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.
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.”
“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.