A Dish Best Served (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  The course of true love rarely runs smoothly for any Cartwright, especially when a vindictive father and son are determined to punish the one they hold responsible for their personal tragedy.

Rated:  T   Word Count:  70,950 words

Author’s Note:  Part One of this story was submitted for consideration during the Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament.  Now, read the entire story.

 

A DISH BEST SERVED

Prologue

 

Clouds hung low, gray and gloomy, heavy with an endless supply of dribbling rain, over the small group gathered to pay their last respects to a young woman taken far too soon.  The weather had discouraged casual observers of the grief of more genuine mourners, who huddled beneath umbrellas as dark as widows’ weeds.  There were no widows here, only an anguished father and his distraught son and a few close friends of the family.

On a bleak, barren hillside above the graveyard, a young man shrouded in black like the others, but unwelcome among them, stood in solitary grief, his head bare to the falling rain, his glazed gaze fixed on the open grave.  Wind whipped his dark hair back from his face as the storm intensified, but he stood oblivious to the pelting rain, rivulets running down his neck, soaking his Sunday suit until it clung to his clammy skin.  Why, though, should he care for the rain?  Let it fall.  His tears were falling in greater number than the raindrops, anyway, and why should they not?  The love of his life was dead, and it was his fault.  Care for the rain?  He didn’t even care whether he lived or died.

William Walcott lifted his eyes from his daughter’s grave, and bitter hatred hardened his face when he saw the young man.  He dared defile this sacred moment?  Had he no shame?  Walcott had wanted to see the bastard dead, and while he knew that he himself was no match for a tough young gunman, he’d urged his son Walter to avenge his sister’s slaughter.  Walter, however, had had no more stomach for a gunfight or a hangman’s noose than his father, and in the end William had decided that it was better to wait.  After all, revenge was a dish best served cold, so the proverb said, and this particular dish deserved service more frigid than ice.  Waiting would give his heart time to cool and his mind to coldly calculate that young man’s destruction, to refine the torment he must endure until it was the most exquisite torture this side of the hell to which the blackened soul of Adam Cartwright would then be consigned.

Three years later 

Stepping down from the stagecoach, Adam Cartwright accepted his carpetbag from the man unloading the baggage.  From sheer habit he looked up and down the street for some member of his family, but they could only have been here to meet him by sheer coincidence.  He had returned from Sacramento a day earlier than expected, and he hadn’t bothered to telegraph his time of arrival.  Maybe he’d even treat himself to a room at the hotel and a night on the town in celebration of business well transacted.  For now, though, he’d settle for a hot meal, as he’d passed up the scanty opportunities to eat that the stage line had offered.  Nothing fancy.  Whatever today’s special was at Daisy’s Café would suffice.  He headed down C Street in that direction.

He stopped when he heard a name called.  Not his own, but one that still had the power to halt him in his tracks.  “Mr. Walcott?” the soft, accented voice had called.  Perhaps that was what had made him stop.  One didn’t often hear a British accent on the streets of Virginia City, especially that of a lady.  Miners from Cornwall, certainly, but never a lady, that Adam could recall.  He turned and saw a pair of stunning sapphire eyes set in a creamy-cheeked face of surprising loveliness.

“Oh!” the lady said, a startled look in those enticing eyes.  “I’m sorry.  I thought you were . . . someone else.”

“Walter Walcott?” Adam asked, somehow getting the name past his urge to clench his teeth.

“Why, yes,” she said, tilting her head.  “You know him?”

“Yes.”  Adam didn’t trust himself to say more.  He and Walter had never been friends and perhaps even now it was too much to call him an enemy, but they certainly avoided each other as much as was possible for members of two of the most prominent families in Virginia City.  “I take it you do, as well?”

“We’ve met,” the young lady said.  “He was at a social gathering my father and I were invited to last week.  We’re new here, you see.”

“Yes, I know,” Adam said with a smile, feeling more pleased than he liked to admit that her acquaintance with Walter Walcott was, apparently, a slight one.  Seeing her inquisitive look, he explained, “I’ve lived here since I was a boy, so I know most of the long-term residents.”

She smiled, too, then.  “Well, then, as I plan to become one of those myself, I’m most pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. . . ?”

“Cartwright,” he said.  “Adam Cartwright.  Is there anything I might assist you with, Miss . . . ?”

“Worthington,” she replied.  “Rose Worthington.  I’m embarrassed to admit it, but when I mistook you for Mr. Walcott—you look somewhat alike from a distance, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know,” he said, and his voice grew almost cold.

“Oh.  Well, perhaps it’s the dark clothing.  He said he was in mourning for his sister, who died under tragic circumstances.  Are you in mourning, as well, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No,” Adam said gruffly, though he wondered for a moment whether that was the reason he generally wore black.  Ridiculous, he decided.  He’d chosen that color long before Emily died, and though his heart still wrenched at her memory, he would never have paraded his grief with formal mourning garb, the way her father and brother still did.  He straightened and made a deliberate effort to smile again.  “Now, what was it you were embarrassed to admit, Miss Worthington?”

She laughed lightly.  “Shameless woman that I am, I was hoping you were Mr. Walcott so that I might prevail upon our slight acquaintance to enlist his help with these cumbersome packages.  I would not, of course, presume upon a stranger.  Pray, do not let me detain you any longer.”  The demure dip of her chin hinted at a hope that he would not take that offer too seriously.

He was happy to take the hint.  “Ah, but we’re old acquaintances now.”

“Oh, no!” she cried suddenly, her slender fingers covering her mouth.  “How could I possibly not have noticed the load you’re already carrying?  You couldn’t take on my packages, too!”

“Oh, I think I can,” Adam chuckled.  “It will be an interesting engineering challenge.”

“Are you an engineer?” she asked.  She looked as if that pleased her.

“I took a few courses in college,” Adam replied as he tucked his carpetbag under one arm, “but my primary interest was architecture.  Now, if you’ll just place the packages in my arms in the order in which I request them, I’m sure we can build a structure sturdy enough to last until we reach your destination.  Where were you headed?”

“The International House,” she said.  “We’re staying there until our new home is refurbished.  If you’re sure . . .”

“Oddly enough I’m staying there tonight myself, so I won’t be going a step out of my way,” Adam said, the decision quickly and easily made.

**********

Standing before the mirror over the dressing table in his hotel room, Adam brushed the last rebellious strand of dark hair into place.  Then he stepped back and appraised the figure he cut in his well-fitting suit.  The first thing he’d done after checking in was to send it out to be pressed, and it showed no sign of the hours it had spent in his carpetbag.  Thankfully, it was dark blue.  That should demonstrate to Miss Worthington that he was not in mourning, though he was unsure why that mattered so much.  It simply was not in his natural makeup to fall head over heels for any woman at first sight.  That sort of ridiculous romantic behavior was more characteristic of his youngest brother, and goodness only knew, this girl was closer to Little Joe’s age than his own.  Still, it did matter that she see him at his best and that she consider him an eligible companion, ready at last for a new and fulfilling relationship.

Was he ready?  He had mourned for Emily for over a year before he’d been able to even think about being with another woman, and then he’d socialized sporadically, never more than a few times with the same lady.  It was as though Emily’s shadow hovered over every other woman, and anyone else paled in comparison with her sacred image, much the same way his own mother’s memory had kept his father in miserable isolation until Inger had entered their lives.

Even now, thoughts of Emily brought tears to his eyes, but though he’d found the advice irritating in the early days of his loss, he’d finally seen the wisdom in Grandfather Stoddard’s words to a young, grieving Ben Cartwright, often repeated to his son that first pain-filled year.  Now, at last, Adam thought, he could keep a warm place in his heart for his earlier love without carrying her on his shoulders for the rest of his life.  Yes, he was almost certain he was ready to love again, and this little English Rose had stirred his heart in a way that made absolutely no sense, but somehow seemed absolutely inevitable.

He checked his watch.  Having skipped a late lunch at Daisy’s in favor of having supper at an hour most people were inclined to eat, he was now starving, but he thought he should probably wait a little longer before going down to the dining room.  He wanted Rose and her father to be there, of course, or there was no point at all to his eating downstairs, but since he had no knowledge of their regular eating habits, it was all pure guess work on his part.  He had no way, either, of ensuring that he would have a table near enough to theirs to even see her, but surely he could use a little of the Cartwright clout to arrange that.  He laughed at himself.  All this maneuvering, just for another glimpse of her face.  Oh, yes, this display of romanticism was definitely more worthy of Little Joe Cartwright than his logical, serious, too-educated-to-fall-headlong-into-love older brother . . . and Adam was loving every minute of it.

Unable to wait longer, he went downstairs and crossed the lobby to the dining room.  Entering, he quickly scanned the area and caught his breath when he saw Rose seated with a stately man with graying hair.  A waiter appeared to seat him, and Adam at once pointed out the table closest to the Worthingtons.  “Certainly, Mr. Cartwright,” the waiter said, leading the way.

Adam paused momentarily to smile and nod at Rose as he passed, and as he’d hoped, she recognized him.

“Mr. Cartwright!” she said, her eyes dancing with pleasure.  “Oh, do let me introduce you to my father.  Father, this is Adam Cartwright.  We met on the street this afternoon, and he assisted me in getting all those things I shouldn’t have bought back to the hotel.  Mr. Cartwright, my father, Isaac Worthington.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, sir,” Adam said.  “Since I understand you to be new to our community, please allow me to welcome you to Virginia City.”

“Thank you, young man,” Mr. Worthington said, rising to shake his hand.  “Won’t you join us?  We’ve only just ordered.”

That was better than Adam had hoped for!  “If you’re sure it’s no imposition,” he said, although he wasn’t sure he could have resisted sitting down, even if it were.

“Not at all,” the English gentleman said.  “Please do.”

Adam needed no second invitation.  He sat down cater-cornered to both father and daughter at the square table and quickly placed his order.

“I’ve heard the name Cartwright mentioned about town,” Mr. Worthington said.  “Am I correct in assuming you might be one of the Ponderosa Cartwrights?”

“Yes, sir, I am,” Adam at once replied.  Clearly, this was one of the times when the Cartwright name would be an asset, and he had no scruple against using it to further his acquaintance with this particular family.  “You have not met my father yet?”

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure, but I hope I soon shall.”

“Why don’t you . . . and Miss Rose, of course . . . come for Sunday dinner?” Adam said, trying not to look overeager.  “Pa always likes to welcome newcomers to our fair city, and that would be an ideal time.”

“We’d be delighted,” the older man said, “although, perhaps, you should check with your father first, young man.”

“Not at all,” Adam assured him.  “Pa prides himself on his hospitality.  I assure you that, even had I invited you to supper tonight, he would have welcomed you with open arms, though our cook, Hop Sing, would definitely prefer more warning than that, so he could astound you with his culinary capabilities.”

The English gentleman laughed.  “In that case, I shall be most pleased to make your father’s acquaintance, but I think we will not put his hospitality . . . or Hop Sing’s . . . to such a test.  Sunday will be, as you say, ideal.  After church, I presume?”

“Yes, after church,” Adam said.  He risked a quick glance at Rose and was excited to see a telltale blush darken her porcelain cheeks.  Was it possible that she was experiencing the same precipitous plunge into emotional attraction as he?

**********

“Checking out, Mr. Cartwright?” the clerk behind the desk inquired.  “Shall I charge your stay to the Ponderosa account?”

“Uh, no, Tom,” Adam said.  “I’ll pay for this now.”  He took the appropriate amount from his pocket and handed it over.

“Very good, sir.  I hope you enjoyed your brief stay with us.”

Adam smiled dreamily.  “Very much.  Very much, indeed.”  Carrying his carpetbag, he walked to the door and stepped out onto the boardwalk.  Much as he would have liked to stay longer, he was expected home today.  Besides, he really did need to get to the Ponderosa and let his father know about his invitation to the Worthingtons.  He had no concern whatsoever that it would not be honored.  His father was every bit as welcoming to newcomers or even passing strangers as Adam had indicated the night before.  Hop Sing, on the other hand, could be decidedly more cantankerous than he’d said when presented with unexpected guests.  The cook prided himself on setting a fine table for visitors just as much, if not more, than Ben Cartwright did on his hospitality.  Anything that forced him to lower his self-imposed standards could result in a loss of face, as well as some distinctly dissatisfying meals at the Ponderosa for days after the visitor left.

“Adam?”

The young voice was pitched higher than usual, a reflection of surprise, but Adam would have recognized it anywhere.  He turned and looked back at his little brother.  “What are doing here this time of the morning?”

Little Joe grinned back at him.  “Might ask you the same thing.  I came to town to fetch you home, but I figured I was early.  Stage in already?”

Adam exhaled in frustration.  Caught; might as well admit it.  “No,” he said.  “I got in yesterday.”

Little Joe feigned shock.  “And didn’t come straight home?  Pa ain’t gonna like that.”

Lips pursed, Adam nodded.  “You would be the expert on behavior Pa doesn’t care for, all right.”  He moistened his lips.  “Pa doesn’t really need to know about this, does he?”

The expression of shock deepened visibly, and Little Joe clutched his chest as if in sudden pain.  “You want me to lie to Pa?”

Adam laughed.  “Oh, no, little buddy.  I have no intention of giving you ‘Adam said I could’ as an excuse for any future deception.  You, my boy, should tell the truth on any and all occasions.  However, it isn’t always necessary to tell everything you know.  Silence, in many cases, can be truly golden.”

“Hmm, I’ll have to think that one through, older brother,” Little Joe said, stroking his chin between thumb and index finger.  “Maybe I could mull it over while sipping that beer you’re gonna buy me.”

“All right,” Adam drawled slowly.  “That seems a small enough price to pay for a little discretion.”

“Yeah.  Probably too small,” Little Joe said.  “And givin’ in that quick makes it seem like you got something to hide, so just to protect myself, I probably ought to ask what it is.  Hmm?”

For a moment Adam stared at him from beneath an arched eyebrow.  Of all people to trust with this information!  But, then, who might be more likely to understand?  In sudden decision, he said softly, “I met a girl.”

Little Joe’s face brightened in interest.  “Yeah?  She must be something!  So, what’s she like?  Homely as a schoolmarm and twice as smart?”

Adam snaked his arm around the boy’s shoulders and began to walk down the street.  “Come on.  I’ll treat you to that beer and tell you about her.”

**********

With Rose on his arm, Adam walked into the front yard of the Ponderosa.  Sunday dinner could not have gone better had he orchestrated every movement.  His father and Isaac Worthington had hit it off immediately.  Both were avid gun collectors, and Ben was presently showing off his treasures, mounted and not, and while Adam had expected Little Joe to make a show, at least, of vying for the beautiful girl’s attention, the boy had, instead, given him a discreet wink and challenged Hoss to a game of checkers.  Hoss’s broad wink had been anything but discreet; however, it revealed that baby brother had already filled middle one in on the news that Adam was smitten with the lady and would, of course, appreciate some privacy as they took the air together.

Quite literally taking the crisp pine-scented air, Rose inhaled deeply.  “Oh, so fresh and invigorating,” she sighed.  “Not at all like the smoky haze over Birmingham.”

“America has its industrial cities, too,” Adam said.  “At one time I considered living in one, to pursue a career in architecture, but in the end, the pines drew me home.  Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision, but most of the time I wouldn’t trade this, even for the cultural advantages of the East.”

“What cultural advantage could compare with that?” she asked, as her hand swept across the horizon, where the descending sun was painting the forested hills in lavish shades of lavender and apricot.  “Never question your decision, Adam.”  She blushed.  “After all, I might never have met you had you settled in one of those cultural meccas.”

His voice lowered to a near-whisper.  “Perhaps you would have met someone far more suitable.”

She looked up into his emotive eyes and said earnestly, “That scarcely seems possible.”

He pulled back slightly, knowing that if he did not, he would take her in his arms.   “You’re very young,” he said, “closer to my brother Joe’s age than my own.  Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer him?  He is quite the handsome boy.”

“Oh, he’s beyond handsome,” Rose said.  “He possesses a rare masculine beauty worthy of a sculptor’s chisel.”  She laughed at the woebegone expression that suddenly washed over Adam’s face and quickly closed the distance between them.  “But who would want a boy when she could have a man?” she said, her eyes dropping as a modest blush tinted her cheeks.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his palms resting beneath her elbows as he drew her closer.  “Are you sure you know your own mind?  You are, after all, more fittingly a rosebud than a fully opened Rose.”

“Oh, Adam, I will open for you, only you . . . if you wish it,” she murmured, laying her head against his expanding chest.

“Oh, I wish it,” Adam said.  As he kissed the top of her head, a bitter memory reared its ugly head.  “Will—will your father approve?” he stammered and held his breath.

She looked up at him and smiled.  “He will,” she said and raised her petal-soft lips to him.

**********

Rose was right.  When Adam asked her father’s permission to court his daughter, Mr. Worthington enthusiastically gave it, and the young couple set about a whirlwind courtship.  More accurately, the world seemed to whirl around them, while they stood at the calm center of that hurricane, completely absorbed in each other.  Dinner together at least once a week, barn dances, nights at the theater or an educational lecture, picnics when the weather turned warm, rides around the ranch, in addition to visits by the entire family in each other’s homes, during which Adam and Rose always managed to find some excuse for time alone.  They couldn’t see enough of each other, and each meeting showed them new depths to be explored.

Adam was still amazed by the instant connection he had felt, but he told himself later that he must have seen in her eyes all that lay within, for had he sculpted his own Galatea, he could not have formed a more perfect match.  They had read and admired the same authors; they shared the same taste in drama.  Rose, being the daughter of an engineer, had inherited his ability to see to the heart of a problem and comprehend its solution.  She understood and was thrilled to discuss Adam’s dreams of improving the Ponderosa and clearly saw herself being part of the process.  Yet for all her cultural sophistication, she, like him, enjoyed simple natural pleasures just as much.  For her, a picnic near a rustic pond shared equal delight with an elegant dinner among Virginia City’s elite, a long discussion with Hoss about the proper care of cattle with a lecture by a world traveler, a game of checkers with Little Joe with—well, no, she definitely preferred chess with Adam, when they could wrest the board away from their fathers.

Six months passed as if they had been six days . . . or six years.  Time was timeless; it simply flowed around them without touching them.  By now all of Virginia City was talking about an impending marriage; yet no wedding bans were posted.  There were whispers that Cartwrights were not the marrying sort, although the fact that the head of the family had had three wives seemed to negate that notion.  Darker rumors, too, made the rounds, sometimes spoken in stage whispers meant to be overheard, but Rose ignored them as community gossip until one evening in late September, when she was directly confronted with a sordid accusation.

The Harvest Moon Ball was held in the Howard Theater, and the hall was already lively with music and dancers when Adam paid for two tickets and escorted Rose inside.  She was dressed in flowing silk in her namesake color and once they were on the dance floor, her skirt swirled around her in graceful lines.  “Beautiful, my darling rosebud,” Adam said, adding with a wink, “and so very artistic.  A pity we have no portrait painter worthy of such beauty.”

“Tease me all you like,” she said.  As an amateur painter, she had been pleading with Adam for weeks to let her try to catch his likeness, but he had, thus far, managed to sidetrack her endeavors.  “You will let me make your portrait . . . or . . .  or I shall nag you mercilessly until you do!”

“Nag away,” he suggested dryly, knowing by now that nagging was simply not in her nature.

“Well, then, perhaps I shall just paint Little Joe, instead,” she threatened.  “I’m sure he’ll be much more cooperative.”

“Oh, no,” he laughed.  “Anything but that.  Besides, you said he was worthy of a sculptor’s chisel, not a paintbrush, remember?  He’s saving himself for the first female Michelangelo.”

“Nonetheless, I will,” she insisted, deliberately trodding heavily on his left foot, “if you don’t let me begin your portrait this very week.  I want to paint you by the lake in the moonlight, and it will soon be too cold for that.”

Adam spun her around until she was breathless.  “Oh, all right,” he sighed.  “I can’t leave you in the clutches of that Lothario, so I suppose I’ll have to give in.”

She clucked her tongue.  “Shall I tell him you compared him to that rake?”

“Wouldn’t faze him,” Adam chuckled.  “Having never read Don Quixote, he doesn’t know who Lothario is, and if he did, I fear he might take it as a compliment.”

She giggled.  “You’re terrible, Adam.  One would think you didn’t even like the boy, when I know perfectly well that you love him dearly.”

Adam shrugged.  “He’s my brother.  However, I believe you’ve wasted enough time bantering about him, when you should be concentrating all your attention on my fine qualities.”

“And so I shall,” she agreed quickly, adding with a mischievous twinkle, “as soon as we’ve set the date for your first sitting.”

“First?”  Adam croaked.  “Of how many?”

“Oh, many . . . many,” she said as the music ended.  “I must get the likeness just right, and that may require countless revisions.”  In response to the provocative look in her eye, Adam bent to press his lips to hers, ignoring the heads that turned to take in a romantic scene rarely witnessed on a public dance floor.

Rose was a popular partner that night, not only with Hoss and Little Joe, who claimed family rights, but practically every man in the room at some time.  Despite the growth of the town from its beginning as a mining camp, men still outnumbered women, and women who were both beautiful and accomplished dancers were even fewer.  Though she had at first been unfamiliar with American styles, such as the square dance, Adam had helped her learn the new steps.  He didn’t regret teaching her, but he was definitely disappointed by the number of men who cut in on him throughout the evening.  “We may have to hold our next dance alone at the lake,” he grumbled.

“We can dance after each session,” she whispered just before she was whisked away by another eager partner.  “That will encourage you to book many sittings.”

Shaking his head, Adam went off in search of another partner, and being popular himself, he soon found one.  He always relinquished his new lady at the end of each dance, however, and reclaimed his little English rosebud, as he persisted in calling her.  It was no surprise when another man cut in after his next dance with Rose, but he stiffened when he heard the voice making the request.  “Of course,” he said, though somewhat tensely, for this was the first time in three years that he and Walter Walcott had actually exchanged words, despite being in the same room many times.

Although she sensed Adam’s uneasiness, Rose had no reluctance in accepting Walter as her new partner.  They were still only slightly acquainted, having met at a few social functions, since both her father and his had ties with the mining interests of Virginia City.  Their exchanges had always been pleasant, and he had even offered to escort her to one of the mining association dinners.  However, she and Adam had become involved with one another by that time, and she had felt obliged to refuse Walter’s invitation.  Though obviously disappointed, he had accepted her refusal graciously and had never asked again.

Their dance tonight was a slow waltz, leaving ample opportunity for conversation, and Walter immediately said, “Miss Worthington, there is a matter of great importance which I must discuss with you.  I consider it urgent, but this is, perhaps, not the best place.  It would be better if we could be alone.”

“I don’t think that would be advisable, Mr. Walcott,” she said cautiously.  “I scarcely know you.”

“Please, Miss Worthington, I implore you,” he said.  “It concerns your personal safety.”

“Then I think you should tell me at once,” she said firmly.  “Please don’t ‘beat around the bush,’ as you Americans say, but speak directly.”

“Very well, if you insist,” Walter said.  “I feel that I must warn you about Adam Cartwright.  He is not at all the sort of man that a young woman of your character should be seeing.”

“Please stop, Mr. Walcott,” she said, indignant.  “Whom I see is none of your concern, and I think I can form my own judgment of any man.”

“If you had all the facts, I’m sure,” Walter continued, “but don’t be entranced by his handsome features and suave manners.  I had hoped you would soon see through his outward charm, but since you have not, I must in good conscience warn you.  The man is a killer, responsible for the deaths of more than one man, as well as a young woman very dear to me.”

She broke out of his hold, and her cheeks flamed as she said, “That is quite enough!  Adam Cartwright is more man than you will ever be, sir!  I am proud to be seen in his company and I hope never again to be burdened by yours!”

Walter grabbed her arm.  “Ask him,” he hissed.  “Ask him how he led my sister to her death!”

“Let me go, Mr. Walcott,” she demanded, her eyes flashing, “or I shall scream loud enough to bring every man in the room to my rescue.”

“Miss Rose, you need some help?”

Rose turned to the welcome and well loved voice in instant relief, while Walter instinctively released her arm after a nervous glance at the big man.  “No, Hoss,” Rose said.  “I only felt a momentary faintness.  Perhaps you might escort me outside for a breath of air.”

“Sure thing, Miss Rose.  Okay if Bessie Sue comes along with us?” Hoss asked with a nod toward his partner.

“Certainly,” Rose said.  “I would welcome her company.”

As soon as they were outside, Bessie Sue turned to Hoss.  “Hey, Honeybear, why don’t you find Adam and let him know we’re out here?”

“If’n that’s what Miss Rose wants,” Hoss said.

“Yes,” Rose murmured.  “Yes, please.  I want Adam.”  Her voice broke as tears swam in her eyes.

“Back quicker than a fly lands on pie.”  The big man hurried inside.

Bessie Sue stood before Rose, hands on her hips.  “All right, Missy.  What’s really goin’ on?  That feller try to take liberties with you?”

“No,” Rose said quickly.  “I just felt . . .”

Frowning, Bessie Sue shook her head.  “Don’t hand me that hogwash!  Hoss may be blind as a bat—most men are—but I’m a woman, too, girl, and I know what I seen.  You ain’t in a faint; you’re plumb fretted out.”

Rose’s lip began to tremble.  “I should know better than to try to fool another woman, shouldn’t I?”

“You sure should, little gal.  Now, what did that feller try?”

Blinking back tears, Rose looked up.  “He didn’t do anything.  He just said very upsetting things . . . about Adam.”  She ended on a shaky whisper.

“Huh!  Sounds like pure jealousy to me,” Bessie Sue said.  “I wouldn’t give it another thought.”  She looked over her shoulder.  “Adam’s bound to be here any second now, so you wipe your eyes and pinch your cheeks to bring back the color, unless you plan on spillin’ the beans right off.”

Rose pressed her lips tight to keep from giggling at the American’s odd idiomatic speech, and the moment of levity effectively stopped the tears from brimming over.  “I’d rather keep them in the kettle, at least for tonight.  Do you think he’ll notice?”

“He’s a man, ain’t he?” Bessie Sue snorted.  “He’ll notice quicker than Hoss, but I reckon if you stick to that faintin’ fit story, he’ll fall for it.  We call it the vapors hereabouts, if you was wonderin’.”

“The vapors, yes.  I’ll remember that.”

They established their strategy just in time, for Adam rushed out the door, with Hoss at his heels.  “Rose, what’s wrong?” he asked urgently.

“I felt somewhat faint inside,” she said.  “The room was so warm . . . or, perhaps, it’s the vapors.  Bessie Sue thinks so.”  Bessie Sue gave her a nod of approval as she took Hoss’s arm and steered him back to the dance floor.

Adam’s eyebrow arched at her invoking Bessie Sue as an authority.  “The vapors?” he asked.  “I didn’t realize you were subject to those, Rosebud.”

The skepticism in his voice was not lost on Rose.  “I just felt unwell.  I’m sorry, Adam, but would you take me home?  I’d like to lie down.”

“Of course, my dear,” he said at once, his original concern reawakened.  “And if you wish, I could ask Dr. Martin to attend you.”

“Oh, no,” she hurried to say.  “I’m sure it’s a passing thing.  I’ll feel better in the morning.”

“Then I can see you later in the week?”

She smiled.  “Of course.  Dinner after church tomorrow at the Ponderosa, remember?”

“If you’re up to it.”

“I’m sure I will be, and  then we’ll set a time for your first portrait sitting.”

Adam groaned.  “Well, if you’re back to planning that, I won’t worry any further.”  He offered her his arm.  “Let me escort you home, my little rosebud.”

**********

Adam took off work early on Friday, so he would have plenty of time to ride into town and drive Rose up to the lake for a supper picnic.  Afterwards, he would submit to the portrait sitting that she was still insisting on, in spite of her suddenly subdued behavior, which had continued through Sunday dinner.  Rose’s father had been somewhat reluctant to grant them permission to be together after dark in such an isolated place, as this painting project would necessitate.  He was not worried that anything dishonorable might happen between them.  By this time he trusted any son of Ben Cartwright to be a gentleman, and he certainly trusted his daughter.  However, since there still had been no proposal of marriage, the intimacy of such an occasion could be the source of enough gossip to damage a young lady’s reputation, if she and Adam were not to consummate the union that both fathers believed and hoped was destined to come.

Mr. Worthington had finally allowed them the liberty they both needed and deserved, while preserving their public image, by suggesting that Hoss and a female companion of his choice serve as chaperones.  Hoss had, of course, invited Bessie Sue, and they were now holding their own picnic far enough down the beach at Lake Tahoe to remain within sight, but out of range for any private conversations either couple chose to have.

What Adam found disturbing was that, for them at least, there had been almost none.  Other than a few pleasantries, comments on the weather and such, Rose had been quiet during the long drive from Virginia City, and now she sat across from him on the picnic blanket, barely touching the food on her plate, but saying even less than she ate.  “Are you sure you’re feeling well enough to be out?” Adam finally asked.  “You haven’t been yourself since the dance.”

She looked up at him quickly.  “Oh, yes.  I—I wasn’t really ill the other night, Adam.”

“I admit I wondered,” he returned.  “I mean, honestly, Rose . . . the vapors?  Isn’t that what ladies declare when they want out of a man’s company?”

Rose examined the tablecloth from beneath veiled eyes.  “I wouldn’t know.  I haven’t employed them before.”

“Employed . . . used,” Adam muttered.  “That implies intention.  To get out of a man’s company?”

“Yes,” she admitted.  Then, looking up, she saw the pain in his face.  “Oh, but not yours, Adam!  Never yours!”

“I’m who you were with,” he argued, a hint peeved.

“You’re not the only one I was with that evening,” she said quietly.  Then, momentarily losing her courage, she quipped lightly, “I danced with Hoss and Little Joe and any number of attentive gentlemen, if you recall.”

“Well, since Hoss escorted you outside, it can scarcely be him you were trying to evade,” he grunted, “and as you danced with Little Joe much earlier in the evening, you had ample time to report any disagreeable deportment even that young scamp might have tried.”

“He was a perfect gentleman, as I’m sure you know,” she chided.

“Then, who?” he demanded.  Realizing how loud he had become, he lowered his voice and said more gently, “I have never seen my little rosebud closed so tightly.”

“It’s just difficult, Adam,” she said, tracing the design of the quilt on which they sat with her slender finger.  Then she looked up with determination.  “But I will open for you, only for you, as I promised long ago.”  She took a breath and then said, “I was trying to escape from a man . . . the last man I danced with.  He was . . . unpleasant.”

Adam’s mind was already racing back to recover the name of the man who had last cut in on him.  “Walcott?” he growled.  “I’ll kill him.”

She reached across the quilt laden with food and grabbed his arm.  “You’ll do nothing of the sort.  He isn’t worth it; besides, it wasn’t me he insulted.”  She bit her lower lip, reluctant to continue.

Adam suddenly understood.  He pulled his arm easily from her grasp.  “He insulted me?  You needn’t hesitate to tell me, Rosebud.  I’m sure I’ve heard it all before!”

“You’re old enemies, then?” she asked.  “You never told me.”

“Not enemies, exactly,” Adam said with a careless toss of his hand.  “I was never his enemy, but . . . well, there are things he holds against me.”  He settled back and forced a laugh.  “Tell me the worst, then.  I assure you, you cannot shock me.”

“Don’t make light of it, Adam,” she said.  “It upset me at the time and, frankly, causes me even more concern, now that I’ve thought of it.”

He reached to take her hand gently.  “Tell me, then.  Whatever concerns you concerns me.”

As sober as she felt, the words made her smile.  “I will, every word.  He—he began by saying he wished to warn me . . . about you.  He said you were a killer.”

“And you believed that?” Adam looked offended.

“No,” she said at once.  “I didn’t believe him, but I admit I was shocked by the accusation.  He said you’d killed several men, which I suppose could be true.  Given the savage violence I’ve observed on the streets of Virginia City, you might easily have gotten caught up in it and been forced to defend yourself or someone else, and you’ve probably had to deal with rustlers and that sort of thing at the Ponderosa.”

“That has happened,” Adam admitted, “and, of course, there was that brief war with the Paiutes.  So, yes, Rose, I’ve killed men, though I never wanted to.  Only, ever, when necessary, my love.”

“I believe you,” she said earnestly, “and I don’t believe that makes you a killer.”  She took another breath.  “Mr. Walcott also accused you of being responsible for the death of a young woman dear to him.”  Seeing Adam’s suddenly gray countenance, she stopped, moistened her lips and continued softly, “He said I should ask you how you led his sister to her death.”

“Emily,” Adam barely breathed.  “Yes.  He . . . and his father, as well, have always blamed me for her death.  For a long while I did, too.  To this day I can’t fully exonerate myself.”

“You knew her?  Quite well?”

“As well as I know you,” Adam replied in agonized whisper.  “Perhaps better, having known her longer.”

“And cared for her?” Rose asked after swallowing hard.  “I can see you did.”

Adam moved to her side of the picnic blanket, so he could put his arm around her.  “I wanted to marry her,” he said.

“But she died,” Rose whispered.

“But she died.”

“Oh, Adam, I’m so sorry.”  She laid her head on his shoulder.  From that position she gazed up into his eyes.  “But why would her family blame you?  And why do you feel you need exoneration?”

He stroked her golden hair, as if touching this fresh wellspring of love could give him strength to face the dark shadow that still clung to the love of the past.  “Do you remember that first Sunday after we met?”

“Every moment,” she whispered.

Chuckling at her intensity, he continued, “Specifically, do you remember that I asked you if your father would approve of our seeing each other?”

She breathed out a romantic sigh.  “For a girl brought up on tales of King Arthur, it seemed very old-fashioned and gallant and chivalrous.”

He laughed roughly.  “Oh, no, Rosebud, it was none of those.  It was fear, or the ghost of Emily, if you wish a more gothic romance to read.”

She sat up.  “I don’t care for those.  Did her father not approve?  Is that why you feared mine might not?”

He raised her hand to his lips and kissed it.  “You’re very perceptive for a little rosebud.”  He dropped her hand to his lap, but continued to hold it.  “No, her father did not approve, and his disapproval, of course, was echoed by her brother.  Walter, you see, has always lived under his father’s iron thumb.  He thinks, feels, does nothing except what his father dictates.”

“And Emily?”

Adam’s smile was wistful.  “She lived under his rule, certainly, as a woman must in our society, but, unlike Walter, she had a mind of her own, and a clear sense of what . . . and whom she wanted.  She wanted me, as much as I wanted her, and in the end it was her undoing.  It began, though, in the same way our courtship did.”  He squeezed Rose’s hand.  “I asked her father’s permission, and that time it was the old-fashioned, gallant, chivalrous gesture you envisioned.  I was certain it was a mere formality, but he said no.”

She gasped.  “But why?  Your family is prominent, well off, honorable, and you yourself . . . well, I’m scarcely unbiased, but I can’t imagine any father being less than ecstatic to have you interested in his daughter.”

Adam’s laugh this time was more genuine, although there was a hint of bitterness behind it, as well.  “I’m afraid I thought the same thing . . . for all the same reasons.  Who wouldn’t want a Cartwright as a son-in-law?  With the obvious exception of Little Joe, who was only thirteen at the time, I couldn’t imagine any one of us being turned down, and I considered myself the most eligible Cartwright of all.  Prideful, I know.”

“Yes,” she said with a fond smile, “but not in the least inaccurate.”  She sobered.  “Did he give you a reason for his rejection?”

Adam shook his head.  “No, none at all.  He just told me flatly that I was unacceptable and that I was not to see his daughter again.  Emily later told me that he had ambitions of marrying her to one of the mining kings who were just beginning to amass their fortunes back then.  Mere cattlemen, Cartwrights though they be, were simply not good enough.”

“She told you,” Rose repeated.  “Then you did see her again, despite her father’s wishes.”

Adam’s eyes closed in evident pain.  “Oh, yes.  We met secretly time and again, and how we feasted on that forbidden fruit!  It was sweet, sweet fruit, and we savored every bite, but those secret meetings were what ultimately led to Emily’s being where she was when she was.”  He looked into Rose’s upturned face.  “So, you see, the Walcotts aren’t entirely wrong about my being, at least partially, responsible for her death.  If she had remained safely in her home . . .”

“Under her father’s thumb,” Rose inserted.

“Yes,” Adam agreed.  “Under his thumb, with no will of her own, no life of her choosing . . . but, at least, alive.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened, Adam?”  She added quickly, “You needn’t, if it’s too painful.”

“It’s painful,” he admitted, “but I think I need to tell you.”  He smiled ruefully.  “I can scarcely let a tiny rosebud surpass me in candor, so, my sweet Rose, I will open for you, only for you.”

She slipped back from his embrace to give him more freedom to move about, if he needed to, and folded her hands to still their trembling.

“That night was no different from a dozen that had gone before it,” Adam said.  “She’d asked permission to spend the night with a friend, who was sympathetic to this hometown set of star-crossed lovers and willing to be complicit in our meetings.  There was nothing special about the night itself, just dinner at Café de Paris, and then a slow stroll back to her friend’s house.  We were walking down C Street, so lost in each other that we were oblivious to anyone or anything else.  Only at the last moment did I realize that a group of men were making—well, shall we call it an unauthorized withdrawal from the bank?”

“A robbery,” Rose surmised.

“Ah, I see my Rosebud will have nothing sugar-coated.”  Adam said.  “I suppose there is no way to sugar-coat the rest, anyway.  As a good citizen and a Cartwright, of course I felt obliged to assist the sheriff, but I had an obligation to Emily, as well, so I pulled her into the nearest alley, showed her a place to hide and told her to stay there until I came for her.

“She begged me not to go, but I had to play the hero,” he continued bitterly.  “It’s a wonder I wasn’t killed in that wild melee of bullets.  I was, in fact, the only person not wounded that night.  Roy Coffee went down, although thankfully his injury was slight, as I learned when I rushed to his side.  Then, together, we shot it out with those felons, and they got the worst of it.  One after another they fell motionless in the street.  The shots slackened off and then stopped entirely.

“We thought it was over, but there was one man unaccounted for, so we were cautious.  Emily, unfortunately, was not.  As soon as the shots stopped, she rushed into the street, crying out my name.”  He paused and looked at Rose through brimming eyes.  “She was terrified that I’d been hurt, you see, but I was fine.”  His voice took on an edge as sharp as a razor’s.  “And then . . . then . . .”

Rose reached to take his hand.

Drawing strength from her touch, he steeled himself and continued.  “We’d all thought—hoped, really—that it was over, but it was only a lull, while the one gunman left reloaded.  And when Emily rushed into the street, he turned toward that threat from a new direction, as he perceived it, and fired automatically.  I lost all sense of caution when I saw her fall, and I ran to her, without a thought of that man’s freshly loaded gun.  Fortunately, Sheriff Coffee covered me and was able to shoot the man . . . in time to save me, but not Emily.  She died in my arms.”  He closed his eyes and his head dropped.

Rose threw her arms around his neck, and his instinctively closed around her.  “Oh, Adam, how horrible for you!  I can see how much it still hurts you, but then, it would, being so recent a loss.”

“Recent?”  Adam’s eyes opened and he looked at her in surprise.  “Well, I’ll admit there are days when it seems like yesterday, but most people wouldn’t think of three years as recent.”

She drew back, stunned.  “Three years?  But when we first met, Mr. Walcott told me that he was in mourning for his sister.  I assumed . . .”

“Ah,” Adam said in sudden comprehension.  “But the Walcotts, you see, maintain perpetual mourning for Emily.  Maybe unforgiveness keeps the heart shrouded like that, feeds the blackness of mourning eternally.  I can’t say.  I had a better example set for me.  Like my father before me, I keep a warm place in my heart for my Emily, but my heart is no longer in mourning.”  He took Rose’s hand.  “And though I’ve hesitated longer than I should, I think I am finally ready to open it fully to the new love that has been growing these past six months.  Oh, my sweet little Rosebud, will you marry me?”

Rose looked deeply into his earnest eyes and saw the love there, but with a wistful smile, she said, “No, Adam.”

“No?”  Had someone hit him on the head with a sledge hammer, Adam could not have looked more dazed.  “I-I don’t understand.  I thought . . .”

She laid a gentle hand on his cheek.  “You’re not wrong, Adam.  I do love you, with all my heart, and I hope you will ask me again.  Just not tonight.  Tonight your emotions are too raw, the memories too close and painful.  You shouldn’t make a lifelong decision on the wings of such emotion.  Take a week, at least, more if you need it.  Then, if you still feel the same, ask me again.”

Reaching up, he took her hand, pulled it toward his lips and kissed her palm gently.  “You are mature beyond your years,” he said, “proving what I’ve said all along: you are far too old for my baby brother.”

She laughed.  “Maybe I’ll take Hoss, then.  He’s closer to my age than you, too.”

“What’s this about takin’ my man?” a low-pitched female voice demanded.

Surprised, Rose giggled like a silly schoolgirl caught doing something naughty.  “Only teasing, Bessie Sue.  I know Hoss’s heart belongs to you.”

“Doggone right!  Well, we was a mite concerned about how quiet it had got, over to this end of the lake,” Bessie Sue said with a playful grin, “and figured it was time us chaperones did our duty and made sure no hanky-panky was goin’ on.”

“No hanky-panky,” Rose said.  “Adam is a gentleman.”  She’d never heard the term before, but she could guess at its meaning.

“Hope we didn’t come trompin’ in at the wrong time,” Hoss said, looking uneasy.

“Your timing, as always, younger brother, is perfect,” Adam assured him.  “In fact, we were just about to come investigate how quiet it had gotten over at your end of the lake, weren’t we, Rose?”

“Absolutely, Adam,” she agreed, a twinkle in her eye.

Their light-hearted banter fooled no one.  Both Bessie Sue and Hoss could see the tracks of tears recently shed, but Bessie Sue only said that she needed to get home, so she could rise in time to milk the cows the next morning.  Adam and Rose agreed that it was, indeed, time for their evening to end, and after gathering up the remains of both picnics, the two couples left together, separating when their paths diverged at the Virginia City road.

One week later, almost to the minute, Adam Cartwright knocked at the door of the Worthington house.  When Rose came in response to his request, he kneeled before her on the wooden porch and extended a closed hand, which he then opened to reveal a simple ring, set with one delicate diamond.  “Miss Worthington,” he asked formally, “would you do me the honor of becoming my bride?”

“You’re sure?” Rose asked, carefully watching his face.

“Beyond sure, my love.”

She threw her arms around him.  “Then, of course, I will, my darling Adam!”

**********

News of the impending marriage was greeted by a variety of responses from the good people of Virginia City.  Many a fair maiden sighed plaintively as long-cherished dreams evaporated, while her doting mother pointed out that there were still two eligible Cartwrights left, three if one counted Ben.  Some loving parents actually sighed in relief.  Adam, after all, had a reputation for being too smart for his own good and more than a little full of himself, not at all a comfortable sort of son-in-law to welcome into the family.  Others sighed for the lost Ponderosa fortune that could have been theirs.  Some simply didn’t care; whatever the high and mighty Cartwrights got themselves up to had nothing to do with them; it was all they could do to keep their heads above water in the day-to-day grind.  Most, though, seemed pleased for the young couple and looked forward to the wedding to be held at the Ponderosa some two months after that decisive night at the lake.

In only one household was the news met with a darker response.  “That man has no right to ruin another young girl’s life,” William Walcott fumed as he paced before his parlor fire.

“I tried to warn her,” his son Walter, slumped in a nearby armchair, said.  His feelings were torn, although none of them bore scrutiny.  He’d fancied the girl, such a pretty little thing, and he’d met her first, but that foul Adam Cartwright had cut off his chances as smoothly as a man cutting in on a dance floor.  He’d taken Rose Worthington from him as surely as he’d taken Emily.  “We could have made a perfect couple,” he muttered under his breath.

His father, however, heard and growled, “Forget her!  She’s shown herself unworthy.  She had her chance for a better match and chose, instead, to couple with a fiend.  She deserves whatever misery that may bring her!”  A sinister smile inched across his face.  “And misery stabs deepest on the heights of joy, wouldn’t you say?”

“I don’t know,” Walter said.  “If you think so, Father.  Do you mean . . . ?”

His father nodded in sober contemplation.  “Yes,” he drawled slowly.  “Yes . . . I think so.  I think our time—or, more correctly, Adam Cartwright’s—has finally come.  Just a little longer, Walter, just a little longer, and your sister’s death will, at last, be avenged.”

“It can’t come soon enough,” Walter declared, sitting up straight.

William cupped his son’s shoulder, pressing down hard with a restraining thumb.  “Patience, my boy, patience.  The torment requires just a little more refining to make hell burn hot enough for that foul fiend to repay even a fraction of the pain he has caused.”

“Let him burn, then, Father,” Walter said, jumping to his feet.  “Show me how and I’ll light the fire myself!  I won’t fail you this time.”

“I know you won’t, son,” the father, beaming with approval, said.  Then, looking into the parlor fire, he prophesied, “Adam Cartwright will burn!”

**********

The weeks sped past for Adam and Rose.  So much to be done!  Rose, however, insisted that she absolutely must complete her portrait of Adam before she could even think of lesser things like her wedding dress or the ceremony.

“Complete it!” Adam protested.  “You never even started that night at the lake.  We were . . . um . . . distracted, if you’ll recall.”

“We started more important things,” she said sweetly, adding with a roguish gleam in her eye, “but I simply cannot trust the marriage vows of a man who has not yet fulfilled a promise of such lesser weight.”

Adam laughed.  “Is this what our marriage is to be like, me on the losing side of every argument?”

“Oh, I do hope so,” she shot back.  “Is that not the key to marital bliss?”

“I don’t think so,” Adam chuckled.  “This is.”  And sweeping her into his arms, his lips embraced hers in a long and lingering kiss.

Three more sessions by the lake were required before Rose was satisfied that she had caught his essence in oil.  “On our wedding night, it will be my gift to you,” she said, when he asked yet again if he could see her work.

“At this rate mine to you will be a roofless cottage,” Adam complained, smiling as he did.  “Or a bedroom next to my brothers, if you prefer.”

“The roofless cottage, please,” she said, wiping her brushes.  “The portrait can stay with your brothers, as it needs protection from the rain.”

“And you don’t?” Adam hooted.

“The only protection I need is yours,” she said.  To demonstrate exactly what she meant, she stretched out on the picnic blanket and pulled him down over her prone figure.

He stayed long enough for a light kiss, but rose almost immediately.  “Any more of this and our chaperones will come running down from their end of the lake to ‘do their duty.’”

“Umm, perhaps,” she said, sitting up and hugging her knees.  “I asked Bessie Sue to be my maid of honor,” she told him.

“And Hoss will stand up with me,” Adam said.

She cocked her head.  “And Little Joe?  We wouldn’t want the dear boy to feel left out.”

“The dear boy can drive us to the stage station,” Adam said, one side of his mouth twitching up wryly.

“I think I’d prefer Hoss for that, too,” laughed Rose, who had seen the pace at which Little Joe tended to drive a team of horses.

Adam shrugged.  “I’ll think of something else, then.”  He pulled her into his arms.  “Now, let’s give those chaperones something to worry about, shall we?”

**********

As the date for their wedding drew closer, the happy couple saw less and less of each other.  Adam was busy building their new home.  He had, of course, asked Rose what she wanted in a house, but the structure itself was to be a surprise, his gift to her.  It was a big job, though, and even with his brothers taking over most of his ranch responsibilities, he was still so tired by day’s end that he didn’t often feel like driving into town.

Rose was busy, too, although less so than her intended.  She had taken responsibility for sending out all the invitations, even though most of them went to friends of the Cartwrights, rather than her own.  She and her father were too new to the territory to have formed many acquaintances outside Virginia City, but the Cartwrights had friends coming from as far as San Francisco.  Consulting with Hop Sing, she planned the wedding dinner afterwards, and most important of all, she put together her trousseau and her wardrobe for the extended trip they would take as man and wife.  She was having a local seamstress make the wedding dress itself of finest white satin and Swiss lace, but considering the numerous fittings the woman requested, Rose began to wonder if sewing it herself might have taken less time.

Sunday afternoons were still devoted to being together, and sometimes Adam would push himself to come in for dinner on a Friday or Saturday night.  They relished each moment they spent together, but it was never enough.  They told themselves it didn’t matter; they had their whole lives to be together.

**********

Adam laid his gun and hat on the credenza by the front door and moved toward the settee with full intentions of collapsing full length on it, feet perversely planted on the upholstery.

His father looked over from his chair by the fire.  “You look exhausted, son.”

“I’m tired,” Adam admitted, “but we finished painting the sides of the house today.  Now all that’s left is the trim and some final touches inside, so it’ll be finished on time, with a few days to spare.”

“Good,” Ben said.  “I know that’s important to you, although as I’ve told you time and again, your brothers and I could finish things up while  you’re on your wedding trip.”

“Oh, there’ll still be plenty to do,” Adam snickered.  “I’m leaving the three of you in charge of accepting all those shipments of furniture and seeing that everything is placed tastefully around the house.”

“Oh, mercy,” Ben moaned.  “Don’t you think Rose would prefer to oversee the placement herself?”

“I have no doubt we’ll move things around a dozen times before she’s satisfied,” Adam said smugly.  “Frankly, I prefer that the first rejected arrangement be done by someone other than me.  After all, we wouldn’t want to quarrel that early in the marriage.”

“So we’re to be the lambs led to the slaughter, instead, then, are we?”  Ben shook his head, but a smile played on his lips.

“Better you than me,” Adam said, stifling a yawn.

“Oh, by the way, son, a message came for you,” Ben said.  “I was instructed to have you read it as soon as you returned.”

“Who’s it from?” Adam asked.

“No idea.  It’s on the desk.”

With a weary sigh, Adam got up and walked across the room.  Picking up the sealed envelope, he opened it as he walked back.  He pulled out the single sheet and read it, standing beside the settee.  “Oh, for pity’s sake,” he groaned.  “Of all the times!”

“What is it, son?”

Adam tossed the note into his father’s lap as he dropped onto the settee.

Ben picked it up and read:

Dear Adam,

I am sorry to trouble you in the midst of your wedding preparations, but a matter of great importance requires convening the school board tonight at 8 p.m. at the schoolhouse.  Please make every effort to attend.  Your vote is vital.

Thank you for making time for this civic responsibility.

Yours sincerely,

Abigail Jones

The front door opened, and Hoss and Little Joe came in to hear their father chuckling.  “Yes, I seem to remember that Miss Abigail always did have an impeccable ability to select my busiest times for exercising my ‘civic responsibility,’” he observed.

Adam raked his fingers through his tousled hair.  “Why, oh why, did I ever agree to take your place on the school board?”

“What’s up?” Hoss asked.  “Miss Abigail need somethin’?”

“Well, she seems to think she does,” Adam grunted.

Little Joe pressed his hand melodramatically to his heart.  “What she needs, brother dear, is one last chance to stare dreamily into your velvet eyes before they’re lost forever to her fond gaze.”

“Argh!” Adam growled.  “Spare me your pathetic attempts at poetic speech, little buddy, or I will personally wring your scrawny neck.  So help me, if this is just a ruse to get me alone and make eyes at me, I’ll do the same to hers!”

“I’m sure it’s not,” Ben said.  “Miss Abigail is a hopeless romantic, but she’s too honorable to try to steal another woman’s man, especially on the eve of their wedding.”

“I suppose I’ll have to go,” Adam said, exhaling a long, perturbed rush of air.

“Hey, want some company?” Little Joe asked, eyes brightening.  A chance for a trip to town should never be passed up.

Adam rolled his eyes.  “Oh, the energy of youth,” he muttered.  “It’s all right with me, so long as I have your sincere promise to stay out of trouble.  I simply don’t have the energy to deal with a typical Joe Cartwright catastrophe tonight.”

“I promise,” Little Joe quickly said and trotted up the stairs to change his shirt and brush his unruly chestnut locks into order.

“What about you, Hoss?” Adam asked.

The big man shook his head.  “I’m plumb tuckered, Adam, and I got plans with Bessie Sue tomorrow night, so I reckon I’ll stay and keep Pa company.”

“Smart choice,” Adam said with a yawn.

**********

Adam and Little Joe reined up before the darkened schoolhouse.  “I appear to be the first one here,” Adam said.

“Well, we are early,” Little Joe said.  “I reckon the rest of the board will be along soon.”

“I hope so,” Adam sighed.  “A late start would guarantee wasting even more time.”

Little Joe grinned.  “You can’t work on that house after dark, anyway.  I wish you’d quit frettin’ about it.  If you ain’t afeard I’ll ruin the paint job, I could lend a hand tomorrow.”

“I’ll take you up on that,” Adam said, “and thanks.  I really appreciate all you and Hoss have done to cover my chores while I’ve been working on the house.”

“No problem,” Little Joe assured him.  “You’d do the same for me.”  He scratched his head.  “On second thought, it’d make more sense for me to do my own chores and let you build the house, when my time comes.”

Adam laughed.  “It would, indeed, and I’ll be happy to.  Just not in the next month or so, all right?”

Little Joe raised his hands, palms outward, and waved them back and forth in negation.  “Not in the next year or so, older brother!  I got some wild oats to sow first.”

Adam groaned loudly for effect.  “Not tonight, please.  I want to go straight home, as soon as this is over.”

“Aw, come on, Adam.  You need a little fun in your life,” Little Joe protested.  “Probably help you relax, sleep better, wake up rarin’ to go.”

“It might,” Adam conceded, “and where will I find you when this is over?”

“Silver Dollar, I guess.  They got the best sandwiches for the price of a beer.  Hey, I’ll even buy you one . . . if you get there before I’ve spent my last penny.”

“That shouldn’t take long,” Adam quipped.  “Have a good time, kid . . . but don’t overdo it.”

“Never do,” Little Joe said.  He flashed an impish grin.  “Well, hardly ever.”

“Uh huh.”  Though there was more truth than not in his little brother’s statement, Adam wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of agreeing.

“You—uh—want me to stick around ‘til someone shows up?” Little Joe asked.

Adam laughed.  “Why?  I’m not afraid of the dark, and they’ll be along soon.”

“Okay, see you later, then.  Much later, I hope!”

“And I hope not!”

With a casual wave, Little Joe headed further into town.  Neither he nor Adam had seen the dark figure skulking in the shadow of the nearest building while they talked, and neither saw the man’s crafty smirk as he watched Little Joe ride away.  Every piece of the plan was falling into place, even down to the one that couldn’t have been counted on.  The master architect of the scheme had hoped to involve one of Adam’s brothers, but there’d been no way to lure either of them to town without arousing suspicion.  Now, even that exquisite refinement of the torment was available to them.  Obviously, the downfall of Adam Cartwright had met with the full approval of divine destiny.

**********

Pleading personal correspondence that must be attended to, Rose Worthington had retired to her room directly after supper.  Now she sat, holding the note that had been delivered to her shortly before her father returned from his business meeting that afternoon.  She opened it and again read the mysterious words:

My darling,

It is urgent that I see you tonight.  Please meet me at 7:30 at Wilson’s old stable in the alley between Union and Sutton and, as you value our love, dearest Rose, tell no one.  This meeting must be kept secret.

I remain, your beloved,

Adam

Whatever could this message mean?  Of course, she welcomed the opportunity to see Adam, any time, any place, but he’d never before asked for such a clandestine meeting . . . at least, not with her.  She remembered how he had described the sweetness of the forbidden fruit of meeting secretly with Emily, and for the first time a smile curved her lips.  Was he thinking of that, too?  Was he hoping to share with her also the sweet allure of forbidden fruit?  They’d had so little time together this last week or so.  Oh, yes, it was just like her romantic Adam to plan a special night for them, perhaps to show her that she was just as important to him as Emily had been, that he was willing to run risks for her, too.

“Tell no one,” of course, meant not to tell her father. He would not have disapproved of her seeing Adam, as Emily’s father had, although he might have questioned an abandoned stable as a trysting place.  To seek his permission, though, would spoil the illusion of forbidden fruit.  Rose had always been close to her father, especially since her mother’s death, and had never kept anything from him, so her response wasn’t automatic.  She shivered a little, more fearful of frightening her father, should he discover her missing, than of any consequences to herself.  She wavered for a moment, but only a moment.  No!  She would not be less daring than her beloved Adam!  She would take her fruit and enjoy every juicy bite!

Pulling a light shawl from her bureau drawer, she opened her bedroom window and slipped through it into the dark alley behind her home.  Moving gracefully through the shadows, she made her way to Wilson’s stable, where Adam’s sweet, surreptitious, kisses were waiting.

**********

Little Joe Cartwright’s role in the night’s unfolding drama had been scripted for hopeful inclusion weeks before; even the props had been prepared.  Originally, its writer had presumed that the role would be played by Hoss Cartwright.  As the protagonist’s best man, it seemed more likely, though nothing was guaranteed, that he might accompany his brother into town on this fateful night.  Perhaps this was better, however.  For the coup de grâce to come from the boy he had half-raised, might intensify the pain for Adam Cartwright, and intensity of pain was, after all, the desired end, the culmination of weeks of careful plotting.  The script was written, the players all waiting in the wings.  It was time for the curtain to rise.

**********

Rose hurried down the dark alley, eager to be with Adam, eager to be safe in his arms and away from the threatening shadows that seemed to lurk around every corner of that part of town.  Somewhere along the way she’d lost her sense of adventure, and she had every intention of giving him a piece of her mind, once she found him.  That, at least, is what she told herself.  Of course, safe in his arms, the fears would flee and along with them any desire to do anything but kiss him and laugh at how frightened she’d been of a few shadows.

Since she’d never been on this street before, it was a good thing that the weathered sign still hung over Walker’s Stable.  The door stood ajar, not exactly welcoming, since she barely had room to slip through it.  A little moonlight filtered through the slim opening and through cracks here and there, where a slat was missing, but at first she saw nothing.  “Adam?” she called softly.  “Adam, are you here?”

As the black-clad figure stepped out from one of the stalls, she laughed giddily.  “There you are, you naughty boy!  Whatever possessed you to have me meet you here?  This is no place for a lovers’ rendezvous.”

Though the man stepped forward, his face remained in the shadows.  “If you want a better place, choose a better lover,” he said bitterly.

That wasn’t Adam’s voice!  Terror springing into her eyes, Rose backed away and then turned and ran for the door.  Before she could get through that narrow opening, however, the man grabbed her and pulled her back inside.  She screamed, but there was no one near enough to hear, and then a harsh hand covered her mouth as she was pushed further into the savage shadows and forced to the ground.  “No,” she pleaded when the hand slipped from her mouth to rip the buttons of her bodice, but the man silenced her pleas by pressing his rough lips to her mouth as she lay struggling beneath him.

“Stop it!” he ordered, raising up for a moment.  He slapped her across the face.  Gasping, she reached out, trying to claw at his neck, but he encircled both her wrists and held her to the ground until she had no more strength to struggle.  “That’s better.  Don’t make this harder than it needs to be!  I’ll be gentle if you let me.”

As he lowered himself over her again, she found the strength to raise her foot and kick upward between his legs.  With a howl of pain, he pushed the offending leg aside and lunged forward, his hands circling her slender throat, squeezing tighter and tighter until she struggled no more and lay sprawled beneath him.

He drew back, winded, and stared at her motionless form.  Too soon; he’d ended her life too soon, before he’d had a chance to taste her sweet fruit.  Unlike her ultimate death, that had never been part of his father’s plan, but a man deserved some small reward for a job well done, didn’t he?  He’d never have her now, but then neither would Adam Cartwright.  A cruel leer crossed his face as he began to rip her skirt to ribbons.  He hadn’t had her, but let the foul fiend think he had.  No doubt Father would praise him for the embellishment of the creature’s torment.  He finished staging the scene and then took up his post by a gap in the wall to wait for the next act to begin.

**********

One of the scruffiest street urchins in Virginia City pushed through the bat wings of the Silver Dollar Saloon, planted his bare feet and ran his eyes slowly over the crowd.  From behind the bar, Cosmo called out, “What you doin’ in here, boy?  I don’t serve kids.”

“Like as not you ain’t got nothin’ fit to drink, nohow,” the boy snorted.  “I’m lookin’ for someone.”

“Your old man’s more likely to be down at one of the bit places on South C,” Cosmo said.

“I’m lookin’ for Joe Cartwright,” the boy snapped.  “Reckon he’s got the price of one of your fancy drinks.”

“What you want with Little Joe?” Cosmo demanded.

The boy held up a piece of paper.  “I was told to give ‘im this.  Now, is he here or ain’t he?”

“Yeah, he’s here,” Cosmo said.  “Give me the note and I’ll see he gets it.”

The boy held the paper away from the bartender’s extended hand.  “Nope.  I was told to put in his own hand.  The gent who give it to me paid me good money, so I aim to do the job just like he said.”

“What gent was that?” Cosmo pressed.  “Joe might want to know.”

The boy shrugged.  “Some feller dressed all in black, didn’t give me a name.”

“Sounds like his brother Adam.  Joe said he’d be meetin’ him here.”  Satisfied that the message was legitimate, Cosmo pointed.  “That’s Little Joe at the table in the back corner.  Young, curly-haired fellow with the little redhead in his lap.”

“I see ‘im.”  The boy sauntered to the back of the room and gave the pretty gal in the fellow’s lap a grin.  “You Joe Cartwright?” he asked.

“Yeah.  How can I help you, young fellow?” Little Joe asked.

“Reckon it’s me helpin’ you, mister,” the boy said.  He held out the note.  “I was told to give this to you.  Barkeep seems to think it’s from your brother.”

“Yeah?”  Little Joe took the folded piece of paper and then dug into his pocket for a two-bit piece.  “Here you go.”

“I been paid,” the boy said.  He didn’t want word to get back to this fellow’s brother that he’d taken money twice for the same chore.”

“Take it anyway,” Little Joe said.  “Get yourself some sweetenin’ or something over at the general store.”

The boy’s grin widened.  “Okay.  Thanks, Mister.”  He pocketed the coin and took off.

“Excuse me, Miss Sal,” Little Joe said, “but I reckon I’d best see what that brother of mine wants.”

“Thought he was comin’, too,” Miss Sal simpered.  “Thought we could have us a good time.”

Little Joe grinned.  “Adam’s not up for much of a good time lately.  Gettin’ hisself hitched a few days from now.  Why don’t you fetch us another beer each while I read this, huh?”

She slid off his lap, kissed his cheek and headed for the bar, and Little Joe unfolded the sheet of paper, his brow wrinkling as he read:

Joe,

Unexpected change of plans.  Important you meet me at Wilson’s old stable at 8 p.m.  Don’t be late!

Adam

“Huh!  Looks like the school board meeting got called off.  Hey, Cosmo,” Little Joe called.  “What time is it?

“Twelve minutes ‘til eight,” the bartender called back.

Good, Joe thought.  That should leave me just enough time for that beer with Sal.

**********

Sal’s attractions delayed the youngest Cartwright a few minutes past his appointed time.  Adam would probably read him chapter and verse on the virtues of punctuality, but Little Joe didn’t care.  He’d heard the whole book before and, after all, what difference did it make if he arrived five minutes late?  Adam owed him an explanation, not the other way around, for choosing a forsaken place like an old abandoned stable to meet, when he could just as easily have come to the Silver Dollar, like they’d planned.

He had just turned into the alley when he was startled to hear a shot fired.  Then he ran forward, fearing he would find his brother sprawled in the ancient hay of that old livery.  He was still half a block away, though, when he saw a familiar figure exit the barn and look directly at him from beneath the brim of his black hat, which was pulled down practically to his nose.  “Hey, Adam,” Joe called anxiously.  “You all right?”

The man said nothing, but he held a finger to his lips; then he turned down a connecting alley and disappeared.  Little Joe ran after him, but by the time he reached that alley, there was no sign of anyone.

“Hey, Little Joe!” a voice called from the first alley.  “I thought I heard a shot.”

“Uh, yeah. I did, too,” Little Joe said.  Looking repeatedly over his shoulder, he walked back toward Scott McGrew, a hand from the Running R ranch.

“You was closer than me,” Scott said.  “You see anything?”

“Well, yeah,” Little Joe said, trying to make sense of what had just happened.  “I saw . . . a man . . . came out of Wilson’s and ran off that way.  Tried to follow, but lost him.”  Pure instinct held him back from mentioning Adam’s name.

“Huh!  What would anybody want in that old place?  Reckon we better check it out?”

“Uh . . . sure.”  He moved so slowly, though, that Scott beat him there, even though Little Joe was closer to the door.

“Hey, Joe!” the other rancher yelled.  “There’s someone hurt in here.  Oh, man!  It’s a girl.”

Little Joe’s legs felt like wooden stilts as he lumbered into the stable.  He stared at the body lying motionless in the dust.  Like a rag doll tossed aside by a child after a morning’s play, her arms and legs were sprawled askew.  Her bodice was open from neck to waistline, and her skirt looked like it had been shredded by a dozen cuts from a dull knife.

“Should we get the sheriff or the doc?” Scott asked.  “I think she’s dead, Joe, but maybe . . .”

“Get Doc Martin,” Little Joe said, “and hurry!”  Oh, God, let her be alive, he prayed, futile as the petition seemed.  As Scott ran out, he fell to his knees beside the broken body and lifted the wrist, intending to feel for a pulse.  However, he dropped the limb as soon as he touched it, for it felt cold, too cold for life to flow through its veins, though it hadn’t yet stiffened with the ultimate frost of death.  Why should it, though?  Not this soon; Adam had only just shot her.

Adam had shot her!  Little Joe still couldn’t believe it.  But he’d seen his brother with his own eyes.  Maybe he shouldn’t trust his eyes, though, given the way everything was spinning right now.  He thought he was going to be sick; then he knew he was going to be sick, and he barely had time to stumble away from the body before the two beers he’d consumed came spewing up, along with undigested bits of sandwich.  Rose!  Why on earth would Adam shoot Rose?  He loved her!  He was going to marry her, only a few days from now.  Nothing made any sense, and he couldn’t think clearly enough to figure it out. . . not here, not with Rose lying there . . . not with Adam running . . . running . . . to escape a hangman’s noose?

“In here!” Scott hollered and burst inside, closely followed by Dr. Martin.

The doctor came in and hurried to the young woman’s side.  “Little Joe, what’s happened here?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” Little Joe stammered.

“It wasn’t Joe, Doc,” Scott said.  “Couldn’t’ve been.  I saw him going into this alley just seconds before I heard the shot.  He don’t know no more than me . . . except you said you saw a man run off, didn’t you, Joe?”

“Yeah.  It’s Rose, Doc . . . Rose.”

“I know, son.  What was she doing here?” the doctor asked, shaking his head in disbelief.

“I . . . don’t know.”

The doctor stood, took the young man by the elbow and led him over to a wobbly stool.  “Sit down, Joe,” he said.  “This has been a shock, I know.”

“Oh, man, is that who it is?” Scott asked.  “Adam’s girl?  I’m sorry, Joe.  I didn’t recognize her . . . like that . . . in the dark.”

“Scott, you’d better fetch the sheriff,” Dr. Martin said.  “There’s nothing I can do.”

Scott gave his friend’s shoulder a sympathetic tap and then ran out to do as he’d been told.

Dr. Martin squatted down before the young man and asked a few questions about how he was feeling, but nothing that might further upset him.  The doctor knew shock when he saw it, and since there was nothing more he could do for Rose, he focused all his attention on treating the problem he knew how to handle.

It seemed like an hour before Roy Coffee arrived, although only a few minutes had actually passed.  He was all business from the moment he entered the barn.  He examined the body and briefly looked around for evidence before coming over to the stool, where Little Joe still sat, eyes fixed on the straw between his feet.  Dr. Martin and Scott flanked him on either side.

“Either of you boys see anything that might give a clue to who did this?” the sheriff asked.

“Joe did,” Scott said at once.  “Me, I just heard the shot and come runnin’, but I didn’t see the man, like Joe did.”

“You saw him?”  Roy at once turned to the Cartwright boy.  “Did you recognize him, son?  Can you give me a description?”

Little Joe looked up, and his mouth opened, but nothing came out.  A sharp shudder shook his entire body, and he felt for a moment that he would be sick again.

“If this can wait, Sheriff, it would be better,” the doctor said.  “He’s in a state of shock.”

“Understandable,” the sheriff said, “but these are the only witnesses I got, Doc.  I’m gonna need statements from both of them.”

“Take Scott’s first, then,” Dr. Martin advised.  “Little Joe can come with me to my office.  I think you’ll get a more coherent statement from him if you let him rest awhile first.”

Noting the boy’s pasty face, the sheriff nodded.  “Reckon you’re right.  You’ll need to do an autopsy, Doc.”

“I know,” the doctor said.  “If you’ll arrange to have the body brought to my office, I’ll do what needs to be done.  All right if we leave now?”

“Go ahead,” the sheriff said.  He’d seen Little Joe blanch even whiter at the mention of an autopsy and figured the doc was right: the boy was takin’ this hard, and the other Cartwright boy, the one who’d planned to marry this girl was likely to take it even harder.

As  Little Joe was helped to his feet, he looked up at the sheriff.  “Her father,” he murmured.  “Someone should tell . . .”

“I’ll take care of it, son; that’s my job,” Roy said.

“Come on, Little Joe,” the doctor said, taking the young man’s arm and leading him from away from the stench of death and bile.

**********

Though there wasn’t even a fence around the schoolyard, Adam Cartwright was pacing back and forth before the double doors leading into the building like a caged lion, more restive with each minute that passed without any member of the school board joining him.  He lived further away than any of them, and he could almost guarantee that none of them had as important an event on his personal agenda as a wedding.  Yet he was here, not only on time, but early, and by his watch it was now past eight o’clock, and not one of them had, as yet, showed his face!

Neither was Miss Abigail Jones here, however, and that was even more peculiar.  She was punctuality personified, whether she was opening the schoolhouse each morning or attending choir practice on Thursday evenings.  As his watch continued to tick away the minutes, his steps gradually slowed, and he began to ask himself whether something had happened to necessitate canceling the meeting.  It was conceivable that the notice of such a change might have arrived at the Ponderosa after he had already left.  At ten minutes past the hour, Adam decided that he had waited long enough; it was time to ask some questions.  Obviously, the best person to ask would be the schoolteacher herself, who had sent the original message.  Mounting Sport, he walked the horse into town and headed for the house Miss Abigail shared with her mother.

Since she lived relatively close to the schoolhouse, he soon was knocking on her door and pacing new territory as he waited for her to open it.

“Why, Adam Cartwright,” she said, her surprise apparent.  She modestly wrapped her dressing gown more closely around her.

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said, “but I’ve been waiting almost an hour at the schoolhouse, and when no one showed up, I felt I must inquire.  Was the meeting cancelled?”

She stared at him.  “Meeting?  What meeting?”

“The meeting of the school board,” Adam said with painful patience.  “You sent me a note, asking me to be there at eight tonight.”

“Adam Cartwright!  I most certainly did not!”  She held her chin high, the very picture of affronted maidenhood.

“But I received a note,” Adam said, “and it was signed with your name.”

“Someone is playing pranks,” she said, “and I, for one, find it offensive to be linked in this way with a man engaged to another.”  She looked studious for a moment and then asked, “Do you suppose this could be your little brother’s handiwork?  I recall Little Joseph being quite the prankster when he was in my class.”

“If he has, I’ll kill him,” Adam muttered.  Collecting himself, he said, “Miss Abigail, I sincerely apologize for whomever has perpetrated this prank on both of us.  Again, I am sorry to have disturbed you.”  He tipped his black hat and started down the steps.

“Oh, it was no trouble, Adam,” she called and just as quickly chided herself, though she turned back to the house with a nostalgic sigh.  There’d been a time when even such a ridiculous call as this would have set her heart atwitter, just for the chance to gaze into the deep hazel eyes of the most eligible and educated man in town.  Stop this, Abigail, she scolded herself.  He belongs to someone else now.  It just wasn’t meant to be.

**********

As he wandered down the street, Adam pondered what to do next.  In sheer frustration, he wanted to plow his fist into someone’s nose, but the only target that came to mind was the one Abigail Jones had suggested.  Much as he wanted someone to blame for tonight’s travesty, however, he didn’t really believe Little Joe was behind it.  Oh, the kid was a mischief-maker, no doubt about that, but he wasn’t mean-spirited enough to pull a stunt like this, not when he knew how much his older brother had on his plate.  He and Hoss both had been nothing but helpful during the craziness of this last week or so; they’d both tried in every way possible to ease the stress their older brother was feeling.

Or maybe that was it.  Maybe, in Joe’s foolish young head, a prank like this was exactly what big brother needed to break free of that stress.  Maybe this was the kid’s way of “helping.”  Only one way—and one place—to find out.  Adam turned his steps toward the Silver Dollar.  When he entered the saloon, he scanned the room; then he exhaled in annoyance that seemed almost predictable.  The kid wasn’t here; of course, the kid wasn’t here.  Anything less would have been much too convenient for whatever the heavens intended for this nuisance-laden night.  He turned to the bartender.  “Cosmo, has my brother been here?” he asked irritably.

“Oh, hey, Adam, didn’t see you come in,” Cosmo said.  “Yeah, Joe was here, not too long since he left.  He missed you, huh?”

“Yeah, he missed me,” Adam said dryly.  Not surprising, since he was supposed to stay here!  On the other hand, he hadn’t said the kid could go nowhere else, and Little Joe had probably figured that the board meeting would last later than this.  “He say where he was going, Cosmo?”

Cosmo shrugged.  “I figured he was meeting you somewhere.”

“No,” Adam said tersely.  “Well, thanks, anyway.”  With a careless wave of his hand, he went back onto the street.  Now, where on earth might the kid have taken off to?

He walked down C Street, stopping every once in a while to ask some acquaintance whether they’d seen his brother.  No one seemed to have seen hide nor hair of the boy until a young fellow from a neighboring ranch said, “Yeah, Adam, I seen him with Doc Martin.  Looked like they was headed to the doc’s office.  Little Joe was walkin’ kind of slumped over, too, like he might’ve got hisself hurt somehow.”

Adam took off, running.

**********

A broken man sat in Dr. Martin’s office, tears streaming into the hollows of his cheeks.  “Why?” he sobbed.  “Why?  Who would want to hurt my Rose?”

“No way to know yet,” Sheriff Coffee said, “but I promise you we’re gonna find out, Mr. Worthington.”  As the doctor came out from the examining room, Roy asked, “Well, Doc?  Can you tell us anything useful?”

“Useful?”  The doctor shook his head sadly.  “No, all I can give you is the cause of death.  She was strangled.”

“And shot,” Roy added.

“And shot,” Dr. Martin agreed, “but that wasn’t the cause of death.  There was very little blood at the entrance point, which indicates that she was already dead when the bullet entered.”

“Was she . . . was she . . .?”  Isaac Worthington had to know, but he couldn’t bring himself to voice the question uppermost in his mind.  He’d seen his daughter’s tattered dress and feared the worst.

The doctor laid a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder.  “No,” he said definitively.  “It was a savage attack, but in that way she was untouched, as pure as the day she was born.”

“Thank God,” the father murmured.  “At least, she didn’t have to endure that . . . but why . . . why?”  He buried his face in his hands, somehow hoping to quiet the sobs that rose from the core of his being.

The door flew open and Adam Cartwright burst in.  He stared, stunned and puzzled, at the sheriff and the father of his intended, but then turned to the doctor and panted, still breathless, “My brother . . . I was told he was here.”

“Yes, son, Little Joe’s here,” the doctor told him, looking at him quizzically.  “I have him lying down in the next room.”

“Is he hurt?” Adam asked.  “Badly?”

“No, no,” Dr. Martin assured him.  “He’s just resting; he’s had a bad night; he found the body.”

“Body?”  Adam’s confused eyes took in the others in the room.  “What body?  Whose?”  He stared at Isaac Worthington.  Why on earth was Rose’s father here, head now raised, but tears flowing all the swifter?

“Oh, Adam!” the grieving father cried.  “You haven’t heard?”

Dr. Martin came close, in case the young man needed support.  “It’s Rose, son,” he said.

“What?”  Adam backed away, his face blank with disbelief.  “Rose?  The body?  No!  It can’t be Rose; you must be mistaken.”

“I wish I were, son.  Sit down, please.”

But Adam wouldn’t.  Instead, he kept backing away from the doctor’s shocking words until he came up against the solid wall.  “Rose?” he whispered.  “No.  Please . . . no.”

Isaac Worthington rose and took the young man in his arms.  “I can’t believe it, either, Adam, but it’s true.  She’s gone; we’ve lost our Rose.”

Little Joe came to the doorway of the other room and stared in disbelief at his brother.  How could Adam put on a show like this, acting like he didn’t know what had happened to Rose, when he was the one who knew more than any of them.  Next thing you knew he’d be going on tour with his friend, Edwin Booth!  Sick at heart, the boy saw the sheriff and grasped at an inconspicuous way to get out of that room.  “Uh, Roy, you still want that statement from me?”

“If you’re feelin’ up to it,” Roy said with a glance at the doctor.

“I’m fine,” Little Joe said staunchly.  To confirm his purpose, he moved toward the door.  He paused long enough to say, “I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Worthington.  Rose was a beautiful person, inside and out.”

“Thank you, Little Joe,” the older man choked out through a closed throat.

In the emotion of the moment, no one noticed that Little Joe had omitted his own brother from the words of consolation; nor did anyone notice that Adam hadn’t asked how his younger brother, who was supposed to have been waiting at the Silver Dollar, had happened to discover the body.  In that moment nothing mattered except the overwhelming loss of a beautiful person, inside and out.

**********

With the light of day Roy Coffee examined the scene of the crime, hoping to find some clue to the killer’s identity overlooked the night before.  That alley was so filled with shadows, however, that it was almost as dark as it had been the night before.  The barn was more so.  There were simply too many other buildings around for much sunlight to penetrate, so the sheriff went for a lantern and returned, looking into every nook and cranny.  Nothing.  Nothing to tell him why a beautiful young lady, practically on the eve of her wedding, would go alone to a desolate place like this or why anyone, other than a complete madman, would want to kill her.

Might as well give up, he thought, kicking in frustration at the straw strewn across the stable floor.  That’s when the light from the lantern struck something shiny.  He bent to pick it up and carried the small piece of metal outside, where the light was minimally better.  It was a money clip, an expensive-looking one, and when Roy turned it over, he saw that it was monogrammed with two ornate initials: AC.

His mind immediately went to Adam Cartwright, because of his connection to the murdered girl, but he almost as quickly dismissed the thought.  Sure, Adam had been in town that night; that gave him opportunity, and any man with a strong enough grip and a gun on his hip had the means of committing the crime, but that was true of almost every man in town.  What motive, though, could Adam possibly have?  He’d loved that girl.  Anyone who ever saw them together knew it, and he would only have had a few more days to wait before she would have willingly given what her assailant had seemed determined to take by force.

Besides, the sheriff could think of half a dozen men in Virginia City who had the same initials, and he could probably find even more if he consulted the city directory.  He’d investigate them first before he started making cockamamie accusations against his best friend’s oldest son, a boy he’d known from the time Adam been a tall, gangly lad.

**********

The crumpled figure of Isaac Worthington stood before the open grave that had just welcomed the treasure of his life.  Ben Cartwright stood on one side, supporting him, while Adam flanked him on the other.  Adam could offer no aid, however; he was too near collapse himself and needed the support of his brother Hoss’s strong arm.  Beyond Hoss stood Little Joe, his puddling eyes fixed on the ground, as much in need of a strong arm as any of the others, though for different reasons.  Around that inner circle of mourners hovered all the townspeople who had come to know and love Rose during her short sojourn in Virginia City.  Except for the Reverend Holmes, they, too, were silent, but for the sobs of the women.

Little Joe barely heard the words of the preacher.  His mind, instead, reeled with confusion and guilt.  He’d looked upon giving a statement to the sheriff as a means of escape, when staying in the same room with Adam had become unbearable.  But he hadn’t counted on how detailed the sheriff’s questions might be, and he had frankly forgotten telling Scott McGrew about seeing a man fleeing down the alley.  Stupid of him to have mentioned that, but he hadn’t known, then, about Rose, hadn’t known that there was a murder to discover . . . and a murderer to hide.  The sheriff, of course, wanted a description, and suddenly Little Joe felt like he’d been thrown into a logger’s flume and sent cascading down its narrow trough with a massive log looming after him, closer and closer with each passing second.

He wasn’t sure what he’d actually given as an answer, but it wasn’t the truth, at least not the whole truth.  How could he have told that?  How could he possibly tell the sheriff that the killer, the one everyone was now calling a madman, was actually his big brother Adam, the man he’d looked up to from the time he was in diapers?  It wasn’t possible!  Yet he’d seen that man in black with his own eyes.  He’d seen that finger raised to the lips, signaling him to keep quiet, and though his soul ached with guilt at holding back the truth, he couldn’t accuse his own brother.  It would kill Pa.  Joe thought he’d babbled something to the sheriff about it being dark, hard to see, and that was true enough . . . except he had seen.  He’d seen what he never would have believed otherwise, and now, standing before Rose’s grave, his gut twisted in turmoil at the memory of those few awful moments outside Wilson’s stable and all the moments since when Adam had acted like they’d never happened.

He’d thought, at first, that Adam would want to talk to him, to explain what had happened and why he was being asked to keep such a dark secret.  Not with anyone around, of course.  Certainly, Adam wouldn’t want Pa or Hoss to know!  Yet, he’d seemed to go out of his way to make sure that his youngest brother was in that alley; he’d even sent that note, ordering him there.

That couldn’t have been the plan from the beginning, could it, to kill Rose and make him a witness to the unthinkable?  Of course not!  Adam wasn’t a monster; he wasn’t capable of something so heinous.  And he’d been completely normal before they parted at the schoolhouse, tossing out the usual jokes about Joe’s penchant for trouble.  Just Adam, same as always.  No, it had to have been something that happened on the spur of the moment.  A man just doesn’t invite witnesses to a murder!  There must have been some other reason.  Joe couldn’t think of one that made sense, but it couldn’t have been premeditated murder.  He knew his brother, at least he’d thought he had, but the brother he’d known from his first breath just couldn’t have killed anyone, much less Rose, in such a savage manner.

When Adam hadn’t come to him that first night, Little Joe had slipped into his brother’s room after Ben and Hoss had gone to bed and asked if he wanted to talk.  Adam had curtly told him no, that he wanted to be alone.

“I just want to know why, Adam,” Little Joe had pleaded.  “Don’t you owe me that much?”

Adam’s head had come up, then, and he’d stared at his brother.  “Why?  What reason could there possibly be?  Rose is dead, Joe.  What more can I tell you beyond that?  My Rosebud is dead!”  Then he had stabbed his long finger at his brother’s chest and growled, “Get out!  Get out and leave me alone.  I have no answers for you!”

And Little Joe had done that.  He hadn’t been able to get out of that room fast enough, and he had left Adam strictly alone from that moment.  If he could have avoided it, he would never have spent another minute in his brother’s company.

The trouble with that, of course, was that Little Joe, too, was alone now, completely alone with the guilt and the shame and the lies.  Whatever he’d actually said to the sheriff, it had to have been a lie, because it certainly hadn’t been the accusation any God-fearing citizen ought to have come forth with.  Pa had taught him not to lie, especially not to someone like Roy Coffee, but he couldn’t send his brother to the hangman’s noose.  So, the guilt of the falsehood would have to lie forever on his chest.  He couldn’t ever unburden himself, not to the law, certainly not to Pa, not even to his best friend, Hoss, who didn’t deserve to have that load of guilt crush his tender and innocent heart.

Little Joe had awakened, screaming, that first night with the first of what were becoming nightly nightmares.  His father and Hoss had hurried to his side, and even Adam had shown up in the doorway.  “I’m sorry, kid,” he’d whispered and in answer to the quizzical looks that brought, he’d mumbled something about Joe coming to him for answers and having spoken roughly to the boy.  “But I just don’t have any,” he’d choked out and drifted back to his own sleepless bed.

Torn between his two sons, Ben chose the one whose need he thought was greater and followed Adam, leaving Hoss to comfort his younger brother.  Both Ben and Hoss assumed that it was still the shock of finding Rose that had set off Little Joe’s night terrors, and he was satisfied to let them think that.  The truth was worse.

Adam went back to work the next day, burying himself in back-breaking toil from sunup to sundown, refusing to speak of anything except routine ranch matters.  Ben, recognizing the beginning stages of grief, let his taciturn son have his space, although he became increasingly concerned about the drawn lines on Adam’s face that were the only signs of the young man’s physical exhaustion and inner turmoil.  All that was normal, and Ben and Hoss both equated his silence and apparent aloofness to his legendary emotional control.  They understood.

What was harder to understand was Little Joe’s behavior.  The shock, Ben felt, should have worn off after a day or two, but the nightmares continued, along with the silence that, for Little Joe, always signaled deep internal distress.  Like Adam, the boy was barely eating, another typical signal of a troubled mind, but more perplexing, he’d seemed to develop an aversion toward being anywhere near his oldest brother.  Too sharp a reminder of what had happened or was he still sulking over Adam’s rebuff of his questions that first night, as Hoss suggested?  Neither explanation satisfied Ben Cartwright, but when he tried to ask Little Joe what was bothering him, the boy only answered, “Nothing.  Nothing’s wrong, Pa.”  Clearly, however, something was.

**********

A week after the funeral Isaac Worthington entered his daughter’s room for the first time since that fatal night.  He’d rushed there, calling her name in disbelief, when Roy Coffee came to the house to report that Rose had been found, dead, in a deserted barn.  She couldn’t be dead, he’d assured the sheriff; she was upstairs in her room, attending to personal correspondence.  He had hurried up the stairs, calling her name, and when she didn’t answer, he’d thrown open the door and stared, in silent shock, first at the empty room and next at the open window.  It wasn’t possible, he’d told the sheriff, who had followed him and then gently led him back down the stairs.  His Rose was a good girl, he’d said; she would never deceive him like this.  And why would she be in some deserted barn?  She wasn’t well acquainted enough with Virginia City to have even known such a place existed.

Sheriff Coffee, of course, had been unable to answer his questions, and that was certainly no reflection on him as a law officer.  How could anyone answer those questions, if her own father, who knew Rose best, could not?

Somehow he’d gotten through those first awful days with the support of the local pastor and friends he had made since coming here.  The Cartwrights had been bulwarks, sharing his grief as they all so poignantly did, Adam in particular.  Isaac hadn’t been able to bring himself to accept Ben’s invitation to come out to the Ponderosa yet.  There’d been too many happy memories there: Rose gracing their table, laughing at Little Joe’s silly jokes, listening to Hoss’s animal anecdotes, taking long walks with Adam while her father played challenging games of chess with Ben.

Adam—the boy had been as distraught as Isaac himself, probably more so, the father acknowledged, remembering his own reaction, years ago, to the death of Rose’s precious mother.  Yes, it was time he accepted those invitations to the Ponderosa, time for him to think of someone besides himself, time to comfort the young man whose heart was as desolate as his own.  Sunday—he was confident Ben Cartwright would invite him after church, and this time he’d say yes.  It would be a good time, too, to give Adam the portrait that Rose had intended for him on their wedding night.

In the meantime he had another task to face, and though there was no hurry, neither was there any point in putting it off.  Today he would go through Rose’s things, setting aside some for remembrance and others to bring benefit to the lives of others.  Rose would want that, and the very act of giving on her behalf would bring him comfort.

He started with her writing desk.  Although these would have been the last things she touched, pens and papers, books and bookmarks still seemed less personal and, therefore, easier to handle than items such as clothing and jewelry.  He picked up Rose’s well-worn copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese, her favorite.  This he would keep.  As he moved it toward the box he had brought for such items, though, something slipped from its pages and fell to the carpet.  He bent to pick it up and, from either instinct or curiosity, unfolded the simple sheet of paper and read it.

The color washed from his face, and he sat down at once, breathing heavily.  His mind lurched away from what the note suggested.  No, no, it wasn’t possible.  Yet there seemed no other way to interpret the brief message.  And, sadly, only one thing to be done with it.  He folded the note again and, hurrying downstairs, he put on his jacket, placing the note in its pocket and headed toward C Street.

**********

When Isaac Worthington came hesitantly into his office, Roy assumed he wanted to know how the investigation was going.  Frankly, the sheriff was feeling frustrated.  After consulting the city directory, he’d made a list of every man in town with the initials AC, and then he’d begun questioning all those he couldn’t rule out on the basis of age or infirmity.  Abe Carter, the crippled swamper down at the Bucket of Blood, for instance, couldn’t have overpowered a frail ten-year-old, much less a healthy young woman.  So far, his investigation hadn’t produced even one viable suspect, and he wasn’t looking forward to telling Mr. Worthington that.

“Sheriff, I-I’ve found something,” the man began and swallowed hard before continuing, “in Rose’s room.  I really can’t believe what it seems to indicate; in fact, I’d rather believe anything but this, but I felt I had to bring it to your attention.”

“If you think it’ll help with the investigation, Mr. Worthington, I’d be glad to take a look at it.”  Glad?  He’d be ecstatic if the man had turned up anything to give him a better source of leads than the city directory!

With a trembling hand Isaac extended the note to the sheriff and watched the man’s face grow gray as he read the brief lines.

Sheriff Coffee’s mouth set in a grim line as he scanned the note.  This, coupled with the monogrammed money clip he’d found at the scene of the crime, pointed an accusing finger at one and only one individual.  He wouldn’t need to question any of the other AC’s in the directory; he had his man, and it broke his heart.  It also gave him every reason to fear that what he had to do next would bring the heart of his best friend to a literal dead stop.

**********

These days supper at the Ponderosa was no longer the light-hearted, bantering highlight of the Cartwrights’ day.  Eating was simply one more chore that had to be done.  Only Hoss had much of an appetite, probably because the big man simply needed more fuel to function, but even his intake had declined, as if the banter had somehow served as relish and, without it, the food seemed bland and tasteless.  The Cartwrights said what needed to be said to one another and little else; after a week of fruitless effort, Ben had apparently decided to let Adam grieve in the silence his soul seemed to crave and to let Little Joe brood over whatever inexplicable problem was bothering him.

So, although it was near suppertime when the knock came at the door, none of them felt irritated by the meal’s possible delay.  “Who’d come callin’ this time of day?” Hoss muttered, more by rote than from disgruntlement, as he walked toward the door after waving Hop Sing back to the kitchen.

“Whoever it is, invite them to supper,” Ben said.  Anyone who would talk to him would be a welcome addition to the table!

Hoss nodded in compliance.  He opened the front door, and a genuine grin split his face.  “Hey, Roy!  Come on in.  We’re about to sit down to supper, and you’re more’n welcome to stay.”

“Thanks, Hoss,” the sheriff said, “but I can’t.”  And once you know why I’m here, you won’t want me to.

“Now, Roy, I won’t take no for an answer,” Ben said, rising.  “You owe me a game of checkers, if I recall.”

“Ben, this ain’t a social call,” Roy said bluntly.  “I’m here on official business.”

Adam stood, too, as, more slowly, did Little Joe, fearful that the sheriff’s “official business” might involve more questions, necessitating more lies, this time right in front of his family.  At least, only Adam would know they were lies, and he apparently didn’t care.

“You’ve learned something,” Adam stated plainly.

“I’m afraid so,” the sheriff replied, looking soberly at the young man.

To Ben’s mind, any news regarding the investigation would be appreciated.  Whatever it was, how could knowing possibly be worse than living under the shadow of ignorance?  “Well, tell us,” he urged.

In sudden prescience, Little Joe moved to his father’s side.  Murder will out, folks always say, he thought, wanting to be close, should Pa collapse.

“You’re not gonna like this,” Roy said.  “Much as it pains me to say it, I’m here to take Adam into custody.”

“What!” Hoss cried.  “Roy, have you been munchin’ on loco weed?”

Ben Cartwright’s face had gone white.  “What are you saying, Roy?  Not—not . . .  Rose?”

“Adam Cartwright, I have a warrant for your arrest,” the sheriff said, calling up the official words to help him through the difficult duty.  “The charge is murder, and, yes, Ben, we are talking about Rose.”

“You can’t be serious,” Ben gasped.  “Adam would never . . . never!  It’s unthinkable.”

“Ben, I’m sorrier than I know how to say,” Roy said, voice shaking.  “I don’t want to believe it; no one wants to believe it, but that’s where the evidence points.  Adam, I’m hopin’ you’ll come in peaceable.  I’ve come late like this, so’s fewer folks will see you brought in and get stirred up, ‘cause I can’t answer for how this is gonna sit with the town.  Now, will you come or have I got to restrain you?”

Adam headed for the door.  “Oh, I’ll come,” he said sharply, taking his hat from the rack.  “I definitely want to come in and see whatever so-called evidence has led to this absurd conclusion.”

“We’ll all come,” Ben said, eyes flashing with anger.  “I want to see that evidence, too.  Hoss, Joe, saddle our horses, please.”

“Yes, sir.”  Hoss paused only long enough to place a bolstering hand on his older brother’s shoulder.  When he looked at his other brother, however, he thought he caught an expression that looked more like relief than the shock the rest of them felt.  He shook it off, though, figuring he must be wrong, and headed for the barn to do the practical service that could best express his love and support for Adam.  Lips taut, Little Joe silently sidled out after him.

Hoss saddled Chubby and Sport, while Little Joe readied his father’s bay for the trip to town.  “Get a move on, Shortshanks,” Hoss said, “or you’re like to get left behind.”  His words trailed off at the look on his little brother’s face, and he suddenly knew that was exactly what Little Joe wanted.  “Joe, Adam needs us,” Hoss said, pained that he had to plead for what should have come natural.

A wave of anger flushed the younger boy’s cheeks, and he almost blurted out exactly how much he cared about what Adam needed, but he put a clamp on his tongue just in time.  What Adam needed didn’t matter much to him, true enough, but what Pa and Hoss needed did.  They’d done nothing to deserve this nightmare that had descended upon them, so for their sakes he’d go along and he’d keep his opinions to himself.  “Yeah,” he finally said and went back into the barn to saddle Cochise.

**********

As soon as they entered the sheriff’s office, Roy said, “Ben, Adam’s gonna need a lawyer.  If you want to fetch one, I’ll hold off questioning your boy until he can get here.”  Any prisoner deserved that much, although Roy had to admit he might not have been as quick to offer with anyone else.

Ben turned to his middle son.  “Hoss, would you . . .”

“I’ll go,” Little Joe interrupted to say.

Hoss frowned.  It didn’t matter to him who went.  Truth be told, he’d just as soon stay with Adam, but with his suspicions already aroused by how reluctant his little brother had been to come in the first place, Hoss thought he seemed a mite too keen to get away again.

Ben, however, smiled at his youngest son.  “Yes, that’s fine.  You go, Little Joe.”  After days of avoiding his brother, this eagerness to help him seemed like a step in the right direction.

“Hiram Wood?”  Little Joe asked.

Ben nodded.  As the boy all but ran for the door, he added, “Wake him up, if you have to.  Apologize, but tell him this is important.”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said and escaped into the cool night air.  He stopped just outside the door and took a few deep breaths, releasing some of the anxiety he’d felt on the ride into town.  Maybe the sheriff didn’t have any more questions for him, but steering clear of the jail seemed like the best way to avoid saying things that could only hurt Adam if he ever had to.

Then he ran down C Street and turned up Taylor, toward the house of Hiram Wood.  Though there were lamps lighted inside, he pounded on the door, loud enough to rouse the soundest sleeper.

Back at the sheriff’s office, Adam demanded to see the supposed evidence against him.

“You don’t want to wait for your lawyer?” Roy asked.

“I do not!” Adam spat out.  “Show me what you’ve got, Roy!”

The boy’s attitude was snappish, but the sheriff couldn’t fault him for that.  No man, guilty or innocent, ever took an accusation of murder with good grace.  “All right,” he said.  Reaching into his desk, he removed a large envelope and took a shiny gold object from it and extended it to Adam.

With Ben and Hoss looking over his shoulder, Adam examined the gold money clip and took note of the monogrammed letters.  He handed it back to Roy.  “Well, those are my initials, all right,” he said, “but I don’t own a money clip.”

“Don’t use one on business trips?” Roy suggested.

Adam shook his head.  “I use a money belt when I’m carrying enough to matter.  Even if I did, I’m certainly not the only man in town whose clip might be labeled AC.”

“I know that,” Roy said.  “I’ve made a list of men with those initials, and I’ve been questioning them.  So far, every man can account for where he was the night Miss Rose was killed.  You bein’ set to marry her, I figured you for the least likely suspect, so I put your name to the bottom.”

“And when, exactly, did you take leave of your senses and move me to the top?” Adam demanded hotly.

“Adam!” Ben admonished, as Hoss’s massive hand came to rest on his brother’s shoulder.

“I have a right to know, Pa!”

The sheriff again reached into the envelope, this time drawing out a folded sheet of paper.  “This is what moved your name to the top, boy.   It was brought to me this afternoon, and I was never sorrier to read any set of words in my life.”

Adam took the note, his countenance growing more ashen with every word he read.  “Oh, my God,” he murmured.  “Where . . . who . . .”

Ben took the note from his son, read it and with a grave expression passed it on to Hoss.

“I’m sorry to say her father found it in a book in her bedroom,” Roy replied.  “He’s the one brought it to me.”

Adam gasped.  “Isaac?  And he thinks—he thinks I . . .”

“What else is there to think, son?” Roy asked soberly.

Adam threw his head violently from side to side.  “Anything but that!  I did not kill Rose, Roy.  I loved her!  I . . . still love her.”

“But you did send this note?”

“No!  I’ve never seen that before.  I certainly didn’t write it.”

“Roy, you’ve known Adam since he was a boy,” Ben pleaded.  “You can’t believe . . .”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe, Ben,” the sheriff said, taking the note from Hoss and holding it up.  “I have to follow the evidence, and this kind of thing is hard to overlook.”  He returned the note and money clip to the envelope and placed it back in his desk drawer.  “Now, much as I regret it, I’ve got to lock you up, son.”

“Aw, no, Roy,” Hoss said.

“I’m sorry, son; I have no choice.”

Head still shaking in disbelief, Adam stood up and, despite his suddenly blurred vision, somehow managed to place one foot after the other as he followed the sheriff into the cell block.

“You can stay with him, if you like,” Roy said to Ben after he’d shown Adam into the cell.  “I’ll send Mr. Wood back when he gets here.”

“Thank you, Roy.” Ben sat on the narrow cot next to his oldest son.  Looking to his other boy, he said, “Son, why don’t you wait in the outer office, explain things to Little Joe?  I think Adam and Hiram and I should talk alone first.”  He looked up at Roy.  “The boys can see their brother again before we leave?”

“Of course, Ben,” a saddened sheriff replied.

When Little Joe returned with their lawyer, Hoss took him by the elbow and steered him outside.  “It’s crazy, Joe,” he said, “but Roy’s got this evidence, and it’s gonna be mighty hard to argue down.”

“What’s he got?” Little Joe asked.

“Well, there’s this money clip Roy found at the barn.  It ain’t Adam’s, on account of he don’t own one in the first place, but it’s got his initials on it,” Hoss said, “and then . . . then . . .”

“Then what?” Little Joe demanded.  For all he knew, Adam might own a money clip, and his saying he didn’t meant nothing.  He’d already proven he was willing to lie about something far worse.

“A note,” Hoss quavered out.  “A note to Rose, telling her to meet him at Wilson’s.  Adam swears he never wrote it, but it’s got his name on it, and it was her father that found it, Joe, so it’s got to be real; it’s gotta be what sent her to that barn.  It looks bad for Adam.”

“Yeah,” Little Joe said.  His stomach rolled over.  It was true, then, and not much way for Adam to argue his way out of it.  Like the Good Book said, “Be sure your deeds will find you out.”  And Adam’s had, even without his younger brother saying a word.  Joe was glad of that, but little else.  He hadn’t been the one to bring his brother down, but he still felt like spilling his guts into the street.  This was Adam, his brother, the one who’d stood by him through schoolyard tussles and all the worse troubles Little Joe had stumbled into over the years, and no matter what his big brother had done,  Joe’s love for him remained.  Only now, it brought nothing but pain.

When Hiram Wood left, Hoss and Little Joe went inside.  Hoss was as encouraging as he knew how to be, assuring Adam that the truth would come out, no one could seriously think he would kill Rose, not even Roy really believed it and a few other things he couldn’t remember later.  None of it made much impact on the man sitting behind the bars, who looked broken, defeated and even frightened, emotions none of them were used to seeing from the brother noted for his unwavering self-control.  Finally, Roy suggested that they go on home, and they left the sheriff’s office.

As they unhitched their horses from the rail, Ben said gravely, “I noticed you didn’t say a single word to your brother, Little Joe.”

Little Joe kept his eyes on his dusty boots.  “I didn’t know what to say, Pa,” he finally whispered.

Ben’s face relaxed, and he rubbed the back of the boy’s neck as he said, “I guess none of us do, Joe.”

**********

By the time the Cartwrights rode into town the next morning, it was obvious from the surreptitious looks and, in some cases, outright glares of those they passed that the news was out.  They ignored them, as men on a mission, for Ben a particularly difficult one, but it was a commission he had promised Adam he would fulfill first thing this morning.  “You boys go on to the jail, keep your brother company,” he said.  “Tell him I’ll be there as soon as I’ve spoken with Isaac.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said.

“Yeah, Pa,” Little Joe added perfunctorily.  He couldn’t make himself sound enthusiastic, but even if he wasn’t as good an actor as Adam, he thought he’d come across pretty normal.  “Sure hope Mr. Worthington don’t take it out on Pa,” he said to Hoss, once their father had ridden on.

“What’s that mean?” Hoss said, nose crinkling.  “Ain’t nothin’ for him to take out on Pa.”

“Just the hurt, I meant,” Little Joe said hastily.  “Whether Adam did it or not . . .”

Hoss clamped his little brother’s clavicle with vise-like fingers.  “What do you mean, ‘Whether Adam did it or not’?  We know he didn’t!”

Little Joe twisted out of his big brother’s grip.  “Whether Rose’s Pa thinks he did or not; that’s what I meant.  Doggone it, Hoss; findin’ that note has got to put some doubt in his mind.”

Hoss’s shoulders slumped.  “Yeah, that’s been frettin’ me all night.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Little Joe said, although in his case it wasn’t true.  With Adam behind bars and Joe himself apparently safe from uncomfortable questions, he’d actually slept through the night, instead of fretting through the dark hours, for the first time since he’d found Rose’s body in that barn.

**********

Ben shifted from foot to foot on Mr. Worthington’s front porch, as he awaited an answer to his knock.  He was uncomfortable with the task he’d been given, but it was the one thing Adam had requested, and he would have done anything to ease even an ounce of weight off his son’s stooped shoulders.  When he saw the lace curtain of the inset window pulled aside and recognized Isaac, Ben wondered whether he’d simply be left standing there without acknowledgement, but after a long pause, the door opened.

“Ben,” Isaac said flatly.

“Isaac, I—could I speak with you for a few minutes?” Ben asked.

“I don’t see what good that could do, Ben,” Isaac said.  “I bear you no ill will; I know you had nothing to do with it.”

“Adam didn’t, either,” Ben said.  “Please, my friend, just five minutes?”  When the other man started to shake his head, he quickly modified his request.  “Three, then?  Or two?  Just a couple of minutes, please, I beg of you.”  It wasn’t good form to importune a grieving man this way, but for Adam’s sake, he did it anyway.

Though he still looked reluctant, Isaac opened the door wider and stepped aside so Ben could enter.  He showed him to the parlor and offered him a seat.  “All right, Ben,” he said, head bowed like that of a prisoner awaiting the headsman’s axe.  “Say what you came to say.”

“Adam was very distraught last night,” Ben began, “but mainly because he feared you might have believed him responsible for Rose’s death.”

“What else can I think?” Isaac asked, choking out the words.  “That note . . .”

“Adam swears he didn’t write it,” Ben said urgently.

Isaac looked over at his friend, tears springing unbidden into his gray eyes.  “You have no idea how much I want to believe that, if only to assuage my own guilt, to assure myself that I didn’t let a viper into my home, but it”—his voice cracked—“it was signed ‘Adam,’ and Rose must have believed it came from him.  She wouldn’t have gone to meet anyone else.”

“That much, I’m sure, is true,” Ben agreed.  “She must have believed the message came from Adam, but I can assure you it did not.”

“He was in town,” Isaac argued.  “I saw him myself . . . after.”

“He was in town for a school board meeting,” Ben said, “so, you see, he couldn’t have been meeting with Rose at the same time.”  His head came up sharply.  “Why didn’t I think of that?  Adam was with the other school board members that night.  They can verify that, and since he couldn’t have been in two places at the same time, that will clear him!”  He stood abruptly.  “Please excuse me, Isaac, but I must take this information to Roy at once!”

“Of course, Ben.”  Isaac rose, too, and his face held hope for the first time since he’d found that vile piece of paper.  As he followed his guest to the door, he said, “I can’t tell you what a relief it will be to me if this can exonerate Adam.  I had already begun to think of him as my own son.  You’ll let me know how this develops?”

“I will; of course, I will.”  Excited as he was, Ben spared enough time for a quick embrace with the other father.  “Thank you, Isaac, for your understanding; thank you so much.”

“All I want is justice, Ben,” Isaac said, almost sobbing.  “Not vengeance, not vindictiveness, just justice . . . for my Rose.”

“We’ll find it together,” Ben promised.  He kept a dignified posture until he had rounded the corner and then he broke into a dead run.  Old as he was, the thought of bringing good news gave the energy of a young man to his legs.

He burst into the sheriff’s office, where the lawman sat at his desk, perusing wanted posters.  “Roy!” he cried.  “We can prove that Adam didn’t kill Rose!”

“Well, Ben, if that’s true, it’s the best news I’ve heard in a month of Sundays,” Roy declared as he stood.

“I don’t know why none of us thought of this before,” Ben said. “There’s been so much else going on that it just slipped my mind, and Adam’s been so torn up over Rose and this horrid accusation that he isn’t thinking straight.  There are people who can vouch for his whereabouts that night.”

“Adam has an alibi?  That’s great news, Ben,” Roy said, relief flooding his face.  “Who is it?  Reputable witness?”

“Only the most reputable,” Ben said with a wide grin.  “Only the entire school board.  Adam was in a meeting with them at the schoolhouse.”

“That’s pretty reputable, all right,” Roy agreed.  “I’ll have to verify this, of course, but if they say that Adam was with them at the time of her death, then that would clear him.”

The commotion had brought Hoss and Little Joe from the cell block.  Hoss had wanted to go inside the cell with Adam, but Little Joe had argued that they should wait until Pa got back, to spare Roy the trouble of unlocking it twice.  “What’s goin’ on?” Hoss asked.

“Adam has an alibi!” Ben cried.

Hoss beamed, ear to ear.  “That’s great, Pa, best news I’ve heard all month.”

“Come on,” Ben said, throwing an arm over each of the two boys’ shoulders.  “Let’s tell your brother.”  He laughed and turned loose of his two younger sons when they reached the door to the cell block and he realized that they couldn’t get through the door, three abreast.

Hoss chuckled along with him.  The whole world seemed sunny again.

In their own excitement, no one noticed that Little Joe only looked confused as he trailed them into the next room.  Was it possible?  Was there hope, after all, that his brother hadn’t killed an innocent girl?  He wanted to believe that more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life, but he couldn’t match that hope with what he’d seen with his own eyes.  Maybe Adam could explain, ‘cause Joe himself sure couldn’t.

Adam was standing, the bars of his cell clutched in his hands.  “What’s going on?” he asked as his younger brother had only a minute before.

“Adam, Adam,” Ben said, barely able to contain his relieved laughter.  “How could we have forgotten?  A man can’t be in two places at the same time, and we know where you were that night—at that tiresome school board meeting!”

“If you can give me the names of the other men there,” Roy said, “I’ll talk to ‘em soon as possible and compare their statements with what the doc said about the time of death, and if it’s like your pa says, we’ll have you out of here right quick, son.”

Adam had slumped at the first mention of the school board meeting, and now only his tight grip on the iron bars seemed to hold him up.  “No,” he croaked.

“No?”  Three voices echoed simultaneously.  Little Joe remained silent.

“What do you mean, ‘no’?” Ben asked after they’d all stared at the young man for what seemed like an eternity.

Adam gathered himself and stood upright.  “No school board meeting,” he said.

Ben turned to his youngest son.  “Joe?  You were with Adam that night.”

Little Joe moistened suddenly dry lips.  “I don’t know about the meeting, Pa.  When I left Adam at the schoolhouse, no one else had showed up yet.”

“When was that, son?” Roy asked.

Little Joe shrugged.  “I didn’t have a watch with me.  I’d guess about 7:30.  Sorry, Pa.”

“That’s all right, son,” Ben assured him.  “The truth is all we need.”

Oh, Pa, thought Joe, if you only knew what the truth was!

“And no one else ever showed up, Adam?” the sheriff queried.

Adam shook his head.  “Apparently, it was a hoax, just as that note to Rose was.”  Hoax was the wrong word for the one she’d received, but he couldn’t think clearly enough to pick the right one.  What difference did it make, anyway?  She was dead, and it was her love for him that had led her to it . . . just like Emily.

“So no one saw you that night?”

“No, I”—he broke off as the recollections began to filter in—“Well, there was Abigail Jones, of course.  When no one else arrived for the meeting, I went to her house; that’s when I learned there was no meeting.”

“And when was that?”

“About fifteen after eight,” Adam said.  “I waited until ten after, hoping the others were just late, and then I walked to her house to demand an explanation.  She wasn’t too happy about it.”  His mouth twisted in a sour moue.

His mind still sorting things through, Ben aimlessly lifted his hands.  “But she can still verify Adam’s story, can’t she?”

Roy shook his head.  “Afraid it won’t help, Ben.  Timing’s wrong.”

“Timing, Roy?” Hoss asked.

“Time of death,” Roy explained.  “Doc puts it well before 8:00.  So does your boy, for that matter.”  He nodded toward Little Joe.  “He said he found the body about five after eight.  Now, if young Joe here left his brother at the schoolhouse around 7:30 and Adam didn’t show up to Miss Abigail’s ‘til 8:15, I’m sorry to say that leaves plenty of time for a side trip to Miller’s Stable right around the time it must’ve happened.”

And just about the right amount of time to get from that alley to Miss Abigail’s after he shot Rose, Little Joe thought, stiffening.

Face glum, Ben mumbled something about an errand he had to run and made his way slowly back to the home of Isaac Worthington, to fulfill the most painful promise he’d ever made.

**********

The trial was set to begin a week after Adam’s arrest.  “That doesn’t give us much time,” Hiram Wood said to Ben over dinner at the exclusive Washoe Club.  They, along with Hoss and Little Joe, found relative privacy at their secluded corner table.

“Can you not ask for—a stay?” Ben asked, struggling for the correct legal term.

Hiram lifted an eyebrow in surprise, as “stay of execution” flitted through his mind.  Only a moment later, however, he understood.  “I think you mean a continuance,” he said.

“Yes,” Ben quickly affirmed, for the same gruesome phrase had also passed through his thoughts as soon as he spoke the word.

“Well, it might be possible,” Hiram said, “but I would need to offer reasonable grounds, and right now I don’t have them.”

“How good is the prosecution’s case?” Ben asked.

Hiram shrugged.  “The evidence is completely circumstantial, but it’s fairly strong circumstantial evidence.  It tends to prove that Adam had the opportunity to commit the crime, especially since he can’t account for his whereabouts between 7:30 and 8:15.  It’s a pity young Joe here didn’t keep his brother company while he waited at the schoolhouse.”

“That ain’t Little Joe’s fault,” Hoss put in with a concerned glance at his little brother, who had winced when the lawyer said those words.

“No, no, of course not,” Hiram hastily said.  “I didn’t mean to imply that, just expressing a little ‘if wishes were horses.’”

“Will Joseph have to testify?” Ben asked.

The lawyer worked his mouth to one side and then the other in thought.  “I’m not sure.  I might need to put him on the stand briefly, Ben, just to establish when he left his brother.  On the other hand, since that information doesn’t particularly help Adam, it might be best to leave it unsaid.”

“And the prosecution?” Ben pressed.  “The boy did find the body.”

Hiram chuckled.  “Actually, Ben, he didn’t.”  At the surprised looks that met his statement, he explained.  “Scott McGrew was the first in the barn, as I heard it.  Is that right, Little Joe?”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said.  “I did come in right after, but he’s the one that actually found Rose.  You mean I might not have to . . .”

“The prosecution could still call you,” Hiram said as he reached across the table to pat the hand of the obviously nervous young man, “but I wouldn’t worry, son.  The prosecutor really doesn’t need to examine anyone other than Scott for that purpose, and if he has any sense at all, he’ll settle for that.  I personally avoid bringing family in as opposing witnesses whenever I possibly can.  A jury can take offense to that sort of thing, so it’s wise not to, unless that’s the only way you can establish essential facts.”

“Hey, that’s good news,” Hoss said.  He clapped his younger brother on the back.  “You can quit twistin’ your long johns in a knot,  Shortshanks.”

“Yeah.  I hope so,” Little Joe said, little realizing how soon those hopes were to be dashed.

**********

Walter Walcott could barely contain his excitement as he rushed into his father’s office and shut the door.  “It’s finally happened,” he said.

“And that would be . . .” William Walcott coaxed with a hopeful lift of his countenance.

“Adam Cartwright has been bound over for trial and the date set.”

William nodded in satisfaction.  “At last.  I had begun to fear that the Cartwrights’ hold over the law in this town might once again circumvent justice.”  Waiting for all the pieces to fall into place had been an exercise in patience, but now that tortured waiting had been transferred to those who more rightfully should suffer it.

“Is it time, then, for our next move?” Walter asked eagerly.

“Your fervor does you honor, son,” his father replied, “but we’ll wait just a little longer, give the Cartwrights a day or two to sweat before we turn up the heat.  It’s better if we unleash the next act of our little drama closer to the opening of the trial.”

“Harder on the boy that way,” Walter murmured.  “Less time to deal with it.”

“Precisely,” said his father with a crafty smirk.  “We want the props knocked out from under him.”

**********

Mortimer Klein sat in his office, staring at the note that had been delivered to him only an hour before.  He would have given a great deal to know who his benefactor was, but a note printed in block letters was hard to identify.  Not that he would have recognized many of the scrawls of his Virginia City neighbors, anyway.  Still, it was always best to know with whom he was dealing . . . and what the motives might be.  He spared little thought on the unanswerable question, however, and focused, instead, on the more profitable one of how to use the information.  He read through the note a third time:

Dear Mr. Klein,

Little Joe Cartwright can greatly assist you in your prosecution of his criminal brother.  He saw more than he is willing to tell, but if you can get him away from the influence of his family, you may be able to press the truth from him.

A friend of justice

Klein stepped to his door and called to his assistant, Thomas Parsons.  When the man had entered the inner office and closed the door, Klein handed him the note.  “Read that and give me your opinion,” he directed.

Parsons scanned the words, his lips pursing as he took in its import.  “Easier said than done,” he opined.  Klein cocked his head quizzically, and his assistant continued, “Getting that boy away from his family, that is.  The Cartwrights stick tighter than drying rawhide, even more so since the oldest son was arrested.  From what I’ve observed, they’re either in Hiram Wood’s office or at the jail most of the time.”

“But you agree it might be profitable to bring the boy in, question him?”

Parsons nodded slowly.  “If he did, indeed, witness the crime, as this seems to indicate, I believe it imperative that we question him.”

“Without his family’s knowledge?”

“If at all possible,” the assistant said.  “Whoever wrote this is right about one thing: as long as young Joseph Cartwright is under his father’s influence, you’re unlikely to get anything out of him.  Separate him from that and—well, the lad is only sixteen or so, isn’t he?  It shouldn’t be too hard to, shall we say, influence a boy of that age.”

“Only to tell the truth, Mr. Parsons,” Mortimer Klein insisted, frowning.  “I’m not interested in subverting justice, only in seeking it.”

“Of course,” Parsons said at once, “and if seeking justice requires a little pressure . . .”

“Then we’ll press with a free conscience,” the prosecutor declared.

**********

If there was a blessing to be found in the horrifying turn of events for the Cartwrights, it lay in their timing.  Late autumn was the one of the slower times of year on the Ponderosa, so each morning they did a few minimal chores and set tasks for the skeleton crew they kept on after fall roundup.  That left them free to ride into town by mid-morning and spend the rest of the day with Adam.  Ben and Hoss cherished that time, fearing, though never saying it, that these might be the last few days they could ever have the privilege of conversation with him.

Little Joe, on the other hand, seemed to almost look for excuses to do anything else, volunteering “to manage things at the ranch,” and when that stunning offer was rejected, for any errand that took him away from the jail, even briefly.  He had visibly calmed down after their lawyer’s assessment of his chances of having to testify, but he still seemed edgy during the hours at the jail and he never joined in sharing anecdotes of better times with Adam.  Not that the well-worn tales and oft resurrected jokes did much to draw Adam from his demoralized stupor; if they got the barest smile out of him, Ben and Hoss considered their efforts a success.

Most of the time Adam barely acknowledged their presence in the cell.  His eyes seemed fixed, unseeing, on whatever wall he was facing, and if he spoke at all, he rarely got past an anguished, “Why?”  He seemed locked in endless self-examination, much as he’d been after the death of Emily Walcott, as if he were again looking for something he could have done differently that might have kept the woman he loved alive.  Having gone through it three times himself, Ben understood the haze that could envelop a man in the early stages of grief, but this was different.  The haze had developed into a dense fog, with the accusation of murder adding a layer of grayer gloom, but much as Adam needed time and space to come to terms with the loss of Rose, time and space were luxuries they simply didn’t have.

“You’ve got to get through to him, Ben,” Hiram Woods said urgently during one of his private lunch sessions with the father of his client.  “If he goes into that courtroom looking guilty . . .”

“It isn’t guilt; it’s grief,” Ben protested.

“I know that,” the lawyer said, “but it looks like guilt . . . or shame.  A man simply cannot enter into a trial for his life looking as though he doesn’t care what the verdict is.  And in the interests of helping your oldest son, for the love of mercy, get your youngest out of that jail!”

“But Little Joe’s his brother; he should be there, same as Hoss.”

Hiram sighed.  “He clearly doesn’t want to be there.  Look, Ben, I’m not saying that the boy’s responsible for his brother’s disheartened state of mind, but if you think Adam hasn’t noticed . . .”

“I don’t see how he couldn’t,” Ben admitted.  “I don’t know what’s gotten into Little Joe, but he’s been this way since finding Rose’s body.  He’s been a little better the last couple of days, but I don’t understand his attitude.”  When did I ever? Ben mused, though the only outward sign was a helpless spread of his open palms.  His youngest always did react to inner turmoil in this same ridiculously unfathomable manner, and as a father, he’d rarely been able to do anything but wait until the storm intensified enough to make the boy seek help.

“He’s young,” the lawyer said, falling back on the time-honored excuse, “just sixteen—no, seventeen now; he had a birthday awhile back, didn’t he?  Still, it’s hard for a fellow that age to sit still for any length of time under the best circumstances.  To do it in a jail is even harder.  I’m not saying to keep him completely away from Adam.  Just give him some time away from that cell; let him get some exercise out in the fresh air.  Probably make a world of difference in his attitude.”

“It might,” Ben conceded, although he entertained doubts.  Wasn’t half a morning’s exercise in the fresh air each day enough?  He smiled slightly.  Well, considering that was for chores, maybe not.  Certainly, the lawyer’s suggested course of action could do no harm.  “I’ll try that,” he said to Hiram.

“Good.  Now, let’s discuss the slate of witnesses, for and against Adam’s case, and see if we’ve overlooked anything.”

**********

Since Pa was having lunch with Mr. Wood, Hoss had asked his younger brother if it’d be all right for them to eat up at the Chop House.  Its hearty portions made it a favorite for the big man, but Pa always seemed to pick fancier places for family meals, the International House or the Washoe Club, for instance.  They’d been going to Daisy’s Café pretty regular, too, when they wanted something simple and quick, but much as he loved that place, Hoss was ready for a change.

“Don’t make me no never-mind,” Little Joe said.  “I ain’t much hungry.

“It’s bein’ off your feed that makes you so cantankerous,” Hoss said as they walked up the hill toward the restaurant.

“I ain’t bein’ cantankerous,” Little Joe grunted.

“You ain’t over-friendly, either,” Hoss snorted.  “You ain’t said a dozen words to our big brother since this all started; be a stretch to call it half a dozen.”

“He’s said even less.”

“All the more reason to talk to him,” Hoss insisted.  “He needs our help, Little Joe.”

“Does he?”  The only help Little Joe figured Adam wanted from him was to keep his mouth shut.  Pa and Hoss might complain about his silence, but they shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.  If they only knew how hard he had to bite his tongue to keep from blurting out an ugly truth no one wanted to hear!

“Yeah, doggone it, he does!”

“Well, I got no pearls of wisdom for him,” Little Joe retorted.  “Now, we gonna eat, so you can get back and give him yours, or we gonna stand here squabblin’ in the street and give the good folks of Virginia City even more to talk about?”

“Aw, come on,” Hoss growled, pushing open the door to the Chop House.  Little Joe had hit him right where it hurt, ‘cause he didn’t have any pearls of wisdom, either.  Joe was right, too, about them providing fodder for the town gossips.  Maybe they’d both feel better after a good meal, though he didn’t think that skimpy bowl of clam chowder his little brother ordered would do much more than wet his whistle.

**********

Little Joe felt free for the first time in more than a week.  He didn’t know what had made Pa suggest that he stretch his legs, go have a beer, whatever he wanted for a couple of hours, but he didn’t care.  He didn’t care, either, that Hoss had glared at him as if he were some sort of traitor for not wanting to spend every waking moment at Adam’s side.  Well, all right, he did care about that; he hated disappointing the man he considered his best friend, but doggone it, Hoss just didn’t know what Joe knew, and if he had, maybe he wouldn’t have been so keen on exchanging chit-chat with a murderer, either.

Joe wasn’t sure what to make of Adam.  If he hadn’t seen his brother leaving the barn that night, he would have sworn that Adam was innocent, same as Pa and Hoss did.  He sure acted like he didn’t know anything about how Rose had died, and at first Joe had thought, bitterly, that his brother was one fine actor.  Now he wasn’t so sure, ‘cause he didn’t think even Edwin Booth was good enough to pull off this attitude of grief and innocence all mixed up together.  Was it possible that his older brother simply didn’t remember what he’d done?  Had he just lost his head for a few minutes and then lost all memory of doing it?  That would make him more crazy than evil, not that that was a whole heap better.  Was it any better, after all, for Adam to spend his life locked up in a mad house than to end it at the end of a rope?  He’d be alive, at least, but, to Joe, that was a life worse than death.  And wouldn’t that be even harder for Pa to bear?

He tossed off the uncomfortable thoughts.  He had the afternoon free, and he wouldn’t waste it with morbid speculations.  Time enough for that when he dragged himself back to the jail later.  Spurning the Silver Dollar for its bad memories of that gruesome night, he headed toward the Bucket of Blood.  He had almost reached that haven of refuge from unpleasant thoughts when a tall young man ran up behind him, calling, “Mr. Cartwright!”

“Well, I’m one of ‘em,” Little Joe said with a twisted smile as he turned to face the man.  “You sure it ain’t my pa you want, mister?”  The way the man was dressed indicated a business purpose, instead of the cowboy’s or miner’s garb of most men who had any reason to talk to the youngest of the Cartwrights.

“I want Joseph Cartwright,” Thomas Parsons said.  “That’s you, is it not?”

An instinctive shiver crawled up Little Joe’s spine.  “Yeah, I reckon it is.”

Parsons smiled, not particularly pleasantly.  “Mr. Cartwright, you need to come with me.”

“Why?” Little Joe demanded.  “I don’t even know you, mister!”

“My associate, Mr. Mortimer Klein, needs to speak with you.”

“I don’t know him, either,” Little Joe snorted.

“You soon will,” Parsons said with an oily smile.  “He is, after all, the man prosecuting your brother.”

The prosecutor!  Little Joe could think of no man on earth he wished less to see.  “Uh, well, I, uh . . .”

“Please come with me now, Mr. Cartwright,” Parsons said.  “If you refuse, you will only compel us to obtain a court order requiring your cooperation, and I’m sure your family would prefer to avoid that unpleasantness, considering all they’re currently facing.”  It was, in part, a bluff.  Certainly, they could subpoena any witness for the trial, but Mr. Klein always preferred to depose potential witnesses prior to their public testimony, to avoid any nasty surprises hitting them from the stand.  Their chances of obtaining a court order for the sort of questioning they had in mind for this young man were doubtful and might require the cooperation of Sheriff Coffee for its enforcement.  That, they were unlikely to receive, given the lawman’s well documented friendship with the Cartwrights.  None of these speculations, of course, were revealed in the calm countenance he presented to the youngest Cartwright, and he gambled on the boy’s youth and legal inexperience for his bluff’s success.

Little Joe had not even a teaspoon’s measure of the lawyer’s control, and the instant panic and uncertainty he felt showed plainly on his expressive face.  He’d harbored his guilty secret this long in hopes of sparing Pa and Hoss and even, though he knew it was a miscarriage of justice, to protect his oldest brother from the gallows.  If he couldn’t avoid the prosecutor’s questions, perhaps he could, at least, continue to keep his father in the dark, if he went with this fellow now.  And, maybe, all this Mr. Klein wanted to question him about was finding Rose’s body.  Sure, that had to be it, and unpleasant as that was to talk about, he could handle it.  Now was probably the best time to get it out of the way, too, since he wasn’t expected back at the jail for at least a couple of hours.  “Well, I guess I might as well get it over with,” he said.

Had Thomas Parsons been any less skilled at controlling his expressions, his face might have glowed with the rush of triumph that surged through him at that moment.  The gamble had paid off; Mr. Klein would be most impressed with his young associate’s performance and, perhaps, might reward him with greater participation in the trial itself.  “Certainly, certainly,” Parsons said.  “That’s a wise decision.  If you’ll come with me . . . this way, please.”

**********

Mortimer Klein stood behind his desk as his associate escorted Joseph Cartwright into the inner office.  “Ah, Mr. Cartwright,” he said, extending his hand.  “Thank you so much for coming in for this interview.”

Little Joe took the man’s hand and gave it a weak-fish shake.  “Uh, sure, but, honest, Mr. Klein, I don’t think I can help you much.  I mean, it was Scott—Mr. McGrew, that is—that found the body, so he can tell you more’n me.”  On the way here he’d remembered what Hiram Wood had said and decided he should lean hard on the argument that Scott was the only witness the prosecutor needed.  He’d decided not to mention the part about the prosecutor being stupid to use a family member unless he had to.  No sense in rilin’ the man up needlessly.

“Yes, of course,” the lawyer said, “but it’s important to corroborate his testimony, you understand.  I wouldn’t want to put a witness on the stand, only to learn there that he hadn’t told me the truth.  That can be quite disconcerting, not to mention embarrassing.”  He smiled ingratiatingly at the young man.

“Oh, sure, sure,” Little Joe agreed, relief washing over his face.  If that was all the man wanted, he’d be more than happy to back up Scott’s story!  That couldn’t hurt anyone.

“Won’t you sit down, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Uh, yeah, okay.”  Little Joe took the seat across from the prosecutor.

As Mr. Klein sat down, he noted how tightly the boy’s fingers were wrapped around the wooden arms of the chair on whose edge he perched.  Yes, this was definitely the attitude of an uncomfortable witness, one who, perhaps, was working hard to hold something in.  For now, though, the prosecutor wanted to treat this young man with respect, hoping to win his willing cooperation.  He could always take a harder tack, should the boy prove recalcitrant, as Cartwrights were reputed to be.  This one was young, however; maybe the family obstinacy hadn’t been ingrained in him yet.  One could hope.

“Now, it’s my understanding, from Mr. McGrew, that you entered the alley before he did, is that correct?” Mr. Klein asked.

“Um, yeah, that’s right,” Little Joe replied.

Still smiling, the prosecutor asked, “Why?”

Little Joe caught his breath.  “Why?”

“Yes,” Klein said, leaning slightly forward.  “Why did you enter the alley?  You were walking down the street and suddenly turned into a dark, deserted alley, or so I’ve been led to believe.  Did you have some purpose there, cutting through to get somewhere else, perhaps, or did you hear something that you felt you should investigate?”

Little Joe’s mind scrambled for any plausible answer.  He couldn’t very well tell the prosecutor that he’d gone there in response to a note from Adam!  “Uh, I don’t know.  I mean, no, I wasn’t cuttin’ through there.  I guess, maybe, I could’ve heard something . . . the shot, maybe?”

Mr. Klein shook his head.  “No, according to Mr. McGrew, you had just turned into the alley before the shot was fired.  He could still see you, he says, but you were definitely already headed that direction.  Try to remember, Mr. Cartwright.  Did you hear something . . . or possibly see . . . movement, perhaps?”

“Perhaps,” Little Joe said slowly.  It seemed like the safest answer.

“And, perhaps,” the prosecutor pursued, “that is what made you run down that alley and turn into the intersecting one?”

Little Joe stifled a groan just in time.  Why had he blurted that out to Scott, first thing?  But he hadn’t known then what they’d find inside that abandoned stable.

“Mr. Cartwright?”  Noting the boy’s increased discomfort, Klein pressed for an answer.

“I—uh—I thought I saw someone run off that way,” Little Joe stammered, “but when I got there, I didn’t see anyone.”  Keep it simple, he told himself, just what you told Scott.

“Good, good,” the prosecutor said.  “Your memory is returning.  That’s very good, Mr. Cartwright.  Thank you.”

“Uh, sure.”  That much couldn’t hurt Adam, could it?

“Now, this is very important, Mr. Cartwright, so please think carefully,” Mr. Klein urged.  “Did you recognize this individual running from the scene of the crime?”

That was the question that had given Little Joe nightmares since that awful night.  So far, though, he’d been able to avoid speaking his brother’s name, and he had no intention of saying it now.  “Well, uh, it was real dark, sir,” he mumbled.  Roy had been satisfied with that; maybe it would work here, too.

It didn’t.  “Yes, it was dark, but did you recognize the man?”

Little Joe took a long, slow and, to the lawyer’s trained eye, completely revealing breath.  “I couldn’t say,” he whispered.

Mr. Klein’s face hardened.  “Oh, I think you can.”

“Sir?”

Palms planted on his desk, the prosecutor rose.  “I think you can most definitely say who you saw in that alley; I think you simply don’t want to.”

Little Joe drew back in the chair.  “Why would you say that?”

“Because you were seen, Mr. Cartwright!”

Little Joe shook his head.  “Scott was too far back to see anything, and there wasn’t anyone else.”

“Oh, but there was!  I have received a most informative note from another witness, indicating that you know much more than you are willing to admit, young man.  That you, in fact, know the identity of the killer and are only withholding it because you do not wish to indict your own brother!”  The note had not said all that in plain English, certainly, but the prosecutor believed he could read that inference between the lines.  Leading a potential witness to believe that his interrogator knew more than he actually did had always been a useful strategy in the past.  When a man—in this case, a gullible boy—believed that his secrets were already known, he was often less careful about hiding them.  Obviously, as the note had stated, Little Joe Cartwright knew more than he was saying; that was apparent from the panic that flashed in his eyes when the prosecutor threw the truth in his face.

“I—uh—I think I need to leave,” Little Joe said, rising from the chair.

“Sit down, Mr. Cartwright!” Mortimer Klein shouted.  “You’re not going anywhere until you tell me the truth—that you saw your brother, Adam Cartwright, kill Rose Worthington.”

“I did not!” Little Joe yelled back.  “She was already dead when I got there.”

“Yes, she was,” the prosecutor said, “so you correctly state that you did not see the actual killing, but you did see your brother leaving that stable immediately after hearing that shot, didn’t you?”  Another guess, but a well reasoned one.

“No,” Little Joe said, breathing heavily as he told the bald-faced lie.  It went against everything he’d been taught all his life.

“Sit down, Mr. Cartwright,” Klein said, taking his own seat again, as well.  “You can be compelled to answer my questions, and there are certainly consequences to be paid if you do not.  I would prefer to avoid that.”

“I got nothing to say,” Little Joe insisted, moving toward the door.  He turned the handle; it was locked.  “Let me out of here,” he spat.

“In good time, young man; in good time,” the prosecutor said.  “I don’t wish to make this more difficult for you than necessary, but we must have the truth, and you and I both know that what you just said is not the truth, don’t we, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No,” Little Joe insisted, although his voice was less steady than before.  Lying the first time had been hard; repeating it, still harder on his tortured conscience.  By the forcible hand of Thomas Parsons, he was led back to the chair and pushed into it, facing Mortimer Klein.  Released, he folded his arms tightly across his chest and stared at his opponent.  “You can’t make me talk,” he sputtered.

“Actually, I can,” Klein stated calmly.  “I can, if necessary, have you subpoenaed and even forcibly detained in the jail if you continue to show this obstinate refusal to testify.  Would you like to occupy the cell next to your brother?  I’m sure Sheriff Coffee could arrange that for the son of an old friend.”

Little Joe seemed to wilt before the man’s eyes.  Of all the places he did not want to be, the cell next to his brother topped the list.  And what good would it do, anyway?  Yeah, he could refuse to accuse his brother, but Pa would be sure to find out the reason his youngest son was behind bars, and then everything he’d tried to keep Pa from knowing would come out.

Mortimer Klein couldn’t discern the boy’s thoughts, but he was experienced in reading faces, and the youthful one before him was flooded with indecision and a melancholy that hinted at a deeper reason for his reluctance than simple fraternal loyalty.  Perhaps a gentler approach might be more useful than threats, although he could always pull those out of his arsenal, if needed.

“Little Joe,” he said softly.  “May I call you that?”

“Only my friends call me that, mister,” the young man said gruffly as he fidgeted in his seat.

“Ah.  Of course, and you don’t consider me a friend, do you, Joseph?”  Wishing to avoid giving offense, he moved effortlessly to the boy’s first name as an alternative.  “I understand.  I know you may find this hard to believe, but I really do appreciate the difficult position you are in and I genuinely sympathize.”

“Then let me go,” Little Joe grunted.

“I can’t do that,” the prosecutor said.  “I have a duty to the citizens of Virginia City, as well as to an innocent young girl, whose life was ruthlessly taken from her.  To fulfill that trust, I have to find the truth, and there is a truth you’re hiding, isn’t there, Joseph?  Truth will out, as Shakespeare says, and holding this ugly truth inside must be agony for you.  Wouldn’t it actually be a relief to reveal it?”

Relief?  Of course, it would be a relief to get that guilty secret off his chest!  But what would that do to Pa?  “I can’t,” Little Joe whispered to the floor.

The prosecutor could barely contain his elation.  The words were a virtual admission of information deliberately withheld.  Time to tighten the screws a little.  “You went to school under Miss Abigail Jones, did you not, Joseph?” he asked.

“What?”  The question seemed so disconnected from the previous line of conversation that Little Joe’s head immediately came up, and he stared at the man across the desk from him.

“Miss Jones was your teacher, isn’t that correct?”

“Uh . . . yeah.”

“And a good one?”

Little Joe almost smiled.  There’d been a time when he’d thought Abigail Jones the worst teacher in the world.  He still thought her romance-oriented approach to history and literature—thank goodness, arithmetic had been spared!—was ridiculous, but now that he was safely out of all that, he felt a certain fondness for the woman.  She’d actually taught him quite a lot.  “I guess I’d say so,” he answered now.

“So, she would have taught you the meaning of words like . . . perjury, I assume.”

The ghost of a smile disappeared, and the boy’s face tightened.  “I know what it means,” he said.

“Good,” the lawyer said.  “I’m glad my tax dollars are not being wasted.”  Though it seemed impossible, his face sobered still more.  “And are you aware of the penalty for perjury?”

Little Joe saw where this was headed and didn’t like it, but he shrugged as if the matter were of little consequence to him.  “Jail time, I guess.”

The prosecutor’s voice hardened.  “No, not time in your friend Roy Coffee’s jail.  This is not a misdemeanor, such as drunk and disorderly; perjury is a felony offence, and felonies mean prison.  That, I assure you, Joseph, is a far different thing, and a boy like you would not do well there, I’m afraid.”

Little Joe wasn’t sure what the man meant, but he instinctively agreed.  He’d spent a night or two in Roy Coffee’s jail, on exactly the sort of misdemeanor charge Klein had mention, and even that relatively friendly confinement had been hard to take.  From what he’d seen of men who’d been to the territorial prison, he knew that had to be infinitely harder.  “I haven’t done anything,” he said, but the slight quaver in his voice was an indication to the savvy lawyer that he’d struck fertile soil.

“Not yet.”  Klein dug the razor-sharp bit of his plow in deeper.  “However, I fully intend to put you on the stand and under oath, young man.  Should you refuse to speak the truth then, much as I would regret it, I would feel compelled to prosecute you for perjury—and see you incarcerated in prison.  Further, if you continue to withhold the truth, you will be making yourself an accessory after the fact to the murder of Rose Thompson, a criminal act that carries an even stiffer prison sentence.  Is sheltering a murderer worth that price, young man?”

The volume of the prosecutor’s voice had risen with each sentence, until he was almost shouting by the time he asked the final question, and Little Joe was visibly shaken.  Klein suddenly dropped his angry demeanor and adopted, once again, the attitude of a kindly uncle.  “Truthfully, Joseph, the fact that you haven’t come forward before means that you are already guilty of being an accessory after the fact.”  Seeing the fear that comment quickened in the boy’s eyes, he held up a hand and said, “However, I am willing to set aside your guilt to this point and release you from the threat of prosecution on that score, if you will only agree to do the right thing now.”  He offered a conciliatory smile and made his voice still gentler.  “Little Joe,” he said, deliberately using the more familiar address to indicate that he spoke as a friend, “your silence will not help your brother, anyway.  I have a strong case against him, even without your testimony.”

Little Joe’s head came up.  “Then why make me?” he challenged.

“Because it is my duty to present the strongest case I can,” the prosecutor insisted.  “It’s a hard thing for a juror to convict a man on such charges; in fairness to them, I need to demonstrate guilt beyond even the flimsiest shadow of doubt, although, in this case, I don’t think even that exists.  Do you?”

Little Joe stared at him, and his breathing became more shallow and rapid.

Klein leaned closer.  “And, Little Joe, I hate to suggest this, but you really should consider what the stress of seeing two sons convicted of serious crimes is likely to do to a man of your father’s advanced years.  I only hope he doesn’t have a weak heart.”

Little Joe wiped his sweating brow.  He’d thought of little else for days now, how Pa would take it if he learned that Adam was a murderer, but if Adam were convicted and sentenced to hang and he himself were sent to prison, what would that do to Pa?  And to Hoss, who’d be left alone to pick up the pieces?  They were the ones that mattered.  Eyes swimming with unshed tears, he nodded slowly.

The prosecutor took that as confirmation that the boy’s will had been broken.  “Good,” he said.  “Now, let’s start at the beginning.”

**********

Ducking into the nearest alley, Little Joe sank to earth behind a large crate, legs drawn up and aching head resting on his cradled knees.  Beneath his green jacket his sweat-soaked shirt clung to his clammy skin, the result of an hour’s grilling by the persistent prosecutor.  Gone was the feeling of freedom with which he’d greeted his release from sitting attendance on his older brother at the jail.  Little Joe had never felt more trapped in his life, even after the two lawyers finally unlocked the office door and let him go with instructions that insured his feelings of entrapment would crowd even closer, despite his apparent release.

“As a prospective witness,” Mortimer Klein had ordered, “you cannot communicate with anyone about your upcoming testimony.  This is standard procedure in a court case.”

“But I need to tell Pa,” Little Joe had insisted.  “Like you said . . . his heart.”

The prosecutor hesitated only a moment before saying with apparent kindness and concern.  “I’m sorry; that isn’t possible.  However, your father will have to know, eventually, of his oldest son’s guilt, and perhaps it’s best that he learn this sad truth from an unimpeachable witness and at a time when his personal physician is in attendance.  Being a witness himself, Dr. Paul Martin will be in the court room.”

It made sense, at least as best as his exhausted mind could think, but Little Joe still felt like heaving up his toenails, except he didn’t think he’d find anything inside to bring up, even if he reached down that far.  He lifted his head and wiped his beaded brow.  He wasn’t sure what time it was, but he figured he needed to get back to the jail soon.  Not looking like this, though.  He had to pull himself together.  Lurching to his feet, he ran his thick tongue around his parched mouth.  He needed a drink, but beer didn’t sound inviting any more.  Too many people, too much noise to clang in his already ringing ears.  Beer was too good a drink for a traitor, anyway.  The nearest horse trough would do for the likes of him.

**********

“What a little fool,” Thomas Parsons gloated within seconds of sending the Cartwright boy out the door.

“None of that,” Mortimer Klein said sternly.  “I will not hear that boy disparaged.  He’s in a difficult position, and as I told him, I genuinely sympathize.”

Parsons immediately changed his demeanor.  “Of course, sir; you’re quite right, sir.  I simply found it hard to understand why he would believe that he could not speak to anyone about this matter.  There is no such law, as far as I know.”

“In my opinion, there should be,” the prosecutor declared.  “Witnesses chattering to one another, comparing their stories, should definitely not be allowed.”

“Definitely not,” his associate agreed.  “To the best of my knowledge, however, his father is not scheduled as a witness, so even if there were such a law, it would not preclude the boy’s speaking to him.  Surely, he should have realized that.”

Klein shrugged.  “He’s young and not nearly as conversant with the law as you, my boy, for which we must be thankful, but never scornful.”

“Certainly, sir.  I meant no disrespect.”  Parsons looked intently at his employer.  “Do you think he will follow your instructions?”

“I think so; I believe I made my point strongly enough.”

“Oh, you did, sir, most strongly!  You were especially effective in detailing the penalties he might expect, should he in any way hinder this prosecution. I was only concerned that his family . . . or their lawyer . . . might in some way influence him.”

“That is a risk I hope we have prevented,” the prosecutor said.  “Hiram Wood is a highly competent lawyer, so it’s certainly to our advantage to employ the element of surprise against him.”

“It’s a pity we couldn’t just keep the boy here, under the proper influence,” Parsons said, ending with a slight chuckle.

Klein peered at him over his horn-rimmed glasses.  “Kidnapping is a felony, I would remind you, Mr. Parsons.  While I am willing to manipulate the truth in minor ways in order to see justice done, I do draw the line at that!”

“I was merely jesting, sir.  I apologize.”

Klein nodded.  “Well, it’s only two days until the trial begins.  Hopefully, young Mr. Cartwright can resist any need he feels to unburden himself for that long.”

**********

Little Joe arrived back at the jail after his outing looking no better than before he’d left.  Hoss, quite frankly, thought he looked worse and suspected he’d indulged in a mite more liquor than was good for any man.  Probably tryin’ to drown out the sorry way he’s been treatin’ Adam, the older brother concluded.  He decided to just let the kid stew in his own juices awhile; most times that worked better than a hard punch to jaw, even though that was the medicine Hoss felt most like administering.

Ben, as well, noticed that Little Joe did not appear to have profited much from his time away, but he thought that, not unlike other medicine, it might be necessary to administer multiple doses before it took effect.  At any rate, Hiram had seemed to feel strongly that the boy’s presence here was doing nothing but contribute to Adam’s depressed state of mind, so Ben was determined to keep trying the lawyer’s proposed cure.  Personally, he thought it might be time for a “What’s tearing at you?” conversation with his youngest, but at present he didn’t feel he had the energy for a confrontation of that sort.

For now, it seemed more important to channel all his strength into supporting the son who needed him most, the one facing the most dangerous threat.  Maybe it was the trial itself that was keeping Joe on edge.  If so, perhaps his tension, along with Ben’s own and Hoss’s and, most of all, Adam’s might be relieved soon.  If not, he’d deal with Joseph once this crisis was past.  Only two more days now.

**********

Little Joe plunked his carpetbag onto the bed nearest the window of the room he would share with Hoss that night and as many afterwards as the trial took . . . or as long as he was welcome, which might be only this single night.  He’d tried to convince Pa to let him spend one last night in his own room at the Ponderosa, assuring him that he’d still be at the courthouse in time for the beginning of the trial.  He didn’t, of course, tell his father that he had no choice but to be there, if he wanted to avoid a trip to the territorial prison.

Even without dropping that bombshell, he had apparently managed to sever the last of Ben Cartwright’s frayed nerves.  “It would not hurt you, young man, to be of some support to your family!” Ben had bellowed before declaring the no-argument edict that they would all be staying at the International House for the duration of the trial.  Only what he’d actually said was, “Until your brother is exonerated and released.”  Little Joe didn’t have the heart, or maybe the courage, to tell him that was never going to happen.

“Might as well unpack, little brother,” Hoss said, looking up from unloading his own carpetbag onto the other bed in the room.  “Reckon we’ll be here a day or so, leastwise.”

“Maybe later,” Little Joe said.  He walked over to the window and looked out, not so much to see anything as to make sure his telltale face didn’t give away what he was thinking.  He didn’t intend to unpack, except for his nightshirt and the clothes he would wear the next day.  There was a good chance that Hoss wouldn’t want to share a room with him after what he’d have to say on the stand tomorrow, so he might as well stay packed and ready to leave.  He’d even packed enough clothes to last a week, in case he needed to hightail it out of town.  In fact, he’d considered doing that tonight, so he wouldn’t have to testify, but that would mean staying on the run the rest of his life, because he fully believed Mortimer Klein would demand his arrest and trial and eventual incarceration in prison if he stayed within reach of the law.  Maybe New Orleans would be far enough, but he wasn’t sure what sort of work he was fit for in a big city like that.  Not to mention he didn’t have the price of a stage ticket that far.

They dined in a quiet corner of the dining room downstairs or, at least, they made an appearance of dining.  Little Joe ate next to nothing, but that wasn’t nearly as noticeable as usual.  Ben’s plate sat almost as untouched, and Hoss, too, was definitely off his feed.  Adam’s appetite, they noticed when they saw his plate later at the jail, was about as it had been since he was locked up, enough to keep a bird flying, but not much more.  What interest could food possibly hold for any of them with what they were facing tomorrow?

**********

Little Joe bolted upright in his bed, breathing hard.  He instinctively clapped his hand over his mouth, although he didn’t think he’d screamed out loud.  It hadn’t been that sort of nightmare, like the ones he sometimes had about falling to his death.  This had been a more quiet horror, and it was someone else doing the dying.  Shrouded in dark clouds, penetrated only by an occasional streak of lightning, Adam stood on a gallows, noose around his neck and an already ghostly look in his hollow eyes, as amidst the rolling thunder, he pointed a long accusing finger at the man responsible for his death, none other than his own brother.

With a quick glance to assure himself that Hoss was still asleep, Little Joe got up and went to the window.  He opened it and took deep breaths of the cool air.  It helped quell his nausea, but he knew there’d be no more sleep for him this night, and maybe never again.  The trial would begin tomorrow morning, and once he’d done what he had to do, it wouldn’t be just Adam’s finger pointing at him.  All of Virginia City and, most painful of all, Pa and Hoss would have their accusing fingers stuck out, too.  Before the sun set tomorrow everyone would know his treachery, but for now, none of them, unfortunately, realized that the stage had been set for a performance before the jury that would ensure a tragic ending for Adam Cartwright, nor that the star performer on that judicial stage, much against his wishes, would be his own brother.

**********

Another man in Virginia City sat sleepless beside an open window, but far from dreading the beginning of the new day, he welcomed it with lip-licking anticipation.  This day would be the fulfillment of long-held dreams, the culmination of carefully crafted schemes.  Today would begin the final defeat and ultimate descent into hell for the man who had destroyed a once-happy home by taking from it its shiny light.  Today, at last, William Walcott mused with mounting excitement, Adam Cartwright, will begin to pay for the death of my sweet Emily.

In his cell at the jail, mere blocks away, Adam Cartwright lay sleeping, too exhausted even to dream and too depleted, heart and soul, to care what happened on the morrow.

**********

The courtroom was packed.  It tended to be for any trial, but this one was the sensation of the season.  The nature of the crime itself, the drama of a beautiful young bride, killed on the eve of her wedding, as well as the prominence of the defendant—a Cartwright, no less!—all added to the draw for what was deemed to be the best theater in town, and there literally was not standing room left in the hall of justice.  The buzz in the room halted momentarily when Ben Cartwright and his younger two sons entered; then it  started up again, only to be hushed once more, this time indefinitely, as Adam Cartwright was ushered in by the sheriff and took his place at the defendant’s desk, alongside his lawyer.  Only soft whispers broke the silence now.  It was time for the play to begin, and no one wanted to miss a word.  This would be better than Shakespeare!

Ben and Hoss stood as soon as Adam came in and Little Joe, only seconds later.  They reached across the rail separating them from the main participants in the trial, each touching son or brother supportively, as suggested by Hiram Wood.  “Let everyone see that you have no doubt of Adam’s innocence,” he had advised, “or of his eventual acquittal.  No hangdog faces.”  The words had been to all three of them, but his eyes were riveted on Little Joe when he said the final phrase.  That boy had been anything but supportive, and the lawyer wanted none of that attitude conveyed in the courtroom, especially in the view of the jury.  No matter how hard jurors tried to be fair, they were, in the end, only human and, therefore, could be swayed by the smallest things.

The visible support and confidence of the family, Hiram Wood had assured them, was important.  Ben and Hoss were eager to give it, and even Little Joe was making a fair show.  Maybe it was because father and brother were flanking him on either side or, maybe, someone had finally gotten through that block of wood perched between the young man’s shoulders.  Hiram didn’t care; it was the appearance that mattered.  The family unity could—and he was confident, would—be repaired, once his client was out from under that sword of Damocles hanging above his head.  He’d seen other families ripped apart by the sort of stress the Cartwrights were under, but if he’d been a betting man, he’d have laid odds on Ben Cartwright’s power and determination to bring this one back together again.

That, of course, was dependent upon his own ability to convince the jury of Adam Cartwright’s innocence, and the lawyer would not have been nearly as willing to bet his bankroll on that.  As he’d continually emphasized to his client and the other Cartwrights, the evidence was solely circumstantial, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t strong.  It was, particularly that signed note to Rose.  Adam swore he hadn’t written it, but there was no way to prove whether he had or not.  Hiram himself was familiar with Adam’s fine cursive penmanship, but this note had been printed out in block letters, which made it harder to identify, even if such an analysis were admissible as evidence.

His slate of witnesses was weak, composed primarily of character witnesses, but it was always harder to prove a negative.  How, after all, could a man prove he wasn’t somewhere he could have been?  The standard defense was an alibi, someone who had seen the man elsewhere at the same time, but so far, he’d been unable to find anyone who had seen Adam Cartwright at all after his brother left him at the schoolhouse, other than Abigail Jones.  While she remembered clearly the exact time of his visit, it didn’t preclude his having committed the crime of which he was accused prior to his arrival.  No, Miss Jones’ testimony was more helpful to the prosecution, and she had, in fact, been subpoenaed as one of Mortimer Klein’s witnesses.

He could, of course, call Adam himself to the stand, but he generally advised against that and, in this case, he thought it risky.  Adam could do nothing but deny his guilt and hope that his credibility and reputation convinced the jury, but given his state of mind, which had steadily deteriorated during his incarceration, that was another bet on which Hiram wouldn’t have wagered much.  Adam, at present, was his own worst enemy.  Or so the lawyer thought.

Judge Gregory Lawson entered from a side chamber and, taking his seat, banged the gavel by habit, for there was no need.  The room had gone silent at first sight of him; the spectators were ready for the show to start.  After the brief prologue of the defendant’s weak plea of not guilty, the first act began with Mortimer Klein’s opening statement.  He outlined for the jury, as well as the larger audience, how Adam Cartwright had lured his betrothed bride to a secluded place, intending to take from her the precious gift she was holding sacred until their wedding night.  “When this virtuous and innocent Rose refused his amorous advances, however,” Klein declared, looking with disgust at the defendant, “Adam Cartwright flew into a rage and tried to take by force what she would have given willingly, had he only waited until they were man and wife.  The people will prove that he had no other reason to be in town that night, and evidence will place him at the scene of the crime, at the time of the crime, without any doubt.”

When he sat down, and as the judge’s gavel was rebuking a few unauthorized shouts of approval scattered throughout the room, Hiram Wood stood.  “What you have just heard is an elaborate fantasy, completely without basis,” he said.  “As Mr. Klein has just stated, Adam Cartwright had no need to take what would be his by right in only a few more days, and any evidence that places him in any proximity to that barn on the night in question is purely circumstantial.  Witnesses will demonstrate that he is not the sort of man to ‘fly into a rage,’ as the prosecutor suggests, but rather one with renowned self-control, and we will detail his movements in Virginia City that night, down to the minute.  We are confident, when all true evidence is set beside Mr. Klein’s mere speculation, you will return a fair and honest verdict of not guilty.”

Mortimer Klein then called his first witness, and a visibly jittery Scott McGrew took the stand.  He was soon released from his torment, though, for he only needed to describe how he and Little Joe Cartwright had found the body of Miss Rose Worthington and the steps they had taken to contact the doctor and Sheriff Coffee.  “And what time did you make this grisly discovery, Mr. McGrew?” the prosecutor asked.

“Little bit after eight,” Scott said.  Hiram Wood had no questions for him, so he gladly got out of the chair and settled in the back row of the courtroom, visibly relieved to be a plain spectator like the others.

Little Joe moved to the edge of his seat, but settled back, looking puzzled, when the prosecutor next called Dr. Paul Martin.  He had assumed that he would follow Scott, to back up his story, as Mr. Klein had first said to him that day in the office.  After the doctor, then?

Dr. Martin’s testimony also was routine, describing the young woman’s medical condition, cause of death and time, as best he could judge it.  “I would estimate about half an hour before her body was found,” he said.  “There was only a little coagulated blood at the bullet’s entrance point, so she had been dead at least a short while before the boys heard that shot.  Gravity had begun to draw the blood downward.”

A low murmur rumbled through the courtroom when the audience heard that.  So, the girl hadn’t died from a gunshot, like they’d heard?  But if she’d already been dead, that meant somebody had shot her lifeless body for no reason.  What kind of sick soul would do a thing like that to a beautiful girl?  Or, maybe, like the prosecutor suggested, one gone crazy with anger.

The next witness was Sheriff Roy Coffee, and his testimony proved the most damaging thus far.  The monogrammed money clip was entered into evidence, and the jurors looked gravely impressed that the initials on it were those of the defendant.  Then when the sheriff produced the note brought to him by the dead girl’s father, it was plain to see what direction most of the spectators were leaning.

“You’re acquainted with a majority of the citizens of this town, are you not, Sheriff Coffee?” Hiram Wood asked on cross-examination.

“I try to be,” Roy said.  “That’s part of my job.”

“And you do it well, to be sure,” the lawyer said smoothly, “so perhaps you are acquainted with the juror seated in the third seat from the left in the back row?”

Seeing where he was being led, the sheriff was glad to follow.  “Yes, sir, I know Anthony Coolidge.”

“As well as a number of other citizens with the initials AC?” Wood suggested.

“Several,” Roy agreed.

“Without suggesting that Mr. Coolidge or any of these others had anything to do with this killing, any of them could as easily own a monogrammed money clip as Adam Cartwright, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes, sir, I would.”

Mortimer Klein rose to his feet swiftly.  “Only one question on redirect, Sheriff Coffee.  Any man can own a money clip, to be sure, but do you, of your own personal knowledge, know that any of these men, other than Adam Cartwright, actually does own one?”

Roy deftly sidestepped the trap laid for him.  “I don’t even know that he does, for that matter, Mr. Klein.”

Klein frowned.  “No further questions.”

Isaac Worthington was then called to testify, but only to verify where and when he’d found the note introduced into evidence by the sheriff and the hour at which he had last seen his daughter, which was shortly after 7 p.m.  In respect for his fresh grief, the questions were few and gently, compassionately asked.  Mr. Wood asked none at all, and the tearful man stepped down from the stand and into the welcoming comfort of the entire town.  With their eyes fixed on him, few even noticed that for the first time that morning, Adam Cartwright had looked at something other than the desk top in front of him or that his anguished eyes followed the gray-haired man as he walked with stooped shoulders back to his seat.

Two men, seated in the far back, however, did see, and their faces all but beamed at the pain so vividly painted on that of the defendant.  The match had been struck, the fire ignited, and every witness, they sincerely hoped, would only add fuel to the flames scorching the soul of Adam Cartwright.

“The people call Miss Abigail Jones,” Klein next announced.

Abigail Jones, in her buttoned-up best, approached the throne of interrogation and took the oath with the solemn regality she would wish her students to emulate.  School had been dismissed for the day, and while children were, of course, not permitted in the courtroom itself, a good number of her students were peering in at the windows.  She noticed them as she raised her hand and vowed to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  As an example to the youth of the town, she would do no less.

One former student, seated in the first row behind the defense table, was watching her intently, as if to draw guidelines for his own behavior there.  If he needed it.  Little Joe was beginning to hope that the prosecutor had changed his mind about calling him as a witness.  He had expected to testify much earlier, and his heart had hovered somewhere about mid-throat during every interval between one witness leaving the stand and the next being called.  Mr. Klein had to be coming to the end of his string, didn’t he?  Calling Miss Jones to the stand seemed to imply that he’d moved beyond the events of the barn, so maybe he’d decided he didn’t need Joe’s testimony, after all.  It was logical only to one in need of frantic hope, but the hope was born nonetheless.

“Miss Jones,” the prosecutor began, “may I first thank you for your years of service to the youth of our community as an exemplary schoolteacher.”

“Why, thank you,” she said, blushing in a modest manner that made her look almost pretty.  Of course, she had paid special attention to dressing her hair neatly this morning and had even added a discreet touch of rouge to her normally austere cheekbones.

“Now, sadly, I must direct your thoughts to the night of Miss Rose Worthington’s murder,” he continued.  “Did you receive an unexpected visitor at your home that night?”

“Well, of course, I didn’t know the young lady had been murdered at that time,” she pointed out.

“Yes, but knowing that fact now, are you able to remember the night in question?”

“Of course.  It was the night Adam Cartwright came to my home,” the teacher replied.  “Quite unexpectedly,” she hastened to say.  “I had neither invited him, nor did I expect a gentleman caller, especially after dark.”

A titter rippled across the room, which the prosecutor quickly silenced by assuring her that no one would assume otherwise, knowing her reputation for virtue and circumspect behavior.  “Did Mr. Cartwright state the reason for his visit?” Mr. Klein asked.

She pursed her lips for a brief moment before answering.  “He asked me if the meeting of the school board had been cancelled.”

“Had it?”

She drew herself proudly erect.  “There was no such meeting, as I informed him at once.  He claimed that I had sent him a note, asking him to attend the meeting.  I told him I had done no such thing!”

“And how did he react?”

“He continued to argue that he had received such a note and that it was signed with my name.  Not by me, certainly!”  Her indignation was clear.  “I suggested, then, that someone was playing a prank and reminded him that his youngest brother was renowned for that sort of thing when he was in my classroom.”

Chuckles resounded throughout the room, with the notable exception of the first row behind the defense.  A few of the spectators had been to school with Little Joe Cartwright and chuckled from fond remembrance of the pranks he’d pulled there, others simply from recollection of similar students during their own school days.  The judge tapped the gavel, but only lightly, as he, too, was fighting back a smile.

“Did Adam Cartwright respond in any particular way?”  the prosecutor asked.

Miss Jones looked nervously at the handkerchief twisted in her hands; then she brought her head up and looked directly at the defendant with saddened eyes.  “He said that if he—that is to say, his little brother—had pulled such a prank, he would kill him.”

Hoss shot a quick glance at his younger brother.  Had Joe heard about that before?  Was that why he’d seemed put-out with Adam since he’d come home that night?  Naw, Little Joe looked as surprised as anyone else, so that couldn’t be it.  The kid sure was antsy today, though, squirming in his chair like he had real ants crawlin’ in his britches.

A hushed gasp echoed across the chamber, as everyone awaited the prosecutor’s next question with bated breath.  “And what time did Adam Cartwright leave your house with murder in his heart?” Klein asked.

Hiram Wood burst to his feet.  “Objection, your honor!  Counselor is drawing a conclusion in no way supported by the utterance of an idle remark.”

“That’s for the jury to decide, isn’t it?” Mortimer Klein asked smoothly.

“Nonetheless, counselor,” Judge Lawson said, “such suggestions are better suited to your closing statement.  Rephrase your question.”

“What time did Adam Cartwright leave?” the prosecutor asked.

“I looked at the clock when I went back inside,” Miss Jones said, “and it was exactly 8:15.”

“Your witness, counselor,” Klein said with a nod to the opposing lawyer.

“No questions,” Hiram Wood said.  The problem, he mused as Miss Jones stepped down and walked through the small gate into the seating area, was that the prosecution’s case might be completely circumstantial, but it was built on solid facts presented by solid citizens.  Give him a nice impeachable town drunk or saloon hussy any day; those people were pure pleasure to cross-examine.  But people like Dr. Martin, Sheriff Coffee and Miss Abigail Jones?  Pointless.  Facts were facts, and they’d all stated them accurately.

It would have been convenient, of course, if Adam had been talking to the schoolteacher at the exact time of the murder, but challenging her on the time of their conversation would have done nothing but paint the defense as desperate.  He could, equally, have tried to make her admit that she had written the note luring Adam to town that night, but man-hungry as she was reputed to be, no one believed the spinster schoolmarm capable of that.  He didn’t believe it himself.

No, he couldn’t prove those facts in error, but he could, hopefully, demonstrate that the prosecutor’s interpretation of them, and all the others, was completely wrong.  He waited expectantly for Mortimer Klein to state that the prosecution’s case was complete, sure to happen any moment now, so he could begin to build his own.

The prosecutor stood silent so long after dismissing Miss Jones that the judge finally asked if he had further witnesses.  “One more, your honor,” Klein said, and his eyes stayed riveted on the defense table as he loudly announced, “The people call Joseph Cartwright.”  Still holding the other lawyer’s gaze, he smiled triumphantly, like an Indian warrior counting coup.

In the stunned silence that followed, the dropping of the proverbial pin would have peeled like thunder.  As he stood, Little Joe could feel every eye in the room boring into him, but the only ones that mattered sat on either side.  He couldn’t bring himself to look at them, but as he moved past his confused father, he murmured, “I’m sorry, Pa.”  Walking the interminable distance to the stand, he prayed that his father would forgive him for what he was about to do.

Stunned, Adam raised his head for only the second time that morning and followed his brother’s steps.

Hoss slid into the chair just vacated by his brother and whispered to his father, “What’s this about?  I thought Mr. Wood said that feller’d be stupid to call Little Joe.”  Ben shrugged, as dumfounded as his son.  He only hoped the prosecutor was as big a fool as this move made him seem.  Adam could use any advantage they could gain.

Once in the stand, Little Joe placed his hand on the Bible and trembled as the clerk asked, “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”

A sense of unbearable weight descended onto the young man’s slim shoulders as he choked out, “I do.”

The crowd began to murmur its speculations, one to another, and the judge pounded his gavel for order.  Then Mortimer Klein approached his witness.  “Mr. Cartwright,” he began, “on the night in question, did you ride into Virginia City in the company of your older brother, Adam Cartwright?”

That one was easy enough, though Little Joe knew there was worse to come.  He exhaled slowly, hoping to slow his pounding heart, and said, “Yes, I did.”

“Where and when did you part company?” the prosecutor continued.

“At the schoolhouse,” Little Joe said at once.  “I didn’t have a watch with me, though.”

Klein frowned, for the boy had been more specific under questioning in his office.  “You had no idea of the time?” he pressed.  “I remind you that you are under oath.”

Hearing the undertone of threat, Little Joe moistened his dry lips.  “Well, not then,” he said, “but I did see the clock outside the bank when I passed it.  It was about 7:30, so we would’ve got to the schoolhouse a little before that.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” the lawyer said gruffly.  “Now, did you hear the testimony of Miss Abigail Jones?”

Little Joe looked puzzled.  What did that have to do with anything?  Another easy answer, though.  “Yeah.  I mean, yes, I did.”

“And what time did she state that your brother came to her house?”

“At 8:15,” he answered at once.

The prosecutor smiled.  “Now, as a former student of the inestimable Miss Jones, I’m certain you learned enough simple arithmetic to calculate the time between when you left your brother and when he arrived at her home.”

Hiram Wood rolled his eyes.  His opponent was using the witness to introduce another comment better suited to final argument, but he let this one ride.  The jury had probably already made that calculation for themselves, anyway.

“Um, about forty-five minutes or so,” Little Joe said.

“And does it take more than forty-five minutes or so for a man to walk from the schoolhouse to Wilson’s stable?” Klein pursued.

“Uh, no.  I reckon it don’t,” Little Joe said.

“Where did you go after leaving the schoolhouse?”

“The Silver Dollar,” Little Joe answered.

“And what did you do there?”

Little Joe shrugged.  “Had a sandwich, a beer.”

“Maybe a little conversation with a pretty girl?”

“Well, yeah, that, too.”  A chorus of chuckles greeted that response, as the prosecutor had intended.  Considering what he was about to ask this witness to do, he wanted the audience, the jurors in particular, to view him sympathetically, as just a normal young man, suddenly finding himself caught up in a nightmare.

“About what time did you leave the Silver Dollar, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Just after eight.”

“You’re sure?  You had no watch, as I recall,” Klein observed.

“I asked the barkeep,” Little Joe replied.

“All right.  Now, we know from Mr. McGrew’s testimony that you were passing the alley that led to Wilson’s old stable when a shot was fired.  Is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“And what did you do in response to that sound, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I ran toward it.”

“Hoping to help,” the prosecutor suggested.

Little Joe shrugged.  “I guess so.  Maybe just instinct.  I don’t know.”  In that moment, he recalled, he’d been running to help his brother, fearing he’d been shot, but he wasn’t about to volunteer anything about Adam.

“Your instinct told you someone was in trouble, and you wanted to help.”  Mr. Klein made a second attempt to place his witness in a favorable light.  He needed the jury to understand that this was a young man with a good and decent heart, not some brat with a grudge against an older brother.

Little Joe again moved his shoulders in a gesture of uncertainty.  “If I could.”  The prosecutor let the answer ride.  Modesty, after all, was a favorable quality, as well.

Mr. Klein walked back and forth in front of his witness, stroking his chin as if pondering the mystery of the ages.  “One thing puzzles me, Mr. Cartwright,” he said as he turned to face Little Joe.  “You were closer to that barn than Mr. McGrew, and you responded immediately to the shot you heard. So how is it that he arrived there before you?”

Little Joe’s breath caught in his throat.  Here it was, the moment he’d been dreading, coming at him fast and hard now, but he was determined to hold it off as long as he could.  Who knew?  Maybe the earth would just open up and swallow him before he had to speak the words that would rip his family apart.  A man could hope, couldn’t he?  “I . . . stopped,” he finally answered.

Mortimer Klein was probably the only one in the courtroom who realized what the boy was trying to do, but procrastination would avail young Joseph Cartwright nothing.  He fixed his witness with a stern look of admonishment and pressed, “Why?”

“I-I . . .”

The prosecutor planted his palms on the rail between him and the witness and leaned in.  “Why did you stop, Mr. Cartwright?”

Pulling back in his chair, Little Joe swallowed hard and then said, barely above a whisper, “I  . . . saw someone.”

A rush of excitement wafted over the entire room.   Mr. Klein waited for the room to grow quiet once again and then asked, “Where, exactly, was this person you saw?”

Little Joe exhaled heavily.  “He was coming out of Wilson’s stable.”

The room exploded.  The killer had been seen!  This was something no one had heard, not even guessed until this moment, and the revelation hit with the force of a cannonball.

Nowhere was its impact felt more strongly than at the defense table and in the first row behind it.  Hiram Wood’s face tightened, and he began scribbling notes as fast as he could.  Adam’s mouth hung open, and he shook his head in dazed pain as his suddenly sharpened mind deduced what must inevitably come next.  With a flash of insight, Ben Cartwright realized that this horrid secret was what had been gnawing inside his youngest son all along.  Why, in the name of all reason, had Little Joe not come to him with this?  Shock?  Fear?  Why, why, he asked himself, did I not make him talk to me?

At his side Hoss was interpreting the news in a slightly different way.  Joe’d seen the killer?  All this time he’d had the proof in his hand of Adam’s innocence and never bothered to speak up?  Bitter anger ignited deep in the pit of Hoss’s stomach and began burning its way upward.  So help him, as soon as this was over, he was gonna drag little brother out behind the nearest barn and teach him a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget!

Not insensitive to the rising interest of the people behind him, Klein paused briefly to allow it to build.  The next information he intended to elicit from his reluctant witness was vital to the prosecution’s case, and he wanted every ear tuned to its revelation, especially those of the twelve men in the jurors’ box.  When the judge had gaveled to room back to order, the prosecutor stepped to one side, to give everyone full view of the boy on the stand.  “Did you recognize that person, Mr. Cartwright?”

Though he’d known this moment was coming, Little Joe nonetheless panicked, his mind desperately seeking a way to avoid saying the fatal words.  “It—it was dark,” he mumbled.

With a cutting side glance at his witness, the prosecutor exhaled gustily.  “Yes, it was dark; most alleys are,” he said gruffly, “but that is not the question.  I would remind you, Mr. Cartwright, that you took an oath to tell the whole truth, not just whatever part suits you.  You do remember that, don’t you, as well as the penalty for failing to do so?”  His voice had risen sharply as he spoke.

Adam saw his brother flinch and knew in that instant that the boy had been threatened.  His cheek muscles tightened, and his eyes hardened.

Hiram Wood rose.  “I object, your honor.  Counsel is browbeating his own witness!”

“A reminder to speak the truth is scarcely browbeating!” Mortimer Klein declared.

“The objection is overruled,” Judge Lawson decreed, “but don’t overdo it, Mr. Klein.  More flies with honey, if you take my meaning.”

“Would your honor, at least, instruct the witness to answer my questions directly?” the prosecutor asked, though he tried hard to keep the vinegar out of his voice.

The judge nodded, almost reluctantly.  “Mr. Cartwright, look at me, please,” he said.

Nervously, Little Joe did.

“Mr. Cartwright, you are directed to answer any question put to you with complete honesty and without any pussyfooting around.  Is that understood?”

“Yes, sir.”  Little Joe tried to steady his voice, but was pretty sure he’d failed completely.

“Continue your examination, Mr. Klein.”

“I ask you once again, Mr. Cartwright: did you recognize the man exiting Miller’s stable that night?” the prosecutor demanded.

“Yes.”  The answer, though soft, came directly this time.

“And did this person recognize you, as well?” Klein asked, adding, “Please speak loudly enough for the jury to hear you.”

“I think so,” Little Joe said.

“And why do you think that?”

“He—well, he looked right at me,” Little Joe said, hands nervously rubbing the rail of the witness box before him, “and then he—he held his finger up, like this.”  He held his index finger before his lips.

Adam shook his head in disbelief, but no one noticed, least of all Little Joe.

“And how did you interpret that gesture?” the prosecutor pursued.

“To keep quiet,” Little Joe said.

“You took it as an instruction not to tell anyone who you’d seen?”

“Yes.”  It was small wonder his voice trembled; by this time his entire body was shaking.

“But you are going to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as you promised, aren’t you, Mr. Cartwright?”

Little Joe merely nodded.  Klein would have let it pass this time, but the judge intervened to remind the witness that his answers needed to be spoken aloud, and the witness responded with a singularly reluctant and quavering affirmative.

“Who is that man who left the barn after firing a shot into the body of Rose Worthington?” the prosecutor demanded.

Little Joe gripped the rail of the witness box so tightly that his knuckles turned white.  “It was . . . Adam,” he choked out.

“Louder, Mr. Cartwright!”

A sob stuck in Little Joe’s throat.  He swallowed it down, and his voice sounded desperate as he raised it.  “Adam.  It was my brother Adam,” he said, his head collapsing on the white knuckles that still gripped the rail as if it were the only thing keeping him from falling into the floor.

“No!”  The agonized roar rang throughout the courtroom as Hoss Cartwright jumped to his feet.  “You dirty, filthy liar!” he screamed at his brother on the witness stand.

The room exploded, Hoss’s outburst seeming to grant permission to every man in the room to voice his own opinion.  Some shouted derision at Little Joe; others yelled for a rope as they glared at Adam.  The judge pounded his gavel over and over, and when that did not silence the room, he continued to hit it as he stood to his feet and shouted over all of them, “Order!  I will have order in this court!”  He pointed the gavel directly at Hoss and bellowed, “Sit down, young man, before I declare you in contempt.”

Ben had been pulling frantically on his middle son’s arm since he first stood, and Hoss finally responded and sat next to his father again, nostrils still flared, eyes still sharp as flint.  At the center of the hurricane two young men, one in the witness box and the other at the defense table, appeared oblivious to the turmoil whirling around them.  Little Joe remained with his head on the rail, while Adam’s brooding eyes were riveted on his little brother, though with none of the anger flashing in those of his other brother.

Two sets of eyes at the back of the courtroom watched the scene with growing, gloating satisfaction.  William and Walter Walcott could not have asked for a better fulfillment of their carefully calculated plans.  What they did not, in their moment of triumph, perceive was that they had just unleashed a beast.  What they had intended to crush Adam Cartwright, to hasten his spiral into the pit of hell, had, instead, aroused a fierce protective instinct of ancient standing.  He did not as yet know who was behind the nightmare that had befallen his family, but whoever it was had made one fatal mistake: he had hurt a brother.  For the first time since Rose’s death, Adam began to think of someone other than himself and his own oppressive yoke of grief and guilt.  He still didn’t care what happened to him, but for the first time, Adam was ready to fight.

The judge continued pounding his gavel until the hubbub gradually began to die down.  Frowning, he looked at the slumped figure in the witness box and then at the prosecutor.  “Do you have any further questions for this witness, Mr. Klein?”

“No, your honor,” Klein replied.  He turned a victor’s smile on the other attorney.  “Your witness, counselor.”

Little Joe’s head had slowly risen as the prosecutor began his answer, but his heart immediately sank.  Until that moment it had never occurred to him that, in addition to the prosecutor’s questions, he would also have to face those of Adam’s lawyer, and it would be Hiram Wood’s job to rip apart every word Joe had said.  The ordeal he had begun to hope was over had, instead, only begun.

Wood stared at the boy in the witness box and then quickly consulted his pocket watch.  He needed time to prepare for this unexpected witness, and fortunately, the hour was ripe for the perfect excuse.  He rose to his feet and addressed the judge.  “Your honor, the witness appears depleted, and my cross-examination is likely to be lengthy.  Given the nearness to midday, perhaps it might be wise to take a recess now and reconvene when we’ve all had the opportunity to refresh ourselves.”

“Surely, counselor can’t have that many questions,” Mortimer Klein argued, for he had clearly recognized the other lawyer’s bid for extra time.  “This being my final witness, the state could then close its case, allowing the entire afternoon for the defense.”

Judge Lawson was savvy enough to see through the rhetoric of both attorneys.  He looked, instead, at the witness.  Hiram Wood’s description of the Cartwright boy as depleted hardly stated the half, and no defense attorney worth his salt would pursue a  cross-examination that was anything less than grueling.  The boy needed a break, and the judge felt inclined to grant him one.  “Court will be in recess until two o’clock this afternoon,” he said.  Turning to Little Joe, he added, “You will return here at that time to undergo cross-examination.  Is that understood, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said, his voice barely audible.  He understood all too well!

“Court is dismissed.”

No sooner were the words said than Little Joe bolted out of the witness box, through the small gate in the separating rail and down the aisle.

“Joseph!” Ben yelled.  “Joe!”  But his younger son was already out the door.  Ben pulled Hoss past him, saying, “Find him; bring him back!”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said at once, and not from simple obedience.  Getting his hands on his little brother was exactly what he wanted to do!  The aisle was already packed with people trying to get out and grab a bite to eat before court reconvened, but Hoss never had any problem pushing his way through a crowd.  Nonetheless, by the time he reached the street, his little brother had vanished.  Hoss set his lips firmly together and set off to check any likely place the little varmint might be taking his ornery hide.

Inside the court, Ben moved to the side of his oldest son and wrapped strong fingers of support around his biceps.  “Adam, I-I don’t know what to say,” he stammered.

“You didn’t know?” Hiram Wood demanded.

“Of course not!”

Sheriff Coffee approached them.  “Sorry, Ben, but I got to get Adam back to the jail.  You can talk there.”

“Yes, yes, of course, Sheriff,” the lawyer said.  “More private there, anyway.”

Roy put the obligatory handcuffs on his prisoner and escorted him, accompanied by his lawyer, out the door.  Ben trailed behind them, for as he passed the row where he’d been sitting, he noticed that Little Joe had left his hat and stopped to pick it up.  Only a handful of people remained in the courtroom as he headed out, but one man moved into his path.  Forced to stop, Ben looked up into the enigmatic face of William Walcott.

“It’s hard to watch one child face certain death, while another suffers unbearable strain,” Walcott said unctuously.  “Knowing something of similar stress myself, I offer my sympathy, Mr. Cartwright.”

Scarcely knowing what to make of those strange words, Ben merely nodded and moved to one side, so he could pass through the door.  Making no further move to detain him, Walcott turned to his son with a satisfied smile.

Ben left the courthouse, only to find his son facing a gauntlet of spectators who had decided to delay their lunch in favor of the chance to jeer at the man on trial as he passed before them.  Sheriff Coffee warned them all to stand back, however, and Ben hurried forward to add his support, if needed.  The taunts continued, but the four men reached the jail without incident, and Ben and Hiram Wood joined Adam in his cell.

“We have to find some way to tear that boy’s testimony apart,” the lawyer said.

Adam looked steadily at him and said but a single word, “No.”

“Adam, I must!” Wood declared.  “It doesn’t get more damaging than an eye-witness account.”

“You will not hurt my brother,” Adam said with more force than anyone had heard from him in the last couple of weeks.

“It’s your life, Adam!”

“I know that,” Adam said, “but I won’t buy it at that price.  Do not hurt my brother.”

The lawyer frowned.  “Is there bad blood between the two of you?  Not on your part, apparently, but his?”

“Not that I’m aware.”

“Something’s been bothering the boy,” Ben said.

“We all know that!” Hiram Wood snapped.  “And now we all know what it was.  What I don’t know is why.  Why on earth would that boy concoct such a set of lies?”

“He isn’t lying,” Adam said quietly.

The lawyer stared at his client through narrowed eyes.  “Are you confessing to murder, young man?  Do we need to consider a change of plea?”  Frankly, he wasn’t certain he could handle another Cartwright bombshell, given the magnitude of the one he was already struggling to absorb.

“Of course not,” Adam said with a hint of exasperation, “but it’s not a lie if he believes what he’s saying.  I was watching him carefully and he’s in agony.  He really thinks I did it.”

“How could he, son?” his obviously anguished father asked.

“He said it right the first time,” Adam replied.  “He saw . . . someone.”

“Someone he mistook for you?”  Ben eagerly grasped at the straw handed him.  “Of course.  That must be it.”  He exchanged a glance with the lawyer, and for the first time since his son’s arrest, each saw hope in the other’s eyes.  Adam was back, thinking clearly again.  Now, anything was possible.

“I’ve got to talk to that boy, Ben,” Hiram Wood insisted, “before I cross-examine him.  Do you think Hoss can find him?”

It was Adam who answered, and he did so with confidence.  “Hoss will find him.”

“And, hopefully, bring him back in one piece,” Hiram grunted.  Having yet another Cartwright arraigned, this time on charges of witness battering, was the last thing he needed.  At times he wondered why he had ever agreed to be the family lawyer.

**********

Hoss was fortunate, in that the first couple of people he asked had seen his little brother, running pell-mell down C Street.  He headed the direction they indicated, stopping in at the bars his brother was most likely to frequent.  If he’d been Joe, he’d have needed a stiff drink after pulling a stunt like he’d just done.  However, after going into three or four bars, without spotting hide nor hair of his little brother, it came to Hoss that he wasn’t Joe.  Joe wasn’t much of a drinker, after all, and he usually did it to be sociable, not to find courage in a bottle.  Only a growed man was stupid enough to think he’d find it there, and Little Joe was still a boy, barely turned seventeen.  If Hoss wanted to find his little brother, he needed to start thinking like a scared kid.

If they’d been back on the Ponderosa, he would have known exactly where to look, a time-honored hidey-hole where his little brother most often went to burrow until it was safe to come out.  Suddenly, he knew that Little Joe had scurried into just that sort of place here in town, but which one?  He took him less than a minute to reason it out, and he gulped down the sour bile that rose in his throat.  It was the last place on earth he wanted to go, and he wasn’t sure how Joe could stand it, either, but he knew, sure as the world, that was where the crazy little cuss had headed.  He turned his steps toward Wilson’s old stable.

Big man that he was, Hoss shivered involuntarily as he entered the rickety building.  He could barely see in the dim light, but the air was heavy with the fear and pain that had happened here and the sorrow of losing someone he had loved, not romantically like his older brother, but dearly, like the sister she was meant to be.  There was fear and pain of another sort in here, too; he could feel that just as strongly, and by it he knew: Little Joe was here.

“No sense hidin’ in the dark,” he called.  “I know you’re in here, Joseph.  Now, come on out.”

“You gonna kill me?”  The voice came from the darkest corner of the back stall.

“Ain’t in me to hurt a brother,” Hoss growled.

Unlike some I could mention.  Hoss hadn’t said the words, but Little Joe heard them, nonetheless.  But, then, no one had to tell him that Hoss was a better man than him.  He’d always known that, now more than ever.  Hoss would never, for one minute, have believed that their older brother was capable of murder.  But then, Joe wouldn’t have believed it, either, if he hadn’t seen the proof with his own eyes.

“If I have to drag you out of that stall, little brother, I won’t be responsible for what condition you show up in for court this afternoon,” Hoss warned.

Brushing hay from his britches, Little Joe came out, although he was careful to keep more than an arm’s length from his big brother.

“I ain’t gonna kill you,” Hoss grunted.  “Pa said to fetch you, and that’s what I aim to do.  Now, are you comin’ peaceable or have I got to haul you down to the jail by the scruff of the neck?”

Little Joe bit his lower lip.  “I ain’t sure I can.  Mr. Klein said I wasn’t to talk to no one, not even Pa.”

“I don’t give a fig what Mr. Klein wants,” Hoss snarled, “and I don’t much care what you want, neither.  Pa wants you down to the jail, so to jail you’re goin’ and that’s a pure fact.  You can either walk there on your own or I can tote you like a sack of potatoes.  Don’t make me much never-mind.”

“I’ll walk,” Little Joe muttered, and head hanging down, he moved toward the door.

They left the barn and moved down the alley, neither saying a word, and they continued in silence up C Street toward the main part of town.  People caught sight of them, walking side by side, and some couldn’t resist sending hoots and catcalls their way.  Some spewed ugly names for what Joe had done, and angry as Hoss himself felt with his brother, he automatically snaked a sheltering arm around the younger boy.  Joe might deserve every dirty name thrown at him, but he was still Hoss’s baby brother, and no one outside the family had any right to give him a walloping, even if it was the kind that only left him bloodied on the inside.

They finally reached the jail and went inside.  Roy walked ahead of them into the cell block and unlocked the door to Adam’s cell.  Hoss went directly in, as the three men inside stood to greet the newcomers, but Little Joe lingered outside the bars.  “Get in here,” Hoss ordered.

“Hoss,” Ben chided softly.  Then he reached a hand toward his youngest son and said in as gentle a tone as his anxiety could afford him, “Come in, son.”

“You sure you want me?”  Little Joe kept his eyes on the gray floor.

“I’m sure, son.”  Ben’s voice this time was tender with compassion.  Whatever had made his youngest say the things he had on the stand, it was beyond obvious that he was a boy in need of help . . . and a father’s love.  Ben kept his hand extended, although Little Joe didn’t see it.  As he walked into the cell, he saw nothing but the cold, hard floor.

“Sheriff, could we have another chair?” Hiram Wood requested.

“Sure thing,” Roy Coffee said and quickly moved into the outer office to get one.

When he had brought back the chair, the lawyer placed it facing his own and said firmly, “Sit down, young man.  We have a lot to talk about and not much time to do it.”

“I don’t think I can,” Little Joe said.  “I-I’m not supposed to talk to anyone.”

“Who told you that?” Wood demanded.

“Aw, that other lawyer,” Hoss said.  “The kid was spouting that nonsense back in the barn where I found him.  Said he wasn’t even s’posed to talk to Pa, if that don’t beat all.”

“Mr. Klein?  Look at me, Little Joe.”  The defense attorney waited until the boy followed his instruction and then asked, “Did Mr. Klein tell you that you could not speak to anyone, not even your father?”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe replied.  He looked to his father.  “I’m sorry, Pa.  I wanted to tell you, in case your heart was bad, like he thought, but he told me I couldn’t.  It’s how these law things are done.”  He looked back to Mr. Wood for confirmation.

“Whoa, whoa,” Hoss put in.  “What’s this about Pa havin’ a bad heart?”

“Not now, Hoss,” Wood said sharply.  “This whole matter needs to be pursued, but we don’t have time now.”  He turned back toward the younger boy.  “Listen to me, Little Joe.  While I often urge witnesses not to discuss their testimony with any other possible witnesses, there’s no law against a boy of your years speaking to his own father.  For that matter, you had every right to consult an attorney of your choice.  Now, as your family’s attorney, you may talk to me anytime you wish.  I definitely want to talk to you.  Will you sit down, so that we may do that more comfortably?”

Little Joe looked at him through clouded eyes.  “Are—are you sayin’ he lied to me?”

The lawyer took a deep breath.  “I hesitate to say so without hearing the full story, but, yes, it sounds very much as if he misrepresented your rights to you.  We can talk more about that later, but for now, son, please sit down.”

Shaken by what he was hearing, Little Joe collapsed into the chair pointed out to him.

Wood realized, of course, that there might be a conflict of interest in his providing legal counsel to both this boy and his brother, but for the time being, he chose to believe that possibility would not materialize.  In his opinion, both sides of a case should be accorded the privilege of interviewing each other’s witnesses, and Mortimer Klein had made no objection to his speaking with any of the others.  He understood why the prosecutor had chosen to keep this one secret; the element of surprise was a powerful tool, but he strongly suspected that Mr. Klein’s behavior in this regard had been less than ethical.  Another matter to be pursued when time permitted.  For now, it was more important to see if there was any way this boy’s testimony could be countered without, as that young fool Adam so adamantly insisted, hurting his brother.

“Now, Little Joe,” the lawyer began, “you testified that you had seen Adam leaving the barn shortly before you and Scott found Rose’s body.  Why did you say that?”

Little Joe’s face hardened.  “Because I saw him.”  After all he’d been through on that witness stand, he wasn’t about to start lying now, no matter what!

“No, Joe, you didn’t,” Adam said.

“Yes, I did!”  Little Joe threw the words directly into his brother’s face.  “I wish I hadn’t, but I did!”

“No, Joe,” Adam repeated with deliberate calm.  “I realize you believe you did, but you couldn’t have seen me because I was not there.”

“I saw”—Joe stopped in response to the lawyer’s raised hand.

“You said it was dark, remember?” Wood reminded the boy.  “Just how much could you see, son?”

“Enough,” Joe grunted.  “More than I wanted.  It was Adam.”  He turned sad eyes on his father’s troubled face.  “I’m sorry, Pa.  I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.”

“Aw, Joe, it was dark in that alley this afternoon,” Hoss argued.  “Must’ve been even harder to see anything at night.”

“Let me handle this, Hoss,” the lawyer said.  “Tell me exactly what you saw, Little Joe.  No name, no identification—just describe what you saw in that dark alley that made you believe the man was your brother.”

Little Joe took a deep breath and exhaled heavily before beginning, “Okay.  I heard the shot first and I started to run toward the barn, on account of I could tell that’s where it came from.  Then Ad—a man came out.  He was dressed all in black, like Adam always wears, and he had on his mustard-colored coat.  That ugly thing stands out, you know, even in poor light.”

“All right.  You recognized the clothes as similar to those worn by your brother.  What about the man’s height?”

Little Joe rolled his eyes.  “Same as Adam,” he said with exasperation.

“And his features?” the lawyer pressed.  “How clearly did you see those?”

Little Joe stared at the man.  “His features?”  His voice squeaked with sudden uncertainty.

Hiram Wood circled both hands as he listed, “Nose, eyes, chin, hair, the set of his jaw.”

“I . . . don’t know.  It was dark, like I said, and . . . and he had his hat pulled down over most of his face.  About all I could’ve seen was his jaw, and, well, I guess I didn’t pay much attention to that.”  He looked up sharply.  “I couldn’t see what he looked like, just the clothes.”  He glanced timidly at Adam, and he started to shake, as the implication hit him.  “It wasn’t you?”

“No, Joe, it wasn’t me,” Adam said.

Little Joe buried his face in his hands.  “No, no,” he moaned.  “What have I done?”

“Now’s a fine time to ask,” Hoss muttered.

“That’s enough, Hoss,” Ben cautioned as he stepped forward and began massaging his youngest son’s taut shoulders.  They only tightened beneath his fingers.

“Well, doggone it, Pa, I just don’t see how he could’ve thought it was Adam.  I mean, even if the fellow was about Adam’s size and dressed kind of like Adam, there ain’t no way Adam would ever hurt Rose.  Joe should’ve known that.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it, either, if I hadn’t seen him,” Little Joe cried, head coming up.  “Well, thought I’d seen him.  And then when he looked right at me and motioned for me to keep quiet, I . . .”

“The killer saw you,” the lawyer recalled from the boy’s testimony in court, “and indicated that you should keep quiet?”

“Yeah,” Little Joe said.  “That’s partly why I figured it had to be Adam, I guess.  I mean, wouldn’t anybody else have just shot me, to make sure I couldn’t, you know, identify him?”

“It does add to the mystery,” Wood said, “but you do agree now that you have some doubt as to whom you saw in the alley that night?”

“Yeah.  Oh, yeah!”

“Good.  Now, son, when we return to court this afternoon, I will be asking you a number of questions similar to those I’ve just asked.  Do you have a problem with answering them as you have here?”

“No, sir.”  He swallowed hard.  “And then do I go straight to prison or does there have to be another trial?”

“What?”  The astonished word echoed from more than one voice in the small cell.

“Why would anyone send you to prison, son?” the lawyer asked.

“You know, perjury.”  Little Joe looked from one astonished face to the next and slumped again.  “Did he lie about that, too?”

“It depends on what you were told,” Mr. Wood said.  “Certainly, perjury is punishable in that way, but as long as you speak the truth as you know it, you haven’t committed that crime.  It’s not perjury if a review of the evidence leads you to change your mind, and that’s all I intend to do in my questioning, just have you reexamine the evidence as we’ve done here and draw whatever conclusion you believe is right.  Now, if you can do that, you have nothing to fear, my boy.  You understand?”

“I think so.  Just tell the truth.  Yeah, I can do that.”

“All right, then.”  Wood checked his watch.  “I’m afraid there isn’t time for much more than a sandwich, gentlemen, but I would suggest we get that now.”

“Yeah, sounds good.  Come on, Pa, little brother,” Hoss said.  Adam’s meal, of course, was being provided by the sheriff’s office, and although he hadn’t touched it, a plate of food was already sitting inside the cell.

Little Joe shook his head.  “I’m not hungry.  Can I stay here?”

“You should eat, son,” Ben urged.  “You barely touched your breakfast this morning.”  The reason for that, too, was now obvious.

“I’m afraid I’d heave it up in front of everyone, Pa,” Little Joe said.  “Don’t make me.  Please.”

“All right, all right.  We’ll get you something afterwards.”  He stroked the boy’s cheek tenderly, while Hiram called for Roy to unlock the cell.

Adam patted the mattress of his cot.  “Com’ere, kid.”

Little Joe was at his side a second later.  Roy let the others out and relocked the cell, pausing long enough to take in the scene of the two brothers, sitting side by side, the arm of the elder circling the shaking body of the younger.  Now, that’s better, he thought as he took the keys back into his office.

**********

Adam and Little Joe were still sitting together when the others returned after about twenty minutes.  “You sure missed some fine pie, Shortshanks,” Hoss said.

“Maybe later,” Little Joe said.  “Is it time?”

“Almost,” his father said.  “If you want to freshen up, better do it now, son.”

Running the back of his fingers over his cheek, Little Joe felt its warmth.  Maybe it would help to dash some water in his face.  “Yeah, I’ll do that,” he said, and as soon as Roy unlocked the cell, he led the boy into the back room where he stayed overnight, when needed, and poured some water into the basin there.

“How is he?” Ben asked Adam when his youngest son was out of earshot.

“Edgy,” Adam said, “and small wonder.  Joe’s been telling me some very interesting things about his treatment in our prosecutor’s office.”

The lawyer’s eyes narrowed.  “Anything I need to know before I cross-examine your brother?”

Adam thought for a moment and then shook his head.  “Later, I think.  There are laws against forcibly detaining a potential witness, aren’t there?”

“Of course, there are,” Hiram stated firmly.

“What’s this about?” Ben demanded.

“A locked door and a lot of badgering, from what I could make out,” Adam said.  “I think the prosecutor scared the kid to death with threats of prison and what that would do to you, Pa.”

“I’ll rip him limb from limb!” Hoss said, scowling hard.

“You’ll do no such thing!” Hiram Wood snapped.  “You will walk into that courtroom with dignity and sit there quietly, not responding to any testimony you hear, no matter how outrageous you find it.  There will not be another outburst like the one you indulged in this morning, is that clear, young man?”

Looking completely cowed, the big man kept his lips pressed tight together, and his head bobbed like that of a puppet on a string.

Little Joe came back in, looking puzzled at the scene that was just ending.

“Ben, why don’t you and the boys go on over to the courthouse?” Hiram suggested.  “Sit just as you did before, with Little Joe between the two of you.  And, son, you don’t need to talk to anyone before court convenes, understood?”

“Yes, sir.”  Little Joe would be happy to follow those instructions.  He didn’t want to talk to anyone, least of all that prosecutor, and he felt glad that he’d have two pretty formidable shields sitting on either side of him.

“Fine.  Adam and I will be along shortly.”

**********

Voices rose and fingers pointed as the three Cartwrights returned to the courtroom, but they died down when the family sat together, apparently still intact after all that had gone on that morning.  In fact, Hoss Cartwright, who had looked ready to rip his little brother apart when last seen, was now almost hovering over the boy, and any ire he felt seemed more directed at anyone that might bother him.  Those Cartwrights were something, weren’t they?  Hung tight together, even when one of ‘em was a black-hearted Judas . . . or a mad dog killer.  Was it Adam or Little Joe that deserved their contempt?  Opinions of the populace varied on that and had been the subject of much heated debate during the court’s recess.

Little Joe had seemed almost calm after his quiet time with Adam, but as the room continued to fill and the volume of the whispers rose, Ben could sense the tension returning.  He laid his hand atop that of his son and began circling his thumb on the boy’s wrist.  The same gesture that morning would have accomplished nothing, but now Little Joe leaned into the support, and as he turned toward his father, a phantom smile touched his lips.

Walking in just then, Mortimer Klein saw it, and his own mouth hardened.  As he’d feared, once Ben Cartwright had heard the truth about his oldest son, he’d exerted his powerful influence over his youngest.  Had that influence been used to support the pursuit of justice, however painful, or to subvert it by ordering young Joseph to lie under oath?  Well, just let the boy try to change his testimony!  The prosecutor was fully prepared to destroy him on redirect, if necessary, and, yes, to prosecute him for perjury, if merited.

The judge entered from a side chamber and, taking his place, struck the gavel twice to bring the room to order.  “Court will be in session,” he said.  “Mr. Joseph Cartwright, please return to the stand.”

Ben stood to allow his son easier access into the aisle, and Hoss again slid over into his brother’s vacant seat as Little Joe walked to the witness box and sat down.

“I remind you, Mr. Cartwright,” the judge admonished, “that you are still under oath.”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said.  He felt nervous, but nowhere near as shaky as he had that morning.  No longer did he feel like an outsider in his own family; this time his testimony would have their full support.  He only hoped it wouldn’t be too little too late.

Hiram Wood stood and approached the witness.  “Good afternoon, Mr. Cartwright.”  He laughed lightly.  “Having known you from infancy, I feel a bit awkward calling you by your formal name.  Do you mind if I call you Little Joe, as I usually do?”

“That’s fine, Mr. Wood,” Little Joe said.

Seeing through the defense attorney’s deliberate ploy to portray himself as the witness’s friend, the prosecutor frowned.  He would have loved to object, but he saw no grounds for it.

Mr. Wood came closer and tapped the rail of the witness box a couple of times.  “I regret that the matter at issue places us on opposite sides, Little Joe, and I know you’ve already testified extensively, but there are a number of questions I need to put to you.  Should you feel at any time that you need a break, please let me know.”

“I’m fine,” Little Joe said firmly.  There would be no breaks, if he could prevent it.  He wanted this business over and done with and Adam set free, the sooner the better, but he’d sit here all day and all night, if that’s what it took to set things right again.

“All right,” the lawyer said.  “Let’s go back to the beginning of that dreadful night.  How did you happen to come into Virginia City with your brother Adam?”

Little Joe hadn’t expected such a simple question, and he almost smiled as he answered, “When I heard that he had to come into town for a school board meeting, I asked if I could come, and he said yes.”

“Why did you ask to come?”

Little Joe stared at him, wide-eyed, as if anyone should know the answer to that!  “It was a trip to town,” he said.  He flushed as a few titters rippled across the room.  “I mean . . .”

“Oh, you needn’t explain,” Hiram Wood chuckled.  “I think we can all understand the allure of a trip to town for a young country boy.”

Little Joe frowned, and his forehead wrinkled in confusion.  Was the lawyer trying to make him look like some kid that almost never got to town?  It never occurred to him that painting him as an inexperienced, easily deceived youngster was exactly Hiram Wood’s purpose.  Joe had no chance to protest the characterization, however, for the lawyer continued without a break.

“And your much-older brother graciously agreed to your coming, is that right?”

“He said I could come,” Little Joe replied.  He remembered Adam making some typical jokes that night that weren’t particularly gracious, but he didn’t mind the lawyer using that word, especially if it helped his brother.  Yeah, it was probably smart to make Adam look as good as they could.

Wood took a couple of steps away from the witness and then turned back, as if another question had just occurred to him.  “What was your brother wearing that night, Little Joe?”

Little Joe shrugged.  “Pretty much what he’s wearing now, Mr. Wood.”

The lawyer smiled.  “Can you be more precise?”

“Black shirt, black pants and hat, a mustard-yellow coat.”

“And you left him at the schoolhouse at about 7:25, assuming approximately five minutes for you to get from there to the bank.  Is that right?”

“Something like that,” Little Joe said.  “I can’t time it to the minute.”

“Of course, of course,” Wood said smoothly, “but that would be your best estimate?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You went to the Silver Dollar and after spending a short time there, you walked down C Street, near a certain alley and heard a shot.  You testified, I believe, that you ran toward the sound, stopping only when the dark figure of a man exited Wilson’s stable and motioned for you to be quiet.”  When Little Joe again agreed, the lawyer continued.  “How well were you able to see this man, Little Joe?”

“Not well at all,” Little Joe emphasized.  “It was real dark in that alley.”

“Can you describe exactly what you did see?”

Realizing the importance of this question, Little Joe straightened in his chair and made sure he spoke loudly enough for the jury to hear.  “I saw a man, sort of tall, dressed in black and”—he swallowed hard, for he realized this next detail would again point at his brother—“a mustard-colored coat.”

“And how well could you see his face?” Wood pressed.

Little Joe shook his head.  “Hardly at all.  He had his hat pulled down over most of his face, so I couldn’t see much more than his chin.”

Hiram Wood faced the judge.  “With the court’s indulgence, your honor, I would like to stage a brief recreation of that moment.”

Mortimer Klein leaped to his feet.  “Objection, your honor!  This is a courtroom, not a theater!”

“Given the amount of acting I frequently see here, I’m not sure there’s much difference, Mr. Klein,” the judge snorted.  He glanced back at the defense counsel.  “It will be brief?”

“Very brief, your honor,” Wood promised.

“All right, go ahead.”  Then recollecting that he was, indeed, in a court and not a theater, Judge Lawson formally stated, “Objection overruled,” and waved for Wood to proceed.

Hiram Wood approached his client and asked him to stand.  “Would you put on your hat and coat, Mr. Cartwright?”

Adam, having been forewarned of this strategy in the few minutes he and his lawyer had spent together after his family left, had come prepared, so he simply nodded and calmly put on the requested items.  He carefully pulled his hat down to conceal most of his face.

The lawyer turned back to the witness.  “Is that what you saw, Little Joe?”

“The hat was a little further down,” Little Joe said.

Hiram nodded at his client, and Adam made the correction.  “Is that more like it?” Wood inquired.

“Yes,” Little Joe agreed.  “That’s what I saw.”

Adam changed his position slightly, so that the jurors had a full view of what the witness had seen.

The defense attorney scratched his head.  “For the life of me, Little Joe, I don’t see how you could identify any man with that much of his face covered.”

“Objection,” Klein said.  “Counselor is commentating, not examining the witness.”

“Sustained,” Judge Lawson stated.  “You’re only allowed to question the witness, Mr. Wood.  As I told the prosecutor this morning, conclusions must wait for your closing argument.”

“Of course, your honor,” Wood said smoothly.  “Let me ask, then, Little Joe, that you look at this reenactment of your testimony, which you have already agreed is accurate, and explain exactly how, in much poorer light, you identified that man as your brother.”

“I guess I just saw the clothes,” Little Joe replied, “and figured it had to be Adam.”

As he motioned for Adam to sit down again, Hiram blessed his client’s little brother in his heart for actually sounding as if that were a conclusion he had just reached.  In his confidence the lawyer went one step too far.  “And the similar clothing the man wore is the sole reason you felt that it was your brother Adam in the alley that night, is that correct?”

“Well . . . no,” Little Joe, ever mindful of the need to be scrupulously truthful, said.  “I reckon the note had something to do with it, too.”

Hiram Wood closed pained eyes, took a deep breath and then looked at the witness as he asked, “What note?”  He absolutely hated surprises on the witness stand, and this boy, apparently, was chock full of them.

“The one Adam . . . well, someone . . . sent to me at the Silver Dollar,” Little Joe said.  “It was signed Adam, but I guess anyone could have written it.”  Seeing the attorney’s reaction, Joe’s nerves had clenched tight once again.  Had he made another mistake fatal to his brother’s chances?

Another note!  They must have been flying all over Virginia City that night.  Hopeful he wasn’t about to fall into quicksand, Hiram had to ask.  “What did the note say?”

“That things had changed,” Little Joe said, “and he told me to meet him at Wilson’s stable at 8:00.”

The lawyer bit the inside of his cheek.  Why had no one thought to ask this boy before why he was in that alley?  In his own defense, he’d had little time to ask any questions, but surely Mr. Klein had ample opportunity, and he would scarcely have omitted introducing such a damning piece of evidence if he had known of it.  The defense attorney would have preferred that that bit of information had never surfaced, since it was one more piece of circumstantial evidence that placed Adam at the scene.  All the lawyer could do now was make the best of it.  “So, Little Joe, are you saying that, in part, you thought you saw your brother because that’s who you expected to be there?”

“Yeah, that’s what I meant.”

It was the right answer, and Hiram was back to blessing the boy again.  Now, if he could just get young Joe to answer his next question without revealing any new surprises, he’d quit satisfied.  “Now, this is important, Little Joe,” he said, “so think very carefully.  In the light of all we’ve discussed here this afternoon and the demonstration you’ve seen, are you still completely convinced that it was your brother, Adam Cartwright, that you saw in that dark alley immediately after hearing a shot fired?”

Recognizing that this would be the most important answer he’d given since he first took the stand, Little Joe straightened in his chair and said, clearly and forthrightly, “No, sir.  No, I’m not.”

“You’ve told the truth this afternoon, haven’t you?” the lawyer asked.

“Yes, sir, just like I promised.”

“But a further examination of the evidence has led you to a different conclusion than the one you held before, is that right?”  That, thought Hiram, should be enough to quell any false notions of prosecution for perjury!

“Yes, sir.  I realize now that it wasn’t Adam I saw that night.”

“Thank you, Little Joe,” the lawyer said and headed back to the defense table.

Little Joe had started to stand when the prosecutor stood rapidly to his feet.  “Stay right where you are, Mr. Cartwright!” the prosecutor almost bellowed.  “I’m not finished with you, young man.”

“I take it you have some questions on redirect,” Judge Lawson said dryly.

“I do, indeed, your honor!”

“I’m not deaf,” said the judge with a caustic glare at the prosecutor.  “Nor, I suspect, is the witness, given his youthful ears.”

Mortimer Klein took the hint and lowered his voice.  “My apologies, your honor.  The witness appeared to be under the impression that he was free to leave; I was merely trying to prevent that.”

Looking dubious, the judge said,  “Proceed, Mr. Klein.”

“Well, Mr. Cartwright,” Klein said, approaching the witness with a scowl, “you’ve certainly had a sudden change of heart.  This morning you were absolutely certain that it was your brother, Adam Cartwright, you saw exiting that barn.  Now, under Mr. Wood’s careful guidance, you’ve made a complete turnabout!”

“Objection, your honor,” Hiram Wood said, standing.  “There’s no evidence that this so-called ‘guidance’ ever took place.”

“Sustained,” Judge Lawson said.  “You can’t just say it, Mr. Klein; you have to prove it.”

“Let me ask directly, then,” the prosecutor said.  “Did you speak with Mr. Wood during the recess, young man?”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe admitted reluctantly.

“And did he suggest to you that you might have been mistaken in your identification of his client?”

Little Joe’s forehead wrinkled in thought.  “I’m not sure,” he said.  “Adam said so, but I can’t remember if Mr. Wood did or not.”

“And you accepted your brother’s word, just like that?”

“No.”  The word came out slowly, with regret.

“You still held to your conviction that he was guilty of murder?”

With a quick apologetic look at his brother, Little Joe nodded and, when reminded, spoke the word aloud.

“Then, how did either your brother or your father or Mr. Wood convince you to change your testimony?” the prosecutor demanded.

“They didn’t.”  Little Joe drew himself up and stared the prosecutor directly in the face.  He was through being intimidated by that man!  “All Mr. Wood did was ask me the same kinds of questions he did here.  It made me realize I hadn’t really seen Adam, just someone that looked a lot like him, but he didn’t tell me what to think; I decided.  And don’t go threatenin’ me with prison again, either; I can change my mind without it bein’ perjury.”

The judge gave the gavel a solid hit.  “That will be enough, Mr. Cartwright,” he said firmly.  “You don’t get to make commentary any more than either of these attorneys.”

Sinking back, Little Joe exhaled heavily and glanced up at the judge’s adamantine countenance.  “Yes, sir,” he said.  “Sorry, your honor.”

The judge nodded acceptance of the apology.  “Any further questions, counselor?”

“Oh, yes, your honor.  Several.”  Klein favored his young witness with a foreboding smile.  “Well, Mr. Cartwright, just to be certain that your present conviction is your final one, let’s go over the facts one more time, shall we?”

“If we gotta,” Little Joe sighed.

“Oh, yes, Mr. Cartwright.  We gotta.”  The prosecutor went back to the very beginning, taking his witness on a painstaking examination of every detail of the case, reminding him of his previous answers and excoriating him for any change, such as the sudden appearance of a hitherto-unmentioned note from his brother.  “Why did you not present this evidence in our first discussion?” Klein demanded.  “Because it was detrimental to your brother?”

“I just didn’t think of it,” Little Joe insisted, “and you didn’t ask.”

“Oh, and because I didn’t ask about a note I did not know existed, you felt yourself justified in withholding evidence?”  The prosecutor leaned into the witness box, his face only inches from that of Little Joe.  “Do you recall what I once said to you regarding the phrase ‘accessory after the fact’?”

His breath coming in short gasps, Little Joe closed his eyes.

“Answer the question, Mr. Cartwright!” Klein demanded.

“Which one?” Hiram Wood asked from his desk.  “Your honor, I don’t see how counsel can expect his witness to respond unless he takes a breath between questions.”

“Answer whichever you prefer, Mr. Cartwright,” the prosecutor snorted.

Assuming the second had been more threat than question, anyway, Little Joe chose the first.  “I wasn’t trying to withhold evidence,” he said.  “I just didn’t think about it after that night.  A lot was going on.”

“Granted,” Klein conceded.  “Now, on the night in question, you fully believed this note came from your brother, is that right?”

“Yes, but . . .”

“Restrict your answers to the questions I ask, young man!  Now you expect us to believe that someone else sent this note, I take it?”

“Must have,” Little Joe insisted, “since Adam didn’t.”

“For which you have his word.”

“I trust him,” Little Joe said tersely.

“Rather a newfound trust, isn’t it?  You needn’t answer.”

The barb struck home, reminding the young man of just how recently he’d had no trust in his older brother, and he hung his head in both weariness and shame.

Mortimer Klein paced a few steps to regain his own composure.  “Do you not recognize your own brother’s handwriting?” he then asked.  “Surely, you must have seen it numerous times.”

“Yes,” Little Joe replied, “but this wasn’t written, just printed out like a little kid does.  I’m not used to seeing Adam do that.”

Hiram and Adam exchanged glances, each thinking the same thing.  All these notes floating around town, all of them printed rather than written, all of them undoubtedly by the same hand.  They knew it wasn’t Adam’s, but how to prove it?  Except for the one to Rose, none of them existed anymore.  Or was it possible this one did?  Though Adam doubted it, knowing his kid brother’s careless ways, the question was worth asking, once they got Joe in private.

That opportunity seemed hopelessly far in the future as the prosecutor’s redirect examination continued, on and on and on.  The witness was visibly wilting, and the crowd was growing restless as each detail of his previous testimony was revisited and belabored.  Even though his head was pounding and his stamina fading, however, Little Joe continued to insist that he had been mistaken in his previous identification of the killer, and the prosecutor finally walked away in disgust, saying, “I have no further questions for this witness.  The prosecution rests.”

“Any re-cross, Mr. Wood?” Judge Lawson asked.

“No, your honor,” Adam’s counselor replied.

“Mr. Cartwright, you’re excused,” the judge said, “and you may call your first witness, Mr. Wood.”

Little Joe gladly escaped from the witness box and back to his seat.  Hoss moved over, so his brother could again sit between him and Pa, and as the boy almost collapsed beside him, he nudged his brother’s shoulder and leaned close to say, “You done good, Shortshanks.”

Little Joe smiled his gratitude for the support, although he didn’t feel the same confidence about his testimony.  He felt more like a used dishrag, wrung out and hung to dry.  It was the wrong image to conjure up: it only made his mouth feel even more dry, and he couldn’t leave, not after running out the way he had that morning.  Folks needed to see the entire Cartwright family, giving Adam their full support, so thirsty or not, he was determined to stay for every minute of this afternoon’s testimony.  At least, these witnesses would be on Adam’s side.

Hiram Wood called George Bristol, the first of a trio of character witnesses who had agreed to testify on Adam’s behalf.  Wood led him through a series of questions crafted to demonstrate Adam’s respected place in the community and in the eyes of prominent citizens, such as this banker.  Through Bristol, he addressed such qualities as Adam’s business acumen, honesty in transactions and general bearing.  Then, he asked if Bristol had ever seen Adam Cartwright fly into a rage.

“Certainly not,” Bristol declared firmly.  “In fact, I recall an occasion when someone tried to taunt him into a gunfight.  Most men would have been reaching for their gun with far less provocation, but Adam repeatedly said an unvarnished “No” and eventually turned his back on a man with a gun and calmly walked away.”

Finally, thanks to information presented by Little Joe, Mr. Wood added another line of questioning.  “How does Adam Cartwright customarily dress, if you know, Mr. Bristol?” he asked.

George Bristol laughed slightly at the unexpected question.  “How he dresses?  Well, most of the time the same way he is today—in black.”

“And have you seen him wear the coat his youngest brother described as mustard yellow?”

“In cooler weather, yes.”  By this time the witness was looking puzzled, but he answered honestly, as he’d taken oath to do.

“I have no other questions.  Counselor?”

“Only a few questions, Mr. Bristol,” the prosecutor said, rising from behind his desk.  “Did you hear young Joseph Cartwright’s description of the killer?”

“Yes,” Bristol said reluctantly, for he was astute enough to see how the prosecutor would use his answer.

“And how does it compare with Adam Cartwright’s customary mode of dress?”

“It sounded the same to me,” Bristol admitted.

“No further questions.”

The banker’s testimony formed the pattern for the next couple of witnesses.  Reverend Holmes was sworn in next and testified that Adam was a frequent attendee at church services, as well as being a regular supporter with both money and physical labor, particularly when the building needed repair.  Hiram Woods again ended his questioning by inquiring into Adam’s normal habit of dress.  The prosecutor again asked no questions, other than those comparing Little Joe’s description of the killer’s clothing with that he had just ascribed to the defendant.

Little Joe had been uncomfortable during Bristol’s examination.  When Hiram Wood took the same tack with the next witness, he was almost beside himself.  “Why’s he keep bringin’ up his clothes?” he whispered to his father.  “The jury don’t need no reminder of that!”

“Shh,” his father warned.  “I’m sure Hiram knows what he’s doing.”

The final character witness was fellow school board member, Winston Graham.  He gave his opinion that Virginia City was lucky to have an educated man like Adam Cartwright on its school board.  “Able to foresee problems and their solutions, as well as presenting them in a way that’s clear to everyone.  I certainly hope we won’t be deprived of his services.  It would be Virginia City’s loss.”

“Indeed,” Wood agreed.  “These meetings can, I assume, be contentious at times?”

Graham chuckled.  “Now, don’t go telling that to the citizens!  But you’re right; sometimes they can.”

“And how does Adam Cartwright comport himself during these tense times?  Have you ever seen him lose control, fly into a fit of rage?”

“Certainly not,” Graham said.  “He always remains calm and clear-headed, even when the rest of us are at each other’s throats.”

“And can you confirm what Mr. Bristol and Reverend Holmes have stated about his customary attire?”

“Certainly, and I’ve seen him wear that coat, too, I’m sorry to say.”

Hiram smiled.  “No need to be sorry.  It is the truth that sets us free, as the Good Book says.  I have no more questions.”

Little Joe stared at the lawyer as he returned to his seat beside Adam.  Was there any good reason to remind folks over and over that Adam’s clothes matched those worn by the killer?  Apparently, Mr. Wood thought so, and the family would just have to trust his judgment.  Given recent events, though, the boy found himself reluctant to trust any lawyer.

“Mr. Graham,” Mortimer Klein said as he approached the witness, “were you in the courtroom this morning during the testimony of Miss Abigail Jones?”

“Why, yes, I was,” Graham replied.

“So you heard her report Adam Cartwright’s claim of receiving a note calling him to an urgent meeting of the school board?”

“Yes, I heard that,” Graham answered.

“And did you yourself receive such a note?”

“No, I did not.”

“To your knowledge, was there a meeting of the school board that night?” Klein continued.

“Not to my knowledge.”

“And did you also hear her describe the words she heard Adam Cartwright say in regard to his youngest brother?” the prosecutor pressed.

Graham’s breath caught in his throat.  “Yes,” he answered hesitantly.

“Would you repeat them, please?”

“I believe he said that if his brother had written that note as some sort of prank, he would—he would kill him.”

“Kill him,” Klein reiterated as he stood tapping the rail between him and the witness with his open palm.  “Is that, Mr. Graham, an example of how Adam Cartwright ‘always remains calm and clear-headed,’ even when the rest of the sober-minded members of the school board lose control?” he asked, his voice rising with each phrase he said.

“Well, no,” an abashed Graham said.  “I suppose it’s not.”  He sent an apologetic glance toward the defense table.

“No, I would suppose not, either,” Klein declared firmly.  “No further questions.”

When Hiram Wood then called Ben Cartwright to the stand, the audience rustled with expectation.  What could old man Cartwright testify to, other than telling what the whole town already knew, that he thought the sun rose and set in that oldest son of his?  They didn’t care.  Just watching the old man get his comeuppance at the hands of the prosecutor, like his youngest boy had, would make for the best entertainment the town had seen in months.

All their guesses were wrong.  Ben Cartwright’s testimony was both brief and, by public standards, boring.  He only stated that he had seen the note his son had received about that make-believe school board meeting.

“Did you recognize the handwriting?” Wood asked.

“It wasn’t written,” Ben said.  “It was printed out in block letters, like a kid does.”  His echoing of his youngest son’s exact description was intentional.

“I see,” Wood said, “and do you still have this note, Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben shook his head.  “No, I saw no need to keep it.  Unfortunately, I threw it into the fire after Adam and Joe left for town that night.”

“Your witness,” Hiram said and went back to his place.

The audience stirred in expectation.  Now the fun would start!  They were disappointed again, however, for Mortimer Klein, having seen little to be gained by it, declined to cross-examine the Cartwright patriarch.  That note, whether it actually existed or not, neither added nor detracted from his case.

“Some people get off easy,” Little Joe muttered to his big brother while their father walked back to join them.

“Uh huh,” Hoss answered absently.  Joe could grouse all he wanted; Hoss was more focused on what would come next.

Hiram Wood looked steadily at the defendant and emitted a soft sigh when he saw Adam’s determined nod.  He’d advised against having his client take the stand, and until this afternoon Adam hadn’t seemed to care one way or another about testifying in his own behalf—or anything else, for that matter.  In this case Hiram felt there was little to be gained and a lot to be risked.  Adam had nothing to offer except his denial of having killed Rose, and that, Hiram had tried to convince him, he’d already done by pleading not guilty.  Adam, however, had insisted that her father, at least, needed to hear him say it, even if nothing else were gained, and not even the guarantee of a rigorous cross-examination by the determined prosecutor could convince him otherwise.  Why am I surprised? Hiram asked himself.  Cartwrights don’t come any other way than stubborn!

There was no missing the look of outright exultation in Mortimer Klein’s eyes when his opponent called the defendant to the stand.  The man was a fool, of course, but the prosecutor happily suffered fools of that sort.  This one looked to be in cool possession of himself as he placed one hand on the Bible and raised the other to take the oath, but that would change soon enough, as it had with many another cocky defendant.  Just be patient, he told himself, and you’ll soon have this one as rattled as his baby brother.

“Mr. Cartwright, I have several questions for you this afternoon,” Hiram Wood began.  “Your father, Ben Cartwright, just testified that you received a note, purported to be from Miss Abigail Jones.  Is that correct?”

In a lighter moment Adam might have pointed out that the question could be taken two ways, either as an inquiry to whether his father had just testified or to whether the information itself was correct, but this was no time for word games.  “Yes,” he simply said.  “I did receive such a note.”

“And that is why you came to Virginia City that night?”

“The only reason,” Adam said.  “Being very busy, I would have preferred not to.”

“Yes.”  The attorney’s slight frown was meant to remind his client not to offer any gratuitous comments.  The slight inclination of Adam’s head indicated that he had understood.  “You went to the schoolhouse in the company of your youngest brother,” Wood continued.  “Do you recall when you separated?”

“Almost as soon as we arrived,” Adam said.  “The time given in the note was 8:00, and I arrived approximately half an hour before that.”

“Certainly.  Punctuality has always been one of your virtues,” Wood said smoothly.

“Objection, your honor.  Counsel is offering testimony . . . and he’s not even under oath,” Klein snorted.

“Sustained,” the judge ruled.  “You know better, Mr. Wood.  Questions only.”

“Of course, your honor.  How long did you wait at the schoolhouse, Adam?”

“It was ten minutes past eight when I finally gave up and headed to Miss Abigail’s house to inquire if the meeting had been cancelled,” Adam replied.  “I checked my watch,” he added.

“That’s a short walk, I believe.”

“No more than five minutes,” Adam concurred.

“And there you learned that no board meeting had been called for that night?”

“That’s right.”

“I hate to bring up utter nonsense, Adam, but did you give any credence to Miss Jones’ suggestion that your little brother had written that note as a prank?”  The lawyer ended his question with a light chuckle.

“No, I didn’t,” Adam said.  “Little Joe can be a prankster, sure, but he’s not mean-spirited, and he would have realized there would be a price to pay if he wangled a trip to town that way.”

“Did you say you would kill him if he had pulled such a prank?”

“Probably,” Adam conceded.  “I don’t recall saying that, but Miss Abigail had no reason to invent such a statement, and I was thoroughly irritated at the time.”

“But did you, as Mr. Klein has phrased it, leave her home with murder in your heart?” Wood pressed.

“No.  If I said it, I was just blowing off steam, the way brothers do,” Adam said.  “No one can get under my skin easier than that kid, and I’ve probably said something like that a dozen or more times in his young life, but as you can clearly see, he’s still alive and kicking.”

Hiram turned toward the young man under discussion and gave him a broad grin.  “He certainly is!”

Little Joe, embarrassed at again being the center of attention, slid back in his chair.  Despite feeling self-conscious, however, he couldn’t help being impressed with his oldest brother’s performance as a witness.  He himself had sweated and strained every minute he’d sat where his brother now was, but Adam, facing a much grimmer penalty, was cool enough to crack a joke.  Did that kind of control come with being older or just from being Adam?

“Your honor,” the prosecutor pleaded.

“Oh, give it a rest, Mr. Klein,” the judge, chin cupped in his right palm, grunted.  “You brought the issue up; you can’t expect defense counsel to ignore it.  Go on, Mr. Wood.”

“After you had this conversation with Miss Jones,” the defense lawyer said, “where did you go?”

“To the Silver Dollar,” Adam replied.  “That was where Little Joe and I had agreed to meet.”

“And was he there?”

“No.  The bartender said he had been there, but he’d left.”

“What did you do then?”

“I went to look for him.”

Hiram paced back and forth before his witness and then turned to face him again.  “You heard your brother testify that he received a note there at the saloon, signed with your name—and when I say ‘signed,’ of course I mean that it was your name printed at the end.  Did you send such a note, Adam?”

“I did not,” Adam said firmly.

“So you had no idea that Little Joe had gone to Wilson’s stable?”

“No,” Adam replied.  “Obviously, I wouldn’t have wasted time searching for him if I’d known where he was.

“Obviously,” the lawyer agreed.  “While we’re on the subject of notes, let me also ask whether you sent one to Miss Rose Worthington, asking her to meet you at that same stable.”

For the first time Adam’s emotional control seemed to crack.  Then he gathered his strength.   “I did not,” he said emphatically, his eyes fixed on Isaac Worthington, sitting quietly behind the prosecution team.  No one, not even the jury, was he more determined to convince.

“How long did you spend searching for your brother?” Wood asked next.

Adam shrugged.  “I can’t be sure.  Probably half an hour, forty-five minutes at the most.”

“And where did you find him?”

“At Dr. Martin’s office.”  Adam’s voice choked.

“And that’s where you also learned, for the first time, that your intended bride, Miss Rose Worthington, had been brutally assaulted and killed.”

It had been phrased as a statement, but Adam answered, anyway, though barely able to squeeze the word from his tightening vocal pipes.  “Yes.”

“One final question, Adam,” his lawyer said.  “Did you kill Rose?”

Adam raised his head, and tears washed his eyes as he again looked directly at the father of his beloved Rosebud.  “No.  How could I?  I loved her.  My life is empty without her.”  Then the man famous for keeping his emotions in his own chest turned away to wipe his trickling cheeks.

“No further questions,” Hiram Wood said gently and walked back to his desk in dread of what was sure to follow.

As Hoss watched Mortimer Klein rise from his chair, he thought he saw the prosecutor lick his lips, like some hungry wolf slinking toward its next meal, and his eyes turned to blue ice.  He’d already seen that wolf devour one brother, and he wasn’t sure he could sit through seeing another one gulped down, even at the risk of getting himself locked up for contempt of court.  Glancing to his right, he saw Little Joe shaking, as if he were the one the wolf’s teeth were about to bite into, and not caring what anyone thought, Hoss put his arm around the younger boy.  He was only sorry he couldn’t reach far enough to include his father ‘cause Pa looked almost as sick and worried as little brother.

There were no teeth showing as Klein approached the witness.  “Well, Mr. Cartwright, Virginia City saw quite a bit of you on the night in question, I must say,” he said smoothly.

Feeling no obligation to respond, Adam used the subsequent pause to again take rein over his grief.  That was a private thing, not to be released for public show, if he could avoid it.  Another feeling to be kept private, for now, was the anger he felt toward the prosecutor for what he’d put Little Joe through.  They say you have iron control, Adam, he told himself.  Now’s the time to show it!

“Shall we begin with what really brought you to town that night?” the prosecutor asked.  “We know it wasn’t a school board meeting, don’t we?”

“On the contrary,” Adam said, “that is exactly what brought me to Virginia City.  The fact that there turned out to be no meeting doesn’t change the reason I came.”

“I see.  Tell me, then, Mr. Cartwright,” Klein said, lifting his right hand with a puzzled air, “who actually wrote that note you purportedly received, inviting you to such a meeting?  We know it wasn’t Miss Abigail Jones.”

“I have no idea,” Adam replied.

“Your best guess?”

Adam shook his head.  “I have none.”

“Not your brother?”

“No.”

“Then why did you threaten to kill him?”  The prosecutor tapped the rail between him and the witness with the palm of his hand.

“As I stated before,” Adam said, eyes hardening, “if I said that, it was only because I was tired and frustrated with the whole situation.  Words like that serve as a steam valve to release pressure and do not dictate future behavior.”

“So you say.”

“Yes, so I say,” Adam reiterated, “and I have just taken an oath to tell the truth, the only party to this conversation to do so, I might add.”

The judge’s gavel came down with a loud crack.  “Watch your tone, Mr. Cartwright,” Lawson warned.

Adam nodded and moistened his lips.  “I apologize, your honor.”  Reminding himself to keep hold of his temper, he missed the prosecutor’s next question.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Klein, I didn’t hear you clearly.”

“I asked you,” Klein said tersely, “if it was not you yourself who wrote that note?”

“Certainly not,” Adam said.  “Why would I?”

“I’m supposed to ask the questions,” Klein said glibly.  “Nonetheless, I’ll answer that one: to provide yourself an excuse to go into Virginia City.”

Adam stopped himself from laughing just in time, although he couldn’t prevent an astounded cough from escaping his throat.  “Why would I need an excuse to go to town?  I’m a grown man; I can go any time I choose.”

“To disguise your real reason, then,” Klein alleged, “but let’s move on.”

“Let’s,” Adam said with a sardonic smile.  If this weren’t such a serious matter, he might actually have enjoyed this verbal joust.

“There were two other notes circulating around town that evening,” the prosecutor stated, “and they were signed with your name.  You wrote those, too, didn’t you, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No, I did not.”

“And were these notes, the one to Miss Worthington and that to your brother Joseph, also the work of some anonymous prankster?”  His very tone suggested how ridiculous he considered the idea.

“No,” Adam replied soberly.  “Those were the work of a killer.”

Both of the prosecutor’s eyebrows rose simultaneously.  “The work of a killer?”

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Adam asked.  “They were both lured to the barn, and Rose met her death there.  Who but the killer knew they would be there?”

“Who, indeed?” Klein said, staring directly at the defendant.  “But your brother was not killed—not even when this killer saw him!  One can only wonder why.”

“He was obviously intended to be a witness,” Adam reasoned.  “Everything, from the notes to the clothing the killer wore to having someone who would recognize me on the scene was all some elaborate plan to frame me.”

“Oh, really, Mr. Cartwright!” the prosecutor scoffed.  “Would you have this jury believe a wild story like that?”

“Yes,” Adam said, “since that is the only explanation that takes in all the facts.”

“There is another explanation, though, isn’t there?”  Klein leaned in close.  “Isn’t there?”

Adam rubbed his left temple, where a headache was beginning to form.  “Yes, but that explanation does not take into consideration vital facts: I did not send the notes; I did not kill Rose.”

“That, Mr. Cartwright, will be for the jury to decide.”  He gave a nod to the twelve men in the jury box as he walked away.  Turning, he asked, “How many men have you killed, Mr. Cartwright?”

Hiram Wood came to his feet.  “Objection, your honor.  This is irrelevant.”

“Counsel brought the man’s character into consideration, your honor,” Klein argued.

“Objection overruled,” the judge decreed.  “Answer the question, Mr. Cartwright.”

“I don’t know that I can give you a number,” Adam said.

The eyebrows shot up again.  “Really?  Have there been that many?”

“I don’t know how many I killed in the Paiute War,” Adam amplified.  “I couldn’t take time to count.”

“Redskins don’t count, nohow!” someone shouted from the back of the room, and the judge’s gavel pounded for order in the hubbub that ensued.

When the crowd was again subdued, Klein continued, with a smile toward the room, “We won’t count men killed in war, then.  How many others have you slain, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Three,” Adam replied.

“Three!” the prosecutor exploded.  “Three men have died at your hand, and a dozen or so threats against your own brother’s life, that you admit to.  Quite a violent man, aren’t you, Mr. Cartwright?”

“No, I’m not,” Adam said.  “I’ve only killed when I had to, in self-defense.  A man’s entitled to shoot back when he’s fired on.”

“And what sort of ammunition was your young brother firing?” Klein demanded.

“Backtalk, mostly,” Adam said wryly.  Then he caught sight of his little brother’s stricken face and wished he could take the words back.  He sat up straighter and stared the prosecutor in the face.  “And all I fired back was words.”

“Words can lead to deeds,” Klein declared.  “Perhaps your young brother has good reason to fear you.”

“I’ll make things right with my brother,” Adam said.   “I always do.”

Suddenly, Little Joe was on his feet.  “They’re already right!  I ain’t never been scared Adam would kill me!”  Then, reminded of the threat of perjury by the baleful glare of the prosecutor, he gulped and said, “Not much, anyway.”

The judge, lips tightly pursed to maintain a sober judicial expression, hit the gavel once to quell the outburst of laughter that met that declaration; then he used it to point at the red-faced young man, who sheepishly took his seat.

“Some folks get off easy,” Hoss grunted in his ear.

“Trade places with you, any day,” Little Joe muttered back, earning himself Ben Cartwright’s strong grip on his right forearm.  Unable to reach Hoss, Ben had to settle for a stern glare at his middle son.

When the room was completely quiet, Judge Lawson told the prosecutor to continue.

“Mr. Cartwright,” Klein said, “do you still maintain the illusion that someone other than you committed this crime?”

“I know it was someone other than me,” Adam said plainly.

“All right.  I certainly don’t want to prosecute the wrong man,” Klein declared, “so perhaps you can assist me in my pursuit of justice by suggesting who might hate you enough to take the life of the woman you say you loved and frame you for the crime.”

Adam stared blankly at him.

“Come now, Mr. Cartwright,” the prosecutor pressed.  “Surely, there can’t be many men with both the rancor toward you and the intellect to concoct such an elaborate scheme.  If the killer isn’t you, name him!”

“I can’t,” Adam admitted.  “I haven’t thought about that.”

“You haven’t thought about it?” Klein shouted, throwing both hands to the ceiling.  “What on earth have you found more important to think about than that?”

For the first time Adam broke.  His body shook and his voice cracked as he said, “Rose.”  He’d thought of little else but his Rose from the moment he learned of her death until he’d seen this same man drag the mistaken accusation from his little brother that morning.

Though the prosecutor said nothing, the sound that escaped his throat was one of utter disdain, and his voice spewed contempt as he said, “No further questions.”

“Any redirect, Mr. Wood?” the judge asked.

“Only one question,” Hiram Wood, mindful of the state of his client, said.  “Mr. Cartwright—Adam, did you kill Miss Rose Worthington?”

Adam pulled himself together enough to face the jurors as he responded.  “No,” he said as firmly as he could through his still constricted throat.  “I did not.”

The witness was excused, and as Adam walked back to his seat, Judge Lawson consulted the clock on the courtroom wall and asked if the defense had anything further.

“Your honor, I have no additional witnesses, but I may have an exhibit to enter into evidence,” Hiram Wood said.  Having noticed the judge’s glance at the clock, he added, “Given that it is now nearly 5:00, I wonder if we might deal with that small matter in the morning.”

Judge Lawson turned toward the prosecutor.  “Counselor?”

Mortimer Klein eyed his opponent with suspicion.  “If it’s only an exhibit, why doesn’t defense counsel enter it now?  Then we can have the entire morning tomorrow for closing arguments.”

“Having only learned of its existence this afternoon, I don’t have it with me at present,” Hiram admitted.  “I would appreciate the court’s indulgence, and I assure you that any testimony regarding this exhibit would be extremely brief, only a question or two to establish what it is and how it was obtained.  That would still leave ample time for closing statements, your honor.”

“The court is inclined to grant that indulgence, Mr. Wood,” the judge said.  “Without objection?”

A close appraisal of the judge’s face told Mr. Klein that there had better not be one, and he quickly agreed.  “Then court will be in recess until 9:00 tomorrow morning,” the judge said, bringing the gavel down to end the session.

While the crowd filed out, Ben took a moment to speak to his oldest son before the sheriff put on the handcuffs for the trip back to the jail.  “We’ll be over to see you later, son,” he promised.  “I need to take care of something else first.”  The slight incline of his head communicated to Adam exactly what—or rather, whom—his father meant.

“Just a moment, Ben,” Hiram said as soon as Roy Coffee had led his client away, for Ben was starting to herd his other two toward the door.  “I need to talk with this young man.”  He nodded toward Little Joe.

“No,” Ben said bluntly.

“Only a moment, Ben,” the lawyer promised.

“No,” Ben repeated more firmly.  “This boy is exhausted, Hiram.  He’s had almost nothing to eat or drink all day, and he will not answer a single question until that is taken care of.”

“If it’ll help Adam, Pa . . .” Little Joe started to say.

“No, Joseph.  Whatever it is can wait until you’ve had a bite to eat.  On the other hand, Hiram,” he said, relenting a little, “if you wish to join us . . .”

The lawyer smiled.  “Yes, thank you.  You’re right, of course.  We can all use a few minutes’ escape from court business.  Might I suggest the Washoe Club, for privacy’s sake?”

“We’ll meet you there, then,” Ben said.  “Come along, boys.  Now, Joseph,” he added when his youngest son hesitated.

Little Joe rolled his eyes at his brother, who only shrugged.  Hoss, never one to argue much with Pa, anyway, wasn’t about to try it when his father-hen feathers were all flustered.

**********

Everyone except Little Joe had finished his soup course.  Seeing their lawyer eyeing the boy’s slow lift of his spoon, Ben finally said, “Oh, go ahead, Hiram . . . but keep eating, Joseph.”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe sighed.  Sometimes Pa made him feel like he was about six years old.

“I just wanted to know, Little Joe,” Hiram said, “if there was any possibility you still had that note, the one supposedly from Adam.”

The boy lowered his spoon and cocked his head in thought.  “Yeah, I think so,” he said.  “Is it important?  Will it help Adam?”

“Probably not by itself,” the lawyer admitted.  “I’ll admit I was mainly playing for time when I brought it up.  I was afraid, even though the hour was growing late, that the judge might insist we begin closing arguments at once,” he explained, “and I simply wasn’t ready.  I’ve had too much information thrown at me in too short a time.  I need to absorb it and organize my remarks in light of a number of new developments.”  He looked at Little Joe.  “You’re not planning to spring any more surprises, are you, young fellow?”

Little Joe grinned.  “No, sir, but then I wasn’t planning to spring any in the first place . . . well, except testifying for the prosecution.”

“That one was plenty big enough,” Hoss grunted, reaching for another piece of bread.

“Do you know where the note is, Little Joe?” Hiram asked.

“It should still be in my desk,” Little Joe replied after taking another sip of soup in response to his father’s intentional stare.  “I put it in my pocket when I left the saloon that night, and it was still there when I undressed for bed, so I stuffed it into one of the cubbyholes in my desk.  No reason it wouldn’t still be there; I ain’t cleaned out my desk lately.”

“You ain’t cleaned it since the dawn of creation,” Hoss snorted.

Hiram waved off the comment.  “Never mind, never mind.  I’m just glad it’s there.  That’s the exhibit I want to enter tomorrow morning.”

Little Joe groaned.  “Does that mean I have to get in that witness chair again?”

“Only for a few minutes,” Hiram cajoled.  “You’ll just remind the jury when and how you received the note and then tell what you did with it afterwards.  Just a formality, and I doubt that Mr. Klein will ask a single question.”

“Okay,” Little Joe said.  “I guess that means I’ll be riding home tonight, huh?”

“No,” Ben said.  “That means Hoss will be riding home tonight.  You are staying here with me, Joseph.”

Little Joe slammed the soup spoon to the table.  “Aw, Pa!”

“Mind your manners, Joseph; we are in a public place,” his father said.  “And finish that soup.  Our entrees will be here soon.”

Little Joe exhaled in exasperation, but did as he was told.

“It’s a pity you didn’t keep that note purported to come from Miss Jones, Ben,” the lawyer said.  “I’d like to have compared it.”

“Why?” Hoss asked.

“It might help convince the jury that there really was an elaborate plot to frame Adam if they could see for themselves the similarity in the three notes,” Hiram explained.

“We have two,” Ben said, “the one to Joe and the one to Rose.”

“Yes, but those two are both affixed with Adam’s name,” the lawyer pointed out.  “If one signed with another name looked as though it were written by the same hand, it might help raise reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds.”

Little Joe pushed his empty soup bowl aside.  “What about the one to Mr. Klein?” he asked.  “I don’t know how it was signed, but it can’t have said Adam, can it?”

Three sets of eyes stared at him.  Then Hiram Wood voiced what they were all thinking, more or less.  “I thought you said there wouldn’t be any more surprises, young fellow.”

“Sorry,” Little Joe said with a sheepish shrug.

Hiram chuckled.  “I think I’m beginning to take them in stride.  You mean there was a note to Mr. Klein, as well?  How do you know this?”

“That’s how he knew about me seein’ the killer,” Little Joe explained.  “He said he got a note from someone who’d seen me and knew I’d seen Adam.”

Hiram stroked his chin in thought.  “Another eye witness, one he didn’t bother calling.  That’s very interesting.”

“Maybe Mr. Klein just made him up,” Hoss suggested, “to trick Little Joe.”

“No, Little Joe said the prosecutor already knew that he’d seen the killer,” Hiram pointed out, “so I would guess there really is—or, at least, was—a note . . . and I’d be highly interested in seeing it.”

“If he still has it,” Ben put in.

Hiram smiled.  “We lawyers tend to save everything, Ben.”  Seeing their waiter approaching, his smile broadened.  “Ah, I believe dinner is served, gentlemen, and my appetite is improving by the minute.  However, if you have any more surprises, Little Joe, try to bring them up before we finish dessert!”

**********

Directly after dinner Ben insisted on returning to the hotel.  Little Joe didn’t argue about that, but the dictate his father laid down upon arriving in their suite at the International House brought an instant outburst.  “Bed!” Little Joe protested.  “Pa, I didn’t go to bed this early when I was six.”

Having expected the battle, Ben kept his voice calm.  “You are beyond exhausted, Joseph.  I realize I haven’t been much of a father to you lately, and . . .”

“That’s ridiculous!” Little Joe protested.  “You are the best father God ever placed on earth.”

Ben chuckled.  “Then do what the best father on earth tells you, young man.”  He laid a hand on his son’s arm.  “I’ve given almost all my attention to Adam lately.”

“He needed it most.”

Ben nodded.  “I thought so at the time.  Now, I’m not so sure, so will you please, this one night, let me take care of you?  You are so desperately in need of rest, Joseph, that you are losing control of yourself.  Do you really want to face another day in court in that shape?”

Little Joe heaved a huge sigh.  “I don’t want to face another day in court, ever!  Mr. Wood doesn’t seem to think it’ll be hard tomorrow, though.”

“Your part shouldn’t be,” Ben agreed, “but I don’t think you’ll find the prosecutor’s closing statement easy to listen to.  He’ll have a freer rein to say any vile thing about your brother that he thinks the evidence supports, and you will have to sit there quietly and take it.  You cannot indulge in the sort of outburst you did today.”

“Hoss did it, too,” Little Joe pouted, “and you ain’t puttin’ him to bed.”

“And now you do sound as if you were six.”  Ben pointed toward the bedroom the two boys had shared.

“All right,” Little Joe muttered, “but I thought we were gonna go over and see Adam.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “I am,” he said, emphasizing the pronoun.

Little Joe’s lower lip began to quiver.  “First I can’t go home and get that note; now I can’t even see my brother!  All I wanna do is help, make up for all the trouble I caused, and you won’t let me.”

Ben put his arms around the boy.  “You are helping, Joe,” he said.  “You’ve given Mr. Wood vital information he didn’t have before.  He looks more encouraged than I’ve seen yet.”

“Are you?  Encouraged, I mean.”

“I am.”  Ben quirked a smile.  “And I’ll feel even more encouraged if I can ever get you into bed, so I can visit your brother Adam sometime before Roy locks the place up for the night.”

“I’m going; I’m going,” Little Joe said, shaking his head as he turned toward the bedroom.

**********

 

Stretching and yawning, Little Joe rolled onto his left side and stared at the empty bed beside him.  Even though Pa had told Hoss that he could stay overnight at the Ponderosa, Joe had hoped that his brother would make it back.  Not that it mattered, he told himself.  He wasn’t a kid, scared to sleep alone in a strange bed, after all, but he still didn’t like the notion that they weren’t all together at a time like this.  Adam couldn’t be, of course, but the rest of them should show a united front.  He realized, with chagrin, that it was all the more important to him because he hadn’t been part of that united front until yesterday afternoon.

By the light from his window, it was still early, but he felt too rested to go back to sleep, so he got up and padded on bare feet into the parlor of their suite.  It should have been no surprise to find his father already there, sitting and reading his Bible by the light of a lamp, and Little Joe grinned when he realized he hadn’t expected anything less.  “Mornin’, Pa,” he said.

“Good morning, Joseph.  Sleep well?” his father asked, setting aside the book as his son joined him on the room’s settee.

“Yes, sir, I did, and I feel better.  Sorry I made such a fuss.”

Ben smiled.  “Remember that the next time you’re tempted to dispute your father’s orders, young man.”

“I’m hungry, too.  You reckon they’re serving breakfast yet?”

“I think so, but I thought I’d have breakfast sent up.  Give us a little more privacy.”

Little Joe’s brow wrinkled.  “Do we need privacy?  I mean, I’m all for it, unless it means I’m in for a lecture.”

Ben chuckled.  “No lecture.  Just bacon and eggs or whatever else you want.”

“Maybe we oughta wait for Hoss,” Little Joe suggested.

“No, I’m sure he’ll have breakfast at home, if only to avoid Hop Sing’s threats to return to China.”

Little Joe laughed for the first time in days.  “Well, he’d better tear himself away in time to get here before court starts or Mr. Wood’ll have his hide.”

“He’ll be here,” Ben said with certainty.  Hoss was as reliable as sunrise.

“Can we go on over to the jail and see Adam after we eat?”

His heart too full for words, Ben only nodded.  Was it only yesterday that his youngest had been avoiding any time spent with his oldest?  Now he couldn’t seem to get enough, but while Ben tried to maintain a hopeful outlook, he knew it was possible that his sons might have all too short a time to re-forge their brotherly bond.

**********

While Ben exchanged a few words with Roy Coffee, Little Joe made a beeline for the cell block.  He was surprised to see both his brothers inside the cell.  “Hey, you find the note?” he asked through the bars.

“Yup,” Hoss said.  “Wasn’t easy, though.  Had to sift through a pile of your old arithmetic papers to get to it.  Some of ‘em went back to your first day at school, I swear.”

“Ha ha,” Little Joe grumbled.  “You better get it down to Mr. Wood right quick.”

“Already did, Shortshanks.  Oh, he said to tell you that he might have to ask you a few more questions than he thought.”

“Oh, great.”

Hoss chuckled.  “Don’t fret yourself.  I think it’s about that note to Mr. Klein, so shouldn’t be anything hard.”

“Long as he don’t lie about it,” Little Joe grunted.  “He don’t seem to mind lyin’.”  He turned to his other brother.  “How you doin’, Adam?”

“I’m all right,” Adam replied.  “How about you, kid?”

“Slept like a baby and Pa ordered in a breakfast big enough to satisfy a bear comin’ out of hibernation.”

“Doggone it,” Hoss groused good-naturedly.  “Sure hate to miss a spread like that!”

“Oh, like Hop Sing starved you at home!” Little Joe snorted.

“I’m sure he didn’t,” Ben said as he entered behind the sheriff, who unlocked the cell door to admit the two new visitors.  They stayed together, each trying to bolster the others’ spirits, until Hiram Wood arrived and said it was time to go.

**********

“Mr. Cartwright, you’re still under oath,” Judge Lawson reminded Little Joe as he again took his seat in the witness chair.

Hiram approached him and laid a small piece of paper on the rail of the witness box.  “I show you Exhibit B, Little Joe, the note written to Miss Rose Worthington.  Have you ever seen this before?”

“No, sir,” Little Joe replied.

“I would also like to show you a second note.  Have you seen this one before?”

“Yes, I have.  That’s the note that was given to me at the Silver Dollar that night.”

“The one that led you to Wilson’s stable and the discovery of the body of the young lady?” Mr. Wood asked for sake of clarification.  When the witness affirmed that, the lawyer asked Little Joe to read the note aloud, and he did.

“I would like to have this entered into evidence as Exhibit C, your honor,” Wood said.  After the judge concurred, he continued, “Now, Little Joe, would you compare the handwriting—well, the printing—of these two notes?”

“Objection, your honor,” Mortimer Klein forcefully proclaimed.  “There is no precedent for an analysis of printing, and even if there were, this boy certainly is no expert!”

“I’ll withdraw the question,” Hiram Wood said smoothly.  “The jury can certainly decide for themselves if there is any similarity between the two.  Of course, it would be even better if there were a third note to compare with these.  Are you, perhaps, aware of such a note, Little Joe?”

“Yes, I am,” Little Joe said.

“And how did you become aware of this third note?”

“Mr. Klein told me about it.”  A loud rustle went through the audience at yet another surprising piece of information from the Cartwright boy.  Someone really ought to script this courtroom drama out and put it on the stage.

“Can you describe its contents?”

“Objection, your honor,” the prosecutor protested, though far more weakly than any objection he’d lodged before.  “The boy never saw the note in question, so any testimony he gives about it would be mere hearsay and, therefore, inadmissible.”

“Then, perhaps, I need to call Mr. Klein to the witness stand!” Hiram Woods, his eyes snapping with disdain, boldly announced.  “Surely, our esteemed prosecutor would never be guilty of withholding evidence!”

“I have done no such thing!” Klein bellowed back.

The judge’s gavel came down with a resounding whack, and he joined the shouting match.  “That’s enough!  I’ll see both of you in my chambers at once!  Court will be in recess for fifteen minutes.”  As he stood, he happened to glance at Little Joe.  “I suppose you’d better come along, too, young fellow.”  His use of that description seemed to remind him of another pertinent matter.  “How old are you, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I’m seventeen, your honor,” Little Joe said, his whisper in marked contrast to the ear-splitting volume of his elders.

Judge Lawson frowned and then looked toward the first row behind the defense table.  “In that case, your father should probably join us, too.”

Ben, eager to support his son, stood immediately and made his way forward.  Then all four of those called followed the judge into his chamber.

The judge sat behind his desk and directed Ben and Little Joe to take the other two chairs available.  The attorneys stood, Hiram Wood behind the two Cartwrights.

“Your honor, I strongly protest defense counsel’s suggestion of calling me as a witness.  It’s unheard of!” Mortimer Klein exclaimed.

“I didn’t; I called this young man,” Wood said, laying a hand on Little Joe’s shoulder.

“Hearsay,” Klein muttered.

“Then shouldn’t I be able to call the man with direct knowledge of the note?” Wood countered.

“Am I going to need a gavel in here?” Judge Lawson asked testily.  “Just what does this note say?”

When Mr. Klein hesitated, Little Joe answered, “It says I saw Adam commit murder.”  He quickly added, “Which I didn’t; I just thought I did.”

The judge waved the remark aside.  “Yes, yes, I’ve heard your testimony.  And you know that’s what it said because Mr. Klein told you so?”

“Yes, sir.”

“All right.  Where and when did this conversation take place?”

“Your honor, please,” the prosecutor pleaded.  “I can speak for myself.”

“At length, no doubt,” the judge grunted.  “I think I’d rather hear from Mr. Cartwright.  Where and when, young man?”

“A couple of days before the trial started,” Little Joe replied, “and it was in Mr. Klein’s office.”

“Where he was forcibly detained,” Hiram Wood inserted, “without benefit of legal or fatherly counsel.”

“Only for an hour!” the prosecutor protested.

Holding up a hand for silence, the judge closed his eyes and shook his bowed head.  When he lifted it and opened his eyes, he fixed them on the nervous young man seated before him.  “Is that true, son?  Were you prevented from leaving Mr. Klein’s office?”

“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said.  “I mean, I guess I could have fought my way out.  I figure I’m tougher than Mr. Klein and that fellow he had with him, put together, but they’re the law and he was talkin’ about puttin’ me in prison and . . . well, the door was locked, and I ain’t sure I could  I could have broke it down, anyway.”

“You shouldn’t have had to,” Ben Cartwright said with a glare at the prosecutor.

The judge exhaled heavily.  “We don’t have time to pursue this, gentlemen,” he said, “but I would strongly recommend you make some sort of amends to this boy, Mr. Klein, because from what I’ve heard, Ben Cartwright would have every right to bring charges of kidnapping on his boy’s behalf, him being, legally, a minor.”

“It was only an hour.”  The prosecutor’s prior protest had faded into a plea.  “And only in the interest of justice.”

Lacking a gavel, the judge pounded his doubled fist on his desk.  “You don’t serve justice by doing injustice, counselor!  Now, do you still have this note?”

“Yes, your honor.  It’s in my office.”

“Then send your man for it and present it into evidence,” the judge ordered.

Klein moistened his lips.  “For what purpose, your honor?  It doesn’t speak to either the guilt or innocence of the defendant, only to the existence of this witness.”  He nodded toward Little Joe.

“As well as another,” Wood stated gruffly.  “Where, might I ask, is the person who sent that note?  Surely, he, too, is an eye-witness to the crime.”

“Yes,” Judge Lawson agreed.  “Where is that witness, Mr. Klein, and why have you not presented him?  Because a boy was easier to manipulate?”

“No, your honor!  The note was anonymous,” Klein explained.

“Perhaps if it had been turned over to Sheriff Coffee, an investigation might have revealed his identity,” Wood suggested.

“Produce the note, Mr. Klein,” the judge again ordered, “or, since you seem to be fond of threats, I promise to charge you with contempt.”

“Yes, your honor; I’ll do it at once,” Klein promised.

The judge huffed out a few heavy breaths and then looked steadily at the two lawyers, one after the other.  “Will this require further testimony or can we just enter the note into evidence and present it to the jury along with the others?”

The two attorneys looked at each other and both murmured their agreement.

“Then I’m . . . through?” Little Joe asked hesitantly.

“Not quite, son,” Judge Lawson said with an understanding smile.  “You will need to go back on the stand long enough to be formally dismissed.  Think you can handle that?”

“Yes, sir!”  Little Joe’s relieved grin was the brightest thing in the room.

“Now, counselors, are we prepared to go back into court and finish this trial with a modicum of decorum?” the judge asked.

“I’m prepared, your honor,” Hiram Wood declared.

“Yes, your honor,” Mortimer Klein said meekly.

“Good,” said the judge, “and I would suggest that you both resolve to make your closing remarks uncustomarily brief.  My patience is growing thin.”

Mentally editing their planned speeches, both lawyers left the room, with Ben and Little Joe following.

As promised, Little Joe’s remaining time on the witness stand was blissfully brief, and he all but scampered back to his seat between Ben and Hoss, sinking into it with such an air of relief that he earned himself a nudge in the ribs from his father’s sharp elbow.  He straightened up immediately.  Then the judge read the note to Mr. Klein aloud and entered it into evidence himself as Exhibit D.  Mr. Wood indicated that the defense case was closed, and Mortimer Klein approached the jurors’ box.

Facing the twelve men seated there, he opened with words of ingratiating praise.  “Gentlemen of the jury,” he began, “let me first thank you for both your willingness to serve and the patience with which you have endured a difficult day of testimony and some occasional theatrics.  I will be as brief as possible in my closing remarks.  I simply wish to remind you of the mountain of evidence that leads to the conclusion that the lovely Miss Rose Worthington died at the ruthless hands of Adam Cartwright.

“First you will recall that a money clip monogrammed with the initials AC was found in the barn where the young woman died.  As has been suggested, there are certainly other men in Virginia City with those same initials, but none of them, to our knowledge, had any acquaintance with the deceased.  Adam Cartwright did, and it seems logical to assume that the money clip belonged to him.”

The prosecutor walked the length of the jurors’ box.  “But this is not the only evidence that points to the defendant.  There is also the note received by Miss Rose Worthington, the one which lured her to her death.  It was signed ‘Adam,’ you will remember, and as you will be able to see for yourselves when you have the exhibits available.  Can there be any doubt that she believed it to have come from the one to whom she was engaged?  No, that is beyond question.  She expected to meet him in that barn, and evidence indicates that that is exactly who she did meet.

“Adam Cartwright claims that he was in town that night, not for a clandestine meeting with his sweetheart, but at the behest of Miss Abigail Jones for an urgent school board meeting.  We know from her testimony that there was no such meeting and that she sent no such note to him.  We have only the word of the defendant and his father, a scarcely unbiased witness, to its existence.  It seems obvious that this note was either the work of a prankster or of Adam Cartwright, written to afford himself an excuse.  I realize, as he testified, that he is a grown man and needs no excuse to come to town, but sometimes even grown men wish to keep their movements secret from a prying family.  Had those reasons been, as the prosecution contends, the premature deflowering of his bride-to-be, he would certainly have motive for disguising them from a man with the high moral stature of Ben Cartwright!”

He looked gravely into the faces of each juror as he made another pass down the line.  “There was, as you have seen, another note, this one delivered to Little Joe Cartwright at the Silver Dollar Saloon, directing him to come to Wilson’s stable at 8 p.m.  We all know what he and Mr. Scott McGrew found there.  What was not clear until young Mr. Cartwright’s testimony yesterday morning was that he not only found the body, but he had actually seen the killer!  And whom did he identify as that killer?  None other than his own brother, Adam Cartwright!  Gentlemen, you saw how difficult it was for him to make that accusation, but he bravely did so, because he could not let a murderer escape justice.”

The prosecutor stopped at the center of the box and spread his hands before the men seated there.  “Oh, yes, I know: he withdrew that identification; he tried to convince you that he’d been mistaken and that he had somehow come to realize the error of his thinking in the space of two hours.  Is it not far more likely that during the recess, some overpowering influence was brought to bear on the young man, who is, after all, a boy of barely seventeen?  Once they got him alone, gentlemen, they pressured him to change his testimony, and he simply did not have the fortitude to withstand the combined demands of his brother’s formidable legal counsel and his father, one of the most powerful men in Virginia City.  Is not his original testimony by far the more credible?”

Little Joe moaned, bringing the immediate response of his father’s hand tightening around his kneecap.  He nodded to show that he’d gotten the message, and the pressure eased, though the hand didn’t move.  Along with the rest of the family, he’d heard Mr. Woods’ admonishment to show no response to whatever the prosecutor said, but it was hard, especially when the man was trying to make Joe the one responsible for putting a noose around his brother’s neck.  Looking to his left, Little Joe noticed that Hoss wasn’t doing much better at hiding how he felt about the garbage Mr. Klein was spewing, and if his older brother got riled, he was likely to cause a whole lot more hullabaloo than a little moan.  Maybe he should be the one sitting next to Pa’s firm hand.

The prosecutor seemed to be winding down.  “Now, gentlemen of the jury, let us examine the three factors generally agreed to indicate guilt: motive, means and opportunity.  Did Adam Cartwright have the opportunity to commit this murder?  He has admitted being in town that night, and his conversation with Miss Abigail Jones demonstrates that he was near the scene of the crime shortly after its commission.  Indeed, if you accept the more credible testimony of his own brother, he was at that barn when the shot was fired.  Rarely have I seen an example of opportunity more precisely proven.”

He moved a few steps closer to the jurors.  “Means?  The actual cause of death, according to Dr. Martin, was strangulation.  I invite you, gentlemen, to examine the hands of the defendant and judge for yourselves whether they would be large enough to encircle the slender neck of a young woman and strong enough to squeeze the life from her.  From my observation, the conclusion seems obvious.  Not only did Adam Cartwright have opportunity; he also had the means to commit the crime.”

Mr. Klein stepped still closer to the jurors’ box.  “The prosecution is not required to establish motive, but we cannot help asking ourselves why a suave, educated man, within days of his wedding, would brutally strangle and then shoot the woman he claimed to love.  I believe the answer lies in that very brutality.  This, gentlemen, was a crime of passion.  It is doubtful that Adam Cartwright intended to commit murder when he rode into Virginia City that night, but something angered him enough to bring his crushing hands around that delicate neck.  He simply lost control.

“The defense has contended that a loss of control is not in the nature of Adam Cartwright.  Yet I am certain you have all heard the gossip circulating through town about his behavior earlier this year toward a visiting artist, Miss Lotta Crabtree.  She herself joked about how he threatened to break her arm if she did not reveal the whereabouts of his youngest brother.  Little did she realize it may have been no joke at all!”

Little Joe slid down in his seat, but not even the two guards on either side paid him any heed.  Everyone’s attention was riveted on the prosecutor as he concluded, “Any man, gentlemen of the jury, especially one used to getting his own way, can lose control when he is thwarted in its pursuit, and that, I contend, is exactly what happened that fatal night.  Adam Cartwright wanted to claim his marital rights before he had any right to them, and when a virtuous woman refused his advances, he tried to take what he wanted.  He failed in that only because she defended her virtue with her very life.  Perhaps he grieves for her now, but not enough to take responsibility for his vile deed.  It remains for you, gentlemen of the jury, to bring him to account.  I call upon you to find Adam Cartwright guilty of murder!”

As the prosecutor took his seat, Hiram Wood rose from his and walked slowly forward.  “Gentlemen of the jury,” he said, “let me also begin by thanking you for your service and for your willingness to sift through all the base elements presented by the prosecution to see whether there is even a hint of color worth assaying.  Mr. Klein promised to present a mountain of evidence as high as Mount Davidson, but what he has actually offered is little more than a slag heap of worthless rock.

“Let us examine this so-called mountain of evidence, pebble by pebble, beginning with the money clip.  Certainly, it was found in the stable and it is etched with the initials AC, but Adam Cartwright does not, in fact, even own a money clip, monogrammed or otherwise.  I would remind you, also, that it was found in a long-abandoned stable.  Who knows how long it had lain there before the sheriff found it?  Roy Coffee himself stated that he could not say that it belonged to Adam Cartwright, and he indicated that he personally knew a number of other men with the same initials.  It need not have been dropped there by anyone from Virginia City, however; it could have been lost years ago by some passing stranger.  Since it cannot be proven to be linked to the crime under investigation, much less to Mr. Cartwright himself, I believe you should discount it altogether.”

Mr. Wood held aloft three small sheets of paper.  “Now we come to the matter of the notes, which seemed to be flying across the territory in flocks on the night in question.  We do not have the one written to Adam Cartwright himself, but we have the word of his father, Ben Cartwright, whom even the prosecutor describes as a man of high moral stature.  His description of the summons to what turned out to be an invented school board meeting matches that of these others exactly.  You will see for yourselves that each is printed in block letters with the probable intent of disguising the identity of the author.  While there is no scientific way to prove that they all came from the same hand, I invite you to examine them closely and decide for yourselves how similar they appear.

“The prosecutor also agrees that they all came from the same person, with the convenient exception of the one directed to him, and he contends that, except for that one, the writer is Adam Cartwright.  But ask yourselves, gentlemen, how reasonable that is.  Under the prosecution’s theory, Adam wrote a false summons to himself in order that he might slip away to Virginia City for a clandestine meeting with his sweetheart.  Ridiculous!  As he told you himself, he is a grown man, free to come and go as he pleases.  If he wanted to see his betrothed, all he had to do was come to her door, and he would have been welcomed by both Miss Worthington and her father.  There was no need for secrecy, certainly no need to ask her to meet him in a wretched place like an abandoned stable.”

He laid aside the note to Rose and held up a second one.  “Here we have the note sent to Little Joe Cartwright.  I ask you, gentlemen, why on earth would Adam Cartwright order his little brother to Wilson’s stable?  To witness the seduction of his sweetheart?  Ridiculous!  No one would invite a younger brother along for that!  Then the prosecutor asks you to believe that having strangled the young woman he loved, Adam Cartwright waited for his brother to arrive, so that he could fire a shot into her dead body.  Again, I ask why!  Wouldn’t it have been more logical for him to flee, rather than deliberately set himself up to be seen by his own brother and force the boy he helped his father raise into the ordeal of testifying against him?  Again, ridiculous!”  He laid aside the note to Little Joe.

Holding high the third sheet of paper, Hiram Wood said, “And now we come to the last and most inexplicable note of all, the one directed to Mr. Mortimer Klein.  You will see for yourselves how much it resembles the others.  So, if Adam Cartwright wrote those, then he must also have written the one ensuring that the eyewitness—his own brother, I remind you—would be discovered.  Is that something any man who had just committed murder would want?  Ridiculous!  Wouldn’t it be simpler to confess, rather than putting himself and his family through the stress of a trial, if he wished to be held accountable?

“Mr. Klein, of course, would have you believe that while Adam Cartwright wrote all the other notes, someone else wrote this one.  If he is right, then there is a second eyewitness to this crime, but has he produced such a witness?  No, he has not, and we are left to wonder why.  Why has this supposedly concerned citizen not come forward and taken the witness stand himself, rather than pushing that responsibility onto the slim shoulders of a boy barely seventeen?  What reason does he have to hide his identity?  Can it possibly be because this so-called concerned citizen is the actual perpetrator, a person intent on framing the defendant for the crime?  Since it is ridiculous to think that Adam Cartwright wrote this third note,” the defense attorney concluded, “it seems obvious that he wrote none of the others, either.  They are all, instead, the handiwork of the man who actually killed Miss Rose Worthington, and those interested in justice”—he looked directly at the prosecutor—“should begin an immediate search for this person.”

Mr. Wood approached the jurors and looked intently into their faces, one by one.  “Mr. Klein has made much of the testimony of young Joseph Cartwright.  While it is true that Little Joe originally identified the killer as his brother Adam, we have seen how he was led to that conclusion, both by the way the killer was dressed and by the fact that the note was signed with his brother’s name.  He went into that dark alley, expecting to see his brother, and that is whom he assumed was standing in the shadows, waiting for him, until further reflection showed him that what he had identified was only a set of clothes, deliberately fashioned in a manner to which a number of citizens have testified was habitual to Adam Cartwright.  Looking at the supposed evidence with fresh eyes showed Little Joe Cartwright that he had been wrong, and I am confident that when you gentlemen do the same, you will come to the same conclusion and find the defendant not guilty.  Thank you for your kind attention and your diligence in considering the evidence.”

As Mr. Wood returned to his place at Adam’s side, Little Joe whispered to his brother Hoss, “He did good, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Hoss whispered back.  He would have said more, but his father’s reproachful gaze made him gulp down any further comment.

Judge Lawson turned toward the prosecutor.  “Any rebuttal, Mr. Klein?”

“Yes, your honor,” Klein said, standing and walking toward the jury.  “Gentlemen, thank you for your continuing patience.  I will address only three areas in which the defense counsel’s eloquent oratory may have obscured the truth.  He does bring up a valid question regarding the note sent to Mr. Joseph Cartwright.  Why, indeed, would a man invite his young brother to either a murder or a seduction?  I submit that Adam Cartwright’s original motive may have been something far more innocent.  Perhaps he only planned to convince his bride-to-be to elope with him.  In that case, he may have intended his brother to act as driver, to take them to his chosen destination and then return a hired buggy to the livery.  Let us give him the benefit of that much doubt, but there can be no doubt that, whatever his original intent, he lost control and strangled that poor girl when she resisted him.

“As to the printed notes and whether they were written by Adam Cartwright or some anonymous enemy in an attempt to frame him for this murder, let me say only that both Little Joe Cartwright and Miss Rose Worthington had no doubt from whom they came.  If they looked enough like his writing to fool his own brother, as well as his sweetheart, should we, then, doubt?  I see no room for that.

“Finally, I must refute the absurd conclusion of defense counsel that the note sent to my office had to be written by the same person as the other two—or three, if you accept Ben Cartwright’s biased word that another exists.  As has been pointed out, hand-printed words are less singular than a man’s signature, so there is no reason not to believe that there were two separate authors, including a concerned citizen who wished only to see justice done.  Why, Mr. Wood asked, did this individual not come forward?  Isn’t it obvious?  The most likely reason is fear, gentlemen of the jury, the fear of retaliation by the powerful Cartwright family, an influence so powerful, in fact, that it compelled a hitherto honest young man to retract his original testimony and deny the truth he had taken an oath to speak.  But I see no fear in your eyes, gentlemen, and I know that you will bring in an honest verdict of guilty, as charged!”  Spinning toward the defense table, he said the final words with an accusing finger pointed directly at the defendant.  Then with brisk steps he returned to his side of the courtroom and sat down.

Judge Lawson gave instructions to the jury, charged them to render a true verdict and struck his gavel one final time as he dismissed the court.  As it was still not quite noon, the Cartwrights all trailed along in the wake of Adam and his lawyer to the jail, where they gathered inside Adam’s cell.

“You did right fine, Mr. Wood,” Hoss enthused.  “Don’t see how no one could vote against Adam after you laid it out so plain.”

“Thank you, Hoss,” the lawyer said.  “I did my best, but it’s entirely in the hands of the jury now.”

“Reckon we got time for lunch before they come back in with the right verdict?” Hoss asked, for his stomach was beginning to rumble.

Hiram Wood chuckled.  “Oh, I would hope so, Hoss.  If they come back sooner than that, the verdict is likely to be exactly what we don’t want!”

“What do you mean?” Little Joe, who had stood silent in the corner of the cell until then, asked.

“Early verdicts generally mean a guilty verdict, son,” the lawyer explained.  “We want them to take their time and think about it.  That means they’re, at least, considering all the evidence and, hopefully, seeing it our way.”

“So we wait,” Ben said, holding back a sigh.  Waiting, as any father knew, was the hardest work a man could do, but if a longer wait indicated a better chance at the correct verdict, he’d wait until Lake Tahoe dried up.  “Well, perhaps we should go along and get some dinner, then.  I’m sure your meal will be arriving soon, Adam.”

“Regular as clockwork,” Adam said, forcing a smile.  Though he would not have shown it for the world, his stomach had begun tightening from the moment he heard the judge address the jury, and though he was hungry, he wasn’t sure he could push a bite past the hard knot forming there.  As Little Joe passed him on the way out of the cell, though, he reached out to touch his elbow.  “You all right, little buddy?”

Little Joe’s smile was just as forced as his brother’s and about half as successful.  “Sure, Adam,” he said, adding, “Just tired,” when he saw the doubt mirrored in the hazel eyes that met his own.

Hoss clapped his little brother on the back.  “You just need to feed up a mite, Shortshanks.  Miss Daisy told me she’d be making beef stew today.  Ain’t nothin’ better’n that and a slice of her apple pie!”  He smacked his lips in anticipation.

“I’ll be sure to tell Hop Sing that when I see him next,” Adam commented dryly.  He only hoped that would be at the Ponderosa, not through the bars of his cell, with Hop Sing delivering the condemned man’s final meal.

The others took his quip as an indication that Adam was feeling hopeful, and they were all smiling as they left the jail and headed toward Daisy’s Café.

**********

Ben stood at the window of their suite at the International House, looking out, but seeing little.  Not that there was much to see.  The bits of black sky that were visible between the buildings were void of stars, and while he could still hear voices from the street below, he couldn’t make out the words or clearly see the men uttering them.  Ladies, of course, except those working the saloons, had long since retired.  His sons slept in the next room, Hoss deeply, his trusting soul calm in the assurance that his older brother would be acquitted.  Little Joe had tossed restlessly, but he had finally dropped off or, perhaps, Ben conceded with a rueful smile, he’d only managed to look as if he were sleeping.  The boy was getting far too adroit at deceiving his father.

Ben was worried about Little Joe.  The boy had been quiet all through dinner and beyond.  It was easy to understand why, of course.  Ben knew his youngest well enough to guess at the way his mind was running.  Running was the right word, too; like all of them, Little Joe was running from the fear of what would happen to Adam if those twelve impaneled men decided to convict.  In Joe’s case, however, the fear was coupled with guilt.  Though none of them would say it, each knew that the boy’s original testimony had been devastating.  He’d retracted it, but each juror would have to choose which version to believe, and there were many in Virginia City who would accept at face value the prosecutor’s baseless theory that the overbearing influence of a powerful family had forced that change of testimony.  Ben could only pray, as he did fervently, that none of those people were sitting on the jury.

He was worried about Adam, as well.  His oldest was never as easy to read as his youngest; from boyhood up he’d been more adept at disguising his emotions than Little Joe could ever hope to be.  Was Adam feeling fear tonight, as his father was?  Probably, Ben conceded, but there was reason to hope.  After all, the jury had deliberated all afternoon without coming to a verdict.  By Hiram Wood’s reasoning, that meant they were mulling over all they’d heard, and the longer they mulled, the greater the odds of their seeing the truth.  Twelve men, though, all twelve men had to see it, so perhaps the best they could realistically hope for was a hung jury, and then they’d have to go through the whole thing again.  Ben closed his eyes.  Better for Adam than facing a gallows, of course, but Little Joe would probably have to face testifying all over again, and while he would certainly not identify his brother a second time, it would be hard to find a jury that hadn’t heard his original accusation.

Ben’s heart wrestled with the alternatives, knowing that the only acceptable one might also be the least likely.  And if the hand they drew was the least acceptable, it would be hard, he thought, as he walked away from the window, to watch one son die, while the other suffered in torment.  His head came up abruptly.  Where had he heard those words before?  Slowly, the memory returned.  Only yesterday, as he’d been walking out of the courtroom, William Walcott had stopped him and said almost those exact words.  He hadn’t known what to make of them then, but now, remembering the smug expression on the other man’s face as he’d uttered them, they settled within him with a certainty that overpowered his incredulity.  He had no idea how to prove it, but he knew: William Walcott had orchestrated the entire thing, with one express purpose: to destroy the man he blamed for the death of his daughter.

Ben hurried into his bedroom, threw off his nightshirt and changed into his street clothes.  He needed to talk to Adam.  It was late, but Roy would let him in, and he could think of nothing better for his oldest son to do during this time of waiting, however long it lingered, than to put that fine, fertile brain of his to work.

**********

 

Ben practically tiptoed back into the suite an hour or so later.  Hearing Hoss’s raucous snores as he entered, he smiled.  Good.  Both of his younger sons were unaware of his brief absence, for there was no way that Joseph would have let his brother sleep if he’d awakened and discovered his father missing.  No doubt there’d be a price to pay later, in angry words and hurt feelings, but he and Adam had agreed that Little Joe, impulsive under normal circumstances and on the raw edge of uncontrollable emotion in these, should not be told of their unproven suspicions.  If Little Joe couldn’t know, then it naturally followed that Hoss, too, must be kept in the dark, for if little brother caught the tiniest hint that older one had a secret he wasn’t sharing, there would be begging and finagling and outright trickery of a sort Hoss had never been able to withstand.

For now, he and Adam, whose composed face would never show so much as a trace of the new possibilities, would keep their own counsel.  Ben wasn’t as confident that his own face wouldn’t reveal his growing excitement, but he’d make the effort, at least until the jury’s verdict was delivered.  If Adam were found not guilty, they could afford to be more deliberate in their search for justice for Rose; if the verdict went the other way, they’d need to move quickly.  Hiram, he knew, already planned to request a new trial, based on the prosecutor’s unethical confinement of his star witness.  That might give them extra time, but they’d put the plan he and Adam had developed into action the minute the verdict came down, either way it went.

Though it was not yet time for the sun to rise, Ben didn’t feel like going back to bed.  Instead, he sat down in the suite’s parlor with the small Bible he often carried when traveling and began to read.  This would probably be the day the jury rendered its verdict, and he needed to face that moment of decision with peace and calm in his soul.  Lost in the words and his meditation on them, he was unaware of the passing of time until the door to the next room opened and one of his sons emerged from the adjoining room.  Nothing could more effectively have proven that their world was off its axis than seeing which one it was.

“Mornin’, Pa,” Little Joe said, stretching and yawning as he entered the parlor.  “You’re up early.”

Ben’s eyebrow arched.  “I’m up early?  Why, Joseph, I wasn’t aware you even knew what sunrise looked like.”

Little Joe gave him a sheepish half-smile.  “I’ve seen it a time or two.”  Yawning again, he settled down next to his father.  “What you reading?”

Ben clucked his tongue.  “Joseph, Joseph, you should, at least, recognize the cover.  It’s my Bible, son.”

Little Joe rolled his still sleepy eyes.  “I know that.  I meant which book.”

Ben patted the boy’s thigh in apology for the teasing.  “Psalms—always a reliable source in hard times.”

“Yeah, it’s a good one.”  He took more one good stretch and seemed to rouse more fully.  “What’re we doin’ today?  Just stayin’ at the jail ‘til we hear?”

“You don’t have to,” his father said gently.

“No, I want to,” Little Joe insisted with the most energy he’d shown since waking.  “I want to be with Adam.”

“All right.”  Ben closed the book in his lap.  “I don’t really have plans for the day, son.  We’ll wait until Hoss wakes and then go down to breakfast, although you’re welcome to eat sooner, if you’re hungry.”

“I’ll wait,” Little Joe said.  “Then straight on to the jail?”

“Yes.  After that, we’ll just play it by ear,” Ben said.  “If the jury returns a verdict this morning, of course that alters everything.”

“Yeah.”  Little Joe averted his eyes.  The very thought of what that verdict might be and how he had influenced it filled him with fear and shame.

His father turned the boy’s face toward him with tender fingers.  “It’s going to be all right, Joseph.”

Eyes brimming, Little Joe nodded toward the book his father had set aside.  “That what it said to you?”

Ben gave the boy’s cheek a single stroke.  “It calmed my heart, and that’s what my heart said, once it was calm.”

“Hand it over,” Little Joe said.  “I can use some of that.”

**********

About mid-morning the Cartwrights, all sitting inside Adam’s cell, looked up in expectation as someone entered the cell block.  Expectation was swallowed up in surprise on each face, for it was not someone bringing notice that the jury was in that met their gaze, but a person no one had expected to see there.

His eyes full, Isaac Worthington walked toward Adam’s cell.  “Can you ever forgive me, son?” he asked, the question ending on a sob.

Adam had come to his feet as soon as he saw Rose’s father.  “Forgive?  There’s nothing to forgive, sir.”

“I don’t know how I could ever have doubted you,” the grieving father said through a tight throat, “but your lawyer laid it out so plainly, and like young Joseph there, I see things clearly now.  Please forgive me, Adam, for not being at your side, supporting you all this time.”

“Please, sir,” Adam pleaded as he approached the bars that stood between them.  “There’s nothing to forgive.  I’m only grateful that you do realize the truth.  That means everything to me!  I didn’t . . . I couldn’t . . . not ever.”

“I know,” Isaac whispered.  “I know.”  Reaching through the bars, his fingers closed around Adam’s outstretched hand.

“Oh, for mercy’s sake, Roy!” Ben said.  “Let this man in here!”

Isaac stepped back.  “No, that’s all right,” he said.  “I don’t want to disturb your family.”

“Isaac,” Adam said, “you are family.  Please join us.”

With a tearful nod Isaac walked through the door Roy quickly opened and took Adam into his arms in the certain knowledge that while he had lost a daughter, he had, as consolation, gained a son.  And how he prayed he would not soon lose him, as well.

When the morning and then the afternoon passed without a verdict, all their hopes began to rise.  Surely, if they were taking this long to decide, it must mean that Hiram Wood had made the truth plain to those twelve men, as well.

**********

When the jury deliberated all through the next morning, too, Hoss declared that Adam was bound to be turned loose any minute.  “They wouldn’t take this long, if’n they thought he was guilty.”

“They wouldn’t take this long if they all thought I was innocent, either,” Adam pointed out.  “What it means is that the jury is split.”

“But that’s the second best option, son,” his father insisted.  “A hung jury would, at least, give us more time to”—he broke off suddenly.

“To do what?” Little Joe asked.  He had an awful feeling that his father had intended to finish that sentence by saying they’d have more time with Adam before it wasn’t the jury that was hung, but his brother.

“To find the real killer,” Adam inserted, for he had read his little brother’s expressive eyes and wanted to steer his mind off that dangerous path.  “To find justice for Rose.”

“We all want that, Adam,” Hoss said, “but how’re we ‘sposed to find the real killer when he made all the evidence point to you.”

“I have an idea or two,” Adam said, “but let’s talk about it later.  I’ve got enough on my plate for now.”  Roy walked in just then, carrying his prisoner’s lunch.  Adam laughed.  “Yes, I quite literally have a full plate to attend to . . . and you’d better go find some for yourselves before younger brother here fades away to a shadow of his hefty self.”  He playfully tapped Hoss’s belly and got a toothy grin as reward.

“Hiram know where to find you?” Roy asked as he unlocked the cell door.

“I told him we’d eat at Daisy’s,” Ben said.  “I assume that’s all right with you, boys?”

“Sure thing!” Hoss said with a smack of his lips.

Little Joe only nodded.  He didn’t care whether he ate or not.  His hope that Adam was going to be acquitted had been somewhat shaken by his brother’s analysis of what the long wait meant.  Besides, he’d had a good breakfast, and there was just so much food a nervous stomach could hold.

**********

They were about halfway through the light lunch that was all even Hoss felt like tackling when Hiram Wood’s assistant rushed in to inform them that the jury was in.  “Judge Lawson says court will reconvene for the verdict in about half an hour,” he hurried to say.  Having been sent before finishing his own meal, he was eyeing the half-full plates greedily.

“Thank you, son,” Ben said.  “Tell Hiram we’ll be there.”  Though he knew they had time to finish eating, he doubted that any of them could consume another bite until that verdict had been read, so he motioned to Daisy for their bill.  “We’ll be back for pie when Adam is acquitted,” he told her.

Daisy beamed at him.  “It’ll be good to see Adam again.”  Only when they’d left the café did her confident smile fade.  She surely hoped she would be serving up four slices of celebratory pie, but maybe she’d better have some good old-fashioned comfort food on hand, as well.  She headed into the kitchen to see if she had the makings for a pot of chicken and dumplings.

***********

The Cartwrights had been among the first to enter the courtroom.  They took their usual seats, and Ben turned to his two younger sons.  “Remember,” he cautioned.  “No response, whatever the verdict.”

“Right, Pa,” Hoss agreed at once.  When his brother said nothing, Hoss elbowed him.

Little Joe winced.  “Sure,” he said, his voice shaky.

Ben wanted to reach out to him, to say something supportive, but he was afraid either touch or word would only make his most vulnerable son fold in on himself, so he just settled back in his chair, in hopes that a good example would do the trick.

The room behind them slowly filled, whispers echoing down the rows as each person speculated on the likely outcome of the most fascinating trial Virginia City had seen since its founding, or so, at least, several were claiming.

The crowd hushed in respect as Isaac Worthington entered and then gasped when, instead of heading for his usual seat behind the prosecutor, he moved toward the opposite side.  He started to enter the row behind Ben and the boys, but then he recalled Adam’s saying that he was family.  Wanting his allegiance to be plainly evident, he stepped to Ben’s side and asked simply, “May I?”

Ben stood and clasped Isaac’s hand firmly.  “Of course.  Please do.”  He motioned for Hoss and Little Joe to move down, and they did, just as Judge Lawson entered from his side chamber.

Moving quickly through the preliminaries, the judge received the slip of paper on which the jury had recorded its verdict, read it silently and had it returned to the foreman.  Then he requested the defendant to stand, and Adam did, with Hiram Wood at his side.  From the calm manner in which he faced the jury, no one would have guessed the turmoil inside.  In the last few days Adam had moved from not caring whether he lived or died to caring very deeply, and the ricocheting emotions had taken a toll, even on his remarkable equilibrium, if not his self-possession.  Behind him, his younger brothers were struggling to maintain theirs, Hoss with some success, but Little Joe with a shakiness he could only pray no one but those seated on either side would notice.

“Mr. Foreman, will you read the verdict?” the judge requested.

The foreman, an accountant for one of the mining companies, stood and in a clear voice read, “We, the jury, find the defendant, Adam Cartwright, guilty of murder, as charged.”

“So say you all?” asked the judge and was answered in the affirmative.

A shiver shook Adam’s shoulders as he heard the verdict, but that was the only reaction anyone saw.  Ben’s lips trembled and his breath caught in his throat; a silent tear trickled down Hoss’s cheek.  Little Joe tried to hold his plummeting emotions in check, but perhaps because he’d already held them in so long already, he simply couldn’t.  His body folded forward, and he buried his face in his hands as he sobbed.  It sounded like thunder in his own ears, though only muffled sobs escaped to those of anyone else.  Ben leaned forward, whispering, “Shh, shh,” but then he stopped.  Courtroom decorum be hanged!  Why shouldn’t the boy cry?  Why shouldn’t the whole town know that he loved his brother?  He began to stroke the curls straggling down the boy’s neck and heard his son’s ragged breathing start to even out.

The judge tapped his gavel once, to caution those who had started to whisper their opinions of the verdict, and they fell silent, waiting.  “Adam Cartwright, it becomes my sad duty now to pass sentence,” Judge Lawson said, and the eyes he fixed on the defendant seemed filled with genuine sorrow.  “In accordance with the severity of the crime of which you have been convicted, I hereby sentence you to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, this sentence to be carried out one week from today.  May God have mercy on your soul.”  The gavel banged again and court was dismissed.

Hoss held one hand to his mouth, to keep from crying out, while he wiped his face with the other.  Little Joe’s folded torso shook even harder, and Ben, torn for a moment, finally nodded at Hoss, who put an arm across the shivering frame of his younger brother; then Ben stood to reach out and take Adam in his arms.  Isaac, too, placed a supporting hand on Adam’s shoulder, not wishing to interfere between a father and son in their hour of greatest need, but wanting the world to know that he, at least, did not believe that this fine young man had killed his beloved Rose.

Time raced; time stood still.  With the encouragement of the deputy, people began to file out.  A hand came to rest on Ben’s back, but he didn’t know whose it was, nor did he care.  A voice penetrated the fog surrounding him.  It was saying, “I’m sorry, Ben, but I have to take Adam back to the jail.  You can see him there, much as you want, and, uh, judge says you can stay here long as you need to.”

Ben’s head slowly rose, and he stared blankly into the face of Sheriff Roy Coffee.  Stay here?  Why on earth would he want to stay here?  Then he heard the soft sobs behind him and knew.  “Thank you,” he managed to say.  Looking to his right, he saw that Rose’s father was still with them.  “Isaac,” he said, “would you go with Adam?”

“Of course, I will,” the other father replied.

“Adam, I’ll—I’ll be over as soon as I can,” Ben promised.

“It’s all right, Pa,” Adam assured him, eyes resting on his youngest brother’s quivering form.  “Take care of our boy.”

Ben nodded, eyes filling with tears of pride and love, and though he knew such demonstrations always made Adam uncomfortable, he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his cheek.  His eyes remained with his oldest son until the sheriff had taken him out of his sight; then he sat down and began comforting his youngest or, rather, trying to.  Little Joe, always the quickest of his boys to fall into his embrace, seemed oblivious to his father’s loving touch and soothing words.  Finally, Ben said, “Joseph, you are going to have to get hold of yourself.”

“Why?” Little Joe choked out.  “What difference does it make?  I’ve killed my brother!”

Gripping the boy’s shoulders and hoisting him upright, Ben said, “You have not killed your brother!  In the first place, your brother is not dead, and we are going to do everything in our power to make sure he does not become dead!”  Seeing a ray of hope spark in Little Joe’s eyes, he lowered his voice.  “In the second place, this is not your fault.  You told the truth as you saw it.”

“I saw it wrong,” Little Joe whispered, regret in every word.

“Yes, you did,” Ben agreed, “and I wish that hadn’t happened, both for your sake and certainly for your brother’s, but, Joe, because of your testimony, we now know that your brother was deliberately and skillfully framed, and we also have a description of the real killer.  What we need to do is find him.”

“Find someone who looks a mite like Adam?” Little Joe scoffed.  “Must be dozens.  How will we prove which one killed Rose?”

“We’ll find a way,” Hoss said.  “Didn’t Adam say he had an idea or two?”

Little Joe dashed the tears from his cheeks.  “Well, let’s talk to Adam, then.”

“Yes,” Ben said at once with a grateful look at his middle son.  “That’s why you’ve got to get hold of yourself, son, so we can leave here and go talk to Adam.”

“I’m fine, “Little Joe insisted.  “Let’s go.”

Ben restrained a smile at the typical response.  Long as he lived, he thought, he’d never really get used to his youngest’s mercurial mood swings.  No one could rise from debilitating despair to buoyant hope as quickly as Little Joe, but his emotions could plummet the other direction just as quickly.  Wanting them to settle onto a more even keel before they faced the crowd in the street, he said, “Take another minute, son.”

He stood and walked across to the judge’s chamber, where he tapped on the door.  When someone inside called, “Enter,” he did and saw that it was Judge Lawson himself.  “I was wondering if I might find a glass of water in here,” Ben said.

“Of course, help yourself,” the judge said, motioning toward a pitcher and glass that sat on the corner of his desk.  “How is the boy?” he asked as Ben poured.

“He’ll be all right,” Ben said.  “I think you should know that Mr. Wood will be filing an appeal.”

Judge Lawson smiled.  “He already has.  Hiram rarely lets grass grow under his feet.  I can’t promise I’ll rule the way you hope, but you do have my sympathy, Mr. Cartwright.  This sort of thing is hard on fathers.”

Ben nodded and thanked the judge for the water.

“Least I can do.  Just leave the glass in the courtroom.”

Again thanking the judge, Ben returned to his son’s side and offered him the water, which Little Joe gulped down like a man who’d spent three days in the desert without a canteen.  Setting it on the rail that had separated them from Adam, he looked up, steadily, and said, “Let’s go.”  To indicate he wouldn’t take no, or even wait, for an answer, he stood.

Ben and Hoss flanked the youngest Cartwright as they left the courtroom and crossed to the jail.  Thanks to their delay, the crowd had thinned and few of those that remained said anything.  Those who did drifted off when none of the Cartwrights appeared to either see or hear them.

**********

Adam and Isaac both stood when Roy unlocked the cell door for the other Cartwrights, and Isaac moved toward the open door as they entered.  “I’ll leave you for now,” he said, “but I’ll be back this evening.”

“Thank you, Isaac,” Ben said.  “I appreciate your support more than I can say.”

“I’m family,” the other man reminded him.  “Call on me for anything.”

Adam placed both hands on his youngest brother’s slim shoulders.  “Are you all right, little buddy?”

“Sure, Adam, I’m fine.”  There was a hard core of bitterness in the boy’s voice, but anguish in his eyes as he said, “I’m sorry; I’m so sorry.”

“We’ve been all through that,” Adam reminded him, “and you don’t need to say it again.  We have more important things to talk about.”

“Pa said you had some idea of how to find the galoot who framed you,” Hoss said.

“I do,” Adam said, “and it’s all based on your description, Joe.”

“I didn’t see him that clear, remember?” Little Joe said.  “Except for him bein’ about your height, I just saw the clothes.”

“And that’s what we look for,” Adam said.  He laughed roughly.  “Well, what you look for.  My search area is a little limited.”

“Black shirt and pants ain’t that hard to find,” Hoss said with a scowl.  “I know most fellers don’t wear ‘em together, like you do, but they sell ‘em ‘most anywhere.”

“Yes, but the coat is more distinctive,” Ben put in.  “Someone probably had it special-made for the purpose of copying Adam’s look.”

Little Joe’s countenance lifted.  “So all we gotta do is find some tailor that took an order for an ugly yellow coat!”

“I’ll thank you not to disparage my wardrobe choices, you scamp.”  Grabbing him by the scruff of the neck, Adam gave his brother a light shake and was rewarded with a grin.

“Okay, where do we start?”

“Hoss, I’m sending you to Placerville,” Ben said.  “Find a city directory if you can.  Otherwise, just ask around for a good tailor and visit everyone recommended to you.  See if they can remember someone ordering or even just inquiring about a coat like Adam’s.  You can describe it?”

“Yup, sure can,” Hoss said.  “I’ll head right out.”

“Take time to pack a bag,” Ben said.  “You’ll need to stay overnight, at least.  And if you come across any place that might sell a monogrammed money clip, you can check that, too.”

“Yes, sir.”  While Hoss hollered for Roy to let him out, Little Joe lined up behind him.

Ben snared the boy’s elbow.  “Wait a minute, young fellow.”

“I’m going with Hoss,” Little Joe announced with determination.

“No, Joseph, you’re not.”

“Pa, please!  Let me help!” he begged.  “We can cover Placerville quicker if we both go.”

“I need you here,” Ben said.

“You mean, you need to keep an eye on your baby boy!” Little Joe sputtered.

“That, too,” Ben said calmly, “but you and I will be covering Virginia City, Gold Hill and Carson City, son.  You’ll do your share, Joseph, and you can start by asking Roy if we can borrow his copy of the city directory.”

“You can,” Roy said, swinging open the cell door.

“Okay, then, let’s get started,” Little Joe said with enthusiasm.

Ben and Adam exchanged a significant smile.  If nothing else, the project would keep the boy’s mind off his overpowering guilt.

**********

When the others vacated his cell, Adam sank to the thin mattress of his cot, and his famed control began to fade.  How, he wondered, could anyone possibly believe a man could hear a death sentence levied against him and still smile and even toss out the odd joke here and there without a trace of fear?  So far, though, he thought he’d carried it off.  He had a reputation to uphold, after all.  How had he gained such a reputation in the first place?  Of course, he preferred to hold his emotions in.  What man didn’t?  But some—Little Joe, notably—seemed incapable of it.

What makes me different? Adam thought.  Why is it such anathema to me for anyone to see I have feelings?  Heredity, perhaps?  His father always kept himself under good control, so maybe he’d gotten a measure of his own from Pa.  However, no one ever thought Pa had no emotions, that he could face the direst threats without concern, and they did think that about Adam.  They were wrong.  They honestly thought he didn’t feel things like they did.  Rubbish.

Still, he was glad that his little brothers, at least, believed the rubbish.  He smiled softly.  Little brothers.  He still thought of them that way, even though Hoss now outstripped him in size a couple of times over.  Big as he was, though, Hoss was still a child at heart, as vulnerable to hurt as when he’d been a tyke of three.  Little Joe, of course, still was a boy, still very much in need of protection, and in this situation, particularly, in desperate need of seeing his big brother face the future unafraid.  So the mask would remain in place whenever the boy was near him.  Little brothers.  Yes, they were, at least, part of the reason he’d developed that reputation for facing things with a calm exterior that people thought he felt inside, too.  Little brothers had to be protected and directed, and a man had to be in control to accomplish that.

It was a relief, actually, to be alone at last, so he could drop the mask.  While he had appreciated Isaac’s staying with him, more than he could have said, until now he’d not had a single moment to himself, to try to deal with the judge’s edict that he would die a week from today.  A week—seven short days.  A man needed solitude to face a fate like that!  He wasn’t nearly as sure as he’d tried to convey that his family’s quest for the real killer would be successful, but at least their search would keep them out of this cell for long stretches.  It would give him the solitude he needed to prepare his mind and heart for death, and it would comfort them, even if the quest failed, to know they had done all they could.

He wanted them near, though.  Pa and Little Joe, at least, he’d see more of, and he needed to.  Pa would give him the strength and courage he needed to face whatever the future brought, and Little Joe would take his thoughts off himself, for that boy needed help with the horrible load he was carrying, his help for as long as he could give it, and then, if worse came to worst, he’d have to trust that job to Pa and Hoss.

Hoss.  His best friend.  In a way he regretted that Hoss was the one sent to search Placerville.  He’d looked after his little brother from the time Inger had left them, and Adam often visualized the big man, not as the infant she’d placed in his arms, but as that altogether adorable tyke of two or three, when Adam had been most responsible for his care.  Somewhere along the line, though, they’d become equals.  He needed Hoss at his side for this final leg of the journey, but when he and his father had discussed how to organize the search, there’d been no question of whom to send further afield.  Hoss could handle himself alone; Little Joe, in his current state of mind, needed both the oversight of his father and the extra time with his big brother.  Still, Adam wished he could have seen Hoss one more time before he left.  A man needed his best friend when—he fell back onto the mattress.  Enough rumination.  It had been a long, hard day, even though it was little more than half over, and he was tired.  His eyes slowly closed.

**********

In their parlor at the International House, Little Joe was reading aloud entries from the city directory as his father made a list of menswear stores and tailors.  In these boom days of Virginia City, there were a surprising number of them, although it couldn’t begin to rival the number of saloons.  More diligent than he’d ever been with Miss Abigail’s assignments, Little Joe read through the listings and then had his father read back his list, while Joe double-checked, to make sure they didn’t miss a single possibility.  “That’s it,” he said, practically jumping to his feet.  “Let’s tear it in half and get after it!.”

“Let’s settle down a minute first,” his father said. “That’s not how we’re doing it.  We’re going together.”

“It’ll go faster if we split ‘em up,” Little Joe argued.

“We’re going together,” Ben repeated.

“You don’t trust me!” Little Joe spewed

“I want to see how you handle yourself,” his father said calmly, but firmly.

“I can handle myself just fine!”

Ben’s eyebrow rose at the shouted words, and Little Joe had to grace to flush at how little his declaration matched the manner in which he’d delivered it.  “I want to see how you handle yourself,” Ben reiterated with equal calm, but a measure’s more firmness.

“Yes, sir,” the boy muttered, deflated.

Ben smiled as he stood.  “All right, then.  We’ll start with the stores on Main Street.  I’ll do the talking at the first couple of places, and then I’ll let you try your hand.  We won’t visit many this afternoon, but if I like what I see, then we’ll split up tomorrow.  You can cover Gold Hill, while I finish up Virginia City, and then we’ll ride on to Carson afterwards.  Agreed?”

“Yes, sir.  I won’t disappoint you, Pa.”

Ben gave his son’s shoulder a couple of light taps.  “I know you won’t, son.”  Putting on their jackets, they headed out together.

**********

William Walcott paced the carpet of his parlor with strident steps.  “A week!” he protested.  “Why does that creature merit an extra week of life?  If he were anyone but a Cartwright, he’d be swinging by dawn!”

“We’ve waited so long, Father,” Walter said.  “What’s another week, when we’ve waited three years, almost four, already?  Let’s just savor it and anticipate the glory of the spectacle a week from now.”

His father paused and pondered, until a dark smile settled onto his features.  “You’re right, my boy; the judge was right.  This dish has been on ice for almost four years, but it needs one more week for the chill to seep into Adam Cartwright’s very bones.  Yes, let him dwell on death for the next seven days; let him feel the rope cinching tighter and tighter around his worthless neck, and then, when the final moment comes, let him taste to the full the wrath that is due him!”

 

**********

 

Little Joe dropped the carpetbag onto his bed in the room he and his father were sharing at Carson City’s Ormsby House.  Since they were traveling light, they also shared the carpetbag.  Even so, it wasn’t heavy, although from the droop of the young man’s shoulders anyone observing would have assumed it held a twenty-volume set of Encylopaedia Brittannica.

            Ben, who was observing, thought he knew why, but he only asked if his son would prefer to have supper at the Alcove Restaurant or the Antelope.

“I’m not really hungry, Pa,” Little Joe said.

“Nonetheless, you will eat,” his father stated firmly.  Then he said softly, “I know you’re disappointed, son.”

Little Joe’s head snapped up.  “Aren’t you?” he demanded.

“Not exactly,” Ben replied.  Seeing his son’s skeptical expression, he amplified, “Oh, I wish we’d already found what we’re looking for, just as you do, but I’m not surprised that we haven’t.  Our man would be a fool to make his purchases in a town where Adam himself does his shopping or even in Gold Hill.  The similarity might be recognized, and the last thing the killer would want would be some clerk or tailor asking, ‘Oh, you mean like the outfit Adam Cartwright wears?’”

“Yeah, I guess that would be pretty stupid,” Little Joe admitted, “but I reckon we had to check.  What about Carson?  It’s still fairly close to home, even if we don’t get here as much as we do Virginia.”

“It is,” Ben agreed, “but I’m hoping for the best.  If not, maybe Hoss will have better luck in Placerville.  Now, Alcove or Antelope?  If you have a preference, you’d better speak up, boy, or I’ll pick for you.”

“Fine by me,” Little Joe muttered.

“Alcove it is, then,” Ben said with forced brightness.  He put an arm around his son’s shoulders and steered him toward the door.

“You think that man would go any further than Placerville, Pa?” Little Joe asked anxiously.

“Possibly,” Ben admitted as they walked out.  It was the thought that had tormented him throughout this search.  The killer—and he fully believed it to be Walcott—could have gone to any town large enough to support a good tailor, but they couldn’t question everyone from here to the west coast.  There simply wasn’t time.  He could only hope that Walcott wouldn’t have felt it needful to go further than Placerville, although he’d have had more options in Sacramento.  And God forbid he’d gone as far as San Francisco.  In that event, all their hopes were dashed.

**********

Adam stood as Hiram Wood entered his cell.  “I received your message that you wished to see me,” the lawyer said.  “If it’s about your appeal, I’m afraid it’s bad news, Adam, at least in part.  While Judge Lawson was personally appalled by the way Mr. Klein dealt with your brother, he felt that it had no direct bearing on your guilt or innocence and that Little Joe had had ample opportunity to reverse his testimony in the jury’s hearing.  However, I took the liberty of telling him that we might have a lead to the man who framed you, and he agreed that if we were to bring forward new evidence on such a significant point, that he would entertain an appeal.  Any word from your father yet?”

Adam shrugged as he sat back down on his cot and gestured for Hiram to take a seat on the opposite one.  “Only that neither he nor Joe found any sign that the clothes or the money clip had been purchased here in Virginia City or Gold Hill; they’re in Carson City now.  That’s not why I sent for you, though.”

“Oh?”  The lawyer looked mildly surprised.  “Well, if there’s any other way I can assist you, my boy, you have only to ask.”

Adam moistened his lips.  “I need to make a will,” he said, “just in case.”

Wood sobered at once.  “Certainly,” he said softly.  “A wise move for a man of property in any case, and you do own some, even outside the Ponderosa, as I recall.”

Adam smiled.  “I don’t actually own any of the Ponderosa.  As you should recall, it’s all in my father’s name.  Although I know he considers that it belongs to all of us, he’s never transferred title of any part of it.”

Hiram gave an obligatory chuckle.  “Perhaps I should suggest he rectify that oversight.”

“Perhaps,” Adam agreed, “but in the current circumstance it simplifies matters.  My share of the Ponderosa will go to my father and my brothers without action on my part.”

“And that, I presume, is where you wish the bulk of your property to go?”

“Yes, the bulk,” Adam replied.  “I have some land adjoining the Ponderosa, and it can be added to the ranch itself and remain in Pa’s name, like the rest; I know he’ll treat my brothers fairly.  I’d like the title on my building on C Street, currently being rented by Grainger’s saddle shop, to go to Isaac Wentworth for the love and admiration I bear him.  I’ll leave my stocks to my father, to be sold or kept at his discretion.  He’s the one best equipped to manage them.”

Hiram chuckled.  “Goodness knows, Little Joe is not.”

Smiling softly, Adam nodded.  “Not yet, but don’t sell the kid short.  I have a feeling he might have just the sort of crafty mind well suited to stock manipulation, but let’s keep that to ourselves for a few years, shall we?”

Hiram laughed outright.  “That sounds wise, very wise, indeed!”

Adam’s expression grew more sober.  “I would like a special provision regarding the boy.”

Hiram sobered, too.  “Of course.”

“The remainder of my property in town is to be divided between my brothers, including my bank account.  Hoss’s share can go to him immediately; I know he’ll put it to good use.”

“You want Little Joe’s portion put into a trust, is that it?”

Adam’s smile returned.  “You’re very perceptive.  Yes, a trust, with this proviso:  if he wishes to use the money to further his education, he can have it at once, under my father’s supervision; otherwise, the funds are to be kept for him and invested wisely until he reaches the hopefully mature age of twenty-five.  In Joe’s case, I should probably make it fifty, but he might have forgotten my by then.”

“I doubt he’ll ever forget you, Adam,” Hiram said, his voice choking most unprofessionally as he added, “None of us will, son.”

“Thank you.”  Adam squared his shoulders.  “Now, as to my personal belongings. . . .”

**********

Hoss gave the door of the business a frustrated kick.  It was the last place on his list, and he’d been banging on the door for the last five minutes, but evidently the Closed sign hanging in the window meant what it said.  Doggone!  Now he’d have to wait overnight for this one last, slim hope of finding where someone had bought a jacket to match his brother Adam’s or, maybe, that monogrammed money clip.  From the looks of this place, chances were pretty poor of anyone coming here for something special like either one.

He kicked up dust as he moved down the street, headed for the café inside the El Dorado, where he was staying.  Placerville just plain wasn’t the right town to be looking in, and he guessed his pa and baby brother hadn’t had any better luck, ‘cause Pa’d said he would wire if they found anything.  He asked as soon as he got to the hotel, and just as he’d feared, there was still no telegram from his father. ‘Course, they probably weren’t through searching Carson City yet.

With slow, heavy steps he went into the dining room and ordered the 18-carat hash.  Only a quarter more than the low-grade, and it came mixed with corned beef and, on the side, your choice of dill pickles or poached eggs.  When it came, he put the eggs on top of the hash; he kind of liked the way the yolk ran over everything and made a sort of sauce, but tonight he did it by habit.  He didn’t have much appetite, but he knew from experience that he got cross as a grizzly and as easy set off as Little Joe when he didn’t eat regular.  He wondered idly if he ought to drag his little brother to the nearest eating place the next time he got contrary.  He’d teased him about it before, but it might be worth trying.

Then his mind moved on to more productive wondering.  Was there anything else he could try that might help Adam?  Placerville had been a dead bust for him.  Had it, maybe, been that for the feller lookin’ to frame Adam, too?  If it had, where would he have gone, instead?  The closest place of decent size was Sacramento, which, bein’ the state capitol, was bound to have more and better men’s shops and tailors.  It was, in fact, likely to have more than he had time to search.  As he polished off the last of his hash, however, Hoss knew that his chances would be better there than in that one last, piddly place here in Placerville.  He hurried up to his room to get his gear, checked out of the hotel and headed toward the livery to get his horse.  He’d be riding into the night, but he’d be in Sacramento by the time the stores opened tomorrow morning.

**********

Carrying a large, wrapped package, Isaac Worthington entered Adam’s cell.  “She intended this for you,” he said, “and I thought you might enjoy having it to keep you company while your family is away.”

Realizing from its shape what it had to be, Adam accepted it with shaking hands.  “Are you sure?” he asked.  “It’s her last work, and I wouldn’t want to deprive you of it, though I would greatly appreciate borrowing it a few days.”

“I have others,” Isaac said softly, “and this was meant for you.  I hope you are able to enjoy it for years to come, my boy, but if not, then I trust it will bring comfort to your family.”

“Thank you,” Adam said simply as he carefully untied the string and lifted away the paper to reveal a portrait of himself with the moonlit lake, surrounded by pines, behind him.  “She was good,” he whispered.  Though Rose had described herself as an amateur artist, she had obviously been deft with her brush, and the likeness of him that she had created seemed almost to breathe.  Looking up, he smiled at her father.  “My family will treasure it, always.”

 

Isaac nodded, pleased, but also concerned.  His family would treasure it, Adam had said, as if he had accepted that he would soon be unable to treasure it himself.  Did that mean he had given up hope?  As Isaac laid a fatherly hand on the young man’s shoulder, he prayed, as he had since the verdict came down, that the Cartwrights would soon return with the proof needed to raise all their hopes from the grave into which they were slowly falling.

**********

Two weary men dismounted before the jail in Virginia City and tied the reins of their horses to the hitching rail.  Little Joe, usually the liveliest member of any group, dallied over the job.  His father looked down at him from the boardwalk.  “Coming, son?” he asked.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Little Joe said.  He scuffed at the dirt with the toe of his boot.  “Just hate to give Adam the bad news, is all.”

“I’ll tell him,” Ben said.

Little Joe shook his head.  Didn’t Pa realize that it didn’t matter who did the talking?  All that mattered was that they’d failed; he’d failed.  He’d wanted so badly to be the one to make things right for his big brother, since he’d been the one to make things worse, but now Adam’s only hope was Hoss.

“We don’t have to stay long,” Ben said.  “I know you’re tired, but surely you want to see your brother, at least briefly.”

“Yes, sir, I do,” the young man said honestly.  “I just thought I could take our things down to the hotel, see if Hoss sent a wire and then come back and spend more time with Adam, maybe even bring him some good news.”

“Well, why don’t you do that, then?”  Ben chuckled with warm understanding.

Little Joe looked up, his face brightening.  “Yeah?  I’ll be back in two shakes, Pa!”

“Make it three, at least,” his father said with a half-scolding smile.  As the boy snatched up their shared carpetbag and trotted down the street, Ben shook his head.  If that wire weren’t there, and the odds said it wouldn’t be, Joe would probably come dragging back in more like ten thousand shakes than two.  He opened the door to the sheriff’s office and went inside.

Sheriff Coffee rose from behind his desk.  “How’d it go, Ben?” he asked at once.

Ben shook his head.  “We weren’t able to find anything, Roy.”

Roy nodded, glumly.  “Sorry to hear that.  Well, maybe Hoss,” he offered.

“Maybe,” Ben said, though his hope was a mere flicker at this point.

“I reckon you’ll want to see Adam, let him know how things stand,” Roy said, taking his key ring and moving toward the cell block.

“Yes.”  Ben had no more desire to give his oldest son the news of their failure than had Little Joe, but it had to be done, and a duty like that should be borne on a father’s broad shoulders.

As the two men approached his cell, though, Adam said, “You don’t need to say anything; I can see it in your faces.  Well, it was always a needle in a haystack.  Thanks for trying.”  His brow furrowed as he looked beyond the two men.  “Where’s Little Joe?”  His voice sharpened as he asked anxiously, “You didn’t leave him back in Carson, to go on looking, did you, or let him go on to Placerville to meet Hoss?  He shouldn’t be alone, Pa.”

“I know that.”  Ben didn’t have the heart to chide Adam for anything at present, but if the circumstances had been less dire, he might well have reminded his eldest just who was Joseph’s father and who was not.  “He ran down to the hotel to see if Hoss had sent word,” he explained.  Then he smiled wryly.  “He begged me to let him search Sacramento on his own, but I said no.”  He shook his head.  “Maybe we should have concentrated our efforts there in the first place.”  He’d wanted to give in to Little Joe’s pleas, but Adam had insisted that he needed them here, and Ben couldn’t deny him any request now.

Adam shrugged.  “Just a bigger haystack; the needle could’ve gotten lost there even more easily.”

“Which might be the point,” Ben argued.  “Getting further from Virginia City—probably smart—and goodness knows a man as rich as William Walcott could afford to go that far for his tailoring needs.”

Little Joe burst through the door into the cell block just in time to hear the last few words.  He stared at the others for a moment, and then as he came through the cell door that Roy had not yet shut, he asked, “What’s Mr. Walcott got to do with anything?”  Then it hit him.  “You think he’s the one, the one that framed Adam?”  He looked at Adam, then at his father and, finally, at Sheriff Coffee.  The looks on their faces told him all he needed to know.  “You knew,” he accused.  “You all knew and kept me in the dark!  How could you?”

“Joseph, we don’t know,” his father said urgently.  “We only suspect.  We could be wrong.”

“Oh, you’re not wrong!” Little Joe sputtered.  “We should’ve figured it out sooner.  Who else would hate Adam that much?”  He headed toward the door, but with quick thinking Roy slammed it shut and turned the key, locking him in.  “Let me out!” Little Joe yelled.

“And just where do you think you’re going, young man?” Ben demanded.

“To get Walcott, what else?” Little Joe snapped.  “I’ll kill him!”

Adam spun him around and shook him by the shoulders with fear-fueled force.  “No!  You will do nothing!  You hear me?  How can I face going to the gallows, knowing that my baby brother will follow me there?  Don’t you dare make me die with that weighing like lead in my heart!”

“Adam, Adam, stop,” Ben pleaded.

In sudden realization Adam released his brother and took a step back, breathing heavily.  “I—I’m sorry, Joe.  Did I hurt you?”

“No,” Little Joe said, though the way he was rubbing his neck gave lie to the word.

Adam reached out and took over the stroking.  “You can’t.  You understand?  You just can’t; you have to promise me you won’t, that you won’t even think about it.  I can’t bear it if . . if . . .”  His legs suddenly caved, and he would have fallen to his knees had Little Joe not grabbed him under his armpits and guided him to his cot.  Ben crouched at his side, resting a concerned hand on his thigh.

Little Joe sat beside his brother.  “Sorry, Adam.  Seems like I’m always making things harder for you.”

“Promise me,” Adam said, breath still coming in ragged gasps.

Eyes welling, Little Joe nodded.  “I promise, Adam.  I won’t do anything to his . . . but, well, I ain’t sure I can promise not to think about it, ‘cause I sure want him to pay for all he’s put you through.”

Adam uttered a harsh laugh.  “Well, that only proves we’re brothers: I want that, too, not for my sake, but for yours . . . and for Rose.”  The man who never lost control was hard put to stop the trembling of his lower lip.

“Make that three,” Ben said, “but we stay within the law, understood?”

“Glad to hear that!” Roy said.  “You gonna stay awhile, Ben?  I’m inclined to leave the young one in there, no matter what you do!”

“I’m inclined to let you,” Ben grunted, “but I guess I’ll take him with me.  We’re going to get settled back in the hotel and have some supper, Adam; then we’ll be back, hopefully for a calmer visit this evening.”  He suddenly noticed the envelope clutched in Little Joe’s hand.  “What’s that?  From Hoss?”  His voice rose in sudden excitement.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot.”  Little Joe flushed as he handed over the telegram.

Ben ripped it open, pulled out the wire itself and scanned the brief message.

“Good news?” Roy asked.

“Just news,” Ben answered.  Looking at his youngest, he said, “Hoss is doing what you wanted to; he’s gone on to Sacramento.”

“I knew it!  I knew we should’ve gone there!” Little Joe cried, springing to his feet.  “Good for Hoss!”

“Bigger haystack,” Adam said.  He seemed reluctant to get his hopes up, as if their falling again would make it harder to face what, in all likelihood, he would still have to.

“He’ll find it, Adam!” Little Joe insisted.

Adam smiled, solely for the boy’s benefit, and nodded.  “If he can.  I hope he knows when to quit, though; I’d like to see him again . . . before . . .”  He bit his tongue, lest he once again give way in front of his impressionable little brother and his sad-eyed father.

**********

“Your bag, sir?” the clerk at the hotel called to the Cartwrights as they entered and headed for the stairs.

Ben chuckled as Little Joe sheepishly went to take it.  He understood, though; he might have dropped everything and run, too, if he’d been handed a telegram from Hoss.  It wasn’t the good news that they had hoped for, but it kept hope alive, and for that Ben Cartwright was grateful.

Once they were in their suite, Little Joe set the carpetbag on the settee in the parlor.  “I’ll get my things out,” he said as he opened it, “and take the bag to your room.”

“No, take everything into your room,” Ben said.  “I’ll be sleeping there tonight.”

Little Joe stared at him.  “You really don’t trust me!” he said in the voice of an offended child.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Is there good reason I should?”

“No.”  The boy’s face fell, but in a moment the anger was back, though tempered by a strong dose of self-reproach.  “I gave Adam my word.”

“Did you mean it or were you just saying it for him?” Ben asked pointedly.

Little Joe ducked his head.  “I meant it . . . for Adam.  I won’t do that to him.”

“Not even . . . after?” Ben pressed.  “Adam isn’t the only one who would be hurt if you broke that promise, son.”

“It’s hard, Pa,” Little Joe said, swallowing hard, “and it’ll be even harder if that man’s scheming lies take my big brother from me.”

“Then let me help you,” Ben said, “and you help me, because I want to put my hands around that man’s throat every bit as much as you do.  Did it never occur to you, Joseph,  that I might prefer not to sleep alone?”

“We’ll share the room, then, just like we did in Carson,” Little Joe said, wrapping his arms around his father, “‘til Hoss gets back to watch over both of us.”

**********

Fog hovered low over C Street as Adam Cartwright, escorted by Sheriff Roy Coffee, walked steadfastly down it and with his assistance mounted the steps to the gallows.  Below him stood Ben Cartwright, struggling to maintain his composure, and his son Hoss, a pillar of strength.  Little Joe, feeling unworthy to stand beside them, stood off to the side as the citizens of Virginia City ranged behind the grieving group to watch the pageant.  In the front row stood William Walcott and his weak-willed son Walter.  Unlike the rest of the crowd, they were grinning, ear to ear, eager to see the man they blamed for the death of their loved one meet his fate.  As the noose was cinched around Adam’s neck, William cackled in satisfaction, and when nudged by his father’s elbow, Walter joined in the raucous sound echoing down the gray-cloaked street.

His visage grim, Adam raised his arm, his long finger pointing at the crowing pair, but then he let it slowly swing toward an equally deserving target.  Little Joe felt the stab of his brother’s sharp nail against his chest, and though Adam’s mouth never moved, he heard the message, loud and clear: keep your promise; do not make this harder for me than you have already done!  Then the trapdoor opened, and Adam was falling . . . falling, and his little brother was screaming . . . screaming, as he fell to earth alongside his brother and then, leaving Adam on its dusty surface, continued to fall . . . down . . . down . . . down to the level of hell reserved for traitors, still screaming . . . screaming . . .

“Joseph!  Joseph!”  Ben Cartwright’s voice seemed far away, barely audible.  “Wake up, son!”

“Wha . . . ?”  Little Joe struggled in the tangle of damp sheets.

“Wake up, son,” Ben said urgently.  “Easy, boy.  You’re dreaming; time to wake up.”  He stroked the sweat-soaked curls until he saw his son’s eyes begin to focus.  “Nightmare?  Bad one?”

Still panting, Little Joe nodded.

“Want to talk about it?”

The boy shook his head adamantly.

“You sure?  It might help.”

Little Joe still couldn’t talk, but he shook his head again, even more forcefully.  Would it help him to talk?  Probably, but not for all the silver in the depths of Sun Mountain would he put those gruesome images in his father’s mind.  As the Adam of his dream had charged, he’d done enough harm already, and while he knew full well that the Adam of the real world had never and would never blame him, it didn’t help in the least.  He clung to his father, drawing strength from the sound of his heartbeat, thumping away in his chest with a love as strong as ever, whether a fellow deserved it or not.  Finally, he was able to raise his head, and he asked with a wry smile, “Still want to share a room with me?”

Ben pulled him closer.  “More than ever.”

**********

Adam Cartwright had never been as subject to nightmares as his youngest brother.  He was more given to sleepless nights when he was troubled, and he was definitely troubled this night.  His mathematical mind could calculate the odds against him, and the odds said he had only a couple of days to live.  He’d made what preparations he could, at least in terms of material bequests, and he’d made his peace with his Creator.  What remained was concern for those he would leave behind.  He’d seen the haggard cast to his father’s countenance and feared the toll his death might take on a man of his father’s years.

There’d been no missing, of course, the interwoven knot of emotions on Little Joe’s expressive face.  Guilt, fear, shame, anger—all swirling inside with the force of the hurricanes Pa used to describe from his years at sea.  Adam would do all he could to counteract it, to still the storm in the time he had left, but ultimately that responsibility would have to be relinquished to Pa and to Hoss.

Hoss—how he longed to see Hoss!  He didn’t need to see him, though, to know exactly what that big heart was feeling.  He knew Hoss through and through, just as Hoss knew him, and he thought that even in heaven he’d miss the instant empathy and comradeship that he shared with no one else.  Hurry back, Hoss, he prayed as he stood, staring out at the night sky through the barred window, Good news or bad, hurry back.

**********

Snorting his disdain, Hoss came out of the little hole-in-the-wall tailor’s shop.  He should’ve known better.  A place like this hardly knew the meaning of “special order,” much less ever did one.  He looked down at the list in his hand and wondered where to try next.  All morning he’d been making his way down J Street, stopping in every store and tailor’s shop he came to, but he wasn’t making any more headway here than he had in Placerville, and there were more places left than he had time available to check.  If he had any hope of getting back in time, he’d need to leave this evening, so he couldn’t waste time trying places that had no chance of being the one he needed.  But which one was?  He scratched his head and then shook it, side to side; he still had no idea which way to go.  Looking up at the cloudless sky above, he pleaded, “You gotta help me, God; I got no idea where to look, so you got to show me or else I ain’t gonna have a big brother no more.”

He gulped down the lump rising in his throat and continued to look skyward, but he just couldn’t hear whatever God might be saying.  Having no better idea, he shrugged his shoulders and headed down the street toward the next place on his list.  He hadn’t gone more than a few steps, however, before he stopped.  No, he’d been right before; he wasn’t getting anywhere that way; he needed to skip places like the one he’d just been and find ones more likely to take special orders.  The man who planned all this had to have money if he’d come this far for a coat, so he could skip all the cheap shops and visit only the ones likely to attract a man of means.  Maybe it was God, after all, putting the notion in his head, but he stopped the next well-dressed man he saw on the street and asked him where he had his tailoring done.  And if that one didn’t work out, he’d do the same again, until he found the right one.  Adam was counting on him, and he wouldn’t quit until the stores all closed and he was forced to give up and ride back to Virginia City, empty-handed.

**********

Little Joe was driving everyone crazy.  Well, Ben and Adam seemed to be handling it well enough, with the fond tolerance that only family could muster, Roy Coffee had to admit, but he was getting pretty aggravated with being called to let the boy out of his brother’s cell what seemed like every few minutes.  The fiddle-footed youngun just had to trot down to the hotel or telegraph office every little bit to see if that all-important wire from Hoss had come yet, but he couldn’t bear bein’ away from Adam for long, either, so back he’d drag, so long-faced it was a wonder he didn’t trip over his own

chin, only to repeat the whole thing all over again the minute Roy got busy with something else.  After about the fourth time that morning, the sheriff had had enough.  “Look,” he said, “I’ll come back here every hour, on the hour, and let you out to go wherever you want, but that’s it.  Believe it or not, I do have more to do than jump up and come runnin’ every time Little Joe Cartwright quirks his twitchy finger!”

“I apologize, Roy,” Ben said.  “We can sit on him if you need us to.”

“You sure about that?” Roy asked with a scoffing chuckle.  “I reckon it’s better this way, but you do need to slow down a mite, young fellow.  I’m about half wore out, and it ain’t even noon yet.”

“Sorry,” Little Joe said sheepishly.  As the sheriff began to walk away, however, he called out, “How long ‘til next time?”

**********

The sun was beginning to dip, and Hoss still hadn’t found the miracle he’d prayed for.  He might have time to try one more place, but he’d have to hurry.  Then, one way or the other, he’d have to ride—long and hard—to get back to Virginia City before it was too late.  As he approached the tailor’s shop, however, he saw the sign being turned from Open to Closed.  No!  He wouldn’t be deterred, though, not when it was Adam’s last chance.  Pounding on the door with his doubled fist, he yelled loud enough to turn heads on the street and possibly even wake the dead.  “Open up!” he hollered.  “It’s a matter of life and death!”

At first there was no response, but Hoss kept up the ruckus until the door finally opened, and the glaring proprietor demanded, “How can a suit of clothes possibly be a matter of life and death, mister?”

“I can explain,” Hoss said as he pushed into the shop.

**********

As Little Joe turned away from the desk clerk at the hotel, his father noticed the taut lips, the quiver of the cheek, the rapid steps toward the stairs.  He started to call out to his son, to remind him that they had been headed to dinner; then he checked himself and turned toward the desk clerk, instead.  “Tom, I believe we’ll have dinner in our suite tonight,” he said.

“Very good, sir,” Tom said.  “What shall I have them bring you?”

“Oh, whatever’s available,” Ben replied.  “If Martha is working tonight, she knows our taste well enough to select for us.  Two plate dinners and two pieces of pie, apple if you have it.  Half an hour or so will be fine.”

“Martha is here tonight; I’ll tell her right away,” Tom promised, his sympathetic eyes following Mr. Cartwright as he mounted the stairs.

Opening the door to their suite, Ben saw his youngest son sprawled disconsolately on the settee.

“Thought you were going straight to dinner,” Little Joe said.

Ben’s eyebrow lifted slightly.  “I thought you were, too,” he said pointedly.

The boy shook his head.  “I’m not hungry.”

“Joe,” his father started to chide.

“Don’t,” Little Joe interrupted to say.

“Don’t?”

“Don’t try to convince me it’ll all be all right.”

“It’s not time to give up yet,” Ben said.  “Hoss is still looking, son.”

Little Joe pulled to his feet and faced his father, his youthful features hardening.  “I’m not stupid, Pa; I can count the hours . . . and I know how long it takes to ride here from Sacramento.  Adam hangs day after tomorrow, and if Hoss is gonna get back in time, he’d need to have left by now.”

“Maybe he has,” Ben suggested.

Little Joe rolled his eyes.  “He was supposed to wire if he found anything, right, just like we were supposed to do for him?”

“Yes,” Ben said softly.

“He hasn’t wired, so that means he didn’t find anything,” Little Joe charged.

“It does suggest that,” Ben admitted.

“It suggests my brother is gonna die!” Little Joe cried.

He didn’t add, “And it’s all my fault,” but Ben knew he was thinking it and quickly wrapped his arms around his son, both giving and taking comfort in the embrace.  He could count the hours, too.

**********

The incessant pounding felt like a railroad spike being driven through the brain or, perhaps, through the soul, if your name happened to be Cartwright.  Every nail pounded into the gallows was a reminder that Adam would die tomorrow, and there was nothing anyone who loved him could do to stop it.  The only one who could was Hoss, and there’d been no word from him since the telegram stating his intention to go to Sacramento.

Sheriff Roy Coffee had seen a lot of families face the death of an incarcerated member, and they ran the gamut of human emotion.  Some wept without hope, in most cases with good reason, for the men concerned were guilty beyond doubt; others yelled their anger and frustration for a life gone bad.  Some didn’t give a hoot and let their—well, it seemed wrong to say loved one with folks who didn’t even have enough feeling to hate, folks who just plain didn’t care and let their guilty-as-sin relative die without a word of comfort.  Thankfully, there hadn’t been many of those.

Just as thankfully, there hadn’t been many like the Cartwrights, families facing the loss of someone they loved and knew to be innocent.  That’s when the mothers’ tears flowed like rivers and the fathers reacted with shouts of anger and even threats of revenge if their boys were put to death.  The Cartwrights, though, beat all with the way they’d run the gamut all by themselves: anger, grief, love and support, even spurts of laughter here and there as some childhood memory or other was brought out for airing in the light of mature reflection.

Roy had seen them in despair, and he’d seen their spirits rise with hope when they’d come to realize who was behind their tragedy and how to go about proving it.  He believed what they’d outlined to him, but unless he got proof and the judge called a halt to the proceedings, he’d have to lead young Adam to the gallows tomorrow.  Judge Lawson hadn’t specified a time, though, so Sheriff Coffee had exercised his own discretion and set the execution for sunset, instead of the more traditional sunrise.  Let the citizens wait for their gory drama to play out; Roy intended to give Hoss every possible chance to make it back in time to save his brother’s life, and he hoped and prayed the big man would succeed.

**********

The final day dawned, as gray and overcast as it had been in all of Little Joe’s nightmares, and he couldn’t shake the idea that it would end the way all of them had, too, with him screaming his head off as his brother fell through a trap door.  There was none of the fog that usually saturated the streets of his dream, but he felt like he was walking through a gray haze, nonetheless, as he and  his father made their way to the jail.  The fog wasn’t in the atmosphere, though; he carried it with him, in his mind and in his heart.  Hard to think or feel through the haze, he thought, but maybe that was the point; otherwise, it would all be just too much to bear.

Adam looked calm when they entered his cell, but then he always did.  Little Joe thought that was the thing he’d remember most about his big brother, how calm he’d always stayed in any crisis, even when he was facing Death itself.  He vowed that he’d spend his life trying to live up to that example, failing most of the time, he was sure, but still better for having made the effort to be like Adam.

Adam stood as they entered the cell block, and he reached for both father and brother as soon as Roy unlocked the barred door.  “I’m glad you came early,” he said.  “I want to spend as much time as I can with you both today.”  He looked toward his young brother and added, “If you think you can stand it in here, that is.”

“I can stand it,” Little Joe said softly.  A flush of shame deepened his color as he recalled how fearful he’d been of the prosecutor’s threat of prison if he didn’t testify against Adam; now he was sure he could face a lifetime behind bars if it just meant that his big brother would live.  He couldn’t afford to think of things like that now, though; he had to be strong for Adam.

Time dragged by, though they spent it sharing memories of happier times.  Finally, Adam looked up and said with a teasing smile, “Isn’t it about time for you to trot off and see if there’s a telegram from Hoss yet?”

“If you want,” Little Joe said flatly.

A line of concern furrowed Adam’s forehead.  “I’d like to know,” he said gently, “if it’s not too much trouble.”

“Nothing’s too much trouble, Adam,” Little Joe assured him.  He stood and hollered for Roy.

Roy came in with the key and a grin.  “Been wonderin’ how long you could hold out, boy.”  As he unlocked the cell, he said, “No more than once an hour, though, same as before.”

“Whatever,” Little Joe muttered and walked out with none of the hopeful spring in his step that had been there just the day before.

Adam arched an inquiring eyebrow at his father.

“He’s given up,” Ben admitted.

Adam nodded.  “I suppose I have, too, if I’m honest.  It seems unlikely that Hoss found what he was looking for, but I do hope he makes it back in time for me to have a few minutes with him.  If not, I need you to give him a message from me.”

“Of course, son.  Anything.”

“Tell him”—his voice choked—“Tell him to look after little buddy for me; he’s going to take this hard.”

We all are, Ben thought, but what he said aloud was, “I’ll tell him, and I’ll look after your little buddy, too; he’ll be all right; we all will, son.”

“You’d better be,” Adam said.  “That’s all that matters now, Pa—him and Hoss and you.  As long as I know you’re all right, I will be, too.”

Ben grasped his hand and squeezed it firmly, imparting what little strength he felt he had left to give.  Then, taking advantage of Little Joe’s absence and the absence of their need to be strong for him, father and son rested in each other’s embrace, and their two hearts throbbed as one.

**********

Shaking his head, Hoss led his limping horse by the reins.  Doggone it all, he’d known better than to push a horse like that, but Chubby had ridden his heart out, seeming to understand his master’s need for speed.  He’d been making good time, too, until the exhausted animal had lost his footing when he raced through that last creek.  One slip and now he was forced to walk, in deference to his horse’s need.  It had slowed him down considerable, but now, at last, he was only a few miles outside Genoa.  He’d have to keep on babying poor ole Chub those few miles, but he was sure he could find a fresh mount in town and be on his way again.

Would the delay make him too late?  No way to know, since he had no idea what time the hanging had been set for.  If it had been dawn, he was already late, and he’d grieve over it forever.  Roy knew what they were trying to do, though, and was in full sympathy with it.  At times like this it paid to be best friends with the local law, and Hoss figured he could count on Roy to stall that hanging as long as he could.  He’d still need to push hard, though, ‘cause he was sure anxious to see his big brother before . . . well, before he couldn’t.

**********

When Ben and Little Joe returned from lunch at Daisy’s Café, they saw Isaac Worthington sitting in the cell with Adam.  “Isaac,” Ben said as Roy unlocked the door.  “How good of you to come.”  As soon as he was able, he grasped the man’s hand.

“I only wish there were something more I could do,” Isaac said.

“Wanna help us stage a jailbreak?” Little Joe, still outside the bars, suggested with a cocky grin at the sheriff.  Personally, he didn’t think it was a half-bad idea, maybe the only one left to them, but Adam had nixed it when he’d hinted at it the day before.

“Hey, now, don’t let me hear no more of that kind of nonsense,” Roy Coffee snorted, cuffing the boy’s ear.  “You goin’ in or stayin’ out?  I can’t stand here, holdin’ this door all afternoon.”

“Stayin’ out, I reckon.”  In response to his father’s quizzical look, he said, “I’ll be back; I just want to walk off that heavy lunch we had.”

“By all means,” his father said, knowing full well that neither he nor his youngest son had done more than nibble at the excellent plates of food Daisy had brought them.  If Little Joe felt the need to be alone for a while, though, he had no objection.  The boy had faithfully sat with his brother for hours on end since their return from Carson City, and it had to be hard on a young fellow as energetic as Joe to do nothing but sit.  Besides, it would give him and Isaac a chance to speak more freely with Adam.  Then Ben smiled softly, as he realized that that was exactly the reason Little Joe was leaving.  That boy had done some significant growing up in the last few days.

Leaving the jail, Little Joe walked aimlessly up the street.  He had no destination and no real direction, either.  Perhaps from habit, he was headed toward the telegraph office, so he figured he might as well check one more time, but he was pretty sure there’d be nothing there.  Hoss could count the hours, same as him and Pa, so surely he knew when to stop looking for that needle in a haystack, as Adam called it, and get on home while he still had a chance of seeing his big brother alive.

A shiver went up his spine as he suddenly wondered whether something had happened to Hoss.  Folks, the Walcotts being the only ones that mattered, must surely have noticed and thought it odd that all three of the other Cartwrights had left town as soon as Adam was sentenced.  If the Walcotts suspected that he and Pa and Hoss were on the hunt for evidence of the frame-up they’d engineered, what wouldn’t they do to stop them and make sure the law took their revenge on Adam?  Stop it! Little Joe told himself as the image of his big brother lying somewhere with a bullet in his back pierced his brain.  Ain’t you got enough to fret over, without adding in the murder of another brother?  It had better not be true, though, ‘cause if the Walcotts killed Hoss, too, there was no way the surviving Cartwright brother would be able to keep his promise to Adam.  There’d be another death, maybe two, and then another hanging, for sure.

As he’d expected, there was no telegram from Hoss, so Little Joe reluctantly headed back toward the jail.  He hated not being with his brother, but he’d thought the two fathers might need some private time with Adam, and he probably needed any strength he could draw from them, too.  Goodness knows, Joe had none to give.  He only hoped he could keep from collapsing himself until Adam had passed in peace—well, as much peace as a man ever found at the end of a rope.  Not eating and not sleeping was taking its toll on  him.  Pa seemed to be doing okay, but maybe “seemed” was all it was, just Pa being strong for Adam and, though Joe hated to admit it, for him, too.

His ears began to pick up bits and pieces of conversation that quickly hushed when he drew near.  One group of miners he passed didn’t bother lowering their voices, and he clearly heard their complaints about the late hour set for the hanging and how they’d have to either miss it or their shift that evening.  “High and mighty Cartwrights gets their way, as usual, ‘pears to me,” one of them opined, speaking louder, apparently for Little Joe’s benefit.

The men were bad enough, but the whispers of the ladies were worse.  Their gossipy speculations pondered momentous questions like why Hoss Cartwright hadn’t shown his face for days.  One, more sympathetic than the others, murmured that he probably couldn’t bear to see his brother die.  “You’d think a big man like that would hold up better,” another observed.  “Why even the young one is here, standing by Adam!”

“Maybe he’s lookin’ forward to seein’ his brother swing,” a rougher voiced woman grunted, “after the way he testified agin him.”

Little Joe quickened his steps.  Whether Pa and Mr. Worthington were through imparting their wisdom to Adam or not, they were just going to have to put up with his company, ‘cause he couldn’t take a minute’s more of what was being said on the street.

**********

Though Hoss pushed the horse he’d rented at the livery, the animal didn’t have Chub’s mettle, and he couldn’t seem to eat up the miles fast enough.  Hoss hadn’t even taken time to buy a hunk of jerky at the general store in Genoa, despite his stomach’s being so empty it had begun to gnaw on itself like a half-famished wolf on a downed calf.  Food didn’t matter; time did, and he’d spared every minute he could, even ones he probably shouldn’t have.

He knew he should have wired Pa, but he’d been in such a rush to leave Sacramento that he’d plumb forgot, and by the time he went through Placerville, the town, including the telegraph office, was shut up for the night.  He’d ridden night and day since then, pounding away at the miles and not giving a single thought to letting anyone know he was on his way until he’d been forced to stop long enough to breathe in Genoa.  By then, it didn’t seem important; he’d just ride on and make his apologies once he got there.  Not that any of ‘em would give a fig for apologies by then.

Of necessity, he slowed down as he started the climbing road up to Gold Hill.  Not long now.  Just a few more miles, and he’d be walking into the jail, eager to see his brother . . . if he still could.

**********

The conversation in the jail cell had grown subdued.  Stories had been told and retold; words of love and assurance exchanged.  The minister had come to offer counsel and comfort to the man facing eternity, and while Adam had appreciated them, he’d assured Reverend Holmes that he was ready and there was no need for him to stay.  After saying a prayer with the family, the man had left, promising that he’d return at the appointed time, in case he was needed.  Much as he respected the good pastor, Little Joe was pretty sure they’d be more in need of a doctor by then, for he figured both he and Pa might just keel over, once they no longer needed to support Adam.  Isaac had gone, too, about half an hour before the minister came, with the same promise to be there to lend his support at the final hour.  And there was still no word from the one they longed most to be with them when that time came.

**********

Reining up before the sheriff’s office, Hoss cast a grim eye at the scaffold standing in the street.  He dismounted, looped the reins around the hitching post and, ignoring some galut’s hoot of “‘Bout time,” walked quickly inside.

“At last,” Roy said, rising from his desk.

“Is he?”  Hoss couldn’t get the rest out.

Roy understood.  “He’s all right, son.”

“Let me in,” Hoss ordered, and much as Roy wanted to ask questions, he did as he was told without another word.

Everyone in the cell came to his feet when Hoss walked in, and there was no missing the relief on Adam’s face.  “You made it back,” he whispered.  “Thank God.”

“Are you all right, son?” Ben asked, noting the worn sag of the usually cherub-chubby cheeks.

Little Joe thrust aside both comment and question, viewing them as far less important than the question uppermost in his own mind.  “Did you find anything?” he asked urgently.

“Yup,” Hoss announced, a note of pride in his voice.  “Wasn’t easy, but I can tell you just who’s behind it all . . . and you ain’t never gonna guess who it is.”

“William Walcott,” said all three Cartwrights inside the cell.

Sheriff Coffee had the door unlocked by then, but Hoss was too stunned to move.  “No,” he finally said, head cocking, “but you ain’t far off the mark.  It’s his boy, Walter.”

“How do you know?”

Before Hoss had time to answer the sheriff, his father asked urgently, “Can you prove it?”

“I’d say so,” Hoss said, reaching into his vest pocket and pulling out a slip of paper, which he handed to the sheriff.  “That’s an order form for a yellow coat, and the feller that made it gave me a swatch of the fabric; it’s a dead ringer for Adam’s jacket.”

“Doggone,” Roy said, reading the order.  “The fool up and signed his own name to it.”

“And then there’s this,” Hoss said, handing the sheriff another piece of paper.

Roy grinned as he scanned the few lines and then handed it to Ben.  Adam and Little Joe crowded close to read over their father’s shoulders, and big smiles spread from face to face.

“Will it be enough?” Adam asked.

“To get a new trial?  It should be,” Roy said.  “I’m gonna take this over to Hiram Wood, and then we’ll show it to Judge Lawson and see what he has to say.”  He started to leave and then realized he hadn’t locked the cell door.  “Sorry,” he said, coming back.  “I still gotta do this, even knowin’ what I do.  In or out, Hoss?”

“In,” the big man said, stepping through the door to enfold his big brother in his strong arms.

**********

In response to Judge Lawson’s unofficial summons, every party to the case of the people versus Adam Cartwright was crowded into the judge’s chambers: the defendant himself, his father and both brothers, as well as the prosecutor, Mortimer Klein, defense counsel Hiram Wood and, in charge of the prisoner, Sheriff Roy Coffee.  There were not seats enough for all of them, but one had been given to Ben, in respect to his age, and the other to Adam, in appreciation of the stress he had been under in these final few hours before he was scheduled to hang.  The others ranged behind the seated pair, with the prosecutor standing off to the side, apart from the defendant’s supporters, among whom Mortimer Klein included Sheriff Coffee.

“Thank you for meeting with me so promptly, gentlemen,” Judge Lawson said.  “Now, I presume, with the exception of Mr. Klein, you all know why we’re here.”  Seeing the brightness in every set of Cartwright eyes, he had no doubt, but he waited to see each one of them nod before continuing.  Facing the prosecutor, he explained, “Some new evidence has come into my possession that may alter our perceptions of the events of that gruesome night.”

“Your honor,” Klein protested, “this case is closed.  The jury has returned a verdict; sentence has been passed.”

“Indeed,” the judge said, “but not yet carried out.  Now, my question to you, Mr. Prosecutor, is do you want to chalk up a win or do you want justice?”

“Justice!” Klein said sharply.  “I have never wanted anything but justice for that young woman, your honor, and I think you know that.”

“I know that, as well, Mort,” Hiram Wood said sincerely.

“Then take a look at this and tell me what you think,” the judge said, handing over the signed order for the yellow jacket.

As Mortimer Klein took the order and read its description of the jacket desired, his brow furrowed.  He was always suspicious of eleventh-hour evidence, but if this were legitimate, he would, for once, be grateful that a miscarriage of justice had been prevented, eleventh hour or not.  He fingered the swatch of material next handed to him, but that, in itself, proved nothing; it could have been picked up anywhere, at any time.  The signed order, if it were genuine, was of far greater significance.  “How did you obtain this?” he asked the judge.

“From Sheriff Coffee,” the judge answered, “and you, Sheriff?”

“I got it from Hoss,” Roy replied.

“And I got it direct from the tailor in Sacramento,” Hoss said, not waiting to be asked.  He reached into his pocket and drew out another slip of paper.  “I reckon I should’ve handed this over sooner, sir—uh, your honor.  It’s from the tailor, tells how he’s done work for the Walcotts for years, so he knew the man on sight and swears it was really him that done the orderin’.”

“And you had the presence of mind to get him to authenticate the order?” the judge asked, impressed.

“I’d’ve slung him over my saddle and brung the man himself,” Hoss declared, “if I hadn’t figured he’d slow me down.”  A few smiles and a hearty clap on the back from his little brother met this remark.

“Both the order and the authenticating note could be forged,” Klein suggested, almost in reflex, with little vigor.

“The tailor himself could be presented at a later date,” Wood argued, “and there is more.”

“I’ve also been presented a letter from a Mr. Whittier of Sacramento, California,” Judge Lawson told the prosecutor, as he handed him another sheet of paper, “who states that he sold a monogrammed money clip to a man identified to him as Walter Walcott.  May I ask how you got hold of this, young man.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said.  “While I was talkin’ to the tailor, Mr. Bernstein, he mentioned that Mr. Walcott had asked him where he might get a monogrammed money clip, and he told him about this Mr. Whittier.  Then Mr. Bernstein took me to the man hisself and convinced him to talk to me, even though he was already closed up, and he remembered the fellow and what he ordered and wrote it all down for me, and—well, there it is.”

“Surely, your honor, this is enough to obtain a stay of execution and provide justification for a new trial,” Hiram Wood suggested.

Every man held his breath as the judge leaned back in his chair and appeared to be mulling over the request.  After an eternity of less than a minute, he sat forward and said, decisively, “No.  No new trial.’

“But your honor,” Wood began to protest, but stopped when Judge Lawson raised his hand.

“No reason to put us all through a new trial,” the judge said.  “A lot easier on everyone if I just vacate the verdict, don’t you think?”

“I concur, your honor,” Mortimer Klein said, looking honestly relieved, as did everyone in the room except the two youngest.

Before anyone else could say anything, Little Joe burst out, “Well, I don’t!”  He figured that anything the prosecutor agreed to had to be bad for Adam.  “The order form and those notes prove someone tried to frame my brother and . . .”

“Joe, hush,” his oldest brother said.

“No, Adam!  If he don’t give you that new trial, you’re gonna hang!”

“Where’s my gavel when I need it?” the judge growled, giving his desk a solid thump with his doubled fist.  “Sit down, young man!”  Then, remembering that there was no chair available, he waved aside his own order and, instead, rubbed his aching temple.  “Is he always this hard-headed?” he asked Ben Cartwright.

“Frequently,” Ben said with a rebuking glare at his youngest.

“You got my sympathies,” the judge said.  Then he turned toward Little Joe.  “Now, hold your tongue and listen a minute, young fellow,” he ordered.  “Do you know what vacate means or do I need to take Miss Jones to task?”

Little Joe started to respond in defense of his teacher, but remembering the judge’s admonishment to hold his tongue, he shut his mouth quickly.

Realizing what was happening, the judge chuckled.  “You can answer questions.”

“Vacate?”  Little Joe shrugged.  “It means to leave, don’t it?  To get out of a place?”

“Yes,” the judge drawled.  “So if I vacate a verdict, then I . . . ?”

“Get . . . out of it?” Little Joe said slowly.

“Precisely.  Your brother doesn’t need a new trial because I am going to vacate or overturn the jury’s verdict and declare him not guilty myself.  Now do you understand?”

Not only Little Joe’s countenance, but Hoss’s, as well, cleared, and relieved smiles replaced the taut lines that had etched their faces for days.

“For goodness sakes, Roy, take those handcuffs off,” the judge ordered, and Roy was quick to comply.  “Mr. Cartwright,” Lawson said, addressing Adam, “My sincerest apologies on behalf of the court.  Had I personally been on the jury, I would have voted for acquittal to begin with, on the basis of reasonable doubt; however, that’s not enough to overturn a jury’s verdict.  In my opinion, this is.”  He indicated the papers still in the prosecutor’s possession.

“In mine, as well,” Klein said.  “I offer my apology, too, and hope you can believe that I only, ever, wanted justice.”

“I do believe you,” Adam said, extending his newly freed hand to the man, “and I trust you will be equally diligent in seeking it against those two.”  He nodded toward the papers Klein was holding.

“Two?” Klein asked.  “There’s only one name here, Adam.”

“I can assure you that Walter Walcott does not have the intelligence to conceive a scheme like this, much less the grit to carry it out,” Adam said.  “This has his father’s finger marks all over it, especially his heavy thumb.”  Walter Walcott, as he’d once told Rose, had always been under his father’s thumb.

“That may be,” the judge interrupted to say, “but on the basis of the evidence presented, I can only justify a warrant against the son at this time.  Anything beyond that you need to leave to the law now, son.”

“I intend to,” Adam assured him.

“Good.  Now, you’re free to go, but if you’ll take a word of advice, young man,” the judge continued, “you’ll go on back to the jail and stay there, as a guest only, until the sheriff can arrest Mr. Walcott and until word spreads around town of what’s happened here.  Otherwise, you might not make it back to the Ponderosa alive.”

With a wry grin, Adam nodded.  “Tired as I am of Roy’s company, I believe I’ll take that advice, your honor.”

**********

Adam stood beside Isaac Worthington, with the other Cartwrights forming a semi-circle around them before Rose’s grave.  Too long deprived of the comfort of visiting her here, Adam had insisted on making this one stop before returning home.  The day, which had started as gray and overcast as the day on which Emily Walcott had been buried, had cleared beautifully and now seemed as hopeful as the future that stretched before them.

Emily’s father and brother both now stood charged of murder, for although William had disavowed all knowledge of his son’s crime, Walter had, with pluckiness altogether alien to him, refused to take the fall alone.  “It was all his idea, his orders,” he’d blurted out to the sheriff when presented with the warrant for his arrest, and Roy had taken William into custody, as well, on a charge of suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder; he didn’t think he’d have a lick of trouble getting a formal warrant from Judge Lawson, based on the son’s accusation.

“You fool!” Walter’s father had growled as they were herded to the jail.  “You used our own tailor for an order that you knew had to be kept secret?”

The bickering pair were still trading accusations through the bars of their adjoining cells when Adam and his family left the jail behind and met up with Isaac for the trip to the graveyard, where they now stood.  Some families faced crisis, standing side by side, arms linked, Adam realized; others shattered, slicing everyone around them with the broken shards.  In that moment he determined that he would never tarnish Rose’s memory by becoming a Walcott; in her honor he would remain what she could now never become: a Cartwright.  One with a wounded heart, but it would be a heart held free of the canker of unforgiveness for her sweet sake.

Unforgiveness, he concluded, was what had shrouded the hearts of the Walcotts in an icy coffin called Revenge.  A dish best served cold, people said, but Adam would draw his inspiration from another source.  “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,’” Ben Cartwright had quoted, trying to give his son comfort when all appeared lost.  “Leave it in God’s hands and those of the law,” he had advised, and having seen the final end of the Walcott way, Adam deliberately chose the path his father and God Almighty had directed.

Tears filled his eyes as he took his final farewell—for that day, at least—of his sweetheart.  Grief would hover near for a long time, he felt certain, but someday his little Rosebud would share that warm place in his heart where Emily still dwelled.  It would take time, but unlike the Walcotts, he had a family whose strength could be relied upon to get him through it.  As he turned from the grave, he grasped his youngest brother by the nape of the neck and pulled him into a one-armed embrace because Little Joe still needed reassurance that all was well again between them, and because it was in giving, as well as taking comfort that a family’s true strength was found.

 

The End

© October, 2017

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55 thoughts on “A Dish Best Served (by Puchi Ann)”

  1. Just brilliant! You gave us a little teaser during the Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament and then fleshed it out into a wonderful story. It had me on the edge of my seat. You sure know your courtroom! I tried researching wild west courtrooms for a story I wrote and found it quite hard getting any decent information. In the end I used the series as my source! I could visualise everything that was going on, hear the voices, see the judge and the jury. I also liked how Joe had a bigger part to play in your extended story. I’ll definitely be reading this one again.

    1. Thank you so much for this encouraging review! As you can imagine, I was happy to give Joe a bigger part! To see your plan for a second read is a high compliment, and I thank you.

  2. Finally found time to devote to reading your story. Began from the beginning and…. the rest of the story did not disappoint.

    Wow! As a side note, I might need to send you the bill I receive from my manicurist later today. What a nail biter.

    1. Skip the manicurist. I understand that nibbled nails is the new “in” look for autumn. 🙂
      So glad that you were able to finish the story and that you enjoyed it.

  3. I was so happy to see you had a new story, and I wasn’t disappointed. Rose was a great character, and I was hoping that this time things would work out for Adam. Then you had me on the edge of my chair. I look forward to Part 2.

    1. Perhaps earlier reviews, written when only Part 1 was available, have confused you, but this is the entire story. I’m glad that you enjoyed Rose as a character and that I was able to keep you in suspense. 🙂 Thanks for letting me know.

  4. So, I started this yesterday … and got distracted from my own writing, and my BoNaNo research, and from going to bed … 😛

    This was really suspenseful. I’ll admit that when I begin stories about revenge against any of the Cartwrights I’m always somewhat concerned it’s going to turn into a torture story — they’re not my favorite, and I don’t tend to stick them out. I was ready to back out if necessary (although reluctantly, since I do love your writing). I was riveted, however, by this courtroom drama. I had to know what happened next! Enjoyed the Adam and Joe interaction, and the big part played by my boy Hoss in the finale. I was glad of the judge’s final decision, for everyone’s sanity. (I also feel like Klein got off easy, with the matter of frightening and badgering an underage witness, but it’s the Cartwrights’ way to be very forgiving about that kind of thing …)

    Thanks as always for a wonderful tale!

    1. Serves you right, since you tore me away from my story with your chop suey and birds’ nests!
      I’m glad you enjoyed it, especially Hoss’s significant role. True, the Cartwrights are forgiving, but would you rather they were Walcotts? 🙂

  5. I’ll admit that I skimmed your story in August. Nearly every Poker story was Adam, and it was too much for one week. I never guessed this was your story. Bad me. I enjoyed part two, and the battle everyone faced. Each character you brought in had a purpose – good or wicked – and played their parts well. I enjoyed the final product.

    1. Thanks, Pat. As a fellow Joe fan, I can easily understand why the first part was less interesting to you than the concluding section. The original idea for the story was the scene where Little Joe steps past his father, who hasn’t a clue what’s about to happen, so it was always planned to be more about that conflict than the love story at the beginning, but I just couldn’t get there fast enough to post it during the tournament. Thanks for returning to read the rest!

  6. I think I need a nap! I’m exhausted after making it through that saga. I can see why this didn’t make it to the poker tournament, but it was most definitely worth the wait. What a story! Thank you for all the hard work in putting this together.

    1. Aw, I put you to sleep (hee, hee). Thanks, Questfan. I’m glad you felt it worth the wait. Honestly, though, I think I’m the one who needs the nap. I’ve been living with this thing, night and day, for weeks! LOL

  7. Naughty to set the stage so carefully and then drop the curtain just as the action is about to begin! Here’s hoping that, whatever the Walcotts have planned, the combination of Adam, Joe, and of course Rose will manage to bring them to naught! Thanks for this exciting contribution!

    1. I stopped more out of necessity than naughtiness, as you may realize when you see the length of what follows. Curtain up!

    1. The course of true love never did run smooth, remember? There is a rough road ahead, but I hope you’ll enjoy the journey.

    1. Oh, dear, I hope you didn’t fall off in this long waiting time. I’ve reached the end and hope you will make it there, too.

  8. You spun an intruguing tale, and left your readers where it hurts the most. 🙂 Although I do suspect what’s coming next, and it’s nothing good. Very suspenseful!

    1. You’ll have to tell me if you guessed correctly. Certainly, the plans being laid are anything but good. I hope you’re intrigued enough to see it through to the end.

  9. Oh no! I have to now wait for part two. The only thing I ask is that you don’t kill off Rose. Good luck in writing the sequel

    1. Well, you’ll have to read on and see, won’t you? Thanks for the good wishes. No doubt they helped me see it through to the end.

  10. Uh oh …

    Poor Adam. I hope this gets nipped in the bud (no pun intended 😝), but somehow I doubt it …

    Thanks for writing!

    1. You weren’t expecting “and they lived happily ever after,” were you? These are the Cartwrights, after all. No bud nippers, alas, were used in the production of this conclusion.

  11. I was lapping this story up and then I get a ‘to be continued’. Ahh! You’ve sown the seeds of a suspenseful story and I can’t wait for part 2!

  12. *corrected post

    Classic Cartwright romance very well-done! This hand was wonderfully played and leaves us with Adam and Emily’s tale to savor while waiting for the resolution of Adam and Rose’s love story. (Hopefully the wait will not be too long.)

    1. It was far longer than I thought it would be, and I sincerely regret that. The story may not have gone quite the way you were expecting, but I hope you’ll find its conclusion interesting.It was far longer than I thought it would be, and I sincerely regret that. The story may not have gone quite the way you were expecting, but I hope you’ll find its conclusion interesting.

  13. So mant “what-ifs” in this story. Adam and Emily–could they have been happy together? Emily couldn’t stay put but her father and brother didn’t see things that way. Would Adam have met Rose if he’d arrived the date his family had expected?

    I’m anxiously awaiting part 2! A plan has been set in motion but will it come to fruition?

    1. To answer that would be telling, wouldn’t it? 🙂 I try to leave the Cartwrights in the condition in which I start them, but it’s quite a rocky road getting there sometimes. And for this particular road, rather twisty and turny.

  14. Well written, but a little disapointing not to have a completed story for the challenge especially with my favorite character having a possible role in the next paragraph.

    1. That was a little hard on a Joe fan, I’m sure, but I hope you’ll find his role more significant in what follows.

  15. I loved that you referred to the story of Emily as a “gothic romance” — since clearly, this was too. Even the language was a reminder of one of the Brontes. Looking forward to what happens when the ship hits the sand!

    1. Comparison with the Brontes is high praise, indeed! Thank you. Um, actually, the ship hitting the sand is a whole different story I’m writing, but I hope you find the concluding part satisfying (and gothic?)

  16. Such a gripping, well-written story. You take the reader through a gamut of emotions, and it’s going to be so interesting to see what will happen in the next part… Well done!

    1. Oddly enough, I used that idea of a gamut of emotions in the concluding part. There are more intense emotions ahead to round out the gamut.

    1. I would guess you’re referring to the phrase “under his father’s thumb.” That was, indeed, hard to work with at first, but it became a pivotal point of the story. That’s what often makes things like the poker tournament so much fun.

  17. Very pleasant story with a very serious and tensed situation. I really appreciated that first story. THank. So you had one sentence to be used; Good job.

    1. I would guess you’re referring to the phrase “under his father’s thumb.” That was, indeed, hard to work with at first, but it became a pivotal point of the story. That’s what often makes things like the poker tournament so much fun.

  18. Your prologue really grabs the reader and sets the stage for something wicked bound to come Adam’s way. I guess we will have to wait for part two to see how badly it plays out. 🙂

    1. Pretty badly, as you can see, now that the story is complete. Thanks for your comment on the prologue. I think it’s my favorite part.

  19. This is a complicated story full of twists and turns and described in vivid language. You draw your reader in craftily and then hold us in suspense without remorse. Thanks for contributing this story to the tournament.

    1. Thank you, Belle. It did become very marked with twists and turns, even more in the concluding part. Hope your suspense comes to a satisfactory resolution.

  20. Well, I can’t wait for part 2 as that was wonderful. I love seeing the range of Adam’s emotions from despair to total joy as he found someone who is his match. I love the little bits of humour as you write their banter.

    1. Thank you, Questfan. I think you’ll find an even larger range for Adam’s emotions, now that the story is complete. I enjoy writing the boys’ banter, and it’s always great to hear that others like to read it.

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