Smoke Rings In The Dark (MissKitty4Adam)

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Book 1 of The Healing Hearts Series

Summary: It is nearing the end of 1866’s spring. Having found true love, Adam is at long last feeling complete after being rejected by Laura Dayton the summer before. But, while a web of intrigue is being spun by a mysterious personage and a kidnapping occurs, can Adam find enough inner strength in time to save his own heart from final ruination? Can he solve the mystery before his family is destroyed? Will his heart be forever doomed to remain isolated and alone?

Rated T  No swearing or graphic violence.  (32,514 words)

The Healing Hearts Series:

Smoke Rings In The Dark
Spirit of a Wild One — Part I
Spirit of a Wild One — Part 2

Smoke Rings in the Dark

 

Chapter One

 

“Boss? I said what do ya think?”

The room was dark and silent except for the large window letting in the nighttime glow from the town. A shadow moved from a chair in the darkened corner and materialized into the dim light. Puffs of smoke drifted upwards and hung thick in the air from the cigar gripped between the fingers of the regal personage. The nervous man could see a smile beginning to play on his employer’s lips as the other man gazed down onto the street below; he seemed to be amused by something he was witnessing.

“I think…,” the emerged man inhaled another draw from his cigar. “…that everything is going to work just the way I want it to.” He turned to his employee and deliberately pointed the cigar. “Now don’t forget to place that watch and handkerchief at the scene after the job is completed, you hear. Without those, we might as well forget about the whole deal.”

“Yes, sir. Don’t ya worry, sir. I…I’ll get it done alright.” Despite his morbid occupation, the hired-gun felt squeamish and wished desperately to be released from this suffocating hotel room. He slapped his hat back on and turned as if to leave but his hand on the doorknob was temporarily stopped.

“Decker!” The other man turned back to the window. “Make sure that the body is…unidentifiable. We wouldn’t want anyone recognizing it, would we?”

“No, sir…I’ll handle it.”

“Then you best get to it, haven’t you?” Another plume of smoke floated up and frosted against the cold window. The door closed with a click and the face staring out of the same glass smiled fully. His plan was in motion, everything was going as planned. Ben Cartwright would get his just due in good time. After all, what was worse than seeing one’s own son suffer and being able to do nothing to stop it? Indeed, what? I should know…The lips turned down into a frown. The man strode over to light the lamp on the desk and then he sat down to write a letter. After he had finished, he rang for the bellboy and gave the lad the envelope along with a huge tip to ensure his silence. The awed young boy left the room with the impression that he had just been in the presence of a self-less man. Nothing could be further from the truth, my boy, nothing further from the truth. The man stood and gazed down once more on the young couple strolling in the moonlight; one more singular puff of smoky haze floated up to the ceiling.

* * * * *

The crisp night was lovely to the young woman’s eyes as she walked down the darkened sidewalk while nestled under her date’s arm. The evening had been perfection and continued to charm in its innocence. The jolly sounds of the town dance were floating into retreat on the still air and the lights from the homes were casting their yellow glow onto the street. The two slowly walked by the dark houses with a lazy pace.

Evangeline Williams sighed with contentment and paused to stand and observe the sparkling pinpricks of the stars above her; she marveled at how many there were. She turned her coiffured head and caught Adam Cartwright observing her with his honey-brown eyes filled with similar sparkles of light. She shivered with pleasure upon seeing the love reflected in those orbs. The corners of Adam’s cupid-bow mouth turned up in a gentle smile and his cheeks dimpled. His right arm surrounding Evangeline’s shoulders dropped to her waist and pulled her slim body up against himself. She shivered again for a different reason, not having realized that she had been cold.

Adam couldn’t believe his luck as he gazed into the innocent pale-blue eyes looking up at him with adoration. The moonlight highlighted the girl’s brown tresses and made her skin appear as white porcelain while the forest-green color of her cape framed her slender neck to perfection. Her pink and very-desirable lips parted to speak with a soft whisper, “Thank you, Adam. Thank you for talking me into coming tonight. The past two days have been so horrible and…I never could imagine a night like this one could ever exist…here, with you.”

Adam’s dimples deepened, his eyes twinkled with desire and the smile turned into a grin. He looked around hurriedly to be sure of no witnesses before guiding his fiancée into a shadowed alley by the general store. Evangeline giggled at the scandalous act. Tangling her fingers in his black hair, she wrapped her arms around Adam’s neck. He dipped his head to capture her lips and her eyes slowly opened as their faces drew apart.

“Oh, darling, I love you so much.” Evangeline breathed as she laid her head on Adam’s chest.

Warm and cozy in his embrace, she contentedly listened to the slow and steady beating of his heart. She then continued with a more adamant tone, “Poppa won’t cause trouble for you, will he, Adam? I don’t know what has gotten into him. It was his idea for me to move to Virginia City but these past weeks alone back East must have done something to him. Now he thinks that he can come out here and within a day, tell me who not to be with!” Evangeline sighed into Adam’s coat and hugged him tighter. “Adam, I couldn’t bear to lose you. Please be careful around Poppa, won’t you? I need you, so very much.”

Adam smiled into her hair then he leaned back and wrapped both arms around her waist. He kissed the tip of her nose. “Don’t worry about your father, sweetheart, I can handle him. He doesn’t think a country boy like me is good enough for you and I might even agree with him.”

Evangeline opened her mouth to object but Adam placed a finger to her lips and continued, “But we love each other and that it is all that matters. Frank will come around eventually and besides…,” Adam winked impishly. “What’s not to like about me?”

Quiet laughter issued from the alley followed by an impassioned silence as the couple lingered on with one more intertwining kiss. They then stepped out into the dimly lit street again to continue their walk onward to the Williams’ home. Upon their arrival at the house front, Evangeline noticed with dismay that her father’s study was lit while the rest of the two-story dwelling remained dark. Evangeline raised a hand to Adam’s chest to halt his entrance through the white picket gate.

He turned his dark head to her with a quizzical look. “Angie, what’s the matter?”

Evangeline inclined her head toward the house. “Poppa is still awake, you’d best not come to the house. I don’t want any more trouble between the two of you, Adam.”

Adam’s lips turned into a contemplative pout. “Angie, we can’t sneak around behind your father’s back forever. It isn’t right, you know that. Sooner or later he needs to be told that we are engaged. The wedding is in less than a month.”

Evangeline nodded, “Yes, I know, but please, Adam, let’s not have anymore confrontations tonight. Poppa might just need a little time and then I’m sure that he will like you. After all, he has only known you for three days! It takes much longer than that to build any kind of relationship and once he gives you a chance, he’ll see how much I love you. He’s a good man, Adam, just a little set in his ways, you could say.”

Adam quirked a dubious eyebrow, his left cheek dimpling.

“Okay, okay, more than a little bit but I do love him, Adam. I suppose I need time too, to explain things to him. Ever since Momma died, he’s been the only one left I could live for. I can’t simply walk out on him without…trying to make him understand.” Evangeline’s eyes glistened as she struggled with the rising emotions of loyalty she felt for both of her beloved men. Adam placed a finger under her chin and tipped her head back so that his understanding hazel eyes could meet her moist blue ones.

Tenderly he spoke, “Angie, sweetheart, you don’t have to choose between us. I will more than happily make peace with him if he is willing but you need to know that I won’t give you up without a fight. I’d rather die first. I love you so very much, my love.”

Evangeline smiled tearfully, her heart reminding her for the millionth time why she loved this man so. She leaned forward and tapped his lips with her own in a chaste imitation of their earlier kiss. Adam watched her go; he thought of the love he had for her and the happiness trying to burst his heart and a soft sigh escaped his mouth. How beautiful she looked, how angelic as she turned back with her hand on the doorknob and smiled at him. Even though she probably couldn’t see it in the dark, Adam winked at her. With a smile lingering on his face and a spring in his stride, he walked back down the street to his horse; unknowing that tragedy would claim his feeling of euphoria, mere hours from that moment.

Chapter Two

 

Ben Cartwright awoke with a start during the dead of night. Seeing and hearing nothing amiss, he lay back and pulled the tangled bed-covers closer. He wondered what had startled him but soon worries faded as his racing heart slowed and his eyelids grew heavy. The muted closing of the front door, however, brought him back to full alertness. He lifted himself up to one elbow so that he could listen for the next anticipated sound. Hearing the creak of the staircase, he moved to push the covers back. He slipped out of bed very quietly and tip-toed across his room. Biting his lip with concentration, Ben eased his door open just a crack and peeked out like a little boy afraid to get caught. His fond smile though at what he saw was one of a single parent content with his lot in life. They still think that I can’t hear them when they come in this late…some things never change…The door down the hall from his own closed quietly, its dark-haired occupant exhausted but happy. Satisfied that his final son was safe and sound under the roof at last, the nostalgic father returned to his warm bed and dreamed of days gone by.

The next morning found Ben yawning with the last vestiges of sleep as he finished dressing. Taking his leather vest in hand, he proceeded to knock on each of his sons’ bedroom doors before descending the stairs and entering the kitchen. As usual, he was met by a disgruntled Hop Sing who immediately poured a cup of steaming coffee. The temperamental cook pushed the pink china into his boss’ hands and shooed him out through the kitchen door while muttering something in Chinese that Ben wasn’t keen on understanding. The sun, rising amid hues of red and yellow, heralded another day of possible rain but he enjoyed the colors all the same. He took a deep breath of the clean, morning air and took a swallow of the coffee before his son’s voice broke into his musings.

“Morning, Pa.”

Ben started in surprise but then smiled amiably and approached the porch. “Good morning, Son. Nice day, isn’t it?”

“Sure is. There might be a touch of rain coming again later though,” Adam tilted his chair back, stretched out his long legs and crossed his feet on the tree pot. Ben nodded in agreement and pulled out the chair opposite his eldest.

“You were up kind of late last night, weren’t you, Pa?” Adam hid his mischievous grin by lifting his own cup of cooling liquid for a swallow.

Ben chuckled, knowing that he’d just been caught. “I could say the same about you too, young man, if I had the notion.”

Adam snorted slightly and continued to take in the sunrise while gently rocking his chair back and forth on its two back legs. Ben watched him thoughtfully. “So, how was Miss Williams last night? Did you have a good time at the dance?”

Adam’s secret smile couldn’t be missed. “Angie’s doing well and, yes, I did have a good time. Better than I could have hoped actually,” He frowned then. “I think that there might still be trouble with Frank though.”

Ben leaned forward while placing his cup on the table. “Did something happen?”

Adam slowly banged his chair legs back onto the porch then he shook his head. “No, and that’s just the point.”

“Oh?”

“Angie doesn’t want me to tell her father about our engagement but she doesn’t seem very inclined to do it herself either.”

Ben chuckled. “Well, you should know by now, Adam, that women usually have their own timetable. Just be patient.”

“Yes, but I want this out of the way so that Angie and I can look forward to the wedding. I don’t want us to start our new life with a cloud hanging over it. Her father is a difficult man and he won’t make our lives easy if we defy him openly.” Adam chewed his lip and returned his gaze to the near-complete sunrise as if the rays of a new day could solve his problems.

Ben’s brow crinkled in worry as he thought about the little he knew about Frank Williams. A very successful businessman from Philadelphia, Williams was also known as being obstinate and difficult to deal with although Ben hadn’t met him personally yet. When the man’s daughter had moved to Virginia City to live in a high-class house complete with a full and paid staff, Ben hadn’t been too enthusiastic about Adam’s interest in her. She was a beautiful girl but she also appeared to be used to getting what she wanted and she seemed to have decided that Adam was what she wanted. Ben hoped that the love he saw in his eldest son was reciprocated genuinely by her and not because of some ulterior motive. As for her father, Adam would have to be careful. Williams was a powerful man back east and he didn’t seem to have trouble bending everyone he met to his will. Maybe that’s why he’s taken such a dislike for Adam…my sons don’t exactly like being told what to do for no reason…He chuckled and Adam glanced at him quizzically.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, just thinking about a particular stubborn trait all of my sons share. Its nothing.” Ben gulped down the rest of his coffee and suggested that they get to the breakfast table before Hop Sing cooked their hides for lunch.

Adam quirked an eyebrow at the swift evasion but said nothing until more practical matters entered into his thoughts. When Hoss and Joe finally stumbled down the stairs for breakfast, the day was ready to begin with Adam and Ben having already discussed the particulars of the day’s duties. The oldest and the two youngest of the Cartwrights would ride out to the east range to take a cattle count while Adam was saddled with the menial and boring task of fence-mending in the southern part of the ranch.

Considering all that was on his son’s mind, Ben was more than a little surprised when Adam accepted the hard job with an almost cheery attitude. If Ben had known the reason of his eldest’s nonchalant manner though, he wouldn’t have been mystified at all. Adam had promised Evangeline the week before that he would take her for a picnic on the Ponderosa to one of his favorite places on the whole ranch and that afternoon, he would stop by that place on his way to the fenceline; he wanted to finalize in his mind the exact scenic route he would take her to.

* * * * *

At the same time that the Cartwrights were bantering over plates of Hop Sing’s eggs and ham, Sheriff Roy Coffee pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted at a disturbing scene. His deputy, Clem Foster, stepped forward to walk with him to the unpleasant focus of the summons that the sheriff had received via an anonymous note that morning. The ordinary scrap of paper had simply read:

One can’t be too careful when crossing a river,
find out why at Pageman’s Crossing.

Roy hadn’t known what to make of it but had immediately sent Clem out to investigate while he himself questioned who had delivered the note. The young boy didn’t know or wouldn’t say who the man was. All the lad would say was that the man who gave him the envelope was “a real nice fellow”. Roy had gotten a terrible sinking feeling then as he had ridden out to the covered-bridge crossing and what he saw in front of him now not only made his heart sink further but it also turned his stomach. The face of the body was unrecognizable due to being bashed against the rocks by the fast tide of the swollen river but Roy thought he knew who it was. He prayed to God that he was wrong.

The sheriff turned to Clem. “Did ya find anythin’ t’ say if it was a murder or not?”

Clem nodded soberly and directed the other man to a white object lying in the grass about a couple of yards from the body. It was an expensive white handkerchief that, upon being examined, revealed the masculine-embroidered initials of F.W. Continuing on several yards, Clem stooped to pick up the one last bit of evidence that he had found for the sheriff’s perusal, a chain-less gold watch. Upon inspecting that and finding the full name of F.W. inside the handsome cover, Roy straightened his shoulders and started to give orders regarding the care of the body and the anticipated arrest of the murderer. Then with a heavy heart, he mounted back up on his roan and turned its head towards the last place on Earth that he wanted to go.

 

Chapter Three

 

The door knocker sounded and the visitor’s ears were met with pronounced banging of pots and pans before the Ponderosa cook answered the door. The older man standing outside grimaced when he saw the little Chinaman; the Cartwrights’ hired help always made him feel like he was a criminal just by being alive. Roy twisted his hat between his hands. “Uh, is Ben here?”

Hop Sing shook his head, “Mista Cartlight not home, go up to east range with Hoss and Little Joe.”

“Oh, is Adam anywhere abouts?”

The little Oriental man shook his head again, “Mistah Adam out at south fence.”

Roy was undecided about his next course of action. He sighed and thanked the impatient Hop Sing for the information and watched as the little man quickly disappeared back inside his domain. The sheriff mounted back up and as he rode past the barn, a whistling ranch hand exited leading a horse.

“Howdy, Sheriff! What brings ya out here?”

“Business, Bob. Say, I need t’ see Ben. Could you tell me the way t’ the east range? If you’d be o’ mite a, I’d sure be obliged.”

“Sure, sure, Sheriff. Jest let me put this horse in the corral and I’ll take ya to Mr. Cartwright myself.” A few minutes later, the two riders galloped out of the yard in a cloud of dust.

* * * * *

When he heard the thunder of distant horses, Ben glanced up from his crouched position next to a roped heifer. As the two moving figures got closer, he recognized the riders. One was one of the hands, Bob Denver, and the other was, Sheriff Roy Coffee. A visit from the latter this early in the morning boded ill for anyone involved in what he was coming to tell.

“Hoss, Joe, Roy’s here.” Ben stood to his feet in worried anticipation of more than just a friendly visit from his friend.

Joe abandoned the captured calf pinned under his gloved hands and slapped his chaps free of dust as he moved over to see what was wrong. Hoss dismounted from Chubb and joined his brother. The horses came to a stop in front of the threesome and the two men joined the others on the ground. Roy proceeded to give the Cartwright family the despised news. Though he tried to be objective, his heart felt as if it had shriveled when his friend’s legs appeared to almost buckle and Hoss had to help his father to sit. The old sheriff had known Ben for a lot of years, ever since he himself had become Virginia City’s esteemed provider of the Law. This was the part of that job that Roy despised. He stepped forward and placed a hand on Ben’s rigid left shoulder.

“I thought I should tell ya first, Ben. What ya do next is up to you and the boys here. I need him to come and identify her body but I think that ya all need to be with him when he does.” The hand tightened on the shoulder and Ben looked up into his friend’s anguished face that was a mirror of his own.

“Of course, of course, Roy. That goes without saying,” Ben slowly stood and turned to his two shocked sons. “Joe…Joe could you give directions to the hands for finishing up. We’re done working for today.”

Joe nodded numbly and turned to do as his father had requested. Hoss stayed close by in case Ben should need him but his pa seemed to have regained his wits.

“Roy, are you sure that you’re certain? Couldn’t it be a mistake?” Ben was grasping for some hope but the shake of the sheriff’s head dashed it.

“She was wearing that special hat that Adam got her last week. I happened to run into him that day and he showed it to me. I recognized her dress too, a rich kinda fabric ya know. Not very common around these parts.”

Joe returned and led the way to the Cartwrights’ horses. His mind was in turmoil as his and his three companions’ animals galloped towards the southern Ponderosa border. His big brother had gone through so much in the past years. How can Adam deal with this? Hasn’t he had enough trouble for one lifetime? I don’t know how he has held up this long… An image of Adam falling into his pa’s arms out in the desert filled Joe’s mind and caused moisture to prick the back of his eyes. His brother had seemed to be much happier for the past few months, he had even stopped talking about leaving so much. Now, Joe not only felt that he had lost a future sister-in-law but also that he was going to lose his eldest brother for sure. How much more can he stand before he runs?

* * * * *

At the southern fenceline, Adam stopped in his labors to unbutton his shirt down to his belt and take a long drink from his canteen. The cool water flowed down his throat and then over his face as he allowed it to. He shook his head with abandonment as a puppy would and then paused to gaze across the grassy expanse to the rising mountains in the distance. His dripping face took on a soft smile as he thought on what his father had worked so hard to build and what he himself was keen on building in the future.

The Ponderosa was a dream that had been hard fought and hard won and Adam had been able to share in the victory but he had realized over the last months, that his own dreams needed to be chased as well. Dreams of a ranch of his own but with all the new improvements known to exist, of a loving wife awaiting his return every night in the house that he would erect for her. He dipped his head in shy excitement; of children bearing his name and vying for his attention and love which he knew he would freely give.

He picked up a hammer and vigorously returned to work as he thought about a little girl who had shown him the wonders that fatherhood could bring. Peggy Dayton hadn’t been in his life very long but she had left her mark on his heart. He missed her. Even now, almost a year after Will and Laura had moved away, he still missed her. He loved his family, he loved the Ponderosa but he was tired. Tired of sleeping alone, tired of monotony, tired of walking down a path already paved by another dreamer. He was too much his father’s son to sit by and not fight for what he wanted to achieve in life. He now chuckled when he remembered his pa’s hinted at “trait” that all of the Cartwright boys shared. Stubbornness definitely runs in the family, Pa, you’re proof of that…Angie will have a heck of a time in dealing with me, I’m afraid…

Adam’s work and amused thoughts were interrupted by the sound of horsemen approaching. A cloud of dust heralding several riders was coming toward him but he couldn’t see who they were. Now who could that be at this time of day… He reached for and buckled his gunbelt around his hips. He then checked that the catch was undone and the pistol was loose for drawing. He relaxed and took his hand off his gun butt when he identified the lead rider.

He mopped his brow with a clean handkerchief as he greeted Ben,“Hi, Pa! What brings you out here?” Then he saw the subdued sheriff too and apprehension took hold. “Roy? What’s wrong?”

* * * * *

In town, a man leaning lazily by the saloon doors watched with calculating eyes as five horsemen came pounding through town to Doc Martin’s office. All of them dismounted and the one dressed in black fairly flew into the little building closely followed by the others. The calculating eyes narrowed as their owner slowly pushed himself away from the wall and turned to walk in the opposite direction. He stepped into a ritzy-looking establishment that promised fine liquor and sophisticated entertainment. Moving past the gambling tables and the noisy confusion, he entered through an office door in the back.

“I thought I told you never to come here at this time of day, Decker!”

The hired gun was unfazed by the unwelcoming voice. “I’ve got news.”

His boss returned his gaze to the papers neatly stacked on his desk while asking in a bored tone, “Well, what is it? What ever it is better be good after interrupting me.”

“The Cartwrights know…they’re in town right now at the Doc’s.”

The bearded gentleman paused in his work and glanced up with a wry smile. “They are, are they? Well…” He took a cigar from a box on his desk and lit it while rising from his chair. “How did they seem?”

Decker fidgeted under the steady gaze slightly obscured by controlled rings of cigar smoke. “Upset. Especially the one son, Adam. He seemed a might more upset than the rest.”

The other man pitched back his head and guffawed before regaining his poise. “I should think he’d be upset at the least. That reminds me…is the package being well-taken care of?”

Decker nodded. “Sure is, Boss, everything is being taken care of. Any further instructions?”

The cigar was waved in a dismissing manner. “No, no, you can go. But keep alert for any new developments.”

The door closed behind the gunslinger and the other man returned to his desk. He sat for a time puffing away on the cigar. Finally, he leaned down to open a drawer on the lower right-hand side. He withdrew from it a file bearing the name: Thomas H. McLane. Almost lovingly, he traced the name.

“Don’t worry. We’ll have you avenged very soon…once I have Ben Cartwright’s full cooperation. He won’t want his beloved sons to suffer any more than they have to.” He leaned back smugly. “Even if it means losing his precious Ponderosa upon telling the truth about really happened to you and your mother.”

 

 

Chapter Four

 

Doc Martin jumped out of his chair with shock when the front door to his office banged open and admitted all four Cartwrights with Sheriff Coffee straggling behind. The kind doctor knew why the men were there and he hated the reason. Quickly, he stepped forward to prevent Adam Cartwright from busting into the back room.

“Adam, wait…”

“What do you mean wait! That’s my fiancée in that room and you’re not going to stop me!”

“Adam, Son, take it easy…”

Adam’s head snapped around so quickly that it was unsettling for his father. The coldness and the sparking danger in his eldest’s eyes scared him. Ben stepped back and relinquished his hand from his son’s shoulder to let him to continue on into the room. Adam paused in the doorway and life seemed to visibly drain from his body as his strong shoulders drooped. The door clicked shut quietly and Ben’s eyes flooded with tears. Quiet descended upon the little gathering and no one seemed to know what to say or do; all five of the numbed men stood where they were without speaking. Each of the family wanted to be behind that door with their fellow member and the two public servants wished to give any help whatsoever to their mutual friends but nothing could be done. Silently, each man there agreed with the others that Adam would have to face this by himself as he wished to and that they would be there when he wanted their support.

* * * * *

After the door closed, cold numbness rolled through Adam’s body in waves to the point that he felt unable to move. His hat dropped from his fingers with a plop and he moved on wooden legs to the side of the examination table. A woman was laid out there in death; her wrinkled dress had been straightened as best that it could be on short notice, her face was covered with a black cloth to shroud the damage done to it, her brown hair had been sloppily put right, her scratched hands had been placed together at her lap. The only sign of movement was a sparkle glinting from the top of those young folded hands.

Adam couldn’t and didn’t try to contain the tears that rolled down his cheeks when his eyes caught sight of the diamond engagement ring. His large hand tentatively reached out to rest on top of her dainty ones. A strangled sob caught in his throat as her cold skin met his warm flesh. Oh, God, it can’t be…What have I done to deserve this? Am I never to find love and happiness? Oh, why couldn’t this day have continued in its bliss? Thoughts raced, boiling over into broken weeping as the distraught man tightened his hold on the lifeless hands. I was going to take her to the lake…to the lake to see the flowers…If only that I could return to this morning…to the feeling of everything being right! She’s not gone…she can’t be…she just can’t be. Why? Why!

Time suspended into a dream that had no meaning and contained no effort for normalcy. A half of an hour passed before the grieving man was softly interrupted by the opening of the door. No sobs could be heard nor any tears seen; the air was so still that Adam’s breathing could be deciphered as he sat against the wall on the floor. Between his fingers he held the discarded and crumpled green hat that he had purchased specifically for Evangeline no more than a week or so before. Green suits her hair and complexion so well. An overlarge hand covered his shoulder as he stared down blankly at the muddied collection of fabric. A deep voice spoke from his right.

“Adam?”

Hoss crouched down next to his brother and placed a big arm around his shoulders. “Adam…you alright?” Hoss knew that it was a stupid question but he could think of nothing else that could start off any conversation at a time like this. It didn’t matter what his intentions were though, his brother was unresponsive. They remained together, one man being silently comforted by another in brotherly companionship. Finally, the quiet was broken by a whisper.

“I’m a failure, Hoss.”

Hoss’ head snapped up in horror at the words that he never would have imagined his big brother uttering. “Don’t you talk like that, ya hear! There ain’t a ounce o’ truth in it! You’re as far from that as a cow is from a honey bee.”

A chuckle as dry as dust permeated the air but the only part of Adam’s face that moved were his lips. “Coming from the man who’s always around to see me screw up.”

“No, I’d say its the other way around. If anything you’re the one who goes out o’ his way to stay out o’ trouble.”

Adam turned his head to meet Hoss’ disturbed gaze. “ Come on, Hoss. It was my fault that Sue Ellen was killed…I didn’t go back for Ruth when I had the the chance…I let Regina go without a word…Heck, I even shot and nearly killed Joe for good measure among many other things…That time with Frederick Kyle, I should have kept going that night and saved everyone a load of trouble…”

“Adam, none of that is true and ya know it!”

Adam moved to his feet in a motion of agitation and stepped back up to the table. Hoss rose and stood while feeling his own throat tighten as his brother caressed the woman’s hands. The bigger man wished with all his might that he would be able to take this pain away from his oldest brother. He bowed his head and did the only thing that he knew to do; he prayed for help from the only One that could help now. Meanwhile, Adam’s hand lovingly traveled from the woman’s hands to her arm but it stopped short at her wrist.

“Hoss!”

Hoss stepped forward to see what was wrong but, far from being distraught, his brother was perusing the woman’s right wrist with something akin to excitement on his face.

“Adam? What is it?”

Adam didn’t look up at first but when he did, his eyes were shimmering and his face was filled with bewildered relief and, could it be, hope? “Hoss…its…not…her…she has a birthmark on her wrist but…its not there! Hoss, it’s not there!”

* * * * *

Far off towards San Francisco, a seemingly innocent camp could be seen being packed up into a freight wagon by one lone man. He hitched up the two waiting horses to the front of the vehicle then he doused the small campfire. A large blanketed bundle lay under a leafy tree and only when it moved, did it appear of interest to any casual observer. Soft rain fell as the young woman moved within her coverings. Her eyelids fluttered and opened briefly to reveal frightened pale-blue eyes.

Evangeline struggled to get her bearings but her vision was blurred and her head pounded with a headache of epic proportions. The man approached and crouched in front of her while holding a canteen. He gazed with a flash of sympathy on the young woman he had been instructed to transport.

“Here,” he pushed the water vessel towards her. Evangeline was finally able to see without as much pain and she screamed in fright. She tried to jump up and run from the rough man in front of her but the soft ropes binding her wrists and ankles prevented any drastic movement. The man simply waited for her to calm down before solemnly offering the water again. She gazed at him with such fright in her eyes that he was tempted to renege on his agreement and release her but money was money and he would be taking her to San Francisco, he told himself. Along the way, she would be made to understand her situation and the permanence of it; all of it would be done just as Decker had told him to do it, no more and no less.

 

Chapter Five

 

“Pa! Pa, you better get in here!”

Ben raced to the door followed closely by Joe and Roy. Anticipating that Adam was in dire need of his assistance, Paul Martin moved in behind them as well. All four men were thunderstruck by the tearful smiles gracing both of the oldest Cartwright sons’ faces. Hoss had Adam wrapped in a massive bear hug with both of them hanging onto each other as if they were drowning. They parted when the door opened but then Adam faltered somewhat on his feet and he would have collapsed if not for the quick thinking of his bigger brother and father. They helped him over to a convenient cot and, in a typical doctor’s fashion, Paul fussed around the dazed man who was trying to recover from the shocking morning he had just been subjected to. The question of why Hoss had called the others in was forgotten for a time as Adam’s comfort was provided for and he was able to rest.

After a few minutes, he again felt well enough to talk and he slowly explained about the unique birthmark on Evangeline’s right wrist that wasn’t on the dead woman. The four men who didn’t know about it shook their heads in disbelief. Ben’s thoughts were racing in every conceivable direction until one stood out among the rest. A lull opened up in the questions being fired at Adam and Ben interjected to no one in particular, “So, if that poor young woman isn’t Evangeline…then…who is she?”

All eyes turned to the body that was, unfortunately, oblivious of the turmoil it was causing. Adam’s eyes clouded with sympathy for the young life that had been cut short. He shakily got to his feet and moved one more time to the table. Reverently, he slipped Evangeline’s engagement ring from the cold finger. He then retrieved the crumpled green hat from the floor and gently placed it over the folded hands. Then he turned to his family. “Let’s talk outside and let her rest in peace…” He moved slowly and Hoss and Joe immediately jumped up and chorused their offers of help.

“Are ya okay, Adam?”

“Adam, here let me help you!”

But, being as stubborn as his family knew him to be, he gently shrugged the caring hands off and heavily sat down in an overstuffed chair out in the office. The realization of the possibility of his fiancée still being alive flooded him and he felt strength moving back into his muscles. He sighed. “I’m fine…now. Thanks.”

* * * * *

The young woman accustomed to comforts and high living was finding the trip exceedingly difficult. If the humid heat wasn’t draining her skin of coolness and making her dress stick to her body than the source of discomfort was the jolting and jarring of the wagon as she lay in the back of it. Each bump could be felt and by near-midday, she didn’t know where one aching bruise stopped and another one started. Although outwardly she appeared normal in most respects, all of her muscles were sore and crying. The man, now known as Jenkins, halted the horses at last when a suitable campsite was found. He untied her so that she could do what she desperately needed to do while he himself watered the horses and prepared the noon meal.

At first, Evangeline had been terrified of Jenkins and especially so when placing herself in a possibly comprising situation such as having to relieve herself. He had such a rough way about him that denoted an equally rough life. But, she had quickly discovered that he had no interest in her in that way; in fact, he seemed to have no interest in her whatsoever. He went about his chores without so much as a glance in her direction every time that the wagon had been stopped for a rest. He seemed to be unworried about her running off and, as she walked into the woods, she conceded silently that he had no reason to be either. Being out in the wilderness like she was, she knew that she couldn’t run far. She had found that out early that morning when she woke up after being kidnapped the night before. Not a soul graced these desolate roads over the mountains and that’s just how Jenkins liked it.

Jenkins didn’t quite know what to make of this city girl whose life he was supposed to be ruining. All that he knew about her was what Decker had told him and that wasn’t much. Why any man would want to harm a pretty thing like this Miss Williams, Jenkins couldn’t sort out but this job was beginning to play with his sense of right and wrong. Growing up with an abusive father, Jenkins had soon caught on how to survive by being full of cunning and that skill had served him well over the years. But now here he was, sixty-four years old and no real future ahead of him. The money for this job was supposed to let him retire from this low-life work of doing what any man-with-money wanted him to do without questions asked. Regardless, his idea of a retirement finale wasn’t to whisk a young woman away from those who loved her. He didn’t like it, didn’t like it one bit but he also didn’t know why exactly it bothered him so much. After all, he’d been party to a whole mess of other schemes over the years that had proved to be much worse for the victims.

The old man paused in his musings and his labors over a pot of cooking beans when Evangeline tentatively approached the small campfire after completing what she needed to complete. He dished out a plate of the plain fare and silently handed it out to her. She reached out a timid hand to take it and he turned back to dish out his own meal.

“Thank you.”

The simple expression of gratitude, spoken without malice or irony, startled its recipient. His fork hovered halfway up to his mouth as he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. Her voice was kind and the way she sat with such a graceful air despite her predicament reminded him of someone he once knew but had long forgotten. His fork banged down on his plate and the sudden noise made Evangeline jump with fright. The man opposite her rose stiffly and moved off to lean on a large tree trunk at the edge of the woods. The bent imitation of another’s frequently-adopted posture made her sigh and her eyes mist. Thoughts of her beloved man flooded her mind as they had been doing ever since she awoke. She wondered if Adam knew she was missing yet and, if he did, when he would find her if at all. She also wondered if her father would know as well or care for he had seemed quite dead to the world the night before when she had come into their house. Drinking seemed to have gotten worse ever since her mother had died those three years before.

Evangeline sighed again and tucked some stray strands of brown hair behind her left ear. She continued trying to swallow the dryed-out beans as she took stock of her situation. Jenkins seemed to be quite kind for a kidnapper, although she didn’t have a basis for that assumption, and he seemed to be softening towards her as well; she might be able to use that. No matter how kind he was, she naturally wanted to get away from him at the least opportunity and she thought perhaps she would try; even if the situation seemed impossible, being around Adam Cartwright had shown her that circumstances are not always as hopeless as they appear. Using him as a inspiration, she had begun to understand the ability to be brave in any situation.

In the past few months, Adam had taught her a great deal about keeping one’s bearings in unknown terrain; how to remember landmarks so as to follow them home and also he had taught her the basics of survival during their many long rides together on the Ponderosa’s vast landscape. She forked another bite of beans into her mouth as she attempted to recall the particulars of what Adam had told her to do if lost in a strange place. She couldn’t help but smile as she remembered that, at the time, she was more focused on the veins in his hand as he pointed to an item of interest or the rich baritone of his voice then in what he was actually saying. She glanced at Jenkins’ leaning figure and then she glanced to the right. Her beautiful eyes took on the sparkle that Adam loved so much. The horses…Just maybe, the horses…

 

Chapter Six

 

Ben felt exhausted as he tried to stay current with all of the discussion and argument flying around over his head. He pinched his nose with exasperation as he sat in the doctor’s office. The rising voices were beginning to give him a splitting headache. Still showing signs of the stress inflicted upon him, Adam was beginning to lose his temper with Roy. The sheriff was demanding that Adam “simmer down” before he himself would reveal who had been arrested for the murder. Hoss and Joe seemed to be ready to do anything drastic to calm their brother down and poor Paul was just about cowering on the sidelines as he sat behind his desk.

Adam looked about ready to explode but Roy wasn’t backing down. He hadn’t told the Cartwrights just yet of the clues found at the murder scene because he had known that something like this would happen; it always did in the sheriff’s past experiences. If the family had been told before now, they would have descended on the jailhouse and there would have been a big ruckus. Roy was thrilled that Adam’s fiancée wasn’t the murdered girl but he couldn’t risk the anger of the younger man around the prisoner. Especially in the unique and sensitive circumstances of this particular prisoner.

“Adam, I’m not goin’ to tell ya anything until ya take a deep breath and calm down a might!”

Adam’s jaw flexed before he exhaled forcefully and planted his hands on his hips. His hooded eyes narrowed in irritation. “Calm down? Roy, I haven’t had a very good morning and like as not I’m not going to have a very good afternoon either so would you please just spare me the lecture for once! I don’t know where the heck Angie is and you stand there refusing to tell me the name of the one person who probably knows! Have you even looked into if Angie is at home or in town! She could be walking down the street right now for all we know!”

The hurtful pokes cut into Roy’s own self-control. “Now, you jest hold on there, young fella! In the first place, I haven’t had time t’ do it personally ’cause I’ve been busy dealin’ with you and in the second place, Clem’s out right now checkin’ up on the very thing that you accuse me o’ not doin’! I said it once and I’ll say it again, you simmer down or I won’t tell you a durn thing!”

Ben’s patience ran out.“Alright, that’s enough!” With all the authority of an emperor, he stood to his feet between the two combatants and sternly turned to the red-faced Adam first. “He’s right, Son. Now, this isn’t doing that poor woman in there any good and its certainly not doing Evangeline any good. We can think better if we’re calm.”

Adam’s defiant stance softened somewhat and Ben placed a sympathetic hand on his eldest’s shoulder before turning to their seething friend. “Alright, Roy, we’ll listen. What is it that you want to tell us?”

The old sheriff took a deep breath to regain his composure. He swore that no one could get under his skin faster whether in a good way or in a more adverse way than the oldest Cartwright son. “Well, Clem found two things by the body that has pretty much convicted a man.”

“What man?”

Roy glanced cautiously from Ben to Adam. “Frank Williams. He’s asittin’ over in the jail right now under a charge for murder. Clem picked him up while I was out talkin’ t’ your pa.”

The two items were produced from Roy’s vest pocket and he laid them both on the Doc’s desk. Adam stared in disbelief at the watch and the initialed handkerchief. He picked up and perused both pieces and finding his future father-in-law’s name in the cover of the watch, he shook his head with confusion.

Being confused as well, Joe couldn’t keep silent any longer. “Now, wait a minute! If it was him then why go to all the trouble to make it look like he had killed his own daughter? What possible reason could he have for doing something like that?”

“Because it couldn’t be him, Joe.” Adam placed the items back on the table and looked at his younger brother. “No, it has to be a frame-up but why I don’t know. He may be a difficult man but he’s no murderer. Someone must hate him an awful lot.”

Hoss shook his head and sighed. “Well, what do we do now?”

Adam reached for his hat and deftly placed it on his head before turning his attention to Roy.

“Roy, I apologize for what I said. You were right, I was wrong but I would like to see Frank. He’s going to need our help.”

Ben couldn’t believe his ears and the other men didn’t seem to believe their own ears either. Adam’s lips twitched into a slight smile at their looks of bewilderment. “Look, I don’t have a very cozy relationship with the man but for one thing, he might know where Evangeline is and for another, she loves him and I think that he loves her too. She wouldn’t want him in jail and, frankly, I don’t either. Now, are you going to let me see him or not?”

Appeased by the apology and by the overall diffused atmosphere, Roy nodded and led the way to the horses and then down the street. As they were dismounting outside of the jail, Clem came running up to them.

“Did ya find her?” Roy asked.

Clem shook his head as he caught his breath. “No, Roy, not a sign. I didn’t question anyone directly just yet and I was careful to not be seen just like ya told me.”

Adam winced at the final confirmation of his unfairness while Clem turned to him with a sympathetic expression. “I’m sorry, Adam, but, as far as I know, she ain’t nowhere around town or at her house. Williams’ buggies and horses were still in the barn so she couldn’t have left on her own.”

“Got nothing to be sorry about, Clem.” With his father and Hoss flanking him, Adam proceeded to follow the law officers into the jail. Sporting a contemplative posture, Joe stood with his hands on his hips as if in deep thought. He nodded to himself and turned to gather Cochise’s reins. Within seconds he had vaulted neatly into the saddle and was pointing the pinto’s head to its destination.

“Hey, Joe! Where ya goin’?” Hoss came to stand and look up at his younger brother.

“Nowhere, Hoss, I just got an idea that’s all. I’ll be back in a little while. Take care of Adam.”

With a puzzled shrug, Hoss watched his little brother ride down the street. He better stay out o’ trouble this time, I don’t have time to look after both o’ them.
* * * * *

The distinguished gentleman turned from his laughing patrons in time to see a well-to-do and handsome young man come striding through the bat-wing doors. The intent eyes of the observer followed the back of the green jacket as the young man moved to lean on the shined dark wood of the bar. A beer was provided and two dance girls quickly took possession of each one of his arms but he politely shrugged them off before continuing his conversation with the bartender. What could be so important for a young fellow like you to be shunning such lovely specimens?…The interested party watching raised his eyebrows and excused himself from company to move through the noise-filled room. As he drew near, the older man caught just the last bit of conversation.

“…and you don’t know where Margie is then?”

“No, Joe, can’t say that I do. She left a note on her door saying she was going to Sacramento and no one’s heard from her since. Sorry. Ya want another drink?”

“Joe” shook his head and took a gulp of the beer in his hand. His shadow stepped up beside him and the young man smiled in his merry way at the newcomer.

“Oh, howdy, Mr. Gaynes!”

“How do you know my name, young fella?”

“Well, who doesn’t in this town?” Joe pivoted around to lean his back against the bar while tilting his hat towards his eyes nonchalantly. “Yes, Sir, this is some place you got alright. Ever since you come to town you’ve been a fixin’ to put Virginia City on the map and it sure looks like you’re doing it with the King’s Palace!”

Gaynes smirked under his neatly-trimmed, gray beard; he motioned for another beer to be brought over. Joe took it from the bartender with a boyish grin at his benefactor on the left. “Thanks, that’s right nice of ya, Mr. Gaynes.”

As the second beer was downed, Gaynes took out a cigar and Joe grimaced around the rim of his glass; he hated the smell of cigar smoke. Puffs of the acrid fog rose into the air before Gaynes spoke again.

“What did you say you name was, young fella?”

“I didn’t, the name’s Cartwright, Joe Cartwright. Pleased to meet you.”

“Likewise, I’m sure.” Gaynes’ face took on a strange smile and he shook Joe’s proffered hand a mite hard for the youngest Cartwright’s taste. Something just wasn’t right about this dressed-up, high-class, saloon keeper and Joe was determined to find out what it was. Just maybe, Gaynes had something to do with the two girls’ disappearances.

 

Chapter Seven

 

Gaynes invited Joe to sit with him at a convenient table and throughout the following discussion, Joe became more uneasy. The pretty brunette he had thought was missing became the sole topic and Gaynes seemed more than happy to divulge everything he knew about her and where she had gone. The story was a little too perfect, especially since Joe had seen Margie hanging around with a local gunslinger by the name of Morgan Decker. The man was of a no-good lot and Joe could smell the same abstract odor emanating from Gaynes’ words too. There had to be a connection. Joe thanked Gaynes and rose to leave without catching the inclination of Gaynes head in his direction nor the man following him out. The youngest Cartwright began to walk down the street but, while passing an innocent alleyway, stars suddenly exploded in his head and he felt himself falling, falling, falling…

* * * * *

It had only been about forty-eight hours since he had seen the man last but Adam couldn’t believe the change that could be seen in Frank Williams. The normally-conceited man was slumped on a jail cot staring straight ahead; there were dark circles under his blood-shot eyes, his expensive gray suit was wrinkled and his hands were limp in his lap. He looked up when his visitors came to stand on the other side of the iron bars. Adam felt a pain in his heart for the sake of Evangeline when he saw the agony in Willliams’ eyes; she would be devastated to see her father like this. Without taking his eyes off of the wasted man, Adam requested to be left alone with the prisoner. Roy was wary at first but Ben bumped his elbow and gave him a meaningful glance that persuaded the sheriff. Roy took Adam’s pistol and re-locked the cell door before everyone left. There being a second cot in the cell, Adam silently moved to it so that he could sit across from the other man. Williams ignored him for a time and Adam wasn’t sure how to open any dialogue so he said nothing.

“Did you come to gloat, boy?”

Adam’s back stiffened marginally. “No, Frank. I didn’t come here to gloat. I wanted to ask you a few questions…about Evangeline. About where you saw her last and if you know of anyone who would hate you enough to do this to you. There has to be someone.” Williams lowered his head to his chest; it made his profile more akin to a destitute old man than a wealthy, middle-aged businessman.

Adam took a deep breath and continued, “But, Frank, there’s one thing you need to know. I don’t think that she’s dead. That wasn’t her body Sheriff Coffee found. Someone went to an awful of lot of trouble to make it look like it was her but…it isn’t. There’s a very good chance that she’s still alive and being kept somewhere.”

Adam waited for a favorable reaction but he was disappointed. Williams’ defiant face raised and his gravelly voice dripped with the familiar derision. “Should have known you’d try to play a dirty trick like this on me, Cartwright. Evangeline is dead! You can take your lies elsewhere, they’re not wanted here.”

In one move, Adam had him by the lapels of his crumpled suit and had pushed him up against the wall behind the cot. Gone was the compassion replaced only by a controlled, cold tone of voice.“Now, you listen to me, Williams…The only reason why I’m going to help you is because of the girl we both love and for no other reason, do you hear me? She’s alive, I can feel it but if you don’t want to believe that than you can rot in here forever as far as I care!” With that, Adam released his grip and the dazed man fell back down into his cot. He glared at Adam’s back as the younger man fought to regain full control of his feelings.

“You dare talk to me like that!…”

“I dare because you might be a pompous and rich big shot from back East but right now…,” Adam pivoted around to look at the gaping man. “…you are just another no-good drunk being charged for a murder that he didn’t commit and can’t remember enough about where he was at the time to defend himself. If you cooperate, I can help you out of this mess but if you don’t want my assistance than I can just as soon walk out of the door and you can take your chances alone with the hangman’s noose. Which one is it going to be, Frank? Are you going to help me find your daughter or not?”

Speechless throughout the darkly-featured young man’s words, the older man began to smile followed by mild chuckling. Thinking that the man had finally gone off his nut, Adam pinched his nose in frustration and tried to think about what to do next but all he could seem to think about was the fatigue that weighed his heart down like a millstone. How he wished that this day had never occurred…

“Cartwright. I still think that you are not good enough for Evangeline, but, if you can step down from your arrogant pedestal to ask for help then I guess I can too.”

Adam raised his head out of his hand in surprise. Williams stood and looked him in the eye. “I can see why my daughter likes you, Cartwright,” he extended his hand to Adam. “ I can agree to a temporary truce if only for my daughter’s sake. What do you have in mind?”

A slight smile of his own began to form around Adam’s mouth and he grasped the proffered hand in acceptance. “Getting you out of here for one.” Adam gestured for them both to sit. “First you could start from the beginning, what happened last night?”

* * * * *

Evangeline was sure that she could try to make a break for it some time that night. As the day wore on into the afternoon, Jenkins seemed to be getting more and more lax in his attentions. He left her untied, made sure that she always had food when she was hungry and a full canteen was a constant presence by her side in the wagon. When he had returned after his strange departure, he had gone out of his silent way to make her comfortable. She didn’t understand the man’s reasoning but she was smart enough to take full advantage of it.

In the dead of night, she lay wide awake under the wagon with her heart pounding and adrenaline surging through her veins. She carefully pulled herself to her elbow to be able to see Jenkins still sleeping by the campfire. Oh, Adam, I wish you were here…well, here goes nothing…she silently removed her blanket and inch-by-inch she scooted out the back and stood to her feet. The horses were tied to a tree across the camp and she began to move in their direction while lifting and clutching her skirt to avoid rustling.

Jenkins stirred and Evangeline froze in mid-step. The old man coughed and turned his back to her. She finally reached the black geldings but, when she was standing next to them, they were much taller than she had surmised. In fact, they were the biggest horses she had ever seen. Fear clenched her stomach but she fought the urge to abandon the idea of escape. Adam and her father would be worried sick by now and she had to get back before Jenkins took her any farther away. Come on, get a grip on yourself…they’re just horses…She liked to ride but had never felt really comfortable with it before coming to the West and the long rides with her fiancé had improved her seat as well. Now, all of that new-found confidence threatened to betray her as she undid the lead line of the closest animal. With great difficulty she managed to pull herself onto the back of the black steed before kicking it in the ribs.

At the sound of hoofbeats, Jenkins roused and clambered to his feet. He drew his gun and fired several half-hearted shots in the general direction of the fluttering pale speck of the girl’s dress. The speck disappeared down the mountain and the gun was returned to his holster accompanied by a satisfied grin on his part. His plan had worked. Maybe releasing this girl would make up for his failure of decades before; he didn’t know but what he did know was that he was done being a patsy and, even at his age, he wanted to start fresh. Satisfied that such a resourceful young woman could find her way back to Virginia City, he was smiling as he turned back to his bedroll. But unbeknownst to him, one of his warning gunshots had found its unintended target…

 

Chapter Eight

 

His head ached, his body ached and he couldn’t think of anything except the pain surrounding him like a crushing cloak. He heard a disembodied voice floating in the darkness before his eyes but he couldn’t focus enough to identify it. Gentle hands and gentler words coaxed him into consciousness. The voice materialized into a beloved face.

“P…Pa?…”

Ben inhaled deeply in relief as leaned closer to his youngest’s ear. “Yes, Joe, I’m here.”

Joe’s hazel-green eyes slowly blinked open and were met with Ben’s worried brown ones. “Where…where…am I?”

“You’re at home, in your own bed. Doc Martin was here, he said you’re going to be fine, just fine.”

Without moving his head, Joe peered around the room through swollen eyes. “Where’s Adam…Hoss?”

Hop Sing entered the room quietly and set a bowl of cold water down beside Ben on the bedside table. Ben wet the provided soft cloth and gently wiped his son’s face as he answered.

“They’ll be here soon, Joe. Just take it easy.”

Joe’s eyes began to roll back into his head as he lost consciousness. “A…dam…got to tell…Adam…that…”

“Easy, easy, Joe, it’s alright. Adam will be here soon, he’ll…be here soon…”

Joe’s head fell limp on the pillow; Ben’s voice trailed off into the knot growing in his throat. He struggled to stay composed but the tears pricking the back of his eyes were dangerously close to spilling over. He pulled the sheets up closer around Joe’s bruised and beaten body in a familiar action to mimic routine but he was unable to ignore the brown-and-purple coloring adorning his son’s chest and face.

Five hours before, Ben had ridden for home while Adam and Hoss had continued to look for Joe who had never returned like he had promised his older brother. In the afternoon, Hoss had found Cochise still tied to a hitching post downtown but there had been no sign of the youngest Cartwright son. Adam had been feverishly working with Frank Williams to work out a plan based on what Williams had experienced the night before and he was making good progress in solving the mystery of Evangeline’s disappearance. But, when told of Joe’s disappearance, the flash of pain that showed on Adam’s face was obvious as he had wrestled with the dilemma of who should he work to find first. Being the loyal son and brother he was, he had immediately run out with his family to find his little brother. For the rest of that afternoon and on into evening they searched and combed and questioned but nothing turned up. After an extremely long day, Ben had finally decided to ride back home to make sure that the ranch hadn’t fallen to bits while they had been away. His tired eldest sons had wanted to continue hunting so they stayed behind and Ben rode out of town towards the Ponderosa.

Only about two miles from the ranch house, Ben had spotted something against a tree off in the distance along the track. As he had moved closer, the shape had become clearer and Ben had whipped his horse into a dead run at the sight. His heart had raced as he had cut the ropes that had bound the unconscious body of his youngest son to the rough tree trunk. Joe had obviously suffered a severe beating as he moaned in pain on the ground while Ben had tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Joe’s face was covered in bruising and it had appeared that he had some broken ribs when Ben evoked a cry of pain after examining his son’s chest. The injured young man had been transported the short distance to the house while cradled in his father’s strong arms. A hand had been sent through the night to fetch Doc Martin and Adam and Hoss but only the doctor had finally pulled into the yard. After he had taken care of Joe’s ribs and wrapped them, Paul had told Ben that the hand had said that he would locate the two Cartwright boys and send them home as soon as possible.

While tending to his injured son, Ben felt alone and isolated; it seemed as if his world was falling apart. One son was suffering the pain of not knowing the fate of his future bride while the other son in front of him had been ravaged by cruelty. Paul had left after giving instructions of rest and for pain medicine to be given when needed but until Joe awakened fully, there was nothing to be done. Ben numbly sat by his youngest’s bedside and prayed until his hands turned white in clasped supplication. The merciful God who had pulled him through the deaths of three wives he was sure would see him through this trial too. But, as he gazed on the shallow rise and fall of Joe’s chest, Ben knew that if his sons were taken from him, as God as his witness, he would have nothing to live for. Without them and their companionship, nearness and the reminders of their respective mothers implanted into each of their faces, he knew that life would be meaningless…meaningless.

The front door opened and Ben jumped to his feet. He hurriedly leaned over and smoothed a lock of hair on Joe’s forehead as he checked to be sure his son was still sleeping easy. Ben then ran down the hallway, down the stairs and met Adam and Hoss at the bottom. Their faces were painted with worry and questions. Ben told them what had happened and how he had found Joe. Afterwards, Hoss looked horrified and Adam turned away in an attempt to hide the glistening around his eyes. Ben watched his sons with pained desperation for the want to help.

Adam’s voice was soft and quiet in shaken dejection.“What is happening to us, Pa? First Angie…and now Joe? It’s my fault…I should have…”

Stepping in front of Adam, Ben sought to get his attention.“Adam, how can any of this be your fault? You take too much on yourself, Son. These things happen, Joe will be bounce back. The doctor said he’s going to be fine once he gets a little bed-rest. Maybe then he’ll be able to tell us who did this to him.”

Hoss wiped his nose on his sleeve and shuffled to be closer beside his family. Ben’s arms encircled both of his eldest boys and they responded by engulfing him in their own arms. The brief closeness as they joined together was one of comforting assurance that there was still hope on the horizon. Normally shying away from such displays, even Adam felt a release of tension as he experienced the warmth of being in his father’s and brother’s embrace. So much had happened during the last few months and through the last day but at least he had been reminded that he wasn’t alone in his fight.

Stepping back and blinking rapidly to gain control of his emotions, Ben released his sons. They wanted to see Joe and so the exhausted threesome pulled themselves up the stairs to his room. Once in the doorway, Adam was the first to reach his brother’s side. He sat down gingerly on the bed by Joe’s left and caught his breath at the damage done by enterprising fists and boots. His hand moved to gently smooth his brother’s errant locks in much the same fashion as his father had done then he just sat and stared at the sleeping face without a word. On the other side of the bed, Hoss knelt and spoke comfortingly, uttering phrases to his little brother that would sound silly to anyone who didn’t understand but the other two men in the room understood.

From the end of the bed, Ben watched his eldest sons with their unconscious younger brother and he smiled at the devotion he saw, heard and felt between them. At length he whispered that they should let Joe rest and all three of them tip-toed out to the hallway and closed the door quietly. Ben instructed his sons to prepare for sleep and he said that he would bring up a couple of trays for them from Hop Sing. Adam argued mildly that he needed to get back to town but both Ben and Hoss could see that he was about ready to drop from exhaustion. Awhile later, Hoss gratefully ate the savory stew and hot coffee that his father brought to him before falling asleep.

When Ben entered his eldest’s room with the other tray, he found a fully-clothed and sleeping Adam sprawled on the bed. Ben left him alone except for carefully pulling his boots off and covering him with a warm blanket. The father gazed down on the haggard face temporarily free from worry and he couldn’t help but wonder what would happen after this crisis was over and how changed Adam would be. Ben knew that Adam was on the brink of losing faith all together in any future life on the Ponderosa and Ben also knew that if Evangeline wasn’t found soon then he would lose his eldest son to the world, quite possibly forever.

 

Chapter Nine

 

Evangeline’s tattered dress caught on yet another briar bush and she cried out in frustration. Ripping the material free, she stumbled on over boulders and the fallen trees strewn on the forest floor. She had no idea where she was going anymore. The moon had peeked out from the clouds for a time but now it’s helpful glow too was gone along with the horse that she had been riding. Jenkins’ shots had scared the skittish creature and he had plunged headlong into the undergrowth of the surrounding woods. Evangeline had tried to hang on for as long as possible but the sudden sharp pain in her upper-right arm caused by a stray bullet had weakened her grip; to the point that she had careened off the gelding’s bare back to the hard ground. Looking now down at her arm, she saw that the bleeding had stopped. She knew very little about bullet wounds but common sense told her that she had been inflicted with only a flesh wound as it wasn’t very deep. She paused and tore another length of petticoat from her underskirt then secured it around her upper arm before continuing to walk on aching feet.

The ground was slippery with dew and she fell more than once on her tired quest onward in the direction that she thought she needed to go. The ground flew into her face again and this time she lay there for a while, exhausted from her ordeal and trying to catch her breath. She told herself that she would only stay there a few minutes before continuing on but she awoke crying a few hours later. The night air was so cold and the injury on her arm was becoming stiff and painful. She rolled to lay on her back and the moon greeted her through the tree tops. The dreams of sweet kisses, heavenly embraces and dark-hazel eyes pained her. Tears created wet outlines down her dirty face and trickled into her mussed hair. Adam…oh, Adam…please come for me…please! Please come…I’m scared…I can’t do this…I…can’t do this…

A distant wolf howl jerked her into the harsh present reality. Terrified and ignorant of the lonely nature of the howl, she ran as fast as she could muster while clawing her way through the heavy brush before collapsing into a heap by a large pine tree. It’s low branches almost touched the ground on all sides and to her frazzled thinking, it was a good place to hide. A fleeting thought of what could be lurking under the needles flitted through her mind but another howl followed by suspicious rustling in a near-by bush caused her to scurry for cover. Lucky for her, the space was unoccupied and also dry. Nestled under the soft branches, she knew that she was safe and that she could rest; all she needed to do was wait for Adam to come. She curled her body into a ball and drifted into dreams once more. He’ll come…he’ll come…he’ll…come…

* * * * *

A knock on the hotel door interrupted Gaynes’ thoughts as he perfected his plans for the next few days, both for his saloon’s profits and for plans of a more personal nature. He looked to the door and responded, “Come in.”

Decker entered and hurriedly approached his employer to tell him the latest news. Gaynes spoke first however. “Ah, Decker, I was wondering where you were. It’s the middle of the night, I would have thought that you would have been here long before this. What kept you? Problems?”

“That’s just it, Boss. I’ve been watching them Cartwrights all day and I’m thinkin’ that they don’t believe that Williams’ daughter was the one killed.”

Gaynes rolled his eyes in remorse over the perceived stupidity of the man before him. “Of course they don’t believe it! The girls were only meant as a diversion. I want Cartwright to suffer for a while, knowing that his sons are hurting and he can do nothing to stop it. When I learned that Williams’ daughter was Adam Cartwright’s fiance, well,” He laughed. “That was too delightful to resist. Two for one, we got Williams’ arrested for murder and we begin to put pressure on Cartwright. His youngest son walking right into my hands couldn’t have been planned better. Joe Cartwright’s predicament will cement the seriousness of my tactics quite well, I should think. As soon as you deliver what I’m about to give you, everything should fall into place.”

“When do I get paid? I was promised the full amount after I killed the saloon girl and arranged for Williams’ daughter to be kidnapped. I haven’t seen one red cent. Instead I’ve been turned into your errand boy.”

Gaynes paused and chuckled. “I should think that to a cheap gun like yourself it wouldn’t matter when you got paid just as long as you did get paid. You’ll get paid in due time and if I hear any more of that kind of talk, I’ll hire a new man. There are a dozen men in The King’s Palace at any given time that could take your place. Most of them are tougher too and not so trending toward complaining. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yeah. More than clear.”

Decker ground his teeth, he was becoming increasingly irritated at the arrogance of his employer. He was sick of this business. As if befriending and killing that saloon girl wasn’t enough, he also had to beat the youngest Cartwright boy within an inch of his life. Those were jobs for amateurs not professionals like himself. If there hadn’t been a lack of jobs around, he never would have signed on with this maniac but he hadn’t really had a choice or so he thought. Gaynes had set forth a profitable contract that would have been mutually beneficial but, Gaynes was mistaken if he thought that he, Morgan Decker, would allow himself to be treated like a dog for money. No, a fuse had been struck and it had begun to burn towards a bad finish.

“Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I want you to deliver this note to the Ponderosa. Just tack it on the front door for all I care but make sure that they’ll be sure to see it and don’t get caught.” Gaynes stood from behind his desk and shoved an envelope into the gunslinger’s hand.

“What is it?”

Rolling his eyes, Gaynes explained briefly before dismissing the man. After Decker had left, the other man decided to turn in. As he drifted off, he thought of his daughter and his grandson and the man who had caused their demise. Ben Cartwright hasn’t seen anything yet if he doesn’t comply with my demands…I almost hope he refuses…it’d be fun to play with his mind for awhile longer…These were the last black thoughts that would ever come from the equally black soul however. The bedroom door opened and the lamplight from beyond cast a shadow on the far wall. The silhouetted shape raised a hand towards the bed and the shape of a pistol materialized as it separated from the dark mass. A gunshot split the air like a knife but the only other sound was of the door closing softly and then the light and shadows were gone. Never again would there be any light in the life of Thomas Gaynes.

* * * * *

The moon was peeking it’s glow out of the clouds and a soft breeze was fluttering the curtains of the window when Adam awoke. Still half-asleep, he didn’t know where he was at first but all the worry and the memories came cascading back and he closed his eyes again in denial of another hard day. As he lay still for a few minutes, he remembered falling asleep without undressing and smiled when he realized that a blanket had been placed around him sometime during the night. A tray containing a bowl of congealed stew and a cup of cold coffee was sitting on the side table. Feeling famished and not wishing to wake Hop Sing for an alternative breakfast, Adam wolfed down the food before changing into fresh clothes. As he was pulling his boots on, he heard a strange sound from the hallway. Opening the door, he leapt forward to catch his youngest brother who was struggling to stay on his feet out in the hallway.

“Joe, what the devil! What are you doing out of bed? Where’s Pa?” Adam whispered. He supported Joe as he guided him back to where he was supposed to be. Adam helped him sit and then worked at getting him into bed.

“Pa…went downstairs for something…,” Joe tried to get his mind working well enough to remember exactly why he had felt it imperative to get to Adam’s room but he couldn’t quite seem to get the words out. Adam covered his brother with the bed covers and helped him take a drink of water. After his dry throat was coated with moisture, Joe was able to speak.

“Adam, I’ve…I got to tell you something.” Joe tried to sit up but Adam gently held him down.

“Just take it easy, buddy. Now, what is it that was so all fired important that you tried to kill yourself over?” A smirk tugged at the corner of Adam’s lips.

“I…I know who…” Again, the synapses between Joe’s brain and mouth were failing him. He had to get it out.

The smile faded from Adam’s face. “You know who beat you up?”

Joe nodded marginally. “It was that…that hired-gun …Decker and…and Gaynes.”

“Gaynes? You mean the new saloon owner in town?”

Joe nodded again. “Something hit me from behind. Woke up in a…line shack. Decker…kept punching me and then…he kicked me when I fell.”

Adam’s blood ran cold and he was perhaps rougher in his inquiry than he should have been. He shook Joe’s shoulder when his brother appeared to be falling asleep again. “Joe? Joe! What about Gaynes? Did he help Decker in beating you?”

Joe moaned quietly and Adam was immediately remorseful at his earnest treatment. His little brother was still very weak and he needed rest, not a flurry of questions. “I’m sorry, Joe. But I need to know, are you sure it was Gaynes?”

The younger man’s eyes opened and they stared straight into Adam’s. He nodded. “Cigar smoke…he smokes the worst kind I’ve ever smelled. He told Decker to…to tie me to a tree by the track so that Ben Cartwright would know how it felt. They didn’t know I was still con…conscious. They tied me on a horse and then Gaynes told him to wire the town…of Falloff after he was done with me.” Joe raised his hand and grabbed a fistful of his older brother’s black shirt. “Adam…he said to make sure that Miss Williams had arrived and that…that the plan was still on schedule.”

Adam’s mind raced and a strange triumphing excitement grew, it tingled and pricked every fiber of his body. The name of Gaynes pounded in his ears along with his heartbeat. He had heard that name before, from Frank Williams. It was the name of the man who had threatened Evangeline’s father since he’d been in town.

 

Chapter Ten

 

Ben took the rattling coffee pot off the stove and located a cup from the cupboard. He sighed as the dark-amber liquid flowed into the china. This coffee wasn’t near as good as Hop Sing’s but it was still extremely early for the cook to be awake so Ben had decided to fix it himself. Moving to the dark window, he stood as if in a trance with the cup forgotten in his hand. He raised his left hand and massaged his neck to relieve the knot there. He berated himself for being a fool to be still waiting up all night in a uncomfortable chair whenever one of his sons was ill or injured. My sons are adults now, full-grown men, they don’t really need me…That unbidden thought crossed his mind and it saddened him to realize the limited truth in it. His hand dropped and he thought back to all of the times that he had performed that same ritual of losing a good night’s rest. Another realization of a more heartening nature also entered unbidden. To see that light come on in their eyes when they awoke to find him sitting there, waiting for them, was priceless.

Ben smiled as subsequent images of all three lights touched his memory. Joe’s green sparkle, Hoss’ blue twinkle and Adam’s dark-hazel gleam, all three partially hidden behind heavy eyelids of sleep and all three equally special. Chuckling, Ben remembered the time that those pairs of eyes had looked upon him with trepidation when their owners were attempting to express their wish to have their father “slow down a mite”. He remembered that then too he had felt a void where responsibility used to be. Well, they sure needed me that next day…Having me slow down, my foot! I’ll never forget the looks on their faces when they were crouched down behind those rocks…they were surely thankful to have my help then…almost five years later and I’m still going strong so I guess I wasn’t ready for pasture after all…

Ben turned with a smirk and was startled to find his eldest son standing in the kitchen hallway watching him. Adam had a relaxed smile on his face of one who had slept well and Ben also noted that he was fully prepared to leave the house. He had his yellow coat on and his gun holster had been tied down around his right leg.

“Where you going so early? The sun’s not even up yet.”

Without a word, Adam stepped into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. He grimaced after taking a sip.

“Don’t even say it.”

Adam’s eyes dipped up and that familiar gleam could be seen that hadn’t been there for the past four days. “Say what, Pa?”

Ben smirked sarcastically. “Say what, Pa? You know very well what. I know its horrible, I’m reminded often enough by certain parties.”

Adam chuckled and gulped down the not-so-tasty coffee in three swallows. He put his cup in the sink and Ben returned to his original line of questioning. “Are you going back to town, Son?”

“Yes, Joe was awake for awhile just now. He…he was able to tell me who beat him.”

Ben was at Adam’s side in an instance. “What did he say? Who did it? Is he still awake!”

Adam restrained his father from pushing past him. “Wait a minute, Pa. I took care of him, he’s asleep again, don’t worry. You know that new saloon owner that just came into town a few weeks back?”

Ben calmed himself down enough to listen and think about this possibly important question.“Yes…Yes, uh, Gaynes I think is his name. What about him?”

“He hired Morgan Decker to help him. Joe said that they beat him up and then Gaynes gave instructions to tie him to the tree. Joe didn’t see Gaynes directly but he said that he recognized the smell of the man’s cigar smoke immediately.”

Ben rubbed his neck in agitation this time. “Did he say if they mentioned why they took him?”

Adam’s eyebrows furrowed and a dark look passed over his face. “He said that Gaynes mentioned something about wanting you to know how it felt. Have you ever met him before? Would he have a reason for revenge?”

“No. No, I haven’t even been in his place since he opened. I’ve never even heard of him before now!”

“There’s something else too, Pa. Actually two things.”

Ben’s posture straightened further with intense interest. “Oh?”

“Yesterday when I was talking to Frank, he mentioned a man by the name of Gaynes threatening him recently. That’s all he would tell me but I got the impression that he had known the man for quite some time. I thought there might be a connection between Evangeline’s disappearance and Joe’s beating and…I was right. That brings me to the second thing. Joe said that Gaynes told Decker to wire some town called Falloff. He said something about seeing if…Miss Williams had arrived yet.”

Ben was jubilant and grasped his son’s shoulder excitedly. “Adam, that’s wonderful! Wonderful! Is that where you going right now? I’ll come with you or maybe Hoss would rather!”

Adam shook his head. “No, Pa, I’d rather do this alone. First I’ll be going to Virginia City to inform Roy about the developments and then I’m going to find Decker. Gaynes will be too smart to get caught but Decker isn’t known around town as being the most clever. He’ll have the answers I want. Besides, I owe him one from Joe.”

Ben cautioned, “ Adam, make sure that you take Roy with you. Going outside the law won’t help anyone.”

Adam visibly bristled at the subtle reprimand. Ben had forgotten yet again how much his eldest son hated to be lectured, especially when there were lives at stake. “I’m sorry. I should know you better than that. I understand what you meant. But, please be careful, Adam. One injured son is quite enough at any one time.”

Together they walked to the front door and Ben watched as Adam placed his black hat upon his dark head. His son then turned to him before disappearing into the night. “Thank you for your support, Pa. I don’t have to tell you to take care of Joe, but make sure that Hoss stays here, will you? He had a long day yesterday and deserves some extra sleep.”

Ben didn’t bother to point out that the same could be said for his eldest. He simply nodded and watched Adam’s tall shape striding towards the dusky barn. A few minutes later, Ben heard the sound of Sport go galloping out of the yard. As the hoofbeats faded into the blackness, he felt an icy fear clench his heart as his son’s last words rang through his brain. Adam had been preparing for the possibility that he wouldn’t return. He hadn’t wanted to alarm his father but he didn’t want to leave without saying something final…

Ben cursed harshly under his breath at his own perceived stupidity. Blast him…Blast him! Ben angrily hurried back inside the house. Well, he wasn’t going to stand by and let Adam be the hero, not this time.

* * * * *

Only the firm sound of his horse’s galloping hoofbeats could be heard echoing into the silent morning air. Adam glanced at the lightening horizon and spurred Sport into a faster gait. In the rhythmic beat of hooves and the rolling jolt of the big chestnut’s gait, Adam found comfort that he was finally moving toward a foreseeable goal instead of wallowing in the useless speculation of the day before. The piercing scream of a soaring bald eagle vaguely registered as Adam went over the facts one at a time. By the time he had gotten three-quarters the way to town his nerves were beginning to get on edge. He had a bad feeling that it wasn’t going to be as easy to find Evangeline as he hoped. There were too many unknown variables and there was nothing Adam Cartwright hated more than those. Without solid facts and evidence, a lawful conviction of any kind was impossible to procure for Gaynes. How would they prove he murdered anyone?

Adam half-wished he hadn’t promised his pa that he wouldn’t take the law into his own hands because at that moment, he was more than prepared to use his fists and gun to get what he wanted. It boiled his blood to think of these men attacking his little brother, the innocent party. There were too many innocent victims in this mess, one innocent victim was one too many in Adam’s mind anyway. Evangeline, Joe, the dead woman, even Frank was a victim of sorts; this had to stop before anyone else got hurt. It was best that his family had remained home, if disaster befell anyone, it was going to fall on himself. This was his fight and he was determined to win it.

Up ahead, the illuminating rays of the rising sun silhouetted a single rider moving fast from town and heading towards Adam. Pulling Sport up short, Adam directed him into a small clump of trees so that observation could be made without detection. The man stopped at the intersection and looked down each track as if unsure of which to take. He glanced at the three arrows heralding the possible destinations. Virginia City. The Ponderosa. Pine City. Choosing the one marked Pine City, the man raced by Adam’s location without knowing he was being watched with hazel eyes that suddenly sparked and darkened with rage upon seeing his identity.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Hoss watched his father hurriedly preparing and he couldn’t keep quiet any longer. He had to have his say even if it incurred Ben Cartwright’s legendary anger. “Pa, I wish you’d let me go! There jest ain’t no reason for you to go gallivantin” after Adam! I can do it same as you! Won’t ya change your mind?”

Ben ignored Hoss’ protests while stuffing provisions into the saddlebags on the kitchen table. Hop Sing didn’t look too happy either at his domain being invaded but he was smart enough to keep his mouth shut for once. In a strange way, he understood and he showed it by handing his employer some additional items that had been forgotten. Ben weakly smiled at his friend before moving to fill his canteen from the kitchen pump then he grabbed the bags and brushed past the still arguing Hoss. Ben walked to the door to retrieve his coat and put on his gunbelt.

“Pa! Pa, ya jest can’t do it! What do I tell Joe?” Hoss was at his wits end, he should be the one going not his pa. Adam had left alone for a reason and he’d need back up but Hoss wanted it to be himself. He needed to have some kind of control over what he deemed to be an uncontrollable situation. His family was being scattered like three corners of the wind and he at least wanted two members safe at home.

Ben deliberately placed his hat over his silver hair and hoisted the saddlebags on his shoulder. Hoss thought his pa was going to just leave without a word but at the last minute, Ben quietly spoke. The dark eyes were troubled and the stance tired. “Hoss…Paul said that he’d check on Joe again later on this morning. If he confirms that Joe is indeed on the mend then Hop Sing can keep an eye on him and you can take a couple of the hands into town with you. Roy will be able to tell you where we went. Adam’s going to need help but how much I’m not sure. There’s no need for both of us to go just yet. Besides I don’t think your eldest brother will appreciate me tagging along let alone you as well at this point.”

Hoss lowered his head in silent agreement, his pa’s reasoning was sound even if it was unwanted. Ben squeezed his middle son’s shoulder with compassion. “It’ll be alright, Son. We’ll get through this, just look after your brother for me.”

“Sure, Pa, you don’t need t’ tell me that.”

“I know, Hoss.”

Ben opened the door and walked out to mount up on the patient Buck standing at the hitching post. One solitary wave of his right hand and Ben disappeared out of the yard. With hands set deep in his pant pockets, Hoss slowly returned to the house to sit with his youngest brother…and to hope that the doctor would give a good report; it was desired and needed for more than one reason.

* * * * *

The wind threatened to pull the hat off Adam’s head and the whipping air burnt his eyes as he bent down low over Sport’s neck. A shot sounded from the fleeing rider up ahead and Adam could almost feel the rush of the bullet whizzing by. He ducked down further and urged his horse on. Decker’s gun appeared to be empty after a few more shots and Adam rapidly gained on him. Decker knew he was in serious trouble this time but he had no chance to think because within a few seconds he was jerked off his horse. Adam neatly vaulted off of Sport’s back and arched over the other horse. He grabbed and pulled Decker down with himself and both men sprawled on the road.

The hired-gun had very little time to gather his wits against Adam Cartwright as the latter immediately was on him with blow after blow from angry fists. Decker was able to land a few punches as well but these served only to worsen his predicament. Only when the weaker man was sprawled on his back and thoroughly dazed did Adam relent. Breathing heavily from exertion and wiping blood from the corner of his mouth, Adam stood over the other man.

“Not so tough…now, are you? I guess you’re only good for… beating on restrained men…”

Adam reached down and yanked the groggy Decker up to his feet. He brought the despicable man’s nose within inches of his own face. “I’d just as soon as kill you then look at you but I made a promise…so, I’m taking you into town to talk to the sheriff. But if you try to lie your way out of this or say one word out of line, so help me I might gladly change my mind. Get it?”

When Decker didn’t respond but continued to stare at him with fright, Adam felt the anger surging again and he shook the man like a dog with a rat. “GOT IT!”

Decker nodded and Adam released him enough to shove him away. Decker raised a hand to rub his jaw and coughed to regain valuable air into his lungs as he staggered down the road. Together, the captor and the prisoner walked to retrieve the horses grazing a quarter of a mile away. Once they had reached the animals, Decker collapsed into a panting heap. Adam ignored him and began to rifle through the saddlebags on the man’s horse. Nothing appeared of value or of interest until his hand closed around a crisp envelope bearing the name Ben Cartwright on its pristine front. Tearing the flap away, Adam produced a piece of paper and read it. Decker saw what he was doing and fear clouded his face again as he slowly rose to his feet. Adam glanced up at him with a steely gaze. The paper was held up in emphasis as the man-in-black spoke with a icy tone, “What did Gaynes tell you to do with this? Deliver it? If you were, you took the wrong trail. The Ponderosa is in the opposite direction.”

Decker replied, “I was told to make sure it was seen. That’s all I know.”

A low chuckle rumbled from Adam’s chest. “I highly doubt that. You know a whole lot more than you’re letting on and you will be telling the sheriff all of it before I’m through. If not, I can make the rest of your miserable life a living hell. I’m sure you’ll have plenty of light to shine on everything that’s been happening…”

“I didn’t have anything to do with Williams’ daughter.”

“Oh, then who did? A man who murders one girl won’t hesitate in kidnapping another one or…possibly killing her too.” Despite his intentions to wait, Adam advanced on the cowering man in front of him. “Were you the one who took Evangeline? Did you kill them both?”

“No, no, Gaynes told me to hire someone else to kidnap Williams’ daughter but he said that she shouldn’t be harmed in any way!” Decker backed up but stumbled on a rock and fell. “I didn’t kill her! I didn’t kill her!”

“What about the other girl?” Decker didn’t respond.

“That’s what I thought.”

Adam stood over him again and his hand drifted to push aside his own coat. The hand came to hover by his gun and Decker thought that this was it, that Cartwright was going to kill him. He waited breathlessly and a slow smile of contempt formed on Adam’s lips. Then he drew his gun and pointed it at his prisoner’s chest.“Get on that horse. We’re going to town.”

Surprised at the small mercy, Decker shakily mounted his animal and Adam took a length of rope and tied the man’s hands to the saddle horn. Then Adam mounted back up on his own horse and took the trailing reins of the other. Along the way back to the intersection, Adam had regained his stoic demeanor but Decker still didn’t trust him not to turn again so he himself remained silent. As the sign post became visible, Adam could see a lone rider waiting by it. He reached to draw his gun again but he stopped and relaxed when he saw who it was. Decker had hoped it was a possible distraction to help with his escape but that hope fell when he saw Ben Cartwright. The owner of the Ponderosa nudged his horse to stand beside his son’s.

“I’m glad I caught you. I see you’ve already got Decker.”

“Yeah, he’s coming with me to talk to Sheriff Coffee.” Adam gazed upon his pa with emphasis.

Ben glanced at Decker and noted the bruising beginning to become evident on his face. Stifling a smirk, Ben couldn’t resist a slight poke at his eldest’s expense. “Uh, did you have any problems?”

Adam met him stare for stare, he wasn’t in the mood for joking. “None at all. I need to get going, Pa.”

“Not without me you’re not.” Ben straightened and sat taller in his saddle to emphasize his own point.

“Pa, I’ve already told you. I want to do this alone. I don’t want you involved.”

Ben leaned forward. “From what you said back at the house, I’m already involved and I have just as much right to ride along with you as Decker there.”

“I didn’t mean that, Pa…”

“Then stop implying by how you’re acting.”

Silent for a long time, Adam then broke his gaze and nudged his horse forward. “Fine.”

Ben waited for Adam and Decker to proceed farther down the road before following them. Ben knew Adam wasn’t at all happy with him but he didn’t care. If Evangeline wasn’t found, Adam would need him. Knowing his oldest boy, Ben knew that more was involved here than just wanting to rescue his fiance alone. Something deeper was nagging at Adam, much deeper.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

Roy was more than a little surprised when Ben and Adam Cartwright came stomping into his office while pushing Morgan Decker ahead of them. Adam gave the man one last shove and he ended up crashing against Roy’s desk. Roy jumped to his feet. “Adam, was that really necessary! What’s he done anyhow?”

“He’s the one who killed that girl and arranged for Evangeline’s kidnapping,” Ben spoke up in his son’s defense.

Roy glanced at Decker and the man picked that moment to protest, “Sheriff! Sheriff he’s lying, I didn’t kill nobody…”

“Shut up, Decker!”

“But…”

“I said shut up! Don’t make me remind you of our earlier conversation.” Adam returned his attention to the sheriff.

Judging from the bruises on the gunslinger’s face, Roy was interested in knowing exactly what Adam had said. “Adam, you know that a confession under threat has no weight in front of a jury.”

Adam nodded. “I know, Roy. He tried to get away. I subdued his sorry carcass and then merely reminded him of what his life could be like in different circumstances.”

Roy grunted with exasperation. In his opinion, everyone was always trying to do his job. Although, in this instance, Roy wouldn’t have minded a little extra bruising; he had always disliked Decker and what he stood for as a human being. At least, Adam hadn’t been too rough with him because that would have causes irrevocable trouble if he had been.

“Sheriff! Sheriff, do you hear me? What’s going on out there?”A disembodied voice floated from the next room.

Adam quickly walked into the cell block to talk to the current prisoner. “You’re getting out of here, Frank. I just brought the man in who did kill that girl.”

Williams jumped to his feet and grasped the iron bars. “Are they sure? Are you sure it’s him?”

Adam nodded. “Roy’s questioning him now. He’s more than ready to sing. We’ll be finding Evangeline soon, just sit tight.”

After what seemed like hours of questioning but in reality was only about twenty minutes, Decker had revealed many new tidbits of information, including which trails taken by Jenkins. He also admitted to Gaynes’ full involvement and the planting of the “evidence” to get Williams in trouble. Though hesitant at first, the overbearing power of both of the Cartwrights had loosened his tongue. With their connections and money, he had no doubt that they could send him to the worst prison that could be found and a clean possible hanging would be better to endure than that prospect. Once Roy was satisfied of his guilt for both the murder and the beating, Decker exchanged places with the liberated Williams and the latter approached the Cartwrights with an apologetic look on his face. Self-conscious of his dilapidated appearance, he straightened his jacket and extended his hand to Ben. “Its a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Cartwright. You have quite a son there.”

“I know.”

A proud smile touched Ben’s face. He glanced at Adam standing by his side. The office door opened and Clem entered. He greeted the Cartwrights and they informed him of what had happened over the past night and morning. When Roy joined the discussion, he was adamant that Ben and Adam did not attend the arrest of Gaynes. Ben blustered for a bit but he was silenced when Adam unexpectedly agreed with the sheriff. Roy gave up trying to figure his young friend’s thinking while Adam argued on his behalf.

“Pa, we’ll get to Angie faster if we let Roy do his job and we can go to Falloff. Frank can come with us if he’s willing.” Williams was nodding in agreement and then asked to be excused so that he could go home and change his clothing and get a horse. Adam volunteered to go with him and both men left the jailhouse.

Ben was perplexed at this sudden passive behavior on his son’s part but he naturally assumed that Adam was anxious to be on his way so he reluctantly agreed with Roy as well. Something in Adam’s eyes though had spoke of another reason that was allusive to Ben and his powers of observation. He resolved to let it be for the moment but Adam would be answering his questions once he could get him alone.

* * * * *

Containing an innovative style in its lines, the Williams’ home was as attractive on the outside as it was lavish on the inside. Adam had only been past the front door a few times but he had been impressed by the house’s grace each time. A true splendor of architecture in such a small town as Virginia City was pleasing to his cultured mind. As he stood in the foyer and waited for Frank to finish gathering himself upstairs, Adam let his eyes roam over the rooms that he could see. The splendid quarter-landing staircase with its polished cherry wood and carpeted steps was the obvious focus of the house and now held its observer’s appreciative attention for quite some time. Paintings and trappings seemed to layer the richly-wallpapered walls almost too thickly in places. Adam approached a particular painting that hung above a large vase of flowers set on a sturdy table. The pale-blue eyes of the portrait seemed to stare down at him with the affection often seen in the model’s eyes when she looked at him. Adam couldn’t help but feel both pleasure and pain at seeing Evangeline’s likeness. The painted eyes were so familiar and yet so distant at the same time; an artist could never truly capture the endless sea that could be seen in a woman’s eyes, Adam mused in distraction.

“A very good likeness, wouldn’t you say?”

Adam spun around and Frank smiled as he descended the stairs. “I had that captured by a prominent artist in Philadelphia about four years ago. Edward F. Petticolas, do you know his work?”

Adam nodded and returned his gaze to the painting. “Yes, I’m familiar with it but I thought he only paints miniature portraits.”

Frank came to stand beside Adam and he chuckled softly at a fond memory. “He does but about four years ago, he was a guest in my home in Philadelphia and my wife…she was so enthralled with his work that she insisted that Evangeline should be painted in a larger format.” Adam saw the soft smile disappear and a pained look crossed Frank’s eyes. “She was like that, my Margaret was…that woman had a mind of her own…”

“Like Evangeline?”

The smile returned as Frank turned to the younger man.

“Exactly.”

Adam realized that his fiance’s father had a lot more of a troubling past than a casual observer would initially consider. Frank seemed to shake his musings aside and he gestured expressively at his own clothing. “Well, I’m ready and the stable boy has been told to saddle two mounts so let’s go.” Without a word, Adam followed Frank back to the door but then the man turned on his heel. “Oh, I forgot…”

Frank walked a few paces and opened a pair of sliding doors off to the right and disappeared into the room beyond. Adam put his hat on and moved to peer into the room. It was obviously meant to be an office but the five empty wine bottles discarded on the desk spoke of another use of the otherwise neat room. Frank rummaged around in a dark-wood wardrobe before producing what looked like Evangeline’s green cloak. He sheepishly folded it and explained as he closed the doors. “She never uses anything else when it’s cool outside. It was Margaret’s, I guess she likes to have her mother close.”

“I’ll pack it with my other supplies,” Adam took the garment with a lump tightening in his throat.

The horses were waiting in the stable when the two men arrived. A gray gelding for Frank and a red-bay mare had been saddled with a sidesaddle. Adam collected Sport and the men mounted up on their respective horses and they soon had joined Ben back at the sheriff’s office. Roy wished all three men the best of luck and, after discussing exactly which route that Decker had described that Jenkins had taken, the Cartwrights and Williams could be seen galloping through town on their way up the mountain roads to the town of Falloff.

* * * * *

The branches of the pine tree rustled as the disheveled girl pulled herself from under them. Evangeline stood and swayed dangerously before falling to her knees. She felt so hot, so flushed and her arm was hurting almost to the point of madness. She rubbed her sore neck and squinted up at the sun’s rays piercing through the branches of the tall trees overhead. It was morning at last but she didn’t know if that fact helped her or not. A night of animal noises and frigid air had stolen any real rest from her and she felt more tired now then she did before.

Panting, she pushed her loose hair from her face and let the warmth of the day soak into her chilled body. Unbeknownst to her, a fever initiated by infection was slowly stretching out its weakness through her veins and muscles. Consequently, she didn’t make it far that day before she collapsed. By noon, she was losing lucidity and by early afternoon she was unconscious. Her thoughts were of two men as she drifted into the black oblivion. Adam…I’m…sorry…my…love…Poppa…don’t…blame…yourself…

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Along towards mid-morning, the day had begun to grow warm, warm enough to remove coats and, in Frank’s case, a vest as well. The four horses covered the distance in good fashion and soon the three men had come upon Jenkins’ first campsite at a fork between two narrow trails. Adam and Ben dismounted and began to peruse the location. Frank remained mounted while he watched with fascination, the meticulous tactics being practiced by his companions. Both Cartwrights stepped slowly around the campsite with their eyes glued to the ground so as to find anything of value. Ben poked through the remains of the campfire while Adam knelt to examine one indentation in the earth. He then he repeated the action several times before calling his pa over to kneel beside him.

“Did you find something?” Frank dismounted and came to look at what was of such interest. The tracks were smudged from the light rainfall that had occurred the morning before but enough information remained to be deciphered. For the city-dweller’s benefit, Adam began to explain the markings in the damp ground while his finger pointed to each one in turn.

“There were definitely two people here. One was carried from the wagon, there are only one set of tracks going to that tree.” Adam hovered his hand over a set of bigger boot prints that were alongside a set of daintier prints facing the opposite direction. As light as a feather, he gently brushed the smaller imprints with his fingers. He sat back on his haunches and, with troubled eyes, glanced from one man to the other. “It looks like she did walk back to the wagon before they got moving again.”

All three men rose to their feet together and Ben sighed. “At least she was able to, that’s a good sign.” He wanted to say something positive but that was the best he could come up with. The solemn expressions of the other two men indicated that it hadn’t done any good.

Silently, Adam returned to his horse and mounted up, slowing swinging his leg over Sport’s back as he then spoke, “The wagon tracks continue to head west, let’s take the left trail.”

The other men mounted up too as Adam disappeared down the mountain road with the bay mare in tow. Frank turned to Ben with a cautious expression. “Mr. Cartwright, just what is the extent of your son’s involvement with my daughter?”

Without batting an eye, Ben replied with a meaningful tone, “Why don’t you ask him?”

Williams watched the other father go riding after the younger Cartwright and suddenly, he wanted a stiff drink to calm his own fears. There was too much that had been unsaid about his own involvement with Gaynes and there was also a lot continuing to stay in the shadows in regards to the man-in-black leading this expedition. Frank wasn’t stupid by any means. Adam Cartwright seemed to be very much in love with Evangeline, quite possibly to the point of marriage. As he moved his horse to catch up with the others, Williams wondered why he had taken such a dislike to the younger man. He told himself that it was just that Cartwright wasn’t good enough for his daughter but, after Adam’s actions of the past days, Williams knew that wasn’t true after all. No, the hard reality was that, no matter how successful Frank became in business, he didn’t want to lose her; he didn’t want to be left alone. He was just having trouble accepting that as the reason. As Frank cantered his horse up beside the other men, he glanced at Adam’s easy posture in the saddle and thought, Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to have such a strapping son-in-law after all…he sure can ride if nothing else…

A little before noon, the small group came across Jenkins’ mid-day camp. Nothing more was discovered except that the wagon had continued on like before. The men continued riding without rest, only pausing to allow the Cartwrights to produce strips of dry beef jerky from their saddlebags for a skimpy lunch on horseback. They shared with Williams who then began to lag behind as the afternoon wore on and he tired. Being unused to riding in general, he thought his aching legs were going to fall off from being stretched around his horse’s girth. Beginning to feel a new pain in his hips, he wished for the stamina modeled by his companions. They still seemed to be going strong.

Ben noticed the slow pace of the man behind them and he glanced at Adam on his left. “Looks like we’re losing our friend back there. Think we should slow down a little?”

“Nope.”

“Why not? He’s not used to this pace. What’s been bothering you anyhow, Adam?”

Adam’s jaw tightened as his chestnut continued to canter along at a good clip. “What do you think would be bothering me at a time like this?”

“There’s no call to be rude. You’ve been evasive around me ever since I met you at the intersection. Are you going to tell me what’s troubling you or do I have to guess? Is it just about finding Evangeline or is it something deeper?”

Adam refrained from answering but absentmindedly loosened Sport’s reins when the horse tossed his head a few times. The big gelding seemed to be telling him to get it out in the open but Adam didn’t know whether or not to take the horse’s unintended advice.

Ben pressed again, “Well?”

Adam exhaled forcefully before pulling Sport to a halt. Ben stopped Buck as well and away behind them, Williams gratefully brought his own horse to a standstill. He wondered what had caused the Cartwrights to halt but the relief of rest closed his mind to any worry at the moment. He reached for his canteen and took several swigs of the warm but wet water from it.

Up ahead, Adam reached into his right saddlebag and silently retrieved and handed a crisp white envelope to his father. Ben took it with a puzzled expression. “What’s this?”

Adam transitioned his dark eyes from the envelope to Ben’s face. “Read it and you’ll see. I found it on Decker, right after I caught up with him.”

Ben removed the piece of paper from its white prison and he read intently. Adam watched his pa’s face as various expressions rolled across it until subdued anger settled in the lines around Ben’s near-black eyes.

“Why didn’t you tell me about this as soon as you saw me? I was entitled to be made aware of threats made upon my eldest son. ”

Tired intensity radiated from the unblinking hazel eyes and Ben regretted his harsh tone. He crushed the offensive paper in his fist with frustration. The long note incensed him and reminded him of things he thought he had forgotten. One particular section scrolled before his mind’s eye over and over again.

…You took my grandson from me then you killed my daughter with the mere showing of your face. They won’t rest in peace and neither will I until you deny that Thomas McLane murdered my son-in-law, his own father. If you don’t comply with my demands, Evangeline Williams will not be the only one who has to take a short trip. Her suitor might turn up with a neat hole the size of a quarter, right between his eyes…

Eight years before, Ben had been the sole witness to a murder committed by a nineteen-year-old boy. Thomas H. McLane had been cruel and vicious when he had pulled the trigger that killed his own father. Ben had testified to that effect and young McLane had been sent to jail but he had died from disease only two years into his prison sentence. When Ben returned to the small town to offer condolences, the widowed mother had shot herself upon seeing him. The townspeople had turned on the man they deemed to be responsible for her death. After a severe mob beating and only with his sons’ help, Ben had barely come out of the ordeal alive. There had been rumored to be a grandfather of the dead young man traveling in Europe but he had stayed a myth…until now. Gaynes had revealed himself as that grandfather through Decker’s own admission of who had written the note.

Adam’s softened voice broke through Ben’s unpleasant musings. “I didn’t tell you, Pa…because the two men who are responsible for this mess are safely in jail. Would it have done any good to know about it sooner?”

“It might of.”

Adam shook his head slowly. “But it wouldn’t have, Pa. Thomas McLane’s trial was fair and square and regardless of other people’s opinions at the time, you did the right thing. It was his mother’s decision to take her own life. With this situation you didn’t need to feel as if you were the cause when both of the men who orchestrated it are behind bars. It’s over, Pa, let’s just be thankful nothing could come of it.”

Ben rested the back of his hand on Adam’s chest before he gravitated his long fingers to grip his son’s shirt-clad shoulder. “You still had no right to keep this from me, Son. My point from before has just been proven further. I have just as much of a stake in this as you. Adam, you don’t always have to be the strong one. Let me help too once in a while. I…are you listening?”

Adam had been staring off through the dense trees in silence but his eyes had slowly narrowed and he now leaned forward slightly as if trying to see something more clearly. Williams chose that moment to ride up and he was startled when Adam suddenly released the mare and kicked Sport into a sprint. When he was a few hundred yards up the trail, Adam hit the ground running and disappeared into the wild foliage of the woods. Ben quickly maneuvered Buck beside his son’s horse and dismounted as well. The bushes, shrubs and tree trunks were thick and were difficult to push through but, by following the crashing sound of his son ahead, Ben persevered until he broke into a tiny clearing which wild deer must have used as a sleeping spot in the past. The scene that greeted his eyes was chilling as the afternoon sunlight streamed down through the tree tops to surround the man kneeling over the body of a young woman lying face down in the dried leaves…Her white-and-green print dress was soiled with mud and blood. Her small shoulders were surrounded by her loose brown hair.

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Adam felt rather than heard his father’s presence by his side. The younger man’s heart raced as he gently slipped his arms under Evangeline’s limp form and turned her into his chest. Some of her hair fell over her face and he raised his left hand to brush the errant strands aside as his right cradled her neck. “Angie? Angie, darling, can you hear me? It’s Adam, sweetheart…”

Ben knelt down and checked her pulse and immediately turned to run back down the cleared path. Adam continued to tenderly assess the damage done to his beloved while she, without a notion that she was safe at last, remained unconscious. Her pulse was weak and she was burning with fever. Adam could feel the heat eating though the front of his shirt where her hot face rested. Using his one hand to hastily pile some leaves together, he laid her back down on the ground while transitioning her head to the makeshift pillow. He checked her arms and legs for signs of fractures but all seemed normal until his search found the festering wound on her upper-right arm. His stomach clenched with the sight of the infection seeping from the swollen confines of the gash.

Ben returned with a water canteen, a blanket and Frank behind him. Out of respect, Adam let the frantic father take the coveted position by Evangeline’s head while he himself spread and tucked the blanket around her. Tears were streaming down Frank’s face as he grasped his daughter’s hand while willing her both mentally and verbally to awaken. But no amount of wishing would make that so for she remained as she was, drifting on the winds of space and time and unaware of her loved ones near by.

Ben wet her cracked lips with a little bit of the water and used his green scarve as a way to wet her face as well. Then Adam gently but firmly moved Frank aside so that he himself could gather her blanket-wrapped body into his arms. The three men moved back to the grassy area by the trail. There they made her as comfortable as possible. Ben went about breaking leafy branches off of trees to create a soft bed and Adam used his yellow coat placed on a large tree log as a pillow for her. Frank moved her to the resting place and then her arm needed to be seen to. It desperately needed to be drained of the sickly pus but each Cartwright was repelled at the thought and was loathed to volunteer. They both bent over Evangeline’s still form as they ascertained what needed to be done. Adam looked up at his father with tears and agony in his eyes; Ben could read what his son wanted. Silent understanding passed between them and Ben turned to gather what he would need. A campfire was built and a knife sterilized.

Unused to the ways of survival, Frank was mortified when told of what needed to be done. He lunged at Ben as the lancing began to take place. “What are you doing to my little girl! Stop that!”

Adam jumped up to grab him away but the man fought him every inch of the way. Adam held him fast as the man raged. “Leave me alone, Cartwright! You’re nothing but savages and butchers! I was right all along about you! You care nothing for my daughter! Nothing!”

“Steady, man! It has to be done, there’s no other way! If the wound isn’t drained then the infection will continue to spread and she may die! Is that what you want!”

Frank ripped himself free from Adam’s grip and was still but if glares could be dangerous, his was lethal. Adam moved back to assist Ben. After the deed was done, Adam handed some of the bandages he kept in his saddlebags to Ben. The elder Cartwright wrapped the arm securely and Adam also gave him a clean black handkerchief to be used as a sling to keep the arm in a more stable position. Then Evangeline was covered with the blanket once more and as a second thought, Adam produced the green cloak from his supplies and draped that up to her chin too.

Since the still-livid Frank was away down the trail, Adam stole the moment. He lowered himself to sit next to Evangeline and then bent to briefly press his lips to hers. He spoke in a choked whisper, “You’ll be okay, Angie. You’ll be…just…fine.” Ben had let them have this private time but now he stood at Adam’s side and grasped his son’s quaking shoulder. Adam wasn’t crying but his entire body seemed to be grieving under Ben’s hand. “We’ve done all we can do, Son. You’ve, done all you can do.”

Adam’s voice was a mere whisper as he drank in the sight of his fiancé in front of him, “Thank you, Pa. I don’t think I would have been…able to do that…Joe was bad enough but a woman…her. I guess I’m a coward…”

Unseen by his son, Ben shook his head one solitary time. “Adam, you are as far from being that as I am from being better than your youngest brother at breaking horses. You are strong and proud, she’s lucky to have you, Son.”

Adam tore his eyes from her to gaze at where Frank was sitting on a log down the trail from where they had come. “I guess I’m back in the same boat with her father. He’ll never forgive me for my involvement in all of this. I thought that we were beginning to build an understanding.”

“Just give him time. He’ll need time. He’s had quite the couple of days too, don’t forget.”

After a while, darkness began to fall at long last and the fire was stoked into a roaring and snapping beast that seemed happy to be unleashed to play. The warmth radiating off of it was a comfort to Adam as he sat and stared into the flames. The beautiful, laughing faces of his past women danced in the flickering light interspersed by a tiny shower of falling molten sparks once in a while. He wondered where the time had gone and where those lost loves were now. Most probably, they were either dead or living their lives without him. He prayed fervently that Evangeline would not know either fate any time soon.

Ben came to sit by his side on the ground and they both glanced over to where Frank was alone with his still-unconscious daughter. Evangeline hadn’t moved nor made a sound during the previous hours since she had been found. Her fever appeared to not be worsening which was heartening but her prolonged unconsciousness was becoming of concern. At least, her slumber had seemed more restful and her breathing more regular than before.

Ben poured Adam a cup of coffee and then he poured one for himself before settling his back onto the log behind them. Ben commented as he took a sip, “I wonder how your brothers are getting on.”

Adam chuckled softly while his eyes remained transfixed on the flames. “If I know them, Joe is probably threatening to get out of bed and Hoss is probably threatening to sit on him.”

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Doc Martin poked and prodded and pushed until Joe thought he was going to lose his mind from the personal space invasion. Hoss stood close by just in case his help was needed. The thorough doctor finally straightened up after what seemed like hours. “Well, Joseph Cartwright, your powers of recovery are still as strong as ever. With a little more rest and not too much exertion, you’ll be just fine. Now mind you, I don’t want you overdoing it for the next few weeks or so, got it? No broncos and no fights!”

Joe leaned back against his headboard and smiled with a secret air. After only a day-and-a-half in bed, he was sick of it and wanted to get up and about. Of course, he wisely mentioned not a word of this to the medical professional. Hoss thanked Paul and escorted him out of Joe’s room. The door closed and when his brother’s voice grew hard to hear, Joe managed to climb out of bed, pull off his nightshirt and very determinedly begin to dress. It took a little time due to his sore ribs and bruising but Joe prevailed and got it done.

Downstairs by the door, Paul apologized for how late he had been able to come. Instead of arriving in the morning, it was now almost nightfall. He explained about the twin boys that had been born only three hours before in that afternoon to Mrs. Dwayneson. Paul felt bad that the emergency had delayed his promise to drop in that morning; sometimes being a doctor could be very inconvenient as he had found out more than once. Although anxious over the delay for going after his father and brother, Hoss put the doctor’s mind at ease and thanked him again for coming out. With a heavy heart, Doc Martin walked out to his buggy. He wished that he could do more to help his friends but as he drove out of the yard, all he could do was pray.

After the door had closed, Hop Sing came around the corner from the dining room and found a tired Hoss rubbing his eyes. “What’s wrong? Anything Hop Sing do to help?”

Hoss glanced up at the Ponderosa cook and smiled. He had the strangest urge to give the little man a hug but for the life of him, he didn’t know why. Instead, he patted the cook on the back. “Nah, Hop Sing. I’ll be jest fine. Sure ‘nough, you wouldn’t have any o’ that pork left over from lunch would ya?”

A wide smile spread over Hop Sing’s face. “For you, Mista Hoss, I find some! You need taken care of. Honorable father and brothers be alight. Hop Sing find apple pie too! Must eat, stay strong for family!”

Hoss chuckled as his friend padded back into the kitchen then he himself moved to walk through the living room. He paused and stared at the empty chairs and settee by the crackling fireplace and then at the empty chair behind his pa’s desk. It seemed like such a long time ago when this room had been filled with jesting laughter. Had it only been last week when all of his family had sat in this room and his pa had talked of the meaning of the Ponderosa? Hoss tried to remember exactly what his pa had said but he couldn’t quite recollect what it was. Whatever had been said, Hoss knew that it had come true against that Charles Augustus Hackett. No man could take the Ponderosa without the Cartwrights putting up a fight. The same went for any persons that any of the Cartwrights befriended or fell in love with. Hoss knew that nothing would or could stop his family once their minds were set. Adam would find his gal or die trying. The big man wondered how the search was going and tried to stifle the anxiety of not being able to join it.

Sounds coming from the staircase startled Hoss and when he looked up, irritation passed across his face. He rushed to the bottom of the stairs and pointed at the young man on the landing. “Joseph! Get your butt back up into that bed ‘fore I have t’ carry ya there myself! And why in the dickens are ya dressed!”

Joe waved off his brother’s threat and slowly made his way the rest of the way down. “I’m feeling much better now, Hoss. I feel like I could bust a few broncs even!” Joe tried to chortle in that boyish way of his but the only sound that came out was a stifled groan as his sore ribs were shaken from within. Hoss rolled his eyes and took his younger brother’s arm to help him to the settee. “Doggone you, Joe! Don’t I have enough t’ deal with right about now without you too!”

“Ah, Hoss, I’m not so much trouble. If ya just stop your fretting, you’d sleep better at night, Big Brother…” Joe gingerly raised his right foot to put it on the table and then he did the same with his left.

“Ya know Pa hates it when ya do that, Joseph.”

Joe rolled his eyes and wiggled further down into the settee. “There ya go worrying again. I swear you’re worst than Adam these days! Hand me an apple, will ya?”

Hoss grabbed a piece of fruit from the large bowl on the table. Joe tore off a big, juicy bite from the ripe apple. “Speakin’ of Adam, when are we leaving?”

“Leavin’ for where?”

“To go after Adam and Pa of course! When are we leaving?”

Hoss’s face took on a stern look and he pointed his finger at Joe’s chest. “You ain’t goin’ no place, Joseph, except straight back t’ bed. ‘Sides, why did ya think I was going anywhere to begin with?”

Joe shook his head in exasperation. “Because we grew up together and I know Pa. He wouldn’t leave unless Adam was in trouble and I also know that he wouldn’t leave without back up on the way. How many hands are we taking with us anyhow?”

“Joseph, there is no “we” and there ain’t gonna be either! Pa’d skin me alive and I wouldn’t blame him a smidgen. I can’t even imagine what a horse ride would do t’ ya and those busted ribs. The Doc told you t’ take it easy and that’s exactly what I’m goin’ to make happen!”

Deciding that his unique bargaining skills were required, Joe tossed the core of his apple on the table and looked at his brother. With a gleam in his eye, he smiled slyly and Hoss had a sinking feeling that he was going to get bested. He didn’t quite know how it happened all the time but he would start out feeling resolute and then Joe would start his fancy talk and everything changed. Hoss resolved to stand firm this time.

Less than an hour later, a buckboard, along with three riders cantering behind, was on its way to Virginia City with a big man driving the team and a smaller man resting on an old mattress in the back. The fight had been lost once again. Hoss only hoped that their pa didn’t murder when they caught up with him and Adam on the trail. At least, Joe had agreed to the buckboard instead of Cochise.

* * * * *

Deep in the night, Adam woke up feeling cold and he saw that the fire had gone out. He wrapped his blanket close around around himself and moved to restore the source of heat. Once the twigs and logs were lit, his teeth chattered and he rubbed his hands together over the growing flames. He pulled his covering closer and glanced around the circle. His pa was sound asleep off to the right and across from himself, Frank looked to be dead to the world too while he was lying close next to his daughter. He appeared to be exhausted after the day of traveling and didn’t appear to be awakening any time soon either.

Adam quietly crept around the fire to check on the last member of the small group. When he arrived at Evangeline’s side, he was worried to see her shivering under her coverings. He quickly ripped off his blanket and tucked it around her body while pulling the green-velvet cloak tight up around her neck. He touched her cheek with the back of his hand and was relieved to feel her cool skin instead of the burning sensation of before. Thank, God, her fever’s broken…Adam mused with immeasurable relief. He turned to sit beside her but was stunned when he heard a whimper and a soft voice calling his name. “A…Adam…is…that…you?”

Adam’s dark head whipped around and his widened hazel eyes were met by sleepy blue ones. He crouched down close and she could feel his warm, sweet breath on her face. “Yes, Angie…it’s me. How are you feeling, Sweetheart?”

Her lips vaguely turned up at the corners in a semblance of a smile. Her teeth chattered a little more. “C…c…cold. Wh…where am I?”

Adam tucked the blankets tighter but kept his left arm snug around her to provide what extra insulation he could give. “Your father, my father and I…we found you in the woods here. You were unconscious for a long time…”

“Oh…Poppa is here?”

“Sure is. He’s asleep there to your right.”

“Is…he…alright?”

“Yes, just tired from the past few days. It’s a long story. Oh, Angie, I can’t tell you how good it is to hear your voice again…”

She shifted under the blankets and smiled up at him under half-closed eyelids. “I…knew that…you’d come. I knew…that if I just waited…you would find me. You’re a beautiful sight…you know that?”

Adam chuckled at her small joke. “I think that my brothers would have a few things to say about that after I’ve spent a day cleaning out watering holes…”

Evangeline’s quiet giggle turned into another whimper. Adam asked her if she was thirsty and she nodded her head so he collected a canteen and returned to her side. Lifting her head gently, he trickled the wet droplets into her mouth until she turned her mouth away from the canteen’s opening.

“Would you like anything else, darling? I could make you some food if you’re hungry…”

Evangeline’s eyes began to droop in exhaustion.“No…I…just want you. Could you…stay with me for just…a little while, Adam? I…want to know…you are…near…to me.”

Adam’s white teeth showed in the darkness as he smiled gently. He kissed her forehead and whispered in her ear, “Of course, sweetheart. I’ll always be here for you…”

Adam gently lifted her upper body so that he could slip in behind her and pillow her head on his chest. He pulled the blankets back over them both and he heard her sigh with contentment. She slipped into a healing sleep accompanied by the sound and feel of his slow heartbeat. Reveling in  holding her warm body against his own, Adam kissed the top of her head and whispered one last promise in a voice that cracked slightly with emotion. “I’m never leaving you again, my love, never…”

The fire crackled on and its flickering light caressed the four sleeping soundly about its border. Life was looking up at last and maybe their ordeal was over.

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

The next morning, the sun was up over the mountains and shining through the trees but still the four people in the little camp slept on. Ben was the first to wake up and he watered the horses from the little creek that had been found near by the day before. Upon returning, he tethered the mounts and joined his son by the fire.

“Mornin’, Adam. Sleep well?”

Adam handed him a cup of steaming coffee while nodding in confirmation. “A little too well, I think. The sun’s already up in full, why didn’t you wake me?”

Ben smiled and glanced over to where their guests were still sound asleep. “I thought you looked a little too comfortable to be moved.”

A hint of a blush reddened Adam’s cheeks. “She woke last night and her fever had broken. She was cold.”

“Oh, I see,” Ben quirked an amused eyebrow. He smiled and then asked in a decided tone, “You really do love her, don’t you, Son?”

Adam dipped his head and smiled in that secret way that he only did when talking of something or someone that he loved deeply. “I do, Pa. I thought my prospects were exhausted when Laura fell in love with Will. Even that girl in Placerville that I told you about was in love with Tom, not me. But, then Miss Evangeline Williams came to town, and the minute I helped her off that stage, I knew that I’d found my better half. Rather odd, isn’t it? Love at first sight?”

“Not at all. I felt much the same way about Marie if you remember. She tried to run me down in the street with that crazy horse of hers but from that moment on, I knew she was the one for me. I’m glad you finally found the woman that could make you feel that way too.”

“Not as glad as I am, believe me, Pa.”

The two Cartwrights were able to share a few more quiet moments talking before being interrupted by Frank joining them. Throughout the next few hours, Evangeline remained in a deep sleep and the men were forced to kick their heels. Adam felt a very strong hostility coming from her father and he had a inkling of why. Although every word or suggestion from Adam was met with retorts, Frank seemed to get along fine with Ben so the youngest man decided to go fishing in the creek. A little bit of a brain-dead activity might help him to work out his problems to a satisfactory end; some time to himself would be appreciated as well.

Once his son had disappeared through the trees, Ben thought that enough was enough and confronted Frank about what was wrong. The man didn’t take the interference from Ben very well.

Frank turned his back to the other man and tried to ignore him.“Mr. Cartwright, I don’t think that this is any of your business.”

Ben bristled in his approach. “It is my business if you continue to make this trip difficult by making things hard on Adam. He’s been through enough these past few days.”

“Oh, and I haven’t! I was put in jail for murder!”

“Do you think you’re the only one that’s happened to? All three of my boys and myself have been wrongfully accused of the same thing on a few separate occasions. Sometimes it was an honest mistake. But more times than not, a greedy man of various occupation each time wanted my ranch. Out west, this country is still largely untamed and the men are rough and schemes are common. That’s the one thing that I never wished upon my sons when I set out to build the Ponderosa. Being wealthy invites crime and trouble…as I think you have found out in the past years. ”

Frank turned around and blinked. That last comment had seemed to have a deeper meaning. Ben continued, “I checked up on you while Adam was working with you in the jail. You’ve been having quite a bit of trouble in your railroad company. With a partner that no one knew about but that always seemed to be in the forefront of all your decisions? Did you finally fire Gaynes and then he decided to take revenge on you too when he went after me? Was he blackmailing you? Threatening to kidnap your daughter?”

Frank’s pompous manner deflated. He opened his mouth to answer but Ben interrupted in a brusque manner. “No, on second thought, I don’t want to hear about it! That’s not my place. But, you stop blaming my son for a mess you got yourself into! Don’t forget, I’m a father too.”

“That may be, Mr. Cartwright, but sons are a bit different than daughters.”

* * * * *

After about an hour of fishing, Adam hadn’t caught a thing but he felt better at any rate. He tossed the stick aside that he’d been using as a fishing pole and stood to walk back to camp. When he arrived, he was thrilled to see Evangeline sitting up and holding a plate of biscuits and stew. She smiled at him but dipped her head to continue eating. He took the hint and didn’t approach her. No sense drawing any more attention than they already had in front of Frank. Adam hoped that his rather impulsive action of the night before hadn’t been noticed.

After lunch had been eaten and dishes washed and packed, the conversation between the four turned to getting back to Virginia City. Evangeline argued that she could ride but Adam put a swift stop to that. That was the one thing that he and Frank could wholeheartedly agree upon. She was still in a fragile state and it would be too big of a strain on her to try sitting a horse by herself for hours on end. It was decided that she would ride in front of either Ben or Frank, the latter was very clear and adamant on that point. Adam’s temper threatened to rise at the obvious shunning but he accepted it without a word.

Adam saddled the horses and the foursome started back down the mountain with Evangeline riding with her father and Adam behind leading the mare. Only when Frank’s arms began to ache after a couple of hours did he transition his daughter to Ben’s lap. During the next while, Evangeline greatly enjoyed her talk with Adam’s father and learned quite a bit that she didn’t know about her fiance and his family. Ben also found his son’s love interest to be an engaging young woman to talk to with many of her own ideas to put forth. He wondered why he never noticed it before.

By the middle of the afternoon, Ben also was tiring greatly from his extra burden so he had a sly idea. He pulled Buck back to allow Adam to catch up then he smoothly gave Evangeline to his son and grabbed the mare’s reins before cantering back up to Frank’s gray. Before Frank could object, Ben was engaging him in a lengthy discussion about the countryside and the places that both men found they had traveled to. Behind them, Adam and Evangeline smiled at each other in amusement.

“He’s one sly old fox, but his help is more than appreciated in this instance!”

“Your father is wonderful, Adam. He’s a lot like you, you know.”

Adam inclined his head in thought as Sport’s gait rocked them along the trail. “So I’ve been told. I had to get my stubbornness from somewhere.”

“I haven’t really witnessed this ‘stubbornness’ so far. What’s it like? Should I be scared?”

Evangeline felt Adam’s chest vibrate through the back of her green cloak as he chuckled. “That, my dear Madam, is something you will find out soon enough I’m afraid. I’ve also been told I can be quite impossible to deal with.”

“Oh, Adam! Now whatever would give me the idea that you were impossible? After all, you answered my questions perfectly or rather you didn’t.”

At hearing the laughter coming from behind him, Ben smiled and glanced at Frank. “He loves her, you know.”

Frank snorted. “No offense, Mr. Cartwright, but your son is the most stoic and cold person I have ever met. If he loves her, he is not showing it very well. I don’t appreciate the way you tricked me either. If my arms weren’t so tired, she’d be off of that horse so fast it would make that young man’s head spin!”

“If Adam doesn’t love her then how do you explain the risks he’s taken for you? He didn’t have to help you but he did. If he hadn’t caught Decker, you would be swinging from a rope in a few days.” Ben let that sink in.

“I suppose I have behaved badly in some regards.”

Ben gave a snort of his own. “That’s putting it mildly.”

Before he thought about giving up on this bone that he was gnawing, Frank had one last question. “Are you certain that everything was proper last night?”

“Your daughter and I already explained that to you, man. I hate to tell you this but your little girl is not so little anymore. You’ve got to accept that she can’t be yours alone for much longer. My son may be stoic but his feelings and love run as deep as a tree’s tap root. If you can’t see that after his actions yesterday then I have no hope for you.”

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

When the travelers had reached where the kidnapper’s second camp had been located, they stopped to stretch their legs for a little while and Frank decided that he should talk to Adam. He started out with the intention of having a civil conversation but within a few minutes, loud voices were becoming louder. Adam was fed-up with his future father-in-law’s arrogance and innuendos. Frank unwisely revisited the event of the night before with less than a charitable quality and it earned him a backhand in the jaw that sent him sprawling. Ben stood back with Evangeline and let the scene play out on its own. He’d done all he could to get it through that hard head of Williams’ that his son was honorable but now the man had taken it too far by accusing Adam of seduction. Evangeline was anxious for both of them but, to Ben’s surprise, seemed to be respectful of the moment’s delicate nature.

While staring up at the seething young man and rubbing his jaw, Frank had a moment of clarity at last in his stubborn attitude. In the past years, no one had dared to treat him or talk to him as Adam Cartwright had during the past few days. It hit Frank as a refreshing twist from the bowing and scraping usually done due to his wealth. He slowly rose and raised his fists to fight. Adam tensed and lunged aside when the first punch came. However, the second punch caught him in the stomach and the third knocked him down. He tackled the other man’s legs and they rolled over and over before Adam was able to pull Frank to his feet and give him a right-hook. The younger man couldn’t believe how resilient this city-slicker was because it took two more rounds of punching, tackling and rolling to subdue him. With the breath knocked out of both of their bodies, Adam and Frank collapsed on their backs. Evangeline wanted to go to them but Ben held her back and placed a finger to his lips.

Frank was the first to rouse as he leaned on his elbow and looked at Adam a few feet away. He breathed heavily as he smirked.“You know something, Cartwright? That was the best fight I’ve had in years!”

Adam raised his head with a strange expression on his face. He burst out laughing and a bewildered Ben wondered if his son had suffered a concussion of an awful magnitude. Clutching his sides and exuding belly laughs, the like Ben hadn’t heard for years, Adam couldn’t help himself. It was all just too ridiculous, the thought that had occurred to him was so hilarious as to be insane. Once he’d calmed down, he helped Frank to his feet amid both of them chuckling.

“Your middle name wouldn’t happen to be Barnaby, would it?”

“Judging from my punches, what do you think?”

Adam doubled over again to catch his breath as more laughter threatened to consume him. Upon hearing Evangeline’s laughter too as she reached her father’s side, Ben was at a loss to know the joke. Once he was able to catch Adam’s eye without convulsing, Frank explained that he used to be a prize fighter in his younger days before he started his railroad supply company. His name in those days had been Barnaby Williams aka “The Barn”, and both names were widely known in St. Louis where Adam frequently went on business.

Once everyone had recovered from fresh bouts of hilarity, Frank extended his hand to Adam who glanced at it dubiously. “Haven’t we already done this once before?”

Frank laughed and withdrew his proffered hand. “Yes, except this time, you’ll be the one to shut up and listen. I pegged you for a backwater roughian the moment I saw you but now, I see that you are a remarkable man of many talents. What I’m trying to say is, is that you have reminded me of my roots. That I wasn’t always a ‘pompous big shot from back East’ as you called me.”

Evangeline poked Adam in the ribs and he shrugged sheepishly. Frank turned his back and continued as if the next part was hard for him to speak of. “You were right, Mr. Cartwright. Gaynes was blackmailing me for the rights to the company. I sent Evangeline out West to keep her safe for a time while I tried to settle with him but he obviously had other ideas.”

“Like kidnapping?” Ben inquired.

Frank nodded. “When I heard that he had followed her, I panicked and raced to Virginia City. When I arrived I found that a Cartwright was courting my daughter and with that, I also panicked. Gaynes had spoke of his hatred for you on more than one occasion and I was afraid that it would seal Evangeline’s fate to be seen with your son. I tried to interfere but what I didn’t account for was how deeply my daughter had come to enjoy his company.”

Frank turned and extended his hand again to Adam. “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright. I behaved badly and I apologize. I should have told you all of this from the start. Would you accept my apologies, sir, between two gentlemen?”

Adam glanced at Evangeline’s hopeful face and his own took on a grin as he accepted the physical gesture. “Call me Adam if I can officially call you Frank.”

“I thought you already were.”

“Well, it varies with the climate.”

Frank slapped him on the back. “’Frank’ and ‘Adam’ it is then! Now, can we please get back to town? I’m dying for a brandy and a comfortable chair with…um…a seat cushion.”

High up on the wooded slope by the trail, eyes set in a sweating face watched the easy manner of the group below. Between unsteady hands, an old rifle was raised to the shoulder of the little man. He blinked hard several times to dislodge the stinging sweat running into his vision. He pulled back the hammer and looked down the sights. His aim bobbled somewhat before settling on his target who was shaking hands with another man. The gunman’s finger stilled in its trembling and firmly began to squeeze the trigger.

* * * * *

Joe fidgeted and glanced up at the upside-down image of his brother sitting on the buckboard seat above him. “How much longer, Hoss?”

“Dadburnit, ya done already asked me that two minutes ago! Why can’t ya just hush up and let me drive? We’ll get there when we get there!”

Joe replaced his hat over his face and crossed his fingers on his chest. “Someone’s a mite touchy, aren’t they?” The vehicle jerked to a halt and he cried out in soreness and irritation, “Hey! You don’t have to be like that about it!”

“I thought I heard a horse whinny…” Hoss stood up and listened intently. A single rifle shot pierced the silence and startled the hands’ mounts and the team.

“Hoss, that could be Pa and Adam!” Joe moved to his knees and drew his gun.

Hoss whipped the team into a run and the three men following the buckboard galloped along behind. Around a bend in the road, the scenario opened up before them. The sound of gunfire had become thick as they had approached and now it was a battle ground. A man lay in the middle of the road and the brothers were horrified to see the distinctive yellow coat. Forcing himself to focus, Hoss analyzed what needed to be done in seconds. He ordered two of the hands to come with him and they circled around back of the slope while Joe took Maddison, the third hand, to join his pa behind a small outcropping of rocks. Gunfire continued until a barrage of pistol shots from behind the slope put an end to the renegade rifle shots. A man appeared from the brush up above and tumbled down the short distance to the trail; his lifeless body slowly rolled to a stop.

There was no time to worry about the identity of the dead shooter as everyone ran to the road. Evangeline reached Adam first. Crying and frightened, she turned him over and Ben slid to a halt on the other side of him. Blood was seeping through the yellow fabric at Adam’s left shoulder and he was out cold. Evangeline cradled Adam’s head in her lap while Ben ripped open the coat and then the black shirt. The bullet had passed through cleanly but the wound was bleeding heavily. Ben focused on applying pressure while Hoss and Joe crowded around. Frank stood by as if in shock. Hoss sent one of the hands to get the buckboard and then Adam was carefully moved into the back of it. Evangeline clambered up to sit on the mattress and she took Adam’s limp head in her lap again as the men lowered him down. Hoss took over the bandaging and padding of the shoulder and then covered his unconscious brother with a blanket. Now, they would have to wait for the bleeding to stop and for him to regain consciousness before they could think about getting him to town. Maddison was sent for a doctor and Joe had the other men fan out as sentries just in case there was anyone else out there.

The body of the would-be assassin was examined and Joe was perplexed as to the man’s identity. It was the bartender from The King’s Palace. When Joe called his pa over and told him, Ben couldn’t understand it either since Adam had only been in that place a few times without incident. Why would the little man of ordinary appearance want to kill himself a Cartwright?

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

“He’ll be fine, Ben. The bullet missed the arteries and seemed to have passed through without any serious damage to muscle. You can thank the fact that he was shaking hands with Mr. Williams over there. The angle of the bullet was just so that it was able to pass through the shoulder instead of lodging in the bone,” Doctor Keifer rinsed his hands in the bowl of clean creek water and dried them. Doc Martin had been unavailable so Maddison had brought the only doctor that had been available.

“How soon can he be moved?” Ben asked.

“As soon as possible as long as you keep the pace slow and you keep him warm. I can ride along with you if you’d like. There were no emergencies I know of that need my attention.”

Ben smiled wanly. “Thank you, Doctor, that would be much appreciated.”

Ben spoke gently to Evangeline who hadn’t moved for the past few hours from his son’s side. He tried to get her to stretch her legs by walking about but she shook her head without looking up from gazing upon Adam’s sleeping face. He had regained consciousness some time before but had quickly succumbed into an exhausted slumber without a word. Ben brought her thoughts back to the present by becoming more adamant and reminding her of her own delicate condition. “You won’t help him by bringing your fever back,” He extended a hand to her. “Please, won’t you come with me for just a little while. You need rest. The doctor needs to check your arm too, my dear.”

The young woman gazed at him with gratitude. “Thank you, Mr. Cartwright. You are most kind. Maybe a break would do me good.”

Ben assisted her to the ground and Hoss came over to stand guard over his injured brother while the doctor perused her arm. Doctor Keifer was impressed with the lancing job that Ben did and there was little that he himself had to do with the wound except put a fresh bandage on it. While the doctor cornered Joe to take a look at him too, Ben invited Evangeline for a walk and she accepted. The sentries up above kept a sharp eye out for their boss from good vantage points.

As Ben and Evangeline walked along around the bend in the road, he took her hand into the crook of his arm. “Adam will be okay, my dear. He needs plenty of rest but he’s been through worse than this before.”

Evangeline was silent for some time before speaking,“I’ve been thinking about something he said, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Oh, what was that?”

“About his mother. I remember he told me that no matter how old he got, he always felt her presence close by. He doesn’t even have any memories of his mother to hang onto. Mr. Cartwright, when my mother died, I thought my life had ended. My father began to drink more and more and then his company began to decline. When I came to Virginia City, I had no thoughts except to have a new life away from my many memories.”

“I can understand that, I needed the same thing when my third wife died.”

“Yes…when a loved one dies…it can be the most lonely and entrapping of times. But, when Adam told me that and I could see how much he meant it…I began to realize that memories are how the ones we love really stay alive forever…in our minds and in our hearts. I’m luckier than he is. My mother died when I was twenty-five, I should be thankful that I had her for that long instead of being bitter.”

“You are one inspirational young lady, my dear.”

“Not really. I just like to make an observation now and then.”

“Sounds like someone else I know.”

“You know, that was probably the moment when I first realized that I loved him. As you most likely know, I wasn’t exactly encouraging of his interest in the beginning.”

Ben chuckled. “Yes, he’s told me. You know you quite bewildered him?”

Evangeline smiled at the memory of a certain man’s darkly-handsome face when she had ignored him outside that stagecoach. He had looked so forlorn with his hat in his hands when she had peeked back behind her that day.“It took me a while but I fell under his spell.”

“His…what?”

“Oh, it’s a little joke we have.”

Ben smiled but remained silent, deep in thought over another woman with dark-brown hair that had bewitched him. Evangeline reminded him of Elizabeth; sweet and good but strong and quick in all the ways that mattered. The young woman disengaged her arm from his and bent to pick a few wild violets growing in the sparse grass on the edge of the woods. Ben saw tears fill her eyes as she turned to him.

“Adam gave me some of these on our first date. He said that they suited me…Oh, Mr. Cartwright, I can’t lose him too! I just can’t…”

Ben took the sobbing girl into his strong arms as she clung to his vest. While he gently rubbed her back through her cloak, the only thing he could think to say was, “You won’t, Evangeline…you won’t.”

Evangeline pulled back and wiped her eyes with embarrassment. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben handed her a handkerchief to blow her nose with. “You needn’t be and please call me ‘Ben’.”

“Thank you, Mr…I mean, Ben. I’m sorry for being so emotional, I’m not normally this hysterical.”

“Well, I think after what you’ve been put through with the kidnapping and now this, you have more than enough right to cry. Crying can be a very good tonic for the soul.”

Evangeline peered up at Adam’s handsome father and she wondered something although she was hesitant to determine if it was impertinent. “Do you… ever cry?”

Ben slowly nodded as a sad expression came to his face. “I have on occasion. Sometimes there just isn’t any way to stop the tears once they start. I don’t feel them to be a sign of weakness however.”

The two turned and began to walk the very short distance back to the others; Ben hadn’t dared go too far at all for fear of any more danger. Evangeline had one more question that surprised Ben. “Ben, has…has Adam ever cried because he couldn’t hold it in?”

Ben paused and gazed into her intelligent eyes to determine the depth of his answer. In them, he saw a mature woman, one with the spunk to face life and win. One who wouldn’t shy away from that life’s dismal aspects. He nodded. “He isn’t one for giving in to excessive emotion very often. Losing his mother at birth and the trials of traveling west made him a very serious young man, I’m afraid. But it also made him stronger and more mature than other boys his age.” Evangeline saw a pain cross his face. “There was one time though almost three years ago…when he had been kidnapped such as yourself…but in a different way. Hoss, Joe and I…we thought that we had lost him for good. We had searched for him out in the desert for over two weeks but there had been no sign. When we finally found him…he had been starved and overworked by a madman bent on breaking his will. When Adam saw us, it was plain to see that the stress had been too much…it took him a very long time to recover from the trauma and to this day, it still bothers him some nights…”

Evangeline’s eyes were glistening again as she wondered what trials must have happened in the past to shape the man that Adam was today. “Ben?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think that I’ll be strong enough to be married to him? He needs a help-meet who is his equal, who will be able to stand by him and I feel so inadequate at times. I don’t know if I can handle life out here, it’s so brutal. A healthy and active man can be cut short so suddenly. He’ll be alright this time but what about next time? Will I buckle when he needs me most?”

Ben placed his arm around her slim shoulders as he directed their steps forwards. “My dear Evangeline, you admitting your fears is what proves that you are willing to face them. You will make a wonderful wife and Adam is a lucky man to have you. You’ve already been so good for him and it shows in his face every time he talks about you. Now, how about seeing on getting him home where he belongs?”

Evangeline wrapped her arm around his torso and smiled. “I’d love that, Ben. Let’s go home.”

* * * * *

During the three hours back to town, everyone was on their guard for an ambush of any kind but it seemed that the dead man’s was a singular event. Along the way, Sheriff Coffee and a posse met up with the small caravan of buckboards and riders. Although Hoss had already informed Ben about Gaynes’ death, the news of who had killed him was fresh. Roy couldn’t believe the new developments upon seeing Adam lying in the back of Ben’s buckboard with the missing Evangeline Williams sitting next to him. He also shook his head in disbelief upon seeing the body tied on the back of Adam’s horse; the thought occurred to him that it was almost ironic. It pained him though that Adam had to get hurt in order to catch the lunatic who had stood on the balcony of The King’s Palace saloon and taken credit for Gaynes’ murder. Harry Marlowe had shouted that he wouldn’t let anyone else take credit for killing the murderer of Margie. On and on, he had ranted and raved about his love of the saloon girl and about his hate for Decker, Gaynes and Williams before then setting fire to the place. In the ensuing confusion, he had ridden out of town while firing his rifle in every conceivable direction, wounding several townspeople in the process. Roy had put together a posse as soon as possible but he had lost the insane killer in the mountains. Seeing him tied belly-down over Adam’s saddle brought a strange satisfaction that Roy knew he shouldn’t feel as an officer of the law.

“Well, Ben, it looks like this business is finally finished.”

Ben turned from Roy to gaze at his injured son and future daughter-in-law in the back of the buckboard. “I hope so, Roy. I surely hope so…for their sake as much as for ours.”

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

The evening had drawn in upon them when the tired party arrived back in Virginia City. Adam had endured the trip well. A chuckhole here or a rock there under the buckboard’s wheels disturbed his rest periodically but the medicine given him by the doctor kept him in a state of frosted awareness that numbed his pain. It had been decided among his caretakers that it would be best if he would stay at the Williams’ residence until he could be moved home. Joe halted the team in front of the elegant house and amid a flurry of subdued activity, Adam was transported into the house and up the polished staircase to a rich bedroom complete with a large canopy bed. Frank gave Ben a nightshirt so that Adam could be changed from his blood-stained clothing into something more comfortable. The sleeve and shoulder area of the left shoulder of the garment was swiftly cut away to allow treatment for the wound. After Adam had been placed in the bed and the covers tucked around him, the other Cartwrights could breathe easier and the doctor left with promises to return the next morning. Frank offered the tired threesome his hospitality and they gratefully accepted. Hoss and Joe followed their host to their rooms while Ben stayed in Adam’s. Tired beyond endurance, he gratefully sank into a comfortable chair that was available beside the bed.

Upon the door shutting when Adam had been carried into his room, Evangeline resolved to get busy instead of worrying. She went to her room to change into a lavish, blue-silk dressing gown and refresh herself before she bustled to the kitchen and made sure that a good dinner would be ready for her guests by the cook. By the time Joe and Hoss appeared downstairs, the dining room table had been set, the hot food was in dishes upon it and candlelight illuminated the rooms along with a fire in the main room.

Hoss turned to Joe with something akin to awe in his voice. “Ole Adam is gettin’ one heck of a wife, Joe.”

“You can say that again, Brother.”

“Why, thank you, my dear sirs!”

The two Cartwright boys started at Evangeline’s voice behind them. She came from the kitchen to the left with a smile and carrying a bowl of mashed potatoes in her one free hand. Hoss jumped forward to take it from her in an act of chivalry which rewarded him a wider smile. She gestured to the heavily-laden table and encouraged them to sit and eat for as long as they wanted. That was music to Hoss’ ears and he decided that he would go to any great lengths for Adam’s gal; he had picked a good one.

While her future brothers-in-law filled their empty stomachs, Evangeline returned to the kitchen and prepared two trays, one for herself and one for Ben. Frank helped her to carry them up to Adam’s room before returning down to eat with the Cartwrights. Ben was more than thankful for the hot food. Evangeline pulled another chair beside Adam’s bed so that she could sit close to him and beside his father also at the same time. Before she began to eat her own food at last, she leaned over Adam to make sure he was still breathing naturally. Ben paused in his eating to watch as she smoothed out the covers and resumed her seat. It seems that my job is in jeopardy…he mused with a fond smile, but, somehow, he didn’t mind.

* * * * *

When Adam awoke from his medicated stupor, his vision was hazy and he didn’t know where he was. It looked like a pile of green-satin fabric was about to fall upon him from above but he knew that to be ridiculous. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness of the room, he saw that the bed had a canopy over it. He moved his head marginally to look about him. A soft smile toyed on his lips upon seeing his pa slouched in a chair by the right side of his bed and sound asleep. Feeling a steady pressure on his hand, he slowly moved his eyes downward until they alighted on Evangeline. Her chair was pulled up against the bedside and she was resting her head on the covers by his right hand which was held firmly in her grasp. A single lamp on the bedside table cast its light and made her hair shine about the edges as she slept on. Adam wasn’t sure if the pain in his shoulder had sharpened his senses or not but he didn’t think that he had ever seen her more beautiful then as she was now.

Adam rested his head back into his pillow and relished the quiet satisfaction of everything being alright. Ironic, seeing as I have a bullet hole in my shoulder...he thought wryly. Speaking of that wound, it was beginning to throb as he came to full consciousness and he shifted uncomfortably with the dull pain. Evangeline stirred and lifted her head in a sleepy, disheveled fashion. Her blue eyes sparkled and she stood to lean down and kiss Adam’s cheek. His eyes popped open then he smiled as he couldn’t resist flirting with his best girl. “Why, hello there, beautiful…can’t say I’ve…ever woke up…to a prettier sight…”

Evangeline rested her elbows on the bed as she giggled. “Oh, hush, you flatterer, I must look a sight. How are you feeling, darling?”

Adam fought the growing fatigue in order to answer her question. “Like I’ve been shot…”

“Well, you’re safe now and at my father’s house.”

“Isn’t…that…rather awkward? Why aren’t I at the…Ponderosa?”

Evangeline reached up to smooth an errant lock of hair from his forehead. “Doctor Keifer said it would be better for you to recuperate for a day or two before having you make that trip.”

A mischievous smile came back to Adam’s face as he opened his eyes again to stare into hers. “Do you know what would…help me to recuperate faster?”

“No, what? Anything you need?”

“A kiss?”

Evangeline giggled again but then she sobered and gazed into his honey-brown eyes as she leaned toward him. Their lips met in a gentle kiss while she retained her hold on his hand. The sound of a throat being cleared sounded behind them and she drew back in embarrassment. Ben was grinning at them and Adam finally was able to greet his now-awakened father. “Hi, Pa.”

Ben rose and came around to the other side of the bed. “I was wondering when I was going to be acknowledged but you seemed too busy to bother with your old pa.”

“Old, my foot…” Adam felt himself beginning to slip away again but he wanted to know one last thing. “Are…Hoss…Joe..and Frank okay?”

Evangeline answered, “Everyone’s fine, Adam, you just rest now. We can talk more when you wake up. Oh, but first, here take this.” With her one hand, she held a glass of water mixed with medicine to his lips. Ben helped by holding his son’s head up and then returned it to the pillow after he was finished drinking. Adam sighed and within seconds he was traveling into healing sleep once more. Evangeline smiled and returned the empty glass to the table. She sat back into her chair and stared at the man in the bed with relief and a tear escaped down one of her cheeks. Ben came back around and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t you go to bed, my dear. He’ll sleep for quite a while now.”

“I only will if you will.”

Ben chuckled, oh yes, this girl had an understated but stubborn spirit in her just like his son. There was a soft knock at the door and Joe came into the room. He solved the dilemma by offering to sit with his brother for awhile so that the other two could get some real rest in their beds.

Ben couldn’t help but lecture his youngest. “That would be fine, Joe, thank you. If you start getting overtired though than go wake Hoss.” Joe nodded and Ben turned to follow Evangeline out of the room but he paused with his hand on the doorknob. “And don’t think, young man, that I didn’t notice your presence today when you are supposed to at home. We’ll be discussing that, believe me.”

Joe grinned when he saw the amusement in his pa’s face. “You weren’t exactly sorry to see me and Hoss though, were ya, Pa?”

“To tell you the truth, I don’t think I ever been more glad to see you both in my life. Good night, Joseph…”

“Good night, Pa. Sleep well.” Joe took a seat in Ben’s vacated chair and settled himself in for his part of night-watch duty.

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 

Hop Sing muttered in rapid Chinese as he ran around the kitchen checking one pot, seasoning the contents of another and then opening the oven to pull out some fresh bread. He poked at the roast and checked the clock. He needed to hurry, his family was supposed to be at the ranch house soon for dinner. As six o’clock drew near, he dished up the food and placed the juicy roast on a big glass platter. The table was already beautifully set with the lace tablecloth, crystal glasses and Marie’s best china. All was in readiness when the sounds of horses could be heard in the yard. Hop Sing padded out to the porch with a big grin on his face; his family was home at last and all was right in his world again.

Ben and Frank helped Adam climb down from the buckboard and his brothers followed behind with Evangeline. Hop Sing made his happiness known as he chattered on and on while he opened the door to admit them all into the warm sanctuary within. As many had done before them and many would after, the Cartwrights breathed an emotional sigh of relief together at being back in their own domain. The huge fireplace aglow with a roaring fire was a thing of beauty to Adam’s eyes as he was helped to the red leather chair. In fact, the entire house was beautiful to his gaze. He caught Evangeline’s eye as she placed a pillow behind his back and she smiled in mutual contentment.

It had been four days since Adam had been shot and the doctor had finally given him the okay to return home. Adam was still very weak from blood loss and the shock to his system but he was on the mend. Ben had invited the Williams to stay at the Ponderosa for a few days so that they could see the ranch; they had happily accepted and Evangeline was excited to see more of where she might live. As Frank had stepped into the masculine ranch house, he was in awe as well. Even his houses with all their tapestries and carpet couldn’t compare to the rustic and homey feel of the Ponderosa.

Hop Sing’s dinner was also above and beyond any other cuisine that Frank had sampled during his travels throughout the United States. After Hop Sing was thoroughly praised by the Cartwrights and their guests for the delicious meal, he beamed with pride and bowed before taking his leave to wash the dishes. Once Adam was settled back in the red chair and everyone else was gathered in the living area, Ben moved to pour glasses of brandy and then distributed them with Joe’s help.

Frank accepted his glass and raised it in a toast. “To my most gracious hosts, the Cartwrights. The men who saved both my daughter and showed me the meaning of life.”

Ben smiled and they all saluted before letting the sharp liquid run down their throats. Then Adam had something to say. He winked at Hoss as the signal they had worked out and the big man helped his eldest brother to stand.

“Hop Sing!”

The little cook padded from the kitchen. “You call, Mistah Adam?”

Adam smiled. “Yes, Hop Sing. You deserve to hear this too. Would you mind staying for a few minutes?”

A highly-flattered Hop Sing accepted a glass of brandy from Ben and they all waited for what Adam wanted them to hear. He extended a hand to Evangeline and she rose from the settee to join him. He smiled as he turned to Frank in the blue chair.

“ Mr. Williams…As you know, I love your daughter and I flatter myself in thinking that the lady-in-question feels the same way.” Evangeline delicately rolled her eyes in amusement and Adam grinned and continued, “I would like to marry her as soon as possible but in all the ruckus we’ve had, I never got the chance to ask you for your permission but I ask you now. Would you allow our marriage, Sir?”

Frank hid a smile behind his hand before rising solemnly and approaching the couple. Everyone was on tenterhooks and he enjoyed drawing the moment out. He gently grasped Evangeline’s shoulders. “My dear girl…you put up with my drinking, my bad business sense, my grief along with your own. You are so much like your mother, you remind me so much of her.”

Tears sprang to Evangeline’s eyes as her father continued, “If I had it my way, you’d never leave me…but, I know that can never be. It took me a while but I came to understand that over the past week. You need to find your own way in the world, become the mistress of your own house. You deserve a man to love you more than I. A good man, who will cherish you how you’re supposed to be cherished. I now only have one question for you, Evangeline. Are you certain that Adam Cartwright is that man?”

Evangeline turned to gaze up into Adam’s eyes. She allowed herself to swim in their depths for a few seconds before answering, “With all my heart, Poppa. With all my heart and soul.”

Frank rocked back on his heels while hooking his thumbs in his vest. “Adam, that’s good enough for me! I’d be proud to have you as a son-in-law!”

Cheers erupted as official congratulations were given to the young couple. When everyone settled down enough, Adam raised his hand for complete silence. He turned to Hoss who handed something to him then he turned to the beaming girl holding onto his arm. He smiled gently as he produced the hidden object.

“I think you lost this…”

She gasped upon seeing an engagement ring held between his fingers. She had thought it was gone forever and had grieved its loss deeply. He slipped the ring on her finger and then kissed her hand gently. “Once again, would you do me the honor of becoming my bride, Evangeline Williams? Do you consent to being Evangeline Cartwright instead?”

Tears ran down her cheeks.“Yes…a thousand times, yes!”

Joe hooted and they all clapped when Adam bent down to kiss her. Laughter ensued however when he let go of Hoss to embrace her and leaned down too far, almost having to use his fiancé to stop himself from falling. Hoss rescued him just in time but that embarrassing moment for Adam would become a familiar joke in the family for many years to come. He was blushing as Evangeline guided him to sit down again but then she kissed him with a fervor that drove all thoughts from his mind.

Hop Sing raised his brandy glass when there was an opening in the teasing. “Toast to happy couple!”

Ben grinned and raised his own glass with authority. “Well said, Hop Sing! Let’s drink to Mr. and Mrs. Adam Cartwright!”

* * * * *

The great room was dark and comforting as the clock struck the eleventh hour that night. The giant fireplace shed its dancing light on the young couple sitting on the settee together. Adam had his arm around Evangeline’s shoulders and her head was resting on his uninjured one as his fingers toyed with a lock of her hair. After a time of silence, he inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly; she smiled as her head rose and fell with his chest. “Thank you for what you did tonight…”

His eyes turned contemplative. “What exactly did I do?”

She rolled her head back so she could look into his face. “Oh, lots of things. For being so thoughtful of Poppa…for my ring…but mostly for recovering so that you could come back to me…”

He chuckled. “I didn’t have much choice in that.”

“Yes, but…you’re a fighter, a survivor, that’s what I love most about you.”

Adam smiled and touched the tip of her upturned nose with his index finger. “And I you, my love.”

“What do you mean?”

“The way you escaped from that wretched man for instance. That took courage.”

“Adam, as I told you, looking back now I think he let me go. But, why I can’t figure out.”

“Maybe he wanted to show that he had a shred of human kindness still left in him.”

Evangeline returned her gaze to the flickering fire. “Oh but, he already had that. He treated me well…I seemed to remind him of a bad memory. I wonder what it was…”

The two remained quiet for a time before she finished her thought. “It makes one wonder how our own lives would have turned out if we had his circumstances or Gaynes’ or even that gunman’s…”

Adam tilted her face back towards his own again and looked deeply into her pale-blue eyes. “I love you more than you’ll ever know, the future Mrs. Cartwright…all I know is that my life, regardless of my beginnings, would be wanting without you.”

Evangeline gave herself up to his kisses as he leaned in to gently press his lips first to each of her cheeks then her forehead and then her chin before settling on her lips. His good arm pulled her to him and she touched his neck with her fingertips. As the firelight flickered, reminiscent of another recent time of contentment, the young couple bid one another good-night before going to sleep only to rise again the next day with unbelievable happiness in their hearts. The plots manufactured amid smoke rings in the dark had failed to ensnare the love felt between the two souls joined together by fate…

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Next Story in The Healing Hearts Series:

Spirit of a Wild One – Part I
Spirit of a Wild One – Part 2
Spirit of a Wild One – Part 3

8 thoughts on “Smoke Rings In The Dark (MissKitty4Adam)”

  1. You have a talent for description and creating in-depth OC’s. You know our Cartwrights well. This is a wonderful story that you have woven around Adam and Evangeline, as well as a very sinister plot. I felt all of Adam’s pain in the beginning, and throughout until the threads were all tied up at the end. I hope you will post more about Adam and Evangeline’s budding romance.

    1. Thank you, AC, so sweet of you to comment here on this story. I’m glad that you think I know our boys well, I like to think I do but sometimes it’s difficult to know for sure. : ) The sequel is coming… ; )

  2. I have to admit I was I little skeptical at first when I began reading you story but I must say that any doubts I had were gone very quickly! Love this story! Just enough SJS and SAS for me! Excellent job!

    1. Thank for giving it a chance, PC, I know this is a little longer story but I appreciate your time in reading it! I’m glad that it could please so well. The sequel will be coming soon!

  3. The Bonanza canon episodes showed us a family that never had an easy time with others or even within the family at times. You’ve captured that upheaval well in this story where love doesn’t come easy and others blame the Cartwrights for their unhappiness, while trying to make them pay. Glad things sorted themselves in the end and Adam seems to be heading for a wedding. But then again…things never come easy for them…. You brought in some very interesting characters and had great moments of family happiness and grief. The Cartwrights are always a unit. What happens to one of them is felt by all of them.

    1. Thank you for pausing to make such a wonderful comment, Judy, it means a lot. Yes, things never seem to come easy for our “boys” but they always come out on top! I look forward to continuing this series and having more adventures and romance with the Cartwright men!

  4. Wonderful story with complex OCs, twists and turns, delightfully described scenery, and suffering Joe and Adam but not too much. A good balance of family with the story of the other character’s with a satisfying resolution. Well done!

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