Truth Begets A Peaceful Heart (by Julee)

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Summary:  The Cartwrights have a troublesome dispute on their hands and Adam has a new love interest, both of which, influence the day to day happenings of the entire family as they live and work together on the Ponderosa.

Rating: T  Word Count: 91,250

 

Truth Begets a Peaceful Heart

 

 Chapter 1

Ben Cartwright buttoned his dress shirt and smiled as he listened to his three sons getting ready for the spring dance.  He was glad the constant bickering of the past few weeks had been replaced with gentle teasing.  It was the same every spring.  When the winter snows thawed, the boys found themselves knee deep in mud and slush.  This winter had been particularly harsh and they had spent week after miserable week repairing damaged fence lines, clearing debris out of ice-cold creeks, and rescuing stubborn calves out of muddy bogs.  It wasn’t surprising tempers had flared and fists had threatened to fly.  But now, with the dirtiest of jobs done, they could all heave a sigh of relief and turn their attention toward more pleasant pursuits.  With a ranch the size of the Ponderosa, the work was never ending, but he had learned long ago how important it was for the boys’ morale and his own sanity to take time out for a little fun.  With the exception of a trip to town yesterday for supplies, none of the boys had been to Virginia City in weeks, so it was no surprise they were all in good humor and looking forward to tonight’s dance.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Adam put his foot on the trunk at the end of his bed and bent over to brush a scuff mark from his dress boot.

“Hey, Adam, can yuh help me with this dang tie?” Hoss asked, wrinkling his nose at his reflection in the mirror.  “I can’t seem to get it straight.”

Finished with his boot, Adam tossed the brush on his bed and walked over to Hoss.  “All right, but pay attention this time, will yuh?” He lifted the collar to Hoss’ shirt and frowned.  “How come you don’t have a top button?”

“I don’t know, just ain’t got one.”

Little Joe stopped combing his hair long enough to glance at Hoss and shake his head in amazement.  “You mean to tell me you still don’t have a button on that shirt!  It’s been missing since the box social.”

Unconcerned, Hoss shrugged.  “Yeah, I reckon it has, but it don’t matter none, my collar’s too dang tight with it buttoned anyhow.  Besides,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “if I show up lookin’ too spiffy, you two won’t stand a chance with the ladies.”

Adam rolled his eyes in amusement.  “Thanks, Hoss, but Bessie Sue is all yours.”

Hoss gave him an earnest look.  “Don’t make fun, Adam, for a big gal, she sure can whirl around the dance floor.”

Adam caught the look of disbelief crossing Little Joe’s face and smiled.

“I’ll say,” Joe exclaimed with a shake of his head.  “She dang near whirled me into the next town the last time I danced with her.”

Hoss twisted to look at Little Joe, but Adam took a firm hold of his collar and yanked him back.  Surprised, Hoss grinned at him before giving Little Joe a sideways look.  “Yeah, well, if you weren’t so puny, little brother, you could handle a real woman.”  His declaration was accompanied by a self-satisfied smirk.

“Hah!” Joe retorted, reaching for Adam’s bay rum.  “I may not be as big as you, yuh big galoot, but I can hold my own with any normal-sized gal.”  With a smug smile he sniffed the cologne appreciatively.  Pouring a generous amount into his palm, he rubbed his hands together and carefully gave his cheeks a pat.

Hoss glowered at him.  “Little Joe,” he warned, “if you make fun of Bessie Sue one more time, I swear I’m gonna bash yuh!”

Satisfied with his handiwork, Adam jumped into the conversation, interrupting their teasing before it got out of hand.  He’d already been pulled into a number of petty squabbles between these two and he had no intention of getting mixed up in yet another one.   “Okay, Hoss, you’re all set and I, for one, don’t intend to waste any more time debating the charms of Miss Bessie Sue Hightower.  I defer to your opinion.”  Adam smiled and gave Hoss a friendly pat on the cheek, successfully diffusing his indignation.

Hoss gave Little Joe a triumphant look and then hurriedly reached for his tan coat.  He didn’t want to waste any more time talking about Bessie Sue, either; not when he could be dancing with her.  He blushed at the thought.  It was true, Bessie Sue was a big gal all right, a real armful, but she was his armful and he’d only put up with so much teasing.

Having donned his suit coat, Adam grabbed Little Joe’s arm in annoyance and firmly tugged the bottle of cologne out of his hand.  “Give me that before you drown in it.”

“Hey! What’s the big idea?” Joe asked, reluctantly letting go.

“Trust me little brother, if you want to attract the women, a little of this will go a long way…it’s…ah…more enticing that way.”  Smiling, he gave his baby brother a knowing look and then firmly corked the bottle of cologne before heading out the door.

Little Joe’s eyes widened and a conspiratorial smile lit his face as he followed him into the hallway.  “You know, Adam, for once I think you might be right.”

Adam turned and grinned while Little Joe, eager to get going, called down the hall for their father.  “Hey Pa! You ready?”

Ben emerged from his room fully dressed in a dark blue suit and silver brocade vest.  “Yes, Joseph, I’m ready.  There’s no need to shout.”

Little Joe appraised his father’s appearance and gave him a wink.  “You’re looking mighty fine, Pa.  If looks have anything to do with it, at least two of the Cartwright men are gonna have a good time tonight!”

Adam looked at his father and gave him a wink of his own.  “You’re right, Joe.  Pa and I should have a fine time.”  Adam, handsomely dressed in a black suit and fancy vest, smirked as he whisked past his younger brother, taking the lead down the stairs.  Little Joe made a face and followed Adam, fairly certain he cut a more dashing figure in his new grey suit.  Ben came next, an amused expression on his face and Hoss brought up the rear, having stopped to use some of Adam’s cologne.

Chapter 2

The town hall was decorated, the musicians were playing, and the dance was in full swing.  Standing at the punch bowl, Ben merrily tapped his foot in time to the music as he filled his glass.  After taking a tentative sip, he politely stepped away from the table and found a spot where he could observe the festivities.  He chuckled when he caught sight of Adam gallantly offering Abigail Jones his arm.  Miss Abigail was Virginia City’s school mistress and she considered herself to be the perfect match for his 29-year-old college educated son.  While Adam didn’t share her opinion, to his credit, he usually took her unwanted attention and his brothers’ endless jokes in stride.

Unbeknownst to Ben, however, Adam was having a hard time living up to that reputation tonight.  In fact, his patience was wearing exceedingly thin.  Abigail’s unrelenting pursuit was making it impossible for him to even look at another woman, let alone approach one.  Embarrassed by her attention and annoyed at having to sidestep her at every turn, he’d finally given in and asked her to dance in the hopes that her pride and sense of etiquette would put an end to her bothersome attempts to monopolize his time.  Unfortunately, the possessive way she was clinging to his arm told him he’d made a huge mistake.  Too late to turn tail and run, he had no choice but to grit his teeth and spin her around the dance floor with a modicum of grace and charm.

Ben caught Adam’s eye and cast him a commiserative glance, thankful his own pesky admirer, the Widow Hawkins, was not in attendance.  Clementine was just as persistent, if not more so, than Abigail.  He shuddered at the unpleasant thought and left Adam to fend for himself while he searched the crowd for his youngest.  His eyes were immediately drawn to a group of young ladies across the room.  Sure enough, his 17-year-old son was in their midst.  That boy! he thought, shaking his head.  He’s got too much charm for his own good, but at least he’s behaving.  In preparation for the dance, he’d had a serious talk with Little Joe about the responsibilities of being a gentleman and the impropriety of leaving the hall for a moonlight stroll.  He’d made it implicitly clear he would be very unhappy if there was another incident like the one marring the box social last fall.  It had taken him the better part of an hour to calm down Trinity Parker’s angry father after he’d caught Little Joe and his daughter “strolling” behind the barn.  Thank goodness they were only kissing, Ben thought as he watched his youngest bestow a handsome smile on the Jenkins’ middle girl.  With another shake of his head, he looked away and sought out his own middle child.

True to form, Hoss was on the dance floor with Bessie Sue.  His blue eyes twinkled and his cheeks were flushed as he danced a lively reel.  Ben’s smile broadened at the sight of him having such a good time and the pleasant memory of Adam patiently teaching Hoss to dance, night after agonizing night, came to mind.  At 6’4” and 250 pounds, Hoss had been afraid of looking silly, or worse yet, stomping on some poor gal’s feet.  But with Adam’s encouragement, he’d kept at it and to his own amazement he had discovered he was actually light on his feet.  And once he’d discovered dancing with a girl was a whole lot easier than talking to one, he began to look forward to the dances just as much as his more confident older brother.  Now, at 23-years-old, Hoss could kick up his heels with the best of them.

Immersed in the memory and wondering where the time had gone, he was pulled from his thoughts by a familiar voice.  “Evening Ben!”

Smiling, Ben turned to Sheriff Coffee and greeted him with a hearty hand shake.  Roy was a good friend and he greatly admired his ability to keep the peace in a town teeming with rough miners, loggers, ranch hands, and drifters.  “Roy! Good to see you!”

Roy nodded toward the dance floor, a playful smile on his face.  “You, too, but I’m kinda surprised to see you standing here by yourself.  It seems to me a gent like you oughta be able to find a willing partner.”

Ben stood a little taller and puffed out his chest with mock indignation.  “For your information, I’ve already had several dances.”  He nodded at Roy.  “What about you?”

“Evening’s still young,” he replied with a chuckle that abruptly died in his throat when he spotted a couple of trouble makers coming into the hall.

Curious about his sudden change in expression, Ben followed his gaze.  Tom Logan’s two sons, Dave and Pete, were coming in the door.  “Now, Roy, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” he said, reassuring him.  “Tom and I took our dispute to the judge and it’s all settled now.  I’m sure they’re only here to enjoy the dance the same as everyone else.”

“Well, I’m not so sure, not after what happened between Adam and Dave in the Silver Dollar yesterday.”

Caught unaware, Ben bristled.  He wasn’t told of any trouble.  “Is there something I should know about?”

“Your boys didn’t tell you?”

Ben’s expression darkened and he shook his head.

Roy raised an eyebrow in surprise.  It wasn’t like Adam to keep this kind of trouble from his Pa.  Well, no matter, he didn’t have time to puzzle on it.  He intended to fill Ben in on what happened and if that landed his boys in hot water, so be it, after all they’d lit the kindling themselves.  “They ran into the Logans at the Silver Dollar yesterday and things got out of hand.  It seems Dave and Pete were spouting off about you cheating their Pa by paying off Judge Riley.  Something about there not being anything in writing about no water rights agreement.  Naturally, your boys didn’t take too kindly to their accusations and things started to heat up.  Sam sent for me and when I walked in, Adam and Dave was just about to draw on one another.  I broke it up and sent ‘em all packing, but I’d be surprised if that was the end of it.  There’s some bad blood between those boys now.”

Ben drew a deep breath, none too pleased to hear this bit of news.  “I’ll see to it my boys don’t do anything rash.  The last thing I want is a feud on our hands.”

Roy nodded, confident Ben would do just that.  “Them two would be fools to start a ruckus here, but I’ll keep an eye on ‘em just the same.”

Ben gave him a grateful pat on the back and then headed off to find his eldest.  Spotting him a short distance away with Ross and Delphine and the ever present Abigail, he managed to make eye contact and with an almost imperceptible jerk of his head summoned Adam to his side.  Ross caught the exchange and grinned.  Knowing the Cartwrights the way he did, he could see ol’ Ben was riled and it didn’t bode well for his friend.  Adam ignored his amusement and politely excused himself from the ladies, eliciting a soft chuckle from Ross.

Adam sighed to himself as he made his way over to his father.  Roy must have told him about his run-in with Dave.  He’d taken note of Dave and Pete’s arrival, but as far as he was concerned, he had no intention of being goaded into any action that would foolishly endanger innocent bystanders.  In a situation where he had no other choice, he wouldn’t hesitate to defend himself or his family, but this was neither the time nor the place.  Regrettably, he hadn’t exercised as much control yesterday.  He’d lost his temper the same as his hot-headed little brother.  Reaching his father’s side, he spoke first, his voice discreet.  “I take it Roy told you about our little disagreement with the Logans yesterday?”

Ben took his arm and drew him close so they wouldn’t be overheard, but while he matched Adam’s hushed tone, his words were razor sharp.  “Is that what you call resorting to gunplay?  A little disagreement?”

Adam eyed his father.  His outward appearance gave nothing away, but there was no mistaking the anger simmering beneath the surface.  Well, he wasn’t surprised.  This wasn’t the kind of thing his father took lightly.   “Pa—” he began but got no further.

“Look, Adam, you shouldn’t have let a couple of loudmouths get to you like that, but we’ll talk about that later, right now just help me keep an eye on your brothers and try to head off any trouble.”

Adam nodded, grateful for the reprieve.  “Sure, Pa, don’t worry.  I don’t think Little Joe and Hoss even know the Logans are here.  Little Joe hasn’t taken his eyes off Sarah Jenkins all evening and Bessie Sue has Hoss’ undivided attention.”

“Well, let’s just hope the Logans don’t take any notice of them,” he said, tightening his grip.  “And see to it you keep your own temper in check.”

Irritated at being in a position usually reserved for his little brother, Adam glanced down at the floor.  His response was quiet, but conveyed a definite challenge to his father’s remark.  “You know I wouldn’t start any trouble.”

Ben’s expression softened, aware his worry had caused him to speak unfairly.  Adam could be hot-tempered, but the days of him instigating any trouble were long gone.  “Just be careful,” he said without any edge.

Detecting the concern in his voice, the wisp of tension between them vanished as quickly as it had risen.  Adam gave him a parting smile and headed off.  As he made his way, his eyes swept the room and he briefly watched the Logan brothers cavorting with their usual crowd before turning his attention to other, more pleasant matters.  He smiled when he found the person he was looking for.  At least Pa’s summons had gotten him out of Abigail’s clutches.

Chapter 3

Lillian, the Reverend Walker’s wife, was pleased to see Adam Cartwright approach.  It was the perfect opportunity to introduce her cousin, Eleanor DeWitt.  Ellie was visiting from Boston and Lily ardently hoped she would decide to stay on permanently.  Her husband Daniel had died the previous spring and with no other ties to the city, Lily saw no reason for her cousin to stay back east.  She had just sold his thriving book publishing company and that, combined with several profitable investments, had allowed her to support herself and her ten-year-old son quite comfortably.  And that, thought Lily, was the problem.  Her cousin was far too young to lead a comfortable life devoid of passion.  Ellie had been deeply in love with her husband, and after Daniel had died, she had thrown all her love and energy into making a good life for their son, failing to see she was neglecting herself.  Lily was sure the excitement of moving west and starting a new life would ignite the banked fire in Ellie; now, if she could only convince dear Eleanor!

“Adam, so good to see you,” Lily said as she extended one hand to Adam and drew Ellie closer with the other.  “I was beginning to wonder if you’d come over.”

Adam smiled engagingly, making sure to include both women.  “Now, Lily, you know I wouldn’t ignore you.”

Lily noted his interested gaze with delight.  “Eleanor, this is Adam Cartwright.  Adam, this is my cousin, Mrs. Eleanor DeWitt.”

Adam politely inclined his head.  “A pleasure to meet you Mrs. DeWitt.”  He’d heard Lily’s widowed cousin was visiting, but had no idea she was so lovely until tonight.

Ellie graced him with a pleasant smile, aware the Cartwrights were good friends and important members of the congregation.  “Please, call me Ellie, Mr. Cartwright.”  She hoped she wasn’t being too forward, but being addressed as Mrs. DeWitt only reminded her of her loss and she was desperately trying to take Lily’s advice and put her sadness behind her.

“Of course, if you’ll call me Adam.”

She nodded in acknowledgement and then looked to Lily, hoping her cousin would take charge of the conversation.  She was disturbingly unprepared for her reaction to this man and found herself at a loss for words.  He was tall, dark and strikingly handsome, things she hadn’t noticed in a man for quite some time and she felt somewhat guilty thinking about it now.  Much to her dismay, Lily failed to rescue her.

“Ellie, dear, if you’ll excuse me, I need to check on the refreshments.”  She smiled at Adam.  “You don’t mind keeping Ellie company, do you Adam?”

“Not at all, in fact, I was hoping she would favor me with a dance.”  He looked at Ellie and smiled.  “May I?” he asked.

“Well…I…I…don’t know.  I mean I would love to, but I really should be getting home to Mathew.”  Oh, this is ridiculous, she thought, it’s only a dance.

He gave her a curious look.  “Mathew?”

Lily stopped to explain as she gave Ellie a little push.  “Mathew is Ellie’s ten-year-old son, who at the moment is probably beating the apron strings off Mrs. Wilkins in a game of checkers.  Now, go on, enjoy yourself.”

Not wishing to appear ungracious, Ellie politely acquiesced and much to her surprise, her nervousness vanished almost as soon as they took to the dance floor.  Adam was a confident dancer and expertly led her through the turns of the dance.  She matched him step for step gracefully gliding about the floor.  By the time the music came to an end, her cheeks were pink and her eyes bright from enjoyment.

Adam smiled down at her, his eyes still dancing.  “Shall we?” he asked as the musicians struck up a waltz.  This time she didn’t hesitate.

Lily hurriedly replenished the cookies and cakes and then sat down next to her husband on one of the benches fringing the dance floor.  Noticing two hopeful wallflowers sitting nearby, she immediately began scanning the room looking for suitable dance partners.  In her quest, she spotted Adam and Ellie and sighed with contentment.  “They make a handsome couple, don’t they?”

Struggling to balance his cake and coffee, Cliff Walker frowned in puzzlement.  “Who?” he asked with barely a glance.

Lily gave him an impatient look and took his cup.  “Ellie and Adam.”

With a groan, Cliff lowered his fork and gave his wife his full attention, his right eyebrow arching disapprovingly.  “Matchmaking again?”

Lily peeked at her husband from behind lowered lashes.  As the reverend’s wife she took great pains to make sure her behavior was above reproach, but she couldn’t help being a hopeless romantic and much to her husband’s embarrassment, she had earned herself a bit of a reputation.  Giving Cliff a sheepish smile, she affectionately took his arm.  “Oh Cliff!” she exclaimed.  “I can’t help it, I just want everyone to be as happy as we are, especially Ellie.”

Cliff smiled indulgently and nodded.  He knew his wife’s intentions were good, even if things didn’t always turn out as planned.  Lily rewarded him with a radiant smile.  “Oh look!” she said with excitement.  “They’re stepping outside!”

Perspiring from the exertion, Adam took Ellie into the courtyard and found a quiet spot away from the young couples who’d stepped outside to steal a kiss in the moonlight.  Out of habit, he quickly glanced around, half expecting to see Little Joe.  Satisfied the young lothario was nowhere in sight, he turned to Ellie.  “Enjoying yourself?” he asked with a smile.

“Oh, yes, Adam.  Thank you.   I haven’t danced like that in ages.”  Her cheeks were flushed and she was slightly out of breath.

Adam smiled and discreetly admired her beauty in the moonlight.  Her dark hair was simply adorned and shimmered in the soft light.  Her gown was elegant and fit her in a way he couldn’t help but appreciate.  “You could have fooled me, you danced beautifully.”

“That’s very kind of you to say, but I know I’m a bit rusty.  I haven’t danced at all since…well since….”  Ellie’s eyes glistened at the memory.  “My husband and I used to attend all the charity balls.  Daniel loved to dance and we made it a point to keep abreast of the latest steps.”  Helpless to stop it, a wistful look overcame her and she momentarily lost herself in her memories.  She was embarrassed when she came back to the present and found Adam giving her a thoughtful look.  “Forgive me.  Lily keeps telling me I need to live in the present.”

Adam smiled warmly and took her hand in his.  “Memories are a wonderful thing… it’s important to remember our loved ones…the things they taught us and the moments we shared…it’s part of who we are today.”

Ellie looked into Adam’s eyes, touched by his tenderness and understanding and wondered about those he had lost.  “Yes, I agree,” she said softly.  “But getting back to the present, I really should be going.  Mathew can be quite a handful and I’m sure Mrs. Wilkins must be exhausted by now.”

Adam nodded, but before he took her back inside, he spoke up, eager to claim more of her time.  “I, uh, hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, but I’d like to see you again and meet your son, too, maybe take you both to the lake, have a picnic, do a little fishing?  What do you say?”

Ellie hesitated, caught off guard by the invitation.  She was admittedly attracted to Adam and it unsettled her.  Since becoming a widow, she’d become adept at avoiding the unwanted attention of gentlemen callers, finding it much too difficult to accept even the most innocent invitations.  But now, faced with Adam’s invitation, she was startled to find the idea of seeing him again was actually very pleasing.  She met Adam’s gaze and nodded, giving him a genuine smile.  “I say that sounds quite nice.”

Adam’s eyes sparkled and the smile he bestowed on her brought out the dimples in his cheeks.  “I wish it could be tomorrow, but I’m afraid I have a busy week.  Will next Sunday be all right?”

“Yes, of course, that’ll be fine,” she replied, feeling a little flutter in her stomach, but whether it was from nerves or excitement she wasn’t quite sure.

Smiling, he took her hand and they headed back inside, their progress suddenly halted by a man barring their way through the courtyard doors.  Adam looked with distaste at Dave Logan.  “Excuse us,” he said, leveling a cold stare.

Dave glared at him through blood-shot eyes, a bitter smile on his face.  “Sure, Cartwright, no problem.”  He unhurriedly stepped aside.

Recognizing the game for what it was, Adam held his glare until they passed and then once again softened his expression as he turned back to Ellie and guided her through the crowd.

“Adam?” she asked, questioning the exchange.

He smiled and shrugged.  “Looks like someone dipped into the punch bowl one too many times,” he replied, dismissing the incident.  He wasn’t about to let Dave Logan worry Ellie or ruin the rest of his evening.

Ellie accepted his explanation and readily put the unpleasantness behind her as Adam escorted her to the entrance where the Walkers were waiting.  Turning to him, she quietly thanked him for the pleasant evening while Lily shamelessly moved closer to listen.  She smiled when she heard the happy lilt in Ellie’s voice.

Cliff shot Adam a sympathetic look as they shook hands and in a hushed tone, offered to intervene.  “Just say the word, Adam, and I’ll put a stop to Lily’s meddling.”

Smiling, Adam whispered back.  “Thanks, Cliff, but I’ve got no objections.”

Having a pretty good idea what the men folk were talking about, Lily stepped closer and bid Adam a warm goodnight with a kiss to the cheek.

Pleased, Adam saw them out and then leaned against the doorframe and smiled into the darkness as the trio made their way down the street.  He chided himself for being so captivated, but made no move to pull his eyes away until Ellie rounded the corner and was out of sight.  With a besotted sigh, embarrassingly reminiscent of his little brother, he turned around and headed back inside.  Much to his alarm, he ran smack dab into Abigail Jones.  Pouncing on him like a cat after its prey, she latched onto his arm and possessively pulled him into the hall, admonishing him for neglecting her.  Irritated, he came close to setting her straight, but his innate sense of decorum worked to her advantage and he managed to curb his tongue.  He knew Abigail was a sensitive soul and as much as he wanted to be rid of her, he managed a smile and accompanied her to the dance floor.

Nearby, another woman, hoping to catch Adam’s attention, watched the proceedings with a wistful look.  With the evening drawing to an end, Mercy knew she’d lost her chance to speak with him.  She sighed painfully and retrieved her wrap.  Perhaps it was for the best.

Chapter 4

Hop Sing came from the kitchen with a second platter of ham and eggs and a fresh pot of coffee.  “More coffee, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes, thank you, Hop Sing.”

Hoss made a reach for the platter but Hop Sing was too quick.  “You eat too much already,” he said firmly.  “Leave some for Little Joe.  He too skinny.”

Right on cue, Little Joe bounded down the stairs and took his place at the table.  “Mornin’ everyone.”

Ben and Adam greeted him, but Hoss could only watch in dismay as Hop Sing spooned a heaping portion of eggs onto Little Joe’s plate.  “Aw, Hop Sing, I didn’t get nearly enough of them eggs to fill me up,” he said, complaining.

Hop Sing waved the spoon at him and delivered a scolding.  “Maybe not, but I think you get plenty full anyway—full from donuts you steal from kitchen! Donuts were for boys on range, not sneaky big boy.  Now I got plenty big work!”  With a huff he turned and stalked back into the kitchen muttering in his native tongue.

Joe cackled.  “You better watch yourself big brother or you’ll be eating rabbit food for lunch and I hear tell Bessie Sue don’t like her men too skinny.”

Hoss gulped and nervously looked toward the kitchen.  “Aw, Hop Sing wouldn’t hold a grudge clear to lunch time.”  He scrunched his nose.  “Would he?”

Ben smiled at the exchange.  He knew darn well Hop Sing would have sulked all day if Hoss hadn’t snitched a few donuts.  “Speaking of Bessie Sue, did she enjoy the dance last night?”  He already knew the answer, but wanted to give his son a chance to crow about it.

Hoss brightened.  “She sure did, Pa.  We danced so much my feet still ache!”  His exclamation was paired with a furtive glance toward the kitchen.  Satisfied Hop Sing was nowhere in sight, he hastily scooped a good portion of eggs off Little Joe’s plate.

Ben shook his head and turned his attention to his youngest, who was busy grinning at his brother, glad to be rid of all that food.  “What about you, Little Joe?  You have a good time?”

Little Joe gave him an enthusiastic nod.  “Yeah, Pa, I had a great time.  Sarah’s a nice girl and a real good dancer, too.”  Joe smiled dreamily at the memory.  He couldn’t tell his Pa, but the best thing about the dance was holding Sarah in his arms.  He’d held her at a respectable distance, of course, but even still, she’d managed to stir his imagination.  He’d longed to kiss her, but his father’s edict had made it impossible.  Unfortunately, just thinking about the unfairness of it all put a scowl on his face.  “It sure woulda been nice to get a breath of fresh air, though.”

Adam raised a quizzical eyebrow.  “Oh? Why is that? I didn’t notice the hall being particularly stuffy.”  His face was the picture of innocence, but Little Joe knew better.  He shot him an irritated glance prompting Adam to smile into his coffee cup.

“It’s not fair.  How come it’s all right for Adam to take a moonlight stroll with a pretty girl?” he complained.

“Not a pretty girl, little brother, a pretty woman and that is the difference,” Adam said with an air of authority.

Little Joe didn’t hesitate to dispute his remark.  “Okay, so she’s older, but Pa said a man should always protect a woman’s reputation.  Isn’t that right, Pa?” He looked at his father for confirmation.

Ben wiped his mouth with his napkin and nodded in agreement.  “That’s right, Joe, and I’m pleased you remembered it.”

“Yeah, but what about Adam?  It seems to me he took an awful long stroll.”

Adam smirked at his youngest brother while Hoss let out a loud guffaw.  “Yeah, Adam, Miss Abigail must have thought so too.  She sure was pacing up a storm.”

Adam groaned at the mention of Abigail Jones.  “I swear that woman is a menace,” he muttered.

Ben smiled.  Surely Adam didn’t think he could be put off that easily.  “Well, son, what were you doing out in the moonlight with a pretty woman all that time?” His expression was serious, but his eyes were full of merriment.

Adam quirked an eyebrow and met his father’s gaze.  “Getting a breath of fresh air, Pa.  What else?”

Ben smiled in amusement and resolved to satisfy his curiosity later that evening.

Catching his inquisitive look, Adam groaned inwardly.  His father seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of interest in his personal life lately.

“Yeah, I bet,” Joe snorted.

Ben glanced at him and shook his head, deciding to put a stop to the conversation before it got out of hand.  Now that breakfast was done, it was time to question his sons and he had a feeling that would be trouble enough.  “All right, Joe, that’s enough.  There’s something else we need to discuss.”

The change in his tone indicated it was something more serious than moonlight strolls, but while his brothers had no clue, Adam knew exactly what was coming and unwittingly sighed.

“That’s right,” Ben said, nodding at him.  “I want to know exactly how you got yourself mixed up in a gunfight.”  He glanced around the table.  “And why none of you felt it was necessary to tell me.”  He shook his head in disapproval.  “If we’ve got trouble with the Logans, don’t you think I need to know about it?  Now start talking.”

It was a command met with silence and he was irritated to see his sons exchanging furtive glances, no doubt trying to figure out how much they should tell.  “I’m waiting,” he snapped in a tone that brooked no nonsense.

Resigned to it, Adam spoke up.  “Look, Pa, you already know Dave and Pete were badmouthing you.  They were saying you bribed Judge Riley to rule in our favor and uphold the water rights agreement.  I lost my temper.  Dave and I exchanged words and, well, one thing led to another.  I know I shouldn’t have let him get to me like that.”  He shrugged and tried to ignore the twinge of guilt at not mentioning Little Joe’s part in the incident.

Ben’s eyes burned into Adam’s.  “You could have gotten yourself killed.  And for what?  A little name calling!”

Adam ducked his head and lowered his eyes in acceptance of the reprimand and Ben would have let the matter drop if he hadn’t caught the look of relief crossing Little Joe’s face.  If Adam’s temper had flared; no doubt Little Joe’s had too.  He suspected Adam was covering for him and when Little Joe came to his defense, he was sure of it.

“It’s not Adam’s fault, Pa.  You should’ve heard ‘em spouting off about how they was gonna knock you down a peg or two.”  He felt guilty about Adam getting into trouble with Pa, but not enough to admit his part in the incident, especially if Adam was willing to cover for him.  Pa had just given him permission to wear his sidearm into town and he didn’t want to jeopardize it.  Besides, he already knew he’d gone off half-cocked, so there wasn’t any reason to upset Pa with all the pesky little details, was there?  Heck, it wasn’t as if he’d gotten off free.  Adam had dressed him down good.

Hoss nodded his head in agreement with Little Joe.  “Yeah, it was downright infuriating, Pa.  I felt like bashin’ their heads together myself.  Why it’s no wonder Little Joe up and done what he did.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed and Hoss realized his mistake.

Little Joe sent a silent plea to Adam hoping he would intervene, but Adam just shook his head in resignation.  Why couldn’t his younger brothers learn to keep their mouths shut?

Seeking confirmation of what his fatherly instincts already told him, Ben questioned his middle son.  “And what was that, Hoss?  What did Little Joe do?”

“Huh?” Hoss asked miserably.

“You said Little Joe did something, what was it?” he repeated firmly.

“Well…sir…uh…I reckon he lost his temper…and uh…” Hoss stammered.  He hated to get his brother into trouble, but he wouldn’t tell an outright lie to Pa, not even for Little Joe.  “Well things got kind of heated…and Joe told Dave if he didn’t shut up, he was gonna make him shut up…and then Dave told Joe he wasn’t man enough…and then…” he paused to steal a glance at Little Joe before continuing, “and then Joe challenged him to a draw.”

Ben’s eyes widened in disbelief and then his voice thundered and his hand cracked down on the table, making the plates rattle and his sons wince.  “He WHAT?”

Little Joe sank down as low as possible in his seat and kept his eyes fixed firmly on his plate, wishing with all his might he could disappear altogether.

“Go on,” he ordered Hoss.  “Let’s hear the rest of it.”

“Yes sir, well, Adam…he tried to calm things down…told Dave he wouldn’t be proving nothin’ by shootin’ a kid and that’s when I took hold of Joe cuz he was kind of riled at Adam now too…course Dave wouldn’t let it go…said one Cartwright was as good as the next.  I reckon Adam was pretty riled up, too, cuz he squared off against him and that’s when Sheriff Coffee showed up.”

“I see,” Ben said.  His voice was furiously quiet now and it made the lot of them brace for the inevitable explosion.  They didn’t have long to wait.  His angry glare settled on his youngest and his voice boomed.  “That was a fool thing to do, Joseph! Not only did you endanger your own life, you put your brothers in a position of having to defend you.  All three of you could have been killed!”

“I know and I’m sorry,” Little Joe said softly, “but it won’t ever happen again, Pa.  I promise.”  He looked up, beseechingly.  He meant it and hoped it was enough to cool his Pa’s temper because there was no mistaking that tone in his voice.  He knew he’d never escape the lecture, but he was too old for a tanning, wasn’t he?

Ben drew a deep breath in an effort to calm down.  He felt like taking a strap to the fool boy on the spot and it was all he could do to remain seated.  “If you think being quick on the draw makes you invincible, then you’ve got a lot more to learn than I thought.  Wearing a gun is a serious responsibility and only a hot-headed fool would draw his gun if he didn’t have to.  I thought you knew that!”

Miserable, Little Joe hung his head and stared at the cold eggs on his plate.  “Maybe I didn’t understand before,” he answered truthfully, “but I do now.”  He looked up and met his father’s eyes.  Both Pa and Adam had driven home the same message and he’d taken it to heart.  He’d recklessly jumped in over his head and the consequences could have been deadly.  The thought of it made his mouth go dry.  No, sir, he’d never be so stupid again.

“Pa, I really do think he’s learned his lesson,” Adam said in his defense.

Ben gave him a sharp look and huffed.  “Oh, you do, do you?”

Adam held his ground.  He’d seen the flicker of fear in his brother’s eyes that day and he was sure Little Joe wouldn’t be so impulsive in the future.  “Yes, I do.”

Ben exchanged a look with his eldest.  He wasn’t exactly in his good graces at the moment, either, but he knew Adam would never plead Little Joe’s case if he didn’t think his brother could handle the responsibility.

With a curt nod, Ben relented.  “Maybe you’re right,” he said gruffly as he studied Little Joe and considered his options.

Little Joe squirmed uncomfortably.

“All right, Joseph, this is your one and only warning.  If I catch you being irresponsible with that gun again, you won’t be wearing it off this ranch for a very long time nor will you be sitting comfortably.  Is that clear?”

“Yes sir,” Little Joe answered seriously.  Pa was giving him a second chance and he wouldn’t disappoint him, but doggonit he was too old to be threatened with a tanning.  When was Pa gonna stop treating him like a kid?  He was annoyed, but had the good sense not to show it.

Satisfied he’d made his point, Ben turned to Hoss who was grinning at his brother’s good fortune.  “And I don’t want you covering for him anymore,” he said firmly.

Hoss instantly dropped the grin and nodded.  “Yes sir, Pa,” he replied, sincerely hoping he could keep his word.  His little brother had the surest way of talking him into things.

“That goes for you too, Adam.  I’m grateful you put a stop to your brother’s foolishness, but I don’t appreciate you withholding information from me.”

Adam gave him a guilty look and nodded, embarrassed by his poor judgment.  Being the eldest, he’d covered for his younger brothers many times throughout the years and occasionally suffered the consequences, but with Little Joe old enough to spread his wings now, he knew his father relied on him more than ever to be the voice of reason in his absence.

Accepting his sheepish look for the apology that it was, Ben’s expression softened a little, but the morning’s revelations had left him reeling and it would be a good long time before any of his sons got completely back into his good graces.  With a shake of his head, he pushed away the remainder of his breakfast and picked up his coffee.  He took a sip and glanced around the table at each of them, thankful their tempers hadn’t gotten them killed.

Subdued by the lecture, the dining room became uncomfortably quiet for the next few minutes until Adam, curious to know where his father stood, risked a question.  “So what do you think we should do about the Logans?  Do you think Tom shares his sons’ opinion?”

Ben frowned in thought and then shook his head, unsure what to think.  “I don’t know, Adam.  I just don’t know.  Tom’s been a good friend for years and he knows Judge Riley is as honest as the day is long.  I can’t believe he’d accuse either one of us of being underhanded.”  Struggling with the idea of his longtime friend making such preposterous accusations, he got up from the table and walked over to his chair by the hearth.  He sat down heavily and stared at the ashes still smoldering from the morning’s fire.  “Maybe Dave and Pete were just blowing off some steam.”

Adam followed him into the other room and sat on the coffee table.  “Maybe,” he said with skepticism, “but if you ask me, Tom’s thinking has been warped ever since they found silver in that exploration shaft.”

Ben nodded, reluctantly agreeing.  “I don’t understand it,” he said, trying to make sense of it.  “Tom and Mary worked hard to carve a home out of the wilderness, to build a home for themselves and a future for their sons.  It doesn’t make sense for them to resort to hydraulic mining now, not after pouring their lives into the land for so many years.  Tom knows how it uproots the trees and destroys good pasture land.”

“Apparently the almighty dollar means more to him now,” Adam said with disdain.  “But did he really think we’d just go along with it?  He must’ve known we’d stop him from fouling the creek.  He knows it feeds our entire north pasture.”

Ben thought back to an earlier time.  “I remember the day we shook on that water rights agreement.  It was just a few months before Little Joe was born.”

“Hey Pa?” Hoss called, breaking into his reverie.  “Why doesn’t Mr. Logan just dig that silver out?  With some of the other exploration shafts not panning out, there’re plenty of miners that’d jump at the chance to hire on with a crew.”

“Greed, I suppose.  Hydraulics is faster and more profitable.”  Ben sighed and looked down in consternation.  “I suppose I’ll have to ride over there sometime this week and try to settle this once and for all.”

Adam looked at him in alarm and Hoss and Little Joe exchanged troubled glances.  “Do you think that’s a good idea?” Adam asked.

“Tom and I have been friends for years, I’ll be perfectly safe, don’t worry,” he assured them.  “The only thing you boys need to worry about is the branding and I suggest you all get to it.”  He nodded toward the door and waited for his sons to get moving.

Adam slowly got to his feet and followed his brothers to the sideboard.  He buckled his gun belt and pulled it tight without looking up, his father’s words weighing heavily on his mind.  He wasn’t so sure Tom Logan was still the friend his father thought him to be.

Chapter 5

The Ponderosa in spring was a beautiful sight.  The pines were a deep green, the meadows were exploding with wildflowers, and the lake—full from the winter runoff—glittered in the sunlight.  It was a picture Adam never ceased to appreciate and after a long week in the saddle rounding up calves for branding, the promise of a lazy day amidst the spectacular beauty was a welcome one.  He glanced at Ellie and they exchanged a smile as he carefully guided the horses down the narrow path to the lake.  When they got to the point where the trees began to thin, he watched her reaction as she took in the view for the first time.

“Oh Adam!  The lake, the mountains, its breathtaking!  I never expected it to be so vast or the water so blue.”

Adam smiled and stopped the horses at a pretty spot where the tree line met the sandy shore.  It was the perfect place for a picnic.  “I’m glad you like it,” he said turning to her and smiling.

She looked at him, her face serene.  “It’s so calm and peaceful here.  I almost feel like I’m intruding, like I’ve walked into an artist’s painting and don’t belong.”

Adam came around to help her down.  “I know what you mean,” he said softly, “but from my viewpoint your presence only adds to the beauty.”

Ellie smiled appreciatively and stepped down, her hand in Adam’s.

Matt rolled his eyes at the flowery talk and scanned the lake with excitement.  “Bet there’s a mess of fish in there,” he exclaimed.  “When can we go fishing?”

Adam turned his attention to the boy, glad his initial shyness had worn off.  “Just as soon as you find us a couple of branches we can use for poles.  Do you think you can handle that?”

Matt bobbed his head.  “I’ll go find ‘em right now!” he yelled running off.

Adam chuckled and reached for the picnic basket while Ellie took the blanket and spread it out under the trees.  The warm sand was inviting and she longed to go barefoot as she walked to the water’s edge and perched on a large rock in the sun to soak in more of the view.  “I hope you like fried chicken,” she called over her shoulder.  Getting no response, she curiously turned around and caught Adam polishing off not one, but two chicken legs.

Grinning, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  “Now that I know you’re such a good cook, I won’t feel too bad if we don’t catch anything.”

“Goodness, don’t let Matt hear you,” she replied, smiling.  “He’s been looking forward to this all week.”

Adam’s eyes twinkled as he drank in the sight of her.  She’d removed her straw hat and looked quite pretty as she unconventionally basked in the sun.  “Me too.”

Ellie blushed and looked away.  “Well, that makes three of us then,” she said softly as she watched Matt running toward them with two poles in hand.

“Will these work?” he asked, out of breath.

“Perfect,” Adam exclaimed, taking one.  “Let’s get ‘em rigged up and see what we can catch.”

Reveling in the praise, Matt trailed after him and in just a few minutes they were fishing off a large, flat boulder that jutted out into the lake.  Excited to have his line in the water, Matt intently watched the cork that marked his hook, waiting for it to dip.  He’d done a little fishing in the ocean, but this was altogether different.  “How long you figure we’ll have to wait?”

Adam smiled down at him.  He never met a kid yet, who didn’t find the idea of fishing a whole lot more exciting than actually doing it.  “Hard to say…early morning is usually best… but if this is a good hole we should get some bites.”

“What if we don’t?”

Adam sat down and let his legs dangle over the edge of the rock as he considered the question.  “Well,” he said, tipping his hat to shield his eyes, “then we try a different spot, but you’ve got to have patience and give this one a fair try.”

Matt nodded and mimicked Adam’s position, right down to the tip of his hat.

Adam smiled to himself.  A clear case of misguided hero worship, but flattering nonetheless. 

Sitting in the warm sand behind the fishermen, Ellie enjoyed the gentle breeze coming off the lake as she listened to snippets of their conversation.  She noticed Adam listening to Matt with the same attention he’d give an adult and it was plain her son enjoyed it.  From her vantage point she studied her son.  He was a handsome boy with dark unruly hair, brown eyes, and a mischievous grin.  He was slim but not skinny and she noticed his skin had turned a golden brown from the sun.  He’d embraced their trip to Virginia City as a big adventure, eagerly exploring his new surroundings, but she wondered if he would be as eager to stay on permanently.  Would he be excited or upset to leave the home he’d shared with his father? It would be hard for her, to be sure, she had so many memories in that house.  But if today was any indication, she had a feeling Matt would take to western life like a duck to water.  She, on the other hand, was a city girl and had only agreed to spend the summer out west because she dearly missed her cousin Lily.  They had been inseparable as girls, more like sisters than cousins, but their marriages had taken them in different directions and it had been years since they’d actually seen each other.  Of course, Lily wanted her to stay and pointed out all the advantages of raising a rambunctious boy in the country.  Above all, Ellie wanted to do right by Matt and to her own surprise, she was seriously considering Lily’s suggestion.

“So what do you do for fun at home?” she heard Adam ask.

Matt shrugged.  “Nothin’ special.  I play stickball and marbles with the fellas.  Oh, and I deliver the newspaper for Mr. Hennessey.  He pays me ten cents a week,” Matt added proudly.

Adam whistled softly.  “That’s a lot of money for a boy your age.”

“Yeah, but Ma doesn’t let me spend much,” he said with a disgusted shake of his head.  “I only get a penny and the rest goes in the bank.”

Adam pushed up his hat and looked at Matt.  “Mark my words, you’ll be glad to have that money saved up one day.”

“I s’pose,” he said with a disgruntled sigh.

Ellie smiled, pleased with Adam’s wise counsel.  She let her gaze roam from Matt to Adam.  He looked so strong and rugged in his black pants, shirt, and Stetson; different from the well-dressed sophisticated man he’d presented at the dance, yet both suited him.  The gun belt slung low on his hips made him look rough and dangerous but she knew it was a necessity.  Without a doubt, she was attracted to his self-confidence and the ease with which he moved and spoke.  He was a knowledgeable man, educated in the east, but she had a feeling the practical knowledge he’d acquired here in the west is what gave him his self-confidence.  She delighted in his clever sense of humor and could appreciate the easy connection he had with Matt.  She sensed he could be very nurturing and supposed that came from having younger brothers.  She couldn’t help but notice his physical attractiveness and blushed when she let her thoughts and eyes roam; but surprisingly she didn’t feel guilty.  Was she finally moving on, like Lily said she must, or were such thoughts disloyal?  Her feelings in a jumble, she pushed it all aside, deciding to simply enjoy the day.  The view was beautiful and the sound of the water lapping gently against the shore soothed her soul.  Lulled into a peacefulness she hadn’t felt in a long time, she sighed in contentment, but then Matt’s excited shouts abruptly broke the tranquility.  Smiling, she turned her attention back to the two fishermen.

“That’s it, Matt, pull it in slow,” Adam instructed.

“It’s a whopper!” he crowed happily.

“Sure is!” Adam agreed, caught up in Matt’s excitement.

“Look Ma! Look at the size of it!”

“It’s wonderful!” she exclaimed, delighted Matt wanted to impress her.  He’d been acting so big for his britches lately.

Matt flashed a smile and then stood there grinning and happily holding up the fish until an amused Adam finally interrupted the show.  “You planning on admiring that fish all day or do you want to catch another one?”

Reddening, Matt hastily put it on the stringer and then tossed his line back in the water.  He didn’t have long to wait.  Luck was on his side and when he caught four more to Adam’s one, they put up their poles and Adam showed him how to clean his catch.

“Can I do the next one by myself?” he asked, studying the gutted fish.

Satisfied with his skill in handling a knife, Adam handed it to him.  “I tell you what, you can clean ‘em all.  How’s that?”

“Sure!” he exclaimed, elated to be trusted with the job.

Chuckling, Adam rinsed his hands off in the lake and then walked over to Ellie.  Reaching down, he took her hands in his and pulled her to her feet.  “C’mon woman!” he teased.  “You can’t let us men do all the work.”

“Well, sir, I’d be happy to help, but I hope you don’t intend for me to clean those fish!” she said slightly alarmed.

“Nope, but we need some kindling to start a fire and I thought you might like to help me collect it.”

“I’d be happy to,” she replied, pleased that Adam still held her hand as they strolled away from the lake and into the woods.

Adam watched Ellie bend down to pick up some sticks.  Her hair was held loosely in the back with a simple bow.  She wore a pretty spring dress that showed off her tiny waist and well-proportioned figure.  He knew better than to ask a woman her age, but she’d mentioned getting married at twenty-three, so that would make her a few years older than him.  If anything, that made her even more attractive; she was a confident, well-educated, experienced woman, nothing like the nice, but exceedingly bland women his father kept bringing around.  He could sense her passionate spirit, despite her attempts, conscious or otherwise, to bury it.

“Oh, my goodness!” she said with a start as an equally startled deer leapt away.  She laughed with enchantment and turned to Adam.  “He was magnificent.  Oh, Adam, I’m enjoying this day as much as Mathew.”

“I’m glad,” he said, impulsively reaching out and turning her towards him.  He didn’t intend to kiss her, but found her upturned face irresistible and gently captured her mouth with his.

Her breath caught, surprised by the kiss and the pleasant thrill that ran through her body.  His kiss was tender and it awakened a passion in her she had long forgotten.  She remained in his arms, looking into his eyes for a long moment before breaking away.  “We better get back,” she said softy.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Adam sat on his haunches next to the fire and melted some butter in a small skillet while Ellie sat on the blanket, watching intently.  “Butter?” she asked in astonishment.  Just last week she’d churned butter for the first time in years.  It was backbreaking work and much to her embarrassment, nothing but a long soak in a hot tub had eased her aching arms.

Adam smiled.  “Yep, and I hope you appreciate it.  I got caught snitching it from the kitchen this morning and got a sound scolding from Hop Sing.  Lucky for me it was all in Chinese.”  He winked at Matt, who shook his head, unable to imagine Adam getting a scolding from anyone.

“Rightly so,” Ellie exclaimed in defense of Hop Sing.  “But I do appreciate it,” she added, smiling.

Dimpling, Adam bent back over his task and as much as she tried not to gawk, her eyes were drawn to the broad expanse of his back and the way it tapered to his waist.  He was such an intriguing man…so resourceful and capable…and so…so fit and masculine.  A small sigh escaped her lips causing Adam to send another smile her way.  She blushed prettily, grateful he couldn’t read her thoughts.

“Something wrong?” he asked casually, fully aware of the effect he was having on her.

“No, not at all,” she hastily replied.  “Are you sure I can’t help?”

Adam smiled to himself as he kept a watchful eye on the pan.  “Nope, just sit back and prepare yourself for a feast.”

Matt sniffed the air appreciatively.  “Mmmm, smells good, don’t it Ma?”

Ellie nodded.  “Yes, it smells wonderful.  We’re lucky Adam is such a good cook.”

Adam looked up and grinned.  “Don’t be too impressed; this and heatin’ up beans is about the extent of my cooking skills.”  Reaching for the plates, he served up the fish, browned to perfection.

Matt immediately tucked into his meal and declared, without a doubt, it was the best thing he’d ever eaten in his entire life.  He ate his fill, wiped his mouth, and rested at his mother’s insistence, for all of five minutes before running off to explore.  Not so ambitious, Adam lazily stretched out on the blanket and propped himself up on one elbow.  He munched on a biscuit and chatted with Ellie as she packed up the picnic basket.  They talked long into the afternoon discussing various books, authors, and poets; each passionately defending their favorites.  All too soon, it was time to go and Ellie called for Matt.  He heard his mother calling but chose to ignore her.  He was throwing rocks at a piece of driftwood and was determined to hit it.

“Come on, Matt, it’s time to go,” Ellie called again but got no response.  “He hasn’t been minding me very well lately,” she said a little embarrassed.  “I suppose it’s because I haven’t taken a firm enough hand with him since his father died, but I just haven’t had the heart to be stern with him.”

Adam responded with a slow, reflective nod, his thoughts drifting back a dozen years ago.  “I think I understand.  When Little Joe’s mother died, my father was pretty lenient for a while.  But I can tell you this, I didn’t think anything would ever be the same until Pa gave one of us a good swat.”

Ellie nodded in understanding and then shifted her gaze over to Matt who hadn’t budged an inch.  She wondered if he felt the same.  Oh, Matt, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t mean to confuse you.  I thought I was being kind and compassionate, but instead, I made a mess of things.  No wonder you’ve been acting up.  The rough language…the disobedience…it all makes perfect sense now.  With a sad shake of her head, she turned to Adam and smiled gratefully.  “Are you the one that got in trouble?”

Adam grinned.  “I’ll go get Matt.”

Matt plucked a rock from the ground and then threw it as hard as he could toward the piece of driftwood floating in the water.  It splashed into the lake, falling short of its intended target.  “Aw crap!” he grumbled, bending to pick up another rock.  Thought sure I’d get it that time. 

Coming up beside him, Adam raised an eyebrow.  “Does your mother allow you to use that kind of language?” he asked sternly.

Startled, Matt looked up and gulped.

Adam fought back the urge to smile.  The poor kid looked a little pale.  “Well?” he prompted.

Matt looked down and drew a circle in the wet sand with the tip of his boot.  “No,” he answered uncomfortably.

Adam reached out and tipped the boy’s chin up.  “Then I suggest you don’t use it again,” he said firmly and then bent to pick up a rock.  He bounced it in his hand a couple of times, testing its weight, and then sailed it out over the water, hitting the piece of driftwood dead on.  Impressed, Matt shot Adam a small smile but resisted the urge to whoop and holler, unsure of his present status.  Adam gave him a reassuring look, but didn’t hesitate to call his poor behavior into question.  “You have any particular reason for not answering your mother when she called?”

Matt shrugged but didn’t answer, so with a disapproving shake of his head, Adam bent down and gently took Matt by the shoulders.  “Your mother deserves your respect Matt and if she tells you to do something, don’t you think you ought to do it?”

He nodded, red with shame.  He’d been taking advantage of his mother’s leniency for quite some time.  When his father died, it hurt so bad he could hardly breathe and he’d clung to his mother for comfort and reassurance.  He’d missed his papa terribly and had moped around in misery for weeks having no inclination to be anything but a well-behaved boy; but as the hurt began to fade his natural exuberance returned along with his inclination towards mischief.  When his best friend Billy suggested they skip school and spend the day at the wharf, Matt didn’t hesitate to agree—the wharf was strictly off limits but every now and then he couldn’t resist the excitement of prowling the loading docks.  His mother was no push over and he fully expected to be punished when his trip was discovered.  He was astonished to receive nothing more than a mild lecture.  In the past, she would have paddled him with her hairbrush and then banished him to his room.  It wasn’t that he wanted to be punished, he just wanted things to be as normal as possible and he was afraid his mother would never be the same.  He tested her limits in a bid to trigger her temper, but when she still didn’t punish him, he boldly began to take advantage of his newfound freedom.  But now, Adam’s gentle reprimand flooded him with guilt.

“I’ll go tell Ma I’m sorry,” he whispered, giving Adam a hesitant look.  He didn’t really mean to be disrespectful to his mother and he hoped Adam wasn’t mad at him.  Adam nodded his approval and waited several minutes before following him.  He had a feeling mother and son might need some time to work things out.

Matt trudged up the sandy embankment eager to apologize and couldn’t have been more stunned when she gave him a stiff lecture punctuated by few sharp swats to his backside.  After she was done with him, he absently rubbed at the sting and tried not to grin as he climbed into the back seat of the surrey.  He didn’t want her to think he didn’t take her seriously because she sure enough made her point, but he couldn’t help smiling.  Upon his return, Adam glanced at him and shook his head in amusement; he’d never seen a kid so happy to get walloped.  He thought back to the incident with his own father and while he’d been glad Pa had come out of his fog and reacted normally, the dressing down he’d received had been nothing to smile about.  He was almost seventeen, Little Joe was five and Hoss was eleven that fateful spring.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Adam stopped the buckboard in front of the mercantile and hopped off.  “Okay, Little Joe, come on.”

Little Joe jumped into his arms and Adam swung him down to the ground while Hoss hopped off the other side and took in the sights of the burgeoning town.

“Hey Adam,” he exclaimed, “ain’t that Ross’s horse?”

Adam looked up the street and was surprised to see his friend’s horse tied to the hitching post outside the newly built Bucket of Blood saloon.  “Yeah,” he said, frowning, “that’s his horse all right.”

“Yuh think he’s really in the saloon?” Hoss asked in amazement.

Adam shrugged.  “I don’t know, but keep it under your hat just in case.”  What was the matter with Ross?  Didn’t he have any sense?  Mr. Marquette didn’t approve of all the saloons springing up in town and if Ross got caught drinking and wasting time, he’d be in trouble.  His own Pa felt the same way and insisted he steer clear unless they were together.  They’d butt heads over it a few times, but he hadn’t budged.

Put out by his brother’s remark, Hoss shot him an indignant look.  “I ain’t no snitch, Adam.”

Hearing the edge in his voice, Adam looked at him with a hint of a smile.  He was right.  He wasn’t a snitch; he just had a way of letting things slip out at the worst possible moments.  “I know you’re not,” he said in agreement.  “Now, c’mon, let’s get those supplies loaded.”

Appeased, Hoss nodded and collected Little Joe, who was busy following a trail of ants down the boardwalk.

As Adam held the door open, he glanced up the street and couldn’t help feeling wistful.  He hadn’t seen his friends for weeks, not since his stepmother had died in a riding accident the beginning of summer—a tragedy that had consumed them all with grief.  But as painful as it was for he and his brothers, he was old enough to understand how devastating it was for his father and so he’d naturally stepped in to help.  To keep his brothers busy, he enlisted their help in doing extra chores, took them swimming and fishing, told them stories, and made up games.  Aware the evenings were the hardest on his father, he made sure Little Joe ate his supper, got cleaned up, and was safely tucked in bed for the night; all the things his mother used to do.  His father’s grateful glances and pats on the back told him his efforts hadn’t gone unnoticed, but after weeks of trying to restore a sense of normalcy, it was beginning to wear thin.  He was impatient to get back to his regular work, impatient for some time to himself, and most of all, impatient for his father to resume his role and act like himself again.  The overly indulgent attitude he’d adopted since the accident was anything but comforting.  It was unsettling.  When he’d merely shooed Little Joe out of his office with a distracted pat on the head after he’d deliberately spilled ink on his desk last night, it felt like he didn’t care.

 

“Hey, Cartwright, what brings you ta town?” Rick Bonner yelled from his horse.

Roused from his thoughts, Adam waved.  “Work!  Somethin’ you wouldn’t know anything about,” he yelled back with a smile.

Rick laughed.  “Yeah, well, if you ain’t too tired after all that work, meet us at the Bucket of Blood, we’re gonna have one whale of a poker game.”

Adam waved him on and entered the store wishing he could go, but that wasn’t likely, not with two little brothers in tow.  Frustrated, his brow wrinkled into a frown.  He knew it was foolish to even think about, but instead of putting it out of his mind, he began considering his options.  He smiled and pulled the supply list from his pocket when he struck upon an idea.

With Hoss’ help, he carefully loaded the supplies onto the buckboard and tied everything down for the bumpy ride home.   As he secured the final crate, the storekeeper, Will Cass, came out to settle the bill.  Taking a deep breath, Adam stepped up from the street and crossed the boardwalk to meet him.  It was now or never.

“All right, Adam, that’ll be five dollars even.”

Convinced he was doing no real harm, Adam plunged ahead with his scheme.  “Mr. Cass? My father said to put the supplies on his account.”

Will looked up in surprise, but nodded agreeably.  “All right, Adam.  I’ll mark it in my book and you take this bill for your father’s records.”

“Yes sir.”  He took the bill and hurriedly stuffed it into his back pocket.  Now that he’d managed to hang on to his father’s money, he was eager to get to Daisy’s.  If she agreed to watch the boys, he’d be wrapping his hand around a mug of beer in no time.  “Hey, you two,” he called to his brothers, “how ‘bout some pie?”

Hoss’ face lit up and Little Joe scrambled from his seat on the ground.  “Oh boy!” he exclaimed, pleased with the unexpected treat.  “Nothin’ can beat Daisy’s apple pie!”

Little Joe frowned, struggling to keep up with his brothers as they crossed the street.  “I don’t want apple.  Can I have boisy-berry?” he asked, half shouting to get his big brother’s attention.

Adam looked down and smiled.  “You can have whatever you want, little buddy.”

Nodding happily, Little Joe ran the short distance to Daisy’s.

Daisy greeted them as soon as they entered the little café and ushered them over to an empty table.  “Land sakes, I haven’t seen you boys in ages.”  She bent down and ruffled Little Joe’s unruly hair.  “You hungry, Little Joe?”

“Yes ma’am, I’d like a piece of boisy-berry pie please.”

Daisy smiled.  The Cartwright boys were always so respectful and polite.  “I’ve got one in the oven right now, but it’ll be a few minutes.  You think you can wait?”

Little Joe gave a confident nod.  “Sure, for boisy-berry pie I can!”

“What about you Hoss? Is apple still your favorite?”

Hoss bobbed his head, a sunny smile on his face.  “Yes ma’am!”

She nodded and then looked at Adam expectantly.  “What can I bring you, Adam?”

Smiling nervously, he tugged on his ear.  “Uh, well actually, I need to run a few errands for my Pa and I was wondering if I could leave the boys here at the café.”  He hated to lie but he was certain Daisy would say no if she knew the truth.

She smiled at him, her eyes full of compassion.  “Take all the time you need.  Hoss and Little Joe will be fine.”

He smiled appreciatively.  “Thanks Daisy.”

Hoss eyed Adam with suspicion, but waited until Daisy was out of ear shot before questioning him.  “What errands you talkin’ about, Adam?”

“Never mind, Hoss, just stay here with Joe and eat your pie.”

“You fixin’ to meet up with Ross?”

Adam jerked his head toward Little Joe and Hoss got the message.  Little Joe had big ears and almost always spilled the beans, not that it really mattered these days.

Little Joe looked up with a worried expression.  “You won’t be gone too long, will yuh, Adam?”

He shook his head and smiled.  “I’ll be back by the time you finish your boisy-berry pie.”

“You promise?”

“I promise,” he replied as he went out the door.  Knowing he’d have to wait for his pie to cool once it came out of the oven, Adam figured he’d have plenty of time for a beer and a couple hands of poker.  So feeling freer than he had in a long time, he walked up the street and pushed through the doors of the Bucket of Blood without a speck of guilt.  For the next hour he intended to forget all about his responsibilities and do exactly as he pleased.

Ross spied him the minute he walked in.  “Adam! Hey Adam! Over here!”

He waved and made his way over to the group.  Ross was sitting with the Bonner brothers, Todd McCarran, and Carl Regan.  When he got to the table, Carl greeted him with a broad grin, proud of the scantily clad blonde sitting on his lap.  “Howdy Adam.  This here is Tilly.”

Adam touched his hat and tried not to gape at Tilly’s abundant charms.  “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

Tilly gave him an appreciative glance.  He was clean and the quality of his ranch clothes spoke of money.  “My, aren’t you polite,” she said with a wide smile, “and handsome too! You ever get a hankerin’ to go upstairs, you just let me know, you hear?  I’ll see to it you have a real fine time.”

Caught off guard by the bold invitation, Adam blushed and studiously ignored Tilly’s remark as well as Carl’s angry scowl.  Laughing at his obvious embarrassment, Todd elbowed Ross in the ribs while Rick looked at him and grinned.   “Hey, Cartwright, glad you could make it.”

Impatient to play, Jeff held up the deck of cards.  “You in?”

Adam pulled up a chair, glad for the change in subject.  “Yeah, I’m in.”

Jeff nodded and dealt the cards while Ross got Adam a shot of whiskey.  “Here yuh go, buddy; first one’s on me.”

“Thanks Skinny!” Adam downed the whiskey and tried not to cough.  It was cheap rot gut whiskey and burned all the way down, but he motioned for the barkeep to bring another round.   He couldn’t order beer now, not without looking like a kid, so he just sipped it and studied his cards.

Thanks to Jonesy, their long-time ranch foreman, he was a pretty good player, but it had come at a high price.  He’d repeatedly lost his pay in the weekly bunkhouse games until he’d finally figured out the real skill in playing poker wasn’t in calculating the odds but in reading the other players.  Subscribing to the notion that experience was the best teacher, Jonesy hadn’t stepped in to help him out and consequently he’d learned a costly, but useful lesson—one he was about to draw on right now.

His face a mask, he brought his glass to his lips and casually glanced around the table.  Carl had a gleam in his eye, but bet conservatively, so he probably didn’t have much; Todd took four cards before placing his bet; Rick repeatedly rubbed his chin, a sure sign he was bluffing; Ross was glassy eyed and had nothing; Jeff, on the other hand, was hard to read.  Adam took a chance and upped the bet, effectively eliminating everyone but Jeff and Carl.  Minutes later, he traded a grin with Ross when he won the hand and took the pot.

An hour and a half later he was still in the game, his promise to Little Joe long forgotten.  He’d lost all track of time, partly because of the whiskey, but mostly because Roxanne, a dark haired beauty, had plopped herself firmly in his lap.  Uncomfortable, he’d politely tried to rebuff her unwanted attention, but he couldn’t help shivering when she began running her hand through his hair and trailing kisses down his neck.

Roxanne felt his reaction and didn’t hesitate to kiss him full on the mouth, determined to beat Tilly to this handsome boy with a pocket-full of money.   Emboldened by the effects of the whiskey, Adam stopped resisting and instinctively wrapped his arms around her waist.  Unfortunately, it was at that particular moment his father burst in, eyes blazing with unbridled anger.  Ben Cartwright was livid and couldn’t wait to get his hands on his errant son.

Just thirty minutes earlier he never would have guessed it.  Throttling Adam had been the furthest thing from his mind.  He’d only come into town to pick up the payroll as quickly and quietly as possible, but things had taken a frightening turn when frantic shouts coming from up the street had filled him with a sense of dread.  Drawn to the commotion, he’d found Little Joe standing in the middle of C Street, right in the path of the noon stage.  Frightened and confused by all the shouting, it had been agonizingly clear he hadn’t known which way to turn, so with just seconds to spare, Ben had set off at a dead run and had managed to scoop him up and race to safety.  Sinking to his knees, he’d buried his face in Little Joe’s hair until the pounding in his heart had subsided and his breathing had returned to normal.  With halting words, Little Joe had tearfully told him he’d been looking for Adam because he hadn’t come back to Daisy’s by the time he’d finished his boisy-berry pie.  Confused, but determined to find out what in tarnation was going on, Ben had set off toward the café with Little Joe in his arms.

At Daisy’s, it hadn’t taken him long to get the story out of Hoss.  He’d been fretting about Little Joe and growing angrier with Adam by the minute.  Astounded and angered at having learned his eldest son’s whereabouts, Ben had ordered them to stay put and had stormed out the door.

Striding up the street to the Bucket of Blood, his temper had risen with every step and by the time he entered the saloon, his blood was boiling.  The scene that greeted him only added fuel to the fire.  “ON YOUR FEET!” he commanded.  His deep voice easily cut through the noise of the crowd.

Adam’s head snapped up.  He instantly recognized the furious voice as his father’s.  Great…just great…why now?  Nervously wiping the kiss from his mouth, he stood up, effectively dumping Roxanne from his lap.  Annoyed at being interrupted, she clicked her tongue and angrily sashayed away.  He spared her a quick glance and then instinctively took a step back as his father advanced on him.  He wasn’t afraid, exactly, but Ben Cartwright in a temper was a formidable sight.

Ben didn’t stop until they were nose to nose.  “Out,” he hissed.  At the same time, he gripped his son’s arm and propelled him forward, prompting a chorus of laughter from the smattering of old codgers decorating the place, not to mention Roxanne and his so-called friends.  Scowling, Adam pulled his hat down over his eyes and attempted to exit with a modicum of dignity, but another round of laughter erupted when his father landed a mighty swat to the seat of his pants to hurry him along.

Ben paid no attention to the men, but he whirled on the boys, instantly silencing their laughter.  His stern gaze settled on Ross.  “Get on home, boy!  I’ll be by to talk to your father later.”

Ross gulped.  “Yes sir, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Todd!  Carl!  That goes for you, too.”

“Yes sir,” they chorused, resenting the interference but knowing they’d better not argue.

With a stern expression, Ben started for the door but was stopped by Ross’s hesitant call.  “Uh, Mr. Cartwright, this here money is Adam’s.”

Amazed by what he considered to be Ross’s stupidity, Jeff Bonner boldly spoke up.  He’d lost a heap of money to Adam and he hoped to keep it from walking out the door.  “Mr. Cartwright, sir, I think you oughta let us keep that money, just to teach Adam a lesson about ill-gotten gains an all, yuh know?”

Ben’s eyes narrowed and his hand itched to wipe the impudent smirk from the young man’s face.  Instead, he strode purposefully to the table and picked up the cash, folding it carefully and putting it his pocket, his stern gaze putting the young hooligan in his place.  Jeff boldly tried to stare him down, but couldn’t take the intense anger in those eyes.  He cleared his throat and nervously looked away.  With a disgusted shake of his head Ben turned and exited the saloon.  Why couldn’t Adam see the Bonner brothers were nothing but trouble?

Outside, Adam’s mind was reeling as he tried to get a grip on the situation.  The fact that Pa seemed to be himself again was encouraging, but the reality of it, given the circumstances, made his stomach churn.  He hadn’t counted on having to face him, especially with a gut full of whiskey and the thought was anything but pleasant.  He frowned and leaned against the wall, contemplating his fate.

Good or bad, he didn’t have much time to think about it.  Before he knew it, his father had him by the arm and was unceremoniously marching him down the street toward Daisy’s.  Reddening, Adam struggled.  After weeks of stepping in for his father, he resented being dragged along as if he were a naughty little boy, no older than Little Joe.  “Lemme go!” he snapped, jerking his arm free.

Furious, Ben caught him in a grip that made him wince.  “Keep it up,” he growled in his ear, “and so help me I’ll tan you right here in the middle of the street!”

Adam stared at him, his mouth dropping open in shock.  Pa hadn’t given him a tanning in a good long while and he couldn’t believe he really meant to now.  His first instinct was to protest, but there was no mistaking the look in his father’s eye, so he bit his tongue and begrudgingly dropped his gaze to the ground.  He didn’t like it, but he wasn’t about to risk his hide in the middle of the street.  Pa would be calmer by the time they got home, he told himself, and he could reason with him then.

With a grunt, Ben set off again, taking long purposeful strides.  If nothing else, Adam was at least glad for the fast pace.  The sooner they got to Daisy’s to pick up the boys, the sooner they could collect the wagon and get out of town, away from prying eyes.  But much to his surprise, his father passed up the little café without so much as a glance.  He’d assumed Pa had run into his brothers at the café, but if that were the case, why wasn’t he stopping?  Swallowing hard, his mind started to race and suddenly he knew exactly where they were going.  Sure enough, when they got to the Sheriff’s office, his father opened the door and pushed him through.

Roy looked up in surprise.  “Howdy, Ben, somethin’ I can help you with?”

Ben nodded while Adam blushed and stared at the floor.  “I was wondering if I could borrow your office, Roy.  I have a son in need of some correction.”

Roy looked from Ben to a red-faced Adam and gave a little chuckle.  He had a feeling he was gonna be one sorry boy when his father got through with him.  “Sure thing, Ben, I was just about to do my rounds anyhow.”

Ben waited until he shut the door before rounding on his son.  “Look at me.”

Adam took a deep breath and looked up.  He had a healthy respect for his father’s temper, but he was determined to hold his ground.  He wasn’t a kid anymore and it was high time his father realized it.

“All right, Adam, let’s hear it.”

Adam shrugged his shoulders.  “I just wanted to catch up with my friends, that’s all.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed with impatience.  “No, that’s not all,” he snapped, “now get on with it.”

Adam’s chin came up defiantly, weeks of mounting frustration causing him to angrily snap back.  “I’m sorry you don’t agree, Pa, but I’m old enough to go in a saloon without you holding my hand!”

Ben’s eyes flashed.  “I’d say your behavior today proved just the opposite!”

Adam bit back another angry retort, his face full of resentment.

Ben angrily pulled Adam’s winnings from his pocket and held it under his son’s nose.  “Where did you get the money to gamble with?”

Caught off guard, Adam flushed.  “I, uh, used the money you gave me for supplies.”

Ben glowered at him.  “In other words, you lied to Mr. Cass and you planned on lying to me.”

Unable to deny it, Adam’s resolve faltered a little and he averted his eyes.  It was one thing to go against his father’s wishes; it was another thing to scheme and lie.  “I asked him to put the supplies on your account,” he admitted.  “I didn’t think you’d notice.”

Ben felt a twinge of guilt.  He probably wouldn’t have noticed, but in his present state of mind it did little to dissipate his anger.  He shook his head and thrust the money in Adam’s hand.  “You’ll apologize to Mr. Cass and give him every cent he’s owed before we leave town today.  I’ll be keeping the rest, understood?”

Adam nodded and dutifully tucked the money in his pocket.  “Yes sir, I understand,” he said quietly.

“Mr. Cass isn’t the only person you lied to today, is it?”

Adam shook his head, his resolve now completely gone.  He couldn’t very well take a stand on a hill of deceit.  “I, um, lied to Daisy.  I wanted her to keep Little Joe and Hoss at the café so I told her I had some errands to do.”

“So you lied to get your own way and left your brothers at Daisy’s without a second thought, is that right?” Ben asked, questioning him in a dangerously low voice.

Adam shifted apprehensively from one foot to the other, his father’s tone a sure sign his fury was mounting.  “Well, no, not exactly.  I figured they’d be safe at Daisy’s.”

Ben shook his head angrily.  “Well you figured wrong.”  His voice exploded with fury.  “And it almost cost Little Joe his life!”

Adam stared at him in shock, his heart suddenly racing.  “He…he’s all right, isn’t he?” Afraid of the answer, but in desperate need to know, he searched his father’s face for a clue.

Ben nodded and for a moment his expression softened.  “He’s fine, but the outcome could have been very different.”  A shiver of fear ran up his spine just thinking about it and his anger resurfaced in full force.

Adam waited for him to explain with a sinking feeling.

“He was looking for you.  He got worried when you didn’t come back.”

At those words, Adam dropped his eyes to the floor in guilt.

Ben, however, cupped his chin and prompted him to look up.  He wanted his full attention.  “While you were off drinking, gambling, and shamefully carousing in the saloon, your five-year-old brother tried to cross the busiest street in Virginia City and narrowly missed getting hit by the stage.”

Adam remained silent and bit his bottom lip, wishing he could look anywhere but his father’s angry eyes.   If Little Joe had gotten hurt, it would have been his fault.  He never should have left his brothers at Daisy’s no matter how much he wanted to see his friends.  He knew Little Joe didn’t like being apart from him and he knew Daisy was too busy to keep a close eye, but he’d left him anyway.

Ben saw the pain and regret in Adam’s eyes, but it wasn’t enough, not this time.

Seeing what he intended, Adam couldn’t help but protest, his sixteen-year-old pride surfacing.  “I know I was wrong,” he admitted in a quiet voice, “and I don’t blame you for being angry, but I’m too old for this.”

Ben eyed him sternly.  “The discussion is over, Adam.”

“Pa—”

“Adam!”

The furious expression on his father’s face convinced him to do as he was told and without another word he found himself face to face with a wanted poster on Sheriff Coffee’s desk.  Someone named Jack Miller, wanted dead or alive.  Bracing himself, he concentrated on the poster, hoping it would provide some distraction, but when he realized he’d read the whole thing and hadn’t gotten a lick, he turned and looked up at his father.  To his surprise, his furious expression had been replaced with a pensive one.

The movement caught Ben’s attention and the two made eye contact.  He motioned for him to straighten up.  “Consider yourself lucky.”

Feeling a rush of relief, Adam quickly complied, but at the same time, he wondered what was going on.  As glad as he was to escape a tanning, he hoped it didn’t mean Pa was returning to his grief-stricken ways.

Ben saw the questioning look in his eyes and considered what to say.  He’d been scared out of his wits today and he’d fully intended to give his eldest a tanning, but then his eyes had fallen on Adam’s gun belt and he’d been struck by several images.  While Adam wasn’t fully grown, he knew he wasn’t a child any longer.  He was a young man, better with a six-shooter than most and more responsible to boot.  “You made some bad choices today, but I can’t fully blame you.”

The clarity in his eyes told Adam it wasn’t grief talking and so he manfully met his gaze and listened intently, realizing he wasn’t completely out of the woods.

“I’ve relied on you far too much since your stepmother died.”  He sighed and shook his head ruefully.  “It’s no wonder you were chafing at the bit, so in regards to Little Joe, let’s just be thankful he wasn’t hurt and put that matter to rest.”

Grateful for his understanding, but feeling nonetheless guilty, Adam dropped his eyes.  He could visualize the scene his father had described and the seriousness wasn’t lost on him.  “If Little Joe had gotten hurt…or…or worse…I never would have forgiven myself.”

Hearing the huskiness in his voice, Ben put his hands on his shoulders and gently massaged him.  “Don’t stew about it,” he said comfortingly.  “It’s over and he’s fine.”

Taking comfort in his words, Adam gave a little nod.

Ben wished he could leave it at that, but they still had a few things to straighten out.  “Now, about the saloons,” he said in a caring but firm tone.  “I simply can’t agree with you.  My rule still stands.”

Disappointed, Adam’s brow wrinkled into a little frown.  He’d thought his father had realized he was an adult.

Ben saw his disappointment and hoped to make him understand so they wouldn’t have to hash this out again.  “I don’t begrudge you a beer or a game of poker with your friends every now and then, Adam.  It’s the unruly crowd and the trouble that comes with it—the brawls and gunfights when the miners get liquored up.”  He shook his head.  “I don’t want you getting mixed up in that.  I don’t want you getting hurt!”

Adam weighed his words.  It was true; there’d been fights and killings in the saloons, but for pete’s sake, he had sense enough to steer clear of trouble! And if he absolutely couldn’t avoid it, he was confident he could hold his own in any kind of fight.  “You can’t protect me forever, Pa, and you know I can handle myself with a gun, my fists, too, for that matter.”

Ben raised an eyebrow, concerned about his overly confident attitude.  Given the roughness of the men in the territory, he’d taught Adam to handle a six-shooter younger than most.  As a result, he’d developed a keen eye and quick reflexes, but that didn’t mean he was invincible or that he’d ever stop worrying about him.  He doubted Adam would understand his fatherly perspective, though, so he settled on a different approach to make his point.  “There’s more to protecting yourself than being handy with a gun.  Lucky for you, you’ve also been blessed with common sense, but whether you know it or not, you’ve still got a few things to learn.”  He fixed him with a piercing stare.  “That wasn’t beer you were drinking today, was it?”

Aware his father’s sharp eye hadn’t missed a thing, he rightly figured his attention was the only response he expected.

“You’d do well to avoid the whiskey and keep your wits about you, Adam.  A gun won’t do you any good if you’re too addled to use it wisely.”

Adam hesitated.  He wouldn’t gain anything by arguing, but he wasn’t quite ready to give in.  “I hear what you’re saying,” he replied in a neutral tone, “but I wasn’t anywhere near being drunk.”

“You don’t think it was the whiskey that made you lose track of time?” Ben asked sharply.  “Or loosened your morals?” He shook his head, reminded of the eye-opening scene he’d witnessed.  Adam was mature in some ways but still naïve in others and probably had no idea how much a saloon girl would love to ensnare him—the eldest son of a wealthy rancher.  “Don’t be fooled by a fancy skirt.  Their interest in bedding you is in your money clip and nothing else.  If trouble had broken out, would you have even known it?”

Adam flushed scarlet, embarrassed by the straight-forward talk, but even more embarrassed that his father was right.  He hadn’t been aware of anything but Roxanne and he hated to admit it, but he did think she liked him.

Ben didn’t let up.  “I understand why you disobeyed me today, but please, respect my decision.  I won’t be as understanding if it happens again.”

Uncomfortable under his eye, Adam shifted his weight.  He felt like a fool kid.  “I will,” he said softly.  “I just wish I hadn’t lied in the first place.”

Seeing he’d taken it to heart, Ben was moved by the miserable look on his face and spoke in a gentler tone.  “I’m glad to hear you say that, son.  You’ve earned yourself a reputation as a hardworking, dependable young man and I’d hate to see you ruin it.”

Adam sighed and looked down, upset with himself.  “I did some damage today, didn’t I?”

Ben reached out and gave him an encouraging pat on the back.  “You’ve got some apologizing to do, but I have a feeling it’ll go a long way.”  He smiled at him.  “Come on, now, let’s get going.”

Not sure he’d be so easily forgiven by Daisy and Mr. Cass, Adam chewed on his bottom lip and followed his father outside.  He’d played on Daisy’s sympathies and dreaded having to look her in the eye and admit it.  She was bound to be disappointed in him.  As for Mr. Cass, there was no question he’d be angry and he could expect a reprimand.

Given the extenuating circumstances, Ben wasn’t unsympathetic and even considered smoothing things over for him, but in the end he decided it was an opportunity for Adam to learn that being a man meant owning up to his mistakes and accepting the consequences of his actions, no matter how difficult or embarrassing.  So when they reached the mercantile, he gave him a supportive look and a little push towards the counter while he remained by the door.

Adam glanced about the store and was thankful to see it was empty.  At least he wouldn’t have an audience.  Mr. Cass greeted him and despite Adam’s nervousness he managed to respectfully look him in the eye and confess.  He also did as he was told and handed over his winnings to cover the bill.

As predicted, the storekeeper soundly admonished him, but in the end he was stirred enough by the contrite look on Adam’s face to begrudgingly accept his apology.

Anxious to escape, Adam dutifully thanked him and then turned on his heels and headed toward the door.

Will grunted and looked past Adam to Ben.  “I assume you’ve already dealt with him.”

Ben gave a firm nod and protectively propelled Adam toward the door.  Will had been well within his rights to give him a dressing down.  After all, he’d supplied the groceries in good faith and deserved to be paid without lies or delays, but in spite of all that, Ben felt he’d been a little harsh.  “He got what he deserved.”

Satisfied, Will went back to his work without another glance.

Out on the boardwalk, Ben benevolently eyed his son.  “I didn’t lie, if that’s what you’re thinking.  You did get what you deserved.”

Adam smiled, but it was fleeting.  Mr. Cass’s lecture had left him feeling ashamed and his upcoming apology to Daisy was weighing heavily on his mind.

Ben knew what was troubling him and left him to his thoughts as they walked the short distance to the café.  When they arrived, Little Joe flung open the door and Ben was immediately assailed by both boys clamoring for his attention.  Knowing Adam would appreciate having some privacy, he drew them to a table and listened attentively to all their complaints about having to wait.

With a lump in his throat, Adam warily approached Daisy.  The ruckus had drawn her out of the kitchen and she was waiting for him with her hands on her hips and a stern look on her face.  He nervously cleared his throat.  “I, um, guess you know I didn’t really have any errands to run.”

Daisy nodded.  “From what I understand, it was a fool’s errand.”

“Yes ma’am.  I’m awful sorry, Daisy.”

Daisy shook her head sadly.  “I knew you had your hands full, Adam, and I was glad to help.  I never thought you’d lie to me.”

Adam dropped his head a little and looked at her through guilty eyes.

Daisy studied him.  Now that she’d expressed her disappointment, her concern began to rapidly weigh in.  “I saw you and your Pa go down to the Sheriff’s office, did he…?”

Adam knew what she was asking and he shook his head, embarrassed.  He guessed a whole passel of people besides Mr. Cass and Daisy probably assumed the same thing.  “He set me straight, but not like that.”  He shrugged, helplessly.  “I guess maybe he should have.”

Daisy’s face softened and to Adam’s surprise she looked relieved.  “No, I’d say he did exactly the right thing given the situation you’ve been dealing with.”

Once again, he was surprised.  He hadn’t talked about his Pa to anyone except Jonesy and he knew he’d never say anything.  “How?”

“Your family’s got good friends here in town, Adam, and we’ve all been worried about your Pa and how you’ve been handling the boys on your own.  In fact, we were fixin’ to butt in real soon.  Now, that doesn’t excuse your lying, mind you, but I can see how sorry you are, so let’s put it behind us.  Agreed?” She graced him with an affectionate smile.

Adam figured she was talking about Doc Martin and Sheriff Coffee and it made him feel good.  He gave her a dimpled smile.  “Yes ma’am.”

Having kept an eye on the proceedings, Ben picked up Little Joe and walked over to them.  “I appreciate all your help and patience with us, Daisy.”

“I’m always here if you need me,” she replied with a smile, “but I’ve got to admit I’ve had my share of excitement today, so I’d appreciate it if you’d take these rapscallions home where they belong.”

Ben smiled warmly and ushered them outside where he took Little Joe’s hand.  This was one little boy who wasn’t going to be crossing any streets by himself for a good many years.  At the buckboard, he handed him up to Adam and then hurriedly went to collect his horse, eager to get going.

Little Joe wriggled between his two brothers, glad they were all finally together.  “Pa sure was mad.  Did he wallop yuh, Adam?”

Hoss listened with interest, curious as to whether his brother had gotten more than a pat on the head.

Adam looked down at his little brother and smiled.  If he had gotten a tanning it would have been a small price to pay considering the alternative.  “No, he didn’t wallop me.”

Both Hoss and Little Joe looked crestfallen.  “But I thought Pa was actin’ like Pa again!” Joe wailed.

Having almost been on the receiving end of Pa actin’ like Pa again, Adam reassured his brothers.  “Don’t worry, he was hoppin’ mad and blistered my ears good.”

Little Joe nodded vigorously, happy with the report.  Hoss was happy, too, but instead of smiling his eyes began to well up.  Not wanting to look like a baby, he looked away and tried to shake it off, but the tears flowed anyway.

“All right, boys,” Ben said riding up beside the buckboard.  “You ready?”

Little Joe bounced in his seat.  “Yes sir, Pa!  Let’s go home!”

Ben smiled at his exuberance, but just to be on the safe side he enlisted his middle son’s help.  “Hoss, you better hold onto him or he’s liable to bounce right out of the wagon.”

Hoss sniffled and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.  “Sure Pa.”

Detecting the catch in his voice, Ben looked at him with concern.  “What’s the matter, son? Are you feeling poorly?”

“Nah, I ain’t sick,” he answered with a shake of his head and another sniffle.

Ben pushed back his hat, perplexed.  Hoss had seemed fine a few minutes ago.  “Well, then, what’s got you so you upset?” he asked gently.

Hoss grinned and wiped his eyes.  “I ain’t upset, Pa.  I’m happy.”

“Happy?” he asked, flabbergasted.

“Yes sir,” Hoss answered earnestly.  He glanced at Adam.  “I’m sorry you got in trouble Adam…but…but it sure is good to hear Pa yellin’ again.”  He looked at his Pa.  “I reckon I missed it.  I reckon I missed you.”

Ben felt his own eyes water and struggled to keep control of his emotions.  His heart ached at the pain he’d caused his sons.  He took a steadying breath and looked at his boys.  “I know I haven’t been much of a father to you boys lately…but I hope you know how much I love you…and from here on out I’m gonna be the same ol’ Pa you’ve always known…the four of us are still a family…and I’m here to take care of you,” he looked at Adam, “all of you.”  Adam traded a meaningful look with his father and his shoulders felt lighter, the weight of responsibility having been lifted.  “Now let’s get home,” Ben added.  “We’ve got some catching up to do.”

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Still smiling at the memory, Adam winked at Ellie as he approached her.

Seeing him, Matt looked down in embarrassment, fully aware he’d overheard.  He was happy his Ma was herself again, but a fella had his pride.

Not wanting to intrude on the boy’s privacy, Adam refrained from comment as he helped Ellie into the surrey and then climbed aboard himself.  Left to his own thoughts, Matt quickly fell asleep in the back seat.  Noticing him curled up, Adam and Ellie traded a smile, content to ride the rest of the way home in companionable silence with just an occasional glance sparking between them.

“Thank you, Adam, for such a pleasant day,” Ellie said softly as the surrey came to a stop in front of her cousin’s house.  “I enjoyed it very much.”

“Me too,” Matt said sleepily, his head popping up.

Adam reached back and tousled his hair.  “I did too,” he replied.  He gave Ellie a warm smile and then jumped down and walked around to her side of the surrey.  Reaching up, he put both hands around her waist and swung her gently down to the ground.  Taking the picnic basket in one hand and Ellie’s hand in the other, he walked her to the porch while Matt ran ahead.  “I was wondering if you’d like to come out to the ranch next Sunday for lunch, the Walkers too, if they’re free.  I’d like you to meet my family, and if it’s all right with you, get Matt up on a saddle horse.”

Ellie looked into his eyes, her hand still in his, and felt that queasy sensation again.  She was pleased and nervous all at the same time.  She glanced at Matt’s face, full of anticipation, and smiled.  “Of course, we’d love to,” she answered appreciatively.

“Good, I’ll pick you up after church,” he said, bringing her hand briefly to his lips.

She smiled at the gallant gesture and then watched from the porch as he got into the surrey and drove off with a tip of his hat.  Still smiling, she opened the screen door and was instantly pulled into the house by an excited Lily who ushered her into the kitchen, plying her with questions every step of the way.  Finding her cousin’s excitement irresistible, Ellie chatted and laughed as if they were girls again.  They delighted in discussing the handsome Adam Cartwright, but while it was all very giddy and fun, Ellie couldn’t help feeling a little strange—a week ago she never would have thought it possible for another man to capture her attention and if she were being honest, quite possibly her heart.

Chapter 6

Adam wasn’t in any hurry to get home.  It had been several months since he’d shown any real interest in a woman and he knew his brothers would spend the entire evening prodding him for information while his father puffed on his pipe listening to every word from behind a book.  Smiling to himself, he slapped the reins and guided the team to the left fork in the road, deciding to take the long way home.  As he drove, he thought about Ellie; how incredibly beautiful she looked, the softness of her lips, the flicker of passion in her eyes.  He almost laughed out loud when he recalled the feisty way she’d defended her favorite poet.  The way her eyes flashed reminded him a lot of Marie when she got her dander up.  He sobered when he considered her strength and courage.  He’d seen his father go through the pain of losing Inger and Marie and knew how crushing and debilitating it could be, yet here she was, a woman alone with a young son, considering a new way of life.  He admired her for it, but judging from the emotions that surfaced at the dance, she was still struggling.  To what degree, though, he wasn’t sure.

Deep in thought, he suddenly grimaced in pain as a shot rang out, hitting him in the left shoulder and spooking the horses.  Recovering his wits, he pulled hard on the reins, but it was no use, they were out of control.  He had no choice but to jump.  He cried out when he landed hard on his injured shoulder but managed to scramble to his feet and run for the nearest cover as more bullets hit the ground.  Breathing heavily, he leaned against a rock and took a quick look at his shoulder.  It burned something fierce and the patch of blood on his shirt was beginning to spread, but there was nothing he could do about it now.  He was in a heap of trouble—he was pinned down without a rifle.  His pistol wouldn’t do him any good unless he could get within range and that wasn’t likely.  A wave of dizziness and nausea overcame him and his legs began to buckle.  He tried to steady himself, knowing he had to stay alert if he hoped to survive; but it was no use, his head wouldn’t stop spinning.  Puzzled by a sudden exchange of gunfire, he cautiously peered around the rock and heaved a sigh of relief when he spotted two riders coming in hard and fast.  Pointing his gun in the air, he fired off three signal shots before sinking to his knees.

Little Joe watched in alarm as Adam fell heavily to the ground.  Racing to his side, he jumped from Cochise and ran to where he lay, face down, in the dirt.  “Adam!”

Satisfied they’d scared off the shooters, Hoss was beside him in an instant and together they carefully rolled their brother to his back, finding him alive but barely conscious.  Hoss touched a hand to his cheek, his worry hidden behind the mask of a smile.  “Adam?  What’sa matter with you, boy?  Ain’t you got nothin’ better to do on your day off?”

“Yeah,” Little Joe said, chiming in with a shaky voice, “this ain’t exactly a picnic, older brother.”

Drawing comfort from the normalcy of their teasing, Adam managed a weak smile.  “Glad…you two…decided to join the fun.”  His breathing was labored and his words disjointed.

Hurrying to make him more comfortable, Little Joe removed his jacket and placed it behind his head while Hoss carefully opened Adam’s shirt, peeling the fabric away from the wound.  One glance told them it was bad; blood was seeping out fast.

“Joe,” Hoss said, keeping the panic from his voice, “we’re gonna need some help.  Kip’s got a crew working just over the ridge.  Send someone for the Doc and then high tail it over to the ranch for Pa and a wagon.”

Little Joe blanched, unable to pull his eyes away from the blood.  He was all too aware Adam could bleed to death and the possibility rooted him to the spot.

“Go on, Joe, get moving!”

With a sober nod, he got to his feet, but not before giving Adam’s hand a quick squeeze.  “Don’t worry, Adam, we’ll get you home and fixed up in no time.”  Swinging into his saddle, he took off at a gallop, praying he’d spoken the truth.

Hoss didn’t look up as he ripped the sleeve from his shirt and pressed it to the wound.

Adam winced at the move, but seeing the worry it caused his brother, he managed to muster up enough strength to whisper something only Hoss would appreciate.  “That shirt clean?” he asked with a ghost of a smile.

Hoss gave a little snort.  Ever since they were young ‘uns, Adam had fussed at him for wearing the same shirt all week.  He never did understand his older brother’s way of thinking.  Why put on a clean shirt just to get it dirty again?  “Lucky for you, I put a clean one on today.”

The chuckle in Adam’s throat turned to a low groan as Hoss applied more pressure.

“Sorry, Adam, but I gotta stop this bleeding.”

Adam gave a slight nod and tried to hang on, but the pain was unbearable and he mercifully slipped into a state of unconsciousness.

Alarmed, but grateful he was temporarily free from pain, Hoss put even more pressure on the wound, determined to stop the flow.  “Hold on older brother,” he whispered fiercely, “hold on.”

Chapter 7

The faint sound of the clock chiming downstairs caught Ben’s attention as he rose from Adam’s bedside chair.  It was two in the morning and his eldest son tossed fitfully in his sleep, unable to escape his pain.  Picking up a cool cloth from the nightstand, he gently wiped the perspiration from his face and spoke in soft, soothing tones.  “I know it hurts, son, but Doc Martin said you’re gonna be fine.  The worst is over and all you need to do is rest.”

Seemingly comforted by the sound of his father’s voice, Adam stopped thrashing and fell into a quieter, if not altogether peaceful sleep.  Grateful to hear him breathing a little easier, Ben returned the wash cloth to the basin and then wearily sat back down and closed his eyes.  Intending to say his prayers now that he was alone with his thoughts, he got no further than offering a prayer of thanksgiving before exhaustion overtook him.  The next thing he knew, the first rays of light were streaming in through the window and Adam was beginning to moan.  Shaking himself awake, he leaned in closer and covered Adam’s hand with his own.  “I’m here,” he said in a reassuring voice.

Adam’s forehead creased in pain.  He was sore all over and his shoulder hurt like the dickens.  Afraid to move, he kept his eyes closed and hoped the searing pain would subside, but it only intensified with the return of all his senses.  He groaned and wished he could slip back into oblivion, but his father’s murmured encouragements prompted him to open his eyes.

Relieved to see him awake, Ben squeezed his hand and smiled.  “Well, hello there,” he said keeping his voice soft.

Adam turned toward the familiar voice and managed a whispered, “Pa.”

Ben enveloped him in a fatherly look.  “You gave us quite a scare.”

Conscious enough to remember he’d been shot, Adam made a shaky attempt to touch his injured shoulder.  “My shoulder…?”

Ben stopped him, gently guiding his hand back down.  “The doctor had a tough time getting the bullet out and you lost a lot of blood, but with a little rest, you’ll be fine.”

Adam nodded and wearily closed his eyes again, only to be overcome by a coughing fit that left him grimacing in pain.

Hastening to help, Ben poured a glass of water and carefully eased him up.  “Here take a sip,” he instructed, holding it to his lips.

Adam moaned as he lifted him, but the cool water soothed his dry throat and he drank gratefully.

“Easy,” Ben warned gently.

Swallowing, Adam sank back into the pillow, exhausted.  “How long was I out?”

“Long enough to give me a few more grey hairs,” Ben said in fatherly fashion.

Adam gave him a faint smile.  “That’s not an answer.”

Ben smiled at him.  “Since yesterday afternoon.”

Adam nodded, glad he hadn’t been out too long.  It angered him, though, that someone had put his family through any worry at all.  Thinking about it, his face began to crease into a scowl, but he dropped that line of thought when a knock sounded softly on the door.

Ben waved the doctor in.   Paul Martin was a longtime friend having settled in Virginia City just two months before Little Joe was born.  He’d helped Marie through a difficult birth and over the years had earned Ben’s trust and respect many times over.  “Hello, Paul, he just woke up.”

Paul smiled his approval.  “That’s good news,” he said coming over to the bed and setting down his bag.

Adam raised his hand in a small gesture of greeting.

“Well, young man, you certainly know how to liven up an otherwise dull day.”

Adam let out a weak chuckle.  “Believe me, it wasn’t intentional.”

Paul placed a hand on his forehead.  “No fever,” he announced, pleased.  He’d cleansed the wound as best he could but the possibility of an infection was always a concern.  “How’s the pain?”

Adam closed his eyes wondering if it would help.  It didn’t.  “Burns like fire.”

Paul rolled up his sleeves and poured some water into the basin.  He expected him to be in pain, but he was surprised to hear him admit it so freely in front of his father.  That, in itself, told him just how bad it was.  “I’ll give you something for it and then I need to take another look and change that dressing.”

“What can I do to help?” Ben asked.

“You can go downstairs and talk to Roy.  He rode out with me; says he’s got some information for you.”

“Oh?” Ben exclaimed, curious to hear what he had to say, but hesitant to leave Adam.

“Go on,” Paul said as he pulled a bottle of laudanum from his bag.  “I promise to take good care of your eldest chick.”

Ben gave Paul a sheepish grin.  He couldn’t help acting like an old mother hen, so there was no use denying it.  “Just see that you do,” he replied with a huff.

Paul shook his head and smiled as Ben gave Adam’s leg a pat and then strode out the door.  He’d been tending these boys and watching Ben fret over them for years and quite frankly he felt privileged to witness it.

Chapter 8

Hop Sing set a tray on the coffee table in front of Sheriff Coffee.  “Hot coffee,” he announced.

Roy gratefully took the pot and poured himself a cup.  “Thanks, Hop Sing, just what I need.”

Hop Sing smiled and then retreated, knowing the Sheriff felt at home in his surroundings.

“Hello Roy,” Ben called.

Roy’s eyes rose to the top of the stairs.  “Ben, I can’t tell you how sorry I am about Adam.  Has he come ‘round yet?”

Ben nodded as he came down and wearily plunked into the closest chair.  “Just woke up,” he answered.  “He’s hurting pretty bad.”

Roy handed him the cup of coffee he’d just poured.  “He’s a strong boy, Ben.  He’ll pull through without a hitch, especially with Doc Martin tending to him.”

With a tired smile, Ben accepted it and took a satisfying sip while Roy poured himself another cup.  Feeling somewhat rejuvenated, Ben asked about the reason for his visit.  “Paul said you had some news.”

Roy nodded and settled back on the settee, but just as he was about to explain, Hoss and Little Joe burst in through the front door, eager to hear what he had to say.

For everyone’s sake, Hoss sure hoped Sheriff Coffee had them no-good bushwhackers behind bars.  Little Joe was all fired up, convinced the Logans were behind the shooting and it was getting mighty difficult to keep him from riding over.

Ben waved them in.  “Come and sit down boys.”

Hoss greeted Roy and took a seat next to him on the settee while Little Joe perched on the coffee table and asked him straight out.  “Do you know who shot Adam, Sheriff Coffee?”

“No,” he said with a rueful shake of his head.  “I’m afraid I don’t.”

Ben and the boys exchanged disappointed glances, but Roy went on to clarify.  “What I do have is a possible lead, but I don’t want any of you gettin’ your hopes up because it might not pan out.”

Ben leaned forward and urged him to continue.  “Go on, Roy, tell us.”

“Well, there was a couple of rough looking characters that came into town on the noon stage a few days ago and I’ve got a hunch they had something to do with it.  It seems they work for Stuart & McCall Hydraulics, that mining outfit Tom Logan is mixed up with.”

Hearing all he needed to know, Little Joe jumped to his feet, his hands already balled into fists.  “I knew it!  I knew the Logans were behind it!” His voice rose in excitement.  “Now, what’re we gonna do about it?”

Afraid this was going to happen, Roy put his coffee cup down and jabbed a finger at Little Joe.  “Hold on there, boy.  In the first place, there isn’t any proof the Logans or those other two fellas had anything to do with the shooting.  In the second place, you aren’t gonna do anything but stay right here on this ranch!”

“That’s right,” Ben said sternly, “so just sit down and let Roy finish.”

Joe scowled, but he did as he was told.

Satisfied to see him calm down a little, Ben turned his attention back to Roy.  “What are you thinking, Roy?”

“I think this Jack Stuart and Lester McCall stand to lose a whole lot of money if their deal with Tom falls through.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed.  “You think they’re here to protect their interests?”

“Yep, and I think they’ll do whatever it takes to persuade you to back down.”

“Yeah,” Hoss said, soberly, “like hiring someone to take a shot at Adam.”

Roy nodded.  “That’s what I aim to find out.”

“Makes sense,” Ben conceded, “but I just can’t believe Tom would be a party to this kind of violence.”  He paused to consider his recent visit to Tom’s place.  He’d been disappointed in his stubborn refusal to acknowledge their long-time agreement, but at least their conversation had been civil.  “I know he’s angry about the judge’s decision…but he said he was going to appeal…take it to another judge.”

“Yeah, but Pa, you didn’t think Mr. Logan would ever accuse you of being dishonest, either, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.”  Hoss shook his head.  He liked to think the best of folks too, but for once it was Pa, instead of him, that was thinking with his heart instead of his head.

“Maybe it’s out of his hands,” Roy said, speculating.  “Maybe these fellas just aren’t willing to wait for another judge to hear the case.”

Ben stood up and began to pace.  This whole thing was getting out of hand.  It was one thing to fight a legal battle and quite another to have someone taking pot shots at his son.  He didn’t want to endanger the boys, or the ranch hands either, for that matter, but he couldn’t just give up their water rights, could he?  It would affect their entire cattle operation.  Reaching a decision he addressed his sons.  “I want you to spread the word to the hands—no one rides out alone until I say otherwise.  I want to see at least three men on every work crew and no one is to go near the Lazy L for any reason.  That goes for you boys, too.  Understand?”

“Yes sir,” Hoss said, assuring his father.  “I’ll spread the word.”

Ben nodded and sat back down.  It wasn’t much, but it was all he could do for the time being.

“Now, it’s my turn and I want you boys to listen to me,” Roy said firmly.

Hoss and Little Joe exchanged stubborn glances as Roy continued to lay down the law.

“You leave the Logans and them other two fellas alone.  I don’t want either of you coming into town looking for trouble.  Just leave the sheriffin’ job to me, you hear?”

Balking at his orders, Little Joe jumped to his feet with unrestrained anger.  “Now, wait a minute!  That’s it?  I say we confront ‘em!”

“Yeah, me too!” Hoss said, standing up.  “I bet I could pound a confession out of ‘em.”

Seeing the hard looks on their faces, Ben got to his feet and glared at his sons, exerting all his authority.  “You’ll do no such thing! You heard what Roy said—there’s no proof.  So just simmer down the both of you!”

Reluctantly taking heed of his father’s admonishment, Hoss jammed his hands in his pockets and stared at the ground; but all caution deserted Little Joe and his temper raged out of control.  “So, that’s it?” he yelled in disbelief.  “You’re just gonna sit here and wait for someone else to get shot?”

Losing his own temper, Ben grabbed him by the arm and pulled him until their faces were just inches apart.  “Now, you listen to me!  You will do as you were told and leave this matter to the law!”

Ignoring him, Joe struggled to pull his arm free, but Ben only gripped it tighter.  “Do you understand me?”

Unable to hold his father’s gaze, Little Joe looked away and nodded angrily.

Dissatisfied with his insolent response, Ben pressed him.  “I asked you a question, boy!”

“Yes sir,” he spat out.  His expression was a mixture of anger, frustration, and embarrassment.  He didn’t think his father could be so blind.

Irritated with Joe’s tone, Ben gave him a long hard look before releasing his arm and turning back to Roy.

Roy got to his feet.  He’d seen Ben tangle with each of his boys often enough to know everything would eventually be patched up between them.  His main concern was keeping them from interfering and he could see Ben had that under control.  “Well, that’s about it.  I best be getting back.”  He clapped Ben on the back.  “I hope Adam’s feeling better real soon, Ben.”

“Thanks, Roy, keep me posted.”  He walked him to the door and watched as he mounted up.  Then, from the open doorway, he turned and eyed his two sons.  Hoss got the hint, grabbed his hat, and was out the door in a jiffy.  Little Joe followed, but angrily kept his head down, stubbornly refusing to look at his father.  Ben glared at him, his patience worn thin.  If Little Joe didn’t want to be treated like a child, then he had better stop acting like one.  As quick as lightening he caught hold of his hot-tempered son and delivered a stinging swat.  Joe’s head snapped up in shock.

“I suggest you lose that attitude,” he warned.  “I know you’re worried, but that’s no excuse for disrespect.”

Little Joe glanced shamefaced at his father and then dropped his eyes to the floor.  He studied his boots in despair.  He had a short fuse lately and no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t keep from exploding.

Softening, Ben touched his chin, prompting him to look up.  “Don’t do anything foolish,” he added, his eyes conveying his concern.

Little Joe nodded and hurried out the door.  With a sigh, Ben headed toward the stairs wishing his youngest would hurry up and get through these volatile years.

Chapter 9

Adam rested his head against his pillow and listened to the sounds coming in through the open window.  He smiled and sighed with relief when he heard his father riding out with Hoss.  It had been a battle, but he’d finally convinced him he’d be fine without a bedside nurse for a few hours, especially when there was so much work to be done.  He freely admitted he needed to mend, but five days had gone by and he didn’t need, nor want, someone watching him every minute of the day.

Now that he was alone, he carefully propped himself up against the pillows and contemplated their situation with the Logans.  His father had filled him in on Roy’s suspicions and he was frustrated he couldn’t do some detective work himself.  He was determined to catch up with the men who’d bushwhacked him, although he wisely kept that to himself.  He wondered if they were just a couple of hired guns, courtesy of Stuart & McCall Hydraulics, or if Tom Logan really was in on it?  Like his father, he found it hard to believe he would resort to violence, but the circumstances sure seemed to confirm it.  If he was involved, it wouldn’t be the first time they’d seen a good man corrupted by greed.  The streets of Virginia City were filled with them.  Still, he was hard-pressed to believe that was all there was to it.

As he considered the possibilities, he grew more and more restless at being stuck in bed, unable to do anything.  On impulse, he kicked off the covers and swung his legs over the side.  He stood up slowly, keeping hold of the bedpost, but was instantly forced to sit back down, his head spinning and his legs weak.  He hated to admit it, but he was in no shape to get out of bed and he mentally reprimanded himself for not following doctor’s orders.  He was just about to lie back down when Little Joe bounded in through the door.

“Hey!” he exclaimed.  “What’re you doing?  You need something?  Water?  A book?”

“No, Joe, no,” Adam replied, annoyed at being caught.  If Pa found out about this little stunt, he’d stick to him like sap on a tree.

“No?” Little Joe asked, seemingly perplexed.  “Uh, you need the pot?  I can pull it out for you.”  He smiled cagily and then bent down as if he intended to get it.

“Thanks, but no,” Adam replied firmly.

Little Joe straightened up and gave him a wide-eyed innocent look.  “You sure?”

Impatient with his peskiness, Adam changed the subject.  “Aren’t you supposed to be at the branding corral?”

“Nope,” he said, flopping down in a chair.  “Pa told me to stay here with you.  Hop Sing’s gonna be busy doing laundry this morning.”

Adam sighed in resignation.  He hated to leave the men shorthanded on his account, but if his father insisted on being stubborn and overprotective then there was nothing he could do about it.

Little Joe grinned.  “Just be glad it was me and not Pa that caught you.”

“Caught me?” Adam asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Getting out of bed…that was what you were doing…wasn’t it?”

Refusing to come straight out and admit it, Adam traded a smile with his little brother and then, feeling tired, he carefully inched down in the bed and closed his eyes.  He winced when he unintentionally flexed his shoulder, intensifying the pain.

“Is it bad?” Little Joe asked in concern.  “Do you want me to mix up some of that pain medicine Doc Martin left for you?

“Yeah, it’s bad,” Adam admitted.

With a nod, Little Joe got up and carefully measured out the medicine.  He mixed it in a glass of water and handed it to Adam who swallowed the awful tasting stuff in one gulp.  He shook his head in distaste and then handed the glass back to his brother.  “Thanks,” he mumbled as he sank back into the pillow and closed his eyes.  He was suddenly having trouble keeping them open and within seconds he was asleep.

Little Joe watched the rise and fall of his chest for a few minutes to make sure he was really out before grabbing himself an extra pillow and getting comfortable for his own mid-morning nap.  Sorry you’re hurt, older brother, but this sure beats wrestling calves.  Smiling lazily, he settled into the chair with his head resting on the pillow and his feet propped up on his brother’s bed.

Shortly thereafter, Hop Sing came upstairs in search of dirty clothes.  Passing by Adam’s room, he noticed it was unusually quiet.  Curious, he knocked softly and peeked inside.  He smiled at the sight of the two young men sound asleep.  His warm feelings turned cold, however, when he spotted Little Joe’s dirty boots propped up on Adam’s bed.  Scowling, he retreated from the room, shaking his head and muttering under his breath.  He’d leave him sleep, but only because he didn’t want to disturb Mr. Adam.

Having needed the rest, it was almost midday when Adam stirred awake.  He stretched and looked toward the window.  He could hear the sound of a horse and buggy in the distance.  Must be Doc Martin, he thought, as he struggled to sit up.  Little Joe, still asleep in the chair, snored softly.  “Sorry, little brother, nap time’s over.”  He threw a pillow at Joe.

“What? What’sa matter?” he asked sleepily.

Adam nodded toward the window.  “A buggy pulled up, see if it’s the Doc, will you?”

Little Joe yawned widely, plopped his feet on the floor and went to look out the window.  “Nope, it’s not Doc Martin,” he said turning to grin at his brother.  “It’s Mrs. Walker and that good lookin’ widow woman.”

“That’s Mrs. DeWitt to you little brother; show some respect.”

“Me? What about you?” Joe retorted.

“What about me?” Adam asked warily.  “Look, if you’re still talking about that walk the other night—”

“No, no, not that…” he said letting his voice trail off.

Knowing he would live to regret it, Adam took the bait anyway.  “Then what?”

Shaking his head in disapproval, Little Joe walked over to Adam’s bureau with a devilish spark in his eye.  “Just look at yourself, you’re half naked.  Don’t you think you should at least put this on?” He pulled a night shirt from the top drawer and held it up.

Adam, clad only in his under drawers, shook his head in irritation.  “You know I can’t, not with my shoulder bandaged and my arm strapped up like this.”  Despite his promise to keep still, Doc Martin had bound his arm to his chest to minimize movement of his wounded shoulder.

Little Joe shrugged and stuffed the night shirt back in the drawer.  “Well, I guess they won’t mind,” he said with a school boy giggle.

Adam’s eyes narrowed and he pointed to the door.  “Out!” he commanded firmly.

Chapter 10

Little Joe politely escorted Mrs. Walker and Mrs. DeWitt up to his brother’s room, but he couldn’t help letting out a hoot when he spotted the quilt pulled all the way up over Adam’s chest, even though the bandage didn’t actually leave much skin showing through.  It wasn’t often he could fluster his older brother.

Unaware of why he was cackling, Lily attributed it to boyhood antics and greeted Adam affectionately.  “Hello, Adam, I hope we’re not disturbing you.”

“No, not at all,” he assured her.  “I could use some pleasant company.”  He gave Little Joe a meaningful glance before shifting his gaze to Ellie.

Ellie hesitated, suddenly unsure if she’d done the right thing by showing up, uninvited, at his bedroom door.  It wasn’t as if she were an old friend like Lily.

Adam put her at ease with a warm smile.  “Ellie, come in,” he said extending his free hand.

Ellie returned his smile and took his hand.  “Adam, it’s so good to see you, we’ve been so worried.”  She studied him intently and was relieved to see he looked surprisingly well.  “How do you feel?”

Adam shifted in the bed and tried not to wince as he jostled his shoulder.  “I’m still pretty sore, but Doc Martin tells me I’ll be as good as new.”

Ellie didn’t miss the pain that briefly creased his brow and instinctively reached out to adjust his pillows.  “Well, I must say you look better than I expected.”  It was an innocent comment, of course, but at that same moment the quilt fell to his waist, embarrassing her to no end.

With a humorous glint in his eye, Adam raised an eyebrow in response to her ill-timed remark.

Flustered, Ellie fumbled in her attempt to clear things up.  “I mean…I wasn’t sure what to expect…and…and I suppose I imagined the worst…so I’m glad you’re looking so well.”

Seeing her redden under his gaze, Adam offered a sheepish grin in apology for his devilment and was grateful to receive a slightly flustered but forgiving smile in return.

Little Joe didn’t miss a thing and grinned in admiration of his older brother’s ability to flirt without even saying a word.  He was pretty good at charming the ladies himself, but he was still perfecting his skill and sometimes miscalculated.  He rubbed his left cheek in regret as he recalled a few of those occasions.

Lily smiled at the interplay between Adam and Ellie.  From the looks of it, sparks were already beginning to fly and she couldn’t be more pleased.  Getting them together was going to be easier than she thought.  “I agree,” she commented, as if nothing had happened.  “You do look well.  Does the sheriff have any idea who did it?”

“No, nothing definite.”  He was purposefully vague, feeling there was no need to worry the women with their problems.  He glanced at Little Joe and hoped he got the message.

Little Joe got it and snorted in disdain.  He wasn’t about to bring that subject up again.  He was still smarting at being treated like a kid, not only by Pa, but by Adam, too.  He knew darn well Adam was gonna go after the men who’d bushwhacked him no matter what Pa and Sheriff Coffee said, but would he talk to him about it man to man?  No!  He just promised him a whole lotta trouble if he didn’t steer clear.  Well, I may be the youngest, but I’m old enough to guard your back, you yankee granite head, and that’s exactly what I’m gonna do when the time comes.  Hearing the sound of his father riding into the yard, he put a stop to his musings.  He knew it was impossible, but lately it seemed as if Pa could read his mind.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Ben recognized Lily’s buggy in the yard and stopped to wash a little more thoroughly before heading up to Adam’s room.  He gave Little Joe a friendly pat on the back as he came in.  “Well, who do we have here?” he asked.  His voice was cheerful, but his eyes instinctively landed on Adam in concern.

Adam noticed his worry and gave him a reassuring wink.  “Two lovely visitors,” he replied with an all-encompassing smile.

Satisfied with his son’s appearance, Ben put an affectionate arm around Lily.  “So I see,” he exclaimed warmly.

“Ben, I hope you don’t mind, but we just had to see Adam.  We won’t stay long.  We know he needs his rest.”

Adam resisted the urge to roll his eyes.  “What I need,” he stated emphatically, “is some enjoyable company.”  He glanced at Ellie and introduced her to his father.  “Pa, this is Ellie, Lily’s cousin from Boston.”

Ben looked directly at Ellie for the first time.  She was an attractive young woman, very pleasing to the eye, and he was completely captivated.  He’d seen her at the dance, of course, but he’d been so preoccupied with the Logan brothers, he hadn’t taken much notice.  “Welcome to the Ponderosa, Ellie.  It’s a pleasure to meet you.”  He clasped her hand and smiled broadly.

Ellie looked into his kind face.  “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright, I’m very glad to meet you.  Cliff and Lily have spoken so highly of you.”  She was impressed by the warmth emanating from this imposing man.  Adam’s father was quite handsome, much younger than she’d pictured and obviously still fit from ranch work.  She could see where Adam got his strength and good looks.

Amused by his father’s reaction, Adam extended an invitation, confident he wouldn’t object.  “Uh, Joe, why don’t you run downstairs and let Hop Sing know our guests are staying for lunch.”

Grinning to himself, Little Joe nodded and left the room while Adam looked at his visitors.  “You will stay, won’t you?  Hop Sing would be insulted if you didn’t.”  He let his gaze linger on Ellie and it didn’t go unnoticed.

Ben smiled to himself and gave Adam a playful nudge.  “Yes, and my son would sulk for the rest of the afternoon,” he added, eliciting smiles from the women and a good-natured scowl from his son.

Lily was only too happy to accept.  It was obvious Adam wanted to spend more time with her cousin and she wholeheartedly approved.

Ben was also pleased with Adam’s interest in Ellie and he hoped it was more than a passing fancy.  His eldest son attracted his share of female attention, but despite having sparked a number of eligible women in the territory, none of them had managed to capture more than a fleeting interest.  Maybe, he thought with a glimmer of hope, Ellie will be the one.  “Uh, Ellie dear, why don’t you have lunch up here with Adam, that way you two can visit while Lily and I discuss some business for the church bazaar?”

Lily hid a smile.  They’d finalized those plans a week ago and as far as she knew there was nothing new to discuss.

Unsuspecting of any ulterior motives, Ellie smiled, pleased with the arrangement.  “Yes, I’d like that.”

Adam, on the other hand, knew exactly what his conniving old sea dog of a father was doing but for once, he didn’t mind at all.

“Good,” Ben said cheerfully taking Lily by the arm, “and now you and I had better get downstairs before Hop Sing threatens to quit and go back to China.”

Adam smiled up at Ellie as the pair of matchmakers made their exit.  “Hop Sing threatens to go back to China at least once a week,” he explained.

Ellie laughed as she sat in his bedside chair.  “Hop Sing’s delightful and if your father isn’t careful, Lily will steal him away.  She absolutely adores him.”

Adam shook his head in amusement.  “I’m not sure delightful is a word I’d use to describe Hop Sing,” he said giving Ellie an appreciative look.  “But it is a word I’d use to describe you.”

Ellie blushed and shook her head.  “Adam Cartwright, you’re a shameless flirt.”

Adam chuckled.  There was something about Ellie that brought out the playfulness in him.  “Guilty as charged, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, you are delightful.”

Ellie smiled prettily, appreciative of the compliment, but there was something that had been weighing on her mind ever since she’d learned of Adam’s misfortune and now that they were alone she couldn’t ignore it any longer.  “Oh Adam,” she said in quiet despair.  “I suppose I’m the guilty one.”

At a loss, Adam frowned at her sudden seriousness and watched in confusion as she nervously rose from the chair and walked to the window.  “I don’t know what you mean,” he replied, shifting his weight and instinctively bracing himself for some sort of bad news.

Turning around she unloaded her guilt in a rush.  “If you hadn’t taken us on that picnic you wouldn’t have been on that road and you wouldn’t have been shot by those awful highwaymen!”

Adam’s eyes grew wide with astonishment before narrowing in dismay.  He couldn’t believe she’d been harboring a guilty conscience all this time.  “That’s ridiculous,” he said firmly.  “Look, Ellie, I didn’t tell you before, but it’s likely the men who bushwhacked me were hired guns, sent to give my father a warning.  He’s been involved in a legal dispute with a neighboring rancher over a water rights agreement for several weeks now.”  He paused to let the information sink in and then continued in a gentler tone.  “We won the court fight, but now it looks as though we have a real fight on our hands.”

Ellie drew a sharp breath, shocked by the news.  Adam eyed her with concern.  He knew the bloodshed they sometimes took for granted here in the west was often met with horror by easterners, but he was determined to make her understand.  “So, you see, this was no random act, it was a planned attack and would’ve happened no matter what.  I’m just grateful no harm came to you or Matt.”  He gave the bed a pat, indicating she should come and sit down.  Her face troubled, Ellie sat down, careful not to jostle the bed.  Adam took her hand and looked into her eyes.  “Please believe me,” he said earnestly.

“I do,” she said, her face still troubled.  “But I’m not sure that makes me feel any better.  What does the Sheriff say?”

“He’s looking into it, but he’s only one man and Virginia City is a bustling town.”

“There’s still quite a bit of lawlessness here in the west, isn’t there?”

Adam sighed.  “There are plenty of folks who support the Sheriff and do what they can to make this a decent place to live, but yes, there are times when we have to fight to defend ourselves and to protect our land.”  He watched Ellie closely, trying to read her face.  She didn’t appear to be overly distressed, just thoughtful.

Ellie nodded slowly.  “I suppose that’s something I need to take into consideration.  Life here is so different from Boston.  I’m not sure I want Matt exposed to the violence.  He was so upset to learn you’d been shot.  He begged to come with us today, but I wasn’t sure if you’d be up for such a boisterous visitor.”  She smiled.

Seeing her smile, Adam kept the topic of conversation on Matt, instead of pointing out the high crime rate in most of the larger cities, including Boston.  “Bring him out on Sunday like we planned.  My brothers will still teach him to ride.”

Once again, struck by his genuine thoughtfulness towards her son, she nevertheless graciously declined.  “Thank you, Adam, but we couldn’t impose.  I can see this is a working ranch and your family has enough to do without entertaining us city folk.”

Adam knew she was right and he accepted her decision with a nod, but another idea started to formulate in his mind and he found himself seriously considering it.  In the ensuing silence, Ellie took the opportunity to look around the room.  She spied the books stacked in the bookcase, the drafting tools neatly arranged on the table and the guitar propped in the corner.  His clothes were put away with only his boots on the floor and a robe hanging on a hook.  She noted his shaving tools, hairbrush, and a bottle of Bay Rum on the bureau and she smiled to herself.  The scent as well as the room suited him.  Everything was organized, not fastidiously, but efficiently and from what she knew of Adam, she thought it suited his efficient manner.  She glanced at him and saw that he was studying her.

He smiled, wondering what womanly conclusions she’d drawn, but let it go in favor of presenting his idea.  “What if you weren’t here to be entertained?  What if you were here to work?”

She tilted her head and gave him a quizzical look.

“You’re right about this being a busy working ranch and with me being laid up everyone is working extra hours.  I thought it would only be for a few days, but when I couldn’t even get out of bed this morning, I’m thinking different.”

“Get out of bed? Oh, Adam, that was foolish!” she exclaimed, her worry prompting her to speak out.  But almost as soon as the words had flown out of her mouth, she regretted it and wished she could take them back.  It wasn’t her place to comment no matter how unwise she thought his actions.

Adam’s eyebrows lifted in surprise and amusement at the unexpected scolding.  Ellie’s motherly instincts may be worse than his father’s protective ones and he certainly wasn’t interested in her mothering him.  On the other hand, he was pleased with her concern and managed to look sufficiently contrite.  “It was a stupid stunt, but the point is— I’m not as self-sufficient as I thought.  I’m gonna need some assistance for a while and I was wondering if you’d like the job.  It would free up my father and brothers and I know it would be much more enjoyable for me.”

His proposal caught her off guard and she looked at him in surprise, but once it registered that Adam was honestly asking for her help, she thought it would be a wonderful way to repay his kindness.  She did have one reservation, though.

Adam noticed a little frown appearing on her face and he wondered if she was struggling to find a polite way to decline.  The last thing he wanted to do was make her feel guilty again.  “No worries,” he said, lightly.  “It was just a thought.”

Realizing he’d mistaken her reaction, she hastened to speak up.  “Adam, I’d like to help, it’s just that I’m not sure what to do about Mathew.”  She bit her lip in thought.  “I suppose Lily wouldn’t mind watching him.”

Adam relaxed and offered her the most obvious solution.  “Bring him with you.  The ranch is the perfect place for a boy.”

“Oh, I know he’d love it, but I just couldn’t.  He’d be underfoot all day.”

“Trust me.  He’ll be too busy to get in anyone’s way.  There’s a pond out back that’s just teeming with pollywogs this time of year, we’ve got piglets, I think Little Joe’s rope swing is still up, and my brother Hoss is nursing a baby raccoon in the barn, now tell me, what else could a boy ask for?”

From the look on her face, Adam could tell she was wavering and he did his best to further convince her, ignoring the arrival of his lunch.  Ellie had other ideas, however, and the conversation came to a temporary halt as she helped him get situated, refusing to talk until he made a decent stab at his meal.  Despite his efforts to hide it, she could see he was tiring and in need of some nourishment.  Conceding, he fell silent and dutifully dug into his stew.  A few minutes later, he inclined his head towards his half empty bowl.  Pleased, Ellie smiled and gave him her full attention.

“So we’re in agreement?  You and Matt will stay at the ranch until I’m on my feet?”

Ellie looked at him with a puzzled expression.  “Well, to be honest, I was thinking we would drive out every day.”  Her brow wrinkled and she shook her head.  “I suppose that isn’t very sensible, is it?”

“Uh, no,” Adam replied, kindly.  He didn’t want to embarrass her by pointing out all the impracticalities, but he had to answer truthfully.  “You’d have to leave town before sunup to make it worthwhile and with our current situation it’s far too dangerous to be on the road.  In fact, I’m willing to bet Pa’s already arranged for someone to escort you home today.”

Ellie looked down at her hands, feeling silly.  “You must think I’m a complete ninny.”

Adam smiled at her.  “Not at all,” he replied, shaking his head.  “I appreciate you wanting to help.”

She returned his smile and Adam held her gaze.  “Are you still willing?” he asked.

Ellie smiled and nodded without hesitation.  She knew the Cartwrights were regarded in town as a fine upstanding family and she was confident there wouldn’t be any scandal with her staying at the Ponderosa, especially with Matt accompanying her.  “Yes, if you’re absolutely sure we’ll be more help than trouble.”

“I’m sure,” Adam said, looking up and smiling.  His forced captivity wasn’t going to be so bad, after all.

Ellie blushed to see the twinkle in his eye and she hoped Adam’s father and brothers didn’t misconstrue her reasons.  It was true, she wanted to get to know Adam better, but her reasons for wanting to help were purely altruistic.   “All right, then, but don’t you think we should ask your father before we make definite plans?”

“Ask me what?” Ben asked as he stepped into the room with Lily, who was all ears waiting for the answer.

Adam hesitated.  He probably should have checked with his father first, especially after their little blow up this morning.  “Well, you see, Pa, I know how much you and the boys need to get back to work, so I asked Ellie to stay at the ranch and she’s graciously agreed to come to our rescue.  Her son will be coming, too, of course.”  Adam flashed his most charming smile.  “It’s the perfect solution, don’t you think?”

Ben raised an eyebrow in surprise and then smiled inwardly at Adam’s blatant attempt to charm him.  So, he didn’t want his father by his side all day, but a pretty woman was a different story, hem?  Well, he certainly couldn’t blame him and if it meant his hard-headed son was willing to stay in bed long enough to build up his strength, then he was all for it.  He looked first to Adam, who gave him a sheepish grin, and then to Ellie.  The warmth in his eyes conveyed his appreciation.  “I think it’s a fine solution and very generous of you, Ellie.”

Relieved they were all in agreement, Adam relaxed into his pillow and exchanged a smile with Ellie.

“I’m happy to help, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben nodded thoughtfully.  “I’m afraid there is one thing I simply must insist on if you’re to stay here at the ranch, though.”

Ellie traded a nervous look with Adam and a humorous glint crept into Ben’s eye.  “No more, Mr. Cartwright,” he said firmly, “it’s Ben.”

“Of course,” she said shaking her head and smiling.  She could see she was going to have to stay on her toes with these Cartwrights.  Glancing at Lily, her delight turned to dismay.  She was a guest in Lily’s home and here she was, rudely making plans without consulting her.  “Oh, Lily, I hope you don’t think I’m running out on you.”

Lily immediately waved off her silly notion.  “Nonsense! It’s a wonderful idea.”  She could barely contain her excitement and couldn’t wait to get home to tell Cliff.  “But if you want to get an early start tomorrow, we’d better get you home and packed.”  Taking her by the arm, she ushered her out the door, eager to set things in motion.  “Ben, get those men you talked about!”

Chapter 11

Adam heard the buggy pulling out of the yard.  A few minutes later, he heard his father coming back in and heading upstairs.

Ben stepped into the room and shot Adam an amused look.  “Well, son, it looks like you’ve got yourself a pretty nurse.”

Adam smiled apologetically.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”

“Lucky for you it was a good idea,” he said, taking a seat.

Adam thoughtfully eyed him.  “I’m hoping you’ll let Ellie take some of the pressure off you.”

“I intend to,” Ben replied, nodding slowly, “but there is one thing we need to discuss.” He paused for effect.

Adam self-consciously tugged on his ear.  Here it comes.

Ben noted his discomfort, but he had no intention of alleviating it just yet.  “It seems to me you were rather adamant about not needing a nursemaid this morning.”

Adam looked down a moment to avoid his gaze and then, with nothing else to do, he took a leaf out of Joe’s book and offered him a cheeky little boy grin.

Ben shook his head and smiled.  He’d expected a defense befitting a lawyer, not dimples.

Seeing he’d succeeded in charming him, Adam settled in for a chat.  He wondered if he’d heard anything more from Roy.

Ben leaned back comfortably and crossed one leg over the other.  He doubted he’d get much out of his tightlipped son, but it was worth a try.  “I take it you’re interested in Ellie?” he asked, dropping the query as casually as he could.

Adam smiled inwardly.  He hadn’t seen that one coming.  Well, if Pa wanted to do a little fishing, he’d oblige him and take the bait.  He was honestly smitten with Ellie and didn’t mind him knowing.  He met his gaze.  “Yeah, I guess I am,” he said softly.

Ben smiled.  He was tickled Adam had enough sense to pursue this girl, but it did present a bit of a situation that needed to be addressed before she arrived.  “Well, I must say, I’m glad of that.  She’s a lovely young woman and with her here at the ranch you two can get better acquainted which, uh, brings me to something I’m going to have to insist on, Adam.”

Adam grinned.  “You want me to call you Ben?”

Ben raised an eyebrow and wagged a finger at his eldest.  “Don’t be impertinent, or I’ll get Abigail Jones to be your nurse!”

Bested, Adam wiped the grin from his face and took the teasing in stride.  “All right, all right, what’s the condition?”

Ben held his gaze and pointed to the door.  Adam looked from his father to the door in confusion.  “The door stays open when Ellie is in your room.  No exceptions.”  He didn’t want to upset Adam, but he wouldn’t waver.

Adam’s mouth dropped open in surprise and it took him a minute to reply, but when he did, there was no mistaking his irritation.  “Pa,” he said, tightly.  “Don’t you think you’re being presumptuous?  Just what is it you think I’m going to do?”

Ben scowled, a little surprised by his tone.  “Now, hold on there,” he commanded gently.

Adam frowned, exasperated, but held his tongue.

“It isn’t that I don’t trust you,” he replied, with a shake of his head.  “It’s just the proper thing to do.  Ellie will be the only woman in this house and it’s our responsibility to protect her reputation and to make sure she doesn’t feel compromised in any way.”  And besides that, no son of mine, injured or not, is going to have a beautiful woman in his bedroom behind closed doors without the benefit of marriage.

Unable to argue with his reasoning, Adam gave him an apologetic look.  “You’re right.  I guess I wasn’t thinking.”

Ben nodded and got to his feet, relieved they were in agreement.  “Can I get you anything before I go downstairs?”

Adam rested his head against his pillow.  “No, I’m fine.”

“All right, son.  I’ll be up later.”

Adam nodded and closed his eyes, but as tired as he was, he couldn’t fall asleep.  His father’s words had him wondering if he’d complicated things.  He was confident Ellie enjoyed their flirtation as much as he did, but he also knew she needed to take things slow, something that was bound to be more difficult with her under the same roof, even with a sore shoulder.  Well, at least Pa’s sense of propriety will keep me minding my manners, he thought as he finally drifted off.

Chapter 12

In the barn, Hoss rested both hands on top of the rake handle and tried to picture Ellie.  “You know, Joe, I didn’t pay much attention to Ellie at the dance, what’s she like?”

Little Joe pitched some straw into Sport’s stall and looked at his brother with a gleam in his eye.  “Oh, wait’ll you see her, Hoss, she’s really something.”

Hoss grinned, his eyes bright.  “Yeah?  She’s that special, huh?”

Little Joe nodded as he pitched more straw.  “Yep, older brother sure is lucky.”

“I guess he won’t be in such an all fired hurry to get back to work then.”

Little Joe shook his head and grinned.  “Not if he’s got any sense, he won’t!”

Laughing, Hoss got back to work mucking out Chubb’s stall.  He couldn’t wait to meet Ellie.  If Adam was smitten, she must be something special.  His brother didn’t fall for empty-headed females no matter how beautiful.  He was looking forward to meeting Matt, too.  It was gonna be fun having a little fella kickin’ around the place for a few days and if he was as eager to ride as Adam said he was, he should have him up on ol’Buttercup in no time.

Little Joe pitched some fresh straw into Cochise’s stall and giggled to himself.  Just thinking about the conversation he’d overheard yesterday made him laugh.  Pa didn’t hold with eavesdropping, but hearing him lay down the law to Adam would’ve been worth the clip on his ear if he’d been caught.  He just wished he could have seen the look on his older brother’s face when Pa told him his bedroom door had to stay open—no exceptions!

Ben peered into the barn and was pleased to see his sons working so diligently.  It had been a tough week and he was proud of the way they had taken on Adam’s chores in addition to putting in extra hours at the branding corral, all with the Logan trouble hanging over their heads.   Smiling, he walked over to where they were working.  “Well, now, you two sure are making short work of the barn chores this morning!”

Hearing his voice, Hoss and Little Joe stopped raking and came over to him, pitchforks still in hand, happy to take a break.  “Yeah, we’re makin’ good time,” Hoss replied.  “We should be done before Ellie and Matt get here.”

Ben regarded them warmly.  “You’ve both been doing a fine job keeping the ranch running.  I know it’s been difficult.”

Joe beamed and Hoss blushed, a silly grin on his face.  “Aw, Pa, it ain’t nothin’.”

“It’s something,” he replied, nodding approvingly.  “I appreciate the long hours you’ve been putting in.”

Little Joe and Hoss traded grins, a little embarrassed.  After all, they were only doing what they’d been taught to do since they were young’uns—working hard and pulling together in times of trouble.

Seeing the effect of his words, Ben was reminded of how lucky he was to have such fine sons and he vowed to acknowledge their efforts more often.  “Now, I hate to ask you, because you both deserve some time off, but I was hoping you’d do me a favor today.”

Hoss gave him an interested look while Little Joe studied his boots, wary of what he had in mind.  The last time Pa asked him for a favor he ended up spending a boring afternoon with Doc Martin’s visiting niece.

Ben noted Little Joe’s downcast eyes and cleared his throat to get his attention.  When his head popped back up, he continued.  “I’d like you boys to spend some time with Matt today…get him acquainted with the ranch…show him some fun.  What do you say?”

Little Joe exhaled in relief and Hoss nodded agreeably.  He was figuring on doing that anyhow.  “Sure, Pa, we’ll show him around.  Won’t we, Joe?”

“Yeah, sure,” Joe replied.  He hadn’t really given Matt much thought before now.  “Say, wasn’t Adam gonna teach him to ride?”

Hoss nodded.  “I was thinking we should get him up on Buttercup.”

“We?”

“Well, yeah, with you bein’ such an expert rider and all, I naturally figured you’d wanna help.”  Hoss gave a sunny smile and winked at his father.  Pa wasn’t the only conniver in the family.

Little Joe smiled.  He took pride in his riding skills and the thought of sharing his know-how with the younger boy appealed to him.  “Buttercup’s real gentle, but so is Blackie,” he replied, warming up to the idea of having a kid around.  His thoughts turned to some of his old boyhood haunts.  “Maybe he’ll wanna play in my old tree house, too.”

“Yeah,” Hoss said with a nod, “and I bet he’ll like this little ol’ baby raccoon.”

Joe squatted down to look at the baby raccoon in the box.  “He sure is cute,” he said, scooping him up.  “Oh, and don’t forget the pond! There should be plenty of pollywogs right about now.”

“That’s right!” Hoss exclaimed, suddenly assaulted by a pleasant memory.  “Hey, Joe, remember that time we dumped all them pollywogs in Adam’s bath?”

Joe cackled.  “How could I forget? He chased us out of the wash house naked as a jay bird!”

Hoss laughed.  “He was squawkin’ like a jay bird, too!”

Ben chuckled, recalling the incident.  It was the summer before Adam left for college and all three of his sons had gotten in trouble over that one; Hoss and Little Joe for causing the ruckus in the first place and Adam for threatening to wring his brothers’ necks.  Ben shook his head in amusement.  He’d never admit it, but he was glad his boys never lost their penchant for playing pranks.  “Well, I can see he’ll be in good hands, just see to it he’s aware of all the dangers around the ranch, too.  I don’t want him getting hurt.”

Hoss stopped mid nod and looked out the door as he caught sight of Jonesy driving the buggy into the yard.  “Hot diggety!” he exclaimed.  “They’re here!” Smiling, he put up his rake and then followed his father into the yard.

Acting fast, Little Joe plopped the raccoon back in the box and then trotted out the door, sweeping past them.  First to reach the buggy, he flashed a toothy smile and offered to help Mrs. DeWitt down to the ground.  “Morning Mrs. DeWitt, welcome to the Ponderosa.”

Ellie smiled, taken by his charming ways.  “Thank you, Little Joe, but no need to be so formal, you’re welcome to use my first name.”  She stifled a laugh when he gave a short nod and puffed up his chest in fair imitation of a bull frog.  Adam’s youngest brother was absolutely adorable and she imagined he had a number of young ladies chasing after him.

“Yes ma’am…I mean Mrs. DeWitt…uh…I mean Ellie,” he finished weakly.

Ben shook his head in amusement and stepped forward, extending his hand.  “Hello, Ellie, I trust you had a pleasant ride?”

She placed her hand in Ben’s.  “Yes, lovely,” she replied.  “Mr. Jones was very entertaining.”

Ben’s longtime friend and foreman cocked an eyebrow at her as he climbed down.

Ellie smiled at him.  “Jonesy,” she corrected.

“My pleasure,” he replied with a tip of his hat, “and don’t forget, if Adam gives you any trouble, you just start in on one of them stories I told yuh.  I guarantee he’d rather follow doctor’s orders than be reminded of his tomfoolery.  Ain’t that right, Ben?”

Ben chuckled as Jonesy winked at him and then headed for the bunkhouse, leaving the unhitching for the boys.  “He’s been around since the boys were youngsters and probably knows more about their shenanigans than I do.”

Matt jumped from the buggy.  “Did Adam really set the barn on fire?” he asked, disbelieving.  He couldn’t imagine Adam as a boy, let alone getting in trouble.

Ellie smiled at her son and placed a hand on his shoulder.  She’d had a little chat with him about acceptable behavior last night and she sincerely hoped he would remember.  “Ben, I’d like you to meet Mathew.”

“Well, hello there young fella; and yes, as a matter of fact he did, but I better let him tell that particular story or I’m liable to get mad all over again.”

Reminded by his mother’s touch that he shouldn’t have interrupted, he suddenly felt a little shy in the presence of these three powerful looking men.  “Yes sir,” he replied, politely.

Sensing his uncertainty, Hoss gave him a friendly wave.  “Howdy, Matt, I’m Hoss, Adam’s big little brother,” he said with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, “and this here is Joe, Adam’s little little brother.”

“Hey!” Joe protested, once again puffing up his chest.  “I may be the youngest but I’m not that little.”  He shot a quick glance in Ellie’s direction before giving Matt a smile and a welcoming nod.  “Hi, Matt, glad to know you.”

Matt eyed them both with interest.   They didn’t look anything like Adam, but they seemed nice enough.  “Hi,” he said, smiling.

Hoss gave him a wink and turned to greet Ellie, taking his hat off in the process.  “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

“Thank you, Hoss.  It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, too.”  She was impressed by the way he’d put Matt at ease.

Lost in Ellie’s big brown eyes, Hoss stood transfixed with a gap-toothed smile on his face.  Boy, howdy, Joe wasn’t kidding, she sure is something.

Ben chuckled at Hoss’ dazed expression and decided he’d better come to his rescue before he took root.  “Uh, Hoss, why don’t you and Joe get the bags while I show Ellie and Matt to their rooms?”

“Yeah sure, Pa,” he replied, absently heading to the door.  “I’d be happy to show Miss Ellie to her room.”

Little Joe rolled his eyes and ran after Hoss.  He wasn’t about to get stuck with the bags, not when he had a big brother with a strong back.  “The bags, Hoss, the bags! You’re supposed to get the bags!”

“Huh?”

Little Joe gestured to the back of the buggy.  “The bags!”

Hoss reddened and turned on his heels.  “All right, all right, I heard yuh.  I was just, uh, gonna open the door is all.”

“Uh huh,” Joe said, his tone dripping with skepticism.  “Well, don’t worry, I’ll get the door.”

Thanks, little brother, thanks,” he muttered, unimpressed.

Ellie looked at Ben and tried not to laugh as he escorted her to the front door with a shake of his head.  Matt figured he was supposed to follow, but hung back, wanting to see what was going to happen.

Still muttering, Hoss went around to the back of the buggy and took two bags, leaving the last one for Little Joe.  Little Joe had his own ideas, however, and attempted to hand that one off to Hoss, too.

“Now listen, Joe, there ain’t no reason why you can’t tote that satchel yourself.”

Smiling as if the suggestion were ridiculous, Little Joe gave him a patronizing pat on the back.  “But, Hoss, I gotta get the door.  Remember?”

Refusing to be played for a fool, Hoss surprised his little brother by dramatically dropping the bags on the ground.  “Uh huh,” he replied, advancing on him, “and you know what else I remember?”

Alarmed by his menacing look, Little Joe tried to skirt around the buggy and out of Hoss’ reach, but it was too late, he was trapped.  “Uh, no, what’s that?” he asked, his voice rising an octave.

He poked Joe in the chest for emphasis and answered in no uncertain terms.  “That you’re due for a nice cool bath.”

Joe swallowed hard and rubbed his chest.  “A…ba…bath?” he asked miserably.

Hoss let his gaze travel to the horse trough.  “Yep!”

Knowing full well his brother could easily make good on his threat, Little Joe had a sudden change of heart and picked up the satchel.  “What’s the matter with you, Hoss? You heard what Pa said! We gotta get these bags upstairs!” And with that, he sidestepped his brother and quickly darted inside the front door.

Hoss chuckled in satisfaction and Matt let out a little giggle.  Surprised to see him standing there, Hoss gave him a conspiratorial wink.  “Hey, Matt, once you’ve had a chance to see Adam, come on back outside and we’ll show yuh around.”

Matt nodded and ran to catch up with his mother, his expression sobering a little.  He was excited about seeing Adam, but he’d been worrying about something his friend Jason had said—even if a gunshot didn’t kill you on the spot, a person could still die from their insides being torn up or from it getting all festered.  He didn’t think Adam was that bad off, but then he never thought his Papa was that bad off either.  He chewed on his lower lip and went in search of his Ma and Mr. Cartwright.

Chapter 13

Alone in his room, Adam stretched and took stock of his aches and pains while he waited for Ellie and Matt to get settled.  His shoulder throbbed and his left hip was still sore from where he’d hit the ground.  He shifted, taking his weight off the angry bruise.  Despite his discomfort, he was in a bright and cheerful mood.  The prospect of spending the next few days with Ellie was a pleasant one.  It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate his brothers’ attempts to entertain him, but he could only play so many checker games with Hoss and the thought of listening to another one of Little Joe’s ridiculous dime novels made him cringe.

Adam smiled at the ‘rat-a-tat’ knock on his door.  “Come in,” he called to his young visitor.

Matt cautiously opened the door and peeked inside.

“Well, come on,” Adam urged.

Relieved to see him sitting up and sounding normal, Matt pushed through the door wearing a shy smile.  “Hi Adam.”

“Hi yourself,” he replied, smiling and giving the bed a pat.  “C’mon up.”  He shifted his legs to give him room.

Grinning, Matt climbed up on the bed and sat cross-legged, ready for a chat, but his eyes went straight to Adam’s bandage and his smile faded.  He could see where blood had seeped through, leaving a stain.  “Does it hurt much?” he asked, worried yet intrigued.  He’d never known anyone who’d gotten shot before.

“Some,” Adam replied, answering honestly, “but Doc Martin did a good job patching me up and I’m gonna be as good as new.”

Matt searched his face and then nodded, satisfied he wasn’t hiding anything.  “I was real worried,” he admitted.  He shyly dropped his eyes and fiddled with the buttons on his shirt.

Adam smiled, touched by his concern.  “I’ll tell you a secret,” he said, leaning in close.  “I was a little worried, too.”  It was true, but except for Doc Martin, he’d kept his worries to himself; not wishing to alarm his family about the numbness in his arm. Alone at night he’d lain awake agonizing over whether or not he’d ever have full use of it again.  When it finally started waking up, it felt as though he were being pricked by hot pins, but he’d endured the pain without complaint, a relieved and humbled man.

“Don’t worry,” Matt said earnestly.  “I won’t tell anybody.”

Adam nodded and then steered the conversation to a cheerier topic.  “So, tell me, you happy about being here?”

Matt’s face lit up.  “I sure am,” he replied.  “Hoss said he and Joe are gonna show me around.  You think they’ll show me the horses?”

Adam nodded, smiling to himself.  “Yep, as a matter of fact, they’re taking you down to the corral first thing.”

Matt looked at him with a curious expression.  “They are?”

“Sure, you gotta pick out a horse if you’re gonna learn to ride, that is, if you still want to.”

“You bet I do!” he shouted, his eyes dancing with excitement.  Back home there were only sturdy carriage horses, nothing like the spirited ponies he’d seen out here in the west and the thought of riding one filled him with excitement.

“I figured as much,” Adam said with a chuckle.

His mother, however, wasn’t as cheerful when she entered the room.  “Mathew, stop shouting,” she scolded.  “Adam needs his rest.”

“Sorry, Ma, but guess what?” he exclaimed, unable to dampen his enthusiasm.  “Adam says his brothers are gonna teach me to ride!”

Ellie looked from her son to Adam in confusion.  “But, Adam, your brothers already have so much work to do—”

Adam held up his free hand to halt Ellie’s protest.  “Don’t worry, they have it all figured out.  If Matt’s willing to get up at first light to help with the chores, Hoss and Little Joe will have time for a short lesson before they ride out; provided you’re agreeable, of course.”

Matt excitedly jumped in, unable to keep from pleading his case.  “I’ll get up before dawn if they want me to and I’ll work real hard!” He looked imploringly at his mother.  “Please, Ma, is it all right?”

Ellie smiled indulgently.  She had a feeling there would be more than one long face if she refused.  “All right,” she acquiesced, “but no fussing about an early bedtime, understand?”

“Yes ma’am!  I promise!”

Adam smiled at Matt’s eagerness and gave the boy a light tap on the knee to send him off.  “Well, go on then, get going.”

Matt hopped off the bed and ran to the door.  He stopped to give Adam a happy grin.  “Thanks, Adam, I’ll come back and tell yuh all about it!”

“I’m counting on it.”

Matt nodded and then hurried out the door, slamming it shut.

Ellie cringed.  “Sorry.”

Unconcerned, Adam shook his head.  “Don’t be, he’s just excited.”

“Yes, well, now that Matt is taken care of, what would you like to do this morning?” she asked with a mischievous grin.  “A game of checkers perhaps or maybe you’d like me to read…let’s see…I have Shanghaied! A Wanderer against his Will or Wild Bill, Midnight Rider…both of which come highly recommended.”

Adam looked at her in dismay and groaned.  “I hope you’re kidding,” he replied giving her a sidelong glance.

She wrinkled her brow in puzzlement.  “I don’t understand, your brothers were certain you’d be pleased.”

Adam looked down and pinched the bridge of his nose, a smile on his face.  “Yes, I’m sure they did, and did they also tell you I’d enjoy a rousing rendition of Jimmy Crack Corn, sung off key of course, or a game of Whist?”

“Hmmm, those don’t appeal to you either?” she asked seemingly disappointed.

Adam looked at her with amusement, thoroughly enjoying the banter.

Ellie let out a long sad sigh.  “Well, I guess you’ll just have to settle for Longfellow or maybe a little Shakespeare,” she said, breaking into a smile.

“Now that, madam, would be most enjoyable.”

She laughed and walked over to the bookcase where she quickly located the desired volumes.

Adam watched her as he silently bemoaned the ridiculous situation he found himself in, now that Matt had closed the door.  He sighed.  This was likely to be embarrassing for both of them, but there was no way around it.  “Uh, Ellie?”

“Yes Adam?” she replied, keeping her eyes on the book as she flipped through Longfellow’s poems looking for her favorite verse.

“I was…uh…wondering…if uh….”  He began but stopped, unable to find the right words.  He shook his head and chuckled nervously.  It had been a long time since he’d been this tongue tied around a woman.

Ellie took notice and cast him a curious glance.  Adam lowered his head, embarrassed with his predicament.  While he had no desire to sully Ellie’s reputation, his father’s edict made him feel like an overeager fifteen-year-old in need of a chaperone.  He looked back up with a slight blush upon his cheeks.  “I was wondering if maybe you’d be more comfortable with the door open.”

Ellie’s eyes widened in surprise.  She hadn’t given the door a thought, but now that she did, she was mortified at the impropriety of being in a man’s bedroom behind closed doors.  She was a respectable woman and a mother for goodness sake!  She felt the heat creep into her cheeks, turning them a rosy red, but somehow the sight of Adam blushing right along with her was incredibly endearing and she couldn’t help but smile.  From what she knew of this man, she didn’t think anything could fluster the unflappable Adam Cartwright.  “Yes,” she said, walking over and opening the door.  “I suppose for propriety’s sake we should leave it open, shouldn’t we?  Of course, everyone knows you’re injured and I have a perfectly respectable reason for being here.”  She looked at Adam for affirmation just to be sure they were in agreement.

“Of course,” he said with a slow smile.  They both knew their mutual attraction threw an entirely different light on her role as nurse, but for the moment, it was better left unsaid.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Downstairs, Ben was in a foul mood.  He’d spent the entire morning at his desk tackling the bookwork with nothing much to show for it.

“Confound it!” he exclaimed, shaking his head.  That was the second time he’d read the new timber contract and he still couldn’t decipher it.  What in the world was Adam thinking when he drew up this convoluted piece of…of…claptrap, he wondered to himself.  Supposedly, he and that railroad fellow had hammered out all the details, but confound it, where the devil was the delivery schedule? “Progress, my eye!” he muttered as he pushed the contract aside and strummed his fingers in irritation.  Well, there’s no sense wasting any more time on it.  I’ll just have to ask him about it tonight.

Picking up his coffee, he leaned back in his chair and the scowl he’d been wearing all morning gave way to a softer more thoughtful expression as he considered his eldest son.  How many times had he accused Adam of letting his education get in the way of his thinking and how many times had Adam proved him wrong?  He smiled into his cup as he recalled the first time Adam had gone toe to toe against him, staunchly defending his idea to build their own sawmill.  Their conversation had escalated into a yelling match and he’d angrily accused him of learning nothing but disrespect at that high-faluting college.  Fuming, Adam had promptly apologized for raising his voice, but was quick to point out he really hadn’t said anything disrespectful; he’d merely presented a logical argument based on solid facts and if he had gotten a little loud it was only because he was dealing with a hardheaded stubborn mule!  Ben chuckled at the memory.  He could still picture Adam’s face, a mixture of adult determination and boyish apprehension about the fate of his backside.  Well, he needn’t have worried; he’d succeeded in making his point.  The boy who’d been willing to accept his decisions without question had returned from college a self-assured, intelligent man who was quite capable of teaching him a thing or two.

Taking another sip of coffee, he raised his eyes to the ceiling, his thoughts interrupted by the bang of a door and a small stampede down the hall.  He was suddenly reminded of how Little Joe used to race around the house when he was a youngster and he gave a wistful sigh, giving in to a moment of melancholy.  His youngest was on the brink of manhood and it was making him feel old.

“Walk, don’t run!” he gently admonished when Matt appeared at the top of the stairs.

Matt stopped in his tracks and tried to curb his excitement.  “Yes sir,” he replied, still coming down the stairs with a youthful bounce.

Ben smiled and waved him over to his desk.  “Where are you off to in such a hurry, young fella?”

Matt grinned, his enthusiasm bubbling over.  “To find Hoss and Joe, they’re gonna take me down to the corral.”

“Ah, yes, I understand you want to learn to ride.  Is that right?”

“Yes sir.  Adam said they’d have some time to teach me if I helped ‘em with their chores.”

Ben nodded his approval.  It would be good for the boy to get a taste of ranch work and with Matt keeping his boys busy, they’d have less time to think about the Logans.  “Well, then, you’d best get a move on.”

“Yes sir!” he said racing off at top speed.

Ben smiled and shook his head.  He’d almost forgotten what it was like to have a ten-year-old whirlwind in the house.  Relaxing, he drained his cup and waited with an expectant ear for the door upstairs to open.  When it didn’t, he sighed and got slowly to his feet.  He hated to pull rank on Adam, but if he thought he could defy him on this, well then, he had no choice but to set him straight.  With a purposeful stride he crossed the room, only to pause at the bottom of the stairs.   He wasn’t wavering, he told himself, he was merely giving Adam a fair shot.  Thankfully, it paid off.  Relieved, he gave the top of the banister a happy tap and then bypassed his desk and headed outside for a breath of fresh air.

Chapter 14

Matt sat next to Hoss and Little Joe atop the corral fence and admired the two ponies.  Blackie was a sleek black gelding with a white star between his eyes and Buttercup was a pretty golden mare.  Holding out his hand, he talked softly to the horses, encouraging them to come closer.  Buttercup shied away, annoyed by the intrusion, but Blackie cautiously pranced over to give him a curious sniff.  Matt laughed when the hairs from his muzzle tickled his arm.  “Hey, fella, do you want to be friends?”  He reached out and scratched him between the ears.

Hoss smiled his approval.  “Sure looks like it,” he remarked.  “Ol’Blackie don’t sniff just anybody.”

Matt looked at Hoss and grinned while Little Joe hopped down into the corral and approached his faithful old friend.  Blackie had been his mount before Cochise and he was pleased Matt had chosen him.  Buttercup was a good old girl, but she was more interested in grazing than anything else.  “Hey, Blackie, you’re in for some fun today, just make sure you mind yer manners, yuh hear?” Blackie snorted in response and then nuzzled Joe’s hand as he tried to put the lead rope over his head.  Little Joe fondly stroked his nose before slipping it on and leading him out the gate.  Trailing behind Hoss and Matt, he led Blackie up from the main corral to the barn and handed him off to Hoss once they got there.

Fascinated by all the gear and tools, Matt looked around the barn with interest, his eyes landing on one saddle in particular.  He walked over and ran his hand over the design in the leather.  It was well worn, but he could still see the fancy swirls.  “Sure is a nice one.”

Hoss overheard the wistful tone and smiled.  “Yep, that was Little Joe’s when he was ‘bout your age.  You think it’ll fit yuh?”

Matt looked up quick and bobbed his head.  “Looks like it,” he replied.  He didn’t really know, but he hoped.

Hoss’ face was sunny.  “I think so, too, but first we need to give ol’ Blackie a good brushing, so come on over.”

Matt joined him, but the noise Joe was making in the tack room was distracting him.

Hoss shook his head in annoyance; that new stallion of Adam’s was beginning to kick up a fuss and he didn’t blame him.  “Little Joe! What’s all that racket? You’re scarin’ Jupiter!”

Matt’s eyes widened in awe of the stallion.  He’d never seen anything like it.

“I’m lookin’ for something,” Little Joe yelled back.

“Well dadburnit, look a little quieter.  Jupiter’s gonna crash right out of his stall!” Sure enough, the stallion reared up nervously, his nostrils flaring.

“It’s all right, Jupiter, don’t you fret,” he crooned, trying to calm the frightened horse.  “You ain’t got nothing to be afraid of boy.”  Jupiter responded to the soft voice and gentle touch and began to settle down.  “That’s it,” Hoss said, patting his neck.

Matt watched in admiration.  “He sure is something!”

“Yeah, he’s a beauty.”  Adam found him out on the range.  Took him more’n a week to bring him in.”

Matt’s mouth dropped open.  He’d seen pictures of wild horses in books, but he never thought he’d see one up close.  “You mean he was wild?”

Hoss nodded.  “Yep, Adam had one heck of a time breaking him, too.  He must’ve got thrown a dozen times.  Pa was ready to put a stop to it, but Adam can be one stubborn cuss when he wants to be.  He convinced Pa he only needed one more ride and by golly he stuck with him until Jupiter finally realized he better start cooperating.”

Matt shook his head in amazement and his already high regard for Adam moved up a notch.  “Sure wish I could’ve seen that!”

Satisfied Jupiter had quieted down, Hoss gave him a final pat and headed back to Blackie.  “It was a sight, all right.”

Matt tore his eyes away from the horse and followed him.  “Do you think I’ll get good enough to ride Jupiter, Hoss?”

Hoss smiled and shook his head.  “Let me tell yuh, Matt, I ain’t even good enough to ride that horse.  He’s saddle broke, but he’s got a wild streak in him a mile wide.”

Matt’s eyes shone.  “Ain’t that what makes it exciting?”

“Hah!  Maybe for Adam and Little Joe, but not for me.  I like to stay sittin’ on my horse.”

Matt grinned, but his eyes still danced with thoughts of riding the stallion and Hoss took a minute to caution him.  “I wasn’t kidding about that wild streak, Matt.  You best steer clear.”

Matt nodded.  He didn’t see why he couldn’t at least make friends with him, but he wasn’t about to argue with this man.  Instead he turned his attention to Joe.  His hair was sticking up and he was covered with dust.

Found it!” he exclaimed, emerging with a battered but sturdy little stool.

Hoss smiled in recollection.  “Hey, I remember that.  Adam made it for you when you was just a little squirt.  How come you stowed it away, short shanks?”

Little Joe grinned and put it down next to Blackie.  “Got tired of you tripping over it with your big feet, but with Blackie here being a might taller than Matt, I figured he could use it.  Now, c’mon big brother, what’re you waitin’ for?”

Hoss rolled his eyes and then with a wink to Matt he took a curry comb in one hand and a brush in the other and showed him how to get all the grit out of the horse’s coat.  “You see that, Matt?  Blackie would be mighty uncomfortable if we put a saddle on top of all this dust and grit.”

Matt nodded in understanding and stepped up on the stool to take his turn at brushing Blackie.  When that was done, Hoss bent to check Blackie’s hooves, explaining to Matt how important it was to check for stones.  He cast a meaningful glance at Little Joe as he spoke.

Joe saw it and looked to the ground with a guilty expression.  Hoss had chewed him out twice last week for not checking Cochise and both times he’d snapped at him, claiming he was in too much of a hurry.  He’d been feeling the pressure to get as much done in the day as possible, but that was no excuse, Cochise deserved better.

Not understanding the meaning behind their looks, Matt shrugged and peered over Hoss’ shoulder only to be knocked clean off his feet when the big man straightened up.  Surprised, Hoss plucked him up from the ground and dusted him off while Little Joe hooted from his perch.  “Sorry about that, Matt, you ain’t hurt none, are you boy?”

Matt shook his head and grinned.  “Nah, I ain’t hurt,” he replied, shifting his eyes to the coveted saddle.  “We gonna saddle him now?”

Hoss smiled at his eagerness and reached for a bridle hanging on the wall.  “First the bridle and then the saddle,” he said, handing it to him.

With an industrious look, Matt took it and with Hoss’ help he slipped the bit in Blackie’s mouth and pulled the headstall over his ears.  Satisfied it was comfortable, he looked at Hoss who nodded and threw a saddle blanket on the horse’s back.  “Now for the saddle,” he said as he hoisted it up and swung it into place.  “There now, you see how it’s sittin’ square on Blackie’s back?”

“Yeah.”

“Good, cuz that’s what I want you to do.”

Surprised, Matt watched Hoss pull the saddle back off.  It wasn’t full size, but he wasn’t at all sure he could lift that high.  “But—”

Hoss shook his head, his eyes full of merriment.  “A man ain’t got no right to ride if he can’t saddle his own horse, ain’t that right, Joe?”

Little Joe nodded in agreement, playing along with his brother.  “Yep, that’s right Hoss.”

Matt eyed them.  He had a feeling they were just teasing, but teasing or not, Hoss was right, a fella oughta be able to saddle his own horse.  Resolute, he gripped the saddle and gave it a confident tug, landing hard on his backside when it didn’t budge.  Eyes wide, he flushed at the sound of Hoss’ loud guffaw and Joe’s high-pitched peel of laughter.

“It’s a might heavy if you ain’t used to it,” Hoss said, still chuckling.

“No kidding!” he grumbled, getting to his feet.

Little Joe grinned at him.  “C’mon, Matt, put some muscle into it.  Adam said Hoss was saddling his own horse by the time he was five.”

“Now, Little Joe, that ain’t exactly right,” Hoss exclaimed with a shake of his head.  “I was six!”

Matt grinned, trying to picture Hoss as a boy and then with renewed determination, gave it another try.  This time he got the saddle half way up before he lost his balance and toppled over, causing the pony to stamp his feet in annoyance.

Matt patted Blackie with one hand and dusted off his seat with the other.  “Don’t worry, boy.  I’m gonna get it this next time.”

Smiling, Hoss stepped in and picked up the saddle.  “Here, let me help yuh little buddy.  We was just funnin’.”

Matt scowled, not willing to give up.  “I’m gonna get it this next time,” he declared stubbornly, “just you watch.”

Hoss smiled at Matt’s determination and put the saddle back down.  “Suit yourself,” he replied with a chuckle, “only don’t blame me if you can’t sit once you got him saddled.”

Little Joe laughed at his brother’s remark but followed it up with some encouragement.  He knew what it was like to have his older brothers step in before they were asked.  “You’ll get it.”

After his first two attempts he had a pretty good idea of what he was doing wrong.  So this time, when he gripped the saddle and gave it a mighty heave, he stepped on the stool and used his momentum to fling it on Blackie’s back.  Surprise and then elation registered on his face when it landed square.

“Woo hoo!” Little Joe shouted excitedly.  “Did you see that, Hoss?”

“Sure did!” he exclaimed, moving in to show him how to tighten the cinch.

Matt watched closely and then happily led Blackie out to the corral.

Outside, Joe took over the lesson.  “Now,” he began, adopting the lecturing tone Adam sometimes used, “you always mount a horse from the left side.”  Hoss rolled his eyes, but Little Joe ignored him as he expertly put his left foot in the stirrup and sprang into the saddle.  “You see, I just took a little hop and swung my leg over,” he explained.

Matt was suitably impressed but wrinkled his nose at the schoolmaster tone.

Oblivious, Little Joe dismounted and then grabbed the stool and put it next to Blackie.  “Okay, your turn,” he instructed, motioning Matt over.

Catching a wink from Hoss, Matt ignored Joe’s irritating tone and concentrated on the task at hand.  He got his foot in the stirrup but even with the extra boost it was a long stretch.

“That’s it,” Joe said.  “Now grab the saddle horn and bounce a little so you can spring up and swing your leg over.”

Matt nodded and with a mighty bounce, swung himself into the saddle.

“Hey, not bad big shorty!” Hoss called out.

“Yeah, that was real good!” Little Joe agreed.  In his enthusiasm, his voice slipped back to normal.  “Now go ahead and put your other foot in the stirrup and pick up the reins.”

Matt did as he was instructed, but he kept a firm hand on the saddle horn.  He was surprised he felt so unsteady.  “Sure is a long way down.”

“Sure is,” Little Joe replied, tapping his hand.  “But you’ll never learn to ride if you don’t let loose of that saddle horn.”

Matt flushed scarlet.

“Don’t worry,” Hoss said gently, “everybody wants to hang on at first.”

Little Joe handed him the reins.  “Here, just hold these and try to get a feel for sitting in the saddle while I walk Blackie around the corral, all right?”

Matt nodded and Joe led the pony around the corral.  He stopped whenever he caught him reaching for the saddle horn.  “Use your legs to grip the horse,” he instructed.  “And don’t tug on the reins.”

“And sit up straight and keep your heels down,” Hoss added.

Matt heeded their advice, and by the third time around, he was feeling more confident.  Hoss and Joe exchanged pleased glances.  Despite his initial awkwardness, the kid had a natural seat and it wasn’t long before they took the lead rope off and let him trot Blackie around the corral.

“Hey Hoss?” Joe asked, keeping an eye on Matt.  “What do you say we go into town tonight?”

Hoss lit up at the prospect.  “Hey yeah,” he answered.  “I’d sure like a night out.”

Little Joe gave him a wink.  “Thought so…but…ah…what do you think Pa’ll say?”

Hoss’ smile faded.  “Can’t say for sure, but I gotta sneakin’ suspicion he ain’t gonna like it.”

“Because of them miner fellas?” It was more of a statement than a question and his temper rose just thinking about it.

“Yep, them and the Logan brothers.”

“Well, doggone it! How come we have to stay out a town?  Don’t seem right to me.”

“No, it don’t,” Hoss agreed, “but it ain’t gonna be easy convincing Pa of it.”

Little Joe heaved a sigh.  “No it ain’t,” he muttered, “but maybe he’ll let us go if we ride in with Kip and some of the other fellas.”

Hoss gave a happy nod.  “Yeah, it’s worth a try,” he said, waving Matt over.  “C’mon, Matt, that’s it for today.”

Matt gave Blackie a little kick and came up alongside Hoss.  “Aw, heck, I was just gettin’ the hang of it,” he said disappointed.

“Listen, you’ll get plenty of ridin’ time, but we got a whole lotta other things to show you before the day’s out.”

“Trust me you’re gonna be hurtin’ as it is,” Little Joe said, chiming in.  He held Blackie’s bridle so Matt could dismount.  “We’ll have to fix you up with a hot bath tonight.”

Matt scrunched up his face in disgust.  He wasn’t figuring on taking no bath.

Hoss laughed.  “Come on, now, let’s get this saddle off Blackie and go get us some lunch.  I’m hungrier than a bear comin’ out of hibernation.”

Chapter 15

Ellie sat on the settee enjoying the warmth of the fire, her embroidery forgotten in the dim light.  Despite the pleasant spring day, the evening was chilly and the warmth from the fire felt good.  Sipping her tea and watching the flames, she smiled at the thought of Mathew struggling to keep his eyes open at the table.  To her surprise, he’d taken a bath without a fuss and had fallen into bed shortly thereafter worn out and happy.  Had I known country life would have this affect, I would’ve come out west months ago, she thought in amusement as she relaxed into the cushions.  She took another sip of tea, but her quiet evening was shattered when a raised voice drew her attention away from the crackling fire and over to Ben’s desk.  Adam’s brothers were having a discussion with their father and from the sound of it, things were getting heated.

“C’mon, Pa, we’ll ride in with Kip and the boys, have a few beers and be home early,” Joe argued.  His was louder than he intended, but his father’s flat out refusal had him fuming and he was finding it hard to keep a reasonable tone.  Why should he and Hoss have to stay on the ranch while those low-down mealy-mouth trouble makers got free reign of the whole town?

Already in a bad mood, Ben continued to rifle through the stack of papers littering his desk in search of the timber contract.  He’d planned to talk to Adam about it, but he’d somehow misplaced it and Little Joe’s persistent badgering wasn’t helping.  “Joseph,” he said firmly.  “I already told you—the answer is no.”  He gave his youngest a calculated look and went back to the papers on his desk.  Little Joe exhaled in frustration and looked to Hoss for help.

Hoss shrugged.  He had a hunch Pa wasn’t gonna budge, but he was willing to give it a try.  He’d heard there was an arm wrestling match at the Bucket of Blood tonight and first prize was fifty dollars.  “But, Pa, I’ll make sure Joe don’t get into no trouble,” he declared with a surprisingly confident voice.

Ben lifted his head again and this time he eyed his middle son.  “Oh, really,” he replied pointing a finger at Hoss, “and who’s going to make sure you don’t get into any trouble?”

Hoss lowered his head and fiddled with his vest.  “Aw, Pa, I can take care of myself.  I don’t need no nursemaid.”

Ben shook his head.  “Now, look boys, I know you deserve a little fun, but I said no and that’s exactly what I meant—no.  It’s just not a good idea, not until things settle down.”

Little Joe scowled.  “I bet if Adam was going with us, you’d say yes,” he grumbled.

“Yeah,” Hoss muttered, feeling sulky.  He’d been looking forward to that contest, not to mention a cold beer.

Ben eyed his sons with displeasure.  “For your information, I wouldn’t approve of Adam going into town tonight, either.”

“But you wouldn’t forbid him,” Joe challenged.

“Your brother’s got enough sense to stay out of trouble.”

“But, Pa, it ain’t fair—”

“Joseph! You’re not going to change my mind, so resign yourself to it and find something else to do, understand?”

Little Joe nodded, defeated.

“Good,” Ben exclaimed, hoping that was the end of it.  “Now where is that contract?”

Disappointed, Joe scowled.  Well, that’s that, he thought to himself.  Or is it? With a gleam in his eye, he caught his brother’s attention and gave a little nod in his father’s direction.

Hoss frowned.  What was Little Joe up to now?

“He’ll never know,” he silently mouthed.

Hoss glanced at their father who was still busily searching his desk and then gave a slight nod.  Little Joe was right, once Pa got wrapped up in that timber contract with Adam, he’d never know whether they were home or not.

Little Joe smiled and set his scheme in motion.  “Well, I guess I’ll just turn in early,” he announced with a stretch of his arms, “maybe read a book.”

Hoss yawned.  “Yeah, me too.  I’m kind of tuckered out anyway.”

Ben raised an eyebrow and sighed.  Did they really think he’d fall for that? “Boys,” he warned as he got up and walked around the desk.  “If you’re thinking of sneaking out, I suggest you think a little harder.”

Little Joe gave his father a blank look, his face a picture of absolute innocence.  Hoss gulped and gave him a weak smile.  “Oh no, Pa, we wasn’t thinkin’ about doin’ nothin’ like that!”

Ben studied Hoss with a look designed to make him squirm.  “Good, because I’d hate to think my word didn’t mean anything to you.”

Hoss flushed and back peddled toward the stairs.  Tired or not, he was going to spend the rest of the night in his bedroom and if Little Joe had any sense, he’d do the same.   “It means a lot, Pa, an awful lot.  I really am tired…so…uh…g’night.”  Remembering his manners, he paused at the settee.  “Goodnight, Miss Ellie.”

Ellie smiled and quietly bid Hoss goodnight, knowing her presence was probably cause for embarrassment.  One look at Little Joe and she had no doubt.  His face was beet red as he scurried up the stairs behind Hoss after saying a polite but quick goodnight.  She sympathized with his plight but wholeheartedly agreed with Ben’s decision.

Ben watched them scramble up the stairs and then turned and let out a sigh of relief when he spotted the contract poking out of his ledger book, exactly where he’d left it this morning.  He hurriedly picked it up and walked over to Ellie.  “Ellie, dear, I’m sorry to leave you alone, but I’m afraid if I don’t speak to Adam tonight, I won’t find time before my meeting on Monday so, please, make yourself at home.”

Ellie smiled up at him.  “No need to apologize,” she replied.  “I’ll be fine.”

Ben nodded and headed up the stairs, his mind already sifting through the things he wanted to discuss with Adam.

Alone, Ellie removed her shoes and tucked her legs beneath her as she studied the room by the glow of the firelight.  The ranch house was ruggedly handsome.  The sturdy beams and furnishings and the impressive stone fireplace all emanated masculinity and a feeling of strength and security, much like Ben Cartwright himself.  Looking around, it was obvious the house was built to be a comfortable refuge for the family.

As she reflected on what she’d learned about their family history, she found herself in awe of Ben’s accomplishments, having made his dream a reality despite the tragic loss of three wives.  To persevere in the face of such heartache while raising three young boys must have taken an incredible amount of strength and fortitude, something she felt she was sorely lacking.  It had been two years since Daniel had died, yet there were still times when she felt utterly lost and ached to feel his arms around her.  Those times were getting fewer and far between, especially since meeting Adam, but now as she stared into the fire, a swirl of memories came to mind and she was helpless to prevent the tears.  “Oh Dan.”

Chapter 16

Adam took a final look at the timber contract before handing it back to his father.  “You know that stand of pine up on the ridge needs to be marked by the end of next week if we hope to stay on schedule.”

Ben took it, nodding.  “I’ll have Hoss ride up first thing Monday morning with some men and get started.  I’ll head up after my meeting.  Little Joe can stick with the branding crew.”

Adam nodded, a slight frown on his face.

“Something wrong?”

“No, I just wish I could be more help,” he answered with a sleepy yawn.

“I know you do, but right now you just need to let that shoulder heal—”

“And stay in bed and regain my strength,” he said repeating Doc Martin’s standing orders.

Ben smiled and stood up to leave, but seeing Adam’s blanket bunched at the foot of the bed, he leaned over to straighten it out.

Adam watched, amused.  “Pa, I think I can manage.”

Ben ignored him and kept right on straightening and tucking.  “Indulge me,” he said with an affectionate smile, “it isn’t often I get to fuss over you.”

Adam gave him a little smile and squelched his protests.  After all, it had only been a few days since he’d welcomed his father’s attention, so he could hardly object to a little extra fussing now.

Satisfied he was well covered, Ben blew out the lamp.  “Goodnight.”

With another yawn, Adam bid him goodnight and then waited for the door to click shut before throwing off the blanket.  Must be Pa’s cold New England upbringing, he thought closing his eyes, he’s been trying to roast us all for years.

Ben hesitated outside of Adam’s room and debated on whether or not to check in on the boys.  If they’d gone to town against his wishes, he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to know about it.  He shook his head and went across the hall.  At Joe’s door, he gave a quick knock and opened it.  He didn’t really think he would sneak out after being warned, but given his recent stubborn attitude, he couldn’t put it entirely past him.  Peering in, he breathed a sigh of relief.

Little Joe heard his door open and looked up from his book.  He was sitting up in bed reading his latest dime novel.  Not as exciting as a Saturday night in town, but entertaining nonetheless.  “Checking up on me?” he asked with a slight grin.  He’d rightly figured his father would look in on him and for once he was glad he was exactly where he should be.  He had a feeling the consequences for sneaking out tonight would have been dire.

Ben came in nodding.  “Well, as a matter of fact, I am.”

“Don’t you trust me?” he asked with a grin.

“Let’s just say you’ve been known to let your pursuit of fun lead you out that window one too many times, shall we?

Little Joe shrugged.  “What’s wrong with a little fun?”

“Nothing, as long as you’re not foolish about it.”  He took the book out of his hand and looked at the title, The Mysterious Stage Coach Robberies.

Little Joe lit up at his father’s interest.  “It’s a good one! You see, there’s this robbery—”

Nodding, Ben interrupted before he got in too deep.  “I’m sure it’s all very exciting, all the more reason I should let you get back to it, hmmm?” He handed it back to him.

“Yeah, I’m at a good part, but I tell you what, you can be the first to read it after I’m done.”

Ben smiled at his enthusiasm as he found his place.  “Thank you, son, but don’t stay up too late, all right?”

Already caught up in the mystery, Joe nodded, his eyes riveted to the page.

Chuckling, Ben shut the door and made his way down the hall to Hoss’ room.  He knocked, but when there was no answer, he quietly poked his head in.  Hoss was snoring softly, sound asleep on his back.  The window was wide open, so he crossed the room and eased it down, leaving it open just a crack.  He exited as quietly as he had entered and closed the door behind him, satisfied Hoss wouldn’t wake up with a sore throat from the cool night air.

Across the hall, he noticed the door to Matt’s room was slightly ajar and stopped to look in on him as well.  No doubt Ellie had left it open to catch some light from the lamp burning in the hall.  Smiling, he remembered a time when Little Joe insisted he do the same.  He peered in and found Matt nestled in bed, his quilt tumbled about him with only a lock of dark hair showing.  Out of habit, he listened to the steady rhythm of his breathing before he headed downstairs.

From his vantage point, he could see Ellie curled in the settee.  He smiled at the sight, glad their first day had gone so well.  She and Matt had fit in just fine, even Hop Sing was pleased.  Coming down to join her, he headed for his leather chair, but hesitated when he noticed the faraway look and the tears in her eyes.  He didn’t want to intrude, but at the same time he wondered if he could be of any comfort.

Becoming suddenly aware of his presence, Ellie quickly wiped away her tears and greeted him with an overly bright smile.  “That was a lovely supper tonight, Ben.  I’m afraid Hop Sing is going to spoil me.”

Ben smiled warmly in return.  “Yes, we’re lucky to have him,” he replied, taking the opportunity to settle in his chair.  “Although he can be a bit of a tyrant you know; especially if you’re late to supper.”

“Well, then, I’ll see to it I’m prompt,” she replied, her eyes still shimmering.  “How was Adam tonight? He seemed a little restless earlier.”

Ben nodded in agreement.  “I think he’s hurting more than he lets on, but at least he took his medicine.”

“Good,” she said softly as she hastily wiped another tear, “he needs his rest.”

Unable to ignore it any longer, Ben leaned forward, his eyes full of concern.  “Would it help to talk?” he asked gently, handing her his handkerchief.

She hesitated and then accepted the handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.  “I’m sorry.  I was hoping you hadn’t noticed.”

Ben smiled.  “Well, I don’t mean to intrude, but after raising three boys, there isn’t much that misses my eye.”

“No, I don’t suppose there is,” she replied with a small smile, “but I’m fine…really…it’s just that sometimes I get a little emotional.”

He’d recognized the sad bittersweet look upon her face.  “Memories?”

Ellie gave a slight nod.  “I know it’s foolish…Daniel has been gone for two years now…but…well…sometimes when I think of him….”  She let her thought go unfinished, unable to adequately express her feelings.

“You miss him all over again, with an ache as intense as the day he died,” he finished.  He was surprised to feel his own memories of those painful times surfacing.

Comforted by the depth of his understanding, Ellie allowed herself to admit it, her voice barely above a whisper.  “Yes.”

“Ellie, I think it’s natural.  I felt much the same when each of my wives died.”

“How did you do it? How did you get through this, not once, but three times?”

He thought for a moment and then shifted his gaze to the fire, the long ago advice of his father-in-law coming to mind.  “When Adam’s mother died,” he began softly, “my father-in-law gave me some very sound advice.  He said…don’t brood son…keep a warm spot in your heart for her but don’t carry her on your shoulders for the rest of your life…she wouldn’t want that.”  He turned from the fire and met Ellie’s gaze.  “It took some time before I realized he was right.”

Ellie lowered her eyes.  She understood what Ben was trying to say, but her pain seemed to defy logic and she couldn’t shake the notion that her love for Daniel would disappear, as if it never existed, if she ever gave her heart to another man.  Looking up, she ventured another question.  “How long was it, then, before you were able to carry on?”

Ben smiled ruefully.  “Well, I had Adam, of course, and I loved him dearly, but it wasn’t until I met Inger, Hoss’ mother, that I finally realized I could love another woman without betraying my love for Liz.”  He paused as he remembered Inger’s tear streaked face the day he almost rode out of her life; how she’d berated him for turning his back on her love and a chance to bring them all happiness.  “She made me realize I was hanging on to some misguided sense of loyalty instead of opening up my heart.  When I finally did, life was brighter, not only for me, but for a certain five-year-old who had already fallen head-over-heels in love weeks before his foolish father.”

Ellie’s eyes widened in surprise.  “Adam was five?”

Ben nodded and his gentle eyes, overflowing with compassion and understanding were her undoing.  Her eyes brimmed with tears and she was unable to hold them back.

Moving to her side, he encircled her in his arms and drew her into a comforting embrace.  “It’s all right,” he whispered, “go ahead and cry.  It’s a pain that takes time to heal, but I promise you, you’ll get through it.”

For several moments they didn’t move as she buried her head in his chest and gave in to her emotions.  Ben waited until her tears slowed and then gently encouraged her to talk about her husband, sensing she needed to speak of him.

Hesitating, Ellie drew a shaky breath, unsure if she could talk, but once she got started the words began to flow and to her surprise the memories brought a smile to her face rather than a tear to her eye.  For more than an hour, she spoke of Daniel and their life in Boston while Ben listened, happy to share in her stories of joy and sadness.  It was almost midnight when she turned to glance at the clock and gasped.  “Oh, Ben, I’m so sorry.   I didn’t realize it was so late.”

“Nonsense,” he said, smiling warmly.  “I’m glad we had this chance to talk.”

Ellie rose to her feet, prompting Ben to stand as well.  “I don’t know how to thank you,” she said softly.

“You can thank me,” he replied firmly, “by going upstairs and getting a good night’s sleep, young lady.”

Bending to pick up her shoes, Ellie smiled warmly and then tread quietly up the stairs.

Ben watched her go and then bent down to bank the fire.  He wondered if he should talk to Adam.  Let him know him Ellie might need some time to sort things out.  No, he thought, shaking his head, Adam doesn’t need my advice.  If it’s meant to be, they’ll find their way. 

Chapter 17

In the days that followed, the household fell into a new routine.  As promised, Matt got up at daybreak to help with the morning chores, awkwardly but willingly tackling any job thrown his way.  He industriously fed the chickens and collected the eggs while Joe milked the cow and replenished the wood box.  In the barn, Hoss got right to work mucking out the stalls, doing a thorough but quick job.

Inside, Ben planned the day’s work over a cup of coffee with Adam.  It took some doing, but together they managed to organize the men into reasonably efficient work crews despite the precautions they’d been forced to take.  Once that was done, he helped Adam get washed up and then headed back down for a quick breakfast with the boys.

Aware of Ben’s need to discuss ranch work, Ellie prepared a tray and joined Adam for breakfast, leaving the men free to talk and gulp down their food.  For his part, Ben overlooked the poor table manners and kept his instructions short, allowing as much time as possible for Matt’s riding lesson.  As a result, breakfast was a quick affair; a situation that set Hop Sing to grumbling.  Knowing there was no appeasing him, Ben ignored his tirades and thanks to Ellie, left the house without worry.

Mindful of the time, the boys hurried down to the corral and got right to work.  Being new to the saddle, Matt had a sore seat and aching thighs, but it wasn’t long before he and Blackie became a well-matched team.  He was amazed at how the horse responded to just a touch of the reins or pressure from his legs and he couldn’t wait to take him out for a long ride.  Even so, he didn’t dally when it came time for Hoss and Joe to get to work.  He unsaddled Blackie without complaint and then happily spent the rest of his day exploring the surrounding woods.  He climbed trees and huge boulders, waded in the creek, swung on the rope swing, played with the piglets and kept watch over the baby raccoon in the barn.  As instructed, he checked in with his mother and Adam from time to time, telling them of his adventures, but sensibly keeping a few things to himself.  At least to his way of thinking he was being sensible.  Adam had warned him about Jupiter the same as Hoss, but he was drawn to the impressive stallion and didn’t see any harm in making friends.  Jupiter was minding his manners just fine.

As expected, Ellie was a delightful distraction for Adam and with Matt popping in to visit, he was content to stay in bed for a few more days.  He enjoyed having someone he could discuss plays and poetry with, something he rarely did unless his father was in a poetic mood and even then it was just a comment or two.  But with Ellie, it was different.  Their discussions were lively and thought provoking and stirred him in more ways than one, but ever mindful of their unconventional situation, he watched his manners and was pleased when their friendship deepened and their conversations took a more personal turn.  Adam spoke with a quiet passion about his family, his work, and his love of the land, finding it important to make Ellie understand how much it all meant to him.  Ellie listened, stirred by the depth and intensity of his emotions.  Adam’s love for a woman, she realized, would be just as fierce, just as passionate, and just as loyal.

In turn, she spoke of her life in Boston and her feelings about possibly leaving it all behind.  She had mixed emotions and appreciated Adam’s patience as she voiced her thoughts and worries.  Unlike Lily, he didn’t try to sway her one way or another; he just listened, his soft expression encouraging her to think things through.  It was the same soft expression she’d seen at the dance—an expression filled with warmth and understanding and it made her feel as though she were wrapped in a gentle embrace.  Adam, like his father, wasn’t afraid to show his tender side and she admired him for it.  But as much as she wanted and appreciated his support, she was careful not to over-tax him and insisted he take an afternoon nap or at least rest.  He grumbled a little, but thanks to Jonesy, he followed orders, preferring a nap over discussing some reckless boyhood shenanigan.

With Adam napping, Ellie offered her services to Hop Sing, who gladly supplied her with a basket of mending; a tedious chore he rarely had time to tackle.  Happy to help, Ellie took the basket out to the front porch and darned socks and sewed buttons until the boys rode in for supper, tired and hungry.  Unlike the rush of breakfast, the evening meal was more relaxed with Ellie joining Matt at the table and Ben eating with Adam, giving them both a chance to catch up with their sons.  Shortly thereafter, the boys trooped upstairs ready for bed, and with Adam calling it an early night, Ben and Ellie fell into the habit of chatting companionably over a game of cribbage.

Chapter 18

Doc Martin pulled his buggy into the Cartwright’s front yard and climbed down.  It was early and he was thinking about a cup of Hop Sing’s good coffee when Joe, Hoss, and their young guest came barreling out of the house, forcing him to do a quick sidestep.

“Sorry, Doc,” Hoss said, apologizing for the near collision.  “I didn’t hear you drive up, but boy are we glad to see you!” Not waiting for a response, he ushered him in through the front door and shouted for his father.  “Pa!  Doc Martin’s here!”

Still at the breakfast table, Ben tossed his napkin aside and eagerly rose to greet his friend while Hoss made a quick exit, slamming the door behind him.  Ben’s dim view of his noisy departure registered loudly on his face, prompting Paul to smile.  With a shake of his head, Ben gestured towards the table.  “Sit down, Paul, the coffee and biscuits are still hot.”

“Thanks, Ben, I was hoping you’d say that.”  He took a seat and eagerly reached for the biscuits and honey.  “So, how’s my patient?”

Sitting down, Ben poured him a cup of coffee.  “Downright impossible,” he answered.

“Getting a little restless, is he?”

“A little?” Ben harrumphed.  “That’s an understatement.  He’s snappier than a caged mountain lion.  Even Ellie can’t cajole him into a good mood this morning.”

Paul chuckled, amazed he’d stayed in bed this long.  “Well, I suppose if he’s willing to give up that pretty nurse of his, he must be feeling better, but I won’t be surprised if he’s still a little weak.”  He gave Ben a serious look.  “He lost an awful lot of blood, so much that, well, I wasn’t completely sure he’d be able to replenish it.”

Ben recalled Adam’s colorless face and the blood-soaked towels in the basin that night and a chill ran up his spine.  “I’ll make sure he doesn’t overdo it,” he said with a firm nod.

Paul smiled and sipped his coffee.  He had no doubt Ben would do just that.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Grumpy and impatient, Adam scowled when Doc Martin finally entered his room.  “I was beginning to think you’d just come for breakfast.”

Paul met his scowl with a steady gaze.  He’d known Adam since he was a youngster and wasn’t the least bit intimidated by his sarcasm.  “Well, Adam, I never thought you’d begrudge me a meal, but if that’s the case, you’d better take it up with your father since he’s the one who invited me to sit down.”

Suitably chastised, Adam dropped his eyes, angry at himself for taking out his frustration on Paul.  “Sorry,” he said glancing up, “that was uncalled for.”

Paul nodded and deposited his bag on the bureau.  From a doctor’s perspective, he was pleased with Adam’s crankiness.  It was a sure sign he was on the mend, but from a personal perspective, he could do without the sarcasm.  No wonder Ben’s exasperated.  “You know,” he said as he came over and began untying the strips that bound his arm, “if you push yourself too hard, you’ll only end up prolonging your recovery.”

Adam sighed in annoyance.  You’d think his father and the good doctor would give him a little credit, after all, he wasn’t a child.  “I appreciate the advice, Paul, but I’m not looking to break any wild horses.  I just want to get out of bed.”

Paul peered at him over the top of his spectacles.  “Maybe not, but once you get back on your feet, you’ll be tempted to do more than you should.”

Adam’s face brightened.  “Does that mean you’re setting me free?” He was getting up today, regardless, but it would make things a whole lot easier if Paul was in agreement.

Paul offered him a faint smile.  “Possibly,” he said as he slowly pulled the dressing away from the wound.

Adam winced.

“Hurt?”

“A little.”

Paul raised an eyebrow and fixed him with a knowing stare.  The skin was mending, but it would take time for the deep tissue and torn muscle to heal.  “More than a little, I suspect.”

Adam shrugged.  “It’s not that bad.”

Spying the almost empty bottle of laudanum on the nightstand, he picked it up and eyed his stubborn patient.  “The way you’ve been taking this says different.”  His tone was matter-of-fact, leaving no room for dispute.

Adam glanced at the bottle, annoyed he’d forgotten to put it in the drawer.  “All right, I admit to needing it, but only at night.”

Accepting his answer, Paul returned the bottle to its place and then retrieved a pair of scissors from his bag in preparation of removing Adam’s stitches.  “So tell me, are you able to sit up for long stretches of time without tiring?”

“Yeah, well, except for a little tiredness in the afternoon,” he answered honestly.

“Any more dizziness or nausea?”

Adam shook his head.  “None.”

“Your color looks good.  I take it Hop Sing has been feeding you well and plying you with plenty of liquids.”

“Plenty,” he said, wincing again as Paul snipped and pulled.

“Sorry,” he apologized, not bothering to look up, “but the skin’s grown over some of these stitches.”

Adam looked down and watched the proceedings, making sure to keep still.

“There,” the doctor murmured a moment later.  With the last thread free, he looked at Adam and smiled in satisfaction.  “All right, Adam, you can get up.”

Adam grinned and threw back the covers.  “Thanks, Paul, and do me a favor, tell Pa I’ve got your blessing, all right?”

“I’ll tell him,” he said, “but don’t you forget what I said about overdoing it.”

Already at his bureau, Adam looked over at Paul.  “I won’t,” he said, pulling out a pair of pants.

Paul nodded and after gathering his instruments, he headed for the door, leaving Adam to finish dressing.

Adam stopped him at the threshold.  “Uh, Doctor Martin?”

Paul turned around, wondering at the formality.  While Adam was generally respectful, he’d been calling him by his first name for a number of years now.  “Yes?” he asked, curiously.

“I just want to thank you for patching me up,” he said with an earnest expression.  “We’re all fortunate to have such a skilled doctor like you in the territory.”

Surprised and more than a little touched by Adam’s unexpected sentiment, Paul smiled and stammered a bit.  “Well, thank you, Adam.  I do what I can, but keep in mind some things are beyond my repair.”

Adam nodded at his parting advice and finished buttoning his pants.  He was well aware of the dangers that could befall a man in this territory, but he was in too good a mood to dwell on it at the moment.

Chapter 19

Matt was in the barn, about to unsaddle Blackie, when he heard Doctor Martin’s buggy leaving the yard.  With an excited whoop, he ran for the house and burst in through the front door just as Adam was stepping into the living room.  “Adam!” he exclaimed happily.  “It’s about time that ol’ saw bones let yuh up!”

Amused by his enthusiasm, Adam flashed him a smile before glancing at his father sitting behind his desk.  Just as he suspected, the boy’s reference wouldn’t go unchecked.

“Young man,” Ben called from his chair, “that’s no way to talk about Doctor Martin.  Not only is he a fine doctor, he’s your elder and deserves your respect.”  His voice was mild, but it was a reprimand nonetheless.

Matt’s eyes widened and he peeked around the corner.  He thought Mr. Cartwright had already ridden out.  “Joe calls him that,” he answered lamely.

Ben raised an eyebrow.  That wasn’t the answer he’d expected.  Adam, on the other hand, sported a grin.  Little Joe’s colorful language was a bone of contention with their father and his younger brother would no doubt hear about it later.

“That doesn’t make it right,” Ben said with some firmness now.  He didn’t want to frighten the boy, but he recognized a flimsy excuse when he heard one.

“Yes sir,” Matt said with a gulp.

Seeing the reminder had done its job, Adam walked over and put a hand on Matt’s shoulder.  “Well, now that we’ve got that settled, why don’t you and I go down to the corral?  I want to see what those brothers of mine have been teaching you.”  As he spoke he gave Matt a push towards the front door.  With any luck they’d both make it out free and clear.  “We’ll be in for lunch, Pa.”

Not so easily dismissed, Ben cleared his throat and halted their escape with a low rumble.  “Not so fast you two.”

Stopping in their tracks, one out of apprehension and the other out of habit, they both wore the same innocent look.

Ben suppressed a smile and continued.  “Mathew,” he said pointing a stern finger.  “Make sure Adam doesn’t overdo it, all right?”

Matt responded with an earnest nod.  He figured Mr. Cartwright was just funnin’, but he wasn’t about to take any chances.  “Sure thing, Mr. Cartwright.  I’ll watch him for you.”

Ben smiled and then turned his attention to Adam who grinned as he gave Matt another little push.

Ben watched them go, pleased Adam looked so steady on his feet.  Paul was right.  He would be back to work in a day or two provided he behaved sensibly.  Fortunately, that came natural for his eldest.

Outside, Adam and Matt collected Blackie and headed down to the corral.  When they got there, Sport perked his ears and with a jaunty trot, came over to greet them.  Smiling, Adam grabbed a rope off the fence post and entered the corral.  “Hey boy,” he murmured, reaching out to stroke his neck.  “You miss me?”

Sport snorted and impatiently stamped a foot in anticipation of being ridden.  Adam gave him a commiserative pat.  He knew exactly how he felt, but they were both stuck for at least another day.  “Sorry, fella, not today.”  But soon, he thought as he slipped the rope over Sport’s neck and tethered him to the fence rail.  Very soon.  “Okay, Matt, bring Blackie in.”

“Sport’s a beauty, but he sure is feisty,” Matt said with a tug on Blackie’s reins.  “Hoss took him out the other day and said he darn near ran him into a tree limb.”

Adam chuckled and took a seat on the top rail.  “Yeah, well, he’s got a lot of personality.”

“Hoss says he’s the most persnickety horse he ever rode.”

“Like his owner?” Adam asked, raising an amused eyebrow.

Matt turned to Adam, his mouth open.  How’d he know?!  “You didn’t hear that from me.”

Adam grinned.  “Okay, just get mounted up.”

Matt nodded and swung into the saddle, excited to show off his newfound skills.

“Not bad,” Adam said, impressed.  “Let’s see you take a turn around the corral.”

Leaning forward in the saddle, Mat gave Blackie a little kick.  “C’mon, boy, let’s go.”

Adam smiled.  The pair seemed like a good match and the more he watched, the more he was certain of it.  His smiled broadened.  Matt was a darn good little rider for having just learned.  He was proud of him and proud of his brothers, too.

Later, as they were walking back to the barn, Adam gave him some well-deserved praise.  “You did well today, Matt.  You’ve been working hard and it shows.”

Matt shrugged, but his face flushed with pride.

Adam hid a smile and kept on talking.  “So now that I know you can keep your seat, what do you say we go for a little ride tomorrow?”

“Can we really?” Matt asked, his eyes wide with excitement.

“Well, we can’t go far, but we can ride around the out buildings and down to the creek behind the house.”

“That’d be great!”

Adam winked.  “Thought you’d like it.  Now go and get Blackie unsaddled.  I’m hungry.”

Grinning, Matt led Blackie into the barn and got right to work.  Adam followed him in and looked to see if anything needed doing.  Spotting some harnesses on the ground, he picked them up and began the disagreeable task of untangling them.  He knew his brothers had been busting their tails, but he didn’t see any reason for them to add to the work by leaving things in a heap.

Aware of his presence, Jupiter stamped restlessly.  Adam heard the commotion and approached his stall, glad for something else to do.  “Don’t worry, boy.  You’ll get your turn in the corral.”  Jupiter whinnied in response and stuck his head out for some attention.

Adam stroked his nose and then reached for the basket of carrots they kept in the barn.  Getting one out, he offered it to Jupiter who dug his nose into his palm, taking the treat.  “That’s it,” Adam crooned softly.

“He likes apples better,” Matt called out matter-of-factly.

Adam’s eyebrows lifted and he turned to look at Matt.  He hoped the boy wasn’t speaking from first-hand experience.  Both he and Hoss had warned him about Jupiter.  “He does, huh?  Has Hoss been dipping into Hop Sing’s apple barrel?”

Despite the conversational tone in Adam’s voice, Matt’s back stiffened and he fought down a groan.  Not thinking, he’d opened his big mouth and now he’d have to cover.  “Uh, yeah,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on his task.  “I saw Hoss give him one and he sure liked it.”  It was the truth—he did see Hoss give him one.

Adam sighed.  He’d been a big brother long enough to recognize the signs.  Eyeing the boy, he walked over and took a seat on the stool outside of Blackie’s stall.  He recognized the stool and smiled ruefully.  He had a feeling Matt wouldn’t like answering to him any more than Little Joe did, but this was just too dangerous to overlook.  Crooking his finger he called Matt and motioned him over.

One look at the stern expression on Adam’s face and his stomach did a flip flop.  He briefly considered bolting, but decided that would only make him look guilty.  No, his best bet was to face Adam and act natural.

Adam eyed him seriously.  “You do remember you’re supposed to stay away from Jupiter, don’t you?”

Uncomfortable, Matt broke eye contract and gave a little nod.  “Sure.”

“That’s good,” Adam said with a distinct warning in his voice, “because I’d hate to have to warm your britches.”

Matt scowled, momentarily forgetting he was in the wrong.  “But…but…we’re friends,” he protested.  “And you ain’t got no right!”

“Yes we are,” Adam said, capturing his chin, “but I’m also an adult and if I see you doing something dangerous, I won’t hesitate to correct you and I know for a fact your mother wouldn’t object.  So consider this fair warning.  Is that understood?”

Red-faced, Matt pulled away and stared at the floor.  “Yes sir,” he whispered.  He was smart enough to know Adam knew the truth and was giving him a second chance, but that did nothing to soothe his hurt pride.

“All right then,” Adam said getting up.  “Let’s go get some lunch.”

Feeling hard done by, Matt lagged behind.  Why’d he have to go and ruin everything?

Adam glanced over his shoulder, tempted to ease the awkwardness between them, but decided against it.  He had a feeling a little thinking on Matt’s part would go a long way.

Up at the house, they stamped the dust off their boots and went in through the kitchen.  Ellie looked up and smiled.  She was putting the finishing touches on a plate of roast beef sandwiches.  “It’s just the three of us today, so I thought we’d eat in here.  Do you mind?”

“That’s fine by me,” Adam said smiling.  “Where are Pa and Hop Sing?”

Ellie wiped her hands on her apron and reached for the pitcher of milk.  “Your father is taking lunch to the boys and Hop Sing is out back tending the garden.”

With a nod, Adam headed to the sink to wash up.  Already scrubbing, Matt moved over to make some room and wordlessly handed him the bar of soap.  Adam accepted it without comment.  He understood his predicament.  No self-respecting ten year-old was ever threatened with a spanking without feeling put out, but he hoped he didn’t take the sulking too far.  Disrespect would only alert his mother and land him in more trouble.

Hands dry, Matt went to the table and dutifully held them out for inspection before sitting down.  Satisfied her son wouldn’t be eating too much dirt, Ellie smiled her approval.  “I don’t know what Hop Sing puts in the soap,” she commented, “but it smells wonderful, much nicer than the soap at the mercantile.”

Matt wrinkled his nose and took a sip of milk.  He didn’t particularly like smelling like a lady.

Adam smiled to himself as he dried his hands.  He had an idea that just might work.  “It was Marie’s recipe,” he explained, joining them at the table, “and while it might smell wonderful, I can guarantee you, it doesn’t taste wonderful.”

Matt glanced at him with a spark of interest.  “You got your mouth washed out?” he asked, curiosity prompting him to break his silence.

Adam nodded.  “Yep, I was fifteen and spouting off to my Ma right here in the kitchen.  She threatened to wash my mouth out, but I didn’t believe her and the next thing I knew she was scrubbing the taste buds right off my tongue with that wonderful rose-scented soap.”

Matt grimaced at the thought and took a big bite of his sandwich.  “Must’ve been awful,” he said with a mouthful.

Adam eyed him with amusement and hungrily did the same.  “It was,” he replied.  “Everything tasted like soap for days.”  It was an exaggeration, of course, but it seemed to do the trick.

Grinning now, Matt took another bite while Ellie shook her head confounded as to why male camaraderie and bad manners always seemed to go hand in hand.

Catching her look, Adam gave her a wink.

She smiled and let the ‘men’ continue their conversation uninterrupted.

“Was that the only time you got your mouth washed out?”

Adam shook his head and swallowed down some milk.  “Uh, no, there was one other time when I was about eight or nine.  My Pa overheard me saying something I shouldn’t.”

“Swearin’ I bet.”

Adam nodded and in the interest of pulling Matt completely out of his sulk, he proceeded to tell on himself.  “I was swearing at our milk cow for knocking over a pail of milk.  Hoss was with me and thought it was funny and the more he laughed the more Bonnie kicked and the madder I got.”

“And your Pa walked in?”

“Yep, and he wasn’t too happy about the words coming out of my mouth, especially when my three-year-old brother started repeating them.”

Matt and Ellie shared a giggle and then Matt grew thoughtful.  “Didn’t your Pa ever give you a second chance?”

Adam nodded and looked him in the eye.  “That was my second chance so I couldn’t very well complain, especially since I’d used those words more times than my Pa knew.”

At that, Matt wrinkled his brow and studied his plate, feeling remorseful.  He’d disobeyed more times than Adam and especially Hoss knew.  By rights, he’d already earned that tanning and had no call to be sulky over a mere warning.

Adam didn’t miss his expression and when the boy looked up with a sheepish smile, he smiled back, seeing the point had been taken.

“Mathew,” Ellie interjected, oblivious to the exchange, “when you’re done eating, you can take those scraps of food out to the raccoon.  The poor little fellow must be hungry.”

Matt nodded and washed down the last of his sandwich with a big gulp of milk.  “I’m done,” he said, fairly bouncing out of his chair.  Now that things were right again, his exuberance was back in full force.

Ellie stopped him before he rushed out the door.  “Just make sure you watch your fingers.  That raccoon may be a baby, but Hoss says his teeth are razor sharp.”

“Aw Ma,” he said with a shake of his head as he went out.  “I know.”

Ellie exchanged a smile with Adam.  “I suppose he does know more about that cute little fellow than me.”

Adam grinned.  “Well, he knows more than to call her a cute little fellow.”

Ellie laughed at her blunder and then sighed, looking a little sad.  “I know we’ve only been here a short time, but he’s grown to love it here.  It’s going to be hard for him to leave.”

Adam frowned.  “You know you don’t have to rush off.  You’re welcome to stay for as long as you like.”

Ellie shook her head as she collected the plates and took them to the sink.  “Now that you’re back on your feet, we should leave you to your work.”

Adam followed her with the glasses and deposited them on the drain board.  “It’s likely to be another two or three days before I can put in a full day’s work, so you might as well stay, at least until then.  I’d like to spend some time with you.”

“Why, Adam,” she said, her eyes sparkling, “we’ve had nothing but time.”

With a roguish grin, Adam came up behind her and pulled her close.  “Not in the moonlight, we haven’t.”

Ellie relaxed against him.  “True and now that you’re in a better mood that does sound pleasant.”

Adam looked down at her with a contrite expression.  “I’m sorry.  I guess I was a bit of a bear this morning.”

“A bit?” Ellie exclaimed, twisting to look up at him.  “My goodness, your father was ready to…to…well I don’t know what he had in mind…but it wasn’t good.”

“Speaking of my father, I’m surprised he didn’t stick around to keep an eye on me.”

Ellie escaped from his arms and pumped some water for the dishes.  “I’m not,” she said with a coy smile.

Adam arched an eyebrow.  “Of course, I should have known.”

“He’s just concerned, Adam.  You don’t really mind do you?”

“No,” he said with a soft smile.

“Good,” she said as she took a plate and rinsed it, “because he’s expecting a full report.”

“Naturally,” he replied, “just remember where your loyalties lie.”

Her eyes dancing playfully, Ellie picked up the dish towel and turned to face him.

Having a pretty good idea of what she intended to do, he jumped out of the way and scurried out the door, grabbing his hat in the process.  “Oh, no you don’t,” he exclaimed shutting the door behind him.  Safely outside, he smiled at her through the window and tipped his hat.  Smiling in return, she shook her head and got back to the dishes.  Adam watched her for a moment and then smiling to himself he went to see what Matt was up to.

Chapter 20

Over the next few days, Adam followed doctor’s orders and slowly eased into work by taking over the barn chores.  He was pleased when the physical activity loosened the tightness in his shoulder.  Paul was right, though, by day’s end he was bone tired and ready for bed.  His first day up, he’d barely made it through supper without nodding off and tonight he wasn’t fairing much better.  “The course of true love never did run smooth,” he said, quoting Shakespeare to himself as he dragged up the stairs.

He didn’t have long to lament his thwarted plans for romance, though, because as soon as his head hit the pillow he fell asleep and didn’t move until the next morning when he was awakened by the sound of Hoss tromping down the hall.  With the marking done and the felling about to begin, he was riding up to the timber camp before the extra crews arrived.  Adam frowned as he thought about all the extra responsibilities that had befallen his middle brother because of him.  Don’t worry Missouri mule; we’ll all be up at camp and doing our regular jobs in a day or two.

It wasn’t quite sunup, but since he was fully awake, he got out of bed and reached for his pants.  As he tugged them on, he thought about all the other disruptions to their normal workday and the more he tallied them up, the more restless he became.  The fact that Roy still didn’t know who’d shot him didn’t help.

Sitting down to pull on his socks, he contemplated the sheriff’s latest news.  Roy had stopped by the house yesterday to tell them about another group of miners who’d arrived in town; a raucous lot who thought nothing of getting drunk and tearing up the town night after night.  Not the sort Tom would normally hire, but what puzzled him more was the fact that he’d hired them at all.  Why hire extra men for a job that wasn’t a sure thing?  He tugged on his boots and walked over to the window, grabbing his shirt on the way.  It was getting light and once Hoss was gone, he’d take a little ride.  Maybe a trip to the Lazy L would solve the mystery.  He smiled and buttoned his shirt.  He hadn’t snuck out of the house in years, but with Pa coddling him and Little Joe watching his every move, he had no other choice.

Treading lightly, he stole through the house and eased open the front door, taking care not to alert Hop Sing who was already up and rummaging in the kitchen.  Outside, he stealthily made his way to the barn and quickly saddled his horse and mounted up.  Sport sensed his urgency and strained at the bit eager to get going.  Adam held him back with a tight rein and soft words, but once they were out of the yard, he gave him his head and let him run.  After being cooped up in the house for three long weeks, he had to admit, he was looking forward to the run as much as Sport.  It was a perfect summer’s morning and despite his reason for being there, he enjoyed the explosion of wildflowers dotting the meadow and briefly toyed with the idea of taking Ellie to the lake.  Purely wishful thinking, he knew.  As it was, he was taking a risk, one his father would likely call foolhardy, but one he thought necessary.  Logan and his cohorts had brought in extra men for a reason and no matter how much his father wanted the law to handle it, Roy simply didn’t have the time or manpower to go traipsing into the mountains.  Pa would be mad, but he’d get over it.

“As long as I don’t get myself shot,” he told himself as he squinted at a rider in the distance.  He couldn’t make out who it was, so he melted into a nearby stand of trees and waited.  As he kept watch, his heart pumped a little faster until he unmistakably identified the rider as his brother.  He briefly considered staying hidden, but thinking better of it, he emerged from the trees and hailed him.  The last thing he wanted to do was accidently startle Hoss into drawing on him.

With a look of suprise, Hoss let out a low whistle and rode up alongside him.  “Doggone, Adam, what’re you doin’ out here?”

“Just takin’ a little ride,” he answered amiably.

Hoss eyed him in wonder.  “Pa know?”

Adam looked out from under his hat with a guilty expression.  “I expect he does by now.”

Hoss lifted his eyebrows in amusement.  “Boy is he gonna blow his top!”  Pa gave Adam a lot of leeway, but when it came to following ranch rules, he was bound just as tight as the rest of them.

“No doubt,” Adam replied, smiling.

Hoss chuckled, but knowing his brother the way he did, his amusement rapidly turned to suspicion.  Adam wouldn’t worry Pa and suffer through a lecture just to go for a little ride.  He was up to something.  “You goin’ anyplace special?” he asked.  His tone made it clear he had a pretty good idea of the answer and he wasn’t going to stand for any soft-soapin’ story.

Adam maintained an air of casualness in the hopes of throwing off his brother’s well-honed instincts.  “No, just had a case of cabin fever is all.”

Annoyed now, Hoss gave him a hard look.  “You’re headed to Bear Creek, aren’t yuh?” It was a statement, not a question.

Adam shifted in his saddle and let out an audible sigh.

“Dadburnit!” Hoss exclaimed.  “If it ain’t Little Joe dragging me into trouble, it’s you!”

“Seems like you were doing a fine job of that yourself.”

“Aw heck,” Hoss replied, disgusted with a situation that made a simple task three times the effort.  “I forgot some supplies and it don’t take three men to fetch ‘em.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Adam agreed, “but it’s an order you shouldn’t ignore.”

Hoss eyed him and sighed.  He’d been hoping to sneak home and back without anyone knowing.  “I reckon not, but that goes for you too, older brother.”

Adam squinted into the sun.  Hoss was right.  He was setting a bad example.  But the longer the situation was allowed to go on, the more the ranch would lose in time and money and the harder it would be to track down the men who’d bushwhacked him.  He just couldn’t stand by and let that happen.  So even if it meant tarnishing his reputation as the responsible older brother, he was determined to poke around the Lazy L to see what he could uncover.

“Look, Hoss, this is something I’ve got to do, so why don’t we just go our separate ways.”  As he spoke he took up his reins and gave Sport a little kick as if the matter were settled, but Hoss was quick to swing Chubb around and block his way.  The picture of Adam lying on the ground with blood soaking through his shirt wasn’t something he’d soon forget.

“Oh no!” he replied, vehemently.  “I ain’t lettin’ you scout around the Lazy L by yourself.”

“Hoss,” Adam argued reasonably, “I can take care of myself.”

Hoss gave him a firm look.  He knew how stubborn his brother could be so he didn’t mince any words.  “Oh yeah?  Is that why you was layin’ flat on your back for three whole weeks with a bullet hole in your shoulder?”

Adam glowered, affronted by the remark.  “That was before we knew what we were dealing with,” he shot back irritably.

“All right, I’ll give you that,” Hoss replied, throwing his hands up in surrender, “but I’m goin’ with you anyhow, and just for the record, Pa ain’t gonna remember either one of us is a day over fifteen once he finds out what we’ve done.”

“All the more reason for you to be on your way,” Adam replied, smiling now.  “No sense in both of us gettin’ a tanning.”

“Too late, I’m already in it up to my neck.  Besides my bein’ there, just might save your stubborn hide.”

“How do you figure?”

“Well, like I said, Pa’s likely to forget your age, but there ain’t no mistakin’ my size.”

“And that’ll bring him back to his senses, huh?”

“Yep.”

Adam laughed at their inane conversation, then shook his head.  “Seriously, Hoss, there’s no reason for—”

“Aw, quit your jawin’.  I been wantin’ to have a looksee myself, but with you lollygagging around in bed, I been stuck riding roughshod over Little Joe and let me tell yuh, I ain’t had a minute’s peace.”

Adam shook his head in amusement.  “He’s gonna be spittin’ nails when he finds out we left him behind.”

“Sure enough,” Hoss replied, his eyes twinkling.

With a grin, Adam gave his horse a gentle kick.  “C’mon, then, let’s get going.”

Relieved there’d be no more arguing, Hoss rode up alongside him and together they headed to the north pasture.  When they reached the herd grazing in the grass lands near the creek, they slowed to a walk and carefully made their way through the cattle clustered peaceably under the trees.  At the creek, they urged their horses into the knee deep water and crossed over to the Lazy L where they followed a trail that led them up into the mountains.  The higher they climbed, the more the creek bed narrowed and the more the water roared and rushed as it raced down from the high country, making it hard to hear.  Harnessed by a hose, it could easily blast the hillside away, Adam thought grimly as they veered off the trail and rode through the trees to the shaft site.  They were almost to their destination when Hoss pulled back on his reins and held up a hand.  “Hear that?”

Adam strained to hear and then nodded as he identified the faint sounds of men shouting and what sounded like hammering.  “Sounds like they got a crew up there, all right.”

Eyes narrowing, Hoss pulled his rifle out of its scabbard and scanned the surrounding area.  “Yeah and they’re liable to have a lookout.”

Nodding, Adam retrieved his rifle and with a sharp look around, he kept their pace to a slow walk.

After a few minutes, Hoss pointed to a thicket of undergrowth.  They’d gone as far as they dared on horseback and he was anxious to get down.  He felt like a big ol’ sitting duck destined for the roasting pan.  “Over there,” he whispered, gesturing to a place where they could conceal their horses.  With a nod, Adam followed Hoss and after both horses were tethered, they cautiously crept forward on foot.  Concealed by an outcrop of rocks, they exchanged an astonished look at the sight before them.  What had previously been a small excavation site was now a full-fledged mining camp fully equipped with hydraulic monitors and long lines of sluice boxes.  There were a dozen or so tents and at least two dozen men constructing a flume that would drop water down to the site.

“Just look at that,” Hoss muttered in amazement.

“Logan sure is confident, isn’t he?”

Hoss frowned in thought.  “Yeah, what makes him so dang sure the judge is gonna see things his way?”

“I don’t know,” Adam said with a shake of his head, “but Stuart & McCall Hydraulics wouldn’t be sinking this kind of money into something they didn’t think was gonna pan out.”

“Yeah, well judging from this set up, they ain’t got no doubt.”

Adam nodded and after observing the camp for a few more minutes, he gave Hoss a light rap on the arm to get his attention.  “C’mon,” he said, pushing away from the rocks, “let’s get back to the ranch.”

Hoss nodded and together they moved silently back through the trees.  As they reached the thicket where the horses were tethered, the sound of a gunshot crackled through the air and a bullet pinged into the ground at Hoss’ feet.  In an instant, they dove for cover, but not before a second bullet grazed Adam’s side, tearing his shirt.  Unsure of where the shots were coming from, they held their fire and waited, their breathing coming fast from the sudden surge of adrenalin.

“That was just a warning,” a man’s voice called out, “but if you come around again, we won’t be so neighborly.”

After exchanging a look with his brother, Adam cautiously raised his head and looked in the direction of the voice.  As he did, four men on horseback, their rifles drawn, revealed themselves.  He scanned the unfamiliar faces, none of them were Tom’s cowhands.  “Neighborly?” he asked with disgust.  “Is this Tom Logan’s idea of being neighborly?”

The man leveled his gun at Adam.  “We don’t work for Logan, we work for Stuart and McCall and they don’t like folks pokin’ around in their business.  Now mount up and get going Cartwright, before you get yourself shot again.”

Adam’s body tensed and their eyes locked.  His meaning clear, the miner sneered, taking a perverse satisfaction in facing the man he’d shot.  He wasn’t prepared, however, for the intensity in Adam Cartwright’s steely cold gaze and he felt a sudden shiver run down his spine.  Unnerved, he gestured with his rifle, reminding himself he was the one in charge.  “I said GET!”

Hoss grabbed the reins to their horses and nudged his brother.  “Come on, Adam,” he said quietly.  “This ain’t the time.”

With a slight nod, Adam took his reins and mounted.  Angry as he was, he wouldn’t risk getting either of them shot by some trigger-happy fool.

A short distance away, Tom Logan lowered his rifle and disappeared as silently as he had come.

Chapter 21

Back at the ranch, Matt sat on the porch step idly watching Little Joe split logs.  As he listened to the steady rhythm of the axe, he mulled over the strange way everyone was acting.  Something was bothering Joe, Mr. Cartwright was angry, Ma was quiet, and even Hop Sing was grumpy.  He had wanted to go down to the corral with Adam, but he was nowhere to be found and Hoss had ridden out to the timber camp early this morning.  He heaved a sigh and kicked at a rock.  It was only mid-morning and it didn’t seem like a very promising day.

Impatient, Ben went outside and squinted into the distance.  Seeing no sign of his eldest, he walked across the porch and stood behind Matt, his hands planted firmly on his hips.  Matt looked up, ready to say hello, but one look at the scowl on Mr. Cartwright’s face and he swallowed it back down.

“Joseph!”

Little Joe brought the axe down with a loud CRACK and then turned to face his Pa.  Thanks to Adam, he was apt to get his head bit off if he didn’t jump to attention.  “Yes sir?”

“Tell that errant brother of yours, I want to see him the minute he gets in!”

“Sure, Pa, I’ll tell him first thing.”

With a firm nod, Ben turned on his heels and stalked back inside.  Little Joe blew out his breath and picked up another log, glad he was in the clear for a change.  He felt a pang of sympathy for Adam, but not much considering he was a double-talking sneak.  It wasn’t so much that he took off, he figured he’d go poking around the Lazy L sooner or later, he just didn’t figure he’d be doing it so soon.  Should’ve kept a closer eye, but dang it, a fella’s gotta sleep.  With a mighty heave he brought the axe down and split the log clean in two.

Matt eyed the firewood scattered on the ground and got to his feet.  “At least it’s somethin’ to do,” he muttered with a sigh of boredom.

Taking notice, Little Joe smiled.  It was kind of nice having him around and it suddenly occurred to him that Matt just might end up being his nephew if Adam and Ellie got hitched.  “Hey, Matt, thanks for the help.”

“Sure,” he replied with a shrug and a smile.  He was glad Joe was in a better mood, but boy, was Mr. Cartwright mad!  Baffled, he picked up another log and suddenly let out a painful hiss when a splinter jabbed the sensitive skin underneath his fingernail.  “Ow!”

“Here, let me see,” Little Joe said, walking over.

Matt held up his finger and with their heads together, they both peered at the injury.

“You think you can get it out?” Matt asked, wincing.

“Yep, with the right tool,” Joe said, pulling him over to the toolbox.  He smiled at him when he found the needle nose pliers and in a few seconds he had it out.  He pointed to a pair of gloves lying on the porch.  “Better put those on.”

Matt inspected his finger and then retrieved the gloves.  They were way too big, but he stuck his hands in anyway.  It was better than getting another splinter.  “Hey Joe?” he asked, getting back to work.  “Why is your Pa so mad at Hoss?”

Little Joe grinned.  “He’s not.  He’s mad at Adam.”

“Adam!” Matt exclaimed.  “How come?”

“Because he rode out alone, probably looking for them buswhackers.”

Matt frowned a little.  “Ain’t that kind of dangerous?”

Seeing he’d worried him, Little Joe tried to repair the damage.  “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine, leastways until Pa gets a hold of him.”  He sure hoped he’d be fine.  Doggonit! How did Adam give him the slip, anyway?

“What do you mean?” Matt exclaimed, eyes wide with astonishment.  “Ain’t he too old for…for…for what?” he wondered aloud.

“For a dressing down,” Joe supplied, “and no he ain’t.  No one on the ranch is safe from that, not if Pa figures he has it coming.”  He grinned at the expression on Matt’s face and then got back to work.

Matt shook his head in wonder and then stooped to pick up more wood.  The idea of Adam getting a real dressing down and not just a funny scolding like Hop Sing sometimes handed out was a little unsettling, but if he was breaking the rules like Joe said, he supposed he had it coming.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Inside the house, Ben sat at his desk, thoroughly frustrated by his efforts to write a letter.  Unable to put two words together, he angrily threw his pen down and pushed at the paper, accidentally sending Elizabeth’s picture crashing to the floor.  Annoyed at himself, he went around to the front of the desk and bent down to pick it up, relieved it wasn’t damaged.  With a shake of his head, he sighed at the image.  “What’s got into that boy of yours, Liz.  I thought he had more sense.”

On her way to his desk with a tray of coffee, Ellie overheard Ben speaking to Adam’s mother and smiled softly.  She imagined Ben had picked up those pictures seeking advice many times through the years.  As a mother, she understood the feeling of being angry and worried all at the same time and even though Ben’s sons were grown, she wasn’t at all surprised he still experienced those moments.  In fact, it was probably worse.  Trouble for an adult often meant a predicament far more dangerous than any boyhood shenanigan.  Her smile faded at the worrisome thought and a little frown creased her brow.  Adam would have to answer to his father and with Ben in such an angry mood, she certainly hoped he had a good reason for disregarding his edict, but more importantly she hoped he was safe.  Taking a deep breath, she approached his desk, hoping to calm Ben, just a little.  “I thought you might like some coffee.”

Glancing at her, he gave a little nod and hastily returned the picture to its rightful place before taking the tray and placing it on the desk.  “Thank you,” he said, forcing a smile.  “Please, have a seat.”

Ellie did as invited and picked up her coffee while Ben settled in his chair and retrieved his cup.  After taking a sip, he looked at Ellie with some surprise and held up his coffee in silent question.

“I added a dash of brandy,” she explained.  “I hope you don’t mind.  Hop Sing thought you’d appreciate it.”

Ben raised an eyebrow and Ellie wondered if she’d made a mistake.  “If it’s not to your liking, I’d be happy to bring you another cup.”  She put her cup down and made a move to get up, but Ben shook his head.

“No, no, it’s fine.”

Accepting his word, Ellie smiled and picked up her coffee and took a sip.  Ben smiled politely and did the same, but she could see his mind was elsewhere.  Once again, a frown creased her brow as she surreptitiously studied him, unsure of how to proceed.  She really didn’t have the foggiest notion how to calm this man and was beginning to think she should just mind her own business when he broached the subject himself.

“I’m sorry I’m such poor company,” he said, apologizing for his ill manners.  “It’s just that Adam’s got me so angry.”  He shook his head in frustration.

“I understand,” she replied quietly.  “But I’ll venture to guess he’s got you more worried than angry.”

Ben looked at her and gave a slight smile, feeling the common bond between them as parents.  “I suppose,” he sighed, “but I can tell you this, as soon as he rides in, he’ll be the one worrying, not me.”

Concerned, Ellie hesitated and then went ahead and asked the question weighing on her mind“You will let him explain though, won’t you?”

Ben harrumphed.  “He’ll be explaining himself, all right, but as far as I’m concerned there’s no excuse for this kind of recklessness.”

His firmness left no doubt in Ellie’s mind as to the futility of pleading Adam’s case and a quiet sigh escaped her lips as she looked from Ben’s stern unyielding face to the cup in her hands.

Ben glanced at her and his face softened.  He’d been furious all morning and she probably thought him a tyrant.  “Ellie, this won’t be the first time Adam and I have locked horns, but if you’re worried, let me assure you, he’ll survive.”

Ellie nodded sheepishly, the color in her cheeks rising.  “Of course,” she said, “it’s really none of my business, it’s just that I’ve come to admire you both and I hate to see you at odds.”

“So you thought you’d ply me with whiskey to soften me up, is that it?” An amused expression crossed his face.

Embarrassed by the apparent transparency of her meddling, Ellie clamped her mouth shut, not knowing what to say.  Thankfully, she was rescued by the sound of riders coming into the yard.  Ben shot to his feet and looked out the window.  “It’s Adam and Hoss,” he announced, both relieved and puzzled at the same time.  Ellie smiled, equally relieved, and then excused herself and went to the kitchen quite sure her presence wasn’t needed.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Little Joe’s eyes narrowed suspiciously at the sight of his two brothers riding into the yard together.  In contrast, Matt’s eyes widened and a toothy smile brightened his face.  With a shout, he abandoned his work and ran to meet them, nearly falling in the process.  Dismounting, Adam caught him before he hit the ground.  “You keep racing around like that and you’re liable to flatten your nose,” he teased.

Matt smiled, unruffled.

“Funny you should say that,” Little Joe said, joining them, “because I was just thinking how I’d like to flatten both your noses!” He pulled himself up to his full height and angrily looked from brother to brother.

Hoss protectively touched his nose.  “Now, Joe, you ain’t got no call sayin’ that.”

“Oh no?” he asked, jutting out his chin.  “Well, how is it you two are together?  Tell me that!”

Hoss shrugged innocently and glanced at Adam.  “Just happened to meet up on the trail, is all.  Ain’t that right, Adam?”

Adam gave a casual nod.  “That’s right,” he drawled.

Little Joe rolled his eyes and shot back an accusation.  “Yeah, and I bet you two just happened to ride over to the Logan place, too, didn’t you?” It was bad enough Adam had given him the slip, but the pair of them teaming up and leaving him behind like some wet-behind-the-ears kid was downright insulting.

Adam would have chuckled at Joe’s obvious indignation, but he knew from experience his hot-headed little brother might counter with a punch and he couldn’t afford that right now.  “Where’s Pa?” he asked.

“Inside,” Joe replied with a slow smile, “and if I were you, I wouldn’t keep him waiting.”

“Yeah, he’s real mad,” Matt offered, uneasily.

Adam gave him a reassuring wink and then with a glance to Hoss headed for the door.

Hoss followed, dragging his feet as if he were walking to the gallows.  He hated it when Pa was mad.  All that yelling made his ears ring.  “Water the horses, will yuh, Joe?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, dutifully taking their reins.  He’d take ‘em to the water trough, but that was it, he wasn’t about to miss out on this lecture.

Standing by, unsure of what to do, Matt hesitated when Joe finished with the horses and took a seat under the window.  He wanted to find out what was gonna happen, but he wasn’t so sure about eavesdropping.

Eyeing him, Joe grinned and motioned for him to come over.  “Come on,” he whispered, “you don’t wanna miss this, do you?”

Unable to resist, Matt shrugged off his misgivings and sat down beside Joe.

Spying the two eavesdroppers from the kitchen window, Ellie clicked her tongue and then swung back around in search of a wooden spoon.  Seeing one on the drain board, she picked it up and started for the door.  Hop Sing stopped her with a tap to the arm.  “Not that one, Missy Ellie.  This work better.”  Taking the smaller spoon from her hand, he replaced it with his big paddle spoon and smiled.

Ellie nodded appreciatively and then silently walked out the door and across the porch.  So intent were they on listening, neither boy sensed her presence until she bent close to admonish them.  Her voice was low but firm.  “You two ought to be ashamed of yourselves!”

Matt’s head flew up in shocked surprise.  “Ma!”

Ellie eyed him disapprovingly.  “You know better than to eavesdrop, Mathew.  Now scoot!”

With a gulp, he scrambled to his feet and was promptly helped off the porch with a sound smack to his bottom.

“That goes for you too, Little Joe.”

He warily got to his feet, careful to keep his backside out of reach.  “Look, Ellie, this isn’t what you think.”

Ellie put her hands on her hips and gave him a doubtful look.  “Oh no?”

“No,” he said with a disarming smile.  “It’s only eavesdropping if the people talking don’t know you’re listening, but it ain’t like that between brothers, you see, they know I’m out here listening.”

Ellie schooled her features and willed herself not to smile.  It was a good try and probably true, but it wouldn’t stop her from shooing him off.  She raised the spoon and with a firm voice, she repeated her admonishment.  “Joe Cartwright, I said scoot and I meant it!”

Eyes wide, he danced away, falling off the porch and landing hard on his backside in the process.  Blushing to the tips of his ears, he got up and stalked to the barn.  “Fine, I’m going,” he muttered.  I shoulda known Adam’s gal would turn out to be just as bossy as him. 

Shaking her head in amusement, Ellie went back to the kitchen, glad they were both spared the embarrassment of her having to follow through on her threat.

Chapter 22

As soon as Adam and Hoss walked inside, Ben’s voice rang out.  “Over here,” he commanded in a short clipped tone.

Exchanging knowing looks, they tossed their hats on the sideboard and headed for the desk not bothering to remove their gun belts.

When they rounded the corner, Ben looked Adam up and down searching for any signs of pain or fatigue.  Finding none, he unleashed his pent up anger.  “Where the devil have you been?”

Adam calmly met his gaze.  He respected his father and didn’t defy him easily, but the days of being completely bowled over by his temper were long gone.  “Pa, I know you’re angry, but we needed to know what we’re up against.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed and his lips thinned.  “So you went off to investigate, is that it?”

“Well, yeah.  Roy’s—”

“The Sheriff!” he exclaimed, too incensed to hear him out.

Adam pursed his lips and instinctively took a step back as his father exploded out of his chair and came around the desk.

“I thought I made it perfectly clear he was to handle this.”  He shook his head, exasperated he had to repeat this to Adam of all people.  “I also thought I made it clear that no one was to ride out alone or to set foot on the Lazy L.  You, more than anyone, ought to understand the reason why!”

Adam scowled with impatience.  He didn’t dispute the precautions he’d put into place, but precautions weren’t solutions.  “Open your eyes, Pa! Roy doesn’t have time to go chasing after our problems and in the meantime, Logan and his cohorts sure as hell aren’t sitting around waiting for a court date!”

Ben bristled, but before he could get a word out, Hoss jumped in to support his brother.  “Adam’s right, if we don’t get a handle on this real quick, we’re gonna get blindsided by them yahoos.”

Ben shifted his angry glare from Adam to Hoss.  “What’s your part in all this?” he asked heatedly.  “I thought you were supposed to be up at the timber camp.”

“Uh, well, I was ridin’ in for some supplies and I ran into Adam.”

“Riding in?” Ben asked, suspiciously.  “By yourself?”

Hoss averted his gaze and cleared his throat, wishing he could avoid answering altogether.  “Yes sir.”

“Confound it!” Ben yelled, looking from one to the other.  “Doesn’t anybody follow orders around here anymore?  I thought Little Joe was the only one I needed to worry about!”

Hoss winced and traded a look with Adam, hoping his brother had sense enough to pick his battles wisely.  “Yeah, I’m awful sorry about that, Pa, and I can understand you wanting to yell, but if you’ll just listen, Adam’s got somethin’ important to tell you.”

Grappling with his anger, Ben hesitated a moment before finally giving Adam a begrudging nod.  As angry as he was, he knew it would be foolish not to listen.  “Remember who you’re talking to.”

Adam flushed, regretting his earlier language.  He’d let his temper get the best of him and he knew from experience, he’d have to tone it down if he wanted to get anywhere with his father.  “We rode up to the shaft site on Tom’s property,” he explained, evenly.  “There’s a full crew up there and at least two dozen men building a flume.”

“A flume?” Ben repeated in surprise.

Adam nodded.  “It’s about a quarter mile long and they’ve already brought in enough hydraulic equipment to be up and running as soon as it’s done.”

“That’s right,” Hoss added.  They got two of them big ‘ol nozzles up there and a whole bunch of hose and sluice boxes.”

Stunned, Ben’s brows furrowed as he leaned against the edge of his desk.  He’d been counting on Tom to come to his senses, but apparently that wasn’t going to happen.  Well, if it’s a fight he wants, it’s a fight he’ll get.  “I’ve been a blame fool,” he said, shaking his head.

Hoss offered him a sympathetic look.  “Aw, Pa, don’t be too hard on yourself, you two been friends for years.”  He shrugged.

“Besides, we don’t really know who’s calling the shots,” Adam said, speculating.  “Is it Tom or his new partners?  They seem to be at the forefront of all this.”

Ben looked at Adam.  “You think they’re making the decisions?”

Adam shrugged.  “Tom hasn’t been himself since this all started, so yeah, it’s possible.”

“I don’t know, Adam.  I can’t see him turning the reins over to anyone, business partners or not.”

“Maybe he didn’t have a choice.”

“Or maybe he’s just not the man I thought him to be.  In any case, it’s time we show Mr. McCall, Mr. Stuart, and anyone else who might think otherwise, that we have no intention of simply standing by while they destroy our land.”  With a sigh, he reached around and picked up the notice his lawyer had sent out that morning.  “I was hoping we could still settle this in court, but I’m afraid Hiram’s note about the court date doesn’t mean much anymore.”

Adam nodded, a thoughtful expression on his face.  “You think the appeal was just a diversion?”

Ben nodded back.  “From what you just said, it sure seems like it.”

Adam frowned and stroked his chin.  “Yeah, it does, but I can’t help wondering if they’ve got the judge in their hip pocket.”

“Hey yeah,” Hoss said, piping up again.  “Who is this judge?  Anybody know him?”

Shaking his head, Ben looked at him, surprised he’d nearly forgotten.  “His name is John Worthington.  Roy said he’s new to the circuit, but his father is a distinguished judge in San Francisco, well-known for his fairness in upholding the law.”

Hoss nodded, satisfied.  “Sounds like we don’t hafta worry about him being crooked, then.”

“I don’t know,” Adam replied, mulling it over.  “I wouldn’t be so quick to assume he’s on the up and up.”

Hoss’ nose wrinkled in disagreement.  “With a Pa like that?”

Adam glanced at his father.  “Not everyone is like us, Hoss.  Sometimes the apple falls far from the tree.”

With the hint of a smile on his face, Ben raised an eyebrow and took the opportunity to make a point.  “Yes, and sometimes the apple gets a reckless notion in spite of his father’s good example.”

Point taken, Adam ducked his head and lowered his eyes.  “All right, I suppose it was a reckless thing to do,” he admitted.  “I’m sorry.”

Pleased to hear him say it, Hoss smiled to himself, knowing it would go a long way in patching things up.

Soothed, Ben eyed them both with a little more paternal affection than he had earlier.  “Well, at least you two didn’t run into any trouble.”

Hoss smiled weakly and looked to his older brother, who casually looked away.

The pained look on Hoss’ face coupled with Adam’s evasive tactics didn’t go unnoticed.  “So you did have trouble?” Ben asked, apprehensively.

Dadburnit!  He didn’t mean to give anything away, but he couldn’t help having an honest face.  “Well, maybe just a little, but it ain’t hardly worth talking about.”

Not buying a word of it, Ben’s expression darkened and he demanded a straight answer from his eldest.  “What’s he not telling me?”

Adam sighed to himself, knowing he was going to over react.  “A few of their men spotted us leaving the camp.”

“And?” he prompted.

“And they fired a couple warning shots is all, nothing serious.”

Incredulous, Ben lost the calm he’d been struggling to regain.  “Nothing serious?  You call getting shot at, nothing serious?” He instinctively gave them both a quick once over.  Not really expecting to find anything, his eyes suddenly stopped at the tear on the side of Adam’s shirt, surprised he’d missed it earlier.  “What happened there?”

Adam covered the spot with his hand.  It was just a scrape and in his opinion, they had bigger things to worry about; but he knew he’d be hard-pressed to convince his father.  “It’s nothing.”

Ben nailed him to the floor with his eyes and came closer for a better look.  “I didn’t ask if it was nothing.  I asked what happened.”  Not waiting for an answer, he pulled Adam’s hand away and exposed the flesh wound.

Adam shrugged out of his hold.  “It just caught a little hide,” he said, impatient with the inspection.  “Don’t make more of it.”

Not placated in the least, Ben’s eyes flashed with renewed anger, his temper fueled by the thought of what could have happened.  “So help me, if you two weren’t so…so…big…I’d blister you good!” Exasperated, he turned and paced a few steps away wishing the idea wasn’t so ridiculous.

Recalling their earlier banter, a faint smile flickered across Hoss’ face.  Likewise, a hint of amusement appeared in Adam’s eyes, but they were both quick to sober when their father whirled back around, still fuming.

Adam hesitantly met his eyes.  He’d expected him to be angry, but not to this extent.  After all, he’d been riding alongside him protecting the ranch for several years now.   “Pa, I know you’re upset, but I’m fine.  We both are.”

Ben glowered at him.  “Upset? Upset isn’t the half of it!”

Recognizing the look on his face, Adam finally realized his father had spent the entire morning worrying about him, the same as if he were Little Joe.  Having witnessed enough of those scenes to know exactly what he’d put him through, he traded a guilty look with Hoss.

Ben looked from one son to the other, prepared to raise the roof, but the contrite expressions on their faces succeeded in diminishing the bulk of his anger.  He knew Adam’s determination to protect the Ponderosa had prompted him to defy orders and strike out on his own.  He also knew Hoss’ protective instincts had prompted him to join in.  He sighed and rubbed his forehead.  He understood it, but that didn’t mean he’d let it go without coming to a hard and fast agreement with his sons.  Eyeing them sternly, he drew himself up to his full height.  “From here on out,” he said in a voice that commanded their full attention, “we work together.  No more going off on your own.  Agreed?”

Hoss responded with a quick bob of his head while Adam lagged a beat behind.  It wasn’t that he didn’t agree, but after coming face to face with the arrogance of the man who’d shot him, he wasn’t entirely sure if he could keep that promise.

Sensing his reluctance, Ben honed in on it and came down hard, perfectly willing to exert his authority if it meant keeping his son out of harm’s way.  “I know you’ve got a personal stake in this, Adam, but you’re not to disobey me again.  Is that clear?” His tone was sharp and cut to the crux of the matter.  Adam was a grown man, but he wasn’t entirely beyond the rashness of youth and that combined with his temper and sense of justice could easily get him killed.  He prayed twenty-nine years of training would keep his eldest in check.

Adam’s eyes narrowed in annoyance and he looked away, avoiding eye contact.  He chafed at being so obviously put in his place, but his father knew him too well and he responded in a respectful tone.  “It’s clear,” he replied.  Now that Pa realized they had a real fight on their hands, there wasn’t any reason to butt heads.  He’d abide by his wishes and follow his lead, but whether Pa approved or not, the likelihood of violence was high.

Relieved more than Adam knew, Ben didn’t belabor the issue.  “Tomorrow we’ll ride into town to see Roy and once we’ve filled him in, we’ll go pay a little visit to Jack Stuart and Lester McCall.  It’s time we met.”

Adam raised an eyebrow and nodded, surprised, but pleased with his decision.

“Hoss?”

“Yes sir?”

“Take Joe and Kip back to camp with you and get a crew working on the upper strip.  We’ll be up in a couple days.”

Hoss nodded and headed off, happy with the arrangement.  He didn’t envy Adam having to tell Roy.

“We?” Adam asked.

“Yes we,” Ben said with a resigned nod.  “If you’ve got enough energy to go gallivanting across the countryside, you may as well get back to work.  I could use your experience, but for my sake, try not to do anything too strenuous.”

With a slight nod, Adam made a move to follow his brother but Ben reached out and stopped him, wanting to talk privately.  “You know,” he said quietly and without accusation, “you could have come to me with your suspicions instead of sneaking off and scaring me half to death.”

“Considering how you felt about Tom…I…well…I didn’t think you’d be willing to listen.”

Ben frowned and then gave a rueful nod of agreement.  It was true and there was no refuting it.  “I suppose I have been stubborn about facing the facts, but I value your opinion, Adam, and I think between the two of us, we could have worked out a little less dangerous plan, don’t you?”

Adam looked down for a moment, a faint smile playing at his lips.  After such a severe reaming, it was nice to hear Pa still had confidence in him.  “I’ll try to remember that the next time I get a fool idea,” he said, glancing up and heading off.

Ben smiled benevolently and watched him head off to the kitchen, hopefully to get that scrape taken care of.  He shook his head.  With sons like his, it was no wonder he was nearly all grey.

Chapter 23

The conversation at lunch was fairly subdued with everyone keeping their own counsel, thinking over the morning’s events, but by suppertime the residual awkwardness was gone and the conversation flowed comfortably between the two remaining Cartwrights and Ellie.

Done with the evening meal, only Matt was eager to leave the table, bored with the grownup talk.  Sympathetic, Ellie excused him and in his haste to escape, the youngster nearly collided with Hop Sing.

“Very good,” Hop Sing said, sidestepping Matt and spying the empty platters.  “Everyone have very good appetite tonight!”

Ben looked at him and smiled.  “You outdid yourself, Hop Sing.  That was a fine meal.”

“Yes, it was wonderful,” Ellie added, giving him due praise.

Hop Sing beamed.  Happy stomachs make happy people, his chief objective on a day like today.

“Yeah, it’s too bad Hoss and Little Joe missed out,” Adam said, chiming in.  “It’s not often we get chicken and dumplings.”

Eyes smiling, Hop Sing shook his head.  “Bad for them, but good for me! I be in kitchen all day making dumplings for number two son.  No, it’s much better this way.”  He punctuated that sentiment with a firm nod and then headed to the kitchen with an armful of dishes, leaving everyone chuckling.

“Well, Ellie,” Ben said in good cheer, “shall we continue our cribbage match?  I believe I just may catch up with you tonight.”

Ellie graced him with a congenial nod, but Adam cut in before they had a chance to leave the table.  He was determined to spend some time with Ellie no matter how worn out he was.  “Uh, Pa, you don’t mind putting that off, do you?  I thought Ellie and I would take a little walk tonight.”  He looked at her, his eyes inviting.  “That is, if the lady is agreeable?”

Not anticipating the change in routine, Ben stared at him with some surprise before regaining his composure and smiling.  “By all means, you two go out and enjoy the beautiful night.  The cribbage game will keep.”

Ellie offered Ben an apologetic smile and then looked to Adam and accepted his invitation.  “That sounds lovely, Adam.”

Smiling handsomely, Adam helped her from the table and escorted her out into the moonlight, grateful Little Joe wasn’t on hand to comment.

Ben remained seated, his smile dissolving into a thoughtful look as the door latched behind the young couple.  Minutes later, he roused himself from his reverie with a shake of his head.  “Hop Sing!” he bellowed.  “What’s keeping you with that coffee tonight?”

Scowling, Hop Sing hurried in with the pot and poured him a cup.  “No need to yell.  Coffee ready same time as always.”

“I wasn’t yelling,” Ben replied curtly.  “I was merely asking.”

Hop Sing harrumphed and went about his business saying nothing, but thinking plenty.  So much for happy stomach!

Taking his coffee, Ben went to sit by the fire.  Well, maybe I was yelling, he conceded to himself, but after today, it’s no wonder.  Probably just need some sleep.  The trouble was he didn’t feel sleepy and the idea of going to bed just to stare at the ceiling didn’t appeal to him.  Instead, he opened a book and began to read, only to close it a few minutes later, uninterested.  A small sigh escaped his lips and he put the book down on the coffee table.  His eyes landed on the cribbage board and he idly fingered the pegs.  “Oh, for pete’s sake!” he muttered, irritated with himself.  “Don’t be an old fool.”

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Outside Adam and Ellie walked arm in arm.  It was a clear night and the stars glittered in the night sky.  The moon, almost full, cast a soft glow, lighting their way to a small rough-hewn bench on the far side of the house.  The bench had been fashioned out of a fallen log a few years back and while it went largely unused during the day, the moonlight magically transformed it into a romantic spot to sit and admire the night.  Ellie smiled as Adam brushed it off with a flourish and then gallantly offered her a seat.  She wondered which of the Cartwright boys had carved the cozy little seat and if he’d had any romantic notions in mind.  Surely it was by design.  The setting was far too perfect to be mere happenstance and she could well imagine each of them at one time or another sharing a romantic moment with a girl, away from the hum of one of the Ponderosa’s parties.

“Something amusing?” Adam asked, settling in beside her.

Ellie turned to him, her eyes twinkling like the stars.  “Well, sir, I do believe I understand the purpose of this bench now.”

Adam’s mouth twitched into a little smile.  “Oh, you do, do you?  And what might that be?”

Ellie’s eyes traveled heavenward and she breathed deeply, abandoning her teasing.  “To admire the night sky…it’s so beautiful…somehow back in Boston it doesn’t seem quite so…so…big and brilliant.”

Adam looked to the stars and nodded thoughtfully.  “I agree,” he said, thinking back to his time in the city.  “Out here there’s nothing to hinder the beauty…no distractions.”  Well, except for one, he thought as he dropped his gaze back to Ellie and openly admired the moonlight glinting off the delicate contours of her face.

Ellie glanced at him and felt herself shiver.  It was getting chilly and she’d forgotten her wrap, but seeing Adam’s expression she wondered if her goose bumps had anything at all to do with the cold.

Smiling, Adam moved closer.  “If you’ve no objection,” he said softly, “I’d be happy to keep you warm.”

Ellie gazed at him, her eyes inviting and Adam settled his arm around her.  Warmed now by the heat sparking between them, they sat and listened to the night sounds.

After a moment, Ellie smiled up at him.  “This is nice.”

Adam looked at her, his eyes intimate.  Ellie was a beautiful woman, and the warmth of her body so close to his was having an effect.  Fairly confident she felt the same, he lowered his head and kissed her.  “Yes, very nice,” he murmured softly.

Pulling back ever so slightly, Ellie looked into his eyes and stroked his cheek, conveying her willingness to repeat the kiss.  “Adam.…” she whispered.

Certain now, he pulled her close, one hand at the nape of her neck and the other moving to her back as he claimed her mouth, kissing her deeply.

Swept away by the beautiful night and the hypnotic effect of his kiss, Ellie melted into his arms, her eyes closing.  She could feel his breath, hot against her skin as he nuzzled her neck and cheek before capturing her mouth again.  His lips were soft yet demanding and his kisses set her aflame.  For a moment, she thought of nothing but the pleasant sensations coursing through her body.  But, just as her senses worked to ignite her passion, her mind suddenly worked to tamp it down.  She desperately fought to ignore it, begging herself to banish the niggling doubts, but it was no use and the moment began to slip away.  Besieged by indecision and feelings of guilt, she gently pushed against Adam’s chest and when he loosened his hold, she hastily rose to her feet.

Mystified, Adam wiped his mouth and came to stand behind her.  “What is it?” His tone was soft but when she didn’t respond, he gently turned her around and pressed for an answer, unable to completely mask his frustration.  “What’s wrong?”

“Oh, Adam,” she began, her voice a whisper.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t know what to say.  I…I…”  Shaking her head, her eyes welled with tears.

Adam winced, feeling a tiny stab to his heart and another to his ego.  She didn’t have to say it; her face told him everything.  He was disappointed, thinking they’d come further, but he wasn’t without compassion and he wouldn’t start condemning her memories now.  “It’s all right,” he said, giving her an understanding look.  “You don’t have to explain.”

Ellie lowered her eyes in quiet despair.  She’d seen the flicker of hurt in his face.  “Adam, it’s not you,” she said, attempting to explain anyway.

He quieted her with a light touch to her lips.  “Come on now,” he whispered, hiding his own feelings “there’s no need for tears.  We’ll talk in the morning after we’ve both had a good night’s sleep.”

Knowing it had been a long day and he must be tired, Ellie looked at him through damp lashes and nodded.  She didn’t know what more she could possibly say anyway.  She didn’t understand it herself.

Adam took her hand and led the way, feeling a little let down, but relieved they could discuss it in the morning instead of tonight.  The events of the day were beginning to catch up with him and he was too tired to think about it all.

Ellie stole a look at him as they walked.  As always, he’d been very kind, but she wasn’t naïve; his patience wouldn’t last forever and his interest was bound to wane if she didn’t get her feelings in order.  She bit her bottom lip, perplexed and disappointed by this latest rush of guilt.  Her time on the Ponderosa had proven tremendously helpful and she’d come to some decisions—decisions she thought she was happy with.  So why did everything suddenly seem so wrong?  Why the knots in her stomach when they kissed?   Bewildered, she bit her lip even harder, not wishing to give voice to the wail of frustration rapidly gathering momentum inside her.  Whatever is the matter with you, Eleanor DeWitt!

Chapter 24

In the throes of a nightmare, Matt tossed and turned until he finally woke himself up with a piercing cry.  Shaky and confused, he sat up and scrubbed at his eyes.  The shadowy images of his nightmare disappeared but the feeling of being alone and afraid stayed with him.  With a shiver, he pulled the quilt up to his chin and instinctively looked toward the stream of light coming in through the narrow opening of the door.  It helped, but it wasn’t enough to displace the darkness, so he scurried to the door and threw it wide open.  The light from the hall lamp cast a soft glow as he raced back to the safety of his bed and ducked under the covers.

Dressed in his robe, Ben got to the door just in time to see his head disappear.  A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he entered the room and walked over to the bed.  “Mathew,” he called softly.  “Are you all right?”

Recognizing the voice, Matt peeked out, embarrassed at being caught in a less than manly position.  “I…I’m fine Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben nodded and sat on the bed anyway.  He could tell a scared boy when he saw one.  “Well, now that I’m here, you don’t mind if I stay awhile, do you?”

Matt gave a little shrug, unaware of the relief written on his face.

Ben eyed him, suddenly reminded of Adam’s reluctance to admit his fears at that age.  Unlike his younger brothers, who were quick to forget their boyish pride when frightened, Adam would often put on a show of bravado.  He sensed Matt was the same and kept his voice casual, careful not to embarrass him.  “I, uh, heard you cry out and thought maybe you had a bad dream.”

Matt’s brow furrowed.  He didn’t know he’d yelled out.  He’d have to say something now.  “Yeah, I…um…reckon so.”

Nodding, Ben offered a little more encouragement.  “Do you want to talk about it?”

Matt drew up his legs and hugged his knees, hesitating.  He wanted to, but he didn’t want to look like a baby, not to a man like Mr. Cartwright.

Ben gave a little shake of his head.  Good grief, this boy is just like Adam.  “You know, my boys tell me I’m a pretty good listener.”

Matt gave him a curious glance and then averted his eyes.  “Bet none of ‘em ever got scared of a dumb old dream,” he half whispered.

“Now that’s where you’re wrong,” he confided, leaning in close.  “All three of ‘em have, but don’t tell ‘em I said so—they like to pretend they were born tough as nails.”

Head down, a faint smile flickered across Matt’s face as he toyed with a tassel on the quilt.

Ben waited and sure enough he lifted his head.  “I…um…don’t rightly remember it all…just that I was lost in a cave or somethin’…and…and it was real dark and I kept yelling for help but nobody came.”  Embarrassed, he shrugged and fell silent.

Ben smiled to himself and voiced what he guessed was the rest.  His tone was gentle and understanding.  “And it left you feeling kind of nervous and afraid even though it was just a dumb ol’ dream, right?”

Matt admitted it with a self-conscious nod and in fatherly fashion Ben reached out and put a comforting arm around him.  “You’ve nothing to be ashamed of Matt; everyone feels afraid sometimes.  But if it happens again, just try to remember you’re not really alone.  You’ve got your mother and for the time being, a whole passel of Cartwrights just down the hall.”

Matt yawned, his eyes sleepy again.  “Thanks Mr. Cartwright.  I guess I’m not afraid anymore.”  He cast him a shy, but grateful glance.

Smiling, Ben gave his arm a pat.  “Good, then scoot down and get some sleep, young man.  First light is still hours away.”

Matt nodded and tiredly sank into his pillow, already half asleep.  After a moment, Ben got to his feet and quietly headed for the door.

Ellie watched from the doorway as Ben settled Mathew in bed, her eyes soft and admiring.  She’d heard the last part of their conversation and Ben’s gentle handling of Matt warmed her heart.  He’d comforted her son without babying him, something she could see her ten-year-old appreciated, so rather than interrupt she stayed at the door quietly waiting and listening.

As Ben approached, she wrapped her robe a little tighter, conscious of being in her nightclothes and whispered her thanks.  “Thank you for settling him back in bed.”

Ben smiled and with a nod, indicated they should move further down the hallway.  “He had a bad dream,” he said quietly, “but he’s fine now.”

Ellie nodded, a little frown wrinkling her brow.  Matt wasn’t prone to nightmares and she wondered if something was troubling him.  “I appreciate you getting to him so quickly.  I wasn’t quite sure if I’d heard him or not.”

Without a thought to propriety, Ben put his arm around her shoulders and walked her to her room.  He remembered the days of trying to shake the sleep from his head and wondering whether the sound he’d heard was real or imaginary.  “It was no trouble.  I was just coming back from the…uh…kitchen.”  He felt himself redden and was glad for the semi-darkness.  He’d spoken without thinking and there was nothing else to do but tell a polite fib.  It was either that or confess he was coming back from the outhouse, something he didn’t feel compelled to do.

Detecting some embarrassment, Ellie guessed his predicament and looked with humor into his eyes.  They were warm and friendly and a little sleepy and suddenly she knew—knew she wanted nothing more than to look into those eyes forever.  Stunned by the realization, she swayed, causing Ben to tighten his grip and protectively pull her close.  Her breath caught and she looked up at him, her eyes searching.

Ben’s eyes met hers and her heart filled with happiness.  There was no mistaking the love and passion that smoldered in their depths and for the briefest of moments they reveled in the thrill of their mutual desire before abruptly and awkwardly breaking apart.

Ellie haltingly feigned an excuse.  “I’m sorry.  I must have tripped.”

He quickly accepted it, wanting nothing more than to deny the spark of desire he’d felt rush between them.  “No harm done,” he replied, his voice raspy.

She nodded numbly, the pounding in her heart echoing loudly in her ears.  “Yes, well goodnight,” she whispered, retreating to her room.

Ben bid her goodnight and went to his room, his mind racing and his heart a tumult of emotions.  It couldn’t be.  It can’t be!

Chapter 25

Done with the barn chores, Adam and Matt washed up at the pump and then headed straight to the breakfast table where Ben sat drinking his coffee.  Almost as soon as they sat down, Hop Sing came in with platters of bacon and eggs, followed by Ellie with the biscuits and jam.  As usual, she’d helped in the kitchen, but the knot in her stomach reminded her that things were anything but usual.

Ben stole a look at her as she sat down.  Her eyes were a little puffy and lacked their usual spark.  She obviously hadn’t slept.  Neither had he.  He’d lain awake the rest of the night, unable to turn his thoughts off.  He turned troubled eyes on his son and studied him as he fastidiously tackled his breakfast.

Adam sensed his gaze and looked up from his plate inquiringly.

Feeling less than honest, Ben covered up with small talk.  “You two finished up pretty quick this morning.”

Adam winked at his young assistant.  “Matt and I make a good team, don’t we, Matt?”

The boy flashed a smile and nodded as he tucked into his breakfast.  “Yeah, that and we smelled the bacon.”

Adam grinned at him, but Ben’s uneasiness made him raise an eyebrow.  “I hope that doesn’t mean you two skipped out on any chores.”

Adam regarded his father with some surprise.  His tone wasn’t exactly accusatory, but it wasn’t altogether benign either.  “No, of course not, it just means we’re efficient.”  He caught his eye and smiled, hoping to cajole him out of whatever peculiar mood he was in.

Realizing how he must have sounded, Ben hastened to smooth things over.  There was enough awkwardness at the table without him creating more.  “Yes,” he said, lightening his tone, “I understand Matt has become quite a hand.”

Matt smiled now, relieved his remark hadn’t caused any trouble.  “We got the horses saddled, too.”

“Good,” Ben said, approvingly.  He cast him a smile before speaking exclusively to Adam.  “What about Jonsey?  Did you ask him to ride in with us?”

“Yep, he’s all set.”

Ben gave a brisk nod.  “That’s it, then, we’ll leave as soon as you’re done.”

Quietly following the conversation up until now, Ellie took the opportunity to speak up, confident she’d made the right decision but fairly certain it would be met with some objection.  “If it’s not too much trouble, I think Matt and I should go with you.  It’s time we got back to Lily’s.”

Adam’s eyebrows lifted in surprise, not sure what to make of her announcement, while Matt’s face fell in disappointment.  “No!”

“Mathew,” Ellie said, hurrying to halt his protest, “that’s enough.  You know Adam needs to get back to work and if we leave today, no one will have to make a special trip later on.”

Matt scowled and stared down at his plate.  He knew he was being selfish, but he didn’t much care if someone had to make a special trip or not.

Adam shook his head.  “Ellie, I told you before, there’s no rush.  We can arrange for a driver anytime.”  He looked to his father for support.  “Isn’t that right, Pa?”

Ben hesitated, then gave a reserved nod.  “Of course we can, but its Ellie’s decision, Adam.”

Adam quirked an eyebrow at him, puzzled by his attitude this morning.

Ellie, however, understood and stood up, anxious to forestall any other suggestions to prolong her stay.  “Adam, it’s really no rush.  My bag is already packed and I can have Matt’s things packed in no time.”  She put a hand on her son’s arm.  “Come up as soon as you’re done.”

Down in the mouth, Matt acknowledged her command with the barest of nods.  Ellie’s heart constricted.  She hated upsetting him, but she had no choice.  She turned and went upstairs.  Adam and Ben both stared after her, each absorbed in his own thoughts.

His appetite gone, Matt put his fork down with a clatter, breaking the quiet.  “Can’t you talk her out of it, Adam?”

Adam turned kind eyes on the boy.  He planned on having a word with Ellie, but it was better if Matt didn’t know.  “I think she’s made up her mind, so you best go along with it.”

Matt pulled a face.  “But what about Blackie?  I don’t even have time to give him an apple…or say goodbye…or…or anything.”

Adam considered the situation for a moment and came up with an idea that was sure to go a long way in softening the blow.  “Well, I wouldn’t worry about that if I were you.”

Matt’s scowl deepened.  He thought Adam would at least understand.

“You wanna know why?”

Eyes downcast, Matt shrugged, annoyed by the cheerfulness in his voice.  He didn’t want to hear about Blackie being well taken care of; he already knew that and it didn’t make him feel any better.

“Because you’re gonna be riding him,” Adam went on to say with a glimmer in his eye.

Matt’s eyes flew up and the corners of his mouth lifted into the beginnings of a smile.  “I am?  Really?”

Adam smiled, glad to see his mood lifting.  “Sure, we can take that ride we talked about.”

“I’ll go out and saddle him right now!”

Adam caught his arm.  “Now hold on a minute.  I’ll do that.  You do like your Ma said.”

Curbing his spirits, Matt obeyed and trudged up the stairs with a sigh.  As much as he wanted to ride Blackie, he’d skip it in a heartbeat if it meant staying on the ranch with Adam a few more days.  Maybe he could still convince his Ma.

Once he was out of earshot, Adam turned to Ben.  “He’s pretty disappointed.”

Ben lowered his eyes and toyed with the rim of his cup.  “What about you?  Are you disappointed to see them go?”

Adam considered the question.  “Yeah, I guess I am.  It’s been nice having them here and after all the help Ellie’s given us, I don’t want her to feel as if she has to leave.”

Ben glanced at him, wondering if he’d picked up on the small undercurrent of tension.  It wouldn’t surprise him; his eldest was an astute man.  “What makes you think she does?” he asked, evenly.

Adam gave a little shrug and smiled.  “Ah, nothin’.  I guess I better see to the horses.  You still riding?”

Ben nodded.  If he was on horseback, the ride to Virginia City wouldn’t be as awkward and uncomfortable.  “Jonesy can take Ellie in the buggy.”

With a nod, Adam got up from the table, grabbed his hat and gun belt and went out the door.

Ben watched him go with a heavy heart.  These past few days had confirmed what he always knew to be true—Adam would make a fine husband and father.  But what was the possibility of that happening now?  How deep were Adam’s feelings for Ellie?  And what about hers for him?  What about last night?  He couldn’t deny the intensity of emotion he’d felt between them.  But it was just a moment.  A moment born out of shared experiences.  Nothing more.  He was sure of it.  Once she was out of the house, her confusion would lift and Adam could court her under normal circumstances.  Ben sighed.  At least, he hoped so.  Adam deserved to be happy and Ellie was, well, a fine woman.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Deep in thought, Adam drew the buggy in front of the house and began loading the bags sitting on the porch.  He guessed Ellie’s sudden decision to leave had something to do with last night, but with a disappointed Matt bouncing back and forth between them, he hadn’t had a chance to talk to her about it.  He frowned as he mulled over the fact that she must have packed her bag in the wee hours of the morning.  He shook his head, perplexed.  Their much anticipated romantic interlude hadn’t worked out as he’d hoped, but they’d parted on friendly terms with a promise to talk.  So why the sudden hurry to leave?  He was still puzzling on it when she emerged from the house with her gloves in hand and a sulky Matt in tow.

“Please, Ma, can’t we stay a few more days?”

“Mathew, we’ve already gone over this and the answer is no, so please don’t ask again.”

Matt kicked at the dirt.  His pleading and pestering had gotten him nowhere, so he consoled himself with his one bit of good news.  “Adam said I could ride Blackie into town.”  He lifted his chin and there was a defiant look in his eyes, daring her to challenge it.

Ignoring his look, Ellie glanced over at Adam, grateful and not surprised he’d come to Matt’s rescue.  “Adam,” she called, attempting to sound normal, “if you think he’s ready, then I have no objection.”

Adam gave a final tug on the rope before coming around to where she and Matt were standing.   If he’d picked up on her nervousness, he didn’t show it.

“He’s ready,” he said, clapping Matt on the shoulder.

Ellie looked at her son and smiled.  “Well, then, I can’t wait to see you ride,” she said, hoping to brighten his mood, “but just see to it you don’t do anything to give me the vapors.”

Matt managed a smile.  He actually liked the idea of showing his Ma what he’d learned and as far as he knew, she’d never had a vapor in her life.  “Don’t worry,” he said, walking over to where the horses were tethered.  “Blackie and me have an understanding.”

Happy to see him smiling again, Ellie looked over at Adam only to catch him studying her.  Uncomfortable under his gaze, she offered him an anxious smile and then casually turned her back and took a few steps away as she pulled on her gloves.  It was terribly unfair, she knew, but she hoped to avoid the conversation he undoubtedly expected.  If she could just keep all the attention on Matt for a few more minutes, they would be on their way.

Adam folded his arms across his chest and watched her, aware she was being purposely evasive.  But why? Unwilling to simply let it go, he closed the gap between them with two long strides and spoke in a hushed tone so Matt wouldn’t overhear.  “Ellie, why are you really leaving?  Is it because of what happened last night?”

Steeling herself, Ellie turned to face him, hoping her sadness wouldn’t be apparent and her excuse didn’t sound rehearsed.  “No Adam.  It’s just the practical thing to do.  You’ll be staying at the timber camp in a day or two, and there’s no point in Matt and I rattling around in an empty house.”

“Yes, but I’m all yours tonight.  I thought we could talk.”

Ellie averted her eyes, afraid he would see the truth.  The last thing she wanted to do was stay another night.  “You were awfully tired last night.  Wouldn’t it be better if you got some rest before putting in a full day’s work?”

Adam gave a reluctant nod.  Everything she said was true, but he couldn’t help feeling there was more to it.  “I suppose,” he said, frowning as a thought suddenly came to mind.  “It’s just that, well, I hope I didn’t say or do anything last night that made you feel uncomfortable or compromised.”

Ellie’s eyes flew up to meet his.  “Of course not,” she said.  “I didn’t mean to imply….”

Adam interrupted, quick to spare them both any further embarrassment.  “You didn’t,” he said, reassuring her.  He was relieved he’d missed the mark and for the time being, he wouldn’t push.  He wanted her to leave on a happy note.  “And if I seem a bit perplexed,” he continued, smiling now, “it’s only because it’s rather unusual for a woman to be more practical than a man.”

Seeing the humorous spark in his eye, Ellie arched an eyebrow and sent a harrumph his way, allowing herself to indulge in some final banter.  She understood he wasn’t going to press her any further and she was grateful for the reprieve.  Adam was truly a gracious and admirable man.  Returning her gaze to Mathew, she blinked back the tears that suddenly threatened to fall.

Chapter 26

On the way into town, Ellie tried to concentrate on Matt’s riding, but seeing Adam and Ben together was almost too much to bear.  Adam, handsome and tall in the saddle, rode with experienced ease as he watched over Matt.  She smiled when he seamlessly positioned his horse to keep Matt on course.  It was one of the things she admired most about him, his quiet way of helping without fanfare.  She thought back to their meeting at the dance.  In one short evening, he’d succeeded in piquing her interest in life again by winning her over with his persuasiveness and charm.  She sighed to herself.  There was no question she loved and treasured him, but she now knew it was Ben she was in love with, not Adam.  While her memories of Daniel had muddled her feelings in the beginning, it wasn’t Daniel who’d come between them last night.  She was certain of that now.  She looked at Ben and her heart skipped a beat.  His face, rugged and handsome, was partially shaded by his hat, but she noticed how often his eyes came to rest on Adam.  From the very beginning, she’d loved the warm way his eyes glowed when he looked at his sons and the people he cared about.  She smiled sadly and wondered if she’d ever feel the embrace of those wonderful eyes again.  She gave herself a mental shake.  There was nothing to wonder about, she already knew the answer.  Her heart heavy, she looked across the meadow to the creek where Jonesy was pointing and made an effort to listen to the story he was telling.

“…snuck out after night fall with that Paiute friend of his, Young Wolf.”  Jonesy shook his head and chuckled at the memory.  “Ben was hotter than a pistol when he found out.  He rousted me outta bed and together we went a lookin’ for him.  Found him in that creek over yonder with his foot wedged in between two rocks.  Both them boys were soaked to the skin and pushin’ on a rock twice their size when we came up on ‘em.”  He chuckled again.  “We ended up havin’ to cut his boot off, but lucky for Adam, it gave his Pa something to concentrate on besides his backside, until the next mornin’ anyways.”

Caught up in the story, Ellie smiled.  It sounded as though Adam was just as fearless and independent back then as he was now and she could well imagine Ben’s reaction to it.  She could also imagine their relief at seeing one another despite the disobedience involved.  She sighed to herself.  Just last week, she’d found Jonesy’s tales entertaining, but today his story just served to underscore the long history of trust between father and son.  It ran deep, as it should, and that was reason enough for her to keep quiet and move on, perhaps all the way back to Boston if that’s what it took to keep from tarnishing that trust.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

When they reached the Walker’s place, Jonesy came around to help Ellie out of the buggy while Adam and Matt dismounted and tethered their horses.  Still sitting astride, Ben tipped his hat and said his goodbyes.  His eyes revealed nothing but kindness and his voice was sincere.  “Ellie, I’m sorry to say such a hasty goodbye, but I hope you know how much your help was appreciated.”

Ellie looked up at him and for a brief moment the barriers came down and their eyes connected.  “Thank you, Ben.  I was glad to do it, so please, no worries.”

He allowed his gaze to linger a moment longer before he nodded and turned his attention to Adam.  “I’ll be at the Sheriff’s office.”

Adam nodded and gave his father’s horse a slap on the rump as he came around to where Ellie was standing, never noticing the sadness in her eyes as she watched him ride off.

“Landsakes,” Lily exclaimed, coming out of the house with her apron on.  “I didn’t expect you two back today!” She’d been baking cookies and looked a mess with flour on her cheek and several tendrils of hair escaping her scarf, but she didn’t care.  She was happy to see them.

Lily’s cheerfulness lifted Ellie’s spirits and she greeted her with a warm hug.  It was good to see her cousin and it would be a relief to confide in her, as she knew she would.  “Yes, Adam is feeling well enough to get back to work, so I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with us again.”

With a touch to his arm, Lily stood on tiptoes and kissed Adam on the cheek.  “I’m so happy you’re doing well, Adam.”

Adam favored her with a dimpled smile.  Lily was as genuine a person as he’d ever met and he couldn’t help but enjoy her affection.  “Yes, well Ellie and Matt had a lot to do with it.  If it weren’t for them, I would’ve been a bear of a patient.”

Smiling, Lily turned her attention to Mathew who was fondly petting Blackie’s nose.  Sensing this was going to be a difficult parting, she succumbed to some harmless bribery.  “Matt, honey, I just took some cookies out of the oven.”

Matt cheered a little.  “Molasses?”

“None other,” she replied.  “In fact, why don’t you all come in?” She gave Adam and Jonesy an inviting look.

Adam smiled at her, but shook his head.  “I hate to pass up your famous molasses cookies, Lily, but I’ve got some business at the Sheriff’s office.”

Her brow wrinkled in concern.  “Nothing’s happened, has it?”

“Just some new developments,” he replied in a reassuring tone.  “I’m sure Ellie will fill you in.”

Seeing he was eager to be on his way, Lily nodded, and then smiled at Jonesy.  “What about you, Jonesy?”

A few years back, the rough and tumble cowpoke would have scoffed at the notion of passing up a good stiff drink over at the saloon for cookies and coffee at the preacher’s house, but the older he got, the better it sounded.  He gave a cheerful nod, resigned to the idea he was getting old.  “Let me tell you, Lily, your cookies are good enough to make a teetotaler out of me!”

His declaration was met with chuckles from everyone but Matt who cast a hesitant glance at Adam.  It was time to say goodbye and he wasn’t sure how a fella his age ought to do it.  He wanted to throw his arms around his waist, but that seemed like something a little kid would do, so instead, he approached Adam and stuck out his hand.  “Thanks for everything, Adam.  Will I, uh, be seeing you?”

Seeing the boy’s wistful look hiding behind the manful gesture, Adam gripped his hand and gave it a firm shake.  “It’s a promise,” he said, hoping to put his fears to rest.  “Now, go on before the cookies are all gone.”

Happier, Matt gave a little grin and ran off while Adam looked after him with fondness.  “You’re a lucky woman, Ellie.”

Ellie watched her son race to the front porch and go in the screen door with a bang.  She loved him dearly and only hoped she hadn’t set him up for more heartache.  With an inward sigh, she banished the troubling thought and nodded in agreement.

Adam smiled and stepped closer.  “I’ll see you in a few weeks,” he said, bending down to kiss her.

She turned her face so his lips merely brushed her cheek.  Adam made no comment, but as he mounted up, he wondered if perhaps there was more to her hesitation than fond memories.

Chapter 27

Roy glared at Adam from behind his desk, not at all happy with what he’d just heard.  “I sure wish you Cartwrights would just stay outta my way and let me do my job!”

Hat in hand, Adam fiddled with the brim, but otherwise sat quietly.  He knew from past experience, the sooner Roy got it out of his system, the sooner they could move on to the real matter at hand.  He was a lot like his father in that respect.

“Did it ever occur to you,” Roy went on, “that your investigation just might get in the way of mine?”

Adam considered the question and answered the only way he could.  “Well, to be honest, no.”

Eyes widening, Roy harrumphed, indignant.  “Well, ain’t that a fine howdy-do!” He looked at Ben.  “Did you hear that?”

Ben gave him an apologetic look and then joined the sheriff in glaring at his son.

Exasperated at being misunderstood by the two of them, Adam nevertheless resisted the urge to roll his eyes and, instead, calmly attempted to explain.  “Look, Roy, it’s nothing against you.  I just know your hands are full, that’s all.”

Not the least bit placated, Roy gave him a sharp look, determined to make a few things clear.  “You’re darn right they are, with this investigation!  And for your information, I already knew all about them hydraulic monitors and the flume.”

Surprised, Ben traded a quick look with Adam before leaning menacingly forward in his chair.  His expression was dark and his voice demanding.  “If you knew about the camp, why didn’t you say so?”

Roy leaned forward and matched him glare for glare.  “Because there’s no law against a man building a flume or putting equipment on his own land, so I didn’t see any point in gettin’ everyone all riled up!”

“But surely you know what that means!” Adam interjected.

Annoyed, Roy heaved an exasperated sigh.  “Now what in tarnation do you take me for? Of course I know what that means!  But unless they actually break the court order, my hands are tied.”  He pointed a finger at Adam.  “And you sticking your nose in where it don’t belong, ain’t gonna help matters!”

Irked, Adam clenched his jaw.  “Well, at least now they know somebody is on to them,” he answered back tightly.

Infuriated by his insinuation, Roy scrambled to his feet and brought his hand down hard on the desk with a resounding bang.  By golly, he was doing his darnedest to get to the bottom of things and he wasn’t going to sit here and be insulted in his own office!

Adam scowled up at him while Ben merely shifted in his seat, choosing to be a spectator in this little standoff.

“Now, you listen to me,” Roy commanded with authority.  “If these jaspers think they’re holdin’ all the cards, sooner or later they’re gonna get careless and show their hand, but if they know we’re looking over their shoulder, their gonna play their cards close to the vest and it’s gonna be a darn sight harder for me to piece things together!  Now that’s all I’m gonna say about it.  Understand?”

Seeing Roy looked about ready to bust, Adam nodded and got to his feet.  “I understand,” he replied with considerably less heat.  He agreed with Roy to a point, but out of deference to the sheriff, he kept his differing opinions to himself.

The fireworks over, Ben stood up.  “I know your worries aren’t entirely unfounded.”  He gave Adam a pointed look.  “But I sure hope you know what you’re doing, because it seems to me you’re giving these fellas a little too much rope.”

Roy glowered at Ben.  “That’s right, just enough to hang themselves!  Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got work to do.”  He waved his hand at the mail on his desk and sat down to read it, studiously ignoring the two men still in his office.

Ben shook his head and followed Adam out the door, muttering a few things under his breath.

Chapter 28

Outside the Sheriff’s office, Adam faced his father.  “You still want to pay a visit to Stuart and McCall?”

Ben nodded and started down the boardwalk to the hotel.  “I think it’s only fair they know who they’re playing against.”

Adam smiled and fell into step.  “I was hoping you’d say that.”

At the hotel, the clerk at the front desk greeted them with a solicitous smile.  The Cartwrights were regular visitors to the dining room and often brought in friends and associates.  It was hotel policy to keep them happy and he was more than willing to oblige.  His smile faded, however, when they inquired about Misters Stuart and McCall.  It pained him to be unaccommodating, but he had a duty to protect his guests’ privacy and Misters Stuart and McCall had been adamant about not being disturbed.  “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Cartwright, but I’m afraid I can’t give you their room numbers.  They said they didn’t want to be disturbed by anyone.”

Ben spared Adam a glance and then gave the clerk an amiable smile.  “Now, Bob,” he said with an unconcerned wave of his hand, “we won’t be disturbing them, they’re expecting us.”

Adam nodded and smiled agreeably, adding some weight to his father’s statement.

Visibly relieved and eager to trust their word, the clerk gave him a broad smile.  “In that case, go right on up, Mr. Cartwright.  They’re in Rooms 207 and 208.”

Ben nodded and with a look to Adam they headed toward the stairs.  “Expecting us?” Adam asked with an amused glint in his eye.

“Well, if they’re not, they should be.”

Adam chuckled and took the lead up the stairs and down the hall.  He located the adjoining rooms, but stopped short of knocking when he heard loud voices coming from inside.  He signaled Ben to move further down the hall.  “Let’s wait,” he said quietly.  “This might prove interesting.”

Hearing a particularly loud outburst, Ben glanced at the door and then back to Adam and nodded in agreement.

Inside the suite, Tom Logan glared at the hired killer standing so confidently in their midst, before glancing back to the men who’d hired him.  He wasn’t sure who sickened him more.  “I’m telling you, Stuart, I don’t want any more bloodshed!”

Jack Stuart exchanged a meaningful look with his partner, Lester McCall.  Both disliked the idea of physical violence in their chamber, but they’d allow it if it meant securing Logan’s continued cooperation.  “Neither do we,” he said as he calmly perused the selection of wines, “but we’ve got a right to protect our interests.”

Tom shook his head, derisively.  “Our interests?”

The muscle in Stuart’s jaw twitched, but he maintained a casual air as he selected a bottle and proceeded to open it and fill three glasses.  “Now, Tom, we all know how things stand, so there’s no point in rehashing it.  Is there?”

Incensed by his cavalier attitude, Logan’s eyes blazed.  “Oh, I know how things stand, all right.  You two are nothing but a couple of impeccably dressed, wine drinking, cigar smoking thieves who think nothing of ruining a man’s life just as long as it fills your coffers!”

Affronted, Lester McCall jumped to his feet.  “On the contrary,” he argued.  “We’re two very successful businessmen with an eye for opportunity and it would be in your best interest to remember that!  Now I suggest you leave, Mr. Logan, before things turn unfriendly.”

Eyes narrowing, Tom seriously considered shooting the man dead in his tracks even though it would mean taking a bullet himself, but being a God fearing man, he couldn’t do it.  Instead, he merely nodded with contempt.  “Yes, I’d say opportunists are exactly what you are.”  Neither wanting nor expecting a reply, he exited, slamming the door behind him.

Out in the hallway, Ben and Adam went unnoticed as he stormed down the stairs without a backward glance.

“Well, whatever that was about,” Adam commented, “it looks like Tom lost.”

Ben gave him a pensive look, then approached the door and knocked.  When there was no answer, he knocked again more insistently.  “It’s Ben Cartwright,” he announced.

A moment later, the door was opened by a curious but wary, Jack Stuart.  He offered a cordial business-like greeting.  “Mr. Cartwright, what an unexpected pleasure.”  As he spoke, he took stock of the man he’d heard so much about.  “I’m Jack Stuart.”

Ben responded with a brisk nod.  “Mr. Stuart, this is my son, Adam.  We’d like to have a word with you and your associate.”

Stuart’s eyes flickered to the younger man in surprise.  Adam responded with a cool smile.  It was obvious Stuart hadn’t expected to ever come face-to-face with him.

Aware he might be giving away more than he intended, Stuart recovered with a smooth smile and turned his attention back to the senior Cartwright.  No need for concern, he reminded himself.  There was no proof of his involvement.  “I hope you don’t think me ungracious, Mr. Cartwright, but my associate and I weren’t expecting you and I’m afraid we’re due at another engagement.  Perhaps you’d like to make an appointment?”

Seeing through the charade, Ben shook his head in a decisive manner.  “I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Mr. Stuart.  What I have to say won’t take long.”

Taken aback by the power now glaring out from behind the previously calm eyes, Stuart struggled to keep an impassive look on his face.  “In that case,” he said, stepping aside, “please, come in.”

Inside the suite, Adam immediately recognized the man skulking in the shadows and his right hand slid to his sidearm.  Their eyes locked as they telegraphed their disdain for one another.

Ben took in the situation and gave Adam a cautionary tap on his arm before turning his attention to Lester McCall, who was introducing himself with a great amount of self-importance.

“So Mr. Cartwright,” he said, concluding his pretentious rambling, “what is it that brings you here?”

Ben eyed him and got straight to the point, not wishing to stay any longer than necessary.  The tightening of Adam’s jaw and the twitch in his cheek told him a great deal about the hired gunman’s identity and while he had faith in his son’s ability to exercise self-control, he couldn’t say the same for the other man.  “Business, Mr. McCall.  I understand you’ve entered into an agreement with my neighbor, Tom Logan.  I also understand you’ve moved hydraulic mining equipment onto his property.”

Without so much as a glance at his partner, Stuart took the liberty of responding.  He had a knack for glossing over the ugly side of business, a talent his more reactive partner didn’t always possess.  “All very true, Mr. Cartwright, but being a businessman yourself, I’m sure you understand why we can’t discuss the details of our agreement with Mr. Logan without his consent.”

“I’m only interested in your affairs in as much as they affect me, Mr. Stuart, and while Tom Logan is free to do as he wishes on his own land, I’m here to make sure you’re fully aware of the court decision prohibiting any hydraulic mining that would foul Bear Creek.”

“Ah, Bear Creek,” McCall interjected with deliberate antagonism, “such a charming name.”

Adam looked at him with derision.  He knew exactly what McCall was doing, but it still infuriated him.  “Yes, but there wouldn’t be anything charming or useful about it in the wake of your type of mining, now would there, Mr. McCall?”

“My type of mining has proven to be effective and profitable, young man.  Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if it became the industry standard.”

“It’s also proven to leave nothing but destruction,” Adam fiercely retorted.  “Silt where water once flowed and gaping scars where grass once grew.”

Indifferent, McCall shrugged.  “The price of progress, unfortunate perhaps, but unavoidable nonetheless.”

Adam and Ben exchanged a glance, disturbed but not surprised by his attitude.   They’d encountered that kind of selfishness and greed before and knew exactly how to deal with it.  Ben’s face was etched in granite and his voice was hard and unyielding.  “That’s a price I’m not willing to pay, Mr. McCall, and just so we all understand each other, I value every square inch of my land and will use any means necessary to protect it.”

Stuart raised an eyebrow.  “You surprise me, Mr. Cartwright, having just touted the law, you led me to believe you were a law abiding man.”

Ben looked at him with a shrewd expression.  “I am a law abiding man, but I’m also well aware judges can be bought.”

“Some say that’s exactly what you did.”

“Yes, and those who say it, have no interest in the truth.”

Stuart shrugged.  “Perhaps.”

“Doubt it if you will,” Ben said through clenched teeth, “but I strongly suggest you don’t test me.”  And with that, he strode to the door, having said what he’d come to say.

Despite Stuart’s unruffled appearance, Adam caught the glint of fear in his eyes.  A small smirk emerged as he protectively backed out the door in his father’s wake.  Ben Cartwright was a formidable opponent and if they didn’t know it before, they knew it now.

Chapter 29

His clothes covered in dust, Hoss tromped down the trail that led from the ridge down to camp.  His mind was on the tempting aroma of supper wafting up through the trees.  “I don’t know about you two,” he said, calling over his shoulder to his brothers, “but this kind of work sure makes me hungry!”

“Big surprise!” Little Joe snorted, exchanging a humorous glance with Adam.  “Any kind of work makes you hungry.”

Hoss stopped his descent and turned to defend himself, his expression cheerful.  “That’s because a muscular fella like me needs a lot of fuel, Joe.  Don’t you know that?”

Little Joe stopped behind him and with a fair amount of exaggeration, looked his middle brother up and down.  “Yeah, well, I guess you got some muscle in there…somewhere….”

Adam smiled at his baby brother’s foolishness and tossed him a piece of advice as he continued on down the trail.  “I wouldn’t joke about Hoss’ strength if I were you, little brother, not unless you’re lookin’ for him to prove it.”

Hoss stifled a chuckle and did his best to muster up a fierce look for Little Joe, but his twinkling eyes ruined the effect.  He knew Adam was thinking about the time he’d hefted him into a mud hole and the recollection filled him with glee.  “Yeah, you get my dander up and you just might find yourself sailing down that flume over there.”  He thumbed his finger toward the nearby structure.

Little Joe shrugged his shoulders and grinned, unconcerned.  “Be more fun than sittin’ with Pa tonight.”

Reminded of their father’s practice of holding a family meeting every night, Hoss pulled a face and the merriment left his eyes.  “Yeah, I don’t mind putting in a full day’s work, but I sure hate spending all night talkin’ about it.”

Adam overheard their grumbling and slowed his step.  He felt the same, but as the oldest and most involved in overseeing operations, he felt obligated to speak on their father’s behalf, even if it was half-hearted.  “Heading up an operation like this is a big responsibility,” he said, stopping to face his brothers, “you two know that.  It takes a lot of planning.”

Hoss shook his head, unconvinced.  “Yeah, but he’s pushin’ us like we’re running three weeks behind instead of two weeks ahead and it ain’t just me feeling it.  The men are startin’ to complain.”

Little Joe gave a nod and piped up in support.  “Hoss is right, Adam.  I think it’s getting serious.  I heard some of the men telling Jonesy they’re not happy with the way the camp’s being run.”

Hoss’ brow wrinkled into a frown.  He didn’t like criticizing their Pa, but some things needed saying.  “Can’t say I blame ‘em,” he said, glancing up at the sky.  “It’s almost dark and we’re just now finishing up and we ain’t had nothing to eat since noon, either.”

Adam nodded.  He’d heard the rumblings.  It had begun with the extra crews hired on for the job, but was beginning to spread to the permanent hands.   “I’ve heard,” he said with a sigh.

Hoss looked hopeful.  “So you’ll talk to him?”

Adam gave him a resigned nod.  With the irritable mood Pa was in, he wasn’t looking forward to it, but he supposed he’d better speak up before any of the men actually walked off the job.  “I’ll talk to him.”

“Thanks,” Hoss said, exchanging a relieved smile with Joe, “now let’s get some grub before it’s all gone.”  He squinted in the direction of the chuck wagon.  “Dadburnit!  Big Mike’s already in line!”

Little Joe shook his head in amusement and watched his brother scurry down the trail into camp.  “I don’t know what he’s so worried about.  Hop Sing would never let him go hungry.”

Adam chuckled.  “I guess another big appetite like that just naturally makes him nervous.”

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Ben sat at the command post situated under a sturdily constructed canvas rooftop and eyed his three sons with impatience.  They were sitting a few yards away, eating their supper, in no apparent hurry to join him.  With a shake of his head, he lowered his eyes and studied the area map splayed out before him.  He made a few notations, then impatiently glanced their way again.  “You boys about ready?” he bellowed.

Both Hoss and Little Joe gave Adam a furtive look.  Adam heaved a mental sigh and dutifully got up from where he was sitting.  He’d follow through on his promise, but this was definitely one of those times he didn’t relish being the eldest.  “Wish me luck,” he said, handing Hoss his empty plate.

With a grateful nod, Hoss took it and watched him walk away.  He knew Adam was putting his butt on the line for all of them, but if anyone could get through to Pa, it was his older brother.  “Sure hope Pa listens to him,” he said, looking over to Joe.

Little Joe glanced at Hoss, but a bawdy remark followed by a burst of laughter caught his attention and he gave the men a wistful look.  What he wouldn’t give to be playing cards and telling jokes right now.  He looked at Hoss.  “Me too.”

Unfortunately, fun was the furthest thing from their father’s mind and he didn’t hesitate to frown at Adam.  “Don’t tell me they’re still eating?” he growled impatiently.

Adam flashed him an easy smile, hoping to lighten his mood and divert his attention away from his absent siblings.   “No, but I thought maybe you and I could handle things tonight.”

Ben’s face registered his displeasure.  “This is a family operation,” he grumbled, “and it’s high time those brothers of yours learn how much planning goes into filling a contract like this.”

Adam nodded.  “I know and I agree, it’s just that, well, we’ve all been working pretty hard.  They could use some time to unwind.”  He shrugged.  “We all could.”

Ben eyed him sharply and spoke in a firm tone.  “We’re here to work, not socialize.”

Adam’s brow furrowed.  If anything, he thought his father would at least acknowledge their progress.  “Now, Pa,” he said, objecting, “you can’t say we haven’t been working.  We’re two weeks ahead of schedule.”

Ben shook his head, intolerant with his son’s seeming shortsightedness.  “And you know as well as I do, this business is unpredictable…anything could happen…a fluke storm…a fire…anything!  This is no time to ease up.”

Seeing he was having none of it, Adam grew more serious.  “Well, unless you want to shut down entirely, I think you’re gonna have to.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed, his attention captured by the surety in Adam’s voice.  “What do you mean by that?” he demanded.

“I mean some of the men are talking about quitting.”

Ben waved his hand dismissively, undisturbed by the news and annoyed by the unnecessary alarm.  There were always a few men who couldn’t cut it and frankly he’d rather weed them out.   “If there’re troublemakers in the bunch, then give them their pay and let them go,” he replied in a firm tone.  “We don’t need that kind.”

“They’re not troublemakers,” Adam replied, quick to dispel that assumption, “and I think their concerns are valid.”  He shifted uncomfortably, then added, “so does Jonesy.”

Ben tensed.  “And what about your brothers?” he asked with a distinct edge to his voice.  “Do they feel the same?”

His face hardened when Adam gave a short nod.  He didn’t like the idea of the men, especially his sons, talking behind his back.  In his seafaring days, complaining about the captain was an offense akin to inciting mutiny.  “Every last one of those men knew what to expect when they signed on,” he said tightly.  “Now, go get your brothers.  We’ve got work to do.”

Exasperated, Adam pinched the bridge of his nose while his father, considering the matter closed, went back to studying his map.  Not one to be so easily dismissed, however, Adam reached out with determination and picked up the map, earning himself a cross look as he half sat on the table in its place.  “Pa,” he said keeping his voice reasonable, “you know how dangerous this kind of work is, it isn’t safe to push the men to the brink of exhaustion, especially at the end of the day when we’re short on light.   We’ve just been lucky so far.”

His face revealing little, Ben leaned forward and wearily rested his elbows on the table.  Adam watched him intently, years of experience telling him to keep his mouth shut and wait.  He wasn’t disappointed.  After a long moment, Ben looked at him and nodded, indicating he’d heard.  His son’s words, coupled with the sincere look on his face had finally gotten through to him.  Adam was right.  Accidents were more likely to occur at the end of the day when everyone was tired.  That, at least, was something he could easily remedy.   “I take comfort in knowing I taught you well.”

Adam’s mouth curved into a small smile.  “I take it that means we’ll be making some changes?”

Ben nodded in thought.  “Come up with a new schedule and we’ll go over it in the morning.”

Relieved the battle was over, Adam tucked the map under his arm and stood up.  “That sounds fine, Pa.”  He smiled and started to walk away, but an uneasy feeling stopped him.  He suspected something besides work was troubling his father and he wondered if he could help.  “Tell me something,” he said, turning around.  “Is it the deadline you’re worried about or something else?  I know you’ve got plenty to choose from.”

Ben offered him a wry smile.  He didn’t like keeping things from his son, but the truth was, he’d been plagued by his feelings for Ellie ever since her last night at the ranch and judging from the dissention he’d inadvertently caused in camp, it was affecting him more than he’d realized.  Fortunately, the ongoing dispute with Tom provided him with a convenient excuse, even though it pained him to think of it as fortunate.  Kip gave me a report earlier.  He said the flume is done, but no signs of any other activity.”

Adam quirked an eyebrow and considered the information.  “Maybe our visit actually did some good then.”

“Maybe” Ben replied, feeling strangely detached, “but we’ll keep a lookout just the same.”

Adam nodded in agreement and then headed off.  He knew his father hadn’t been entirely forthcoming, but he supposed he had a right to his privacy.  It felt strange, though, not having his full confidence.

Chapter 30

Momentarily rendered speechless, Lily stared open-mouthed at her cousin across the tiny kitchen table while Ellie nervously gripped her coffee cup and awaited her response.  After a long moment, Lily finally managed an astonished, “Oh my!”

Ellie gave her a miserable look.  “I’m sorry.”  She dropped her eyes.  “I’ve really made a mess of things, haven’t I?”

Still somewhat astounded, Lily gave herself a mental shake and attempted to gather her wits and be of some comfort.  “Now, now, I wouldn’t say that,” she said soothingly.  “You’ve just made things a little…complicated… but don’t worry, we’ll find a way.”

Ellie smiled sadly.  “I’ve already given it a great deal of thought, Lil, and I think its best I go back to Boston.”

Alarmed by her hastiness, Lily shook her head.  “Nonsense!” she replied.  “You’d live to regret it and so would Ben if he were foolish enough to let you go.”

Ellie gave her cousin an appreciative look.  She knew how much Lily believed in happy endings and she loved her for it, but she couldn’t allow herself to get caught up in her romantic notions.  She had to be sensible.  “Oh, Lily, I’m not even sure what Ben feels, not really.  Neither of us spoke of it and maybe I read more into it than I should have.”  She squared her shoulders.  If she could convince herself of that, things would be so much simpler.  Unfortunately, the images that came to mind worked against her.  The intensity of Ben’s revealing gaze was forever etched in her heart.

Lily gave her a fond look.  “I don’t believe you were mistaken and I can see by the expression on your face, you don’t either, so why don’t you just tell me how it came about.”  Her voice was soft and encouraging.

Conceding it was pointless to deny her feelings, Ellie’s eyes turned reflective and her voice grew quiet as she attempted to explain.  “Well, Adam understandably needed his sleep and with the boys exhausted and heading straight to bed after supper, Ben and I had the evenings to ourselves.  We played cribbage and talked.”  She smiled softly.  “I’m afraid I leaned on him rather heavily that first night.  I was missing Daniel and fretting about Matthew.  He, of course, was very understanding and before I knew it, I was sharing my thoughts and crying on his shoulder.  In turn, he told me about losing the boys’ mothers and the dark days he’d gone through afterwards, especially after losing Elizabeth.  It was so helpful and it brought about a closeness between us that I hadn’t expected.  At the time, I saw it as a growing friendship, but in looking back I can see there were deeper feelings emerging with each passing day.  The way we came together every evening to talk about our day and the boys…well…it was nice…almost like.…” She dropped her train of thought and sighed wistfully, forgetting for a moment Lily was even there.

“Like you were already married?” Lily suggested gently.

Jarred at hearing it spoken aloud, Ellie lifted her head and looked directly at her cousin, her forehead creased in concern.  It was important to her that Lily understand.  “I can see it now…but we never…I mean there was never anything behind Adam’s back… neither of us even realized….”

Lily stopped her, eager to reassure her and get past all that nonsense.  “My goodness, Eleanor, that goes without saying,” she said with a little dismissive wave of her hand.  “I know how love can creep up on a person and I don’t doubt that’s how it was for you and Ben.  And honestly, now that I’ve gotten over the surprise, I can see why you’d be drawn to each other.  It makes perfect sense.”

Ellie smiled, grateful for her understanding.  “I admired him right from the start.”  She laughed a little.  “His bellow can raise the roof and his attitude can be a little overbearing at times, but it’s only because he cares so much.  His sons, the ranch, his friends–they all mean a great deal to him.  A person just has to look at the warmth in his eyes to see it.”

Lily smiled in agreement.  “I’ve seen it many times, especially when he looks at those sons of his.  He did a fine job raising them.”

“He credits their good qualities to their mothers.”

“Well, from what I understand, they were all wonderful women, but I’d say Ben passed on a few good qualities of his own.  Aside from being so capable and responsible, all three of those boys turned out to be thoughtful and compassionate men.”  She punctuated her remark with an emphatic nod.  “Not something a lot of fathers would even care about in raising boys.”

Ellie smiled in thought.  “Daniel cared.  He was very nurturing towards Mathew, never afraid to show his feelings.  He didn’t want him to think it unseemly for a man to care about his family.”  She pictured his face after a particularly disturbing conversation he’d had with a business associate.  “The very idea of a man treating his wife and children like chattel raised his ire.”

Lily reached across the table and touched Ellie’s hand.  “You were blessed with Daniel.  He was a good man.”

Ellie gave her cousin a sisterly look.  “Yes, and you’re blessed with Cliff,” she replied.  “Cherish it, Lil.  Men like that are hard to come by.”

“And that’s exactly why you shouldn’t give up on Ben.”

“Lily,” she replied, shaking her head, “I know you’re a hopeless romantic, but I couldn’t possibly cause any awkwardness between Ben and Adam.  It’s unthinkable.”

Lily fell silent.  It was an awkward situation, but ever the optimist, she wasn’t convinced it was completely insurmountable.  “You know,” she said, thinking aloud, “Adam isn’t a naïve schoolboy.  He’s had his share of romances.  Maybe he already knows you two aren’t meant for each other.”

Ellie looked at her, startled.  In her mind’s eye, she visualized the little rough-hewn bench and their kiss in the moonlight.  Her cheeks flamed.  “He kissed me,” she confessed quietly.

Lily smiled gently.  “Well, I’m not surprised and I’m not suggesting Adam is a rogue, far from it, it’s just that customs aren’t as rigid here as they are in Boston.  A kiss, even a passionate one, doesn’t necessarily mean a proposal was in your future.  Sometimes it just means the stars were bright and the moon was full.”

Ellie’s eyes widened.  She hadn’t considered the possibility that Adam didn’t intend to court her.  “So, you’re saying he might already know we’re not right for each other.”

“I’m saying it’s possible and you shouldn’t make any drastic decisions before you talk to him.”

Ellie’s forehead creased in thought and she gave a distracted nod as Lily got up to do the breakfast dishes.  Was it really possible?  Were Adam’s romantic overtures merely the result of moonlight and opportunity as Lily suggested?  She frowned.  She couldn’t see Adam being so passionate with someone he wasn’t interested in, western customs or not, but could he have been unaware of their shift toward friendship, just as she had been?  He hadn’t seemed exceedingly wounded when she’d pulled away, more impatient and even a little angry.  But that could mean any number of things.  She sighed and got up from the table.  Lily was right, she wouldn’t know until she spoke to him.  “He’s taking me to the church bazaar,” she said, picking up the dish towel.   “I’ll talk to him then.”

Chapter 31

Dressed in their Sunday best, the Cartwrights turned the heads of several young ladies and their mothers as they rode into the churchyard and dismounted.  Aware they were attracting female attention, Little Joe grinned and jovially elbowed Hoss.  “Sure hope the Reverend keeps it short this morning.”

“Yeah, me too,” Hoss said, his eyes lighting up in agreement.  “Soon as church let’s out, I’m headin’ over to get me some blueberry pie!”

Little Joe’s eyes widened, not believing he’d heard him right.  “Is that all you wanna do at the bazaar?  Eat pie?”

Hoss frowned and shook his head.  “Shucks no!” he exclaimed, ticking off a list of treats on his fingers.  “There’s gonna be roast pork, barbecue beef, corn on the cob, ‘tater salad, pickles, preserves and biscuits, peach cobbler…”

“All right, all right,” Joe said, interrupting the litany.  “That’s all fine and dandy, but aren’t you forgetting something?” He gave him an expectant look.

“Well, dadburnit, you didn’t let me finish,” Hoss replied, offended.

Impatient, Little Joe shook his head.  “Forget about the food,” he suggested, lowering his voice and giving him a conspiratorial smile.  “I’m talking about the girls, Hoss, all prettied up in their frilly summer dresses.”  To make his point, he glanced around the churchyard with a gleeful smile, indicating Hoss should do the same.

Hoss followed his gaze and smiled, his face taking on a look of understanding.  “Well, sure, they been cookin’ up a storm and that’s why we gotta show ‘em our appreciation, little brother.”

Completely baffled that food could hold more appeal to his middle brother than a pretty girl, Little Joe stared at Hoss wondering if they were even half brothers.  “Fine,” he replied, throwing his hands up.  “You show your appreciation your way and I’ll show it mine.”  He thumbed a finger at Adam.  “But I bet even ol’ Adam has more on his mind than food!”

Hearing the remark, Adam interrupted his conversation with their father to eye his youngest brother.  “Ol’ Adam, is it?” He glanced back at Ben, his eyes smiling.   “And here I thought I was in my prime.”

Chuckling, Ben clapped him on the back and then walked over to impart some fatherly advice to his two younger sons.  “How about you two start by showing your appreciation for the sermon,” he suggested, looking from one to the other.

Taking heed of the not-so-subtle warning, they both gave him a weak smile and dutifully put on their best church faces.

Satisfied he’d made his point, Ben headed into church, spurning Little Joe to hurry after him.  On a day like today, he didn’t want to give his Pa any reason to clip his wings.

With Little Joe running ahead, Adam sidled up alongside Hoss.  “Bessie Sue make the blueberry pie?”

“That’s right,” Hoss replied with a smile.

Adam grinned and stepped inside the church.  “Thought so.”

Chuckling under his breath, Hoss followed him past some folks milling in the aisle and took his seat.  Out of habit, he inched past Little Joe and took the seat on the opposite side of their father leaving Adam the aisle seat next to their little brother.  It was silly, but after sitting that way since they were young’uns, it just didn’t feel right sitting any other way.

Adam gave Little Joe a sideways glance as he sat down and smiled at the disgusted look on his face.  Apparently, the long-established seating arrangement didn’t hold the same charm for his baby brother as it did for Hoss.

Out of the corner of his eye, Little Joe caught his smile and shot him a woeful look.

Chuckling softly, Adam shrugged and then turned his attention to perusing the church.  He spotted Ellie, sitting with Matt and Lily just a few rows ahead, but with the service about to begin, there wasn’t any time to say hello.  He smiled to himself.  His brothers weren’t the only ones hoping for a short sermon.  As he watched her, though, his expression grew pensive.  After the way they’d parted, he wondered what kind of reception he would get.  Pondering it, he completely missed the organ playing the first few strands of music for the opening hymn and when he finally heard the congregation lifting their voices in song, his father was already giving him a curious look.  With a sheepish shrug, he picked up his hymn book, eliciting an amused snort from Little Joe.

At the sound of his voice, Ellie’s pulse began to quicken and her throat went dry.  Cowardly as it was, a part of her was hoping she’d be able to put off the inevitable, but there was no mistaking Adam’s rich baritone.   He was in attendance and so was Ben.  She could hear his deep bass resonating throughout the church and it made her heart beat wildly.  She swallowed and glanced at Lily, who gave her an encouraging smile.

Matt, on the other hand, was nothing but excited when he heard Adam’s voice and promptly turned around to grin.  Adam gave him a smile and a wink and then nodded his head toward the pulpit, indicating they should both pay attention.  Reverend Walker was in prime form and was taking full advantage of the packed church.  Much to the relief of all the parents, though, he delivered a powerful but mercifully short message, well aware a church full of antsy youngsters wasn’t conducive to a long-winded sermon.

Not surprisingly, as soon as the service was over, Matt hurried over to Adam, his enthusiasm bubbling over.  “Hey, Adam, did you hear?  There’s gonna be a horseshoe contest.  I ain’t much good, but, well, will you be my partner?”  He gave him a hopeful look.

Adam smiled down at him.  “Be glad to, but I have to warn you, I’m a little rusty.”

“I’ll say,” Little Joe exclaimed, admonishing his big brother.  “That’s what happens when a fella works all the time—he forgets how to play.”

Adam lifted his eyebrows.  It was too good an opportunity to pass up.  “Unlike you, right?”

“Huh?” he replied, momentarily flustered.  “No, that wasn’t what I meant,” he said, recovering his wits.  “I just meant that I, unlike you, could get Matt the blue ribbon.”  He nodded and smiled at the boy.

Matt shrugged.  “That’s okay,” he said shyly.  “I don’t much care about the blue ribbon.”

Adam gave Little Joe a smug look and clapped Matt on the shoulder.  “Good boy, Matt.”

Little Joe took it good naturedly.  “Well, I best be going then.  I need to find me a partner, too.”  He smiled roguishly.  “One with sweet smelling hair, beautiful eyes, and—”

Conscious of Matt’s young ears, Adam held up his hand to stop him.  “All right, lothario, I get the picture.”

Matt wrinkled his nose.  “I don’t.”

Content to listen up until now, Hoss let out a low chuckle.  “Never you mind, Matt.  Joe’s just funnin’.”

Little Joe grinned at him, his eyes sparking with anticipation as he straightened his tie and ran a hand through his hair.  “You mean lookin’ for fun,” he quipped back.

“You just make sure your fun doesn’t land you on the wrong side of Pa,” Adam warned, jumping back into the conversation with his best big brother look.  “I’d like to have a peaceful breakfast tomorrow.”

Little Joe gave him an innocent look.  “You know me, older brother.  Always the perfect gentlemen.”

Adam shook his head and smiled.  He didn’t doubt his baby brother’s integrity, but he knew darn well he’d steal a kiss if the girl was willing.

Thinking along the same lines, Hoss snorted.  “Hah!  One of these days some little gal’s mama is gonna rope you into a wedding if you’re not careful.”

Little Joe slapped Hoss on the back.  “Never happen,” he said, grinning and heading off.

Hoss and Adam exchanged a humorous look.  “What do you think, Adam?  Should we keep an eye on him?”

“Nah, he’s a good kid.  You know that.”

Hoss’ eyes widened, surprised he had to spell it out.  “It ain’t him I’m worried about.  Some of them little gals are downright forward, if you ask me.”

Hesitating, Adam looked off in the direction their youngest brother had just gone.   “You really wanna trail after him all day,” he asked with a thoughtful frown, “or do you wanna get your blueberry pie?”

Hoss scrunched his face, appearing to give it some deep thought.  “You know, I think it’s about time we had a little more faith in our baby brother.  Don’t you?”

Adam grinned at him.  “My thoughts exactly.”

Hoss gave him a brotherly slap on the arm and headed off toward the pie booth while Adam motioned for Matt.  “All right, Matt, let’s go collect your Ma.”

From her vantage point, Lily saw them coming and issued a warm greeting, prompting similar greetings from Cliff, Ben, and Ellie.

Matt minded his manners until they were done and then impatiently spoke up.  “C’mon, Ma, we gotta hurry.  Me and Adam are in the horseshoe contest and we don’t have much time.  You’re gonna watch, aren’t you?”

Smiling at him, she nodded.  “Yes, of course.”

Adam smiled at her and offered her his arm, glad everything seemed normal between them.  “I assure you, madam, you won’t be disappointed.  My skills are legendary.”

Ellie laughed and took his arm.  “Then we’d better get going.”

“Yeah, come on!” Matt exclaimed, running ahead.

Adam waved to his father.  “See you tonight, Pa.”

Ben nodded as if nothing was amiss, but the truth was, seeing Ellie again had stirred up conflicting emotions.   A part of him wanted to look deep into her eyes and confirm his feelings, but the father in him stopped such foolishness.  Besides, Ellie’s polite yet distant behavior told him she’d come to her senses.   As she should, he told himself.

“Yes, and we’d better get going, too,” Lily announced, giving her husband and Ben a sweeping gaze.  “You two are needed at the pickle judging contest.”

Roused from his thoughts, Ben’s eyes widened in alarm.  “What was that?” he rumbled.

“Oh dear!  Did I forget to tell you about Mr. Weems?” she asked, tsking and shaking her head.  “The poor man; he took sick this morning.  You don’t mind filling in for him, do you, Ben?”

Ben raised an eyebrow and gave her a reproachful look.  He had a feeling she hadn’t forgotten a thing, but they both knew he would never refuse her.  He sighed in resignation.  “Well, I suppose the good reverend will offer me some protection.”

Cliff chuckled.   “That’s right, Ben.  I’ll make sure none of the ladies try to bribe you with their feminine wiles.”

“Oh, go on you two,” Lily said, shooing them off.  “I’m due at the quilting booth.”  And with that announcement, she set off, but her smile slowly dissolved into a worried frown.  The bazaar was the church’s biggest fundraiser of the year and she was committed to making it a success, but she couldn’t help worrying about Adam and Ellie and what the day would bring.  She knew Ellie planned on telling him the truth, but to what end?  Would Adam be hurt?  She dearly hoped not.   And what about Ben?  Would he and Ellie end up together?  Would it have been better if she’d never introduced Adam and Ellie?  She shook her head.  The only thing she knew with any certainty was that she’d never match make again.  It was just like Cliff was always telling her—if it’s meant to happen, it will.

Chapter 32

Ellie took another bite of the potato salad on her plate and concentrated on naming the ingredients.  “There’s paprika, onion, and dill,” she prattled, “but I can’t quite figure out what makes it so different.”  She smiled up at Adam.  She knew she was going on and on and probably sounded like a ninny, but she couldn’t help it.  They’d had a wonderful afternoon laughing and talking and she was loathe to spoil it, even though the opportunity to have a serious conversation had finally arisen with Matt running off to play ball.

Adam gave her an appraising look, suspecting there was more going on than dissecting the potato salad.  “It’s mustard powder,” he answered with certainty.

Ellie looked at him blankly.  She hadn’t expected him to actually respond, but now that he had, she took another taste and confirmed it.  “Your right,” she said with surprise.  “How did you know?”

“Ah, well you see, I have a sophisticated palate,” he replied smiling, “but if you want me to be completely honest….”

Ellie nodded and gave him an expectant look.

“Daisy’s recipe is one of Pa’s favorites.  Marie used to make it all the time.”

Entertained by Adam’s playful sense of humor, Ellie’s smile was light, but in the depths of her heart, the mention of Ben threw her into turmoil.   “A sophisticated palate indeed!”

Adam grinned at her and got to his feet.  The sun was shifting and their picnic blanket was rapidly losing its shade, making it uncomfortably hot.  He offered Ellie his hand and helped her up.  “Let’s walk over to the pond where it’s cooler.”

She accepted his help and together they wove their way through the grassy picnic grounds toward the pond, stopping a moment to say hello to Ross and Delphine along the way.  When they finally reached the water, Ellie withdrew her hand and bent down to pull a reed.

Adam watched her toy with it for a few minutes before breaking the unusual silence between them.  “Is the grass really more interesting than talking to me,” he asked softly, “or just safer?”

Ellie stopped fiddling with the reed and gave him a tender look laced with sadness.  “I enjoy talking to you, Adam.”

He nodded, not taking his eyes off her.  “But something’s different between us, isn’t it?”

“Oh Adam,” she cried in despair.  “I don’t want it to be different.  I want our conversations to be the same.  I want to talk to you about Boston and the theater and books and politics….”

He frowned, puzzled.  “Well, that shouldn’t be a problem.  I want that, too.”

She looked out over the pond, unable to meet his inquisitive eyes.  “Yes, but I’m afraid that’s all I want,” she admitted quietly.

His eyebrows lifted and he studied her profile for a long moment before speaking.  “Ellie,” he said in reply, “I know I seemed impatient the other night, but honestly, I don’t mind taking things slow.”

Gathering her courage, she turned and looked at him with gratitude.  “Thank you, Adam.  I appreciate that, I really do, but it’s not just a matter of taking things slow anymore.”

Sensing they were at a turning point, he listened intently.

“After Daniel died, I never thought I’d enjoy life again, but then I met you and you renewed my interest in people…and dancing…and picnics…and good conversation….”  Her voice faltered, but she willed her eyes not to waver.  “I never expected it, just like I never expected to fall in love again…but I have.”

Adam looked at her, stunned and confused.  Obviously, she wasn’t talking about him.  He shook his head and let his gaze drop to the ground.  “I see,” he replied quietly.

“Adam, please believe me.  I truly care about you.  It’s just that—”

“You’ve fallen in love with someone else.  Is that what you’re trying to say?”

“Yes,” she whispered.

He held her gaze for a long painful moment and came to the only conclusion that made sense.  “With my father.”

Her eyes welled and she nodded.  “I left the ranch as soon as I realized it.”

Adam drew a deep breath.  “So that’s it.”  He looked away and didn’t speak as he absorbed the news.  “Does Pa feel the same way?” he finally asked.

Her eyes glistening, Ellie took a steadying breath.  This was more difficult than she’d imagined.  “We haven’t talked about it, but yes, I believe he does.”

Adam blew out his breath and folded his arms across his chest.  “Well, that explains why he’s been acting so strange.”

Ellie observed his protective stance and felt an acute sense of loss.  A breach had opened between them and she silently mourned a friendship that would never be the same.  “I’m sorry, Adam.  I hate that I’ve caused any awkwardness between you and your father.”

He looked at her with a wisp of sadness coupled with curiosity.  “I probably shouldn’t ask this, but what was it?  What made you fall in love with him instead of me?”

Ellie lowered her eyes to the ground.  The question wasn’t completely unanticipated and knowing Adam the way she did, she knew he didn’t want any coddling.  He’d asked a straight question and wanted a straight answer.  She looked back up, hoping she could do an adequate job of explaining.  “I think,” she said in a gentle voice, “we were meant to be friends right from the start, but with me being a woman and you being a man, we did what single men and women do and flirted with romance.”  She smiled hesitantly, unaccustomed to speaking so frankly.  “You’re a handsome man, Adam, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t notice and appreciate that, just as I suspect you, like most men, appreciate a pretty woman.”

Adam gave her a small smile and nodded.  “I’ve been known to admire an attractive woman from time to time.”

She nodded and continued.  “So, we both know that sort of admiration doesn’t always lead to…to…” She paused, grasping for a way to say it delicately.

“Love? Desire?” he supplied, completing her thought.  “No, no, it doesn’t.”  He looked at her, thoughtfully.  “Sometimes it just leads to a passing smile and sometimes, if you’re lucky, it leads to good conversation and a trusting friendship.”  He gave her an affectionate look.

She returned it, her eyes soft and appreciative.  “Your eyes were so sincere that night at the dance.  I knew I could trust you and you didn’t disappoint me.  I’m sorry I tried your patience and ended up disappointing you.”

Adam’s brow furrowed in thought.  “Maybe,” he said, proceeding carefully, “my patience wasn’t entirely for your benefit.  Maybe we were both using your memories as an excuse.”

She gave him a curious look, wondering if Lily had been right.

“I enjoyed your company, Ellie, and I wanted it to work out, but love shouldn’t be that hard, should it?  If it’s right, it just happens, and if it’s wrong, no amount of moonlight walks will change it.”  He shifted his weight uncomfortably and brought a hand to the back of his neck.  “That night on the bench, I was determined to find out if there was any real passion between us, even though deep down, I think I already knew there wasn’t.  I apologize.  I wanted to test the waters.  I didn’t want either of us to have any regrets and I took more liberties than I should have.”

Ellie was quick to shake her head.  “There’s no need to apologize.  I understand.  I was testing the waters, too.”  She reached out and touched his arm.  “But I want you to know, I didn’t realize until later why it didn’t feel right.”

Adam nodded, relieved to hear it.  The idea of Ellie thinking about his father while she was kissing him would have been a hard blow no matter how he looked at it.

Feeling she owed him the entire story, she continued.  “Shortly after we said goodnight, I heard Mathew cry out.  I went to check on him, but your father was already settling him back in bed.  We talked a few minutes in the hall.  It was all very brief and ordinary, but suddenly it hit me… all the feelings I’d been denying.  I was stunned and….”  She stopped, realizing what she was about to say might be hurtful, but seeing his nod for her to continue, she went ahead and completed her thought, though hesitantly.  “And elated,” she finished softly.

Adam nodded, but couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment at hearing it spoken aloud.  “And my father felt the same.”  It was a statement not a question because he already knew it to be true.

“That’s why I left the ranch so suddenly.”

Aware he was the reason neither of them could openly acknowledge their feelings, Adam’s eyes narrowed and he looked out toward the picnic grounds, annoyed with himself.  In the back of his mind, he’d known his feelings for Ellie didn’t run as deep as he’d first hoped, yet he’d readily blamed his bridled passion on his injuries as well as her persistent grief, hoping time would prove him wrong.  He shook his head.  If only he’d faced the truth sooner.  He loved Ellie as a friend, but no matter how well they got along, it wasn’t enough.  The woman he eventually married needed to be more than a companion.  He turned to give her a determined look.  “Well, now that it’s out in the open, you won’t have to deny your feelings any longer, neither will Pa.”

Struggling to keep her face impassive, Ellie shook her head.  “I’ve decided to return to Boston in the fall, so there’s no reason for me to say anything to your father.”  Unable to keep her emotions in check, she turned away and took a few steps toward the pond, but the quiver in her voice betrayed her.  “It’ll be easier that way.”

Adam’s brow furrowed in disagreement.  “Don’t do it, Ellie.  Don’t leave because of me.  There’s no need.”

He waited and when she didn’t respond, he put his hands on her shoulders and gently turned her around, making her face him.  “Look, I admit this is going to take some getting used to, but this isn’t a case of unrequited love.”  He looked into her eyes, his gaze intense, willing her to see the truth.  “I’ll be fine.”

The honesty she saw in his face and the sincerity she heard in his voice succeeded in convincing her and she nodded, although a little sadly.  “I believe you, but your father never will.  He’d never do anything to hurt one of you boys even if it means sacrificing his own happiness.

Struck by her choice of words, Adam gave her a curious look.  It was one thing for his father to refer to him as one of the boys, but something else entirely to hear her use it.  “Is that how you see me?” he asked quietly.  “As a boy in comparison to my father?”

Ellie’s eyes widened, surprised by the question.  “No, not at all,” she replied, anxious to dispel that thought.  “You’re just as much a man in my eyes.”

“But?” he prompted.  He didn’t doubt her word, but the tiny crease in her brow led him to believe there was something being left unsaid.

Her features smoothed and she gave him an affectionate look.  “But you’re a man with strong convictions, ones you’re willing to stand up for no matter what the risk.  As a friend, I admire it, but as a widow with a child to raise, it terrifies me.”

He gave a slow thoughtful nod.  “You do realize,” he said, hesitating, “that my father is that kind of man, too.”

She nodded, keenly aware of their similarities.  “Yes, but it’s been tempered by age and fatherhood.  I know he won’t back down from trouble, but he won’t go looking for it, either.”  She gave him a pointed look, her eyes sparking now with the gentle teasing that had marked their friendship thus far.

He reddened and shifted his weight.  “My trip to the Lazy L?”

“I was worried sick.  My heart couldn’t take that on a regular basis.  Perhaps a younger woman—”

“Would find it exciting? Thrilling?” He suggested with a shake of his head and a wry smile.  “No.  I wouldn’t want a woman foolish enough to approve of my reckless behavior.”

Ellie gave him an earnest look.  “I know you’re not really reckless, Adam, but your gun is low on your hip for a reason and your accuracy with it is well known.  Anyone spoiling for a fight with the Cartwrights knows you’re the one to beat.”

She glanced at his shoulder and he reflexively brought a hand up to rub the spot.  He couldn’t rightly deny it.  Riding roughshod over the rugged countryside with his father since he was a youngster had given him a keen eye, quick reflexes, and a reputation for being tight-lipped and fearless.  Not something he’d purposely cultivated, but the natural result of protecting the ranch from ruthless trappers, traders, commancheros and renegade Indians.  “It’s not something I’m proud of,” he replied, his face troubled.

“No, you never could be.  I’m just saying love can change a man’s perspective.  The risks you’re willing to take as a single man suddenly become too high once you meet the right woman.”  She gave him a knowing look.  “Your decision to ride out that morning didn’t involve me, did it?”

He dropped his head and glanced up at her.  “No,” he answered honestly.

She nodded.  “I didn’t think so and maybe that’s why I was finally able to confront my feelings about your father.”

Adam nodded.  “Don’t worry,” he said, giving her a soft look.  “I’ll make him understand.”

Ellie smiled at him appreciatively.  She wanted to believe him, but was afraid to hope.  “He’s a stubborn man.”

“And I’m a persistent one.”

“Yes, I know.”

He smiled and with an arm around her shoulders, they headed back to the picnic area to gather up their things.

Chapter 33

Adam laid a few coins on the bar in exchange for a bottle of whiskey and then retreated to an empty table in the far corner of the saloon where he poured himself a drink.  He downed it in one gulp and the familiar, satisfying warmth spread through his middle and down to his toes.  Enjoying the soothing effects of the whiskey, he poured another and then leaned back in his chair to sip it and think.  He wasn’t heartbroken, just feeling kind of downhearted.  He supposed he’d been looking forward to marriage and fatherhood more than he’d thought.  He frowned.  He’d have to shake off this melancholy mood before he talked to Pa.

“Hello, Adam, mind if I sit down?”

Adam lifted his head and smiled, pleased to see Mercy.  “Not at all,” he said, standing up and offering her a chair.

She smiled and sat down, her eyes curiously taking in the bottle of whiskey on the table.  “I thought you’d be at the bazaar.  Did you get your fill of potato salad and elderberry wine?”

Adam’s face reflected his amusement.  “Full up to my gullet, but the ladies’ auxiliary has nothing to worry about, I already made my donations.”

“Thank goodness,” Mercy exclaimed, teasing.  “I wouldn’t want anyone accusing Julia of competing with the biggest church fundraiser of the year.”

Adam let out a small chuckle.  “Well, it’s not official, but I’d say the bazaar is a rousing success.”  He gave her an inquisitive look.  “Did you venture out?”

Mercy nodded.  “My quilt took first place,” she proudly announced, but her spark of happiness didn’t last long and her forehead creased into a tiny frown.  “I’m afraid Mrs. Walker took some criticism at declaring me the winner, though.”

Having witnessed some of the small-minded comments directed toward Mercy in the past, Adam’s eyes flashed in anger.

Mercy saw his reaction and immediately regretted saying anything.  “Don’t get angry on my account, Adam.  I should be used to it by now.”

Knowing he wouldn’t get anywhere with her by arguing, Adam’s expression softened and he gave her a gentle look.  “You know,” he said, reaching across the table and taking her hand, “you don’t have to work here anymore.  Why do you stay?”

Mercy looked down at the calloused hand protectively covering hers, so masculine, yet so kind and sensitive.  How she wished she had a decent man to shield and protect her sometimes, but there was no use lamenting it, it wasn’t her lot in life.  “I never intended to be here this long, but the girls, they lean on me, and Julia, she really is a good woman.”

“Yes, but don’t you owe it to yourself to move on?  Make a life for yourself?  You’re still a young woman. Don’t you want to get married again?”

She shook her head and smiled sadly.  “You forget how much I owe Julia,” she said, thinking back to the summer her husband, Aaron, had died.

Four years earlier, she’d come to Virginia City a blushing bride, eager to settle in the area with her new husband, but their life together had been cut short by a drunken miner and a stray bullet.  Stunned by her loss and with little money to her name, she’d tried taking in sewing to make ends meet, but it hadn’t been enough.  Frustrated by her limited options, yet unwilling to abandon Aaron’s final resting place in favor of an easier life back home, she’d boldly entered Julia’s Palace looking for a job.  A shocking decision to most, but to her, it had only made sense to go where the money was, so she’d proposed the idea of creating a hostess position at the Palace.  Seeing the value in having another well-spoken, elegantly dressed woman on the floor to flatter and greet the upper echelon, Julia had agreed to the proposal on the spot and the very next night she’d begun her new job.  By chance, Adam had been there for her debut.  Seeing her nervousness, he’d offered her a steady arm and a friendly face and after that, their friendship had flourished.

“I haven’t forgotten, but the fact is, this kind of life isn’t—”

“Respectable?” she asked, withdrawing her hand and sitting up more rigidly.  “Is that what you were going to say?”

Adam raised an eyebrow.  “You know better,” he said, admonishing her.  “I was about to say it isn’t safe.  Despite the lavish surroundings and Julia’s high standards, some pretty unscrupulous men frequent this place.”  He shrugged and gave her a sheepish look.  “I worry about you.”

Mercy looked down, instantly contrite.  Adam had always been supportive, never critical, even though he didn’t fully agree with her decisions.  “I’m sorry.  I know you do, Adam.”  She hesitated, then confessed to what she knew, not wanting to pretend.  “I know about the money you’re paying Hank to keep an eye on me.  Julia told me.”

Adam glanced at Hank.  Big and burly with a no-nonsense attitude, he kept things peaceable in the saloon.  “Does that bother you?” he asked uncomfortably.  He had no intention of breaking his deal with Hank, but he didn’t want it to become a bone of contention with Mercy either.

With an affectionate look, she reached out and touched his face.  “If you were a different sort of man, it would, but since I’m confident of your motives, I accept the favor with gratitude.  I’m not naïve about the perils of my job.”

Adam smiled at her.  “Good.  I was afraid if you found out, you’d think, well….”  He flushed and shifted in his seat.  “I know I don’t have any claims on you.”

Oh, Adam, but you do, she thought with an intensity she hoped didn’t show.  “We’re good friends,” she said simply and then nodded toward the bottle of whiskey.  “Now, tell me, what’s this about?  Are you drowning your sorrows?”

Adam smiled and shook his head.  “Nah, nothing like that, just having one for the road.”

Mercy tilted her head and cocked an eyebrow, feeling it might have something to do with the woman he’d been seeing, but her chance to question him disappeared when Pete Logan unexpectedly pushed through the door and angled up to the bar.  Like everyone else in town, she knew about the animosity between the two families and worriedly reached for Adam’s arm.  “Ignore him, Adam.”

Eyes narrowing, Adam cursed under his breath.  He’d purposefully chosen the Palace, thinking it would be the last place he’d run into trouble.  Ah, well, nothing to do about it now.  He gave Mercy’s hand a pat.  He didn’t want any trouble, but he’d be a fool to think it wouldn’t come.  “I’ll do my part; the rest is up to Pete.”

Mercy cast an anxious glance toward the bar where Pete was ordering a whiskey.  At least he was alone.  Maybe he’d just have his drink and move on.  “He’s a changed man,” she remarked with a frown.

Adam watched Pete swig down his drink and gesture for a refill.  Before the dispute, they’d been friends as well as neighbors, but Pete had made it clear that was all forgotten now.   “Yeah,” he said taking a sip of whiskey.  “Greed has a way of doing that.”

Mercy gave a thoughtful nod.  “I suppose, but I never would’ve guessed it about the Logans.  They’ve always been friendly folk, always ready to lend a hand.  It doesn’t make sense.”

Nodding slowly in return, his forehead creased in thought.  The fact that the entire Logan clan seemed to have changed overnight had been nagging at him from the start.  “I know what you mean.  It doesn’t add up.”

“No, it doesn’t,” she replied with a glance toward the bar.  Alarmed by what she saw, she drew in a quick breath.

Seeing the cause for her concern, Adam dropped his hand below the table, close to his firearm and waited.  Pete had spotted him and was on his way.

When he reached their table, he shot Adam a hostile look, his height giving him an advantage.  “Well, now, it looks like I just got lucky.”

Adam held his gaze, alert to any attack, but his response was unhurried and devoid of any emotion.  “Oh?  Why is that?”

“I got a message for your Pa.”

“And you think I’ll deliver it?” Adam asked, his tone clearly conveying he thought Pete a fool.

Pete’s eyes narrowed and he irritably swirled the whiskey in his glass.  “You’ll deliver it.”

Adam shrugged.  “Let’s hear it.”

Vexed by his disinterest, Pete downed his drink and then violently slammed the glass down on the table.  “Tell your Pa to stay away from Stuart and McCall and to keep his threats and accusations to himself.  What we do on our land is our business!”

Adam ignored the theatrics as well as his better judgment and smiled lazily, knowing full well it would add fuel to the fire.  “My father didn’t make any threats, Logan—just a promise.”

Sure enough, Logan’s hand instantly balled into a fist and his face screwed up in anger.  “Look, Cartwright, steer clear or you’ll regret it, that’s a promise!”

Adam’s upper lip curled into a sneer of contempt.  “Why?  What’re you gonna do?  Turn your hired gun on me again?”

For a split second, Pete hesitated and Adam thought he saw a glimmer of regret.  It gave him pause, but there was no time to decipher it.  All his instincts were telling him their conversation was about to get physical.  Well, at least, it would be a fist fight and not gunplay.  With a quick glance at Mercy, he signaled her to step back.

“I don’t need anyone to fight my battles,” Pete muttered, no longer hesitating and angrily drawing back his fist.

Adam saw it coming and managed to avoid the full impact, but he still caught a clip to the jaw that knocked him off his seat.  Eyeing Pete the entire time, he got up and purposefully drew himself up to his full height.  His legs braced, he gave him a fierce look.  “You sure you want to do this?” He was bigger and broader than Pete and they both knew the odds were in his favor.

Pete responded by taking another swing.  This time Adam blocked it and countered with a hard blow to his abdomen.  With a grunt, Pete doubled over and Adam followed through with a blow to his back.  It sent his opponent sprawling to the ground.  “Give it up,” Adam commanded.

Enraged, Pete dove at his legs, knocking him to the ground.

Worried by the exchange of heavy blows, Mercy retreated to the bar and furtively scanned the room looking for Hank.  To her alarm, he was nowhere in sight.  She raised her hands in a gesture of helplessness and appealed to the bartender.

With a grim look, he threw down his towel and headed for the door.  “I’ll get the Sheriff.”

Mercy nodded.  Of all the times for Hank to take a break!  With nothing else to do, she resorted to pleading.  “Adam! Pete! Please stop!”

Neither man heard her.  They were both so intent on one another, nothing else registered, not even the fact that a third man was now in the foray, shouting at them and violently pushing them apart.

Caught off guard, both combatants staggered, and the man’s shouts finally broke through.  “I said break it up!”

His chest heaving, Adam eyed Tom Logan.

Pete scowled at his father.  “Stay out of it, Pa!  This is between Adam and me.”

Eyes black as coal, Tom Logan glared at his son until he saw him reluctantly drop his eyes in deference to his authority.  Satisfied he’d get no guff, he turned his attention to Adam, who was rubbing his shoulder, obviously feeling the effects of aggravating it during the scuffle.

Tom shook his head, exasperated by this latest confrontation.  “Go on,” he shouted, “get out of here before you mess up that arm for life.”

Wiping the blood from his lip, Adam obliged him by retrieving his hat, but he couldn’t let the irony of his statement pass.  “I don’t get it, Tom.  Why the concern about my arm?  After all, it was your man that shot me.”

Tom eyed him and then looked away.  “Yeah, well, sometimes life doesn’t make sense,” he replied gruffly.  “Now, do like I said and get going.”

Seeing the same flicker of regret in Tom’s eyes that he’d seen in Pete’s, Adam shook his head.  He didn’t know what to make of it, but he was determined to find out.  He might not get another chance.  “Seems to me you’re the one not making sense.”

Tom’s back stiffened and he glared at Adam, his body language warning him to back off.

At one time, Adam would have respected him as his elder and his father’s friend, but with things the way they were, he pushed harder, peppering him with questions and demanding answers.  “Why did you hire a crew and sink money into a flume? What makes you so confident you’ll win the appeal?  Did you promise Judge Worthington a cut?  Is that it?

His anger flaring anew, Pete muttered through clenched teeth.  “My Pa’s not like that, Cartwright, and you know it.”

Adam responded to Pete’s assertion, but his eyes never left Tom’s.   “I thought I knew you…but I was wrong…honorable men don’t abandon their morals and friendships so easily.”

Pete took a menacing step forward.  “Look, just tell your Pa to back down.”

Tom appreciated his son’s loyalty, but couldn’t condone his behavior.  He grabbed his arm and quieted him with a fatherly look before responding more calmly to Adam’s accusations.  “Things aren’t always what they seem,” he said wearily.  “Tell that to your Pa for me.”

Seeing the fight was gone from his eyes, Adam lowered his guard and spoke in a less demanding voice.  He felt a twinge of empathy even though he wasn’t entirely sure Logan deserved it.  “Why don’t you tell me how it really is?”

Tom stared at him for a long moment, surprising himself by actually wrestling with the idea.  From the beginning, Mary had begged him to ask the Cartwrights for help, but out of concern for her and his own foolish pride, he’d resisted, thinking he and the boys could handle it.  He sighed.  Maybe he should’ve listened to her.

Knowing what he was thinking, Pete rested a hand on his shoulder.  “Don’t do it,” he entreated quietly, “think about Ma.”

Tom offered him a sad smile and a pat on the back.  “I am,” he said.  Then he bent and picked up a toppled chair and sat down.  He’d made his decision.

Taking his cue from Tom, Adam sat across from him and proceeded to pour him a drink from the surviving bottle of whiskey.  He handed it to Tom who gladly accepted it.  “So what is it?” Adam asked, giving him an encouraging look.  “What’s really going on?”

Eyes down, Tom fingered the glass in his hand and sighed.  “My partnership with Stuart and McCall is a lie,” he said, glancing up.

Adam cocked an eyebrow and leaned forward in his chair, confusion and curiosity written on his face.  “In what way?”

Tom opened his mouth to reply, but before he had a chance to get the words out, Roy burst through the door, his eyes sharp and his gun drawn.  With a sweep of the room, he took in the overturned furniture, the bruised jaws, and the puzzling meeting taking place in the midst of the chaos.  Baffled, but relieved to see no one was seriously hurt, he made his way over to the table, determined to get some answers.   “All right, what’s been going on here?” He holstered his gun and looked from Pete to Adam.  “I thought I warned you two about fighting.  By rights, I oughta throw you both out of town for a good long time!” His gaze shifted to Tom.  “And what about you?  Don’t tell me you condone this!”

Adam eyed him impatiently.  Roy’s timing couldn’t have been worse and he hoped the intrusion didn’t discourage Tom from talking.

Thankfully, Tom spoke up, alleviating his fears.  “Calm down, Roy, the fighting’s done and, no, I don’t condone it.  That’s why I’m talking to Adam, so pull up a chair.”  He sighed.  “You need to hear this, too, probably more than he does.”

Roy harrumphed at being told what to do, but the lawman in him sensed Tom was about to make some sort of confession, so he held his tongue and took a seat.  “All right,” he grumbled, eyeing him critically, “but it had better be good.”

Tom nodded and got straight to the point, weary of living a lie.  “The truth is, Stuart and McCall are blackmailing me.  I never wanted to do business with them; they forced me into a partnership.”

Adam and Roy exchanged a look of surprise, neither completely convinced, but it was Roy that fired back.  “Now, what’re you talkin’ about?  You own your land; it’s your decision who you do business with.”

Knowing he hadn’t given them much reason to trust him these past few months, Tom continued to explain, hoping he could convince them and put things right for everyone concerned.  “As soon as word got out about the strike, they showed up at the ranch trying to sell me on the idea of hydraulic mining, said they’d provide the crew and equipment for a share in the profits.”

Having met his so-called partners, Adam nodded, beginning to understand.   “The lion’s share, no doubt.”

Tom nodded.  “I told them exactly what I thought about hydraulic mining and their cockamamie proposal.  I figured that would be the end of it, but then I got a letter from the land office in Carson City.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed in speculation.  “The land office?”

“Yeah,” Tom said, nodding.  “Since I didn’t go along with their proposal, they bribed a clerk into tampering with my legal title as a way of convincing me.”  His eyes flashed in anger.  “They don’t give a whit about the land, just the silver, but they knew I wouldn’t give up the ranch, even if a good part of it was destroyed.”

Roy’s eyebrows knit together and he shook his head, still not completely buying his story.  “Why didn’t you come to me or the Sheriff in Carson City?”

“What could you do?  The documents back up their story, not mine.  Besides, Stuart and McCall aren’t afraid to pay out a small fortune in bribes if it’ll bring in an even bigger fortune.”

“Now, looky here,” Roy exclaimed, his hackles going up, “I never took a bribe in my life!”

“Maybe not,” Tom replied, exasperated the Sheriff hadn’t caught his meaning, “but even if you or the Sheriff in Carson City couldn’t be bribed, those two know people in higher places than you and me.”

Conceding Tom’s point, Roy’s anger faded and he began turning the information over in his mind.  As far as he was concerned, Tom had made some bad decisions and whether he shared any responsibility for Adam getting shot still remained to be seen.

“Sounds like they’ve done this before,” Adam commented.

“Only this time, the water rights agreement between me and your Pa complicated things.”

Adam’s face grew grim.  “And when Pa wouldn’t budge, they brought in a hired gun to scare us off.”

Tom nodded and looked Adam straight in the eye.  “I’m sorry,” he said, apologizing.  “I didn’t know about it until it was done.  I raised heck, but I’m ashamed to say, my word doesn’t hold much sway.  I’m not making the decisions.  Stuart hired that fella Reed.  He’s the one that shot you.”

“You may not have done it,” Roy said, angrily, “but you covered it up!”

“To protect Ma,” Pete exclaimed, interjecting, “not the ranch!” He shook his head angrily and looked from man to man.  “They threatened to hurt her if we didn’t keep quiet.  I don’t have to tell you what they meant.  That’s why me and Dave came on so strong.  The idea of Reed putting his hands on her…well….it made us go kind of crazy.”  He gingerly touched the cut under his eye and looked at Adam.  “We figured the sooner we got you to back down, the sooner they’d be gone.”

“Men like that don’t have any decency,” Adam said, glancing at Roy to get a read.  Roy nodded, indicating he felt the same.

“No,” Tom said grimly.  “They’ll do whatever it takes to fill their pockets, decency be hanged.   “You Cartwrights shook ‘em up, though.  Once they realized you weren’t backing down, they made short work of getting the circuit judge on their payroll.”  He looked at Adam.  “You’re right about Worthington, he’s as crooked as they come.”

Eyes flashing, Roy shook his head angrily.  “A judge… sworn to uphold the law…that just beats all!”

His suspicions confirmed, Adam sat back and frowned.  Simply knowing the truth wasn’t enough, they’d have to prove it.  “It’s not gonna be easy convincing his superiors, not with his father’s reputation.”

“Apparently, he ain’t fit to lick his Pa’s boots,” Roy exclaimed, expressing his contempt.

“No, but even if they launch an investigation, they’re likely to treat him with kid gloves, at first, anyway.”

Discouraged, Tom sighed and sank back in his chair.  Well, at least he’d cleared his conscience by finally admitting the truth.  “Those two aren’t gonna take it lying down, either.  They’ll reach up as high as their money will let them.”

Fully aware the legal system had its share of corruption, all four men quieted as they mulled over their options and searched for a solution.  After a moment, Roy smiled and spoke up.  “Hey, we got that new territorial governor now, what about him?  Your Pa must’ve met him at all them meetings in Carson City.”

Adam nodded, considering it.  “He’s met Governor Nye a few times, but I’m not sure how well he knows him.”

“Well, it’s worth a shot, ain’t it?  We don’t have anything else.”

“Yeah,” Adam said, agreeing and casting an encouraging smile around the table, “and maybe we should fill Orion Clemens in on it, too.”  He shrugged.  “With him being the new territorial secretary, he could at least vouch for us.”

Roy gave him a dubious look.  Orion’s brother, Sam, was creating chaos in town with his tall tales, trouble he could well do without.  “It’s a darn good thing Orion was appointed before Sam came out west, that’s all I gotta say!”

The corners of Adam’s mouth lifted into a small smile.  “You know what Sam says, the pen is mightier than the sword, maybe we should let him handle this.  With his talent, one article in the Territorial Enterprise would be enough to discredit Stuart and McCall and throw suspicion on Worthington.”

“I don’t want them crooks railroaded out of town.”  Roy huffed, turning completely serious now.  “I want ‘em thrown in jail…every last one of ‘em…Stuart, McCall, Worthington, Reed…and to do that, we all need to act as if nothing’s changed until I get some hard evidence.”  He looked at Tom and Pete.  “I expect you’ll be talkin’ to Dave and Mary—make sure they understand.”

“Don’t worry,” Tom replied.  “We’ve got too much at stake to be careless now.”

Satisfied, Roy turned his attention to Adam.  “Tell your Pa and brothers and then get that telegraph sent off as soon as possible, but that’s it.  I don’t want you getting any ideas about goin’ after Reed, you hear?”

Adam eyed Roy.  He’d been considering doing just that, so he couldn’t very well act indignant.  Roy knew him too well.  “I’ll tell Pa tonight.  We’ll ride in tomorrow.  It might take some time to get a meeting, though.”

“Stuart and McCall like to give the appearance of respectable businessmen,” Tom supplied, “so even with the flume being done, they’ll wait until the court date.”

“Ah, yes, until the honorable Judge Worthington gives them the legal go ahead.”  Adam shook his head in disgust.

“In the meantime, I’ll ride over to Carson City tomorrow and have a word with that clerk,” Roy said standing up and calling an end to their meeting.  “Maybe he’ll fess up once he realizes he’ll be the first one to take a bullet if there’s a cover up.”

Hoping to heck the clerk had some smarts, Adam stood up and extended his hand to Tom as Roy headed out.

Tom shook it warmly, not at all sure he deserved his support, but mighty grateful for it anyway.  “Tell Ben I’m sorry and I hope we can repair our friendship once this is all said and done.”

Adam smiled reassuringly.  “I don’t think that’ll be a problem, Tom.”  And with a nod to Pete and a wave to Mercy, he went out, eager to share the news with his father.

Chapter 34

Resting his head against the back of the chair, Ben closed his eyes and slowly puffed on his pipe.  After being on his feet all day doing Lily’s bidding, it was a relief to finally sit and do nothing but enjoy the quiet.  He yawned and propped his feet on the coffee table, a luxury he guiltlessly allowed himself.  Imagining Little Joe’s outrage, he smiled to himself.  Rank has its privileges, my boy.  He chuckled, but just as he was settling into a peaceful doze, he heard riders coming in.  His forehead furrowed in dismay and he opened his eyes, wondering who it could be.  It was too late for guests, but too early for the boys to be home.  He sighed and put his feet on the floor.  He stopped short of getting up, however, when he recognized his son’s footsteps.

“Adam,” he exclaimed as he came in.  “I wasn’t expecting you so soon.  Are the boys with you?” He looked past him, worried there’d been some trouble.

Adam shut the door and tossed his hat on the sideboard.  The room was dark except for the fire and a dim light coming from the lamp behind his father’s chair.  “No, I rode home with Jonesy,” he replied, unbuckling his gun belt.  “He had Billy by the ear and was looking to haul him back to the bunkhouse.  Did Hoss and Joe stay in town for the evening festivities?”

Ben harrumphed, prompting a smile from Adam as he walked over and took a seat on the settee.  “If you mean the festivities in the saloon, then yes,” Ben replied without any real concern.  “I just hope they remember its Sunday and they’ve got work tomorrow.”

“I wouldn’t worry,” Adam said lightly.  “A beer or two and they’ll probably be calling it a night.”

“I suppose.”  He knew Adam was right and since they’d promised to round up the hands before heading home, he didn’t have to worry about that, either.  He settled more comfortably in his chair and resumed puffing on his pipe.

Adam observed him.  He was in a visibly peaceful mood and he hated to shatter it, but his news wouldn’t keep.  “Actually, I stopped for a drink myself.  I went to the Palace and —”

“The Palace?” Ben asked, somewhat surprised.  “How’d you end up there?  I thought you were with Ellie.”  Curious, he looked directly at Adam for the first time since he’d come home and was shocked to see his bruised jaw and split lip.  “You’ve been fighting,” he exclaimed, putting down his pipe.  His eyebrows knit together in concern and he fixed Adam with an anxious stare, guessing it had something to do with the Logans.  “What now?”

Reminded he bore the tell-tale signs of a fight, Adam brought his hand to his jaw and rubbed it.   “I got into a fight with Pete,” he replied, “but before you jump to any conclusions, hear me out, all right?”

Ben’s brow remained furrowed, but he held his questions, willing to listen.

Seeing him wait, Adam continued.  “I ran into him at the Palace and we got into a, uh, little discussion.”  He shrugged, not making any excuses.  “It blew up into a fight.  Tom came in a few minutes later and broke us up.”

“Hmmph,” Ben grunted.  “Well, at least he’s still got some sense.”

“Things aren’t what we thought,” Adam said with a shake of his head.  “Tom needs our help.”

“Help?” Ben scoffed.  “What does he want us to do, roll over and play dead?  Give him money?  A crew?  What?”

Adam patiently eyed him while he vented.  “I know it’s hard to believe” he said, acknowledging the turn of events, “but the truth is, he’s being blackmailed.”

Ben leaned forward in his seat, a doubtful look on his face.  He wasn’t sure he could trust anything Tom had to say anymore.  “Blackmailed? How?”

“Stuart and McCall bribed a clerk into putting their names on his deed of trust.  It was either partner up with them or risk losing the ranch.”

Ben’s brow furrowed and he leaned back in his chair to process the news.  If it were true, it would account for his abrupt change in character.  It would also be a relief to know he wasn’t as unscrupulous as he’d thought.

Seeing he was grappling with it, Adam stepped in to reassure him.  “I saw it in his eyes, Pa.  He’s telling the truth.  I’m certain of it.”

Ben looked at him and gave a slight nod.  He trusted his judgment, but one question after another formulated in his mind.  “This certainly sheds a new light on things.  But why didn’t he come to us sooner, before everything got so out of hand?”

Adam gave a little shrug.  It wasn’t the way he would have handled it either.   “He didn’t think it would do any good, not with them holding the deed and having the money to back it up.   He never figured on them bringing in hired guns or threatening his wife.”

“They threatened Mary?” Ben asked, dismayed.

Adam nodded.  “Yeah, and once Tom realized they posed more than just a business threat, his first priority was protecting her.  I can’t say I blame him.”

“No,” Ben said, with a quiet sigh.  “I can’t blame him for that, but I’m not completely letting him off the hook, either.  Other lives were at stake.”

Adam gave a nod and a slight hardness crept into his features.  “Tom said it was Reed that shot me.”

Ben noticed the change and was quick to interject his thoughts on the matter before Adam got any ideas.  “Well, you suspected it, but now that you’re certain, you can pass the information on to Roy and let him deal with it.”

Adam heard the firmness in his voice and knew it was much more than a suggestion.  “Don’t worry,” he said, reassuringly.  “He already knows.  The bartender went after him when the fight broke out.”  He flushed thinking about the damage they’d done.  He’d have to stop by Julia’s tomorrow and settle up.  “He won’t be arresting him any time soon, though.”

Ben raised an eyebrow, but before he could get his question out, Adam held up a hand to forestall it.

“There’s more.  Tom confirmed our suspicion about Worthington and Roy’s afraid if he arrests Reed, it’ll tip ‘em all off before he’s got the evidence to make the arrests.”

Ben nodded thoughtfully.  Roy was right, but he hated the idea of them walking around loose.  “Proving a judge took a bribe won’t be easy.  He’ll deny it, of course, and he’ll likely have supporters.”

Adam nodded in agreement.  “That’s why Roy wants to take it to the territorial governor.  He’s hoping your connection to Governor Nye will be enough to get us a meeting.  I told him we’d ride into town tomorrow and send a telegraph.  What do you think?”

“I think it’s a good idea,” Ben replied, nodding.  He’d only known the governor a short time, but he knew him well enough to know he’d be interested in exposing this kind of corruption in the courts.   “An inquiry from the Governor, alone, should be enough to launch an investigation and get Worthington off our case.”  He frowned.  “I’d like to have something more than Tom’s word to offer him, though.  Did Roy say anything about questioning the clerk?”

“He’s riding over to Carson City tomorrow.”

“Good,” Ben exclaimed, pleased.  “If I know Roy, he’ll get the truth out of him.”

Adam let out a little chuckle and stretched out his legs.  “Yeah, he sounded pretty determined, that’s for sure.”

Ben smiled, picturing Roy’s determination, and then relaxed into his chair.  After months of uncertainty it felt good to finally be tackling the real problem.  He gestured toward the brandy decanter.   “Pour me a brandy, will you, Adam?  I could use a nightcap.”

With a nod, Adam got to his feet and poured him a drink, but instead of sitting back down on the settee, he sat on the coffee table, facing the fire.  With his brothers out of the house, he wanted to bring up the situation with Ellie, but he wasn’t quite sure how to begin.  He bit his bottom lip and contemplated the fire, deciding to let his father enjoy his brandy first.

Expecting to share a small toast, Ben was surprised to see Adam hadn’t poured himself a drink.  “You’re not joining me?”

“Uh, no, I had mine earlier,” Adam said with a glance over his shoulder.

Ben nodded and sipped his brandy for a few moments before his curiosity got the best of him.  “Did you know Pete was at Julia’s?  Is that why you stopped in?”

His question brought a brief smile to Adam’s face.  “No, I wasn’t looking for trouble if that’s what you’re getting at.  He came in while I was talking to Mercy.”  As soon as Mercy’s name left his mouth, he regretted it, knowing it would pique his father’s interest.  Ah, well, problem solved.

Sure enough, Ben raised an eyebrow.  He liked Mercy well enough and Adam’s friendship with her had never bothered him before, but at that moment it bothered him, a great deal in fact, and he couldn’t keep from commenting.   “One woman isn’t enough for you?”

Had the circumstances been different, Adam would have bristled at the remark, but instead he managed to take a deep breath and give his father some leeway.  “Mercy’s just a friend,” he replied in a controlled tone.  “You know that.”

Unfortunately, Adam’s response did nothing to alleviate Ben’s qualms, mainly because he wasn’t completely sure what sort of friend Mercy was to his son.  “That may be, but don’t you think a courting man should avoid the saloon girls?  Think of Ellie.  What if she heard?”

Adam’s back stiffened, taking the barb against Mercy surprisingly personal.  “Mercy’s not a saloon girl, Pa, or anything else for that matter.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed, irritated Adam had so easily ignored his point about Ellie’s feelings in favor of defending Mercy.  “So you’re more concerned about Mercy than Ellie?” he asked, unable to keep the sharpness from his voice.

“I didn’t say that,” Adam retorted in an exasperated tone.

“Well, then, what are you saying?”

“That you’re judging Mercy unfairly, and me too, for that matter.”

Ben noted the firm set of his jaw and the unwavering look in his eyes and after studying him a moment, he nodded, conceding the point.  Adam had always been a loyal friend, especially to those down on their luck.  He had no reason to question him.  He was just being overly sensitive about Ellie and it had to stop.  “You’re right,” he admitted.  “I’ve got nothing against Mercy and what’s between you and Ellie is none of my business.”  His voice was gruff, but he was annoyed with himself, not Adam.

Adam acknowledged the apology with a conciliatory nod and then turned towards the fire to think.  He wasn’t sure if he should take the conversation any further or not.

Ben finished his brandy, but he took no comfort in it.  He was angry with himself for meddling.  After all, he’d crossed paths with Adam and Ellie several times at the bazaar and each time, they’d been laughing and talking; the epitome of a happy young couple destined for the alter.  In a few short weeks they’d probably be announcing their engagement and in the meantime, he had plenty of other things to think about.  He sighed and glanced at Adam who was sitting with a pensive look on his face.  “Adam,” he ventured.  “I meant what I said.”

Adam heard him, but didn’t turn around.  “I know,” he replied, without any edge in his voice.

“Is there something more on your mind then?”

Adam turned to face him.  “Yeah,” he said quietly, “the same thing on your mind.”

Ben gave him a quizzical look.

“Ellie,” he said simply.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Ben replied, uneasily.

Adam held his father’s gaze and offered what he hoped was a reassuring smile.  “She and I had a long talk today.”

Ben looked down at the glass in his hand, a troubled frown on his face.  He had a feeling he knew where the conversation was headed and he wanted no part of it.

“It’s all right, Pa.  I know you two are in love.”

Ben shook his head.  “That’s ridiculous,” he replied brusquely.

Adam gently pressed him.  “Is it?”

Ben glanced at him as if to speak, and then looked down again, at a loss for words.  Ordinarily, there was very little he couldn’t say to Adam, but not this.  Adam would think him an old fool and he’d be right.

Seeing his hesitation, Adam sought to convince him.  “I meant what I said, it’s all right.  You don’t have to protect me.  I’m not in love with Ellie.”

This time Ben lifted his head in disbelief.  “Adam, you can’t mean that.  She’s perfect for you.  She’s intelligent…spirited…witty…just the sort of woman you enjoy…not to mention kindhearted and a fine mother…what more could you ask for?” He shrugged, bewildered.  “Surely, she’s beautiful enough?”

Adam smiled to himself.  His father was clearly a man in love.  If only he could get him to admit it.  “Pa, you don’t have to convince me.  I know Ellie is all of those things…that’s why we’re friends…good friends…but that’s all.”

Unable to fathom it, Ben got to his feet and restlessly paced a few steps as he tried to organize his disjointed thoughts.  It was Adam’s time to fall in love, not his!  He’d already been blessed with three wives.  Adam was in his prime.  It was his turn to settle down and have children.  Love couldn’t possibly be passing him by, could it?  He and Ellie seemed a perfect match.  Shaking his head, he turned around to face his son.  “Maybe you two just need to give it more time,” he suggested.

Adam was touched by his willingness to forego his own happiness, yet frustrated he hadn’t succeeded in making him understand.  “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but Ellie and I will never be anything more than friends, so don’t deny yourself on my account.  It’s not necessary.”

He looked directly into his father’s eyes and seeing his doubtful look, he drew a deep breath and continued more bluntly.  “Honestly, no matter how much we like one another, a marriage between us would never work.”  He reddened and self-consciously brought a hand to the back of his neck, feeling all the awkwardness of the situation now, but for his father’s sake he didn’t hold back.  “Ellie is a beautiful woman and I enjoy her company…but…well…there’s no desire between us…no physical connection.  So you see, there’s really no question.  Neither of us wants a marriage without…well…passion.”  Embarrassed, he dropped his head and looked up at him through lowered lashes.  His voice was quiet and apologetic as he continued.  “I’m sure you know we kissed and I’m not going to say it wasn’t pleasant, but I promise you, whatever spark we thought we had in the beginning is gone.”

Ben shifted uncomfortably on his feet, unsure of how to react.  He had to admit, a part of him took great comfort in the news, but as Adam’s father, he felt a pang of disappointment for him and couldn’t help wondering if he had considered all the possibilities.  “I know you’re not naïve, Adam, but sometimes a mature woman is more reserved…not so giddy…maybe you’ve mistaken…”

Adam cleared his throat and stopped him right there.  “Your right, I’m not naïve,” he stated firmly, hoping to end that line of discussion, “and before you say it, I’m not being noble, either.  We’re simply not in love and there’s no reason for any of us to feel guilty about it.”

Ben looked him in the eye and could see he was being honest.  With nothing else to say, he gave a small nod and gently gripped Adam’s shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze before sitting back down in his chair.   As he rested his head, his earlier tiredness came rushing back and he heaved a weary sigh.  He was tired, disappointed, and troubled by the whole situation.

Hoping to put a positive spin on things, Adam smiled.  “Look, Pa, I’m happy for you and Ellie.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Ben replied, surprised by his thinking.  “It’s an impossible situation.”

Adam persisted.  “There’s no reason why you two shouldn’t be together.”

“No reason?” Ben blustered.  “Well, even if I could put aside what you want me to, I’m far too old for her.   Compared to me, Ellie is still a young woman.  And what about Mathew?  The boy’s only ten.  No,” he exclaimed with a firm shake of his head.  “I can’t take any more sleepless nights.  I’ve already raised three sons and I’ve got the white hair to prove it.”

“C’mon, fifty-three is hardly old, and it seems to me, just a few weeks ago you were bemoaning the fact that your youngest was on the brink of manhood.”

“That doesn’t mean I want to start over,” Ben replied firmly.

“You love her, don’t you?”

Discomfited by the question, Ben lowered his eyes.  Even with Adam’s encouragement, it didn’t feel right admitting the very thing he’d spent weeks trying to deny.

“Pa?”

Ben looked past Adam and stared into the fire.  “Yes,” he finally said, softly.  “I do.”

Adam smiled, encouragingly.  “Then marry her and everything else will work out.  After all, you’ve got three sons to help you with Matt.”

Ben gave him a gentle look, well aware he’d anticipated being Matt’s father, not his brother.  “Would it really be that easy for you, son?”

“I meant what I said….”

“I’m talking about Matt.  You two have gotten pretty close.  He looks up to you like a father.”

Adam glanced down, a pensive look on his face.  He’d pushed his father to admit the truth, so he supposed it was only fair he do the same.  “You’re right,” he confessed, “a part of me is sorry I won’t be his father, but if you and Ellie marry, I can honestly say I’ll be happy to call him brother.”  He lifted his head.  “It’ll take some adjusting, for Matt too, I expect, but I’m certain he’ll accept it.”  He smiled.  “You’re a pretty good father and I’m a pretty good brother.”

Ben nodded and managed a small smile.  He didn’t doubt Adam’s word, but he’d seen the hint of longing in his eyes and knew it would be far more of an adjustment for him than he was letting on.  “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but if Matt ends up with you as a big brother, he’ll be a lucky boy.”

Adam’s smile widened.  He was glad to hear his father hadn’t completely rejected the idea of a future with Ellie and as for being a big brother, well, that was something he knew about.   “So, you’ll talk to Ellie, then?”

Ben hesitated, another obstacle coming to mind.  “You realize people will talk, don’t you?”

Adam shrugged, unconcerned.  “Gossip never bothered us before, so I don’t see why it should now.  If I have to flatten a few noses, so be it.”

Ben tried to smile, but he couldn’t shrug off his worries that easily.  He owed it to Adam to be honest, though, and the truth was, he wanted to see Ellie, if only to say goodbye.  “All right, son.  I’ll talk to her, but I’m not making any promises.”

Satisfied, Adam nodded and got to his feet.  “Just follow your heart, Pa, that’s all I ask.”  And with that, he gently clapped his father on the shoulder and then headed upstairs, ready for bed.

Ben watched him climb the stairs.  Adam’s selflessness made his heart swell with pride, but he couldn’t help wondering if it came at too high a price.

Chapter 35

It was almost dawn when Ben, unable to fall back asleep, got out of bed.  Not surprisingly, his thoughts were on Ellie as he washed, shaved, and dressed.  It was true, he loved her and if Adam was right, she returned it, but was that reason enough to disrupt everyone’s life?  Were they really meant to be together?  He smiled faintly at his reflection in the mirror.  It wasn’t doubt keeping him awake last night; it was his heart hammering like a schoolboy.  Ridiculous for a middle-aged man with grown sons, but after resolutely banishing Ellie from his thoughts these past few months, he’d tentatively allowed himself to dream.  His smile widened thinking about it, but his reflection in the mirror only served to embarrass him so he turned away.  He shook his head and his expression grew more serious.  Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Adam had been frank about his degree of intimacy with Ellie and he had answered the unasked questions knowing it would help ease his mind.  But while Adam saw him as a man, still young and virile enough to fall in love, he wasn’t so sure about Hoss and Little Joe.  Judging by their jokes about the Widow Hawkins, he had a feeling they’d already put him out to pasture.  He chuckled to himself and then, with another little shake of his head, he tucked in his shirt and went downstairs.  As he descended, he was greeted by the pleasant aroma of coffee brewing.  After his restless night, he hoped it was strong.

Busy fixing breakfast in the kitchen, Hop Sing smiled and nodded towards the coffee pot as soon as Ben came in.  “Coffee all ready,” he said cheerily, “but breakfast still be a few more minutes.”

Ben nodded and got a cup out of the cupboard.  “Take your time,” he replied filling it and taking a tentative sip.  “I’m happy as long as I’ve got my coffee.”  Pleased it was indeed strong, he carried it to the table and for the next few minutes, he pushed Ellie from his mind as he began to make a mental list of everything that needed doing.  As soon as the boys came down, he’d tell them about the Logans.  He was certain the news about Reed would set them off, but he was prepared to take a firm stance.  The last thing he wanted was for either of them to go off half-cocked while he and Adam rode into town to get that telegraph sent.  He frowned, wondering if Worthington would pay the price for his actions.  It would be a feather in Roy’s cap if he could make the arrest stick, but with Worthington’s father being a respected judge, it wasn’t likely.  A slap on the wrist would probably be the extent of it.  He shook his head.  He hoped Worthington Sr. wouldn’t pull any strings, but he knew how hard it would be for him to resist helping his son.  As he was thinking about it, his attention was drawn to Adam and Hoss coming down the staircase.

Hoss felt his father’s gaze and wondered if he’d noticed how late he and Little Joe had gotten home last night.  His brow furrowed a little at the prospect, but he offered a cheerful greeting as they drew closer to the table.  “Morning, Pa, that coffee sure smells good!”  It was a little too cheerful, even to his own ears, but he kept right on walking and talking, bypassing the table and heading straight to the kitchen.  If Pa was going to say something, he wanted to have his coffee first.

Adam chuckled under his breath as Hoss disappeared around the corner.  He’d seen the dark circles under his eyes and knew exactly what his middle brother was thinking.

“I take it they got in late,” Ben said putting two and two together.

“That’d be my guess,” Adam replied, taking his usual seat.  He could see Hoss wasn’t the only one who looked tired this morning and he gently pressed for details.  “You, uh, look a little tired, too.”

With a faint smile, Ben sheepishly lowered his eyes and toyed with his cup, keeping him waiting a few seconds before he finally replied.  “Your old fool of a father couldn’t keep his mind from racing last night.”

Adam nodded and smiled softly in understanding.  “Love has a way of doing that.”

Thankful they were talking freely again, but still ill-at-ease with the situation, Ben offered him a faint smile, but refrained from answering.

“Hey, brother,” Hoss exclaimed as he rounded the corner with two cups of coffee, “don’t say I never done nothin’ for you.”

Adam took the proffered cup and noticed the handle was all greasy.  He eyed his brother with an amused glint in his eye.  “Thanks, but what about breakfast?  Did you leave anything in the skillet for the rest of us?”

Right on cue, Hop Sing came in carrying two platters, one stacked with flapjacks and the other overflowing with bacon.  “Hop Sing very good with wooden spoon,” he replied, having overheard the remark.

“Humph, I’ll say!” Hoss exclaimed, taking his seat and frowning at the red mark on the back of his hand.

Hop Sing’s eyes were full of laughter.  It was no secret he considered Hoss’ penchant for snitching food a supreme compliment.  He’d never admit it, though.  It would spoil the game.  So, instead, he issued his usual command and went back to the kitchen.  “No time for foolishness, you eat before everything get cold!”

More than willing to oblige, Hoss pushed the platters closer to his father and waited for him to go first, deciding a little extra politeness wouldn’t hurt this morning.

Not having much of an appetite, Ben made short work of it and passed it on.

Inhaling appreciatively, Hoss took his share of flapjacks and bacon and proceeded to dig in with his usual gusto.

Seeing he had no intention of passing anything down, Adam shot him an injured look and reached across the table.

Hoss looked up and grinned.  “It’s your own fault for sittin’ way down at the other end of the table, older brother.”

“My fault?” Adam muttered with a smile.  “If I sit by you, I get elbowed.  If I sit by Joe, I end up with milk in my lap.”

“Aw, come on,” Joe said, bounding down the staircase, no worse for wear.  “I haven’t spilled milk since I was a kid.”

Adam quirked an eyebrow at him.  “You mean since last week, don’t you, little brother?”

Reminded of the incident, Little Joe smoothly dismissed it as he sat down and eyed the food.  “That was just a fluke.”

“Hah!” Hoss said jovially.  “It’s a good thing poor Millie don’t know how much milk you spill or she’d never give us another drop.”

Little Joe grinned as he reached for the flapjacks and proceeded to drown them in butter and maple syrup.  “Nah, Millie loves me.  Haven’t you seen her lookin’ at me with those big brown cow eyes of hers?”

Ben smiled at the banter, particularly pleased with Little Joe.  His cheerfulness was a pleasant change from the moodiness he’d been inflicting on everyone lately.  Obviously, a little freedom had done wonders for his growing pains.  “I’m glad to hear you sounding so chipper, Joseph.”

His fork fully loaded, Little Joe flashed him a smile before shoveling it in.

“Maybe you oughta let this boy go into town more often,” Adam said, commenting on his little brother’s high spirits.

About to balk at being called a boy, Little Joe reconsidered when he realized what Adam was actually saying.  “Sounds good to me.  I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.”

“Yes, well, you just might get your wish sooner than you think.”  Ben nodded at Adam.  “Your brother had a very interesting conversation with Tom Logan yesterday.” 

Shocked, Hoss stopped eating and looked back and forth between his father and brother, not sure who was going to tell the story.   “What is it?  What’d you find out?”

Little Joe glanced at Adam and his eyes widened, surprised he hadn’t noticed it right off.  The bruise was faint, but older brother had definitely been in a fight.  “Looks like you did more than talk.  What happened?”

Adam nodded.  “I got into a fight with Pete, but as it turned out, it was the best thing that could’ve happened.”

Finding that hard to swallow, Hoss gave him a skeptical look while at the same time, he kicked himself for not noticing Adam’s bruises earlier.  He would have pressed him for the details in private, just to make sure he was getting the full story and not the watered down version.  “Then you better get to explaining, brother, because I’m real curious.”

“Yeah, me too,” Little Joe added, looking equally skeptical.

Adam obliged.  The sooner they understood, the sooner he and Pa could ride into town and get that telegraph sent.  “I ran into Pete at Julia’s Palace and we traded a few punches.   Tom showed up and tried to hustle me out but I pushed for some answers and he surprised me by actually sitting down to talk.”

Ben nodded.  He admired Adam’s tenacity even though there were times he considered it just plain stubbornness.  “You know how persistent your brother can be.”

“Yeah, yeah, like a dog with a bone,” Little Joe said with impatience, “but what’d he say?  What good came of it?”

Adam scowled, a little perturbed by his analogy.  “He told me Stuart and McCall bribed a clerk into putting their names on his deed and then threatened to claim the ranch if he didn’t agree to their mining proposal.”

Taken by surprise, Hoss traded a wide-eyed look with Little Joe before settling a thoughtful gaze on Ben.  “Doggone, I never figured anything like that, but it kind of takes some of the sting out, don’t it?”

“Yes,” Ben said with a fair amount of reservation.  “I’m glad none of it was Tom’s idea, but I’m not happy with the way he handled things, not by a long shot.  By his own admission, he knew they’d hired Reed, yet he didn’t try to warn us, not one word!” He shook his head in consternation and told the rest.  “Tom confirmed Reed is the one who shot Adam.”

Seeing their faces cloud over and their muscles tighten at the news, Adam related the rest of the story as calmly as possible, being careful to keep his feelings to himself.  “They didn’t know about our water rights agreement, so when we put up a fight, they brought in Reed to scare us off.  Tom said it was out of his hands.”

Ben shook his head in disgust.  “Oh, come on, Adam.  He could’ve done any number of things…warn us…tell Roy…but he didn’t.”

Adam frowned in thought.  “That may have been what they were arguing about that day at the hotel.”

Ben harrumphed.  “After the fact!”

Adam shrugged indifferently.  At this point, Tom’s lack of action was weighing more on his father’s mind than his.  He was more interested in tracking down Reed and bringing him to justice, but rather than betray his feelings, he gave Hoss a meaningful look.   “They also bribed Judge Worthington, so that explains the camp.”

“Dadburn crooks!” Hoss muttered, shaking his head.  “What are we gonna do about it?”

“Go after ‘em,” Little Joe exclaimed, no longer able to keep it in.  “What else?”

“You’ll do no such thing,” Ben ordered, sternly.  “Nothing has changed.  Roy is still in charge.”

“Aw, heck,” Joe snapped.  “Roy can’t do it all by himself.”

Authority emanating from his eyes, Ben glared at him until Little Joe shook his head in disgust and looked away.

Knowing full well what he was thinking, Ben nonetheless moved on, hoping further explanation would help.  His voice remained stern and unyielding.  “Adam and I are riding into town to send a letter to the Governor, but beyond that, we’re leaving everything up to Roy unless he specifically asks for our help.  He needs to get enough evidence to make all the arrests and he’s adamant about none of us meddling.”  He gave Hoss and Little Joe a pointed look.  “Is that clear?”

Hoss nodded.  He wasn’t so riled up, he couldn’t see the sense of it, but he wasn’t so sure Pa was worried about the right son.  He glanced at Adam, who briefly made eye contact and then looked away, seemingly focused on Little Joe.  Yep, just like I thought.  He knew his brother well enough to recognize the signs.  He’d have to keep a vigilant watch.

“Joseph?” Ben asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s clear,” he replied, begrudgingly giving in.  If it was up to him, he wouldn’t waste any time tiptoeing around, but as usual, no one wanted his opinion.

Relieved he wasn’t going to make a fight out of it, Ben nodded in approval.  Hoss, on the other hand, wasn’t so convinced.  Little Joe had a way of saying one thing and doing another, just like that other brother of his.  Now ordinarily, he’d just keep a close eye, but since he couldn’t watch both of them, he decided to give his little brother something to gnaw on.  Little Joe wasn’t going to like it, but after riding roughshod over him these past few weeks, he reckoned he had a right.  “See now, little brother, aren’t you glad we stopped you from riding over to the Logans and doin’ something stupid?”

Reminded of how he’d wanted to have it out with Dave and Pete, Little Joe flushed and ducked his head, feeling like a dumb kid.

Ben’s eyes swept around the table.  “I’m grateful none of you did anything to be sorry for.”

Silence ensued as they fell into thought, but their reflections were cut short at the sound of a buggy pulling into the yard.

Little Joe wrinkled his brow.  “Kind of early for visitors,” he remarked, wondering who it could be.

“Maybe it’s Doc Martin lookin’ for some coffee,” Hoss said, scrunching his nose in thought.  “Some of the women folk in town were talking about Miz Larson being close to her time.”

“No, not good doctor,” Hop Sing said, coming in from the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee.  “It’s Reverend Walker and Missy Ellie.”

Surprised, Ben and Adam exchanged uncertain looks, both having the same thought.  Surely, Ellie wasn’t there to discuss personal matters at the breakfast table; but if not that, then what?

Having a sense of unease, Ben took the napkin from his lap and rose from the table while Hop Sing opened the door and ushered them in.

Following in quick succession, Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe got to their feet to greet them.

Cliff and Ellie were obviously worried and their demeanor conveyed a sense of urgency.

“What is it?” Ben asked, foregoing the usual greetings.  “What’s wrong?”

“Sorry to bother you so early, Ben, but we’re looking for Matt,” Cliff replied.  “He turned up missing this morning.”

Troubled by the news, Ben looked from Cliff to Ellie in concern.  “I wish I could help, but he’s not here.”

Ellie shook her head in dismay and turned from Ben to her brother-in-law.  “I don’t know where else to look.  I thought for sure he’d be here.”  She wrung her hands, wondering where in the world he could be and praying he wouldn’t run into any danger.

Adam shook his head in puzzlement.  “I don’t understand.  Why would he run off?”

Ellie nervously glanced between Ben and Adam.  She had no idea if Adam had spoken to him yet.  Not that it mattered.  Matt was her main concern at the moment.  “He overheard me talking to Lily last night.  He got very upset about the possibility of us returning to Boston.”  She looked anxiously into his eyes.  “He’s hurt and blaming you.”

Struck by regret, Adam nodded in understanding.  It was too late now, but he wished he hadn’t taken on such a fatherly role with Matt.  With a little more foresight, he could have protected his feelings.  “I understand,” he said, quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Ellie said, looking at him apologetically.  “I tried explaining it to him, but he’s just a little boy and he went to bed feeling very angry and rejected.  I planned on talking to him this morning, but he was already up and gone.”

“I went to Jason’s house, hoping he’d be there,” Cliff added.  “He hadn’t seen Matt, but his little mare was gone, so we thought for sure, he’d ridden out here to confront you.  He was talking pretty big last night.”

Hoss and Little Joe traded confused looks, neither of them understanding what they were talking about.  Apparently, a lot more had gone on yesterday than they knew.

Adam drew a deep breath and turned to his brothers.  He could see their confused expressions, but instead of taking the time to explain, he simply asked for their help knowing they wouldn’t refuse.   “Let’s have a look around.”

Without hesitating, they both nodded in concern and headed out.

On his way out, Adam stopped to gently squeeze Ellie’s arm and give her a reassuring smile.  “Try not to worry.  He’s probably just holed up somewhere to think.”

Ellie nodded and watched him go, grateful for his support and the quick action of all the Cartwright men.

“He’s probably right,” Ben said in a comforting tone as he escorted her over to the table.  He wanted to say more, but given the reason for Matt running off, he hesitated.

Sensing he and Adam had spoken, Ellie gave him an appreciative smile as she took her seat.  “Well, I certainly don’t approve of him disappearing, but I suppose he does have a lot to think about.  We all do.”

“I agree,” he said in a reflective tone.  Then, remembering Cliff, he cleared his throat.  “Uh, Cliff, why don’t you sit down and have a cup of coffee.”

Already doing just that, Cliff arched an eyebrow.  “Thanks, Ben, I could use it.”

Chapter 36

Outside, Little Joe went around back.  Seeing no sign of Matt in the old tree house, he followed the trail down to the creek, his eyes alert and watchful.

Heading in the other direction, Adam and Hoss jogged across the yard to the barn.  Hoss climbed into the hayloft and took a good look around, making sure to check all the mounds of hay where a boy could easily hide.  A few minutes later, he called down to Adam.  “Nothing.”

Adam stepped out of the tack room.  “Tack room’s empty, too.”

“Doggone it, Adam,” Hoss exclaimed, climbing down.  “He could be anywhere.”

“I know,” he replied.  He glanced at Blackie standing peaceably in his stall.  “I was hoping he’d be in here brushing Blackie.”  He frowned in thought and headed for the door.  “Let’s see if Joe had any luck before we saddle up.”

Hoss nodded and followed him.  They were crossing the yard when Little Joe rounded the corner of the house and met up with them.

“Anything?” Hoss asked needlessly.

Little Joe shook his head.  “Nope, nothing,” he replied, “and I went all the way down to the creek.”

Thwarted, Adam tried to think like a ten-year-old, but came up empty-handed.  Matt didn’t know the territory like he and his brothers did at that age, so there was no use checking any of their old hideouts.  He thought about the lake, but he wasn’t sure if it held any particular draw for Matt.  He shook his head and looked at his brothers.  “Any ideas?”

Little Joe hesitated, then glanced at Hoss who frowned and shrugged.

Seeing the questions forming in their minds, Adam sighed in resignation.  “All right, what do you want to know?”

“Aw, Adam, we ain’t tryin’ to pry,” Hoss replied, uncomfortably, “but I think it might help if you told us what’s going on.”  He didn’t like poking into Adam’s personal business, but along with the worry he saw in his brother’s eyes, there was a measure of guilt.  Maybe if he and Joe knew why Matt had run off, they’d be in a better position to help them both.

“Yeah,” Joe asked, jumping in.  “What was Ellie talking about?  Why’s Matt so mad at you?”

Adam tugged on his ear.  He didn’t mind telling his brothers, he just didn’t want to waste valuable time convincing them his heart wasn’t broken.  “It’s no secret,” he said, explaining.  “It’s just that Ellie and I decided to call off our courtship…we’re friends…but nothing more.  I guess Matt overhead Ellie and Lily talking about it and he’s blaming me.”

Sorry to hear that, Hoss lowered his eyes and scuffed at the dirt with the tip of his boot, disappointed for his brother.  “Sorry, Adam.  I thought for sure…”  He shrugged, not knowing what else to say.

“Me too,” Joe said, sympathetically.  “I thought it was a sure thing.”  He shook his head, feeling a sense of loss.  “I was kinda lookin’ forward to bein’ the squirt’s uncle.”

Hoss frowned at his little brother.  “Joe,” he said, shaking his head to shush him.  “Don’t you ever think before you talk?” He glanced at Adam to gauge his feelings and caught the flicker of pain in his eyes.  It was gone in a flash, but Hoss didn’t have any doubts.  He knew how close Adam had gotten to Matt and even though he hadn’t voiced it, he knew Adam had been looking forward to being the boy’s Pa.

“Sorry,” Joe mumbled, catching on.  “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”

Adam smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder.   “You didn’t,” he said, reassuring him.  “I’m fine, but since we’re talking about it, there’s something else you two should know.”  He looked from one brother to the other.  “Pa and Ellie are in love, so even though Matt won’t be your nephew, he just might end up being your brother.”

Little Joe’s eyes widened in disbelief.  “What?” he squeaked.  “When?  How?”

Not sure if he’d heard right, Hoss’ mouth dropped open in shock and he shook his head.  “Huh?”

“It’s not so hard to believe, is it?  Pa and Ellie have a lot in common.”

Little Joe scowled and folded his arms across his chest, not liking the idea one bit.  “Heck, I don’t know.  I never thought about it.  She was your girl, Adam, not Pa’s.”

Appreciative of their loyalty, Adam’s eyes were warm as he attempted to put their minds at ease.   “Look, I’m happy for Pa, so don’t be against it on my account.  Ellie and I were never in love, not like that.”  He hesitated, then spoke plain, knowing they were probably wondering.  “And just so you know, nothing went on behind my back.  Pa and Ellie haven’t even admitted their feelings to each other yet.”

Relieved, Little Joe looked down, feeling guilty he’d even thought it.  “Of course it didn’t,” he mumbled.  “Pa wouldn’t do anything like that.”

Hoss gave him a brotherly look, knowing exactly how he felt.  A flicker of doubt had crossed his mind, too, and he appreciated Adam’s straight talk.  But even so, the complexity of the situation didn’t escape him and he frowned in concern.  “You sure you’re all right, older brother?  I mean it’s kind of…I dunno…strange…ain’t it?  Pa gettin’ together with someone you…someone you…” He blushed and let his voice trail off.

“Someone you kissed!” Joe exclaimed.

Hoss shot Little Joe an irritated glance for saying it out loud, then smiled weakly at Adam.  “Yeah that…that and Matt.  I know you was countin’ on bein’ his Pa.”

Beginning to feel uncomfortably vulnerable in front of his younger brothers, Adam shifted his weight and looked out towards the upper corral, purposefully avoiding eye contact.  He had been looking forward to fatherhood and was disappointed it hadn’t worked out.  He didn’t begrudge their Pa stepping into that role, though, and he wanted them to understand that.  He couldn’t think of anyone better.  Turning to explain, he suddenly caught sight of the horse in the corral.  Astonished, a curse slipped from his mouth.  “What the…!”

Following his gaze, his brothers immediately saw what Adam was swearing about.  Instead of Jupiter in the corral, it was Jason’s little mare.  “Dadburn his ornery hide!” Hoss exclaimed.  “Not Jupiter! He knows better!”

“You better tell ‘em inside,” Joe said, giving Adam a worried look.  “We’ll saddle the horses!”

His face grim, Adam set off at a brisk jog back to the house.  Bursting in through the door, he got straight to the point.  “Jason’s horse is in the corral,” he said, picking up his gun belt and buckling it on.  “Matt took Jupiter.”  He made eye contact with his father, telegraphing his worry.

Ellie let out a small gasp.  “Oh, Adam, he’s so inexperienced and Jupiter’s half wild!”

Donning his hat, Adam glanced at his father and Cliff, leaving them to calm her fears as he hurriedly collected his brothers’ hats and guns and went out the door without another look.

Both men closed ranks, offering encouraging comments, but Ellie stopped them with a shake of her head.  “Let’s not pretend.  We all know he’s in danger.”

Not wishing to patronize her, the two men nodded and followed her into the other room.  Ben took his customary chair while Ellie and Cliff sat on the settee, prepared for a long wait.  All was quiet except for the sound of Hop Sing clearing the table until Ben gently broke the pensive mood with an offer he thought Ellie might appreciate.  “Would you like some brandy in your coffee?”

She recalled the incident with Adam and managed a half-hearted smile.  “I suppose it’s my turn, isn’t it? But, no, I’m afraid brandy doesn’t soothe my nerves, it just makes me talkative and I’m sure we can all do without that.”

Ben gave her a small sympathetic smile.  “I’ll remember that.”

The room fell silent again and after a long moment, Cliff quietly stood up, sensing they needed some privacy.  “I’ll, uh, let you two talk,” he said, smiling.  “I’ll be out on the porch.”

“Now, Cliff, that isn’t necessary,” Ben replied, feeling a little nervous about being left alone with Ellie.  “Stay here where it’s more comfortable.”

He circumvented his protest with a wave of his hand.  “As your friend and minister, I think you two should take my advice, but even if you don’t, I think a few prayers are in order, don’t you?”

“Well, I can’t argue with that,” Ben said, glancing at Ellie to see how she felt.

“Nor I,” Ellie said agreeing and exceedingly grateful for her brother-in-law’s thoughtfulness.  She thought again about how lucky Lily was to have him, but while she appreciated his sensitivity, now that she and Ben were alone, she wasn’t sure how to proceed.  Matt, of course, was first and foremost on her mind, but given the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, she wondered if it was time to be completely truthful about her feelings.

Seeing her uncertain glances, Ben took the initiative and moved to her side.  He reached for her hand and gently took it in his.

Reassured by the gesture, Ellie risked looking into his eyes and was relieved to find the love and warmth she’d hoped for.

“That’s right,” Ben said softly.  “There’s no need for doubt.  I’m in love with you.”

Her breath caught and she experienced the same rush of emotions she’d felt that night in the hallway.  “Oh, Ben, I love you so much, but I was afraid to hope.”

Encouraged, he encircled her in his arms and drew her into a loving embrace.  She sank into his chest and for a long moment they simply enjoyed the closeness.  “Ellie,” he whispered.  “I should have admitted my feelings as soon as I realized.”

She gently released him, giving him an understanding look.  “You were taken by surprise, so was I, and neither of us wanted to hurt Adam.”

Nodding thoughtfully, he shifted his position so they could talk.  “I’d like nothing more than to see him married and become a father.”  He shook his head and smiled ruefully.  “I’ve always taught my sons that the hurt you feel when you tell the truth is a little shorter and a little less painful than the hurt you feel when you don’t face the truth.  I should have followed my own advice.  Maybe it would have saved us all some pain and maybe Matt wouldn’t be missing right now.”

Ellie looked down guiltily.  “I knew he’d grown attached to Adam.  I should have told him the truth the day we left the ranch instead of letting him go on hoping.”  She shrugged helplessly.  “I guess I just wanted to postpone his disappointment.”

He smiled down at her and tenderly touched her chin, prompting her to look up.  “I know how hard it is to deliver difficult news.  Don’t blame yourself.”

She gave him an appreciative smile.  “You know, Matt’s running away isn’t a reflection on you, Ben.  He overheard me talking about going back to Boston and he thought Adam had had a change of heart towards him.  His feelings were terribly hurt and he felt betrayed.”  Angry at herself, she shook her head.  “I should have cleared things up last night, but he was so angry and upset.  I thought some sleep might help.  I never imagined he’d run off.”

“Adam will find him and make him understand.”

“Oh, Ben, I hope so.  I hate this waiting.”

“Try not to think the worst.  Matt’s come a long way in his riding.”

Holding on to that thought, Ellie nodded and sank back into the settee.

Knowing what she was going through, he put his arm around her and drew her close, unconcerned about Cliff coming in and seeing them.  After talking to Ellie and freely admitting his feelings, there was no doubt in his mind he would ask her to marry him.  He only hoped she’d agree with him about the timeframe.  Now wasn’t the time to discuss it too deeply, but he at least felt she should have an idea of what he was thinking.  “Ellie?” he began, broaching the subject.

Pulled from her thoughts, she looked up at him.

“I feel very fortunate to have found you,” he began hesitantly, “and I hope I’m not being too presumptuous…” He paused, searching for the right words.

A little puzzled by his sudden cautiousness, she nevertheless gave him an encouraging nod.

“Well, as much as I would like to begin a life with you, I think we should take things slow so we can give the boys time to adjust, especially Matt.”

Ellie’s eyes shone in love and approval.  “And Adam?” she asked, knowingly.

“Yes,” Ben said with a nod.  Do you mind?”

“Do you really have to ask?”

He smiled, his eyes tender, and together they settled into a comfortable silence as they waited for news.

Chapter 37

“Well?” Adam asked anxiously.

Hoss looked up from where he was kneeling on the ground and nodded.  “It’s Jupiter.”

Assured they were heading in the right direction, Adam and Joe exchanged relieved looks while Hoss got back in the saddle and confidently resumed the lead.  Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to realize his expertise wasn’t needed.  Broken branches and trampled brush marked the trail and there was no mistaking the signs—Matt didn’t have control of Jupiter.

Adam’s sense of urgency mounted.  He was tempted to take the lead and set a faster pace, but he managed to tamp it down.  He knew Hoss was going as fast as he could through the wooded terrain and it was only a matter of minutes before they reached the meadow where they could make up precious time.

When the trail finally widened and they emerged from the trees, Hoss came to a stop so they could regroup and scan the area.  Little Joe went to one side and Adam to the other and the three of them, half standing in their stirrups, anxiously squinted into the sun.  Adam took in every movement—the rustling of every leaf, the scampering of every chipmunk and the flight of every blue jay.  He drew a frustrated breath when he came up empty-handed.  “Anything?” he asked, hoping his brothers had a keener eye.

“No,” Hoss replied, shaking his head, “and it don’t make no sense.  He’s gotta be close.”

Adam’s jaw tightened.  As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t stop thinking the worst.  “Maybe he was thrown,” he said in a somber voice.

Hoss locked eyes with his brother and then apprehensively gave the area another look, this time lower to the ground.

Dismayed by the prospect, Little Joe bit his bottom lip, but he kept his eyes firmly off the ground.  They couldn’t all be doomsayers.  Besides, he’d had a hand in teaching Matt to ride and he was confident the boy could keep his seat, even on Jupiter.  So with that in mind, he began methodically scanning the clearing.  A few anxious minutes later, he spotted them across the meadow and off to the right.  Jupiter was running at a fast clip near the tree line.   “He wasn’t thrown!” he shouted in jubilation.  “He’s still hangin’ on!” Not waiting for a reply, he lit out across the meadow in hot pursuit.

Adam and Hoss squinted past him and spotted Matt and Jupiter heading straight for Bear Creek.  Thrilled he was still astride, but apprehensive about Jupiter running full bore towards the creek, they urged their horses into a run, just seconds behind Little Joe.  Thankfully, Jupiter appeared to be tiring and the gap between them began to close, but the distance proved to be too wide and there was no reaching him before he plunged into the icy creek.

Adam caught a glimpse of Matt’s strained face and willed him to keep a strong grip.  With summer coming to an end, the water was mercifully low, but slippery rocks and tangled snares beneath the surface made every crossing treacherous even in the best of circumstances.  Hold on, Matt, just hold on! 

First to arrive at the water’s edge, Little Joe pulled back hard on his reins and brought Cochise to an abrupt stop.  It would be safer for Jupiter to cross the river without three horses bearing down on him.  Aware of what he was doing, Adam and Hoss pulled up beside him, their horses rearing from the suddenness of their commands.

Hoss gave Chubb an apologetic pat while keeping his eyes on the pair in the creek.  “Don’t worry…they’re doin’ fine…just fine,” he said to his brothers with more conviction than he felt.

Adam shot him an impatient look.  He wasn’t in the mood for empty assurances; all they could do was wait and hope for the best and it was nerve wracking.  Fortunately, a few tense moments later, his silent prayers were answered.  Jupiter, with Matt still firmly in the saddle, came to a standstill on the opposite bank, fully spent and exhausted.

“All right,” he said, anxiously beginning his descent into the creek, “let’s go.”

With a nod, Little Joe coaxed his horse into the water.  Hoss followed, but took a moment to caution his eager brothers.  “Tread careful!” he shouted.  “You ain’t gonna do Matt any good if you end up gettin’ swept downstream.”

Adam called over his shoulder as he forged ahead, never slowing down.  “Don’t worry…we’re doin’ fine…just fine.”

Hoss shook his head in consternation, but refrained from saying anything more.  He didn’t mind his words being thrown back at him just as long as they all crossed safe and sound.

Dismounting as soon as he reached the opposite bank, Adam called out to Matt.  “Sit tight, Matt.  We’ll have you down in a minute.”

Overwhelmed with relief at the sight of Adam and his brothers, Matt raised his sagging head and nodded.  His arms and legs were trembling from the strain of holding on and he wanted nothing more than to get down.

Sensing their approach, Jupiter lifted his nose and stamped his feet, but instead of taking flight as they feared he might do, he merely nickered in recognition.

Adam crooned softly to him and cautiously made his way over.  “Easy, boy, easy.”

In response, Jupiter docilely stretched his neck towards his master and Adam reached for his bridal and soothingly stroked his nose.  Little Joe came in from the other side and attached a lead line.  Once he was sure Jupiter was secure, Adam lifted Matt off the horse and set him on his feet a short distance away.  Facing him, he kept both hands on Matt’s shoulders and knelt down on one knee.  He saw a scrape on his cheek and a few more on his arms where Jupiter had run him into tree limbs, but other than that, he appeared to be unharmed.  “You all right?” he asked in a voice laden with concern.

Matt drew a shaky breath.  “I…I…think so.”

Adam smiled weakly; relieved he was safely in hand.  How in the world did Pa survive the three of us?

Too tired and overwrought to think, Matt fell against Adam’s chest and was immediately gathered into his arms.  Feeling safe, he closed his eyes and felt the tension in his muscles melt away as he momentarily forgot his troubles.  All too soon, though, Adam’s closeness triggered a flood of painful emotions.  Remembering he’d rejected him, his heart constricted in pain.  Adam wasn’t gonna be his Pa.  He doesn’t want me.  Too much to bear, he broke free and his pain quickly gave way to anger.

Releasing his hold, Adam’s eyebrows lifted as he watched him plant his feet and square his shoulders.  Aware he was covering up injured feelings, he sighed in regret and stood up, troubled he’d hurt him so deeply.  He wanted to talk to him, make him understand, but with Ellie waiting, it didn’t seem right to keep her worrying any longer than necessary.  And maybe by the time we get back, I’ll know what to say.  “Your mother’s worried,” he said, hoping to diffuse the situation by appealing to his sense of responsibility.  “We shouldn’t keep her waiting.”  He took a step closer and gently squeezed his shoulder.  “We’ll talk later.  I promise.”

Matt pushed his hand away, his emotions boiling over.  He didn’t give a whit about anything else at the moment.  “I bet you weren’t worried,” he exclaimed, giving him a hard look.  “I bet you just wanted your stupid ol’ horse back!”

Not entirely surprised by his attitude, it stung nevertheless.  “Is that what you really think?” Adam asked, pointedly.

Matt gave him a peevish look.  “What’s it matter?”

His tone was clipped, but Adam could see his eyes were shining with unshed tears and it made him flush with guilt.  “It matters,” he explained in a softer tone, “because I care about you and I thought you knew it.”

Matt shook his head in disbelief.  It didn’t make sense given what he knew.  “You’re lying!” he cried, his young voice rising.  “You don’t care about me or my Ma!”

Adam eyed him compassionately.  “Matt, listen to me,” he said, keeping his tone gentle.  “There’re things you don’t understand.”

Matt blinked back the tears threatening to fall, but he didn’t waver.  He boldly looked Adam in the eye.  “I know everything I need to.”

At a loss for words to explain the situation to a ten-year-old, Adam was tempted to say more than he should about his father and Ellie.  He ran a hand across his face in thought.  It would go a long way in comforting him, but it wasn’t his news to tell and the last thing he wanted to do was set him up for another disappointment if it didn’t work out.  Besides, this was about their relationship and he wanted Matt to realize they had a bond regardless.  “It’s true, your mother and I aren’t getting married,” he said gently, “but that doesn’t mean the two of us can’t be friends.”

Matt’s shoulders sagged, crushed instead of comforted by his admission.  Did he really think being friends was enough? “I don’t wanna be your friend,” he exclaimed, his voice cracking with emotion, “so just take your stupid horse and leave me alone!”

Adam shook his head and sighed.  He knew Matt was terribly hurt, but his refusal to listen was beginning to frustrate him.  “All right, then, let’s get back to the ranch.  We’ll talk more there.”

He motioned Matt toward Sport and then glanced at his brothers who both nodded in agreement.

But Matt was too caught up in his own anger to take heed and surprised them all with the magnitude of his outburst.  “I don’t hafta listen to you,” he lashed back.  “You ain’t nothing to me!”

Adam felt a twinge in his heart.  It was a childish insult, but it found its mark, nonetheless.

Matt saw him wince and his chin came up triumphantly.

Adam eyed him for a moment and then, in a decisive move, he acted on his instincts.  Hurt feelings or not, Matt was behaving poorly and ignoring it wouldn’t do their relationship any good, but maybe following through on a promise would succeed in convincing him he still cared.  “Maybe not,” Adam replied, taking him firmly by the arm, “but since you’re in no hurry to get back, there’s another matter we need to discuss, isn’t there?”

Thrown by the sudden sternness in his voice, Matt eyed him in confusion until it dawned on him he was talking about Jupiter.  With that realization, he began to struggle with all his might, furious he’d even think about punishing him.  “Lemme go!”

Adam shook his head and drew him closer.  “You knew the consequences.”

Alarmed by the determined look in his eye, Matt kicked as hard as he could and connected with Adam’s shin.  He succeeded in making him draw a sharp breath, but not in loosening his grip.  “You ain’t got no right!”

“Aw, c’mon Adam,” Joe said, stepping forward to protest.  “Don’t you think you’re overstepping?” Adam had yanked him into line on occasion and had even booted him in the backside a few times growing up, but he’d never actually spanked him.

“Never you mind,” Hoss ordered with a shake of his head.  “Adam knows what he’s doing.”  He gave Matt a look of disapproval, just to make sure he knew exactly where he stood on the matter.

Matt saw it and his stomach fluttered.  Hoss was just as mad as Adam, maybe even more, and he knew Joe couldn’t do a thing to stop his older brother.  His hopes for escape were dashed.  Infuriated, he continued to struggle, determined to land as many kicks as he could.

Surprised his normally soft-hearted brother approved, Little Joe backed off, feeling slightly betrayed.  Hoss and Adam seemed to be thinking a lot more alike these days and he didn’t like it, not one bit.

Appreciating his support, Adam glanced at Hoss and then proceeded to turn Matt around and dust the seat of his pants despite his wail of protests.  He felt for the boy, but he only stopped when justice had been fully handed down.

As soon as he was free, Matt retreated as far as he dared.  His backside stung like the dickens and he instinctively reached back and rubbed it, but the real sting was in realizing he’d acted like a fool kid.  A fool for thinking Adam would be his Pa and a fool for taking Jupiter.  He’d wanted to show him—show him he didn’t give a whit about his rules, just like he didn’t give a whit about him!  He sniffed and wiped his eyes and nose with the back of his hand.  Didn’t prove nothin’, he thought dejectedly.

Adam heaved a sigh and gave Matt a moment to himself.  His eyes swept past Little Joe, who obviously still disapproved, and settled on Hoss.

Hoss saw a flicker of hesitation in his eyes and encouraged him to finish what he’d started.  “Go on, Adam, now’s the time.”

Adam gave a slight nod and then walked over to Matt, who was standing with his head down.  Now that the fight was out of him, maybe he could get him to talk.  “I’m sorry you’re upset with me and I’m sorry it came down to this, but that was a stunt I couldn’t ignore.”  He envisioned Matt on Jupiter and his voice conveyed the fear he’d felt.  “You could’ve been killed.”

Matt threw a glance his way, but he couldn’t maintain eye contact.  He’d known he was no match for Adam, but it was embarrassing how easily he’d overpowered him, not to mention the position he’d put him in.  Still, as embarrassed as he was, he’d heard the concern in his voice and he honestly didn’t know what to think.  Wiping his nose on his shirtsleeve, he sniffled and shrugged in confusion.  “What’s it matter to you?” he asked, genuinely needing to know.

Adam smiled down at him.  Matt looked so miserable and defeated that he almost regretted spanking him.  “Well, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you—nothing’s changed between us.”

Matt’s head drooped even more.  He wished he could believe it.  “I thought you were gonna be my Pa,” he whispered, risking another glance.  “I thought you loved me and Ma…but…but you don’t.”

Adam glanced self-consciously at his brothers, neither of them disguising their interest.  For the second time today, he felt vulnerable exposing his feelings, but for Matt’s sake, he spoke from his heart.  “I do love you,” he replied, gently, “and your Ma, too.  It’s just that, well, she and I don’t have the marrying kind of love.”  Uncomfortable, he paused and searched for the right words.  “I know that’s hard for you to understand, but it’s not something a man and woman decide on, it just something that happens one way or the other.”

Matt’s heart lifted a little.  He felt a spark of hope and it was reflected in his voice.  “Maybe it’ll turn into the marrying kind.”

Once again, Adam fought off the urge to tell him about Pa and Ellie.  He wanted to comfort him, but he didn’t know if they’d even spoken to each other yet.

Little Joe, on the other hand, had no such qualms.  He impatiently looked from one brother to the other and when neither said anything, he spoke up.  “Aw, heck, just tell him and put the kid out of his misery for cryin’ out loud.”

Astounded he didn’t have any more sense than that, Adam’s eyes narrowed and he fixed him with a penetrating glare.

“What?” Joe asked, shrugging it off.  “It’s the truth, isn’t it?”

Matt’s eyebrows drew together.  For a second there, he thought he could trust Adam.  He brushed past him towards Joe.  “What is it?” he asked, pressing him for an answer.  “What’re you talkin’ about?”

“I’m talkin’ about your Ma and…”

“Joe!”

Ignoring the warning in Adam’s voice, Little Joe kept right on talking.  “and my Pa having the marrying kind of love, so you can quit worrying about going back east.  Adam’s not gonna be your Pa, he’s gonna be your brother, we all are.”  He smiled smugly, satisfied he’d gotten the news out.

Stunned, Matt’s eyes widened and he swung back to Adam.  “Is that true?”

Adam drew a deep breath and tried to push his irritation aside so he could answer.  “They’ve fallen in love, yes, but I don’t know if they’ll get married and neither does Joe, so don’t go getting your hopes up.”  He gave Little Joe a look that clearly conveyed he wanted to throttle him.

This time Little Joe shrank back from the anger emanating from his eyes.  Adam rarely started anything physical, but he’d seen that look before and knew what it meant.  He glanced at Hoss who shook his head at him.

“When’re you gonna learn to think before you talk, shortshanks?”

Faced with such strong reactions, Little Joe guiltily dropped his eyes and stared at his boots, wondering the same thing.

Adam looked back at Matt who was frowning and shaking his head as if he were trying to wrap his mind around the idea.  Poor kid, he must be reeling.

“So, we’re gonna be brothers?” he asked, hesitantly.

Facing him, Adam got down on one knee again and gently held his shoulders.  “Maybe,” he said with a soft smile, “but whether or not that happens, I’ll be here for you.  Do you understand that?”

Matt nodded and offered him a cautious smile.  He didn’t understand why Mr. Cartwright was courting his mother instead of Adam, but he finally understood Adam still cared about him.  “Yeah,” he said, looking down sheepishly, “and, well, I’m real sorry about takin’ Jupiter.”  He rubbed his backside.  It didn’t hurt anymore, but Adam had made a lasting impression.  “Real sorry.”

Adam smiled and pulled him in for a hug.  “Good.”  He briefly closed his eyes, grateful and relieved.

Tickled Adam and Matt were back on good terms; Hoss took pity on Little Joe and gently elbowed him in the ribs to get his attention.  When he looked up, Hoss inclined his head toward the pair.  “Ain’t that nice?”

Little Joe nodded and offered a hesitant smile.  “Yeah, I didn’t think older brother had it in him.”

Hoss looked affronted on his brother’s behalf.  “What do you mean?  Adam’s got a big heart.”

Little Joe gave him a skeptical look.  “He’s got a funny way of showing it sometimes.”

Shaking his head, Hoss pointed a finger at his little brother.  “You don’t see it because you’re too busy bucking against him.”

“You mean because he’s too busy cracking down on me.”

“That’s right,” Hoss said knowingly.  “Just like he cracked down on Matt, because he cares.  You ever think of that?”

Little Joe gave him a blank look.  He didn’t doubt Adam loved him.  They were brothers, after all, but it never occurred to him Adam was acting out of brotherly love when he was bossing him around.  Well, maybe boss was too strong a word.  To be fair, he was usually just doing his job or trying to steer him clear of trouble.

Seeing the wheels turning in his head, Hoss smiled to himself and then went to secure Jupiter for the ride home.

Little Joe glanced at Adam walking Matt over to Sport.  He noticed the protective hand resting on the boy’s shoulder and he felt a slight twinge of jealousy.  Adam rarely put his arm around him like that anymore.  He supposed he couldn’t blame him; for the past few years, he’d been making a point of avoiding any brotherly overtures that might lead to unsolicited advice.  He frowned in thought.  If Matt joined the family, he’d no doubt deflect some of Adam’s attention and while that sounded appealing on the surface, deep down he couldn’t deny it—he liked knowing his meddlesome older brother was keeping a close eye on him.  His frown deepened.  If Matt ended up being a Cartwright, he wouldn’t be the youngest anymore and he wasn’t quite sure how he felt about that.

Contemplating it, he gathered his horse’s reins and prepared to mount, but no sooner did he get his foot in the stirrup than a shot came out of nowhere.  In a flash, he had his rifle out of its scabbard and was running for cover.  He made it behind a boulder at the river’s edge but darn near got bowled over by Hoss running full tilt behind him as more shots rained down.

Already astride, Adam swiftly jumped down, taking Matt with him.  They hit the ground running, but it was no use.  They were caught out in the open by four gunmen stopping them in their tracks.  Chest heaving, Adam protectively pushed Matt behind him and surveyed the men through squinted eyes.  It was the same four men who’d drawn on him and Hoss up at the mining camp.

Alarmed, but keeping his cool, Little Joe trained his rifle on Reed while Hoss kept his sidearm cocked and ready.

Aware of their guns and position, Reed kept his rifle on his shoulder and looked down his sights at Adam, hoping to keep the upper hand.  “I thought I told you to stay off this land, Cartwright!”

“We don’t want any trouble,” Adam replied calmly.  “The boy lost control of his horse and we came to fetch him, that’s all.”

“You been warned before, now drop your gun belt!”

Adam’s jaw clenched at his unreasonableness, but having no other choice, he carefully unbuckled his belt and let it fall to the ground.  “Let the boy go.”

Reed didn’t yield.  “He’s right where I want him,” he replied unaffected.

Struck by his indifference, one of Reed’s own men eyed him critically.  “Now, hold on! There’s no reason to risk the boy’s life.”

Irritated at being questioned, Reed’s grip tightened on his gun.  “He’s keeping them other two in check,” he growled.  “Can’t you see that?”

His man shook his head, unmoved by his reasoning.  “I was hired to run off trespassers, not shoot innocent kids.”  He’d done some questionable things in his life, but his name wasn’t on any wanted posters and he meant to keep it that way.  Keeping his eye on Reed, he motioned Matt over to a stand of trees, confident Reed wouldn’t jeopardize his power position over Cartwright by arguing with him.  “I got two boys of my own.”

“Seething at being undermined by some sentimental two-bit gunman he’d been thrown in with, Reed unwillingly relented.  He needed the fool’s help and couldn’t risk alienating him at this stage of the game.  “You’re a fool, but if it means that much to you, have it your way.”

Relieved to find a little decency, Adam reassuringly squeezed Matt’s shoulder in response to his worried expression and then pushed him toward cover.  “Stay down,” he instructed firmly.

“What about you two?” Reed called to the other men in a ridiculing tone.  “You as soft as him?”

The two men spared each other a glance, neither very happy with their position in this little standoff.  Their rifles were aimed at the outcrop of rocks where Hoss and Little Joe had taken cover.  Odds were, they wouldn’t shoot as long as Reed had their brother in his sights, but things could change in a heartbeat, especially with their driven leader.

“I reckon I’ll do what I have to,” replied one of the men, “but I ain’t forgettin’ there’s two guns pointed at me, neither.”

The other man nodded.  “Same goes for me.”  He’d been hired for a job, but he didn’t intend to take a bullet because Reed was too bloodthirsty to call it a draw.

Seeing an opportunity, Hoss put the pressure on.  “I’d think real hard if I were you! If he even looks like he’s gonna pull that trigger, we open fire!”

Reed snorted.  “They won’t get a shot off with you three pepperin’ them rocks with bullets!”

“You’re wrong,” Hoss growled dangerously.  “I’d risk takin’ a dozen bullets if you so much as hurt a hair on my brother’s head, Reed!”

“Same here!” Little Joe shouted with conviction.

Adam smiled to himself, proud of his brothers.  He could tell they sensed this wasn’t a tight group and they were pushing hard.  He looked at the first man.  “You willin’ to risk never seein’ your kids again?”

He stared at him for a moment and then shook his head.  “Don’t reckon I am.  You leave peaceable-like and I’ll consider my job done.”  He eyed the other two.  “What about it, boys?”

Both men readily agreed.  They’d been with Reed long enough to know he’d developed a personal vendetta against Adam Cartwright and neither of them wanted to get shot over it.

Reed’s eyes flashed in fury.  He’d taken heat from his employers for not finishing Cartwright off when he’d first had the chance and the blow to his ego and reputation infuriated him.  To make matters worse, Cartwright’s refusal to be cowed ate at his pride.  His mouth tightened into a hard line, but he was smart enough to see things weren’t going his way.  If these lily-livered fools were too worried about their own hides, he’d have to bide his time.  Grudgingly, he lowered his rifle and then slowly and carefully placed it in its scabbard.  “Looks like you get another chance,” he conceded with a calmness that belied his fury.

Seeing the truth in his eyes, Adam warily bent to retrieve his gun belt.  “Tell me something,” he asked, buckling it on, “why do you want me dead so bad?”

“Law says I can shoot trespassers,” Reed said, casting him a cagey look, “simple as that.”

“You and I both know it’s more,” Adam replied looking him straight in the eye with a steady gaze.

Reed’s eyes filled with malice.  “You’re right, Cartwright.”  He shook his head in anger.  “You think you’re better than me!  You look at me like I’m no better than a grub in the dirt!”

“Now that’s where you’re wrong,” Adam replied, shaking his head, “grubs are useful.”  He smiled a slow smile, his eyes full of contempt.

“Why you—!”

“I’m ready if you are!” Adam shouted back.  His eyes were focused and every fiber in his body was ready and alert.

“Hold on!” Hoss bellowed, coming closer.  His gun was cocked and aimed at Reed, staving off any sudden moves.  “There ain’t gonna be no gunplay!  If you two got somethin’ to settle, it’s gonna be with your fists or not at all!”

Adam’s eyes narrowed in irritation, unappreciative of his brother’s interference.  He’d been restraining his temper for entirely too long and was tired of having to look over his shoulder every time he rode out.  He blew out a deep breath.  Well, at least, he could beat the stuffing out of Reed.  “You think you’re man enough?”

“I’m gonna enjoy tearin’ you apart,” sneered Reed, dismounting.  He’d been forced to postpone Cartwright’s demise, but the next best thing was humiliating him.

“Gimme your guns,” Hoss ordered with foreboding.  When they both complied, Hoss joined Little Joe and Matt.  “I sure hope Adam knows what he’s doin’.”

“You think he can beat him?” Matt asked, worriedly.

Little Joe frowned.  Reed had gotten the fight underway by diving into Adam’s legs and knocking him off balance.  “If he fights dirty.”

Hoss glanced from the combatants to the other three spectators just to make sure they weren’t making any moves to interfere.  They’d dismounted and were watching with interest, but that was all.  Satisfied, Hoss brought his eyes back to the fight.

“That’s it,” yelled Joe, “don’t let him pin you!”

Grappling on the ground with neither man gaining an advantage, Adam finally got some leverage and threw Reed off.  He got to his feet and Reed came at him again, but this time Adam slammed his fist into his jaw causing him to stagger from the force.  Outraged, Reed’s counter attack was relentless.  He fought with a fanaticism that was difficult to fend off.  Adam took a blow to his abdomen and one to his jaw that left him breathless and bleeding.  Reed, however, made the mistake of gloating too soon and Adam took the opportunity to come back with a vengeance.  His adrenalin was running high and he managed to deliver two hard blows, the second one knocking Reed to his knees.  This only fueled his fever-pitched hatred.  Reed got to his feet and from a crouched position dove at Adam with a fierce cry.  They both landed with a thud to the ground and the fight once again turned into a wrestling match, each man struggling to get a hold.  With Reed outweighing him by fifteen to twenty pounds, Adam was at a disadvantage.  Fatigued, he drew on all his reserves, but much to his frustration he soon realized it wasn’t enough.  Reed pinned him down and brutally wrenched his arm behind his back, pulling all the muscles in his bad shoulder.  Adam cried out in pain and bitterly admitted he was done.

Coming to the same realization, Reed let out a guttural laugh and would have wrenched his arm even further if Hoss hadn’t warned him off.

“Let him go!” he commanded in a dangerous tone.  “It’s over!”

Sweat dripping into his eyes, Reed blinked up at him and then wisely released Adam’s arm.  He’d used up every ounce of his strength and was in no shape to grapple with this big man.  He’d accomplished what he’d set out to do and got up with a wicked smile.

Ignoring it, Hoss handed him his gun and then turned his attention to Adam.  Little Joe was already helping him up.  Adam accepted his assistance, but once he was on his feet, he shook him off.  Defeat was hard to swallow and even harder with Reed using his injured shoulder against him.  He wasn’t surprised, but it riled him just the same.

“You almost had him,” offered Little Joe with a weak smile.

Adam eyed him moodily.  “Yeah, almost…” he muttered.

Little Joe shrugged and warned off Matt, knowing his brother needed a few minutes.

Hoss, however, didn’t have any trepidation about approaching him.  “How is it?”

“I’ll live.”

“You think you can ride?” Hoss asked, handing him his gun.

Nodding, Adam put it in his holster.  “Let’s get out of here.”

“Whatsa matter, Cartwright?  Can’t stand bein’ knocked off that pedestal of yours?”

Adam looked at Reed, his face filled with disdain.

“You still think you’re better than me, don’t yuh?”

Adam held his gaze.

Realizing he’d never succeed in cowing him, Reed was consumed with rage and recklessly went for his gun.  Adam drew and in the next instant, Reed was laying on the ground.

One of his men ran over and perfunctorily checked him.  “Dead,” he announced without any emotion.

Stunned by the sudden turn of events, Hoss looked his brother in the eye, gauging his frame of mind.  “You didn’t—?”

“No,” Adam replied with a shake of his head.  He held his gaze and then retreated a few steps to where an old hollowed-out log lay on the ground.  He sank down with a groan.  He didn’t take killing a man lightly and despite what he’d just said to Hoss, he wasn’t entirely sure if he’d purposefully baited Reed or not.  He’d reacted in anger and the outcome was deadly.  Was he culpable?  Not according to the law of the land, but morally?  He lowered his eyes to the ground.  He was only human, he got angry like everyone else, but he was rarely driven by it.  He shouldn’t have given him a second look.  If it were Little Joe, he would’ve yanked him by the arm and thrown him on his horse.  He looked up again and saw his kid brother and Matt eyeing him.  He sighed.  He could see their admiration and it weighed heavily on his mind.  “What’s done is done, but I’m not proud of it.”

“I know you’re not,” Joe replied, “but I’m glad you were quicker on the draw just the same, otherwise Hoss would be puttin’ your body across a saddle right now instead of his.”

Adam wearily nodded.  “Yeah,” he said quietly.

Chapter 38

With his right hand gripping Jupiter’s tether and his left hand loosely holding onto Sport’s reins, Adam looked over the top of Matt’s head as he guided Sport into the yard.  He’d somehow managed the long ride home with his injured shoulder, but the pain nagged at him the entire way and he was looking forward to resting it.  He pulled up at the hitching post.

Matt frowned, knowing he had some explaining to do.  “Adam?”

“Yeah?”

“What do you suppose my Ma’s gonna say?”

Adam heard a hint of nervousness in his voice and would have given him a few words of advice, but there wasn’t time.  His father had opened the door and he was already leading Ellie outside to meet them.  Reverend Walker was close behind.

“He’s got him,” Ben announced in a relieved tone.

“Oh, thank goodness!” Ellie exclaimed as she rushed across the porch.

“A few scratches, but otherwise safe and sound,” Adam said with a weary smile.

Ben took Jupiter’s tether and tied him to the post so Adam could safely hand Matt down to his uncle.  At the same time, he wondered about Adam’s disheveled appearance and the dried blood on his lip.

As the reverend set Matt on his feet, he gently admonished him.  “Well, young man, you caused a lot of commotion today.  Your poor mother was worried sick.”

“I know,” Matt replied remorsefully.  He looked from his uncle to his mother.  “I’m real sorry.”

Overcome with emotion, Ellie had no inclination to scold him.  She simply hugged him tight, relieved to have him back.

Assured he was fine, Ben left them to their reunion while he quietly addressed Adam.  “What happened to you?” he asked.  “Where’re the boys?”

“We had some trouble and they’re headed into town.”

Ben and Cliff exchanged concerned looks.  “What sort of trouble?” Ben asked apprehensively.

Having overheard their conversation, Ellie loosened her hold on Matt and listened.

Steeling himself, Adam drew a deep breath before breaking the news.  “Hoss and Joe are fine, but we ran into Reed.  He’s dead.”

Just as he anticipated, shock registered on their faces and they were momentarily rendered speechless.  Ben was the first to recover.  “How’d it happen?” he asked, regarding him with a serious countenance.

“We caught up with Matt at Bear Creek.  Reed and three others pinned us down.  We tried reasoning with him, but he and I got into a fight.”  He lowered his eyes in regret.  He’d put everyone at risk by challenging Reed and it was something he needed to own up to, but he just didn’t have the energy right now.  He’d discuss it with his father and brothers later, in private; he didn’t want Little Joe to get the wrong idea.  “He trounced me and that should have been it, but—”

“But he was out for blood,” Ben added shrewdly, knowing it was true.

Grateful for his insight, Adam looked his father in the eye.  “He drew on me and I killed him.”

Having grown paler with each revelation, Ellie gripped her son’s shoulders.  Matt looked up at her and she worriedly looked into his young wide-open eyes, aware the outcome today could have been very different.  “Adam looked after me, Ma.  He pushed me behind him when that Reed fella came around pointin’ his gun.”

Adam let out a pained sigh.  He had an idea of what she must be feeling.  Talking about the violence in the west was far different than having your ten-year-old son coming face-to-face with it.  “I would’ve taken a bullet for him,” he said quietly.  “I hope you know that.”

Her eyes welled with tears.  She had no doubt in her mind.  “I do,” she replied with feeling.  “And I know you’d never kill unless you had to.”

Adam gave a slight nod and looked away, thankful she seemed to understand.

“No man has a right to vengeance,” Cliff added, “but he’s got a right to defend himself, even with deadly force if necessary.”

All ears, Matt looked at Adam.  When he saw the serious expression on his face he was suddenly struck by a guilty notion.  “Was it my fault?” he asked, worriedly.

Adam hesitated, not sure what he meant.

Matt anxiously explained.  “You were on the Lazy L because of me…so…so wasn’t it my fault you had to kill him?”

“No, Matt, no,” Adam said, adamantly shaking his head.  “It had nothing to do with you.”

“That’s right,” Ben said, agreeing in a firm tone.  “Reed wasn’t there by chance, he was looking for trouble.  He brought it on himself.”  He gave Adam a long reassuring look and then continued to speak to the boy, seizing an opportunity he couldn’t let pass.  “But there is a lesson here we shouldn’t ignore, young man.”  He glanced at Ellie for permission and she nodded.

Adam saw their exchange and wondered what, if anything, had transpired between the two of them today.  Had they come to a decision and hence the fatherly tone?  Or was Pa just being Pa?

Ben spoke to Matt in a gentle yet firm voice.  “You’re right in realizing your poor choices can hurt others, intentional or not.  Sneaking off and taking Jupiter was thoughtless and dangerous.  You had everyone worried…you disrupted everyone’s day…you could have hurt yourself…or ruined a good horse…all because of your reckless behavior.”

“Yes sir,” Matt replied, gulping and lowering his eyes.  “I didn’t think about none of that.  I just wanted to hurt Adam.  I mean…well…I thought I did.”  He glanced up at Adam.

Adam gave him a warm smile.  “Yes, well, that’s all settled now.”  He glanced from his father to Ellie.  “We had a, uh, serious talk before all this business with Reed happened.”

“Yeah, real serious,” Matt said emphatically.

Ben allowed a little smile to lift the corners of his mouth.  “I see.”

Matt nodded for extra emphasis and then, suddenly frowning, he hesitantly asked a question.  “Mr. Cartwright, when you said everyone was worried, um, well, did that mean you, too?” He bit his bottom lip, wondering what he would say.

Ben put a fatherly hand on his shoulder.  “Yes, I was worried,” he replied, soothingly.  “The same as if you were mine.”  He meant it, but for Adam’s sake, he wished he’d put it differently.  He glanced at him and caught a ripple of emotion.

Matt flushed, feeling happy but a little self-conscious with everyone looking at him.  In his shyness, he nodded and dipped his head.  He remembered the night Mr. Cartwright had come into his room, how he’d talked to him real gentle like and how he’d made him feel better.  Maybe it would be nice having him as a Pa.

Cliff cleared his throat.  He hated to rush them along, but Lily was still home waiting.  “Yes, well, speaking of worrying, Lily’s probably wringing her hands as we speak.”  He looked at Ellie.  “We should get back if you’re ready.”

Ellie’s eyes widened.  “Of course! Poor Lily!”

“We’ll ride with you,” Ben said, his eyes falling on Adam again.  “We should catch up with the boys and make sure everything is squared away with Roy.  Are you up for it?”

Adam nodded and set off for the barn to saddle his father’s horse.  On his way, he ruffled Matt’s hair.  He was confident they’d all get along as a family, but after witnessing the exchange between Pa and Matt, he knew he’d have to do a better job of schooling his feelings.  He wanted Matt to love and respect his father, the same as he and his brothers did, and the only way that was going to happen was by Pa feeling free to actually father him.

Chapter 39

Having drained the last of his beer, Hoss set his glass on the table.  “Mmmm boy, that sure was good,” he declared, content.  He wiped his mouth and leaned back in his chair.

Little Joe grinned as he signaled the barkeep for two more.  “Hit the spot, didn’t it?”

Hoss nodded.  “Yeah, but I feel kinda guilty bein’ here.”

“Why?” Little Joe asked wide-eyed and innocent.  “We’re doing what we’re supposed to.”

Hoss gave him a doubtful look.

“Look, we can’t just drop off a dead body at the undertaker without talking to Roy and since he’s not back from Carson City, we have to wait somewhere, don’t we?”

“I suppose you’re right,” Hoss said, thoughtfully.  He gave his brother a nod and a sunny smile, willing to go along with his reasoning.

Little Joe returned it and leaned back comfortably in his chair.  “Sure I am and there’s no threat from the Logans or Reed now, either.  Things are finally gettin’ back to normal.”

“No threat from them fellas either,” Hoss said, indicating the three men having a whiskey at the back table.  He’d had a chance to talk to them on the ride in and he’d concluded they weren’t bad men, just mistaken.  They’d hired on at the Lazy L thinking they were protecting a legitimate mining outfit and he didn’t see any reason to hold that against them.  He was mulling it over when Pa and Adam entered the saloon.

As they approached, Sam set two more beers on the table and Little Joe pushed them toward the empty seats, offering them to the elder Cartwrights.  “Just in time,” he quipped.

“We saw your horses outside,” Adam said, taking a seat and gratefully picking up the beer.

Ben sat down and took a long satisfying sip.  “How’d it go?”

“We took the body to the undertaker, but Roy wasn’t in his office,” Hoss replied.

“So we came here to wait,” Joe quickly added with a smile.

Ben nodded.  He didn’t begrudge them a beer; in fact, it tasted pretty darn good.  He took another gulp.  “Roy just rode in, but I need to stop at the telegraph office before we head over.”

“You want me to go with you?” Adam asked.

“Finish your beer,” Ben said, clapping him on the back as he stood up.  “I’ll come back for you boys on my way to Roy’s.”

Glad for the reprieve, Adam relaxed and sipped his beer.  His shoulder was throbbing and as much as he didn’t want to, he knew he’d have to see Doc Martin for some pain medicine before the long ride home.   As he was considering it, he glanced around the room and spotted the three men sitting at the back table.  He paused and his eyes narrowed in thought.

Hoss noticed the change in his expression and followed his gaze.  “I’ll fill you in later,” he said, anticipating his brother’s questions.

Adam’s brow creased, but he nodded, trusting his brother.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Roy put on his glasses and perused the document on his desk.  Satisfied it was in order, he folded it and put it in his top drawer for safekeeping.  As he did so, he heard the clatter of footsteps approaching his office and seconds later Ben and his sons were coming through the double doors.

Roy smiled and waved them in.  “I was hoping you’d be in town today.”

“Hello Roy,” Ben said, approaching his desk and wearily sitting down.  He motioned Adam to the other chair and Hoss and Little Joe gathered round.

Eyeing them, Roy’s smile faded.  “Well, what is it? I can see something’s happened.”

Ben glanced at Adam.   “The boys tangled with Stuart and McCall’s gunmen today.”

Adam put a hand on his father’s arm to stop him.  He was a big boy and needed to tell Roy himself.  “Reed drew on me,” he said, not mincing any words, “and I killed him.  His body is over at the undertaker’s.”

Roy blew out his breath and leaned back in his chair, steepling his hands.  He knew Reed lived by the gun and probably instigated the whole thing, but he was still the sheriff and he had to ask a few questions.  “Did you go out looking for him,” he asked, giving Adam a pointed look.

Ben shook his head, annoyed.  “What kind of question is that?” he demanded, protectively.  “Of course he didn’t!”

“You know as well as I do, he was thinking about it!” Roy exclaimed, irked.

Adam shifted in his seat and avoided eye contact with the both of them.  It was a fair question, but irrelevant now.  “Why don’t I just finish,” he suggested in a reasonable tone.

Roy gave him a nod.  “Go on, I’m listening,” he replied brusquely.

Regretting he’d set him off, Ben settled down as Adam calmly explained the sequence of events leading up to Reed’s demise.

As soon as he was done, Hoss jumped in to back up his story.  “And I got this here statement from the three other men swearing it was self-defense.”  He pointed to the signatures.  “The undertaker witnessed it.”

Surprised he’d succeeded in gaining their cooperation, Adam rewarded him with an appreciative smile, grateful he’d thought of it.  Glad to be of help, Hoss returned his smile, but then his brow creased into a frown as he prepared to tell Roy the hard part.  “I, uh, didn’t see no reason to bring them in, Sheriff.  You heard what Adam said.  Reed was the real threat, not them.”

Roy raised an eyebrow.  “I might as well get badges for all you boys,” he muttered with a sweeping glance.

“Aw, Sheriff, I wasn’t trying to do your job,” Hoss replied with a shrug.

“Maybe not, but those fellas might’ve had some useful information,” Roy said, chiding him.  “They still in town?”

“I saw them riding out when I was coming from the telegraph office,” Ben supplied.

Roy’s eyebrows shot up.  “You telegraphed Governor Nye?” he asked, hoping he’d set things in motion.

“That’s right,” Ben replied, glad for the change in subject.  “I told Dave to let you know as soon as there’s a response.”

Roy nodded his approval.  “Good, we’ll need someone at the top to bring Worthington down.”  He opened his drawer and pulled out the paper he’d tucked away.  “And you’ll be happy to know I got a sworn statement from the clerk in Carson.  It took some finagling.  He was worried they might come gunnin’ for him, but I finally got him to admit he’d taken a bribe.”

“Good work!” Ben exclaimed, pleased.

“Tom’ll be relieved,” Adam added.

Ben nodded.  It was a relief for him, too.  He hated to admit it, but he’d had some niggling doubts and now he could finally put them to rest.

Unfortunately, their little celebration didn’t last too long.  It was shattered by Stuart and McCall bursting into the office like they owned it.  Immediately upon seeing the Cartwrights, they pointed an accusing finger at Adam.  “Sheriff,” McCall blustered, “I want this man arrested for killing our man, Reed!”

Roy shook his head.  “No need,” he replied, unruffled.  “It was a clear-cut case of self-defense.”

“By whose account?” He looked at Adam with obvious contempt.  “His?”

Roy nodded.  “That’s right, he gave me his statement and so did his brothers.”

Flabbergasted, Stuart protested.  “And you don’t think they’re biased?”

Roy gave him a sidelong look and spoke to him as if he were a child.  “Well, you see, a big part of being a sheriff is knowing the townsfolk…their customs…habits…what makes ‘em tick…so I can best judge the truth.”  He nodded at the boys.  “Now, you take the Cartwrights here, well, I’ve known them since they was kids and I know when they’re telling the truth.”

Stuart looked at him in disbelief.  “You don’t really expect me to accept that do you?”

Roy squinted at them, seemingly bewildered.  “Well, sure I do, that’s why I’m tellin’ you.”

At that, Little Joe, couldn’t help but snort, earning him a stern look from his father.

Too caught up in their own importance, neither of them took notice.  “I’m not surprised a small town sheriff like you can’t see what’s right under your nose,” sneered McCall.  “Lucky for us, we know someone who can bring this to justice!”

“We intend to file a complaint with your superior,” Stuart said, glaring at Roy.

“Up to you,” Roy replied unconcerned, “but there’s something else you should know before you go to all that trouble.”

“And what is that?” Stuart asked, impatiently.

Roy smiled at him.  “That your own men signed a statement saying Adam was only defending himself.  I have it right here, witnessed by the undertaker.”

“Let me see that!” growled McCall, making a grab for it.

Roy deftly pulled it out of his reach.  “You’re gonna have to take my word for it.”

Caught off guard, McCall began to pace.  Stuart, however, quickly recovered his composure after his initial surprise, aware of the temporary shift in power.  Without their gunmen to back them up, they’d have to keep things civil, unless they wanted to tangle with the Cartwrights themselves.  Being they didn’t stand a chance against these men in a fair fight, the court case couldn’t get here soon enough.  The sooner Worthington ruled in their favor, the sooner they could get their silver and the sooner they could leave Virginia City and the Cartwrights behind.

He looked at Ben.  “We’ll see you in court, Mr. Cartwright, and I trust once the judge rules, you’ll abide by the decision.”

“Of course,” Ben said, icily.

Stuart gave him a shrewd look and then signaled his partner to go, recognizing there was nothing further to be gained.

Once they’d left, Little Joe shook his head, perplexed.  “I don’t get it.  You got the clerk’s statement.  Why don’t you just arrest them and be done with it?”

Roy gave him a paternal look.  “Patience, Little Joe.  A crooked judge can do a lot of harm and it’s my job, if I can, to put a stop to it.”

“What if they get nervous and head out?” Adam asked.

“It’s risky,” Roy admitted, “but they want that silver and I’m willing to bet their greed will keep ‘em around long enough to see their scheme through.”

“Court date’s only two weeks away,” he reminded him.  “You think that’s long enough for Governor Nye to conduct an investigation?”

“It’ll have to be,” Ben interjected with a serious look on his face.

Chapter 40

The Cartwrights sat in the courtroom, talking amongst themselves as they waited for the judge to arrive.  The only thing they knew for sure was that Governor Nye had looked into the matter, but with time being short, they weren’t privy to his findings.  At the very least, they’d expected Worthington to be pulled from the case, but he’d arrived in town earlier that morning and it was cause for concern.  Hiram was a top notch lawyer, but it wouldn’t make a bit of difference with a crooked judge.

Ben looked at Roy, who was standing near the judge’s bench, prepared to keep order in the court.  If he’d gotten any word, he hadn’t shared it.

On the other side of the room, Tom Logan kept up the pretense of being under Stuart and McCall’s thumb.  He’d been elated to hear about the clerk’s confession, but the waiting was steadily wearing him down.  He and his sons were constantly on their guard and the fact that Reed was no longer a threat hadn’t improved things.  Stuart and McCall had hired two new gunmen and they were strategically positioned in the courtroom to keep him quiet.  He glanced at his sons.  The possibility of more gunplay worried him and he prayed they’d keep still even if the proceedings didn’t go their way.   He knew they were running out of patience and he didn’t want his boys being the ones to end up behind bars, or worse yet, dead.

Across the room, Ben was having similar thoughts.  Little Joe was fidgeting in his seat in anticipation of the proceedings.  Hoss and Adam appeared calm, but he knew their reactions would be just as volatile if they lost the case and justice wasn’t served.  It would be a travesty, but he didn’t want his boys challenging a judge, even a crooked one.  If Worthington succeeded in ruling on this case without interference from his superiors, then his pull obviously reached higher than they thought.  Somehow, he’d have to keep them in check if it got to that.

Adam leaned forward and touched his arm, breaking into his thoughts.  “I wonder if the clerk’s here,” he said, quietly.

Ben glanced around the room, surprised so many of the townsfolk had taken such an interest in a civil matter.  He’d asked Ellie and Lily to stay away and he was grateful they’d complied, but Reverend Walker was in the room, as well as Doc Martin.  “If Roy said so, then we can count on it.”

Adam nodded, accepting his father’s decree, but he sensed he’d said it with more conviction than he actually felt.

Roy checked his watch and glanced uneasily at the door.  Things weren’t going entirely as planned and it was time for the hearing to begin.  Ah, well, he’d been a sheriff long enough to know how to rely on his own wits.  For the time being, he’d let the hearing proceed as normal.

As if on cue, Judge Worthington emerged from his chambers.  “All rise,” Roy announced, concealing his contempt as he came in and took his seat.

“Be seated,” the judge murmured, picking up his gavel and giving it a sound tap.  “Court is called to order.”  He made a show of rifling through the papers in his hand before looking up.  “I understand this is an appeal and Tom Logan is the plaintiff in this case.  Are you present and do you have representation?”

Stuart raised his hand and responded to the query.  “He’s right here, Your Honor, and I’m representing him.”

“State your name and interest,” he instructed, mechanically.

“Jack Stuart.  I’m Mr. Logan’s business partner and he’s asked me to speak for him during these proceedings.”

Tom’s jaw tightened, frustrated at having to listen to his pack of lies.

“Very well,” the judge said, looking to the other side of the room.  “I see the defendant is Ben Cartwright.  Are you present and do you have representation?”

“This is Mr. Cartwright,” Hiram replied, gesturing to Ben.  “I’m his lawyer, Hiram Wood.”

The judge eyed Hiram.  He hadn’t counted on Cartwright having legal representation.  He should’ve done his research.  Now he’d have to keep to the letter of the law as much as possible and that irritated him.  He’d hoped to be done as quickly as possible, collect the remainder of his money, and be done with it.  “All right, then, let’s proceed.  Mr. Stuart, state your case.”

Stuart stood up and related how Tom Logan had struck silver on his land, how he’d supposedly contracted with Stuart & McCall’s Hydraulic Mining Company to extricate it, and how the Cartwrights had done nothing but interfere, costing them time and money.  He then droned on about the ridiculous notion of there being a water rights agreement based on a handshake some seventeen years ago that Ben Cartwright claims is binding, but Tom Logan says never happened.  “He paused a moment in his exposition and gave the Cartwrights a smugly confident look.   “In conclusion, Your Honor, in the absence of any written agreement, I maintain Tom Logan has a right to proceed with hydraulic mining on his own property without further delay.  And quite frankly, we wouldn’t have had to waste your time with this appeal if Ben Cartwright wasn’t such a good friend of Judge Riley.”

Hiram gave him a sharp look as he stood up.  “Objection!” he exclaimed.  “Mr. Stuart’s conjecture has no place in these proceedings.”

“Oh, come on!” Completely out of patience, Little Joe made a move to get up, but Adam put a firm hand on his chest and Ben succeeded in quieting him down with a stern look.

His outburst along with the other murmurings in the courtroom, prompted Roy to crack down.  He was darn curious to hear what the judge would say. “Quiet!” he commanded.

Exasperated with Stuart’s last statement, Judge Worthington fought to keep his face impassive.  He’d suspected he’d gotten involved with pompous idiots and now he knew it.  Thankfully, their idiocy didn’t affect the value of their money.  He just needed to get through the hearing without rousing suspicion and he could be on his way.  “Sustained,” he replied looking up.  “Rest assured, I won’t take that into consideration.  You may present your case Mr. Wood.”

This time, Hoss snorted; he couldn’t help it.

Hiram nodded at the judge and proceeded to point out how Tom Logan had voluntarily abided by the agreement with Ben Cartwright for seventeen years to the benefit of both the Ponderosa and the Lazy L.  He argued Mr. Logan’s own actions over the course of those years contradicted his present denial of there ever being a good-faith agreement.  “Only now, when he has something to personally gain, is he refusing to acknowledge the agreement he willingly upheld for seventeen years.  If Mr. Logan is allowed to use hydraulic mining, it would unfairly impact Mr. Cartwright’s property and consequently his cattle operation.  It would take years for Bear Creek to come back to its natural state making his prime pasture land useless.”

“Tell me, Mr. Wood, is there anyone who witnessed the alleged handshake agreement you wish me to uphold?”

Hiram shook his head.  “No, Your Honor, only my client’s deceased wife.”

“Very well, then, in-lieu of a written agreement it comes down to the plaintiff’s word versus the defendant’s.”

Dismayed by his oversimplification of the case, Hiram began to object, but the judge stopped him.  “I’ve heard enough, Mr. Wood, please sit down.”

Ben shook his head and traded concerned looks with his sons.  It appeared the case was coming to an alarmingly rapid close without any outside intervention in sight.  Hoss leaned in and muttered what was going through his mind.  “I sure hope Roy’s got something up that sleeve of his besides a hairy arm.”

Ben wasn’t amused, but it struck Adam and Little Joe as funny and they couldn’t help but laugh.

“This is serious,” Ben said, scowling at the three of them.

In response, Adam sobered up a little.  “I know, but this whole thing is a farce.”

“Order in the court,” Roy said, directing his comments to the Cartwrights.  “Give Judge Worthington his due respect.”

Beyond irritated, Ben gave him a sharp look and it was then that he noticed the hint of a smile on Roy’s face.  Adam noticed it too.  He smiled to himself, wondering what he had planned.

Impatient, Judge Worthington proceeded.  “Being neither party has any evidence proving or disproving the alleged water rights agreement, the question at hand is whether or not a landowner has the right to conduct business on his own property in the most expedient way possible even if a byproduct of it temporarily inconveniences his neighbor.”

“Temporarily inconveniences?” Hiram repeated in astonishment.  “Judge, if you refuse to acknowledge Tom Logan’s adherence to the water right’s agreement for seventeen years as evidence, then the specific question is whether he has the right to use hydraulic mining instead of a less injurious method even though it will adversely impact Mr. Cartwright’s property and livelihood for years to come.”

“And what about Mr. Logan’s livelihood?” Stuart protested.

“Mr. Logan will make a sizable profit using traditional mining methods, whereas Mr. Cartwright will suffer the loss of a needed source of water for years to come.  Why should he bear the brunt of injury while Mr. Logan bears none?”

Judge Worthington’s eyes flashed in anger.  “Do not presume to tell me the law, Mr. Wood!” He banged his gavel in authority.  “I find Mr. Logan has the right to mine for silver on his own land in the easiest most cost-effective way possible.  Any damage to Mr. Cartwright’s land and herd is unfortunate, but it is a byproduct of a legitimate mining operation and is not Mr. Logan’s concern.  Mr. Cartwright has no more right to Bear Creek than Mr. Logan.”

“Not just yet,” boomed a voice from behind.

Judge Worthington looked at the person looming large in the doorway and his mouth dropped open in shock.

“Father! What’s the meaning of this?” he asked, bewildered.

His father approached the bench and lowered his voice for a private conversation.  “Forgive me for surprising you, son, I didn’t have time to get word to you.  Governor Nye felt this case warranted a second opinion since it may very well set a precedent.”

“Governor Nye?” he asked, astonished.  “I wasn’t aware you knew him, but even so, you don’t have any jurisdiction in this territory.”

Ben observed their conversation.  He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could see Judge Worthington’s expression while he spoke to his father and it was anything but welcoming.

“We’ve recently become acquainted and he suggested I make the trip.”  It was the truth as far as it went, but the real reason he’d come to Virginia City was to see for himself if the accusations against his son were true and sadly he’d already heard enough.  He’d been listening at the door and his son’s willingness to rush into an unjust decision was a bitter blow.

Flabbergasted by the turn of events, the younger man was momentarily speechless as he tried to grasp the meaning.

Peeved, Stuart seized the opportunity.  “I hate to interrupt this touching reunion,” he declared, “but I demand we conclude this case.”

With a wry smile, Roy stepped forward, relieved the man he’d been waiting for had finally arrived.  “I’m afraid this case was finished before it began.”

“That’s right,” Tom said, standing up.  He couldn’t hold his tongue any longer.  “Ben and I promised to share Bear Creek years ago.  As for our so-called partnership,” he spat out, “you know darn well it’s a sham.  You forced me into business by threatening my wife and threatening to steal my land.  I didn’t stand up to you like I should have, but the Cartwrights did and Adam got shot because of it!  You tried intimidating them with your hired guns, like you did me, but it didn’t work, did it?”

Outraged, McCall didn’t hear half of what Tom said.  He was so worked up, his only thought was to stick with their original scheme.  “I suggest you don’t say another word,” he hissed, “or you won’t have a speck of dust to your name.”

Stuart, however, had heard every word and be began to sweat profusely.  His mind worked to come up with something, anything, to explain.

Roy’s eyes narrowed.  “Well, now, if you’re referring to Tom’s deed of trust, I have it right here and everything seems in order.”  He pulled it from his vest pocket.  “The clerk at the land office corrected the deed right after he explained to me how you two bribed him into putting your names on it.”  He handed it to Tom for safekeeping and then called out in a louder voice.  “You can come in now, Mr. Prescott.”

A small man wearing wire-rimmed glasses stepped into the courtroom.  He’d been nervously waiting outside for the sheriff to signal him in.

“Are these the two men who paid you to falsify Tom Logan’s deed ?”

“Yes, that’s them,” he confirmed apprehensively.  It was true, he’d taken the money, but only because they’d struck fear in him by keeping their guns in plain sight the entire time they were in his office.  He hated he was such a weak man, so easily intimidated, and if he had to pay for it, so be it.

Grasping at even the slimmest possibility to discredit his story, Stuart shook his head.  “This is preposterous,” he declared, vehemently.  “We’ve never seen this man before!”

“That’s right, we’ve never laid eyes on him,” McCall blustered, glaring at the timid clerk.

Mustering up his courage, Mr. Prescott straightened to his full height.  “It’s the truth and I’ll swear to it,” he said in a firm tone.

Proud of his stand, Roy nodded in support and then made his move.  He drew his gun and held it on Stuart and McCall.  “All right, you two, I’m taking you into custody.  Hand over your guns.”

This led to a slew of heated protests, but they complied when the Cartwrights circled around, guns drawn.

With a sense of foreboding, Judge Worthington attempted to distance himself.  “In light of these disturbing developments,” he announced with an authoritative air, “this case is rightly dismissed.”  He banged his gavel and stood up, avoiding eye contact and hoping to make it to the judge’s chambers without delay.

Stuart gave him a disparaging look, but said nothing.  Implicating the judge of wrongdoing would only get him in deeper.

“Not so fast,” Roy said.  “As a judge, sworn to uphold the law, you’ve got a few things to answer for.”

Drawing a deep breath, the judge turned around to face his accuser.  “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m a busy man, Sheriff Coffee, and need to be on my way.”  He gestured toward Stuart and McCall.  “You’ve caught your criminals and I’m sure you know how to proceed.”  He looked at his father.  “My father has come a long way and, no doubt, is in need of some refreshment.”

The senior Judge Worthington nodded.  “Yes, I am, unfortunately, I’m here under very unpleasant circumstances and will have to forego the lemonade.”  He pulled two letters from inside his coat pocket.  “You’re a smart man, John, surely you know I’m not here on a holiday.”  He smiled sadly.  “I wish I was.”

He stared at him.  “Apparently you’ve lost some of your faculties, father.”

It stabbed at his heart, but he ignored his insult and steeled himself to carry out his duty.  “These letters are evidence of a bribe you accepted to rule against the Cartwrights.  I daresay there appear to be others.  There’s a U.S.  Marshal waiting to escort you back to Carson City.”

“You entered my room unlawfully; anything you’ve found is inadmissible!”

The senior Worthington eyed his son with sadness, wondering what had caused him to go so far astray.  “There’s nothing unlawful about a father visiting his son.”

The younger man’s eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened.  He regarded his father with disdain and turned on his heels.  The elder man sighed and followed him out.

Struck by the grief etching into his face, Ben felt he should say something and moved to catch up with him.  “Judge Worthington, may I have a word with you?”

He stopped and gave a permissive nod even though he really didn’t feel like it.  “Yes, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I just want to thank you for your dedication.”  He smiled apologetically, hoping his words didn’t sound trite.  “I know you’ve paid a high price today and I’m sorry.”

“Even in such a short amount of time, I can see how close you are with your sons.  Regrettably, I never had that with my son.”  His shoulders sagged a little.  “I suppose I was too busy working during his formative years.”

“It’s not easy when a man’s work keeps him from his family,” Ben said, sincerely sympathizing.

Judge Worthington nodded appreciatively.  “Good day, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Good day, Judge.”  He watched him go and considered how his dream of building the Ponderosa had enabled him to involve his sons in his work, even as youngsters.  Not only had he been able to bond with them in those formative years, he’d also been able to enjoy them.  He was a lucky man, and he didn’t take it for granted.  God had blessed him by making his life’s work fruitful in more ways than one.

Chapter 41

Ben buttoned his dress shirt and smiled as he listened to his three sons getting ready for the evening’s festivities.  It had been a difficult summer and he was glad the cloud hanging over them had finally lifted.  Ranch operations had gotten back to normal and everyone was in good spirits, looking forward to the fall dance.

In his room, Adam poured a little cologne in his palm, rubbed his hands together, and gave his cheeks a pat as he checked his reflection in the mirror.

“Dadburnit!” Hoss exclaimed, frustrated.  “It don’t look right!” He gave his older brother a pitiful look.  “Can you help me with my tie, Adam?”

Amused by the look on his face, Adam corked the cologne and smiled as he assessed the problem.  “It’s actually not too bad.  See here, you just need to pull it a little tighter.”  He lifted the collar to Hoss’ shirt and grinned.  “Hey, you’ve got a top button!”

“Yeah,” Hoss said, eyes twinkling.  “Ellie fixed it for me when she was stayin’ with us.”

“Hallelujah!” Joe exclaimed, brushing past them and reaching for the bay rum.  “I never thought I’d see the day!” He uncorked the cologne and poured a little in his hand.

Hoss chuckled.  “You better look out, little brother.  I’m gonna give you a run for your money!”  He preened in the mirror and nodded, satisfied with his appearance.

Little Joe rolled his eyes in amusement.  “Uh huh,” he mumbled, patting his cheeks with the cologne.  He sniffed the air appreciatively and then picked up the bottle again, deciding he needed a little more.

Adam didn’t miss a beat.  He tugged it out of his grasp and handed it to Hoss, indicating he should use a little.  “What about Bessie Sue? Won’t she be upset if you dance with other gals?”

“Yeah,” Little Joe said as he attempted to retrieve the cologne.  “She’s liable to deck you right on the dance floor!”

Hoss easily fended him off.  “Yeah,” he replied, scrunching his nose at the painful thought.  “What do you think I oughta do about Bessie Sue? She’s getting a little too serious talkin’ about marriage and stuff.”

Little Joe’s eyes lit up and he could barely keep a straight face.  “Take it from me, Hoss.  You shouldn’t give a girl false hope.  If she’s not the one, you need to tell her in no uncertain terms.”  He gave him a brotherly pat on the back.  “It’s the kindest thing to do.”

Hoss nodded earnestly.  “I reckon you’re right,” he replied, slapping him in the back.  “Thanks for the advice, little brother.”

Staggering a little from the enthusiastic blow, Little Joe gave him a nod and a wink.  “Any time, brother, any time.”

Adam shook his head and groaned as he watched Hoss cautiously put a dab of cologne behind his ears.  “Like a lamb to the slaughter,” he murmured.

“You boys about ready,” Ben asked, coming in.

“Just about,” Hoss said, carefully corking the cologne and putting it back on Adam’s bureau.

Seizing the opportunity, Little Joe stealthily captured it and hurriedly put a generous amount on his cheeks and neck while Adam was busy talking.

“Very nice,” Adam said, looking his father up and down approvingly.  “Ellie will be pleased.”

“Now, Adam,” Ben replied, flushing, “I always wear a suit to the dance.”

“Not with your finest vest and cufflinks,” Adam said, smiling.  “Now, all you need is a little cologne and you’ll be ready.”  He held out his hand to his baby brother.

Little Joe grinned.  “I didn’t think you saw.”

“I didn’t have to,” he replied with a grin as he passed it to their father.

Ben hesitated.  After being a seaman and a rancher all his life, he always felt a man should smell like a man, not like a woman.

“Go on,” Joe encouraged, “but just a little, according to Adam, it’s more enticing that way.”

Adam chuckled.  “I don’t have to worry about Pa taking a bath in it.”

“Oh, all right,” Ben said, jovially giving in and splashing some on.

“Good man,” Hoss said, enthusiastically.  “Now, if everyone’s ready, let’s go before we’re late!”

“I’m ready,” Joe exclaimed, hurrying after him.

Adam winked at his father as he followed his brothers out of the room.  Ben smiled to himself, happy life was good and their only concern was smelling nice and getting to the dance on time.

Chapter 42

The town hall was cheerfully decorated in fall colors and the musicians were beginning to play as the dance got underway.

Standing on the edge of the dance floor, Ben merrily tapped his foot in time to the music and observed the festivities as he waited for Ellie to arrive.  As usual, Adam was fending off Abigail Jones.  Ordinarily, he would have chuckled at his son’s predicament, but after the events of this summer, her intrusion into his evening was exasperating.  She was a nice enough woman, but her annoying infatuation needed to end, for her sake as well as Adam’s.  He sighed, vowing to rescue him if she persisted in monopolizing his time.  Still contemplating it, he searched for his youngest.  He found him at the refreshment table, smiling and ladling a glass of punch for Sarah Jenkins.  He smiled at the scene.  At seventeen, Little Joe had had his share of puppy love, but this seemed to be his first real romance.  He was happy to see him maturing, but knowing how passionate he could be, he couldn’t help worrying about him moving too fast.  He was far too young to marry and the thought of him impulsively proposing to Sarah was enough to give him a few more grey hairs.  He smiled to himself as he compared Little Joe’s gusto with Hoss’ restraint when it came to love and romance.  They couldn’t be more different in that respect.  With an amused shake of his head, he sought out his middle boy.  Sure enough, he was with Bessie Sue, but instead of dancing, they seemed to be having an animated conversation.

“Evening Ben!”

Smiling, Ben turned to greet the sheriff.  “Hello, Roy, how’ve you been?”

“Never better,” he replied, shaking his hand.  “It sure is nice to have all that unpleasantness behind us, isn’t it?”

“Sure is,” Ben replied, ardently agreeing.  “It was a relief when Judge Riley threw the book at those two.”

“They’ll be cooling their heels in prison for a good long while.  I wish I could say the same about Worthington.”  His brow creased in disapproval.

“At least he’s been banned from the bench and I have a feeling being ordered to a year of ranch work is a pretty stiff sentence for a man like him.”

“That was a curious sentence,” Roy replied with a shake of his head.  “I can’t say I agree with it.”

“I suspect his father had a hand in it,” Ben said, with a little shrug.  “I guess I don’t blame him for not giving up.”

“Well, I won’t argue with you about it, not tonight anyway.”  His eyes twinkled and he changed the subject to something more befitting their festive surroundings.  He was aware of Ben’s relationship with Ellie and while you could have knocked him over with a feather when he’d first heard about it, he couldn’t be happier for his old friend.  “I ran into Ellie this afternoon.  She said she was looking forward to seeing you tonight.”  The corners of his mouth lifted into a playful smile.  “Being you’re standing here by yourself, I reckon she’s not here yet.”

Ben flushed, and cleared his throat.  “Uh, no, she and the Walkers should be here any minute.”

Roy chuckled, enjoying his heightened color.  “Sure must be nice!”

“You old crow bait,” Ben said, playing along.

Roy chuckled.  “Well, it’s true, I’m gettin’ older, but I reckon I can still find someone to dance with.”

“Then you better get looking,” Ben suggested helpfully.

“I believe I will,” he replied, jauntily eyeing a group of ladies who were chatting and tapping their toes.

Ben gave him an encouraging pat on the back and then, seeing Adam was still saddled with Abigail, he frowned and headed straight over with a purposeful stride.  Upon reaching Adam’s side, he immediately took his arm and began to gently but insistently pull him away.  “I’m sorry,” he said to Abigail with a smile, “but something urgent has come up and I need to speak to Adam.  I hope you understand.”

“Oh, of course, Mr. Cartwright,” she replied, disappointed but cooperative.  She gave Adam a wistful look.  “Duty before pleasure, I’m afraid.”

Adam smiled sympathetically and offered a quick apology before turning and hurriedly walking away with his father, exceedingly grateful for a reason to disentangle himself.

Ben kept his hand on his son’s arm and directed him toward a quiet corner where they could talk without being overheard.

“I saw you talking to Roy,” Adam said with a hint of a smile.  “Am I in trouble again?”

“Not anymore,” Ben quipped, lightly.  “Now that you’re out of Abigail’s clutches.”

Adam shook his head.  “She sure is persistent.”

“Look, son, I know you don’t want to hurt her feelings, but promise me you won’t let her ruin your evening.”  All teasing aside, his voice was full of fatherly love and concern.  “You deserve to have a good time.”

Adam nodded and looked away.  Sometimes his father’s affection had a way of catching him off guard and he suddenly felt a little emotional.  “I promise,” he said with a small smile.  “But, just so you know, I might not be the only son you need to rescue tonight.”

Ben gave him a quizzical look.

“Hoss,” Adam said, providing an explanation.  “He wants to distance himself from Bessie Sue.”

“Ah, I wondered what was going on,” Ben said, arching an eyebrow.  “But I’m not so sure I want to tangle with Bessie Sue.  My fatherly duty only goes so far, you know!”

Adam favored him with a dimpled smile.  “I don’t know, Pa, I’ve seen you go the distance.”

“Hello you two,” Lily said, breaking into their conversation in a happy sing song voice.  “We finally made it!”

Ben greeted the group with an all-inclusive smile.  “Ladies! Cliff!”

Smiling, Ellie went to Ben’s side and apologized for keeping him waiting.  “I’m sorry we’re late.  Mathew had a little mishap with a glass of milk and it spilled all over my dress.”  She looked at Adam and touched his arm in a warm greeting.  “He wanted me to be sure to tell you he’s finished braiding his reins.”

Adam nodded distractedly, his attention captured by Mercy, who’d come in with the group.  Ellie took notice and observed the looks passing between them with interest.

Lily, of course, noticed it too and supplied an explanation.  “Adam, I believe you and Mercy are friends, aren’t you?” She chattered on without pause.  “We met her on the way over and we insisted she walk with us.  Virginia City is no place for a lady alone at night.”

Mercy gave him a hesitant smile, uncomfortable at having been swept along to greet him once they’d all entered the hall.

“I’m glad you did,” Adam replied, smiling affectionately at Mercy.

“Yes, it’s lovely to see you both again,” she said courteously looking from Adam to Ben, “and now I’ll leave you to enjoy your evening.  It sounds like the musicians are an accomplished group tonight.”

“Yes, and I believe a waltz is just beginning,” Adam said, extending his hand before she could get away.  “Will you do me the honor?”

Mindful of their audience, Mercy smiled and nervously clasped his hand.   “Of course, I’d love to.”

On the dance floor, she smiled up at him, but she couldn’t help wondering if he’d only asked her out of politeness.  With Lily including her in their little group, he hadn’t had much choice.  Uncertain, yet reluctant to ask, she put it out of her mind and simply enjoyed the dance.  Disappointingly, when the music came to an end, she had her answer.  Adam graced her with a charming smile, but instead of asking her for another dance, he took her hand and led her off the dance floor.  She sighed in resignation.  She knew the good folks of Virginia City were probably gossiping already and she agreed he was doing the right thing.  It was one thing to socialize within the confines of Julia’s Palace and something else to do it in front of his friends and family.  Adam, however, surprised her by leading her out into the courtyard.

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Lily smiled and whispered in her husband’s ear as she watched them leave the dance floor.  “They make a nice couple,” she said, thoughtfully.

“I’m glad it worked out,” Cliff replied, nodding in agreement.  “Ben and Ellie seem well suited.”

Lily shook her head in amusement.  “I was talking about Adam and Mercy.”

Alarmed, Cliff wagged his finger at her and took a firm stance.  “Now, Lily,” he said in no uncertain terms, “I insist you stay out of it.”

“Darling,” she said, affectionately taking his arm in hers, “you’ve nothing to worry about.  I suspect this romance is well underway.  I don’t know why I didn’t see it before.”

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Outside in the courtyard, Adam groaned when he spied Little Joe in the shadows with Sarah.  He didn’t look forward to interrupting him, but as his older brother, he felt it was his duty.  “Excuse me, Mercy, I need to make sure my baby brother is minding his manners.”

Mercy followed his gaze and smiled.  She certainly didn’t envy him the task, but she was heartened by his brotherly concern.

Adam walked over to the young couple and loudly cleared his throat to get their attention.  Mortified to be caught in the middle of a kiss, Sarah gasped in surprise, while Little Joe gave him a guilty look.  “Uh, Adam, what’re you doing here?”

“Savin’ your hide.”

Little Joe puffed up his chest with indignation and was about to argue, but Sarah stopped him.  “He’s right, Little Joe, let’s go inside.”  Blushing, she avoided eye contact with Adam while she impatiently waited for Joe to escort her back into the hall.

“All right,” Little Joe said, “but only because you want to.”  He shot Adam a parting look that clearly conveyed what he thought of his brother’s intrusion.

Adam smiled to himself as he returned to Mercy’s side.  While he commiserated with his little brother, he knew he’d done the right thing when he caught the look of relief on Sarah’s face.  She was young and in love and he guessed her kisses had become a little more passionate than intended.

“He didn’t look too happy,” she said sympathetically.

“No, but he’ll get over it, he always does.”

“You’re a good brother, Adam.”  She smiled and then nervously looked around the courtyard, feeling out of place among the moon-struck couples.  “I’m not sure what you’re thinking, but I hope you know I don’t intend to monopolize your time this evening.  The last thing you need is another Abigail Jones.”

Adam gave her a curious look.  “Are you trying to get rid of me?” he asked lightly.

“You know better,” she replied, “I just don’t want you to feel obligated.”

Adam smiled at her.  “You should know I enjoy your company, but just to be clear, I would be delighted if you’d spend the rest of evening with me.”

Listening to her heart this time, instead of her head, she threw caution to the wind and nodded.  “I’d like that.”

“I’m glad,” he replied, “but before we go back inside, there’s something I want to talk to you about.  That’s why I, uh, brought you outside.”

Sensing a shift to a more serious matter, a little frown creased Mercy’s brow.  “What is it?”

He hesitated, hoping she’d take it the right way.  “You know the streets are dangerous.  Why would you walk alone when you could’ve asked Hank to walk with you?”

Adam’s tone conveyed his genuine concern, but Mercy bristled, hurt he’d chosen such a lovely setting to scold her.  “Are you forgetting I carry a derringer in my bag?”

He shook his head, a little exasperated he had to spell it out for her.  “Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security.  You might be able to fend off one man, but you wouldn’t stand a chance against two or more and we both know there’ve been incidents in town.”

“I appreciate your concern,” she said, tersely, “but you’re not my keeper.”

Adam sighed.  He’d managed to raise her ire and that wasn’t his intention.  “I know,” he said apologetically, “but you know I worry about you.  Is that so bad?”

Mercy intently searched his eyes.  She wasn’t really angry, she was confused.  “Why Adam?” she asked quietly.  “Why do you worry?  Why did you hire Hank to protect me?”

Adam searched her eyes just as she searched his.  “We’re friends, good friends, and I care about you.”

“Yes, we’re friends,” she agreed, nodding.  It was a disappointment, but also a relief to hear him say it.  Anything more would simply complicate things.

Adam saw the flicker of sadness and his expression grew soft.  “Yes,” he said, gently taking her hand and drawing her close, “but there’s more between us, isn’t there?”

Afraid to admit it, Mercy smiled and made light of his intimation.  “I suspect half the women in Virginia City are attracted to the tall, dark, and handsome Adam Cartwright!”

“Don’t Mercy.  Don’t put me off again.”  This time he gazed even more deeply into her eyes.  “We need to be honest with each other; if nothing else, that’s one lesson experience has taught me.”

Mercy withdrew her hand and took a few steps away to collect her thoughts.  She wasn’t prepared for this conversation, but with Adam being so insistent, she searched for the right words.  “I wanted to be happy for you and Ellie,” she said, turning around and facing him.  “I truly did, but I was miserable at the thought of you possibly marrying.”  She took a deep steadying breath and continued.  “Ever since that first night, I’ve admired you.  First as a friend, and then as time went on, I realized it was more and I began to dream of a life with you.”  She flushed in embarrassment and lowered her eyes, afraid to see his reaction.

Adam gently tilted her chin up so she’d look at him.  “Then, why did you put me off all those times I invited you out to dinner or to the ranch?”

Her eyes reflected her pain.  “Oh Adam, like it or not, people think of me as a saloon girl.  I didn’t want them gossiping about you.  I still don’t, so maybe it would be better if we went our separate ways tonight after all.”

Adam shook his head, touched she’d been trying to shield him.  “You’re a respectable woman and if people think different, that’s their problem.”

“I knew you’d say that,” she said, smiling softly, “but supporting me as a friend, isn’t the same as openly courting me for everyone to see.  Trust me, people talk.”

Adam’s eyes flashed.  It angered him that they even had to address such nonsense.  “Have faith in me.”

“It’s not that,” she said, admonishing him.  “It’s just that you deserve an easy uncomplicated relationship where everyone is happy for you.”

Adam’s eyebrows lifted.  “Well, I’m no expert, but I don’t think any relationship is all that easy and you should know by now, the Cartwrights aren’t afraid of gossip.  I’m sure there are plenty of tongues wagging about my Pa and Ellie right now.”  He smiled reassuringly and then, tired of letting insignificant things stand in his way, he put his arm around her and pulled her close.  “What concerns me is our happiness,” he said in a softly intimate voice “and being with you makes me happy.  So please, if you feel the same, will you allow me to call on you?”

Mercy’s eyes glistened.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he whispered, cupping her face and giving her a gentle kiss.  “I’m sure.”

~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~ .  ~

Flushed from dancing, Ben escorted Ellie outside and ran straight into Adam and Mercy, who were on their way into the hall.

Adam’s eyes danced with delight.  “Nice night for a stroll,” he said, smiling.

“Yes, well, we just need a bit of fresh air,” Ben replied with a little cough.

With Mercy on his arm, Adam winked and continued on his way.

Hearing him chuckle, Ben shook his head as he watched them disappear into the hall.  Adam could be such a scamp at times.

“What are you thinking?” Ellie asked, stirred by the warmth and humor in his eyes.

“He looks happy,” Ben said, affectionately linking his arm in hers as they walked.  It was a perfectly romantic setting.  The stars were sparkling brightly and the moon was enchanting behind a thin layer of clouds.

“I agree,” she replied, smiling up at him.  “But what about you? Are you happy, Ben?”

“Very,” he replied tenderly.

Ellie sighed contentedly.  “Me too.”

Moved by the depth of his feelings, Ben pulled her into an embrace and kissed her with the passion of a man head-over-heels in love.  He hadn’t intended to propose tonight, but it suddenly felt right.  “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he whispered softly.

Her heart swelled.  “Oh, Ben, you know I feel the same.”

“Ellie,” he said, holding her and gazing intimately into her eyes, “will you marry me?”

Her eyes filled with tears of happiness and she melted into his arms.  “Yes, my love, yes.”

“Hot diggity!” Hoss said, suddenly startling them with an unexpected cheer from behind a nearby hedge.

“Hoss!” Ben bellowed.  “What in tarnation are you doing there?” He looked at his son in shock and disbelief.

“Sorry, Pa, I wasn’t spying on you or nothin’! I was hidin’ from Bessie Sue and got trapped when you came out.”  He smiled weakly and began back-peddling as he stumbled on his words.  “I’ll, uh, jest leave you two alone now to, uh, kiss ‘n canoodle and such.”

Ellie put a hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter while Ben put his hands on his hips as he watched his son sprint inside.  If he wasn’t so shocked, he would have laughed.  That was the fastest he’d seen Hoss move in a long time.

“I’m sorry,” Ben said, sheepishly apologizing.  “This was supposed to be a romantic moment for us to remember.”

“Oh, I’ll never forget it!” Ellie said, looking humorously into his eyes.  “It was perfect.”

Ben smiled and pulled her into another embrace.  “Well, then,” he said softly, “let’s kiss ‘n canoodle and such.”

 

THE END

 

Note: Ben’s memory of his father-in-law’s advice is quoted from the episode “Elizabeth, My Love”

 

12 thoughts on “Truth Begets A Peaceful Heart (by Julee)”

  1. Wonderful story. I always love family stories the best. Adam is wise and loving. What a good father he would make. Glad Ben has a new love.

    1. Thanks Neano! I like involving the whole family. It the Cartwright relationships that keep me coming back to this family!

  2. Great. That’s the story I searched for. It’s great that Ben found a new love and I am glad Adam gave him his blessing, even if it does hurt a bit that he lost the chance to be a father. But he was right. He couldn’t marry her if he didn’t really love her.

  3. I just read the first chapter and I had to pop in to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed it! Seeing such a splendid bit of writing that so perfectly captured each member of the family in a scene filled with delightful expectation and fun banter…. Well, it was a welcome and refreshing way to start a blessedly quiet Sunday! Your writing skills are top-notch. I look forward to the rest of the story.

    Be patient with me; I have very little time for reading these days (and even less for writing), so it could be a while before I can provide feedback for the story in its entirety!;)

    1. Hi Freyakendra. Thanks for letting me know the story captured your interest. Your comment is encouraging and much appreciated!

  4. Julee, Welcome to the Library!

    Wow, what an action-packed story that carries off a romance as well. Or maybe I should say a romantic story that includes an action-packed back drop. Both story lines were wonderfully intertwined. The bantering between brothers throughout rang very true to character. And the twist, it caught this reader unaware.

    1. Thank you for your warm welcome, Bluewindfarm! It’s nice to know you felt the story lines blended and the characters rang true. Even though it’s a romance, I wanted to involve the entire family in both story lines because I love the Cartwright relationships.

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