we don’t know anyone there, but by now, Lew does. How about if I send him a wire and ask him to check into it. You tell me whatever you can about the friends of his that you met or anything else you remember. Lew can send a discreet report as soon as he knows something or he can report there’s nothing to know.”

“I don’t want to do it, but I know we should. It seems terrible to be so suspicious of my own brother. Go ahead and contact Lew.”

Knowing my brother and the way he had attracted trouble when he was younger, I figured he could be in something up to his neck. Sadly I had no idea just how dirty he had gotten and how close to us it was going to hit. I had told him of my marriage but used Adam’s alias. I didn’t want my brother bragging all over about who his sister had married, or doing something just as bad like trying to use it as leverage to borrow money or get something else. Yes, my brother could be that way.

The trip to Virginia City was uneventful. We got a room at the International Hotel and no one recognized Adam, not even the hotel clerk who had the closest contact with him. His longish hair and the beard as well as the style of clothing he wore were effective at camouflaging the man they had known. He had brought other clothing that he wore to court hearings and to meetings. He planned to wear that when he went to the ranch. I had been surprised that we were staying in a hotel instead of on the Ponderosa.

“It’s too soon for that kind of forced family togetherness. We’ll visit some and see how things go. If we are both comfortable with the situation and if the invitation is graciously extended, we can consider staying on the ranch.”

There were a number of ifs in that statement so I knew he wasn’t all that sure he would want to stay on the ranch no matter what happened. Royal treatment and a red carpet might not be enough. I know his father’s advice to him as he lay wounded had bothered him and still did. He felt his father was still trying to control his life. I had that same feeling about it. We had no idea how his father would react to Adam’s promotion and his decision to stay with the service at this point at least. For Adam’s future, it didn’t matter what his father said. For the relationship between the two, it meant a lot. I didn’t know how to help or if there was any way I could. I wished there was something I could do, but I knew there were too many years of issues for any simple solution to work.

Then there was the issue of Nathan. Adam had an idea about that and I liked the approach. He headed out to the barber shop and I busied myself in the room trying to get it more organized after some of our activities had left things in a bit of disorder. I was surprised by a knock on the door. When I answered it with my hand on a pistol I held behind my back, it was a shock to see my little brother standing there. It was only the beginning of several shocks that day.

“Macon!”

“Vanny! Oh, how I have missed you.”

We hugged and of course, he noticed the pistol.

“You were going to shoot me?”

“I had no idea who was behind that door. Since Adam was ambushed, we have been very careful.”

“Yeah, that must have been tough. Listen, I’d like to meet him, but I have a job to do here for my friends first. They want me to find a man here who has been a lot of trouble for them. They have a client who has an issue with him that goes back five years. The client doesn’t feel safe to come back to this country until this man is found.”

“That sounds like something for the authorities to handle.”

“My friends are like the authorities. They handle cases when the authorities give up or can’t do it. Now this man is dangerous. He’s killed a number of men. His family lives here though so I’m hoping to get a lead on him here that my friends can use. They’ll track him down and make sure it’s safe for our client to return.”

“Macon, it sounds like they’re plotting a murder.”

“Vanny, it’s not murder when the man is wanted. The client is paying the bounty.”

“Macon, a private bounty is not legal. It is still murder. Who is this man they’re hunting?”

“I probably shouldn’t tell you, but you’ll figure it out based on what I already said. His name is Adam Cartwright.”

My shock couldn’t have been much greater even if I was already thinking of that possibility before he said it and praying it wasn’t. I knew what I had to do and yet I was reluctant to do it. The only plan I had was to keep him there until Adam returned and arrest him then. It was going to be a terrible mess no matter what I did.

“It’s kind of funny that your husband has the same first name. Where is he anyway?”

“He went to the barber shop to get trimmed for a visit with his family.”

Macon got a funny look then. Perhaps it was how I said it or the coincidences were adding up. He stood as if to go, but Adam returned and stepped into the room. He saw the resemblance and knew who the man was.

“Howdy, Macon. I’m Adam. I’d say pleased to meet you, but I’m afraid that would be dishonest.”

When Macon moved to draw then, I grabbed his arm. He didn’t realize I had saved his life until he looked to see Adam’s pistol aimed at his chest.

“You would never have outdrawn him. He’s much too fast for you. Surely your friends told you that about him.”

“You set me up. My own sister set me up.”

“No, until you told me why you were here, I had no idea what you were doing.”

“But he did. By what he said, he did.”

“Yes, Macon, I did, but only because I picked up a report that was sent to us via the sheriff’s office here. A former colleague of ours is in Denver now and I asked him to check on you and your friends. He got quite a bit of information on you including a possible motive for your trip to Virginia City. There’s a strong suspicion back there that they do murder for a fee. There was some loose talk about them looking for information that would lead to Adam Cartwright who disappeared from public view almost four years ago.”

Macon seemed to shrink as Adam spoke. His bravado and charm would do no good in this situation and he knew it.

“What’s going to happen to me now?”

“Are any of your friends with you?”

“No. They’re going to come when I send information that would help them find him, or you. I guess I won’t be sending that now. You’re going to get the sheriff, aren’t you? But maybe you don’t want to lock up your wife’s brother, now, do you?”

Macon switched into his charming ways and tried his little boy looks and his pitiful look. I’d seen them all before and wasn’t fooled. It surprised me a little to see Adam smiling at him like maybe he was being taken in. His words said different though.

“You can try that on little foolish girls and stupid greedy men. It won’t work on me. It’s an act and not a very good one. I know some good actors and you have no talent for it so you should give it up. I have an idea though that may keep you out of prison. So shut up and let me talk with Van.”

“What if I don’t shut up? I don’t have to do what you say.”

“Try me.”

When he used that low deadly voice like he did right there, only the stupid would challenge him. Macon may have been a lot of things but wasn’t that stupid. I told him to sit and he did. It gave me a chance to walk to Adam making sure I didn’t get between him and Macon. I didn’t trust my brother either. First, I asked him what Lew had found out. I could tell he was reluctant to tell me, but I said it likely wasn’t going to surprise me much.

“Adam, I already suspect what you’re going to tell me is probably awful. All you’re holding back from me now are the details.”

“Macon seems to have been using his youth and innocent look to get himself hired into a number of jobs. After a short time, the places where he has been hired are robbed and sometimes people have been killed during those robberies. The robbers always seem to know exactly where the valuables are and who has the access to them. The authorities were paying attention to him and watching who he was associating with. They think it’s a large criminal organization that will do almost anything for money if the price is right. Robberies, arson, kidnapping, and murder are their suspected activities.”

“I was wrong. That was worse than I expected. My brother could hang then, couldn’t he?”

“Macon could because as an accessory to the crimes so he would be charged with the same crimes.”

“Hey, I didn’t do anything except tell them things.”

The admission was all the confession we needed. Macon was going to do whatever we wanted now or he faced the gallows. We knew that, but he didn’t know it yet. Adam walked over to him and sat in a chair very close to him. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say, but it made a lot of sense when he did.

“Almost four years ago, my wife was kidnapped. I spent almost a year trying to find her and the men who took her. I failed. Now the only man who would be worried about me being alive would be the man who had her kidnapped. That would be your client. He needs to face justice. It’s the only thing I can do for her now. Yes, I disappeared but only because I changed my name and waited for a clue I could follow. Nothing ever showed up until now. You are going to help me by sending information to bring your associates here. They are going to face justice too, but not before they think they have killed me and that information is sent to your client. He needs to come back here so I can take care of him.”

“If I help you, They’ll kill me.”

“If you don’t, what do you think I’ll do?”

Macon turned pale and I guessed he was struggling not to wet himself.

“All right.”

“Van would you get the sheriff to come over here please?”

An hour later, Clem agreed that Adam’s plan could work and said he would come up with a place to stash Macon. He couldn’t put him in jail. It would be too obvious that something was not right. After we met Adam’s family, and Macon supposedly had time to ferret out information, a message would be sent to his associates. Lew was notified about what was happening, but Adam sent it in a coded response to the letter he had received. Even if it was intercepted, it couldn’t be read because it was a code that only Adam and Lew knew. The whole episode did put us on edge for the meeting with Adam’s family, but there was one thing I had not had the chance to describe or respond to in any way.

“I like your new look. I’ve never seen that much of your face, and I like it.”

“That’s good, but I hope you still say that when you have to put up with the whiskers. I grow them rather well as you are about to learn.”

He had gotten most of the beard shaved off that morning leaving only a neat mustache. With all that had happened, it was late before we had any time with the two of us. He kissed me and I felt his whiskers brush across my chin for the first time. I knew what he meant then. After the kiss, he looked down at me and smiled at my expression.

“I’ll shave.”

That night, being with Adam let me work out a lot of emotional tension. I think it worked for him that way too. In the morning, we dressed and headed down to breakfast. Neither of us could eat very well so we left most of our breakfast on the table. We headed to the livery stable for the carriage we had arranged to have ready for our trip to the Ponderosa. Both of us were nervous but for very different reasons. I was lucky to be distracted on the way by all that I saw. Adam was only slightly distracted by having to tell me about the things I saw. As we neared the ranch house, I could tell that the uncertainty and the excitement were both at their peak. We pulled into the yard to see Hoss waiting on the porch with a little boy. Both looked up as we pulled in and approached us slowly.

“Nathan, this is Adam. Remember what I told you about him. He’s your Papa. He came here because he wanted to see you.”

The little boy looked up at Hoss and then back and forth from him to Adam. Hoss let go of Nathan’s hand and with a little pat on the shoulder, encouraged him to walk a bit closer to Adam who dropped to one knee to get on the same level as his son. That helped Nathan because Adam wasn’t quite so intimidating at that height.

“Hello, Nathan. It’s been a long time. You were a very little baby the last time I saw you.”

Nathan reached out and touched Adam’s face when he smiled. Nathan smiled too. His hand was on the dimple on Adam’s face.

“I got one too. You got one like me.”

Next he touched Adam’s hair.

“I got hair like you. My hair is black. Your hair is black but it has shiny things in it.”

Hoss chuckled at that making Nathan turn around.

“What’s funny?”

“Now, your papa is getting old and his hair is turning gray like Grandpa.”

Nathan turned back to Adam.

“Are you old like Grandpa?”

“No, Grandpa is my father. He’s my Papa.”

Nathan frowned until Hoss reminded him of something.

“Remember what I told you. Grandpa is Papa to me, just like he is to my brothers Joe, Jamie, and Adam.”

“Oh, yeah, now I remember.”

Looking back at Adam, Nathan had a request.

“Can I show you the kittens in the barn? And show you my pony too? I can’t ride him yet but Uncle Joe says he’ll teach me how when I’m five.”

Looking at Hoss, Adam wondered if it was all right.

“I told the others to stay in the house for a bit. I wanted you and Nathan to have a little time together. Me and Van will wait here for you two, or we can go in the house to meet the others if Van is willing. Nathan really does want to go see his critters so I said it would be all right if you would take him. He’s not allowed to see them without a man or Jenny with him.”

Hoss was careful how he phrased that. He had rehearsed it all well in advance. Adam guessed as much and was grateful. Looking at Nathan, he agreed to the boy’s request, stood, and offered his hand which Nathan took. The two walked to the barn hand-in-hand. Hoss and Van had tears glistening in their eyes and guessed all the people in the house watching from windows did too.

CHAPTER 7

After a half hour of a rather tense meeting in the house with Jenny and the family, she seemed to warm to me. She suggested it might be time to take the girls and head out to the barn to let Adam come to the house to visit with his family. Ben suggested that Jamie might accompany us, but Hoss vetoed that part of the plan. I think he worried that Ben was getting Jamie out of the way because he thought there was going to be a confrontation between father and son. Hoss wasn’t going to let that happen and made it clear.

“Pa, this is the first meeting in years. I know we saw Adam in Arizona but he was hurt bad and that don’t count. This is the first real chance to talk, and I don’t want nobody getting in the way of that.”

There was no mistaking the determination in Hoss’ voice. His father was going to toe the line or Hoss would step in. It was interesting to see the sons acting more like a parent to their father guiding his behavior. I wondered how long that had been happening. I found it strange and decided it was something to discuss with Adam when we had a chance. When we got to the barn, Adam was sitting in a pile of hay with Nathan and they were petting three kittens and talking. It seemed a shame to disturb them, but Nathan was excited to tell Jenny about Adam who smiled at that. He shrugged and knew it was time to face the other members of his family. With a pat on his son’s head, he headed to the house. We were entertained by Nathan for the next hour, but my mind couldn’t forget that Adam was in the house. That he hadn’t come storming back to leave was a good sign. At the end of the hour, we heard voices and knew the men were approaching. The good news was that the sound of the conversation was genial. I breathed a sigh of relief and noticed Jenny did too making both of us chuckle a bit.

When the men got to the barn, Nathan rushed to Hoss to tell him about all that had happened and everything he had learned about me especially that I could shoot a gun too just like his mother, Jenny, and ride horses. I think he might be getting an unrealistic idea about women. Then again, perhaps he would have some high standards for the kind of woman he would like to be with when he got older. The idea made me smile which made Adam look at me wondering why. I simply told him I would explain later.

“It’s going to be much later if it’s all right with you. I told Pa we could stay for dinner if you approve. How are you feeling? Will that be all right?”

Those questions alerted most of the people in the room that there might be something Adam had not told them. I was right about that too. Hoss was the one to ask, but Ben, Joe, and Jenny were all looking at me too.

“You got some news you ain’t shared with us, older brother?”

Looking at me, Adam pursed his lips at his own slip of the tongue. He had not meant to tell them this early, but it was out now and he knew it. I shrugged. I didn’t mind if they knew. I was mostly over the morning sickness which I had discovered was incorrectly named because it could strike at any time. But it would have been out anyway if I had to leave the dinner table because of it.

“Yes, and now you know it.”

“Know what?”

Jamie still didn’t know, but Joe leaned over and told him. Then he was staring at me too. I huffed a little in frustration at everyone staring.

“Oh, Lord, you can’t see anything yet.”

The conversation stayed light and pleasant through dinner, and then we asked for the carriage to be made ready. Ben repeated his offer for us to stay, and Adam declined gracefully again saying we had our things in town and that he had some business to do. I didn’t know his father that well, but even I could tell he was doing his best not to say more. Outside, Adam thanked Hoss for all that he had done. Then we headed back to town. I had to ask.

“What did Hoss do? I have a feeling it was more than what he did with Nathan.”

“Several times Pa tried to steer the conversation to where we live and my choice of job right now. Hoss headed him off every time. Said it was my life and not to interfere.”

“He was that direct?”

“He was. Sometimes with my father you have to be that way. He can be quite stubborn. You may have noticed it is a family trait.”

“There’s something else I’ve noticed. You and Hoss act almost like the parent with your father telling him what’s right and what isn’t. It seems very strange to me. You talk to him a lot like you talk to Joe quite a bit like you don’t trust what he will do or say next.”

I could see Adam wanted to argue about that conclusion, but as was his usual way, he thought about it first. He was quiet for quite a while too. I wondered if I had upset him, but when he spoke, it cleared that up.

“I’ve never thought about it in those terms, but if I do, it does make things make sense in a funny kind of way. I can see why you might perceive it that way. I’ve tried to push my father to do things, and many times, he has refused. He is adamant that he won’t change even when it’s for his own good and at times has to be forced into doing the right thing. Interesting theory. I think Hoss will laugh if you ever bring that up with him.”

“He’s a wise man. He may understand what I’m saying because he’s been dealing with him like that even more than you. From some of the stories you have told me, he was the one who tried to make your father see reason when the two of you were at odds.”

“You are a keen observer. Now, do you have any insights about Nathan and what we can do there?”

I could only raise my hands in surrender on that one. It was a nearly impossible situation as far as I could see it. Adam nodded. He knew, and I guessed Hoss and Jenny knew too that the whole situation was quite a mess. Adam admitted to me that he knew he was responsible for what had happened.

“I was in so much grief and so angry about all that had happened, I thought my son was better off without me the way I was. By the time, I realized what I had done, I didn’t know how to fix things. I guess I was too embarrassed too to admit how wrong I was. I stayed where I was and nursed my wounds and convinced myself it was better that way. Now I don’t know what to do. I want a relationship with my son but I can’t take him away from the only family he’s known and into a world filled with danger.”

“It would only work if we changed the world we live in.”

He jerked his head toward me on that one and must have wondered what I meant so I told him.

“I’ve been thinking about that too now that I have another life to consider. What will it be like when we have our child? You were ambushed and he came for both of us so it could have been me. Do we take a chance on leaving our child an orphan? I know what that’s like.”

Adam was quiet. I knew he was thinking and probably had been considering something along those lines already. He would have offered objections to my idea if he hadn’t already thought about them and answered them at least to his own satisfaction. When he was ready, he would tell me his thoughts. It happened that night as we lay in bed unable to sleep. I knew he was restless after the visit probably thinking about all that had happened and all that had been discussed and maybe even a few things that were not.

“Maybe I could ask the Treasury Department if there’s a job closer to here and with less danger involved where we could have a house and more stability. They liked me as an employee once and we parted on good terms. If I could get closer, we could work out times to visit with Nathan more and maybe he could stay with us sometimes.”

“So we could share time with Hoss and Jenny?”

“I think it could work.”

“After all you’ve done, could you settle down that much? Live in one place and work at one job for years?”

“There’s only one person I still want to see face justice. Then I could move on and focus on other things. If I get a job that isn’t so demanding, I could do other things as well. Have I ever told you that I like to build things?”

I wasn’t going to let him distract me from that first thing he had said. He’s very good at redirecting a conversation, but I was good too at not letting him do that to me.

“Adam, you can’t get too involved in the hunt for this man. You are too angry yet. You could do something you would regret, and that could affect your life and our life. It could mean that you don’t get a Treasury Department job that would let us move closer.” I paused because I knew he didn’t like hearing this but it had to be said. “I know what you were like when you hunted down those kidnappers. It seemed you walked the line then and came damn close to crossing it. If you get close to this man, it would be too easy for you to kill him with what you feel about what he did.”

Again it was very quiet until he uttered a short agreement to what I said.

“All right.”

Working with Clem and in communication with the authorities in Denver and U.S. Marshals, we put the plan in place quickly so that there would be little chance for information to get out to the wrong parties. Adam and I visited with his family for a week and announced out intention of returning to Arizona. We didn’t leave but took up residence in a small cottage on the Ponderosa while two people dressed like us headed toward Arizona. Macon had sent word that Adam Cartwright traveling as Adam Black was going home. He sent the route and the number of people in the group which was only three. His friends thought it was going to be easy. However, hidden in the wagon were three more men, and of course, the person dressed as me was another man. There were two more agents riding as scouts and checking for the men who would do the ambush. They spotted the men they wanted to apprehend leaving Virginia City and followed them. From all accounts, it was a relatively easy operation. The men were apprehended as soon as they charged toward the wagon and were taken to a secure location.

The name of their client, Franklin Perry, was extracted. We didn’t ask too many questions as to how that was done, but it confirmed Adam’s theory. A message was sent to Perry which meant he was likely to arrive in the area in a short time. He owned a large home in Virginia City which had been boarded up. Suddenly there was activity there as the place was readied for occupancy. The authorities got ready to apprehend Perry whenever he arrived. Adam had one request, and Clem was agreeable.

“I want to be there when you take him into custody if that is at all possible.”

“You deserve that much at least.”

When we were alerted that the man had arrived in town, I went with Adam. I didn’t want him there without me. I swear though the shock of what happened nearly made me lose the baby. The stress of that moment and the next few days was nearly unbearable. We got to the house, and Clem met us. He said he and the deputies would go in first, and we would be called in next. I held onto Adam’s arm because I could feel the tension in him. He wanted so much to go in there and strangle the man with his bare hands. I could understand his feelings. However I had to hold him back for his own good. He had been like a caged lion for days, and all that tension had built up a formidable amount of energy in him. When called into the house, we saw the shock on the man’s face. He knew Adam even though Adam obviously did not know him except as the target of his rage.

“You wanted my wife so badly you would kill and kidnap. You are beneath contempt. But now you will hang for what you did.”

The man was as contemptible as any I had ever met. He dared to sneer.

“Hang? I don’t think so. You have no proof.”

“You’re wrong there. I have statements from the men you hired. I have held them for almost four years. I didn’t want you to know.”

The man paled then but recovered quickly, and the sneer was back.

“One doesn’t hang for running off with a woman. She went with them willingly. She wanted to be with me or at least she did for a time until she found a better man than me. Just like she left you for me, she moves from man to man. Who knows who she’s with now.”

“What?”

“Good Lord, man, what kind of poor detective are you? You know she’s alive, don’t you?” No one knew what to say to that. Now the man was clearly guilty of conspiracy and kidnapping although he was trying to build a defense against that, but we had all assumed he was guilty of murder too. Adam was shaken so much he had nothing he could say. He had married me in the belief that his first wife, Joelle, was dead. Now it seemed that was not a fact, and it shook him as well as me. We didn’t talk until we got back to the cottage. Adam helped me from the carriage and then took care of it and the horse. We had planned to go on to the main house, but I knew he didn’t want to do that now. When he entered the cottage, he stopped in the middle of the room and stared at the small fire I had started in the fireplace. His shoulders were slumped, and he looked defeated.

“My son has two fathers and three mothers, and I have two wives. How did I ever mess things up so badly?”

That evening, Adam didn’t have any dinner claiming he wasn’t hungry. He was more likely sick at heart. At bedtime, he pulled the curtain around the bed and said he would stay in the rocking chair by the fireplace. It was the first time we had been apart like that since we were married, and I felt lonely. Actually, I was devastated. Macon was lost to me because I could never trust him, and now I feared I might lose Adam too. I carried his baby, but I didn’t know what that would mean for our future.

In the morning, Hoss arrived. From his look, he had been told the news. He put a hand on his brother’s shoulder in support, I guess. Then he gave me a hug which I desperately needed.

“Any idea what you’re gonna do?”

Adam shrugged. He looked terrible because he clearly had not slept much and hadn’t shaved nor put on clean clothing. Hoss told him to take care of the shaving and the clothing.

“Clem said you need to come to town and bring those statements. Perry already hired a lawyer, and it goes to a judge this afternoon. You need to be there to make sure he doesn’t walk out the door a free man.”

Nodding in agreement, Adam did as he was told. Hoss and I knew he was not going to be an effective witness in the state he was in. However he only needed to create the probable cause at this point to hold Perry for trial. The statements alone should be enough with the testimony of the men Perry had hired to kill Adam. They were likely going to cooperate in order to get lighter sentences so that part was going to work. However, the charges against that damn Perry weren’t strong enough to get him more than a few years behind bars probably. That wasn’t satisfying at all and I worried what Adam would do if that was the result.

In court, the cases proceeded much as expected. The men hired were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy. Macon was charged with those but Clem noted to the judge that Macon had cooperated with the authorities in apprehending all of the others. He was being held in a room at a hotel with a deputy guarding him because he wouldn’t be safe in the jail with the others. Franklin Perry was charged with kidnapping, and all the other charges Clem and the prosecutor could think of. His lawyer demanded bail because none of the charges were capital offenses. He argued further that it wasn’t attempted murder because Adam wasn’t actually in that wagon. Therefore it couldn’t be conspiracy to commit murder because there was no overt act strong enough to support the charge of conspiracy. We could see him building his case for the defense already. The judge agreed to the bail but not to dropping the charges. When he set the bail, we assumed Franklin would likely be able to raise it within a day or so. The judge asked the important question though.

“The woman who was allegedly kidnapped, Joelle Cartwright, is alive then but we do not know her whereabouts? Is that true?”

Clem answered in the affirmative when the judge asked that. We knew that the defense was going to use that too to bolster their case. Then Clem began to usher the defendants out of the courtroom with his deputies assisting. One of the defendants stopped and asked to speak to Clem. It halted the whole process. After a moment, Clem called the prosecutor to come over and the defendant spoke to the prosecutor too who then turned to the judge.

“Your Honor, could we please reconvene? New information has just been given to us.”

The defense attorney objected, but the judge called the two lawyers forward, and after a brief consultation, reconvened the hearing letting the prosecutor call that defendant forward with another man agreeing to testify too to the same information. After warning Adam that he would find it hard to listen to what was going to be said and explaining why, the prosecutor moved forward and asked the man what he had told him a few minutes earlier.

“Mister Perry bragged to me and the other man there in our cell that he thought fast yesterday and came up with the perfect defense. He said he told Mister Cartwright his wife was alive, and he thought it was pretty funny how Mister Cartwright looked when Mister Perry said that. Then he laughed and said he wondered how Mister Cartwright would look if he knew Mister Perry had beat her when she fought him off one too many times and it ruined her looks. He said he was so mad that time that he had the sailors throw her overboard. He said it had all been a waste of money because he never got to have her, and Mister Cartwright was hunting him so he couldn’t go home.”

If Adam could have, he would have climbed over everyone in that room and killed Perry. I hung onto him and so did Hoss. The look in his face and his eyes was terrible. Perry saw it. I think he may have wet himself. A few weeks later, Perry walked up the gallows steps in Carson City at the prison. Two guards had to force him to take each step but then he paid the price for what he had done. The jury believed the statements, Adam’s testimony, and the testimony of all the other defendants at his trial and after what he had heard, the judge was more than happy to decree the death penalty. Macon got probation, and the others got light sentences. However, Macon was sent back to Denver to face charges there, and the others would be sent back when they finished their sentences in Nevada. If Macon continued to cooperate as he promised he would, he likely could get more probation or a light sentence. I told him not to come back to see us though until he had a couple of years of being a good citizen under his belt. If he never did, then I said he shouldn’t visit. It was difficult as hell to do that to my own brother, but I saw no other way.

For me and Adam, it was a time of rebuilding. We went back to Arizona and continued to work there while Adam waited to hear from the Treasury Department about a new job. They came through with an offer in two months. That put us rather close to my delivery time, but I was game to try a trip as long as we got going soon.

“I don’t want to have this baby on the trail or in a stagecoach.”

“I’ll sell what I can and buy a big carriage, have nice springs put in, and a big cover put on it. If we take enough supplies and material along, we should be comfortable traveling that way. We’ll stop in towns along the way and take rooms when we can.”

“That does sound better than a stagecoach. Will we go to the Ponderosa?”

“Only for a brief visit. I have to get to Reno to get to work, and I want to get you there with a month or more to spare if I can. We can rent a place there. We’ll set things up more permanently when we’ve had a chance to check things out.”

After making recommendations for promotions, Adam left the office in Arizona, and we said goodbye to our friends there. The trip was longer than I expected because of my condition. I wasn’t comfortable riding so long so we had to take more breaks. We arrived in Virginia City with only a day to spare for a visit and took the train to Reno to save time. There we rented a room at first and then looked for a house to rent. We didn’t find one but did find an office with an apartment above. i liked that because there was a nice breeze, and I could see Adam more often.

As it got close to my time, we got a big surprise. Hoss and Jenny arrived. They came because Hoss said I needed family around at a time like this and Adam was going to be a wreck. Jenny said a woman needed a woman by her side for a few weeks so we got a good idea of how long they planned to stay. Adam asked about the children.

“Now Joe is finally getting serious about a lady. He said it would be good practice for when they have children so he plans to take care of all three.”

Adam did that raised eyebrow thing that he does, and Hoss laughed.

“Yeah, well he’s got Jamie and Hop Sing, and Pa to help out now don’t he?”

Our baby was born in what Jenny said was an easy delivery. I can tell you it was hell for six hours. Anyway, it was over, and he was a healthy one who immediately began suckling like he knew what to do. The doctor said he rarely saw a baby learn so fast how to suckle. Adam looked at Hoss and at me with a warning look that told us clearer than words not to say anything. We waited until the doctor left to make our comments about father and son.

During that visit, Jenny and Adam had a chance to talk and he told her what he and I had discussed. We thought a memorial service and a memorial stone at the lake would be appropriate if she agreed. She did. Now that we had an answer, everyone could say goodbye. Adam said he would order the stone and have it engraved. A few months later, we all gathered at the lakeshore for a private service. At the end of the service, we went to the house for dinner and then some time with family. Nathan had a question for Adam.

“Papa Hoss said I can visit with you sometime.”

“Yes, you can.”

“Can I go with you when you go home?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t talked about that with Hoss and with Jenny and Van.”

“Why don’t you talk to them then?”

Hoss interrupted.

“Nathan, you are not being polite.”

“Oh, yeah. Would you talk to them, please?”

It wasn’t what Hoss had meant, but Adam had to laugh. He told us it reminded him so much of the conversations he used to have with Hoss and Joe. He would do his best to correct what they were saying and they would take it differently than he intended which had frustrated him so much. Now he understood better and found it humorous.

Anyway, we did talk it over, and Nathan went with us to stay for a bit. He enjoyed all the new things about Reno, and the excitement kept him from being homesick for several weeks. Hoss missed him too much though and showed up to take him home. It had seemed like such a short time but was three weeks since Nathan had arrived. It was a successful foray into sharing Nathan. The arrangement was good for him offering him learning opportunities he couldn’t get on the ranch as well as the love of two fathers and two mothers. When anyone questioned the arrangement, the two fathers as well as the two mothers had an answer.

“Parents can love more than one child. Why can’t a child love more than one parent?”

It meant that Nathan got a chance to get to know his little brother Aaron too. In time, the two of them grew very close.

Adam continued in his job turning down promotions that would take him away from his son. He also had an office remarkably free of corruption and worked with competent people. He said trouble comes looking often enough. There was no reason to tempt fate by going out and looking for it too. The job allowed him time to pursue other interests such as investing and doing some construction work including building a house for us. Life was good.

 

Tags:  Adam Cartwright, Angst, Ben Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright, wife / wives

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Author: BettyHT

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

4 thoughts on “Trouble Comes Looking (by BettyHT)

  1. Good follow-on story Betty and loved how this was written from Van’s perspective. A good match with Adam.. Had everything from surprises to sadness, to happiness. Thank you

    1. Thank you so much. It is a different way of approaching a story writing from this kind of POV but I’m glad you liked how it worked out. I do like to put those twists and turns in a story too.

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