Trial by Fire (by pkmoonshine)

Summary:  Lady Chadwick returns, seeking to ruin Ben Cartwright and his Ponderosa.  This story is part of the Bloodlines series, with the addition of a non-canon character.  Follows Between Life and Death

Rating:  T  (123,620 words)

Next Story in the Bloodlines Series:

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

Trial by Fire

 

His body was as a millstone . . . sinking . . . .

. . . down . . .

. . . down . . .

. . . slowly . . .

. . . inexorably . . .

. . . into the unfathomable grayish black murky depths.

The eddying, swirling water closed in all around him, like a shroud wound tight ‘round and ‘round and ‘round the body. Too tight to move. Too tight to breathe. His mouth dropped open as lungs and chest struggled to expand . . . that he might draw in enough breath to push away the grayness pressing so close against him, drawing him down . . . .

. . . deeper . . .

. . . ever deeper.

His tongue, parched and dry, moved slowly upward, along the side of his mouth, frantically seeking moisture to sooth his parched, burning throat.

He coughed.

Strange water.

No wetness to cool and soothe. This water was dry. Drier even, than the dust accumulated in all the corners, of all the hidden nooks and crannies inside the abandoned, lonely buildings, remains of the many ghost towns dotting the desert.

It’s very touch burned.

In the distance, he heard the endless roar of thunder, steadily building, growing louder and louder, until it became a deafening roar. The murky gray cotton water grew darker, and darker, almost black. Its eddies and whirls became tendrils, swirling tentacles flowing into his nose and mouth. He coughed again, and again, and again, as his body struggled desperately to expel the burning, black water from his lungs and draw in fresh air.

Still, the black misty waters came.

Easier . . . so much easier to just give himself over to the rising, swirling black eddies . . .

. . . to simply let go . . .

. . . and let the eddies and currents carry him where they will . . . .

NO!

Ben Cartwright’s eyes snapped wide open. By the dim light of the waning quarter moon shining in through his bedroom window, he saw a murky, fog-gray cloud spinning in lazy whirlpools all around him. It had covered his bedroom ceiling, obscuring it from view as completely as the heavy, lead gray rain clouds veil the blue sky and sunshine when the spring rains fall. His bedroom furnishings, the massive mahogany and marble dresser against the wall facing his bed, the matching wardrobe alongside it, the pictures on the walls, the chair and reading table over in the far corner, had all been reduced to vague, nebulous, shapes . . . as if someone had come in and covered every thing with a gray sheet, made of cotton candy.

He inhaled deeply, setting off a spasm of violent coughing and gagging, then rolled over onto his side. As he pushed himself up, the sudden upward thrust, set the room in motion, spinning crazily about him. Ben collapsed back down on the bed, with an agonized groan.

“Smoke!” Somewhere from the deepest depths within, that word seared itself on his brain. “Fire!”

Ben extended his hand toward the night table right next to his bed, his fingers groping across its smoothed, well polished surface. Upon finding the sought-for object, his fingers and hand closed around it with the deadly swiftness and power as a bear trap. Clutching the small object tight in his fist, Ben rolled off his bed, his other hand yanking his bathrobe off its place on the bedpost, and dropped to the floor gracelessly on all fours, still coughing.

After struggling into his robe, he dropped the object in hand down into his the left pocket, then half-crawled, half-dragged his way toward the closed door of his bedroom, keeping his face as close to the floor as possible. He paused to touch the door of his room, and found it still cool to the touch. Rising slowly to a bent-over crouched position, Ben threw open the door and bolted into the hall.

“PA?”

Ben’s sharp ears picked up the sound of Hoss’ voice, made hoarse by the increasing volume of smoke, over and above the roar of the fire echoing through out the house.

“HOSS, HERE!” Ben shouted back, astonished at how rough his own voice sounded. A split second later, he felt the touch of two massive, well muscled hands on both shoulders. “What about Joe . . . Stacy . . . and Hop Sing?”

“Ain’t seen hide nor hair o’ anyone ‘cept YOU, Pa,” Hoss said. “Must still be in their rooms. Lemme git you out first, then I’ll come back for them.”

“No time!” Ben said tersely.

“MISTER CARTWRIGHT?” It was Hop Sing, yelling from the bottom of the stairs.

“HOP SING, GET OUT! NOW!” Ben yelled back, wincing against the terrible burning in his throat. Another violent spasm of coughing and gagging overtook him.

“WHERE SONS AND DAUGHTER?”

“WE’RE ALL UP HERE!” Hoss shouted back, grabbing Ben, as he doubled over, caught now in the throes of dry heaving. “GET OUTTA HERE, HOP SING! WE’LL BE RIGHT BEHIND YOU!”

“Hoss . . . you fetch Joe,” Ben wheezed, as his heaving began to lessen. “I’ll . . . I’ll get Stacy.”

“Pa, you’re in no shape to— ”

“Don’t argue with me, Hoss!” Ben snapped. “I have enough strength to do what I need to do. Find Joe, get him outta here! I’ll do the same with Stacy! We’ll meet up outside!”

Hoss’ hands withdrew from his shoulders, and out of the corner of his eye, Ben caught sight of his second son’s hulking silhouette vanishing in the increasing murky gloom. He rose unsteadily to his feet, and bending again to crouched position, he made his way to Stacy’s room. The door stood wide open. In the gray, smoky darkness within, he could hear her softly struggling for breath. Ben dropped back down onto all fours and crawled to the side of the bed.

“STACY!” Ben shouted, his voice completely hoarse. He shook her vigorously at the same time. “STACY, WAKE UP!”

Her coughing intensified.

Ben seized her by the waist and dragged her down to the floor.

“P-Pa . . . . ?!” Further words, if any, were lost in a violent spasm of coughing and gagging. Stacy, still groggy from sleep, tried to rise.

“No,” Ben said tersely, restraining her. “Keep low. Air fresher.”

Ben alternately pushed and dragged Stacy toward the open door of the bedroom, out into the hallway beyond.

“PA?”

“HERE, HOSS! I HAVE STACY!”

Ben could hear Joe gagging behind the growing roar of the fire consuming their home.

The four Cartwrights stumbled blindly down the steps to the first story. At the bottom of the staircase, they collapsed, coughing and gagging. Though the air remained relatively fresh, thick billows of angry gray smoke had already obliterated the great room ceiling over head, and begun spiraling downward.

“Gotta . . . gotta git outta here,” Hoss wheezed.

Joe, meanwhile, stumbled over to the end table, beside the stairs, upon which were displayed all of the family pictures and other small treasures. He snatched up the photographs of Elizabeth and Inger, along with the miniature oil painting of his own mother, Marie, and unceremoniously stuffed them into the left pocket of his robe. Cousin Will and HIS father, Uncle John, facing each other in a hinged double frame immediately followed.

“JOSEPH! COME ON!”

“COMING, PA!” Joe shouted back. He stuffed the old, well worn prayer book that had belonged to his mother, and maternal grandmother into the other pocket of his robe, along with Adam’s and Teresa’s wedding picture, and a photograph taken of their two children, Benjy and Dio three years ago. Last, he snatched up the photo, taken two years ago, of the entire family.

“JOSEPH! NOW !!!”

“I’M COMING!”

Joe crammed the family portrait into the right pocket of his robe, then bolted through the thickening smoke after his father, brother, and sister.

“COME ON, COME ON! EVERYBODY, GET BUCKETS . . . LINE UP!” Hop Sing shouted over the growing roar of the fire. He dutifully escorted Ellen Cromwell, yawning, still half asleep to the middle of the line that would pass the empty buckets back to the water trough and pump to be refilled. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught movement. Hop Sing turned, and saw two young teenaged boys running around the water trough, laughing and splashing each other with water. Scowling, his mouth set in a thin, angry, straight line he strode briskly on an intercept course toward the high spirited young lads. “YOU!”

Both boys froze.

“NO TIME FOR PLAY!” Hop Sing vented the full force of the anger, fear, and worry that had festered and grown within, since he had made his own escape from the burning house, leaving behind his beloved family. “LINE UP!”

“Y-yes, Sir,” the boys mumbled, moving toward the line that would return the empty buckets.

“NO!” Hop Sing shouted, seizing their forearms in a painful, vice-like grip. “YOU BOTH BIG BOYS! NOT BIG LIKE MISTER HOSS, BUT STILL BIG BOYS! YOU OVER THERE!” He angrily shoved both toward the line that would pass the buckets filled with water down toward the fire.

Hop Sing continued darting about, grabbing every able bodied man, woman, and child, and placing them in line. All the while, he frequently cast hopeful, if furtive glances back toward the front door of the house, standing wide open.

Jacob Cromwell, a large, well muscled man, aged in his early to mid-thirties, stepped over to the pump and began filling the numerous empty buckets lying in a pile surrounding the pump and water trough. The first man on the line, a young man by the name of Kevin O’Hennessey, thrust Jacob’s first bucket toward the man beside him, then quickly seized one of the empty buckets from the pile, lying directly at his own feet. He filled it from the water collected in the trough and passed it on in the same quick, fluid movement.

“THEY’RE OUT!”

Hop Sing handed a frightened three year old girl, found walking about lost, clutching her rag doll in both hands, over to the care of Jenny Everett, the elderly great aunt of Hank Carlson, the Ponderosa’s senior foreman. That done, he glanced up just in time to see Mister Hoss exit the house, herding Little Joe and Miss Stacy out before him. Mister Cartwright stumbled out last. Hop Sing placed a yawning woman and her daughter in the empty bucket line, then set off back towards the house and his family at a dead run.

“They’re out, Ma’am!”

“How many?”

“ALL of ‘em.”

“Let ME see!” The woman snatched the binoculars out of the hands of her young companion before he could even think to reply let alone act. Taking the edge of her black, nearly opaque veil in hand, she lifted it, then carelessly tossed it up over her head.

Though nearly a dozen years younger than Ben Cartwright, the furrows deeply etched into the thin flesh covering her brow, the slightly protruding jaw and lower lip, the deep, pronounced lines framing a mouth and thinned lips, cast into a perpetual, taut, near straight, angry line, lent her the appearance of someone far older. The golden brown hair that had been her pride and joy as a young woman came from a bottle now. Its uniform

Although she had been quite generous in her use of cosmetics, they had, nonetheless, been very carefully, very painstakingly applied. Her hair, dyed a uniform golden brown, had been meticulously styled in an immaculate French twist.

The woman raised the binoculars to her eyes and scanned the growing sea of anxious, weary, even sleepy faces, all converging on the burning ranch house.

“Where are you?” she muttered impatiently under her breath, as she moved from face to face, to yet another face. “Where are you, where are you, where ARE you?”

After a dreadful eternity of fruitless searching, her sites, at long last came to rest on Joe Cartwright, stepping down off the porch, nearly doubled over with his coughing. A halo of unruly chestnut brown curls framed a pale face, with cheeks blackened by soot, streaked by rivulets of sweat, and eyes barely open. The woman next moved her binoculars to Stacy, her shoulders hunched, coughing into her hands cupped together over her mouth; then to Hoss, his mouth set with a stubborn determination almost etched in granite. With one arm wrapped firmly and securely around Joe’s waist, Hoss half carried, half dragged his brother to safety, while urging his sister to keep moving with an occasional gentle shove from the other hand.

Finally, her eyes came to rest on the silver haired patriarch of the Cartwright clan, as he stumbled out of the house, following closely behind Hoss. An appreciative smile slowly spread across her carefully painted rose bud pink lips. Though his waist had thickened a bit and that firm chin line sagged a little lower now than when they last met, he, nonetheless, still cut a very fine figure of a man with those big broad shoulders and that rugged, manly profile . . . .

“YOU!”

At the sound of his booming baritone voice, her buggy, her young companion, the chaos reigning all around her ceased to be. She stood once more in his great room, as she had . . . when? Ten years ago? Fifteen? Twenty!? Maybe a hundred? It was so hard to remember. She reluctantly turned and glanced up, knowing with dreadful certainty what was to come.

She saw him standing on the middle landing, where they kept that Indian blanket draped over the railing, looming high over her head, his posture every bit as straight and stiff as that of an army general, his rigid body trembling with a terrible fury, barely contained. His smoldering dark brown almost black eyes blazed with the fires of the wrath, consuming him from within.

“B-Ben?”

“You . . . with your malicious lies . . . spread by your man . . . at YOUR bidding . . . you’ve brought me to the brink of ruin.”

“Ben, I . . . I have no idea what you’re talking about. No idea whatsoever!”

“Don’t you?”

“No, I don’t.” She actually smiled, and held out her hand to him . . . to this angry, vengeful Adonis towering so high above her. “Darling, please! Come, let’s sit down . . . talk this out— ”

“I’m THROUGH talking !”

She saw the wrought iron fireplace poker in his hand for the first time.

“ . . . do you hear me? I’m . . . through . . . talking.”

He descended the staircase, moving with the same slow relentlessness of a cougar stalking its cornered, helpless prey. His fingers were wrapped tight around the handle of the poker, so tight, his knuckles had turned an alarming bloodless white. Alarmed, she backed away from the stairs, her eyes glued to his face. The insane rage burning within him had twisted, contorted that handsome face, with its finely chiseled features into something bestial, having no semblance of human form whatsoever.

Upon reaching the very bottom of the steps, he abruptly turned heel and moved away from her, heading instead on a direct intercept course toward the beautiful oil portrait of the two of them together, as they were nearly twenty years before. That painting had been her gift to him. She had spent nearly a year working on it, painting every line, every plane of his face from cherished memory. A year of painstaking labor, undertaken with love and devotion.

“Darling, wh-what are you going t-to do with that painting?”

Those dark eyes met and held her own. The malevolence she saw reflected in his eyes . . . in his very soul . . . frightened her, more than she could recall having ever been frightened in her entire life. She watched with rapt, morbid fascination as he slowly raised the poker high up over his head. A cruel smile oozed across his lips.

Then, suddenly, his arm came down, with all the deadly swiftness of a cobra she and her late husband saw in India striking an unwary charmer, thrusting the poker right through her masterpiece, leaving torn canvas and a gaping hole where her face had been. The move was so quick, so sudden, she screamed and jumped back.

His smile vanished. “ . . . scheming, conniving witch . . . . ” he growled in a low, menacing tone.

She watched . . . frightened, dismayed, hurt . . . shaken utterly to the very core of her being, as his arm thrust upward, then down in rapid succession, smashing the painting to ribbons.

“ . . . scheming . . . conniving . . . witch . . . . ”

“ . . . scheming . . . .

. . . conniving . . . .

. . . witch!”

“Ma’am?”

She gasped and started so violently, the binoculars fell out of her hands, striking against the floor of her buggy with a dull thud. She closed her eyes as wave, upon wave, upon wave of dizziness rolled over her.

“A-are you—?! Ma’am, are you alright?”

The woman slowly opened her eyes, and found herself gazing into the anxious face of her companion, a young man with chestnut curls, and hazel eyes, now round with alarm. For one brief, frightening moment, she had no idea who he was or where she was. Then slowly, every thing came back to her in tiny bits and pieces. “I’m fine!” she snapped. All trace of her distress had suddenly, completely vanished as a drop of water on the hot desert sands at midday. “Jack . . . . ”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“You know what to do?”

Jack, her companion, solemnly nodded.

“Good!” she snapped. “You’d better get back, before you’re missed.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

After her young companion had left, she reached down toward the floor of the buggy and began groping about in the darkness, frantically searching for her dropped binoculars. When, at long last, her fingers touched them, she snatched them up and once again raised them to her eyes . . . searching.

After another eternity of searching, of once more scanning that mob of faces, far more in number now than when she had searched just a short while ago, the woman once again found the face for which she had so desperately and so frantically sought. “Ben, Darling,” she murmured softly, training her sites once more on the face of the Cartwright family patriarch, “how wonderful it is to see you again.”

Hoss, grim faced and weary, blissfully unaware of the intense scrutiny being brought to bear on himself and the rest of his family, herded his younger brother and sister past the bucket brigade lines toward the pump and trough out in the middle of the yard. Ben followed close at his heels.

“Joe . . . Stacy . . . and you, too, Pa! Just start breathin’ in all this nice fresh air,” Hoss tersely instructed his father and younger siblings.

Ben took a deep, ragged breath, setting off another spasm of coughing that shook his entire frame. “Where’s . . . where’s Hop Sing?” he demanded, as he wearily sank down on the edge of the trough.

“Hop Sing here, Mister Cartwright.”

Hoss and Ben glanced up just in time to see Hop Sing emerge from the shadows.

“Hop Sing safe, not hurt.”

“Hop Sing . . . the wind! Which way?”

Hop Sing wet his finger and held it up in the air, turning until he felt the stirring breezes. “Bad!” he murmured. “VERY bad! Wind grow, get bigger! Blow from house to barn!”

“The horses!” Ben rose unsteadily to his feet.

“I’LL see to the horses, Pa,” Hoss said grimly. “You stay here with Joe ‘n Stacy. Try t’ get your breath.”

“Hoss, too much— ” Ben protested.

“I’ll round up a couple o’ the men t’ help me,” Hoss said. “You stay here ‘n rest a minute. Hop Sing?”

“Yes, Mister Hoss?”

“I’d be much obliged if YOU make sure Pa does what he needs to.”

“Hop Sing promise, make Papa rest, get back breath.”

Hoss nodded, then set off toward the barn, satisfied that he had left his father and younger siblings in good hands. He, Candy, and one of the newer hands, Jack Murphy, a young drifter, aged in his mid-twenties, with hazel eyes and chestnut brown hair, all converged at the barn door.

“Hoss! Thank God!” Candy heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief upon lying eyes on the biggest of the Cartwright offspring. “Did everyone else get out?”

Hoss nodded curtly as he threw open the barn door. “Pa, Joe, ‘n Stacy are over by the pump with Hop Sing.”

“Glad everyone made it out safe, Mister Cartwright,” Jack said in a quiet, bland tone.

“Thanks, Jack, that’s the important thing!” Hoss said with heartfelt candor. “Now, with the wind blowin’ this way straight from the house, we’ve gotta git the horses out.”

“I can also start gathering equipment from the tack room if you wish,” Jack offered.

“The main thing right now is git the horses outta there ‘n put out that fire,” Hoss said firmly. “We’ve had some rain off ‘n on, but, things’re still pretty dry. One spark fallin’ in the wrong place could set this whole country side ablaze.”

“You oughtta get that buckboard outta here, however,” Candy said, nodding his head toward the conveyance. “That’s sure to come in handy later.”

“I’ll hitch up the horses and haul it outside, Mister Cartwright,” Jack offered.

“Go ahead,” Hoss replied. “Candy, you ‘n I can see t’ the rest.”

“I’ll go start at the back end of the barn, Hoss,” Candy said. “You can start at the front.”

“Jacob, how’re you holding up?”

Jacob Cromwell turned and found his boss, clad in night shirt and robe, his face and hair blackened with soot, looking down at him anxiously. He quickly filled another bucket and handed it off to Kevin O’Hennessey. “I can hold out as long as the water does, Mister Cartwright,” he replied, as he leaned over to pick up another bucket.

“If you need a rest, let either me or Hop Sing know. We’ll get a replacement on that pump,” Ben said, clapping a paternal hand down on the younger man’s shoulder. “I don’t want YOU to keel over.”

Jacob managed a wan smile. Barely. “Thank you for your concern, Sir, but I’ll be alright.”

“Mister Cartwright?” It was Derek Welles. He was a short, thin, wiry man roughly the same age as Hoss. He had been working for Ben Cartwright since the untimely deaths of his parents and subsequent loss of his home, sold to pay off debtors, at the age of sixteen.

“Yes, Derek?”

“You see all that smoke up there, leakin’ out from between the cracks in the attic window?” Derek pointed.

“Yes . . . . ”

“If I could go up on the roof, right over the end where that attic window is . . . maybe take two or three men with me, ‘n some axes? I think . . . if we could chop a hole into that roof and start pouring in water from above, we’d stand a real good chance of containing things quicker.”

“I don’t know, Derek,” Ben murmured doubtfully.

“I’ve seen that sort of thing done before, Sir, and I’ve seen it work.”

“Sounds awfully dangerous.”

“We’d stand a better chance of saving a good portion of your house.”

“Derek, you listen to me, and you listen good!” Ben said sternly. “Virtually everyTHING in that house can be replaced. People . . . can’t.”

“Don’t worry, Mister Cartwright. I know what I’m doing.”

“If HE doesn’t, I sure do.”

Ben whirled in his tracks and found Candy standing behind him.

“I’ve done that sort of thing a few times myself,” Candy continued.

Ben saw in their jaw lines, rigidly set, and in the fierce scowls on their faces, that both were bound and determined. “Alright,” he gave in reluctantly. “But, I want you both to promise me you’ll be very careful, and at the very least sign of trouble, you’ll get out of there.”

“We will, Sir,” Derek promised with a curt nod of his head.

Meanwhile, Joe and Stacy, both having recovered somewhat from the effects of smoke inhalation, had gone to the horse trough and seized two empty buckets apiece, as they were passed back down the line to be filled again with water.

“Fill ‘em up, Jake,” Joe said as he handed one, then the other to the big man at the pump.

“Ditto that for me, too . . . please,” Stacy said.

“Stacy Rose Cartwright, you are NOT going back in there,” Joe said firmly as he took one full bucket from Jacob and handed over the second.

“The hell I’m not!”

“The hell you ARE!” Joe growled back. “Come ON, Kid, be reasonable! It’s ‘way too dangerous!”

“It’s no more dangerous for me than it is for you, Grandpa” she countered with a murderous scowl. “This is MY home, too.”

“Stacy, please . . . . ”

“No! I’m going with you and that’s that!” She reached out and grabbed Joe’s second pail from Jacob before he could make a move, and handed over the empty bucket she held in hand. “I told you . . . . this is MY home, too. I am NOT going to stand around, twiddling my thumbs while other people fight to save it.”

“Alright!” Joe reluctantly gave in. “But you’d better daggoned sight be careful! Pa’ll skin me alive if anything happens to you . . . especially if he finds out I was the one who let you go in.”

“I wasn’t planning on telling Pa that you let me go in,” Stacy said, as she took back her second bucket from Jacob, now filled to the brim with water. “Were you?”

“ . . . uuhh, no,” Joe replied, as he handed Jacob his second bucket.

“Even if you did tell him that you let me go in, it would be a big bald faced lie anyway, because I AM going back in with you . . . whether you LET me or not.”

Candy, meanwhile, had gotten the tallest ladder from the barn and propped it against the roof covering the porch. With two axes in hand, he quickly climbed up the ladder, with Derek following close behind, carrying two buckets of water, attached to a make shift yoke, placed across his shoulders.

“Derek? Candy?”

Candy crawled onto the porch roof, then turned and glanced down. Kevin O’Hennessey, an Irish immigrant, aged in his early twenties, stood near the bottom of the ladder, with bucket in one hand and the other lightly resting on the ladder rung nearest shoulder level. Robert Washington, a black man roughly the same age stood a little behind Kevin, also looking up.

“You guys need any help?”

“Either of you know how to rig up a pulley?” Candy asked.

“I do,” Robert, better known as Bobby to his friends, answered immediately.

“I saw a couple of pulleys lying in the barn, just inside the door,” Candy said tersely. “You’ll find rope in the tack room and tools in the tool box. Get what you need and get up here.”

“Yes, Sir,” Bobby said, then sped off, toward the barn.

“Kevin . . . . ”

“Yes, Mister Canaday?”

“Start hauling buckets of water up here,” Candy ordered. “As many as can be spared! I want ‘em handy so we can start pouring water on the fire once Derek and I hack through the roof.”

“You want me to get an axe and help ya?”

“No! Just get the water.”

“What’re you two doin’ in here?” Hoss demanded with a scowl, as he bounded from the top landing into the upstairs hallway. Halfway down, he saw Joe and Stacy battling the flames directly, along side Mitch Cranston, and Arch Campbell.

“What does it LOOK like?” Joe responded with blatant sarcasm, as he turned and grabbed the bucket of water from the man standing behind him and threw it into the flames consuming the wall and door to one of the empty guest rooms.

“I thought I told the two o’ you to sit still ‘n take in some fresh air,” Hoss growled, as he snatched a bucket of water coming along the line directly behind his sister and Arch.

“We did!” Stacy replied. She turned and grabbed the next bucket of water. In the same instant, Arch suddenly doubled over, his entire body wracked by a violent spasm of coughing.

Hoss seized the stricken man by the forearm and placed him into the care of the man behind Stacy. “Herb, git him outta here . . . quick!”

“Yes, Sir.” The man addressed as Herb firmly took Arch in hand and started dragging him over toward the steps.

“Where’s Pa?” Hoss demanded as he slipped off his robe and began using it to beat out the flames.

“Out front . . . coordinating things,” Joe replied tersely, as he dumped yet another bucket of water into the flames.

“Hop Sing’s with him,” Stacy added.

Candy, clad only in a pair of loose fitting striped pajama bottoms, and an old pair of boots, gritted his teeth and swung the axe, again and again. Though he felt the blade penetrating deeper into the roof with each powerful swing, the process seemed maddeningly slow. His hair was damp and plastered to his face and the exposed portions of his body were bathed in a thin film of sweat. As he swung back yet again, his eyes fell on Derek, positioned up near the place where the roof came to a point.

Candy scowled. “Derek . . . . ”

Derek paused, and glanced up sharply. “What?”

“Your position’s kinda precarious there.”

“I’ll be alright,” Derek said tersely, swinging his own axe up and bringing it down again, hard. “If you get Kevin up here with an axe, place him over there, we could open up a nice big hole— ”

“Too dangerous!” Candy snapped.

“KEVIN!” Derek shouted, in blatant disregard of Candy’s words.

Over next the ladder, still leaning against the porch roof, Kevin O’Hennessey paused, then glanced over toward Derek.

“WE GOT ENOUGH WATER! GET ANOTHER AXE AND GET UP HERE!”

“Damn it, Derek, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Candy angrily demanded, bringing down the axe hard, keeping time with the rhythm of his spoken words.

“I’m trying to save as much of the Cartwrights’ house as I can,” Derek replied tersely, his mouth thinned to a near lipless stubborn line.

“Didn’t you hear what Mister Cartwright said down there?”

“Of course I heard, but damn it! This is the man’s HOME! It took him years and years of hard work to build all this! Every thing inside . . . Candy, it’s not just stuff . . . or things! The furniture, that blanket over the banister, the pictures, even the dishes, all have a story to tell . . . a connection, maybe, to a loved one no longer with us— ”

“HOGWASH!” Candy shouted, bringing down his axe for emphasis with sufficient force to finally penetrate all the way through the roof. “SENTIMENTAL HOGWASH!”

“YOU WOULDN’T SAY THAT IF YOU’D LOST YOUR HOME AND EVERYTHING THING ELSE . . . JUST BECAUSE YOU WERE A KID WHEN YOUR MA ‘N PA DIED . . . AND PEOPLE JUST HAD TO HAVE THEIR MONEY, RIGHT NOW THIS VERY INSTANT!” Derek angrily brought his own axe down on the roof with each syllable uttered with every ounce of strength he could muster.

“FOR YOUR INFORMATION, FRIEND, I DID LOOSE MY HOME AND EVERYTHING ELSE WHEN MY PA DIED,” Candy shouted back, as his growing anger finally got the better of him. “I WAS SEVEN! MY MA DIED A FEW YEARS EARLIER WHEN I WAS FOUR. KNOW WHAT?”

“WHAT?”

“I DON’T NEED A BUNCH OF . . . OF STICKS AND PIECES OF MATERIAL AND PAPERS TO REMIND ME OF ‘EM, ‘CAUSE I GOT ‘EM RIGHT HERE!” Candy pounded on his chest for emphasis.

“DEREK!”

Both Candy and Derek turned and saw Kevin O’Hennessey making his way across the roof toward them, with axe in hand.

“WHERE DO YOU WANT ME?”

“THERE!” Derek shouted back, pointing to a place a few yards away from Candy’s position.

“Kevin . . . .”

The young Irishman paused. “Yes, Mister Canaday?”

“You be real careful, you hear? And if I tell you to move, you move! No questions asked! That clear?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“DEREK? CANDY?” It was Bobby Washington, grinning from ear-to-ear. “PULLEY’S IN PLACE . . . READY TO GO!”

Candy and Derek immediately redoubled their efforts. With the able assistance of Kevin O’Hennessey, they finally opened up a sizable hole in the roof.

“KEVIN! START BRINGING THOSE BUCKETS YOU STACKED!” Candy yelled, so to be heard above the roar of the growing inferno. “BOBBY!”

“YEAH, CANDY?”

“SEE IF YOU CAN GET A BUCKET LINE GOIN’ FROM THAT PUMP TO THE LADDER!”

“YES, SIR!”

On the ground below, Hop Sing grabbed a half dozen men, along with two strong women, to form a bucket line from the pump over toward the ladder. “You tie bucket to rope. He . . . . ” Hop Sing pointed to Bobby Washington up on the porch roof, “ . . . pull up water to roof. Take to others, pour into hole in roof.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Bobby said gratefully, while hauling up the first buckets, using the pulley system he had just rigged up on the porch roof.

“You be careful!” Hop Sing admonished the young man sternly.

“Hop Sing!”

He whirled in his tracks and found himself looking up into the weary, soot blackened face of his employer and trusted friend, Mister Cartwright.

“The wind, Hop Sing?”

“Good news . . . very good news maybe,” Hop Sing replied. “Also very BAD news.”

“Gimme the BAD news first and get it over with,” Ben growled.

“Wind pick up. KEEP pick up, more and more, wind grow!” Hop Sing said grimly. “Wind blow, get bigger . . . spread fire!”

“What’s the GOOD news?”

“Wind maybe bring rain. Hop Sing smell!”

Ben’s heart sank. “We’ve been smelling rain every night now for the past two weeks, and we’ve yet to see a single drop.”

“Smell different tonight! Maybe rain finally come.”

“I sure hope so.”

“Derek!”

“What is it NOW, Candy?” Derek demanded sullenly, as he grabbed a full bucket of water from Kevin and emptied the entire contents into the gaping hole before him.

“I don’t like the way the roof under ya’s sagging,” Candy said tersely. He poured the contents of the bucket in hand into the hole, then passed it, empty, back to Kevin.

“I’m OK!” Derek snapped.

An exasperated sigh exploded out from between Candy’s pursed lips. “Oh . . . all right! I’m sorry!”

“About WHAT?”

“The things I said earlier. I’m sorry.” Candy’s anger and frustration slowly melted into genuine remorse. “I mean it, Derek. I’m sorry.”

“ ‘S ok, Candy.”

“I also meant it when I said I didn’t like the way that roof’s sagging under you,” Candy continued.

“I’m ok, honest.” Derek glared into the hole at the flames rapidly consuming the attic. He poured the bucket of water, sitting at his feet into the hole, then tossed the empty across the gaping hole to Kevin. “Why isn’t this working?”

“Excuse me?”

Derek glanced up sharply, his eyes meeting and holding Candy’s. “It ain’t working! If anything, that fire inside’s growing . . . spreading.”

“Damn it!” Candy swore softly. “I should’ve realized . . . . ”

“What?!”

“It’s the wind,” Candy said soberly. “That hole’s acting like a wind tunnel. The fire’s drawing in the wind and feeding on it. The more it feeds, the more it grows.” The ominous sounds of wood creaking and groaning brought all conversation to a sudden, swift halt, as the roof beneath Candy began to sag. “BOBBY! KEVIN! GET OFF THE ROOF! NOW!” He shouted, his eyes round with alarm. “DEREK! COME ON! YOU, TOO!”

Derek started to rise. Suddenly, with a loud groan, the roof beneath his feet gave way. He reached out blindly, his fingers frantically clawing, desperately seeking something, anything . . . . Derek barely managed to grab hold of a thick piece of planking, arced downward toward the raging inferno below.

“Hang on, Derek! I’m coming!”

“Candy, NO!” Derek protested, his eyes round with horror. “NO! This roof can go any minute!”

“Shut-up, Derek! I’m coming to your rescue, whether you like it or not!” Candy gave the gaping hole in the roof wide birth as he circled around toward the place where his friend clung for dear life. He felt the roof beneath his feet sag again, accompanied by the creaking and groaning of wood. With heart in mouth, he immediately dropped to his knees and started to crawl up toward the peak of the roof, his eyes, his jaw set with a fierce stubborn determination.

“C-Candy, no! Go back!” Derek begged, his voice shaking and eyes glued to the sky and stars, now fading into the gray light of dawn. “I’m DONE for!”

Candy turned a deaf ear to the younger man’s desperate entreaties to save himself. As he neared the gaping hole in the roof, he carefully lowered himself to his stomach and inched his way forward. He finally reached the edge after what seemed a maddening eternity of scraping along the roof on his belly. Smiling triumphantly, while wincing against the great heat rising from the opening in what remained of the ranch house roof, Candy thrust his hand into the hole toward Derek. He felt the roughness of the shirt Derek had thrown on before rushing from the bunkhouse to do his part in containing the fire consuming the Cartwrights’ home.

Then, suddenly, the roof under Candy gave way, sending Derek hurtling down into the raging inferno below. Derek’s screams, of fear, of anger, and of pure astonishment, mixed with the roar of the fire. Candy, unable to move, stared into the gaping hole through eyes round with shock and horror, his hand still extended toward the place where Derek Welles hung on for dear life just a few scant seconds before.

“CANDY!” It was Bobby Washington. He had just witnessed Derek Welles’ fall to an inevitable fiery death, and now saw the roof under Candy sagging. “CANDY, COME ON!”

“BOBBY, WHAT’S GOING ON?”

He turned at the sound of his name and saw Kevin O’Hennessey standing at the foot of the ladder gazing up at him.

“THE ROOF’S ABOUT TO COLLAPSE!” Bobby shouted. “GO WARN THE OTHERS!”

“WHAT ABOUT YOU, CANDY, AND DEREK?”

“WE’RE COMING! NOW GIT!” Bobby heaved a great sigh of relief as Kevin turned and ran toward the bucket lines still stretching between the outside water pump and the house. He immediately returned his attention to Candy. “HEY, BOSS, COME ON! WE GOTTA GET GOIN’!”

Candy didn’t move, nor did he in any way acknowledge that he had heard Bobby calling to him.

Bobby rose and started across the roof toward Candy, with heart thudding hard against his rib cage and legs trembling.

“HOSS! JOE! STACY! THE REST OF YA . . . GET OUT NOW! THE ROOF’S ABOUT TO GO!” Kevin O’Hennessy shouted as he pushed his past the men and women forming the bucket lines.

Some of the people standing closest to the open front door immediately dropped the buckets they held in their hands and fled to safely.

“HOSS! COME ON!” Kevin shouted, as he propelled Ellen Cromwell and the young girl, standing next to her in line, out the door. “JOE AND STACY, YOU, TOO! YOU GOTTA COME OUT RIGHT NOW!”

“Kevin’s right!” Hoss said grimly. He threw aside the remains of the quilt he had been using to battle the flames consuming the wall between the hallway and Adam’s old room, then started to herd his younger siblings toward the stairs.

Overhead the ceiling groaned. The ominous creaks and snaps started near the back of the house, and moved down the entire length of the ceiling over their heads. There was a pop, followed by a loud, crack. The ceiling above the hallway groaned again, and began to sag, raining hot plaster down on Hoss, Joe and Stacy as they fled down the burning upstairs corridor toward the stairs. A large piece of plaster fell striking Stacy on the head. She stumbled under the impact of the blow, collapsing heavily against the wall behind her, before crumpling to the floor in a limp, ungainly heap.

“STACY!” Joe shouted, as he stopped, pivoted, then ran back into the rising veil of smoke and plaster dust toward his sister. In less than a heartbeat, he was kneeling at her side. Blood poured freely from the right side of her head, congealing in her long dark hair, and gluing pieces of plaster and splintered wood to her head, nightshirt, and her right cheek.

Hoss realized almost immediately that his younger brother and sister were no longer following. He paused, and turned. “JOE! STACY! WHAT’S WRONG?” he yelled.

“STACY’S HURT!” Joe shouted back. He quickly, nimbly rocked back on his feet, then leaned over to pick up his insensate sister.

“I’M COMIN’ ON BACK TO— ”

“HOSS, NO! KEEP ON GOING!” Joe yelled as he settled Stacy’s inert form comfortably in his arms. “I’VE GOT THE KID NOW! WE’RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU!”

Hoss ran down the stairs, pausing at the landing in the middle. He turned, and looked up, fully expecting to see Joe and Stacy. He saw no one, only smoke and the rising dust of crushed plaster, left in the wake of the collapsing roof and ceiling. “JOE!” Hoss yelled, his brow knotting with anger and worry. “DADBURN IT, LI’L JOE, IF YOU ‘N STACY AIN’T AT THE TOP OF THE STEPS BY THE TIME I COUNT THREE, I’M— ” He was stricken by a near incapacitating fit of gagging, that literally doubled him over.

“YOU’LL WHAT?” Joe demanded indignantly, as he appeared at the top of the stairs, carrying Stacy.

“FORGET IT!” Hoss shouted back, between bouts of coughing. Clutching the railing for support, he started to make his way down the steps toward the first floor. “COME ON!!”

Joe tightened his grip on Stacy, and started down the steps after Hoss. He had gone no more than a half dozen steps down, when the entire ceiling gave way with a loud, agonizing groan. The stairway collapsed and fell under the weight of the heavy wood beams that had held up the roof, bringing Hoss, Stacy and Joe down with it.

“THE ROOF’S GOING!” someone frantically shouted.

“EVERYONE, AWAY FROM THE HOUSE! NOW!” Hank Carlson angrily barked out the order. Some of the people standing nearest the door had already cleared out, many leaving behind their buckets.

“What’s happening?” Ben demanded, upon noting the mass exodus fleeing away from the burning house.

“The roof’s going, Mister Cartwright!” It was Kevin O’Hennessy, his face, neck, hands, and clothing covered with black soot.

Ben seized the young man by the forearm, his grip painful enough to cause the young man to cry out. “Hoss, Joe, and Stacy! Where are THEY?”

“I . . . I didn’t see them, S-Sir,” Kevin stammered, flinching away from his employer’s intense gaze that seemed to bore right down into the very core of his being.

Ben released the young man with a shove forceful enough to knock him clear off his feet, and began moving briskly toward the house.

“MISTER CARTWRIGHT, WAIT!”

It was his senior foreman, Hark Carlson, moving toward him on a direct intercept course. Ben purposely turned a deaf ear, and quickened his pace toward what remained of the log ranch house he and his family had called home for so many years.

“MISTER CARTWRIGHT!” Hank broke into a dead run, and within seconds was trotting alongside his employer and good friend, breathlessly laboring to keep pace. “Where are you—?”

“Inside!” Ben snapped, never breaking stride, his eyes glued to the front door.

“NO! Mister Cartwright, you CAN’T!”

“I can and I will! My sons and my daughter are still in there.”

Gritting his teeth, Hank Carlson surged ahead, planting himself directly in Ben’s path, effectively barring the way between Ben and the front door, still standing open.

“I’m NOT going to let you go in there, Mister Cartwright. That roof’s gonna go any second— ”

“Hank Carlson, you get out of my way right NOW, ” Ben growled, his voice barely above a whisper,” or so help me, as God is my witness, I’ll kill you right where you stand.”

Hank blanched in the face of Ben’s barely contained murderous fury, and involuntarily side stepped. Ben moved past Hank, breaking now into a dead run, with heart pounding hard against his rib cage, catching in his throat. Hank stood unmoving, as if he had suddenly taken root, staring after Ben Cartwright’s steadily retreating back, through eyes round with shocked horror and dismay, gazing upon a man he had for many years known as employer and friend, the way he might look upon a menacing stranger.

Inside the house, Hoss, down on splinter-filled hands and bloodied knees, squeezed his eyes shut, while gingerly shaking his head to empty out the murky, scrambled images and feelings that threatened to inundate the clear-headedness he so desperately needed right now.

“H-Hoss . . . . ?!” Joe wheezed, then succumbed to a fit of coughing.

“Here, Li’l Brother,” Hoss murmured, trying with all his might to focus on the sound of Joe’s voice. “Where are ya?”

“Behind you . . . Stacy, too. Buried . . . . ”

Hoss rose unsteadily to his feet, squeezing his eyelids together even tighter, this time as buffer against the surroundings spiraling and pulsating with a fierce, nauseating intensity. “K-keep talking, Joe . . . I’m c-comin’.”

“Behind you . . . Hoss, Stacy’s hurt . . . I think real bad . . . . ”

It took every ounce of will Hoss possessed to turn his thoughts away from the heat searing his throat and lungs, the escalating pain of his own injuries, the dizziness and nausea threatening to overwhelm him, and hone in on his brother’s words, the sound of his voice. He found his younger brother and sister half buried under heavy wood beams, plaster, shingle, and the splintered lumber of what remained of the staircase, pride and joy of the oldest brother who had designed and built it. Gritting his teeth against the searing agony in his upper torso, Hoss moved with surprising speed and agility given a man of his height and mass, bringing his near superhuman strength to bear on freeing his brother and sister.

“Joe, c’n y’ walk?” Hoss asked as he carefully helped his brother to his feet. He knew at once that Joe’s right arm had been dislocated at the shoulder, and the shallow breaths coupled with the pained look on his face as he breathed in hinted at the possibility of fractured ribs.

“I . . . yeah, I think so . . . . ”

Hoss carefully leaned over and lifted their unconscious sister in his arms. “G’won, Joe . . . I got Stacy!”

“You g-go first, Hoss . . . I’ll follow.”

Hoss started toward the door, tightening his hold on Stacy, as he began picking his way across the debris from collapsed ceiling, roof, and staircase. The ominous, loud creaking and groaning from what remained of the ceiling directly overhead, froze the blood in Hoss’ veins. He hunched over the injured, still unconscious sister cradled in his arms, to shield her against falling debris, and bolted for the door. He stumbled out of the house, into his surprised father’s open arms.

“Where’s Joe?” Ben demanded tersely.

“He’s right behind— ” Hoss’ words were lost in the thundering roar of wood, plaster, and shingle striking wood floor as the last remaining portion of the main roof lost it’s tenuous hold and collapsed.

“JOE!” Ben shouted, frantic. “JOE, ANSWER ME!”

“Pa . . . .” Though faint, barely audible against the rain of falling wood and roar of fire, Ben’s sharp ears immediately honed in on the sound of his youngest son’s voice. “ . . . way out . . . Hop Sing’s room.”

“GO!” Ben shouted. Satisfied for the moment that Joe was well on his way to safety, he turned his attention to Hoss and Stacy, as they moved to a safe distance away from the house.

“I’LL be alright,” Hoss replied to his father’s unspoken question, and the concern his face and dark brown eyes. “But . . . I think we need t’ git Stacy t’ Doc Martin, Pa, sooner rather ‘n later.”

Hoss strode briskly, beating a straight path toward the outside pump and water trough, with Ben following close at his heels. There, with the trough between them and what remained of the house, he placed his insensate sister down on the ground very carefully, then knelt down beside her. Hop Sing appeared at Hoss’ elbow with a lantern in hand.

“Hop Sing! Get that light over here!” Ben ordered tersely, as he knelt down beside Stacy, on the other side, facing Hoss.

“Here, Mister Cartwright.” Hop Sing bent slightly from the waist, and extended the hand gripping the lantern.

By the flickering light of Hop Sing’s lantern, Ben noted his daughter’s head wound and the odd angle at which her slippered foot and ankle hung from her leg in utter dismay. It was if a knee joint had suddenly appeared in a place where there was no knee joint. With heart in mouth, he carefully lifted the edge of Stacy’s nightshirt to closely examine her injured leg, wishing in the very next instant that he hadn’t. Red, swollen, covered with ash, plaster, wood splinters, and blood, he could see the jagged edges of larger of the two lower leg bones protruding through an open, gaping wound, still bleeding. “T-Tourniquet . . . . ” he murmured.

“Use the sash of your robe, Pa!” Hoss said tersely. “H-How bad . . . .?!”

“VERY bad, Hoss,” Ben said, as his trembling hands worked to loosen the knot binding the edges of the sash together. “HOP SING!”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“Stacy’s leg . . . it’s broken,” Ben gasped as wave upon wave of nausea began to roll over him. “I-I . . . need something . . . a couple pieces of board preferably, t-to . . . to keep her leg from moving.”

“Hop Sing fetch right away!” He immediately turned heel and ran toward the barn.

Hoss looked over at Jacob Cromwell, as he scrambled to his feet. “Jake?”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Jack Murphy hitched up the buckboard when we released the horses,” Hoss said tersely, as he lifted the hem of his green and white gingham nightshirt and began tearing off ling strips. “Go git it ‘n bring it over here. We need t’ git Stacy t’ Doc Martin soon as we can.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jacob said with a curt nod.

Hop Sing returned a few moments later with several pieces of wood, varying in length and thickness, cradled in his arms. His eyes strayed to Stacy’s leg wound, as he knelt down beside Ben. Though his complexion paled significantly, he yet remained calm. “Hop Sing have wood for splint Miss Stacy’s leg. Plenty!”

Ben pulled the tourniquet around Stacy’s thigh as tight as he possibly could, wincing as he did so, then tied the knot. His hands moved instinctively, impelled almost of their own volition by knowledge gleaned during his seafaring days, to secure a tight knot. “Th-thank you, Hop Sing,” he murmured wearily, as he reached for the longest piece of wood in the pile Hop Sing still held clasped in his arms.

Barred from egress through the front door, Joe stumbled and groped his way across the obstacle course the great room had become, heading in the general direction of the dining room and kitchen, his visibility reduced to muted shades of dark grays fading to deep, impenetrable black from the dust and the relentless, steady accumulation of smoke. His slippered foot bumped hard against a piece of rough hewn lumber, protruding dangerously into the narrow pathway meandering through the broken, splintered remains of the roof. He cried out in surprise and agony, setting off another wearying paroxysm of intense gagging.

Joe forced himself to push on, despite the near incapacitating round of coughing and retching. When he finally stepped through into the dining room, he was astonished to find how much remained in tact—the dining room table, chairs, that disgusting painting of fruit with bugs crawling all over it, the china cabinets with his mother’s good china . . . .

He paused in his flight, and peered in through the glass doors, made gray by the accumulating smoke, sorely tempted.

“ . . . you listen to me, and you listen good!”

His father’s words, stern almost to the point of harsh, rang in his ears; words spoken to Derek Welles, when the young man had expressed his hope of saving the house, of all the things within it.

“Virtually everyTHING in that house can be replaced. People . . . CAN’T!”

Pa’s face, stern, even angry at the thought of losing even one man to save a houseful of things, gave way to a face much younger, a face covered with the grime of sweat and the prickly stubble of a five o’clock shadow several days old . . . a face deeply etched with worry and grief, whose warm brown eyes shone with tears not yet shed.

“ . . . I HAVE my gift,” Pa whispered as he gathered Joe close. “I have my gift.”

Joe wrenched his eyes away from the china cabinet, noting with dismay that the accumulating smoke had all but obliterated the kitchen door from sight. He began to stumble forward, holding his right arm pressed close against his torso, coughing, and groping blindly. A moment later, Joe plowed headlong into the dining room table hard, eliciting a primal bellow of pain and rage.

“J-Just looking at . . . at the c-cabinet with my ma’s china,” he gasped, squeezing his eyes shut tight against the acrid smoke. “Dining r-room table . . . here.” He forced himself to take shallow breaths, evenly paced, as he tried to mentally visualize the layout of the dining room. The china cabinet stood in the corner, next to the picture window, looking out on that breath taking mountain view. That being the case, he almost certainly had to be standing at the foot of the table. He slowly eased his injured, dislocated arm away from his chest, wincing as he did so, and gingerly extending it in the direction he knew the edge of the table to be. A moment later, his knuckles lightly brushed the edge of the table.

Keeping his eyes closed, the back of his hand against the edge of the table, Joe began to inch his way forward, hesitantly at first, then with confidence, that grew with each step. Upon reaching the head of the table, he turned slightly, and walked straight ahead, silently counting his steps, as he drew from the lessons he had learned from Miss Dobbs, when an accident left him temporarily blinded. If memory served it should be an even dozen steps, more or less, from the edge of the table to kitchen door.

“ . . . eight . . . nine . . . ten . . . eleven . . . twelve.” A thrill of triumph, mingled with relief shot through every fiber of his being as his fingertips came into contact with the kitchen door, setting off an adrenalin rush that numbed his pain, and cleared his head. With his left both hands resting against the closed kitchen door, the left at shoulder level and the right near the level of his waist, Joe slid the latter over in the direction the door knob should be. Less than a second later, his fingers grasped the brass doorknob, still cool to the touch, and turned.

The door opened inward, throwing off Joe’s sense of balance. He stumbled headlong into the kitchen, his foot catching on the slightly raised threshold, and fell. He slammed hard into the kitchen floor, knocking the wind from his lungs. For a long, moment, he lay where he fell, stunned, unable to move.

“JOSEPH! GET A MOVE ON!”

His father’s sonorous baritone, shouting at a decibel guaranteed to stampede cattle and curdle milk, echoed through his head.

“NOW!”

“Y-Yes, Pa,” Joe groaned, as he rolled over onto his side and eased himself to a sitting position. He rose to his feet, his legs trembling, unsteady, his head spinning. Panic suddenly rose within, threatening to wholly inundate him. “N-no!” He focused all of his thoughts on straightening up, then reaching out with his left arm. The fingertips of his left hand lightly brushed against the edge of the counter. Exhaling a sigh of relief, he moved closer, his left arm extended, his injured right arm once again held protectively flush up against his body. The nimble and dexterous fingers of his left hand quickly, almost frantically moved across the objects sitting on the counter . . . .

“Cookie jar!” he exclaimed aloud, grinning broadly. Follow the counter to its end, turn right, three steps to the door to Hop Sing’s room.

Joe burst into Hop Sing’s room seconds later. Bed on the left, six steps from the kitchen door. He turned and walked, counting each step. “Follow bed to the edge,” he murmured softly, the minute his leg made contact with the soft downy mattress and comforter on Hop Sing’s bed. “Fourteen steps straight out from the end of the bed, and I’m out of here, home free!” Elated, he felt his way to the end of the bed, then counted out the fourteen steps. He found the door, and stumbled through it, less than a second later, collapsing down on his hands and knees into the soft, freshly turned dirt of Hop Sing’s garden, gulping in lung full, after lung full of fresh, clean, cold air.

At length, Joe rose, blissfully unaware of his bathrobe slipping away from his shoulders. It came to rest, a bright red cloud in the midst of dark brown earth, dotted by yellowed, vegetation. He crossed the garden, heading on a direct path toward the latched gate, leaving behind a slipper.

“That’s as far as you go, Cartwright,” a familiar voice sneered through clenched teeth, the instant he stepped through the garden gate.

Joe turned, and found himself staring into the barrel of a rifle, lightly held in the hands of Jack Murphy, a young man, a drifter, recently hired on by Candy and his father. He slowly raised his hands, keeping his eyes glued to Jack’s face, framed by an unruly mop of chestnut curls, not unlike his own.

“That’s right, get those hands up where I can see ‘em and KEEP ‘em up there,” Jack ordered, a malevolent smile spreading slowly across his lips.

“Jack, what’s the meaning of this?” Joe demanded, his brow darkening with anger.

“You’ll find out soon enough. Now walk! Straight ahead, eyes front.”

Joe suddenly realized that Jack Murphy was fully dressed, wearing a pair of light brown pants with matching shirt, brown boots, and a green jacket. All of the other hands had been running around, fighting the fire wearing whatever they had worn, or NOT worn, to bed. He abruptly turned to face Jack Murphy, his entire body trembling with rage. “Y-You KNEW!” Joe spat out the accusation.

Jack flinched away from the intensity of the raw fury now burning in Joe Cartwright’s hazel eyes, and unconsciously took a step backward.

“YOU KNEW!” Joe shouted. “YOU NO GOOD ROTTEN SON-OF-A-BITCH, YOU KNEW!”

“That’s enough, C-Cartwright!” Jack raised the rifle in his hands, his own body now trembling with fear in the face of Joe’s dreadful rage.

Joe froze. The sight those pair of eyes, the very same color as his own, now fixed on him, round with terror and the rifle, clutched in a pair of trembling hands, gave him pause, despite his escalating fury. “How much experience has Jack really had in using a gun, or a rifle?” he wondered silently, not without trepidation. He knew all too well that a firearm in the hands of someone wholly inexperienced and frightened to boot was far more dangerous than facing the wrong end of a gun barrel in the hands of a veteran gunslinger with an itchy finger resting on the trigger. He swallowed nervously and silently began to count to ten in a fierce effort to reign in enough of his anger to present at the very least an outward facade of calm.

“Start w-walking, Cartwright . . . up there,” Jack ordered, his voice still shaking.

At the crest of the hill rising up directly in front of him, Joe spotted dim outlines and blackened silhouette of a carriage up ahead, hitched to a single horse in silvery gray light of approaching dawn.

“What’s going on here, Jack?” Joe asked. It took every ounce of his formidable will to keep his tone measured and even.

“I said y-you’ll find out, Cartwright . . . soon enough.”

As Joe walked up the hill, with his left hand raised in surrender and his right pressed close to his torso, he peered into the opaque jet-black depths of the carriage, straining to see who sat within.

“That’s far enough, Joe Cartwright,” a woman’s voice issued from within the black depths of the carriage the minute he and Jack reach the top of the hill.

“It seems you have me at a disadvantage, Ma’am,” Joe said, flashing that devastating smile guaranteed to melt the hearts of all women, young and old alike. His sister, Stacy, often referred to it as his lethal lady killer smile. “You obviously know who I am, while I haven’t even the slightest idea who YOU are.”

“You don’t remember?”

Joe frowned. Something in her voice, with its faint lingering trace of New Orleans, immediately put him on edge. Outwardly, his smile never wavered. “I don’t remember your voice, Ma’am,” he lied. “Maybe if I was to see your face?”

“Don’t you worry one bit, Joe, you’re going to see a lot of my face in the days to come, that I promise you. Jack?”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Tie him up.”

“Turn around, Cartwright,” Jack ordered. “Hands behind your back.”

Joe turned, closing his eyes, forcing himself to take deep, even breaths. Using the grating pain of his dislocated shoulder as an aid to focus, he trained his sharp ears to the soft sound of Jack’s footfalls, as he moved toward him through the tall, grasses. Step, step, step, step, one foot following the other, very smooth, very even, each step, each footfall bringing Jack Murphy closer.

Then Jack’s cadence altered, as he paused briefly, then took another step forward. In the next instant, Joe heard the faint click of metal rifle barrel tapping against the side of a small rock, as Jack placed his weapon on the ground. He took another deep breath and forced his body to relax, go limp.

The minute he felt the feathery touch of Jack’s finger tips brush his wrists, he pivoted and thrust his left arm forward, aiming toward where Jack’s face should be. Joe’s tightly balled fist resoundingly connected with flesh and bone of Jack’s cheek and nose. Jack reeled backwards, bellowing in pain, surprise, and outrage. Gritting his teeth, Joe bolted toward the rifle, lying unattended on the tall grass. A shot rang out from the general direction of the carriage. The bullet branded his already injured right shoulder, and knocked him to the ground in an ungainly heap.

He rolled onto his left side, his body instinctively curling into a protective circle. He clutched his injured shoulder, just below the bullet brand, as tears, borne of pain, streamed down his face like the ferocious floods of the yearly spring melt. He bit his lower lip, to keep from crying out.

“Crippensworth!” the woman inside the carriage ordered, her imperious tone edged with apprehension.

That voice, it’s pitch, rising, then falling . . . something in the way she said that name . . . his initial wariness began to coalesce into vague feelings of dread. Joe raised his head and through eyes blurred with tears, made out the silhouetted outlines of a tall, hulking man every bit as muscular and massive as his big brother, Hoss. The man moved away from the carriage, his bulk growing, dominating more and more of Joe’s vision.

“Get your rife on him, now, Crippensworth!” the mystery woman in the carriage barked out the order. “Quickly, for heaven’s sake! Don’t let him escape!”

“My Lady, the Cartwright boy’s not going anywhere,” the man addressed as Crippensworth replied with a sardonic chuckle. “But all the same, BOY, you so much as bat an eyelash without my permission, my next shot goes right through your head.”

The man addressed as Crippensworth spoke with an impeccable English accent, not unlike someone else . . . . Joe desperately wracked his brains, trying to remember.

“I’d listen to him if I were you, Joe,” the woman in the carriage said, her tone calm now, almost complacent. “Crippensworth NEVER misses.”

“Mister ummm, Murphy, I’d suggest you retrieve your rifle and train it on this chap, whilst I tie him up,” Crippensworth turned and addressed Jack Murphy in an insulting, condescending tone . “You’ll find it over there, in the grass where you so carelessly left it. As for YOU, Cartwright, sit up.” A nasty smile spread slowly across his thick lips and wide mouth. “Nice and easy!”

Joe flopped over from his side onto his back, then slowly eased from prone to sitting, leaning heavily on his left arm for support.

“Now if you would be so kind as to put your hands behind your back?”

Joe very reluctantly complied, wincing from the sharp, intense pain caused by having to move his injured right arm.

Crippensworth moved Joe’s left hand toward the middle of his waist, then, grasping his right wrist in a painfully tight grip, sharply yanked Joe’s injured arm behind his back, placing his right wrist overtop of his left. Joe cried out, unable to stop himself. Chuckling softly, Crippensworth set himself to the task of securing Joe’s wrists behind his back, tying the cords so tight, they cut deeply into his flesh. “Hey, Kid! Make yourself useful and tie his ankles,” he chuckled, tossing a length of rope at Jack.

Jack bristled inwardly, as he leaned over and picked up the coiled length of rope lying at his feet. A sigh of utter exasperation escaped between his slightly parted lips as he walked over toward Joe, now lying face down on the ground.

Crippensworth, meanwhile, rose and straddled Joe’s supine form and knelt down, bringing the full weight of his right knee down on his injured right arm. Joe squeezed his eyes shut and bit down on his lip so hard, he drew blood, in his efforts not to cry out.

“Come on, Kid, get a move on!” Crippensworth snapped at Jack.

“I’m moving as fast as I can,” Jack angrily shot right back.

“Well, it’s not fast enough!”

“Fine! Then YOU do it, Crippensworth!” Jack rocked back from his knees to his feet, then rose with liquid youthful grace. “That’s what my mo— her ladyship! pays YOU for anyway.”

“Damn lazy snot nosed kid!” Crippensworth muttered angrily under his breath, as he moved his weight off of Joe’s arm, then crawled back down toward the Cartwright boy’s feet, one bare the other slippered.

“Excellent,” the woman inside the buggy said in a bored tone, after Crippensworth had finished securing the last knot holding Joe’s legs together. She, then turned to Jack Murphy. “Joseph, Darling . . . . ”

Jack frowned “I’m JACK, Ma’am, remember?”

“Yes, of course, how very silly of me,” she said. “Jack. Hand me your rifle, then go stand over there.” Her arm thrust out from the darkened buggy with black-gloved finger pointing to a spot slightly to the left of the carriage, well away from where Joe lay on the ground, tightly bound hand and foot.

Jack shrugged, then did as the woman asked.

“Crippensworth . . . . ”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Kill him!”

“You really intend for me to go through with it?” Crippensworth echoed, surprised and amused.

“Crippensworth, I TOLD you to KILL him.”

“But, Ma’am, he’s your— ”

“I SAID KILL HIM. NOW!”

The blood suddenly drained from Jack Murphy’s face, as grim truth of his situation began to dawn on him. “No!” he protested, shaking his head vigorously. “NO! Oh m-my God, y-you . . . you CAN’T!”

“DAMN IT, CRIPPENSWORTH, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?” she screamed. “I TOLD YOU TO KILL HIM!”

“I’ll be damned! You really DO mean for me to shoot the little bugger,” Crippensworth said with a nasty smile.

“OF COURSE, I MEAN IT!” she shouted, on the edge of hysteria.

“Ma’am, you DO realize that he’s— ”

“CRIPPENSWORTH, I GAVE YOU AN ORDER. DO AS YOU WERE TOLD!”

Jack, overwhelmed by mind numbing terror, turned and bolted headlong back down the hill.

“DAMN YOU, CRIPPENSWORTH, NOW! KILL HIM NOW!”

Joe watched in horror as Crippensworth raised his rifle, took aim, and squeezed the trigger, dropping fleeing young man as he might a game animal. The bullet struck Jack’s head, bursting it apart like an overripe pumpkin lying in a field under a hot, Indian Summer sun. His head jerked forward sharply under the impact of the bullet, then back, before his lifeless body dropped to the ground with a dull, sickening thud.

“Put Joe Cartwright up here in the buggy with me,” the woman calmly ordered. All trace of hysteria completely gone. “You know what you need to do with Jack.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Crippensworth replied with an indifferent shrug. “I’ll take care of every thing.”

“Make sure THEY don’t see you.”

“I will, Ma’am.”

The next thing Joe knew, he was being unceremoniously dragged over the short distance between the spot where he was lying and the waiting carriage. Crippensworth lifted him and dropped him, like a sack of potatoes, down in the carriage next to the woman, whose face remained veiled behind the deep shadows still blanketing the interior.

“Well now, isn’t THIS a pleasant surprise! So nice of you to drop in, Joe.”

“M-Ma’am, who ARE you?” Joe demanded, thoroughly rattled by the Jack Murphy’s murder in cold blood.

“You don’t remember? You honestly DON’T remember?!”

“I . . . . ” For a brief instant, hovering at the very edge of conscious memory, he saw her face and knew with horrifying clarity exactly who she was. Then, just as suddenly, it was gone, fading even as he desperately struggled to catch, and to hold on to that knowledge. Joe sighed, and dolefully shook his head. “No, Ma’am, I don’t remember.”

“You really know how to wound a lady, don’t you?” she said with a cold, mirthless chuckle. “A lady wounded is a lady scorned, and YOU know what they say about a lady scorned.”

“Look! You have me at a complete disadvantage here, since you obviously know who I am, and on top of THAT, you’ve got me trussed up like a calf for branding,” Joe snapped, his apprehension giving way to anger. “So come on, stop this . . . this insane cat and mouse game of yours and tell me . . . who ARE you? Why are you kidnapping me?!”

She smiled, upon hearing the note of fear creeping back into his voice. “I am an old friend of your father’s actually,” she said slowly. “A very old, very dear, very close and intimate friend! Oh, Joseph, dear, dear, Joseph . . . you should, by all rights have been MINE.”

Revelation suddenly burst upon him like a hard blow to his solar plexus. Joe stared over into the darkness of the carriage’s interior, too stunned even to speak.

“Do you remember NOW?”

Joe nodded. “Ch-Chadwick. L-Linda Lawrence . . . Lady of Chadwick,” he stammered.

“So pleased you FINALLY remembered,” Linda Lawrence, Lady of Chadwick said as she flicked the reins in hand.

“What’s this all about?” Joe demanded. “Why are you kidnapping me? Why did you kill Jack Murphy?”

“I killed him because he is roughly the height and build YOU are, with the same color hair and lovely curls,” Linda replied as she nudged the horse to a full gallop, directing him away from what remained of the Cartwright ranch house. “Did you happen to notice that he was also dressed as YOU usually dress?”

All of his vague, nebulous feelings of dread came together, forming a cold hard knot of fear deep in the pit of Joe’s stomach.

“Crippensworth will burn Jack’s body, then, as soon as he can discreetly do so, he will place it somewhere in the smoking ruin of that once grand and glorious ranch house of your father’s,” Linda continued.

“Why?” Joe demanded, breathless as his fractured ribs began to make their existence known. His voice shook from fear as much from pain.

“Jack’s dead body, dressed as YOU dress, will convince your father that you perished in the fire that consumed your lovely little home.”

“No!” Joe vehemently protested. “Dear God . . . Pa! Lady Chadwick, please! For the love of God, please don’t do this! If Pa thinks I . . . if he thinks I died in that fire . . . it’ll KILL him. Please! Don’t do this!”

“Spare me the hysterical melodrama!” Linda snorted with derision. “Granted, your ‘death’ will DEVASTATE your beloved father, but, I assure you, he will NOT die . . . not completely . . . and not yet!”

“Wh-what do you mean . . . not yet?!”

“Oh, I have every intention of killing your father, Joe, but I will do so at the time of my own choosing.”

Joe recoiled away from the bitter venom he heard in her voice.

“There will be no quick, merciful death for the likes of Mister Ben Cartwright,” Linda continued, through clenched teeth. “I intend to kill him slowly. Very, very slowly . . . cutting his heart into tiny, tiny pieces, one at a time.” Her malicious laughter filled the interior of the carriage. “Tell me, Joe . . . my dear, darling Little Joe, how long did it take to build that lovely little log house?”

“The main part . . . the great r-room downstairs . . . was b-built when Hoss and Adam were little,” Joe replied, frightened, and feeling very sick at heart. “When Hop Sing and m-my ma came . . . Pa added on the kitchen, that bedroom downstairs f-for him and M-Ma . . . and a room in back for Hop Sing . . . later Adam, when he came home f-from Harvard . . . Adam redesigned the house, expanded the upstairs, m-made the kitchen bigger, added the dining room . . . . ”

“Years and years of work,” Linda murmured, “and so many, many wonderful treasures, mementos of by gone years, precious little photographs and trinkets left behind by loved ones no longer with you . . . . ” Her laughter sent a cold chill running down the entire length of Joe’s spine. “I’ve just destroyed all the years of work that went into building that lovely little house, along with all its treasures and wonderful memories in a single night.”

Joe turned, his eyes around with horror, peered hard into the veil of black, opaque darkness that surrounded and obscured the woman seated beside him, driving the carriage. “You had Jack set fire to our house, didn’t you.” It was an accusation, not a question.

“No. Not Jack. Oh, he KNEW, of course . . . he knew. But, I hired someone ELSE to do the actual deed.”

“We might’ve all been killed,” Joe said sullenly. Had that been the case, Lady Chadwick would not now have the means of torturing Ben Cartwright within her grasp. For one brief, insane moment he wished with every fiber of his being that Pa and Hoss hadn’t woken up and smelled the smoke.

“Oh, I admit, it WAS a calculated risk, but I also know that your father is, above all else, a survivor,” Linda said dispassionately. “The premature death of one wife alone has brought down many, many fine men . . . AND torn their families completely asunder, but NOT your father. HE has lived through the tragic and premature deaths of THREE wives, held you boys together in the bonds of a strong, solid family through many insurmountable odds and setbacks, and gone on to build an empire like the Ponderosa to boot.”

Lady Chadwick made no mention of Paris McKenna, the fourth woman to whom Pa had given his heart, and would have married had fate been kinder. Nor did she make mention of his sister, Stacy, the daughter born from the love Pa and Paris shared. Joe found a great measure of relief in that.

“I knew that Ben would escape . . . AND that he’d see to it the lot of you escaped as well,” Linda rambled on. “In addition to inflicting on dear, lovely Ben the pain of losing his beloved home, that fire also served another purpose.”

“What?”

“It created a diversion,” Linda blithely explained. “While everyone was running about, helter-skelter, trying to bring the fire under control, Jack, Crippensworth, and I skirted around the periphery . . . watching and waiting.”

“Watching? Waiting?!” Joe snapped. “Watching and waiting for WHAT? To stand over Pa’s grieving, prostrate form and gloat?”

“That, Darling Boy, comes later,” Linda said complacently. “No . . . the three of us were simply waiting for our opportunity . . . to take YOU.”

“What do you want with me?”

“You will come to know everything in my good time, Joe, at MY leisure and MY convenience,” Linda replied.

“Look! If it’s MONEY you want . . . . ”

“I neither need nor WANT Ben Cartwright’s money,” Linda declared loftily, with a delicate grimace. “I AM after all a wealthy woman. A VERY wealthy woman.”

“What DO you want?”

“I told you. I want revenge. YOU will be the instrument by which I GET my revenge.”

“Why me?”

“Because YOU are the beloved son.”

“That’s not true!” Joe snarled. “Pa loves all of us equally . . . with all his heart. The ways he shows his love to each of us is different maybe, because each of US is different. But he doesn’t love one of us more than the others.”

“So YOU say,” Linda said dismissively. “I, however, have been watching your family for quite some time now, Joe, and I’ve come to see all of you as one body, with several parts. Your father, of course, is its head. Your oldest brother, Adam, is its mind, will, and intellect. Hoss is great strength, tempered by an even greater compassion. Your young sister— ”

Joe glanced over at her sharply, his hazel eyes peering into the shadows toward her head.

Linda laughed. “You thought I knew nothing about her, did you?”

“I had hoped you didn’t,” Joe said sullenly, his heart sinking.

“Perhaps you didn’t hear me just now when I said that I’ve been watching you and the rest of your family for a long time. A VERY long time. I’ve discovered that your sister’s brought a certain . . . playfulness, yes, but more . . . I believe the French call it joie de vivre . . . joy in living, of life,” Linda continued. “But YOU, Dear Joseph, YOU are the very heart of your family, its fire and passion. That’s what makes YOU the beloved son.”

“You must really hate my pa, don’t you.”

“I have just cause,” Linda replied, through clenched teeth.

“WHAT just cause?” Joe demanded angrily. “Pa’s never done ANYTHING to you.”

“Ben Cartwright SPURNED and HUMILIATED me . . . not ONCE, mind you, but TWICE! I’m sure you remember the second time.”

“When you came to visit us at the Ponderosa?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, yeah! I remember that second time alright,” Joe replied, his voice laden with angry sarcasm. “Pa didn’t humiliate YOU! You humiliated HIM by having that thug . . . what was his name? Oh yeah, Runyon! . . .spread all those lies among the men in our lumber camps and working our mining operation about Pa being broke. They believed Runyon and demanded we pay ‘em their wages daily . . . in CASH, instead of Ponderosa scrip. Cash we couldn’t pay ‘em because Pa couldn’t get a loan at the bank. The reason he couldn’t get a loan was that YOU had Montague buy up all the bank’s cash reserves.”

“Have a care, Joseph Francis Cartwright!” Linda warned in a voice suddenly stone cold.

“ . . . and just to make real sure of your plan to destroy the Ponderosa . . . all that Pa’s worked so hard for . . . you paid Runyon to stir up the men working the mining operations,” Joe continued with angry, reckless abandon. “They were all set to flood the mine shafts! If they HAD, it would’ve taken MONTHS to pump out all that water. MONTHS! Thank heaven, Kelly and I between us were able to talk the men out of it!

“Then there was that forest fire. If Pa hadn’t discovered THAT when he did, it could very easily have destroyed thousands of acres of valuable timber. Pa dang near lost everything, all on account of a nasty, petty, vindictive woman’s conniving!”

“Joseph Francis, I am warning you— ”

“You hatched that whole vicious little scheme to bankrupt Pa, so that he would have to come to YOU for help . . . and you were waiting right there weren’t you? Waiting on the sidelines, all pretty smiles and sympathy, ready and willing to loosen up those purse strings. All Pa would have had to do was marry you! Fortunately for US, Pa found out about your little game and exposed you.”

“ . . . and that’s the way you remember it?”

“ . . . because THAT’S the way it HAPPENED!”

“Well, you remember it WRONG!” Linda retorted in a lofty, angry tone.

“Hardly! I was there!”

Lady Chadwick jerked hard on the reins, bringing the carriage to a sudden stop. Gripping her whip firmly in hand, she gritted her teeth, then, with a loud, primal snarl, she turned and lashed Joe soundly across the face. “A word of warning, you insolent young puppy,” she spoke very quietly, her entire body trembling with fury. “I’d take great care to keep on my good side whilst you’re my guest, if I were you. That young man you knew so briefly as Jack Murphy?”

“Wh-what about him?”

“His name WASN’T Jack Murphy. I’ve always called him Jack, of course— ”

“Always?”

“Since he was born,” Linda said, with a complacent smile upon noting the puzzled look on her young captive’s face. “But, since the death of his father right before I visited the Ponderosa . . . Jack’s full REAL name is John Phillip Lawrence, Lord of Chadwick.”

Joe could feel the blood draining right out of his face. His stomach lurched, as the bile within rose to the back of his throat. “Dear God,” he moaned in horror, as the implications of her revelation began to hit him full force. “Dear God! Y-you mean—?!”

“Yes,” she said quietly, in the same dispassionate tone she might use to ask someone to take out her garbage. “John Phillip Lawrence, Lord of Chadwick . . . Jack Murphy, if you prefer, is . . . rather WAS . . . my son.”

 

Hop Sing’s nose had proven an uncannily accurate weather forecaster. The heavens opened up and poured forth the heaviest downpour Hoss could remember. The raging inferno that had all but consumed the house, and stood poised to potentially ravage and devour the entire countryside, was reduced to sodden ashes in the space of less than an hour.

After the immediate danger had passed, the women and children, who had worked so valiantly alongside the men to fight the fire, were bundled up in Hank Carlson’s buckboard, huddled together under the scant half dozen horse blankets he had stored under the seat, and returned to their homes. Hank had wrapped his own jacket around the shivering form of his great aunt, before helping her up into the seat beside him, over and above her vigorous protests.

The rest of the men remained behind and spent the next couple of hours working with Hoss and Candy to round up the Cartwright’s horses and return them to the barn, untouched by the inferno that had consumed most of the house.

“There y’ are, Boy!” Hoss murmured softly to his horse, Chubb, after all of the horses had been rounded up. “Warm ‘n dry with your coat all nice ‘n shiny!” He gave the large black gelding one last long stroke with the brush, then patted his rear flank affectionately. “I’ll be right back with some fresh hay ‘n water.”

Cochise snorted from his own stall to the right of Chubb’s.

“Don’t you worry none, Cochise! I’ll see to it YOU’RE fed ‘n watered, too,” Hoss promised as he let himself out of Chubb’s stall. He set the brush in hand down on the small table he kept just outside of the stall occupied by his horse, then bent down to pick up the bucket.

Hoss threw an old horse blanket over his head and across his shoulders, as a measure of protection and shelter against the rain still coming down, and walked over toward the pump, near what remained of the house. He noted with satisfaction that the dark, lead gray clouds overhead had lightened considerably, and that the rain, although still heavy, was no longer the torrential downpour it had been a scant couple of hours earlier.

“I sure hope Pa ‘n Hop Sing made it t’ town with Li’l Sister ‘fore them clouds opened up,” Hoss mused aloud, under his breath. He filled the bucket at the trough, then slogged back toward the barn, unmindful of his sodden nightshirt.

“Hoss?”

He glanced up as he entered the barn just in time to see Mitch Cranston stepping out of Big Buck’s stall. The young man, twenty, soon to turn twenty-one, had taken a few moments to change from his night shirt into the clothing he had worn the day previous, and splash some cold water on his face. His blonde hair remained almost black with soot, however, and he had not stopped to exchange the soaking wet slippers he still wore for a pair of boots. The half-drooping eyelids, sunken cheeks, and dark circles under his eyes lent him the appearance of a sleepy young boy half his age.

“Got Buck ‘n Blaze Face dried off, ‘n cleaned up,” Mitch reported, leaning heavily against the closed lower door, leading into Buck’s stall. “Kevin’s shovelin’ some hay into Guinevere’s trough, and I think Bobby’s about finished with Sport II.” He yawned. “Y’ want me to help ya with fetchin’ water?”

“I’ll git the water,” Hoss said. “I want you three young’ns to g’won back to the bunk house, dry off if ya need to, get yourselves a bite o’ breakfast, then get some sleep.”

“If it’s all the same to YOU, Mister Hoss, I’d rather just git on with my chores,” Mitch said.

“Mitch speaks for me, too, Mister Cartwright.” Hoss looked up and saw Bobby Washington, every muscle in his lean, powerful body sagging under the burden of his weariness like clothing on a body three sizes too small.

“ . . . and ME,” Kevin Hennessy stoutly added, punctuating his declaration with an emphatic nod of his head. “Speakin’ for m’self, Sir, I ain’t the least bit hungry, ‘n every time I close my eyes? I . . . I keep seein’ Derek’s face . . . when he . . . when he— ”

Hoss placed a gentle, yet steadying hand on Kevin’s shoulder. “I understand,” he said quietly, then looked up, his eyes also taking in Mitch and Bobby. “You fellas were really close to Derek, weren’t ya.”

Mitch nodded.

“Yes, Sir,” Kevin murmured.

“Yes, Mister Cartwright, we were,” Bobby said.

“It ain’t easy losin’ a good friend,” Hoss said. “Derek’s been workin’ f’r us for . . . oh I guess it’s been at least fifteen, maybe SIXTEEN years now . . . ever since his Ma ‘n Pa died. I know I’d be real hard put t’ find anyone more honest, reliable, ‘n loyal than Derek was. He must’ve been all that, and more, as a friend.”

“My ma ‘n pa died when I was pretty young, too,” Bobby said sadly. “I never had nobody else . . . no brothers or sisters. Derek was the big brother I never had.”

“He . . . he was one o’ the best friends I ever had,” Mitch said, his voice unsteady. Hoss noted that the young man’s eyes blinked excessively. “I . . . I think the worst part of all this is . . . n-next Saturday, he ‘n Carolyn we’re s’posed t’ git themselves hitched. The three of us was gonna be ushers.”

“I know,” Hoss said gently, his own voice catching. “Derek’s been talkin’ t’ me a lot lately ‘bout how much he loved Carolyn, how he was lookin’ forward to settlin’ down with her, ‘n raisin’ a whole passel o’ young’ns.”

“They wouldda gotten hitched LAST year, ‘cept Carolyn’s Pa died suddenly . . . Hoss, it ain’t fair! It just plain out ‘n out ain’t FAIR!” Mitch declared, as he angrily wiped the tears from his eyes with the heel of his hand.

“No, it ain’t,” Hoss readily agreed. “But the three of ya gotta be strong now. Strong f’r YOU, ‘n strong f’r Carolyn, too. Mitch, I knew you was sweet on her once. I kinda have a feelin’ y’ still ARE.”

“I never forced my attentions on Carolyn, Hoss, NEVER, ‘specially after I knew she ‘n Derek were . . . well, YOU know.”

“I know that,” Hoss said gently, “but you’re still good friends with Carolyn, ‘n she’s gonna need that. Now, I can understand why none o’ you are hungry, ‘n why you ain’t real keen on puttin’ your head t’ the pillow right now. But, you’re gonna need t’ keep up your strength. You can’t do that by skippin’ meals ‘n not getting proper sleep.”

“B-But— ” Bobby opened his mouth to protest.

“Tell ya what,” Hoss continued on without pause. “You fellas get some good, hot grub in ya. If you can’t get t’ sleep after y’ eat, then just lie down for a li’l while. At least THAT way y’ get some rest.”

“Alright,” Mitch sighed, as Hoss took the bucket he still held in his hands.

“Mister Cartwright?”

“Yeah, Bobby?”

“You’ll call us if you need us?”

“I sure will,” Hoss promised. “All three o’ you done real good. Now g’won ‘n get some rest.”

He watched in silence as the three stunned, grief-stricken young men trudged, exhausted and with much reluctance, out the barn headed for the bunkhouse. After they had gone, Hoss watered all of the horses and saw to it that their troughs were generously filled with fresh hay. He, then, walked back into the tack room, for a brush and blanket, intending to finish the job of stabling Sport II. He felt the tell tale acrid stinging of tears in his own eyes, as he stepped from the tack room into the barn. By the time he came even with Chubb’s stall, a scant few yards later, he was completely blinded.

“S-Sorry, Sport . . . y-you, t-too, Cochise . . . s-sorry . . . y-you’ll just have to . . . t’ wait a while . . . . ” Hoss collapsed down heavily onto the stout, three-legged stool he kept just outside Chubb’s stall, dropping the horse blanket and brush in hand. He quickly buried his face in his hands and wept, for a very long time.

Hop Sing walked briskly down the upstairs hallway of the Martins’ home, carrying two boxes, wrapped in brown parcel paper, and six bags of assorted sizes. He came to a stop before the fast closed door of the guest room, and knocked.

“Who is it?” Ben Cartwright tersely demanded from within.

“Hop Sing, Mister Cartwright. Just now back from store. Buy what you ask.”

“Come in.”

Hop Sing carefully balanced his purchases on his left arm, while deftly opening the door with his freed up right hand. He found his old friend and employer inside pacing the floor with the same restless intensity as the caged big cats he saw once in a zoo many years ago, before he left China.

Ben, clad only in a blue terry cloth robe hastily borrowed from Doctor Martin, abruptly stopped his relentless pacing mid-stride, and made one more valiant, if vain, effort to pull the edges of the robe closed. He sighed, and settled for simply holding the edges as close together as the natural stretch of the garment would allow. Turning his attention to Hop Sing, he asked, “Any word about Stacy?”

Hop Sing saw the concern and apprehension, mingling with an almost eager hopefulness in the set of Ben’s face, and in his dark brown eyes. He exhaled a soft melancholy sigh, then reluctantly shook his head. “Hop Sing ask Doc Martin wife. She tell Hop Sing doctor still with Miss Stacy.” He set the packages down on the bed and began to unwrap them.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben sighed, “for making those purchases for me and . . . for stopping to ask Lily.”

“Mister Cartwright need Hop Sing do anything else?”

Ben shook his head. “You g’won downstairs, and wait in the parlor, while I get dressed. I’ll be down directly.”

Hop Sing nodded, then left the room.

Since arriving on Paul Martin’s doorstep with Stacy and Hop Sing, looking for all the world like a trio of drowned rats, Ben had bathed, at the stern insistence of the good doctor himself, washing away the soot, the grime, and the stench of burning wood from his body and out of his hair. He had also shaved, and sent Hop Sing out to the general store to purchase new clothing. As he set himself to the task of unwrapping the parcels containing the new clothing, his thoughts drifted back to the fire, reliving again the final collapse of ceiling that separated himself, Hoss, and Stacy from . . . .

“JOE! JOE, ANSWER ME!”

“Pa . . . way out . . . . Hop Sing’s room.”

“GO!”

Satisfied in his own mind that Joe would exit out though Hop Sing’s room, he had turned and followed behind Hoss. Stacy, badly injured and still unconscious, lay in the arms of her big brother like a lifeless rag doll . . . .

“What happened to JOE?!” Ben wondered frantically. “Did he make it out?” He closed his eyes and tried desperately to remember everything that had happened after they . . . himself, Hoss, and Stacy . . . had left the house for the very last time.

Images rose from recent memory, fast and furious, one after the other . . . .

Hoss placing Stacy down on the grass out in front of the collapsed, burning house, with all the care and gentleness a little girl shows to a baby doll with a fragile porcelain head, then kneeling down alongside her . . . .

Stacy herself, a young woman who couldn’t sit still for more than a minute in the normal course of things, lying on the ground, unmoving, her face white as the night shirt she wore, eyes closed, the hair in the right side of her head matted with dried blood . . . .

He himself, kneeling on the other side of Stacy, facing Hoss . . . discovering her broken leg . . . his hands trembling so badly, he could barely tie the tourniquet . . . .

Ben felt the blood once more draining from his face, as the image of jagged bone protruding through torn, bleeding flesh and muscle slammed back into his mind and memory with harsh crystal clarity. He vigorously shook his head, as if to physically dislodge the horrific memory . . .

“I’LL be all right.”

Hoss’ voice, gentle and reassuring yet firm, filtered into his mind, thoughts, and his heart. He, too, had been injured when the staircase inside collapsed. Ben had noted the telltale rivulet of blood flowing down the side of his head. Yet, he made light of his own pain.

“I think we need t’ git Stacy t’ Doc Martin, Pa, sooner rather ‘n later.”

After Hop Sing had returned with wood to splint Stacy’s leg, immobilize it for the long trip ahead to Virginia City, the three of them managed to get the job done. Hoss sent Jacob Cromwell to fetch the buckboard, then ran into the tack room for a horse blanket. He and Hoss carefully moved Stacy onto the blanket, then, together, they lifted the edges and carried her to the buckboard. They settled her and the blanket on top of the mattress of straw, packed in by Kevin O’Hennessy, then he climbed into the back of the buckboard with her. As Hop Sing climbed up into the driver’s seat, Ben had very gently, very carefully taken the edges of the blanket and wrapped them around his daughter, grateful beyond measure that she had remained unconscious throughout.

Hop Sing, in the meantime, had slipped his own his rain slicker on over his pajamas and robe. “Mister Cartwright, put on!” he said, dropping Ben’s rain slicker down in his lap. “Rain, pour down rain, before Hop Sing reach Virginia City.”

Hop Sing’s prediction came to pass not five minutes after they had pulled out of the yard. Thankfully, there was a waterproof canvas tarp lying neatly folded under the seat. Ben quickly unfolded the tarp, and placed it over Stacy, to shelter her against the pouring rain, then huddled under the shelter his rain slicker. On the one hand, he had been grateful for the rains coming as they did. They would douse the fire that had all but consumed the home he had shared with his sons and daughter. At the same time, Ben prayed fervently that neither he, Stacy, nor Hop Sing would end up catching their death of pneumonia . . . .

As the last memory of the fire and mad dash to Virginia City faded back into blessed oblivion, Ben suddenly, belatedly realized he never actually saw hide nor hair of Joe after that last ceiling collapse separated them from him.

An urgent knock on the Martins’ guest room door abruptly drew Ben from his anxious musings. “Yes? Who is it?”

“Hop Sing, Mister Cartwright. Doctor Martin speak now about Miss Stacy.”

“Tell the doctor I’ll be right there!” Ben ordered tersely.

“Yes, Mister Cartwright. Hop Sing tell doctor.”

Ben quickly finished buttoning his shirt, then without bothering to tuck his shirttails into his pants, or comb his hair, he flung open the guest room door, and bolted down the hall toward the steps leading down to the first floor at a dead run.

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T SAVE STACY’S LEG?” Ben demanded, his voice rising. His face, now contorted with a murderous scowl, the lower jaw muscles rigidly tensed, and mouth thinned to a hard line, presented an unsettling contrast to the grief and hopeless despair mirrored in his eyes.

“Stacy needs surgery to properly align and set that bone,” Paul Martin reiterated, all the while striving to keep his voice firm and even. “I haven’t the skill to perform that surgery.”

“Where’s the nearest doctor who CAN perform the surgery?”

“At the International Hotel.”

The doctor’s reply took the angry wind right out of Ben Cartwright’s sails. He stood, as if rooted to the very spot, his eyes glued to Paul’s face, too stunned to speak.

“Lily and his wife were first cousins,” Paul explained. “His wife, Karen, died recently, of that lung disease she’d contracted many years ago, before they came out here. He stopped here to see Lily on his way back from Pennsylvania.”

“Don’t just stand there and tell me about him, Paul! Get him up here!”

“I sent Lily down to the hotel ten minutes ago to fetch him, Ben,” Paul said. “He’s a very fine surgeon, with the necessary skill to set a compound fracture, like Stacy has. However— ”

“However, WHAT?” Ben growled.

“First of all, the break wasn’t a clean one. You saw the jagged edges protruding out from the skin yourself.”

Ben shuddered.

“There’s a very real possibility that HE may not be able to realign the bone properly,” Paul continued. “Even if he can, there’s an even greater possibility of infection setting in.”

Ben exhaled a short, curt sigh of pure exasperation. “Paul, WITHOUT the surgery, Stacy will definitely lose the leg, right?”

“Yes.”

“I want to give her every chance.”

“Ben . . . . ”

“What, Paul?”

“There’s also a good chance Stacy may not survive the surgery,” the doctor continued. “I’ve stopped the bleeding on that compound fracture, but she’s still lost a good deal of blood. Furthermore, administering anesthesia’s going to be very dicey with her drifting out of consciousness the way she is right now.”

Ben felt like he had just taken a hard sucker punch to his solar plexus. He closed his eyes and forced himself to draw breath, deep, though ragged. “Paul?”

“Y-Yes, Ben?”

“Is Stacy awake right now?”

“She was when I came out to speak with you.”

“May I . . . m-may I please see her?”

“Certainly, Ben. You’ll find her in my examining room. The surgeon and I will join you there . . . when he and Lily get here.”

Hearing the door open, Stacy slowly turned her head. “Pa?”

Though her voice was weak, barely audible, Ben heard her as clearly as he would have had she yelled at the top of her lungs.

“Pa . . . . ” Stacy murmured again, very softly, as she held out her hand.

Ben was at her side in less than a heartbeat, taking her small hand in his own large one. “I’m here, Stacy . . . I’m right here.”

“I . . . heard what Doctor M-Martin said.”

Ben could feel his heart plummeting at break neck speed, all the way down to his feet. “H-How much?”

“Enough. I . . . I won’t let him take me, Pa,” Stacy said, her jaw set with stubborn determination. In her eyes, Ben saw defiance mix with pain.

“Y-you won’t let WHO take you?” Ben asked, his voice unsteady.

“The Angel of Death! I never told you this, but . . . the afternoon before Miss O’Toole died? He was there. I . . . I sensed his presence.”

“Do you . . . do you sense his presence now?” Ben asked, while unconsciously tightening his hold on Stacy’s hand.

Stacy nodded, and for the briefest of moments, her defiant mask slipped, revealing her fear and grief. “I mean it, Pa,” she said as the mask slipped back into place. “I WON’T let him take me. I promise.”

“I-I’m h-holding you to that promise, Young Woman.”

“You’d better.” Stacy closed her eyes and lapsed back into unconsciousness.

“I will,” Ben hastened to reassure her, blinking his eyes against his own sudden onslaught of tears. He remained with Stacy, with her hand still clasped in his own, occasionally stroking the uninjured side of her head, allowing the grief, the worry, and the anger he had kept back for so many long hours, to finally come forth.

Hoss Cartwright awoke with a start. A bewildered frown creased his brow upon realizing that he was sitting on a low, three-legged stool, wearing a damp nightshirt, with a jagged hemline that reached almost clear up to his knees. His back rested heavily against the closed door to Chubb’s stall, and there was a clean horse blanket draped across his lap, put there by some kind soul who had probably tried to wake him, but could not.

“What the—?” Hoss murmured softly as his eyes warily took in his surroundings. “What the heck am I doin’ out here in the BARN?”

Then, in a flash, he remembered . . .

the fire, the house . . . most of it gone, reduced to so much cinders, ash, and charred wood; Stacy badly hurt . . . he shuddered, as the image of jagged bone, stark white against the angry deep reddish hues of her blood, and torn flesh, rose again to remembrance . . .

. . . and Joe missing!

After the rains came, bringing the fire under control, Hoss had moved among the ranch hands and their families, frantically searching their weary faces for his younger brother. He had also asked everyone he passed, had they seen Joe? Each time, the answer was the same, whether it be a no, or a silent shake of the head, or shrugged shoulders.

He straightened his posture, with painful protest from his lower back and neck, made stiff from having remained so still for . . . he frowned. He had no idea how long he had been sitting there, sound asleep. In fact, he couldn’t even remember having fallen asleep.

“Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven,” Hoss softly prayed aloud. Pa had taught him that prayer, called The Lord’s Prayer, many years ago when he was a small boy. Giving utterance to those words in troubled times always brought him great comfort and strength to face whatever lay ahead. “Give us this day our daily bread, ‘n forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. An’ lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, an’ the glory, forever. Amen.”

Hoss closed his eyes and leaned back against the door to Chubb’s stall, drawing upon the comfort and solace found in those words. A moment later, he quietly added, “You know I ain’t much of a prayin’ man. I’ve always listened ‘n gone along with Pa whenever HE prays, but right now, Pa ain’t here. So, I’M askin’ ya t’ please look after Li’l Joe, wherever he is, ‘n git him back t’ us safe ‘n sound. I’m also askin’ ya t’ keep an eye on Stacy, too. Whatever y’ can do to help that busted leg o’ hers mend . . . well, I’d sure appreciate it. Amen.”

“H-Hoss?”

He looked up and saw Hank Carlson, the senior foreman, standing in front of him with the rim of his hat clutched in both hands, held tight against his chest. His face was ashen gray and his eyes round with horror and dread.

“Hoss, I . . . I think we f-found Joe . . . . ”

“Where?” Hoss snapped out the question. “Is he hurt?”

Hank quickly averted his eyes to his feet. “He’s . . . he’s . . . . ”

“Well, c’mon, Man, spit it out! Where’d ya find Joe?” Hoss pressed, trying to ignore the fear and trepidation now rising up within him.

“Hoss, he’s . . . we found him inside the house!” It took every ounce of will Hark Carlson possessed to utter those dreadful words.

“No!” Hoss whispered, as the blood drained right out of his face. “N-No.”

“I’m s-sorry, Hoss, real s-sorry, I— ”

Hoss immediately leapt to his feet, his blue eyes blazing with anger. “No! My li’l brother AIN’T dead, Hank Carlson, you hear me?”

Hank blanched and took an involuntary step backward. “We found him . . . IN THE HOUSE . . . lying r-right next to . . . to Derek— ”

Hoss pushed past Hank and tore out of the barn, running at breakneck speed. There, over near the spot where the front door once stood, he saw a dozen men, Jacob, Mitch, Kevin and Bobby among them, gathered in a rough half-circle around two bodies lying on the ground, covered over with horse blankets. He bolted across the short distance of yard lying between the barn and the charred remains of the house, beating a straight path to the men.

Jacob Cromwell moved out from among the rest and strode briskly toward Hoss on a direct intercept course.

“Git outta my way,” Hoss growled, as Jacob planted himself right smack in the middle of his path.

“Hoss, it ain’t a pretty sight,” Jacob, his face the same ashen hue as Hank’s, stated very bluntly.

“I want to see m’ li’l brother, ‘n I want to see him right NOW,” Hoss said through clenched teeth. “Now you stand aside or so help me, I’ll MAKE ya stand aside.”

“Hoss— ”

“I mean it, Jacob.”

Jacob sighed and very reluctantly surrendered to the inevitable.

Hoss continued on, an unstoppable juggernaut, until he came to the two bodies lying on the ground. “Which one o’ these is Joe?” he demanded.

“THAT one, Mister Hoss,” Bobby said, his voice shaking, his eyes never quite reaching those of the largest Cartwright son. He pointed down to the body lying closest to his feet, the one on Hoss’ left.

Hoss knelt down slowly, with heart in mouth, and reached out to grab the nearest corner of the horse blanket, supposedly covering the dead body of his youngest brother. He lifted the blanket and stared down at the body underneath, open mouthed with shock.

“H-Hoss?” Jacob Cromwell ventured hesitantly.

“This man’s got his clothes on,” Hoss whispered, his voice barely audible.

Jacob frowned. “What was that? I didn’t quite catch— ”

“I SAID this man’s got his clothes on,” Hoss repeated his words louder. He covered the body again, and rose to his feet, grinning broadly from ear-to-ear. This drew shocked, astonished glances from the other men, forming the half circle. “This ain’t Joe! Do y’ hear me? This AIN’T Joe!”

“Wh-What makes you so sure . . . this ain’t Joe?” Jacob asked, trying to humor the big man.

“I just toldja . . . THIS man’s got his clothes on,” Hoss readily explained. “Joe was out runnin’ around in his night shirt ‘n robe like most o’ US were doin’.”

“Hoss?” It was Candy. He approached from around the side of the house, where the kitchen and Hop Sing’s room stood, carrying something red in both hands. “I found these just now while I was out in Hop Sing’s garden, nosing around.”

As Candy drew near, Hoss saw that he held a red bathrobe and a sodden red slipper. “They’re Joe’s!” he whispered. “I remember him wearin’ that robe when that ceilin’ pert near fell down on our heads, ‘n we got separated.”

A weary grin spread slowly across Candy’s lips. “I kinda thought these might be his.”

“You know what this means don’t ya?”

“Yeah, Big Guy, I reckon I do.”

Suddenly the air was rent by the sound of Hoss whooping with joyous abandon. “HE GOT OUT!! BY GOLLY M’ LI’L BROTHER GOT OUT!”

“Yep!” Candy smiled and nodded in complete agreement.

“If he got out then you tell me where he is, Mister Canaday,” Jacob growled. “ ‘Cause none of US has seen him.”

“I think I may have an answer to that,” Candy said, his smile fading. As he handed Joe’s slipper and robe over to Hoss, their eyes met and held. “Hoss, I need to show ya.”

“I’ll come in a minute,” Hoss said quietly. “Jacob?”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“I’d like you ‘n the others t’ keep workin’ on the house,” Hoss said. “You’d best send one o’ the younger fellas off t’ town t’ fetch Doc Martin. Have him tell the doc t’ bring along a buckboard. I imagine he’ll want t’ take both bodies back t’ town to examine.”

“Yes, Sir,” Jacob said curtly. “I’ll see that everything’s taken care of.”

“One more thing, Jacob . . . . ”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“I want ya t’ know that I ain’t raisin’ false hope ‘bout Joe,” Hoss said. “That other man y’ found may have been wearin’ clothes like Joe wears, but, like I just said, Joe was runnin’ ‘round in his nightshirt ‘n this robe. Hank also told me that other man was lyin’ in the house right next t’ Derek Welles. Derek fell off the roof into the attic. Joe was downstairs nowhere NEAR the attic.”

“I hope you ‘n Mister Canaday are right, Hoss, I honestly hope and pray you’re right,” Jacob said earnestly. “But, I know how cruel a thing false hope can be, too.”

“Jacob, lemme ask ya this,” Hoss said. “Is there anyone ELSE missin’?”

Jacob thought the matter over for a moment, then reluctantly shook his head. “No, Hoss, I can’t think of anyone— ”

“Mister Cartwright . . . Mister Cromwell?”

Both turned and found Kevin O’Hennessey standing behind them. “What is it, Kevin?” Hoss asked.

“There IS another man missing,” Kevin replied.

“Who?” Jacob demanded.

“Jack Murphy, the new man your pa ‘n Mister Canaday hired a couple o’ months ago, Mister Cartwright,” Kevin replied. “I ain’t seen HIM since the roof fell in, neither.”

“Now that ya mention it, I can’t say I remember seein’ him after the roof fell in m’self,” Arch Campbell, one of the older hands, piped up, “an’ I remember my’ wife, Mary, makin’ some kinda comment ‘bout him runnin’ around all dressed up, was the way she put it, whilst the rest of us were all runnin’ around in our night clothes or whatever we just happened t’ throw on.”

“Yeah . . . now that ya mention it, Arch, Jack Murphy WAS wearin’ clothes,” Hoss said slowly. “In fact, he was wearing the same kinda clothes JOE wears.”

“Hoss, you’re grasping at straws,” Jacob hotly protested, “ . . . FLIMSY straws. Ok, maybe he WAS wearing the same kinda clothes Joe wears. He still don’t look nothin’ like Joe.”

“That’s very true, Mister Cromwell,” Candy said. “However, Jack IS about the same height and weight as Joe. He’s also got the same kind of hair and eyes.”

“So WHAT?!” Jacob growled.

“If you burn Jack’s face beyond recognition, along with hands, any scars or tattoos, what’s LEFT could very easily be mistaken for Joe,” Candy said.

“Except I didn’t see Jack no where near the house!”

“ . . . and there seems to be a fair number of people who haven’t seen Jack either, since the roof fell in, Jacob,” Candy retorted. “You wanna tell US where he is?”

“You callin’ me a liar, Mister Canaday?”

“Nope! I’m just askin’ YOU where Jack Murphy is.”

“Jacob, you got your orders,” Hoss immediately stepped in to put an end to the growing altercation between Candy and Jacob, before they took it into their heads to settle things with their fists. “ . . . an’ Candy, you said you have somethin’ to show me?”

“I sure do, Big Fella. Follow me.”

Satisfied that Jacob Cromwell was more than able to oversee the task of clean up, Hoss had turned and headed for the barn, with Candy following silently behind. On the one hand, he felt grateful beyond measure that it had been HIS turn to muck out the stalls this past week. Had that not been the case, his rubber boots might have been upstairs in his room last night when the fire started, instead of out in the barn. Even so, he had come to the place where he would have given his eyeteeth to be able to shed his nightshirt and get dressed. Pa, Joe, and Stacy would have had no problem with one of the ranch hands or their family members loaning them proper clothes. Unfortunately, a big fella like himself was much harder to fit.

“Candy?”

No answer.

Hoss sat down on the stool next to Chubb’s stall, and removed his soggy slippers. “Hey, Candy . . . . ”

Still no answer.

Hoss glanced up as he tugged the first boot onto his right foot. Candy stood beside him, leaning with his back against Chubb’s stall, with his eyes fixed on the door. The foreman’s eye seemed unfocused, distant, not unlike the look in Joe’s eyes when he was much younger, seated at the dining room table, trying to do his school work on a beautiful spring afternoon. “CANDY!” Hoss tried again, raising his voice slightly.

Candy started, then looked down.

“Sorry I spooked ya,” Hoss immediately apologized, as he reached for his other rubber boot. “You all right?”

“I . . . I dunno, I guess . . . . ” Candy replied, shaking his head as if to clear out the mental cobwebs and fog. “I was just thinking about Derek. Did you know that he’d . . . that he’d asked me to be the best man at his wedding next Saturday?”

“He told me he was gonna ask ya.”

“NOW, it looks like I’m gonna end up being a pallbearer at his funeral,” Candy said with a touch of rancor. “It doesn’t set well with me, Hoss. It doesn’t set well with me at all.”

“I know, Candy,” Hoss murmured sympathetically. “Ever since his Ma ‘n Pa died, it seemed the only thing Derek ever wanted in life was t’ have a family again, an’ now . . . just when he had that dream in his grasp . . . . ” He sighed and shook his head. “I agree with Mitch. It just plain ‘n simply ain’t fair.”

“So, when . . . are you going to tell Carolyn?”

“If I get back t’ town at a decent enough hour, I’ll stop in ‘n tell her t’night,” Hoss said. “If not, I’ll tell her first thing in t’ mornin’.” He sighed and shook his head. “I ain’t lookin’ forward t’ that.”

“If you’d like . . . I could probably see my way into town later this evening . . . . ”

“Thanks, Candy, I’m much obliged f’r your offer, but . . . . ” Hoss dolefully shook his head. “I just feel real strongly that . . . well, seein’ as how Derek’s been here with us all those years since his ma ‘n pa died, Carolyn ought t’ be told by Pa, Joe, or me. With Joe missin’, ‘n Pa lookin’ after Stacy . . . well, I guess that falls t’ me.”

“I understand,” Candy said. “If you’d like me to go along to offer you some moral support, however, you let me know.”

“I sure will.” Hoss quickly slipped on his other boot, then leaned down to pick up Joe’s red bathrobe, lying at his feet. He frowned. “Say, Candy?”

“Yeah, Hoss?”

“You say you found Joe’s robe ‘n slipper out in Hop Sing’s garden?!” Hoss asked as he slowly rose to his feet.

“Yeah . . . . Why?”

“The slipper’s still pretty wet,” Hoss said. “ ‘Course it SHOULD be after all that rain! But the robe’s dry as a bone.”

“I found the slipper lying by the gate leading out of the garden, but the robe was lying buried under some pieces of wood that fell in the garden when the roof collapsed.”

Hoss frowned, upon realizing that the bathrobe felt unusually heavy. “What in the world’s he got stuffed in this thing?” he wondered aloud. “Feels like he’s got every thing except the doggoned kitchen sink!” He handed the slipper over to Candy, then started digging into the nearest pocket. “Well I’ll be dadburned . . . . ” Hoss held up the hinged silver frame that contained pictures of Adam’s mother, Elizabeth, and his own mother, Inger. “Joe must’ve grabbed these off the end table while we were restin’ at the bottom of the stairs.”

“Family pictures?”

“Yeah,” Hoss nodded, his own eyes misting. “That li’l brother o’ mine’s a real sentimental slob through ‘n through.”

“He sure is. Just like his BIG brother!”

“Pa’s gonna be real happy t’ see this,” Hoss said, as he turned and walked into the tack room.

Candy slowly followed behind.

Hoss found his saddlebags, hanging in their customary place on the wall. He removed them from their hook, and started to fill them with the photographs, and other family treasures that Joe had saved from the fire. “You said a li’l while ago that you know what’s happened t’ Joe?”

“Yeah,” Candy nodded.

“What? Can ya tell me?”

“Like I said before, Hoss . . . I think I’d better SHOW you . . . . ”

“I found Joe’s slipper right here,” Candy pointed to the ground centered between his and Hoss’ toes.

Candy had taken Hoss around to Hop Sing’s large kitchen garden, surrounded by a stonewall, rising nearly fifteen feet high. Now they stood facing each other within the enclosure, roughly ten feet away from the gate, set into the wall directly opposite the kitchen door. Though Candy had taken time to dress and splash a cupped handful of cold water on his face, he had not shaved, nor had he taken a comb to his brown wavy hair. Like Hoss, he, also wore a pair of waterproof rubber boots.

“That downpour filled ‘em in a lot,” Candy continued. “However, if you look close, you can still see the line of tracks moving away from here . . . where I found the slipper, toward the gate.”

Hoss scowled as he peered hard at the ground, his eyes still following the line of Candy’s extended arm and pointing finger. “Yeah . . . . ” he murmured moving along a path parallel to the footprints Candy had pointed out. “I can also see the left foot’s rounded, as if he still had that slipper on. The heel’s a bit narrower ‘n the other, ‘n these marks here were probably made by his toes.”

Candy followed Hoss toward the gate, moving across the soft wet ground along the other side of the footprints, walking a parallel course just as Hoss did. Upon reaching the garden gate first, he opened it, and gestured for Hoss to step through. Hoss nodded his thanks, then stepped through the open gate out into the grassy meadow beyond.

“Over here . . . see? Where the grass has been broken?”

“Yeah . . . . ”

“Joe met somebody,” Candy said. “His tracks come this far, and stop.” He pointed to the tall grass, where a line of trampled, broken stalks lead out away from the gate, then abruptly stopped. “Someone was waiting for him . . . right . . . about . . . HERE.”

Hoss followed the line of Candy’s extended arm and pointing finger to a patch of trampled, broken grass stalks and reeds placed at a convergent point with Joe’s trail. “Yeah. I see it,” he muttered, his mouth thinning to a grim, angry line. “Had Joe NOT been intercepted, he would’ve turned and headed THAT way.” Hoss pointed to his right, his extended arm roughly parallel to the back wall of the house. “Instead, both sets o’ tracks head up that way.” He turned pointing up and away from the back end of what remained of the ranch house.

Candy nodded. “I think this is Joe’s trail,” he ventured pointing toward another line of parted grass. “I say that because it picks up from there . . . where he stopped after meeting whoever was waiting. The other guy follows.” He pointed out the second trail.

Hoss and Candy silently followed both trails in silence. Suddenly, the former stopped at the edge of an irregular shaped circle of trampled, broken grass. “Looks like there was some kinda struggle.”

“Yeah,” Candy nodded his head.

Hoss moved off toward his right, following the boundary line of broken grass, until he picked up another trail. “Candy.”

“Yeah, Hoss?”

“Look!”

“I see it. Another trail, coming from the opposite direction.” Candy pointed to a rough, uneven line leading away from the jagged circle and the charred remains of the house.”

“Two trails,” Hoss mused thoughtfully. “See the way the grass bends here?”

“Yeah . . . . ”

“I think THIS path was made by someone walking this direction. There’s another right over here, with the grasses pointin’ down the hill.”

Candy stepped over to the trail that Hoss had pointed out, the one leading down to the large circle of flattened grass. “Yeah,” he said grimly. “Looks like there were TWO people here. The one who met Joe at the garden gate and this guy.”

“Let’s see where this goes,” Hoss said, pointing to the trail leading up, away from the circle, toward the small rise ahead. He started walking up the hill.

Candy silently followed behind. “Hoss?”

“Yeah, Candy?”

“Isn’t there a road up over that rise?”

“Yeah. A side road that eventually joins up t’ the main road between the Ponderosa ‘n Virginia City. Why do y’ ask?”

“I’m working on a theory, My Friend,” Candy said grimly as he quickened his pace. Within a few moments, he had passed Hoss and reached the top of the ridge.

Hoss paused, three quarters of the way up the rise, when he saw Candy stop and bow his head toward the ground. “FIND ANYTHING?” he shouted.

Candy glanced up sharply. “YEAH. WHEEL RUTS . . . MADE DEEPER BY THE RAIN AND FILLED WITH WATER, ALONG WITH HORSE TRACKS.”

Hoss immediately quickened his pace.

“I FOUND SOMETHING ELSE, TOO, HOSS!” Candy thrust his arm upward into the air.

Hoss paused, his eyes glued to Candy’s clenched fist. From the place where he stood, less than a dozen feet from the very top of the rise, he saw something bright red in Candy’s clenched fist. “WHAT IS IT?” he yelled back, fearing that he already knew the answer full well.

“JOE’S OTHER SLIPPER.”

Hoss bounded up over the rise with heart in mouth. Within seconds, he stood alongside Candy, staring down at the bright scarlet mate to the slipper he had stuffed into his saddle bags, along with the robe and the family pictures, Joe had thought to save.

“The wheel ruts and horse tracks lead to the road,” Candy said tersely.

Hoss nodded curtly. He and Candy, each moving along a parallel course on either side of the trail made by wheel and hoof, followed it to the road. “Whoever it was turned right.” Hoss pointed toward the mud, dirt, and grass dragged onto the dirt side road by the wheels.

“This side road’s pretty well packed,” Candy dolefully shook his head. “Once those wheels turn onto it, and shake off the mud and grass . . . the trail comes to a complete dead end.”

Hoss silently digested all that Candy had shown him thus far. “Candy . . . . ”

“Yeah?”

“Are you tryin’ t’ tell me that Joe . . . that he’s been kidnapped?!”

“It sure looks that way,” Candy said grimly.

“That second set o’ tracks you showed me, just outside the garden gate . . . the ones that met Joe when he stumbled through that gate . . . . ”

“What about ‘em?”

“You told me it looked as if whoever belongs t’ that second set o’ prints was waitin’ f’r Joe.”

“Yeah.” Candy nodded.

“Somethin’ ‘bout all this don’t add up!”

“What do you mean, Hoss?”

“If someone were out t’ kidnap Joe, or any o’ the rest o’ us for that matter, he’d have better luck waitin’ out on the road or along a trail someplace,” Hoss replied. “It don’t make one lick o’ sense for someone t’ be waitin’ around back t’ grab Joe at daybreak . . . unless . . . whoever took Joe knew the house was gonna burn down.”

“That is not as unlikely as you think,” Candy said soberly, as he dug into his pants pocket. “Hank Carlson found this near where we found Derek Welles’ body.” He pulled out a piece of charred material and placed it into Hoss’ hand. “Take a whiff!”

Hoss lifted the burned piece of cloth to his nose and inhaled. “Kerosene!” he muttered, his brow creasing into a dark, angry scowl. “Then . . . somebody DID set that fire!”

“Yeah,” Candy nodded.

Sheriff Roy Coffee and Doctor Paul Martin arrived during the early afternoon hours, the former riding on his horse, Tin Star, so named for the big white star in the middle of his forehead. The doctor rode alongside the sheriff in a buckboard, driving a team of two horses rented from the livery stable, in town. Roy slowed Tin Star to a walk upon entering the yard, and nudged the big brown gelding toward the hitching post. Paul followed in the buckboard.

“Whoa, Tin Star,” Roy murmured softly, as he brought his horse to a stop. He climbed down out of the saddle and led Tin Star over to the hitching post.

“Sheriff Coffee?”

Roy turned and found himself staring into the worn, weary face of Jacob Cromwell. Though he had washed the soot and ash from his face and hands, the pungent scent of burning wood remained. He wore a pair of faded olive green pants, held up with suspenders, and an undershirt that had seen much better days. “ ‘Afternoon, Mister Cromwell,” he greeted the big man politely. “Is Hoss around?”

“My wife dragged him off to our home,” Jacob replied. He dug into a back pocket and extracted a red and black bandana, which he used to mop the sweat from his face. “When she found out he ain’t et since the fire, she insisted on him comin’ down for a proper meal. You know the way?”

“I’LL show him the way, Mister Cromwell.”

It was Candy. Jacob turned to the junior foreman with an angry scowl. “Don’t you start up with all that foolishness again, Mister Canaday, or so help me . . . . ”

“Dammit, when are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that— ”

“Mister Canaday . . . Mister Cromwell . . . that’s enough,” Roy admonished them both very sternly. “Ben ‘n Hoss’re gonna need you boys t’ pull t’gether, ‘specially right now, with Stacy bad hurt, ‘n Joe— ” He broke off abruptly, unable to finish.

“Mister Cromwell?” Paul Martin spoke for the first time.

“Yeah, Doc, what can I do for ya?”

“I’d like to see the bodies of the two men who died in the fire, and treat anyone else who was wounded.”

“I think y’ oughtta give Hoss a once over, too, Doc,” Jacob said. “He ain’t said nothin’ . . . he wouldn’t . . . but I notice him favorin’ his left leg more ‘n more as the day wears on. As f’r the rest of us, ain’t no one hurt, leastwise not serious. I think the Cartwright family bore the brunt o’ all that. The bodies’re out behind the barn, where it’s shady. One of ‘em’s Derek Welles, and the other . . . ” he turned and glared defiantly at Candy, “ . . . the other one’s Joe Cartwright.”

“We know,” Roy Coffee said sadly. “Bobby Washington told us when he rode into town to fetch me ‘n the doc out here.” He exhaled a melancholy sigh and shook his head. “I can’t b’lieve it! Just YESTERDAY, he ‘n I were at the Silver Dollar— ”

“NO!” Candy protested vehemently, drawing a sharp, angry glare from Jacob Cromwell and a couple of the other men, standing next to him. “The other dead man is NOT Joe Cartwright.”

Jacob exhaled a short, curt exasperated sigh, while sarcastically rolling his eyes. “Awww NO! You gonna start up with that nonsense AGAIN?!”

“I KNOW what I saw out back,” Candy stubbornly maintained his position.

“How d’ you know them tracks you’re so blamed sure are Joe’s . . . don’t really belong t’ Jack?!”

“Because Jack Murphy WASN’T wearing Joe’s robe and slippers.”

“Dammit, Mister Canaday, the sooner you face the facts— ”

“I AM facing the facts, Mister Cromwell, and the facts say Joe made it out of the house. It’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

“THEN WHERE THE HELL IS HE?” Jacob shouted, giving vent to the anger, frustration, and grief that had been building inside him since the discovery of the bodies. “HUNH? I AST YA ONCE BEFORE, AND YA AIN’T ANSWERED ME YET!”

“THEN WE’RE EVEN!” Candy yelled back. “BECAUSE YOU HAVE YET TO TELL ME WHERE JACK MURPHY IS.”

“Mister Cromwell, if you would be so kind as to show me the bodies,” Paul Martin said quickly, as he physically moved in between Candy and Jacob.

“Yeah, Doc, sure thing,” Jacob growled. “Maybe once YOU have a look at ‘em, you can straighten out certain hard headed people around here as to what’s what, once ‘n f’r all.” He directed a murderous scowl at Candy.

“Roy, since you’re going to Mister Cromwell’s home to see Hoss, would you mind taking him the packages in the back of my buckboard?” Paul asked. “Ben and Hop Sing asked me to make sure Hoss got ‘em.”

“Sure, Doc, I’ll see to it,” Roy promised.

“I’ll be right with ya, soon as I get a saddle on Thor,” Candy said through clenched teeth, as he watched Jacob Cromwell’s retreating back.

“So what’s with you ‘n Jacob Cromwell?” Roy asked, once he and Candy were on their way to the small three room foreman’s house that Jacob and Ellen Cromwell called home.

“He INSISTS the second body we pulled from the house . . . what’s LEFT of the house . . . is Joe!” Candy said, angry and exasperated. “It’s NOT! It can’t be!”

“What makes ya so sure?” Roy asked, drawing a sharp glare from Candy.

“When Joe initially escaped from the house, before he went back inside to fight the fire up close, he was wearing a nightshirt, a red robe and a pair of slippers,” Candy replied in a sullen tone. “The second body pulled from the house was wearing clothes.”

“Bobby Washington, when he came t’ fetch Doc Martin ‘n me, said the, uhhh second man was wearing the kind o’ clothes JOE usually wears . . . right down t’ the green jacket.”

“Sheriff Coffee, Joe’s not the only one who owns a green jacket,” Candy argued.

“True.”

“ . . . and how could Joe have POSSIBLY gotten dressed?! The last time Mister Cartwright and Hoss saw him, the roof was beginning to collapse. By then, the upstairs . . . including Joe’s bedroom AND Joe’s clothes . . . was completely GONE.”

“He couldda BORROWED clothes from someone.”

“He didn’t.”

“How d’ YOU know?”

“After he and Stacy caught their breath, both of ‘em went back into the house, carrying two buckets apiece,” Candy replied. “They were both STILL wearing nightshirts and bathrobes.”

“Did y’ see Joe go back inside with Stacy?”

“As a matter of fact, YES! I did!” Candy angrily snapped back. He squeezed his eyes shut and counted to ten. “After Joe was cut off from the rest of the family, he told Mister Cartwright that he could get out through Hop Sing’s room.”

“Who told ya all THIS?”

“Hoss.”

“Y’ told Mister Cromwell that ya could prove Joe made it outta the house,” Roy continued. “That true?”

“Of COURSE it’s true, dammit,” Candy snapped, then immediately regretted his angry outburst. “Sorry.”

“I understand.”

“After the fire was put out, and people started on back to their homes and the bunkhouse, I went around the side of the house, where the kitchen and Hop Sing’s room were, and did some checking.”

“Find anything?”

“You betcha! I found Joe’s red robe and one of his slippers out in Hop Sing’s garden,” Candy paused to allow the import of his words to sink in. “Hoss found the other slipper. He lost one in the garden, the other up near that small road that runs in back of the house. That tells ME Joe made it out of the house ALIVE.”

“Then where is he NOW?”

“Dammit, Sheriff Coffee, whose side are you ON?!” Candy angrily turned on the lawman. “You’re just as hell-bent on trying to convince me that Joe’s dead as . . . as Jacob Cromwell is.”

“I ain’t tryin t’ convince anybody o’ anyTHING, one-way or t’other,” Roy said. “I’m just tryin’ t’ find out what happened.”

“You haven’t told Mister Cartwright—?!”

“No, I ain’t told Ben anything ‘cause as far as I’M concerned, I ain’t got anything t’ tell him,” Roy said curtly, “leastwise not yet.” He sighed, then continued in a more kindly, more polite tone of voice. “Candy, I don’t wanna b’lieve Joe’s dead any more ‘n YOU do.

“I remember when he was first born, so impatient t’ git out ‘n about in the world, he came three weeks EARLY. I’ve watched him grow from a young’n who couldn’t sit still, who was always gittin’ into some kinda mischief or t’uther, into a real fine young man. I know all too well how much his Pa dotes on ‘im. Between you, me ‘n the fence, I hope t’ heaven Joe DOES turn up alive somewhere, whole ‘n in once piece. But, no matter what I want or how badly I want it . . . I ain’t gonna let it keep me from findin’ out the truth.”

“Joe IS alive, Sheriff Coffee, I don’t know where he is right now, but he IS alive,” Candy stubbornly insisted. “ . . . and I, for one, am NOT going to stop looking until I find him.”

“Lemme ask ya THIS, Candy,” Roy decided to try another track. “Is anyone ELSE missin’?”

“YES. Several of the men said they hadn’t seen Jack Murphy either since the roof collapsed.”

“Who’s this Jack Murphy?”

“He’s a new man. Mister Cartwright and I hired him a couple o’ months ago.”

Hoss Cartwright, meanwhile, finished the last bite of the enormous meal, fixed by Ellen Cromwell. He wiped his mouth on his napkin, red and white checked, like the tablecloth. “Ellen, that was one mighty fine breakfast,” he said, smiling. “Don’t ya DARE tell Hop Sing I said so, but, you cook every bit as good as he does.”

Ellen barely managed a wan smile. “Thank you, Hoss. That’s mighty high praise . . . mighty high praise indeed. Can I fix you anything more?”

“No, thank you, Ma’am,” Hoss replied. “I’m plum full up.”

“How about more coffee? I just put on a fresh pot.”

“In THAT case, I could do with another cup. Thank you.”

Ellen stepped over to the wood stove in the corner, and picked up the coffee pot. “I’m sorry I couldn’t find any proper clothes o’ Jacob’s that fit ya,” she apologized, her smile fading.

“Now don’t ya worry yourself none ‘bout THAT,” Hoss said very firmly. “This bathrobe o’ his’ll do me just fine, ‘til I can send one o’ the men into town t’ buy me some clothes. You SURE he won’t mind me borrowin’ it for a li’l while?”

“No, he won’t mind one li’l bit.” Ellen poured Hoss a fresh cup of coffee, then placed the pot back on the stove. “ . . . uh, Hoss?”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“I wanted to tell ya . . . I . . . I’m real sorry ‘bout Joe. Millie Fultcher told me.”

“What did Millie Fultcher tell ya, Ellen?”

“That . . . that you found Joe . . . in the house,” Ellen replied, unable to bring herself to look Hoss full in the face, “right . . . n-next to D-Derek.”

“Ellen, Millie Fultcher’s WRONG.”

“Y-You mean . . . M-Millie lied t’ me?!”

“No, I ain’t sayin’ she lied . . . I’m just sayin’ she’s WRONG. We don’t know f’r sure the other man was m’ brother, an’ from some things Candy showed me earlier . . . I don’t b’lieve that other man is Joe.”

A sharp knock on the door mercifully brought an end to their conversation, much to Ellen Cromwell’s heartfelt relief. “Excuse me a minute, Hoss. Probably Miz Everett, wantin’ t’ borrow an egg or a cup o’ sugar.” She abruptly turned heel and crossed the small common room to the front door. Opening it, she was surprised to find Sheriff Coffee and Candy standing outside.

“ ‘Mornin’, Mrs. Cromwell,” Roy greeted her politely, and tipped his hat. “Your husband told me I could find Hoss Cartwright here.”

“Yes, indeed you can,” Ellen replied. “Please, come on in. You’ll find him over at the kitchen table.”

Roy nodded his thanks as he walked by.

“Good morning, Mrs. Cromwell,” Candy greeted her with a tired smile, as he removed his hat.

“You look like YOU could use a li’l somethin’ t’ eat, too, Candy,” Ellen remarked, as her eyes moved down the entire length of his thin, almost gaunt, frame.

“I had some bacon ‘n eggs with some of the other men a little while ago,” Candy said. “I could use a cup of coffee, however, if it’s not putting you out.”

“Not at all,” Ellen said, as she moved over toward the stove. “I just made up a fresh pot. Can I get YOU anything, Sheriff Coffee?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Cromwell, I’m fine.”

Ellen Cromwell poured Candy a mug of coffee, and placed it on the table next to him. “I imagine you men would like t’ talk private, so I’m gonna run over to Jenna Stewart’s.”

Hoss immediately rose to his feet. “Ellen, I don’t wanna run ya outta your own home— ” he started to protest.

“No, Hoss, you sit back down, ‘n please . . . take your time,” Ellen insisted. “I’m in charge of the bake sale table for Founders’ Day, comin’ up in a couple o’ months. I’ve been meanin’ to go see Jenna, ‘n ask what she’s donating for weeks now, but just ain’t been able t’ git myself ‘round to it.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Cromwell, much obliged,” Roy said politely. He waited until Ellen had left the house, closing the door behind her. “Hoss, the doc asked me t’ give ya these,” he said placing the wrapped parcels on the small kitchen table in front of Hoss.

Hoss grinned. “Hot diggity! If these boxes are what I THINK they are . . . . ” He opened the parcel sitting on top of the pile. Inside was a brand new, long sleeved, white shirt. “Ooooh boy! If this ain’t the prettiest sight right now . . . . Would you fellas excuse me a minute?”

“Go ahead, Hoss, we’ll be waitin’ when ya git back.”

Hoss nodded, then stepped back into the Cromwells’ bedroom. There, with grateful relief, he slipped off Jacob’s bathrobe and placed it across the foot of the bed. He, then, stripped off the damp nightshirt, and quickly dressed in the new clothing given him just now by the sheriff. After he had dressed, he turned his attention to the last remaining parcel, a large hatbox. He leaned over, lifted the cardboard lid.

“Well, I’ll be dadburned,” Hoss whispered, grinning from ear-to-ear. He carefully reached into the box and lifted out a brand new white ten-gallon hat and set it atop his head. He now felt his wardrobe to be complete.

“This other man that’s missing . . . what was his name again?” Roy Coffee continued to question Candy while Hoss got dressed.

“Jack Murphy.”

Roy nodded. “You told me you ‘n Ben hired him a couple o’ months ago.”

“That’s right.”

“He a local boy?”

“Nope. He’s a drifter,” Candy replied. “Last place he was before coming here was somewhere in Texas.”

“Did he say WHERE in Texas?”

“No.”

“Any family t’ speak of?”

“Yeah. He mentioned his mother,” Candy said. “He told me she lived abroad most of the time she was married to his father. Jack said they were living in England when he was born.”

“Now I find THAT kinda odd.”

“What’s THAT, Sheriff Coffee?”

“Folks livin’ abroad like that, travelin’ ‘round all the time . . . well, I’d expect ‘em t’ have money,” Roy answered. “Most drifters . . . the one’s I know, anyway, don’t have two nickels t’ rub t’gether, unless they’re workin’ or they git lucky playin’ poker. Even then, they don’t keep their money all that long.”

“Mister Cartwright thought of that, too,” Candy said, “and he asked Jack about it. Jack said he and his mother fell on hard times soon after his father died. His mother went back to New Orleans, where she came from originally. I think he said she had family, a sister and a few assorted cousins there. Jack struck out on his own, moving from place to place, taking what work he could get, and sending his mother money when he could.”

“Did he say how long ago all this was?”

Candy nodded. “Jack said it’s been almost ten years since his pa died.”

New Orleans . . . the time frame . . . both stirred something deeply buried in Roy Coffee’s memory. Something ominous and very elusive. It rose, like the fine tendrils of smoke from the dying embers of a campfire, and began to coalesce into the solid forms of names, events, places, and pictures. Just short of the place of remembrance, the place where he could really grab hold of those memories, solidity and cohesiveness fell apart, reverting again to wisps of smoke. Roy tried to hold onto those elusive memories only to have them scatter and dissipate the instant he tried to grab them.

“Sheriff Coffee?!”

Roy immediately shook his head to clear it.

“You all right?” Candy pressed anxiously. “That was the third time I called you.”

“I was just thinkin’ ‘bout somethin’, now— ” Roy shrugged. “Oh well, guess it wasn’t all that important anyway. About Jack Murphy’s ma . . . she still livin’ in New Orleans?”

“I don’t know, actually,” Candy said slowly. “A couple o’ weeks ago, he talked of moving her out here, so she could be near him, but he’s never said anything more about it.”

“What’s he look like?”

“He’s about the same height and build as Joe Cartwright, with the same kind of dark brown, curly hair. I told Mister Cromwell earlier, you take away distinguishing characteristics like face, hands, and scars, Jack could easily be mistaken for Joe.”

“Alright, let’s say for the sake o’ argument, that other body pulled outta the house IS Jack Murphy,” Roy said. “You got any idea as t’ what happened t’ Joe?

“Yep.” Candy nodded his head. “I think Joe’s been kidnapped.”

“Kidnapped?!” Roy echoed, incredulous.

“Yes, kidnapped.”

“That’s a mite far fetched, don’t YOU think?”

“It’s occurred to me,” Candy reluctantly admitted.

“But, you STILL think Joe’s been kidnapped.”

Candy nodded.

“You told Hoss any o’ this?” the sheriff asked with a frown.

“I SHOWED Hoss,” Candy replied. “After he’s through getting dressed, we’ll take you back to the house . . . what’s LEFT of it . . . and we’ll show YOU.”

“Candy . . . Sheriff Coffee, I’m ready t’ push on, if the pair o’ YOU are.”

Roy and Candy both turned, and glanced up to find Hoss standing in their midst, fully dressed in brand new, store bought clothes. “We were talking about Jack Murphy,” the latter said.

“Candy tells me this Jack Murphy’s also missin’,” the sheriff said.

“Yes, Sir,” Hoss replied with a curt nod of his head.

“Alright. Let’s go see what Candy has to show us then,” Roy said, as he and Candy both rose.

At that moment, Jacob Cromwell entered, looking grim. “I was hopin’ to find ya still here, Hoss— ”

“What’s up, Jacob?”

“Doc Martin’s finished examinin’ the bodies, leastwise as much as he’s gonna do HERE,” Jacob said. “He wants t’ see you . . . an’ Sheriff Coffee, too, afore he heads on back to town.”

“Is he back at the house?” Hoss asked.

Jacob nodded.

“We’d best go see Doc Martin first,” Hoss decided. “Jacob, Ellen’s gone down t’ see Jenna . . . somethin’ ‘bout the bake sale table at the Founders’ Day celebration next month?!”

“Yeah,” Jacob nodded, “she’s been meanin’ t’ see Jenna f’r the past month o’ Sundays now. Those two ol’ hens probably have a lotta gossip t’ catch up on, so I’ll give her ‘til suppertime. If she ain’t home by THEN, I’ll go down ‘n fetch her myself. Right now, we’d best git on back ‘n hear what DOC has t’ say.” He said this last with a meaningful look over at Candy.

End of Part 1

 

Trial By Fire

Part 2

By Kathleen T. Berney

 

“I can tell you for sure that the second body is NOT Joseph Francis Cartwright,” Paul Martin said, the relief evident in his voice and in his face.

“I KNEW it!” Candy declared, grinning from ear-to-ear.

Hoss let out a joyous whoop at the top of his lungs, then immediately sobered. “Sorry,” he murmured contritely. “I don’t want none o’ ya t’ think I’m glad someone ELSE died in that fire, ‘cause I ain’t.”

Paul Martin placed a comforting, paternal hand on Hoss’ shoulder. “I understand, Hoss.”

“H-How can ya be so sure, Doc?” Jacob Cromwell demanded, stunned. “His face is almost all burnt up, ‘n he’s wearing the same kinda clothes Joe usually does.”

Paul smiled. “Back when Joe was a wee tyke, three . . . four years old maybe, he got a little too curious about the branding irons, and suffered the consequences in the form of a bad burn and a permanent scar that remains to this day on his left thigh. The body of the man initially identified as Joe has no such scar on his left thigh.”

“You got any idea who the other man is, Doc?” Roy asked.

Paul shook his head. “I checked his pockets . . . they were empty,” he replied. “His clothes . . . what’s left of ‘em . . . appear to be brand new, and of top quality material. Furthermore . . . this mystery man did NOT die in the fire.”

Four pairs of eyes, stared back at the doctor, stunned and shocked.

“Would you mind explainin’ yourself?” the sheriff asked, being the first to find his voice.

“He was shot, Roy, in the head,” Paul replied. “THAT’S what killed him. Half of the man’s head was blown away when the bullet hit. Mister Cromwell?”

“Yeah, Doc?”

“Did you say the second man was found in the house, lying alongside Mister Welles?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then . . . I’d have to say that the second body was burned, then added to the house later,” Paul said grimly.

“You sure ‘bout that, Doc?” Roy asked, incredulous.

Paul nodded. “The body reeks of kerosene,” he said. “Please . . . I ask you gentlemen to excuse my bluntness, but Mister Welles’ body was almost completely burned. Our mystery man . . . was not. Hoss, you were upstairs fighting the fire along with Joe and Stacy?”

“Yes, Sir, I was.”

“Did you see anyone go up into the attic?”

“No,” Hoss replied. “By the time Joe, Stacy, ‘n I were in there fightin’ the fire, the upstairs was pretty much overtaken. No one couldda gotten up into the attic.”

“Where were the steps to the attic located?” Paul asked.

“At the far end o’ the hall was a door,” Hoss said. “Y’ open the door, there was a set o’ high narrow steps.”

“Given the fact that Mister Welles fell into the blaze shortly before the entire main roof collapsed, and taking into account the extent to which HIS body was burned, the second man had to have been placed in the house later,” Paul Martin said, “MUCH later, given the fact that the body and clothing were dry as a bone. Mister Welles’ body, on the other hand, was soaked from the heavy rain this morning that no doubt put out most of that fire.” He paused, then turned his attention to the sheriff. “Roy, as far as our mystery man’s concerned, you’re looking at a murder case.”

“Make that TWO,” Hoss said with a scowl.

“TWO murders, Hoss?” Roy asked.

“Yes, Sir. The mystery man’s one, Derek Welles is the other.”

“You tellin’ me that fire was set deliberate?”

“Yes, Sir, I am.”

“That’s a pretty serious charge, Hoss,” Roy said soberly.

“I know it.”

“Sheriff Coffee, I found some charred rags lying near the place Derek Welles’ body was found,” Candy said. “They reek of kerosene, too. I left ‘em in the barn.”

“I’ll get ‘em afore I leave t’ g’won back t’ town,” Roy said. “In the meantime, I wanna see what ya have t’ show me ‘round where the kitchen ‘n Hop Sing’s room was, Candy.”

“This way, Sheriff Coffee,” Candy invited with a broad sweep of his arm. “After you. You comin’, Hoss?”

“I’ll catch up,” Hoss replied, then turned his attention back to Doctor Martin. “Doc?”

“Yeah, Hoss?”

“How’s Stacy doin’?”

“When I left town she was still in surgery to repair that broken leg,” Paul Martin replied, his smile fading. “Thank God, Doctor Johns just happened to be in town. If he hadn’t been . . . I would have almost certainly had to amputate.”

“Li’l Sister’s gonna be alright, then?” Hoss asked hopefully.

“To be up front and honest with you, Hoss, the jury’s still out on the answer to THAT question,” Paul replied “When I left, Doctor Johns had been working on her since early this morning, and from the looks of things, he STILL had a long way to go.”

Hoss’ face fell. “Y’ m-mean to tell me that . . . that Stacy c-could die?!”

Paul nodded.

“I . . . I knew she was bad hurt, but . . . Doc, I had no idea in the world she was THAT bad hurt.”

“It’s more than simply how badly hurt she was,” Paul said. “As I told your pa, Stacy lost a lot of blood . . . and making matters even worse, she was drifting in and out of consciousness right before she went in. That makes administering anesthesia very tricky. Give her too little, she could wake up right in the middle of surgery. Give her too much . . . she never wakes up at all . . . ever again.”

“I know my li’l sister, Doc. She’s a real fighter, ‘bout as scrappy as they come,” Hoss said with quiet conviction, “an’ I have all the faith in the world in Doctor Johns. I was at death’s door when he operated on me several years ago, ‘n I came through with flyin’ colors. I know he can bring Stacy through, too.”

“Michael . . . Doctor Johns . . . IS a good man, Hoss, and a very skilled surgeon. If anyone CAN pull Stacy through, he can.”

She remembered fleeing with her brothers, Hoss and Joe, down the upstairs hallway, half blinded by the rising, thickening clouds of black smoke and gray-white plaster dust, with the thunderous roar of fire and the ominous creaking of a roof about to collapse echoing in their ears. Then, black silence, occasionally broken by the sound of voices, far distant. Pa, mostly . . . and Hop Sing . . . and later on, Doctor Martin. Next she saw Pa, through eyes dulled and clouded by pain. His face was ashen gray, his eyes round with fear, worry, and grief. When she reached out, the hand that took her own trembled.

Now, she found herself floating up on the ceiling in Doctor Martin’s examination room, surrounded by a world of light . . . bright, yet not blinding. The bright afternoon sunshine seemed to take on a life, an energy of its own, as it streamed in through naked panes of glass . . . glittering in the bright, silvery highlights of the metal surgical tray and tools . . . gleaming in the shine of a high gloss polish on the wood floor below . . . reflecting off the white walls and ceiling to brighten, to illumine the room with soft, diffuse white-yellow sunshine.

Her attention was drawn to the examination table, set in the center of the room. A man and a woman, standing on either side of the table, worked together on a patient, a young woman with long dark hair, roughly the same age as herself. The woman was Lily Martin. Garbed in a clean white lab coat that matched her snow white hair, she looked very troubled. Her blue eyes, shining with unusual brightness, the red cheeks, and quivering lower lip suggested that she had been crying. The man standing on the other side of the table, was tall and slender, with dark graying hair. She frowned. Though he was clearly a doctor, it was equally clear that he was NOT Doctor Paul Martin.

The patient was covered over by white sheets, except for her right leg, cut open, exposing torn muscle and sinew. Mrs. Martin and the strange doctor had been working on the young woman’s leg. She knew that from the set broken bone, and torn muscle partially sewn back together. Her eyes were drawn to the patient, as completely, as inevitably, as a moth is drawn to candle light.

She began to spiral down from the ceiling, floating in lazy circles like a hawk, or a vulture. The patient’s face was hidden from view behind a veil of sunshine and deep shadow, cast by the tall, slender doctor. As she drew closer to the patient, she became aware of sharp, searing pain in her own leg . . . and suddenly, she was afraid.

Lily Martin frantically blotted the gleaming sheen of sweat, that covered Michael Johns’ forehead and had just begun to seep down through the hairs forming his thick, distinctive eyebrows.

Michael silently nodded his thanks, then returned his attention to Stacy’s leg. Though the break had not been a clean one, he had, nonetheless pieced together the jagged edges of bone and stitch together the worst of the torn muscles and ligaments, using the kind of suture that eventually dissolved. He had planned to leave the wound open, at least for the next day or so, to allow for drainage in case infection set in. He cleaned the wound in Stacy’s leg thoroughly with alcohol, then reached for the splints.

“M-Michael . . . . ” Lily ventured, her voice tremulous.

His head immediately snapped up. “What is it, Lily?” Michael tersely snapped out the question.

“I . . . Michael, I don’t think Stacy’s breathing.”

“Damn,” Michael groaned, as his long nimble fingers began to search and probe Stacy’s wrist, desperately searching for a pulse.

Lily Martin picked up the small mirror lying on the tray among Michael’s surgical tools with shaking hands, and held it just above Stacy’s nose and mouth.

“Anything, Lily?”

Lily Martin strained though vision blurred by tears to see the small mirror she held less than an inch above Stacy’s mouth and nose. “N-no. Nothing.”

“No pulse . . . . ” he murmured, as he reached down to probe his patient’s neck. “Damn!” At length, he swore, anger and frustration mixed with a profound sadness. “Nothing.”

“Is she . . . . ?!”

He looked across the examination into the tear stained face of his late wife’s first cousin, and nodded.

“Michael, I . . . I know y-you did your b-best . . . . ”

“My best!” he spat bitterly. “Unfortunately my so called best wasn’t good enough . . . was no where NEAR good enough. I should’ve left well enough alone.”

“Michael J-Johns . . . you listen t-to me . . . and you listen GOOD!” Lily Martin, though sobbing, spoke to him in a firm tone, one that brooked no argument. “Had you NOT been here . . . Stacy would’ve h-had no chance at all. You . . . you did your best as . . . as the skilled surgeon y-you ARE. But, you’ve . . . you’ve got to remember . . . skilled though you are . . . y-you’re a DOCTOR, n-not GOD.”

“Dammit, Lily, I . . . I owe the Cartwrights so much. I wish— ”

“I know. I wish, too. I’ll . . . I’ll t-tell her . . . her f-father if y-you’d like.”

“Thank you, Lily. I appreciate your offer, but . . . telling her father is MY duty . . . MY responsibility . . . . ”

The tall, thin man stepped back away from the patient. As he moved, the deep shadows ebbed and flowed away from the face of the young woman lying on the table. She gasped upon realizing that face was her own face.

“PA!” she screamed, against the overwhelming tide of fear and panic rising within her, and moving with all the deadly swiftness of a flash flood coursing through the dry river beds in the desert during the time of spring melt.

Doctor Michael Johns slowly, with great reluctance, walked up the stairs to the third floor of the Martins’ town house, heading for the guest room to do what he hated the most about this job. He did as he had countless times through out the years he had practiced medicine and surgery. He wracked his brains desperately searching for the right words, for a kind and gentle way to say what he must, what duty, honor, and obligation demanded him to say. “Dammit,” he swore silently. “You’d think I’d have learned by now that there IS no kind and gentle way to tell an anxious father that his daughter just died on the operating table.”

He replayed the surgery, everything he did, over and over and over again, condensing many hours down to the space of mere seconds. He examined and reexamined every action, every decision, wholly detached, as if he were watching someone else, a complete stranger, trying to determine if there was something he should have done differently.

“I don’t know which would be worse . . . finding out there was something I could have done that would have made the difference or finding out there was nothing I could have done at all,” he murmured to himself, as he continued to relive Stacy’s operation, unaware that he spoke aloud.

Then, suddenly, Michael Johns found himself standing outside the closed door to the Martins’ guest room, wondering how in the world he had gotten here so fast. He swallowed nervously, then gently knocked on the door. Within less than a heartbeat, he found himself staring up into the weary, anxious face of Ben Cartwright.

“Mister Cartwright— ” Michael began, then stopped. “He knows!” the surgeon silently realized, as he watched the anxiety in the older man’s face undergo a dark transformation to a deep, profound grief. “Without one word being spoken . . . he knows.” Aloud he murmured, “I’m sorry.” Words he felt barely adequate in a voice barely audible.

“Thank you, Doctor Johns. I . . . I know you did your best.”

“If there’s anything I can do . . . . ”

Ben shook his head. “I’d . . . I’d like to be alone for a little while.” With that he turned, and very quietly, very pointedly closed the door in the surgeon’s face.

Doctor Michael Johns stood unmoving for a time, his eyes riveted to the closed door. Finally, with a soft sigh, he turned and moved toward the stairs. “Some days, I really hate this job,” he muttered through clenched teeth.

Ben, meanwhile, trudged wearily across the room toward the bed. With each step, his feet grew heavier and heavier, until by the time he finally reached the bed, he could barely lift them. He collapsed down onto the bed, plummeting like a millstone cast into deep water, with tears streaming down his face like rivers.

This had to be a dream.

A very, very, very bad dream.

Stacy couldn’t be dead. She couldn’t be! Just yesterday, she and Blaze-Face were galloping down the road, flying like the wind, racing against Joe on Cochise. He heard their laughter again above the thunder of horse hooves against the earth, their easy, good natured taunting of one another.

Now . . . .

“P-Please, God,” he prayed aloud, as he wept. “Please . . . please, let me wake up.”

She found herself standing in another room, a small bedroom, furnished with French provincial furniture, painted white with a gold trim. The walls were papered with blue and white stripes. A double bed, with brass barred headboard dominated the center of the room. Pa sat on the bed, with head bowed, hands so tightly clasped together, his knuckles had turned white. With heart in mouth, she tore across the room and sat down beside him on the bed.

“Pa, I’m scared,” she half sobbed as she slipped a trembling arm through the crook of his elbow, and pressed close. “I’m having a real bad dream and . . . and I can’t seem to wake up . . . . ”

Ben felt his daughter with him, sitting right there on the bed beside him, nestled close, as she did when she was a little girl and sometimes as a not so little girl, whenever she was frightened, hurt, upset, sad, even angry. Her presence was intense, so strong as to be tangible. He automatically reached out to take her into his arms, only to find himself embracing empty air.

“Stacy?”

She saw him lift his head and look around the room, his eyes frantically searching. It was then that she saw the tears in his eyes, shining on his cheeks.

“I’m here, Pa,” she said, pressing closer. “I’m right here.”

Ben could almost hear her answer.

“Stacy.”

She lifted her head at the sound of a new voice speaking her name, all the while clinging to her father’s arm for dear life. She was astonished to find her mother, Paris McKenna, standing in the room with them, clad in a long white grown, looking very much the way she had probably looked when Pa had fallen in love with her.

“It’s time,” Paris . . . Mother . . . said, reaching out her hand. Her face, so like her own yet so very unlike, was filled with love and compassion.

“Time? For what?” she asked warily, still clinging to her father’s arm.

“Time to go.”

She was suddenly aware of another presence, standing behind her mother . . . a presence she had known and sensed twice before . . . once when Lotus O’Toole died, the second time very recently . . . when she last spoke with Pa. He moved out from behind her mother, taking his place beside her. Clad in a white three piece suit with a light blue shirt, and white string tie, he had light brown hair, and kind blue eyes.

Ben knew the time had come to tell her how much he loved her, to assure her no matter how much he would miss her . . . and he would miss her terribly . . . that he would be alright. He needed to tell her that it was alright to move on, as he had told his own mother when SHE lay on her deathbed, after having suffered through many years of illness . . . as he had told Elizabeth, Inger . . . even Marie, when their lives had ended all too soon. But, somehow, Ben simply could not bring himself.

“F-Forgive me, Stacy . . . please . . . f-forgive me,” he wept, as he buried his face in his hands. “B-But, I . . . I can’t let y-you go, I . . . I c-can’t.”

“Stacy, it’s time for you to leave,” the man said.

“No,” she said, as a strange, immensely powerful strength seemed to take possession of her entire being. That rising flash flood of fear and panic, transformed into a fierce, angry determination, with all the solid strength of a granite mountain. “I’m NOT going with you.”

“Stacy . . . . ”

“NO!”

“Please.”

“I told you NO! I promised Pa I wouldn’t let you take me.”

“You’re only making this harder.”

“You stay the hell away from me . . . do you understand?!” Her angry glare took in her mother as well. “BOTH of you . . . just stay the bloody hell AWAY from me.”

“Stacy . . . . ” Paris begged.

“NO!”

Her vehement refusal brought an impatient scowl to the face of death’s angel. He reached out, seizing her by the forearm. “Stacy, you stop this nonsense right now,” he ordered, as he yanked her to her feet.

With her jaw clenched, her mouth thinned to a near straight, lipless, angry line, she lashed out kicking him in his left shin with all her might. He bellowed, in both surprise and outrage, releasing his hold on her.

“M-Mister Meredith was right. You DO kick harder than a mule.”

“ . . . and don’t you forget it,” she snapped.

“Stacy, you stand a good chance of LOSING your leg . . . of being maimed, incapacitated for what remains of your life,” Paris said, her eyes and face filled with sadness. “If THAT should happen, you would become a terrible burden on your father and your brothers for many years to come.”

“PA wouldn’t see me that way,” she said, as tears began to flow down her cheeks. “N-Nor would Hoss, Joe, or . . . or H-Hop Sing. I KNOW that. Y-You might know that, too, if . . . if y-you’d . . . g-given Pa . . . half a chance when y-you . . . when you found out you were g-going to have me . . . . ”

The deep, all consuming sadness and regret she saw mirrored in her mother’s face, her eyes . . . tore her heart to shreds. She found herself weeping for both of her parents, for all that they might have shared together, with each other and with herself . . . had her mother given them all the chance.

“Paris, it’s time for US to go,” death’s angel said, still massaging his leg. “Your daughter won’t be coming with us. It would seem that it’s not yet her time after all . . . . ”

Downstairs, Lily Martin paused to wipe the tears from her eyes, then reached for the sheet to pull up over Stacy’s dead body. Hop Sing stood on the other side of the table, with his hands clasped in front of him. Though his face remained impassive, his cheeks were wet, and his dark eyes glistened with unusual brightness. Lily began to sob openly, in earnest, as slowly moved the edge of the sheet up to cover Stacy’s head.

“Wait.” Hop Sing’s voice shattered the silence like the crack of a whip. He reached out, his thin, wiry fingers wrapping themselves around Lily’s wrist, restraining her movements. “Look.”

She turned, and saw tears squeezing out from between Stacy’s closed eyelids, and spilling down across her cheeks.

“Dead don’t cry,” Hop Sing said softly, his voice catching.

“Y-You’re right . . . d-dead DON’T cry,” Lily said, as the sheet slipped through her fingers.

“I stay,” Hop Sing said. “You go— ”

Lily Martin was out of the examination room, screaming for Doctor Johns, before Hop Sing could finishing telling her to go get the doctor.

“You hold on, Miss Stacy,” Hop Sing said softly, as he took her hand in his. “You hold on real tight. Hop Sing right here. Papa come soon, be here, too.”

Meanwhile, Hoss and Candy led Roy Coffee behind the what remained of the addition that had housed the kitchen and Hop Sing’s room. Upon entering the garden, Candy took the lead and showed the lawman everything he had shown Hoss several hours earlier. Roy stood for a time, unmoving, with head bowed and arms folded tight across his chest, as he digested all that Hoss and Candy had shown him. After a seeming eternity of silence, he raised his head. “Hoss . . . Candy . . . you boys SURE ‘bout the red robe ‘n slippers?”

“Yes, Sir, that’s what Joe was wearin,” Hoss affirmed, with a curt nod of his head for emphasis.

“Mind if I take another look around?” Roy asked.

“You go right ahead,” Hoss readily gave permission.

Roy returned to the starting place in the garden following again the trail as Candy and Hoss had shown him, this time, moving much more slowly. “Hoss, you told me y’ found family pictures, a prayer book that belonged t’ Marie, things like that in the pocket o’ Joe’s robe?”

“Yes, Sir,” Hoss replied, with an emphatic nod of his head.

“What kinda shape was all that stuff in?” Roy asked as he moved along very slowly, his eyes glued to the ground.

“Everything was in pretty good shape, I s’pose, except for the broken glass on a couple o’ the frames,” Hoss said.

“No water damage?”

“No,” Hoss replied.

Roy stopped walking, and looked up meeting first Candy’s hazel eyes, then Hoss’ bright, sky blue ones, without flinching. “That WAS a pretty fierce downpour we had earlier . . . . ”

“So?” Candy demanded, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“So from whatcha say, Joe had to’ve been kidnapped before the rains came,” Roy hastened to point out. “That means his bathrobe oughtta be soaked.”

“What’re you trying to say, Sheriff?” Candy demanded with arms folded across his chest, and a ferocious scowl.

“Alright, Boys, I’ll say it straight out. If Joe’s robe’d been left behind b’fore he was s’posedly kidnapped, why didn’t it get wet? Why didn’t all the pictures, ‘n things he stopped t’ save git wet?”

“Because I found it under THAT!” Candy angrily thrust his arm in the direction of the stone wall, encircling the garden, which in turn connected to the house several yards beyond the kitchen door. It was a jagged piece of roof, partially charred. “It obviously fell, when the roof gave way and landed here in the garden, overtop Joe’s bathrobe.”

“Both the slippers WERE wet, Sheriff Coffee,” Hoss added.

Roy nodded, then moved toward the place where, according to Candy and Hoss, Joe had supposedly fought with one of the men who had abducted him. “Candy, this Jack Murphy fella . . . he a good worker?”

“Good enough,” Candy replied. “Did what he was told with little or no complaint, and did it adequately. He never indulged in any drinking or gambling either on the job or in town. In fact, many’s the time I overheard a couple of the boys razzing him about drinking sarsaparilla whenever they’d go to the Silver Dollar on a Saturday night.”

“How well’d he get on with the other men?”

“He seemed to get along alright with just about everybody. But he DID pretty much keep to himself.”

“That never bothered ya?”

Candy shrugged. “Not particularly. It’s the way most of the drifters who have ever worked for US have been. They’ll sign on to work a couple o’ months, maybe longer if it’s a special job and there’s a big enough bonus at the end. Then they give notice ‘n move on. While they’re here, they make a point of getting along with everybody, but don’t go out of their way to make friends. There WAS one thing about Jack, I thought was kind of odd, however . . . . ”

“What was that?” Roy asked as he stepped to the outer edge of the rough, circular area of tall weeds, trampled and broken. His eyes slowly moved along the outer parameters.

“Well, for a drifter, Jack wore real good quality clothes,” Candy replied.

“Whaddya mean by good, quality clothes?” the sheriff asked as he began to slowly move along the edge.

“Exactly THAT!” Candy replied, as he and Hoss followed. “Good material, put together so it’ll last a while, no holes or thin spots. He’s also a real stickler for washin’ up and shavin’ every morning.”

“So?”

“So MOST of the men living in the bunk house only wash up ‘n shave on Saturday night, unless they’re courting someone,” Candy replied, “and another thing, Sheriff Coffee . . . most of the drifters WE see passing through tend be a pretty seedy lookin’ bunch, especially when they first hire on.”

“That a fact.”

“Yeah, that’s a fact,” Candy said. “You’d be pretty seedy lookin’, TOO, if you’d just spent weeks in the saddle, then came looking for work. But, NOT Jack Murphy. When he came and applied for work, he told Mister Cartwright and me that he’d just spent the last . . . I dunno, three, maybe four months riding up from Texas. Yet, there he was, wearing clean clothes, clean shaven and hair neatly trimmed.”

Roy stopped walking, and crouched down. He studied the ground directly at his feet for a moment, then reached in through the tangle of trampled grass and weeds.

“You find something, Sheriff?” Candy asked.

“Yep.” Roy straightened up and held out his hand. In the center of his open palm, lay a button, carved from the mother-of-pearl found within an oyster shell.

“That ain’t Joe’s!” Hoss stated firmly. “M’ li’l brother was wearing a nightshirt.”

“A lotta night shirts have buttons, too, Hoss,” Roy pointed out.

“Maybe, but none o’ Joe’s have fancy buttons like that one.”

Roy slipped the button into his shirt pocket, then gazed over the trampled area once more. “Uh oh, don’t like t’ look o’ THAT,” the lawman muttered as he started to move into the circle.

Hoss and Candy looked at each other in dismay.

Roy stopped at a place a few inches shy of dead center, and knelt down again.

“What is it, Sheriff Coffee?” Hoss demanded as he and Candy moved in closer to the sheriff.

“Blood!” Roy said grimly. “Right there!” He pointed toward an elongated area dotted with dried, reddish brown splotches.

Hoss and Candy moved in for a closer look, kneeling down on either side of the sheriff, their eyes glued to the place he had just pointed out. “We don’t know that it’s Joe’s,” the former insisted stubbornly.

“We also don’t know that it AIN’T Joe’s blood,” Roy countered.

“Dammit, Sheriff Coffee, I thought you were a friend!” Candy exclaimed, his face darkening with anger.

“I AM a friend, Son.”

“Then WHY are you so hell bent on trying to prove that Joe is DEAD?!”

“Candy, like I told ya before, I AIN’T tryin’ t’ prove anything one way or t’other,” Roy said curtly.

Candy exhaled a curt, exasperated sigh. “I can’t stand this,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Candy, y’ gotta git hold o’ yourself,” Hoss’ said in a very quiet, yet very firm tone. “I know it’s gotta be rough on ya, but— ”

“Dammit, Hoss, how can YOU stand it, with him going on and on like . . . well, like Joe’s dead?!”

“Sheriff Coffee AIN’T goin’ on like Joe’s dead,” Hoss said. “He’s tryin’ t’ get at the truth. That’s ALL! But, even if he DOES believe Joe’s dead, it don’t mean you ‘n I gotta believe it . . . an’ I’ll tell ya somethin’ else. I ain’t gonna believe it, not unless I see his dead body f’r myself.”

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Candy?”

“Sheriff Coffee doesn’t need TWO of us following him around like puppy dogs,” Candy said in a sullen tone. “All things considered, I think I might be more useful if I went back and gave the men a hand with . . . with clearing things out.”

“Go ahead,” Hoss readily gave the junior foreman permission. “I’ll see ya back at the house in a li’l while.”

“I had no idea Candy could be so touchy,” Roy remarked in a low voice, as he watched Candy’s retreating back.

“Derek Welles was a good friend o’ his, Sheriff,” Hoss said quietly. “Bobby ‘n Mitch told me he tried his darndest t’ save Derek, but he couldn’t. In the end all Candy could do was watch him fall into the fire. Between you ‘n me, I’d be pretty touchy, too.”

“You’re right, Hoss,” Roy sighed. “I guess I’d be pretty touchy, myself, if ‘n I was standin’ in Candy’s shoes right now.” He left the circle of trampled grass and started up the hill, with Hoss following close behind. “Worst part o’ all this is, everything you ‘n Candy’ve shown me back here’s raisin’ a whole lotta new questions, but AIN’T given me much in the way of answers.”

“Whaddya mean?” Hoss asked, as they reached the top of the hill.

“Take these wheel ruts ‘n horse tracks, f’r instance,” Roy said pointing to the water filled ruts, etched deeply onto the mud and grass.

“What about ‘em?” Hoss asked.

“Takin’ into account how far the wheels’re set apart . . . an’ the fact that it’s was drawn by one horse, I’d hafta say it was a small buggy, probably a two seater,” Roy said. “Accordin’ t’ what you ‘n Candy showed me so far, there were THREE men s’posedly involved in kidnappin’ Joe. If one man carried Joe off in the buggy, that means TWO are walkin’.”

“Three men COULD fit in a two seater, if they was ‘round about the same size as Joe or maybe Adam,” Hoss pointed out. “It’d be a tight squeeze, but it could be done.”

“Alright, that leaves ONE man walkin’,” Roy argued.

“What if he ain’t walkin’?” Hoss asked. “S’pose that third man works right here . . . on the Ponderosa?”

Roy looked over at Hoss, his eyes filled with doubt.

“It ain’t as crazy as it sounds,” Hoss said, feeling a bit on the defensive.

“Alright, Hoss, I’m listenin’.”

“Three men are plannin’ t’ kidnap Joe,” Hoss began. “So they plant a man here, supposedly workin’ for us, but his REAL job is t’ keep tabs on Joe, watch where he goes . . . what he does, then let ‘em know when’s the best time t’ grab him. AFTER they grab Joe, he sneaks back ‘n joins everyone else.”

“It’s POSSIBLE things couldda happened that way,” Roy admitted. “Only two problems. First of all, for ‘em t’ grab Joe just as he’s comin’ outta the house . . . well, they’d hafta know the house was gonna burn down.”

“We already know that fire was set deliberate,” Hoss said grimly, his mouth thinning to an angry, near straight line. “I’d say it’s a real good bet that the men who took Joe DID know the house was gonna burn down, ‘cause THEY’RE the ones who burned it down.”

“Why would they burn the house down?”

“T’ smoke Joe out,” Hoss replied. “T’ keep the rest of us too busy to see ‘em grab Joe ‘n take off with him.”

“It’d be a helluva easier t’ lie in wait ‘n grab Joe as he’s riding down the road, or somewhere out on the trail,” Roy pointed out. “It also don’t make one lick o’ sense t’ burn a house down around the would-be victim while he’s sleepin’ OR around the family that’s gonna pay the ransom.”

“Y’ gotta point there, I reckon,” Hoss reluctantly admitted.

“It also begs the question o’ why kidnap JOE?” Roy continued. “Stacy’d probably be seen as an easier target, leastwise by someone who don’t know better.”

“I don’t know, Sheriff Coffee.”

“On t’ other hand, I know all too well Joe’s got a ferocious temper that gits t’ better of him sometimes. He been in any fights . . . any arguments lately?”

Hoss shook his head. “No, Sir, leastwise none that I know about.”

“Anybody threaten him recently?”

“No.”

Roy Coffee made himself a mental note to speak with Joe’s close friends, like Mitch Devlin and his wife, Sally. “Right now, I wanna check out that trail . . . over there,” the sheriff said aloud, pointing to a thin, jagged line cutting across the side of the hill, about a quarter of the way down from the top.

Hoss frowned. He and Candy had completely missed seeing it when they had come out here earlier that morning.

“It looks t’ ME like someone started walkin’ away from that place there, where you ‘n Candy said was a struggle,” Roy said as he and Hoss started back down the hill.

“I see it,” Hoss said, trying to ignore the feelings of dread suddenly rising within him. “Whoever it was comes over t’ here . . . ” he pointed, “ . . . then he starts running down the hill t’ there.”

“Yep. I see it, too, Hoss.”

“There’s also another trail that goes along in a pretty straight line t’ where that other trail ends.”

“Let’s go take a look.”

Hoss nodded, then fell in behind Roy. They descended the hill in silence, following the second trail leading down to the place where the path found by the sheriff came to an abrupt end. The two paths converged on an elongated, roughly oval shaped patch of broken, mashed down weeds and grass, smaller than the first.

“ . . . ‘bout the size of your average man, if ‘n he was lyin’ down,” Roy noted in grim silence. All of a sudden, he halted and turned to Hoss, following close behind. “Hoss . . . . ” he said aloud.

“Yeah?”

“Maybe y’d best wait here,”

“No, Sir, I’m comin’ with ya,” Hoss stubbornly insisted.

“Ok, suit yourself,” Roy said, as he turned to continue the rest of the way.

Less than a minute later, they stood at the edge of the oval shaped area, staring down at a large pool of dried blood, covering the ground at their feet.

“Someone’s been sh-shot,” Roy noted the obvious, shaken to the very core of his being, “probably by someone standin’ up there on top o’ the hill. Whoever it was must’ve known what was happening, ‘cause he tried t’ run.” He pointed to a jagged line of trampled vegetation stretching up the hill to the trail leading away from the place of struggle that Candy had found.

“Sheriff C-Coffee . . . what’s that?”

Roy’s eyes followed the line of Hoss’ extended arm and pointing finger to a place near the outer edge of the opposite side of the circle. There, lying nestled in the broken, trampled down grass, were two jagged pieces of bone, gleaming stark white amid the mud and dried blood. Roy slowly approached, untying the bandanna around his neck as he moved.

“They’re pieces o’ bone . . . skull more ‘n likely,” Roy said slowly, as he bent down to gather them into his bandanna.

Hoss turned away abruptly, heartily regretting the big meal he had eaten at the Cromwells not long before.

Roy rose, straightening his posture and tied the corners of the bandanna together, to keep the gruesome contents safely tucked within. He paused, his eyes moving over the entire area, checking one last time before he and Hoss left. Lying at nine o’clock, relative to his position at six, was a small swatch of material, caught among the brambles growing among the tall grasses and weeds. Roy quietly walked over and retrieved it for a closer look. He knew almost immediately that the material had come from a jacket very much like the one Joe Cartwright always wore.

“Hoss?”

“Wh-What is it, Sheriff Coffee?” Hoss murmured, willing with all his might for his breakfast to remain in place.

“Son, I hate like hell havin’ t’ say this, but . . . . ”

“But . . . WHAT?”

“You’re gonna have t’ face up t’ the possibility that JOE was the man who got shot here, maybe killed.”

“I . . . I know it’s a possibility, Sheriff Coffee,” Hoss said with an angry scowl, “but, like I told Candy, I STILL ain’t gonna b’lieve it until I see Joe’s dead body with m’ own eyes.”

“Pa?” Stacy murmured softly, as she finally, at long last, began to stir. She opened one eye, then the other. Her eyes came to rest on Lily Martin’s face first, with red, tear stained cheeks, swollen eyelids, and tremulous smile. Paul Martin stood beside her, smiling, yet with an odd look on his face, and behind him stood a tall thin stranger with a kind face and startling bright blue eyes, not unlike her own.

“Miss Stacy back,” another voice, coming from above, to her right, murmured softly. It was Hop Sing, smiling, his dark eyes unusually bright.

“Hop Sing, where’s PA?” Stacy asked anxiously, as Hop Sing drew up a chair along side the bed in which she was lying.

“I’m h-here, Stacy . . . . ”

She turned, and found her father sitting close beside the bed, on her left.

“ . . . I’m . . . I’m right here,” Ben murmured softly, his voice catching. He took her hand in his, then gently reached over to pushed back a stray lock of hair that had fallen into her face.

For Stacy, at that moment, the sight of Ben’s face, though careworn and weary, was far more beautiful than even the most spectacular vista the Ponderosa had to offer. She reached up to touch his cheek, noting with dismay that the lines of his face seemed more deeply etched. “I’m right h-here, too,” she said, her own voice breaking, “and . . . and I’m gonna STAY . . . right . . . here.”

“I’m . . . I’m gonna HOLD you to that,” Ben said as tears rolled up over his eye lids and flowed down his cheeks, unchecked

“Y-You’d BETTER!” Stacy said, as she felt the sting of tears in her own eyes. “I was worried about you, Pa.”

“ . . . and I’ve been worried about YOU,” Ben said. “You gave me a very bad scare today, Young Woman.”

“Was it when you were in that other room?”

“What other room?”

“The one with the white furniture, and the blue and white striped wall paper,” Stacy replied.

“That . . . SOUNDS like . . . our . . . guest room,” Lily Martin said slowly, in mild surprise.

“I don’t know WHERE it was . . . I don’t think I’ve even seen the room before. I only know that I saw PA in that room, sitting on the bed,” Stacy said. “I was having this nightmare, and I couldn’t wake up. It scared me . . . more than anything’s ever scared me my whole life.” She turned and gazed earnestly up into Ben’s face. “I feel kinda silly saying this . . . after all . . . I’m not a little kid anymore, but at the time, I . . . I was so scared, I just wanted to be with you more than just about anything.”

Ben knew by the haunted look in her eyes that the nightmare still exerted a deep, profound effect on her. “You’re not being silly at all, Young Woman,” he chided her in a gentle, yet firm tone, “and I, for one hope you and your brothers never outgrow coming to your pa when the chips are down. You want to tell me about it?”

“The nightmare?”

Ben nodded.

“It starts off kinda weird, Pa. I woke up and found myself in here . . . in THIS room . . . floating up on the ceiling . . . watching Mrs. Martin and . . . another doctor working on a patient,” Stacy began, her voice shaking. Her eyes drifted to the face of the stranger standing behind Doctor Martin. “Pa! That’s him!”

“Who?”

“Standing behind Doctor Martin!” She stared over at the stranger with the kind face and blue eyes, in complete, and utter astonishment. “You’re the man I saw in my dream.”

“Stacy, this is Doctor Michael Johns,” Paul Martin quietly made the introductions. He stood aside and drew the surgeon out from behind him. “He’s a very fine, very skilled surgeon.”

“That’s really weird . . . that I would DREAM about somebody before I actually met him.”

“Maybe you caught a glimpse of Michael . . . Doctor Johns . . . before you were taken into surgery,” Lily Martin suggested.

“I don’t see how that’s possible, Lily,” Ben said slowly. “The only time she was conscious before going in for surgery was . . . after you had left for the International Hotel to get Doctor Johns. I know . . . ” he looked down, and favored his daughter with a weary smile, “ . . . I was with her the whole time.”

“ . . . Miss Cartwright was still unconscious when we brought her in to repair that broken leg,” Michael Johns murmured softly. His weary muscles and flesh hung limp on his bony frame. “That’s one of the factors that made the whole thing so damned dicey.”

Ben noted the troubled, fearful look on his daughter’s face, how their words seemed to add to her distress. “What happened next, Stacy?” he prompted gently. “After you saw Mrs. Martin and Doctor Johns doing surgery.”

Stacy was profoundly grateful at that moment for her father’s presence, as firm, as solid, and as reassuring as the mountains that had surrounded their home; and for his strong, gentle hand that so firmly held her own. “I knew the patient that Doctor Johns and Mrs. Martin were operating on was about m-my age . . . and that she had a leg that was busted up pretty bad. But, I didn’t know who she was at first because . . . I couldn’t see her face.

“Then . . . I started to drift down from the ceiling. As I got closer, I saw Mrs. Martin holding a small mirror above the patient’s nose and mouth,” Stacy continued. “She was also crying. Doctor Johns was holding her wrist at first, then . . . I saw him touch her neck. I think he was looking for a pulse, but . . . he didn’t find one.”

“How do you know he didn’t find one?” Ben asked.

“I know because Doctor Johns told Mrs. Martin that the patient was dead,” Stacy replied. “Mrs. Martin offered to tell the patient’s father, but Doctor Johns told her no, that was his place.”

“I’ll be damned . . . . ” Michael Johns whispered, his face several shades paler than normal, his blue eyes round with shocked amazement. “I . . . I’ve HEARD of this sort of thing h-happening— ”

Paul Martin placed a firm, steadying hand on Michael’s shoulder, then turned anxiously to his wife, upon seeing the blood drain from her face, leaving it chalk white. “Lily? YOU alright?”

“I . . . I d-don’t know, Paul . . . . ” she murmured softly. “I . . . I just plain and simply . . . don’t . . . know.”

“After Doctor Johns told Mrs. Martin that the patient had died, he stepped back away from the table,” Stacy continued. “When he did, I . . . I saw the patient’s face for the first time.”

“Who was the patient?” Ben prompted gently.

“Me! Pa . . . the patient was ME!”

“Oh my GOD!” Lily whispered, as the blood drained from her face, leaving it a sickly ashen gray. “M-My GOD!”

“Lily, perhaps you’d best sit down,” Paul said, taking his wife gently by the arm. She stared up into his face through eyes, round as saucers, her entire body trembling.

“Paul . . . . ” Michael stammered in a voice, barely audible.

“Yes, Michael?”

“Everything Miss Cartwright said . . . that’s exactly what happened when . . . when she— ”

“H-How . . . how could she possibly . . . KNOW?” Lily asked, shaking her head.

Ben, meanwhile, gathered his daughter in his arms and held her close, as much to assure himself of her very real, very physical presence as to offer her comfort and reassurance. He felt her entire body trembling, her arms reaching up under his shoulders, and hanging on tight, as if for the dear life she had come so close to losing twice now in the same day. “It’s all right, Stacy, it’s all right now . . . I’M here . . . and more important . . . YOU’RE here, too,” he murmured softly, over and over.

Stacy rested her head against his broad chest, drawing not only the comfort and reassurance she had come to know over the years that she could count on from the big, silver haired man now holding her tight in his arms, but confirmation of her own physical existence as well. “Pa, I was so scared, all I could think of was f-finding YOU.”

“How did you know to look for me in that room where you said you saw me?” Ben asked.

“I . . . ” Stacy frowned. “I didn’t. One minute, I was desperate to find you, the next . . . I was THERE. I called out to you, and when you looked up? You were crying. I— ” She abruptly broke off when she realized that her father was staring at her oddly, his face was white as a sheet. “Pa? What’s the matter?!”

“Stacy, I . . . I WAS in a room . . . exactly like the one you just described,” Ben said, his voice shaking. “They . . . h-had almost finished patching your leg back together when . . . they . . . when Doctor Johns told me that you . . . that you had died.”

Stacy stared up at her father, through eyes round with shock and astonishment. “Is that why you were crying, Pa? Because Doctor Johns told you I was—?!”

Ben nodded.

“When I saw you crying, I started to cry myself,” Stacy continued. “I kept telling you I wasn’t going to let him take me, and I thought I heard you call my name.”

“I did,” Ben said. “For a moment, I . . . . ” He sighed, and shook his head. “I’m not sure if I actually heard you, or if I just felt your presence, but somehow, just for a minute, I knew you were there . . . with me . . . in that r-room.”

“Then Ma . . . Miss Paris . . . was there with us,” Stacy continued. “She told me I had to go with her. At first I was scared, then . . . all of a sudden I . . . it was really strange, Pa, but I felt strong . . . so strong, I probably could’ve picked up HOSS just as easy as he can pick me up. I wasn’t scared anymore. In fact, when the Angel of Death showed up and started telling me I had to go with him and Miss Paris, I got mad, and told the both of ‘em to leave me the he— . . . uuhhh, the HECK alone. I ended up having to give him a good, swift kick in the shins, too . . . to let him know I meant business.”

“Good for you, Stacy,” Paul Martin said, his smile tremulous, and his eyes gleaming brighter than was his norm.

“That’s MY gal,” Ben said proudly, smiling through the new tears forming in his eyes.

“He told me that Mister Meredith was right . . . that I DO kick harder than a mule,” Stacy said. “He also told Miss Paris that it’s not my time, and they left, but . . . before Miss Paris left, she turned and looked at me . . . and she looked over at you, too, Pa. The look on her face was so sad, I started to cry all over again.”

“Well, now . . . isn’t THAT something . . . . ” Lily Martin murmured softly.

“What’s that, Lily?” Paul asked.

“That’s how Hop Sing knew that Stacy was alive,” Lily said slowly, holding tight to her husband’s hand. “Doctor Johns had left the room to tell Ben, and I . . . I was starting to pull the sheet up over Stacy’s head when Hop Sing said the d-dead don’t cry. I looked down and saw tears squeezing out from under her closed eyes and running down her cheeks.”

“That’s . . . that’s quite a story,” Michael murmured softly, while shaking his head. He reached out to touch the back of the chair, occupied by Lily Martin, in an effort to steady himself.

“Yes, indeed it IS,” Paul agreed with a weary smile. He removed a handkerchief from his pants pocket and began to dab his eyes and cheeks. “Over the many years I’ve practiced medicine, I’ve heard enough stories like this one, I could write a book . . . of about a hundred volumes. Although,” his smile broadened when he looked over at Stacy and Ben, “this is the very first time I’ve ever heard tell of a patient inflicting bodily injury on the Angel of Death. However . . . . ”

“What is it, Paul?” Ben asked warily.

“Stacy’s NOT completely out of the woods just yet,” Paul warned.

“What do you mean by THAT, Doctor Martin?” Stacy asked. “Doctor Johns DID fix my leg . . . didn’t he?”

“Yes,” Doctor Michael Johns nodded his head. “I WAS able to piece the bone back together and repair some of those torn muscles and ligaments. Given time, I’m confident all that will heal.”

“But?” Stacy prompted, still holding tight to her father’s hand.

“We have no way of knowing what kind of nerve damage there may be.”

“How soon will we know?”

“We’ll know better in the next couple of days, after the swelling goes down,” Michael replied.

“ . . . and if there IS nerve damage?”

“If it’s not severe, there’s a very good chance it’ll heal . . . in time,” Michael said.

“How MUCH time?”

“Difficult to say, Miss Cartwright. Could be a few weeks . . . a few MONTHS . . . maybe even as long as a year.”

“What if it DOESN’T heal?”

“The consequences can range from not being able to feel your toes to walking with a severe limp the rest of your life . . . to— ” Michael broke off, reluctant to continue along this line of conversation. “Mister Cartwright, perhaps we can discuss this further in the morning.”

“Doctor Johns, you’re gonna discuss this right here, right NOW, with Pa and ME,” Stacy said, her face darkening with anger.

“Stacy, Doctor Johns is probably exhausted,” Ben quietly pointed out. “Perhaps we might be better off resuming this conversation tomorrow morning, after we’ve ALL had a good night’s rest.”

Stacy silently considered Ben’s words, then nodded. “Ok,” she agreed. “We can talk more about this in the morning. ALL of us! I just want to ask one more question.”

“That’s fair enough,” Ben agreed.

Stacy looked up into Doctor Johns’ face, intense, sky blue eyes meeting same. “Doctor Johns, you said you were able to pretty much put everything back together. Right?”

“Yes.”

“Does that mean you WON’T have to amputate?”

Doctors Martin and Johns exchanged nervous glances.

“Paul . . . . ”

“Yes, Ben?”

“Tell her,” Ben said quietly.

“Ben, I— ” Paul shook his head. “I’m not so sure that’s a very good idea. Not right now.”

“Come ON, Doctor Martin,” Stacy sighed, weary, exasperated, and impatient. “I’ve almost died TWICE today. In fact, it sounds like I DID die for a little while the second time. I don’t think anything you and Doctor Johns have to say’s gonna scare me very much after all THAT.”

“You have a point there, I suppose,” Paul had to agree. He closed his eyes, swallowed, then took a deep, ragged breath. “Stacy, you were right about the patient you saw earlier . . . yourself . . . having a leg that was busted pretty bad. In medical jargon, you suffered a compound fracture of the tibia. That’s the larger of the two bones in your lower leg. From what your pa said earlier, it probably happened when the staircase collapsed, with you, Hoss, and Joe on it.”

“What’s a compound fracture?” Stacy asked, her gaze shifting from Ben’s face to Paul Martin’s.

“A compound fracture happens when the bone breaks and it actually pushes out through the skin.”

For a moment, Stacy felt ill. Very ill. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “But, Doctor Johns put everything back together all right?” she asked, inwardly surprised at how calm and even her voice sounded in her own ears.

Paul nodded. “Yes,”

“ . . . and THAT means you WON’T have to amputate?”

“I . . . HOPE it’s not going to come down to that, Stacy,” Michael Johns said quietly. “I’ll know more within the next few days. The good news is that I WAS able to set the broken bone properly, and repair most of the damaged muscle tissue. You’re also young, strong from what your pa’s told me, and healthy as a horse going into all this. With all that in your favor, I’m reasonably sure that bone’s going to knit properly, given time.”

“What’s the BAD news?” Stacy asked.

Doctor Johns sighed, heartily wishing now that they had kept to the subject of nerve damage. “There is a very real danger of infection, Miss Cartwright.” His eyes moved over toward Ben’s face as he spoke.

Ben’s intense dark brown eyes met and held Michael’s bright blue ones. He nodded, much to the physician’s chagrin.

Michael Johns closed his eyes and took a deep breath, wishing with every fiber of his being that he did not have to utter his next words. He opened his eyes again, and turned, his blue eyes meeting hers, and holding them. “Stacy, IF your leg or the bone becomes infected . . . and we, Doctor Martin and I, can’t treat it . . . we may very well HAVE to amputate the leg.”

“Thank you, Doctor Johns,” Stacy said, in a tone of voice a bit too calm, too bland.

“Miss Cartwright, I’m sorry, I— ”

“It’s ok. I had to know.”

“Ben?”

“Y-Yes, Paul?”

“ . . . and you, too, Stacy,” Paul Martin continued in a quiet, yet firm tone. “I want to remind BOTH of you that everything we said just now is, at this point, a lot of maybes, what ifs, and possible outcomes. It’s just as possible that everything’s going to heal up just fine.”

“Be prepared for the worst, but don’t stop hoping for the best,” Michael Johns added.

“Stacy?”

“Y-Yeah, Pa?”

“I want you to remember that the most important thing is you came out of that fire . . . and through that surgery ALIVE,” Ben said. “No matter WHAT happens from here on in, we . . . you, me, your brothers, and Hop Sing . . . are going to meet it head on and work it through together.”

“I know, Pa,” Stacy said, as she slipped her arms about his waist and gave him a gentle squeeze. “If there’s one thing in this world I CAN count on is that we Cartwrights ALWAYS face whatever we have to together.”

“ . . . and THAT’S another plus in your favor, Miss Cartwright,” Michael said. “A BIG one!”

“ . . . and I think yet ANOTHER plus in Stacy’s favor would be for the lot of us to get out of here, so she can get some proper rest,” Paul said. “Sleep always has been, always will be just about the best medicine in the world.”

“Miss Stacy need liquid,” Hop Sing said very firmly. “Not eat, not drink all day. Need liquid. Hop Sing go, bring hot peppermint tea in big mug.”

“You’re absolutely right, Hop Sing,” Paul said. “Go ahead and brew up a pot.”

“Pot ALREADY brewed, ready to drink,” Hop Sing said. “Hop Sing go fix.”

Paul nodded, then turned to Ben, as Hop Sing quietly left the room. “Ben, you’re certainly welcome to use our guest room.”

“Thank you, Paul, but not tonight,” Ben said in a firm tone that brooked no argument, no further discussion of the matter. “I’m going to stay right here, where I can be close to Stacy.”

“Ben, you’re exhausted!” Paul admonished his old friend severely. “You need to get proper rest in a— ”

“I want to be with my daughter.”

“Stacy’s a big girl now, she’ll be all right,” Paul argued.

“That may very well be,” Ben countered. “However, that’s not the point.”

“What IS the point?”

“The point is right now I’m a worried father. A VERY worried father! And if I’m forced to retire to your guest room upstairs, I promise you, I won’t sleep a wink,” Ben replied. “However, since I WILL be down here, you can put DOCTOR JOHNS in the guest room instead of taking him back to the hotel. THAT way . . . if anything should happen . . . you’ll BOTH be close.”

“Paul, you might as well g’won up to the attic and fetch down BOTH cots,” Lily said wearily. “Hop Sing’s going to want to be close to his family, too. I’ll ask Hilda Mae to make them up.”

“Lily, whose side are you on?” Paul Martin demanded, outraged.

“Right now, I’m on MY side,” Lily returned irritably. “It’s been a long day, Paul, for ALL of us. I, for one, am exhausted . . . physically and emotionally. The last thing I want to do is stand here and listen to you and Ben argue all night. That won’t help Stacy get any rest, either.”

“Alright,” Paul growled, ungraciously surrendering to the inevitable. The angry scowl he directed toward his wife warned that the conversation was far from over.

“I’ve got both cots set up like you asked,” Paul Martin informed his wife in a tone that dripped icicles, upon entering their bedroom. With a gentle tug, he pulled his shirttail out from under his pants, then set himself to the task of unbuttoning his shirt.

Lily Martin, attired in her favorite nightgown, flannel, with tiny blue and pink flowers dotting a background of white, had already crawled into bed. Her face had been scrubbed clean of all the cosmetics she generally wore, and her long silver white hair had been plaited into a single braid and tucked up under a white, ruffled mob cap.

“Lily . . . . ”

“Yes, Paul?”

“Why?”

“Why WHAT?”

“Why didn’t you back me up when I tried to insist that Ben sleep in our guest room?” Paul demanded, with a touch of exasperation, as he continued to undress in preparation for bed. “The man’s exhausted! He should be sleeping on a proper bed, not on a cot.”

“Paul, you know as well as I do that whenever ANY of his children are sick or seriously hurt, Ben Cartwright’s as fussy as an old mother grizzly with HER cubs, and about a hundred times more ornery,” Lily said, trying hard not to yawn in her husband’s face. “He’ll sleep a lot better on that cot where he can be close by his daughter, than he would in our guestroom upstairs. As for Stacy, I know that child’s got more strength and courage about her than any ten men put together, but— ”

“Child, Lily?” Paul Martin favored his wife with a bemused smile.

“Yes, Paul, CHILD!”

“As I recall, Stacy Cartwright turned eighteen on her last birthday,” Paul Martin hastened to point out. “Legally, she’s of age. Hardly what I’d call a child.”

“However, eighteen years old isn’t THAT far past being a child,” Lily argued, “and DESPITE that stubborn determination of hers to keep a brave face on things, that young woman is very much a frightened child, and with good reason. Paul. . . . ”

“What?”

“For tonight at least, Stacy needs to be with her pa, every bit as much as HE needs to be with her.”

“ . . . and the next thing you’re going to tell me is that Ben and Stacy need Hop Sing as much as he needs to be with them, to look after them.”

Lily favored her husband with a weary, self-satisfied smile. “Looks like I don’t HAVE to tell you, Doctor . . . seeing as how you were able to, shall we say, arrive at your own diagnosis?!”

Hours later, Sheriff Roy Coffee sat behind the desk in his office in Virginia City, his mind reeling. His supper, brought over from the International Hotel restaurant by its manager, Gretchen Braun, sat off to the side, untouched, and long since gone cold. He mentally reviewed his facts as he slowly rose, with empty coffee mug in hand, and crossed the room toward the small pot belly stove and the pot of hot coffee there . . . .

The fire that had consumed most of the Cartwrights’ ranch house had been set deliberately. That was a given, with ample evidence, in form of charred pieces of cloth, that STILL reeked of kerosene, to back it up. The blaze more than likely began somewhere up in the attic, given how quickly it had gone to the roof and consumed the entire upper level. If Ben, Hoss, and Hop Sing hadn’t woken up when they did, none of the Cartwrights would have woken up ever again. Roy shuddered upon realizing just how very close he had come to losing his oldest, and dearest friends.

After the fire was doused, due in very large part to a torrential downpour early that morning, the bodies of two men were found in the charred remains of the Cartwrights’ log ranch house. The one most badly burned was that of Derek Welles. No doubt at all in anybody’s mind about that. He had been up on the roof with Candy and a young fella, by the name of Kevin Hennessey, working to contain the blaze. Derek ended up falling to his death into the fires consuming the attic, when the roof under him collapsed.

“The doc told me he’s pretty sure the fall killed him,” Roy mused grimly between sips of coffee. “I sure hope he’s right. A broken neck’s a hell of a lot more quick ‘n merciful than bein’ burned alive.”

The second body, found in what remained of the house, lying right next to Derek Welles according to the men who had found them both, had yet to be officially identified. His head, part of his upper torso, and most of his left arm had been burned. From what remained intact, however, he had been wearing a green jacket, light brown pants, and matching shirt, at the time of his death. All of his garments were well constructed, using good, top quality material. Doctor Martin had gone through the pockets of the unidentified man’s clothing, those untouched by the flames that had partially consumed his body, and found them completely empty.

“At THIS point things start gettin’ a little screwy,” Roy mused silently. He sat behind his desk, staring down into the near opaque black depths of the untouched mug of coffee in front of him, as a gypsy fortune teller stares into her crystal ball.

This mystery man, officially listed as ‘John Doe,’ had been shot in the head on the hillside out behind the addition that housed the kitchen and Hop Sing’s room. Doctor Martin had confirmed this when he pieced the two large pieces of bone, that Roy had found back there, into the man’s shattered skull. The torn piece of material, also found by Roy near the place where the skull fragments had been found, fit snugly into the torn cuff of the left sleeve of the jacket the unknown man wore at the time of his death. The mother-of-pearl button, found within the area in which Candy insisted that Joe had struggled with one of his abductors, matched the others still attached to what remained of the dead man’s shirt. Two buttons were missing from the shirt, one from the cuff of the right sleeve, and the one second from the bottom.

The man had been shot down, fleeing for his life, by someone standing at the top of the hill, or close to it. The absence of other bullet wounds gave strong credence to the possibility of ‘John Doe,’ having been felled by a single shot.

“ . . . fired by a real sharp shooter,” the sheriff mused in grim silence. “Next the body’s burned, then put into what’s left o’ the Cartwrights’ house . . . probably by t’ killer himself. MY question is . . . WHY?”

Roy lifted the coffee mug, on the desk in front of him, to his lips, sipped, then grimaced. “Nuthin’ worse ‘n a good strong cup o’ coffee gone cold,” he groused under his breath, as he rose and started across the room toward the door, with mug in hand.

His thoughts drifted to Joe Cartwright and Jack Murphy, both of whom had been missing since early this morning. Doc Martin had officially ruled out the possibility of the unknown ‘John Doe’ being Joe Cartwright, as the men who found him had originally supposed. According to Hoss, the collapse of the great room ceiling separated Joe from the rest of the family, and barred him from the front door. He had told Hoss and Ben that he could still get out through Hop Sing’s room. That was the last time his family saw him. A scarlet, slightly worn robe and matching slippers, now in Roy’s possession, were proof that Joe had in fact safely escaped the burning house.

But where was he now?

Hoss and Candy were absolutely convinced that Joe Cartwright had been abducted by party or parties unknown. They had taken him out behind the what remained of Hop Sing’s room and the kitchen, to show him the paths and trails that led through the vegetable garden and the grassy meadow beyond. Based on what Roy saw there, and the conclusions Hoss and Candy had reached, Joe was taken by at least two, maybe three men.

If Hoss and Candy’s supposition was true . . . IF . . . could ‘John Doe’ have been one of the men involved in Joe’s abduction? If so, why had he been killed? Had there been a falling out between the three men? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a group of men, who were in cahoots with each other to commit a crime, found themselves in an argument that ended in violence. Though such a happenstance was not premeditated murder, therefore NOT a hanging offence, the guilty party still faced prison time. The Cartwrights’ house burning down as it did presented an ideal cover for the disposition of a dead body.

In most cases nobody ever would’ve been the wiser.

The loud, insistent pounding on the closed door to his office, drew Roy Coffee from his convoluted musings. “WHO IS IT?” he shouted.

“IT’S HOSS, SHERIFF COFFEE.”

“C’MON IN, HOSS! DOOR’S STILL OPEN.”

Hoss opened the door and stepped inside. Roy noted the slumping shoulders, the drooping eyelids, and the stifled yawn. “ ‘Evenin’ Sheriff. Y’ asked me t’ stop by on my way to see Pa ‘n Stacy.”

Roy rose. “Come on in, Hoss, ‘n pull up a chair. Can I getcha a mug o’ coffee?”

“Thank you, Roy, I sure could use it,” Hoss said wearily, as he crossed the room between the door and the sheriff’s desk. His gait was slow, a mere fraction of his normal, brisk pace. He half fell, half collapsed into the chair, sitting directly in front of the sheriff’s desk. Hoss yawned again, then dropped his head down on his arms, resting on top of the desk.

Roy pulled out the extra clean mug he kept in his drawer, for company, and walked over toward the pot bellied stove. “Anyone seen or heard anything from Joe or Jack Murphy?” he asked, as he picked up the pot and poured the last of what remained into the mug in hand.

“No, Sir,” Hoss replied curtly, shaking his head. “I took t’ liberty o’ bringin’ ya Jack Murphy’s things. Not much, just some clothes, shavin’ stuff, an ol’ tin box, ‘n a bunch o’ letters all bound up t’gether.” He reached down and lifted the half filled duffle bag, sitting on the floor beside him, up, onto the sheriff’s desk.

Roy handed Hoss the mug of coffee, then stepped around to the other side of his desk, to open the duffle bag. “This everything?”

Hoss nodded. “Jack didn’t have much.”

“Had good clothes,” Roy remarked, as he lifted out a stack of shirts, every one clean, pressed, and neatly folded. There was a half dozen work shirts, hued in black, bright scarlet, royal blue, and emerald green, along with three white dress shirts. “Real good material, well put t’gether. That usual f’r a drifter?”

“No, Sir. Like Candy said earlier, most o’ drifters WE hire on tend t’ be a real seedy lookin’ bunch.”

Roy next removed a stack of envelopes, roughly a dozen, bound together with twine from the duffle bag. He untied the bundle, as Hoss quietly looked on, and started leafing through the envelopes. “It seems they’re all postmarked New Orleans . . . except f’r this LAST one. IT has a Carson City return address.”

“I remember Jack tellin’ me his ma lived in New Orleans, once . . . when we got t’ talkin’.”

“Candy told me the same thing when I talked to him this mornin’ . . . whilst you we’re gettin’ dressed,” Roy said. “He also said that Jack said somethin’, ‘bout movin’ his ma somewhere close by.”

“I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that, Sheriff Coffee.”

Roy picked up the envelope on top of the stack, noting that it had the oldest postmark date, and opened it. He removed the letter, written on a single page of plain pink stationary. The cursive handwriting was neat and precise, with no smudges, and each letter correctly formed, the spaces between words and lines almost uniform. A date was noted in the top, right corner. Roy brought the letter up to eye level and read it aloud:

“Dearest John,

How lovely to hear from you once again.

I was most gratified to hear about you finding work on the Ponderosa. Do keep me posted on all the details, no matter how small, trite, or insignificant they may seem to you.

Until I hear from you again,

With much love,
Mama.”

Hoss frowned. “Keep her posted on the details?! Details o’ what, I wonder . . . . ”

“Now don’t you go readin’ a bunch o’ stuff into that letter that in all likelihood just plain ain’t there,” Roy warned in a stern tone of voice. “This woman’s Jack’s ma, ‘n she’s probably askin’ him t’ keep her posted on how he’s doin’, who his friends are, is he seein’ any girls . . . stuff like that.”

“What does the one from Carson City say?”

Roy pulled the envelope from the bottom of the stack, and opened it. This missive was also composed on the same pink stationary. The sheriff also read this one aloud:

“Dearest John,

Your anecdotes about the entire Cartwright family have been quite amusing, especially the exploits of Joseph, the youngest son. He is such a darling boy, so impulsive, so full of life.

M., C., and I have relocated to the yellow house in Carson, and have settled in quite nicely. I have a few more details to tend to, Dearest, before we can sent our plans in motion. M. has been making discreet inquiries, and believes he has found a place suitable.

If all goes well, I will meet you on the 8th, two months from now.

Until then.

With much love and tender affection,

L. L.”

Though the writer of the letter had signed with the initials, L. L., the handwriting clearly belonged to the same person who had penned the first letter.

“L. L.,” Hoss murmured the letters aloud. “L. L. . . . . ” Those initials . . . New Orleans . . . both stirred something deep and nebulous within Hoss’ mind and thoughts. He tried with all his might to grab hold of that elusive memory, trying so hard to surface. It proved more slippery than a greased pig at a picnic.

“Hoss?”

“Sorry, Sheriff, I was thinkin’,” Hoss said. “What’s the return address for the letters comin’ from Carson City?”

“You thinkin’ maybe o’ payin’ a visit t’ this address?” Roy asked, knowingly.

“Yeah.”

“When ya figurin’ on goin’?”

“It’ll depend on how well Stacy’s farin’ . . . how much Pa might need me,” Hoss replied slowly. “I’m hopin’ maybe I can go within the next couple o’ days, or so.”

Roy reached into the top drawer of his desk and pulled out a pencil and scrap sheet of paper. He copied the Carson City address from the envelope, then handed it to Hoss. “First thing tomorrow mornin’, I’m sendin’ a wire to Amos Dudley, lettin’ him know to expect ya. He’s the sheriff over in Carson City, ‘n a real good friend o’ mine.”

“Thanks, Sheriff Coffee. Much obliged,” Hoss said with a curt nod.

“Now, when y’ git there, I don’t want ya upsettin’ whoever may be livin’ there with a lotta wild talk about Joe bein’ kidnapped,” Roy said sternly. “We ain’t established that yet.”

“Yes, Sir. I know that.”

“Any idea what’s in this tin box?” Roy asked, turning his attention to the last item that was in the duffle bag, containing Jack Murphy’s things.

“Nope. I just gathered it all up, ‘n stuffed it in his bag.”

Roy carefully lifted the lid, and peered inside. “Got a lotta money put by in here, Hoss. Must be a couple o’ hundred, at least. Any idea what he might’ve been savin’ up fer?”

“Nope.”

Roy was about to replace the lid on the tin box, when his eyes caught a glint of gold nestled among the huge wad of paper money, stuffed inside. He reached in and pulled out a solid gold ring with a raised coat of arms. “What in the world would a drifter be doin’ with a hunk o’ gold like this?” Roy wondered aloud.

“Could be he won it somewhere in a poker game,” Hoss said with a shrug. “Y’ know, with that coat o’ arms, it looks like a king’s ring . . . or someone with a fancy title.”

“I heard each o’ these coats o’ arms belongs t’ a different family,” Roy said thoughtfully. “I’m gonna take this over t’ Mrs. Wilkens first thing in the mornin’. Been meanin’ t’ look in on her, since I found out she’s ailin’.”

“If anyone can tell ya who that coat o’ arms belongs to . . . well, it’d be Mrs. Wilkens,” Hoss said. “When y’ go t’ see her, will ya give her my best?”

“Sure will, Hoss,” Roy promised. “You tell your pa ‘n Stacy that I’m thinkin’ about the two o’ them, too.”

“Thanks, Sheriff Coffee, I’ll be sure t’ tell ‘em.”

The sound of small knuckles lightly tapping against a closed wooden door roused Ben from the light slumber into which he had at long last drifted. For one brief, thoroughly unsettling moment, he had no idea where he was. Then, suddenly, he remembered . . . .

The fire.

Stacy hurt.

Nearly drowning on the ride to town and Doctor Martin under a torrential downpour.

The surgery.

Doctor Johns.

Ben sat up slowly and opened his eyes just in time to see Hop Sing opening the door.

“Hop Sing, Hoss is here . . . . ” It was Lily Martin, clad in nightgown, hastily donned robe, and a pair of slippers. “He’s in the parlor downstairs. Would you like me to bring him on up?”

“Hop Sing go downstairs, see Mister Hoss. Mister Cartwright, Miss Stacy sleeping,” he said, taking great care to keep his voice down. “Not want to wake up.”

“Hop Sing? I’m awake,” Ben said, rising stiffly to a sitting position.

Lily stepped into the room past Hop Sing and walked over to the cot upon which the Cartwright clan patriarch now sat, yawning. “Ben?”

“Yes, Lily?”

“If you want to go down with Hop Sing to see Hoss, I’ll be more than happy to sit with Stacy,” she offered.

“Thank you,” Ben murmured gratefully as he reached for the brand new boots sitting just under the cot.

“Pa?” It was Stacy. “I’m not asleep, either.”

Hop Sing sighed and threw his hands up in the air. “Mister Cartwright, Hop Sing go downstairs, get Mister Hoss.”

“Alright, Hop Sing,” Ben nodded wearily. He, then turned to Lily Martin. “Lily, I promise . . . we won’t talk long.”

“That’s alright, Ben,” Lily said, trying her best not to yawn. “Take all the time you need. I’m afraid I don’t have an extra cot for Hoss, but he’s welcome to use the divan in the living room upstairs, if he wants.”

“Thank you, Lily. Thank you very much . . . for everything,” Ben said gratefully. “You, Paul, and Doctor Johns have all been real godsends today.”

“I’m glad we were able to help,” she replied. “Do you need me for anything else?”

“No, thank you. We’ll be alright.”

“In that case, I’m going back to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Good night, Lily.”

“Good night.”

Ben closed the door behind Lily Martin, then walked over toward the bed occupied by his daughter. “As for you, Stacy Rose Cartwright, you SHOULD be asleep,” he chided her gently, as he seated himself in the chair.

“I don’t know WHY, Pa. With being unconscious and— . . . well, you know . . . when I had that weird dream? I’ve pretty much spent all day sleeping.”

“I guess you have a point there,” Ben agreed, greatly heartened by her flip answer.

“Speakin’ f’r myself, Li’l Sister, I’m real glad t’ see you awake.”

Stacy turned and found herself looking up into the weary, yet smiling face of her biggest brother, Hoss. Hop Sing dutifully lit the oil lamp sitting on the night stand next to the examination table, serving as her bed.

“Hoss, sit down.” Ben immediately rose from the chair.

“I don’t wanna take your chair, Pa.”

“It’s alright, Son,” Ben said as he pulled up the doctor’s stool beside the bed Stacy occupied.

Hoss wearily sank down in the chair his father had just vacated. “Last I heard from Doc Martin, YOU were still bein’ operated on, Li’l Sister. I’m glad t’ see it’s over, ‘n you’ve come through with flyin’ colors.”

“I have, Hoss, but . . . I almost didn’t,” Stacy said, her voice shaking, “and we’re not sure yet about my leg.”

Ben reached out and took her hand in his, and gave it a gentle, reassuring squeeze.

“The pair o’ you look like you’ve seen a ghost,” Hoss remarked, noting his father’s and sister’s pale faces, and the haunted looks in their eyes. “What all went on here t’day?”

Ben quietly told Hoss everything that happened, including Stacy’s unsettling near death experience and the prognosis offered by Doctors Martin and Johns earlier.

Hoss took a moment to silent digest everything, then let out with a soft, low whistle. “Imagine that! My li’l sister beatin’ up on t’ Angel o’ Death.”

“I had no choice,” Stacy said very quietly. “He was trying to force me to go someplace I don’t want to go . . . at least not yet.”

“Well, I’m real glad you’re still with us,” Hoss said with a tired smile. Taking care to avoid the place where she had been struck by a piece of falling plaster, he reached out and gently tousled her hair, as he often had when she was a child. “Now I want ya t’ promise me you’ll remember one thing.”

“What’s that, Hoss?”

“Whatever ELSE happens, we’re all with ya. I know ya already know that, but at times like this, it helps t’ hear it. Sheriff Coffee also told me, when I was with him just a little while ago, that he’s thinkin’ about you and Pa, too. He said f’r me to let the two o’ YOU know.”

“Thanks, Hoss,” Stacy murmured gratefully. “Next time you see Sheriff Coffee, please . . . tell HIM thank you for me.”

“I sure will, Li’l Sister,” Hoss promised. “I, uh . . . got a surprise, mostly f’r Pa, I think, but there’s one thing I know you’ll appreciate.” He reached under his jacket and withdrew the picture taken of the entire Cartwright clan, two years ago when Adam, Teresa, and the kids came to visit. He held it so his father and sister both could see it.

“Hoss, I . . . I don’t believe it!” Ben declared, his eyes misting. “That was a wonderful summer, wasn’t it?”

“Sure was, Pa.” A bare hint of a smile tugged at the corner of Stacy’s mouth. “A lot of firsts.”

“Oh?” Ben queried.

“Yeah. First time I met Adam, Teresa, Benjy, and Dio . . . . ”

“First time I met Benjy ‘n Dio, too, Li’l Sister,” Hoss added, grinning from ear to ear.

“It was also the first time you proved yourself a wily mastermind, Hoss . . . .”

“ . . . an’ the first time I’ve ever in my whole life been dealt a royal flush.”

“That summer was also the first time I ever got involved in a barroom brawl, then thrown in jail.”

“The less said about THAT the better, Young Woman.” Ben’s voice was stern, but his dark eyes shone with a mixture of delight taken from memories of that eventful summer now two years past, and of tears yet unshed.

“Mister Hoss?”

“Yeah, Hop Sing?”

“Hop Sing make space, put picture here . . . on table, so Miss Stacy see. Mister Cartwright, too.”

Hoss handed the picture over to Hop Sing. “That table’s gonna git a mite crowded, though . . . ‘cause that ain’t the only surprise I got.” He reached into the deep, lower right hand pocket of his jacket and pulled out the miniature oil portrait of Marie, and the photographs of Elizabeth and Inger. He gently placed them in his father’s hands.

Ben stared down at the images of the three women he had loved and married. Though the time he had with each of them was tragically cut short, they had altogether blessed him with three sons, whom he dearly loved and cherished. “I . . . Hoss, I don’t believe this . . . you . . . you actually saved these pictures . . . . ?!”

“I didn’t, Pa . . . JOE did,” Hoss said quietly. “He also got the pictures o’ Uncle John ‘n Cousin Will, along with the prayer book that belonged to Mama.”

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Li’l Sister?”

“Where IS Grandpa?” Stacy asked. “Did he stay back at the h— . . . at the Ponderosa?”

Hoss closed his eyes and bowed his head. The hour he had been dreading the entire day had finally, at long last, come upon him.

“Hoss?” Ben prompted, his own heart skipping a beat.

Hoss took a deep breath, then looked up, forcing himself to look into his father’s face and meet those intense brown eyes, boring into him, demanding an answer. “Pa . . . Stacy,” he began in as steady a voice as he could muster. “Joe’s gone missing.”

“Oh, Dear Lord, no! Please . . . no!” Ben groaned. The muscle and bone in his legs felt slack, as if they had just turned to rubber. Had he not already been sitting down, he would have most certainly fallen down.

“Oh no, Hoss!” Stacy murmured, her voice unsteady. “He . . . he didn’t— ”

“No, Li’l Sister, he didn’t,” Hoss said very quickly. “We know for fact that he got out.”

“Thank God!” Ben murmured a genuine heartfelt prayer of relief

“Where is he NOW, Hoss?” Stacy pressed anxiously.

“We . . . Candy ‘n me . . . are pretty sure he’s been kidnapped,” Hoss said.

“Kidnapped?!” Ben echoed incredulous.

Hoss nodded, then brought his father, sister, and Hop Sing up to date on every thing, including all that he had just learned from Roy Coffee.

“New Orleans? Those letters you found under Jack Murphy’s bunk were from New Orleans, signed with the initials, L. L.?!” Ben demanded.

“Yeah, Pa, all of ‘em WERE from New Orleans, except one. THAT one was from Carson City,” Hoss replied. “Sheriff Coffee only looked at two while I was there. One from New Orleans signed Mama, the other from Carson City . . . signed L. L.”

“Same handwriting?”

“Yes, Sir.” Hoss studied the anxious, preoccupied frown on his father’s face for a moment. “Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“There’s somethin’ about the initials L. L. ‘n New Orleans, ain’t there? I’ve been wrackin’ my brains tryin’ t’ figure it out, but it just ain’t comin’.”

“Linda Lawrence,” Ben said as a wave of dizziness washed over him. “Lady of Chadwick.”

“Pa, who’s this Linda Lawrence, Lady of Chadwick?” Stacy asked.

“A woman I knew in New Orleans, many, many years ago now,” Ben quietly answered his daughter’s question. “I met her a couple of years before I met Joe’s mother, Marie.” A rueful smile spread slowly across his lips. “I was in love with her, or so I thought at the time. I asked her to marry me, but she turned me down flat. Turned out that the entire time I was courting her, she was courting a titled Englishman, Oliver Lawrence, Lord of Chadwick.”

“She turned down the better man,” Stacy declared with an emphatic nod of her head.

“To paraphrase something a certain lovely young woman said to me a couple of years ago, I think you’re just a wee bit prejudiced,” Ben said quietly, smiling despite his grave concerns about his two younger children, “and I love you all the more for it.”

“Madame Darnier’s dress shop.”

Ben nodded. “Madame Darnier’s dress shop, indeed.” His smile faded. “Looking back, though, I’m sure glad I found out that she didn’t really love me, BEFORE making the big mistake of marrying her. A year after Linda and I parted ways, I met Marie.”

“I don’t get it, Pa,” Stacy said, frowning. “Why would she want to kidnap Joe? That was a long time ago, and besides . . . SHE turned YOU down. This Lady Chadwick’s hardly what you’d call the woman scorned.”

“She came t’ visit US at the Ponderosa . . . it’s been awhile now,” Hoss explained. “The man she DID marry, this Lord Chadwick died not long before, I think. We . . . Pa, Adam, Joe, ‘n me . . . thought she was an old friend droppin’ by t’ catch up on the years, maybe remember old times, but she had somethin’ else in mind.”

“What?” Stacy asked.

A dark, angry scowl creased Hoss’ brow. “She tried t’ ruin us . . . t’ ruin PA, so he’d hafta marry her for her money.”

“I caught on to her scheme and exposed it before the damage she did became permanent,” Ben said grimly. “By the time I confronted her, I’m afraid I was ‘way too angry to even think of conducting myself like a gentleman. Linda went into a pretty violent rage herself. She swore to get even somehow, but as Hoss said, it’s been a long time. I haven’t heard either FROM her or ABOUT her . . . until now.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“I’d like t’ ride over t’ Carson City ‘n check on that address where Jack Murphy mailed his letters, if it’s alright with YOU.”

“I don’t know, Hoss,” Ben shook his head.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“If you want to go with Hoss, I’ll be ok here for a few days,” Stacy said in as steady a voice as she could muster. She squeezed his hand reassuringly for emphasis.

“I— ” Ben dolefully shook his head. “I know Doctor Johns said the surgery went well enough, that he was able to put your leg back together, Young Woman, but he AND Doctor Martin both said you’re not exactly out of the woods yet.”

“Doctor Johns also said I’m young, strong, and healthy as a horse, Pa. He said all that’s in my favor . . . remember?”

“I remember, but— ”

“I’ll be fine, Pa, I promise,” Stacy said earnestly, “and if something DOES happen, I’ll be right here, where Doctor Martin and Doctor Johns can get to me quickly.”

Ben gently stroked the uninjured side of her head. “I . . . I just hate the thought of . . . well, of leaving YOU alone right now, especially after . . . after— ”

. . . after you almost died. Though her father couldn’t bring himself to voice those words, Stacy nonetheless heard them, loud and clear. “I’ll be ok, Pa,” she said earnestly, as she slipped her arms around Ben’s neck and shoulders, “I promise.”

Ben slipped his own arms around Stacy and held her close for a moment. “You SURE you’ll be alright?” he asked, his voice tremulous.

“I’m sure.”

“Mister Cartwright?”

“Yes, Hop Sing?”

“Miss Stacy NOT be here alone,” Hop Sing said quietly. “HOP SING stay here with Miss Stacy. Make sure she take medicine and do what doctors say. You, Mister Hoss go to Carson City. Bring home Little Joe.”

“Yeah, Pa . . . what Hop Sing just said.”

Joe Cartwright woke up to a world of impenetrable darkness, pressing in on him from all sides, suffocating him. He opened his mouth to take a deep breath, even as he fought to quell the panic now rising within him, crying out in sheer agony as the expansion of lungs and chest sent spasms of intense pain rippling through the entire length and breadth of his upper torso. Squeezing his eyes shut as tightly as he possibly could, he concentrated on slowing his deep, ragged, excruciating breaths to an even cadence, shallower, less painful.

In.

Out.

In.

Out.

He tried to turn over onto his side, only to discover something restricting his movements. He shifted onto his back, and tried to turn over again. Both of his feet and his left hand seemed to be stuck somehow. He peered into the opaque darkness, searching frantically for his feet. They were completely hidden, swallowed up in the same oppressive veil of darkness pressing down on him so heavily.

Joe tried to raise his left leg, and found, much to his astonishment, that he could not. He was able to bend his knee slightly, and move his foot a little back and forth, but something kept pulling at his leg, rendering it largely immobile. The same held true for his right leg. He tried his ankles, his left first, then the right. He could move them up and down, but found his side-to-side movements restricted.

“Pa?” Joe called out into the darkness, wincing against the soreness in his throat. He was very much surprised at how hoarse his voice sounded.

There was no answer.

“PA!”

Still no answer.

“HOSS? STACY? HOP SING?”

No answer. Only the thick, shroud like silence of the darkness all around him.

“HELLO . . . ANYONE HOME?!”

“They can’t hear you.”

Joe started violently upon hearing a woman’s voice issue from the darkness. There was a familiarity about it that set him on edge.

Then, suddenly, the room was filled with an intense bright sunlight. Joe screamed, as he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to turn his face away from the source. His breath came in rapid deep gulps, sending ripple upon ripple of excruciating pain searing through his chest and lungs. He tried once to roll over onto his side, away from the sun’s blinding glare, but, as before, found he couldn’t move. Again, he forced himself to relax, to lie still and slow his breathing, keeping his face averted away from the source of the light as much as he could. Finally, and with trepidation, he slitted one eye open, then the other.

“Good morning, Little Joe.”

He turned toward the sound of that voice. It was Lady Chadwick, standing at the foot of his bed, a little to his right, placing her out of the sun. She held her posture rigidly erect, with thin, bony arms folded tight across her chest.

Her appearance shocked him. That angry scowl and turned down mouth seemed indelibly etched into a hard, gaunt, granite like face, its planes and muscles so rigidly set. Her hair, once a rich chestnut brown hue, not unlike his own, appeared in the harsh daylight as a flat, yellowish brown, of a peculiar shade that did not normally occur in nature. It’s uniform color, with no shadows, no highlights, clearly marked it as a dye job, and a very poor one, at that.

The harsh, glare of sunlight, streaming in through the naked window panes, lent a garish intensity to her hair color, and rendered the lavish, painstaking application of her cosmetics almost completely invisible. Every line, every flaw in her face was laid bare. Though somewhere between ten and fifteen years younger than his father in age, by the bright, merciless morning sun, Lady Chadwick looked old enough to be his grandmother.

She wore a morning dress, white, overlaid with dainty blue forget-me-nots and tiny pink rosebuds, all gathered in miniature bouquets, held together by pink ribbons. Its cut and style seemed to him more suited for a girl, a young, teenaged girl, poised at the brink of womanhood, than to a matron of Lady Chadwick’s years. On another elderly woman, such a dress would almost certainly provoke cruel laughter, or pity. Seeing bouquets of forget-me-nots and rosebuds on Lady Chadwick, however, made him feel very uneasy.

“Where . . . where am I?” Joe asked.

“You are in my home away from home,” Linda answered in a stone cold voice.

“Wh-Where is your . . . your home away from h-home?”

“That’s NOT something you need to know, Little Joe.”

“Why not?”

She laughed. There was no mirth, no amusement. “Dear, Dear, Dearest Little Joe . . . did anyone EVER tell you that you ask too many questions?”

She seemed to be gazing down at him as if he were something very good to eat. Joe very slowly, very carefully lifted his head, and in that moment, realized he was completely naked, save for the bandaging around his chest, right arm and shoulder. He felt the tingling, hot rush of blood to his face as his head dropped back down onto the mattress like a heavy lead weight.

“You were running a very high fever by the time I got you home,” Linda continued. Her pink lipsticked lips twisted upward into a fierce, predatory smile. “Though your temperature has dropped considerably, you’re still a tad feverish.” Her eyes came to rest on his private parts, now lying open to her intense, cruel scrutiny. “On the OTHER hand, Darling, MY temperature remains quite high.”

Unable to turn his body away from her frank, appraising gaze, he settled for turning his head and face away, prompting an explosion of harsh, derisive laughter. Joe wished desperately, with every fiber of his being, that the earth would simply open right out from under the bed in which he was lying and just swallow him up. Though the prospect of being plunged forever into an eternity of complete and utter darkness terrified him beyond imagining, it was still preferable to Lady Chadwick’s intense scrutiny, and her harsh, cruel laughter.

“Why, Dearest Little Joe, I . . . well I simply had no idea! No idea in the world that you, of all people, were so modest,” she taunted. “I would have expected that sort of thing from Hoss, or even Adam, with HIS prim and proper New England sensibilities . . . but, not from YOU.”

Linda moved around into the sunlight, and walked around to the left side of the bed, with the slow, deliberate gait of a cougar stalking prey. She primly seated herself on the edge of his bare mattress, and leaned over, displaying her own cleavage to good advantage. “You dearest darling boy, you have absolutely no reason . . . no reason in the world to BE so modest.”

She, then, leaned over and kissed him on the mouth.

Joe squeezed his eyes shut, and pressed his lips together as tightly as he could. He unconsciously pressed his head and his shoulders hard against the mattress, in a desperate, if futile attempt to move away from her.

“Ben, Darling, at last . . . . ” she purred, as her lips moved from his mouth down to the small of his neck, just below his Adam’s apple. “I FINALLY have you right where I’ve ALWAYS wanted you.” She slowly, relentlessly moved downward, leaving a trail of tight hard kisses, overtop the bindings around his rib cage, then onto the bare flesh of his abdomen, taking an obvious delight in the feel of his hard muscled torso and his acute embarrassment. She stopped just below his naval, straightened, and smiled expectantly.

Joe stared up at her through eyes round with astonishment and horror.

Linda gasped, surprised, outraged, and grief stricken, upon seeing the open revulsion, the fear, even disgust in the face of the captive young man lying sprawled on the bed before her. She slowly rose to her feet, her entire body trembling. “THAT little tidbit has enthralled many, many men, driving them absolutely insane with desire and longing.”

Joe was too shocked, too horrified to even think of responding. All he could do was shake his head and softly mutter, “No, no, please, no.”

Linda Lawrence’s stone cold face suddenly contorted with rage. Snarling with all the vicious intensity of a mad dog, foaming at the mouth, she slapped his face so hard, he could almost feel his teeth rattle. “Your father happened to be one of those men.”

“Until he found out what you REALLY are . . . greedy, self-seeking, cold hearted, conniving bitch, who cared more for a . . . a fancy European title than you ever did for him!” Upon finding his voice, Joe immediately gave vent to the anger and rage, now rising inside him, with a wild, reckless abandon.

The next thing Joe realized, she was straddling him at the waist, her hands tightly balled into a pair of surprisingly solid, rock hard fists, raining blows down on his face and chest, screaming incoherently with rage. He squeezed his eyes shut and turned his head and face as far as his neck muscles would allow.

“Well, well, well! Isn’t THIS a sweet, cozy little scene!”

Then, suddenly, the blows stopped, though not her screaming. Joe turned and opening his eyes, saw Lady Chadwick twisting and struggling in the ironclad grip of her man, Crippensworth.

“My Lady, you really MUST learn to curb your temper,” Crippensworth chided her in a tone, insultingly condescending. “That boy can’t be much of an instrument of your revenge if you beat him to death the first day.”

“LET GO OF ME, CRIPPENSWORTH . . . YOU LET GO OF ME RIGHT NOW!”

“ . . . as for YOU, Boy, I don’t know what you said to set her off, but it was a very stupid move on your part,” Crippensworth sneered. “Perhaps you’ve forgotten the LATE Jack Murphy?!”

Joe paled.

Crippensworth smiled, showing a long string of hard white teeth, reminding Joe of a growling wolf or dog, ready to leap and tear the very throat out of its opponent. “I’d strongly suggest you not forget Jack Murphy again, lest you ALSO forget, Milady is capable of anything. Anything at all!”

“CRIPPENSWORTH! YOU UNHAND ME RIGHT NOW THIS VERY INSTANT!” Linda’s screams escalated in volume, proportionally to the fury burning hot within her.

Joe watched with horrified, morbid fascination as Lady Chadwick’s face underwent a dark transformation from anything even remotely bearing human semblance to something frighteningly bestial, even daemonic. Her words quickly degenerated into ferocious, guttural growls and snarls, as her struggles to free herself from Crippensworth’s grip intensified. Lady Chadwick’s eyes locked and held fast to Joe’s own.

“N-No . . . . ” Joe moaned, as he squeezed his eyes shut, and turned his face away from Linda’s intense, malevolent gaze. Still the image of her eyes remained, as if indelibly burned onto the backs of his eyelids. The venom, the malice, and the bitter hatred reflected in her gaze bore into the depths of his soul, the very core of his being like a fast acting, highly corrosive acid. Never, in his entire life, had he ever felt so frightened, helpless, or alone.

Crippensworth half dragged, half carried the shrieking daemon, he held clasped in his arms, toward the door to Joe’s room, his hold becoming more and more tenuous with each passing second. Upon finally reaching the closed door, Crippensworth wound one arm so tight around Lady Chadwick’s waist, Joe could see muscles and veins bulging, as he struggled mightily to keep hold of her. He grabbed hold of the door knob with his free hand and threw open the door, slamming it into the adjoining wall with a loud, explosive bang. With a loud, explosive grunt, Crippensworth hurled the still struggling, still shrieking and howling Lady Chadwick out into the hallway beyond with a near superhuman strength borne of sheer desperation.

Crippensworth, now thoroughly disheveled, stepped quickly through the open door, then turned to favor Joe with a sardonic, malicious grin. “Remember, Boy,” he said again, so to be heard against his employer, still shrieking at the top of her lungs. “Remember.”

Crippensworth dragged Lady Chadwick into the hallway outside Joe’s room, pausing just long enough to turn and close the door firmly behind him.

“LET ME GO! LET ME GO, DAMN YOU . . . LET ME GO THIS INSTANT!” she screamed as he literally dragged her down the hall to the large master bedroom at the very end.

Crippensworth kicked open the door, dragged his employer into the room, and threw her down on the bed. “My . . . don’t YOU look a sight, Milady,” he said with a sardonic chuckle, as he took in her mussed hair, the make-up smeared across her face, the torn ruffle at the hemline of her dress, the puff sleeve, completely detached from her bodice, that lay bunched around her wrist.

Linda launched herself off the bed to her feet with a savage, animalistic snarl, and ran toward Crippensworth with her arms fully extended, her fingers curled like the talons of a hawk or an eagle. Crippensworth snagged her wrists, one in each hand, with ridiculous ease. He then pulled her arms behind her back, eliciting a cry of pain and outrage before fastening his lips down on hers in a harsh, brutal, demanding kiss.

“How DARE you?” Linda snarled the instant their lips parted. “If you don’t unhand me right now, this very instant, I’ll— ”

“In the first place, you can save your breath from making these idle threats, Milady. I’m NOT so easily cowed as Montague was . . . and in the second place, you LIKE your men rough,” Crippensworth sneered, his eyes lingering very pointedly on her cleavage. He pulled her back in his arms and kissed her again, with all the harsh violence of the first.

Linda tried to push away, then with a sigh, her struggles ceased and her body went limp in his embrace. When, at last they separated, she looked up at him, breathless, her heart racing and eyes glazed. “Benjamin Cartwright, you’re nothing but a common piece of trash,” she purred.

“ . . . and YOU, Milady, are nothing but a common whore!” Crippensworth spat contemptuously.

Ben and Hoss, meanwhile, slowly dismounted from their horses, Buck and Chubb respectively, and tethered their leads to the hitching post on the street, just outside a small, narrow town house, three stories high. Though the wood siding had originally been painted a brilliant canary yellow, years of relentless sunshine and rain had dulled it’s vivid intensity to a pastel shadow of its former self. The white paint on the window trim, the door, the railing on either side of the small door stoop was cracked and peeling. The window boxes stood empty, and the flower bed next to the house, the pride and joy of the late Ezekiel Reid, was overgrown with weeds.

“I remember Derek tellin’ me about how Carolyn was gonna clear out those beds, ‘n plant flowers again, the way her pa used to,” Hoss said sadly, as he and Ben tethered their horses to the hitching post.

“Maybe Carolyn will feel up to doing all that NEXT spring,” Ben suggested.

“Pa, I don’t think Carolyn ‘n her ma are gonna be here come spring,”

Ben looked over at his biggest son with a perplexed frown. “What makes you say that?”

Hoss pointed toward the front door. Ben’s eyes followed the line of his son’s extended arm and pointing finger to the hand lettered sign reading, “For sale,” hailed there.

“Awfully sudden . . . . ” Ben murmured. “How long have you known, Hoss?”

“I found out just now when I saw that sign, same as you.”

“I can’t say as I blame them with Mister Reid dying so suddenly last year, and now Derek,” Ben said sadly. “I just hope they don’t regret their decision to move.”

“Yeah.”

Ben looked over at the biggest of his three sons, taking due note of his pale face, his blue eyes round with apprehension, and trembling hands, hanging down at his side. “Hoss?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“You alright?”

“As alright as I can be right now,” Hoss sighed, then dolefully shook his head. “Dadburn it, Pa, if I had m’ druthers . . . I’d be right back up on Chubb lickity-split, high-tailin’ it outta here.”

“I know how you feel, Hoss,” Ben murmured sympathetically, “however, Derek Welles was not only one of the best, most trusted, and loyal men who’s ever graced our payroll . . . he was also a good friend. We owe it to him and to his memory to see Carolyn.”

“I know,” Hoss said, as he and Ben started to move slowly up the walk. “I just wish I knew what t’ say at times like this. A lot o’ the stuff I hear folks say . . . like he or she’s in a better place . . . or they’re with God . . . it’s a blessin’ in disguise . . . it’s the will o’ God . . . . ” He sighed once more and again, shook his head. “I . . . to me, none o’ that seems right somehow.”

“I usually find a simple ‘I’m sorry,’ an ear willing to listen, occasionally a shoulder to cry on more than ample at times like this,” Ben said quietly, “along with ‘is there anything I can do?’ Son . . . . ”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“The most important thing, I think, is being there.”

Hoss nodded. “I think you just might be right,” he said, as he quickened his pace. His face was set with a rock-like determination to see this whole grim business through. Ben followed close behind.

Flora Reid, Carolyn’s mother, opened the door in answer to their summons. Aged in her mid-to-late forties, she wore a gray skirt and white blouse, both simply tailored with no adornment. Her only jewelry consisted of the plain gold wedding band on the third finger of her left hand and the gold heart shaped locket around her neck, containing a picture of her late husband.

“Mister Cartwright . . . Hoss . . . please, come in,” Flora invited, as she stood aside to allow them entry. “I hope you’ll both excuse the mess. Carolyn and I are in the midst of packing.”

“We . . . saw the ‘for sale’ sign on the front door, Ma’am,” Hoss said, as he and his father politely removed their hats. “I’m gonna hate seein’ you ‘n Carolyn go.”

“Thank you, Hoss. Speaking for myself, there’s a lot of wonderful, kind people I’m going to miss . . . your family among them,” Flora said very quietly, as she led Ben and Hoss through the maze of packing crates. “But, after all that’s happened . . . we can’t stay here.”

“Where are you headed?” Ben asked, as he helped Flora clear boxes from their large divan.

“Back east . . . to Philadelphia. My husband was from there originally. His mother and eldest sister still live there,” Flora replied. “I sent them a wire yesterday after . . . after we learned about Derek. Genevieve, my sister-in-law, sent us a wire yesterday evening telling both of us we were more than welcome to come. Carolyn will be leaving right after Derek’s funeral. I intend to follow after I’ve settled things here.”

“I’m sorry my family and I haven’t come sooner— ” Ben started to apologize, as he and Hoss sat down together on the divan.

“Mister Cartwright, as far as I’M concerned, you have nothing to apologize for,” Flora said firmly. “We . . . Carolyn and I . . . heard about Stacy . . . and about Joe. Any word . . . on either one?”

“Stacy had surgery on her leg yesterday,” Ben replied. “It was touch and go most of the day, but Doctor Johns was able to put everything back together.”

Flora managed a wan smile. Barely. “I’m glad to hear everything went as it should,” she said sincerely, “and I hope she continues to do well. I . . . well, I just couldn’t imagine that child not ever being able to sit a horse again.”

Ben refrained from adding the prospect of his daughter not being able to ride again had been the very least of his worries yesterday. “We’ll know more how things are gonna go in the next few days,” he said aloud.

“Have you heard anything about Joe?”

“Not yet,” Ben replied. “I have everyone who can possibly be spared out looking for him, of course.”

“I hope he turns up alive and well, Mister Cartwright. I’ll remember you and your family in my prayers.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Reid,” Ben said, genuinely touched. “If there’s anything Hoss and I can do for YOU . . . anything at all— ”

“As a matter of fact, there IS,” Flora said, lowering her voice. “After Doc Martin releases Derek’s body . . . Carolyn and I want to see to his funeral arrangements. He had no family, to speak of . . . . ”

“No,” Ben sadly shook his head. “His parents were killed when he was sixteen, and I don’t recall them ever mentioning any other family members. I’ll tell Paul to release Derek’s body to you and Carolyn.”

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright.”

“I hope you’ll let us know when the funeral’s t’ be,” Hoss added.

“I will, Hoss. I know that you and the rest of your family were all very fond of Derek, and . . . and so were the men he worked with.”

“Mrs. Reid, would it be alright if we saw Carolyn?” Hoss asked.

“I’m so sorry, but . . . well, she’s . . . very much indisposed, and not . . . really up to seeing much of anybody.”

“Now, it’s my turn to tell you that neither you nor Carolyn have anything to apologize for,” Ben said. “Please give her our condolences?”

“I will,” Flora promised.

“ . . . and please . . . if there’s anything else we can do for you and Carolyn, don’t hesitate to ask,” Ben said earnestly.

“I’ll remember,” she said.

“Hoss and I need to be moving along. We have some pressing business to take care of in Carson City— ”

“ . . . which I’m sure you both want to wind up as quickly as possible, so you can be back here with Stacy,” Flora said knowingly. “If you need someone to sit with her or anything while you and Hoss are away— ”

“Thank you, Mrs. Reid,” Ben said quietly. “Stacy’s with the Martins’ right now, and she’s going to stay there, until we know she’s completely out of the woods. I’m also leaving Hop Sing with her to make sure she takes her medicine and follows doctor’s orders.”

“Sounds like she’s in very good hands,” Flora said, as they walked to the door. “Thank you very much for stopping by, Mister Cartwright . . . Hoss. I’ll let you know about the funeral arrangements as soon as I’m able to make them.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“You’ve been awful quiet since we left Virginia City.”

“So have you.”

They had left the Reid home during the mid-morning hours, and set out immediately along the road toward Carson City. For the better part of the first three hours, father and son had ridden in silence, each lost in the tangled maze of his own thoughts.

“I keep goin’ back ‘n forth, Pa,” Hoss confessed. “One minute, I’m worried somethin’ awful about Joe ‘n Stacy, the next, I . . . well, I start thinkin’ ‘bout Derek ‘n Carolyn, how they was s’posed t’ be gettin’ hitched this Saturday ‘n I . . . . Pa, can a man be mad enough t’ spit ‘n still feel like bawlin’ . . . both at the same time?”

“Yes,” Ben replied.

“It ain’t fair, Pa,” Hoss said tersely.

“Carolyn and Derek?”

Hoss nodded. “After his ma ‘n pa were killed, all Derek ever wanted was t’ settle down with a nice gal ‘n raise a whole passel o’ kids,” he said, his voice catching, “an’ now . . . less ‘n a week before realizin’ that dream . . . he’s GONE. It ain’t fair, Pa. It just plain ‘n simple ain’t fair.”

“I agree with you, Son.”

Hoss looked over at his father, mildly surprised. “You ain’t gonna tell me somethin’ about how it’s the will o’ God . . . and it ain’t ours t’ question?”

“No,” Ben shook his head.

“Why NOT?”

“Because I don’t believe the kind, loving, and merciful God I’VE come to know would actually will such a thing as . . . as the untimely, tragic death of a young bridegroom-to-be less than a week before his wedding,” Ben said quietly, “but, as I told your sister, back when Lotus O’Toole was so brutally murdered, what I DO believe is maybe a harder thing to accept than simply passing it off as the will of God.”

“What . . . exactly DO ya believe about where God is in all this?”

“In Derek’s case, he had a choice, Hoss,” Ben said. “He knew that going up on the roof, to open up a hole there so that they might pour water in from above . . . was a very dangerous proposition. I didn’t want him to do that, and I told him so. But, he was so bound and determined to save what he could of that house . . . of everything IN that house— ”

“Probably ‘cause he once lost everything . . . except the clothes on his back . . . when his folks died,” Hoss said sadly.

“When he told me he wanted to go up on the roof, I told HIM that every THING in that house could be replaced . . . but people couldn’t.” Ben looked over at his son, favoring him with a wistful smile that came no where close to reaching his eyes. “Sometimes . . . sometimes I find myself wishing I could have Derek back for five minutes, Hoss . . . just five minutes . . . so I could THROTTLE him.”

“It’s too bad Carolyn’s pa died when he did last year. If he hadn’t, Derek ‘n Carolyn would’ve gotten themselves hitched THEN.”

“His death now would still be a pretty bitter pill to swallow, Son.”

“Yeah, but they would’ve had pert near a whole year together, Pa, ‘n maybe a young’n around . . . or on the way . . . t’ comfort her now.”

“It’s . . . not easy raising a child alone.”

“YOU did it, Pa. YOU raised FOUR all by yourself.”

“That’s how I know it’s not easy.”

“I know I’ve asked ya this before, but . . . did you ever regret takin’ the lot o’ us on?”

“No. As difficult as it’s been sometimes . . . and I’ll be honest with ya, Son, some of those real difficult times were almost overwhelming . . . I still have no regrets. If I had it to do all over again, I would . . . in a heartbeat.”

“Y’ did a great job of it, Pa . . . even if I do say so m’self.”

“Thank you, Son.”

Hoss glanced over at his father sharply, upon hearing his voice break on the last word. “You alright, Pa?”

“I will be, Hoss . . . once I know that your sister is out of the woods . . . and I . . . I have your younger brother back home, safe and sound.”

“For the ONE HUNDREDTH TIME . . . I was out in my buggy for an early morning drive . . . WITH Crippensworth . . . when I spotted the flames from your home,” Linda said impatiently, through clenched teeth. She had changed out of the morning dress to a light gray skirt, and a light green long sleeved blouse, rolled up to the elbows. Her hair was styled in a French twist and her make up carefully, painstakingly reapplied.

“Though your father and I didn’t part on the best of terms last time we met, I, nonetheless, felt duty bound to help,” she continued, as she slowly paced the floor, moving on a parallel course relative to the footboard of the bed on which Joe still lay bound, helpless, and naked. She held a riding crop in her right hand, in a grip so tight her knuckles had turned a bloodless white. As she walked, she slapped the riding crop hard against the open palm of her left hand, keeping time with the cadence of her footsteps. “We turned— ”

“Why in the world would you feel duty bound to help . . . when you told me earlier that you had someone set our house on fire in the first place?” Joe groused. He was hot, hungry, thirsty . . . every muscle in his body ached from being held immobile, and he was nursing what had to be the absolute worst headache it had ever been his misfortune to suffer, brought on by his ever growing hunger and thirst.

Crippensworth rolled his eyes and chuckled, sardonically, without mirth.

Linda halted her pacing abruptly, mid-stride, then turned and marched over to the left side of Joe’s bed. With a soft, low snarl, she raised the riding crop high above her head and brought it down against Joe’s left shin, with a loud, thunderous crack. Joe cried out in pain and outrage. Again and again, her arm arced through the air, up, then down, moving too fast for the eye to see, slapping hard against Joe’s left shin, until she finally drew blood. With each blow she landed, her face contorted more and more into the terrible mask of the fury that always seemed to be burning just below the surface.

Linda stepped closer to the edge of the bed and bent down, bringing her face mere inches from his. “Don’t you EVER . . . interrupt me . . . ever . . . again,” she whispered, her entire body trembling with pent up rage. “Do you understand me?”

Joe angrily turned his face away.

Linda grabbed a fistful of hair in her left hand and yanked his head around, eliciting another cry of pain. “You look at me when I’m talking to you,” she said in a low, menacing voice.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Joe replied in a sullen tone, fighting back the strong inclination to spit right in her face.

Linda threw Joe’s head back down onto the mattress, then straightened. “Where was I?” she asked in a stiff tone of voice.

“Something about you and me being out for an early morning ride, Milady,” Crippensworth replied, the sarcasm in his voice blatantly evident. “We saw the flames consuming the house . . . you felt duty bound to offer help, even though you bitterly hate Ben Cartwright’s guts.”

This last drew a sharp, angry, withering glare from Lady Chadwick. “I’ll thank you NOT to be so insolent when speaking to your betters, Crippensworth,” she admonished him in a cold, angry tone.

“Yes, Milady,” Crippensworth said, rolling his eyes sarcastically upward.

Satisfied with her man’s outward show of compliance, Linda returned her attention to Joe. “As Crippensworth just said . . . we were out for a drive early this morning, when we saw the fire. I felt duty bound to offer what assistance I could, even though your father . . . ” she grimaced, “ . . . and I didn’t part on the most cordial of terms.

“I told Crippensworth to turn around, to head back,” she continued, as she once more resumed her pacing, this time moving parallel to the left side of Joe’s bed. “When we reached the place where the narrow little venue, that runs along in back of your house, intersects with the main road, I saw you struggling, fighting to get out of the house. You got out, but collapsed in the garden out back. I told Crippensworth to stop the buggy. I got out and ran to your side, Little Joe, with Crippensworth following along right behind me.

“You were hurt. I could see that.” Linda began to strike the open palm of her right hand this time, as she paced, gripping the riding crop tightly in her left. As before the riding crop slapping against the flesh of her palm fell into cadence with her footsteps. “I wanted to move you . . . to take you back around front where I figured your father would be, but Crippensworth strongly advised against it. He said you might have suffered internal injuries. I saw the wisdom in what he said, so I told him to remain with you, while I ran around to the front of the house for help.”

Linda closed her eyes, averted her face toward the floor, then sighed a long, melodramatic sigh. The lines and planes of her face began to slowly ease back into a stone cold mask, completely void of emotion. “It . . . pains me very much to have to tell you this, Little Joe, but when I went around to the front to get you help, your father went into a violent rage. I tried to tell him about YOU, of course . . . but he just plain and simply refused to listen to reason. He ordered me off his property, threatening to kill me then and there, if I didn’t go.”

“That DOESN’T sound like Pa,” Joe said through clenched teeth, his eyes blazing with the fury rising and swelling within himself.

“He also told me THEN that you were dead,” Linda continued impassively, “ . . . that he even had your body to prove it.” A nasty, malicious smile oozed slowly across her pink lipsticked lips. “My little charade seems to have worked.”

“Wh-What little charade?”

“Don’t you remember?”

“WHAT LITTLE CHARADE?” Joe demanded frantically.

“Having Crippensworth burn the body of the LATE Jack Murphy and placing IT in the smoking embers of your once and former lovely home. Do you remember NOW, Darling?”

“NO!” Joe hotly protested. “They won’t buy it.”

“Ah, but, they HAVE, Little Joe. Lock . . . stock . . . and barrel.” Linda turned to her man with a triumphant smile. “Haven’t they, Crippensworth?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Crippensworth lied with the oily smoothness that comes with long practice. “One of the men I’ve employed to watch your family reported that your brother . . . you know, the lummox? . . . that the very minute they pulled Jack’s body from the ash heap, he couldn’t get to the undertaker and make the necessary arrangements soon enough.”

“No! I don’t believe you,” Joe countered. The uncertain undertones in his voice brought smug, complacent smiles to both their faces.

“Fine. DON’T believe me,” Linda said in an airy, dismissive tone. “That won’t change the facts, Darling . . . and the facts are your so called wonderful, loving family . . . your father, your brother and sister . . . even that heathen Chinese cook of yours . . . have all written you off as DEAD.”

“NO! YOU’RE LYING!” Joe snarled, snapping his head back around to face her. “EVERYTHING YOU’VE SAID . . . IT’S NOTHING BUT A PACK OF FILTHY LIES!”

Linda exhaled a pretty sigh, soft, bordering on the melodramatic. “Oh, you poor dearest darling! You love your family so much, I really and truly wish things were otherwise, but . . . ” she shrugged, “ . . . you have to face the facts, I’m afraid.”

“You’re damn right I’ve gotta face the facts,” Joe growled back through clenched teeth, “and fact number one is . . . you and Crippensworth did NOT come to help me. You and that overgrown gorilla of yours came to KIDNAP me!”

“Your memory is faulty,” Linda said in an ice cold tone that dripped icicles. “VERY faulty!”

“Oh no, it’s NOT!”

“Oh yes, it IS, Little Joe, rest assured . . . it IS!” Her breathing had finally begun to slow.

“ . . . and Pa couldn’t possibly have my body.”

“You’re absolutely right, Darling. Your father couldn’t possibly have YOUR body. But, he DOES have the body of the man you knew as Jack Murphy.”

“J-Jack Murphy?!”

“My SON, Little Joe. Remember?”

The image of the recently hired hand running, fleeing for his life, assailed Joe’s troubled mind and thoughts. Again, he heard the rifle fire, and saw Jack’s head burst apart like an overripe pumpkin.

“Y-Your own s-son!” Joe stammered, horrified. “You . . . you actually killed your own son just s-so you could make Pa think I d-died in that fire?!”

“The plan seems to be working very WELL, Darling. Very well indeed! My beloved son definitely did NOT die in vain.”

“NO!” Joe screamed in anguish, as he squeezed his eyes shut against the vision of his father’s face, as he had seen it at Angelus, after a mine collapse, triggered by a dynamite blast set off by the owner. For the brief space of a heartbeat, his father stood, rendered immobile, staring into the smoke and dust pouring out of the opening into the mine, not yet knowing that he had actually survived the blast.

Joe would never, not if he lived to be a hundred, ever forget the terrible look he saw on Pa’s face. “No! You can’t fool pa so easily . . . . ”

“You think SO, eh, Little Joe?” Linda taunted him.

“I KNOW so. My pa has NOT written me off as dead, nor would he WANT to. I’ll betcha any amount of money that he, Hoss, and Stacy are probably out right now scouring the countryside looking for me.”

“You LOSE that bet, Darling. Your sister, Stacy, it seems was very badly hurt.”

Joe suddenly remembered that piece of plaster falling, striking her head, and knocking her out. He had picked her up and carried her to the staircase, following close behind Hoss. Then, the ceiling overhead fell. Some of the larger beams fell onto the staircase, reducing it to so much scrap lumber. He, with Stacy in his arms, and Hoss fell nearly the entire height between the second floor and the first.

“I understand your father spends night and day at HER side,” Linda continued. “So does that Chinese man.” She grimaced delicately.

“If Stacy’s badly hurt, of COURSE Pa’s going to stay with her, just like he has stayed and would stay by my bothers and me,” Joe argued. “But, he’s probably got HOSS out lookin’, along with some of the other men.”

Linda shook her head. “Your father and Hoss have every man that can be spared working on the house. Hoss has been going back and forth between the house and your father and sister, as is natural, I suppose. But from what I’VE been able to see, Little Joe, they’ve not spared YOU a second thought.”

“You’re lying!”

Linda stepped over to the bed and gently traced the line of his jaw with her index finger. “Dearest, Darling, Little Joe. You love your family so much . . . I honestly and truly wish I WERE lying.” With that, she abruptly turned heel and sashayed out of the room. Crippensworth silently followed.

End of Part 2

 

Trial By Fire

Part 3

By Kathleen T. Berney

 

His eyes snapped wide open. For a time he just lay there, staring at the four walls and ceiling surrounding him, not knowing where he was. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the glint of bright sunlight on something metallic. He turned toward his night stand, where he saw the sunshine on the silver frame that held a photograph of his mother, taken back when she as a young girl, younger even than his baby sister.

Then, he remembered.

He was home.

Back in his own bed, in his own room.

It had all been a bad dream, product of his fevered imagination. The fire, his abduction, Lady Chadwick . . . it had all been a dream. A terrible, horrible dream! He immediately rose, shot up from prone to sitting, as wave, upon wave or relief washed over him.

“PA? HEY, PA!” he shouted, as he threw aside his covers with joyful abandon. “PA! WAIT’LL YOU HEAR THIS WEIRD, INSANE NIGHTMARE I JUST HAD!”

No answer.

“PA? HOSS? STACY? HOP SING?”

Still no answer.

From anyone.

He whipped his legs over the side of his bed and sat up. “PA?! HOSS! STACY!! HOP SING??” He rose to his feet and stretched. “HEY, COM’N ! WHERE’D EVERYBODY GO?”

He suddenly realized all was somehow TOO quiet. He bounded across his bedroom toward the door, feeling suddenly, inexplicably afraid. As he stepped out into the hall, the silence surrounding him seemed an almost palpable thing, hanging heavy in the atmosphere and clinging to every square inch of wall, floor, and ceiling before him. He wanted so much to call out again to his father, his siblings, to the Chinese man who, for all of his life had been as a second father, but it seemed very wrong somehow, to cry out, to break this leaden silence. With heart thudding head against his rib cage, he very slowly, very reluctantly made his way toward the stairs.

He paused at the top of the steps. The great room below him was mobbed with people, men, women, even children, all dressed in jet black. His family was nowhere to be seen. As he descended the stairs, he became more and more aware of a sound from the gathered mass of humanity below, soft, rising on the air like incense, or the fine smoke from the embers of a dying camp fire. At first, it sounded like locusts in the summer. As he neared the bottom of the stairs, he realized it was the sound of all those people sobbing.

Upon reaching the great room below, he began to move through the crowd, frantically searching their faces. None seemed aware of his presence. They simply parted as he threaded his way, in and out, among them. Pa, Hoss, Stacy, and Hop Sing were absolutely no where to be found. With heart in mouth, he finally walked over to a woman, young, with hair the color of gold, that seemed to shine through the black veil she wore draped over her head. She stood next to the fireplace, with her back to the crowd.

As he reached out and gently tapped her shoulder, he suddenly realized he was completely naked, save for the white bandages wrapped around his right shoulder and bound about his chest. She turned expectantly, not seeming to notice either his nakedness or his beet red face.

“Yes?”

He found his mouth and tongue suddenly paralyzed for fear of asking the question he knew he must ask.

The woman waited patiently.

“ . . . uuhh, —Ma’am?” he ventured, his entire body quaking with fear, “can YOU tell me what’s going on here? Who are all these people and . . . and WHY are they crying?”

In answer, she mutely held out her gloved hand. His arm seemed to rise of its own accord, reaching out, his fingers wrapping themselves around her extended hand. She led, his legs and feet followed, until at last they came to a stop in the dining room. The chairs, china cabinet, dishes, and pictures were gone, and the window tightly shuttered. The woman pointed with her free hand toward a black box resting on the dining room table. “Come see,” she invited.

That was the absolute last thing in the world he wanted to do. Yet, he felt his feet, his legs moving, their momentum propelling him closer and closer to that black box.

“The reason all these people are crying is the youngest son of this family has died,” the woman said.

“NO!” he screamed, as he rushed toward the black box. “NO! THAT’S NOT TRUE! IT CAN’T BE TRUE!” He peered into the box and saw the body and face of Jack Murphy lying there, clad in brown clothing and green jacket, eyes closed in death.

He screamed, and screamed . . . .

. . . and woke up screaming to a strange room, blindingly illumined by the bright afternoon sunlight streaming in though the bare window panes, completely naked, and chained down to a bed . . . .

“What’s this all about?”

His own words, spoken upon realizing the identity of the woman who had taken him prisoner, echoed once again in his ears.

“Why are you kidnapping me? Why did you kill Jack Murphy?”

“I killed him because he is roughly the height and build YOU are, with the same color hair and lovely curls. Did you happen to notice that he was also dressed as you usually dress? Crippensworth will burn Jack’s body then, as soon as he can discreetly do so, he will place it somewhere in the smoking ruin of that once grand and glorious ranch house of your father’s.”

“Why?”

“I’m hoping Jack’s dead body, dressed as YOU dress will convince your father that you perished in the fire that consumed your house . . . . ”

Did her ruse really succeed as she had claimed earlier? Did Pa really find Jack Murphy’s body and mistakenly believe it to be HIM? That would explain why Pa had turned on her so viciously, if indeed she spoke the truth.

“Oh, Pa . . . . ” Joe moaned softly, as tears stung his eyes. “I . . . I wish there was s-some way . . . s-some way . . . some way t-to tell you . . . . ” His words were drowned by the sounds of his own heartbreaking sobbing.

“Good afternoon, Gents.” Carson City’s sheriff, Amos Dudley greeted Ben and Hoss politely, before biting off the end of the hand rolled cigar in his hand. He carelessly spit the minuscule piece out into a nearby trash basket, then returned his attention to his visitors.

“Howdy,” Hoss responded, holding out his hand. “I’m Hoss Cartwright, this here’s m’ pa, Ben Cartwright. Sheriff Coffee over in Virginia City wired you about us?”

Amos nodded. “Yes, indeed he did. Please, sit down.” He gestured to the pair of wood, straight backed chairs facing his desk, strategically positioned in front of the back wall enabling him to keep an eye on prisoners incarcerated in any in the three cells lined up along the east wall, and the front door, which opened toward the south.

“Thank you,” Hoss replied, as he directed his father toward the sheriff’s desk.

“Coffee? Just made up a fresh pot.”

“No, thank you, Mister Dudley. Pa ‘n me’d just as soon git down t’ business.”

Ben and Hoss arrived in Carson City during the late afternoon hours, and gone directly to the sheriff’s office, after checking in at the Comstock Hotel.

“As I recall, Sheriff Coffee said something about a fire out at your place, and a couple o’ men being killed,” Amos said, as he stepped behind his desk, and gestured for the Cartwrights to take the chairs, placed side by side in front of the desk.

“Yes, Sir,” Hoss replied, as he and his father sat down. “We’re pretty sure that one o’ the men who got killed was a young fella by the name o’ Jack Murphy. Sheriff Coffee found about a dozen or so letters in with his things. One o’ those letters came from someone livin’ at this address.” He drew the slip of paper on which Roy Coffee had written down the Carson City address, and handed it over to Amos Dudley.

Amos accepted the proffered slip of paper, curtly nodding his thanks.

“We think maybe it’s his MA livin’ at that address,” Hoss added.

“Ain’t never heard o’ no one by the name o’ Murphy, ‘cept ol’ Jake,” Amos said thoughtfully, “ ‘n ol’ Jake . . . well, as his name says, he ain’t no YOUNG fella, that’s f’r dang sure, ‘n while some folks might say he’s PICKLED most o’ the time, he’s still pretty much ALIVE.” His eyes moved down to the address written down on the slip of paper he held in both hands. “You say this young fella worked for ya?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “My younger foreman and I hired him on a couple of months ago.”

“Kinda strange, that,” Amos said thoughtfully.

“How so, Sheriff?” Hoss asked.

“This house number lies over in the part o’ town where all the rich folks live,” Amos replied. “Ain’t too many young fellas from over that way who’d take a job as ranch hand, ‘cause the work’s too dang hard. Though . . . it’s possible one of ‘em might as t’ maybe prove himself.”

“Can you tell us who owns that house, Sheriff Dudley?” Ben asked, laboring mightily to remain calm, to keep his voice measured and even.

“I’ve heard tell the house belongs to a rich couple,” Amos said slowly, his eyes still on the slip of paper in hand. “Foreigners, leastwise the husband.”

“Do you know where this couple was from?” Ben asked.

Amos turned toward Ben, flinching immediately away from the intense glare of those dark brown, almost black eyes. “Sorry, Mister Cartwright, I can’t really say, seein’ as t’ how I never met ‘em.”

“Do you know their names?” Hoss asked.

“Sorry, can’t help ya there neither,” Amos shook his head. “The owners o’ the house ain’t lived in it f’r years, not since I been sheriff, anyways, though it’s sometimes been rented out to different folks passin’ through.”

“How about in the last month?” Ben demanded in a hard, stone cold voice.

“As a matter o’ fact, there’s a woman rentin’ the place now,” Amos replied. “A widow woman with her son and a couple o’ other men, accordin’ t’ Iva Mae Barnes over at the post office.”

“The son . . . you know what he looked like, Sheriff?”

“ ‘Fraid not, ‘cause I never seen ‘em,” Amos replied. “You’d have better luck talkin’ with Iva Mae. She’s what ya might call the town newspaper, if y’ git my drift?!”

“I do,” Hoss nodded. “If y’ can direct Pa ‘n me over to the post office, we’d be much obliged.”

“Good afternoon, Gentlemen, what can I do for you?” The postal clerk, a petite, willowy slim woman, with her hair, dark brown liberally mixed with iron gray, pulled back away from her face peered at the Cartwrights over the straight line along the top of a pair of half moon glasses, set in gold wire frames.

“Ma’am, my name’s Hoss Cartwright, this here’s m’ pa, Ben Cartwright— ”

“Ponderosa Cartwrights?” the woman queried with upraised eyebrow.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Hoss nodded.

“From over Virginia City way?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Her ruby red lips parted in a sunny smile that revealed a line of startlingly white teeth. “Perhaps you know my brother and sister-in-law. They have a small farm just outside of what you’d call Virginia City proper— ”

“Ma’am, my son and I are in a bit of a hurry,” Ben said, struggling valiantly to keep the exchange polite. “We’re looking for a Mrs. Iva Mae Barnes?”

“That’s MISS Iva Mae Barnes,” the woman said, her smile broadening. “You’ve found her.”

“Ma’am, we’re lookin’ for the folks livin’ at this address,” Hoss said, as he reached once again into the pocket of his shirt. He handed Iva Mae the folded slip of paper.

Iva Mae unfolded the paper and glanced down at the address. “Oh yes. Mrs. de Salle and her son, John.”

Hoss noted that the scowl on his father’s face deepened.

“Mrs. de Salle’s widowed, been so for a number of years now. John’s her only child,” Iva Mae continued. “She also had her secretary with her, older man with a delightfully charming English accent. Mister Montague.”

“Mister Montague’s her secretary?!” Ben queried, unable to believe his fantastic good fortune.

“I just said so, didn’t I?” Iva Mae drawled. “I haven’t seen Mister Montague around lately, though. For awhile her son came in and got the mail, least he did up until about two and half, maybe three months ago. Since then, it’s this big hulking creature named Crippensworth.” She grimaced and shuddered.

“That two and a half to three months would coincide with the time Jack Murphy’s been working for me on the Ponderosa,” Ben mused grimly, in silence. Aloud, he said, “Ma’am, there was a fire at my ranch a couple of nights ago—”

Iva Mae’s eyes went round with horror. “Oh my goodness! Mister Cartwright, I . . . I’m so sorry. I do hope it wasn’t a . . . a total loss.”

“Not at all, Ma’am,” Hoss said with genuine heartfelt sincerity. “The important thing is our whole family got out, safe ‘n sound for the most part. As f’r the rest IT c’n all be replaced.”

A tremulous smile slowly spread across her lips. “Bless your hearts, Both of You. If there’s anything you need, anything at all— ”

“Miss Barnes, my son and I ARE in need of some information,” Ben said, trying with all his might to keep his voice even. “Unfortunately, two of my men were killed trying to extinguish the blaze. One of them was a young man who’d only been working for me for the past couple of months. Though he gave his name to me as Jack Murphy, I have reason to believe he was John de Salle.”

“We found a whole bunch o’ letters in among his things that came from the lady livin’ at that address, Ma’am,” Hoss added, pointing to the slip of paper still in the postal clerk’s hand.

“Oh! That poor, poor, dear, sweet woman!” Iva Mae moaned. “He was all the family she had in this world.”

“My son and I are here to tell her about her son,” Ben said somberly. And maybe, just maybe locate his own.

“We’d also like t’ offer our help in makin’ funeral arrangements, or whatever else she might need,” Hoss said quietly.

“Would you do me a big favor, Mister Cartwright?”

“Sure thing, Miss Barnes,” Ben replied.

Iva Mae turned to the counter behind her and started to lift the sack, half full, sitting in its own corner.

“Here, Ma’am, let me git that!” Hoss immediately ran around behind the counter and picked up the bag with the same ease Iva Mae Barnes might lift a down pillow.

“Thank you, Young Man.” She turned to Ben with a big smile, and open, frank, appraising gaze. “You sure grow ‘em big ‘n strong, Mister Cartwright.”

“ . . . uhh, y-yes,” Ben murmured, averting his eyes away from her bold gaze.

“That’s all mail for the de Salles,” Iva Mae explained. “I’ve been collecting it here, oohh, I’d say for the better part of the last two . . . three weeks now. That’s how long it’s been since anyone’s come by to pick it up.”

“Be more ‘n happy t’ deliver it, Ma’am,” Hoss said morosely. Looking over at his father, he saw the same look of utter despair that he himself felt within his own sinking heart. “We’d be much obliged if y’ could give us directions.”

Iva Mae dutifully wrote down the directions. “Now that’s Bonne Street where you make your first left,” she cheerfully explained. “You’ll pass by Bonn-ER Street first, and believe you me, there’s plenty o’ folks who git confused.”

“I think we c’n find our way, Ma’am,” Hoss said, suddenly anxious to be on his way. “Much obliged.”

“It’s her!” Ben angrily muttered under his breath, as he stood holding Chubb’s reigns in order to allow Hoss to position the sack containing the de Salles’ mail. “de Salle! That’s Linda’s MAIDEN name.”

“Didn’t know she had a son, Pa,” Hoss said, feeling very sick at heart. He spread the contents of the tightly closed mail sack evenly across Chubb’s rump, directly behind the saddle, then fastened it down.

“Between you and me, do you really think this Jack Murphy, Candy and I hired, is the John de Salle Miss Barnes was talking about?”

“He wrote to her, Pa. We . . . Candy ‘n me, are pretty sure he helped in kidnappin’ Joe.” Hoss, then, turned and looked over earnestly into his father’s face. “Then . . . I ain’t sure whether I told ya this or not, but . . . Jack didn’t die in the fire. He was shot out back, by the folks he was helpin’ more ‘n likely.”

“I . . . can’t honestly remember whether you told me or not, with everything that’s been happening,” Ben said quietly. “You said Jack was shot out back?”

Hoss nodded, then told his father about Sheriff Coffee finding the large skull fragments, and of Doctor Martin piecing them into the skull of the man pulled from the charred remains of the house, along with Derek Wells. “Jack’s body was burned and put into the house later. Pa, this is gonna sound crazy as all get out— ”

“What’s that, Son?”

“Jack was runnin’ around, wearin’ the same kinda clothes Joe wears,” Hoss said. “Then with him bein’ shot ‘n killed, his body burned, put into what was left o’ the house . . . I can’t help thinkin’ that whoever took Joe maybe . . . just maybe . . . wants us t’ think he died in that fire.”

“You’re right, Hoss . . . it does sound crazy,” Ben said. “If Jack Murphy turns out to be John de Salle, that means . . . . ” He felt the blood drain right out of his face as the implications of what Hoss had just said, suddenly dawned on him. “Hoss, if . . . if what you just said is true . . . . ”

“I know, Pa. It means Lady Chadwick killed her own boy.”

“No!” Ben murmured, while vigorously shaking his head. “No! That’s . . . that’s . . . it’s impossible, no mother or father in their right minds would . . . would . . . . ”

“I don’t think Lady Chadwick’s in her right mind,” Hoss said, his own complexion a few shades paler than normal. “Remember what happened, after you found out what all she ‘n Montague’d been doin’, an’ you’d called her on it?”

“The painting?”

Hoss nodded.

“Yes,” Ben said, with a shudder, “I remember . . . . ”

After he had confronted Lady Chadwick, she denied everything, at first. Very convincingly, too! Had Ben not already known for certain that she was the master mind behind all his troubles, he might have actually believed her. When it became clear that neither he nor his sons were ever going to be convinced of her innocence, a vicious, bitter anger suddenly overwhelmed her sweetness and light.

Linda seized the poker from its place next to the fireplace and viciously attacked the portrait of the two of them together, again and again, ripping the painted canvas to shreds, screaming of her hatred for him, screaming for Montague to come and pack their things, until words were lost in the guttural shrieks and screams of an animal.

“I remember the engravings.”

Linda’s words, and the nostalgic smile accompanying them, rose to remembrance, amid her bestial screaming, now fading away to silence. He had taken her for a buggy ride, after having just received news of trouble brewing among the men working the Cartwrights’ mining operation.
“I remember the engravings.”

“What engravings?” Ben had asked, thoroughly perplexed.

“It’s a woman’s memory, Ben,” she said wistfully. “They were the engravings for our wedding invitations . . . . ”

“We NEVER had any invitations engraved,” Ben said softly, his heart filled with ever increasing dread.

“Pa?”

“Remember when she came to visit us out at the Ponderosa?”

“Yeah . . . . ”

“One morning, Linda and I went out for a ride,” Ben continued. “It was the day we got the news of trouble brewing in our mining operation. Do you remember?”

“Yeah.” Hoss scowled. “I remember.”

“Linda and I started out reminiscing about New Orleans . . . about our time there, together. She told me about remembering the engravings.”

“What engravings, Pa?”

“For our wedding invitations.”

“Wedding invitations?!” Hoss looked over at his father in complete bewilderment. “I thought you told li’l sister . . . ‘n told Adam, Joe, ‘n me, too . . . that she turned you down flat when y’ asked her t’ marry you.”

“She did.”

“Then . . . why in the world would the two o’ you have invitations printed up?”

“We DIDN’T! Like I told your sister last night . . . I asked her to marry me, she turned me down,” Ben reiterated, his voice shaking. “A week later, I learned that she had eloped with Lord Chadwick and sailed with him to England. Hoss— ”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“If . . . if L-Lady Chadwick’s sanity was THAT precarious when she visited us . . . . ” Ben felt the bone and muscle in his knees suddenly turn to water. He slipped his arm around Chubb’s neck and clung for dear life, “and she’s deteriorated to the point of killing her own son as a means of revenge . . . . ”

“There’s no tellin’ WHAT she’ll do to Joe,” Hoss said grimly. He looked over at his father, clinging so desperately to Chubb’s neck. “Pa? You gonna be able t’ ride?”

Ben squeezed his eyes shut and forced himself to take deep, even breaths. “I-I’ll be alright, Hoss.”

Hoss gently, yet firmly, took his father’s elbow and steered him over to where Big Buck stood, tethered to the hitching post. “I think we’d best git out t’ this address soon as we can.”

“Yes . . . . ” Ben agreed as he climbed up onto Buck’s back, his legs and hands trembling. He doubted that they would find either Lady Chadwick or Joe there, not in the face of all that unclaimed mail. His only hope now was that Linda had left a clue, something . . . anything . . . pointing to where she had gone, and where she held Joe.

Ben and Hoss Cartwright reached the Carson City address in very good time.

The house sat atop a slight rise a fair distance from the road. Three steps built into the rise led up from the level of the road to the start of a long, straight brick walk, lined on either side by oak trees, numbering a dozen. Eight of the trees were dead, and had been for quite some time, given the grayed, weathered appearance of the wood. Of the four that yet remained alive, none could in any way be considered healthy. They were tall, and spindly, their leaves sparsely spread out over the bottom most branches.

Ben silently handed Buck’s reins over to Hoss, then climbed the steps to the brick walk above. He stood unmoving at the beginning of the walk, his body tense, with his arms at his sides, and right hand close to the gun resting in its holster. His eyes could barely make out the half dozen steps leading up to a porch and the entrance to the house, framed in the center of the sharp, jagged angles formed by the dead branches of the long row of oaks stretching out before him.

“Hoss . . . . ”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Bring the horses.”

“All the way up to the house?”

Ben nodded. “I’ll feel a lot better having them close at hand,” he said grimly, his dark eyes searching among the trees and the entry up ahead for signs of life.

“You’ve got a real good point there, Pa,” Hoss agreed as he started up the steps from the street to the sidewalk above, leading Buck and Chubb behind him.

Father and son moved up the walk toward the house in silence. Ben, with gun in hand, led the way. Hoss followed, leading their horses with one hand, and holding his own gun in the other hand. Though they saw no one, neither could completely shake the uneasy feeling of someone hidden and invisible watching every step they took.

A few moments later, they stood at the end of the long walk before the half dozen steps leading up to the entrance and a wide verandah, stretching across the entire front of the house. Ben and Hoss quickly tethered their horses to the slats in the railing encircling the verandah, before starting up the steps.

“Sure don’t look like anybody’s home,” Hoss remarked, noting the tall grass in the front yard and the drawn curtains in the windows facing the front yard and the street beyond.

“I agree, Son, but we’d better keep alert. Looks can be very deceiving.”

Hoss mutely nodded in agreement as he crossed the wide expanse of porch between the top step and the entrance to the house. There, he curled his fingers together, forming a loose fist and pounded on the door.

There was no answer.

“HELLO!” Hoss yelled as he pounded on the door again. “MRS. DE SALLE? MISTER CRIPPENSWORTH? MISTER MONTAGUE! ANYONE HOME?” He pressed his ear close to the door, listening.

“Anything?” Ben asked.

Hoss pressed his ear flush up against the door and listened. “Nothin’, Pa,” he replied a few moments later, shaking his head.

“Try the door.”

Hoss nodded and loosely wrapped his fingers around the door knob.

Ben tensed. His dark brown eyes were glued to the door, and his gun was drawn and ready.

Hoss slowly turned the door knob and pushed. To his surprise the door opened slightly. “It ain’t locked, Pa,” Hoss said grimly. He stepped inside the tiled entry way first, his own gun in hand, every muscle in his body tensed. Ben followed closed behind. “HELLO! MRS. DE SALLE? ANYBODY HOME?”

The only answer was the faint echo of Hoss’ voice through out the house.

“I don’t think anybody’s here, Pa.”

“All the same, I don’t want to take any chances. I think the living room’s that way.” Ben pointed straight ahead through the entryway to an alcove framed by a double grand staircase leading up to the second floor. A pair of pocket doors, fast closed, faced the front entrance. Ben led the way, with Hoss following close at his heels.

The living room, approximately one third the size of the ranch house great room, seemed even smaller with its dark colors, and the amount of furniture, pictures, and bric-a-brac crammed within. Its four walls were covered by a deep burgundy hued wall paper, that seemed to devour the little sunlight able to reach the room through the tall, narrow windows. The fireplace, set into the wall directly opposite the pocket doors, was overwhelmed, rendered nearly invisible by the enormous, ornately carved mahogany mantle piece framing it.

Hoss’ eyes were immediately drawn to the oil portrait hanging above the mantle, surrounded by an ornately carved wood frame, painted gold. It depicted a young, vivacious woman, and a man much older, as evidenced the deep lines in his brow, his sagging chin line, and gray, thinning hair with receding hairline. The top of his head, barely came level with the line of the woman’s eyes.

“Hey, Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“Take a gander at THAT.”

The line of Hoss’ extended arm and pointing finger immediately drew Ben’s eyes to the oil portrait. He shuddered and gasped, as an ice cold chill shot down the entire length of his spine.

“Pa?!” Hoss queried with an anxious frown, upon noting his father’s sudden, alarmingly pale complexion, and eyes round with horror glued to the woman’s face in the painting, hanging up over the fireplace. “Pa . . . y-you alright?”

“It’s her!” Ben whispered. “Linda Lawrence . . . C-Countess of Chadwick.” In the painting, she wore what appeared to be a riding habit, hued a deep salmon, that accentuated her rosy cheeks, rose pink lips with the bare hint of a smile, just forming, and a flawless, milk white complexion. Her face was framed by a halo of brown wavy hair, and her hazel eyes, rendered a warm light brown, appeared flat, void of life, with no sparkle to animate them. She appeared in this portrait exactly as Ben remembered the first time he met her in New Orleans.

“The man with her . . . is he her pa?” Hoss asked.

Ben shook his head. “I met her father. That man with her in the painting is definitely not him.”

Hoss’ eyes widened a little, with mild surprise. “Lord Chadwick?”

“I assume so,” Ben replied. “I never the pleasure of meeting the late Lord Chadwick, so I couldn’t tell you for sure.” This last was spoken with thinly veiled sarcasm.

Hoss sighed and shook his head. “If that there’s Lord Chadwick, then Li’l Sister was right as rain when she said Lady Chadwick turned down the better man.”

Ben wearily closed his eyes and sagged heavily against the door jamb to his right. “I, for one, am very thankful Linda DID turn down the better man,” he muttered softly, under his breath.

“I guess that means Lady Chadwick ‘n her husband’re the owners Sheriff Dudley was tellin’ us about.”

Ben turned and favored the biggest of his three sons with a sharp glare.

“Y-You remember . . . don’t ya, Pa?” Hoss said, anxious, taken completely aback by the odd look on his father’s face. “He said they were foreign . . . leastwise the HUSBAND was.”

“Y-Yes, I . . . I remember.”

“Pa?”

“What is it, Son?”

“You alright?”

“I— ” Ben closed his eyes and shook his head. “No.” He turned, then, and looked Hoss straight in the eye, dark brown meeting and holding sky blue. “Hoss, if . . . if people here remember Lord Chadwick . . . . ”

“They do, from what the sheriff was sayin’,” Hoss said grimly.

“That means Linda’s maintained some sort of presence HERE . . . for a . . . very . . . very . . . long time,” Ben said slowly. “I know Carson City’s a fair distance from Virginia City and the Ponderosa . . . but, it’s still plenty close enough for her to keep tabs on US if she so chooses.”

“Pa, now you’re givin’ ME the willies,” Hoss said, casting a quick, furtive glance over his shoulder.

“I . . . I think I’m giving myself the willies,” Ben said, his hand automatically dropping down to his holstered revolver.

“So . . . what do we do NOW?” Hoss asked.

“I’m going to take a look at her mail,” Ben said. “I want to see if there’s anything more from Jack Murphy, and find out whether or not she’s been in contact with anyone else either in Virginia City or on the Ponderosa. If I can turn up something, it may lead us to wherever she’s holding Joe.”

“Where do ya want me t’ put this?” Hoss asked, as he leaned over and picked up the sack of mail given them by Iva Mae Barnes at the post office.

“I think I’ll sit down on the divan over there . . . . ” Ben pointed toward the corner on their left, where a massive secretary and equally ponderous divan seemed to meet together, “ . . . that’s assuming I can get from here to there without breaking my neck.” This last was said with a withering glare directed at the narrow path meandering through the furnishings crammed into so small a space.

“Will ya be alright by yourself for a li’l bit, Pa?”

“What’re you figuring on doing, Son?” Ben asked warily.

“I just thought whilst you were checkin’ through the mail, I’d have a look around.”

“Alright, but don’t venture upstairs or down into the cellar without me.”

“I won’t, Pa,” Hoss promised, as he set the mailbag down onto the divan.

“ . . . and, one more thing, Hoss . . . . ”

“What’s that, Pa?”

“Be careful.”

“You be careful, too.”

Hoss, with gun in hand, cautiously moved into the dining room, his body tensed, every sense alert. Though twice the size of the living room, it, too, appeared far smaller due to the dark forest green wall paper, the massive furniture, and fine porcelain pieces crammed onto every square inch of surface. The table, solid carved mahogany, wholly dominated the entire room. Only two chairs were at the table, one at its head, the other on the right. Eight of the remaining twelve lined the wall facing the pocket doors that opened into the dining room. The other two chairs sat flanking the dining room entrance. An eight day regulator, hanging on the wall sandwiched between two enormous paintings, had stopped at a few minutes before the hour of seven o’clock.

Hoss’ eye was drawn to a brandy decanter of cut crystal on the tall, imposing, mahogany buffet to his right. It sat on a highly polished inlaid wood tray, surrounded by seven matching crystal goblets. The decanter was half full. Hoss picked up the decanter and removed the stopper. He took a whiff of the contents, grimacing against the strong odor of overripe almonds.

“Hoo-wheee!” he murmured softly, under his breath, as he replaced the stopper in the decanter. “Never knew brandy could go bad!”

He returned the decanter to its place on the buffet, then stepped over toward the dining room table. After a quick, yet thorough glance around the room, Hoss holstered his gun briefly, just long enough to get down on his hands and knees for a look under the table and chairs. He found a pair of women’s shoes, deep purple with gold buckles, lying under the chair at the head of the table, a black string tie, and a cut glass goblet lying on its side. The goblet matched the seven and the decanter up on the buffet. Hoss retrieved the glass and lifted it to his nose.

“Not no where near as strong, but it smells bad like the brandy up on the buffet,” he muttered softly under his breath. With a loud grunt, he rose to his feet, with the brandy goblet in hand, and placed it on the tray with its mates.

A subsequent search of the butlers’ pantry off the dining room, a small parlor, and a drawing room, all yielded nothing. Hoss withdrew his gun once more from its holster and began moving through the small parlor toward a pair of French doors that opened onto what appeared to be an enclosed sun porch, surrounded by windows on all sides.

“PA! QUICK!” Hoss’ terrified voice echoed through out the house, drawing Ben’s attention from the stack of mail in hand. “COME HERE!”

Ben immediately threw the bundle of envelopes onto the divan beside him and leapt from his feet. “HOSS!” he shouted back, as he yanked his gun from its holster. “WHERE ARE YOU?”

“OUT BACK, PA!”

Ben, with heart thudding rapidly against his chest, followed the sound of Hoss’ voice from the living room, through the dining room and a small parlor. As he stepped through the French doors, from parlor to sun porch, he found his biggest son standing before what appeared to be an enormous canvas, propped up against a tall easel. Hoss clutched a dusty, grayish sheet in his left hand so hard, his knuckles had turned white. His face was several shades paler than normal and his eyes round and staring.

“Hoss?” Ben made his way around the canvas toward his son’s side. “Hoss, what’s the matter?”

“L-Look, Pa . . . . ” He pointed.

Ben’s eyes slowly followed the line of Hoss’ extended arm and pointing finger to the canvas. It was a painting, roughly sketched, the colors blocked in, of a bride and groom attired in their wedding finery. Though far from complete, the identity of the bride was unmistakable: Linda de Salle Lawrence, very much as she appeared in the formal portrait hanging in the living room above the fireplace mantle. Behind the bride, stood the groom, resplendent in black tux and pristine shirt, with his arms wrapped possessively around the bride’s waist. Ben’s gaze shifted from the demure face of the bride to the smiling groom. “Oh dear Lord . . . . . ” he groaned softly, his own eyes round with shock and astonishment.

The face of the groom, staring back from the large canvas looming before him, was none other than his own.

“I am telling you the truth, Little Joe.”

“No.”

“I was out for a morning drive. My man, Crippensworth had the reins. We saw the smoke from your home. Though your father and I didn’t part on the best of terms, but I still felt duty bound to go to him and offer whatever help I could.”

She had changed out of the skirt and blouse she had worn earlier into a long sleeved navy blue velvet dress with a rounded neckline. The bodice bagged slightly at her bosom, and seemed stretched a bit too tight across the middle. Her almond shaped nails, exquisitely manicured, were carefully painted the same shade of candy pink as her lipstick. As before, she paced slowly, back and forth, near the foot of Joe’s bed.

“I had Crippensworth drive in along that back road,” Linda continued in a bland monotone, as if she were speaking from a memorized script. As she paced, the thick, hard heels of her shoes beat an even cadence against the hard wood floor. “You know the one I mean . . . the one that runs along behind the kitchen. I saw you stumble out of the house. You were hurt. You collapsed. Crippensworth and I came to your aid.”

“You did NOT came to help me,” Joe said in a sullen tone of voice. “You came to kidnap me . . . to bring me here . . . wherever here is . . . so you could torture me.”

“Crippensworth and I . . . came . . . to . . . your . . . AID.” She slapped the riding crop hard against the palm of her hand as she spoke those last few words, for emphasis. “Crippensworth and I came to your aid.”

“You’re lying,” Joe said contemptuously.

“Little Joe, I am telling you the truth.”

“No! You told me so yourself, early this morning that you came to kidnap me for some . . . some sick, twisted plan of revenge against my father that you’ve cooked up in your nasty, spiteful little brain somewhere,” Joe spat.

Linda stopped abruptly, mid-stride, then pivoted. Stepping right up to the foot of the bed, she swung her arm back and struck Joe’s shins hard with the riding crop in hand, all in the same, swift fluid movement. A murderous scowl had replaced the smug complacency there scant seconds ago.

Joe cried out, despite his obstinate best intentions. “Y-you can beat me with that thing all you want. You can’t change the truth.”

“ . . . and what, pray IS the truth, Little Joe?”

Joe recoiled. That voice, so calm and placid, issuing forth from those pink lips curled back in a vicious sneer, frightened him.

“I asked you what the truth is, Little Joe. I expect an answer.”

“I left the house through Hop Sing’s room, and ended up in his garden,” Joe said. “I cut through the plowed soil, where he plants his vegetables and herbs, on a straight path to the garden gate. I knew Pa, Hoss, Stacy, Hop Sing . . . and everyone else would be worried. I wanted to let ‘em know that I was alright. That I’d made it out of the house.”

“You stumbled as you stepped through the garden gate,” Linda said, as she resumed her pacing, resumed tapping her left hand with her riding crop. “Crippensworth and I came to your aid.”

“No!” Joe protested vehemently.

“Yes, we did, Little Joe. Crippensworth and I came to your aid.”

“Jack Murphy was there . . . not you . . . or Crippensworth, either. When I stumbled through that gate, JACK MURPHY was there, waiting . . . with a rifle. He told me to stop. I stopped, and waited.”

“What were you waiting for?”

“My chance. My chance to overpower him and make my escape.”

“Did you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re lying, Little Joe, as you’ve been lying all along,” Linda chided him.

“I’m telling you the truth, Lady Chadwick.”

“You just told me that you overpowered Jack Murphy and made your escape,” she said, her lips curving upward to form a smug, triumphant smile. “But, you didn’t escape. You’re here.”

“That’s because your big ugly gorilla, Crippensworth, fired and winged me.”

“Crippensworth and I saw you stumble through the gate to Hop Sing’s garden. We came to your aid.”

“No. Jack Murphy was there, not you,” Joe argued. “I overpowered him, but Crippensworth shot me, tied me up . . . and put me in the buggy with you.”

Linda stopped abruptly, turned, and struck him on the shins with her riding crop, once, twice, three times. Joe bit down on his lip to keep from crying out.

“Little Joe, I will NOT tolerate lying in any way, shape, or form.” She smacked him on the shin once more for emphasis.

“I’m telling you the truth.”

Gritting her teeth, she thrust her arm upward and struck him again and again and again. “You . . . escaped . . . from the house . . . you were . . . badly . . . hurt. You stumbled . . . out . . . through . . . Hop Sing’s . . . garden gate.” Her words, some individually, others in groups were spoken in keeping with the rhythm of her riding crop striking Joe’s shins. “You collapsed. Crippensworth and I . . . came . . . to . . . your aid.”

“If . . . if you came to my aid . . . why don’t you just g-give me back my clothes . . . loan me a horse, and . . . and let me be on my way?” Joe demanded, wearied by the pain of having been struck by her riding crop and the tremendous expenditure of energy to keep from screaming. He was bound and determined now not to give her or Crippensworth the satisfaction.

“You are not fit to travel, due to the extent of your injuries.”

“Then send word to Pa. Let HIM know where I am, so he can come and get me.”

“He would come and get you, too,” she said. “He’d be here like a shot, demanding to take you home, but as I just said . . . such is impossible. You’re not yet fit to travel.”

An exasperated sigh exploded out from between his lips. “You could at least let Pa know I’m safe.”

“But, HE thinks you’re dead. Perished. Burned to a crisp in the fire.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“It’s the truth.”

“No! I know Pa! If HE’S not out scouring the whole country side looking for me, he’s got Hoss and every man working for him out looking,” Joe said, his lips curving upward in a tight mirthless smile. “Sooner or later, someone’s going to find me. And when they do? Well, I’d hate to be in YOUR shoes when he does.” He mentally braced himself for another whack across the shins with her riding crop.

“Far be it from me to interfere with another man’s delusions,” she countered with an indifferent shrug.

A frown of complete and utter bewilderment creased Joe’s forehead.

“I told you before your father believes you dead, Little Joe,” Linda said with a touch of exasperation, as she resumed her pacing, resumed the tap, tap, tap of riding crop against the palm of her hand, resumed the clack, clack, clack of her hard soled heels striking wood floor. “Remember?”

“I don’t believe for one minute they mistook Jack Murphy for me.”

“When Crippensworth and I found you, it was quite clear you were badly injured,” Linda said. “MY first thought was to take you around to the other side, where the rest of your family was. Crippensworth advised against it, and rightly so. He pointed out that you might’ve had severe internal injuries, and that our trying to move you alone could injure you further, or perhaps even kill you.”

“That doesn’t sound much like the Crippensworth I’VE come to know and love,” Joe countered, his tone generously laced with acid sarcasm. “The Crippensworth I know would have taken positive delight in injuring me further.”

“What a cruel and unkind thing to say.”

“You want cruel and unkind?!” Joe growled. “Well how about THIS! Your man, Crippensworth is a cruel, sadistic, MONSTER.”

Scowling, Linda snapped the riding crop up under her arm and flounced from the foot of the bed around to the side, where she stood for a time, towering over him. “You will apologize.”

“I sure will.”

A triumphant smile appeared on her face.

“When hell freezes over!”

At that, her pink mouth thinned to a straight, angry line. She drew back her arm and struck his face with her open palm. “You ingrate!” she spat. “You spoiled, ungrateful . . . . ” Linda pulled herself up to full height and glared down at him menacingly. “I’ll have you know, you insolent, spoiled young puppy, that Crippensworth tenderly carried you to my buggy, and placed you in it. He even walked back, so YOU could ride. After we arrived here, he reset that shoulder of yours and bound up those broken ribs.

“And all the while Crippensworth has been ceaselessly, tirelessly looking after you, your dear, precious, wonderful father . . . . ” Linda grimaced and spat, “has written you off as dead, with no second thought, not so much as a by-your-leave. You honestly and truly think he’s out looking for you? Well you are very sadly mistaken. I told you before, he spends night and day with your sister, while your brother, Hoss, makes your funeral arrangements.”

“If he’s with Stacy, then he’s got all the men who work for him out looking,” Joe angrily shot right beck.

“Suit yourself!” Linda snapped. She, then, turned heel and angrily flounced out of the room, slamming the door shut behind her.

“Damn . . . DAMN . . . DAMN . . . DAMN . . . DAMN!” Linda screamed, as she stormed into the master bedroom. Her entire body trembled with pent up rage, and ever growing frustration. She turned to Crippensworth, who lay stretched out on the bed. “CRIPPENSWORTH, IT’S NOT WORKING!!!”

“Milady, I TOLD you . . . it takes TIME,” he said in a tone of voice insultingly condescending. “Even with the very best of subjects, it’s still a matter of WEEKS.”

“WEEKS?!”

“Yes, Milady . . . WEEKS! And THAT’S if your subject is very weak minded, and highly susceptible to suggestion,” Crippensworth said. “Young Cartwright is NOT weak minded. He’s got a strong will, stronger spirit, and a stubborn streak ten miles wide.” This last was spoken with a touch of grudging admiration. “He is not a man easily or quickly broken.”

“But he CAN be broken?!” Linda demanded.

“ANYONE can be broken, some sooner . . . some later. In the case of Young Cartwright . . . you’re talking later. Much, much, MUCH later.”

“How much later?” Linda demanded.

“It could take YEARS, Milady.”

“Alright, then it’ll take years.”

“To be honestly frank, Young Cartwright would outlive you before you could make even the slightest dent,” Crippensworth drawled. “I say do the sensible thing.”

“ . . . and what pray is the sensible thing?” she demanded in a voice, stone cold.

“The sensible thing would be to hit his old man with a ransom note for an exorbitant amount of money. If his father loves him as much as you say, he’ll pay any amount of money to get the boy back.”

“No.”

“One hundred thousand dollars, Milady. Think about it,” Crippensworth said in a smooth, oily tone. “One hundred thousand dollars evenly divided between the two of us. We could go anywhere we wished and live quite comfortably for a very long time.”

“NO!” Linda yelled. “NO, NO, NO, NO!” She punctuated her last no with an angry stamp of her foot that set the window panes rattling. “I don’t care how long it takes, Crippensworth, even if it takes me the next one hundred years, I am going to turn that young man against his father.”

“Given Young Cartwright’s strong, stubborn, bullheadedness, it just might take a hundred years,” Crippensworth said wryly.

“I left the house through Hop Sing’s room, ended up in his garden,” Joe, meanwhile, softly recounted all that had happened since his escape from the fire that burned down his family’s home. He spoke just loud enough for himself to hear.

Hopefully, any eavesdropper who might be standing outside his door wouldn’t hear him speaking to himself the words of truth. He had told himself over and over, countless times, what had really happened, ever since Linda walked out, slamming the door shut behind her. He repeated those words without stopping, as the fading sunshine of late afternoon slowly, gradually dimmed to evening, then to dusk.

“I beat a straight path across the garden to the gate. Wanted to get back. Back to Pa, to Hoss and Stacy, to Hop Sing, Candy . . . and everyone else. Don’t want them to worry . . . . ” Joe closed his eyes against the tears once more stinging his eyes. “Pa, I’m ALIVE! I’m alive! I . . . I wish I could get back to you, but I can’t. Please Pa, and you, too, Hoss! Please . . . don’t give up! Don’t stop looking for me, because I’m alive. Stacy . . . . ”

“Come on, Baby Brother . . . Li’l Sister . . . . ”

Joe heard big brother, Hoss’ terse command echoing once more through the depths of mind and memory.

“ . . . we gotta get outta here! NOW!”

The ceiling above their heads groaned ominously, setting off a long string of creaks and snaps, that started near the back of the house and moved down the entire length of the ceiling. Like Chinese firecrackers. Light one, it sets off another, then another, then another. There was an ear splitting pop, followed by another string of crackling. The ceiling over the hallway groaned and began to sag, raining down hot plaster on their heads as they fled down the burning upstairs hall toward the stairs . . . .

. . . another pop, loud, earsplitting like the last. A large chunk of plaster fell and struck Stacy’s head before he could act . . . before he could even think to call out a warning. She stumbled under the impact of the blow, crashing into the wall behind her, before crumpling to the floor in a limp, ungainly heap.

“STAAAA-AAAA-AAACCCCY!”

Joe stopped, pivoted, and, in his mind’s eyes, ran back into the smoke and plaster dust in maddening, dream like slow motion. He knelt down beside his sister.

“JOE! STACY!” It was Hoss. “WHAT’S WRONG?”

“STACY’S HURT!”

“I’M COMIN’ ON BACK TO— ”

“HOSS, NO! KEEP ON GOING! I’VE GOT THE KID NOW! WE’RE RIGHT BEHIND YOU!”

“JOE!” Hoss yelled again. “DADBURN IT, LI’L JOE, IF YOU ‘N STACY AIN’T AT THE TOP OF THE STEPS BY THE TIME I COUNT THREE, I’M— ” He was stricken by a near incapacitating fit of gagging, that literally doubled him over.

“YOU’LL WHAT?” Joe demanded indignantly, as he appeared at the top of the stairs, carrying Stacy.

“FORGET IT! COME ON!!”

Joe tightened his grip on Stacy, and started down the steps after Hoss. He was so intent on getting himself and his sister down the steps and out of the house, he never saw the ceiling collapse. All he remembered was falling, with Stacy, still unconscious, still clasped tight in his arms.

When the dust cleared, and his senses returned, the first person he saw was Hoss, down on his hands and knees, shaking his head.

“H-Hoss . . . . ?!”

“Here, Li’l Brother. Where are ya?”

“Behind you . . . Stacy, too. Buried . . . . ”

“K-keep talking, Joe . . . I’m c-comin’.”

“Behind you . . . Hoss, Stacy’s hurt . . . I think real bad . . . . ”

Stacy’s hurt. His own words echoed over and over and over, like the strident, staccato beat of a snare drum. Stacy’s hurt. Stacy’s hurt.

I think real bad.

How bad? HOW BAD?! Joe frantically wracked his brain, trying to remember. In the hazy blur of images that followed, he saw Hoss staggering through the thickening haze of smoke and plaster dust. Hoss taking the large wood beam that had Stacy and himself pinned, lifting it, tossing it aside with the same ridiculous ease he himself would toss a wad of paper into a waste basket, then helping him to his feet. Stacy, however, lay where she had fallen, face pale and eyes closed, so ominously still . . . .

Perhaps Lady Chadwick was right about that funeral after all.

Joe gasped as that new thought slammed into him with all the power and force of a sledge hammer, in the hands of someone like Sam Hill or even big brother, Hoss, striking his solar plexus.

The image of his sister lying so still amid the splintered remains of the staircase returning again and again to mind and memory. The same sister, who even at the brink of adulthood found it difficult to sit still for five minutes, lying so still . . . .

. . . so frighteningly still . . . .

Maybe Hoss WAS in town arranging a funeral, like Lady Chadwick said. But the funeral was not for him.

NO.

NO, NO, NO, NO, Joe told himself for what had to be the ten millionth time. Stacy was NOT dead. She couldn’t possibly be dead. He would know.

“HOW?” a strident inner voice demanded. “How would you know? How could you possibly know?”

He WOULD know, that’s all. He just would, the same way he would know if Pa, Hoss, or even Adam had died.

“What about the funeral Hoss was in town arranging?”

Lady Chadwick had told him that . . . about Hoss being in town to arrange a funeral. SHE claimed it was HIS funeral. Joe knew Lady Chadwick had lied about that. Maybe she had lied about Hoss arranging a funeral, too.

Another thought occurred to him. If Stacy had died of her injuries, Pa wouldn’t be spending day and night at her side. He would be with Hoss, helping to arrange her funeral, or out looking for the people responsible for setting their house on fire.

Unless . . . .

Unless Pa was so overwhelmed with grief . . . .

Sunlight.

Warm, bright sunlight, shining down through the canopy of aspen, oak, and pine, shimmering . . . sparkling . . . on the waters of the lake like thousands, upon thousands of diamonds.

He had no idea in the world how he had come to be here, in the woods, by the shores of the lake. Glancing down at himself, he was mildly surprised to find that he was completely naked, except for the bindings around his chest and right shoulder.

He turned and started to walk up the path . . . .

. . . before he had taken two steps, he found himself standing before a grave stone, carved in white marble, in the distinctive shape of a Celtic cross, vertical and horizontal lines converging in the midst of a circle. He knelt down to read the inscription aloud . . . .

. . . not that he needed to see the words.

He already knew them all by heart, because he was the author who had penned them.

“Paris McKenna
Beloved wife of Benjamin Cartwright
In heart and in spirit
Loving mother of Stacy Rose

In love and devotion
Sacrificed her own life
That her beloved ones
Stacy Rose
and Benjamin
might live.”

“Joe . . . this is beautiful.”

At the sound of Stacy’s voice, the Celtic cross faded into the shimmer of sun on the lake, which in turn became the shimmer of unshed tears welling up in his sister’s sky blue eyes.

“But . . . . ”

“But WHAT, Little Sister?”

“Pa and Miss Paris . . . Mother . . . they never married.”

“Not in the eyes of the church perhaps, or according to law, but . . . I think they were where it counts most of all.”

In heart and in spirit . . . .

His sister’s face vanished, faded into the hard marble face of a second tombstone, another Celtic cross standing straight, tall, and erect beside the one marking Paris McKenna’s final resting place. He stood, unmoving, staring down at the second stone with mounting dread, for a time. Then, suddenly, his feet began to move of their own volition, taking him closer to the second stone. He knelt down, and read aloud the inscription . . . .

Stacy Rose Cartwright
Beloved daughter of Benjamin Cartwright
and Paris McKenna
Much loved sister
of Adam, Eric, and Joseph.

Gone to her mother.

Sleep well,
Loving and much loved.

He stared at the inscription, numb with horror and despair, shaking his head, moaning no, over and over and over . . . .

He had vague awareness of the air stirring, moving all around him. A gentle breeze at first, growing, swelling to a mighty wind. The moaning of the wind swelled to a deafening cacophony. Joe, his face contorting in agony, ducked his head between his knees and clapped his hands tight over his ears, desperately trying to shut out the horrible screaming roar of that wind.

Out of the corners of his eyes, he saw a myriad of strange, dark, frightening shadows. He turned and found, much to his astonishment, they were legs and feet encased in jet black pants and boots. Looking up, he saw the faces of his brothers, Hoss and Adam, attired completely in black, their faces pale, their eyes red and swollen. Between them was the wan, pale face of their father, his dark eyes, pools of jet black, gazing down at the new stone . . . .

. . . at Stacy’s stone . . . .

. . . but not seeing, his mouth open slightly . . . .

Joe suddenly realized the deafening, ear-splitting sounds surrounding him were not the wind. They were the sounds of his brothers sobbing, his father, shaking his head, moaning, No.

No, No, No, No . . . .

His father’s and his brothers’ black pants and jackets started to swell, to grow, and expand, blotting out their faces, the trees, the sunlight, the shimmering waters of the lake, Paris McKenna’s Celtic cross . . . .

Day became night, and Stacy’s Celtic cross weathered. Tiny cracks appeared within the tall marble cross, and spread slowly across its surface. Then, suddenly, the tall cross and circle silently shattered into a million pieces, each one sparkling and twinkling like tiny stars as they fell, one by one to the ground. The trees and the lake suddenly looked different. Turning back to the tombstone, he realized that this wasn’t his sister’s, rather it was his mother’s, gleaming silver in the moonlight, the words, deeply, lovingly etched:

Marie Cartwright,
beloved wife of Benjamin,
beloved mother of Joseph,
loving mother to Adam and Eric

Heaven’s gain,
Earth
and those she left behind
all the more poor
in the wake of her passing.

Sleep well, Beloved
. . . until we meet again on heaven’s shores.

A second stone stood tall and erect along side hers. With heart in mouth, Joe knelt down, his entire body trembling with the terrible dread and fear that seized hold of his heart. It was a brand new stone, hand carved from marble . . . .

Joseph Francis Cartwright
Beloved son of Benjamin and Marie
Much loved brother of Adam, Eric, and Stacy

Gone to his mother.

Though his body sleeps here
‘neath this dark tomb of earth
his soul has awakened
in the bright light of heaven.

Sleep well, Most Beloved.

NO!

Images of a funeral passed before his eyes . . . .

. . . Hoss, weeping openly, his strong arms wrapped tight about their father, supporting him . . . holding him up.

. . . Pa’s head resting heavily against Hoss’ broad chest, his face pale, eyes closed, grieved far past the place of tears.

. . . Adam, eyes round with shock and astonishment, staring into the open hole in front of the new stone, this one bearing his own name.

. . . Hop Sing, standing next to his father with one hand resting on his shoulder, offering comfort his father was beyond knowing or feeling.

Candy . . . .

Roy Coffee, Mitch and Sally Devlin . . . .

. . . And beyond them a vast sea of faces. A coffin, with a bouquet of wild flowers resting on top, with the body of Jack Murphy inside, being laid to rest alongside his mother.

All he could do was stand by helplessly and watch the coffin being lowered into the ground . . . ,

. . . shovelful upon shovelful of dirt being tossed in . . . .

. . . filling the hole . . . .

. . . covering over . . . .

. . . hiding the truth . . . .

Then, they were all gone. Pa, Adam, Hoss, Hop Sing, everyone. He stood all alone on the shores of the lake in the company of three tombstones. Joe felt his body turn, his legs and feet move, carrying him toward that third stone, standing tall and erect on the other side of his mother’s stone. He tried to stop, to turn, to run, but his body continued moving slowly, steadily toward that third stone.

“Benjamin Cartwright,” the inscription read
“Beloved husband of Elizabeth, Inger, and Marie”

“NO!”

“Beloved companion to Paris”

“NO!”

“Loving and much loved father
Of Adam”

“Oh dear God, NO! Please . . . . ”

“Of Eric Hoss”

“NO!”

“Of Joseph Francis”

“NO!”

“Of Stacy Rose . . . . ”

His eyes at last came to rest on the final words of the inscription carved into his father’s tombstone:

“Tragically died of a broken heart
Wounded mortally with the passing of
his beloved daughter
and
best beloved
Joseph Francis”

“No!” He backed away, with tears streaming down his cheeks, his entire body trembling. “No! Please, God, no! No, No, No, No . . . . ”

“Hop Sing?”

“Miss Stacy should be sound sleep,” Hop Sing admonished her gently. “Past midnight, now very early morning.”

“I can’t sleep,” Stacy sighed dolefully.

“Miss Stacy leg hurt?”

“Some, but that’s not why I can’t sleep.”

“Miss Stacy worry about Little Joe.”

“Yeah,” she said in a small, scared voice. “I sure hope Pa and Hoss find him.”

“Miss Stacy not worry. Papa and Big Brother find Little Joe. Little Joe come home very, very soon, all safe and sound,” Hop Sing tried desperately to reassure her with a confidence he was very far from feeling himself.

“Hop Sing, would you do me a favor?”

“If not go against doctors’ orders,” Hop Sing warned.

“Would you please open the curtains, so I can see out?”

Hop Sing rose from the chair next to the her bed and walked the half dozen steps between the chair, and the window. He pulled back the drapes and lifted the shade, revealing a silvery white orb, shining brightly against an unfathomable sea of indigo-black, amid thousands upon countless thousands of stars sparkling like diamonds. The moon had already passed zenith, and had begun her inevitable descent toward the western horizon.

“Chang O and Hou Yi move apart now,” Hop Sing murmured softly, with a touch of melancholy. “Move more and more apart, until come together again next Moon Festival.”

“Hop Sing?”

He turned from the window. “Yes, Miss Stacy?”

“Who are Chang O and Hou Yi?”

Hop Sing returned to the chair next to her bed, frowning anxiously at the sight of the tiny beads of sweat dotting her forehead, glittering silver in the moonlight streaming in through the window. “Chang O moon. Hou Yi sun. Chang O and Hou Yi husband and wife.”

“How did they become moon and sun?”

“Once, long, long, many years ago, Earth have ten suns,” Hop Sing began his story. “These suns all sons of Jade Emperor. Each sun take turns going ‘round earth, but one day, all ten suns go around earth . . . same time. This very, very bad! Ten suns going ‘round all at once, together burn earth, burn all trees and grass, dry up rivers. Many people die.

“Wise Chinese emperor, name King Yao . . . he call for Hou Yi. Hou Yi archer. Very, very good archer. As good with bow and arrow as whole Cartwright family good with gun. Hou Yi very famous. King Yao tell Hou Yi kill suns, ALL suns, but one. This Hou Yi do. When Hou Yi kill nine suns, earth cool. Rains come, grass and trees turn green, rivers run. Plenty food and water again.

“King Yao offer Hou Yi hand of daughter . . . Hou Yi marry. Her name Chang O. Chang-O very beautiful woman, but she always ask questions . . . many, MANY questions all time.” Hop Sing favored Stacy with an affectionate, indulgent smile as he gently dabbed her forehead with the sleeve of his bathrobe. “Chang O very much like Miss Stacy.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” she said, returning his smile. “What happened next? Did Chang O and Hou Yi get married?”

“See? Miss Stacy ask too many questions,” he chided her gently. “No ask questions. Must let Hop Sing tell story.”

“Sorry, Hop Sing.”

“Where Hop Sing telling story?”

“The emperor, King Yao wanted to give Hou Yi the hand of his daughter, Chang O, in marriage,” Stacy replied. “As a reward for killing the nine suns and saving Earth.”

“Oh yes, Hop Sing remember!” he said. “Now Hou Yi love Chang O. Hou Yi say he marry Chang O, if Chang O love him. But, he have to find out. So, Hou Yi put on disguise, go meet Chang O when she go home after fetch water from stream. He ask her for drink. She recognize Hou Yi, know he save Earth from burning suns. Chang O give Hou Yi beautiful flower. Show respect. Hou Yi give Chang O silver fox fur, very beautiful, for gift. Hou Yi and Chang O . . . fall in love. Get married. But, King Yao and people . . . all afraid.”

“Why are they afraid, Hop Sing?”

“They afraid suns come back, burn Earth again, dry up rivers. They pray to Wang Mu.”

“Who’s Wang Mu?”

“Wang Mu Goddess of Heaven,” Hop Sing replied. “King Yao and people pray to Wang Mu, ask Wang Mu make Hou Yi immortal, so he always be there in case suns come back. Wang Mu answer prayers, give Hou Yi potion, elixir of life. It make immortal anyone who drink. Hou Yi go home, tell Chang O about potion. Hou Yi and Chang O decide to drink potion in eighth month, when moon full.

“But Jade Emperor still angry, very, VERY angry, because Hou Yi kill his sons. He want revenge, send Feng Meng to kill Hou Yi. Feng Meng enemy of Hou Yi. He also want potion, so HE drink, be immortal. Feng Meng watch Hou Yi, wait. One night, Feng Meng see Hou Yi go home from hunting trip. He bush whack Hou Yi, kill him.”

“Poor Chang O!” Stacy murmured sadly. “What happened to her after that?”

“Feng Meng go to Chang O, try to take potion. Chang O not give potion to Feng Meng. SHE drink it, then run to Hou Yi. Hou Yi dead. She cry over him until potion take effect. Chang O get lighter and lighter, until she light enough to fly. She rise up in sky, very, very high, until she reach moon.

“When Chang O reach moon, she cough because air on moon very cold. Chang O cough, and cough until she cough up potion. Now Chang O have no potion inside her. Make Chang O very sad because she no more can go back to Earth. But Hare, who live on moon, Hare feel sorry for Chang O because Chang O so sad. He gather up all potion Chang O cough up, work very had to make pill from potion, so Chang O take, go back to Earth. Moon Hare still working.”

“Hop Sing?”

“Yes, Miss Stacy?”

“How can Chang O meet Hou Yi if she’s immortal and trapped on the moon and . . . and HE’S dead?”

“You very bad, like Mister Hoss and Little Joe when Hop Sing tell THEM story!” he scolded her quietly, unable to completely hide the amused smile tugging hard at the corner of his mouth. “Little Joe . . . .” he sighed and shook his head. “Little Joe, he worst of lot!”

“I’m sorry I interrupted again, Hop Sing,” Stacy apologized contritely. “I just want to know what finally happened to Chang O and Hou Yi.”

“Wang Mu take pity on Hou Yi because he great hero, do many, many, many good deeds. More good deeds than stars up in sky. Wang Mu take Hou Yi spirit to sun, where he live even now. Hou Yi build great palace on sun.”

“When does he get to see Chang O?”

“Hou Yi and Chang O meet one time every year, eighth month when moon full,” Hop Sing replied. “When Chinese have big Moon Festival. Celebrate when Hou Yi and Chang O meet. That why full moon so very beautiful night of Moon Festival.”

“That’s a beautiful story, Hop Sing,” Stacy said quietly. “Is Chang-O like Grandmother Moon? Can she also see people we love . . . who are apart from us?”

“Chinese lovers . . . apart from each other, they pray to Chang-O on night of full moon, ask Chang O keep safe and bring together again,” Hop Sing replied. “Chang O feel very sorry for lovers, for husband . . . wife, all apart. She take pity because she apart from Hou Yi all rest of year.” He fell silent for a moment, then added, “Hop Sing also think Chang-O watch over papas and brothers, bring them home safe, too.”

“Like Grandmother Moon.”

“Yes,” Hop Sing nodded his head. “Like Grandmother Moon.”

Stacy wished, then, with all her heart that she could join her father and Hoss in their search for Joe. Due to the extent of her injuries, it would be a long time before she would be able to just plain walk again, let alone sit a horse. Tears, born of anger and frustration, welled up in her eyes. She ducked her head, in hopes that Hop Sing would not see.

“Miss Stacy?”

“Y-Yes, Hop Sing?” she replied in as steady a voice as she could muster.

“Remember when angels visit Ponderosa?”

“Yeah . . . . ”

“Angel, one who look like Little Joe . . . Miss Stacy remember what HE say night Miss Stacy saddle Blaze Face with ribs broken . . . to save Papa and Little Joe?”

“I remember,” she said slowly. “I told him I couldn’t just sit by and not do something to help Pa and Joe. He told me we WERE going to do something to help them. He told me we were going to pray.”

“Miss Stacy not able go with Papa and Mister Hoss, help search for Little Joe,” Hop Sing said, speaking to her unspoken fears and frustrations with the same uncanny precision as Pa. “Tonight, Miss Stacy and Hop Sing pray.”

Stacy reached out and took Hop Sing’s hand. “Hop Sing, would you . . . would you mind being the one to say the words out loud?”

Hop Sing gave her hand a gentle, reassuring squeeze, then turned to face the window and the moon. Tonight, he could see Chang O’s friend, the Moon Hare very clearly. He took a deep breath and began his prayer in his native Chinese. Though Stacy understood none of the words, she nonetheless heard the heartfelt desire behind his petition in the tone of his voice, and knew it matched her own. The cadence, the almost musical rise and fall in note and pitch, began to soothe her own troubled spirit.

After he had finished praying in Chinese, Hop Sing quietly translated his words for the benefit of the youngest Cartwright presently entrusted to his care: “Dear Chang O, Lady of Moon, and Miss Stacy Grandma Moon, please watch over Mister Ben, Mister Hoss, and Little Joe. Keep safe, and bring home safe very soon . . . for Miss Stacy and Hop Sing.” He fell silent for a moment, then added, “Dear Mister Ben God-Is -My-Shepherd, Hop Sing and Miss Stacy ask you lead Little Joe safe through valley of death shadow. Amen.”

“Amen,” Stacy voiced her own whole hearted agreement.

“NO!”

Joe’s eyes snapped open in the same instant he finally found voice to scream. For a time he gazed dully at his surroundings, not knowing where he was or how he had come to be there. He tried to rise from the bed on which he found himself lying, only to find he could hardly move.

Then, he remembered . . . .

In a veritable flash flood of images rushing through his head, he remembered. Joe squeezed his eyes shut, hoping against hope to shut out of his mind the chaotic rush of memories and images with the same ease he could shut his surroundings out of his sight.

Then, suddenly, the words of an ancient prayer started to flow through his mind and thoughts, unlooked for, unbidden.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Joe was very much surprised to hear a woman’s voice speaking those words. In the next instant, he realized it was the voice of his mother, Marie, praying to the Mother of God, as was her custom each night before retiring for the evening, especially the nights Pa was away, whether it be looking after things on the Ponderosa, or in far away places, like San Francisco, on business. Many was the time Joe had crawled out of bed and tip toed to the top of the stairs just to hear his mother say those words:

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,
We turn to you for protection.
Listen to our prayers and help us in our needs.
Save us from every danger,
O, glorious and blessed Virgin. ”

Joe saw and heard his mother, just as clear, as if he were five years old once again, tip toeing down the hall to the top of the stairs, to hear her pray. “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” he found himself praying right along with Mama, “We turn to you for protection. Listen to our prayers and help us in our needs. Save us from every danger, O, glorious and blessed Virgin.”

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, I turn to you for protection. Listen to my prayers and help US . . . Pa, Hoss, Stacy, Hop Sing, and me . . . in our needs. Save us from every danger, O, glorious and blessed Virgin,” Joe prayed again, this time alone.

He opened his eyes, and upon seeing the moon shining in through the unadorned panes of glass in the French doors directly facing the foot of the bed, an indescribable feeling of peace seemed to flow over him. Like lying under a big shade tree, looking up at the canopy of leaves overhead, falling asleep, with cool, gentle breezes blowing over him, all around him.

In the shadows cast by craters and mountains, Joe immediately spotted Hop Sing’s Moon Hare, and the face of Stacy’s kindly Grandmother Moon. They in turn stirred up the memory of a statue, an icon that belonged to his mother. The statue was of stone, marble, if memory served, supposedly from the same quarry Michelangelo procured marble for his sculptures. It was of the Blessed Virgin, standing straight and tall, upon the crescent of the moon, cradling the Infant Christ in her arms.

This particular Blessed Virgin was not the typical willowy ethereal woman depicted in icons, like those he had seen in the O’Hanlans’ home. This Blessed Virgin was a rock solid, earthy woman with strong arms, generous well rounded breasts and hips. The Infant Christ lay within her protective embrace, nestled close to the place of her heart. For Joe and for his mother, too, this icon seemed to embody all that was Mother. The statue was lost now, probably crushed to so much powder when the roof finally collapsed, but the image remained strong in his heart.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God,” Joe softly prayed once again, with his eyes fixed on the moon. “I turn to you for protection. Listen to my prayers and help Pa, Hoss, Stacy, Hop Sing, and me in our needs. Save us from every danger, O, glorious and blessed Virgin.” A wistful smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “And please, let my family know that I’m alive, that I love them, and I’m thinking about them.”

“Ready, Pa?” Hoss asked, rising from the place he had been warming on the settee in the lobby of the Comstock Hotel for the better part of the last half an hour.

“I will be as soon as I go upstairs and collect our saddle bags, and check us out.”

“Your saddle bags are right here.” Hoss pointed to the saddle bags belonging to himself and his father, lying on the floor at his feet. “I also picked up Buck ‘n Chubb from the Livery Stable. They’re saddled ‘n ready to go. Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

Sight of his father’s face, still alarmingly pale, brought an anxious frown to Hoss’ face. “Pa, you sure you’re all right?”

Ben looked over at the biggest of his three sons, and ruefully shook his head. “That canvas . . . the one you found out in her sun room . . . I can’t get it out of my mind.”

“It gives ME a real case of the heebie-jeebies, too, whenever I think about it,” Hoss said soberly, in wholehearted agreement. “You gonna be able to ride all the way back to Virginia City, Pa? We can stay over another night, if we need to . . . . ”

Ben immediately shook his head. “I’ll manage, Hoss. Right now, I just want to put some distance between us and . . . and that painting.” He shuddered. “I’m also anxious to get back to your sister.”

“That why you couldn’t sleep last night?”

Ben looked over at Hoss, mildly surprised.

“I heard ya up ‘n down, pacin’ the floor,” Hoss said quietly. “I . . . I’m afraid I didn’t git much sleep last night, either.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you awake, Son.”

“It wasn’t YOU, Pa, it was . . . I’m worried, too!”

“Hoss, we’re gonna find Joe,” Ben said, his chin and mouth set with a firm rock solid determination. “No matter how long it takes . . . we’re going to find him! And Stacy’s going be alright, too!”

“You betcha, Pa!” Hoss declared, taking heart from his father’s sudden burst of stubborn, angry, and determined optimism. “We Cartwrights can be a bunch o’ stubborn ornery cusses when we hafta be . . . and it’ll take a heckuva lot more’n a fire, Lady Chadwick, ‘n a broken leg t’ keep the lot o’ US down.”

“ . . . and don’t you forget it!” Ben added with an emphatic nod of his head. He, then, favored Hoss with a wan smile. “Why don’t you go ahead, and take our saddle bags on out? I’ll be with you as soon as I check us out and settle up on the bill.”

Hoss nodded, then bent down to pick up the saddle bags belonging to himself and his father.

As Ben made his way across the lobby, toward the desk, he silently vowed that IF Joe turned up with so much as a scratch on him, and Stacy didn’t recover from the injuries inflicted as a result of the fire that had destroyed their home, he would personally hunt Linda Lawrence down, to the very ends of the earth if need be, and kill her, even if it meant strangling her with his bare hands.

After checking out of the Comstock Hotel in Carson City, father and son mounted their horses and set out for Virginia City and home.

For a time, they rode in silence, as Ben’s thoughts returned again and again to the unfinished oil portrait in Linda’s sun room studio, its paint still wet. “Why?” he asked himself again and again. Why would a woman who had so openly, and so bluntly declared her hatred for him on the occasion of their last meeting turn around and paint a near life-sized portrait of them together on a wedding day that never took place? His uneasy thoughts drifted back to New Orleans, many years ago, when Linda de Salle very closely resembled the bride in that portrait back in Carson City . . . .

The night was clear and though chilly, there was yet a bare hint of the warmth of springtime soon to come. Ben Cartwright and Linda de Salle strolled together, hand in hand, along the bank of the Mississippi River, its dark, brooding waters gilded by the silvery light of the full moon shining high over their heads. In the distance, music played from the ballroom of the grand home where both had spent the evening as invited guests to a lavish party to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of a very old, very dear mutual friend.

Ben couldn’t have asked for a more romantic setting for that all important question that had been burning in his heart for nearly a whole week now.

“Ben?”

“Yes, Linda?”

“I’m feeling chilly . . . . ” She shivered delicately, all the while favoring him with those luminous hazel eyes, tonight shining the same emerald green as her dress.

“Would you like to return to the house?” he queried, a trifle crestfallen.

“No.” Linda smiled and eased herself flush up against his side, deftly placing his arm about her bare shoulders. “There are OTHER ways for two people to keep warm.”

Ben smiled, lost in the heady scent of lemon verbena in her soft, luxurious, chestnut brown tresses and the feel of her body moving alongside his. He turned to kiss her, and in so doing, caught sight of the moonlight sparkling atop the black waters of the river.

Like diamonds.

Diamonds.

The question.

“Linda . . . . ”

“Yes, Ben?”

“Linda, I love you so much. So very, very much . . . . ”

“ . . . and I love YOU, Ben.”

“Will you marry me?” He was surprised at how easily, how naturally the question flowed from his lips.

Linda’s smile never wavered.

“I realize this is a very big, very important step for both of us,” he continued. “If you need time to consider . . . . ”

“I’ll give you my answer in the morning, Darling.”

That night, after seeing Linda de Salle home from the party, Ben Cartwright had gone to bed with a light, and happy heart. There was no doubt in his mind as to what her answer was going to be. No doubt at all . . . .

“Ben, I’ve given the matter considerable thought,” Linda said in a matter-of-fact, business like tone the following morning. They were alone together in the drawing room of her father’s home. He sat in the middle of the divan, the very same divan now in the living room of her home in Carson City, while she paced the floor before him, tapping out the cadence and rhythm of her footsteps against the palm of her free hand with her closed fan.

“And . . . . ?”

“My answer must be no.”

For the next few moments, he sat, as if rooted to the divan, staring up at her impassive face through eyes round with shock, and , with his mouth hanging open. “L-Linda . . . . ” he finally stammered, when, at long last he found voice once again to speak. “Linda, why? If . . . if you n-need more time . . . . ”

“Ben Darling, even if you gave me all the time in the world, my answer would remain the same,” she replied in a tone slightly patronizing. “I’m sorry.”

“I . . . I’m sorry, too,” Ben murmured as he rose slowly from the divan. “May I . . . may I continue to see you?”

“I don’t think that would be wise, Darling. If we continued to see each other . . . . ” she quickly averted her eyes to the fan, still closed, now clasped in both hands. “I don’t want to raise any false hope, Ben.”

“I see,” he replied in a stone cold voice.

“I’m sorry, Ben. I really am, truly, very sorry . . . . ”

His memory skipped ahead one week to a chance encounter with Emily de Salle, Linda’s mother, at the time out shopping in the company of her younger daughter, Geraldine, and her personal maid.

“I’m afraid . . . Linda’s away, Mister Cartwright,” Emily said, quickly averting her eyes. Those last four words tumbled from her mouth a beat too fast.

“Oh?” he queried, taken slightly aback. Linda had never, not once, made any mention of an impending trip.

“England.”

“When will she be back?”

“I . . . not for a long time, Mister Cartwright.”

“Never!” Geraldine angrily spat out the word, as she lifted her head and met his gaze with her own bold, unflinching stare. Ben noted for the first time that the girl’s eyelids were red and puffy, the whites of her eyes bloodshot, as if from a prolonged bout of weeping. “That’s when Linda’s coming back. Never!”

“Geraldine, you hush!” Her mother whispered, outraged.

“No!” the girl countered with an angry, defiant stamp of her foot. “Mister Cartwright, Linda’s gone to England with her husband, and she’s never coming back. Never, EVER!”

Ben stared from angry, infuriated daughter to horrified, outraged mother, numb with shock.

“Mister Cartwright, I am so terribly sorry you had to find out this way,” Emily said, drawing herself up to full height. She turned and favored the daughter at her side with a dark, murderous glare. “Linda and this Englishman, Lord of Chadwick, she called him . . . they ran off and eloped last Saturday night.”

Ben felt the wind in his lungs leave him, as if he had taken a hard sucker punch to the pit of his stomach. Last Saturday EVENING he had asked her to marry him. It suddenly became all too crystal clear that Linda had been stringing him along, the way a deep sea fisherman plays out a big fish, like tuna or marlin, all the while allowing this Lord Chadwick to pay her court.

“They left by stage for New York this morning,” Mrs. de Salle continued, her cheeks flushed crimson with shame. “From there, they sail to England.”

“Thank you, Mrs. de Salle, for FINALLY deigning to let me know,” Ben responded in a tone dripping with acid sarcasm.

“I’m sorry, Mister Cartwright. Truly. I’m very sorry.” She, then turned to her daughter. “Come along, Geraldine . . . . ”

“SHE’S the one who rejected ME,” Ben mused in stony silence as remembrance faded once more back into the deepest recesses of mind and memory, “and . . . what? Fifteen years after she turned down my marriage proposal? Twenty?! . . . she came to the Ponderosa and tried to ruin me . . . ruin US . . . financially . . . and damn near succeeded. By all rights, I’M the one who should hate HER!”

Time, his two young sons, Adam and Hoss, the Ponderosa, and most important, meeting Marie di Marginy, a year later on another trip to New Orleans, all served as potent balms to heal the hurt left in the wake of Linda de Salle’s deception and marriage to another. Did she hate him because he had moved on with his life? Because he had fallen deeply in love with another, and found much happiness with her in the all too brief time they were together?

“Why?” Ben’s mind kept circling, returning over and over to that simple, one word, one syllable question.

Why?

Linda had the good fortune of having spent many years with a man wealthy enough by all appearances to have indulged her every whim. Together, they had brought a fine enough son into the world, assuming that Jack Murphy was, in fact, their son. Linda had also been left well provided for when Lord Chadwick had died. What possible reason could she have for being so bitterly angry, and for blaming him?

The image of her rose again in his thoughts, snarling like a wild animal, as she reduced her gift to him, another oil painting of them together done from memory, to tattered, paint covered, canvas rags with a fireplace poker. He saw that portrait, after she had finished destroying it fade into the portrait of bride and groom back in Carson City, painted so recently the paint remained wet. A chill shot down the entire length of his spine, causing an involuntary shudder.

“Pa?” Hoss’ voice brought blessed relief from the seemingly endless stream of troubled memories of years past.

“Yes, Son?”

“I had supper last night with Miss Barnes . . . . ”

“Oh?” Ben looked over at his son in mild surprise. He had opted to turn in early last night, declining supper. The long trip the day before, coming up empty handed, as far as Joe was concerned, his ongoing concern for Stacy, and the jolt of seeing that wedding portrait had all taken their toll on his stamina and appetite.

“I had some more questions I wanted to ask her.”

“Anything of interest?”

Hoss nodded. “She told me the Chadwicks . . . that’s what she insisted on callin’ ‘em . . . ARE the owners of that house, just like we thought. Miss Barnes said it was a belated weddin’ present from the mister to his wife.”

“Miss Barnes didn’t say HOW belated . . . did she?”

“The year she gave . . . I think it would’ve been three . . . maybe four years after they tied the knot.”

That piece of information was indeed very interesting, giving rise to a whole new string of unsettling questions. Why had Linda chosen a home here, in Carson City, of all places?

Coincidence?

Ben did some quick mental figuring.

By the time Lord Chadwick got around to buying that little belated wedding gift for his lady, he and Marie would have been married two, going on three years. Joe wouldn’t have been much more than a baby. Ben had purchased the first parcel of land that would comprise his vast holdings known as Ponderosa, nearly a year before he had met and courted Linda de Salle. He and his lawyer were negotiating on the purchase of the second parcel of land at around the time he asked her to be his wife. He almost certainly would have shared that knowledge with Linda.

Had Linda Lawrence picked out that house in Carson City to be a belated wedding gift because of its near proximity to Virginia City . . . AND the Ponderosa? The thought sent another cold chill racing down the length of Ben’s spine.

“Miss Barnes said Lord Chadwick was nice enough,” Hoss rambled on. “A lotta folks thought he was a bit stuck up ‘n aloof, but Miss Barnes figured he was on the shy side. She said he always conducted himself like a real fine gentleman, whenever she happened t’ meet up with him.” Hoss grinned with amusement. “She also said he, meanin’ Lord Chadwick, had a delightful, charmin’ way o’ speaking, just like Mister Montague. Didn’t think too highly o’ Lady Chadwick, though.”

“Oh? What did Miss Barnes have to say about Lady Chadwick?”

“The kindest things she said ‘bout Lady Chadwick was that the woman was real stuck-up ‘n vulgar.”

“Somehow, THAT doesn’t surprise me,” Ben said remembering all of the large, expensive porcelain bric-a-brac crammed onto the mantle piece and tables in the living room of the house in Carson City. “Did the Lawrences have any friends here in Carson City?”

Hoss shook his head. “Miss Barnes said they pretty much kept to themselves.”

“Did Miss Barnes happen to remember when they were last in residence in that house?”

“Yep! She said last time Lady Chadwick came was pert near twelve . . . maybe thirteen years ago . . . in the fall. She stayed through the winter ‘n left sometime in the spring,” Hoss replied. “That would’ve been right before she came t’ see US.”

“Yes, indeed it would,” Ben agreed with a scowl. “That, no doubt, gave her plenty of time to get her ducks in a row so she could begin setting me up to take that big fall she had planned the minute she and Montague arrived in Virginia City.”

“According t’ Miss Barnes, Lady Chadwick didn’t come back here after she left US,” Hoss continued. “But, Mister Montague did, ‘bout a year later. Seems he was in charge o’ overseein’ the house, ‘n lookin’ after whoever was rentin’ the place. Then ‘bout a year ago, Mister Montague quit workin’ for Lady Chadwick, ‘n went t’ work for this Mrs. de Salle.”

“That’s very interesting, especially considering how loyal Montague was to Linda.”

“That ain’t all that’s very interesting, Pa.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. Seems that in the ten years since Lady Chadwick visited us, a pretty fair number o’ people rented out that house. All of ‘em women, widowed, an’ beginning ‘bout five years ago, all of ‘em had one son named John, Jack, or some such.”

“Did . . . Miss Barnes have anything to say about the women who rented the house over the past ten years?”

“I asked her ‘bout that, Pa . . . . ”

“ . . . and?”

“Miss Barnes said she never had much t’ do with any of ‘em, except for Mrs. de Salle,” Hoss replied. “Seems Mister Montague picked up their mail, did all their bankin’, ran their errands.”

Both father and son rode in uneasy silence for a time.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“I been thinkin’ . . . . you s’pose all them renters were really Lady Chadwick?”

“Between you and me, I’m almost certain of it,” Ben said grimly. “I have no proof, however, just a real strong gut feeling.”

“Y-You don’t suppose Lady Chadwick’s been spyin’ on us all this time . . . do ya?”

“I’m beginning to think she HAS been spying on us, Hoss. With her man, Montague here supposedly to look after the house and its tenants . . . it would be real easy for her to send him over to Virginia City to check up on us,” Ben said uneasily, “especially if every last one of the tenants, who’ve rented that house since her visit to the Ponderosa, actually turn out to be Lady Chadwick herself.”

Hoss shook his head in utter bewilderment. “That’s a powerful long time t’ be carryin’ around a grudge.”

“I . . . think her feelings toward me go back even further, Hoss, all the way back to the day she turned down my proposal of marriage,” Ben said in a quiet, somber tone. “That’s probably the reason she had her husband buy her that house in Carson City . . . so she could keep tabs on us.”

Hoss looked over at his father, astonished and very much troubled. “Pa . . . that’s . . . it’s crazy! Just . . . plumb loco crazy! She didn’t even know you were here . . . did she?”

“I’m afraid she DID, Hoss,” Ben said grimly.

“How’d she find out?”

“I told her, while I was courting her.”

“It still don’t make one lick o’ sense,” Hoss declared, shaking his head. “She’s the one who turned you down, then she up ‘n married someone else, with one o’ them fancy European titles. Why in the world would she want t’ bother with checkin’ up on you, leastwise while Lord Chadwick was still alive?”

“I don’t know, Son. Like you just said, it makes no sense at all, whatsoever.”

“Pa, you remember yesterday when I said you were givin’ me a real case o’ the willies?”

“Yes . . . . ”

“Well that real case o’ the willies just got about a hundred times WORSE.”

“M-Miss Gibson.”

Joe saw Hazel Gibson once again, as she was back when he was in the fifth grade. She stood tall, her posture more straight, more regal than an Army general. Her sharp, all knowing, bright green eyes were trained right on him.

“I’m . . . I’m ten years old again . . . and I’m back in Miss Gibson’s class,” Joe Cartwright murmured very softly to himself. “It’s . . . it’s almost summertime. End of May. Hot . . . real, real hot. N-Not usually this hot this time of year. Inside the school house . . . with the sun beating down . . . it’s even hotter ‘n our kitchen on the hottest part of a summer’s day, with . . . with Hop Sing in there, cooking up a storm.”

Joe squeezed his eyes shut, and turned his head away from the window along side his bed, and the glaring sun beating down on him relentlessly through the bare glass window panes along the south wall, and through the French doors facing west. He had no clothing on, no bed linens, nothing to protect him from the unmerciful heat and blinding glare. His entire body was soaked with perspiration, and his hair lay plastered to his head and face.

“I’m h-hot . . . and so thirsty . . . s-so thirsty, I . . . God, I can’t stand it,” Joe continued, “just like when I . . . when I w-was ten years old . . . and . . . and back in the fifth grade . . . Miss Gibson’s class . . . arithmetic. All I gotta do is make it through arithmetic . . . that’s all, just m-make it through arithmetic. Recess is after arithmetic. I c-can get a drink of w-water . . . at recess.”

Joe had awakened that morning with a sore throat, which had steadily grown worse over the course of the last few hours. The insides of his cheeks felt like cotton, and his tongue kept sticking to the roof of his mouth. How long had it been since he last had food, or more important, water? The very last time HE could remember was at the supper table, the night of the fire. Three days ago now, if his own calculations were correct . . . .

“Fifth g-grade . . . . ” Joe kept telling himself, “I’m in the f-fifth gr-grade . . . back in M-Miss Gibson’s class . . . . ”

If he kept his eyes shut real tight, and concentrated, he could see it all again: the blackboard with simple addition and subtraction problems for the first and second graders, multiplication and division problems for the fifth and sixth grades. He could also hear once again the drone of locusts outside against the third and fourth graders chanting the multiplication table of seven, like a mantra.

“So h-hot . . . I’m so thirsty, but if I ask to be excused for a drink of water AGAIN . . . she . . . she said she’d k-keep me after school . . . for a week. A whole solid week! Pa s-said HE’LL . . . that he’ll c-confine me to . . . t-to my room . . . for another t-two weeks on top of that . . . if I have to stay after school one more time.

“So I gotta wait . . . gotta wait ‘til . . . ‘til ‘rithmetic class is over, and it’s time f-for recess. Arithmetic class will be over soon, real, real soon. It WILL! ‘Rithmetic class always . . . it always SEEMS to take a long time . . . that’s ‘c-cause I hate it so much. It’s never as long as I . . . as I think. So, it’ll be over . . . real soon. Then, it’ll be recess and I can go to the well . . . and . . . and get a drink . . . a l-long, c-cool drink of water . . . of clear, sweet, cold water. . . . ”

Joe heard the telltale creak of the door opening. He automatically turned to see, only to whip his face away the instant the harsh, blinding glare of the sun once more struck his eyes. “Who . . . who is it?”

“Crippensworth.”

Joe’s heart sank.

“I brought you some water.”

“Why don’t you and Lady Chadwick just kill me and get it over with?”

Crippensworth slowly made his way around to the other side of the bed. “Can’t do that, Mister Cartwright. Milady has plans for you.” He sat down on the bed, placing the canteen in hand within Joe’s line of vision.

“What . . . what do I have to do to get that drink of water?” Joe asked bitterly.

“Nothing, Boy. This one’s a freebie.” Crippensworth unscrewed the cap, then reached his hand under Joe’s neck and shoulders, in order to lift his head.

The instant Joe’s dry, parched lips touched the canteen, he began to gulp greedily, though the water was warm, with a slight musty odor.

“Not so fast, Boy,” Crippensworth admonished him severely. He yanked the canteen away from Joe’s lips with a powerful thrust of his arm.

“M-More, please . . . . ” Joe begged. “Please? J-just a little more.”

“A little more, but SLOWLY, Boy. You keep on gulping it down like you just did, you’re going to make yourself sick.”

“Alright . . . I promise . . . I’ll take it s-slow.”

Crippensworth brought the canteen once more to Joe’s lips. Joe, true to his word, forced himself to slip slowly from the canteen. It took nearly every ounce of his strong will to do so.

“CRIPPENSWORTH!” It was Lady Chadwick, standing just inside the door, with arms folded tight across her chest, directing a venomous glare at both of them. “Just what the HELL do you think you’re doing?”

“What does it LOOK like, Milady?”

“If you think for one minute I’m going to tolerate such insolence . . . . ” Linda started around to the side of the bed where Crippensworth still sat, giving Joe water.

“Milady, you raise your hand to me again, so help me . . . as God is my witness, I WILL break it.”

Linda stopped mid-stride just before she reached the foot of the bed. “My orders were no food OR water until he stops lying.”

“You want the boy dead?”

“No, of course not!”

“Another day, maybe two . . . three at the very outside of no food OR water, the intended instrument of your revenge would be a cold corpse.” Crippensworth moved the canteen away from Joe’s lips and placed his head back down on the mattress. “Is that what you want, Milady?”

“No,” Linda replied in a sullen tone of voice.

“Alright then.” Crippensworth replaced the cap on his canteen, then rose. “Now that our guest here’s had something to slack his thirst, he’s going to become more and more aware of his empty belly. I’m thinking that going to bed without supper again tonight might make him a little more amenable.”

“It had better,” Linda growled under her breath. She, then, turned heel and flounced angrily out of the room.

“You have the rest of the day to think things over, Kid,” Crippensworth taunted Joe, favoring him with a mirthless smile. “I’d strongly suggest you use it wisely. VERY wisely! Remember Jack Murphy.”

The streets of Virginia City were nearly deserted by the time Ben and Hoss Cartwright reached its environs. Homes, offices, and businesses, including the saloons, were closed, their windows dark, except for the dim light of a flickering oil lamp in the occasional upstairs window of the homes they passed. The waning moon, had passed zenith and begun her descent down toward the western horizon. Her light bathed the empty streets before them with a gentle, silver-white glow. Father and son continued up the main road in weary, anxious silence until they finally reached the home and office of Doctor Paul Martin.

“You gonna stay here the rest o’ the night, Pa?” Hoss asked, as they dismounted from their respective horses in front of the Martins’ home.

Ben nodded, as he and his son respectively tethered Buck and Chubb to the hitching post on the street. “How about you, Hoss?”

“I want to come in . . . see how Li’l Sister’s farin’,” Hoss replied. “After that, I was figurin’ on ridin’ down to the hotel ‘n gettin’ a room. If ya’d like, I can take Buck with me, ‘n stable him there with Chubb.”

“Thank you, I’d appreciate that very much. You’ll stop by here on your way out to the hou—the RANCH in the morning?”

“I will, Pa.”

They turned and started up the walk together. Upon reaching the stoop at the top of the steps, Ben and Hoss were mildly surprised to see the door open before either had a chance to knock. Hop Sing stood just inside, with his hand on the door knob and an apprehensive look on his face.

“Good you get back, Mister Cartwright . . . Mister Hoss. Miss Stacy run fever. Very high, grow higher.”

“Where is she?” Ben demanded wearily, his heart sinking.

“In same room where we sleep.”

Ben stepped past Hop Sing and bounded past the stairs and down the narrow corridor toward the doctor’s examination room, with heart in mouth. There, he found Doctor and Mrs. Martin, with Doctor Johns, still fully dressed, their faces nearly identical masks of worry and concern. The two physicians were working on Stacy’s leg, while Lily Martin gently bathed Stacy’s forehead with cool water, laced with a mixture pungent herbs. Ben immediately recognized the aroma as one of Hop Sing’s remedies for fever.

“Ben, thank goodness!” Lily exclaimed, being the first to see him. “Please, come in.”

Ben was across the room, standing next to Lily Martin and the bed occupied by his daughter in less than a second. “I can do that for a while,” he said softly, nodding to the water on the bedside and cloth in the hands of the doctor’s wife.

Lily nodded and rose, allowing Ben to take her chair.

“Pa?” Stacy’s eyes opened the minute Ben sat down.

“I’m right here, Stacy.” Ben dipped the cloth in hand into the water and herb mix, then wrung it out. “You just lie still and rest.”

“Where’s Hoss?” she asked anxiously.

“I’m right here, Li’l Sister.”

Stacy’s eyes moved from her father’s anxious, weary face to her big brother standing behind him. “Where’s Joe? Did you find HIM?”

“No,” Hoss shook his head. “We didn’t find him THIS time, but we WILL. Don’t you worry none ‘bout that. You just worry ‘bout gettin’ yourself better.”

“Mister Cartwright?”

Ben glanced up sharply and found himself staring into the weary, careworn face of Doctor Michael Johns.

“We need to talk.”

“Not without ME you don’t,” Stacy said firmly, her lower jaw and mouth set with stubborn resolve.

“Mister Cartwright, YOU and I need to talk,” Michael reiterated, directing a dark glare toward his patient.

“Doctor Johns, anything you have to say about Stacy’s physical condition, you say to BOTH of us,” Ben said as he gently bathed her forehead with the water and herbal mix.

“Alright.” Doctor Johns straightened, then stretched to loosen up the muscles in his lower back, made stiff by having to bend over for long periods of time. “Mister Cartwright . . . Miss Cartwright, the leg is badly infected. Paul and I’ve drained off large amounts of pus, and infected blood and serum. That AND the high fever she’s running tell me the infection’s systemic, or damn’ near so.”

“What does systemic mean?” Stacy demanded in a weary, cantankerous tone.

“It means every part of your body’s infected. If we’re to have any chance at saving your LIFE, Miss Cartwright . . . any chance at all, I have to amputate your leg. Now!”

“Pa?”

“Y-Yes, Stacy?” Ben murmured, weary, shaken to the very core of his being, yet trying valiantly to hold on, to be the pillar of strength and courage he knew his daughter needed.

“Hop Sing told me he knows someone . . . she’s a Chinese doctor, does something called acu— ” Stacy frowned, trying to remember.

“Acu-puncture, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing said from his place next to Hoss.

Ben looked over and favored Hop Sing with a puzzled frown. “What’s this . . . acupuncture, Hop Sing?”

“Acupuncture medicine, practice in China, long time. Many, thousands years. Chi energy in Miss Stacy’s leg blocked. Leg infected. Make worse. Acupuncture Master use needles, stick in points along energy lines, move chi.”

“Pa, I want to give this acupuncture a try,” Stacy pleaded.

“Needles . . . . ? Energy . . . . ?! Superstitious poppycock!” Michael Johns snorted derisively.

“Ben . . . Michael, may I say something?” Paul Martin spoke up for the first time.

“Please do, Paul,” Ben invited anxiously.

“Doctor Tao An Li, the Acupuncture Master Hop Sing and Stacy mentioned IS a very knowledgeable physician, very well respected within the Chinese community here in Virginia City, and beyond,” Paul said. “I’ve been told she’s had patients come from places as far away as San Francisco. I don’t claim to understand all the hows, whys, and wherefores that makes acupuncture work, but I HAVE seen it work. As Hop Sing just said, its been practiced in China for thousands of years, and it DOES work.”

“Do you think it’ll work for Stacy?”

“I can’t give either of you any guarantees, but I have seen acupuncture make the difference between life and death on several occasions.”

“Perhaps Paul can’t give you any guarantees, Mister Cartwright, but I sure can,” Michael said severely. “At the rates we’re draining pus from her leg and her fever’s escalating, if I DON’T take her leg soon . . . within the next twelve hours . . . or LESS, I can guarantee that your daughter WILL die.”

“Pa, please! I want to try this,” Stacy begged.

“Stacy— ”

“Please.”

The fierce determination Ben heard in her voice and saw in her eyes, even in the set of her mouth and jaw, was not the pleading of a child. For the first time, he had a glimpse of the adult his young daughter was fast becoming, who had just made her own decision based on the information given her.

“Mister Cartwright?!” Michael pressed.

Ben swallowed, and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment to dam back the sudden flash flood of tears, borne of sheer terror mixed with a great measure of parental pride in his daughter’s strength, courage, and determination. He opened his eyes as Stacy slipped her hand in his and gave it a firm, reassuring squeeze.

“Mister Cartwright, I need a decision from you right now.”

With Stacy’s hand clasped tight in his own, Ben looked up into the weary, anxious faces of both doctors, one an old friend of long standing, the other an acquaintance to whom he owed a debt a gratitude that, by his way of thinking, could never, ever be fully repaid. “Paul . . . Doctor Johns,” he addressed both in a voice, surprisingly calm and steady. “My daughter is of age, and she has made her own decision.”

Paul looked over at Hop Sing. “Would you mind going to Doctor Tao’s home and asking her to come here?”

“You want right now?” Hop Sing asked.

“Yes,” Paul nodded vigorously, all the while pointedly ignoring the angry glare Doctor Johns leveled in his general direction. “Please ask Doctor Tao to come right now. You’ll find my buggy and horse out in my stable.”

“Come on, Hop Sing,” Hoss said. “I’ll help ya git that horse hitched up.”

He ran down the long, dark hallway, as fast as his chubby little legs could carry him, with his small, pudgy hands and fingers holding tight to his forearms, pressed tight against his chest, and his teeth chattering. He paused before the closed door to Mama’s and Papa’s room, suddenly, inexplicably afraid.

Mama make me warm.

With that comforting thought to momentarily blanket his fears, his apprehensions, he rose up on tip-toes, his left arm reached up as high as it possibly could, allowing his fingers to touch the white milk glass door knob enough to turn it . . . to open the door . . . .

The door opened with a soft creak. Inside, he could barely make out the lumpy forms of Mama and Papa snuggled up together under the covers.

“Mama, make me warm,” he cried as he bolted across the room toward the bed. “Mama, make me warm.”

He saw Mama stir and turn.

“Mama make me warm.”

“Come here, Darling. Mama make you warm.”

He froze mid-stride. The voice . . . its pitch . . . the way the words rolled off the tongue, the way she said her vowels, her consonants . . . it was all wrong.

“Darling?”

He stood, rooted to the very spot by his fear, watching with a strange, morbid fascination as Mama moved aside the covers, the quilt, the blanket, and the sheets.

“Come here, Darling . . . . ”

She sat up, smiling, her arms open wide to receive him, to gather him up and hold him close. Her eyes, veiled in two nearly round pools of darkness, and the stark whiteness of her skin in the pale moonlight shining in through the window, lent her head, her face the eerie appearance of a skull. There was no love, no warmth in the smile that stretched painfully from one side of her face to the other, with lips parted, thinned to a barely discernable pink line, revealing big teeth, white as her skin.

“Come here, Darling . . . . ”

He recoiled physically against this false, grotesque travesty.

“Come here, Darling. Mama will make you warm.”

He screamed . . . .

. . . and woke up screaming to a cold, dark room. It’s chill reached very deep into the core of his entire physical being, to the very marrow of his bones. His teeth chattered, and his body shook and trembled violently, rattling the bed on which he lay. Joe tried to sit up, that he might grab the quilt lying across the foot of his bed, and curl up under its warming depths.

At first he was shocked and bewildered that he couldn’t rise . . . .

. . . couldn’t sit up . . . .

Then, he remembered. He was being held somewhere . . . where, he had no idea . . . lying spread eagle on a bed, his ankles and wrists firmly lashed to the posts of the head and foot boards. The night chill in the room had settled into his bones, making more acute the aching pain of his fractured ribs and dislocated shoulder.

“It’s ok, Grandpa . . . . ”

Joe heard his sister’s voice, speaking softly, anxiously.

“It’s gonna be ok. Pa’s coming . . . you just hang on.”

It was a few days before Christmas, two, maybe three years ago. He had gone to Placerville to finish up his Christmas shopping. The most important gift had been a watch he and Stacy had chipped in to buy for their father. One the way home, his horse was spooked by, more than likely, a lone wolf or cougar desperately seeking food. It reared, tossing him into a deep ravine, leaving him dazed, with a badly sprained ankle.

A foot of snow covered the ground, with more falling from the skies, piling higher and higher with each passing second. He had no idea how long he had lain there, dreaming strange dreams of his mother, Marie, when suddenly he opened his eyes to find his sister kneeling beside him, trying desperately to brush away the snow that had left him nearly buried, the hotness of her febrile hands and body giving him warmth, desperately needed.

“It’s ok, Grandpa,” she said again, kneeling down beside him as she did before. :It’s gonna be ok. Pa’s coming . . . . ”

He frowned. She seemed older than the fifteen year old sister he remembered, and she was wearing a white nightshirt, instead of the clothing she had donned that night in obvious haste. Her hands, the closeness of her body kneeling down so close warmed him now as they had then. He noted with alarm and dismay that something seemed to be terribly wrong with her right leg . . . .

Stacy?

“No, D-Darling. Not Stacy,” a voice, choked with agonized sobbing spoke to him out of the darkness. “It’s . . . it’s MAMA.”

Joe, now wide awake, felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end.

“It’s Mama, Darling.”

Trembling as much from fear now, as the cold, Joe peered hard into the thick, nearly opaque veil of darkness surrounding him, searching desperately for a face, for the mouth from whence those words issued. “Who ARE you?” he demanded.

“It’s . . . it’s M-Mama.”

The speaker, a woman stepped into the dim shaft of moonlight, shining in through the open window. The outlines of her body . . . her long curls, now worn loosely about her neck and shoulders . . . it was Lady Chadwick.

“Oh, Darling . . . D-Dearest Darling,” she wept. “Why? Why do you have to be so naughty? Don’t you know . . . d-don’t you realize h-how . . . how very much this . . . b-breaks my heart?”

Joe watched, numb with horror, as she moved to the side of his bed.

“Please, Darling?” she begged. “Please? If you . . . if y-you tell me the truth now, I . . . I think I c-can reason with you father . . . . ”

“The truth?! The truth about what?”

“The t-t-truth about what h-happened,” she sobbed. “Please, Darling . . . p-please tell me . . . I . . . I can’t stand t-to see your father p-punish you like this. Please!”

“What are you talking about?” Joe demanded, his words clipped, his tone of voice terse. Inside he was frightened. More than he could ever recall having been frightened in his entire life.

“What happened at . . . at the fire. Please . . . f-for the love of G-God, please . . . tell me the TRUTH. Tell m-me what really happened.”

“So THAT’S it!” Joe muttered, as fear quickly turned to anger.

Linda made her way across the room, still sobbing, her gait slow and halting. Upon reaching the side of the bed, she sat down, and reached out to touch his cheek.

Joe angrily turned his face away. “I’ve already TOLD you the truth . . . what really happened,” he said through clenched teeth. “Now why don’t you play this sick little game of yours with someone ELSE?”

“Oh, Darling, please. Please, d-don’t hate me . . . Little Joe, look at me?”

He kept his face turned away, and said nothing.

“Please? Look at me?”

“Go to hell!” Joe snapped.

“Why . . . you . . . you . . . . ” The gentle rise of the mattress and soft creak of bedsprings told him that she had risen from her seat on the edge of his bed. “You hateful, mean, spiteful, cruel . . . you’re father was RIGHT!” she snarled. “You . . . LOOK AT ME WHEN I’M SPEAKING TO YOU . . . .”

Joe said nothing, nor did he move his head.

Linda balled her hand, shaking with the enormous rage that seemed to have suddenly risen out of nowhere to possess her completely, body and soul, and struck him hard, with all her might. Joe winced, and bit down on his lip to keep from crying out. He squeezed his eyes shut, and braced himself, mentally and physically, for the beating sure to come. Instead, she leaned over, and seizing two fistfuls of his hair, forcibly turned his head, his face in her direction. Joe cried out in spite of himself.

“I told you to look at me . . . . ” she snarled, winding his unruly brown curls even tighter around her fingers.

“ . . . and I told YOU to go to hell . . . . ” His words ended in an agonized gasp, as she viciously tugged, with every intention of ripping the hair right out of his head by the roots.

“You . . . insolent . . . whelp! So help me . . . by the time your father gets through with you . . . you will regret the very day you were born . . . every bit as much as I bitterly regret it,” she whispered her rage, her hatred. With that, she abruptly turned heel and fled from the room, slamming the door behind her with all her strength.

Joe heard the hollow echoes throughout the length and breadth of the house for what seemed an eternity.

“It’s ok, Grandpa.”

His sister’s words, spoken that night he had nearly frozen to death, would have frozen to death, had his special guardian angel not told Stacy where to look for him, returned to the heavy, near deafening silence that finally swallowed up the echoes of the slamming door.

“It’s ok, Grandpa. It’s gonna be ok . . . Pa’s coming.”

Joe clung to her words, and the promise within them, as a drowning man clings hard to a life preserver.

“I’m hanging on, Stace,” Joe whispered. “I know he’s coming. Please . . . tell him to hurry.”

End of Part 3

 

 

Trial By Fire

Part 4

By Kathleen T. Berney

 

“ ‘S ok, Grandpa . . . . ‘s gonna be ok . . . Pa’s coming,” Stacy murmured softly, in a voice barely audible. She was lying once more on Doctor Martin’s examination table, sometimes dozing, occasionally wide awake, but most of the time drifting languidly in the place between sleeping and wakefulness . . . the place where dreams are born.

“What was that, Stacy?” Ben asked, as he gently blotted her hot forehead and cheeks with the ice cold water, mixed with herbs and spices.

“ ‘S ok, Grandpa . . . ‘s gonna be ok . . . Pa’s coming . . . gotta hang on.”

Doctor Tao An Li, master acupuncturist, stood on the opposite side of the examination table, with Stacy’s hand and wrist sandwiched between her own small hands, well muscled, with thin, wiry fingers. She was an elderly woman, standing just under five feet tall, with a reed slender, yet wiry, very muscular build. She had long, thick snow white hair, worn in a braid that stretched down to the small of her back, and dark eyes, sparkling with life and light, that missed seeing nothing.

“Mister Cartwright?”

“Yes, Doctor Tao?”

“Your daughter speak to venerable grandfather?”

“No, Ma’am,” Ben shook his head. “She . . . she calls her brother that.”

“Name of respect?”

Ben smiled, despite his weariness, despite his deepening anxiety and concern. “Though it’s recently come to be a name of affection, it didn’t start out as a name of respect,” he replied. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Doctor Tao shook her head. “You ‘Merican people funny people. Take name of respect, make it NOT respect. Funny, funny people. Where this brother she call Grand-pah now?”

“Missing.”

“Very sorry to hear.” She moved down toward Stacy’s feet and gently touched, her fingers probing, seeking a pulse. “Hope he found very soon.”

“Thank you, Doctor Tao,” Ben said as he dipped the towel in hand back into the bowl containing Hop Sing’s mixture for high fevers. “I have every hope that he will be.”

“Miss Stacy pulses good . . . very good,” the acupuncture master said. “But not in hurt leg. Chi block. Unblock chi, in-fek-shun go, go like river go.”

“What are y-you going to do with those needles?” Ben asked, eyeing the tools of Doctor Tao’s profession through eyes round with alarm.

“Needle go in point. Release chi. Help chi move.”

“Not hurt Miss Stacy, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing added. “Not hurt no more than Doctor Martin shots. Release Miss Stacy chi . . . Miss Stacy life energy . . . make infection move.”

Though Ben didn’t know Doctor Tao from Adam’s house cat, he could see the respect that Paul Martin and Hop Sing both had for the wizened acupuncture master. He trusted both men implicitly. “Alright . . . . ” he said slowly, and not without trepidation, in spite of the trust, and respect he had for Paul and Hop Sing. “Go ahead, Doctor Tao.” He pointedly turned his face away from the good doctor, with her plethora of needles, opting to focus his attention on his daughter’s face.

“Pa?”

“I’m right here, Stacy,” Ben said, as he wrung the excess moisture from the towel in hand, then turned to gently blot the side of her face. He favored her with a weary smile. “Glad to have you back. How are you feeling?”

“My leg hurts something awful, and I feel like I’m burning up.”

“You ARE running a bit of a fever,” Ben hedged, trying to downplay the seriousness of her situation.

“Cold water feels good, Pa . . . real good,” she murmured as her eyelids slipped down over her eyes. “That . . . Hop Sing’s fever remedy I smell?”

“Yes, it is.”

Her breathing fell into a deep even cadence. Ben thought she had fallen asleep again, until she murmured a few moments later, without opening her eyes, “Where’s Joe?”

Ben dipped his towel into the cold water, herb, and spice mix, then wring out the excess moisture. “You brother’s . . . still missing, Stacy.”

She opened her eyes and stared up at him with a bewildered frown.

“You remember the fire?”

“Yeah . . . some.”

“You were unconscious when the four of us left the house the last time, but the ceiling collapsed, and . . . Joe was separated from the three of US,” Ben explained.

“He . . . he did get out ok . . . didn’t he, Pa?” she asked, bewilderment giving way to alarm.

Ben nodded. “He got out. We know that much. We think he may have been kidnapped.”

“Oh, yeah . . . NOW I remember . . . that lady . . . . ”

“Lady Chadwick,” Ben said in a cold monotone.

“Then, I . . . I must’ve dozed off,” she said slowly, thoughtfully, “and dreamed the whole thing.”

“If your dream was about the Angel of Death again, so help me . . . this time I’M gonna give him a good swift kick . . . in a place a little bit ABOVE the shins,” Ben adamantly vowed.

“Above the shins and around back?” Stacy asked, as an amused smile played at the corner of her mouth.

“That’s the place!” Ben replied, as he gently bathed her face and neck. “I’m NOT going to let him take you. Not now!”

“You promise?”

“I promise.”

“I’m gonna hold you to that, Pa.”

“You’d better, Young Woman . . . you’d better.” Ben dipped the towel back into the bowl, and again wrung out the excess moisture.

“I . . . I didn’t dream about the Angel of Death,” Stacy said slowly, her smile fading. “Not this time.”

“What . . . or who DID you dream about?” Ben asked as he gently blotted her forehead, then moved to the other side of her face and neck.

“Joe,” Stacy replied. She frowned. “It was . . . it was like we were back in that ravine . . . you remember, don’t you, Pa? The time his horse threw him coming back from Placerville?”

“Christmas . . . three years ago?”

Stacy nodded.

“I remember.”

“In the dream it was . . . kinda like we were reliving when I found him . . . but, it was different.”

“How was it different?”

“It was dark and cold like it was that night, but . . . I couldn’t see the snow or the trees of the forest,” Stacy replied. “It was kinda like we were someplace else, but I couldn’t see where. It was too dark.”

“Anything ELSE different?”

“Yeah.” Stacy frowned. “It was Joe. His chest and shoulder were bandaged and . . . he looked more like he does NOW.”

“Pat Kelly and Abe Myers have things well in hand down in the lumber camp and over at the saw mill,” Candy reported. He and Hoss were in the International Hotel restaurant, seated together at a table in the back. Hoss was finishing up an enormous breakfast of pancakes, sausage, and fried potatoes, while he nursed a cup of black coffee. “Those railroad trestles will go out right on time, according to the contract between Mister Cartwright and the railroad.”

“THAT’S a load off my mind,” Hoss declared, after exhaling a sigh of relief. He made a mental note to add Pat Kelly and Abe Myers to the growing list of men who would be more than deserving of a generous bonus at the completion of their jobs. “How’s the cattle round up comin’?”

“Counting the new calves in the north and southwest pastures, we stand at a grand total of one hundred and eight-six,” Candy reported with a grin, “AND we still have that pasture land on that new tract Mister Cartwright bought last spring.”

“I know THAT’S got lot’s o’ good grazin’ land, an’ its pretty well sheltered, surrounded on three sides by them tall hills the way it is.”

“Hank’s figuring on finding at least a hundred new calves there.”

Hoss whistled. “You ain’t joshin’?”

“Nope.”

“That’s real good news, Candy,” Hoss said, returning Candy’s grin.

“Jacob Cromwell’s gone out to that new pasture land with about a half dozen men, to start counting and branding the calves out there,” Candy continued. “Hank and most of the others are branding the one hundred eighty six I just told you about. If all goes well, we’re hoping to get all the cattle moved out to the summer pastures by the beginning of next week.”

“Pa’ll be happy t’ hear that,” Hoss said. “How about that string o’ horses for the Army?”

“The good news is, the new man we asked your pa to hire a couple o’ weeks ago is working out great,” Candy said. “He’s got all the makings of a real fine horse breaker. Give him a few years, and he’ll be giving Joe a good run for his money.”

“What’s the BAD news?”

“The bad news is . . . given the size of that string of horses . . . we’ll be lucky if we can get ‘em saddle broke by the time Colonel Jeffers comes out from Fort Churchill to pick ‘em up,” Candy said gravely. “With Joe missing, Stacy badly hurt, and you having to shuffle back and forth between the ranch and your pa, Stacy, and Hop Sing . . . . Somebody needs to let Colonel Jeffers know.”

“I’ll get a wire off t’ Fort Churchill this afternoon or tomorrow mornin’,” Hoss said. “How’re things comin’ with . . . with what’s left o’ the house?”

“We managed to get nearly a third of the area cleared of debris before we had to stop and tend to the cattle round up and branding,” Candy replied. “Anything we found that was salvageable, has been placed in the barn.”

“Y’ mean t’ tell me some o’ the stuff in the house actually made it through that fire?!” Hoss looked over at Candy, open mouthed with shock for a moment, then shook his head. “I thought we’d lost everything.”

“It wasn’t much,” Candy admitted. “The good news is a fair portion of Hop Sing’s room and nearly the entire kitchen remained standing when the roof over the rest of the house fell. The roofs over both were pretty badly damaged when the main part of the house collapsed, but most of Hop Sing’s belongings and the kitchen stuff survived intact. Kevin O’Hennessy and Bobby Washington moved Hop Sing’s things and the stuff from the kitchen out to the barn.

“We also salvaged a few odds and ends in the main part of the house,” Candy continued, “like Mister Cartwright’s big, red easy chair, a few books, that set of horns he had hanging on the mantle, and, umm . . . . ” Candy’s eyes darted from one side to the other, taking in the scant number of patrons scattered across the largely deserted dining room. Satisfied that no one was close enough to eavesdrop, unintentionally or otherwise, he added, “It’s something that requires either YOUR attention or your father’s.”

Hoss knew very well that Candy had cryptically referred to the safe, small and fireproof, that Pa had kept behind his desk. “I know whatcha mean, but don’t worry. There’s nothin’ about that really pressin’ right now.”

Candy immediately nodded, understanding. Hoss had just let him know that there was no money inside that safe. “Hoss, I also found a couple of other things.”

“What?”

“This.” Candy placed an odd lumpy object on the table between them, wrapped up in his pine green bandanna. He untied the knot, then spread apart the edges, revealing a white marble statue that had broken in three places.

Hoss stared down at the statue for a moment, then smiled. It was of a woman, a young woman, with ample bosom that tapered down to a trim waist and generous curving hips. She stood, with both feet firmly planted on a crescent moon, cradling an infant in her strong arms, close to her heart. “Well, I’ll be doggoned! I ain’t seen that since . . . well, I guess since Mama died.”

“This belonged to your mother, Hoss?”

“Nope.” Hoss shook his head. “It belonged t’ Li’l Joe’s Ma . . . Marie. Y’ see she was t’ only ma I ever knew, so I took t’ callin’ her Mama right from t’ git-go.”

“It’s a shame it got broken.”

Hoss picked up two of the pieces for a closer examination. “They seem t’ be clean breaks, Candy. I reckon a couple o’ dabs o’ glue oughtta fix this lady up just as good as new.”

“I, uh . . . also found THIS, alive and well.” Candy handed Hoss a small wooden box, with an intricate floral pattern of inlaid wood on its lid. “The contents seem to be all in one piece, too.”

Hoss opened the lid and peered inside. “Li’l Sister’s gonna be real happy t’ see this,” he said, as his eyes fell on the medicine bag given her by her Paiute foster mother, Silver Moon. Underneath the buffalo skin bag lay a single strand pearl necklace and a pair of pearl earrings, gifts from Pa and Joe respectively on the occasion of her recently celebrated eighteenth birthday.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Candy?”

“How’s Stacy doing?”

“Her leg’s infected . . . real bad,” Hoss said soberly, as he wolfed down the last of his pancakes, “ an’ she’s runnin’ a high fever because o’ that.”

“Is she . . . is she going to . . . to lose her leg?” Candy could barely bring himself to voice the question.

“Doctor Johns wanted t’ operate early this mornin’ . . . when Pa ‘n me got back from Carson City, but Stacy wanted t’ try some new fangled thing called acu-puncture.”

“Acu . . . WHAT?”

“Acupuncture,” Hoss replied. “Hop Sing says they’ve been doin’ it in China f’r thousands o’ years, but it’s new fangled t’ me. Doc Martin’s got this woman, Doctor Tao working with ‘em. She’s been doing this acupuncture here in Virginia City for . . . ” he shrugged. “I dunno. Doc Martin’s said it’s been a few years now.”

“What is it?”

“T’ tell ya the truth . . . I dunno,” Hoss replied with another shrug. “Doc Martin says HE don’t even understand how it works. He only knows that he’s seen it work.”

“I hope it works for Stacy,” Candy said quietly. “As gifted as that kid is with horses . . . well, it would be a cryin’ shame if she couldn’t ride or work with them anymore.”

An amused smile tugged hard at the end of Hoss’ mouth at Candy’s reference to Stacy as a kid. “I hope it works, too,” he said quietly.

“Do me a favor?”

“Sure, Candy. What is it?”

“When you give Stacy her jewelry box, please let her know . . . and let your pa know, too . . . that I’m pulling for both of ‘em?”

“I sure will.”

“You . . . still thinking of sending for Adam?”

Hoss nodded. “Between lookin’ f’r Joe . . . lookin’ AFTER Stacy . . . an’ everything else that needs doin’ on the Ponderosa . . . I think that’s the only way we’re gonna be able to git our house rebuilt,” he said, then grinned. “Seein’ as how Adam pretty much designed ‘n built a lotta that house . . . leastwise the way it was ‘fore the fire, it’s only fittin’ we ask him t’ design ‘n build the new one.”

“Hoss . . . . ”

Hoss and Candy both turned upon hearing and recognizing the voice of Clem Foster. “Howdy, Clem,” the former returned the greeting, taking due note of the deputy’s somber, almost grim, tone of voice.

“Howdy.” Clem nodded to Hoss and Candy. “Sheriff Coffee’s sent me to find you.”

“Oh?” Hoss queried. “What’s up?”

“He’s got a couple of things to discuss with you, Hoss,” Clem replied in a somber tone. “First off, he’s finished reading over those letters you and your pa brought back from Carson City. The other has to do with . . . something that . . . well, you might say unexpectedly turned up at that address you and your pa checked out?!”

A perplexed frown creased Hoss’ normally smooth brow. He and his father had gone over that house with the proverbial fine toothed comb. Though they had found ample evidence that the house belonged to Lady Chadwick, and the she and the tenant known as Mrs. de Salle were in fact one and the same, they had not found Joe, nor even the slightest shred of evidence that he had ever been there. “Clem?”

“Yeah, Hoss?”

“Did Sheriff Coffee tell ya what exactly turned up at that address in Carson City?”

“No, leastwise not yet.”

“Thanks, Clem.” Hoss swallowed the last of his coffee, then placed a silver dollar on the table next to his clean plate. “Tell Sheriff Coffee I’ll be there directly.”

“Will do, Hoss,” Clem promised with a curt nod, then left.

“I’d best head on back to the ranch, Hoss,” Candy said, placing a quarter down beside his own empty coffee mug, “unless you want me to accompany you to the sheriff’s office?!”

“No,” Hoss shook his head. “Whatever it is, I can take care of it, but there IS somethin’ else y’ can do f’r me.”

“Sure, Hoss, what is it?”

“Would y’ mind stopping by the telegraph office, ‘n askin’ George t’ send this?” Hoss handed Candy an unsealed envelope. “That’s the wire t’ Adam, askin’ him t’ come.” He dug into his pants pocket and extracted his wallet. “That should cover t’ cost o’ sendin’ it,” he said, as he pressed a couple of paper bills into Candy’s hand. “Tell George I’ll check with him this evenin’ about a reply.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Candy promised, as he slipped the envelope and money into his shirt pocket. “In the meantime, you’ll keep me posted . . . about Joe AND Stacy?”

“Sure will, Candy,” Hoss promised.

“Good morning, Dearest, Darling, Little Joe,” Linda Lawrence, Countess of Chadwick breezed into the room and greeted her reluctant guest with a dazzling, bright smile. She wore a pale blue morning dress, with scooped neckline and puffed sleeves. Her hair was worn loosely about her shoulders, with pearlescent clips to keep it back, out of her face. The blue material of her dress brought out the blue in her eyes, and made her hair appear a burnt orange hue. A single strand pearl necklace completed her outfit. “Such a lovely, lovely, lovely morning it is, too.”

“What do you want NOW?” Joe demanded in a sullen tone.

“I want you to tell me what happened . . . what REALLY happened the day I brought you here,” Linda said, as she stepped into her pattern of pacing in front of the foot of the bed to which Joe still lay bound.

“You’re wasting your time.”

“It’s MY time to waste. Humor me.”

“My story hasn’t changed. I thought I made that clear to you last night.”

She frowned. “Last night?”

“Last night! When you came in here pretending to . . . to be my mother.”

“Joe, Joe, Joe, Dear LITTLE Joe, I haven’t the SLIGHTEST idea what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t know what kind of game you’re trying to play—,” he broke off abruptly upon noting that the bewilderment in her face seemed genuine.

“I’m not playing any kind of game at all, Darling,” she said in a dismissive tone. “I merely want to get to the truth of what happened the day you arrived.”

“I’ve already told you,” Joe said, mentally and physically bracing himself.

Linda laughed. Its sound grated harshly on his ears. “You ARE a stubborn one, I’ll grant you that, Little Joe. So like your father. That was also part of HIS charm. Did you know that?”

“I could care less,” Joe snapped.

“Oh my, so cranky this morning,” she mused aloud as she nestled seductively in the chair. “I must admit, I’d be rather cranky myself, if I hadn’t eaten in the last . . . oohhh, how long has it been? Oh yes. As of TODAY, it’s been three days.”

Joe glared murderously at her, but said nothing.

“You must be frightfully hungry.”

“Why don’t you just do whatever it is you came to do . . . and get it over with?” Joe snarled.

“I have a wonderful idea . . . . ”

“I’ll just bet you do,” Joe said bitterly.

“I’m going to tell you what I had for breakfast this morning,” Linda said, her eyes shining with the inner glow and excitement of a child, seeing the decorated tree and the mountain of presents all just for her on Christmas morning. “It was really quite lovely. Would you like to hear?”

“Do I have a CHOICE?!”

Linda smiled. It was a tight, brittle smile. “To start, I had a piece of toast, lightly buttered with some wonderful, homemade blackberry jam made by that gossipy old biddy at the post office over in— ”

“Where?” Joe verbally pounced with both feet.

“THAT, My Dear LITTLE Joe, would be telling,” Linda said with a coy smile. “Not that it matters, really, because we’re not there anymore. Furthermore, you wouldn’t even know the woman over at the post office anyway, but take it from me, her blackberry jam is simply out of this world, so sweet and fruity. Why I’ll bet HER jam is every bit as good as Hop Sing’s. You like blackberry jam don’t you, Little Joe?”

“Yes,” he growled, wishing desperately for a taste. Just a small, sweet taste.

“Then Crippensworth fixed up a whole mess of fluffy, yellow scrambled eggs . . . he IS a surprisingly good cook, something poor, dear Montague, for all HIS many talents, just plain and simply . . . was not,” she rambled on blithely. “He fried up those delightful eggs in the left over fat from all that delicious, hickory cured bacon . . . . ”

Joe remembered. He could smell the eggs and bacon cooking earlier, combined with the heady aroma of a good strong pot of coffee. Their combined fragrances were more wonderful than even the finest, most expensive perfumes. Smelling, knowing full well he could not partake sharpened, made more acute the agonizing emptiness within his belly. Now, her words tortured again, as those aromas did earlier.

“Crippensworth knows how to get bacon to just that right amount of crispness, too, Little Joe,” she continued, taking delight in his torment. She closed her eyes and moaned softly, sensuously. Her tongue slowly licked her rosy, pink lips. “Ambrosia. Nothing less than sweet ambrosia.”

It took every ounce of will Joe possessed to keep from blurting out his deep disappointment that she hadn’t choked on every last bite of that lovely breakfast.

“You know, Darling, there may be some left over.”

Joe glanced up sharply, with eager anticipation, despite his best intentions.

“Of course you must tell me what really happened the day I brought you here,” she continued.

Joe opened his mouth, fully intending to tell Lady Chadwick the story she wanted so much to hear. Then he remembered . . . .

. . . . a day, many years ago, out in the hot, dry, dusty Arizona desert, where a long, agonizing journey had come to a tragic end. Emeliano, a vaquero and a man who had shown himself a good, trusted friend lay dead, along with the magnificent white stallion he had loved so much. The horse was to have been a birthday gift for Pa from Adam, Hoss, and himself. He was lying in the desert sands not far from the stallion’s corpse, cruelly and helplessly bound by Sam Wolf, the sadistic leader of a ruthless, brutal band of comancheros. There was a pool of water less than three feet in front of him, as far out of his reach as if it had been three hundred miles away. If Sam Wolf’s will had prevailed that day, he would have almost certainly died a slow, agonizing death in the desert, due to heat and lack of water.

But, Sam Wolf’s will did NOT prevail that day. Joe could still see Pa’s shadow rising, covering the comanchero leader’s face as a dark, deadly thunder cloud obscures the brilliant blue sky in the summer.

“Well, howdy, Friend,” Sam Wolf greeted the rising dark thundercloud, wholly ignorant of the raging fury boiling inside. “I just finished me off a horse thief. Caught him stealing my horses last night.”

“You’re a liar.”

“Now look, Friend. That kind of talk’s gonna get you into a lot of trouble.”

“He’s NOT a horse thief . . . he’s my son.”

Next, came the sound of gunfire.

Suddenly, Joe found himself lying in his father’s arms, being held close to his chest, near the place of his heart. Pa removed the rope binding him and gave him water. He haltingly told Pa about Emeliano and the white stallion, the intended birthday gift from himself and his brothers.

“I HAVE my gift, Son,” Pa said, his voice breaking . . . .

“I have my gift,” Joe whispered, blinking his eyes against the tears forming there. “I have my gift.”

“What did you say?” Lady Chadwick’s voice, harsh and strident, rudely intruded into a precious memory, filled as much with love as with tragedy and grief.

“I said I’m NOT changing my story,” Joe spat, furious with himself, as much as with her, for having entertained the temptation of giving her what she wanted for a lousy plate of grub.

Lady Chadwick sighed, then rose. “Oh, well. Suit yourself.” She turned and smiled. “I can always have Crippensworth set the leftovers out for the birds.” With that, she flounced out of the bedroom room.

Joe waited until the sounds of her footfalls finally faded away to silence, before surrendering to the swift rising tide of grief and guilt, boiling up within him.

“Joe . . . . ”

He barely heard his own name, softy and gently spoken, over and above the sound of his own anguished weeping.

“Joe. Son, PLEASE! Please, listen to me.”

He slowly, reluctantly, turned his head and opened his eyes. He was surprised to find his father sitting in a chair beside his bed, gazing down at him. He swallowed, then forced himself to meet those gentle, yet probing dark brown eyes.

“First and foremost, Joe, you HAVE to live. Your HAVE to survive this.”

“By telling her the lies she wants to hear?!” Joe responded, giving vent to the fury and guilt now consuming him.

“You HAVE to survive this, Joe . . . . ”

“Then what, Pa?” he demanded with tears still streaming down his face. “How do I live with MYSELF after . . . after betraying you, Adam, Hoss, Stacy, and . . . and Hop Sing with lies?!”

“ ‘For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.’ ”

Joe recognized the Bible passage he had quoted to Emeliano, all those years ago, after he and the vaquero had been taken prisoner by Sam Wolf’s band of comancheros. He had half joking, half in dead earnest, offered his then new found friend the first shot at himself . . . .

“I did not say I would take it,” Emeliano had said.

“They offered you your LIFE.”

“What is that?” Emeliano rounded on him furiously. “A life without honor?!”

“It’s better to be a living dog than a dead lion . . . . ”

That brief snippet of memory faded away, leaving his father’s earnest, imploring face.

“I want you back, Son. Do you HEAR me? I want you back. So do Hoss, Stacy, and Hop Sing. We want you back, whatever it takes, whatever you have to do. Remember this, Joe. A man’s . . . or woman’s . . . true self lies within the heart. You may have to keep it well hidden for a time, in order to survive. The trick is for YOU not to loose touch with your heart . . . . ”

Ben’s entire body shuddered, before he woke up with a start. For a long, terrifying moment, he sat in his chair, unmoving, staring at his surroundings in complete and utter bewilderment, unable to quite remember where he was.

“Ben?”

The instant he turned, and found himself gazing up into Lily Martin’s anxious, concerned face, he remembered that he was in Paul Martin’s examination room, sitting in a chair next to the doctor’s examination table where his daughter lay, burning up with fever. He could hear Doctor Johns and Doctor Tao arguing vehemently back and forth, with Hop Sing laboring diligently to run interference.

He felt Lily’s hand gently coming to rest on his shoulder. “Ben, are you alright?”

Ben smiled, hoping to reassure. The deepening concern he saw in her face and eyes told him he had failed miserably. “I’m . . . I’m all right, Lily, honest, I am,” he said wearily. “I . . . I just dozed off, that’s all.”

“You sure? For a minute there, you looked for all the world like a poor lost soul who hadn’t even the slightest idea where he was.”

“I was dreaming. I was with Joe. We were in this room . . . somewhere. I was talking to him, trying to give him some kind of encouragement, I think. Then, suddenly, I woke up and . . . and found myself . . . here. It was a very vivid dream . . . SO vivid, I can’t even remember falling asleep.”

“Is it any wonder?” Lily murmured, not without a measure of sympathy. “You and Hoss spent all day yesterday riding back from Carson City, then you’re up all the rest of last night and all day today . . . Ben, you’re exhausted! If you’d like to go up to our guest room and nap for awhile— ”

Ben immediately shook his head. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather stay here with Stacy.”

Lily nodded, understanding. “Then how about I go on down to the kitchen and fetch you up a mug of coffee?”

“Thank you, Lily, I’d appreciate that very much,” Ben said gratefully. “Strong, black, and in the biggest mug you’ve got.”

“Comin’ right up.”

“YOU CALL STICKING PINS IN YOUR PATIENT LIKE A . . . A . . . LIKE A GODDAMMED VOO-DOO DOLL PRACTICING MEDICINE?!!”

Doctor Michael Johns’ terse, angry words, immediately followed by a long string of vehement Chinese invectives the like of which made Hop Sing blanch, drew Ben’s mind and thoughts from his own weariness and the remnants of that unsettling dream.

“Doctor Johns, Doctor Tao want you be quiet,” Hop Sing translated the bare essentials only.

“OH YEAH? WELL YOU CAN TELL DOCTOR TAO IF SHE THINKS FOR ONE MINUTE I’M GONNA STAND QUIETLY BY, WHILE SHE ENDANGERS THE LIFE OF MY PATIENT, SHE’D BETTER THINK AGAIN!” Michael angrily turned on Hop Sing. “I SHOULD HAVE OPERATED ON MISS CARTWRIGHT HOURS AGO!”

“YOU SURGEON DOCTOR, ALL YOU THINK IS CUT-CUT!” Doctor Tao replied angrily, without bothering to wait for a translation. “CUT OPEN PATIENT, CUT OUT GUTS, CUT OFF ARMS AND LEGS! SAVAGE! YOU CALL YOURSELF DOCTOR?! YOU DUCK DOCTOR!”

“THAT’S FUNNY, MADAM! I WAS ABOUT TO SAY THE SAME THING ABOUT YOU!”

“HOP SING!”

“Yes, Doctor Tao, Ma’am?”

The elderly acupuncture master fired off a long string of terse marching orders in Chinese.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Hop Sing murmured with an almost uncharacteristic reverential deference. “Yes, Ma’am, Hop Sing get right away.” With that, he scampered out of the room like a young school boy sent on an errand by an exacting task master of a teacher.

“Mister Cartwright.”

It took every bit of the strong, ironclad will Ben possessed not to flinch away from the master acupuncturist’s dark, penetrating gaze. “Yes?”

“Need more herb bath,” Doctor Tao addressed Ben in a kindlier tone. “Help keep down fever.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor Tao, for dozing off like that,” Ben apologized contritely. He dipped the cloth in hand into what remained of the herb bath and gently bathed Stacy’s face and neck with it. “How are things going?”

“Most blocks gone,” Doctor Tao replied. “Most, not all. One big black. It go, all rest also go.”

Paul Martin, who had been overseeing the odious, but necessary task of draining pus and infected serum from Stacy’s leg, handed the large bowl in hand to Heidi Braun, daughter of Gretchen Braun, manager of the restaurant in the International Hotel. Heidi grimaced, as she took the bowl from the doctor and left the room to empty it of its grisly contents.

“Ben . . . . ” Paul said as he rose from his knees to his feet and stretched.

“Yes, Paul?”

“Doctor Tao’s acupuncture seems to have initiated massive amounts of drainage from Stacy’s leg. I find myself feeling very hopeful.” His last words drew a dark, ominous glare from Doctor Johns.

Doctor Tao meanwhile gently took Stacy’s hand in her own and lightly touched her wrist with the finger tips of her other hand. She, then moved to her patient’s injured leg, and carefully touched the ankle. A few moments later, she muttered a few terse, clipped Chinese syllables softly, under her breath. “HOP SING?!”

“Here, Doctor Tao, Ma’am,” Hop Sing announced himself as he ran into the room with a small bowl of pungent mixture of dried herbs.

“Make moxa,” Doctor Tao snapped. Another long string of terse Chinese syllables followed.

Hop Sing nodded mutely and set right to work doing Doctor Tao’s bidding.

“Pa?” It was Stacy.

“Good afternoon,” Ben favored her with a weary smile, as he gently bathed her forehead and cheeks with the cool water, laced with Hop Sing’s herbal concoction.

Stacy frowned. “Afternoon?”

“Almost.”

“I . . . did I doze off again?!”

Ben nodded.

“Sorry, Pa . . . . ”

“You have nothing to apologize for, Young Woman,” Ben chided her gently. “Right now, sleep’s probably one of the best things for you. How are you feeling?”

“The same. My leg STILL hurts and I STILL feel like I’m burning up. Anything more about Joe?”

Ben ruefully shook his head. “No . . . not yet.”

“I sure wish I could help you guys look for him . . . . ”

“Now, don’t you worry about your brother, Young Woman. Hoss and I WILL find him and bring him back home, safe and sound . . . alive, whole, and in one piece,” Ben’s tone was gentle, yet very firm. “YOU need to concentrate on getting YOURSELF back up on your feet.”

“Miss Stacy?” It was Doctor Tao.

“Yes, Doctor?”

“I make moxa.”

“Wh-what’s moxa?”

“Moxa powder, make from mugwort,” Doctor Tao explained with an almost uncharacteristic patience. “Make moxa like cone . . . . like this.” She held out her hand for Stacy and Ben to see. Sitting in the center of her palm was a tiny amount of the moxa powder, twisted into the rough shape of a pyramid. “Moxa go on point. I burn moxa, open point.”

“Now just a cotton pickin’ minute,” Michael Johns protested.

“It work, Mister Cartwright, Miss Stacy,” Hop Sing cast a dark, angry glare over at Doctor Johns as he added his own two cents worth.

“I . . . I don’t know about this,” Ben murmured, shaking his head dubiously.

“Warm moxa help open point, Mister Cartwright, not burn Miss Stacy.”

“Doctor Tao?”

The elderly woman turned toward Stacy expectantly.

“What do I need to do?”

“I put moxa on point, burn moxa. Miss Stacy say when too hot to stand.”

Stacy swallowed nervously, then nodded.

Doctor Tao plucked the tiny cone from the center of her palm, and placed it on Stacy’s leg. She, then, struck a match and lit the very top.

Slowly, very gradually, Stacy became aware of a tiny pin-prick of warmth coming from the very spot where Doctor Li had placed her moxa cone. As the moxa powder was consumed by the fire, warmth began to wax hotter, to the point of uncomfortably hot. “OK, Doctor Tao . . . . ”

Doctor Tao deftly removed what remained, and replaced it with a second moxa cone, followed immediately by a third, then a fourth, and a fifth. Next, came the needle.

“Whoa!” Stacy exclaimed in surprise. “I . . . it felt like something just snapped.” She frowned. “Like a dam breaking.”

“That last block, now all others go.” Doctor Tao checked Stacy’s pulse once again, then placed needles in her injured leg along strategic acupuncture points. “That keep chi moving.”

“The drainage has increased again . . . significantly,” Paul said, as he handed yet another full bowl to Heidi Braun to empty.

“Leave needles in for half of one hour. Keep chi moving. Make chi move fast. Make infection move fast, too.”

“This I’VE got to see,” Michael growled.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“I . . . I can actually feel something moving,” she declared in complete amazement.

“That chi, Miss Stacy,” Doctor Tao said wearily, trying very hard not to yawn in her patient’s face. “Chi move very fast now. Clear infection.”

“You still feel like you’re burning up?” Ben asked, as he continued to sponge her forehead.

“Yeah,” Stacy replied with a big yawn.

“Miss Stacy feel like burning up for little longer,” Doctor Tao explained. “Burning up fever burn up infection. Herb wash not let fever rise up and up too high.”

“I . . . I won’t loose my leg, Doctor Tao?”

Doctor Tao emphatically shook her head. “Chi move, keeping moving. Fever up, burn infection.” She favored Stacy with the first smile to appear on her face since initially crossing over the threshold of Paul Martin’s examination room. “Miss Stacy live good long life, keep leg.”

“The infection’s still draining, and from what I can see the tissue appears to be very much alive inside . . . the skin on leg, foot, and toes is still nice and pink,” Paul Martin declared wearily. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, but as I said before, I feel very hopeful.”

“Doctor Tao?”

“Yes, Hop Sing?”

“You here all night, all day. If want rest, Doctor Tao please use Hop Sing’s cot, right here.”

She nodded, then spoke a few words in Chinese.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Hop Sing said immediately. “Hop Sing wake up Doctor Tao when time to take needles from Miss Stacy leg.”

“Hop Sing?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?” Hop Sing responded wearily.

“I’m running very low on this herbal potpourri we’ve been using to help keep Stacy’s fever down.”

“I get,” Hop Sing replied, as he took the near empty bowl from Ben.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“I was just thinking . . . . ”

“About?”

“Maybe I CAN help you and Hoss look for Joe,” she said, punctuating her words with a big yawn, “after . . . after the infection clears and my fever breaks. I don’t have to put any weight on my leg . . . . ” she yawned again, “ . . . to ride Blaze Face.”

“Now you listen to me and you listen GOOD, Young Woman,” Ben admonished his daughter sternly. “HOSS and I will search for your brother. YOU are going to rest, and give yourself a chance to heal properly . . . and if I catch you so much as LOOKING in the direction of the corral and the barn before you do heal up properly, so help me, I’m going to tie you up in the nearest chair until you come to your senses. Do I make myself clear?”

Stacy exhaled a long, melancholy sigh. “Clear, Pa,” she said ruefully, before drifting off once more into a light slumber.

“It may come down to that, Ben,” Paul Martin warned, half in jest, half in deadly earnest. “You KNOW that, don’t you?”

“I know,” Ben sighed, then smiled. “Paul?”

“Yes, Ben?”

“Don’t you dare ever tell Stacy this, but . . . I can’t begin to tell you how much good it does my heart just to hear her talk like that.”

“I know what you mean, Ben,” Paul said, favoring his old friend with a weary smile of his own. “I know exactly what you mean.

“Still no word from or ‘bout Jack Murphy, Hoss?”

“Nothin’,” Hoss shook his head. After parting company with Candy, he had gone immediately to Sheriff Coffee’s office. He helped himself to a mug of the coffee sitting on the small, pot bellied stove, then sat down in one of the hard backed chairs, in front of the sheriff’s desk. The coffee had gone virtually untouched, and had long since turned ice cold.

“I’ve gone through most o’ letters b’tween Jack Murphy ‘n a Mrs. L. de Salle, some to an address in New Orleans, the rest at the Carson City address I gave you ‘n your pa yesterday,” Roy began. “Most o’ the letters from Jack Murphy spell out pert near everything you, Ben, Joe, Stacy, ‘n even Hop Sing’ve done over the past two, almost THREE months.”

“That just about covers the whole time he worked for us,” Hoss said grimly.

“Some o’ this gets mighty personal, ‘specially some o’ the things concernin’ Joe,” Roy continued. Hoss noted with dismay the sudden appearance of two crimson spots, one each on the sheriff’s cheeks. “T’ put this kinda blunt, Joe ain’t even so much as kissed a gal without this Jack Murphy knowin’ all about it . . . an’ I DO mean ALL about it. If these letters hafta be admitted as evidence later on, things could get a mite embarrassin’.”

“We’ll cross THAT bridge when we come to it,” Hoss said quietly.

“F’r now, I’m keepin’ ‘em all here locked up tight in MY safe,” Roy said.

“That’s fine with me,” Hoss said with an involuntary shudder.

“Looks like you ‘n Candy might be right about someone planning this whole thing out, even though some o’ what’s happened is . . . . well, out-‘n-out loony.”

“Pa ‘n I think we know who’s behind all this.”

Roy favored Hoss with a sharp glance. “Oh yeah? This is news t’ me. Who do ya think the culprit is?”

“You might remember her,” Hoss said quietly. “She visited us out at the Ponderosa ‘bout ten years ago. Her name’s Linda Lawrence. She was an old friend o’ Pa’s.”

“Linda Lawrence . . . Linda Lawrence . . . . ” Roy murmured the name over several times, trying to remember.

“She might o’ been introduced to ya as Lady Chadwick.”

“Lady Chadwick! Hoss, you mean the woman who dang near ruined your pa?!”

Hoss nodded.

Roy let out a long, low whistle. “You sure ‘bout this, Hoss?”

Hoss told Roy Coffee all that he and his father had learned in Carson City. “I know . . . a lotta what I just told ya’s stuff Pa ‘n me . . . well, mostly PA just kinda figured out,” he concluded. “I know it won’t stand up as evidence in a trial.”

“I DO have a piece o’ evidence t’ back up what ya just told me,” Roy said somberly. “Y’ remember that ring we found in with Jack Murphy’s things?”

“Yeah . . . . ”

“I took it over t’ Mrs. Wilkens, this mornin’,” Roy said. “She’s got a book full o’ coats-o’-arms, ‘n who all they belong to. Well, accordin’ t’ her book, the coat-o’-arms on that ring’s the coat-o’-arms f’r Chadwick.”

“Then this Jack Murphy is . . . maybe WAS Lady Chadwick’s son,” Hoss said, with a shudder. “Sorry Pa ‘n I ain’t told ya before this . . . . ”

“I understand. Y’ no sooner rode into town when ya found out Stacy’d taken a turn f’r the worse. How’s she doin’ by the way?”

“She ain’t exactly outta the woods yet, but we’re pretty sure she WILL be real soon.”

“I’m glad t’ hear Stacy’s farin’ better,” Roy said with heartfelt sincerity. “Gettin’ back t’ this Lady Chadwick, when she stayed with ya out at the Ponderosa, didn’t she have a secretary, butler, or some kinda valet with her?”

“You talkin’ about Montague?”

“Yeah,” Roy nodded his head. “Mister Charles Montague. What do you ‘n your pa know about him?”

“When he ‘n Lady Chadwick stopped in t’ visit, he was workin’ as her secretary ‘n financial advisor,” Hoss replied. “That was the first ‘n ONLY time the lot o’ us . . . Pa, me, Joe, Adam, ‘n Hop Sing ever set eyes on him.”

“You folks ain’t seen him SINCE then?”

“No, Sir.” Hoss immediately shook his head. “Though Pa ‘n I found out recently that he’d been workin’ for the past couple o’ years in Carson City . . . for this Mrs. de Salle Jack Murphy’s been writin’ to.”

“The Mrs. de Salle who’s been rentin’ that big house in Carson City . . . the one you ‘n your pa went t’ check out?”

Hoss nodded. “Sheriff Coffee, what’s this all about? Did somethin’ happen to Mister Montague?”

“Yeah, I guess you might say that,” Roy said sardonically. “It seems the OWNER o’ that house . . . this Lady Chadwick’s decided t’ sell it.”

“Oh yeah?” A troubled frown knotted Hoss’ forehead.

“A man by the name o’ Crippensworth . . . Mister Gerald Crippensworth’s supposed to be overseein’ the details. THAT name mean anythin’ to ya, Hoss?”

“Yes, Sir, it sure does,” Hoss replied. “Miss Barnes, the woman at the post office over in Carson City, said she ain’t seen Mister Montague f’r quite a spell, but the woman rentin’ the house . . . this Mrs. de Salle or Lady Chadwick has a man named Crippensworth working for her now.”

“I see,” Roy murmured grimly. “Well it seems this Mister Crippensworth hired some men t’ begin sprucin’ things up on the outside t’ begin gettin’ the house ready t’ sell. There’s a big garden out back, with a lily pond, all of it completely overgrown by weeds. T’ make a long story short, Hoss, the men workin’ out back t’ clear the garden found bones. HUMAN bones.”

Hoss felt the blood drain from his face, leaving his normally robust complexion an ashen gray. He grabbed the edge of the sheriff’s desk in a valiant effort to steady himself. Thankfully he had been sitting down when Roy Coffee imparted that last piece of information. Otherwise, he would have almost certainly fallen down. “Sh-Sheriff Coffee . . . . ” Hoss began, the minute he found his voice, “are you tellin’ me those human bones belong t’ Mister Montague?”

“Amos Dudley seems t’ think so,” Roy replied. “Some jewelry was found with the body that your friend, Miss Barnes positively identified as belongin’ to Mister Montague. One o’ those pieces was a gold pinky ring engraved with the initials ‘CLM.’ There was also a leather wallet in the pocket o’ what was left of the jacket he was wearin’ when he died. When Amos’ deputy opened it, he found a couple o’ letters still in their envelopes, both addressed t’ Charles Montague. One was an old one from Lord Chadwick. The other was from Mrs. de Salle.”

“Any idea HOW he died?” Hoss asked.

Roy nodded. “Inside the house, in the dinin’ room, on t’ buffet, one o’ Amos’ deputies found a brandy decanter half full up with brandy . . . laced with a pretty fair amount o’ cyanide.”

“Cyanide?!” Hoss echoed with a perplexed frown.

“Yep.”

“How do ya know?”

“Amos said whatever’s in that brandy decanter had a real strong almond smell.”

Hoss shuddered, even as he silently gave thanks for the strong odor of almonds that kept him from actually sampling a glass of that brandy.

“STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! STUPID!” Crippensworth ranted furiously. “WHAT YOU DID, MILADY, WAS INCREDIBLY, INEXCUSABLY STUPID!”

“CRIPPENSWORTH, YOU WILL NOT ADDRESS ME IN THAT MANNER!”

“YOU STUPID BITCH! HAVEN’T YOU HEARD ONE WORD THAT I’VE SAID?! THEY FOUND CHARLES MONTAGUE!”

“WELL YOU’RE THE ONE WHO BROUGHT IN ALL THOSE MEN TO MUCK ABOUT IN THE FLOWER BEDS. YOU SHOULD’VE TOLD ME YOU WERE GOING TO— ”

“I DIDN’T TELL YOU BECAUSE I HAD NO IDEA YOU WOULD ACTUALLY BE SO STUPID AS TO HIDE MONTAGUE’S BODY IN THE DAMNED FLOWER BEDS IN THE YARD OF YOUR OWN HOUSE.”

“I HAD NO CHOICE! YOU, MY DEAR BENJAMIN, WERE OFF GALLIVANTING HEAVEN ONLY KNOWS WHERE . . . WHAT WAS I SUPPOSED TO DO?”

“I TOLD YOU BEFORE I LEFT TO WAIT UNTIL I GOT BACK . . . THAT I WOULD SEE TO MISTER MONTAGUE! DID YOU DO AS I’D ASKED? NO!”

“DAMMIT, BEN, I HAD NO CHOICE! CAN’T YOU SEE THAT? HE WAS GOING TO GO TO THE SHERIFF!”

Ben?

Though the room in which Joe was imprisoned was located at the back end of the house, where Lady Chadwick and her man, Crippensworth, had taken up residence, he could hear the argument raging between them in one of the front rooms, word for word. A bewildered frown creased his brow.

Why was she addressing Crippensworth by Pa’s name?

“SO WHAT IF HE DID GO TO THE BLOODY SHERIFF? HE HAD NO PROOF! IT WOULD’VE BEEN HIS WORD AGAINST OURS! ANYONE WITH A MODICUM OF INTELLIGENCE WOULD’VE KNOWN THAT.”

“BEN, PLEASE! ALL THIS YELLING ISN’T GOING TO SOLVE ANYTHING— ”

“I SUPPOSE IT’S GOING TO BE UP TO ME NOW TO FIX THIS DAMN’ MESS YOU’VE MADE.”

“BEN, PLEASE, STOP YELLING AT ME! YOU’RE DISTRESSING ME TERRIBLY!”

“WILL YOU PLEASE STOP CALLING ME THAT?!”

“WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?”

“I’LL TAKE CARE OF THIS SORDID BUSINESS CONCERNING MONTAGUE, WHILST YOU MILADY ARE GOING TO DO EVERYTHING EXACTLY AS I SAY. IS THAT UNDERSTOOD?”

“I’M GOING TO DO WHAT YOU SAY?!”

“YOU WILL IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU!”

“ . . . AND IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU, YOU’LL START REMEMBERING YOUR PLACE!”

Joe felt very badly about Mister Montague. Though he had been the culprit responsible for setting into motion the chain of events over a decade ago, that had almost ruined Pa financially, he HAD told the truth, admitting to everything, when finally confronted. He had also been steadfast in his loyalty first to Lord Chadwick, then to LADY Chadwick after her husband’s death. The man deserved better than murder, and having his body buried unceremoniously in a flower bed.

As the argument between Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth escalated, Joe’s thoughts drifted back to another time . . . .

“Let the boy go!”

Joe heard Adam’s voice loud and clear, speaking again from that time and place.

“Let the boy go, and I’LL lead you through these mountains.”

The man snorted derisively. “You’re gonna lead us though those mountains anyway, ‘cause if ya don’t? We’re gonna kill your kid brother, here.”

Joe, then age sixteen, and Adam had been ambushed and taken hostage by three desperate men, who had attempted to rob one of the banks in Virginia City. Unfortunately, the entire heist had gone very badly, almost from the beginning. One of the clerks, a young man with a strong, ingrained sense of self-esteem that pushed hard against the boundaries of cock sure arrogance, went for a gun he had always kept hidden beneath his window at the bank. Though he was fast, one of the robbers proved even faster. The clerk was lying on his back, dead, before he had known what hit him.

The robbers did manage to collect all the cash at the tellers’ windows, but could not get hold of what lay in the safe because the bank manager, the only one with the combination, was out to lunch. In addition to the bank clerk, a bank patron, two innocent bystanders outside the bank, and Frank Collins, the deputy sheriff, were also dead, shot down by the robbers as they made their escape. Sheriff Coffee had quickly organized three posses to hunt down the bank robbers. He led one group himself. Clem Foster, then a newly appointed deputy, led the second and Lem Partridge led the third.

Unfortunately, the three bank robbers found Adam and Joe Cartwright before any of the posses could find them.

“You’re going to add shooting down an unarmed BOY in cold blood to the list of people you’ve murdered?” Adam asked with a touch of disdain.

“They was all shot in self defense!” the man returned heatedly.

“A JURY won’t see it that way.”

“Who the hell cares how a jury’ll see it . . . or WON’T see it?”

“YOU should.”

“Why?”

“Because you and your other two friends are looking at hangman’s noose for killing those people back in Virginia City.”

“I TOL’JA it was SELF DEFENSE!” the man shot back. “SELF DEFENSE! You hear me?”

“I hear you, but I’m telling you a jury isn’t going to see you and your friends shooting down five people in cold blood in the act of committing a bank robbery as self defense.”

“That bank clerk started t’ draw on me. If Sam over there hadn’t shot ‘im first, I’D be back in Virginia City lyin’ in the undertaker’s place.”

“Alright, for the sake of argument, let’s say your buddy, Sam, over there DID shoot that bank clerk in self defense,” Adam pressed.

“ . . . an’ that deputy-sheriff fella! ‘Cause HE fired at US first.”

“Alright, the deputy sheriff, too,” Adam agreed. “Even so, there’s no possible way to convince a jury that the bank customer and the two women standing outside the bank were killed in self defense. All three were unarmed, and NONE made any kind of move to stop you.”

“I didn’t kill ‘em. Sam ‘n Jesse did.”

“You were with them, helping them rob that bank. That means YOU hang with the two of them.”

The man’s hand involuntarily rose to his neck. “Ain’t nobody gonna hang us,” he growled. “They gotta CATCH us first.”

“ . . . and they WILL catch you,” Adam said coolly. “Make no mistake about that! With three posses out looking for you, they WILL eventually catch you.”

“No, they ain’t, ‘cause YOU’RE leadin’ us through those mountains.”

“Whether I lead you though those mountains or not won’t make a bit of difference because every man riding in those posses knows those mountains at least as well as I do . . . if not better.”

The bank robber had actually blanched.

“Those posses may not catch up with you today, or even tomorrow, but sooner or later, at least one WILL find you,” Adam pressed. “Now if I were you, I’d be thinking real long and hard as to how I was going to save my own neck, since Sam and Jesse were the ones who fired the shots killing those people back in Virginia City.”

“Y-You suggestin’ I . . . that I turn my buddies in?”

“If you did turn them in, along with yourself, the law would go easier on you,” Adam replied. “You’d do time in prison for bank robbery, but you wouldn’t hang. In fact, you may even get out of prison a year or two early, if you behave yourself.”

“Fergit it! I ain’t turnin’ in my buddies.”

“You think they’d show YOU the same consideration, if YOU had been the one to kill those people back in Virginia City?”

“Whatcha mean?”

“I meant would Sam and Jesse be so anxious to stick up for YOU, if you’d killed those people in Virginia City, if they could save their necks by turning you in?”

“I . . . well, I . . . . ” He scowled. “ ‘Course they would!” Despite his vehement assertion, he looked troubled and uncertain.

“I’d even put in a good word for you,” Adam pressed. “I’d tell ‘em that you saw to it we were properly looked after and taken care of, even if you and your friends DID kidnap us.”

“NO!” the man suddenly snarled. “NO! You fergit it, you hear me? You just better fergit all that stuff we talked abut right now, ‘cause I AIN’T turnin’ in my buddies.”

Adam shrugged with effectively feigned indifference. “Ok, fine! If you want to stick your neck out . . . literally . . . into a noose for a couple ‘good buddies’ who could care less about YOU, go ahead.”

The man glared at both Adam and Joe before rising abruptly and stomping off in a huff.

“Adam, what the heck were ya tryin’ to do? Get us KILLED?!” Joe hissed, taking great care to keep his voice low.

“No, Little Buddy, I was sewing seeds,” Adam replied cryptically.

Joe frowned. “Sewing seeds?!”

“Seeds of doubt,” Adam explained. A sly smile slowly spread across his lips. “Judging from the furtive way he’s looking at his two friends now, I’d say those seeds have already germinated and are beginning to take root . . . . ”

“Adam planted those seeds of doubt in all of ‘em,” Joe silently remembered. After three days of tender care and nurture those seeds became as full grown weeds, choking out the cooperation, sense of teamwork, and even the camaraderie the three bank robbers may have shared between them. When the posse, which included their father and Hoss, finally caught up with them, the bank robbers were arguing among themselves about when they should break camp and whether they should continue west toward California or change plans and head south for the Mexican border.

Joe could hear Lady Chadwick and her man, Crippensworth, still arguing with each other at the top of their voices about Mister Montague. Though he felt terrible about the man’s demise at the hands of the woman he had served with loyalty and devotion for so many years, he couldn’t help but feel a large measure of gratitude for the wedge it had apparently driven between his abductors. Could he widen that gap, and set one against the other, as Adam did those bank robbers more years ago now than he cared to count? Perhaps more to the point, did he dare try?

He heard Lady Chadwick shrieking at Crippensworth, telling him bluntly to go and do something with himself that was anatomically impossible, followed by the sound of a door slamming. A few moments later, Crippensworth stormed into Joe’s room, with a dark, murderous scowl on his face, and a canteen in hand. He stomped across the room and sat down heavily on the edge of the bed.

“Fair warning, Chum. What ever Milady wants . . . . ” he spat, literally, as his fingers, trembling with the rage still burning within, still consuming him, worked to unscrew the cap on the canteen, “ . . . I’d strongly advise you to see that Milady gets it. Or else watch your back.”

“I was about to say the same to you,” Joe said in as steady a voice as he could muster.

Crippensworth favored Joe with a suspicious glare. “What do you mean by that?”

“I, uhhh couldn’t help but over hear your argument with her just now.”

“Well you listen to me and you listen good, Boy,” Crippensworth growled as he slipped his arm under Joe’s shoulders and lifted him. “I had absolutely nothing to do with my predecessor’s demise. Do you hear me? Absolutely NOTHING! Now DRINK!”

Joe drank greedily from the canteen, the minute Crippensworth brought it to his lips. “I . . . know you had nothing to do with Montague,” he said, when the canteen was removed from his parched lips. “That’s why I was going to suggest that you take care and watch your back when you’re around her.”

This drew a sharp glance from Crippensworth.

“I owe you,” Joe offered by way of explanation, “for the water.”

“Well, you’re no good to us dead,” Crippensworth muttered, mollified by Joe’s explanation.

“You told me yourself after Lady Chadwick killed her own son, that she’s capable of anything. If THAT didn’t convince me, Mister Montague’s, uhhh . . . demise . . . DID.”

“Oh?”

“I met Mister Montague when Lady Chadwick came to visit us at the Ponderosa. He impressed me . . . impressed ALL of us actually . . . with his loyalty and devotion. I haven’t seen Mister Montague since, but I kinda have a feeling that his loyalty, devotion, and service to Lady Chadwick never wavered.”

“Charles . . . Mister Montague WAS a decent enough sort of chap,” Crippensworth admitted grudgingly.

“Any employer capable of killing an employee with those qualities, well . . . . You said it yourself. She’s capable of anything . . . including doing away with YOU.”

“The thought HAS certainly crossed my mind,” Crippensworth said. “However, if she thinks she can so easily catch ME unawares . . . as she did Charles, then bury MY dead body in a flower garden, Milady is in for one very rude surprise.”

“Pa, the good news is . . . Adam’s comin’,” Hoss said, as he passed the sheet of paper with his older brother’s reply to his own wire over to his father.

Ben unfolded the sheet of paper in hand and quickly read over the words. Short and to the point, it read:

“Hoss [stop]

Leaving Sacramento noon stage tomorrow [stop] Should arrive Virginia City in afternoon a week from Tuesday or Wednesday [stop]

Adam [stop; end of message]”

“You sent for him?” Ben asked, glancing up.

“Yes, Sir,” Hoss nodded his head. “With most o’ the men workin’ on the round up ‘n the two o’ US searchin’ for Joe, there ain’t much gettin’ done with the house . . . or what’s left of it. Since Adam designed a lot o’ that house in the first place . . . . ”

Ben favored his middle son with a weary smile. “I’m glad you sent for him, Hoss. I’ve . . . since Adam left the Ponderosa, I’ve had this . . . this sense? Gut feeling, perhaps? of Adam feeling himself apart from us somehow, like the odd man out. Especially since it had been a good number of years between their visit two summers ago and the first time he came with Theresa. Asking him to come when we need him lets him know he’s still part of this family.”

Hoss had spent the better part of the last hour with his father in the Martins’ formal parlor on the first floor bringing him up to date on matters pertaining to the ranch operations and the investigation into Joe’s disappearance. This had been at Lily Martin’s insistence.

“Between Doctor Tao and Michael going back and forth at each other like a pair of tom cats in the middle of the night, you almost can’t hear yourself think,” she said. “I’ll sit with Stacy while the two of you talk.”

“ . . . I dunno, maybe there IS somethin’ in what you say about Adam feelin’ the odd man out,” Hoss said thoughtfully. “You’ve dreamed o’ havin’ a place like the Ponderosa f’r a long time, ‘n worked real hard t’ make that dream come true. Joe, me . . . and even Stacy share that dream, Pa. We wouldn’t trade the Ponderosa for any other place in the whole wide world, not f’r all the tea in China.

“But, Adam’s always had different dreams, even BEFORE he went off t’ college. For a lotta years, I think maybe it was . . . well, kinda hard for the rest of us, you me ‘n Joe, t’ understand. I know it was hard for ME. But, seein’ Adam ‘n Theresa together, finally meetin’ Benjy ‘n Dio, two summers ago . . . an’ our bein’ together last summer in San Francisco . . . I think it’s helped me understand, Pa. A little.”

“I’m glad you thought to send for him, Hoss,” Ben said again. “Now what’s the bad news?”

“Sheriff Coffee told me this just a short while ago, Pa. ‘Seems the owner o’ the house we checked out in Carson City’s decided t’ sell it.”

“Oh?”

“She put Mister Crippensworth in charge o’ handlin’ the details,” Hoss continued. “Mister Crippensworth hired some men to spruce up the outside. While they was workin’ in the flowerbeds out back they . . . Pa, they found human bones.”

Ben paled. “Dear Lord, s-surely not . . . . ”

Hoss immediately shook his head. “No, Pa, not Joe. T’ sheriff over in Carson City seems t’ think t’ bones belong . . . BELONGED . . . t’ Mister Montague.”

“Linda murdered Mister Montague?!”

“I don’t think they know that, not f’r sure, but Sheriff Coffee told me Sheriff Dudley’s sure gotta lot o’ questions he wants t’ ask Lady Chadwick ‘n Mister Crippensworth.”

“I hope he proceeds very cautiously,” Ben said grimly. “Given her precarious state of sanity, there’s no telling what she might do to Joe, if she’s pushed.”

“Sheriff Coffee’s told the Carson City sheriff about Joe, ‘n about how we’re pretty sure she’s holdin’ him prisoner,” Hoss said. “He also told Sheriff Dudley that Lady Chadwick’s . . . . ” He frowned. “Now how did Sheriff Coffee put that? Oh yeah! Lady Chadwick’s a basket short of a picnic.”

“That’s a relief.”

“Sheriff Coffee also told me he’s read over most o’ the letters from Jack Murphy, that we found in Carson City,” Hoss continued. “The upshot o’ the whole thing is, he sent her letters spellin’ out every move you, me, Joe, Stacy, ‘n Hop Sing made the whole time he was workin’ for us. He . . . Roy Coffee that is, said some of it gets a mite personal.”

Ben lapsed into a prolonged, uneasy silence, his troubled mind churning a mile a minute.

“Pa?” Hoss finally prompted, at length. “Pa, what’re ya thinkin’ about?”

“I was just thinking about how much Linda seems to enjoy keeping us under some sort of surveillance,” Ben replied. The lines and creases of his brow deepened into a fierce, angry scowl.

“Yeah,” Hoss muttered, the scowl forming on his own face matched his father’s in feeling and intensity. “I wonder why she’s decided t’ up ‘n sell the house in Carson City.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, too,” Ben said. “I come up with only one answer.”

“What’s that, Pa?”

“She’s moved from Carson City to HERE.”

“Right here? In Virginia City?”

Ben nodded. “Or somewhere very close by.”

“I . . . I hope you ain’t just graspin’ at straws . . . . ”

“It could be I AM,” Ben admitted, “but, think about it, Son. Linda’s been watching all of us for many, many years now from that house in Carson City. I’m convinced of it! That being the case, it stands to reason she would want to be close, to see how I’m reacting to Joe’s disappearance and how I’m holding up in the aftermath of the fire.”

Hoss took a moment to digest what his father had just told him. “What ya say makes sense, Pa . . . in a twisted kinda way,” he said slowly, thoughtfully. “How ‘bout I mosey on down t’ the Records Office ‘n see who’s moved here . . . oh, say beginnin’ a month before the fire, maybe?”

“Let me know what you find out, Son. In the meantime, I’d best get back to your sister.”

“That reminds me! I got something here for her, Pa.”

“Oh?”

“Candy found it as they were clearin’ away what little’s left o’ our house.” Hoss handed his father the inlaid wood jewelry box. “Everything’s there, Pa, safe ‘n sound.”

Ben smiled. “Thank you, Son. And thank Candy for me when you see him next.”

“He also found THIS.” Hoss placed the tied green bandanna on the coffee table in front of the settee, on which they both sat. He untied the corners and pulled back the material to reveal the broken statue within. “I . . . call it a gut feelin’ if ya want . . . but, I have a feelin’ Joe’s gonna really appreciate seein’ this when . . . when he comes home, Pa.”

“Marie’s Virgin Mary statue,” Ben said reverently as he picked up the piece that had the statue’s head and cradled it gently in his arms. “There was an artist who used to live here, a sculptor . . . an older woman, very talented.”

“Did SHE carve this statue?”

Ben nodded. “She was also one of the few to really welcome Marie with open arms when she first came, which completely floored me since the two of US could barely stand the sight of each other. She gave the statue to Marie as . . . kind of a belated wedding gift.”

“I know Mama treasured it,” Hoss said, his eyes misting.

“She told me, right after she found out your brother was on the way, that if she ever needed a hug from Mary, Mother of God, she would want that hug to come from THIS rendition.”

“Truth t’ tell, so would I.”

“Too bad she got broken,” Ben said sadly, as he carefully placed the piece in hand back with the other two pieces in the bandanna.

“I’ll take her by Malcom Reilly on m’ way to the records office. I know he’s a carpenter, but he also does repair work, ‘n he has a special, extra strong glue he sometimes uses f’r that. I think it just may be the ticket t’ fixin’ this lady.”

“MADAM, ARE YOU OUTTA YOUR EVER LOVIN’ MIND?!”

“DOCTOR TAO NOT INSANE! YOU INSANE! DOCTOR TAO PRACTICE MEDICINE PRACTICE IN CHINA MANY THOUSANDS YEARS. YOU PRACTICE MEDICINE NO BETTER THAN BUTCHER!!!”

“I see what you mean about not being able to hear yourself think, Lily,” Ben said upon returning to Doctor Martin’s examination room. “What is it THIS time?”

“ALRIGHT! HER FEVER HAS BROKEN! I CAN’T DENY THAT! EVEN SO, HER LEG’S STILL DRAINING LIKE NIAGARA FALLS!”

“ALL MORE REASON GET MISS STACY UP! MAKE MISS STACY MOVE ABOUT! MORE MISS STACY MOVE, MORE BLOOD AND CHI MOVE. BETTER OFF INFECTION MOVE!”

“POPPYCOCK! PURE SUPERSTITIOUS POPPYCOCK! YOU’RE NO BETTER THAN A BACKWARD, PRIMITIVE WITCH DOCTOR!”

“ . . . . . AND YOU STILL DUCK-DOCTOR!”

“Hi, Pa. Is it still afternoon?” Stacy greeted Ben with a weary smile.

“No, it’s evening,” Ben replied. “EARLY evening, but still evening.”

“You mean to tell me I actually slept through all THAT?!” Stacy demanded, thoroughly incredulous, as she inclined her head over in the general direction of Doctors Johns and Tao.

“Infection, high fever, and suffering a bad injury all have a way of taking the stuffing out of body, Young Woman. That being the case, you’re going to find it very easy to fall asleep for awhile,” Ben said, then leaned over to touched his lips to her forehead. “Well! It seems Doctor Johns spoke true,” he murmured in surprise, as he straightened. “Your fever HAS broken.”

“The part Doctor Tao said about getting up’s music to my ears, too.”

“I don’t know about THAT, Young Woman,” Ben said warily.

“Please?” Stacy begged. “I’m getting tired of all this lying around.”

“Speaking as a doctor myself, Ben, I think the idea has merit,” Paul Martin spoke up for the first time since Ben’s return. “I’ve seen plenty of instances where healing actually happens faster if the patient gets up and moves around. Mostly from watching you Cartwrights getting up and about before your doctor tells you it’s alright!” He, then, looked over at Stacy, and added very pointedly, “But you’re going to have to wait until we get that pair of crutches made.”

“Hop Sing nephew, Jimmy Chong work make crutches for Miss Stacy,” Hop Sing added.

“In the meantime, Candy found something of yours,” Ben said.

“Something that came through the fire?”

Ben nodded.

“What?”

“This.” He placed the inlaid jewelry box into her outstretched hands.

For a long moment Stacy stared down at the finely crafted wooden box in her hands unable to quite believe it was real.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” Ben prodded her gently.

Stacy swallowed nervously, then lifted the lid. Her medicine bag, the one given her by her Paiute foster mother, Silver Moon, lay nestled inside, undamaged. She placed the jewelry box down on her lap, and carefully lifted out the medicine bag. “Pa, it looks like it’s all here,” she said as she peered inside the bag.

“That reminds me. I found something else in the pocket of my robe shortly after Hop Sing and I brought you here.”

“What’s that?”

“This,” Ben said, reaching into his pants pocket. He drew out the carved eagle that Stacy had given him a year and a half before. “I . . . must have taken if off my night table when I woke up that night . . . . ”

“I know you don’t believe much in omens, Pa,” she said slowly, while her fingers lightly caressed the eagle lying in the palm of Ben’s hand. “But, I think this is a lucky one anyway.”

“GOOD luck or BAD luck?” Ben queried, half teasing.

“GOOD luck of course. We’re gonna get through all this, and come out on the other side stronger than ever.”

“I’ve known that all along,” Ben said with a smile, “but, it’s nice having a lucky omen come along once in awhile to confirm things.”

Stacy’s eyes fell on the pearl necklace Ben had given her on her last birthday, and the pearl earrings from Joe. “Pa?” she queried, as her fingers lightly touched one of the earrings.

“Yes, Stacy?”

“Any news about Joe?”

“It seems Lady Chadwick IS behind his disappearance,” Ben replied, “and that she’s moved out of the house Hoss and I went to check out on Carson City. Other than that . . . we’re still looking.”

“Alright, Little Joe, I want you to tell me AGAIN . . . what . . . happened . . . the night of the fire,” Linda said, with a touch of asperity. She paced before the foot of Joe’s bed, with all the frantic energy of a caged cougar gripping her riding crop in her right hand so hard, her knuckles had turned bloodless white. She struck her left hand over and over, hard, in cadence with her pacing.

Each slap against her palm elicited an involuntary wince Joe. “I made it out of the burning house,” he began.

“I want you back, Son.”

Pa’s words, the words he had spoken in that strange waking-dream, echoed once more through his mind and his heart, just as clearly as they would have, had Pa actually been there.

“Do you HEAR me? I want you back. So do Hoss, Stacy, and Hop Sing. We want you back, whatever it takes, whatever you have to do. Remember this, Joe. A man’s . . . or woman’s . . . true self lies within the heart. You may have to keep it well hidden for a time, in order to survive. The trick is for YOU not to loose touch with your heart . . . . ”

Joe closed his eyes and took a deep ragged breath. “I was injured.” To say these next words went wholly against his grain.

“I want you back, Son. Do you HEAR me? I want you back, whatever it takes, whatever you have to do . . . . ” Pa’s words, Pa’s voice, earnest and desperate, urged him on.

“I . . . I got as far as the garden gate,” Joe continued. It took every ounce of will he possessed to utter those words, what he knew she wanted to hear. “I stumbled and fell. Mister Crippensworth found me. He stayed with me while you went to f-find Pa . . . . ”

Linda stopped her pacing abruptly, mid-stride, pivoted and lashed out, striking Joe across the face with her riding crop.

For a long moment, all Joe could do was stare up at her, through eyes round as saucers, his mouth hanging open, too shocked and astonished to even speak.

“Liar!” she snarled, low and menacing. “You . . . filthy . . . LIAR!”

“Hey, c’mon! I didn’t even FINISH!” Joe tersely defended himself, as shock and astonishment quickly gave way to anger.

“Doesn’t matter! You’re STILL LYING!”

“I’m trying to tell you what you’ve been telling me is true.”

“Stop it, Little Joe, just . . . stop it!”

“Would you mind telling me exactly what the hell you WANT?” he demanded, exasperated.

Linda struck him across the face again with her riding crop . . . . and again. “Liar!” she snarled each time she struck him. “You . . . . miserable . . . . filthy LIAR!”

Joe squeezed his eyes shut and tried as best he could to turn his face away from the blows she rained down upon him.

Finally, after a seeming eternity, she stopped and pulled herself stiffly erect. “Oh yes, I know what you’re doing, Little Joe. You’re trying to trick me into giving you food by telling me lies. Pretty little words I want to hear . . . but NOT in the form of LIES. When I ask you again, I want you to not only speak it with your lips, but I want you to believe it in your heart.”

“L-Lady Chadwick?”

“What?” she responded in a sullen tone.

Joe swallowed nervously. “I’d watch out f-for Crippensworth . . . if I were you.”

Linda whirled in her tracks and leveled a sharp, intense glare in his direction.

“I mean it, Lady Chadwick,” he continued in as steady a voice as he could muster. “I . . . well, I, umm couldn’t help overhearing that argument between you and Crippensworth.”

“Have a care, Little Joe. Eavesdropping can be very dangerous.” The malevolent glare knotting her brow seemed at precarious odds against the bland tone by which she spoke those words. “Very, very dangerous indeed.”

“I didn’t WANT to eavesdrop . . . but HE was shouting so loud, I . . . well, I just couldn’t help hearing.”

Linda stood, clutching her riding crop, with her fists planted squarely on her hips. Her eyes, blazing with a rage, barely contained, seemed to burn their way into the core of his very being. Joe involuntarily flinched. “I did NOT kill Montague. If you know what’s good for you, Little Joe, you’d best get that through your head right NOW. What happened to Montague was an accident. A horrible, tragic accident!”

“I believe you . . . but from what Crippensworth said . . . I’m not so sure HE does.”

“Crippensworth can believe what he bloody likes, I don’t care. He CAN’T prove anything.”

“What if he CAN?”

“He CAN’T!”

“Evidence CAN be faked, Lady Chadwick.”

“You’re a liar,” she growled in a low menacing tone. “A dirty, filthy liar, just like your father.” She spat, literally, right square in his face. “Crippensworth would NEVER betray me. NEVER!”

“Are you SURE about that Lady Chadwick? Are you absolutely sure? Your life may very well depend on it.”

Linda glared at him intensely for a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, before abruptly turning heel and flouncing right out of the room.

Joe closed his eyes, and slowly exhaled the breath he had been holding. Blood, from wounds opened by the savage beating Lady Chadwick had just inflicted, flowed freely from his arms and face in crimson rivulets, that dripped and pooled on the mattress. Mottled splotches of light blue had already begun to appear on his arms and his cheek.

“D-Dear God . . . WHAT am I DOING?” he wondered in fearful silence. “I . . . I gotta be crazier ‘n loon doing this. If she and Crippensworth compare notes . . . . ”

“Little Joe, what matter?”

Hop Sing’s voice, filled with sympathy and concern, echoed through his mind and thoughts from the dim mists of memory drawn from another time and place. He was frightened, then, too. More frightened than he had ever felt in his entire life.

They had just buried Mama less than a week ago, at her favorite place down by the lake. Now PA was gone, too. On an errand of mercy to rescue some folks stranded in the mountains by a late in the season blizzard. If those people weren’t rescued and brought down from the mountains, many of them would die. Just like Mama!

What if PA got stranded in the mountains, too, by that same late blizzard?

What if . . . what if Pa died? Just like Mama!

“What matter with Little Joe?” Hop Sing asked again softly, as he stepped into the little boy’s room. “Little Joe wake up by bad dream?”

“I can’t sleep,” Joe murmured softly, on the verge of tears.

Hop Sing sat down on the edge of the bed. “Why can’t sleep?”

“ ‘Cause . . . ‘cause I’m afraid!”

“Why Little Joe scared?” Hop Sing probed gently. “Nothing here scare little boy. Little boy safe. Safe with Hop Sing. Safe with older brothers.”

“I ain’t afraid f-for me, Hop Sing,” the boy replied, his voice catching. A large tear slipped over his eye lid and rolled down his cheek. “I’m afraid for PA!”

“Why Little Joe afraid for Papa?”

“ ‘Cause . . . ‘cause he’s g-gone to . . . to r-rescue some p-people trapped up in th-the mountains,” Joe sobbed. “P-People . . . people trapped b-by . . . by snow. I . . . I heard some g-grown-ups say th-those people m-may . . . that they m-m-may be already dead. Hop Sing, what if . . . what if . . . oh, Hop Sing, what if P-Pa dies t-too?”

“Some grown-ups, they talk too much,” Hop Sing muttered angrily as he gathered the frightened, weeping little boy into his arms. “Not watch where they talk. Not see who listen. Bad. Very, very bad!” He held Little Joe close, rocking him back and forth, softly murmuring words of reassurance in English and in Chinese, until his sobbing finally faded away to silence. “Little Joe, Papa know mountains, know when snow come, when snow NOT come. Papa not die. Papa come home safe.”

Joe silently peered into Hop Sing’s face, through eyes filled with terror and disbelief.

“Little Joe remember prayer his mama say?”

Joe wiped the last of his tears away with the heels of his hands and nodded.

“Maybe Little Joe say for his papa.”

“Aww, Hop Sing, that prayer didn’t do Mama no good,” he said in a very small, very sad voice. “It didn’t keep HER safe.”

“That because Little Joe Mama not say prayer for her. She say prayer for Little Joe Papa, for Adam and Hoss. She even say prayer for Hop Sing. She ‘specially say prayer for Little Joe. Keep him safe. Keep whole family safe. But, she never say prayer for her, keep her safe.”

As Joe silently thought the whole matter over, he began to see the truth and wisdom in Hop Sing’s words. “H-Holy Mary, M-M-Mother of . . . of God,” he began to pray the words of his mother’s prayer, slowly, haltingly as freshly forming tears stung his eyes anew. “I . . . I turn to you f-for protection. Please listen to m-my prayers and . . . and h-help us in our needs, right now . . . right now Pa most ‘specially. PLEASE! PLEASE save HIM from every danger, O, glorious and blessed Virgin . . . . ”

“Holy M-Mary, Mother . . . M-Mother of God,” Joe began to pray softly and haltingly, on the edge of tears to which he desperately wished not to succumb. “Holy Mary, Mother of G-God, I . . . I turn to you for protection. Please listen to m-my prayers and help us in our n-needs. Please help me t-to be strong now . . . and help Pa and Hoss find me. Keep us . . . keep us from every danger, O glorious and blessed Virgin.”

He took a deep breath, slow and even, then exhaled, as a well spring of incredible peace began to slowly rise within him. In that moment, he no longer believed he was going to survive this ordeal, he somehow KNEW it. The tears that slipped over his eyelids and flowed down his cheeks actually seemed to strengthen and solidify that knowledge. Somewhere, in his mind’s eye, he caught a brief glimpse of PA earnestly and fervently uttering the words of that prayer. Stacy and Hop Sing were with him, silently but no less fervently praying those words along with him. The image brought a smile to Joe’s face, amid the tears.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, I . . . I turn to you for protection,” Ben prayed softly and earnestly. He stood before the window in the Martins’ formal parlor on the first floor, looking out onto the flower garden in the back yard, nurtured over the course of many years by Lily Martin, with much love and great joy. “Please listen to my prayers and help my son, Joseph Francis, right now in his needs. Strengthen and keep him . . . save him from EVERY danger, and . . . PLEASE! Please help Hoss and me to find him, O, glorious and blessed Virgin . . . Amen.”

“Amen,” Stacy said softly.

“Me, too. Amen,” Hop Sing added reverently, with an emphatic nod of his head.

Ben turned and looked over at Stacy in mild surprise. “I thought YOU were asleep.” Hop Sing’s nephew, Jimmy Chong, had delivered the crutches he had made for Stacy an hour before, enabling her to finally rise up from the bed in Paul Martin’s examination room. A scant few moments ago, she had dropped off to sleep in the overstuffed wingback chair in the corner, facing the settee, completely and utterly exhausted by the effort expended in hobbling the short distance from the doctor’s examination room to the parlor, after having spent the better part of the three days since the fire bedridden.

“Speaking for myself, Pa, I’M wide awake.”

He, then, turned and glanced over at Hop Sing standing beside him. “ . . . and I thought YOU were downstairs with Lily making up more of your chicken soup.”

“Chicken soup on stove cooking. Be ready for supper.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“That was a beautiful prayer,” she said quietly.

“Hop Sing remember. That prayer Little Joe Mama always say. Every night, ‘specially when Mister Cartwright go away, take care business.”

Ben nodded, his eyes misting. “I . . . I hadn’t even thought of that prayer, not since . . . well, not since Marie died,” he said thoughtfully. “Now that Hoss brought home her statue of the Virgin Mary . . . well, it seems I can’t get that prayer out of my mind.”

“When did Hoss find the statue, Pa?”

“CANDY found it, actually . . . when he found your jewelry box.”

“Hop Sing remember statue. Little Joe Mama like very much. She say statue look way Mother of God should look. Strong woman. Very strong woman with very strong arms can hug and protect.”

“Pa, where’s the statue now?” Stacy asked, intrigued by Hop Sing’s description.

“She was broken into three pieces, but they were clean breaks,” Ben replied. “Hoss is pretty sure Malcom Rush can glue her back together.”

“I hope so,” Stacy said quietly.

“I say we send Mister Cartwright a ransom note, and just plain be done with this entire affair,” Crippensworth said irritably.

“WHAT?!”

“You heard me, Milady. It’s the only sensible option at this point.”

“No! We CAN’T do that!”

“Why NOT?”

“Dammit, Crippensworth, I’ve TOLD you and TOLD you and TOLD you, I want revenge for all the HURT . . . for all the HUMILIATION . . . and for all the ABUSE I’ve suffered at Ben Cartwright’s hands all these years,” Linda said impatiently. “The BEST revenge . . . the best, most absolute sublime REVENGE . . . is to turn Little Joe against Ben, then convince the boy to kill his father.”

“ . . . and I’ve told YOU, Milady, that what you propose would probably take YEARS to accomplish with someone stubborn and intractable as Young Cartwright has shown himself to be,” Crippensworth said in a tone he might use to explain something to an unusually dull witted child. “You and I do NOT have the luxury of DAYS, let alone weeks, months, or years. Not now.”

“But, I’m getting through to him, Crippensworth. I am!”

“You delude yourself.”

“ . . . and YOU seemed to have developed this annoying habit of forgetting your place of late.”

“Milady, you’ve ranted on and on about how this once and former lover boy of yours practically worships the ground his sons and daughter walk on,” Crippensworth continued in that oh-so-reasonable, yet insultingly condescending tone of voice. “Surely such a devoted papa wouldn’t balk at spending oh, say a couple a hundred thousand to get the boy back.”

“NO!”

“But, Milady— ”

“I said NO!”

“I’ve taken the liberty to do a little, ummm . . . shall we say research? on this once and former lover boy of yours . . . . ”

“Oh NO!” Linda groaned, burying her face in her hands. “Crippensworth, how COULD you?!”

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot, Milady, I’ve gone about it in a manner most discreet,” Crippensworth countered with a touch of condescending disdain. “The upshot of it’s THIS. Mister Cartwright has done quite well for himself over the years. Between his ranching and lumber mill operations, an assortment of interests in mining, not to mention that steamboat ride going back and forth across Lake Tahoe, he’s built himself an empire that’s made him a rich man. A VERY rich man.”

“I have NO need of money, Crippensworth, least of all Ben Cartwright’s money. I happen to be a VERY wealthy woman.”

Joe strained to overhear the conversation between Lady Chadwick and Mister Crippensworth somewhere just on the other side of the door to his room, closed fast. Fortunately, their discussion was a very animated one, growing more so with each passing second, and each syllable uttered.

“Think of it, Milady. Two hundred thousand dollars. One hundred thousand for you, a hundred thousand for ME. With THAT kind of money, we could be sitting very pretty anywhere. Anywhere at all.”

“I SAID I have no need for Ben Cartwright’s money.”

“I beg to differ. Most of the funds in the Chadwick accounts are tied to Castle Chadwick, which passes along with the title to your late husband’s next of kin.”

“Which happens to be ME.”

“Which happened to be your SON. Now with HIS sudden, tragic, not to mention very untimely demise, all of that passes on to your late husband’s nephew, Cedric Powerscourt. Excuse me. I should say Cedric Powerscourt, Viscount of Chadwick.”

“You’re lying.”

“You may send a wire to Sir Arthur Witherspoon, your late husband’s attorney to verify, if you don’t believe ME. That means, Milady . . . My DOWAGER Lady Chadwick, that the only money left to YOU are the funds in the trust accounts set up in your name. I also know for fact that you’ve run through the bulk of the capital in every last one of those accounts.”

“ . . . and who gave you leave to snoop through my private business?”

“I didn’t snoop, Milady. Hell, I didn’t have to. Your Mister Montague was quite forthcoming in giving answers to all my many questions. At least he was in the beginning.”

“I STILL don’t need Ben Cartwright’s money,” Linda declared in a lofty, imperious tone. “Even if I were absolutely FLAT broke! I still have my ways.”

“Not with the NEW Lord Chadwick! He’s ALWAYS despised you. Mister Montague told me that, too.”

“I wouldn’t take money from THAT pompous idiot, even if he offered it to me on a silver platter! I got on well enough BEFORE I was married. I expect to get on well enough NOW.”

This prompted a hog like snort of derisive laughter from Crippensworth. “For the life of me, I can’t see HOW! You’re a far cry from the seemingly sweet, young ingénue who could charm her way into a nobleman’s bed, then turn around and marry the poor besotted fool for his money.”

“I told you before and I’ll tell you once again. I neither need nor want Ben Cartwright’s money. All I want is REVENGE!”

“Fine! If it’s REVENGE you’re after, then kill the boy.”

“CRIPPENSWORTH, WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?” Linda demanded, outraged.

“I said kill the boy.”

“NO!”

“You said you wanted revenge.”

“I DO!”

“Then kill the boy! If all that nonsense you were blathering on about HIM being his father’s best beloved son is in fact true, your best revenge is to KILL him,” Crippensworth pressed. “The sooner the better! After dark, I would see to it that the body is PROPERLY disposed of in a place it won’t be found so quickly or easily . . . so that you and I have ample time to make our escape— ”

Linda screamed and stamped her foot. “YOU’RE NEVER GOING TO LET ME FORGET ABOUT MONTAGUE, ARE YOU?”

“Actually, Milady, Montague was the farthest thing from my mind . . . . ”

“I’LL BET!”

“ . . . but since you DO bring up the subject of my predecessor, your handling of HIS problem was, at the very least, utterly stupid. We could have used the proceeds sale of that house in Carson City would have fetched . . . . ”

Joe’s ears perked up upon hearing Crippensworth mention Carson City. “Is THAT where I am NOW? In Carson City?” he wondered silently. He closed his eyes and thought of the ride from the burning ranch house to here, where ever HERE was, exactly. She had pulled over, upon reaching the main road, and blindfolded him, using a black opaque cloth. Though he could not see where she had taken him, he knew that the trip from the ranch would have taken the better part of an entire day, if she had, in fact, taken him all the way to Carson City. They had not traveled anywhere near that long.

“Dammit, Crippensworth, I’ve told you and told you and TOLD you . . . I had NO choice concerning Montague.” Joe could hear Lady Chadwick whining very clearly.

“ . . . and I told YOU to wait until I came back . . . that I would deal with Mister Montague. If you had listened to me and done what I told you to do— ”

“HE WAS GOING TO GO TO THE SHERIFF!” Linda shouted, giving full vent to her growing anger and frustration. “HOW MANY TIMES DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT? I HAD NO CHOICE EXCEPT TO SILENCE HIM PERMANENTLY RIGHT THEN AND THERE.”

“ALRIGHT! DONE IS DONE!” Crippensworth shouted back. “THE REAL POINT OF THE MATTER IS THAT MONTAGUE’S DEAD BODY, WHAT REMAINS OF IT, HAS NOW TURNED UP LIKE THE PROVERBIAL BAD PENNY.”

“ . . . . and that’s got you running scared to death of your own shadow,” Linda sneered.

“If you had even a modicum of sense, Milady, you’d be running scared to death of your own shadow, too. You see, eventually . . . sooner, I think, rather than later, they’re going to be looking for US. IF they aren’t already.”

“LET THEM LOOK! THEY WILL FIND THAT MRS. de SALLE AND MISTER CRIPPENSWORTH HAVE VANISHED AS IF FROM THE VERY FACE OF THE EARTH. THERE’S NOTHING TO CONNECT US AS WE’RE KNOWN HERE TO THE NAMES BY WHICH WE WERE KNOWN IN CARSON CITY.”

“IF YOU REALLY BELIEVE THAT, YOU’RE EVEN MORE STUPID THAN I COULD EVER HAVE IMAGINED POSSIBLE.”

Joe heard the sound of Crippensworth’s footfalls against bare wood, heavy at first as befitted the large man, growing fainter until finally lost in an uneasy silence. He closed his eyes, while mentally steeling himself for another visit from Her Ladyship. One minute she openly lusted after his still naked body, the next she was aloof, wholly indifferent, and the next after that, screaming with an intense fury, the like of which he had never known. Her abrupt and extreme mood changes coupled with the consequence of not knowing what to expect left him feeling shaken to the very core of his being.

For what seemed an eternity, Joe shifted, as best he could, bound as he was, in a bid to find a measure of comfort amid the tender bruises and still open wounds from the beating Lady Chadwick had inflicted on him the last time she visited. His ears strained, listening for the sounds of her footsteps approaching the door, the turn of a key in the lock, the door opening. When, at long last, he heard the sounds of her footsteps moving away, he slowly, very softly exhaled a sigh of vast profound relief.

“It looks like Lady Chadwick’s carefully laid plans . . . whatever they are . . . are starting to unravel,” Joe mused uneasily in silence. “If I can’t come up with an idea as to how I’m gonna appeal to Crippensworth’s greed, I may yet end up a dead duck.”

“Sorry, Hoss,” Samuel Porter, the recording clerk in the land office sighed dolefully and shook his head. He was a short, rotund man, aged in his late forties, with wavy, gray hair thinning on top, and hazel eyes magnified by a pair of glasses with thick lenses set in a black frame. “We’ve gone over the records of everyone who has filed a claim or purchased property during the last month. There’s no one listed here fitting the description of the folks you and your pa are looking for.”

“You’ve done all you could, Sam,” Hoss said, feeling more weary and discouraged than he could remember having felt in a long time. “How much do I owe ya?”

“Not a cent!” Sam said firmly. “With all the favors your pa’s done for ME over the years, I’m glad I could give something back. I only wish our search had proven more fruitful.”

“Thank you, Sam. I really appreciate everything you’ve done.”

“Any time, Hoss. Tell you what. I’m going to go back another month and check through my records from then up to the present,” Sam promised. “I’ll also keep an eye peeled. If anyone coming in to buy property or file a claim DOES fit the descriptions you’ve given me, I’ll let you or your pa know.”

“Thanks. I appreciate that.” Hoss turned to leave, halting suddenly in mid-stride. “Hey, Sam,” he said, turning and heading back over to the counter.

“Yeah, Hoss?”

“What about folks RENTIN’ a house or piece of property?”

“This office doesn’t handle rentals, Hoss. There’s a half dozen realtors who handle rentals,” Sam replied, “not to mention all the lawyers.”

Hoss could feel his heart plummeting to his feet. “That’s a lotta folks to talk to.”

“You might start with your pa’s lawyer, Mister Milburn,” Sam suggested.

“Thanks, Sam, I’ll do that.”

“Hoss, it’s been quite awhile since I handled any clients seeking to rent,” Lucas Milburn reluctantly shook his head. “The last client seeking to rent came in six months ago. He ended up asking a lot of questions, but never came back.”

“You remember his name?”

“I can find out.” Lucas Milburn rose and walked over to his filing cabinet. After locating the drawer he wanted, he pulled it open and started rifling through the contents. “Here it is, Hoss.”

Hoss was across the room, looking over the lawyer’s shoulder in seconds.

Lucas Milburn silently leafed through the contents of a file folder, until he came across the information he sought. “The client gave his name as Mister Charles.”

“You remember what he looked like?

Lucas shook his head. “That’s because I never saw him. According to the records here, this Mister Charles met with my secretary, John Casey.” The lawyer fell silent for a moment, studying the papers found in the file set up for Mister Charles. “This is interesting.”

“What’s that, Mister Milburn?”

“This Mister Charles actually made an appointment to come in a week after his initial visit,” Lucas said. “Apparently, he never showed up.”

“Did Mister Charles ask about any property in particular?” Hoss asked, remembering that the later Mister Montague’s first name was Charles. That missed appointment six months ago might also correspond with the time the man was murdered.

“Not according to the notes Mister Casey made here, Hoss.”

“Where is Mister Casey now?”

“His mother died a month ago,” Lucas replied. “He’s been over in Placerville seeing to funeral arrangements and helping his father and sister sort things out. Got a wire from him day before yesterday. He said he expects to be back by the end of the week.”

“Thanks, Mister Milburn. I’ll check back then, if it’s alright.”

“It’s alright with me, Hoss, especially if it may prove helpful in locating Joe.”

“Good morning, Darling,” Linda gushed, as she flounced into the room, with a skip in her step, and her eyes aglow with an odd, inner light. Crippensworth followed behind, carrying a rifle. “I spoke with your father last night . . . . ”

“About?” Joe asked warily.

“Your punishment, of course.”

“My . . . punishment?!”

“For lying,” Linda said. “Honestly, the two of you can be so obstinate . . . so hard headed, neither willing to give an inch . . . . ” Her voice caught on the last word. “Do either one of you know h-how much . . . how very much the way you tear at one another because of your stupid pride and stubbornness . . . distresses ME?!”

“No,” Joe replied in a voice, stone cold.

“Well it DOES,” Linda sobbed.

“What did he say about . . . about my punishment?” Joe asked, wincing against the sharp pang of guilt that came from even posing that question. Though Pa could be something of an exacting taskmaster when it came to meting out justice for rules broken or for bad behavior, he had never, ever crossed the line differentiating discipline and abuse. Never even come close. Pa would never have dreamed of punishing any of his children by forcing them to strip naked, then submit to being tied down to a bed, deprived of food, water, and warmth, no matter what the crime. The thought of just now intimating that he had . . . .

“I finally got him to see the light of reason, Darling.”

“Does that mean . . . you’re going to . . . to let me go?”

“You WERE caught lying, Little Joe,” she said sternly. “Though your father HAS agreed that your punishment far exceeded the crime, you are, nonetheless STILL being punished. He told me that you might be confined to your room until you decide to tell us the truth, rather than to this bed.”

An uncomfortable silence fell between Lady Chadwick and her captive.

“Well?” she prompted.

“Well what?” Joe sighed.

“Aren’t you going to say thank you? As in thank you, Mother, for pleading with my father on my behalf, even though I’m a stubborn, willful boy, thoroughly undeserving?!”

“Thanks,” Joe said listlessly.

“I had expected MORE in the way of gratitude, but . . . . ” She exhaled a long, soft sigh of exasperation, then turned to Crippensworth. “Is that thing loaded?”

“Of course it’s loaded, Milady,” he replied, with a touch of insolence. “Shall we get on with it?”

“Certainly. The sooner I can free my poor baby from those uncomfortable bonds . . . willful and obstinate though he may be . . . the better I’ll feel,” she said, as she leaned over and began to untie the knot binding his left foot to the bed.

“One false move out of you, Boy, and I shoot to kill,” Crippensworth warned, after Linda had freed Joe’s left foot, and turned to untie the rope binding his right to the footboard. “You understand me?”

“Yes, I understand,” Joe replied, his words terse, his syllables clipped.

Linda moved to the headboard and set to work freeing Joe’s hands. “There you are,” she proclaimed a few moments later, with a smile of smug satisfaction. “Do you need Mama to help you sit up?” she asked, speaking to him in the tone of voice most might use in speaking to a very young child.

Joe very gingerly lowered the arm that had been dislocated at the shoulder, when the steps in the burning ranch house had collapsed, biting his lip to keep from crying out in agony.

“Come on, Darling . . . . ” With a tremulous smile this time, she reached out her hand. “Let Mama help you.”

“No . . . thank you, LADY CHADWICK. I can sit up myself,” Joe said in a sullen tone of voice.

“So independent . . . just like your father,” she murmured. “Alright, Sweetie-Pie, but if you need help . . . Mama’s right here.”

Inwardly, Joe cringed at her references to herself as his mother.

“Come on, Boy, sit up,” Crippensworth snapped, fingering the trigger of the rifle in hand, “and let’s be quick about it!”

“Ben, stop it!” Linda turned and favored Crippensworth with a dark, angry glare.

“NO!” Joe yelled, his anger and guilt getting the better of him. “YOU stop it, Lady Chadwick. You’re NOT my mother and Crippensworth, here, is NOT my father. I don’t know what kind of . . . of sick, twisted game you’re playing, trying to pretend you are— ”

“HOW COULD YOU?!” Linda shrieked, as she burst into tears. “HOW COULD YOU BE SO . . . S-SO . . . SO HORRIBLY . . . SO MONSTROUSLY CRUEL?!”

Crippensworth exhaled the slow sigh of the long suffering, while sardonically rolling his eyes. “Now you’ve really gone and done it, Boy,” he muttered through clenched teeth, as he moved to Linda’s side.

“YOUR FATHER WAS RIGHT!” she screamed, as the tears continued to roll down her face. “YOUR FATHER WAS ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! I SHOULD HAVE LISTENED TO HIM! ALL THESE YEARS . . . ALL THESE YEARS . . . I THOUGHT I’D BEEN NURSING A LOVING BABE TO MY BREAST . . . ONLY TO FIND OUT IT’S A SERPENT. A DEADLY, UNGRATEFUL SERPENT!”

“Oh damn!” Crippensworth swore, as he turned his attention to Linda. “Milady— ”

“YOU WAIT!” she continued to rant, her entire attention focused on Joe. “YOU WAIT UNTIL I TELL YOUR FATHER, YOUNG MAN! HE’LL DEAL WITH YOU AS HE OUGHT, SO HELP ME . . . HE’LL DEAL WITH YOU GOOD AND PROPER YOU . . . YOU . . . YOU MISERABLE, SELFISH, UNGRATEFUL WHELP! I WISH YOU’D NEVER BEEN BORN, DO YOU HEAR ME? I WISH YOU’D— ” Her tirade ended in a sudden, ear piercing screech, when Crippensworth slapped her cheek. She involuntarily took a step backwards, while gazing back and forth between Joe and Crippensworth through eyes round with shocked horror, with the dazed look of someone just walking from a drugged induced sleep, or a vivid dream.

“You were becoming hysterical, Milady,” Crippensworth said in a cold, exasperated tone. “Perhaps you should go on upstairs, take a good strong dose of that laudanum the doctor prescribed, and have a nice long nap. You’ll feel much better if you do.”

“I . . . no, I . . . I can’t, not right now,” Linda babbled, staring at the room, at her surroundings as if she had never seen them before. “Have to do something, I can’t remember . . . . ”

“I’LL handle it, Milady . . . . ”

As he sat on the edge of his bed, massaging his wrists, Joe noted that Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth seemed wholly focused on each other. They had also moved toward the foot of the bed, leaving him a clear shot at the door. “Well, Joseph Francis, this looks like as good a chance as any . . . . ” he mused in silence, as he slowly, unsteadily to his feet. He stole another glance at Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth, as he reached out his left hand toward the headboard to steady himself. They seemed wholly focused on one another. Though they spoke too softly for him to hear their words, he knew by the sharp movements of their arms and hands, that their conversation was quite animated.

Joe took a deep, ragged breath, then took off, half running, half stumbling toward the door straight ahead, trying desperately to ignore the dizzying, lightheadedness that had suddenly come upon him, hitting him with all the power and force of a sledge hammer. As he reached out his hand toward the doorknob and anticipated freedom, he stumbled and crashed heavily into the wall.

“What the hell—?!” Crippensworth exclaimed, as he and Lady Chadwick turned.

Squeezing his eyes shut against his environment spinning and pulsating around him with a ferocious, nauseating intensity, Joe felt blind panic rising up within him as his fingers worked desperately to turn the door knob.

“HE’S ESCAPING!” Linda screamed. “CRIPPENSWORTH, STOP HIM! HE’S ESCAPING!”

Joe threw the door open with surprising strength and power, given his injuries, his severely weakened physical condition, then bolted from the room to the hallway. His dizziness, the pain of injuries inflicted by his escape from the burning ranch house and by Lady Chadwick, were all lost, drowned in a potent adrenal rush that strengthened, lent new power to the blind panic now consuming him. Turning a corner, he came to a curving staircase, leading downward. Joe ran down the first half dozen steps, with his heart thudding hard against his rib cage. On the seventh step, he tripped. He last semi-coherent memory was of pitching through mid-air in complete free fall. Joe tumbled down the remaining dozen steps, and landed in a heap, sprawled on the first landing.

For a time Joe lay as he fell, too stunned to move, or even think.

“THERE HE IS!” Lady Chadwick shouted.

“WHERE?”

“THERE! AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STEPS! GET HIM, CRIPPENSWORTH! QUICKLY!”

Their voices, their shouted words penetrated through the haze of shock and pain that had completely fogged over Joe’s mind and thoughts. He rose to his feet, only to fall again, as he knees suddenly turned to jelly. Before he could even think of making another move, he felt the touch of cold steel against his temple.

“One wrong move, Boy, and I’ll blow your bloody brains out,” Crippensworth said in a low, menacing tone.

Joe’s heart sank. He knew with dreadful certainty that if he so much as coughed the wrong way, Crippensworth would carry out his promise.

“Now roll over and sit up,” Crippensworth snapped out the order. “Slowly. Very, very slowly . . . if you know what’s good for you.”

As he rolled himself over from his stomach onto his back, Joe’s eyes fell on the front door, standing open, no more than fifteen feet away from him. So near and yet . . . . He squeezed his eyes shut, as he eased himself from prone to sitting, to dam back the tears, borne of rage and utter frustration, that threatened to spill forth.

“Put these on!” Crippensworth ordered tersely.

Joe cried out, unable to stop himself as two pair of iron manacles, each pair joined together by a chain, slammed hard against his shins.

“Be quick about it.”

Joe’s hands shook so badly, he could hardly keep hold of the manacles and chain, let alone snap them on his wrists and ankles.

“It WOULD be nice if Milady Chadwick made herself useful for a change and got those on him,” Crippensworth growled, nearing the limits of what little patience he possessed.

“Put them on him yourself,” Linda returned, her face contorted with anger.

“You’ll do as I tell you.” Crippensworth grabbed Linda’s arm in a painful, vice like grip and hurled her to the floor, where she landed alongside Joe, on her hands and knees.

Linda turned and glared up at Crippensworth with a look meant to kill, before snatching the manacles from Joe’s trembling hands and snapping them on his wrists and ankles.

“Now get out of the way, you stupid bitch.”

Linda rose, her entire body quaking with the fury within, that never, ever seemed very far from the surface, and stepped backward, moving away from Joe.

Crippensworth reached down and hauled Joe unceremoniously to his feet, then threw him toward the stairs. Unable to right himself or regain his balance, Joe slammed hard against the steps, knocking the wind out of his lungs. Crippensworth walked up a few steps, until he came even with Joe’s torso. “Get up,” he snarled.

Joe said nothing, nor did he move.

“I SAID get up.”

Joe remained as he was.

Crippensworth gritted his teeth together, then kicked Joe in the rib cage, eliciting a cry of both agony and outrage. “If you don’t get up right now, I’ll see to it you never get up again.”

Joe rose, holding fast to the banister for support, blinded by tears he could no longer hold back. The muscle, bone, and sinew on his legs seemed to have turned into formless, shapeless jelly, with no firmness to support his weight.

“Now get up those stairs,” Crippensworth ordered, giving Joe a hard shove with the barrel of his rifle.

The momentum behind the shove nearly sent Joe falling on his face. He pitched forward, but his arms, wrapped around the banister, clinging for dear life, prevented the fall. Unfortunately the shove forward pulled hard on his dislocated shoulder, increasing his agony.

“MOVE!” Crippensworth snapped, raising his voice. He shoved Joe again with the barrel of his rifle, harder this time.

“Alright!” Joe returned sullenly. “I’m moving as fast as I can.”

Scowling, Crippensworth raised his rifle, with every intention of slamming the butt of his weapon down against Joe’s head.

“NO!” Linda shouted, as she ran up the steps toward Joe and Crippensworth. “Don’t hurt him.”

“That, Milady, is entirely up to young Cartwright.”

“Well, I’ll be damned!” Doctor Michael Johns exclaimed, thoroughly dumbfounded, upon examining Stacy’s injured leg. “No fever . . . her skin’s STILL nice and pink, even down around the toes . . . no sign of infection at all . . . anywhere . . . maybe there IS something to this acu . . . acu . . . . ”

“Acupuncture,” Doctor Tao supplied. A bare hint of a smug, triumphant smile pulled at the corner of her mouth.

“Four days ago . . . no! Make that five! I hope you’ll pardon me for saying this, Miss Cartwright, but five days ago, I honestly had my doubts as to whether or not we’d be able to save your life for having waited too long,” Michael shook his head in amazement. “Now . . . . ” He turned and gazed earnestly into Doctor Tao’s weary, lined face. “Doctor Tao, what CAN I say, except . . . this humbled duck-doctor bows to your wisdom, and hopes you will forgive him for all the things he said in ignorance?”

“Doctor Tao accept apology,” she said quietly. The smile that spread across her face was completely void of smugness. “Now you NOT so ignorant, maybe you not so much duck-doctor either.”

“Does THAT mean I’m finally out of the woods?” Stacy asked.

“Yes, Miss Cartwright, you’re finally out of the woods,” Michael declared with a broad grin. “IF Doctor Tao and Paul both agree, I’d like to leave your leg braced and splinted, just to make absolute certain there’s no lingering infection. We can cast the leg tomorrow morning if things look as pretty as they do right now.”

“Doctor Tao agree,” the master acupuncturist stated quietly, emphasizing her words with a curt nod of her head.

“My vote makes it unanimous,” Paul Martin declared. “Stacy, once that plaster-of-paris cast is on, that should allow you even greater freedom of movement, since your leg will be well protected against bumping into walls, railings, things like that.”

“Can I finally get dressed?” Stacy asked. “I’m starting to get a little tired of sitting around all day in my nightshirt, robe, and slippers.”

“I guess that’s going to mean another trip to the store,” Ben said, speaking up for the first time.

“Tell you what, Ben,” Lily Martin said, smiling. “I have some errands to run today anyway . . . why don’t I take care of purchasing clothing for Stacy?”

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble, Lily,” Ben protested.

“Nonsense! Didn’t I just get through saying I had some errands to run?” She, then, turned to her husband. “Paul?”

“Yes, Lily?”

“That box I keep on the floor of the wardrobe in the spare room? Would you mind fetching it for me?”

“Not at all, Lily,” Paul Martin said. “If you folks will excuse me?”

“I need to be gettin’ on back to the hotel myself,” Michael said. “If Stacy’s leg looks as good tomorrow morning as it does right now, I intend to leave for home on the next stage.”

“Doctor Tao need go home, too,” the acupuncture master said.

“If you don’t mind keeping company with a man who’s maybe a little less of a duck-doctor, Ma’am, I would consider it an honor if you’d let me drop you off at your home on my way back to the hotel,” Michael Johns said, gallantly offering his arm.

“Doctor Tao also honored,” she said, taking Doctor John’s proffered arm.

“I’m glad those two have finally come to an understanding,” Ben said wearily, his eyes fixed for a moment on the retreating backs of Doctors Tao and Johns.

“Me, too,” Stacy said with heartfelt conviction. “For awhile then, I wasn’t sure which was worse . . . having a broken leg and all the complications that came with it or listening to the two of THEM going at it day and night.”

“I’m glad those two have come to an understanding, too,” Paul Martin said, returning to his examination room. “Based on what I’ve seen, and not JUST with Stacy, if more of my colleagues had an open mind about some of these ancient, time honored, and time proven disciplines, like acupuncture, modern medicine as we know it could move forward by leaps and bounds. Lily?”

“Yes, Paul?”

“This the box you wanted?”

“Yes, thank you,” Lily said, taking the box from her husband. “Stacy . . . . ”

“Yes, Mrs. Martin?”

“My nephew is a trapper out in the northwest Oregon Territory. He sent me these for my birthday two years ago, but . . . well, they’re not exactly to my taste,” Lily Martin said with a smile as she handed the box to Stacy. “I think YOU’LL appreciate the style a lot more and I think they’ll be far more practical now and when the cast first comes off than a regular pair of boots.”

Intrigued, Stacy lifted the lid of the box. Inside lay a pair of booted moccasins, made from softened leather with fringe and lacings. “They’re beautiful, Mrs. Martin.”

“ . . . and Mrs. Martin is right about them being more practical right now than a pair of regular boots,” Ben added.

“Wear them in good health, Stacy. They’re yours!”

“Thank you, Mrs. Martin . . . are you sure you want to give them away?”

“Absolutely,” Lily said firmly, with a smile and nod of her head for emphasis. “As I said before, they’re not exactly to my taste. Now then, Paul . . . . ”

“Yes, Lily?”

“If you’re through examining Stacy’s leg perhaps we could get her off that hard table . . . . ” her grimace brought a smile to the faces of her husband and the Cartwrights, “and move her back upstairs to the living room, where she’ll be more comfortable.”

“I’ve got you, Young Woman,” Ben said as he lifted her from the examination table into his arms.

“ . . . and I have the moccasin boots and the crutches,” Paul Martin said, as he fell in step behind his wife.

Ben paused for a moment, waiting until the doctor and his wife had left the room. “Stacy Rose Cartwright, I’m so proud of you I could burst.”

Stacy favored him with a quizzical look as she slipped her arms around his neck. “What for, Pa?”

“What for?!” Ben echoed, incredulous.

“Yeah! What for?”

“For your strength, and your courage first in helping your brothers fight that fire, and over the last few days facing up to the possibility of losing your leg, making the decision to bring in Doctor Tao,” Ben said hugging her closer, “not to mention, giving the Angel of Death a good, swift kick in the shins.”

“Pa, I have to tell you . . . I don’t think I could remember a time I was more scared to death,” Stacy confessed as Ben carried her from the doctor’s examination room toward the front stairs in the narrow entry way.

“You remember what I used to tell you back when you were having all those nightmares about your grandparents, your aunts, and your uncle?”

“Oh yeah . . . you told me that real courage is moving ahead when you ARE scared to death,” she said slowly, thoughtfully.

“Stacy, I’ve seen grown men, who have completely fallen apart when faced with far less than what YOU’VE had to face over the last few days.”

“Could be they don’t have what I have.”

“What’s that?”

“You, Hoss, Joe, Adam, and Hop Sing in their corner,” she said as her head dropped wearily down on her father’s shoulder. “Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“I hope Joe . . . where ever he is right now . . . I hope he knows we’re there for HIM, too.”

“He does, Stacy . . . I-I’m sure he d-does,” Ben said, his voice catching.

“Your daily rations, My Good Man!” Crippensworth announced sardonically as he threw the canteen, barely half full into Joe’s outstretched hands. “Milady is in something of a royal snit this afternoon . . . thanks to that ridiculous, botched escape attempt of yours this morning, so I’d advise you to be on your very best behavior.”

This morning, they had moved him from bedroom on the second floor to this tiny, cramped attic room. No longer tied down to a bed, he was able move about, a mercy for which he was profoundly grateful. His ankles and wrists, however were securely locked in iron manacles, each pair bound by a short length of chain. Lady Chadwick had not seen fit as yet to either return the clothing he wore when she and Crippensworth initially abducted him, or issue him new garments. His only covering remained the frayed bindings, loosely wrapped around his shoulder and rib cage.

Joe’s heart plummeted to his feet on hearing the unwelcome news concerning Lady Chadwick’s emotional state. “Mister Crippensworth . . . . ?”

“What?” Crippensworth demanded in a sullen tone.

“My pa’d pay anything to get me back, alive, whole, and in one piece,” Joe ventured in as steady voice as he could muster. “Anything at all. He is a . . . a very wealthy man.”

“Don’t think the thought hasn’t crossed my mind, Boy,” Crippensworth chucked mirthlessly, then sighed. “Milady, however, has her OWN plans.”

“What about YOUR plans, Mister Crippensworth?” Joe asked as he unscrewed the lid to the canteen in hand.

“My plans?”

“Yeah. YOUR plans.”

“If I’d had MY way I would have sent your father a ransom note the day her ladyship and I nabbed you and been done with it,” Crippensworth replied. “She and I could have lived very well, anywhere, on one hundred thousand dollars.”

Joe raised the canteen to his lips and took a few sips of the luke warm water contained within. “How well could YOU live on TWO hundred thousand dollars?”

Crippensworth turned and favored Joe with a sharp glare, then smiled. “Are you suggesting I collect a ransom and NOT share it with Milady Chadwick?”

“You and I’d get what WE want,” Joe said with a shrug. “You’d have plenty of money to go anywhere you want, I’d get to go back home. My family has to be pretty worried by this time.”

“What of Milady’s plans?”

“From where I sit, Lady Chadwick’s plans have so far included killing her own son, and killing Mister Montague before him. How do you know she doesn’t plan to dispose of YOU in some way?”

“I told you once before that if Milady Chadwick thinks for one minute she can do away with ME as easily as she did with her own son, and with Charles Montague, she’s in for a very rude surprise,” Crippensworth snapped. He, then, turned heel and strode briskly from Joe’s room.

Joe wearily sank down on his cot, then slowly, with trembling hands, raised the canteen once more to his lips for another sip. “Joseph Francis Cartwright, you’re playing a real dangerous game, and you know it!” he muttered very softly, under his breath. “If Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth ever stop and compare notes . . . . ” He shuddered.

Joe poured a little of the water into his cupped right hand and rubbed it on his forearms, trying to wash away some of the dried blood from the wounds inflicted recently by her ladyship, their scabs ripped open when he took that tumble down the steps during the course of his brief, unsuccessful bid for freedom. His attempt to clean himself up did little more than cover his forearms with a faint reddish tinge. He blotted his arms dry against the mattress on his cot, then held them up before his face in order to examine the wounds.

One large deep, jagged gash, located on the underside of his left forearm, concerned him. The scab had not been ripped away as had the same covering the other wounds. The surrounding skin had taken on a reddish tinge, and was slightly warm and tender to the touch. Joe gingerly picked off the scab, and watched with growing trepidation as blood, mixed with serum and white pus oozed from the wound. He poured a generous amount of water on the open, oozing wound, then drank up the last of remained.

Joe dropped the empty canteen down onto a cot, the only piece of furniture in the room, then walked over to the window. Positioned in the wall, slightly above his head, the frame was octagonal shaped, with two vertical and two horizontal slats. He could see the sky through the glass, and two thick jagged tree branches thrusting upward at a right to left angle. If only there were something . . . ANYTHING for him to stand on so that he might reach the window and see what lay outside . . . .

“Lovely view of the sky, I must say!”

Joe gasped and started violently. The sudden jerking of his body threw him off balance and sent him reeling into the wall.

This elicited a peal of harsh, grating laughter from Lady Chadwick standing framed in the open door. “Oh, Ben, darling, I must say . . . you’ve REALLY fallen for me this time . . . and hard.”

Joe turned and favored her with a bewildered frown. “B-Ben?!” he stammered.

“That’s YOUR name, isn’t it, Darling?” Linda chirped, as she flounced into the room, wearing a pale, mint green evening dress, a couple of sizes too small, in a style more appropriate for a woman much younger. It had a full ruffled skirt, tiny puffed sleeves, and a low scalloped neckline. “Ben . . . I’ve JUST seen the engravings . . . . ”

“Engravings?! Wh-What engravings?”

“Oh, silly, silly, Ben!” Linda laughed as she punched Joe playfully on his injured shoulder. “Silly, silly, silly Ben! The ENGRAVINGS, Darling . . . for our wedding invitations.”

Joe’s jaw dropped.

“I let you get away once, Darling,” she purred, sidling up next to him. “I shan’t let you get away AGAIN.”

Joe turned and gazed earnestly into her face, noting the glassy eyes and the vacuous stare with great trepidation.

“Oh, Darling, I promise you . . . you won’t regret this. You’ll never, EVER regret this . . . . ”

“N-Never . . . r-regret . . . WHAT?” Joe probed very gingerly.

“I’ll make you a good wife, Ben, I promise,” Linda declared, throwing her arms around his waist. “Oh my darling, my wonderful darling . . . I made the biggest mistake of my life when I let you get away from me twenty years ago . . . . ”

Linda hugged him close and rested her head against his chest for a moment. “Well,” she said finally. She lifted her head and gazed earnestly into his face. “I have a million things to do, Darling.” She kissed her index finger and gently placed it over top his lips. “I’ll see you later.”

Still smiling, Linda turned and flounced out of the room, skipping along as a woman much, much younger might. She paused at the door and turned, her smile still fixed in place, never wavering. “I’ll ask Hop Sing to fix you some supper before I leave, Darling,” she cooed. “In the meantime?”

“Y-Yes?”

“I think that portrait would look wonderful over your desk, don’t you?”

“Yeah . . . sure . . . I, uhhh . . . I guess . . . . ”

She blew him a kiss then stepped out the door, closing and locking it behind her.

End of Part 4

 

Trial By Fire

Part 5

By Kathleen T. Berney

 

For a time, Joe stood, as if rooted to the very spot, staring after the fast closed door, numb with horror. Had that little scenario just now all been an act? Very plausible certainly, given her extreme mood swings, triggered by a wrong word, a look, or a certain turn of a phrase. He also remembered how, the last time she had come to visit, she was all sweetness and light, how very concerned she appeared to be while everything all around them was quickly going to hell in a hand basket at her secret bidding.

But, suppose it WASN’T an act? That was a very real possibility, too, taking into account her skewed version of the relationship between herself and his father.

Either way, if Linda Lawrence, Countess of Chadwick, had hoped to completely rattle and unsettle him, she had definitely succeeded.

“I’ve GOT to find a way out of here,” he mused silently. “Got to, got to, got to!” The only possible way out, apart from the door, was the window. His eyes moved from window to cot. “I wonder . . . . ”

As Joe walked over toward the cot, a wave of dizziness and lightheadedness swept over him. He could feel his stance, his balance faltering. Taking a deep ragged breath, he half ran, half stumbled the remaining distance between himself and the cot, collapsing down heavily upon it the instant his fingertips brushed against the mattress.

Weary and discouraged, Hoss Cartwright dismounted from Chubb’s back, and tethered him to the hitching post on the street in front of the Martins’ home. He had begun the day with high hopes, with no doubt in his mind that if he didn’t actually find out where his younger brother was being held, they would at the very least be significantly closer. Instead, he found himself pretty much right back to square one. Hoss trudged reluctantly into the Martins’ house and found his father waiting in the formal parlor downstairs, anxiously pacing the floor. “Pa?”

Ben abruptly stopped his pacing mid-stride. “THERE you are!”

“Where’s Li’l Sister?” Hoss asked, noting Stacy’s absence with mild surprise.

“I left Stacy upstairs, in the Martins’ living room, sleeping,” Ben said, as took his biggest son by the elbow and steered him in the direction of the settee. “After having spent the better part of the last five days, since the fire, nearly flat on her back, coupled with having to get around on crutches, she tires very easily.”

“Better enjoy it while y’ can, Pa,” Hoss quipped with a weary grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Knowin’ Li’l Sister like I do, it ain’t gonna be long ‘fore we’re hard pressed t’ keep up with her, crutches or not.”

“Between you and me? After all that we’ve gone through these last few days, I find myself looking forward to being hard pressed to keep up with her again, crutches or no crutches,” Ben said quietly, as he and his middle son seated themselves on the settee. “Were you able to find out anything?”

“I checked with Sam at the land office first, Pa,” Hoss reported in a melancholy tone. “We looked at his records for the past month up until now, ‘n came up empty handed. Sam said he’d do some more checkin’.”

“How about people renting, Hoss?”

“I asked Sam about that, too. He told me folks wantin’ t’ rent usually go through a realtor or a lawyer,” Hoss replied, “so I decided t’ start by askin’ Mister Milburn. Seems a Mister Charles stopped in ‘n asked John Casey ‘bout places for rent. He made an appointment six months ago t’ come back, but never showed. Charles was Mister Montague’s first name, Pa, an’ Sheriff Coffee said the sheriff over in Carson City’s pretty sure he was murdered six months ago.”

“What did John Casey say?” Ben pressed.

“He’s outta town ‘til the end o’ the week. I’m gonna check back with him then,” Hoss replied. “I also checked with some o’ the other lawyers. They weren’t as willin’ t’ talk as Mister Milburn was, so Sheriff Coffee’s gonna look into it. He says the investigation into Mister Montague’s death gives him grounds, Pa.”

“Damn!” Ben swore through clenched teeth. “Like quicksilver! That bitch keeps slipping right through our fingers like quicksilver!”

“Pa, we’re gonna find Joe,” Hoss said, his face set with grim, stubborn determination. “I can’t tell ya how, but somehow, someway, we’re gonna FIND him, an’ we’re gonna bring him back home ALIVE.”

That night, Joe, weak and horribly disoriented, dropped to his knees with a dull thud and leaned once more over a full-to-over-flowing chamber pot as the overpowering urge to vomit seized him once again, the third . . . or was it the fourth? time in the last hour of so since he had finally eaten.

As she had promised earlier, Lady Chadwick sent Crippensworth up bearing a tray with a big, thick juicy steak that literally melted in the mouth, a huge mountain of mashed potatoes smothered in a rich beef gravy, a vegetable mix covered with a spiced creamy cheese sauce, biscuits, every bit as light and fluffy and the ones Hop Sing made . . . almost, and a big slab of fresh apple pie even Hoss would be hard pressed to finish. There was also a full canteen of fresh water, cold this time, and a cup of coffee.

The meat, gravy, and cheese sauce covering the vegetables reeked heavily of garlic. Joe wrinkled his nose in complete and utter distaste. “I hate garlic,” he muttered. He wolfed down the pie first, then the biscuit. He had fully intended to set the tray aside after that, but the steak, potatoes, even the vegetables looked so irresistibly good . . . and he so terribly hungry . . . .

Joe attacked what remained on the tray with reckless abandon, garlic or no garlic.

In the time it had taken the sun to slip down from the line of the bottom branch, as seen through his window, under the line of the window sill in his small attic room, an hour by his reckoning, Joe was seized in the grip of stomach cramps so agonizing, he literally doubled over. As the brilliant golds, oranges, and reds of a magnificent sun set faded into the indigo blue of night, another hour, maybe less, he had violently regurgitated every last bit of the food he had eaten and more in four different bouts, five including this one, that had swept over him one after the other after the other.

Joe crawled from the chamber pot back to the cot, squeezing his eyes shut against the spiraling, pulsating walls and floorboards. He collapsed onto the cot, like a lead weight dropped into water, utterly spent. His last semi-coherent thought was that he couldn’t ever remember being THIS sick, not even after the worst hangover he had ever had . . . .

“I can’t . . . I WON’T let them cage me . . . and take my baby away . . . . ”

He saw the heart wrenching anguish once more in Rachael Marlowe’s eyes, heard the hopeless despair in her voice. After living among a tribe, a family, of Chinook Indians up near the mouth of the Columbia River for five years, she was found in the wake of a massacre launched against her village by a band of renegade cavalry men, and forced to return to so-called civilization at gunpoint. Her Chinook mother and an older brother were killed in the massacre. Her husband and another brother had been out with a hunting party when the village was attacked.

Rachael had returned home to Virginia City, desolate and alone, not knowing whether she was wife or widow, pregnant with her . . . and her husband’s first child, to parents who expected her to be the same fourteen-year-old girl she was when she left home five years before.

“I can’t . . . I WON’T let them cage me . . . and take my baby away . . . . better THIS way.”

He saw Rachael once again step off the edge of the cliff, then Stacy leaping in less than the space of a heartbeat later, her arms reaching out blindly, encircling Rachael’s waist. The inevitable downward pull of gravity brought Stacy crashing down hard against rock, snow, and ice, knocking the wind out of her lungs.

Again and again, the action played itself out in horrifying slow motion. Rachael stepping over the edge, Stacy leaping, blindly groping, then crashing to the ground with a reverberating thud that echoed through the terrifying, endless vista of valley spread out before them, almost like a dynamite blast, its sound slowed, yet building steadily to a crescendo . . . .

“Rachael, grab my hand, please!” He heard Stacy begging, barely able to find sufficient breath to utter her plea.

“Rachael . . .

. . . grab my hand.

Please!”

Rachael stared at the scenery ahead, with a beatific smile on her face, as her body slipped through the circle of Stacy’s arms.

Stacy lunged, again grasping blindly. Though she managed to get both hands tight around Rachael’s wrist, her movements brought her sliding inexorably toward the edge.

“Hang on, Li’l Sister, I gotcha!”

Hoss appeared, there at his elbow, as if my magic. A scant half dozen giant strides brought him to Stacy’s side. There, he immediately knelt down, grasping Stacy’s shoulder with one hand, digging into the frozen earth with the other, gloved fingers extended like cat claws. Hoss, once he himself was securely braced, threw the entire weight of his body down over Stacy’s preventing her and Rachael from sliding over the edge of the cliff to their inexorable doom hundreds of feet below.

“Rachael, please . . . .

. . . give me your hand . . .

. . . Hoss can pull us both up.

Please . . . . ”

Rachael stared straight ahead in to the valley, turning deaf ear to Stacy’s, impassioned, desperate plea.

They had done all THEY could do.

Stacy and Hoss.

The rest was up to him.

He sat down, his face set with a grim, stubborn resolve, and eased his way over the ledge one leg at a time. Suddenly, his entire body froze as panic seized him.

“Rachael,” he whispered aloud.

“Rachael.

Think only of Rachael.”

He whispered those words once again, over and over as a mantra against the terror surrounding him on all sides, waiting like a prowling mountain lion to pounce and seize him once again.

“Think of Rachael . . .

. . . think of Rachael . . . .

“ . . . think of Rachael.”

Cold.

Freezing.

Thank heaven . . . no wind . . . .

That brief intrusion of wind into his thoughts had raised the all too real specter of falling. Panic once more rose within him, threatening to inundate him completely. He squeezed his eyes shut again and forced himself to repeat his mantra . . . .

“Think of Rachael.

Think of Rachael.”

Another voice, Stacy’s, soft and reassuring joined him, speaking the same mantra, but different words.

“You can do it, Joe . . .

. . . you can do it.”

Think of Rachael, think of Rachael, think of Rachael. He again took up the chant, drawing upon the strength offered through his sister’s voice.

“You can do it, Joe.”

“Think of Rachael.”

“You can do it, Joe.”

“Come on, Li’l Brother.”

Hoss’ bass drone harmonized with Joe’s spoken melody line and Stacy’s descant.

“Think of Rachael.”

“Think of Rachael.”

Buoyed by the surge of strength and energy coming from his brother and sister, he was surprised to suddenly find himself on the cliff face along side Rachael Marlowe.

“Think of Rachael.”

“Think of Rachael.”

“Think of Rachael.”

Wrapping the fingers of his right hand firmly around a thick, exposed piece of tree root, he reached out to touch Rachael, to thrust her upward toward Stacy and Hoss . . . to safety.

Then, Rachael turned.

He was surprised to see her wearing HIS face. He gasped and turned away, confused . . . .

When he opened his eyes again, he found himself in Stacy’s grasp, battered, naked, save for the bandages covering his shoulder and chest . . . .

Joe’s eyes flew open.

“Come on, Li’l Brother.”

“You can do it, Joe.”

The words of his big brother and young sister echoed once more through his mind and his heart before fading away to silence.

He took a deep breath, long, slow, even, then exhaled. A shaft of silvery moonlight shone in through the window onto the bare floor forming what appeared to be an elongated circle. Joe rose slowly, stiffly to his feet, shivering in the chilled night air. He moved around to the foot of the cot, folding his arms across his chest in a feeble attempt to somehow warm himself. There, he leaned over, gritting his teeth against a momentary bout of lightheadedness, and loosely wrapped his fingers around the metal handle of the cot.

“Hmmm . . . not TOO heavy,” Joe mused silently, after lifting the end of the cot several times to test it for weight. He, then lifted the foot of the cot in both hands, and dragged it the short distance to the window, wincing as the legs scraped across the bare floorboards.

He had to get out of there.

Now.

Tonight!

His thoughts momentarily centered on Rowdy, a stray puppy Hoss found and brought home, many, many years ago when they were children. Not long after, exactly how long, Joe was unable to recall, the puppy had gotten into some poison, Hop Sing had set out to kill a family of rats that had invaded the kitchen and pantry. Nothing could be done to save the hapless pup. He and Hoss had clung to each other, sobbing, as Rowdy vomited in much the same way as he himself had earlier. Pa ordered Adam to take him and Hoss into the house, that he might quickly and mercifully end the poor animal’s suffering.

“I’m NOT gonna give Lady Chadwick the chance to try it again,” Joe mused silently, with grim, angry determination. He positioned the cot directly beneath the window, then paused, every sense alert, his ears straining for even the slightest of human sounds whether it be a quiet cough or the feather light footfall on the floor beyond the locked door.

Nothing.

Silence reigned.

Joe carefully climbed up onto the cot, grimacing as iron manacles grated against tender flesh, rubbed raw. He stepped over to the wall, and peered outside. The wall, into which the window was set, dropped two stories to a roof, spread out below. Joe surmised that to be the roof covering a porch. A quick glance at the outside wall revealed no ledges, no hand holds, only a sheer, two-storey drop.

To his right grew an old tree, with sparse leaf cover. It’s topmost branches could be seen from his window without the aid of the cot. It was by those very branches and the movement of the sun between them and the bottom of the window frame, he was able to calculate the passage of time. His eyes dropped down to the branch closest to the round attic window. It was positioned about four or five feet below the window and three feet away from the house. Trying to reach it would, at best, prove very tricky. He followed the line of the branch back to the trunk with his eyes. There, he saw three more thick, sturdy branches that would take him to within six feet of the ground.

“All I gotta do is get across that limb to the tree,” Joe mused silently, as he turned his attention to the window.

He saw no hinges, nor sign of any kind of latch, which meant he was going to have to break the window in order to escape. Thankfully the slats across the glass were thin and flimsy, little more than ornamentation. He figured the diameter of the window frame to be roughly a foot and a half, give or take an inch or two. Trying to get through could prove a tight, even painful squeeze, especially if a large number of sharp, jagged pieces of glass remained after breaking the window. He pressed the top of his forehead to the window and hunched his shoulders to check the fit. It would be tight, as he had figured, but it could be done.

Correction.

It WOULD be done.

He had no choice.

Not after that exquisite dinner Lady Chadwick had sent up.

Joe paused once again, his ears alert, straining for even the slightest of human sounds. There was nothing, only the still silence of night. He took a deep ragged breath, his entire body quaking with terrified anticipation. After wrapping the chains, binding together the iron manacles on his wrists, around his fingers, Joe balled his hands into tight, rock hard fists and thrust them through the window.

The glass and wood slats shattered with a near deafening explosion of sound that seemed to echo and bounce off the walls of the room in the same endless profusion as a line of cannons each firing one after the other after the other. Overcome by a swift rising tide of panic, Joe seized the side edges of the window, oblivious to the protruding jagged pieces of glass that remained set within the frame, and pulled himself through the newly made opening in the wall.

Once free of the confining space of the window frame, Joe, much to his horror, found himself in free fall, hurtling to the porch roof two stories below at terrifying speed. He blindly thrust out both arms, all the while squeezing his eyes shut. By sheer luck, the fingers of his right hand touched, then grasped the tree branch nearest the window, followed immediately by the left. The abrupt cessation of his body’s fall earthward, painfully wrenched the right arm and shoulder, dislocated when the steps collapsed the night of the fire. Joe cried out in agony, unable to stop himself.

For what seemed an eternity, he clung to the tree branch, rendered immobile by the agonizing pain in his injured right arm and shoulder. Tiny rivulets of blood flowed from the numerous nicks, cuts, and gashes, just now inflicted by the sharp jagged pieces of glass that remained embedded in the window frame. Dizzy, lightheaded, his naked body shivering uncontrollably in the chilled night air, his gaze fell upon the ground nearly three stories distant, setting off another wave of near-blind panic . . . .

Then, suddenly, the darkness of night became the near blinding glare of mid-afternoon, and the chill of night, the sweltering heat of the desert. The tree limb to which he clung for dear life was now the sheer rock face of Eagle’s nest. His favorite rifle rested in the rocky crags high above his head, right where he had dropped it days ago, when he and Mitch Devlin came out here, hot on the trail of a cougar that had been preying on their calves. How many times had he come out here to retrieve that rifle, only to be overwhelmed by this surge of irrational panic, and mind numbing terror? How many times had he come, only to lie there, half way up, sobbing with frustration and shame because he could go no further?

“Joe . . . . ”

It was Pa.

“Joe, I’m coming up to the top of Eagles’ Nest along side ya.”

“Pa,” he sobbed, now as he did then. “I . . . I know y-you want to help . . . but, you’re only m-making it worse.”

“I’m coming up along side ya, Joe . . . . ”

Next came the ominous sounds of a boot sole sliding against the loose rock, of tumbling gravel, then the worst sound of all, that of a human body sliding against the bare rock face, caught in the relentless pull of gravity.

“JOE! HELP ME! HELP ME, JOE!”

“PA!” he shouted, the paralyzing, mind numbing terror suddenly gone, as if it had never been. “PA, HOLD ON! I’M COMING!”

“YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO REACH ME HERE!” Pa yelled back. “YOU GOTTA GET A LONG STICK.” There was a slight pause, no more than the space of a heartbeat. Then, almost as an after thought . . . . “THE RIFLE, JOE! THAT’LL DO IT! GET THE RIFLE, JOE! GET THE RIFLE!”

“HOLD ON, PA!” He yelled back, as he scrambled up the face of that mountain, lickety-split, with the sure ease of a mountain goat. “I’M COMING . . . .”

Joe squeezed his eyes shut. “I’m c-coming, Pa,” he half sobbed, gritting his teeth against his pain. “Hold on, Pa! I’m coming . . . . ” He moved one hand forward, then the other, focusing his entire attention to the remembered face of his father, as he clung to the edge of the mountain that day. “H-Hold on, Pa . . . PLEASE! Hold on! I’m c-coming . . . . ”

Finally, after what seemed an eternity of agonizing pain and nearly overwhelming panic, his body brushed up against the rough bark of the tree trunk. He scrambled down the remaining branches, giddy with relief, laughing and crying at the same time. As he stepped down to the last branch, the chain binding the manacles around his ankles caught on the jagged nub of a smaller branch, that had at some time broken off. Joe lost his footing and plummeted the remained six feet to the ground, landing on his stomach.

For a time, he lay at the base of the tree, unmoving. The pain of his injuries, the cold, weakness for lack of food, and the physical exertion from not only climbing down from that attic window, but from the ferocious bouts of vomiting hours earlier left him completely spent, utterly exhausted. The sudden appearance of lamplight in one of the second story windows, however, drove all trace of weariness from his body. Stifling a cry of alarm, Joe scrambled to his feet and tore away from the house, half running, half stumbling as his gait tried to exceed the limits of the chain binding together the manacles still locked around his ankles.

“ ‘Mornin’, Candy, come on in,” Sheriff Coffee waved the Ponderosa’s junior foreman in with a wave of his arm. Ben and Hoss were there, huddled together against the morning chill around the small potbellied stove. The latter drank from a large mug cradled in both of his massive hands, while the former reached for the pot on the stove to freshen his cup.

“Good morning, Sheriff Coffee . . . Mister Cartwright . . . Hoss,” Candy greeted the entire assembly affably, with a smile. “I figured you might be here, when I didn’t find you at Doc Martin’s. Mister Cartwright, as of late yesterday afternoon, we rounded up an additional one hundred and ten calves. Hank Carlson said to tell you they expect to have the branding finished by this evening, tomorrow morning at the very latest. After that, they’ll be ready to move the cattle on out to the summer pastures.

“I’m going to remain behind with a skeleton crew to supervise the saddle breaking on that string of horses for the army, and see to the chores around the—well, around.” He had almost said ‘around the HOUSE.’ “You can also tell Hop Sing that a couple of his chickens have started laying again.”

“Hop Sing’ll be very happy to hear ‘bout them chickens o’ his,” Hoss said quietly.

“Candy?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“Thank you,” Ben said gratefully, “for every thing. I honestly don’t know WHAT I would’ve done without you, Hank, and the others over the last few days.”

“Well, I kinda feel responsible, since I was the one who hired Jack Murphy in the first place,” Candy said, his voice filled with remorse.

“Candy, WE hired Jack Murphy,” Ben said firmly. “You and ME. We had no reason to suspect that he was anything other than what he claimed to be. The only people I hold responsible for what happened are Jack Murphy himself, his mother, and the man she has working for her these days. No one else.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“You remember that, Young Man.”

“I will, Mister Cartwright,” Candy promised, as he pulled a vacant chair up beside the stove. “How’s Stacy doing?”

“Li’l Sister’s been given a clean bill o’ health by Doctor Tao, Doctor Johns, ‘n Doc Martin,” Hoss replied with a smile. “Doc Martin ‘n Doctor Johns were gettin’ ready t’ outfit her with a plaster cast when Pa ‘n I came over here. Now all we hafta do is wait for the bones t’ knit properly.”

“ . . . which means the worst is about to come,” Ben declared, rolling his eyes.

“YOU said it, Mister Cartwright, I didn’t,” Candy said with a knowing chuckle, then sobered. “Any word on Joe?”

Hoss filled Candy in on his search among new people buying or renting in Virginia City and the surrounding environs. “Didn’t turn up a dadburned thing,” he concluded with a doleful shake of his head, “but I have an idea . . . . ‘n I need you to help carry it out.”

“What’s your plan, Hoss?” Candy asked.

“We’re pretty sure now that Lady Chadwick’s been keepin’ a real close eye on us for a good long time,” Hoss said grimly. “Pa ‘n I are pretty well convinced that she’s still keepin’ a close watch t’ see how were all holdin’ up with Joe bein’ gone. Especially Pa.”

“Ok so far,” Candy agreed, nodding his head slowly.

“My plan is this. Candy, I want you t’ follow Pa around for the next couple o’ days, but lay low. Keep an eye on whoever’s around, see if anyone’s around all the time.”

“I can do that. When do you want me to start?”

“Right now, Candy,” Ben finished the last of the coffee in his mug, then rose. “My first stop is Mister Milburn’s office. Now that Stacy no longer needs constant care from the doctor, it’s time we stop imposing on the Martins. I’m hoping to find a furnished townhouse to rent, until we can get OUR home rebuilt on the Ponderosa.”

“I’m right behind you, Mister Cartwright.”

As Ben opened the door to step outside, he nearly collided head on with Lucas Milburn’s secretarial assistant, John Casey. The latter was a short man, his head barely reaching to the middle of Ben’s chest, of thin, wiry build. He wore a simply tailored black suit, trousers and coat, with a white shirt and black string tie.

“Oh dear! Please, excuse me, Mister Cartwright,” John stammered.

“I’M the one who should be asking YOUR pardon, Mister Casey,” Ben said, as he placed a steadying hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”

“Yes, Sir, I’m fine. Mister Lucas said your son, Hoss, is looking for me?”

“Come on in, Mister Casey,” the sheriff invited. “Hoss is right here.”

“I’m off. Hoss, I’ll meet you at the Martins later.”

“Right, Pa. See ya later.” Hoss, then, turned his attention to John Casey. “I thought you weren’t gonna be back ‘til the end o’ the week,” he said as he led the diminutive man over to the chair Ben had just vacated next to the stove.

“My pa, my sister, and I managed to wind things up earlier than expected,” John said, seating himself close to the stove. He rubbed both hands together briskly, then spread them out over the warmth radiating from the top of the stove. “I arrived on the four o’clock stage yesterday afternoon.”

“I was real sorry t’ hear about your ma, but I’m glad things went well for ya,” Hoss said quietly.

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright. Now how can I help YOU?”

“Mister Lucas said a man named Charles stopped in t’ ask questions about places t’ rent,” Hoss said, taking the chair next to Casey. “This was about six months ago. Do you remember anything about him?”

“I remember him very well, Mister Cartwright. Mister Lucas and I don’t get many clients who speak with an English accent.”

“What did this Mister Charles look like, Mister Casey?” Roy Coffee immediately stepped in and took charge of the questioning.

“He was a tall fella, around the same height as your father, Hoss. He had dark hair, graying around the edges, clean shaven,” John replied.”

“What, exactly, did he talk to ya about?” Roy asked.

“He told me that he was a business manager, working for . . . . ” John frowned. “I can’t recall her name. Mister Charles said his employer was a widow, with a son just home from school. He asked about the Marlowe place.”

The Marlowe mansion, former home of Tom and Clara Marlowe, was located a few miles outside of town. After their daughter, Rachael, had moved on to Oregon, Tom and Clara moved back east, to New York. Tom had placed the house in the care of his own lawyer, ostensibly to sell. With some of the mines in the area closing down, their vast resources of silver depleted, few potential buyers had the wherewithal to purchase or keep up a home of that size. Except for an occasional renter, or squatter seeking shelter, the big, cavernous house had stood empty since Tom and Clara’s departure nearly a year ago.

“The Marlowe place! Dadburn it, why didn’t we even think o’ that?” Hoss muttered softly, his face darkening with anger.

Roy Coffee immediately shot Hoss a sharp glare, warning him to keep quiet.

“I told Mister Charles that he would have to see Cecil Morrow,” John Casey continued, unfazed by Hoss’ reaction to his mention of the Marlowe Mansion. “Mister Morrow was the Marlowes’ lawyer while they were here, and he’s supposed to be overseeing disposal of that house. He, Mister Charles that is, asked me about other houses in the area for rent. After that, he asked for an appointment, and left.”

“You gave him an appointment?”

John Casey nodded. “He never came, nor did he send word asking me to cancel his appointment.”

“Thank you, Mister Casey, you’ve been very helpful,” Roy said, rising.

“The Marlowe place, eh?” Hoss murmured under his breath as he slowly rose from his seat. An dark, angry scowl knotted his brow.

“Now you hold on right there, Hoss Cartwright,” Roy Coffee sternly admonished Hoss, as he returned from seeing John Casey to the door. “You so much as take one step in the direction o’ the Marlowe place, I’m lockin’ your butt in jail ‘n tossin’ away the key ‘til ya come to your senses.”

“Sheriff Coffee . . . . ”

“Hoss, y’ got TWO choices! Either WE do this nice ‘n legal or I do this nice ‘n legal whilst YOU watch from that jail cell. Now which’ll it be?”

“Alright!” Hoss said tersely. “WE do this nice ‘n legal.”

“That’s very sensible of ya,” Roy said in a wry tone as he strapped his holster around his waist. “Now let’s go see Mister Morrow.”

“No, Roy, I’ve not had anyone named CHARLES stop in to inquire about the Marlowe mansion,” Cecil Morrow said cantankerously. He was an elderly man, tall and reed slender, with a full head of wavy, dust gray hair fading to snow white. His salt and pepper goatee was neatly trimmed, and he had gray-green eyes that peered out over a pair of half moon shaped reading glasses.

“Is there anyone rentin’ the Marlowe place now?” Roy Coffee asked.

Cecil’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “You said this relates to a murder investigation, Sheriff Coffee?”

“That’s right.”

“I rented the Marlowe mansion to a woman by the name of Mrs. D. Sally Lawrence,” Cecil said. “Widow, with an invalid son. The arrangements were made with a man who gave his name as Gerald Worth. Mister Worth also spoke with a pronounced English accent, but that’s where the similarity between him and the Mister Charles you’re looking for ends.”

“What does this Mister Worth look like?” Roy asked.

“He’s a big man, bigger even than Mister Cartwright here,” Cecil replied. “Dark hair, dark eyes. Age . . . . ” He shrugged indifferently. “Hard to say. Could be anywhere from his late thirties to his mid-to-late fifties.”

“Have y’ ever met Mrs. Lawrence or her son?”

Cecil shook his head. “All the arrangements were made by Mister Worth.”

“Thank you very much, Mister Morrow,” Roy said, as he turned toward the door.

“Sheriff Coffee . . . . ”

Roy stopped and turned back. His eyes came to rest warily on the attorney’s face. “Yes, Mister Morrow?”

“I hope I don’t have to remind you that you will need a court order, signed by a judge in order to search that house,” Cecil warned. “If either you or the Cartwrights so much as set foot on the property out there WITHOUT a proper writ, I will advise Mrs. Lawrence to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Mister Morrow, you make your self REAL clear,” Roy said quietly. “Now let me make somethin’ clear t’ YOU. If you carry out that threat against me, I’ll have my deputy arrest ya for hinderin’ a lawful murder investigation. I’ll ALSO have my deputy send a wire t’ Mister Marlowe, lettin’ him know that you ain’t servin’ his best interests one iota in lettin’ out his house t’ known criminals. As things stand now, I know that big, empty house is no better ‘n a useless white elephant, but I also know Mister Marlowe’s payin’ ya a real pretty penny t’ keep on lookin’ after things.” He paused, to allow the import of his words to sink in. “I think you ‘n I understand each other, Mister Morrow?”

Cecil Morrow glared venomously at Roy Coffee, but said nothing.

“NOW do we ride out to the Marlowe place?” Hoss asked, as he and Roy Coffee stepped from Cecil Morrow’s office, back out onto the board sidewalk.

“Not just yet, Hoss. We got one more place t’ stop first.”

“Where?” Hoss demanded, with an almost uncharacteristic impatience.

“Judge Faraday’s office,” Roy replied with a wolfish grin, “t’ git ourselves a search warrant, like Mister Morrow suggested.” The grin faded. “I promise ya, Hoss. We’ll be on our way out t’ the Marlowe place sometime in the next five minutes. TEN at the outside.”

“Gotta get away . . . gotta get away,” Joe whimpered, as he half-limped, half-stumbled through a wide meadow of tall grass, that reached up just past his knees. Patches of new green could be seen among the yellowed, dead stalks of last year. Joe had no idea in the world where he was, nor did he much care. “Gotta . . . g-gotta get away . . . gotta get away . . . . ”

The toes of his foot caught in a gopher hole, hidden among the tall, dried grasses. In a desperate bid to keep from falling, Joe tried to swing his other leg forward. The iron chain connected to the manacles around his ankles pulled taut, preventing him from getting his foot out. He involuntarily tried to flail his arms to regain his balance, but was prevented from doing so the chain holding together the manacles around his wrists. His entire body twisted as he fell, except for the foot held fast in the gopher hole. Joe thudded hard to the half frozen ground, crying out as burning pain seized his ankle in a vice like grip and raced up the length of his leg to his knee.

For a time he simply lay there in the tall grass, curled in a light ball, his breath coming in ragged shallow gasps.

“Gotta get away!” The words, an all consuming impetus, silently screamed within his mind and thoughts. “Gotta get away!”

Joe uncurled his body slightly, and rose to his hands and knees, taking great care not to bang his injured ankle, the one he had caught in the gopher hole, against the hard ground. He gingerly shifted his weight forward, biting his lower lip against the shooting pain in his dislocated right arm. He tried to bring his uninjured foot up under his body, to provide the necessary leverage that would enable him to stand. The iron chain pulled taut, causing the manacle around his injured ankle to dig into tender flesh, angry red and rapidly swelling.

“Gotta get away,” his brain insisted.

Joe tried again, and again to get to his feet, spurred on by his own rapidly escalating panic. Each time, he fell. Finally, with tears borne of frustration, anger, fear, and pain, he resigned himself to crawling on his hands and knees. He barely managed a half dozen steps before collapsing once again. His eyelids closed the minute his head hit the ground as exhaustion, cold, the pain of his own injuries, and lack of food finally extracted their toll.

“Hey, Alex!”

Alexander Grant, Alex to his friends, stopped and turned. At the age of seven, going on eight, he was a small boy for his age, with jet black hair and dark brown eyes. “Good morning, Mister Candy,” the boy greeted the Ponderosa foreman with a big smile. “I was sure sorry to hear about Mister Cartwright’s house burning down.”

“Thank you. I’ll be sure to tell him YOU said so,” Candy promised the boy with a big smile. “The important thing, however, is that everyone made it out.”

“That’s what my ma says,” Alex said, as he climbed up on the bench Candy occupied outside the general store. “I heard Miss Stacy got hurt.”

“She did,” Candy replied, his eyes glued to the door of Lucas Milburn’s office directly across the street.

“Is she doing ok now?”

“She’s on the mend, but it’s gonna take a while.”

“Wouldja tell her I hope she gets better real soon? Please?”

“I sure will, Alex.”

“You gonna come have dinner with ma ‘n me on Saturday?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Candy replied. “By then, most of the men will be moving the cattle out to the summer pastures . . . and with Mister Cartwright and Mister Hoss looking after Miss Stacy and trying to find Mister Joe . . . well, I think I’m going to be very busy out at the Ponderosa for awhile.”

Eating supper with Alex, and his widowed mother, Rebecca Grant, every Saturday night had become a given over the better part of the last three, going on four months ago now. She had returned to Virginia City with her son last fall, roughly six months after the sudden death of her husband, so that she might be near to her parents, Jonas and Elleanor Sinclair. Rebecca worked for her father, leaving her son in the care of her mother and two younger sisters on weekday afternoons following school, and in the morning on Saturday. Candy had met her and the boy at the Cartwrights’ annual Christmas party this past year.

“I sure hope you can come, Mister Candy.”

“I’ll do my best,” Candy promised. “You tell your ma I’ll let her know as soon as I can.”

“I will.”

“Now you’d best be off,” Candy said, grinning. “If you don’t shake a leg, it’ll be time to go on back to school, with no time left to eat that fine lunch your grandma made for ya.”

“See you later, Mister Candy.” With that, the boy sped off.

“See ya, Alex,” Candy said, taking due note of the two women standing out on the sidewalk in front of Lucas Milburn’s office conversing with one another; the youths seated on the bench across the street in front of the notions shop next; the elderly man hobbling by, leaning heavily on his cane, politely tipping his hat to the ladies as he passed by; the young man tethering his skittish bay mare to the hitching post on the street in front of him, before sauntering into the general store.

A buxom woman, whom Candy immediately recognized as Emmeline Potter stepped out of the notions shop, carrying a shopping bag, and a half dozen boxes. The youths politely rose as she approached the bench. The taller of the two nodded to the other as he took Mrs. Potter’s packages, then fell in step behind her as he left.

When Ben Cartwright finally stepped out of Lucas Milburn’s office, the two women out front immediately moved toward him on a direct intercept course. Candy heard the younger of the two call out, and wave, as she surged ahead of her companion. Ben stopped, politely tipped his hat, and conversed with the two women for a few moments, before parting company. The two women remained, again conversing with one another, before moving off in the opposite direction. The youth still seated on the bench turned his head in the direction Ben had gone, then rose, and set off in the same direction.

Candy rose, and followed, keeping himself well within the shadows cast by the buildings on his side of the street.

“Good morning, Mister Canaday.”

Candy turned, and smiled as his eyes fell on the face of Jenna Lee Dennison, companion to Georgianna Wilkens, one of Virginia City’s leading and oldest citizens.

“Good morning, Mrs. Dennison,” he warmly returned the greeting, as he watched Ben Cartwright enter the barber shop across the street. The youth, who had followed him from the lawyer’s office, walked past the barber shop. He paused at the junction of C Street and a small, narrow side lane, crossed, and took up his position in front of the bakery, two stores away from the corner.

“How’s Stacy doing?” Jenna Lee asked.

“Much better,” Candy replied. “The infection’s cleared, so there’s no longer any danger of her losing her leg. Now all we have to do is wait a few weeks for the bone to properly knit.”

“Thank the Good Lord!” Jenna Lee murmured with genuine, heartfelt gratitude. “The hard part for her ’s past.”

“No, Mrs. Dennison, I think the hard part for Stacy’s about to BEGIN,” Candy said. “As soon as she starts getting some of her strength back, which won’t be long, now that she’s able to be up and about, she’s gonna want to be right back in the ol’ saddle again, cast or no cast.”

“You tell that girl from ME that she’s t’ mind her doctor, y’ hear?” Jenna Lee said sternly.

“You bet I will,” Candy promised.

“How ‘bout the rest o’ the family? They find Li’l Joe yet?”

“Not yet, but I think they will soon. Sheriff Coffee’s been very diligent, and speaking for myself, I trust his experience.”

“I hope so. Miz Wilkens ‘n I’ve been sayin’ a prayer for that boy every night since the fire, ‘n we’ll keep right on ‘til he turns up.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Dennison, and speaking of Mrs. Wilkens, how’s SHE doing? I heard she was a little under the weather.”

“She had that bad bout o’ cold toward the end o’ summer, that lingered, turned into pneumonia over winter, but she’s doin’ better,” Jenna Lee replied. “ ‘Course a woman o’ her age takes a mite longer t’ bounce back than you young’ns.”

“I’m glad she’s doing better,” Candy said in all sincerity. “Please tell her I was asking about her.”

“I surely will,” Jenna Lee eagerly promised. “I’d best be movin’ along. Still can’t be leavin’ Miz Wilkens alone f’r too long, even if she is on the mend. Good chattin’ with ya, Mister Canaday.”

“Good seeing you, too, Mrs. Dennison.”

Jenna Lee Dennison moved off, just as Ben Cartwright left the barber shop. Candy watched as the Cartwright family patriarch turned and started up the street toward the bakery. He paused at the bakery window, where the youth yet remained, then continued. The youth remained in front of the bakery window, though his head turned slightly in the same direction Ben continued walking.

Ben walked past the next two stores then stepped down off the side walk and moved toward the hitching post, where he had tethered Buck. He quickly loosed the reigns and climbed up in the saddle. The youth turned from the bakery window and waved to a man standing next to a big sorrel gelding, tethered to a hitching post on Candy’s side of the street. As Candy continued to watch, the man mounted his own steed and started off down the street, heading in the same direction as Mister Cartwright.

“Four ‘n half feet tall, wearing a light blue shirt about three miles too big, a pair of faded denims, and a plain brown hat that’s definitely seen better days,” Candy murmured softly under his breath as he walked down to the hitching post in front of the saloon, located two doors down from where he had taken up his position across from the barber shop, keeping Mister Cartwright and the man following behind under very close scrutiny. Candy quickly climbed up in the saddle of his own horse, Thor, and followed behind, again keeping a discreet distance and well within the shade cast by the buildings positioned directly in front of the morning sun.

A short time later, Mister Cartwright stopped in front of the Martins’ house, and dismounted. The man following turned, and started down a narrow street that adjoined the main road a block before Doctor Martin’s home and office.

“Whoa!” Candy ordered Thor in a low voice.

As the man following Ben Cartwright rounded the corner, Candy caught a good look at his profile. The high sloping forehead, jutting chin, and hawked nose could only belong to one person . . . . .

“Jack O’Connor!” Candy muttered, his eyes brows coming together to form a dark, angry scowl. Aged in his early to mid-forties, Jack O’Connor stood nearly as tall as Hoss Cartwright, with very thin, wiry build. He was a surly, bitter man, these days a ne’er-do-well with an enormous ego and an even bigger chip on his shoulder, who blamed others for his own shortcomings. He drank whiskey, beer, anything strong that he could get his hands on, from the time he rose in the morning until he finally went to sleep at night.

Candy had not so much as laid eyes on the man since Hoss fired him for drinking on the job six months ago. The man had been warned many times. Candy had warned him, so had Hoss, Joe, and Hark Carlson, the senior foreman. They had all gone out of their way to overlook, not only the man’s irresponsible consumption of whiskey, but his surly attitude as well, out of pity for the man’s niece, Midge Frakes. She had come to live with him four years ago, at the age of eight, following the untimely deaths of her parents. Jack O’Connor was supposedly the only family she had.

The incident last spring, as they were moving the cattle from the winter pasture, up to the summer pasture, however, was something that could not be overlooked. Jack had finally shown up for work nearly two and a half hours late, and “falling down drunker ‘n a skunk,” to quote Hoss verbatim. The men had no sooner rounded up all the cattle together, when Jack, who had spent most of the time leaning heavily against the fence, watching, let out an ear-splitting screech. Before anyone could even think of stopping him, he had whipped his gun from its holster and started firing. Two of the younger men finally wrestled him to the ground and took his gun, but the damage had already been done.

The minute Jack O’Connor started shooting, the frightened cattle began to stampede. One man, Johnny Oates, aged seventeen, was killed, trampled into a mangled, bloody mass. Three others were badly injured. One of those three would never be able to walk again. Many others, including Joe Cartwright and himself, had barely escaped with their lives.

Hoss, at that point, had no choice but to fire the man.

That night, Jack O’Connor was at the Bucket of Blood Saloon, spending the last of his pay on cheap, rotgut whiskey, telling everyone who would listen, that Hank Carlson, Candy, and a few of the other men had actually been responsible for starting that stampede. The reason HE had been fired instead of them was THEY were all very good friends of the Cartwrights.

He wasn’t.

He also let it be known that he had never had much use for that high-and-mighty bunch, anyway.

Candy turned Thor and headed at once for Jack O’Connor’s favorite haunt, his home away from home, the ol’ Bucket of Blood Saloon. He looped Thor’s reins around the hitching post out front, then walked inside. He spotted Jack standing at the far end of the bar, with a bottle of whiskey, nearly half empty, sitting in front of him. Candy wasn’t surprised to find the youth, whom he had last seen standing in front of the bakery window, also at the bar, standing next to Jack.

“Well, well, well! If is isn’t Jack O’Connor! Long time no see!” Candy greeted the man with a tight mirthless grin. “How’s it going’?”

“Fine, no thanks to YOU,” Jack growled, as he poured himself another glass of whiskey.

“Who’re you working for these days, Jack?”

“Ain’t none o’ your business.”

“You’re wrong, Jack, Ol’ Buddy. I think it’s every bit my business.”

“I said it AIN’T!”

“I beg to differ!”

“Looky here, Mister! If my uncle says it ain’t none o’ your business, then it ain’t none o’ your business,” the youth, standing beside Jack O’Connor, spoke up for the first time. “Why don’tcha take a hike ‘n leave us alone?”

“Can’t do that, Midge,” Candy replied. “It seems your uncle . . . and you, too, for that matter, have made something of a habit out of following Mister Cartwright around these last few days.”

“What of it?” Jack growled.

“I’d like to know WHY.”

“Look, Mister Canaday! I already said it once . . . I’ll say it again! It AIN’T none o’ your business.”

“I say it IS.”

Jack downed the entire glass of whiskey in a single gulp, then went for his pistol.

Candy was much faster. “Don’t even think about it, Jack,” he warned, as he leveled the barrel of his own revolver at Jack O’Connor’s abdomen. “Now I’ll ask you one more time. WHY are you and Midge here following Mister Cartwright?”

“What part o’ ‘it ain’t none o’ your business’ are ya havin’ trouble understandin’, Mister Canaday?”

“It’s a free country, anyway,” Midge retorted. “My uncle ‘n I can go anywhere we like.”

“It may be a free country, Midge Dear, but a man also has his right to privacy,” Candy returned without missing a beat. “You and your uncle have violated Mister Cartwright’s privacy by following him around.”

“Why don’t you go rope some stray cattle, Greenhorn?” Midge shot back.

“If you don’t keep a civil tongue in your head, Young Lady, so help me, I’M gonna turn you right over my knee and whale the livin’ daylights out of you.”

“You ‘n what army?”

“Jack, you’ve got a choice,” Candy said, returning his attention to the unruly girl’s uncle. “You can either tell me right here and right now why you and Midge have been following Mister Cartwright around, OR you can tell the sheriff . . . from behind bars.”

“You can’t put me in jail.”

“You wanna try me?”

Jack O’Connor glared over at Candy, noting the deep, ferocious scowl, the fire in his eyes, and the mouth thinning to a nearly straight angry line. He turned away a moment later, and poured another glass from the bottle. “Buy me another bottle o’ whiskey, ‘n I’ll tell ya.”

“How about I buy Midge something for supper tonight?” Candy countered, making no attempt to his disgust.

“I SAID whiskey.”

“Bruno!”

“Yeah, Candy?”

“A bottle of your finest for Mister O’Connor here.”

“Comin’ up.”

Bruno returned a moment later with the bottle of whiskey and placed it in front of Jack. Before he could even think of reaching for it, Candy quickly grabbed the bottle by its neck and swung it back out of reach.

“HEY!” Jack protested.

“Uh unh!” Candy shook his head. “You don’t get a single drop of this until you tell me why you and Midge have been following Mister Cartwright.”

“Don’t tell him, Uncle Jack,” Midge begged. “Please, don’t tell him.”

“Shut yer yap, Brat!” Jack growled at his niece, then turned back to Candy. “Ok, Mister Canaday, Midge ‘n me been working for a guy named Worth. Mister Gerald Worth! He’s been payin’ me sixty bucks a day to watch the Cartwrights, ‘specially MISTER Cartwright, ‘n tell him what they’re up to.”

“Did this Mister Worth tell you WHY he wanted you to watch the Cartwrights?”

“Nope!” Jack adamantly shook his head. “I didn’t ask neither. Now gimme back m’ whiskey.”

“Here!” Candy contemptuously slammed the bottle down on the bar in front of Jack O’Connor. “I hope for Midge’s sake, ya CHOKE on it.”

“John, whaddya MEAN you ain’t gonna swear out a search warrant for the Marlowe place?” Roy Coffee demanded. He stood directly in front of the judge’s face, leaning over, with the palms of his hands lying flat on top of the desk. Hoss stood behind him, scowling, with arms folded tight across his massive barrel chest.

“Roy, you have no proof that Joe Cartwright is actually in that house,” John said tersely. “You just got through saying so yourself.”

“John— ”

“No! As much as I’d LIKE to swear out that warrant, I CAN’T! Not until you bring me some good, solid proof that Joe is in that house, being held against his will.”

“John, ain’t ya heard one word I said?! That woman . . . Lady Chadwick’s . . . wanted in Carson City f’r questionin’ about the murder of a man by the name o’ Montague,” Roy pressed.

“The woman renting the Marlowe house gave her name as D. Sally Lawrence.”

“D. Sally Lawrence is another name f’r Lady Chadwick,” Roy argued.

“You don’t know that, Roy.”

As the sheriff and the judge argued, Hoss began to slowly edge his way toward the door.

“Lady Chadwick’s maiden name was DE SALLE! Ben told me so himself. Her MARRIED name’s LAWRENCE. There was a Mrs. de Salle livin’ in that house in Carson City . . . the one where Mister Montague’s body was found. Those names are awfully close t’ soundin’ like D. Sally Lawrence.”

“Close, Roy, but NO cigar.”

“Dammit, John, what the hell more do y’ NEED?!”

“A helluva lot more than here say,” John Faraday angrily shot back. “You have absolutely no proof whatsoever that Mrs. de Salle in Carson City and Mrs. D. Sally Lawrence here are one and the same, NOR can you prove that they and this Lady Chadwick are the same. Even if you COULD, there’s still not a shred of proof that they’re holding Joe Cartwright against his will.”

“Keep it up, Guys,” Hoss silently implored them as he continued to move toward the door. “You’re doin’ just fine.”

“I’ll bet YOU’RE just doin’ this ‘cause Ben Cartwright blew your backin’ for governor clear outta the water a few years back,” Roy accused.

John Faraday scowled. Granted his friendship with the Cartwrights was no longer as warm and as close as it had been before Sam Endicott had offered to financially back his bid for the office of governor, he prided himself on being a man who would never set personal feelings, for good or for ill, before the dictates of the law. “I’ll overlook that remark, Sheriff Coffee . . . THIS time,” he said tersely. “I know you and Ben Cartwright have been very good friends for a number of years. You can’t help BUT be upset by everything that’s happened to them in the last few days.”

“Are you accusin’ ME o’ settin’ friendship above the law?” Roy demanded.

“No, but now that YOU mention it . . . . ”

Hoss sidled up to the door and gently placed his hand on the door knob.

“You listen t’ me, John Faraday, ‘n you listen GOOD!” Roy immediately shot back. “I never, not in all the years I been sheriff o’ Virginia City, EVER set my friendship with Ben Cartwright or anybody ELSE above the law. An’ I’ll tell ya somethin’ ELSE! If ‘n I ever DID set my friendship with Ben above the law, HE’D be the very first t’ call me on it!”

“What’s the matter, Roy? Guilty conscience?”

Hoss turned the door knob and quietly eased the door open.

“My conscience is clean, Judge Faraday. Is YOURS?”

“Now see here, Roy— ”

“No, John, YOU see here!”

Hoss quickly, and very quietly stepped out onto the street and closed the door behind him.

“HOSS! HEY, HOSS!”

The biggest of Ben Cartwright’s sons glanced up and saw Candy on Thor galloping toward him at top speed. He immediately crossed the board side walk and stepped down onto the street. “What’s up, Candy?” he asked, as the foreman dismounted from Thor’s back.

“I found out who has been following your pa around, Hoss.”

“Already?”

Candy nodded.

Hoss’ scowl deepened. “Who?”

“Jack O’Connor and his niece, Midge Frakes. Jack said they’ve been working for a man by the name of Worth. Mister Gerald Worth!”

“Dadburn it! That’s the man who arranged f’r this D. Sally Lawrence t’ rent the Marlowe Place.”

“Could be a coincidence, My Friend.”

“You believe that, Candy?”

“Nope!” He adamantly shook his head. “What do we do NOW?”

“We go back ‘n tell Pa. You know where he IS?”

“I trailed him back to Doc Martin’s home,” Candy replied.

“Let’s go!” Hoss turned and started toward Chubb, who stood tethered to the hitching post near the entrance to the courthouse and the offices of the three Virginia City judges.

“What happened to the legalities?” Candy asked as he climbed back up into Thor’s saddle.

“I think they went right out the window,” Hoss replied. “If we’re goin’ out t’ the Marlowe house, we’d best git, ‘fore Judge Faraday ‘n Sheriff Coffee figure out that I’M missin’.” Hoss untethered Chubb from the hitching post, and climbed up into the saddle. “You said Pa went back to the Martins?”

“Yeah,” Candy replied with a curt nod.

“Let’s go. We’ll stop by there on our way out to the Marlowe place.”

“DAMN, DAMN, DAMN, DAMN!” Gerald Crippensworth swore vehemently, as he stormed into the house, his face as dark as a veritable thundercloud. He slammed the front door shut behind him with all his great strength. It’s sound continued to echo and reverberate through the empty entryway as he strode resolutely toward the curved double staircase, leading up to the second floor.

He found Lady Chadwick in the upstairs living room, clad in a long, filmy white negligee, with her painting smock over top. She stood before her easel set up in the very center of the room, with an enormous canvas, measuring six feet tall and four feet wide, leaning against it. It was a portrait of a man, woman, and a young boy, nearly life sized. Crippensworth immediately recognized the woman as a younger version of his employer, a much, MUCH younger version.

“You’ve been working on that for quite some time, Milady,” Crippensworth remarked sardonically, as he strode into the room.

Linda started, nearly dropping the brush in hand and her palette. “Crippensworth, how many times have I told you to knock first before entering?” she reprimanded him in a cold, angry tone that dripped icicles. “When you startled me just now, I nearly RUINED this painting. It’s a birthday gift.”

“For WHOM?”

“My husband,” she replied in an imperious tone that dripped icicles.

“Your HUSBAND?! A little LATE, isn’t it?”

“What’s THAT supposed to mean?” she demanded.

“The man’s DEAD, Milady, as in deader than a damned doornail,” Crippensworth replied, his voice dripping with acid sarcasm. “In any case that man doesn’t look a THING like Lord Chadwick.”

She paused, completely motionless, with her arm raised, the paintbrush in hand touching the canvas, and regarded him with a sharp glare.

“If that’s supposed to be a family portrait, the WOMAN is quite obviously YOU. . . as you would have looked many, many, MANY years ago, no doubt, but, still, all the same, its YOU.”

Linda angrily bristled against his insulting reference to the passage of time, but said nothing.

“The boy COULD pass for your son, I suppose, but to me, he looks more like young Cartwright, as he probably looked as a young boy,” Crippensworth continued in a tone, faintly condescending. “I can’t quite place the MAN, however . . . . ”

“That’s my husband,” Linda replied, returning her attention once more to the painting.

“Your husband?!” Crippensworth exclaimed, completely taken aback. “I’ve met Lord Chadwick a time or two, Milady. THIS man looks absolutely NOTHING like him.”

“Lord Chadwick?! I don’t know WHAT you’re talking about. MY husband is Ben Cartwright.”

“Oh?” Crippensworth queried, wholly taken aback. “Since WHEN?”

“Since forever,” she replied with a dreamy smile.

“Pack your things, Milady, we’re leaving,” Crippensworth ordered in a flat tone of voice. “You can be balmy on your OWN time.”

“Leaving?!” Linda echoed, as she set her palette and brush down on the small table she had set up next to the easel and canvas. “What do you mean we’re leaving?”

“That bloody fool O’Connor told the Cartwrights’ foreman EVERYTHING, Milady. We’ve got to cut our losses and high tail it the hell out of here PRONTO!”

“What ARE you talking about, Crippensworth?” Linda demanded. A bewildered frown knotted her brow.

“I’m talking about that damn’ bloody fool of a drunkard you INSISTED on hiring to spy on the Cartwrights,” Crippensworth spat. “Jack O’Connor! ‘He hates the Cartwrights!’ Your very words, Milady. ‘He HATES the Cartwrights, just as much as I do.’ You FAILED to take into account that the man loves his whiskey far more than he hates the Cartwrights.”

“I have no idea WHAT you’re talking about.”

“I told you to be balmy on your own time,” Crippensworth snapped. “Now get your arse upstairs and pack your things. I’ll kill the boy first— ”

“NO!” Linda immediately protested, her eyes round with horror.

“Haven’t your heard a single word of what I’ve just said?!” Crippensworth demanded, taking no pains to conceal his anger, frustration, healthy fear, and a general overall disgust for his employer that had been growing, festering for quite some time. “That damned fool O’Connor TALKED! For a lousy bottle of cheap, rotgut whiskey, he told the Cartwrights’ foreman EVERYTHING. We’ve GOT to cut our losses NOW, and get the hell as far away from here as we possibly can.”

“We take the boy WITH us.”

“We CAN’T. He’ll only slow us down.”

“Alright, then we’ll just leave him.”

“We can’t just leave him, you stupid twit! If we do, HE’LL talk. He’ll tell them everything, not only about what we’ve done to HIM, but about the late Mister Montague, may God rest his poor, unfortunate soul. The boy MUST be silenced. PERMANENTLY!”

“NO! I WON’T LET YOU KILL MY SON!” Linda cried out in anguish.

“Oh God!” Crippensworth muttered, shaking his head.

“You’re FIRED, Crippensworth,” Linda said, her entire body trembling with rage. “I TOLD Ben it was a mistake to have hired you. I TOLD him. Now you collect your things together and meet me in the drawing room downstairs. I’ll have your pay ready.”

Crippensworth angrily turned heel and fled from the room. He bounded up to the second floor, heading for the attic. He fully intended to kill Joe Cartwright first, then return and kill Milady. She had finally plunged over the edge upon which she had been teetering for quite some time, that fine dividing edge between sanity and INsanity. In the short time he had worked for her, taking over the tasks left behind by the late Mister Montague, he had found her to be a semi-amusing diversion, mostly in the privacy of her bedroom. Of late, however, she had become quite tiresome, particularly with regard to this big, grandiose plan of hers for revenge. Now, she had also become a liability, a threat to his chances of continued survival.

He bounded up the narrow backstairs between the servants’ quarters on the third floor and the private family’s rooms on the second. Upon reaching the third floor, he bounded all the way down the entire length of the dimly lit narrow corridor to the door at its very end, behind which lay the steep, narrow flight leading up to the attic. A few moments later, he burst into the room where he and Milady had kept Joe Cartwright prisoner. The stench of stale vomit overwhelmed him. Gagging, he immediately stepped back out of the tiny room, slamming the door shut behind him. Crippensworth threw open the door to the attic room next to Joe’s, one slightly larger, that also faced out toward the front of the house. He bounded across the room, to the windows, both long and rectangular, set into the wall, directly opposite. He kicked out the panes with a swift, powerful thrust of his leg, then stuck his head outside, through the opening. For a few minutes he stood there, greedily gulping in lung full, after lung full of clean, cold fresh air.

As Crippensworth’s stomach began to settle, his eyes moved down to the roof below, the roof overtop the wide porch at the front door. There, he caught odd glints of light, not unlike the brilliant flash and sparkle of sunlight on a diamond, directly below the window of Joe Cartwright’s attic room. He scrutinized the glints at length for a few moments, then gasped.

“Bloody hell!” he exclaimed, upon realizing they were shards of glass lying on the roof below. With heart in mouth, he ran from the larger attic room, to the smaller one, plunging in, thoroughly unmindful now, of the pungent smell of stale vomit. His eyes immediately fell on the shattered round window. Joe Cartwright, of course, was no where to be seen.

Crippensworth tore back down the stairs, making a brief detour toward Milady’s bedroom, on the second floor at the very end of a long hallway. Her jewelry box, made of mahogany, polished to a high, glossy shine and inlaid with pieces of ivory, sat in the center of her dresser. He threw open the lid and grabbed out a handful of rings and necklaces. Thrusting them into the left hand pocket of his jacket, he yanked open the top drawer of the dresser and removed the soft black leather wallet lying on top of a pile of silk underwear. He opened it and smiled. Inside was a thick stack of bills, a few ones, and fives, the rest twenties, fifties, and a couple of hundred dollar bills in the back. Between that and the jewelry, he had more than enough to take him far away from Virginia City.

Before he could leave, however, he had two unfinished pieces of business to complete.

“Pa!” Hoss grimly announced himself as he bounded into the Martins’ upstairs living room where Ben, Stacy, Hop Sing, and Mrs. Martin were ensconced. Candy followed close at Hoss’ heels.

Ben turned and glanced up. He was bending over Stacy, ready to cover her with the hand crocheted afghan that Lily Martin kept neatly folded across the back of the long divan. “What is it, Hoss?” he queried, noting the grim set of jaw and mouth.

“I know where Lady Chadwick’s been holin’ up,” Hoss replied. “Ten t’ one we’ll find JOE there, too.”

“I’ll get Buck saddled,” Candy offered.

“Thank you,” Ben said as he placed the afghan over Stacy’s lap. “You’ll find him out in the Martins’ stable.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?” Ben said, as he seated himself down on the edge of the ottoman facing her chair, taking great care not to jostle her injured leg, now sporting a plaster cast.

“I . . . I wish I could go with you guys,” she said with heartfelt sincerity.

“I know.”

“You, Hoss, and Candy bring Grandpa back, y’hear?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Ben replied with an emphatic nod of his head. On impulse, he reached over and gave her a big hug. As Stacy slipped her arms around his neck, and hugged back, he felt another hand coming down on his shoulder, a small hand, somewhere in between the size of Joe’s and Stacy’s hands, with wiry, strong fingers.

“What Miss Stacy say, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing said very quietly. “You Mister Hoss, Mister Candy, go, bring back our boy.”

“We will,” Ben promised. He planted a kiss on Stacy’s forehead, then rose to his feet.

“Give that shrew bitch a belt in the gob for me, too, willya, Pa?” Stacy said, frowning.

“Tell you what, Young Woman. I’ll bring that harridan back here and have her thrown in jail,” Ben said. “Then I’ll offer Roy Coffee a substantial bribe to look the other way while YOU give her a good solid belt in the gob for ME.”

“That suits me even better,” Stacy declared, with relish.

After Ben, Hoss, and Candy left, Lily Martin rose. “Hop Sing . . . Stacy, if you’ll both excuse me, I’m going to go ask Hilda Mae to fix us some lunch.”

“Mrs. Martin?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“You don’t have to on MY account,” she said with a morose sigh. “I’m not really very hungry.”

“Honestly, you’re just as bad as your father and brothers . . . except maybe for HOSS,” Lily admonished the younger woman severely. “Well, I’m going to tell YOU the same thing I told your pa the night Doctor Johns operated on you, Miss Stacy Rose Cartwright. You’re NOT going to do your pa or Joe any good by NOT looking after yourself properly and making yourself sick. Worse than that, you won’t help yourself either. If you expect to heal up properly from your own injuries . . . ” her eyes pointedly moved to the cast around her leg, “ . . . you need to keep up your strength.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Stacy said quickly.

“Not to worry, Mrs. Martin. Hop Sing make sure Miss Stacy eat every single bite.”

Satisfied, Lily Martin turned and left the room.

“Hop Sing?”

“Yes, Miss Stacy?”

“I sure hope Pa, Hoss, and Candy find Joe,” Stacy said fearfully. “I have this terrible, horrible feeling that he’s going to be in real big trouble if they don’t.”

“Hop Sing know how Miss Stacy feel,” the Chinese man said very quietly. “Hop Sing feel same thing.”

Linda de Salle . . . . NO! Linda CARTWRIGHT! Even after four years . . . . very soon to be FIVE, and a bouncing baby BOY . . . . . what ELSE? . . . . she was still getting used to the idea that she was now Mrs. Benjamin Cartwright. Little Joseph Francis, their son, was sound asleep upstairs in his crib, up in the nursery. Her lips curved upward forming an indulgent smile as she envisioned her lovely, little boy with his green eyes, and that mop of unruly brown curls . . . .

She stepped backward to admire her latest work, a family portrait, of Ben, Little Joe, and herself, done completely from memory. She would never, not ever, not even if she lived a million years, forget the lines and planes of those wondrous, beloved faces. She had been working on this painting for a long time, nearly twenty-five years now, on a near life sized scale, far larger than she had ever dared work before.

It would hang prominently, in the living room, behind Ben’s desk, along side their wedding portrait.

Her smile widened, her lips parting to reveal a row of even white teeth. These two paintings, the wedding portrait and the family portrait on which she now labored, were to be her finest work. She was pleased with its progress thus far. Very pleased indeed.

“Milady . . . . ”

Linda Lawrence, Countess of Chadwick, turned and found herself staring up in the placid face of her man, Gerald Crippensworth.

“I’ll never understand you, Milady, never,” he said in a bland tone, his eyes coming to rest on faces, painted so lovingly, with such great tenderness and care. “One minute you’re ranting on and on and on, ad nauseam, about how much you despise this man, how he’s so cruelly used and abused you, the next you’re slaving over this oversized photograph with that love-sick cow look all over your face.”

“Crippensworth, my husband will be coming home from that trip to San Francisco this evening,” Linda said, smiling. “I want you to fix his favorite for supper . . . as a welcome home.”

“You’re pathetic,” he declared, shaking his head.

“Crippensworth, I will NOT have you speaking to me in that manner,” Linda stated imperiously, as an irritated frown deepened the lines of her brow. “My husband will be home within an hour. I want supper ready and on the table by then.”

Crippensworth laughed derisively right in her face. “Sorry, Milady, there’s been an ever-so-slight change of plans,” he said. “You’ve not only become dreadfully tiresome, but you’ve become a serious liability as well.”

“Wh-What do you mean?” she queried, suddenly frightened. She involuntarily took a step backward.

“You were an amusing diversion, and not half bad in the sack either,” Crippensworth continued as he moved in closer, “although your constantly calling me Ben got rather old and dull very quickly on.”

“Stay away from me . . . . ”

“It’s time for me to cut my losses and move on,” he continued, as he reached up and unknotted the string tie about his neck.

“Crippensworth, stop it! You hear me? You stop this right NOW!” She continued to back away from his steady, relentless advance, watching through eyes round with horror as he wrapped the ends of his string tie in both hands and pulled it taut.

“As I just said a moment ago, you’ve become a serious liability, Milady.”

“NO! You stay away from me!”

A wild, predatory grin slowly spread across his lips, as he continued to advance. He relaxed the string tie in his hands, then pulled it taut again, over and over for emphasis.

“Crippensworth, if you don’t stop this right now, I’ll . . . I’ll . . . so help me, I’ll SCREAM!”

“Be my guest, Milady. The only ones around to hear you are the thrush and the meadowlark.”

Linda gasped as her back suddenly struck solid wall. Before she could even think of turning and running, Crippensworth was upon her, pressing his string tie, stretched taut, hard against her neck. “N-No . . . . ” she gasped, “I’ll . . . I’ll give you money . . . any . . . any amount . . . I-I . . . I AM a . . . a wealthy w-woman . . . . ”

“No, you’re not! You’re flat busted broke! I told you . . . don’t you remember?”

Linda tried to scream as she felt his string tie digging into her throat. Desperate, she tried slapping his hands away, prompting a peal of mirthless, cruel laughter, as panic and blackness overcame her.

Crippensworth held the string tie against her throat, until the shallow rise and fall of her chest finally ceased altogether. He, then, scrambled to his feet, and pulled a mother-of-pearl handled derringer from the inside pocket of his jacket. He aimed square at her chest and fired once, twice. “Just to make certain,” he muttered to himself as he slipped the gun back into his pocket. “Now to find the boy.”

“John Faraday, so help me, if you DON’T grant me that warrant, I’ll— ”

“You’ll WHAT, Sheriff?”

“Never mind!” Roy Coffee shot back. “Let’s go, Hoss.”

“Sheriff Coffee, I’m warning you . . . if you and the Cartwrights so much as set foot on that property, I’ll have the lot of you arrested.”

“Let’s go, H— ” Roy Coffee turned, and found much to his astonishment, that he and Judge Faraday were alone. Hoss Cartwright was nowhere to be seen. “Hellfire and damnation!”

“Roy— ”

“Stuff it, John, deep! REAL deep!” Roy snapped, as he turned and started toward the door at a brisk pace. Once outside, he quickly made his way to the hitching post and untied the reins of his own horse, Tin Star.

“Roy?”

The sheriff glanced up and found himself staring into the anxious face of his deputy, Clem Foster, out making the afternoon rounds.

“What’s wrong?”

“Plenty,” Roy said grimly. “Some good friends o’ ours are more ‘n likely about t’ make a terrible mistake. I want you t’ get your horse saddled ‘n meet me over at Doc Martin’s.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Da—, uh . . . dar—dadblast it! Stacy Rose Cartwright, so help me if you DON’T give me a straight answer to my question, I’ll throw your sorry a—uhhhh . . . . YOU! right in the poky ‘long with your pa ‘n Hoss!” Roy declared, giving vent to the frustration that had been steadily building since the start of that argument with Judge John Faraday.

“You’re going to stop them, aren’t you.” Her words were more of an accusation than a question.

“Da—, uhhhh . . . right! You bet I’m gonna stop ‘em, hopefully ‘fore they do somethin’ illegal!”

Stacy folded her arms defiantly across her chest, and favored Roy Coffee with a murderous glare.

“Now f’r the last time, Stacy, where’d your pa ‘n Hoss go?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, the intensity of her glare never wavering.

“If you DON’T tell me, I’m gonna carry you right down to the jail ‘n lock you up,” Roy vowed.

Stacy’s response was stony silence.

“Alright, Stacy Rose Cartwright, you’re under arrest,” Roy said tersely.

“Roy Coffee, that is quite enough,” Lily Martin angrily stepped in. “I will NOT have you badgering the poor girl, not after— ”

“Lily, Stacy’s hinderin’ a legal investigation,” Roy said sternly. “A CRIMINAL offense that can get her up t’ three years in prison.”

“You’d better add resisting arrest, too, Sheriff Coffee,” Stacy said through clenched teeth, “because so help me, if you try to pick me up and carry me down to the jail . . . I’m NOT going to go quietly.”

“It’s NOT going to come down to that, Stacy,” Lily Martin said very firmly. “Sheriff Coffee, if you want to haul Stacy down to the jail, you’re going to have to go through ME first.”

Roy glared at the doctor’s wife, then exhaled a long, long sigh, borne of pure and simple exasperation. “Alright,” he said slowly, through clenched teeth, “Stacy, consider yourself under HOUSE arrest.” He, then, turned to his deputy. “Let’s go, Clem.”

“Where?”

“Out to the Marlowe place.”

Crippensworth, meanwhile, noted the bloodstains on the bark of the tree closest to the house, and the flattened grass surrounding its base. It was a large, old oak tree, whose branches extended nearly the entire way to the round attic window, reduced now to a gaping hole without glass. This was the only way young Cartwright could have possibly escaped. He quickly and easily located a trail of blood, a spot here, a spot or two there, with a long thin dribble of a trail in between.

As he ran down the long drive that linked the main road and the house, he momentarily toyed with the idea of leaving the boy, and making good his escape now. Chances were very good that if loss of blood, dehydration, or weakness brought on by lack of food and Milady’s pathetic, botched attempt to poison young Cartwright didn’t kill him, then spending another night outdoors naked, with the temperatures still going down close to, if not slightly below the freezing mark almost certainly would.

Crippensworth discarded the notion, almost from the moment he had conceived it. Despite how heavily the deck seemed stacked against the boy’s survival, there was always that one lucky chance in a million, lurking. No, the only way to make certain Joe Cartwright never implicated him was to silence the boy’s tongue permanently himself.

The dribbled trail of Joe Cartwright’s blood led down the driveway to the dirt road beyond. There, in the dry dust, he spotted Joe’s footprints along with the blood leading in a straight light across the road to a vast meadow on the other side. Crippensworth followed the line of footprints and blood splotches across the road with his sharp eyes. The trail led to a large patch of trampled, pressed down grass and broken reeds. For a moment he stood with hands placed squarely on his hips, surveying the near straight line of beaten down vegetation cutting a swatch through the tall meadow grass still standing.

His smile broadened, upon noting that the path cut through the tall grass ended abruptly a few hundred yards from the edge of the road. “I have you NOW, Boy,” he muttered aloud, as he started across the road. “I have you now.” His eyes gleamed with a triumphant, feral light, as he focused on the grim task ahead, turning a deaf ear to the roar of thundering horse hooves against the packed dirt road, not far distant.

“Come ON, Grandpa . . . come ON! Stacy begged, grabbing his hands in hers. We gotta move.”

It was winter. That terrible winter his horse bolted, tossing him down the embankment of a steep ravine in the midst of a bad snowstorm a few days before Christmas.

“Go ‘way, Kid, y’ bother me. Lemme sleep!”

“NO!”

“Come on, just for a little while . . . . ”

“NO, Grandpa! Y’ gotta MOVE . . . right NOW!”

He had vague awareness of his sister’s fingers tightening around his own, and something tugging at him, pulling him up. “Awww . . . dang it all, Stacy would ya lemme alone? Jus’ lemme sleep— ”

“NO!” she shouted. He heard anger in her voice, but something else, too. Desperation . . . and fear. “GRANDPA, IF YOU DON’T GET UP RIGHT NOW, YOU MIGHT NEVER, EVER GET UP AGAIN!”

Joe’s eyes snapped open. He was astonished to find himself lying amid tall grass, completely alone. Stacy was nowhere to be seen. He started to roll over, only to flop over on his back, as wave upon wave upon wave of dizziness stole over him. The tall grass, surrounding him on all sides began to pulsate and spin, which set his stomach churning once again. Joe raised his hands to his face and saw the iron manacles still bound to his wrists, and the short iron chain connecting the manacles. A bewildered frown knotted his brow, then he remembered.

“Oh dear God! How long have I been lying here?” he moaned, squeezing his eyelids tight shut against his still swimming environment. “I . . . I g-gotta get movin’.” Ignoring the escalating dizziness and nausea, Joe tolled over from his back to his hands and knees. “I gotta get away . . . gotta get away . . . . ” He rose to his feet and found himself staring into the malevolent face of Gerald Crippensworth.

“Going somewhere, Boy?” he growled in a low menacing tone that sent a shiver running down the length of Joe’s spine.

“M-Mister Crippensworth, I . . . I’ll make a deal with you,” Joe begged, desperately stalling for time. “T-Take me back to . . . to the Ponderosa. I’ll . . . tell Pa . . . I’ll tell him that . . . that you f-found me on the road . . . brought m-me home. I . . . I won’t tell him th-that y-you . . . that you were involved with Lady Ch-Ch-Chadwick, I p-promise. I . . . I m-might even be able t-to . . . to convince P-Pa to give you a n-nice reward . . . . ”

“I must admit that your offer is most tempting, Boy, but I’m afraid I MUST turn it down,” Crippensworth said.

“Please . . . . ”

“You’re a loose end, Cartwright, and loose ends always have a way of coming back to haunt you if they’re not securely tied up tight,” Crippensworth said. He reached into his pocket and drew out his derringer. “Sorry, Lad, I really am, but I simply can’t afford to leave a loose end like you dangling.”

“Pa, look! Ain’t that the entry t’ the Marlowes driveway?”

Ben quickly brought Big Buck to a stop, as his eyes followed the line of Hoss’ extended arm and pointing finger. He barely recognized it as such amid the tall, dry grasses. “Yes,” he said belatedly. “Yes! That’s it!” He nudged Buck forward, intending to turn up the drive way.

“Wait, Mister Cartwright!” Candy said tersely, as he reached out and placed a restraining hand on Ben’s forearm.

“What is it, Candy?”

“Over there!” Candy pointed toward the meadow, across the street from the driveway. In the midst of the grasses, roughly a hundred yards from the side of the road stood two men.

“Pa, I think that’s Joe!” Hoss declared, pointing toward the smaller of the two.

“JOE!” Ben yelled, as he wheeled Buck around.

“P-Pa?” Joe whimpered, hardly daring to believe the sight of his father bearing down on himself and Crippensworth like an angry god of vengeance, was real.

“Oh bloody hell!” Crippensworth exclaimed, his eyes round with sheer horror.

The minute Crippensworth turned his attention to Ben, Joe grabbed the hand holding the derringer, and with an almost superhuman strength borne aloft on a surging flash flood of adrenalin, struggled valiantly to disarm the larger man. At first, Crippensworth was shocked into near immobility by the move, then, gritting his teeth, he fought to bring his weapon back to bear on Joe’s head.

A shot rang out. Crippensworth looked up and found himself looking directly into the face of Ben Cartwright, his dark brown eyes blazing with rage.

“Drop that gun now,” Ben ordered softly, his voice shaking with rising fury, barely contained.

Crippensworth swallowed nervously, then complied.

“HOSS! CANDY! OVER HERE!” Ben yelled.

“P-Pa?”

Ben turned, while keeping his own weapon trained on Crippensworth’s mid-section. His heart wrenched at the sight of his youngest son standing before him completely naked, his right arm dislocated, hanging limp at his side, covered with cuts and bruises, manacled like a common criminal . . . .

“I . . . I’m s-sure glad t-to see YOU . . . . ” Joe stammered. He punctuated his words with a faint groan as his eyes rolled back up under his eyelids. Ben’s arm shot out with the powerful swiftness of a striking rattler, snagging his son as he collapsed.

Less than a minute later, Hoss and Candy drew up alongside Ben, Joe, and Crippensworth.

“Candy?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“Take charge of this vermin,” Ben spat.

“My pleasure, Sir,” Candy replied, his face hardening with anger.

Hoss, meanwhile, silently doffed his own jacket and slipped it around his bother’s naked body. “We gotta get him to Doctor Martin, Pa,” he said gravely, as he lifted Joe’s inert form in his strong arms.

“Can you manage him on Chubb?” Ben asked.

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then take him. I’ll meet you at the Martins’ shortly.”

“Pa, where are YOU goin’?” Hoss asked warily.

“Candy, this . . . this low-life, and I are going to pay Lady Chadwick a visit.”

“Pa . . . . ”

“No, Hoss! I’m not going to give that woman a chance to make her escape,” Ben rounded on his second son furiously.

“Ben, you hold on right there!”

Ben looked up in time to see Roy Coffee dismounting from the back of Tin Star, with Clem Foster pulling up behind on his own horse, Carla Jo, a big brown gelding.

“Roy, we found Joe with this man . . . and I use that term very loosely, HERE, in this meadow,” Ben said tersely. “He had a gun on Joe.”

“That’s nonsense!” Crippensworth blustered heatedly, taking great care to keep his eyes averted from the dark anger in Ben Cartwright’s face. “I happened to find the boy here . . . I tried to help.”

“With a derringer aimed at his head?!” Ben growled.

Crippensworth lapsed into sullen silence.

“We’ll see what JOE has t’ say ‘bout all this,” Roy said grimly. “Hoss, you git Joe on back t’ town, to Doc Martin. Candy?”

“Yes, Sheriff Coffee?”

“Raise your right hand.”

Candy exhaled a soft, reluctant sigh, then complied with the sheriff’s request.

“Candy, do you swear t’ uphold the laws of Story County ‘n the State o’ Nevada t’ the best o’ your ability, so help ya God?”

“I do.”

“Consider yourself deputized,” Roy said, tossing Candy a deputy’s badge. “I want you ‘n Clem to take this feller back to town ‘n lock him up.”

“On what charge?” Crippensworth demanded.

“Suspicion,” Roy shot back. He quickly searched his prisoner, while Candy, Ben, and Clem all trained their rifles on him. He confiscated the derringer, and wallet, along with the jewelry and money he had stolen from Lady Chadwick. Roy briefly held the gun up to his nose. “It’s been fired,” he said grimly. “That, along with this jewelry ‘n the money inside a billfold that almost has t’ belong to a WOMAN, with all this satin ‘n lace . . . I’d say we’ve caught us a thief at t’ very least.”

“The money and jewelry belong to my employer,” Crippensworth hotly protested. “She had asked me to take those jewels into town to a jeweler for cleaning and repair.”

“And the money?” Roy asked.

“She had asked me to deposit it at the bank.”

“I see,” Roy replied. “Who’s your employer?”

“Mrs. Lawrence,” Crippensworth replied.

“She the lady rentin’ out the Marlowe house?”

“No, Sheriff, I . . . I mean YES . . . . ”

“Fine ‘n dandy,” Roy replied. “Candy . . . Clem, you boys git this feller back t’ town ‘n lock him up. In t’ meantime, Ben ‘n I are gonna pay a call on this Mrs. Lawrence.”

“NO!” Crippensworth frantically protested. “You can’t, Mila—Mrs. Lawrence isn’t at home.”

“Then we’ll leave word with her butler, or her ladies’ maid,” Roy said.

“Let’s go, Mister,” Clem said sternly.

Crippensworth sighed and surrendered himself to the inevitable.

“Alright, Ben, let’s you ‘n me go,” Roy said grimly. He and Ben Cartwright mounted their steeds and started up the driveway at a brisk trot, himself leading. They rode in silence, as the shadows began to lengthen, until they reached the circular drive that lead them to the front door. “Ben . . . . ?”

“What is it, Roy?” Ben demanded with a touch of asperity.

“You’ll know this Lady Chadwick if y’ see her?”

“Probably.”

“It’s been . . . what? Ten years?”

“A few MORE,” Ben said in a stone cold voice. “If I had MY druthers, we would have never seen or heard from that . . . that harridan . . . ever again!”

The two men dismounted and tethered their horses to the hitching post in front of the house.

“Now, Ben, you let ME do the talkin’, y’ got that?” Roy said sternly, as the pair climbed the dozen steps that led up to the front porch.

Ben responded with a curt nod.

As they stepped up onto the porch, both were surprised to find the front door standing wide open. Roy and Ben exchanged puzzled, anxious glances, then immediately drew their guns, and started into the house, with the former taking the lead.

“MRS. LAWRENCE?!” Roy Coffee yelled out as he and Ben moved through the front door into the foyer. “MRS. LAWRENCE, IT’S SHERIFF COFFEE!”

There was no reply, save for the sound of Roy’s voice echoing eerily through the empty foyer.

“ANYBODY HOME?” the sheriff called out once again.

Still no answer.

“MRS. LAWRENCE? IT’S SHERIFF COFFEE! I REALLY NEED T’ SPEAK WITH YA.”

Again, no answer.

“Roy?”

“Yeah, Ben?”

“I don’t know about YOU, but I’m beginning to get a bad feeling about this.”

“You ‘n me both,” Roy quickly agreed. He nodded over toward the stairs. “You ‘n Tom Marlowe were good friends f’r many years. You remember what’s on t’ second floor?”

“The family’s living quarters is on the second floor, through a pair of pocket doors at the top of the stairs,” Ben replied, pointing. “On the left, as you go up the stairs, is the parlor. Tom’s study and the library directly across the hall, on the right.”

“How ‘bout on THIS floor?”

“There’s a ballroom in front of us,” Ben answered. “See those doors?” He pointed to a pair of closed pocket doors, centered amid the frame provided by the curving double staircase, leading to the second floor.

“I see ‘em,” Roy replied.

“The ballroom’s through there. The doors over here on the left open up into the formal parlor, and the doors over here on the right open into a small drawing room.”

“What’s on the third floor?”

“The servants’ rooms are on the third floor, and the attic above that.”

“I’d like t’ g’won up to the second floor, Ben,” Roy said. “I’ll lead, you follow. Keep alert.”

“You BET I’ll keep alert,” Ben vowed.

Upon reaching the second floor, Roy Coffee and Ben Cartwright cautiously opened the pocket doors and stepped into the wide corridor beyond, with guns drawn.

“MRS. LAWRENCE?” Roy yelled as he banged on the closed door to the upstairs parlor with his fist. “ANYONE HOME? IT’S SHERIFF COFFEE!”

There was no answer.

“MRS. LAWRENCE?!” Roy yelled out, as he banged on the door once again. “OPEN UP, MRS. LAWRENCE. IT’S SHERIFF COFFEE!”

As before there was no answer. Only eerie silence.

“Ben?”

“Yes, Roy?”

“We’re goin’ in.”

“I’m right behind ya!”

Roy opened the door and cautiously entered. In the center of the room stood the easel with the large canvas propped up against it. He heard a sharp intake of breath behind him. He turned, and saw Ben Cartwright standing as if rooted to the spot, his normally robust complexion ashen gray, staring up at the portrait through eyes round with horror.

“B-Ben? You alright?”

“My God . . . I-I don’t b-believe this . . . . ” Ben murmured, shaking his head in utter disbelief.

Roy turned his attention back to the portrait and studied it very closely. It depicted a young family, the man and woman, father and mother, stood side-by-side, very close together. A young boy, aged four, maybe five, with large green eyes and a mop of unruly chestnut brown curls, stood in front, with a winsome smile guaranteed to wrap even the hardest of hearts around his little finger. “Ben, is . . . is that s’posed t’ be YOU?”

Ben mutely nodded, too shocked to voice a reply.

Roy Coffee studied the bride a few moments. “The man’s you . . . lot younger o’ course, ‘n the boy’s gotta be Little Joe, but . . . . ” he frowned, “I know that woman ain’t Marie, ‘n she don’t look like Stacy’s ma either.” Then, suddenly, his own face paled, as the truth began to dawn on him. “Ben . . . th-this ain’t . . . it ain’t Lady Chadwick . . . is it?”

“Yes, much younger.”

“I thought you two never got married.”

“We DIDN’T,” Ben declared. “I met Linda . . . Lady Chadwick, and courted her a year or so before I met Marie. I DID ask her to marry me, but she turned me down flat. A week later, I found out that she had eloped with Lord Chadwick and sailed off with him to England. I never saw or heard from her again until she visited us at the Ponderosa.”

“When she tried t’ ruin ya?”

“Yes. Even THEN, she spoke of . . . of remembering wedding preparations that we had SUPPOSEDLY made,” Ben continued, his eyes still riveted to the portrait in morbid fascination. “But . . . she and I . . . we NEVER made any k-kind of wedding preparations. As I said before she turned down my proposal of marriage. That was that . . . so I thought any way . . . . ” An involuntary shudder rippled through his entire body as his thoughts briefly drifted to the house in Carson City, the house that had been a belated wedding gift from Lord Chadwick more than twenty-five years ago.

“Good likeness of ya, Ben,” Roy remarked as he began to move away.

“P-Probably from memory,” Ben said in a hallow voice, “just l-like the OTHERS.” He shuddered again.

“Others, Ben? What others?”

“When she came to visit? She brought a portrait of the two of us as a gift. She destroyed it when I exposed her scheme,” Ben explained. “Hoss and I . . . we also found another painting in that house in Carson City. A WEDDING portrait, about the same size as this. She depicted us at around the same ages we’re depicted here.”

“Ben!”

The urgency in Roy’s voice, wrenched Ben’s attention away from the portrait.

“I think I found Mrs. Lawrence.”

Ben immediately ran to the place where Roy Coffee was kneeling, at the far end of the large cavernous room, nestled in an alcove. A woman’s body lay crumpled on the floor, with a black string tie draped loosely across her neck, following a mottled line, tinged with varying shades of light blue and lavender. There were also two bullet holes in her chest.

“Ben, is this . . . . ”

“Yes,” Ben replied in a voice barely audible. Her face was lined more than he had remembered. Some of the lines, there when he saw her last, had deepened. Her jaw line, so clear, so crisp, had sagged noticeably, and her hair had been dyed. He knew that by the general sameness of color spread evenly over her entire head. Still, it was definitely, unmistakably Linda Lawrence, Lady of Chadwick. He felt a hand gently coming to rest on his shoulder.

“Come on, Ben, let’s get on back to town,” Roy said quietly. “YOU got a hurt young man who’s gonna be askin’ for ya, if he ain’t already, and two OTHER young’ns, who’re probably worried sick . . . not t’ mention Hop Sing. After I see ya t’ Doc Martin’s, I’ll come back with the undertaker.”

Ben nodded mutely, and allowed Roy to lead him away. They walked out of the house together in silence. Outside on the porch, the sheriff paused to close the door.

“Oh . . . by the way, Ben . . . . ”

“Yes, Roy?”

“Give Stacy a message f’r me? I’m gonna be busy f’r awhile . . . . ”

“Certainly,” Ben agreed as the pair walked to the post where their horses remained tethered. “What to you want me to tell her?”

“I, umm . . . . had t’ place her under arrest, Ben.”

“WHAT?!”

“You heard me.”

“ROY COFFEE, DO YOU MEAN TO TELL ME YOU LOCKED HER UP IN JAIL W-WITH A BROKEN LEG, ON CRUTCHES . . . . ?!”

“Simmer down, Ben, I did NO such thing,” Roy said indignantly. “ ‘Specially after she told me she wasn’t gonna go quietly. I placed her under HOUSE arrest at the Martins.”

Ben remained silent, unsure of how to take all this.

“You tell Stacy I said she’s free t’ go,” Roy said as he climbed up on the back of his horse, “all charges agin her’ve been dropped.”

“That’s good to know,” Ben observed wryly, as he climbed into Buck’s saddle. “Roy?”

“Yeah, Ben?”

“What WERE the charges?”

“Obstructin’ justice,” Roy replied, the smiled. “The other charge . . . resistin’ arrest . . . that was HER idea.”

When Ben finally arrived at the Martins, he found Hoss, Stacy, and Hop Sing together in the upstairs living room. Stacy occupied the doctor’s favorite easy chair, with her injured leg propped up on the ottoman. Hoss sat nearby on the divan, while Hop Sing nervously paced. All three of them started violently, upon hearing the door open. As he stepped into the room, Ben found himself staring into a trio of faces, several shades paler than normal, and round, staring eyes, the size of meat platters.

“Pa! Thank goodness you’re back,” Hoss declared, after exhaling a long, heartfelt sigh of relief.

“Yeah. We were getting worried,” Stacy adamantly voiced her own agreement.

“Any word yet?”

Hoss and Stacy both dolefully shook their heads. “By the time I got him here, he was colder ‘n ice . . . driftin’ in ‘n out,” the former added. “I got back . . . . ” He glanced over at the regulator clock hanging on the wall, above the center of the divan. “It’s been a couple o’ hours now, Pa. Doc ‘n Mrs. Martin have been with him since.”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“Did you and Sheriff Coffee find that ****?” It was a Paiute word, one Ben remembered her using before in reference to the man who had killed Lotus O’Toole, a very good friend of Joe’s for many, many years. Though his own knowledge of the Paiute language was scant, he nonetheless knew this word almost certainly had to be among the vilest of obscenities, given its context, and the way it was contemptuously spat, more than spoken.

“Yes, Roy and I found her,” Ben said very quietly, his voice astonishingly void of emotion, “and we don’t have to worry about her . . . ever again. Linda . . . Lady Chadwick’s dead. She was murdered, more than likely by her man, Crippensworth.”

“He the big ugly fella Clem ‘n Candy brought back t’ town?” Hoss asked.

Ben nodded.

“G-God forgive me for . . . for sayin’ this, but I ain’t sorry she’s gone,” Hoss said with deep, heartfelt sincerity. “Leastwise I know she can’t hurt us no more.”

Ben sat down on the divan next to Hoss, and placed a gentle, paternal hand on his big son’s shoulder. “I know how you feel, Son,” he murmured quietly, giving Hoss’ shoulder an affectionate, reassuring squeeze. “I feel the same way, myself.”

“That picture you ‘n me saw in Carson City . . . it’s gonna give me the willies for the rest o’ my life,” Hoss murmured, shaking his head.

“What picture was THAT, Hoss?” Stacy asked.

“A big picture, that Lady Chadwick was workin’ on,” Hoss replied, his voice shaking. “It was a picture of her ‘n Pa . . . all d-dressed up for their weddin’.”

Stacy blanched as she looked over at her father. “But, I thought . . . . ”

“You thought right, Young Woman. Lady Chadwick and I never even came close to having a wedding . . . ” Ben said slowly, “ . . . except, it seems, in the deep recesses of what little was left of her mind.”

“You saying this Lady Chadwick was . . . insane?!” Stacy asked, unable to completely repress the shudder that passed through her slight frame.

“Yes, Stacy,” Ben replied. “I’m beginning to suspect that she’s been insane for a long time . . . a VERY long time.” He was inwardly thankful that none of his children had seen the large painting he and Roy had found in the Marlowe’s house. “I’d . . . like the three of you to do me a favor . . . . ”

“What’s that, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I don’t want Joe to know about that painting,” Ben said. “He’s . . . . ” He sighed and dolefully shook his head. “Forgive me, I’m probably being overly protective, but . . . I’d feel a lot better if Joe didn’t know about that wedding portrait right now.”

“Little Joe not hear from Hop Sing’s lips,” the Chinese member of the Cartwright family declared.

“Nor mine,” Stacy said, shuddering again.

“I won’t tell him neither,” Hoss also vowed.

The sound of light footfalls outside the closed living room door brought all conversation, and Hop Sing’s pacing to an abrupt halt. Lily Martin calmly entered the living room, not the least bit surprised or flustered to find four pairs of eyes intently watching every move.

“Hoss?”

“Y-Yes, Ma’am?”

“The doctor asked me to come and fetch YOU,” she said quietly. “He needs someone big and strong to hang onto Joe while he sets that dislocated arm back in line.”

“Sure thing, Mrs. Martin,” Hoss said, rising.

“You go ahead and g’won down, Hoss. Tell the doctor I’ll be along directly.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Lily, how is he?” Ben queried anxiously, after Hoss had left the room.

“Physically . . . I’ll be blunt, Ben. He’s in terrible shape! His right arm’s been dislocated, he has a badly sprained ankle, his entire body’s covered with cuts and bruises, there’s a healed over wound in his right arm that’s abscessed,” Lily Martin wearily recited the litany. “He’s also malnourished, severely dehydrated, and suffering from exposure.”

Ben sank down heavily onto the divan, in the place recently vacated by Hoss, as the blood drained right out of his face. “Dear God,” he whispered, horrified. “Did they . . . did they torture him the whole time they kept him prisoner?”

“Joe told us he sustained many of his wounds escaping from the fire and both times he attempted to flee from his captors,” Lily replied. “Though there ARE some healed over, scabbing wounds that WERE inflicted on him by this Lady Chadwick, Paul and I are of the opinion that most of the torture he endured was psychological.”

Ben silently bowed his head, too stunned, too grief stricken to even speak. He felt Stacy’s hand gentle, yet firm, resting on his forearm, and Hop Sing sitting down beside him on the divan.

“Joe’s gonna get through this, Pa,” Stacy said quietly. “He’s strong, and he’s GOT all of US behind him.”

“Miss Stacy right, Mister Cartwright. We, all of us, be there for Little Joe,” Hop Sing added. “The way we be there for Miss Stacy.”

Ben reached over and squeezed Stacy’s hand, and flashed both her and Hop Sing a weary smile, filled with gratitude. He then returned his attention to Lily Martin, who stood before him, gazing down at him anxiously. “When can we see him?”

“Just as soon as Paul realigns that dislocated arm,” she replied . . . .

“I . . . I never dreamed I’d see the day when I’d say this to any of you . . . except for Little Sister. . . MAYBE! But right now, your faces are . . . well, they’re just about the prettiest things I’ve EVER seen,” Joe Cartwright declared with a tremulous smile, as his family entered the examination room together en masse. “That includes y-your big, ugly puss, Big Brother.”

With that, Joe burst into tears. Paul Martin graciously took that as his cue to leave the room for a little while and allow the Cartwright family a measure of privacy.

Ben was at his youngest son’s side at once, gathering him into his arms, as tears streamed down his own face. “Thank God y-you’re b-back, Son,” he sobbed.

Joe reached up to touch his father’s cheek with his heavily bandaged right hand, wincing against the pain of his newly realigned right shoulder, hardly daring to believe that Ben was really and truly right there. At the same time, he reached out and took Stacy’s hand in his, drawing her closer. “Pa . . . St-Stacy . . . th-thank G-God . . . y-you’re ALIVE.”

“Of course we are, Joe,” Ben said, slightly taken aback.

“Sh-She told me— ” His words were swallowed up in another, very sudden fierce torrent of weeping.

“Shhh, Son, sshhhh. You don’t have to talk about it, if— ”

“Pa, I . . . I g-gotta talk about it,” Joe sobbed. “I gotta! If I d-don’t? I’ll go m-mad if I . . . if I d-don’t . . . . ”

“Alright, Joe,” Ben said very softly, as his arms tightened around his youngest son, pulling him even closer. Mentally, he braced himself.

“She . . . L-Lady Chadwick . . . told m-me that you we’re . . . that y-you were c-convinced that I . . . d-died in the fire,” Joe continued, as his tears streamed freely from his eyes and on down his cheeks. “She s-said . . . she said that you n-never sp-spared me a . . . a moment’s thought after . . . after . . . . ”

“She l-lied to ya, Li’l Brother,” Hoss said, his own voice unsteady. His brows came together in a dark angry scowl. “That . . . that no g-good bitch out ‘n out LIED to ya.”

“Papa . . . Mister Hoss . . . even Sheriff Coffee . . . all go out, all look for Little Joe,” Hop Sing said. Though his face remained an impassive mask, his dark eyes glittered with the brightness of tears, newly formed, not yet shed. “All go out, look for Little Joe when we first know he go missing. Even Miss Stacy go, with broken leg, if Papa NOT threaten to tie up in chair.”

“I . . . I KNEW y-you wouldn’t g-give up on me . . . I just knew it,” Joe continued, forcing his words out past his weeping, “ . . . and I . . . I t-told her s-so. When I d-did? She got mad at me . . . that’s h-how . . . that’s how I g-got THIS.” He held up his bandaged left arm. “B-but I . . . I got confused. She s-said Hoss was m-making funeral arrangements. I . . . I knew it w-wasn’t f-f-for me, then I. . . I remembered . . . Stacy had been pretty badly hurt . . . . ”

“I WAS, Grandpa,” Stacy said, her own eyes stinging with newly forming tears. She clasped his hand in both of hers and leaned heavily against the examination table for support. “But, I didn’t die, and now . . . n-now . . . I’m on the m-mend.”

“Thank . . . thank, G-God . . . . ” Joe sobbed, as he reached out, and grasped Stacy’s hand tight in his own.

“I’m here, Joe,” Stacy sobbed, as she carefully balanced herself on her good leg, that she might place her other hand overtop his. “I’m not going anywhere . . . and neither are YOU.”

“Joe?”

“Y-Yeah, Hoss?”

“We . . . . ” Hoss paused to wipe his eyes and cheeks against the heel of his hand. “We got somethin’ for ya . . . somethin’ that survived the fire. C-Candy found it.”

“What is it?”

“You remember that . . . that Virgin M-Mary statue Mama always loved?”

“Y-Yeah,” Joe turned and favored his brother with a sharp glance, hardly daring to hope that maybe . . . just maybe . . . .

“She . . . she made it through the fire, Li’l Brother,” Hoss continued, succumbing to the swift tide of emotion that had been rising up within him since he had first turned and found his younger brother standing out in the meadow with Lady Chadwick’s man. “She . . . she was b-broken in three places, but . . . they was CLEAN breaks. Malcom Reilly’s gonna glue her b-back together.”

“She’ll b-be as good as new, Son,” Ben promised.

Joe turned his head and buried his face against the solid strength of his father’s chest for a moment, to overcome to speak. He felt his brother’s massive hand, stronger than an ox, yet gentle enough to cradle a new born kitten, coming to rest on his good shoulder. Stacy gently squeezed his hand and reached out to touch his cheek, while Hop Sing’s hands came to rest on his left shoulder and arm. Joe felt himself relaxing in his father’s arms, drawing upon love, strength and comfort his family offered freely, without reservation.

“Thanks, H-Hoss,” Joe said at length, when at last he was able to speak. “SHE was with m-me y’ know. The Virgin M-Mary, and she . . . well, sometimes she looked like that statue, and sometimes . . . Pa?”

“Yes, Son?” Ben murmured as he absently began to stroke the side of Joe’s head, still resting squarely against his chest.

“I . . . I hope y-you won’t think this is sacrilegious, but sometimes . . . sometimes, she, well . . . she looked like Mama.”

“No, Son, I DON’T think that’s sacrilegious at all,” Ben said quietly. “She is, after all, the Mother of God. I like to think she’s also mother to all of US, as well. THAT being the case, I think it’s only natural that she would sometimes look like your mother.”

“You were there, too, Pa,” Joe continued. “You, Hoss, Stacy, Hop Sing . . . even ADAM! All the t-times I . . . when I f-felt my lowest? When . . . when I l-lost all hope? I-I’d remember something . . . something l-like . . . like PA finding m-me in the desert that t-time when we . . . when Adam, H-Hoss and I . . . when we wanted t-to give you that h-horse. Y-You remember . . . don’t ya, Pa?”

“I’ll . . . I’ll never forget,” Ben said quietly, his voice, his entire body shaking as the memory of his young son, lying on the desert sands of Arizona, unmoving, cruelly trussed like a calf for branding, swam again before his vision.

“I . . . I remembered other things, too,” Joe continued, his voice at long last, beginning to steady. “Like the three of us . . . Hoss, Stacy, and me . . . the time we went after Rachael Marlowe, or . . . or the time Pa went to rescue some folks stranded in the mountains by a blizzard . . . . ”

“You remember that, Joe?” Ben asked, incredulous. “You couldn’t have been much more than four or five at the time.”

“I guess I remember because it was real soon after Mama died,” Joe said quietly, “and I was afraid that . . . that YOU might get caught in a blizzard, too, and— ” He broke off, unable to bring himself to complete that thought.

“Hop Sing remember. Remember about grown-ups talk too much,” Hop Sing said. “Little Joe very scared for Papa. Hop Sing tell Little Joe say Mama Virgin Mary prayer for Papa.”

“I prayed that prayer every night, too . . . until you came home,” Joe once again took up the story, “and I . . . I found myself saying it every night the whole time Lady Chadwick k-kept me prisoner.”

“Joe?”

Five weary, tear stained faces looked up in unison toward the door, as Paul Martin returned to the examination room.

“Y-Yeah, Doc? What’s up?”

“Would you mind excusing your pa for a moment? I need to speak with him.”

“Alright,” Joe agreed, “b-but please? Not too long?”

“I promise you, Joe, we’ll only be a few minutes.”

Ben carefully eased his youngest son back down onto the examination table, then followed Paul Martin out of the examination room. As they stepped through the door, Paul stepped aside, allowing Ben to pass, then reached behind him to close the door.

“Let’s step into the parlor, Ben.”

The Cartwright family patriarch nodded mutely, then once more fell in step behind the doctor.

“How much has Lily already told you?” Paul asked, after closing the parlor door behind them.

“She told us about the dislocated arm, the sprained ankle, the cuts and bruises,” Ben apprehensively recited the litany. “She also said he’s suffering from exposure, that he’s m-malnourished— ” He abruptly stopped, unable to continue.

Paul Martin silently placed a steadying hand on Ben’s shoulder.

“My God, Paul! What did that . . . that bitch DO to him?!”

“From what little Joe’s been able to tell me, most of the torture this Lady Chadwick inflicted on him was psychological . . . emotional in nature,” Paul said. “He spent most of the time he was with her tied down to a bed. A couple of days ago, he was taken to an unheated attic room. He told me that he tried to escape when they moved him, but didn’t get very far. He said he ended up falling down the stairs . . . due no doubt to his severely weakened physical condition.”

“I . . . couldn’t help BUT notice his . . . physical condition,” Ben said, laboring to keep his voice calm in the face of the raw fury churning within him. “It’s only been a week, Paul! One WEEK . . . maybe less! In that short amount of time, my son . . . strong and physically fit BEFORE Linda and that . . . that . . . CREATURE, Crippensworth, kidnapped him . . . has been reduced to . . . to skin and bones. What the hell did they DO to him?!”

“They gave him just enough water to keep him alive . . . barely,” Paul Martin said, while inwardly bracing himself to bear the brunt of Ben Cartwright’s rage, seething just below the surface, “and they gave him no food at all . . . except for a big extravagant meal . . . that was laced with arsenic.”

“What?!” Ben’s voice was low, and menacing.

“That’s my professional opinion, based on what Joe himself told me.”

Ben felt the blood drain right out of his face. “Dear God! Paul, J-Joe’s not . . . h-he’s not g-going to . . . to . . . . ?!”

“No, Ben, he’s NOT going to die, not from the poison, anyway,” Paul gently answered the question Ben could not bring himself to voice. “What saved him, in my opinion, was that after being deprived of solid food for nearly a week, Joe’s system just plain couldn’t handle the big, fancy meal Mrs. Lawrence had served to him, so . . . up it came, with a vengeance, along with most of the poison. That however, poses a WORSE problem.”

Ben could feel his heart plummeting to his feet. “What’s that, Paul?”

“We may be facing the prospect of having to re-acclimate his stomach to accepting solid food.”

“H-How do we do THAT?”

“In most instances, it would be a simple process, beginning with liquids, like broth, soups, watered down stews perhaps and gradually introducing more and more solid foods, depending on the patient’s tolerance.”

“What do you mean ‘in most instances,’ Paul?” Ben demanded, zeroing in on those first three words like a loadstone to iron.

“Joe’s suffering from added complications that are going to make this entire process very precarious,” the doctor explained. “Right now, Joe’s body is dangerously dehydrated from lack of water AND from vomiting up that meal.”

“HOW dangerously dehydrated?” Ben asked, his face a mixture of terrible anger towards the late Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth, and fear for his youngest son.

“I won’t mince words, Ben. Any more vomiting . . . or the onset of diarrhea . . . COULD kill him.”

Ben sank down onto the settee in the Martins’ parlor, his face white as a sheet, his entire body trembling. Never in his entire life could he remember feeling as overwhelmed . . . as helpless as he did at that moment. Then, slowly, gradually, the iron strength of will that had over the course of a long, eventful life, seen him across an expanse of nearly three thousand miles from Boston, Massachusetts to Virginia City, Nevada, in the face of poverty and tragedy that had stopped lesser men in their tracks . . . began to reassert itself. Ben silently vowed that he would see Joe through this ordeal, that his son would not only survive it, but would come out in the other side, a stronger, better man for it.

Ben raised his face, his intense gaze meeting and holding the eyes of the man, who for many years, had been not only the family doctor, but a valued friend, as well. “Paul, tell me,” he said. “What do I have to do now to save my son?”

Paul Martin stared down at his long-time friend, greatly heartened to see that determined scowl on his face, and hear the edge of steel in his voice. “Getting Joe’s body back to the place of accepting solid food again is going to be a very tricky piece of business, Ben. You’ve got to make sure he takes in enough to keep his body hydrated, while at the same time seeing to it that he doesn’t gulp things down too quickly. That won’t be easy, because he’s going to be feeling hungry all the time.

“I’m going to have you start Joe out on CLEAR liquids . . . water, tea, broth,” Paul continued. “Stay with chicken broth the first week. It’s easier to digest than beef. I’m also going to give him some medicine to help keep his stomach settled enough to keep things down. He’s to take it four times a day, once every four hours during the time he’s generally awake. Peppermint tea also works well as a remedy for upset stomach. So does tea made from catnip. To help counter Joe’s hunger pangs, you might consider smaller portions six or eight times a day, instead of the usual three.”

“Alright . . . . ” Ben murmured, hoping that he’d be able to remember all that Paul Martin was telling him.

“Don’t worry. I KNOW it’s a lot to remember, and I fully intend to write all of this down . . . for YOUR benefit and Hop Sing’s,” Paul said, taking due note of his friend’s eyes round with horror, and mouth gaping open.”

“Paul, I . . . I HAVE to know. What are Joe’s chances of pulling through this?”

“It’s too soon to say right now.”

“Paul . . . . ” Ben growled.

“I’m telling you the truth, Ben,” Paul said sternly. “It’s too soon right now to say what Joe’s chances are of coming through this. His weakened physical condition, the fact that he’s so severely malnourished and dehydrated . . . to be brutally frank, I’m worried. He spent the better part of last night lying out in the meadow across from the Marlowe house, completely naked, bleeding from cuts and scratches all over his body. When I listened to his chest, I heard phlegm rattling around in his lungs. Not a whole lot, but enough to concern me. Physically, that’s a big deck he’s got stacked against him.

“Now on the OTHER side of the fence, Joe was in good health . . . in excellent physical condition going into his ordeal. That’ll give him a significant edge. Mentally and emotionally, he’s had a passionate love of life that’s . . . that’s larger even than the Ponderosa. He’s also got a very strong will, not only to survive but to return to the place of living and enjoying life to its fullest,” Paul continued. “He’s ALSO got the lot of you around, to offer him love and encouragement. I’ve seen THOSE things pull many a patient through illness and injury that have left lesser mortals permanently disabled or bedridden.

“It’s NOT going to be easy, Ben, but . . . if we can get Joe through the next couple of weeks of keeping down the clear liquids, he’s looking at a real good chance of a full and complete PHYSICAL recovery.”

Ben glanced up sharply upon hearing the emphasis on physical.

“I know Lily’s already told you that most of Joe’s physical injuries were sustained when he escaped from the fire and during both of his attempts to escape from Lady Chadwick and Mister Crippensworth,” Paul continued. “Though his captors did abuse him PHYSICALLY, in addition to starving and trying to poison him, his worst injuries are the ones we CAN’T see.”

“The one’s we can’t see?” Ben echoed, looking bewildered. “What do you mean by the injuries we CAN’T see?!”

“Most of the torture this Lady Chadwick inflicted on him was psychological . . . emotional in nature,” Paul explained, as he took a seat on the settee next to Ben. “For instance . . . she told him that you and the rest of your family believed him dead, that he had perished in the fire that destroyed your house . . . and BECAUSE you believed him dead, you never gave him a moment’s thought.”

“That’s a lie, Paul,” Ben muttered through clenched teeth. “A damn’ cruel vicious LIE.”

“Of COURSE it is. Hoss and Candy didn’t believe it for a second. Neither did you, Stacy, or Hop Sing. I also knew that you’ve all thought of little else, since Stacy’s moved out of danger.”

“Even . . . even when SHE was at her worst, she . . . she kept asking me if . . . if Hoss and I had f-found Joe,” Ben said, his voice tremulous.

“I know.” Paul Martin reached out and placed a steadying hand on Ben’s shoulder. “However, during the time Joe was with his captors, he had no way of knowing what was really happening. He told me of having nightmares about Stacy dying of HER injuries, then of YOU dying of a broken heart because Stacy had died and because you believed him dead.”

Ben felt as if someone the size, strength, and power of his middle son, Hoss, had just sucker punched him in the stomach. “That’s why . . . he was so happy to see . . . to see Stacy and me.”

Paul nodded.

Ben shook his head, wondering how in the ever lovin’ world he could have fallen in love with Linda de Salle in the first place, given the monster she had become over the years. “What in the hell was she trying to do to my boy?” he murmured softly.

“I . . . think I may have an idea, Ben.”

The Cartwright family patriarch glanced up sharply. “I . . . wasn’t expecting an answer, Paul.”

“I know. It was a rhetorical question. However, based on what Joe’s told me, I think this Lady Chadwick was trying to somehow turn him against you.”

The look on Ben’s face strongly suggested that the sawbones should be returned from the lunatic asylum from which he must have escaped.

“I’ve heard of that sort of thing happening,” Paul said defensively. “Mostly in time of war, but also among kidnap victims. When a person is effectively cut off from people he loves and trusts, stripped naked, bound, placed on a starvation diet, more often than not, he’ll come around to believing what his captors tell him. But such a process takes time. Weeks, months, sometimes . . . with the kind of stubborn determination Joe has, coupled with his iron will, such a process could take YEARS. Joe resisted of course . . . less than a week is a far cry from many years . . . but I fear damage was done, case in point being how happy he was to see you and Stacy alive and well.”

“Why? Why in the world would she want to go through all that trouble?”

“I wish to heaven I could tell you.”

Ben sighed, and morosely shook his head. The dicey prospect of working to get Joe’s stomach accustomed once more to solid food, so horribly overwhelming given the possible dire consequences, now seemed like a simple walk in the park against all that his youngest boy had suffered inside. “What can we do to help him, Paul?”

“Ben, as you know, I’m trained to bind PHYSICAL wounds, treat illness, occasionally see a new life into this world, and, lately more often than I’d like, see folks departing from this world,” Paul said soberly. “When it comes to matters of the mind and soul, I’m ‘way out of my depth, however . . . . ” He favored Ben with a weary smile. “From what little I saw before I left the room for a while, I think the lot of you just might have things well in hand.”

“Oh?! How so?”

“You . . . ALL of you . . . gave him a listening ear, you held him while he cried . . . even cried yourselves right along with him . . . offered him reassurance, and above all . . . you let him know how much you love and care for him, how glad you are to have him back,” Paul replied. “In the days to come, encourage, but don’t force him to talk about what happened. I have to warn you, Ben . . . listening’s NOT going to be easy, not for any of you. I’m merely his doctor and a friend of the family and . . . well, a lot of what he said shook ME to the core. But, it’s crucial that he talk about it.”

“I know,” Ben said quietly. “Just before Joe told us . . . what he DID tell us . . . he said that he HAD to talk about it, because if he didn’t . . . he’d go mad.”

“Fortunately, Joe’s NOT one to keep things bottled up inside. In my long years of practice, I’ve seen many people who’ve suffered as Joe’s suffered, but WON’T talk about it,” Paul said soberly. “Sometimes, they won’t even acknowledge that it happened. The more they try to push it way, the more it comes back to haunt ‘em, until it becomes like an abscessed wound, looking healed and healthy on the outside, but festering and eating away at a person on the inside. I’ve had many a patient go to an early grave for stubbornly keeping things bottled up inside.”

“I’ve seen MY share of friends . . . and family members, too, who went down to an early grave for the same reason,” Ben said. All of a sudden, he began to feel uneasy.

“As what happened begins to come out, so will a lot of the feelings that go with it,” Paul continued. “Rage, fear, grief, frustration, feeling helpless. You folks may have to roll with a few punches for awhile.”

“I . . . understand,” Ben said slowly.

“Ben, if at any point you or Joe feel the need to consult with someone who IS trained to deal with matters of the mind and of the soul, I can contact a couple of colleagues, who I know to be very fine doctors.”

“Thank you, I’ll certainly keep that in mind,” Ben said. “Paul, I have something to tell YOU. I guess NOW is as good a time as any.”

Paul frowned. “What is it, Ben?” he asked, bracing himself to hear something on the order of Stacy having attempted to ride her father’s or her brother’s horse out to the ranch sometime in the dead of night.

“Nothing like THAT, Paul. I promise you . . . Stacy’s behaving herself, and Joe’s GOING to behave himself, so get that look off your face,” Ben said.

Paul’s facial features and muscles relaxed. “Sorry, it’s just that I, well— ”

“I know. You’ve come to expect the worst regarding my youngest children whenever they’re convalescing . . . or SUPPOSED to be convalescing,” Ben said wryly. “No, I just wanted to let you know that I spoke to Lucas earlier, and he’s found me a house for rent, completely furnished. Five bedrooms upstairs, guest room down stairs, indoor plumbing, and a small stable out back. He should have the papers drawn up for me to sign first thing tomorrow morning. After that, I can get the lot of us moved in. If, ummm . . . we can impose on you and Lily one more night . . . . ?”

“No imposition at all, Ben,” Paul declared, favoring his old friend with a broad grin. “We’ve enjoyed your company, even though we could’ve all wished for better circumstances. I know Lily’s going to miss Hop Sing puttering around in her kitchen.” The sawbones’ grin faded. “However . . . . ”

“What is it?”

“I’d like to keep Joe here, for a couple of days at least . . . strictly for observation.” Paul quickly added the last, upon noting the apprehension creeping back into Ben’s face. “I’d like to make absolutely certain the poison’s out of his system, and see how he’s doing with that clear liquid diet.”

“That may not be entirely necessary, Paul, since we’re going to be neighbors for a little while.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. We’ll be living in the Fletchers’ house right across the street,” Ben said. “Lucas told me Sam and Ella will be spending the next year or so touring Europe and that they wanted to rent their house while they’re away.”

Paul silently considered the matter. “Tell you what, Ben. Let’s see how Joe fares for the rest of the day and through out the night. I’ll give you my decision in the morning. In the meantime, I’ll let you get back to Joe and the rest of your family,” Paul said.

End of Part 5

 

 

Trial By Fire

Part 6

By Kathleen T. Berney

 

“Adam’s comin’, Li’l Brother,” Ben overheard Hoss telling Joe, as he quietly let himself into the room. “Day after t’morrow, four o’clock stage.”

“You sent for Adam?!”

Ben paused at the door, frowning. There was a definite edge to his youngest son’s tone of voice just now.

“I had to, Li’l Brother!” Hoss said defensively. “With Stacy bein’ bad hurt as she was . . . an’ still IS . . . Pa and me out scourin’ the country side lookin’ for YOU . . . ‘n Hop Sing doin’ HIS darndest t’ look after Stacy AND Pa . . . . ”

“Not to mention rounding up the calves and branding them, then getting our stock moved up to the summer pastures,” Ben added, as he stepped over to the examination table on which Joe still lay.

“With all THAT goin’ on, there ain’t much o’ any work gettin’ done on the house,” Hoss continued.

“I, uuhhh . . . guess I kinda forgot about all that,” Joe murmured thoughtfully, then smiled. “But, I’m back now.”

“ . . . an’ from the looks o’ things, Li’l Brother, you’re gonna be laid up f’r awhile, right along with Li’l Sister,” Hoss hastened to point out. “With Pa ‘n Hop Sing fussin’ over the pair o’ YOU, ‘n ME seein’ to the rest o’ the Ponderosa, there STILL ain’t gonna be any work gettin’ done on the house.”

“Come on, I feel FINE,” Joe argued.

“Well you’re NOT fine, Young Man,” Ben said sternly. “Not yet.”

“Ok, so the doc wants me to kick back and rest a couple o’ days,” Joe said with a shrug. “It wasn’t necessary drag Adam clear out here from Sacramento.”

“Does that upset you, Son?” Ben asked.

“Does WHAT upset me?”

“Adam coming to give us a hand with the house.”

“No, THAT doesn’t upset me,” Joe said with a touch of exasperation. “It’s the fact of Big Brother here sending for him, like it was some big emergency.”

“At the time I sent for Adam, I— ”

“It’s all right, Hoss,” Ben said quickly, hoping to forestall a potential argument between his younger sons.

“Sorry, Hoss, I didn’t mean to climb all over ya like that,” Joe immediately apologized. “I mean . . . if Adam WANTS to come and work on building our new house, well . . . I guess it’s only right, since he designed a lot of the old one. And Pa?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“You just give me a few days to rest up, and I’ll be good as new, ready, willing, and able to pitch in and give Adam a hand.”

“Not until you’re able to keep a decent meal in ya, Young Man,” Ben said in a tone more stern than he had intended.

“O-Ok, Pa.”

The hurt and bewilderment he saw reflected in his youngest son’s big, round gray-green eyes, cut Ben to the heart. “Sorry, Son.”

“ ‘S ok, Pa. Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course, Joe,” Ben said ruefully.

“Why shouldn’t I be able to keep a decent meal in me?” Joe asked. “My stomach feels a little rocky, but I’m hungry as a bear.”

“How much has Doc Martin already told you?” Ben asked.

“He told me that he was pretty sure that last meal Lady Chadwick gave me was poisoned,” Joe replied. “I kinda thought so, sick as it made me. Is THAT why I might have trouble keeping a decent meal in me?”

“That maybe part of the reason,” Ben replied. “The other part is that you haven’t had any food at all since she kidnapped you . . . except for that poisoned meal.”

“Oh.”

“Joseph, I’m going to be right up front with ya,” Ben said soberly. “You’re going to be on a very strict diet for awhile, until you reach that place where we know you CAN keep down a decent meal. Until then, you’re not going to have the strength to help Adam with the house, or do much of anything else.”

Joe frowned, as he digested all that his father had just told him. “Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“Exactly how long is this gonna take? Getting me to a place where I can sink my teeth into a decent meal again?”

“I don’t know,” Ben said very quietly. “All I DO know is . . . this isn’t something we can rush. It’s going to take time. Time and a lot of patience.”

“But, I don’t feel the least bit tired, Pa,” Joe argued. “Apart from a stomach that’s a little rocky and a few aches and pains . . . I feel fine.”

“THAT’S because you’re not doing anything more taxing than lying on Doc Martin’s examination table,” Ben quickly pointed out.

“Hey, Grandpa, at least we get out of doing our chores for a little while,” Stacy said.

Joe looked over at her, and smiled. “Hey! You’re right! I didn’t even THINK of that!” He turned back again to his father, his good humor, for the moment restored. “Ok, Pa, I’m ready to be a good boy.”

“Joseph, I’m gonna tell YOU the same thing I told your sister!” Ben said, glad to see that smile back on his son’s face. “If I see you . . . either one of you . . . so much as looking cross-eyed at Cochise, Blaze Face, or any other horse, OR attempting to do ANYTHING before Doctor Martin says you can, I’m gonna personally hog-tie ya, until you come to your senses.”

“He MEANS it, too, Grandpa,” Stacy said.

“Dadburn right Papa mean it! . . . and if Hop Sing around . . . Hop Sing help . . . give him hand tie up Little Joe and Miss Stacy,” Hop Sing declared with a ferocious scowl leveled at Joe first, then at Stacy, with a curt nod of his head for emphasis.

“The TWO of you are going to get plenty of rest, take your medicine, follow doctor’s orders, and allow yourselves the time you need to heal,” Ben continued. “You got that?”

“Got it, Pa,” Joe said, the corner of his mouth twitching upward to form an amused smile. “I can’t fight you AND Hop Sing.”

The following morning, Ben dispatched Hoss back to the Ponderosa, all the while heartily assuring the biggest of his three sons that, with the able assistance of Hop Sing, he was well able to get Stacy moved over to the Fletchers’ house, and Joe, too, if the doctor decided to allow it. Hoss also carried a long list, given him by Hop Sing, of all the ‘essentials’ he would need from what had been salvaged from the kitchen. Hop Sing, himself, had left not long after Hoss, to lay in a supply of groceries, and buy more clothing for the family.

“I’m off to the bank first, to have a draft made up for the first couple of months rent,” Ben told his two younger children, as he slipped on his shearling jacket, “then I’m going to Mister Milburn’s office to sign the rental agreements and PAY the rent.”

Joe was seated on the divan, clad in a clean white nightshirt, that he had borrowed from Doctor Martin. Ben’s new robe, “in case you get chilly,” lay neatly folded on the coffee table. His sprained ankle, tightly bandaged, shared the ottoman with Stacy’s broken leg. She was fully dressed in a goldenrod yellow shirt and dark brown riding skirt, that reached just past the top of the single fringed boot moccasin she wore on her left foot.

“Now I expect the two of you to behave yourselves,” Ben continued, favoring both with a meaningful glare. “Doctor’s orders are for you to get plenty of rest, and that’s EXACTLY what you’re going to do.”

“Yes, Pa,” Joe replied, with a face too solemn and innocent.

Stacy nodded.

“I’ll be back in an hour, two at the outside,” Ben said. “Do either of you need anything before I go?”

“I’m fine, Pa,” Stacy said.

“Me, too.”

“Ben, you go ahead and do what you need to do,” Lily Martin said firmly, as she entered the upstairs living room. She carried a large mug filled nearly to the brim with steaming hot peppermint tea. “I’ll make sure they behave themselves.”

“I KNOW you will, Lily. I’ll be back soon.” With that, Ben turned and left, with much reluctance.

“I brought you some more tea, Joe,” Lily said briskly, as she set the tray on Joe’s lap.

“Thank you, Mrs. Martin,” Joe said gratefully.

“How’s your stomach?”

“Empty,” Joe said mournfully. “It’s been nearly an hour and a half since I had breakfast . . . such as it was . . . and I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.”

“Any nausea?”

“Nope,” Joe replied. “Everything I’ve DRUNK so far is staying down.”

“You drink that tea slowly,” Lily said in a very firm tone of voice. “If that stays down alright, I’ll bring you some more tea and some of that chicken broth, Hop Sing made up last night.”

“Mrs. Martin?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“I don’t suppose I could talk you into fixing me a scrambled egg . . . could I?”

She wanted so badly to say yes to that forlorn face and those big, round, childlike eyes, glowing a near emerald green in the morning light. “I’m sorry, Joe,” Lily reluctantly shook her head. “The doctor’s orders are very strict, I’m afraid.”

“How about an eggnog?”

Lily sighed. “Tell you what. If you can keep down everything you take in today, I’ll ASK the doctor about eggnog, but I make you no promises as to what he’s going to say.”

“That would be great, Mrs. Martin.”

“Stacy?”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Is there anything YOU need?”

“Mrs. Martin, do you happen to have a checker board?” Stacy asked.

Lily smiled. “Yes, we do. I’ll have Hilda Mae fetch it from the parlor and bring it up.” She, then walked over to the small settee, placed over next to the fireplace. She removed the hand crocheted afghan draped over the back and carried it over to Stacy. “I’ll just leave this on the coffee table, Stacy, in case YOU get chilly.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Martin.”

“I’ll be downstairs helping the doctor clean up in the examination room. If you need anything, just call Hilda Mae.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Joe replied.

Stacy nodded.

“Y’ know, Kid, I wouldda never, not in a million years have believed such a thing possible,” Joe said in a low voice, his eyes glued to Lily Martin’s retreating back, “but SHE actually hovers more than PA.”

“ ‘Mornin’, Ben.”

“Good morning, Roy,” Ben Cartwright greeted his old friend with a warm smile as he stepped from the bank onto the board sidewalk.

“How’s Joe doin’?”

“He’s pretty stiff and sore this morning, and he seems to be doing very well on his diet of clear liquids . . . PHYSICALLY at any rate . . . . ” Ben replied, his smile quickly fading. “How he’s doing mentally and emotionally . . . at this point, we have no way of knowing. To be frank, that scares me even more than this business of getting him back to the place where his stomach can handle solid food again.”

“He’ll come through this, Ben, you’ll see,” Roy said quietly. “That youngest boy o’ yours has got enough cussed, stubborn will t’ see a dozen folks through somethin’ like this. ‘Course he does take after his old man, after all . . . . ”

“Thanks a lot, Roy,” Ben chuckled, as he fell in step alongside the sheriff. The pair walked for awhile in companionable silence.

“Where y’ headed?” Roy asked, finally, at length.

“I’m on my way to Lucas Milburn’s office,” Ben replied. “We’ll be staying here in town until our house is rebuilt. Did I tell you? Adam’s coming to help up out with that. HOSS sent for him.”

“No, you didn’t. When does he arrive?”

“Next Tuesday afternoon on the four o’clock stage,” Ben replied. “We’ll be renting the Fletchers’ house in the meantime. I hope to get us moved in today.”

“Ben?”

“Yes, Roy?”

“I’m gonna need a statement from Joe . . . the sooner, the better.”

Inwardly, Ben cringed. He had been dreading this ever since Crippensworth had been placed under arrest.

“Ben, I can’t keep the man locked up in jail forever,” Roy pressed. “I hafta charge him with somethin’, and I can’t do that without JOE givin’ me a statement.”

“I know, Roy . . . I know.”

“If Joe ain’t up f’r it right now, I CAN give him a few days . . . . ”

“Let me speak to Paul about that . . . see what HE says. I’ll let you know, if not today, then definitely tomorrow morning.”

“Alright, Ben. Talk to ya later.”

“Hey!” Stacy cried, indignant and outraged.

“What’s the matter with YOU?” Joe demanded, his eyes not quite meeting his sister’s.

Stacy studied the layout of the pieces through eyes narrowed with suspicion. “This checkerboard looks DIFFERENT, Grandpa!”

“Stacy Rose Cartwright . . . are you accusing ME . . . ME?!! . . . your loving brother, who is as honest as the day is long, and maybe even honest-er than THAT . . . of cheating?” Joe demanded in melodramatic tones of mock outrage.

“ARE you?”

“Have you EVER known me to cheat at poker?”

“Of course not! Cheating at poker can get you drilled full of lead!”

“Alright then,” Joe said, smiling. “It’s YOUR move, Little Sister.”

Stacy studied the board for a minute, then moved her piece.

“You SURE you wanna do that, Kid?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re absolutely, positively sure?”

“Yeah, I’m absolutely, positively sure.”

A triumphant smile spread across Joe’s face as he moved one of his kings, jumping over every last checker Stacy had left on the board. “I win AGAIN, Little Sister. That’s five games out of five.”

“DON’T remind me,” Stacy said, favoring her brother with a dark, angry glare.

Joe glared back at her for a moment, then burst into a fit of giggling. Stacy very quickly found herself laughing, too, in spite of her best intentions.

“You wanna try for one out of six?” Joe asked, as their laughter began to fade.

“Maybe later,” Stacy replied with a big yawn.

“I wonder if I can get me some more tea and some more of that chicken broth,” Joe wondered aloud. “It’s actually pretty good.”

“Joe? Stacy? I’m back,” Ben announced. “I brought you both a little something.”

“I hope it’s clothes,” Joe said. “I’m getting a little tired of sitting around in Doc Martin’s nightshirt. I wanna get dressed.”

“Hop Sing’s taking care of THAT detail,” Ben replied.

“What DID you bring us, Pa?” Stacy asked.

“I stopped in at the C Street Café and got the two of you a couple of gingerales,” Ben replied. “Joe, Lily and Hop Sing both told me earlier that gingerale often helps settle the stomach.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Joe said gratefully, favoring his father with that cocky, boyish smile, his sister had once dubbed his lethal lady-killer smile. “I can’t wait until I can down a couple o’ mugs of beer at the Silver Dollar again.”

“All in good time, Young Man,” Ben said, favoring his youngest son with a stern glare.

“Did you get everything taken care of, Pa?” Stacy asked, as she unscrewed the cap on her gingerale bottle.

“Yes, I did,” Ben replied, holding up the keys.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“Since the Fletchers’ house is right across the street ‘n all . . . couldn’t I move in today with the REST of you? Please? PRETTY please?!” Joe begged. “If anything happened, Doc Martin would still be real close.”

“We’ll have to see what the doctor says, Joseph,” Ben said, wanting that even more than Joe did. “In the meantime, Stacy, we need to get your things packed . . . . ”

“You stay still, Stacy,” Lily Martin said, as she entered the room. “I’ll have Hilda Mae see to it. Ben . . . . ”

“Yes, Lily?”

“You don’t HAVE to leave,” she said quietly.

“Lily, I’m grateful beyond words for your hospitality, for everything you and Paul have done, but we can’t go on imposing on your good grace until our house is built,” Ben said in a gentle yet firm tone.

“You’re HARDLY imposing.”

“We WOULD be.”

“No, Ben, not you!” Lily declared with an emphatic nod of her head, then smiled. “Sure, Paul and I have had our share of house guests who ended up taking shameless advantage of our hospitality . . . who hasn’t? But, none of YOU are like that. Circumstances aside, I’ve enjoyed having you around.”

Ben returned her smile with a warm one of his own. “Paul tells me that you’ve especially enjoyed having HOP SING around.”

“Paul’s got a big mouth,” Lily retorted good naturedly, “but, I’ll not deny it. I’m going to miss having him puttering around in my kitchen.”

“Tell you what, Lily. As soon as we get ourselves settled in our temporary home, I’ll have the both of ya over for dinner,” Ben promised. “It’s the LEAST we can do, after— ”

“I’ll accept that dinner invitation on ONE condition, Ben.”

“What’s that?”

“That you invite Paul and me because we’re friends, and you want to spend time with us,” Lily said firmly. “I won’t come if you’re doing this because you feel obligated.”

Ben opened his mouth to protest.

“No, Ben, I mean it,” Lily said before the Cartwright clan patriarch could get in one word edgewise. “You know as well as I do that had our situations been reversed, you’d have done the same for Paul and me in less than a heartbeat.”

“Well . . . of course I would. That’s what real friends do, but . . . I can’t just— ”

“Ben, I think you’re going to have a very hard lesson ahead of you in days to come,” Lily Martin observed, with a sharp, knowing look in her bright blue eyes.

“Oh?”

“In all the years you and your family have lived here, you’ve been very generous,” Lily said, “and I’m NOT talking about just money. I’m talking about the way you helped Leta Malvet find her place as a valued member of this community . . . putting your own life on the line to take down the likes of Sam Bryant . . . taking in Mariette and practically raising her as your own after her pa died . . . all the help you gave to Albert Michaelson and Johnny Lightly, when THEY needed a hand, not to mention Mase and Ruth Sindell . . . and they’re only a few.

“You’ve done a lot for Paul and me, too,” Lily continued. “For instance . . . we couldn’t have gone to our daughter, Malinda, when she had her baby, if you didn’t happen to find yourself with a pair of stage coach tickets, and the best accommodations at a hotel . . . that by some odd coincidence lay within walking distance of where Malinda and her husband live . . . all arranged and paid for, that you all of a sudden couldn’t use because an ALLEGED business trip you and Adam planned to take to San Francisco had been canceled.”

“Lily, Adam and I WERE planning a business trip to San Francisco—,” Ben started to protest.

“Sure. The following year,” Lily retorted.

“Your POINT, Lily?” Ben demanded, as two bright spots of red suddenly appeared on his cheeks.

“My point, Ben Cartwright, is . . . with the fire, with Joe and Stacy recuperating, with everything else you have on your plate, it’s finally YOUR turn to be on the receiving end,” Lily said very firmly. “You’ve been a real friend to a lot of people. It’s time for us to be real friends for you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get Hilda Mae to work gathering Stacy’s things together.”

Ben stared after Lily Martin’s retreating back, his mouth hanging slightly open, too overcome to speak.

Hoss wearily rode into town on the family’s buckboard, just as the sun was setting. The back was loaded mostly with kitchen items, plus a small satchel packed with bare essentials from among Hop Sing’s belongings, all of which had survived the fire. Upon reaching the Fletchers’ town house, their temporary home, until they could rebuild on the Ponderosa, he unhitched the horses and stabled them in the small stable out back. He, then, removed Hop Sing’s satchel from its place in the driver’s seat and covered the kitchen utensils in the back of the wagon with a tarp, before going inside.

“Hey, Big Brother, you’re just in time to wash up,” Joe greeted Hoss with a jovial smile as the biggest of the Cartwright sons trudged wearily through the door. “Hop Sing says supper’ll be ready in ten minutes.”

“I don’t want ya t’ take this the wrong way, Li’l Brother, but . . . what’re ya doin’ HERE? I thought Doc Martin was gonna keep ya over at his house for a couple o’ days,” Hoss said as he removed his hat, jacket, and gun belt.

“Actually, he hadn’t quite made up his mind,” Joe said.

“Oh,” Hoss said, then grinned. “So the doc decided it’d be ok for ya t’ move in today with the rest of us.”

“Doc Martin didn’t exactly decide,” Stacy said, all wide eyed and too innocent.

“He didn’t?”

“Well . . . you know how it is . . . sometimes the doc just plain ‘n simply can’t make up his mind,” Joe said smoothly. “But not to worry. Mrs. Martin convinced him I’d be just fine right here. Her exact words were . . . ‘Paul, you KNOW he’ll get better quicker if he has his family around him.’ ”

“THAT was after Mrs. Martin said she couldn’t stand to see ol’ Grandpa here cry,” Stacy said.

“I didn’t REALLY cry, Hoss,” Joe said smugly.

“But, he sure looked like he was going to . . . any minute,” Stacy said. “Almost had ME crying.”

Hoss chuckled softly, and shook his head. “Gotta hand it to ya, Li’l Brother . . . you sure know how t’ git WHAT ya want . . . WHEN ya want it.”

“Unfortunately, it stops ‘way short of getting a decent meal.” Joe exhaled a long, melodramatic sigh. “Everyone ELSE gets chicken and dumplings, all I get for supper is MORE clear chicken broth, MORE tea, and lots MORE water.”

“You just hang in there, Li’l Brother. It won’t be too long ‘fore you’re right back t’ pickin’ at your food right along with Li’l SISTER.”

“I’m so hungry now . . . I think I could eat a whole herd of horses,” Joe complained. “When all this is over? I don’t think I’m EVER going to pick at my food ever, ever again.”

“How’re things back at the ranch, Hoss?” Ben asked, hoping to steer the topic of conversation in another direction.

“Hank ‘n the men have got all the calves rounded up— ”

“How many?” Joe asked.

“Two hundred ‘n ninety seven,” Hoss replied.

“Wow! That’s nearly a hundred more than we had LAST year,” Joe declared with a broad grin. “You think maybe Hank use a hand with the branding?”

Ben sighed and rolled his eyes. “Joseph . . . . ” Though his tone was quiet, there was a subtle edge of exasperation.

“Awww, come on, Pa. How much strength does it take to move a li’l ol’ branding iron from the fire to a calf’s rump, and back to the fire again?” Joe argued.

“No,” Ben said in that quiet, stern tone he used when a decision had been made, and the matter was no longer up for discussion.

“I wouldn’t even have to sit a horse,” Joe blithely rambled on. “I could ride out in the buckboard with Hoss, and— ”

“Joseph, I said NO,” Ben angrily, impatiently cut off the remainder of Joe’s argument.

Scowling, Joe exhaled an explosive sigh borne of his growing angry frustration, then lapsed into sullen silence.

“Hank, uuhhh . . . told me they were able t’ git started with the, ummmm, branding late this afternoon,” Hoss ventured hesitantly, all the while casting quick, furtive glances over at his younger brother, seated on the settee with arms folded tightly across his chest, staring pointedly into the fireplace. “He figures about . . . three days, four at the most, ‘til they’re, uuuhhh, ready t’ move up t’ the . . . summer pasture?!”

“How about the lumber camp and the mill?” Ben asked, in a voice barely audible, as wave upon wave of guilt washed over him, for the sharp tone he had taken with Joe just now. “That last shipment for the railroad is due soon.”

“Things’re movin’ right on schedule, Pa,” Hoss replied. “I was plannin’ on ridin’ out t’ both places first thing in the mornin’.”

Ben nodded. “What about that string of horses for the Army?”

“Candy told me today that they’re all saddle broke,” Hoss replied. “I . . . think we’re lookin’ at taking a loss, ‘cause we agreed t’ train ‘em ‘n . . . well, we just plain ‘n simple ain’t gonna be able t’ do it.”

Upon hearing the apologetic note in Hoss’ voice, Ben looked over at him, and favored him with an encouraging smile. “Hoss, in the week since the fire, you’ve done very well running the ranch . . . and our lumber operations single handed. I’m not only appreciative and grateful, but I’m also very proud of you. I’m not sure I could’ve done half so well as you have . . . even when I was much younger.”

“I, uhhh . . . I dunno ‘bout THAT, Pa,” Hoss murmured as two bright spots of red appeared on his cheeks.

Ben reached over squeezed his biggest son’s shoulder gently, with affection. “How’s that new man working out?”

Joe glanced up sharply upon hearing his father’s question.

“That young fella Candy and me asked ya t’ hire?”

Ben nodded.

“Wesley’s workin’ out just fine, Pa,” Hoss replied, grinning from ear-to-ear. “One o’ the best horse breakers around!”

“Hey! I’m not so sure I like the sound of THAT,” Joe declared, half joking, half in earnest.

“Li’l Brother, you ain’t got a blessed thing t’ worry about. Wesley’s got a ways t’ go ‘fore he gits t’ be anywhere near as good as YOU.”

Joe smiled. “Now THAT’S what I like to hear!”

“I got Dick Hayes lookin’ after our saddle horses,” Hoss continued. “Hank’s Aunt Jenny’s feeding Hop Sing’s chickens, ‘n Ellen Cromwell’s takin’ care o’ the two milk cows. I told her she could keep half the milk for herself.”

“Good . . . very good,” Ben murmured approvingly.

“Hoss?”

“Yeah, Li’l Sister?”

“How’s Blaze Face doing? I miss him something dreadful.”

“I think HE misses YOU somethin’ dreadful, too,” Hoss replied, “but, don’t you worry none. Dick’s takin’ real good care o’ Blaze Face . . . ‘n Cochise, too.”

“Mister Hoss, you back!” Hop Sing exclaimed with a delighted smile, as he trotted in from the kitchen. “You bring back what Hop Sing need in kitchen?”

“It’s all in the buckboard out back,” Hoss said wearily. “Most of it’s gonna need a powerful lot o’ scrubbin’ with all the smoke ‘n soot all over it. I’ll help ya bring it inside ‘n clean it, too, after I git some supper in me. Where do I go t’ wash up?”

“This way. Wash up in kitchen.”

“Hoss . . . Stacy . . . why don’t YOU g’won ahead,” Ben said quietly. “Joe and I’ll be along in a minute.”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss said, then turned to Stacy. “I got your crutches, Li’l Sister. Ya need a hand up?”

“Thanks, but I can manage,” Stacy replied. Placing one hand on the arm of the settee next to her, and the other beside her, on the cushion, she easily pushed herself up from sitting to standing.

“Hey! You just about got this business o’ getting around on one leg down pat,” Hoss declared with a proud smile.

“Thanks,” Stacy replied as they turned and headed out toward the kitchen. “Of course I have plenty of time to practice these days.”

Ben waited until Hoss and Stacy had left the room, then turned to his youngest son, still seated on the settee. “You all right?” he asked gently, as he sat down on the ottoman facing Joe.

His question was met by angry, sullen silence.

“Joe . . . . ”

“What?” he snapped, exasperated.

“Talk to me, Son. Please?”

The sharp, angry retort sitting right at the tip of his tongue died an immediate, sudden death, upon getting a good, hard look at the worry, and concern etched into the lines, muscles, and planes of his father’s face. “Pa, I’m going crazy just . . . well, just sitting around here, twiddling my thumbs when there’s all this work to do,” Joe said curtly. “Except for feeling hungry all the time, I feel fine.”

“You’re NOT fine, Son.”

“So you keep telling me,” Joe sighed, punctuating his words with a sarcastic roll of the eyes.

“You’re limping worse today than you did last night on that sprained ankle of yours. You’re still favoring your injured arm, your entire body’s covered with cuts and bruises— ”

“Ok, Pa, I get the picture,” Joe said in a sullen tone.

“I haven’t touched on the worst yet, Son,” Ben continued, his tone gentle. “I had asked Doc Martin not to tell you because I— ” He sighed. “Forgive me, Joe. I . . . I wanted to protect you . . . old habits die very hard.”

“What . . . did you ask Doc M-Martin . . . NOT to tell me?” Joe asked, noting his father’s pale complexion, the black-brown eyes round with fear. Normally, he would have been very resentful of Pa’s overly protectiveness, but now, he plain and simply didn’t have the heart. Not when his father looked at him like that.

“First of all . . . as I told you yesterday . . . Lady Chadwick . . . tried to poison you.” It took every ounce of will Ben possessed to speak those words.

“I know,” Joe said, “when she gave me that big steak dinner. Pa, I’ve never in my whole life been as sick as I was after eating that meal. The only time I can remember anybody else being sick like that was the puppy, Hoss and I had . . . you remember Rowdy, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do.”

“That’s how I figured out that maybe I’D been poisoned. I asked Doc Martin about it. He told me . . . from the sound of things, that I’d figured right. But, I don’t think Lady Chadwick was trying to poison me . . . personally.”

Ben frowned. “What do you mean she wasn’t trying to poison you?”

“I think she was trying to poison YOU, Pa,” Joe said soberly. “She . . . didn’t have a real good, firm grip on reality. Half the time she called Crippensworth by YOUR name. When she finally served me that great big steak dinner, she was calling ME by your name.”

“Thank the Good Lord she turned me down all those years ago, when I asked her to marry me,” Ben murmured, visibly shaken by his youngest son’s revelation.

“Amen to THAT!” Joe agreed with sincere, heartfelt thanks. “Pa?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“Please . . . don’t take this question the wrong way, but . . . how is it that I’m . . . still . . . alive?! As sick as I was, there had to have been enough in that meal to kill ten men.”

“Doctor Martin thinks your stomach rejected the meal . . . and the poison . . . because, after nearly a week of no solid food, your stomach had gotten so that it couldn’t accept it,” Ben explained.

Joe silently mulled over what his father had just told him. “Pa?”

“Yes?”

“Is . . . THAT why I’m on this clear liquid diet? Because my stomach can’t take solid food?”

“Yes,” Ben replied.

“Will I . . . ever . . . be able to eat solid food again? Or am I doomed to a clear liquid diet for the rest of my life?”

“The doctor’s confident that you’ll eventually be able to eat solid food again, but it’s going to take time to get your stomach used to it again,” Ben said. “We have to go slowly, starting with clear liquids, then moving to things like soups, watered down stews, then to soft foods.”

“Kinda like a baby.”

Ben nodded. “Yes. Kinda like a baby. Joe?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“The doctor said the next couple of weeks are going to be kind of tricky.”

“What do you mean by kind of tricky?”

“Your body’s become severely dehydrated, Son,” Ben explained, “due to all the throwing up you did after Linda fed you that poisoned meal . . . . ” His jaw and mouth tightened with anger when he said Lady Chadwick’s name, “ . . . and you not getting enough water the entire time she held you prisoner. If you eat too much at a time or eat it too fast, your stomach might reject it.”

“ . . . and I could become even more dehydrated,” Joe said slowly. “I guess working up a good sweat branding calves would do the same thing as eating too much or too fast.”

“Yes.”

Joe sighed, and shook his head. “Damn!” he muttered under his breath. “Pa, you remember . . . oh, I don’t know how many years its been now . . . but, that time we found Adam out in the desert dragging a dead guy named Peter Kane on a stretcher?”

“I remember.”

“He never talked about it, at least . . . not while I was around,” Joe continued. “But, I knew he’d been through some kinda hell. I think we ALL did! When he got home, he worked, from sun-up to sundown until he was so exhausted, he was sleep walking through the front door. I . . . I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on a private conversation, but I remember Adam telling you it was the only way he could begin to forget about what happened, and move on.”

Ben remembered that long march of uncertain days when he actually feared for his oldest son’s sanity. He had done all he could to try and encourage Adam to talk about what had happened between him and Kane, but Adam had stubbornly refused.

“Pa, I want to put it behind me and forget about it.”

Ben heard Adam’s words again, spoken in the same angry tone of voice, the terse, clipped syllables: “I don’t want to talk about it. Please. Don’t keep asking.”

Ben did as his oldest son had asked. It was one of the hardest things he had ever had to do as a father. He watched Adam push himself to the point of utter exhaustion, day after day after endless day. By night, he spent hours, pacing the floor, praying hard that his first born be delivered of the demons that so relentlessly pursued him.

Then, suddenly almost, Adam once again became the calm, stoic man he had always been, but there remained a strange, haunted look in his eyes. The passage of time, his marriage to Teresa and subsequent births of their two children had finally erased the torment.

For the most part.

Though largely hidden during the busy times, during times of crisis and trouble, it returned in the peaceful, quiet times, when all was supposed to be well, even more clear and pronounced than it had been all those years ago.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“I was hoping I could do what ADAM did,” Joe said. The melancholy and the hopeless despair he heard in his youngest son’s voice was as a knife plunged deep into his own heart. “You know . . . g’won back to the ranch, brand calves, round up cattle, and break horses until I was so tired, I couldn’t see straight. Then I could get Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth out of my mind, at least for a little while . . . and I could forget how dadblamed hungry I am.”

“Perhaps Adam’s way of dealing with what happened with Kane, ISN’T the right way for you to deal with everything Lady Chadwick put you through,” Ben suggested.

“What do you mean?”

“For one thing, Adam’s always been more of a reserved, stoic man, while you tend to wear your feelings on your sleeve,” Ben replied. “Last night, you started to talk about some of the things that happened while Lady Chadwick held you prisoner. I saw that you were very upset, and growing more so with every word you uttered. I wanted to spare you. That’s why I told you that you didn’t have to talk about it.”

“I remember.”

“Do you remember what YOU told ME?”

“Yeah. I told you that I HAD to talk about it . . . that I’d go crazy if I didn’t.”

“Did it help you to talk about it yesterday evening, when we were together in the doc’s examination room?”

Joe silently thought the matter over. “I . . . didn’t really think about it then, but since you ask NOW . . . I’d have to say yes. It DID help me.”

“Then, maybe, THAT’S the way for YOU to best deal with and come to terms with what’s happened,” Ben suggested. “Hoss will be away at the ranch most of the time, but I’m always ready and willing to listen anytime you need an ear to bend. I think you might find Hop Sing and your sister willing listeners, too.”

“Pa, I . . . I don’t know about Stace,” Joe said, his eyes round with horror at the thought. “She’s just a KID! I can’t burden HER with . . . with what’s happened.”

“ ‘She’s just a kid?!’ ” Ben echoed, incredulous. “THIS from the young man who’s forever reminding ME that his little sister is now ‘of age,’ and therefore no longer just a kid?!”

“I . . . guess I AM being a little silly, hunh.”

“No, you’re just being an overly protective older brother. But, don’t sell Stacy short. She went through a lot before she finally came to live with us.”

“You’re right, Pa. Seeing her now, it’s . . . well, it’s easy to forget all that happened to her before.”

“There’s another option, too, Joe. If you DON’T feel comfortable about talking with US . . . your brother and sister, Hop Sing, or me, Doc Martin told me there are doctors who specialize in this kind of thing . . . helping people talk about whatever’s befallen them and helping them to come to terms with it, and move on,” Ben said. “He knows a couple of very fine doctors, who specialize in this.”

“I’ll . . . keep that in mind,” Joe said slowly, thoughtfully, “and, Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“Sorry I was so moody just now,” Joe apologized contritely. “I was feeling hungry, miserable, sorry for myself, and like I was just about the most useless person walking around on the face of the earth.”

“You still feeling all those things?”

“Only the hungry and kinda miserable with my aching shoulder and ankle,” Joe replied with a grin. “The other two . . . no. I know why I’ve gotta stay on a strict diet, and why I can’t help Adam with the house, or Hank with the branding. I’ll try to be a better patient. I promise.”

“Apology accepted, Son, though as Doc Martin has said time, and time again, none of us Cartwrights are good patients.”

“He says YOU’RE the worst of the lot,” Joe teased.

“I should be, Young Man, I have a few years up on the lot of ya,” Ben retorted with a smile. “Now, come on . . . let’s go wash up for supper.”

“Joseph Francis Cartwright, this board looks different!” Ben declared with a scowl. “So help me, if you changed anything while I was seeing your sister upstairs, I’ll— ”

“I told ya, Pa. You gotta watch Li’l Brother here like a hawk,” Hoss said as he moved through the dining room, into the small living room, where his father and younger brother sat playing checkers near the fireplace. After the family had finished eating their supper, he had unloaded Hop Sing’s essential kitchenware from the back of the buckboard, then helped set it all in a big washtub, filled nearly to the brim with boiling hot, soapy water, to soak

“Hoss, you wound me!” Joe declared with the sad, innocent face of a cherub.

“Not ME, Joe, but PA might if y’ keep movin’ those pieces around when he ain’t lookin’.”

“Don’t listen to him, Pa. He’s just a sore loser . . . not that I can BLAME him.”

“I might be a happy winner more often if you played fair,” Hoss retorted.

Joe grinned and stuck out his tongue.

Hoss responded by thumbing up his nose.

“Your move, Joseph,” Ben said quietly.

Joe returned his attention back to the checkerboard. “Hey! This looks board different!” he declared with a frown.

“Surely you’re not accusing your own wise and loving father of cheating!?” Ben responded in mock tones of outrage.

“Well, when you put it THAT way, Pa . . . . ” Joe studied the layout of the board, then cautiously made his move.

“You sure you want to do that, Son?”

“Yeah . . . . ”

“Alright,” Ben murmured with an indifferent shrug. He, then, placed his hand on his sole remaining checker and moved, jumping over every last piece Joe had on the board.

“Hey! H-How—?! Pa, you SURE you didn’t change something while I wasn’t lookin’?” Joe queried, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“NOW who’s the sore loser?” Ben teased.

“How ‘bout another game, Pa?”

“So I can beat you SEVEN games out of seven?”

“I’LL play with ya, Joe,” Hoss said, “but, I’m warnin’ ya . . . I’m gonna watch you ‘n this dadburn board like a hawk.”

“I’m beginning to think I need to watch PA like a hawk, too,” Joe said, as he and his big brother set up the board for another game.

“Pa? C’mon, Joe, Pa don’t do things like cheat at checkers. He’s too OLD fer them kinda shenanigans.”

“Fat lot YOU know, Hoss,” Ben responded silently, as a smug triumphant smile spread slowly across his lips. He picked up the newspaper, this week’s copy of the Territorial Enterprise, from the coffee table and moved to the other end of the settee.

“Hop Sing have special treat,” the Chinese member of the Cartwright family blithely announced upon entering the room with a serving tray in hand, set with four ice cold glasses of lemonade. “Get lemons from tree venerable uncle keep in green house. Make lemonade special for Little Joe.”

“Hop Sing, I could kiss you!” Joe declared with a grin, as he helped himself to the first glass.

“Simple thank you plenty good enough,” Hop Sing chided him with a broad grin. “Glad to see boy back home with family, all safe and sound.” He handed Hoss a glass, then walked over toward Ben. “Where Miss Stacy?”

“The Kid turned in right after we got through with supper,” Joe replied, then shook his head. “The way Stacy kept nodding off at the table, I was half afraid she was gonna drown in her chicken and dumpling stew.”

“Hopping along on one leg and a pair of crutches can be very tiring at first,” Ben observed sympathetically.

“Say, Hop Sing . . . alright if I have Stacy’s glass?”

“Have little more chicken broth first, maybe tea,” Hop Sing advised. “See how settle in stomach. If good, Hop Sing make more tomorrow. Have lots of lemons from venerable uncle.”

“Hop Sing’s right, Joe,” Ben said, in complete agreement. “Remember? Doc Martin said you have to take things easy.”

“I know, Pa, and believe me, I’m trying very hard to be patient,” Joe sighed, “but it sure as shootin’ ain’t easy! Right now, I want a nice, big fat juicy sirloin so bad, I can taste it.”

“Hop Sing hope Little Joe keep appetite, even when he go back to eating real food,” the Chinese man said, as he gathered the empty glasses.

“I hope so, too, Hop Sing,” Ben replied as he folded the newspaper in hand and placed it on the coffee table. He, then, rose, and stretched. “I’m going to turn in, Boys. It’s been a real long day.”

“I’m right behind ya, Pa,” Hoss said. “I gotta get up extra early now, so I’ll be out at the Ponderosa when Hank, Candy, ‘n the other men are ready t’ start work.”

“Good night, Pa . . . good night, Big Brother,” Joe said. “I think I’ll come on up, myself, and read the newspaper in my room.”

Clad in a pair of brand new pajamas, white with thin red stripes, wearing a dark port wine robe, also new, Ben knelt down beside the bed in the room he had claimed as his own for the duration, and lifted his face toward the window, where he could see the stars and the moon. Though much smaller than the master bedroom at the front of the house, he had chosen this one because it looked out away from the town, toward the distant mountains and the wide expanse of sky . . . toward the Ponderosa . . . and home. For a time, he remained thus, gazing up at the moon, waned now to the old crescent, and into the velvety indigo black sky beyond, studded with stars, countless in number, glittering like diamonds when they catch and hold the sunlight just right.

“ ‘ . . . God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night . . . ’ ”

Words from the Genesis Creation Story filtered through Ben’s mind, his thoughts, and his heart, as he continued to gaze up at the heavens spread out before him. Softly, barely above the decibel of a whisper, and reverently, he began to give them voice . . . .

“ ‘ . . . and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: and let them be for lights in the firmament of heaven to give light upon the earth: and it was so. And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.”

A measure of peace stole over his anxious, troubled spirit. The same peace he had found many, many years ago, gazing up at the star studded sky from the deck of a clipper, moving swiftly through the sea under the impetus of wind and current. Closing his eyes, he saw again the night sky at sea, and felt the wind at his back.

“ ‘O God, how excellent is Your Name in all the Earth . . . .’ ”

Ben turned and, much to his surprise, found his daughter, Stacy, standing framed in the doorway, leaning heavily on her crutches. “I thought you were asleep.”

“I was . . . for a little while.”

“Do you remember the rest of it?”

“ ‘O God, how excellent is Your Name in all the Earth,’ ” Stacy began again as her eyes moved to the window, “ ‘when I consider Your Heavens, the work of Your Fingers, the Moon and Stars which You have ordained, what is man . . . or woman . . . that You are mindful of them, or their sons and daughters that You visit them?’ You had that look on your face, Pa.”

“Oh?” Ben rose to his feet and extended his hand. “ . . . and what look is that, Young Woman?” he asked, bemused.

“That look you get when we ride out to someplace like Ponderosa Plunge, and you just stop and look out over the whole country side,” Stacy said as she slowly moved into the room, “and I know you’re thinking about how vast and beautiful this land is, and about God, who made it all.”

“Tonight, I needed to put things into perspective,” Ben said. “Looking up at the stars has always helped me do that.”

“Is . . . everything ok, Pa?” she ventured hesitantly. “With YOU, I mean.”

“I was feeling a mite overwhelmed by what’s happened, and by everything we have ahead of us, but I’m feeling better now.”

Stacy knew that he spoke true by the peace she saw reflected in her father’s dark brown eyes. “Would it be alright if I stay and listen while you pray?”

Ben smiled. “I’d like nothing better,” he said quietly. “Why don’t you sit down here?” He steered her over toward the edge of the bed. “Do you want something to prop up your leg?”

Stacy shook her head. “No thank you, Pa. I’ll be ok.”

After seeing that his daughter was seated comfortably on the edge of the bed, Ben took his place beside her, gently taking her hand in both of his own. With his eyes open and face lifted upward toward the heavens, he began to pray softly, in manner appropriate for intimate conversation with One, much loved, his heart filled with a quiet, yet very deep, very profound spirit of gratitude:

“OUR Father . . . who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”

Stacy knew those words to be the start of the prayer, her father and brothers knew as “The Lord’s Prayer,” and her friends, Molly O’Hanlan and Susannah O’Brien knew simply as the “Our Father.”

OUR Father . . . who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Stacy turned those words over once again in her mind. She sensed the awe and majesty of God, that same sense of awe and majesty, she, herself felt when contemplating the verses of Psalm Eight, long ago committed to memory, or looking out on the mountains and sky, that surrounded her home. Yet, there was also a strong sense of closeness and intimacy, especially when her father uttered those words.

OUR Father . . . who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . .

“ . . . Thank you,” Ben prayed. “Thank you for being fortress and strength to me and to my family in our trial by fire, both now and in the days to come. I can’t begin to find words enough to express my gratitude for sparing our lives when our house burned; f-for giving my daughter, Stacy, b-back to me; f-for bringing my son, Joe, through all his suffering, for bringing him back home— ”

Ben stopped for a time, unable to speak, as rivulets of tears squeezed out between his closed eyelids, and freely cascaded down his cheeks. “Dear God, My Heavenly Father,” he prayed silently. “I love them all so much . . . I don’t know WHAT I’d do if . . . if— ”

If any of them were ever lost to him.

Those were the words he could not bring himself to voice, even within the silence of his thoughts. He felt Stacy’s left hand coming to rest overtop his right, and gently squeezing. Then, much to his surprise, he felt another hand on his shoulder, gentle, yet firm. He turned, at the same moment Stacy looked up, and found Joe standing beside him, balanced between his good foot and a cane.

“I’m here, too, Pa,” Joe whispered, his eyes a deep emerald green in the subdued light of waning moon and bright stars. He sat down on the bed, on his father’s other side.

Ben placed an arm around his son’s shoulders and the other around his daughter’s and hugged both of them very close. He took a shallow breath, then another, followed by yet another, and another . . . until the urge to cry finally lessened. He swallowed, and dabbed his still wet cheeks with the sleeve of his robe.

“I am also grateful beyond words for Hoss and for Hop Sing,” Ben continued his prayer, taking Joe’s and Stacy’s hands in his own, “ . . . for the pillars of strength THEY’VE been. I thank you for friends like the Martins . . . and also for love and c-caring . . . the support, and for the prayers f-from the men who . . . who have c-come to work for me and their f-families . . . all of whom, who have . . . who have shown themselves as friends. Thank you so much for the blessings you’ve bestowed on me and my family, and . . . Dear Lord . . . MY Father in Heaven . . . help me now to forgive where I need to forgive, as I myself have been forgiven. Amen.”

“Amen,” Joe and Stacy murmured together, softly, in unison.

“Amen,” another voice softly echoed from the door directly behind him.

“Me, too. Amen.”

Ben turned and saw his son, Hoss standing framed in the doorway, clad in a brand new night shirt the same color blue as his eyes, with Hop Sing standing beside him, wearing a white nightshirt underneath a dark brown cotton robe.

“I hope ya didn’t mind me listenin’ in,” Hoss said apologetically, “but . . . I’ve always liked hearin’ you pray, an’ I especially like hearin’ ya pray now.”

“I don’t mind in the least,” Ben said quietly.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“We DO have a whole lot t’ be thankful for . . . don’t we?” Hoss said, as he and Hop Sing entered the room.

Ben nodded. “Yes, we do, Son. I . . . had almost forgotten myself . . . until I started to pray,” he said, his voice still tremulous.

“You alright, Pa?” Joe asked, as an anxious frown creased his smooth brow.

“I will be,” Ben hastened to assure his youngest son. “Now, let’s get the lot of you off to bed.

Tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . .

Joe lay on his bed, with eyes wide open, glued to the ceiling, seeing absolutely nothing. The rhythmic tick-tock of the regulator clock hanging on the wall facing his bed filled his ears, echoing and re-echoing throughout even the deepest places of mind and thought.

Tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . . .

Clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . .

Footsteps, tapping out a slow, even cadence against the bare hard wood floor, one foot following the other, and the other, and the other, again and again, keeping a steady pace, neither speeding up nor slowing down . . . .

He stirred, tried to move . . . found himself paralyzed . . . .

Tick . . . tock . . . tick . . . tock . . .

Clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . .

He heard again, the faint, unmistakable sound of a woman’s hard soled shoe, with heel slightly elevated, pacing the floor in front of his bed.

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . .

She slapped her riding crop against the open palm of her free hand, keeping time with every step she took.

“Tell me . . . .

Tell me, Little Joe.

Tell me what REALLY happened the night of the fire.”

Gasping, Joe bolted from prone to sitting. He glanced around the darkened room, through eyes round with fear, terror, and an almost mind numbing dread, desperately searching among the Fletchers’ furnishings for something . . . anything . . . reassuring and familiar.

Clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . .

“Tell me . . . . ”

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . .

“Tell me, Little Joe.”

Clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . .

“Tell me what happened . . . . ”

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . .

“Tell me what REALLY happened the night of the fire.”

“N-No,” Joe whimpered, his eyes darting fearfully among the strange, and deep shadows, veiling the room.

Clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . .

Clasping his hands tightly together, holding them and his arms up flush against his chest, he began to inch backward, toward the headboard of the bed on which he sat.

Clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . clack . . . .

Slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . slap . . . .

He saw her blackened silhouette moving against the dimmed lights of the city and moon shining in through the window in his room, with its lacy, white, translucent curtains.

“No . . . oh God . . . NO!” Sobbing, Joe kept inching further and further back along his bead until he felt his back touch the hard wood of the head board. He drew his legs up as close to his body as he possibly could.

“Joe?!”

She passed the window, passed the foot of his bed, and turned. Now, she was moving through the veil of thick shadow and darkness toward him.

“N-No,” Joe sobbed, burying his face in his hands. “No. No, no, no, NO! Oh, G-God, please . . . please . . . . ”

With heart in mouth, Ben immediately flew over to the small table next to his youngest son’s bed, and turned up the lamp. “Joe?” He, then, turned his anxious attention to his youngest son.

“Oh, G-God, no. Please, please . . . . No, no . . . no . . . . ” Joe whimpered, shaking his head back and forth, in time with the cadence of his agonized moaning.

Alarmed, Ben sat down on the edge of the bed. “Joe? Son, it’s PA!” he said, as he gently placed his hands on Joe’s wrists.

“No . . . I told you . . . I told you wha’ happened the night of the fire . . . I already told you . . . . ”

“Joe, wake up!” Ben pulled his son’s tightly balled fists down away from his eyes. “Please, PLEASE . . . wake up!”

Joe shuddered, and gasped. “P-Pa?!” he murmured as his gray-green eyes, still round with terror, focused intently on his father’s anxious face. “Pa . . . that r-really you?”

“Yes, it’s me,” Ben said. “I heard you cry out.”

Joe reached out and seized his father’s robe by its lapels. “P-Pa, wh-where AM I?” he whimpered, his voice, his entire body trembling. “You gotta tell me where I am. Please!”

Ben reached out and took Joe firmly by the shoulders. “We’re in the Fletchers’ house,” he said slowly, gazing earnestly into his son’s terror filled face.

“Fuh-fuh-Fletchers?!”

“Yes, Joe, the Fletchers’ house. In town.” It took every ounce of will Ben possessed to keep his tone calm and even in the face of his own escalating fear and dread.

“Why? What’re we d-doing here?”

“Our house on the Ponderosa burned down,” Ben explained. “Do you remember?”

Joe immediately buried his face in his hands once again. “I already told you what happened,” he sobbed. “I already told you.”

Ben took his frightened son in his arms and held him close. “I know, Son. I know. You already told me what happened,” he murmured, squeezing his eyes shut against the acrid stinging of his own tears. He could feel Joe’s arms reaching under his, to encircle his chest, his fingers grasping the material of his bathrobe. “I’m here, Joe,” he whispered, hugging his distraught son closer. “Your pa’s right here.”

For a time, Joe clung desperately to his father, sobbing.

Ben held him tight, as he had when this young man was a small child, rocking back and forth, gently stroking his tangled mop of curls. “I-I’m here,” he sobbed softly, his own heart broken by his youngest son’s terrible anguish. “Your . . . your pa’s right h-here.”

At length, Joe’s agonized weeping began to lessen, dying away to an occasional hiccup, faint, barely audible. He raised his head slowly, and gazed intently into his father’s tear stained face. “P-Pa?”

“I’m here, Son.”

“Are y-you . . . are you really here?”

“Yes, I’m really here. I’m right here . . . with you.”

“Where’s everyone else?” Joe demanded, his eyes once more frantically searching the room. “Where’s Hoss? And . . . . ” He gasped again. Ben could feel his son’s entire body trembling. “Pa . . . where’s Stacy? Please, you gotta tell me! Where’s Stacy?!”

“I’m right here, Grandpa.” It was Stacy. She stood framed in the open doorway, clad in her nightshirt, leaning heavily on her crutches.

“Come on in, Stacy,” Ben invited.

“Oh God, where’s Stacy?” Joe moaned. “Please, Pa, please! You g-gotta tell me.”

Stacy, with heart in mouth, made her way across the room with surprising ease and quickness. “I’m here, Grandpa,” she said, sitting down on the other side of the bed.

Joe lifted his head from his father’s chest and stared over at his sister in complete and utter disbelief. “Stacy?! Is . . . . Are y-you . . . . ?!”

“Yes, it’s me,” she said quietly, placing her hand over his, still clutching tight to his father’s robe. “I’m really here, Joe, and so are you.”

“I . . . I h-had this dream . . . this horrible dream that . . . that you were d-dead,” Joe began to sob anew.

“I’m NOT dead . . . I’m very much alive,” Stacy said, as she slipped her arms in between Joe and her father, and wrapped them around her brother’s waist, “and I’m going to STAY alive . . . for a very, very long time.”

“Thank G-God,” Joe sobbed, as his head dropped down onto his father’s shoulder. “Thank G-God.”

“Mister Cartwright?”

Ben glanced up, in time to see Hop Sing enter the room, carrying a large mug of hot tea. Hoss, clad only in his night shirt, followed behind, yawning.

“Hop Sing make Little Joe tea. Peppermint, mix with fennel and dill seed, make sweet with honey,” Hop Sing said softly. “Peppermint help Little Joe tummy. Fennel and dill seed help Little Joe sleep.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Ben said, as he reached out to take the mug of tea. He, then, turned his attention back to his son. “Joe?”

“Y-Yeah, Pa?”

“I’d like you to drink a little of this . . . . ”

“What is it?”

“Tea,” Ben replied. “Hop Sing just made it up special. It’ll help your stomach, AND help to calm you a little.”

“Y-You won’t go anywhere?” Joe asked looking from his father, to his sister, then back again.

“Stacy and I’ll be right here, Son. Would you take a little?”

Joe slowly, reluctantly moved one arm out from around his father, to take the mug. He lifted it to his nose and sniffed. “Smells like peppermint and licorice.”

“Have peppermint leaf and fennel seed,” Hop Sing said quietly. “Little Joe drink. Good for what ail him.”

Joe looked over at Hop Sing, and favored him with a wan smile. “Thanks, Hop Sing,” he murmured, then lifted the mug to his lips. He took a wary sip, then another. “Hey . . . this ain’t half bad.”

“Have two Little Joe favorite candy flavor,” Hop Sing said. “Peppermint and licorice.”

Joe took another sip from the mug, waited, then took another. “I . . . thought . . . or maybe dreamed I was back THERE again,” he said slowly, with a shudder. “I can’t remember falling asleep. I was just . . . there, and all this . . . me b-being here with you . . . THAT was the dream.”

“Do you still feel like you’re dreaming?”

“I don’t know, Pa, I . . . just plain . . . don’t know.”

“The reality is you’re here . . . at the Fletchers’ house, with me, Stacy, Hoss, and Hop Sing,” Ben said. “We’re going to be staying here . . . in the Fletchers’ house, until OUR house can be rebuilt.”

“Because of the fire,” Joe said, before taking a big gulp of the tea.

“Take it easy, Joe,” Ben admonished his son in a quiet, gentle tone. “You need to sip your tea slowly, so not to upset your stomach.”

“Sorry, Pa,” Joe murmured contritely.

“It’s all right. No real harm done.”

Joe took another sip. “I’m here at the Fletchers’ with you, Little Sister here . . . ” he looked over at Stacy and smiled, “ . . . Hop Sing, and Big Brother.”

“That’s right.”

“We’re here because our house burned down.”

“Yes.”

“ . . . and THIS is real. I’m NOT dreaming.”

“No,” Ben shook his head. “THIS is real.”

“ . . . and my being . . . back there . . . with HER?”

“THAT was the dream,” Ben said firmly. “Furthermore, she’s dead. She can’t hurt you any more. You’re safe now. You’re safe with your family.”

“Sh-she’s . . . she’s dead, Pa? Lady Chadwick’s d-dead?”

“Yes, Joe . . . she’s dead. She can’t hurt you . . . or any other member of this family anymore. You’re safe now.”

Joe sipped a little more of the tea, as he silently mulled over what his father had just told him. “She’s dead. She’s . . . really dead.”

“Yes, Son. She’s dead.”

Joe yawned. “Better take this, Pa. I . . . I think I’ve had enough,” he murmured softly, as he passed the mug, now half empty, back to Ben. Ben placed the mug down on the table beside the bed, and took Joe back into his arms. Joe closed his eyes and focused his attention on his father . . . his broad chest and shoulders . . . the strong arms wrapped protectively, lovingly around his still trembling body . . . his larger-than-life presence of both spirit and body that dominated, even swallowed up the entire room . . . . Within a few moments, he had dropped off into an easy, light slumber.

“Pa?” Hoss spoke up for the first time since entering the room with Hop Sing. “I can sit with him a li’l while if ya want.”

“YOU have to get up early, Young Man,” Ben gently reminded his biggest son, “and you have a long day ahead of you besides. No, you g’won back to bed. I’LL stay with him awhile.”

“Little Joe sleep now, sleep all rest of night,” Hop Sing said. “Mister Cartwright, Mister Hoss, Miss Stacy, all go to bed. Need rest. Hop Sing sit with Little Joe, make sure he stay sleeping.”

“Alright,” Ben agreed with much reluctance. “You’ll let me know if he wakes up?”

“Hop Sing promise, Hop Sing tell Mister Cartwright.”

“Come on, Pa,” Hoss said quietly. “Let’s get Li’l Sister here back to bed, then us. You’re gonna have all day long t’morrow t’ look after Joe . . . ‘n Stacy, too. With havin’ t’ keep tabs on both of ‘em . . . I think YOU’RE gonna need a good night’s rest more ‘n me.”

Ben nodded, and rose. He stood for a moment, to watch the even rise and fall of Joe’s chest. Satisfied that his son was, for the moment, safely asleep, he whispered good night, before turning and silently leaving the room, with Hoss and Stacy.

“Good morning, Hop Sing.”

“Good morning, Mister Cartwright. Mister Hoss up and go very early, almost before sun-up,” Hop Sing said, by way of returning the greeting. “Sit down. Breakfast ready. Where Little Joe and Miss Stacy?”

“I left both of them sleeping,” Ben replied, as he seated himself at the head of the small table in the alcove that served as dining room. “Hop Sing, do you think you could manage the pair of ‘em for a couple of hours?”

“Hop Sing can manage, Mister Cartwright. Easy as cake.”

Ben smiled. “I think the expression is ‘easy as PIE,’ ”

“Pie . . . cake . . . all same to Hop Sing,” the Chinese man declared with a shrug. “Where YOU go?”

“I have some errands to take care of this morning,” Ben replied, his smile fading.

“Pa?”

Startled, Ben glanced up sharply. He was surprised to find Joe standing at his elbow, still clad in his nightshirt. His son’s gaunt, haggard appearance, as revealed in the harsh light of morning, shocked and dismayed him. “Good morning, Joe,” he managed. “I was going to let you sleep in this morning.”

“Pa, do any of your errands this morning involve Lady Chadwick?” Joe demanded, coming straight to the point.

Joe’s question immediately drew a sharp glare from Ben.

“Well? Do they?” Joe pressed.

“Yes,” Ben reluctantly replied. “I wanted to stop by the sheriff’s office and ask Roy to send two wires . . . one to Scotland Yard’s London office, and the other to the police department in New Orleans, asking them to locate Lady Chadwick’s . . . and her son’s next of kin and inform them of their deaths.”

“Are you going to the undertaker?”

“Yes. I want to arrange to have the bodies of Lady Chadwick and her son taken to Carson City for burial.” Ben had adamantly vowed to himself not to bury them in a place where there was even the slightest chance he or any other member of his family might see their grave markers. Carson City, he had reasoned, was far enough away to preclude such a possibility, and Linda, at least, had lived there off and on for many years.

“I have to go with you,” Joe insisted, his mouth thinning to a near straight, lipless line of angry determination.

“Now, Joe— ”

“I have to see her, Pa. I have to see her, so that I’ll know beyond ANY shadow of doubt that the bitch is dead.”

“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea, Son.”

“Pa, PLEASE! I have to know,” Joe pressed, as he sat down in the chair, to his father’s right. “That dream I had last night . . . . ”

“What about it?”

“I didn’t even remember falling asleep,” Joe said, his voice, his hands shaking. “One minute, I was staring up at the ceiling, the next I was back there, again . . . with HER. Then YOU came in, and . . . for a time there, I had no idea what was real and what was dream. I thought I was going crazy, Pa, and . . . it scared me. It still scares me.”

“Did you stop to consider that waking up from a vivid nightmare in a strange house might have left you feeling disoriented?” Ben asked.

“Pa, it’s not the same,” Joe insisted. “I honestly didn’t know what WAS real and what WASN’T last night. I have to see Lady Chadwick. I have to know that she’s dead.”

“But, I told you last night that she’s dead,” Ben said, with a bewildered frown.

“I know you TOLD me, but I have to SEE her myself, with my own two eyes. If you don’t take me with you, I’ll get myself over there, if I have to crawl the entire way on my hands and knees.”

Ben knew by the steely glint in those gray-green eyes, the rigid set of his jaw, and mouth thinned to a near straight line, that Joe fully intended to do as he had said.

“I have to see her dead, Pa . . . I have to!” Joe argued. “If I DON’T? There’s always gonna be this one little part inside me that’s never, ever gonna know for sure. After the hell that woman put me through, and . . . especially after that horrible nightmare last night . . . I can’t go around harboring even the slightest of doubts.”

“You want me to come along, too, Grandpa?”

Ben was surprised to find that Stacy had made her way down the stairs, and now stood at the foot of the table, clad in nightshirt and bathrobe, carefully balanced between her good leg and her crutches.

“I appreciate your offer, Kid, more than I can say,” Joe said with genuine, heartfelt gratitude, “but, this is something I think I have to do MYSELF.” He said this last with a long, hard, very meaningful look over at his father.

“Alright,” Ben agreed reluctantly. Though he was extremely loath to admit it, Joe DID have a valid point. “HOP SING?!”

“Mister Cartwright call?” Hop Sing responded as he ambled into the living room.

“Yes. Would you mind helping me hitch up the buggy? Joe will be going with me this morning,” Ben explained. “He’s got something to take care of himself.”

“Yes, Sir, Mister Cartwright. Hop Sing help hitch up horse to buggy.”

“While we’re doing that, Young Man, you g’won upstairs and get yourself ready,” Ben said, then turned to his daughter after his son had nodded, and moved off toward the stairs. “We shouldn’t be gone for any more than a couple of hours, Stacy. Do you need or want anything before we leave?”

“No, I’ll be ok, Pa.”

“YOU don’t feel the need to see Lady Chadwick . . . do you?” Ben asked, remembering how badly Stacy had been hurt, how close she had come to dying all because of the fire set by the orders Lady Chadwick.

“No,” Stacy adamantly shook her head. “I would’ve gone if . . . if Grandpa here NEEDED me, but otherwise . . . I’ve never had the pleasure . . . ” this last was accompanied by a sarcastic roll of the eyes, “ . . . of meeting the lady, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather KEEP it that way.”

“Good morning, Mister Cartwright and . . . Mister . . . Cartwright,” Tobias Chaney, the undertaker greeted Ben first, then Joe. He turned to the man standing behind him, a younger, slightly taller, rail thin version of himself. “This is my oldest son, Tobias Chaney, JUNIOR.” A proud smile tugged hard against the corner of his mouth, despite his intentions to maintain and project what he felt to be a straight, decorous, even dignified demeanor. “He joined the business in the fall of last year.”

“I am honored to make your acquaintance, Gentlemen,” the younger Tobias Chaney acknowledged the introduction, then turned to offer Ben his hand first, Joe second.

“Joseph would like to see Mrs. Lawrence, if that’s alright, Mister Chaney,” Ben addressed himself to the elder, after shaking hands with Tobias Junior. He grimaced slightly, as he spoke her name, unable to help himself.

“Certainly, Mister Cartwright.” The undertaker turned to his son. “Would you please show the younger Mister Cartwright to the chapel where we have the late Mrs. Lawrence laid out?”

“Yes, Sir,” the younger man replied, then turn to Joe. “If you would come with me, Mister Cartwright?”

“In the meantime, Mister Chaney, if you and I could take care of the remaining paperwork?” Ben asked, turning his attention back to the undertaker.

“Certainly, Mister Cartwright. My office is THIS way.”

Joe stood alone in the small chapel room, staring down at the empty mortal remains of one Linda de Salle Lawrence, dowager Countess of Chadwick, lying in the open casket before him. She looked at peace lying there, with eyes closed, her forehead and face virtually unlined. Though she hardly deserved to rest in peace, not in Joe’s mind, especially after the hurt she had inflicted upon himself . . . and not after killing her own son in a desperate bid to inflict even more pain and grief on his brother and sister, Hop Sing, and most especially on his father.

“How could you DO that?” Joe demanded in a soft voice, barely aware that he had spoken aloud. “How could you order your man to kill your son, screaming . . . going out of your mind because . . . because Crippensworth wasn’t moving fast enough to suit you?

“Why did you hate my pa so much? YOU’RE the one who turned HIM down when he asked you to marry him,” Joe continued, his voice rising. “Then . . . when you came to visit us . . . you tried to ruin Pa . . . to ruin all of us. You tried to take away everything . . . his dreams everything h-he’s worked so hard for . . . . ”

Hot, scalding, angry tears poured from Joe’s eyes, and his body trembled with rage. “You had no reason to . . . to hate him,” he continued. “No reason at all! If anything, P-PA’S the one who . . . who h-had every reason in the world to hate YOU!”

“Joe?!”

He turned, nearly jumping out of his skin, to find his father standing behind him.

“I’m sorry I startled you, Son,” Ben said in a quiet, gentle tone, his face a mask of worry and concern. He started across the short span of distance between the door and the place where Joe stood.

“I . . . I c-can’t understand it, Pa,” Joe sobbed, as Ben gently placed his hands on his son’s heaving shoulders, and turned him away from Linda Lawrence’s dead body. “I c-can’t understand h-how she . . . how she c-could’ve hated YOU s-so much m-more . . . than she ever l-loved her own son.”

As Ben gathered his distraught, agitated son into his arms, his eyes slowly drifted past his son, and briefly came to rest on the body of the woman, who had brought such profound misery to himself, to the son he now held so tightly, and to the rest of his family. He thought again of the house she had owned in Carson City for so many years, a discreet distance from the Ponderosa, yet so frighteningly near. He remembered the paintings . . . the one she had given him when she came to visit as well as the two life sized portraits . . . his own face, its details, painted from memory, so accurate, so complete . . . he shuddered now just thinking about it.

“Joe . . . . ”

“Y-Yeah, Pa?” Joe queried, as his tears subsided.

“You ready to go?”

Joe nodded. Together father and son crossed the room in silence, Ben with an arm still wrapped tight about his son’s shoulders, Joe, with his arm around his father’s waist.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Son?”

“Why?” Joe paused at the door and gazed earnestly into his father’s face, and eyes, perplexed, begging for an answer.

“I . . . don’t think we’re ever going to know the answer to that question, Joe,” Ben said. “I kind of doubt even SHE knew the answer.”

Joe rode in the buggy next to his father in sullen, angry silence, their next stop the sheriff’s office, then back to the Fletcher’ house. As they rode, the streets and buildings; the people, with their horses, buckboards, and buggies; the noise, even the distant mountains and the blue skies overhead, all faded into the vision of Lady Chadwick lying dead in the simple pine box that was to be her coffin, in the silent, dimly lit chapel in the undertaker’s establishment. He remembered, with grim satisfaction, that she had been laid out with hair was still mussed, and her cosmetics smeared into streaks across her forehead, down her cheeks, and over her nose.

The two deep, gaping holes in her chest remained, courtesy of bullets fired from a derringer found in the possession of her man, Gerald Crippensworth. No efforts had been made on the part of the undertaker to hide or conceal them. The front of the white nightgown she still wore, was stained by the enormous amount of dried blood that must have bubbled up like a spring or geyser until her heart had finally stopped beating. There was also a thin line of purple-black bruising across her neck, standing in lurid contrast against the deathly pallor of her skin. Pa had told him that someone, most likely Crippensworth, had strangled her first using a string tie.

Joe had expected to find a measure of relief in seeing her dead body lying in its coffin at the undertaker’s establishment. But, there was none. If anything, the burden, that had weighed so heavily on his heart since his homecoming, increased many, many times.

“Damn you, Crippensworth,” he muttered softly under his breath. “Damn you, damn you, DAMN you!”

“Did you say something, Joe?” Ben asked, his brows coming together to form an anxious frown.

“No,” Joe snapped. Upon seeing the worried, hurt look on his father’s face, he immediately regretted the harsh sharpness of his tone. “Sorry, Pa,” he murmured, this time his voice filled with regret. “I . . . I was just thinking out loud was all.”

“If you’d like, we can just g’won back to the Fletchers,” Ben offered. “I can see Roy another time.”

“No, please . . . I’ll be ok,” Joe said, offering his father a wan smile.

Ben returned his son’s smile with a look of apprehension and doubt.

“Honest, Pa, I’ll be ok,” Joe said. There was a subtle pleading note in his voice. “The sooner you can see Sheriff Coffee and get him to send those wires . . . the sooner we can finally wash our hands of that spiteful, scheming bitch.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure, and besides . . . it might do me good to see that sadistic brute caged behind bars, like . . . like the vicious, rabid animal he is.”

Ben nodded mutely, in spite of the many doubts assailing him.

“Ben, I’m ‘way ahead of ya,” Roy Coffee said in response to Ben’s request that he send wires to Scotland Yard and to the New Orleans Police Department. “I wired ‘em the mornin’ after we found YOU, Joe.”

“Any word?” Ben asked.

“Plenty . . . just come in this mornin’,” Roy said, as he escorted the Cartwrights over to his desk, “leastwise from Scotland Yard ‘n from a Sir Arthur Witherspoon. He’s the present Lord Chadwick’s lawyer.”

“What did Scotland Yard and Sir Witherspoon have to say?”

“Scotland Yard wants t’ have Mister Crippensworth extradited t’ England t’ stand trial for about a half dozen murders he’s s’posed t’ have committed THERE,” Roy said grimly. “They . . . Scotland Yard, that is, seem t’ have all their ducks in a row, leastwise as far as I can see. The matter’s before Judge Faraday now, but I expect him to rule in favor o’ havin’ him sent back t’ England.”

Relief surged through Ben like a strong tidal wave. “Then . . . you won’t need Joe to—, ”

“Not right away, Ben, but I’m STILL gonna need a deposition from Joe t’ keep on file, just in case he ain’t found guilty in England.”

“Can we take care of that now, Sheriff Coffee?” Joe asked.

“Sure . . . if you’re up f’r it,” Roy replied, doing his best to ignore the dark, angry glare Ben leveled in his direction.

“Son, there’s no hurry to do this,” Ben said, as his angry scowl melted into a mask of worry and grave concern.

“I know,” Joe said, his syllables terse and clipped. “I just want to get it over with. Then . . . . ” he turned his attention back to the sheriff, “I want you to take me back there so I can see Crippensworth.”

“Joe, I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Ben immediately protested, his own worries and frustration now getting the better of him.

“I have to see him, Pa. I have to see that . . . that animal caged,” Joe said, as a murderous scowl creased and lined his forehead. “I have to see him myself, with my own two eyes . . . just like I had to see Lady Chadwick.”

For the better part of the next hour, Joe gave Sheriff Coffee all of the details of his abduction by Lady Chadwick, her man, Crippensworth, and her son, the man the Cartwrights had known as Jack Murphy. He related everything in a calm, detached tone of voice, that frankly shocked and surprised him, given that he was all too aware of the anger, the fear, even grief seething within him, just under the surface. He also gave Roy the details pertaining to the murder of “Jack Murphy.”

“ . . . and that happened around the back o’ the house?” Roy asked.

“Yes, Sir,” Joe replied, “out behind where the kitchen and Hop Sing’s room were. Lady Chadwick gave the order, and Crippensworth shot him down in cold blood as he ran, trying to save himself. Lady Chadwick told me later that Jack was her son . . . that she had Crippensworth kill him because he looked a little like me. She told Crippensworth to burn Jack’s body and place it in what was left of the house to make Pa think I had died in the fire.”

“You have any idea WHY she went t’ all that trouble?”

“She kept blathering on and on about some great, grand and glorious plan of revenge against Pa, but other than that . . . . ” Joe shrugged. “Very little of what she said or did made any kind of logical good sense, especially when she started to act like she was married to Pa and . . . like . . . I was their son.”

For Ben, having to sit quietly by, listening to a detailed account of the torture his youngest son had been forced to endure at the hands of Lady Chadwick and the monster of a man, safely locked away behind bars in the room beyond, was like having a very dull knife thrust into his heart, again and again. He would have given anything to be able to trade places with Joe, to take from him all the pain and agony he had suffered.

“ . . . and Joe’s only spoken about the PHYSICAL pain,” Ben realized in miserable silence, desperate to somehow help his son, and utterly helpless in that he hadn’t even the slightest idea where to even begin. “He’s hardly said anything about the suffering he was forced to endure mentally and emotionally . . . . ”

“Joe, I . . . I hate more ‘n just about anything havin’ t’ ask ya t’ do this,” Roy Coffee said, after the young man had finished giving his deposition, “but I gotta.” He directed a hard meaningful look over at the elder Cartwright, seated next to his son, with his face pale, his hands trembling. “I need ya to read this over, make sure everything’s down right, just as ya told me,” the sheriff continued, returning his attention to Joe. “If ya got anything t’ add, ya can write it down at the bottom o’ the last page. I also need ya t’ correct any mistakes, then sign it right here at the top o’ the first page.”

Joe took the deposition from Roy, numbering four and a half pages total. He read over the testimony in silence, then signed his name at the top of the first page, as he had been instructed. “Now I’d like to see the animal you have caged in the back, Sheriff Coffee,” he said through clenched teeth.

“Joseph, I don’t think— ” Ben, his voice shaking, started to protest.

“I told you, Pa, I have to see him,” Joe said tersely.

Ben knew when Joe, when any of his other children got that steely, determined look in their eyes, there was no arguing the matter. He sighed with reluctant resignation, as started to rise.

“You don’t have to get up,” Joe protested. “I CAN do this myself.”

“I know you can, Son,” Ben said wearily, “but this time . . . I HAVE to go with you. This is something I need to do . . . as your father.”

Joe opened his mouth to counter, only to have the words die in his throat upon getting a good hard look at his father’s pale, grief-stricken face. “O-Ok, Pa,” he said in a kindlier, more gentle tone. “We’re in this together.” He held out his hand. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Ben said softly as he reached out and took his son’s extended hand.

“Well, well, well . . . look who’s deigned to pay me a visit,” Crippensworth sneered as Joe entered the room, where the jail cells were located, following behind Roy Coffee in silence, with Ben bringing up the rear. Though Joe’s complexion remained pale, and ashen, the sound of Crippensworth’s voice brought a dark, murderous glare to his face.

“I’m not here to visit you, Crippensworth,” Joe returned in a harsh, cold, angry tone that dripped icicles. “I’m here to see you where you should be, where I hope you’ll be for the rest of your natural life . . . locked away in a cage, behind bars.”

“Milady was right. You ARE an ungrateful whelp. After ALL we’ve done for you . . . taken you in where you were so badly injured, binding your wounds— ”

“Horse shit!” Joe snapped. “This time, I’M gonna tell YOU what REALLY happened after that fire. You and Lady Chadwick kidnapped me, you held me prisoner against my will, you beat me, tried to starve and poison me, and in the very end, YOU tried to kill me,” Joe said. Though his anger came through loud and clear, his voice again was surprisingly calm. “You WOULD have killed me, too, if my pa, my brother, and my friends hadn’t shown up in the nick of time.”

“Get out!” Crippensworth growled.

“I will, but I have one more thing to say first,” Joe said. “If they don’t find you guilty in England, and you’re set free, so help me, as God is my witness . . . I WILL see that you hang here.”

“For what? Kidnapping’s hardly a hanging offense.”

“No, but MURDER is. I saw you shoot down Lady Chadwick’s son. If by chance you ARE returned here to stand trial, I’ll testify to that in court,” Joe said. “I’m not happy with the part Jack played in his mother’s plans to kidnap me so she could strike out at my pa for no damn’ good reason, but I can’t fault him for being loyal to her. She WAS his mother, after all.”

“A piss poor one.”

“I agree with you there one hundred percent, Crippensworth,” Joe returned. “Still, he didn’t deserve to be shot down in cold blood. He deserves justice for that, and so help me if you ARE returned here for trial, I’ll do everything in MY power to see that he gets justice . . . and that YOU get justice, too . . . at the end of a rope.” He, then turned to Ben, and placed his hand on his father’s shoulder. “Ok, Pa, I’m ready to go . . . . ”

Epilogue

After reading the same sentence for what had to be the dozenth time, Ben exhaled a long suffering sigh of utter frustration and disgust, as he folded the latest issue of the Territorial Enterprise, and threw it onto the seat of the chair nearest the bed. He had retired hours ago, right after supper, in fact, feeling more weary than he could recall having felt in a very long time. He had fully expected to be sound asleep before his head had a chance to touch the pillow. Instead, much to his amazement and chagrin, he suddenly found himself wide awake.

He listened as the wall clock in the room he had chosen as his temporary quarters, struck the hour of two in the morning, then the quarter hour, followed by the half hour. “Maybe a glass of brandy’ll help me sleep,” Ben muttered under his breath, as he threw off the bedcovers, and rose.

Ben slipped on his new bathrobe and stepped into his slippers, before quietly moving from the bedroom he occupied, out into the hall. He took great care to move quietly, so not to wake his sons, his daughter, or Hop Sing. Upon reaching the living room on the first floor, he was surprised to find his youngest son seated on the settee, staring into the dying, deep red embers, of the fire they had all enjoyed earlier that evening.

Ben coughed discreetly, as he approached, so not to unduly startle his son. “You still up, Joe?” he asked. noting that Joe still wore the same clothes he had put on that morning.

“Yeah,” Joe murmured in a voice barely audible. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Mind if I keep you company for a little while?” Ben asked. “I seem to be having trouble getting to sleep myself.”

“Sure, why not?” Joe replied.

Ben quietly crossed the room and took a seat on the settee beside his son.

“Sorry I got you so upset today,” Joe said, his eyes still fixed on the fireplace.

“Apology accepted, Son. I . . . know seeing Lady Chadwick, giving Roy your deposition, and confronting Crippensworth were all things you had to do, as for my being upset . . . just consider that the prerogative of an overly protective father,” Ben said very quietly. “I’m very proud of you, Joe.”

“You are?” Joe queried, with a bewildered frown. “What for?”

“It took a lot of courage to do what you did today.”

“You mean . . . going to see Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth?”

Ben nodded. “ . . . AND giving Roy your deposition.”

“Thanks, Pa.” Joe turned and favored his father with a wan smile. “Alright if I ask you a question?”

“Sure.”

“Remember that time you were kidnapped and held for a hundred thousand dollars ransom?”

“Yes . . . . ” Ben replied, feeling a little uneasy. An anxious frown knotted and deepened the lines already present in his brow.

“What did YOU do . . . during the time they held you prisoner?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re getting at,” Ben hedged.

“What did you DO, Pa? Did you try to escape? Did you talk to ‘em? What happened?”

“Well . . . I couldn’t help BUT notice all the squabbling they did among themselves,” Ben said. “An older man with a wife, much younger, leading a trio of young bucks, who thought they knew more than he did . . . and one of those young bucks had an eye for the wife.”

“I remember you saying they were greedy, too.”

“Yes,” Ben nodded his head. “They were very greedy.”

“So . . . what did you do about it?”

“I played ‘em one against the other.”

“You did? Really?”

Ben nodded warily.

“How did you do THAT?” Joe snapped out the next question.

“I pointed out the obvious,” Ben replied. “For instance . . . I told the gang leader to watch his back at all times, especially around those three young ones. Though he pretty well knew how they were, he felt confident he could keep ‘em under control. I think it unnerved him when I let it be known that I knew how things were, too. I also let him know I had a basic knowledge of arithmetic.”

Joe looked over at his father with a bewildered frown.

“I pointed out how much more of that hundred thousand dollar ransom everyone would get if it were divided FOUR ways instead of FIVE.”

“Were you scared doing that, Pa? I mean . . . suppose they all sat down together and compared notes?”

“When I met ‘em, I knew they were too quarrelsome a bunch for that.”

“How about the husband and wife?”

“The husband knew that one young man had been eyeing his wife, and he strongly suspected HER of offering that young buck encouragement,” Ben replied. “But, there was always that possibility of one of ‘em telling the others something I said, especially in the heat of argument.”

“Did that scare ya?” Joe pressed.

“Sure. I would’ve been a fool had I NOT been scared. But, I also knew they intended to kill me and leave my body for you boys to find, after they had collected on the ransom . . . so I knew I had nothing much to lose.”

Joe shuddered at the prospect of those four men and one woman actually killing his father. At the time, he had no idea. No idea in the world his pa’s kidnappers had intended to kill him after they had collected the ransom.

“The important thing to remember, Joseph, is . . . they DIDN’T kill me,” Ben said quietly, upon noting the troubled look on his son’s face. “The leader and his wife actually affected a reconciliation of sorts, and I think he decided at the last minute he didn’t want a hanging offense following the pair of ‘em around. So, after they got the money, he sent his wife and the others off to a previously arranged rendezvous place, then fired his gun, so they would believe that he had killed me.”

“We must have shown up right after that,” Joe said slowly.

“Yes, you did.”

“If I remember correctly, the leader of that gang ended up getting killed, and the others ended up going to prison. I wonder what became of them?”

“I have no idea,” Ben shook his head. “Joe?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Did YOU play Lady Chadwick and Mister Crippensworth against each other?” Ben asked carefully.

“Yeah. I tried anyway, after remembering that time Adam and I were taken hostage by those bank robbers,” Joe replied. His hand unconsciously reached over to take his father’s. “Adam did the same thing.”

“I remember.”

“One night, I overheard Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth really goin’ at it, fast and furious,” Joe said, turning his face again toward the fireplace. “I didn’t really need to eavesdrop, ‘cause they were screaming their heads off at each other.”

“What was their argument about?”

“Montague. They . . . Lady Chadwick, anyway, killed Montague, and buried him in the flowerbeds of a house somewhere . . . . ”

“Hoss and I found out she owned a house in Carson City,” Ben said with a shudder.

“I think maybe the place where she buried Montague WAS over in Carson City,” Joe said slowly. “At any rate, someone found Montague’s body. Crippensworth was fit to be tied, Pa, while she kept insisting over and over that she had no choice, that he . . . Montague . . . was going to go to the sheriff about something.

“While I was listening to the pair of ‘em fighting like cats and dogs, I remembered Adam sewing seeds of discord among those bank robbers, and I thought maybe, just maybe I could do the same thing with Lady Chadwick and Mister Crippensworth to drive the wedge in deeper,” Joe continued. “I was scared to death, Pa, but I did it anyway. I told both of ‘em they oughtta watch their backs, in case the other got ideas of going to the sheriff about Montague.

“I knew I’d upset ‘em. One time ol’ Crippensworth got all huffy and said something like, ‘If Milady thinks she can do away with ME as easily as she did Montague, she’s in for a very rude surprise.’ ” Joe’s sardonic rendering of Crippensworth’s accent brought an amused smile to Ben’s face. “Lady Chadwick swore up and down that Crippensworth wouldn’t betray her, but I knew by the look on her face, that I’d hit home. I . . . Pa, I . . . I hope you can forgive me for this one . . . . ”

“Joe, I can forgive you of anything . . . especially anything you had to do in that situation to save yourself,” Ben said earnestly.

“I . . . I told Crippensworth you’d be willing to pay a lot of money to get me back. I even suggested that he demand ransom without telling Lady Chadwick,” Joe said. “I think, looking back, the thought had probably crossed his mind more than once before I had said anything. Lady Chadwick’s mental state was pretty unstable, by then. Half the time, she actually thought HE was YOU.”

“You did good, Son,” Ben said, slipping his arm around Joe’s shoulders. “Looking back on that time I was kidnapped, I think I might have helped save my own life by planting those seeds of doubt. I think you doing the same with Lady Chadwick and Crippensworth kept YOU alive, too, long enough for us to finally find you.”

“Really, Pa?” Joe asked, as he turned and gazed hopefully into his father’s face. “You really think so?”

“Yes, Son, I really think so.”

“I’m . . . sorry I suggested that Crippensworth ask you for ransom.”

“Don’t be,” Ben said quietly. “If he HAD demanded ransom, we would have taken it and left it where he had asked, with someone like Candy posted there in advance to see who comes, then follow. We . . . we might have found you a lot sooner than we did, if . . . if Crippensworth had . . . taken y-you up on your suggestion.”

Joe slipped his arms around his father, and hugged him close. “I want you to know something, Pa. I KNOW you, Hoss, Candy, and Sheriff Coffee were doing everything you could to find me. I know Stacy would have been helping you out, too, if she hadn’t broken her leg.” He smiled. “I feel kinda sorry for HER, I think, ‘cause I know how frustrated she must have been because she couldn’t help out.”

“Even . . . even when she was running a high fever, facing the prospect of actually losing her leg, she kept asking Hoss and me . . . did we find YOU. Had we found YOU yet,” Ben said, taking comfort in his youngest son’s closeness, the feel of his arms clasped tight around him. “I also want YOU to know something.”

“What’s THAT?”

“That I would have given Crippensworth everything we had . . . all the money in our accounts, our cattle and horses, our lumber operations, all our interests, even the Ponderosa itself to get you back,” Ben said. “I made my fortune once, I can do it again. My REAL treasures are you, Adam, Hoss, Stacy, and Hop Sing.”

“Thanks, Pa . . . . ” Joe said, his voice catching. With his arms still firmly clasped around Ben, he buried his face against his father’s shoulder and wept hot, scalding tears, bringing in their wake the first balm of healing for his tortured soul.

The End

 

Next Story in the Bloodlines Series:

Mark of Kane

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