Pride and Ponderosa (by Sandspur)

Summary: What happens when Jane Austen’s ultimate chick-fic, “Pride & Prejudice,” crosses into the burly, macho, he-man world of Bonanza? Confusion? Kidnappings? Crossover characters from other series like “Bronco” and “the Big Valley”? Anything can happen—and anything does!

Rating: T. Totally clean, but one description of an unseemly death.  WC 86,200

 

Pride and Ponderosa

Chapter 1

Mr. Bennet—and Those Other People

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife. So said Jane Austen in 1813, and so it was more than half a century later.

Of course, over time other philosophers had observed many other truisms as well: chief among them was the fact that while love was both deaf and blind (and frequently stupid), marriage opened the eyes, ears, and mind admirably. Such were often the thoughts of Mr. Bennet, fast approaching his 24th wedding anniversary. In his callow youth, when he had been a single man in possession of a goodly fortune, he had married a great beauty. She was pink-cheeked and blue eyed; her curls were golden and soft to the touch; she dimpled when she smiled. And she always smiled. She was the prettiest of three sisters, and Bennet had scarce believed his luck when he won her hand from the other ardent suitors.

About three weeks after the wedding he figured out why he had won her. Beauty notwithstanding, his pretty, dimpled bride was about as dim as a morning in the London fog. Generations of inbreeding, that was the sad conclusion he reached—the Gardiners and the Plums always intermarried. It was a joke that the Plums could not exist without proper gardening, after all. And somehow he had inserted himself into that family, and won himself a bride…and she was congenitally stupid.

It might not have been so bad had she been stupid but good-hearted. She was not even that. She was self-centered, prone to clinging to him and whining or sobbing until she got her way. In the early years of their marriage he had the strength to put his foot down, shouting “no!” for good measure. But that was only in the early years.

Bennet’s older brother inherited the family estate of Longbourn; Bennet himself had to settle for the running of a business the Gardiners owned in London. But between the foul-smelling fogs of his home city and the whining of his wife, Bennet occasionally wondered whether he disliked his residence or his marriage the most.

One day he came into possession of a dime novel about the western territories of the United States. Mr. Bennet loved to read, and fancied himself a great intellectual—but his strongest reading preference was for dime novels, since they always worked the problems out by the end of the story…no one had ever bothered to tell him that real life usually was not so conveniently arranged. This book in particular seemed to paint that land out West as everything good, where the men were real men, strong and decisive, and where the women knew who was boss. It was a land where one could strike gold or silver and make a fortune. Giving the matter considerable thought, he decided that, removed from her family, perhaps his wife would improve. And even if she did not, he could make his own fortune and a name for himself—quickly, as the men in the dime novels did. So he sold his share in the business, gathered up his sobbing wife and two sobbing daughters, and caught a ship across the sea. Landing in New York City, he took them as far as he could by train (not very) and then purchased a wagon and a team of powerful horses. He had seen pictures depicting the pioneers going across the country, the women silent and brave in their modest ginghams and bonnets, the men stoic and masculine in their suspenders and slouch hats, whipping the horses to greater effort and traveling great ground-eating distances each day.

But no one had told him that horses tended to resist this procedure; that even a well-trained team of four could tell when there was a novice driving them; that his soft hands would be cut and scarred by the leather reins; that wagons had all the suspension of a box of rocks and his bottom would be roundly bruised by the end of the day. And no one had told him how his wife, far from being silent and brave, would whine endlessly about the inconveniences in travel and the state of her nerves. She also possessed a disdain for ginghams and refused to wear a bonnet from last year. Such disheartening obstacles nearly forced him to stop for good in four states and two territories, but his pride compelled him on, for he had told his family he intended to make a fortune in “the Colonies.”

At length Bennet arrived in Virginia City, and invested most of his money in a silver mine. He had the bad luck of investing in the only silver mine to stop producing before the year was out, and so he sighed, hearing by now that gold had been discovered in California, and packed up again.

As it turned out, panning for gold was hard work. Thinking long and hard about his predicament, Bennet realized that gold strikes were not a guarantee of riches. In fact, it seemed to him that the only way to guarantee an influx of money was to be the one who sold supplies to the miners. There were always more miners coming from the East, or even from other countries, to try their fortunes. And those miners needed food. Mainly, they needed beef. Prime cattle were a more surefire guarantee of riches than any gold or silver mine. And so Bennet packed up his sobbing wife, his two silent and confused daughters, and his new infant—another girl—and located some promising property in the north of California, near a fledgling city called Sacramento. He moved his family there, knowing deep within himself that this time he would succeed. After all, cattle were stupid, lazy and slow. All one had to do was feed them, keep them producing, and then sell them to other people as the prime ingredient in their dinners.

No one had told him that ranching was even harder than mining. He had never realized the extent of trouble a slow, lazy and stupid animal could cause (although in the philosophical reflections of his later years, he berated himself for not seeing it foreshadowed in the behavior of his beloved, dimpled wife). He had never known that cattle could not be kept in one place for long or they would eat all the grass and then starve. They were not good at seeking shelter from storms, and in fact when loud noises came they lost all pretense of sense and rushed headlong in every direction, trampling anything in the way.

Again he gave up, and determined to try his hand at shop-keeping in San Francisco, since, in spite of his best efforts to separate his wife from her family, Bennet’s brother-in-law had brought Mrs. Bennet’s sister there the previous year. But before he could pack his sobbing wife, three silent and confused daughters, and new infant—yet another girl—into the wagon and move again, he chanced to meet a man who would change his life.

The man’s name was Saul Driscoll, and he was a cattleman…of sorts.

“Tell you what I’ll do,” Driscoll told him over brandy and cigars. “I need a reliable man and a sizable piece of land to run my beef on, and you have both. You obviously don’t know what you’re doin’ or you’d be makin’ a better job of it. I need the land but not the publicity. So you and your family can stay. I’ll buy the place lock, stock, and barrel, but you can live here free—until you die. Once you die, your family will need to clear out, because everybody knows a woman can’t make a job of running beef. But until that day you can live here pretty as you please, and I’ll bring in a foreman of my own to run the place. I’ll even pay you a stipend for keeping your mouth shut. Deal?”

“Deal,” Bennet said, and there it was. He didn’t know that Saul Driscoll was a rustler, and he needed a nice respectable ranch to keep his stolen cattle. Nor did it occur to Bennet ask questions, since he had never seen such a plot device in a dime novel and because he was running rapidly out of options.

Well, now things would be different, he told himself. And they were. For the next ten years the Bennets—Mr. Bennet, his sobbing wife, his five daughters (who were not silent any longer, though they were all occasionally confused)—lived comfortably and respectably on a ranch they did not own, and Saul Driscoll prospered in silence.

The sole, self-imposed duty of Mrs. Bennet’s life had always been to see her daughters all married to wealthy young men. But sometime during the decade in which Longbourn ranch prospered under Saul Driscoll’s silent leadership, Mr. Bennet allowed Mrs. Bennet to find out his secret—that he was no longer the master of Longbourn. Since learning that choice fact, finding rich husbands for her daughters was now Mrs. Bennet’s sacred mission. After all, the ranch would not be passed on to any of the women upon Mr. Bennet’s death; therefore, she had to think of her own place in life. And she did—to the point of actually worrying her “poor nerves” into a state.

Jane and Lizzy, the two older daughters, were 21 and 20, and not particularly worried about finding husbands. Spinsterhood didn’t really apply until the late 20’s, and in a part of the country where men still outnumbered women, the two girls were pretty enough and bright enough to have their pick of eligible bachelors, as long as those eligible bachelors didn’t require a prospective mate to have a lot of money. Mary, 19, had Lizzy’s love of reading and Jane’s shy smile, but no interest in men. Her life was spent in absorbing useless legal or historical information and then wondering what to do with it. Kitty, 18, was bright enough, but quite ashamed of it, and thus preferred flirting. Lydia—the “birthday surprise” as Mr. Bennet called her in his more charitable moments—was but 15, and had but one thing on her mind. And alas, she was such a featherbrain that no one could figure out what it was…else this story would be 40 pages shorter.

Chapter 2

Mr. Cartwright—and Those Other People

Some 150 miles northeast of Sacramento was a second ranch, being worked by no less a man than its owner. It was called the Ponderosa, and the Messrs. Cartwright, who owned and operated the ranch, had built it up from a 40-acre claim to a wonder of the modern West.

Benjamin Cartwright had once been a sailor, and he still knew the tides, winds, currents, knots, sails, and all the other things sailors needed to know. But when he was still very young he had gotten the dream of going out West and establishing himself “where there’s room to grow.” And so he had done. Like Mr. Bennet, he had taken a wagon and team across the states and territories; like Bennet he had invested in a silver mine and claimed a piece of ranch land. Unlike Bennet, he expected the work to be hard, but that was something he was used to, so he was never disappointed. Like Bennet, he had married a beautiful wife; unlike Bennet, he found his wife intelligent and lovable. And unlike Bennet, he lost her with the birth of his first son. During his travels Cartwright had taken another wife; she too had died, a casualty in an Indian attack not long after the birth of Cartwright’s second son. Finally establishing himself to some extent in the cattle business and with a small amount of cash recouped from his silver mine investment, Cartwright took a trip to New Orleans and returned with a new wife. This one also gave him a son, and she even lasted long enough that Ben and his skeptical firstborn thought she might stay with them a while, but a badly behaved horse ended that hope not long after the third son’s fourth birthday.

Ben and his boys built their ranch with their own blood, sweat and tears, and while they toiled, they added to their land and cattle almost daily. Eventually, when Ben’s youngest was 17 years old, Ben Cartwright could claim 1,000 square miles as his own land, and of course, on his death it would be divided among his sons, unless he chose to give them their share upon their marriage. Not that any of them had an immediate interest in marriage. They were young and busy and there was plenty of time.

Some 50 miles away from Sacramento, and some 200 miles from the Ponderosa, there was a third ranch being built up. It was called the Barkley Ranch—no fancy naming conventions here—and was owned by a man named Tom Barkley. Barkley had no claim to fame, but he was known to Ben Cartwright chiefly because Tom’s wife, Victoria, had been the best friend of Ben’s first wife, Elizabeth. Little had Ben known Victoria would marry a cattle rancher too. Or that Tom would die suddenly—and that far from being the silly, simpering woman everyone assumed her to be, Victoria would prove herself a force to be reckoned with, silently declaring war on the men who laughed and patronized her about her “nice little farm.” She soon drove those unfortunate souls out of the business and swallowed their ranches with her own. As ruthless as any man, she succeeded because no one expected such behavior from her.

Now, Ben Cartwright would never have patronized Victoria in the first place, and his own ranch was far enough away that they generally did not compete. Except for friendship, he knew of no bond between the two families. His three sons were friends with Victoria’s four sons (she had adopted a blond boy named Heath who coincidentally looked a lot like Tom not long after Tom’s death), and Ben’s three sons were all polite and friendly to Victoria’s blonde and beautiful daughter, Audra.

What Ben didn’t know was that when Elizabeth was alive, she and Victoria had often discussed their status as “sisters in all but blood,” and talked about how lovely it would be if they could somehow be truly related. At one point Liz had said “perhaps we’ll have common grandchildren. Suppose one of my children married one of yours.” Well, she had only had one child, Ben’s firstborn son Adam, and Tom and Victoria knew that well enough for they had stood godparents to Adam back in Boston. And Victoria only had one child who was eligible to marry Adam, and that was her only daughter. Well, she decided, the Lord had provided. Audra and Adam would marry.

She didn’t bother to ask either Audra or Adam how they felt about this arrangement.

Chapter 3

East Comes West

Adam Cartwright and his two brothers arrived at the Bar Fly ranch after four hot and dusty days in the saddle; they’d pushed it a bit at the end because Adam was getting crabby. He’d been opposed to the idea from the very beginning; it struck his engineering and architectural bent as decidedly impractical at best and downright foolish at worst.

In Ben Cartwright’s view it was simple. The Army post at Ord Barracks needed to eat. He had bid on the contract to supply them with beef. Adam had hit the roof at the very beginning.

“Pa, that’s nearly 200 miles from here. It’ll take the better part of a month to move a herd that far, and through those mountain passes we’re likely to lose a third of the bunch—not to mention they’ll lose so much weight on the trip it would scarcely be worth it at the end.”

“Not the way I have it worked out,” Ben had replied, unrolling a map of Nevada and California. “Right here—” he jabbed the map—“is a little more than two thirds of the way. I’ve done some checking, and there’s a failed ranch there that’s been standing empty for two or three years. I’ve taken a lease on the place. It’s probably in some disrepair; you and your brothers can go down and make it right before we send the first herd west.” He squinted at the map. “You’ll move the herd to that point, keep them there about a week and a half, feed ’em up good and proper, and they’ll gain back the weight they lost. Then you take them the remaining way to Ord—that part of the trail is easy on the cattle—and we’ll recoup the losses and then some.”

Adam shook his head. “Between the cost of leasing this white elephant of a ranch and the costs of making it operational again, I don’t see how we’ll make much of a profit.”

“We won’t,” Ben said with a shrug. “Not this time. But we have to think of the future. Look, son—we’re already supplying the cavalry with horses. We’re trying to move our beef with the Army as well. Army posts are scarce in this part of Nevada. We have to look westward. And as the Ponderosa brand gets better known west and south, we’ll be able to increase our market there. By the time the railroad is complete our cattle will be known in San Francisco and even further south.”

“I know what you’re trying to do, Pa, but it just seems like a very risky proposition without much return on the investment. Maybe ten years from now, but this just isn’t a good time.”

“As our Hebrew friends like to say, ‘if not now, when?’ I believe that’s the way the saying goes. I’m broadening our horizons, son. Have a little faith.”

Adam had did have a little faith, but he still thought the idea was a bad notion—and his opinions were not improved when he, Hoss and Little Joe finally arrived at the Bar Fly. The place was a mess. Abandoned by its last owner almost three years earlier, the fences were in a sad state. The house had become a home for coyote and bats in the last year, the barn was filled with rats and owls, and deer had trampled down the hay. It would take weeks, if not months, to get this place into decent enough shape to use it as the way station his father intended.

Adam looked around the place while he took a swig from his canteen. His nose and throat both felt covered with dust, and he choked on his first swallow. Joe and Hoss were feeling daunted by the task before them, too. “Reckon we shoulda brought more pack horses,” Hoss observed. “We ain’t got nowhere near what we’ll be needin’.”

“There’s supposed to be a town somewhere nearby,” Joe said, trying to remain cheerful. “Mulberry Ridge. Tomorrow we can start the real work.”

They spent the rest of the little sunlight making the six horses comfortable, then pulled their bed rolls out and dropped into them. They’d start on the house in the morning.

Joe and Hoss went into the tiny town of Mulberry Ridge the next morning with a list of supplies to procure, probably four times the amount they had brought along. They took Sport along to replace his lost shoe. In the store they lifted their hats politely to a group of girls, two of whom burst into hysterical giggles; the other three merely looked embarrassed. Little Joe, however, ran a practiced eye over them (he was the quickest in the Cartwright family at evaluating horses and women) and singled out an interesting possibility on the spot. Then a shrill-voiced older woman, who had probably once been pretty, called them, and the five girls instantly dashed out to her. Joe wondered about the pretty girl—but, unfortunately, they were there for supplies, and Adam tended not to be understanding about priorities being rearranged. Joe had never figured out the inner workings of his brother’s mind—for some reason Adam always preferred following his father’s instructions to flirting with pretty girls, and that alone was enough to keep Joe a safe distance from Adam’s brain.

Eventually they returned to the Bar Fly in a rented buckboard with enough supplies to build a whole new ranch, so they claimed. They had left Adam with what they thought would be the easy work of cleaning up the house. They walked in to see, much to their surprise, that the broken windows had been knocked out, swept up, covered with waxed paper as a temporary fix, while being measured and marked for glass; the kitchen had been scrubbed from ceiling to floor, and the floors of two of the three other downstairs rooms, as well as all the upstairs, had been washed and waxed. However, their repeated calls for Adam going unanswered, they went into the last downstairs room and found him unconscious, under a rat-nibbled moose head that had fallen from the wall at about the moment he had slid in a pile of coyote droppings and bat guano.

“I hate this place,” was all Adam said when he was finally able to talk again.

Chapter 4

East Almost Meets West

Mrs. Bennet had a way of getting information when she really wanted it. There were two new men in town, one of them a downright pleasure to look upon, and the other, though taking a little more getting used to, had a sweet and kind countenance as well. They had money, obviously, considering the two well-bred, stylish horses on which they had arrived. The muscular chestnut on the long lead had raised interesting possibilities as well—obviously he was a saddle horse, but where was his rider? Then there was the large rented wagon piled high with expensive supplies with which the two had departed. This town did not easily extend credit to strangers, after all.

“Mr. Bennet! Mr. Bennet!” she screeched upon returning to their buggy from the store. “You will never believe it! Someone has let the Bar Fly!”

“Really? That monstrosity? I am sorry for him, then.”

“Oh, Papa; it is not him. It is them,” cried his youngest daughter, Lydia, who also liked finding out choice informational morsels. “They are three sons from the Ponderosa ranch in Nevada, and their name is Cartwright!”

“Well, their name will be mud by the time they’re finished with that place,” Bennet replied. “Into the buggy, children, and let us go home. I have a newspaper from San Francisco that calls out to me.”

“But Papa,” Lizzy protested, “The Ponderosa is famous. I’ve seen it mentioned in the newspaper before. It is a vast ranch and very successful. Perhaps you could learn something from them!”

“We do well enough, daughter.”

“But Mr. Bennet, surely we must welcome them as neighbors! Is that not the hospitality for which the American West is so famous?” His wife’s lower lip began to tremble.

“My dear, you say ‘American West’ as if it is a place in a book and not a place where you have dwelled the last 16 years. Consider the customs you know from experience, and then ask me your questions.” For many years now he had attempted to induce her to think a little on a subject before asking him, but it was not working.

“Mr. Bennet, you simply have no compassion on my poor nerves! All I wanted was to exhibit Christian charity to a couple of poor newcomers to our town, and you have turned it into a Latin examination!”

While Mr. Bennet had no idea what was Latin about his comment, he did know there would be no peace in his house if he did not stop off at the Bar Fly on the way home to greet the “poor newcomers;” therefore he sighed and clucked to the horses. An hour later they drove through the gates of the Bar Fly to find the fully loaded wagon still sitting in front of the house. The two young men they had seen at the store were carrying out a trunk, while inside they could hear another voice indistinctly articulating its owner’s dissatisfaction with this part of the country, the people who lived there, and said people’s parents, cattle, and housecats. This was followed by a large crash from indoors, followed by another stream of highly imaginative adjectives and at least one verb to which the Bennet girls had never been exposed.

“Better go tell him we got company,” mouthed the smaller man.

“He ain’t in no fittin’ condition to receive guests,” replied the other, turning back toward the inside.

“Well at least tell him to shut his trap!” Then he turned back toward the buggy with a lovely smile. “Good morning, sir; ladies.”

“Good morning,” returned Mr. Bennet. “We’re the Bennet family, your neighbors, sir. Just stopped by to give you greetings. We live but four miles to the north off this same road. We have the Longbourn Ranch.”

“Longhorn?”

“No; LongBOURN.” Bennet smiled. “It’s the name of my family’s estate in England. Again, welcome.”

“Well, that’s real nice of you, sir. My name’s Joe Cartwright, and the big fella that just went back inside is my brother Hoss. Our brother Adam’s here too, but the shape the inside of the house is in right now, it just wouldn’t be polite of me to invite you in. Apparently the bats and coyotes have made themselves real at home in there.”

“I’m not surprised,” Bennet said dryly. “The previous owner was not noted for cleanliness. When he departed this area, he left a rotting hog carcass on the table and a side of beef hanging in the kitchen. I’m sorry you find the place in such a wretched state.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” Joe said with a smile that none of the six females missed. “Reckon me and my brothers’ll get it whipped into shape pretty quick. That’s what we’re doin’ right now.”

Mrs. Bennet could wait no longer. “Mr. Cartwright, you must meet my daughters. These are Jane, Lizzy, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia.” She smiled and added breathlessly, “they’re not married.”

Four of the daughters crimsoned at that; Jane actually turned her face away. Lydia giggled shrilly. Looking uncomfortable, Joe put on his charming face again and said, “Well, I’m real glad to meet all of you, and I thank you for bein’ such good neighbors.”

“You’ll come and dine with us tomorrow after church, won’t you?” Mrs. Bennet demanded.

“Um…well…we’d love to, Mrs. Bennet. Now if you’ll excuse me—”

At that minute Hoss burst through the front door, one hand over his nose and mouth, and the other clutching a huge moose head by the antlers. Although yet inside, it seemed Adam Cartwright still had words for the situation, and the words found their way outside most disadvantageously: “I dunno what grit-eatin’ flannel-mouthed sidewinder of a hound-dog crawled up in there and died, but if I catch its mother I’m gonna slap her right into next Tuesday…”

Joe turned red and apologized.

“Well,” Mr. Bennet chuckled. “I was always taught that the hallmark of a proper gentleman is the ability to swear without repeating oneself in a sentence. We’ll see you all tomorrow, then.”

“Yessir,” Joe agreed, and Bennet quickly pulled the buggy away before any other question-inducing words could be heard from the great indoors.

“Well!” Mrs. Bennet uttered. “Whoever that last fellow is, he certainly snubbed our hospitality most rudely. And based solely on his vocabulary I can already tell that he is hardly a gentleman!”

“If the smell issuing from the house was any provocation, I believe he was justified,” Mr. Bennet murmured. “But then, perhaps you would like to return and help him clean it up, my dear.”

*

Hoss walked over to Joe as the buggy departed. “Who was that?”

“Our new neighbors, I reckon. Just tryin’ to be neighborly and welcome us.”

“I figger a real neighborly sort would’ve offered to help out. We got enough work here for 10 people and there’s just three of us.”

“Well, he only has daughters.”

“I saw that. But he ain’t a girl hisself, is he?”

“I dunno. What happened in there, anyhow? Adam usually ain’t quite that careless with his words.”

“Well in the first place, he’s got a knot on his head the size of a Coulter pinecone, and in the second place, whoever stuffed that moose head didn’t do a good job of it; the thing busted wide open right after I got back inside and it smells like Satan’s butt, I’m tellin’ ya. Now the whole house is stinkin’ to high heaven after Adam just scrubbed the place on his hands and knees for the last three hours.”

“No wonder he’s mad. Well, let’s get back in there and help him before he drops somethin’ else on his head. Think we oughtta get a doctor?”

“I already asked him. He said he’d fry me in my own juices if I tried.”

“Well then, he must be okay. He always agrees to see a doctor if there’s really something wrong.”

“But Joe, I think he’s got a concussion. The way he’s staggerin’ and stumblin’ I’m just about positive.”

“With a granite head like his? If he’s not worried enough for a doctor, I won’t worry about it either. Hey, did you notice that oldest Bennet girl, with the strawberry blonde hair? She sure was pretty….”

Chapter 5

Great Ladies and Perfect Gentlemen

Joe and Hoss duly reported to the Bennets’ house the following afternoon, making polite and rueful excuses for their elder brother.

“I’m real sorry about Adam, but he got hurt yesterday and just ain’t up to visitin’ yet,” Joe informed the Bennet family.

“Has he seen a doctor?” Mr. Bennet asked. “There is one in town, you know.”

“Adam’s purdy stubborn about seein’ medical men iffen he don’t hafta,” Hoss put in. “We think he’s just got a little concussion, so if he just stays off his feet for a couple a’ days he’ll be right as rain. We don’t call him the Yankee granite head for nothin’.”

“Then perhaps he will come with you to the dance Saturday night,” said a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl whom Hoss remembered from the store as Kitty.

“Dance?” Joe asked.

“Oh, yes, by all means!” The youngest girl, Lydia, set up an instant clamor. “There’s one in town each Friday this time of year, and if you don’t all come we shall be SO disappointed!”

Joe and Hoss exchanged warring glances. Of course they wanted to go; how could they not? It was a dance, after all. But Adam thought they were there only to work….

“Um, Miss Bennet…and all the other Miss Bennets…” Joe stammered, “Maybe we haven’t made it real clear up to now, but you see, we’re not actually movin’ here to stay. Our Pa just took a lease on the Bar Fly. We’re fixin’ it up right now and we’ll be usin’ it periodically whenever we move cattle through. We won’t be livin’ here. So maybe it’s not a good idea to be part of your community—appealing though the idea surely is.”

But the outpouring from the table was heartbreaking to both Hoss and Joe, and in the end they agreed to come to the dance anyway, though they could not vouch for their elder brother.

“Perhaps he thinks he is too good for such company as us!” Mrs. Bennet said sharply, already being bitterly disappointed by the young man’s earlier “snubbing,” and now finding her sensitivity compounded by his failure to turn up for dinner.

“Oh, no ma’am,” Joe hastened to assure her. “It ain’t like that at all. Adam just—he, well, he’s a real hard worker, and when he ain’t workin’, he don’t hardly know how to enjoy himself.”

This was not the least bit true, although Joe believed it was. Adam knew a great many ways of enjoying himself, and he had been known to be fond of dancing. But as far as Adam was concerned, the Bar Fly was a project to be finished, and that as quickly as possible, so he could return to his pleasant home. This trip had already cost him the chance to see a Mozart opera and two concerts. And he still wanted nothing more than to get home, even after Hoss and Joe returned with glowing reports of their reception at the Bennet ranch. He further remained unmoved at their mention of the dance.

“We’ve got three weeks worth of work here,” he growled. “It’s not gonna happen by itself.”

“It’s also not gonna happen after dark,” Joe reminded him. “The dance starts at sundown. Now whether you go or not is up to you, but seems to me you could spare the two of us when it’s too late to do any work anyway.”

Adam sighed. “All right. Go ahead. Have a good time; relax a little. But don’t go drinkin’ too much. Come Saturday morning, it’s right back to work again.”

“I dunno,” Hoss put in. “It’s awful hard fer me to keep track of Little Joe, the way he’s always skitterin’ around. You know it usually takes both of us to watch him, older brother, else he’ll go gettin’ hisself into all kindsa trouble.”

Adam made no answer to that, but he did have to admit that Hoss was right. Joe was seldom deliberately irresponsible, but at age 21, he had not yet completely figured out just how much whiskey was safe to drink and where the line was drawn between cute tipsiness and disgusting drunkenness, and when the whiskey was disguised in punch, it was that much harder to keep watch on one’s condition. Perhaps it might be best for both older brothers to go along—in a purely supervisory role.

The week wore on, excruciatingly slow, but while Adam managed not to further injure himself again—much—the brothers saw a carriage approaching on Wednesday that could only mean bad news. It was not the Bennets—which momentarily relieved the Cartwrights until they saw who it was. Adam couldn’t help an audible groan. He’d forgotten they lived in Sacramento now.

“Adam Cartwright,” Deborah Banning called with her usual cool elegance. “How lovely to see you again. Your father said you were out here. Very cruel of you not to come and visit us.”

“We’re only here on business, Mrs. Banning,” Adam said, managing to sound friendly. “What occasions this visit?”

“I heard about your project and thought you could use some help. Melinda and I can help you clean the place up.”

“Really,” Adam muttered, and cleared his throat with an effort. “Honestly, Mrs. Banning, most of the indoor work is complete. It’s just the outside that we could use assistance with, and that’s hardly lady’s work. I’m sorry to have brought you all this way for nothing—”

“Nothing? Don’t be silly. I can see from here—and you haven’t invited me down yet, by the way—all sorts of things still crying out for a woman’s touch. We’ll stay here and get the place ship-shape while you boys do the outside things.”

Melinda Banning was no more anxious to be there than the Cartwrights were to have her there. She still had cheek-burning memories of their first encounter some years before. Her mother had insisted on pushing her at Little Joe, who would have quite welcomed a wife at the time, but Melinda had been more interested in Adam. In fact, she had thrown herself at him, much to his annoyance. (He hadn’t even been embarrassed about it, she realized later. Just annoyed.) Joe had been furious at Adam, who had rolled his eyes and ridden off to Tucson for a month. Melinda was certain Adam had at least gotten a nice vacation out of the deal, but he had managed to avoid every visit the Bannings had paid since their move West, and Melinda was certain it was because of her. But now, there was no escaping contact with him—and in less than five minutes she knew his feelings for her had not changed, either. It was a bitter pill to swallow…so she didn’t swallow it. Instead she vowed to renew her efforts.

Deborah Banning declared it would require weeks—and servants from her home—to fix the place up properly, and nobody could talk her out of it. Even Joe’s protest that there simply wasn’t room for them fell on deaf ears. “We’ll share a room, of course. We can ‘rough it’ as well as you ‘menfolk’ can.”

This further meant, of course, that when Friday night arrived (to find the Bar Fly headquarters looking and smelling like a mostly decent house) and the three Cartwright boys in varying states of excitement over the upcoming dance, there was also no way to avoid taking the Bannings along. None of them had brought their really fancy duds, but they did at least have clean clothes. Hoss drove the ladies over while Adam and Joe took their baths (cold ones—the chimney still needed a cleaning and the stove was backed up). At sundown they left for Mulberry Ridge. It was a pleasant ride, the weather warm but not yet hot, and there was a nice breeze.

And apparently there was a pack of coyotes out, whose scent wafted across that pleasant breeze all of a sudden, and hit the sensitive noses of the two Cartwright horses full blast. Both of them squealed and bolted, and one decided to rid himself of his rider first. And his rider, who had been thinking of supply lists and work schedules, less-taxing cattle routes, and other niceties, found himself sitting on his…niceties…while Sport tore off squealing into the night.

By the time Joe had recaptured Sport and Adam had finished pulling the thorns out of his right arm and outer thigh, it was after dark. Not only that, but the simple act of standing upright sent out shooting pains in every direction from an old back injury.

“We’ll be late,” Joe fretted, while Adam looked at him in amazement.

“Are you kidding? I can’t go like this! I’m filthy. No decent girl would dance with me, and besides….” His pride wouldn’t let him admit just how badly his back was hurting; not to Little Joe, anyway. His younger brother believed him indestructible. He finished lamely, “I’ve turned into a pincushion.”

“Adam, those nice Bennet sisters already think you’re stuck up. You don’t go to the dance tonight and you’ll prove it, especially if you’re sending the Bannings in your stead. Just dust yourself off and you’ll be as good as new.”

“What do we care what they think?”

“Well, we’re gonna be keeping a herd of cattle here a couple weeks at a time to fatten them up again before they go on to Ord Barracks, so we’d best be neighborly. You never know what can happen,” Joe said with a shrug.

“Neighborly, huh. They already drove off and left us with all our cleaning and me with a busted head. How neighborly is that?” But there was no point in continuing as Joe had already put Cochise into a lope.

Adam sighed and wondered why he was in such a bad mood. Granted, he still thought this was a bad idea; granted, his father had given him the real poop-end of the stick by putting him in charge of this assignment; granted, he wanted to be home with a book and a brandy. But none of that could be blamed on his brothers, or the Bennets, or even the Bannings, so he squared his shoulders and resolved to be nice.

The resolution lasted until they reached Mulberry Ridge, but not long after. Arriving at the dance, they were immediately accosted by Mrs. Bennet and her daughters—all of whom had met with a frosty reception by the Bannings and were feeling quite put upon. And Adam had been in too bad a shape on Sunday to realize quite how shrill Mrs. Bennet and Lydia could be, but it didn’t take long to catch on to it now. All he could think of was retreating from the noise, as soon as he could.

He danced dutifully with Mrs. Banning and Melinda, then grabbed a whisky to soothe his throbbing back and found a hiding place. There was a quiet corner to lean into, where he could watch things in peace. As long as Little Joe didn’t have too much punch and Hoss didn’t trod on poor Kitty’s foot, maybe things would be all right and Adam could get to bed soon.

Joe had hit it off almost immediately with the oldest Bennet girl. Right now he was dancing with someone else—Rosita, Adam vaguely remembered from their introduction—but even so he was glancing over at Jane periodically and smiling.

Adam watched Joe, dancing with Rosita but smiling at Jane with a look like a calf who’d just seen its first meadow. Gee, I hope he doesn’t go falling in love again. He’s already done it twice this spring.

He groaned at the thought. Whenever Joe fell in love, he fell over a cliff, and it was the rest of the family who had to pick up the pieces. And Jane was a pretty thing with her strawberry blonde curls and big innocent eyes, but who’d want to be a part of that family with that shrill cow of a mother?

He was jarred out of his less-than-pleasant thoughts by the arrival of Hoss, who had fallen victim to a cut-in.

“How come you ain’t dancin’, Adam?” he demanded. “It’s like a smorgasbord and here we are—all we need’s a plate! I’ll tell ya, Joe’s about fit to be tied over that Jane girl and even I’m findin’ pretty gals to talk to!”

“Why wouldn’t you, Hoss? You’re a prime specimen.” Adam shook his head. “You and Joe have been keeping company with all the good-looking girls anyhow. And the rest….” He rolled his eyes.

“Aw, Adam, that just ain’t so. Look at that dark haired gal over there. That’s Jane and Kitty’s sister Liz’beth, and she’s about as purdy as a picture. Whyn’t you go ask her for a dance?”

Adam followed the huge but discreet finger and nodded a little. “She’s not bad, I guess. But then all the other fellas are avoiding her like the plague. Now where we come from there’s usually a reason for that kind of treatment, and I don’t need to jump into a tub of scalding water.”

“Adam, you don’t even know the girl! She might be just fine.”

“Hoss, I don’t even want to be here. You and Joe dragged me along, remember?” He cut himself off from telling Hoss about his injured back. Hoss could be as big a mollycoddler as Pa. “Last thing I want to do is go cavorting around the room with some girl that’s gettin’ stood up by all the other fellas. I’d rather be in bed with a book right now. So you go dance with whoever you please, and just leave me here. Come get me when it’s time to go.”

Elizabeth Bennet had just walked by and heard the last part of Adam’s lecture, and was smiling, half in rage and half in incredulity. She bit her lip and waited until the dance ended, whereupon she immediately sought out her best friend Rosie. “You must hear this,” she whispered. “See that dark fellow over there, the one all in black?”

“Oh, yes. He’s quite handsome.”

“But wait until you hear what he said about me. He said he didn’t want to ‘cavort about the room’ with a girl all the other fellows were ‘standing up,’ and for that matter he said he’d rather be in bed with a book!”

“But Lizzy, you love to read before you go to bed!”

“Of course, but not when I’m at a dance. If he didn’t want to be here, why did he come at all? Why just stand around looking as if he’d been sucking a lemon rind?”

Across the room, Adam saw the two girls giggling together. He sighed at the thought of being that free, or even just having someone to laugh with. But something was bothering him besides his back. Who was this Rosita girl? He knew he’d never met her before; he would have remembered a girl who looked like that. But her name was somehow familiar.

That was it…Rosita Morales, whose real name was Isabella Maria Inéz de Castro de la Cuesta, had a centuries-old land grant from Spain, back when all this land was a Spanish possession—and she wanted what was hers. Ben and Adam had written a beautiful letter, detailing the number of people living on the land, and how long they had lived there, and what struggles they had gone through to make their homes there, and what would happen if they lost the land. It was not only a portion of the Ponderosa that was at stake. There were other families in the area, farmers like Andy and Mary Logan, who would’ve lost everything. The letter had pleaded their case in words a big-city lawyer would never have used, but somehow, it had worked. The de la Cuesta grant claim had been withdrawn, and Rosita Morales had descended back to the anonymity she’d risen from…but where that was, and who she was….

Naw, he told himself. Rosita Morales is as common a name as Rosie Smith in these parts. Couldn’t be the same one. Besides, this Rosita Morales is a cantina girl. Hardly a great lady.

Chapter 6

Unwelcome Guests

Mrs. Bennet declared Friday night’s dance to have been quite a triumph for her eldest daughter, Jane. All the other girls at the dance had been quite overshadowed by Jane’s loveliness. And that absolutely darling young man, Little Joe Cartwright, certainly could not keep his eyes off Jane. That politeness and good breeding had forced him to dance with other girls as well (including her own, for he had danced that night with all five of her girls—and a few other town girls, even the odious tart, Rosita Morales) was an inconvenience but certainly not a tragedy, for he certainly had no interest in any of them. He seemed quite riveted to Jane and, should Mrs. Bennet have anything to do with it, he would be literally riveted to her before long.

As for the other two brothers, Mrs. Bennet had plans for at least one of them as well. Hoss was, as she snidely observed, not the most fragrant gardenia in the greenhouse, but having a third-share of a wealthy ranch was nothing over which to turn up one’s nose, and he was agreeable enough to follow Mary and Kitty wherever they led. As far as Mrs. Bennet was concerned, Mary and Kitty were the unremarkable ones. Jane was beautiful; Lizzy was stubborn; Lydia was the baby. Yes, Hoss could have one of the other two without unduly inconveniencing her…and Adam…well, he was a rude, arrogant, bad-tempered fellow; that was quite plain. His rudeness would have been perfectly acceptable, had he exhibited an interest in any of her daughters, but since he had not, well, he was quite unpardonable. Unfortunately, Mrs. Bennet had to remain civil to him (or at least what passed for civil with her), since he was generally with his brothers.

It was the Monday following the dance that Mrs. Bennet hit upon the brilliant idea of sending Jane out to the Bar Fly to offer her housekeeping services while the men worked out on the range. “Remember what the place smelled like last time we were there, dear. Those men will be so grateful to you that Little Joe is bound to ask if he may walk out with you. And then you’ll have him where you want him!”

“Don’t you mean, where you want him, Mother?” Lizzy asked.

Jane blushed and looked near tears. “Mother, please, I don’t think this is a good idea at all. Besides, those other women who went to the dance with the Cartwrights are probably cleaning the house.”

“Don’t be silly, Jane. Those are real ladies. They can’t be bothered with anything menial. And the Cartwrights are a working family. You’re sure to impress them all if you show them what a hard, cheerful worker you are!”

Mr. Bennet rolled his eyes in disappointment, but this was a clear occasion where if Mrs. Bennet did not have her way, the entire house—and especially Mr. Bennet—would suffer. Jane was a good-natured, phlegmatic girl. Surely she could tolerate an afternoon of floor mopping, or whatever people did when they cleaned a house. He had no time for such trivialities, anyway. He was preparing for his annual meeting with Saul Driscoll and Driscoll’s foreman, Tunney.

Spring roundup had gone well and the herd size was increasing dramatically. (Bennet assumed the increase was due to calving, and both Driscoll and Tunney kindly allowed him to think so.) Business was going so well that Driscoll even provided a little bonus for Mr. Bennet.

“Glad to see you’re lookin’ healthy,” Driscoll observed. “I like the way the place is running. Yup, business is going mighty well. I wish my home life was going half so well.”

That brought to Mr. Bennet’s mind the tales he had heard, years ago, of a notorious gunfighter, a kid named Sam Driscoll. Of course, “Driscoll” was not exactly a rare name, and that young buck had been somewhere around Kansas City, but even so, he couldn’t help wondering if the two were any kin. Not that he would have asked; oh no, that would be ever so indecorous. He was therefore mightily surprised when Saul Driscoll looked at him and said, “In a way I envy you, havin’ girls, Bennet. Had to cut my son off, you know, and he’s the only kin I got in the world. Keep meanin’ to re-write my will and make it official but then I keep hopin’ he’ll come back.” He sighed. “Must be nice to have girls.”

Outside, following her mother’s plan—and at the moment, feeling rather dreadful about being a girl—Jane put the sidesaddle on Nelly and rode down the road toward the Bar Fly. She was a little less than a mile shy of the place when her day got a lot worse.

The snake was just a little coral-bellied ringneck, barely a foot and a half long and no bigger around than a man’s thumb. Its venom wasn’t much to speak of, even if it was inclined to bite horses or people, and its red underside was just something to display when it needed to look scary. However, venturing out into the open on a cloudy day like this one was something for only the boldest snakes, so this one had decided to look its meanest and boldest.

And as far as the horse was concerned, it worked just fine. At first sight of the blue and red creature by the road, she reared sky-high with a squeal that could be heard a mile away, and came down running hard for home. Not that Jane cared—never the best rider, she had come off while Nelly was still in the air.

Adam Cartwright saw the whole thing—all but the cause—from the fence he’d been repairing. He mounted Sport and galloped to the rescue. Well, it didn’t look as if anything was broken. She had a nice-sized knot on her head, though. “I’m so sorry,” the girl whispered, and began to cry.

“You’ll be fine,” Adam said reassuringly. Carefully, he lifted her into Sport’s saddle, and then got up behind her. He got her back to the house as quickly as he could while still remaining gentle, and handed her down to Hoss and the two Banning ladies.

“Where ya want me to put her?” Hoss asked, holding the girl—who had apparently fainted.

“I dunno—in my bed, I guess. I’ll sleep on the kitchen floor tonight. It doesn’t matter. She’s in no shape to be moved far. Do what you can; I’ll go get the doctor and on the way back I’ll tell her folks.”

*

The doctor kept going straight at the Longbourn turn-off, but Adam took a deep breath and turned left onto the narrow road. He met a buggy at one point, vaguely remembered enough from the brief meeting at the dance to know that this was not Mr. Bennet, and so he nodded politely and kept going.  At the house he jumped down from Sport, tossed a rein over a nearby hitching rail and strode rapidly to the front door. Something in him cringed as he heard two young voices giggling behind him, but he refused to turn and look at them and instead pounded on the door. Inside he heard the awful woman whose loud voice he’d heard several times at the dance. “Heavens, Mr. Bennet, someone knows Mr. Driscoll has just been here and has come to rob you! We shall all be killed!”

Mentally, Adam steeled himself as the door opened. Fortunately it was Bennet himself. He looked at Adam in puzzlement. “Mr. Cartwright the eldest, isn’t it? How may I help you, sir?”

“Mr. Bennet, I’m sorry to tell you there was an accident. One of your daughters was riding a horse near our house and she took a bad fall.”

Indoors, Mrs. Bennet shrieked at the top of her lungs. “Jane! My darling Jane is dead!”

“No ma’am!” he said, and that made the woman silent for a moment. “She’s not dead. She’s got a bruise on her head that looked pretty bad, and she fainted on the way back to the house. The doctor’s on his way there now. I came to see if…” he looked pleadingly at Mr. Bennet…“if YOU, sir, might want to come back with me.”

“Nonsense!” shrieked Mrs. Bennet. “I’m Jane’s mother! I shall go!”

“Mother, think,” cried another female voice, and the brown-eyed girl Adam remembered from the dance, the girl all the fellows had avoided, came marching up to the doorway like a general to the battlefield. “Mother, Jane is injured. There will be blood and possibly even…” she glanced at Adam and blushed, then said defiantly: “vomit.”

“Oh good heavens!” Mrs. Bennet screeched. “Oh, my poor nerves!”

“Of course, of course,” Mr. Bennet murmured. “How dare Jane be ill in the presence of your nerves, my dear Mrs. Bennet. You’re absolutely right, Lizzy—go get Patch and go with Mr. Cartwright.”

“Not Lizzy!” Mrs. Bennet wailed. “Why, none of the men there even liked her. Get Kitty.”

“Mother!” Lizzy urged, “We are scouting neither for Indians nor husbands! My sister is hurt, and I am the best suited to take care of her. Kitty would only make herself ill, and I am certain those Ponderosa men would be most disappointed in such weak behavior.”

Adam wondered for a minute if everyone in the Bennet household always acted as if there was no Mr. Bennet present, and decided it wasn’t his business. He did have a sudden, indistinct mental picture of how Ben Cartwright would act if a similar situation occurred in his house, and covered a smile as he turned to go back out.

Lizzy had led out a mostly white horse with a large brown blotch across its face and neck, and was, with some difficulty, throwing a saddle across it. He rushed over to her and with a muttered “Excuse me,” saddled the horse himself. “You, um, don’t ride side saddle?” he asked as he tightened the cinch. She eyeballed him without a word, and then climbed into the saddle, ignoring his outstretched hands. Before he had mounted Sport, she and Patch were leaving a dusty wake. As Adam looked up the trail after them, the first raindrops splattered on his hands. By the time he and Sport had caught up to the slower Patch, it was raining, and as they reached the yard of the Bar Fly the sky broke wide open and dumped Noah’s flood on them.

Chapter 7

Down in the Valley

The Bar Fly sat in a valley, so the constant downpour resulted in the road being washed out, and the water was almost hip-deep on Little Joe, who returned from his fence line only with difficulty. The doctor’s carriage was trapped, as was the Bannings’. So for three days the Cartwrights found themselves playing host to the Banning women, the two Bennet sisters, and the doctor. Had this been one of Mr. Bennet’s dime novels, it would have been the setting of a great romance, as there were four men and four women stuck under one roof and a great flood going on all around them.

But the Banning women looked with barely concealed disdain on the Bennet sisters, and were forever finding fault with their clothing, horses, ranch, and in general this part of the country—although in truth it was less than 30 miles from the Banning home in Sacramento. Jane Bennet, even if she had felt well enough to participate, would never have lowered herself to retaliate. Lizzy Bennet, however, was another story. She had a sparkling and malicious wit, and little compunction about using it when she felt put upon.

Between the doctor and Mrs. Banning an almost instant loathing sprang up. Melinda Banning still sighed after Adam Cartwright, and Joe could not look at Melinda without embarrassment. On the other hand, Joe’s new flame Jane was also a captive audience, and so Joe made a point of bringing up the hot water for bathing and cold water for drinking and even the medicines, when he could wrest them from the doctor’s grasp. Then he would look around for any excuse to stay, in spite of Lizzy’s murmurs about what their father would say, or Mrs. Banning’s huffy “Well!”

“May I read to you, Miss Jane?” he asked.

“I would like that,” Jane said softly. She said everything softly—one of the things Joe liked about her. (She also called him “Joseph,” and for some reason he liked that about her, too.) But she also stood her ground when charged—another thing he liked. He had taken her outside at the dance and tried to steal a kiss, but while she had been polite about it, her answer had been a positive “no.” She didn’t kiss men she wasn’t engaged to, she had told Joe quite firmly.

“You ever been engaged?” he asked her.

She looked down. “No…I have peculiar ideals for an engagement, Joseph. That is to say, the man I marry will have to meet a high standard.”

“Really? What kind of standard?”

“He must be a man of honor—someone I can completely respect.”

That alone had made Joe gulp. He had expected money and property. This crazy girl was talking character.

“I wouldn’t mind if he liked to wet his whistle, but I could not marry a drunkard.”

Another gulp.

“I wouldn’t mind if he occasionally played at cards, but I would not want a gambler.”

Joe broke into a cold sweat.

“He must be a man who can control his temper and think things through. I have known people who made decisions in the heat of the moment, or because of some misplaced passion, and then watched them regret those decisions forever.”

Joe began to give serious thought to handing Jane over to Adam and going after the giddy sister, Lydia.

“He doesn’t have to be a great scholar, but I would like a man who does not mind reading—you see, I like to read, and I like to be read to. So I hope my husband would read to me from time to time; of course this also means he must have a pleasant voice.”

Definitely gotta turn this girl over to Adam, Joe thought—until her next words.

“You have a decidedly pleasant voice, Joseph.” She was looking right at him, something few girls did for more than a minute before demurely dropping their eyes. “I’m sure you think I’m a bit silly—don’t protest, please. Let me finish. You see, the man I marry will be someone I can worship and adore whole-heartedly. So, don’t you think he should be worthy of that worship and adoration?”

“Oh, uh, sure.” He had given her a weak smile. “So what does worship and adoration consist of, Jane?”

“Oh…” And she giggled. He loved her giggle. “At a minimum, frequent kisses.”

“Yeah?” Things were looking up. “What else?”

“I’m an excellent cook,” she proclaimed. “My husband would be the best-fed man within a hundred miles. Don’t you think proper nutrition is important to a man?”

“I, uh, sure do.”

She looked around suddenly, her expression secretive. So he looked around, too. Satisfied that no one else was near, he asked, “Any other special treatment?”

“Well, of course after a hard day’s work, my husband would be tired, and so I would draw him a hot bath, and wash his hair, and scrub him head to foot.”

“Head to foot? Really?”

“Cleanliness is next to godliness, isn’t it? I’m a virtuous woman, Joseph.”

“I can tell. So you’d make your husband nice and clean.”

“Oh, that’s not all. Then I would rub his feet to help him relax. I would think a relaxed husband would be much happier than a tense one. What do you think?”

“I think relaxing is a great idea, Jane. I’d love to be relaxed.”

Shy girls offered the most delightful surprises. Joe had been her devoted slave from then on. So he spent his time reading to her—something he would not have done for anyone else in the country, not even his brothers.

For Hoss the time was unmitigated boredom. None of the women interested him in the least; he disliked and distrusted the Bannings, although he was far too kindhearted to let it show. He was shy and tongue-tied with the Bennets; as much as he had enjoyed himself at the dance with their younger sister Kitty, he simply had little in common with the two older sisters and little interest in their subjects of discussion.

For Adam, he might as well have been in the ninth circle of Dante’s hell. Here he was stuck playing nursemaid to two snobs, a sick girl, and another girl who obviously hated him, since her every word to him was coated in ice and her every movement in his presence was veiled with suspicious glances. He did not waste time wondering what was wrong with her, however—he was too tired. He was sleeping next to the doctor (who snored louder than Hoss) on the kitchen floor—until the water slid under the door and covered the ground floor. At that point he and the doctor moved upstairs to the room Hoss and Joe were sharing, and for Adam and Hoss, it was reminiscent of the covered wagon days when everyone crowded into the back of the thing, sitting or lying atop the trunks and boxes and furniture in a vain effort to stay warm and comfortable.

Of course, once Hoss and the doctor got really going, the sounds emanating from the room sounded like a huge hive of bees on the warpath, and at times like those Adam and Joe slept at the top of the stairs.

It was worse, or so Adam thought, when the limited dry portions of the house made neither avoiding each other nor ignoring each other possible. He didn’t know the one positive effect it had on Elizabeth Bennet. Lizzy, being ensconced with Jane in Adam’s room, had noticed the small stash of books he had brought along. Not knowing whose books they were, but noticing Joe seemed to have free access to them since he spent a bit of time reading to Jane, she had asked Joe if she could read one of them, and Joe had agreed. So it was that Adam passed the doorway at one point to hear her reading aloud to Jane from a volume of John Greenleaf Whittier. Unsettled, he stopped for a moment to listen. Then, shaking his head with a wry smile, he turned away to find the hall blocked by Melinda Banning. “I read Whittier in college,” she said in superior tones. “Pretty poor stuff, if you ask me.”

“Yes, I believe you’re in agreement with Hawthorne,” he replied coldly. “To the very word, in fact. Now, if I were going to plagiarize, I would choose Whipple—but I would also say I’m quoting him. Whipple said reading Whittier was having your soul take a bath in holy water. I feel much the same when I read Whittier. I’m sorry your experience with him wasn’t more pleasant, but I’m sure if you continue reading Hawthorne, you’ll be able to express his displeasure more eloquently next time.”

Lizzy heard this, and for a moment sat in silence. Against her will, she smiled a little, and then turned back to Jane and continued reading.

Jane improved slowly, and by the morning of the fourth day, when the water had receded enough to make the roads passable, the doctor declared her fit to go home. This, she and Lizzy were glad to do.

Chapter 8

The Most Unwelcome Guests of All

“I declare, I have never met such a horrid man as that Adam Cartwright.” Mrs. Bennet was clearly vexed, not that it took much. This time, however, she and her husband were in complete agreement about something.

The oldest Cartwright boy had shown up this morning, herding five cows. It was enraging enough to Mr. Bennet that the man was able to keep the cows together and moving, as it was a skill Bennet had never attained.

The look on the young man’s face spoke volumes, both of anger and of a strange sort of discomfort. “May I speak to you privately, sir?” he had addressed the man of the house in polite but strained tones, and then all but dragged him outside and as far from the women as he could.

“What on earth is your meaning, sir?” Bennet had demanded. “I’ve not even had my breakfast yet!” It was barely 7:30 in the morning, after all.

“These cows were on our property this morning,” Cartwright said quietly, but there was a hard edge to his voice that made Mr. Bennet quite nervous.

“My apologies, of course, but perhaps you should mend your fences.”

“I’m working on that, Mr. Bennet,” Cartwright replied, in that same polite but threatening tone. “Sir, my intent was simply to drive them back onto your land…but then I started looking at them and saw something that concerned me. Mr. Bennet, how intimately are you involved in the day-to-day running of this place?”

“Why, I’m involved in all of it, of course. It’s, um, my land, after all. What an impertinent young man you are! To what end was that question?”

He just countered the question with another of his own. “How many head of cattle do you run?”

“I…um…five or six thousand, I think…give or take a few. Why?”

“What kind of hay are you growing in your south field?”

Bennet thought long and hard, certain that Tunney and Driscoll must have discussed this in their meeting, but equally certain that he couldn’t remember what they had said. “Um, alfalfa, I think…or perhaps timothy?”

Scowling, Cartwright went on, “How many stomachs does a cow have?”

“Good Lord, young man! How many stomachs does anything have? The Almighty gave me but one, and that’s enough for any cow. Why in the name of all that is civil are you asking me these foolish questions?”

Adam Cartwright pinched the bridge of his nose and turned away, and Bennet was quick to press the advantage he didn’t have. “Mr. Cartwright, you have turned up early in the morning—I’m barely awake for heaven’s sake—and without a word of apology have begun interrogating me about the workings of my ranch, something I don’t see as being any business of yours. Now I’m sorry my cows discommoded you, but really, that’s the problem of your property, not mine. I thank you for the return of these cows, and wish you a safe journey back to the Bar Fly.”

He started to stride past the young man and back to his house, only to be brought back face-to-face with Cartwright in a most forceful manner as Cartwright grabbed him by the lapels of his dressing gown and swung him about. “I could have you hanged. Or run out of town. But I don’t believe in killing people for being foolish. Who really owns this place, and who really runs it? If you don’t come up with a believable story real fast I’ll leave, all right, but I won’t go to the Bar Fly, and I’ll be back here within the hour and the sheriff will be with me. Do you have any great desire to be hanged for cattle rustling, Mr. Bennet?”

Bennet shook off the offending hand. “I don’t have any great desire to be hanged for ANY reason, sir! Now pray tell me how MY cattle wandering onto YOUR unfenced land is grounds for branding ME a thief?”

“Funny you should say ‘branding,’” Cartwright retorted. He pushed Mr. Bennet by the shoulder and continued to push him until he was standing face to hindquarters with one of the retrieved cows. Cartwright stretched out a hand toward the large, elaborate “LB” brand that Saul Driscoll had designed. “Bennet, you are a lucky man. If you’d been capable of answering even one of my questions correctly the sheriff would be here now. I’ve seen brand altering for years, and this stuff is an expert job of it.”

“Of what are you talking, sir? You are grossly insulting both my intelligence and my honor!”

“I don’t think so,” came the reply. “Your land won’t support more than 3,000 head of cattle, not the five or six you claim. The stuff growing in your south field is wildrye. Alfalfa and timothy won’t grow here. And the good Lord may have given you only one stomach, Mr. Bennet, but he gave cows four. Not to mention that any real rancher would’ve been up, fed, and at work for hours by 7:30 when you had just gotten up. As for your honor—” he pointed at the cow’s branded flank again. The cow regarded his hand with patient uninterest, and returned to grazing. “Do you mean to say you really don’t know what I’m getting at?”

He covered the L and the curlicues on the B, and Bennet could—if he tried—make out the tracings of a very plain, stylized B. “That’s the brand of the Barkley ranch in Stockton, 40 miles from here.” He dragged Bennet over to another cow, covered most of the B and a portion of the loops on the L. There stood the stark II of the famous Double-Eye ranch some 30 miles away, with the arched “eyebrow” under one of the L’s loops. “That one over there is your neighbor on the other side. But most of them are from farther away. Most of these cows are being stolen from herds a good way off, and then brought here. Since you’re not the one doing it, I’d like to know who is.”

Bennet felt the blood leave his face and rush for somewhere safer. “I…I didn’t know. I swear, I didn’t….”

“I already said I know you’re not a part of it. But you know who is, don’t you?”

“The ranch isn’t mine. Not anymore. Hasn’t been for some time. I sold it many years ago, to a Mr. Driscoll. He…he calls himself my silent partner. He brings the cows here. He and Tunney, the foreman.”

Cartwright made an almost animal growl. “Mr. Bennet, how long ago did this happen?”

Mr. Bennet correctly deduced that he was in considerable danger, but considering the vile temper of the young man in front of him, he knew not from where the greatest danger would come. “Ten years…I sold the ranch to Driscoll ten years ago. He…he said he was a philanthropist but everyone plagued him about his money, so he wanted a quiet place to keep the cows without attaching his name to it. He…he paid me a yearly stipend to keep up the land, and then hired the ranch hands himself.”

Red-faced, Adam Cartwright threw his hat on the ground. “Saul Driscoll and Hogan Tunney used to be part of the Attaway outfit. They must’ve stolen more cows than are in all of Texas. They’ve been wanted men for 11 years! And you’ve made it possible for them to keep their cattle rustling operation going for a decade now!”

“Well, how was I supposed to know?” Bennet asked, quite reasonably—he thought. “I’m English. I have no interest in all this cattle wrestling.”

“Rustling.”

“Whatever it is, I have no interest in it. It never occurred to me to steal cows from other people.”

“And it never occurred to you to wonder why a man would finance the running of this ranch with you living on it.”

“No, it didn’t. He was always a soft-spoken gentleman, Mr. Cartwright, with a great concern for his reputation. Considerably more so than yourself. Why, he told me only a few days ago that he was ashamed of his son and was going to cut him off for disgracing the family name.”

Cartwright burst out laughing, but it was not a good-humored laugh. “Did he tell you how the son disgraced the name?”

“No, of course not. And I never asked. Wouldn’t have been discreet, would it?”

Bending down to pick up his hat, Cartwright dusted it slowly and thoughtfully on his black canvas work trousers, and then turned back to face Mr. Bennet. “The Driscoll family never did an honest day’s work in their lives, Mr. Bennet. Saul Driscoll used to have real reasons to be proud of his son, too. But one day the kid got religion and off he went to a seminary. He’s a preacher now. That’s why he’s a disgrace to the family. And it works both ways. He’s so ashamed of Saul that he won’t even use the Driscoll name anymore. Mr. Bennet, I’ll give you two weeks to make things right—go to the sheriff, report your dealings with Driscoll. Tell him you didn’t know—I’ll back you up, and who knows, my name may carry some weight out here. But if you don’t fix this, I will.”

In the house, Bennet dimly heard Kitty and Lydia loudly squabbling over the ownership of a hat. “But I have a family,” he said softly. “What will happen to my girls? We have no place to go.”

For the first time, young Cartwright looked uneasy. “I’m sorry. I don’t know.”

He turned and went back to his horse, and rode away without saying goodbye. Mrs. Bennet, at the door, had heard little of the conversation; just enough to know that Cartwright expected them to leave. “Who does that young rascal think he is?” she demanded. “I declare, I never met such a horrid man as that Adam Cartwright.”

Bennet pondered. He had always considered himself an honorable man, but now he realized he had merely been a failure and a dupe. And the position he found himself in now was no easier. Adam Cartwright had the look of a man who did not issue threats lightly. He would certainly go to the sheriff if Bennet did not. But going to the sheriff would—at best—end the comfortable life of the last decade, leaving Bennet with no idea where he could take his family or what he could do. And at worst, if Driscoll was as bad as Cartwright said…and again, he didn’t look like the sort of fellow to exaggerate…Driscoll could come after him for vengeance, and his wife and five daughters would be left alone in the world.

Finally, he decided to send word to Adam Cartwright that he would see the sheriff—provided Cartwright accompany him. But the next morning, it was taken out of his hands. Tunney, the foreman, rode in from a trip out of town to report that Mr. Driscoll had been killed in an “accident.” Tunney just as quickly quit his job and departed in haste, taking the payroll and the ranch hands with him. The next day, the sheriff arrived with a large posse and a grim look in his eye. He said little to Mr. Bennet, but handed him a warrant and subpoena, and the posse set about rounding up the cattle. By the end of the day there wasn’t a single bovine on the place. Even Bessie the milk cow was taken.

For a brief day or so Mr. Bennet thought, despite the loss of the cattle, money, and employees, things really might be over. After all, Driscoll’s son would surely not want to be associated with anything his father had been involved in; he would not claim the ranch, would he? And perhaps the Cartwrights would lease the land for their own beef. Then he and his family could keep the house and their easy lives, and the land would go on as before. But at the end of the week a letter arrived.

Dear Mr. Bennet,

Doubtless you have heard of how my unhappy father, Saul Driscoll, met his recent demise. My name is David Clayton, and I am his son. We were estranged, as you were probably aware, but I am his sole heir.

I have inherited the Longbourn ranch. Apparently, it was one of the few things my father legally owned and was not seized after the fall of his empire. I will be arriving a fortnight from this Wednesday evening to discuss events with you. I was originally inclined to tell you simply to get off the place, but there are those who tell me you never understood the nature of my father’s business, and I am willing to entertain the possibility that they are right. I will beg your gracious hospitality to put me up for the night, sir, and on Thursday morning we will thrash out matters further, for the present state of events just will not do.

Yours faithfully,

S. David Clayton

né Samuel D. Driscoll

Chapter 9

My Kingdom for a Dance

There were two more dances in the next fortnight, and the Cartwright boys—and the Banning women—were found at both of them, although Adam was usually standing in the corner leaning against the wall with a whisky in his hand. The “uppity” Cartwright, as he was known, came to the dances only to find fault with the others there—so said the town. He danced only with the Banning women (the townspeople never noticed that he danced but one dance with each) and then headed for the whisky. He was probably a drunk, said some.

Mrs. Bennet was always willing to contribute to the gossip, telling anyone who would listen that she had personally overheard that uppity Cartwright threatening Mr. Bennet with jail if he didn’t leave the Longbourn ranch. One thing led to another, and the story grew to the extent that the Ponderosa “empire” was trying to expand into California. In a sense, of course, this was true, but not the sense which the townspeople understood.

Still, the two younger Cartwright brothers were so bright and pleasing as to disarm the Mulberry Ridge residents for the most part. It was only the uppity eldest who was to blame for the unwelcome events—whatever they were, for no one really understood—that had befallen the Bennets.

Hurt and sore though he was that night, Adam had kept an eye on Lizzy Bennet for a large portion of the evening. He’d been trying for some time to figure out why other fellows tended to avoid her, and finally reached the conclusion that it was because her conversation usually consisted of books, and also that people who weren’t prepared frequently fell victim to her wit. At that point, he had smacked his own head in frustration, for she was exactly the kind of girl he liked to spend time with. Of course, now he had somehow enraged her as well, for her every movement around him spoke of cold indifference, and she never spoke to him at all if she could help it.

Well, maybe he could fix that. He’d been known to exhibit his own brand of charm on occasion, and any girl who liked Whittier couldn’t be all bad. Maybe an apology would do. Not that he knew just what he had done that demanded an apology, but women always loved apologies.

He smiled, watching Little Joe waltz across the room with Jane Bennet. There was a fellow in love. Of course, Joe was usually in love with somebody—Melinda Banning being a prime example—but maybe Jane Bennet was smarter. She seemed to be, although she also seemed like a pretty cool customer. He wondered about her incongruities for just a second, and turned his attention back to Jane’s younger sister. Yes, he’d see if the old Cartwright charm would work tonight. He took a couple of halting steps across the room, wondering if his back would hold up long enough for a dance, and bumped into Mr. Bennet. Well, at least Bennet couldn’t be too angry at him now, not after he’d interceded both with the sheriff and with Dave Clayton, Saul Driscoll’s son, on Bennet’s behalf. He grinned at the older man, prepared to brush off the thank-you and simply get on with the mission of the evening.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Bennet said coolly.

“Mr. Bennet,” he replied, still smiling. “Glad your little problem worked out.”

“My little problem,” repeated the Englishman, one eyebrow lifting. “Sir, calling what exists in my life just now a ‘little problem’ is like calling the American Revolution a ‘minor disagreement.’”

Well, that was unexpected. “I’m sorry,” Adam said in some puzzlement. “Is there any way I can help?”

“I’m certain you helped already,” Bennet retorted. “Please just go and dance with somebody, and leave me alone.” He jerked his head toward Lizzy, who was watching the dance nearby. “Look, there’s my daughter. Dance with her—if tonight you can somehow bring yourself to dance with someone all the other fellows stood up.”

Now Adam was completely bewildered, but there was something about that snide statement that sounded familiar. “Actually, sir, I did intend to ask Miss Elizabeth to dance.”

Lizzy looked over at him with cool condescension. “Mr. Cartwright, I cannot tell you how grateful I am for your attention, but I have no inclination to dance.” With that she turned and walked away, and Adam was left wondering why he had thought he heard a “with you” at the end of her sentence.

Chapter 10

Nodding Acquaintances

 

Lizzy Bennet’s best friend in the world was her sister Jane, but outside family, that honor was held by Rosita Morales, who had been her friend for some eight or nine years now. Lizzy’s mother loathed and despised Rosita, but her father had dubbed the girl “Rosie” and given Lizzy his blessing to be her friend. “She has a good heart, and uncommon sense of integrity,” he had pronounced. “Of course, other than that she’s just as silly as the rest of your sex. I suppose that makes her ideal as your friend.” In Bennet’s dime novels, trollops always had hearts of gold and were simply looking for a chance for redemption. He would have thought the same about any “trollop” Lizzy befriended…but at least in this case, he was fairly close to being correct.

Rosita was four years older than Lizzy, and her background was about as different as could be imagined. The adopted daughter of a drunken innkeeper, she had run away from home while very young and had worked in places as diverse as seamstress’s shops and cantinas to earn her keep. A man had once come and tried to convince her that she was the natural-born daughter of a great Spanish aristocrat and entitled to some of the choicest lands in California and Nevada. Rosita had thought that was a fine idea until she discovered there were people already living on the land. Someone had written her a letter, telling her all about the people who lived there, and how much they had suffered and lost to make their homes there—now only to lose it to her. “They worked for it; I didn’t,” she had said, and withdrew her claim, walking away from the name and the land, right back to the cantina where she worked now. She poured the drinks, served food, and occasionally played the guitar or danced. There were rumors of other duties she had been known to perform, but Lizzy had never asked or cared. Mrs. Bennet thought it shocking that Lizzy would consider befriending such a person, declaring that the girl was little more than a “strumpet.” But Lizzy loved “Rosie” for the simple reason that she was the only girl of Lizzy’s acquaintance who thought of things other than men and marriage, though she could put in an interesting viewpoint about both. (Also, since she actually knew a little about those strange creatures called men, she was fun to talk to about them.) Rosie liked to read and discuss ideas. She lived on her own out in the world and understood its workings far better than Lizzy, but she had retained a sense of optimism that Lizzy had never had to start with. Maybe, Rosita said on occasion, not everything was ordained by destiny. Maybe there was some way for her to become one of the “good women.” “But you ARE one of the good women!” Lizzy would always protest, and Rosita would only smile.

On Rosie’s afternoon off, the two would sometimes walk to the seamstress shop or the milliner’s together. Today, they were doing both. They had started off by talking about one of Whittier’s anti-slavery papers, and it had led to Lizzy’s account of the time spent at the Bar Fly and how Adam Cartwright had told Melinda Banning just what was what.

“He almost seems like a man of some intelligence,” Lizzy said. “But then too, he seems quite arrogant, and the two don’t seem a comfortable combination.”

“If there is anything I have learned in life, it is that things are seldom as they seem. Tell me, the youngest Cartwright boy seems quite interested in your sister Jane. Is he?”

“Oh, that’s one instance where things are exactly as they seem,” Lizzy replied with a smile. “He is forever coming by the house on some pretext, and finding reasons to make puppy-eyes at Jane. If she weren’t quite so besotted by him, one would think she would find it amusing.”

“So Jane is besotted by Little Joe Cartwright, as well?”

“Of course.” Lizzy couldn’t help giggling. “She finds the strangest ways of working him into the conversation. Yesterday Papa mentioned that poor Nellie should be having her foal any day now, and Jane suddenly recalled Little Joe’s account of four foals being born the same day at the Ponderosa on April 4th of last year. What the one has to do with the other, I have no idea, but she found it ever so fascinating.”

“What’s fascinating to me is that Jane never seems as ‘besotted’ as you say when she and Joe are together. Interested and polite, at best. She would be better served by showing him how enthusiastically she feels about him.”

Lizzy’s eyes widened, and she laughed. “Rosita, really—you’re thinking like a cantina girl again. Jane wants to marry the man, not be his ‘kept’ woman.”

“And still I maintain, the way to do that is to show him how she feels. If she does not, there’s nothing to keep him by her side.”

“Jane isn’t like that. In the first place, she’s too shy to be so demonstrative, and in the second, around here, that’s the quickest way to be taken for a loose woman.”

“I know exactly how to be taken for a loose woman around here,” Rosita shrugged. “I hope I’m wrong about Jane, but—oh, look, there’s the man himself!”

“With his lemon-rind-sucking brother,” Lizzy observed, as Joe and Adam emerged from the General Store. With a grin the size of a saddle, Joe changed direction to come and greet her, with Adam in his wake, and to Lizzy’s surprise, the oldest Cartwright was smiling—rather lopsidedly—as well.

“Miss Elizabeth,” he and Joe said at the same time, and Lizzy, to her own surprise, found herself smiling at both of them.

“Mr. Cartwright—and Mr. Cartwright. What brings you to town this morning?”

“Well, I’m just here for more nails,” Joe said with a grin. “You wouldn’t believe how fast we can go through those things. Now, my older brother here has bigger fish to fry. He’s handling the negotiations with the cavalry for the beef. I bet when he’s done they not only buy every last scrawny cow we bring in but they also give him their daughters’ names and visiting cards, too.”

“Ladies, please excuse my younger brother,” Adam said. “He suffers from hero worship—but only in public.”

Joe giggled, then cocked his head. “I think they’re coming. Sounds like about 10 or 15. They must’ve known Pa was sending you, Adam.”

The two brothers chuckled, and for a minute Lizzy could not believe Adam Cartwright was the same man she had known before: the man who seemed only to exist to find fault with people. Why, the man was smiling and laughing like any ordinary person.

Then she heard a slow rumble and turned back to see a unit of blue-uniformed cavalry troops, about 12 altogether, trotting into town. “Detachment, halt!” Four more steps and the horses all stopped, tossing their heads. “DIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIISSSS-MOUNT!”

Lizzy looked back, just in case Adam had found fault with the way the soldiers rode. Apparently he had. His face had frozen in a look that approximated disgust and contempt as clearly she had ever seen; his whole body had stiffened in hostility; his jaw was working overtime, and his fists were clenched so hard his knuckles were white.

Little Joe had seen it too, and put a hand on his brother’s arm. “Hey,” he said. “Adam, not here. Not now.”

“If not now, when,” Adam said softly, but there was such low anger in his voice that Lizzy thought he might spit.

One of the soldiers, a tall, handsome fellow with a rakish mustache and charming smile, was making a beeline right for Adam, and had one of his yellow-gloved hands out ready to shake.

“Don’t do it,” Joe said again. “Go get a drink or something. I’ll handle this.”

Adam wrenched away from Joe, turned sharply and strode off down the street; not to a saloon but to the big chestnut gelding he rode. He mounted and he and the horse tore down the street as the officer looked after him.

Little Joe swallowed hard and took the officer’s proffered hand. “Will.”

“Joe, this is one reserved greeting for a cousin.”

“Well…you’re in uniform,” Joe said lamely. “Good to see you, Cos. I, uh, didn’t realize you’d gone into the Army.”

Will sighed. “I have to eat too, you know. And being persona non grata at the Ponderosa has some severe disadvantages. I can’t get a line of credit anywhere.”

“You seem to be doing okay.” Joe cleared his throat. “Ladies, this is…my cousin, Lieutenant Will Cartwright. Will, this lovely lady is Rosita Morales, and this is Elizabeth Bennet.”

“Trust you to know where to find the prettiest girls,” Will Cartwright said lightly, and he briefly took Rosita’s hand, then Lizzy’s. “Ladies, I’m delighted. Truly the desert grows the most beautiful flowers.”

Oh, it was a cliché, and Lizzy knew it, but she couldn’t help smiling back, and it was with reluctance that she took possession of her hand again. For that brief moment she had felt like the only woman in the world.

“Excuse us, ladies,” Will said smoothly. “I’ll hope to see you again soon, as we’ll be here for a couple of weeks. Now, it looks like I’m buying some beef from you, Joe…” Joe tipped his hat to the women and turned to follow his cousin.

“Well, that was strange,” Rosita observed. “I’ve never seen Adam Cartwright act like that, even when he was being snooty at the dance. I take it he really does not like his cousin.”

“Well, you were the one who said things are seldom as they seem,” Lizzy said distractedly.

“No; I think in that case at least, things are exactly as they seem. Now, I suppose we had best get over to the station if you’re meeting your father and that young man who’s coming to visit your family.”

“Yes,” Lizzy agreed, her thoughts far away, and her hand feeling very warm where Will Cartwright had held it.

Chapter 11

Collared

It was with considerable trepidation that Lizzy extended her hand—fresh from meeting the charming Will—to her father’s newly arrived guest. In the first place, the tension between her father and the new arrival had been palpable from the time the man dismounted from the stage. In the second place, the guest bore a hazy but disturbing likeness to Adam Cartwright. And in the third place, his sober clothing and discreet collar proclaimed him a member of the clergy. Lizzy was not sure which of the three was the worst offense.

“Lizzy, this is the Reverend Clayton,” her father said, as if he’d found a cactus thorn in his foot.

She forced a smile. “I’m not ready for the Last Rites just yet, Reverend, but thank you for coming all the same.”

Clayton laughed, much to her surprise—and her father’s. “That’s just as well then, Miss Elizabeth, as that’s not what I’m here for. But I will say you look the very picture of good health.”

The reverend greeted Rosita equally politely and with a grave smile that announced both his knowledge of how she made her living, and his acceptance of same.

The trip home was quiet. Apparently whatever business her father and this preacher had would be conducted away from the family, but Lizzy couldn’t help wonder what it was. Her father had never held preachers in much esteem, but he seemed almost frightened of this one.

Even stranger was their arrival home. Mrs. Bennet was more subdued than Lizzy had ever seen her. Obviously this change in their mother affected her other sisters as well, for they were all quiet and watchful. Only Mary seemed to truly enjoy meeting the reverend, and throughout supper she questioned him constantly about this or that passage of scripture and where he stood on free will versus predestination. He answered every question with assurance and without the least bit of irony, and probably would still have been doing so at breakfast had not Mr. Bennet cut in and sent Mary off to help clean the kitchen.

When the meal was over, Mr. Bennet dragged the reverend off to his study, gave his wife and daughters a severe warning glare, shut the door firmly and leaned on it for a moment, gaining strength, while Reverend Clayton looked on mildly.

“I had planned to have our discussion in the morning, Mr. Bennet. I’m tired.”

“Forgive me then, sir, but for two weeks I have scarcely slept at all. I would much prefer to learn where I stand tonight. Would you like a brandy, Reverend?”

“No, thank you.”

“Do you mind if I have one?”

“Not in the least.” Clayton smiled, an almost mischievous look in his eyes. “Make it a double if you like.”

Mr. Bennet seldom regarded ecclesiastical advice with much credence, but this time he decided the preacher merited listening to, and poured himself twice his usual amount. David Clayton busied himself looking at the books on the shelves and did not comment on the size or fullness of the glass.

“I’m going to cut directly to the heart of the matter, Mr. Bennet,” Clayton said as Mr. Bennet took his chair. “It’s a very foolish man who chooses to live on land not his own with a ‘silent partner’ fronting the money for it.”

Bennet’s jaw dropped. “You’ve spoken to Adam Cartwright.”

“I’ve spoken to several people, and it’s fortunate for you that I did. Had you actually been involved in the work my father did, I would have thrown you off this land directly without so much as a howdy-do. Eight years ago, Mr. Bennet, I saw the errors of my own ways, and have been working to mend the damage I’ve done ever since then. Some of it is damage that can never be undone—but I do at least have the sincere desire not to do more damage in the rest of my life. I have no ill wishes toward you, Mr. Bennet. As I understand things, you tried your hand at several what one might call ‘get rich quick’ schemes, and failed at all of them. Gold mining, silver mining, cattle ranching. That’s no different than a great many people everywhere, and you don’t need to be punished for that. How you became involved with my father’s outfit, I don’t know. It’s enough for me to know that you didn’t know what he was up to. I prayed for years that my father would see the light as I did, but that didn’t take place.”

“I don’t actually know what happened to your father, Reverend Clayton. I was told he met with an accident.”

“If you call being caught red-handed stealing 150 head of cattle and getting yourself lynched an accident, Mr. Bennet, I reckon that would be what happened.” One shoulder rose and then dropped again in a half-shrug. “The point I want to make is that the only way to make a lot of money is either to get very, very lucky—or to work very, very hard. It’s a precious few people who get that lucky. The rest of us work. You’ve been living here for free—getting paid to do it is my understanding—for many years, sir, but that stops now.”

Mr. Bennet’s heart began to beat faster; he was certain his wife and daughters could hear it in their rooms.

“Reverend Clayton…I have a wife and five daughters, and…frankly, if you make me leave here, we’ll have no place to go.”

“Not relevant, sir. I’m not sending you anywhere. You can stay.”

“What?” And his gasp nearly sucked the oil lamp on the desk right into his mouth.

“I think I was clear. You can stay. But here’s my problem. I’m poor as a church mouse, myself, sir. What I do is honest, and it’s the Lord’s, but there’s not much money in it, and what I make goes right back into the work anyway. You see I’m what’s called a church planter. I find areas that need a church… and with the Lord’s help and guidance, I build up a churchgoing population. Once it’s stable, I turn it over to another preacher and I’m on my way to the next place. Right now I’m working close to Stockton. I could sure use some money to put into this project. Out Stockton way there’s one family that seems to control everything, and they don’t seem enthusiastic about puttin’ a church there, which means it’s hard to scare up a crowd and harder still to find anyone to donate to a building fund. So I’d like to sell off some of this ranch land to raise church money.”

“Good heavens, sir, sell all of it if you like! What care I for such things? Just leave me the house.”

Reverend Clayton said nothing for a full minute, but the silent rebuke was enough to let Mr. Bennet know he had made a serious mistake.

“Mr. Bennet, I catalogued all your professional failures a few minutes ago. Are you really satisfied with that legacy?”

Bennet squirmed. Nobody in his dime novels ever got treated this way. Of course, nobody in his dime novels ever ran a shelter for rustled cattle without his own knowledge, either. “Of course I’m not happy with it. But what would you have me do? It may have been a bad idea, but I came to this country with very little knowledge of its ways and means of work, and I’ve managed to learn very little since.”

“True enough, sir, but you do have a powerful incentive right now: my father’s business is gone, and with it you have no income. With no money coming in, you may starve in a comfortable house, but you’ll starve all the same.”

“Ah. I see what you mean.”

“But you could still make something of yourself. This is a 15,000-acre ranch. I have an offer on 12,000 of those acres right now. The remnant would be more than sufficient to feed yourself and your family, and depending on what kind of crops you put in, you could even have leftover produce to sell in town. Now, Longbourn Farm may not be as prestigious sounding as Longbourn Ranch, and you’ll have to do some work yourself. Quite a lot, probably, although you may be able to get a couple of the town boys to work for you in exchange for bed and board and a share of the crops. It’ll be hard work, sir, but it’ll be honest. And to keep you from simply selling out the place and leaving again on a bad note, I will retain the deed to the land for 10 years. You lived here for 10 years without working. Now you can try it the other way around. At the end of 10 years successfully working the land, you’ll have the house and 3,000 acres free and clear. What do you think?”

“I…I…I scarcely know what to think, sir. I’m astonished at your generosity, but quite frankly, I am frightened by the notion of farm work.”

“You’ve spent most of your life frightened by any work,” Clayton said. “Even preachers get their hands dirty, Mr. Bennet. Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but the Lord put an awful lot of dirt in this world, and he gave us the job of moving it around.”

“You’re right, I suppose…” Bennet sat for a while, thinking. He’d never made such a commitment as the one this preacher expected, and that was even more terrifying than the idea of working.

Clayton said nothing, just sat regarding him steadily, and finally Bennet nodded. “I’ll try.”

He extended a trembling hand, and Clayton took it.

Mr. Bennet broke into a broad grin. “Reverend, your influence just may get me back into a church one of these days. If you were inclined to put a church here in Mulberry Ridge, I should be your most faithful disciple—provided I could sit nearest the door.”

Clayton laughed and stood up. “I’ve already got people buying tickets for those seats, Mr. Bennet. If you’d excuse me, though, it’s been a long day for me and I’d like to go to bed.”

“Of course…but may I ask one more question?” Bennet got up and walked him to the study door.

“Certainly.”

“You could have told me all this by letter. Why take it upon yourself to make this trip?”

“Well…” Clayton looked intently at the floor, his hands clasped in front of him. “Partly, Mr. Bennet, I wanted to meet you and be sure I was doing the right thing. I’m pretty good at reading people, but I do it better in person than through correspondence.” He looked up, then quickly returned his gaze to the floor. “The other reason…well, having made you the offer I did, I’m pretty sure your estimation of my intelligence has already gone way down, so I’ll go ahead and say it. I’ve about decided against looking here, anyway, but you see, the last five years people have told me in one town after another that I’d have better success with what I’m doing if I were to get married. And last year the Lord himself impressed upon me most powerfully that I was to take a wife. Only problem is, he was never real clear on just who that lady was to be. I heard you had some daughters of marriageable age, so I thought I’d look ’em over and see if any of them spoke to my heart. Unfortunately, they all seem a little young for me.”

“Oh, devil with that, Reverend. I’ve got five daughters and you’ve seen ’em all. As far as I’m concerned you may take your pick of any that will have you. Or all of them, if you wish—are you a Latter Day Saint, by any chance?”

A grin. “No sir, but it’s my aim to be a present-day one. And I think one wife will do me fine.”

On the other side of the door, a wild squeal was heard, and Mrs. Bennet shot off like a rabbit. Mr. Bennet sighed. “I suppose she was listening to our whole talk through the keyhole, Reverend. You’d be even more welcome to her, you know, but I don’t suppose you’d look on my own such generosity with favor.”

Clayton laughed heartily. “No sir, but thanks all the same.”

Chapter 12

Stepping Out

Lizzy wasn’t quite sure what was going on when she awoke the next morning, but apparently the reverend and her father had resolved whatever differences they had had before. Now they were all ease and friendliness to one another. In fact, her father was calling the fellow “Dave.”

On the other hand, her mother was about to have a conniption. She apparently knew some great secret but could not say it, and it was driving her mad. “After breakfast,” she said with such forcedly casual tones that all five sisters exchanged nervous glances, “I shall have the carriage hitched. Lizzy, Mary, Lydia, the good reverend needs to rent a horse. I want you to take him to the livery. And ensure that that evil Billingsley does not cheat the poor preacher.”

“But mother, I—”

“No buts, Lydia!”

“Why us three in particular, mother?” Lizzy asked.

“Why, of course, because I have things for Jane and Kitty to do here. Now don’t argue, girls. This is important!”

Lizzy stopped arguing, but of course she knew immediately. Hoss and Joe must be coming over, and her mother wanted to give them plenty of room in case they wanted to propose. Lizzy shook her head in disgust. Why, the two couples hadn’t even known each other a full month…she looked across the table to see the Reverend looking intently at her, and dropped her fork in shock. He gave her a cool, friendly smile, and returned to his breakfast, and instantly her thoughts about Jane and Kitty were replaced by imaginings much more serious and sinister.

*

“I can’t believe you forgot crow bars,” Adam muttered. “You came back with shovels for an army, and forgot the crow bars. How in the world….”

“We were worried about you,” Joe said. “After all, you were laid up and hurtin’, remember?”

“I remember you already forgot nails. Twice. I’m wondering what’s next? And why did you throw away the list?”

“I figgered if we had everything there wasn’t no need to keep the list,” Hoss put in.

“But how do we know we have everything if we don’t have the list to check it against?” Adam sighed as his brothers looked owlishly back, uncomprehending. “Okay. Never mind. We could argue all day and not solve anything. Hoss, you saddle up and go into town for crow bars.”

“He might need help,” Joe said quickly.

“For crow bars?” For a moment Adam just stared at him. Then he shook his head. “Does this sudden desire to be helpful have anything to do with the necessity of riding past the Bennet place on the way to and from town?”

Hoss and Joe didn’t say a word, but the answer was clearly reflected in their eyes. Adam chuckled. “Yeah, yeah, go ahead.”

*

It was a shame, Lizzy reflected later on the way into town, that this whole trip was being engineered by her mother. This Clayton fellow could actually have been pleasant company, in spite of his choice of vocations. He was well-read, intelligent, and very funny. But he was, in the end, a preacher, and whether it was his idea or Mrs. Bennet’s, there was something very contrived about the way they had been thrown together.

At the livery stable, however, Clayton dismissed all three of the Bennet girls. “Your mother would never believe it, but I’ve negotiated a few horse deals in my time, ladies. And I’ve found out what I need to know, as well. Why not take an hour or two and enjoy the town? I’ll meet up with you later and we can go back to the house together.”

He didn’t say it aloud, but Lizzy had a feeling that there had been a “with your mother none the wiser” implied somewhere in there. Gratefully, she turned to him. “Thank you so much, Reverend. I’ll just step down to the cantina. My friend Rosita should be up by now.”

“Do you spend much time with her?” Clayton asked with an expression she couldn’t make out, but his words alone made all her defenses come to the fore.

“Nobody tells me with whom I may or may not be friends,” she retorted. “Rosita is a wonderful person.”

“That’s why I asked,” the reverend said reproachfully.

“I spend every available minute with her. She’s my best friend. Does that bother you, Preacher?”

“Is there a reason it should bother me, Lizzy?”

“Oh, my!” Lydia shouted suddenly. “Look at THAT!” Lizzy cringed; she had never been able to convince her younger sister that screaming in the middle of the street was uncouth. But then again, this was something to generate excitement. Four of the soldiers who had come into town yesterday were wandering down the street toward them. And one, about as resplendent in his blue uniform as any peacock she had ever seen, was Will Cartwright, a look of recognition and pleasure in his eye at the sight of Lizzy. Briefly she wondered how such a nice man could be related to such a lemon-sucker as Adam Cartwright, although of course Joe and Hoss had the same affliction and had somehow survived it.

She looked dismissively at Clayton. “Excuse me, Reverend. I have to go and see a friend.” The reverend tipped his hat and turned away at once, and she wondered if perhaps he had a strong aversion to soldiers.

She took her sisters to Will and introduced them; he introduced the other three soldiers. Mary instantly made as if to go into the lending library, but Lydia snapped, “You know you can’t leave me. If you do we’ll both get stuck with old Lizzy. Come on, Denny, Walter, Monty—walk with Mary and me. We’ll show you where to get the best coffee!”

“Well, you are the very person I was hoping to see today,” Will greeted Lizzy. “Tell me, what does a body do for excitement around here?”

“If a body is here until Friday, there is a dance that has amusing moments,” Lizzy replied with a smile.

This body is certainly here until Friday. Actually I’ll be here another week. It would be nice if you were to come into town during that time.”

“I’ll see what I can do. I was thinking it would be nice if you were to come out to Longbourn during that time, too.”

“Well! I’ll certainly see what I can do.” He held out one arm, and Lizzy crooked hers through it.

“So tell me, how did your ‘negotiations’ go with your cousin Joe? Did you wrap him around your finger?”

He chuckled. “Joe and I have always had a very pleasant friendship. I’m very fond of Joe and Hoss—and my uncle Ben, their father. Have you met him?”

“No; he isn’t here.”

“Well, I expect the Ponderosa keeps him pretty busy.”

“You didn’t mention your cousin Adam,” Lizzy said with studied casualness. “Surely it was an oversight.”

“Yes, an oversight,” Will replied. “Although these days, to be truthful, Adam and I don’t get along so well. My mother always told me, if you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

She couldn’t resist a giggle at that. “Your mother must have known Adam. He is a sourpuss, isn’t he?”

“Ah, you’ve noticed.” Will sighed. “You know, it wasn’t always like this. Adam and I were great friends as children back in Ohio. He and his father lived with my family for almost two years. Who knew he would grow up to be so—well, never mind.”

“I’m sorry; I don’t mean to be impertinent, but I did notice his reaction to you yesterday. It was hardly familial.”

“You don’t know the story? I guess not. Well, I came out West a couple of years ago and met my Uncle Ben, and he invited me to the Ponderosa. It was my first meeting with the younger two boys, but Adam and I fell back into our easy friendship very fast. It was so good to have a family again. I was an only child, and both my parents are dead. The Ponderosa was very much a home to me…for a while.”

“Then I’m surprised you would ever leave it, especially for the rootless life of a soldier.”

“I never intended any of this, but…well, I couldn’t stay. Not after things with Adam. You see, we both had the misfortune to fall in love with the same girl.”

That shocked Lizzy more than she let on, but in truth, she couldn’t picture Adam Cartwright in love with anybody. Will’s voice brought her back from her reverie, though.

“Her name was Laura, and she was the dearest lady you could imagine. We were both taken with her—but in the end she preferred me to Adam.”

One could hardly blame her, Lizzy thought.

“Ben had made me so welcome at the Ponderosa. He told me I would always have a home there. He intended—so he told me—to rewrite his will, so that I would have a quarter-share in the ranch. But after I proposed to Laura, I just couldn’t stay. It wouldn’t have been doing right by Adam. So, Laura and I went to San Francisco…and I’ve never been back to Nevada since.”

“But what happened to Laura?”

“She died not long after we arrived in San Francisco. I was so bereft. Adam was in town for something or other, and I spoke to him. We talked about Laura and then about my coming back to the Ponderosa. I reminded him that Uncle Ben had promised me a home there, and—well, Adam and I had a great row…he told me if I ever came back to the Ponderosa again, he’d shoot me on sight. He meant it, too—and not only that, but he gave the rest of the family the word, so now Uncle Ben won’t allow me there, either. I didn’t know what else to do, so I joined the Army. And here I am—sitting here boring a very pretty girl by whining about my troubles! Come on, let’s find that place with wonderful coffee.”

As they walked down the street, Will said, “Oh, Lizzy—what I told you…you wouldn’t spread that around, I trust. Adam’s in town, and I would hate to have this family business affect his professional dealings.”

“Before you even came to town, Adam had already made his own name into mud,” Lizzy assured him. “Nobody likes him here, I can tell you.”

“Well, I’m glad to see it’s nothing I said or did. In spite of everything, I still like Adam, and I hope one day we can make amends.”

“You’re certainly a more generous and forgiving man than your cousin.” Lizzy murmured, and they walked on.

They passed by the cantina and discovered, to Lizzy’s shock, Reverend Clayton sitting inside, talking animatedly to the bartender.

“So much for preachers,” Will observed. It wasn’t until much later that she had occasion to wonder how he could tell, from where they were, that the man at the bar was a preacher.

*

Kitty had been giggling incessantly almost ever since the brothers’ arrival, and when Jane and Joe had taken a walk, leaving Hoss and Kitty behind, Hoss finally decided the time had come. “Miss Kitty.”

The giggles stopped. “Yes, Hoss?”

“What I said a minute ago…it wasn’t really that funny.”

She laughed again.

“Miss Kitty…can I say something without makin’ you upset?”

“Of course!”

He soldiered on. “You’re a nice gal, but I can’t figger you out. You laugh at everything I say, and some things I don’t say.”

She giggled again. “That’s so funny!”

“Nope, not really, it ain’t. Honest to goodness, ma’am, you don’t have to laugh.”

Kitty stared at him. “No?”

“No, ma’am.”

“But my mother said—I mean….” She cleared her throat. “I thought gentlemen liked it when ladies laughed.”

“Well, I can only speak for myself, but honestly, no, you don’t have to laugh on my account. Besides, that giggle of yours never quite gets into your eyes, so it kinda looks put-on.”

“Oh…oh, my. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to—”

“Don’t worry, ma’am, it’s all right to be serious. Why, sometimes I like to be serious too. For instance, about that mare your sister was ridin’ when she come to visit us and got hurt.”

“Nelly.”

“Yes’m. She’s in foal, and due pretty soon, ain’t she?”

“I, um, I don’t think I’m supposed to discuss that, Hoss. It’s not polite.”

“Well then, I’ll tell you what—I won’t tell anybody we talked about the mare and you don’t tell anybody you don’t laugh at everything I say. Deal?”

“All right…I guess. But…Hoss?”

“Yes’m?”

“If I’m not supposed to laugh all the time, when should I laugh?”

“How ‘bout when you think things are funny?”

“That’s all? But my mother—”

“Seems like the best time to laugh is when something strikes you as funny. Where I come from, girls that giggle all the time get a reputation for bein’ silly…and I’d hate to see that happen to you, ’cause I think you’re a fine young woman, Miss Kitty. In fact, I don’t reckon I’ve ever known a finer one.”

Tears came to her eyes. “Thank you, Hoss!” She threw her arms around him—not all the way, as he was too big—and then ran back inside, leaving Hoss scratching his head and grinning foolishly.

Chapter 13

A Business Proposal

The next day, Reverend Dave announced his intention to ride out to the Bar Fly. At the surprise expressed by those at the table, he merely said he had known the Cartwrights—one of them in particular—for a long time, and in addition to having some business to transact, he wanted to pay them a visit.

Mrs. Bennet lost no time in ordering the carriage and telling Lizzy, Jane and Kitty to don their “outside” clothes. That simple act was enough to convince Lizzy. She knew she was an extra wheel on any Cartwright visit; Jane liked Joe and Kitty seemed interested in Hoss. Her mother had long ago given up Adam as a lost cause; therefore, Mrs. Bennet had formed a design between Lizzy and the preacher. Lizzy wondered idly whose idea it was, but it didn’t matter.

At the Bar Fly, Hoss and Joe collected Kitty and Jane in record-breaking time. Lizzy the wallflower was turned over to the Banning ladies, a situation which was almost as distasteful to her as to them. But whatever business Clayton had with the Cartwrights must have been quickly transacted, as the men returned within just a few minutes.

“You have no idea how much this will help us, Dave,” Adam Cartwright was saying. “I was in despair over how we were gonna feed the cattle on this acreage. This is only the second time I ever recall my father going after land sight unseen, and it just doesn’t do well; 12,000 acres of decent grazing range will make a lot of difference.”

“I think I’m gettin’ the best end of the bargain,” Dave Clayton replied. “Not that I don’t respect Mrs. Barkley, but having a little money of my own makes it a lot easier to stand my ground when she starts trying to throw up road blocks if I don’t play by her rules.”

Adam snorted. “Aunt Vic has always been one for insisting people play by her rules, even when it’s a game she’s not part of. Don’t let her dictate to you, Dave. Stick to your guns.”

At that, Clayton winced, and the look he gave Adam echoed those glares Adam was always sending his brothers. Adam ducked his head a little. “Sorry.”

“Are you two related?” Lizzy blurted. She hardly wanted to talk to either of them, but their resemblance was driving her mad. The Banning ladies smiled tolerantly, as if to say “what an idiot.”

“We used to wonder that,” Adam shrugged. “But my family is out of New England, and Dave is of Kentucky stock, so I really don’t see how we could be.”

“I still maintain that somewhere in the Cartwright or Stoddard bloodline there was a wandering minstrel boy who knew that Kentucky was the best place to play a guitar,” Dave chuckled.

“And I maintain that you’ve got some crazy notions.”

“You’ve always said that.”

“Not always. I thought you’d make a pretty good preacher, as I recall.”

“Well, that’s open to debate,” Dave said modestly.

He and Adam excused themselves and went outside, saying something about a tour of the land. The Bannings, of course, used the time wisely. It was always easiest to attack Lizzy when nobody else was around.

Thus it was that when Adam and Dave returned, they found Lizzy, her eyes fairly shooting sparks of rage, defending her education and her state as Deborah Banning deplored the “lack of opportunities” girls had in this part of the country.

“Mrs. Banning, I have never felt particularly deprived,” she was saying. “I did, in fact, have music lessons—and we have a piano at Longbourn. We have even been known to read the occasional book in our spare time.”

Smoothly, Adam moved between the combatants, turning to Lizzy as he did so. “Yes, I recall you have a liking for Whittier that approaches my own, Miss Elizabeth. I overheard your sister telling Joe that you have a fondness for walking out in the woods and enjoying nature’s majesties, too; is that true?”

Lizzy looked at him in such surprise that she forgot to be hostile. “It…it…is, Mr. Cartwright. I am very fond of taking long walks.”

“Does your fondness for nature extend to reading about it? I wondered if you had read any Thoreau, by any chance.”

“Do you mean Walden?”

“I do.”

Melinda Banning cut in. “I read Walden in college, Adam.”

Adam glanced at her. “And sometime you simply must tell me what Mr. Hawthorne thought of it, Melinda, but I was asking Miss Elizabeth a question.”

“I…haven’t read it, Mr. Cartwright. The lending library in Mulberry Ridge, unfortunately, does not have it.”

“Well, I do. I even have it here with me. Would you like to borrow it?”

And then she recalled Will Cartwright and his sad story. Her head came up, and she looked coldly at him. “No, Mr. Cartwright, I could not borrow your book. I am far too busy just now for frivolous reading. Reverend Clayton, my sisters and I really should be returning home now.”

Chapter 14

Previous Occupations

Kitty had reported to Hoss that Nelly was due to foal soon, and he wanted to take another look at the horse, so he saddled up Chubb and trotted alongside them on the way back. Lizzy found herself smiling every time she looked at Hoss; he was so very different from his brothers, but she was certain he would be an equally great friend for her or a fine husband for Kitty, should either opportunity present itself. She thought about his good-heartedness and Joe’s likable nature and Will’s sincerity, and wondered how on earth any of them had been so unfortunate as to be related to Adam. But then, she realized, even Adam apparently had moments of charm. She had almost taken that book from him; if she hadn’t remembered his shameful treatment of Will, and every sour look she had seen him make or equally sour word she had ever heard him say, she might have been taken in as well. For a girl of Lizzy’s common sense, that was a terrible shock.

Arriving home brought a different kind of shock—two horses with cavalry saddles and “US” brands were hitched out front, and in the back, Lydia, with Will Cartwright and Denny flanking her, was determinedly holding a government-issue Colt with both hands and taking a bead on a glass jar atop the fence rail.

Lizzy stopped and stared, uncertain whether she was most annoyed by the fact that Will had been there and she had missed much of his visit, or the fact that in his attempt to show the hopelessly inept Lydia how to hold the firearm, he had put his arms around her from behind and was holding her hands steady.

“Line up the front sight with the rear….”

“I’ve got it, Will!”

“Now gently squeeeeeeeze the trigger.”

A deafening “boom” split the air; Lydia’s two hands flew up and she dropped the gun, which barely missed Will’s nose in its descent—and a duck dropped from the sky.

“Oh, Lord!” Lydia squealed. “I’ve just caught our dinner tonight! Oh, my hand is bruised—oh, Will, I am a wonderful shot, aren’t I!”

The glass jar she had aimed at sat serenely in place on the fence rail, but the late lamented duck nullified any other flaws. She ran off to pick up the fallen bird, and Will and Denny laughed heartily at her retreating figure. Then they caught sight of the just-arrived passengers from the carriage.

“Well, Lizzy,” cried Will. “We were waiting for…” His voice trailed off suddenly, as he looked over her head to Dave Clayton. A carefully composed, bland expression replaced his earlier enthusiasm and he said neutrally, “Afternoon, Preacher.”

“Afternoon,” Clayton replied with an affable grin. “That was some interesting shootin’.”

“Saw all that?” Denny asked. “What’d ya think?”

Clayton chuckled as they walked over to the soldiers. “I reckon if you’re ever attacked by glass jars or ducks, you’ll do just fine.”

Lizzy, Jane, Kitty, and even Will laughed at that one. Hoss, his eyes locked on Will, said nothing at all—and Denny scowled. Denny took in the collar, the lack of any firearm on the preacher’s person, and the harmless grin, and they all added up to one thing for him. But then, he’d never been much good at math.

“Reckon maybe you think you could do better?” he demanded.

Dave Clayton, easy grin still in place, scratched his chin and looked up at the sky.

“You gonna answer, or not?”

“I’m thinkin’ it over,” Clayton said mildly.

“Iffen you need a piece, you just say so,” Hoss murmured, and Clayton turned to him. The two exchanged a long look, and then the reverend nodded. Hoss unbuckled his gun belt and handed it to him, and with a practiced ease Dave Clayton put it on. He could almost have wrapped it around his frame twice, and even though he had buckled it in the last hole, it still hung loose on him. He tucked the end of the belt in as best he could and laced the tie-down.

“I’m a little out of practice; y’all might want to stand clear,” he said, and Lydia, coming back from the house, yelped and ran back to the door; why, Lizzy couldn’t imagine, as the six jars were in the opposite direction of the house—but then she remembered Lydia’s shooting, and it made more sense.

“Whatcha waitin’ for, Preacher? I wanna see if the Book’s really mightier than the sword!”

Dave Clayton smiled. “But you’re forgettin’ somethin’ crucial, son—I wasn’t always a preacher.”

Lizzy hadn’t even seen his hand move, but the gun was suddenly in it and three shots rapid-fired knocked three of the jars into another dimension. Then the preacher twirled the gun swiftly, tossed it into the air and caught it with his left hand—and blew the other three jars to smithereens with equal speed and precision. And somehow—she still missed it—the gun was in his right hand again, and sliding back into the holster.

Clayton bent down, unlaced the tie-down and slowly took the belt off. “Might want to file that front sight down a mite, Hoss,” Clayton said mildly, and then turned back to Denny. “Just something to remember…it’s awful hard for even the best-intentioned leopard to change its spots.” He glanced at Will—who had gone very pale—as he said it. And then he left them and walked slowly toward the house, his shoulders hunched, and Lizzy wondered if he was expecting a bullet in the back after his little show.

Will looked sullenly at Hoss. “No greeting for me, cousin?”

Hoss looked at the ground. “Hullo Will,” he said, and then turned away, taking Kitty by the arm. “Let’s go see that mare afore it gets dark.”

Lizzy and Jane looked helplessly at each other. Lizzy cleared her throat and smiled determinedly. “Will you be staying to dinner, Will? Denny?”

“I think not,” Will replied. “Looks like the Ponderosa isn’t the only place where I’m persona non grata.”

“Nonsense,” Lizzy exclaimed. “You’re welcome here as long as I have something to say about it.”

“I wouldn’t like to cause trouble. But I’ll see you at the dance tomorrow, Lizzy. Save a waltz for me.”

With that, he and the bewildered Denny left.

Chapter 15

Changing Spots

Reverend Clayton went to his room and didn’t come out for dinner, excusing himself by claiming a headache. Lizzy was fairly certain it was a polite fiction, but she couldn’t come right out and say so. At least, she didn’t say it then. The next morning, however, she and Clayton were the first ones to arrive at the breakfast table, and Lizzy took full advantage of the situation. “Will you satisfy my curiosity on two points, sir?” she asked as she poured his tea.

He regarded her warily. “If I can.”

“I wondered, first, how a preacher should know so many parlor tricks with a firearm…and second, why it would distress him so to exhibit them when he was so clearly eager to do so before.”

“Parlor tricks,” he repeated, with a faint smile. “Thank you, you dear, sweet girl. I do believe that is the kindest thought anyone has ever shared with me.”

Something on his face kept her from giggling. “Heavens, you don’t really—”

“No, I don’t,” he replied smoothly. “Haven’t in a long time, anyway.”

“But that implies that you used to, doesn’t it?”

A smile played about his lips. “Used to what? Miss Elizabeth, don’t start a conversation if you’re not prepared to finish it.”

“You used to…shoot people? What were you—an outlaw?”

“I was never an outlaw. I never killed but in self-defense. But yes, I did kill people. That’s what gunfighters have to do. There’s always somebody wantin’ to make a name for himself by beating you, and I woke up each day thinking it would be my last. As I told your father, I saw the error of my ways eight years ago, although it took a bullet in the middle of my chest to make me.”

“And so now you’re a preacher. Do you think that excuses your unsavory past?”

Clayton looked down for a moment, and closed his eyes. Finally he sighed. “The good Lord forgave me—Heaven knows how!—but there are times when I have a hard time forgiving myself.” He looked at her closely. “I used to think that part of me was dead, but I found out something. You can’t escape your past. Even when nobody else knows, it goes with you.”

“And so your showing off before Denny is something you’re now ashamed of?”

“If I’d been showing off before Denny, I might be ashamed. However, I wasn’t. I was sending a message. And not to Denny. I’m pretty sure I made my point. But…some people learn their lessons; others don’t.”

For a moment Lizzy sat in stunned silence. “You were threatening Will? Whatever for?”

“I wasn’t threatening him. I told you, I was sending a message. Miss Elizabeth, you don’t know me very well, so I’ll allow you have no great reason to sympathize with me—but please do yourself the kindness of remembering that you don’t know Will Cartwright very well, either.”

“I know him well enough. I know the story of that foolishness between him and Adam Cartwright over a girl, if that’s what you’re referring to.”

“There was a bit of foolishness involved,” he admitted, looking at his hands. “But you clearly don’t know the whole story.”

“And you think you do?”

“Yes.”

“Then what did Adam Cartwright tell you? I’ll compare your story to Will’s.”

“Adam didn’t say a word—I was there and saw it. But it’s not my story to tell, and I will not tell it. I will say this, however, Miss Elizabeth: if those incidents had happened ten years ago instead of two, and it had been me rather than Adam, Will Cartwright would be long dead, and you and I would have no reason to have this conversation.”

“I find your attitude disturbing, Reverend. But then you are a preacher; I suppose it’s your job to be judgmental.”

He smiled, his eyes downcast. “I’m not judging Will Cartwright. I’m judging myself. Adam’s a better man than I am, fortunately. And so your friend Will is alive and here now. But I will remind you of what I said to him yesterday. Even the best intentioned leopard will find it hard to change his spots. The proof of that is in my own actions yesterday; I shouldn’t have done what I did. I sincerely hope Will has changed his spots, and I refuse to judge his current motives or his heart. But I’ll make myself free to judge his actions, and if he hurts anyone while I’m here, he’ll account for it.”

“What happened to ‘vengeance is mine, saith the Lord’?”

“Touché, Miss Elizabeth. I wouldn’t kill him.” He smiled humbly. “I’d just make him wish I had.”

Chapter 16

Music to No One’s Ears

They were a sparse party going to the dance that night: Nelly the mare had gone into labor and Hoss opted to stay in the barn in case she should need help. At the last minute, Kitty decided to stay, too. Lizzy wondered what Kitty thought she would accomplish, as the sight of blood made her scream and any smell less pristine than new-cut hay made her sick. Nevertheless, she stayed. Mary, indignant at being sent off to a dance without Kitty, announced her own decision to stay home, and could not be prevailed upon to do otherwise. Thus the Reverend Dave Clayton found himself escorting Jane, Lizzy, and Lydia, while Mr. and Mrs. Bennet would put in an appearance at some point during the evening. Lizzy had the consolation that at least Jane would soon be safe with Joe Cartwright, but as for herself and Lydia…ugh.

The preacher’s shooting demonstration the previous day had yielded mixed results. Jane seemed more timid than ever in his presence. Lizzy, having seen its effects on him and remembering the strange conversation in the morning, had no idea what to say to him. And Lydia…forward, silly, and impetuous even under the best circumstances…was certain she had found a new champion, and spent the entire carriage ride telling the preacher how he must defend her honor against all those beastly Western men at the dance. Reverend Clayton said nothing to indicate he had heard anything Lydia said, and spent his time driving the horses in abstracted silence.

Eight of the twelve men from the cavalry detachment were there, some of them having to dance with each other due to the sudden shortage of females. Denny was there, but to Lizzy’s dismay, Will Cartwright was not. Of course, Adam Cartwright was. Well, Lizzy thought, filled with resentment, how very gentlemanly of Will not to want to risk a scene with his sullen cousin.

Amazing that Adam could do such a thing to his own blood relative and childhood friend—especially when it went against his own father’s word. How dishonorable could a man be?

She was on her way to tell Rosita all about it, forgetting her promise to Will not to mention his story, when suddenly Adam was standing right in front of her.

“Miss Elizabeth, would you do me the honor of dancing with me?”

Too stunned to say no, she took her guilty, flaming-red cheeks and meekly accompanied him into the midst of the dancers as the pianist struck up a waltz. She was further surprised to discover that Adam Cartwright was an excellent dancer, although she might as well not have been in the room, for as much attention as he paid her.

“Do you like Brahms, Mr. Cartwright?” she finally asked, just because she was tired of being ignored.

“Hmm? Yes—very much. That’s his Waltz in A-flat, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is. One of my favorites. You seem to have had a classical education, Mr. Cartwright.”

“That’s true.”

“Doesn’t that make for an odd mix with rounding up strays and building fences?”

He looked down at her, frowning. “Why do you ask?”

“Just trying to learn a little more about you, Mr. Cartwright. You are, after all, the enigmatic one.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“Nobody knows you, sir.”

“What is there to know? I’m Adam Cartwright. My father sent my brothers and me here to fix up a ranch that he leased, and we’re doing the best we can to accomplish what he wants and not get in anybody else’s way doing it. My education—as you said—isn’t particularly suited to the job I’m doing, so there’s not much point in mentioning it.”

“Yes, but you don’t seem to talk to anyone. In fact, you seem rather unfriendly at times. Little Joe and Hoss are well-liked all over town, but you can be hard to know. Even your cousin Will is gaining popularity, and yet you are stagnating.”

Just the mention of Will’s name set Adam’s jaw to grinding. “Will has always found it easy to make friends. Keeping them is a little harder.”

“Well, he certainly hasn’t kept you, has he?” Lizzy replied, and she felt his hand tighten on hers. Then he seemed to collect himself, and he loosened his hand again to look blankly at her.

“I don’t wish to seem unfriendly, Miss Elizabeth, but again, my father didn’t send me here to win friends. He sent me here to fix up a ranch. When that job is over, I will go home.”

“Must be nice to have a home to go to,” Lizzy said with a triumphant smile. “That’s more than your unfortunate cousin can boast, thanks to you.”

At that, Adam’s eyebrows descended like a hawk on a rabbit, but before he could say anything, Dave Clayton appeared behind him and tapped his shoulder. “Mind if I cut in?” he asked politely. Adam looked relieved. “Sure.” Just that quickly, he walked away.

“Well, Parson, I see you’re an excellent dancer too,” Lizzy commented as they floated about the room. “That surprises me.”

“I don’t usually dance waltzes these days,” Clayton admitted with an embarrassed smile. “But it was pretty apparent that one of you needed a rescue, and I wasn’t sure which.”

“Well, I thank you for your kind thoughts, but I was doing just fine.”

“Glad to hear it,” he said as the dance ended. “In that case I’ll just leave you with your friend Rosita. By the way,” he commented as they walked past Adam, “I’ve seen Little Joe head over heels a few times, but never this bad. Tell your father I only charge five dollars for weddings.” He grinned and left her, as he’d promised, standing with Rosita, and then he returned to Adam.

“Well, you’ve been popular tonight!” Rosita commented. “Dancing with two handsome men and you’ve barely arrived. Have you found out whether those two are related?”

“Trust me, they were both equally glad to be rid of me. Have you seen Lydia? The last time I passed her she seemed to be ingesting the entire contents of the punch bowl.”

Her mother had at last arrived and was involved in an enthusiastic—and far too loud—conversation with Mrs. Long, one Lizzy would have reason to regret. “Love? Love? What’s love got to do with it, woman? Those boys stand to gain the wealthiest ranch in Nevada! Kitty and Jane’s sisters should be half so lucky!”

*

Kitty Bennet was a tall, pretty girl, but she was usually overlooked in favor of her flamboyant younger sister. She tended to follow Lydia’s lead, but more often than not Lydia got the glory and Kitty found herself in trouble. Why Hoss Cartwright had been paying Kitty his attention rather than Lydia was something of a mystery to her, but one she took great joy in.

Lydia had laughed riotously the first time Hoss approached them, but for the first time ever, Kitty told her sister to hush. She couldn’t have said what it was that interested her about the big man—as tall as she was, a full 5’8”, she couldn’t comfortably keep her hand on his shoulder during a dance, and in the unlikely event that he ever got over his own shyness and tried to kiss her, she knew she wouldn’t be able to get her arms around him. He was certainly nowhere near as handsome as his brothers. But there was something about him that struck her in a way no other man had ever managed. With him she felt safe. He was a man who would do his best never to hurt anyone, and she felt almost comfortable around him. He knew all kinds of wonderful things about nature and farming, but he never made her feel silly the way her father did if she asked a question. He told her never to try and impress him; that he liked her as she was. And on hearing about that, Lydia laughed and said only someone as silly as Kitty would like a man like Hoss.

But of course, her father had always rolled his eyes at Kitty’s antics and told her she was silly, and she was fairly certain he was right, so possibly Lydia was right too. Her mother had always told her she was a trial on a person’s nerves, and she was probably right too. For herself Kitty was convinced that she was not smart enough to read the way Lizzy did, to remember things the way Mary did, or to be outrageous and courageous like Lydia. About the only thing she could do as well as one of her sisters was to be shy like Jane. And Jane was so pretty it didn’t matter if she was shy. Kitty wasn’t that pretty. And like her mother, she fancied herself ill any time she was frightened or worried. Right now, she was worried and frightened, and positive she was going to be ill.

The day before, Hoss had put his hand under the mare’s belly and then looked right at her udders without a hint of shame, then turned to Kitty and said, “This ole gal’s about to pop. If you don’t have a colt by morning, then I bet you will by tomorrow night. See this waxy stuff here on her teats? She’s—um…” He cocked his head at Kitty’s horrified expression, and then blushed. “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss, I didn’t know you embarrassed easy—I mean, I didn’t know you don’t know farm animal stuff—I mean—well—Miss Kitty, it’s just a horse, and you did ask me to look at ’er…um…I’m sorry fer lookin’ so close?” Actually, Kitty had been more horrified at the thought of her parents or one of her sisters walking in and seeing where Hoss’s hands and eyes were than anything else. But thinking it over, she had been ashamed of herself. Well of course he had to look DOWN THERE, after all, if he was going to doctor the poor animal. For a great moment Kitty fancied herself with that kind of knowledge and experience, and she felt very wise. From then on she had watched Nelly closely.

When Hoss arrived that night to take Kitty to the dance, he asked about Nelly, and Kitty told him that she’d been blowing hard and walking in circles for an hour. “Uh-oh,” Hoss said, and went out to the barn. He came back, putting his string tie into his pocket, and told Kitty he wouldn’t be accompanying her to the dance; it was Nelly’s time.

“Then I’ll stay with you!” Kitty announced, thinking—then—and voicing the opinion that it would be great fun.

“Miss Kitty,” Hoss said slowly, “There’s a lotta words I’d use to describe a birthin’, but ‘fun’ ain’t one of ’em, and if the way you acted yesterday when I was lookin’ at the poor girl’s belly is any indication, you don’t want to be anywhere near this barn.”

“But I do want to stay,” Kitty said stubbornly. “Perhaps I can help you.”

Help me,” he repeated. “Miss Kitty, you know I like you an awful lot, and I’m hopin’ you like me a little. But if I got a helper with a birthin’ and that helper’s off in the corner cryin’, I suspect neither of us will like the other very much. You see what I’m gettin’ at?”

“I won’t cry.”

“Or go gettin’ panicky because the poor horse’s fanny is showin’?”

“Of course not!” And she had stayed.

At first it had been easy enough; they simply sat and watched Nelly as she restlessly paced and sweated and occasionally irritably kicked or bit at her belly.

“What should we do?” Kitty whispered anxiously as Hoss pitched more straw into the stall and wrapped Nelly’s tail in a clean rag.

“If it all goes right, we won’t have to do anything,” Hoss said softly. “Most of the time the mare knows what to do and everything’s taken care of by her and the good Lord. We’re just here to stay out of her way and watch. It’s only if somethin’ goes wrong that we have to get into the act.”

“What could go wrong?” Kitty whispered. Hoss shrugged and didn’t reply.

Then Nelly sank down onto her knees and into the straw and she groaned; the sound tore at Kitty’s heart and made her wonder if the horse was dying. Hoss took his pocket watch from his vest. “Is this her first young ’un?”

“No; she had one three years ago.”

“Well then, in about half an hour or so she’ll have another one.”

But half an hour went by and nothing had happened. After a few minutes more, Hoss sighed and pushed his sleeves up, and knelt behind the horse. When she realized what he was about to do, Kitty nearly screamed. But as one hand disappeared inside the mare, Hoss scowled. “Keep quiet. Last thing this mare needs is to get scared.”

A few minutes later Hoss’s hand reappeared, slimy and blood-smeared. “This won’t work. My arm’s too big.”

Kitty’s mouth dropped open. “I’ll go get my father.”

“Your father don’t know any more than you do, and his hands are too big as well. Kitty—” his use of her first name without the formal prefix “Miss” was shocking in itself—“I need your help.”

“I can’t!”

“You most surely can. I know it and Nelly knows it. She’s trustin’ you to help her, Kitty, and if you let her down, she’ll die. It’s up to you, Kitty. I need you over here helpin’ me. I can’t do this by myself.”

Trembling, Kitty approached. “What’s wrong with her?”

“When a horse gives birth, the colt’s front feet are supposed to come out first, and they’re supposed to be straight. This one’s nose is first. The front legs are bent back. It’s kinda tight inside there, Kitty, and my hand’s too big, but yours isn’t. I want you to take this line here, and feel around until you find that baby’s front legs. Then you put the loop around its feet. I’ll pull on the line to straighten its legs, and then it’ll be in the right position. But we’ve gotta hurry before Nelly gets too tired to push.”

Kitty took the line and slowly pushed her hand inside the mare. A bloody discharge spilled out and covered her arm all the way to the shoulder. “Hoss!” she wailed.

“Don’t you chicken out on me now, Kitty!” Hoss said sternly. “You do this, and nobody’ll ever call you ‘silly’ again!”

Chapter 17

The Morning After

The dance went on for hours, it seemed, and Lizzy spent most of those hours either forced to dance with some soldier who wasn’t Will Cartwright, or in some equally distasteful engagement. She couldn’t find Lydia and her mother showed no inclination to help. To top things off, Reverend Clayton was the one who finally found Lydia—as she was trying to kiss one of the cavalrymen—and he brought her back inside none too gently and over her squeals of protest. (The look on Adam Cartwright’s face at the sight had NOT been poetry in motion.)

Then, when they had made ready to go home, the good preacher himself had left, asking Little Joe to escort the ladies home and telling Adam that he had business to conduct. And as they all got into the wagon, Lizzy saw him heading for the cantina next door. Rosita, about to go to work, grinned wryly. “I told you. Preachers are the worst of all. Well, at least he is not too unpleasant to look at.”

They got home after midnight to find Kitty and Hoss still in the barn, both wet, covered with straw and messy things best not described, grooming Nelly and her new foal. Kitty was alternately laughing and crying, so happy and proud one would think she had accomplished some heroic deed—and according to Hoss, she had. “If it hadn’t been for your sister, ladies, this little filly wouldn’t be alive and kickin’ tonight. Miz Bennet, you’ve got yerself one smart, brave daughter. She’ll make a great stockman.”

Mrs. Bennet had not exactly taken the compliment well, either.

 

*

Dear Pa,

In answer to your last message, everything has gone well here. We’ll be finished up within the week and I, for one, can’t wait to come home. Joe and Hoss may be a bit reluctant, as they have both once again fallen for a couple of gold-digging sisters whose father is a failed miner, failed rancher, and something of an ignorant rustler. It will make for a funny story for you when we get home, but I have no doubt my brothers will both be irked at me for dragging them away from this place. Their intentions were made clear last night. Take some advice, Pa, and don’t send them back this way any time soon. Or me. Seeing Dave Clayton again is the only good thing I can think of about this part of the country. Yes, thanks to your idea and some darned hard work from us here, we may make a few dollars off it, eventually, but that is it.

Speaking of ‘this part of the country,’ please reconsider your request to send me to Stockton when the work here is done. Aunt Vic always squeals in protest when we sell our stock in California, but she never does anything. There’s nothing she can do about it, realistically. Why worry about her? She’s no threat. Or is it her personal good will that you want to maintain? If that is the case, you should come down yourself. You know she’s sweet on you. (You might as well admit it. Even Marie knew!)

As for me, I have never figured her out. I love her as the only remaining link to my mother, but at my current age, I find the disadvantages of visiting her outweigh the advantages. Every time I’m around her she has me squiring Audra around like a poor five-year-old in need of a nanny. It was funny when I was 17 and Audra was 9, but now that I’m 31 and she’s 23, it’s not nearly so cute. Besides, Dave’s new church is down somewhere near Stockton and Aunt Vic’s giving him fits about it. If I go down there she’ll probably try to enlist me to ‘influence’ him somehow. I don’t think she realizes I would be on his side.

By the way, congratulations for Dave are in order, Pa. He spent the night with us and told me he’ll be taking a bride. We didn’t get to talk long enough for me to find out who she is, and most likely I’ll be out on the south fence line by the time he gets up, but when I find out who she is I’ll let you know. It’s a bit strange, if he means to marry someone around here; he hasn’t been here but a week, but then Dave was always pretty fast about making up his mind.

Pa, I’ve done everything you asked and then some. I’d like to get home sometime soon. Peggy should be arriving in about six weeks, and I want to spend any time I can with her; after all she’s been through the least we can do is give her a few pleasant summers to recall. Please respond and let me know if that’s all right.

Devotedly,

Adam

There, Adam thought, putting the page into an envelope. If this makes the morning mail stage on Monday, he’ll get it before the end of the week. This time two weeks from now, we could be on our way home.

For a minute, he sighed. Joe and Hoss would indeed be broken up to be summoned home, and he found himself sad for them. But why did they always fall for girls who were only out for money?

He found himself thinking of their sister Lizzy, too. There were so many possibilities about her…if she had only been able to stand him. He wondered why she didn’t like him, and wondered if it had anything to do with Will; she had, for some strange reason, seemed set on talking about him. Well, she’d be disappointed in that case; he had no intentions of talking to or about Will.  Addressing the envelope, he forced all thought of his cousin from his mind, and thought about Lizzy again. Nice eyes. Lovely smile. A lively conversationalist—at least when she didn’t know he was around.

He shook head. I think I’ll miss her. Pity. She won’t miss me at all.

*

Lizzy woke up groggy and confused. It was late morning; she had apparently overslept and her mother was beating on the door, half hysterical, demanding that Lizzy present herself at once.

“Mother, I’m not fit to present myself to anyone just yet. If you can’t wait, please open the door and come in, and tell me what you want.”

The door flew open and her mother swept in. “A fine hash you’re making of things, Daughter! Do you realize you left your younger sister un-chaperoned last night with a man?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Kitty, of course! She and Hoss Cartwright were out in the barn the entire NIGHT! He’ll have to marry her now, and it’s your fault.”

“Mother, in the first place I am sure Hoss is a gentleman, and nothing inappropriate happened between them.”

“Well it certainly should have!”

For a moment Lizzy looked at her mother, and then she sighed. “If Hoss has to marry her you should be delighted. That’s what you wanted for her, isn’t it? But why is it my fault? You were home a large portion of the evening. Why didn’t you go and check on them? Or look in when you left for the dance?”

“That would have been disturbing them! It’s impolite!”

“As I understood, Hoss and Kitty were simply in the barn to deliver Nelly’s foal and to clean the horses after.”

“That they did! You should have seen poor Kitty.”

“I did! We came home together, Mother—we all saw her!”

“She was covered with goop from stem to stern! It was an abhorrent spectacle. I told her to burn that dress immediately, and she said she wanted to have it framed! And did you hear what Hoss Cartwright said about her? She will make an excellent stockman?! My child is ruined, I tell you! What that man has done to my poor daughter I know not, but she is out of her head. She told me she wants to go to the lending library and learn about farming! My daughter—a farmer!”

Lizzy couldn’t imagine Kitty voluntarily opening a book about anything, but whatever her mother said always had to be taken with a few grains of salt, anyway. (Sometimes she wondered if she could die from an overdose of salt.) Later, she would learn the truth from Kitty herself, she was sure.

“Mother, what would you like me to do?”

“I want you to make all the wedding arrangements with Reverend Clayton of course. He’s back from town and waiting in the study to talk to you.”

Vaguely, Lizzy recalled Dave’s joking remark that he only charged five dollars per wedding. “For Hoss and Kitty? Or for Jane and Little Joe?”

“Heavens, girl, no! For yourself and him! Reverend Clayton says he has to leave Monday, so everything needs to be settled before then.”

“What?” Lizzy’s heart rate doubled. “But…he never even mentioned it to me, and I have certainly made no answer to him!”

“What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?” her mother demanded. “Get a move on, girl!”

Seething, Lizzy dressed. The man had gone off to a cantina, presumably to no good end, and now he intended to take a respectable girl as a wife?

As quickly as she could manage, Lizzy flounced downstairs to find her father and the reverend in deep discussion of cultivators and plows and what kind of manure made the best fertilizer. Kitty was listening intently—and taking notes.

“I’m sorry to impinge on this conversation,” Lizzy announced with as much cold hostility as she could produce without sounding outright rude. “But I would like to speak the reverend myself. Apparently he has also been discussing ‘manure’ with my mother.”

Chapter 18

How to Decline a Marriage Proposal

 

As the door closed, Dave Clayton leaned back in his chair and eyed Lizzy. “I don’t recall discussing any manure with your mother. In fact, I’m pretty sure any discussion of that nature would be bad for her ‘nerves’. All I told her was that I needed to talk to you about getting married. What’s this about?”

“Marriage, that’s exactly what!” Lizzy retorted, and flopped into a chair in a most unladylike manner. “Reverend—”

“Oh, please, call me Dave,” he said sweetly. “We’re going to be getting to know each other a lot better, you know.”

“I shall never, ever in this life, call you Dave. What on earth—I have never heard of such presumption! Don’t you even ask people first?”

“Ask people to call me by name? I just did.”

“No—I mean, don’t you ask people when you intend to marry them.”

“I asked everyone who was pertinent.”

“And you didn’t think I was somehow pertinent?”

The look he gave her was classic puzzlement. “No, I didn’t. I’m sorry if that’s a blow, but the arrangement is perfectly satisfactory to everyone else.”

“The arrangement you made is satisfactory to nobody if it doesn’t include me.”

“If I were marrying you, I would suppose that to be true. But since it isn’t, and in fact I was only going to tell you in the first place because you are Rosita’s best friend and she asked me to—”

“What?” Lizzy whispered in shock.

“Yes; I asked her last night and she’s done me the honor of agreeing to be my wife. We’re getting married Monday morning and going back to Stockton together.”

She somehow found her voice again. “You mean…you don’t want to marry me?”

“Um…no.” Dave Clayton regarded her with polite suspicion. “Thank you for the honor of asking, but no.”

She shook her head rapidly in a vain attempt to clear it. “You…you haven’t even known Rosie a week.”

“I met her at the same time I met you, and you seem to regard us as sufficiently knowledgeable.”

A sigh. “I didn’t want to marry you either, Reverend. I came down to talk you out of it.”

“Ah. Well, that proved remarkably easy then, didn’t it? Everyone’s happy.”

“How can you marry Rosie? Seriously! Reverend, she works in a cantina! Don’t you know—”

“Know what.” The cold, flat tone of his voice should have warned her, but somehow it didn’t.

“You’re a preacher. I just don’t want my friend ending up in one of your sermons.”

The room temperature must have dropped ten degrees then, but Dave only looked at her. There was an involuntary twitch of his right index finger on the table; that was all.

“Miss Bennet, you need harbor no concerns in that direction,” he finally said, so formal that her eyebrows rose in surprise. “I’m not Hosea. I will not be sermonizing or writing books about my wife. And you would do well to remember that she will shortly be my wife, and I tend not to react favorably to people who sully the good names of the people I care about.”

“Reverend, Rosita is my best friend, and I would hardly say anything bad about her.”

“But you just did. Rosita has some embarrassing incidents in her past, I’m certain. So do I, as you well know. And if you don’t already have a few embarrassing incidents in your own past, I’m sure you will someday.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say!”

“Nevertheless, it’s true. We’re all sinners, you know. Some people are just better at keeping it hidden. In any case, the past is the past, and I don’t intend to live there.”

For a while the two looked at each other, too stubborn to look away.

“How do you know you’re in love with her?” Lizzy asked.

“Ah, finally, an easy question. I’m not. Nor is she in love with me.”

She almost choked. “Then what kind of marriage will it be? A business arrangement in which she gets respectability and security, and you get someone to cook your meals and wash your clothes?”

He smiled, almost shyly. “I sincerely hope, and have every reason to believe, that it will be a long and joyous union, blessed with children at some point, and that while we will certainly work together, we’ll also play, and ultimately we’ll grow old together.”

“But you don’t love her!”

“I never said that. I merely said I’m not in love with her. I’ve been in love, Miss Elizabeth, and it’s overrated.” He looked with great interest at his coffee cup. “You might ask your father about that sometime.”

“Sir! I—I—a gentleman would not say such things about my father!”

“And a lady would not say such things about my wife. Looks like we’re both in equal need of God’s mercy, Miss Elizabeth.”

“But…but how can you love Rosita, having known her such a short time? How can you be sure?”

A little shrug and dimpled smile. “Isaac met Rebecca on their wedding day. And yet the Bible says he loved her. It used to be a standard practice, you know. A marriage was arranged. The lack of knowledge, or love, a couple had for one another didn’t matter. They were married, and they loved each other. How do you suppose it happened?”

“I have no idea,” Lizzy chuckled. “Perhaps you can explain it.”

“I can. God told them. ‘Husbands, love your wives.’ It’s in the New Testament twice—in Ephesians and Colossians. I suspect the good Lord knew men needed both the commandment and a reminder.”

In spite of herself, Lizzy warmed to the discussion. “And where is the counter-command? For the wife to love her husband?”

“Ah, you raised an interesting point. There isn’t a command. I have a theory on that, but—”

“Oh, do please, enlighten me again.”

“Commanding a woman is like telling a mountain stream to run uphill. It started with Eve and has been going on ever since. You don’t command women. You teach them—gently. The book of Titus says women should be taught to love their husbands. And yes, I think Rosita will learn to love me.”

“And what of leopards? Supposing Rosita can’t change her spots? You were very particular about that point when it pertained to yourself—and to Will Cartwright.”

A brief silence, as the Reverend fiddled with his collar. “As I said, Miss Elizabeth, we’re none of us perfect. I think the main thing is whether or not the person desires to change, and just how willing that person is to allow the good Lord to help them do it. It’s always hard, yes, but we are told that with God, all things are possible.”

Lizzy giggled. “Now that is why I couldn’t have married you, Pastor. You would always be sermonizing at me.”

“And that is why I couldn’t have married you, Miss Elizabeth. You would always be needing it.”

Chapter 19

The Art of Respectability

Adam Cartwright’s jaw was hanging halfway to his knees, Dave Clayton thought in amusement. Some fellows didn’t take surprises all that well.

“You’re kidding. You’ve decided to marry this girl—and I bet you haven’t even known her for five hours.”

“I’ll take that bet and raise you a sawbuck, Adam. I hadn’t known her five minutes before I knew she was the one I was supposed to marry.”

“So you just fell in love on the spot. Not very practical.”

“No, to both statements. I’m not in love. You know as well as I do, Adam—or at least you should—being ‘in love’ is just another word for infatuation—or good old-fashioned lust. And whichever it is, it always dies ugly. Either it’s not fulfilled, and a fella goes crazy, or it is fulfilled, and he’s left cold. Or it just wastes away and dies. I’ve been in love. Never again.”

“Okay, you don’t love her. Then why marry her?”

“I didn’t say I don’t love her. I’m not very good at loving, Adam; I never learned how. But nobody’s good at loving on his own. The best love comes from God, and all this is his idea, anyway, so I’m counting on him to show me how to do it. I know what I’ve read—the Bible says a husband is supposed to love his wife the way he loves his own body and the way Christ loves the church. I haven’t figured out quite how that works, but since this is what God wants me to do, I’m not inclined to argue.”

Adam just looked at him. “’This is all his idea. You mean, God’s.’”

Dave nodded. “Yup.”

“This is God’s idea,” Adam repeated. “He actually TOLD you to do it.”

Dave looked up at him, puzzled.

Adam cleared his throat. “Pray tell, how did he communicate this holy wisdom? Did you see a burning bush? Or was it delivered by Western Union?”

“You know, Adam, sarcasm doesn’t look that good on you.”

“You just told me God talks to you! And you expect me to take it seriously?”

“Why not?”

“Well, the last person I knew who heard God talking to him also thought his milk cow was the spirit of his grandmother. All I know is, God never talks to me, and I’ve been on good terms with him a lot longer than you have.”

Dave got up from his chair, sighing. “I don’t know what to tell you, Adam. Everybody believes there’s a God. And most people talk to him—usually when things are going wrong. Nobody thinks it’s strange to pray. But if he gives an answer, it’s grounds for putting somebody away. I’ve met Indians who spent months on a spirit quest, and never had a single vision, and then others who had the vision of their lives while they were hunting a deer. I can’t tell you why some people get talked to and some don’t. Maybe the good Lord figures somebody like you is so smart he knows what to do without being told. I’m not that smart; I need to be told everything. Maybe that’s why. Only thing I know for sure is, when I met Miss Rosita Morales, the Lord said, ‘Dave, this is the one.’ So I’d be pretty stupid to pass her by. She’s the gift from a loving God.”

“You’d think a loving God would give you a toy that hadn’t been played with before,” Adam observed, and was completely unprepared for the fist that came his way and sent him sprawling.

Dave helped him up, shamefaced. “Sorry, Adam. I shouldn’t’ve let my temper get away like that. But you can’t talk about her that way, now or ever. I love her, and I’m gonna marry her whether you stand with me or not.”

“I deserved it,” Adam said sheepishly, one hand over his eye. “Sorry.”

“You know, I’ve done a lot of things in my life just on faith that it was what the Lord wanted me to do. Even when I was scared to death—and now is one of those times. You’ve been my best friend in life since we met all those long years ago, and you’ve stood behind me on everything I’ve done before, even when you said I was crazy. Can’t you stand behind me once more, as a favor for a friend?”

Adam reached over and put a hand on Dave’s shoulder. “I can usually do a favor for a friend. Even a crazy one, when he’s the kind of friend you are. You think marryin’ this girl is what you need to do, then I’ll do what I can to help you. Monday morning, eh?”

“At Judge Henry’s office.”

“Why not the church? I figured you, of all people, would want a church wedding.”

Dave’s face darkened. “The town preacher says no, because Rosita’s a Catholic. The priest says no, because I’m not a Catholic. One of these days, Adam, I’m gonna nail my own set of 95 theses to somebody’s door. Maybe more than 95, since some of these fellas got a whole lotta ground to cover.”

Adam just chuckled. “‘He married others; himself he could not marry.’ Can you stay to supper?”

“No, I need to get back to my host. I promised to talk to him about chickens. Adam, do you really think this fella can do it? I don’t mind taking on another lost cause, but I’d prefer to know in advance rather than be disappointed later.”

Adam grinned. “God could tell you better than I could. Maybe he will.”

“You’re right. I’ll ask. Shoulda thought of that already.”

The look on Adam’s face gave Dave something to smile about for a long time to come.

*

After church Sunday Lizzy headed directly to the cantina. Rosita usually worked all night and slept in on Sunday morning, so Lizzy was certain of finding her in the little room she kept.

To her surprise, Rosita was not only awake, but looking into a full-length mirror, and dressed in a modest dark blue frock of a severe cut. Seeing Lizzy, she pirouetted. “Well, what do you think? I bought the cloth and pattern yesterday at the mercantile, and stayed up all night, sewing. Is it suitable for the wife of a preacher?”

“Yes—but not for you! Rosie, are you off your head? You can’t marry that man.”

“Why not? Does he already have a wife? He told me he did not.”

“No, as far as I know, he doesn’t have a wife. But…why on earth would you even consider marrying him?”

Rosita looked at her. “I thought it would be obvious, Lizzy—you are my friend. You should want this marriage for me, above all things.”

“You don’t love him.”

“Love is a luxury I cannot afford. You really don’t understand, do you? Well, why should you. You were born with something I never had, Lizzy. And you’ll always have it—unless perhaps poor Lydia does something even more idiotic than usual.” Rosita giggled. “Don’t stare at me; you know it’s true. You are respectable, Lizzy. I’m not. It’s as simple as that.”

“You mean…you’re selling yourself…for respectability? How can you?”

“That’s exactly what I mean. I sold myself every night to other men, usually several each night, for a couple of dollars. Now I can sell myself to one man and suddenly I am pure as the driven snow. Think of it, Lizzy. I’ve lived in Mulberry Ridge since I was 11. Everyone here knows me and knows what I do. You are the only friend I have, and you don’t care how I make a living—but everyone else, all these people who are not my friends, they do care. They make it their business. Dave Clayton travels around the country and seldom spends more than two years in the same place—but he’s never been to Mulberry Ridge before, and he probably will never be here again. In Stockton, I will be Mrs. Clayton, wife of a preacher. I’ll have respectability.”

“But if you want respectability so badly, why didn’t you go after that land grant a few years ago?”

“I didn’t want decorum at the cost of so many people’s homes and work; their misery would have been of my causing. With Dave Clayton, I can have it at the cost of only one person’s misery—his. And he asked, not me.”

“You think you’ll make him miserable?”

“Not intentionally, of course. But aren’t most marriages miserable?” she shrugged. “I will do what he wants, whatever that turns out to be. I’ll cook for him, keep the house, wash the clothes, share his bed. I don’t care; I’ve certainly done worse. It will be worth it for the ability to walk down the street without all the women wanting to throw stones at me.”

“Oh, Rosie….” Against her will Lizzy began to cry.

“Cheer up, Lizzy.” Rosita hugged her. “It may not be so bad. In a few years I’ll lose my looks and I won’t be able to work in the cantinas anyway, and no seamstress will take me now since I used to make my living as a bad girl. So this is just as well. He seems a decent enough man, for a man.”

Desperate for something positive to say, Lizzy murmured, “He said you’d love him, in time.”

“Yes, he told me that too.” Rosita laughed. “Men are funny that way. They always think they can make a woman love them. Well, if I keep my mouth shut, he can believe whatever he wants.”

“You told me preachers are the worst kind of men. Did he….”

“No. I think he must be trying to make a favorable impression on me. The man called my boss over to our table and paid him the full price I would make in a week’s work, and said I was not to take on anymore clients, that I had been ‘retired’ from business and was only to sleep in my room—alone—until Monday when he comes to marry me. Well, I’m keeping my part of the bargain. I’m as chaste as Joseph in Pharaoh’s court. When he left that night, he said he was going to stay with the Cartwright boys. Oh, you know I asked if he’s related to Adam, and he said everyone asks him that, but no. He said they met by chance a little over eight years ago, and that after we’re married he’ll tell me the tale. I suspect I’ll have to listen to a lot of his tales. He seems quite the friendly talker, doesn’t he?”

“The friendly talker who used to be a gunfighter. That’s what he told me, Rosie. The man is strange.”

“He was probably only trying to impress you. Men always do that, too. Don’t start crying for me, Lizzy! I’m doing what I want to. I guess you can’t understand, since you’ve been well thought of and virtuous all your life. For me, it’s an even trade. And as I said before, he’s not unpleasant looking. The last man to propose to me weighed 300 pounds, had one eye and one ear, and reeked of whisky. I nearly accepted him, but then I learned he already had a wife. At least this preacher seems fairly clean and unattached.”

“I’ll miss you,” Lizzy whispered. “Who will talk about Whittier with me?”

Rosita smiled. “Maybe Adam Cartwright.” They both laughed at that. “Lizzy—when I am married, will you still be my friend?”

“Only until I die; you know that.”

“And you’ll write to me?”

“Of course. Will you write back?”

“I will. Lizzy…will you visit me? Dave says he will be in Stockton another year or more. Please say you’ll come. I know I’ll be lonely.”

“You know I will come. Maybe you can find some excuse to send Dave away for a while and we can visit and eat cookies and discuss whatever we like, without worrying if it’s fit for a preacher’s delicate ears.”

“I will surely try. Will you come to the wedding? It’s tomorrow morning at Judge Henry’s office. Our appointment is at 9 o’clock. I don’t think anyone else will be there except maybe Adam, because he is Dave’s friend.”

“You need two witnesses; I’ll be honored to stand by you. I only wish it were going to be a happier occasion.”

Rosita shrugged. “I’m making my own choice, Lizzy, and I am determined to have some happiness in life, so it will be as happy as I can make it.”

Chapter 20

Violet Eyes to Die For

Reverend S. David Clayton began his wedding day by getting a punch in the eye.

The attack came from none other than his host, Mr. Bennet, and arrived without preamble or indeed, anything to make him suspect that such an honor was about to be bestowed. Clayton had gotten up, dressed, and come downstairs intending to bid his host good morning and farewell at the same time; he had no inclination to eat since the meal would only have fed the butterflies in his stomach, and he had no intention to return to Longbourn after the ceremony, since the Stockton stage left at noon.

But he had barely walked into Bennet’s study—the place where the man apparently spent all his time—when Bennet simply appeared in front of him, fists clenched, and popped him in the left eye and cheekbone, shouting, “you filthy blackguard!”

Sam Driscoll would never have been caught so completely off-guard. But Dave Clayton lived a different life, so not only was he caught off-guard, but off-balance as well. The impact sent him reeling backwards into a barrister’s-style bookcase, which caught him under the ribcage and knocked the wind out of him. He leaned against the bookcase, struggling to get a teaspoon or so of air into his lungs, and realized to his astonishment that Bennet was winding up for another punch.

For the first time in his life he forced his hands to stay immobile, and deliberately turned his face to expose the other cheek. And then Adam Cartwright (himself sporting a black eye as well, although Dave already knew about that one) and Lizzy Bennet burst into the room, Lizzy shouting, “Father, are you all right?” and Adam grabbing the senior Bennet and dragging him away from the preacher. In a flash Lizzy slapped Adam across the face, yelling, “Get away from him! Can’t you see he’s injured?”

Adam nearly slapped her back, but thought better of it and settled for giving her a one-eyed glare that would have charred a steak in three seconds—which she answered eyelash for eyelash with one of her own, but she had two eyes to work with—and he turned back to his friend then.

“Dave, you all right?”

Dave nodded and, with some difficulty, straightened partially, still waiting for the air to come back.

“Of course he’s all right,” Lizzy snapped. “He just beat up a frightened old man. Father—”

“Don’t add insult to injury, Lizzy,” Bennet said. “I hit him. I had no idea it would hurt my hand so much, or I would have done it again.”

“Lucky for you, you didn’t,” came a mutter from his opponent.

“Why? I saw you turn your cheek. You would’ve let me!”

“Yes, that’s what the Book says to do. But the Book don’t say what to do after that, and I had some ideas of my own,” Dave said painfully. “You want to tell me what all that was about?”

“Hmph—as if you didn’t know!”

“He’s addled,” Adam observed. “Let’s get outta here before he decides to torch the house, too.”

“Clayton!” Bennet shouted, “Doesn’t the ‘Good Book’ say ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me’?”

Bewildered, Clayton retorted, “If it does, must be in somethin’ other than Hebrew, Aramaic, Chaldean or Koine Greek!”

“Oh, don’t act innocent and insulted to me, you phony reverend you! I may have fallen for it once, but I’m devilled if I’ll do it again. I didn’t pay attention before. I was ignorant and let that cow thief—your father—pull the wool over my eyes. He nearly ruined my life. I could have been killed or sent to prison for life; my daughters’ lives were in danger—THAT fellow there tried to throw me off the property—” one angry finger pointed at Adam—“and now here you are, talking forgiveness and second chances and telling me that you’re as poor as a church mouse yourself—but you gave me the money for a plow and a cultivator! You gave me the money for two milk cows and five chickens! And that Cartwright fellow there sent me those three men!”

“What three men?” Lizzy demanded.

“Lizzy, leave the room—this is men’s talk!” She rolled her eyes, but obediently went out and shut the door.

Bennet glared at Dave Clayton. “I’ve been up all night thinking—”

“Thinking?” Adam snapped. “Or drinking?”

“Whatever I was doing, it showed me the error of my ways! He told me—this very preacher—and you told me as well—don’t accept a ‘handout’ from someone—and yet he gives me money and you gave me workers! What about the three men that came today looking for ‘farm work’? They said they would take wages in the form of room and board, and a percentage of the crops next year—but their recommendation letters all came from ‘Adam Cartwright’! It’s all just a front for some other criminal operation, and I’m not falling for it again, do you understand me? I’m not! I will not endanger my family again; I will not be prey to some scheme—”

“Mr. Bennet,” Adam said, “I don’t know what you’re rattling about, but it’s beginning to get annoying. If you have any suspicions about me, why don’t you talk to your own sheriff? If you’d bothered talking to him about Saul Driscoll ten years ago all this could’ve been avoided anyway. And Dave, you pea-brain, I thought you were gonna use the money from the sale of that acreage for the church work!”

“Well, I kept some of it,” Dave Clayton mumbled defensively, one hand over his eye. “Besides, the Lord says to take care of your family first, and these people live in my house, and Lizzy is Rosita’s best friend, so I figured it made them my family.”

“Wait a minute,” Bennet cried, “you mean the money came from a land sale?”

“I told you I was gonna sell 12,000 acres,” Clayton shrugged, and then gasped. “Oh, blast…I think I’ve got a broke rib…Adam bought the acreage, Mr. Bennet. That’s the only scheme we have going.”

“And that was really your own money you gave…but…but…oh, Reverend, why didn’t you tell me?”

Clayton just looked at him from his one operational eye. “Mr. Bennet, if you’ll excuse me, I have to leave this part of the country as quickly as possible now and never come near you again…Adam, does it look very bad?”

“Two steaks, maybe three. It’s gonna be nice and shiny. About like mine.”

“Aw, Adam, I know it’s dumb, but I was kinda hoping to look nice for Rosie today.”

“It wasn’t dumb. And if she can’t take you with a black eye, she ain’t worth havin’.”

“Don’t talk bad about my wife again.” Dave gasped, holding his side. “You know, bookcases are hard!”

Adam put an arm around his friend. “Put your arm around my shoulders; it’ll be easier that way. Come on, you blockhead, we’re gonna get you married if I have to carry you into the courthouse.”

Bennet followed them. “Reverend Clayton, I am so sorry—”

“I forgive you. Now back off. Still think I make a great preacher, Adam?”

“Well, a better preacher than gunfighter, anyway,” Adam said as he half-carried, half-dragged Dave through the doorway, and Mrs. Bennet, who had heard the last part, began to shriek.

“Is he all right?” Lizzy asked, having been struck by a sudden fit of compassion and hurrying to Dave’s side.

“Could be worse,” Adam replied. “He could be marryin’ you.”

Rosita made a polite fuss over the condition of her intended, and burst out laughing over Adam’s matching black eye—which he declined to explain—but the wedding went on as scheduled. Adam got his letter out on the morning mail stage, but Dave ended up needing his ribs wrapped, and so the newlyweds missed the noon stage and their last chance to arrive back in Stockton that day. The next Stockton-bound stage left at six p.m. Thus it was that Dave spent most of his wedding day unconscious from a sleeping draught in the doctor’s examining room, and Adam, at Dave’s drowsy orders, took Rosita and Lizzy for cheesecake. When the six o’clock stage came in, Adam bodily loaded him, barely conscious, into the coach; Rosita climbed in next to her husband and waved a tearful farewell to Lizzy. Within a minute of the coach’s forward motion, Dave was asleep again, and Rosita reflected that if he stayed like this the rest of their marriage, it would be easy enough to keep him happy after all.

Chapter 21

The Dearly Departed

It took Lizzy a day and a half to stop moping over Rosita’s departure, but she was not by nature a moping sort of person. Besides, Will Cartwright was still in town. So, under the guise of taking Kitty into town to the lending library, Lizzy paid several visits to the cavalry detachment under Lt. Cartwright’s command.

Kitty returned with such delightful, Hoss-recommended reads as Arator: Being a Series of Agricultural Essays, Practical and Political, in Sixty-one Numbers; and An Essay on Calcareous Manures. (Hoss privately told Kitty that while Adam was the well-read one of the family where literature was concerned, Hoss preferred more practical knowledge.)

Lizzy took numerous walks around Mulberry Ridge with the handsome and dashing Will. And Adam Cartwright never showed his face in town once. Hoss and Little Joe came over to Longbourn late every afternoon, sometimes even staying to dinner—but Adam didn’t come along with them, either. For all that Lizzy did not in the least miss him, and for all that she was having far too much fun getting to know Will, she could not help but be curious, and she asked Hoss about it.

With an odd expression, Hoss responded, “Adam tends not to go where he ain’t wanted, Miss Lizzy. And it ’pears that every time he’s come around you, you’ve let him know he ain’t wanted. Besides which, you seem to have a likin’ for our cousin Will, and that don’t do nothin’ but add insult to injury.”

“Because that means two women would have preferred Will’s company to Adam’s?” Lizzy asked archly.

Hoss had been playing with the foal (Kitty had named her “Inger,” for what reason Lizzy did not know) and it was sucking on his big fingers. That was the side of Hoss she liked most, Lizzy thought—his gentleness with animals. But there were times he could be rather scary around people, and when he looked up at her after she’d made her little joke, this became one of those times.

“No. Adam ain’t like that. But he does get riled when a woman chooses somebody else and then dies for it. Be careful that don’t happen to you, Miss Lizzy.”

“What on earth do you mean, Hoss?”

“I mean Laura Dayton wouldn’t’ve died except for bein’ so foolish as to run off with Will and put her trust in him, that’s what.”

“I think you’d better explain that.”

“No ma’am, I won’t. That falls to Adam, and he ain’t the kind to go ’round moanin’ over his troubles like Will does, so I imagine it’s a bit harder to feel sorry for him than somebody like Will. But that’s the way Adam is, and I ain’t apologizin’ for a bit of him.”

“He’s your brother; I shouldn’t expect you to.”

“It ain’t ’cause he’s my brother. He’s my best friend too, and a lot more ’n’ that. And nobody needs to apologize fer him. Ain’t nothin’ to apologize for.”

Lizzy wondered if this attitude was shared by both brothers, and later asked Jane if she had ever had the subject come up with Little Joe. “Joseph adores Adam,” Jane replied seriously. “From what he tells me, there is much to adore, Lizzy. The impressions on which we judged him initially may have been faulty, or at least our perceptions may have been cloudy.”

“How can Joe possibly ‘adore’ Adam? He forever complains about him, and I have frequently seen them arguing.”

“Joseph says they are both stubborn, which does lead to occasional arguments—but he also says Adam has been like a second father to him. Adam taught him to ride and hunt, and—” she giggled briefly—“he even taught Hoss to dance. They’re all very close, Lizzy, and for all that they sometimes complain that Adam is ‘bossy,’ both Hoss and Joseph say he is very protective of the family. I don’t think they could have such warm relations if Adam were really the sort of person you have decided he is.”

But a few days later, about the time Lizzy was tossing about the idea of giving Adam another chance, Joe and Hoss rode in and did not hitch their horses. They asked if Jane and Kitty could come out to talk for a minute, and when the girls appeared, they could tell something was wrong.

“We got a wire from Pa. He wants us home—me and Hoss,” Joe explained. “Adam’s being sent on to Stockton, but we’ve gotta go home. We’re hoping maybe we can be on the first drive bringing the cattle down for the Army, and if that works out we’ll be back in about six weeks.”

“But if somethin’ happens and we cain’t, we’ll figger out a way to get back anyhow,” Hoss told Kitty.

For a long moment they stood looking at each other, but there was nothing to be done. Joe and Hoss knew the girls were aware of their feelings, but they could not propose without telling their father first. Kitty and Jane knew the boys were aware of their feelings, but they could not so much as accept a farewell kiss, as their father had told them more than once in Hoss and Joe’s presence (they all suspected by design) that a woman who would allow a man to kiss her before they were formally engaged was nothing but a trollop.

And so the Cartwright boys mounted up. Denied even the cliché of riding off into the sunset as their road was eastbound, they simply rode off. And the Bennet girls, denied the luxury of weeping bitter tears over a couple of boys who hadn’t even cared enough to propose (so said their mother), went back inside, Jane to her copy of Robinson Crusoe and Kitty to A Muck Manual for Farmers.

Adam Cartwright left at the same time as his brothers, but without saying goodbye, and heading due west.

“Where was Adam going?” Lizzy asked Will when she heard this, for it certainly made no sense to her.

Will pouted. “I thought you liked me!”

“Maybe,” she conceded with a giggle. “But you can’t blame me for being curious. Adam is an odd duck.”

“Lydia has the best remedy for dealing with ducks,” Will observed. “But as for my cousin, I believe Joe mentioned Todos Santos. There’s supposed to be some young girl there that Adam’s fond of. Trust Adam to find the best of both worlds. He’s engaged already, you know.”

“Is he? Tell me, who’s the unfortunate girl?”

“Her name’s Audra Barkley. Her mother, old Victoria Barkley, owns a ranch near Stockton, and she’s Adam’s godmother. Adam and Audra are perfect for each other. They’re both rich, both stuck-up, and they both wear pants!”

This gave them both something to laugh uproariously about.

“However do you find out all these wonderful things, Will?”

“Well, the Army sent me to Stockton first, you see—old Ma Barkley had submitted a bid on her cattle, too. She withdrew it later, but not before I got to know all the town gossip about her. She’s let it be known for years that Audra’s destined for Adam. And Adam apparently doesn’t have any objections. But then why should he, when she’s rich and he’s got a bit on the side already?”

A week later, the cavalry detachment returned to Ord Barracks. Will Cartwright left owing some $170 to various merchants…but he did have a nice smile.

The Bannings also departed for their home in Sacramento, but their absence was noticed by few and lamented by none.

Chapter 22

Lies and Truths

Dear Ben,

I received your note, and of course must say it was nothing, really. It was delightful to see your boys again. Why, I can scarcely keep from admiring them all and wishing I were 20 years younger!

It’s very fortunate you got them away from that place when you did, I must say. While Adam was his usual stoic self and quite immune to the charms of the locals, there were two girls who quite captivated poor Hoss and Little Joe. I do believe the boys would have married those two little schemers, had Adam not intervened. He did intervene, I trust, or you would not have ordered them home so swiftly? It’s just as well, since one of the girls has since been spotted all over town with your blemished nephew, Will Cartwright, and the other, a loud, rowdy girl who sneaks into the punchbowl at every town dance, has been keeping company with at least three of the other soldiers. Well, I recall a time when a blue uniform made my own heart flutter, but it doesn’t speak much for her fidelity, does it?

Be sure and let me know when the boys go back to Mulberry Ridge—although I would advise you not to send Hoss and Joe—and I’ll be happy to again do any little service I can to help. Poor Melinda misses the boys already.

Yours faithfully,

Deborah Banning

Ben Cartwright frowned and put the letter away discreetly. Wouldn’t do to have Joe and Hoss reading that one. So Adam’s suspicions had been borne out. Too bad. He would have liked to see the boys settle down sometime, but it seemed they only attracted gold diggers.

He didn’t know that there were five daughters, and that Deborah Banning couldn’t tell any of them apart (or that it would have made no difference in her report, even if she could). He had always been a little too forgiving when it came to Deborah Banning, after all. Right now, Ben only knew that he was going to protect his boys. Whether they wanted to be protected, or not.

*

The city of Stockton was thriving. Established nearly 20 years now, it also had two churches. In fact, the two churches had sprung up within a day of each other. The Methodists had managed to open their church the day before the Presbyterians, but in Christian love counted them the same age. The Barkley ranch was just outside Stockton by 17 miles, and Victoria Barkley attended faithfully every Sunday, rain or shine, snow or muggy heat, braving the almost two-hour ride in her usual patiently enduring manner. She generally went to the Methodist church, but in the name of Christian love she occasionally attended special fundraising events for the Presbyterians.

If you were not a Methodist or a Presbyterian, then you absolutely must be a Catholic, for there was a Catholic mission in the area with which she was on friendly terms. She didn’t care much for the other sects, although she kept the peace with them all the same. But if a preacher showed up without a denomination to adhere to, every silver hair on Victoria Barkley’s head practically stood on end.

In her defense, it must be noted that Victoria had not always been so. It was the advent of a shady faith healer who had taken Audra’s heart—and almost ended up taking her eyesight—that had made Victoria so suspicious. But her paranoia toward non-denominational preachers knew very few bounds.

Still, there were numerous small ranches and farms spread through the San Joaquin Valley beyond Stockton; scattered across a large land area, the ranchers and small farmers living there comprised a lot of people. The people who lived there, however, with seven-days-per-week jobs, did not have the time (or frequently the inclination) to travel anywhere from 20 to 40 miles to go to church in Stockton; but there were no other churches around. Or at least, such was the state of things before God gave Dave Clayton’s Arabian gelding a stone bruise, and there he found himself surrounded by 29 families of close to 160 people, with another 200 or so ranch and farm hands. (“And the Lord opened my eyes—and walloped me over the head with a stick just to be sure I was payin’ attention,” was how he told the story.) Suddenly he heard bells ringing; he always did when he was in a place where God wanted a church. Now he took the next step—finding a place, and getting local support.

A graduate of Danville Theological Seminary, Dave Clayton had been ordained Presbyterian simply because anyone who graduated Danville was ordained Presbyterian. (That was the major reason Victoria Barkley welcomed him when he came to see her.)

But Clayton did not necessarily preach Presbyterian doctrine. While still in school it had occurred to him that all denominations put their own stamp on everything, and so three denominations could look at the same Bible verse and see three different meanings. “Baggage,” he dubbed it. Something that accompanied the package, but was not an essential part of it. There was so much of denominationalism that turned Christianity into mere “religion,” removed the love and joy, and in his words, put God Almighty in a box. He refused to debate whether Calvin was more inspired than Wesley, or whether Luther was an anti-Semite, or whether Wycliffe’s Bible was heretical compared to the King James. “Just read the thing and see what God tells you,” he would tell questioners—Pharisee and Sadducee alike.

He didn’t advertise his difference from the Presbyterians, but he didn’t shy away from it either, and that was when Victoria Barkley discovered that he was a heretic. The man had actually read the Vulgate! Not only that, but if a person asked to be baptized by a full-body immersion in water rather than a sprinkling, he would do it! When asked why, he shrugged. “It’s not the symbolism that’s important, Mrs. Barkley. It’s the belief. When a person asks to be baptized, we talk first about the belief, because it’s the belief that saves the soul. Baptism doesn’t make a person a Christian any more than a wedding ring makes a woman married. It’s a symbol.”

“You’re a Presbyterian,” she protested, and he politely shook his head.

“No ma’am. My faith is in God almighty, not a brand.”

That was when he found himself asked to leave her house. So he had done, cheerfully enough, but at that time he hadn’t realized that if Victoria Barkley didn’t like someone, his chance of being accepted in the valley was small.

The little piece of land she had considered donating to him was of course the first thing to go; next was when nobody else would donate land, either. There was, however, an old Scotsman who owned a piece that he would sell pretty cheap. A lot of the community had heard about it and begun making their own donations, but $137.92 would not buy much of a piece of land, not in this area. And with that Dave Clayton decided to go to the people he called his prayer “draft horses.” People like the Cartwrights, who had helped pay his way through school (Dave used to joke that when Hoss prayed, God listened real close), and the Bristols and Claytons, his mother’s family in Kentucky who didn’t have much money but had a whole lot of faith. There were others as well, but to describe them all isn’t necessary; suffice it to say that though he seemed a solitary fellow riding through the west, Clayton was a man with friends both among people and among the angels. In fact it turned out that one of his friends was not too far away at all. Adam Cartwright had written him, indicating that Ben had leased a ranch only about 50 miles from Stockton.

But as was the usual case, God moving in mysterious ways and all, the answer to prayer was not the one Dave would have chosen for himself. Saul Driscoll had been lynched, and the law had taken most of his property. The one thing that could not be taken was the Longbourn Ranch, which butted up against the ranch Adam was renovating, and which, according to Adam, was occupied by a very silly and naïve man who had been duped by Saul years ago.

When Dave had been making preparations to leave Stockton, he had told Jarrod Barkley—a good fellow, even though he was a lawyer—that he was going to pay a visit to the Cartwright boys. (If Dave had told Victoria Barkley of his longtime friendship with the Cartwrights at the start, she might have trusted him a little more, but Dave had never been one to drop names.) Jarrod and Nick were close to the three Cartwright boys; even Eugene and Audra had spent a little time with them as children. Learning that the Cartwrights thought highly of Dave Clayton and were supporting him in his ventures was enough to allow Victoria Barkley to rescind her order and start her talking to him again. But “Old Vic,” as Adam referred to her when his father wasn’t around, had her ways of doing things. They worked for her, and she expected them to be adopted by others, too. Most fellows who didn’t do things the way she liked did not last very long.

So Dave’s visit to Mulberry Ridge had yielded many results he hadn’t foreseen—more money in his pockets than he needed for himself; a wife who would lend a certain credibility to his efforts and who would, hopefully, come to love him in time. Inadvertently, it had also solved a portion of the Barkley problem as well. Of course, a woman like Victoria Barkley usually had more than one conundrum up her sleeve.

Chapter 23

The Ride Southeast

When Dave and Rosita left Mulberry Ridge, it was with the understanding that, should Adam Cartwright have to come to the Stockton area any time soon, he would stay with them. He’d been in Todos Santos for three weeks (long enough to thoroughly annoy his father, who had demanded he immediately get to Victoria’s place), but now he was finally on his way to Stockton—and he had to figure out if it was even possible to visit Dave without setting off Aunt Vic. How he was to accomplish that, Adam had absolutely no idea. Dave had been living in a lean-to he’d built himself on the land the Scotsman had promised to sell him—and although he knew Dave had made a full disclosure of his living situation to Rosita (probably, knowing Dave, he had made it sound worse than it was, simply because he didn’t want her to be shocked), Adam couldn’t imagine the two of them having the room—or the desire—for a guest. After all, most newlyweds needed a bit of privacy.

There was also Aunt Vic to consider. If he went to stay with Dave, she would be mad, and while she had been mad at Adam a few times in his life and he had survived, he didn’t want to endanger her fragile relations with Dave. Nope, there was no getting around it. The disadvantages—to Dave—of visiting with Dave far outweighed the advantage. Doubtless his friend would be upset, but at least his church work and his honeymoon time wouldn’t suffer.

Adam found himself wondering just how much of a honeymoon it was, really. Rosita was a pretty enough girl, and he had known a lot of women from her former occupation who had married and made wonderful wives and happy families. But they at least loved the men they married. He knew Rosita didn’t love Dave. Dave knew it too, and surprisingly, didn’t seem bothered by it. Now Dave’s whole life had had some kind of mystical charm over it from what Adam had seen, starting with the day he’d met him going on nine years ago—how many gunfighters, after all, had their lives saved by a rogue Bible? But marrying a woman who danced in a bar with the intention of getting a fellow into a certain state, and who then made the fellow pay to get that state, um, resolved, didn’t seem a good idea if she was fresh from that profession and didn’t care for her husband. It seemed to Adam that Dave deserved better. Then again, Dave was just as stubborn as Adam when he made his mind up, and he had an advantage Adam didn’t. Apparently God told Dave just what to do.

Why Dave rated this special treatment from God, Adam wasn’t sure. He didn’t begrudge it—he didn’t begrudge Dave anything—but it did seem a little unfair when there were other preachers who’d been pious men their whole lives, who read their Bibles and prayed and did whatever else they were supposed to do, but they had to feel their way in the dark the way everybody else did. For that matter, there were fellows who were pretty decent guys—like Adam Cartwright—who read their Bibles on occasion, and prayed when the situation called for it, and did the best they knew how to do, but God didn’t speak to them.

Whether God spoke to normal people or not, he apparently spoke to Dave Clayton, though. Of course, Adam had spoken to Dave as well—and had gotten a good belt in the face for his trouble, too. But while he had valued Dave’s friendship enough to back down and provide the help that Dave had requested, he still thought Dave’s marriage flew in the face of all logic and reason. Logic and reason meant a great deal to Adam, and based on his reasoning given the known facts of the situation, he could not imagine Dave’s marriage as anything but an impending disaster.

So now they’d been married about a month and a half, Adam thought. He wondered if that had been enough time for Dave to figure out how to “love a wife the way Christ loved the church,” or whatever it was that he had said. Or if the girl in question had any notion or appreciation for what had been done on her behalf, and if she’d had time enough to see that Dave wasn’t such a bad fellow and deserved a wife who would treat him kindly and be faithful to him—even if she didn’t love him.

Well, that was Dave’s lookout, after all. Adam’s problem was Aunt Vic. Once before, not long after Heath had joined the family, she had taken it into her head to drive a bunch of cattle to sell to the Army in Arizona. She hadn’t had enough beef to meet the contract, but had persuaded three other ranchers to join with their herds. Heath had headed the drive, and somehow they had managed to move that herd 550 miles in 24 days. That was just plain insane. Moving at that speed, the cattle would have been skin and bones by the time they got there. But the Army had taken them. She had never done anything that crazy since then—but then, Ord Barracks was a lot closer, after all. Come to think of it, he couldn’t figure out why she hadn’t gone after the contract herself in the first place. She should have been able to scoop it right from under his pa’s hands.

The more he thought of it, the more it didn’t make sense. And Adam had never cottoned to things that didn’t make sense.

Chapter 24

Nervous Ticks

People tended to forget that Victoria Barkley only stood five feet five inches tall. She had a presence that made the uninitiated think of her as a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier. Her voice was deep for a woman’s, and resonant, and her eyes drilled into people—male or female—and made them feel small, insignificant, and lonely.

Except for Adam. He had met her when he was 11, and she had pulled him into a hug that squeezed the air out of his thin frame and said, “Of course you’re Elizabeth’s boy. I would know you anywhere. You have her eyes.”

Ben Cartwright didn’t like talking about Elizabeth; for some reason her death had always hit him differently from the other two. Maybe because she was his first loss, before he truly realized such bad things happened to people; or because their time together had been so short; maybe because she had died bringing the baby they had both wanted so much into the world. Maybe because Adam looked something like her, with the same high cheekbones and dimples and eyes that looked dark at first but could take on most any hue of the rainbow. (Or in those years, maybe he didn’t like talking about her simply because Marie was there.)

But Victoria Barkley had known Elizabeth from childhood and loved to talk about her. For that reason alone Adam could have followed her everywhere and hung on her every word.

Of course, he’d been 11 then. Nearly 20 years had gone by. Now he had been a man for a long time, and as annoying as it was when Ben still treated him like a child, it was far worse when Aunt Vic did it. Worse, he knew she was going to do it, and he hated her condescension. And for all he loved Aunt Vic, he’d always hated her house. Even his father hated it, quietly dubbing it “the bordello”—but Adam had heard the nickname and laughed, because the name was accurate. The house itself looked like a pre-war cotton plantation and was surrounded by a high, gated fence. It was as unbearably frilly and ostentatious inside as out, and he wondered how Jarrod, Nick and Heath could stand living in it. Well, considering some of the places Heath had lived, he probably didn’t mind much, but the other two should’ve known better.

The road to the house was long, and it wound through miles of pasture where cattle were usually grazing. But to his surprise, Adam didn’t see any cows.

Nick was sitting dejectedly on the porch when he rode up, but stood as he recognized his old friend. “Well, you’re about the last person I expected to see around here,” he said with a grin, extending his hand. “Let me get one of the boys to take your horse. It’s good to see you, Adam.”

“Nick, what happened to your cattle? Have you moved them somewhere else, or is something going on? I didn’t see a single cow on the way.”

Nick looked down and punched a fist into his hand. “Kinda caught us at a bad time. There’s a lot going on right now.” He made a gesture inside where the raised voices of Victoria and Jarrod could be heard. “See what I mean?”

“Sounds fierce,” Adam agreed. “Why aren’t you in the thick of it? Isn’t that your normal place?”

“Got tired of it,” he sighed. “The only thing they’re accomplishing right now is making the house hotter and harder to breathe in. Why don’t you come on in? Maybe you’ll take their mind off the fight.”

“What’s the fight about? It might be one I don’t need to get near.”

“Our cattle are dyin’, Adam. Every time we think we’ve got this thing contained, it breaks out somewhere else. We’ve got the herd split up in small sections all over the ranch so we could kill off the sick ones, but the quarantine isn’t workin’; the cows isolated over in the east section are getting it now too. It’s a mess, and I’m out of ideas. I thought Jarrod might be able to help, and the result, you can hear.”

“You know what’s causing the cattle deaths?”

“’Course I do. It’s that blasted tick fever, that’s what. But there’s nothing you can do about that.”

“Sure there is. You haven’t heard about sulfur soap dips?”

“Huh?”

“We had the same problem a couple years ago—come on, let’s go talk to your Ma. We’ve got to get going on this while you’ve still got some cattle to save.”

Oh, Victoria Barkley was overjoyed to see Adam—and angry about the “shenanigan” his father was pulling, selling his cows to the Army at Ord Barracks “right under her nose.”

“Why didn’t you bid?”

“I did! I had the contract—and then my cattle started dying. And then your father moved in.”

“Aunt Vic, he didn’t even know you were bidding on it, and if he’d known about the tick fever, he certainly would have had us down here already, to help you cure it.”

“There’s not a cure for tick fever.”

“No, not once a cow gets it. But you can stop them from developing it in the first place. Just a year or two ago we went through the same thing and were able to save most of our herd.”

To do her credit, she did listen to him from start to finish. Sometimes his father got irate and wouldn’t even listen. But at the end…

“Nonsense. A little soap isn’t going to stop a disease.”

“It’s not just any soap. It’s a lime-sulfur mix and it works. It worked on our cows. If you don’t believe me, ask my father.”

“Your father took the Army contract from me. When I say something to him, it will be to his face. And believe me, he won’t like it.”

“Mother, be reasonable—” Jarrod began. Poor man was a lawyer but had never learned that telling a person to be reasonable was the quickest way to make them less reasonable than before.

At the end of the day, when Victoria had gone to bed and Heath finally got home, Adam, Jarrod and Nick were still discussing the problem, but the stone wall Old Vic had put up seemed insurmountable.

“What are you talking about?” Heath demanded, and Nick related to him how Adam knew of a way to stop the fever but their mother would have none of it.

“Why don’t you do it anyway and not tell her?” Heath shrugged.

Adam grinned. “You just proved you’re the half-brother in the family, Heath. Neither of these two would ever have dreamed of doing something like that on their own.”

Chapter 25

Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder

The first two weeks after Rosita left, Lizzy wrote her three times, thought of her often, and worried almost as much. She still couldn’t fathom her friend’s actions, and wondered how much she would suffer for them. She supposed Dave Clayton probably was a decent fellow, but he seemed a bit cold-blooded under the amiable exterior, and she was awfully glad she hadn’t married him. Or at least, she wouldn’t have married him, even if he had asked.

Now Will Cartwright was gone, as well, and not only that, but she had heard a strong rumor that he’d gone and proposed to Dorothy King, the daughter of the fellow who owned the general store. She could understand his doing it—as he said, he had to eat too, and the son-in-law of a store owner would never go hungry. But it stung, all the same. He had seemed so very fond of her, after all.

Adam Cartwright had left at some point, too—not that she missed him, but it was another painful reminder of the loneliness of two of her sisters. Kitty never cried; she stayed buried in books on farming and animal husbandry, and played with Nelly’s foal Inger for hours at a time. Jane tried not to cry, and she was successful when other people were around, but Lizzy had come upon her alone, sobbing her eyes out, more than once. It seemed a shame about Ben Cartwright sending the boys home. Surely Adam could have told his father about the deeper feelings Hoss and Joe had for Kitty and Jane, and convinced him to let them stay. And then she laughed, wondering why on earth she expected such a caring heart from Adam.

A month passed after Rosita’s departure, and one day Lizzy realized she still had not received even one letter after the many she had sent. Rosie had been so scared, so worried about loneliness, that Lizzy really couldn’t figure this out. She remembered Dave Clayton saying something at one point about the place being a little “primitive,” and wondered if her friend even had access to pen and paper, or conveyance to the Post Office.

Another month, and Lizzy knew this state of affairs could not continue. Her mother, of course, said no. Her mother was still offended, in fact, that she had let Clayton “get away.” Lizzy’s protest that the Reverend never had any design on any of the Bennet girls had not helped; it had only led her mother to lament that her daughters were merely playthings of rich cowboys and not even considered worthy for a dirt-poor preacher. Lizzy just sighed and sneaked away to ask her father, who thought over matters with the usual care and concern he paid his daughters, and gave his consent within minutes. So, almost two months to the day after Dave and Rosita left Mulberry Ridge, Lizzy did too, on the evening stage to Stockton.

She arrived at eight in the morning, covered with a thin layer of dust, and bruises where the rough road had exceeded the capacity of the coach’s suspension; her ears were all but numb from the constant rattling and banging noises, and her hands and legs just plain shaky from the vibration. But she had made it in one piece. Now to figure out how to find her friend….

It had never occurred to her that the church Dave Clayton wanted to build was not in Stockton itself, or that he did not live inside town. Perhaps if she had listened to his talks about church planting—but of course she had escaped most of his church-talk as quickly as possible.

After asking fruitlessly at several places about the Reverend Clayton—most people seemed not to have heard of him; a few said “oh, he’s that preacher building a church out in the middle of nowhere”—she was frustrated and irritated. But no one seemed able to tell her exactly where “the middle of nowhere” was located.

Then she saw an uncomfortably familiar sight, and her knees almost buckled. There was no mistaking that brawny chestnut gelding with the small “pine tree” on his flank. Or the tall, black-clad figure carrying the fully loaded saddle bags on one shoulder and the burlap bag on the other. “Mr. Cartwright!” she cried out, hating herself but realizing this was no time for pride. He turned and looked at her with a grin as she ran up to him.

“Good morning, Miss Elizabeth,” he said politely. “I must say, this is a surprise.”

“For me as well,” she said in tones echoing his.

“How long have you been here?” he asked, leaning back comfortably against his horse.

“I am only just arrived. I was looking for Reverend Clayton’s home, and no one seems to know where to find him.”

“It would be easier if he’d stay in one place,” Adam agreed with a raised eyebrow. “Are you actually looking for him, or are you looking for Rosita? They’re in different places.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I mean, she’s at the house, and he’s out in the pits with the ranch hands and the Barkley boys, dipping cows. I just came into town to put in an order for more sulfur and lime. I’m heading back there now, but as I said, Rosita’s at the house.”

“Then I would like to go to the house. Will you give me directions?”

“I could, but even someone who likes walking would find it a challenge. It’s 30 miles from here—I left when it was still dark to get here as early as I did. Walking, I think you’ll find it a two day trip. Don’t you have a horse?”

“As you see, sir, I do not.”

“Or money to rent one?”

Her blood boiling, Lizzy moved her head a fraction of an inch to the right.

“Reckon I’d better get you one, then,” Adam said. “Come along.”

“Sir, I cannot possibly—”

“What you cannot possibly do, Miss Elizabeth, is walk 30 miles. Nor can you wait for Dave and Rosita to come and get you. They’ve only got two horses, and no wagon. So it’s either wait until tomorrow for them to come and get you and then ride double going home with them, or I’ll rent you a horse and you can come with me. I assume you won’t mind riding that far. I’m not even sure we could get a wagon all the way to the house. The last mile or so isn’t cleared very well. You might as well come with me.

“And don’t bother to thank me,” he said, his voice dripping equal parts honey and garlic. “We’ll put it down to friendship. And I reckon while we’re at it I’ll get some more sulfur and lime for your horse, too.”

Not very inclined to talk to him, she had thought he shared the sentiment as well, but as soon as she had adjusted her stirrups and tied her carpet bag down, he started asking her about her family and whether her father was making any progress in becoming a farmer. Part of her was furious that he would ask such things. The other part remembered that he had something to do with the farming venture; she wasn’t sure what, having only heard part of the conversation before being banished from the room that fateful morning when her friend Rosita Morales became Rosita Clayton. But the Reverend had said something about this being a “scheme” between him and Adam. She had no doubt that for the Reverend it was some sort of Christian charity. That was just the sort of thing he would do. And Adam? For him it was probably an investment. Little Joe had more than once called him a walking abacus. He probably expected to get interest paid as well.

Something he said flew past her and she looked up in confusion. “What?”

“I asked if Inger was okay.”

She looked at him blankly.

“Nelly’s foal,” he prompted.

“Oh. Oh yes, she’s fine.” She couldn’t help a smile at the thought. “I don’t think Kitty has ever gotten over that, though. Your brother had quite the effect on her.”

He didn’t reply to that, but an eyebrow went up.

“She’s reading books on farming and animal husbandry—I do believe she knows more about the subject than my father. She’s always helping him or one of the hands. And she plays with the foal every day. She’s much changed since the days before your brother, but she does miss him terribly. Tell me, do you think he and Little Joe will be on the roundup?”

His jaw started working. “I doubt it, Miss Elizabeth. The Ponderosa is a very busy ranch, and my brothers and I all manage different operations there. It was unusual that our father allowed us all to work on this venture together. I’m sure Joe and Hoss will be needed at home; we have mining and timber undertakings as well as the ranch itself, and one can’t be neglected in favor of the others for long.”

“I see.” Her voice grew cold again. “My sisters will be sad to hear that, Mr. Cartwright. Perhaps to your brothers it was simply a flirtation, but Jane and Kitty are both very shy, and they don’t give their hearts away lightly.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Yes. It’s strange to me that your father can manage so well in spite of your prolonged absence. Perhaps you don’t manage much?” It was said politely, but the tone of voice made Adam realize that the powder in the burlap bag across Sport’s back was not the only sulfur in the area.

“My father sent me here on business at the Barkley ranch. We’ve known them a long time; in fact, Victoria Barkley is my godmother. Right now they’re losing their cattle to a tick fever, and I’m helping them. Dave is, too.”

“I thought he was building a church.”

“Well, you know Dave—or at least you ought to by now. ‘Church’ and ‘God’ are not interchangeable. He figures following after God is way more important than building a church, and God said to love your neighbors. So, the Barkleys being his neighbors, he wants to help them. It’s not as convoluted as it sounds—my Pa brought us up the same way. You always help your family and your neighbors. And my Pa’s not even a preacher,” he chuckled.

“That’s very interesting,” Lizzy remarked. “How does one typically help one’s neighbor at the Ponderosa, Mr. Cartwright?”

He shrugged. “However they need, I guess. Once there was a drought, and we helped the lowlanders put up windmills to get water. A couple of times we’ve given people land when they needed it. The Indians who live around the Ponderosa know that if things get tough, they can come to us for meat. Things like that.”

“Magnanimous, indeed,” she said. “Pray, Mr. Cartwright, how did you help your neighbors when you were at the Bar Fly?”

“What do you mean?” The question seemed to confuse him.

“We were your neighbors. Were you helpful to us?”

His look of confusion turned into something else then. “Do you mean like the way I’m helping you now, providing not only directions but free transport? Or do you mean some other form of help? Do you mean a kind of help similar to the help your father provided to me and my brothers when we arrived, which was to say, none? Or do you mean the kind of help I provided your father when I kept him out of jail? Miss Bennet, where I come from, it’s the established neighbor who helps the new person.”

Lizzy hadn’t heard much past the part about keeping her father out of jail. She had no idea what he meant, but was too enraged to ask—and from the look on his face, he was probably too enraged to answer. And so they were silent. But she had to wonder what he meant about keeping her father out of jail.

Chapter 26

The Martyr of Mulberry Ridge

A pen and chute had been set up near a couple of deep-dug pits in the middle of one pasture, and there were cattle and cowboys a-plenty. She also saw the good reverend, not looking terribly reverend-like—stripped to the waist, covered with mud, and his hair plastered over his face and in his eyes. He was standing next to one of the pits with a big bucket, pouring the muddy pit water over the head and back of a steer. A man on horseback and holding a rope cut out a single steer and drove it toward the deep, water-filled ditch, where the second man goaded it down into the muddy pool.

“It’s about time you got back,” Dave Clayton shouted to Adam as the other two waved. One of them called out, “I hope you brought plenty. We’re running shy already.”

“I cleaned out the store,” Adam replied, dropping lightly to the ground and unloading the burlap sacks from both Sport and the livery horse. “What are you doin’ all half-naked, anyway, Dave?”

“Gaaahh! In the first place, the mercury’s at 80 degrees today if you hadn’t noticed. And in the second place, somebody didn’t tell me that when ticks don’t like sulfur-covered cows, they jump on anything else handy. The little beggars started hiding in my shirt! At least this way I can see ’em and get ’em off.”

“What happened to loving all God’s creatures?”

“When it comes to ticks I’m a pagan heathen!”

“Well, ya could just run through that dip yourself,” Adam laughed.

“Some friend you are! You could make a body lose their religion.”

“I bet I could.”

“You’re such a Yankee—you don’t even know what it means!”

“To lose your religion? Hopefully it means you’ll quit preaching at me.”

“Not with you in such desperate need of fire and brimstone as you are.” And both laughed; then Dave squinted and called, “What’re you doin’ bringin’ ladies here?”

“I brought Rosie a present. Where do you want it delivered?”

“Huh?” he shaded his eyes with his hand and looked in her direction. “Oh—hey, is that Lizzy? Well, so it is! Welcome, Lizzy—and please excuse my appearance. I’m baptizing a new flock these days!”

Adam shook a finger at the preacher. “You better say ‘herd’ around here or somebody might accidentally shoot you for a sheep man.”

“Good afternoon, Reverend,” Lizzy called. “Is Rosita doing well?”

“As of this morning, yes,” he called back. “Adam, can you take her up to the house? And tell Rosita I’ll have to miss the swim—and probably dinner too. If she could just keep something warm for me that would be nice—”

The steer climbed out of the pit, shaking its head irritably—and then charged at Lizzy. Her heart jumped into her throat, but before she even tugged the reins, Adam was between her and the angry cow, waving his hat and yelling, and at the last minute it veered away. He ran after it, still yelling, until one of the two men brought his horse around and chased the steer back to the herd.

“I think we’ve worn out our welcome,” Adam commented, swinging back up on Sport. “I’ll be back in about an hour, Dave. Come on, Miss Elizabeth.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” Lizzy said as politely as her pounding heart would allow. “That was very…neighborly.”

Adam turned to her and with a mischievous little smile, tipped his dusty hat.

The pasture butted up against a wood, and a little trail took off to the right. Onto that trail Adam turned. “You see what I mean about getting here in a wagon—or for that matter, even finding the place,” he called back over his shoulder. “Once Dave’s ready to start building we’ll probably widen this out to a road, since the house will end up a parsonage and the church will be down here.”

Lizzy urged her horse forward so they could walk abreast, but couldn’t quite make it; the path wasn’t wide enough. “I don’t understand why he would build a church in the middle of nowhere like this!”

“This isn’t the middle of nowhere,” Adam chuckled. “We’ve got that at the Ponderosa. There are a lot of people out here, Miss Elizabeth, and it’s a long way to Stockton. Think about how far you’d want to go for a Sunday service. But you should enjoy the ride. This is the nicest wandering trail I’ve found, outside the Ponderosa. There’s a trail up there that goes right to Lake Tahoe, and when you come out of the trees—hoo-boy, it’ll take your breath away. Pa calls it a sight that approaches heaven.”

“You certainly seem very fond of the Ponderosa,” she observed.

“When I’m there, I’m always griping and ready to leave,” he said, and shook his head. “Sometimes I think I’m perpetually dissatisfied. Or at least, that’s what my father says. The clearing’s only about a mile ahead, Miss Elizabeth.”

Funny how the man could be so mean one minute and so open and friendly the next, Lizzy thought. But he had given her something to think about—it was true her family had never done anything to help the Cartwrights. In fact, her father hadn’t even wanted to welcome them. There were only three men to work on that large spread and no one would help, not even her father, who was right next door.

Fortunately, she remembered Adam’s treatment of Will then, and it made it easier not to feel so guilty.

She saw the house a little ways off, and was surprised to note that it actually was a house, not the hovel she was expecting. “The way he described the place was pretty bad,” she commented.

“It still looked pretty bad last month. But then Aunt Vic decided Dave was worthy to stay in the valley, after all, and she graciously allowed her boys and me a weekend off from cattle dipping, and we threw that place together in a flash. It’s still pretty primitive, though. I’m working on plans to get a pipeline up from the river and install a pump because right now they’re still stuck with lugging water up in buckets.”

“That’s terrible.”

He shrugged. “It happens the same way every time you build a new place. Dave doesn’t mind.”

“He apparently isn’t the one carrying the water!” Lizzy retorted, pointing.

Rosita was lugging a bucket up the hill. Adam shook his head and trotted Sport over to her, then dismounted and took the bucket away. “Is that layabout you’re married to making you do all the bucket-toting again?” he asked with a grin.

“He usually brings five buckets up each morning,” she said. “Today he forgot the fifth one. I think he’s worried about your dear old Aunt Vic and her strange need to name things for Tom B—why…Lizzy?”

Lizzy jumped down and rushed over to hug her friend.

“What are you doing here?” Rosita exclaimed.

“I thought I would surprise you. I haven’t heard from you at all since you’ve been here. How are you?”

“I…I….” She looked at Adam.

“I just brought her here,” he shrugged. “Once I get the water into the house I’ll be gone again. Oh, Dave said he’ll be late tonight and to hold some supper for him.”

She nodded, and he strode off, carrying the water and humming.

“I missed you,” Lizzy said. “How bad has it been for you?”

“Um….”

Adam reappeared from the house, waved to them, grabbed Sport, and was gone.

Rosita sighed, looking after him. “Come in, Lizzy. I’m not sure where we’ll put you. It’s only three rooms…and we only have the one bed…would you mind sleeping on the couch? We just got it right after I came here, so it’s in pretty good condition.”

“You can put me on the floor or in the outhouse for all I care. I came to see you.”

“It’s, um…it’s nice to see you again too.”

“Why didn’t you write? You said you would.”

“Well, the first month we were so busy, and…and…the second month…we were so busy…” She blushed then, and tears came to her eyes. “Come on in.”

The kitchen and living room were contained in one large room, and two smaller rooms; bedrooms, she supposed; were off to the side. At least there was a wooden floor. Lizzy set her carpet bag down and looked around. “This isn’t so bad,” she said cheerily, covering her distaste at the grease-soaked paper in the windows.

Rosita followed her gaze. “We have ordered glass, Lizzy. I asked Dave, and he—”

“You had to ask him?”

“He does not readily think of such things,” Rosita shrugged. “But when I asked, he said of course. He even promised to let me pick out some curtain fabric next time we’re in town.”

“How kind,” she murmured.

“Lizzy…you don’t understand. Dave works hard. He and Adam have been helping the Barkleys treat the cattle for the tick fever for nearly a month now. He spends hours going to visit sick or hurt folk. At night he works on sermons. He’s gathering all the materials for the church—they’ll start building as soon as the cattle-dipping is done. And until he married me, he never thought of having a ‘home’ because he lived in a tent or a lean-to, or if he was lucky and in a town, he could stay in a hotel and work in the kitchen while he was raising support. He doesn’t have it easy.”

“I don’t imagine you do, either.”

“I have more than I ever had,” Rosita said enigmatically, with a defiant look in her eyes.

Lizzy smiled. “I know. You’re respectable now. You always were, to me, you know.”

Rosita smiled back. “Yes, I do. So does Dave. That’s why he always liked you.”

Lizzy had no idea what that meant, but she didn’t care how Dave felt about her. It was Rosie she was worried about. “Do you get on well with him?”

Rosita blushed. “I…he likes to take long walks.”

“Walking is a good form of exercise,” Lizzy said tactfully.

“Yes, and he gets ideas for sermons when he walks, too. He also likes to swim.”

“That’s also very healthy.”

“Yes, I…um…I encourage the swims, too.”

Well, that’s two ways to keep him out of the house, Lizzy thought, walking around the room. It was plain, but spotless. “Can I help you with the cooking?”

“There won’t be much tonight. Just rice and beans. Next week the Barkleys say they’ll let us have a haunch of beef, but until the dipping is complete, everything else must wait.”

Lizzy nodded. “How do you pass the time?”

“Well, I cook a lot. Usually I’d make a big pot of stew and it would last us a few days, so the rest of the time was baking and washing. You know, for a minister, Dave gets very dirty. I guess it’s because he insists on working rather than just living on support. He also tears his clothes sometimes when he works, so I have a lot of sewing to do. When he goes visiting, I usually go with him.”

It was strange that Rosita acted so awkward around her, Lizzy thought. But awkward she was, from top to bottom. It was in the halting, disjointed answers, the defiant chin-tilt, the defensive posturing.

When the man of the house came home—clean and shiny, without a hint of the mud he’d been wearing that afternoon, back in full preacher regalia—Rosita got even worse. Now she seemed awkward in front of them both. Of course, Lizzy reflected, this might be the way she always was now. Maybe that was the kind of marriage she had. But Lizzy was too tired to speculate much, and when the bedroom door shut that night, she was already wrapped in her blanket and fast asleep on the couch.

Chapter 27

The Rose of Sharon

Nothing made sense, beginning with the conversation Lizzy had heard in the wee hours of the morning as Dave Clayton drank his coffee and prepared to head out.

“Why can’t you just tell the truth?”

Rosita’s sad reply: “I don’t know how.”

Lizzy could hear the disappointment in his voice. “This is what happens when you worry more about the opinions of others than about the things that last.”

A derisive snort. “You of all people should know, David—the opinions of others do last.”

He made no reply; there was a long silence between the two, and then he left the house. A few minutes later, she heard the hoofbeats of his horse.

Lizzy got up and went to Rosita. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“Why should you be sorry?” Rosita asked.

Lizzy shrugged. “I can see you’re miserable with him.”

Rosita looked at her, nonplused.

“You’ve been acting strange ever since I arrived. Even stranger when your husband came home. Now you’re arguing with him, and I guess he preaches at you as much as he does everyone else.”

Rosita sighed. “I’m a fool.”

“No, you’re not. I thought you were very brave to marry a man you didn’t know—”

“Lizzy, stop. I’m a fool, yes—but you’re a bigger one. My husband is right. I have to tell you the truth. Sit down.”

Puzzled, Lizzy sat down at the table, and Rosita poured each of them a cup of coffee.

“I was telling Dave the whole story a few days ago,” Rosita said slowly. “The story of how I left Mulberry Ridge, and you, determined to be a lady at last, even at the cost of my soul. I felt such a martyr when I boarded that stagecoach. St. Paul going to the chopping block could not have been more resigned than I was—and I made sure you knew it. And then I saw you yesterday afternoon, and…”

“I know. It’s all right.”

“You don’t know anything. Lizzy, I love Dave.” She blushed. “Do you remember when I left? I was so cynical, so knowledgeable, and so utterly wrong. But everything happened so slowly I didn’t see it happen. Then you walked up to me yesterday, and suddenly I remembered the things I had said, and I couldn’t stomach the notion of telling you that not only was I wrong, but I was an utter idiot.”

“Rosita, I don’t understand anything you’re saying.”

“Then I will explain, Lizzy. I don’t know if you will be as fortunate as I am; I hope you will be, but not everyone is married to my husband.” A giggle. “Do you know what happened on our wedding night?”

Lizzy turned red. “You were on a stagecoach!”

“I don’t count that. I mean when we got to Stockton. We spent the first week in a hotel, just because he wasn’t up to riding out to that miserable little shack yet. Let me tell you how we spent that week.”

“I don’t think that would be appropriate—”

“Of course you don’t. You’re assuming he demanded his husbandly right. Well, he didn’t. In fact, he refused to even consider it. He told me that I had to stop thinking of myself as merchandise. He said I was so used to thinking of myself that way, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. He said I would never be merchandise as far as he was concerned, and that when we came together as husband and wife, it would be because I wanted to. It took a long time for that to happen, but he never mentioned it again. We spent the whole week in that hotel just sitting and talking and getting to know each other—and in spite of myself I thought, ‘what a nice man he is.’

“I asked him once how much of my past he wanted to know. He said he would listen to anything I wanted to say, but that as far as he was concerned he didn’t need to know anything. I asked if I shouldn’t confess all my sins to him, the way I would a priest, and he said I never had to confess anything to him. He said I would accomplish more by confessing any sins I had to God, and that I shouldn’t worry about a ‘middle man.’ Lizzy, it was the first time in my life I had no obligation—and yet I was worth something. Not because of what I could do for him, but because of who I was—and not who I was to the rest of the world, but who I was to him. He called me his Rose of Sharon.”

Rosita looked around the house. “When we got out here, I looked at that little hovel he had been living in, and thought I would die if I had to live there. He took one look at my face and said I should go back to Stockton; that he could put me up in the hotel there while he tried to make the place nice enough to live in. Of course I said no; he didn’t have the money to spare. Do you know, Lizzy, except for what he spent on your father, every cent he made from that land sale has either gone for church expenses or for me? He won’t buy himself anything with it. Adam Cartwright gave us a wedding gift—$500 in cash. He gave it to me rather than Dave, because he knew Dave would use it for the church. We used that money to stay in the hotel and order glass windows for the house. I still have some of the money, and I’m saving it for other things that Dave would never buy for himself.”

Lizzy wondered what she meant about Dave spending money on her father, but now was not the time to ask, so she filed the question away for future reference.

“I’m sorry, Lizzy—so sorry. I would’ve let you think I was a martyr because I couldn’t stomach the thought of you finding out how wrong I was. We do have it hard here, but as much as he can, he treats me like royalty—as if I really do deserve the best he can give. How could I not be grateful? At some point my gratitude toward him became admiration, and then it changed into something else entirely. I’m not even sure when it happened. I only know that somehow I began to love him.

“That’s what he and I were talking about when you woke up this morning. I don’t know how much you heard—not enough, I guess, or you wouldn’t have formed such a bad opinion—but he didn’t see why I couldn’t just tell you the truth. The truth is, I was afraid you would think I had turned into a silly romantic, and it’s not that at all. I do love Dave, but somehow—well, I never loved anybody or anything before, except maybe you, and that’s different—I feel as if I’m having to learn how to do it.”

She looked anxiously at Lizzy. “Will you laugh at me now, or wait until I’m not around?”

Lizzy found, much to her surprise, tears sliding down her cheeks. “Rosita…I don’t think I could be any happier right now even if I were the one who had found such a husband. If I laugh, believe me when I say it will be from purest joy. I only wish you had told me before!”

Rosita sighed and leaned back in her chair. “Oh, Lizzy, I feel the way a horse must feel after Hoss Cartwright dismounts.”

“Oh, I don’t know; I’m told Hoss’s horse likes him very much. Now Rosita, you have to clarify something you said yesterday. In the bad opinion I held of Dave then, what you said made sense, but now that I know the truth, it doesn’t make sense anymore. If you love him, why do you encourage him to stay away so much?”

“I never said that!”

“You said Dave likes to walk, and you encourage him—”

“That’s true, but it’s not to get rid of him. He really does get sermon ideas on his walks. He said he used to try to sit in a church office and write and it never worked; he said he would much rather walk and think of God than sit in church and think of walking. Occasionally I walk with him, but I think I talk too much and distract him. So it’s best to let him go alone. It’s only for an hour or so.”

“And what of swimming? Does he get sermon ideas while he swims, too?”

“Mmmm? Um…no.”

“Then why do you encourage him in that?”

Rosita smiled. “Usually, I go along with him.”

“Swimming with men?”

“Just Dave. No others.”

“But whatever do you wear?”

Rosita’s grin lit up the whole cabin. “Not a thing.”

Chapter 28

Pride—and Prejudice

On Wednesdays and Saturdays, Dave and Rosita put on their best faces, saddled their horses, and rode up to the Barkley ranch for dinner. And now that they had a houseguest, it followed that she would be subjected to the same ordeal. Tonight’s dinner was also a celebration of sorts. Every last Barkley cow had been dipped, and it had been four days since the last cow had had to be shot. No new cases had been found. Clearly the lime-sulfur dip was a success, and Victoria was taking great delight that she had had the idea of them doing it.

Victoria Barkley’s respect was hard-won, and the jury was still out on whether or not she liked the enigmatic Reverend or his lovely but equally enigmatic wife. Old Vic was far more impressed by Dave’s help with the Barkley cattle than any of his theology, and even if he had been a “proper” Presbyterian she probably would not have chosen to go to any church he pastored. He was entirely too stubborn to be a preacher at all, or such was her opinion when he refused to let her buy a stained-glass window (to be called the Thomas Barkley Memorial Window). But Adam liked him, and Adam had known him for many years. It had come out over time that Dave’s shady past was not all that shady; he had never been an assassin or a con man, and he had never been a railroad “terrorist” (her battles with the local railroad had been legendary). Dave had only been a gambler and a gunfighter, and so had a lot of people Victoria knew.

The entire Barkley family had heard by now of the circumstances by which Adam and Dave had become friends—not because Adam and Dave talked about it, but because Ben Cartwright had included a brief sketch of the events in a letter. Because they knew some of the story (and loved trying to learn more) they also understood Dave’s doglike loyalty to Adam. What the Barkleys did not know anything about—and what Victoria delighted in trying to find out—was what had prompted Adam’s same deep feeling toward Dave, which went way beyond those of “Adam bringing home a stray.” And while it was obvious to Dave, Rosita, all three Barkley boys, and even obtuse Audra and outsider Lizzy that Adam would never tell her, Victoria still insisted on trying. This, however, proved boring to the rest of the party, and they began talking among themselves. Lizzy immediately liked all three of the Barkley brothers, but she gravitated toward Jarrod. He was around Adam’s age, and like Adam, learned and articulate. Unlike Adam, though, he was immediately friendly, and when he saw that she did not know the Adam-Dave story, he decided to explain it. The other Barkley siblings were happy to join in the fun.

“No, they’re really not related,” Jarrod said quietly, as his mother, at the other end of the dinner table, continued to interrogate Adam and Dave. “They met something around eight or nine years ago in Kansas City. Back then Dave wasn’t known as Dave. And he was a pretty fast gun.”

“But somebody else was faster,” Nick put in. “Everybody wants to prove how fast they are using the established guy as the test. So this time Three-Fingered Louie Martin called him out, and he had to go or be called yellow.”

“Meanwhile, Adam was coming through town on his way back from college, and he couldn’t figure why everybody was givin’ him such a wide berth,” Heath said. “Or why people kept lookin’ at him funny and calling him ‘Sam.’”

“Three-Fingered Louie and Sam had their gunfight, and they both lost,” Audra said, tossing her hair back over her shoulder. “Louie was faster, but Sam’s bullet still found its mark. By this time everyone had decided that if Adam wasn’t Sam Driscoll, he must be related to him—and so they took Adam to see his dying brother.”

Jarrod chuckled. “Ben couldn’t say what actually happened then, but somehow Adam helped Sam get out of town.”

Lizzy shook her head in puzzlement. “Yes, but what about the ‘faster bullet’? Dave told me it took a bullet in the chest to make him change his ways, but how did he live through it? Or was he not really hurt?”

“He certainly was hurt!” Rosita said sharply, and everyone at the table looked at her in surprise.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Clayton; we didn’t know you were listening,” Jarrod said smoothly.

“Oh, I suppose you think if you were talking behind my husband’s back it is perfectly acceptable to gossip about his past. I’ve seen the scar.” Rosita looked at her friend. “Will you doubt me, Lizzy?”

“Rosie, no!” Lizzy cried. “I’m sorry. And we didn’t mean to gossip. It’s just such an exciting and dramatic tale—rather like one of my father’s dime novels.”

Dave and Adam looked at each other and rolled their eyes.

It was a dark and stormy night,” Adam intoned loudly and dramatically.

Dave picked it up with a grin. “The rain fell in torrents–except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets—

Adam chuckled. “For it is in London that our story lies!

“What on earth are you two talking about? What does London have to do with anything?” Victoria demanded. “Don’t talk as if I’m not in the room.”

“Sorry, Aunt Vic,” Adam said with a shrug. “It’s just that my ‘cousins’ over there have decided to make the story of how I met Dave into a piece of great literature, so Dave and I decided to help them out.”

“I don’t know that I’d call Paul Clifford great literature,” Dave said.

“Well, I don’t know that I’d call our meeting great literature either.” Adam grinned. “Miss Elizabeth, it’s very simple. There he was, and there I was, and I said ‘that man is far too good-looking to get lynched by Three-Fingered Louie’s friends. So I put him on a train. That’s the end of the story.”

“And the beginning of another,” Dave put in. “That bullet killed Sam Driscoll. The man who stood up and walked away—with the kindly help of God and Adam—was a new creature in Christ.”

“Yeah,” Adam sighed. “The new creature was Dave Clayton, and instead of using a gun, he’s been boring people to death with his preaching ever since.”

“It’s a rotten job, but someone’s gotta do it,” Dave said good-humoredly, and the conversation moved to other things.

Lizzy found herself wondering what was so special about Audra—and then she remembered Will saying that the late beloved Laura had been blonde. Audra was, too. Maybe she looked something like Laura, and Adam had agreed to marry her as a consolation prize? They certainly didn’t seem to have much in common, and Adam treated Audra with the same disinterested courtesy he applied to most women. Nor did Audra seem interested in Adam. Well, they probably didn’t like displaying their feelings in public. Surely Will couldn’t have been mistaken—although it seemed to Lizzy that both Adam and Audra ignored each other except when Victoria Barkley insisted on throwing them together.

Still, she couldn’t help touching one of her own coal-black curls and wondering what was wrong with brunettes.

Jarrod broke into her thoughts to ask Lizzy just how it was she had met Adam. It was with slightly malicious joy that she related to him how Adam had accompanied his brothers to one of the Friday evening dances but could not be convinced to participate, although at that particular dance the girls had significantly outnumbered the men and he would have had a crowd from which to choose. Jarrod laughed at that, until a memory hit him, and then he said, “You know, Adam’s usually pretty sociable at those kind of things. He’s a pretty good dancer, too—taught Audra how to waltz when she was 13. I have to wonder if his back was acting up on him again.”

“His back?”

“Yes, as I recall he took a spill a couple of years ago—don’t know how, might have been from a horse. Anyway he damaged his back pretty badly.”

“Excuse me!” Adam looked pointedly at Jarrod from the other end of the table.

“What?” Jarrod asked. “I thought it was public knowledge; you hurt your back a couple of years ago, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and as I recall, there was a real interesting cactus story where you hurt your—”

“Boys,” Victoria cut in smoothly, “If everyone’s finished with dinner, let’s go to the parlor and have sherry.”

While she and Dave argued about why Dave would absolutely NOT consider putting in a Thomas Barkley memorial pew, Jarrod asked Lizzy if she played the piano.

“Yes and no,” Lizzy said with a giggle. “If you’re simply asking me whether I play, the answer is ‘yes.’ If you’re asking whether I play well, there is an entirely different answer.”

“Oh, well,” Adam said playfully, “Now that the obligatory modest and self-deprecating disclaimer has been made, why don’t you play something?”

Lizzy gave him a long stare from under her hooded eyes. “Some people ask for their own punishment,” she said with a smile, and went to the piano.

She was out of practice. Her mother hated piano music, and only insisted on having a piano because the Gardiners in San Francisco had one. But Lizzy, although dexterous and with a good ear for music, had never had the patience to play the same thing repeatedly. One piece she did know pretty well, though, was Schubert’s Serenade, so she played it, and Jarrod leaned against the piano and hummed along. And when she looked up, Adam was leaning on the other side of the piano, watching her hands.

“Uh-oh,” she murmured, and kept playing. “Mr. Frightful has come to intimidate me. He doesn’t realize I’m as stubborn as he is.”

“What?” Jarrod asked.

She nodded toward Adam. “He found a fatal flaw in my fingering.”

“Say that five times fast,” Adam chuckled. “I saw no such thing.”

“Then you must be terribly disappointed.”

“Why?”

“Isn’t that why you came over here? To tell me what’s wrong? My dear Mr. Cartwright, as long as I have known you, I’ve only seen you tell people the wrong of things. Nobody can please you, because nobody is good enough for you. Where I come from, we call that ‘pride.’”

Adam smiled gently. “And as long as I’ve known you, my dear Miss Elizabeth, you’ve formed your entire opinion of a person’s character based on your first impression of them—and at every subsequent meeting, you’ve added in any evidence that fit your first impression, and discarded everything else, no matter how interesting or different. Where I come from, we call that ‘prejudice.’ You actually play the piano quite well, and I looked at your hands because I think you have lovely hands. But I have no doubt that by the time you go to bed tonight, you will have bitten off all your fingernails and blamed it on me.”

“It would take more than the likes of you to make me bite off my fingernails, my dear Mr. Cartwright!”

“I would never attempt to frighten you, my dear Miss Elizabeth. I will leave that to the right reverend over there, who is your host and therefore authorized to unleash fire and brimstone in your direction. As for li’l ole me, I fear I can no longer tolerate your abuse. You’ve scared me to death good and proper, and given me a headache beside, so I think I must surrender to your indomitable will.” He turned to Jarrod. “I really am kinda tired, Jarrod. Make my goodnights to Aunt Vic if she ever comes up for air. Poor Dave; if he doesn’t at least put an ashtray in the church and name it after your pa, Dave’s never gonna hear the end of it.”

“Hey, her ambitions have really come down,” Jarrod replied with a grin. “I think she originally was going to try and get the whole church named after my father.”

Adam clapped him once on the shoulder and then turned back to Lizzy. “Good night, Miss Elizabeth. Whoops—hangnail!”

Lizzy involuntarily looked down at her hands and then glared after the rapidly retreating Adam in astonishment. “That man is a disease!” she finally muttered. “If someone ever bottles a cure for him, they’ll make a fortune.”

Continue to next chapter ->

310 total views, 5 views today

18 thoughts on “Pride and Ponderosa (by Sandspur)”

    1. Thanks, JoJay! I have always loved Austen’s original, so I’m always glad when someone enjoys this story!

  1. Sandspur, as one who has never actually read Jane Austen (is that blasphemy?), I can’t imagine her original version to be as entertaining as yours. I loved seeing all the familiar crossover characters, plus I think I recognized a couple of Brand personalities in there as well (heaven help Joe). You laid out a credible story line for the connection between Adam and his lookalike Dave Clayton, and you’re right — I definitely need to find that Bronco episode. I’m always challenged by the sheer volume of story that flows from you (I mean that in a good way) and your style is like no other. Wish I’d been around to see it unfold as a WIP — that would have been great fun, I know!

    1. Thanks for your review, JC. This is one of my own favorites, just because it was so zany. The WIP was done as a NANOWRIMO project seven or eight years ago and was massively fun.

  2. I adore this story! Adam is a hoot–I love seeing him loosen up. The inside jokes are hilarious. I’ll confess I am not the biggest Jane Austen fan, but what you did with this crossover was inspired.

  3. Austen’s book is one of my favorites, so I particularly enjoyed seeing how you transformed scenes, characters and dialog from the original into the lives of the Cartwrights and assorted people from previous episodes. I don’t always agree with some characterizations (like Will and Mr. Bennet), but even so it’s a fun romp written in your unique style. Well done with a formidable task!

    1. Thanks for your review, Puchi Ann! I’m glad you enjoyed the story, even if you didn’t agree with all the characterizations. As you’ve probably figured out, I did not want the story to be a straight scene-by-scene retelling of the classic, and of course once some of the Western characters (such as Dave Clayton from “Bronco”) made their entrance, it couldn’t be a strict retelling, anyway, so some of the characters had to change. But for me that was part of the fun–seeing what the new characters would bring to the Austen “table.” And as for Mr. Bennet, you are not alone. Several people have taken me to task for my rendition of him. My response is simply, “He has a great wit, but the man is the most ineffectual father ever, even in the original.” Sorry!

  4. I think it’s pretty much unanimous, Sandspur; sequel please! This was such a fun read. What a wonderful mix of characters, and they all rang true. I always wondered what would happen if the Barkleys and Cartwrights met. And the addition of the Pride and Prejudice characters was inspired. Thank you for writing this.

  5. I haven’t read such a lengthy, fun, adventurous story in a good long time. I found myself laughing so much, the humor is fantastic. Your Adam was so precise! I’ll also vote a sequel. It’s just too good to end like this. Please consider, in the mean time, I’ll most certainly look forward to it. Thank you for the laughs and a great story.

    1. Well it was certainly lengthy, Kranapple, but I’m glad you found it fun too. I had worlds of fun writing this story. I’m always glad when other people get the fun out of reading a story that I had when writing it.

  6. I’d hate to have to pick my favorite of all your stories, but if someone put a gun to my head….

    Well, I doubt that would actually make it any easier. But this story just might be my favorite of all favorites. I had a blast reading it as a WIP, and even though you ignored all my suggestions (or all the suggestions I can remember) I get an even bigger blast when I reread it, because it’s always better than I remember it.

    I have to second BWF’s plea for a sequel. I’d much rather read your sequel to this than try to plow through P.D.James’s sequel to the “real” P&P (I’ve never gotten past the first chapter, good as P.D.James is as an original writer). We don’t even have to mention the scads of Austen fan fiction out there, do we? I’m sure some of it is readable (actually, I do know some of it is, but that’s beside the point) but none of it has Adam. And Adam is a perfect hero for Austen…as well as for me.

    1. sklamb, some of my fondest memories are of this story’s “WIPdom.” Your help was invaluable to me; I did take careful note of several of your suggestions (remember the original Chapter 12? Or the lack of Chapter 43? You and faust were directly responsible for those. 😀 ) I had more fun writing this story than any three people have a right to, and I can only thank Jane Austen and all the WIPpers for that experience.

      PD James is a brilliant writer, but I’m with you–“Death Comes to Pemberley” never should have been allowed to see the light of day. But I’m not sure “Pride and Ponderosa” needs a sequel. I’ll give it some thought, though. The problem is sequels seldom live up to the first story, and I’d hate to fall into that trap.

      Thanks for the praise…and don’t worry, I’ll never hold a gun to your head!

  7. Saints preserve us!!!! What an adventure. The dead-pan style of writing was priceless and the brothers’ predicaments were true to form. But I must admit, I’m left hanging… what happens next? There are so many plot lines that could be continued, maybe the adventure is just beginning?

    1. To tell the truth, BWF, I’ve never imagined doing a sequel for this one; I thought it best just to leave it as Austen did. I had never thought of it as something that COULD be continued. But you never know, now that you’ve put an evil idea into my head! Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed the story!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.