Independence Day (by pkmoonshine)

Summary:  The Independence Day race, which the Cartwrights have been looking forward to all summer, ends in near tragedy. Part of the series begun in Bloodlines, this story takes place after Poltergiest II and includes the addition of several non-cannon characters.

Rating:  K+ (39,720 words)

Bloodlines Series:

Bloodlines
The Lo Mein Affair
The Wedding
Sacrificial Lamb
Poltergeist II
Independence Day
Virginia City Detour
The Guardian
Young Cartwrights in Love
San Francisco Revisited
There But for the Grace of God
Between Life and Death
Orenna
Clarissa Returns
Trial by Fire
Mark of Kane

Independence Day

Chapter 1

Benjy Cartwright ventured hesitantly into the barn, pausing just inside the door to cast an uneasy glance at the stall occupied by his grandfather’s horse, Buck. If the big buckskin gelding had actually deigned to take notice the young boy, he gave no sign. Rather, he seemed more intent on munching the fresh hay left in his trough. The stalls belonging to his uncles’ horses and the one his father used stood empty. Papa, Uncle Hoss, and Uncle Joe had left early yesterday morning with Grandpa’s junior foreman, Mister Canaday, to do something called riding fence. They wouldn’t be back until late tomorrow night or sometime in the morning, day after tomorrow. Benjy smiled, upon remembering how Uncle Joe and Uncle Hoss had talked his father into what Mother disparagingly referred to as a crazy lark.

“I’ll have the BOTH of ya know, I worked circles around you then, and by golly I can still do it today . . . IF I’m of the mind,” Papa declared in a firm, resolute tone of voice at the supper table the night before he, his uncles, and Mister Canaday left to ride fence.

“Adam, Adam, Adam, Adam,” Uncle Joe sighed, the expression on his face very like the same on a reluctant messenger about to deliver some very bad news, “you seem to forget Hoss ‘n I were BOYS then . . . LITTLE boys. Very, VERY little boys.”

“Huh!” Hop Sing snorted derisively, upon entering the dining room bearing the last of the chocolate cake he had served up for dessert the night before on a tray, already sliced and placed on serving plates. “Mister Hoss he NEVER little boy.”

“I’m afraid Hop Sing’s right as rain ‘bout that,” Uncle Hoss agreed with a chuckle.

“The point I’M trying to make is Hoss ‘n me were BOYS, ‘n Adam here was a grown MAN,” Uncle Joe argued. “It’s a given any GROWN MAN can work circles around a couple of li—, uhhh YOUNG! Any grown man can work circles around a couple of YOUNG boys any day of the week.”

“As I recall, neither you nor Hoss were all THAT young when I left,” Papa very quickly pointed out.

“We were still young, nonetheless,” Uncle Joe came right back, “and while I freely admit that OL’ Adam here works very hard at what he does . . . come ON! THESE days, he sits behind a desk— ”

“Drawing table,” Papa growled.

“Desk . . . drawing table . . . . ” Uncle Joe shrugged, “furniture doesn’t matter. The point I’M tryin’ to make is . . . ol’ Adam here’s been a pencil pusher for quite a long time now— ”

“My husband is NOT a mere pencil pusher, thank you very much,” Mother added HER two cents worth, highly indignant, “he’s an ARCHITECT . . . and a very FINE one, too, I might add.”

“Look! I’m NOT denying that Adam works hard and that he’s very good at what he does,” Uncle Joe argued, “what I AM saying is . . . after having spent a whole lotta years behind a desk . . . drawing table . . . whatever, he’s no longer able to handle all the intense, grueling physical labor WE hafta do around here to keep this ranch going.”

“ . . . and I say I CAN,” Papa said.

“You, um . . . wanna put your money where your mouth is, Bother?” Uncle Joe challenged.

“No!” Mother replied before Papa could.

*********

“Uncle Joe and Uncle Hoss, too, would have been dead and maybe even buried that very night, if Mother’s looks could have killed,” Benjy silently mused, with a half smile tugging hard at the corner of his mouth . . . .

*********

“Joseph, that’s enough,” Grandpa said, using that same tone of voice Papa used whenever he and Dio were in deep trouble. “Adam and his family happen to be GUESTS in our home, and— ”

“Pa, it’s ok,” Papa said very politely, while holding up his hand. He, then, turned to Uncle Joe. “All right, BABY Brother,” he said, “how’s THIS for putting my money where my mouth is? A hundred dollars and the loser buys the winner drinks at the Silver Dollar or any other saloon of his choice for the remainder of our visit.”

Papa’s words drew a long slow whistle from Uncle Joe, and a few clipped words in Spanish from Mother that shocked Benjy, especially since not long after Christmas last year, he had gotten his mouth thoroughly washed out with soap for saying those words himself. Poor Grandmother’s face went white, and Benjy half feared she was going to faint dead away. 

“Well?” Papa prompted.

“You got yourself a bet, Brother,” Uncle Joe agreed. He put out his hand and the two shook on the deal. He, then, smiled. “Tomorrow morning, bright and early, you, me, Hoss, ‘n Candy’ll be leaving to ride fence.”

Mother, at that point, had threatened Uncle Joe with a lot of dire happenstances, all of which were guaranteed to get her significant prison time, if Papa came home hurt.

*********

A footfall and the sound of a child’s amused laughter drew Stacy’s attention from the task of brushing the sleek coat of her own horse, Blaze Face. She turned and glanced past the open door of his stall, half expecting to find her niece. “CAN’T be Dio,” she silently remembered. Dio had gone into town right after breakfast with her mother and grandmother. Benjy silently mused, with a half smile tugging hard at the corner of his mouth . . . .

She was very much surprised to see Benjy standing just inside the barn door. A snort from Sun Dancer’s stall stopped the boy’s laughter cold. The blood drained right out of his face, leaving it chalk white, and his dark eyes, went round with sheer horror. Benjy immediately turned heel, spinning with enough force and momentum to almost knock him off his feet, and bolted right out of the barn.

“I’ll be right back, Blaze Face,” Stacy whispered quietly. She planted an affectionate kiss on his muzzle, and made sure the door to his stall was properly secured before setting off after young Benjy. Upon exiting the barn, she found him leaning up against the fence encircling the empty corral, hyperventilating, his entire body trembling.

“Benjy, you need to close your eyes and take DEEP breaths,” Stacy said, taking care to keep her voice calm and even.

Benjy squeezed his eyes shut, and took a deep, ragged breath.

“That’s good, Benjy. Now again.”

The next breath Benjy took was deep, and a little less ragged. He took another deep breath, slow, more even, then another. Though his eyes remained closed, he no longer squeezed them so tight. The trembling in his body had also stilled, except for a slight tremor in his hands. “Crazy idea,” the boy murmured softly. “Crazy.”

“What idea is that?” Stacy prompted gently.

Benjy slowly opened his eyes and peered up into his aunt’s face. “I was going to ask you if . . . if you could help me get over being afraid of horses. We’ll be celebrating Papa’s birthday before we leave, and I thought THAT would be a good present, if I . . . if I could . . . . ” He shook his head dolefully. “Forget it, Aunt Stacy. It was a dumb, crazy idea to start with.”

“I think that would make a wonderful gift for your pa, Benjy,” Stacy said, treading carefully. “I’m sorry Sun Dancer startled you. With both of your uncles gone, I’m doing their chores along with mine, which puts him off his exercise schedule, and makes him a bit restless.”

“It was a stupid idea.”

I don’t think it was stupid,” Stacy said.

“You think there’s a chance that maybe—?!” Benjy looked up into her face hopefully.

“Benjy, I think you have every chance in the world.”

“Can I . . . maybe . . . think about it?”

“Sure,” Stacy replied. “If you want to go ahead, I’m willing to work with you. But, I can’t make any guarantees or promises on how everything’s ultimately going to turn out.”

“I know.”

“But, Benjy? For what it’s worth? Making the decision to change how you feel about horses is half the battle,” Stacy said.

“R-Really?”

“Really.”

“Thank you, Aunt Stacy. I’ll let you know what I decide.” With that, Benjy turned and bolted back toward the house. Half way across the yard, he ran headlong into his grandfather, knocking the wind out of him.

“Whoa there, Young Fella,” Ben wheezed, as he put out a hand to stop his young grandson, or at the very least, slow him down.

“Oops! Sorry, Grandpa,” Benjy immediately gasped out an apology. “I didn’t mean to bump into you like that.”

“It’s all right, Benjy . . . no harm done,” Ben said, after taking a deep ragged breath, “leastwise not THIS time. But, you’d better slow down, Young Man, before somebody DOES wind up getting hurt.”

“Yes, Sir. I’ll TRY,” Benjy earnestly promised, before turning heel and dashing past his grandfather.

Ben stood, gazing after his exuberant grandson for a moment, before turning and resuming his intended path toward the corral, where Stacy remained. “He’s all excited about something,” he remarked, upon coming up alongside his daughter.

“Can you keep a secret, Pa?” Stacy asked, taking great care to lower her voice.

“It depends on what the secret is,” Ben replied.

“He was thinking of asking me if I’d work with him to help him overcome his fear of horses,” Stacy said, as she and her father began to slowly amble back toward the barn.

“Oh?”

“Yeah. As a birthday present for Adam,” Stacy explained. “He actually came into the barn looking for me.”

“Really?!” Ben queried, surprised, and visibly impressed.

Stacy nodded.

“That’s quite an accomplishment all by itself,” Ben murmured with a touch of pride, as he slipped his arm around Stacy’s shoulders. “You think you can help him?”

“That remains to be seen, Pa,” Stacy said, as her arm loosely encircled her father’s waist. “While he was in the barn, Sun Dancer spooked him.”

“Bad?”

“Yep. It took him a little while to calm down, and now, he’s having doubts about the whole thing.”

“That’s too bad.”

“I think, deep down, he still wants to try. I told him I’d be willing to work with him, if he decides to go through with it,” Stacy said. “Benjy said he’d think about it. But, Pa . . . speaking of Sun Dancer?”

“Yes?”

“You think maybe we could take him out for a nice, brisk ride?” Stacy asked, hopefully. “He’s getting awfully restless.”

“We’ll see,” Ben replied. “With Teresa, Dio, and Mrs. di Cordova spending the day in town, your brothers out riding fence, and Hop Sing with his hands full cooking, it’s kinda up to you and me to keep tabs on Benjy.”

“I know, Pa . . . . ”

“In the meantime, how are YOU doing? I know it’s not easy keeping up with your brothers’ chores along with your own . . . . ”

“I fed the chickens and gathered the eggs earlier this morning, and I also milked Daisy and Shrinking Violet,” Stacy began to recite the list of daily chores, as a litany. “I’m almost finished in the barn, too. All I have to do is give everybody fresh water, and finish stacking the kindling wood, then I’m done for the morning.”

Ben smiled. “Tell you what, Young Woman. You see that everybody’s properly watered, while I go and check up on Benjy. Then, if you and I both work on stacking that kindling wood, I’m of the mind we just might be able to get Sun Dancer out for a nice long ride, when Teresa, Dio, and Mrs. di Cordova get back,” he suggested. “How does THAT sound?”

“That sounds great, Pa,” Stacy said, as she slipped both arms around his waist and gave him an affectionate squeeze.

*********

Dio Cartwright sat alone on the bench, just outside Tompkins’ Dress Shoppe, owned and operated by Mrs. Myrtle Tompkins, a young widow with two daughters to raise and support. She stared morosely down at the opened, but as yet untouched bottle of sarsaparilla cupped in both hands, bored nearly to tears. Ever since Pa and her uncles left a couple of days ago to ride fence . . . whatever THAT was, Aunt Stacy hadn’t been able to spend as much time with her, what with having to do nearly everybody’s chores and stay on top of training Sun Dancer for that race coming up . . . .

. . . and with Benjy always reading, Hop Sing always cooking, and the other grown-ups, Ma, Grandmother, and Grandpa with their heads together talking about what ever it was grown-ups talked about, Dio had grown bored, bored, bored very quickly. She had hoped that maybe this ride into town with Ma and Grandmother might prove an exciting change. Those hopes were immediately dashed when Ma and Grandmother went into that dress store and started going on and on, and WORSE, getting all giggly over a bunch of dumb material and notions.

Dio sighed, and took a tentative sip from the open bottle in hand. “I should’ve stayed home,” she groused in silence. “GRANDPA would’ve come up with something fun to do. I KNOW he would’ve.”

“Who are YOU?! Ain’t never seen the likes o’ you ‘round here before.”

Dio started, nearly dropping her bottle of sarsaparilla. She glanced up sharply, and found herself staring into the scowling face of an unkempt girl, roughly the same age as herself.

“M-My name’s Dio . . . Dio Cartwright,” she stammered, wholly taken aback by the other girl’s blatant hostility.

“So. You’re one o’ them high ‘n mighty, too-good-for-their-blamed-britches Cartwrights,” the other girl sneered. “How come I ain’t never seen ya ‘round?”

“I don’t live around here,” Dio replied, openly gaping at her companion’s matted hair, her tattered, threadbare jumper, her bare feet, and dirty face.

“You’re a liar!”

Dio frowned. Though Ma and Pa sometimes questioned the truth of her words, she couldn’t remember a time either of them out and out called her a liar.

“Well?” the other girl demanded, standing with her feet shoulder length apart, and clenched fists resting squarely on her hips.

“Well WHAT?” Dio angrily shot right back.

“Whatcha gonna do about it?”

“About what?”

“I just said you’re a liar.”

“I am NOT a liar,” Dio countered, her ire swiftly rising.

I say y’ ARE.”

“Well I say I’m NOT.”

“Liar, liar, pants on fire,” the other girl taunted Dio in an annoying sing-song kind of chant. “Liar, liar, pants on fire . . . liar, liar, pants on fi— ”

I’M NOT THE LIAR,” Dio shouted at the top of her voice, her face turning beet red with anger. “YOU ARE!”

“TAKE IT BACK!” the other girl shouted.

NO!

“I SAID TAKE IT BACK!!”

“NO! NOT UNLESS YOU TAKE IT BACK FIRST!”

The other girl balled her fingers into a small, tight, rock hard fist and drove it into Dio’s abdomen as hard as she could.

Dio cried out in surprise and pain, as she doubled over, her small, thin arms wrapped protectively around her abdominal regions.

“TAKE IT BACK, YOU . . . YOU . . . YOU UPPITY CARTWRIGHT WHORE BITCH!” the other girl shouted, using words she had heard other adults use. She knew them to be bad words, but hadn’t the slightest idea as to their meaning. She seized a generous handful of Dio’s coal black tresses in her grimy hand, and pulled with all her might.

Dio instinctively reached out, and grabbed the other girl’s bony arm in both of her hands. The girl screamed in agony and outrage as Dio sunk her teeth into the fleshy part of her forearm, drawing blood. The instant the girl let go of her hair, Dio lowered her head and, with a primal cry borne of pain, rage, and utter disbelief, charged her opponent, butting her squarely in the chest, forcing the wind right out of her lungs. The other girl fell off the board walk and landed sprawled in the dusty street beyond. Before she had opportunity to recover her wits, let alone act, Dio was on her pummeling her face, her shoulders, arms, and chest with blows from her own clenched fists.

“TAKE IT BACK!” Dio shouted, as angry tears began to flow down her cheeks. “TAKE IT BACK!

“NO!” the other girl screamed, as she tried to shield her face from the blows Dio rained down upon her. “YOU’RE NUTHIN’ BUT A DIRTY, ROTTEN, STINKIN’ LIAR!”

“I AIN’T THE DIRTY, ROTTEN, STINKIN’ LIAR!” Dio yelled. “YOU ARE . . . AND YOU’RE UGLIER ‘N SIN, TOO.”

Inside the dress shop, Teresa Cartwright turned her attention from the bolt of material in hand to the shop door, standing wide open. She frowned.

“Teresa?!” Dolores di Cordova prompted. “What is it?”

“I . . . thought I heard DIO just now,” Teresa murmured, as a bewildered frown creased the plain of her smooth brow.

“BITCH!”

“PIG!!”

“YOU STINK!”

“YOU STINK WORSE!”

“WHORE!”

“SLUT!”

“That . . . IS Dio!” Teresa gasped, her frown deepening from bewilderment to anger.

“B-But where did she learn . . . . ?! Teresa . . . you and Adam NEVER use words like that!” Dolores stammered, her face pale, her eyes round with shocked horror.

“I have no idea WHERE she learned those words,” Teresa muttered through clenched teeth as she returned the bolt of cloth back to its table. “But, you can bet your sweet life I’m going to find out.” With that, she turned heel, and strode briskly toward the door, like an unstoppable furious juggernaut, her face darker than the sky of the most dangerous, most ferocious thunderstorm. Dolores followed meekly in her daughter’s angry wake.

Teresa immediately spotted her daughter and another girl literally rolling in the street, amid a steadily growing circle of other children, laughing and cheering. The two combatants shouted colorful invectives and pejoratives at the tops of their lungs, as they pummeled, kicked, bit, scratched, and pulled hair. Teresa waded into the gathering crowd, seized both girls by the shoulders, and forcibly separated them.

“LEMME GO!” the other girl shouted, her face contorted with anger. “LEMME GO RIGHT NOW, YOU . . . YOU . . . YOU BIG STUPID COW!”

Teresa handed her own daughter over to her mother, then grabbed the other girl by her shirt, all in the same fluid motion. “You Children, move along,” she growled, glaring at each and every one. “This fight is OVER.”

The children groaned, but disbursed, in groups of two and three.

“ . . . and as for YOU, Young Lady, I’d strongly suggest you apologize for that stupid cow remark right NOW,” Teresa continued, bringing the full force of her anger down on the young girl who had just a short time before had been fighting with Dio.

The smart retort sitting on the very edge of the girl’s tongue died a quick and sudden death upon seeing the fierce look on Teresa’s face. She swallowed nervously. “O-Ok, Ma’am, I . . . I’m s-sorry I called you a . . . a big, stupid c-cow,” she meekly apologized.

“I have a good mind to speak to your parents about this,” Teresa said sternly. “A child your age has no business speaking like that to an adult.”

“My parents are both dead,” the girl said sullenly. “A year ago in some wagon accident.”

“Who are you living with now?” Teresa asked.

“My uncle.”

“What’s goin’ on here?”

Teresa and Dolores both looked up and saw a tall man, with a thin, wiry build, standing in their midst, glaring down at both of them. The girl, so impudent and fresh just a moment ago, had become subdued to the point of timidity.

“I asked ya what was goin’ on here,” the man drawled, glaring at Teresa first, then over at her mother. “I expect an answer.”

Teresa drew herself up to full height, and returned the man’s glare with a murderous one of her own. “ . . . and I expect people, be they men OR women, to keep a civil tongue in their heads when speaking to me,” she said, taking no pains to conceal her anger or her immediate, intense dislike for this man.

“I know you,” the man snarled. “You’re one o’ them snooty Cartwrights.”

“What if I am?” Teresa demanded.

The man snatched Teresa’s wrist, and held it in a tight, vice like grip. “I always said you Cartwrights’re too uppity for your own good,” he growled.

“Unhand me!” Teresa snapped.

“I got a good mind to teach ya some manners,” the man drawled, as a nasty grin spread over his thin lips.

“ ‘Mornin’ Teresa . . . Mrs. di Cordova.” It was Sheriff Roy Coffee. Though he addressed Teresa and Dolores, his eyes were pointedly glued to the man’s face. “Anything I can help ya with?”

“As a matter of fact, there is, Sheriff Coffee,” Teresa said through clenched teeth. “You can tell this big, ugly moron to unhand me before I press assault charges against him.”

“Jack, you do as Mrs. Cartwright says,” Roy ordered.

Jack complied. “Now that she . . . . ” he glared over at Teresa, and grimaced, as if he had just bitten into something extremely foul tasting, “ . . . mentions pressing charges, I oughtta press charges myself.”

“Now, Jack, I don’t want any trouble outta ya,” Roy warned.

“Her brat picks a fight with my niece, ‘n now I’M the one makin’ trouble . . . all on account o’ SHE’S one o’ them high ‘n mighty Cartwrights,” Jack growled in a sullen tone.

“He’s lying!” Dio declared indignantly. “I didn’t start that fight . . . SHE did.” She thrust an accusing finger over at the girl she had fought. “She called me a liar when I told her I didn’t come from around here . . . and then she pulled my hair and hit me.”

“I did not!” the girl hotly defended herself.

“Oh yes, you did!” Dio shot right back.

“I did NOT!”

“Y’ DID SO.”

“That’s enough!” Roy declared, glaring at the girl first, then over at Dio. “Young Lady, now I know for fact that your grandpa never held with your pa ‘n his brothers brawlin’ out on the street like a bunch o’ hooligans . . . ‘n I’M thinkin’ it’s a pretty safe bet your pa ‘n ma ain’t gonna hold with YOU brawlin’ out in t’ middle o’ the street like a hooligan either, so I’m turnin’ YOU over to THEIR tender mercies.”

“What does THAT mean?” Dio demanded.

“You’ll find out what that means when I get you home,” Teresa said sternly.

Dio paled at her mother’s tone of voice and the angry look on her face. “ . . . uh oh. D-Does that mean I’m in trouble?” she asked, after swallowing nervously.

“It means you’re in BIG trouble, Young Lady,” her mother immediately assured her.

“As for YOU, Midge,” Roy said, turning his attention to the other girl. “I’ve warned ya about pickin’ fights with other children THREE times now . . . THIS time’s the fourth. If I hafta warn ya a FIFTH time, so help me, I’M gonna give ya the tannin’ of your life. You understand me?”

Midge meekly nodded.

“So help me, Sheriff, you so much as look at my niece cross eyed, and I’ll— ”

“YOU don’t want me t’ follow through, then you do as you ought by this child as her guardian, ‘n see to it she’s raised proper ‘n decent,” Roy countered. “In the meantime, why don’t you take Midge and g’won home?”

“Uncle Jack ‘n me’s got every right t’ be here in town, just as much as them Cartwrights,” Midge argued.

“Midge, let’s go,” Jack said in a sullen tone.

“But, Uncle Jack— ”

“I SAID, ‘Let’s go.’ NOW!”

Roy Coffee stood with Teresa, Dio, and Dolores, watching Jack and Midge, as they both climbed up onto his big black, then headed toward the road that would take them to their home on the Ponderosa.

“Sheriff Coffee, did that horrible man just say that he works for Ben?” Dolores inquired with a shudder.

“I’m afraid he does, Mrs. di Cordova,” Roy sighed and shook his head. “ ‘Course when they hired him . . . what?!” He frowned, as he did some mental figuring. “Guess it’s been four or five years ago. He came into town with his wife, Martha ‘n Luke, his son. Jack ‘n Luke hired right on out at the Ponderosa. Back then, Jack O’Connor was somethin’ of a braggart, but he put in an honest day’s work. Martha . . . she mostly kept to herself, but she made dang sure her men folk towed t’ mark ‘n kept their noses clean.”

“What happened?” Teresa asked.

“Two years ago, Luke got killed in a gunfight with a young trouble maker, name o’ Whitby Gordon,” Roy replied. “They was in the Silver Dollar, drunk as a couple o’ skunks, gettin’ into a shoutin’ match over . . . I can’t even remember what it was over. Joe was there that night, with a couple o’ HIS buddies. He tried t’ git Luke t’ sit down, relax . . . have another beer, but Luke was in no mood t’ listen.

“One thing led t’ another, ‘n to another, ‘n to another, until the next thing everyone knew, Luke ‘n Whitby were drawin’ on each other,” Roy continued. “Even then Joe STILL tried t’ talk him out of it. Luke fired ‘n missed by a wide mile . . . Whitby fired at pert near the same time, ‘n ended up shootin’ Luke straight through the heart. He died right then ‘n there.”

“How awful,” Teresa murmured, shaking her head.

“Martha left Jack the day they buried Luke. Walked right outta the cemetery ‘n boarded the stage. Hear tell she went t’ live with her sister out in Denver. Jack started drinkin’ heavier ‘n heavier, until— ” He sighed. “Nowadays, he’s drunk more often than he’s sober,” Roy somberly brought Jack’s tragic story to its conclusion. “He somehow got it in his head that JOE was t’ blame for Luke’s death . . . ‘n he’s blamed the Cartwrights for just about everything bad that’s happened to him, ever since. Ben probably wouldda fired him long time ago, if it weren’t for Midge.”

“His niece?” Dolores asked.

Roy nodded. “Her ma ‘n pa were killed when their wagon overturned, ‘n she was sent here t’ live with her uncle. Seems he’s the only family that poor child’s got. Teresa . . . . ”

“Yes, Sheriff?”

“When the three of ya get back t’ the Ponderosa, I think ya need t’ tell Ben what happened,” Roy advised. “Jack’s a bitter, angry man, with a real large chip on his shoulder. Now maybe the only thing he’ll do is get roarin’ drunk on a two or three day bender. On the other hand . . . . ” His voice trailed away to ominous silence.

“I’ll tell Ben,” Teresa promised. “Thank you for coming along when you did.”

“I’m glad I happened along,” Roy said. “If ya ladies’d like, I can ask Clem t’ keep an eye on the three of ya while ya see t’ the rest o’ your business.”

“Sheriff Coffee, could you possibly spare your deputy long enough to see us back to the Ponderosa?” Dolores pleaded, wringing her hands.

“Mother, I don’t think we need to put Sheriff Coffee’s deputy out like that,” Teresa said.

“No trouble, Teresa,” Roy assured her, “no trouble at all. You just let him know when you’re ready t’ go.”

“I’M ready to go back NOW,” Dolores said firmly. “RIGHT now . . . this very minute.”

“But, Grandmother, we were going to have lunch over at the International Hotel and get some ice cream,” Dio wailed.

“Well, if you’d behaved yourself . . . like a young lady ought, and not gotten into a fight with that little street urchin, we might not HAVE to leave,” Dolores rounded furiously on her granddaughter.

“But, Grandmother— ”

“We’ve talked about your temper before, Dio,” Teresa said, “and we’ve talked about better ways of settling things than fighting.”

“YOU’RE no better, Teresa!” Dolores angrily turned on her daughter. “The way you talked back to that man . . . you’re no better than your daughter.”

“Mother, if you think for one minute I’m going to stand by and allow ANYONE to treat me with such blatant disrespect— ”

“You could have gotten yourself KILLED,” Dolores passionately, fearfully argued. “Worse, you could have gotten all THREE of us killed. It’s a man’s world, Teresa . . . like it or not, that’s the way things are. The sooner you realize that and accept it— ”

“If I had KOWTOWED to that man, I could have gotten myself, maybe all three of us killed . . . or WORSE,” Teresa angrily shot back. “Men like that prefer victims who WON’T fight back . . . who are easily intimidated.”

Roy discreetly coughed to remind Teresa and Dolores of his presence.

“I’m sorry, Sheriff Coffee,” Teresa immediately apologized.

“I was just gettin’ ready t’ tell ya that Clem’s over in my office, mindin’ the store,” Roy said. “If you’ll meet me there, I’ll ask him t’ ride with ya out to the Ponderosa.”

“Thank you, Sheriff Coffee,” Dolores said, casting a withering glare at Teresa, then at Dio. “I would appreciate that very much.”

*********

Chapter 2

“How am I doing, Grandpa?” Benjy asked.

“You’re doing fine, Benjy . . . real fine,” Ben said with a proud smile. “Why, I’ll just bet you’re the best kindling splitter in all of Virginia City.”

“I was going to say he’s become just about the best kindling splitter in the whole state of Nevada,” Stacy said.

Benjy grinned from ear to ear, as he warmed to the genuine, if lavish, praise his grandfather and aunt heaped on him. He had asked his grandfather to show him how to split kindling wood, ostensibly so he could make himself useful . . . .

“I . . . I can’t go out and ride fence with Papa, but there’s plenty of other things I can do,” he remembered saying.

“But, Benjy, you’re our guest,” Aunt Stacy protested.

“It’s all right . . . as long as Benjy WANTS to help us out,” Ben said with a smile.

“I do, Aunt Stacy. I really do . . . especially since you’re a little short handed right now, with Papa, Uncle Hoss, and Uncle Joe being away,” Benjy pressed.

“You ARE right about us being short handed,” Aunt Stacy had to agree, “and since you WANT to . . . . ”

Grandpa then showed him how to split wood for kindling. After a scant half dozen tries, he had mastered the technique with surprising strength for one so small and thin. He had spent the better part of the last hour and a half working contentedly alongside his grandfather and aunt.

“Dinner ready ten minute,” Hop Sing announced the big noon meal, as he stepped through the backdoor into the yard. He smiled the minute he noticed Benjy working alongside Mister Cartwright and Miss Stacy. “Ah. Hop Sing see Mister Cartwright have new ranch hand,” he observed with a grin.

“We sure do,” Ben said, smiling over at his young grandson.

“How he work out?” Hop Sing asked.

“Top hand, Hop Sing,” Stacy declared with a big, proud smile of her own. “Top hand all the way.”

“Top Hand, eh?” Hop Sing said, approvingly. “That good! That very, very good. Better for boy outside in fresh air. Not good for boy be in room all time, with nose in book.” With that, he turned and ambled on back into the kitchen.

“Stacy . . . Benjy . . . we’d best get washed up,” Ben said as he laid down his hatchet, and mopped his brow with the bandanna from around his neck.

“Pa . . . I hear horses,” Stacy said.

“You two g’won inside and get yourselves washed up,” Ben said, noting his grandson’s sudden pale, ashen complexion. “I’ll wait here, and see who it is.”

“Come on, Benjy,” Stacy said. “We can go in through the backdoor and wash up in the kitchen.”

“Thank you, Aunt Stacy,” Benjy murmured, grateful that he didn’t have to go in through the front door, and chance running into whatever horse or horses were just about to ride into the yard.

Ben was mildly surprised to see the buggy, carrying his granddaughter, daughter-in-law, and her mother entering the yard at a brisk pace, with Clem Foster following right behind on Carla Jo, his big brown gelding. Two young men, recently hired, appeared to take charge of the buggy and single horse attached, the minute Teresa brought the conveyance to a complete stop.

“Howdy, Mister Cartwright,” Clem greeted Ben with a polite nod of his head, before dismounting. “I was just seeing your family home.”

“Thank you,” Ben said, taken a little aback. “Is . . . everything all right?”

“There was a little trouble in town . . . nothing to worry about,” Clem said very quickly.

“What happened?”

“A minor set-to with Jack O’Connor and his niece. No one was hurt, except maybe for some cuts ‘n bruises.” The deputy cast a meaningful glance over in Dio’s general direction. “Sheriff Coffee sent Jack and the girl home, then asked me to see your family back here, make sure everyone got home safe.”

“Hop Sing will be serving up dinner in a few minutes,” Ben said. “Would you care to join us?”

Clem grinned, as he turned to help Dolores down from the buggy. “Any other time, I’d say yes in a minute,” he said, “but this afternoon, I’m meeting Lisa and her parents for what the ladies call a light luncheon at the International Hotel at two.”

“Her parents?” Ben queried with a smile. “This sounds serious.”

“I hope so, Mister Cartwright,” Clem said with a big, silly grin, “ . . . I sure hope so.”

“I hope everything goes well for ya,” Ben said, as he helped Teresa down from the buggy, then his granddaughter.

“Thank you,” Clem said gratefully. “Well . . . now that everyone’s home safe, I’d best get on back to town, so I have enough time to gussy up a little, before I meet Lisa and her parents.”

“Thank you so much for seeing us back safely, Deputy,” Dolores said gratefully. “You have no idea how much I appreciate this.”

“Glad to be of service, Mrs. di Cordova,” Clem replied. He politely touched the rim of his hat, then climbed back up into the saddle.

After seeing Clem off, Ben turned his attention to the three women. “So . . . what . . . exactly, happened?” he asked as they turned and started for the front door.

“Ask your daughter-in-law,” Dolores snapped, as she favored Teresa with a dark, angry glare. She, then, flounced on ahead into the house, without further word.

“Dio, you’d best go on into the house, and get yourself washed up for dinner,” Teresa told her daughter.

“If you hurry, you’ll find Aunt Stacy and Benjy in the kitchen getting themselves cleaned up,” Ben added, taking due note of his daughter-in-law’s stiff, ramrod straight posture, and the dark, angry glare on her pale face.

Dio nodded, then bolted around toward the back door.

“What happened, Teresa?” Ben asked, after Dio had gone into the house.

Teresa grimly gave a complete account of what had transpired between Jack O’Connor and herself, along with her daughter’s account of the brawl she had gotten into with Midge. “Sheriff Coffee said that man works here?! On the Ponderosa?”

“Yes. I’d have fired him a long time ago, if it weren’t for his niece,” Ben said soberly.

“So Sheriff Coffee said,” Teresa murmured softly. “Ben . . . . ”

“Yes?”

“I don’t quite know how to say this, but . . . well . . . I realize you employ a lot of men here, and that the Ponderosa is certainly large enough to guarantee that we probably won’t run into this Jack O’Connor again, but . . . I’m NOT going to convince Mother of that.”

“I understand,” Ben said, not without sympathy. “I CAN ask Hank to send him out along with a couple of the other men to check a string of line shacks out on the edges of the northernmost pastures.”

“But . . . I thought you were short handed right now, especially with Adam, Hoss, and Joe out . . . . ” Teresa frowned, trying to recall the term. “Oh yes!” she said a moment later. “Riding fence.”

“The boys’ll be back in a couple of days,” Ben said, “and checking our line shacks, making sure they’re in good repair and well stocked is something I prefer to see done by the end of summer anyway.”

“How long would that take?”

“A good two weeks, maybe three,” Ben replied. “That should also keep him away from the saloons, as well as giving him a chance to cool off.”

“What about his niece?”

“Whenever Jack has to be away . . . or when he goes out on a bender, Mrs. Braun takes his niece,” Ben said. “She’s a very kind, grandmotherly woman, who’s developed a bit of a rapport with Midge. If that child’s picking fights with other children again . . . perhaps some time AWAY from her uncle would be beneficial.”

“Too bad there’s no SUITABLE family member to take the child,” Teresa said as she and her father-in-law began to move slowly toward the house.

Ben nodded in complete agreement. “I’m sorry this had to happen.”

“So am I.”

“Is Dio all right?”

“Yes, apart from a few cuts, scratches, and what’s probably going to end up being a very colorful shiner by this time tomorrow,” Teresa replied. “I’ll check her over more thoroughly after we eat, of course, but from the way she tore into the house just now, I’d say she’s probably none the worse for wear. I think I’m more worried about Mother, than Dio. The day I finally talk her into getting out and riding into town . . . we end up having that little set-to with Jack O’Connor and his niece. Now, she’ll probably end up locking herself in her room.”

“I’ll have a talk with her,” Ben promised.

“Thank you, Ben,” Teresa said with a weary smile. “I think she just might listen to YOU.”

*********

A soft knock against the back door, standing wide open to allow some of the heat from the kitchen to escape, immediately caught the attention of Patty Hopkins, one of the waitresses on duty that evening at the International Hotel Restaurant. She quickly placed her order with the chef, then walked over the door. “You can take—oh! Mister O’Connor, I’m so sorry . . . it’s usually the delivery men that come back here.”

“ ‘S ok, Miss. I’m lookin’ f’r Miz Braun,” Jack drawled. “She ‘round?”

“She’s out front,” Patty said half apologetically, trying her best not to wince against the strong smell of whiskey on his breath. “Our hostess didn’t show up for work this evening.”

“Wou’ja mind fetchin’ ’er back?” Jack asked. “I ain’ exactly dressed f’r them fancy diggin’s out front.”

“Sure,” Patty agreed. “You can step inside if ya’d like.”

“Thank y’ kin’ly, Miss.”

A few moments later, Patty returned with Gretchen Braun. “Good evening, Mister O’Connor,” the latter greeted Jack politely, with a smile. “What can I do for you?”

“I gotta big favor t’ ask . . . ‘n I’m real sorry ‘bout it bein’ on such short notice, ‘n all, but can ya take Midge for a couple o’ weeks?”

Gretchen scowled. “Mister O’Connor, you PROMISED me— ”

“It ain’t f’r that,” Jack growled. “Ok . . . yeah. I had a couple o’ shots o’ whiskey over at t’ Bucket o’ Blood jus’ now, but that ain’t why I’m askin’ ya t’ look after Midge. I, uhhh . . . hadda bit uva set-to with ol’ man Cartwright’s prissy daughter-in-law t’day, so f’r punishment, I’ll be out checkin’ on a bunch o’ line shacks what probably don’ even need it.”

“I’ll be more than happy to look after Midge while you’re away, Mister O’Connor,” Gretchen said.

“Thank you, Miz Braun . . . much obliged to ya,” Jack said. “T’ ain’ easy bringin’ up a li’l gal proper.”

“It’s not easy bringing up any child right and proper when you’re the only one doing it,” Gretchen said, with the quiet conviction of one who knows.

“I ‘preciate y’ takin’ an interest in Midge,” Jack said with heartfelt sincerity.

“It took me awhile to win her over, but now, I feel like Midge and I’ve become fast friends. I’ll be around to collect her first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Thanks again, Miz Braun, much obliged. I don’ know what Midge ‘n me’d do without ya sometimes . . . . ”

*********

“Aunt Stacy, I—oh! Grandpa! I didn’t know you were up, too!” Benjy exclaimed, as he ambled into the dining room, early the following morning. Two bright spots of red appeared on each cheek.

“Good morning, Benjy,” Ben greeted his young grandson with a smile. He took a sip of coffee from the mug in hand, then rose. “If you want to speak privately with your aunt—”

“ ‘S ok, Grandpa,” Benjy said, as he slipped into the chair across the table from the one occupied by Stacy. “I guess I can tell YOU, just so long as you don’t tell anybody else . . . especially Papa. If . . . . ” He swallowed nervously. “If I can do this . . . I want it to be a birthday present for him.”

“Your secret is safe with me, Benjy,” Ben hastened to assure the boy.

“Aunt Stacy . . . I’ve decided . . . I want to do it.” The last words tumbled out one after the other in a rush.

“That’s wonderful, Benjy,” Stacy said with smile. “Like I told you yesterday, deciding to do this is half the battle. Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“Since YOU know . . . and if it’s all right with Benjy . . . you think maybe you could work with us?”

“Would you, Grandpa?” Benjy asked, awed by the prospect.

“If you want me to work with you and Aunt Stacy, I would be very happy . . . and honored to assist you, Young Man.”

“Yes. I want you to, Grandpa. When can we start?”

“Right after breakfast,” Ben replied, as he turned and glanced in his daughter’s direction. “If that’s all right with your aunt?!”

“Fine with me,” Stacy agreed, with a smile and an emphatic nod of her head.

“Good morning, good morning,” Hop Sing greeted Ben, his daughter, and young grandson with a warm smile. “Coffee for Mister Cartwright and Miss Stacy . . . glass of milk for Mister Adam number one son.”

“Good morning, Hop Sing,” Benjy returned the Chinese man’s greeting with a bright smile of his own. “Thank you for the milk.”

“Mister Adam Boy very welcome,” Hop Sing replied, as he set the tall glass in hand down in front of the boy. His smile slowly faded, upon coming to the realization that three members of the family were absent. “Where Mrs. Teresa, Little Girl, and Venerable Grand-Ma?”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Stacy said, as Hop Sing filled the mug next to her plate full of fresh, hot coffee. “I . . . didn’t hear Dio, but I COULD hear Mrs. di Cordova and Teresa going at each other fast ‘n furious on my way down.”

“They still are!” Benjy said very solemnly, as he turned and cast an anxious glance over in the direction of the stairs.

“I . . . hope the both of ya weren’t eavesdropping,” Ben said with a pointed glance at his daughter first, then over at his grandson.

“No, Pa,” Stacy adamantly shook her head.

“Me, neither,” Benjy replied.

“Why don’t the both of ya stay here, and dig in when Hop Sing brings out our breakfast?” Ben said, rising. “I’ll g’won up and see if I can get to the bottom of things.” He took a big gulp of coffee, then started across the room for the stairs.

 

“Muuu-ther . . . . ”

“FOR THE LAST TIME . . . NO!” Dolores yelled back. “NO, I AM NOT GOING INTO TOWN FOR THE INDEPENDENCE DAY CELEBRATIONS . . . TO ATTEND THE MAGIC FLUTE AT THE OPERA HOUSE . . . OR FOR ANY OTHER REASON . . . UNTIL THE DAY WE GO IN TO CATCH THE STAGE FOR HOME! NOT WITH THAT . . . THAT HORRIBLE MAN OUT THERE LURKING!”

“DIDN’T YOU HEAR ONE WORD BEN SAID TO YOU YESTERDAY?!” Teresa demanded, thoroughly exasperated.

“YES! YES, YES, YES! I HEARD EVERYTHING BEN SAID, BUT THE FACT REMAINS THAT . . . MAN . . . WORKS HERE, LIVES HERE— ”

A knock on the door to the guest room occupied by Dolores di Cordova brought her tirade to a screeching halt mid-sentence. “Who is it?” she snapped.

“It’s Ben, Dolores . . . . ”

“Thank heaven!” Teresa murmured softly, before her mother had a chance to respond. Three long strides took her across the room to the door. “Ben, please . . . come in,” she begged, after throwing the door wide open.

“I just came up to let ya know that breakfast is almost ready,” Ben said, as Teresa took him by the arm and dragged him into the room. “Benjy and Stacy are already downstairs at the table.”

“Perhaps YOU can talk some sense into Mother while I g’won down the hall and make sure Dio’s up,” Teresa said stiffly. “If you’ll both excuse me!”

“Of course, Teresa,” Ben immediately replied. “We’ll join you downstairs in a few minutes.” He waited until his daughter-in-law had flounced out of the room before turning his attention to her mother, standing in the center of the room, with back poker straight, and arms folded tightly across her chest. “I’m sorry, Dolores, I . . . didn’t mean to interrupt . . . . ”

Dolores leveled a withering, jaundiced glare at her host for a moment. “Oh yes, you DID, Ben Cartwright,” she accused, “you don’t fool ME for a minute.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “I’m glad you DID, however . . . . ” she admitted in a more kindly, deferential tone. “Ben?”

“Yes, Dolores?”

“That man Teresa and I met in town yesterday . . . . ”

“Jack O’Connor?”

“Yes,” she replied. “I’m fully aware that the men you choose to hire, keep on, and dismiss is entirely YOUR affair, and none of my business, but . . . if everything Sheriff Coffee told us about him is true . . . why in the world DO you keep him on?!”

“A large part of the reason has to do with his niece, Midge, as I said yesterday,” Ben replied.

“ . . . and the rest?”

“He’s a very bitter, very angry man, as you and Teresa saw,” Ben replied. “If I fire him . . . he’s got no where to go . . . no family to speak of except that niece of his and an estranged wife living out in Colorado, last I heard . . . so what’s he going to do? End up in town, more than likely . . . doing whatever odd jobs he can get . . . assuming he can get any at all . . . drinking his wages at any number of saloons, like as not . . . and stirring up a lot a trouble.

“My keeping him here . . . on the payroll, though he’s not done anything close to an honest day’s work since the day his son was buried . . . my foreman, Mister Carlson, keeps him busy, and there’s a couple of men and their wives who keep an eye on Jack and Midge, making sure they get three square meals in ‘em a day, and caring for the two of ‘em if they’re sick or injured. He’s not caused any real harm, and thanks to Mister Carlson, Jack pretty much keeps out of everyone’s way.

“I know it’s far from being the ideal solution for Jack OR that niece of his . . . but, it’s a whole heckuva lot better than my turning ‘em loose,” Ben concluded.

“But he . . . he HATES you,” Dolores immediately pointed out. “The look he gave Teresa . . . if he’d had the chance, he would have KILLED her! I KNOW he would have!” She shuddered.

“He’s leaving this morning with the two men who look after him to check the line shacks along the northern most boundary of the Ponderosa,” Ben explained. “They’ll be gone for a good three weeks, maybe a little more. You have nothing to fear from him.”

“What about that hoyden niece of his?” Dolores demanded with a grimace.

“When Jack’s away, there’s a lady she stays with in town,” Ben replied. “You might say she’s the grandmother Midge never had. She’s very kind and loving, but she’s also a very firm, very down to earth, no nonsense kind of woman. She’s established a good rapport with Midge over the past year or so, and from all accounts, the girl enjoys staying with her . . . . ”

 

 

“NO!” Midge shouted, her face beet red with anger. “I WON’T GO WITH MIZ BRAUN! I WON’T, I WON’T, I WON’T.”

An exasperated sigh exploded from between Jack O’Connor’s thin lips. “Don’t start up with me again, Brat!” he growled back, his voice low and menacing. “Don’t ya DARE start up with me again, ‘cause if ’n ya do? Your sorry li’l ass is gonna end up bein’ so blistered . . . y’ ain’t gonna be able t’ sit down for a whole solid month.” He drummed his long, bony fingers against the buckle of the thick leather belt around his waist for emphasis.

“WHY?” Midge demanded.

“Why . . . WHAT?”

“Why CAN’T I stay here?!”

“ ‘Cause I said,” Jack growled back. He and Midge sat on the only two chairs, very crudely fashioned, before the once beautiful Queen Anne dining room table that had been passed down to his estranged wife from her mother. They were just finishing their meager breakfast. Midge had quickly polished off half a bowl of oatmeal. That, along with just under a quarter pound of flour, and three sugar cubes sitting in the cracked porcelain bowl on the table was all they had in the house. Jack downed the remaining whiskey in the pint bottle before him, then, with a cry of rage, hurled it across the room with all his might.

Midge gasped and jumped when the bottle shattered against the far wall. She stared at the place where the bottle had hit the wall for a moment, then turned and looked up into her uncle’s face through eyes round with trepidation.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Jack snarled, flinching away from the girl’s intense gaze.

Midge’s eyes immediately dropped down to her lap. “I DON’T wanna go!” she said again, her voice barely audible.

“Ya gotta.”

“Why?”

Jack seized hold of the girl’s arm and dragged her out of her chair, eliciting a cry of pain and alarm. “You stupid, willful bitch!” he spat, his entire body quaking with a rage barely contained. “Now you listen t’ me ‘n you listen good ‘cause this is gonna be the last time I tell ya!”

Midge wordlessly nodded her head.

“Now! For the hundredth time Ol’ Man Cartwright’s sendin’ me off on a gol’ damned fool’s errand for the next three weeks t’ punish ME for that fight ya had with that stuck up gran’daughter of his,” Jack continued, “ ‘n YOU can’t stay here by yourself, with no one t’ look after ya.”

“Why NOT?” Midge demanded. “I don’t need nobody mindin’ me like I was a baby or somethin’ . . . . ”

“You wanna spend the rest o’ your days livin’ in some orphanage?”

Midge vigorously shook her head.

“Well, that’s just where you’re gonna end up if I go off ‘n leave ya alone for three weeks, ‘n Mister Carlson’s big mouthed ol’ biddy of an aunt finds out,” Jack said, his voice filled with contempt. “You remember what happened just after ya came t’ live with me?”

Midge nodded her head

“All right, then,” he snapped. “Now . . . ya finished eatin’?”

“Y-Yes, Sir,” Midge replied.

“Then get yourself out to the horse trough ‘n wash your face . . . ‘n while you’re at it . . . try runnin’ a comb through that tangled mess o’ knots on top o’ your head. I want ya lookin’ at least half way presentable when Miz Braun comes t’ fetch ya.”

Midge slid out of her chair, and bolted headlong across the room, toward the front door.

“Gol’ damn’ hard headed . . . . ” Jack grumbled under his breath after his niece had fled outside, slamming the front door shut behind her. “Ain’t nothin’ in t’ world more blamed useless than a hard headed, smart mouthed female . . . . ”

 

He awoke with a start. He slowly lifted his head and gazed stupidly at his surroundings, not quite knowing where he was . . . or how, exactly, he had come to be there. The light of the moon, swollen almost to full, shone in through the window, gilding the floorboards, the mantle, the love seat, and the matching milk glass oil lamps Martha prized so . . . with a silvery iridescence.

As the clock on the mantle struck the hour of one . . . in the morning . . . he realized that he was seated on the love seat, with his booted feet propped up on the coffee table. Martha would be having a fit right now, if she had seen . . . .

“Musta fallen asleep,” he muttered as he rose stiffly to his feet, and stretched. Martha’d no doubt gone to bed hours ago. She was a very firm believer in that old chestnut of an adage about early to bed and early to rise. Luke had gone into town, as had become his custom every Saturday night, since turning the age of consent his last birthday . . . .

“You be home by midnight, y’ hear?”

“Aww, Ma . . . . ”

“Don’t you ‘aww, Ma,’ ME, Young Man.”

“Martha, leave the boy alone.”

She had turned to him, her dark eyes flashing with anger. “I don’t like this business o’ him goin’ into town every Saturday night, drinkin’ . . . carousin’ . . . playin’ cards . . . ‘n heaven only KNOWS what all else! LAST week, he came home so fallin’ down drunk, I can’t for the life o’ me figure out how he managed to stay on his horse.”

“He’s young. He needs t’ let off some steam.”

“Seems t’ me he’s got plenty o’ chance t’ let off steam with all the work he does for Mister Cartwright.”

“Ain’t the same.”

“Why not?”

“It just ain’t, that’s all.”

“Bad trouble’s gonna come o’ this, John Paine O’Connor, you mark my words . . . . ”

The remembered words of the argument he and Martha had every Saturday night after supper when Luke invariably announced he was going into town . . . fled at the sound of someone pounding on the door. He threw it open and, much to his surprise, found Joe Cartwright standing without clutching the rim of his hat in both hands, his face pale, his eyes round with shocked horror.

Bad trouble’s gonna come o’ this, John Paine O’Connor . . . .

“Kinda late t’ be comin’ ‘round callin’ on folks, Joe”, he joked half heartedly, with a wan smile, trying desperately to ignore the words of his wife’s dire warning now echoing inside his head

“Mister O’Connor, I . . . I . . . . ”

Bad trouble’s gonna come of this . . . .

“Y’ got somethin’ t’ say, Boy?” he snapped. “C’mon. Spit it out.”

Joe swallowed nervously.

Bad trouble. You mark my words . . . .

“M-Mister O’Connor, it’s Luke.”

“What about him?”

“He’s dead.”

“No.”

“It was an accident.”

“NO.”

“He got into an argument with . . . with Wh-Whitby Gordon. I tried to stop it— ”

“Shut-up.”

“I tried. As God is my witness . . . I tried.”

“I told you to shut-up.”

Mister O’Connor?

“Shut-up, Cartwright, you hear me?”

Mister O’Connor . . . .

Jack’s eyes flew wide open. “IF YOU DON’T SHUT YOUR LYIN’ MOUTH, BOY . . . SO HELP ME . . . I’LL SHUT IT FOR YA!”he shouted at the top of his voice.

“M-Mister O’C-Connor, I . . . I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude . . . . ”

Jack was surprised and chagrined to find himself staring up into Gretchen Braun’s pale face, and eyes, round as saucers. “S-Sorry, Ma’am, I . . . I guess I, uhhh kinda . . . dropped off,” he immediately apologized. “I didn’t mean t’ yell at ya like that . . . honest. I must’ve been dreamin’.”

“It’s quite all right, Mister O’Connor,” Gretchen said, as she inwardly struggled to regain at least a modicum of composure. “I knocked, but . . . . ”

“When I drop of t’ sleep, I’m afraid I’m dead t’ the world ‘til I wake up,” Jack said contritely. He rose stiffly to his feet, and gingerly stretched. “MIDGE?”

No answer.

Jack frowned. “MIDGE!”

Again, no answer.

“GOL’ DAMMIT, YOU BETTER GET YOUR SORRY ASS OUT HERE FRONT ‘N CENTER RIGHT NOW OR SO HELP ME— ”

“I’M COMING!” Midge shrieked at the very top of her lungs. She strode briskly out of her bedroom, wearing the same clothing she had worn the day before, carrying everything thing she owned in the whole wide world in a small burlap sack.

“I don’t know what’s got into ‘er lately, but she’s been a real pill these last couple o’ days,” Jack said contemptuously, “ . . . more stubborn than a blamed mule . . . sassin’ me back every time I tell ‘er t’ do somethin’ . . . . ” He turned and glared murderously over at his young niece. “You mind what Miz Braun says, y’ hear?”

No answer, only a sullen silence.

“She gives ya any trouble, y’ got MY say so t’ belt her,” Jack growled.

Gretchen nodded, but wisely refrained from voicing the opinion that such would NOT be necessary. “Come along, Midge,” she said briskly.

The girl remained where she stood, glaring at her uncle, then over at Gretchen Braun.

“Y’ got ‘til the count o three t’ git,” Jack said. “If you ain’t moved by then . . . I’m gonna pick you up ‘n toss your blamed hide into Miz Braun’s buckboard m’self.”

At that, Midge fled from the house, clutching her burlap sack to her chest, without uttering a word.

*********

Benjy Cartwright stood inside the corral, very close to his grandfather, watching through round, fear filled eyes, as his aunt led Gentleman Jim out of the barn, into the enclosure. For one brief, insane moment, he found himself wanting very much to thrust his hand into the warm security of Grandpa’s larger one, as he had when he was a very small boy, when Grandpa stopped by to visit them in Sacramento. “Benjamin Eduardo Cartwright, you’re ten years old,” he admonished himself severely, in silence. “You AREN’T a little kid anymore.”

“Benjy, I want you to close your eyes and take a deep breath.” Ben’s voice was gentle, yet very firm.

Benjy complied, grateful for his grandfather’s presence, for his strong reassuring arm now encircling his shoulders.

“Again,” Ben said softly.

Benjy took another breath, slow, deep, and even.

“I’m here, Benjy. I want you to know that. I’m right here by your side . . . and I’m gonna STAY . . . right . . . here.”

Benjy looked up, his own dark, chocolate brown eyes and face filled with gratitude and something else. Trust. “Thank you, Grandpa,” he said quietly.

Ben looked down into his grandson’s face, and smiled. “You ready?”

Benjy nodded.

Ben looked over at Stacy, standing alongside Gentleman Jim roughly ten feet away from where he and his grandson stood, and nodded. With his lead firmly in hand, Stacy led Gentleman Jim over toward her father and nephew, taking great care to keep her movements slow and easy. The big brown gelding meekly followed, keeping his head lowered.

“Benjy, this is Gentleman Jim,” Ben said, his voice calm and gentle. “He’s the next oldest horse we keep here in the barn. He was pretty spirited as a youngster, but over the years, he’s mellowed out into a very gentle horse.”

“He’s everything his name suggests,” Stacy quietly added.

“He likes having his muzzle rubbed,” Ben continued, as he reached out and gently rubbed the entire length of Gentleman Jim’s face.

Benjy watched his grandfather for a moment, before putting out a tentative hand. Gentleman Jim ducked his head lower, allowing the boy to rub the top of his head, just above his eyes. “G-Grandpa . . . Aunt Stacy . . . . ” he whispered, as fear slowly transformed into awe and wonder.

“Yes, Benjy?” Ben queried, keeping his own voice to a decibel just above that of a whisper.

“I . . . I think h-he . . . I think he LIKES me,” the boy marveled as he reached up to touch Gentleman Jim’s mane.

“Y’ wanna know something, Young Fella?” Ben said, himself surprised by the way Gentleman Jim had so carefully approached his young grandson. “I think he likes you, too.”

*********

Chapter 3

“Miz Braun?” Midge spoke for the very first time, since leaving the small cabin she shared with her uncle out on the Ponderosa. For most of the ride out that morning, she sat in the passenger’s seat, with her arms folded tight across her chest, and her eyes glued to her feet. Gretchen had tried to initiate conversation, but ultimately gave up on the idea when her inquiries were met by the girl’s sullen, angry silence, or answered with curt, monosyllable words, barely audible.

“Yes, Midge?”

“What’re they doin’?” Midge asked, watching shopkeepers and residents decorating stores and homes with red, white, and blue striped bunting, with mild interest.

“They’re decorating for Independence Day,” Gretchen answered.

“What’s Independence Day?”

“It’s the day the American colonists signed their Declaration of Independence, declaring their freedom from rule by the British crown,” Gretchen replied.

“Oh,” Midge responded with an indifferent shrug. “I guess it’s kinda like a holiday, hunh.”

“As a matter of fact . . . Independence Day IS a holiday,” Gretchen said. “There’s going to be all kinds of things going on . . . . ”

“Really?”

“Um hmm.” Gretchen nodded.

“What kinda things?”

“There’ll be all the usual roping and riding competitions, of course,” Gretchen said with a delicate grimace.

“What else?”

“Oh, there’ll be kinds of games, along with other contests . . . .”

“Like what?”

“There’ll be contests to determine the best animals, flowers, hand made things, food,” Gretchen explained. “I’ll be entering my special apple-raisin pie and my canned spiced peaches in the food contests.”

“You make good apple raisin pie, Miz Braun. Real good!” Midge declared with a smile. “I’ll bet you’re gonna win hands down.”

“Thank you, Midge . . . for your vote of confidence,” Gretchen said, inwardly relieved that the child appeared to have shaken off the black mood that had possessed her earlier. “The competition’s going to be stiff, though.”

Midge frowned. “What does THAT mean?”

Gretchen smiled. “It means Winifred Mahon’s [i] black cherry and rum pie . . . and Clementine Hawkins’ [ii] walnut brownies are every bit as good as my apple-raisin pie.”

“Does that mean . . . y’ might NOT win?”

“Don’t look so downcast, Child,” Gretchen gently admonished the girl. “Winning’s not the important thing anyway.”

“It’s . . . NOT?!” Midge queried, incredulous.

“Midge . . . I’ve won so many blue ribbons over the years, I . . . well I can wallpaper my parlor and dining room both and STILL have plenty left over,” Gretchen laughed. “Now mind, I enjoy winning first prize, but the most important thing is doing my very best. This year, my apple raisin pie and my canned spiced peaches represent my very best.”

“Oh.”

“There’ll be plenty of games and races for you kids,” Gretchen continued. “Maybe you can enter one of the relay races, or better yet . . . you might ask one of the Blanchard girls, or Tommy Whittiker to partner with you in the three-legged race.”

“Na-aah.”

“Why not?”

“They HATE me,” Midge said with a doleful sigh. “ALL the kids hate me.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Gretchen said quietly. “Mister Cartwright has a granddaughter visiting, and I understand SHE’S a fast runner. If you asked HER nicely, maybe she would agree to partner with you for the three legged race.”

“She hates me most of all, Miz Braun,” Midge said, her voice tremulous. “Yesterday, she ‘n her ma ‘n her grandma came into town. I saw her sittin’ pretty as y’ please out in front o’ Miz Tompkins’ shop, ‘n y’ know what?”

“What?”

“She hit me ‘n she called me a bunch o’ bad names . . . for nothin’.”

Gretchen favored her young companion with a dubious glare.

“It’s true!” Midge insisted. “I didn’t do nothin’ t’ her, I swear. Now Uncle Jack’s gotta go away for three weeks . . . all ‘cause o’ HER.” She sighed and shook her head. “Blamed snooty, stuck-up ol’ Cartwrights! I wouldn’t run a three-legged race with HER for nothin’.”

“There’ll be other games,” Gretchen said. “There’ll also be a horse race— ”

“Them blamed Cartwrights gonna be in it?”

“Yes,” Gretchen replied. “The O’Briens will also be in it— ”

“Stinkin’ Injuns!”

“Midge, what have I told you about that?”

“Oh. Sorry, Miz Braun. I guess I kinda forgot,” the girl apologized at once.

“Clay Hansen, Abe Miller, and Blake Wilson also have entries in the race,” Gretchen continued, “and I’ve heard tell that Clem plans to race Carla Jo.”

Midge laughed, remembering what Uncle Jack had said the other night about the deputy and that girl from Gold Hill he’d been courting since the Valentine’s Day Dance. She decided it best not to tell Miz Braun, though. The bad words would, like as not, upset her, and in any case, Midge herself had no idea at all what they meant.

“After supper, there’ll be a big dance,” Gretchen said, “and fireworks when it gets dark.”

“Can WE go?”

“You BET we can.”

*********

With a long suffering, exasperated sigh, Dio Cartwright threw herself down on top of her neatly made bed, bored literally to angry tears. “It’s not FAIR!” she groused, the thunderous scowl, already present on her face, deepening. “It’s not, it’s not, it’s NOT!”

It wasn’t fair SHE had to stay in her room the rest of the day yesterday and all day today because some spiteful little girl she had never even laid eyes on until yesterday morning, called her bad names, then hit her first. She had avoided the spanking, something for which she was very thankful, because Ma believed her when she insisted that the other little girl had started the whole thing . . . .

“Even so . . . . ” her mother’s stern rebuke the day before echoed once again in her ears, “you should have walked away BEFORE you and that other girl came to blows.”

“Walked away?! Where?” Dio demanded.

“You could have come into the store with Grandmother and me . . . . ”

Dio blanched, horrified by the very thought. “But, Ma-aaaa-aaahhhh . . . . ” she wailed, “that girl would’ve thought I . . . that I was some kinda yella-bellied scaredy cat cry baby sissy if I’d . . . if I’d gone running to my ma ‘n grandmother!”

Grandpa wasn’t any help either.

“Sometimes, Sweetheart,” he said, “it takes more courage to walk AWAY from a fight than it does to retaliate . . . . ”

“What’s retaliate?” she had asked in a sullen tone, half afraid she already knew the answer.

“To retaliate means to get even or to get back at someone,” Grandpa explained, confirming her absolute worst fears, “like calling someone else a liar because she’s called YOU one . . . or calling her bad names, after she’s called you bad names.”

“ . . . and speaking of bad names, Dio, if I EVER hear you call anyone the names you and that other little girl called each other, I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap very thoroughly,” Ma said in what Dio privately called her real quiet promise tone of voice, because whenever her mother talked that way, she always meant exactly what she said.

“Are they . . . are they cuss words?” she asked, remembering again the classmate who got her mouth washed out with soap by the teacher at school for saying one of those words.

“No, they aren’t cuss words,” Ma replied, “but they’re bad words no one, child OR grown-up. has any business calling someone else. I won’t punish you for using them this time, Dio, because I don’t believe you really knew that those are bad words, but if I EVER hear you utter them again . . . . ”

“I won’t,” Dio immediately promised . . . .

All things considered, she had gotten off lightly with just being confined to her room and no dessert after supper, but all that was nearly forgotten when she saw Benjy riding off in the buggy with Grandpa after breakfast to help Aunt Stacy exercise Sun Dancer. Had it not been for that mean little girl, she would have been riding in the buggy with her brother and Grandpa . . . .

“ . . . or maybe even on Guinevere!” Dio sighed dolefully as she rolled from her back onto her stomach. Her eyelids grew heavier and heavier as she imagined herself on Guinevere riding on one side of the buggy and Aunt Stacy on Sun Dancer riding on the other . . . .

*********

The sound of horses entering the yard below the window roused Dio from the light slumber into which she had fallen, filled with dreams of her and Guinevere capturing a band of evil, mean looking bank robbers . . . numbering nearly a dozen . . . and collecting on a big reward after turning them over to a grateful Sheriff Coffee, then stopping a runaway stagecoach right there in the middle of town, saving the lives of all the passengers, one of whom turned out to be the President of the whole United States himself. She yawned, stretched, then scrambled off the bed and tore across the room to the window.

“Pa!” Dio exclaimed, her face brightening upon catching sight of her father riding into the yard behind Uncle Hoss, Uncle Joe, and Mister Canaday. She turned from the window with every intention of running down to greet them. Half way between the bed and the door, she all of a sudden remembered she was confined to her room for the remainder of the day.

“Da—!!!” Dio gasped and threw both hands over her mouth before completing that particular word. “Dadburnit!” she sighed, settling for Uncle Hoss’ favorite expletive.

*********

“You boys back early!” Hop Sing greeted the three sons of Mister Number One Boss Man of the Ponderosa and that same Boss Man’s junior foreman, grinning from ear to ear, as he stepped from the kitchen door onto the porch.

“Turned out there was less damage to that pasture fence than we thought,” Joe explained as he, his brothers, and Candy dismounted.

“Good you get back when you get back,” Hop Sing teased. “When you gone, Mister Cartwright get new boy. He and Miss Stacy say new boy top hand all the way. Work circle all way round all three of you.” This last he added with a pointed glance over at Hoss, Joe, and Candy.

“Oh yeah?” Hoss responded, the impish sparkle in Hop Sing’s dark eyes not lost on him. An amused smile tugged hard at the corner of his mouth.

“Yeah! That right!” Hop Sing declared with an emphatic nod of his head.

“So tell us, Hop Sing . . . who IS this new boy Pa took on . . . who can work circles around Hoss, Candy, ‘n me?” Joe demanded.

“New boy Mister Adam boy,” Hop Sing declared. He fell in step with the four men as they crossed the yard toward the barn with their horses’ leads firmly in hand. “Help Miss Stacy feed chicken and get eggs for Hop Sing make breakfast . . . chop kindling wood with Miss Stacy and Papa . . . even help Miss Stacy milk cow after Miss Stacy show him how to do.”

“I . . . hope Benjy’s not overdoing things,” Adam said with a worried frown.

“No, no, no, no, no,” Hop Sing hastened to assure, wagging his head back and forth with each no. “Papa and Miss Stacy real good. NOT let boy over do. Papa, Miss Stacy . . . and Hop Sing, too . . . all say do Mister Adam boy lotsa good be out in sun-shine . . . fresh air.”

“I can’t argue with you there, Hop Sing,” Adam agreed.

“Adam?!”

The eldest of Ben’s sons turned and smiled upon catching sight of his wife crossing the yard, moving at a brisk pace just short of breaking into a fast run.

“ . . . uuhhh . . . why don’t you g’won . . . greet that wife o’ yours proper?” Hoss urged sotto voce, the amused half smile broadening to a great big silly grin. “Joe, Candy, ‘n me’ll put up the horses . . . . ”

“Big Brother . . . you’re a prince,” Adam declared as he handed Sport II’s reigns over to Hoss. “Thanks.”

“Sho’ nuff!” Hoss responded.

Adam bounded back across the yard and literally swept his wife right off her feet much to the delight of his two younger brothers and Hop Sing.

“You’re back early . . . . ” Teresa observed, happily breathless, as she and her husband started back toward the house with their arms loosely wrapped around each others’ waist.

“Turned out the damage to the pasture fence was no where nearly as extensive as Hoss and Joe thought,” Adam explained. “I hear tell Pa’s taken on a new top hand.”

“Oh yes,” Teresa replied. “Benjy’s been a real big help to Ben and Stacy over the last couple of days.”

“I hope he’s not overdoing things,” Adam said anxiously.

“You needn’t worry about that,” Teresa quickly assured him. “Ben and Stacy have been very good about letting him do the easier jobs and making sure he takes frequent rest breaks. Speaking for myself, I’m glad to see him up and about . . . and I agree completely with Hop Sing about the fresh air and sunshine doing him a world of good.”

“Hard to believe he almost died . . . what . . . two weeks ago? Three?”

“Closer to three weeks ago now,” Teresa said soberly. “Doctor Martin stopped by in the afternoon the day you left . . . . ”

“What did HE have to say?”

“He’s every bit as mystified . . . and as grateful . . . as I am,” Teresa replied. “He told Ben and me that Benjy should take things easy for the next week or so, then gave him an official clean bill of health.”

“Where’s Benjy now?” Adam asked, as he gallantly opened the door, then stood to the side allowing his wife to enter the house first.

“He’s gone out in the buggy with Ben to help Stacy exercise Sun Dancer,” Teresa replied. She waited while her husband paused next to the credenza long enough to remove his hat and gun belt.

“What about Dio?”

“I’m afraid Dio’s confined to her room until tomorrow . . . except for meals and the necessary run out back,” Teresa replied. She, then, shared with Adam everything that had transpired in town the previous day.

*********

A soft knock on her door startled Dio out of the glum reverie into which she had fallen. She closed the book that had lain open before her on the very first page for the better part of the last ten minutes or so, and scrambled down off the bed.

“Come in,” she invited warily, expecting it to be Ma, or worse, Grandmother.

“Hi, Princess . . . . ” Adam greeted his young daughter as he stepped into her room and quietly closed the door behind him.

“PA!” Dio cried out with gleeful abandon, as she tore across the room and threw herself into her father’s open arms. “Oh, Pa, I missed you so much!”

Adam held his daughter close for a moment. “I missed you, too, Princess,” he murmured softly, then gently planted a kiss on her forehead. “That’s . . . quite a shiner you’ve got there,” he murmured softly, as he held his young daughter apart just enough to study the lurid purple, black and green bruising around her left eye. “How did it happen?”

Dio sighed, and her shoulders slumped visibly. “Didn’t Ma and Grandmother tell you?”

“Your ma did,” Adam confessed. He rose to his feet, then held out his hand. “But I’d like to hear it from YOU.”

Dio slipped her small hand into her father’s much larger one, and meekly allowed him to lead her back across the room to the bed. “It’s not fair, Pa,” she half sobbed as the vision of Benjy going off with Grandpa and Aunt Stacy again swam before eyes now filling with tears.

“What happened?” Adam asked as he and Dio sat down together on the edge of the bed.

“I was sitting outside on a bench while Ma and Grandmother were in . . . it was some kinda store where they sold material ‘n other stuff to make clothes,” Dio began. She told her father about the other girl calling her names, liar among them, then hitting her. “I didn’t do anything to HER, Pa! Honest! I swear!” she declared passionately.

“I believe you, Dio,” Adam said.

“Then . . . oh, Pa, please? Can you talk to Ma . . . maybe ask her if I can . . . . ”

“If you’re asking me to talk to your mother about letting you out of your room early, the answer’s no,” Adam said in a very quiet, yet very firm tone of voice.

Dio sighed. She should have known. “It’s still not fair,” she lamented. “Pa . . . Ma ‘n . . . ‘n Grandmother especially . . . THEY think I should’ve acted like some . . . like some big sissy ‘fraidy cat cry baby. Grandpa, too.”

“Oh?”

“They ALL said I should’ve just walked away . . . like some yella-belly scaredy cat,” Dio said dejectedly.

“Dio . . . . ”

“Yes, Pa?”

“Do you remember what I told you and your brother when I taught the both of you how to fight?” Adam asked.

“You told Benjy ‘n me we shouldn’t go around looking for a fight, but it was ok to defend ourselves,” Dio replied, “and that’s just what I did yesterday, Pa. I swear! She hit ME first!”

“There was something else I told you and Benjy, too,” Adam said quietly. “Can you remember what THAT was?”

Dio fell silent for a moment as she tried hard to remember. “I . . . think I remember,” she ventured hesitantly, at length. She turned and gazed earnestly into her father’s face. “Was it something about fighting being the last thing you do?”

“Um hmm.” Adam nodded his head. “Yes, it was. Fighting should ALWAYS be the very last thing you do . . . AFTER you’ve done everything you can to avoid it. MY pa . . . YOUR grandpa . . . told me, your uncles, and I’m sure he’s told your aunt, too, the very same thing. ONE of those things you can do to avoid a fight is to simply get up and walk away.”

Dio stared up at her father through eyes round with astonishment and dismay.

“Believe it or not, Princess, getting up and walking away from an argument does NOT mean you’re a yella-bellied scaredy cat,” Adam continued. “It would have taken just as much, if not MORE courage to walk away from that argument before you and the other girl came to blows, and it would have shown a certain degree of maturity.”

“Kinda like being a grown-up?”

“Yes, Princess . . . kinda like being a grown-up . . . especially since the girl who picked that fight with you yesterday is someone more deserving of your pity than your anger.”

“A-Are YOU saying I . . . that I should feel sorry for HER?!” Dio stammered in complete and total disbelief. “Why? Pa, she’s meaner ‘n snake and . . . she HATES me. I didn’t do a dadburned thing to HER, Pa, but she still HATES me.”

“Your ma told me about that little girl and her uncle just now,” Adam said. “Would you like me to tell YOU what she told ME?”

“I . . . s’pose,” Dio sighed reluctantly.

“The little girl’s name is Midge,” Adam began. “Midge Frakes. Your ma told me that Midge’s ma and pa were killed about a year ago when their wagon overturned.”

“Does that mean she’s . . . that she’s an orphan?” Dio ventured, with a touch of remorse.

“Yes, Princess, she’s an orphan,” Adam replied. “She lives with her uncle, a man by the name of Jack O’Connor, because he’s all the family she has now that her ma and pa are dead.”

“Is her uncle that mean man who got Ma real mad and scared Grandmother?”

“Yes, he is,” Adam replied, scowling despite his own best intentions upon remembering Teresa’s harrowing account of their meeting with Jack O’Connor in town the day before.

“I don’t like him,” Dio said with a shudder. “His face looks like he’s real mad all the time.”

“He probably looks that way because deep down inside, he’s hurting,” Adam patiently explained. “Your ma told me Mister O’Connor’s son died a few years ago . . . in another kind of accident. MRS. O’Connor left him the day their son was buried.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Princess?”

“If Mister O’Connor hurts down deep inside, why does he look so mad?”

“Sometimes, when people are hurting because they’re sad, they become very angry, too,” Adam replied. “When Uncle Miguel and Aunt Elena’s new baby died last summer, do you remember how mad Aunt Elena was?”

Dio thought for a moment, then very solemnly nodded her head.

“Do you remember what your ma and I told you and your brother last Christmas when Aunt Elena yelled at Uncle Miguel when he asked where the manger set’s Baby Jesus was?” Adam asked.

The horrifying vision of Aunt Elena’s face, beet red, with the most fearful scowl, and tears streaming down her cheeks from a pair of eyes looking as if they were going to burst right out of their sockets any minute, once more swam before Dio’s eyes. With a shudder, she nestled close to her father, exhaling a very soft sigh of relief upon feeling his strong comforting arm about her shoulders.

“Pa?” Dio ventured very softly, at length, her voice tremulous.

“Yes, Princess?”

“Do y-you . . . oh, Pa . . . is Midge’s uncle ALWAYS that mad . . . ‘cause he’s hurting?”

“I don’t really know for sure, Sweetheart, because I’ve never met Mister O’Connor or his niece,” Adam replied, “but taking into account what your grandpa and Sheriff Coffee told your ma . . . and what SHE’S told me . . . I’d have to say it’s possible.”

“ . . . and he’s the only family she has now . . . ‘cause her ma and pa died?”

Adam nodded his head.

“I’m sorry Midge has to live with an uncle who’s mad all the time like the way Aunt Elena was last Christmas,” Dio stated very quietly, her mouth and chin firmly set. “I’ll try my best to ignore her and not fight with her . . . . ” She swallowed nervously. “ . . . even if she DOES think I’m a yella-bellied scaredy cat sissy.”

“I know you’re going to try your very best, Princess,” Adam said, “and I want YOU to know something, too.”

“What’s that, Pa?”

“That I know you’re not a yella-bellied scaredy cat sissy,” Adam said in a gentle, yet firm tone. “You’re the bravest little girl I know. Promise me you’ll remember that . . . no matter what happens?”

“I’ll remember, Pa. I promise,” Dio vowed, before slipping her arms around Adam’s waist and hugging tight.

*********

Chapter 4

“Hop Sing, I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful that meal was,” Adam effusively complimented the chef as he, and the rest of the family rose from their places at the dining room table. “T’was ambrosia . . . nectar of the gods.”

“Thank you, Mister Adam,” Hop Sing responded. He reached out and gently squeezed Adam’s forearm. “Hop Sing appreciate Mister Adam com-pli-ment very, very much, so please NOT take Hop Sing wrong way . . . . ”

“I’m . . . not quite sure what you mean,” Adam responded with a puzzled frown.

“Hop Sing know Mister Adam appreciate Hop Sing cooking,” the Cartwrights’ chief cook replied, his dark eyes sparkling with mischief. “Hop Sing also know after spend two days, two nights, and part of third day, eat Mister Hoss, Little Joe cooking . . . anything taste real good.”

Adam threw back his head and roared.

“I dunno about YOU, Hoss, but I think we’ve just been insulted,” Joe declared with mock severity, favoring his oldest brother and Hop Sing with the meanest, nastiest glare he could possibly summon.

“I KNOW we have,” Hoss retorted, laboring to keep back the amused smile threatening to break out on his face.

“Whatsa matter, Guys? Can’t take the truth?” Stacy teased.

“Hmpf! The REAL truth, Li’l Sister, is . . . if there’s anyone in this family who’s a worse cook than Hoss ‘n me . . . it’s YOU!” Joe returned without missing a beat.

Stacy responded by sticking out her tongue.

Joe returned the gesture, and thumbed up his nose for extra good measure.

“Hop Sing, you surprise me,” Teresa said. “I’D have thought you would have sat the world’s three worst cooks down long before this, and taught them how to boil water properly at the very least.”

“No, no, no, Mrs. Teresa. That Hop Sing not do. Not now, not ever never,” Hop Sing said very solemnly.

“Why not?” Teresa asked.

“Job security,” Hop Sing returned with a smug grin. “Now you go. Hop Sing clear table, then bring coffee and desert.”

“So . . . what’re we havin’?” Hoss asked, his eyes gleaming with anticipation.

“Mister Hoss favorite,” Hop Sing replied. “Apple pie. Now you go. Everyone go. Hurry up, chop, chop,” he ordered. “Sooner Hop Sing clean up, sooner bring dessert.”

“Ok, Hop Sing, I’m goin’,” Hoss replied.

“Ma? Please?” Dio begged. That sad, whipped puppy dog look on her face set Ben to wondering for just a moment whether or not a certain uncle might have been giving her pointers. “Apple pie’s MY favorite, too . . . . ”

“I know, Sweetheart,” Teresa responded, not without a measure of sympathy, “but you remember what I told you yesterday?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Dio replied with a melancholy sigh. “You said I had to stay in my room the rest of yesterday ‘n all day today because of . . . of . . . because of what happened in town yesterday . . . except when I ate and to go outside for umm . . . YOU know . . . . ”

“That’s right, Dio,” Teresa said, “and what ELSE did I tell you?”

“No dessert while I hafta stay in my room,” the girl answered with much reluctance.

“Oh, Teresa . . . she’s HAS been good today . . . very good in fact,” Dolores immediately pointed out, “surely you could relent . . . just a little . . . and allow her to have a slice of Hop Sing’s wonderful apple pie?”

“THIS from the woman who was ready to lock Dio upstairs in her room . . . not only for the remainder of our time HERE, but for a whole year, maybe two after we got home . . . after she got through tanning her within an inch of her life?!” Teresa silently wondered as she, and her father-in-law as well, looked over at her mother as if the older woman had taken complete leave of her senses.

“What?” Dolores demanded with a bewildered frown, as her eyes flitted from her daughter’s face, over to Ben’s, then back again.

“Dolores, speaking as a father with many, many, MANY years of experience behind him to a mother with just about the same behind HER, surely you remember how important it is to stay your course,” Ben said smoothly, favoring Dolores with a big, warm smile, and offering her his arm. “How’s a child to learn other wise?”

“This is true,” Dolores sighed as she daintily slipped her hand through the crook of his arm, and allowed him to lead her over to the settee next to the fireplace.

Ben wisely kept to himself the fact that he had secretly asked Hop Sing to set aside a small piece of that apple pie for the child to enjoy tomorrow after her time upstairs in solitary came to an end.

“I . . . guess I’ll g’won back up to my room now,” Dio sighed.

“Tell everyone good night first, Princess,” Adam said. “I’ll be up when it’s time to tuck you in.”

“Ok, Pa . . . goodnight.”

Adam leaned down, allowing his young daughter to throw her arms around his neck and plant a sound kiss on his cheek. Smiling, he hugged her close for a moment, and after a whispered, “Sweet dreams, Princess,” he kissed her forehead and sent her off to her mother.

As Dio quickly made the rounds, bidding the family good night, she consoled herself with the prospect of being allowed to come out of her room tomorrow . . . finally . . . AND joining everyone for dessert after supper, even though she had to miss out on the apple pie tonight.

*********

“Well, Young Fella . . . . ” Hoss said, as he turned and favored his young nephew with a broad grin, “how ‘bout a game o’ Checkers with your Uncle Hoss?”

“Sure,” Benjy readily agreed, “but, it’s been a long time since I played. Would you mind refreshing my memory?”

“Glad t’ do it,” Hoss replied.

“Y’ know, Hoss . . . I’M thinking it might be a good idea if YOU stepped aside and allowed an expert teach our nephew the game of Checkers,” Joe suggested with a smug grin and eyes sparkling with mischief.

“Li’l Brother, every once in a while you come up with some really good ideas,” Hoss responded a little too affably. “Hey, Stacy . . . YOU wanna come over here ‘n show Benjy the ropes?”

“Stacy?!” Joe hooted. “SHE’S less of an expert than YOU are.”

“At least I play an HONEST game,” Stacy retorted, then stuck out her tongue.

“Are you insinuating that I cheat?!” Joe demanded with mock severity, favoring his young sister with a scowl so comically mean and ferocious, Stacy threw back her head and laughed out loud.

“All right, Li’l Brother, I’LL say it straight out,” Hoss gamely volunteered. “You cheat at Checkers.”

“I do NOT cheat,” Joe declared in a lofty tone of voice.

“Of COURSE not,” Adam quipped, “you just get real creative with the rules, which is why I’D rather Hoss or Stacy be the ones to show Benjy how the game’s played.”

“Come on, Benjy,” Hoss said. “We can set up the board over here . . . . ”

Adam surrendered the blue chair to his younger, bigger brother. Hoss nodded his thanks then went to work setting up the checker board for play, while Benjy seated himself on the hearth.

“Pa!” Joe now turned to appeal to the clan patriarch. “WHEN are you going to teach that CHILD of yours a lesson or two or maybe six or seven about respecting her elders?” He thrust an accusing finger in Stacy’s general direction.

“ . . . uhhh, Pa, if I might say a word on my sister’s behalf, she’s been nothing BUT respectful to Teresa and me,” Adam declared in a tone of voice a bit too solemn.

“Who asked ya?” Joe growled back with mock severity.

“If anyone . . . anyone at all in this family needs a good lesson or two in respecting his elders . . . . ” Adam turned and stared very pointedly at his youngest brother.

“You think YOU’RE man enough to teach me?” Joe challenged.

“Any day of the week.”

“BOYS . . . that’s enough,” Ben said. “Adam, if you feel your brother’s somehow lacking in manners or proper respect for his elders, you have MY permission to teach him OUTSIDE . . . in the morning.”

“It’s a date!” Joe immediately quipped with a feral gleam in his eyes.

“As long as it’s AFTER Sun Dancer’s training session,” Stacy insisted. “You DO want the both of us to win . . . right?”

“You betcha!” Hoss declared. “I hear tell the bettin’ on our li’l sister here ‘n Sun Dancer’s runnin’ ‘bout ten t’ one.”

“That’s pretty respectable given it’s her first race,” Adam remarked, visibly impressed.

“ . . . which reminds me,” Ben said.

“ . . . uh oh. Here comes ‘The Talk’,” Joe quipped.

“ ‘The Talk’?” Stacy echoed with a bewildered frown. “What do you mean by ‘The Talk’?!”

“It’s the talk Hoss, Joe, and I got from Pa right before WE ran OUR first races,” Adam explained with a nostalgic smile.

“Actually, it’s just a reminder, Young Woman,” Ben said.

“A reminder, Pa? Of what?” Stacy asked.

“It’s a fine thing to win, Stacy, and I think you already know I’d very proud if you and Sun Dancer DID win this year’s race, but that’s not what’s important,” Ben said in a very quiet, yet very firm tone of voice. “Doing your best . . . running an HONEST race . . . showing good sportsmanship . . . and losing graciously if it comes to that . . . ARE. I’ll be even MORE proud of ya, if you remember to concentrate on THOSE things.”

“Yes, Pa,” Stacy replied.

“Enough talk of horse-race,” Hop Sing ordered as he entered the great room bearing a tray with the family’s silver coffee service, and cups, saucers, spoons, and napkins all neatly stacked. “Hop Sing bring coffee, then bring apple pie. Hop Sing even make up whip-cream.”

“Sho’ ‘nuff?” Hoss queried, as he rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation.

“You betcha,” Hop Sing replied, as he set the tray down in front of Ben, who was ensconced in the red chair.

*********

Jeff Bonner stood before the gray stone fireplace, unmoving, staring down in complete and utter dismay at the foreclosure notice he gripped so tightly, the knuckles of his left hand had literally turned white. “Can’t be . . . . ” he muttered, wagging his head slowly back and forth. “This . . . no! Can’t be, can’t BE!” He closed his eyes and tried to draw in a deep breath, but the muscles in his chest had become as lead, pressing down upon his lungs and starving his body of much needed oxygen.

“No.”

The voice of Seth Adams, president of the First Mercantile Bank of Virginia City, echoed again within the ears of his inward hearing.

“PLEASE, Mister Adams,” Jeff begged, “a little more time— ”

Seth Adams closed his eyes and exhaled a very audible, melodramatic sigh of the long suffering. “You said that LAST month, Mister Bonner,” the bank president reminded him, “and the month before . . . AND the month before THAT.”

“This year’s not been good for us . . . for my brother ‘n me . . . . ”

“I know,” Seth said, not without a small measure of sympathy. “A LOT of folks are hurting what with the draught last summer, and a decline in the price of beef . . . but your mortgage payments are now six months in arrears. Six MONTHS.”

“I . . . have a bit of the money PA left Rick ‘n me,” Jeff wheedled.

“How much?”

“A bit over nine hundred dollars, Mister Adams. I know that won’t cover the entire six months we’re behind . . . . ”

“ . . . but that WILL cover half of what you’re in arrears,” Seth said slowly, thoughtfully. “All right, Mister Bonner. You pay the bank nine hundred dollars by the close of business at five o’clock tomorrow . . . I will give you another thirty days to try and raise the balance.”

“Thank you, Sir. Thank you, thank you,” Jeff babbled. He took Seth’s hand in both of his and pumped it vigorously.

“Nine hundred dollars by five o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” Seth reiterated sternly, “and the balance you’re in arrears within thirty days. This is absolutely the last time I’m giving you and your brother an extension.” 

“Damn . . . damn . . . DAMN that ol’ coot!” Jeff swore, his voice cracking like a whip. He balled the notice into a tight paper wad and hurled it into the dark firebox of the massive stone fireplace, dominating the entire great room.

“Damn WHAT ol’ coot?” Rick, the youngest of the Bonner brothers, demanded as he sauntered in through the front door. Lee Hobbes, a distant cousin on their mother’s side of the family, followed close behind. He worked for the Bonners as their foreman in exchange for room and board. “Say! Ol’ man Webber ain’t givin’ us problem over his damned water rights again . . . IS he?”

“Rick . . . . ” Jeff turned and glared over at his brother through eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“ . . . uhhh . . . what?” Rick responded, while he and their cousin divested themselves of their gun belts. He flinched away from Jeff’s intense, angry glare.

“Last week, I gave you nine hundred bucks . . . the very LAST o’ what Pa had squirreled away under his mattress,” Jeff replied, while silently, desperately hoping and praying the suspicions forming within his worried mind would ultimately prove unfounded. “I asked ya to take it to the bank . . . you remember that?”

Rick swallowed nervously. “Y-Yeah . . . . ”

“Did you?” Jeff snapped out the question.

“ . . . uhhh . . . did I . . . what?”

The scowl on Jeff’s face deepened. “Did you take that money to the bank like I told you?” he demanded, trying his best to ignore the uneasy sinking feeling that had all of a sudden formed deep in the pit of his stomach.

Rick and Lee warily exchanged troubled glances.

Jeff groaned inwardly upon seeing the silent exchange between his brother and cousin. “Dammit, Rick . . . did you take that money to the bank . . . or didn’t you?!” he demanded, fearing that deep down in his heart, he already knew the answer.

“I, uh . . . I m-meant to . . . . ” Rick murmured, his voice barely audible.

“You MEANT to?! Just what the hell’s THAT supposed to mean?”

“I . . . uhhmmm . . . . ”

“Rick, so HELP me . . . if you lost that money in some damned poker game—!!!” Jeff knew this to be the case, when his brother showed a sudden, near obsessive interest in the thumbnail of his left hand.

“Jeff . . . it was a hot day,” Lee tried to explain, “a real hot day. You remember, don’t ya? . . . ‘n the ride was long ‘n dusty. We . . . uhh, kinda stopped to wet our whistles at the, um . . . B-Bucket of . . . Blood?!”

“YOU MORONS!!” Jeff shouted. Less than a half dozen long strides brought him from the fireplace to the front door, still standing wide open, where his brother and cousin yet remained. He shoved Lee aside then jabbed his balled fist square in his brother’s face, sending the younger man toppling over backwards.

Rick landed on his rump with a dull thud. “Hey! Wha’ was THAT f’r?” he angrily demanded, as he reached up to gingerly rub his nose.

“THAT was for being a damned stupid idiot!” Jeff shot right back. “How much of that nine hundred did you lose?”

“I was winning, Jeff,” Rick whined as he slowly rose to his feet. “I was winning big! REAL big!!”

“He WAS, Jeff,” Lee said in stout defense of his cousin.

“Of COURSE you were winning big,” Jeff sneered. “That’s the way card sharps do. They sit a nitwit like YOU down to play a few rounds of poker, and to start with, they let him win big. REAL big! Then, see . . . the nitwit starts losing . . . until he finally loses every damned cent he came to the table with . . . and then some, like as not.”

Rick bristled against the insult and the bitter truth in his older brother’s words. “I started out using my OWN money,” he countered, angry yet very much on the defensive, “and I won big, like I said.”

“THEN you started t’ lose . . . just like I just said,” Jeff returned bitterly.

“I thought I could win it back,” Rick argued. “Honest! I . . . thought . . . I could win it all back.”

“How much of that nine hundred did you lose?”

“Y’ know what?! You’re makin’ a great big mountain out uva li’l ol’ MOLE hill,” Rick accused, “just the way MA always did—!!!” His words abruptly terminated mid-sentence with a squawk mixed with astonishment and righteous indignation when Jeff slugged him again, this time with a powerful right cross that sent him careening into the wall directly behind.

“Why you . . . . ” Rick angrily lashed out with a straight jab, aimed right for Jeff’s mouth, with the intention of doing damage to that so called pretty smile in which his older brother took so much pride.

Acting purely on instinct, Jeff turned slightly, barely dodging the intended blow. He followed through with an uppercut to Rick’s chin. “THANKS TO YOU . . . WE’RE GONNA LOSE THIS RANCH . . . OUR HOUSE . . . AND DAMN NEAR EVERYTHING ELSE WE OWN,” he yelled, his face beet red, and eyes, round as saucers, nearly bulging right out of their sockets. He thrust an accusing finger in his younger brother’s face. “ . . . ALL BECAUSE YOU HADDA GET YOUSELF INTO A POKER GAME WITH A BUNCH O’ NO GOOD, DOUBLE DEALIN’ CARD SHARPS!!”

“WELL, WHAT ABOUT YOU?!” Rick shot right back, his face contorting with raw fury. “WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT MONEY YOU SPENT BUYIN’ CLOTHES, EXPENSIVE JEWERLY, ‘N DRINKS FOR THAT CHEAP, GOLD DIGGING SLUT, WHO USED T’ WORK AT THE SILVER DOLLAR??!”

“You shut your mouth, you hear me?” Jeff returned in a low, menacing tone. “You shut your filthy lyin’ mouth about Annabelle.”

“IT’S THE TRUTH, BIG BROTHER. I KNOW IT . . . EVERYONE IN TOWN KNOWS IT . . . HELL! I’LL BET EVERYONE IN THE WHOLE STATE O’ NEVADA KNOWS IT,” Rick relentlessly pressed, “EVERYONE ‘CEPT YOU!!!”

“I TOLD you to shut . . . up.”

“ . . . AND IN THE END . . . IN THE VERY END, SHE UP ‘N LEFT YOU FLAT FOR SOME GREAT BIG FAT MONEY BAGS FROM OVER PLACERVILLE WAY!!!”

Jeff ducked his head and charged, bellowing at the top of his lungs like an angry bull.

Rick leapt backward with all the grace and panache of a the occasional professional hoofer, who had at one time or another trotted his way across the stage at Piper’s Opera House, laughing derisively. The heel of his booted foot slammed against the low footstool that had belonged to their mother, throwing him off balance. He waggled his arms in a desperate bid to remain on his feet. For one brief moment, he steadied, teetered, then fell over backwards striking the wood floor behind him with a dull, sickening thud.

Jeff was on him in an instant, his hands reaching for Rick’s throat.

“Aggh! Hey! You crazy—!!!” Rick barely managed to choke out as he worked frantically to break Jeff’s tight, vice like grip on his neck.

“ALL RIGHT, GUYS . . . ENOUGH ALREADY!” Lee shouted, as he waded into the fray with healthy fear and trepidation.

“Guh-guh-guh . . . gud ‘im off me!!!” Rick begged.

“Stop it, Jeff!” Lee wrapped his fingers around the back of Jeff’s collar and tried with all his might to pull him away from Rick. “Stop it! Let ‘im— ” His words ended in an agonized grunt when Jeff took one hand from Rick’s throat and drove his elbow into Lee’s abdomen with all his might.

Lee immediately let go of Jeff’s collar and backed away, with his back hunched and arms wrapped protectively about his abdomen.

Rick, in the meantime, took full advantage of the momentary distraction Lee had provided. Balling his right hand into a tight, rock hard fist, he caught Jeff with a powerful uppercut right under the chin. He, then, followed through with an elbow strike to the side of his brother’s face.

Lee shambled across the room toward the front door and the wall pegs, where he and his cousins customarily hung their gun belts, while Rick pounded Jeff without let up. He slipped his own revolver from its holster, and, aiming toward the floor well away from his feet, squeezed the trigger.

For the two combatants, the sound of Lee’s gun firing acted as a bucket of ice cold water thrown into their faces. Both of them froze.

“Rick . . . back off,” Lee ordered, training the weapon in hand on the younger of his two cousins.

“Back off?!” Rick sputtered angrily. “This damned stupid galoot tried to KILL me!”

“Sit down,” Lee growled, inclining his head toward the old, worn easy their father had many years ago brought to his marriage with their mother.

Rick brought his empty hands up to shoulder level and did as ordered, keeping a wary eye on his cousin and the revolver in his hand.

“Jeff, YOU sit down, too . . . on the settee . . . AWAY from Rick,” Lee ordered.

“Glad you stopped me,” Jeff spat contemptuously, as he directed an evil, venomous glare at Rick, “ ‘cause he sure as hell AIN’T worth getting’ my neck stretched for.”

“There’s gotta be SOMETHIN’ we can do about this . . . . ” Rick protested.

“Didn’t you hear one damn thing I said?!” Jeff queried, angry and incredulous. “First off, when I gave you that nine hundred bucks, I TOLD you it was the LAST of the money Pa left us.”

“Oooohhh no! YOU said it was the last of that wad Pa kept under his mattress,” Rick argued, pushing himself to the very edge of his seat.

“ . . . WHICH AMOUNTS TO THE SAME DAMNED THING! THAT MONEY UNDER THE MATTRESS WAS ALL PA HAD!!!” Jeff yelled.

Rick muttered a long string of obscenities under his breath. “Can’t be!” he returned. “You know Pa as well as I do . . . how much he hated banks. ‘You can’t trust a gol’ durned banker as far as you can THROW him,’ Pa always said. There’s GOT to be more squirreled around here . . . . ”

“There AIN’T,” Jeff insisted.

“How do YOU know?” Rick demanded, rising slowly to his feet.

“I KNOW ‘cause I’ve LOOKED!” Jeff returned. He also rose to his feet. “In the attic, in the kitchen, behind that loose stone in the well, in the woodpile, out in the barn . . . hell! I’ve even poked around up at that worthless ol’ claim Pa worked from time t’ time. There’s NO money . . . NONE, except what Pa had stuffed under his mattress.”

“Come ON, Jeff . . . you, too, Rick,” Lee begged. “We’re NOT gonna solve anything by fighting amongst ourselves . . . . ”

“We’re not gonna solve anything, period,” Jeff snapped. “Mister Adams said he’d give us another month, if . . . IF . . . we paid him nine hundred dollars . . . HALF of what we’re behind. But . . . since Rick over there lost it all ‘n then some in a damned, stupid poker game . . . ain’t nothin’ left for us to do, ‘cept clear on out.”

“Hold on a minute . . . . ” Lee said slowly. “The Independence Day Race . . . . ”

“What about it?” Jeff growled.

“You got that big black of yours entered, don’t ya?”

“Juggernaut? Yeah. We got ‘im entered in the race,” Rick replied, “kind uva moot point though, since HE’S gonna end up on the auction block along with everything ELSE we got . . . . ”

“How long b’fore we gotta clear out?” Lee asked.

“Thirty days, but . . . if you’re thinking that money in the winner’s purse is gonna spell an end to our troubles . . . forget it!” Jeff said disparagingly. “First off, there’s ONLY a couple hundred bucks in that purse . . . not even enough to make a monthly payment!”

“Jeff’s right,” Rick sighed, “ ‘n besides . . . fast as ol’ Juggernaut is . . . Pete Wilson’s General Ulysses is ten times faster.”

“What if . . . what . . . if . . . we could slow Wilson’s General down a mite . . . just enough for Juggernaut to beat ‘im?” Lee asked.

An exasperated sigh exploded from between Jeff’s thinning lips. “Didn’t I just get through tellin’ ya— ”

“I’m NOT talkin’ about the damned winner’s purse,” Lee angrily shot right back. “When Rick ‘n I were in town the other day, I overheard that little squint down at the livery say he was givin’ two to one odds on Wilson’s General Ulysses . . . and thirty-seven to one on Juggernaut,” Lee said.

“So what?” Jeff demanded.

“So . . . if you were to bet . . . oohhh, say about a hundred bucks or so on Juggernaut, and he won? YOU’D collect thirty-seven hundred dollars,” Lee gamely pointed out. “That’d be more than enough— ”

“You’re forgetting two things,” Jeff rudely cut his cousin off. “First, Rick ‘n me ain’t got a hundred bucks. Second . . . didn’t RICK just get through telling you that Juggernaut doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Wilson’s horse?!”

“ . . . unless Wilson’s horse wasn’t exactly doing his very best,” Lee countered with a nasty smile.

“ . . . and how do YOU plan to make sure Wilson’s horse doesn’t run his best?” Rick asked, mildly interested.

“That purple stuff growing out in your north pasture,” Lee replied.

“Loco weed?” Rick queried.

“Yeah. The day of the race, we take some with us ‘n slip it into General Ulysses’ feeding trough,” Lee explained.

“Won’t that kill him?” Jeff asked.

“Could,” Lee replied, “if we gave him enough. But I don’t intend on giving General Ulysses enough to KILL him . . . just enough to . . . well, to umm make him a little . . . loco?”

Rick chortled. “I LIKE it,” he declared, grinning broadly.

“It just might work at that,” Jeff agreed, “but . . . where are we gonna get a hundred bucks to bet on ol’ Juggernaut?”

I have some greenbacks stashed away for a rainy day,” Lee replied . . . .

*********

Chapter 5

Nearly all of the good citizens of Virginia City agreed the weather on Independence Day that year couldn’t possibly have been better, even if they’d had the means of special ordering it themselves. The sky above was a bright azure blue, with not even the merest wisp of cloud. Though the temperature was plenty warm enough to allow the lemonade stands run by the Virginia City Ladies’ Temperance Union and a handful of enterprising kids to do brisk business, a gentle, intermittent breeze kept things tolerable.

Midge Frakes sat cross legged on the carpeted floor of the International Hotel lobby, in the corner farthest from the door with a Bavarian family of paper dolls arranged in a half circle before her. They were a gift from Miss Heidi, Mrs. Braun’s youngest daughter. She held up one of the dirndl dresses for the daughter of the family that she had just cut from the page with excruciating care. It was a brilliant red with some kind of flowers . . . .

Miss Heidi had told her what kind of flowers they were last night. A-dell . . . a-dell . . . something . . . .

She frowned for a moment, trying to remember.

“A . . . dell . . . VICE!” she murmured softly. Yes. That was it! A-dell-vice. Edelweiss.

She held up the dress for a moment, taking in the bright red, its hemline and bodice trimmed with the edelweiss flowers, the sleeves, collar, apron, and stockings white as snow. The shoes were the same red as the dress, and she saw, much to her delight, that the apron’s hem was trimmed with tiny red roses. It was the prettiest dress she had ever seen.

“What would it be like to wear a pretty dress like this?” Midge couldn’t help but silently wonder. She placed the paper outfit down over the doll for whom it was intended and closed her eyes.

“Wha’cha wanna wear a sissified dress like THAT fer?”

Midge could hear Uncle Jack’s voice now, just as loud, just as clear as if he were sitting on the floor beside her.

“That kinda dress is for prissified li’l gals,” Uncle Jack’s voice snorted derisively inside her head, “not for a gal like YOU, who’s homelier ‘n a mud fence.”

She sighed very softly, and upon opening her eyes, reached for the page with other clothing for the paper doll daughter. There was a plain green dirndl, with yellow sleeves, collar, apron, and a simple yellow ribbon trim at the hem. Though the red one was her very favorite, a brilliant royal blue dirndl, with its white sleeves, collar, and apron trimmed with lace was a close second. The bottom of the skirt had a white ruffled trim,and a colorful array of flowers adorned the hem line. Miss Heidi had told her those kinds of flowers grew in a place called Bavaria, where Miz Braun and her mister once lived before they came to America.

“Can’t let Uncle Jack see,” Midge silently ruminated, as she set to work cutting out the remaining dresses on the page.

“Gol’ damn waste o’ time, ‘n any way, you’re too old t’ be playin’ with dolls made outta paper.”   She could almost hear him now.

“Maybe Miz Braun’ll let me keep ‘em at HER house, so I’ll have ‘em t’ play with next time I come visit,” Midge decided. She already kept the rag doll Miz Braun made for her upstairs on the bed in the tiny attic room, where she liked to sleep when her uncle had to be away, or if he got sick at the saloon. She also kept a few pennies and a bright shiny nickel in the tiny red reticule, given her by her mother just before she and Papa died, under the mattress of the attic room bed. It was the only way she could keep Uncle Jack from taking it.

The sound of voices drew Midge from her dismal reverie. She very quickly gathered up the paper doll family, and the clothes she had already cut out, and hid them safely away inside the pocketed folder Miz Braun had given her, so that she wouldn’t lose any of the dolls or their wonderful clothes. Midge, then, turned her head toward the concierge’s desk, and scowled upon seeing Ol’ Man Cartwright with that prissy stupid cow of a daughter-in-law, to quote Uncle Jack, the old lady who was with them the day her uncle got in trouble, and some man she didn’t quite recognize.

“Damned high-‘n-mighty, too big for their blamed britches Cartwrights,” the girl angrily muttered just under her breath. The little girl who had dang near beat her to death, “all fer nothin’,” who she blamed entirely for Uncle Jack being sent away, was no where in sight. “I’ll get even,” Midge silently, vehemently vowed, “I dunno HOW, but somehow . . . some way . . . I’M gonna get even.”

*********

Blissfully unaware of the intense, angry scrutiny being brought against them, Ben completed the task of registering his family at the hotel.

“Mister Cartwright,” Lawrence Thatcher, the desk clerk, turned his attention to Adam and Teresa, “I’m giving you, your wife, and family the Presidential Suite,” he continued, as he handed Adam the key. “I’ll see to it that the bell boys bring a couple of trundle beds to your room for the children when they take your bags upstairs.”

“Thank you, Mister Thatcher,” Adam responded, then turned to his wife. “I . . . don’t know about YOU, Teresa, but I’m ready for a nice big breakfast.”

Teresa grinned. “You and me both,” she declared. The entire family, including Hop Sing had packed up and left very early that morning

“Good. Why don’t we corral the kids and head on down to the C Street Café?” Adam suggested. “Miss Maxine and Mrs. Letty STILL fry up the best scrambled eggs and sausage west of the Mississippi, according to big brother, Hoss . . . uhhh, coming in a very close second to Hop Sing of course.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Teresa replied.

“Pa? Dolores? Would you like to come with us?” Adam queried.

“If it’s all the same to YOU, I’d just as soon retire to my room, and have MY breakfast served to me THERE, thank you very much,” Dolores declared with an emphatic nod of her head. Had it not been for the fact that her host had given Hop Sing a few days off to visit with his relations here in town, she would have remained at the ranch. The only thing worse than the prospect of encountering that awful O’Connor man and his hoyden niece in the company of her son-in-law’s family was the thought of the same thing happening alone, at that ranch, miles and miles from no where. The day she got on board that stage to return home to Sacramento would be among the happiest in her life.

Lawrence, meanwhile, signaled to one of the bellhops. “Mrs. di Cordova, I’m putting you in the room across from the Presidential Suite,” he said. “This young man . . . . ” he inclined his head toward the tall, lanky sixteen year old standing at her elbow, “ . . . will carry up your luggage.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Dolores murmured in a stiff, faintly condescending tone.

“Well, Pa? How about YOU?” Adam asked. “Would you like to join us for breakfast?”

“Yes, I would,” Ben replied, “though I’d like to stop by Grainger’s Livery to check up on your sister and Sun Dancer . . . . ”

“By all means,” Adam said. “We’ll hold you AND Stacy a place, assuming she’s got Sun Dancer properly settled.”

“See ya in a few minutes,” Ben said in parting.

*********

Adam and Teresa found their son, Benjy, seated on the settee before the fireplace in the hotel lobby, with his nose deeply buried in a book he had borrowed from his grandfather’s library.

“Where’s Dio, Son?” Adam asked, mildly surprised to find his daughter absent.

“She went with Aunt Stacy and Sun Dancer to the livery stable, Papa,” Benjy replied, then swallowed nervously. “I, uhhh . . . hope that was ok . . . . ”

“That’s fine,” Adam replied, much to his son’s relief. He hoped and prayed, however, that Dio had stayed with her aunt. “You ready for some breakfast, Buddy?”

“You bet!” Benjy declared, as he closed the book in hand, then rose. “Are Grandpa and Grandmother coming?”

“Your grandpa is,” Teresa replied. “He’s gone to check on your aunt and Sun Dancer. Your grandmother . . . . ” She exhaled a long suffering sigh and shook her head.

“Your grandmother’s a bit tired from the ride into town,” Adam added. “She’s going to rest and have breakfast upstairs in her room.”

*********

Midge, meanwhile, slipped the folder containing her paper dolls and their clothes under the edge of the rug, and watched Ol’ Man Cartwright walk right out the door.

“I’ll betcha anything he’s got the horse he’s gonna race over at Grainger’s Livery,” she mused in grim, angry silence. Most people who stayed at this hotel put their horses up at Grainger’s. Like as not that whole blamed Cartwright family did, too.

Then, all of a sudden, she remembered that large, prickly burr she had found about a week ago, when Uncle Jack had locked her out of their cabin so he could spend the morning, and as it had turned out, a good bit of the afternoon, too, doing what he called “sleeping it off.” She had brought it to town with her, too, in her sack, set right on top of all her other stuff. A nasty smile spread across her face, upon remembering Uncle Jack telling the two women, who often brought them supper, something about that kind of a burr . . . .

It was a joke, Uncle Jack said. Ol’ Man Cartwright had just hired some new guy, “a real city slickin’ greenhorn,” whatever that was. Uncle Jack and another man he called Evans had placed a burr like the one she had found, under the greenhorn’s saddle, so when he got on his horse, it started to buck like anything. The greenhorn flew up over the horse’s head and landed in mud, flopping around like a fish out of water. Uncle Jack was laughing so hard, he was near doubled over, and had tears streaming down his cheeks. The two ladies didn’t seem to think that story was funny at all, but her uncle didn’t seem to notice.

“Yeah! THAT’S what I’ll do!”   She rubbed her hands together in absolute glee at the very thought. First chance she got, she’d sneak into the livery stable and embed the burr into the horse blanket, exactly the same way Uncle Jack said he and that man, Evans, did. Ol’ Man Cartwright was probably going to have that young one of his, the young pretty one with the green jacket who Uncle Jack seemed to hate more than any of them, riding in that race this afternoon. Wouldn’t that be a funny sight indeed to see him sail right over the head of his horse and belly flop around in the dirt. She couldn’t wait to tell her uncle all about it.

“That’ll show ‘em! That’ll show ALL them stuck-up, high ‘n mighty Cartwrights a thing or two!” she declared very softly.

*********

“Grandpa!” Dio exclaimed with delight, the instant she caught sight of Ben entering the livery stable. She leapt up from the bale of hay upon which she had been sitting and ran to meet him.

Ben knelt down and gave his granddaughter a great big bear hug. “You giving your Aunt Stacy a hand with Sun Dancer?” he asked, as he rose to his feet and held out his hand.

Dio eagerly seized hold of Ben’s hand, then led him in the direction of the stall given to Sun Dancer. “Yep,” she replied. “I’ve been . . . uhhh . . . . ” she frowned for a moment, trying to remember. “I’ve been . . . suuu . . . soup? Super?! Super something . . . . ”

“Supervising?” Ben asked with an indulgent smile.

“That’s it, Grandpa!” Dio declared, then frowned. “What’s that mean . . . exactly?”

“It means watching over someone and making sure he . . . or in YOUR case SHE . . . does the job right,” Ben explained. “So, Sweetheart . . . you tell me. Has your Aunt Stacy been doing the job right?”

“Uh huh!” Dio replied, nodding her head vigorously.

“How’s it coming, Young Woman?” Ben asked his daughter, as he and Dio approached Sun Dancer’s stall.

“All finished, Pa,” Stacy replied. She patted the golden stallion’s neck, then stepped out of the stall, latching the door behind her.

“You ready for some breakfast? Adam, Teresa, and Benjy are holding a table for us at the C Street Café.”

“At the moment, I’m more thirsty than hungry,” Stacy replied, “and a big, tall glass of Miss Maxine’s lemonade would really hit the spot right about now . . . . ”

*********

After finishing a good, hearty breakfast at the C Street Café, the members of the Cartwright family went their separate ways, after agreeing to meet each other where Joe was scheduled to take part in the bronco riding competition at two o’clock.

“Pa . . . Adam . . . would it be all right if Benjy and I played some of the games they’ve got set up down the street?” Stacy asked.

“It’s all right with me,” Ben replied. He looked over at his eldest. “How about YOU, Adam?”

“Sure,” Adam replied. “It’s all for one good cause or another . . . right?”

“I’ll even thrown in an advance on your allowance,” Ben said as he removed his wallet from his pants pocket. He removed a couple of bills and handed them to his daughter.

“Thanks, Pa,” Stacy replied as she took the money her father offered. She pocketed the bills, then turned to her niece, still seated at the table sandwiched between her parents. “You want to come, too, Dio?”

“No, thank you, Aunt Stacy,” Dio replied.

“It’s perfectly all right, Princess,” Adam encouraged.

“ ‘S ok, Pa. I’d rather stay with YOU,” Dio said.

“You sure?” Adam queried, mildly surprised.

“I’m sure.” Dio figured if Midge Frakes saw her in the company of her father, she’d be less likely to try and start something. “It’s NOT because I’m afraid of her,” she silently reminded herself. “I just don’t want to take the chance of her making me mad again and getting me into MORE big trouble.”

“I think I’d better g’won back to the hotel and look in on Mother,” Teresa said, “then I’m going to have a good look at all of the entries in the various sewing competitions.” She smiled and gave her husband a kiss on his cheek. “See you later.”

“Pa, I’ll be at the livery around noon to check on Sun Dancer,” Stacy promised.

“Don’t worry about Sun Dancer, Stacy, I’LL look in on him,” Ben said. “You and Benjy enjoy yourselves.”

“Thanks, Pa.” Stacy gave Ben a quick hug, then left the café with Benjy.

*********

Adam and his daughter spent the better part of the morning chatting with friends and neighbors he’d not seen in many years, and trying out some of the game booths, set up and run by community groups and church congregations to raise money for their many and varied endeavors. He won a carving that Hoss had made of Guinevere and donated as a prize to the target shoot, run by the Cattlemen’s Association. All of the proceeds would go to benefit the local orphanage.

“Thank you, Pa,” Dio said, surprised, grateful, and overjoyed when Adam presented her with the prize. She threw her arms around his waist and squeezed. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

“You’re very welcome, Princess,” Adam replied before bending down and placing a kiss atop her head.

Dio and Adam both had their fortunes told by the “Gypsy Queen” Lyubitshka, better known as Clementine Hawkins on a day to day basis, at the booth being run by the Virginia City Literary Society to benefit the lending library in town. After a leisurely lunch with Teresa and Dolores in the hotel restaurant, father and daughter had a look at the entries in the livestock exhibition, then made their way over to the corral where the bronco riding contest had just gotten started.

*********

“Well, I‘ll be a monkey‘s uncle!” Virgil Jared, owner and manager of the general store, murmured softly upon catching sight of an old friend, not seen in what his wife usually termed “a dog’s age,” threading his way through the crowd of men, mostly, and boys gathered to watch the bronco riding contest, now taking place. “ADAM!” he called out and waved. “HEY, ADAM, OVER HERE, YOU SLY OL’ SON-UVA—!!!”

Virgil immediately broke off upon catching sight of the little girl walking alongside Ben Cartwright’s firstborn, holding his hand very tight. Three irregular shaped splotches of red broke out on each cheek like a rash, and quickly spread to his nose, forehead, and neck. “I, uhhh . . . heard you ‘n your family was here visitin’ with your pa . . . . ”

“Good seeing you, too, Virgil,” Adam returned the greeting with a smile and a pointed glance at the storekeeper’s sudden ruddier than usual complexion. “I must say you’re looking quite robust this afternoon . . . . ”

“What’s ro-bust, Pa?” Dio asked in a very solemn tone of voice.

“Robust means healthy, Princess,” Adam replied. “I’d like you to meet an old friend of mine . . . Mister Virgil Jared.”

“Hi, Mister Jared,” Dio responded with a smile that brought out the dimples in her cheeks. She very politely held out her hand. “My real name’s Dolores Elizabeth, but no one calls me that, ‘cept Ma ‘n Pa when I’m in real big trouble.”

“What do folks call ya when you’re NOT in real big trouble?” Virgil asked, as he gently shook hands with Adam’s young daughter.

“Dio,” the girl replied. “It’s short for Dolores.”

“Well, I’m real pleased t’ meet ya, Dio,” Virgil said.

“I’m pleased to meet you, too, Mister Jared. Did YOU come to watch Uncle Joe and Uncle Hoss?”

“Are they competin’?”

“Yep.” Dio nodded her head. “Pa says Uncle Joe’s competing in the . . . I think it’s the bronc . . . uhhh, bronc something . . . . ” She frowned, trying to remember.

“Must be the bronco ridin’ contest,” Virgil suggested kindly. “Your uncle’s real good at that.”

“I know ‘cause PA told me,” Dio said proudly. “So did Uncle Joe.”

Virgil threw back his head and roared. “That scallywag!”

“Who’s up next?” Adam asked.

“Eli Barnett’s gettin’ ready to ride now,” Virgil replied. “Matt Wilson’s next, then your brother, Joe.”

“Who’s winning so far?”

Virgil scowled. “Dick Faraday.” He inclined his head in the direction of a tall, well built young man standing on the other side of the temporary corral, erected in the middle of C Street. “New man out at Miller’s Folly. Most of the gals seem t’ think he’s heaven’s gift, ‘n HE agrees with ‘em a hunnert percent.” Virgil sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward. “Don’t ask ME what they see in him, Adam.”

“I can’t help but notice he’s limping a bit,” Adam remarked, as he watched the young man approach a smartly dressed young lady with long, golden curls, and a coquettish pout on her face.

“I heard some young cowpoke gave him a good swift kick in the leg at the Silver Dollar . . . I think it was the night of Matt Wilson’s bachelor party,” Virgil said.

“I’ve heard some very interesting stories about that bachelor party, Virgil, but I’m afraid I don’t remember very much,” Adam said ruefully.

“Ya wouldn’t,” Virgil declared with a knowing grin, “what with you bein’ the best man ‘n all.”

“PA! HEY . . . PA!”

Virgil turned, and smiled upon seeing his youngest daughter, Cora Lynn, weaving her way through the growing crowd, moving as fast as her legs could carry her. Amelia and Lilly Beth, Virgil’s wife and eldest daughter respectively, followed at a more decorous pace.

“Pa?! Please? Pretty, pretty please? Can I watch the ridin’ ‘n ropin’ with YOU?” Cora Lynn begged, gazing up at Virgil with great, big, sad puppy dog like eyes. “Ma ‘n Lilly Beth wanna go over ‘n look at all them dumb dresses in that sewin’ contest. Please? Don’t make me go with ‘em?”

“ ‘S ok, Kitten. You can stay here with me,” Virgil readily gave his permission. “Adam, I know y’ remember my older two, but I don’t think you’ve met my youngest. This is Cora Lynn.”

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Cora Lynn,” Adam acknowledged the introduction with a warm smile. “This is MY daughter, Dio.”

“Hi, Dio,” Cora greeted Adam’s daughter with a big wide grin. “You gonna watch the bronco ridin’, too?”

“You betcha!” Dio declared, pleased to have met another kindred spirit. “My Uncle Joe’s gonna be ridin’ soon . . . . ”

“Mister Joe’s GOOD!” Cora said. “Real, REAL good! He’s won last couple o’ years in a row . . . . ”

“Virgil Edward Jared, I don’t think it’s at all proper for a young gal t’ be hangin’ ‘round all these dirty, smelly, sweaty men— ” Amelia started to scold.

“Thanks, Sweetheart. I love YOU, too,” Virgil retorted good naturedly.

“Virgil, you know what I mean!”

“It’ll be all right, Amelia,” Adam said, favoring the storekeeper’s wife with a warm, ingratiating smile. “I’m allowing MY daughter to watch.”

“That’s ‘cause Uncle Joe ’n Uncle Hoss ’re competing,” Dio said proudly.

“I dunno . . . . ”

“Amelia, you know as well as I do, you’d be spendin’ half the time fussin’ at the girl for one thing or another if ya drag her over t’ see all the entries in the sewin’ contest,” Virgil amiably pointed out.

“But— ”

“But NOTHIN’,” Virgil said. “Now Cora Lynn’ll be just fine here with me, ‘n you ‘n Lilly Beth’d have a better time without havin’ t’ keep tabs on her every minute.”

“You promise me you’ll keep a real sharp eye on ‘er?”

“I promise. Now you two g’won! Enjoy yourselves.”

“Come ON, Ma,” Lilly Beth urged, as she took hold of Amelia’s forearm. “You heard what Pa said . . . . ” She barely took a half dozen steps before bumping quite literally into Ben Cartwright. “Oops!” she squeaked, her face flushed a bright scarlet. “ . . . uhh, sorry, Mister Cartwright . . . please, umm . . . excuse me?!”

“It’s quite all right, Lilly Beth. No harm done,” Ben responded with a smile.

“Aww, fer—!!! Lilly Elizabeth Jared, if fer two seconds you’d watch where you was goin’ . . . . ” Amelia scolded as she dragged her oldest daughter off.

“Adam . . . Virgil . . . looks like those li’l gals of yours have become fast friends,” Ben observed with a smile, after Amelia and Lilly Beth had gone. He inclined his head toward Dio and Cora Lynn, now standing on the other side of Virgil with their heads together in what appeared to be animated conversation.

“Can’t say I’M surprised given what Virgil here’s told me about Cora Lynn,” Adam replied.

“Yeah,” Virgil agreed with a smile, then sighed. “I sure wish Amelia’d let up on Cora Lynn, though . . . . ”

“What do you mean?” Adam queried with up raised eyebrow.

“Amelia’s got definite ideas as t’ how boys ‘n gals are s’posed t’ act, ‘n what they can ‘n can’t do,” Virgil explained. “Lilly Beth, of course, has always enjoyed a lot o’ the stuff her ma does, like spendin’ an hour or so potterin’ around in some notions shop, goin’ t’ quiltin’ bees, doin’ needlework . . . . ”

“ . . . or looking over the entries in sewing competitions?” Adam suggested.

“Yeah,” Virgil replied. “Cora Lynn, though . . . she’s more the rough ‘n tumble kind a gal, who’d rather spend a nice day like this outside than sittin’ in the parlor learnin’ t’ needlepoint.”

“She sounds an awful lot like Dio,” Adam said.

“Adam?”

“Yes, Virgil?”

“Does your wife object t’ your daughter’s tomboy ways?”

Adam shook his head. “First off, according to my mother-in-law, Teresa was a lot like Dio when she was her age,” he explained, “and second . . . my wife and I both prefer to save our energy for the important battles, like why Dio should do her best in school, why it’s wrong to copy test answers from the smartest kid in the class . . . things like that.”

“For what it’s worth, Adam, I agree with YOU a hunnert percent,” Virgil said, “but that’s a real bad stickin’ point for Amelia, though . . . . ”

“Pa?” It was Dio.

Adam and Virgil turned and found both their daughters standing behind them.

“Yes, Princess?” Adam queried.

“Can Cora Lynn ‘n I do the three-legged race together?” Dio begged. “Please, Pa?”

“Me, too?” Cora Lynn pleaded, looking earnestly up into Virgil’s face.

“After we watch Uncle Joe and Uncle Hoss of course,” Dio added.

“It’s all right with me, as long as it’s also all right with Mister Jared,” Adam readily gave his permission.

“Yeah, sure,” Virgil replied. “Why not?”

“Will you come ‘n watch us?” Cora Lynn begged, her eyes flitting from her father’s face, over to Adam, then to Ben.

“Please?” Dio wheedled.

“Pretty, PRETTY please?”

Virgil grinned. “Wouldn’t miss it, Kitten. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“You betcha!” Ben voiced his wholehearted agreement with a big smile.

*********

Chapter 6

Midge Frakes paused for a moment just outside the livery stable door, and cast a quick, furtive glance over her shoulder. She was greatly relieved to see that folks passing by seemed more interested in the festivities going on and with each other. No one spared her so much as a passing glance. She quietly stepped inside the stable, and paused for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine outside to the dimly lit interior.

“Now which o’ these horses belongs to them blamed Cartwrights?”  Midge silently wondered, as she made her way down the long row of stalls, most of which were occupied. The only horse she recognized for absolute certain was General Ulysses, and that was because she just happened to be hanging around the stable yesterday when his owners brought him in. Uncle Jack occasionally referred to MRS. Wilson, the older one, as a “gol’ damned mouthy bitch who ain’t learned yet when t’ shut ‘er yap,” but she couldn’t remember him saying much of anything about the men in the Wilson family. Midge paused a moment before General Ulysses’ stall and whispered, “Hi there, Mister General. Hope ya win the race this afternoon . . . . ”

The horse snorted and flicked his tail.

“You give that blamed Cartwright horse a real good run for his money before ya beat his ass, y’ hear me?” the girl whispered to the horse most folks referred to as The General.

The sound of men’s voices approaching the entrance to the livery stable sent Midge scurrying into the empty stall next to the one occupied by General Ulysses. She pressed herself tight into the farthest corner, and prayed desperately that whoever had just come into the stable wouldn’t find her, especially if they happened to be in the company of that mean ol’ Mister Grainger.

“Lee, you stand look out by the door.”

Midge recognized Rick Bonner’s voice immediately. “Bonners’re damned near as bad as them blamed stuck-up Cartwrights,” she silently groused. “Nuthin’ but a couple o’ rich man’s spoiled rotten brats, who ain‘t done a lick o‘ real honest t‘ goodness work their whole worthless lives.” That was the kindest thing she had ever heard Uncle Jack say about the Bonner brothers.

Rick Bonner, meanwhile, noted with grim satisfaction that so far as HE could see, the livery stable was empty save for the horses. He quickly made his way toward General Ulysses’ stall, treading quietly just in case Tony Grainger’s assistant was off in an empty stall somewhere napping. After casting a quick, furtive glace over his shoulder, Rick opened the door to General Ulysses’ stall and entered.

Midge frowned when she heard the bolt on the door to The General’s stall being pulled back. She gingerly set the burr aside, then noiselessly crawled across the straw covered floor to the half wall separating the stall in which she had taken refuge from the one occupied by the Wilsons’ horse.

“Got a li’l treat for ya, General Ulysses,” Rick cooed softly, “a real SPECIAL treat.”

Peering through the open knot hole positioned at her eye level, Midge saw Rick Bonner standing at the feeding trough putting something in it.

“That’s it, Boy . . . you just dig right in,” Rick encouraged with a mirthless chuckle. He patted The General’s rump, then let himself out.

Midge remained frozen in place until the sound of Rick Bonner’s retreating footsteps had died away to silence. She squeezed her eyes tight shut, silently counted to ten, then rose, and cautiously made her way out of her hiding place. Midge paused before General Ulysses’ stall for a moment, then overwhelmed by curiosity, she unlatched the door with the intention of going into the stall and seeing for herself what Rick Bonner had put into the horse’s feeding trough.

“Hey! What’re YOU doing in here?!”

Midge gasped. It was that mean ol’ Mister Grainger. He stood not quite six feet away from the girl, with feet shoulder width apart and a pair of hard, well muscled fists planted firmly on his hips. Midge ducked her head and ran forward, hoping against hope she could slip past Mister Grainger and make her escape. The livery stable owner, however, proved too fast for the girl. As she tried to side step around him, his thin, wiry arm shot out, and the next thing she knew a hand full of long, skinny fingers were wrapped tight around her forearm.

“Lemme go!” Midge growled through clenched teeth as she tried to wriggle herself free from his tight grasp. “Dang it all, you’re HURTIN’ me!”

“I’ll hurt ya a whole lot WORSE if you don’t tell me what kinda mischief you’re up to,” Tony threatened.

“Nuthin’!” Midge shot right back, her voice a mixture of anger and fear. “I ain’t done NUTHIN’!”

“Then WHAT were ya doin’ in General Ulysses’ stall?”

“I told ya! Nuthin’!”

Tony strode briskly toward the door, leaving Midge very hard pressed to keep up, despite the hold he still had on her. Twice she stumbled. Tony’s grasp on her forearm kept her from taking a very nasty fall.

“You get your sorry ass OUT o’ my stable, ‘n you STAY out!” Tony ordered as he sent the girl reeling out into the street. The heel of her foot caught against a small stone, and she fell, landing ignobly on her rump. “If I catch you nosin’ around here again, I’m gonna give you a tanning you’ll NEVER forget, you understand me?”

“Go to HELL!” Midge shot right back, as she scrambled to her feet.

*********

“ . . . and finally . . . last but certainly not the least . . . Joe Cartwright on Circle R’s Whirlwind,” Deputy Sheriff Clem Foster announced in a loud voice.

“Whirlwind?!” Ben echoed with a frown.

The afore named horse was a black mare Nathan Ridley, owner of the Circle R, kept as part of his breeding stock. She was a powerful, strong horse, every bit as prolific as she was beautiful, having given birth to five foals in the past seven, going on eight years. Nathan, his sons, and their men spent the better part of a year and a half trying to break Whirlwind to saddle, but their efforts were in vain.

Ben swallowed nervously as Joe carefully eased himself onto Whirlwind’s back.

“Pa?” Adam queried very softly, taking note of Ben’s sudden paler than usual complexion. “Pa, are you all right?”

“Fine,” Ben said stiffly. “Just fine.”

Clem, meanwhile, pulled his watch out of the right hand pocket of his vest and flipped up the cover. “Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . . ” he softly counted, as the second hand moved up toward the twelve. “GO!”

The makeshift chute opened and Whirlwind burst forth like a powerful explosion of nitroglycerin. Clem’s eyes were glued to the second hand as it swept past the twelve toward the one.

Together, Joe and Whirlwind were nothing less than poetry in motion, as each one struggled mightily for dominance. Less than three seconds into the ride, Joe felt himself shift in the saddle, but managed to regain his seat much to his father’s deep, profound relief. The blonde haired girl who had been flirting with Dick Faraday a few moments ago turned to watch.

“Hey, Dick . . . looks like you’ve lost your gal AND this contest.”

Dick Turned and glared over at Abe Miller’s son, Ronald. “First off, that cheap li’l trollop’s NOT my gal,” Dick growled, “and second, what’s a fancy pants like you know about bronc riding?”

“I know enough not to try it,” Ronald retorted. “Ten dollars says Joe Cartwright wins this contest hands down.”

“Make it twenty, Little Boy, and you’ve got yourself a bet.”

“How about we separate the little boys from the grown men and make it fifty?” Ronald challenged.

That gave Dick Faraday pause.

“ . . . of course if your afraid of losing . . . . ” Ronald taunted.

“I’m not afraid o’ losing,” Dick shot right back, “especially not to the likes o’ Joe Cartwright.” He held out his hand. “You’ve got yourself a bet.”

“Come on, Joe . . . . ” Virgil Jared whispered softly. “Three more seconds . . . two . . . . ”

“ . . . AND JOE CARTWRIGHT’S THE WINNER BY THREE SECONDS,” Clem shouted a split second before Whirlwind unceremoniously dumped Joe onto the dry packed earth right at her feet.

After a quick admonition to his daughter to stay put, Adam followed his father into the corral, where Joe was in the process of rising on a pair of legs that had just turned to rubber.

“Joe . . . that was one helluva a great ride,” Adam said proudly. “You all right?”

“Fine,” Joe declared with a feral, triumphant grin. “I’m just fine.”

“ . . . until I nail your hide to the barn wall when we get home,” Ben growled. “You scared me half to death, Young Man . . . . ” He sighed, then added with a weary half smile, “but that WAS one helluva great ride.”

“ . . . and with Hoss and Stacy shoe-ins to win the roping and riding competitions and the race respectively, it looks like the Cartwrights are having a great day,” Adam added.

*********

“You can do it, Benjy . . . I KNOW you can,” Stacy said quietly. She and her nephew stood before the counter of the booth erected for the dart throwing game.

Benjy closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He held it for a moment, then exhaled, slow and even. Upon opening his eyes, he studied the target for a moment, then raised the dart in his hand and took aim. “Please,” he silently begged anyone and everyone in the heavens above who might at that moment be listening, “please . . . . ” The dart flew from his hand, arcing slightly, and struck the target nearly an inch above the tiny bull’s eye.

“One more try, Son,” the man running the game encouraged with a sly smile.

“Aunt Stacy, I’m NEVER gonna hit that bull’s eye,” Benjy said with a disparaging sigh.

He so desperately wanted to win the necklace and matching earrings, “made with the finest of rubies and set in the purest of gold,” according to the barker running the game. Ten minutes and a while dollar’s worth of darts later, his goal seemed more frustratingly elusive than ever.

“Would you mind a bit of friendly advice?”

Stacy and Benjy turned and found Jason O’Brien standing behind them.

“Benjy, I don’t think you were around when Jason and his sister, Susannah, met Dio,” Stacy said quietly. “He had his family have been friends and neighbors for . . . I don’t know how many years, exactly, only that it’s been a good long time. Jason, this is Adam’s son, Benjy.”

Jason smiled and offered his hand. “Glad to meet you, Benjy.”

“Me, too.” Benjy took Jason’s proffered hand and returned his smile with a shy one of his own. “ . . . uhhh, Mister O’Brien?”

“Please call me Jason,” the young man replied, “or Mister Jason, if you’d prefer. I kinda think of Mister O’Brien as being my PA’S name.”

“Ok, Mister Jason,” Benjy said. “Can you really help me win that ruby necklace for my mother?” He pointed to the prize he so earnestly coveted.

“Glass more than likely,” Jason silently observed. A set of necklace and earrings with honest to goodness rubies would be worth a fortune. Even so, the workmanship appeared to be very good. “I’m . . . assuming you’re aiming straight for the bulls eye?” he said aloud, turning his attention to Benjy.

“Dead on, Mister Jason.”

“Try aiming a bit lower,” Jason said, “just under that bulls eye. If it doesn’t work, I’ll buy you three more darts.”

“Fair enough,” Benjy eagerly agreed. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, then another. He, then, opened his eyes, took careful aim, and let the dart fly. Once again, it arced slightly, but this time, it struck its intended target dead center.

“Benjy! You DID it!” Stacy exclaimed, with a broad grin.

“Now I have to hit it two more times,” Benjy said, as he dug into his pocket.

“Son, I happen to be a firm believer in good ol’ fashioned hard work, and truth t’ tell, I’ve never seen anyone work so hard to win a real treasure, and for his ma of all people,” the man running the dart game declared. “Here y’ are . . . . ” He placed the ruby necklace and earrings on the counter before the awestruck boy. “Tell your ma to wear it in good health.”

“Yep. Definitely glass,” Jason silently observed.

“Wow! Thank you, Sir!” Benjy exclaimed, his eyes shining with delight. He, then, turned to Jason, and smiled. “ . . . and thank you, too, Mister Jason.”

“I’m glad I could help,” Jason replied.

“How about YOU, Young Man?” the barker turned his attention to Jason. “You, uhh . . . care to try your hand at winning the grand prize for your girlfriend?” He cast a meaningful glance at Stacy, then inclined his head toward a doll, seated like a queen amid a carefully arranged hoard of toys, costume jewelry, and an assortment of other prizes. She wore an elaborate pink satin dress, trimmed with white lace, white stockings, and a pair of white shoes with pink buttons. A mound of golden curls surrounded her porcelain head, with its painstakingly hand painted child like features, like a halo and cascaded down both shoulders.

“I, uhh . . . kinda think my, umm girlfriend is . . . well, her ummm tastes are more for that carved tiger right there at the, ummm . . . doll’s feet,” Jason stammered, his complexion all of a sudden much ruddier than was his norm. He dug into his pocket and extracted a quarter. “Five darts,” he said curtly, forcing himself to keep his eyes focused on the carnival barker’s face . . . .

*********

“Hey, Li’l Sister . . . ’n you, too, Benjy it’s about time the two of ya showed up,” Hoss said by way of greeting, when Stacy and Benjy joined the rest of the family, already gathered to watch riding and roping contests. “You done missed your ‘ol’ grandpa’ make the ride o’ his life.”

“Really?”

Hoss nodded.

“Gee, I‘m sorry I missed it,” Stacy said with genuine regret. “Did Grandpa win?”

“Hands down,” Hoss assured her with a broad grin.

“So . . . what do you have there, Buddy?” Adam, meanwhile, asked, upon taking note of the black box his son tightly clasped in both hands.

“A prize!” Benjy replied, finally giving in to the impulse to smile. “It’s a necklace. The man running the dart game said it’s a genuine ruby necklace. I’m going to give it to Mother.”

“A genuine ruby necklace, Young Man?!” Ben queried, highly skeptical.

“Sure is, Grandpa. You want to see?

“You betcha.”

Benjy opened the box allowing his father and grandfather to see.

“Looks like real fine workmanship,” Ben murmured softly, visibly impressed.

“May I have a closer look at that necklace, Son?” Adam asked.

Benjy shrugged. “Sure, Pa,” he replied.

“Yes . . . the workmanship IS very fine,” Adam observed after taking a moment to study the necklace closely. “Very fine indeed.”

“It kinda reminds me of the work of Alexander DuBois [3] ,” Ben said slowly. “You remember, Adam . . . . ”

“Indeed I do,” Adam replied as he placed the necklace back into its box and returned it to his son.

“Who’s this Mister DuBois, Papa?” Benjy asked. “Some kinda jeweler, or something?”

“He was a jewelry maker, Son,” Adam replied, “and a very gifted one to say the least. Benjy . . . . ”

“Yes, Papa?”

“Can you find your way to the hotel from here?”

Benjy nodded.

“I think it might be a good idea to take your prize back to our room for safe keeping,” Adam suggested.

“Ok, Papa,” Benjy agreed.

*********

“Looks like you won yourself one o’ the animals you, me, Joe, ’n Hop Sing worked on t’ donate as prizes for all the games,” Hoss remarked, upon noticing the tiger his young sister held almost reverently in both hands.

“Well . . . actually . . . JASON won it and gave it to me,” Stacy replied, drawing a sharp glare from Ben.

“Oh yeah?” Hoss queried, grinning wickedly from ear to ear.

“Yeah,” Stacy replied, her eyes narrowing with a mixture of suspicion and bewilderment upon seeing the impish sparkle in her big brother’s eyes. “Anything WRONG with that?”

“Pa?”

Ben’s scowl deepened upon hearing again the voice of his middle son the day Jason and his sister, Susannah, stopped by for a visit.

“Kinda looks like ol’ Jason’s really smitten with our gal, don’t it?” Hoss observed with a great big silly smile.

“ . . . uhh, Pa?” Adam ventured, drawing his father from the unsettling reverie into which he had fallen. He took hold of Ben‘s elbow and moved him a half dozen yards or so away from the rest of the family. “I hardly think Stacy’s reputation’s going to suffer any because she accepted a carved wood tiger won by a young man playing a carnival game as a gift . . . especially when the young man in question and his family have been friends and neighbors for many years.”

“You‘re probably right, Adam, but all the same . . . I DON’T like it,” Ben said curtly . . . .

*********

“Yep. All in all, this has been a very good day for the Cartwrights,” Adam mused softly, with a proud smile.

“What did you say, Adam?” Teresa asked.

They had retired to their hotel room after watching Hoss compete in the roping events in order to rest up before the horse race scheduled to take place in another hour or so, and allow Teresa time to look in on her mother once more.

Adam smiled. “I was just saying that today’s been a good day for our family, with Joe beating Abe Miller’s man hands down at the bronco riding competition, and Hoss winning the calf and steer roping contests for three years in a row now.” His smile broadened. “Our own kids’ve done well, too. Dio and Cora Lynn won the three legged race and Benjy tied for second place with Jeremy Watkins in the sack race.”

Jeremy’s father worked for Ben, and the entire family lived in a small cottage on the Ponderosa.

“Most important, our children made some very good friends, which reminds me, Adam . . . I gave Dio permission to watch the fireworks with Cora Lynn and her family.”

“That’s fine. I told Benjy and his new friend they could watch the fireworks with US,” Adam replied. “Benjy also did well at the dart throwing game . . . . ”

“Yes, he did,” Teresa agreed with a warm smile. “Between you and me, Adam? I doubt those stones are real rubies, but the workmanship on the necklace and earrings is excellent, and I think they’ll go very well with my new red party dress.”

“You, ummm . . . actually intend to wear that set out in public?”

“Why not? We both agree that the workmanship’s very good, and besides . . . it was given to me by an admirer I happen to love very much.”

Adam wrapped his arms about his wife’s waist and gently nuzzled where her neck met her left shoulder.

“Ah, if only I wasn’t afraid that one of our kids might come bursting in here any moment,” Teresa sighed contentedly.

“What was that?”

“I, umm said all Stacy has to do now is win that race, and the Cartwright Family’s victory today will be complete.”

 *********

Chapter 7

Virginia City’s mayor, Wilbur Dodds, chomped down hard on the half smoked cigar between his lips, then started up the half dozen steps leading to the judge’s platform that had been hastily erected in front of the general store three days before. He was a short, rotund man, aged in his early to mid-fifties, who, by his own admission enjoyed good food in large quantities and eschewed moving about any more than he felt was absolutely necessary. He ascended the first five steps, then paused at the sixth to catch his breath.

“Come on, Wilbur . . . just one more t’ go,” Roy Coffee urged from the platform where he and Virgil Jared stood patiently waiting.

“Aw, fer—!!! Keep yer britches on willya, Roy!?” Wilbur panted and wheezed. He drew a tattered green bandanna from the right hand pocket of his suit coat and mopped the sweat from his beet red face. “Dang it all . . . what’s this world comin’ to when a body can’t give a fella a minute t’ catch his breath?!”

Roy sighed. “Come on, Virgil, we’d best give him a hand,” he said, as he reached out and took firm hold of the mayor’s left arm. Virgil nodded, then took Wilbur’s right arm. Working together, they hauled the mayor up that very last step.

Wilbur quickly mopped his face once again, then ambled over toward the rail, facing the offices and shops lining the board walk. He stuffed his handkerchief back into the right hand pocket of his pants, then cleared his throat. “Ladies ‘n Gents,” he called for attention raising his voice slightly in order to be heard above the din of everyone talking at once, “your attention, please!”

The crowd of people gathered at the starting line for the race continued talking amongst themselves, as if the mayor had not spoken.

Wilbur once again cleared his throat. “FOLKS, YOUR ATTENTION, PLEASE!” he yelled.

Again, no response.

Wilbur leveled a thunderous scowl at the crowd below, then bringing his thumb and first finger to his mouth, let out a shrill whistle. This time, a near deafening silence fell over the people. One by one, heads began turning expectantly toward the mayor.

Wilbur’s angry scowl instantly evaporated, as if it had never been. “Good afternoon, Ladies ‘n Gents,” he greeted everyone cordially, with the great big, bright, sunny smile his detractors privately referred to as his electioneering face. “I hope you’ve ALL been enjoying Virginia City’s Annual Independence Day festivities . . . . ”

The people responded with enthusiastic applause, a smattering of raucous cheering, and a couple of loud whistles.

Wilbur held up his hands, calling for silence. “First off, I’d like t’ introduce the gentlemen . . . and, ummm . . . lady . . . who’re running in this race,” he continued, after the crowd of people had quieted. “Our first contestant and champion now for the last three years running . . . Matt Wilson on General Ulysses.”

They were highly favored to win again this year, if the modest two-to-one odds the bookmakers offered on the pair was any indication. The only exception was that scoundrel, Mick O’Flynn, who was currently locked up in the jail on charges of bootlegging and arson. HE was offering three-to-one, leastwise he was when the mayor had placed fifty dollars with him on General Ulysses’ nose . . . .

*********

“General . . . whoa! Easy, Boy . . . take it easy!” Matt murmured softly to his skittish mount.

The big dark gray gelding danced restlessly from side to side, occasionally snorting and moving his head up and down.

“This AIN’T like him,” Matt’s father, Blake Wilson, muttered, wagging his head back and forth, “ain’t like him at ALL. Matt?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“How was he last night ‘n this mornin’?”

“He was just fine last night,” Matt replied, “this morning . . . he WAS a mite restless, but no more ‘n he USUALLY is . . . first thing. Pa . . . . ”

“What?” Blake snapped back.

“Y-You . . . You’re not thinking someone’s . . . . ”

“Done somethin’ to bring this on him?!” Blake immediately returned. “It’s crossed m’ mind.”

For a moment, Matt stared over at his father, not quite able to believe what he had just heard. “P-Pa . . . . ” he protested, the minute he finally found his voice, “you can’t mean that! The other horses entered in this race belong to men who’ve been our friends ‘n neighbors . . . for years, some of ‘em.”

“That may very well be, Son, but you’re forgetting one thing.”

“What?”

“The General here’s won three years in a row,” Blake said grimly. “Wouldn’t surprise ME none to find among those friends ‘n neighbors of ours a man who’d dearly love making damned sure he didn’t win FOUR years in a row.”

“Pa, I know some of our neighbors have joshed around with you about that . . . Mister Hansen and Mister Cartwright among them, but they’d NEVER— !!!” Matt protested.

“No . . . not Ben . . . Hugh . . . or even Clay, but there’s OTHERS I sure as the dickens wouldn’t put it past . . . . ” Blake turned and glared over at Abe Miller, owner of a small, but very lucrative cattle ranch called Miller’s Folly. Abe and his foreman, Carl Yates, stood on either side of the long legged dark gold chestnut thoroughbred, imported from blue grass country for this race.

Abe returned Blake’s glare with a jaunty wave and a smug, triumphant smile.

“Our second contestant . . . Carl Yates on that da—uhhh, onKentuckyGold,” Wilbur continued, stopping just short of uttering “damned Kentucky hayburner,” the name Abe’s wife, Maybelline, had reportedly given the horse. “Our THIRD contestant, Ladies ‘n Gents, is our own deputy sheriff, Clem Foster on Carla Jo . . . . ”

A petite, voluptuous young woman, with a thick cloud of red hair cascading to the center of her back, removed the white lace scarf from around her head and tied it around Clem’s neck overtop his scarlet bandanna. She was a socialite from Carson City by the name of Lisa Garrett. “For luck,” she murmured softly.

“Thank you, Sweetheart,” Clem responded. He held Carla Jo’s lead firmly in one hand while he gingerly fingered Lisa’s scarf with the other. He tried his best not to grimace against the cloying, heavy scent of Lisa’s favorite perfume, clinging to the thin, translucent piece of material.

“Mother, Father, and I will be watching . . . . ” she cooed, then planted a chaste kiss on his cheek.

“Whoooo-wheee! Didja hear THAT?!” Daryl Hughes cooed in a high falsetto, the instant Clem’s girl was out of earshot. It was a wry, yet instantly recognizable imitation of Lisa Garrett’s voice. “Better behave, Clem, ‘cause Mother, Father, and I will be waaa-aaaahhhht-ching . . . . ”

Hugh O’Brien hooted with laughter.

“You shut yer mouth, Daryl . . . before I come over there ‘n shut it for ya,” Clem growled back.

“Oohhh . . . touchy, touchy!” Rick Bonner guffawed, from the seventh place at the very end of the line.

“Cut it out, willya?!” Jeff growled, favoring his younger brother with a dark, murderous glare.

“Aww, come ON . . . I was just funnin’ a li’l . . . . ” Rick whined.

“You can fun around all ya want AFTER the race,” Jeff returned. “You know what’s at stake here . . . . ”

Rick cast a quick glance over his shoulder, noting with a measure of satisfaction, that Andy Barnett, whose father worked as Clay Hansen’s foreman at the Five Card Draw, seemed preoccupied with his own horse, Felix, a handsome flaxen chestnut.

“Dammit, Jeff, would ya puh-leeze . . . relax?!” Rick growled. “I dunno WHY you’re so hot ‘n bothered. Lee says this race is as good as won.”

“Don’t you go getting cocky, LI’L Brother, you hear me?” Jeff warned. “Maybe this race IS as good as won like Lee said, but we AIN’T won it yet . . . ‘n don’t you DARE forget that.”

“Contestant number four is Daryl Hughes on War Chief, who for the last two years running ‘s come in a nice respectable third,” the mayor, meanwhile, went on with the introductions. His eyes moved from Daryl and that magnificent black, the pride and joy of Hugh O’Brien and that oldest daughter of his, and came to rest on Ben Cartwright, who appeared to be imparting some last minute words of wisdom to his young daughter before the start of the race. “Contestant number five . . . Stacy Cartwright on Sun Dancer.”

Word going around town, almost from the minute the Cartwrights brought that golden palomino in off the range, was that horse could beat the posterior regions off of Blake and Matt Wilson’s General Ulysses, without hardly breaking a sweat. The experts were giving ten to one odds on the pair. Not bad . . . in fact, quite respectable taking several factors into account, not the least of which was the rider’s gender.

Still ‘n all, though, Wilbur couldn’t help but wonder what Ben Cartwright was thinking of when he gave his daughter permission to enter that stallion in this race. A fair number of women about town, his two younger daughters among them, had taken what he felt to be a decidedly unhealthy interest in the first rider of female persuasion to enter this race.

“Hmpf!” he silently snorted. “NEXT thing y’ know, they’ll be out ropin’ cattle . . . bustin’ broncs . . . and VOTING, heaven forbid!”

“Hey, Wilbur . . . . ” It was Roy Coffee. “Y’ all right?! You look like you just got through seein’ a ghost just now.”

“Not a ghost, Roy . . . just a vision too horrible to contemplate,” Wilbur replied, as he forced himself to return to his senses and the present moment. “Contestant number six, Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Andy Barnett on Felix, and contestant number seven . . . Rick Bonner on Juggernaut.”

The mayor grinned upon noting that a fair number of young ladies cheered for Andy. That grin very quickly faded when he saw his eldest daughter among them.

“ . . . uhhh, movingrightalonghere . . . Roy Coffee and Virgil Jared will be judges for this race,” Wilbur continued. “In the event of a close finish, they will decide the winner.”

The mayor’s pronouncement set off a flutter of murmuring.

Wilbur immediately held up his hands. “Quiet down, Folks,” he ordered, raising his voice so to be heard above the rising din. “IF YOU DON’T SHUT YOUR YAPS RIGHT NOW ‘N LET ME FINISH, YOU’LL LEAVE ME NO CHOICE BUT TO MAKE A SPEECH!”

The crowd immediately fell silent.

“That’s better,” Wilbur growled. “Riders, the course of this race is as follows. When I give the signal, you’ll go from the starting line right here, to that big gnarled oak tree about a mile or so outside of town. You’ll circle ‘round that tree and follow the road back here.

“Princeton McGuire and Enoch Greeley are out by the tree around which the riders are to circle.” Enoch Greeley was the owner of a small but very lucrative mine called Vein Glorious, an operation in which Ben Cartwright owned stock. Princeton McGuire and his four brothers made their living as musicians. “THEY will make sure ALL of the riders go completely around that tree.”

The mayor once again paused, just long enough to focus his complete attention on the seven riders, lined up at the starting line with their horses. “First man . . . or woman . . . . ” this last he said with a glare over in Stacy’s general direction, “to cross the finish line right here will be declared the winner. Good luck to each and every one of you.”

“Up you go, Young Woman,” Ben quietly urged, as the other six riders entered in the race, mounted their steeds. “You remember what we talked about after supper a few nights ago?”

“Yes, Pa,” Stacy replied, after settling herself inthe saddle. “You told me that as much as you’d like to see me win, that running an honest race . . . showing good sportsmanship . . . and doing my very best are much MORE important.”

“That’s right.” Ben nodded his head and smiled. “I have a something for ya . . . something for luck,” he continued. He removed the neckerchief from around his own neck and handed it to her.

“Thanks, Pa.” Stacy accepted the proffered neckerchief and quickly tied it around her own neck.

“Good luck, Stacy. We’ll ALL be waiting right here for ya at the finish line.”

********* 

“Matt’s sure havin’ a hard time gettin’ himself up on ol’ General Ulysses,” Hoss quietly observed. He stood with his brothers, a few yards away from the judges’ stand.

“Oh?” Adam queried, mildly surprised. He remembered Matt Wilson as being a natural horseman, every bit as good at riding and saddle breaking the wild ones as their youngest brother, Joe.

“Somethin’s . . . not right, Adam,” Hoss said. “Ain’t like The General t’ be so dang skittish.”

Joe lifted the binoculars to his eyes and watched Matt climbing onto General Ulysses’ back, while his father, Blake, struggled to hold the reins. “Yeah,” Joe agreed, as he watched Matt’s struggle to climb onto his horse’s back, “you’re right, Hoss . . . . ”

********* 

“GENTLEMEN . . . . ” Mayor Wilbur Dodds, meanwhile, yelled at the top of his voice. He slipped the pearl handled derringer that had once belonged to his father, out of his right pants pocket. “ . . . uhhhh . . . MAKE THAT GENTLEMEN AND LADY . . . TAKE YOUR MARK . . . . GET SET . . . . ” He moved his arm out away from his body at just under a forty degree angle, aiming the barrel of the small gun he held tightly in hand toward the ground.

The movement of the mayor’s arm spooked General Ulysses. He lifted slightly on his back legs and surged forward.

“Whoa, General . . . whoa!” Matt Wilson begged. He quickly backed his horse to his original spot behind the starting line. “I sure wish I knew what’s got into you, Boy . . . you’re more skittish than a scared cat.”

“Matt . . . . ”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“You sure you can handle him?” Blake asked, as he watched the horse anxiously paw the ground in front of him, while his back legs danced back and forth. He made himself a mental note to question Tony Grainger about the feed later.

“I can handle him,” Matt assured his father with a confidence he was all of a sudden very far from feeling.

For a moment, Blake considered withdrawing the horse from the race. The normally even tempered dark gray gelding was certainly not himself. “Now YOU’RE getting’ jumpy, Blake Emmett Wilson . . . ‘n all over nuthin’ like as not,” he silently castigated himself. “All right, Son.” Blake let go of General Ulysses’ bridle. “You be careful now . . . ‘n good luck.”

“Thanks, Pa.”

*********

“GENTLEMEN AND LADY . . . TAKE YOUR MARKS,” the mayor began once more, after Blake Wilson had resumed his place between his wife, Irma, and new daughter-in-law, Clarissa. “GET SET . . . GO!” He fired the derringer in hand signaling the start of the race.

General Ulysses surged over the starting line like a shot, galloping at top speed, with Matt clinging for dear life, by all appearances.

“YAH!” Rick Bonner shouted, urging Juggernaut to pour on the speed. A feral grin spread across his face as the distance between himself and Matt Wilson began to close.

*********

“Yep. Somethin’s definitely wrong,” Hoss murmured softly.

“No, it’s not, Big Brother,” Joe hastened to assure. “The Kid’s doing just as we planned.”

“I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout Stacy ‘n Sun Dancer,” Hoss said grimly, the scowl on his face deepening. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout Matt ‘n General Ulysses.”

“I . . . think Blake Wilson knows something’s wrong, too,” Adam said quietly, as his eyes came to rest on the anxious faces of Blake, Irma, and Clarissa Wilson, standing together on the other side of C Street. “I was almost certain he was going to take them both out of the race.”

“He should’ve,” Hoss said grimly. “Somethin’ tells ME he’s gonna be mighty sorry he didn’t.”

*********

“Gol’ DANG that boy!” Blake Wilson muttered angrily as he trained the binoculars, he had borrowed from Clementine Hawkins , on his son, Matt, and General Ulysses, tearing down C Street as if both of them had the very devil himself on their tails. “Matt . . . I dunno what the hell you think you’re doin’ . . . . ”

********* 

“WHOA, BOY . . . WHOA!” Matt yelled, as he worked frantically to slow his horse down. “The General” as Blake and Matt affectionately called him, bolted right past Andy Barnett, then Stacy and Sun Dancer who were a half a length ahead.

*********

“What the—?!” Stacy silently queried with a worried frown, as she watched General Ulysses and Matt pulling ahead of Carl Yates and Kentucky Gold. At the speed his horse was traveling so early on in the race, Matt Wilson would be extremely lucky if his horse finished. Period.

General Ulysses easily passed Daryl Hughes and War Chief, then pulled alongside Rick Bonner on Juggernaut, who were in the lead.

“YAH!” Rick yelled, as he urged Juggernaut on . . . faster . . . faster . . . .

*********

“So, you’re . . . giving odds forty-six to one on Juggernaut, ‘ey?” Jeff Bonner quizzed Mick O’Flynn in the Virginia City Jail.

“Was,” Mick replied. “The books are closed now that the race has started.”

“Aww . . . come ON now, Mister O’Flynn . . . forty-six to one odds . . . even YOU gotta admit that’s a real long shot . . . . ”

“True ‘nuff,” Mick had to agree.

“ . . . ‘n how would it LOOK me . . . Jeff Bonner . . . not betting on his own horse?” Jeff urgently pressed.

“Hmmmm . . . y’ have a point, I s’pose . . . . ” Mick had to agree. “But . . . . ” He shook his head. “I don’t know, Mister Bonner. T’ ain’t exactly ethical.”

“Perhaps not, but I WILL make it worth your while.” Jeff dug into the back left hand pocket of his pants and pulled out his wallet. “A hundred bucks, My Good Man . . . all on Juggernaut.”

“A hundred bucks?!” Mick echoed, incredulous.

“A hundred bucks,” Jeff reiterated as he fanned the bills right in Mick’s face.

“ . . . ‘n it ain’t like you’re bettin’ on a SURE thing,” Mick said slowly.

“Nope!”

“All right, Mister Bonner . . . if’n you’re so desirous o’ bein’ parted from your money . . . far be it from the likes o’ myself to deny ya the pleasure,” Mick said, snatching the money right out of Jeff’s hand. “One hundred dollars . . . right smack dab on Juggernaut’s nose.”

It was all Jeff could do to restrain himself from rubbing his hands together with glee.

*********

Juggernaut and General Ulysses rounded the old gnarled oak tree, running neck and neck, both of them well lathered, with Carl Yates and Kentucky Gold following behind by two and a half lengths. The instant he reached the road, Carl, his face set with grim determination, urged his mount to go faster. The distance began to close with almost agonizing slowness. Clem and Carla Jo circled around the tree next, with Stacy and Darryl on their respective steeds running very close at his heels. Andy and Felix brought up the rear, trailing behind Stacy and Daryl by four lengths.

“Uhhhhh NO!” Darryl muttered under his breath, as Clem and Carla Jo increased their lead from a length and a half to two lengths. He urged his horse to pour on full speed. For what seemed an unbearable eternity, he and War Chief merely kept pace with Clem and Carla Jo. Then, slowly . . . very slowly, the distance between him and Clem lessened.

“Now . . . you’re gonna want to start tearing down the road more ‘n just about anything, Kiddo . . . . ”

Joe’s words, spoken the very first day he and Hoss started training her and Sun Dancer for this race, echoed within the ears of Stacy’s inward hearing. He spoke as someone who knew . . . all too well.

“ . . . but don’t you DO it! Not yet! You’ll need to move a little faster . . . but ONLY a little . . . . ”

“Thanks, Grandpa,” Stacy murmured softly, as she urged Sun Dancer to quicken his pace . . . just enough to keep within four lengths of Clem and Darryl.

Andy, meanwhile, nudged Felix to a full gallop, smiling with great satisfaction as the distance between him and Stacy began to quickly close.

Just under a quarter mile from the tree, the road curved around a rocky mound, covered over by a thin layer of dust and sand. Matt and General Ulysses disappeared around the rise first.

“Come ON, Juggernaut!” Rick urged, upon realizing that mound would for a moment conceal him and General Ulysses from the other riders. “Faster, Boy . . . come ON! Faster!” As he rounded the corner, he reached into the empty rifle scabbard attached to his saddle and slipped out his rider’s crop. “Go, Boy!” Rick urged again, his voice filled with anxiety and grim determination.

Up ahead, General Ulysses reared. Matt kept his seat . . . barely.

“Come ON, Boy . . . faster!” Rick urged, with one hand on the reins, the other gripping his riding crop so tightly, his knuckles had turned white. A malevolent smile began to ooze its way across his lips.

Matt, in the meantime, labored desperately to gain some measure of control over his agitated mount, and keep his seat. He barely registered movement out of the corner of his eye, when Rick Bonner and Juggernaut drew alongside. Rick raised his arm and brought down his riding crop on General Ulysses’ rump with all his strength and might. The General reared again, then set off across the meadow on the side of the road to his right, galloping at top speed, with Matt barely hanging on.

Halfway across the meadow, General Ulysses’ right front leg slammed down hard into a deep chuckhole, throwing him off balance. Matt fell, as the frantic horse tried to right itself, and struck the ground with force sufficient to drive the wind right out of his lungs. Less than a second later, the horse collapsed, landing on its rider with a dull, sickening thud.

Rick Bonner shuddered when he heard the bones in General Ulysses’ leg snap. “No!” he muttered in a low voice, wagging his head vigorously back and forth in denial. “No!” He hadn’t meant to inflict serious harm upon General Ulysses . . . or Matt Wilson either. He only wanted to keep them from winning this race. Rick squeezed his eyes shut, desperately hoping and praying this was but a horrible dream . . . that he would wake up in his own bed, or slumped in the saddle just as Juggernaut ran across the finish line. He counted three, then very slowly opened his eyes just in time to see General Ulysses struggling in vain to stand.

Rick stared down at the riding crop still clutched tightly in his hand, as if it had just turned into something very strange and very ugly. He gritted his teeth and hurled the riding crop into the meadow with all his might, then urged Juggernaut to a fast gallop.

Kentucky Gold shot around the bend four lengths behind Juggernaut. “Come on, Boy . . . faster,” Carl urged, his mind focused solely on the road ahead and Rick Bonner. Kentucky Gold poured on the speed, closing the gap between him and Juggernaut by half a length, then a full length.

Clem and Daryl followed two and a half lengths behind Kentucky Gold, locked in fierce competition with each other, the former leading by just under half a nose.

“Faster, Boy, come on! Faster!” Clem urged, his eyes glued to the rumps of Juggernaut and Kentucky Gold up ahead, tearing down the road at full gallop. He noted with glee that Juggernaut, at least, seemed to be slowing down a mite. “Come on, Carla Jo! You can do it, Boy . . . you can DO it!” The deputy sheriff was so intent on overtaking Juggernaut, he didn’t even see the fallen rider lying so ominously still out in the meadow, half buried beneath a panicked horse struggling desperately to rise.

Daryl, however, did see. He immediately slowed, his eyes glued with horrified fascination to General Ulysses as he raised his head with a snort and threw it forward. The weight of his head and momentum brought him to a semi-upright position and thrust all of his weight onto the right leg. He tried to rise, but the limb was unable to bear his full weight. Daryl grimaced and looked away as the horse collapsed back down onto its rider.

“Hooo-leeee ****!” Stacy whispered as she came around the rise and beheld the grim scene out in the meadow. That last word was Paiute. With heart in mouth, she brought Sun Dancer to a halt and quickly dismounted. She ground tied the golden stallion at the side of the road, all the while praying that the lessons she, Hoss, and Joe had been working to teach him over the past couple of weeks had taken hold, then started across the meadow, treading her way very carefully.

The race was all but forgotten.

*********

Chapter 8

“Come ON, Roy! Can’t ya see ‘em YET?!” Ben queried impatiently for what had to be the fifth time in as many minutes. He stood at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the judges’ platform.

Roy muttered a few choice invectives under his breath, then snorted derisively. “All I gotta say is . . . your boys ‘n that li’l gal o’ yours come by it honest!” he said tersely, as he lowered his binoculars, sparing no energy whatsoever to conceal his growing annoyance.

“Come by WHAT honestly?!” Ben demanded, with arms folded across his chest, the scowl already present on his face, deepening.

“Ben, y’ got a lotta virtues,” Roy returned in a wry tone of voice, “but patience sure ain’t one of ‘em . . . an’ those young ‘ns o’ yours take right after their pa.”

“Roy!” Virgil Jared called out to the lawman. He stood right up next to the railing, with his binoculars trained on the road leading out of town. “I think I see someone . . . there!” He thrust a pointing finger toward the slight rise in the road just under a quarter mile away from the finish line.

Roy immediately turned, raising his binoculars as he did so.

“Well?” Ben demanded, squinting in the general direction in which Virgil had pointed.

“I ain’t sure, but . . . I THINK it kinda looks like Carl Yates on that hayburner o’ Abe’s,” Roy reported, as he scanned the slight rise in the road.

“Do you see STACY?!” Ben anxiously pressed.

No reply.

“ROY . . . . ”

“No! I do—wait a minute . . . someone ELSE ‘s comin’ over that rise . . . . ” Roy said slowly, “can’t . . . quite make out who it is yet . . . . ”

“Gotta be The Kid,” Joe declared with confidence.

“I . . . dunno ‘bout that, Li’l Brother,” Hoss said very quietly. “We hadn’t figured on Abe Miller getting’ that race horse from Kentucky.”

“Aggh! Those race horses from Kentucky are vastly overrated, in my humble opinion,” Joe declared with a broad grin, his eyes dancing with impish delight. “I beat one once . . . by a mile . . . remember?”

“I generally do my best NOT to remember that little incident [4] ,” Adam said wryly.

“Looks like Carl Yates ‘n that Kentucky hayburner he’s ridin’ are in the lead, with . . . looks like Clem ‘n Rick Bonner runnin’ neck ‘n neck,” Roy reported, his binoculars still trained to the rise.

“Do you see STACY?!” Ben demanded.

“No, Ben,” Roy said with a sigh and a wry roll of his eyes heavenward, “I don’t see hide nor hair o’ . . . . ”

*********

Stacy started across the meadow, desperately hoping and praying her approach wouldn’t spook the injured horse, causing him to, heaven forbid it, roll over onto Matt, driving the pommel of the saddle into his gut.

“Easy, Boy . . . easy . . . . ” she began speaking to General Ulysses in a low, soothing tone of voice at a point midway between the road and the fallen horse and rider. His right front leg was broken. She could see that quite clearly. The sight of the injured limb grieved and sickened her. “That’s right, Boy . . . . ” she continued speaking in as calm a voice as she could muster, focusing her eyes on the horse’s head, while trying to ignore the bile that occasionally rose to the back of her throat.

Stacy stole a quick glance over at Matt, noting with growing concern that he still hadn’t moved. His face was deathly pale, though she was yet too far distant to ascertain whether or not his chest rose and fell. She heard Sun Dancer snorting from the spot near the road, where she had ground tied him. General Ulysses nickered and vigorously renewed his efforts to rise.

Stacy froze. “Whoa, Boy . . . whoa!” It took nearly every ounce of will she possessed to keep her voice calm and even, as she watched General Ulysses attempt to rise and collapse back down upon his insensate rider, once, then twice. “Easy there, Boy . . . steady . . . steady . . . that’s it . . . . ”

“ . . . uhhh . . . S-Stacy?”

She started, but refrained from crying out. Turning, she found Daryl Hughes standing a few feet behind her, to her left. “It’s Matt,” Stacy said tersely. “Matt and General Ulysses. From the looks of things . . . I’d say he stepped into a chuckhole . . . a deep one.”

Daryl’s eyes wandered to the horse’s injured leg, and lingered. “Dear Lord,” he groaned softly, sickened himself by the sight.

“I’ve got no idea as to what kinda shape MATT’S in,” Stacy added, half fearing the worst, while silently, desperately praying those worst fears would prove unfounded.

“Has he regained consciousness?”

Stacy shook her head. “Some how . . . some way we gotta get him out from under General Ulysses,” she stated the obvious, grateful all of a sudden that Daryl Hughes had stopped, “and put that poor horse out of its misery.”

“I hate like ANYTHING having to do this,” Daryl said, “Lord above knows that poor animal’s already suffered more ‘n enough . . . but the only way I see of getting Matt out from under . . . is to try ‘n encourage General Ulysses to get up one more time.”

“I was afraid that might be the case,” Stacy said, feeling sick and miserable.

“If you can’t bring yourself . . . . ”

“ ‘S ok . . . I can do what I hafta,” Stacy assured him.

“Ok . . . . ” Daryl’s voice trailed away to an uneasy silence as a wave of nausea swept over him.

“ . . . uhhhh . . . Daryl?!”

Daryl squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m ok,” he snapped. “Come on . . . let’s do what we gotta ‘n be done with it.”

*********

“Yessir, it’s gonna be a close race . . . a REAL close race,” Roy remarked, barely aware that he had just spoken aloud. Rick Bonner and Carl Yates, riding Juggernaut and “That Danged Hayburner From Kentucky” respectively, were tearing down the road toward the finish line so close together, the sheriff found himself wondering whether or not this race might be the first in Virginia City’s history to end in a tie.

“Roy! Any sign of Stacy?!” Ben demanded, yet again.

“No,” Roy snapped, his eyes glued to Juggernaut and Abe Miller’s hayburner.

“Dang it all . . . Stacy ‘n Sun Dancer oughtta be coming over that hill about now,” Joe murmured softly, the worried frown on his brow deepening. “Where ARE they?”

*********

“Pa?” Susannah O’Brien anxiously, impatiently pressed. She was the youngest of Hugh O’Brien’s three children and a very close friend of Stacy. “Do you see Darryl and War Chief?”

“No, dang it!” Hugh growled.

“Something’s WRONG!” Crystal McShane, Hugh’s oldest, declared firmly.

“What makes ya say THAT?” Hugh demanded, trying very hard to ignore the uneasy fluttering in the pit of his own stomach.

“Come ON, Pa. War Chief can run circles around the Bonners’ Juggernaut and Clem’s Carla Jo, too, for that matter,” Crystal pointed out.

“How about, Stacy, Crys?” Jason, Hugh’s only son and middle child asked, his voice filled with concern. “Do you see Stacy?”

“No, Jason,” Crystal replied, “and I don’t see hide nor hair of Matt Wilson, either.”

*********

Kentucky Gold and Juggernaut galloped across the finish line, running neck and neck, eliciting a hearty, raucous cheer from the gathered crowd that nearly drowned out the thunder of the horses’ hooves. Clem and Carla-Jo finished two and a half lengths behind Abe Miller’s and the Bonner Brothers’ entries, coming in at a very respectable third. Andy Barnett and Felix crossed the finish line nearly three lengths behind Clem.

“Mister Wilson, may I have my binoculars back NOW?” Clementine Hawkins demanded with a touch of asperity. The race was over, and with Blake Wilson monopolizing her binoculars, she felt as if she had missed the entire thing.

“Daggummit, where the hell is Matt?” Blake muttered with Clementine’s binoculars still trained on the rise.

“Mister Wilson—?!!”

“Aww fer—!!! Mrs. Hawkins, would ya please keep your bri—uhhh! Just a minute!” Blake returned a mite testy, all the while trying his best to ignore Abe Miller and that trollop of a second wife, who stood a few yards away, jumping up and down like a couple of exuberant school children, yelling.

“Do you see them, Papa Wilson?” Clarissa asked, wringing her hands.

“No, Child . . . not yet,” Blake sighed dolefully.

Clementine Hawkins, her jaw set with determination, reached out to snatch her binoculars right out of Blake Wilson’s hands.

“Gimme those!” Irma Wilson growled, grabbing the binoculars from her husband a split second before Clementine. She raised them and began to scan the rise herself. “He’s GOT to be there . . . he’s GOT to be . . . . ” she muttered, angry and fretful.

*********

“Let’s go,” Ben snapped, glaring at Joe first, then over at Hoss.

“To look for The Kid?” Joe asked.

“Yes,” Ben said grimly, “to look for The Kid.”

“Pa? You want me to come along, too?” Adam asked.

“Yeah,” Ben replied.

Adam turned for a quick word of explanation to his wife, then fell in step behind his father and younger brothers.

*********

“Irma . . . Clarissa . . . I’m goin’ out t’ look for Matt,” Blake said.

“Do you want me to come with you Papa Wilson?” Clarissa asked.

“I’m sure he’s all right, Child,” Blake tried to reassure his anxious daughter-in-law, speaking with a calm he was very far from feeling. “Skittish as The General was . . . like as not he threw Matt ‘n is headin’ back home to his stall. Matt’s probably walkin’ along that road right now, headin’ on back into town.”

Clarissa nodded, all the praying in silent desperation that her father-in-law’s words would prove true.

*********

As the Cartwright men reached the bottom of the rise, they spotted Stacy and Sun Dancer tearing down the road about a tenth of a mile or so up ahead. Ben spurred Buck to a fast gallop and within less than a minute intercepted his daughter and the golden stallion. Though his daughter and her horse appeared to be physically sound, Ben noted with increasing worry that her face was a sickly ashen gray and that Sun Dancer’s sides were lathered.

Stacy told her father and brothers what had happened to Matt Wilson and General Ulysses. “Daryl Hughes is with Matt, Pa,” she concluded. “I’m on my way back to fetch Doctor Martin.”

“Here, Kiddo . . . I think you’d better take Cooch,” Joe suggested as he climbed down. “HE’S fresh as a daisy.”

“All right, Grandpa,” Stacy agreed, knowing that Joe would follow behind Pa, Hoss, and Adam at a slower pace to allow Sun Dancer time to cool down.

“Stacy?” Adam asked. “How’s Matt?”

“He’s alive . . . leastwise he was when I left him and Daryl to fetch the doctor, but . . . he . . . he’s in a real bad way, Adam,” Stacy replied as she climbed on Cochise’s back, and Joe quickly swing mounted into Sun Dancer’s saddle.

“You g’won,” Ben urged, “get the doctor. Your brothers and I are going to give Darryl a hand with Matt . . . . ”

*********

Paul Martin quietly entered the formal parlor, located on the first floor of the townhouse he shared with his wife, Lily.

“Well it’s about damned time!” Irma growled, as she halted her frenetic pacing mid-stride.

Clarissa started violently, and with an outcry, shot right off the hard backed Queen Anne chair, set next to the fireplace, her face white as a sheet, her entire body trembling. Blake Wilson also rose, as did Adam and Ben.

“Doctor Martin, is Matt going to be all right?!” Clarissa demanded, giving voice to the question uppermost on all their minds.

“Mrs. Wilson, that husband of yours is one very lucky young man,” Paul said, endeavoring to speak calmly in the face of the anger that had been steadily rising within him, beginning the minute Stacy Cartwright told him what had happened to the patient lying in his examining room. “He IS badly injured, but I’m reasonably confident that with proper rest and good care, he’ll recover.”

“Thank heaven,” Clarissa sobbed, then buried her face in her hands.

“Hey there, Young L-Lady . . . now what’re all these tears about?” Blake gently admonished his daughter-in-law, his voice tremulous. “Didn’t you hear the doc? Matt’s gonna be fine . . . just fine.”

“S-Sorry,” Clarissa apologized. She took a deep, ragged breath, then blotted her eyes and cheeks against the sleeve of her blouse. “Doctor, may I . . . may I s-see him? Please?”

“Certainly,” Paul replied. “He’s sleeping now, but it’ll be perfectly all right for you to sit with him. You’ll find him in the examination room at the end of the hall.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Thank you very much,” Clarissa babbled, as she let herself out of the Martins’ parlor.

“All right, Doctor Martin . . . what are you NOT telling Clarissa?” Irma Wilson demanded.

Blake groaned softly. “Aw, f’r Lord’s sake, Irma— ”

“Blake, please,” Paul Martin effectively nipped the rancher’s would be tirade in the bud with a gentle, yet firm hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t we all sit down?” He pulled one of the hard backed chairs out from under the small card table in the corner and carried it over to the furniture grouped around the fireplace.

One by one the Wilsons and the elder Cartwrights resumed their seats.

“As I told Clarissa, Matt WAS badly injured,” Paul began. “Both legs are broken. Fortunately they’re simple fractures, so there shouldn’t be any problems with him healing as long as he keeps off of them for the next couple of months or so. I’ve set the bones and splinted Matt’s legs to keep him from moving them. As soon as the swelling goes down, I’ll replace the splints with casts.

“So far, I’ve seen no sign of internal bleeding . . . a miracle from what Daryl and Stacy had to say,” Paul continued, “but . . . we’ll need to keep Matt here for a few days and watch him closely to be absolutely certain. Taking into account the bruising on his torso . . . he’s definitely fractured some ribs. If one of those ribs is actually broken, there a very real possibility of it puncturing a lung.”

“How soon willya know something, Doc?” Blake asked.

“I’ll know more tomorrow,” Paul replied. “In the meantime, I’ve given him a sedative to ease his pain and allow him to sleep deeply. That lessens the chances of him breaking one of those fractured ribs by tossing and turning.”

“How long will he sleep, Paul?” Irma asked.

“He’ll sleep the rest of the day, all night, and probably well into tomorrow morning at least,” Paul replied.

“Would it be all right if we . . . if Blake and I,” Irma cast a sidelong glance over at her husband, “stay the night with Matt?”

“Now, Irma, Matt’s a married man now, remember?” Blake chided his wife gently.

“But— ”

“No buts! That place at his bedside belongs to his wife,” Blake said in a gentle, yet very firm tone of voice. “I know you’ve not been real happy about the woman Matt’s taken for wife, but you can’t deny that she loves him and she’s been real good TO him ‘n FOR him.”

“I know she has, Blake,” Irma admitted grudgingly, “but at the same time you can’t deny that I’M his mother— ”

“ . . . ‘n the Good Book says when a man gets hitched, he’s s’posed t’ leave his ma ‘n pa, ‘n cleave to his WIFE [5] ,” Blake immediately countered.

Irma exhaled a loud, exasperated sigh, then lapsed into a sullen silence.

“Doc,” Blake continued, turning his attention now to the sawbones, “Irma ‘n me’ll be over at the International Hotel. Now you promise me you’ll send us word if . . . . ?”

“If there’s any change, whether for good or ill, I’ll send word,” Paul promised.

“No matter what time?” Irma pressed, wringing her hands anxiously.

“No matter what time,” Paul Martin assured the distraught woman.

Blake rose stiffly to his feet and stretched. “Thanks, Doc. I know Matt’s in good hands with you, Lily, AND Clarissa lookin’ out for him.” He turned and gallantly held his hand out to his wife, still seated. “Come on, Irma. Let’s you ‘n me g’won back to the hotel.”

“All right,” Irma reluctantly acquiesced, as she took hold of her husband’s hand, and allowed him to help her to her feet.

After the Wilsons left, Paul Martin sank down wearily onto the settee, placed directly opposite the fireplace. “Six other people entered in that damned race,” he groused, shaking his head in genuine bewilderment, “yet only TWO had the common decency to stop and help Matt.”

“Doc, I’D say, chances are, the other four were concentrating so hard on winning that race, none of ‘em even SAW Matt or General Ulysses,” Adam said quietly.

“Thank the Lord Stacy and Darryl DID see them . . . and stop,” Ben said.

“Amen to that,” Paul growled. “Had they not gotten Matt out from under his injured horse . . . . ” His voice trailed away to an ominous silence. “Suffice it to say that Stacy and Darryl saved Matt’s life. There’s no question at all in my mind about that.”

“Come on, Adam . . . we’d best skedaddle so the doc can concentrate on looking after his patient,” Ben said.

*********

“Dammit . . . nothing like word of mouth when it comes to spreading bad news,” Paul Martin groaned when he saw the elder Cartwrights to the door, and found what looked to be half the town’s populace gathered outside the house. There had to be at least thirty people standing in the small front yard, and more, hundreds more, by the look of ‘em pressing against the Martins’ white picket fence. Upon catching sight of the doctor, all conversation, all their speculations, ranging from the mildly plausible to the outright ridiculous, came to an abrupt halt.

Paul swallowed nervously, and tried his best not to flinch as the eyes of all gathered turned to him expectantly. “Folks . . . your umm, concern’s noted and appreciated,” he began with a touch of wryness, raising his voice so that everyone might hear. “Matt Wilson’s going to be fine. In the meantime, I’d appreciate it very much if all of you went about your business so he might get what he needs most right now, which is a bit of peace and quiet so he can rest.”

While Paul dodged questions, acknowledged offers to help, and thanked all the well wishers, Ben and Adam began searching among the gathered crowd for the members of their own family.

“PA! ADAM! OVER HERE!”

Ben and his eldest immediately turned upon hearing Joe call out to them. They saw him, with Stacy in tow, struggling to make their way forward against a rip tide of people surging away from the Martin home.

“How’s Matt?” Joe asked, the instant he and Stacy reached their father and oldest brother.

“Let’s find ourselves a place to talk that puts a respectable distance from us and this maddening crowd,” Ben suggested. “Where’s Hoss? I thought he was with you— ”

“He said to tell ya he was going to go check on something,” Joe replied . . . .

*********

“Howdy, Avery,” Hoss greeted Tony’s new assistant, Avery Mills, with a warm, friendly smile, as he entered the livery stable. “How’s your ma farin’ these days?”

“Howdy, Hoss,” the young man responded, then grinned. “Ma’s doin’ lots better now, thanks for askin’. She’s home restin’ up now so she can go with me to see the fireworks tonight.”

“Your sister ain’t goin’?” Hoss asked, his smile fading.

“Yeah . . . IF that dang knucklehead Jim Knowles ever gets around to askin’ her,” Avery replied with a sigh and a wry roll of the eyes heavenward. “He’s a good man, Hoss, a real good man, but a little dense upstairs, if ya know what I mean?”

Hoss chuckled softly. “Avery,” he said, placing a gentle hand on the twelve year old boy’s shoulder, “I’ll bet you anything that Jim Knowles right now’s tryin’ t’ work up his nerve t’ ask your sister to go t’ see the fireworks with him.”

Avery stared up into the big man’s face with a look that very clearly questioned Hoss’ sanity. “You ain’t tellin’ me he’s SCARED . . . a-are ya?!”

“That’s EXACTLY what I’m tellin’ ya,” Hoss replied. “One o’ these days, SOONER, like as not, rather ‘n later, YOU’RE gonna find yourself standin’ in ol’ Jim’s shoes, ‘n then you’ll understand a li’l better what he’s probably feelin’ right now.”

“Uuuhhhh NO!” The boy vigorously wagged his head back and forth in denial of the claim Hoss had just made. “Unh UHH! Not ME! I’m NEVER gonna fall in love ‘cause I don’t wanna be turned into a bitherin’ idiot like Jim or worse . . . like m’ sister.” The grimace on his face was so comically grotesque, Hoss found it very difficult not to laugh out loud.

“Avery . . . you had a chance t’ clean out General Ulysses’ stall yet?” Hoss asked, changing the subject.

“No,” Avery replied. “I’m kinda late startin’ my work ‘cause Mister Grainger let me have the mornin’ off to enjoy myself a little.”

“Would it be all right if I had a look in General Ulysses’ stall?” Hoss asked.

Avery pondered the question for a moment, then shrugged. “I . . . guess it’d ok,” he replied, “ . . . uhhh, Mister Hoss?”

“Yeah?”

“Is it TRUE General Ulysses hurt himself and . . . and had t’ be . . . you know . . . . ” The young stable hand’s voice trailed away to an uneasy silence.

“Yeah. I’m afraid it is,” Hoss replied.

“That’s terrible,” Avery whispered, his face a few shades paler than was his norm. “I . . . I sure hope Mister Matt’s gonna be ok . . . . ”

“Matt’s gonna be just fine,” Hoss assured the lad.

“I’m glad to hear THAT anyway, but I’m real sorry ‘bout General Ulysses. He was a fine horse,” Avery said. “Beautiful lookin’ animal, and real even tempered.”

“He sure was,” Hoss agreed. “Avery, all right if I ask ya one more question?”

“Sure, Mister Hoss. What do ya wanna know?”

“I was just curious as t’ whether or not anyone besides the Wilsons, Tony, or you might’ve been in or around General Ulysses’ stall,” Hoss said.

“I ain’t SEEN no one . . . . ” Avery frowned. “But . . . I remember Mister Grainger grumblin’ somethin’ ‘bout catchin’ Jack O’Connor’s niece hangin’ around General Ulysses’ stall this mornin’. I don’t think he ever found out what kinda mischief she might’ve been up to, but he DID shoo her outta here before she had a chance to do anything.”

“If that li’l gal DID have mischief on her mind, her target was like as not one o’ OUR horses,” Hoss silently ruminated. “Ain’t no reason for her wantin’ t’ harm General Ulysses or Matt, though . . . not so far as I can see.”

“Thanks, Avery,” Hoss said aloud. “I’d better let ya get on back t’ work.

“Ok, Mister Hoss. If ya need anything, just gimme a holler, ok?

“Sure will, Avery. Thanks again.”

After Avery had moved off, Hoss let himself into General Ulysses’ stall and went right to the feeding trough. “Now THAT’S mighty odd,” he murmured softly, when he peered inside and found nearly two thirds of the feed grain the horse was given that morning still there. Given the way Blake talked, that horse’s appetite was the stuff of legend.

“Well, well, well. Seems great minds think alike.”

Hoss turned and found Blake Wilson standing at his elbow, with arms folded across his chest and a dark scowl on his face.

“In a way, I think I’m kinda glad t’ see someone ELSE had the same idea,” Blake continued. “I was half way startin’ to believe I was seein’ devils behind every tree, ‘n under every rock. You find anything?”

“I was just about t’ take a look,” Hoss replied. “I . . . thought you’d gone back t’ the hotel with Miz Wilson.”

“She’s up in our room with Winifred Mahon ‘n Florence Hansen,” Blake replied. “I wasn’t much in the mood for sittin’ around ‘n listenin’ to their chatter, so I thought I’d come here ‘n look around myself.”

Hoss began to carefully sift through the remaining feed in General Ulysses’ trough, while Blake Wilson peered over his shoulder.

 *********

Chapter 9

“Stacy?”

She slowly lifted her gaze from the nearly untouched glass of lemonade sitting on the table before her at the C Street Café. She, her brothers, Adam and Joe, and their father had retreated to a table there, set in a back corner well away from the door. “Yes, Pa?” Stacy responded as she turned toward him expectantly.

“I haven’t had a chance to ask ya how YOU’RE doing,” Ben said quietly. “I know you and Darryl did what you had to this afternoon, even though it wasn’t easy for either one of ya.”

“I’ll be ok, Pa,” she said with a melancholy sigh.

“Stacy, you and Darryl had no choice BUT to put General Ulysses out of his misery,” Adam said very quietly, after finishing the last of a generous piece of cherry pie. “The break was a bad one, as you know.” He felt a twinge of nausea once again upon remembering the sight of General Ulysses’ injured limb. Adam quickly swallowed, then added, “He had absolutely no chance of recovery.”

Stacy was keenly aware of this of course, but hearing Adam say so made her feel a little better. “Thanks, Adam,” she said very softly.

“ . . . and I want you to know that I’m very proud of you, Young Woman, for putting the care of a badly injured man ahead of winning that race . . . AND for mustering the wherewithal to get Matt out from under and put The General out of his misery,” Ben said as he placed a comforting arm around his daughter’s shoulders.

“I think that was the hardest thing of all,” Stacy said quietly. “It was the only way to get Matt out from under, but trying to coax General Ulysses to get up once more, when I knew he couldn’t— ” She abruptly broke off, unable to continue.

“Doctor Martin told us that you and Darryl Hughes saved Matt’s life,” Adam said, as he reached across the table and covered her hand with his own.

“R-Really?” Stacy queried, her voice barely audible.

Adam nodded. “Had you NOT stopped when you did, General Ulysses would’ve kept right on trying to rise until he was exhausted. With the full weight of his horse crashing down on him repeatedly, Matt would’ve been crushed to death long before anyone would have thought to look for him.”

“Adam . . . is Matt gonna be ok?” Stacy asked.

“Yes,” Adam replied. “Things ARE going to be touch and go for awhile, and he’s got a long haul ahead of him, but the doctor’s confident that with proper rest and care, Matt WILL make a full and complete recovery.”

“I’m sure glad to hear THAT,” Stacy said with heartfelt sincerity. She took a sip from her glass of lemonade, then asked, “So who finally won the race?”

“Jury’s still out to lunch on that, Stacy,” Adam replied. “Carl Yates and Rick Bonner . . . well, from where I stood watching, they appeared to have crossed the finish line at the same time. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the judges decide to declare it a tie race.”

“I think perhaps I ought to pay the judges a visit . . . leastwise the SHERIFF,” Joe said, turning grim.

“Why, Grandpa?” Stacy asked.

“This.” Joe showed them the riding crop Rick Bonner had thrown across the meadow. “I found it while I was bringing back an armload of tree branches for the travois we made to get Matt back into town.”

Stacy’s jaw dropped. “Y-You mean . . . what happened to Matt Wilson and General Ulysses WASN’T an accident?!” she exclaimed, horrified by the very thought.

“You hit the nail right on the head, Kiddo,” Joe replied.

“N-Now waaaa-ait just a minute,” Ben said, holding up his hands as a policeman might to stop traffic. “Joe, in the first place, you’ve got no idea how long that thing might’ve been lying out in the meadow— ”

“It can’t have been very long, Pa,” Joe said. “Sure the ivory handle’s old, but the leather here feels soft and it’s still tightly wrapped around the stick. If this thing had been lying out in the sun and the rain for any length of time, it’d be dried and cracked.”

“Fine. All THAT proves is the riding crop was lost . . . thrown . . . dropped . . . whatever recently,” Ben argued. “We STILL have no way of knowing OR proving that one of the riders cheated by taking it into the race with him.”

“May I see that riding crop, Joe?” Adam asked.

“Here. Help yourself,” Joe replied, holding the stick out to his oldest brother.

“Adam?” Ben queried, as he watched his eldest son study the riding crop very closely. “What is it, Son? Something the matter?”

“No.” Adam shook his head. “It’s just that . . . well, this riding crop looks familiar to me for some strange reason . . . . ”

“You got any idea who belongs to?” Joe asked.

“It’s quite old, judging from the way the ivory handle’s yellowed, but I . . . . ” Adam’s voice trailed away to silence, as a memory from his early adolescence suddenly rose to the forefront of mind and thought. He was eleven years old, pushing very hard against twelve at the time . . . .

To say that Pa didn’t approve of the friendship that had grown between him and the Bonner boys over the past year would have been to grossly understate the case. Pa didn’t mince words when it came to voicing his opinions about the Bonners, and his eldest son’s continued relationship with them, but oddly, he never came right out and forbade him to associate with Jeff and Rick.

Not that it would have done any good . . . .

One afternoon, after he and the Bonner boys had spent a beautiful spring day fishing at Dressler’s Pond . . . a day that also happened to have been a school day, Adam, Jeff, and Rick rode into the front yard of the Bonner ranch, making sure they timed their arrival to be the exact same time it would have been, had they not skipped school that day. The three of them dismounted from their steeds, chuckling to themselves, so cock sure they had pulled one over on their parents and the teacher . . . .

“THERE you are!”

It was Mister Bonner. By then, the three boys were in the barn seeing to their horses. Something in the way Jeff and Rick’s pa spoke sent a chill running down the entire length of Adam’s spine and left the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

Three heads turned slowly, reluctantly, toward the door, where Mister Bonner stood, with one large hand balled into a tight fist resting squarely on his hip, and the other clutching . . . .

“ . . . this riding crop!” Adam suddenly realized.

“What did you say, Son?” Ben queried with an anxious frown.

Adam shook his head to clear away the last vestiges of a less than pleasant memory from a time many years past. “Pa, do you remember the time Jeff, Rick, and I skipped school to go fishing?”

Joe’s jaw dropped. “Y-You mean to tell me that you . . . Adam Stoddard Cartwright . . . who made my childhood miserable by reminding me of the value of an education and how lucky I was to have one at every turn . . . actually played hooky from school?!” he demanded with mock, almost melodramatic outrage.

“First and only,” Adam replied. The mischief sparkling in his youngest brother’s emerald green eyes gave lie to the thunderous scowl on his face. “My, ummm, seat of learning’s never quite been the same since.” He said this last with a sidelong glance over at his father.

“I only that to have THAT necessary discussion with your brother ONCE,” Ben added.

“So what’s the only time you ever played hooky from school got to do with that riding crop?” Joe asked.

“Mister Bonner found out we had skipped school because Rick had gone off and forgotten his lunch,” Adam explained. “He took the lunch to school, and, of course, found out both of his sons were absent that day. When the three of us arrived at the Bonner ranch that afternoon, he was waiting for them . . . with THIS riding crop in hand.”

“You sure, Son?” Ben pressed.

“I’m sure, Pa,” Adam replied in a somber tone of voice. “The four of US . . . Hoss, Joe, Stacy, and I might joke about how we couldn’t sit down for a whole month of Sundays after you dragged us into the barn for one of your necessary talks, but we all know that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Pa . . . well, let’s just say he made sure we got the message. Mister Bonner, on the other hand . . . . ” His voice trailed away to an uneasy silence.

“To say that Jeff and Rick couldn’t sit down for a whole month of Sundays is also something of an exaggeration,” Ben said grimly, “one that makes LIGHT of the matter.”

“I was forced to stand there and watch Mister Bonner have that ‘necessary talk’ with his sons that afternoon,” Adam continued. “I remember every detail of that day . . . including this.” He held out the riding crop for emphasis.

“Pa, we’ve GOT to show that riding crop to the judges,” Joe pressed, “especially since Rick Bonner could very well end up being declared the WINNER of the race.”

“I agree with Joe,” Adam said. “Though it’s possible this riding crop WAS lost or perhaps unknowingly dropped out in the meadow were we found Matt and General Ulysses, Rick Bonner needs to answer for it.”

“You’re right,” Ben had to agree . . . .

*********

“So help me!” Blake muttered softly from his place on a bale of hay set just outside the stall allotted to General Ulysses. “If I EVER find out who poisoned The General— ”

“Mister Wilson, I wish you’d stop talkin’ like that,” Hoss said wearily. “We don’t know that he WAS poisoned.”

“You got your suspicions, Boy, and don’t you DARE deny it,” Blake shot right back. “You wouldn’t be here if’n ya DIDN’T.”

Hoss sighed. “Well, I hope t’ high heaven we’re WRONG,” he said as he returned his attention once more to the feed still lying in the trough.

“T’ be up front ‘n completely honest? I hope we’re wrong, too,” Blake admitted, “ ‘cause I’d hate like anything t’ think a man I’ve always known as friend ‘n neighbor would set out to hurt Matt ‘n The General on purpose.”

“You ‘n me both,” Hoss wholeheartedly agreed. A moment later his face fell.

Blake Wilson was off that hay bale like a shot. “Wha’cha got there, Boy?” he demanded, edging forward for a closer look. “I KNOW y’ found somethin’ . . . I can see it in your face.”

“Yeah. I found somethin’ all right,” Hoss responded with a heavy heart. He reached in and fished the crushed, chewed, and broken pieces of a weed out of the trough where it had lain buried under a covering of feed grain. The leaves had purplish undersides.

Blake Wilson’s anxiety underwent a dark transformation to raw fury upon seeing the pieces of weed lying in Hoss’ hand. “Why those . . . those . . . no good—!! I’ll KILL ‘em for what they done t’ General Ulysses ‘n Matt, so HELP me— ”

“Mister Wilson, you stop talkin’ like that,” Hoss said tersely. The murderous gleam he saw reflected in Blake’s eyes chilled him to the bone. “Just . . . simmer down!”

“Simmer down?! You gotta lot o’ gall, Boy, tellin’ ME t’ simmer down when those no good Bonners killed my horse ‘n damn near killed Matt in the bargain,” Blake turned on Hoss.

“We don’t know they’re responsible,” Hoss argued.

“Don’t we?! There’s only ONE place in the whole county where that stuff grows,” Blake growled . . . .

*********

“ . . . ‘n THAT’S in what USED t’ be the Bonners’ summer pasture,” Blake declared, punctuating his words with an emphatic nod of his head. He stood before Sheriff Coffee’s desk, with arms folded defiantly across his chest, glaring down at the lawman, daring him to challenge.

“Well, I STILL say Jack O’Connor’s brat uva niece is the one that done it!” Tony Grainger, owner of the livery stable where the unfortunate General Ulysses had been stabled over the past couple of days, argued. “I caught her, Roy! She was lurkin’ ‘round General Ulysses’ stall pretty as ya please!”

“Aww fer—!!!” Hoss groaned, rolling his eyes heavenward beseeching any and all who just might be listening for patience. “Dadburn it, Tony! In the first place, Avery told Mister Wilson ‘n me YOU threw that li’l gal outta the livery stable before she had a chance t’ do any mischief, ‘n second . . . ain’t no way possible that she could’ve put THAT loco weed in T’ General’s feedin’ trough . . . ‘n YOU dang well know it.”

Tony jammed his balled fists into the side pockets of his pants and lapsed into an angry, sullen silence.

“The BONNERS’RE the ones that poisoned my horse, ‘n they damned near killed my son, too” Blake said, his voice, his entire body quaking with anger. “Now WHEN are ya gonna arrest ‘em ‘n throw their sorry asses in JAIL?!?”

“Blake, we don’t know Jeff ‘n Rick were the ones responsible,” Roy said grimly, while inwardly bristling against the man’s challenging tone. “Sure . . . we got our suspicions— ”

“WHADDYA MEAN WE DON’T KNOW THE BONNERS WAS RESPONSIBLE?!” Blake demanded, his voice rising. “THE PROOF O’ THE PUDDIN’S RIGHT THERE IN YOUR HAND!”

Roy pushed his chair back and rose very slowly to his feet. “All THIS proves is SOMEONE dug it up outta that abandoned pasture on the Bonner’s ranch ‘n put it in General Ulysses’ feedin’ trough,” he explained, laboring mightily to keep his voice calm and even in the face of his swift rising ire and frustration.

“OF ALL THE STUPID—!!! DAMMIT, ROY, WHO ELSE COULD’VE DUG UP THAT WEED?” Blake demanded.

“ANYBODY!” Roy shot right back, his resolve to keep his temper shattered. “IN CASE YOU’RE FORGETTIN’, BLAKE, THAT PASTURE LAND SITS LESS ‘N A QUARTER MILE FROM THE DIRT ROAD THAT MEANDERS THROUGH THE BONNERS’ LAND ‘N HOOKS UP T’ THE MAIN ROAD LEADIN’ INTO TOWN!”

“SO WHAT?”

“SO THAT MEANS ANYBODY COULD’VE GONE IN . . . DUG UP THIS LOCO WEED . . . ‘N RODE BACK T’ TOWN WITHOUT THE BONNERS EVEN KNOWIN’,” Roy argued as he shook the wilting plants he clasped in Blake Wilson’s face. An exasperated sigh exploded from between his lips, and in the stunned silence that followed, Roy bowed his head for a moment, closed his eyes, and counted to ten.

Slowly.

Three times.

“Blake, I’m sorry, I had no call t’ rip into ya like that,” the lawman apologized at length. “I promise ya, I WILL find out who put this loco weed in General Ulysses feedin’ trough, but I’m goin’ to do that within the bounds o’ the law. Now I’ve got enough here t’ have the Bonners brought in for questionin’, ‘n I’ve sent Clem out to find ‘em ‘n bring ‘em in.”

“What about that mouthy li’l brat?” Tony demanded.

“I’ve asked Clem to bring HER in, too,” Roy said curtly, “though for the record, Tony, I don’t believe f’r one minute SHE had anything t’ do with puttin’ that loco weed in General Ulysses’ trough.”

Tony drew himself up to the very fullness of his height and folded his arms defiantly across his chest. “That mouthy li’l brat’s nothin’ but trouble, Sheriff, what with her pickin’ fights with all the other kids ‘round town, stealin’ candy from the general store . . . . ” he grumbled, while directing a venomous glare in Roy Coffee’s direction.

“I KNOW she’s a trouble maker,” Roy grudgingly had to admit, “but I, f’r one think ridin’ all the way out t’ that abandoned south pasture on the Bonners’ ranch where that loco weed grows is BEYOND what that gal can do.”

“I STILL wouldn’t put it past that . . . that li’l monster,” Tony growled.

“Sheriff Coffee . . . . ”

The lawman turned and glanced over at the door as Joe entered, with Adam following close behind. His heart sank upon seeing their grim faces, with jaws rigidly set and Joe’s mouth thinned to a near straight line. He needed more trouble right at this very moment just as much as he needed someone to put a bullet in his head. “Adam . . . Joe . . . what can I do for ya?” Roy asked, then mentally braced himself.

“I found this riding crop out in the same meadow where Matt and General Ulysses were,” Joe replied as he and his oldest brother walked over to Roy’s desk. “Adam here says it belongs to the Bonners.”

“Lemme see that ridin’ crop,” Roy ordered, holding out his hand.

Joe wordlessly handed the item requested over to the sheriff.

“Now YOU say y’ found this lyin’ in the meadow where Matt ‘n The General were?”

“That’s right.” Joe nodded. “I was coming back with an arm load of branches for the travois, Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Darryl Hughes were putting together so we could get Matt back to town, when I almost tripped over the dang thing,” he said grimly.

“Adam . . . . ” Roy turned and looked over at the eldest of the Cartwright offspring, “you positive this ridin’ crop belongs t’ the Bonners?”

“Absolutely,” Adam replied.

“What more proof do ya NEED, Roy?” Blake demanded.

“More ‘n we got,” Roy said tersely. “Only thing I know f’r certain is one o’ the Bonners, or maybe that cousin o’ theirs, dropped or lost that crop in the meadow were Matt ‘n General Ulysses were. This don’t tell me WHEN they dropped it— ”

“But we DO know it was dropped recently,” Adam very quietly added, drawing a dark glare from the sheriff.

“Recently DON’T mean it was dropped TODAY, ‘n don’t you forget that, Blake,” Roy said sternly. “Now I agree the Bonners hafta ANSWER f’r that loco weed, ‘n this ridin’ crop, too . . . ‘n like I said before . . . I’ve sent Clem t’ fetch both of ‘em in here . . . . ”

*********

“YO! COSMO! THE NEXT ROUND OF DRINKS ARE ON RICK BONNER!” the youngest of the two brothers yelled. He stood before the bar in the crowded Bucket of Blood Saloon, surrounded by a dozen friends and well wishers.

“What the hell do you THINK you’re doing, you . . . you blithering idiot?!”

Rick turned and, much to his chagrin, found his older brother, Jeff, standing beside him. “I’m celebratin’,” he responded, the half inebriated smile on his face drooping ever so slightly.

“Celebrating?!” Jeff echoed, angry and bewildered. “Celebrating WHAT?”

“I won the race didn’t I?”

“Not YET! Last I heard it’s STILL a toss-up between you ‘n Carl Yates,” Jeff pointed out.

“Damn it, Jeff, would ya relax?! Look! It was a close race,” Rick argued. “Worst thing that’s gonna happen is the judges’ll declare it a TIE race.”

“Jeff . . . Rick . . . . ” It was Clem, with their cousin in tow. “Sheriff Coffee wants to see you AND your cousin.”

A smug, triumphant, and ever so slightly lopsided grin spread across Rick Bonner’s lips. “See, Jeff? I told ya!” he quipped. “The judges are about t’ declare Juggernaut ‘n me the winners.”

*********

Chapter 10

“Sheriff Coffee, Deputy Foster told me that you wanted to ask Midge a few questions,” Gretchen Braun said as she entered the sheriff’s office, with Midge firmly in hand. “May I ask what this is about?”

“It’s ‘cause THAT li’l monster POISONED Mister Wilson’s horse,” Tony declared, thrusting an accusing finger right at Midge.

“I DID NOT!” Midge vehemently denied the charge.

“You lyin’ li’l—!” Tony growled taking a step forward.

Gretchen immediately placed herself between Midge and Tony. “Mister Grainger, if you so much as touch a hair on this child’s head, I’ll have you jailed for assault and battery,” she said sternly.

“I DIDN’T DO NUTHIN’ TO THAT GENERAL HORSE! I SWEAR!” Midge cried. She turned toward Roy. “Please, Sheriff Coffee . . . y’ gotta BELIEVE me,” she begged, her voice tremulous.

“You don’t stop lyin’, so help me . . . I’m gonna turn you right over my knee and whale the livin’ daylights outta ya,” Tony vowed.

“You DO, Mister Grainger, and so help ME . . . I’m gonna belt you one so hard, you’ll be picking teeth right off the pages of the Sears catalog,” Gretchen returned.

“TRY it, you ol— ”

“Tony, that’s ENOUGH!” Hoss said curtly as he stepped between the livery stable owner and Gretchen Braun. “Badgerin’ that li’l gal like y’ are ain’t gonna get us anywhere.”

“Whaddya MEAN that’s enough, Hoss Cartwright?! Da—uhhh, DURN it! I’ve worked HARD buildin’ up that livery stable . . . REAL hard . . . ‘n I’ll be danged if I’m gonna let that trouble makin’ li’l up start ruin it for me,” Tony growled.

“Now you’re talkin’ crazy,” Hoss admonished with an angry scowl on his face. “Ain’t no way that li’l gal can ruin your business.”

“She comes in . . . does her mischief in MY stable . . . and I’M the one who pays for it in lost business or worse, losing everything if someone decides t’ sue,” Tony argued.

“Tony, you AIN’T gonna lose your business, leastwise NOT on account o’ Midge Frakes,” Roy said sternly. “Now, I’d appreciate it a whole lot if ya’d sit down ‘n shut-up, so I can do my job.”

“What job is THAT, Roy? Lettin’ trouble makin’ kids get off scot free after makin’ their mischief?” Tony returned in a sullen, angry tone of voice.

“Dagnabbit, Tony, you open your mouth one more time, I’m gonna throw ya in jail for obstructin’ justice,” Roy warned. “You understand me?”

Tony nodded, then pointedly turned his back on the entire assembly.

Roy exhaled a loud sigh borne of his rising exasperation as he turned his attention to Midge. “All right, Young Lady, lemme get this straight,” he said. “You’re tellin’ me you didn’t poison Mister Wilson’s horse?”

“I just said so, didn’t I?” Midge responded insolently.

“I’d strongly advise ya t’ keep a civil tongue in your head when you’re speakin’ t’ me,” Roy warned, “lest ya find yourself in a whole world o’ trouble, you got that?”

“Yes, Sir,” Midge replied through clenched teeth.

“Now Mister Grainger tells me he caught ya in the stable hangin’ ‘round the stall where Mister Wilson’s horse was,” Roy continued. “That true?”

Midge’s eyes flitted from the sheriff, to Gretchen Braun, over to Adam and Mister Wilson, then back again to Hoss. “Y-Yes,” she murmured, her voice barely audible, as she edged closer to Gretchen.

“Would ya mind tellin’ me why?”

Midge swallowed nervously. “I . . . I . . . ok. I had this burr I found, ‘n I was gonna put it under the saddle o’ the . . . of the horse them bla—, I mean them Cartwrights were gonna enter in the race,” she haltingly confessed. “I wanted t’ get even with ‘em ‘cause Uncle Jack had t’ go away.” This last she added with a touch of defiance.

“See?” Tony crowed. “I TOLD ya that li’l imp o’ Satan was up t’ no good!”

“ . . . ‘n I told YOU to shut-up,” Roy tersely reminded the livery stable owner.

Tony lapsed into sullen silence.

“DID ya put that burr under the saddle belongin’ to the Cartwrights’ horse?” Roy asked.

“No.”

“Why DIDN’T ya?”

“I forgot.”

“MORE likely ya didn’t ‘cause I happened on ya before ya had the chance!” Tony growled.

“Tony, I AIN’T gonna tell ya again,” Roy warned. He closed his eyes and once more counted to ten. “All right, Midge . . . s’pose you tell me what happened? Why ya DIDN’T put the burr under the saddle belongin’ t’ the Cartwrights’ horse?”

“I heard voices ‘n footsteps,” Midge replied. “I thought it might be Mister Grainger, so I hid in the empty stall next to the General’s.”

“WAS it Mister Grainger?” Roy asked.

“No,” Midge replied, “it was two OTHER fellas, ‘n I saw ‘em go in—THERE!” she cried, pointing as the Bonners and their cousin entered the sheriff’s office, with Clem following close behind. “Him ‘n HIM!” She pointed to Rick first, then to their cousin, Lee. “THEY went into the General’s stall ‘n they put somethin’ in with his feed. I SAW ‘em through the cracks in the boards!”

“ . . . uuhhh, Sheriff?” Rick queried. “What’s this all about?”

“YOU wanna know what his is all about?! Well, by thunder I’LL tell ya what his is about,” Blake yelled, giving vent to the anger that had been building within him since hearing of the misfortune that had befallen his son and horse. “You dirty, rotten, no good sons of bitches POISONED my horse . . . ‘n you ALMOST killed my son.” He started toward the three, his eyes burning with murderous rage, with every intention of strangling the Bonners and their cousin with his bare hands.

Adam immediately stepped in front of Blake. “Mister Wilson, no! Please . . . DON’T do it.”

“Get outta my way, Adam,” Blake ordered in a low, menacing tone.

“I know how you feel— ”

“If ya know how I feel, you’ll get outta my WAY!”

“Sheriff Coffee . . . what does he MEAN that we poisoned his horse and almost killed his son?!” Jeff Bonner queried with a puzzled frown.

“Don’t you DARE play innocent with ME, you— ”

“Blake, either you settle yourself down right NOW . . . or I’M gonna hafta ask ya to leave,” Roy rudely cut him off.

“Mister Wilson, I’M sorry about Matt ‘n your horse . . . we ALL are!” Jeff said, his gaze taking in Rick and Lee. “But WE had nothing to do with— ”

“LIAR!” Blake spat contemptuously.

“Jeff . . . and you, too, Rick . . . that riding crop Sheriff Coffee’s holding belonged to your pa,” Adam stated very quietly. “My brother, Joe, found it lying in the same meadow Matt and General Ulysses were.”

Lee turned, and favored Adam with a malevolent glare. “What makes YOU so sure that riding crop belonged to their pa?” he challenged. “You ever seen him with it?”

“Yes, I have,” Adam replied.

“Takin’ its good condition into account, this ridin’ crop was dropped, or maybe THROWN, very recently,” Roy said with a sharp, meaningful glance over at Rick. “You boys need t’ tell ME when ‘n where ya lost it.”

“I . . . Sheriff Coffee, I had no idea . . . n-no idea at all Pa’s riding crop was missing,” Jeff claimed.

“ . . . ‘n I’VE never even SEEN the damned thing before,” Lee insisted.

“Rick?” Roy Coffee prompted, while duly noting that the young man stood, unmoving, with back stiffly erect, head bowed, and hands jammed into the side pockets of his pants.

“I . . . didn’t m-mean it . . . . ” Rick said, his voice barely audible.

Lee Hobbs stared over at his cousin, with a mixture of anger and bewilderment. “Shut-UP,” he hissed.

“You didn’t mean WHAT, Rick?” Roy asked.

“Don’t . . . say . . . ANYTHING,” Lee whispered through clenched teeth.

“I . . . d-didn’t mean to . . . to . . . I d-didn’t mean for . . . for what h-happened,” Rick replied, his voice shaking.

“G’won . . . . ” Roy urged gently.

“I . . . all I wanted w-was . . . was to get M-Matt ‘n . . . ‘n General Ulysses OUT of the race,” Rick confessed. “Honest t’ God, I SWEAR! I . . . I used that crop on . . . on General Ulysses’ flank ‘n sent him ‘n Matt runnin’ into the meadow. I had no idea they’d . . . that they’d— ”

“I’ve got NO idea what he’s talkin’ about,” Lee declared as he folded his arms tight across his chest. “No idea whatsoever!”

“The HELL you don’t,” Jeff said bitterly. “This whole thing was YOUR idea.”

“Jeff . . . what do ya think you’re DOIN’?!” Lee demanded, astonished and outraged.

“The jig is UP, Lee,” Jeff said, feeling oddly, as if a terrible burden had just been lifted from his shoulders.

“No!” Lee said, grabbing the revolver from Jeff’s holster. “Aww, NO! You AIN’T gonna put ME in jail for . . . for something I didn’t DO.”

Roy rose to his feet very slowly. “Son, please . . . don’t do somethin’ you’re gonna end up regrettin’,” he pleaded. His hand automatically dropped down to the handle of his gun.

“Hands UP, Old Man,” Lee snarled contemptuously. “ALL of you . . . hands UP!” He held Jeff’s gun out at shoulder length, his arm straight as a poker. “Don’t any of ya even THINK o’ movin’.” He began to back his way toward the door very slowly.

“I don’t know what you think you’re tryin’ t’ pull, Young Man, but whatever it is, y’ ain’t gonna get away with it,” Roy said very quietly.

“I just told ya . . . I AIN’T goin’ t’ jail,” Lee shot right back. His eyes darted wildly from one face to the next. “You!” he barked, his eyes coming to rest on Joe. “Over here! YOU’RE gonna be my ticket outta town.”

“Joe . . . don’t,” Hoss begged.

“It’ll be ok, Brother, trust me,” Joe said curtly. He, then, straightened, and with hands upraised walked over and took his place in front of Lee.

“Sheriff, you fetch me the keys to your jail cell outta your desk,” Lee ordered.

Roy did as he had been told.

“Now put ‘em right there on top o’ your desk along with your gun,” Lee said. “No tricks.”

Roy noted with increasing concern that the young man’s breathing was rapid, and the hand holding the gun trembled slightly. “I’m doin’ as ya ask, Son,” he said in as calm and steady a voice as he could muster, taking great care to keep his movements slow and even as he set the keys down first, then his weapon.

“Get your hands up! That goes for the rest of ya, too.” Lee jammed the barrel of his revolver hard against Joe’s back for emphasis.

Adam and Hoss exchanged worried glances then slowly raised their hands, as did the Bonners.

“If my son’s left crippled, or . . . or—!” Blake abruptly broke off, unable to complete that horrible thought. “I’ll be after you, Boy . . . and WHEN I find ya, I’ll KILL ya . . . with my bare hands.”

“Shut-up,” Lee snapped, “and get those hands up like I said.”

Blake raised his hands, while directing a murderous glare at Lee first, then over toward the Bonners. One by one, Roy Coffee, Tony Grainger, Gretchen Braun, and Midge Frakes followed suit.

“I . . . I’m gonna let the kid go,” Lee decided. He, then, turned his attention to Midge. “You g’won. Git!”

“What about . . . I . . . I can’t go without Mrs. Braun . . . . ” Midge murmured, horrified by the very notion.

“Midge, you go,” Gretchen said quietly. “You’ll find Heidi at the hotel or minding the booth selling pies and cakes. Stay with her until I come for you.”

“But—?!”

“I’ll be all right, Child. Now you go like the man said.”

“B-But, I—!”

“Now!” Gretchen said tersely.

Midge immediately turned bolted across the room, running as fast as her legs could carry her. Upon reaching the door, she threw it wide open and ran headlong into Ben Cartwright.

“Whoa there, Young Lady . . . . ” Ben placed his hands on Midge’s shoulders to steady her wobbling balance, and prevent her from taking a nasty tumble.

“Leggo!” Midge snarled, struggling mightily to free herself from Ben’s hold on her. “You lemme go right now you . . . you blamed ol’ Cartwright!” She wiggled free, tottered momentarily, then righted herself and fled down the board walk, half blinded by tears borne of fear for Mrs. Braun’s safety, and anger toward the Cartwrights and that mean ol’ Mister Grainger.

Ben, meanwhile, entered the sheriff’s office and suddenly found himself looking into the barrel of Jeff Bonner’s revolver. He noted with alarm that the hand clutching the gun shook slightly, the young man’s round, staring eyes, and the tiny beads of sweat dotting his forehead.

“Stay BACK!” Lee hissed.

Ben unconsciously took a step forward, his mind and senses reeling.

Lee squeezed the trigger. Gretchen Braun screamed when Ben collapsed to the floor with a look of pure astonishment on his face, then all hell broke loose.

Joe gritted his teeth and drove his elbow deep into Lee’s stomach with all his strength, then pivoted, before Lee had a chance to recover, and followed through with a straight jab to the middle of his face. Adam ran to Ben, now lying over the threshold, half in the sheriff’s office and half on the board walk outside, with blood flowing freely from a bullet wound to his right leg. Hoss and Roy surrounded the Bonner brothers, preventing them from using the ensuing fracas to make an escape, while Gretchen looked on in horror, her back pressed hard against the wall. Lee scrambled to his feet, gasping for breath, and bolted for the door.

Adam knotted the tourniquet he had placed around his father’s leg above the bullet wound, then drew his weapon. “Hold it right there, Mister,” he ordered, leveling his revolver at Lee’s heart.

“N-No!” Lee stammered, completely breathless, his entire body quaking. He reached for his gun only to find, much to his horror, that his holster was empty.

“It’s OVER, Mister,” Hoss said very quietly, as he moved in behind Lee and dropped his hand down heavily on the young man’s shoulder.

“Joe, we got things in hand here now,” Roy said curtly. “You g’won . . . find Doc Martin. Your pa needs him.”

*********

“Thank the Good Lord Pa’s going to be all right,” Adam silently mused as he made his way down the hall to Ben’s hotel room, bearing a tray containing a scrumptious supper prepared in the hotel restaurant by Gretchen Braun. Though the bullet wound to Pa’s leg had bled quite profusely at first, closer examination found that his leg had merely been branded. Paul Martin had cleaned the wound, bandaged it, then sternly ordered Pa to rest in no uncertain terms.

Upon reaching the closed door to his father’s room, Adam shifted the supper tray over and balanced it on his left arm, then knocked.

“Yes?” Ben inquired from within. “Who is it?”

“Room service, Pa,” Adam announced, as he entered the room. He was not the least bit surprised to find his two younger brothers and only sister seated around their father’s bed in chairs fetched up from the dining room.

“Wonderful!” Ben said favoring his eldest with a weary smile. “I’m starved.”

Adam walked over and carefully placed the tray down on Ben’s lap. Ben removed the cloth napkin cover and to his delight found two pieces of fried chicken, green beans, a generously buttered ear of golden yellow corn, two biscuits, an enormous slab of apple raisin pie, and coffee.

“Say . . . aren’t the four of ya going to the dance and the fireworks tonight?” Ben asked as he added cream and sugar to his coffee.

“Nope,” Joe replied.

Ben frowned. “If the lot of you think I’m gonna stand for you hanging around and watching me sleep— ” he started to protest.

“The city council and the dance committee decided to postpone the dance and fireworks until tomorrow night,” Joe explained. “With everything that’s happened today . . . . ” His voice trailed off to an uneasy silence.

“So . . . what, exactly, IS gonna happen to the Bonners and their cousin?” Stacy asked.

“Sheriff Coffee told me Jeff, Rick, and their cousin confessed to everything, while I was waiting for Mrs. Braun to prepare Pa’s supper,” Adam replied. “It’s up to a judge now to pass sentence.”

“Taking their past history into account, I don’t imagine any judge is going to be inclined toward leniency ,” Ben remarked with a sigh as he buttered one of the biscuits on his tray. “I assume Blake still intends to press charges?”

Adam nodded. “The good news there, however, is Mister Wilson’s no longer talking about strangling Jeff, Rick, and their cousin with his bare hands.”

“I’m glad to hear THAT,” Ben said, “not that I can blame him entirely. If that had been any of YOU, I’d more ‘n likely want to strangle those three young men with MY bare hands, too.”

“Why did they do it?” Stacy asked.

“Mister Adams at the Mercantile Bank told Sheriff Coffee the Bonners haven’t been doing well financially since their pa died a few years ago,” Adam replied. “They’re presently six months behind on their mortgage payments, and the bank was about to foreclose on their house and land.”

“What?!” Ben exclaimed, his eyes round with astonishment. “I don’t understand that. I’d heard Mister Bonner left those boys a handsome sum of money, most of which was, more ‘n likely, stashed under his mattress.”

“Reckless spending, Pa,” Adam said. “Rick, by all accounts, dropped most of his share of their father’s inheritance playing poker and blackjack, while Jeff . . . he spent his on a woman, who . . . well, up and left him after he had run out of money.” This last he said with an anxious glance over at his sister.

“Adam, I happen to know all about the woman Jeff Bonner spent all his money on,” Stacy said with a disparaging sigh and a wry roll of her eyes heavenward, “including the fact that the man Jeff’s girl left him for was a big moneybags from Placerville, who was already married.”

Ben glared over at his daughter. “ . . . and where, Young Woman, did you find THAT out?”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping, Pa,” Stacy very quickly defended herself. “Miss Mudgely was talking to Mrs. Jared about it right out in front of the general store where ANYBODY could hear.”

Though relieved to hear that his daughter hadn’t had her ear glued to a keyhole somewhere, knowing how Stacy did come by that kind of information didn’t make Ben feel any better.

“I wonder what set their cousin off?” Joe wondered aloud. “He was madder ‘n a wet hornet, but somehow? I can’t quite shake the feeling he was scared to death.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Adam said grimly. “Sheriff Coffee also told me that the Bonners’ cousin served time in prison for robbing a bank and wounding a teller. It seems he suffered a great deal while incarcerated.” The word Roy Coffee had used was “violated.” Adam, however, had qualms about repeating that in front of his young sister. “The sheriff actually has their cousin under a suicide watch.”

Joe gave a low somber whistle.

“I know those three hafta pay the consequences for what they done,” Hoss said quietly, “but I still can’t help feelin’ sorry for ‘em.”

“ ‘S ok, Big Brother. I feel sorry for them, too,” Adam said quietly as he reached out and gave Hoss’ shoulder an affectionate squeeze.

Joe rose to his feet and stretched. “I guess this means Carl Yates won the race,” he remarked.

“Oohhh, yeah! Carl ‘n that Kentucky hayburner won all right,” Hoss said with a broad grin, “ ‘n by all accounts, ol’ Abe Miller’s fit t’ be tied.”

“What?!” Joe exclaimed with mild surprise. “Considering the lengths he’s gone to win this race, I’d have thought he’d be overjoyed.”

“Can’t say I’M surprised,” Hoss said.

“Why do you say that, Big Brother?” Stacy asked.

Hoss grinned. “Half the fun o’ winnin’ the race is standin’ there in the winners circle with all your friends ‘n everyone else lookin’ on,” he was only too happy to explain. “Ol’ Abe . . . well, I’ll put it this way, Li’l Sister. What with everyone bein’ so concerned ‘bout Matt, Abe Miller might’ve had TWO people watchin’ when he was given that trophy . . . maybe three . . . . ”

“Well, there’s always NEXT year,” Adam philosophically observed.

“ . . . that’s right, Adam,” Stacy wholeheartedly agreed, “because next year, Sun Dancer ‘n I are gonna beat Mister Miller and everyone ELSE . . . by a wide mile.”

 

THE END                                                                                                                                         August 2010

Next Story in the Bloodlines Series:

Virginia City Detour
The Guardian
Young Cartwrights in Love
San Francisco Revisited
There But for the Grace of God
Between Life and Death
Orenna
Clarissa Returns
Trial by Fire
Mark of Kane

*********

Notes:

[1] Winifred Mahon is the matriarch of one of the warring families in Bonanza Episode #96, “Blessed Are They,” written by Borden Chase and Frank Cleaver.

[2] Clementine Hawkins appeared in Bonanza Episode #71, “The Burma Rarity,” writer unknown.

[3] Alexander DuBois appears in Bonanza Episode #97, “The Dowry,” written by Robert Vincent Wright.

[4] This happened in Bonanza Episode #121, “The Hayburner,” written by Alex Sharp.

[5] A paraphrase of Genesis 2: 24.

*********

All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are property of the author. The author is not in any way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise, and makes no money from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

 

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Author: pkmoonshine

I've been a fan of the Cartwright family for many, many years, and I enjoy writing stories about them. I love them all, however, Ben is my favorite.

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