Summary: Farmer Perkins and Sam Bryant are dead and Ben is safe, yet his sons are at odds. Little Joe and Adam’s argument tears them apart, and Hoss realizes that while his father survived, the bond between his other brothers died at dawn. Ben wants to solve things but must step back to let his sons find their way back to each other.
Rating K (20,920 words)
He’s My Father Too
Adam looked away as the trapdoor opened and Farmer Perkins body dropped through. He heard the solid snap of the rope as it tightened to let the noose do its work, and then the eerie crack of bone as the speed of descent, spurred by the weight of Perkin’s body proved too much for the man’s cervical vertebrae to endure. Death came swiftly and mercifully, leaving Adam praying that if a similar fate was taking his father, Ben Cartwright’s death would be equally quick and painless.
There wasn’t time to think more about it. He nodded his approval to cut the body down before running through the jail to see what was happening out front. He’d heard shouts and a commotion as soon as the gallows had done its job, but as he exited, he realized most of the noise was now coming from a kid called McNeil. Adam had seen him around town and at the mines, and knew him to be one of the loosest cannons in Bryant’s entourage—second only to the man they’d just hung. He could hear McNeil wailing about Farmer’s death, and his brothers’ rapid-fire questions about where their father was being kept. McNeil was laughing when Adam got there; finally revealing where they would find the Cartwright patriarch…swinging at the end of a rope.
Adam’s stomach lurched as he considered what it would mean if those words were true. The doubts he’d fought all night hit him squarely in the gut as he recalled Joe saying that his brother might find himself trying to explain his idea at his father’s grave. Joe had said, “My father,” when speaking of such an outcome, effectively removing his oldest brother from the family if his plan went wrong.
He tried to hold the image at bay, but he pictured his father just as McNeil prophesied—dead—just as Perkins had looked. He’d been accused of signing his father’s death warrant; playing games with his father’s life; getting carried away by the power of his tin badge, and trading a good man’s life for a snake of a human being. Were they right? Had he figured wrong? Was he about to face the incorrect conclusions of his plan in his father’s lifeless eyes…? Yet even now, with his heart pounding in his ears and his body clenched in fear, he knew he would do the same thing if given another chance. As absurd as it might sound to others, he knew that it was what “his father” would have wanted.
He pushed the demons from his mind and joined his brothers as they rushed toward the stable. They all stopped short, and he breathed in wondrous release when he saw Sam Bryant walking towards them with his father—alive and well—while the fat man proclaimed that that they were right in hanging Perkins, and that no harm had come to Ben Cartwright. Bryant was giving the entire affair a comedic spin, like it was all some harmless prank he’d played to test their resolve.
He and his brothers were half-way to retrieving their father when McNeil’s voice halted everyone in their tracks. The kid screamed at Bryant, calling him a coward—before he broke free and grabbed a rifle, took aim, and shot. The gunfire brought down both Bryant and his father, and for an instant, Adam was overcome with a new fear that after all of this, the person he loved most in the world had died in the crossfire of betrayal and revenge.
The emotional upheavals of the last few hours left Adam weak-kneed and shaken as he ran forward again, but his spirit was lifted in thanks when they found their father unharmed. He looked around to make sure there were no others from Bryant’s gang poised to finish what McNeil had started, and not spotting anything amiss, he finally knew it was over. He smiled at the exhausted-looking man who was proclaiming his pleasure at seeing his sons again, and then locked arms with his family to walk back to the jail.
The crowd that had grown before the hanging was slow in dispersing, and now others were showing up at the jail to speak with Ben about his ordeal. Adam was aware that he had to do legal paperwork for all that had happened since yesterday when Farmer had been sentenced to death, but the din inside the sheriff’s office made it difficult to concentrate. To make matters worse, no one involved in the actual hanging had any experience with what to do after it was over, so they’d brought Perkins’s body back inside and laid it on the cot in his cell. In fact the body count from the last six hours was piling up, and Adam was sure he had legal responsibilities for all of them, and not a clue where to start.
Luckily the news about Sheriff Biggs was encouraging. He was in no shape to resume his duties anytime soon, but he was awake, and Adam decided he’d go talk with him while letting things settle down in the office. He pulled Hoss aside. “I have to see Biggs and find out what needs to be done now.”
Hoss nodded. “I was wonderin’ about that too. It seems like the entire town council is here now talkin’ with Pa, and you know how long-winded they can be. I’ll let them jabber on while you go do what you gotta.”
“Keep an eye on Pa. He looks like he’s doing well enough and you know he’ll want to get these men back on track now that Bryant’s gone. But clear the place out if he starts to fade.”
The big man grabbed Adam’s arm as he turned to walk away. “Be careful out there.”
Biggs listened intently to Adam’s report before giving his opinion. “I thought that big brother of yours had the best idea for ending the standoff, and I remember regretting that you would be on your own when I went down with that bullet. Doc Brahm told me how you stood in the saloon and spoke your intentions, and I thought Ben was dead for sure.”
“You and everyone else,” Adam replied with a snort.
“Not me,” Dr. Brahm said as he came into the room where he’d settled Biggs after removing the bullet from his shoulder. “I know Ben Cartwright, and he would rather have died than to see his sons back down.” He gave Adam a knowing look. “Your father doesn’t abide cowardice.”
Adam nodded. “So when can the sheriff get back to work?”
“Not for a while.” Dr. Brahm checked the bandage over Biggs’ wound. “In fact, I might have to send him to a surgeon in Sacramento if this doesn’t heal right.”
Biggs grinned wickedly. “So raise your right hand, Cartwright.”
“I’m swearing you in as acting sheriff. You can send a telegram to Carson asking them to lend us a deputy until I get back, but that’ll still take a few days. Until then, you’re the only man I trust to finish things right.”
Adam grimaced. “That’s why I came here; I don’t know what to do with the bodies, witnesses or paperwork.” He raised his right hand and repeated the words Biggs gave him, promising to uphold the law to the best of his ability. “Now,” he said when he was done and wearing Biggs’ badge, “where do I start?”
“Where are all these bodies you mentioned?”
“The guy who shot you was brought here, but I sent Bryant and McNeil to Paul Martin. He got back into town about the time of the hanging, and I figured Dr. Brahm had his hands full. Perkins is still at the jail.” Adam chuckled before continuing. “I appreciate that he’s quiet now. That cackling he did got on my last good nerve.”
The doctor scratched his head as he sat next to Biggs and looked up at Adam. “Sam Bryant finally realized he’d gone too far this morning. I know Bryant ‘seemed’ pretty cavalier about Farmer killing Cameron, and I’m sure he thought he could ‘arrange’ things in his favor, but he showed his how weak he’d gotten when he kidnapped Ben. He made a big blunder when he hired men like Perkins, and he paid the ultimate price for that mistake.”
“I guess I didn’t see that,” Biggs said. “But it makes sense. Men like Perkins kill for the fun of it, not as a means to an end. Even Bryant couldn’t defend cold-blooded murder of good people.” The sheriff groaned as he adjusted his position. “Maybe we better go through your concerns, Sheriff Cartwright, before I get too worn out.”
“What’s first?” Adam asked with a wry grin and frustrated edge to his tone.
Biggs matched his expression. “How should I know? I never did a hanging either. But…there’s a manual in my desk that lays out the procedure. You’ll be busy for a few days getting statements, writing up the reports and gathering the bills to send to the territorial justice office. But if you follow the manual, you should manage.”
“There must have been 40 or more people outside the jail when McNeil shot Bryant. Do I have to interview all of them?”
Biggs looked toward Dr. Brahm. “You were back there by then, weren’t you?” Receiving a nod, he continued. “You two make a list of the people who were there, and then choose the best of them to talk to. Make sure you get the guy whose rifle was taken, and the ones standing nearest McNeil when he fired. The rest of the stories would vary anyway.” Addressing Adam, he added, “You’ll need to question your father, and decide if there were any others who should be charged with the kidnapping. And your brothers need to give a statement for when I was shot, and one for what happened outside the jail.” He reached out to grab Adam’s arm. “I hear tell you’re an educated and diligent man, so I know you’ll do a good job…just like you did with the hanging.”
It was past one before Adam could leave the doctor’s office. He and Dr. Brahm had let the sheriff rest while they’d completed a list and chose the most promising witnesses.
The two men were shaking hands at the door, when the physician said, “I admire your courage last night. I’d congratulate you, but I doubt you find any satisfaction in what you had to do.” They walked out to the porch as he finished. “Someday you’ll be able to appreciate that your decision to enforce law and order saved this city from becoming just another two-bit mining town.”
Adam nodded his silent thanks before trotting down the steps and heading toward the saloon where he’d likely find those on his witness list. He soon realized that although Dr. Brahm had seen the validity in his decision, others were still staring at him as he walked by—shaking their heads and whispering about his callousness in putting up his father’s life to prove some point.
He knew he should take the statements sooner than later, but there was so much else to be done that he made appointments for the next day. He was sure some of them would forget or be too drunk to remember, but enough of them would show up that he could complete the report. With that done, he headed back to the sheriff’s office.
There were still stragglers watching the crew take down the gallows, and Adam sent them on their way before going inside. Apparently those who’d taken up residence in the office had made quite a morning of it, and from the dirty dishes and leftovers sitting on every flat surface, they’d even ordered a lunch spread. The room smelled like beer, pickled fish and cigar smoke, making Adam’s stomach turn. He realized he hadn’t consumed anything but coffee since breakfast at home the day before, but the sights and smells did nothing to give him an appetite.
He saw his father seated in the middle of the crowd, and Adam was struck by how worn he looked now that the exuberance of success had been overshadowed by fatigue. He was overcome with guilt, thinking he should have made sure the tired man had been headed off to rest before he’d left to see Biggs a few hours ago. Better later than never, he thought disparagingly as he found his brothers, and they made quick work of clearing the room.
Alone with his family, he took a deep breath and gave his father a firm handshake that became a sturdy hug. He and his father were not prone to displays of affection, but at that moment he needed to feel his father’s strong frame in his arms and assure himself that he was unharmed.
Turning toward his brothers, he said, “I still need statements from all of you. But,” he looked over at Ben and smiled, “Pa’s looking a little road-weary right now, so why don’t you two take him over to the hotel and get rooms for the night. We can do the paperwork first thing tomorrow.”
“I was thinking we’d all head home,” Ben said hopefully.
“I figured you’d want that, Pa, but it might be better to stay in town.”
Little Joe’s comment was laced with venom. “I think we’ve all heard enough about what you think we should do. Maybe you should let Pa decide where he wants to stay.”
Ben gave his youngest a questioning look while addressing his eldest. “I’m assuming you have a reason for us doing as you’ve suggested?”
“It’s a long ride to the Ponderosa, and I’ll need you back here tomorrow. It makes sense to avoid a double trip. I’d finish up with you after you have a chance to rest, but I still have Perkin’s body in that cell back there, and that’s gotta get taken care of. In fact I have three other bodies to see to, and I think that’ll take the rest of the day.” He took another deep breath. “I also think you’d best stay where people are around tonight. I saw Sam’s men riding out of town like rats deserting a sinking ship throughout the night, and while most of them are only interested in saving their own hides, there may be a couple who think we took their livelihood away. They might wait for you to leave and catch you out on the open road.” He looked directly at his brothers. “And mostly…it’s been a hard 24-hours for all of us, and I’d be grateful to know that Pa is nearby and safe tonight.”
Hoss spoke up. “Why can’t you come with us, Adam? I doubt they’d take on the whole family if we was together.”
“I wish I could, but Biggs made me acting sheriff for now. I agreed to do it until a replacement gets here.”
Ben laid his arm on Adam’s back. “I think your idea is sound. We’ll stay…tonight.”
Adam was thanking his father when Little Joe mumbled loudly enough for them to hear. “Yep, our brother is always full of good ideas. I just think it’s funny though how he suddenly needs to know where Pa is and that he’s safe. A couple hours ago, he didn’t care about that as much he did about proving a point.”
“Joseph!” Ben said sharply.
Adam took his youngest brother by the shoulder and led him toward the door; looking back to say, “Give us a minute.”
“What’s eating you, Joe?” he asked once they were outside. “I know you didn’t agree with my decision last night, but it’s over now, and it worked out fine.”
Joe sneered. “Of course it worked fine, Adam…just like always for you. You played a game with Pa’s life, and because it went your way, you’re the hero again. Maybe what’s eating me is that I’m sick of always having how right you are shoved in my face.”
The older brother shook his head as he smiled sourly. “I didn’t play a game, Joe. I made a decision based on everything Pa would have expected me to do.” He breathed deeply before continuing. “Why do I get the feeling that you’re not exactly happy about the outcome? Would you rather I’d be standing at Pa’s grave confessing my mistake so you could hold it over me that I was wrong?” He didn’t see Joe’s left fist coming until it connected with his cheek and sent him sprawling on the boardwalk. “I keep forgetting how fast you are…and how strong your punch is,” he said grouchily as he rubbed his jaw. “But that seems to be your way of handling things. Shoot first and ask questions later.”
Little Joe looked down at him and hissed. “Seems to me you’d decided to leave the Ponderosa a few months back when we got to arguing over the war back East.” He leaned down and grabbed Adam’s shirt roughly. “I’m sorry I didn’t let you keep going then, and I promise I won’t stop you this time. I figure you’re smart enough to understand what I’m saying.” He went back to the door and stuck his head inside. “I’m heading over to the International House. I’ll see you two there.” Adam was still sprawled where he’d landed, and Joe looked over to sneer contemptuously, “Remember what I said, Sheriff Cartwright,” with finality, before walking away.
Hoss and Ben hadn’t heard what had been said outside the Jail, but they had heard the scuffle, and had certainly seen Joe’s red face, and noted the residual anger in his voice when he’d stuck his head in the door. Neither could they miss seeing the dust on Adam’s clothing nor that he was walking slowly while rubbing his back when he came inside.
Hoss had seen the look that was on Adam’s face before. It was a mix of anger, sorrow…and defeat. It had been there most recently when he’d ridden off, thinking he needed to forsake his family to give Little Joe the time he still needed with their father. But now that Hoss thought about it, the entire situation during the previous night had put Adam and Little Joe back into a clash of ideas. He knew Little Joe would be just as big a force as his oldest brother someday. But Hoss also knew that his younger brother needed time to season his thoughts and draw from his experience. It was these qualities in Adam that Hoss always relied on as the truth in a matter. He hadn’t given his verbal approval to Adam’s plan the previous night because he’d held to the hope that there’d be some other way to end it. Yet, if he’d have questioned his brother’s certainty in any way as time had run out, he’d have released Farmer himself.
He was left with the soul-deep conviction that even though their pa had made it out of the ordeal in one piece, the relationship between his brothers hadn’t.
Adam swatted the dust from his clothing as he plastered a smile on his face and walked to his father. “You two should get going too. The men almost have the gallows down, and I think they’re heading to the saloon as soon as they help me with Farmer’s body.” The smile became a sad grin. “I can’t blame them. It’s been a long night and morning for them, and downing a few might…”
“It’s been a long day for you too, Adam,” Ben broke in, patting his son’s arm. “We’ll see you at the hotel for a late supper…say around eight? That’ll give you time to finish up.”
A shake of his head accompanied Adam’s response. “I have rounds then. I’ll try to stop by when I get down that way.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll be spending the night at the hotel?”
Another head shake. “Sorry, Pa. I don’t think there’ll be trouble, but I might as well be here if there is. Most of the town stayed up to see what would happen at dawn, so the revelry should end early tonight.” He went to the desk and shuffled things until he found a folder of paper with Witness Statement, printed at the top. He removed a few sheets, handing them to Hoss. “Please ask Joe to write out what he remembers about the shooting in the alley, and everything that happened from the time McNeil got to the jail until he shot Bryant. You have to do the same, but I’ll write up the rest of what we did. Pa needs to give a formal statement tomorrow, but you can get home sooner if you have your accounts finished.”
“We can do that,” Hoss vowed.
Hoss glanced back through the window as he and his father left, and saw Adam leaning against the desk with his chin resting on his chest. Almost as if sensing that he was being watched, he stood, squared his shoulders and headed through the doors leading to the cells. The big man wished he could turn back the clock to the hours before the execution and give his older brother the support he’d deserved. Adam had figured the whole thing exactly right, and Hoss had heard his father tell those who’d come to the jail afterwards that he’d come to the very same conclusions. It hit him hard that instead of Adam being one of three who’d stuck together to end Bryant’s tyranny, he’d had to make and defend the decision to put his father’s life at risk, and then watch Perkins hang…alone. It made Hoss sick inside.
Ben felt like a new man by the time he came down for supper. Paul Martin had stopped to see him, and after a thorough exam, had prescribed a hot bath followed by a liniment rubdown for his sore muscles, and a few hours rest. Ben had followed the prescription to the letter, and was ready to enjoy a good meal with his sons. He rubbed his hands together after handing his menu to the waiter. “So what did you boys do while I slept?”
Hoss finished ordering a double portion of roast chicken, and turned to his father. “Joe and I wrote up them things for Adam, and then I think we both sort of drifted off for a bit ourselves.”
Ben looked first to Joe and then to Hoss with a stern stare. “I’d have thought that after I was settled in, you’d have gone back and offered your brother a hand with the mess at the jail.”
The big man blushed. “I did go over there with our papers after I woke up, but everything looked in place, and Adam wasn’t there, so I came back. I had the feelin’ he didn’t want you alone either.”
“I suppose that’s true.” He smiled and leaned forward on the table. “I’ve been patient all day, but now that I’m thinking clearly again, I want to hear how you three went about deciding what to do last night. I sure wish I would have been there when you figured out that Sam Bryant was playing a losing hand.”
Little Joe’s eyes darted from his father to his brother, and he finally looked down as he began rearranging his place setting. “Could we talk about something else?” he asked a he glanced back up at his father, adding a quick smile to his question. “I’d hoped we could put the hanging aside and have a nice dinner.”
Ben’s eyebrows dipped, and then rose as he watched his youngest shifting in his chair, and heard the mixture of shyness and uncertainty in his voice. “You seem uneasy, Joe. Is something wrong?”
“Nah, Pa,” he answered with a nervous chuckle. “I’m just tired, and I’ve heard so much talk about what happened last night that my head hurts.”
“I understand, son,” Ben said as he reached over and patted Joe’s arm. “We won’t dwell on it, but it’s the part of the story I haven’t heard yet, and what I most want to know.”
Joe’s face dropped to a deep frown and his voice cracked as he said, “I don’t have much to tell. I…” He stood suddenly; his eyes wide and pooling with tears. “I…um, I’m thankful that you’re here and in one piece, Pa. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t…and I wish I’d…” He ran the back of his hand across his eyes, as he stepped back from the table. “Excuse me, Pa.” He said, looking down at his feet. “I’m not feeling well. I’ll be in our room.”
The two men at the table didn’t have time to respond before Joe was heading out of the dining room. Hoss slid his chair back and started to rise, mumbling, “I’ll make sure he’s all right,” but Ben grabbed his wrist and ordered him to “sit.”
“I know he’s upset,” Ben told his remaining son. “I saw it at the jail earlier, and he was obviously fighting some kind of demon just now. He would have told us what was bothering him if he could, so I think it’s best to let him be for now.” Once Hoss was settled again, Ben locked him with a forceful stare, and continued. “But Joe’s odd mood, your desire to escape with him, and the fact that my three sons barely spoke to one another this morning at the jail, leads me to think that there is something bad going on here. I know things don’t always go as planned when you all work together, but this is more than that…isn’t it?” Hoss nodded “I know you’ll be honest with me, son,” he said as he crossed his arms. “Start from the beginning.”
The big man leaned forward, his arms resting on the table as he looked down at his hands. “We had a feelin’ that somethin’ was wrong when you didn’t get to the jail like we expected. And we didn’t rightly know what to do when we got that note sayin’ you’d been taken. Sheriff Biggs said we better make a good plan or let Farmer go.” He looked up to meet his father’s gaze. “Joe said we ought’a go look fer you, but Biggs thought there were too many places to search in the time we had.”
“I’m surprised Biggs wasn’t more supportive of you boys,” Ben said with an angry edge. “He had enough gumption to get through the trial, so I thought he’d be able to finish what had to be done.
“It weren’t that he weren’t willing to hang Farmer, Pa,” Hoss Explained, “It was just that your life seemed worth a whole lot more than Farmer’s was. I got the idea to pretend we hadn’t got the note, and that’d make Sam send someone with a second one. We’d follow him back to where you was.”
“That made sense.”
Hoss looked down again before continuing. “My plan worked…at first. We was following the guy who’d tacked up the second note, but then I tripped on a nail keg outside the hardware store. The noise must’a made him suspicious, cuz he moved out ahead and hid in an alley, and shot the sheriff when he got there. Little Joe was right behind Biggs and shot the gunman.” He took a drink of water as he considered what to say next. “Maybe part of what’s botherin’ Joe is that he was little fired up, and might’a shot a few times more’n necessary.” He looked up and smiled sheepishly at his father. “I said somethin’ like it sure woulda been nice to have the guy alive, but I didn’t mean to make him feel bad about it. It were my fault that Joe had to shoot him. If I hadn’t been so clumsy, he never would have knowed we was there.”
“Neither of you should blame yourselves,” Ben said. “Sam Bryant would have suspected that his messenger would be followed. I’m sure he was told to go a ways and then hide out to see if anyone was coming after him. If Joe hadn’t shot to kill, all three of you might have died in that alley.”
Hoss shook his head. “I didn’t think about it that way. Here we thought we was layin’ a trap for him, while he was probably layin’ one for us. Maybe knowin’ that will help Joe too.” The sheepish grin reappeared accompanied by a sigh. “I suppose you want to hear about Adam’s plan.”
Ben nodded. “I imagine that while you followed Bryant’s man, Adam was putting all the facts together and he decided you had to take Sam head on.”
“That’s right. Joe thought we should keep lookin’, but there was so little time left…”
“What did Joe plan to do if he didn’t find me?”
“I don’t think he knew. He wanted to go on pretending that we was goin’ ahead with the hangin, but if we couldn’t rescue you outright, I think he was leaning toward lettin’ Farmer go…same as me.”
A low chuckle radiating from Ben’s frame down his arms to the table, made the silverware rattle. “I don’t suppose Adam agreed with that.”
“Not a’tall. Adam said that if we gave in to Sam, he’d hang you anyway to prove he could do whatever he pleased. It made us sick to hear, but Adam said he had to say he was goin’ ahead with the hangin’ and do it if it came to that, cuz once Perkins was dead, Sam would know there was law in Virginia City. He seemed sure that Bryant wasn’t ready to hang for murdering you.”
“Good man!” Ben exclaimed. “He figured it out exactly as I did. That was the only way to handle it.” Their food arrived and Ben arranged for Joe’s to be taken to their room. As he and Hoss began to eat, he asked, “So then you and Joseph changed your minds?” He waited for a confirmation, and saw the truth in his son’s face. “You didn’t?”
Hoss closed his eyes. “No, Pa. We couldn’t figure Sam backin’ down, and the thought of you dying for a weasel like Farmer didn’t seem right.”
“So you were against him?”
“It weren’t that; we just weren’t sure. But we didn’t stop him, even though we kept looking for you. We was out front at dawn, and…heard the gallows floor give way.”
“I thought you were with Adam at the saloon when he said he was going ahead with the hanging.”
“We was there, Pa…by the door. I guess it was a good thing since the crowd sorta closed in on him after that, and me and Joe got him outta there. But once he was safe, we asked the same questions of him as they’d been asking inside.”
Ben was silent. “So you’re telling me that he faced that hanging…”
“Alone,” Hoss supplied. “It purely hurts my heart to think about it, but I can’t change what I said or did. The good thing is that no one else knew we weren’t in agreement. It’s only in here,” he pointed at his chest, “where I know I wouldn’t a been able to do what he done.”
Ben picked at his food after finishing his conversation with Hoss, and finally said he was going “out” for a bit. When Hoss headed for the door with him, he said. “I prefer to be alone, son.”
“But, Pa, you ain’t supposed to be alone.” The big man shifted from foot to foot awaiting his father’s answer.
“I’ll be fine.” Ben’s words were tinged with his residual disappointment. “Go see how your brother’s doing.”
Hoss had done as his father suggested, and had given Little Joe a recap of the dinner conversation.
“Why’d you tell him all that?” Joe whined. His tone evened as he asked, “How mad was he?”
“I can’t say he was mad,” Hoss admitted. “More like disappointed, but he said he understood that our opinions would differ, and he was just glad we didn’t argue in front of others who might a used it for their advantage.”
“I thought he’d rain fire and brimstone on our heads after hearing him talking to that group from the town council this morning. He pretty much confirmed everything Adam did.” Joe snorted. “Then again he could say those things because everything turned out all right.”
“It’s over now, and we just gotta learn from it.” Hoss stopped to recall what he’d wanted to ask his brother. “When you left the dining room, you looked so…confused. What was goin’ on?”
“I don’t know,” Joe admitted. “This whole thing—the hanging and all the talk afterwards—has me nervous as a mouse in a room full of cats.” He gave his brother a steady glare before he smiled. “And I still don’t want to talk about it.”
“I promise I won’t ask no more questions.” Hoss laughed when his growling stomach filled the room with a low rumble. “I should’a et me a little more of that fine supper. I wasn’t hungry after having to explain things to Pa, but now I’m starvin’. Let’s go wait downstairs and I’ll grab something to fill that rumble in my belly, or won’t none of us sleep tonight for the noise.”
Ben looked through the window of the sheriff’s office and saw several lamps burning. He heard a bump and scraping sound coming from direction of the cell-room and figured Adam was working in the back.
It had taken him a long while to walk from the hotel, and he paused a moment to think about that trip. He’d been stopped by several townspeople who’d expressed their gratitude for standing up to Bryant and ending the boss’s threat to the growing city. The one conversation that had surprised him most had come when one of Bryant’s gang approached him. He’d recognized him from the mining camps, and his heart had done a flip as his hand had gone instinctively to his Colt. But the man had raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and said he meant no harm. Bryant’s man had seemed eager to talk, and their conversation ran through his mind:
“I was one of Sam’s first recruits after he came here,” Bryant’s man began. “Sam was supposed to bring order at the mines because there was no law here yet. I recall you sitting in judgment over some of the claim disputes. You weren’t the law either, but the miners trusted that you’d listen to both sides and be fair.”
Ben nodded. “That worked if there was legal claim. It got harder when there was no document of ownership.”
“That’s where we came in.” He chuckled. “The better someone paid, the less likely they were to have trouble…from us mostly.” He sighed and adjusted his stance, shifting his shoulders like his skin was uncomfortable. “Lately, Sam had big ideas about becoming a town bigshot. He figured to pay off those who’d help him ‘win’ an election, with money he’d get from threatenin’ those he couldn’t sway to his way of thinking.”
A nod. “I know. He tried to get money from me once.”
“Sam’s new plans made us older guys uneasy from the get-go. He strutted around in his fancy new suits tellin’ us we had to go after people in the city instead of miners.” He shuddered in the cool night air. “But people are coming here to make a life, and they didn’t scare easy. Take that Cameron fella. He was doin’ all right, and he refused to pay in spite of our threats. That braved others to refuse too, and that’s when Sam hired Perkins, Allen and McNeil.” He shook his head and looked down at his boots. “If I can say anythin’ good about Sam; it’s that I think he was surprised when Perkins shot Cameron. He’d always told us to use our brains instead of our guns, because you can’t get money out of a corpse.”
Ben nodded. “Yet Bryant had to make it look like he stood behind Perkins.”
Sam’s man shivered again. “Them three guns had a lust for blood like I ain’t never seen before.”
“I got to see that first hand,” Ben replied with a shiver of his own.
“I think Sam didn’t rightly know what to do with them. They started hurtin’ folks because they liked it. Maybe Sam thought that craziness would scare people more, but yesterday, Perkins killed someone in front of the one family Sam Bryant was afraid of. We didn’t know how Sam was gonna fix it, but it made sense to grab you. Sam must’a figured Biggs wouldn’t let a respected citizen die over cattle dung like Farmer.”
Ben thought a minute. “Where are Sam’s men now?”
“Gone. Some rode out as soon as Farmer got sentenced to hang. We showed up to that first trial to make noise. But those of us who’d already had bad feelings about Sam knew we had to go after you got Mrs. Cameron to testify. This town was starting to get a backbone when it came to Sam Bryant…and his men.”
Ben’s forehead pulled into deep creases. “I don’t think Bryant was aware that his men were deserting him during the time he was with me. And yet, one of them left the stable, saying he didn’t want to be a part of what Sam was doing.”
“That was Norton. He told us what was goin’ on when he came out, and the rest of us that’d hung around, decided to go too. The thing that most convinced us to hightail was when that oldest boy of yours took over after Allen shot the sheriff. Things still might have gone Sam’s way if the sheriff had stayed in charge or one of your other boys had taken over. He might have convinced them to let Farmer go. But everyone knows that oldest one doesn’t back down for anyone, and has the guts to stand to his word.”
“What made you stay after the others left?” Ben asked, hoping to speed things up.
“I was ready to bolt if you’d been hung, but I wanted to see what happened. You know…I made lots of threats, and banged many a head in my time here, but I’m leavin’ here knowin’ I never killed no one. And I sure didn’t have the stomach for threatening women and youngens to get their menfolk to pay up, like Sam wanted.” He looked up and smiled. “I’ve been a no-account most of my life, Mr. Cartwright, but I’m gonna try and change my ways. I learned something from you and your family last night. A man’s gotta stand up for what’s right, or he’s not a man at all.”
Ben breathed deeply as he realized Adam had been correct in his estimation about Bryant’s organization disbanding. His son had also been right about the carousing ending early. The people he’d seen had been returning from late suppers or meetings, but the saloons he’d passed had been quiet.
He tried the knob of the office door, but finding it locked, he went around to the jail yard and saw the back door propped open. Although all evidence of the hanging was gone, he shivered as he thought about Adam leading Perkins out this exit earlier. He made his way inside to the cells and stood in the doorway, watching his son mop the floor.
Adam gave the cot a shove with his foot, sending it back against the wall. A shadow caught his eye as he turned, and he nearly tipped his bucket as he dropped to a crouch and pulled his gun. “Geez, Pa, he said before laughing, “You scared the stuffing out of me.”
“Sorry, son.” Ben made his way over and grabbed Adam’s hand to pull him up. “I met one of Bryant’s men on my way over here. He told me that most of Sam’s gang scattered as soon as you said you’d hang Perkins. They all knew you’d go through with it. Perkins, McNeil and Bryant are dead…so I think we’ve seen the last of that group.”
“That’s good.” He walked his father out to the main room. “You want some coffee?” He poured two cups of the fresh brew and brought them to the desk. “Now you have to get the town council to ante up for more deputies and sheriffs to keep others like Bryant away.* He sent his father a wry smile. “You said you got this information about Sam’s men on the way over here, so that means you were out alone before you knew there wasn’t a problem. Why’d you take that risk?”
Ben eyed his son over the rim of his coffee mug. “I trusted what you said earlier…and I needed a walk.”
“Why did Hoss and Joe let you come alone?”
The older man winked. “I didn’t request the pleasure of their company.”
They finished their coffee in companionable silence. “I suppose I should take a walk just to make sure the streets are quiet before I try to sleep,” Adam said as went to lock the back door. “Might I request the pleasure of your company as I do that?”
They’d checked the shop doors and saloons along one side of the main street before stopping. Adam leaned against a hitch rail while Ben took a seat on a rocking chair in front of Cass’s store.
Ben cleared his throat. “Adam…son, you did the right thing today, and I’m proud of you. I know you pay attention to details, so you must have suspected that Sam Bryant was getting desperate. He couldn’t get what he wanted, and he’d lost control of the young hotheads he’d brought in. McNeil and Perkins were the worst, but I doubt Sam wanted Allen to shoot the sheriff either.” He thought a moment. “As the night wore on, I could see Bryant start to worry.”
Adam sighed deeply. “That’s what I was counting on, Pa. I know people thought I was playing some bad poker hand and trying to bluff my way to a win; but that wasn’t true.”
“I know that. I haven’t had the chance to tell you that Sam told me to write a note.”
“For what purpose?”
“He wanted me to tell you to let Farmer go—to beg for my life.”
“I’m sorry, Pa. I kept thinking about what you were going through, and I finally had to stop doing that or I would have frozen.”
“Don’t apologize. Hoss told me that you were left to make the final decision alone.” He breathed deeply as he grinned. “I knew Sam wasn’t going to hang me as soon as he asked me to change your mind.” Ben chuckled. “I really knew it was over when Sam sent McNeil out to watch the hanging to keep the kid from kicking the table out from under me. He cut me down then, and tried to pretend it was all a misunderstanding: something his men had done without asking him first.”
“It would have been nice to know that,” Adam chuckled. “I might have kept a few years from falling off my life when I heard that rope snap around Farmer’s neck.” They resumed their walk as he glanced over at his father. “I’m glad you made it out of there, Pa.” He chuckled again and shook his head. “Perkins was a lunatic. I can still hear that crazy laugh of his in my head. He acted like he didn’t have a care in the world, but I wonder what he thought as that noose tightened.”
As the two neared the hotel, Adam shook his father’s hand while reminding him, “I’ll see you tomorrow. My first witness is coming in at ten, but you’re an early riser, so we’ll have your statement done by then.”
As predicted, Ben and Adam had the full report written and signed by nine so they took a few minutes to relax.
“Don’t think I haven’t noticed those circles under your eyes, son. Have you slept at all…or eaten?”
“A few minutes and a few bites.” He sighed. “Maybe I’ll be able to relax tonight after all this paperwork is finished. But it’s Friday; the miners and cowhands get paid today, and they’re rested up. So…it might be a bang-up evening.”
“Maybe your brothers should stay to help.”
Adam tried to sound unaffected but his words came out clipped. “There’s a lot for those two to do out at the ranch.” His tone softened. “And I already asked Neal Fortran to lend a hand. He did the hanging yesterday, and I think he’ll be a good candidate for deputy once Biggs gets the go-ahead to hire someone.”
Ben gave his son’s arm a squeeze. “Seems like you’re one step ahead of me.” He sat back in thought. “We’ve got that Cattlemen’s Association Conference here on Monday.” Adam nodded. “We’re all set with our prices for the cavalry provisioners coming to offer contracts then?”
“We did our calculations, and set our offer based on the stock prices out of San Francisco. I think we’ll land something close to our upper end.” Adam reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper. “About next week, Pa… I wrote up a list of things I’d like Hop Sing to put together for me. I’ll be all right for the next two days, but I’ll need nicer clothes for Monday.”
After scanning the list, Ben’s cheeks and forehead puckered in a physical question mark. “This is more than a change of clothes.” His eyebrows dove towards the bridge of his nose as he reread the note. “This is pretty much everything in your room.” He folded the sheet; sticking it in his pocket. “I can see needing some fresh clothing if you’re staying in town a little longer. But this…”
“I wanted to run an idea past you.” The young man cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. “I go to San Francisco pretty often, and I think it would be prudent to live there full-time instead of going back and forth. I could be an agent for the Ponderosa and pick up work as an engineer.” He cleared his throat again. “I’ll have to go there next week to finalize any government contracts we get Monday, and I thought I’d stay on and find an apartment. You come over several times a year as well, so we’ll still see each other often.”
Adam tried to control his nervousness but he couldn’t sit still, and he began to pace. “I can keep a better eye on developing trends in cattle and timber. That would leave you with more time to try the things you and Hoss have talked about.”
“Sit down, Adam,” Ben ordered. “You’re making me dizzy.” He leaned across the desk. “I can tell that you’ve put thought into this idea, but you’re trying too hard to convince me…so I know something’s not right.” He chuckled knowingly. “If this is truly what you want to do, then you’ll have to give it a go. But I don’t want you leaving because your feelings are hurt.”
“What?” Adam yelped as though he’d been pinched.
“I know your brothers didn’t support your decisions in a very serious situation, and I can’t imagine how that made you feel, and I won’t blame you for being upset.”
“It’s not that,” Adam replied as he waved the comment away like a gnat. “They were entitled to their opinion. Their reluctance came because they couldn’t imagine why they’d been put in the position of trading your life to stand up for the whole town. It was too personal for them.”
“And it wasn’t ‘personal’ for you?” Ben teased.
“You know the answer to that. But you also know I don’t let others see how personal or unsettling things are to me. Hoss can tell sometimes and you always know, but I think Joe figures I’m a cold-hearted so-and-so with no feelings whatsoever.”
Ben nodded. “So this is about Joe. I should have known. Neither of them wanted to come with me today. I think Hoss is embarrassed about yesterday, but I’m not sure what’s wrong with Joe. Last night he refused to talk about the hanging and seemed upset with himself. But this morning he’s angry at you again. He made mention of how you think you know everything anyway, so there was no reason to come.”
“I think Joe’s gotten to the point where he resents any advice I give him or decision I make. He’s smart, Pa. He’s picks things up naturally and wants to take on the world. I think he can learn how to do that from you—just like I did—if I’m not around.”
“He’s said he doesn’t want you around?” When his son remained silent, Ben said, “I see.” It was his turn to pace out his thoughts as he began circling the office. “Your youngest brother is smart, but he’s impulsive, impatient, and thinks he knows it all…much like you did when you were 17. You worked hard and prove yourself at school, and then you came home and proved yourself to me.” Ben stopped and turned toward his son. “You’re not even 30, but people think you’re much older when you stare them down across the table. But your determination and surety was built over time…not overnight.”
The last two days had wearied the older man, and he dropped back into his chair to give his final thoughts. “Little Joe has to learn how to see an entire situation and how he fits into it. I don’t want to tame his enthusiasm; just learn to use it productively. You can help him with that…if you’d be willing to stay.”
After a few moments of silence, Ben got up and declared it was time to head for home. He wrapped Adam in a fatherly embrace. “I should know by now that you’ll never tell me exactly what went on, and I respect your loyalty. I’ll bring your things on Monday, but please rethink this before making a final decision.” He witnessed the look of sadness that washed across Adam’s face. “You went to hell and back yesterday, and you made that trip alone. You’re the only one who can decide what you need now.”
Adam answered the knock at his hotel room door to find the bellhop and another man holding his suit and three travel bags, stuffed to near-breaking point.
“Little Joe dropped this off for you, Mr. Cartwright,” the bellhop explained as the two men brought their delivery inside. “He said he’d see you at the meeting later.”
Adam thanked them as he slipped coins into their extended hands. “Was my father with Little Joe?” he asked as they started for the door.
“Just your brother,” the one answered. “But I didn’t see if there was anyone outside waiting for him.”
He’d known the answer to his question before asking it. His father would have come up to the room if he’d been along. He hoped they’d come together, and his father had gone to an early meeting before the conference. That made sense, yet he was filled with uneasiness as he dug through the bags trying to find socks, a white shirt and his brush.
Last night had provided his first real sleep in a decent bed since the hanging, and he was glad to be done with his duties as acting sheriff. Deputy Clark had arrived the previous day. Sheriff Biggs had made his way to the jail to welcome him, and announced that he was doing better than expected, and would be able to work in the office while the newcomer did the legwork. After taking Clark on a tour of Virginia City, Adam had been relieved of duty, and he’d headed to the International House for a good meal and undisturbed rest.
Now he was anxious to see his father and get together with friends at the conference. He was even looking forward to negotiations with the cavalry, and hoped their father’s old friend, Colonel McGee, would be in charge of the dealings.
He hadn’t planned on seeing Little Joe again, and his being at the meeting had all the markings of a Ben Cartwright scheme to throw his sons together so they’d work things out. But Little Joe had been very clear about his feelings, and Adam was not looking forward to a day of the younger man’s scowling.
Still…he’d had time to consider what he’d said to set his brother off, and he knew he’d hit low and hard verbally, while Joe had used his fist. The two of them seemed to bring out the worst in each other at times. Adam remembered a set-to that had happened after they’d disparaged each other’s mothers during a disagreement, and then there’d been the skirmish over Kyle’s intentions. Those wars of words had been happening a lot more since Joe had turned 17: declaring himself a man with the turning of a calendar page.
Adam rubbed his cheek where it was still tender from Joe’s fist. He’d deserved it, and realized he should have kept his mouth shut at the time so he wouldn’t have made things worse. But his final comment must have hit a raw nerve, and it turned Joe’s irritation to fury, prompting the comment that his older brother no longer belonged on the Ponderosa. That had stung as much as the punch.
The Cattlemen’s Club was buzzing with conversation when Adam walked in. He exchanged greetings with those near the door and returned waves to others across the room. He spotted Little Joe in a group on the far side of the reception area, but he didn’t see his father. His brother had seen him; he was certain of that. The boy had locked eyes for a moment, and then turned away after giving him one of his squinty-eyed scowls, just as Adam had expected.
He was stopped several times making his way across the room as people brought up the hanging or asked about the sheriff—a few even talked about cattle instead of the excitement from the previous week. “Where’s Pa?” he leaned in to ask Little Joe when he finally got to him.
“He said he was under the weather.” Little Joe answered without turning. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his inside jacket pocket and handed it over his shoulder. “He also said I should give this to you and go along to the negotiations so I can tell him what happens.” A quick glance backward provided the only recognition of his brother being there. “Did you get all that stuff I dropped off?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I was surprised you weren’t at the jail.”
Adam began, “The deputy…” but stopped when his brother shouldered him aside and walked off. “Well, so much for absence making the heart grow fonder,” he mumbled, then turned as he heard a voice next to him.
“Did ya say something, Adam?”
The speaker was Jim Mueller, a small rancher with a spread that bordered the Ponderosa. Adam shook his hand and smiled. “Just talking to myself.”
Jim nodded toward the group of men where Little Joe had moved. “That brother a yours has been entertaining everyone here this morning with his stories. He’s got a million of them, seems like.”
“He is fun to be around…” he grinned at his companion, before adding, “Or so I’ve heard.”
The two men continued to talk about their stock and how the lack of winter snow might affect the summer grass, but their conversation halted when loud laughter interrupted them. Jim shook his head. “Forgive me for saying this, but Joe seems off today…almost like he’s trying too hard to be the center of attention.”
Adam shrugged. “I only got here a few minutes ago, so I don’t know what he’s been up to. Maybe with Pa unable to make it, he thinks he’s got to do the talking for two.”
Jim slapped his knee and started laughing. “That’s a good one.” He became serious again. “I was listening to him earlier but left when he wouldn’t let anyone get a word in edgewise. He’s a good-natured kid, but sometimes you gotta know when to let up.”
Turning the conversation away from his brother, Adam asked, “Are you making an offer to the cavalry today?”
“Nope. I’ve tried in the past, but I don’t have enough stock ready at one time to go for it. In fact, I wanted to talk to you and Ben about taking some of my herd in on larger bids the Ponderosa makes.”
“That’s a good idea, Jim. I’ll mention it to Pa.” He reached to shake the man’s hand again. “I have to leave for a few minutes and go over our numbers before the meetings start. I’ll see you at lunch.” Adam moved through the throng until he reached the porch, where he leaned against the building to read over the figures his father had sent. He took a moment to remind himself of their rationale in setting them so he’d be ready to answer any questions.
He didn’t realize how long he’d been lost in thought until he heard Joe’s voice calling from the doorway.
“They’re ready to start, and wondering where you went.”
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Can we have a minute before we go in?”
The younger brother made his way over and stood tapping his foot. “What do you want?”
“Did you look over these figures?” he asked, holding up the paper for emphasis.
“Sure. If I’m going to be in there I’d like to know what prices we have in mind.”
Adam offered, “This is based on more than price…”
Joe cut him off. “There’s no time to lecture me now.”
Adam pinched the bridge of his nose and breathed deeply before saying, “I’m not through, Joe. It’s going to be a long day together in there, and I can tell you’re still angry about the other day. I want to say something about that.”
The foot tapping stopped as Joe stared at his brother. “I’m not sure I want to hear anything…”
This time Adam cut in. “I’m sorry, and regret what I said to you. We had different opinions, but I know that everything all of us did that night was motivated by our concern for Pa.”
“I’m glad you can admit to a mistake, older brother.”
Adam waited for a bit before asking, “That’s it?”
“I guess so,” Joe responded with a shrug as he started toward the door. “We better hurry.”
Adam tried to listen to the topics being discussed throughout the morning. He made notes when something interested him, but his mind would inevitably return to the conversation outside the club. He had meant his apology; they’d both crossed a line that day. He’d stepped behind that line again while his brother hadn’t. He was left to assume that what Little Joe had said about wanting him gone wouldn’t be retracted, and Pa’s insistence that he reconsider his plan to leave was irrelevant.
The two Cartwrights sat together for the various presentations, but Joe made his way to a different table to continue his role as jester when it came time for lunch. Adam would have preferred to leave the festivities and be alone for an hour, but he knew these meetings were opportunities to make and reestablish acquaintances that might benefit their interests in the future. There was no deceitfulness in this practice; every rancher knew they would need help or advice from a fellow cattleman at some point.
Colonel McGee and his aides arrived during the meal break, but headed directly upstairs. Provisioning officials didn’t mingle with the ranchers prior to negotiations to avoid the appearance of favoritism or graft when contracts were awarded. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t accept small “favors” afterwards. Adam had already purchased a box of fine cigars and a bottle of expensive cognac he’d send to the colonel’s hotel room as a thank you for the deal he expected would be struck.
Although he would have preferred to enter the negotiation alone, Adam intended to honor his father’s wish for Little Joe to be there. During the afternoon discussions, he watched as other ranchers came downstairs, either beaming with a deal or looking angry over their failure to land a contract. The Ponderosa was the last ranch to meet with the colonel, but that didn’t bother Adam. The Cartwrights had been providing several thousand steers a year to the cavalry for some time already, and he knew they’d continue to do so if they could reach an acceptable price. All they’d leave with today was an “offer to purchase.” Adam would have to be in San Francisco on Friday to sign the actual contract and get their purchase orders. No one could bill the cavalry for commodities without these documents. Those who failed to attend the signing lost their offers, and their contracts were extended to others at the end of the day. This usually made the trip even more profitable for the Ponderosa.
When it was time, Adam made his way over to his brother’s table. “Let’s go up,” he said quietly as he touched Little Joe’s shoulder.
The Cartwright brothers were seated across the table from the three cavalry officials. Colonel McGee greeted Adam and introduced his men.
“It’s good to see you again, sir,” Adam offered sincerely after greeting the colonel’s protégés. “This is my brother, Joe. My father sends his sincerest regrets for not being here today.”
“I hope Ben is not unwell,” the Colonel offered with a frown.
“He is under the weather, but it’s nothing of concern,” Adam explained.
“I’m pleased to hear that.” He looked over the younger man sitting next to Adam, and nodded his greeting to Little Joe. “Your father has told me many stories about the Cartwright boys in the years we’ve done business.”
“And what of your son, Colonel?” Adam asked. “He must be nearly grown.”
The man beamed. “Arthur has just received his commission in the cavalry.
“You must be proud, sir,” Adam proffered.
“Oh yes. He’ll be assigned to my division as an aide.” He chuckled. “I’m not sure he appreciates that, but it will be nice to work with him. I’m sure your father bears the same sense of pride having his sons working at his side. Family is everything.”
Adam glanced at Little Joe and saw a mild blush color his cheeks at the man’s comment, before replying, “That he does, sir.”
With pleasantries completed, Colonel McGee turned to business. “Our needs have grown a bit this year, but I’m sure you realized that from the ‘intent to purchase’ documents provided beforehand. We’re offering the Ponderosa an eighteen month contract that includes 3,000 head delivered to our holding pens outside Stockton over the next three months. Then we’ll need 2,000 delivered to Stockton next spring, and another 2,000 at our Arizona facility in fall. Can you handle that?”
“Of course, sir.”
“Then let’s talk numbers. We’re prepared to pay…”
Unreasonably low and high numbers started the negotiations. As the minutes passed, the two sides began nearing the higher-end of the figures Adam and his father had agreed would make the transaction profitable while not taking advantage of the service. The colonel wrote a price-per-head number on a tablet in a leather folder, and turned it around for Adam to read. “This is my final offer.”
Adam gave no outward sign of his satisfaction. This would soon end in a way that would benefit the Cartwrights well enough to go ahead with projects they had in the planning stages. He’d give one more offer above Colonel McGee’s written one and then they’d meet in the middle. He looked at the paper pretending to mull over the figure, and finally picked up his pencil, intending to add his figure to the sheet. Before he could do that, Little Joe spoke up.
“Colonel, I think you know there’s no beef like Ponderosa beef, and the cavalry should be prepared to pay what it’s worth. In fact we’ll counter with our original price.”
Adam cringed imperceptibly, and gave his brother a nudge in the foot, hoping Joe would be quiet and let him salvage what might just have ended any chance of leaving with a decent deal.
Little Joe gave a quick, “don’t worry–I got this,” glance to his brother before continuing. “We want to do business with you, McGee, but not if you continue to insult us. Certainly my family wants to supply the cavalry at a reasonable price, but I’m sure you don’t expect us to give it away.”
The colonel pulled his notebook back, crossed out the figure and wrote another, and turned it around for the brothers to see. The numbers reflected a drop in his offer…to his opening bid. “This is now a take-it-or-leave it chance, young man. You may represent good beef and a superior operation, but no one denigrates the United States military or its officers without a cost. And since I know what beef is going for, this price is still reasonable, even if lower than I’d expected to pay for Ponderosa beef. You can consult with your brother on this; I’m sure he’ll concur.”
Little Joe’s poker face gave way as he looked over at his brother. Adam said nothing, but laid his hand inside the colonel’s folder as the officer began to shut it. He broke his silence, and smiled as he said, “Thank you, sir. We accept.”
One of the aides handed his superior an Offer to Purchase agreement where McGee filled in the price per steer, and signed his name. He slid this to Adam, giving him a knowing look and the slightest hint of a grin, before focusing on the younger Cartwright. “I want to thank you, young man. Your actions just led to a good savings for the cavalry.” He stood and gathered his things before reaching to shake Adam’s hand. “I’ll see you in San Francisco at the end of the week. Give my best to Ben.”
“It’s been a pleasure as always, Colonel, and I look forward to Friday. It would be an honor to take you to dinner then.”
McGee came around the table and led Joe away from the others, while requesting them to wait in the hall. “Was this your first time in a negotiation?” he asked once they were alone.
“Yes, sir,” Little Joe replied sheepishly.
“Negotiations are a dance, son; one that your father perfected, and brother has learned through patience and experience. This dance involves subtlety, diplomacy, skill, tact…and yes, even deference. You tried to substitute flair and cockiness for real preparation or understanding of the process.” He glared down at Joe. “You even called me by my surname without using my rank or sir. If you were one of my men and had demonstrated such disrespect, I’d have had you digging and cleaning latrines for the rest of your career.” The man chuckled. “But I suspect you’ll face your own court-martial when you get home today. I would love to be there when you tell your father what your arrogance cost him. Then again, perhaps I’ll be able to hear his roar here in Virginia City.”
Joe gulped audibly. “I suspect you might be right about that, sir. I’m sorry for making you think I was…”
“I know, son,” the Colonel interjected. “Your father is a good man, and I know he raised you to be a good man too. I’m sure he never intended you to speak when he sent you with your brother today, but your youth and inexperience got the better of you. You’ll learn, and with the confidence you seem to have, you’ll be good at this one day. Until then, keep your ears open and your mouth shut.”
Hoping to capitalize on the man’s good will toward his father, Joe asked, “I don’t suppose you’d reopen the bid and give us another chance?”
Colonel McGee laughed all the way to the door, and turned to Joe a last time before exiting. “Ask your brother about that. You can learn a lot from him.”
Adam reentered after hanging a “Meeting in progress – do not disturb” sign on the door.
“Why’d you accept that low offer?” Joe spat angrily, forgetting the advice he’d just received. “Wouldn’t it have been better to lose the deal than to lose money? Besides, if you hadn’t interfered, I might have gotten him to give us what we wanted.”
“Uh huh…” Adam replied as he dropped into a chair and leaned against the table. “You think you had it all figured out. We’re lucky he didn’t drop it even lower than that, Joe, and I still would have had to accept it or lose any future supplying the military.”
“You think you’re so much smarter than me, don’t you, Adam?”
So we’re back to this, Adam thought as he figured out how to answer Joe’s accusation. “I’m not more intelligent than you, but one thing you’re going to have to admit is that I do know more than you.” The youngster glowered at him. “You are smart, Joe. But I’m twelve years older than you, and I’ve learned a lot in those years. Don’t worry, kid; you’re going to catch up to me fast because you learn easily when you allow it.”
Joe looked away as his tone softened. “McGee said something like that too.”
Adam slammed his hand on the table. “It’s Colonel McGee, Joe! Don’t ever forget that again.” He puffed his cheeks and blew his breath through his clenched teeth. “You’ll be fine, but you have to pay attention and learn how to handle things that you’re unfamiliar doing.” Adam’s fierceness dissipated and he chuckled. “Believe me; I’ve learned the hard way too. When I first got home from school, I was constantly at odds with Pa over how to do everything. One day he gave me one of those steely glares and told me that paying attention and being prepared was easier than cleaning up the messes I’d make if I didn’t.”
“What’d he mean by that?” The outer edge of his brow dove to meet Joe’s rising cheek.
“We think every idea we have is original when we’re young. Pa meant I shouldn’t waste time doing something that had already been tried, and if I listened and learned first, I wouldn’t charge headlong into things that had been done before and didn’t work then either.”
Joe snorted. “But maybe it is time to do things differently. And how do you know something that didn’t work in the past might not work this time…unless you try?”
Adam sighed and scratched the back of his head. “That’s a valid question. But you weren’t trying something new. You just bulled ahead not understanding any of it; thinking you could intimidate or wheedle a better deal by belittling their offer. That will never work.” He sat forward, looking up at his brother. “You also asked why I agreed on a low price, and the answer is simple: I knew from experience that once the colonel shuts his notebook; he’s done. He doesn’t say another word; his men escort you from the room and you’re barred from bidding until he asks you back.”
Joe hung his head. “I didn’t know that.”
“That’s my point. Pa asked you to join us last week when we were going through our figures for today, but you had other things to do. What you saw on that sheet today was only numbers to you. For me and Pa, it represented years of following trends and months of tracking our costs to determine where we could make a profit. We know we won’t make as much on cattle for the military, but we still need to cover our expenses and have enough left to keep growing. If we’d have walked away today without a contract, we’d be scrambling to sell thousands of head for whatever price we could get.”
Little Joe finally sat in a chair next to Adam. He was down, but not ready to concede the fight. “Still…it seemed to me like he was going to get our herd way too cheap. That’s why I spoke up.”
“We were still negotiating. Our ‘last offers’ were not the final price we would have reached.” Adam unfolded the offer he’d gotten and put it on the table for his brother to read. “You are fortunate that the colonel is an honorable man.” He pointed to the purchase price. “He wrote a price that isn’t as high as it would have been if you’d have kept quiet…but far above what he offered after your outburst.”
“Whew,” Joe chuckled. “I wasn’t looking forward to telling Pa why the bid was so low.” He grinned wickedly, “But then I wasn’t the one who ‘accepted’ it, was I?
“Oh you’re still going to have to tell him,” Adam said, flashing a roguish smile of his own. “He’ll still be expecting a better price than we got and you’re going to tell him how that happened.”
The grin faded. “And I suppose if I don’t tell him everything, you will?” The spiteful Joe reappeared. “In fact I bet you can’t wait to get out there and blab it all.”
Adam took a deep breath. “Tell Pa as much or as little as you want, and if that includes blaming me, so be it. However, Ben Cartwright and Colonel McGee will meet again, and the incident will be shared in every detail. I wouldn’t want to be you if Pa has to pretend he knows what the colonel is talking about.” He retrieved the offer and refolded it as he continued, “Besides, I’m heading for San Francisco in two days, and I won’t be going out to the ranch before that.” He became thoughtful. “I hope Pa and Hoss make it to town before I go.”
“You want Pa to come in and tell you how great it was that you saved the day for him…again? Geez, you’ll be back in a few days.”
His voice was soft in reply. “No, I won’t.” But as he thought of all he was about to lose because of this young man, his loss boiled over and he decided to say what he felt too. “You know what, Joe, I can’t help it if I’m better at some things than you are right now. I’ve worked hard to know what I do, and as of this minute, I’m done apologizing…for anything! Negotiating is not a card game. It may seem like we’re bluffing, but we’re not. Both sides want the best deal possible. But there is a drop dead point when we have to decide to accept or walk away. You have to know where that is too.”
Joe laughed bitterly. “So what was your ‘drop dead’ point with Bryant? When it came to Pa, you were playing a bluff, just as much as I was today. You’re a hypocrite, Adam. Seems to me like you forgot your own rules when it came to most important deal of your life! With Bryant…your ‘drop dead’ point would have been my father’s death, and I will never understand how you could do that—even though you bluffed your way to a win.”
The older brother closed his eyes for a moment; tucked the offer letter into his suit pocket as he stood, and walked to the door. He stopped with his hand on the knob, looked back a final time, and left.
Little Joe looked around during the closing banquet of the conference, but didn’t see his brother. A bad feeling niggled in his gut over what he’d said earlier. The way Adam had forced Bryant’s hand had upset him, yet he’d reflected on the entire incident after hearing his father’s thoughts that day, and he had realized that his brother had been right. He wasn’t even sure why he’d dredged it up again except it always raised his hackles when his oldest brother lectured him. And this time he’d caught him being a fraud.
His knew for sure his brother wasn’t present when the applause began to die after the Ponderosa was named the Association’s “Ranch of the Year,” and Adam didn’t move forward to accept. Little Joe made his way to the podium when called to do so, and offered his thanks to all the ranchers who work together to make things better for everyone; using the same words he’d heard his brother and father say for previous awards.
It took a while to get free of the well-wishers offering their congratulations after the dinner, but the affair ended early enough that he made his way to the hotel to find out why Adam hadn’t come. If “Old Granite Head” wasn’t ill, he thought maybe he’d get him to go out with him for a little while and then bunk in with him ’til morning.
He greeted the desk clerk as he entered the double doors. “Hey Jake, what room is my brother in?”
The gangly young man gave him a lopsided grin. “None.”
“He isn’t here anymore. Adam got back mid-afternoon…right about the time I started. He was up there a little while, and then had me get someone to move his things to the stage office. He mentioned he was catching the 5 PM to Frisco.” He dug around in a pile of envelopes on the back counter. “I almost forgot.”
“Adam left something for your Pa.” He turned around holding a white envelope that he handed to Little Joe. “He said to give this to you if you came by.”
Ben looked up from his desk as his youngest son walked through the front door. “So what price did you get?” he asked as he motioned Joe over.
Little Joe eyed his father suspiciously while handing him the award plaque. “You’ve made a miraculous recovery from this morning. Why do I get the feeling that you weren’t sick at all?”
“You caught me,” Ben laughed. “I had a number of things I wanted to do with Hoss today, and I figured you and Adam could work together in town.” He tapped his pencil on the ledger. “So, how much?” After hearing the price, he sent his son a puzzled look. “That’s low. Did something come up that Adam and I hadn’t factored into our numbers?”
“I guess you could say that,” Joe admitted. He went on to confess the entire story as his father’s face contorted in half-smiles and angry glares.
“Had the colonel started to close his book when Adam agreed to this price?”
His shoulders hunched forward as he grimaced. “I forgot to mention that. But you and Colonel McGee are good friends, aren’t you? So why would he act that way with us?”
“Friendship has nothing to do with money, Joseph. Phillip’s goodwill towards us was reflected in penning a higher amount than he stated verbally, but his job is to make the best deal possible for the cavalry. And since mine is to ensure the Ponderosa’s future, we set our friendship aside in those meetings. You angered him with your disrespect, and had he completed his business without Adam’s intervention, then we would have lost far more than a deal.”
“I’m surprised Adam didn’t speak up and try to work it out.”
Ben searched Little Joe’s face for understanding, and seeing none, explained, “What should he have said, son? Should he have begged the colonel’s forgiveness because you were there to observe not deal, or should he have asked that the colonel look past your arrogance because you’re young? Once you spoke out, Adam realized we had to pay a price for your disrespect. He knew we could absorb the lower rate, so he took it. We’re going to come up short for some of the projects we’d hoped to start…and that is on your shoulders. From now on, you will sit with us when we figure prices so you’ll learn the process from the ground up.”
“You’re still going to trust me?” The young man asked, looking directly at his father.
Ben frowned and tipped his head. “Of course, son. We all make mistakes, but I’ll make sure you’re never unprepared again. And you’ll keep quiet in meetings until you’re trained enough to speak. Patience is not your best virtue; I know that. But you’ll deal with it.” He stood and stretched. “Now, when is Adam coming home?”
The red cheeks from his confession returned. “He’s already on his way to San Francisco, Pa, but,” he handed over the crumpled envelope from his pocket, “he left this for you.”
“I see,” Ben said as his brows dove toward his chin and a worried scowl set on his face while he read through what Adam had written. His words were clipped and stern as he focused on Joe again. “I thought putting you two together today would help you work as brothers again, and give you a chance to see the way Adam works a negotiation.” He eyes bored deeper into his youngest’s forehead. “What happened today that you haven’t told me?”
“What’d my sainted brother say in that letter?” Joe snarled.
“Nothing. It’s just I was expecting…” He sighed and dropped his head; his anger flowing away in a heavy sigh.
Little Joe squirmed and slouched as he saw the sadness that had replaced his father’s anger. “I may have called him a hypocrite,” he confessed further.
“I said he was a liar because he called me out for playing a bluff today. He said he never does that, but he played a bluff for your life with Bryant—except he’d have lost a lot more than a couple of cents on a steer.”
“I see,” the older man sighed again and leaned back in his chair. “Did you ask how he came to the decision about Bryant?”
Joe thought a minute. “He sort of said it was a hunch.”
“You know Adam would never play a hand he wasn’t certain about so you should have known it to be true then…even if he couldn’t put it into words.” He steepled his fingers, as he rested his elbows on the desk. “You need to ask him about it…unless it’s easier for you to believe he’s a hypocrite instead of figuring out what’s really bothering you.” He walked around the desk and wrapped his arm around his son. “You each had to make decisions that night, and now I’m asking that you not stick with a conclusion you may regret.”
Ben remained at his desk long after Little Joe had gone up to bed. The day hadn’t gone as he’d hoped, and his heart ached when he thought about the empty room upstairs. He could have ordered Little Joe to make amends and get his brother home, but he’d learned a lesson when the Southern organizer, Kyle, had driven a wedge between his boys. He’d wanted to wave his hand then and make things better between them—bringing his family to sound footing instantly. But he had allowed the sense of family inherent his sons to work in them while he’d waited. It had worked well, and he suspected that if he stayed out of this, it would work again. In the meantime, he would begin schooling Joseph in the basics of business. He grinned as he remembered his youngest complaining about Abigail Jones when she’d been his teacher, and he whispered, “You haven’t met a teacher as tough as me, Joseph. You’ll long to have Miss Jones back when I start with you tomorrow night.”
Hoss and Little Joe had fixed fences all day after a nasty wind storm had pulled up several posts and twisted the wire between them. They’d reached the last of tangled mess and were figuring out what needed to be done when the younger brother yawned loudly, prompting Hoss to ask, “Why’re so you tired, Joe? We’ve been out here a while, but the work’s been more annoyin’ than hard.”
Joe yawned again, adding a stretch. “Pa’s got me working on the books with him in the evening so I’ll know how money comes in, and how it gets used. After that he makes me do the entries in our ranch logs so I get to know how we keep track of our herds in the many…many fields of the Ponderosa.” He chuckled and shook his head. “I thought I’d be going nuts by this time, but I actually like it. We’re going to tackle the timber ledgers and logbooks next. He reached over and punched Hoss in the arm. “I wish he’d go to bed at a reasonable time, but you know how Pa is when he gets going on something. I’m coming up short on my beauty sleep.”
The big man laughed. “I could use some beauty sleep myself. And I’m glad Pa don’t see me as someone who’s ever gonna make deals for the ranch. He gets a lot of the information he keeps track of from me, but at least I don’t have to write it down or do that figurin’.” He grimaced to seal his distaste of bookwork.
Joe pulled back on the fencepost while Hoss wedged it with a few wooden shims and tamped dirt around it to make it straight again. The young man’s face twisted in thought. “I wonder why Adam’s been gone so long; it must be over a month already.”
“You don’t know?” The big man used his shirtsleeve to wipe his face, as he arched his back.
Hoss squinted at his brother. “You really don’t know?”
He planted his fists on his hips as he laughed. “I won’t unless you tell me.”
“Talk to Pa. I’m plumb confused right now, and don’t want to say nothin’ I shouldn’t.”
“You’re confused? Now I’m confused. Why are you being so mysterious?”
“All I’m doin’ is fixin’ fenceposts. C’mon, let’s get this done and go home to supper.”
Little Joe rested his hands on his father’s desk and leaned forward. “I asked Hoss why Adam wasn’t back yet, and,” he nodded toward the big man heading up to his room, “he said I had to get the answer from you.” He stood tall and squared his shoulder. “So, what’s going on?”
“He’s not coming back,” Ben replied matter-of-factly. He pursed his lips and tipped his head as he examined his son’s demeanor, trying to assess whether he was being honest about not knowing of Adam’s absence. When he spoke, his voice was gentle but prodding. “Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Did Adam say that?” Joe flashed.
“Sit down,” his father ordered once Hoss was upstairs. “Adam first mentioned that he was going to stay in San Francisco permanently on the day after the hanging. I assumed his decision had something to do with the fracas between you two outside the jail. He didn’t admit to anything, and said he thought the ranch would do well to have a brokering agent who stayed in the heart of things.” Ben pulled an envelope from his desk drawer. “He wrote that he was going ahead with his plans in this letter you brought home. It also said he figured I had put the two of you together at the Cattlemen’s meeting, but it hadn’t altered his decision. There was nothing more explanatory.”
He stood and loomed over the desk. “So, Joseph…did Adam simply decide to leave us as he promotes, or was something said that encouraged him to go?”
The young man nodded and remained quiet until his father cleared his throat…loudly. “He said something outside the jail that I thought was pretty low down, and I…may have indicated that…I’d look kindly on him not… His voice drifted off as he recalled his not-so-subtle request for his brother to scram. He found he couldn’t voice the things he’d said, and ended with, “It was just words, Pa; things I said because I was mad. We’ve had words before.” He looked up to meet his father’s questioning stare. “I didn’t think Adam held a grudge.”
Ben’s face settled into a frown, but his voice was gentle. “It’s not a grudge, son. When you two argued over Kyle, he said he had to leave before something happened between you that couldn’t be fixed.” He took a moment to let that thought settle. “Was something said this time that can’t be fixed?”
Another nod, followed by a shrug. “I don’t even know why I said what I did, Pa. I was relieved that you were safe.” Little Joe closed his eyes as he chewed on his lip. “But I was so mad at him.” His voice drifted to a quiet, “I think I still am.” He continued to look down at his hands as he reviewed his final conversations with his brother. “At the meeting, Adam told me he was sorry for what he’d said, and I think he hoped I’d say the same; but…I didn’t, and said more ugly things. I went to the hotel later, thinking maybe we could have a drink and talk things out, but he was gone…and I felt…relieved. Maybe that’s why I didn’t notice he hadn’t come home yet.”
Ben moved around the desk and sat on the front edge, and looked down at his son. “Why are you so angry?”
“I don’t know, Pa!” He shook his head as he tried to make sense of it. “I just don’t know.” Little Joe grinned half-heartedly as he looked up. “I suppose you’d like me to go get him?”
“Not until you figure out what’s bothering you. I want my family together, but I’ll not ask Adam to come back into a hornets’ nest and get stung again.” He leaned forward to grasp Joe’s arm. “Figure this out, son. Adam being away gives you the time and freedom to do that.” Ben returned to his green chair behind the desk. “Go get ready for supper. We’ll work on the timber ledgers after that.”
Supper had not been as tense as Little Joe had imagined it would be. Pa had been in a good mood despite their earlier conversation about the missing brother. He and Hoss had talked about their day, speculating on what sort of weather phenomena had caused the twisted upheavals of posts, shrubs and good-sized trees in some places. He was happily surprised when they’d finished, and Pa had looked at him and said, “You look done in, son. You and Hoss go close things up outside and then relax a little. I need to write a letter anyway. We’ll start on the timber ledgers tomorrow.”
The two brothers headed outside to finish the chores, and Joe stopped short as he entered the barn, turning toward Hoss. “Where’s Sport?”
Hoss laughed. “You just noticed he ain’t there?”
Joe walked into the empty stall and ran his hand across the smooth leather of Adam’s saddle. “I’m sure I did, but maybe it just made sense now.”
“Adam put a note to me in that letter you brought to Pa, askin’ that I pick Sport up from the livery.” He dragged the heel of his boot through the layer of straw dust covering the barn floor. “Pa let me read the rest of what he’d written too, so I knew there was no reason to keep the poor horse waitin’ on someone who weren’t comin’. He’s in the pasture.”
Joe looked at Hoss as he pled his case. “You gotta believe I didn’t want him to leave for good.”
“I don’t think yer bein’ honest with yerself about that. I saw Adam’s face when he came back into the jail after you two ‘talked’ and I knew he weren’t comin’ home. Maybe I didn’t know it was fer good jest then. And I’m not claimin’ innocence in his decisions because I figgered me not standing with him was a part of it too.” He laughed humorlessly. “I stood behind or next to him a few times, but not with him.” He looked down and scuffed the boards again creating a cloud of yellow particles that sparkled in the last traces of daylight poking through the open doors. “You know, I think I puzzled somethin’ out since then.”
A loud sneeze broke the quiet after Hoss’s statement. “Stop kicking up dirt!” Little Joe crabbed before sneezing again. He blew his nose and then steeled his gaze on his brother. “What’d you figure out?”
Hoss turned a pail over and sat down while he grabbed a stem of straw and began breaking it into smaller pieces. “Ya know that Adam always took good care of us and protected us from little on. I guess he had to since he was the oldest, but I know he took that responsibility as a sacred trust. Even though we’re all growed up now, I think at some point with Perkins and Bryant, our brother decided to protect us again.”
“He should have been protecting Pa instead!”
“He was doin’ both. You know Adam; he never does nothin’ without figurin’ it out first. There was some chance to it, but I bet Adam had a lot of information to make his decision that he didn’t tell us about.”
Joe grabbed a pail and sat across from Hoss. “That’s what Pa said too, but why wouldn’t he tell us?”
“You might remember that when he first proposed hangin’ Perkins, we both said outright we couldn’t support it. Neither of us could face the thought of Pa’s death coming because we couldn’t get to him soon enough.”
“Nothing changed because of that,” Little Joe snorted. “He went ahead anyway.”
“That’s my point! But here’s the difference in what Adam done: You and me, Joe, we wanted to rescue Pa, but our brother…he knew he had to save Pa. Don’t ya see; we still thought we could find Pa in time, but he knew that wasn’t gonna happen, and he did what he had to do to make Sam decide how much he’d risk for one a his men. He didn’t preach at us or force us to agree with him ‘cuz he was protecting us, and left it so we could have blamed him instead of ourselves if something bad had happened. Maybe at least the two of us would’a been able go on with our lives that way.”
The talk with Hoss kept rolling in Little Joe’s head as he tried to fall asleep. The big, gentle man had made sense, and Pa’s instructions to “figure it out,” wound its way around the remembered conversation as he struggled to understand the anger that still tightened around his neck like the noose around his father’s neck.
Exhaustion had finally won out as he’d drifted into a fitful sleep, but he jolted upright as the truth finally crawled out from the rubble of that broken day. Now he needed to decide what to do about it. Hoss had told him he’d written to Adam, but Little Joe knew a letter wouldn’t do it. He rested his head back on the pillow and smiled with relief as his plan gelled.
Little Joe stretched and yawned as sunlight bathed his face, and he realized he’d slept well for the first time in over a month. He hurried through shaving and washing up, and pounded down the steps.
“You look happy this morning,” his father said with a mild grin when he saw his youngest heading toward the breakfast table.
“I am,” he replied as he grabbed toast and filled his coffee cup. “I was thinking I’d catch the stage to Sacramento later this week.”
Ben’s grin faded to a frown. “What’s in Sacramento?”
“A stage to San Francisco.” He looked over and smiled. “Thought I might go over and pound a little sense into our ‘brokering agent’.”
“Sounds like a fine plan to me.” He reached out, resting his hand on Joe’s arm. “I won’t ask what happened, but I’m hoping you’ve found the answer you needed.”
“I think so, Pa. Now I just have to convince that rock-headed Yankee to come back where he belongs.”
Adam kicked off his boots, leaned back in the overstuffed chair, and let a sip of bourbon slip down the back of his throat; enjoying the warmth it left in its path. He relaxed while reflecting on the busy weeks he’d had since arriving in San Francisco.
He’d been fortunate to sublet a two-room suite in an upscale boarding house near the center of the city while its rightful occupant traveled to the East Coast for two months. The location made it possible to walk to the cattle and timber brokerages, and to the Cattlemen’s Association each day for updates. He’d already sent a few telegrams to his father alerting him to possible deals they might bid on if the figures in the Cartwright ledgers supported the attempts.
The rest of his time was spent in his room looking over specifications on blueprints he’d been hired to check. That opportunity had grown from the ashes of the near-disastrous negotiation with the cavalry before he’d left Virginia City.
Adam had met Colonel McGee for the contract signing in Frisco. They finalized their original deal, and the colonel had offered him additional small orders for nearby cavalry posts. As they’d dined together that evening, Adam had shared his decision to take on a new role for the ranch, and his hope of acquiring engineering work in San Francisco to keep his skills sharp. The colonel had asked if he would be interested in working on a project with the Army Corps of Engineers.
He’d said, “I’ve a friend who heads up the corps out here, and with the war heating up back East, he’s getting engineers with no experience. They’re fresh out of school, and may be book smart, but he’s not sure their figures will hold up when they start building.”
“What sort of project are they doing?” Adam asked.
There’s a lot of traffic on the river between here and Sacramento, and with few ways to cross the river and its tributaries, things grind to a halt as barges and ferries fight for right-of-way. There’ve been collisions, and tempers flare into confrontations daily. The corps has been charged with building a number of bridges to ease the problem. Patch…” the colonel stopped speaking and smiled at Adam. “That’s ‘Major Patch’ to you, wants a consulting engineer to review the work his recruits are doing so there’ll be no surprises once they break ground. I remember Ben telling me that you worked on a water project in Sacramento.”
Adam nodded enthusiastically. “The Embarcadero refit. I couldn’t stay to work on the construction, but I helped with the original engineering. I’d be most pleased to offer my service any way possible.”**
Colonel McGee had recommended Adam for the job, and within two days, a wagon had delivered several boxes of drawings, blueprints and specifications. He’d found errors on every set of drawings he’d checked. He was enjoying the project immensely, despite the short timeframe he’d been given to complete it. It worked best for him to work deep into the night when the world around him grew silent. He wasn’t sleeping well anyway, and this kept his mind active until he finally turned down the lamp, too exhausted to stay awake.
Any sleep he did get ended at five each morning as he’d awaken in a state of unease, thinking there was something he needed to do. He’d relax when he’d realize it was another dream about the hanging. But further sleep was fruitless, and he’d get up to work on the prints until a knock on his door summoned him to breakfast.
His musings on his time in the Bay area were interrupted by a loud growl from his mid-section. A glance to the mantle clock confirmed that his supper would be arriving any moment. The boarding house offered family-style meals in the dining room, but he preferred eating supper in his room while he worked.
“Ah,” he grinned when he heard the sharp rap on the door. “Right on time.” He hurried to clear a spot on his desk, and then opened the door with a flourish, expecting the fair Natalie to be waiting outside. His eyes rounded with surprise as he choked out, “Joe!”
The young man strode into the room. “You don’t sound pleased to see me,” he commented as he looked around. “This is a pretty nice place, but it looks like an explosion at a paper factory.”
Adam rolled up plans and organized the piles of paperwork to free the surface of the couch and table. He looked over his shoulder while working. “I’m very pleased to see you, Little Joe, but I’m also surprised.” A worried frown replaced his smile. “Is something wrong at home?”
“Nope,” Joe assured him as he sat on the couch and stretched out. “I came to see you, big brother.”
Adam eyed him warily, wondering if their father was trying to put his oldest and youngest sons together again. “Did Pa send you with figures for the deals I wrote about?”
The younger brother dug into his travel case and pulled out an envelope. “This is from Pa, but I’m here for other business.”
The two were interrupted by a knock. Adam was surprised to see Mrs. Obermeyer and Natalie enter the room, each holding a supper tray.
“I suspected your visitor would need some nourishment as well,” the round, short woman giggled as she walked past Adam and set her burden down. Natalie followed her in and arranged the plates and serving dishes on the table.
“Mrs. Obermeyer, I’d like you to meet my brother, Joe Cartwright.” He turned to his brother. “Joe, this is Vera Obermeyer and her daughter-in-law, Natalie.”
The older woman chuckled. “I see a little resemblance around the eyes but other than that I wouldn’t have pegged you as being brothers.”
Adam saw Little Joe open his mouth to answer, and cut in quickly, “We hear that a lot, but I assure you that we’re both Cartwrights.”
Vera looked at Joe and asked, “Are you planning to stay the night?”
He looked over at his brother. “I don’t know, am I Adam?”
“You’re welcome to stay. I noticed you have your bag, so I assume you came straight here from the stage.”
“I’ll send Natalie up later with linens for the couch,” Mrs. Obermeyer declared the two women bustled out the door.
Adam stepped into the hall and called after them. “Put the additional fees on my bill.”
Joe was grinning when Adam reentered the room and sat at the table. “Was that accent on daughter-in-law meant for me?” He saw his brother smile. “A shame; she’s an attractive woman.”
“Those two ladies run a very tight ship. Vera is the widow who owns this house. She does the cooking and laundry. Her son, Mike, keeps the place up and Natalie does everything else. And in case you were wondering why I interrupted when I thought you might try to explain that we are half-brothers; Vera Obermeyer is…curious.” Adam pointed to the boxes around the room, and continued, “The night these showed up, she kept coming to the door and questioning if she might ‘help with the parcels.'” He laughed. “I finally invited her in and showed her a blueprint; explaining how to do the calculations involved. She left in a few minutes, and hasn’t asked about it since. But if she’d found out we have different mothers, she wouldn’t have left us alone until she got the full story.”
Joe’s nose wrinkled. “Why is it that women who run boarding houses are always so…”
“Nosy? I’m pretty sure their right to know everything about you is included in the room and board.” They both laughed until Adam grabbed his fork and nodded toward Joe. “Eat up. Vera is an exceptional cook.” He winked. “Just don’t mention that to Hop Sing when you get home or he’ll pout for a week.” He loaded his fork with roast pork and mashed potatoes and groaned happily as he began chewing. With his mouth occupied, he read over the letter Joe had given him. While readying another forkful, he commented, “Pa wrote that you’ve been working on the logbooks and ledgers with him, and you’re catching on fast. So…what do you think about making a bid on the beef contract for that big mining group?”
Joe laid his silverware down, and leaned his elbows on the table. “We’re spread pretty thin for the next year with the extra cavalry orders and other contracts you got for us, but Pa sent me out to a few of the small ranches to ‘encourage’ them to bring some of their herd in with ours to cover the bid. Most of their cattle were started from Ponderosa stock, so it’s good beef. We’d get a better price with the bargaining power we have, and we’d take only a few cents per head for making the deal.”
“How’d they like that idea?” He asked while buttering a slice of bread.
“A few came in right away, but others thought we were trying to pull something.”
“Did you convince them you weren’t?”
“I reminded them that they don’t have the resources to bid a large contract, and we wouldn’t deplete their numbers so much that they couldn’t sell on their own. I got all but a couple to agree.” He blushed slightly. “By the way, Pa said doing it that way was your idea…that someone had talked to you about it at that meeting we went to.”
“It doesn’t matter whose idea it was; you made it work, Joe.” Adam’s smile confirmed his words. “You’ve come a long way in a very short time. I suspected you would. Do you like it?”
“It didn’t make sense at first, and I’ve still got so much to learn that my head spins when I think about it. Pa’s not an easy teacher either.” He heard his brother snort. “I’m assuming you went through the same thing with him—the late nights, the fist-pounding when he told you about his first deals and how difficult it was back then…”
“Oh yeah, I remember it well.” They finished their meal while Joe gave ranch updates and Adam explained the engineering work he was doing. They’d moved to comfortable chairs when Natalie and Vera entered again: one carrying a pot of coffee, and the other, a stack of sheets, blankets and towels. When the room was quiet again, Adam added brandy to his coffee, and offered the same to his brother. “Now,” he said with a sly smile, “why are you here? Pa could have sent a letter about the contract. That bid isn’t due for another two weeks.”
“I wanted to come.” He’d rehearsed what he wanted to say a hundred times on the stage ride, yet now those words were gone, and he knew he had to speak from his heart, not from a script. “That day…those words I said to you…I never meant that you shouldn’t come home.”
One dark brow arched high. “Didn’t you?”
Little Joe took a big gulp of his alcohol-laced coffee, hoping for liquid fortification. “Well, maybe I did at the time. And maybe I did for some time after that too…until I found out that you were gone for good. Then I felt ashamed for keeping you from being with Pa and Hoss when they had no quarrel with you.”
“So you’re here for their sake.” Adam said evenly as he tried not to smile; taking some pleasure in Joe’s discomfort.
“No, that’s not it.” He sighed loudly. “Dang it, Adam. How come when I try to talk to you I always get so fuddled?”
“Just say what you need to, Joe. I’ll stop teasing and listen.”
He nodded. “First off; I am sorry for the ugly things I said—all of them. I know you already apologized and I should have said something then, but I was still so mad I couldn’t. Funny thing is; I thought I was mad at you, but I figured out a few days ago that I was mad at myself.”
“I figured as much,” Adam said kindly. “I added to that by what I said.”
“Why didn’t you explain that to me then?”
“Maybe I wanted you to figure out that there are consequences to things said in anger.”
“Ha!” Little Joe leaned forward and pointed at his brother. “Pa said you didn’t hold grudges, but you do!”
Adam shrugged. “I prefer to think of it as a learning opportunity.” He laughed as Joe grimaced. “I would have gone home regardless of what you’d said…if I’d wanted to. Part of staying away was because I didn’t want to put up with your grouchiness.” He stopped to smile. “But most of it was that I knew you needed time to figure out what happened that day. Your mood at the cattlemen meeting confirmed that you hadn’t yet, and after your…ah…mistake with the colonel, I knew Pa was going to have you working with him nonstop. Without me there, you were able to focus on other things and relax about the rest. Sometimes we can only find the truth when the pressure to see it is gone.
Joe nodded. “Your plan worked so well that I didn’t realize how long you’d been away. It was seeing Sport’s empty stall a few days ago that shocked me into facing the fact that you were gone…because of me. That same night, Hoss told me a few things about Farmer’s hanging that got me thinking straight.”
“That sounds like Hoss.” Adam’s smile widened at the thought of his middle brother. “What’d he say?”
Joe parried the question with one of his own. “What made you so sure Bryant would cave in? Pa said you wouldn’t have risked what you did if you hadn’t been sure.”
“I wasn’t sure; there are always things you can’t predict. But I knew enough to realize we had the upper hand.” Adam leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest as he started to relax with Joe’s unexpected visit. “Do you really want to hear about this?”
Joe’s nod and “Uh huh,” was enough for Adam to go ahead. “You know how I often buy a bottle and head back to a tables by myself when we go into town?” Another nod. “I’m not a wet blanket like you think. A full bottle is an invitation for anyone who wants to join me. Sometimes I get a talkative group that forgets who I am because I have free liquor, and at other times I slouch down in my chair and tip my hat over my eyes so they think I’ve overindulged and don’t care what they’re saying.”
“I’ve seen you do that, and thought you were getting too old to stay awake past eight.”
Adam winked. “That’s true sometimes, but if I sit there long enough, I become invisible and they start talking about things they would never say if I tried to pump them for information.” He laughed when he noted Joe’s face forming a distinct pucker. “I know that doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend an evening, but it’s where I find out what other ranchers are doing; what kind of troubles they’re having, and…what I needed to know about Sam Bryant.”
Adam rose to add brandy to his empty cup before returning to his chair and the story. “I heard that Sam was trying to worm his way into legitimate businesses and politics. That didn’t mean he was going to do it honestly. He would pretend to be an upstanding citizen until he got control of the city from inside. His men talked about Sam’s new aspirations, and many of them thought it was time to move on.”
“Sam’s little empire was failing. Many of the small mines he’d profited from had sold out to large corporations, and his men weren’t keen on harassing the families of men in town who wouldn’t pay for protection or promise their votes.” Adam stopped a moment to think. “A big part of Sam’s financial trouble started when money in Virginia City started coming from wealthy companies out of San Francisco that could crush cockroaches like him.”
Little Joe nodded. “I heard you and Pa talking about that…not the part about Sam, but that there was big money going back and forth from San Francisco through the mines and banks now. It seems that helps and hurts Virginia City at the same time.”
“That’s a good point, Joe,” Adam offered with an admiring smile. “Only time will tell which it does more. Sam realized that same thing, and made the decision to bring in men like McNeil, Perkins, and even that guy, Allen—the one you shot. Those new men were cold-blooded crazy, and Bryant’s other men figured they’d been added to offer a ‘higher level’ of persuasion.”
“You heard all that in the saloon?”
“Some of it I’d observed in Sam’s actions, but the conversations among Bryant’s men were informative. One recurring topic was the most enlightening. Sam couldn’t control his new guns, and he was continuously hushing up and cleaning up the messes they were making on their own.” Adam stopped to stretch and hung one leg over the arm of his chair as he leaned back. “So…I trusted Sam wouldn’t hang Pa because he was tired of bailing Farmer out of trouble, and it would have ruined any chance of him ever being seen as more than a dirty mine boss.” He chuckled. “Remember how Sam was trying to distance himself from the whole incident that morning? He even said we were right to hang Farmer, like he was all for law and order.”
Joe squinted. “So you really weren’t playing a game.”
“I trusted that Sam would save himself.”
“Why didn’t you tell us this at the time?”
“I tried. Maybe not in such detail, but you were set on rescuing Pa so we wouldn’t have had to risk anything in hanging Perkins. I finally let you go on thinking that was possible so you’d blame me if I hadn’t been right.
“That’s what Hoss thought.” Little Joe blew out a long breath, and looked down at the floor. “I couldn’t feel any satisfaction in how it turned out because I felt so guilty. It was my fault Pa was still in the situation where you had to force Bryant’s hand.”
Adam leaned forward. “What do you mean?”
“I shot the one person who could have taken us to Pa.” Joe’s voice cracked with emotion. “I wanted to blame you for everything, including Pa’s death if it had come to that. But I was the one who’d sealed his fate. Just me! We had one chance to rescue him and all I did was make things worse! That day outside the jail, I knew you knew it too. I couldn’t face you, so I told you to go away.” He scrubbed his face with his hands. “But then it got all mixed up, and I got mad at you for making me say those things to you.” He chuckled sadly. “I had lots of good reasons for thinking that way. The problem was that none of them made sense when I saw that empty stall.”
Adam walked to the couch, and leaned down, placing his hands on Little Joe’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, Joe,” he said softly. “I didn’t mean that I thought you’d made things any worse when I snapped at you about shooting first. It would have been interesting to have questioned Allen, but not because he knew where Pa was. Sam was too smart to send the note with anyone who knew that location.” He gave his brother a playful jab in the shoulder. “You may not believe it, but I was pretty glad you came back from that gunfight in one piece.”
“Still…” Joe sighed, “If I’d just…”
“Still, nothing!” Adam said firmly. He pulled his brother up by his shirt and stared him in the eyes. “I’ve had time to think about this, kid, and I’ve come to a solid conclusion. No matter what had happened that day, none of us: not me; not you; not Hoss, would have been responsible for Pa’s death.” He saw doubt cloud Joe’s eyes. “If Pa had died, the only one responsible would have been Sam Bryant. You tried a rescue, and I made Sam decide whether he wanted to die for a loon like Farmer Perkins. In the end, everything we did helped to save our father. We have to stop second-guessing ourselves.” He cupped his hand around the back of Joe’s neck, drawing him near until their foreheads met. “Got it?”
The two Cartwright brothers decided to walk to a local watering hole before turning in. As they worked their way through the fog and light drizzle, Adam looked over and asked, “If you can stay a day or two, I’ll take you with me to the brokerage houses so you can see how fast things move there. We can have lunch at the Cattlemen’s Club and I’ll introduce you around to the influential people. I know you’ve been there with Pa, but this time they’ll get to know you as Joe Cartwright, not ‘Ben Cartwright’s boy.'”
“That sounds good. We could probably get your stuff sent ahead, and take the weekend stage home.”
Adam laughed. “Whoa, there. I’m not going home.”
Little Joe stopped, grabbed his brother’s arm and gave him a wounded look. “I thought we’d talked it all out, and you’d accepted my apology. Are you still trying to teach me a lesson?” He thought a moment and added, “If that’s what this is about, then I’m sorry I came.”
“I appreciate your apology, and I’m glad you’re here. This isn’t about you, Joe.” He smiled as he pulled his arm free and began walking again. “Pa will understand. I’ll send a note explaining it.”
“Maybe you better explain it to me,” Joe said grumpily, as the two men entered their destination.
Adam pointed Joe toward an open table at the back of the room and held up two fingers as he passed the bartender. By the time they’d shed their wet outerwear and were settled at the table, the beefy, white-aproned purveyor of beverages was standing there holding a tray with two frothy brews. Adam drew a long swallow before slouching down in his chair.
“Please tell me you aren’t going to pretend to sleep so you can hear the conversations around you,” Joe said dryly before grinning.
“Not tonight. If I recall correctly, I owe you an explanation.” He took another draught of his beer and sat up straighter as he leaned into his rationale. “I can’t leave now because I need to finish that project I told you about. I’ve still got a few weeks of work to do.”
“Can’t you bring it all home?”
“I could do the work at home, but I take my finished documents back to Major Patch. He has his men make the corrections, and then it comes back to me for final approval. This project is on a short lead time, and it would take months to finish if I had to rely on couriers and mail service to get things here and home.”
“You could tell them that your family needs you.”
Adam laughed loudly. “Are you that anxious to have me home?”
“If I say yes, I’ll never hear the end of it.” He grinned wickedly. “Let’s just say that stall seems mighty empty out in the barn and we’d all like to see Sport in his rightful spot. If that means having you home too, then it has to be that way.”
“I see.” Both men laughed easily before Adam resumed his explanation. “I can’t walk away from this, Joe. I got it through Colonel McGee and I wouldn’t disappoint him like that. Despite what Pa probably told you about how they leave their friendship behind when they negotiate, the colonel gave us a very good price on the extra orders I bid on here. If I’d do anything to jeopardize this project, he’d never take a bid from us again.” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “The truth is that I’m enjoying this work, and I’m going to tell Major Patch…and Pa, that I’ll help whenever they need me.”
Little Joe looked up and asked, “You’re planning to stay here?”
“No, I’ll come home as soon as this is done.” He nudged his brother’s arm. “Two months from now you’ll be wishing I was gone again.”
Adam’s tone and look turned serious again. “Do you recall the day you found me looking out over the lake, and you wondered why I hadn’t gotten farther away?” Joe nodded. “You told me that if I came home I had to treat you differently because you weren’t a kid anymore.” He sighed. “I think I’ve tried to do that.” Seeing the doubtful look reflecting at him, he amended his thought. “I am trying, Joe. You’ve done well with the added responsibilities you have with the herd, and Pa and I will give you more to do as you continue to prove yourself.”
“I guess that’s true,” the younger man admitted.
“This time I’m putting a condition on coming home. You need to accept that I have more experience, and that it will take time for you to learn what I already know. You will listen when I explain my reasoning for how and why I do things. That doesn’t mean you have to do it the same way, just that you’ll learn the process. I’ll help you any way I can, and even give you a break if you make a mistake or two along the way. But I will not save you if you ride headlong into something without being ready.”
Joe raised his hands in submission. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons lately. Some have been harder than others…and some I’ve regretted more than others.”
They finished their beer and ordered another before heading out into the fog again. As they made their way back to the boarding house, Joe cleared his throat, and said, “Someday, Adam, I’m gonna make you proud, and I’ll return every favor you ever did for me while I was growing up.”
Adam’s chuckle hung in the heavy San Francisco air. “I’m already proud of you, Joe.” He glanced over and wrapped his arm around his brother as they headed up a hill. “But there is one thing you’ll never be able to do for me that I did for you.”
Joe stopped, turning toward Adam with a suspicious look. “Just what might that be?”
“I…changed your diaper.”
*Virginia City was growing fast in the early 1860’s. (From Wikipedia) Virginia City increased from 4,000 in 1862 to over 15,000 in 1863. The city would one day include gas and sewer lines, the hundred room International Hotel with an elevator, three theatres, the Maguire Opera House, four churches, and three daily newspapers. The Death at Dawn episode tells of a single sheriff trying to tame this growing town (around 1859) while mine bosses such as Sam Bryant tried to get the upper hand in the developing city. One sheriff and deputy could not have handled the population as it expanded so rapidly. So when Adam tells Ben that he needs to push for more “sheriffs” in the city, he was advocating the system that eventually adopted 6 policing precincts. It may also help to explain why different episodes dealt with different sheriffs. I don’t know if that’s what the writers had in mind, but it is one possibility. (Historical facts taken from the History of Virginia City, Nevada and the Comstock Lode, by Don Bush – 1992)
**This is a scenario of my own making. I did a story with Adam helping to engineer the raising of the Sacramento shoreline (The Embarcadero) in another story, and I know the Sacramento River was prone to devastating flooding as the various tributaries and Sierra runoff raised its levels each spring. I can only imagine that any sort of river traffic would be hampered by ferry service so I invented some work for my favorite Cartwright.