Thirty-Six Ways to Get Out of Trouble (by McFair_58)

Summary:  Continuing the story of Ben and Rosey O’ Rourke.  In this sequel to ‘Keep Your Eyes on the Sun’, things seem normal at the Ponderosa ranch.  Ben, Adam and Hoss are hard at work and Little Joe is in trouble.  What Joe’s family cannot know is that his trouble will soon draw them into a war that will end only when the victor possesses an ancient Chinese stone that, unbeknownst to them, has come to the Ponderosa.

Rated PG-13 for typical western violence and bad guy brutality.

Word count: 83,100

Blood and Bread Series:

Blood and Bread
Keep Your Eyes on the Sun
Thirty-Six Ways to Get Out of Trouble

 

 

Thirty Six Ways to Get Out of Trouble

‘Of all 36 ways to get out of trouble, the best way is – leave.’ Chinese proverb

 

PROLOGUE

A furtive figure hugged the shadows, quickly making its way along the edge of one of Eagle Station’s side streets.  Though the settlement had grown and prospered in the last few years with the passage to, and then occupancy of men seeking their fortunes, it was far from being a town.

What could one say about a place that got its name from a man shooting an eagle off of the trading post wall?

Not much.

And yet, it had potential.  Only this year Abraham Curry had talked of buying the trading post with its outlying businesses and scattered, hastily erected homes.  Curry believed that the rag-tag collection of squalid buildings – along with the few finer ones – would one day become the state capital, and to this effect he had left a ten acre plaza at its center as he laid out his plans.  On the edge of that plaza there were several stores, one of which bore the name ‘Tomorrow’s Flower Milliners’.

It was this shop that was the secretive figure’s destination.

The woman’s pallid hand clutched the collar of her midnight-black cloak, seeking to draw it closer to stave off the rain that had ridden the day into the falling night.  While the afternoon had been chilly, the evening was just plain cold.  The settlement badly needed the rain, but – of course – this being Eagle Station, it couldn’t attract what the local natives called a ‘female’ rain.  That is, one that made things grow.  No, this was a hard ‘male’ rain, as hard as the besotted and bewhiskered men it pelted, and it had turned the streets to mud.

Pausing at the end of the street that held the millinery shop, the cloaked woman glanced down at the heavily embroidered silk shoes she wore.  They were ruined.

Much as her life was ruined.

Much as, she feared, her shame would ruin Ming-hua’s.

With a sigh the desperate woman began to move again, stopping when she came to rest beneath the sign that hung above the millinery. There was a light in the shop.  It shone out onto the night, casting weird shadows on the weather-beaten boardwalk that fronted the establishment. The woman stepped back into the shadows as someone came to the door, rattled the handle as if checking to see that it was locked and then, satisfied, retreated.  Drawing a breath, she held it until she was sure they would not return and then stepped into the light.  A moment later she reached into her cloak and drew out an envelope.  Tears filled her eyes and fell to wet her cheeks as she looked at it.

Once it was delivered there would be no going back.

Before she could change her mind, the woman knelt and thrust the envelope beneath the door.

Then she ran.

Through the rain and into the shadows lining the street she ran, reaching them just as the shop door opened.  Clutching the hood of her cloak about her face, the woman turned back.

Shame over took her.  What had she done?  Why had she done it?

Should she have done it?

With a sigh, she admitted it did not matter.  In the end, there was no choice.

‘Man has a thousand plans’, her mother had taught her.  ‘Heaven but one.’

She could only pray that one agreed with her own.

 

ONE

“Now where you s’pose that little brother of ours done run off to?”

Adam Cartwright reined in his horse.  He leaned forward, resting his hands on the saddle horn and looked at his brother.  “I don’t know where the kid is, but he’s going to want to stay there.  Pa was madder than a peeled rattler when Lacey Evans came by to pick up that mare her husband chose for her and she gave Pa that note from Miss Jones.”

Hoss shook his head slowly from side to side.  “That boy’s like a flat smooth stone when it comes to skippin’ school this year.”

The black-haired man actually had some sympathy for his little brother.  Though education was like breathing to him – he couldn’t exist without it – fifteen-year-old Little Joe loved the life of a cowboy and longed to be free of the classroom and counted as one of the men.

He remembered that kind of growing pain all too well.

“Pa’s sure gonna skin that little cuss alive when we get him back to the Ponderosa,” Hoss went on.   He paused and then asked, “Adam?  You listenin’ to me?”

He had been, but a sound had caught his attention.  It was so out of place that it stopped him cold.  His right eye narrowed and he tipped his hat in the direction of the nearby river.

“Do you hear that?”

Hoss frowned.  “Hear what?”

Adam held up a hand.  “Listen!  Is that…girls giggling?”

Though their experience with females was pretty much limited to Saturday night parties in Eagle Station, Sunday services, and the occasional young lady who managed to end up as a guest at the ranch house, there was no mistaking that high-pitched, ebullient, and he might dare to add, impish sound.

Hoss’ clear blue eyes narrowed.  “Now, what you s’pose some group of fillies is doin’ out here all on their lonesome with the river so nearby?”

Adam straightened up in the saddle.  “I don’t think they’re alone.”

“You don’t?”

“Nope.”

It took Hoss a moment, but then he heard it – another voice, lower in pitch and definitely not laughing.  A big grin spread over his brother’s beefy face.  “Well, if that don’t beat all.”

Adam twisted his lips.  “Do you think we should go to his rescue?”

The big man considered it for a moment.  “I ain’t entirely sure.  What’s in it for us?”

His lips untwisted and settled into a broad rapacious smile.

“Oh, I’m sure we can make it worth our while.”

 

He’d just wanted to go swimmin’.  It had been a cold spring so far.  In fact the last few days of April had been downright miserable.  Today, the clear blue brilliant May day had called to him with a power that had overcome any misgivin’s he had about what the consequences of skipping school yet again might be.   He’d gone to school fully intending to stay there, but the fresh air floatin’ through the open window was a lure Joe Cartwright couldn’t resist.  Come lunchtime he’d told Mitch to tell the teacher that he got to feelin’ sick and had gone on home.  It was perfect.  Pa and his older brothers would think he was at school, while Miss Jones would know he was at home.  He’d just shinny out of his clothes and slip into the river and enjoy floatin’ on his back and starin’ at the sky for a while, and then he’d get dressed and be home before anyone was the wiser.

Or he would have been if Tory Jennings hadn’t come along with her gosh-darned friends and stole his clothes!

“I’m waiting, Little Joe,” Tory called in that voice she had that made you feel you’d done somethin’ wrong when you hadn’t done anythin’ at all.  “You promised the last time I saw you that you’d give me a kiss.”

“You better come on out, Little Joe,” Tory’s friend Nabby added.  “Ain’t no girl gonna spoon with a feller who don’t keep his promises.”

Ain’t no feller gonna spoon with a girl in his birthday suit neither.

“I’ll get out when I’m good and ready!” Joe shouted back.  He really wanted to get out.  Not only was he cold as a day in December, but he’d been treading water so long that his arms and legs felt like he’d been holdin’ onto a rope for hours, waitin’ on some slowpoke ranch hand to hog-tie an ornery steer.  On top of that his skin was wrinkled as a sheet in a laundry basket.

If he didn’t get out of the water soon, he was afraid it might stay that way.

“Why don’t you come out now?  I just want to see a lot of you like you said I would,” Tory replied, sending her friends into gales of laughter.

Laughin’ was a good thing, he decided – when you was on the other end of the joke.   “If you don’t…don’t get out of here and…leave me be, Tory J…J…Jennings” Joe snarled through chattering teeth, “I’ll – ”

“You’ll what?  Tells our Pa’s you went swimmin’ naked as a jaybird in the river and invited us to watch?”

That was Nellie.

“I..never did!”

Nellie smirked.   “And who do you think Pa is going to believe – you or me?”

He really didn’t’ like Nellie.

“Come on, Little Joe,” Tory said playfully, leaning out over the water’s edge and dangling his sodden plaid shirt over it.  “If you come on out, you can have your shirt.”

Little Joe looked at the shirt and then glanced up, wishing she was holding the other end of his wardrobe.  Unfortunately, his brown britches were hangin’ from a tree branch a good twelve feet above his head.   One leg was flapping in the breeze like it was wavin’ goodbye.

It was hard to sigh when you were a block of ice, but he managed it somehow.

“I’m tellin’ you for the…l…last…last...time…” Joe sneezed.  “I ain’t comin’ out of this h…here water until…all…of you go away!”

Or until my pants fall onto my head, he added silently to himself.

Tory rolled his shirt into a ball and threw it – over his head and into the water.  As it floated away, the blond-haired blue-eyed flirt planted her fists on her shapely hips and stuck out her lower lip.  Like every other boy in school who had ever tried to court Tory Jennings, he knew what that meant.

She wasn’t laughin’ anymore.

“I don’t know why I bother with you, Little Joe Cartwright!  Here I thought you were a man and would take what you wanted, but you’re not.  You’re just a boy!”  Tory tossed her long sausage curls back over her shoulders as she rolled her eyes.  “Butch MacTavish wouldn’t be afraid to come right up out of that water and show a woman what he’s got!”

He was tempted to do it.  Tory lived in a house that was as female as his was male, except for her pa.  He was pretty sure she had no idea what a man ‘got’ and she was makin’ him mad enough that he was just about ready to stand up and walk out of the water naked as a jaybird and show her.

And he would have, if his brothers hadn’t chosen that moment to show up.

 

He and Hoss had considered turning around and heading for home and leaving Little Joe to his fate.  There was no missing their fifteen-year-old brother’s brown twill trousers dangling from the branch above his head, or his plaid shirt floating away on the current.  The little scamp deserved to walk home buck naked.  In the end, though, self-preservation made them reconsider.

If Joe caught cold their little brother’s transgression would pale in the sight of their own, and it would be them doing a week’s worth of extra chores instead of him!

Unseen, Adam dismounted and walked up behind the trio of taunting girls.  He said nothing, waiting for them to sense his presence.  Joe’s eyes were wide, so he knew his little brother had seen him and Hoss, who was close by holding their horses’ reins.

And laughing.

Adam wasn’t laughing.  He was scowling.  Hoss hadn’t heard the last thing Tory had said to Joe, which had been – well, to put it bluntly – below the belt.  She and Joe had been an item two years before and had only just recently rekindled their ‘romance’ when Tory returned home from her aunt’s in New York with an even higher opinion of herself than before.   Pa despaired of the pairing.  Tory was a year older than Joe and seemed to have, well, matured while away.  From the look on Joe’s face, he thought she was making it up about Butch.

He wasn’t so sure.

Adam crossed his arms and let out a little sigh – a really little one.

It hit the girls like cannon fire.

Tory spun around.  She wasn’t a tall girl, so her eyes found his chest and then worked their way up to his face, paling when she saw his well-rehearsed frown.

“And just what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?” Adam demanded, sounding as pa-like as he could.

It was Nellie Dorsey who answered.

He really didn’t like Nellie.

“Tory doesn’t need to say anything!” she declared, wagging a skinny little finger at him.  “She and Little Joe were spooning when he took off all his clothes and invited her to come into the water with him!  It’s your brother who’s the invert!”

Adam ran a hand over his face.   The gesture ended with his fingers on his lips.  It took that to hold them closed, though whether he wanted to laugh or cry he wasn’t entirely sure.

“Nellie,” he said quietly.

It took a second.  Her tone was defiant.  “Yes?”

“I happen to know your pa, and if he were to find out that you left the settlement without his permission and were out here in the woods with two other girls, near the river, watching a naked boy swim…  Well, I imagine sitting down would no longer be an option.”

There was a sound.  It was either the horses snorting or Hoss.

He was betting on the latter.

Tory shoved past the sputtering girl and came right up to him.  Considering she didn’t make it much past his belt, he found the sight less than intimidating.

“If you tell Nellie’s pa any such thing, I’ll tell the sheriff Little Joe tried to force himself on me!”

Nellie wasn’t looking so bad now.

Adam leaned down so his eyes were on a level with Torie’s.  The girl’s were big and bright and a blue as Lake Tahoe.

Too bad her soul wasn’t as clean.

“Do you know what the penalty for perjury is, Miss Jennings?” he asked.

“Per… what?”

“Lying to the law.”

Tory’s bottom lip jutted out.  “Who says I’m lying?”

His gaze went from her to Nellie.  “I say you’re lying and who do you think Sheriff Olin  is going to believe?”  He paused a moment to let that sink in before going on.  “You’ll go to jail where they will cut your hair off above your ears and make you wear prison gray.  You’ll have gruel for breakfast, dinner and supper, and sleep in a cell crawling with bugs.”

“And rats, Adam.  Don’t forget them rats,” Hoss chimed in.

All three girls had gone very pale.

“Now, here is what you are going to do.  You three,” he included Nabby this time, who was standing to the side horror-stricken, “will go home this instant and say nothing to your parents about this.  Am I understood?”

“What if I do?” Nellie countered testily, though most of her bravado was gone.

Adam made a clucking sound with his tongue.  “I’m betting that I’m a better liar than you are.  If you do, I’ll go to your parents and tell them you three brought Little Joe out here into the woods and stole his clothes just so you could see a boy naked.”

“Why would they believe you?” Tory countered – a little too quickly.

Adam held her gaze.  “Oh, I think you know.”  He took a step forward and lowered his voice so Little Joe – who was treading water and staring wide-eyed at him – couldn’t hear.  “And if I ever hear that you have tried to seduce my kid brother, you may be certain I will tell your father what you’ve done.”  He paused for emphasis.  “Prison would be a kinder fate.”

Tory had pale skin.  It went completely white.

And the girls were gone.

“Hey!  You gonna help…a f…feller out of here…or not?” a shaky voice called as soon as they disappeared.  “I can’t exactly…reach m…m…my britches!”

Adam tipped the hat back on his head and stared at the trousers dangling from the tree branch above.

Ah, yes.  What to do with Joe?

“You think we oughta help him out, Adam?” Hoss asked, just loud enough that he knew it was a leading question.

He dropped his head and looked at Joe.  Baby brother’s lips were blue, so they couldn’t string him along too long without chancing him getting sick.

Not too long.

“I don’t know.  Supper’s waiting and you know how Pa is when we’re late.  No reason for all three of us to get the switch.”

There was a moment of silence.

“You’re…k…k…kidding.  Right?”

Adam hid his grin.  Joe’s voice hadn’t quite settled down yet.  Sometimes it sounded like a squeaky wheel that needed greased.

Like now.

“I think you’re right, Adam,” Hoss said, playing along.  “I’m powerful hungry and Hop Sing’s gonna throw out that roast pig he was plannin’ on servin’ if we ain’t sittin’ in our chairs when he brings it to the table.”  He mounted Chubb and turned his horse’s head toward home.  “Little Joe’s always tellin’ us he’s old enough to take care of hisself.  I figure rightly he’s big enough to make his own way home.”

“All right!  G…g…go ahead!” Joe shouted.  “You just go…ahead.  I’ll just…w…walk buck naked back to the house and…and you c…can see how Pa likes it…when I show up and…t…tell him you made me do it!”

Adam walked over to the edge of the water and knelt in the grass so he was on a level with his little brother.  “Let me get this straight.  You left school early to play hooky and go swimming and just happened to run afoul of that little jezebel, and somehow this is our fault? ”

“Hey!  You…watch it!  Tory’s m…my…girl….”

“…who just happened to take your clothes and….”  Adam paused.  He looked up, perplexed.  “By the way, Joe, just how did she manage to get your britches so high up into the tree?”  Silence greeted him.  He looked down at his brother, whose lips now resembled lapis lazuli.  “Joe?”

“Gosh…darn it, Adam…Tory didn’t!”  Joe shuddered.  “I kind of…of took them…off when I jumped…off the branch into…the river.  I…I knew they’d g…get heavy if’n they w…was wet.  So I jumped in w…wearing only my drawers and shirt…but then they…got heavy too….”

Where Angels fear to tread, the eldest Cartwright sighed.

“Now are you…g…gonna g…get them for…for me or not?”

“What’s in it for us?” Hoss asked with a grin.  Of course, middle brother knew full well he was not going to be the one to have to shinny up that tree and out onto that skinny branch.

Joe frowned.  “My…eternal g…gratitude?”

The big man shook his head.  “Ain’t enough.”  Hoss pulled at his whiskerless chin.  “How about a week’s worth of chores – for both of us?”

“I’d r…r…rather drown!” Joe sputtered and then nearly did as he lost his footing and his head went under water.

Before he could resurface, they exchanged a look.  “Pa’s gonna kill us if he gets sick,” Hoss muttered.

As their brother’s tousled head reappeared, Adam nodded and then said, “That’s a mighty risky climb, Joe.  Seems to me like you need to give me something to make it worth my while.”

Joe’s teeth were really chattering now.  “Okay…you…w…win.  I’ll do whatever you want.  It’s…damn cold…in here.  Will…you just get…my damn…britches!”

Adam tsked as he began to move toward the lower portion of the tree.  “Such language, Joe.  Pa’s going to be pretty upset when he learns you used that kind of words.”

He needed to learn how to bottle whatever he had done.  Joe was silent again.

“You’re not…gonna…tell…Pa?  Are…you?  ‘Bout the w…words or…th…this?”

Adam was nearly halfway up the tree.  The branch was a little higher up than he’d hoped.  Blast that kid for being such a monkey!

“ ‘Course we’re gonna, Joe,” Hoss said as he ambled over to the river bank.  “Ain’t he got a right to know?”

He had reached Joe’s pants.  They were dry and it was important he keep them that way.  The night was advancing and the temperature dropping and as much fun as they were having ribbing Little Joe, the kid had inherited his mother’s fragile constitution and got sick at the drop of a hat –

Adam smirked.  Or of his britches.

Balling the pants up, he yelled, “Heads up, Hoss!”, and then tossed them.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  But then he hadn’t taken into consideration the condition of the branch and his own weight and the strain said weight would put on said branch when he applied force to the throw.

Adam yelped.

He didn’t even have time to shout ‘Look out below!’

 

Ben Cartwright was pacing.  He didn’t like to pace.  It wore the rug down and stripped the finish off the floor and was completely at odds with his desire to preserve some sense of…decorum on the Ponderosa.  Nevertheless, pace he did and he did it often.  Usually it was his youngest son’s antics that kept him on the move.  Often his pacing was accompanied by his own sighs and exasperated looks passing between his two older boys.  They kept their thoughts to themselves, but he heard them anyway.

‘You know how he is about Joe,’ Adam would say.  ‘Poor kid ain’t never gonna break free of that lead line,’ Hoss would add.

He had to admit it.  He was overprotective with Joseph.  But then the boy had been through so much already – losing his mother when he was five, suffering multiple injuries throughout his childhood, being kidnapped by Wade Bosh the year before and nearly lost at sea.  And then there had been that unending fever when he was thirteen, occasioned by his treatment at the hands of Finch Webb.  At times it seemed God had something against his youngest son.  Ben halted in his pacing and closed his eyes.  He had to remind himself that was not the way the Almighty worked.  A wise man had told him once that he doubted God could use a man greatly until he had wounded Him deeply.

God must have something extraordinary planned for Marie’s son.

“Boys not home yet?” a familiar voice asked from the area of the dining room.

Ben turned to look.  Hop Sing was removing the plates from the table.  They had waited as long as they could for his sons to return before eating supper, and then kept the food on the table for another hour.  The rancher glanced at the clock.  It had just struck nine.

Five hours ago when he had sent Hoss and Adam out to look for their brother he had been furious.  Joseph had skipped school again.  He didn’t know what he was going to do with that boy.  In spite of Little Joe’s cajoling and pleading, he steadfastly refused to give in to his youngest’s request to leave his books behind and work on the ranch full time.  It was too soon.  Little Joe was still a child.

‘He’s a child because you want to keep him a child.’

There it was again.  Adam’s voice in his head.

Ben sighed and reached for the bridge of his nose, but stopped.  Paul Martin had warned him if he squeezed it one too many times the bone would break and he’d lose his sense of smell.

Just like he’d lost his sanity.

“Mistah Ben want more coffee?”

He’d left his cup half-full on the table.  Hop Sing was hovering above it, looking at him.

“No, thank you,” he replied.  “You can take it away as – ”

A sound outside the door attracted the rancher’s attention.  A blessed sound.

Three sets of horse’s hooves striking the hard packed earth of the yard.

As Ben took a step toward the door it opened and Hoss barreled through, nearly knocking him down.  Without a word, the twenty-one-year old headed for the hearth, opened the wood box and lifted firewood from it, and then tossed it onto the fire.  A second later he reached for the matches.  Ben blinked his surprise.  He had to admit the breeze coming through the open door was cool, but the early May night hardly warranted a fire.

“Hoss, what are you doing?”

His question was answered a moment later as his youngest and oldest sons straggled in looking like jetsam that had washed up on the shore.  Both were soaked to the skin and shivering, but especially Little Joe whose lips were a rather alarming shade of blue.

“Hop Sing!  Heat some water!” the rancher yelled as he headed for the chest that held their winter  coverlets.  As Hoss brought the fire to life, Ben grabbed two and headed over to his sons.  He handed one to Adam who briefly met his eyes and then ducked his head.  Dismissing that for the moment Ben went to Joseph, who had taken a seat on the settee and was shivering, and draped the heaviest of the throws around his youngest son’s shoulders.

“Hop Sing!”

With the quicksilver movements of a cat, the man from China had already made his way to his side.  In his hands was a tray with a steaming pot of coffee and several cups.  “Such foolishment!” their cook announced as he placed the tray on the table before the settee.  “It nighttime.  Water already on to boil for baths.”  Hop Sing straightened up.  He pointed a finger first Little Joe and then Adam.  “You drink!  Warm inside as well as outside!  You no get sick!  Hop Sing to busy to look after you!”

‘T…thanks, Hop S…Sing,” Joe stuttered as he reached out with a shaking hand toward the pot.

“Let me do that, son,” Ben said, afraid the boy would spill it and scald himself.  He poured a cup of the steaming liquid and handed it to Joe, and then looked at each of his boys in turn.  “Would any of you care to explain what happened?”

Joseph suddenly found something of great interest in the black liquid that filled his cup.  Hoss, on the other hand, met his sharp gaze.  “Sure thing, Pa…after I get back from fetchin’ more firewood.  I wouldn’t want my brothers to take a chill.”  It amazed him sometimes how quickly his giant of a son could move when he wanted to.  Before Ben could form a reply, Hoss was gone.

Which left Adam, who still wouldn’t look at him.

“Son?”

Adam’s lips pursed.  He looked up through the shag of wet black hair that dangled before his eyes.  “It’s all my fault, Pa.”

“No…no, it…ain’t” Joe declared as he placed the cup and the table and then drew the coverlet closer about his shaking form.  “Don’t you let…brother Adam…fool you.  It’s…my fault…Pa.”

As he looked from one to the other, Hoss reappeared, arms laden with wood.

“And I suppose you are going to tell me it’s your fault as well,” he said, addressing his middle son.

Hoss dropped the firewood in the box and then turned toward him.  “Sure enough is, Pa.”

“Well, someone had to be first!” he snapped, his temper rising.

“If I h…hadn’t of player hooky n…none of this would have happened,” Joe said, pausing only to sneeze.  “I’m s…sorry, Pa.  When you’re s…sittin’ in a stuffy old c…classroom b…bored out of your m…mind, that s…sunshine just calls to you.”

“Bored?!” he roared.

Joe winced.  His son knew what he thought.  He’d told him often enough in fifteen years.  There was no excuse for being bored.

“Honest, P…Pa.  All the k…kids my age are working their r…ranches.  It’s just l…little ones.  M…Miss Jones ain’t got m…much time for me.”  His son sniffed.  “All the other b…boys my age are s…stayin’ home.”

Ben noted his youngest withered further beneath his gaze.  Ben deliberately lessened the scowl.

“Is that true?  Do either of you boys know?” he asked the other two.

“Pa!”  Hoss protested.  “Joe ain’t no liar.”

Liar?  No.  But he was a master of prevarication.

“Adam?”

Adam was sniffing too.  He ran his fingers under his nose and the winced when he saw him watching.  Hop Sing quickly made his way over to his eldest with a napkin.

“Pretty much, Pa,” Adam replied, nodding a ‘thanks’ to their cook.  “It may just be the season, you know, with all the late spring work to do.”

Ben’s gaze took in all three boys.  He could tell his older sons were sympathetic to the boy’s cause, but telling Joseph that he could miss the last three weeks of school would be tantamount to giving approval of him playing hooky.

“Pa?”

He turned toward Joe.  The boy looked decidedly unwell.  “Yes, son?”

“Can I go up to bed?”

The rancher frowned.  “Without any supper?”

His youngest favored him with that cocky smile he had – the one that lit his emerald green eyes and lifted one corner of his full lips.

“I kind of figured I was gonna get sent to bed without any anyhow.”

Ben closed his eyes and sighed as his fingers went for his nose bridge – again.

“Hop Sing, please go to the kitchen and bring in a cold supper,” he said as he opened them.  “Adam, you and Joseph go up and change and then come back down to eat.  I want you out of those wet things before one or the other of you catches your death.”

Joe’s smile broadened.  “Well, you can count on me for one, Pa, to let that old death get away from me.  I ain’t got no intention of catchin’ it.”

The beleaguered father suppressed a sigh.  “I ‘haven’t’.”

Joe paused at the bottom of the stairs and looked back, his emerald-green eyes clear and innocent beneath that mop of brown curls.

“You haven’t what, Pa?”

Before he could speak, Adam caught his little brother by the arm and propelled him up the staircase.  “Back in ten, Pa,” his oldest remarked as they turned the corner.

Ben stood watching them for a moment and then pivoted to find Hoss watching him.

“Ain’t you glad I’m such an angel, Pa,” the big man remarked, his lips twisting in a grin.  “I’m bettin’ I’m the only reason you got some color left in that hair of yours.”

Ben glanced in the mirror before heading to the table.

What color?

 

TWO

It was late afternoon by the time Ben Cartwright got to the settlement.  He opened the door to the mercantile and strode into the shop, letting it slam behind him to activate the bell.  The rancher watched as Ima Bland – as appropriately named an individual as he had ever met – moved into the room.  The little man – Ima’s head could rest under his chin – could be as irksome as he was dull-witted which, he supposed, was good for a man who needed to heed orders and not think too much for himself. Ima wasn’t the store owner or even it’s manager, he was the apothecary tasked with filling out the prescriptions written by Doctor Paul Martin and his widely scattered associates.  One doctor to two hundred miles of territory was not uncommon.  Out here, it might even be three.  Ben glanced at the prescription he held in his hand.  Amazingly, it was not for Joseph, who had rallied quickly from the dunking he had taken.  It was for Adam, who simply could not shake whatever was ailing him.

“Back again, Ben?” Ima snorted.  “That youngest of yours broken something new?”

He really had to stop sighing.

“It’s not for Joseph this time.  Adam is still unwell,” he growled as he handed the piece of paper over.

“Well, take me out for a ride and see how far I can go!” Ima quipped as he settled his glasses on his nose, obviously thinking himself quite the wit.

“I beg your pardon?” Ben asked.  He was really not in the mood for levity of any kind.  The consequence of Adam’s lingering illness had been him having to honor Joe’s request to quit school early.  He needed the boy to take his brother’s place.  So, here he was, with the ranch in the middle of calving season – with branding not very far in the future – and he was having to depend on a boy to do a man’s job.

No, that wasn’t fair.

He was actually quite proud of Joseph.  Hoss had complimented his little brother the night before, saying how Joe had been more than pulling his weight.  In fact, the boy seemed determined to prove just how cheerful and helpful he could be.  While Adam’s fuse had shortened, Joseph’s had grown in length until it seemed nothing could set it off.  He was going to have to seriously consider whether or not to send the boy back to school at all.  Ben smiled with chagrin.  Perhaps Adam was right.  Perhaps his refusal had more to do with the fear of letting his last fledgling take wing than anything else.

Perhaps it was time he let Joseph become a man.

“Mister Cartwright?  Are you all right?”

Ben blinked.  He looked at Ima, who was looking at him like he’d just suffered an apoplectic stroke.

The rancher passed a hand over his eyes.  He’d been up with Adam most of the night before.  His eldest had a fever that simply would not go away.  Paul had begun to fear there was some underlying infection that was the cause of it.  Perhaps something he had swallowed while he was in the water.  The prescription the doctor had written was for a compound remedy intended to keep his fever down.  Other than that, his friend had told him to watch that the boy ate and got plenty of rest and liquids, dehydration being their chief worry.

“Sorry, Ima.  I’m fine.  Just tired.”

The apothecary’s eyes narrowed with a father’s knowledge.  “Been spending a lot of nights up, have you?”  As he nodded, the man added, “Best be careful, or you’ll be sick too.”

His second nod was a vague one.  “Well, do you have what you need to fill it?”

The little man lowered his wire-rimmed glasses even further to the end of his nose and reread Doc Martin’s scrawl – a talent he himself lacked.

“Most everything.  There’s one thing here missing,” he said, pointing to the third or fourth line.  “Should be comin’ in on the stage.  You got something to do in the Station that will take an hour or so?”

He’d come in by himself.  Hoss was busy on the range with Little Joe and he’d left Adam curled up in the blue chair by the fire with his nose in a book.  For a moment the rancher contemplated heading to what the settlement had that passed for a saloon, but he really wasn’t in the mood.

“Beth Riley’s got a fresh supply of pies,” Ima said with a grin.  “Some of them are made with this month’s rhubarb and last summer’s strawberries.  She had a fresh pot of coffee brewing too when I was there about a half hour ago.”

So that was what the small pink stain on the apothecary’s white shirt was!

“That sounds like an excellent suggestion,” Ben agreed.  “An hour, you say?”

“If the stage is on time.”

He nodded his acceptance of that.  The stage normally ran like clockwork, but there was always the possibility of an unexpected delay.

“Why don’t I just bring it to you when I have it in hand, Ben?”

The rancher grinned.  “Now, would payment for that delivery just happen to be a piece of strawberry-rhubarb pie?”

“Might just be.”

Ben tipped his hat.  “See you shortly, then.  Thank you, Ima.”

“No trouble, Ben.”

As the little man turned back to his business, Ben Cartwright exited the mercantile and headed for Beth Riley’s place.  The pie sounded good but, truth to tell, sitting for a spell and talking to the good-looking widow was just as attractive to him.  Though his boys were everything to him and all he needed, Ben found – since he had come to know Rosey O’Rourke – that he missed a feminine presence in his life.  While he had no romantic interest in Beth, she was a smart and funny woman and he vastly enjoyed her company.

Besides, if he took home some of that freshly baked strawberry-rhubarb pie, he could make those sons of his do just about anything he wanted them to.

With a smile on his face, Ben reached for the latch and entered Beth’s shop.  The delicious aroma that met him had his mouth watering in seconds.

“Why, Ben Cartwright!  What’s brought you to town?”

He pursed his lips and raised one dark brow.  “Come now, Beth, it was you, don’t you know?”  He chuckled at her surprised look and added, “Actually, I floated in on the scent of that delicious pie.”

“Oh!  Pshaw!” the pretty blonde woman with a trim figure laughed.  She glanced behind him and then asked, “You alone today?  None of those handsome boys with you?”

Ben nodded as he took a seat at one of her tables.  “Once they know about that pie my sons will consider me criminal for not bringing them along.”

“I heard Little Joe and Adam were sick,” she said as she caught the pot of coffee off the stove and proceeded to right and then fill the china cup on the table.  “Nothing serious, I hope.”

“Joseph has recovered for the most part, though that child seldom seems one hundred percent.”  Hoss had mentioned the fact that Joe tired easily and was pushing himself mercilessly. He meant to talk to the boy first chance he had.  “Adam is still under the weather,” he finished with a frown.

“Oh?” she asked as she placed a piece of pie before him.  “Nothing serious, I hope.”

“An underlying infection that he can’t seem to shake.  I came into town to fill a prescription Paul wrote out during his last visit.”

“You surprise me, Ben,” Beth said as she slipped into a chair next to him and the aroma of her clean, vanilla-scented skin reached out, reminding him of Marie.

He had a forkful halfway to his mouth.  “Oh?  Why?”

“And here I thought you’d ‘floated’ in for a piece of my pie.”

They both laughed.

For the next fifteen minutes or so they talked and then Beth got busy.  A half an hour later he was looking at the clock and wondering what was taking Ima so long.

“Ben.”

He glanced up at Beth – and then around.  The shop was quiet again.  “Yes?”

“Have you visited with Ming-hua lately?”

He hadn’t seen the young Chinese woman in quite some time.  “No.  Why?”

Beth drew in a breath, held it, and then let it out slowly.  “Call it women’s intuition.  Something is wrong.”

“Oh?”

She nodded.  “She was in here a little earlier all a-twitter like a frightened little bird.  She came to get something for her lunch.  I glanced at her a few times as I packed it and caught her looking over her shoulder at the door.”

“Perhaps she was expecting someone.”

As Beth filled his cup again, she scowled.  “If she was, it was someone she did not want to find her.”

He took a sip and then asked, “Intuition again?”

“Mm-hm.”

Ben glanced at the clock again.  He still had ten minutes before his hour was up.  Rising from his chair, he laid his napkin on the table.  “Why don’t I go pay her a visit?  Tell Ima when he comes looking for me with the medicine that that’s where I am, will you?  Oh, and give him a piece of that pie and put the cost on my tab.”

Visible relief flooded through the vibrant blonde.  “Certainly!”

Beth and Ming-hua had become very close since Rosey O’Rourke’s departure to live in another town near her son Rory, who was serving a two year sentence in the territorial prison.  In his letters to Rosey, he had told her how the shop owner had stepped in to fill the gap her exit had occasioned.  While it had eased Rosey’s mind, she was still concerned for the once China girl.  Rosey was planning to visit soon.  Ming-hua was looking forward to it.

So was he.

“You seem thoughtful today, Ben,” the older woman said.

He supposed he was.  “Too little sleep,” he replied and then added with a grin, “Too many boys.”

“Well, maybe I can send something with you to bribe them into behaving so you can get at least one night’s rest.”

“If it’s strawberry rhubarb pie, I might just get two.”

“I’ll pack up three.  Two for Hoss and one for the rest of you,” she laughed.

He reached out and gave her arm a little squeeze.  “Thanks.”

Beth’s cheeks blushed crimson as a school girl’s.  “Pshaw!  It’s nothing.”  Lifting her arms, she made a shooing motion.  “Now go!  Get on your way!’

“Yes, ma’am,” he answered with a grin as he headed for the door.

It was only a hundred paces or so to the millinery.  Ben crossed the distance quickly and had raised his hand to take hold of the latch when he noticed a sign tacked on the door saying the shop was closed.  With a frown, he peered inside.  He could see Ming-hua in the back room, or at least he thought he could.  There was an arm showing beyond the door frame sheathed in silk.  The elegant fabric shimmered in the glow of a nearby lamp.

He hesitated only a moment and then lifted his hand and knocked.

Whomever the arm belonged to started and withdrew.  It wasn’t Ming-hua, for as it disappeared she appeared in the open door and stepped into the shop.  He noted how downcast the lovely young woman looked as she hurried to the front.

As the door opened, she said, “So sorry.  Shop not open.  Please come back another –”  When she looked up and saw that it was him, Ming-hua drew in a sharp little breath.  “Mister Ben, please to forgive this one.  I mean no disrespect to my honorable friend.”

“It’s all right,” he said, his eyes on that back room.  “May I come in?”

She hesitated.  “It would be best if honorable friend come back another day.”

He kept his hand on the door.  “Ming-hua.  Whatever it is, I’d like to help.”

It took her a moment to meet his gaze.  “Ming-hua cannot ask honorable rancher to help,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.  “Too much danger for him and for his sons.”

Danger?

“Are you in danger?” he asked.

Involuntarily, her eyes went toward the room at the back.  “Ming-hua not seek danger.  It find her. And though she does not welcome it, she cannot turn from it.”

The rancher considered whether or not he should step away.  He first met Ming-hua in an establishment called The Delectable Dragon.  During the time Wade Bosh had held his son Joseph captive, the seaman had made a stop there to…pleasure himself.  Joseph – ill, maybe dying – had been locked in one of the cribs used by the pitiful women employed there that lay at the back of the decadent establishment.  Ming-hua had risked her life to take care of him and then came to tell him where his son was.

He owed her Joseph’s life.

Reaching out, Ben took her small hand in his.  “You saved my son.  I owe you a debt of honor.  I would like to pay it.”

The girl paled.  She shook her head.  “Much trouble.  Much danger.  Ming-hua cannot ask –”

“You are not asking,” he replied, his tone solemn. “I am offering.”

Ming-hua shuddered and then, slowly, tears began to fall.  He stepped into the shop and closed the door behind him and took her by the shoulders, steadying her.

“Now, will you tell me what this is about?”

“It is not my sister’s place to tell you, Ben Cartwright,” a lilting voice proclaimed.  “It is mine, for mine is the shame.”

He pivoted at the sound and sucked in air at the sight.  A beautiful tall, slender Chinese woman dressed in silk had stepped out of the back room.

She was obviously pregnant.

 

“Say there, Joseph, who do you think that is?”

Little Joe pivoted on his heel, scowling at middle brother’s use of his ‘you’re-in-trouble-young-man’ name.  He tilted his black hat back on his curly head and leaned on the sledge hammer he held before answering.

“I don’t know, Eric. Your guess is as good as mine.”

His brother snorted.  “Shame older brother don’t have no longer version of his name too.”

Joe chuckled as he turned his attention to the two men approaching them.  They sat high in the saddle – one of them near as high as brother ‘Eric’ did.  One was wearing traditional Chinese togs like their cook, while the other was dressed like a westerner in a pearl-gray suit with a black string tie and hat.

That was the big one.

Hoss came alongside him; his crisp blue eyes narrowed.  “I don’t like the look of them, Little Joe.  You let me do the talkin’.”

Joe started to protest but then, something stopped him.  The men had drawn close and he’d gotten a good look at the one dressed as a city slicker.  There was something about him, something familiar, though he couldn’t quite place it.

“Looks like two of Hop Sing’s hundred and fifty cousins,” Joe snorted in an attempt to hide how unnerved he was.  “Probably looking for him.”

“Probably,” Hoss said as he dropped the hammer and nails he’d been holding and headed for the pair.  They’d been mending fences all day.  It was near dusk and they’d just decided to call it quits.  Joe was  ready for a bath and one of their cook’s amazing meals.

He hoped whatever these two wanted didn’t delay them.

“Anythin’ I can do for you fellers?” he heard his brother ask.

Joe eyeballed the pair.  Somehow, he was pretty sure that anything they wanted wouldn’t be anything he or his brother would care to do.

The man dressed like Hop Sing was the older of the two.  He had a long face and dark, narrow eyes.  His mouth wasn’t anything more than a slit drawn into a straight line and the mustache above it ran parallel, like water to a riverbank. If he had to, Joe would have guessed the stranger was a little younger than Pa, but not by much.  The other man…the one who seemed familiar…was near Hoss’ size but skinny as his brother was stout.  The stranger’s straight black hair was cut in the fashion of a white man, though it ran a little long and brushed his shoulders.  Pa would have said he looked like a riverboat gambler.  The Chinese man was handsome, he supposed, or at least he thought a woman would have called him that.  He had a strong face with fairly wide open black eyes.  They were troubled eyes – or meant trouble – one of the other.

At the moment they were lookin’ straight at him.

“We seek the settlement called Eagle Station,” the older man said, his voice soft and a little cold.  “This humble one would ask if the path we take is the correct one?”

Hoss nodded.  “You’re on Ponderosa land right now, mister.  Keep goin’ a mile or so that way,” his brother pointed, “and you’ll find the road.  Keep to the road and you’ll find the settlement.  Ain’t nothin’ else ‘round about here.  Just keep movin’ in that direction and you’ll find it.”

‘Yes’, Joe thought, ‘please keep moving.’

“This one is grateful for the information and humbly asks a name so he may know who to thank for it,” the younger man said, his words polite; his tone anything but.

Joe saw Hoss hesitate.  Then, since there was no reason not to, he told him.  “Hoss Cartwright.  That’s my little brother Joe over there.”

“Little…Joe,” the man in the suit repeated.

“Yeah, that’s right, Little Joe.”

Joe’s heart was thudding in his chest.  His mouth had gone dry and his hands were sweating and he had no idea why.  In his short span of fifteen years he’d met dozens of Chinese men.  Each and every one of them had brought a smile to his face.

This man didn’t bring a smile.  He brought…what?  Fear?  Panic?

Terror?

The older of the two inclined his head.  “My sister’s son and I thank you and wish that lucky air may come to your house from the East.”

“May your future be as bright as embroidered cloth,” his companion added as he made a kissing noise and started his horse forward.

Joe watched them go and then, in spite of fighting as hard as he could not to, plopped down on a nearby stone and blew out a breath.

Hoss was at his side in an instant.  He felt the weight of his brother’s hand on his shoulder.  “You okay, punkin’?”

Punkin’.

Sometimes he hated that.  Not now.  Not when he felt anything but grown up.

He could have lied, of course, but it was Hoss and he chose not to.  “I know that guy, Hoss.  The younger one.”

“You ain’t joshin’ me?”  When he shook his head, the big man asked, “Who is he?”

Joe shrugged.  “I have no idea, but I know that I know him.  I just can’t remember where from….”

Middle brother gazed after the pair.  Joe watched as concern turned to a frown on his beefy face.  “I’m not one to be judgin’ a man without knowin’ him first, but I got me a feelin’ them two is trouble – especially that younger one.”

He felt it too.  There was something in the air.  Some ill wind was blowing in.

“You think we should tell Pa?” Joe asked, his voice quivering.

Hoss considered it, then he nodded.  “That’s just what I’m thinkin’.  You gather up the tools, Little Joe.  I think it’s time you and me was headin’ home.”

Relief flooded through him.  For all he fought to be thought of as a man by his family, Joe Cartwright knew he was far from it.  He wanted nothing more at this moment than to run back to the Ponderosa and bask in the safety and security he found in his father’s presence.

Unfortunately, fate had deemed that that was not to be.

 

Adam Cartwright pulled up short in his pacing and looked at the front door of the ranch house.  He was twenty-seven years old and seldom if ever identified with his father’s, well, over-protective nature.  He identified with it now.

The older man was several hours overdue.

Pa had gone into town to fill a prescription for him and said he would be six hours at most – two into town, one to get the medicine, two back, and one just ‘in case’.  Adam glanced at the clock.

It had been nine.

Now, his father could take care of himself.  He knew that.  But then, wasn’t that what he always told the older man about them – about him and Hoss and sometimes Joe?  And how often had that been a complete and total fabrication?

The black-haired man shuddered.  Maybe he should saddle Sport and head toward Eagle Station.  He glanced out the window.  In the dark?, common sense demanded.

He should wait until morning, but waiting meant, well….

More pacing.

They’d certainly have to replace the great room floor before the normal fifty years were past – at least the portion in front of the fireplace.

Adam glanced at the closed door again and then plunked his tired body down into the big blue chair by the hearth, which was his favorite.  It was a funny thing, favorites.  The other chairs in the room – even the settee – were just as good for sitting, but when he was feeling ornery, he’d fight for this one in particular.  It just seemed to fit him better somehow, to make him feel more comfortable – more at home.

The eldest son of Ben Cartwright scowled.  It didn’t feel much like home right now with everyone but Hop Sing missing.  It felt more like….a picnic thrown on the top of a hill of red ants.

Springing to his feet again, Adam began once again to prowl like a caged lion, following the path his father normally walked; worried, concerned – out of his mind, really.

It must be the fever.  The damn fever that wouldn’t go away.

Damn.  Fever.

Damn.

Adam grinned.  Somehow cussing in his father’s elegant great room felt better than cussing in the barn.  He often called Joe ‘rebellious’.

Was he rebellious too?

Damn right.

Hop Sing’s concerned voice broke into his wayward thinking like a bucket of cold water tossed in his face.  “No sign of Mistah Ben yet, Mistah Adam?  Or Mistahs Joe and Hoss?”

Joe and Hoss he wasn’t too concerned about.  That north pasture fence had been bad.  They might even have decided to make camp and stay the night so they could finish it in the morning.  But Pa?  Well, Pa was…

Pa.

He shook his head.  “Not yet.”

“You think something wrong?”

He didn’t know what he thought.  He wasn’t thinking, he was feeling, which – for him – was something new.  Pa called it ‘intuition’.  Most often he called it ‘voodoo’.

Most often.  Not now.

“How does Pa stand it?” he muttered, mostly to himself.

“It foolishment to refuse to eat because of fear of choking,” the household sage replied.

In other words, don’t borrow trouble.

Adam started back to the blue chair, but it was at that moment that he heard a sound in the yard.  It was probably a buggy or wagon because there were multiple horses’ hooves striking the packed earth along with the sound of wheels turning.  With a glance at Hop Sing he headed for the door, taking a moment to stop and pick up his pistol before opening it.  He never got a chance.  A second later the door was thrust in and his father strode into the house.

The older man’s near-black eyes did a quick sweep of the interior.  “Are you two alone?” he asked as his concerned gaze rolled over Hop Sing and back to him.

‘Sure are, Pa,” he replied, curious as to why it mattered.

His father stared at him for a moment and then, as if coming to a decision, turned back to the door and said, “Come in, Ming-hua.”

Ming-hua was outside?  His father had left the Chinese girl there to debark from the wagon and come inside on her own?

Something was definitely wrong.

Adam had his answer when Ming-hua came in through the door, quickly followed by two other, taller Chinese women, both wearing cloaks. The pair stopped just inside the door while Ming-hua followed his father over to the area of the hearth and took a seat on the settee at his urging.

The older man turned to the women.  “Ladies, please.  Come and sit down.  You are to consider this your home for now.”

The taller of the two took a step forward.  She was, in a word, stunning.  Her almond-shaped eyes were large and expressive and lined on both the top and bottom with kohl to make them appear more Western.  They were, of course, black as her waist-length hair. She had a slender nose and wide, full lips that were painted a deep shade of scarlet to match her heavily embroidered silk dress.  Her most distinguishing feature, though, was a small mole in the middle of her right cheek.

That and the sadness that permeated every inch of her being.

“It is not the desire of Dandan or Biyu to bring a mountain of knives to the house of Cartwright,” she replied, her voice like fingers on silk.  “Therefore they must most humbly refuse your kind offer.”

So this was one of Ming-hua’s sisters who had, somewhat reluctantly from what he understood, played a part in caring for his missing brother the year before.  While they had not aided his father in his quest to find Wade Bosh and free Joe, neither had they done anything to alert Bosh to the fact that their father was in Vallejo searching for him.

“Nonsense,” his father said.  “Your sister can’t continue to travel in the condition she is in.  You need a home base until we can figure out what to do.”  His father paused, and then added in that tone that brooked no argument.  “You will consider this your home.”

From what he remembered of Pa and Little Joe’s tale of that horrible time, the older of the pair was Dandan.  Pa had said Ming-hua’s eldest sister was a little taller and that she seemed less hardened by the life she had led.  So it was Biyu who was the pregnant one.

“This unworthy one cannot accept such a gift,” the expectant mother declared, her chin thrust out in defiance.

His father went over to her.  He took hold of the edge of her cloak and pulled it aside, revealing her advanced condition.

This worthy one must,” he said, indicating her belly.  “I ask that you do this for your unborn child.”

Biyu’s jaw grew tight as she fought back tears.  “My most honorable host does not engage in fair fighting.”

His father smiled.  “I’ve had plenty of practice.”

Ming-hua rose.  She crossed the room to stand by his father.  “My much loved sister came to Eagle Station to ask Ming-hua for help.  Such help is now offered.  Why refuse?”

Dandan answered.  “Our sister swims in a sea of fire,” she said, her tone utterly weary.  “A fire that will burn Ben Cartwright’s family as surely as our own.”  She turned toward Biyu then and said, “You must tell them.”

Biyu nodded as the tears flowed at last, softening that diamond-hard edge.

“This unworthy one runs from dishonorable husband toward….”  The beautiful woman placed a hand on her midriff and drew a breath before continuing.  “Biyu runs from dishonorable husband toward the honorable man she loves.”

“Toward the father of her child,” Dandan explained.

Adam exchanged a look with his father.

Well, then….

 

THREE

Joe woke slowly and rolled over.  Rising, he worked out the kinks and then went to relieve himself.  When he came back, he glanced at Hoss – who was sawing logs to beat any band – and then crossed over to the remnants of their campfire and began to rekindle it.  The dawn had broken.  In fact, the sun was cresting above the trees.  It surprised him that he had awakened before his brother.  Usually it took Hoss and Adam combined – with maybe Hop Sing thrown in – to wake him and get him moving.  Of course, that was when he’d slept soundly.

He’d done anything but that last night.

After gathering their tools they’d headed for home but quickly realized that – with the time they’d lost talking to the two strangers – they’d never make it before nightfall.  So instead, they made camp and bedded down.  It was kind of fun.  He and Hoss didn’t get a chance to camp out much like they had when they were kids, and the two of them had sat there sippin’ coffee and tradin’ ghost stories until half the night was gone.  After finishin’ one final particularly chilling tale about a man haunted by ghosts in his sleep, his giant of a brother had announced he was done in.  Hoss muttered ‘goodnight’, slipped under his blanket, and was snorin’ in less than a minute.  Unable to do the same, Joe sat for some time, thinkin’ about everything under the sun – including that chilling tale.  Then at last, unable to keep his eyes open, he too laid out his bedroll and crawled under the single cover he’d brought and fell asleep.

That was when the real nightmare began.

In his dream he’d been back home in the stable searchin’ for a fork to pitch some hay.  He’d just rounded the last of the stalls when something hit him so hard on the head he blacked out for a minute or two.  When he came to he heard Adam callin’ him.  He tried to answer but before he could, a man’s hand clamped over his nose and mouth, cuttin’ off his air so he blacked out again.  When he woke up the second time he was in a dark, foul-smelling place, laying on a cot and burning up with fever.  Someone leaned over him and called his name, just like Adam had.  He tried to answer whoever it was, but the hand returned, taking hold of his throat and squeezin’ hard this time.  As he fought to breathe, he looked up into a pair of hard unfeeling eyes.  Black eyes that belonged to a man.  A big Chinese man.

The stranger in the city slicker’s suit.

He’d been there, that Chinese man, at The Delectable Dragon in Vallejo, California.  He remembered him now, standing in the corner watching – always watching.  Of course it hadn’t been that man who had kidnapped him, but he’d sure enough stood by when he knew full well somethin’ was funny with Wade Bosh.  Maybe that was why seeing him had scared him so.  He’d tried his damnedest to forget everything Bosh had done to him and well, seein’ that stranger had brought it all back.

Joe shook himself and rose to his feet.  He glanced at his sleeping brother again. In his nightmare, as that hand had covered his mouth cutting off his air, he had screamed and screamed and screamed.  Funny that in the real world he hadn’t made a sound.

Maybe all that screaming had been in his soul.

Catching his and his brother’s canteens off the ground, Joe headed for the river that ran swiftly along the north side of their camp in order to refill them.  He supposed he should have awakened Hoss and told him where he was going, but somehow – on Ponderosa land – he always felt safe.  It was as if, no matter how far he went, so long as he was within the boundaries of his Pa’s empire, the older man was watching over him.  Joe snorted as he removed the cap of one of the canteens.  “Yeah, you’re really grown up, Cartwright.”  He had to admit, his pa was the bedrock of his world.  Everything else was just topsoil.  He didn’t know what he’d do without his pa.

Probably curl up and die, that’s what.

Joe filled both his and Hoss’ canteens and then left them lying on the bank as he walked over to a flat rock that jutted out over the river.  With care, he climbed onto it and shinnied out until he sat on its edge.  Lifting one leg, he circled it with his arms and sat there watching the sun claim the sky.  He knew there were other places in the world; lands that had their own kind of beauty that was different from the Ponderosa.  Brother Adam longed to see them and sometimes, well, sometimes he thought maybe he wanted to see them too.  There were times when he thought about leavin’ his father’s land and makin’ his own way in the world, but each time he did, he’d come up against somethin’ like this sunrise and – for the life of him – he couldn’t imagine how he’d ever go.  As streaks of a vivid pink-orange light punctured the space between the pine trees, chasing away what was left of the night’s shadows, Joe yawned.  He sure was tired.  Hoss was probably awake by now, he told himself.  After he tended the fire and rustled up some grub, middle brother would realize he was missing and come lookin’ for him.  There couldn’t be any harm in layin’ back and closin’ his eyes and restin’ a spell.

Now, could there?

As Joe closed his eyes, he had a vision.  He remembered a day, just like this one, back some two years before.  He and Tory Jennings had met early in the morning when they should have been at school, and had sat hand in hand on a flat stone like this one, watching the sunrise.  When he asked if her pa would get angry if he found out, Tory told him there wasn’t anything worry about.  Even if Mister Jennings did, he wouldn’t care.

‘I’ve got him wrapped around my little finger’, she said.

He’d been thirteen at the time and the taste of her lips had been just about the sweetest thing he’d ever known.  It was just before she left Eagle Station and went East.  They’d promised each other that day that they’d pick up where they’d left off when she got back.  He’d been happy to see her when she did and near busted with pride when she accepted his invitation to the spring dance.  When she suggested they leave the dance and go to the barn, well, like any feller he’d been mighty excited.  But this time Tory didn’t just want a kiss.  She’d wanted somethin’ from him he just wasn’t ready to give.  Not long before that dance his pa’d sat him down and told him about men and women.  He told him how he should respect them, but how he should also respect himself enough to wait until he found a woman he loved.  He liked Tory.  She was pretty and smart and – as Adam would say – ‘high-spirited’ like him.  But he didn’t think he loved her.  When he thought of love, he thought of his mama and his pa, and though he couldn’t remember much, there was somethin’ they’d had that was missing with Tory.  Pa said love was about sacrifice – giving and not getting.

That was for sure something Tory Jennings didn’t know nothing about.

Joe was still layin’ there an hour later, thinking about his mama and how much he missed her, when he heard a noise.  It could have been an animal creeping up on him – maybe a wolf or coyote – but he didn’t think so.  More likely it was Hoss.  His brother would think it was mighty funny to come up on him unawares and scare the livin’ daylights out of him.  Deciding it was Hoss, Joe clamped his eyes shut and pretended to sleep.  He listened as the footsteps came closer and closer and readied himself to spring up and give his brother one heck of a surprise.

Problem was, when Joe did spring up, it was him that got the shock of his life.

 

Hoss reined in Chubb and looked ahead; then glanced back in the direction of their campsite.  He sure wished he could of talked to Little Joe before he took off.  Trouble was, he’d heard somethin’ that had made it impossible for him to stay put ‘til Joe came back from wherever he’d gone.

A lady cryin’.

The sound had come from the direction he’d sent them two Chinese fellers the night before.  He didn’t think it had to do with them since they didn’t have no woman with them, but then again, it might.  She could have been there and stayed hidden while they talked.  Chinese ladies were awful shy for the most part.  Either way he didn’t like the look of them two.  Hop Sing would of said the older one had ‘secrets behind his eyes’, and the younger one?  Whew, doggie!  He had the look of one of them pugilists that came to Eagle Station and put on exhibitions from time to time.

Pa’d said a man like that oughta be made to declare his fists as weapons.

As he leaned on his saddle horn, Hoss listened.  It was early morning and just about every creature in the trees was chatterin’.  The birds were the noisiest of all.  The way they was squawkin’ at one another, he knew somethin’ was up.  Might of been the lady.  More likely, they was warnin’ one another a storm was brewin’.  The sky had grown dark in the last half-hour and the wind was pickin’ up.  He kicked himself for takin’ up what might prove to be a wild goose chase.  He should of ignored it and gone lookin’ for his little brother instead.  If he had, they’d be headed home now.

Leaning down, he patted the side of his horse’s neck.  “You hear anythin’ other than them birds, Chubby?”

Ol’ Chubb snorted and stamped.  Since he knew horse talk, he could interpret that.

“Yeah, you’re right.  Must of been hearin’ things.”  As he lifted the reins, the big man said, “Let’s you and me get back to camp.  I sure hope little brother’s there and he’s got breakfast cookin’.  I could just about eat me a –”

It took a second for the sound to die away.  Whoever that lady was, she weren’t cryin’ this time.

She was screamin’.

Dismounting, Hoss ground-tied his mount and began to run.  The scream had come from somewhere near the river. As he tore through the underbrush, he wondered what a woman would be doin’ out here on Ponderosa land – supposin’ she weren’t with those two Chinese men.  He had his answer a moment later when a slender female form bolted out of the trees and straight into him.  She glanced up at him, sobbed, and then buried her head in his shirt before he could get a good look at her.

As Hoss put an arm around her tremblin’ shoulders, he gave her a quick once over.  The girl – she weren’t nowhere near bein’ a woman – was wearin’ mighty fine clothes, though they was ripped and soiled like she’d taken a spill.  He held her for a moment and then gently shifted back.  The move didn’t dislodge her desperate grip, but it gave him enough room to see what was goin’ on.

It was Little Joe’s one-time filly.  Tory Jennings.

“Tory!  What’re you doin’ out here all on your lonesome?” he asked.

The girl was tremblin’ so hard and breathin’ so rapid it was all she could do to get out the words.  “He…brought me…out here.  He said we’d…spoon.  Then he….tried to…to….”  Tory gasped and buried her head in the folds of his shirt again.  “Oh, Hoss, how could I be so stupid!”

Hoss considered what he was seein’.  The worst damage to Tory’s clothes was around the neckline.  The bodice of her frilly dress was all tored up on one side and hangin’ down so’s her underpinnin’s were showin’.  The big man’s clear blue eyes went to Tory’s skirts.

They was all tored up too.

“Who, Tory?  Who are you talkin’ about?” he demanded, though he had a fair idea of who it was.  He’d bet good money the little gal had tried her tricks one too many times and the feller she was with had called her bluff.   “Was it Butch?”

He felt her nod.  “He…  Oh, Hoss, he….”  She sniffed and then looked right up at him.  “I told him he was no gentleman like Little Joe.”

Hoss had to smile at that – Joe, bein’ a gentleman.  He’d have to remember to tell Pa what she said.

“When I asked Little Joe to…well…”  She sucked in air and let it out quickly.  “When we were…spoonin’…he never tried to….”  Her cheeks blushed red as a berry.  “He wouldn’t even when I wanted to….”

Little brother was just too dang cute.  They all knew he was like honey to a bear when it came to all the little fillies at school goin’ after him.

Maybe it would be right smart of Pa to keep the boy home.

Now that he thought he could get a straight answer out of her, Hoss asked Tory, “Where’s Butch?  He didn’t just go and leave you alone out here in the wild, did he?”

Tory blanched.  “Butch said he was going to go find Little Joe and make him pay.”

“Now wait a gol-darn minute.  Pay for what?” he asked..

Tory started trembling.  Tears fell, carvin’ paths through the dirt on her face.  “Well… I might have told Butch that Little Joe and I had….  Well, that we….”

Hoss didn’t know which feelin’ to act one – his outrage or the plain old terror.

“Butch headed back to the Ponderosa?” he asked hopefully.

Tory shook her head.  “We came out early.  We were heading for the rock by the river when we saw you and Little Joe camping and went the other way.”

Every alarum bell in him was goin’ off.  “Tory.  You don’t mean to tell me that Butch knows where Joe is?”

She winced and then nodded.

Hoss caught her hand in his and started movin’.  “My horse is back a ways.  I want you to get on Chubb, Tory, and ride for the Ponderosa lickety-split.”

“You don’t think Butch will hurt Little Joe, do you?” she asked, breathless as she ran beside him.

Hoss looked toward the river.

“I don’t think so, Tory,” he replied, swallowing over his fear.

“I know’d it.”

 

Joe Cartwright wasn’t usually one to try to talk his way out of a fight, but in the two years since Butch MacTavish had near killed him by butting into him and breaking his rib, the older boy had grown six inches to his two and put on near fifty pounds.  Adam had a saying about ‘discretion’ bein’ the better part of valor.  It had taken him near a week to puzzle that one out, but in the end Joe understood it to mean that there were times a man should fight and other times he should just plain run.

Now was probably one of those times.

“I’m gonna kill you, Cartwright!” Butch roared.

He’d leapt up and off of the rock and had placed its bulk between them.  While he’d been pretendin’ to sleep, a gentle rain had begun to fall and they were both dancing on the muddy ground from side to side – him trying to keep out of Butch’s reach and Butch trying to reach him.

“At least tell me what you’re so all-fired sore about,” Joe countered as he shoved a hank of rain-soaked curls out of his eyes.  So far all Butch had said was that he was gonna kill him and tear his dead body from limb to limb and then feed it to the fishes for what he done.  “If a man’s gonna die, he’s got a right to know.”

You ain’t got a right to live!” the bully shot back.

Joe glanced over his shoulder.  He was pretty much trapped – unless he wanted to take a swim.  The fast-running river lay behind him and the flat rock in front of him.  Butch was blockin’ the only open side.  Joe looked at his opponent, reassessing how many inches the other boy had grown.

Lands sake, he was big!

I was gonna be the one,” Butch snarled.  “But no, rich, snot-nosed, spoiled, no-good Little Joe Cartwright – who has everythin’ handed to him on a platter – had to get there before me.”  Butch made a fist and shook it.  “I should of killed you two years back!”

Well, you came pretty close, Joe thought.  He’d nearly died from the infection that came from that broken rib.

A moment later he asked, “The ‘one’ – what?”

“Don’t you go playin’ innocent with me, Cartwright!” Butch snarled as he snatched at him over the rock.  “Tory told me everythin’!”

He’d almost got him.  Dang, he had long arms too!

Joe’s foot slipped as he evaded the other boy’s reach.  He overbalanced and nearly fell into the rushing river.

Everything?  What’d Tory tell you?”

Butch drew to an abrupt stop.  He made a face.  “That her and you…well, you know what.”

Joe’s mobile eyebrows did a flip beneath his hairline.  “She what?”

The bully scowled.  “I know you was out in the woods with her and that your brothers caught you buck-naked!”

“Yeah, I was, ‘cause Tory stole my clothes!” he shot back, his temper rising at the injustice of the whole thing.  A bully who was sore with him ‘cause he got the girl and wanted to mash him to a pulp was one thing.  Bein’ accused of, well, what Butch was accusin’ him of was another thing entirely!

That old discretion Adam talked about didn’t count when a woman’s reputation was on the line – even one like Tory.

“For gosh sakes, Butch, she had Nellie and that other girl with her!  You can ask Hoss.”

“Like your brother wouldn’t lie for you,” Butch sneered.  “You Cartwrights, you stick together.  Every one knows it.”  He made a disgusted face.  “Ain’t one of you worth the effort to spit on.”

Now that really did it!  First impugnin’ – that was one of Adam’s ten dollar words –  a woman’s honor and now insulting his family!

“You take that back!” Joe yelled.

“Yeah, you come and make me, Cartwright!”  Butch raised his hands and wiggled his fingers.  “Come on, lover boy.  You take me on!”

Joe hesitated, hearin’ his Pa’s voice in his ear.  “There is no insult, Joseph, that is worth a broken bone.  Fighting never solved anything.’

It might not solve it, but it would dang sure make him feel better.

Spitting on his hands, Little Joe Cartwright rubbed them together.

Then he vaulted the rock and leapt into the air.

 

Hoss cursed up one side and down the other as he made his way back to their campsite, usin’ words that would have made his pa spit nails.  Dang that little Jennings girl!  He and Adam had seen what she was doin’, workin’ her way right up to gettin’ into Little Joseph’s pants.  Joe’d let slip a couple of the tricks she’d tried with him.  He and Adam had both given thanks in church the next Sunday for God stoppin’ them from workin’.  That little tart had done set her sights on his brother and she knew if she got Joseph to do what he weren’t supposed to do, she’d have him right in her pocket.  From where he was standin’, seemed to him she’d let Butch bring her out here just so she could wind him up and turn him down and then set him on Little Joe to make him pay for refusin’ her.  ‘Course Tory hadn’t taken into account the fact that Butch might just try to take advantage of her.

Before killin’ Little Joe.

As his feet hit the edge of the campsite, Hoss halted.  He gulped in air and then shouted, “Joe!  Little Joe!”  As he waited, his mind raced.  Where could the boy have gone?  If it had been to relieve hisself, Joe would have been back fast as a deacon takin’ up a collection.  Hoss’ keen blue eyes scanned the area, searching for a clue.  Suddenly, he noted the missing canteens.

The river!

Taking off like a shot, he continued to yell.  “Joe!  Little Joe!  You answer me, boy!

“Joe!”

 

He wanted to answer Hoss, really he did, but it was a little hard with Butch’s fingers pressing into his windpipe.

They were layin’ on the riverbank.  Butch had him by the neck and was banging his head on the ground.  The bully was still shoutin’, but the ringing in his ears was drowning out whatever he had to say.  When his feet had hit that rock and he’d barreled into Butch, he’d had the upper hand.  He’d knocked him right off of his feet.  He’d learned a lot, wrasslin’ with his bear-size middle brother, and for a while, he’d thought he could win.  The trouble was, Hoss didn’t fight dirty.

Butch did.

It had been the blow to his head with a handy branch that had turned the tide.  With stars blockin’ his view, he missed Butch’s uppercut and only knew about it when bone met bone and his head snapped back.  He lost all sense of where he was for a few seconds and when he came back to it, he found he wasn’t where he’d been.  Somehow the two of them were on the far side of the rock.

It was then he realized Butch had drug him to the bank of the river and meant to drown him.

He was smarter than a knuckle-brained idiot should be, that Butch.  If it looked like he’d drowned, no one would suspect the bully had anythin’ to do with it.  All the bruises could be explained by his body bein’ carried downstream.  It was raining harder now.  The river was rising higher.  At the best of times it had a swift current.

At the worst, it charged like a herd of startled mustangs runnin’ wild.

Joe blinked and struggled to speak as Butch applied more pressure to his throat, cuttin’ off near all his air.  Then, without warning, he let go.  The release was as sudden as Joe’s surprise.  Both set his head to spinning.

Then he heard it – Hoss shouting.

His brother was close.

Butch stared down at him, his eyes wide and wild.  In them Joe saw his death.  If Hoss caught him doin’ what he was doin’, Butch would go to jail.  He’d hurt other kids besides him before.  The sheriff had warned his pa.

Joe felt his limp body lifted up from the wet ground.  Butch drew him in until their faces almost touched.  The bully’s swam in front of his eyes, fadin’ in and out.

“It’s you or me, Cartwright!” he snarled.

Then Butch threw him in the river.

 

Through the rain, Hoss caught a flash of something tan in color off to his left as he broke through the underbrush and reached the riverbank.  He puzzled over it a moment and then turned toward the water.  Moving forward, he halted to one side of a large boulder that leaned out over it and sucked in air, replenishing his near spent supply before callin’ out.

“Joe! Little Joe!  Boy!  You answer me!”

He waited.

“Joe!”

Nothing.

Hoss glanced from side to side, but he saw no sign of Butch or his little brother.  He knew they had to be here.  He’d seen Joe’s tracks leadin’ this way, and the other, heavier boy’s on top of them. He couldn’t imagine why Little Joe wouldn’t answer.

Unless, for some reason, he couldn’t.

Dropping to the ground, Hoss began to search for signs of what had transpired on the bank.  He found them quick enough and they told the story – Joe’s muddy boot prints on the rock, Butch’s prints driven into the ground where Joe tackled him, a body hittin’ the ground hard and then bein’ dragged toward the water, and then Butch’s prints runnin’ off in the same direction where he’d seen that tan blur.

All by their lonesome.

A pit opened in his stomach.  For a moment the big man stood still, frozen by fear into inaction.  Then he began to run along the river bank as terror took hold of his innards and twisted them hard.

“Joe!  Little Joe! For God’s sake, Joe, answer me!”

As the big man came to the bend in the river where the water grew more rapid and tumbled down a series of falls, he halted.  He could see ahead for a good quarter-mile and there was nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Hoss had heard of a man’s knees goin’ to jelly.  It were more than an expression to him now.  The big man tumbled to the ground where he was and sat there with tears streamin’ down his cheeks.

How was he gonna tell his pa that he let his little brother drown?

 

Ben Cartwright gazed out the window.  The storm was at its height.  Lightning crashed, illuminating the gun-metal gray sky and thunder rumbled.  It made him think of Joseph who, as a little boy, had been frightened of both.  He’d awakened one stormy night to find Marie missing from their bed.  Stepping into the hall, he’d made a beeline for their small son’s room, certain that was where she had gone.  He found them sitting in front of the window.  Little Joe’s curly head was resting on his mother’s shoulder and she was speaking softly as her fingers played with his curls.

‘…the king was very angry because his people were afraid, and so he banished the mother and the son from the earth and ordered them to live in the sky.  Since then the son, Lightning, causes fire and destruction when he is angry, and his mother, Thunder, continues to scold him.  That is why you can always see the bright lightning in the sky, petit Joseph, and hear the loud thunder right after that.’ 

‘If you are the thunder, maman,” Little Joe had asked, his voice slurring with approaching sleep.  “Does that mean papa is the lightning?’

He could still hear Marie’s bell-like laughter.  She’d leaned down, kissed Joseph’s head, and then – with a mischievous smile – replied, “Oui!’

Ben sucked in air as the vision dissipated.

God, how he missed her!

“You okay, Pa?”

He turned to find Adam watching him.  For a moment, until he found his voice, the rancher simply nodded.  Then he said, “I’m fine, son.”

Adam’s eyes went to the ferocious night unfolding outside the window.  “Hoss and Little Joe will be fine too, Pa.  You taught them well.  They’ll find a place to hole up and keep dry.”

Ben nodded.  “I know.  Still, I hate to think of them out there in…this.  It’s been a while since we’ve seen a storm this fierce, and it came up so fast.”

“That’s spring for you,” Adam said.

He hadn’t seen his eldest boy all day and now that he had, his concern ratcheted up a notch. Before Adam could stop him, he had his hand on his forehead.

“You’re still carrying a fever.  Did you take the medicine I brought home?”

He shrugged.  “Maybe it takes a few doses to kick in.”

“Maybe,” Ben replied, lifting his hand.  “I still think you should get as much rest as you can.”

“I just got up four hours ago, Pa,” his son protested.  Then he added with a grin, “What are you trying to do, turn me into Joe?”

The older man laughed.  “Still, I think you should go lie down.”

“You know what it says in Proverbs, Pa,” Adam countered.  ‘The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied.’ I think I’ll just be diligent and do a little paperwork so the Ponderosa remains supplied.”

The older man placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Just don’t tire yourself out,” he said as he turned toward the kitchen.

A knock on the door made them both jump.

Ben exchanged a look with Adam.  He saw the same question in his son’s eyes.

Who?

He opened it to find Dan Tolliver standing on the stoop.  He was carrying someone whom he had bundled in a horse blanket.

“Found her out by the barn, Ben,” the wrangler said, his voice and eyes troubled.

“Her?” Adam asked as he came up beside him.

“Come in, Dan.  Take the young lady over to the fire.”  He could see whoever she was, her dress was torn.  It was muddy and dripping water as well.  “Hop Sing!” he bellowed.

The man from China appeared almost instantly.  “What you yell about?  Not have time get dinner on table for guests and self if you….”  Hop Sing’s voice trailed off when he saw what was going on.  “Who little missy?” he asked as the girl’s blonde head appeared.

Ben didn’t know yet.  Dan placed the girl on the sofa and backed away so he could move in.  He took her slender hand in his as he shifted the sodden blanket away from her face.

“Good Lord, it’s Tory!” he breathed.

Adam was at the settee in a heartbeat.  “Tory Jennings?  Joe’s girl?”

Ben shot him a look that indicated that was not the way he wanted Tory identified.  Taking both of the child’s hands in his, he began to chafe them.  “Toss another log on the fire, Adam.  She’s cold as ice.  And Hop Sing, please, fix some tea.  We need to warm her up inside.”

“Ben?”

The rancher looked up.  He had almost forgotten about Dan.  He knew the wrangler well.  They’d been friends for years.  He surrendered his place to Adam and went over to his old friend.  “Dan, what it is?”

“You said that’s the Jennings girl?”

He nodded.  “Yes, why?”

What he saw when he met the man’s eyes made him stop.  There was fear in them.

And compassion.

“I hate to tell you this, Ben.  But she came in on Chubb.”

 

FOUR

The Englishman looked down at the catch he had just fished out of the river.  He’d been huddled up against a rock to stave off the rain, wearing a ruined suit and a wet blanket, when he’d heard an odd sound.  It was the Lord’s own doing that he’d heard it at all over the roar of the wind and the rumbles of thunder and cracks of lightning that split the night.  Intrigued, he’d shed his blanket and walked to the water’s edge only to find a boy lying on the river bank.  The poor soul’s fingers were embedded in the mud.  It looked like he’d used the last ounce of his strength to haul himself up and out of the churning water.  For an idle moment he’d considered whether or not the Lord had heard his lonely prayer wishing for companionship, before he had taken hold of the boy’s collar and pulled him up and out of danger.  At first he feared he was too late.  The boy’s skin was fish-belly pale and he didn’t seem to be breathing.  Once he had him away from the river, he’d taken hold of his arms and shaken him gently.  When that elicited a pitiful moan, he’d breathed a sigh of relief.  It took little effort to haul the boy the rest of the distance to his camp and place him underneath the overhanging boulder he’d taken shelter under earlier.

He only wished he’d had something dry to wrap around him.

With the light all but swallowed by the storm it had been nearly impossible to tell, but he’d thought the edges of the boy’s lips were blue.  Having nothing to use to warm him other than his own body, he had stripped the boy of his wet clothes and then drawn his naked form close to his own clothed one and wrapped them both in the driest blanket he could find.

John chuckled softly to himself as he peered at the tousled head of curls.  Somehow, this was not what he had expected when he breathed another sigh of relief this morning, knowing he had finally set foot on Ben Cartwright’s land.

It had been a long and twisted journey that had begun in England, taken a sharp turn in Vallejo, and now moved on to Nevada for its next and, perhaps, final chapter.  He looked at the curly-headed boy again and let out a sigh.  He could only hope he hadn’t rescued the child from the river only to place him in significantly more danger.

He was, after all, a wanted man.

“Uhhhh…..”

The Englishman frowned.  He was afraid what the boy might think when he became aware enough to recognize his lack of clothing and his close proximity to a strange man.  It was really imperative he do something to put him at ease.  Slipping to the side, the Englishman pulled the blanket from his own shoulders and wrapped it around the boy, covering his nakedness before speaking.

“Son?  Can you hear me?”

The boy moaned again and opened his startlingly green eyes.  A second later they rolled upwards.  For a moment he feared his unexpected companion was going to pass out again, but then he blinked, swallowed, and fastened those eyes on him.

“…who…?”

“A friend,” he replied, running a hand through his wet flaxen hair and driving it back from his pale blue eyes so the boy could see them better.  “My name is John.  Can you tell me your name?”

The boy tried to shift his body.  The effort proved too much.  He drew in a shallow, surprised breath and then was beset by a fit of coughing worthy of a consumptive.

John held him until he quieted.  “It doesn’t matter who you are, son. Try to sleep.”

Those green eyes sought him again.  They were filled, not only with pain but with confusion.

“Pa?”

He caught the boy’s hand and squeezed it.  “No.  My name is John.  Where is your father?  Were you with him?”

“…Hoss.”

The Englishman frowned.  Hoss?  What was that?  A pet name for his father, or for himself perhaps?

“Are you Hoss?” John asked.

The boy’s laugh was pitiful.  He coughed again.  “…guess…you ain’t…”  Another cough and this time something rattled in his chest.  “…seen middle…brother.”

John wondered how the boy had ended up in the water in the first place.  Some misstep, perhaps, due to the lack of light and the wicked night?

“Were you with your brother before you went into the river?”

He nodded.  “…camping.”

A bolt of lightning cut through the night.  It struck close by them, illuminating the area they occupied as well as the boy who lay close beside him.  He might have been fifteen or sixteen, though his angelic face and tousled curls made him look much younger. Thinking back to what his brother had told him – and considering where he was – John had a thought.  Perhaps he knew whose child this was.

“Is your name Cartwright?” John asked.

The boy looked startled and just a little bit afraid.  After a second, he nodded.  “Joe.”

Benjamin Cartwright is your father?”

Again, a nod.  And another cough.  “You…know him, mister?”

John smiled.  “I know of him.  We’ve never met, but he’s met my brother.  You have too.”

The sandman was weighing down his eyelids and Joe was growing weary.  As soon as the boy slept, he would gather him to himself again.  Joseph Cartwright had suffered enough.  It was almost beyond belief that God had allowed something like this to happen to him – again.

“Who’s your…brother…?” Joe roused himself to ask.  “What’s…his name?”

The boy was asleep before he could answer, but he said it anyhow.  He missed his brother.  God willing he would see him again.

“His name is Jude, Little Joe.  Jude Randolph.”

 

He and Dan found Hoss sitting on the bank of the river soaked to the skin and shivering.  Ben had refused to allow Adam to go out into the tempest and so it was the two of them who had ventured out into the wild night in search of their missing loved one.  At twenty-two Hoss was a man, but in some ways he was still a child – a tender-hearted child that couldn’t bear to see anything hurt.  The eyes that his middle boy turned on him when he placed a hand on his shoulder were red-rimmed and filled with pain and a loss of hope.

“He’s gone, Pa,” he moaned. “Little Joe’s gone.”

“Gone?” Dan asked.

“It was Butch.  Butch MacTavish.”  Hoss drew a shuddering breath.  “God damn his ornery hide, Butch threw little brother in the river like he weren’t no more than day old waste!”

He should have corrected his son for taking the Lord’s name in vain.  Perhaps he would – in time.  Ben raised his eyes to the raging torrent the river had become.  Had it carried away his youngest son along with the hopes and dreams he had for the boy?  As he stared at it, feeling through his fingertips Joe’s brother’s body shake with anguish, Ben replayed the conversation he had had with Tory Jennings in his mind.

It happened just after Dan had told him that the girl had come into the yard riding Chubb.

……….

Ben blinked.  “What?”

“I was comin’ out of the stable when she rode in lookin’ like she’d forded the Truckee,” Dan said.  “Poor child slid right off the saddle.  Looked like she’d been ridin’ long and hard.”

“But, on Chubb?  Hoss’ horse?”

The older man nodded.  “Recognized that animal right away.”

“What about Hoss?  And Joseph?” he asked.

 Dan shook his head.  “Didn’t see hide nor hair of either of ‘em.”

“Pa.”

Ben pivoted on his heel to look at Adam. 

“She’s coming around.”

His son’s statement was confirmed as the girl began to sob.  She caught Adam’s burgundy shirt in her fingers and tugged.  “You…you have to…help Little Joe!  Please!  He’s going to kill him!”

Adam  shifted out of the way as he dropped to his knees by the settee.  Reaching out, Ben touched the child’s shoulder.  “Tory.  Tory, look at me.”

For a second it was as if she didn’t see him, then the girl’s blue eyes went wide.  “Mister Cartwright!  You’ve got to go find Little Joe!”

“Tory.  Shh.  Little Joe’s with his brother Hoss.  He’s fine – ”

“No!” she shrieked.  “No, he’s not!  Hoss was…with me.  He put me on his horse and told me to come to the Ponderosa.  Butch….  Butch, he….”

Words fled in the face of her tears.

“Pa?”

He glanced at Adam, who looked as sick as he felt.  Something had happened and Hoss and Joe had apparently split up.  Hoss had found Tory and sent her to them and then gone where? 

Where was little Joe?

“Tory,” Ben said, keeping his voice even in spite of the fact that he wanted to panic. “I need you to calm down and tell me exactly what happened.”

The girl’s gaze went from him to Adam and then came back to him.  “I’m so…sorry, Mister Cartwright,” she sobbed.  “I never thought….”

“Take a deep breath and tell me.”

“I wanted….  I asked Little Joe to….”  She blushed and looked down.  “He wouldn’t.  I was…mad.  I told Butch….”  The blonde girl straightened up and looked him in the eye.  “I told Butch Little Joe made…love to me and Butch said he was going to kill him.”

……….

“He’s dead, Pa.  Little Joe’s…dead.”  Hoss shuddered.  “Ain’t no use hopin’….”

He gave his boy’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.  “There’s always hope, son.”

Hoss’ clear blue eyes sought his.  “That river’s runnin’ mighty fast, Pa.  A grown man’d have a hard time keepin’ his head above water.  And Joe ain’t a grown man, he’s….  He’s so small, Pa.”

The odds were against Joseph making it.  He knew that.  But he also knew a good God who in His plan might mean for the boy to live.  Yes, the river was wild, but there were overhanging branches and places where the current would carry anything floating on the surface close to the shore.  His boys all knew how to swim – and well.  He’d made sure of it, and they knew something more –

How to survive.

Dan Tollivar cleared his throat.  “Ben.”

He turned toward the other man.  “Forgive me, Dan.  I didn’t mean to ignore you.”

His friend nodded.  “Ain’t nothin’ we can do for Joe tonight, but seems to me it would be a right smart thing to find shelter.”  The wrangler nodded toward Hoss; his eyes filled with unspoken concern.  “We can build a fire and pass the night and then start lookin’ soon as it’s light.”

Dan was right.  Hoss was soaked through and if he didn’t dry off and warm up soon, there would be the possibility of pneumonia.  He already had one sick boy – and another missing.  He didn’t need Hoss to become ill as well.

Reaching down, he caught his giant of a son by the arm and tried to lift him up.  “Come on, Hoss. We need to get you out of the rain.”

“I cain’t Pa!” he protested, his voice cracking.  “I cain’t leave Joe.”

The love between his middle and youngest sons ran deep, deeper maybe than he or Adam could understand.  Hoss was Joseph’s protector and at the moment he believed he had failed in his duty.

“You need to get dried off and rest, son.  If you get sick, how is that going to help your brother?”

Hoss was silent for a moment.  Then he heaved a great sigh. Ben felt his son’s weight shift and he steadied him as he rose to his feet.  The big man gazed at the rushing water and then turned back to him.  “You really think Joe’s got a chance, Pa?”

“I know he does, son,” he assured him.

Ben too looked at the raging river.  He said it again to make sure he believed it.

“I know he does.”

 

Adam didn’t know how it had happened, but he’d suddenly found himself alone in a household of women.

Oh, Hop Sing was in the house, but he’d beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen the moment their guests appeared at the top of the stairs. Ming-hua and her sisters had heard Tory Jennings crying and been drawn to the distraught girl like moths to flame.  They surrounded her now, Biyu and Dandan sitting to each side of her on the settee, while Ming-hua found a perch on the table.  He wondered idly as he drifted toward the front door just what Mister Jennings would think if he knew his daughter was being consoled by two…well…ladies of the evening and their little sister, all of whom were Chinese.

He counted it in Tory’s favor that she was letting it happen.

Edgar Jennings had come to Eagle Station with his family a half-dozen years before intent on becoming a big fish in a small pond.  He’d been involved in the mining industry in California and had made a small fortune, and then used that money to buy several mines in their area.  He had been on the committee in California that had passed the Foreign Miner’s license law in 1850 and four years later spearheaded one of the campaigns to rid the country of the Chinese altogether.  Jennings had made it quite clear at a recent town meeting that he disapproved of Ming-hua becoming the sole owner of the millinery she and Rosey had begun together.

Pa, of course, had defended her right to do so vociferously.

Quite vociferously.

When he reached the door Adam turned back to look at the flock of females.  Unexpectedly, he was overcome with a painful nostalgia.  He hadn’t known his pa’s last wife long – barely five years – but of the three of them, his memories of Marie were the clearest.  After all, he’d been thirteen when Pa brought her home.  He had to admit that she’d softened their male edges a bit.  Sometimes he even missed the bouquets of flowers that had adorned almost every table and those silly colorful throws she liked to toss around.

But, most of all, he simply missed her.

“Mister Adam?”

He looked out and then down to find Ming-hua had come to his side.  “Yes?”

“Ming-hua wishes to express her sadness for what has happened.”

His gaze shot to damp damsel on the settee.  “What did Tory tell you?”

“Little Joe is in trouble.”  The girl’s troubled gaze reflected the fact that Tory had told her more than that.  She hesitated and then placed a hand on his sleeve.  A bold gesture for one of her race.  “Is there anything Ming-hua can do for trouble this brings Little Joe’s brother?”

Her kindness took him unawares.  His eyes misted and he had to blink to clear them. “Just take care of Tory until her father gets here.”  He’d sent one of the hands to the Jennings’ place, knowing her family had to be half out of their minds wondering where their child was – just like they were.  “I’m going to go check on the horses in the stable.  The lightning’s probably frightened them.”

She nodded her understanding.  “Ming-hua and her sisters will ask the ancestors to watch over and protect Little Joe.”

Adam caught her hand and squeezed it, and then grabbed his coat and beat a hasty retreat out the door before any tears could form.

Once outside he paused on the porch to put his coat on and pull its heavy collar up against the driving wind.  Then he looked in the direction his pa and Dan Tollivar had gone.  He wanted to be out there looking for Little Joe – he was that worried about the kid.  His father’s veto had made him angry and they’d exchanged a few harsh words before the older man left.  The black-haired man sighed as he stepped off of the porch and his lips curled with chagrin.

Of course, the fact that he was shivering after only a few minutes exposure to the cold and wet night begged the question of which one of them was right.

A dozen or so long strides brought him to the stable door.  He could hear the horses milling about within, some of them whinnying with fright.  Those whinnies turned to screams as another bolt of lightning stuck, this time nearer to the house.  The storm was almost directly overhead.  The good part of that was that it would pass over soon.

The bad part was that it was here now.

Changing directions, Adam entered through the smaller door that led into the anteroom instead of the stalls themselves.  They always kept a lantern and matches on the table there.  He didn’t want to spook the horses anymore than they already were and he thought, if he was clearly illuminated and spoke softly, that they might listen to him and calm down.  Carefully lifting the chimney so it was still partially over the wick, he struck a match and applied its fiery head to the cord.  The rain pounded down on the roof of the stable as he did and, even though he and his brothers had done their best to keep the structure airtight, the powerful wind wheedled its way through.  He was afraid it would blow the lantern out before he got it lit.

Taking the blazing lantern in hand, Adam turned and moved into the area that held the horses.  He needed to figure out which one had screamed, because its fear might prove contagious and all of their horses could startle and hurt themselves.  His little brother’s new pinto was in the stable.  It had been a birthday present from Pa for Joe’s birthday.  Cochise was young and high-strung just like his fifteen-year-old rider and he had a suspicion that Cooch – as his brother called him – was the one close to inciting a riot.

He was heading for Cochise’s stall when a strange noise stopped him in his tracks.

Someone had coughed.

Adam held the lantern above his head, illuminating as much of the area as he could . “Hello!  Is someone there?”

It happened, he knew.  A storm would come up and some weary traveler in need of shelter would take up temporary residence in the first dry building he could find.  When there was no reply, Adam moved a few steps further into the open area at the center of the structure.

“Hello?”

A shadow shifted and a man stepped out – but not a vagabond or weary traveler like he had expected.  The tall thin stranger was obviously Chinese and near Pa’s age from what he could tell in the dim light.  He had a long thin face with lips to match.  A narrow mustache topped them.  When he shifted the lantern for a  better look, the light struck the man’s heavy black damask coat.  It was something like the one Hop Sing donned for special occasions.  The only difference was, while their cook’s was fairly unadorned, this man’s had a deep silver-edged silk border heavily embroidered with blue and wine flowers, with rampant dragons at the corners.

He was obviously a man of wealth and power.

“This humble traveler begs the pardon of most honorable sir for taking shelter in his barn without permission.”

“It’s all right.  It’s happened before,” he responded.  Another crack of lightning drew his attention back to the world outside.  “It’s pretty wild out there.”

The man nodded.  “Once the tiger is loosed, it cannot be contained until it seeks its own bed.”

“Yes, well.  Let’s hope it’s bed is in the next territory over.”  Adam eyed the horses.  They were shifting and snorting but seemed, for the moment, under control.  “May I ask what brings you out on such a night?”

“This one was headed to Eagle Station when the lightning caused his horse to bolt.”

“You walked here?”

Another nod.

“What’s so important in Eagle Station?” he asked and then, immediately, recognized the question as rude.  “I’m sorry.  It’s none of my business.”

“This one begs to differ.  Payment for hospitality is due.  Da Chao comes in search of one who is of his family.”

Adam racked his brain.  He’d had fifteen years to learn Chinese and hadn’t bothered.  What did that say for his vaunted intelligence and cosmopolitan leanings?  Both names were masculine from what he remembered and had something to do with physical or mental power, making this man one to be reckoned with.  He wondered who he was related to in Eagle Station.

Adam’s lips quirked.  Somehow he didn’t think Chao was one of Hop Sing’s thousand cousins. His words were subservient.  The stranger’s tone, anything but.

“May this one ask on whose land he now dwells?”

“This is our spread, my Pa and my brothers.  We call it the Ponderosa.”

The man’s lips turned up in a reserved smile.  “Ah, the home of the honorable house of Cartwright.  I have heard  much of them.”

“Oh?”

“They are spoken of still in the establishment which I own.  This one has been told of their great courage in seeking the one who was lost to them.”

Adam frowned.  “And you are from…?”

“Vallejo.”

The frown deepened.  Vallejo.  It took a second, but then he remembered.  Joe’s kidnapping by Wade Bosh.

It had been one of the most severe trials his family had ever passed through.

“You mean when my father went there searching for my brother?”  As the man nodded, he continued, “and which establishment would that be?”

“One, honorable sir, that it would be my pleasure to introduce you to should your path ever lead there.  This one believes you would find its wares much to your taste.  It is known as The Delectable Dragon.”

Every muscle in Adam’s lean form went rigid.  “You are Madame Ah Kum’s husband?”

“I see, honorable son of Benjamin Cartwright, that you are acquainted with the knowledge of who I am,” Da Chao said as he moved forward.  “Might you also be acquainted with those who work for me who were headed for the mighty Ponderosa?”

Adam noted how Chao’s speech had changed, becoming more Anglicanized.  There was something else going on here.

He didn’t miss a beat.  “Sorry.  I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Da Chao moved a step closer.  His black eyes narrowed and his voice dropped in pitch.  “So you do not admit to having, within your walls, two who belong to me?  Dandan and Biyu, the wife of Longwei, have not sought sanctuary here?”

“I’m afraid not.”

The Chinese man came even closer.  “It would be wise for you, son of Benjamin Cartwright, to speak honestly.  I intend you no harm, but I cannot speak for the son of my sister whose bride has shamed him.”

Adam’s eyes darted back and forth, searching the shadows.  So far he had only seen Da Chao.  Perhaps Ah Kum’s husband had come alone to give them a warning before this Longwei took matters into his own hands.

Perhaps, but probably not.

His hazel eyes returned to the tall thin man standing before him.  Almost imperceptible he saw Chao nod.

Between that heartbeat and the next an arm circled his throat, taking him in a chokehold.

Da Chao finished his advance, coming so close he could feel the other man’s breath on his cheek.  “We will go into the house of Benjamin Cartwright and see for ourselves whether his son speaks the truth.”  Chao held his gaze, reading in it Adam’s unspoken question.  “And if he is not, then it will not be he who pays for his dishonesty.

“But those he loves.”

 

John Randolph ducked into the cave and leaned heavily against the wall.  The storm had grown in strength until it raged like the Titans of old.  Fearful for his young charge, he had abandoned what had passed as a camp and carried the boy through the tempest in search of better shelter.  By the time he found it, they were both soaked to the skin and there was nothing dry left to change into or wrap around either one of them.  He’d laughed when he realized he would have to start a fire in the way the savages did.  He’d worked among them for a short time since his emigration to America and seen how they could use sticks or the sun or both to magick flames out of nothing.  Of course, there was no sun and so he’d been left with sticks and only a vague memory of how to begin.

It had taken him nearly an hour, but he’d managed it.

Pushing off the wall, the Englishman turned toward the blaze and the sickly boy lying beside it.  He’d heated a blanket as quickly as he could to take the damp and chill away from the heavy cloth and then wrapped it around Joe Cartwright’s trembling form.  Then he’d placed him as close to the fire as could be safely done and set about caring for him.  As he rummaged through his pack, he despaired of the items he’d been forced to abandon along with his camp.  Among them were some of his most prized possessions, ruined now, no doubt, by the inclement weather.  Before picking Joe up, he had managed to loop over his head a satchel that contained food and a few personal items, including several bottles of medicine which he’d packed in case the recurrent fever that plagued him chose to return during his American sojourn.  It was an old ailment he bore from his military days in India.  His physician had prescribed a remedy made from the bark of the Cinchona tree.

He hoped it would be of some use in keeping young Joseph Cartwright alive.

As he swaddled him, John paid close attention to the boy’s body.  There were a good many bruises engendered by his journey down the river, but the ones that bothered him the most were about young Joe’s neck.  It was plain to see the impression of fingers in the boy’s white flesh.  Someone had tried to strangle him and then, it seemed, dumped his barely conscious form into the river in hopes that he would drown.  Squatting down and reaching out, the Englishman shoved some of the curls back from Little Joe’s forehead.  Jude had said the boy resembled him when he was young and he could see why.  Jude had been more slender than Ben Cartwright’s son when he first met him, but then, as a boy Jude had been abandoned and left to die before his father found him and took him in.  At first, he and his siblings had been resentful of their father’s ‘urchin’, but in time he had come to thank God for his adopted brother who was one of the best men he knew.

John snorted.  A better man than him, that was for certain.

After his father’s death, he had readily accepted the presidency of the Randolph Shipping Company and intended to do right by his father and for his sister, Joanna.  It had taken less than a year for him to find out that he had no knack for business.  His father had been grooming him for years but, if the truth was known, he’d only played at it at best.  His interests lay in the arts.  It was what had brought him to America.

That and the desire to meet the Cartwrights whom he had heard so much about.

As soon as Jude came back to England and agreed to take over as head of the company, he had begun to wander.  He’d gone first to the continent where he’d visited Rome and Egypt to study their arts, and then decided to come to America.  Jude’s tales of this country and of its inhabitants had intrigued him and he felt he had to see them for himself and paint them.

Painting was his life and breath – if not his bread and butter.

That was cooking.

When he’d arrived in America, it had been in San Francisco.  He’d worked in the kitchens of several fine hotels – earning his own way, which was something new for him – and had been delighted by the sense of accomplishment it brought.  Wherever he went, he told people he had no family and was, if not penniless, without means.  In a way it was true, for he had brought little of his family’s fortune with him – just enough to pay for his passage and buy supplies.  Eventually a job had been recommended to him in Vallejo.  A local establishment was looking for a chef to cook light meals and small delicacies.  The pay was very good, the load would be light, and it would leave him time to paint.  As Nevada was his final destination, it seemed wise to take a job closer to the territory, and that was how he had found himself at The Delectable Dragon.

John’s gaze returned to Joe Cartwright.

And how he’d learned the details of this boy’s trial and his courage.

John ran a hand through his chin-length blond locks and tossed the fringe that hung on his high forehead back.  He was no innocent and it hadn’t taken him long to realize just what kind of an establishment The Dragon was.  There was a dark underbelly to the salon that traded not only in China girls, but in strong, young white men who were shanghaied and never seen again.  He’d intended to quit before, well, before what happened, happened.

If only he had.

A low moan emitted from his charge drew John back to the present.  He quickly made his way over to Ben Cartwright’s boy who was waking up.  Kneeling beside him, the Englishman picked up the cup with the dilution of Cinchona and held it to the boy’s lips, urging him to drink.  Joe made a face at the bitter concoction and weakly shook his head.

John took the boy’s warm hand in his own.  “You’ve been calling for your father, Joe.  Do you want to see him again?”

Joe’s thick eyebrows met in the middle.  He shifted and coughed, the sound of it rattling in his chest.

“Pa….” he said.

“You’re ill.  This will help you get better and help you to have the strength to travel home.”  His voice was calm, even – gentle.  “Your father will be waiting and hoping, Joe.  You don’t want to let him down.”

“But…it tastes…awful….”

“One has to be cruel to be kind sometimes,” he answered.

That brought an unexpected smile to the boy’s lips.  “Shows you what a…fool Englishman in…tights and lace knows….”

John was startled.  “You know Shakespeare?”

The boy coughed again.  His fingers reached for his bruised throat.  “Only…cause brother Adam…forced me to.”  Joe paused to draw a raspy breath.  “I got one…for you….”

“Oh?”

“I guess I gotta…screw my courage to…the sticking point.”  Joe’s smile was the smile of an angel.  “Guess I’ll drink your…poison….”

He liked this boy.  Very much.

As Joe Cartwright drifted back to sleep, John Randolph rose and walked to the cave mouth.  Looking out, he saw the storm had moved away in the direction of Eagle Station.  Soon it would be over.  In the morning he would have to decide what to do.  Of course, a lot depended on whether or not Joe could travel.  He didn’t feel right leaving the boy behind, but he knew that Joe’s family would be desperate to know he was alive.  Joe’s father had troubled deaf Heaven with his bootless cries nearly three years before to locate him and he doubted anything short of Heaven’s hand would stop Ben Cartwright now.

The Englishman scowled.  Unless, of course, it was the troubles he had brought with him.  As the Bard said, when they came, they came not in single spies but in battalions.

He could only hope they would all survive the war.

 

FIVE

Dandan released the red curtain and let it fall back into place.  She had left Biyu and the Jennings girl and gone to the window behind Ben Cartwright’s desk to watch the handsome oldest son of Benjamin Cartwright walk to the stable.  Adam’s sparkling eyes, that were the color of nephrite jade, held such kindness for two such unworthy ones as she and her sister.  In them there was no condemnation.  With a sigh, the beautiful Chinese woman turned back into the great room.  She found herself drawn to the striking white man, but knew she must not act upon her feelings.  Dandan’s black eyes sought Biyu, who was seated on the striped settee.

Disasters do not walk alone, their mother had wisely taught them.

From the letters they had received from Ming-hua over the last few years, she felt she had come to know this family and she had no wish to bring them harm.  The elder, Benjamin Cartwright, was a like the Chinese Dragon – strong, with a love of his sons that was fierce.  Benjamin’s number one son was like Quinui, the eldest of the Dragon’s sons, deep and thoughtful, with an interest in books and music.  His number two son was a fearsome giant of a man, but like Dragon’s fifth son, Suanni, there was no harm in him and he desired only peace.  Dandan smiled as she thought of Mister Cartwright’s number three son.  Little Joe was Pulao.

He liked to roar.

The Chinese woman’s smile quickly faded as her thoughts returned to her sister.  The one who followed them – Longwei, whom her younger sister had been bound to against her will – was like Yazi, the warlike son of the Dragon who had a head like his father and the body of a jackal.  Longwei desired power and loved no one but himself.

He would kill them and any who offered them shelter if they came into his power.

If it had not been for Biyu’s being with child, she would never have agreed to come to this house.  There were other paths they could have taken.  Each of them had a small amount of money.  They could have boarded a ship and sailed for home.  Dandan closed her eyes at the thought of ‘home’.  There had been too many mouths in their household to feed.  Once they were old enough, she and her two sisters had been sold and sent to America.  Did their mother, Boazhai, still live, she wondered?  Their father?  And what of their five brothers?

Upon their arrival in the West they had been taken immediately to Da Chao and Ah Kum, who owned them.  While young, she and Biyu had cared for the older man and his young wife as had Ming-hua, but once old enough they had been made to work at The Delectable Dragon.  First, they had served food and drinks.  When they turned sixteen, they were made to go upstairs and to serve themselves instead.

Dandan ran a hand through her long silken hair and tucked an errant strand behind her ear.  Three years before, a most unusual man had come into The Dragon seeking his lost son.  She and Biyu had been too frightened to help him, but Ming-hua had not.  Their little sister shamed them by seeking this man out and telling him how his son had been held captive at The Dragon.  In the end, due to her actions, the boy was found.  To reward her, Ming-hua was given a new home with Rosey O’Rourke.  What Ming-hua had done by this was very dangerous.

She had given them hope that there was an escape.

Never before had they dreamed escape possible.  From that moment on, she and Biyu grew more and more restless.  There was something more – something better for them, and it lay beyond the gilded doors of The Dragon.  And yet, they were frightened.  They had never lived on their own before, and America’s West was not kind to people of their race.  Many hated them just for being Chinese, and those who did not were afraid of the ones who did.

Benjamin Cartwright was not afraid.

“Mister Adam is not back yet?” Biyu asked.

“He tends their animals.  It will take some time.”  Dandan frowned.  Her eyes searched the room.  “Where is Tory?”

“You did not see honorable Hop Sing take her to a room upstairs?”

No.  She had been too busy thinking.

With a shake of her head, the eldest of the Chinese sisters turned back to the window to watch for Adam Cartwright’s return.   The Jennings girl was a problem.  She was very young and most unwise.  She believed she was in love and because of that, had sought to take Little Joe’s innocence.  This was not love, but selfishness.  The girl did not care about him, but only about herself.

Dandan glanced at her pregnant sister and sighed.

White.  Yellow.  Black.  Red.

It was all the same.

Pushing the curtain aside once again, Dandan looked out at the yard – and drew a sharp breath.  There was something else that remained same.

It was never wise to cover your ears while stealing the bell.

They had been careless.

Da Chao had found them.

 

Ben Cartwright stood outside beneath the stars.  As usual, with the passing of the storm, nature had reasserted itself with startling beauty.  A light rain still fell, but for the most part the storm was over and what had been left behind was a black velvet sky punctuated by diamond-white stars.  The breeze was cool but not chilly.  He felt comfortable in his blue shirt and vest.  Summer was on its way and would soon exert its power over the land, baking the earth, stirring up dust and turning the tall desert grasses the color of ripened wheat, but for now everything was green and alive.  It was one of his favorite pastimes, stepping outside and standing under the stars.  Waiting for the door behind him to open.  Listening for the sound of his youngest’s footsteps.  Wrapping an arm around that slender frame.

Dear Lord, how his arms ached for that boy!

“Joseph,” the rancher breathed.  “Son, where are you?”

“Ben?”

It wasn’t his son, but Dan Tollivar who stood behind him.  Ben nodded a greeting to his friend.  “Can’t sleep either?” he asked.

Dan snorted and then grinned.  “That middle boy of yours, well, you oughta hire him out to one of the mills.  Ain’t no one better at sawin’ logs.”

The rancher frowned.  “I’m sorry, Dan.”

“Don’t be,” the wrangler said as he moved past and took a seat on a flat-topped rock near the cave mouth. “Leastwise, he’s sleepin’.”

Hoss had sworn he wouldn’t sleep – that he couldn’t, not with Little Joe missing.  Knowing his middle boy, he would feel extremely guilty when he woke up.

“He feels responsible for what happened to Joseph and I suppose in a way he is.”  Ben stopped abruptly, aware of what he had just said.  “Not that I blame him, you understand –”

“Course, you don’t.  But you might let the boy think you do.”

He scowled.  “Why in the world would I do that?”

“You taught them boys of yours to be responsible, Ben, and Hoss to be a man.  When a man’s done wrong he needs to make it right, else he can’t let that wrong go.”  The old cowpoke cocked his head and one corner of his lips curled.  “Hoss needs you to tell him he done wrong and he’s forgiven. Tellin’ him he did nothin’ wrong ain’t the same as acceptin’ that he did and forgivin’ him for it.  That’s what the young feller needs.”

Dan was older than him and in some ways had been the elder brother he had never known.  The wrangler was one of the few men who could chastise him and not end up with a bloody nose or split lip for doing so.

“So what you’re saying is that I am…cheapening my son’s act of contrition by saying he doesn’t need to be contrite?”

The wrangler took his hat off and scratched his thinning hair.  “Is that what I said?  Sounds right smart,” he added with a wink.

Ben laughed.  “Forgive me, my oldest son must be rubbing off on me.  That’s what I get for sending him to college!  What you mean is that I need to accept Hoss’ apology and let him know that he’s forgiven by me so he can forgive himself.”

His friend was nodding.  “Exactly!”

“Now, Dan, just when did you get to be so –”   Ben stopped short.  A scream had split the night.  Such a sound was not unusual to him.  It usually meant his youngest was caught in the throes of a nightmare. Only Joseph wasn’t here.

Hoss was.

He looked at Dan and then dashed inside the cave.

His middle son was thrashing from side to side, muttering and moaning in his sleep.  Ben couldn’t make out any of the words, but it was obvious Hoss was in distress.  Dropping beside the young man, he carefully reached out and touched his shoulder.  His experience with Joseph and his nightmares had taught him to keep his distance.  Sometimes his young son would rear up, fists swinging.  If the same thing happened with Hoss, the twenty-two year old could do some real damage that he would later regret.

“Son.  Son, it’s Pa.  Wake up!  Son!”

Hoss continued to moan and pitch.

Ben increased the pressure on his shoulder. “Hoss!  Wake up!”

“You want I should get some water to toss on him?” Dan asked.

He held up a hand.  He knew, again – from experience – that such an abrupt awakening might bring its own problems.  Daring it, he reached out and caught his son’s arms in his hands.

Gripping them tightly, he yelled, “Hoss!”

Abruptly, his son went still.  Hoss’ eyelashes fluttered and those incomparable blue eyes opened.  For a second, the big man seemed to be lost.  Then he grinned sheepishly.

“Was I makin’ a ruckus like little brother?”

Ben relaxed his grip as he returned the smile.  “You could have given Joseph a run for his money.”

Hoss’s eyes teared at the thought of his little brother.  “I sure do hate to think of Joe’s bein’ out there somewhere, Pa, all alone and maybe hurt or….”

The rancher acknowledged their shared pain.  “It will be light soon.  We’ll start the search the moment we can look for signs.”  Ben rocked back on his heels.  “Sounds like you were having quite a dream.”

Hoss had shifted and was sitting up.  His middle son ran a hand along the back of his neck and blew out a sigh.  “It weren’t a dream, Pa.  It was sure-as-shootin’ a nightmare.”

“It’s your mind releasing the fears of the day.  With Little Joe missing – ”  He stopped.  Hoss had an odd look on his face.  “Son?”

The big man frowned.  “That there nightmare weren’t about Little Joe, Pa.”

Ben’s dark brows winged toward his graying hair.  “No?  Then what was it about?”

Hoss chewed his lip for a moment.  “I cain’t rightly recall all of it.  You sent me home to get some more supplies so’s we could keep searchin’ for Joe.  When I got to the house somethin’ just wasn’t right.  I pushed the door open and it was all dark inside.  That scared me.”  Hoss looked at him. “You know Hop Sing don’t let the fire go out this time of year.”

Ben was frowning.  “Go on.”

“Well, sir, I went inside and started callin’ out for brother Adam.  I knew he should of been there, so I started to get upset thinkin’ maybe somethin’ was wrong.  I was walkin’ through the house when my foot his somethin’.  I couldn’t see what it was, so I had to bend down and feel.”  His son paused as if unsure of what to say next.  Those sky blue eyes sought his near-black ones.  “It were awful.”

“What, son?  What was awful?”

“It was Adam.  He’d been…hurt.”  Hoss paused, his voice robbed of strength by the memory of what he had seen.  “When I put my hands on him, they came away all covered with blood.”

Ben gave his son’s shoulder a squeeze.  When he spoke, he was surprised to hear his own voice shake.  “I’m sure your worry about your little brother has brought this on, son.  Adam is in no danger.”

The big man nodded.  “I know that, sir.  It’s just well….  It was awful real, Pa.  If it weren’t for Little Joe bein’ missin’, I’d hightail it right back to the Ponderosa and make sure Adam was okay.”

Ben rose to his feet.  His eyes met Dan Tollivar’s.

“I’ll go,” Dan said with a nod.  “You don’t need three to follow the river and look for the boy.”

The rancher was caught between his concern for Joseph and a rising fear where Adam was concerned.  What could have gone wrong?  Was this just a dream his son had experienced, an intuition – or a message from God?

Ben nodded.  “Thank you, Dan.  I think Hoss will feel better if someone goes home to check.”

Hoss was rising to his feet.  “I sure will, Dan.  Thanks.”

“Nothin’ to it, son,” the wrangler remarked.  “I’ll leave at first light.”

The older man had started to walk away when Ben thought of something.  “Dan?”

“What is it, Ben?”

“If you find everything all right at the house – as I am sure you will – why don’t you go on and join the men on the drive?  Hoss and I will finish here.”

Dan tipped his hat.  “Sure thing, Boss,” he said with a half-grin and then headed for his horse.

Ben turned to Hoss and gave him a reassuring clap on the shoulder and then went back outside to once again stand beneath the stars.  He drew in a breath of fresh air and tried to shake off any lingering fear.  Even if there was trouble, Adam was a man now and perfectly capable of looking out for himself.

So why, he wondered, did he fear he now had two boys in mortal peril instead of one?

 

Adam stumbled as he was shoved roughly through the ranch house door and nearly fell.  His hazel eyes took in the great room as he entered, noting the only person in view was Hop Sing.  The man from China was stoking the fire and nearly dropped the poker when he saw them come in.  Neither Dandan nor Biyu were in sight.  As the black-haired man breathed a sigh of relief, Longwei grabbed him by the upper arm and placed the sharpened tip of his short sword under his throat.  It was at that moment Ming-hua chose to appear at the top of the stairs.  Adam saw the girl stiffen and then, bold as brass, come down the steps and walk straight up to Da Chao as if everything was as ordinary as could be.

He admired her grit.

Ming-hua bowed and greeted the older man.  “Honorable Da Chao, it has been many years,” she said.

Adam noted that Hop Sing blanched when he heard Chao’s name.  The man from China placed the poker against the hearth wall and then joined Ming-hua, moving slightly in front of her.  He bowed as well before speaking.

“Hop Sing greets the great Da Chao.  Ming-hua has made him known to this unimportant one.  Girl says Da Chao is counted an honorable man by all who know him.  Benjamin Cartwright is honorable man as well.  He would welcome you to his home.”  Their cook’s eyes flicked to him and back to the tong leader.  “Why you come as enemy, threatening his son?”

“If Benjamin Cartwright was an honorable man, he would not have stolen from Da Chao!” Longwei proclaimed gruffly.

Hop Sing addressed the tong leader. He ignored Longwei’s statement as if the younger man’s opinion did not matter.  “This one begs pardon of honorable sir, but chooses to remind honorable Da Chao Ming-hua belongs to him no longer.  Price for girl was paid by Benjamin Cartwright many years ago.”

Da Chao spoke at last.  “You are correct.  Ming-hua has been granted her freedom.  It is not this one whose presence in this house is a crime.”  The tong leader’s black eyes narrowed.  “You will tell me where Dandan and Biyu are.”

Ming-hua answered.  “Humbly forgive this intrusion, great Da Chao.  Ming-hua’s sisters are in Vallejo.”

The tong leader turned toward her.  “I see the white man has taught you many things, Tomorrow’s Flower,” the tall thin man said, his voice taking on a tone of menace.  “Chief among them how to lie.”

“Girl no tell lie!” Hop Sing insisted.  He opened his arms wide.  “Honorable Da Chao search house.  Find Ming-hua’s sisters not here!”

“This man lies, Da Chao!  Their tracks lead here.”  Longwei‘s grip tightened on his arm and Adam felt the blade nick his skin.  He addressed Hop Sing.  “You will speak the truth, unworthy one, or this one will die!”

Their cook faced Longwei.  “This one lead you through Mistah Cartwright’s house.  Look in every corner.  Under each bed.  Girls not here.”

Adam swallowed, which pressed the tip of blade even further into his skin, causing a little trail of blood to trickle down his neck.  He had no idea what game Hop Sing was playing.  Dandan and Biyu had been here when he had left the house less than an hour before.  They could have had no sense of danger – unless they saw him coming out of the barn as a prisoner.

Even if they did – where could they hide?

Da Chao was silent a moment.  Then he said, “Longwei will accompany you, most honorable Hop Sing.  Mister Cartwright and this one have business to discuss.”

The younger man snarled and tightened his grip on the sword.  “I will slit his throat, Da Chao!  When Ben Cartwright comes home and finds his first son drowned in his own blood, he will know we mean business!”

“You must excuse my sister’s son, Mister Cartwright,” Da Chao sighed.  “Longwei has not yet grown plumage and is a fledgling bird who would drain a pond to fish.”  The older man turned and met his nephew’s defiant stare.  “You will release him now!”

For a second the blade dug deeper.  Then it was pulled back and he was thrust to the floor.  Longwei strode over to Hop Sing.  For a moment he stood there, towering over the smaller man.  Then he took their cook by the arm and thrust him toward the stairs.

“Show me!”

Adam noted Hop Sing did not bow, but simply went upstairs before the other man.  He couldn’t help but smile.

Their cook was being cheeky tonight.

He felt a hand on his arm.  Adam rose with Da Chao’s help and remained still as the older man studied his throat.

“The cut is not deep,” he said.

His fingers went to it.  “No.  Thank you for keeping it from going any deeper.”

Da Chao nodded.  “This you must believe.  It is not my intent to bring harm to the house of Cartwright.  It is my intent to regain what has been stolen.”

“These are women you’re talking about, not property!” Adam growled.

“Ah, but there you are wrong.”  Da Chao’s eyes narrowed and his mouth drew into a thin line.  “It is I who  paid their passage and have kept them ever since.  Even if it was not so, Biyu is bound to my sister’s son.  She is Longwei’s property.  Do your laws not also say the same?”

He had him there.  Women had few rights under the law.  One day it would be different, but for now – in some ways – men’s wives were indeed their ‘property’.

Adam opened his mouth to object and to remind Da Chao that Biyu had been forced into the marriage.  Fortunately, he caught himself in time.  Saying that would have been an admission that the women were on the Ponderosa and he’d spoken to them.

“Well, whether she is Longwei’s property or not has nothing to do with us,” he replied coolly.  “Biyu is not here and neither is Dandan.”

Adam held his breath.  He wasn’t sure whose poker face was better, his or Da Chao’s.

The older man nodded again.  “If this is the case, then this one must humbly beg pardon.  This he will do after he speaks to the honorable Benjamin Cartwright who may know more than his son.”

Adam stifled a sigh. He’d been afraid of that.  Da Chao would hold them captive until such time as his father returned, and then he would use the threat of harming them to get his father to tell the truth.  The irony was, he couldn’t have told the tong leader what he wanted to know even if he had been willing to.

He had no idea where the two women had gone.

At that moment Hop Sing appeared at the top of the staircase.  Longwei came up behind him and shoved him, nearly causing him to fall down the stairs.  Hop Sing caught himself as he reached the landing and then descended the rest of the steps to the floor.

“Anything?” Da Chao asked his nephew.

“There is no one upstairs,” Longwei snarled, disappointment dripping from every word.  “We go to search the kitchen now.”

“Return when you have completed your search and bring Hop Sing back with you.” Da Chao turned to him as he finished speaking.  “It is with regret that this one must order both you and your man servant to be bound.”

“Hop Sing isn’t a servant. He’s a friend,” he groused.

“Then this one regrets he must bind both you and your friend.”

Adam’s gaze went to Ming-hua. After greeting the tong leader, she had gone to the settee and taken a seat.  She was there now, watching the proceedings with wide eyes.

“What about her?” he asked.

He had never seen Da Chao smile.  He did now.

It was not a pleasant sight.

“There is no need.  Ming-hua knows well what Longwei is capable of.  Though this one seeks to restrain him, it is not always possible.”  That said, Chao addressed the girl.  “You will prepare food for us.”

Adam saw her tremble as she rose to her feet.  Ming-hua bowed her agreement and then rounded the settee and headed for the kitchen.  As she passed Da Chao, he caught her arm.

“Wisdom would advise you do not try to escape,” he warned.  “If you do, those you care for will pay the price.”

With a glance in his direction, Ming-hua nodded.  As she made her way to the hall attached to the kitchen, Longwei and Hop Sing reappeared.  Adam’s jaw tightened when he saw the red mark on his friend’s face.  Obviously Longwei had taken advantage of the tong leader’s absence to exact payment for his frustration.

Hop Sing met his angry gaze and shook his head.

“Nothing?” Da Chao demanded.

“No!” Longwei replied.

“Then, we wait.”

It didn’t take long.  Within minutes he and Hop Sing were trussed up like prize pigs and thrust into the chairs to roast before the fire.  As Da Chao headed for the front door, Longwei paced like a caged lion.  Chao’s nephew was a powder keg, just waiting for a spark to set it off.

It was his fear that that spark would prove to be his father or one of his brothers coming unsuspectingly through the door.

For the first time since his youngest brother had gone missing, Adam hoped it was a long time before Pa and Hoss found Joe and brought him home.

 

John Randolph crouched in a tall stand of grasses, one hand parting the deep green blades; the other covering Joe Cartwright’s mouth. Morning had come and when he tried to discuss their options with the boy, he quickly found out there was only one – give Benjamin Cartwright’s youngest son his rein and do his best to keep the boy from killing himself.  There had been no question of staying put and waiting until they were discovered.  The boy would have none of it.  He wanted to go home.  And so, after helping Little Joe into his dried, if somewhat tatterdemalion clothes, they set out.

Their first stop had been his former camp in order to salvage what they could.  It had sickened him to find some of his paintings ruined. Miraculously those tucked into his leather satchel had survived the deluge as had a block of his paper and his paints.  Among them was a watercolor portrait.  In spite of everything, John permitted himself a smile.  It was a small blessing, as the piece was among his favorites.  It showed both Biyu and Dandan.  The pair were stunningly beautiful, but sad.  As an artist he was pledged to remain true to life and the portrait showed clearly what that life had been for them – a daily hell where they were used and abused.

After retrieving his horse who, God bless him, had still been tethered to a tree and was happily munching on grass, he’d placed the ailing boy in the saddle and then mounted behind him.  They’d been traveling as best they could for several hours – with a determined Joe swaying in the saddle – when he’d heard something out of place.  Reining in his horse, he’d listened and quickly discerned voices.  After helping Joe dismount and leaving the boy propped against a tree, he walked the bay into the woods and left her tethered to a bush.  By the time he got back the curly-headed boy was laying on the ground, shivering.  Dropping to Joe’s side, he’d touched his skin and found it hot.  As he roused, the boy started coughing, which was why he had placed his hand over his mouth in order to stifle the sound.

John looked down at his charge.  Joe’s emerald-green eyes were open and fever-bright.

“Can you stifle the coughing?” he asked.

The boy’s curls bounced as he nodded and then his body jerked.  A second later he turned his face into the grass and did just that.  Unfortunately, his coughs were growing deeper and more ragged.  He had no idea if the boy had taken a severe cold or if this was the first sign of something worse.

Joe Cartwright definitely needed to be attended by a physician.

Sucking in air, as well as a few tears, Joe asked, “You see…them yet?”

“No.   Nothing.  No…wait.”  John scowled as he shifted aside a thick blade of grass.  He’d seen something – a flash of a bright color where there should have been none.  A moment later he heard the voices again – men’s voices.  Placing his hands under Joe’s shoulders, he gently pulled the boy back further into the shadows and then placed a finger to his lips, signaling for him to remain silent.  Joe nodded.

He looked entirely miserable, but he nodded.

Seconds later four black horses came into view.  John sucked in air as the riders came abreast their hiding place and halted.  For a moment he feared they had been discovered, but it quickly became clear they had stopped because the man in the lead wanted to address the others.  As they spoke quietly, he looked from face to face.  He didn’t know any of them, but he was fairly certain he had seen the one in the lead at The Delectable Dragon.  He was usually in the company of a wealthy Chinese man named Khu Zhuang.

John shuddered.  Zhuang.  Dear Lord, how he wished he had never heard that name!

He felt a tug at his sleeve.  ‘They still there?’ Joe mouthed.

John nodded and then turned back to watch the men.  It concerned him that one of them belonged to Zhuang.  He wondered what he was doing this far east and wished he could make out what the pair were saying.

A few seconds later – to his great relief – the four parted and moved off, two each in two different directions.  John closed his eyes and shook off some of the tension before turning to Joe Cartwright with a smile.

“They’ve gone.”

“Who…were they?” the boy asked.

There was no point in mentioning that he might have known one of them since he wasn’t sure.  “I don’t know.  They were Chinese.”

The look out of the boy’s eyes said he wasn’t fooled.

“Do you think they knew we were here?”

John stiffened.  Dear God!  He hadn’t thought of that.  What if the men had spotted them and parted in order to enter the trees at two different places in order to surround them?

Suddenly, the woods seemed a great deal more dangerous.

Drawing a breath, he beat down his fear.  It was unfounded at best.  There was nothing to prove the men weren’t simply out for a ride.

“I don’t believe they did, Joe, but one can never say ‘never’ with any surety.  We shall have to be very careful.”

Joe coughed and John noticed the boy’s hands gripping his sides.  “Funny…about them bein’ from China,” he said, with a little gasp.  “Me and Hoss, when we was out working we saw two Chinese men.  They were headed to Eagle Station.”

The Englishman was instantly on the alert.  More Chinese?

“Did they tell you their names?”

The boy shook his head.  Then he shrugged his shoulders.  “That was funny…too.”  He coughed this time.  “They asked our names and acted kind of funny when they heard mine.  Like, maybe, they’d heard it before.”

John’s alertness was quickly transmuting into panic. He’d just seen one man he knew to frequent The Dragon.  And if theses other Chinese men knew Joe Cartwright by name….  It might have been a coincidence.

But then, he didn’t believe in coincidences.

“Is something…wrong?” Joe asked.

Oh, yes.  Something was wrong.  Something was, as Hamlet would have put it, ‘rotten in Denmark’.

Catching the boy by the arm, he helped Joe to his feet and waited until he found his balance.

Balance.  That was a word he had heard a lot at The Dragon.  Ying and yang.  Diametrically opposing forces held together in such a way that it makes the whole greater than the two parts.  Trouble was, he’d learned another thing about that kind of balance.  Sometimes instead of enhancing the whole, it obliterated it.

Leaving nothing behind.
SIX

“Pa! Come here!”

Ben Cartwright’s heart seized at the sound of his son’s alarmed voice.  He and Hoss had awakened and after a quick breakfast began their search, hoping against hope that they would quickly find Little Joe quickly and alive and well.  The sun was climbing toward noon and they were quite a ways down the river from where they believed Joseph went in.  So far they had found nothing.

Though, perhaps that had just changed.

“Hoss!  What have you found?” he called out as he jogged toward the sound of his son’s voice.  His dread, of course, was that Hoss had found his brother’s body washed up on the bank or tangled in the roots of a tree overreaching the river.

“It ain’t Joe, Pa,” his son called, sensing his fear.  “But I think it’s a sign he was here.”

As he broke through the tall grasses that lined the river, Ben drew to a halt.  His heart was racing, and not from the run. “What did you find” he asked.

Hoss rose to his feet.  With his head, his son indicated the ground.  Ben looked.  It was plain to see where someone had lain not all that long ago and then been dragged away.

“Only one set of footprints and they belong to a man.  If it was Joe, someone found him and carried him away.”

Ben stared at the long line of boot prints.  The extra weight had made the man’s heels dig deeply into the mud, and then the sun had baked them so they were there for anyone to see.

“You think he saved Joe or…something else?”

His near-black gaze went to his son.  He knew what Hoss was thinking.  Joe was only fifteen and small for his age.  If he had come out of the water, he would have been weakened and vulnerable.  There were many perils in this land he had chosen to call home from Indians to outlaws, and all the way through to the kind of men who would think nothing of kidnapping and even selling such a handsome boy as his youngest son.

The older man drew a breath and let it and his anxiety out slowly.  “We’ll just have to trust to the providential hand of God, son.  It appears He rescued your brother.  Now we have to trust the Almighty to keep Joseph safe until we can find him and bring him home.”

Hoss took off his hat and ran a hand through his thin reddish hair.  “Weren’t too long ago little brother went missin’ and I for sure thought he weren’t never comin’ back.”

This incident had brought it to his mind as well – the debacle with Wade Bosh.  He still carried a burden of guilt for the fact that his son had suffered so much and nearly died at the seaman’s hands, and all because Bosh carried a grudge against him after more than twenty years.

Ben reached out and took hold of his middle son’s shoulder.  “I know.  It’s with me as well,” he said softly.  “But Joseph did come back to us that time.  He will this time too.”  As he lifted his hand, the rancher asked, “Now, are you ready to put your tracking skills to use?”

“More than ready, Pa.”

Ben smiled.  “Let’s get to it then.  Your brother’s waiting.”

 

Adam Cartwright had an itch he couldn’t scratch and it was about to drive him mad.

Things had gone from bad to worse after Da Chao and his henchman had forced him into the house.  He’d had a brief moment of hope when hoof beats sounded in the yard shortly after they entered and Dan Tollivar pulled up out front.  The Chinese tong leader had been forced to untie him and let him go out to talk to the wrangler.  Dan told him his father and Hoss were still on the hunt for Little Joe and asked if he was all right.  Dan said Hoss had had a bad dream and been afraid for him.

Apparently his middle brother had suddenly become a mind reader.

Now, he didn’t lie – normally – but he’d told a whopper then.  Of course, he did it because he knew Longwei had a knife against Hop Sing’s throat.

Adam sighed.  It had been with a deep regret that he’d sent Dan on his way.  He watched as the older man rode off to join the cattle drive and then returned to the house – only to be shoved back into the blue chair and trussed up again.  It had been bad enough having to pass the night bound and in a chair, but by the time he woke up both his hands and arms were numb.  After the painful pins and needles finally faded, he’d been left with an itch in the middle of his back and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. Adam’s gaze flicked to Longwei, who was the only one of the invaders in the house at the moment.  Da Chao’s nephew sat martial straight on Pa’s desk chair.  Longwei had dragged it over close to the tall case clock in order to watch the door; his blade anchored on his belt and a black and silver pistol in his hand.

The black-haired man’s lips quirked.  He certainly wasn’t going to ask him for help!

A slight groan at his side informed Adam that Hop Sing had awakened.  Their cook was older than him, but younger than Pa.  As consumed as he was by aching muscles and stiffness, he could only imagine how Hop Sing felt.

Even more miserable, most likely.

Adam cast another glance at  Longwei and then asked, his voice pitched as low as possible, “Are you all right?”

Hop Sing’s eyes opened and closed twice and then rolled over in his direction.  “Hop Sing would ask Mistah Adam same thing.”

Adam grinned.  “You first.”

“This unworthy one is…fit as a fiddle,” he replied with a grimace.

Looking at the ropes binding the small man, he snorted.  “You’ve certainly got enough ‘strings’.”

Hop Sing was watching Longwei.  It seemed the brutish man didn’t care that they were talking.  He was paying them no attention.

“This one worry that Mistah Adam’s father come home soon,” the man from China added.  “Maybe bring Little Joe.  Not know danger.”

He was concerned about that too.  He had to find some way to get Longwei away from the door and get that gun out of his hands – a tall order considering he was trussed up like hog heading for the hook.

Adam stared at the man in the gray suit for a moment before lowering his voice and asking his friend, “What happened to…,” he indicated the settee with a nod, “…you know?”

“Use Little Joe’s staircase,” the man from China answered cryptically.

That brought a scowl.  Little Joe’s staircase.  ‘Little Joe’s’…staircase…?  Now what could Hop Sing mean by….  Adam gasped.  His eyes went wide.

“No.  Really?  In her condition?’

“The remedy for dirt is soap and water. The remedy for dying is living,” Hop Sing said quietly.

In other words, the expectant Biyu hadn’t cared if the trip out of Joe’s window, the journey over the roof, or the drop to the ground killed her.  It would be better to die than to be taken by Longwei.  It was hard for him – not only as the son of a wealthy man, but simply as a human being – to imagine a life where your only worth came from selling your body to bring a physical release to selfish, self-absorbed men.  He’d known a few ladies of the evening in his life.  He’d even struck up friendships with one or two.  He chose not to use them.  His father had taught him and his brothers to respect women and such a selfish act was simply out of the question.  Meeting Biyu and Dandan – and getting to know Ming-hua – had only confirmed that decision.  The sad women who were forced into prostitution were human beings as well and were of value and needed to be afforded some dignity.

Adam nodded, showing their cook he understood.  So, Biyu and Dandan’s fate was out of his hands for the moment.  He guessed that Hop Sing had sent them somewhere safe – perhaps to one of the outlying line shacks, or maybe to someone in the town.  He was glad he didn’t know.

That way, if he was tortured, he couldn’t tell.

A click alerted him to the fact that the front door had opened.  A moment later Da Chao walked in.  Longwei rose out of respect.  The tong leader exchanged a few words with him and then sent the younger man outside.  Then he advanced toward them.

The words he spoke were chilling.

“Honorable Adam Cartwright did not say company was expected this morning.”

Adam swallowed over the lump in his throat.  “I didn’t know there was.”

“Then the unworthy one in your barn does not speak the truth.”  He turned toward the door.  “Longwei will silence his lies.”

“No.  No!  Please,” Adam pleaded, fearing for his father and brothers and just about everyone else in the territory of Nevada.  “Anyone could have come out to visit without an invitation.  Tell me his name.  I’ll know better then.”

Da Chao’s gaze was measured.  “Jennings.”

Dear Lord!  He’d forgotten all about Tory.  She’d been with the two Chinese woman – had she escaped with them as well?

“I do know him.  His name is Richard Jennings,” he said.  “My little brother’s sweet on his daughter, Tory.  He probably came out to talk to Pa.”

“Jennings does not approve of your young brother as a suitor for his child?”

Adam thought furiously.  He couldn’t admit Tory had been at the house.  That knowledge might somehow lead to the fact that Biyu and Dandan had been too.

“No.  No, he doesn’t,” he lied.  “Joe can be, well, hot-tempered.  He has a tendency to leap before he looks and speak without thinking.  He and Mister Jennings might have gotten into it.”

“Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable,” Da Chao replied.  “A father’s hand must be like a fist.  If the boy is strong, he will survive.  If he is weak, he will be crushed.”

‘ I am so glad I am not your son’, Adam thought to himself.

“Tiger father begets tiger son,” Hop Sing said.  “Mistah Cartwright return home, he use fist to crush you!”

Chao nodded.  “This one believes honorable countryman speaks the truth.  But Benjamin Cartwright is also tiger mother.  Tiger mother will give all to save her sons – even her own life.”

The threat was veiled, but it was there.  Da Chao meant to use him to control his father.

He had to get away!

Without warning, the door opened and Longwei stepped in.

“What does Jennings say?” Da Chao asked.

“His daughter is here.  He came to take her home.”

Adam drew a breath as two pair of black eyes fastened on him.  “Where is this girl?” Da Chao demanded.

He thought furiously.  “One of our hands took Tory to town last night.  She and her father must have crossed paths without seeing each other in the dark.”

The tong leader’s eyes narrowed.  “This is not the truth.”

“Yes, it is.  Why would I lie to you?”  Adam shifted so his bound hands showed to the side.  “You can do anything to me that you wish!”

The tong leader moved in and leaned down so his eyes were on a level with his own.   An unpleasant smile caused his thin lips to twitch.

“Let it be as you say.”

 

They’d followed the tracks of the man back to an abandoned campsite.  Hoss found evidence that whoever it was had taken shelter from the storm beneath a rocky outcropping where someone – most likely Joseph – had lain on the ground.  The size and shape of the impression were too small and slender for a man.  Joe and his – savior, abductor? – had remained there for some time and then moved off to a second camp.  They’d looked it over as well and found signs of a horse tethered nearby.

Hoss was crouched down now, looking at the animal’s tracks.

“See there, Pa.  The horse gets right heavy.  I’m bettin’ that man put little brother on it and got up behind him.”

Ben nodded, troubled.  There was still no way to know if the man meant to rescue Joseph or if his son had been taken captive.  He looked at the item he held in his hand – a ruined watercolor painting – and took some solace from it.  If the man who took Little Joe was an artist, well, that weighed heavily on the side of rescue.  He doubted any man who had come to the west to paint its magnificent scenery and people would harbor ill will toward a child or have any reason to kidnap him.

Unless, of course, he knew who Joseph was and needed money.

“I think we can catch them up pretty fast now, Pa,” Hoss said as he rose to his feet.  “Two men on one horse are gonna be slower goin’ than you and me with one man per.”

Ben looked at his hand.  It was quivering.  He released the painting and let it fall to the ground.  They were so close and yet so far.  Was Joseph hurt?  Was he ill?  A ride down the river was a dangerous thing.  It carried with it all kinds of threats from infection to cuts and bruises, and possibly swallowing foul water.  Joseph’s lungs were still weak from his illness a few weeks back. There could be the threat of pneumonia.  The rancher’s gaze returned to the ruined piece of art.  And just who was this man – this artist?  Why was he here?  Had he been coming to the Ponderosa, or was he headed to Eagle Station?  How did he find Joseph, and how long had his son been in the water when he found him?

So many questions….

“Pa?”

Ben shook himself and favored his middle boy with a chagrinned smile.  “So many questions and no answers,” he said aloud.

“Well, we ain’t gonna find none here, Pa.  Come on.  Little brother’s waitin’ for us.”

Hoss was right.  It amazed him how, at times, a grave need for action froze a man so he could do anything but act.

Within minutes, they were on their way.  Hoss took the lead.  Leaning to one side in the saddle, his son kept an eye on the deep hoof prints that were, surprisingly, leading them toward home.  As they came to a place on the road with a stand of thick, tall grass beside it, his son stopped.

“More horses, Pa.”

Ben looked.  Sure enough there was the deep set of prints – with four other sets on top of it.

“Someone’s followin’ them,” his son said, his voice heavy with worry.

“Them?  Or maybe just the man?” he suggested.

Hoss shrugged.  “The only way to know for sure is to find them.  I think we should get down off the horses and search for a while on foot, Pa.  The man who has Little Joe got off here.  See, them other prints goes on a ways.”

“So maybe – whoever their pursuers are – perhaps they missed the fact that this man and Joseph didn’t continue on.”  Ben breathed a sigh of relief.

“I don’t know, Pa.  But I’m thinkin’ – if they didn’t – then Little Joe and that other feller might be in a heap of trouble.  Them ain’t good odds – four to two, and one of the two ailin’.”

Ben walked the road a bit.  “Son, two of the horses veered off here and headed north. The other two seem to be headed toward the settlement.”

“Circlin’ back.”  Hoss turned to look into the woods.  “Pa, I got me a real bad feelin’ about this.”

The rancher undid his holster clasp and drew his gun from its tooled leather housing.  It seemed, unbeknownst to him, some evil had come to the Ponderosa and now it threatened his son.

“Come on, Hoss.  They can’t be too far ahead.”

 

Joe wasn’t sure he had a word for how he felt – ‘miserable’ just didn’t cut it.  Pa might of said ‘wretched’.  Big brother Adam would have used one of those ten dollar words he had, like ‘disconsolate’, and Hoss?  Good ol’ Hoss would have told him he was ‘downhearted’.

And what would he say?  Well, the closest Joe could come was just plain awful.

His head was throbbing in tune with his heart, which was pounding like the hooves of a string of wild mustangs.  Every muscle he had ached, especially the ones in his right leg, which was injured.  He had a fever too – not a high one, but it wasn’t exactly low either.  Worst of all, he was coughing more and it tore at his sides to throttle it.

‘Course, that was better than bein’ throttled himself.

Joe shifted so he could look at the figure lying about twenty feet from him, prone on the ground.  It was John Randolph, the man who’d rescued him from the river.  They’d been traveling together on the Englishman’s horse when suddenly the feller stiffened and listed to one side.  As his foot came out of the stirrup, Randolph’s weight took them both over the off side and they hit the hard packed earth dangerously close to the startled horse.  He’d tried to roll out of the way, but hadn’t quite made it.  One of the horse’s hooves came down on his leg.  It didn’t break it, which was lucky, but he’d been left with a pretty deep gash.  Joe glanced at John Randolph again.  The Englishman looked worse.  He was pretty torn up – some from the fall, but more from the treatment he’d gotten at the hands of the two Chinese men who had come out of nowhere.  They’d talked to John first and then struck out with their hands and feet so fast Randolph hadn’t even had time to cry out.  John had fallen to his knees and then dropped face first to the ground and laid there, just like he was laying there now.

Joe swallowed over a growing fear.  At first it seemed he’d been forgotten and he’d taken advantage of it, dragging himself back into the shadows where he thought he might hide.  Then the men in black had turned away from his rescuer to look for him.

They’d just found him.

At fifteen, he kept tellin’ his family he was a man and they needed to stop babying him and start treating him like one.  He was tryin’ to act like a man now, but the truth was, he was scared as a little boy and all he wanted at this moment – all he wanted in the world – was for his pa to come bustin’ through the underbrush with guns blazing and take out these men.

Please, Pa, he thought.  Come now.

Like black shadows from the terrifying ghost stories brother Adam told around the campfire, the men advanced toward him.  They were talking in Chinese.  Joe was sure they thought he couldn’t understand them.

They didn’t know about Hop Sing.

He couldn’t get all the words ‘cause they were speakin’ in low tones, but he caught a few.  ‘Payment’ was one of them.  ‘Father’ and ‘boy.’  But those weren’t the ones that made him want to wet himself like a little kid.

Those were ‘pain’ and ‘dead’.

A groan from John Randolph drew Joe’s attention back to his rescuer.  The Englishman raised his head slightly to look at him before falling back to the earth with a sigh.  Joe winced and then gasped as one of the Chinese thugs unexpectedly grabbed the collar of his shirt and hauled him roughly to his feet.  The movement jolted his injured leg and sent pain right through him.

“You will come with us!” the man ordered, brandishing a curved knife.

Joe dug his feet in.  His eyes on the knife, he declared, “I ain’t…cough…goin’ nowhere with…you!”  He drew in air, trying to silence the hacking, and then choked out, “You just wait…’til my Pa gets…cough…hold of you!”

Dang it!

This time he heard the Chinese word ‘leng’.  That meant ‘little boy’.  Hop Sing used it sometimes – mostly when he was mad at him.

“Boy no fight.  Come, leng, or you die here,” the man holding him threatened.

Joe knew it was stupid, but there was this…thing…inside him that didn’t like bein’ pushed around.  “You ain’t gonna kill me!  You just…cough…told me you need me!” he snapped.

The older of the pair’s eyebrows shot upward and he laughed.  “Arrogant puppy!  Is it not true your father has three sons?”

That ‘thing’ liked it even less when someone threatened his family.

“You leave Adam and Hoss alone!”

“This we will do if you come with us quietly, leng.”

He was shivering down to his boots.  “Where are you…gonna take me?”

“To Ku Zhuang,” the older man said

Joe wondered if that was a place or a person.  After all, Wade Bosh had tried to take him to another country.  Still, if they wanted money from his pa, his best guess was that it was a name.

Forcing his aching body into a straight posture, Joe lifted his chin and laid out his terms.

“I’ll go with you if – if – you promise to leave my brothers be.”  He swallowed over a rising cough. After all, the joke would be on them. Taking him prisoner probably wouldn’t do them any good anyhow.  The way he felt, he’d probably be dead before they could use him to threaten his pa.  “Our cook’s from China and I know your people.  I know you don’t make promises and break them.  It wouldn’t be honorable.”

The two men exchanged what he could only call an ‘amused’ look.

“Tiger father begets tiger son,” the older remarked.

The younger snorted.  “A tiger cannot beat a crowd of monkeys.”

The elder of the two placed his knife behind his belt as he approached him.  “So far as it is in Jian’s power, I promise that your family will remain safe, young tiger cub.”

Joe was exhausted.  It took about everything that was in him to nod.  “Thanks,” he muttered as he felt his knees turn to jelly.

Jian caught him before he could hit the ground and lifted him in his powerful arms.  Joe heard the man say something to his partner, and then all sight and sound faded way to nothing.

 

“What do you think, Pa?  Can we take ‘em?”

Ben was having a hard time focusing.  His head rang with his youngest son’s defiant shout.

‘You leave Hoss and Adam alone!’

They’d been a little distance off, but there had been no question that the voice they’d heard was Joseph’s.  After exchanging a quick concerned look, he and his middle son had tethered their horses and begun to work their way through the trees toward the one they loved.

The sight that greeted them when they reached the edge of the clearing was terrifying to say the least.  Two powerful looking Chinese men, clothed from head to foot in black, held his son captive.  The men’s wide waist-belts were heavily laden with weapons, including pistols and knives.  One had Joseph by the arm.  The other approached, weapon in hand.  The oldest of the two men was speaking to his son, but the pounding of his heart in his ears kept Ben from hearing anything they said.

Then, Joseph collapsed.

Hoss’ strong grip was the only thing that held him back.

“Pa.  You know we cain’t go rushin’ in.  Those bad men are liable to hurt Joe!” Hoss warned in  a tense whisper even as the men in question disappeared into the trees, taking Joseph with them.  The big man scanned the area before them and then nodded.  “Come on, Pa, let’s go!”

They had advanced only a few feet when they spied a body in the grass.  Begrudging the time it took, the rancher halted and waited by his son as Hoss bent to check for a pulse.

“He’s alive, Pa.  Who do you suppose he is?”

“Is he badly hurt?”

Hoss checked.  “I cain’t say for sure, Pa.  He’s got a knife wound in the back up near the shoulder.  It ain’t bleedin’ no more.”

Ben hesitated, unsure of what to say or do.

“You go ahead, Pa,” Hoss said, though it cost him something. “You go on and get Little Joe.  I’ll help this here feller as much as I can.”

The older man nodded his head in thanks and then ran recklessly into the trees.  Ben wanted to shout his son’s name, to let Joe know he was near, but he knew he didn’t dare.  There was no way of knowing what reaction the two men would have.  They might release his son and run, or they could slit his throat.  Remembering the tong members he had met in San Francisco as a young sailor, he knew the latter was the most likely outcome.  As he ran, the rancher wondered what these men were doing on his land and why they would target his boy.  Ransom was the most likely explanation.  And yet, how could they know Joseph would be out here alone, in the wilderness, and not at home?  The only answer was that they had come here looking for him – or for a Cartwright – in order to put their own nefarious plans into action.

Ben halted when he heard a horse snort and strike the earth with its hoof in impatience.  He moved cautiously forward until he was at the edge of another clearing.  Parting the grasses that masked it, he  discovered the two men.  His heart sank when he failed to see his son, but then he found him.  Joseph was laying on the ground near the remnants of a fire.  The two men were arguing. Ben watched them for a moment and then began to inch his way around the clearing toward his child.  As he moved, his eyes remained locked on Joseph who, so far, hadn’t moved.

The pitiful sight of his son tossed aside as if he were an unwanted rag doll pierced his heart.

“Come on, Joseph,” he whispered between clenched teeth.  “Wake up for Papa.  Show him you’re alive.”

Still nothing.

As Ben came to a stop in the trees just behind his boy a shout went up, drawing his attention back to the two men.  One was staggering back.  For a moment he didn’t understand why – then he saw the thin trail of blood on the exposed skin at the base of the man’s neck.  Sensing that this might be his chance, Ben parted the leaves before him and stepped out, gun in hand.

“Don’t move!” he shouted.  “I promise you I will shoot!”

The older of the pair turned toward him.  In his hand was a curved blade dotted with blood.  Ben sensed more than saw that the sharp blade was about to come his way and ducked for cover.  A second later the knife sliced into a nearby tree trunk at head level with a deadly ‘thwapp!.

By the time he regained his feet, the man was gone.  Stunned, Ben remained where he was for several heartbeats.  Then his gaze fell on the crumpled heap of boy by the fire.

“Joseph!”

The rancher’s long strides took him to his son in seconds.  Dropping to the ground, Ben reached out to touch Little Joe’s exposed chest.  Two things happened as he did.  He sighed with relief as he felt the steady pulse of his son’s heart and then, retracted his hand almost immediately.  The intense heat radiating from the boy startled him.  It was only when he took in the state of both his son and his clothing that he understood.  Joseph’s skin was covered with a sheen of perspiration.  It was pale, even though his cheeks were bright as polished apples.  His son’s breath came hard; each ragged breath drawn in pain and rattling deep in his chest.  His lustrous brown hair was filthy and matted with dirt and debris, most of which had probably come from his trip down the river.  His clothing was filthy as well, but worse than that there was a rent in the right leg and beneath it, a bright red stain spreading across his right shin.  Carefully, Ben pried the fouled cloth back, only to discover an angry slash in Little Joe’s leg.

The rancher reached for the sodden curls on his son’s forehead and gently shoved them to one side.  “Joseph, when you set out to do a thing, you certainly do it all the way,” he said with a sigh.

At the sound of his voice, the boy stirred.  Little Joe’s long dark lashes fluttered and his emerald eyes opened.  At first they were without focus, then they found him and a slight smile curled the boy’s full lips.  Joe’s hand reached out.

“Pa…?”

He caught the hand and clasp his son’s fingers tightly.  “Yes, son.  Your pa’s here.”

Joe was still a moment and then he shuddered.  A moment later the tears began to flow.  “Oh, pa…  I was so scared.”  He paused a moment to draw in air and then asked in a strangled whisper, “Are Adam and Hoss…all right?”

“Adam was fine when I left him and – ”

“You ain’t got no reason to worry about me, short-shanks.  It’s you looks wrung out as a day old dish rag.”

Joe winced as he turned his head.  When he saw his brother the boy brightened visibly, partly at the sight of Hoss and, it seemed, even more at the sight of the pale stranger hanging off of his middle son’s arm.

“John!” Joe exclaimed and then, suddenly, was taken with a fit of coughing that shook his young body to the core and left him gasping for air.

“Easy, son,” Ben said, drawing the boy to him and holding him tightly against his chest.  As he did, the rancher’s eyes sought his other son.  He knew Hoss would read the unspoken words in his gaze.

They needed to get Joseph home and they needed to do it now.

Hoss sat the wounded man down on a rock before approaching them.  “That there is John Randolph, Pa.  He done fished Little Joe out of the river and was bringin’ him home to us when them two Chinese men bushwhacked them.”

“There were…four of them originally,” John said.  He paused a moment to gather strength and then went on.  “Two split off and headed for the settlement.”  The stranger paused again, this time to adjust his arm, which hung in a makeshift sling.  “I thought we’d escaped and then a knife came out of nowhere and took me in the shoulder.  We both fell.”  John’s gaze went to Joseph.  “I pray the boy was not injured further.  He’s been quite ill.  The result of being in the water so long, I’m afraid.  I tried my best to keep him warm and well.”

Ben glanced at his son and then turned back to the man.  “Thank you,” he said.

John dipped his head.  “I only wish I could have done more.”

“John here’s an Englishman, Pa,” Hoss said as he knelt at his side and reached out for his baby brother, who had fallen silent after the coughing fit ended.

Ben couldn’t help but smile.  “I noticed.”

There was something more.  It was in Hoss’ gaze.  “He’s English, Pa.  And his name is Randolph.”

The rancher’s dark eyes flicked to the foreigner. “Jude?” he asked.

John nodded.  “My brother.”

Ben looked at the unconscious boy in his arms.

So, for the second time, a Randolph had saved his son’s life.

 

SEVEN

Adam frowned as Richard Jennings was unceremoniously thrust to the floor.  The older man had been abused.  His face was bleeding and it was obvious he was in pain.  No doubt there were other bruises that were unseen.  The Jennings were society people.  They’d come from the East and were unused to the harsh brutality of the West.  Along with pain there was fear in the man’s eyes.  Most likely – knowing fathers – it was for his impish daughter more than him.

The black-haired man sucked in a breath and held it a second before expelling it slowly.  What happened in the next few seconds would go a long way toward whether or not they all came out of this alive.

Adam took the initiative, even though he knew it would cost him.

“Richard.  I’m so sorry Tory isn’t here.  That man of yours….Jenkins?  He came to claim her – ”

The crack of a hand against his cheek was louder than the chimes of the tall case clock that chose that precise moment to strike.

“You will keep silent!” Longwei ordered.

He would now.  He’d said what he had to.  It was up to Richard to figure it out.

Jennings’ gaze was flying around the room.  He took in the two Chinese men and their threat, and then noted Hop Sing tied in the chair by the fire.  With any luck Richard saw their cook mouth, ‘go along’ as he did, before he turned to him.  Adam pursed his lips as their eyes met and waited.

“That girl of mine,” Richard said with a sigh, “I can’t count on her to do anything I tell her.  You’d think with your little brother here, you couldn’t have pried Tory away.”

There was a bit of real exasperation in his tone.

“Little Joe’s not here, Richard,” Adam ventured, waiting on another backhand.  “He’s missing.  Pa and Hoss are out looking for him.”

“Missing?”

“That is enough!” Da Chao declared.  The tong leader went to stand before Tory’s father.  “Do you know of any other women in this house?  Chinese women?”

Richard looked genuinely confused.  “Only Ming-hua.”

“Dandan and Biyu were headed here. This we know,” Chao said.

“How do you know?” Adam spit out, and then added before the hand could strike him again, “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“Their plans were made known to us by Xiofan, whose place is also in The Dragon.”  The Chinese man paused.  “She has been richly rewarded for her loyalty.”

“Xiofan?” a light voice asked.

Adam pivoted in the chair to find Ming-hua standing in the room, tray in hand.  Upon the tray were two bowls of soup and two plates laden with food.

Da Chao walked over to her.  “Yes.  Xiofan.  One whose desire is not to leave Da Chao.  Unlike Ming-hua and her sisters.”

Ming-hua held her chin high.  “Mister Cartwright purchased Ming-hua’s freedom.  Da Chao owns me no longer.”

“Ah, but I do,” Chao said.  “I own Ming-hua’s sisters.  Therefore, I own you.”

The girl’s hands shook as she showed him the tray.  “I bring sandwiches for Longwei and honorable Da Chao as ordered, and soup for Mister Adam and honorable Hop Sing.”

Da Chao’s eyes flicked to him and then went to Hop Sing before returning to Ming-hua.  “You will not untie them.”

“This one understands,” she replied.  “If the honorable Da Chao permit its, Ming-hua will feed both.  It has been many hours since they have eaten.”

The tong leader considered it and then nodded.  With that, he turned back to Richard Jennings who had been watching the proceedings with interest. Thank God the man had caught on quickly!  Jennings had to be worried sick about his daughter.  Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do under the circumstances to bring the older man any relief.

Adam smiled at Ming-hua as she approached him bowl in hand.  “That smells good.”

She returned the smile as she sat beside him and dipped a spoon in the thick soup.  “Chicken with dumpling,” she said as she lifted it to his lips.

While he hated being spoon-fed, the black-haired man knew it was important to keep up his strength. Something had to come along soon – some opportunity to escape.  Bound and trussed as he was, he was no good to this girl, Hop Sing, or to his father and brothers who might return any minute and walk through the front door straight into a trap.

Ming-hua offered him another spoonful.  As he took it, Adam saw her glance toward Da Chao. He was questioning Richard Jennings again.  Longwei was watching their interaction intently and not looking their way.  The dark-eyed girl watched them for a moment and then caught the napkin from the tray and  reached out to dab the corner of his lips on the right side.  As she did, something fell from the napkin into the crease in the chair.  Adam shifted a bit so he could see what it was.

A knife!

“Eat quickly, Mister Adam,” Ming-hua said.  “Honorable Hop Sing hungry too.”

Adam nodded.  Yes, of course, Hop Sing was hungry.

As hungry for escape as he was.

 

“Joe?  Little Joe.  Hey, punkin, why don’t you open your eyes and look at me?  I’d sure feel a sight better if you did.”

Hoss was calling him.  Joe felt the touch of his brother’s cool fingers on his cheek and heard the concern in his voice, but, plain and simple, he didn’t have the energy to respond.  Still, he had to try.  Hoss sounded like he was near to tears and he didn’t want the big galoot dowsing him with water again.  He’d had enough water to last a lifetime!

Gathering what little strength he had, Joe worked his lips to open them.  “Hoss….”

His brother blew out his relief.  “Yeah, short-shanks it’s me.  You dang near scared me to death, you been so quiet for so long.”

Joe felt a cough roll up in his chest, seeking to escape.  He managed to hold it captive.

Just.

“Ain’t you and brother Adam…always tellin’ me to keep quiet?”

He heard his brother snort.  “I ain’t never gonna say that again, Little Joe.  I done promise you that!”

Promise.

Someone had made him a promise.  About his brothers.

About them bein’ safe.

“Are you…okay, Hoss?” Joe asked as he fought a battle with his eyes.  They wanted to close.

“Sure am.  Pa’s fine too.  He’s over talking to John.”

That took a moment.  “John.  He…”  Joe sucked in a breath again, still fighting that cough.  “Saved me.”

Hoss was silent a moment.  “Little Joe, I sure am sorry for what happened – for Butch hittin’ you and tossin’ you in the river like you weren’t nothin’.”

Joe’s hand found his brother’s shirt and twisted the fabric.  “It’s not your fault.  I…could of walked away.”

“From Butch?  That ain’t likely.  That boy’s gonna end up in prison one day.”  Hoss actually growled.  “Maybe one day soon.”

“…Tory?” he asked.

“Still thinkin’ of girls, eh?” middle brother chuckled.  “She’s fine.  She’s at the house.”

Joe twisted a bit to look at their father.  His pa was kneeling on the ground, turning over one of the Chinese men who had attacked them.

“Why?” he asked.

“We ain’t sure.  That there China man lived for a bit, though we ain’t sure how.  That knife got him good.  He said Zhuang was comin’ and we’d best be ready.”

“Ready for…what?”

Hoss shrugged.  “Ain’t sure.  He up and died afore we could ask him anythin’ else.”

More awake now, Joe drew in a breath and signaled to his brother to help him sit up.

“You sure you wanna do that, Joe?”

He nodded.  Hoss hesitated and then caught him under the arms and lifted him up.  Then the big man slipped in behind him and propped him against his body.  As he lay back against his brother’s massive form a calm descended on Joe and he thanked God for the love he and his father and brothers had for one another.  Hoss’ arm circled his waist and he knew his older brother was thinkin’ the same thing.

“You sure are hot, Little Joe.”

That was funny.  He felt cold.  “I got a fever.”

“Sure enough do.  You’re hot enough, little brother, to fry griddle cakes on.”

Joe giggled and then, in spite of his efforts, erupted into a coughing fit.  He coughed until he was heaving – his brother holding him all the time, one arm wrapped around his waist and the other holding his head.  When he was done, the exhausted boy sank back again against his giant of a brother.  Tears streaked Joe’s face and it was only when he heard his name being called that he found the strength to look up.

It was Pa.

His father’s worried gaze went past him to his brother.  “Hoss, will you go and see to it that man is buried?  We can’t leave him for he animals to find.”

His brother nodded.  “How’s John?”

“Sleeping.”  Pa paused as his eyes shifted from Hoss to him.  “As you should be, young man.”

“I just…want to go home…Pa,” he managed without coughing.

His father placed a hand on his forehead.  The older man wasn’t quick enough to hide his fear.

Joe swallowed over his own.  “Am I gonna die?”

“Aw, shucks, short-shanks. Don’t you go sayin’ such things.”

“Hoss, here.  Hand him over to me,” his pa said.  Joe was tilted forward as his big brother relinquished his place and Pa took it.  Once the older man was seated, he drew him in close.  For a moment Pa said nothing and then, as Hoss moved away, began to speak.  “Joseph, do you remember when you had the measles?  You were just a little boy.”

Joe frowned.  He did, kind of.  He’d been five, maybe six, and real sick – so sick the doctor wasn’t sure he’d make it.  For days he’d been out of his head, raving about all kinds of things, but mostly callin’ for his mama.

“A little,” he admitted.

“You were so ill.  I was afraid you would die.  You kept calling for your mother and I couldn’t bring her to you.  I felt…hopeless.”

“Not…your fault,” he managed.

“No.  It wasn’t.  But, since your mother’s death, well, it was the first time I wasn’t enough.”

“Sorry.”

His father squeezed his arm.  “Don’t be.  You know how I’ve told you that troubles are sent to us by the Almighty?”

He didn’t really understand it, but he remembered.  Joe nodded.

“I sat at your bedside and wrestled with the Lord just as surely as Jacob did.  It was so soon after your mother died, I couldn’t bear the thought that you would too.  I fought harder than I have ever fought, demanding God see things my way.  ‘My will’, I shouted, ‘not thine!’ ”  His pa halted to take a breath.  “And you only grew sicker.”

Joe said nothing, but waited.

“In the end, I fell to my knees beside your bed and whispered the words our Lord did when He was facing the cross.  ‘Thy will, not mine.’  Shortly after that your fever broke and you began to get better.”  Joe felt his pa’s hand on his cheek.  “Since then, I have surrendered my sons to the Lord, and daily ask Him to preserve you.  I believe He will, son.  I don’t believe today is your day to die.”

Joe gripped his father’s fingers and pressed them to his heart.  “How come we…have to suffer, Pa?”

“Because our Lord suffered.  And because God loves us.  If life went according to our own wishes every moment of every day, evil would befall us.  You may be a child in my eyes, Joseph, but in our Lord’s eyes we are all children.  No matter how much we think we do, we don’t know what is best.”

Joe puzzled that over for a moment. Then he said, simple as a child.  “Mama died.”

His father stiffened.  “Yes, and God alone knows why.  Maybe to make you the man you will be – the man you would not have been had your mother lived.”

Joe blinked and yawned.  “You’ll have to figure…it out for me, Pa.  I’m…too tired.”

He felt his father’s lips brush his forehead.  “Sleep, Joe.  We’ll wake you when we’re ready to go.  After that man is buried.”

Joe smiled up at the familiar face that hovered over him. “I love you, Pa.”

His father brushed a stray curl off his forehead.  “And I love you, you little scamp!  Now, get some sleep.”

Joe closed his eyes and did what he was told.

For once.

 

For the most part, Da Chao and Longwei ignored them.

After questioning Richard Jennings, they’d pulled up a chair from the dining room and bound Jennings to it.  Adam was seated about three feet away.  He and the older man had talked a little, but since they couldn’t say what they wanted to had, in the end, fallen silent for the most part.  He had no way to let either Jennings or Hop Sing know about Ming-hua’s daring move.  He’d cut his fingers a few times, but slowly the rope binding his wrists was giving way.  Another minute would see his hands free.

Then he’d have to figure out how to do the same thing with his feet – and without being seen.

Hop Sing was watching him closely, his black eyes narrowed.  Adam suspected the man from China guessed what he was about.  Perhaps Ming-hua had given him a knife too.  As he sliced through the rope and itfell from his wrists, the black-haired man was sure of it.

Hop Sing gave him a grim smile and nodded.  A second later he called out loudly.  “You set Hop Sing free!  Girl no know how to cook!  Hop Sing and Mister Adam no can live on soup!”

Longwei and Da Chao were bent over his father’s desk, looking at a map.  Their heads came up at the sound and they turned toward the great room.

“Hop Sing promise he not run away.  Better to cook than to wait like chicken tied to board.”

Da Chao looked mildly amused while his bully boy became instantly suspicious.

“What is in the kitchen?” Longwei demanded.

Their cook eyed the man like he was an idiot. “Food!  You let Hop Sing do job!”

Longwei started to speak, but the tong leader silenced him with a hand to his shoulder.  Da Chao passed by him then and came to stand before Hop Sing.  “My countryman, you are an honorable man.  Do I have your promise that you will not try to escape?”

“Yes.  Yes.  Hop Sing say so already.”  Hop Sing sat up straight in his chair.  “Wish to feed Mistah Cartwright’s number one son and humble guest, as well as Da Chao and Longwei.”  He paused and added for good measure.  “You fed well, maybe you leave!”

Adam stifled a chuckle.

Da Chao was considering it.  Unlike his companion, the older man looked to be the type used to gracious living and comfort and a piece of that was probably a temptation.

“Longwei, untie Hop Sing and take him to the kitchen,” the older man ordered.  “See that he does not leave.”

“Hop Sing give word,” their cook stated, slightly miffed.

Da Chao’s dark eyes took them both in. “There are words and there are words.  This one has lived long.  Words can mean many things.”

Adam clenched and unclenched his fingers.  The tong leader’s caution meant one thing for sure.  Longwei would go with Hop Sing into the kitchen and Da Chao would be the only one remaining in the great room.

The odds were looking pretty good.

 

The journey home was agonizingly slow.

Before they left the camp, he’d mounted Buck and had Hoss hand Joseph up to him.  As his arm circled Joseph’s slender waist and the boy’s chestnut curls brushed his chin, he’d sent his middle son to make sure John Randolph was able to take his seat on the dead man’s horse.  Then with Hoss settled on Chubb, they took off.

Heat radiated from Little Joe’s quiescent form as they traveled and he soon fell into a restive sleep.  As they continued on, Ben offered up prayers that the boy be spared another bout of pneumonia.  His son had had more than his share of illness and injury in his young life.  Each time it worried him that the boy would be left weakened.  The West was a harsh mistress.  It had little if any sympathy for man or beast.  If Joseph’s strength and prowess diminished – should he not be able to do a man’s work – he knew it would crush him.  Little Joe already struggled with feelings of inadequacy.  He was bound and determined to compare himself to the three grown men in his family.  Ben wished his son could enjoy being a boy for as long as was possible but, with Joseph, he knew that wish was idle.

Hoss fell in alongside them, his clear blue eyes trained on his brother’s silent form.  He glanced back at Randolph, who was bringing up the rear, and then asked, “Is Joe all right, Pa?”

The hand he had placed on his son’s chest drew the boy in.  There was no end of satisfaction in the feeling of Joseph in his arms.  A short time before they had passed the place where the boy went into the river.  Everything could have ended so differently.

“I’m sure your brother will be all right.  He’s exhausted and I’m worried about that cut on his leg.”

“You think that’s what’s causin’ the fever?”

Ben glanced at the man who trailed them.  “Sadly, no.  John said Joseph was feverish before his leg was injured.”

“From goin’ in the water,” Hoss said in defeat.

He knew his middle son blamed himself for his youngest’s predicament.  Ben fought an inappropriate smile.  They’d all done the same at one time or another.

Joseph had given them ample opportunities.

“Hoss, your brother made his own choice to fight Butch.  How many times have I told him to step away – to control that temper of his?  It’s that which gets him into trouble, not you, not Adam or me, but the cross God has given him to bear.”

“You sayin’ God made Joe a hothead?” Hoss asked, his lips quirking a bit.

Ben looked down at his youngest.  Thank goodness, Little Joe was asleep.  If he heard them talking about him like he wasn’t there, they’d get a real show of that temper!

“God is sovereign, son.  He created us for His pleasure and purpose with all our faults and flaws.  They are given to us to overcome so we can be stronger; so we can be made into the image of His son.”

Hoss was laughing now.  “You think God takes pleasure in little brother’s hijinks?”

“As a father, I believe God takes pleasure in all of this boy – his high spirits, his joy, and even in his temper.  Like a sculptor chiseling marble, turning it from a formless block into a beautiful form, God is chipping away the child and making the man.”  Ben leaned down and planted a kiss on his son’s curls.  “Joe will be a fine man one day.”

Little brother’s nose wrinkled.  A second later he sneezed and then his eyes came open.

“Huh?”

“Pa was just sayin’ what a fine man you are, Little Joe,” Hoss said with a wink.  “You just go back to sleep.”

It had been said before, by those who witnessed his youngest sleep – and had no knowledge of Joseph when awake – that his youngest son was an angel.  He looked like one now as a smile touched his lips and his green eyes sought him out through a tangle of curls.

“Did you really call me a…man, Pa?”

Ben nodded.  “I sure did.”

“Are we almost home?” his son asked with longing.

“Almost.”

Joe’s eyes drifted shut.  They opened again wide at a thought.  “Do I have to do…my chores tonight?”

He and Hoss exchanged a worried look.  It would be quite some time before the boy was able to do any work.

“Not tonight.  We’ll let you sleep and then we’ll see about tomorrow.  How’s that sound?”

Only one eye was open now.  “Will you do them, Hoss?  I mean, ‘til I’m up and movin’….”

“Sure thing, punkin.”

Joe’s hand waved, as if he was trying to reach his brother, and then he lapsed into sleep again.

Hoss sniffed and wiped his eye.  “Dang fool kid.”

Ben laughed.  “Not so foolish.  After all, you’re doing his work.”

 

Da Chao had returned to the office and was paying no attention to them.  Adam shifted and showed Richard Jennings that his hands were free.  The older man nodded and then turned to watch Chao, who was standing with his back to them, rummaging through his father’s books.  Adam eyed the door.  It was only a dozen feet or so to it, but it seemed miles away.  Richard glanced back and seemed to sense his hesitation.

“Go,” Jennings whispered, his voice tight.  “Find my daughter, Adam.  Please.”

With that Tory’s father turned back to keep watch.

Adam glanced at Da Chao.  The Chinese man was engrossed in the book he had chosen.  Drawing a breath, he reached forward and down and began to work on the ropes that held his ankles together.  They didn’t come easily, plus he had to stop two times when Richard signaled that Chao might turn and look his way.  In the end, he was forced to insert the knife blade in one of the loops and pry.  Finally the ropes fell away and his feet were free.

For several heartbeats the black-haired man remained where he was, considering the consequences of his actions.  Adam’s lips lifted in a crooked smile.  His little brother would have been up and on the move already and barreling out that door, but life had taught him to be more cautious – there were always unforeseen circumstances.

A movement caught his attention.  Richard Jennings was growing restless.

Go!’ the other man mouthed.

Still, Adam hesitated.  If he was caught it might mean death for all of them, even though that would take away any leverage the two Chinese men had.  He could be the cause of Hop Sing’s death and maybe Richard Jennings’ too.  On the other hand if he didn’t make a break for it, he was sure to be the cause of something bad happening to his family when his pa and brothers walked in.

That was all it took.  Adam was on his feet in a heartbeat and headed for the door.

Miraculously, Da Chao seemed not to notice.  The tong leader had moved and was studying the map of the Ponderosa Pa kept on the wall behind his desk.  With a word of whispered thanks on his lips, Adam opened the door as silently as he could and stepped outside –

Directly into the path of two more Chinese men.

The elder of the pair looked at him with surprise.  The younger stepped up and bowed.

And then dropped him with an uppercut to his chin.

 

They’d come to a crossroads.  In one direction lay home and, in the other, Eagle Station where the only doctor in the territory sometimes took up residence.  The problem was, Paul Martin could be in his office or he could be a hundred miles away.

There was no way of knowing.

Ben Cartwright permitted himself a deep, heartfelt sigh.  When he’d been a young man it had seemed, well, romantic to strike out for the West, to smell the pines and breath the fresh air; to find land he could call his own where he could build an empire and create a family to possess and cherish it.  Now, he wondered if he hadn’t been wrong.  He’d lost three wives to this land and come close to losing his sons more than once.  Oh, the air was fresh all right, and the pine trees so tall they reached right up to Heaven, but if he’d made a different choice, God willing, Elizabeth would have still been alive and his sons would have been born and reared in a city where there were few dangers.  Adam could have lived at home while he attended college and he could have enjoyed his son’s achievements first hand instead of through a few lines penned on paper.  And Joseph….  He glanced a his ailing child.

Joseph would never have been.  Nor Hoss.

Oh, he would have had other children with Elizabeth, but none of them would have been his gentle giant of a son or his wild and sometimes reckless youngest boy.

Would the trade-off have been worth it?  Would it have been better never to know and love these two sons if it meant he didn’t have to live a life filled with worry and concern?

Ben shook his head and chuckled softly to himself.

Not being able to look into those crystal clear blue eyes that contained the sum of all the care and affection a man could hold, or that pair of mischievous green ones?

No.  Never.

Come what may.

“Pa?”

The rancher turned to find the possessor of those blue eyes looking at him.  “You made up your mind yet?”

He was standing at the fork in the road.  They’d stopped midday to let Joseph rest.  The boy kept insisting he could ride the other horse they’d brought with them, but he knew better.  Little Joe was only just able to keep his seat riding double with him on Buck.  When they’d dismounted, he’d tried to get the boy to eat, but had barely managed to get any nourishment into him before Joseph sank into a deep sleep.  He was worried.  His son’s coughing had diminished, which indicated his chest was tight while his fever was higher.  Both things meant Joe needed medicine, and to be resting in a warm place of comfort, neither of which he could supply at the moment.

The question was, did he take him into the settlement and hope – and pray – the doctor was there, or home to Hop Sing?  Hop Sing had been with them since Joseph’s birth and had brought the boy through a good many illnesses with his Chinese teas, remedies, and love.

He sighed again.  “I don’t know why, Hoss, but I’m worried Doctor Martin won’t be in.”

“Did the Doc say anythin’ the last time you talked with him?”

Ben frowned.  Did he?

Yes.

“Come to think of it, Paul mentioned a conference in Sacramento. I’m not sure when he was leaving or due back, though.  He could have been and returned already.”

“Or he might still be hundreds of miles away.”

The rancher fingered his chin, thinking.  Then he nodded.  “We go home.  My inclination was toward that anyway.  Once there, we’ll send one of the hands to the settlement to see if Paul has come back yet.”  Ben’s eyes strayed to his youngest who lay on the ground tossing and turning, twisting his blankets around his lean thin frame and moaning quietly.  “Joseph needs to be in his own bed, in his home, and surrounded by those who love him, not in what passes for a hotel in Eagle Station or in the back room of Paul’s office waiting for someone to come.”

He felt his son’s hand on his shoulder.  “Ol’ Hop Sing’ll do right by Little Joe, Pa.  He’s pulled us all through our fair share of sickness.”

Yes, and Joseph had had more than his fair share of sicknesses. Perhaps he should have fallen for a less delicate woman than Marie that last time.  She had come from the ease and refinement of New Orleans and had, by her own admission, never been physically strong.

Oh, but that woman’s character, now there was strength.

It was that strength, bequeathed to him by his beloved mother, that would serve to get Marie’s son through this as well.

“I’d like to let your brother sleep a little while longer,” he said at last.  “Then we’ll see if we can get some more food and water into him before setting out again.  That way, we’ll make the house by dark.”  Ben turned in the direction he knew his Ponderosa lay and let out yet a third sigh. He was tired and about on his last nerve.  In his mind’s eye he could see their home – their sanctuary.

The only place on the face of the Earth he wanted to be.

 

EIGHT

Beth Riley wiped her flour-caked hands on her apron, locked a stray hank of golden-blonde hair behind her ear, and went to the window to look out on the dingy side street of Eagle Station.  It was one street over from the main thoroughfare – if you could call a wide, packed-earth path that was rutted so deeply it filled like a gully when it rained that.  With her hand on the curtain, she pulled it back a bit and looked across the street.  Since it was dusk, it was hard to see, but she was sure he was still there – the stranger in black who had been standing on the opposite corner for nearly an hour now.  Dropping the curtain in place, she turned and went to her back room and peeked in.  The elder of the two Chinese sisters who had come knocking on her door in the wee hours of the morning was sitting in a chair, reading a book.  Biyu, who was in the family way, was asleep, poor thing, worn out from their unexpected trip into the settlement.  When they’d arrived there had been three of them, but she’d sent Tory Jennings home to her mother – with a strong word to tell the girl to keep her mouth shut.  Tory had been nearly hysterical when she arrived, babbling on about danger and Chinese men with long sharp knives.

Beth sighed as she glanced at the window again.  Maybe she’d live to open that fine establishment on the main street of the settlement she hoped to have one day.

Maybe not.

Dandan looked up, noticing her.  The young woman placed the book on the chair and joined her in the dining room.

“Is he still there?” the Chinese beauty asked, her tone both frightened and concerned.

Beth nodded.  “Yes, I’m afraid so.  He hasn’t moved since I first spotted him.”

Dandan went to the window and peeked out.  “He is waiting for someone.”

“Or some thing,” Beth said as she joined her.  The stranger was standing on the corner near Paul Martin’s office.  “Perhaps he’s only waiting for the doctor to return.”

The Chinese woman smiled.  It was a sad little thing with even less hope.  “Perhaps.”

As she turned and walked back into the room, Beth called out.  “Dandan?  Are you hungry?  I have some pie left over from today’s trade.  You hardly ate anything at lunch.”  Her eyes flicked to the back room.  “You or your sister.”

Dandan pivoted to look at her, her black stare enigmatic.  “There is no time.  We must leave as soon as Biyu wakes.”

“But why?”

The young woman crossed over to her.  Upon her arrival she reached out, touching her arm.  “These most unworthy ones wish no harm to you.  The honorable Hop Sing sent us here, else neither would have come.  This humble one and her sister are most grateful for your kindness, but there is great danger to you.”

Beth covered Dandan’s hand with her own.  “Will you please tell me what this danger is?”

“What is to tell?” Dandan replied.  “We are Da Chao’s property. Da Chao gave Biyu to his sister’s son, though her desire was not for him.  Another came.  A man she did desire.  My sister knew of the danger.  Biyu knew she must not love him.”  The lovely Chinese woman sighed.  “She did.”

“And now she’s expecting this other man’s child, and her husband has come to find her and take her back?”

Dandan’s countenance darkened.   “Longwei means to kill her – and the child.”

Beth’s hand flew to her lips.  “Oh, dear!”

“That is why we must go.  If Beth Riley is found with us, Da Chao will kill her as well.”

“Did you tell Ben Cartwright?  I’m sure he would protect you.”

“We honor the house of Cartwright.  It is this one’s shame that has placed them in jeopardy,” Biyu said as she made an appearance.  “It is also this one’s hope, when Da Chao sees Biyu is no longer there, he will leave without bringing harm to them.”

Beth looked from one young woman to the other.  “But you don’t think so.”

“Longwei has no honor,” Biyu stated simply.  “The one who owns me does not care who he kills.  If not for….”  The young woman’s hand caressed her expanded belly.  “If not for this one, Biyu would have let Longwei kill her rather than bring harm to any other.”

Beth’s concern had ratcheted up a few notches.  From what the young women said, Ben was gone.  The handsome rancher was out looking for that young imp of his who had managed – yet again – to get into trouble.  Adam had been alone at the house with Hop Sing when this Da Chao and Biyu’s husband arrived, forcing the sisters – along with Tory Jennings – to flee over the rooftop and through the woods.

Crossing back to the window, the blonde woman looked out at the street again and was relieved to find the man gone.

“I’m going to go for the sheriff,” she announced.

Both women looked frightened.

“You must not,” Dandan said.

“Not for you.  For the Cartwrights,” she told them.  “I won’t even mention you’re here.  I’ll just tell him one of the hands came into town and said there was trouble.”  Beth crossed over to them.  She looked directly at Biyu.  “How are you going to feel if you find out those men who are looking for you hurt Adam or Hop Sing?  What if Ben and Little Joe walk in on them?”

Biyu lowered her head.  “Most dishonorable person only think of self.  You must go.”

“Roy Coffee is a shrewd man.  He’ll know what to do,” Beth assured her as she patted Biyu’s hand.  Roy was acting sheriff now as Robert Olin had gone on an extended family leave.  She’d never really liked the younger man.  He was a bit stuffy.  Roy had the right mix of an open countenance and a friendly smile that hid the sharp mind beneath.  Not much slipped past him. “You two go in the back and wait.  I’ll just get my hat.”

At the door the older woman paused and looked back.  She waited to make certain the pair had done as she said, and then she tossed her short cloak over her shoulders and stepped out the door.  The sun was just setting and its dying light cast dark shadows across the dirt path in front of her store.

That’s why she didn’t see him.

One moment she was standing on the stoop and the next, she was in the alley and a man had hold of her.  He wrapped one black-swathed arm around her middle and placed a hand over her mouth to keep her from calling out as he pulled her deeper into the shadows.  They had just entered the darkest space when the man stiffened, grunted, and released his grip.  As she stumbled away, Beth heard a word she had only heard a few times before, and that had been at the Chinese laundry when Hop Ling thought he’d been cheated.  A second later the man slipped unconscious to the ground.

Beth heard an intake of breath and a short snort.  “Serves him right for putting his hands on a lady.”

It startled her when she realized the voice was a woman’s.  What woman would have been audacious enough to take on a would-be Chinese assasin – for she was sure that was what he was – and in a dark alley, no less?  That’s what she’d like to know!

The woman laughed.  “You look like you were hit on the head instead of him, Beth!”

What?

She knew her?

Two heartbeats later a lovely brown-haired woman of middle age stepped into the waning light.  She was holding a traveling valise at an odd angle in her hand.

“I see Eagle Station hasn’t changed!” she declared as she toed the unconscious man with her foot.  “I’ve come back to trouble – and I suppose there’s a Cartwright involved?”

Beth nearly fainted.

“Rosey O’Rourke!” she exclaimed.

 

The day was almost done.  Ben turned in the saddle and glanced from their unexpected guest to his two young sons.  They hadn’t moved as quickly as he wanted.  He was more than anxious to get Joseph home as well as to take care of Jude’s step-brother who was tiring.  John’s horse was at least a dozen yards behind.  The last time they’d stopped to rest, Hoss had insisted he take Joseph on the horse with him.  Chubb was bigger, he said, and Buck was looking worn out from carrying the burden of the two of them.  Ben had protested at first but then, relented.  A slight smile curled the older man’s lips.  He knew Hoss was right about Buck, but he also knew the gentle giant felt the need to do something to help his brother.  Hoss bore a weight of guilt far heavier than the weight Buck had carried.  Hopefully, once Joseph bounced back to his ebullient mischievous self, the big man would be able to lay that burden down.

And Joseph would bounce back.

As they continued on, Ben considered his youngest’s life so far.  Little Joe was only fifteen and, like his mother, seemed prone to misfortune.  The boy had already faced a good many trials, starting with the death of his mother and the loss of his father’s presence when he was five.  It shamed him now to think of how he had reacted to Marie’s death, practically abandoning his three young sons.  If not for Adam, the damage done to his third boy would have been irreparable.  As it was, the sudden loss of his mother and father had left Joseph with a deep-seated fear of abandonment.  Coupled with the need to prove himself to his two older, stronger, and more mature brothers, his youngest had come out a matchless mix of hunger, hope, bull-headedness, exuberance, melancholy and, unfortunately, anger.

His prayers this day had been for many things – Joseph’s health, Hoss’ pain, and his son who remained at home, who had been none too well when he left.  In his meditations with the Lord, he’d been reminded of Psalm 139, and of verses thirteen through sixteen in particular.

 For you created my inmost being;

 you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

My frame was not hidden from you

when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book

before one of them came to be.

 

In other words, Joseph and all the turmoil and joy that came with him, came as no surprise to the Lord.

“Hey, Pa,” Hoss called softly.

He turned toward his middle boy.  “What is it, Hoss?”

“I think I can see the lights of the house.”

Ben pivoted in the saddle and looked.  Yes, he thought, it might just be.  Adam most likely had anticipated they would travel at night and left a lamp burning to light their way.  He had no way of knowing exactly what time it was, but supper would be long over and those within the ranch house might already have gone to bed.  The older man sighed.

Oh, how he looked forward to his own bed!

Ben’s gaze went to his youngest.  Joseph was moaning and shifting uncomfortably in his brother’s arms.

Not that he was going to see it tonight.

“How’s your brother doing?” he asked.

Hoss’ face said it all.  “Joe’s burnin’ up, Pa, and what he’s sayin’ ain’t makin’ a lot of sense.  He ain’t felt this hot since he had them measles.”

Or since the two years before with Finch Webb.

Ben nodded.  “Come on, son.  Let’s see if we can urge a little more speed out of our two weary friends.  I’m anxious to get home.”

And he was.  Anxious, that was.

And not entirely sure why.

 

Rosey O’Rourke halted just inside the door of Beth Riley’s shop to hang her hat and cloak.  Beth was clucking like a mother hen and babbling on about rhubarb pie, strange men on the corner, and never knowing what will walk through your door.  At first the brown-haired woman was puzzled.  Obviously Beth would be upset about what had happened outside, but that didn’t seem to be her focus.  Rosey had no idea what had her friend flustered until she saw movement in the back room.  Someone could have knocked her over with a feather when Dandan appeared in the doorway followed closely by Biyu.

A noticeably pregnant Biyu!

“Biyu!  Dandan! How did you get here?” she exclaimed as she quickly crossed over to the pair and embraced each of them in turn.  Pulling back she smiled at the soon-to-be mother.  “I see you’ve married.  Is your husband here as well?”

Biyu’s answer was to refuse to meet her eyes.

Rosey turned to her older sister.  “Did I saw something wrong?”

Dandan touched her sister’s shoulder.  “My sister should rest,” she said, giving Biyu a little shove toward the back room.  “This one will explain to Miss Rosey.”

For a moment, the expectant mother remained still.  Then she looked up and met her perplexed gaze.  “No.  Miss Rosey is Biyu’s friend.  She has helped this unworthy one before.  It is Biyu who must tell her of her shame.”

One of Rosey’s eyebrows peaked.  Shame?  She glanced at Beth Riley who gave a shrug of her shoulders and looked, well, a bit sick.

Oh, dear.

“I’ll just be about my cooking,” the blonde woman said.  “I’ve heard all of this before.”

Rosey nodded as the other woman disappeared into the next room and then took hold of Biyu’s hand and led her over to one of the tables.  She helped her to sit and then took a seat opposite her.  Dandan followed and stood behind her sister, one hand on her shoulder.

Biyu sniffed, drew in a breath, and then began.

“One year ago, the honorable Da Chao came to Biyu and told her she would belong to Longwei.”

It was Rosey’s turn to suck in air.  Longwei was a monster.

“This unworthy one was given no choice.  To refuse was to be sold and sent away.”  She glanced up at her sister.  “Dandan would be sold as well, to punish Biyu for her disobedience.”

Her eyes flicked to the older of the pair.  Justifiably, she saw hatred in Dandan’s eyes.

“And so you went through with it?”

The China girl hesitated; then nodded.

And then shivered.

“Longwei is cruel,” Dandan said, her jaw set and her black eyes flashing.  “To him, my sister is worth no more than leavings from the kitchen.  This one would see him dead.”

She meant it too.

“Though this unworthy one means nothing to Longwei, still he and he alone must possess her,” Biyu said.  “He locked Biyu in the room we share at The Delectable Dragon.”  Reaching out, she took her sister’s hand.  “Dandan gave herself to the night watchman to obtain the key, promising he might return to her room if he remained silent.”  Biyu gave her sister a wan smile.  “She came to me when Longwei was absent.”

Rosey was thinking about the word Biyu had used.  ‘Shame’.  Was she shamed because she carried this monster’s child, or for another reason?

“Go on,” she prompted gently.

“One day Da Chao and Longwei travel to San Francisco to conduct business.  Dandan freed this one.  Though it was not permitted to leave The Dragon, still, Biyu was free of her room and Longwei!”

Rosey waited.  When the China girl said nothing more, she got to the point, “Is the child Longwei’s?”

Biyu stiffened.  Her sister’s fingers tightened on the shoulder of her silk gown.

It was Dandan who answered.  “No.”

Tears trailed the length of Biyu’s lovely face.  “A man came to The Dragon too cook for Madam Ah Kum’s guests.  He was…kind to me.”

“This one warned her,” Dandan said, her tone stern.

Biyu rose to her feet.  “And this one did not care!  Longwei is no different from other men to whom China girls mean nothing!  John….  John loves Biyu.  He is tender.  He….  This unworthy one has never known love before.  Each man took and did not give.  John gives.”  The China girl squared her shoulders as she faced her irate sister.  “Biyu does not care if she dies!  One night with John and death is better than a thousand days lived with Longwei.”

Dandan was unmoved.  “It is not only Biyu who will die.”

For a moment the pregnant woman remained defiant; then she dissolved into tears.

Rosey rose from her chair and went over to take Biyu in her arms. She held the young woman tightly and patted her back like she would have a child.  As the China girl’s sobbing lessened, she asked quietly, “Do you love this man?”

Biyu nodded.

“And does he love you?”  That brought another nod.  Rosey glanced at Dandan and then asked the girl she held, “What happened when Longwei returned?”

The lovely young woman scowled.  “Upon his return, this one learned to be careful.”

“How did John come to you?  I assume you were locked up again?”

“Biyu stole the key from this one’s purse to have a copy made and gave it to the Englishman.  Whenever Longwei was gone, he came to her.  Now, she is carrying his child.”

“How does Longwei know the child isn’t his?”  Rosey frowned.  “For that matter, how do you?”

Biyu held her head high.  “This one knows it is not so.”

“The time is right for the child to be the Englishman’s,” Dandan admitted with a sigh.  “Once John knew, he gave my sister an item to sell so there would be money to leave.  He told  Biyu to go to Ben Cartwright’s Ponderosa where he would meet her.”  Dandan’s stern gaze went to her sister.  Her expression softened.  “This one could not let her come alone.”

“Wait a minute.”  Rosey held up a hand.  “How did this John know about Ben Cartwright, or the Ponderosa for that matter?”  She would have understood if the former China girls had chosen the destination.  After all, Ming-hua had written to them about the Cartwrights and their kindness.  “Does Ben known him?”

“Honorable Mister Cartwright has not met him,” Dandan replied.

“Then how…?”

It was Biyu who answered.  “The Englishman, John, is the brother of Jude Randolph.”

Ten minutes later Rosey was tying her hat strings under her chin while facing a very frightened Beth Riley.  Biyu and Dandan had returned to their room.  She and Beth had talked and had very different ideas on what to do about the web of Chinese intrigue they found themselves enmeshed in.

Reaching out, she placed a hand on the blonde woman’s arm.  “I’ll be discreet,” Rosey promised.  “No one will be able to trace me back to you.”

“Discreet!” Beth countered.  “For Heaven’s sake!  I’m not worried about me.  I’m worried about you traveling to the Ponderosa at night – and alone!”

“Well, don’t be.  I can take care of myself,” she replied, favoring the other woman with a smile.  “After all, who took that man out with one blow from a well-placed valise?”

Shortly after she had knocked the man unconscious, acting sheriff Roy Coffee had come along and taken him away to the jail.  She intended to stop by there to check and see if there happened to be any new information about who he was or what he was about, and then head out to Ben’s.

“You have to remember, it’s the most natural thing in the world that I would head to the Ponderosa, Beth.  No one will suspect a thing.”  Rosey hesitated.  One thing they had agreed upon was not to tell Roy just yet about the threat to Ben’s family.  They were both afraid the law rushing in might make things worse.  “Remember, Beth.  Wait until tomorrow night and then tell Roy what is happening.  If something is wrong, we will need back-up.”  She took the other woman’s hand.  “And remember, you’re safe here.  Roy put a man outside to keep watch…just in case.”

Beth squeezed her hand.  There were tears in her eyes.  “And you remember that boy of yours back there in San Francisco,” she chided.  “You told me he’s going to get married soon.  Rory would want you to take care of yourself.”

Rosey hesitated.  “I promise I’ll be careful.  It’s just…well….”

“You need to know Ben is all right?”

She felt her cheeks burn.  “Is it that obvious?”

Beth laughed.  “To another woman, yes!”

Rosey’s gaze went to the back room.  “You keep an eye on those two.  We don’t need Biyu suddenly deciding to go look for John Randolph.”

“I will.”  The blonde woman smiled.  “Well, I guess you’d best get going.  Give my love to Ben and the boys when you get to the Ponderosa.”

Rosey grabbed her cloak and hat and donned both quickly.  “I will.”

“God go with you.”

She smiled.  “He always does.”

Then she opened the door and stepped out into the growing night.

 

The three of them reined in their horses as they topped the gentle slope.  John answered his question as to how he was doing with a weary smile.

“Fine, Benjamin.  My shoulder is sore, but I’m fine.”  The Englishman’s gaze went to the horse bearing Hoss and his brother.  “You just worry about your son.”

In spite of everything – including the sick and injured young man he held – Hoss was grinning.  “Dang, Pa!  It’s like they say.  There sure ain’t no place like home.”

Ben knew what he meant.  The pull of the light spilling out of the windows, the idea of his favorite chair and a glass of brandy by the fire; Hop Sing bustling about, complaining and caring.

Adam.

“I feel it too, son.”  Ben eyes lingered on his splendid home, nestled in the  tall Ponderosa pines, for a moment before he turned to look at his youngest son.  Little Joe’s eyes were open and he saw in them the same longing.  Moving Buck a bit closer to Chubb, the concerned father reached out to touch his boy’s arm.  “We’re almost there, Joseph.  You’ll soon be in your own bed.”

“It sure…will feel good, Pa,” his son breathed softly.  Little Joe licked his lips, which were cracked and dry from the fever.  One corner turned up in a little smile.  “Hop Sing’s sure gonna…give me heck for being…sick again, isn’t he?”

“I’m sure he will, and rightly too!” he answered in his mock stern voice.

“Don’t worry about it, little brother,” Hoss said, forcing his tone to be bright.  “Ol’ Hop Sing needs somethin’ to keep him busy, else wise he’d get fat as me!”

His youngest son made a face.  “Sure wish it was something else….” Joe said as he drifted off again to a place where there was no pain.

Hoss cradled Joseph’s head in one of his big hands.  The look he gave him was stricken.  “We gotta get Joe home, Pa.”

He nodded.  “All right, son.  John.  Let’s go.”

The ride down the slope seemed longer than usual, but that was due to the fact that they were tired and both he and Hoss were concerned about the youngest member of the family.  As the three horses pulled into the yard, everything seemed to be as usual, though it surprised him a bit when Adam didn’t come out to greet them. Still, his eldest had been ill as well and he might have already retired.  Hop Sing would be in the kitchen prepping for the coming day.

After he dismounted, Ben went to his middle son’s horse and said, “Hand Joseph down to me.”

Joseph awoke at that.  “I ain’t a baby,” he growled indignantly.  “I can get…down by my – ”

It was a good thing he’d been at the horse’s side.  Joseph managed to wiggle out of his brother’s grip and nearly tumbled to the ground.  Once Ben had hold of him, his impetuous son favored him with a weak smile.

“Told you so.”

Ben had intended to scold him, but he couldn’t help but laugh at the boy’s triumphant expression.

Hoss snorted and then turned toward the house. “Where you s’pose brother Adam is?”

“Probably in bed.”  Ben placed an arm around his youngest’s shoulders.  Joe leaned into him, obviously in need of his strength.  “Will you take care of the animals, Hoss?”

“Sure thing, Pa,” the big man answered as he slung his leg over Chubb’s back and dismounted.  “You just get Little Joe upstairs to bed.”

John came to stand beside them.  The Englishman had dismounted and tethered his horse to the rail.  “I’ll give Hoss a hand.”

“No, John, you’re wounded,” Ben argued.  “You need rest as much as Joseph.”

“I’m quite all right, Benjamin.  Besides I am…restless.”  He shrugged. “If it will make you feel any better, I promise only to watch.”

“I guess I’ll have to be content with that,” Ben said, then he turned to ask his young determined child.  “Do you want to walk in on your own, Little Joe, or would you like a hand?”

“Come to think of it,” his son replied, “I am…a little tired, Pa.  Maybe if you just sort of…hold me up….”

Ben wrapped his arm around his son’s waist and together the two of them headed for the door.  Just before they reached it the rancher turned back and shouted, “Hoss!”

“Yes, sir?”

“Be sure to give Buck some extra hay.  He really outdid himself today.”

His son grinned.  “Sure thing, Pa.”

 

Adam heard his father’s shout and his brother’s answering call.  Both filled him with dread.

The black-haired man had felt panic before, but none that he could remember that had been quite as exquisite as what he felt now.  He’d feared the tong leader, Da Chao, might do something to his family upon their return.

He knew Khu Zhuang would.

Two men in black had met him at the door and forced their way into the house brandishing knives and guns.  Khu Zhuang, who from what he understood was some sort of a rival of Da Chao, followed close on their heels.  The pug-nosed man had ordered everyone to remain still as he went to confront Da Chao.  Hot words passed between the two.  Adam heard both Biyu and Dandan’s names mentioned, as well as someone named John.  Everything else, of course, was in Cantonese.  He thought Da Chao was a dead man when Zhuang took the tong leader by the throat and drew his knife, but Longwei intervened.  Chao’s nephew broke free of his captors and barreled into Zhuang, making the man stagger back and drop his knife.  That was all the opening Da Chao needed.  The tall thin man bolted for the door like a frightened rabbit. The tong leader’s adversary recovered quickly.  Zhuang caught the knife from the floor, pivoted on his heel, and took aim at the thin man’s back.  Adam swallowed down his fear, his eyes trained on the front door.  He’d hesitated for a second, but it was built into him not to let a man be killed in cold blood.  At the last second he’d stuck foot out and tripped Khu Zhuang so the rebel tong leader’s throw went wild.

It had been the biggest mistake of his life.

Da Chao escaped, along with Longwei.

Khu Zhuang was not a happy man.

The man from China had come to stand before him, his lips drawn into a thin line.  The rebel tong leader had the face of a thug – round, with a flat nose that showed signs of having been broken several times, and a thin scar that ran along one side of his face.  His gravelly voice was chilling.

“It is not wise for a puppy to attempt to extract a tooth from a tiger’s mouth,” he’d said.

After that, Khu Zhuang had had him bound and then coldly informed him that whichever member of his family walked through the door next would die for his impertinence.

Adam blinked his eyes to clear them of nervous sweat.  He shifted in the blue chair, trying to ease the pain in his freshly tied hands.  He had no idea if the snub-nosed man meant it or not.  The threat could have been issued just to make him squirm.  Then again, it could have been made in deadly earnest.

He had no idea which.

Khu Zhuang heard his father and Hoss talking just like he did.  The Chinese thug went to the window and looked out, and then signaled one of his men to take up a position near the door, weapon in hand.

Adam exchanged a look with Richard Jennings, who was obviously horrified by what was happening, and then his eyes went to the front door.  He sucked in air to shout a warning and then remembered he was gagged.  A moment later it opened and his father, supporting his youngest brother stepped inside.  It took a moment for the older man to realize something was wrong.

But only a moment.

Adam struggled against his bonds as he heard his father’s sharp intake of air and then watched as Khu Zhuang’s henchman struck him and snatched Little Joe out of his arms.  Pa shouted ‘No!’ and reached for Joe, only to be driven back by a well-placed kick to his knee.  The older man groaned as he fell to the floor.  As he did, a sob drew Adam’s attention away from his father and back to his little brother.  Joe had seemed – well – listless and unresponsive – as if he were only half-aware when the man grabbed him.  The danger to their father awakened his little brother and brought forth a long, heartfelt cry.  It was cut short as Zhuang’s henchman back-handed Joe and dropped the boy to the floor.

Pa’s shout broke the spell.

“Leave the boy alone!” their father demanded as he rose shakily to his feet and stumbled toward where Joe lay curled up in a ball.  “Can’t you see he’s ill?”

The henchman moved silently and swiftly, coming up behind his father.  A knife placed against the skin of Pa’s throat stopped him in his tracks.  His father’s eyes flicked to him, and then returned to the pug-nosed Chinese man.

“Please, let me go to my son,” Pa pleaded, his voice breaking.

Little Joe was coming to.  His baby brother winced, blinked, and then struggled into a seated position.  As he did Joe drew a deep breath, which brought on a fit of coughing. Instantly another of Khu Zhuang’s henchmen was on him.  The man in black grabbed Joe by his curly locks and lifted him from the floor.

A second later a blade was placed against his brother’s throat as well.

Da Chao’s rival had remained still throughout, watching the proceedings impassively; his face sphinx-like.  Khu Zhuang moved now, crossing the great room to come to rest before him.  In one swift motion, the thug removed his gag.  As Adam licked his lips, the Chinese man looked from his father to his brother.  When Chao’s rival turned back, a sadistic sneer lifted the corner of his lips.

“Now, Adam Cartwright, it is time to choose.

“Which one of them will die?”

 

NINE

Hoss Cartwright glanced at the two men in black who were trussed up like steers waitin’ for the brand.  He reached up and wiped the sweat out of his eyes and then turned to his companion.

John Randolph gave him a wan smile and nodded.  “I’m all right,” the Englishman said.

Pa would have washed his mouth out with lye soap for a lie that bald-faced.

They’d entered the stable trailin’ the three horses behind them.  As soon as he got into the buildin’, he’d know’d somethin’ was wrong.  The horses in the barn were millin’ about all nervouslike, snortin’ out their displeasure and stampin’ their hooves on the hard packed earth. Animals was like that and if a man was wise, he paid attention to the signs.

He’d brushed up close to John and, keepin’ his voice low, said, “There’s someone else in here.  Look sharp.”

Jude’s brother gave him a nod. John had just managed to get his pistol out of that fancy tooled leather holster he wore and cocked it before all Hell broke loose.  Two Chinese men dropped on them.  Hard as it was to believe, they must have been hangin’ from the rafters.  It was God’s plan that the one who fell on him was lean as a desert grasshopper – though he was all muscle and meaner than a rattlesnake on a hot skillet.  It should of taken him a minute to take down someone that skinny.

It took him three.

By the time he’d managed it, the ornery feller Jude was fightin’ had managed to trap the Englishman in a corner of one of the stalls.  Quick as a lick his hand went to his gun, but then he thought better of shootin’.  There might be more of them Chinese fellers in the house or around the yard who would hear the shot and take it as a warnin’.  So instead he just barreled into the bad man and used his size to drive him into the stall wall.  As he stood there, staring down at his unconscious form, breathing hard, a thought had struck him.  Neither one of those men in black had made a sound as they attacked.

It was kind of, well, spooky.

“Do you think there are more of them in the house,” John asked.

They were still inside the stable.  They’d cracked the door a bit and were lookin’ out.  The door to the house was standin’ wide open, which didn’t make the big man feel any better.  He felt even worse when another man in black – him, and the two they had trussed up in the stall could of been triplets – stepped onto the porch, stared right at them, and then went back in, slammin’ the door behind him.

“Damn!” Hoss muttered.

They were inside.

“I feel terrible.  I’ve brought this upon you,” John said.

Hoss looked at the Englishman sideways, not quite sure of what he meant.  “Whether you did or didn’t, John, ain’t important right now.  What is, is that them bad men is in there with my family.  You and me gotta figure out some way to help.”

“Of…of course.  I’m sorry.”  John closed his eyes as if focusing and then asked, “Is there a back way in?”

“Well, there’s the back kitchen door, but odds are someone would hear us if we tried that.  Wait….”  Could he hope Joe had been careless?  Hoss’ eyes went to his little brother’s window above the porch.  Yes!  It was open.

Hoss turned to the Englishman and allowed himself a tight-lipped smile.

“God just made one.”

 

Dear God!  How could he choose?

Khu Zhuang had allowed his father to go to Little Joe.  The pair were sitting on the floor just in front of the dining room table.  His father had his arms wrapped tightly around the ailing boy.  He was running his fingers through Joe’s curly locks and speaking soft words of encouragement.

But his eyes were fixed on him.

His father didn’t need to plead.  Adam knew what he wanted him to do.  Pa would have gladly sacrificed himself for any one of them, but how – how could they go on without him?  Especially Joe.  Little Joe had looked at him too, before he had fallen so far into pain that he was nearly insensible.  Those green eyes had told him the truth – if he chose their father, he would be killing them both.

Talk about a Gordian knot!

Zhuang had been generous, or so he had told him.  He’d given him fifteen minutes to choose who would die and they were turning out to be the longest fifteen minutes of his life.  Adam’s eyes flicked to the tall case clock.

He had seven left.

The Chinese man had turned down his offer to exchange himself for Joe or his pa.  It was plain as the flattened nose on the rebel tong leader’s ugly face that he thrived on other’s pain.  His only hope was that that was all this was – a game to bring another man exquisite agony – and that when the clock chimed nine, his threat to kill either his father or his brother would turn out to be a fraud.

Zhuang must have seen him looking at the clock.  “The arrow has been put to the string, young Cartwright.  Soon it must be loosed,” he said.

“Adam….”

It was Pa.  The pug-nosed man shot him a look.  “Tiger father may speak.”

The older man cleared his throat.  “Adam, you know what you have to do.”  Pa waited and then added, his voice rough. “Son, look at me.”

He didn’t want to.  He knew his resolve would shatter.

“Son.”

With a sigh Adam did as he was bid.

“Son, you’re facing a terrible choice.  These are the times that test a man’s soul.  I’ve taught you right and I know you will make the right choice.”  His father looked down at Joe and passed a hand over the unconscious boy’s cheek.  “God will guide you.”

Adam felt his jaw tighten.  “How can God let such a thing happen, Pa?” he spat in spite of himself.  “Where is He now?!”

His father’s eyes were on the man who threatened both him and his son.  “He’s here, Adam.  Never believe otherwise.  He will be with you all your days, even when I’m not.”

Why did those sound like a dying man’s last words?

Zhuang had a strange look on his face as he turned to face him.

“Four minutes.”

 

John Randolph dropped to the floor of Joseph Cartwright’s bedroom.  He remained there for a moment to catch his breath and then rose and followed Hoss to the door.  The big man signaled for silence as he opened it a crack.  They had no way of knowing if any of the Chinese men were on the upper floor of the ranch house.  Hoss was betting they were all downstairs, but there was no guarantee.  As they’d approached the house from the side, they’d encountered six horses tethered in the trees.  With the pair they’d left in the barn, that left four riders unaccounted for.  Ben’s middle son figured they would be pretty well occupied watching his father and two brothers, Tory Jennings’ father, Hop Sing, and the three women who had been in the house when they left.

If they were all still alive, that was.

Hoss had his ear to the crack.  He listened for a moment and then signaled he should follow him into the hall.  As he did, John mentally berated himself for bringing this trouble upon the Cartwright household.  He ‘d said nothing at the time, but he’d recognized one of the men in the stable who had attacked them. They belonged to Da Chao’s chief rival, Khu Zhuang.  Chao was the leader of the strongest tong in Vallejo, one that was dedicated to business more than the business of killing.  He was a hard man and showed little or no mercy to those who crossed him, but he was far less sinister than Zhuang.  He’d come to know the lesser tong leader while working at The Dragon.  It would be to his eternal shame that he had become involved with the rebel tong leader.

The truth was, even if he had not needed to rescue Biyu, he would have had to leave Vallejo anyway.

A terse ‘psstt’ brought him out of his reverie.  Hoss was signaling him to enter the shadows at the top of the stair.  Pushing his own thoughts aside, John moved to join him.

“They got Adam and Mister Jennings all trussed up.  Ain’t no sign of the women or Hop Sing.  Joe and Pa is on the floor by the table.”  The big man swallowed.  “Joe ain’t movin’.”

He could hear voices.  “Can you make out what they’re saying?”

The big man scowled.  “Sure can, but it don’t make no sense.  That there China man keeps tellin’ Adam what time it is.”

John listened.  Hoss was right.

‘Three minutes,’ Khu Zhuang said.

The Englishman paled.  “It’s a countdown,” he breathed.

Hoss looked at him.  “A countdown to what?”

John shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.  We have to stop it.”

“So what do we do, go in with guns blazin’?” Hoss asked, his tone dubious.

He thought of his adopted brother Jude and how noble a man he was, and how Jude’s character had pleased their father so.  He, on the other hand, had always been a bit of a disappointment.

The Englishman sucked in air. “Keep your gun ready and wait until I give you a signal, like this.”  He waggled his fingers behind his back.

The big man scowled.  “What are you gonna do?”

John gave his companion a crooked little smile.

“Show myself.”

 

“The time has come, Adam Cartwright,” Khu Zhuang announced.

Adam stared at the man, appalled.  Up until this moment he had held out the hope that the pugnacious Tong leader was simply toying with him – feeding on his torment and discomfort – and that he had no intention of murdering either his father or his brother.

He’d been wrong.

“Choose.”

Tears flooded Adam’s eyes.  He just…couldn’t.  Joe and Pa, they were bound together by that cord Charlotte Bronte spoke of in her novel, Jane Eyre.  The words were as beautiful as they were tragic.

I have a strange feeling with regard to you.  As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you.  And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap.  And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly.’

It didn’t matter which he chose.  Neither of them would survive.

“Choose or both die,” Khu Zhuang warned.  As he spoke, the Chinese man motioned to the henchmen who stood to either side of his family.  In response both men bent down.  One caught Pa by his arm and lifted him up, while the other reached for Joe.  This was it, the finale.

The end.

Adam swallowed over fear as a fire ignited in his soul.  If that pug-nosed bastard laid a hand on either Joe or Pa he’d  –

A stranger’s voice called from the top of the stair, startling him.

“Hello, Zhuang.”

Adam saw surprise register on Khu Zhuang’s face – just before rage narrowed his black eyes.

“Cur!” Zhuang shouted.  “Son of a dog!”  In an instant Joe and his Pa were forgotten as the rebel tong leader pointed at the stairs and shouted, “Take the mongrel dog!  He must pay for his insult to my house!”

 

Hoss’s mouth fell open as John shot him an apologetic look and then bolted past him into the upstairs hall.  He waggled his fingers as he did.  Fortunately, the big man understood the signal.  Hoss stepped into the concealing shadows and remained there, waiting for Zhuang’s men.  He dropped the first one who turned the corner with a swift blow to the back of his head.  The second came hard on his heels and the big man found himself in an awkward position – so it took Hoss a minute longer to take him out.  By the time Ben Cartwright’s middle son had subdued both men, Khu Zhuang was shouting, obviously irritated and ready to take off someone’s head.

“Kunlun!  Chongkun!  Report!”

It took a second for him to catch his breath.  “It’s not over,” he said, coming alongside Hoss.  “Khu Zhuang is a madman.  We have to do something more or he’ll kill your family.”

The big man pursed his lips and nodded.  As Zhuang yelled again, Hoss edged forward toward the stair.  He peered around the corner into the great room.

And grinned.

“Looks to me like what we gotta do is mop up.”

 

It had happened so fast it made his head spin.  Adam was staring at Hop Sing, who stood before him, as if their cook was something that had risen up out of a dream.  The Chinese man spoke softly as he untied the ropes that bound him.  His words didn’t register.

His eyes were on the scene unfolding on the floor.

Their father was talking to Joe, trying to rouse his brother from wherever injury and suffering had taken him.  Khu Zhuang lay silent on the oriental rug near his pa’s feet, having been taken out by one swift strike to his head with a very heavy cast iron skillet wielded by their rather irate cook.  Hoss was coming down the stairs, dragging two black-clad bodies behind him, while the stranger – who had drawn Khu Zhuang’s attention to the top of the stairs – had descended to the great room and collapsed into the Pa’s favorite chair.

Across from him, still bound to his chair, was Richard Jennings.  The poor man had passed out.

He had his sympathies.

Adam groaned as his hands came free.  He pulled them to the front and began to run them to return the circulation.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” he said and meant it.

“Hop Sing see if Mistah Adam’s father need help with Little Joe,” their faithful friend answered.  “Send Ming-hua to get hot towels for number one son’s hands.”

“That’s kind of you, but I’m fine,” the black-haired man replied as he pushed out of the chair and rose to his feet.  After watching Hoss drag the two men out the door, he glanced at Ming-hua, who had accompanied their cook from the kitchen.  She hovered near his father and youngest brother.  “You had a man watching the two of you, didn’t you?” he asked Hop Sing.  “How did you manage to get away?”

“All time men hungry.  Offer to feed one who keep watch.”  The man from China grinned.  “Ming-hua put sleeping powder left from last time Little Joe sick in gravy on beef!”

Adam returned his smile.  “That was quick thinking, Hop Sing. Thank you again!”  He looked out the door and then asked, “Did Hoss know you were free?”

“Didn’t know no such thing, big brother,” Hoss said as he reappeared.  “We figured Hop Sing was trussed up in here with you and everyone else.”  The big man paused as he looked at Ming-hua.  “Where’s the other wimmen?”

“Gone,” he replied.  “It’s a long story.”  Adam’s gaze went to his father and brother.  “How’s Little Joe?”

“He’s awful sick, Adam.”  Hoss made a face.  “Didn’t help him none to come home to men what took over his house.”

And you don’t know the half of it, Adam thought.

Their father had placed one arm around Joe’s chest and the other under his knees and was rising with their baby brother in his arms.

“Hop Sing, will you and Ming-hua please go ahead of me and ready Joseph’s room?”  The older man turned a weary face toward him and his brother as he came abreast them.  “One of you needs to go for Doc Martin.”

Hoss was bending down, taking hold of Zhuang’s feet.  The evil man was still unconscious.  “I’ll do it, Pa.  I need to get these men to the sheriff.”

“Yes.”  His father looked disgusted.  “I want that man and the vile men who work for him off my land now!”

“Already done, Pa,” Hoss said as he dragged the Chinese man toward the door.  “I got them other two in the wagon.  I’ll get this one out there and tie him up good and then head out.”

“I’ll go with him,” Richard Jennings said as he roused and rose shakily to his feet.  The older man’s voice quivered with both exhaustion and relief.  “I need to get home to my wife.  She has to be worried sick about Tory and me.”

“Hop Sing send girls into town,” their cook said, interrupting. “Tory go to Mrs. Riley.  She safe.”

“Good thinking, Hop Sing,” Adam said.  “No one would think to look for them there.”

The man from China nodded and then bustled up the stairs after Ming-hua. Adam caught his father’s arm as the older man followed in his wake.  He looked into his little brother’s face and shuddered at what he saw.  Joe’s cheeks were red and his skin was pale.  The sheen of sweat coating it made it look like wax.  His brother’s breathing was shallow and Joe moaned as he tossed from side to side.

“How is he?” he asked, concerned.

“I can’t be sure, but I’m afraid your brother has developed pneumonia, Adam.  After that drenching he took and what with not being able to rest….”

“What happened to his leg?” Adam asked, noting the blood on his brother’s torn pants’ leg.

“I’m not sure.”  His father’s jaw tightened as he turned toward the door.  His black eyes blazed.  “If I wasn’t’ a Christian man, I would go out to that barn and take my son’s pain out on that man’s hide!”

“Bed ready for number three son, Mistah Ben,” Hop Sing spoke softly from the head of the stairs bringing his father’s attention back where it belonged – to his youngest son.

Adam didn’t release him immediately.  “Once you get Joe settled Pa, we need to talk.  There’s more going on here than you know.”

His father’s eyes narrowed.  “More?”

He nodded.  “A lot more.”

The older man’s brows leapt up and he sighed.  “Great.  Just, great.”

“Go on and take Joe upstairs, Pa.  I’ll check on Hoss.”  He hesitated and then indicated the slumped figure in the chair before the fire.  “Er, do I need to see to our guest?”

“Let John sleep, Adam.  He was wounded defending your brother.”  He nodded toward the door.  “I think those two in the barn had something to do with it.”

Adam shook his head.  “They couldn’t have, Pa.  At least, I don’t think they could have.  They’ve been here for quite a while.”

He watched fear enter his father’s eyes.  “Just what is it we are in the middle of?” the older man asked, his voice hushed with conjecture.  Before he could answer, Pa went on.  “Let me get Joseph to his bed.  Once I’ve made sure he’s resting as best he can, I’ll come back down.”

As his father headed up the stairs, Adam turned and headed for the door.  He wanted a word with Hoss before the big man went to town.  He’d made it about halfway to the barn when he realized something was wrong.

It was too quiet.

As he continued on, Adam’s hand went for his gun.  As it came up empty, he remembered he wasn’t wearing one.  Pa didn’t like them to in the house.  When he reached the barn door, he found it partially open.  Adam hesitated a moment and then entered.

The scene that confronted him stunned him into inaction.

The wagon Hoss had been prepared to take the Chinese criminals into town was empty.  Richard Jennings lay on the ground beside it, a knife protruding from his back.

Hoss was nowhere to be seen.

Seized with fear Adam called out, “Hoss!  Hoss!  Where are you?  Hoss?”

His answer came in the form of a groan from somewhere near the back of the barn.

The black-haired man crossed the dirt and hay-strewn floor swiftly, looking into the stalls on either side as he moved.  In the last one, crumpled in the corner, he caught a glimpse of a leather vest and brown pants.

Dropping beside his brother, Adam placed at hand on his shoulder.  “Are you hurt?”

“Dang it!” the big man growled.  “I let them get the drop on me!”

“Them?”

Hoss groaned as his hand went to his forehead, which was bleeding.  “Them China men in black.  I ain’t no more than got that fancy-dressed one in the wagon then they jumped me.  Richard….”  Hoss looked sick.  “He ain’t…?”

“I’m not sure.”  Adam pursed his lips as he glanced back at the prone man.  “But from the looks of things, I’d say he’s dead.”

“Damn.  He tried to help me.  Took on one of them wild men all on his own.”

“How many were there?” he asked as he turned back.

The big man shook his head.  “Two, maybe three.  Them fellers moved faster than chain lightnin’ with a link snapped!”

Adam placed a hand under his brother’s arm and helped him to rise and then they both walked to where Richard Jennings had fallen.  He knelt and checked for a pulse.  Looking up, he shook his head.

“Double damn,” Hoss said softly.  “He was a nice man.”

Adam acknowledged that truth with a weary nod and then rose and dragged himself over to stare at the ranch house.  So much had happened in such a short time – Butch attacking Joe, his brother’s disappearance and the desperate search to find him, the arrival of Biyu and Dandan, Da Chao’s appearance and then, hard upon that, Khu Zhuang’s.  Added to all of that, of course, was Joe’s precarious condition, Richard Jennings’ unnecessary death, and the presence of a complete stranger in the great room who had collapsed into his favorite chair.

He really wanted to collapse into his favorite chair.

Adam leaned his head against the barn wall.  As Hoss would put it, he was wearin’ down faster than a two dollar watch.

Without warning a strong arm circled his shoulders, “Come on, older brother, it ain’t that long since you were sick.  You lean on me.  We gotta go tell Pa what happened and then I gotta go get the Doc.”  The big man glanced over his shoulder.  “Guess I’ll be takin’ Mister Jennings to the undertaker ‘stead of those bad men to the sheriff.”  He whistled low.  “I sure hate to think of tellin’ his wife he went and got hisself killed on account of me.”

Adam struggled for words of comfort.  “He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Hoss blew out a short sigh.  “Ain’t that the truth.”

Gently, he disengaged himself from his brother’s arm and straightened up.  “I’m okay, really.  I can make it on my on.  Come on, I want to see how Joe is.”

The big man made a face.  “He’s hurtin’ somethin’ bad, Adam.  John…”  At his look, his brother added, “…that’s the man sitting by the fire.  He was bringin’ Joe home when a couple of those men in black jumped them –”

Adam put out a hand to stop him.  “Wait.  More Chinese men?  They attacked this man, John?  Why?”

“I don’t rightly know, but they took off with Joe.  One of them got killed ‘fore Pa found Joe, but the other got plumb got away.”

“Took off with Joe?”

Adam’s head was reeling.  Another of his middle brother’s expressions came to mind.

What in the Sam Hill was going on?

 

Ben Cartwright frowned as the front door closed and he thought he heard the sound of both his older son’s voices as they entered.  Stepping to Joseph’s bedroom door and opening it, he listened.  Yes, Hoss was there too.  It puzzled him since Hoss was supposed to be heading to town for the doctor, but then perhaps his son had simply forgotten something involved with the delivery of his prisoners.  He heard them speaking to Ming-hua.  He had just sent the girl down to get some pine needles to toss in the fire in the hope that the powerful scent would help to ease his youngest son’s labored breathing.

Little Joe had been shivering hard by the time they reached his room.  His first action had been to stoke the fire, and then he’d gathered as many blankets as he could find from the nearby rooms to cover the boy with.  It didn’t help.  Joseph was still trembling.

It nearly broke his heart.

Not wanting to leave his sick boy, but knowing he needed to speak to Joseph’s brothers, Ben went to the bed and leaned down to press his lips to his youngest’s fevered forehead.  As he turned to leave, a word softly spoken stopped him.

“Pa….?”

Sitting back down, Ben took his boy’s fiery hand in one of his.  With the fingers of the other, he caressed his son’s sweat-soaked hair.  “I’m here, Joseph.  Your pa is here.”

Ben waited.  He wasn’t sure Little Joe had heard him.  The boy was tossing from side to side as if in pain and, though his eyes were open, he couldn’t be sure he saw him.

“Adam….Hoss,” Joe moaned.  “Men going to…hurt…Adam and Hoss…”  His son grew more agitated and began to fight against him.  “No!  Let…me go!  Have to…save….”  Without warning Joseph sat straight up in his bed and shouted.  “Adam!  Hoss!

By the time he had the boy restrained and back on the ticking, his brothers had appeared. Both were a bit out of breath.

“Pa?” Adam asked.

“Pa?” Hoss echoed.  “Is Joe okay?”

Ben took in the sight of his middle boy – the one who should have been on his way  to town.  Hoss’ clothing was filthy and head was bandaged.  A small red spot shown on the white linen strip.  There was a story there, but now was not the time for it.

Turning his attention back to his youngest, he said, “Your brother’s out of his head.  He thinks you are both in danger.”

Adam moved the most quickly.  Ben released his son’s hand and slipped out of the way to allow his eldest to take his place.  He watched as Adam caught Little Joe’s grasping hand in his and then reached out with the other to take hold of his chin.

“Joe, “ his son said as he forced the sick boy’s head up.  “Little Joe.  Look at me!”

Joseph struggled for a moment longer and then blinked, as if clearing something from his eyes.  Then he looked straight at his brother.  After a moment Little Joe’s parched lips parted.  He mumbled a few silent words and then –

“…Adam?”

“Yeah, it’s me, buddy.”  Adam inclined his head toward the door.  “Hoss is here too.  We’re both fine.”

Joe’s fevered eyes rolled over toward the door.  A slight smile brightened his face as they found his big brother.  A second later it turned into a frown.

“…hurt?”

Hoss reached up to touch the bandage wound around his head.  “This?  This ain’t nothin’.  I weren’t watchin’ what I was doin’ when I reared up out there in the barn.”

Ben acknowledged his son’s lie with a short nod.

There was a time and place.

“Men…wanted me,” Joseph began.  “Said they’d…kill you both if I…didn’t…”  His son gasped for air and had to wait as he fought a cough.  When the words came out they were more full of air than the boy’s lungs.  “…Zhuang’s…men.”

The older man heard his eldest’s audible intake of breath.  When Adam spoke again, his voice shook.  “Be that as it may, they didn’t hurt us, Joe.  We’re safe.”  He ran his fingers through his brother’s tangled curls, straightening them.  “You just get some sleep, little buddy, and get better.”

“…stay….?” Joe asked as his eyes began to close.

Adam glanced at him, his face stricken.  “I gotta…change my clothes, Joe.  Hoss will sit with you for a while and then I’ll come back.  I promise.”

Adam released his brother’s hand.  Joe’s fingers had gone slack.

Ben watched his oldest boy rise and then turned and went into the corridor.  He waited until Adam joined him and then asked again the question he had put to him before.

“Adam, what is it we’ve found ourselves in the middle of?”

Adam’s eyes shone with something he had rarely seen in their hazel depths.

Fear.

Real fear.

“It’s a war, Pa.  We’ve found ourselves in the middle of a war.”

 

TEN

“My mistake was in not understanding the Oriental mind,”  John Randolph admitted with a sigh a second before chagrin quirked one corner of his lips.  “My first mistake, that is.”

Ben Cartwright stifled a yawn and glanced out the window as the Englishman took a sip of tea.  It was dawn and the only one who had gotten more than two hours sleep was Joseph. At that thought, the older man’s gaze moved to the staircase.  Hop Sing and Ming-hua were with his youngest son, tending him as best they could until the doctor arrived – if he ever did.  In the end he’d sent one of the hands into town on a fast horse to see if Paul had returned.  When he’d left Joseph’s room, it had been heavy with a mixture of scents.  Hop Sing had been standing at Joseph’s bureau, crushing barberry and goldenseal to add to the skullcap he’d already prepared.  He’d stopped to place a hand on the Chinese man’s shoulder, wanting to thank him, and been surprised to find tears streaking his face.  Hop Sing said it made him sad to see his youngest son unwell.

He prayed that was all it was.

Adam leaned forward.  “Go on,” he said, his voice carefully controlled.

Ben’s eyes went to his eldest.  Outrage was written in every line of Adam’s lean frame.  His son was furious with Jude Randolph’s brother.  When they’d spoken a few moments before, he’d told him to reserve judgment until John could tell his story.  Still, from what Adam had told him of what had happened in the house since he and Hoss stepped out of the door to seek Joseph, Adam had every right to be furious.  Two separate tong leaders and their hired assassins had descended on the Ponderosa.  A good man had died.

It seemed most – if not all of the blame – lay squarely at the Englishman’s feet.

John met Adam’s angry stare.  “As I told you, Ben,” he said, “I came to America to, well, find myself in a way.  I wanted to do something on my own, without my father’s money and name opening doors for me.  I did my duty by my family.  I even tried to take over and run the company when Father passed.”  John sighed.  “I have no head for business.  Jude is much more qualified and so, in the end, I turned everything over to him.”  The Englishman leaned over and took hold of the papers that lay in a heap on the top of his satchel.  “I’m an artist.  It’s all I want to do.  Paint.”

“So how did you end up as a cook at that there cat house where that bad man took my little brother?” Hoss asked.

“I had to pay my way across your country somehow.” A small smile curled John’s lips.  “It’s not so strange, really.  Cooking is an art as I am sure Hop Sing would tell you.”

“But why at that particular establishment?” Ben asked.

John shrugged.  “They were advertising and….”  He swallowed hard.  “I have always had a fascination for all things from the Orient.”

“Including it’s women from what I understand,” Adam said, his tone snide.

“Son, that’s enough.”

His eldest met his stern gaze.  “Pa, from what I understand we wouldn’t be in this position if this man had been able to keep his hands off of Ah Kum’s China girls.”

“Adam!”

His son blinked.  He ran a hand across his stubbled face.  “Sorry, Pa.”  Adam’s hazel eyes flicked to their guest.  “Sorry, John.  I’m tired….”  His oldest blew out a breath as he leaned back on the settee.  He favored both of them with a pale grin.  “Well, no, actually I’m exhausted.”

As Ben moved to place a hand on his eldest’s shoulder, John spoke again.

“You’re right, Adam.  No need to apologize.  This all started with Biyu.  But the thing is – you see – it’s not what you think.  I love her.  We intend to be married.”

“But she’s married already, isn’t she?” Ben said.

John pursed his lips.  “‘Bound’ would be a better word.  Biyu was,” he paused to draw a breath, ‘given to Longwei as if she were a statue or a piece of art one could dispose of as they wished.”

“You mean there was no legal contract?”

“In the eyes of Da Chao and Longwei it’s legal and, perhaps, in their community.  Chinese women have no rights.  They are considered property and often used to seal bargains or cement deals.”  John paused,  “I so want to take her away from all of that.”

“I’m sorry, John,” Adam said.  “I didn’t know.”

The Englishman nodded.  “I was at The Dragon a few months.  During that time I saw both Biyu and Dandan beaten by that man.  Once they ‘married’, Longwei was so jealous he locked Biyu away most all of the time.  When she was given a day ‘out’, she’d emerge looking lost and frightened and there would be new bruises.  I couldn’t bear it.”

Ben’s words were soft.  “I don’t think any of us could.”

“The problem is, Longwei is not only physically powerful, but influential with the tong community as well.  Da Chao has no children of his own.  Word is he’s adopted his sister’s son and intends to pass everything on to him.  Sadly, Longwei is not Da Chao.  He’s…well…as much of a bully as that boy who tried to kill your youngest son.”  John paused.  “Khu Zhuang – the leader of the secondary tong in Vallejo –  knows this.  He knows as well that many of the older tong members would never accept Longwei as their leader.  It’s fairly certain that if he kills Da Chao, he will emerge as top dog.”

“Top dog?” Adam growled.  Ben felt his oldest son’s form shudder beneath his hand.  “He’s a madman!”

“He is that,” John agreed.  “I was a fool to have ever crossed him.”

Ben frowned.  “You?  What do you mean – you?  Is there something else that brought Khu Zhuang here? Something other than a chance to do away with his rival?”

“Yes.”  John admitted with a sigh.  “Me.”

The rancher took a seat on the settee beside his son.  “I think you need to explain yourself.”

The Englishman looked each one of them in the eye before speaking.  “I have brought this evil on your house, and for that I shall be eternally shamed.  I am the one who sent Biyu and her sister here.  I knew from what she’d said that you had helped her sister and wouldn’t hold her…former life or her present condition against her.”  John paused.  He shook his head.  “I had no idea Longwei would come this far to reclaim his ‘property’.”

“What about Khu Zhuang?” Adam asked.

“Ah, yes.  From here, I had intended to book passage to England for the two of us as well as Dandan.  I had to have money – a good deal more money than I had.”  He sighed. “A cook’s wages are a bare subsistence.  Khu Zhuang was a regular client at The Dragon.  There were a good many reasons, chief among being the ability to keep an eye on his rival.  He also liked my cooking.  Zhuang invited me to his home several times to prepare meals for him and his associates.  We spoke of our love of art and in time he took me into his treasure room where he had literally hundreds of pieces of fine cloisonné and jade.”

“And you thought he couldn’t possible miss one,” Adam said.

John wet his lips and then nodded.  “Yes.  I took a piece of jade he referred to as the ‘Jade Dragon’.  It was a one of those stones cut so the dragon is in a circle, chasing its own tail.  When I sent Biyu off, I gave it to her and told her to sell it.”  He leaned back in the chair.  “It was only later that I learned the particular piece had a special meaning.  Once Zhuang realized it was gone, he set all his dogs loose.”

“And so you ran away, huh?” Hoss asked.

“I ran away like the coward and thief I am.  I headed for your ranch, intent on connecting with Biyu and Dandan and seeing them out of the country.”  The Englishman paused.  “I….  I no longer intend to go with her.  I am unworthy to be her husband.”

“What about your child?” Ben asked softly.

John hung his head.  “I am unworthy to be a father as well.”

The older man chuckled.  When the Englishman looked at him with a frown, he said, “I don’t know about that.  I did a few things as a young man that would have made a more conservative man wonder if I was worthy of the three fine young sons God has given me.”  He rose from the settee and crossed to John to place a hand on his shoulder.  “I have also been in love, deeply in love, three times now and I know I could not have stood by and let a man take his hand to the woman I cherished – let alone a woman who was carrying my child.”

“But what I did was wrong!”

“Yes, yes, it was,” he replied.  “There is no excuse for stealing.  The Bible tells us that and you can see how wise our loving Father is.  Now, you must deal with the consequences.”

John looked from him to his sons.  “No.  It is you who have to deal with the consequences.  Good Lord!  You could have lost half your family last night!”

Ben returned to his seat.  “You know these men – Da Chao and Khu Zhuang – what do you think their next move will be?”

The Englishman thought a moment. “Da Chao is a thinker.  He doesn’t make a move without contemplating it for some time.  Khu Zhuang,” John sucked in air, “Zhuang is a thug and a murderer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants.”

Ben’s eyes went to the stairs again.  This Zhuang had sent men to kidnap Joseph.  Obviously he had been willing to use a boy to get what he wanted.

Drawing a breath, he asked, “And what precisely is it that Zhuang wants – you?”

“I wish it were that simple.  I would go to him and he could do with me what he wants!” John exclaimed.  “I’m sure Zhuang has spies at The Dragon.  Someone must have told him Da Chao was headed here, to the Ponderosa, where he would be more vulnerable without his men and organization around him.”

So perhaps Khu Zhuang hadn’t intended to kill Joseph, but to use his son to force his hand and make him turn over Da Chao – as if he had any power over the man.  But then Zhuang couldn’t know that.  Perhaps he believed them friends, or even business associates.  Maybe the rebel tong leader believed the reason Dandan and Biyu had been sent to him was that Chao wanted it.  He might have thought the whole thing a had been a trap set for him.

So many perhaps and mights….

“Mister Cartwright, Ben,,” John said.  “There is one thing I can tell you.  Khu Zhuang won’t stop until he has what he wants and who won’t care who gets hurt or killed in the process.”

“Mister John is right,” a soft voice said.  The sound turned their heads and Ben saw Hop Sing descending the stairs.  “Hop Sing come get Mistah Ben.  Number three son awake and wanting you.  No can get boy to settle down.”

“I’ll go up to him.”  Looking at Adam and Hoss, the rancher said, “Adam, please do the morning chores and Hoss, you need to head into town with Mister Jennings’ body.  We’ll talk more later.  John,” he said and then waited until the exhausted Englishman looked up at him.  “You’re wounded and you’ve had no time to  rest.  Go upstairs and get some sleep.”  Ben sighed.  “It will all still be here when you wake up.”

John rose slowly from his chair.  “I don’t know if I can do that.”

“You can,” he said, briefly touching his shoulder.  “You need to.  All of us will need out wits about us to deal with Chao and Zhuang.”

“I’m so sorry, Ben, I –“

“Apology accepted.  We’ll say no more about it.”

Tears brimmed in the Englishman’s eyes.

A moment later they were both ascending the stairs.

 

An explosion of coughing greeted Ben as he stepped into the upstairs hall.  With a nod to John who went on to his room, he took hold of the latch and opened the door and went into his son’s room.  The air was thick with the scent of herbs and the air moist and warm.  Ming-hua was standing by the bed, her small hands on Joseph’s arms.  She was doing her best to steady him.

As he moved up behind her, he placed a hand on her shoulder.  “I’ll take over.”

The look the girl gave him was one of deep relief.  “Ming-hua go help Hop Sing.  Fix breakfast for family,” she said as she scooted out the door.

Ben turned back to his son.  He couldn’t tell if Joseph was coherent or not.  The boy was red in the face and gasping.  He took hold of him and drew him into his arms and held him tightly, waiting for the fit to pass.  When the coughing finally quieted, he went to lay him down.

Joseph clung to him like his life depended on the touch.

“No, no…Pa….”

His hand went to his son’s curly head.  “It’s all right, Joseph.  Pa is right here.  You need to calm down.  Becoming agitated only makes it worse.”

In answer, his son’s fingers twisted into the fabric of his shirt, pulling it so taut the skin underneath smarted.  “Noooooo!” he wailed.  “Pa….  …killed my pa….  God, no….”

He hated to do it, but he used what his sons sometimes referred to as his ‘woodshed’ voice.  “Joseph!  You will stop this now!”

The boy stiffened.  He coughed again into his shirt and then looked up with glazed eyes.  It was almost as if he couldn’t believe what he saw.

“Pa…?”  Joe blinked away tears.  “Pa?  You’re…alive…?”

Ben’s hand went to his son’s blazing hot forehead.  “I’m fine, son.  You were having a nightmare.”

“Not a….”  The boy looked at him as he drew in air.  “Not…a…dream.  …happened.”

The older man drew him in close.  He stroked those lavish curls as he spoke.  “Yes, son, it did.  But I’m here.  Nothing happened to me.”

Or to you, thank God! he added in a whispered prayer.

Little Joe was silent a moment and then he said into his shirt.  “I wanted him…to kill me, Pa.  I couldn’t…live without…you.”

His fingers tightened on those curls. What did he say?  Yes, you could – and you would.  You would grieve, son, but you would move on.

But would Joseph – could Joseph move on?

If Khu Zhuang had killed either of them there would have been two deaths that day.

“Son,” he said at last, “perhaps you’re right.  Perhaps you alone couldn’t live without me, but I hope you know, you wouldn’t be alone.  You’d have your brothers – and your Heavenly Father to help you through.  We are all His sons and He loves you just as dearly as I do.”

Joe fought another cough,  He was still holding on for dear life.  “Then why doesn’t he just make that evil man drop dead?”

It was the heart-deep cry of a frightened child – of all of God’s frightened children.

Ben thought a moment.  “Because we are all evil,” he said at last.

That brought his son’s head up.  Joe looked into his eyes.  “What?”

“As Paul wrote in the Book of Romans, son, “It is written, there is none righteous, no, not one.”

“But you’re a…righteous…man, Pa.”  Joe coughed and drew in a shallow breath.  His son waited until he was sure it was only one cough this time to go on.  “I heard…the preachers say…so.”

Ben shook his head.  The ‘ears’ of babes.

“Not in the way the verse means, son.  We are all sinners.  If God were to make every man drop dead for the evils he has committed, the Earth would be an empty desolate place.”

Joe seemed to think that over.  Then a little light brightened those fever-weary eyes.  “I’d…be mighty…lonesome, wouldn’t…I?”

It took a moment.  Then he laughed.

“You little scamp!”  Drawing Joseph close, he gave his son a hug and then forced him back to the pillows. “Now, young man, you need your rest.  I’ll just –”

A sound made him turn toward the door.  Adam stood in it.  His eyes were on his brother.  “How you doing, kid?” he asked.

Little Joe smiled.  “Just…dandy….”

Ben rose and crossed to his son.  “What is it?”

Relief filled his eldest’s eyes.  “Doc Martin just arrived.  Jim found him making rounds, so Paul changed his route in order to drop in.  I told him about Joe.  He’s washing up and then he’ll be here.”

There was something more than relief in those hazel orbs.  “And?”

Adam lowered his voice.  “Roy Coffee’s with him.”

 

Adam watched his father draw a breath and straighten his shoulders as he descended the stairs, visibly expelling the weariness he had to feel.  Pa had napped in the chair by Joe’s bedside, but only briefly and even then his sleep had been troubled.  He was weary – they were all bone-weary.

And it didn’t look like there would be any reprieve ahead.

Roy had refused to state his business when he came in the door, insisting he had to speak to their father.  Paul Martin had given him a look as he entered behind Roy – he couldn’t quite say what kind of a look – but it hadn’t been encouraging. The physician was greeting Pa now.  They spoke briefly and then Paul headed up the stairs.

As he passed him, the older man said, “Here we are again.  I swear that youngest brother of yours could keep me in business single-handedly.”

Adam nodded and then finished his descent.

Pa had turned to Roy and the two of them were talking.  The acting sheriff looked decidedly  uncomfortable.  What subject, he wondered, could make the lawman so hesitant to speak?  Before he could reach them, the pair stepped outside.  Adam halted by the tall case clock as the door closed in his face.  It was really none of his business – unless, of course, it was.  But then Pa would tell him later if that was the case.

As he stood there, pondering what to do next, a delectable aroma wafted through the great room, drawn no doubt by the opening of the door.  As he nosed it, his stomach growled.  They’d had a cold bite before attempting to sleep, but it had done little to make up for more than a day’s worth of missed meals.  The black-haired man grinned as he turned his feet toward the kitchen, wondering if he could use that Eastern college education of his to finagle a ‘preview’ of the coming repast.

As he rounded the corner, Adam spotted Hop Sing working at the block table. “Good morning, Hop Sing,” he said, making an appropriately enthused and satisfied sound as he did.  “Mm-hm! The coffee and bacon smell good!”  It was only then he noticed Ming-hua working in the corner.  She was so quiet, he completely missed her sometimes. “Good morning to you too, Ming-hua.”

“Good morning, Mister Adam,” she said and then went back to her chopping. Adam strolled over to the stove and lifted a lid.  “What’s this?”

Hop Sing came over and rapped his fingers so the lid dropped back into place.  “Soup for sick brother.  Needs to steep.  You keep fingers off lid!”

So much for getting on their cook’s good side.

Ming-hua snickered and then hid it in a sneeze.

“Girl no catch cold!” their cook shouted, shaking a large spoon in her general direction.  “Hop Sing already have patient!  No need another!”

Apparently Hop Sing hadn’t had enough sleep either.  He was just about as sociable as an ulcerated tooth.

Hope was fading fast that he’d get anything to eat before breakfast.

“Well, I’ll just be going then,” he said, admitting defeat.  “I’m sorry to have intruded.”

“Number one son wait one minute!” Hop Sing exclaimed.

Adam had reached the hall.  He looked back to find their cook standing at the end of the kitchen work table with his hands on his hips.  A familiar gesture that brooked no disobedience.

He took a few steps back and asked, “What is it?”

The man from China narrowed his eyes in suspicion.  “What you come to Hop Sing’s kitchen for in first place?”

Did he fess up?

Too tired to come up with anything better, he said, “I guess I was hungry.”

Hop Sing’s look softened.  “Boy not eat last night.”

“I….”  Adam stopped as the scene he had been trying to avoid flashed before his eyes – his pa on the floor, holding Joe.  Khu Zhuang saying, ‘The time has come, Adam Cartwright.’  He closed his eyes but it did nothing to dismiss it.  “I…couldn’t,” he admitted at last.

Hop Sing stared at him a moment and then pointed to the chair by the table.  “Boy sit down.”

“Really, Hop Sing, I don’t want to….”

“Boy sit down!  Ming-hua go see if Doctor Paul in need of anything.”

The girl rose from her chair, bowed, and left the kitchen without a word.

“Boy sit down,” Hop Sing said again, his voice gentle this time.  “Eat.  Talk.”

Eat, he could do.

Talk?  That was another thing.

As he took the familiar chair and Hop Sing placed a plate with bread and bacon before him, and then added a cup of coffee, Adam felt his mouth water.  He only wished he had known whether it came from savoring the scent or because he was going to vomit.  As Hop Sing took a seat opposite him, he shoved the plate away and dropped his head into his hands.  “Dear God,” he sighed.  “I could have lost them both.”

“Your father and Little Joe?”

He nodded without looking up.

“You think you cause of their deaths if they die?”

Adam sucked in air and shifted back.  He pinned the other man with his eyes.  “Yes.  I let Da Chao and then Zhuang get the drop on me.  If I had only…”

“Not opened door?  Not seen who was outside?  Maybe sheriff.  Maybe father carrying number three son.”  Hop Sing’s dark eyes were fastened on him.  “Mistah Adam try to escape.  This mistake?”

He frowned.  “No, but still –”

“But what?  No, ‘but still’!  Mistah Adam do all he can for family.  Evil man bind him and tell him make impossible choice.”  Hop Sing paused.  “He make no choice.”

“I couldn’t,” he sighed.  “God knows I couldn’t!  I knew if I chose Joe then Pa would wither away.   And if I chose Pa, dear Lord, Joe would never have survived, not only seeing his father die before his eyes but feeling he was the cause of his death.  You know, Joe. That’s what he would have thought and it would have destroyed him!”

“Mistah Adam caught between rock and hard place.  He no answer because there was no answer.”

One second more.  One second.  If John Randolph had not appeared at the top of the stairs and Hoss followed closely after, he would have been forced to choose, or by not choosing, condemned both his baby brother and his father to death.

“A Gordian knot,” Adam answered with a slight nod.  “A problem that is insoluble under its own terms.”

“Mistah Hoss, Mister Randolph not part of terms.  When man have no way, God make way.”

Adam felt a little of the tension leave him.  “I guess He did.”

Hop Sing nodded once.  Then he shook his spoon at him.

“Boy eat!  Get skinny as number three son!  Get sick like number three son!”  The man from China rose to his feet and pointed at the plate and cup before him.  “Hop Sing no need another patient!  You eat now!”
Ben’s head was spinning.  He held up a hand.  He was so tired, he wasn’t sure he had heard the lawman right.

“Tell me again, who’s missing?”

“Like I said, Ben, it’s Rosey O’Rourke.”

Momentarily, the rancher wondered if it would be worth troubling deaf Heaven with some bootless cries?

“I…I don’t understand, Roy.  I knew Rosey was coming at some point, but I hadn’t heard anything from her.  I expected a wire….”

“Knowing a woman, she probably wanted to surprise you,” Roy groused.  “Seems she was at Beth Riley’s with them two China girls.  When she found out you and yours were in danger, Beth said there was no stopping her.  Rosey came by to see me first and let me know about the man who’d been watching Beth’s place.  When she left, she said she was comin’ straight here.”  The lawman shook his head and sighed. “I was hopin’ to find her here.  She’s a lovely woman, Ben.  I hate to think of her in the hands of those no good men.”

Something Roy said was trying to penetrate the fog in his brain.  Something about the shop….

“What do you mean, there was a man watching the shop?”

“Did more than watch it.  When Beth stepped out to head over to the jail, one of them Chinese hoodlums jumped her.  Said he came right out of the shadows.  She couldn’t see him, for he were dressed all in black.”

Fingers of ice gripped his heart.

“Go on,” he said, his jaw tight.

“That Rosey, she came up behind that Chinese feller and conked him on the head with her travelin’ case.  Knocked him out plain cold and tied him up with some of her corset strings.”  Roy snorted.  “You should of seen the look on his face when I found him!”

Ben was still pondering all he had heard.  “So Rosey told both Beth and you that she was coming straight to the Ponderosa?  And she set out alone?”

“You know that woman.  ‘I was an army scout,’ she said.  ‘I don’t need a man for a simple drive into the country.’”

Drive into the country?  Twenty miles of wilderness and desert?

Ben took a step toward the road and then turned back, realizing he had no idea of where to go.  “Did you see any signs on your way here?”

“It were pretty dark.  Figured I’d check for them on my way back,” Roy answered.

The rancher gave him a short nod.  “I’m coming with you.”

Roy grinned.  “Figured that too.”

 

In the end, after burying Mister Jennings on the Ponderosa, Hoss came with them as well, leaving Adam home to attend his ailing brother.  Paul Martin had come downstairs before they left and confirmed his fears – Joe had pneumonia.  So far, it was a mild case and non-life threatening, but Paul was concerned about Joseph’s fever and the fact that it was so persistent.  He’d thanked the doctor – who said he would stop back in the evening after making his rounds to see how Joe was doing – and then explained to his older sons what was happening.  Both had wanted to come with him.  They were both fond of Rosey and Adam in particular seemed quite agitated.  That was part of the reason he had left him behind.

That and the fact that Hoss was one of the best trackers in the territory.

They’d spotted signs of a carriage.  It had come to an abrupt halt about two miles from the Ponderosa.  Something had happened and the horses had run off.  How he was able to distinguish them, he’d never know, but Hoss was able to point out five distinct set of foot prints – four men and one woman.  The woman’s tracks disappeared quickly, so they assumed she had been carried away into the woods.

“That’s about it,” Hoss said as he stood up and brushed the dirt and debris from his knees.  “One of them is definitely carrying something a hundred pounds or more.  There’s no sign of horses here, other than them ones that ran away.  Seems like whoever took Rosey was on foot.”

Whoever took Rosey.

Was it Da Chao, a man who might – just might treat her with respect?  Or was it instead Khu Zhuang who would….

Ben clenched his fists.  God God!  He feared what that man might do.

“Tracks lead into the trees, Ben,” Roy Coffee said softly.  “You ready to ride after your lady friend?”

His lady friend.  That was right.  Rosey was his lady friend.

Everyone knew it but him, it seemed.

More than ready, Roy,” the rancher replied as he placed his foot in the stirrup and rose to his full height before swinging his leg over the saddle.  “I have a score to settle with those men.”

“Now, Ben,” the lawman cautioned.  “You know I cain’t let you take the law into your own hands.”

He wasn’t about to.  He didn’t need to use his own hands.

He was counting on the hands of God.

 

ELEVEN

Rosey O’Rourke was furious.

With herself mostly.

How could she have been so stupid?! You would have thought she was some green city girl totally unprepared for the unexpected dangers of the West.

The older woman rolled her eyes and let out a sigh as she looked at her bound hands and feet, and then eyed the pair of Chinese men speaking in low tones several yards away.  Actually, she knew what the problem was.  Her mind had been preoccupied.

Preoccupied with the thought of seeing Ben Cartwright again.

It had been over a year since she had visited the Ponderosa, almost a year and a half actually.  Rory had been released from prison six months early for good behavior and she’d spent the better part of them helping him to get settled into ordinary life again.  A few weeks back he’d suggested she visit Ben.  Rosey smiled.  While he was in prison, Rory had mentioned in his letters a young nurse named Jennifer who had assisted the prison doctor.  It turned out the two of them had fallen in love.  Her son told her just before she left that they intended to marry in the autumn.

She’d thought long and hard before coming to see Ben.  Her dilemma was the same.  Upon his release the prison doctor had recommended Rory to a medical school and he’d been accepted.  Once he and Jenny were married, they were going to move to San Francisco where he would begin the fall term.  Their marriage meant children and that meant that she might soon have grandchildren – in San Francisco.  What was the point of rekindling the feelings she had for the handsome rancher just to be denied – well – any sort of consummation of them?

Of course it was all a moot point if the men who had taken her prisoner decided to end her life.

Rosey glanced again at the ropes that bound her wrists and feet and then rolled her eyes.  Somehow she’d never have cast herself in the part of the damsel in distress!  At that thought, her gaze returned to her captors.  She’d been in plenty of tight spots before where she’d been able to use her wits and her feminine wiles to escape.  But these men were different.  This was Da Chao, Madame Ah Kum’s husband and the leader of the strongest tong in Vallejo.  He was as formidable as any man she had ever met.  Even worse, he had his brutish bodyguard with him.  Longwei kept looking at her.  Chao’s nephew suspected she knew where Biyu was and had threatened to use violence to make her talk.  Fortunately Da Chao – whatever else he was – was a businessman and never made a move without thinking through all the angles.

Like how he could use her to make Ben Cartwright do what he wanted.

Apparently either Biyu or Dandan had read some of her letters to the other girls.  That was the only way she could imagine Da Chao had learned of her feelings for the rancher.  Her chief fear now was that Ben would find out what had happened and come charging in like that damsel’s white knight, intent on freeing her, and put himself in danger.  Rosey frowned.  She didn’t want that.  Rory was old enough to survive should something happen to her.  Joseph was only fifteen and his father was his world.

To put it simply, she wasn’t worth it.

Rosey licked her lips.  Da Chao hadn’t gagged her, which was telling in itself.

“Could I have some water, please?” she asked, careful to keep her voice meek.

Both men turned to look at her.  Da Chao nodded, but it was Longwei who fulfilled her request.  She’d had some dealings with the bully and bouncer when she’d been at The Dragon and knew he was not a man to cross.

When he came toward her with a cup, she asked, “Could you untie my hands so I can drink?”

Longwei looked to Da Chao for the answer.

Chao nodded.

Longwei placed the cup on the ground and reached for the ropes on her wrists.  “You are trouble,” he breathed near her ear as he worked them loose.  “This one would leave your body for the rancher to find as a warning.”

“The feeling is mutual,” she said, startling him.

“The tongue of a woman is the sword that is never allowed to rust,” he spat back as he completed his task.

Two could play at that game.

“A patient woman can roast an ox with a lantern,” she countered with the hint of a smile.

The bouncer grunted.  She wasn’t sure if he was amused or annoyed.  “Patience matters little if the tree is made into a boat,” he said, his tone cold.

In other words, ‘what’s done is done’.  Meaning she couldn’t roast an ox with a lantern if she was dead.

“Point taken,” she conceded.

“Longwei, attend!”

Rosey watched The Dragon’s enforcer carefully.  His resentment was evident in the way his body tensed at the command.

Dissention in the ranks, perhaps?

With another grunt, Longwei rose and walked away – leaving her hands untied.

Hmmm….

Rosey watched the two men as she took a drink of cool water.  She’d been their prisoner for nearly four hours now and she’d noticed a growing tension between them.  Longwei’s single aim was to find Biyu and make her pay for choosing another man over him.  Da Chao seemed almost unconcerned about Biyu.  There was something else that was uppermost in his mind.  Something he had not revealed, at least not in her presence.

The older woman frowned.  She didn’t know which would be worse for Biyu, being killed, or being made to return to Vallejo with her abuser.

Rosey glanced at Longwei, who was raging.

On second thought, yes, she did.

 

Adam turned sideways and opened the door with his shoulder, and then proceeded to move into Joe’s room.  His brother was sitting up in the bed with his eyes closed.  The room was steamy and smelled of mustard and pine – the result, no doubt, of a mustard plaster.  The temperature was a little high for his liking, but then Joe needed every bit of the heat.  His baby brother’s chest rose and fell in shuddering, shallow breaths.  Doc Martin had named it ‘pneumonia’, the illness William Osler spoke of as the ‘captain of the men of death’.  The latest findings were that the disease killed nearly four million people a year.  It was hardest on the oldest and the youngest.

And God, Joe was so young.

As he entered the room his brother’s eyes opened and a languid smile played about the corner of his lips.  “Hey, brother,” he managed without coughing.  Joe’s chest was a brilliant crimson, indicating Hop Sing must have just placed the plaster before heading downstairs to serve the noontime meal.

“Are you done cooking yet?” he asked his brother as he placed the tray on the bedside table.

Joe wrinkled his nose in disgust, then looked down at the oily cloth covering his chest.   “This is…gonna put me off…mustard for life…”

Adam reached out to place a hand on his brother’s forehead.  Joe reared back, trying to shake it off, which told him his little brother was mending.  When he was satisfied that Joe’s fever hadn’t risen, he removed it himself and smiled.

He indicated the tray with a nod.  “You hungry?”

And got the expected reply.

“Nah.”

Joe had inherited his mother’s frame and constitution.  The boy could pack food down when he wanted to and never gain an ounce, but more often that not, he didn’t want to.

“Come on,” he said, picking up the bowl and smelling its contents.  Adam smacked his lips with exaggerated anticipation.  “Yum.  Hop Sing’s ‘inscrutable elixir’.  Good for all that ails you.”

His brother snorted at the childhood name they had given their cook’s unknown minced mixture of chicken broth, herbs, and whatever else happened to be laying around the kitchen that was edible.  Then he broke into a coughing fit.

Adam put the bowl down and moved onto the bed to hold him, placing on hand on Joe’s head and another around his chest.

“Sorry, buddy.”

His brother sniffed in the tears, caught a whiff of the mustard, sneezed, and then coughed again and in general looked about as miserable as a person could get.

“I just can’t eat, Adam.”  He drew in a labored breath.  “My sides…hurt too much.”

“Joe, you’ve got to try,” the black-haired man replied, his tone sympathetic.  “You’ve got to keep up your strength.”

The sick boy slid down a bit and began to curl into himself.  “Adam, no….”

“How about this?  You take six or seven spoonfuls for me and I’ll toss the rest in the chamber pot.  It’ll be our secret.”  That brought his brother’s head up.  “Pa or Hop Sing…they’re going to make you eat the whole thing.”

Joe tried not to, but a grin twisted his lips.  “What’s…old Hop Sing…gonna think when he….”  He drew in a gasp.  “…smells his elixir in the pot?”

Adam looked startled.  “What do you think he’s going to think?”

His brother was holding his sides and shaking.  “Oh, Adam…stop it.  You’re…killin’ me!”

Suddenly – unexpectedly – Adam was overwhelmed with love for the little minx.  It choked him for a second.  “Well, we certainly wouldn’t want that,” he said quietly.  “Now sit up, Joe, and let’s see if we can get a little of this into you.”

By the time they’d finished Joe was exhausted.  The last of the soup had dribbled out of his mouth and he hadn’t even cared.  As he wiped his little brother’s chin, Adam counted it as a victory that he’d gotten ten spoonfuls into his brother instead of the agreed upon six.  As he rose, he pulled the coverlet up to cover Joe’s narrow shoulders.  The kid was all skin and bones.  It just wasn’t fair.  Adam ran a hand over his face and then walked to the window to look out.  Someone had said to him once that it seemed that Joe had been born with a little black cloud hanging over his head, just waiting to drop rain.  In some ways they were right – Joe had seen more than his share of sickness and injuries in his short life – but he guessed a few stormy days were worth it for the bright sunshine and joy his little brother brought to their lives.

As he started to turn away from the window, Adam halted, his keen gaze pinned to the area in front of the house.  There had been a flash of something in the dark.  A sense of movement near the barn.  He shifted closer to the glass panes and peered out, searching the yard.  A second later he was startled when Dan Tollivar stepped out of the shadows.  The older man had returned just that morning from the drive for supplies and was anticipating riding back out the next day.  He’d come to the house to check on Little Joe a short while back.  Adam narrowed his eyes and stared at the shadows near the barn.  That must have been it.  It was Dan he’d seen or, he supposed, it could have been one of the handful of hands Pa had left to guard the ranch house and the area surrounding it.  There hadn’t been many to spare since most were on the drive.

So why were the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end?

“Ad’m….”

Moving back to the bed, he stared down at his brother for a moment and then reached out and pushed an errant chestnut curl off his forehead.

“What is it, buddy?”

“Where’s Pa?”

The truth was something he was definitely not going to give Joe tonight.  “He had some business in Eagle Station.  He’ll be back about the same time as the Doc.”

Joe made a face.  “Too bad I can’t…make it downstairs.”

Adam frowned.  “Why’s that?”

His brother’s smile was languid.  “I’d…get me an apple…to keep ol’ Doc Martin away….”

And with that, his little buddy was asleep again.

Adam stood there a moment watching Joe sleep, and then went to the door.  His hand on the latch, he turned back to look at the window.  With a shake of his head, the black-haired man dismissed whatever he had been thinking and stepped out into the hall and headed down to the great room.

Missing the fact that, at the end of the hall, a window was opening.

 

Ben Cartwright was not a man to beat around the bush.  Hoss had warned him not to, and Roy Coffee  had practically forbidden it, but, well – to hell with it – he was about as tired and angry and irritated and frustrated as it got!  How dare these men bring their tong war to his land?  How dare threaten his sons?  How dare they lay a hand on the woman he….

What exactly?

The rancher drew in a deep breath as he broke through the covering of the leaves to face a small band of men that included Da Chao and Longwei, as well as several more of Chao’s black-clad henchmen.  As their heads turned toward him, he scanned their camp for Rosey and found her, seemingly safe and sound, seated on the ground beneath a tree.  Her feet were bound but her hands were free, and she was looking at him like he was out of his mind.

Maybe he was.

Hoss and Roy, back where he had left them and told them to stay put, certainly thought he was.  It had only been his friendship with the lawman, and the fact that no real crime had been committed by Da Chao, that had wrung from the acting sheriff a slow promise to wait a half-hour before he moved in.

Ignoring Da Chao and the half-dozen henchmen, Ben walked over to Rosey and asked her, “Are you all right?”

He didn’t know what he expected her to say. It certainly wasn’t, “I was until you got here.  What do you think you’re doing?”

At first he was put off – as she intended – then he smiled.  “Good to see you too.”

“Mister Cartwright.”

‘Here we go’, he thought.  The rancher turned to look at Da Chao.  Having already established his dominance in the situation, he said in his deepest voice – with an added note of warning.

“Yes?”

Da Chao was sizing him up the way one mountain goat did another before establishing their territorial boundaries.

“You are the great Benjamin Cartwright?” Chao asked.

Ben looked Da Chao over before answering.  The tong leader was a long thin man with a hard face.  The lines at the ends of his lips and the edges of his black almond-shaped eyes indicated he was a worrier and – perhaps – not entirely comfortable with the situation he found himself in.  He’d made no threatening move and had not turned his henchmen loose, which indicated he was willing to talk.

The large Chinese man in the gray suit beside him was another matter.

“I’m Benjamin Cartwright,” he said after a few seconds pause.  “‘Great’ is not a word I would apply to myself.”

“Always the great are humble,” Chao remarked.

Again, he paused.  “And is Da Chao a humble man?”

There was a slight quiver of the end of the man’s lips, just below his thin line of a mustache.  “One must be like bamboo.  The higher you grow, the deeper you must learn to bow.”

Ben glanced at Rosey.  The beautiful woman’s lips were pressed together.  She was trying hard not to smile.  Her eyes told her she knew exactly what he was doing.

The rancher moved toward the other man and offered his hand.  “May we meet as friends and not enemies?” he asked.

Da Chao took his hand and shook it.  Then he released it and bowed.  “Da Chao greets the honorable Benjamin Cartwright as a friend and asks what it is he desires of this one?”

He knew the game.  He’d been around Hop Sing long enough to know that some of his countrymen used their placid and seemingly complacent nature to hide what they really were.

A snake waiting to strike.

“I desire that you bring peace instead of war to the Ponderosa,” he answered firmly.

“It is not this humble one’s desire to make war upon the honorable Benjamin Cartwright.”  Da Chao paused, and then struck.  “It is Benjamin Cartwright who has brought war upon himself by accepting stolen property.”

“You mean Biyu and Dandan?”

He noted the way the man in the suit bristled at the China girl’s name.

Da Chao nodded.

“Women are not property.”

“In your world,” Chao replied, showing the first flicker of anger.

“You are in my world,” Ben countered. “You are in America where all men and women are free to choose their own paths.”

“Do your people not hold slaves?” the wily tong leader asked.

He let out a sigh and nodded his head.  “Some men do.  From all appearances, that is soon to end.  However, even though that is so in the South, it is not so here in the West.”

“And do your laws not give a man power over the one who is his?”  Chao turned to the young man beside him.  “May not Longwei reclaim what is his?”

This was going to be a big one.  “From what I understand, Biyu is not legally Longwei’s wife.”

“Biyu is mine!”  The younger man drew a blade from behind his belt.  “I will kill this man and his family and take what is mine!”

One of Ben’s black brows peaked.  He drew a breath and then deliberately turned his back to Longwei, ignoring both the man and his outburst.

“You have already invaded my home and put my sons in danger,” he told Da Chao.  “This is not the act of a friend, but of an enemy.  Nevertheless, I would treat Da Chao as a friend.  I will go to the town and bring Biyu and Dandan to the Ponderosa.  Once there we can negotiate what compensation you would be willing to accept for the loss of your ‘property’ – on the promise that no harm come to my sons or,” he glanced at Rosey who was scowling at him, “or anyone else I care for.”

Longwei bristled.  “We do not accept –”

Da Chao held his hand up, silencing his hasty nephew without a word.   “And what promise does the great Benjamin Cartwright offer this humble one in return?”

“It is my promise that neither I nor any of my family will lift a hand against yours – so long as the bargain is kept.”  His eyes went to the half-dozen silent men who ringed them.  He wondered how many were in Longwei’s camp.  “One of my older sons is waiting just beyond the trees with the sheriff from the settlement.  I will inform him of our agreement.  As you can see, I have already kept you from harm.”  The silver-haired man’s eyes flicked to Longwei who was a powder-keg awaiting the spark.  “I expect you to do the same.”

Da Chao considered it.  For several long heartbeats he considered it.

Then he nodded his head.

 

Joe was restless.  He’d awakened bathed in sweat and knew it meant his fever had broken.  At last!  Now he felt hungry – and for something more than Hop Sing’s inscrutable elixir.  He knew he’d be in trouble for getting out of bed.  The fact was, when he did, he’d had to balance himself for a whole minute until the world stopped turning like a top.  Still he knew, one winsome look and his pa would melt – and he couldn’t very well give him the belt when he’d just come back from death’s door.

Now could he?

Bare-footed and wearing his striped nightshirt Joe walked to the door, using just about every piece of furniture he had in his room as a prop to get him there.  He paused at the door to listen.  Everything seemed quiet.  Opening it a bit, he listened again and stepped out into the hall.

Again, silence.

It was just past noon and the house was completely silent.  There were no sounds of anyone stirring, no banging of pans in the kitchen; no Hop Sing hollerin’.

Something was wrong.

Joe hesitated a moment and then went to his father’s bedroom.  Quietly, so as not to let anyone know he was up, he rummaged in the drawer at the bottom of Pa’s bureau for the gun he knew his father kept there.  After shifting aside a few of his pa’s extra shirts, he found the bullets and loaded the firearm.  Padding softly on his bare feet, Joe returned to the door, opened it and looked out, and then stepped into the hall and headed for the landing.  Once there, he hugged the shadows at the top as he looked around the corner.

And found Adam sitting in the blue chair before the fire with a knife blade under his chin.

The man who held it was Chinese and….

Familiar.

“You will come down now or your brother will suffer the consequences, young tiger cub,” the man said without even looking his way.

Joe looked at the gun in his hand.  Seeing as how he was in his night shirt, he had nowhere to hide it.  Taking a moment, he tucked it behind the vase on the table behind him and then slowly descended the stairs.  Once he got to the bottom, he went over to where the two men were.  Adam’s eyes pleaded with him.  His brother couldn’t speak.

The tip of the curved knife was lodged firmly under his chin.

“You are wise,” the man said.

Joe struggled to remember his name.  It was the same man who had taken him and held him hostage.  Pa told him names gave a man power over someone and he sure needed whatever power he could get right now.  As he fought against a leaden fatigue that threatened to put him on his bottom on the floor, he wondered where Hop Sing and Ming-hua were.  Then he let that go.  It didn’t matter.  All that mattered right now was Adam and that shiny sharp knife at his throat.

The Chinese man didn’t move, but he spoke.  “The others in your household are not hurt.  They are locked in the building behind your home where your meat is smoked.”

“How’d you get in?” Joe asked, and then thought what a stupid question that was.  Why did it matter?

“A house has many windows that a shadow may enter therein.”

A shadow.  Joe swallowed over his fear.  That’s what they were all right – these black-clad Chinese men – shadows, like the ones he saw in his nightmares.

“Joe –”

The knife went tighter, silencing his brother.  Joe met Adam’s frightened gaze and held it.  “It’s okay, Adam,” he said.  “Just…keep quiet.”

“You are brave, young one.”

Joe shivered.  “Oh, I don’t know about that.  I….”  He drew in a shallow breath and stifled a cough.  “I don’t know that I got…all that much to lose.  I ain’t…grown yet.  Don’t have a girl.”  He shrugged.  “Somethin’ happens to me…the world’ll go on.”

The Chinese man held his gaze.  “You know why I am here.”

He nodded his curly head.  “To take me.  You got…interrupted the other time.”  Joe puzzled a moment.  “Jian, ain’t it?  Your name, I mean?”  When the men nodded, he asked, “What’s it mean?”

The man’s dark eyes narrowed.  “Prosperity.”

Joe wobbled a bit.  He caught hold of the end of the settee to steady himself.  “You mean, like happiness?”

Adam was watching him closely, wondering if he had something up his sleeve.  He didn’t, other than maybe keeping the man here a little bit longer just in case Pa had turned around and came in the door.   He’d remembered another thing Pa’d taught him.  Get them to call you by your name.  Make whoever has taken you acknowledge that you are a human being and you have a life of your own.

“You know the meaning of my name?  Of Joseph?” he asked.

Jian shook his head.

“It’s kind of funny.  You and me, we’re about the same. It means ‘May Jehovah’ – that’s our name for the God of Abraham – ‘give increase’.”  Joe’s smile was pale.  “Prosperity.”

Adam cleared his throat.  Joe tensed, but Jian actually released the blade a bit so his brother could speak.  “Please,” Adam said. “The boy is sick.  You can see it.  Take me if you want a hostage.  I’ll go willingly.”

The Chinese man met Adam’s gaze.  “I know you would, but it cannot be.  Jian’s honor demands he bring this one to Zhuang as ordered.”

“Is your honor worth the life of a child?” Adam countered quickly, before the blade could go back in place.  “He’ll die if you take him out into the cold.”

Joe stiffened as the Jian turned toward him.  “Not if the God of Abraham grants him increase.”

“But you can’t – ”

Adam didn’t get to finish his sentence.  He’d started to come up out of his chair and in one swift movement, Jian had flipped his blade and brought the metal pommel down on the side of Adam’s head.  His brother fell like a sack of stones to the floor.

Joe looked up from the bleeding gash on his brother’s temple to the man.  Tears streaked eyes.   “You didn’t have to do that!  I was…gonna go with…you.”  Joe sucked in air and held it, forbidding the cough that was rising up within him.  “I thought you said you…were…a man of honor!  You promised me! Remember, you said, ‘So far as it is in Jian’s power, I promise the others in your family will remain safe.’  Don’t you remember?”

“So I did, tiger cub,” the man admitted softly.

“Then you just take me and…get out of here and leave…my family alone!” he snapped as tears entered his eyes.  “And let Hop Sing out…of the smoke house so he can help Adam!”

Jian’s lips didn’t smile, but his eyes did.  “Yes, tiger cub.”

Joe scowled.  “Who you callin’ a cub?”

The Chinese man moved so swiftly he didn’t even see it.  He had him tossed over his shoulder in an instant; his feet and hands held securely in his own.

“Age is foolish and forgetful when it underestimates youth,” Jian said as he headed for the door.  “Come, we will travel together.

“Tiger son.”

 

TWELVE

“Adam, dang it!  Adam, come on.  Wake up!”

One hazel eye opened as someone slapped his face and he heard words that sounded something like ..aah….dem…dem…mon…break up.

“Wh…what?” he groaned.  “Break up…what?”

Large hands took hold of his shoulders and shook him gently.  It was only then he became aware of the fact that he was no longer on the floor and someone had propped him up against Pa’s red leather chair. From the mountain of a man blocking the light that spilled in the open door, he assumed it had been his middle brother.

“Hoss?”

Hoss’s thick fingers probed the edge of his hairline near his sideburn as the big man said, “You sure got you some cut there.”

“That Chinese man….Jian….he hit me before he….”  Adam’s stomach plummeted to his toes.  He swallowed over bile.  “Before he took Joe.”

Hoss rocked back on his heels.  “Huh?  You mean little brother ain’t upstairs in bed asleep like he’s s’posed to be?” The big man looked back toward the door.  “I wondered where that hand was Pa left to watch the house.  So, someone took him out?”

As Adam nodded – and regretted it – a strident voice announced from the porch outside.  “You Cartwrights, if it isn’t one of you it’s the other!  I’m going to have to petition Roy Coffee to lock you all away for a fortnight just so I can get some rest!”  Even as he growled, Paul Martin stepped into the house and made his way into the great room.  As he knelt beside him, the physician’s hand reached out to check his wound.  The older man asked Hoss as he worked, “Did I hear him right?  Joseph’s gone…again?”

“Er, I’m right here, Paul,” Adam groused.

“Yes, and with that knock on the head you took, you could be seeing pink elephants flying through the air for all I know!”  Paul touched the end of the cut near the middle of his head and nodded as he sucked in air.  “See?  That’s what I thought.  It’s pretty deep, Adam, and it’s still bleeding.”  As Eagle Station’s doctor rose to his feet, he added, “Come on, Hoss, we need to get your brother to bed.”

He was having none of that!

He looked at Hoss.  “The hand Pa left outside?”

His brother shook his head.  “Ain’t there.  I ain’t checked on the one out back yet.”

“Adam, I must insist!” the doctor said.

“No!  No, Paul, you don’t understand!” he shouted as he rose to his feet.  “Little Joe’s been kidnapped!  We have to go after him.”

“I’m sure someone will, but it’s not going to be you!” Paul admonished him.

“But he’s just a boy,” Adam whimpered as he took hold of the back of a chair.  The moment he’d climbed to his feet, the world had begun to spin.

“Yes, he is.  And Joe’s a very sick boy,” Paul added somewhat unnecessarily, which only succeeded in driving his sense of failure deeper as he dropped into the chair.

“Pa left me in charge of Joe and I have to – ouch!”

Paul Martin had a bottle of alcohol in his hand – the contents of which he had just liberally used to douse his head wound.  “That’s what you get for arguing with your favorite family physician.  If you won’t go up to bed, Adam, will you at least stay put until I get this dressed?”

Adam scowled, but did as he was ordered.   As he endured the doctor’s ministrations, his gaze went to his giant of a brother who hovered close by.  He remembered suddenly that Hoss and their father had left together with Roy Coffee to go look for Rosey O’Rourke.

“Where’s Pa?”

Hoss shook his head and whistled.  “Whoo-ee, I’m tellin’ you, Adam.  You better be glad Pa ain’t here.  When Pa finds out about Little Joe’s goin’ missin’ again, the roof’s gonna blow right off of this here house!”

True as that was, it did nothing to address his question.  “Hoss, I know you.  What aren’t you telling me?”

His brother squirmed.  “You ain’t gonna like it.”

“There hasn’t been much of anything I’ve liked since Dandan and Biyu crossed our threshold.  Now what is it?”

“Funny you should mention them.  Pa’s goin’ to the settlement to get them and bring them back here.”

Adam’s brows peaked toward his battered brow as Paul Martin began to wind a fresh linen strip around it.  “Whatever for?”

“Cause of that bad man what’s got hold of Miss Rosey.”

“Good lord!  Not Zhuang?!”

“No, no.  It’s that other one.  That chow feller.”  Hoss scowled.  “Pa and him, well, they sort of came to an agreement.”

“There.”  Doctor Martin said as he finished.  “Now, is there anyone else in this house in lieu of your youngest brother who needs looking after?”

Adam started to reply ‘no’, but then he realized something.  He hadn’t seen John Randolph since breakfast – even through the whole incident with Joe.  “Paul, will you go look in on John?  He’s in the guest bedroom upstairs.  He was still having some trouble with that knife wound last night.  I hope he’s all right.”

“Of course.”  The older man headed toward the stair.  He paused at the bottom.  “You’re sure Joseph is gone?  It’s not just a delusion from the blow to the head you took?”

Adam nodded mournfully.  “He’s gone.  I came to just long enough to see Chao’s man carry Joe out the door.  If the hand was gone, there was no one to stop them.”

The physician hesitated, then said, “A pity that.  That boy should be in bed.  If he doesn’t stay warm and dry, we’re going to be back to square one with him.”  Paul met his troubled gaze.  “Maybe even further back than that.”

“Great.  Just great,” Adam sniped as the older man mounted the stairs and disappeared into the upstairs hall.

Hoss was watching him too.  “I’m goin’ to find out what happened to that hand and then head out after Joe,” he announced.

The big man was already on the move.

“Hoss, wait.”

“What’s there to wait for?” he asked as he swung back.  “That dang Chinaman’s got hold of our little brother!”

“If you just rush in you could, well, cause Joe to get hurt worse.  We need some kind of a plan.”

“We?”

Adam glanced up the stairs and then placed a finger to his lips.  “Shh.”

Hoss rolled his eyes.

“The men with Da Chao are highly trained, Hoss, and well, frankly, some of them are probably trained as assassins.  We were foolish to think anything short of an army could stop them.  And while you’re in fine fettle,” he scowled as he tapped his head, “some of us are a little under par.  We need to think this through.  Charging in and using brute force is probably not going to win the day.”

“I’m just worried about that little squirt,” Hoss moaned.

“I know, I am too.”  Adam paused.  “But I think that little ‘squirt’ is stronger than either of us give him credit for.  Look at all he’s survived.”

Hoss’ grin was affectionate.  “Little brother’s a tough one, that’s for sure.”

As Adam nodded his agreement, he saw again the look on Joe’s face as he was being toted out of the house tossed over Jian’s shoulder like a sack of grain.  Tough, yes, but Little Joe was still a kid and he was scared.

Hang on Joe,’ he thought as he put his head together with his middle brother and began to scheme.

Hang on, brother, we’re coming.

 

Joe was seated in front of Jian on the powerful black horse the Chinese man rode.  Jian had one arm locked firmly around his chest and was guiding the beautiful animal with only his legs and a subtle touch now and then on the reins with his free hand.  He admired the man’s skill, but that was about all he admired about him.  Something was bothering him and he had just about made up his mind to ask Jian about it.  The only thing that stopped him was what he’d seen back in the clearing when he’d been taken the first time.  This man, ordinary as he seemed now, was a weapon in himself.  He didn’t need that knife he carried or any gun.  Hop Sing had told him about men like him when he was little, mostly to scare the living daylights out of him and get him to obey – kind of like they were the boogey man.  He was pretty sure Jian was what their cook called a boo how doy; a warrior or hired killer working for Khu Zhuang.

And that was what puzzled him.

Drawing a shallow breath, he said, “Can I ask you something?”

The Chinese man hesitated only a second.  “You may.”

“Pa left a couple of men outside the house.”  Joe paused.  “Did you kill them?”

“No.  I overpowered them.”

He blew out a sigh of relief.  “What about that other Chinese man back in the forest where you took me the first time?”

There was a silence this time.  “Yes, he is dead.”

Joe glanced back.  “Why?”

“He wanted you dead.”

His eyes wide, Joe said, “Oh,” and turned around.

They rode a bit further as he considered what he’d been told.  Those two questions weren’t the ones he’d wanted to ask, but it had been bothering him about the hands.  Joe pursed his lips and sighed.

Where to start?

“You got a family, mister?”

The question seemed to surprise his captor.  “Yes. Why?”

“You got any boys, you know, like me?”

There was another pause.  “Yes.  One very much like you.”

“So, I bet you’re like my Pa.  You teach him…about what’s right and wrong.  Right?”

The steady clop of the horse’s hooves was heard for several seconds.  “Yes.”

“So, my pa, well, he’s…taught me about honor.”  Joe swallowed a cough.  “Pa said, ‘Reputation is what other people know about you and honor is what you know about yourself.”

“A wise man, your father.”

Joe smiled in spite of everything.  “He sure is.”

“So what is it you wish to know from me?” Jian asked.

He hesitated.

“Ask.”

“Well, you told Adam that your…honor bound you to take…me to Khu Zhuang.  How can….”  He swallowed over his dread and another cough.  “How can…kidnapping someone be honorable?”

Jian was silent for some time.  Just about the time Joe figured he’d made him mad, the warrior replied, “You are too young to understand.”

“Why don’t you try me!” he snapped and then regretted it.  “Sorry,” he mumbled.  “It’s just…well….”

“Go on.”’

Joe let out a sigh.  “I kind of like you, and I…don’t understand…”  He drew a ragged breath.  “…why you want to work for a man…who would make you do…well…what you do.”

Jian was silent for a long time – so long Joe thought he wouldn’t answer.  When he did, it was with a question of his own.  “If your father asks something of you, you do it, do you not?  Without question?”

Joe snorted.  “Not according to Pa.”

The man behind him chuckled silently.  He could feel it in the movement of his chest.  “Khu Zhuang, in a way, is my father.  He has given me a command.  I must obey.”

“But what if what your…father tells you to do is…well…wrong?” Joe countered.

“Does tiger father not know better than tiger son, for he has lived many long years?” the man asked, his tone surprisingly gentle.

Joe mulled that over as they continued to jog forward.  “But you see, that’s what I don’t understand.”  Joe drew a breath and held it a second.  They were getting harder to take without coughing.  “My Pa wouldn’t order me to do…anything wrong.  Your father…does.”  He thought a moment and then added, though he knew he might pay for it.  “Kidnapping is…wrong.  How can doing something wrong…be honorable?”

“You ask too many questions.”

The boy hung his head.  They jogged a bit more before he found the courage to say one more thing.  “You know what else…Pa told me about honor?”

He sensed more than heard the man’s sigh.  “What?”

“He said, ‘Son, honor is what no…man can give you.  Honor…is a man’s gift to himself.’”

Jian was silent again for several heartbeats.  “Do you know what my father told me – my true father?” the warrior asked softly.

Joe pivoted to look at the man.  “No, what?”

“The wounds of honor are self-inflicted.”  Jian’s grip tightened on his chest.  “Now it is time to be silent, tiger son.  Soon we will reach our destination and you will need both your honor and courage to face what lies ahead.”

 

“Adam?”

After freeing Ming-hua and Hop Sing from the smoke house, he and Hoss had moved to their father’s desk and begun studying a map of the area. They were trying to figure out the best place for Zhuang to have made headquarters between the house and the settlement based on the tracking Hoss had done earlier.  Both of their heads came up and turned toward the stair when they heard Doc Martin call.

“Yes?” Adam replied moving forward.

“There’s no one upstairs.”

It took a second.  “What?  John’s not in his room?”

The doctor was starting down the stairs.  “No, and some of his things are gone as well.  Do you think he snuck out during the night?”

“Where do you think that Englishman done gone, Adam?”

He didn’t think.  He knew.  John was a man in love.  He was also feeling responsible for bringing two opposing Chinese tong factions to the Ponderosa and placing them dead center of a war.

“He’s gone after Biyu.”

Hoss snapped his fingers.  “Dang!  We should’ve expected that!”

They should have indeed.  Adam considered all the ramifications of the Englishman’s action in his mind for a moment.

It made it hurt even worse than the blow he had taken to his head.

“You’re looking rather pale, Adam.  Perhaps you should sit down,” the doctor said in a concerned voice.

He looked at him and noted how the doctor’s form seemed to be wavering before his eyes.

“Maybe you’re right.”

Working his way over to the hearth area, Adam took a seat in the blue chair.  He sent Hoss to get Hop Sing and Ming-hua and then signaled the doctor over.  After giving the trio time to make it back – and his stomach a moment to settle – he said, “This concerns all of us, so I think we all need to know what’s going on so we can make a decision together.”  He eyed the Chinese girl.  She was pale.  Hop Sing had placed a hand on her arm as if to steady her.

“So here’s where we are,” he began. “Pa and Roy are on their way to Eagle Station to get Dandan and Biyu and bring them back here…as I understand it?”

Hoss nodded. “That’s right.”

“Did Da Chao and Longwei go with them?”

“Sure enough did,” the big man said, “though they ain’t goin’ into town, they’re waitin’ at the edge of it with Miss Rosey for Pa to come back with them two Chinese gals.”

“So, Pa is probably near or in Eagle Station, Da Chao and Longwei are on the edge of it with Rosey, and John Randolph is headed to the settlement without knowing either of those things.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Paul remarked, which was something of an understatement.

“Somewhere in-between – on Ponderosa land – is Da Chao’s rival, Khu Zhuang.  His man Jian has just…kidnapped Joe.”  Adam paused, thinking of his baby brother out there in the middle of all this.  “Jian is taking Joe to the tong leader because Zhuang intends to use him as some kind of leverage against Pa – probably to get him to turn Da Chao over to him.”

“What about John?” his brother asked.  “Could it have somethin’ to do with him?  You remember, Adam?  He said he took somethin’ from that Zhuang feller than made him hoppin’ mad.”

“Yes, Khu Zhuang wants John too.  But I think Da Chao takes precedence in Zhuang’s mind.  After all, he wouldn’t have come all the way from California just to chase down a man who stole a bauble from him.”  Adam hesitated.  “Would he?”

“It depend on what ‘bauble’ is,” Hop Sing injected.

“How so, Hop Sing?” Hoss asked.

“Chinese honor ancestors with objects of importance.  This way, we remember wisdom of those who have passed.”  Their cook frowned.  “Some, mostly warriors, believe objects become ancestors and give them power.  Idea not right.  Comes from long ago.”

“Feudal times, you mean?” Adam asked.  He thought he recalled reading something about several ancient cultures who had cults with such beliefs.

Hop Sing nodded.   “If Mister John take such an object….”

“This one’s sister has the stone,” Ming-hua said, her voice small, but making a big impact.

“What?” Adam demanded as they all turned toward her.

“Biyu not sell stone as Mister John wants.”  The girl frowned.  “Ming-hua’s sister know it bring trouble.”

“So she has it with her in Eagle Station?” he asked as he rose to his feet, not missing how Doc Martin watched his every move as if he expected him to collapse at any minute.

Ming-hua hesitated.

“Girl like daughter to Hop Sing,” the man from China said.  “Good daughter speak truth.”

It took a moment, but finally she nodded.  “Stone is here on Ponderosa.  Biyu ask Ming-hua to hide it so she not know where it is, in case….”

Adam felt like sitting down again.  Miracles did happen.  This just might be the bargaining chip that would win his little brother’s freedom and perhaps rid them of Khu Zhuang and his threat.

“Where is it?” he asked.

“Mistah Joe show Ming-hua cabin one day, high on hill.  Said man from…Kentuck lived there once?”

Adam nodded.  He knew the place and knew of his little brother’s fascination with it.  “Yes.”

“Place stone under loose floorboard in bedroom.”

The cabin wasn’t all that far away.  They could get there and be on their way back before dark, and maybe have Joe home by morning.  With a nod, Adam headed for the door.

“And just where do you think you are going, young man?” Paul Martin asked.

Adam winced as he anchored his hat on his bandaged head.  “Look Doc, I don’t have time to worry about myself.  The man who has Joe is a killer.”

“Send your brother then, son.  Give yourself time to rest.”

“All should go,” Hop Sing said.  “Khu Zhuang have many bad men with him.  Some watch house.  Mister Adam not safe alone.”

Adam snorted.  His head must be completely muddled.  What was he thinking?  Of course, there would be men watching the house.

“Hop Sing, someone should stay here in case Joe gets away and comes home.  Are you willing…?”

The Chinese man was not happy, but nodded.  “Hop Sing stay.  He find missing men and then keep watch for number three son.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing.”

“I’ll go with you,” Paul said, catching his bag from the table.  “After all, it’s a sure bet that some Cartwright is bound to need my services before the day is over.”

Adam wanted to protest.

But he knew Paul was right.

 

Shortly before they would have reached Khu Zhuang’s camp, Jian stopped the horse and made Joe get off.  He let him do his business in the woods and then left him free to eat the light meal he had prepared for the two of them while he tended his mount.  Joe thought about running, but figured it was pointless.  He was having trouble drawing a deep breath and running would just make the tightness in his chest worse.  Besides, he was so weak Jian would have had him before he could take ten steps.  No, if he was gonna get out of this, it was gonna have to be later when, in the midst of Zhuang’s camp he might get overlooked or forgotten for a minute and could slip away, or, better yet, when someone came to get him.

He sure hoped someone was on their way to get him.

A sound drew his attention to the present and Joe looked up to find the Chinese warrior standing over him.  Indicating his nearly full plate, Jian said, “Boy not eat much.”

Joe shrugged.  “Boy not hungry much.”

The warrior sat on his haunches before him and reached out to touch his forehead.  As Joe jerked his head back, he remarked, “Tiger son has fever.”

He wasn’t feeling too good and his answer reflected it. “Yeah, well, that’s what you…get when you kidnap a boy…with pneumonia.”  He coughed and after listening to the rattle in his chest, snarled, “I may just go and..die before you get me to that man who owns you!”

“You will not talk like this to Zhuang.”

Joe scowled.  “Who’s gonna stop me – you?”

Jian stared at him a moment, his dark eyes narrowed.  Then he nodded.

A tremble of fear ran through him.  Joe sucked in a breath, coughed, and then said meekly, “Look, I’m sorry.  I feel like, well, the muck in the stall.”  He sighed and leaned his head back against the tree that propped his back and gave the man who, so far, had been as kind to him as he could a wan smile.  “My pa says when I’m tired or hungry my brain kind of…disconnects from my mouth.”

The man from China reached out again, this time to place a hand on his chest.  He remained that way with his eyes closed for several heartbeats and then removed the hand and looked at him.

Joe’s voice cracked as he asked, “It’s bad, ain’t it?”

Jian continued to regard him, a strange look on his face and then he announced, “I will take you back to your brothers.”

He blinked, confused.  “What?”

“Do not question me!” the warrior snarled as he rose to his feet.

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean to.  It’s just….”

The man turned his obsidian eyes on him.  “Just what?”

“I mean…ain’t you gonna get….”  Joe paused to cough and then began to work his way to his feet.  “Aren’t you gonna be in…trouble if you…go back without me?  What’ll…Zhuang do to you?”

Jian stared at him for several heartbeats before asked, “Why do you care, tiger son?”

“I don’t know why.  Unless, well, I guess…like I said, I sort of like you.”  Joe shrugged and then regretted it when the gesture left him dizzy.  He closed his eyes, seeking balance, and then opened them again to find two of Jian staring at him.  “It don’t make sense, I know.”

The Chinese warrior was shaking his head.

“What?” Joe demanded.

“I must meet tiger father of tiger son.”

“Pa’ll whup you for takin’ me,” he countered, a little of the normal fire returning to his tone.

Jian did something then that took him completely by surprise.

He laughed.

“Come.  I will take you to your home.”

Relief flooded through Joe and made him weak in the knees.  Jian caught him as he staggered and lifted him up in his strong arms.  Joe’s eyes closed as his head sunk against the man’s chest and would have stayed that way had it not been for the fact that someone spoke, bringing him wide awake.

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will emerge victorious,” a severe voice remarked as Joe heard a sword withdrawn from its sheath.

“Let us hope this day, Jian, you choose victory.”

 

Ben Cartwright was not happy with the answer to his knock at Beth Riley’s door.  The blonde woman opened it, saw him, drew in a breath, and instantly started talking and had continued talking as he made his way inside.  If he hadn’t been so tired, he would have been amused.  It  reminded him of the time he had come home late to find Marie in a similar state and it had taken him ten minutes – ten precious minutes that might have meant life or death for their son – to calm his wife down enough to find out that Joseph had gone missing.

Ben took the older woman’s shoulders in his hands.  He gripped them tightly as he said, “Beth.  Beth, calm down!”

He must have used his stern ‘pa’ voice without meaning to because the blonde woman blanched, went wide-eyed, and fell silent instantly.

The rancher closed his eyes and let out a little sigh. “Forgive me, Beth,” he began.  “It’s just there is no time to lose and – ”

“She’s gone!” she declared, suddenly finding her voice.

“Who’s gone?”

“Biyu!”

It took a moment.  “Not Dandan?” he asked.

Beth shook her head so her blonde curls bounced on her shoulders.  “No, just the one.  Dandan’s in the back.  I went to check on them this morning and Biyu was gone.”

Ben looked toward the room.  “And her sister’s not talking?”

Tears filled her eyes.  “No, but she’s very upset.”

Not a surprise there.

The rancher continued to gaze at the partially closed door.  “Is it all right if I go in and speak to her?  Maybe I can get Dandan to tell me where they were headed.”

“Good luck,” Beth replied with a shake of her head.  “She’s not talking.  I already tried.”

He hesitated to tell the shopkeeper why it was so important he know.  Beth was already quite distressed and he knew she was friends with Rosey.  “Say,” he asked, “could you fix me a cup of coffee?  And maybe you have a piece of last night’s pie?  I rode straight from the Ponderosa and – ”

“Oh!” she exclaimed, looking extremely relieved.  “I can do that!  You just get done what you have to do and I’ll have it waiting.”

He knew from experience that nothing took the fluster out of a woman like asking her to provide comfort to a man.  With a small smile on his lips, Ben moved to the door of the back room and knocked gently.

“Dandan?  It’s Ben Cartwright.  May I come in?”

There was a moment’s hesitation and then, “Enter.”

Dandan was standing beside the window.  Before he could open his mouth, she turned toward him and said, “This one will tell you nothing.”

Ben paused a moment and then said, “Well, I have something to tell you.  I was sent here by Da Chao to bring you and your sister to the Ponderosa so we could all talk.”

She seemed to puzzle that through.  Then Dandan said, her tone vehement, “Longwei does not desire to talk to my sister!  He will kill – ”

Ben held his hand up, calling for silence.

“If I don’t come back with you and Biyu, he has threatened to kill Rosey.”

He saw his words register; heard her gasp.

‘Noooo,” the Chinese woman moaned as she dropped onto the bed and placed her head in her hands.

Ben went to sit beside her.  As he did, he dared to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder.  “Where has Biyu gone, Dandan?” he asked.  When she hesitated still to answer, a thought came to him – from where he didn’t know.  Most likely either experience or from his God.  “Did John come for her?”

The Chinese woman sniffed in her tears and looked at him.  She nodded.

That definitely put a different spin on things.  “Do you know where they were going?”

Dandan nodded again.  “To your land.”

“They’re not running away?” he asked, confused.  He had assumed they would be headed to a port city.  “Why would they go back to the Ponderosa?”

Again, the Chinese woman considered her words.  At last, it seemed she decide to trust him.  “You know of the jade object John Randolph stole from Khu Zhuang?”

“Yes.”

“Biyu did not sell it as John asked.  My sister did not want Zhuang to control them.  Ming-hua has hidden it on your land.”

“Do you know where it is?” he asked, astonished.

“No.  Nor does Biyu.  My sister and John Randolph return to your house to ask our sister where it is, so it may be restored.”  Dandan paused.  “It is their hope that its return will satisfy Zhuang.”

Ben remained silent.  From what Da Chao had said, nothing would satisfy Khu Zhuang short of John Randolph’s head.

The rancher rose slowly.  At the door he turned back and asked, “Will you come with me, to face Da Chao and tell him this?”

The lovely Chinese woman rose to her feet and reached for her cloak.  “This one wishes no harm to Miss Rosey.  Dandan will come.  Perhaps…perhaps Da Chao will show mercy.”

Ben stood with his hand on the latch, considering what lay ahead.  He had no idea if the Chinese tong leader even knew what the word ‘mercy’ meant.  If he marched into the man’s camp with only Dandan, would it cost Rosey her life?  And what of Zhuang?  He doubted Chao’s rival was standing idly by.  Was his home in danger?

Were his sons?

Hop Sing had told him once that, just because men do not like the cold, Heaven would not stop the winter.

The thought of that chilled him to the bone.

 

 

THIRTEEN

Adam knelt in the back room of the cabin and put his hand to the floorboard Ming-hua had singled out – seven in from the right hand wall.  It lay beneath a tattered rag rug.  Before lifting the board, he glanced at Paul Martin who was standing by the door.  The physician had it open a crack and was eyeing the trees on the far side of the clearing the small wooden structure was nestled in.  His brother Hoss was out there somewhere, keeping watch as well.  It seemed almost too much to ask to think they’d made it from the ranch house to the cabin without being spotted by one or more of Da Chao or Khu Zhuang’s men.  Both were surely keeping watch.  For this reason they’d each headed in a different direction as they left the house, only meeting up later, and they’d come alone.  Hoss had agreed with him that bringing any of the hands along would be risky.  More men meant more chances to be seen.  Still, he had his doubts that their caution had been enough.  Adam’s jaw tightened and he winced.  When he’d expressed his doubts out loud, Hoss had volunteered to hang back and ride shotgun, so to speak.  The big man was out there in the trees keeping watch.  He worried about him.  Nearly as worried as he was about Little Joe.

No, that wasn’t true.  At twenty-two Hoss was old enough, and more than large enough, to take on most any man. Joe, simply put, wasn’t.  He was still a boy and a scrawny boy at that – plus he was sick.

As he let out a small sigh, Paul turned toward him.  “Nothing there?” the older man asked.

Adam felt a twinge of guilt.  “I haven’t looked yet,” he said as he pressed his fingers into the crack between the boards.  “I was thinking about Joe.”

Paul nodded.  “I haven’t been able to do anything else.  I find it hard to believe that men could be so cruel as to put the life of a boy his age in jeopardy.”

“I’m sure you’ve read Machiavelli.  You know the gist of what he says,” he replied as he pried the board up.

“You mean, the end justifies the means?”

Not exactly what the man said in The Prince, but it captured the spirit of his words.  “So long as Zhuang gets what he wants, he feels justified in how he went about it, and if that means putting a boy in danger, then – aha!”

He’d been feeling about under the floorboards.  His fingers had just made contact with something.  It seemed to be a small silk purse with a round stone in it.  Rising with the purse in his hands, Adam walked over to where the doctor waited.

“Anything from Hoss?” he asked as he glanced out the crack in the door.

“Just a signal about two minutes ago that everything was all right.”

Adam opened the strings on the purse and turned it upside-down over his hand.  A moment later a pendent slid out of it.  The stone, which was attached to a black cord dotted with gold knots, was in the form of a nesting dragon.  The stone itself just about covered the palm of his hand.  The carving was exquisite.

He whistled low.  “It certainly is beautiful.”

Paul was shaking his head.  “All of this trouble, two men’s lives in danger – your brother’s and Randolph’s – and all for a lifeless piece of rock.”

“Ah, but Khu Zhuang doesn’t believe it’s lifeless,” Adam countered.  He held the pendant up to the early afternoon sun and watched the red fire within the green jade glow.  “He believes the spirit of his ancestor rests within it and grants him power.  Since it’s a dragon, my guess would be that whoever owned it first  was a warrior.”  He made a face.  “Zhuang believes this gives him that warrior’s might, maybe even his wisdom.  You’ll find that belief echoed in some of the western Indian tribes.”  He glanced at Paul.  “In the end, no matter what he thinks, this has to be very important to him to have brought him all the way out here from California.”

“Don’t forget he was following Chao as well.”

Adam nodded.  “I’m not, but I’m betting Zhuang thinks he needs this in order to defeat Da Chao.  For all he knows Chao has it and the power.   Otherwise, he would have taken Da Chao on directly rather than go to all the trouble of kidnapping Joe.”  Adam clasped the stone in his hand and thrust it into his jacket pocket.  “Which mean we have an ace in the hole.”

“Adam.”

His attention was drawn immediately to the doctor.  “What?”

“Hoss just signaled that we have company.”

“Get back, Paul,” he said as he drew his weapon.

“Why, so I have to take a bullet out of you?” the physician snapped.

Adam’s smile was grim.  “That’s better than me having to take a bullet out of you.”

Paul nodded as he moved out of the way.  “Point taken.”

Keeping the door between himself and the outside, the black-haired man scanned the trees for a sign of his brother.  Hoss was supposed to hightail it to the cabin if he’d spotted trouble.  When the minute he waited turned into two, and then three and four, Adam began to sweat.  While he hadn’t heard a shot, neither Da Chao nor Khu Zhuang’s men needed a gun – their hands alone were deadly.  Was his brother laying out there somewhere injured….

Or worse?

“Do you think you should call out?” Paul asked.

He hesitated.  “It might make things worse, maybe alert someone to the fact that Hoss is there.  If they have any –”

“Adam.  There!”

Relief washed over him when he saw the broad frame of his middle brother emerge from the trees.  Hoss was walking quickly and gave no sign that he was injured.  Following behind him were a man and woman.  The woman was having some difficulty keeping up the pace his brother set.  The man assisted her.  It took a second for it to register and then he realized why.

She was expecting.

It was Biyu and John Randolph.

 

Rosey O’Rourke eyed Longwei as he paced back and forth in front of her.  Every so often the bully would throw a look her way.

If it had been a knife, she would have been dead.

Ben had been gone for several hours and The Dragon’s bouncer had just about reached the limit of his patience – if what he had could be called ‘patience’.  It was more like the expectation of a man who had lit a fuse and was eagerly waiting for it to go off.  It seemed to her that no matter what happened, nothing would satisfy the cruel man’s wounded pride but Biyu’s death and the deaths of all who had helped her.  It had been many years since she’d had such a thought, but if she’d been riding as a scout, she would have seen taking him out as a part of her duty – to insure the safety and security of those she rode with.  Of course that had been during war time, and during a war life’s usual rules were suspended.  Nowadays such a move would be accounted as murder unless she were under direct threat, and so the man continued to roll like a loose cannon spewing fire, ready to destroy anything or anyone in his path.

Rosey’s gaze went from the Dragon’s enforcer to Da Chao.  The older man’s patience was wearing thin as well.  Chao had come to question her earlier and had seem unconvinced when she assured him that the amount of time Ben had been gone could easily be accounted for.  She’d assured him as well that the rancher wouldn’t go to the authorities.  Ben was a man of his word and if he said he would bring Biyu and Dandan to treat with Chao, then that was what he would do.

Unless, for some reason, he couldn’t.

That was what troubled her.  There was no guarantee the two young women had stayed put.  Perhaps they had returned to the Ponderosa or, even more likely, run away.  She doubted it though, as she knew Biyu wished to be with the man she loved.  Still, John Randolph could have come for her.

Ben might return empty-handed, and what then?

She’d considered running.  She knew enough to work her way out of the bonds that held her in place if she put her mind to it.  If she was free or…dead…Chao would have no leverage with Ben.  But then Ben might become the hostage and if he was, there was nothing that would stop his boys from trying to free him.  All the Cartwrights could be wiped out.  She knew these men and knew what they were capable of.  Ben’s only hope lay in the fact that, in his own twisted way, Da Chao was a man of honor, unlike Longwei.  If Chao made a bargain and Ben fulfilled his end of it, the tong leader would honor it.  The only problem was, she couldn’t come up with an end that didn’t leave Biyu either at the mercy of her supposed husband or dead.

She and her child.

As she leaned her head back against the tree behind her and sighed, chiding herself again for the stupidity of setting out from Eagle Station alone, Longwei’s fuse came to its end.

“Dog!” the bully shouted, striking his hand in the air as if he wielded a knife.  “Cartwright has betrayed us!  The woman should die!”

Rosey’s eyes went to Da Chao. She didn’t fail to notice how the tong leader’s left brow arched toward his receding hairline.  “Us, my sister’s son?” he asked, his tone quiet and controlled.

Longwei stiffened.  “This one begs forgiveness, honorable Da Chao,” he said, the apology never touching his narrowed black eyes.  “It is you alone who have been betrayed.”

Chao’s gaze remained locked on the other man.  “Perhaps I have been betrayed, and perhaps Ben Cartwright has a reason for the hours he takes.  It is not for you to decide.  It is for you to do as I tell you.”

Longwei hesitated.  She saw his rebellion in the way his jaw tightened and the flash of fire in those black eyes.  “May this one speak his mind, most worthy Da Chao?”

The older man nodded.

“It is not Da Chao’s honor that is stained.  It is Longwei’s.  The woman – ”

“The woman you could not satisfy?”

It took a moment for the elder Chinese man’s words to register with the younger one.  “She is a whore,” Longwei protested.  “She has given herself to another man –”

“You knew this when you chose her.  Did you not?”  Da Chao took a step toward the other man.  “Never for a minute think I do this for you, my sister’s son.  It is for the honor of the House of Da.  You, as well as I, are bound by that honor to the agreement I made with Ben Cartwright.”  Rosey felt Chao’s gaze shift to her.  “If Ben Cartwright betrays me, the woman will die.  If he fulfils the bargain, she goes free.”  The tong leader moved even closer.  “Hear this, my sister’s son, you will not dishonor our house by some rash act.  Should you do so, you will no longer be my son.”

It was apparent to her that this battle of wills had been going on for some time.  Perhaps this journey had even been undertaken as some kind of test to see whether Longwei would obey.  After all, according to the gossip at The Dragon, Longwei was set to inherit Da Chao’s organization and power.

Perhaps Da Chao wished to see if he was worthy.

“Honorable Da Chao! Ben Cartwright is coming!”

Rosey looked up to find one of Chao’s sentries had entered the camp.

“Is Biyu with him?” Longwei demanded.  “I would know –”

A look from Chao silenced him.  The sentry waited for his master to say, ‘speak’ before answering.

“There is one woman with him,” he said.

Rosey drew a breath as the bouncer of The Delectable Dragon turned and looked at her.  She wasn’t sure, but the thought crossed her mind that Longwei hoped it wasn’t Biyu.

Just so he could kill her.

 

Ben Cartwright faced the Chinese tong leader with Dandan at his side.  He knew this negotiation would be as, if not more difficult, than any lumber, mining, or cattle deal he had ever parlayed.  A bargain had been made and he had been unable to fulfill his end of it.  That gave Da Chao legal and, albeit somewhat shaky moral ground, to exercise his right to exact the payment he had demanded should he fail.

That payment being Rosey’s life.

She was looking at him now, shaking her head and pleading with those big brown eyes of hers; urging him to save himself and sacrifice her.

Ben sighed.

Had he really failed to make it clear to her that doing so was not an option?

The rancher’s gaze shifted from the beautiful older woman to the Chinese man in the gray suit standing beside her.  Longwei’s fingers were wrapped tightly about the hilt of the knife that protruded from the sheath he wore just behind his gun.  Ben drew in a breath and held it as his own hand slipped closer to the weapon he wore.  At first it had surprised him that he’d been allowed to carry it into the camp, but then he  realized that ordering him to remove it would have been an admission of weakness on the part of the tong members. Along with Da Chao and Longwei, there were several other men in the camp and one or two more keeping watch at the edge of the clearing.  His only hope would be – if it came to a gunfight – that Rosey might be able to slip away and escape with her life.

“Benjamin Cartwright,” the tall thin tong leader greeted him with a nod as he approached.  “You arrive with our bargain unfulfilled.”

Ben glanced at Dandan.  What he found curled the ends of his lips, though he refrained from smiling.  He had expected to find fear in the China girl’s eyes.  Instead, he saw a steely determination sharpened by disdain.  Ming-hua’s older sister reminded him of Joseph when his young son perceived a wrong – her eyes were narrowed, her nostrils flared, and her jaw was tight.  He followed her fiery gaze and found its object was Longwei.

“I agree our bargain is ‘unfulfilled’,” Ben said.  “I find I must ask the honorable Da Chao that he grant me a little more time to fulfill it.  Biyu was not in the settlement.”

Da Chao’s gaze shifted to Dandan.  “This is true?” he asked.

The Chinese woman nodded.  “This humble one begs of you that you do Mister Cartwright and his family no harm.  He could not bring my sister to you.  She has left Eagle Station.”

“You will tell this one the reason,” Da Chao said.

It was not a request.

Dandan paled.  Ben knew the young woman feared speaking the truth and knew, just as surely, that it must be spoken.  The tong leader would accept nothing less.

“John Randolph came for Biyu and she went with him.  It may be that they are at my house,” Ben stated and then waited for a reaction.  He got two.  Da Chao nodded slowly as if he had known all along and Longwei?  Well, the brutal man exploded.

He drew his knife and headed not for Rosey, but for him.

You have allowed this!” Longwei shouted.  “You give safe haven to the one who dishonored me and for this you must pay!”

Before the irate man could reach him, Da Chao stepped between then.  The tong leader said nothing, even when the force of Longwei’s charge brought them nose to nose and the point of his nephew’s knife touched the breast of his black coat.  Chao crossed his arms and waited, holding Longwei’s gaze until the knife was withdrawn and The Dragon’s enforcer lowered his head.

“I beg forgiveness,” the younger man muttered.

The older man waited a moment and then said, his voice soft as a snake slithering over stone.  “This is the second time, my sister’s son, that you have chosen to act as if it is you who leads the tong and not Da Chao.”  The tong leader paused.  “It will be the last time.”

Longwei bowed deeply.  When he lifted his head, his jaw was tight and his eyes, fierce.  “I only ask what is my right – the lives of the man and woman who have dishonored our family.”

Ben watched the pair carefully.  There was something more going on here than was apparent.  He had a sense for the first time that – perhaps – finding and taking Biyu was not uppermost on Longwei’s agenda.  As the uncle and nephew argued, he’d watched the young men moving about the camp.  It had been obvious from their expressions that several of them were on Longwei’s side.  He wondered if the older man was aware of the dissention in his ranks.

Then again, Da Chao had not made it to the advanced age he was by being unaware.

The tong leader held his nephew’s gaze a moment longer before turning to him.  “You will take us to your house.”

Again, it was not a question.

He drew a breath. “And if I don’t?”

Da Chao lifted one eyebrow.  “The bargain will remain unfulfilled and the woman will die…as may others who are dear to you.  In one way Longwei is correct.  John Randolph has brought dishonor to our house as has the woman taken by my nephew as his.  Honor demands this be made right.”  The tall thin man paused before going on.  “Mister Cartwright, I would ask, what are these two people to you that you would risk bringing harm to your own?”

Ben hesitated.  He cleared his throat before beginning, well aware of the half-dozen pairs of eyes fastened on him, including Rosey’s.

“I made a choice long ago to do what God wants, and to do it with all my strength.  I made a choice to choose my actions based on my values and not on what will bring me personal gain.”  He swallowed thinking of Rosey and of his sons who could well end up at this man’s mercy.  “Real integrity is doing the right thing while knowing that nobody is going to know whether you did it or not.”

For the longest time Da Chao said nothing.  Finally he nodded.  “You are a most unusual man, Benjamin Cartwright.”

Ben puffed out a breath and nodded back.

He wondered if that was a good or a bad thing.

 

John Randolph sat on the ramshackle settee that had been left behind by the man from Kentucky when he left Nevada.  One arm was wrapped protectively about Biyu’s trembling form.  The other, Adam couldn’t help but notice rested on top of hers, which just happened to be anchored on her swollen abdomen.

Anchored on his child.

Good Lord!  What was he going to do?”

“You have to let us go, Adam,” John said.  “I could care less what happens to me, but I have to get Biyu and her child to safety.  If Longwei –”

“It is your child too,” the China girl said softly.

Adam glanced at the jade dragon he held in his hand.  He had to get moving – needed to find his brother.  He needed to know Little Joe was okay and even more so, he needed to rescue him.  The boy was sick.  Little Joe should be in bed, recovering, not out there – somewhere – suffering for sure and maybe….

“Adam?”

The black-haired man glanced up.  “What is it, Paul?”

“You aren’t thinking of turning this young woman over to those vile men, are you?” The doctor huffed.  “She’s going to have a child and that takes precedence.  You’d be risking two lives, not one.”

Like he needed to be reminded.

Adam made a face.  “I’m just trying to think it out, Paul.  Pa went to the settlement to bring both Dandan and Biyu,” he eyed the frightened woman, “to the Ponderosa where he hoped he’d be able to negotiate with Da Chao.  If you remember, Biyu is not the only one whose life is in danger.  So is Rosey’s.”

The physician sighed. “I had forgotten.”

“If I let you run, John, Rosey is as good as dead.  Pa won’t be able to fulfill the bargain he made with Da Chao.  Is that what you want?”

John released Biyu’s hand and rose to his feet. “You know it isn’t!  But if Da Chao gets hold of Biyu, he’ll – ”

“You don’t know what he’ll do” Adam countered.  “You fear what Longwei will do, but you don’t know what Da Chao’s reaction will be.  He’s older.  Wiser.  You know he doesn’t want to start a war with the population of Eagle Station.”  He frowned as his eyes returned to the pendant.  “Perhaps he can be reasoned with.”

“There will be no reasoning with him!” the Englishman declared.  “Chao will order Biyu and our child murdered and I will not stand for it!”  John Randolph was breathing hard.  He waited and then asked sharply, “Adam, are you listening?”

He was, but a thought had begun to form in his head.  He clasped the jade pendant in his fingers and then looked from it to the other man.  A moment later his gaze went to Biyu.

“You said this pendant is of paramount importance to Khu Zhuang?”

The China girl nodded.

He needed the jade dragon as a bargaining chip to free his brother, but Adam wondered if perhaps – just perhaps – the stone could be used to kill more than one bird.  It all depended on whether or not his father had returned to the Ponderosa by the time they got back.

Hoss had been quiet for some time.  He was standing by the hearth, leaning on the mantelpiece.  Noting his expression, the big man pushed away from it as he asked, “What are you thinkin’, Adam?  You sure ain’t thinkin’ of givin’ that there piece of jade to Chao, are ya?  We need that to get back Little Joe!”

Adam held up his hand.  “I know.  I know.  But say….  Say, we give the jade dragon to Da Chao in exchange for Biyu.  If it was his, he would have the upper hand with Zhuang.  As I understand it, Zhuang wants to take over Chao’s territory?”

He addressed this to Biyu, but it was John who answered.  “Yes.  They are rivals.  Khu Zhuang is younger and more ruthless.  He wants complete control.”

“But he also wants this stone.  Correct?”

“Adam.  You’re gamblin’ with Little Joe’s life,” his brother warned.

Was he?

It seemed to him that this was yet another Gordian knot, insoluble within its own parameters.  If his father didn’t deliver Biyu and Dandan to Da Chao, Rosey would die.  If they delivered Dandan, Biyu and John to Chao in order to free Rosey, the lovely Chinese woman, John, and their unborn child would most likely die.  Khu Zhuang probably had Joe by now, and would kill him if their father didn’t aid the rebel tong leader in capturing Da Chao and overcoming his men.  Of the two, Da Chao was the most reasonable and, he believed, honorable of the pair.  If he made a proposition to the tong leader – if he gave him the one thing that would make Zhuang back down, then wouldn’t Chao be grateful enough to let Rosey go and aid them in freeing his brother?

Adam looked again at the fiery green stone in his hand.  In truth, there was no guarantee that offering the stone to Zhuang would buy Joe’s freedom or make the rebel leader forfeit everything to Da Chao.  It was just a piece of rock.  All they had was the word of a frightened Chinese woman and then man she loved that it meant more to him than that.

That it meant everything.

After a moment, he turned to Biyu who was on her feet now and standing beside John.  “I can’t let you run, both for my brother’s sake and your own.  You can’t travel fast with Biyu in the condition she’s in.  Either Zhuang or Longwei are sure to catch up to you.  I can offer you protection at the Ponderosa.”  Adam’s fingers folded over the warm stone.  “I have a feeling both Da Chao and Khu Zhuang will be paying us a visit soon.  Chao will be returning with my father.”  He looked at Dandan.  “From what you said, he’s going to assume you and John are at the house.  I’m sure Zhuang has men keeping watch, so they’ll know it too.  Da Chao wants the two of you and Zhuang wants the stone.  I still think the only way out of this is by exchanging one for the other.”  Adam turned to his brother.  Hoss still looked unsure. “Well?” he demanded.  “Do you have any better idea?”

His brother remained silent for several heartbeats.  “I sure don’t.  But that don’t mean I like yours.”

“I know you’re worried about Little Joe, but Hoss, he’s been taken as ransom.  Zhuang won’t harm him,” he said, trying to convince himself as much as his brother.  “If he did, what leverage would he hold?”

Hoss’ eyes were the crystal clear blue of a mountain stream.  There was no hiding what he was thinking and at this moment, his middle brother was thinking he was out of his mind.

“You can do whatever negotiatin’ you think’ll work, older brother,” the big man said.  “Soon as we get home I’m stockin’ up and then I’m goin’ to look for Little Joe.”

“I’ll go with you, Hoss,” Paul Martin said as his gaze shifted to him.  “Held safe as ransom or not, Adam, that boy needs me.  Now.”

Adam turned to Biyu and John.  As the Englishman wrapped his arm around the young woman’s middle, he nodded.  “We’ll do whatever you say, Adam.  I only pray that God is merciful and that my foolishness does not get anyone else killed.”

“Amen to that,” Hoss said with a sigh.

He couldn’t agree more.

Amen.

Dear God.  Let it be so.

 

Rosey rode in front of him on Buck.  Longwei had taken the lead in the string of horses that were headed for the Ponderosa.  Da Chao followed behind, and they were surrounded on every side by the tong leader’s men.  They needn’t have worried.  He had no intention of trying to escape.

Anyone knew that a war was best fought on one’s own territory.

From what Ben had been able to gather Da Chao and this other man, Khu Zhuang, were contesting for who would come out on top as far as controlling the tongs in Vallejo.  Zhuang was a younger and more ruthless man, willing to do anything to achieve his goal.  Da Chao was more restrained, though it was his intention to relinquish nothing.  When Longwei insisted he and Chao set off to find his reluctant ‘bride’ and the man she had fallen in love with, Zhuang had seen an opportunity and seized it.  Not only was the rebel leader on a personal mission to find John Randolph and retrieve the artifact the Englishman had stolen from him, Zhuang knew it would be easier to unseat his rival away from Chao’s powerful organization.  Ironically the two rivals were much the same.  They were both bent on restoring their family’s honor and, ironically, just as bent on tossing it aside to become king.

What a tangled web, he thought, and how sad that they had all become so deeply enmeshed in it!

“A penny for your thoughts,” Rosey said softly as she turned and looked at him.  “That’s quite a frown you’re wearing.”

Ben’s brow wrinkled.  “Is it?”

His hand was wrapped around her slender waist.  He could feel the beat of the beautiful woman’s heart against his own.  In spite of the fact that Rosey had been ill-treated, her hair smelled of lavender and her skin, lightly powdered, of roses.

As he breathed in her scent, she shifted and settled back against him.  “You know, Ben, I’m grateful you saved my life, but, well, you shouldn’t have.  If anything happens to one of those boys of yours because of me – ”

“It won’t,” he said confidently.

“Oh?”  Rosey turned back.  The motion pressed several brown curls into his nose.  As he fought a sneeze, she remarked, “So now you can read the future?”

“Yes, I can,” he said, smiling.  “I see a house, oh, say, twenty years from now.  Filled with children and laughter.  And I see two old people sitting by the fire hand in hand, sharing their joy.”

Rosey grew very still.  He felt her shoulders tense.  “Was that what I think it was, Mister Cartwright?” she asked, breathless.

Ben chuckled behind her back as he put more strength into the hand that held her, feeling her lightly corseted ribs beneath his fingers.  “And just what do you think it was, Mrs. O’Rourke?”

The beautiful woman hesitated, then she said, “A dream.  A beautiful dream.  Nothing more.”

For a few moments they rode in silence.  When at last the lack of words became unbearable Rosey, being a woman, broke the silence.

“You know how I feel about you, Ben – you and your boys. Don’t you?”

Buck’s steady hoof beats counted off several seconds before he answered.  “Yes.”

“And you know why I can’t –”

With the rein in his hand, Ben raised a finger to her lips.  “You know what I’ve taught my sons, Rosey?  There is no such word as ‘can’t.’  Sometimes the greatest pleasure in life is in doing what people say you cannot do.”  He smiled and he hoped she heard it in his voice.  “Some things just take time.”

For a moment she remained as she was.  Then Rosey reached out and placed her hand over his.  “You know, Ben, time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters.”

He knew that was true.  Just as he knew at this moment that he should be thinking of a dozen things other than the soft supple form in his arms.  But if life had taught him anything, it was to live it one moment at a time and to take nothing for granted.

“Rosey,” he began.

This time it was she who pressed a finger to his lips.  He knew she was right.

Sometimes silence said it all.

 

FOURTEEN

Joe felt the man holding him grow tense.

“Can you stand on your own?” Jian asked, his voice pitched low.

Joe nodded in order to save his strength, and then gritted his teeth against the pain and fought to remain upright as the man who had kidnapped him set his feet on the ground.  He noted how Jian placed himself between him and the man who had appeared.  The Chinese warrior’s fingers hung close by the handle of the short sword he wore as he greeted him.

“Donghai,” Jian said.

Donghai was not pleasant to look at.  He was an older man – close to Pa’s age – and he had more scars than skin.  His face looked like a battlefield where brutality had won.  The only thing Joe could think of  that he had ever seen looked close to it, was the face of a pugilist who had gone one too many rounds in the ring.  Donghai was as short and stocky as Jian was long and lean and looked twice as mean.

“The honorable Khu Zhuang, who is your master as well as mine, has sent me to find why it takes Jian so long to fulfill his duty.”

Jian straightened his back.  Head high he indicated him with a nod.  “My duty is fulfilled.  The boy is not well.  To travel too quickly would be to risk harming him.”

Damn right! Joe thought, and then winced as if he’d felt his Pa’s hand on his backside.

Donghai stared at him.  Joe’s mouth went dry.  He swallowed over his fear, straightened his back as well, and then bent in half as he was wracked by a fit of coughing.

“What is wrong with him?” Zhuang’s man demanded.

“Ain’t you got the…sense to see what’s in front of your nose?” Joe snapped as tears spilled from his eyes.  “I’m –”

He didn’t see the other man move, so swift and silent was his motion.  A second later Joe found himself up against a tree with his feet dangling six inches above the ground – which only set him to coughing again.

“Whelp!” Donghai snarled.  “You will not speak unless spoken to!”

Joe couldn’t help it, even though he heard his pa’s voice in his ear, warning him to keep silent.  He looked the man straight in the eye and growled back, “So, are you…speakin’ to me or not?”

Donghai was fast.

Fortunately, Jian was faster.

Joe felt the nick of the man’s knife blade on his throat just as Donghai jerked and his eyes went wide.  The man’s fingers opened, releasing him, and they both fell to the ground.  Joe dug his heels into the earth and kicked hard as he landed, shifting back, fearful Khu Zhuang’s thug would rise up and go for him again.

Then he saw the hilt of the knife protruding from Donghai’s back.

Jian stood over him, staring down.

“W-what?” Joe demanded as another cough wracked his slender form.  “I thought he was on your side.”

The warrior’s eyes flicked to him.  “He who rides a tiger cannot dismount.”

Joe looked at the dead man and then back up at the man he now considered his friend.  “Is that the…same kind of thing as…burning your bridges?” he asked with a wry smile.

Jian turned to look in the direction of the camp.  Joe heard it too.

More men were coming.

The warrior bent to the ground and picked him up and, to his protests, tossed him over his shoulder.  As Jian began to run, he replied.

“A wise man does not burn his bridge until he knows he can part the waters.”

 

They’d made it back to the house intact, him and Hoss, Paul, and John and Biyu.  Adam had feared every step of the way that they would be overtaken by either Khu Zhuang or Da Chao’s men. The fact that they hadn’t been was both encouraging and discouraging. While he was delighted to have made it back intact to the familiar stronghold of the Ponderosa, it made him wonder just what other wickedness the black-clad men might be up to.

After all, Pa and Little Joe were out there somewhere.

Upon their arrival at the house they’d found Ming-hua and Hop Sing holding down the fort, so to speak.  Their cook had been much relieved to see them, but had let both him and Hoss have an earful – two earfuls, in fact – when they admitted they had no idea where the rest of the family was.  Adam passed a hand over his stubbled cheek, seeking to wipe away some of the fatigue that threatened to knock him off his feet.  He’d hoped against hope that they would find either Pa or Joe or both of them at the house upon their return.  No such luck.  Joe was still missing and presumably in Khu Zhuang’s hands and Pa must be either in Eagle Station or on his way back.  Pa, of course, had no idea Joe had been taken.  The older man was worried about Rosey.

Adam sighed as his hands moved from his face to his dark hair.

He was worried about everyone.

Hoss had gone upstairs to change.  The big man was bound and determined to head straight out in search of Joe without so much as grabbing a bite of food.  Hop Sing was fixing him food anyway.  Paul had gone with their cook to prepare a remedy for Joe, just in case Hoss found him.  Ming-hua, Biyu, and Dandan were sitting in a huddle on the settee doing what women did best – crying.  No, that wasn’t fair.  They had all been extremely strong, considering.

It was just well, the constant sobbing was fraying what was left of his already frayed nerves.

Adam’s eyes went to the Englishman, John Randolph.  He strode back and forth in front of the fire, his eyes darting from the women to the kitchen wing, to him, and then upstairs to where Hoss had gone.  Every so often John would sigh and look at the door.

He was going to sacrifice himself if he didn’t stop him.

The question was – should he stop him?

Hoss was sure Khu Zhuang would kill Joe if he didn’t hand over the jade piece, thereby negating his idea of giving it to Da Chao both as payment for Biyu and Dandan and as a bargaining chip against Chao’s rival.  He had to admit that Hoss had a point, and yet he couldn’t see any other way of preventing the war that was about to come down on their heads.  Hoss, of course, didn’t care about the war.  All he cared about was their little brother.

It made him feel like a heel because he wasn’t doing the same thing.

Still, there were other lives at stake – Pa’s for one.  Obviously the older man hadn’t been able to turn Biyu over to Da Chao and Longwei since she was sitting here, sniffling and distraught, in their great room.  And that meant Rosey was under threat too.

Dear God, they might lose them all….

“Adam!” John declared as he stormed over to him.  “This is ridiculous!  Give me the jade dragon.  I will take it to Zhuang and he’ll let your brother go.  I won’t have Little Joe’s life on my conscience!  Richard Jennings’ is bad enough!”

Adam shook his head.  “First of all, there’s no guarantee Zhuang has Joe, or if he has, that he will let him go for the stone.  Zhuang wants Da Chao’s head.  Threatening Joe’s would be the best way to get it.”  He held the man’s miserable gaze.  “You’ll be dead.  Your child will be fatherless, and Joe….”  He swallowed.  “Joe will be dead as well.  No, having this stone in hand is the best chance my brother has.”

“You can think that all you want, Adam,” his brother spoke from the stair.  As Adam turned to look at him, Hoss descended to the floor.  “I ain’t willin’ to bet little brother’s life on your theory.  I’m gonna go get Little Joe.”

Adam caught his brother’s arm as he pushed past and opened the door.  “Hoss, these men are professional assassins.  You can’t stop them on your own!  They’ll kill you and Joe – ”

His middle brother was a gentle man.  He had seen tiny birds rest, cupped in his giant hands.  But those hands also had the power to snap a man in two.

At the moment, he thought it might be him.

“You let me go, Adam,” Hoss warned.  “Joe’s sick.  He might even be….”  His brother swallowed over his fear.  “Ain’t no one gonna stop me from goin’ out that door and marchin’ into that China man’s camp!”

“Does that include me?” a familiar voice asked.

Adam turned to find his father standing in the doorway.  Rosey clung to his arm, safe and sound.  The fact that Longwei and Da Chao were several steps behind them – and behind them were several of Chao’s men registered but did nothing to alter his relief.

The cavalry had arrived.

 

Joe had had just about enough.  He was tired of bein’ toted around like a two year old.   “Hey!” he yelled as Jian continued to dash through the trees.  “Put me…down!”

The warrior grunted, tightened his grip on his legs, and continued on.

Joe waited a second and then pounded on the man’s back.  “Didn’t you…hear me?  Let me down!  I can…take care of myself.”

“There is a thin line…between bravery and stupidity, tiger cub,” Jian replied, winded as well.

“Who you…callin’ stupid?”

It amazed him really, how strong the man was.  While he wasn’t no Hoss, Jian carried him like he wasn’t no more than a sack of flour.

The answering smile on Jian’s lips was grim. “It is you who chose stupid over brave.”

Just as he about had that one puzzled out, the warrior came to an abrupt halt.  Something, it wasn’t fear –in fact, he didn’t think Jian knew what fear was – flashed through the warrior’s eyes.

“They are ahead of us.”  He turned.  “And behind.”

Abruptly, he got his wish.  Joe found his feet on the ground.

“Does the tiger cub have claws?” Jian asked.

Joe shook his head, both to answer and to clear it since it was spinning. “Claws?”

Jian rolled his eyes over and up.  When Joe followed them he saw a tall tree with low branches.

“Climb!” the warrior ordered.

 

Ben Cartwright stood at the heart of his home, just in front of the settee, his feet planted firmly several feet apart, staring down what he could only describe as a rabid dog.

A dog named Longwei.

On the other side of Marie’s prized sofa, before the fire, Biyu stood clinging to her sisters.  They had risen as well and positioned themselves to either side of the expectant mother.  Rosey was with them too, seated close by on the hearth.  Near the older woman stood John Randolph.  The Englishman had paled when he saw the two Chinese men enter after him, but to give him credit had not backed away.  It was clear Randolph would give his life to save the woman he loved.

He just hoped it didn’t have to come to that.

Hard on the heels of Da Chao and Longwei had come Chao’s henchmen – five strong black-clad men armed to the teeth.  As one went to the kitchen to retain Hop Sing and Paul Martin, the others positioned themselves strategically around the room, keeping a watch on his sons.  His eldest sons.

So far he had seen no sign of Joseph.  He assumed the boy was upstairs asleep in his bed.

He prayed the boy was upstairs.

His eyes had sought Adam’s, asking that question, but there had been no time for an answer.  His eldest son had just asked for permission to speak to the tong leader.  Surprisingly, Da Chao agreed.

“Speak,” Chao said.

Adam cleared his throat.  He looked at him and Ben nodded.  He had no idea what his son was about to say, but he trusted him implicitly.

The boy’s smile was weak, but it was there.

“I believe Da Chao to be an honorable man, unlike his enemy,” Adam began.  “I ask that he prove it to be so.”

Ben frowned.  This was thin ice Adam was skating on as Da Chao’s frown proved.

“Do you question this?” the tall man inquired sharply.

Adam squared his shoulders.  “No, and that is why I ask to make a bargain with you.”

Ben felt the tong leader’s eyes land briefly on him before returning to his son.  “Such a bargain as your honorable father made and was unable to fulfill?”

“I beg to differ,” the rancher said, feeling a bit cheeky himself.  “Both Dandan and Biyu are here, in Da Chao’s presence.”

A nod of the tong leader’s head indicated John Randolph.  “As is the man who dishonors our family.”

“I beg Da Chao’s pardon.  I do not agree.  This man,” Adam pointed to the Englishman, “did not dishonor Da Chao’s family when he fell in love with Biyu, nor when he took her away.”  His son’s gaze went to Longwei as if gauging the man’s reaction to his next words.  “Biyu does not belong to Longwei.  There was no marriage.  Not in the eyes of the law.”

“The white man’s law,” Chao countered before his incensed nephew could react.

“It is the white man’s land,” his son countered coolly.  “You live in the white man’s land.”

Longwei slipped his knife from its sheath.  “This says otherwise,” he snarled.

Adam held the tong leader’s gaze.  “Does this puppy now speak for Da Chao?”

The tong leader’s lips twitched.  “You will remain where you are, my nephew,” he ordered.

“I will not – ”

A look silenced Longwei.

“What is it you propose, eldest son of the tiger?” Chao asked.

“I propose to give Da Chao what he needs to defeat his enemy once and for all.”

Ben frowned as Adam held out his hand and opened it.  In his palm lay a perfect circle of jade, carved in the form of a nesting dragon.

Da Chao’s intact of breath was audible.  His eyes flicked to John Randolph who had taken a step toward Adam.  “I was told this had been sold.”

John looked chagrined.  “It belongs to Biyu.  I told her to sell it to finance our escape to England.  She didn’t.”   He glanced at the young woman.  “She said she didn’t want to start our life together that way.”

Ben did not fail to notice Longwei’s intact of breath as well, not at the sight of the jade pendant but at the mention of the couple’s plans.  Or fail to see the hatred directed at the Englishman and the pregnant woman who stood beside him.

Da Chao held Adam’s gaze for a moment and then held out his hand.

Adam withdrew the object.

The tong leader smiled.  It was the smile of a rattler poised to strike.  “Name your price,” he said.

“First,” his son began, “you agree to let John and Biyu go.”

“No!” Longwei shouted, not unpredictably.

Da Chao’s look again silenced his nephew, though the young man was boiling.  Turning back to Adam, the tong leader asked, “First?  What beside this great act does the son of Ben Cartwright ask for this…trinket?”

Adam cleared his throat.  “You will take me to Khu Zhuang’s camp with you.”

The thin man’s lips quirked.  “Does the son of the tiger desire to see my enemy’s fall?”

Ben couldn’t hold his peace any longer.  “Adam, what is this?  I will not permit you to put yourself in danger  – ”

“Zhuang’s got Little Joe, Pa,” Hoss said, speaking for the first time.  The big man’s jaw was tight and his eyes blue fire as he turned on his brother.  “You ain’t goin’ without me, Adam.  You hear me?!”

“Zhuang…what?” the rancher stammered as his eyes went to the stairs, his hope of what lay at the top of them evaporating like morning mist.  A second later he returned his attention to Adam.

“I’m going with him, Pa,” his eldest said.  “Keeping Joe safe was my responsibility.  Nothing you can say will stop me.  I’d considered keeping the stone – trying to exchange it for Joe – but there was no guarantee Zhuang would honor any bargain he made.”  He turned toward the tong leader.  “In the end, I chose to trust in Da Chao’s better nature.”

The tong leader watched them, his dark eyes moving from Adam to Hoss to him.  The tong leader glanced at his nephew and then returned his gaze to him.  “You and your sons shame Da Chao.  There is more honor in this house than in my own,” he said, his voice cool and even. “I agree to your terms.”

For the first time in a long time, though things were still beyond desperate, Ben felt a ray of hope.

It was extinguished immediately as Longwei bolted from his position near the door, shoved Adam aside, and launched himself – knife drawn – across the settee.

His intent was clear.  He meant to kill Biyu and her unborn child.

The room exploded into action.  John Randolph blocked the bouncer’s attack by moving in-between, deflecting the knife with his arm, which took the brunt of the assault.  Randolph managed to stop Chao’s nephew with a swift and very English uppercut  to his chin.  Unfortunately, it only halted the man for a few seconds.  Rising quickly, Longwei leapt at John.  The pair grappled for a moment and then Longwei tossed the Englishman aside.  John struck his head on the corner of the settee table and fell as one dead to the floor.  Once John had been subdued, Chao’s nephew turned his fury on Biyu.  He might have reached her – would have killed her – but the Chinese thug had neglected to take one important thing into account.

Rosey O’Rourke.

The older woman sat silent during his son’s bargaining session, and remained seated as the deal was made.  Now she was on her feet and Ben winced as he saw her drive the sharp end of the fireplace poker into the bully’s shoulder.  Before Longwei could recover, Hoss stepped in and spun the villain around and finished what John and Rosey had begun as his giant fist connected with the man’s already tender jaw and sent him off to fly in the clouds with Hop Sing’s dragons.

Into the silence that descended upon the room came the voice of the tong leader.

“Do with Longwei what you will.  He has dishonored the house of Da for the last time.  He is no longer my son.”

Ben pivoted on his heel to look at the older man as he considered the differences between them.  He couldn’t imagine turning his feelings for any of his sons off in such a cold and callous manner no matter what they had done.

Hoss held Longwei by one arm; the bouncer’s gray-clad form dangling limp as a rag doll.  “What’cha want me to do with this one, Pa?”

“Tie him up and put him in the barn,” Ben ordered, disgusted.  “We’ll let the sheriff deal with him later.”

Ben frowned as his middle boy made his way to the door.  He had a feeling they would have to watch Longwei closely if they wanted him to see American justice.  Still, at the moment, that was the least of his worries.

Da Chao was approaching Biyu.

The lovely Chinese woman faced him.  Boldly at first and then, with her head bowed slightly. Da Chao’s gaze went from her to John Randolph, who was just getting to his feet with Rosey’s aid, before settling again on the pregnant woman.

“The jade dragon belongs to you?” he asked.

The young woman looked up, startled.  Her gaze shot to Adam who nodded.  A moment later she did the same.

“I would have it.  I pay in price your freedom.”

Ben watched as Biyu exchanged a glance with John.  She nodded again.

“Adam,” he said.

Adam crossed to Da Chao and handed him the green stone.  The tong leader gazed at the dragon where it lay nested in his open palm.  “Your son is wise, Ben Cartwright, exchanging one thing of beauty for another.”

“Will you tell me, Da Chao, just what is it that Khu Zhuang thinks this ‘thing of beauty’ can do for him?” Ben asked.

The tong leader turned toward him.  “Khu Zhuang is a dog who dreams he is a dragon.  He would take what he wants breathing fire and leaving nothing.  He believes his ancestor inhabits this stone and the stone gives him power.  With it, he is a dragon.”  Da Chao closed his fingers over the jade circle.  “Without it, he is only a dog.”

Ben hesitated, then he asked, his thoughts on his missing son.  “The dragon’s fire is hot, but the teeth of a dog can kill.  Khu Zhuang has my boy.”  Ben glanced toward the door through which Hoss had propelled Longwei.  “You know the love of a son.  May I ask…would the great and honorable Da Chao consider surrendering the dragon stone to his enemy if  it is the only way to save mine?”

The tong leader met his gaze.

But said nothing.

 

“Climb!” Jian ordered again, drawing his curved blade as he did.

It was all Joe could do to obey.  The effort was almost too much for him.  Still, the sense of urgency in the warrior’s voice made him grab hold and pull his sore body up and continue to move upward, grasping first one and then another rough branch until he was some ten or twelve feet off the ground.

That was the limit of his strength and breath.

Shaking and shivering Joe settled back into the leaves and wrapped his arms around the tree’s rough trunk.  He drew a deep breath, silencing the cough that threatened to reveal his hiding place, and held on for dear life.

Jian looked up at him and nodded, and then took off running, disappearing into the trees just as several black clad forms appeared.  They paused for a moment and then one of them let out a whoop that would have rivaled any Paiute as they spotted the warrior and took off after him.

Then, it was silent.

Joe sat there, clinging to the tree, tears streaming down his face.  He knew what Jian had done.  By refusing to turn him over to Khu Zhuang the warrior had become dishonored in the tong leader’s eyes and deserved death.

He’d sacrificed himself for him.

The cough finally escaped.  There was nothing he could do about it except pray Zhuang’s henchmen were too far away and too preoccupied with finding and killing Jian to hear it.  He prayed too, as he released the trunk and looked down to find the first branch to anchor his foot on, that somehow the Chinese warrior who had saved him would escape.  Jian was awful smart – and really fast.  It seemed to him that he was some sort of special warrior, so maybe – just maybe – he could outrun and outsmart those other men.  Of course, all of that didn’t matter now.  All that mattered was concentrating on the branch beneath the branch he was on and working his way down and out of the tree before he fell out of it.  It probably would have been smarter to stay up there, hangin’ on like one of those monkeys in Africa, but the truth was, he was pretty sure he would have passed out and fallen to his death if he had.  Pa always told him that God looked out for children, drunks, and fools, and while he wasn’t a drunk – and he didn’t really like to think of himself as a child – he sure did feel like a fool.  He could still see Adam’s eyes staring at him when he offered to go with Jian.  He’d known he was sick and most likely wouldn’t make it, but dang it!  He wasn’t gonna let no one hurt his family because of him.

No way!

When he reached the ground Joe dropped into a heap at the foot of the tree and lay there suckin’ in air and tryin’ to stay awake.  Unwanted coughs wracked his small frame, tearing at his ribcage and makin’ his head pound like the hooves of a herd of startled cattle.  Tears ran down his cheeks.  Stars appeared before his eyes and before he knew it, he lost all touch with reality and slipped into a warm place before the fire where he sat between his ma and pa on the settee and felt the touch of their loving hands.

He awoke to someone shaking him.

Joe wrapped his arms around his ribs as he struggled into an upright position.  He blinked away the fog of the dream and then looked up at the Chinese man looming over him.

“So, tiger son,” Khu Zhuang said, a sneer spreading across his pugnacious face, “we meet at last.”

 

Night was upon them and they were upon the road.  Ben held tight to the reins as they moved, his mind churning through everything that had happened.  He wanted to believe that Da Chao was, in his own way, an honorable man. Surely the tong leader had no desire to see a boy die at the hands of his enemy.  Still, he knew Chao’s kind of man – business was the first priority and if that meant stopping Khu Zhuang then that was what he would do – no matter the consequences.  Due to his uncertainly with the tong leader’s motivations, he’d split the men he had into three parties.  He rode with Da Chao.  They were the first wave, their mission to find and confront the rebel tong leader and negotiate with him.  Hoss and Adam came second.  His elder sons followed close behind with several of the ranch hands.  All were armed to the teeth in case it came to war.  Ben smiled grimly as he adjusted his grip on the reins and directed Buck to the side of the path in order to miss a gaping hole.  Then there was the third wave which consisted – against his wishes – of his old friend Paul and Rosey O’Rourke.

John Randolph he had left behind.  If the Englishman were to be taken, well, it would upset the balance of everything.

He and Rosey had exchanged some heated words before he gave in to the beautiful woman and agreed to let her come along. The ‘discussion’ had started with him expressing his fear for her safety, rolled on through her telling him that if it hadn’t been for her, Biyu and her baby – and maybe him and his sons as well – would be dead, and ended when she reminded him that she had ridden as an army scout for as many years as he had sailed the seas and served as an aide to the company medic.

‘What if someone is injured demanding Paul’s immediate attention?’ Rosey asked.  ‘Who will there be to care for Little Joe?’

The rancher sighed.  It seemed his lot in life to place the life of someone he loved in danger in order to save the life of someone else he loved.

“You are concerned about your son,” Da Chao remarked from beside him.

Ben glanced at the man.  “Yes.  A father’s greatest joy – and fear – is his sons.”  He paused.  “I…regret what happened with your sister’s.”

For a moment the tong leader said nothing.  “Lanfen, his mother, died when Longwei was born.  My sister’s husband did not want the child, believing him the cause of his mother’s death.”

“So you have reared him from the start?”  That surprised him, considering Da Chao’s nature.

“Unfortunately, it was not so.  Longwei was sent to live with his father’s sister.  Qiang did not want the boy.  She did her duty, nothing more.”  Da Chao rode a moment in silence and then added, “By the time the boy came to me, he had much anger in him.  Anger walks a path toward destruction.”

Ben rode a moment in silence, thinking of his own ‘angry’ boy.  There were times when he wondered if he had the wisdom to keep Joseph’s feet from that ‘path of destruction’.  He knew the boy’s anger sprang from the loss of his mother while he was still a babe.

It humbled him to realize that Longwei’s had as well.

“Forgive me, for thinking so ill of the young man.”  Ben turned toward his companion.  “May I ask a personal question?”

Da Chao nodded his agreement.

“Did you really mean it when you said he was no longer your son?”  The rancher snorted.  “If I disowned Joseph every time he challenged me or disobeyed….”

Chao rode a moment before answering.  “I have known for some time it is Longwei’s desire to take my place as leader of the tong.  Perhaps he has even had dealings with Khu Zhuang, though this I do not know for certain.  It is my hope that, in the end, he will put the honor of his family above his ambition.”

“So, you will give him a chance to prove his loyalty?  You haven’t really ‘disowned’ him?”

“When young, one of your holy people taught me the story of Absalom.  Do you know it?” the tong leader replied.

Ben nodded.  He knew it well.  King David loved his son Absalom dearly.  When the boy rose up to overthrow him, still he loved him.   And when one of David’s men killed Absalom, thinking he did a great deed, David’s grief nearly destroyed him.

Ben nodded.

Nothing more needed to be said.

 

As Ben Cartwright moved on in silence, with Hoss, Adam and their men following, and then Rosey and Paul, all of their thoughts were on the safety of the one they sought to reach.  Little did they know that, at that moment, at the Ponderosa ranch house, events were unfolding that would change the course of their lives.

Jim Sanders, the ranch hand Ben Cartwright had left in charge of watching Longwei, was approaching the stable.  He’d heard a sound – something of a muffled grunt.  Rifle in hand, Jim stepped up to the barn door and opened it a crack and looked in.

It was the last thing Jim ever did.

 

FIFTEEN

Joe Cartwright sat with his back up against yet another uncomfortable tree.  His hands were bound with ropes behind it, tied so tightly he couldn’t move.  His sore ribs had screamed as they were unnaturally expanded and he’d passed out briefly.  Now, he was awake and in some ways he wished he wasn’t.  Shortly after he’d awakened the black-garbed thugs who had been chasin’ him and Jian returned.  One of them led the warrior’s horse.  Another carried his curved sword behind his belt.

Zhuang questioned them sharply, wanting to know why they hadn’t brought the traitor’s body back to him.  The man with Jian’s sword explained that the former tong member had been driven to the edge of the river and perished when he fell in. They told him they tried to capture Jian’s body, but the swift current bore it away.  His sword and his horse were all that was left.

Tears trailed down Joe’s cheeks and he sniffed.

They were all that was left of his friend.

“The son of Benjamin Cartwright mourns his enemy?” the now familiar voice asked.

Joe didn’t want to answer.  He was so tired.  But he knew from experience that if he didn’t, a swift kick in the side or a hand gripping and hauling back on his hair would be his reward.

One simply did not keep Khu Zhuang waiting.

“Yes, sir,” he mumbled.

“And why is this?”

Joe supposed the truth couldn’t hurt Jian now.  “He was kind to me – unlike some other people,” he growled.

One of the men watching him scoffed.  A look from the rebel tong leader silenced him.

Zhuang remained silent a moment, then he said, “Leng, you will tell me what you know of my enemy, Da Chao and his plans.”

They’d been here before.  His lack of answers had brought him a slap and a kick in the side.  Joe braced himself for more.

“I told you, I don’t know…anything.  I’ve been….”  He swallowed a cough and waited until the urge passed.  “I’ve been sick and in bed.  Chao and that…other feller, Long-something, talked to my older brother Adam and –”

Oops.  He hadn’t mentioned Adam before.

“You will tell me what this Adam said, or reveal where he is,” Zhuang ordered.

Joe thought about lyin’.  He considered tellin’ the ugly pug-nosed China man that Adam was at their house, when he knew full well that his older brother was on his trail.  Maybe if Zhuang headed to the Ponderosa lookin’ for Adam – and took him along – he could get escape and make his way home.  But, no, he didn’t want this evil man going anywhere near his house.  Hop Sing would be there, and maybe Ming-hua and her sisters.

Locking his lips, he shook his head.

The rebel tong leader gazed coolly at him for a moment and then crouched directly in front of him.  Khu Zhuang reached out and took hold of the locks of hair dangling across his forehead and lifted them up, so he could look directly into his eyes.

“You think, son of wealth, that I will not harm you because you are young.  In my land, you would be a man and I will treat you as such.”  Zhuang looked at the man to his right and then, at the one to his left.  “You believe you have known pain before, leng.  It is as nothing compared to the pain you will know at the hands of Bai and Bingwen.”

“You ain’t gonna get…nothin’ out of a dead man,” he snarled.

There was a flicker in the rebel’s eyes, of respect perhaps, but it was quickly masked.  “Nothing but the pleasure of his death.”  Zhuang released his grip and rose abruptly to his feet.  “You have one hour in which to decide.  You will tell me all you know or you will die.”  Turning to the two men he commanded then, he said, “Come, we will leave the leng alone to decide.  There is much to discuss.”

Joe breathed a sigh of relief as the trio walked away.  The rebel tong leader had hinted earlier that he was to be used as leverage to make Pa turn over Da Chao, so he really doubted the pugnacious man would kill him.  Still, that wouldn’t stop him from letting his men work him over right and good.  Hop Sing had told him that the reason he could work the knots out of their legs after riding and ease the pain in their backs was that Chinese men learned points on the body that could bring pleasure or pain.  His friend used his hands to heal.

These men would use theirs to hurt.

Joe closed his eyes and leaned back, attempting to ease the pain in his ribcage, even though it was pointless.  The way they’d tied his arms made taking anything but the most shallow breath impossible.  He was holdin’ on like his Pa and brothers had taught him, but only by a thread.  In fact, he was pretty sure if he saw one of them step out of the trees right now, he’d sink like a lead weight down into nothing.  The only thing keeping him going was the fact that he had to keep going.  He knew his pa.  Pa would do anything to save him – even sacrifice himself – and he wasn’t about to let that happen.  No, he’d goad Zhuang’s men into goin’ too far and killin’ him before he’d let that happen.

If he was dead, then there wouldn’t be anything to hold over Pa’s head.

Joe closed his eyes and envisioned his father and brothers.  He could see them now, breaking through the trees that circled the clearing with guns blazing, coming to his rescue.  They’d take all of Zhuang’s men out at once.  Joe’s lips curled in a weary smile as the image of his family as the hand of God flashed before his weary eyes. There was no one he admired more than his pa and brothers.  Especially his pa.  There was no one as strong or sure of himself or as ready to defend his family and his land as Ben Cartwright.  And there was nothing like Pa’s voice.  That voice of his, so deep, so full of purpose, could calm a raging river or make it roar if the flood waters were needed.

Dear God!  How he longed to hear that voice.

“Joseph.”

Joe blinked.  Was he dreaming?  He must be dreaming.

Cautiously, the weary boy opened his eyes.  He looked up and was surprised to encounter those near-black eyes he knew and loved so well.  They were narrowed with concern and anger, just like he’d imagined they would be when his father found him.

Pa? he mouthed.

The touch of his father’s hand on his cheek brought Joe completely awake.  The sound of his father’s voice confirmed that the older man was indeed there and that that dam that held back the flood waters was about to burst.

“You will release my son this instant!” Pa roared as he turned to face down Khu Zhuang.

You will give me Da Chao,” the rebel leader responded serenely.  “Then, I will consider it.”

Joe was still blinking away fatigue and sleep.  He cleared his throat and managed to make a thin sound this time.

“Pa?  How….”

“Hush, Joseph,” his father said without turning his eyes from the other man.  “I’ll soon have you free, boy.”

The rebel tong leader’s expression had changed.  He looked mildly amused.  “You are a brave man, Benjamin Cartwright, to enter Khu Zhuang’s camp alone and unarmed.”

“I didn’t want to risk injury to my son.  You have me as hostage now.  You will release him!”

Joe squirmed against his bonds.  “Pa, no!”

“Joseph, hush!”

“But, Pa!”

His father turned that intense gaze on him.  “You will keep silent, son.”  A moment later Pa turned his back on him as if he wasn’t there.

“Release my son,” he said again.

Zhuang’s unpleasant face grew even more so.  “I think not.  I think tiger father is caged so long as I hold tiger son.”

Joe watched his father’s shoulders sag.  Then they straightened once again.  “All right,” Pa said, sounding defeated and nothing like the man in his vision. “Then I guess I have no choice but to hand Da Chao over to you.”

Khu Zhuang’s eyes were ravenous.  “He is here?”

“I am here.”

His father backed up as the tall thin Chinese man stepped out of the trees.  With Khu Zhuang distracted, Pa came close enough to speak in a low tone.  He said only nine words, but they were the nine words Joe most wanted to hear.

“Be strong, son.  Your brothers are on their way.”

 

Ben Cartwright reluctantly moved away from his youngest, fearful that if he remained close he might draw fire in the boy’s direction.  His son looked terrible.  In the short time they had been apart, any progress Little Joe had made toward beating his illness had been erased.  Joseph was gaunt and gray as morning mist.  The slight sheen on his skin told him the boy was fighting another fever.

Like a knife in the gut Paul Martin’s prediction that his youngest might not survive a night in the woods came back to haunt him.

No, he assured himself, Adam and Hoss would be here soon, and shortly after that the very prophet of doom – Doc Martin himself.  Joseph would be all right.

He had to be all right.

The rancher watched as Da Chao moved with confidence to confront his rival.  The two men were very dissimilar in appearance.  Chao was tall and willowy, with a natural confidence and agreeable manner.  He stood straight and commanded respect.  Zhuang was a small ugly man, bent like a gnarled tree twisted by a blight.  His scarred exterior reflected the inner man from what he had been told.  Khu Zhuang was a killer and would stop at nothing to take over the Vallejo tongs.

So, something had to stop him instead.

He and Da Chao had found Zhuang’s camp easily enough.  The rebel tong leader had made no attempt to conceal where he was.  After all, he wanted them to come.  In the beginning it had puzzled him a bit that the pugnacious man had chosen to bring his war to the Ponderosa.  Nevada was a long way from California.  If what Chao suspected – if his nephew Longwei was indeed working with Zhuang or had fed him information – then it finally made sense.  Still in his uncle’s confidence, Longwei would be able to supply Zhuang with the information he needed regarding how and where to strike.  It could even have been Longwei who suggested kidnapping Joseph.  He would have known from the whole affair with Bosh that a threat to Joseph’s life would prompt him do just about anything to redeem the boy.

No.  To do anything.

Ben’s attention was drawn back to the tong leaders as Khu Zhuang began to shout.  Da Chao remained calm.  In a way, it was like watching a blustery wind go up against an ancient white oak.

I am stronger!” Zhuang proclaimed.  “I am the one chosen by the gods to be the dragon, as was my ancestor before!  Me!  You are weak.  You play at deals.”  His fingers formed a fist, which he shook in Chao’s face.  “You will not grasp what is within your reach.  You are unworthy to lead the tong!”

“It is you who have no grasp of what a tong is, Khu Zhuang,” Da Chao answered evenly.  “A tong is not a body to make war with, but to conduct business in this new country that is so unlike our own.”

“That is what the white man says!  Are you a white man?  Am I?” Zhuang spat back.

“I honor my ancestors,” the tall thin man replied, a little fire entering his tone.  “You do not.  You wish to make war where there is no need for war.”

“There is always a need for war,” the pug-nosed man countered.  “It is the way of the dragon!”

Ben glanced over his shoulder at Little Joe.  His son was still there, still tied to the tree.  Joseph met his gaze, gave him a weak smile, and then his head dropped wearily to his chest.  Where were Hoss and Adam, he wondered?  Had something happened to them?  The rancher swallowed over his fear as he turned back to watch the two men.  He was wondering when Da Chao was going to play his ace in the hole and reveal his possession of the one thing that would take the wind out of Khu Zhuang’s sails.

“Ah, but Khu Zhuang, my enemy, is no longer a dragon.  He is a dog without teeth,” Chao replied, his lips curling with a sneer.  “He is a toothless puppy.”

Ben sucked in air and held it.

Here it came.

 

Joe fought his way back to consciousness.  Knowing his pa was so close had – as he expected – taken all the fire out of him.  Life was tough, Pa’d taught him that, and you had to be tough too.  You went through it strugglin’ and fightin’ just to stay alive. He’d been fightin’ to stay alive, to beat the fatigue and the pain and that fever that was lickin’ at the edge of his senses, but now, well, now his pa was here to fight it for him and that had taken the stuffing out of him.  Joe blew out a breath, shifting a few unruly locks of his hair on his forehead as he did.  He wanted to pretend he was just as tough as his older brothers.  He admired them both so much.  He’d seen them take a lickin’ and come up fightin’.  It seemed Hoss and Adam always came out on top.  He’d meant to come out on top too.  He’d been fightin’ as hard as he could.  But he was done now.  He wasn’t as strong as Pa or Adam or Hoss.  And he wasn’t a man.  He was just a sick kid, and at this moment he wanted nothing more than for someone to cut him lose and scoop him up into their arms and carry him back home to the Ponderosa and tuck him in bed.

“Little Joe,” a voice spoke from close behind him.  “Do not move or speak.”

Hope leapt in his heart.  Pa had said his brothers were coming and they had!  One of them was working the ropes that bound his wrists behind the tree.

He was gonna be free!

The curly-haired youth glanced at his Pa, hoping somehow to communicate what was happening, but his father’s gaze was locked on the two Chinese men. Oh well, Pa would know he was free when he looked at the tree and saw he was missing. A crooked smile lifted one corner of his lips.  Boy, would Adam and Hoss be surprised!  He wasn’t even gonna beg to join in the fight that was sure to follow.  Pa would take care of things.  Instead, he’d beg Hoss to lift him up and carry him back to the house on that big old horse of his.

As the ropes fall off of his wrists a voice insisted, “Now!  Come!”

Joe had to fight through encroaching blackness to obey.  The sudden release of his arms had sent waves of pain shooting through his ribcage and nearly made him pass out.  But he didn’t.  He held on and even helped a little as strong fingers gripped his upper arm and pulled him into the trees.  It was only then, when he felt those fingers close around his flesh, that he began to doubt.  Maybe it wasn’t Hoss or Adam who had hold of him.  Something just didn’t seem right about that grip.

There was no tenderness in the touch, just a sense of urgency.

About twenty feet into the darkened woods, Joe dug his feet in and refused to go any farther.  He’d decided whoever it was had freed him was a stranger.  In the shadowy depths of the trees it was hard to see, but the man leading him was too slender for Hoss and too big for Adam.  And on top of that, he wasn’t dressed like a rancher.  He was wearing a suit.

A gray suit.

Joe frowned.  He’d seen that gray suit before.

But where?

As the truth dawned and Joe realized just who it was had hold of him, one of Hop Sing’s proverbs came back to him.

Of all thirty-six ways to get out of trouble, the best way is – leave.’

He sure wished he could.

 

Ben breathed a sigh of relief.  He’d glanced at the tree to find Joseph gone.  That meant his brothers had arrived.

So far no one else in the camp had noticed his son’s escape.  Everyone was focused on the duel of wills between the two tong leaders.  As Khu Zhuang’s voice rose in volume, Da Chao spoke more softly.  Like Moses found out in the Good Book, it was the still small voice that commanded attention.  Ben’s dark eyes quickly assessed the men gathered in the clearing.  He counted seven henchmen, along with the rebel tong leader.  If things went badly – if it came to a firefight – the sides were about even.  Wherever Hoss and Adam were, they had at least a half dozen of the Ponderosa men with them. More than enough to take care of these thugs.  Hoss would be upset to have to miss it, but he’d wrung a firm promise from his middle son that if and when they found Joseph, he would head for home immediately with his little brother.  Most likely they were on their way now.  Not only did he want his youngest son out of the way, but the boy needed medical attention.  He and Hoss should run into Paul and Rosey quickly enough.

As Khu Zhuang voiced yet another threat, Ben turned back to view the proceedings.  He noticed the sneer remained on Da Chao’s lips as the thin man weathered the barrage of angry words.  A moment later Chao reached into his sleeve and produced what looked to be a simple black chord decorated with gold knots.  Ben recognized it.

So did Khu Zhuang.

Silence fell in the forest clearing.

When the rebel tong leader finally found his voice, he demanded, “Where is the jade dragon?”

“In my possession,” Da Chao replied serenely.

“You will give it to me!”

“Certainly,” the tall thin man said.

Ben wanted to laugh at Khu Zhuang’s expression, but he restrained himself.  He knew what was coming.

The pug-nosed man went toe to toe with the elder tong leader.  “You will give it to me now!  The dragon is mine!”

Da Chao’s voice remained calm.  “You failed to keep the dragon safe.  Your ancestor finds no honor in you.  It is I he honors now with his presence and his power.”  The older man addressed the men in black who ringed the clearing.  “Would you remain with Khu Zhuang, with whom the dragon is displeased?  Or do you chose to walk with the one who finds favor with the dragon?  Your choice is life or death.”

Ben had been distracted for a moment by a movement in the leaves.  He was looking for some sign that it was Adam, making his presence known.  It took a few seconds for Da Chao’s words to penetrate this greater worry.  When they did, he turned toward the tong leader.

“Da Chao, what are you doing?”

The tall thin man turned to meet this puzzled gaze.  “I do that which it was my intent to do all along, Benjamin Cartwright,” he replied, one black eyebrow cocked.  A second later, like a snake Da Chao struck.  There was a flash of silver near Zhuang.  The rebel tong leader drew a breath and looked down, confused.  A moment later his confusion turned to surprise and then his face went blank as the pug-nosed man tumbled to the ground dead.

Da Chao had slit his throat.

Stunned didn’t begin to describe what he was feeling.

As Zhuang’s men began to grumble, Da Chao reached into his coat and produced the jade dragon.  He held it high for all to see.  “You who serve Khu Zhuang know of the dragon’s power.  See!”  He pointed at the still form at his feet.  “He failed to keep it and he is dead.  The dragon and its power are no longer his, but mine!  You do not betray your master by serving me, but honor the dragon!.”

Da Chao’s actions troubled Ben.  On one hand, it could be a master play.  The tong leader could be playing on the superstitions of the men who had followed his rival and turning them to his own advantage.  On the other hand, Da Chao might believe what he said.  He might truly believe the jade amulet gave him ultimate power.  His purpose for coming to Nevada could have been to take it – and kill Zhuang – all along.

“So you begin to understand, Benjamin Cartwright,” the tong leader said.

Ben shook his head.  “And here I thought you were an honorable man.”

“The only honor one owes is to his family,” Da Chao explained as he drew closer.  “You of all men know this is true.”  A sneer curled the man’s lip back like a cougar’s before the kill and then he shouted.  “Longwei!  Show Mister Cartwright your prize.”

The rancher’s heart nearly stopped.  No, he thought.  No.  There had still been no sign of Adam – or Hoss.  If they didn’t have their brother, then who….?

No.

A moment later the rancher’s worst fears were realized.  Da Chao’s ‘disowned’ nephew appeared out of the trees flanked by several men in black.

Longwei was carrying his son.

 

Adam Cartwright frowned as he crouched and took up a position behind a boulder and next to his brother.  Hoss signaled him to be silent and then rolled his eyes over toward the clearing and the scene unfolding there.  They had arrived a minute too late.  By the time they spotted Longwei, he already had Little Joe in hand and the pair were surrounded by several armed men.  There was nothing they could do but watch as the Dragon’s enforcer turned his weapon butt first and struck Joe on the temple, rendering him unconscious.  It had been all he could do to restrain Hoss from rearing up like a mama grizzly and charging the man right there and then.  Only mentioning the fact that, if he did, Joe would be dead in seconds had stopped him.  His brother was still breathing hard.  The tears that had formed in his blue eyes when he saw Joe treated so roughly had spilled over, marking his beefy face with trails that glinted brightly as the diamond firmness of his resolve. It was all too clear now that the scene at the Ponderosa where Longwei had lost control and been taken prisoner had been staged to make them trust Da Chao implicitly.  Adam’s jaw clenched as he considered how much they might lost to that mistake.  In the end, the whole thing had been a game.  Da Chao and Khu Zhuang both wanted control of the tongs in Vallejo and both were willing to do whatever it took to come out on top – lie, cheat, steal, kill – and all in the name of honor.

Adam scoffed.  Honor among thieves.

The question now was, since it appeared Khu Zhuang was dead and Da Chao had won, why had Longwei taken Joe prisoner? Chao had the jade dragon.  His rival was dead.  There was nothing more to bargain for.

Unless….

Adam sighed.  Da Chao must have studied Sun Tzu.

‘All warfare is based on deception’.

He wanted John Randolph.

 

“You will return to your home, Benjamin Cartwright, and you will bring the Englishman to me or your son dies.”

Ben was still reeling.  He had felt a sort of kinship with this man while they talked of their angry ‘sons’.  Seldom had he been so mistaken in character.  The rancher looked at his youngest.  Joseph was obviously unconscious.  There was a slow trickle of blood running from his son’s temple down onto his tattered shirt.

“You didn’t have to harm the boy!” he snarled.  “Again, I ask you to let Joseph go and keep me.  My other sons will be here shortly.  Let them take Joseph to the house where he can be cared for.  I promise one of them will return with John.”

“As well as the law, no doubt,” Da Chao said.  “No.  I will keep your son.  You will go.  And if there is any interference by your other sons, be assured, the one I hold will pay with his life.”

“That story about Longwei,” Ben asked, his eyes still on Little Joe, “was any of it true?”

“All of it,” the thin man said.  “The dragon’s fire burns away all that is unnecessary.  For the time being he is useful, if unpredictable.”

“The dragon?” he snapped. “So you believe this nonsense about a piece of rock having the power to make you invincible?”

A slow sneer curled the thin man’s lip up.  “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

Ben felt sick.  He’d walked right into the man’s trap.  There was nothing he could do now.  Nothing to amend such a grand mistake.

He would have to turn over John Randolph over to Zhuang in order to save his son.

 

“What’re we gonna do, Adam?” Hoss asked in a fierce whisper, his fingers clenching and pawing his weapon’s trigger.

“I’m thinking.  I’m thinking.”

Again, he was faced with a damn Gordian knot.  The problem was insoluble.  At the moment their father and brother were in the hands of a power-mad Chinese tong leader and were surrounded by at a half-dozen or more murderous henchmen.  Even though they had a dozen men as well, waiting back about a quarter of a mile for their signal, there was no way they could use them.  Joe and Pa would be dead before the men’s horses’ hooves struck the earth.  No, if they were going to do anything about the situation they found themselves in, it would be up to them – him and Hoss.

Or so he thought.

At that moment Adam heard the sound of a wagon’s wheels.  He pivoted and watched it roll past and into the view of the tong leader.  In it were a man and woman.

“Say, Adam,” Hoss breathed, “ain’t that  Paul Martin and Miss Rosey?”

And God help them all, John Randolph.

“What do you think he’s doin’ here?” Hoss asked even as they heard the thunder of other hooves.

Adam turned to look and when he saw who it was that followed, all his father’s prohibitions against cursing failed.

“Damn it all to hell….”

 

Ben walked straight over to the wagon and took hold of John Randolph’s arm.  “What do you think you’re doing here?” he demanded.

John’s eyes were locked on Joseph.  “I’m sorry, Ben.  The man you left to watch Longwei is dead.  When we discovered he’d been freed, I realized the whole thing had been a charade.  I never quite believed Da Chao turned on his nephew.”  He looked past him to the tong leader.  “It was an excellent job of acting.”

Ben tightened his grip.  “John, I’m asking you again, what are you doing here?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” the Englishman asked.  “Giving myself up.”

“We couldn’t stop him Ben,” Paul said as he debarked from the wagon, leaving Rosey on the seat.

Ben scowled at her and then asked, “Where is Biyu?”

“On a stage with her sisters,” John answered firmly, his gaze meeting Da Chao’s.  He looked directly at Longwei.  “I’m the only one who knows where she is going and I’m not telling.  I am the one who dishonored your family, not her.  My death alone will have to be enough to restore that ‘honor’.”

Longwei growled his dissatisfaction.  A moment later the bouncer’s hand moved to Joseph’s throat.  “You will tell or he will die!” he warned.

“No!” Ben shouted.

“One twist, Benjamin Cartwright,” Da Chao said quietly, his tone laced with menace.  “Only one.”

At that moment the rancher heard a loud ‘click’.

“You touch my brother, China man, and you’re dead,” a low voice warned.

He didn’t know whether to be relieved or grow more concerned.  Hoss and Adam had appeared from out of the trees.

“Da Chao!  You are a wise man,” Adam shouted.  “You know that a man who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain the ashes.  You’ve won over Khu Zhuang.  Show these men who follow you now that you can be generous.  Let Joe and John go.”

The tall thin tong leader shook his head.  “He who wants to be a dragon must eat many little snakes.”

Then he nodded at Longwei.

Ben wouldn’t have thought it possible.  His son was about to be murdered right in front of his eyes.

And he froze.

Around him insanity erupted.  Hoss broke into a run and charged Longwei even as those of Da Chao’s men who were loyal to him drew their weapons.  Valiantly, Adam moved to stand between the murderous force and his brothers.  His eldest son held his gun at the ready, as if that one small weapon could fend off the army that threatened to destroy them.  John Randolph was running toward Paul Martin.  The older man was shouting and attempting to shove Rosey under the wagon where she would be out of the line of fire.  She was fighting him while he – he did nothing.

It took a small sound to bring the chaos to a halt and him back to action.

“No!”

Every man in the clearing turned toward the one who had uttered the cry.  Ben blinked several times to be certain of what he saw.

It was Biyu.

 

Adam cursed under his breath.  He ‘d stopped the pregnant woman and told her to remain behind.  He’d actually turned her around and sent her back toward their men.

Typical of a woman, she hadn’t listened.

As the men in the camp reacted to the sudden arrival of the object of so much turmoil and travail, Adam sought his father’s gaze.  He’d seen the older man freeze when Longwei reached for Little Joe’s throat.  It had terrified him too and for a second, he too had been unable to move.  Hoss had no such difficulty.  He’d charged toward Little Joe and his own death without a thought.  Adam had known at that moment that the only thing he could do was position himself between Chao’s men and his brothers.  Looking at each of the black-clad men in turn, he released the breath he didn’t know he held.  The men in black were still there.  They had their weapons drawn.  But they weren’t moving.  No one was moving.

No one but Biyu.

Adam ran a hand over his chin as he watched her advance.  God, he was weary!  He drew a second steadying breath as he sighted along his weapon, aiming it at Da Chao.  He didn’t want to kill the man.  He didn’t want to kill anyone.  What he wanted to do was turn and look behind and make sure his baby brother was safe, but he was afraid to take his eyes off of the tong leader.  So, instead, he continued to watch Biyu approach the tall thin man.  When she came to stand before Chao, the former China girl bowed and then went down on her knees.

“This unworthy one has brought dishonor not only to the house of Da, but to the house of Cartwright.  Biyu begs Da Chao that she and only she be punished.”  The expectant mother lifted her head.  Her gaze went to the wagon where Rosey stood with Paul Martin.  Beside them, restrained but ready to act, was John Randolph.  Biyu hesitated and then rose.  A moment later she headed for the Englishman.  As she did, he took advantage of the moment and turned to look for his brother.  Longwei no longer held Joe.  He’s dropped him.

His baby brother lay in a broken heap at the bully’s feet.

He couldn’t tell if he was breathing.

Biyu had reached John Randolph.  She reached out to touch his arm and then spoke, her voice trembling with emotion.

“This unworthy one did not wish to remain with Longwei.  When you came to The Dragon, you were kind to me.  Gentle.  You told Biyu you loved her and would take her away.”  The young woman’s hand went to her belly.  She used it to cradle the growing child inside.  “Longwei is hard as the diamond and wicked as the wolf.  Biyu desired that her child not become a wolf.”  She blinked back tears as she looked John in the eye.

“This one told John Randolph the child was his.  This one lied.  The child is Longwei’s.”

If a pin had been dropped, it would have resounded through the woods like a clarion bell.

“Biyu, no!” John protested.

“Yes!,” she declared.  “It has all been a lie.  This one only wished to get away.”  As tears streamed down her face, the lovely Chinese woman left John and returned to Da Chao.  “There is no one to blame but Biyu.  There is no one who deserves punishment but Biyu.”

Adam was fond of literature.  He’d read the classics.  He wondered if Da Chao had as well.  It was clear that Biyu had chosen to do the ‘noble’ thing.  She was sacrificing herself for all of them.  The former China girl was willing to descend into Hades – and to take her unborn child with her – so that they might all once again have spring.

Da Chao looked over her head to his nephew.  Adam noted, it was with an odd expression.  Before he could wonder what it meant, Chao asked, “What says Longwei?”

The Dragon’s enforcer stepped over Little Joe’s prone form as if his brother were nothing more than a dung heap.  Out of the corner of his eye, Adam saw Hoss move to Joe’s side as the tong leader’s nephew went to stand before his uncle.  The big man gently turned the youngster over and pressed his beefy hand against his chest.  When he looked up, Hoss gave a little nod – followed by a bigger shake – and then he gathered Joe’s limp form in his arms and headed for the wagon and Doctor Martin.

Pushing his fear for his baby brother aside, Adam turned his attention and weapon back to the matter at hand.  He had a feeling the war wasn’t over.

Not by a long shot.

“I demand their deaths!  This man!  This woman!” Longwei shouted.  “I have been dishonored!”

“You would kill your own child?” Adam heard his father ask as Pa’s voice cracked with incredulity.  The older man had watched as Hoss delivered Little Joe into Doctor Martin’s capable hands.  Like him, his father knew there was nothing there he could do to make a difference.  The black-haired man eyed the trembling woman who stood not ten feet away from his father’s authoritarian figure.

Perhaps here – perhaps for Biyu, Pa could make a difference.

“There is no proof her child is mine,” Longwei growled in reply.

“And there is no proof it isn’t!” Pa countered hotly.  “Are you so small that you cannot set aside your own selfish pride?  Good God, man!  What if you’re wrong?  What if it is your child?”

“Benjamin Cartwright is correct,” Da Chao said.  “If the child is yours, it is of the house of Da.  You will do nothing, my nephew.  Biyu and this man will return to Vallejo with us.”  The tong leader looked at John and then at the sad young woman.  “If the child is not yours, time will tell.  Then and only then, will justice be done.  The matter is out of your hands.  You will obey me, my sister’s son, or pay the consequences”

Longwei form was rigid; his face, livid.

“I will not obey!  You are a soft old fool, Da Chao!  You are not strong.”  Longwei drew a breath and glanced at the cooling corpse of the rebel tong leader.  “Once I believed Khu Zhuang was strong.  No more.”  The Dragon’s bouncer nodded to several of the men surrounding them.  He thumped his chest and sneered as they stepped forward to support him.  “I,  Longwei, am the dragon!  Now, I will rule!”

Adam saw the flash of a knife in Longwei’s hand and heard John Randolph shout in alarm. The Englishman feared for Biyu, but she wasn’t the bouncer’s target – not yet, at least.  The infuriated man was headed straight for Da Chao.

Pivoting on his heel, Adam sought his father’s gaze.  Pa was torn between aiding Da Chao and catching Biyu who had faltered and was beginning to topple over.  Biyu won.  Pa moved swiftly to her side and took hold of her.  Unfortunately, what he hadn’t counted on was the extra weight she carried, which unbalanced him and took them both to the ground.

He was at his side in a minute.  “Are you hurt, Pa?”

His father shook his head as he cradled Biyu’s small form.  “Biyu?”

“No,” she sobbed.  “This one is not hurt.”

Pa looked up at him and then turned toward Longwei and Da Chao who were standing still, facing one another.

“Adam, what just happened?”

He didn’t know.  Or at least, he didn’t know until he looked and noted the startled expression on Longwei’s face, and then saw the crimson stain spreading slowly across the fabric of the Chinese man’s elegant gray suit.

Adam blinked with surprise as the Dragon’s bouncer crumpled to the ground.  Stunned, he turned to Da Chao who once again, held a blade in his hand.  “Why?” he demanded.  “Why?  He was family!”

The tong leader met his bewildered stare; his face sphinx-like.

“It is ill done to chain a dragon for roasting your meat,” he replied.

In other words, Longwei had challenged Da Chao’s authority for the last time.

 

SIXTEEN

He was running through the trees, desperate to escape what lay behind him.  Little Joe Cartwright didn’t know why or how he had come to be hunted like an animal, but he knew he was.  He didn’t know how long he’d been running or what time of day it was either.  It could have been dusk, but then again it might have been dawn.  It was funny how the one – dawn – made a feller feel hopeful, while the other – well – dusk kind of stole that hope away.  Whichever it was, the slanted light that fell through the opening between the tall pine trees wasn’t enough to brighten the path he was hurrying along.  The golden-red beams revealed some things, but hid even more.  As he ran he kept catching his toe on hidden roots and stones and falling down, and every time he fell down, it took him longer to get up.

Every time he fell down he was sure the devil chasing him was gonna catch him.

And kill him.

Joe’s heart pounded hard within his chest.  Breathing was a chore.  Suckin’ in air made his ribs scream and then his head scream, and then he wanted to scream but he didn’t dare.  He had to clamp his teeth shut so he wouldn’t.  Had to tighten his jaw and keep quiet.  Very quiet.

Deathly quiet.

As Joe came to a fork in the road, he stopped.  It was like the world before him split in two.  One path led into a sunlit meadow.  The heads of a thousand colorful wild flowers dotted it like a crazy quilt.  They danced in warm morning light, sweet-talkin’ him; urging him to fall down among them and rest.

In the other direction lay a moonstruck glade.  There were flowers there too, but they were sickly; their pale white heads shut against the moonlight that fell like gray dust on blue-green blades of grass.  A silver stream meandered through its center, rippling, gurgling, calling.

Calling his name.

Joe turned his head toward the brilliant meadow.  The cheery sunshine called him, promising him peace and an end to his pain.  All he had to do was step into the light.  ‘You are imprisoned now,’ the flowers proclaimed.  ‘Come’, join us and be free.’

Entranced, he took a step in the direction of the light.  But then he heard his name again, comin’ out of the darkness.  The voice sounded like it came from a long distance away.  Joe halted and turned back.  He knew that there was a promise in the dark too, though it hadn’t been mentioned.  Still, it didn’t matter.  He was afraid of the dark.  That’s where nightmares came from.

As the curly-haired youth turned his feet once again toward the meadow, the voice spoke.  This time it said something more than his name.

‘Joseph. You don’t want to go out there, son.’

Joe lips opened and though no sound came out, still he spoke the word.

‘Pa?’

“Come on back.  Here, son, over here.”

Joe turned toward the moonlit glade.  Its dark whisperings filled him with fear.  ‘I don’t want to, Pa.’

‘You must, Joseph.’

The boy’s eyes filled with tears.  Light and peace beckoned, but so did his father.

‘If I go, Pa, if I go into the light, will you miss me?’

‘Yes, I will.  Come on, son’

Sadness echoed through his soul.  “I don’t know if I can, Pa.”

The beloved voice was faint, far-distant.

Insistent.

“You can make it.  Joseph, come on.  Come back to me.”

 

“Joseph, come on.  Come back to me.”

Rosey O’Rourke watched as Ben tenderly stroked his youngest son’s forehead and called to him.  They had been back at the Ponderosa for only a short time.  She’d known the minute Hoss laid his little brother in the back of the wagon that things were bad.

Thank God, Paul Martin had been with them!

The physician had immediately tended to Joseph, though there wasn’t a great deal he could do in the field.  Paul made the boy comfortable and gave him something for the pain. Joe had been completely exhausted and fallen into the deep sleep from which he had yet to rouse.

Once back at the house Little Joe’s fever had spiked and become life-threatening.  Paul called for ice the moment they entered the house, sending Hop Sing scrambling.  As she watched Joe being borne up the stairs in his father’s arms, she’d had a flash of Adam and Hoss’ faces as they looked when she and their father departed.  Those boys hearts went with their brother.  Ben was so blessed to have such wonderful sons.  The pair had wanted to make sure Da Chao would no longer be a threat to their family, so they had stayed behind to mop things up.

Ben had moved to sit beside Little Joe on the bed.  Rosey smiled as she used the boy’s nickname.  He had told her quite clearly that he was just plain ‘Joe’, but looking at him now – so frail and fighting a ferocious fever – he looked like a little boy.  Ben said it was his wife Marie that had given him that name.  ‘Mon petit Joseph’, she would say, referring to her baby’s diminutive size.  Ben said they had almost lost Joe when he was born early.

So many tragedies in this man’s life.  So many joys.

Rosey left the pair alone and crossed to the window to look out on the new day.  They had arrived just as the sun crowned over the tall Ponderosa pines.  It was nearing noon and she looked out hoping to see Ben’s other boys.  Little Joe needed Hoss and Adam but, even more so, their father needed them.  He needed their strength and support.

Doctor Martin had left the bedroom a short time before shaking his head.

Crossing back to the handsome rancher sat, Rosey placed a hand on his shoulder and waited for Ben to look up.  “Why don’t you go down and get something to eat?” she softly suggested.  “I’ll keep watch while you’re gone.”

He shook his head as she knew he would.  Paul had warned her.  “No thank you, Rosey.  I want to be here when Joseph awakens.”

When, not if.

“How about if I go down and fix you something then?  Will you eat it if I bring it up?”

He opened his mouth to decline, but thought better of it.  “That would be lovely. Thank you for understanding.”

Rosey leaned over and placed a hand on Joe’s bare arm.  The boy was shockingly hot, even buried in ice.  “He’s a fighter,” she said.  “He’ll pull through.”

“I thought he was about to rouse a few moments ago,” Ben said, his voice wistful.  “Joseph shifted and murmured something.  I couldn’t catch the words.”

One of them was certainly ‘pa’, she thought with a smile.  She had never seen a boy so attached to his father as Joe.

Leaning over even further, Rosey planted a kiss on the boy’s pale forehead.  As she straightened up, he shifted under the covers and stirred.

Ben eyed her and then rose to let her take his place.

“Joe?” she asked.  “Little Joe, can you hear me?”

Again the shifting.  Another murmur.

Ben’s black eyes were fixed on his son, but he spoke to her.  “Try again.”

She shifted the chair closer and reached out.  Her fingers went to Little Joe’s curls and began to comb them, pushing the lush brown locks back and out of the boy’s eyes.

“Little Joe.”  Rosey drew a breath.  She hoped she was doing the right thing.  “Mon petit Joseph, can you wake up for me?”  She disregarded Ben’s audible intake of breath.  “Joseph?”

The boy’s lips parted.  A breath came out, not quite a word but more than a sigh.

“Mama….?”

Rosey glanced at Ben.  There were tears in his eyes.

‘Should I?’ she asked with her own.

The rancher looked at his son and nodded.

The older woman shifted onto the bed.  It broke her heart to think of this child who had been torn from his mother at such a tender age.  Losing a parent – either parent – was traumatic, but a boy and his mother, well, she knew the bond that was there.  Taking his hand in hers, she tried again.

“Joseph, I need you to wake up.”

“Peaceful,” he said.

“What’s peaceful, Joseph?  Can you tell me?”

“…here.”

While acting as a scout, she’d aided the company’s medic many times.  She’d sat by the side of a dozen dying men.  Many had said the same thing just before they passed.

“It may be peaceful there, Joseph, but we need you here.”  She glanced up at Ben.  His face had paled.  She knew he had witnessed the same thing.  Gripping Little Joe’s hand more tightly, she went on.  “You papa needs you.”

Ben’s hand came down on her shoulder and he leaned in.  “Joseph, it’s Pa.”  Ben’s voice broke and he choked out the words, “Come back to me, son.”

Joe shifted again.  His eyelids fluttered.  “Dark.”

Ben frowned at her.  She shrugged.

“…dark where you are.”

Rosey closed her eyes.  She drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  He was right.  Joe was right.  It was dark where they were.  Men were evil.  The world was full of anguish and pain.

And bright lights like Little Joe Cartwright.

“Joseph,” she began, “Little Joe, I know you want to go into the light.  You’re right, it’s peaceful there.  But we need you here to shine and chase away the darkness.  Your father needs you.  Your brothers need you.”

Ben had moved to the opposite side of the bed and taken a seat.  He gripped Joe’s other hand in his own powerful one.  “Son, feel this.  I am holding on to you.  You remember that time you fell into the well?  I caught you just before you went into the water.  I held onto you….”  Ben sucked in air.  “I held you over that darkness knowing I couldn’t let go or I’d lose you.  I won’t let you go, son.  I couldn’t then and I can’t now.”

Joe’s eyes flicked open startling them both.  With unexpected clarity he looked from one of them to the other, and then his eyes closed again.

Ben glanced at her.  There was terror in his gaze.  Trembling, she reached out a hand and placed it on Joe’s chest and gave thanks when she found a steady heartbeat.  When she turned to Ben with a smile on her face a few seconds later, the handsome rancher was puzzled.

“I think he’s sleeping.  Really sleeping,” she said.

Joe’s father reached out and placed a hand on his son’s forehead.  “I think you’re right. His fever’s down.”

Rosey did the same.  Her smile broadened.  “Yes.”

Ben was looking at her now.  Those black eyes of his, well, they were startling in their beauty and depth.  Just as unique as the man they belonged to.   He reached out to take her hand but changed his mind.  Leaning across his son’s legs, the handsome rancher caught her chin in his hand and then leaned in and kissed her.

“Thank you,” he said.

Rosey laughed.

“No,’ she said, after kissing him back.  “Thank you!”

 

Adam came in the door ahead of Hoss.  When he found the great room empty, he headed for the stairs.  He was about halfway there when the door opened again to admit his giant of a brother.  At the same time Hop Sing came from the kitchen wing carrying a bucket of ice.

“Is that for little brother?” Hoss asked, worry in his tone.

“Little Joe fever very high.  Doctor worried.  Take more ice to cool him down.”

“You can take the ice back to the cooling room, Hop Sing.  Joseph won’t be needing it.”

Adam looked up to find his weary and exhausted father standing at the top of the stairs.  He moved closer.  “Joe?” he asked.

Pa descended several steps.  “Your brother’s fever broke just now.”  His father looked around.  “Where’s Paul?”

“Doctor asleep in guest  room,” their cook replied.  “You want Hop Sing should wake him?”

As Pa completed his descent he shook his head. “No, let him sleep.  He’s earned it.”

“Joe’s really gonna be all right, Pa?  For sure?” Hoss asked.

The older man puffed out a breath as he dropped into his chair.  “Nothin’ is for certain, son, other than God’s goodness, but I believe your brother will recover.”

“I told you Joe was tough, Adam.  Didn’t I?”  The big man was grinning.  “Can I go up and sit with him, Pa?”

Adam smiled too.  Hoss was like an eager puppy – a very big eager puppy.  His happiness was contagious.

“Rosey is with him now,” their father answered.  “I’m sure she would be glad for you to relieve her.  I don’t think she’s had anything to eat since she was taken.”

Hoss looked embarrassed.  “I done forgot to ask.  Is Miss Rosey all right?”

“I’m fine.”

Adam turned.  Coming down the stairs was a most enchanting vision.  Rosey O’Rourke was tired, her dress was rumpled and her hair loose and decorated with twigs and leaves.

She was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen.

His father was up and on his feet in an instant.  “Joseph?” he demanded, concerned.

“Awake and asking for you,” the lovely woman said.  “I told him I’d come and get you.”

“You want Hop Sing come with you now and take ice away?” their cook asked.

Pa shook his head.  “Give me five minutes, then both you and Hoss come up.”

Adam’s smile broadened.  His pa had been moving like an old man the last time he’d seen him.  He took the steps now like Joe usually did, two at a time.

Rosey finished her descent and went to sit in one of the chairs by the fire.  She remained still a moment and then shuddered.

Adam crossed over to her.  “Are you all right?” he asked.

She nodded.  “Just being foolish.  I couldn’t help but see that awful man leaping over the settee and heading for Biyu.”

Biyu, Dandan, and John would be returning soon.  They’d gone into the settlement to gather the few items the women had left behind at Beth Riley’s and to let the older woman know they were all right.  He’d asked them to stop in and bring Roy Coffee up to date.  While they’d been gone Roy had come to the house to investigate the murders of both Richard Jennings and Jim Sanders.  The lawman was not going to be happy to learn that He and Hoss had let Da Chao and his men go, though the fact that the man who had committed most of the crimes in the last week was dead would most likely mollify Roy’s sense of justice some.

Decisions had had to be made and made quickly.  Once they’d gained the upper hand Da Chao had became friendly enough. He’d confirmed the fact that Biyu was free and, to show how magnanimous he was, freed Dandan as well.  John Randolph was a harder sell, but in the end the Chinese tong leader saw the writing on the wall.  Of course that was after he’d pulled him aside and explained just how rich and how important the Randolphs were in England and advised the tong leader that, while the English tended to be an unemotional and remote people, John’s brother Jude was another matter.

Adam smiled.  He might have overemphasized Jude’s savage nature just a bit.

In the end Da Chao and his own savage hoard had gotten on their horses and high-tailed it for Vallejo.  The tong leader was guilty of nothing – at least nothing they could pin on him and make stick.  His killing of both Khu Zhuang and Longwei had been in self-defense, and there was no way they could tie him convincingly to either Richard or Jim’s deaths.   In spite of this, he’d been all for hauling the tall thin man back to Virginia City to make him face some kind of charges.  It had been Hop Sing who had changed his mind.  The man from China told him it wasn’t a good thing to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if he was anywhere near you.

In other words, if they went after Da Chao, he would come after them.

He remembered feeling numb as he stood there, watching the tong leader and his followers disappear into the morning mist, almost as if they had never been.  As if they had never come to his house and threatened his family and left his little brother almost dead.

Waiting on God’s justice was a hard thing at the best of times.

“Adam?” a light voice called.  “A little while back, I offered your father a penny for his thoughts.  I believe yours might cost me more.”

He started, and then laughed.  “Rosey, there’s not enough money in the whole state of Nevada.”

The lovely woman nodded.  “You know, though it looked bleak there for a while, in the end everything came out as I knew it would.  You Cartwrights are indomitable.”

Strong.  Resolute.  Unconquerable.  Stubborn and tough.  Yeah, that was them.

It was Rosey too.

He was silent a moment and then he said, “You belong here, you know.”  A second later he was apologizing.  Her eyes had filled with tears.  “Rosey, forgive me.”

She shook her head and sniffed.  “It’s all right.  I feel it too, but….”

“There’s Rory.”

The beautiful older woman nodded.  “Yes.  His life is in San Francisco now and so my life must be too – for now.”

Adam took her hand and squeezed it.  “But maybe not forever?”

Rosey squeezed back.

“Maybe not forever.”

 

Ben opened the door into Joseph’s room a crack and peeked in.  He didn’t want to wake the ailing boy if he had fallen asleep again.  He needn’t have worried.  Little Joe had worked his way up onto his pillows and was looking at him from out of a nest of blankets and ice.

As he stepped in, he asked, “How are you, son?”

Joe shivered. “Cold.”

He immediately went over to the bed.  Now that Joseph’s fever had broken, the ice they had packed him in presented as much of a threat as the heat that had baked him before.

“Here.  Let’s get you out of that bed and into some dry clothes.  Hop Sing and your brother will be up in a minute and they’ll get things fixed up so you are nice and warm.”

Joe was so feeble it troubled him, but the rancher hid his fear and smiled as he helped the boy make the short journey from his sodden bed to the chair by the window.  He placed Joseph in it and wrapped a warm blanket topped with a coverlet about his slender form before going to the bureau.  “Any requests?” he asked, just to have something to say.

“I’d like my old nightshirt, Pa. You know, the blue and white striped one Adam gave me.”

“I’m surprised that still fits,” he remarked as he rummaged in the drawers.

Joe was silent a moment.  “It should now.”

Ben froze with his fingers on the shirt.  “You’ll gain the weight back quickly, son.  Hop Sing will see to it.”  Crossing over to his boy with the requested garment, he asked, “Any other reason you wanted this particular one?”

Joe’s smile was sad and sweet.  “Don’t you remember, Pa?”

He hated to admit it, but he didn’t.  “Remember what?”

As Joe accepted the shirt, his eyes took on a faraway look.  “Mama got it for me.”

Ben frowned.  Perhaps Joseph was still confused.  “Son, your mother was dead long before you got that night shirt.”

Joe coughed.  Thankfully it was a small, shallow one.  “Oh, I know that.  This ain’t the exact shirt, but it’s just like it.  Adam told me so when he gave it to me.”  The boy sat there for a moment, fingering the worn fabric.  “Pa….”

He pulled up a chair and sat beside his son.  “Yes, Joseph?”

“Was that mama I heard?”

Ben reached out and touched his son’s hand.  “Calling you back, you mean?”

Joe drew a breath and let it out slowly.  “I was at a kind of crossroads, Pa.  It looked like spring on one side of me and, well, like winter on the other.  The sun was shining to my right, the flowers were dancing in the breeze.  It was so pretty, so peaceful….”

“You wanted to go there,” he said softly.

“Yeah, I did.”  Joe looked up at him, the expression in his green eyes hard to read, but intense.  “But I couldn’t.  I heard someone calling me.”

“That was Rosey, Joseph.  Not your mother.”

He nodded.  “I know.  But for a minute, Pa, for just a few seconds, I…believed it was her.”

There it was again.  That feeling that he had known when Joseph had the measles and had called out for his deceased mother – that moment when he had known he was not enough.

Only this time he didn’t feel hopeless.

“I think Marie was here, son, in spirit.  I believe it was she who called you back.”

Tears were falling from Joseph’s eyes.  The boy sniffed and then smiled that little crooked smile of his.  “It wasn’t mama, Pa.  It was you.  I came back for you.”

It was a good thing Hoss and Hop Sing chose that moment to enter the room, otherwise he would have dissolved into a puddle.

“Hey there, short-shanks, you look like a drown-ded rat!” Hoss exclaimed jovially.  “What’s say we get you out of them wet clothes.”

“What you do, sit there while boy shivers?” Hop Sing exclaimed.  “You get out of way.  Hop Sing take over.  Everything be okay!”

Ben shifted out of the way as Hop Sing bustled over to the bed and began to remove the wet bedclothes and the remainder of the ice.  At the same time Hoss crossed over to Joe and started to work his brother’s wet clothing off of him.  The tenderness the big man showed was a blessing to observe.  Joe smiled up at his giant of a brother and then sank back into the chair and closed his eyes, content for once to let others take care of him.

As quietly as he could, Ben moved toward the door, content as well to let others have their moment with this boy they loved, who had just returned to them from the precipice of death.  If he knew his sons – and he knew he did – it wouldn’t be long before Adam joined them.  There was something about Joseph that drew others to him like a magnet.

As he placed his hand on the door, he heard a soft call.

“Pa?”

Turning back he saw Joseph was attired in his blue and white night-shirt and sitting on the side of the bed.

“Yes.”

Joe’s grin was a little shy.

“I just wanted to tell you I love you.”

His gaze met Hoss’s over Joe’s head.  The big man was teary.

He was teary too.

“Thank you, son.  You know I love you too.”

Joe nodded and then let Hoss shift him into the bed.  He started to leave again, but that same voice called him back.

“Pa?”

Ben turned toward his boy again.  “Yes, Joseph?”

“When are you gonna marry Rosey?”

“When am I..?”  He huffed.    “Joseph, whatever gave you the idea that I was going to marry Rosey?”

His son wrinkled his nose.  “Well, I think you should.  How about you, Hoss?”

Hoss was grinning.  “I already bought me a suit and Adam got himself a brand new tie.”

“Don’t you think maybe that’s a little premature?” the older man demanded.

“I’m growin’ up, Pa.  Fact is, I’m almost a man,” Joseph said soberly.  “I think I’m mature enough for a new ma.”

He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Young man, whatever is between Rosey and myself is just that – between Rosey and myself.”

“Oh, we got that, Pa,” Hoss said.

“Yeah, Pa,” his little scamp agreed.  “But you see, well, sometimes you’re a little bit of a stick-in-the-mud and we thought you might need a kind of push –  Hey, Pa!  No!  Don’t throw that!  I’m sick, remember!“

He’d never been so glad that Joseph kept a chair with a pillow on it by the door.

 

EPILOGUE

It was a warm summer day.  A month had passed since the incident – well, really, since the Chinese tong leaders had brought their war to the Ponderosa.  It was early July and most everyone at the ranch was busy moving the herd from the basin to a high mountain pasture.

Joe Cartwright wasn’t among them.

He was sitting on that same old rock overlooking the river – the one he’d used to launch himself at Butch all the way back in May.  The sun was beating down on him, warming his skin and turning it a deep golden brown.  He’d pleaded and begged and even offered a bribe to Doctor Martin to let him go along with Hoss and Adam as they rode toward the high country, but the physician would have none of it.  While it wasn’t unusual for someone to carry a cough most every winter, or even have a bronchial catarrh, it wasn’t just everyone who was lucky enough to have pneumonia two times in five years.  Doc Martin had told his pa that if he didn’t rest and take it easy he might end up with weak lungs, and that a cattle drive where he would be breathing dust kicked up by a thousand head of beef was the last place he should be.  He’d balked at that, but quickly bridled his tongue when he saw his father’s look.  The threat came after the doctor left.  Either he did as the doctor said and stayed close to the ranch house for three whole months or he wouldn’t sit in a saddle until Christmas!  For the most part he’d obeyed.  Oh, he’d gone out riding Cochise a few times and kicked up a good bit of dust of his own, but the sad thing was those were the times when he realized Doc Martin was right.  He’d set to coughing and be near worn out by the time the fit ended.

It scared him, truth to tell.  He wanted to be big as Hoss and smart as Adam and able as his father, and here he was, small and scrawny and not even fit enough to make sure a cow stayed put where it was supposed to be.

Pa had assigned him extra chores, including working on the books.  Joe shook his head.  Why anyone would want to spend their days in a stuffy old office, addin’ and subtractin’ numbers was beyond him.  He leaned back on the hot rock and looked up at the crystal blue sky.  The sun was shinin’ and there was a soft breeze blowin’.  All around him the land was dotted with  wild flower.

The sight of them still made him shudder.

With his eyes closed he thought about that moment when he’d heard Rosey’s voice.  He’d thought it was his ma’s, of course.  ‘Mon petit Joseph’.  Mama had liked to call him that, even as he got bigger, and then he got stuck with it after she died.  Truth to tell, he didn’t mind too much.  Every time someone called him ‘Little Joe’, it made him think of her.  But he was a man and a man had a hard path to walk if he went around with everyone callin’ him ‘little’.  The family didn’t mean anythin’ by it.

Bullies like Butch MacTavish did.

Butch’d got his comeuppance all right.  Roy Coffee had made a deal with his father so he didn’t go to the territorial prison.  This time he was sent away to a reform school run by someone other than his uncle and he was gonna be there three whole years!  Butch wouldn’t be out until after he stopped attending school.

He thanked God a lot the day he found that out.

Life was funny.  Tory had just been teasing. He knew that. She never meant for him to get hurt.  But her teasing and taunting had been dangerous and nearly got him killed.  Tory didn’t get sent to no reform school, but she sure as shootin’ got sent away.  She ended up at Miss Abigail Elizabeth Bradshaw’s Finishing School for girls in Philadelphia.

It puzzled him, what there was about a girl that needed ‘finishing’.

Yep, things had worked out in the end.  Butch and Tory were gone and so was that Chow feller.  The Chinese man gave his word to Adam that he would never return to the Ponderosa.  He’d asked Adam if he believed him and he said he did.

It was all about that honor thing again.

Joe looked at the river as the word echoed in his head.  He squinted, pretending it was the sun making his eyes water, but really it was thinking about Jian.  The Chinese warrior had given his life for him, or at least it seemed he had.  Pa said he might of just crawled out of the river downstream and gone on his way once he saw everything was ended.  He didn’t think so.  He knew Jian.  He would have come back to make sure he was okay and to say goodbye.

Still, he hoped Pa was right and he was wrong.

Shifting, Joe pulled up the back of his shirt and let his ribcage rest on the sun-baked stone.  It felt good and Doc Martin said it was good for him, that it’d ‘bake’ what sickness was left right out of him.  It really wasn’t so bad laying here instead of riding and ropin’ a thousand hot smelly steers.  Still, he felt he had let his family down.

Family.  That was another thing he’d learned something about.  His family was, well, special.  His pa had sat him down and told him everything that happened with Da Chao and Longwei – how Longwei had betrayed his uncle and then his uncle had killed him.  He just couldn’t imagine that.  Say, Hoss or him thinking what other people thought of them was more important than Adam or Pa’s life.  Pa explained the Asian culture was different.  They had different rules.  But a father was a father and a son, a son.  He didn’t think culture or the color of your skin changed that.

At least, it shouldn’t.

Joe batted away a bug and sat up.  It came back and he lifted his hand to strike it away again but stopped when he saw it was a beautiful butterfly.  Its colors were blue and black with just a touch of red.  It reminded him of the silk brocade dress Biyu had worn when she and John got married.  In the end it turned out what she told Longwei was a lie.  The baby she carried was John’s.  She’d just been trying to protect him.  A few days after he was pronounced fit enough to attend, they’d held the wedding in the ranch house.  Hop Sing had outdone himself decorating the great room with flowers and Chinese lanterns. The couple stayed with them about a week and then they, along with Dandan, climbed on a stage and headed east.  They were going to travel to Philadelphia and take one of the tall ships there and sail back to England.  Pa sent letters along with them to Jude.  Joe drew in a breath.  He missed Jude.  Maybe one day he’d get on one of those tall ships and sail to England just like them and pay him a visit.  As he let the breath out, the curly-headed youth looked back up at the tall Ponderosa pines, the blue sky, and the white clouds.

Or maybe not.

A sound drew his attention.  Joe sat up straight and pivoted on the rock so he could look at the road.  A pair of horses had appeared – buckskin and black.  Joe slid off the rock, straightened his shirt and ran a hand through his disobedient curls, and then went to greet the riders.

“Pa,” he said with a nod.  Then he smiled, “Miss Rosey.”

Rosey sure looked perfect sitting there on her thoroughbred next to pa.  He was sure gonna miss her when she left.  Rosey had got a letter from her son tellin’ her that he was heading to Jennifer’s house to talk to her parents and wouldn’t be back home until August.  The older woman decided to stay with them that whole time, except for when she went into town to help Mrs. Riley or work in Ming-hua’s shop.  He’d watch his pa with her and somethin’ about the way they talked and touched reminded him of his pa with his mama.  He didn’t remember much – practically nothing if you eliminated what his pa and brothers had told him – but there was somethin’ there that was special.  ‘Course, he’d never seen his Pa with Inger or Adam’s ma.  Maybe he’d talked to them the same way.  Still, whenever he came around a corner and saw Rosey leaning over Pa’s desk looking at a map, or pickin’ up her needlework from a chair and for just a moment Pa’s arm would wrap around her waist….

He remembered that – on his own – his mama and his pa looking into each other’s eyes.

Joe sniffed and popped out a little sigh.

He’d tried it with Tory once.  He didn’t know what the big thing was about it.

“Joseph, how are you feeling?” Pa asked as he dismounted and crossed over to give Rosey a hand so she could do the same.

“As chipper as a couple of jaybirds,” he replied.

“And just as sassy, I imagine,” Rosey said, her lips tight with a smile.

Joe grinned. “Yes, ma’am!”

His pa was looking at the river, a frown on his face.  “I was looking for you, Joseph.  I might say I was surprised to find you here.”

He shrugged.  “What is it you always tell us, Pa?  ‘Not everything that is faced can change, but nothing can change until it’s faced’.”

“Did I say that?” his pa asked, surprised.  “I sound like a wise man.”

“Don’t let it go to your head, Ben,” the older woman remarked.  “Accidents happen.”

Joe tried to stop it, but laughter bubbled up in him and broke out in a girl-high giggle.

“Now, young man,” his father said, mock stern, “I thought I’d taught you to respect your elders.”

“I am, Pa,” he replied as he pointed at Rosey.  “I’m respectin’ her!”

His father laughed too.

As he stood there with the sunshine pounding down on him and two of the most important people in his world right now right there, Joe suddenly remembered Pa had said he’d been looking for him.

“What did you want me for, Pa?” he asked.

His father’s attention had strayed to the river again.  He turned to look at him.  “Oh, your brother Adam was looking for you.”

“Adam?  Ain’t he….”  At his father’s scowl, he backed up.  “Isn’t he on the cattle drive?”

“Your brother had to come back for supplies.  He asked about you.”  Pa looked at Rosey.  “Actually he asked if you could join him on the return journey.”

It took a second for that to sink in.  When it did, he lit up like a candle.  “Me?  Go on the drive?  Really?” When his father said nothing, his hope waned.  Joe winced and his dark eyebrows rolled.  “…maybe?”

“I have my reservations, but it so happens that Adam ran into Doctor Martin on his rounds.  They, of course, discussed your condition….”

Of course, like he was something you’d read in the paper.

“…and the doctor said your progress had been more rapid than he expected and – if Adam would wait a day or two – you could go with him on the drive.”

Joe hesitated, taking a minute to be sure he had heard what he thought he had heard, and then he let out a whoop that scattered all the birds in those pretty Ponderosa pines.

“WHOO-EE!!”

Rosey laughed as his father winced.

“Where’s Adam now?” he asked.

“At the house.  He thought he’d wait in case you wanted to go with him into town.”

“Town too?  Gosh, Pa, you mean I been let out of the cage?”

His father pinned him with those black eyes. “It will be there waiting if you overextend or do anything your brothers tell you not to.  Is that clear, young man?”

“Clear as mud, Pa,” he answered and then grinned.

It was comin’, he knew it, and so he skedaddled toward Cochise where he’d tethered him in the trees.  Pa’s hand got him anyway, with a good whack on the butt.

“And no fancy or fast riding, you little scamp.  I want you to get home in one piece.”

He was already on Cochise.  Lifting his hat, Joe saluted both of them.  “Sir,” he said, “Madame.  Now don’t you two do anythin’ I wouldn’t do!”

 

Ben took another step toward his wild and reckless boy as Joe nudged Cochise in the sides.  His son was gone in a shot, headed for the Ponderosa with a second wild whoop, making enough noise to catch the attention of all of those who had gone before.

“What am I going to do with that boy?” he sighed.

“Enjoy him,” Rosey said, “they turn into men so quickly.”

He nodded.  “Yes, they do.”

Rosey came to join him.  For a moment they stood side by side, then she reached out and took his hand.  Together they walked to the edge of the water and stood there watching the river run free – the river that had almost carried his son’s life away.

The river that had taken the life of a good man that, to this day, Joseph had a hard time talking about.

“A penny for your thoughts,” Rosey said softly.

Ben chuckled.  “You’re going to go broke.”

“I will if you don’t stop that pensive thinking.”  The beautiful woman paused.  “If Little Joe can sit here and enjoy the beauty of the river, I think you should be able to as well.  You have to let go the ‘what ifs’, Ben, and live for the here and now.”

He turned toward her, startled.  “You just saved yourself a penny!  How did you….”

Rosey took his other hand and swung him toward her.  “How did I know what you were thinking?  Ben Cartwright you are as transparent as winter ice.  Your whole heart is wrapped up in those boys, in protecting them, instructing them.  In loving them.”

He looked into her deep brown eyes.  “Not my whole heart,” he said softly.  “There’s room in there for one more.”

Rosey moved closer and laid her head against his chest.  “Ben, I….”

“Shh.”  He lifted a hand and cupped her head, relishing the feel of her rose-scented silken hair.  “I know.  Let’s not talk about it.  We have today and that’s enough.”

“There you go,” she said, puffing out a little breath.  “Throwing my own words back at me.”

“I’ve got pretty good aim, or so Joseph tells me.”

She shifted in a little closer and then looked up at him.  “Hold me, will you?  For just a little while?”

Ben obliged.  He walked her over to the rock his son had been perched on and sat down beside her and wrapped her in his arms.  They sat there together, silently, for some time, simply letting the river run on, the breeze blow by, and the time they had left together tick away.

It was Rosey, again, who broke the silence.  “I love you, Ben.”

He squeezed her a bit.  “I know.  I love you too.”

Rosey shifted so she was looking at him.  The rising light struck her, turning her brown hair bronze and erasing the years until he was sure he looked at the bright young woman she had once been.

“Do you think….”

He reached out to brush a tear from her cheek.  “God alone knows, Rosey, and I mean that.  While you and I can’t see a way, if it’s His will for us to be together, then He’ll see to it.  For now, we know what we know, and we both know our sons need us more than we need each other.”

Another tear slipped down her cheek.  “That’s got to be a pretty big need, Mister Cartwright.”

“I agree. Mrs. O’Rourke.”

“Kiss me?” she said.

Ben smiled.  “I thought you’d never ask.”

Rosey’s brown eyes danced in the rising light.  “Make it a good one.  It’s got to last me a long time.”

Taking her small waist in his hands, he pulled her close.

“I promise, I’ll make it one you’ll never forget.”

 

 

 

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