Pride and Ponderosa (by Sandspur)

Chapter 29

Making Friends and Influencing People

On Sunday Adam came over for dinner with the Clayton household. Afterwards he took out the guitar he had brought along, and Dave got out his own. They tuned up while Rosita and Lizzy cleared the table, and by the time the water was hot in the dishpan, the two men had a full-blown concert going. They started with a wistful, sad piece that Lizzy had never heard.

“It’s called Endless Road,” Rosita told her as she handed a plate over. “Dave said that before he met me, it was his favorite song. Now he says it’s the saddest song he knows, but that Adam still loves it.”

Lizzy dried it and put it on the stack of clean dishes to return to the cabinet. “They have amazing harmony.”

“Don’t they? Mrs. Barkley heard them once and said they sounded like the same voice.”

“I didn’t know Mr. Cartwright could sing. I suppose it’s helpful for a preacher like Dave, though.”

“Dave says he always played the guitar, but he never sang much until Adam taught him Amazing Grace. Then he sang all the time. You know, since Dave has told me so much about Adam, I’ve thought of him as a friend almost as much as Dave does. He’s been very good to us, Lizzy.”

“Well, you told me about the wedding present. I suppose it’s easy enough for the likes of him to throw a little money in Dave’s direction, though.”

“It wasn’t a little,” Rosita replied. “And as much money as he and Dave have spent to put your father right, a little gratitude from you might be in order as well.”

“What does that mean?”

“Ask your father,” Rosita said, and would not explain further. And for the first time ever, Lizzy and Rosita found themselves at an impasse, each unwilling to be the first to break the silence, while the two men continued their easy singing with Kathleen Mavourneen.

“I often think Adam’s wasted as a rancher,” Rosita finally observed. “Not that he isn’t a good one; from what I’ve heard, the Ponderosa went from being a 40-acre land claim to more than 500 squares miles mostly due to Adam and his father. Since then the place has doubled again in size as the younger brothers became more involved too. Dave says there are parts of it where you can ride for days without seeing anything but trees and cows. And yet, Adam does so many other things, and so well—but he stays there.”

“What does he do besides sing?” And annoy people.

“Well, he does sing wonderfully. But he also builds things. He has a degree in engineering, with training in architecture. He built several homes around Virginia City, and from what Dave told me he redesigned the Ponderosa ranch house. Oh, and a few years ago he helped a German engineer devise some kind of structural support for all the mines that’s all but stopped the mines caving in.”

“Quite the boy genius,” Lizzy laughed.

“Well, not just that,” Rosita said with a serious frown. “Remember, while you’re making fun of him, that if he hadn’t been with Dave in Kansas City all that long time ago, you and I would probably not be having this conversation. I would still be dancing and selling myself to drunken cowboys.” She shuddered. “I’ll never go back to that life. Dave tells me that before he changed, he was always a solitary man. He has many friends now, a great many. But Adam is still his best friend, and that, if nothing else, makes him special to me.”

Lizzy sighed, and then looked across the room at the two men.

“Kathleen mavourneen, awake from thy slumbers,

The blue mountains glow in the sun’s golden light,

Ah! where is the spell that once hung on thy numbers,

Arise in thy beauty, Thou star of my night,

Arise in thy beauty, Thou star of my night.”

“It really makes no sense,” Lizzy murmured thoughtfully. “I hear such conflicting stories of him everywhere. How can he be the kind of person who takes his near kin and forbids him from a share of the inheritance he was promised? How can he threaten to kill his own cousin if the man even sets foot on the ranch? Why, poor Will cannot even visit his uncle without endangering his own life.”

Rosita shook her head. “Perhaps Will’s uncle doesn’t want to see him either—have you considered that? I don’t know, Lizzy, but neither you nor I was there that day. I do know this, though: Dave is a good judge of people, and he loves Adam. And Dave never lies to me, but while he won’t tell me the story of Will Cartwright either, he insists that Adam’s grievance is justified.” A shrug. “Think about it before you dismiss him out of hand, Lizzy. He may end up being not such a bad fellow after all.”

The song had changed again: the men were playing Schubert’s Serenade. Dave looked across the room at Rosita as they played, and when he smiled at her, it made Lizzy ache just to know that somewhere there were men who felt so. And then to her surprise she saw Adam was looking at her. When he saw her returning his gaze, he blushed—he blushed?—and turned back to Dave.

“You always played that on the piano,” Rosita whispered. “I used to think nothing could be prettier. But it sounds good on guitars, too.”

Lizzy swallowed, and dried a plate, and said nothing. But she thought many things.

The next day work began on the church, or as Adam had dubbed it, the “This is not the Tom Barkley Memorial Building” building. Dave had not asked the Barkleys for help, but all three of the men had volunteered after his assistance with the cattle. They showed up with Adam at a little before sunrise, and Lizzy barely registered the arrival of four and departure of five.

Late that morning Lizzy and Rosie saddled their horses and took a picnic hamper out to the church site, where the five men had dug the foundation already and were putting up the two-by-fours that would make the frame of the building.

“Did Adam design this?” Lizzy asked Rosita.

“He designs most of the churches Dave builds. Sometimes Dave gets lucky and can use an existing building, but when it’s in a new place like this he sends Adam a letter. He’s almost memorized all the questions Adam will ask, so Adam doesn’t even come to look anymore. Now and then he’ll send a local surveyor in; that’s about it. Of course this time, he was here already, so he did everything himself.”

“I had no idea church-building was such a science,” Lizzy said, unable to stop a giggle. “Now, tell me, what would have happened if the Barkley boys had been unable to help with this project?”

A shrug. “Dave would have gone into the community and gotten some volunteers, and they would probably have thrown the whole place together in a day. But it wouldn’t be as well-made.”

“How long will it take to complete it?”

Adam walked up then. “Morning, Rosie; morning, Miss Elizabeth. We plan to have it done by Saturday. Aunt Vic wants her boys back by then. What do you ladies think of the place?”

“It looks wonderful to me,” Rosie said. “I can imagine Dave at the pulpit already.”

“So can Dave,” Adam laughed. “He’s warming up his best fire-and-brimstone voice. Why don’t you go let him practice sermonizing on you, Rosie?”

“Do you think I need a push? I’m only here as long as it takes to unpack the sandwiches and then I fly straight to him.”

As she walked away, Adam and Lizzy looked after her. Adam spoke first. “I never thought I’d admit this, but Dave picked himself a darn good wife.”

“I never thought to admit it either,” Lizzy confessed. “But Rosita picked a darn good husband.”

“You had some doubts?” Adam shook his head. “Funny, I thought I wrote the book on that. I said some bad things when he told me.”

“So did I,” Lizzy replied. “Perhaps there really was some providential intervention.”

“With Dave, I wouldn’t doubt it a bit. Miss Elizabeth, are you still enjoying your stay here?”

“I am, very much. Unfortunately, I have to leave on Monday.”

“Funny; I’m pulling out myself, on Sunday. Are you going home, then?”

“Only briefly,” Lizzy replied. “Every year for the last few years my aunt and uncle take one of us girls on a summer trip. This is my year.”

“Do you like them?”

“Oh, yes. Aunt Gardiner is my mother’s sister, but she’s quiet and sensible and likes to read. We always talk about books together, and she loves Whittier.”

“I guess you’ll have a good time, then.” He looked thoughtful, but said nothing else.

“May I ask where you’ll be going?”

“I have some legal and personal business to take care of in Todos Santos,” he said, looking uncomfortable, and she changed the subject.

“I loved listening to you and Dave sing yesterday.”

“He has a nice voice.”

She laughed. “You’re only saying that because he sounds like you.”

“No; I concede we look alike, but I don’t think we sound at all alike. He’s got that awful southern accent, for one thing.”

“What awful southern accent would that be, my fine upstanding Yankee friend?” Dave had just walked up behind Adam, and now he grinned broadly at his friend. “Gotta watch what you say around those awful southerners, you know. Never know when one of ’em’ll walk up right behind you. Walk with me, Adam; I want to show you something.” He dragged Adam away, pointing at one of the structural supports for the building, and as he did so, Jarrod Barkley came over. “Mind if I sit with you a minute?”

“Not at all, Mr. Barkley. Please do.”

“I overheard you say you’re leaving soon; is that correct?”

“Yes, I’ll be going on Monday.”

“I’m drawing up some papers for your father. If I give them to you on Saturday, will you deliver them?”

Lizzy frowned. “What business do you have with my father?”

“I’m only drawing up the papers, Miss Bennet. The transaction is between your father and another party. If you don’t want to take the papers, that’s all right; I’ll have a courier take them. It’s just that if I do it that way, someone will have to pay a fee for the courier.”

“Never mind, Mr. Barkley. I’ll take them. Just tell me—is my father in some kind of trouble?”

He patted her hand. “Of course not, Miss Bennet. I am sorry, but most people have to deal with a lawyer at some time or another. We only seem big and scary.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.”

As she and Rosita made their way back to the little house in the woods, Lizzy was thinking of the two conversations—the one with Adam, and the one with Jarrod Barkley. Funny, each had been pleasant for a minute or two, and then become uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s me, she thought.

Chapter 30

How Not to Decline a Marriage Proposal

For the rest of the week, Lizzy and Rosie had breakfast, cleaned the small house, talked for a while, then made a big stack of sandwiches for the five-man construction crew and rode out to the church site together. The place was coming together beautifully, they would agree as they rode up. And then the hungry men would present themselves, the two women would dole out food, and Dave and his Rose of Sharon would get as far away as possible from the rest and talk together until it was time to leave. Somehow, to her own astonishment, Lizzy found she and Adam were becoming a couple as well, or at least the Barkleys seemed to think so. Thus Lizzy and Adam ate and talked together until it was time to resume work—and to her even greater surprise, Lizzy enjoyed the conversations. He was quite a different Adam from the scowling fellow in Mulberry Ridge, and one day she told him so.

“That’s only because you don’t see me at the end of the day,” he replied with a rueful grin. “It takes a whiskey and a couple of headache powders to make me normal enough to get through dinner. It was worse in Mulberry Ridge, because I didn’t have any headache powders and had to rely on whisky. Not exactly my medication of choice.”

Lizzy started to contest that, as he had seemed fine at Wednesday’s dinner, but she remembered that he had again gone to bed early.

“Do you know what causes this pain?”

He shrugged. “This is a body that’s taken some abuse, Miss Elizabeth. A couple of years ago I was building a house and fell off the roof. I was unable to walk for several weeks.” He held a hand up at her horrified look. “I’m fine now, really. It’s just that right after we got to Mulberry Ridge I got clumsy. I was still feeling the effects of a concussion when we went to the dance, and my horse bolted out from under me that night. I landed in a briar patch, so besides still finding thorns in myself a couple of days later, I wrenched my back.” He gave her a long, searching look. “Miss Elizabeth, I’d appreciate it a lot if you didn’t take my behavior in Mulberry Ridge as the sum total of my character. Nobody will ever mistake me for Dave Clayton, but I’m not as bad as I seemed then.”

“You weren’t that bad,” Lizzy lied.

“Don’t do that, Miss Elizabeth. You never backed down on me before. I was a jackass, but in my own defense—and not that it’s much of one—I was dragged out, worried about meeting a schedule, annoyed about all the money we were pouring into a sinkhole, and in a lot of pain. Still, that’s no excuse for treating other people badly.”

Lizzy made a little smile. “Does this mean you’re apologizing?”

“I guess so. Shucks, I’ve been around Dave almost a month now, and being around him for long always does give me the urge to confess all my sins and get my heart right. Besides, today’s Friday; I’ll be gone day after tomorrow, and not likely to see you for a while. I want to make sure things between us are cleared up when I leave.”

“Then things are certainly cleared up, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Okay.” He took a deep breath. “That’s good, because…Miss Bennet, I can make Mulberry Ridge a stop on my way back to the Ponderosa. Would you have any objection to my speaking to your father about…about courting you?”

Whatever she had expected from him, this was not it. She just sat stunned for several minutes. “What about Audra?”

An expression of vague distaste crossed his face. “What about her?”

“Do you mean…you’re thinking of marriage? With me?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.” His gaze was steady but warm, his face uncertain.

“This is quite a surprise, Mr. Cartwright. I hardly know what to say. I…didn’t realize you felt that way about me.”

“I’ll grant, it’s sudden. But…well, that’s the way I work. Miss Elizabeth, I won’t force anything. Take the day and think it over. I know maybe I didn’t give you much of a chance to get to know me. If you’re uncomfortable, we can court for a while before we start talking about setting dates. For now I’d just settle for that hope. I figure if your friend Rosita learned to love Dave, you might be able to learn to love me. Tomorrow, when you come out for lunch, bring your answer then.”

She could hardly wait to talk to Rosita about it—but when they were together again, she found herself unable to say a word. And so while it weighed heavily on her mind, it did not become a topic of conversation. Nobody like Adam Cartwright had ever paid attention to her before. Men found her pretty, but among the men she knew, women who read a great deal and had ideas were regarded as neither accomplished nor lovable. But the things other men disliked about her were the things that seemed to attract Adam. And there were many things she found attractive about Adam—when he wasn’t being the fire-breather he’d been in Mulberry Ridge. But he had explained his behavior then, and apologized. Maybe he would improve even more on closer acquaintance.

There was that nagging little thing about Will Cartwright…but maybe Rosita was right, maybe Will had lied; maybe there was a reason…

She was barely able to sleep that night, and in the morning was still turning things over…but as she and Rosita rode out that morning, she reached her decision, and she was all smiles and blushes when they arrived.

Jarrod was the first one she saw, and he was in town clothes, not the work outfit he’d been wearing. “Hi there,” he greeted them when they arrived. “You’re late.”

“Only a little,” Rosita said. “You don’t look like you’ve been working, anyway.”

“Not the way you’d think of as work,” Jarrod said with a lopsided smile. “Only writing legal documents, which of course is a very easy thing to do and not work at all. Rosita, the fellows doing the real work are on the other side of the building right now—can you let me borrow Lizzy for a minute?”

Rosita nodded with a smile and departed with the basket.

“This is for your father,” Jarrod said, holding up a long, light-blue envelope with red sealing wax covering the flap.

“I suppose this means I’m not allowed to look at it.” Lizzy traced the raised seal and grinned.

“No—but it’s not confidential, according to the, um, party of the first part—meaning our friend Dave—so I can tell you what it is, if you want to know.” At her nod, he went on. “It’s an agreement between Dave and your father that after working the acreage as farmland and making a living on it for ten years, the land parcel, being 3,000 acres, will revert its ownership back to your father.”

“What? But…it’s always been ours…and only 3,000 acres? I understood the place to be much bigger than that.”

“There was apparently a miscommunication at some point, Lizzy. Your father didn’t own the land; hasn’t for some time. Dave Clayton owns it. And as for the ‘much bigger’ aspect, he sold 12,000 acres to Adam.”

“Adam…Cartwright?”

“Yes. Now this is the document that contains the agreement; your father should sign all three copies in the presence of a notary and keep one for copy himself, then send the other two back to me. And this document is marking off the boundaries of the land. He can have it independently surveyed if he wants—at his own expense—and once he agrees, again, sign all three copies and return two of them to me. This other document here separates out the 12,000 acres that were sold to Adam and is mainly just informational so your father doesn’t plant any crops there.”

“I don’t understand all this.”

“I’m sure your father can explain it further. Between him and Dave—not to mention Adam—they’ve certainly kept me busy the last two weeks. And here I am with no secretary! I had two of them for the office here; one’s gotten married and won’t come near my place now, and the other broke her hand. A broken leg I could have coped with—but a hand!” He sighed. “Anyhow, having taken the last month and a half to work on either cattle or churches, and all this stuff the only legal work I’ve done, I need to get back to San Francisco. Of course, that leaves my poor helpless brothers alone and unprotected, but maybe they’ll get by—this time. Take care, Lizzy.” He turned and walked off toward his horse, and she turned and walked with him.

“Are you really as protective as you seem of them?” she asked.

“My brothers? Not really—but they would tell you I am. That’s just the way younger brothers are. You do one good thing for them and they think you’re interfering. Last week I kept Nick from investing in some railroad stock that turned out to be from a phony railroad. He nearly hit me in the mouth, but Adam grabbed him just in time. I think Adam and I get along so well for that very reason. He knows how it feels to have two younger brothers always running headlong into trouble.”

“I met his brothers. They seemed very intelligent and levelheaded.”

“Sure, just like mine. But let ’em fall in love with a girl and they lose all their sense. Just like mine. Nick thought that poor girl was desperate, selling off her father’s stock like that. Huh! And you know, right after he got here, Adam told me that his two brothers had gone completely giddy over a couple of gold-diggers near that ranch they had leased, and Adam had to get them away before they did anything foolish. Fortunately, his pa was just as eager to avoid trouble as Adam was, so he helped out.”

Lizzy stopped walking for a minute, then ran to catch up. “Adam had to…get them away?”

“Yes, I think he manufactured some excuse. I’m sure it was for the best, though. I can’t count the number of times he’s had to pull one or the other of them out some sort of scrape with a girl who was after the Ponderosa payroll. Oh, for Pete’s sake, I forgot to give Adam his stuff. Would you be a good girl and do it for me?” He pulled two envelopes from his saddlebag and slapped them into her dazed hands. “This is the wardship application—I know he’ll be glad when any reminder of Will is out of the way—and this is the land deed and bill of sale. Thanks, Lizzy. It was quite a pleasure meeting you, by the way—I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay out here with Rosita and Dave. Goodbye!”

With that he swung into the saddle and reined the horse around.

Nick appeared at her side. “Hi, Lizzy. Rosita says you’re missing lunch, and Adam wants to talk to you. Are you okay? You look kind of sick.”

“I’m fine.” Lizzy set her jaw and walked back with him, barely noticing the sight of the completed church, narrowly missing a bucket of white paint. She saw Adam and headed to him. “Jarrod said these are for you. One is the deed for the land that used to belong to my father, and the other ‘resolves that whole mess with your cousin Will.’”

“Thanks; I was afraid I’d forget to pick them up.” He looked at her in concern. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. It’s just hot; that’s all.”

“Would you like some water?”

“No, thank you. I…I don’t want anything from you, Mr. Cartwright.”

He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back a little to look down at her. “What is it I’m supposed to have done now?”

“Nothing, Mr. Cartwright.” Nothing to my sisters, nothing to me, certainly nothing to your cousin Will. “But I did think over your proposal, and my answer is a decided ‘no.’”

“I see. Not just any ‘no,’ but a decided ‘no.’ Without an explanation, or any reason at all—and yet I didn’t do anything.”

Her throat was too tight to give him an explanation, even if she had wanted to discuss it. She merely looked at him in dismissal.

“I kind of thought you were leaning my way yesterday. That maybe Dave and Rosita, and the example they set, would have showed you something…that you could get past a first impression; that you could learn to love somebody.”

“With sufficient labor, no doubt,” Lizzy finally said. “If I worked at it hard enough, I might convince myself to love a cockroach, too. But in the end there would be no benefit to it.”

His hat shaded his face, so when she gave him her coldly triumphant smile, she could not see the expression there. She hoped it was one of hurt. But when he responded, his voice was cool. “Well, then, think of me next time you step on one. Maybe it’ll give you some pleasure. Obviously, you take a lot of pleasure in stepping on roaches…and people. Goodbye, Miss Elizabeth.”

He turned and walked back to the church, straight of back, arms swinging loosely at his sides, to all appearances, unconcerned about his lot in life. She ran to her horse and galloped back to Dave and Rosita’s house, crying the whole way.

Chapter 31

Dying of Love (and Other Things)

She was sitting on the couch with her head in her hands when Rosita got back. She told Rosita she had a headache. Rosita told her she was a bad liar. She said she had no other lies handy, and Rosita suggested that it might be more expedient to tell the truth.

So it all came out. Jarrod’s story. Adam’s declared intent from the previous day. Her response, then, and now. “The man back-shot his own brothers!” She began to sob. “In the face of that, how can Will’s story not be true? Adam Cartwright is a…a…monster. That’s all.”

Things were going no better for Adam. It hadn’t taken long to figure out that Lizzy’s whole attitude had changed after her talk with Jarrod. Whether he had told her about Joe and Hoss, or the land deal with her father, or the bit about Will, something in that conversation had upset her. And when Dave tried to persuade Adam to explain things to her, Adam regaled him with a few of the more colorful metaphors at his command, and stamped away. However, Dave—like Adam—had never been one to give up easily.

“You just don’t get it,” Adam finally said. “If she wants to think the worst of me, she’s going to. Doesn’t matter that the deal with her father was your idea, or that I’m the one who kept his butt out of jail. Doesn’t matter that every time I looked at those two sisters of hers they had prize winning poker faces. Doesn’t even matter that the only reason I thought she was genuine was that she hated me. Doesn’t matter about Will, either. All that matters is that she’s decided I’m bad, and there’s no redemption possible—not for someone like me.”

“Or it could be as simple as providing an explanation where none has been provided before,” Dave drawled with a smile. “You could write her a letter and explain the whole thing.”

“And she could publish it in the Territorial Enterprise, too. The kind of woman whose loyalty depends on my having a good enough explanation for the things I do is not the kind of woman I want to marry. But maybe that didn’t occur to you.”

“Of course not. You want some mealy-mouthed girl without the sense to come in out of the rain. You don’t want one that’ll keep you honest. It would be too much work.”

Lizzy and Rosita were still arguing inside the house when Adam and Dave—also still arguing—rode up.

Adam dismounted sullenly and led Sport to the water trough as Dave went inside. Dave barely spared Rosita a quick kiss before turning to Lizzy. “There’s somebody outside would very much like to see you.”

“I don’t want to see him.”

“I think you do.” He grabbed her none too gently by the arm and pulled her outside.

“You’re hurting me!” she yelled.

“I never quite figured out why the good Lord gave women the kind of brain that says it’s okay to kick, stomp, slap, or even horsewhip a man, but yowl like a motherless puppy when a man touches her arm.”

“Dave, let her go,” Adam ordered. “If she doesn’t want to hear it, I’ve certainly got no desire to say it.”

“It needs sayin’, Adam. You haven’t ever talked to a soul about it, not even me, and I was there. It’ll fester inside you like a cancer if you don’t get it out in the open. I’ll be inside if you need me.” With that he let go Lizzy’s arm and went back into the house.

Adam sat down on the porch. “You might as well join me. You know what Dave’s like. On Christ the solid rock he stands—and if you try and get past him he’ll belt you in the mouth.”

That much, at least, was probably true; Dave was something of an immovable object. She sat down a safe distance from Adam and braced her feet on the step.

“You don’t need to worry. I’m not going to talk about marrying again,” Adam said. “Like teaching a pig to sing—wastes the man’s time and annoys the daylights out of the pig.”

“Are you calling me a pig?”

“I probably should, since you called me a cockroach. But no; I’m here as a favor to Dave. You probably won’t even believe it.”

“Probably not. Just tell me one thing, Mr. Cartwright, for my vanity’s sake. Is it true you sent your brothers away to…to rescue them from my sisters?”

“Yep. That’s the way it was.”

“Why, in heaven’s name, did you send them away and then ask me…?”

He was silent for a few minutes, taking off his hat, turning it in his hands, and finally putting it back on. “I reckon because I was always better at protecting them than I was at protecting myself.”

“You thought they were gold-diggers? My sisters?”

“Not because I wanted to. I want my brothers to get married and settle down just as much as my father does, but I’ve seen it happen time and again: Joe or Hoss notices a girl, spends a little time with her, she starts talking about white dresses, and suddenly we find out all she was after was money. Shoot, Melinda Banning was one of them—one of the worst! Maybe your sisters loved my brothers, but I never saw any evidence. Every time I saw them together both your sisters were cool as cucumbers—but it was real easy to see the dollar signs in your mother’s eyes. Your mother was even too busy counting the change to notice your youngest sister always getting roostered at the punchbowl and trying to sneak off into the moonlight with the soldiers.”

“You horrible—” Lizzy drew back a hand, but he was faster, and caught her in mid-slap.

“Not this time, Lizzy,” he said quietly, but his voice was steel. He had even dropped the formal “Miss.” He shook his head grimly. “I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, at least not if you’re honest.”

“Their hearts were broken,” she murmured. “Jane cries…she hardly eats. Kitty is convinced Hoss will come back for her. She reads book after book on farming and has learned how to operate a plow. She’s better at it than my father is—she wants Hoss to be proud of her when he returns.”

“I’m sorry,” Adam said softly. “It was done for the best reasons.” He let go her wrist and sighed. “That’s not what I’m here for, anyway.”

“Why are you here, then?”

“I’m here to talk about the falling out I had with my cousin.”

“I don’t really care about any falling out you had with Will Cartwright.”

“Of course you do. It’s been on your mind since you met him. You’re dying to gossip about me; this will give you all kinds of things to say. Now, I’d really love to know what he told you, but I don’t imagine you’d tell me that.”

“He said that you and he both fell in love with a girl named Laura, but that in the end she preferred him, and that they left for San Francisco together. And that she died not long after they got there. Do you deny any of that?”

Adam smiled thinly. “Not a lick.”

“He also told me that after her death he saw you and told you he wanted to come back to the Ponderosa, and that you threatened to shoot him if he tried. Do you deny that?”

“Nope. Every word is true. Is that all he told you?”

A bitter laugh. “Heavens, Mr. Cartwright, isn’t that enough?”

For what seemed an age, he did not respond; he only sat looking at her in sort of a pitying way.

“It is if you want it to be,” he finally said. “But my cousin Will has always had the habit of telling the exact truth while leaving out one or two key facts which he finds inconvenient for other people to know.

“Laura Dayton was the name of the lady in question. She was a pretty little blonde widow with a six-year-old daughter named Peggy. When Laura was first widowed I spent a lot of time trying to get things in order for her; I also befriended Peggy. Town gossip started linking me to the family, and while I don’t think I really loved Laura the way she wanted, I was fond of her. I asked her to marry me. Will had shown up sometime during that time, on the run from a counterfeiting ring. We thought he was an innocent victim and helped him as best we could. My father was ready to re-divide the ranch so that Will would have a share, but Will couldn’t settle down. He was talking about moving on to San Francisco from the time he got to our home.

“And then he met Laura. I think she fell for him on the spot. My own courtship had always been a little half-hearted, and Laura wanted to be swept off her feet. I don’t know exactly what happened between them; I was busy building a house that was supposed to be a wedding present for her. But I fell off the roof; you’ve already heard about that.

“While I was trying to heal, Laura was trying to figure out how to break the news to me, and she couldn’t. Peggy was the one who made me feel human. She wanted me to play, and for her sake I would get in the wheelchair and go out and play with her. That was how I happened to overhear Will and Laura talking. I don’t think I was happy about it; it was a blow to my conceit if nothing else. But in a way it was a relief. I talked to them, told them they were free to go. And just to prove it, I got out of the darned chair. Fell on my behind about ten minutes after they were gone, but at least they were gone. Laura sold her ranch, and the three of them left town. The one I missed most was Peggy—but I thought Will was a good man, and he’d do right.”

He looked at the ground.

“That doesn’t explain why you threatened his life,” Lizzy prompted. In return, he clasped and unclasped his hands a few times. Finally he cleared his throat.

“I never talked about this part before. Hoss and Dave know because they were there. Hoss told Joe and my father about it…enough so they’d understand about why Will shouldn’t ever come back…but I was never able…

“My premature attempt at walking put me back in bed for another couple of weeks. I still wasn’t able to walk without a cane, but when the telegram came I was ready to try to leave anyway. Will, Laura and Peggy had gone to San Francisco, to a boarding house called Lisa-Marie’s…and then Will disappeared and Laura was frantic.

“Dave was already in San Francisco at some kind of church convention; Hoss wired and asked him to find Laura, but we only had a vague idea where she might be. It took a long time for Dave to locate the place, but from what Peggy told me; Lisa was an ‘old friend’ of Will’s, and very accommodating. He and Laura stayed in that boarding house as man and wife, but never married. Laura even called herself Cartwright—but she was always asking Will when they were going to make things legal. He never did.”

Lizzy gasped involuntarily, but Adam went on, grimly determined.

“The counterfeiters that were following Will had gotten to town, looking for a missing plate. Will didn’t have it—we later found it in a hole he’d dug inside our barn. Will apparently told the San Francisco police about the counterfeiters, but he fed them some story about being an undercover Treasury agent, and they swallowed it. The police went to Lisa-Marie’s and found the two counterfeiters there slapping Laura and Peggy around to make them tell where Will was. The police arrested the men, so Will was free and clear. Of course, he was also broke, and he had gambling debts to pay. Back he went to Laura and asked her for the money from the sale of her ranch. By then she was starting to wonder what was going on: why he hadn’t rescued her and Peggy from the men; why he hadn’t married her. She said no money until he was truthful with her.”

Nothing further seemed to be forthcoming. “What happened?” Lizzy asked. Adam looked at her, but did not reply. She decided to wait, and finally, he swallowed and began again.

“Peggy said Will…knocked Laura across the room. There was blood everywhere.” His voice was lower than normal. “He tore through all the belongings until he found the money. I had left the Ponderosa by then, Hoss came with me; but I wasn’t well and the stage ride was killing me. I was drinking half a bottle of laudanum a day to keep the pain at bay and was no good to anybody, and there was delay after delay in getting there. Dave turned Lisa Marie’s upside down and found Laura—and Will was there, drunk. He kicked Will out, and Will never came back. Laura said nothing was wrong, just that she’d bitten her tongue and her jaw hurt a little. Dave wired us at the next way station; but the next morning before we left we got another telegram. Laura was in the hospital, screaming in pain, couldn’t eat, couldn’t swallow. Her tongue was black….” He stared fixedly ahead. “By that night she was delirious. She thought Dave was me and called him Adam. Dave let her think so. He stayed with her, held her hand, prayed with her, told her they’d get married…did everything he could to maintain the illusion and make her feel better. Before long, though, they couldn’t give her enough morphine to block the pain. She lapsed into a coma…and died about half an hour before I got there. Acute massive gangrene of the tongue, the doctors said.”

For a moment, Lizzy couldn’t even think. Finally she asked, “What happened to Peggy?”

“I wanted to adopt her, but I’m a single man and not related to the family. Laura’s Aunt Lil lived outside San Francisco in Todos Santos; she was awarded custody. Lil agreed that Peggy could come for summers with me. Now Lil’s health has taken a bad turn, and she says she’ll put a good word in for me if I ask for wardship. One of the papers you brought me today was the application. Peggy…she’s doing well enough, I suppose, but she hates strangers…any mention of Will scares her…she’s not like she used to be. I visited her between leaving Mulberry Ridge and coming to Stockton, and I’ll be going back tomorrow to pick her up for her summer trip.”

He stood up. “That’s the story. You can believe it or not, but Dave will back me. Hoss will, too—he was with me. They had to keep me in the hospital for a couple of days, so Hoss probably remembers it better than I do. Oh—one more thing. Last year I was in San Francisco when I happened to run across Will. I couldn’t believe all I’d heard about him…he was my cousin, after all. So I asked if he knew what had happened to Laura. He figured she had run out on him after he took her money, but he never bothered to find out. I told him. He said it was too bad, but it was all an accident. Then he said he’d like to ‘come home’ to the Ponderosa. Now that I think on it, he probably just wanted the hidden plate; he didn’t know we’d turned it in. Anyway, I beat the stuffing out of him and told him if he ever came near me again I’d kill him, and if he ever set foot on the Ponderosa I’d shoot him, in the front or in the back, made no difference to me. Dave tells me now that it’s time to let it all go and forgive, and that even if Will was a rat, he never meant for Laura to die, but it’s a little easier to say ‘forgive’ than to do it—and on Dave’s more honest days, he’ll admit that himself.”

The way he held himself was stiff, as if his back was bothering him again. “I’ll be gone before daylight, so please tell Dave I’m sorry I’ll miss his sermon. And tell him I did what he wanted. Goodbye, Lizzy.”

Chapter 32

Blurry Reflections

With one final hug to Rosita, Lizzy turned to board the stage. Behind her, Dave cleared his throat, and when she looked at him in puzzlement, he raised an eyebrow. “Not even a handshake?”

“Reverend Clayton,” she said very formally, “Might I request permission to call you ‘Dave’?”

He considered things for so long that Lizzy began to worry, before he winked and said, “Only if I can call you Lizzy.”

Rosita burst out laughing. “You already call her Lizzy!”

“Ah, but I want formal permission.”

“It’s a trade,” Lizzy said with a smile, and received a brief and gentle hug from Dave in return.

“Come back soon,” Rosita called as the stagecoach pulled away, and Lizzy watched them as they turned, Dave’s arm around Rosita, and went back to their horses.

“I wonder if anyone will ever treat me that way,” she murmured, and the elderly lady on the opposite seat looked at her curiously.

Lizzy gazed out the window and barely heard the rattling and banging of the coach as her mind drifted back to the terrible things she had said to Adam on Saturday. Well, not that he hadn’t had a few choice words for her, too—but then she supposed that, having fired the opening salvo herself, she probably had asked for whatever she got. Of course, a real gentleman wouldn’t have responded the way Adam had…but then again, it was nice to see an intelligent man who still had a bit of spunk.

Then she thought about the story Adam had told—more horrible than she could ever have dreamed. Even after hearing it she hadn’t believed it at first.

*

She’d still been sitting on the porch, dazed, when Dave came out and sat down next to her.

“Is it really true?” she finally asked.

“That’s the way it happened,” he responded slowly. “Yeah, I kind of eavesdropped, in case Adam couldn’t get the story out. I think he did pretty well, though. Life isn’t always pretty, Lizzy.”

“Do you think he’ll be able to keep Peggy?”

A shrug. “Bureaucracy is a funny critter. He might have a better chance if he bought the Bar Fly and lived there…but I don’t think he will. Not now. He’d have Peggy, but I don’t imagine it would be much fun living that close to you and not being welcome to visit.”

Well, that was true. It was not something she wanted to talk about, though, even with Dave. But something about the notion of purchasing the Bar Fly reminded her about the land deal. “Jarrod Barkley says Longbourn doesn’t belong to my father, but to you. Can you tell me about that?”

“Reckon I can, but it doesn’t show your father at his best. You sure you want to hear?”

“Very sure.”

He thought for a few minutes. “Ordinarily I’m not this forthcoming with a story that’s not all mine, but it sounds like your whole family’s been kept in the dark a mite too long, and somebody needs to know.”

And so he told her the things she didn’t know about her father, and his own. Then he told her about how the church planting business worked, and how it wasn’t always possible to get sufficient support to make things happen, and how he’d sold the excess land to Adam for the money he needed to get his Stockton project in motion.

“And Adam just happened to know all of this already?”

“Not quite the way I’d put it, Lizzy. Adam was the one who figured out all the cattle on ‘your’ ranch were stolen merchandise, and the one who told your father about it. And when word got out about my father being lynched, Adam’s the one who went to the Mulberry Ridge sheriff and told him your father was not a part of anything. He had to stick his neck out pretty far on that one. If Adam hadn’t convinced the sheriff that Mr. Bennet was a dupe, I believe your pa and mine would be sharing a tombstone. Don’t cry, Lizzy. Nothing will happen to your pa now, and he’s got ten years to learn how to be self-sufficient. Granted, he didn’t learn it in his prior 40-odd years, but then again, he never had motivation like now, either. He’s a bright man, your pa—just not if life departs from his dime novels. But he’ll catch on. And I hear Kitty is makin’ a great teacher.” He stood up again. “Supper’ll be ready soon.”

*

A darn shame, that’s what it was. A great, tragic story she could gleefully have told her family, had it only happened to someone else. But it had happened to the Cartwrights—and all of Lizzy’s family, whether they knew it or not—as well as Dave. Even Rosita had been affected. And all that made it a story that could not be told.

Suddenly she couldn’t wait to see her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner. They were such nice, normal, ordinary people. No lynchings, land deals, lost loves, frightened children or gangrenous tongues with them.

She recalled the last letter her Uncle Gardiner had sent to her father. Her father had read it aloud to the family, but she had the strangest notion that he had stopped early. Her curiosity had gotten the better of her, and she sneaked into her father’s study one evening and read the letter herself.

“Poor Lizzy; I know she’ll be disappointed not to come back to San Francisco, as I know she loves the big city. But my wife really wants a change of scenery and custom, and as I’m sure you know, it is a dangerous thing to deny a Plum her due. Therefore I have determined to take the two ladies—with your permission as regards Lizzy of course—up into the Lake Tahoe countryside. We have never been there, but have been assured of its incomparable beauty by many a traveler, and my wife yearns to see it.”

Actually, the thought appealed greatly to her until she found out that was where Adam Cartwright lived. But surely, it was a huge lake, and his family could hardly own all of it. She read on:

“PostScript—don’t read this out to the dear wife, but I understand you have decided to try digging in the soil for a living. Well, as a longtime Gardiner and gardener, I can safely tell you that a field is happiest when it is ploughed regularly. Never allow it to lie fallow. You know what I mean, of course—affectionately, James.”

Since she had no memory of her uncle ever trying his hand at real gardening, she had no idea what he meant. Besides, he and his wife had seven children. When did he ever have time to work in the fields?

Chapter 33

Whittier and Thoreau

Lizzy was home two days between one trip and the next—long enough to see that Jane and Kitty had not recovered from the loss of the Cartwright brothers. Long enough to be annoyed to death by Lydia. Lydia had acquired three new girlfriends in town as well as a special friend—a secret admirer, she claimed. While she teased her sisters and her parents mercilessly that “now I know how it feels to be loved” she could not be persuaded to reveal the name of the suitor. While this was a great taxation on Mrs. Bennet’s nerves, Mr. Bennet—for the first time in his life, having stuck with a difficult occupation longer than two months—was too sore and tired at the end of the day to care beans for Lydia’s inflated sense of self-importance, and told her so. “Oh, I’ll get your attention yet, Papa,” Lydia replied.

Lizzy tried to talk to him about it—Adam’s remark about Lydia’s getting roostered at the punchbowl and sneaking into the moonlight with the soldiers had stung more than he could have known—but little came of it.

*

“Lydia is the slowest-burning of all my candles,” Mr. Bennet said. “She exists only to be a thorn in somebody’s side, Lizzy. If she behaves capriciously enough, someone or other will be forced to marry her, and then she can be a thorn in his side, not mine.”

“Or the ‘someone’ in question will respond that he would rather die than marry her, in which case my sisters and I will also be ruined on her account, and you will be stuck with a house full of old maids.”

“Don’t worry, Lizzy,” he replied. “Anybody who courts any of you five will have to do it for love and not money—thanks to Adam Cartwright, everyone in the county knows we have none.”

“Tell it to Jane and Kitty, Papa,” Lizzy snapped. “They were courted for love as well—and they were torn asunder, and the two of them are miserable.”

“Broken hearts are the easiest breaks to fix. Wait until the next batch of soldiers comes over from Ord Barracks. On the other hand, my back and shoulders are killing me, and the only remedy for that sort of break is a lot of very hot water and some decent quality alcohol.”

*

The biggest news was that Miss King, the store owner’s daughter to whom Will Cartwright had become engaged, had suddenly been sent off to an eastern ladies college and was not expected back for at least four years. The engagement broken, Will was once again available.

“Perhaps you mean ‘on the prowl,’” Lizzy snorted when she heard the news.

“But I thought you quite liked him,” Jane protested.

“Well, even I can’t be right all the time,” Lizzy said.

“Will Cartwright was quite satisfied by the likes of Lizzy back in the days before he learned to aim high,” Lydia commented. “She’ll be of no use to him now, though, since he has learned that there are real women in the world.”

“I have no idea what you mean by any of that,” Lizzy snapped. “But if you fancy yourself to be a real woman, at barely sixteen now, you have a lot to learn about living.”

Lydia ran sobbing to her mother.

As for Mary, she was beside herself with boredom and had memorized all the California Mining Statutes of 1860 as well as the results of the 1860 California Geological Survey. She had no idea what any of it meant, but simply being able to quote from it gave her an immense boost in her sense of self-worth.

Finally, Lizzy was able to leave with the Gardiners. She hated leaving Jane behind—she had even discovered a real liking for Kitty that she would once have thought impossible. Kitty, much to her surprise, had approached her on her return and said, “I have something for you. It’s a book I think you’ll like.”

“Really?” she had tried to make herself sound interested, but since Kitty’s literary awakening seemed limited to books about soil types, crop rotation, and compost, it was difficult…until she saw the book. It was Walden.

“Where on earth did you get this, Kitty?”

“When Hoss and Joe were leaving for home, they came to say goodbye, remember? Hoss gave me this for you. He said not to give it to you until Adam was gone and the time was right. I’m still not sure if the time is right, but at least you don’t seem as hostile toward Adam as you used to be. The book is from him, and Hoss told me that Adam said you may keep it.”

She had kept it indeed; it was in her reticule right now, but she could not read because Aunt Gardiner was talking. At least Aunt Gardiner’s talk was usually pleasant.

Aunt Gardiner had been reading about Lake Tahoe, and she filled Lizzy’s head with delightful stories about how the place had got its name, and how there was supposed to be a sea monster lurking in its depths, and how most of the eastern shores of the lake were owned by a family called “Cartwright” who had come to the country some 20 years ago and had transformed the place into a great empire—but because old Ben Cartwright had some mighty strange ideas, there were parts of the ranch that didn’t even look as if humans lived anywhere near.

“They’re said to be an odd family, these Cartwrights,” she proclaimed. “Have you ever heard of them, Lizzy?”

“I met three of them,” Lizzy replied with a smile. “They actually leased a ranch near ours, and will be using it as a rest-stop for cattle they move through California.”

“Oh, my! Wait, didn’t you once write me about a young man named Will Cartwright? Was he one of that famous family?”

“No,” Lizzy replied firmly. “He was a distant relation, but certainly not part of that family. I was referring to the three Cartwright brothers.”

“What were they like?”

“Well…the younger two were quite friendly and likable. One of them, Hoss, is the one who got Kitty so passionately interested in farming. And although Little Joe was well-liked by all the young ladies, he seemed rather fond of Jane, although she was too shy to provide much encouragement.”

“And what of the eldest?”

“He was…very businesslike. He and my father had several dealings together.”

Uncle Gardiner laughed at that. “Oh, then is he the one your father must have been referring to when he said ‘that young cock-of-the-walk down the road’ who threatened him with jail time!”

“I’m sure I don’t know anything about that, Uncle Gardiner,” Lizzy replied with a swallow. “Mr. Cartwright was actually quite helpful to our family on a couple of occasions.”

She had never imagined herself defending Adam Cartwright to her dearest relatives, but having said the words, Lizzy had no desire to call them back. In fact, the only words she desired to call back were the ones she had said to Adam Cartwright…almost from the time she had met him. But of course, second chances didn’t exist in this life.

She took out Walden, finally ready to read for a while—and found an ancient, folded sheet of paper bookmarking one underlined section: The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation…But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

Strange that such a section should be highlighted, she thought. Then, seeing Adam’s bold, if faded, handwriting on the old paper that served as bookmark, she opened it and began to read—a painstakingly copied poem. It was John Greenleaf Whittier’s Maud Muller. And she found herself wishing again for that undeserved second chance.

For all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: “it might have been!”

Chapter 34

Ponderosa Pines

Made breathless by the uncommon beauty of the area, they skirted the western side of Lake Tahoe and rounded the northern shores. The climbs were gradual in some spots, but definite. The air was thinner, and one had to breathe deep to get any good stuff into the lungs. The horses—the Gardiners’ own from San Francisco—had to be stopped more often to rest. These were the Sierra Nevadas, and though the passes they went through kept them from having to climb to the crest of the mountains, they were still getting higher all the time, and the land was changing. Somehow, the sky seemed bluer here. The pine trees tried to touch that blue sky. The pine cones that lay on the needled forest bed ranged from the deceptively small Ponderosa pine cones—which could be huge, long-lived trees—to the much smaller Coulter pine, with cones as long as a man’s forearm and as big around as his head. And every once in a while, the road that curled back and forth through the mountains would come into an ever-so-slight clearing through which, in the distance, a great body of water could be seen. It was a blue so vibrant she thought if she put her hand in the water, sparks would shoot out and jolt her right into the pines.

They had a map of the area…not entirely accurate, as it turned out, for one of the towns indicated just wasn’t there, and they spent the night in the middle of nowhere, sleeping on the ground. But when Lizzy arose the next morning, she was fiercely proud of herself and almost wished Adam Cartwright would appear so she could wave a finger at him and tell him “so there, I can rough it just as well as a cowboy.”

The thought, though, was enough to put Adam back into her head, and in a most disturbing way.

“The next time I see Rosita, I must make a large apology to her,” she thought. “She was ashamed to tell me that she had been all wrong about Dave. I know how she feels, since I built a lovely house out of all my misperceptions, and like the house in the fairy tale, mine was blown down because it was made of straw! Adam would have been right to call me a pig on that day. I almost wish he had, for then at least I would be able to comfort my wounded vanity, if nothing else.”

What an unbearably rude awakening. There were charming people who were vicious liars; there were ways to die that did not involve sweetly breathed last words like Beth March in Little Women; and there were haughty, arrogant men who sometimes weren’t all that haughty or arrogant but were just overprotective and in pain.

Every single assumption she had made about him—and even the things her parents had said—had been wrong. Adam Cartwright hadn’t been trying to get them off the land; he was trying to keep them from being thrown off it. He hadn’t wanted her father to go to jail; he’d tried to keep him out of jail. And yes, Will Cartwright had told the truth, but not enough of it; and even if she was still horrified that one cousin could threaten another’s life, she could understand it after hearing the circumstances.

Now she was somewhere near the place where Adam Cartwright lived—she remembered when he’d claimed the Ponderosa had the dubious honor of having the spot that was “in the middle of nowhere,” and suspected that was where she had camped the night before. She also remembered his talking about the lake, and his father’s boast that the sight approached heaven. She could see, now, that he hadn’t been exaggerating…and she could see, now, that although he wasn’t quite as gentle-spoken a fellow as Dave Clayton, he probably would be a good man to pass one’s life with…if only the one in question hadn’t, in ignorant prejudice, called him a cockroach and sent him packing.

And she didn’t want to be anywhere near him now; how could she, when she was “the one” who had done all that? And having been so, wouldn’t he be justified if he gave her one of the withering stares she had lavished on him…and sending her packing just as fast?

He had gone to get Peggy…that had to have added a few days to his travel time…surely he wouldn’t be home yet. And ranch or no ranch, she would talk her aunt and uncle out of their plan to visit the Ponderosa. She didn’t want to see it or any of the Cartwrights, ever again.

“Uncle, is it necessary that we go to the Ponderosa?”

Instead of responding, Gardiner turned to Harold, the driver. Harold listened, and nodded, and called back, “Yes mum, we’re already on it. Have been for some hours now. I understand if we came down this part straight south instead of headin’ southeast as we are, we could be on it for days. I’m told that young Mister Adam, the oldest Cartwright boy, put this road in so that people wouldn’t have to go 30 miles out of the way to keep off the Ponderosa land when crossing this part of the country.”

“But we won’t go to the house, will we?”

Her uncle looked at her. “Why not? I wrote to this Mr. Ben Cartwright, told him of our trip, and asked permission. He responded quite generously. Besides, it’s beautiful countryside around here, just what your aunt wanted to see, and I’m told this oldest Cartwright son—funny how he keeps popping up—designed the house. I have a real interest in seeing all this ‘genius,’ don’t you?”

“I’ve seen the genius,” Lizzy said miserably. “I’ve no desire to see him again.”

It was, and wasn’t, a lie.

Chapter 35

Some Broken Hearts Never Mend

They had taken the stage most of the way back from San Francisco with Sport, tied to the back, loping easily behind, but now it would be less crowded and more pleasant to ride. Peggy was always game to ride Sport (a “big people horse”) double with Adam anyway. He left the bags on the stage for later pickup at the station and he and Peggy rode the last few hours. They arrived to see a familiar carriage, and Adam’s heart sank into his boots.

“Do you want to ride a big people horse while you’re here?” he asked Peggy, and she nodded enthusiastically.

“Go ask Hoss to show you some of them, and he’ll pick out one just for you.”

She ran off, and he went inside to his father’s study. “Pa.” He stuck a hand out. His father came around the desk to him, ignored his hand, and gave him a quick hug instead.

“How’s Peggy?”

“She’s all right. A little skittish. I sent her off to see Hoss and choose a horse. She seems to do well with horses, so I think I’ll have her ride a lot while she’s here. Maybe it’ll help. Do you think talking to Paul might do any good?”

“Couldn’t hurt.”

“Well, I’ll do that sometime this week.”

“What about Victoria?” his father asked.

“Still upset that you had the brazen temerity to sell cattle in California, but somewhat appeased since I taught the fellas how to do tick-dips. Half her herd died. We managed to save the rest. But if you think you’re off the hook for selling to the Army, you’ve got more thinking to do,” Adam chuckled.

Ben sighed. “Well, I’ve had her mad at me before. I’ll send her a couple of good horses at Christmas; maybe that’ll get her back on my good side. All right, what was all that business about Hoss and Joe, Adam? I brought them back as fast as I could, but you know…” He hesitated. “They’re getting worse instead of better. Hoss is more absent-minded than you’d believe—”

Hoss?

His father shrugged. “I know. But even that pales in comparison to his loss of appetite. I think he’s lost 20 pounds since he’s been home. And Joe never smiles anymore. He’s lost his sense of humor.”

Adam cleared his throat and quickly changed the subject. “Pa, what are the Bannings doing here?”

“At the moment, they’re helping Hop Sing in the kitchen. But I assume you mean why are they visiting. If that is the question, they’re here because when I sent Deborah the thank-you note, she said she would love to see the Ponderosa again, and I invited her up.”

“I see.” Adam turned away.

“Adam, you’re not still upset about all that foolishness with Melinda a few years ago, are you?”

“No, Pa, I’m not.”

“Then what is it?”

Adam looked back at his father. “How long will they be here?”

“Just three weeks.”

“Okay.” He walked off, and Ben Cartwright shrugged and went back to his books.

I can live with anything for three weeks, Adam told himself as he went to the corral, to find Peggy up on old Sparks, a husky gelding who hadn’t been a bad cow pony in his prime, but his normal temperament was so placid it was sometimes hard to tell whether he was awake or asleep. Now he was 15, and Joe had been heard to giggle about him, “He’s so much more reliable since he’s settled down.” Of course, that was back when Joe still had a sense of humor. Hoss was standing in the center of the corral calling out instructions, but he didn’t look any too chipper, either.

Joe. Hoss. I should have known; interfering in love affairs always leaves them worse off than before…and especially now, when I’m finding myself believing what Lizzy said—that Jane and Kitty really did love them. After all, what motivation did she have to lie when she was telling me in the same breath how much she hated me?

And…why shouldn’t she have felt that way about me. I was an ass. Sure, my back was killing me, but it would’ve been better to stay at the house than to show up at places and ruin everyone else’s good times.

Without warning, Joe clapped him on the arm. “Good you’re back, Older Brother,” he said quietly. “Doesn’t look like we can get rid of the Banshees, does it?”

Adam chortled. “Nope. But Dave says God never gives us more than we can handle, so—”

“Well, I wish he didn’t have such confidence in my ability,” Joe muttered. “You know the old lady’s still pushing Melinda at me.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“Like I need a bath. I declare, Adam, it’s got to be how the poor evening gals feel when the fellas come in and start lookin’ ’em over; like they’re meat on the hoof. And Melinda has no more interest in me than she ever had; I only wish I could find a good excuse to stay far away from her.”

“Melinda was still hurling herself at me back at Mulberry Ridge,” Adam empathized. “Made me feel the way a worm must feel when the fisherman looks in the bait cup.”

“Kinda shriveled,” Joe agreed. “Listen, I know Peggy just got here and you want to spend some time with her, but Hoss and I were thinking about all the busted fences up by the north road.”

“Are the fences busted up by the north road?”

“If they ain’t, they will be,” came the grim reply.

“Well, unless I can get Pa to let Peggy come along—and that’s not likely—then I’ll probably be stuck here.”

“Peggy loves going out with us, though.”

“Yeah, but Pa thinks it’s not appropriate for a little girl to go gallivanting around the ranch with men.” He rolled his eyes. “Good thing he didn’t have any daughters.”

“Well, that may not be outta the realm of possibility,” Joe muttered. “I think the senior Banshee is setting her cap at him. After all, Horace has been dead a little over a year, and there’s no time like the present.”

“I can’t think of a quicker way of guaranteeing himself a shortage of help at the ranch than marrying Deborah Banning,” Adam said. “I’d be on the next stage to Boston and taking Peggy along, and I bet even you and Hoss would be ready to leave the ranch if something like that really happened.”

“I don’t doubt it either. The problem is, making Pa see it,” Joe replied with a sad smile.

Chapter 36

Full House

Ben had, on Adam’s request, purchased a spinet piano for Peggy, who had been taking lessons ever since her arrival in Todos Santos. It was about the only “feminine” activity Peggy enjoyed, aside from playing with dolls. She was determined to be a cowboy when she grew up, and no amount of talking from Ben would change her mind. Ben then told Adam to give it a try, but as far as Adam was concerned, for now, if being a tomboy made her happy, that was fine—he’d seen too much of her unhappy. She had a lifetime to grow up and do what society wanted. So he went out tree climbing with her, and squirrel hunting, carrying Helen Praybaby (her favorite doll) in a little papoose cradle board on his back. He actually kind of liked it. Aside from the strange looks—the ranch hands would just have to get used to it—the board actually made his back feel better.

In the late afternoons when they came back she practiced earnestly on piano—and Melinda Banning usually dominated those times, much to Adam’s displeasure. But he had to admit Melinda was better with a piano than he was; he could pick all day on a guitar but figuring out where he was on a piano took a little longer. After dinner he would read to Peggy, or have her read to him. They were currently working their way through The Lady of the Lake by Sir Walter Scott, and while both Melinda and Deborah Banning thought the material was much too tough for an eight-year-old, Peggy loved it.

But Adam spent most of the week while Hoss and Joe were gone either worrying about Peggy, or worrying about Hoss and Joe. He was going to have to tell them about Kitty and Jane—he knew that now—it was only a question of when. He really didn’t want to be left alone with the “Banshees,” but the deception on his brothers had gone on too long and hurt too much already. His father had reluctantly agreed that that weekend he could take Peggy out camping up at the lake to join Hoss and Joe, and they could all return together. Finally, he decided he would tell them on the way back from the lake. They’d probably leave for Mulberry Ridge straightaway, if they didn’t decide to stick around long enough to throw him into the manure pile first…and that was a distinct possibility.

Still, it was the day he was looking forward to. The thought of making right what he had wronged got him through the week, tolerating the unrelenting company of the Bannings, and kept him in good cheer.

“By the way,” Ben told him as he packed a bedroll and saddlebags for Peggy, “We’ll have company soon. I’m not sure quite when, but a family called Gardiner is due to visit soon. I just realized they’ll be here at the same time as the Bannings, and I’m a little uncertain as to where to put everyone. The house is already full.”

Adam shrugged. “Pa, I have a feeling the house won’t be as full as you think. I’ll bet you $50 that Hoss and Joe will light out from here and head to Mulberry Ridge as soon as we get home tomorrow.”

Ben stared at him. “Why?”

“Remember the two gold-diggers I told you about? Well, I had occasion to learn a little more about them, and it turns out they’re the genuine item. Pure gold, both of ’em. I can’t go on letting my brothers be miserable when it was all a lie, based on a mistake—and it all comes back on me.”

“How do you know? You were pretty certain before.”

Adam shrugged. “I was, but I was certainly wrong. I don’t back down on what I said about the parents. If they were cattle in our herd, they’d never have been allowed to breed. But the sins of the parents can’t always be blamed on the children. I found out from someone who…has always been scrupulously, painfully truthful with me. Those two girls really love Hoss and Joe, and my brothers really love them back. Things may not work out between them anyway, but I’m hanged if I’ll let it be on my account.”

“Well.” Ben thought for a minute. “Reckon I’ll have to let ’em go.”

“Reckon you will.”

Ben clapped Adam on the back. “You mind doubling up with Peggy if you need to?”

“Not if she doesn’t mind. Who are these Gardiners, anyway?”

“I don’t know. Tourists. They wrote a few months ago saying the wife had always wanted to see Lake Tahoe.” Ben laughed. “Maybe we should build a hotel on the shore and run it ourselves. Someday it may be more profitable than running cattle.”

Adam and Peggy rode north and found a string of healthy fences—and Hoss and Joe fishing in the lake.

“Not even a little guilt for leaving your favorite oldest brother and your favorite Peggy behind to entertain the company either, I’ll bet,” Adam said as he settled down next to them.

“Not a lick,” Hoss replied equably. Joe wiggled his bare toes and grinned, but didn’t bother opening his eyes.

They fished the rest of the afternoon (Peggy caught the biggest one—a 12-pound lake trout that Hoss finally had to bring in) and ate their catch for dinner that night and breakfast the next morning.

“Nice, ain’t it?” Joe observed that night, after Peggy had fallen asleep in Adam’s lap.

“What?” Adam asked. “Escaping the Banshees?”

“Not just that,” Hoss replied. “I dunno. First time in a long while I’ve almost felt like myself again. Dunno where I’ve been lately, but it ain’t here, and that’s pretty strange for me.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, me too…kind of nice just the three of us again, not worryin’ about a schedule or stuff that has to be done, and just kinda measuring how good life is by the number of fish we catch. And even Adam’s in a good mood.”

“How’d that happen,” Hoss chuckled.

“I can be just as happy-go-lucky as you two,” Adam protested. “Only difference is I need to not have any responsibilities.”

“Yeah, but we’re both here,” Hoss reminded him.

“So’s Peggy,” Joe put in.

“True, but for a change, you’re all being fairly quiet, so I can relax too,” Adam said with a wistful smile, knowing the good mood wouldn’t last.

“Sure wish we didn’t have to go back tomorrow,” Joe said softly.

“Me too,” Adam whispered.

The next morning, as they cleaned up the campsite and packed up the horses for the trip back, Adam turned to Peggy. “How about you scout for us. Can you take the road back to the trail, and turn off there for the house? We can meet on the trail, or back at the house if you beat us there.”

“Sure,” she said. “Can I use my gun if necessary?”

“Yes, but only if necessary,” he said, straight-faced. Hoss had carved a wooden pistol for her; Ben had painted it black and brown; and Joe had made her a gunbelt out of some scrap leather. She tended to think the entire setup was real, and they all encouraged her to think so, since it provided an opportunity to start teaching gun safety at a young age.

She nudged Sparks, and he trotted off toward the road.

Hoss and Joe exchanged a look. Joe was the first to speak. “Okay, what’s going on?”

“I wanted to talk to you both about something important. Let’s take the long way back,” Adam said, and felt himself getting cold in a way that had nothing to do with the weather. This wasn’t going to be easy.

Chapter 37

The Cartwrights, in Absentia

This was the third time they had made the circuit around this portion of the road, and everyone was beginning to get a bit angry. Lizzy said nothing aloud, but she was certain it was the kind of prank Adam Cartwright could easily pull—putting in a circular road like this. The turn-off indicated by the map hadn’t taken them anywhere near any house; only to another turn-off. That took them to another turn-off. That brought them back here.

But this time something different happened. There was a little blonde girl on a chunky bay gelding trotting ahead of them on the road; hearing the carriage behind her, she jumped in the saddle and looked back. Then she reined her horse around and stopped, blocking the road.

“You’re trespassing,” she said, squinting her eyes and displaying something that looked like a small, rather asymmetrical revolver.

Harold stopped the carriage at once and raised his hands. “I’m very sorry, Miss,” he said calmly, “but we’re not from around here, and we are quite lost.”

“Oh.” She put the toy gun away. “Where do you wanna go?”

“We’d like to go to the Ponderosa, Miss. We have an invitation from Mr. Ben Cartwright.”

“Lemme see.”

He looked at Mr. Gardiner, who shrugged and produced the letter. Perhaps the child could give them directions.

The girl took it and looked at it briefly, though whether she was able to read was anyone’s guess.

“Okay,” she said, handing back the page. “I know Granpa Ben’s handwriting pretty good. So I reckon you can come. But you shoulda rode horses instead of a carriage. There ain’t a regular road to the house from here, just a little old trail. Nobody ever drives to the house from this road.”

“Why not?” Harold asked.

She rolled her eyes. “’Cause you ain’t supposed to. The road’s just for people to go from town across the ranch. It ain’t for visitors. Visitors are s’poseta come in the front way. But I’ll take ya.”

“May I inquire your name, little girl?” Mr. Gardiner demanded.

The child produced the gun again. “I’m a lot bigger when I’m holdin’ this, ain’t I? Say please.”

Mr. Gardiner put his hands up. “Please.”

“I’m Peggy.” She holstered the weapon again as Lizzy gasped involuntarily.

“Peggy Dayton?” Lizzy asked.

Peggy just looked at her. “Who wants ta know?”

“I’m Elizabeth Bennet. Most people call me Lizzy.”

Peggy looked at Lizzy a long time, her face unreadable. “I know all about you. You ain’t a real stranger.” She turned her horse. “Come on.”

She led them past the road they had been turning on, to a narrow trail that cut right through the woods. “What are you stoppin’ for?” she demanded when Harold looked doubtful. “C’mon, I won’t get you lost. I promise. I’m an honorary Cartwright, and Cartwrights always keep their word.”

They had to stop once so that Gardiner and Harold could move a small fallen tree, but other than that, the journey was uneventful, and eventually they rounded a curve into a large clearing where a massive log house stood. Harold jumped down and knocked at the door while the Gardiners and Lizzy just sat and stared.

Butted against the trees as it was, even Lizzy could see how the house seemed like part of the forest while at the same time making it hard to mount any kind of sneak attack. But what really astonished her was the contrast to the Barkley house. Everything about Victoria Barkley’s house spoke richness and a woman’s touch. Three men lived there, but one would never know. She remembered the elegantly curved and polished staircase, the white walls and brightly colored curtains.

None of that here. She wondered if the inside was as stark and blatantly masculine as the outside. The house didn’t say “look at me; I’m rich” as the Barkley place did. It spoke instead of an unshakable confidence and a simplicity that was in itself elegant. It said, “I am here. Try to move me. We’ll see who gives way first.”

“Adam designed…this.” The voice came from far away and surprised her. It was her own.

“That’s what Harold said,” her aunt responded. “A bit plain, isn’t it?”

“I suppose one could call it that.”

Peggy was looking curiously at her. “You know Adam, don’t you?”

“Um…a little.”

Harold had returned with a small Oriental man, and Lizzy couldn’t help staring. Her one visit to San Francisco had yielded only brief glimpses of Orientals, all at a distance. She’d never been so close to one before.

“I am Hop Sing. Mr. Cartlight tell me you coming, Mr. Gardiner. Please get down, come inside.”

Still nervous, Lizzy followed her aunt and uncle. “Peggy,” she whispered to the little girl, “where is Adam?”

“I dunno,” Peggy shrugged.

Hop Sing raised one hand, beckoning. “Mr. Cartlight say I show house. You come.”

It was all done too quickly for Lizzy’s taste—especially when they passed by Adam’s room. She wanted to see the titles of all those books. But all too soon they were finished and standing in Ben Cartwright’s study, looking at three painted miniatures on the desk.

“Mr. Cartlight marry three times. Joe mother live here. Only one live here. Hoss mother die on trip west. Indians. Velly sad. Mr. Adam only small child then. Mr. Ben told me Mr. Adam hold baby Hoss in arms while mother fight Indians. Indians kill her. But Mr. Adam take care of Hoss ever since. Now Hoss bigger than Mr. Adam, but still Mr. Adam take care of him. Lady on end Mr. Adam mother. She die in Boston when Mr. Adam born. Joe mother live here some years, though. Velly pretty. Hop Sing teach her make biscuit.”

He started to take them back to the living room, but Mrs. Gardiner had stopped to look at three photographs on the wall. Lizzy, of course, recognized them immediately. Her aunt turned to her. “Which is which, Lizzy?”

Hop Sing looked at Lizzy curiously. “You know boys?”

“A little,” Lizzy said softly. “The wiry one with curly hair is Joe…the big one is Hoss, and the one on the chair is…Adam.” She had to gather herself to say it, because she’d never imagined Adam like that. He was sitting backwards on the chair, straddling it like a horse with his arms over the back. He had his hat on, his sleeves pulled up, and the cheeky, devil-may-care grin bore the promise of a short-sheeted bed or a snake in someone’s boot.

“Oh, my…” her aunt murmured. “They are all fine-looking young men, but…oh, I cannot believe the eldest is the one of whom my sister spoke so ill. I never saw such a good-humored look about anyone. Is he like that in person, Lizzy?”

“I…um….”

“Mr. Adam?” Hop Sing chortled. “I tell you. Chinese say humor is found in spleen.” He patted his abdomen. “Mr. Adam have great spleen. I tell you story about mean lady of Spain…” and he went on to relate in his odd accent and strange word choices how Adam had gotten into a battle of wills with an evil Spanish lady who had broken his guitar, and he had retaliated by undoing the bolts in her bed so that when she flopped into it, it crumbled to the floor. “Hoss and Little Joe, too.” Another story followed, about how the two younger brothers had once robbed a bank to stop a bank robbery. It was hopelessly confusing but they must have laughed at all the right spots, for he continued. “Boys have good hearts, too—velly brave, all…” He began to tell about a time just a few years ago when of the people of Virginia City had wanted to get rid of all the Chinese—how he himself had been thrashed by some bullies—and how Adam had convinced the lying townspeople to tell the truth, and Ben Cartwright had shamed the people into seeing what was going on.

It was beyond strange to see the boys portrayed in this heroic fashion. Lizzy had always thought of Hoss and Joe as either cowboys, businessmen, or the light-hearted, easygoing young men they had seemed in Mulberry Ridge—and of course, she had developed her own view of Adam. Their last confrontation had shown her that there was certainly more to Adam than had met her eye. But to find out his other hidden qualities, like humor, or compassion, or the kind of bravery to stand up to anyone—to find out that Joe and Hoss were just as fierce as they were funny—all these things added up to a very different picture of the three brothers she had known. They brought depth and shadings to a portrait already full of color.

“I think they’re back,” Peggy announced suddenly as Hop Sing was telling them another story—this one about a horrid criminal named Sam Bryant. “C’mon Lizzy, Adam can take us both fishing. I catch the biggest fish. Hoss has to go out and get them, ’cause he’s the strongest. But Adam’s bravest and nicest.”

“I hope so,” replied Uncle Gardiner. “I, for one, cannot wait to meet this acting sheriff who dared the racketeer to kill his father.”

“Or the two brothers who stood by his side and shot down the evil henchman,” put in Aunt Gardiner.

The polite introductions, however, were not to be made. Outside, all they could hear was “All this time and you never saw fit to say a dad-blamed word?” The other shouting—for shouting it all was—was indiscernible. And as they headed to the door, they heard a few other muffled sounds they could not identify, although Hop Sing seemed to have some idea what was happening.

But the splash they heard was definitely a splash. And the galloping hoofbeats were easy for anyone to recognize.

Chapter 38

All Wet

 “Helen Praybaby!” Peggy shrieked, and ran outside. Lizzy and her uncle followed; Aunt Gardiner waited prudently near the door.

Sport was standing, unhitched, in the middle of the yard, his owner nowhere to be seen. But Peggy seemed to know where he was, as she was charging directly for the water trough. A hint of black bobbed to the surface, and Peggy grabbed the hat and threw it to one side. “Adam, you get outta there! My dolly’s in there! Adam!”

A shock of black hair appeared, and then two hands reached over the sides of the trough. With an effort, the eldest Cartwright son sat up, seeming a little dazed. He sputtered wordlessly, shook his head a couple of times, and wiped the water out of his eyes—then winced as his hand made contact with a puffy red cheek. He pulled himself partially upright, but seemed to think better of it. His hands disappeared for a minute, and when he finally managed to stagger to his feet, he was holding his pants up with one hand and attempting to tuck in his black shirt with the other.

“Adam, you’re supposed to swim in the lake, not the horse trough! And my dolly’s in there!”

The board strapped across his back had broken at some point in his fall. “I’ll get her in a minute, Peggy. Can you run and get me a blanket, please?”

He sat back on the edge of the trough, from the look of him probing the inside of said puffy cheek with his tongue as if to ascertain further damage.

Uncle Gardiner strode over to him. “Mr. Cartwright? I apologize for having caught you at a bad time—”

Adam waved vaguely. “Don’t worry about it. Just give me a minute—” and then he stopped, and both eyes locked on one person. “Lizzy?” He started to get up, and fell backwards into the trough again instead. Gardiner reached in and helped him pull him out.

“Um…thanks. Yes, I’m Adam Cartwright.” He held out one hand, the one that was not holding up his trousers. “Are you the ‘Gardiners’ my father was expecting?”

“Yes, we are, and this is our niece, Elizabeth, whom I believe you have already met.”

Lizzy steeled herself for the coldly polite stare that asked how she dared intrude on this sacred ground, her fight-or-flight reflex urging her to either run or swing at him…but she was completely unprepared for the somewhat pained smile—even reflected in those oddly colored eyes—that he bestowed on her. He reached out his soggy hand and grasped hers. “I apologize for my appearance, Miss Elizabeth,” he said, most correct and formal to the ear, but with a warmth that belied the words. “I hope your family is well.”

“They are; thank you for asking,” she said, a little hesitantly.

“And, I hope Jane and Kitty are prepared to receive guests,” he went on with a quirky grin. “My brothers just left in rather a hurry, to pay a somewhat impromptu social call. I hope there’s some clean clothes at the Bar Fly, or it may be a very short call, too.”

Her mouth dropped open at that and wouldn’t shut until Peggy ran back out with the heavy Indian blanket Lizzy had seen tossed across the stair rail. “Here. You’re gonna catch your death of cold now, silly. Where’s Helen Praybaby?”

Adam fished around in the trough and retrieved the doll. “I think she needs a blanket of her own. Um…Mr. Gardiner; Miss Elizabeth, please come inside?”

He led the way and at the door was introduced to Lizzy’s aunt, who greeted him politely. Then, indicating that they seat themselves, he excused himself to go upstairs and change. Lizzy glanced over at the portrait again, that strange photograph of Adam on the chair.

Behind her Lizzy heard her aunt’s soft chuckle. “Oh dear; this was not the laughing hero I was expecting.”

“How do you suppose he came to fall in the water trough?” Uncle Gardiner wondered. “Do you suppose someone’s horse accidentally pushed him as the other riders left?”

“I could not say.” Lizzy suppressed a smile. She had at least been around the Cartwrights long enough to know exactly what had happened. Adam’s appearance, attitude, and that strange grin had told her the whole story. Of course it was one that would never occur to her uncle. In his circles, men never fought. It wasn’t polite. She supposed her father would find it just as foreign, but here in this land where even a house could exude masculinity, it not only seemed normal, but right, that brothers settle their disagreements with a couple of punches and perhaps a shove into a horse trough. Adam didn’t seem to find it distressing, at any rate.

In a few minutes Adam reappeared in dry clothes—and there was another surprise. He was wearing a shirt of deep red. Lizzy had never seen him in anything but black before.

“Have you seen the lake yet?” he asked as he rejoined them. “It’s great for fishing—do you enjoy fishing, Mr. Gardiner?”

“I’ve only done it a little, but I liked it well enough.”

“Well, while you’re here, if you like, I’ll take you fishing. You too, Mrs. Gardiner and Miss Elizabeth, if you’re interested. There are some pretty spots on this side of the lake. Makes for a great picnic place, too.”

“We’ve seen quite a bit of the other side of the lake,” Aunt Gardiner noted. “We began in the southwestern corner and have been working our way around it with the aid of this map.” She held it aloft.

Adam looked at it and smiled. “Too bad, ma’am. That map is about six years old. One of the mining camps on it dried up and blew away a couple of years ago. It also doesn’t depict the Ponderosa correctly. I’m surprised you found your way here so easily. Not many people can find us from the back road; it’s not really meant for visitors.”

“So we learned from our tour guide,” Lizzy’s uncle said with a raised eyebrow. “I suppose the little girl is your daughter?”

“No, but I hope to rectify that situation someday,” Adam said evenly. “Peggy showed you the way here?”

“When she wasn’t threatening to shoot us,” Uncle Gardiner replied.

A brief look of pain crossed Adam’s face. “Peggy hasn’t had an easy life, sir. She likes to feel safe—and in my opinion, every child should feel safe. So she carries a toy gun and it makes her feel a little safer. Maybe once her life stabilizes a little, she won’t need the gun anymore. Until then, I admit I indulge her. I apologize if she scared you.”

“Oh, it’s quite all right,” Uncle Gardiner shrugged, as if threats from little girls wielding toy guns was a daily event.

Adam turned to Lizzy. “I should warn you that we have other ‘guests’ as well, Miss Elizabeth…and that you have some acquaintance with them.”

Lizzy only gave him a questioning glance.

“My father, unbeknownst to me, invited the Banning ladies out. I think he took them into town today since there weren’t any other, ah, men to amuse them. They’ll probably be back within an hour or two.”

“Thank you for the notification, Mr. Cartwright.” Lizzy smiled a little. “I’m sure they’ll be as happy to see me as I will to see them.”

Chapter 39

A Little Night Music

The effusive warmth with which the Bannings greeted Lizzy and her family was lost on nobody—not Lizzy’s family, not Ben Cartwright, not Adam, and certainly not Lizzy. (Peggy disliked both Banning women and had run off to hide in the barn when she saw them coming.) Everyone, of course, interpreted it according to their own lights. Ben, having no reason to think differently, thought Lizzy must have become great friends with the Bannings and wondered if something was wrong with himself for not being able to warm up to the two ladies more. After all, they were related to his friend Horace. The Gardiners, on the other hand, had heard a few of Lizzy’s opinions about the Bannings in the past week, and resolved to be cautious and keep their purses close at hand.

Adam and Lizzy exchanged ironic glances and wondered just how much more the Almighty would throw at them before being satisfied that they had indeed reached capacity.

Hop Sing took to Lizzy at once—this had both good and bad repercussions. She genuinely liked him as well, and did not mind at all coming into the kitchen to watch the “master” at work, but on seeing this, Deborah Banning sent Melinda in to help as well.

I wonder whether she really wants Melinda to learn the fine art of cooking, or whether she thinks the silver is at risk in my presence, Lizzy thought, and it made her smile. This, in turn, made Melinda wonder what she was up to, and so she made certain to keep a safe distance away from Lizzy and the big knife she was using to chop the onions.

But Melinda was not above a mind game of her own.

“What do you think of the Ponderosa, Lizzy?” she asked in her friendliest voice. “Are you as fascinated as I am?”

“I don’t know,” Lizzy replied honestly. “I have no idea how fascinated you are.”

“I find this place a tribute to survival,” Melinda laughed. “Can you imagine all these men living together without a woman in sight?”

“They seem to manage.”

“But how? And how well? Could you imagine bringing a woman into this environment? For example, Lizzy, what would you do if you lived here?”

Lizzy thought of the lake, and the horses she had seen, and the rugged beauty of the countryside, and the strange raw power of the house she was standing in. But her thoughts could not have been easily articulated, even to Rosita. To someone she did not like or trust she would not even try.

“What would you do?” she asked instead.

Melinda laughed. “First thing, I’d burn all those awful heavy red curtains. They must be older than Noah’s ark, and about as musty. Then I’d put a bit of lace here and there. A few doilies would jolly the place up so much, and add an air of refinement sadly lacking. Don’t you think?”

Lizzy thought about it…and smiled. “How many years have you known the Cartwrights, Melinda?”

“Oh, my father and Ben Cartwright were friends for ages. I’ve been here three or four times in the last five years. I know all the boys quite well.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard,” Lizzy replied, remembering what Adam had said about her. “Funny, isn’t it, that they never asked you to stay and run the house yourself, isn’t it? Perhaps they overheard your plans.”

Melinda’s face darkened, and she said nothing more.

Peggy, meanwhile, went to practicing her little spinet, mumbling to herself and hoping Melinda wouldn’t come out of the kitchen to tell her everything she was doing wrong, and Adam and Ben found their roundup planning repeatedly interrupted by Deborah Banning, who wanted to know if they intended to hold any autumn dances since the end of September was approaching.

At dinner, Ben asked Peggy what piano pieces she was working on.

“Cuppla nocturnes by Choppin,” she replied off-handedly.

Chopin,” Adam corrected.

“Can you play them tonight for me?” Ben persisted.

Peggy shook her head. “Naw. I was gonna but Adam wants me to play that thing he made me learn last week.”

“What was that?”

“Somethin’ by Brahms and Shoo-bert.” She looked over at Lizzy with a significant arch to her eyebrows. “He said you play better’n anybody in the world.”

“Well then, by all means, I must hear it from the virtuoso herself,” Melinda put in, smiling malevolently.

Adam smiled back, ever-so-sweetly. “I hope you do, Melinda. Lizzy has excellent hands.”

Lizzy’s aunt and uncle looked at their niece quizzically. She gave them a weak grin and looked back at her plate.

The concert, of course, could not be delayed. As far as Lizzy was concerned, her honor was at stake and had to be defended. This she did, playing the Waltz in A-flat as she had never done before, and before its final notes had died she launched into Ständchen, the beautiful Schubert serenade Adam and Dave had played together on their guitars that night in Stockton. And although Adam didn’t say a word, the light in his eyes was reward enough for a lifetime.

“I can’t play that good,” Peggy mumbled afterward as Adam nudged her to the piano.

“I listened to you practice,” Lizzy whispered. “I thought you sounded wonderful.”

Peggy looked hard at her. “You mean that?”

“I do.”

“Well in that case, I’ll try. But I’m a lot better at fishing.”

“I know you’re better than I am,” Lizzy said. “I’ve never fished at all.”

“Now that’s just strange,” Peggy said, opening her music book to the simplified version of the waltz as Adam leaned back against the wall and grinned.

And then Melinda fired her big cannons in a 21-gun salute. “You were good, Lizzy. Tell me, when did you ever get any practicing done this summer? Weren’t you busy with Will Cartwright almost every day?”

Lizzy went white, but Peggy’s reaction dwarfed anyone else’s: she screamed at the top of her lungs and bolted from the room. Adam spared Melinda one look of unmistakable hatred before he ran after Peggy. Lizzy, torn for a moment between following Adam or facing their common enemy, swallowed and turned toward Melinda. Heedless of her aunt and uncle, or Ben Cartwright and Deborah Banning nearby, all of whom had risen to their feet in confusion and horror, she looked Melinda up and down and said, “If you want to spew your venom at me, Melinda, you are more than welcome to do it. I am a big girl and can take care of myself. But when you pick on innocent children, that’s going too far. And if you come near that child again while I’m here, I’ll snatch you bald-headed.”

“What did I say?” Melinda demanded in honest confusion as Lizzy left.

Ben looked around for a moment, then excused himself and followed.

He found them all in Adam’s room; Adam was seated on the bed rocking the sobbing child in his arms and stroking her hair; Lizzy was looking on in helpless concern. But when Adam saw his father, he stood, handed Peggy over to Lizzy, and advanced on his father in a quiet fury.

“Pa, I want the Bannings out of here. Tomorrow morning I’m going to take Peggy and the Gardiners fishing. I want the Bannings gone by the time we get back.”

Ben looked at him in dismay. “That’s hardly good manners.”

In a low voice, Adam said, “Do you call what just happened good manners? Pa, you asked me last week if I was still upset about that foolishness a few years ago, and I said I wasn’t. But I am upset that it’s still going on. I tolerated that insipid girl all summer at Mulberry Ridge. I was prepared to tolerate her here too. But this has gone too far.” He lowered his voice even more. “She knows I have no interest in her, so now she’s trying to ruin me for anyone else. And what just happened with Peggy is…just inexcusable.”

“I’m not even sure what just happened. Would you care to enlighten me?”

“No, I wouldn’t.” Their eyes locked and held. “You’re going to have to trust me—or you’re going to find someone else to head up the fall roundup.”

“Adam, are you…threatening me?”

“No, Pa. I’m making a promise. If the Bannings are still here when I get back tomorrow night, Peggy and I will leave the Ponderosa. That’s all.”

Chapter 40

Things Always Look Better in the Morning

Ben went one better than Adam had expected. In the morning when he came downstairs he found the Bannings already packed and preparing to take their leave. As few words as possible were exchanged, and then the Banshees were gone from the Ponderosa and, both Ben and Adam fervently hoped, from their lives.

“What got you moving so fast?” Adam asked his father. “Were you that worried about losing me at the roundup?”

Ben laughed softly. “Nope. Sorry to wound you, but that never entered into it. When I started talking to Deborah about what had happened last night, I found an old feeling awakening in me that I thought I’d never feel again.”

“What was that?” Adam ventured.

“Utter terror. Son, all this time I thought we were great friends, but last night when I started telling her about the awkwardness between you and Melinda, she let slip some of her plans for me.”

“Did I just detect a shudder from the mighty Ponderosa patriarch?” Adam chuckled.

“I’ll patriarch you. You can laugh; I suddenly understood how you felt back when Abigail Jones was chasing you around town.”

“Well, it’s always more romantic to be thought of as the one that got away,” Adam said.

“Forget it. Do you know, I don’t think I’ve been fishing at all this year…?”

“Pa, are you ‘fishing’ for an invitation to join the rest of us?”

“If that’s what it takes, yes.”

Adam laughed and put a hand on his father’s shoulders; upstairs, Lizzy looked out the window and saw this unaccustomed display of warmth. When had Adam gotten affectionate? Then, from a long time ago, she remembered him doing the same thing once to Little Joe. She sighed. “Back then my views were so warped I probably expected it to be a prelude to choking.”

Mrs. Gardiner was by no means a confident rider, but at Adam’s promise of a gentle, smooth-gaited horse and a slow ride, she agreed to make the trek by horseback, which meant they could take the trails up to the meadow above the lake.

Ben and Mr. Gardiner rode in front, with Mrs. Gardiner and Peggy in between, while Lizzy and Adam brought up the rear. At exactly the same time, though, they all seemed to burst through the trees and into a high mountain pasture, and Ben in the front, and Adam at the back, shouted simultaneously, “Feast thine eyes on a spot that approaches Heaven itself!”

Adam couldn’t help laughing then, because every time for 20 years that they had ridden to that spot, his father had said the exact same thing. Peggy also giggled, because even in her limited experience, she, like Adam, had known what was coming. But the visitors, although they may have smiled, found themselves in agreement with Ben.

“I think this is the most beautiful spot I have ever seen!” Mrs. Gardiner rhapsodized, and her husband burbled something equally agreeable. Lizzy, however, who was never at a loss for words, suddenly was. The only thing she could think was, “I could have lived here, if only I had had the sense to recognize a good man when he was standing in front of me.”

She looked around for Adam then, but he had helped Peggy off Sparks and was busy unsaddling and hobbling the two horses. She got down from her own horse with no help and unsaddled him too, but before she had put the hobbles on, her horse squealed and tore away, leaving her standing there with the ropes in her hand and a silly expression on her face. She was of course immediately accosted by her relatives, demanding to know if she was all right, and then they had to figure out how they would return with six people and five horses, but her eyes were fixed on Adam, who was looking at her with an expression that could best be termed as a smirk.

After a few jokes at her expense, they began fishing, and Adam and Peggy helped her bait her pole while Ben helped Mr. and Mrs. Gardner. She looked at Adam, who was still suppressing a smile as he studiously impaled a large night crawler on her hook. “What was that expression for a moment ago?” she asked quietly.

He pushed his hat back and grinned a close approximation of the grin he’d used in the portrait in Ben’s study. “I was just thinkin’ about how you’re going to get back to the ranch,” he said pleasantly.

“You said I was to ride with Peggy’s horse, and she would ride with you.”

“I did indeed.”

“Then why the look?”

He grinned again. “Because I was thinking just how much more fun it be if you had to ride with me. After all, that would gall you, wouldn’t it?”

She couldn’t help smiling back. “Maybe I wouldn’t mind as much as you thought.”

“Really, now.”

“Of course, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, now, though.”

“Reckon not,” he said, and holding hands with Peggy, strode off to the lake. Then he looked back. “Or maybe we might still find out…”

Chapter 41

Letters from Home

The Gardiners had originally planned to stay only overnight at the Ponderosa and then move on to Virginia City, but Ben could tell easily enough that Adam wanted the visitors to stay, and he liked them well enough himself. Thus, he invited them to remain. A week went by almost before Lizzy recognized it. There were horseback rides, picnics, a visit to a mine, and a tour of other portions of the ranch to maintain her, the Gardiners’, and Peggy’s interest. Adam was gone for two days to bring some cattle down from another area of the ranch in preparation for the coming roundup, which irked Lizzy greatly, but Ben and Peggy took her out riding on those days. Peggy had become her best friend and almost made up for Adam’s temporary absence by telling many Cartwright “family secrets,” especially of a medical nature. “Ssssshhhh…don’t tell anybody but Granpa Ben has to put on spectacles when he reads ’cause he has presbyterians in his eyes. And he gets headaches sometimes ’cause he has stickytisms, too, but he says he can still shoot the stripes off a raccoon on a dark night, so you don’t need to be scared of no varmints when he’s around. Granpa Ben’s best friends are the doctor and the sheriff, but he hates doctors. Ain’t that funny? And don’t tell anybody, but Adam likes sheriffs but he still hates doctors. Hoss says Adam would rather die than go see a doctor—and even worse ’n’ that, Joe says Adam would rather see a preacher than a doctor! But don’t tell Reverend Dave that Adam don’t like preachers, ’cause he’s one of Adam’s best friends.”

A letter from Mary arrived on Saturday. She had sent it General Delivery since as far as she knew the family was in Virginia City. A ranch hand picking up the Ponderosa’s correspondence brought the letter in.

Dear Lizzy,

Jane said she would write you, but since Little Joe and Hoss arrived four days ago neither she nor Kitty can be bothered with anything so banal. Lydia has not the sense to put pen to paper but then she never did. Mama’s nerves are once again in some kind of an uproar brought on either by the price of turnip seeds or the new preacher in Mulberry Ridge (a most unpleasant man named Cyrus Culbreth who will not discuss one thing of interest—I do miss Reverend Clayton). Therefore I am honored with this duty but be forewarned that I do not want to do it.

The weather is fine. Papa has done a lot of planting of various winter crops including turnips, early cabbages, and some other vegetables which hold absolutely no interest for me. He has also acquired a new milk cow and insisted that I learn to milk it, whereupon Kitty observed that the cow had no milk and would not have any until she was bred to a bull and produced of a calf. At this my mother had yet another nervous attack and Lydia, who laughs more these days than anyone has a right to, nearly split the seams of her dress.

Will Cartwright was here a week or so ago and spent a great many hours whining about how unfair life is and how evil and villainous Adam Cartwright is. While I, however, harbor no real liking for Adam, I dislike Will enough to find favor in anyone else who dislikes Will. Fortunately, this week he left on some business at the Presidio, and I hope he will be gone for a long time. Men who talk as much as he does are such a bother, although Lydia certainly listens to him enough.

Lydia is a great vexation to me. She never helps with chores, saying they will destroy her hands. Her hands, however, do not stop her from spending far too much time with her three friends. I am, as usual, a minority in my opinion—the three sisters have charmed Mama. Even Jane and Kitty, who I thought had better sense, are too busy with TRUE LOVE to be mindful of earthly matters such as Frigga, Brunhild, and Freya. But then since they are the daughters of the dreadful Reverend Culbreth I suppose this makes them above reproach. It seems to me that any preacher who names his daughters for women in Norse mythology is already suspect, but no one listens to me.

Mama as usual takes Lydia’s part and worries about her hands more than Lydia herself, although no one seems to care that Jane, Kitty and I also have hands and that our hands suffer too. Of course since Hoss and Little Joe have been coming over every day I doubt Jane and Kitty have had to lift a finger to do much work. I on the other hand am still plagued by such foolery and it has kept me from memorizing the latest revisions to the California penal code.

Lydia’s three friends have got their parents to take them to San Francisco for a month, and Lydia wants to go along. Mama thinks she should go too, but Papa says he will only allow one silly woman to leave Longbourn at a time so it is to be Lydia. Jane roused herself at this from her Joe-induced stupor, growing most concerned and speaking with some warmth to Papa. She told him that Lydia does not have sense enough to go to a big city, even under the supervision of Reverend and Mrs. Culbreth. Papa just said that Jane had already been there, and that you, Lizzy, had run off to Stockton all by yourself, so he didn’t see why Lydia shouldn’t go somewhere as long as she went with nice people. Jane told him that at least you and she had exhibited a little sense, but our father doesn’t believe girls have any sense anyway and so Lydia is leaving with her idiot friends tomorrow. I say why not. Lydia is useless here and only eats all the apples. I expect by the time you get this letter she will be in San Francisco and busy being as useless there as she is here. At least I don’t have to write to her as well as you, since this is already intolerable. I don’t mind writing, but letters such as this serve no real purpose as you have doubtless realized by now.

Father sends his love but he of course won’t put a pen to paper either. All the more for me to do. I am a martyr for my family’s sake.

Your most affectionate sister,

Mary

The day after Adam came back, he surprised everybody by inviting Lizzy—and only Lizzy—for a horseback ride. Up to that point he had been careful to include the Gardiners and/or Peggy in every outing with Lizzy. The Gardiners carefully concealed their pleasure in this turn of events, however, as they had seen for a while that Lizzy, in spite of her neutral observations about Adam, seemed to harbor some liking for him, and that Adam also seemed to like her. Peggy would have felt left out if Hop Sing had not suddenly remembered that he had to make the world’s biggest batch of cookies and needed all the help he could get.

As he saddled her horse—Lizzy had intended to do the honors herself but Adam insisted—she said, “Mr. Cartwright, I—”

“Adam,” he corrected her, reaching for the cinch. “And I would take it as a great honor to be allowed the use of your Christian name, as well.”

She smiled shyly. “Thank you, Adam—you may call me Lizzy. I wanted to tell you that the…the tragic story you imparted…”

He cut her off, flinging one stirrup over the horn. “Let’s not talk about that on such a nice day.”

“I only wanted to say that…I didn’t gossip about it. It was hard even to speak to Dave about it. I certainly would not have spoken of it to anyone else.”

“Good enough. Mount up and let’s check your stirrup length.”

“I wish some of the people in my family did know about it though—they all like your cousin far too much, and he apparently has made himself quite at home there.”

“Hoss and Joe are there, Lizzy. They’ll take care of him if he gets too uppity. Please, let’s not ruin this beautiful day by talking about something ugly.”

So Lizzy and Adam rode up to the “Feast Thine Eyes” spot, without fishing poles, and the first thing Adam did was show Lizzy how to hobble a horse. Then he took Lizzy for a good long walk through all of nature’s bounty, and they spoke at some length of Thoreau and Walden. Here a harmless quote Lizzy made about the railroad that ran near Walden Pond led to Adam telling a story about the Ponderosa and how the railroad had tried to swallow huge chunks of the ranch for its own use.

“I used to think railroads were progress, and necessary. I guess back then I thought I was a visionary. Pa and I used to argue about it a lot. But when I saw some of what the railroad men wanted to do, and some of the effects to the land…” he shook his head. “I still believe in progress, but not at the expense of our home. I’ve come to realize everything you want has an associated cost, and the question is whether or not you’re willing to pay.” He glanced at her, and for the first time seemed a little uncertain. A silence grew between them.

“For example,” he went on slowly, after a while, “I like being a bachelor. It’s comfortable for me, I guess, because I’m used to it. Marriage would mean the end to some of the things I like, so that’s the cost. But I’ve always thought if I found the right girl to marry, it would be worth the cost. Lizzy, a while back I asked about going to your father for permission to court you….”

She couldn’t help the sharp intake of breath. “You mean you still want to?”

He shrugged. “I’m stubborn. Stick around long enough, and you’ll see. I’m also honest. I don’t know if honesty and stubbornness make the best recommendations, but you might find other good qualities if you look real hard.”

She couldn’t stop trembling. “You…you…may…speak to my father, Adam.”

The sun was warm overhead, but the smile on Adam’s face was warmer still, and he pulled her over to him. “You know how we seal these things,” he said softly, and put a hand on either side of her face.

Her eyes widened. “Adam, you can’t kiss me!”

“Why not?” he replied, unperturbed.

She backed away. “My father says only a trollop would let a man kiss her if they’re not properly engaged!”

Manfully, Adam refrained from telling her that her father was an idiot. “Lizzy, what do you think I’m trying to do? I just expressed my intent, didn’t I?”

“But…but he didn’t say ‘yes’ yet!”

Her intended rolled his eyes. “Lizzy, I consider your opinion far more valuable to me than his.”

“Adam, I also have a not-unwarranted reputation for stubbornness.”

“I believe it.” With a sheepish grin, he shook his head. “C’mon, let’s go.”

She had the feeling she was being treated with an amused, almost paternal indulgence now; that he was sure she was insane and was simply allowing her to be. Part of her appreciated it; another part was enraged. And yet another part sat off to one side and howled that she was insane; she should’ve said hang her father and let Adam kiss her anyway. But the moment was past. Silently, they returned to the horses.

Back at the house, everyone could tell that something had happened between the two, but no one could tell whether or not it was a good thing. To Ben, however, that was of secondary importance. He called Adam into his study at once. “This came while you were gone.” He handed Adam an envelope from the Western Union office.

Adam opened it. “Need you right now brother. Get out here at once. Urgent. Hoss.” He looked at his father. “Looks like I need to travel. Can you take care of Peggy?”

“Yes, but what do you suppose it is?”

“Won’t know till I get there. Can’t be Joe or he would have called for both of us.” He chuckled. “Maybe it’s a shotgun wedding and he needs a best man.”

“You know better. Wire me as soon as you find out something, all right?”

“Sure, Pa.” Despite the easy air he had taken with his father, Adam’s mind was already racing with possibilities. Hoss would not have sent him such a telegram without a genuine need behind it.

Meanwhile, Lizzy had retreated to her room for sanctuary, intending to cry for a while but distracted by the clumping of boots on the stairs, she recognized Adam’s tread, heading to his room. A couple of minutes later he was back out. She heard his steps pause a moment outside her closed door, and then he went on. Curiously, she went to the door, cracked it, and peeked out just in time to see him at the bottom of the steps, a pair of bulging saddlebags slung over his shoulders. He stopped long enough to take a rifle from the gun cabinet and grab his hat, gun belt, and jacket. Then he was gone again, closing the door behind him.

She went back to her room, and this time, she did cry.

Ben was uncharacteristically silent the rest of the day, and when the Gardiners asked about Adam, they were told he had been called away on a matter of business. Lizzy, with surprising boldness, went to Ben privately and asked, “Sir, did the business matter involve me in any way?”

Ben frowned in consternation. “Not that I know of, Miss Elizabeth—why on earth would it?”

He hadn’t even confided his intentions to his own father? Lizzy no longer knew what to think.

Two days passed, and though Ben and Peggy again tried to take up the slack, it was a sad time. Finally, as Lizzy and the Gardiners prepared to leave the Ponderosa, another letter from Mary arrived.

Dear Lizzy,

Of all things, Lydia has apparently been kidnapped. Papa will not tell the sheriff as he has been informed Lydia will be killed if he does. I may be endangering Lydia’s life myself by writing this, so please do not tell anyone. I confess, however, that I have a hard time believing this is serious, as would you if you saw the ransom note. Anyway you would probably do better to come home since Mama is having shrieking fits and will not accept any solace from Kitty or Jane. Frankly I doubt she will accept any from you either, but she wants you to be here, probably just to spoil your trip.

Little Joe and Hoss and the farm hands have been searching without success but Lydia is not to be found. Her three friends, and the idiot Reverend, say she took a walk to stretch her legs at a way station on the road to San Francisco, but never came back. That was a week ago. This morning the ransom note arrived, looking like an invention from a dime novel; it was a single sheet of paper with words clipped from newspapers and glued onto the page, demanding $50,000 by next Saturday or Lydia will be killed. Mama intends to come up with the money, although from whence I know not. Apparently Papa has none. I heard them arguing about it after the note came. This is news to me; I always assumed having this land made us wealthy, and I know Lydia thought so too.

At any rate you had best come home. If nothing else the next few days may prove interesting enough to make me forego my memorization of the California Penal Code.

Your most affectionate sister,

Mary

Chapter 42

The Ride(s)

Whatever his faults—and he knew he had many—Adam Cartwright had among his virtues the desire to always be prepared for the situations he rode into. Oh, the desire didn’t always materialize. Over the years he had stumbled into some bad places through a lack of preparedness, but he had learned well from those mistakes. When possible, he tried to know what he was facing. Again, he thought over the telegram, trying to deduce the possibilities behind the demand, and came only to the conclusion that Hoss would never have sent such a wire out of caprice.

It couldn’t be Lizzy. Hoss knew Lizzy was safe and sound at the Ponderosa. It couldn’t be Dave and Rosita or any of the Barkleys; they were all in Stockton. It couldn’t be Joe. Joking aside, Hoss would never dare to leave Ben Cartwright out of anything if Joseph Francis were in trouble.

That only left the remaining Bennets. Adam could hardly imagine Hoss summoning him to come on behalf of the Bennet family without including a summons for Lizzy as well—unless it was something that could be helped by direct action, and that Lizzy couldn’t be part of. That meant someone in the Bennet family was in danger. Not the entire family obviously—Hoss and Joe were spending nights at the Bar Fly, but each day they were over at Longbourn helping the senior Bennet learn farming. If the entire family was in danger, Hoss and Joe were in danger as well, and probably not at liberty to ride into Mulberry Ridge to send wires.

Mrs. Bennet seldom left the house except to gossip with her cronies. Mary Bennet never left at all if she could help it. Possibly Jane or Kitty—but then, with their fiancés and protectors there constantly, how could they be under threat?

But Lydia…she had gone to San Francisco. Lizzy had told him of a letter from one of her sisters, in which the news had been disseminated that Lydia was leaving for San Francisco with some friends and their parents.

Lydia Bennet. The girl had nothing but air between her ears, and while she was a beauty, she embodied all the worst traits of both her parents. Spoiled all her life, shallow, self-centered, lazy, noisy, possessing the loud and opulent tastes of the nouveau riche, but with the purse of the longtime poor, Lydia was the prime example of why some people shouldn’t be allowed to breed. And Mr. Bennet—idiot that he was—had let her go to San Francisco. Nothing good could come of that. And he would bet his entire bank account that nothing good had come of it.

Sport was a one-of-a-kind horse. Half thoroughbred, half Arabian, he could make 60 miles in a day, and given sufficient rest overnight, repeat the whole process over again for up to five or six days. They had started later in the day than Adam would have liked, but when the sun dipped below the horizon they had gone nearly 40 miles already.

He stopped at a way station overnight, one that had a telegraph office, and wired Hoss that he was on the way and any information would be helpful. When morning came, he grabbed a cup of coffee and saddled Sport, reflecting as he did so that only 24 hours ago, he had been saddling Sport and Streak, the horse Lizzy had ridden, for their ride to the lake—and she had been talking about Will Cartwright.

And Will’s propensity for hanging around her relatives.

It wasn’t something that seemed particularly relevant…surely Will was too old and Lydia too young for any foolishness along those lines…but somehow the idea stuck in his head.

“Mr. Cartwright? Hang on a minute, sir. You got a wire comin’ in.”

Suddenly he had his answer. “L disappeared en route to Frisco. Demand received.”

He sent three messages in response. One was to Hoss, assuring him and Joe that he’d be there by the following morning. The second was to the commander of Ord Barracks, one Colonel Fisher, asking if Lieutenant Cartwright was still stationed there and in good standing. The third was to Dave Clayton, asking if he could spare Rosita for a while. Soon enough Lizzy would find all this out, he figured, and she would be hurting.

Then he mounted up. Sport, rested and chipper, snorted and tossed his head, and they were on their way again. With each rhythmic three-beat plunge forward, Adam found himself murmuring, “Could be wrong. Hope I’m wrong.” But he knew he wasn’t, and he knew when he arrived he would only find confirmation of what he already saw ever-so-clearly in his head.

*

Jarrod Barkley had gotten home from San Francisco only the day before and had gone to the little house he maintained near his Stockton office—he didn’t feel like facing his mother right now, and he was busy as sin with no secretary and the work in Stockton piling up. He hadn’t even eaten dinner, and soon it would be supper time. But his office never seemed to allow him time to do anything: he had three wills to prepare, and a criminal case to plead next month. And that jackass in Mulberry Ridge had written a nasty letter about the legal arrangement for Dave’s land. Some people honestly didn’t know a good thing when it hit them in the face.

And speaking of things hitting people in the face, he nearly bumped into Manny Ortega from the telegraph office. “Señor Barkley! Are you going to the ranch?”

“Wasn’t planning to, Manny—why?”

“Ah, there’s a telegram here for your friend the preacher. If I know him it will be a week or more before he’s in town.”

Jarrod thought it over briefly. Well, he could go and see Dave. He wanted to ask about this Bennet fellow anyway. If he was lucky he could even spend the night on Dave’s couch. “I guess I’ll take it to him after all, Manny. Thanks.”

The ride out to the little parsonage took nearly four hours and it was dark before he got there. As he knocked on the door, he decided that if his luck today held true, not only would he not get any dinner but the good Reverend would greet him with a fist in the face for calling after 9 o’clock.

He’d apparently forgotten with whom he was dealing. Dave opened the door and grinned. “Well, hello, stranger. Come on in. You took a long ride, didn’t you? Anything wrong?”

“I don’t know; I’m just a messenger boy.” Jarrod handed him the telegraph envelope. Dave looked at it for a minute and stuffed it in his pocket.

“Whatever it is can wait until you’ve eaten and I’ve stabled your horse. Somebody forgot to tell you what time it gets dark around these parts, and it’s not like San Francisco where you can rely on the gas lamps. Rosie, dish up some stew for Jarrod, if you will—I’ll be back when I finish takin’ care of the horse.”

Gratefully, Jarrod turned to Rosita, who smiled shyly and took his hat.

He was just pushing his almost-empty bowl aside when Dave reappeared, reaching in his pocket for the crumpled telegram. He joined Jarrod at the table and opened the envelope to read, “Lydia Bennet disappeared. Possible kidnapping. Send Rosie to Bennets for Lizzy’s sake. I ride to SF and LMP. Adam.”

It was the last sentence that really sent Dave’s heavy brows into his hairline.

“What’s LMP?” Jarrod and Rosita asked, almost at the same time.

For a moment, Dave sat wonderingly. “You’d never believe it,” he finally murmured. “It’s a boarding house—or a brothel—never was quite sure which…near the waterfront. It sounds like Adam thinks Will Cartwright is involved in this.” He drummed his fingers on the table for a moment. “Jarrod, you’ll be stayin’ the night, won’t you?”

“If you don’t mind, yes.”

“Not as long as you don’t mind our couch. Sorry, but this ain’t the Waldorf.”

“Your couch sounds mighty good right now, Dave. What are you going to do about this?”

Dave grinned. “I’m gonna pray.”

Chapter 43

The Devil and Sam Driscoll

Dave prayed, but no answer was forthcoming, so he just smiled at Rosita and said, “I want you to go and see Lizzy.”

“You’re going with Adam to San Francisco,” she said flatly. He shrugged a little, because he had not decided. Tears came to her large brown eyes and she murmured, “I don’t want you to go.”

They went to bed then, but Dave found it hard to sleep. He kept remembering another pair of large brown eyes and a murmured “I don’t want you to go.”

*

At age 13, Samuel David Driscoll was kicked out of school. His father Saul put the boy to work in his “outfit,” where he became a valuable criminal. Over the next three years Sam Driscoll stole more than 2,000 cattle and 150 horses. But at age 16 he and a few other fellows from the outfit got drunk and into an argument that left one of them dead. It had been self-defense, but Sam had shot Wally Morton deader than a doorknob, and Wally had been known to be a pretty fast gun. It wasn’t long before another man had shown up, looking to challenge the kid who’d outdrawn Wally.

Things changed. People eyed him funny; men came to the door with a shotgun if he looked at their daughters. And then the preacher came on visitation one day and told a very hung-over Sam, “Boy, Satan has your heart in his clutches so tight right now that when you look in the mirror, you don’t see yourself—you see him, and boy, he’ll torment you right down to the grave!” With those words in his head, Sam Driscoll quit looking in mirrors and stuffed his clothes into a saddlebag. His mother, trembling, with tears rimming her large brown eyes, whispered, “I don’t want you to go.” But he laughed, gave her a quick hug, and headed out the door. She followed behind him, carrying a pocket Bible. “At least take this,” she begged him. “Think of me when you read it.” He took it, but never read it, and seldom thought of his mother, either. She died the following year.

The next seven years blurred into a long recitation of women, guns, booze, cards, dice, whisky…and elegant white shirts and black frock coats. Somehow that little Bible found its way into the breast pocket of any coat he wore. It was a convenient place to keep a cash reserve, at least.

And then came Three-Fingered Louie Martin. When the smoke cleared, Sam Driscoll closed his eyes against the red splash, his mind reeling in a haze of pain, his heart begging for his mother…in desperation to avoid the Hell he knew he deserved, he forced his eyes open again…and saw himself. Just like the preacher had said. The Devil had come for him.

“Whoa, I bet that hurts like the devil,” Satan said. He and another man picked up the dying man and carried him inside—and Sam cried out in panic as he realized it was an undertaker’s shop. He was being tormented right into the grave.

Satan had surprisingly gentle fingers, though, and as he tore open the shirt and examined the wound, he actually seemed to care for the man he was attending. “Keep still and quiet,” Satan said. “That mob out there is pretty mad. They think you’re dying; that’s the only reason they’re not all over you right now.”

“I am dying,” Sam whispered, involuntary tears in his eyes.

“Don’t bet on it,” Satan replied.

The undertaker was coming back with a couple of men carrying Three-Fingered Louie. “Keep as quiet as you can,” Satan whispered. “Look dead. It shouldn’t be too hard.”

Sam Driscoll froze in place, but between the pain and the terror, the pulse in his throat was jumping visibly, and Satan quickly covered him with a sheet.

“Is he dead?” someone shouted. “He killed Louie! He better be dead!”

“Well he is!” Satan shouted back in a deep and resonant voice laced with anguish. “Are you happy? Louie killed my brother. My only brother! What am I supposed to tell our mother now?”

“Tell’er he got what was comin’ to him, and he shoulda got worse!”

“Just get out! Can’t a fellow grieve over his baby brother without you shouting? You want to celebrate, do it outside and leave us alone!”

Under his funeral shroud, Sam was beginning to realize that the hand holding the sheet over him was trembling—and sweating. If the fellow was really Satan, why would Satan be afraid? But he stopped wondering as pain and shock overcame him and he slipped into unconsciousness.

When he came to, he was in pitch-blackness and the air was reverberating with thumping noises and loud wails. Hell is full of souls in pain and agony, the preacher had said. So he was in Hell after all. An instinctive whimper escaped him, and suddenly he felt that gentle hand again. “Shhh. It’s all right.”

Sam turned his head—and bumped into wood. He stretched out a tentative hand—and realized he was in a coffin. Well, the Devil was the Prince of Liars, after all.

A single flame flared up, and there was Satan himself, holding a lantern over the coffin and smiling. “It’s about time you woke up.”

“Am I in Hell?” Sam asked softly.

Heavy eyebrows formed a confused curlicue as the apparition stared at him. “You’re on the 8:15 to Jefferson City.” He shrugged and further clarified. “It’s a train. I had to get you outta there. That mob wanted to lynch you, even thinkin’ you were already dead.”

Am I dead?”

“You’re not. And if I have anything to say about it, you’re not going to be. You shot in self-defense; that’s not a hanging offense where I come from.”

“Where do you…come from? Are you from Hell?”

“Nope—just Nevada. Although when the weather’s bad there’s not much difference. Now stay still. You move around, you’ll open that wound and start bleeding again. When we get to Jeff City, I’ll find you a doctor.”

“I’m not dead…I’m not in Hell…then I guess you’re not Satan.”

A short, surprised laugh. “Sorry to disappoint you. I’m Adam Cartwright.”

“I’m in a coffin.”

“Best way to get you out of there. The undertaker charged four times the normal cost, too—the scoundrel.”

“How bad…is it?”

“Not all that bad, really. Here. This absorbed most of the bullet’s impact.” Cartwright pressed something small and leather into his hand.

It was his mother’s Bible, and there was a hole the size of a .44 round drilled right through the center.

“That thing saved your life.” Cartwright chuckled. “Normally I think they’re supposed to save souls, but anything’s possible in Missouri.”

*

All that night Sam Driscoll lay in a coffin, talking to a man who looked just like him, convinced that at some point he would wake up to find all this a terrible nightmare. But when the train rolled into Jefferson City, Adam Cartwright nailed the top on the coffin, loaded it onto a wagon, and took it to the nearest doctor. And when the man in the coffin stood up and took his first steps, he said “Call me Dave. Dave Clayton.”

“Funny,” Adam said dryly. “I thought you were Sam Driscoll.”

“Sam Driscoll’s dead.”

Adam thought for a while. “I sure wouldn’t go back to Kansas City any time soon.”

“Wrong direction,” Dave agreed with a shake of his head. “You got me pointed right, Adam. I’m going east. My mother’s people, the Claytons and Bristols, live in Kentucky. Near Danville.”

“I’ve heard of it. There’s a seminary there, I think.”

“Yes. I don’t know how much it costs, Adam, but if God Almighty was this determined to get my attention and save my soul, there must be something I can do for him…and I’m sure he’ll make a way for me to get into that school.”

“So you think you’ll be a preacher?”

“I know it.”

Adam raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Yesterday this time you knew I was Satan.”

“Yesterday I was Sam Driscoll and a lot of things were different. Dave Clayton’s going to be harder to deceive.” He opened the Bible. “Matthew 10:16: Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. That’s me, Adam. I was a wolf and a snake most of my life. Now all that experience can be put to some good use. The Lord saved me for a purpose, and I think I know what it is.”

“You’re plumb crazy,” Adam chuckled. “But, if you think that’s what you need to do, you’ll probably make a good preacher. Look, here’s my address at home. When you get settled, write me. I’ve got a little money saved up, and my father says I’ve never seen a lost cause I didn’t love. I don’t know how much I can help you, but I’ll try.”

“Adam, you already risked your life to save mine—and me a complete stranger. You’ve done plenty for me. And I don’t even know why, unless it’s because you and I look something alike.”

“No,” Adam said quietly. “That wasn’t it.”

“Then…what was it?”

Adam looked uncomfortable and waved a dismissive hand. “I don’t know. Don’t ask.”

It had been years before Adam would tell Dave the truth—that he had heard Sam Driscoll whimper, “Mama, I’m sorry.” By then, it didn’t much matter why Adam had done it—just that he had. And it hadn’t stopped there. He had given Dave Clayton most of his money for the trip to Danville. Again, it had been years before Dave found out that Adam had, in those days before the telegraph, had to work his own way home. And on finally reaching home, Adam had received Dave’s letter soon after and had tapped into his bank account to help Dave pay for his schooling. Eventually, he had persuaded his father of Dave’s worthiness as well, and the contribution had doubled. The two had stayed in touch, first by correspondence, and now and again when Dave’s itinerant church work had taken him through Nevada, he always made a point of stopping by the Ponderosa.

As clear as yesterday, Dave could remember that day nearly nine years ago when the bullet killed Sam Driscoll. And just as clearly, he remembered Adam’s hands, gentle and sure as he worked on him, then trembling and sweating as he lied through his teeth to save a man he didn’t know.

He wondered how there could have ever been any doubt. And he went to sleep with a smile.

*

The next morning before sunrise, Dave was up, dressed, and having coffee by the time Jarrod awoke. “What are you doing?”

“I’m goin’ to San Francisco,” Dave replied with his usual maddening good cheer. “Say, is Mr. Bennet still bein’ unreasonable?”

“He invented the word. But—”

“Then it’s all perfect. Jarrod, would you go to Mulberry Ridge for me? You can take Rosita to see Lizzy, and you can see Mr. Bennet on my behalf. I’m going to see some old friends.”

“What about all my work in Stockton? I can’t run off and leave it any more than you can run off and leave your church!”

“I won’t leave my church. I already rode over to Jimmy Newbury’s place—he’s the farmer and lay minister who’s been studying with me on Saturdays. He’s been wantin’ to get a chance to preach, and this is it. Jarrod, I know you’re not much on faith, but help me out and take my wife to see Lizzy. If things turn out the way I think they might, I could be the answer to my friend Adam’s prayers. You’re certainly the answer to mine; and it could be you’ll find your own answers to prayers on the way to, or from, Mulberry Ridge.”

While Jarrod wondered just what answer to prayer he could possibly find in Mulberry Ridge, Rosita emerged from the bedroom.

“And what of my prayers, David?” she asked softly, her eyes large and anxious. “If you go to San Francisco looking for trouble, won’t you find it? How can I be an answer to prayer if I’m fearful for what will happen to you?”

Dave smiled and touched her cheek. “How many times do I have to tell you, my Rose of Sharon? Perfect love casteth out fear.”

“My love for you is not perfect. It’s only human.”

“Keep workin’ at it.” He put an arm around her and looked at Jarrod. “Will you do this for me?”

“Sure,” Jarrod chuckled. He’d seen crazy preachers before, but this one took the fur-lined bathtub. “Why not.”

Dave pulled Rosita into a tight embrace and kissed her long and hard, for a preacher. Or for anyone, Jarrod thought, and turned away hastily.

“Hey Jarrod—use a buggy if you would,” Dave said merrily as he left. “She doesn’t need the bumps, either. Get out and carry her over them if you have to. She’s my queen, and I want her back safe and sound.”

“Don’t forget,” Rosita whispered to the closed door, “I want you back safe and sound, too.”

Chapter 44

Reunions

Adam caught up to Hoss and Joe at a little café in Dewey Morn, about 20 miles from Fairfield. This was where Lydia had disappeared, and Joe had torn the little town apart while Hoss wreaked equal havoc on Fairfield. Their travail had brought forth nothing but frustration. Never had anyone disappeared so completely as Lydia Bennet.

Hoss motioned for more coffee while Joe quickly filled Adam in. “It’s been nine days now. She said the stagecoach had made her legs cramp and she just wanted to walk a little while. The folks she was with all wanted to eat, so they went inside. When they came out, she was gone. There weren’t any trackers, so they sent for one, and he said there was just one horse; we can show you where, and he thought the prints were deep enough so it might have been double-mounted. Not any signs of a real struggle, although there were a couple of small branches broke.” He shrugged. “Not that Lydia could’ve put up much of a fight, Adam. She wasn’t what I’d call strong. Anyway, later they found a horse on its own near a ravine, just kind of lost and limping around. The tracker thought the horse might have stumbled and pitched them both down the side, but it was too steep to go down and look.”

“Too obvious.” Adam shook his head.

“Well, you’re right there, but when you’re frantic like we were, it doesn’t always occur to you to be logical. We were just about to go out to the creek and work our way back toward the ravine from the bottom when another tracker found this.” He produced a green hair ribbon. “Lydia was wearing that on the stage.”

“And where was it found?”

“At the Suisin Marsh. That’s why we backtracked to Fairfield. We searched the marsh too, but no results. I mean, we found horse tracks around it, but that’s not unusual. A lot of people hunt there. That was when Hoss wired you. We were gonna go back to Mulberry Ridge but then got the telegram from you telling us to stay put.” His eyes narrowed. “You know something…or you think you do. What is it?”

Adam pulled the telegram from his pocket.

Col. Eugene Fisher

Cdr, Ord Barracks

Lt Will Cartwright sent to Presidio SF 12 days ago. Due in Presidio 10 days ago. Never reported. Due back Ord 3 days ago. Never reported. Current status AWOL. Will be considered deserter if does not report to nearest military post in 9 days.

Hoss looked doubtful. “I don’t like him any more’n you do, Adam, but just ’cause he went to Frisco—or didn’t go—is no reason to suspect him bein’ involved in kidnappin’ a little girl.”

“From what Lizzy said, he’d been a frequent visitor at Longbourn after we left, then after she left with her aunt and uncle.  Come on, Hoss, you know Will always needs money. And you know what he’ll do to get it.”

“I don’t,” Joe put in, his eyebrows down and his jaw out. “And I’m sittin’ right here and tired of you two acting like I’m a six-year-old who can’t understand whenever the subject comes up. You don’t have to tell me what happened if you don’t want to, but I do want to know why Will is Adam’s favorite suspect whenever something so completely unrelated comes along.”

“I have to send another cable.” Adam stood stiffly and walked out, and Joe looked questioningly at Hoss.

“Joe, it…ain’t that you’re not able to understand. It’s just that it’s hard to talk about. You know there’s subjects like that. And you know him, anyhow. He ain’t even talked to me about it, ever, and I was right there. Simplest way to put it is Adam holds Will responsible for Laura’s death.”

“I knew that much! What I don’t know is why?”

“He wanted the money she had from the sale of her ranch, and he beat her up some to get it. She got an infection from the beating and died. That’s all. To this day Will says it ain’t his fault, that he just wanted the money and never meant anybody to die. Now what all this has to do with Lydia, though, I’m just as in the dark as you. She’s way too young to be interesting to him.”

For a while Joe sat rock-still, a range of emotions playing across his face, as he absorbed the information he’d been given.

“He was there once when I was,” he finally said. “Remember the day I went over early…he was there. He and…I guess now it was Lydia. I thought it was Mary then; they sound just alike, and I only saw her from the back. They were in the barn. He was saying he’d miss her, and she said he didn’t have to.”

“Lord, Joe! Why didn’t you say something before?”

“I told you, I thought it was Mary! She was always fussing about having no interest in men; I thought it was like that expression Adam uses, you know, about the lady protesting too much. Besides, Will just laughed and walked away when she said it. I never realized anything would come of it; never had a reason to.”

“Yeah,” Hoss murmured, deep in thought. “It still doesn’t make much sense. I know Will’s always short on cash, but it sure doesn’t make sense to run off with Lydia—for love or money.”

“Her family doesn’t have any money. Doesn’t Will know that?”

“I woulda thought so. But maybe he’s countin’ on us to help the Bennets. He knows you and me are gonna marry Jane and Kitty.” He sighed. “Come to that, maybe we oughtta wire Pa and ask if we can scrape that much cash together. We don’t have much time left.”

“Maybe that’s what Adam did. Let’s ask him.” Joe stood up—and bumped smack into Adam.

“Let’s go,” Adam said quietly.

“Where to?” Joe demanded.

“San Francisco.” He looked at Hoss. “I’m pretty sure I know where to find them. Both of them. And if we leave now, we can get there day after tomorrow. One little hop across the water on the Sausalito Ferry and it’ll be done.”

“You mean we’re gonna pay the ransom?”

Adam pinched Hoss’s cheek. “No. I mean I’m going to pound the stuffing out of somebody who desperately needs it…and then I’m gonna put that girl over my knee and wear her out with my holster.”

As they left, Adam asked one other question that had been on his mind for a while. “Where’s Mr. Bennet?”

“He was with us at first,” Joe said with a shrug. “But it was easier without him, Adam. The man’s useless if it ain’t somethin’ to do with books.”

“He sits a horse worse than Jane,” Hoss confirmed. “Sorry, Little Joe.”

“Quit callin’ me ‘Little.’ It’s true about Jane. But at least she’s trying to learn. Mr. Bennet’s had 45 years to learn to ride and he still stinks at it. He was only slowing us down.”

“But didn’t he at least argue when you two wanted to go on without him?” Adam demanded.

“Don’t matter,” Hoss replied. “We weren’t gonna take him nohow.”

Adam shook his head. “If it was Peggy there’s no way you’d leave me behind, and we’re not even related. I don’t understand that man.”

“He ain’t really a bad feller. He just ain’t used to livin’ in the West.”

Adam raised an eyebrow. “He’s had 20 years to learn. Almost as long as we’ve been here. Never mind. I said I don’t understand him; I didn’t say I was gonna waste my time tryin’. If not for Lizzy I’d have no use for him anyway.”

“Lizzy?” Joe asked. “You mean Lizzy, Jane’s sister?”

“That’s the one. I’m gonna marry her.”

“Are you really, now,” Hoss said with forced casualness.

Adam shrugged. “Might as well. What with you two marryin’ her sisters and all…” He ducked his head and grinned.

Joe burst out laughing, and reached over and punched Adam in the shoulder. Hoss smacked him—gently—on the back of the head. Little more was said until they camped for the night, when both brothers gave their eldest brother a hug and Hoss said, “Welcome to the family. Again.”

They reached Sausalito two days later. They had covered a lot of ground fast, so conversation had been minimal, mostly at night, when they were too tired to talk much.

In Sausalito they took the ferry to San Francisco. And as they led their horses down the boat ramp and onto the dock, Hoss whistled. “Now ain’t that the purtiest little ’rabian y’ever saw?”

Adam glanced over at the compact, alert little chestnut gelding, noting the upraised flag of a tail, the small ears curving inward, and the large, intelligent eyes…and he found himself grinning. Sure, there was probably more than one such horse in California—but more than one with a brand that looked like three crosses on its left hip?

“Dave’s here,” he said bemusedly, looking around.

“What’s he doin’ here?” Joe demanded. “There’s noplace here but bars and brothels.”

“Yup,” Adam said, and headed off at a fast walk for the nearest bar.

They found him at a table with a gaudy painted lady, waving his hands as he told her the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. “Jews and Samaritans hated each other. The only thing more surprising than the woman actually talking to Jesus is that he’s the one who started the conversation. That’s because he didn’t care that they were supposed to be enemies. The point is that everybody matters to him—Adam, Joe, Hoss! This is my friend Jenna.”

“I bet she has a lot of friends,” Joe muttered to Hoss, and got an elbow in the ribs. Jenna seized the opportunity to escape as Adam looked at Dave with raised eyebrows. “Care to tell me what you’re doing here?”

“You know me, Adam. I always meet the devil on his home ground.” Dave grinned.

“You know what I mean, you puddin’ head. Why are you in San Francisco?”

The grin disappeared. “Had to see a feller about a dog.”

“Would the fella be Will Cartwright, or would the dog?”

Dave shook his head. “Sorry, Adam; I know he’s your cousin, but don’t call him a dog. Gives dogs a bad name. I got here yesterday mornin’, and with the exception of the last two hours, I’ve been watchin’ the Magic Lasso the whole time.”

“Magic Lasso?”

“Yeah, Lisa-Marie re-named the place.”

“Hope you stayed out of sight. After what happened last time I’m pretty sure she’d still remember you.”

A slight nod. “I can blend in pretty well when I want to. They’re both there, Lydia and Will. And if it’s a real kidnappin’, it’s the strangest one I ever saw. She went out yesterday afternoon to a store—by herself. Bought a hat. Just about the ugliest hat you ever saw, too. If I owned that hat I’d use it in every sermon and tell ’em that’s what hell looks like. They’d be runnin’ down the aisle so fast….”

“So they’re both in cahoots?” Hoss asked, his tone half an octave higher than usual.

“That’s my guess.” Dave shrugged. “I wonder, though, about the ransom. When’s the deadline for the cash delivery, and where’s the rendezvous?”

“We’ve been on the road for five days all told…what day is it now, anyway? Thursday?”

“Friday.”

“Good grief. The money’s supposed to be delivered tomorrow, in Vallejo. That’s a full day’s ride from here, and if he’s expecting to pick up money, he’ll want to get out of town quick. It makes no sense for him to be here today. He should be in Vallejo already, tonight at the latest, resting his horse for the getaway.”

“Yeah.” For just a minute, a look came across Dave’s face that almost—almost—made Hoss and Joe believe he might really have been a gunfighter, once. “There’s a lot about this setup that doesn’t make sense. Come with me, fellas, I’ll show you where I’ve been hiding. You can generally get a pretty good view of their room from that spot.”

“Hey Dave,” Joe asked as they left the bar, “how did you know when we’d be here?”

Dave grinned over at Adam. “Well, it was a combination of knowing the distance and direction and your older brother’s temperament. I could just say the good Lord told me, but then Adam would get nasty and I’d have to poke him in the eye again.”

Chapter 45

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Lizzy had arrived back at Longbourn with her Aunt and Uncle Gardner, all of them tense, irritable, and worried sick. Mrs. Bennet was half hysterical, alternately demanding smelling salts and brandy, bewailing Lydia and cursing the evil people of the world who defaced newspapers and kidnapped children; at the next moment, cursing her husband for allowing Lydia to leave, and conveniently forgetting that she had been the one urging him. Then she would curse the Reverend and Mrs. Culbreth, who had chaperoned Lydia, because they had botched it, and not only that, but Mr. Bennet should have known a preacher was a bad chaperone. After all, what experience did preachers have with evil?

Lizzy’s father was drinking more than she had ever seen him drink, and reading his old dime novels as if they held the key to his salvation.

“Why didn’t you go with the search party?” she asked him.

“Do you think I could have done any good?” he asked, with as near a thought of hope as she had ever seen, and suddenly she realized: no sir, you couldn’t.

Mercifully, she changed the subject. “Who did go?”

He shrugged. “My two future sons-in-law, of course. Who better to search the wild, wild West than a couple of rugged cowboys?”

That only made her wonder where Adam had run off to. He had left without so much as a goodbye, before the letter arrived about Lydia’s disappearance, so he couldn’t be involved in the search. Well, she decided, it didn’t matter where he was. If he could leave “on business” without a parting glance, just because she’d been properly chaste and refused a kiss, she had nothing to say to him anyway.

The Gardiners decided to stay at Longbourn for a few days. There was nothing they could do elsewhere, with no idea where the search party had gone. The last message had been a cable from Little Joe at Fairfield three days earlier, in which he said he and Hoss could deliver the ransom if Mr. Bennet had been able to arrange the funds.

“What funds do I have to arrange?” Bennet had muttered. He had only managed to put together $753.98, and even with the Gardiners’ help he could go no higher than $3500.

That Mary had reacted rather unemotionally to all the hysteria was no surprise. But Jane and Kitty had also been uncharacteristically free of tears; they were not anxious because they knew Hoss and Joe were on the job.

“I am marrying the best man in the world,” Jane declared—out of Kitty’s hearing, for her younger sister might have given her an argument. “My Joe is taking care of everything. He and Hoss went into action as soon as Lydia disappeared, and have not ceased their efforts yet. If they don’t bring Lydia back, it will only be because they have found her and she does not want to return.”

Lizzy was befuddled by that statement. “How could she not want to return? This is her home.”

Jane looked away, embarrassed. “Kitty, Mary and I have talked it over, and we are of the opinion that Lydia was not completely reluctant to leave the stagecoach that day. I know it sounds terrible, Lizzy, but we believe she might not have been kidnapped at all. Father and Mother won’t hear of it, of course, but…well, we have reasons to suspect Lydia may have run away with a man.”

“You’re joking! Lydia is a child of 16—even if she had such thoughts, what on earth could she have that would entice a man to run away with her?”

“Lizzy, our mother was but 16 when she married our father.”

“And that worked out uncommonly well.”

“Don’t be unkind, Lizzy,” Jane said quietly, but there was an assertive quality to her voice Lizzy had not heard before. “It’s true, our parents don’t have the best marriage, and are not perhaps ideally suited. But don’t blame Mother for it all. Our father must also bear some of the blame. And if nothing else, they have served all us girls quite well as examples.”

“Examples! Of what?”

Jane smiled, a mischievous grin not unlike Little Joe Cartwright’s. “We now know exactly what to avoid if we want to have happy marriages.”

Chapter 46

The Magic Lasso

Dave’s hiding spot was an empty house directly across the street from the Magic Lasso, and from the corner room on the second floor they had a bird’s-eye view into the room Will and Lydia were apparently occupying. Adam was temporarily distressed to see that Will had gone out during Dave’s absence, but his horse, Dave assured them all, was still there. Lydia was still there as well and quite content, it seemed, to stay, drinking wine and eating chocolates from Ghirardelli’s.

“Why don’t we go over now, while he’s gone, and rescue her?” Joe demanded hotly. Damsels in distress had always made his blood boil. “We could be halfway back to Mulberry Ridge before he figures out it was us.”

Adam gave him the look—the one that even his father found it difficult to match. “No. I want Will to know what he did, and I want to give him a much-needed education.”

“Fine thing for Will to know what he did…but we don’t know what he did ourselves.”

“Y’all are being too emotional about this,” Dave put in, which earned him an open-mouthed stare from Adam. “I’m thinking we could just go over there and kinda stay with Lydia until Will gets back. Who knows; she might tell us what’s going on herself.”

Neither Joe nor Hoss had ever been seen at the Magic Lasso. Adam had never been there either, but his resemblance to Dave put him out of the running. Joe was thus decided upon as the diversion; he would keep the folk downstairs busy while Adam, Hoss and Dave sneaked past them upstairs. It was not a perfect plan. Little Joe was one who preferred action, and although his good looks made him a more suitable diversionary tactic than Hoss, he would have greatly preferred being in on the confrontation with Will. Finally he threw his hands up. “I’ll give it a try.”

“There used to be a trap door in the cloak room,” Dave warned Joe as they crossed the street. “I think somebody used to use the building as a shanghai point. Don’t let ’em get you near that place.”

“That’s Lisa-Marie,” Dave muttered, pointing through the window. He had taken off his collar and was busy stuffing it into his pocket, so he didn’t notice Joe’s grin.

“She’s cute,” Joe commented.

“That does it—Hoss will stay downstairs,” Adam snapped.

“Aw, for Pete’s sake, Adam, I’m engaged to Jane! I’m not gonna fall for some other girl. But if she’s cute it makes me more convincing in the part I have to play.”

“You just make sure you’re only playin’ a part,” Hoss said quietly. “You get in trouble with Jane, I’ll be in trouble with Kitty by default, and I ain’t havin’ that.”

Joe rolled his eyes and stalked off to the swinging doors.

“I hope he doesn’t underestimate her,” Dave murmured. “She’s little and cute, and meaner than a snake. And I won’t even mention her pal Rinnie.”

“Who’s her pal Rinnie?” Hoss whispered.

Dave pointed through the window. “The blonde doing rope tricks on the stage. She’s behind the name change. This place used to be called just ‘Lisa-Marie’s Place’. Now…well, there’s a reason it’s called the Magic Lasso.”

Joe had moved into position. Lisa-Marie was well-known as a sucker for a pretty face.  Joe soon had her full attention, and when her back was turned, while the men who worked for her turned to watch Rinnie the Rope Girl, Adam and Dave sneaked up the back stairs. Hoss stayed just long enough to make sure Joe wasn’t getting funny with Lisa-Marie, and then followed.

The door wasn’t locked. Adam didn’t waste time knocking. He just walked in and said “Hi, Lydia.”

She looked up from her copy of Harper’s Bazaar and her face lit up. “Well, Adam! You must be the first of the party to arrive! Oh, and Hoss too—and the preacher! Reverend Dave, do you still charge only five dollars for a wedding? We haven’t got my inheritance yet, so it’ll have to do. Look at this, Adam. Crinoline is completely out of fashion this year; hoops are narrower, and look at this padding device here! It’s called a ‘bustle’ and they say it will completely revolutionize the way women dress. I can’t wait. I’m so tired of looking frumpy. People will be mistaking me for Mary or Lizzy in short order. Where’s Little Joe? And my sisters?”

“Lydia, are you saying you came here to get married—and that my cousin Will is supposed to be bringing us all here?”

“Lord, you are slow. I always thought you didn’t say much because you were stuck-up and vile, as Lizzy said, but you just aren’t very smart. Well, that’s all right. Not everyone can be like my fiancé Will.”

Dave moved forward, laying a calming hand on Adam’s arm before Adam could provide the spanking he was sure she needed.

“Lydia, when is Will supposed to be back?”

“Not until morning. It’s just as well he sent you lot over ahead of everyone else. I’m so bored. I had thought of trying to make a bustle, but I simply can’t figure out this design. Adam, Kitty said you design things. Can you figure out this apparatus?”

“I don’t think so,” he replied tensely, barely glancing at the magazine.

She sighed. “You really are thick, aren’t you? Well, just sit down, in that case, and catch me up on my sisters.”

She devoutly refused to provide any details on where Will had gone or why, except that he had promised to be back by morning and that the wedding party would be arriving in the next couple of days. And the night wore on, long and horrible as lamps were lit and Lydia debated about what to order for supper.

“I don’t understand why Will left you all alone.” Dave was trying in his usual caring way to draw her out, but she just shrugged.

“Don’t you worry about me, preacher. Remember I’m not unprotected.” She hiked her skirts far higher than any man in the room had a right or a desire to see, and from a lacy garter with a small holster she drew out a .41-caliber, pearl-handled derringer with over-under barrels. “See?”

“Don’t wave that thing around! You want to kill somebody?” Adam yelped.

“If I did, it wouldn’t be hard. I’m a crack shot,” Lydia replied, replacing the derringer. Dave peeked between his fingers and whispered, “God forgive me, I hope not” as he, Hoss, and Adam all turned various shades of red.

And the interminable waiting continued.

Chapter 47

Brothels and Brides

The next day, as Lizzy and Jane watched Kitty leading Nelly’s foal hither and yon without aid of either a harness or a rope, a carriage appeared in the distance, and Mary, reading the 1869 revisions to the California state statutes, muttered, “More people. Will it never end?”

“Why, it’s Jarrod Barkley!” Lizzy cried. “And there’s Rosita!”

“Another marriage bites the dust,” Mary said gloomily.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Lizzy snapped, and jumped down from the corral fence to meet the carriage. “Jarrod, Rosita—whatever are you doing here?”

Rosita didn’t wait for Jarrod to do the gentlemanly thing; she simply jumped into Lizzy’s waiting embrace. “Dave sent me to cheer you up! Are you all right, Lizzy?”

Lizzy pulled back in mid-hug. “What do you mean, he sent you to cheer me up?”

“Has Lydia been found yet?”

“How did you know she was missing?” Lizzy demanded. “I think you’d better come in, sit down, and tell me everything.”

“Ahem,” Jarrod announced rather loudly.

“Oh…I’m sorry, Jarrod. Jarrod, these are my sisters, Jane and Mary, and over in the corral is Kitty—and girls, this is Jarrod Barkley, a friend of mine—and Rosita and the Reverend’s—from Stockton. He’s a lawyer. Come along, Jarrod. Are you merely providing transportation, or is this a legal matter?”

“Legal!” exclaimed Mary, giving the lawyer another look. “You may be an interesting person after all. What kind of law do you practice, sir?”

“Just about every kind, Miss,” Jarrod replied. “In my area of the country the city is not built-up enough to have much diversification. Any lawyer around Stockton is something of a jack-of-all-trades. It’s a pleasure to meet all you young ladies, and I hope I’ll be able to talk with you more, later. But for now, Miss Elizabeth, I would very much like an introduction to your father; I have things to discuss with him.”

*

Mary went to get Jarrod situated, and Lizzy returned to Rosita, to find her with Jane and Kitty and congratulating them on their engagements to Joe and Hoss. “We didn’t even know you knew!”

“Dave told me. I think Adam must have told him. But I’m happy for both of you. They’re wonderful men; Dave has told me all kinds of stories about them. Have any of you met Ben yet—their father? Dave said Ben and Adam paid a lot of the costs of Dave’s schooling.”

“I met Ben,” Lizzy put in. “We never really talked about Dave, though. If I had known Dave was such friends with the entire family, and not just Adam, I would have made sure to get a few stories especially for you. But what are you doing here? Where is Dave? And how did you know about Lydia?”

“Dave had to go to San Francisco to meet the Cartwright boys. And I told you, he sent me here to cheer you up, Lizzy. Although I confess, you might have to cheer me up some now. This is the first time Dave and I have been apart since we were married, and I miss him awfully.”

“But Rosita,” Jane persisted, “how do you know the Cartwrights are in San Francisco? The last I heard, Joe and Hoss were in Fairfield.”

Rosita shook her head. “I don’t really understand it. I just know Adam’s telegram said he was going to meet Joe and Hoss in San Francisco, and go to ‘LMP’—which Dave said means ‘Lisa-Marie’s Place.’” Her eyes widened. “Dave says it’s a brothel!”

“What?” Lizzy and Jane shrieked, and by then Kitty, who had just joined them, nearly fell over from shock.

“Not like that, sillies—they think that’s where Lydia was taken. Or at least that’s what Adam thought. Dave knows something about the place as well, and he went to help them get Lydia back.”

“How does Adam even know any of this? I don’t understand it.”

“I don’t know. But he cabled Dave. Jarrod brought us the telegram, and Dave thought about it and prayed about it and the next day told me he had to go to San Francisco. He told me he was afraid the leopard hadn’t changed its spots, whatever that meant.”

Jane and Lizzy exchanged a stunned glance. Jane found her voice first. “Will Cartwright. Dave thinks Will Cartwright took Lydia. Oh…oh dear. How could this happen?”

“It would have been easy enough,” Lizzy muttered. “Lydia fancies herself quite the adult these days, but you all know her head is empty. When Will was around me I knew he was only flirting, but if he flirted with her, she would have taken it all seriously.”

“She insisted that she had a secret admirer,” Kitty added. “Of course it must have been Will, all along. She was always sweet on Will, and why not—he always seemed so handsome, charming, dashing, heroic…but why would he want Lydia?”

Lizzy sighed. “Jane…Kitty…there are some things I didn’t tell you…about Will Cartwright. And…about Adam Cartwright—that very fine and noble brother of your two intended partners.”

“Well, tell us—but you needn’t be hateful, Lizzy,” Jane returned. “Some of us here actually do like Adam.”

“Yes,” Lizzy nodded. “And I…am one of them. I like him…very much.”

Chapter 48

The Bigger They Are

The last wire Adam had sent had been to his father, telling him the latest news about Will, his current Army status, and what was known about the affair with Lydia. Ben’s reply had infuriated Adam, but after discussing it with Dave he figured it would probably be the best thing for everyone. Still, he wished his father was a little less forgiving. But then he could always hope Will would turn the offer down, in which case Adam would take great pleasure in the alternative solution.

“What did you mean about your inheritance?” Adam asked Lydia at one point. “You said you don’t have it yet….”

Lydia suddenly looked coy. “It’ll come. But it’s really not your business. I think I’d prefer to dine downstairs tonight. Hoss, will you take me? You’re not as boring as these other two.”

“Hoss,” Adam instructed, “Make sure the bouncers see you escorting Lydia.” Hoss looked confused, but nodded and took Lydia’s arm. On returning an hour later from the bar downstairs, Hoss drew Adam aside. “Little Joe’s been made part of the act with Rinnie the Rope Girl.”

“What?”

Helplessly, Hoss nodded. “Rinnie’s catchin’ him with her lasso and reelin’ him up to the stage. Then she kisses him—and then they make him disappear in a big puff a’ smoke. So far, he’s still comin’ back. But them women are startin’ to make me nervous, Adam. There’s one crazy lady that keeps flingin’ quarters at Joe’s backside. And that little Lisa-Marie’s looking at him like he’s a jar of strawberry preserves. Besides, if he’s on the stage when Will comes in, that’ll be all she wrote.”

“Okay, did you make sure the bouncers saw you with Lydia?”

“Yup, just like you told me.”

“Good. Then you should be able to move around pretty freely down there. So get back down there, find a deep dark corner, and keep an eye on Joe. If anything else happens, don’t go after him by yourself. Get back here pronto.”

“I’m bored,” Lydia announced, taking a card deck off the nightstand. “Will one of you play with me?”

“Sorry; I gave up cards a while back,” Dave said politely.

“I’ll play with you,” Adam replied. His nerves were on edge; he hated waiting—an infantile game couldn’t make things any worse. For the next two hours he and Lydia questioned each other about threes and jacks and told each other to “go fish.”

“I’m bored again,” Lydia declared. “I don’t want to play anymore.”

Silently Adam gathered up the cards, shuffled them a couple of times, and began a game of solitaire as Lydia went back to her magazine.

It was going on midnight now, and Lydia blew out one of the lamps and regarded the two remaining men curiously. “Are you intending to stay here tonight? I’m not sure Will would approve. In fact, I’m fairly certain he won’t.”

“All the more reason for you to let us stay,” Adam said with his most winning smile. “You don’t want your husband to take you for granted, do you?”

“Ooooh! My husband!” Lydia squealed, and smiled. “Oh, Adam, you’re not as stupid as I thought. All right, just stay in those chairs over there.”

“Do we need to step out so you can go to bed?” Dave asked in gravest embarrassment.

“Oh no. I’m not going. When Will stays out late I wait up for him.” She glanced at the clock. “He’ll be back in two or three hours, I’m sure.”

She was wrong. At about 1:30 they heard stumbling footsteps on the stairs outside, and Lydia smiled in anticipation. “He must have had a bad night tonight. Oh well. I’ll comfort him. But you two have to leave now.”

Adam and Dave exchanged a glance, and Adam stood up, absent-mindedly depositing the deck of cards in his shirt pocket.

“Remember,” Dave said softly, one hand on Adam’s arm, as the door opened.

Will stood there unsteadily, looking at Adam with bloodshot eyes. “Adam?”

“Howdy, Cos,” Adam said politely—and clocked him with a straight left. “That was for Laura.”

The force of the blow knocked Will back out into the hallway as Lydia screamed and went for the derringer. Just in time, Dave’s hands closed around both her wrists, drawing them up to her shoulders, immobilizing them. She twisted around and bit his hand but he didn’t let go, and as she struggled against him, Adam dragged Will back into the room and belted him again. “That one’s for Peggy, you murdering—”

“Adam, I told you—” Dave cut in.

Adam turned automatically toward Dave—and got an ear clipped by one of Will’s wildly flailing fists. With an expression of disgust, Adam handed Will a right hook that knocked his nose off-center, and Will bellowed and brought a knee into his cousin’s gut. As Adam doubled up, Will tore free and ran back into the hall. In a flash, Adam dove after him, landed on him at the top of the stairs, and they both tumbled down the short flight to the next landing, where Adam, with some difficulty, drew a fist back that caught Will under the cheekbone and loosened a tooth. “And that one was for Lizzy!” he spat, hauling the bigger man up by the collar. “I got lots more women I can name,” he told Will, backhanding him across the face. “Wanna go another round?” He smashed Will back against the wall. “I may even give you one for that little thing upstairs!”

Will raised both hands weakly. “What do you want, Adam? I didn’t do anything to you.”

“Didn’t you?” Adam grabbed Will’s right arm and doubled it behind his back, eliciting a pained gasp from the other man as he shoved him back up the stairs. “We’re gonna have a nice, long talk, Will. About the past, the present, and especially, the future.”

Chapter 49

Fine Crystal

 “Poor Laura,” Kitty murmured, tears running down her face. “She was cruelly used. I can’t imagine going through that. Her love and trust for Will cost her everything.”

“Poor Dave,” Rosita whispered, her eyes shut. “He never told me. He wouldn’t even let me near the window when Adam told you, Lizzy. I knew he loved Adam, but how he could stay with that poor woman until the end and pretend to be Adam for her sake…”

“Poor Adam,” Jane said quietly. “He blames himself to this day for something he had no part in. He had no choice but to let Laura go with Will, and he fought his own body to get to Laura as fast as he could when he found out she was in trouble.”

“Poor Peggy,” Mary muttered, and everyone looked at her in surprise. She had rejoined them during the story, and no one could figure out whether Lizzy’s story or Mary’s actually having an emotional capacity for anything other than annoyance was the bigger surprise. “What are you all looking at me for? This child witnessed horrible things happening to her mother and has to live with it every day. She’s an orphan now; her only remaining relative is dying, and no one cares for her but Adam. Granted, he’s an unlikable fellow, but there must be something charitable deep down inside the man to have him take an orphan in like that.”

Lizzy said nothing, though at some point during the last few weeks she had had all of these thoughts (except, notably, the “unlikable Adam” one), and some others beside, bumping about in her head.

“The good side to all this…” she finally began, and the four other women all stared at her in shock. “Don’t look at me like that. There is a good side. None of us will end up that way, because in the first place, we have better judgment than poor Laura, and we will end up with far better men.”

“Excuse me,” Kitty cut in, “but exactly when did your distaste for Adam Cartwright turn into such strong affection? Last I heard from you, he was—possibly—above cockroaches on the likability scale, but not by much. Perhaps he rated as high as a ladybug: a bit attractive, but still an insect. So when did you discover your liking for him?”

“Possibly when she saw the Ponderosa,” Mary said calmly. “I’m given to understand it’s quite a piece of work.”

Lizzy’s cheeks were flaming with outrage and embarrassed honesty. “It took a lot of thought. I had to understand that I only looked at things from one point of view, without knowing the reasons for any of the actions I saw. I still make that mistake sometimes. I even thought when Adam left the Ponderosa, it was because he was angry at me, and I became angry at him. Now I think Hoss and Joe must have summoned him. He knew about Lydia before I did, if he sent the wire to Dave so fast. It’s a flaw of mine that I never knew I had, to judge too quickly. Now that I know the problem exists, I will have to work hard to overcome it and not be so ready to think ill of my future husband.”

“Future husband?” Jane asked. “I thought you said you liked him. And how do you know his feelings for you?”

“He told me,” Lizzy confessed. “He has already asked twice for permission to court me. I don’t know why he still wants me after the way I acted, but he does. I want him as well. I do like him, so very much. And I greatly admire him. I don’t know about love yet. I’ve never loved a man, so I don’t know what it’s like. But I have a feeling love isn’t quite like it is in books. Rosita, your husband once told me that wives had to learn to love their husbands. At the time he told me, I thought he was an idiot. But now, I rather wonder if that may be true after all.”

Rosita laughed. “He was right, at least in my case. You remember, Lizzy, my thoughts about marriage in general, and marriage to him in particular. Fortunately, I learned fast. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be married to someone who treats you like finest crystal, either. Dave is the kindest man in the world.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Kitty said fiercely. “That honor falls to Hoss. He’s wonderfully gentle, whether with people or animals, and behaves as if I might shatter if he isn’t perfect with me.”

Jane smiled in comfortable superiority. “Well, you both mean well, so I’ll forgive you for being wrong, but I think my own Joseph is the most adorable and superbly kind man in the world.”

The festival of comparisons suddenly paused, as the three turned to look at Lizzy. She smiled. “I don’t know yet. I’ve seen Adam do some amazing things, though. I…think…the potential is there. Perhaps, in my haste to prove to him that I’m not a china doll, I haven’t really allowed him much chance to be kind. And while I’m not sure I want to be treated like something breakable, I do find kindness suddenly appealing. You’ll all have to remind me, when he comes back, to give him plenty of opportunities.”

Chapter 50

Till Death

“Siddown.” Adam punctuated the command by slamming the door and pushing Will into a chair.

“What is all this about?” Lydia demanded, again struggling unsuccessfully against Dave’s patient grip.

“Remember, Adam—we want answers and cooperation, not more blood,” Dave prompted.

“Don’t overestimate my capacity for kindness,” Adam replied, never taking his eyes off Will. “I don’t mind getting all three.”

And Will…wilted. “Look, I didn’t mean any harm. I just wanted a good time.”

“You never seem to mean any harm. It just happens. People die. Money gets stolen. You owe Peggy $17,500 that she’ll never see. And now here you are, back at your little buddy Lisa-Marie’s…with a kid.”

“Kid?” Lydia screamed. “I’m more woman than you can handle, Adam Cartwright!”

She might not have been in the room for as much attention as he gave her. He drummed his fingers on the table. “You wanted a good time with Laura, too. And probably a lot more women that I don’t know—and don’t want to know—about. I hoped Laura’s death would teach you a lesson, or at least, that the pasting I gave you then might teach you a lesson. But they’re getting younger all the time. What’ll it be next, Will?”

“Look…Adam…this was just a lark. Besides, my unit at Ord Barracks is going to the Canadian border soon. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.”

“Nice try, Cos. And very typical. You told the exact truth, but not all of it. Hey, Dave, did you know that in order to support that move to the Canadian border, Will was sent here to San Francisco to pick up an entire supply train and escort them back to Ord?”

“No, but that’s quite an honor, ain’t it?”

“It is indeed, Dave. Of course, Will never showed up at the Presidio like he was supposed to. He’s classified as Absent Without Leave—that’s what they call AWOL.”

“Sounds serious.”

“Yeah; in fact, it’s so serious that if he’s not reported in either at the Presidio or back at Ord in, I believe, four days, he’ll be classified as a deserter and subject to death by firing squad. Funny Will didn’t see fit to mention any of that in our little chat just now, ain’t it, Dave?”

“I’m finding all this very educational, Adam. How about you, Lydia?”

“I don’t know what any of you are talking about! Let me go!”

Adam turned back to Will. “Now, shall we be straight with each other, or do you want to leave out anything else?”

A sullen shrug. “I’ve asked you already what you want from me.”

“Well, you might start with telling me what prompted this whole kidnapping farce.”

“What kidnapping? Lydia got off the stage by herself, met me in the woods, by her own pre-arrangement, and came with me to San Francisco of her own free will. There was no kidnapping.”

“Then why was there a ransom note?”

“What ransom note? I didn’t write one—talk sense, Adam. Old Man Bennet’s flat broke. Everybody knows that.”

“He is not,” Lydia shouted. “He’s landed gentry!”

“He’s a landed idiot,” Will murmured in tones too low for Lydia to hear. Aloud, he said, “There is no ransom note, Adam, and there was no kidnapping.”

I wrote the ransom note,” Lydia put in haughtily. “I get so tired of all you men thinking I’m good for only one thing. My father has a huge ranch. He should be able to raise $50,000 for his favorite daughter. He’s just stingy and doesn’t like to give anything away. I wrote the note so he wouldn’t have any choice but to hand over the money.”

Nobody had foreseen that one; Adam, Dave, and Will alike all stared at the girl, who blinked back. “What? It’s rightfully mine anyway, you know—an inheritance.”

Adam finally sighed. “You don’t have any concept of money, or you would have known that whole parcel of land isn’t worth more than $25,000. And your father doesn’t own the dirt in your privy. I own most of the Longbourn property, and Dave owns the rest. There is no way your father can give you any ‘inheritance.’” He turned back to face his cousin. “Okay, one charge dropped, Will. But you still broke my father’s heart.”

“I never asked him to love me. Or even trust me.”

“No; he’s foolish that way. Thinks a man with the Cartwright name, son of his good brother John, has to be just as good as any of his own sons. Tried making you one of his own sons; certainly treated you that way.”

Will nodded tiredly. “Yeah, yeah. Add ‘breaking Ben Cartwright’s heart’ to my list of sins. Then get on with it.”

“All right. The point is that my father still loves you, Will. And he isn’t altogether comfortable with any relative of his going up before a firing squad. So he’s already talked to the commander of Ord Barracks. Seems Colonel Fisher and my father are good friends. So, on the condition that you sign in at the Presidio, all charges against you will be dropped.”

“I don’t find that a great inducement.” Will shrugged. “They’d be dropped anyway once I showed up, right?”

“All of them? Even the one about the money? Aren’t you forgetting to tell the whole story again?” Adam looked back at Dave. “Hey, Dave, did you know that when Will left Ord Barracks, he was carrying $5,000 cash from the Ord Supply and Logistics section to turn in at the Presidio? And that when Will didn’t show up, the money didn’t either?”

“No, Adam, but I find that mighty enlightening. What do you suspect happened to it? Maybe he stopped off for a poker game, and—just like that—uh-oh, it was all gone?”

Adam looked back at Will. “So what kept you from going to the Presidio? The lack of money, or a sudden desire not to go to Canada?”

Will stared at the floor. “Both. I lost the money in a poker game. Thought I could make it up, but I’m having a run of bad luck. Yeah, I didn’t want to show up without the cash. And no, I’m not enthusiastic about going north, either.”

“You know what, Dave—if Will were to walk into the Presidio tonight, even with the money, but without Ben Cartwright’s good word, he’d spend 30 days in the stockade. If he walked in without the money, he’d be looking at five to ten years at Leavenworth on a chain gang. What are your thoughts on that, Dave?”

“Ben Cartwright carries enough sway with the Army to have both those penalties dropped?”

“Well, partly it’s sway. Partly it’s money. He’d pay back the $5,000 on Will’s behalf and then some, to get Fisher’s men properly outfitted.”

“And Will wouldn’t have to do any stockade time either?”

“Not even 15 minutes.”

“Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me, Adam.”

“Sure,” Will blustered. “And then I get back to Ord and Colonel Fisher gives me latrine digging duty for the rest of my military career.”

“Nope,” Adam said. “My father’s taken care of that, too. It won’t go on your military records at all. When you get to the Presidio you’ll find new orders cut, assigning you to a new cavalry regiment being formed out at Fort Riley.”

“Kansas? Why’d I want to go there?”

“You’re going to Kansas either way. You can go to Fort Riley, Kansas, or Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.” Adam looked at his fingernails, and blew an imaginary speck of dust off. “One’s about the same as the other for all I care, but I think you might notice the difference when you’re pounding big boulders into little pebbles at Leavenworth.”

Will’s frown deepened as he thought of his choices. The realization dawned. “You’re right. But what’s the catch?”

“What makes you think there’s a catch? All you have to do is take your wife here and go to the Presidio.”

“Wife? We’re not married!”

“But Lydia assured us that you intended to be.”

“Are you kidding? Adam, there’s no way I’d marry that thing!”

To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. “What!” Lydia shrieked—and rammed an elbow into Dave’s unsuspecting gut. As he obligingly “oofed” and crumpled, he let her go, and suddenly the derringer was in her hand. Then there was flash, issuing from the muzzle of the gun, along with a sound like dynamite exploding—and Adam Cartwright, chair, and all, crashed backward to the floor.

“Oops,” said Lydia.

Chapter 51

On the Road Again

Ben Cartwright loaded himself, Hop Sing, and Peggy into the buckboard, with Sparks and Buck tied behind, and took a road trip.

The objective: the Bar Fly Ranch, his leased property outside Sacramento. His reasons for going were legion. He wanted to see the place he had leased; he hadn’t leased a property sight unseen before, and it always made him a little nervous. Besides, he had to inspect the job his three boys had done. They had been there several weeks longer than originally anticipated, and in spite of Adam’s regular progress reports, Ben had never understood the reasons for the delay. He brought Adam’s letters along, hoping to go over them and see exactly what had been done. After all, one herd had already been moved through the place. Another was due in less than a month.

There was another reason; he hoped fervently that Adam had been able to clear up whatever difficulty Will had gotten himself into, because Adam now had a court date for his petition for wardship. Ben wanted Peggy nearby so she could go too; she had more than once said that she would be just as pleased to live with Adam Cartwright. Considering Adam looked on Peggy as a daughter and was the closest thing she had to a father, Ben kept his fingers crossed that the wheels of justice would turn in Adam’s favor.

And finally, Ben now understood that the nearest ranch to the Bar Fly was the one where so many dramas had played out. Hoss and Little Joe had fallen in love with two of the girls there; Adam had accused the girls of being gold-diggers, and then without any real explanation had said he was mistaken, and insisted that his brothers be allowed to return. This was the ranch where Adam had found the stolen cattle, and found out the place was owned by Dave Clayton’s notorious father, Saul Driscoll. And if he understood correctly, this was the place where the black-haired girl, Lizzy Bennet, had come from; she was some relation to the two girls Hoss and Joe were so fond of…and, while Adam had never confessed to feeling anything for Lizzy, Ben had been around the world a few times and could recognize a spark when he saw it. Left to his own, Adam would probably never announce any feeling for a girl until he’d already married her. That’s just the way Adam was. But Ben Cartwright could get to the bottom of anything, and he intended to.

*

Two hundred miles from the Ponderosa, at the Barkley place, Victoria Barkley had received a letter.

Dear Mother,

You’ll be surprised to learn I am neither in San Francisco nor Stockton. I’m at a little place outside Sacramento which is owned by the Reverend Clayton. His tenant-farmer, a fellow named Bennet, has been giving me some grief about the agreement I drew up, so I had to come up and pay him a visit. I’m staying out at the Bar Fly, Adam’s place, while this agreement is hammered out to everyone’s satisfaction. But neither Adam nor Dave is with me; in fact, I brought Dave’s wife along for a visit with the Bennet family at Dave’s request while Dave and Adam settle some business in San Francisco. They say Will Cartwright is off making trouble again.

By the way, this may interest you. They said it could never happen, but it seems ALL of Uncle Ben’s boys are getting married—to a set of sisters. This Bennet fellow has five daughters—one of whom, Lizzy, we met when she visited Dave and Rosita. Two of the others, Jane and Kitty, are enamored of Joe and Hoss, and Lizzy has her eye on Adam. Adam being who he is of course hasn’t said, neither has Lizzy. But I wouldn’t blame Adam for liking her.

Of the other two girls, I haven’t met one of them; she somehow got abducted on the way to San Francisco, and the Cartwrights have gone to bring her back. The remaining girl, Mary, is one of the strangest and most interesting people I have ever met. She doesn’t care much about people but is fascinated by the law, and is practically a walking legal encyclopedia. If I can get her down to Stockton, she’ll be the answer to a prayer. My secretarial problems will be at an end since the girl has no interest in marriage and does not seem prone to breaking her hands, either!

See you soon, Mother; tell those rascally siblings of mine to watch out as I’ll be returning within a couple of weeks.

Love,

Jarrod

“Adam marrying,” Victoria murmured. “And to some farmer’s daughter? When Audra has waited for him all these years?” She shook her head. “Silas, call outside, and have my carriage prepared. And find Audra.”

Chapter 52

The Marriage of True Minds

Will Cartwright, the intended target of the bullet, remembered the fate of a duck during Lydia’s shooting lessons some months earlier, and blessed his luck as he rushed from the room before she could fire the remaining round—only to smash head-on into his cousin Hoss.

Before he had time to think or pray about it, Dave had knocked Lydia backward across the bed. “Dear Lord, forgive me—I’m real sorry,” he muttered as he yanked the derringer away from her. “But don’t do that again! Hoss, is Adam okay?”

Hoss gave his struggling cousin a gentle “keep-quiet” tap that sent him straight to the land of Nod, and then hurried to Adam’s side. “He’s out cold. Was he hit?”

“Looked like it from here.” Dave, pocketing the derringer, worriedly joined Hoss.

“Don’t see any blood…danged black shirts….” Hoss ripped the shirt open, and there was the bullet, poking half-out of the skin, a small ooze of blood around it, and a spreading purple bruise underneath. “It didn’t go all the way in. Just barely broke the skin! I knew them Remingtons weren’t worth much, but that looks like a pretty weak hit, Dave….” He flipped the shirt back to see where the bullet had gone in, and found the hole in the shirt pocket. Then he pulled a deck of cards out of the pocket, a perfect hole through the center. “I don’t believe it.”

“Why not? For me it was a Bible,” Dave replied with a grin.

“Good thing…I’m a sinner,” Adam wheezed, struggling to sit up.

“I heartily agree,” Dave said, taking him by one arm, while Hoss took the other. “Come on, you old reprobate, get your hairy sinful self off the floor and quit scarin’ people.”

Hoss deposited his brother in the righted chair as Dave crossed the room again to Will’s inert form, now cradled in Lydia’s heaving bosom.

“Move,” Dave said in a hard voice.

“And let you kill him?” Lydia squealed.

“You’re the one was gonna shoot him, if memory doesn’t fail. Now Lydia, I’m sorry I hit you before, and I’ll be sorrier still if I have to do it again. But it won’t stop me, either. So move.”

She backed away, and Dave rifled through the man’s pockets until he found the flask he knew would be there. “Thank you.” He returned to Adam and with no warning, began to pour the flask’s contents over the wound. “Can you get that out?” he asked Hoss, who had left the round in the skin.

“I can, but it might do best to leave it there.”

“Why? You said it barely broke the skin.” He grasped the slippery bullet as best he could and flipped it out; Adam howled, and blood gushed forth.

“That’s why,” Hoss said. “You jackass, I bet you were a bad gunfighter too.”

“You have to define ‘bad,’ Hoss,” Dave replied, his voice sounding stiff and awkward. “I never needed to learn medicine…the fellas I shot never needed a doctor. Lydia, do you have any clean petticoats?”

“Yes, but you can’t have them.”

“One more thing to ask forgiveness for, Lord,” Dave sighed. “You can either tell me where to find one or I’ll tear off the one you’re wearing.”

“Third dresser drawer!”

He tossed the flask to Hoss, who took a swig, poured some more over Adam’s chest, and a little more down Adam’s gullet as Dave made a pressure dressing out of the torn-up petticoat.

Adam grunted as Dave tied the last knot. “Move over. I got words for this ‘lady’ here.”

“Be nice, Adam. I already did way more fussing and threatening than a godfearin’ man should.”

“And don’t think I won’t call the constables on you, either,” Lydia whined. “I shall, just as soon as you all leave here.”

“Yeah, you do that.” Adam looked at the angry girl. “Lydia Bennet, I have two words for you: women’s prison.”

“What? Why?”

“Because you shot me, and I was just sittin’ across the room in a chair conversing with my cousin. Clearly I was no threat to you, but you shot me—in front of witnesses. That conveys a prison sentence, among a lot of great big women guards called matrons who have nothing motherly about them. Now, a husband can’t testify against a wife—just something to think about. So Will’s about the best you’re going to get—unless you want to try throwing yourself on my mercy and going home as the sadder but wiser girl. Any hope of that? No, I didn’t think so.” Adam turned back to Will. “You awake yet, cousin?”

Will looked at him blearily. “What.”

“This offer is strictly a one-shot. If I walk out of here without your agreement, all bets are off, and inside an hour the place is going to be surrounded by irate soldiers who got their weekend passes revoked to go and look for you.”

“And I have to go to the Presidio with a wife.”

“Not just any wife. Lydia Bennet. The girl whose reputation—and whose family’s reputation—will be in shreds if you don’t marry her. Besides, Will, you promised her, didn’t you? A Cartwright always keeps his word…or faces the consequences.”

Will pulled himself together and faced his fate. “Lydia, will you marry me?”

“Oh, Will! Of course!” She threw her arms around him.

“Adam, afore you got shot an’ threw off my thinkin’, I was comin’ to get you. Joe’s disappeared clean off the stage and this time he didn’t come back,” Hoss said urgently.

Adam looked at him, stricken, and lurched to his feet. “Dave….”

“Not entirely coincidentally,” Dave announced, “I am authorized to perform marriages in the state of California. Does anyone know a reason why these two shouldn’t marry? Good, I didn’t think so. Adam, Hoss, will you both sign as witnesses? Excellent; sign right here. Will, will you take Lydia here as your lawful wedded wife? Fine. Lydia, will you take Will—okay, I’ll take that as a yes. I now pronounce you husband and wife, here’s your marriage certificate, and Lydia, I’m very sorry for my earlier rudeness—here’s two dollars for the petticoat…and Adam, Hoss, let’s get outta here.”

“You have one hour to get to the Presidio before I wire the commander,” Adam told Will, handing him the “safe passage” cable from Ben Cartwright. “The clock is ticking. Farewell, cos.” He closed the door quietly behind him.

Chapter 53

Admitting One—no, Two—Impediments

Dave was chuckling as they rushed downstairs, and Hoss couldn’t help but ask him why.

“I was thinking of something I said to Lizzy a while back.”

“What’d you tell her?” Adam asked.

“That if Will hurt her family, I wouldn’t kill him…but I’d make him wish I had. Well, before the month is out, that boy’s gonna be real sorry he survived this encounter.”

“He may not survive long anyway,” Adam observed. “I hear Colonel Custer is pretty hard to get along with. Hoss, where did you last see Joe?”

They had reached the bottom of the stairs and crossed the floor partway. Hoss gestured toward the right side of the stage. “Shoot, they’ve redesigned the whole floor,” Dave said. “That used to be the cloakroom.”

“They’re not doin’ the rope show anymore,” Hoss muttered. “This is serious. If Rinnie and Lisa-Marie are both gone, it’s a cinch they’ve taken Joe along.”

“But he wouldn’t go voluntarily, would he?” Dave asked.

Hoss looked queasy. “Well, it ain’t likely they’re gonna give him a choice, anyhow. If he’s all trussed up, how much fight can he give ’em?”

Adam located another set of stairs, covered by a sliding door. “If they’re dropping him down a chute, this is probably the other way to get there.”

“We’re gonna be trapped in one of them Medieval garden mazes, I bet,” Hoss mumbled as they felt their way down. It proved to be easier than they had feared though—they could hear the raised voices through the thin wall and only had to locate the concealed entrance.

“Trapdoors; hidden passages…who designed this place, the phantom of the opera?” Dave muttered.

“Shhhh…listen,” Hoss whispered.

“I saw him first, Lisa!”

“This is my place, Rinnie! I ALWAYS get first pick!”

“But I saw him first! I already told you I got dibs on this one!”

“Look, who do you think gave you your big break? You’d still be working up in room 5 if I hadn’t decided to put you on stage! What kind of dibs would you have then, hmmmm?”

“No more than I have now—even though my rope tricks are making you famous, ya little shrimp!”

“You overgrown Valkyrie, you just listen here—”

Adam grimly drew his Colt; Hoss followed suit.

“Hey, we’re not shootin’ any women!” Dave said urgently.

“We’ll try talking first…maybe,” Adam promised, and then kicked open the door. Joe was sitting on the floor, bound and gagged, with a panic-stricken look on his face, between the two women—Lisa-Marie, the tiny brunette, and Rinnie, the tall and way-too-healthy blonde.

Lisa-Marie gasped. “Reverend Clayton? I told you never to come back here—oh heavens, now there’s two of you!”

Rinnie looked from one to the other and then at Hoss beyond. “I reckon they’re all about equal ugly, Miss Lisa, but I can take the big ’un if you’ll take the hairy twins.”

Dave stepped in front of the other two. “We just want your little green friend there, Mrs. Halifax. Then we’ll go, nice and peaceable.”

Lisa-Marie glanced down at Joe, who raised his eyebrows hopefully. “I don’t think so, Reverend. Now you can leave or I can call the constables.”

“Over a man you just kidnapped?” Adam demanded, taking a step forward.

“What man?” Lisa-Marie pulled a lever, and with a muted scream, Joe disappeared into the San Francisco Bay. Adam swore and dived in after him. Hoss jumped in after Adam.

Lisa-Marie looked triumphantly at Dave. “Aren’t you gonna follow your friends?”

“Right after you,” he said politely, and before she even had time to look surprised, he had knocked her through the trap door entrance. Then he looked at Rinnie. “Care to take a swim, lady?”

“I’m from the south plains of Texas—we don’t know even what water’s for,” she retorted, and took a closed-fisted swing at him.

Wrinkling his nose, he ducked and grabbed the rope from her belt loop. “I suspected as much,” he muttered as he drove upward again, his shoulder ramming her and bowling her over backwards.

“Sir,” she gasped when she could breathe again, “you ain’t a gentleman!”

“Nope. I’m a preacher.” At that her eyes widened in something like fear. “Now ma’am, I have a little bitty derringer in my pocket and I could probably shoot you with it, but it’s against my religion to shoot women. We could also continue to exchange blows like a couple of sailors right here too, but I don’t like the idea of hitting a woman if I can help it, and I already did that three times tonight. Seein’ as how you’re the kind of people who appreciates the form of male beauty represented by my friend Joseph, I s’pose I could just take off my shirt and ugly you to death, but my wife would disapprove. So I am left with the only weapon I have at my disposal. I’m going to recite the entire Bible to you. We’ll start with the book of Genesis, chapter 1, verse 1. In the beginning—”

And with one short scream, the woman vaulted to her feet and ran from the room. “Okay,” Dave muttered, and knelt down by the open trapdoor. “Hey Adam, you down there?”

Adam’s calm but slightly irate voice wafted back up through the watery background. “Yeah.”

“And Hoss and Joe?”

“Yup. There’s noplace to go, Dave—there’s some kinda sliding door keeping the place fenced in.”

“Want me to throw down a rope?”

“That’d be real neighborly of you, Dave.”

“Reckon I will, then…hey Adam?”

“Yeah, Dave?”

“I know it’s not exactly gentlemanly, but let’s make sure we get a couple of you menfolk up here before we bring up little Lisa.”

“We can do that, Dave.”

Dave tied one end of the rope around a sturdy support beam and extended the other through the door and down to the water, and presently Adam’s voice came back: “I’ve got it around Little Joe. Can you pull him up? He’s still tied, and I didn’t have a knife. And those knots are swelled like a colicky horse gut.”

“Will do,” Dave called back, and slowly pulled Joe up. He took the rope from Joe and threw it back down through the door, and then knelt by Joe, took out his pen-knife, and patiently sawed the bonds around his wrists until they gave. Then he handed the knife over to Joe and went to help Adam, who was painfully climbing over the edge. “Hey Adam, why were you checkin’ escape routes down there? Didn’t you know I’d be over to get you?”

“You, nothin’—I was tryin’ to flush that little Lisa-Marie out to sea. Hoss, you come up next. If there’s any difficulty we leave the girl right where she is.”

“I’m comin’ Adam, but—”

“Hey, it’s cold down here! Granted, you wouldn’t know, you big fur ball—”

“I may just leave you there on general principle,” Adam yelled down. “Shut up.”

Once Hoss had pulled himself over the edge of the trap, they threw the rope down one last time. “Tie it under your arms and we’ll pull you up,” Adam called down.

“And don’t make me any madder than I am or we’ll demonstrate a three-legged calf-tie on you,” Joe yelled.

“That sounds like fun…” Lisa called back wistfully, and Joe whitened and backed away.

They tied Lisa-Marie as she had tied Joe, and Hoss put her in a crate of coffee grounds even as Adam and Dave lamented the ruination of perfectly good coffee. Dave, who had been in the depths of the maze before (though he had never been persuaded to tell Adam how that happened, or how Lisa-Marie had come to know him in the first place), led the way up the unlighted passage. “I’m pretty sure Rinnie blew out all the lamps,” he called back over his shoulder in disgust. “The woman was pure angry when she left. Hope she comes back for Lisa.”

Just then Dave gasped—the others stopped in alarm as they heard him fall—and the gunshot echoed through the darkened tunnel.

Chapter 54

Honorable Men

Dearest Mother, Father, and all my Old Maid Sisters,

The Cartwright boys told me there was some terrible misunderstanding and that you thought I was kidnapped. What a silly notion! I wonder how ever you got it. I was merely eloping with my beloved Will. That’s right—Will Cartwright. The best-looking and smartest member of the entire family, of course! And since he is a Cartwright I have no doubt he will someday be included in the ownership of that fine Ponderosa Ranch of which we have heard so much. We will be quite rich.

We were married two days ago and will be leaving directly for his new assignment: the brand new 7th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Riley, Kansas. Will is going to be an officer under Col. Custer, that man who was so distinguished during the Southern Insurrection a couple of years ago. Will has told me all about him and how as an officer and gentleman, Will and I will be included at all the regimental balls and parties. I’m so excited!

I do wish you could have been there. It was a very small and intimate setting without much fuss, but all the same a memorable ceremony. The guests were so respectful. Will was so sweetly nervous and subdued. Reverend Dave did the honors and says you owe him $10, Father. What a shame my sisters couldn’t see me. Doubtless they are all envious. Well, anyway, it’s all done now.

I shall write you from Fort Riley, if I’m not too busy with all the parties.

Your beloved

Lydia

“Wonder what it says,” Hoss remarked as he and Little Joe left the Presidio and headed back to Mulberry Ridge.

“I don’t think I want to know,” Joe replied. The letter was in his pocket and it seemed to burn a hole right into him. Besides this, he had a terrible bruise on his butt from where some woman had been chucking peanuts or pebbles or something at him the night before.

“You reckon she mentioned anything about shooting Adam? Or…” Hoss cleared his throat. “Or what happened to Dave?”

“She doesn’t even know what happened to Dave. Not that she’d care. I never saw such an empty-headed gal in all my life. Hoss, how do you s’pose the same family can produce a Jane and a Lydia?”

“Hey, they produced Kitty too, you know.”

“Yeah, true.” Joe somehow didn’t mention that when they had first met Kitty, she had been just as addled as Lydia, and she had only started changing after Hoss had started sparking her. How in the world that had raised the girl’s intelligence level, Joe wasn’t sure, but she did seem almost normal now. However much that seemed a compliment to him, though, he wasn’t sure Hoss would take it that way and so kept quiet. There was a lot they were going to have to keep quiet about, he reflected. He only hoped it didn’t cause trouble with Jane.

*

“Father, I need to talk to you.” Lizzy had knocked twice on the door and he still hadn’t answered.

“Is there no peace?” her father’s voice finally wafted back.

She opened the door and walked in. “Not from me, Father. Whatever is wrong with you?”

“Your sister vanished, there’s a $50,000 ransom now several days overdue, your mother is suffering from the vapors or hysteria or whatever it is she suffers from, my hands are cracked and blistered and yet I still have not killed all the weeds…and you beat upon my door at the one point in time I can rest and ask me what is wrong?”

“I think things are getting better.” Lizzy put the telegram into his hands. From Joe Cartwright to her sister Jane, it read “Found Lydia. All is well. Returning shortly. Joe.”

“Pretty enigmatic, isn’t it?” her father mused. “He doesn’t say where or in what situation he found Lydia, or what has been done or is to be done about her. No mention of the ransom, or whether she will be coming with him when he returns. I know very little more than I did.”

“You know she is safe,” Lizzy replied. “Little Joe would not say ‘all is well’ unless it really was.” She found herself smiling. “He is a Cartwright after all, and they always keep their word.”

“I’ve wondered about that,” Mr. Bennet said. “Whose word do we have for this? The Cartwrights’. Some recommendation, eh? Your sisters speak as if they are engaged to Hoss and Little Joe, but neither man has asked me for permission to marry them or even court. They already left once without a word, and now they’re gone again—and we have no idea what they’ve been up to.”

“Well, if your confidence in them is so slight, Father, perhaps you should have gone with them.”

“How could I? Thanks to that eldest boy Adam, we stand daily to lose this place if I don’t make it produce. I think he wants me to fail, so he can take over the rest of the land.”

“If he wanted that, he should have simply purchased it when he purchased the other 12,000 acres. Don’t gape at me, Father; I know all about it, and I heard it from a non-Cartwright. Why do you persist in bad-mouthing Adam? He kept you out of jail, didn’t he?”

“Well,” her father said, a shrewd look in his eyes. “You’re quite concerned about young Adam, aren’t you?”

“I suppose I am,” Lizzy replied, red-faced. “But isn’t that the way you’re supposed to be when you love someone?”

“And do you? Love him? That vile young fellow you so often spoke ill of?”

“I think I do, actually.”

She was spared his answer (but not his sputtering), for just then a wagon pulled into the yard. “It’s Ben Cartwright—and Peggy!” she cried from the window, and ran outside.

Her sisters had already surrounded the visitors, with Jarrod in the midst—the only one who knew both parties—performing introductions. But Rosita was off to one side, trembling all over. “What’s wrong?” Lizzy asked her.

“I’m scared to death,” Rosita replied in a whisper.

“Whatever for? He’s Adam’s father—and a very kind man; I know.”

“Yes. But Dave once told me that Ben Cartwright is the closest thing he has to a father. Lizzy…what if he knows? What if he can tell?”

“Well, if he’s the kind of man that Dave would admire, I’m sure it won’t matter to him. After all, it doesn’t matter to Dave, right?”

“But…”

“Come on.” She dragged Rosita over to Ben, and introduced them.

Ben broke into a surprised smile. “I didn’t know you’d be here—but I’m very glad you are. Adam told me Dave had found a wife. Unfortunately Adam never provides details; I had no idea you would be so lovely. Dave must have had to work pretty hard to persuade you.”

Rosita’s cheeks flamed. “No; he had but to ask.”

“Well in that case, he was doubly lucky.” Ben kissed her cheek.

*

“If you would be so kind, sir,” Mr. Bennet told Mr. Cartwright over brandy, “There is one thing I would very much like to know.”

“I’ll tell you anything I can, Mr. Bennet.”

“Good. Please tell me what your sons’ intentions are toward my daughters. They have never said, and my curiosity is quite overcoming my politeness.”

Ben cleared his throat. “Well, sir, we were together only a short time before my boys had to leave again, and so no intentions were communicated to me, either.” He straightened. “But I can tell you one thing—my sons are honorable men, and so their intentions will be honorable, too.”

Chapter 55

Pre-Nuptial Harassment

Two days passed, and Ben’s inspection of the work done on the Bar Fly was complete. In fact to be truthful, he had stopped inspecting after a while, when he realized that his always-methodical eldest son’s report had not only listed each repair in each location; he had even under-described a few things.

The only real reason for Ben to stay now was simple curiosity, and he had that in abundance.

The Bennet sisters were all lovely—even Mary, when she wasn’t being dour and gloomy. Whenever Jarrod Barkley was around she seemed quite animated. Jarrod wanted something from Mary, Ben could tell, and he wondered if Mr. Bennet would soon be questioning that young man over his own “intentions.” And now that Ben had seen the other girls, he could well understand why Jane’s sweet but practical nature appealed to Joe—she would keep his feet on the ground when his head was in the clouds. He could also easily see why Hoss liked Kitty. The girl had the same “earth connection” Hoss did; she loved the land, and animals, and lived to take care of them. Kitty had introduced him to the foal she and Hoss had delivered. She had named it Inger—now there was a strange moment, trying to figure out how to address this horse who had been named for his late wife.

That Adam felt something for Lizzy, Ben was certain—but he had no idea what, and was not about to ask. So he stayed at the Bar Fly, though he went over to Longbourn each day to offer any help or advice he could, and he waited for the return of his sons.

But somebody else showed up first.

Jarrod had left with Mary for the Mulberry Ridge Library to go over the latest revisions to the state statutes, and thus was spared the storm. And the embarrassment—as said storm was caused by his own mother. Victoria Barkley and her daughter Audra—who as usual was in the dark as to what was going on—arrived just as the family had finished breakfast. (One thing Mr. Bennet had not changed was the hours he kept. He still did not finish eating until almost 8:30.) Ben had not yet arrived, but was expected momentarily.

But when Lizzy saw the elaborate “look-at-me” carriage, she couldn’t help but gasp. “It’s Mrs. Barkley!” I wonder if Jarrod has irritated her somehow, she thought, and went outside to meet the carriage.

Before long, she found out exactly who had irritated Mrs. Barkley.

Victoria Barkley met her before she had even made it off the front porch. “You’re the one I want to see! We’re going to have a little talk, you and I, and if you’re lucky you may still have your liver and kidneys when I’m done with you.”

Lizzy just stood on the porch in a state of shock for a moment. Never having been spoken to in such a manner before, it took a minute for the words to sink in. And in that moment, one thing Adam had once said surfaced. “Old 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.” The advice had worked well enough for Dave; perhaps it would work for her as well…although at the moment she had no idea what guns she had to stick to since she had no idea of the charges against her.

“Mrs. Barkley, what a pleasant surprise. If you’ll come in, I’ll introduce you to my parents. Perhaps you and Audra would like some breakfast.”

“I would!” Audra chirped.

“You stay right there,” Victoria called over her shoulder. “No, Elizabeth Bennet, I have no intention of meeting your parents or any of your other gold-digging sisters. One of you is plenty for me. Now I want answers. Is it true you’ve wrapped Adam Cartwright around your little finger?”

Lizzy laughed involuntarily. “I seriously doubt any woman will ever wrap Adam Cartwright around her finger. What in the world are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about this—” and an unrecognizable document was waved. “Do you deny it?”

“How can I deny it? I don’t even know what it is!”

“This letter claims that you are planning to marry my godson Adam. Now, is that true?”

“I have certainly made no such public plans, Mrs. Barkley. And if I have made any plans of any kind regarding anybody, they were made in private, and in private they will remain.”

“Look. Adam Cartwright is my godson. I have every possible concern for his welfare.”

“That’s an admirable position, Mrs. Barkley. But it has nothing to do with me.”

“Then there is no connection between you and Adam?”

Lizzy smiled enigmatically. “Define ‘connection.’ Or better yet, define ‘mind your own business.’ Any relations between Adam and me, whether friendship, courtship, or anything else, are our business and not yours.”

“I’m telling you for the last time, I’m his godmother!”

Stick to your guns. Lizzy took a step forward. “And I’m telling you for once and for all, I don’t care. Adam’s father, Ben Cartwright, is right down the road at the Bar Fly. Why don’t you go and harass him? One thing I can tell you though—Adam has not confided any intentions of marriage to his father. If he hasn’t said anything to his own father, what makes you think he—or I—would talk to you?”

Victoria Barkley drew a deep breath and slowly exhaled. “Let’s take a walk and talk sensibly, Lizzy.”

“I have no intention of walking anywhere with you, and I have been talking sensibly. You, however, came to me on the doorway of my house, and have not made a single word of sense, beginning with your opening threats, before even saying good morning, of disemboweling me.”

“Look, Lizzy…I admit I was in a temper when I approached. Blame it on the bad roads if you like. But we need to straighten out this matter of Adam Cartwright.”

“There is no matter for us to straighten out. I already told you, the relations between us are nobody’s business but our own.”

“Even if he is already engaged?”

For a minute Lizzy faltered. Then she said, “Even if he is already married. Unless he is married to you or engaged to you, then you have no business talking to me, and I cannot fathom why you have done so!”

“He is engaged to my daughter!”

Again Lizzy faltered. For a moment she remained silent, while she remembered her earlier resolution to give Adam the benefit of the doubt before believing the worst of him. One thing she knew of his character—he would not have pursued her if his affections lay elsewhere. Whatever he was, he was not Will Cartwright. And he would never have spoken of marriage to her if he had committed himself to someone else.

“Audra,” Lizzy called out, “Did you know that you’re engaged?”

“Of course,” Audra called back. “How did you know? It’s supposed to be a secret. Nobody else even knows I’m seeing him.”

“I see. Are you engaged to Adam Cartwright, by any chance?”

“Not on your life, Lizzy. I can’t even talk to him without getting bored. I’d far rather peel an apple and watch it turn brown if I’m in the mood for excitement.”

Lizzy looked back at Victoria. “Well of course she doesn’t know,” Victoria snapped. “Neither does Adam. But they were engaged even before they were born.”

“Well, I think you’d better tell them pretty darn quick,” Lizzy retorted. “Your daughter appears to be engaged to someone else already, too. So I’m guessing both their ideas for marriage differ somewhat from yours.”

“Mr. Bennet! Mr. Bennet!” Lizzy’s mother screeched from inside. “An insane woman is screaming on our front porch! We’re all going to be massacred!”

Lizzy’s father appeared in the front doorway, holding a shotgun. “I have had it up to HERE with this,” he bellowed. “I have one insane woman screaming inside my home already! I simply will not have another on my porch! Who are you and what the dickens do you want?”

“I am Victoria Barkley, and what I want is for this hussy to leave Adam Cartwright alone!”

“That hussy is my daughter, and for all I care, she can molest Adam Cartwright until his hair falls out! What is it to you and what gives you the right to come screaming on my porch?”

“I shall come screaming to anyone’s porch that I choose! I’ll have this pitiful ranch of yours driven out of business if you mess with me.”

“Well lady, do your best—this ranch is not mine. Most of it belongs to that bloody Adam Cartwright, in fact, and the rest of it belongs to some blasted annoying preacher. I don’t own tuppence worth of it. So get!”

With that he leveled the shotgun just over her head and pulled the trigger. The first barrel discharged—and the pellets blew the hat off the unheralded approaching Ben Cartwright and panicked his horse into rearing, screaming, and tossing his unprepared rider into a rosebush.

*

“Ben, it isn’t right,” Victoria cried as Lizzy helped Ben doctor the scratches on his hands, face and neck. “This is what Elizabeth—our Elizabeth, your wife, my dearest friend—wanted: for Adam to marry Audra.”

Lizzy didn’t say anything, but inside she was hot enough to roast peanuts. Ben, however, seemed unperturbed. “Vicky, stop it. Liz may have had some romanticized notions of Adam marrying a daughter of yours. But what she really would have wanted—we both know—was for Adam to be happy. He’s a man now and old enough to know his own mind. If he had any interest in Audra he’s had plenty of time to make his intentions known. And Audra’s already made it plain she has no interest in Adam. I think even if they did marry they’d have precious little chance of being happy together, with no more in common than they have. Besides, Audra told me she’s already engaged.”

“Audra’s engaged to a different man every week,” Victoria replied. “If she married Adam she might grow up.”

“If she married Adam, she might grow bitter, and he might grow old before his time. Let go, Vic. It’s a nice notion, but you and I know you can’t always get what you want. You have to try real hard just to get what you need.”

“I’m going home,” Victoria said bitterly. “Don’t bother talking to me anymore, Ben. All you are now is a competitor.”

Ben caught her hand. “Lizzy, leave us, please…listen, Vic; we don’t have to be competitors. If you want to join empires, it doesn’t have to be by marrying our children to each other…”

Lizzy had left the room and was shutting the door when she heard that, and it made her stand transfixed on the other side of the closed door. A minute later she heard Ben break into booming laughter. “And live in that dollhouse of yours? Are you joking?”

“Would you really expect me to live in that primitive little log cabin of yours?” came the rejoinder. And more laughter.

Lizzy walked away, shaking her head.

Chapter 56

The Boys are Back in Town

It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon, Jane remembered, when she had first seen Little Joe Cartwright in the Mulberry Ridge General Store. And it was a beautiful, sunny afternoon when he and Hoss had returned, after she and Kitty thought them lost forever. Now it was another beautiful, sunny afternoon—and they were back again, with the best possible news: Lydia had not been kidnapped, she was perfectly safe, and far from being in trouble, she was married. Hoss himself had witnessed the ceremony, and when Lydia’s letter was read aloud, he blushingly confessed that each detail was quite true.

And better still, there could be no doubt in Mr. Bennet’s mind of either Joe’s or Hoss’s intentions. Each had brought back a ring, and on learning of their father’s presence at the Bar Fly, they rode out, returning with Ben Cartwright and broad grins, to talk to Mr. Bennet. Jane and Kitty were between joy and weeping as Joe and Hoss approached Mr. Bennet for permission; Mary and Jarrod watched in amusement, and even Mrs. Bennet, for once, seemed to have nothing to scream about, although she did become ill and found herself throwing up in the back yard.

But for Rosita and Lizzy the occasion was a little less blissful. Not that they begrudged the happiness of Kitty and Jane. But…“additional business”? What did that mean? And why did Ben Cartwright all but grab his sons by the ear to drag them away and demand what this additional business was, and why would he not talk about whatever he had found out?

Yes, Dave and Adam were all right, Hoss and Joe reassured them. There was other business for them to take care of. Important stuff, Hoss said. He didn’t know what it was about. There was an almost furtive manner in the way he said it…but he would say no more. Joe would not meet anyone’s eyes when the subject of Dave and Adam was broached. And at one point Lizzy would have sworn she heard the two brothers mumble something about a hospital.

Rosita must have thought she heard it too. Lizzy found her crying in the barn. “I know something’s wrong with him. I knew from the time he left. I told him he was courting trouble, and he’d find it. He’s my husband, Lizzy…why won’t they tell me? What if he’s dying? Am I never to know?”

Lizzy had no words of comfort to offer. Her own situation was almost as bad, and even more awkward. She was not married or even engaged to Adam. Technically, she had no right to worry about him. That made no difference, of course. She was still worried. At length, she sought out Ben.

“Mr. Cartwright,” she began, “What I’m about to say is inappropriate and entirely forward. I’m going to say it anyway. I…care very deeply about Adam. Enough so that, if he were hurt, I would want to know. And—”

“Lizzy,” Ben cut in, “Adam was hurt, from what Joe told me, but it was only a flesh wound or I’d be on the way there myself. And it’s never inappropriate to care about somebody.”

“Thank you, sir…is Dave staying with him, then?”

Ben smiled. “You might say they’re staying with each other.”

Chapter 57

I Left my…Heart…in San Francisco

“Is it, or is it not, scriptural?” Dave demanded.

“I don’t care,” Adam growled. “Will still doesn’t think he did anything wrong. He didn’t ask forgiveness. And as for the woman who’s responsible for that—”

“Doesn’t make a bit of difference. You know what the Word says. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…”

“Fine. But I’m not Christ.”

“Lucky for the world, ain’t it?”

“Yeah, well, we can’t all be as saintly as you.”

“I’m not saintly, and we need to be quieter—the nurse is coming, and she already threatened us both with morphine if we didn’t keep still.”

“I do hate morphine,” Adam sighed.

“And I love it…entirely too much,” Dave said with a shudder. “Never again.”

“And how are my boys feeling this morning?” demanded the militantly perky nurse.

“Just fine,” Dave said with a sprightliness he did not feel.

“I could go for a nice long ride,” Adam said confidently.

“Glad to hear it, but I think not,” the nurse said. “Okay, Mr. Cartwright, let’s see…oh, that’s not looking nearly so angry today, is it? Let me just swab that down…and Reverend Clayton…excellent. Please stay on your back, Mr. Cartwright—and you, please stay on your stomach, Reverend. No sides! Hold still…I’ll have the doctor in shortly to talk about when you’ll be able to leave.”

“Today?” Dave asked with entirely too much hope.

“No, but maybe by the end of the week. We’ll see.”

Dave groaned as she left. “Rosita will have my hide. Whatever possessed you to tell Hoss and Joe to keep mum?”

“I didn’t want anyone to worry. What’s the first thing people think of when they hear the word ‘hospital’?”

“That somebody’s hurt,” Dave replied. “What’s wrong with that? You are.”

“Excuse me, Preacher, but you are too. A lot worse than I am.”

“Well you’re the one with the infection. You could’ve died, all that nastiness from the water getting into that wound—even if it was just a little wound. At least mine was nice and clean.”

“There was very little nice or clean about it.”

“On the contrary, I feel quite blessed.”

“Blessed? You shot yourself in the—the—”

“Ponderosa,” Dave said serenely.

“I don’t care what Little Joe called it. God help you if you’d had the darn gun facing the other way; you woulda shot yourself right in your pride! As it is, you’ll be lucky if you can walk out of here with a cane. This is NOT what the Lord meant when he said to turn the other cheek.”

“Well, for Pete’s sake, Adam, it was hardly intentional! I had the derringer in my pocket. It was dark. How was I to know Rinnie had stretched a trip wire across the stairs?”

“I don’t know,” Adam said wrathfully. “But if I ever catch that woman…”

“Don’t,” Dave sighed. “It could’ve been a lot worse. Let it go, Adam. I’ve got three weddings to look forward to.”

“Yeah,” Adam said with a little smile, imagining only one. The minutes went by, and he found himself drowsy.

“Adam…” Dave said quietly.

“Yeah?”

“Do you remember what General Lee is supposed to have said…about war being so terrible?”

Awake again, and not pleased about it, Adam looked over at Dave. “’It’s good that war is so terrible, or we’d become too fond of it’…something like that. Right?”

“Yeah. I felt like I was supposed to come here…but I kinda wonder now if I was right…I didn’t help you at all, and all I did do was wallop a couple of women! And here I am a preacher, for the love of God!”

“That’s exactly why you’re a preacher. For the love of God. Let’s see, you belted a couple of women. That would be Lydia, who had just shot me and who still had a bullet left in her gun, and that would be Lisa-Marie, who had just kidnapped Joe…and you told me you knocked Rinnie down so she couldn’t keep you from getting us out of the water. Did you have fun hitting them?”

“No; I hated it.”

“Then why are you beating yourself up for it now?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t see it as a good recommendation for preaching repentance and love.”

“You didn’t like it, but it was necessary and you did it. Being a preacher doesn’t give you the right to stand aside and let bad things happen if you can prevent it, Dave.”

“So you’re thinkin’ I should’ve been there?”

“Do you think Lydia and Will would be married now if you hadn’t? Before I got ’em within ten feet of a preacher Will would’ve weaseled off, and besides, I woulda lost Little Joe and never found him without your help. Now, if it’ll make you feel better, next time I need your help I won’t ask.”

“You didn’t ask this time. I just invited myself.”

“I didn’t have to mention Lisa-Marie, did I? I knew when I did it that you’d come, sure as shootin’. And you did.”

“Of course I did,” Dave said, puzzled. “I’d always come if I thought you needed help. You’re the closest thing to a brother that I’ve got. The Cartwrights were always my family from the time you and I met.”

“After you got over thinking I was Satan, you mean.”

“Well, I’m not entirely sure I ever got over thinkin’ that,” Dave smiled. “But I’d help any of you, any time I could.”

“Then quit griping about it now. You did help. And you did it all without shooting anybody…except yourself.”

Dave chuckled. “I think there’s a kind of poetic justice to that. I lived by the gun and I shot myself in the end.”

“In more ways than one,” Adam replied, and both men broke out laughing so hard the nurse came back.

Chapter 58

$25 and Change

Two full weeks went by. The ranch hands brought the next cattle shipment out to the Bar Fly, and Ben, Hoss and Joe were waiting to open the gates and get the cattle to feeding and gaining weight again. Each day there was an enforced break to visit Longbourn and make plans for the future.

The issue of Mary had already been resolved. She insisted she had no interest in marriage, and that was fine with Jarrod, but he still wanted her as an employee, and despite her father’s protests that women were too silly to be in the workforce, she packed a bag. “He’s going to pay me $50 a month, Father,” Mary told him. “Unless you can match that offer, I have no reason to stay here.”

“Fifty dollars?” Bennet whistled. “You have my blessing.” And with that, Mary and Jarrod left for Stockton together. Rosita stayed behind, waiting for Dave’s return, certain he would come to Longbourn before going home.

After they were married, Hoss and Kitty would remain in Mulberry Ridge for a year, continuing to help Mr. Bennet. “One year exactly,” Hoss stressed. “Not a day more. I love your pa too, Kitty, but we have to cut his apron strings sometime or he won’t ever learn to do for himself.”

Jane and Joe would return immediately to the Ponderosa. Joe had work at the saw mill to attend, and Ben had a piece of land in mind for the young couple to settle that should work just fine.

And Adam…Joe and Hoss told their father that Adam had expressed a firm intent to them to marry Lizzy. Based on that intent—and on Peggy’s welfare—it would probably be best for Adam and Lizzy to take over the Bar Fly, at least until they could adopt Peggy and return to Nevada. But then, that depended on Adam’s and Lizzy’s agreement. It was hardly appropriate to ask Lizzy her feelings yet, since Adam had not formally proposed to her, and they could not ask Adam until he came back. So, they waited. And neither Hoss nor Joe would consider marrying without Adam around. If he wanted to marry Lizzy, they could make it a triple wedding; if he had changed his mind—which they could not imagine, as Adam never changed his mind about anything—he could always be their best man.

Mrs. Bennet seemed quiet enough these days, primarily because she was always sick. While no one else seemed to understand this, Mr. Bennet did, and it left him wordlessly terrified.

And a telegram arrived, saying Dave and Adam had completed their “business” and were on the way. Rosita and Lizzy began taking long walks together each afternoon and used the time to extol the virtues of their chosen partners. It was such an afternoon, and Lizzy and Rosita were out on such a walk, while Hoss and Joe and Ben and Peggy were paying their daily visit to Longbourn, that Adam and Dave cantered sedately into the yard.

There were greetings all around; the longest greeting was between Adam and Peggy. He gave her a hug and a big kiss and a new doll to keep Helen Praybaby company. He conferred back-pounding hugs on both brothers and chaste cheek-kisses on his new sisters-to-be. Perhaps the shortest greeting was between Adam and Ben. Adam gave his father a quick hug and said simply, “I think you know what I’m planning to do.”

Ben smiled. “I think so.” He squeezed his eldest son’s shoulder. “Go see her father first. He’s out in the back field.”

Dave—who was walking with a cane—was talking animatedly to the two engaged couples, but looking around for someone else. “She’s gone walking with Lizzy,” Joe said. “Why don’t you go with Adam? You can talk to Mr. Bennet about the wedding; now that everybody’s here, some of us would just as soon not wait any longer.”

Dave found the two combatants squared off in the field, staring at each other. “That’s fine with me,” Adam said as Dave approached. “But aside from your extreme dislike, and the fact that you blame me for most of the bad things that have ever happened to you, is there any reason I shouldn’t marry Lizzy, as long as she wants to marry me?”

“I suppose not,” Bennet replied. “Go ahead. She’s just as silly as any other woman.”

“You know, just because you married a silly woman doesn’t mean they’re all silly,” Adam said mildly. “Far as I know, the silliest thing about Lizzy is that she’s unaccountably fond of you.”

With that he walked away in search of his intended.

“You do know that’s your whole problem,” Dave said.

“What—being surrounded by silly women?”

“No; that you blame every bad choice you make on someone else. Speaking of bad choices, you owe me $10 for marrying Lydia and Will.”

“In the first place, I have a distinct memory of your saying that you charged only five dollars per wedding. I’ll pay the charges for Jane and Kitty, and even Lizzy, if necessary. That comes to $15. But I was never even asked if I wanted Lydia to marry Will, and I won’t pay a dime for a wedding I had no say in.”

“Mr. Bennet, you had a lot of say. Lydia was bragging about a secret lover before she ever left your house, and you never took steps to even find out who it was. You sent her off to San Francisco with people you knew nothing about, disregarding advice from Mary, Lizzy, and even Jane. You didn’t even stay with Hoss and Joe when they searched for Lydia.  You could have had some say in this affair at any of those points in time, and you made a choice not to. Your lack of involvement left us with two alternatives—bringing Lydia back with a loss of reputation, or marrying her to the man she wanted to marry. But that’s the pattern you’ve followed your whole life—doing whatever seemed the least amount of work, and then blaming others when it didn’t work out well for you.”

Dave started to turn away, and then made a decision and turned back. “And you’re right—normally I charge five dollars for a wedding. Mr. Cartwright has already offered to pay for Lizzy, Kitty, and Jane. He even offered to pay for Lydia. But I want the fee for Lydia from you, sir, and I want $10—which, by the way, does not even begin to cover the hospital bill for Adam and me thanks to this little misadventure. Because my wife loves Lizzy, I’ve made a lot of exceptions for you. But you repay every bit of kindness with pigheadedness, and it’s getting mighty tiresome.”

With that, he did turn away. Mr. Bennet stared at the weeds he had torn from the ground and then cried out, “Reverend Clayton!”

Dave came back, a grim expression on his face. “Yes, sir?”

“What do you say to a 45-year-old man whose 40-year-old wife is expecting a child?”

Dave smiled. “Normally, I say congratulations.”

“Even if it’s the fault of his brother-in-law?”

“Sir, in those cases, standard procedure is to shoot the brother-in-law, though I hardly recommend it.”

“I don’t mean that. I mean—he told me that a field—I mean, he told me that…oh, bloody tunket. You’re right, it is my fault. It’s all my fault! There. Now what do you say?”

Dave looked him in the eye. “I say, right now you’re at a point most men don’t get. You’ve got a second chance. You’ve already made a few good changes in your life—you’re working, you’re sticking to it even when it’s hard going. You’re loving your wife instead of ignoring her. Now maybe you can make up for all the neglect you did those girls of yours, because none of them was ever as silly as you. You can change.”

*

Dave went in search of his Rose of Sharon, and found her sprinting toward him like a rabbit. For a minute he wondered if she’d knock him down, but Adam must have warned her—she stopped when she got to him, eyed his cane, and then just put her arms around him gently and stayed there. He gave her a gentle kiss in greeting and then simply said, “Where’s Adam?”

She laughed and pointed back toward the woods. “Follow the shouting. Lizzy had some displeasure to discuss with him.”

“What on earth did Adam do?” he asked as the two of them headed back that way.

“Let’s see…he asked to court her without securing his own father’s permission first; he left the Ponderosa without so much as a goodbye; he didn’t tell her he was going to help search for Lydia; he went into a dangerous situation without her knowledge; he left her to face the wrath of Victoria Barkley all alone…I think that’s as far as she’d gotten when I got out of earshot.”

Apparently they were both within earshot now, but the voice they heard was Adam’s. “I have one thing to say to you, Lizzy Bennet-soon-to-be-Cartwright. There is only one time, and only one place, where I want a woman screaming. And you don’t know a thing about that—yet.”

At that Rosita turned bright red and hid her face in her husband’s chest to muffle the uncontrollable giggling as Adam went on: “Now keep quiet for another minute. I have spoken to your father. But not about courtship. I know my own mind. I expect all the shouting just now as if I’m accountable to you means you know your own mind as well. Do you?”

“I certainly do!” Lizzy responded heatedly.

“Fine!” And with that, Adam pulled her into his arms, and before she could say, “No, you can’t,” he covered her mouth with one hand. “Shut up—I’m proposing.” And he kissed her long enough to make her dizzy.

“Reckon we can leave now,” Dave whispered, but Rosita stood motionless, waiting for the resulting explosion.

Lizzy just looked at Adam.

“Well?” Adam said.

“Shut up—I’m giving you my answer,” she said breathlessly, and kissed him back.

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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!

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