The Lo Mein Affair (by pkmoonshine)

Summary:    Hop Sing’s relatives are visiting … and Bradley Meredith and the Slade Brothers are in town.  It’s shaping up to be a very interesting week for the Cartwrights.

“The Lo Mein Affair” is the second story in the Bloodlines Series, and includes the addition of a non-cannon character.

Rating  MA (92,780 words)

Bloodlines Series:

Bloodlines
The Lo Mein Affair
The Wedding
Sacrificial Lamb
Poltergeist II
Independence Day
Virginia City Detour
The Guardian
Young Cartwrights in Love
San Francisco Revisited
There But for the Grace of God
Between Life and Death
Orenna
Clarissa Returns
Trial by Fire
Mark of Kane

The Lo Mein Affair

“Virginia City, Folks,” the stagecoach driver wearily announced, as he opened the door. “We leave for Carson City at three o’clock sharp, soon as we change horses, ‘n pick up the mail.”

Ben Cartwright leaned back heavily into his seat, and closed his eyes while the other passengers, seven in all, disembarked. He had spent ten days of the two weeks he was actually in San Francisco negotiating a contract with the railroad to supply lumber over the next three years. There was a lot of hard, intense, even down and dirty bargaining over terms, but in the end, he walked away with a very lucrative contract, worth a whopping fifty thousand dollars a year over the next three years.

The remaining four days were spent enjoying what a big city, like San Francisco, had to offer. He attended a piano recital given by Andrew Xavier, stage name for a very fine concert pianist Ben knew as Carleton. Afterward, he visited the pianist and his wife, the former Angela Drake [1] , herself a once renowned opera singer as well as old friend. He had also enjoyed visiting Julia Grant [2] backstage after catching a performance of her latest musical comedy venture.

Ben also looked up his old friend, Horace Banning and his wife, Deborah. He was gratified to learn that Horace had built an excellent career for himself as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. Their daughter, Melinda, had married the junior partner of an established, lucrative law firm several years before. They had three children, two boys and a girl. They were expecting their fourth, due any day. Deborah had also mellowed greatly in the intervening years since the Bannings had visited the Ponderosa. The financial stability now provided by her husband enabled her to let go of a lot of her manipulating ways. She also took great delight in her role as doting grandmother. [3]

Though he had enjoyed the plays, concerts, the fine dining, and visiting old friends, Ben Cartwright had missed his sons, daughter, and the Ponderosa very much. He stepped down from the Overland Stage, exhausted, but glad to stand at long last on the beauteous, solid terra firma of home after spending the last eight days of being bumped and jostled over roads still riddled with pot holes and ever deepening wheel ruts left in the wake of spring rains.

“PA! HEY, PA! OVER HERE!”

Ben smiled upon hearing his daughter, Stacy’s enthusiastic greeting. He glanced up and immediately spotted his two younger children, standing over next to the stage depot building smiling and waving. Without bothering to wait for his luggage, he beat a straight path toward Joe and Stacy, pausing only to side step around an elderly couple, both of whom had been fellow passengers. The minute he reached them, he grabbed both of them in a big affectionate bear hug.

“Glad to have you back, Pa,” Joe declared with a broad grin, as he returned his father’s embrace with equal fervor and affection. “A month is a long time!”

“TOO long!” Stacy added, as she gave her father an affectionate squeeze around the waist. “We missed you, Pa.”

Ben held Joe and Stacy for a moment longer, then, acting purely on impulse, planted a kiss on each forehead. “I missed— ” he stopped abruptly mid-sentence. “Wait a minute! Stacy Rose Cartwright, I just realized . . . . ” He favored her with a suspicious frown. “Isn’t today a school day?”

“It’s SUPPOSED to be, but when I got there this morning? There was a notice on the door saying that there’d be no school today because Miss Ashcroft is sick.”

Ben knew by the earnest look on her face that she told the truth. “I’m sorry Miss Ashcroft’s not feeling well,” he said, smiling, “but at the same time I’m glad you could be here with your brother . . . WITHOUT playing hooky.”

“Me, too, Pa,” Stacy agreed wholeheartedly, “although I don’t think Miss Ashcroft would’ve minded me playing hooky to come meet you in the least.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.” A bewildered frown creased Stacy’s otherwise smooth brow. “It seems I’ve suddenly become the teacher’s pet, starting about a week or so AFTER you left for San Francisco.”

“You?!” Joe chortled in complete and utter disbelief.

“Yeah, me!”

“I don’t believe it!”

“That makes TWO of us, Grandpa!”

“What gives you the idea that you’ve suddenly become the teacher’s pet, Young Woman?” Ben asked.

“Well, to begin with, I’m suddenly making all A’s and B’s.”

“Have you considered the possibility that maybe . . . just maybe . . . your school work’s improved?” Ben asked.

“If it HAS, Pa, I sure, for the life of me, don’t see HOW!” Stacy replied with a helpless shrug.

“Well, Miss Ashcroft and I are long overdue for that parent-teacher conference,” Ben mused thoughtfully. “I’ll ride in with you to school tomorrow morning and see her about scheduling it. Maybe she’ll be able to shed some light on things when I actually sit down and talk to her.”

“Uh oh! If you’ve done anything naughty at school, you’d better ‘fess up NOW, Little Sister,” Joe teased, “ ‘cause if Pa finds out first from Miss Ashcroft . . . . ” He rolled his eyes upward toward the heavens, while leaving the sentence lying ominously unfinished.

“For YOUR information, Grandpa, Pa is fully up to date on all my naughty doings for the school year,” Stacy retorted, favoring her brother with a dark, murderous glare.

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Positive?”

“Absolutely!” Stacy sighed. “There’s other stuff, too.”

“Like what?” Ben asked.

“Lately, Miss Ashcroft seems to be calling on ME for the special things she usually calls on Molly or Liam to do,” Stacy continued, “and every time she does? Molly, Liam, Susannah . . . and all the other kids my age give me this strange, knowing kind of a look. Sometimes, it gets a little creepy.”

“I’m sure there’s a very plausible explanation for all this,” Ben said reassuringly.

“Whatever it is, Pa, I’d be interested in finding out what it is myself,” Joe declared with an impish grin.

“Grandpa, did anyone ever tell you that you’re incredibly nosy?”

“You’re calling ME nosy?!” Joe echoed incredulously. “Isn’t that a little like the pot calling the kettle black?”

Stacy, unable to quite hold back the amused grin, stuck out her tongue.

Joe immediately responded in kind.

“All right, CHILDREN, settle down!” Ben admonished his youngest offspring with a smile. “Tell you what! Why don’t we collect my luggage, and stop by the Silver Dollar on the way home for a couple of beers and a root beer?”

“Sounds good to me, Pa,” Stacy readily agreed.

“Me, too,” Joe replied. “Tell you what? As a welcome home for Pa, all drinks are on ME.”

 

“Ben Cartwright! Long time no see, you sly ol’ rascal! What’ll ya have?” Sam, the bartender at the Silver Dollar greeted the Cartwright clan patriarch with a broad grin, as he, Joe, and Stacy entered the saloon.

“I’ll have a b-beer,” Ben stammered, taken completely aback by Sam’s odd greeting.

“After all this time o’ holdin’ out, I honest and truly never, not in a million years, EVER thought I’d see the day,” Sam murmured shaking his head in absolute wonder and delight. He finished filling a clean mug and set it on the bar in front of Ben. “Y’ ol’ rascal! That ol’ goat, Myra Danvers . . . I hear tell SHE’S fit to be tied over this whole business.”

The scowl, already present on Ben’s face, deepened. “Sam, WHAT are you talking about?”

“Oh, yeah! Ya still wanna keep things quiet!” Sam declared with a wink. “Joe, what’re YOU having?”

“I, uhhh . . . I . . . guess I’ll have a beer also,” Joe replied, equally perplexed by the odd exchange between the bartender and his father.

“So! What do the two of you think about . . . . ” Sam grinned and winked as he placed a full mug of beer down in front of Joe.

Joe and Stacy exchanged puzzled glances. “ . . . er, uhh . . . what do we think about what?” the former asked.

“Oh, I get it! The two of YOU ‘n Hoss’re keeping mum, too,” Sam chuckled and winked again. “You havin’ your usual, Stacy?”

“Y-yeah.”

Sam placed a mug of cold root beer down in front of Stacy, while waving away Joe’s attempt to pay for their drinks. “Cartwright money’s no good in here today, Folks,” the bartender declared. “All drinks are on the house.” He winked at Ben again, then moved off to serve a couple of other customers who had just walked in.

“Pa?” Joe ventured, as he replaced his wallet back in the inside pocket of his green jacket.

“What is it, Son?”

“Would you mind cluing Stacy and me in on . . . whatever it is Sam’s talking about?”

“I’d love to . . . if only some kind soul would clue ME in,” Ben replied.

“Hell-lloooo, Joe,” Laurie Lee Bonner greeted the youngest Cartwright in a low, sultry voice and a sly wink. “Buy me a drink?”

Joe shrugged. “Sure, I guess . . . why not?” He turned and hesitantly signaled for the bartender.

Sam responded immediately. “What can I do for you, Joe? Another beer?”

“No, this time, I’m buying the lady here a drink.” Joe nodded toward Laurie Lee Bonner, standing beside him. “What would you like?”

“I’ll have a beer.”

Sam immediately drew the beer and set the mug down in front of Laurie Lee. “You crazy kids behave yourselves, y’ hear?” he exhorted Joe and the barmaid with a big, wide knowing grin.

Laurie took a sip from the beer mug sitting in front of her. “Joe?”

“Yeah, Laurie Lee?”

“I just wanted to let you know I had a wonderful time last night.”

“Y-You did?”

“Oh yes,” Laurie Lee sighed with a beatific smile on her face. “Joe, I . . . well, I had no idea! No idea at all!”

“N-no idea . . . about WHAT?”

“Silly Man! Always kidding!” Her smile broadened as she kissed the tip of her index finger and placed it gently against his lips. “Will I see you again tonight?”

Joe looked up at the willow reed slim barmaid through eyes round with shock. “I . . . I, well, I . . . . ”

Laurie Lee glanced over at Ben and Stacy, both quietly sipping beer and root beer respectively. “I understand,” she murmured knowingly. “Until NEXT time, My Darling.” With that, she turned and sauntered off, swaying her hips provocatively. Joe stood, as if rooted to the spot, staring after her retreating back, open mouthed with shock.

“Joseph, would you mind telling me what THAT was all about?” Ben demanded, favoring his son with a dark scowl.

Stacy was about to add that she would be very interested in knowing herself, but the fierce look on her father’s face gave her due cause to rethink the matter.

“Pa, honest! I have NO IDEA what that was all about! No idea at all! I-I’ll swear on a whole stack of Bibles if you’d like . . . . ” Joe stammered.

“Hey, Ben!”

He glanced over toward the door, from whence the voice issued. His lawyer, and good friend, Lucas Milburn was stepping through the front door of the saloon. “Good afternoon, Lucas . . . . . ”

“You old dog!” the lawyer chuckled, and winked.

“Lucas, may I ask you a question?”

“Sure, Ben, feel free?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Yeah, I understand, you want to keep things quiet, Ben, but . . . . ” Lucas shrugged. “Frankly, I can’t see the point any longer. Everyone seems to know.”

“Know WHAT?” Ben demanded, his ire rising.

“OK, Ben, I’ll play it YOUR way,” Lucas chuckled.

“Play WHAT my way?”

“Ssshhh! Mum’s the word!” Lucas lowered his voice to barely above a whisper, then winked.

“I don’t know about the two of you, but I think I’m ready to go home,” Joe said, casting a nervous glance in Laurie Lee’s direction. She winked back and blew him a kiss.

Stacy drained the last remaining swallow of root beer from her own mug. “I’m with you, Grandpa. This is getting to be too much like those creepy moments I keep having in school,” she declared with a shudder, as she set her mug back down on the bar.

“I’m ready, too,” Ben declared with an emphatic nod of his head, making the vote unanimous.

 

“I stopped by the store earlier to get the stuff on Hop Sing’s list, and I’ve also picked up the mail,” Joe said. “After Stacy returns from the Livery Stable with Blaze Face, we can head for home.”

“Good!” Ben exhaled a heartfelt sigh of relief. “I trust Hop Sing’s relatives arrived safely?”

“Day before yesterday,” Joe replied. “His sister and brother-in-law, Li Mei-Ling and Li Hsing, are upstairs in Adam’s old room. His niece, Li Yin-Ling, is bunking with Stacy, his nephew, Li Xing is in the back with Hop Sing, and Mrs. Li, Li Hsing’s grandmother is in the downstairs guest room.”

“Good. I hope everything goes well on Friday night.”

“I know it means a lot to Hop Sing and Mei-Ling, but . . . . ” he sighed and shook his head. “I don’t know about this business of arranging marriages, Pa. Frankly, I’d rather pick out the lady with whom I’m going to spend the rest of my life myself.”

“Make that lady a gentleman, and I’m with YOU on that score, Grandpa.” It was Stacy, with Blaze Face.

“You, ummm . . . don’t have anybody specific in mind . . . do you?” Ben asked warily.

“No, I don’t,” Stacy shook her head. “When I DO, Pa, I promise YOU’LL be the first to know.”

“I’m holding you to that, Young Woman,” Ben said, half teasing and very much in earnest.

“It’s just that when I get married I want my husband to be somebody I love very much, who loves me in the same way,” Stacy said thoughtfully, as she hitched Blaze Face to the back of the buckboard.

“This business of negotiating a marriage like . . . well, like YOU would a lumbering contract or some other business deal seems kinda cold to me, Pa,” Joe said, as he climbed up into the buckboard seat and reached for the reigns.

“I agree with both of you,” Ben said quietly.

“But?” Joe prompted.

“How did you know there was a ‘but’?”

“Something in your tone of voice, Pa,” Stacy replied.

“I see. Well in THIS case the ‘but’ is this. The pair of YOU and your older brothers have all grown up in a new country that places high value on such things as individual rights . . . like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Ben said quietly. “Furthermore, all four of you have had the good fortune, I think, of growing up here on the frontier of that same new country, where you’ve been able to enjoy a greater measure of freedom and independence than a lot of young men and women your age do in the big cities back east.

“Hop Sing and his family, on the other hand come from a place that values a certain respect of elders, dignity, and honor, especially family honor, over and above the rights of the individual,” Ben continued. “Hop Sing once told me that his brother-in-law’s family members were once wealthy, powerful aristocrats, very highly respected and honored. Though the Li family lost most of their wealth in recent years, they’re still considered a noble, and honorable family. They command a lot of respect, despite being impoverished.

“As I understand things, the family Yin-Ling will be marrying into is what we sometimes refer to as ‘nouveau riche.’ They’ve acquired their fortune in recent years, in much the same way we have . . . through lots and lots of hard work. Though they have wealth, they have none of the honor and respect that the Li family has enjoyed for many years, possibly for many centuries.”

“So if Yin-Ling marries this guy, her family comes into some money, and his becomes connected to the honor and respect of her family,” Joe said slowly.

“Yin-Ling’s family also has the assurance that she and her children will be well provided for,” Ben added. “That’s a very important factor in negotiating this marriage, too.”

“I think I can understand a little of where they’re coming from, but I sure as shootin’ wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of the bridegroom,” Joe said with a shudder. “Speaking for myself, I definitely prefer OUR way of doing things.”

“Like I said before, I’m with YOU, Grandpa,” Stacy said with an emphatic nod of her head. “Pa, I’ve got Blaze Face secure to the back of the buckboard.”

“Good! Up you go, Young Woman!”

“Mister Cartwright!”

Ben turned and found himself staring into the angry face of Eloise Kirk, whose daughter ran the establishment known as Kirk’s Hostelry. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Kirk. What can I do for you?”

“You, Mister Cartwright, plain and simply ought to be ashamed of yourself! Do you hear? ASHAMED!”

“Mrs. Kirk, I don’t understand. What—?”

“They say there’s no fool like an old fool, but after all these years of . . . well, let’s just say I’d come to think better of YOU than most.” Eloise sighed and shook her head. “I’m disappointed in you, Mister Cartwright, very disappointed.”

“Mrs. Kirk, would you mind telling me—?”

“Good day, Mister Cartwright!” Eloise rudely cut him off in a tone that dripped icicles, then turned heel and flounced back across the street.

“Benjamin, don’t listen to that old crow!” It was the widow, Clementine Hawkins. [4] Retired from vaudeville and the boarding house business, she was a wealthy lady of leisure, after having sold not only her boarding house but an enormous emerald, known as “The Burma Rarity.” These days, her permanent address was a posh suite at the International Hotel.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Hawkins,” Joe greeted her with that dazzling smile guaranteed to melt butter on the sidewalk even in the dead of winter.

“Good afternoon, Ducky!” she returned Joe’s greeting with a smile of her own and an affectionate pinch on his cheek. “Coo! Stacy Luv, good afternoon to you, too!”

“Hello, Mrs. Hawkins!”

“Ma’am, what did you mean just now when you told Pa not to listen to that old crow?” Joe asked.

“Coo! That pickle faced old prune! I swear, Ducks! She was born an old maid and she’s gonna some day DIE an old maid, you mark my words.”

“What?!” Joe stared down at the diminutive curly haired woman, whose locks were a shade of orange reddish lavender, not normally occurring in nature. “Whaddya mean Mrs. Kirk’s an old maid?! She WAS married, and she’s got a daughter.”

“Joseph Luv, it’s all up here!” Clementine declared tapping on her right temple gently with her first two fingers extended. “Some ladies remain old maids up here,” again, she tapped her temple twice, “even if they was t’ marry eight times and have ten children.”

“Mrs. Hawkins, and you, too Joseph Francis! I’d appreciate you not talking about . . . well, about things like that with Stacy in earshot,” Ben growled at both sotto voce.

Clementine laughed with genuine mirth. “Coo! What THAT child’s no doubt learned from bein’ around all those horses ‘n cows . . . well she could probably educate ME on a few of the finer points, if y’ get what I mean, Ducky?” She gave Ben a playful elbow jab to the stomach.

“Mrs. Hawkins, about this business of not listening to Mrs. Kirk— ” Joe began.

“Coo! I’ve got to run along!” Clementine gasped. “Jolly good talking to you, Duckies! Toodles!” With that, she was gone.

“Hello, Ben! Long time no see!”

“Hello, Roy!” Ben greeted the sheriff of Virginia City with a weary smile.

“Where’ve y’ been keepin’ yourself . . . as if I didn’t know?” Roy queried with a sly grin.

“I’ll bite, Roy,” Ben said with a touch of annoyance. “Enlighten me! Where HAVE I been keeping myself?”

“As if you didn’t know, You Sly ol’ Son of a B—oops!” Roy spotted Stacy standing next to Ben in the bare nick of time to stop himself from uttering something that, in his mind, should never be uttered in the presence of someone of the female persuasion. Smiling, he immediately lowered his voice. “You go f’r it, Ben! If anyone in this whole wide world deserves it, you sure as shootin’ do!” He slapped Ben heartily on the back, winked, then ambled on down toward his office.

“THERE you are!”

Joe, Stacy, and Ben turned, and found themselves suddenly staring into the face of Lilly Beth Jared, the current love of Joe’s life, contorted with raw fury.

“L-Lilly Beth . . . ?!” Joe stammered, taking an involuntary step backward.

“You no good, lousy, rotten, slimy, two timing slug!” Lilly Beth snarled, bringing the full force of her wrath to bear on Joe Cartwright. “How DARE you?”

“Whoa! Back up a minute, willya?!,” Joe stammered, taking another step backward.

“No body two times ME and gets away with it! Especially NOT with a SLUT like Laurie Lee Bonner!” With that, Lilly Beth lashed out with the deadly swiftness of a rattler, striking Joe’s face with all the power and strength generated by her all consuming fury. The force of her blow sent him reeling backwards into his father and his sister. Had Ben not blindly grasped the edge of the buckboard, all three of them would have been knocked to the ground.

“HEY! WHAT’S THAT FOR?” Joe demanded, shocked and outraged.

“THAT’S for last night!” Lilly Beth snarled, glaring at the hapless Joe Cartwright with a look meant to kill. With that, she furiously tossed her head and continued on her way.

“Joseph?!” Ben demanded with a baleful glare, as he and Stacy helped set Joe back on his feet.

“I-I . . . I don’t know, Pa! Honest! I swear! I . . . don’t know!” Joe stammered, his hazel eyes round with complete and utter astonishment.

“Pa, we were all HOME last night,” Stacy said, favoring Lilly Beth Jared’s retreating back with a bewildered frown. “Between Hoss and me training the horses, and Joe breaking ‘em in . . . we were all pretty well done in.”

“I went to bed right after supper,” Joe insisted.

“He actually fell asleep about halfway THROUGH supper, Pa.”

“ . . . and we have house guests! We couldn’t very well go into town and leave Hop Sing’s relatives alone. That would’ve been very rude!”

“If you don’t believe US, you can ask Hop Sing where we were last night when we get home!”

“All right, settle down, Both of You,” Ben sighed. “I believe you.”

The profound look of relief that came to Joe’s face was almost comical.

Smiling, Ben placed his arms around Joe and Stacy’s shoulders. “What say we head for home?”

“Sounds real good to ME, Pa,” Joe said, with an emphatic nod.

“Me, too,” Stacy agreed.

 

Hoss examined the knee of Chubb’s right front leg, smiling with great satisfaction. With a grunt, he straightened, gently turning to the left, then the right, to stretch and limber up those aching lower back muscles. “Well, Boy, neither one of us is as young as we used t’ be,” he said, rubbing the side of his horse’s neck fondly.

Chubb snorted softly, then turned to munch on the fresh hay Hoss had just given him.

“Looks like that poultice Hop Sing whipped up ‘s worked for ya,” Hoss continued. “That swellin’ ‘s dang near gone. Another day o’ rest, ‘n you’ll be good as new.” His smile broadened. “Maybe even better.” He gently stroked Chubb’s left side, at the shoulder, ending with an affectionate pat. “Lemme getcha some fresh water.”

Hoss stepped out of Chubb’s stall, closing the lower half of the door behind him. As he leaned over to pick up the water bucket, sitting just outside Chubb’s stall, his ears picked up the sounds of horses and the buckboard. “Sounds like Li’l Brother’s just come home with Pa,” he murmured. “Be right back, Boy.”

The buckboard, driven by his younger brother, Joe, pulled into the yard just as Hoss was stepping out of the barn. Pa sat on the passengers’ side of the buckboard seat, with Stacy comfortably sandwiched in the middle. Blaze Face, Stacy’s horse, trotted behind, tethered to the back of the buckboard.

“Welcome back, Pa,” Hoss greeted Ben with a broad grin and a wave.

“Thank you, Hoss. It’s good to BE back!” Ben declared as he alighted from the buckboard, returning his biggest son’s smile with a warm, loving one of his own. He walked over and gave Hoss a big bear hug. His smile broadened as Hoss squeezed back with equal affection.

“Didja get t’ see that opera singer friend o’ yours, Pa?” He frowned. “What was her name?”

“Angela,” Ben replied, “and yes. I had supper with her and her husband, Carleton, after attending one of a whole series of piano recitals he’s been giving all over San Francisco.”

“Oh yeah, Angela!” Joe remembered with a wry smile. “Tell me something, Pa. Has she quieted down any since the last time we saw her?”

Ben shook his head. “Not a bit, Son. If anything, she’s more talkative than ever.”

A horrified look passed over Joe’s face, as he sarcastically rolled his eyes. “Poor Carleton!” he murmured with genuine heartfelt sympathy.

“Don’t you feel one bit sorry for Carleton, Joe,” Ben chuckled. “HE doesn’t mind in the least.”

“Really?!” Joe looked over at his father, astonished and perplexed, then shook his head. “Wow! Some guys are real gluttons for punishment!”

“At least she has interesting stories to tell,” Ben pointed out.

“Until she starts repeating herself,” Joe returned with out missing a beat. He, then, turned his attention to Hoss. “You want to give me a hand with those trunks, Big Brother?”

“Let’s just set ‘em on the porch for now,” Hoss said. “I’ll help ya lug ‘em up t’ Pa’s room AFTER, I see t’ the horses.”

“I guess I’d best get inside and meet Hop Sing’s relatives,” Ben said. “I’d better take the briefcase in with me, but you can leave the two small bags on the porch with the larger ones.”

“Here’s your briefcase, Pa.” Stacy reached into the back of the buckboard and retrieved it. “I’ll be in, soon as I take care of Blaze Face.”

“Hey, Li’l Sister, what’re YOU doin’ here?” Hoss demanded.

“I LIVE here, Big Brother, remember?”

“Smart aleck!” Hoss growled back affectionately. “I MEANT what’re y’ doin’ HERE, when y’ oughtta be in school?”

“Miss Ashcroft took sick.”

“I’ve been thinkin’, Hoss . . . . ”

“Really, Grandpa?” Stacy quipped. “I guess the strain’s what’s given you all those new gray hairs.”

“That’s it! Right after supper, I’m gonna sit down with Pa and have a real nice long talk with him about his daughter’s terrible lack of respect for her elders,” Joe countered with mock severity. “In the meantime . . . . ”

“In the meantime . . . . WHAT?” Stacy demanded.

“In the meantime, LITTLE Sister, I’ve got a good mind to turn you right over my knee and spank you good!”

“Hah! You and WHAT army?”

Ben smiled, as the teasing banter between his three younger offspring, along with their easy laughter, echoed in his ears. He had thoroughly enjoyed seeing, and catching up with old friends in San Francisco. But nothing would ever compare to the joy of seeing the faces of his sons and daughter, hearing their voices and their laughter, or feeling their arms around him in a great big bear hug. Half way between the barn and the house, he stopped and turned.

“The three of you can be as high spirited as you want to OUT here, just so long as you get your chores done.” His tone was stern, but his dark eyes sparkled with merriment, a fact not lost on the sons and daughter standing before him. “But the minute you step inside that house, I expect you to behave like half way civilized human beings, and NOT disgrace me in front of Hop Sing’s relatives. Understood?”

A chorus of ‘yes, Sir,’ and ‘understood, Pa,’ followed from voices a touch too solemn, issuing from faces too earnest.

Ben smiled. “Good! I’ll see you later inside.”

 

“Mister Cartwright, welcome home,” Hop Sing greeted him with warmly as he stepped through the front door. “Glad you back. Hop Sing present honorable relatives.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing, it’s good to be home,” Ben declared as he set his briefcase down on the floor next to the large grandfather’s clock standing next to the front door. “I’m most anxious to meet your honorable relatives.”

Ben followed Hop Sing over to the fireplace, where an elderly Chinese woman, with a stern face, sharp black eyes, and iron gray hair occupied the red leather chair. Three others stood close together, tightly clustered about the chair.

“Mister Cartwright, you remember Hop Sing’s sister, Li Mei-Ling.”

“Yes, Hop Sing, I remember Mrs. Li Mei-Ling VERY well, with fondness,” Ben said, offering the elder of the two women standing stiffly behind the chair, a warm, ingratiating smile. Aged in her early forties, the deeply etched lines of her weary, careworn face, lent her the appearance of someone much older.

Mei-Ling, her shoulders and head bowed, eyes deferentially lowered, stepped out from behind the red leather chair. “Mei-Ling honored Mister Cartwright remember her so well,” she acknowledged the introduction softly. “Mei-Ling also remember Mister Cartwright well.”

“I, too, am honored, Mei-Ling.”

“Mister Cartwright, this Li Hsing, honorable husband of Hop Sing’s sister,” Hop Sing politely nodded to the stern faced man, aged in somewhere between his late forties and early fifties, standing to the right of the elderly woman, still seated in the red leather chair.

Ben noted the strong resemblance in the faces of Li Hsing and the elderly woman. “I am honored to make your acquaintance, Mister Li,” he graciously acknowledged the introduction, then extended his hand. “Welcome to the Ponderosa and to my home. I apologize for not being here to welcome you personally when you and your family first arrived.”

Hsing accepted Ben’s extended hand and politely shook it. “Thank you, Mister Cartwright, honored to meet YOU. No apology necessary. Hop Sing and your very delightful sons and daughter make very welcome.”

“Thank you, for my sons and my daughter, and for me.”

“Mister Cartwright, this Yin-Ling,” Hop Sing continued, nodding to the younger of the two women standing behind the red leather chair. “She daughter of Li Hsing and Mei-Ling.”

Ben knew that Yin-Ling was a year older than his own daughter, possibly two. She stood quietly beside her mother, with head bowed, eyes respectfully averted. Slim and willowy, she had long, dark shining hair, plaited into a single braid that reached down to her waist, and a flawless golden complexion. Yin-Ling quietly, demurely moved out from behind the chair, keeping her head bowed and eyes riveted to the floor. “I am greatly honored and most pleased to meet you, Mister Cartwright,” Yin-Ling said demurely, her English flawless. “Thank you for your kindness and your hospitality.”

“I am very pleased to meet YOU, Yin-Ling,” Ben said quietly. “Your graciousness adds much to the beauty of my home.”

“Thank you for your kind compliment, Mister Cartwright.”

“Li Xing, Hop Sing’s nephew not here,” Hop Sing said, his face darkening with anger.

“Mister Cartwright, Li Hsing humbly apologize for wayward son,” Hsing murmured contritely.

Before Ben could respond to Hsing’s apology, Hop Sing turned toward his brother-in-law and snapped out a short, clipped string of Chinese syllables. Hsing scowled, and responded with a terse single syllable. Mei-Ling quickly interposed herself between her brother and her husband, looking from one to the other as she spoke. Though Ben couldn’t understand the words of her native tongue, the pleading in her voice came through very clearly.

Hop Sing glared at his brother-in-law, then took a deep breath in an attempt to compose himself. “Mister Cartwright, this Mrs. Li Yin-Kuan. She grandmother of Hop Sing’s brother-in-law, and venerable head of honorable Li family.” He, then, turned to the old woman and formally introduced her to Ben in Chinese.

The old woman glanced up, her black eyes meeting Ben’s dark brown ones without flinching or looking away. She quietly spoke a few words in Chinese.

“Mister Cartwright, Mrs. Li say she very pleased to meet you. She also thank you for very kind invitation to your home,” Hop Sing deftly translated.

“Thank you, Hop Sing.” Ben turned from Hop Sing to Yin-Kuan. “Mrs. Li, I am most honored and pleased to meet you and have the opportunity to become acquainted with you and your lovely family.” He smiled. “For that, I thank YOU.”

Hop Sing solemnly translated, drawing a small, shy Mona Lisa smile from the old woman. She gestured for Ben to sit down on the settee, on the end closet to the chair she occupied, then turned to her son and daughter-in-law. A few brief words were exchanged between herself and Mei-Ling. Mei-Ling answered, then turned to her husband, speaking to him rapidly in Chinese. He nodded. The two of them bowed to the old woman, then turned and headed for the kitchen.

Hop Sing groaned. His normally robust complexion had gone completely gray.

“Hop Sing?” Ben pressed, concerned. “Hop Sing, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?”

“Venerable Mrs. Li want Mister Cartwright to talk. Together. Back, forth,” Hop Sing murmured dolefully. “She ask Hop Sing for to translate.”

Ben favored his old friend with a bemused look. “That’s all right, Hop Sing. I’d like nothing better than to sit down and converse with Mrs. Li.”

“Mister Cartwright not understand. Mrs. Li want Hop Sing make Chinese to English and back again to Chinese. Mrs. Li also want Mei-Ling and Hsing cook dinner so Hop Sing translate.”

“I see. You don’t want Mei-Ling and Hsing in YOUR kitchen.”

“Worse than THAT, Mister Cartwright, much, much, MUCH worse!” Hop Sing groaned. “Reason Hop Sing learn cooking . . . Mei-Ling LOUSY cook.”

“Don’t you think you’re exaggerating things a mite?” Ben asked, his eyes twinkling with amusement. “No body can be THAT bad.”

“You see, Mister Cartwright! You see!” Hop Sing promised darkly.

 

“Stacy?”

Stacy glanced up sharply upon hearing her name, then smiled when she saw Hop Sing’s young niece walking into the barn. “Over here, Yin-Ling,” she responded.

“Where?”

“Here! With Blaze Face!”

Yin-Ling carefully made her way across the barn floor, toward the stall occupied by Stacy’s horse, a big bay gelding, with a rich reddish brown coat, black mane and tail, and a white stripe running down the length of his face. She spotted her roommate and newfound friend standing inside her horse’s stall, giving him a vigorous brushing. “Your honorable papa sent me out here to tell you that dinner will be ready very soon,” she said, returning Stacy’s smile.

“Thank you. I’ll be finished in a few minutes.”

Yin-Ling leaned against the closed bottom door leading into Blaze Face’s stall, watching Stacy brush him. “You care a lot about Blaze Face don’t you.”

“Yeah,” Stacy nodded. “It was love at first sight for both of us, I think, since Pa and Hoss let me watch him being born.”

Yin-Ling shuddered. Her hands flew to her mouth and her complexion lost a significant amount of its robust golden hue. “Y-Your papa actually allowed you to . . . to watch . . . . ”

“It wasn’t as bad as all that,” Stacy said kindly, her eyes misting at the memory. “I thought it was pretty awesome watching a new life coming into the world. It was a real easy birth. All WE did was stand there and watch. A few minutes after he was born, Blaze Face was on his feet moving toward his mother . . . and breakfast. Guinevere . . . she’s Blaze Face’s mother . . . let Hoss come over and gently stroke his back, and amazingly . . . she let ME, too.”

“Amazingly?”

Stacy nodded. “Guinevere knew Hoss pretty well, and knew HE could be trusted not to hurt her baby, but she didn’t know me at all when Blaze Face was born. Yet, she let me come over and touch him, too. When I did? He turned for a second and looked at me and . . . well, something clicked. I can’t really explain it, except to say that we both knew that we belonged together. Pa and Hoss knew it, too. When we sat down to breakfast later on that morning, Pa told me that Blaze Face was mine.”

“I . . . remember a time when my family had horses,” Yin-Ling said slowly. “It was a long time ago, and I was very, very young. I had a pony I named Buttercup. She was a golden color, like your father’s Buck. She was sold when my family’s fortunes changed. Perhaps . . . once I am married, I will once more have a horse of my own and be able to ride.”

“Have you met him yet?”

“Yan-Chou?”

Stacy nodded.

Yin-Ling smiled. “He and I met in San Francisco last month, while his venerable grandparents and great uncle worked out terms of the marriage contract with my honorable great-grandmother and my parents. Much of our time together was strictly chaperoned, but . . . . ” A sly, impish smile slowly spread across her lips. “Yan-Chou and I managed to slip away from the prying eyes of great-grandmother, grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles.”

“What . . . kind of man is he?” Stacy asked, surprised by the mischievous delight sparking in Yin-Ling’s eyes.

“Are you asking me if I love him?”

“Yeah, I guess I am,” Stacy admitted sheepishly.

“The answer is yes. I love Yan-Chou and know that he is the man I want very much to marry.”

“After . . . after having only met him that one time?” Stacy asked, incredulous.

“It’s the same with Yan-Chou and me as it was with you and Blaze Face. We looked at each other and knew that we belong together.”

“It was the same way when I first met Pa, Hoss, and Joe,” Stacy said thoughtfully, as she finished brushing Blaze Face’s coat. She patted her horse’s rear flank affectionately, and then started cleaning the old hay from his feeding trough. “We had no idea in the world then, that we were family, by blood, but we sure knew that we belonged together.”

Yin-Ling’s smile broadened. “I am glad you, your papa, and your brothers found each other.”

“Thank you, Yin-Ling. I am, too. I also hope you and Yan-Chou will be very happy together.” Stacy gave Blaze Face fresh hay to eat, and plenty of fresh straw for the bottom of the stall. “Will the wedding take place on Friday night?”

Yin-Ling shook her head regretfully. “That won’t happen for another year.”

“Wow! A whole YEAR?!”

“The time will pass very quickly, Stacy. We . . . my family and I . . . will have many preparations to make for a traditional Chinese wedding. I will be very busy.”

“Hey, Little Sister . . . and you, too, Yin-Ling! Better shake a leg!”

Stacy and Yin-Ling both turned their heads toward the open barn door, where they saw Joe Cartwright stepping over the threshold.

“Hop Sing says dinner’ll be ready in two minutes.”

“You two go on ahead,” Stacy replied. “I’ll be in as soon as I give Blaze Face some fresh water and wash up.”

 

“Dinner serve,” Mei-Ling announced with a proud smile, as she moved through the door between dining room and kitchen. “Mei-Ling make roast beef.”

“Roast beef,” Hoss echoed, licking his chops in anticipation. “My favorite.”

“ANYTHING having to do with food is your favorite, Big Brother,” Joe quipped, with a playful elbow jab to Hoss’ side.

“Joseph Francis . . . . ” Ben growled in warning, his eyes moving to Mrs. Li, seated at the foot of the table.

Joe swallowed nervously and immediately sat up with poker straight posture.

“I sit beef here,” Mei-Ling said, as she placed the serving tray in front of Ben. “Mister Cartwright head of house. He cut.”

Hoss’ face fell the minute he laid eyes upon the shriveled hunk of meat, charred black, sitting in the center of the platter. Joe and Stacy tried hard to hide their own dismay, as did Yin-Ling, seated between Stacy and her own father, Li-Hsing. None could claim any degree of success in this endeavor. Ben made a point of focusing his eyes on the cutlery, wholly ignoring the disdainful ‘I-told-you-so’ look from Hop Sing. The only ones at the table who seemed not to notice how the roast had turned out were the ‘chef’s’ husband, Li-Hsing and his venerable grandmother.

“All right, Everyone . . . please! Pass your plates forward,” Ben invited with much reluctance.

“Pa,” Hoss whispered. Ben duly noted that his biggest son’s eyes were unusually bright and that his lower lip quivered slightly. “Pa, you can’t . . . that roast is burned.”

“It’s probably just burned on the OUTSIDE,” Ben whispered back. “Cut away the outer hull, you’ll probably find that it’s perfectly edible on the INSIDE, if a little well done.” A moment later, the Cartwright clan patriarch found, much to his horror and chagrin, that he was completely wrong on both counts. Just under the charred outside, the meat was bright red and very cool to the touch.

“Pa, may I please b-be excused?” Hoss asked, his voice unsteady.

“No,” Ben hissed back, sotto voce. “You can sit there and suffer with the REST of us.”

“Dadburn it, Pa . . . . ”

This drew a sharp glare from his father.

Hoss exhaled a long, melancholy sigh. “Yessir,” he murmured, sorely missing those by-gone years in which the family had briefly owned a dog.

“Mashed potato,” Mei-Ling blithely announced as she reappeared again from the kitchen, “and biscuits Mei-Ling make from scratch.” She placed the former in the center of the table between her husband and her brother, and the latter next to Joe.

Stacy bit down on her lower lip hard, so not to noticeably grimace as Hsing stoically spooned out a generous portion of what appeared to be potato soup, for himself first, then for his grandmother. The dismayed look on Yin-Ling’s face and the sarcastic roll of Hop Sing’s dark eyes with accompanying sigh of much long suffering gave lie to the concept of inscrutable Oriental. Hoss picked up his napkin and began to dab at his eyes, when Joe took a biscuit from the breadbasket and dropped it onto his plate with a loud clatter.

“Mister Hoss!” Mei-Ling exclaimed in surprise upon returning again to the dining room with a gravy boat filled with a congealed, solid mass balanced in one hand and a plate of cremated pancakes carefully balanced in the other. “What matter with Mister Hoss? Mister Hoss got eye trouble?”

“Allergies!” Joe and Stacy chorused together in perfect unison.

Down at the other end of the table, Hop Sing muttered something wholly unintelligible.

“What was that, Hop Sing?” Ben demanded with a bewildered frown.

“Irish ‘complimentary’ words,” Hop Sing retorted with a complacent smile. “Hop Sing learn long, long time, many, many years ago from father of Joe friend, Missy Lotus O’Toole.”

At the far end of the table, Yin-Kuan glanced up, her dark brown, nearly coal black eyes meeting and holding Ben’s. She uttered a few words in Chinese, as she deftly spooned up a generous portion of liquid ‘mashed potatoes’ mixed with the gelatinous gravy, then turned expectantly toward Hop Sing, seated at the table on her right.

“Mrs. Li ask Mister Cartwright if he arrange for bank to send jade statues . . . bride price to family of groom when he in San Francisco,” Hop Sing ably translated.

“Yes, I did,” Ben replied. “They will arrive in Virginia City tomorrow afternoon on the four o’clock stage. Three jade statues. Sun, Moon, and Mercy.”

“Moon is Chang-O, Sun Hou-Yi,” Hsing explained. “Lovers, husband and wife, only come together one time a year, when Chinese have moon festival. That why full moon most beautiful then. Chang-O meet husband and lover, Hou-Yi.”

“Chang-O take pity on lovers, on husband and wife, most ‘specially when they apart,” Mei-Ling added, as she gamely sawed into one of the three rock hard biscuits sitting on the edge of her plate.

“Statues bring chi energy of Chang-O, Hou-Yi, and Kuan-Yin . . . she Goddess of Mercy . . . to bless marriage of Yin-Ling and Yan-Chou,” Hsing added. “Jade statues very old. Carved by Yang Wei-Chu, much renowned artist many, many years ago. Li-Hsing venerable great grandmother once say Yang Wei-Chu give to Li Family as gift.”

“Really?” Ben murmured, visibly impressed.

This prompted a question from Yin-Kuan.

“Mrs. Li ask if you know work of Yang Wei-Chu, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing translated.

“I’ve seen his work in the art museum in San Francisco,” Ben replied. “In fact, I had the pleasure of attending a special exhibition of his work when I was there two years ago on business. Yang Wei-Chu’s jade pieces are nothing less than exquisite, with all that fine detail work. Apart from that, however, I’m afraid I can’t claim any degree of being knowledgeable.”

Hop Sing immediately translated Ben’s words into Chinese, prompting a reply from the venerable old woman seated between at the other end of the table.

“Mrs. Li say jade statues last of Li Family treasure,” Hop Sing translated with a touch of sadness. “Bride price to groom. Of course will stay in Li Family pass down to Yin-Ling children and grandchildren.”

Hop Sing’s words prompted a dark, angry glare from Li-Hsing. “That wrong. That very, very, VERY wrong!” he exclaimed heatedly. “Jade statues pass down father to son to HIS son over many, many generations since Yang Wei-Chu make, give to Li Family. Jade statues should pass to XING, not Yin-Ling.”

“Mrs. Li RIGHT make statues bride price,” Hop Sing growled back. “Xing no good. If HE get statues, he SELL statues to highest bidder.”

Hsing responded with a long string of terse, clipped Chinese syllables.

Hop Sing blanched, but yet found the wherewithal to respond in kind.

Yin-Kuan immediately neatly nipped the argument in the bud with a short, terse syllable, spoken very softly, yet delivered with a ferocious scowl, leveled first at her own grandson, then at Hop Sing. The two men lapsed into a sullen silence.

“Come on, Everyone, EAT!” Mei-Ling urged. “Mei-Ling slave over very hot stove, make delicious dinner. Eat!”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“I, uhh . . . I’m not feeling very well,” Joe said in a small voice. That was the pure unvarnished truth, too, or would be if he looked at the results of Mei-Ling’s cooking long enough.

Ben studied his youngest son with a jaundiced eye. Joe’s face DID appear to be a shade or two paler than normal. His face lost even more color when his eyes fell on Hsing eating the food on his plate with gusto.

“Pa, I think Li’l Brother here needs some fresh air,” Hoss said quickly. “Lots, ‘n lots, ‘n lots o’ good fresh clean air.”

“Alright, Hoss, take him on outside,” Ben agreed. A few moments later, he was surprised to hear the sound of horse hooves leaving the yard outside at a fast gallop.

 

“What’s the matter with you, Big Brother?” Joe demanded. “You suddenly take sick of something?”

“No,” Hoss sighed, as he stared dejectedly into a glass of beer, virtually untouched.

The Cartwright brothers were now seated together at the Silver Dollar Saloon, at one of the tables in the very back. Less than an hour before, they, rather Joe, had just polished off a big dinner at the International Hotel’s fine restaurant, of crispy fried chicken, mashed potatoes with chicken gravy, green beans slow cooked with bacon in a savory cream sauce, light and fluffy biscuits made by Gretchen Braun herself from an old, time honored family recipe, with generous portions of butter and jam, and coffee. All they could drink. Dessert was apple pie, another specialty of the proprietor, Gretchen Braun. Joe had indulged himself had eaten two pieces.

“Something’s not right with you, Big Brother,” Joe pressed. “I not only ate MY dinner, but I ended up eating most of YOURS.”

Hoss sighed. “Awww, I dunno, Li’l Brother. I guess . . . maybe . . . I’m havin’ a real bad attack o’ conscience.”

“Conscience?! What on earth for?”

“For runnin’ out on Pa ‘n Li’l Sister like we did . . . . ”

“You were hungry! So was I!” Joe said defensively. “For something edible. I don’t apologize for that, not no how, not no way!”

“But, Joe . . . I out ‘n out LIED t’ Pa.”

“When?”

“When I told him you needed lots o’ good, fresh, clean air.”

“Hoss, that was NO lie! If you hadn’t have gotten me out of there when you did . . . well, let’s just say I really would’ve been sick. Very sick! In fact, I STILL feel a little queasy just thinking about it.”

“But, Joe . . . . ”

“What?”

“We didn’t tell Pa we was comin’ into town.”

“That’s because we didn’t know it ourselves . . . exactly . . . kinda sorta, I guess. We just plain got on our horses for a nice brisk ride in all that nice clean fresh air and we, uhhh . . . sorta ended up here.”

Hoss took a moment to consider the matter.

“Since we just happened to be in town . . . AND very hungry, we decided to stop in at the International Hotel restaurant.”

“Is . . . THAT what we’re gonna tell Pa?”

“Pretty much, though I think we’d better leave out the part about going to the International Hotel restaurant.”

“Then YOU’D best be the one t’ tell him,” Hoss said. “You know I can’t lie to him ‘n keep a straight face.”

“Hoss, we WON’T be lying,” Joe argued. “We’re just condensing the story for the sake of time.”

Hoss exhaled a long, melancholy sigh.

“How many cards, Boss?”

Joe frowned and turned in the direction from whence that voice had issued. It’s cadence, it’s rise and fall in pitch, all seemed somehow very familiar. Two tables away, he saw three men intent on what appeared to be a high stakes poker game, given that tall pile of cash in the middle of the table.

“Boss, how many cards?”

No answer.

“Boss . . . . ”

Silence.

“Hey, Boss!”

“Hmmmm?”

Hoss and Joe blanched at the sound of that deep baritone ‘hmmmm.’ With eyes the size of serving platters, the younger Cartwright brothers very slowly, very reluctantly turned their heads in unison toward the poker game two tables away. Both swallowed very nervously upon catching sight of a big man, with a full head of thick silver white hair sitting with his back to them.

“Joe . . . . ” Hoss whispered, his blue eyes glued to the back of the silver haired man’s head. “That’s— ”

Joe rubbed his eyes and vigorously shook his head. “No! It can’t be!”

“Y-You sure?”

“Come ON, Hoss! He was at the dinner table when we left for cryin’ out loud . . . in his work clothes! There’s no possible way he could’ve run upstairs, changed his clothes, and still beat US into town!”

“I dunno . . . . ”

“Ok, ok, don’t stare! We’ll just lie low, and act casual! First chance we get of not being spotted, we slip out the back door.”

“BOSS!” The man whose voice had initially caught Joe’s attention yelled, startling the silver haired man so badly he had almost toppled right out of his seat.

“WHAT?” the silver haired man yelled back, upon recovering his composure. Joe and Hoss swallowed nervously again and began to slide very slowly under the table.

“I ASKED ya how many cards!”

“You still got your mind on that frumpy little schoolmarm?” the third man queried. He was a big man, the exact size and shape of Hoss Cartwright. His face was completely masked by the deep shadow cast by his white ten-gallon hat.

“You will NOT talk about her in that manner,” the silver haired man said curtly, leveling a withering glare at the two men sharing his table. “When you speak of her in MY hearing, you WILL speak of her with respect.”

“Y’ know? I think he DOES have a fondness for the li’l lady,” the first man teased.

“By golly, I think you’re right,” the big man agreed. An amused smile spread slowly across his lips. “Don’t THAT just beat all! A man like YOU, so called ‘so-fist-i-cated’ man of the world, falling head over heels for a dowdy little old maid schoolmarm.”

The silver haired man slammed his hand down on the table and glared over at the biggest of his two new associates. “You will apologize, then take back that remark.”

“Yep!” The first man, the card dealer guffawed. “He’s in head over heels all right!”

“No accounting for taste, Older Brother,” the big man shook his head. “I mean she’s kinda pretty, in her own li’l way, I s’pose, but I’LL take— ” He was abruptly silenced by a swift, powerful right cross to the left side of his face, delivered with force sufficient to topple his chair and lay him out, sprawled ignobly on the floor. Scowling, his hand immediately moved to his holster.

The silver haired man, however, moved even faster, whipping out his own weapon before the big man could so much as touch his. “You take back every last word of that insulting, condescending remark you made about Miss Ashcroft just now,” he ordered curtly, “unless you want your older brother here to suddenly find himself an only child.”

“Alright . . . alright, put that thing away. I take it all back. I’m sorry I ever said it in the first place.”

The big silver haired man returned his gun to its holster. “Get up,” he spat.

The big man rose to his feet slowly, keeping a wary eye glued to the big silver haired man’s face.

“I’ll take FOUR cards,” the silver haired man said coldly, keeping his own baleful eye on the big man. He yanked four cards from his hand and angrily slapped them down on the table in front of the dealer.

The dealer dealt four cards, all the while exchanging smug grins with the big man.

“I’LL take one card,” the big man said, his eyes moving to the enormous pile of greenbacks dominating the center of the table. He began to lick his lips in greedy anticipation.

“Dealer takes TWO cards. Alright, everybody ante up. It’ll cost ya five bucks to stay in.”

Each of the three men placed five dollars onto mound in their midst.

“OK, Boss, you open,” the dealer said.

“I’ll open with a two dollar raise.” The silver haired man dropped a pair of silver dollars on top of the tall pile of green.

“I’m going to see your raise, and up it by three more,” the big man said, his grin broadening.

The dealer placed a five into the growing pile. “Up it by one,” he said, adding another silver dollar.

“I’ll see YOUR one, Shorty, and raise it three more,” the silver haired man said.

“Well, I’LL see your raise and up it by TEN!” The big man, now grinning from ear-to-ear, slapped a ten-dollar bill onto the pile.

“I’m out!” Shorty, the dealer, muttered, slamming his hand face down onto the table.

“Well, Boss?”

“I’m gonna see YOUR raise, Big Jack, and raise it by ten more,” the silver haired man said, with a secretive cat-that-ate-the-canary grin. He removed his wallet from the inside pocket of his jacket and extracted a twenty dollar bill. “Your move.”

The man addressed as Big Jack glared sullenly at the twenty he had just laid on the very top of the already large mound of money for a moment, then shrugged. “I think you’re bluffing!” he declared stoutly.

“Maybe I am, and then again, maybe I’m NOT.”

“I got a good mind to CALL your bluff, and wipe that snooty smile off your big ugly face at the same time.”

“Your prerogative,” the silver haired man said indifferently. “Like I just said, it’s YOUR move.”

“I got a good mind to teach YOU a real hard lesson,” Big Jack said smugly, with a faint, condescending note. “So I’m gonna raise your ten and up it by TWENTY.”

The silver haired man watched as Big Jack counted out the money and placed it very pointedly over top his twenty. “There’s your twenty, and I’M gonna raise it by fifty.” He smiled complacently. “I’m a slow learner.”

Tiny beads of sweat dotted Big Jack’s brow as he glared down at the silver haired man’s fifty-dollar raise. “You think you’re really one hot hunk o’ goat cheese don’t you?” he snarled.

“It’ll cost you fifty to stay in the game.”

“Alright! Here’s your blamed fifty!” Big Jack counted out the amount from the remainder of the rolled bills left in his pocket and slammed it down on top of the pile hard enough to slosh the beer in their mugs.

“Dealer calls,” the man addressed as Shorty interjected very quickly. “Big Jack?”

“Four kings,” Big Jack said, “heart, club, spade, diamond. Let’s see ya top THAT . . . if ya can.”

The silver haired man adroitly fanned his cards with a flourish and placed them down on the table, face up. Aces all, diamond, spade, heart, and club. He reached out his hand to claim the pile.

“Not so fast,” Big Jack growled, drawing his pistol.

“Why not? I won fair and square. Looks like Lady Luck decided to smile down on ME tonight.”

“Lady Luck and a couple of aces up your sleeve.”

“You can’t prove that!”

“Oh yeah?” Big Jack countered. “I know for fact that none o’ those cards you were dealt was an ace.” His face contorted in agony when Shorty’s booted foot slammed down onto his own.

“Oh? And how could you possibly have known THAT, Big Jack?” the silver haired man demanded, leveling a cold hard glare at the big gunslinger. “Hmmm?”

Big Jack lapsed into an angry, sullen silence.

“I thought so.” The silver haired man placed his hand on the pile and drew it across the table in front of him. He gathered all the paper money together and slipped it into his wallet, then pocketed all of the silver dollars, except for two. “Here y’ are, Boys.” He tossed Shorty and Big Jack each a single silver dollar. “Don’t spend it all in one place. Ciao!” With that, he rose and sauntered toward the swinging doors of the Silver Dollar Saloon.

“That no good lousy son uva sea cook! I got half a mind to air out that fancy-schmancy jacket o’ his . . . with a few real well placed bullet holes!” Big Jack muttered angrily under his breath.

“AFTER we pull that heist tomorrow, you can drill him with all the lead y’ want, Big Brother,” Shorty said tersely. “UNTIL then, we need him!”

“Alright!” Big Jack snapped. “But he’d better mind his p’s and q’s, ‘til then, or so help me, I’ll— ”

“Finish your beer,” Shorty growled as he shoved the untouched mug of beer over in front of his brother.

“Hey, Joe. Buy me a drink?”

Joe swallowed nervously as Laurie Lee Bonner’s voice fell upon his ears. He glanced up, expecting to see her standing right next to his chair. The tall, willowy barmaid was nowhere to be seen.

“Sure thing, Honey. What’ll ya have?”

It was the dealer. Joe, from his and Hoss’ vantage point under the table, glanced up toward the table, now occupied by two: Shorty and Big Jack. He was very much surprised to find Laurie Lee Bonner sitting on the former’s lap, with one arm around his neck. She signaled to the bartender with a graceful wave of her hand.

Jim Dover, the new guy Sam had been hired a month ago to help out during the evenings, nodded and waved back. He motioned to Sam, then pointed over toward the table occupied by the Laurie Lee and her newfound friends.

“ ‘Evenin’, Joe,” Jim drawled, as he approached the table.

Hoss and Joe looked over at each other in complete bewilderment.

“What’ll ya have?”

“A bottle o’ whiskey and TWO glasses. The lady and I will have it upstairs in HER room.”

“I’ll fetch it right up.”

“Thanks, Jim. Put it on my tab.” Laurie Lee leapt to her feet with the grace of a gazelle. Shorty, the dealer rose, his face masked by shadow, and slipped his arm firmly about the saloon girl’s shoulders. “Now you behave yourself, Big Brother,” he admonished the big man still seated at the table.

“Aggh!” the big man snorted derisively, as he rose, and stretched. “I’m just gonna g’won back to the hotel ‘n turn in. We gotta big day ahead of us t’morrow.”

“Goodnight, Big J—I mean Hoss!”

“Hunh?!” Hoss Cartwright, the one sitting under the table next to his younger brother grunted, thoroughly perplexed.

“What’s the matter NOW, Hoss?” Joe demanded, troubled by the worried, confused look on his big brother’s face.

“I couldda SWORN that guy over there with Laurie Lee . . . the one SHE called JOE . . . just now called that big fella HOSS.”

“You’re imagining things!” Joe immediately dismissed the notion, then turned thoughtful. “Of course that big fella’s kinda built like you . . . . ”

“And the card dealer’s kinda built like YOU.”

“No way, I— ” Joe’s words ended abruptly in a gasp of complete and utter astonishment. His complexion turned several shades paler to a sickly gray-green color, and his jaw dropped.

An anxious frown knotted Hoss’ brow as he turned toward his baby brother. “Joe?”

No answer.

“Hey, Joe . . . . ” Hoss placed his hand on his younger brother’s shoulder and shook him gently.

Still no answer. Joe’s eyes were riveted to the Laurie Lee Bonner and the short man, now stepping from deep shadow into the light.

“H-Hoss?”

“What is it, Li’l Brother?”

“Either I’m d-dreaming or . . . or I’m having one heck of an outta body experience,” Joe barely managed to stammer.

Hoss’ frown deepened as his concern for Joe grew. “You all right, Li’l Brother?”

Joe swallowed and pointed.

Hoss’ eyes followed the line of Joe’s extended arm and pointing finger to the card dealer and Laurie Lee Bonner as they started up the stairs. “Holy Jumpin’ Catfish!” he whispered, shocked and stunned, upon seeing the card dealer’s face now completely exposed to the light. “That guy’s a dead ringer f-for . . . f-for . . . Joe! He could be your twin brother!”

“You see the resemblance too?”

“Y-yeah . . . . ”

“Good!” Joe exhaled a long sigh of relief. “THAT means I’m not hallucinating!”

“Joe?”

“Y-Yeah?”

“I wanna go home,” Hoss said in a small, almost child-like voice, his eyes still glued to the stairs where Shorty, his brother’s double, had gone with Laurie Lee Bonner.

“I’m with YOU, Big Brother.”

The Cartwright brothers, their shoulders hunched, faces tilted toward the floor, wove their way among the tables, casting the occasional quick, furtive glance at the big silver haired man standing at the bar. Suddenly, less than three feet from the door, Hoss stopped, mid-stride. Joe collided hard against his bigger brother’s rock hard muscular back.

“Joe?” Hoss turned upon hearing his younger brother groan. His big, baby blue eyes grew round with apprehension upon seeing Joe, with both hands cupped protectively around his nose, tottering alarmingly from side to side. With heart in mouth, Hoss placed two steadying hands on both of Joe’s shoulders. “Joe? You all right?”

“No!” Joe snapped irritably. “I’m NOT all right! I’m in agony!”

“What in the world happened to ya, Boy?”

“YOU, ya big lummox!”

“What did I do?”

“You STOPPED!” Joe growled. “The NEXT time you decide to stop suddenly like that, wouldja mind giving me some kinda warning or something?!”

“Sorry,” Hoss murmured contritely.

“It’s broken,” he groaned. “I just know it’s broken.”

“Y-You wanna stop by Doc Martin’s office . . . let HIM have a look at ya?”

Joe sighed and sarcastically rolled his eyes toward the heavens. “Hoss, are you outta your ever lovin’ MIND?! I can’t go to Doc Martin’s!”

A bewildered frown knotted Hoss’ brow. “Why not?”

“Will ya keep your voice DOWN?!” Joe hissed, daring another look at the big silver haired man standing at the bar. “Come on, let’s get outta here!” He made a quick exit through the saloon doors, shoving his older, bigger brother through ahead of him.

“Joe . . . . ” Hoss ventured, once they were safely out on the street.

“What?”

“Why CAN’T ya go see Doc Martin?”

“Think about it! How does a man USUALLY come by a broken nose?”

Hoss took a long moment to think the matter over. “I guess most men come by a broken nose in a saloon brawl,” he finally replied. Bewilderment quickly gave way to utter dismay. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh! Doc Martin tells Pa, Pa knows we came into town . . . figures we went to the Silver Dollar and got into a fight . . . you ‘n me land clear up to our necks in heap big bag o’ real deep sheep dip.”

“Joe?”

“What is it NOW?” Joe snapped irritably, as the pair crossed the board sidewalk toward the hitching post where their horses were tethered.

“What ARE we gonna tell Pa?”

“About WHAT?”

“About that broken hose?”

“As long as there’s not a whole lotta swelling, we don’t need to tell Pa anything,” Joe replied, taking no pains to conceal his growing annoyance.

“ . . . uuh, Joe?

“NOW what?”

“You got swellin,’ ” Hoss said, “and a couple o’ shiners pretty well on their way to turnin’ into a pair o’ REAL beauties.”

“Oh no!” Joe groaned, burying his face against Cochise’s front shoulder. “Hoss, tell me something . . . . ”

“What?”

“Why didja stop like that for, anyway?” Joe demanded petulantly.

“I . . . . ” Hoss ruefully shook his head. “Sorry, Joe, it’s nothin’, ‘cept maybe my eyes playin’ tricks on me. It’s just that I . . . oh forget it!”

“It’s just that you WHAT?” Joe pressed.

“I thought I saw Hop Sing’s nephew walkin’ in the door.”

 

Li Xing, Yin-Ling’s older brother and Hop Sing’s nephew, boldly sauntered into the Silver Dollar Saloon, blissfully ignorant of having been glimpsed, if only for a brief moment, by Hoss. He paused briefly just inside the door to allow his eyes to adjust from the bright sunlit late afternoon outside to the dimmer illumination inside, then glanced around the public room as his vision cleared. The big, silver haired man he sought stood at the farthest end of the bar nursing a glass of whiskey. Xing walked down the length of the bar, strutting with all the confidence of a rutting shanghai rooster. He sidled right up along side the man and tapped him on the shoulder. “Mister Meredith . . . . ”

Bradley Meredith [6], the big silver haired man, turned and glared down at the young Chinese man. “How many times do I have to tell you to address me as Mister CARTWRIGHT?” he admonished through clenched teeth and jaw, rigidly set.

“Then you’d best keep a sharp look out, ‘Mister Cartwright,’ because the REAL Mister Cartwright just returned home from San Francisco this morning,” Xing said sardonically.

Bradley scowled. This was most unexpected. He had an associate, one who owed him many favors, keeping him posted about Ben Cartwright’s lumber negotiations with the railroad. The haggling over terms for a proposed contract had actually gone on a few days longer than Bradley had anticipated. He figured that Ben would linger in San Francisco, enjoying the delights such a big city had to offer, but such was not the case. “What about the dowry?”

“It will be arriving tomorrow afternoon on the four o’clock stage.”

Bradley smiled. The heist, at least, would go off as planned at a spot already selected an hour’s ride outside the environs of Virginia City. He lifted the glass of whiskey to his lips and downed the remainder in a single gulp, then started for the door.

“ . . . . uuhhh, Mister M—CARTWRIGHT!” Xing called after him.

“What?”

“My, ummm commission?”

“If all goes well, you will be paid the amount agreed.”

“When?” Xing demanded pointedly.

“You know the location of the Virginia City Social Club?” Bradley Meredith asked.

“The establishment run by Mrs. McPherson? Absolutely, yes I do,” Xing answered very quickly.

“Good! Be in the alley between the Virginia City Social Club and the Pink Flamingo Saloon,” Bradley ordered. “If all goes well, a couple of associates will meet you there and pay you your commission. If NOT . . . . ” He let his voice trail away to ominous silence.

 

“Eric Hoss Cartwright . . . and YOU, too, Joseph Francis . . . where have you been all this time?” Ben demanded, with a ferocious scowl, the minute his two younger sons stepped through the front door. “You left right after dinner, and NOW its nearly time for supper.”

“We was out gettin’ Li’l Joe here all that nice fresh air so ‘s he’d feel better,” Hoss said a little too quickly.

“Looks like all that fresh air did you more harm than good, Son,” Ben observed wryly, noting Joe’s nose swollen to three times its normal size, and the lurid purple-black bruising on his cheeks and under his eyes.

“I w-was doin’ better, Pa . . . ‘til I, ummm . . . accidentally walked into that real big tall pine tree,” Joe groaned, directing a disdainful glare at his brother.

“Get him on up to bed, Hoss,” Ben said, “then you’d best see to the afternoon chores . . . ‘specially since you have yours AND you brother’s to do.”

“What?!” Hoss’ face fell.

Joe quickly averted his face to the floor, and bit his lip, in a desperate attempt to keep back the smug, triumphant smile that threatened to burst forth upon his lips.

“You heard me, Son.”

“I hafta do ALL o’ Joe’s chores, too?!”

“SOMEONE has to do his chores,” Ben said firmly, “seeing as how your brother’s in no shape to do them himself.”

“Can’t Li’l Sister give me a hand?”

“No, she’s upstairs doing her homework.”

“Pa, she can’t possibly have homework!” Hoss protested. “School was called on account o’ Miss Ashcroft bein’ sick.”

“I know she didn’t have any assigned homework for tonight, Hoss,” Ben said. “I also know that Miss Ashcroft is a very demanding teacher, who’s going to grade the homework assignments that much harder since the students had an unexpected day off today, so I sent your sister upstairs to go over her reading assignments and check back over the written ones.”

“Oh,” Hoss sighed crestfallen.

“Also, if your brother gets any worse, I MAY have to send Stacy into town to fetch Doctor Martin,” Ben added.

“Yes, Sir,” Hoss sighed glumly, as he half carried Joe over toward the stairs.

Once out of their father’s line of vision, Joe relaxed, allowing that triumphant smile to break through. “So . . . you get to do YOUR chores and MINE, eh, Big Brother?”

Hoss glared murderously down at his younger brother. “So help me, Joseph Francis Cartwright, one more word outta YOU, an’ Pa’s gonna be sendin’ Li’l Sister t’ fetch Doc Martin!”

“How do YOU know?” Joe demanded.

Hoss balled his hand in a tight fist and brought it down very close to Joe’s face. “I know, Li’l Brother, ‘cause I’m gonna see to it!”

 

Bradley Meredith woke up the next morning in Judith Ashcroft’s double bed, as was fast becoming his custom. He slowly opened his eyes and stretched. “Good morning, Ju— ” he stopped speaking abruptly as his right hand descended down on her side of the bed, coming into contact with mattress instead of warm body. He turned over and discovered, much to his surprise and chagrin, that she was gone. “Judy?!”

The soft sounds of someone coughing fell upon his ears. Bradley immediately sat up and turned toward the closed door to her dressing room, where the sounds seemed to originate.

“Judy?”

No answer. The coughing continued. Bradley scrambled out of the bed, while reaching for the robe he kept hanging on the bedpost. He slipped the robe on over his nude body, then strode briskly across the room toward the dressing room. He paused, and gently knocked.

“Judy?”

He heard a soft moan within. With heart in mouth, Bradley tore open the door. Inside, he found Judith, bent over her washbasin, retching violently. He slipped inside and gently held her head until, after what seemed to him a dreadful eternity, her vomiting finally ceased. “Let’s get you back to bed, Darling,” he said gently, while slipping a supportive arm around her waist.

Judith straightened and turned, sagging heavily against him. Suddenly her head rolled back. She moaned softly, then fainted.

Bradley gathered her up in his arms and carried her over to the bed. He carefully stretched her out on her side of the mattress, stuffing both pillows under her feet to elevate them and placing the quilt over her for warmth. He, then, ran out to the small kitchen, and filled a pitcher with ice cold water from the pump. He found a small dish towel hanging on a hook above the sink.

He returned to the bedroom with pitcher and dishtowel in hand, placing both on the night table next to the bed. Dipping the dishtowel into the cold water, he squeezed out the excess moisture, and began to gently dab her face. A few moments later, much to his great relief, her eyelids flickered.

“W-Welcome back, Judy,” Bradley favored her with a tremulous smile when her eyes had fully opened.

“Ben?”

“Ssshh, Darling, you just lie still.” He dipped the cloth once more into the pitcher, squeezed, and gently sponged her forehead.

“Ben, what happened?”

“You were vomiting in the dressing room a few moments ago,” Bradley replied. “When I came in, you fainted. Darling?”

“Hmmm?”

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I . . . I am now,” she replied with a meaningful glance and a wan smile.

Her alarmingly pale face and weak, barely audible voice did little to convince him.

“Honest, Ben, I’ll be fine. It’s . . . always worse in the morning.”

“I can postpone my business trip, if— ”

“Ben Cartwright, no! I won’t hear of it!” Judith protested. “I’ll be fine.”

“Maybe you should see Doctor Martin.”

“Ben, I— ” The stricken, anxious look on his face stopped her cold, mid-sentence. “You ARE worried, aren’t you?”

“Very.”

“Tell you what,” Judith said slowly. “If I’m no better by tomorrow morning, I’ll WILL pay Doctor Martin a visit.”

“Promise?”

“I promise, on the condition I hear no more ridiculous talk out of you about postponing this business trip of yours.”

“It’s a deal,” Bradley agreed. “I just want to make sure you’re all right, Judy . . . or, at least . . . that you’re going to be. I’m going to be away for a few days . . . maybe longer, depending on how things go. I don’t like the idea of leaving while you’re so sick.”

Judith reached out and took his hand in both of hers. “I’m going to be just fine,” she said earnestly. “If I don’t feel better by tomorrow, I WILL make that appointment with Doctor Martin. When you return from your business trip, I’ll be right here, safe and sound, fit as a fiddle and waiting impatiently.”

Bradley leaned over and gently kissed her lips.

“Ben Cartwright, anyone ever tell you . . . how well you can kiss?”

“A few,” he replied, then smiled. “But, you’re the only one who’s said so with her lips AND with her eyes.”

 

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“Here comes Miss Ashcroft now,” Stacy said pointing.

Ben watched as Judith Ashcroft slowly made her way across the school yard, with posture stiffly erect and head bowed. She clutched her book bag tightly in her left hand and held her right hand protectively across her stomach. “Stacy, wait here,” Ben said, eyeing the school teacher with an anxious frown. Without waiting for an answer, he set off on an intercept course toward Judith Ashcroft.

“Good morning, Miss Ashcroft!”

Judith abruptly stopped mid-stride upon hearing his voice, then turned and stared over at his through eyes round as saucers. “Be—?!” She caught sight of Stacy standing over by the hitching post with her horse, Blaze Face. “Mister Cartwright. G-good morning.”

Ben’s concern deepened upon getting a good close look at her pale face and slightly discolored mask under her eyes. “Miss Ashcroft . . . are you all right?!”

“I told you I WILL be,” she said taking great pains to lower her voice. “I thought you were going to be away on . . . on business.”

Ben stared over at the school teacher, completely dumbfounded. “I . . . just got b-back from a business trip . . . to San Francisco . . . yesterday,” he stammered. The surprised look on her face, mouth open, eyes round as saucers, almost certainly had to mirror the look of bewilderment on his own. “ . . . uumm, Miss Ashcroft, the reason I accompanied Stacy to school this morning is to schedule that parent-teacher conference— ”

She stopped again, abruptly, and regarded him with a hard, suspicious glare. “Mister Cartwright, we’ve already HAD that parent-teacher conference . . . THREE WEEKS AGO.”

Ben’s jaw dropped. “M-Miss Ashcroft, that’s . . . that’s impossible! I w-was in S-San Francisco three weeks ago,” he barely managed to stammer.

“Right!” Judith sighed, then smiled. “I’m really touched by your concern, Mister Cartwright. I really am. But, I’ll be all right.”

“Miss Ashcroft . . . . ”

“Honest! Like I already told you this . . . whatever this is . . . gets better as the day goes on. I feel much better now than I did earlier,” she continued. It took every ounce of will she possessed to stand there demurely and converse with him as if she were merely the school teacher and he the parent of one of her students. “I also intend to see Doctor Martin tomorrow, if I’m not any better, just like I promised. Now get on with you. I will NOT have you postponing an important business trip just because I happen to be feeling a little under the weather. Ok?”

Ben nodded, bewildered and wholly confused.

Judith wished fervently, with all her heart, that she might give him one more kiss good-bye. However, with Stacy standing over at the hitching post, and other students just now arriving, some with parents, such was not possible. She made a mental note to more than make up for that when he came back from that business trip, however. “I’ll see you when you return, Mister Cartwright,” she said demurely, then walked on ahead toward the school house.

Ben stood rooted to the spot, staring after Judith Ashcroft’s retreating back, stunned.

“Pa?”

Ben started violently at the sound of his daughter’s voice.

“Pa?! Are you all right?” Stacy queried, eying her father anxiously.

“I . . . to b-be completely honest, Young Woman, I . . . I’m not sure,” Ben said slowly, haltingly. “The only thing I AM sure of is . . . that had to be the weirdest conversation I’ve ever had! W-with anybody!”

“Pa?”

“Yes, Stacy?”

“I sure wish I knew what was going on around here.”

Ben took a moment to try and regain at least a small measure of composure. “There’s probably nothing going on here . . . apart from a lot of odd coincidences and the imaginations of the Cartwright family suddenly working overtime,” he said in as calm a voice as he could muster. “Well, I’d best skedaddle. You have a good day in school, Young Woman, and behave yourself. Alright?”

“I’ll try, Pa.”

“Good!” Ben gave her a quick hug, and planted a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll see you at home later.”

 

“Good morning, Class.”

“Good morning, Miss Ashcroft,” the students chorused together in unison.

“Please hand in your homework assignments,” Judith said briskly. She closed her eyes for a moment against the school room and sea of twenty-eight faces all staring up at her very intently. “Since you had an unexpected extra day off from school yesterday, I sincerely hope you used the time to good advantage. I intend to grade them that much harder.”

As she passed her homework to the student in the desk in front of her, Stacy silently made mental note to thank Pa profusely for making her hit the books last night. She could hear some of the other students groaning, most notably Abel Caine, the absolute bane of her existence.

“Grades four through twelve, take out your arithmetic books and begin work on your next lesson,” Judith Ashcroft ordered, squeezing her eyes shut. She reached out placing the tips of her fingers on her desk to steady herself. “Those of you in the f-first . . . . ” She wavered unsteadily on her feet. “Those of you in grades one through th-three . . . . ” She moaned, then collapsed.

Suddenly everyone was talking loudly all at once. Some of the younger children began to cry.

Carol Ann Thompson, a painfully prim and proper tenth grader, instinctively leaned back, pressing hard against the back of her chair. “Oh dear! I . . . I hope it’s not contagious . . . whatever it is she has,” she murmured fearfully.

Abel Caine, seated directly behind Carol Ann, snorted derisively. “Don’t you worry your pretty li’l head none about THAT, Miss Carol Ann. You can’t catch it, leastways NOT from Miss Ashcroft.”

Molly O’Hanlan, her face set with grim determination rose, and climbed up onto her chair. “Class, attention!” she raised her voice so to be heard against the rising din, using her very best school teacher tone of voice. “I want every one to get back in your seats and quiet down.”

The younger students immediately scrambled to obey.

“ . . . and just who do you think YOU are, Miss-Priss-Molly-O’Hanlan?” Abel demanded with a sneer. “YOU ain’t the teacher!”

“Abel . . . . ”

A low threatening voice and succinct tap on his shoulder caused Abel to jump right out of his skin. He turned and found himself staring into the predatory glares of Stacy Cartwright and Susannah O’Brien.

“Abel, if you don’t turn around in that seat right now, sit down, and shut your mouth, I am going to lift your scalp,” Susannah threatened.

Abel blanched, and tried to put as much distance between himself and the wild black eyes and feral grin, worthy of Susannah’s Shoshone warrior ancestors, on her mother’s side of the family. “Y-Yes, Ma’am,” he squeaked.

As the students began to settle down, Susannah O’Brien, took her place along side the chair on which Molly stood, glaring ferociously around the room. Stacy, meanwhile, made her way toward the front of the room where Miss Ashcroft lay sprawled on the floor, unmoving.

“All right, Class, we are going to have recess,” Molly continued. “I want everyone to stand up and WALK in a quiet and orderly manner to the door and line up.”

The students rose from their seats, exchanging frightened, uncertain glances, looking at each other, then at Molly, towering high above them all, even the tallest among then. As they passed by Susannah, even the older ones flinched away from the fierce glare on her face.

“Susannah?”

“Yeah, Molly?”

“Would you mind keeping an eye on things while they’re at recess?”

Susannah’s feral, predatory grin widened. “It would be my pleasure.” She, then turned her attention to the line of students waiting at the door. “You may go outside, single file, no talking,” she said in a low, menacing tone.

Molly remained in place until the last student had gone outside.

“Molly . . . Stacy?”

“Yeah, Susannah?” Molly answered.

“Let me know what’s happening?”

“We will,” Stacy promised.

Susannah nodded, then slipped outside herself.

“Stacy, how’s Miss Ashcroft?” Molly asked as she stepped down off of her seat.

“Her pulse is rapid,” Stacy said grimly, “though she doesn’t seem to have a fever.”

“I . . . think maybe you’d better take Blaze Face and ride over to Doctor Martin’s,” Molly said, casting an anxious glance at Miss Ashcroft inert form. “I’ll stay with her.”

Stacy rose. “See if you can get something . . . anything under her feet,” she said soberly. “You want to raise her feet up higher than her head.”

Molly nodded.

“Also, if you can, find something to put over her . . . keep her warm.”

“I’ll do my best, Stacy. YOU just hurry back here with Doctor Martin.”

“I will.”

 

“Mrs. Martin?”

Lily looked up from her latest needle point project, a still life of fruit and flowers, and found Hilda Mae Graves, the housekeeper, staring down at her anxiously. “What’s the matter, Hilda Mae?”

“Stacy Cartwright’s here, Mrs. Martin,” Hilda Mae reported. “She says they need the doctor at the school straightaway. The teacher’s fainted.”

Lily Martin put aside her needlepoint, and rose. “Thank you, Hilda Mae. You g’won downstairs and ask Stacy to wait in the parlor. I’ll get the doctor.”

“Yes Ma’am.”

Lily Martin quickly made her way down the stairs to her husband’s examination room down on the first floor. Within less than a minute, she stood before the closed door, knocking insistently.

“Lily, what is it?” Paul asked, after opening the door slightly, just enough to allow him to peer out.

“Stacy’s in our parlor, Paul . . . . ”

“Oh NO!” Paul closed his eyes and groaned softly. “Not another sick or injured Cartwright . . . . ”

An amused smile tugged at the corner of Lily’s mouth. “No, Paul, the Cartwrights are all fine.” Her smile faded. “It’s the school teacher. Stacy told Hilda Mae that Miss Ashcroft fainted.”

“I’m almost finished with Mister Parker,” Paul said. “Tell Stacy I’ll be with her directly . . . and Lily?”

“Yes, Paul?”

“I’d like you to come with me. Those kids are going to definitely need some adult supervision.”

“I can leave with you right now,” she said. “Just let me know.”

Paul Martin nodded curtly, then closed the door.

 

Judith Ashcroft groaned softly as she, at long last, began to stir.

Molly O’Hanlan, half fearing that her teacher may have actually died, nearly fainted herself as wave upon wave upon wave or pure, unadulterated relief began to wash over her. She half fell, half collapsed to her knees along side Miss Ashcroft, with heart pounding wildly within her chest.

Judith groaned again. “ . . . ‘rithmetic lesson,” she murmured softly.

“Miss Ashcroft?”

“ ‘rithmetic lesson. T-time f’r . . . ‘rithmetic lesson . . . . ” Her eyes still closed, Judith tried to rise.

“Please, Miss Ashcroft, please stay still,” Molly begged, placing restraining hands against her teacher’s shoulders.

Judith’s eyelids flickered, then slitted open. The anxious face, framed by what appeared to be a cloud of pale reddish gold was blurred, its features unrecognizable. “Who . . . . ” she squinted, trying desperately to see.

“It’s me, Molly O’Hanlan, Miss Ashcroft. You fainted.”

Judith closed her eyes again and moaned softly.

“Everything’s going to be alright, Ma’am. The kids are at recess, with Susannah O’Brien watching over ‘em, and Stacy’s gone to fetch— ” Molly’s sharp ears picked up the sounds of horse hooves and buggy wheels. “Stacy went to fetch Doctor Martin. I think I hear them coming now.”

A few moments later, Paul Martin burst into the school room, his mouth and lower jaw rigidly set, with black bag firmly in hand. Stacy Cartwright and Lily Martin followed at a slower pace. Paul bolted to the front of the room and knelt down on the other side of the stricken schoolteacher, facing Molly. “You did well, Molly,” he said. “Elevating her feet . . . placing her coat over her . . . you did very well.”

“Stacy’s the one who told me to do all that,” Molly said immediately.

Paul managed a wan smile. “Then both of you did very well.” He touched Judith’s forehead with the back of his hand, then took her pulse. “Looks like you have things well in hand here, Molly.”

“Thank you, though it was a group effort, Doctor. If Stacy and Susannah hadn’t backed me up, I don’t know WHAT I would’ve done.”

“You would’ve done exactly what you DID do, Molly,” Stacy said quietly. “You would’ve showed ‘em attitude.”

“Her pulse is racing,” Paul said soberly. “Lily?”

“Yes, Paul?”

“Miss Ashcroft is too ill to continue today,” he said.

“Any idea what’s wrong, Doctor?” Molly asked anxiously.

“I . . . have a good idea, Molly, but I need to examine her, and I can’t do that here. Lily, would you mind staying here with Molly? I’m afraid school’s going to be out early again today, and dismissal’s going to be at least a two woman job.”

Lily smiled down kindly at Molly. “I’d be more than happy to,” she said quietly.

“Stacy?”

“Yes, Doctor Martin?”

“I’m going to need a nurse to assist me when I examine Miss Ashcroft,” Paul said, rising. “Do you know where the Brauns live?”

“Yes.”

“Would you please ride over and ask Heidi Braun to come to my office at once? Tell her it’s an emergency.”

“I will, Doctor.” With that, Stacy was gone.

The Martins quickly and gently helped Judith to her feet, as Molly wearily looked on. Lily draped Judith’s left arm around Paul’s neck. The doctor then bent down and lifted the schoolteacher in his arms.

“See you at home later, Paul,” Lily called after him.

Lily Martin, with the able assistance of Molly O’Hanlan and Susannah O’Brien, summoned the school children in from their impromptu recess. Under the watchful, stern glare of Susannah O’Brien, the students filed in from the schoolyard, silently, in a single line, and took their seats. Twenty-eight pairs of eyes, many red and swollen from anxious tears shed, turned expectantly toward Lily Martin.

Lily rose. “Your teacher’s taken ill, Children.” Her tone was kind, yet very firm. “School will be dismissed early today.”

“Miz Martin?”

“Yes, Sarah?”

“Is . . . is Miss Ashcroft . . . is Miss Ashcroft gonna . . . oh Miz Martin, is she gonna DIE?” the young first grader, with dark brown braids and eyes round with horror, asked.

“No, Sarah, Miss Ashcroft’s NOT going to die,” Lily hastened to assure the child. “Given time, I expect she’ll make a full, complete recovery.”

“How long is she gonna be sick, Mrs. Martin?” Carol Ann Thompson asked, with a grimace.

“Oh, I’d say about nine months,” Abel Caine guffawed.

“Abel, that will be enough out of you,” Lily snapped, favoring the boy with a dark, murderous glare.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Abel mumbled sullenly.

Lily Martin spent the better part of the next hour pairing up some of the younger children, whom she felt needed an escort home, with older students.

“Mrs. Martin?”

“Yes, Molly?”

“I made up a sign for the front of the door . . . just in case someone shows up to pick up their child later,” Molly said, handing a piece of paper over to the doctor’s wife.

“Thank you, Molly. Truth to tell, with packing everyone up and getting them on home, I didn’t even consider that,” Lily said favoring the girl with a weary smile.

“I’ll tack it to the door on our way out,” Molly said, as she gathered her books together. “Mrs. Martin?”

“Yes, Molly?”

“Is . . . Miss Ashcroft going to be alright?”

“I have every reason to think she will be,” Lily replied as she followed Molly down the main aisle toward the open door.

“She’s not . . . not . . . . ” Molly quickly averted her face upon feeling the telltale rush of blood. “She’s not what Abel said, is she?”

“I don’t know,” Lily replied, truthfully enough, standing firm in her belief that no diagnosis is positively true unless and until an examination is done to confirm it, “and . . . if it turns out she IS, that’s HER business.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Lily smiled and placed a comforting hand on Molly’s shoulder. “I just want to reassure you that Miss Ashcroft is going to be all right, and if it turns out that she’s . . . as Abel said?”

“Y-yes?”

“Please don’t judge her too harshly.”

“I won’t, Ma’am, that I promise you.”

 

Judith Ashcroft sat, perched on the edge of the examination table, her face white as a sheet, her eyes round and staring. She clutched the edges of the white linen wrapper, donned for her physical examination, in both hands and pressed them tightly closed against her rapidly heaving bosom. Heidi Braun, moving quickly, her presence wholly unobtrusive, gathered the doctor’s instruments together and placed them onto a clean tray.

“Doctor Martin?”

“Yes, Miss Braun?”

“If you’d like, I can take these down below to the kitchen . . . clean and sterilize them THERE,” she offered quietly, directing a meaningful glance at the patient.

“Yes, thank you,” Paul said quietly. “If I need you, I’ll send Hilda Mae down to fetch you.”

Heidi nodded, then slipped quietly out of the room.

Left alone with his patient, Paul Martin walked over and placed a gentle hand on the schoolteacher’s shoulder. “Miss Ashcroft?”

No answer. Judith Ashcroft sat, unmoving, her gaze soft and unfocused.

Paul gently nudged her shoulder. “Miss Ashcroft!”

Judith started violently, but managed to return once more to present time and place. Her lower lip trembled slightly and she slowly raised her head and met the doctor’s gaze.

“Miss Ashcroft, are you all right?” Paul probed gently.

“I . . . . ” Judith vigorously shook her head. “No. I don’t know . . . Doctor, are you sure I’m . . . . ” She quickly averted her eyes to her lap, as a telltale scarlet blush colored her cheeks and neck.

“There’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever, Miss Ashcroft,” Paul replied, not without a measure of sympathy. “You ARE . . . with child. Based on what you’ve told me, I estimate the due date to be next year . . . late winter, or perhaps early spring.”

“I’ll give my resignation to the school board, effective immediately,” she murmured in a voice barely audible. “Doctor Martin, can I count on you to be discreet?”

“Absolutely,” Paul replied without hesitation.

“I plan to leave Virginia City, as soon as I can pack the bare necessities.” Though her voice trembled slightly, her mouth was set in a firm, determined line. “Would you . . . oh dear, I know this is asking a lot, but would it be possible for you to send the rest of my things after me? I don’t know yet where I’ll be staying, so I’ll have to write and send an address when I get there . . . . ”

“Miss Ashcroft . . . . ”

“Yes, Doctor?”

“Have you told the child’s father yet?”

“No. I don’t intend to.”

“I wish you would reconsider,” Paul said quietly.

“No. I won’t involve him or his family in scandal.”

“Your intentions are very commendable, Miss Ashcroft, but . . . well, to have another woman he loves, or at least cares for a great deal, leave without telling him she’s expecting . . . without letting him do the right thing by her and their child, it would devastate him.”

“Y-You sound as if . . . as if you know who my child’s father is.”

“I know the two of you have tried very hard to be discreet about your relationship, but all the same . . . everyone in town KNOWS.”

“Oh n-no . . . . ” Judith moaned on complete and utter dismay.

“I . . . I can’t force you to tell him, Miss Ashcroft, but I can and do strongly urge that you do so. I speak not only as your doctor and his, but as his friend also.”

“I’ll . . . I’ll give the matter due consideration, Doctor,” Judith promised, her eyes bright with newly formed tears, as yet unshed.

 

Unbeknownst to either doctor or patient, Eloise Kirk and Clara Mudgely, the church organist, drew back away from the fast closed door of Doctor Martin’s examination room, horrified.

“Well, I never!” Clara gasped.

“There’s no fool like an old fool!” Eloise declared, in tones of righteous indignation.

“But, I . . . I . . . Ben Cartwright’s always been so . . . so circumspect! I never, not in a million years EVER thought he’d . . . that he’d . . . . ” The organist broke off unable to voice the thoughts in her head. Her sudden crimson complexion however, spoke volumes.

“Ben Cartwright’s a MAN isn’t he?” Eloise said with a grimace. “You take it from ME, sooner or later they ALL want one thing, and one thing only.”

“This is awful! Just AWFUL!” Clara lamented.

“Miss Mudgely, HONESTLY! Get hold of yourself, for heaven’s sake! After all, it’s NOT as if this is the FIRST time he’s . . . you know.”

“Y-You mean . . . . ?”

“Of course,” Eloise continued in a tone that dripped icicles. “The first . . . at least the first WE know of was Stacy’s mother.”

“Good afternoon, Ladies.” The sound of Hilda Mae Graves’ voice had Eloise Kirk and Clara Mudgely figuratively jumping right out of their skins. “Can I help you with anything?”

“No,” Eloise retorted loftily, upon regaining a measure of her composure. “I came in with a sore throat, but it’s gone now. Please give the good doctor and his wife my regards.”

“Me, too,” Clara squeaked, as the pair edged their way past the Martins’ housekeeper, toward the door.

Hilda Mae stood, with arms folded across her chest and her eyes glued to Eloise’s and Clara’s retreating backs, shaking her head in dismay.

“Hilda Mae?”

She turned and found Paul Martin standing behind her, looking perplexed.

“I thought I heard voices.”

“You DID,” Hilda Mae said sardonically. “Mrs. Kirk and Miss Mudgely, as they were leaving. They apparently got better.” She paused briefly. “Doctor Martin . . . . ”

“Yes?”

“I’m afraid they overheard just about everything you and Miss Ashcroft were discussing . . . . ”

“Oh no,” Paul groaned. Both were well known as notorious gossips. “Hilda Mae, would you mind going down to the kitchen and asking Miss Braun to come up? I’d like her to help Miss Ashcroft get dressed.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“One more thing . . . . ”

“Yes?”

“When my wife returns, please let her know that I’ve taken Miss Ashcroft home,” Paul said wearily, “and that I’ve gone out to the Ponderosa . . . to warn Ben.”

 

“WHAT?!”

“You heard me, Ben,” Paul Martin said sternly. He and Ben Cartwright stood in the middle of the yard between the Ponderosa Ranch House and the barn, facing each other in the same way two opposing boxers would just before the start of round one.

“PAUL, THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!”

“NOT when two people are intimate with each other, as the two of you have been.”

Ben stared over at his old friend, completely flabbergasted. “What are you talking about?! I’ve NEVER been intimate with Judith Ashcroft.”

“Ben, I can understand the two of you being . . . well, being discreet because Stacy is a student in her class, but . . . everyone KNOWS,” Paul argued. “If they haven’t known before, they’ve certainly found out in the last month or so, since you’ve started spending the night at her home.”

For a moment, Ben was too stunned to even speak.

“Ben, please believe me when I say I’m NOT standing in judgment of you,” Paul pressed. “You’re a strong, healthy man with all the needs and drives of a strong, healthy man. I’m quite frankly surprised there haven’t been others before or since Stacy’s mother.”

“Paul, I have NEVER spent the night under Miss Ashcroft’s roof. Not EVER! And certainly not within the last month because I’ve been in San Francisco! I just got back yesterday afternoon . . . . ”

Paul studied Ben’s face closely, with a jaundiced eye. The shocked astonishment on his face and the earnest, pleading quality in his tone of voice all told the physician that his old friend was telling the truth.

“If you don’t believe me, I can give you a list with the names of everyone I met with or visited while I was in San Francisco,” Ben continued.

“That won’t be necessary, Ben. I believe you, but I don’t know how many others WILL, especially after Mrs. Kirk and Miss Mudgely get through spreading the word. I’m afraid you and Miss Ashcroft have a very unpleasant dilemma to resolve.”

“I’ll start resolving it immediately by riding into town myself and setting matters straight,” Ben said grimly. He abruptly turned and started toward the barn, with every intention of saddling Big Buck and riding immediately into town. The sound of an approaching horse’s hooves striking the earth halted the Cartwright family patriarch in his trek mid-stride.

A few moments later, Houston O’Brien, neighbor and friend of many, many years, rode into the yard on Taranis, his big black gelding. “Howdy, Ben . . . Paul,” he greeted both with a nod of his head.

“Hugh, good to see you,” Ben greeted his old friend with a smile. “Would the both of you like to come inside? I think I can persuade Hop Sing to make up some lemonade or iced tea.”

“Thanks, Ben, but I’m afraid I can’t stay,” Hugh declined reluctantly. “Mister Abercromby’s calling a special meeting of the school board at the school house tomorrow morning at ten o’clock. They’re trying to get the word out to as many folks as they can. Since you’re on my way home from Virginia City, I told ‘em I’d stop by and let you know.”

“Any idea what the meeting’s about?”

“ ‘Fraid not, Ben, unless it has something to do with Miss Ashcroft’s resignation.”

“Miss Ashcroft’s resigning?!”

“Effective immediately for personal reasons.” Hugh smiled. “I guess you probably know more about the, umm nature of those personal reasons than most.”

“Thank you, Hugh. You going?”

“You bet I am. If Miss Ashcroft’s resigning, I’d like to offer my own two cents worth regarding the next teacher they hire.”

“I’ll see you there tomorrow, then.”

Hugh nodded, as he turned his horse around, then rode off toward his own spread, Shoshone Queen, named for his late wife.

“Ben, it’s already started,” Paul said grimly, after Houston O’Brien had left.

“Then that special board meeting will be a good place to start nipping all these rumors about Miss Ashcroft and myself in the bud,” Ben declared with an angry scowl.

“Ben, I want you to promise me two things.”

A sardonic retort immediately sprang to Ben’s mind, only to die unuttered upon getting a good look at the doctor’s face. “What, Paul?”

“First of all, please . . . go easy on Miss Ashcroft.”

“I’ll do my best, Paul. I certainly don’t want to drag her name through the mud, but at the same time, I don’t want to take blame for someone else.”

“I understand.”

“What’s the second thing you want me to promise?”

“That you’ll be very careful as to how you conduct yourself in that meeting tomorrow morning, Ben. I . . . well, I just plain and simply, have a bad feeling about all this . . . . ”

 

Ben Cartwright set out early the following morning, with the intention of arriving at the schoolhouse a few minutes before the start of the meeting in the hopes of having a private word with Miss Judith Ashcroft. He was astonished and dismayed to find the schoolyard already crammed full of saddled horses, buggies, buckboards, and all other manner, shape, and size of conveyance. Ben brought the two horses pulling his buckboard to a halt out on the street before the hitching post nearest the school. He set the brake on the buckboard, then jumped down and tethered the horse team to the post.

The time was eighteen minutes before the hour of ten o’clock, yet, incredibly, the small schoolhouse was already packed. Even the standing room had all but disappeared. Ezekiel Abercromby, the head of the school board, sat behind the teacher’s desk, engaged in what appeared to be a very lively, animated conversation with Georgianna Wilkens and Myra Danvers. The other school board members stood clustered in groups of two or three at the front of the classroom talking together in low voices. Judith Ashcroft was nowhere to be seen.

“Good morning, Ben.”

He turned and found himself staring into the anxious faces of Hugh O’Brien and Francis O’Hanlan, fathers respectively of Stacy’s friends, Susannah and Molly. “Good morning, Hugh. Good morning, Francis. Any idea yet as to what this meeting’s all about?”

“No one’s said officially,” Hugh said soberly, “according to the scuttlebutt, however, it would appear that Miss Ashcroft is the purpose of this meeting.”

“Hugh . . . Francis, I have no idea what you may have heard,” Ben said, lowering his voice, “though since I arrived home from San Francisco on the morning stage yesterday, I’m beginning to get a very good idea.”

“Wait a minute! You were in San Francisco?!” Francis queried, staring over at Ben in complete and utter disbelief.

Ben nodded. “For the past month.”

Hugh and Francis stared at each other wholly nonplussed.

“What’s the matter?” Ben queried warily.

“Ben, didn’t you and the boys go the church picnic three weeks ago?!” Hugh asked.

“Hugh, didn’t I just get through saying that I’ve been away for the last month?” Ben demanded with a touch of asperity.

“Ben, I was there! Crystal, Susannah, and the boys were there, too,” Hugh said. “I . . . all of us saw you there . . . along with Joe and Hoss.”

“Was Stacy also there?” Ben asked.

“No,” Hugh shook his head. “Crystal asked were she was, and YOU told her Stacy was at home feelin’ a mite under the weather.”

“Hugh, what exactly happened at that picnic?” Ben asked.

“You sly ol’ son of a gun!” Hugh grinned and nudged Ben playfully in the ribs. “That’s were you hooked up with Miss Ashcroft. Remember? The picnic basket auction? You bid on her basket?”

“The two of you’ve been inseparable since,” Francis O’Hanlan added.

Ben made a mental note to ask Joe and Hoss about the church picnic when he got home. “Hugh, I don’t know who you saw at the church picnic three weeks ago, but it couldn’t possibly have been ME. Three weeks ago, I was just arriving in San Francisco.”

“You got any identical twin brothers out there no one knows about?” Hugh asked.

“No, of course not!” Ben replied, taking no pains to conceal his growing annoyance.

“Well if this guy WASN’T you, he was a dead ringer,” Hugh said.

“Hugh, I’m telling you . . . that wasn’t me,” Ben pleaded.

“Ben, did you know that Miss Ashcroft is supposedly pregnant?” Francis O’Hanlan asked.

“Yes. Paul Martin came out to the house and gave me fair warning,” Ben replied. “I . . . I don’t know what I need to do to convince you of this, but I WAS in San Francisco for the last month. I just arrived home yesterday on the morning stage. I can give you the names of everyone I saw while I was in San Francisco, if you want proof.”

“That won’t be necessary, Ben,” Francis said quietly. “I believe you.”

“Thank you, Francis,” Ben said gratefully.

“I know who . . . or what I saw at the church picnic, Ben,” Hugh said. “I also know that you’ve never lied to me, and . . . . ” His cheeks reddened. “If you WERE in any way, uhhh, responsible for Miss Ashcroft’s, uuhhh delicate condition? You’d do the right thing by her and by the child.”

“Thank you, Hugh, for your vote of confidence.”

The sound of wood gavel striking wood desk immediately silenced the large group gathered and drew everyone’s attention toward the front of the room.

Ezekiel Abercromby was still seated behind the teacher’s desk, pounding his gavel, the one presented him many years ago when he, himself, retired from his duties as schoolteacher. He was an elderly man, with white thinning hair, slightly stooped posture, and sharp blue eyes that missed absolutely nothing. He glared sternly out at the assembly seated and standing before him past a pair of thick, scraggly eyebrows, white with yet a few strands of iron gray.

The other members of the school board sat in a line up at the front of the room, looking for all the world like naughty school children, caught in their many and diverse acts of deviltry. All, save two, sat with their knees pressed close together, hands folded in their laps, eyes firmly glued to the floor in front of them.

Georgianna Wilkens, president of the Virginia City Literacy Society, occupied the position of honor, first in the line up, closest to the teachers’ desk. She had been given the chair reserved for guests, with its high, tall back and cushioned seat in deference to her own advanced age, a very closely guarded secret. She glared out at the gathered assembly, with jaw rigidly set, tight lipped with a raw fury that shocked Ben, shocked others who had come to know the diminutive lady from Atlanta well enough to know she very rarely allowed anger to get the better of her. Being even now a woman of action, in spite of her advanced years, she preferred to in her own words, “do something about it, not sit around and stew.” Georgianna cast an occasional, outright murderous glare at both Myra Danvers and Ezekiel Abercromby.

Myra Danvers, seated two people away from Georgianna Wilkens, sat with posture ramrod straight, arms folded resolutely across her ample chest and bosom, glaring indignantly out at the assembly.

“This special meeting of the school board is now called to order,” Ezekiel declared, punctuating his words with a final strike of his gavel against the wood surface of the teacher’s desk. “Is Miss Ashcroft here?”

“Yes, I am, Mister Abercromby.” Judith Ashcroft stepped forward from behind the group of people lined up along the wall to the right of the teacher’s desk. Molly O’Hanlan, her face set with a grim stubborn resolve, quietly moved out behind the schoolteacher and took her place beside Miss Ashcroft.

“I didn’t know your daughter was here, Francis,” Hugh O’Brien said sotto voce.

“She insisted,” Francis said with a touch of pride. “Her ma’s having a fit to end all fits, but I couldn’t deny her. I’m surprised Stacy and Susannah didn’t insist on coming.”

“Better part of valor,” Hugh replied. “Stacy’d turn this meeting into a good old fashioned donnybrook before she got through. As for Susannah . . . . ” He grinned. “I can never be sure whether or not her threats to lift a body’s scalp are empty ones.”

“Mister Abercromby?”

“Yes, Mrs. Wilkens?”

“First of all, I would like the recording secretary to duly note that I am in protest of this entire proceeding,” Georgianna declared, rising to her feet, leveling a glare that carried in it the full force of her growing fury at Myra Danvers. “I was told the purpose of this meeting was to consider the tendered resignation of Miss Judith Ashcroft. In MY own humble opinion this is a matter more appropriate for the school board ALONE. I therefore move that his meeting be adjourned immediately and the matter of Miss Ashcroft’s resignation be placed on the agenda of our NEXT school board meeting.”

“Anyone second Mrs. Wilkens’ motion?”

“Yes, Sir, I do.” It was Elmer McFarlane, Judge Faraday’s administrative assistant, and youngest member of the school board. Though he visibly flinched away from the dark, angry glares Myra Danvers and several other members of the school board leveled in his direction, his voice rang out loud and clear.

“A motion has been made and seconded that the matter of Miss Ashcroft’s resignation be tabled now, and placed on the agenda of the next school board meeting,” Ezekiel Abercromby said, then mentally braced himself. “Is there any discussion?”

Myra Danvers shot right out of her seat with enough force and momentum to send her chair toppling over backwards. “I, for one, heartily disagree with Mrs. Wilkens’ motion AND her opinion. There are certain moral consequences to be taken into account and considered here. THAT being the case, I feel it not only appropriate but our bounden duty as members of the school board to involve the community. They have a right to know.”

“Right to know my sit-down!” Georgianna Wilkens snorted derisively. “You’re just looking for an excuse to slander the name of a good woman and one of the finest teachers this school has been blessed with TO DATE.”

“You wouldn’t be referring to Miss Ashcroft as a good woman if you knew the score, Mrs. Wilkens,” Myra Danvers returned indignantly.

“It so happens I DO know the score!” Georgianna returned irascibly, without missing a beat. “The whole town and everyone living around it knows the score. And before Mrs. Kirk and Miss Mudgely get through, the whole state of Nevada’s going to know the score!”

“I’m sure the good Reverend Hildebrandt can tell you how clear the Holy Scriptures are in reference to fornication and licentious behavior,” Myra retorted.

“Yes, I’m quite sure he can,” Georgianna agreed. “I’m also just as sure he can tell YOU how clear those same Holy Scriptures are about gossiping and judging others, lest you yourself be judged.”

“Mister Abercromby, I have a question.” It was Carrie Blanchard. Aged in her mid-thirties, she was a widow with two daughters, aged eight and eleven. She cleaned the homes of Virginia City’s well to do to support herself and her family, which also included her mother.

“Yes, Mrs. Blanchard?”

“What reason did Miss Ashcroft give for resigning her position?”

“In her letter, she states that she is resigning for personal reasons,” Ezekiel replied.

“I can tell you what those reasons are, Mrs. Blanchard,” Myra said with a smug, imperious air of self-righteousness. “Miss Ashcroft is with child.”

The entire assembly was thrown into an uproar of loud talking and discussion.

“Order!” Ezekiel banged his gavel hard against the wood desk, raising his voice to be heard over and above the growing din. “Order! This meeting will come back to order!”

The people gradually grew quiet. Those who had come early enough to find seats at the desks in the middle of the room, sat back down. Those standing drifted back to their initial places around the perimeters of the room. Everyone returned his or her attention to Ezekiel Abercromby.

“Mrs. Donaldson, you will strike Mrs. Danvers’ last remark from the minutes of this meeting,” Ezekiel said to Ada Donaldson, the recording secretary. His entire face was beet read. “The minutes will state that Miss Ashcroft resigned from her position as teacher for personal reasons. We WILL leave things stand at that.”

This drew a venomous glare from Mrs. Danvers.

“We have a motion on the floor, moved and seconded,” Ezekiel continued. “Is there a call to vote?”

“Now just one minute, Mister Abercromby,” Myra protested. “I don’t feel there’s been enough discussion on this issue.”

“I, for one, feel there’s been ‘way TOO much discussion on this issue,” Georgianna growled.

“I heartily disagree,” Myra countered. “As I said before, there ARE moral consequences to be considered. A teacher gives instruction, not ONLY in the classroom, but also by the example she sets. Now we have here before us a woman who has been standing up in front of this very classroom day after day for nearly three years, instructing . . . . MOLDING the young, impressionable minds who occupy those seats everyday.” She gestured toward the students’ desks with a broad sweep of her hand. “It is common knowledge that MISS Ashcroft is with child.”

“Common GOSSIP you mean,” Georgianna reported.

“BE that as it may, we, as a community, must still ask ourselves . . . WHAT is Miss Ashcroft teaching our children? What kind of example is she setting for the children, especially the young LADIES of this community, being in her delicate condition without benefit of holy wedlock?”

“Perhaps we should ask Miss Ashcroft the question straight out,” Judge William Caine, seated in the front row along the wall opposite the place where Judith Ashcroft and Molly O’Hanlan stood together. The judge turned and focused his attention on the schoolteacher. “Miss Ashcroft, ARE you in fact in the family way?”

“Judge Caine, since I submitted my resignation to the school board yesterday, effective immediately, the answer to your question is plain and simply, none of your business,” Judith replied.

“As the mother of two school aged daughters, I beg to differ with you, Miss Ashcroft,” Carrie Blanchard hotly protested. “Mrs. Danvers is absolutely right about you as teacher setting a proper example. As a conscientious parent, I have a right to know exactly WHAT kind of an example you’re setting.”

“You’re so quick to speak of setting examples, Mrs. Blanchard,” Georgianna retorted. “Perhaps YOU should read the passage in the Gospels that talks about he who is WITHOUT sin may cast the first stone. I trust we understand each other?!”

Carrie Blanchard lapsed into a sullen, angry silence.

“If, in fact, Miss Ashcroft IS in delicate condition, I’d like to know why the father of her child has not come forth to do the right thing by her?” Judge Caine posed the question with a malicious smile. “Perhaps Mister Cartwright can enlighten us on the matter?”

Ben felt every eye in the room on him, demanding an answer. It took every ounce of will power he possessed not to flinch. He took a deep breath, then stepped forward. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I have no idea in the world WHY Judge Caine thinks I have the answer to that question . . . . ”

“Come ON, Mister Cartwright,” a man standing at the back of the classroom sneered. “Ain’t no use in pretending! Cat’s out of the bag!”

“I’m NOT pretending,” Ben said in an even, measured voice, focusing his attention on the man who had just spoken.

“Do you DENY that Miss Ashcroft is with YOUR child?” Judge Caine pressed.

“As I recall, Judge Caine, Miss Ashcroft has resigned her teaching position for personal reasons,” Ben said, bringing full measure of his intense glare to bear on William Caine. “The rest is hearsay and gossip.”

“You didn’t answer my question, Mister Cartwright. Are you the father of Miss Ashcroft’s child?”

“Judge Caine, you surprise me,” Ben countered. “The rumors circulating about Miss Ashcroft being with child are just that. Rumor and gossip. Surely as a lawyer, and now as a judge, you wouldn’t even THINK of admitting rumor and gossip into evidence in a court of law.”

“Alright, Mister Cartwright, I’ll phrase it hypothetically,” the judge said. “IF Miss Ashcroft were with child . . . IF, Mister Cartwright . . . is there any possibility, any possibility at all, that she might be with YOUR child?”

“Absolutely NOT,” Ben replied.

“OH, BEN, HOW COULD YOU?!” Judith involuntarily cried out in anguish, heartbroken by his flat denial.

“THERE!” Myra Danvers crowed triumphantly. “You heard it! You ALL heard it! Right out of her own mouth, you all heard it!”

“Miss Ashcroft, are you with Ben Cartwright’s child?” Ezekiel Abercromby asked, his hand gripping the handle of his gavel hard enough to whiten his knuckles.

“Yes!” Judith sobbed. “Yes!”

Order quickly evaporated into anarchy, as everyone began to talk loudly among themselves.

“You lousy, no good son-of-a bitch!”

Ben heard the terse voice, coming from the man standing directly behind him. As he turned toward the speaker, a rock hard fist connected with his face, sending him into the arms of Francis O’Hanlan and Hugh O’Brien. Ben recovered himself quickly, returning the man’s blow with a good, solid right cross of his own. As his opponent recovered, two men moved to join him. Francis and Hugh, their own faces mask of grim determination also stepped forward, flanking Ben on either side.

“ORDER!” Ezekiel screamed. “ORDER! THIS MEETING WILL COME TO ORDER!”

One by one, people lapsed into angry, sullen silence and drifted back to their places. An uneasy silence fell on the meeting like a pall, broken only by the soft hiccupping sounds of Judith Ashcroft sobbing.

“Any more outbursts like that, and I’ll send someone to fetch the sheriff,” Ezekiel informed the assembly in a stern tone that brooked no argument, no opposition. “Do I make myself clear, Ladies and Gentlemen?”

A subdued murmur of ascent rippled throughout the assembly.

“Miss Ashcroft, do you have anything you wish to say?” Ezekiel said, turning his attention to the schoolteacher.

“I most certainly do,” Judith said, as she angrily wiped the tears from her cheeks with the heel of her hand. She pulled herself up to full height, her posture ramrod straight. “Mister Cartwright, I want you to come here, to the front of the room, look me straight in the face and tell me that I don’t carry your child.”

“Ben, you want us to stand with you?” Hugh offered in a low voice, nodding to Francis O’Hanlan.

“No, Hugh . . . Francis. Thank you for offering.” With that, Ben made his way to the front of the room, coming to a stop directly in front of Judith Ashcroft.

The anger, pain, and bewilderment she saw in his face and eyes doused her anger as quickly and as effectively as a bucket of water doused a campfire.

“Miss Ashcroft— ” Ben began.

“I . . . I was wrong,” Judith said suddenly, cutting Ben off mid-sentence. She immediately averted her eyes, feeling dreadfully sick at heart.

“What did you say, Miss Ashcroft?” Ezekiel Abercromby, the head of the school board, demanded.

Judith closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then, opening her eyes, she turned to face her accusers on the school board, her posture straight as an arrow, her mouth and chin set with a valiant, grim determination. “I SAID I was wrong,” she repeated her words in a strong clear voice. “Mister Cartwright is NOT the father of my child.”

“She’s lying!” Myra Danvers snarled. “She’s lying now . . . to protect HIM.”

“I am NOT lying, Mrs. Danvers,” Judith quietly, yet very firmly defended herself. “Mister Cartwright is NOT the father of my child.”

Myra’s eyes narrowed. “If Mister Cartwright is not the father of your child, then who IS, Miss Ashcroft?” she demanded with a malicious sneer.

“Seeing as how I have already given my resignation to the school board, effective immediately, Mrs. Danvers, the identity of the man who fathered my child is quite plain and simply none of your damned business!” Judith replied in a cold, angry tone.

The eight members of the school board stared down at the angry young woman, through eyes round with shocked horror, and astonishment.

“Mister Cartwright, would you please take me home?” Judith asked in a kindlier tone.

“J-Just a moment, Miss Ashcroft,” Ezekiel stammered, his mind still reeling. “This meeting’s not . . . over. N-not yet . . . . ”

“It is as far as I’M concerned, Mister Abercromby,” Judith declared.

Myra Danvers glared malevolently at Ben first, then at Judith. “Mister Cartwright, we fully expect you to do the right thing by Miss Ashcroft.”

“Mrs. Danvers— ” Judith started to protest.

“Do the names Vivian Crawleigh and Lucia Churchill Hayes Home for Orphans and Foundlings mean anything to you, Mister Cartwright?” Myra queried in a sly, menacing tone.

Ben felt the blood rapidly draining from his face. He stared over at Myra Danvers, completely dumbfounded, unable to even speak.

“Oh yes, I know all about Mrs. Crawleigh and the Lucia Churchill Hayes Home for Orphans and Foundlings,” Myra continued. “Mrs. Crawleigh . . . Vivian . . . is my first cousin. Our mothers were sisters. She wrote and told me all about Stacy and about the three of you.”

“Your point, Mrs. Danvers?” Ben demanded, his dark eyes smoldering with the fury growing within him.

“Alright, Mister Cartwright, my point is THIS. If you fail to do the right thing by your pregnant mistress, I WILL send a wire to my cousin and inform her of your sordid behavior,” Myra said. “I know for a fact that this was just the kind of thing she was concerned about when she wrote and lamented Major Baldwin’s decision to allow Stacy to accompany you and your sons home from Fort Charlotte. That will give her all the grounds she needs to come here and petition for full custody of Miss Stacy Rose Cartwright.”

“Mrs. Danvers, you are ‘way out of line!” Ezekiel Abercromby admonished her tersely.

“Maybe so, Mister Abercromby, but I don’t care. The only thing that matters to me now is the welfare of an innocent young lady living in that . . . that den of iniquity called Ponderosa!” Myra Danvers declared in a lofty, imperious tone. She then turned her attention back to Ben.

As he gazed into her visage, wholly disfigured into a hideous caricature of her normal appearance by the anger, malice, and venom that permeated her soul, Ben suddenly realized that he looked upon the true face of Myra Danvers, free of all the constraints normally imposed by polite society. He involuntarily shuddered.

“I give you one week to make your arrangements,” Myra continued, her eyes glittering with malicious triumph. “One week! If, by then you have not done as you ought, I WILL send that wire to my dear cousin, Vivian.”

 

Ben Cartwright and Judith Ashcroft, now former teacher at the Virginia City Public School, rode together in stony silence in the former’s buckboard toward her home. Ben stared straight ahead, his eyes pointedly on the road stretching before him. Judith, her cheeks scarlet from embarrassment and the angry tears shed, sat demurely in the seat beside him, hands folded in her lap, eyes glued to her hands.

“M-Mister Cartwright?” Judith ventured timidly, unable to bear the strained silence any longer.

“Yes, Miss Ashcroft?” Ben’s angry tone dripped icicles.

“I . . . I know it can’t be nearly enough, but . . . I’m so sorry,” Judith said, her voice trembling. “I honest and truly thought he w-was you . . . until— ” She suddenly broke off, unable to speak.

“Are you speaking of your child’s father?”

Judith nodded. “He . . . he looks very much like you, Mister Cartwright.”

“He never set you straight?” Ben asked, incredulous.

“No,” Judith said in a very small voice. “H-he . . . the entire time, he led me to believe that . . . that he was you.”

“Miss Ashcroft, when did you realize that I’m NOT the man you’ve obviously fallen in love with?” Ben asked in a more polite, kindly tone.

“At the school board meeting. When you . . . when you came forward t-to . . . to tell me to m-my face that you weren’t . . . the f-father of my child? I looked into your eyes . . . and . . . I knew.”

“I see.”

“He loves me, Mister Cartwright. He loves me as . . . as much as I love him. I could see it very clearly in his eyes.”

“You said this man resembles me?”

“He could very easily p-pass for your identical twin brother.”

Ben suddenly remembered. Bradley Meredith, a crook and con man par excellence, fit that description all too well. Twice, he had attempted to use that uncanny resemblance to raise money by selling big chunks of the Ponderosa out from under him. He nearly succeeded on both occasions.

“No wonder people have been treating me so strangely since I arrived home from San Francisco yesterday,” Ben mused aloud.

“I-I’m sorry, Mister Cartwright. I didn’t quite catch that.”

“I’ve been in San Francisco for the past month on business,” Ben explained. “When I returned home on the morning stage yesterday . . . well, to say that friends and acquaintances were treating me rather strangely is the understatement of the year. But, if rumors have been circulating about you and me, it explains a whole lot.”

“You . . . I mean HE and I both had agreed it was best to keep things quiet until the end of the school year,” Judith said ruefully. “We tried to be discreet, especially after that picnic— ” She broke off, her cheeks suddenly flaming scarlet, and quickly averted her eyes.

“Are you talking about the church picnic?”

Judith vigorously shook her head. “Another picnic, just us . . . him and me.”

Ben, much to his absolute horror and chagrin, felt the telltale tingling of blood rushing to his own cheeks, as he surmised what had, more than likely occurred in the course of that picnic to which Judith had referred. “I’m . . . I’m sure you did everything humanly possible to be discreet, but sometimes things slip by unconsciously . . . like my daughter suddenly bringing home all A’s and B’s, for instance?!”

“Oh dear! I think I see what you mean,” Judith murmured, unable to bring herself to look into his face.

Ben cast a quick, furtive glance over at the miserable, forlorn young woman seated next to him on the buckboard seat, his heart going out to her. He silently wracked his brains in a desperate search for a nice, easy way to tell her that the man she had fallen so deeply in love with, and who had fathered her unborn child, was more than likely a con man and a thief. “ . . . uh, Miss Ashcroft?”

“Y-yes, Mister Cartwright?”

Ben swallowed nervously. “I’m pretty sure I know who he is . . . the man you’ve fallen in love with, I mean.”

Judith turned and glanced over at him sharply.

“Yes, he and I’ve met. He DOES bear an uncanny resemblance to me. In fact, he’s a dead ringer. His name is Bradley Meredith.”

“Really?”

Ben nodded.

“I wonder why he didn’t correct m-me when I . . . when I mistook him of you?!”

“I’m afraid he’s . . . he’s a thief and a con man,” Ben forced himself to say it straight out. He kept his face and eyes pointed straight ahead. The look on her face was the absolute last thing in the world he wanted to see right now. “I’m sorry, Miss Ashcroft . . . . ”

“Mister Cartwright, I have to find him.”

The expression on Ben’s face clearly and succinctly questioned the young schoolteacher’s very sanity. “M-Miss Ashcroft,” he stammered, “d-didn’t you hear a word I j-just said?!”

“I heard you perfectly, but I STILL have to find him . . . because I have to tell him about the baby, and . . . and because I love him.”

“B-but— ”

“This Bradley Meredith loves me, too . . . as much as I love him. I told you before, I could see it in his eyes.”

“Miss Ashcroft, I think you may be reading more into his intentions than— ”

“Mister Cartwright, Bradley Meredith has feelings . . . even . . . even if he IS a c-con man and . . . and a thief . . . . ” With that, she suddenly burst into tears, burying her face in her hands.

Ben eased the buckboard over to the side of the road and brought the horses to a stop. He gathered her into his arms and let her cry on his shoulder. Bad enough Bradley Meredith had used his resemblance in at least two attempts to rob HIM blind! But the thought of that man using his own likeness to dupe, then so cruelly use a vulnerable young woman like Judith Ashcroft went ‘way beyond the pale.

“Miss Ashcroft, we’re going to find Bradley Meredith,” Ben promised through clenched teeth. “Even if we have to go to the very ends of the earth, we’re going to find him. You have my solemn word on THAT!” After she had her say with him, he vowed to haul that man’s sorry carcass back to Virginia City, bound and gagged if need be. Once there, he would elicit a full confession from Meredith’s lips in front of reliable witnesses, even if it meant beating him within an inch of his life to get it.

 

It was still late morning when Ben brought the horses to a halt in front of the tiny house Judith Ashcroft had been renting during most of her tenure as teacher at the Virginia City Public School. He immediately jumped down and quickly circled around behind the buckboard, drawing up along side where Judith remained, unmoving, staring morosely down at her hands clasped tightly in her lap. “Let me help you, Miss Ashcroft,” he said softly, extending his hand.

“Thank you,” Judith responded in a voice, barely audible. Though she looked up, her eyes fell just short of meeting his.

Ben took her by the waist and gently set her down on terra firma. “Are you going to be all right?”

“As . . . as all right as I can b-be . . . under the circumstances,” Judith murmured, nodding her head. She felt an overwhelming desire to flee up the sidewalk to the sanctuary of her home, and once inside to slam and lock the door against the wagging tongues and the eyes of the self-righteous so quick to pass judgment. She especially wanted to escape from the man who had just brought her home. The mere thought of having to look him square in the face brought yet another rush of blood to her own.

“Mister Cartwright, you needn’t see me all the way to the door,” Judith said very quickly, her words tumbling out one after the other. “I— ” She turned, then cried out in alarm.

Ben whirled in his tracks and saw, much to his horror and chagrin, Judith’s possessions sitting on the front stoop.

“I don’t understand this,” Judith moaned, suddenly feeling dizzy. “I don’t understand this at all! I . . . I just paid my rent . . . . ”

Ben’s eyes were immediately drawn to a white, rectangular shaped piece of paper attached to the worn carpetbag sitting on top of the pile. “Wait here,” he muttered, then started up the walk, moving at a brisk pace. Upon reaching the front porch and haphazard pile of Judith Ashcroft’s personal belongings, he removed the pin securing the envelope to the carpetbag. It was addressed to the former schoolteacher.

“What is it, Mister Cartwright?” Judith asked wearily, upon his return to the buckboard with envelope in hand.

“I saw this attached to the carpet bag sitting on top,” Ben replied as he handed her the envelope.

Judith tried to open the envelope, but found that her hands were shaking too much. “Would YOU mind?” she ventured, holding the envelope out to Ben.

Ben took the proffered envelope and opened it. “It’s a letter from Russell Churley.”

“My landlord.” Still gripping the edge of the buckboard for support, Judith turned and dropped her forehead against her arms. “Would you . . . would you mind reading it to me, Mister Cartwright?”

“ ‘Dear Miss Ashcroft,’ ” Ben read. “ ‘In reviewing my records, I was dismayed to learn that you are six months behind in your rent payments. You are hereby evicted. In light of your recent difficulties, I have decided not to impound your belongings until your debt is paid, as is my legal right to do. Regretfully, Russell Churley.’ ”

“He’s lying, Mister Cartwright. I’ve NEVER been behind on my rent, NEVER!”

“Do you have a receipt?”

Judith nodded. “I . . . I keep the receipts from all my bills filed in a strong box. It’s in my desk at the school house, bottom drawer on the left.”

“I’ll send Candy to collect it,” Ben said. “Is there anything from that pile of belongings that you need immediately?”

“That carpet bag should have most . . . . ” Judith felt her knees begin to buckle, and her grip on the edge of the buckboard loosen. She would have almost certainly collapsed, had it not been for Ben’s strong arm around her waist, supporting her.

“Miss Ashcroft, do you feel up to sitting in the seat? If you don’t, you can lie down in the back of the buckboard.”

“It’s all right . . . I can sit.”

“Let’s get you back up there.” Ben gently helped Judith back up into the passenger’s side of the buckboard. “We’ll be off as soon as I get the carpet bag. Do you need anything else?”

“No, not immediately.”

Ben turned and started up the walk.

“Mister Cartwright?”

He paused mid-stride and turned around. “Yes, Miss Ashcroft?”

“Where do you intend to take me? I . . . I can’t afford to stay at the hotel.”

“I’m taking you back to the Ponderosa,” Ben replied.

“Oh no!” Judith protested, shaking her head. “Mister Cartwright, no! That would be too much of an imposition.”

“It would be no imposition at all, Miss Ashcroft,” Ben said. “Under the circumstances, I feel it’s the very least I can do.”

 

“Mister Cartwright, good you back,” Hop Sing greeted Ben as he slowed the buckboard to a halt. “Dinner ready soon. One hour. HOP SING cook today.”

“Thank heaven for great mercies!” Ben murmured with heartfelt gratitude, remembering the inedible meal Mei-Ling cooked up the day before.

“Who Missy?”

“This is Miss Ashcroft,” Ben said wearily, as he jumped down from the buckboard. “She’s going to be staying with us for . . . for awhile.”

“Why Missy so sad?”

“Hop Sing, please . . . don’t ask so many questions,” Ben said, as he helped Judith down from the buckboard. He reached into the back and pulled out her carpetbag. “Would you mind showing Miss Ashcroft upstairs to the spare room? It’s been a long tiring morning for her, Hop Sing. I think she might like to rest.”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing said, taking the bag. “Missy follow Hop Sing.” He turned and started toward the house, with Judith following silently behind.

“Oh! Hop Sing!”

Hop Sing paused, and turned. “Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“Where IS everyone?”

“Mrs. Li in room downstairs. Take nap,” Hop Sing replied. “Mei-Ling and family go to town. See Hop Ling. Venerable father. Whole family go, except no-good nephew.” He scowled. “Xing get up early, leave. Where, no one know.”

“How about Hoss, Joe, and Stacy?”

“Mister Hoss, Little Joe inside. Miss Stacy and Blaze Face out for ride.”

Ben was exceedingly grateful for that last. “Hop Sing, would you ask Hoss and Joe to join me in the barn?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing replied.

“Mister Cartwright, I’ll see to the horses,” Candy offered, as he crossed the yard between the bunkhouse and the buckboard.

“Not just yet, Candy, I have a couple of errands for you,” Ben said. “You’ll need the buckboard. First, I want you to go to the schoolhouse. Miss Ashcroft has a strong box in the teacher’s desk, in the bottom left drawer. I’d like you to retrieve that, and any other personal effects of Miss Ashcroft’s. After you’ve done that, I want you to take the buckboard to the house where she was living and get the rest of her things. Take Mitch or Bobby with you.”

“Yes, Sir,” Candy replied. “Where do you want us to put Miss Ashcroft’s things when we come back?”

“For now stack everything in the barn . . . in one of the empty stalls. She can sort through it all later.”

Candy nodded. “Mister Cartwright?”

“Yes, Candy?”

“The men and I . . . we want you to know that we . . . . ” His cheeks flushed pink. “We want you to know, Sir, that we . . . we don’t believe anything . . . they’re saying about you in town.”

Ben sardonically marveled at how even the speed of light had nothing on the swiftness of word of mouth. “Thank you, Candy. You don’t know how much I appreciate that,” he said heartily grateful for the support of those who worked for him. “Please, convey my thanks to the others?”

“I sure will, Mister Cartwright. If there’s anything I can do . . . . ”

“Thank you, Candy. If there is, I’ll let you know.”

 

“Dadburn it, Pa! That Danvers woman’s gone too far!” Hoss declared, his brows knit together in anger, after his father had related all that had transpired at the school board meeting earlier that morning. “She oughtta be tarred, feathered, ‘n run right outta town on a rail!”

“Pa,” Joe queried, lowering his voice. He cast a quick, furtive glance toward the open barn door and the house. “You aren’t going to give in to Mrs. Danvers’ ultimatum . . . ARE you?”

“I have to go back into town later with Hop Sing and Li-Hsing to pick up those jade statues,” Ben said grimly. “They’re supposed to be on the four o’clock stage. I’ll see if we can’t go a little early so I can talk things over with Lucas Milburn.”

“You want Joe ‘n me t’ go with you, Pa?” Hoss asked.

Ben thought the matter over. “Joe . . . . ”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“I’d like you to go with us,” Ben said. “Hoss, I’d like you to stay here, kinda keep an eye on your sister, Mrs. Li, and Miss Ashcroft.”

“Have you told Stacy anything yet?” Hoss asked.

“No,” Ben shook his head. “I . . . I’m hoping I can hold off on that until I’ve talked with Lucas.”

“Hold off telling me WHAT until you’ve talked with Mister Milburn?”

The three men turned and saw Stacy entering the barn, leading Blaze Face.

“Pa, what’s going on?”

Ben looked over at his sons. “Hoss . . . Joe . . . . ?”

“Sure, Pa.” Hoss moved forward to take Blaze Face’s lead from Stacy. “You g’won with Pa, Li’l Sister. Joe ‘n I’ll stable Blaze Face.”

“Pa . . . . ?!”

“Stacy, let’s you and I step into the tack room,” Ben said quietly. Stacy nodded, and followed. There, Ben took a deep breath and told his daughter what had transpired at the board meeting.

“Pa, I . . . I won’t let them take me!” she declared, as the blood literally drained right out of her cheeks. “I won’t let that . . . that monster from hell take me.”

“Stacy . . . . ”

“I mean it, Pa!”

“Stacy, do you trust me?” Ben said earnestly, placing both hands on her shoulders.

“Of COURSE I do, Pa.”

“Whenever I’ve made a promise to you, I’ve always kept it?”

Stacy nodded.

Ben slipped his arms around her and hugged her close. “Stacy, I promise you, NO ONE’S going to take you from me . . . from US! Least of all the likes of Vivian Crawleigh! You have my word on that.”

Stacy tightened her arms around Ben’s waist and rested her head against his broad chest. “When we were at Fort Charlotte? She was horrible, Pa,” she said, her voice shaking. “She’d . . . she’d punish me for the least little thing. I never knew what to expect. One day she’d praise me for doing something, the next she’d punish me . . . for doing the exact same thing.”

Ben’s thoughts drifted back to the first time he, Hoss, and Joe met Stacy. It was their first night at Fort Charlotte. In the dark hours of early morning, he was jolted from slumber by the terrified screams of the young woman he now held in his arms . . . .
Propelled by his fatherly instincts, finely honed through many years experience, he rose to his feet, threw his jacket on over his nightshirt, and went immediately to Stacy’s room. He sat down on the edge of the bed and gently shook her by the shoulder. “Stacy? Stacy, wake up . . . . ”

Her eyes snapped open.

“It’s all right, Stacy, you were having a bad dream . . . . ”

Ben was surprised and touched when she threw herself into his secure embrace. He held her, allowing her to cry on his shoulder, all the while softly murmuring words of comfort and reassurance.

“Mister Cartwright!”

Ben turned toward the door and saw Vivian Crawleigh standing at the threshold, with arms folded tightly across her chest. Clad in a dark, navy blue robe, hair wrapped up in papers, her face slathered with some kind of mudpack, she did indeed look like a monster from the deepest pits of hell.

“What do you think you’re DOING?!”

“It’s all right, Mrs. Crawleigh. Stacy had a night mare that’s left her shaken up, but she’ll be all right.”

“Not if you cater to her every time she screams.” Mrs. Crawleigh’s voice dripped with icicles.

“Cater to her?” Ben echoed, not understanding.

“It’s a bid to get attention,” Mrs. Crawleigh informed him in a lofty, condescending tone. “As long as you keep on rushing in here, she’s going to keep right on throwing these temper tantrums in the middle of the night.”

“M-Mrs. Crawleigh, you mean to tell me . . . . . ”

“When she screams, I just let her scream. If she keeps it up long enough, I’ll come in and give her attention all right . . . in the form of a good, sound whipping with my cane.”

Ben stared over at the woman, too horrified to even speak.

“That’s the only way she’s going to learn, Mister Cartwright.”

Ben made up his mind right then and there to ask the fort commander about the possibility of taking the frightened child he held in his arms home with him and the boys, to be part of THEIR family . . . . .
“Stacy, I want you to look at me.”

Stacy lifted her head and looked up earnestly into her father’s face.

“I don’t care what it takes, whatever I have to do, you’re NOT going to Ohio with Mrs. Crawleigh,” Ben said quietly. “That I promise.”

“Even . . . even if you have to . . . to marry M-Miss Ashcroft?”

“Even if I have to marry Miss Ashcroft,” Ben vowed. “But, I don’t think it’s going to come down to that. Your birth certificate was in with your mother’s things, remember?”

Stacy nodded.

“She had me listed as your father,” Ben continued. “Plus there were a lot of witnesses there the night John McKenna revealed that Paris and I are your parents. Between those two things, we have ample enough proof that I am your natural father, Young Woman.”

“I hope so, Pa, I really hope so.”

 

“Johnny?”

“What is it, Aaron?”

“What time ya got?”

Johnny Jacobs, the man riding shotgun on the Overland Stage bound for Virginia City, carefully eased the butt of his rifle down on the footrest, balancing the weapon between his legs, dug into his pants pocket with his free hand. “Four minutes past three,” he replied, glancing down at the pocket watch resting in his massive palm.

Aaron Buckley mutely nodded his thanks, exhaling a sigh of relief. Less than an hour now to Virginia City. The first thing he planned to do, after seeing to the passengers and unloading the baggage on top, was to go at once to the barber shop for a nice long soak in a hot bath, followed by a shave, and maybe a haircut. Dinner would be at the International Hotel, as always, with a couple of beers at either the Silver Dollar or that new place, the Pink Flamingo. Perhaps there might even be a poker game going somewhere . . . .

“Aaron, stop!”

Johnny’s frantic tone pierced through Aaron’s reverie.

“Stop?! Wha’ for?”

“Look?” Johnny pointed.

There were two men standing in the road up ahead. The bigger of the two stood well over six feet tall. He had a massive, rock solid muscular girth, roughly the size and shape of a beer keg, and a pair of well muscled beefy arms. He wore a tall, rounded ten-gallon hat, brown pants, a white long sleeved shirt, and a leather vest tanned a shade of brown lighter than his pants, almost golden. The shorter man was of a slimmer build, with broad shoulders tapering down to a narrow waist and hips. He wore light brown pants, a green jacket, and a hat that matched the pants. He stood next to the big man with arms folded across his chest.

Aaron studied the two men silently for a moment. “Kinda looks like the Cartwright boys, don’t it?”

“Yeah,” Johnny agreed, frowning.

“Wonder what they’re doin’ all the way out here, standin’ in the middle of the road like that?!”

“Maybe one o’ their horses went lame or lost a shoe,” Aaron replied., as he slowed the stagecoach to a halt. “Least we can do is offer ‘em a lift.”

The driver and man riding shotgun were shocked when the Cartwright boys both drew their guns.

“Stand and deliver, My Good Man,” the shorter man ordered.

“Joe Cartwright, if this is some kinda joke, it ain’t funny!” Aaron sputtered angrily, upon finding his voice.

“This is no joke,” the man addressed as Joe replied. “Now both of you . . . throw down your guns, nice ‘n easy.”

“What’s going on out there?” an impatient young woman, with a pronounced Boston accent demanded petulantly. “Why are we stopping?”

“I think the stage is being held up,” a short, portly middle-aged man declared, upon looking out the window.

“An astute observation, Sir,” the big silver haired man, clad impeccably in a black three piece suit, freshly laundered white shirt, and black string tie, stated in a quiet tone of voice. He was the lone occupant on the seat facing toward the back of the coach. Before anyone could even think to stop him, he pulled a small, mother-of-pearl handled derringer from the inside pocket of his jacket and leveled it at the passengers facing him. “This is INDEED a hold up.”

The girl with the Boston accent opened her mouth to scream.

“I’d save your breath, if I were you, Miss,” Bradley Meredith, the silver hair man, advised. “There’s no one out here to hear your cries for help anyway.”

The girl snapped her moth shut, then turned and favored Bradley Meredith with a sullen glare.

“Now THAT’S a rare treat. Beauty as well as intelligence,” Bradley observed acerbically. “Now then, if the lot of you follow my instructions to the letter, you will be on your way, lickity-split, and no one will get hurt. You!” He glared at the cowboy seated next to the window. “I want you to remove your gun from its holster, slow and easy . . . and toss it out the window.”

The cowboy reluctantly complied.

“The rest of you raise your hands in the air,” Bradley ordered,” sit tight, and keep your mouths shut.”

One by one the passengers slowly raised their hands.

“Alright, Driver, I want you to toss down that big box in the middle,” the man addressed as Joe ordered tersely. “The one with all the fancy Chinese writin’ all over it.”

“Do as he says, Johnny,” Aaron ordered.

Johnny rose slowly, easily, taking great care not to make any sudden moves. He climbed on top of the coach and crawled over to the requested box.

“You find it, Johnny?”

“Yeah, Aaron, I got it.” Johnny seized hold of the chest and dragged it to the front, toward the driver’s seat. “Here y’ are, Hoss.” He handed the heavy box over to the big man.

“Thank you, Mister, much obliged.” The big man smiled and nodded politely.

“Say, Hoss . . . . ”

“What?”

“With all that money your pa’s got . . . why’d you take up robbin’ stage coaches?”

“The novelty of ranchin’ ‘n ropin’ s worn off, I guess,” the short man replied with an indifferent shrug.

“Your pa’s gonna be awfully disappointed in you boys,” Aaron reproved them severely.

“Someone mention their pa?” Bradley Meredith asked as he stepped down out of the coach.

Aaron Buckley’s jaw dropped, and his eyes bulged right out of their sockets. “Muh-muh-muh-muh-Mister . . . C-C-Cartwright?!”

“You got the right box, Boys?” Bradley asked.

“We sure do, uuhhh ‘Pa,’ ” the big man, the one addressed as Hoss, replied with an emphatic nod of his head.

“Ok, Driver, you can go,” Bradley said in a dismissive monotone.

“Pleasure doin’ business with ya!” the short man in the green jacket called after the swiftly departing coach.

“Alright, let’s get this loot back to our hideout,” Bradley Meredith ordered. “We can divvy it up there.”

“Then it’s south to Mexico for the Slade brothers, Big Jack ‘n Shorty Jim [4],” the man in the green jacket crowed. “Our share’ll be more ‘n enough to keep the pair of us in wine, women, and song for a long, long, long time.”

“Say, Boss, whatcha gonna do with YOUR share?” the big man, Big Jack, asked.

“I ain’t as young as I used t’ be, Boys,” Bradley replied. “I’m figuring on buying me a nice piece o’ land somewhere nice ‘n quiet, where a fella can settle back, sit a spell and put his feet up.”

“You figurin’ on takin’ that homely li’l schoolmarm with ya?” Big Jack asked, as a sly smile oozed across his lips.

The question was answered with a dark murderous glare.

“Hey, don’t get your long johns all wrapped up in knots, Boss,” Big Jack immediately backed down. “I was only joshin’.”

“You’re NOT to josh in that way about Judy,” Bradley said through clenched teeth.

“You’re more bent outta shape than a lady trying t’ lace up a corset whut’s too tight,” Big Jack returned with a scowl.

“I’m WARNING you . . . . ”

“Hey, come on, cut it out!” Shorty Jim immediately interposed himself between The Boss and his younger, big brother. “We got the loot, now let’s high tail it outta here. The sooner we count it out ‘n divvy it up, the sooner we can all be goin’ our separate ways.”

“That can’t happen soon enough fer ME!” Big Jack declared, directing a murderous glare in the general direction of Bradley Meredith.

 

“LUCAS MILBURN, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN IT’S POSSIBLE?!” Ben demanded, leveling a dark, angry scowl at his hapless lawyer, seated behind his desk.

“I mean there’s precedent!” Lucas replied, his gaze, unwavering, resting square on Ben Cartwright’s angry face.

“WHAT PRECEDENT?!”

“Ben, please . . . . ”

Ben closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep, even breath. “All right, Lucas,” he said in as even a tone as he could possibly muster. “What precedent?”

“You should know, Ben, you helped set that precedent,” Lucas replied. “It concerned Margie Owens’ little girl. Remember?”

Ben remembered. Frank Owens young granddaughter, whom Hoss had wistfully nicknamed ‘Li’l June-Bug,’ had grown into a delightful child with a lively, vivacious personality. She had not only been a great comfort to her grandfather, but a new lease on life, as well. Frank took great delight in Li’l June-Bug. Though he would never regain the robust health that had been his before the onset of illness, his health did improve significantly for a time. When he finally died three almost four years ago now, Li’l June-Bug went to live with Carl and Marilyn Owens, Margie’s brother and sister-in-law, respectively. Carl and Marilyn, who had no children of their own, welcomed Li’l June-Bug into their hearts and into their home with open arms.

The Owens’ joy however was very short lived. Less than a day after Frank Owens had been laid to rest in the Virginia City Cemetery, Mark Connors came to town demanding custody of his daughter. Carl and Marilyn had adamantly refused to hand the child over, knowing Mark Connors to be the scum dirt wipes from its boots upon coming in from the cold. Mark Connors immediately petitioned to the court for custody of his daughter. Carl and Marilyn Owens, with the help and support of Ben Cartwright and Lucas Milburn, fought tooth and nail to retain custody of their niece. They might have lost the case entirely, had Mark Connors not shown up in court on the day the ruling was to be handed down, reeking of cheap whiskey and stale perfume, barely able to stand and walk. [7]

“Lucas, aren’t you forgetting that we proved conclusively that Mark Connors was an unfit father?” Ben asked.

“No.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“The problem is that a precedent has been set,” Lucas explained. “Unless you can produce the man who DID father Miss Ashcroft’s child, Mrs. Danvers and Mrs. Crawleigh have very compelling circumstantial evidence.”

“With emphasis on CIRCUMSTANTIAL, Lucas.”

“Ben, you know as well as I that many an innocent man has gone to the gallows on the basis of compelling circumstantial evidence,” the lawyer hastened to point out. “While Judges Faraday and Greenberg can be counted on to hear all testimony, and declare Mrs. Crawleigh’s petition invalid for lack of good concrete proof, Judge Caine is another matter. Given the animosity that’s grown between you and Judge Caine over the years, Ben, I frankly wouldn’t put it past him to rule on the basis of that precedent.”

“Is there anyway we can prevent Judge Caine from hearing the case, if things actually come down to that?”

“No.”

For a time, Ben remained silent, consumed by his escalating anger, frustration, grief, and foreboding. Fate had just dealt Myra Danvers a powerful winning hand, with regard to the situation involving Judith Ashcroft and himself. If he gave in to her demand that he “do right” by Miss Ashcroft, would she on other occasions pull out that trump hand to make him or any other member of his family do her bidding? Ben feared he knew the answer to that question all too well. “Ironic, isn’t it, Lucas?” he finally mused aloud, bitterly. “All the work I did to save a child from having to live with a father, who was terribly unfit, now threatens to take away my own daughter.”

“Ben, I wish to heaven I could give you a better answer,” Lucas said helplessly.

 

With a heavy heart, Ben Cartwright trudged wearily from Lucas Milburn’s office to the Overland Stage Depot, where he had agreed to meet Joe, Hop Sing, and Li-Hsing.

Joe, upon catching sight of his father’s face, knew immediately that the news was bad. “Pa . . . . ?”

“Later,” Ben immediately cut his youngest son off. “We’ll talk about it at home.”

Joe sighed softly, and nodded. “Ok, Pa,” he agreed reluctantly. “We’ll talk at home.”

“Has the stage come in yet?”

“No,” Joe shook his head. “It would appear the stage is late this afternoon.”

“Oh no!” Hsing exclaimed horrified. “Why stage late? What if robbers hold up stage, take statues?”

“Don’t worry, Mister Li,” Joe said, making an effort to reassure, in spite of his own growing trepidations about Pa’s meeting a short while ago with Mister Milburn. “The reason the stage is late is because it was more than likely held up in Carson City for some reason.”

Finally, at nearly twenty-three minutes past the hour, the Overland stage turned the corner and rumbled up the street, coming to a halt in front of the depot.

“SOMEONE GET THE SHERIFF!” Aaron Buckley shouted, as he jumped down from the driver’s set. “THE STAGE WAS ROBBED.”

Upon hearing the driver’s announcement, everyone gathered at the stage depot began to talk at once, in tones mixed with fear and outrage. Two boys, waiting with their father to meet one of the passengers, were immediately dispatched to the sheriff’s office to fetch Roy Coffee.

Hop Sing and his brother-in-law, their faces paled to a sickly ashen gray, exchanged horrified glances.

“Should never trust stagecoach,” Hsing moaned. “Never, never, never, never! Hsing should have brought statues, deliver to venerable grandmother. Should never trust stagecoach to deliver.”

“Mister Li, most stagecoach robbers are after things like money, gold, and jewelry,” Joe said, trying to maintain a semblance of calm against his own mounting dread. He had a real full blown bad feeling about all this. “It could be that they left your statues behind, not knowing what they were.”

“Little Joe right,” Hop Sing affirmed, nodding his head vigorously. “Stage robbing men, crass. Very rude. Need class, smarts up here . . . . ” he tapped his right temple three times, “ . . . to know real worth, true value for statues. Most robbers not know that.”

Ben frowned as he listened to the exchange between Hop Sing and his youngest son. There was some merit to their words, perhaps, on the basis of general principles, but he had chosen this stage to deliver those statues because he had known that it would not be carrying gold, a payroll, or even the U.S. mail to tempt thieves. “Joe?”

“Yeah, Pa?”

“Why don’t you g’won over and ask the driver what was taken?”

“Sure thing, Pa. I’ll be right back!”

“THERE! HE’S ONE OF THEM! HE’S ONE OF THE MEN WHO ROBBED US!” the passenger with the Boston accent shouted and pointed as Joe Cartwright edged his way to the front of the gathering crowd.

“YES! THAT’S HIM!” the balding, middle aged man added his voice to the young girl. “THAT’S HIM! THERE! THE MAN IN THE GREEN JACKET!”

Before Joe could even begin to register the import of the passengers’ words of accusation, hands were grabbing him from all sides, pinning his arms, holding him very firmly in place.

“WE’VE GOT HIM!” one of the men holding fast to Joe’s right arm shouted back to the shaken drivers and passengers.

“HEY! JUST A COTTON PICKIN’ MINUTE!” Joe shouted, as the implications suddenly began to dawn on him. “I DIDN’T ROB THAT STAGECOACH . . . . ”

 

“Ben . . . Joe, I got witnesses who say you DID rob that stage,” Roy Coffee said sternly. He, the Cartwrights, Hop Sing, and a pale, terribly shaken Li-Hsing were all gathered together in the sheriff’s office. “The description of a third man robbin’ that stage just so happens t’ fit HOSS to a ‘T.’ ”

“Roy, before I went to the stage depot, I spent the better part of an hour with Lucas Milburn,” Ben growled, his voice beginning to rise. He made no efforts to in any way conceal his growing frustration and impatience. “An HOUR, Roy! Nearly a whole hour! Now I ask you . . . how could I possibly go to Carson City, catch the stage to Virginia City, rob it an hour outside of town, then rush back here . . . while spending the better part of the last hour with Lucas Milburn?!”

“Ben, I got witnesses who describe the robbers as lookin’ very much like you ‘n your two boys,” Roy argued. “The passengers point you ‘n Joe out as the men whut robbed that stage over at the depot. The two drivers identified the three robbers as Mister Cartwright, Hoss, ‘n Joe. Ben, I got no choice BUT to haul the both o’ you in here ‘n at the very least ask ya some questions. YOU know that as well as I do.”

“Sheriff Coffee, we didn’t rob that stage,” Joe said tersely.

“Settle down, Joseph.”

“Pa— ”

“I SAID settle down.”

A sigh borne of pure, unadulterated exasperation exploded from between Joe’s lips. He, then, lapsed into sullen silence.

“All right, Roy,” Ben said through clenched teeth. “Joe and I will answer your questions.”

“Now we’re gettin’ somewhere,” Roy said with a subtle touch of sarcasm. “First question . . . I need the both of ya to account for your whereabouts beginning . . . let’s say about two o’clock.”

“At two o’clock, I was out in the barn with Candy and Bobby Washington, getting our buckboard hitched up,” Ben replied. “We . . . . ” he gestured to his son, to Hop Sing and Li-Hsing with a broad sweep of his arm, “had to be here to meet the four o’clock stage because we were expecting a delivery on what’s turned out to be the only objects stolen in this hold up. I decided to come to town early because I wanted to consult with Lucas Milburn regarding another matter.”

“What time didja reach Mister Milburn’s office, Ben?”

“The clock on his wall struck three o’clock shortly after I arrived.”

“How long exactly were ya with Mister Milburn?”

“I left his office at nine minutes past four. I remember because I looked up at Lucas’ clock, knowing I was running late. I had told Joe and Hop Sing that I’d meet them and Li-Hsing at the stage depot promptly at four . . . if not a bit earlier.”

“All right, Joe, how about YOU?”

“Hop Sing and I left Pa off at Mister Milburn’s office,” Joe Cartwright took up the story in a cold, sullen tone. “Then he and I drove over to the home of his father, Hop Ling in order to pick up Li-Hsing.”

“Li-Hsing and Hop Sing sister, Mei-Ling, and daughter all visit with honorable father,” Hop Sing dutifully explained.

“What time did you reach Hop Ling’s house?” Roy asked.

“I don’t know exactly,” Joe snapped. “It had to be . . . shortly after three, if Pa reached Mister Milburn’s office a few minutes BEFORE three.”

“Hop Sing know. Little Joe and Hop Sing reach Hop Ling house three, maybe four minutes past three. See on new sundial in rose garden in front of house.”

“How long were ya there?”

“We left at a quarter ‘til four,” Joe replied. “I heard a wall clock striking the last quarter hour. That’s how I knew it was time to leave for the depot. Li-Hsing came with Hop Sing and me. Mei-Ling and Yin-Ling stayed behind to visit awhile longer with Hop Ling.”

Roy Coffee made note of the people and times given him by Ben and Joe. “I’m gonna have to speak with Candy, Bobby Washington, and Hop Ling to verify, but that should be enough to keep ya outta jail, at least f’r now. However, I don’t want any of ya leavin’ town.”

“Mister Sheriff Sir?” Li-Hsing ventured hesitantly.

“Yes, Mister Li?”

“What happen with jade statues?”

“I’m gonna do everything I can to find ‘em,” Roy promised. “I’ll need a complete description of ‘em from you. Once I get that, I’ll send the information to every law man between here, ‘n California AND Mexico.”

“You find jade statues? Get back?” Li-Hsing asked, his pale, ashen face mirroring the desperate hope of one clinging for dear life to the thin edge of a precipice, suspended hundreds of feet above the earth and terra firma.

“Mister Li, as I said before I’m gonna do everything I can,” Roy said, his heart going out to the stricken man standing before him. “I wish I COULD tell ya fer sure that I’m gonna git ‘em back, but I can’t.”

“I . . . see. Li-Hsing thank Mister Sheriff for speaking honest.”

“Now if you can tell me what those statues look like . . . . ”

Ben, Joe, and Hop Sing moved over and took up their places next to the door that opened out on onto the street, allowing the sheriff and Li-Hsing a modicum of privacy.

“Mister Cartwright . . . Little Joe, this bad,” Hop Sing murmured gravely, shaking his head. “This very, very bad. No jade statues, no dowry. No dowry . . . Li family loose face, loose honor.”

“Loose face and . . . l-loose honor?!” Joe echoed, staring over at Hop Sing, incredulous. “I don’t understand.”

“Li-Hsing venerable grandmother promise jade statues be dowry for Yin-Ling,” Hop Sing said sadly. “Now statues gone. Li Family have no dowry. Li Family promise. Now can’t keep promise. Li Family dishonored. Loose face.”

“B-But it’s not Mrs. Li’s fault the statues were st-stolen,” Joe stammered, wholly taken aback.

“Mrs. Li promise. No can keep promise. Li Family disgrace, dishonor.”

“That hardly seems fair.”

“Little Joe right. NOT fair! But that way things be.”

 

“Come ON, Big Jack, out your back into it for heaven’s sake,” Shorty Jim urged impatiently.

“Keep your drawers on willya?” Big Jack growled. “I’m workin’ as fast as I can.”

The three thieves had retreated post haste, using a buckboard and team of horses well hidden from sight along the road. The box they had stolen was loaded into the back of the buckboard and covered over by a layer of straw and a coarse blanket. Bradley Meredith took the reins, and drove the buckboard off the road toward an abandoned homestead, chosen well before the planned robbery as their hideout. The buckboard and horses were hidden in what remained of the barn, while the men retreated into the house, carrying their ill-gotten gain.

Big Jack spent the better part of half an hour working diligently to pry off the lid of the wood box containing the Li family dowry. Shorty Jim stood close at his brother’s elbow, his hazel eyes shining with excitement, shifting from one foot to the other, then back again. Bradley Meredith sat before the small kitchen table, playing a game of Solitaire.

“Shorty, willya puh-leeeese! Stop all that prancin’ around?!” Big Jack angrily admonished his older brother. “You’re makin’ me nervous!”

“All right!” Shorty snapped. He stepped back, putting some distance between himself and his brother. “all right, I’ll quit lookin’ over your shoulder, if you’ll just get that box open!”

“I TOLDJA I’m tryin’.”

“Yeah, you’re tryin’ all right. REAL tryin’! You’re also takin’ forever.”

“I can’t help it if these Chinese folks are good at sealing stuff up,” Big Jack growled, as he returned his attention again to the box.

“Just hurry it up.”

As Bradley Meredith dealt himself another round of Solitaire, his anxious thoughts drifted to the woman he loved, the woman he hoped would be waiting for him back in Virginia City, remembering and reliving again the first day he had ever set eyes on her . . . .
“Mister Cartwright.”

She stood on the board sidewalk right next to the door of the Silver Dollar Saloon, her posture straighter than an army general’s and with arms folded tightly across her chest, leveling a ferocious scowl in his general direction. If looks could have killed . . . . .

“You were going to get right back to me about rescheduling that parent-teacher conference regarding Stacy, when you last canceled,” she said sternly. “I haven’t seen hide nor hair of you since.”

“Stacy?” he murmured, with a bewildered frown.

“Your daughter.” Her tone was colder than the glaciers of Baffin Bay.

“Oh, yes . . . Stacy. My daughter.” This was suddenly going from very badly to even worse. He had no idea in the world that Ben Cartwright had a daughter.

“It’s been nearly a month, Mister Cartwright,” she continued in that stern, school teacher tone of voice.

“I’m very sorry, Miss— ” She was the school teacher. Bradley Meredith knew that, but what was her NAME?

“I WAS under the impression that you regard a good, solid education as something vitally important,” she continued.

“I do, believe me! I do! Unfortunately, I’ve been a tad under the weather for the last couple of weeks or so— ”

“I’m glad to see you’re up and about again, Mister Cartwright,” she said, her voice laden with heavy sarcasm. Her bright blue eyes strayed very pointedly to the saloon door behind him.

“Thank you, Ma’am,” he murmured, flinching away from the steely glint in her gaze.

“One hour, Mister Cartwright.”

“One hour? Until . . . . ?”

“Until that parent-teacher conference,” she stated very firmly, in a tone that brooked no argument. “I will be at the school house in one hour. We’ll have that parent-teacher conference then.” She paused, then added, “I trust you know the way to the school house as well as you seem to know the way to the Silver Dollar?”

“Y-Yes, Ma’am.”

“Excellent. I will see you THERE in one hour.”

Though not particularly beautiful in accord with the accepted norms of physical beauty, she intrigued him. Everyone ELSE in this dusty boom town went out of their way to kowtow to him, in the mistaken belief that he was Ben Cartwright, especially the ladies . . . the unmarried ones, that is . . . and the widows. A few were very attractive, but had proved themselves quite tiresome after an evening spent in their company.

But this school teacher was different, the way she spoke to him as she might one of her students, TELLING him to be at the school house in one hour instead of asking him when things might be convenient. And that pointed remark about the Silver Dollar . . . .

Out of curiosity, Bradley Meredith arrived at the schoolhouse for that parent-teacher conference early.

“If you would follow me inside, Mister Cartwright,” she said, not the least bit impressed or grateful of his early arrival, but accepting it as a given. She unlocked the door and led the way inside. “You will find a chair against the wall here in the back of the room. If you would be so kind as to bring it up along side my desk?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” he murmured meekly, before doing her bidding like the most obedient of her students.

“I AM gratified that Stacy’s school work has shown marked improvement, since we last talked at the end of the last semester,” she began, once they had both gotten themselves settled. She sat behind her desk, posture straight, hands folded, making him feel every bit the errant schoolboy, called to the front of the class for misbehaving. “However, you and I both know that she IS a highly intelligent young woman, capable of doing much better.”

“Yes,” he said, not quite knowing what else to say.

“I know you and your sons do your best to encourage her to keep up with her school work, AND you do quite well in HELPING her with her homework without doing it for her,” the schoolteacher continued. “You and your sons are to be commended in that area.”

“Th-thank you.”

Her manner softened, as she favored him with a smile that transfigured her, revealing a glowing inner beauty that wholly overshadowed her otherwise unremarkable appearance. “Mister Cartwright, you have no idea how many parents either could care less as to how well or how poorly their children do in school, or who actually to their work for them. One mother was highly irate after I gave her daughter a failing grade for a report turned in. The reason I had to give that failing grade was because I knew for fact that the girl’s mother had written that report herself. When I tried to explain . . . . well, to say the mother just plain didn’t get it would be a gross understatement.”

“I believe very strongly that a child should do her own schoolwork,” Bradley said, settling into the role of parent. “How ELSE are they going to learn?”

“My sentiments exactly,” she responded with a triumphant nod of her head. “Overall, I’m very pleased with the improvement in your daughter’s schoolwork.”

“I can safely assume she’ll be passed on to the next grade?”

“Absolutely, no question about that, Mister Cartwright,” she hastened to assure. “In the coming year, however, I would like to see her applying herself a little more. As I said before, Stacy is a very intelligent young woman, more than capable of doing better.”

“I will certainly encourage her to do her best, Ma’am,” he promised earnestly. “How has she been behaving?”

“That talk you had with her after our last conference has done a world of good in that department. I am very pleased to report that she simply walks away when Abel Caine taunts her with his unkind remarks. Ignoring him seems to take all the wind right out of his sails, and as a result, he appears to be leaving her alone more and more.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“I’M glad I don’t have to listen to Judge Caine whining to me everyday about your daughter sending his son home with a split lip or a bloody nose.”

“You and me both.”

“Well, Mister Cartwright, that’s all I have to say. Do you have any further comments or questions?”

One. He wanted more than anything in the world to ask her if she were free to have dinner with him that night. “No, Ma’am,” he said aloud as they both rose.

“Thank you for taking the time to speak with me,” she said quietly. “I know running a ranch the size of the Ponderosa is very time consuming— ”

“Even so, my daughter’s education is also very important. My apologies for all the postponements.”

“Apology accepted, Mister Cartwright.”
He just had to see her again, socially, out of the context of her being the teacher and he the supposed parent of one of her students. That opportunity very quickly presented itself at the church picnic a few days later. As a fundraiser to help families within the community, whose fortunes had suffered greatly in the wake of the hard winter this past year, all of the single ladies were asked to make up a picnic basket and put it up for auction. She and the gentleman who had the highest bid would share its contents together.

He had made sure that his was the winning bid on Judy Ashcroft’s basket.

They had spent a delightful afternoon together. He was very pleasantly surprised to discover that she could converse intelligently on a diverse spectrum of topics, ranging from current events, national and local, political issues, to art and literature. She was even knowledgeable in some of the finer aspects of raising cattle and crops. He knew also that she, too, was very pleasantly surprised, leaving him with a very strong sense that her perceptions of Mister Ben Cartwright differed radically from the image he had presented that afternoon at the church picnic.

In the days that followed, he had made a point to show up at some of the events he knew she would be attending, like the poetry readings held weekly at the library. Afterward, he would ask her to join him for coffee at the International Hotel. She, more often than not, accepted.

Then came that picnic he and Judy shared together, alone . . . .
After a highly delectable lunch, put together by Gretchen Braun over at the International Hotel, he took her into his arms, confidently, without preamble, hesitation or permission, and kissed her. Her entire body initially stiffened in the circle of his arms. He remembered her hands against his chest desperately trying to push him away, but he pulled her closer, his lips tenderly, expertly massaging hers.

Then, suddenly, her struggling ceased. He felt her body go limp in his embrace, her arms sliding up under his, her fingers wrapping tightly about his shoulders, clinging for dear life. Her lips began to massage his in return, tentatively at first, then bolder, with more confidence. He touched her lips with the tip of his tongue, gently prying them apart, then thrusting triumphantly into her mouth, eliciting a soft moan from deep within her.

“You want this, Judy,” Bradley whispered, awed, as his lips moved from her mouth up to her eyelids, over her forehead, and down to her cheeks. “You want this every bit as much as much as I do.”

“Yes,” Judith moaned, breathless. “Yes, yes, oh yes . . . . ”

Cradling the young schoolteacher in one arm, Bradley began to remove the pins binding her hair in its customary tight chignon. “You have such pretty hair,” he whispered, “like spun gold. I’ve been wanting to run my fingers through your hair since that ‘parent’-teacher conference.”

“Ben?”

“Yes?”

“Please? Kiss me again?”

Bradley granted her request. Judy responded with an intensity, and ferocity that must have shocked her to the very core of her being, and frightened her. He could feel her entire body trembling in his arms. Her tongue touched his lips, teasing, finally working its way inside his mouth. Groaning, he pulled her closer, pleased and very surprised.

He gently laid her down onto the red and white-checkered cloth that had served as their picnic table, then laid down along side her. He gathered her in his arms once more and gazed down longingly into her eyes. “Judy,” he murmured, his voice husky. “Are you sure?”

Judy’s eyes remained glued to his face as she slowly unbuttoned her blouse one button at a time. She gently took his right hand in both of hers and placed it under her blouse on top of her bare breast, then nodded, too overcome to speak.

 

Over the years he had known many women in the Biblical sense, but none had ever given of herself so willingly, so completely, and so passionately as Judy had on that glorious picnic. It had been HER first time. He knew immediately when he saw the fear in her face, fear of her own fierce passionate nature. Yet she trusted him so completely, she found within herself the courage to surrender not only to him, but to herself, finally setting free that which she had kept bound for so long.

He had deflowered many young virgins in his much younger days. Some of them had been saloon girls, but many more of them had hailed from the so called “good” families, wealthy with a genealogy that included names appearing on the passenger list of the Mayflower and many of the crowned heads of Europe. Despite their so-called good breeding and impeccable pedigree, each and every one were a dime a dozen.

Judy Ashcroft, however, was different.

Judy Ashcroft was a rare and precious gift.

The thought of leaving Virginia City for good, without Judy, grew increasingly unbearable with each passing day . . . .
“IT’S OPEN!” Big Jack’s triumphant shout, following on the heels of that wooden box, containing the Li Family dowry, splintering into a million pieces, forcibly yanked him away from his tender musings of Judy Ashcroft.

“WHAAA-HOOOOO!” Shorty Jim cheered jubilantly, as he turned and ran over to his brother looming triumphantly over the recalcitrant box.

“Bring that box on over here,” Bradley ordered tersely, taking no pains to conceal his irritation at having been so rudely pulled from his tender reverie. Scowling, he quickly gathered up his cards, and jammed them into his shirt pocket.

“It sure is heavy,” Big Jack declared, grinning from ear to ear, as he had his brother hefted the box up off the kitchen counter and into their arms.

“That’s PROBABLY ‘cause it’s GOLD!” Shorty declared. “We’re rich, Big Brother, you ‘n me are filthy, stinkin’ RICH.”

“Get that box over here, and let’s count it,” Bradley ordered.

“When we do, we’re on our way south to Mexico!” Shorty declared.

The brothers placed the box on the kitchen table in front of Bradley Meredith, who gingerly removed the splintered remains of the box top. Inside was a layer of straw that was quickly removed.

“What’s this?” Big Jack queried with a perplexed scowl, as his eyes fell on the three irregularly shaped bundles inside.

“The gold’s in those bundles,” Shorty Jim replied.

“Gold ingots don’t look like that.”

“Maybe it’s gold COINS.”

“Come on, let’s get these bundles open,” Bradley said impatiently. He reached into the pocket of his jacket and drew out a pocketknife. He flipped up the blade and quickly sliced through the cords holding the bundles together. He, then, set the knife aside and ripped off the burlap, revealing a deep green jade statue of a woman flying. The full, round lunar disc and stylized clouds anchored and supported the figure. A line drawing of the moon hare was incised into the flat moon disc behind the carved woman.

“Hey! This ain’t gold!” Big Jack exclaimed in dismay.

“WHAT?!” Shorty Jim yelped in outrage.

“I . . . I don’t believe it,” Bradley Meredith whispered, wholly awestruck. “This jade statue of Chang-O. . . it’s obviously the work of Yang Wei-Chu, his late period . . . yet one completely unknown . . . and NOT sitting behind glass in a museum somewhere.”

“Agggh! Who the hell CARES?” Shorty Jim snorted derisively. “You can’t spend a jade statue.”

“Maybe there’s gold in the other two bundles,” Big Jack suggested hopefully.

Bradley Meredith carefully, almost reverently set the statue of Chang-O down safely on the kitchen counter, then set himself to the task of severing the cords around the two remaining bundles. He unwrapped the burlap from around the first of the remaining bundles, while Shorty Jim greedily yanked the burlap from the other with Big Jack looking on, his eyes shining with anticipation.

“Aawww, daggumit! There ain’t no gold in them two sacks either,” Big Jack exclaimed in complete dismay. “Just . . . more statues.”

“Hou-Yi and Kuan-Yin,” Bradley identified them, “also by Yang Wei-Chu, late period, pieces completely unknown . . . until NOW.”

“I got half a mind to ride into town, find that no good Li-Xing and kick his sorry ass from one end o’ Virginia City to the other, ‘n back again,” Shorty Jim declared with a murderous scowl.

“These statues are priceless, Gentlemen,” Bradley hastened to point out. “We can sell them.”

“We’d almost have to go to San Francisco to find someone wealthy enough to buy priceless statues,” Shorty Jim groused. “By the time we got there, the sheriff here will’ve gotten out a general description at the very least. We’ll NEVER find a buyer ‘cause no one in his right mind’s gonna buy stolen property.”

“We could maybe hold ‘em for ransom,” Big Jack suggested.

“ . . . and we’d still get only a fraction of what they’re worth,” Bradley argued, “and besides! The Li Family’s impoverished and has been so for quite a number of years now. Xing said these statues are all that remains of his family’s wealth.”

“Ben Cartwright ain’t poor,” Big Jack countered. “The REAL one, that is.”

“Even if Ben Cartwright sold the Ponderosa, all of his other holdings . . . his lumber mill and mining interests, and pooled together all of his liquid assets over and above all that, it still wouldn’t come up to anything near what those statues are worth,” Bradley replied.

“You got any BETTER ideas?” Shorty Jim demanded.

“I not only have a better idea, I also have a buyer . . . right here in Virginia City,” Bradley replied with a smug, triumphant grin. “He’s very wealthy, has an extensive collection of priceless works of art, and he’s not real choosey as to where they come from.”

“Who IS this guy?” Shorty Jim asked in a sullen tone.

“Geoffrey Sutcliff. He already owns half the real estate in Virginia City and is working diligently to buy up the other half,” Bradley replied. “He makes a real tidy sum every year just sittin’ back on his fat ass, collecting rent from most of the businesses in town. But, that’s not the real source of his wealth.”

“What IS?” Big Jack asked, curious.

“Does the name van der Hoest mean anything to you?”

Big Jack and Shorty Jim exchanged puzzled glances, then shrugged. “Never heard of ‘em,” the latter replied.

Bradley Meredith sardonically rolled his eyes. “That shouldn’t surprise me,” he sighed. “The van der Hoest family is what they call old money back east. They amassed their fortune in shipping and shipbuilding. Mrs. Sutcliff’s maiden name was van der Hoest. She’s the sole heir to that entire fortune.”

“OK, so this Geoffrey Sutcliff can afford the statues,” Shorty Jim said. “How do we go about lettin’ him know they’re for sale.”

“I will ride into town first thing in the morning and inform Mister Sutcliff that the three statues are for sale,” Bradley replied. “I’ve fenced . . . uuhhh, BROKERED sales of artwork with him before, so he’s well acquainted with me.”

“Big Jack and I’re coming with you.”

“Not, you’re not,” Bradley growled. “This is something I can best handle ALONE.”

“Another thing you can best handle ALONE is selling those statues to this guy, collecting the money, grabbing up your lady friend, an’ high tailin’ it to San Francisco, with Big Jack ‘n me none the wiser.”

Bradley took a deep breath and pulled himself up, fully erect. “Are you accusin’ me of cheating you and your brother?!” he demanded, thoroughly outraged, favoring Shorty Jim wit a dark, murderous glare.

“Don’t you go ‘n get all self-righteous on US, Boss,” Shorty Jim countered heatedly. “You’ve already lied to the woman you supposedly love by telling her you’re Ben Cartwright, you help us steal those three statues from the stage this mornin’, AND you cheat playin’ poker. Cheatin’ on your partner’s the next logical step the way I see it.”

“I am NOT going to take all three statues,” Bradley said in a tone that dripped icicles, “only ONE. You two will remain here to guard the remaining two.”

“OK, fine! Just fine!” Shorty retorted. “How do we know that you won’t turn Big Jack ‘n me over to the sheriff and keep all the money you make from sellin’ these statues for yourself?”

“A man with even a small amount of intelligence would realize that the Cartwrights, to whom we ALL, including me, bear very close resemblance are at the very least under suspicion for having pulled that stage robbery,” Bradley said in a withering, condescending tone. “If I so much as set foot in the sheriff’s office, they’re going to mistake me for Ben Cartwright and throw me in jail.”

“What he says makes sense, Shorty,” Big Jack admitted.

This drew a sharp glare from his older brother. “Yeah,” Shorty Jim growled through clenched teeth. “all right then, Boss. What ARE your plans for tomorrow morning? My brother and I have a right to know THAT much.”

“I plan to ride out early tomorrow morning to Mister Sutcliff’s home, which happens to be located just outside the city proper,” Bradley said stiffly. “As I said before, I’ll take one of the statues with me to show the client. If all goes well, I’ll make the sale, arrange for the delivery of the remaining two statues, and pick up a hefty bank draft . . . . ”

“Bank draft?!” Shorty echoed, incredulous. “A bank draft?”

“Yes, a bank draft, made out to me. We’ll cash it in Placerville.”

“Oh no! You’ll take payment in CASH . . . or gold bullion.”

“If I were to insist on cash, that might arouse suspicion.”

“I thought you just said this Mister Sutcliff ain’t real choosy about where he buys his art work.”

Bradley sighed. “All right. Cash or gold. I CAN tell Mister Sutcliff that the, umm CLIENTS for whom I’m brokering, are anxious to sell. However . . . . ”

“However WHAT?!”

“There will be a substantial reduction in PRICE.”

“I don’t care,” Shorty replied. “I just wanna get outta here.”

“What about that li’l Chinese fella?” Big Jack asked. “The one who put us up to this heist. HE’S gonna expect HIS commission.”

“Oh he’ll get his commission,” Bradley said, scowling. “Only he’s going to find it drastically reduced because of the risk factor involved in selling these statues.”

“Hey! He’s supposed to meet us in that alley between the Pink Flamingo ‘n the Virginia City Social Club, ain’t he?” Shorty said, remembering.

“Yes, tonight just before midnight,” Bradley nodded. “Given our present situation, I think it might be best if he come and stay here with us . . . . ” a sly smile slowly spread across his lips, “ . . . as our guest, until the sale of the statues is complete.”

 

“Hoss . . . . ”

“Li’l Sister, you runnin’ to the window every five minutes ain’t gonna hurry ‘em along any,” Hoss said, taking no pains to conceal the annoyance born from his own growing anxiety.

“Sorry,” Stacy murmured contritely.

“I-I’m sorry, TOO, Stacy,” Hoss also apologized upon getting a look at the wounded expression on her face. “I may be just as worried as you, but I got no call t’ take it out on you.”

“ ‘S ok, Hoss.”

“No, it ain’t,” Hoss said in a kindlier tone. “Tell you what. I’ll accept YOUR apology, if you’ll accept mine.”

“You got yourself a deal, Big Brother,” Stacy said, then sighed. “I hope Mister Milburn had some good news for Pa.”

“I’m sure everything’ll be alright,” Hoss said with more conviction than he felt. “But, even if it ain’t, you just remember one thing.”

“What’s THAT?”

“That promise Pa made you. Ain’t NOBODY gonna take you away from us, Li’l Sister, not Mrs. Danvers, not that Crawleigh woman . . . NOBODY. This is YOUR home, Pa, Li’l Joe, Hop Sing, ‘n me . . . we’re all your family. Ain’t nobody gonna change all that.”

Stacy walked over to the settee where her big brother was sitting and threw her arms around his neck. “Thanks, Hoss,” she said, before planting a quick kiss on top of his head.

Hoss smiled, despite is own apprehension and patted her arm. “Don’t you dare forget that, Li’l Sister, you hear?”

“I won’t,” she promised.

A few moments later, Stacy and Hoss heard the sounds of horse hooves and buckboard wheels out in the yard. The latter rose from his place on the settee, and walked around to take his place alongside his sister, whose eyes were riveted to the door.

Yin-Ling burst through the front door first, weeping. She bolted across the great room and ran up the steps, wholly oblivious to the presence of Stacy and Hoss. The sounds of her footfalls, her piteous sobbing echoed through out the second story, as she fled to the room she shared with the Cartwright daughter. Downstairs, they heard the door to Stacy’s bedroom slam shut. An uneasy silence reigned.

“H-Hoss?”

“What is it, Li’l Sister?”

“I-I don’t know about YOU . . . but suddenly . . . I’ve got a real bad feeling about all this,” Stacy said, her voice shaking.

Hop Sing entered next, followed by Mei-Ling and Li-Hsing, their faces pale. Stacy’s heart sank when she realized that Mei-Ling had also been crying. Mei-Ling paused, turned and exchanged a few words with her husband, Li-Hsing. He, in turn nodded, then stepped over to the closed door of the downstairs guest room, the one occupied by his grandmother. Hop Sing and Mei-Ling went out to the kitchen.

“Hoss?” It was Joe, his face a mixture of anger and of grief. “Would you mind helping me with the horses?”

“Sure thing, Li’l Brother.” Hoss paused just long enough to give his anxious sister a gentle, reassuring squeeze on the shoulder before following Joe outside.

“Stacy . . . . ”

If she hadn’t known before that the news wasn’t good, she certainly knew, without a shred of doubt, upon getting a good hard look at her father’s strained, weary face, containing within it the same mix of grief and anger she had seen just now in Joe’s face. Stacy swallowed nervously, then walked over, meeting Ben half way. “Pa, what did Mister Milburn say?” she asked in as steady a voice as she could possibly muster.

Ben took a deep breath and told her everything.

“Oh no! Pa, what are we going to do?”

Ben gently took his daughter into his arms and hugged her close. “One thing we’re NOT going to do is let this Mrs. Crawleigh take you anywhere,” he said earnestly. “I want you to know that and remember that.” He held her enough apart to look into her face. “Your home is right here, with your brothers, Hop Sing, and me. I won’t let either Mrs. Danvers or Mrs. Crawleigh change that.”

“H-How can we STOP them?” Stacy asked, her voice shaking.

“You leave THAT to me, Young Woman,” Ben chided her gently. “All YOU need to do is remember that the Ponderosa is your home, and we’re your family. Nothing this side of heaven or hell is going to change that.”

“Ok, Pa . . . I’ll remember, but in the meantime? I could use a great big bear hug,” she said, her blue eyes unusually bright.

“Now that you mention it, I could use a big bear hug myself about now . . . . ” Ben felt his own eyes stinging with tears, as he gathered Stacy back into his arms and hugged her closer.

 

“M-Mister Cartwright?”

Ben glanced up upon hearing his name. He was seated behind his desk, with a pile of unopened mail spread out before him. Judith Ashcroft, her cheeks beet red, her eyelids and upper lip swollen, stood on the other side of the desk with sodden handkerchief clasped tightly in one hand. Her vulnerability, laid bare by the day’s events, lent her more the appearance of a troubled school GIRL rather than austere schoolteacher.

“Hop Sing t-told me just now that you . . . that you wanted to s-see me?”

“Yes,” Ben immediately rose. “Let’s sit down over next to the fireplace.”

Judith nodded and fell in step behind him. She seated herself at the end of the settee nearest the red leather chair facing, with her posture stiffly erect and hands folded in her lap.

“I spoke to my lawyer this afternoon, Miss Ashcroft,” Ben began as he seated himself in the red leather chair. “I’m afraid he didn’t have good news to tell me.” He shared with Judith all that Lucas Milburn had told him.

“Then Mrs. Danvers’ cousin c-could come here . . . petition for custody of Stacy and . . . and w-win the case?!”

“It’s a very strong possibility, Miss Ashcroft.”

“Oh, Mister Cartwright, I . . . I am s-so sorry . . . . ” Judith immediately lowered her face toward her lap, her eyelids blinking excessively.

“It’s not YOUR fault,” Ben said quietly, then scowled. “If fault lies anywhere, I’d have to say it lies with Mister Meredith and Mrs. Danvers.”

“D-Does . . . does Stacy know?” Judith cast a quick, furtive glance over her shoulder.

Ben nodded. “There’s no keeping things from her, I’m afraid. She’s too perceptive.”

“S-So what happens now?” Judith ventured timidly.

Ben took a slow, deep, even breath. “Before we talk about that, there’s something I’d like to tell you first . . . about Stacy.”

Judith nodded, then waited.

“When Hoss, Joe, and I met her at Fort Charlotte, she had just been taken, by force, from the Paiute family who had taken her in as a child, who had loved her and raised her,” Ben began. “The men at the fort tried to find out whether or not she had family, and who they might be, but came up empty handed. Someone at Fort Charlotte must have either known Mrs. Crawleigh personally, or known about her. Major Baldwin, the fort commander, sent her a wire asking her to come and take Stacy.

“The kindest things I can possibly say about Mrs. Crawleigh are that she’s abusive and cruel, and that’s based on what I saw while we were all at Fort Charlotte,” Ben continued. “Stacy’s told me other things over the years, and just thinking about it’s enough to make my blood boil. I just thank the Good Lord that for whatever reason, Major Baldwin at the last minute changed his mind and allowed Stacy to come home with US.”

“Stacy’s very lucky you and your sons came along when you did,” Judith said in a small, quiet voice, her eyes riveted to the darkened hearth. “I . . . didn’t grow up in the Lucia Churchill Hayes Home for Orphans and Foundlings, rather in an institution very much like it. My parents died when I was very young. Though I had several aunts and uncles, none were interested in taking on another mouth to feed. Mister Cartwright . . . . ”

“Yes?”

“If there’s anything I can do to ensure that Stacy remains here with you, secure in her own home . . . . ”

Ben was grateful to her for opening the way. “Does that include marriage?”

“It’s the least I can do for wrongly implicating you.”

“I will accept and raise your child as my own, Miss Ashcroft,” Ben said quietly, earnestly. “You and your child will be accepted and treated as any other member of this family. I will be a good husband to you, on your terms. If you wish our marriage to be one of convenience, in name only, I will respect that.”

“Th-Thank you, Mister Cartwright. You’re . . . you’re very generous.”

“If you need time to think about your answer . . . . ”

“No. I . . . I WILL marry you, Mister Cartwright,” Judith said, her voice shaking. “I do so knowing that you’re . . . you’re doing this for Stacy’s sake. I’ll leave the arrangements to you.”

 

“STACY? HEY, KID, YOU OUT HERE?” Joe called out as he entered the barn.

“UP HERE!” Stacy called back from the loft overhead.

Joe walked over to the ladder and climbed up. He found his sister sitting against the wall, a few feet from the ladder, with an open book propped up against her knees. “Hop Sing says supper’ll be ready in ten minutes,” he said as he stepped from ladder to straw covered loft floor. “Whatcha readin’?”

“This.” Stacy held the book up so that her brother could see the title.

“How to Solve Crimes by Professor Foote,” Joe read the title aloud with a grin. “Where in the world did you find THAT?”

“In the attic, last Christmas, when we were all bringing down the Christmas decorations.”

“I’m surprised that book ended up in the attic. I thought sure Pa had taken it out to the middle of Lake Tahoe and dropped it in.” [8]

“I’m sure glad he didn’t,” Stacy said grimly.

“Uh oh! What’re you up to, Little Sister?” Joe asked as he knelt down beside her.

“Grandpa, it’s up to US!” Stacy said, with that tell tale stubborn set of jaw that more often than not signaled she was about to embark on a course of action that could potentially land her in a whole world of trouble.

“US?! What’s up to us?”

“We have to stop Pa and Miss Ashcroft from making a big mistake,” Stacy explained. “They’ll be miserable together.”

“I . . . I know, Kid,” Joe said sadly, as he settled himself on the floor beside her.

“Especially Miss Ashcroft! That’ll be torture for her to be married to a man who’s a dead ringer for the man she loves, but he’s NOT the man she loves.” Stacy sighed and dolefully shook her head. “I’m not making a whole lot of sense am I?”

“Actually, Little Sister, you’re making perfect sense, but I’m afraid Pa has no choice in the matter. If he doesn’t marry Miss Ashcroft, YOU stand a good chance of being handed over to that Crawleigh bitch.”

“That’s another thing,” Stacy pressed. “Knowing Mrs. Danvers, she’ll hold that over Pa’s head for the rest of his life, if he marries Miss Ashcroft. If he doesn’t do her bidding, she’ll threaten him with send a wire to that monster cousin of hers.”

“It wouldn’t be his whole life, Kid, only for the next three years . . . until you come of age,” Joe hastened to point out, “but the thought IS sobering.”

“We’ve got to DO something.”

“What . . . exactly do you have in mind?” Joe asked warily.

“We find the man Miss Ashcroft’s in love with,” Stacy said with a scowl. “That’ll not only get PA off the hook, but I have a real strong feeling that if we find HIM, we also find the Li family’s jade statues.”

“Oh yeah?” Joe queried, intrigued in spite of himself. “How do you figure?”

“This guy who’s a dead ringer for Pa . . . what’s his name?”

“Bradley Meredith,” Joe said, scowling. “Twice he tried to use his resemblance to Pa sell the Ponderosa out from under us. Both times, he almost pulled it off.”

“From some of the other things you guys’ve told me, I betcha anything he and two guys who look like you and Hoss held up that stage and stole the jade statues,” Stacy continued.

“That’s right,” Joe remembered with a scowl. “When I walked over to ask Aaron and Jacob what was stolen, they . . . and all the passengers, too . . . identified Pa ‘n me as two of the thieves.”

“Didn’t the drivers also say that Hoss was the third thief?”

“Yeah . . . . ” Joe murmured, his scowl deepening. “Now that we’re sitting here talking about all this, it suddenly occurs to me that the REAL robbers must’ve gone out of their way to make darn sure everyone saw their faces.”

“BECAUSE they look a lot like you, Pa, and Hoss.”

“Yeah.”

“WE know that Pa’s not the father of Miss Ashcroft’s child,” Stacy continued, “and there can’t be TWO guys, who are dead ringers for Pa . . . can there?!”

“Anything’s possible, Kiddo, but I hafta agree that it’s not likely,” Joe had to admit.

“Then one of the stage robbers . . . the one who looks like PA . . . has to be the father of Miss Ashcroft’s child,” Stacy insisted.

Joe silently mulled over her words for a moment. “What you say makes sense, Stace. The odds against two other guys running around Virginia City, who happen to be dead ringers for Pa, have to be pretty high . . . and THAT reminds me of something ELSE!”

“What’s that, Grandpa?”

“There was something strange about that stage heist . . . . ”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied. “First off, when Pa made the arrangements to have those statues shipped here from San Francisco, he purposely chose a stage that wouldn’t be carrying anything robbers might find tempting. There was no gold, no money, not even a bag of mail. Second, the thieves ONLY took the statues.”

“What do you mean they ONLY took the statues?!” Stacy queried with a bewildered frown. “You just got through saying that the stage wasn’t carrying anything ELSE robbers might find tempting.”

“Stage robbers usually go through the luggage, and rob the passengers, too,” Joe explained. “That one gal . . . from the way she talked, I’d say she HAD to have come from Boston . . . but when the stage arrived in Virginia City, she was wearing a fortune in jewelry.”

“You know what THAT means, don’t you, Grandpa?”

“Why don’t you tell me, Little Sister.”

“It means they were after the statues!” Stacy replied.

“Not necessarily,” Joe said thoughtfully.

“What do you mean?”

“They were obviously after the Li Family DOWRY, but I somehow don’t think they were expecting to find jade statues,” Joe explained. “I think they were expecting gold, or cash.”

“How do you figure?”

“First lesson in that book, Kid. You have to think like a criminal.”

“That can’t be too much of a stretch for you, Grandpa,” Stacy couldn’t resist.

“For YOU either, Kid. Think about it.”

“Cash and gold ARE more portable, easier to spend,” Stacy said slowly. “Those statues have to be sold.”

“ . . . and THAT’S not gonna be easy. I know for fact that Sheriff Coffee’s wired descriptions of the statues to every jurisdiction between here, California, the Mexican border, and the Mississippi River,” Joe said.

“ . . . which means the heist was an INSIDE job!”

“A WHAT?!”

“An inside job!” Stacy reiterated. “The book mentions it right here.”

Joe walked over and settled himself comfortably in the straw next to his sister. He looked down at the book, at the place where her finger touched the page, and read. “Wait a minute!” he said, frowning, after having read the paragraph over twice. “If this heist was an inside job . . . that means . . . one of US is working with the thieves.”

“Y-Yeah,” Stacy said, looking miserable. “It CAN’T be any of US.”

“That leaves the LI family.”

“But, THAT makes no sense either,” Stacy said morosely. “Yin-Ling’s in love with this guy Yan-Chou. I know she’d NEVER have done anything that could stop the wedding from taking place.”

“Mister Li was really upset when he heard the news of the heist,” Joe observed. “You should’ve seen him when we were all in Sheriff Coffee’s office. There were a few times, I actually thought he was gonna faint.”

“MRS. Li, Hop Sing’s sister, was pretty upset, too when you came home this afternoon.”

“ . . . and somehow . . . I just can’t picture Mister Li’s GRANDMOTHER in cahoots with stage robbers. I know, maybe I’m being really naive, but I just can’t see it.”

“I’m with you there, too, Grandpa.”

“That leaves . . . . ” Suddenly, Joe’s face brightened with the dawning of revelation. “Of COURSE!”

“What?”

“Yesterday, after dinner, when Hoss took me out for some fresh air . . . . ”

“Yeah, I remember,” Stacy said, favoring her brother with a scowl.

“We ended up at the Silver Dollar Saloon. While we were there . . . Stacy, we saw them! Hoss and I SAW them!”

“Saw who?” she demanded warily.

“The crooks! There were three guys there, playing a game of high stakes poker. The winner . . . the winner looked just like PA! EXACTLY like Pa! Hoss and I thought he WAS Pa . . . ‘til we figured there was no way Pa could have changed his clothes, saddled Buck, and still beat us into town. But even THEN we couldn’t be sure, so we ducked under the table.”

Stacy chuckled at that last statement.

“Wasn’t all THAT funny!” Joe growled.

“Sorry!”

“The other guys playing cards with him . . . well, AFTER the card game broke up? I saw the one guy heading upstairs with Laurie Lee Bonner . . . Stacy, he looked so much like ME, I . . . I honestly thought I was having some kinda strange out of body experience.”

“ . . . and I remember how Laurie Lee flirted with you, the day Pa came home from San Francisco.”

“Yeah! And when Lilly Beth Jared decked me out on the street later? She accused me of two-timing on her with Laurie Lee Bonner.”

“Those men have to be the crooks! And guy who looked so much like Pa? HE’S also the man Miss Ashcroft’s in love with. He’s GOT to be!”

“It all adds up, that’s for sure,” Joe said. An angry frown creased the plane of his normally smooth brow. “But now that we know who these guys are . . . how do we go about finding ‘em?”

“We need to figure out who the inside man is.”

“Stacy, I know exactly who the inside man is!” Joe declared, his ferocious scowl deepening.

“Who, Grandpa?”

“Li-Xing!”

“Hop Sing’s nephew?!”

“Not a day’s gone by without Hop Sing making SOME mention about his nephew being no good,” Joe explained.

“True . . . . ”

“He was also in the saloon yesterday at the same time as our doubles,” Joe continued. “Hoss saw him going into the saloon as WE were leaving. He, our big brother that is, was so shocked, he stopped walking. I plowed right into him.”

“So THAT’S what happened to your nose,” Stacy murmured sympathetically. “Did you guys see him talking to your doubles?”

“No,” Joe immediately shook his head. “He was actually arriving as Hoss and I were leaving.”

“Still, what you said about Xing makes sense, too,” Stacy said thoughtfully. “Maybe we should follow him around for awhile and see if he DOES make contact with your doubles.”

“Starting tonight.”

“Is he back yet? Xing, I mean.”

“I don’t know, Stacy. I haven’t seen him since Pa and I got back from meeting that stage— ”

“I thought I heard voices up here . . . . ”

Stacy and Joe glanced up sharply and found themselves staring into the stern face of their big brother, Hoss.

“What’s goin’ on out here, anyway?” Hoss demanded as he stepped from the ladder into the loft. “Joe, you came out here t’ tell Stacy supper’d be ready in ten minutes . . . fifteen minutes ago! Hop Sing’s fit to be tied. He’s threatenin’ t’ quit ‘n go back to China to help some cousin or another with the laundry.”

“The laundry, eh?” Joe quipped, as he deftly removed the book from Stacy’s hands. He slipped it behind his back and edged it under the straw near the place where Stacy sat. “THAT’S a new one. He usually threatens to quit and go off to San Francisco to help some cousin of his in a restaurant.”

“That ain’t funny, Li’l Brother. The two o’ you’d best wash up ‘n git on inside, ‘for ya wind up in a world o’ trouble.” With that, Hoss turned and climbed back down the ladder.

 

At the stroke of eleven, Li-Xing slowly rose from prone to sitting on the cot set out for him at the foot of his uncle’s bed. Thankfully, there was enough moonlight shining in through the French doors, that opened out into the vegetable and herb garden Hop Sing had maintained almost since the day he, himself, had joined the Cartwright family, when Joe was but an infant. Xing moved his feet from the cot to the floor one leg at a time, very slow, taking great pains not to make even the slightest noise.

A quick, furtive glance over toward the bed told him that his uncle, Hop Sing, remained asleep, half curled on his side, facing away from the French doors. The young man took another moment to allow his eyes to fully adjust to the darkened room, before rising. Xing quickly pulled his nightshirt up over his head, revealing his street clothes underneath. He rolled down the legs of his pants and the sleeves of his shirt. He paused again to glance over at his uncle, and smiled upon seeing that the older man remained asleep.

Xing reached under the cot and drew out his boots and a jacket like Joe’s, except for being a dark navy blue, then rose slowly, carefully to his feet. He bent down from the waist and picked up his boots in his right hand, his jacket with his left, then set off across the room toward the French doors, tip-toeing very slowly.

“Hey! Where you going?”

It was his uncle. Xing bit down on his lower lip to keep from groaning out loud. With sinking heart, he turned and, much to his great dismay, found Hop Sing sitting up in bed glaring right at him.

“It late! Very, very late! Where you think you go?” Hop Sing demanded tersely.

“To the tall shack out back,” Xing growled back in a sullen tone. “You know, the one with the half moon in the door!?”

“Use chamber pot!” Hop Sing growled, favoring the young man with a jaundiced glare.

“It’s too far under the cot,” Xing returned without missing a beat. “I can’t reach it.”

“You TRY?! You get down on hands and knees and stretch?”

“Aww, come on, Uncle . . . I gotta go.”

“Ok!” Hop Sing very reluctantly allowed. “You go. You come right back!”

“Alright, already!”

Xing let himself out through the French doors and made his way around to the front of the house. Assuming his uncle didn’t immediately fall back asleep, he figured he had fifteen minutes, twenty, perhaps at the very outside, before Hop Sing came looking for him. That would be just enough time to saddle a horse and ride out, IF he hurried. Hurrying was something Xing didn’t like to do very much. More often than not, hurrying along involved more work, more time and energy, than he cared to expend just on general principles.

Upon reaching the front of the house, Xing noted with much relief that all the windows were all dark, upstairs and downstairs. He quickly made his way across the yard to the barn, and found the horse he had been using, Sport II, so named for the great uncle once favored by the eldest Cartwright son. Xing quickly slipped on his boots and jacket, then saddled the house. He led Sport II to the door, pausing within the deep shadows inside the barn, to glance once more toward the house. He smiled, noting that the windows remained dark, then stepped out of the barn, leading Sport II behind him.

A few moments later, Joe and Stacy Cartwright, both fully dressed, their faces twin masks of grim, obstinate determination, also stepped from the barn, leading Cochise and Blaze Face respectively.

 

Li-Xing rode at a brisk trot from the ranch house along the main road toward Virginia City, blissfully ignorant of the two youngest of the Cartwright offspring following behind. His thoughts were focused on the commission Mister Meredith had promised: a whopping ten thousand dollars, if the heist went well. Though a mere fraction of the jade statues’ true value, Xing consoled himself with the knowledge that he would at least realize something from the priceless treasures he deemed rightfully his.

The image of his sister’s face, as he had seen her at the Cartwrights’ supper table swam before his eyes with vivid clarity. Her eyelids and cheeks were red and swollen from the copious tears she had already shed, and her dark eyes glistened with the many tears yet to be shed. The immense sadness he saw in her eyes and trembling lower lip filled him again with remorse. Yin-Ling had fallen deeply in love with Yan-Chou, her intended, and now, because of his actions, his sister would never again set eyes on the man she had come to love more than life itself.

“No!” Xing muttered through clenched teeth, as he squeezed his eyes shut against the terrible vision of Yin-Ling. With a deep, guttural snarl, he vigorously shook his head, as if to physically dislodge his sister’s face from his thoughts.

The faces of his parents, Hsing and Mei-Ling, immediately replaced that of Yin-Ling. His father’s face was firmly set, like granite, an impassive mask, void of all emotion. Xing caught sight of his father’s eyes, however, before he closed them and turned away. There, he saw bitter disappointment, in his son, but mostly in himself. His mother’s cheeks were wet with the bitter tears shed not only for his sister, but for the entire family as well. Her mouth was thinned to a near straight angry line, and her eyes, round with shock, and grief, glittered with the raging fires of the fury burning within.

“Why?” her terrible vision demanded. “Why have you done this to us?”

“Because it was wrong of my father’s grandmother to have promised those statues as Yin-Ling’s dowry,” Xing shot back with rancor, unaware that he had spoke aloud. “Do you hear me? It was WRONG! For centuries they have passed from father to SON, not daughter. They should have passed to ME, not to Yin-Ling.”

The faces of his parents faded into the most terrible vision of all, that of his great-grandmother. Her features, the very lines and hallows of her face were set with hopeless resignation, her black eyes flat, lifeless. The indomitable spirit that had so vigorously animated them was gone, shattered now into thousands upon thousands of pieces. Xing realized in that moment he had not only stolen the last of his family’s wealth, but he had also taken from them the real treasure that had remained, even after the monetary wealth was gone: the honor and trust that had taken centuries of work, much harder work than the amassing of wealth had required, to build and to maintain.

Xing angrily decided then and there that the minute he had the promised ten thousand dollars safely in hand, he would not return to the Ponderosa as he had originally planned. Rather, he would spend the night at the International Hotel, and leave on the first stage heading out of Virginia City come morning. With ten thousand dollars cash in hand, he could purchase a small tract of land, build himself a small house, and still have plenty left over. Best of all that money would take him someplace very, very far away from the grief stricken, angry, accusing faces of his family, their outdated, old fashioned traditions, and their high-faluting notions of honor.
“That’s very interesting, Grandpa. Xing’s riding PAST the Silver Dollar,” Stacy remarked, taking care to keep her voice low. She and her brother Joe had slowed their horses to a walk, keeping at all times within the deep shadows cast by the buildings lining the opposite side of the street.

“He must be going to a different meeting place,” Joe mused softly.

Ben Cartwright’s younger children followed Xing silently through the next block, then the next.

“Stacy, look! He’s stopping!”

“Yeah.” She frowned. “Isn’t that the Virginia City Social Club?”

“Yeah, it— ” Joe stopped abruptly mid-sentence and favored his younger sister with a sharp glare. “Wait a minute! How do YOU know about the Virginia City Social Club?”

Stacy sighed and rolled her eyes. “Geeze loo-weeze, Grandpa! EVERYONE knows about the Virginia City Social Club. Pa MAY be overly protective about some things, but he’s not kept me locked away in a tower somewhere, like Rapunzel. How do YOU know so much about the Virginia City Social Club?”

“Remind me to answer that question later, LITTLE Sister. Like maybe TEN YEARS later.”

The sharp retort sitting at the very tip of Stacy’s tongue died immediately upon seeing Xing up ahead dismount, and tether Sport II to the post on the street on front of the Virginia City Social Club. “Grandpa, look!”

“I see!” Joe said grimly, as he and Stacy brought their horses to a complete stop.

They saw Xing pause briefly, to cast a quick glance over his shoulder, before walking briskly past the front door of Polly McPherson’s establishment toward the alley beyond.

“If memory serves, that’s a CLOSED alley way back there,” Joe whispered.

“ . . . and how do you know THAT?”

“I’ll tell you in ten years, Kid,” Joe quipped. “In any case all we need to do is wait here and keep outta sight until Xing comes back out.”

 

“It’s about time you showed your ugly face. You’re LATE!”

Startled, Xing whirled in his tracks. The awkward momentum of his body sent him reeling over backwards. He landed on the hard, packed dirt floor of the alley with a hard thud on his rump. He glanced up into the face of the man standing over him, illuminated by the flickering glow of lamp light from a back room of the Virginia City Social club. “Joe Cartwright, what’re YOU doing here?” he demanded, his own face darkening with anger.

“I AIN’T Joe Cartwright,” the man spat. “The name’s SLADE! Shorty Jim Slade. MISTER Slade to YOU. Now get up. Nice ‘n slow.”

Xing complied, marveling at the uncanny resemblance between his associates and the Cartwrights. Amazing how a pair of gunslingers from Texas could bear so close a resemblance to Joe and Hoss Cartwright, and a silver haired thief, gambler, and con man could pass for Mister Cartwright’s identical twin brother. “You got my commission, Mister Slade?”

“Yeah, I got your commission,” Shorty Jim said sardonically. “Right here!” With that he whipped his pistol from its holster and aimed the barrel at Xing’s abdomen.

“Hey! What’s the meaning of this? We agreed— ”

“There’s been a slight change of plans. You’re coming with me back to where the boss, my brother, and I’ve set up housekeeping. You’ll remain there as our GUEST until Mister Meredith unloads those dadblamed statues,” Shorty Jim said. “And for the sake of your continued good health, you’d better hope ‘n pray real hard that he DOES unload ‘em. Now get inside! You’ll find the door right behind you.”

 

“Joe . . . . ”

“Yeah, Stace?”

“It’s been too long.”

“Let’s give him a few more minutes.”

Joe and Stacy had retreated to the deep shadows of the overhang above the sidewalk in front of the abandoned store directly across the street from the Virginia City Social Club. From that vantage point, they had a complete unobstructed view of the street in front of them, the front doors of the Virginia City Social Club, the Pink Flamingo Saloon, and the alley between, into which Xing had gone.

Brother and sister lapsed into uneasy silence for the space of a minute that seemed to stretch into eternity.

“Something’s wrong, Grandpa. I can FEEL it.”

“I can feel it, too, Kid.”

“What do we do NOW?”

“We go over there and see for ourselves,” Joe said, his hand unconsciously coming to rest on the handle of his pistol, resting securely in its holster. “I’ll lead. You follow, and keep real close, alright?”

“Alright,” Stacy agreed, with an emphatic nod of her head.

“Good! Let’s go.”

Joe quickly drew his gun and led the way out from under the overhang down to the street, taking care to keep low. Stacy followed suit. Together, they moved silently toward the alley, keeping well within the deep, opaque shadows cast by the buildings towering above their heads. Joe held up his hand, signaling for them to stop as they drew even to the entrance of the dark alley on the other side of the street.

“Ok, Kid, I’m gonna dash across first,” Joe said, keeping his voice to the decibel of a stage whisper. “When I get in position, I’ll wave you across. You move as fast as you can and keep low. Got it?”

“Got it.”

Joe glanced up and down the street, noting that it was largely deserted. The only signs of life, apart from themselves, their horses, and Sport II tethered across the street, were the blazing lights in all the front windows of the bordello and piano music, shouting, and raucous laughter coming from the saloon next door. With gun firmly in hand, Joe hunched his shoulders and bolted across the street, making a beeline for the entrance to the alley. He positioned himself in the dark shadows of the saloon side, then vigorously waved his sister across.

Stacy bent low and ran. Within less than a heartbeat, she had taken up her position next her brother, with her back plastered up next to the wall.

Joe peered into the alley first, bracing himself, mentally and physically, for trouble.

“Joe? What is it? What’s wrong?” Stacy demanded, with heart in mouth, upon getting a good look at the shock and astonishment she saw reflected in her brother’s face.

“Th-there’s . . . there’s n-no one . . . there!” Joe squeaked.

“What?!”

“See for yourself.”

Joe moved aside, allowing his sister to take a glimpse into the alley. It was completely deserted, with no sign whatsoever, that Xing had even been there.

“Where’d he go?” Stacy murmured aloud, scratching her head in complete bewilderment. A tall board fence reaching almost to the second story windows of the bordello and saloon, effectively blocked all means of escape except by way of the D Street entrance.

“Come on,” Joe said, slipping his gun back into its holster.

“Where?”

“In the alley . . . to look for clues.”

“Xing was here all right, Grandpa,” Stacy said grimly as the pair entered the alley together, single file, with Joe leading. “Those are HIS foot prints.”

“It would appear someone was waiting for him,” Joe added.

“How do you know?”

“Look there.” Joe pointed to the dusty ground at their feet. “See?”

“Yeah. That stack of boxes was moved to make enough space for someone to hide,” Stacy agreed. She inclined her head toward the two large boxes standing to the left of a back door opening into the Virginia City Social Club.

“Whoever was hiding back here behind them stepped out from around this way, coming up on Xing from behind,” Joe continued. “These are HIS footprints.”

Stacy nodded. “Both sets lead to the door.”

“It looks like Xing went quietly. I don’t see any sign of a struggle.”

“Ok . . . NOW what do we do?”

“We’ve got to get INSIDE somehow . . . . ” Joe murmured thoughtfully.

“Inside?!” Stacy echoed. She could feel the blood draining right out of her face. “Inside the V-Virginia City . . . Social C-Club?!”

“Of course. That’s where Xing was taken, wasn’t it?”

Stacy rolled her eyes heavenward, and sighed. “If PA finds out about this, he’s gonna skin BOTH of us alive.”

“I have no intention of telling Pa about this . . . do YOU?”

“Do I really look THAT stupid?!”

“No comment.”

“Alright, Mister Genius, any bright ideas about getting inside?”

“Yeah,” Joe replied with a smug grin. “I am going to walk in through the front door, while YOU wait here. There’s a room here . . . . ” He pointed toward the window, positioned next to the back door, with the extended thumb of his left hand. “Unfortunately, the curtains are drawn and I can’t see in. I figure whoever took Xing inside had to have gone into that room.”

“Makes sense to me, Grandpa. It’s a place to start anyway . . . . ”

“Good. You just sit tight a minute, Stace. As soon as I’M in, I’ll come open this back door for YOU.”

 

“Hey! Joe Cartwright! Didn’t expect YOU back again so soon!” Polly McPherson’s bass-baritone voice boomed out across the room, almost the very instant he stepped through the door.

Joe cringed, wishing desperately for the earth to open and swallow him up, as he felt every eye in that large, crowded drawing room come to rest squarely on him.

Aged in her mid to late fifties, Polly McPherson was the madam of the Virginia City Social Club, the largest bordello in town. She was a big woman, standing nearly six feet tall, in her bare feet, with a generous sized body, voluptuously proportioned with wide curving hips, narrowed waist, and a nicely rounded, generous décolletage, often showed to exquisite advantage by the plunging necklines of the old fashioned gowns she preferred for evening wear. Her hair, long, luxuriously thick, was styled in an elaborate coif, piled on top of her head. Though born a brunette, her hair color of late tended to run along the lines of a lavender-tangerine hue that complimented her deep violet eyes.

“Ya come in here, wear out poor Trudy, one of m’ best girl’s no less . . . and NOW you’re back for more?!” Polly scolded lightly, as she sidled up next to Joe and took his arm. “I’ll say one thing for ya! You sure as hell gotta lot of stamina!”

“I, ummm . . . . hate t-to disappoint you, Mrs. McPherson, but I’m afraid I , uhhh . . . . . . d-don’t have the st-stamina you think . . . exactly,” Joe stammered. He could feel the hot rush of blood to his cheeks and forehead.

“Well, I do declare! You’re blushing!” Polly guffawed. “Why, I dunno! According to Trudy, you definitely got nothing to be ashamed of . . . . ”

“The, uhhhh, reason I c-came back, I . . . I forgot my handkerchief,” Joe stammered. The last four words tumbled out in a rush. He swallowed nervously, then lowered his voice. “It’s . . . got my initials on it, M-Mrs. McPherson. If . . . if someone found it? And gave it to my pa? He’d have my hide!!!”

“I understand, Mister Cartwright,” Polly said with a knowing smile. “Yours is a very common complaint. Well, Trudy’s special room’s right through there.” She inclined her head toward the closed pocket doors directly behind her. “It’s empty right now . . . . ” She jabbed him playfully in the ribs. “You g’won in and have a look around.”

“Th-th-thank you . . . . ”

It took every ounce of will he possessed to walk at a decorous, if brisk, pace into the that room beyond the closed pocket doors, when every instinct, every voice, even his own legs urged him to run. The instant he stepped into the darkness of the room, occupied, more than likely, by Mrs. McPhearson’s girl, Trudy, and his own double, Joe slammed the doors shut, then leaned against them heavily. His breath came in ragged, shallow gasps, and his face felt as if it had suddenly burst into flames. He sighed and squeezed his eyes shut against the memory of every face, male and female turning toward him speculatively when Mrs. McPherson started rambling on about his stamina, while furiously willing his rapidly beating heart to slow down.

A few moments later, he suddenly remembered Stacy, waiting in the alley beyond.

“It’s about time, Grandpa!” she said tersely, as she sauntered past him through the open door. “I was beginning to think you had forgotten me!”

“S-Sorry, Kid . . . .”

Stacy paused for a moment to study her brother’s face in the dim illumination, provided by the oil lamp on the table beside to door that opened out into the alley. “Grandpa, you’re blushing!” she declared. An amused smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.

“We’ve got a job to do, and probably not much time to do it in,” Joe snapped.

“Ok, Grandpa, ok! Keep your britches on, willya?!”

“I fully intend to!” Joe growled back.

“Now we’re searching for Li-Xing, or proof that he was here, right?” Stacy queried as she turned up the lamp.

“Yeah,” Joe replied, “that and anything that might give us an idea as to where he might have gone from here.”

As Stacy turned away from the oil lamp, and the table on which it sat, her eyes fell on the bed, with it’s tall brass barred headboard, white dust ruffle, and it’s pink and white satin sheets invitingly turned down. Two fluffy down pillows were stacked against the head headrest. Hanging from the ceiling, suspended roughly six feet above the center of the bed was a trapeze. “Grandpa?”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve, uuuhhh . . . heard this place could be a real swingin’ joint, but . . . I didn’t think anyone meant that literally.”

“I’ll be very happy to explain it to ya later, Kid, but right now we got work to do.”

“I know, but . . . when later are you going to explain that to me?”

“I was thinking somewhere along the lines of ten years later, at the very earliest,” Joe said, as he dropped to his knees beside the bed, and lifted the dust ruffle.

“Hmpf!” she snorted derisively. “By THAT time, I’ll have forgotten the questions.”

Joe grinned. “That’s exactly what I’m counting on.”

Joe and Stacy lapsed into silence as they searched the room, looking for tangible proof of Li-Xing’s presence.

A glance under the bed yielded nothing except for a scattering of dust bunnies, and a pair of high heels, pink satin, trimmed with sparkling rhinestones, custom made for someone with the same shoe size as Hoss. Joe hefted one of the massive shoes in his hand, grinning from ear-to-ear, knowing that shoe could only belong to two people in the whole of Story County, if NOT the entire State of Nevada: Hoss Cartwright and Geoffrey Sutcliff, a wealthy realtor who owned nearly half of the real estate in Virginia City, most of it lying in the business district. Both were big men, standing well over six feet tall. Geoffrey Sutcliff, however, cut more of an Adonis shaped figure, which he maintained by an almost religious devotion to a daily exercise regimen. Most of the women adored his manly good looks, while their husbands and lovers derided him for his vanity and caricatured macho airs.

Joe chuckled, knowing for absolute certain those shoes did NOT belong to Hoss Cartwright. Though it was about the same length as Hoss’ foot, it was far too narrow.

“Hey, Grandpa . . . . ”

“Coming, Stace!” Joe slid out from under the bed, with shoe still in hand, and beat a straight path toward the wardrobe, where his sister stood, leaning down into its cavernous interior. “Whatcha got?”

Stacy straightened and held out a black shoe, made for a man’s foot, size small. “I found THIS. It was the only one of it’s kind in there, AND it’s the kind of shoe Li-Hsing . . . and the rest of the Li Family . . . wears.”

“Hop Sing, too,” Joe remarked as he took the shoe from his sister and studied it briefly. “Though this is ‘way too narrow for Hop Sing.”

“I found some other interesting things in here, too, Grandpa.”

“Oh? Like what, Stace?”

“Whips, chains, all kinds of clothing made of leather . . . even underwear!” She turned, with a perplexed frown on her face, holding up a bull whip and iron chain, complete with manacles in one hand and what appeared to be a corset made of black leather, and lavishly trimmed with rhinestones and other hunks of metal. “I also saw a saddle and bridle lying on the floor of this monster wardrobe that . . . if I didn’t know better, I’d say was custom made to fit a MAN instead of a pony.”

“Oh geeze loo-WEEZE!” Joe groaned in utter dismay. “Stacy, you gotta promise me . . . y-you won’t say a word about all this to PA! Not one word!”

“I know . . . if Pa found out about this, he’d skin us alive.”

“If Pa EVER finds out about this, he’ll START by skinning us alive,” Joe said in an ominous tone, “using a dull knife!”

“All right,” Stacy said soberly, duly noting that her brother’s ‘maidenly blush’ had suddenly turned to the pale white of sheer terror. “Ok I promise, I WON’T say a word about this to Pa, but you gotta tell me . . . what’s all this FOR? Does Sheriff Coffee keep prisoners HERE when the jail’s full?”

“No.”

“Then . . . what’s all this FOR?”

“I’ll tell ya LATER.”

Stacy sighed and sardonically rolled her eyes heavenward. “Yeah, yeah, I know . . . you’ll tell me in about ten years or so.”

“No . . . I was thinking more along the lines of TWENTY years, actually . . . . ”

A loud pounding on the closed pocket doors brought their conversation to a screeching halt. “Mister Cartwright?” It was Polly McPherson. “Mister Cartwright, are you still in there?”

“Stacy! You gotta hide!” Joe hissed, as a rising flash flood of panic began to rise within him, fast and furious.

“Where?”

“I dunno . . . wait! Under the bed!”

Stacy immediately dropped noiselessly to her hands and knees and scrambled under the bed. Less than a second later, the Virginia City Social Club madam shoved open the pocket doors and strode into the room. “Mister Cartwright, I need this room for a special client,” she said. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“As a matter of fact, yes! I did, Mrs. McPherson,” Joe said smoothly. He reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and drew out the clean white handkerchief he always kept there. This one just happened to be embroidered with his initials, lending a greater degree of credibility to his claim made earlier. “I happened to find it just before you walked in the door.”

“Excellent,” Polly declared with a smile. “Would you like a little something before you leave?”

Joe paled.

Polly McPherson threw back her head and laughed out loud with genuine mirth. “I MEANT coffee,” she said, finally, as her laughter died away to soft chuckling. “It’s almost daylight after all, and I know you’ve a long ride ahead of you.”

“N-No . . . thank you. I, ummmm . . . think I’d best g-get going,” Joe stammered, as a distinctive beet reddish glow began to infuse his cheeks. “I’ll just . . . let myself out the back?!” The last word ended on a high-pitched squeak.

“Suit yourself,” Polly said, her eyes twinkling with amusement. She turned to leave.

“Oh! Mrs. McPherson!”

The Virginia City Social Club’s owner and madam stopped and turned. “Yes?”

“I kinda forgot after . . . . ” The beet red of his cheeks slowly deepened to a port wine color and spread to his forehead and chin. “ . . . well, after . . . after . . . . ”

“Ah, yes! Trudy is very good at making men forget things,” Polly said with a touch of pride. “What was it you wanted to ask?”

“I was supposed to meet a friend here . . . actually h-he’s a houseguest,” Joe said. Though his voice had steadied, his face and neck still glowed a deep port wine color. “I wanted to show him a good time.”

Polly frowned. “Who was that fella y’ took out before?”

“I . . . took a fella out b-before?!”

“You said he was a young fella, first time ‘n all that,” Polly gamely filled in the details. “He stopped in over at the Pink Flamingo next door for a shot o’ rotgut to steady his nerves, ‘n ended up downin’ a few shots too many?”

“Oh yeah, well, y’know . . . hard to think of much else besides Trudy,” Joe said very quickly. He quickly moved his hands around behind his back so that the madam wouldn’t see them trembling. “No, THAT fella’s the younger brother of the guy I’m looking for. We figured since he’s just come of age ‘n all, it was about time he, uuhhh . . . c-came of age all the way, if y’ get my meaning?”

“I do indeed, Mister Cartwright,” Polly said with a knowing smile.

“His older brother, the guy I’m looking for, well I just plain wanted to show HIM a real fun time.”

“You came to the right place for THAT. What’s his name? If he happens to show up later, I’ll let him know you were looking for him.”

“Li-Xing,” Joe said.

“Li-Xing,” Polly repeated the name, committing it to memory. “If I see him, I’ll give him your message. I’ll give you a minute to see yourself out the back before I bring in the next client.”

“Thank you again, Mrs. McPherson.” Joe waited until the madam had left, and the door had closed firmly behind her, before running over to the bed. “Come on, Kid, we’re outta here!” he hissed, as he seized Stacy’s forearm and literally dragged her out from under the bed.

“Hey!” Stacy squawked, protesting the sudden, rough manhandling.

“Sssshhhh! Willya keep your voice DOWN?!”

“I will if you stop dragging me around like a sack of potatoes!”

“Come on, we gotta get outta here pronto! Mrs. McPherson’s gonna be back any minute with another client.” Acting purely on impulse, Joe bent down to retrieve the pink high heels he had found earlier, lying under the bed.

Stacy quickly scrambled to her feet, then followed her brother out the door into the back alley.

 

“From the way Mrs. McPherson was talking, it looks like your double spent the evening here . . . with Trudy,” Stacy remarked, once they were safely out of Virginia City and on the road toward home.

“Yeah, and he’s got Li-Xing,” Joe said, nodding his head in agreement.

“The kid who supposedly got too drunk to lose his maidenly virtue?”

Joe was exceedingly grateful for the cover of darkness that concealed the blush he knew all too well had once again flamed his cheeks. “Stacy . . . . ”

“What?”

“Do you have to be so BLUNT?!”

“Sorry, Grandpa. I didn’t mean to offend your sensibilities.” He could almost hear her chuckling as she spoke.

“Stacy?”

“NOW what?”

“You’ve never . . . . ?!?” Joe asked, remembering himself at the age of fifteen very soon to be sixteen. “HAVE you?”

“Not even tempted, Grandpa,” she replied with a sigh. “Right now, I’d be hard pressed to name anyone of my acquaintance I particularly want to KISS let alone . . . you know.”

“Glad to hear it.”

“Feel better now?”

“Lots,” Joe replied, the relief very evident in his voice.

“Now getting back to our detective work, you didn’t answer my question.”

“Which question was THAT?”

“The kid Mrs. McPherson said you dragged out of the Virginia City Social Club, who was supposedly to drunk to make tonight the night his first time,” Stacy said, trying hard this time NOT to offend her brother’s sensitivities. “Are we safe in assuming HE was Xing?”

“Y-Yeah. My double must’ve drugged him or hit him over the head so he’d look like he was drunk,” Joe replied.

“What do we do now?”

“We sleep on it,” Joe said, yawning.

 

By the time Joe and Stacy had reached home, and stabled their horses, the gray skies of early dawn had taken on the first reddish orange blush of the magnificent sunrise, soon to be.

Joe opened the barn door slowly, just enough to peer out. “Luck is with us, Kid. No one seems to be up yet . . . . ”

“You STILL haven’t told me exactly how we’re going to . . . to . . . . ” Her mouth stretched open in a big, wide yawn.

“Cover your mouth, willya, Stace? I’ve already SEEN Carlsbad Caverns.”

Stacy glared over at her brother, but complied. “How are we gonna get back INTO the house, Grandpa?” she demanded irritably.

“Follow me.” Joe glanced outside once more, to make absolute certain that the coast was clear. He saw no one, not even the ranch hands occupying the bunkhouse, out and about. Further, he noted with satisfaction and relief, that the windows in the house remained dark, void of any sign of life inside. “Let’s go, Kid.”

Joe crouched down and darted across the yard around to the side of the house. Stacy followed suit. Taking care to keep themselves well below the windows in Hop Sing’s room and the dining room, they circled around toward the very back.

“NOW what?” Stacy asked, casting a dubious gaze over the two-story drop from Joe’s window directly overhead toward the ground at their feet. Here no trees grew close to the house, nor was there pillar, post, or overhang. There was only the straight line of wall rising upward.

“We climb up to my window.” Joe pointed.

“We WHAT?!”

“You heard me.”

Stacy looked hard at the shear wall again, then over at her brother. “Y-you’re not serious.”

“It’s ok, Kid, I’ve got a ladder stashed,” Joe chuckled, amused by his young sister’s discomfiture. “You think I’m crazy enough to suggest scaling that wall?”

Stacy exhaled a long, slow sigh of relief. “You had me going there for a minute, Grandpa.”

“I know. I wish you couldda seen your face,” Joe couldn’t resist teasing.

“Willya just get the daggone ladder?” Stacy growled. “I’d like to be upstairs in my room in bed before Pa wakes up.”

“Ok, ok! Keep your shirt on,” Joe snickered as he sauntered over toward a growth of scrub brushes, growing close together a few yards from the back of the house. He bent down and retrieved the long tree branch he had hidden there last night, before ostensibly retiring for the evening.

“THAT’S the ladder?!” Stacy demanded, incredulous, her eyes fixed on the tree branch in her brother’s hands.

“No, Silly, THIS is gonna GET us the ladder.”

“This I gotta see!”

“I knotted together my sheets and left ‘em all bunched up there on the window sill,” Joe explained. “I used to do this all the time back in my days as a devil-may-care, callow youth.”

“Pa NEVER caught on?”

“Yeah, he did . . . after the third time I used it.”

Stacy rolled her eyes heavenward. “Wonderful!” she growled under her breath.

“Willya relax?” Joe groused. “I’m NOT a teenager anymore, Stace. I no longer have to sneak out of the house at night.”

“No. Only sneak back IN come morning.”

“As far as PA’S concerned, I’m ‘way too old anymore for these kinds of shenanigans. Trust me, Kid. He won’t suspect a THING.” Joe lifted the tree branch and snagged the rope fashioned from his bed linens on the first try. “Got it! We’ll be in the house ‘n back to bed with no one the wiser.” He pulled the end down, ably grasping it in his free hand as it fell.

Stacy, at the same time, successfully caught the OTHER end.

“Got it, Kid!”

“Got it, Grandpa!”

“Oh NO!” they chorused in unison upon seeing that they had both caught the ends of the rope made from Joe’s sheets and pillowcases.

“ . . . uuhhh, Grandpa?”

“What is it, Kid?”

“Aren’t you s’posed t’ tie ONE of these ends around the leg of your bed . . . or something?!”

“Well, uhh . . . y-yeah . . . . ”

“Can I ask you a really stupid question?”

“Why not?”

“How do we get back into the house NOW?”

 

As the silvery-gray light of dawn gave way to the brilliant, shining golds, oranges, and peach-pinks, heralding the magnificent sunrise soon to come, Joe and Stacy silently circled back around from the rear of the house their minds wholly focused on getting back inside, back into their snug beds without anyone else being the wiser.

Especially Pa!

“Grandpa . . . . ”

“What is it NOW, Kid?” Joe demanded, annoyance mixing with rising panic.

“You NEVER answered my question,” Stacy replied, taking no pains to conceal her own irritation.

“What question was THAT?”

“How are we going to get in the house without being caught?”

“Uh oh, Stacy, DUCK!”

“Hunh?!”

“I SAID, ‘Duck!!!’ ” Joe quickly turned, and grabbing her arm, pulled her down to a crouched position. “Somebody forgot to close the dining room shutters last night.”

“I sure hope so, Grandpa,” Stacy said in a very low voice.

“What ELSE could it be?”

“It COULD be that Hop Sing’s already up and about, and he’s OPENED the dining room shutters.”

“Pessimist!”

“I prefer to think if myself as being a REALIST!”

“For cryin’ out loud, Little Sister, the least you could do is have some faith in me,” Joe groused, favoring her with the nastiest glare he could possibly summon. “After all, I’m a real old hand at sneaking out and sneaking back in.”

Stacy sighed, then shrugged with fatalistic resignation. “Ok, Grandpa, I bow to your superior wisdom.” Her words, dripping with blatant sarcasm, prompted a melodramatic, long suffering sigh from her brother and a sardonic roll of the eyes.

Joe dropped to his stomach and inched his way past the dining room window, taking care to keep well below the sill. Stacy watched in dismay, noting how the moisture from the wet ground oozed out from under her brother’s body with each move, every undulation he made.

“Come on, Kid! YOUR turn!”

Stacy sighed, then dropped to her stomach and followed. “Yuck!” she declared with a grimace upon safely reaching the other side of the dining room window, and rising to her feet.

“Willya for heaven’s sake keep your voice DOWN?!” Joe hissed, casting a fearful glance in the direction of the dining room window.

“It’s WET!” she growled, favoring her brother with a withering glare.

“Of COURSE it’s wet! Whaddya expect? It’s mud after all . . . . ”

Stacy sighed again and rolled her eyes heavenward. “Ok, Grandpa, NOW what do we do?”

“Just follow me,” Joe replied.

“Right! Like I really got a whole lotta choices here,” Stacy groused.

A few yards past the dining room window, they came to the wall surrounding Hop Sing’s vegetable and herb garden. Joe gamely led the way around to the garden gate, set into the wall directly facing the kitchen door. “After you, Kid,” he said as he turned the latch and pushed. The gate remained rock solidly in place. Frowning, Joe turned the latch again, and pushed. Nothing moved.

“Grandpa? What’s wrong?” Stacy asked as Joe frantically tried to turn the latch several more times.

Joe’s facial complexion suddenly paled. “Oh no!” he groaned.

“What?”

“I just remembered! Hop Sing’s been locking the gate, partly to keep deer from devouring the plants, but MOSTLY, I think, to curtail Xing’s comings and goings in the middle of the night.”

“Too bad it didn’t work for Xing,” Stacy sighed dolefully.

“Yeah! We wouldn’t be in the fix we’re in right now, if it had.”

“So . . . what do we do NOW?”

“What else? We scale the garden wall.”

Stacy’s eyes rose up the entire height of garden wall towering high above their heads. “You gotta be kidding, Grandpa! That wall’s must be ten feet tall going straight up, at least!”

“More like FIFTEEN!”

“ . . . and we’re gonna climb over it?!” Stacy demanded, incredulous.

“It’s either that or go around to the front door.”

For a long moment, Stacy stood unmoving, trying to decide which prospect was worse: falling from the top of that garden wall or walking through the front door and finding Pa there . . . waiting. She swallowed nervously. “I guess we’re gonna scale the garden wall,” she said, opting for what she finally decided would be the less dangerous of the two choices.

“It’s actually not as bad as it seems, Kid,” Joe said reassuringly. “It’s basically rocks piled one on top of another, all held together with mortar. There’s plenty of hand and footholds.”

“I’ll take your word for it, Grandpa.”

“Tell ya what? I’ll climb up to the top first, you follow after in my path.”

“You’ve . . . done this before?”

“No, but hey! There’s always a first time for everything,” Joe teased with a smile and a playful wink.

“Oh well,” Stacy said with a resign, fatalistic shrug. “If we fall and break our legs, Pa won’t be able to march us out to the ol’ woodshed.”

“Geeze Loo-weeze, Kid, can’t you for once try to look at things on the BRIGHT side?!” Joe admonished his sister with a touch of asperity.

“I AM looking on the bright side!”

“Oh brother! If THAT’S looking at things from the bright side, I’d hate to see you get all glum and moody.”

“Grandpa . . . . ”

“NOW what?”

“Are you gonna just stand there and argue with me all morning, or are ya gonna climb?”

“I oughtta grab you by the collar and march you to the ol’ woodshed myself,” Joe growled back, “but, I won’t.”

“You’d have to CATCH me first for one thing.”

“ . . . and by the time I did THAT, Pa would definitely be up and around.”

“Not to mention loaded for bear.”

“Ok, enough gabbing. I’ll climb, you watch, then follow me up.”

Stacy nodded in the affirmative, then watched closely as her brother scaled up the wall with surprisingly ridiculous ease. She waited until he had reached the very top before following.

Joe, meanwhile, straddled the top of the wall, so that he might keep the kitchen windows and his sister under close watch. “Come on, Stace, get a move on!”

“I’m moving as fast as I can,” she snapped back cantankerously, as weariness, due to the worry and apprehension of all that had happened over the past couple of days, coupled with lack of sleep, finally began to take their toll.

“Try and move a little faster! Hop Sing could be getting up any minute!” Joe glanced over at the kitchen windows, noting with satisfaction and great relief that they remained dark. He, then, turned his attention back to his sister. “Here! Give me your hand! I’ll pull you on up.”

Stacy reached up and clasped her brother’s hand very firmly in her own.

“Ok, Kid, upsy-daisy!” Joe pulled his sister up, as she in tandem, scrambled up the remained of the way. “Come on . . . just a little more . . . . ” He was so intent on getting his sister up to the top with all possible haste and speed, he had no idea of how much he kept leaning backward to compensate. Next thing he knew, he was in free fall, screaming at the top of his lungs.

With heart in mouth, Stacy scrambled over the top and lunged forward, in a desperate attempt to grab Joe. She missed. The momentum of her sudden, forward thrust sent her toppling off the top of the wall, as well. Their discordant screams rudely rent asunder the early morning calm. Hop Sing’s chickens rudely squawked their protest at top volume.

Joe and Stacy landed with a dull thud, one first, then the other, in the soft ground, freshly tilled to receive seed and the sprouts Hop Sing had gently nurtured for the better part of the last month in the warm kitchen. The early spring rains had also turned the fertile soil into mud. The younger Cartwright children very gingerly eased themselves up from lying prone in the mud, to sitting, and for a moment, glared darkly at one another, before muttering in unison,

“Nice goin’, Kid!”

“Nice goin’, Grandpa!”

“HEY! WHAT ALL THE NOISE?! WHAT GOING ON OUT THERE!??”

Joe and Stacy paled in sheer terror as the bell-like tones of Hop Sing’s voice, raised nearly to top volume, fell on their ears. Impelled by a sudden, potent rush of adrenalin, they scrambled to their feet and ran toward the house, where they plastered themselves up flat against the wall. Seconds after reaching their new positions, the kitchen door exploded open, and Hop Sing, clad in nightshirt, robe, and slippers came charging out into the garden as an enraged bull charges into a bullfight ring.

“WHO OUT HERE?” Hop Sing demanded at the top of his lungs. A long string of terse, clipped Chinese syllables followed, also at top volume.

“C-Come on, Stacy, it’s n-n-now of n-never!” Joe stammered, his eyes riveted to the angry Oriental juggernaut, now charging blindly across the garden to the gate.

“I-I’m right behind you, Grandpa!”

Now blinded by fear and rising panic, Joe and Stacy bolted through the open kitchen door and tore through the kitchen, the dining room, the great room, and on up the stairs. After a seeming eternity of running, overwhelmed by mind numbing terror, they, at long last reached the relative safety of their respective bedrooms.

Joe leaned heavily against the closed door of his room, gasping for air, his entire body trembling. A few moments later, he stumbled across the room, stripping off his muddy clothes every step of the way. He balled them up into a big, muddy bundle and stuffed them into his wardrobe before donning his nightshirt and collapsing heavily onto his bed, sound asleep before his head came in contact with the pillow.

Stacy, meanwhile, crept into her own bedroom, moving silently as her Paiute foster mother, Silver Moon, had taught her as a young child. With heart slamming hard against her rib cage, she closed the door, exhaling a soft sigh of relief upon hearing the latch click. She turned toward the bed, noting with relief that her roommate still slept.

“Poor Yin-Ling,” she mused sadly, in silence, as she tip-toed around to her side of the bed, the side nearest the window. The sight of Yin-Ling’s reddened cheeks and the wetness of the pillow cradling her head, brought tears to Stacy’s own eyes. She quickly stripped off her wet, muddy clothing and stuffed it under her bed. “I sure hope Joe and I can get to the bottom of this horrible mess,” she mused uneasily in silence, as she climbed into bed and settled herself under the covers, “for Yin-Ling’s sake . . . AND for Pa and Miss Ashcroft.”

 

“HOP SING?!” the Cartwright family patriarch bellowed as he made his way down the stairs, tying the sash of his robe. Then, he remembered. He had house guests, all of whom, were at the very least trying to sleep, especially after that outburst. “Hop Sing, what’s all the noise?!” Ben demanded, as Hop Sing stormed into the great room from the kitchen. Though he spoke this time at conversational decibels, his ire continued to rise.

“That what Hop Sing want to know! What all the noise?” Hop Sing said tersely, with a murderous scowl on his face. “Hear screaming outside! Wake up Hop Sing! Think it Xing, come back after out all night. Hop Sing look, not see Xing! Leave trail big as all outdoors all through house, but disappear.”

“Trail?” Ben queried with a frown.

Hop Sing thrust his arm and pointing first finger down toward the floor. Ben’s eyes slowly, almost reluctantly followed the line of Hop Sing’s arm and finger to globs of mud on the floor.

“It START in kitchen. At kitchen door. Go through dining room, come out HERE!”

“Why don’t we just FOLLOW the trail, Hop Sing?” Ben suggested. “We’ll probably find Xing at the end. When we do, he’s all YOURS.”

Hop Sing grinned with mirthless feral relish as he fell in step behind Ben.

The trail led through the great room toward the stairs.

“THAT’S odd . . . . ” Ben murmured as he and Hop Sing reached the middle of the hallway.

“What odd, Mister Cartwright?”

“The trail divides,” Ben replied. “See? One line continues down the hall, the other veers off.”

“To Miss Stacy room!” Hop Sing noted, his black eyes smoldering with fury. “Maybe Hop Sing leave no good nephew to Mister Cartwright tender mercies.”

“He could have gone in to see Yin-Ling,” Ben hastened to point out.

“Then double back, to THAT way?” Hop Sing queried, nodding toward the second line of mud that continued on down the hall.

“Now THAT’S the odd thing,” Ben said. A bewildered frown deepened the lines already present in his brow. “If Xing had gone in to see his sister, then come back out, this line here would be doubly thick . . . but, it’s not. No, Hop Sing, this trail definitely splits and goes off in TWO different directions.”

Ben turned and started to follow the second trail down the hallway, with Hop Sing dutifully following behind. Both were surprised to see the trail turn toward the closed door to Joe’s room. Ben noiselessly opened the door and stepped inside. Hop Sing followed. The trail of mud continued from the door around the foot of the bed, where the youngest Cartwright son lay deep in the arms of slumber. Ben and Hop Sing followed the line of mud around to the other side of the bed, where they found irregularly shaped patches of mud, in varying sizes and shapes. Another line, reduced to occasional splotches and dribbles, led directly to the wardrobe.

Ben scowled as another possibility suggested itself. He moved past Hop Sing and stepped over to the wardrobe. After throwing open the doors, he angrily pushed aside Joe’s clothing and peered into the bottom. There, he saw a mound of muddied clothing all tightly wadded into a single ball. “Hop Sing, it would appear that Xing is INNOCENT of all charges,” Ben said grimly as he gingerly lifted a sock, white turned reddish brown, from the bottom of the closet. “This,” he grimaced, “and the REST of the filthy clothing lying on the floor of this wardrobe belong to JOE.”

“Hop Sing not understand. Little Joe go to bed early, when Miss Stacy go to bed. Same time. How come clothes muddy?”

Ben, his jaw clenched and mouth thinned to a near straight, angry line, walked over to the window. Looking down, he immediately spotted the line of bed linens, knotted together, lying on the ground in a sensuous, serpentine line. “Hop Sing, it looks like your nephew wasn’t the ONLY one who was out all night,” Ben said through clenched teeth as he turned from the window.

“Little Joe?!” Hop Sing’s initial anger quickly transformed itself to complete and utter astonishment. “Hop Sing not understand. Little Joe legal age. NOT have to sneak out and in like little boy no more.”

“That’s very true, Hop Sing,” Ben immediately agreed. “Stacy, on the other hand is NOT of legal age. Though she’s never snuck out of the house before, I suppose there’s a first time for everything.”

“MISS STACY sneak out of house?!” Hop Sing queried, shocked to the very core of his being. He shook his head vigorously. “Hop Sing know, she NOT go with no good nephew. Miss Stacy very smart young woman, not like no good nephew.”

“No, I don’t think she snuck out with Xing either,” Ben hastened to reassure. “I’M more inclined to believe that she snuck out last night with JOE. Something’s afoot, and I’m going to get to the bottom of it, so help me!”

“Hop Sing leave Cartwright children to Cartwright papa tender mercy,” he sighed, visibly disappointed that his nephew numbered not among the transgressors this time. “Hop Sing make breakfast after clean floor.”

“No, Hop Sing,” Ben said very firmly, as they stepped back into the hall. “You’re NOT going to clean the floor.”

Hop Sing’s glare very clearly, very succinctly questioned Ben’s sanity.

“Since it’s obvious Joe and Stacy muddied the floor, it’s only fair that they CLEAN the floor,” Ben decreed, as they walked toward the stairs. “I’m going to give them a couple of hours to sleep, THEN, I’ll haul ‘em both out of bed and let YOU put ‘em to work.”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright,” Hop Sing replied. “Hop Sing go make breakfast.”

“None for me,” Ben said immediately, as he paused before the closed door to his own room. “After all that’s happened yesterday, now THIS . . . I’m feeling a lot of things right now, but hunger is not one of ‘em. I’ll just have coffee, later, after I get dressed.”

A short, curt, exasperated sigh exploded from Hop Sing’s lips as he literally threw up his hands. “NOBODY hungry this morning, not even Mister Hoss hungry this morning. Hop Sing not cook breakfast and nobody eat. Mister Cartwright say not clean floor. Hop Sing have easy morning!”

“ ‘Mornin’, Hop Sing . . . ‘mornin’, Pa,” Hoss greeted both affably, as he stepped into the hallway from the top landing of the stairs, clad in the garb he favored for the onerous chore of mucking out the stables.

Hop Sing glared at the biggest of the Cartwright offspring. “Not even YOU hungry!” he said scathingly, then turned and headed toward the stairs, this time muttering under his breath in Chinese.

Hoss stared after Hop Sing, more surprised than angry, for a moment before turning to his father. “Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“What burr’s worked it’s way up under HIS saddle?” Hoss asked, with a bewildered frown.

“Long story, which I’d rather NOT get into right now,” Ben said wearily. “Do me a favor?”

“Sure thing, Pa.”

“After you wash up and change, would you mind waking up your brother and sister?”

“It’ll be my pleasure.”

“Thank you, Son,” Ben murmured gratefully, wondering whether he should question Joe and Stacy about last night’s doings together, or divide and conquer by questioning them separately.

 

An hour later, Hoss, washed, freshly shaved with hair combed, and wearing clean clothes, stopped in front of the closed door to Stacy’s bedroom, and knocked. “C’mon, Li’l Sister, time t’ rise ‘n shine!”

No answer.

Frowning, Hoss knocked again. “Up ‘n at ‘em, Li’l Sister,” he called out again, raising his voice slightly.

Still no answer.

“Ain’t like STACY t’ sleep in this late,” Hoss mused silently, his frown deepening, “not unless she’s sick or something.” He knocked on the door again.

A moment later, the door opened, though it was Yin-Ling who peered out through eyes red, swollen, glistening with the brightness of unshed tears.

“Sorry, Yin-Ling,” Hoss immediately apologized, sotto voce, his heart going out to her. “I didn’t mean t’ disturb ya. Is . . . Stacy all right?”

Yin-Ling said nothing. She shrugged, then opened the door and stepped aside.

As Hoss entered the room, he spotted his sister lying on the side of the bed closest to the window. She lay buried deep under the sheets and quilt, in a tightly curled ball, unmoving. Four brisk giant steps carried Hoss over the threshold from the hallway to the side of her bed.

“Time t’ wake up, Li’l Sister,” Hoss said, as he leaned over and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

There was no response.

Hoss gently shook her. “Rise ‘n shine, Li’l Sister.”

Stacy groaned, and half opened one eye.

Hoss touched her forehead with the back of his hand. “That’s a relief! Y’ ain’t runnin’ a fever.” He quickly shook Stacy again upon seeing the half opened eye lid beginning to droop. “Oh no y’ don’t, Stacy Rose Cartwright.”

“Aww, c’mon, Hoss. Can’tcha wait ‘til the sun comes up?!” Stacy protested irritably.

“Sun’s been up f’r the last three, goin’ on four hours now,” Hoss said.

Stacy rolled over on her back, closed her eyes, and groaned.

“C’mon, Li’l Sister, up ‘n at ‘em. Pa said f’r me t’ make sure I got you ‘n Li’l Brother up after I got m’self washed up, ‘n clothes changed.”

“P-Pa said?” Stacy queried, suddenly assailed with a dreadful sinking feeling.

“Yeah. Pa said,” Hoss replied, “and he ain’t in the best o’ moods either, so ya’d best get yourself movin’.”

“Uuuhhhh great!” Stacy groaned again, then threw aside her bed covers, with much reluctance.

 

Satisfied that he had sufficiently gotten Stacy up and moving about, Hoss nodded to Yin-Ling as he left his sister’s bedroom. “Don’t know what in the world’s gotten into Li’l Sister this mornin’,” he mumbled aloud, under his breath, as he walked down the hall toward Joe’s room. “By THIS time o’ day, she’s up, washed ‘n dressed, ‘n comin’ back from a ride out t’ Ponderosa Plunge or some such.”

Upon reaching his younger brother’s room, Hoss opened the door and walked right in. He found Joe lying in bed, tightly curled in fetal position, his face toward the wall opposite the door, deeply buried under the covers, as Stacy had been. Hoss quietly tip-toed in and set himself to the task of moving any and all small objects well out of reach, upon remembering all too well another time Pa had asked him to awaken Joe. [9]

“Jooo-ey! Time to wakey-wakey!” Hoss said, placing his hand down on his younger brother’s shoulder and gently shaking him.

Joe’s only response was a deep, guttural snort.

Hoss sighed. “Come on, Li’l Joe, up ‘n at ‘em.”

Joe snorted again. “ . . . go ‘way,” he mumbled very softly as he curled his body into a tighter ball, and pulled the covers up over his head.

Hoss grabbed the covers and yanked them away from Joe’s body with a powerful thrust of his arm.

“Hey! Cut that out!” Joe made a wild, desperate grab for his sheets and quilt, a full three seconds too late.

“I toldja it’s time t’ get up,” Hoss said firmly as he marched from the bed to the window. There, he threw aside the drapes and curtains, allowing the bright morning sunshine to stream in through the naked panes of glass.

Joe screamed in agony, as the blinding sunlight fell on his face full force. He quickly rolled over onto his stomach, and buried his face deep into downy depths of his pillow.

“Up ‘n at ‘em, Li’l Brother. Time t’ rise ‘n shine!”

“Already?!” Joe groused irritably, his voice muffled by the pillow.

Hoss frowned. “What do y’ mean ALREADY?! It’s almost nine o’clock.”

Joe groaned.

Hoss walked over to the wash stand and dipped the washcloth into what he knew was by this time ice cold water. He carried it, dripping wet, over to his brother’s bed and squeezed it over the exposed portion of his neck.

Joe screamed again, and rolled over onto his other side, this time facing the door, opening out into the hall. He reached toward his night stand, his nimble fingers searching for something . . . anything . . . . “Hunh?!” he snorted, upon finally realizing there was nothing, except for a flat expanse of night stand, completely cleared.

“I got smart this time ‘n removed anything ‘n everything you could possibly throw at me,” Hoss said smugly.

Joe groaned again, as he sat up and placed his legs over the edge of the bed one at a time. The instant both feet made contact with the floor, he was up and running, with head lowered, charging Hoss like an angry bull. Hoss neatly side stepped. Joe, too weary to register his big brother’s move, or to stop himself, plowed headlong into his washstand, sending his pitcher and bowl to the floor with a deafening crash.

“WHAT IN THUNDERATION’S GOING ON UP THERE?” Ben bellowed from below.

“IT’S ALRIGHT, PA. JOE JUST HAD A LI’L BIT OF AN ACCIDENT’S ALL,” Hoss yelled back.

Joe, now sprawled, half on the floor, and half across his fallen night stand, looked up at his biggest brother, who stood towering high above him, through eyelids half closed. “That PA?” he groaned.

“Yep,” Hoss replied, as he leaned over and slipped his big, massive hands up under his younger brother’s arm pits. He picked Joe up with almost ridiculous ease and set him up on his feet. “You’d best hurry up ‘n git yourself dressed. Pa told me to wake you ‘n Li’l Sister, an’ as you just heard he ain’t in a real good mood.”

“Oh wunnerful,” Joe groaned as he sat down heavily on the edge of his bed. “Jus’ great! Pa’s in a bad mood this mornin’ . . . . ”

 

When Joe and Stacy at long last stumbled down the stairs, still half asleep, they found their father, leaning up against the banister post, waiting. Brother and sister exchanged uneasy glances, with fast sinking hearts.

“Good morning, Joe . . . good morning, Stacy,” Ben greeted his younger children in a tone, too bland. “Glad to see you both up and about . . . FINALLY.”

“S-Sorry I, uhhhh overslept, Pa,” Joe murmured warily.

“Me, too, Pa.”

“That’s quite alright,” Ben said in that sweet, benevolent tone he often used right before the proverbial other shoe dropped, “and perfectly understandable . . . . ” He scowled, and his voice immediately hardened. “ . . . seeing as how both of you were out all night.”

“Pa, there’s a g-good reason for that,” Joe said very quickly.

“Yeah . . . a REAL good reason,” Stacy immediately voiced her own agreement.

“ . . . and I’m real interested in hearing all about it,” Ben said, “but not right now.”

“Hunh!?” Joe queried, taken aback.

“Oh, we’ll talk about this later, don’t you worry about that,” Ben quickly assured his two younger children. “Right now, however, you both have a job to do . . . no, make that TWO jobs to do, in addition to your own regular morning chores.”

“We do?” Stacy asked.

“You certainly do,” Ben said, placing his arms around their shoulders. “First of all you’re both gonna clean up all the mud you trailed in last night, starting in the kitchen.”

“Wh-what mud, Pa?” Joe ventured, standing with his legs pressed together tight to keep his knees from knocking.

“THAT mud!” Ben pointed to the trail at their feet.

Joe and Stacy gazed down in complete dismay.

“It stretches all the way from the kitchen door to your muddy clothing, which I happened to find lying on the floor of your wardrobe, Young Man, and if I were to hazard a real wild guess, Young Woman, I’d say YOURS are lying on the floor under your bed,” Ben continued, glaring at each respectively. “THAT’S how I found out!”

“Oh!” Joe swallowed nervously. “We were wonderin’ ‘bout that . . . . ” His words drew a sharp glare from his sister.

“I’ll just bet you WERE wondering about that,” Ben retorted sardonically. “That brings me to the second job you have to do, namely the laundry.”

“Th-the l-laundry?!” Stacy stammered, after she also swallowed nervously.

“Yes, the laundry. I saw how muddy your clothes were, and I don’t think it’s fair to make Hop Sing wash them. I also decided that since you’re doing your own laundry today, you might as well do it for the rest of US, including our guests.”

“Y-Yes, Pa,” Joe stammered.

“Yes, Sir,” Stacy replied, vigorously nodding her head.

“I WAS gonna haul you both out to the barn, but I decided I’d be going too easy on ya,” Ben said sternly. “Now, since I expect all that PLUS your own chores to be done by the time Hop Sing’s ready to serve up our noon meal, I’d suggest you get started. You’ve slept away half the morning already.”

 

“Mister Cartwright!”

Bradley Meredith turned with sinking heart, and found himself staring into the perpetually scowling face of the woman, whose daughter ran Kirks’ Hostelry over on the next street. This morning, he was impeccably attired in a brand new three piece gray linen suit, with a new shirt, and navy blue string tie, charged to Ben Cartwright’s account. Shorty Jim Slade was with him, dressed in a brand new dark blue suit, white shirt, and dark blue string tie, also charged to the largesse of the Cartwright account.

“Mister Cartwright, it’s bad enough you taking up with that cheap floozy who has the sheer gall to call herself a school teacher,” Eloise Kirk sputtered angrily. “But, NOW, you’ve taken to robbing stage coaches. What, I ask you, WHAT kind of an example are you setting for your impressionable young sons and daughter?”

Bradley’s entire face darkened with anger. “Madam, I will NOT countenance such unkind remarks about Miss Ashcroft,” he spat through clenched teeth. “You WILL apologize, or— ”

“Hey, come on, Bo—PA! We gotta job to do remember?” Shorty Jim quickly positioned himself between Bradley and Eloise Kirk.

“ . . . and what might THAT job be?” Eloise queried in a withering tone. “Hold up the BANK?”

“Ma’am, what EVER happened to innocent ‘til proven guilty?” Shorty Jim asked, favoring her with a sad, angelic, calf-eyed stare worthy of the youngest Cartwright son he so closely resembled.

“Hmpf!” Eloise snorted derisively, before pushing rudely past the men she believed to be Ben and Joe Cartwright, and continuing on her way.

“If THAT old battle axe was one of Ben Cartwright’s lady friends, then I’ve done him a big favor,” Bradley Meredith growled, as he watched Eloise Kirk moving on down the street.

“C’mon, Boss, pull yourself together!” Shorty Jim reminded his associate through clenched teeth. “We came to see Mister Sutcliff, remember?”

“You and your brother have become very tiresome, you know that?”

“I COULD say the same about YOU, too, but I’d rather get hold of whatever money we can get on those statues, so’ we can all be off, goin’ our separate ways.”

“Alright!” Bradley snapped. “Mister Sutcliff’s office is right across the street.”

Geoffrey Sutcliff, a tall, well muscled man with sandy blonde hair, and full beard, politely rose to greet Bradley Meredith and Shorty Jim Slade as they stepped into his office. “Good day, Mister Meredith, I’ve been expecting you.”

“Indeed?”

“Indeed, yes.” The smug, triumphant smile and predatory gleam in Geoffrey gray-green eyes was not lost on Bradley Meredith. “Gentlemen, please, come in and sit down.”

“Thank you, Mister Sutcliff,” Bradley said smoothly, keeping his uneasiness well hidden with all the consummate skill of the finest of actors. “May I present my associate, Mister James Slade?”

“Good to meet you, Mister Slade,” Geoffrey murmured politely, as he extended his hand. “Can I get you gentlemen some coffee?”

“No, thank you, Sir,” Shorty Jim declined politely, drawing a sharp glare from Bradley. “We’d prefer getting down to business, if you don’t mind.”

“Yes, I imagine you WOULD,” Geoffrey said wryly, as the three sat down. “What have you got for me, Mister Meredith?”

“As if you didn’t already know, you son-of-a-bitch,” Bradley Meredith responded silently, as he removed the protective cover from around the jade statue of Chang-O. “I’ve brought along THIS little trinket for your perusal,” he said aloud, his tone bland, his smile never wavering. “I trust you recognize the workmanship?”

“Indeed I do, Mister Meredith, indeed I do. This can only be the work of Yang Wei-Chu.”

“Gesundheit,” Shorty Jim quipped without missing a beat, prompting a sardonic roll of the eyes from Bradley Meredith.

“It seems your associate has much to learn about fine art,” Geoffrey observed condescendingly, with a wry grin.

“Yes, it would seem that he DOES,” Bradley agreed, favoring the young gunman with a withering glare. “At any rate, this statue of Chang-O is one of three, all part of a set. The others are of Hou-Yi and Kuan Yin.”

“Moon, Sun, and Mercy,” Geoffrey said, looking upon the exquisite jade carving as if it were something very good to eat. “May I be so bold as to ask how you came by these works?”

“I have a client who is anxious to sell, Mister Sutcliff,” Bradley replied. “Naturally, I thought of YOU first.”

“Your client is a private collector?”

Bradley nodded. “He’s fallen on hard times, I’m afraid, and has to sell the statues.”

“Most unfortunate,” Geoffrey said slowly. “Your client wouldn’t happen to be the Li Family . . . would it?”

Shorty Jim gasped, drawing a sharp glare from Bradley Meredith.

“Mister Meredith, is your associate ill? He’s all of a sudden looking a little peaked,” Geoffrey observed caustically.

“Mister Sutcliff, if you’re not interested in the statues . . . . ” Bradley said, rising. A swift kick in the ankle prompted Shorty Jim to follow suit.

“On the contrary, I am VERY interested in the statues,” Geoffrey said smoothly. “As you know, I am a most discriminating collector of fine art. This set of statues by Yang Wei-Chu would make handsome additions to my collection. At what price are you offering them?”

“As I just said, my client is very anxious to sell,” Bradley replied. “He is in need of the money, sooner rather than later. He would also prefer payment in cash or gold bullion.”

“Cash or gold bullion, Mister Meredith?”

“Yes.”

“You ARE aware that further reduces the price tag.”

“Indeed I am, Mister Sutcliff. The statues, of course, are priceless. My client is willing to settle for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

“ONE hundred fifty. Not one cent more,” Geoffrey Sutcliff snapped.

“Done.”

Geoffrey smiled the triumphant smile of a predator moving in on its cornered prey for the final kill. “I have twenty-five thousand cash here in my safe, Mister Meredith. I will give that to you, YOU leave the statue of Chang-O here, with me. It will take me two hours to gather together the balance. Be here, in my office, in two hours with the remaining statues. If you are not prompt, the price declines.”

“We will see you in two hours, Mister Sutcliff,” Bradley said, holding out his hand.

“Two hours,” Geoffrey reiterated as he shook hands to seal the verbal bargain.

 

“Little Joe miss spot there and there, also over there,” Hop Sing said, giving critical eye to the wet sheet in Joe’s hand.

“Aww, Hop Sing, ya gotta be kidding!” Joe groaned.

“No!” Hop Sing adamantly and vigorously shook his head. “No! Hop Sing NOT kidding around! Little Joe miss three spots.”

“Where?” Joe groaned.

“I ALREADY tell you. Right there, and there, and there! You look!”

“Aww, come on, Hop Sing, you can hardly see those spots.”

“Hop Sing NOT make bed with dirty sheet,” the Chinese man declared, leveling a thunderous scowl in Joe’s direction.

“Hop Sing, this sheet is NOT dirty,” Joe wheedled. “It’s got a couple of spots— ”

“THREE spots, not couple!”

“Ok, THREE spots . . . so light you can barely see ‘em, not that anyone’s ever gonna see ‘em anyway because if they’re not on the bed, covered by a blanket AND a quilt, they’re gonna be folded up in the linen closet.”

“Not care if nobody see. HOP SING see. HOP SING know. Little Joe wash sheet AGAIN. Get spots out, get sheet clean.”

Joe groaned as he plunged the sheet back into the washtub.

Hop Sing, then, turned heel and marched back into the kitchen, where Stacy was down on her hands and knees scrubbing for the second time around. Her clothing was as wet as the floor and, though her hair was braided, several tendrils had slipped loose and now dangled down into her face. “How you do with floor, Miss Stacy?” Hop Sing cheerfully asked as he sauntered into the kitchen.

Stacy rocked back, up onto her knees and wearily shoved the tendrils of hair out of her face. “Almost finished, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing smiled. “Good! Very, very good! When Miss Stacy finish, take out water, scrub floor one more time.”

Stacy shook her head vigorously, not wanting to believe her ears. “H-Hop Sing, did you just say . . . one more time?”

“Three time, Miss Stacy. Three time the charm.”

Stacy groaned.

“Oh dear! Is Miss Stacy alright? Miss Stacy not sick . . . . ?” Hop Sing hovered anxiously.

“No, just bone tired. Do I really hafta do the floor three times?”

“Three time. Three time the charm.”

Stacy groaned again as she dropped the scrub brush back into the pail of soapy water.

Hop Sing walked over picked up the pot of coffee warming on top of the stove. Humming a tune very much Chinese, he carried it out into the great room, where Ben sat behind his desk working on the ledger. “More coffee, Mister Cartwright? Hop Sing make up fresh.”

Ben looked up and smiled. “Thank you, Hop Sing, I’d love more coffee,” he replied holding up his mug.

Hop Sing took the mug, filled it, then handed it back to Ben.

“Hop Sing?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“How are things going in the kitchen and with the laundry?”

“Miss Stacy finish scrubbing floor two time, get ready to scrub floor THREE time. Little Joe scrub sheet from your bed, try to get out wine spots.”

“What?”

Hop Sing nodded and smiled.

“Hop Sing, if that’s the sheet I’m thinking of . . . those wine spots have been there for YEARS,” Ben said lowering his voice. “Paris . . . Stacy’s mother . . . spilled the wine . . . that time we were snow bound.”

“You know that, Hop Sing know that. Little Joe? He NOT know that.”

“I see. Tell me something else. Do you USUALLY scrub the kitchen floor three times?”

Hop Sing shook his head. “One time do the trick.”

“Yet your have Stacy scrubbing the floor for the third time and Joe trying to wash out wine spots that have been in that sheet for years?!”

Hop Sing’s smile never wavered. “Mister Cartwright tell Hop Sing not be easy on Little Joe and Miss Stacy.”

“I did indeed,” Ben agreed. “Keep up the good work.”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright.” Hop Sing turned to leave.

“Hop Sing?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“I haven’t seen very much of your sister’s family this morning,” Ben said very quietly. “Only Hsing, a few times, knocking at the door of his grandmother’s room.”

“Bad, Mister Cartwright. Very, very bad!” Hop Sing replied, shaking his head. His smile quickly faded. “Mei-Ling and Yin-Ling both cry all night. Cry themselves to sleep. Yin-Ling STILL cry. Mei-Ling, not cry anymore. Mei-Ling very angry with son, worry very much about husband. Hsing very quiet. Not talk to nobody, not even Mei-Ling. Hop Sing know he very worried about venerable grandmother.”

“Mrs. Li STILL refuses to see Hsing?”

“Mrs. Li not see anybody. Only Hop Sing when take venerable lady tea early this morning.” He sighed and shook his head mournfully. “Hop Sing worry about Mrs. Li, too. She sit in room. Have shades down, keep room dark. Not even sleep in bed. Yin-Ling very sad, she cry. Mei-Ling very angry, all through crying. But, Mrs. Li too sad for crying. No sparkle in eyes. Hop Sing worry very, very much.”

“I’m worried, too, Hop Sing,” Ben said soberly. Mrs. Li had not stirred from the downstairs guest room since her grandson, Hsing broke the news to her about the theft of the jade statues yesterday afternoon. She had refused supper last night, and breakfast this morning. Worst of all, she absolutely refused to see anyone, including Hsing. “I CAN send for Doctor Martin if you wish.”

“No use, Mister Cartwright, no use,” Hop Sing said softly, shaking his head. “Mrs. Li not have body sickness. Mrs. Li have sickness of heart. Very, very bad.” Suddenly, his face darkened with intense anger, the like of which Ben had never seen in all the years Hop Sing had been part of the Cartwright family. “Where Xing?” he snapped. “Where no good nephew go?”

“I . . . I haven’t s-seen . . . Xing,” Ben stammered.

“Xing out. Sneak out last night. Stay out all night. Drink in saloon. Kiss girls. Play poker. All night long. STILL not come back. Xing should be here. Family NEED him. Xing NOT here. No good nephew not here.” Hop Sing abruptly turned heel and stormed off back toward the kitchen, muttering a long string of terse, clipped Chinese syllables.

Ben stared after Hop Sing’s retreating back, profoundly grateful he had no idea as to the exact translation of those words.

“Hey, Pa?”

Ben turned and looked up as Hoss stepped through the front door.

“I got the buckboard wheels greased, an’ I gave the loft in the barn a good cleanin’ up,” Hoss said as he walked over to the desk. “I found somethin’ mighty interestin’ up in the loft . . . . ”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. This.”

It was a book. Ben took it and turned it over. “How to Solve Crimes by Professor Foote,” he read the title aloud, then frowned. “Hoss, isn’t THIS the book that got the you and Joe into trouble trying to catch bank robbers awhile back?!”

Hoss nodded. “ ‘Fraid so, Pa.”

“I thought your brother promised me he wasn’t going to touch his book ever again,” Ben said with a scowl.

“I don’t think Joe was the one readin’ it, Pa,” Hoss said quietly. “When I went out in the barn t’ fetch ‘em in for supper last night, I saw him take somethin’ from Stacy ‘n sneak it behind his back. He must’ve hidden it under the straw.”

“I wonder where Stacy found it,” Ben wondered aloud.

“Probably in the attic. You know how much she loves goin’ up there ‘n rootin’ around in all them boxes ‘n trucks we got stored up there.”

“For the time being, I’m going to keep it locked up here in my desk, where it’ll do the least damage,” Ben said grimly, as he slipped it into the bottom drawer on the right side of the desk.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“Would ya do ME a real big favor an’, well . . . kinda go easy on ‘em about that book?” Hoss asked. “Stacy doesn’t know anything ‘bout the trouble Joe ‘n I stirred up on account o’ Professor Foote’s book.”

“I know,” Ben said with a touch of asperity, “but— ”

“We both know that Joe ‘n Stacy ain’t ones for sittin’ on the side lines twiddlin’ their thumbs,” Hoss continued. “They wanna do somethin’ that might help us get outta this big mess we’re in.”

“I know,” Ben sighed, “but tracking down criminals is something best left to the law. I have all the faith in the world in Roy Coffee. If anyone recover those statues and bring the thieves to justice, he can. I also don’t want Joe and Stacy to get themselves hurt.”

“I know that, Pa,” Hoss said very quietly. He smiled. “Sometimes, I don’t know what I’m gonna do WITH the two of ‘em, but I sure as shootin’ don’t wanna find out what I’d do WITHOUT ‘em, either. I guess I’m too used t’ havin’ ‘em both around.”

“I am, too,” Ben agreed wholeheartedly. “I’ll tell you what. If your brother and sister agree to leave the matter of law enforcement to the sheriff, I’ll let ‘em off the hook . . . with regard to their having that book in their possession, at any rate.”

“Thanks, Pa,” Hoss said gratefully.

Truth be known, Ben plain and simply couldn’t bring himself to deny the ardent pleading in Hoss’ great big baby blue eyes. His second son, the kindest and gentlest of his four children, had always been protective of his baby brother from the day he was born. For the better part of the last four going on five years, that protectiveness included his young sister, as well. Ben took one last sip from the coffee mug, and rose. “Hoss, I’m going into town. I have some business I need to take care of. I won’t be home in time for dinner, but I should be in plenty of time before supper.”

“You want me t’ come with ya?”

Ben considered, then shook his head. “I think it might be more prudent for you to stay here and make sure your brother and sister stay out of trouble.”

“Tall order, Pa.”

 

“Uuuuh!” Stacy groaned softly, as she emptied the last pail of dirty water. “I’m sure glad THAT’S over . . . my back is KILLING me.”

“Don’t tell ME your troubles, Kid,” Joe retorted, as he hung the last sheet out on the line to dry. “My entire BODY hurts.”

“That happens when you get old, GRANDPA,” Stacy teased.

“You may YET take that trip out to the barn, Little Sister.”

Stacy frowned. “Pa said he wasn’t going to haul us out to the barn.”

“I wasn’t talking about Pa.”

“Who then? You!?”

“Don’t think I can’t do it, Kid.”

“You’d hafta catch me first, and as tired as we are now, I can STILL out run ya.”

Joe stuck out his tongue.

Stacy retaliated in kind, then turned serious as they stiffly leaned over to pick up laundry basket and pail. “Grandpa?”

“Yeah, Kid?”

“What happens NOW?”

“We keep doing as the first chapter in that book says,” Joe replied. “We keep thinking like criminals.”

“Ok.”

“What would YOU do if you had just robbed a stage?”

“I’d head south toward Mexico.”

“What if you didn’t get cash or gold bullion? What if you ended up with something that had to be sold?”

“In THAT case, I’d retreat to a hideout and lay low.”

“First on our list of things to do this afternoon, Kid, is find that hideout,” Joe said.

“How do we do THAT?”

“Lemme see,” Joe murmured thoughtfully. “That stage was robbed about an hour outside of town, along the road between Virginia City and Carson City. Chances are their hideout lies somewhere along that road between Virginia City and the spot where the stage was robbed.”

“The old Haines place!” Stacy said immediately.

Joe grimaced. “The old Haines place?!”

“Yeah. Ok, the house isn’t much more than a run-down shack, and the rest of the buildings are half fallen down, but it IS along the road between Virginia City and Carson City, about a half an hour’s ride away . . . or LESS.”

“That’s true.”

“Best of all . . . for a criminal, it sits a good mile, maybe mile and a half off that road along a trail half overgrown by weeds and brambles this time of year,” Stacy continued. “Unless you know exactly where that trail is, you could easily miss it.”

“Even if you DO know exactly where that trail is, you could easily miss it IF you’re not keeping a sharp look out,” Joe agreed. “Ok, Kid, let’s you ‘n me hustle along with our morning chores, then the private detective team of Cartwright and Cartwright is off to investigate the Haines place.”

 

“Judge Faraday?”

John Faraday glanced up from the sheaf of papers spread out before him on his desk. “Yes, Elmer?”

“I know that you had asked not to be disturbed, Sir, but Ben Cartwright is waiting in my office,” Elmer McFarlane, the judge’s administrative assistant, said.

“Please, show him in,” the judge said, as he placed the papers in hand back down on the desk in front of him. His friendship with Ben Cartwright had cooled since his unfortunate bid for the office of state governor several years ago [10]. Throwing his lot in with Sam Endicott had proven disastrous, effectively nipping any and all political aspirations in the proverbial bud. Ben had told him about Sam Endicott, about the wealthy financier having his own agenda, but John Faraday had chosen not to listen. Ben was absolutely right, and somehow that rankled. Even so, he still maintained an acquaintanceship with the rancher.

John had a reasonably good idea as to the reason for Ben’s visit, impromptu, without an appointment, and it dismayed him to see the man with his back up against the proverbial wall, forced into a course of action that over time would benefit no one, and might even prove detrimental to all concerned.

Ben entered the judge’s office a moment later, with Elmer following discreetly behind.

“Ben, please come in,” John said, rising and offering his hand.

“Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, John,” Ben said, as the two men cordially shook hands. “I hope I’m not interrupting something important.”

A small smile tugged at the corner of John Faraday’s mouth. “I was just catching up on my paperwork,” he said. “Anyone coming to see me in the midst of my doing paperwork isn’t an interruption, it’s a much needed relief. Please, sit down.” He gestured toward the two chairs placed side-by-side in front of his desk.

Ben nodded his thanks, then sat down in the chair to John’s left.

“Can I have Elmer get you a cup of coffee?”

“No, thank you, John. I’d prefer to get right down to business, if that’s alright.”

“Certainly.” The judge looked up, making direct eye contact with his administrative assistant, still standing in the open door between his office and the anteroom beyond. “That will be all for now, Elmer.”

Elmer nodded and quietly withdrew, closing the door behind him.

“What can I do for you, Ben?” John asked, turning his attention to his visitor.

“I’m here to arrange for a marriage ceremony,” Ben replied.

“Yourself and Miss Ashcroft?”

Ben nodded, then observed with a touch of rancor, “Nothing travels faster than word of mouth, it would seem.”

Despite his ambivalent feelings toward Ben these days, the judge nonetheless found it disheartening to see that look of resigned defeat on the man’s face. “Ben, you don’t have to do this,” he said quietly. “You are not required by law to marry Miss Ashcroft.”

“I know that,” Ben said wearily, “but, I’m afraid I still have no choice in the matter, the law not withstanding . . . unless I want to risk having my daughter taken away from me.”

“I know what Mrs. Danvers said, but, I can assure you, her threat is an empty one. You ARE Stacy’s natural father. No one can legally remove her from your custody.”

“Lucas says there’s a precedent,” Ben said bitterly, “one which I ironically helped to create. You remember Margie Owens little girl?”

John nodded. “That child’s father was unfit, Ben.”

“As I could be found given the matter of Miss Ashcroft,” Ben said dolefully, “not to mention the fact that my sons and I are prime suspects in that stage hold up yesterday afternoon.”

“If either of those cases came up for trial in MY court, I’d throw them both out within the first five minutes for lack of evidence,” John argued. “You and Miss Ashcroft both deny that YOU are the father of her child. As far as I’m concerned, and as far as the law is concerned, Mrs. Danvers and her cousin have no case.”

“I’m not worried about you or Judge Greenberg either for that matter. Judge Caine, however, is another matter entirely.”

“Ben, the law is the law.”

“I know, John, but as Lucas pointed out, a precedent has been set. Given the animosity that’s grown between Judge Caine and myself over the years, if the case ever came before HIM, I can’t trust him NOT to rule on the basis of that precedent . . . out of spite. You and I both know for fact, it wouldn’t be the first time, either.”

John sighed, knowing all too well the truth of those words.

“My daughter has the right to feel secure in her own home, with her own family,” Ben continued. “I’ll do anything and everything in my power to ensure that, including marriage to Judith Ashcroft. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get this whole business arranged and be done with it.”

“Alright, Ben. If you would excuse me for a moment, I need to consult with Elmer as to my schedule.”

Ben nodded curtly in response.

John rose and quietly made his way across the room to the door. “Elmer,” he said, upon cracking the door open. “Would you please step into my office for a moment, and bring my appointment book with you?”

“Yes, Sir,” Elmer immediately responded. He grabbed the appointment book, lying open to the present date on the desk to his right, then rose and silently followed his employer.

“I’d like to get this done as soon as possible,” Ben said, as John returned to his desk, with Elmer in tow.

“Mrs. Danvers DID give you a week,” John hastened to point out.

“I know,” Ben sighed, “but, I’d just as soon get this whole matter over with as soon as possible.”

“Tomorrow, you have an inquest regarding the death of Vincent Hutchins scheduled for nine-thirty in the morning, and lunch with Judge Greenberg at noon,” Elmer said briskly, “however, your afternoon is completely free.”

“How about tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock?” Ben asked.

“Tomorrow afternoon, two o’clock will be fine, Ben,” John said reluctantly. “I’ll see that the marriage license is drawn up and ready for you and Miss Ashcroft to sign when you come.”

“Thank you, John,” Ben said, rising.

John also rose, and again offered his hand. “For what it’s worth, Ben, I wish you and Miss Ashcroft all the best.”

 

Meanwhile, Bradley Meredith and Shorty Jim Slade sat together, side-by-side, on a richly upholstered settee in the anteroom of the posh office Geoffrey Sutcliff maintained. Their like pose, with postures ramrod straight, two pairs of feet flat on the floor with the toes of their shoes in a near straight line, each holding a jade statue, hidden under a covering of coarse cotton, lent them the appearance of bookends. Bradley’s eyes strayed toward the regulator handing on the wall behind Geoffrey Sutcliff’s secretary, a small man, painfully prim and proper, with his nose perpetually wrinkled with disdain. He exhaled a pointedly audible sigh of exasperation.

Millard Phillmore Craig, the secretary, glanced up sharply and favored the two men seated on the settee to his right, with a withering glare. “Mister Meredith, I will show you in WHEN Mister Sutcliff asks me to show you in, and not one second before,” he said sternly. “If you and your associate had thought to make an appointment— ”

“We DID have an appointment, you squint nosed little insect!” Bradley growled.

“I don’t have you down in my appointment book.”

“That’s because I made the appointment with Mister Sutcliff himself, nearly two hours ago.”

“It is NOT down in my book,” Millard declared in a bored, condescending tone. “If you continue to be troublesome, Gentlemen, I WILL ask you to leave.”

The door behind the diminutive, bookish man opened. “Trouble, Mister Craig?” It was Geoffrey Sutcliff.

“No, Sir, none I can’t handle,” Millard replied. “Two gentlemen here who CLAIM to have an appointment— ”

Geoffrey looked over at Bradley Meredith and Shorty Jim Slade, establishing eye contact with the former. He dug his long fingers into the shallow, right hand pocket of his vest and extracted a watch. He brought the time piece up to his eye level and flipped up the cover with a single thrust of his right thumb. “Mister Meredith, you and your associate . . . . ” he grimaced, wrinkling his nose in utter disgust, “are three and one half minutes late.”

Bradley rose, gently cradling the jade statue of Kuan-Yin in his arms. “On the contrary, Mister Sutcliff, my associate and I arrived early,” he said through clenched teeth, leveling a dark, malevolent scowl at Geoffrey first, then Millard. “This incompetent numbskull who has the audacity to call himself a secretary refused to inform you that we had arrived.”

“You gentlemen did NOT have an appointment,” Millard maintained with a smug complacent smile.

“BECAUSE you gentlemen are tardy, I am entitled to a discount,” Geoffrey continued. “Instead of a balance of one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars, I NOW owe a balance of seventy-five thousand dollars.”

“It’s quite apparent to me that you’re not serious about acquiring these priceless works of art, Mister Sutcliff,” Bradley said in a tone ice cold. He rose and with an impatient glare, invited his accomplice to do likewise. “Fortunately for me, I have other clients, also collectors of fine art, every bit as discriminating as you CLAIM to be. I bid you good day.”

“Sit down, Mister Meredith,” Geoffrey ordered in an imperious tone of voice. “You, too, Mister Slade. I am very serious about acquiring those statues.”

Bradley remained in place. “I beg to differ,” he countered. “It seems to me that you are more interested in playing childish games than in the purchase of priceless artwork.”

“Mister Meredith, you WILL sell the remaining statues to me at the lowered price, or I will summon the good sheriff of Virginia City and tell him everything,” Geoffrey said.

“I don’t listen to idle threats, Mister Sutcliff.”

“That is no threat, Sir, THAT is my final offer. Seventy-five thousand for the remaining statues or I go to the sheriff.”

“Alright,” Bradley snarled, his entire body trembling with impotent fury.

“I knew you’d be reasonable,” Geoffrey said with a smug, triumphant smile. He stepped behind his desk and opened the top drawer on the side to his right. He grabbed the bundle of paper bills sitting on top and tossed it across the room to Bradley Meredith. “Seventy-five thousand dollars. It’s there, every last penny.”

“I’m sure you don’t mind if we count it?” Bradley said, noting with grim satisfaction that his client actually bristled. He favored Geoffrey with a mirthless smile.

“You don’t trust me, Mister Meredith?” Geoffrey queried with a dark, angry scowl.

“Have I any reason TO trust you, Sir?”

“AFTER you and your associate finish counting your money, you WILL deliver the statues to my town house over on A Street,” Geoffrey said in a tight, angry voice. “The SERVANTS’ entrance is through the side gate and around the house to your left. I’m sure you can find your way.”

 

“The servants’ entrance is through the side gate, around the house on your left. I’m sure you can find your way,” Shorty Jim muttered a scathingly mimicking Geoffrey Sutcliff’s imperious way of speaking, the instant he and Bradley Meredith stepped outside the realtor’s office and closed the door behind him. “Who does that horse’s patoot think he is?”

“Without his wife’s fortune, Geoffrey Sutcliff’s nothing but an INSECT in a SMALL, INSIGNIFICANT pond, filled with small, insignificant FROGS,” Bradley replied, the angry glare still set on his brow as if in concrete, “and WELL he knows it. Don’t let yourself get all hot and bothered over the likes of him, he’s not worth the trouble. In any case, each of us get thirty three thousand apiece . . . more than enough to keep you and your brother living in high style down in Mexico.”

“What about the Li kid?”

“What about him?”

“He knows, Boss. If he goes to the sheriff . . . . ”

“If he goes to the sheriff, he implicates himself, too,” Bradley replied. “That boy is too spoiled and too soft to survive a jail sentence, and deep down, I think he KNOWS that. I plan to given him the remaining one thousand dollars as his commission— ”

“We promised him TEN.”

“The dowry turned out NOT to be money or gold, as he had led us to believe,” Bradley said grimly. “That plus the risk WE took in selling those statues, coupled with the financial losses we were forced to accept comes right out of HIS commission, reducing it by nine thousand dollars.”

“S’posing he decides to go to the sheriff out of spite?”

“He won’t.”

“You don’t know that, Boss, not really. I say we silence him permanently.”

“ . . . and risk a hangman’s noose?! No.” Bradley adamantly shook his head. “I was figuring on leaving him tied up at our hideout and sending an anonymous wire back to the Cartwrights telling them where to find him, once we’re all at least a day’s ride away from here.”

Shorty Jim’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. “How do I know you won’t tell the Cartwrights where to find my brother ‘n me?”

“Because if I told them where to find YOU, you’d turn around and tell them where to find ME,” Bradley said, using the tone of voice most would use to address a very stupid child. “I want to avoid a prison sentence every bit as much as you and your brother.”

Shorty Jim bristled against the highly insulting condescension he heard in “The Boss’ ” tone, but still nodded his satisfaction. There was, after all, something to be said of the dubious honor among thieves. “All we gotta do is drop off these statues, and we’re outta here?”

“That’s all we gotta do,” Bradley agreed.

“In that case, let’s haul butt over to A Street. The sooner we’ve shaken off the dust of this dusty boom town off our feet, the better I’ll like it.”

 

“Is the coast clear, Grandpa?”

Joe handed Cochise’s lead over to his sister, then crept over toward the barn door. He opened it slightly and peered outside. “The coast is clear, Little Sister,” he reported. “Let’s go.”

Stacy nodded as she handed Cochise’s lead back to her brother.

Joe opened the barn door, pausing for another look around. The yard between the house and barn appeared to be completely deserted. Satisfied, he stepped out of the barn, leading his pinto, Cochise, saddled and ready to ride. Stacy followed leading Blaze Face, her own big bay gelding.

“We’ll mount up and ride once we’re outta sight of the barn,” Joe said, taking care to keep his voice low.

“Alright.”

“ . . . . and just where do the pair o’ you think you’re goin’?”

Joe and Stacy both jumped and screamed upon hearing the stern voice of their biggest brother, upsetting their horses. Both whirled in their tracks so fast, they threw themselves off balance. Stacy fall against Blaze Face, while Joe toppled over backwards, landing hard on his back side. Hoss walked toward them, coming from behind, favoring both with a threatening glare.

“Hoss, dag gummit, you just scared me outta ten years’ growth!” Joe declared, outraged. “Where’d you come from anyway?”

“I saw the two o’ you creepin’ into the barn like a couple o’ sneak thieves,” Hoss said sternly, “ ‘n figured ya had to be up t’ some kinda no good.”

“Hoss, you WOUND us!” Joe said, as he rose once more to his feet. Their eyes were big, round, and angelic. Joe’s lower lip protruded ever-so-slightly, lending him the air of an innocent child, wrongfully accused. Stacy’s chin quivered, as she bit her lower lip. “We just wanted to take a short ride before supper.”

“Then WHY were ya sneakin’ into the barn?” Hoss demanded, neither moved, nor unduly impressed by his younger siblings’ sad, sweet, angelic faces.

“We weren’t sneaking, Hoss,” Stacy said. “We were trying to be considerate.”

“Considerate, eh?”

“Of course, Big Brother,” Joe chimed in. “We didn’t want to disturb Hop Sing’s relatives or Miss Ashcroft.”

“That’s very nice of ya,” Hoss said sardonically. “Now you can turn around and go just as quietly back to the barn ‘n unsaddle both them horses.”

“Aww, come on, Hoss!” Joe protested.

“Aww, come on Hoss yourself!” the biggest of the Cartwright offspring retorted. “You two are in trouble enough. When Pa left t’ go into town, I promised him I’d keep ya both OUT o’ trouble, an’ that’s exactly what I aim t’ do.”

“Hoss, for cryin’ out loud! Stacy and I just wanna go for a short ride! What kind of trouble can we possibly get into?”

“Plenty, Li’l Brother, knowin’ YOU two!”

“Hoss, we scrubbed the floors and did the laundry like Pa and Hop Sing asked,” Stacy was quick to point out, “and we’ve done our regular chores. Can’t we take a short ride? Please?”

“PRETTY please?” Joe begged.

“Pa should be comin’ home soon. You can ask HIM.”

“Ask him WHAT?”

Stacy and Joe both turned and watched in dismay, as their father slowed Big Buck to a halt and dismounted.

“These two scallywags were fixin’ t’ go for a ride,” Hoss said scowling at the two of them. “I told ‘em t’ wait ‘til YOU got home. I didn’t want ‘em t’ get themselves into any more trouble than they’re in already.”

“Thank you, Hoss,” Ben said wearily. He, then, turned his attention to his younger children. “Have you both finished scrubbing the floors, the laundry, and your own chores?”

“Yes, Sir,” Joe replied.

Stacy nodded.

“Alright, but make it short and NO riding into town,” Ben said sternly.

“We have no intention of riding into town,” Joe promised very solemnly.

“That’s right, Pa,” Stacy added in a tone equally as solemn.

“I’ll expect you back BEFORE supper,” Ben said.

“Thanks, Pa,” Stacy said as she prepared to climb up into Blaze Face’s back.

“Me, too, Pa,” Joe said flashing a smug grin in the general direction of his big brother. He grabbed the edges of the saddle and prepared to swing himself up.

“Before you go, however, I’d like the three of you to step into the house. I have something to tell you,” Ben said.

Hoss, Joe, and Stacy looked at each other, then at Ben. From the slight slumping of his shoulders and the lines of his face, and the fatalistic resignation they saw reflected in his dark eyes, all three knew that whatever their father had to say couldn’t possibly be GOOD news . . . .

 

“I want to let the three of you know that I spoke to Miss Ashcroft yesterday afternoon,” Ben addressed his three younger offspring, now lined up in front of his desk, their faces slightly pale, eyes solemn. “She has agreed to go through with the marriage.”

“Oh NO!” Stacy wailed in complete and utter dismay. “Pa, you CAN’T!”

“Stacy, I don’t have much choice in the matter,” Ben snapped, giving vent to the anger and frustration that had been building since Myra Danvers had delivered her ultimatum at the school board meeting the day before.

“ . . . and it’s all MY fault,” Stacy angrily shot right back.

Ben closed his eyes and counted to ten. “Stacy, no! It’s not YOUR fault.”

“Isn’t it? You wouldn’t be in this fix at all if it WEREN’T for me!”

Ben, hearing the anger and the grief in his daughter’s voice, immediately came out from behind the desk. “Stacy,” he said earnestly, placing both hands on her shoulders, “I’m sorry I snapped your head off just now, but I want you to know that NONE of this is YOUR fault. I want you to get THAT idea out of your head pronto, Young Woman.”

“But . . . . ”

“No buts! If ANYONE’S to blame for this, it’s Mrs. Danvers and Mister Meredith, certainly not YOU.”

Stacy nodded mutely.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Hoss?” Ben queried as he turned his attention toward his second son.

“Have you, uhhh . . . set a date yet?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “I spoke to John Faraday when I went into town earlier. I’ve arranged with him to perform the marriage ceremony tomorrow afternoon, at two o’clock.”

“TOMORROW afternoon?!” Joe echoed, his heart sinking fast, as a stone when dropped into water. “I thought you had a week!”

“I see no point in procrastinating, Joe,” Ben said quietly, “which brings me to another matter. I fully expect the three of you, AND Hop Sing, to accept Miss Ashcroft and her baby, when it arrives, as members of this family and to treat both of them accordingly. They’re just as much victims of Mrs. Danvers’ spiteful maneuvering as we are.”

“You don’t have to worry none on THAT score, Pa,” Hoss said firmly, with an emphatic nod of his head.

“Yeah,” Stacy said morosely, “what HOSS said.”

“Ditto, me, too, Pa,” Joe added.

“I know I can count on you,” Ben replied. “I’ve arranged for a quiet, private ceremony at the courthouse. I expect you three to be there.”

“We will be, Pa, you can count on that,” Joe promised.

“You bet,” Hoss said with a curt nod of his head for emphasis.

Stacy simply nodded.

 

Within less than an hour, Joe and Stacy were riding together along the road between Virginia City and Carson City in silence, their faces set with grim, stubborn resolve.

“Tomorrow!” Joe murmured softly. “That doesn’t give us a whole heckuva lot o’ time, Kid.”

“Tell me something I DON’T know, Grandpa,” Stacy said grimly.

The Haines place, their destination, had once been a thriving farm, belonging to a man named Archie Haines. Less than a year after staking his claim to the land, he had taken a mail order bride named Jennie, a young woman nearly twenty-seven years his junior. A child, a daughter, was born to them a year later. The Haines family largely kept to themselves, due in large part to Archie’s taciturn nature, though Jennie was friendly enough with some of the other ladies on the rare occasions she accompanied her husband into town.

One day, the family pulled up stakes and left, leaving a mystery in the wake of their passing. Double crops of corn and oats stood tall and healthy, nearly ready for harvest, as did vegetables for human consumption, in the large garden in back of the house. Their animals, a cow, two horses for drawing buckboard and plow, chickens, and two pigs were found in reasonably good health, freely roaming the property. Adding more fuel to gossip and speculation was the fact that the Haines’ had been gone for quite sometime before their absence was discovered.

“When I was kid, I used to think the place was haunted,” Joe remarked casually, as they rode.

“Cut it out, Grandpa,” Stacy admonished her brother sternly, unable to quite repress the shudder that passed through her body.

Joe grinned. “Aww, come on, Kid, don’t tell me you actually believe in ghosts.”

“Yes, I do, and so do YOU,” Stacy countered.

“Yeah, I have experienced some strange things in the course of my all too brief lifetime,” Joe admitted, his thoughts drifting to an incident that had occurred soon after he had turned thirteen, and to a real ghost town out in the middle of the desert. #

“So have I,” Stacy said. “However, I don’t think we have to worry about GHOSTS haunting the old Haines place.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“There’s the trail, Grandpa.” Stacy pointed to a small weed-choked path, leading off the main road, just wide enough to accommodate a single horse ands rider. “From the way those weeds are lying flat on the ground, someone’s been through here quite a bit lately . . . someone LIVING.”

Joe brought Cochise to a halt, then dismounted. “You keep an eye out for anyone ELSE coming along this road,” he said. “I want to check something.”

“What’s that?” Stacy asked, as she edged Blaze Face off to the side of the road, that she might effectively watch both directions.

Joe moved down the trail a few feet, then crouched down. “Here!” He pointed. “I not only see horse tracks, but the ruts of wheels appearing where the earth’s exposed, NOT covered over by trampled weeds.”

“They’d probably need a buckboard of some such to haul away the box with the Li family’s dowry inside, wouldn’t they?”

“That’s the way I’m figuring it,” Joe said, rising. He swung himself back up into the saddle with an easy, casual grace, then turned Cochise toward the trail leading from the road. “Let’s go, but keep your eyes peeled and ears open.”

Joe and Stacy rode up the path, their horses slowed to a walk, in silence, keeping to the horse tracks already made. The former peered through the overgrowth ahead, his sharp eyes on the alert for any and all sign of life or movement. Stacy followed, listening for the sounds of horse hooves along the road behind them. When the old dilapidated farm house came into sight, Joe motioned for them to stop. “You and I’d better walk the rest of the way in, and head for that barn over there,” he said, pointing. “From the looks of things we can get real close under this cover of bushes and brambles, and the barn will shield us from the sight of anyone inside that house.”

“You lead the way, Grandpa,” Stacy whispered, as the pair dismounted.

Stacy and Joe silently moved away from the trail, keeping well behind the tall, scraggly bushes and wild shrubs, skirting the edge of the area once cleared for farming. They saw no one outside, nor any signs of life within the house. As they drew parallel to the side of the barn facing away from the house, Joe silently motioned for them to stop. “Wait here, Stace,” he whispered, placing Cochise’s lead into her free hand. “I’m gonna sneak over and have a look in that barn.”

Stacy nodded.

Joe crept to the very edge of the scrub brush nearest the edge of the cleared farmland and peered out through the branches. Still no sign of life. Bending low, he silently bolted across the exposed ground between the bushes and scrub brush where Stacy remained hidden with their horses, Cochise and Blaze Face, and the barn several yards distant. Upon reaching the barn, he flattened himself against the wall and froze, his ears straining for any sound of movement within.

All was quiet.

Joe took a deep breath, then started to inch his way along the wall, heading for the nearest window, taking care to keep his body relaxed, his muscles limber. Upon reaching the window, he once again paused, and listened. His sharp ears picked up the soft, barely audible snorting of a horse.

Joe turned, slow and easy, toward the window and cautiously peered inside. There he saw a single horse standing in the stall nearest the door, set into the wall directly opposite. He recognized it immediately as the big black Horace Greeley kept over at the livery stable back in town. Hoss had rented that horse several times in the past when Chubb had either thrown a shoe or come up lame. Two empty stalls stood on the other side of the one occupied by the big black, both of them showing signs of recent use.

On the other side of the door, Joe saw three more stalls, all empty. The scant covering of straw over the wood floor told him that none of those stalls had been used for quite some time. There was a loft above, set against the wall to his right, perpendicular to the wall into which the door had been cut. From his vantage point, he saw that the loft was empty. Its ladder was nowhere to be seen. The only other item in the barn, apart from a half dozen rusty farm implements, was a buckboard, also courtesy of the livery stable.

Joe turned and motioned to Stacy his intention to enter inside barn. A moment later, she responded with the wall of a whippoorwill, indicating that she had received and understood his message. Joe glanced once more into the barn, ascertaining that the coast remained clear, then scrambled in through the open window. The black inside turned and whinnied as he dropped noiselessly to the floor.

“Sshhh, Pete, it’s me . . . Joe Cartwright,” he addressed the big black gelding in a low, gentle tone. “You know me.”

Pete snorted.

Joe dug into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a lump of sugar from the supply he kept for Cochise. “Here, y’ go, Pete,” he whispered, as he extended his arm with the sugar sitting square in the middle of his left palm. “This is one of Cooch’s favorite treats . . . . ”

Pete snorted again, and watched as Joe moved closer. When he finally reached Pete, the horse sniffed at the sugar, then took it from his hand. “You DO remember me,” Joe crooned as he affectionately rubbed the black’s glossy muzzle. “Now I’m not gonna hurt anything, I’m just gonna have a look around. But I need YOU to be real quiet.”

Pete snorted softly, then returned to the half filled trough of hay in front of him.

Satisfied that Pete would remain quiet, Joe moved toward the barn door and inched it open, just enough to allow him to see the house. A large expanse of open ground lay between the two buildings, overgrown with tall grasses, weeds, and an occasional sapling. If he and Stacy kept low and crawled in on their stomachs they could reach the house without being spotted.

The house, in relation to the barn, was angled slightly away, with the front door placed almost directly opposite the end of the trail, leading in from the main road. Joe could barely make out the lines of the only window, set into the wall on the other side of the front door, the side away from the barn. The side of the house directly facing the barn had no windows, nor did the back wall, as far as Joe could see.

He quickly returned to the place where his sister waited with their horses, and reported his findings. “We can do it, Stace,” he said in conclusion. “We can make it to the house without being seen.”

“Ok, but first, we’d better find a place over there to tether Blaze Face and Cochise,” she said pointing toward the area lying behind the back of the barn. “The wind’s shifting, placing us UPwind from the barn.”

“Yeah. We can’t take a chance on Pete catching scent of our horses and alerting whoever’s inside to their presence,” Joe said thoughtfully.

“If we follow that line of scrub brush around to the back of the barn, that should place us down wind enough so Pete won’t catch their scent.”

Joe nodded. “Let’s go.”

The two younger Cartwright children led their horses around behind the barn, staying well within the scrub brush. They found a copse of trees roughly five hundred feet from the back of the barn, well hidden from view of the house. Joe and Stacy quietly tethered their horses to the trees, and attached feedbags to their bridles to ensure their silence.

“Ok, Kid, let’s go check out that house,” Joe said grimly, as he slid his gun out of its holster.

Stacy nodded and fell in behind.

 

Judith Ashcroft, upon reading the same paragraph for the sixth time, slammed the book in her hands shut. She sighed, then rose, laying her book down on the night table next to her bed.

“Well, Miss Judith Eleanor Ashcroft, you’ve not only got YOURSELF into one fine pickle of a mess, but you’ve also managed to drag the entire Cartwright family along WITH you,” she angrily admonished herself for the umpteenth time in silence. She began to walk slowly, in a line parallel to the length of her bed, back and forth, to and fro . . . .
“Do you DENY that Miss Ashcroft is with YOUR child?” Judge William Caine’s voice once again echoed in her ears, disdainful and arrogant. A haughty smile, with lips firmly pressed together spread across the lower portion of his face in the same manner oil oozes across the surface of water.

“As I recall, Judge Caine, Miss Ashcroft resigned her teaching position for PERSONAL reasons,” Ben said pointedly, in tones, even and measured. The dark, angry scowl on his face indicated that the quiet calm in his voice was the lull before the breaking of a ferocious storm. “The rest is hearsay and gossip.”

“You didn’t answer my question, Mister Cartwright.”

“Judge Caine, you surprise me. The rumors circulating about Miss Ashcroft being with child are just that. Rumor and gossip. Surely as a lawyer, and now as a judge, you wouldn’t even THINK of admitting rumor and gossip into evidence in a court of law.”

“Alright, Mister Cartwright, I’ll phrase it hypothetically,” the judge said, his smug, complacent smile fading. “IF Miss Ashcroft were with child . . . . . IF, Mister Cartwright . . . . . is there any possibility, any possibility at all, that she might be with YOUR child?”

“Absolutely NOT,” Ben replied.

“OH, BEN, HOW COULD YOU?!”
Judith cringed, as her own words, her own anguished outcry returned again to haunt her. If she had but one wish, it would be to go back to that very moment and stop herself from uttering those words.

A loud knock on the fast closed door to her room, forcibly pulled Judith from her unpleasant reverie. “Yes? Who is it?”

“Hop Sing, Miss Judith. Have tray.”

“Please, take it away, Hop Sing,” Judith half sobbed. “I’m NOT hungry.”

Hop Sing opened the door and entered, his jaw set with stubborn determination, carrying a tray with a generous bowl of chicken and vegetable soup, two biscuits, and a large mug of steaming hot peppermint tea. “Missy must eat,” he stated in a tone that brooked no argument. “Missy eat for two now.”

Judith immediately averted her gaze to the floor, her cheeks flaming scarlet at his blunt assessment of her delicate condition.

Hop Sing walked over toward the night table and removed the book. He set the tray down on the table, then sat down on the bed next to her. “Miss Judith MUST eat,” he urged in a gentler tone.

“Why? Why couldn’t I have kept my big mouth SHUT?” she moaned, burying her face in her hands.

Hop Sing placed a comforting hand on the distraught young woman’s shoulder. “You and Miss Stacy think this all YOUR fault.”

“Stacy?!” Judith echoed in surprise. She lifted her head, and turned focusing her gaze on Hop Sing’s face. “Why would Stacy think all this is . . . HER fault?!”

“Danvers woman say she have cousin come, take Miss Stacy away if Mister Cartwright not marry you,” Hop Sing replied. “NOT Miss Stacy fault. Not Miss Judith fault, either.”

“Oh, Hop Sing, if . . . if ONLY I’d kept quiet . . . . ”

“Miss Judith not know,” Hop Sing insisted. “Other man look like Mister Cartwright. Look EXACTLY like Mister Cartwright. Fool many people, even fool Hop Sing. NOT Miss Judith fault. Now, maybe, Miss Judith eat?”

“I’ll . . . I’ll TRY, Hop Sing.”

The soft tapping of bare knuckles against the door jamb drew Hop Sing and Judith’s eyes toward the door, where Ben Cartwright stood, his face an impassive mask. “Miss Ashcroft . . . Hop Sing . . . I hope I’m not interrupting anything . . . . ”

“No interrupt,” Hop Sing replied. “Hop Sing try and make Missy eat.”

“I’ll take over from here, Hop Sing,” Ben said, as he stepped into the room. “I have some things I need to discuss with Miss Ashcroft, anyway.”

“Ok.” Hop Sing rose. “Mister Cartwright make Miss Judith eat. Hop Sing go, see to sister.”

Ben waited until Hop Sing had left the room, closing the door behind him. “You should feel highly honored about Hop Sing’s nagging you to eat, Miss Ashcroft,” he said quietly, as he drew up a chair along side the bed.

“Oh?”

Ben nodded. “He ONLY nags his FAMILY about eating, the one he was born into and the one he adopted.”

“I . . . I had no idea Hop Sing w-was married.”

“He’s not. The family he adopted was the CARTWRIGHT family, when he came to work for us,” Ben explained. “Over the years, he’s come to be far more than simply someone who works for us. Even though he insists on calling me Mister Cartwright, he’s become more like a brother and friend to me and as a second father to all four of my children. I’m very pleased to see that he’s included YOU now as part of his large family.”

“Thank you,” Judith said in a small, sad voice, barely audible. She looked up, her gaze falling a hair’s width short of meeting his eyes, and favored him with a wan smile. “Please t-tell Hop Sing I’ll . . . that I’ll try to eat,” she promised.

“How are you feeling?”

“Physically, I feel like a wrung out dishrag, but otherwise, I’m feeling better. I’m not feeling as nauseated now as I was earlier.”

“Most of the time, this business of feeling sick in the morning passes,” Ben quickly assured her.

Judith averted her gaze once more to her lap, then nodded, far to embarrassed to speak. Growing up in that home for orphaned and wayward girls, the latter who came to the home in the same condition she now found herself, were sequestered from the others and spoken of in whispers, in the dead of night. The matrons at the home, occasionally made mention of a girl being in a delicate condition, or perhaps in the family way.

Here, things were very different. Even now, after having spent seven years as teacher at the one room school house in Virginia City, she STILL found herself blushing when her students, particularly those living on farms or ranches, talked so frankly about the births of their animals. Mrs. Danvers’ candid assessment of her as Mister Cartwright’s pregnant mistress in front of nearly all the men in the community had not only been horribly, unspeakably rude, but cruelly humiliating as well. Though neither Hop Sing nor Mister Cartwright INTENDED to embarrass or humiliate, their forthright references to her condition, were, nonetheless most discomfiting.

“Miss Ashcroft, a new life making its way into this world is nothing less than a miracle,” Mister Cartwright said, speaking directly to her feelings of guilt and shame, “something that should be looked upon as beautiful and sacred, not as shameful and humiliating.”

“Maybe the birth of a child IS something sacred and beautiful when it happens within the bonds of holy wedlock,” she said bitterly, “but when it happens to someone in MY position— ”

“Some circumstances by which a child comes into the world may be less desirable than others,” Ben said. “It takes two to bring a child into this world, and I’ve come to see that maybe a child is best served when he or she can be raised and sustained by two. It’s very difficult for one person to be both father AND mother.”

“You’ve done very well being both,” Judith ventured hesitantly. “I’ve never met your oldest son, but I can see it in the men that your other two sons are . . . and in the woman your daughter is becoming.”

“Thank you,” Ben said simply, yet with profound gratitude. “That brings me to the matter I had originally come to discuss with you. I went into town this morning and made arrangements with Judge Faraday. He’s an old friend, not as close as we once were, but I still consider him to be a trusted friend. We’ll be married tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock in his chambers.”

“So soon?”

“If you don’t find that suitable . . . . ”

“No, Mister Cartwright. Two o’clock tomorrow afternoon will be fine,” she said sadly. “There’s no point in postponing what must be, I suppose.”

“Hoss, Joe, and Stacy will be present, of course,” Ben continued. “If there’s anyone YOU wish to invite . . . . ”

Judith thought for a moment of Molly O’Hanlan, who had so valiantly stood by her side at that horrendous school board meeting the day before, only to dismiss it in the very next instant. Her father MIGHT allow her to attend. He had, after all, allowed her to attend that school board meeting. Mrs. O’Hanlan, however, was a different kettle of fish entirely. Her invitation to Molly would, at best, initiate a royal row to end all rows within the O’Hanlan family. Judith simply could not bring herself to do such a thing. She sighed, and shook her head. “No, Mister Cartwright,” she said softly, “there’s no one I wish to invite.”

Ben nodded, then rose. “I have one more thing to say, Miss Ashcroft . . . . ”

She glanced up, her eyes still falling just short of meeting his.

“I want you to know that I don’t hold you in anyway responsible for what happened at that school board meeting yesterday,” Ben said very quietly, very earnestly, “nor does any member of my . . . of OUR family.”

“Oh, Mister Cartwright, if only I could go back . . . stop myself from saying those words, from accusing you . . . . ”

Ben immediately sat back down in the chair he had just occupied a short while ago, and took both of her hands in his. “Miss Ashcroft . . . JUDITH . . . I want you to look at me,” he said, addressing her in the same way he would one of his own children.

Judith swallowed nervously and looked up, forcing herself to meet his dark brown, almost black eyes.

“You made an HONEST mistake,” he continued. “Bradley Meredith could pass for my identical twin brother, but I don’t need to tell you that. He told you he was me, and you had no reason NOT to believe him, especially since I was out of town through much of your courtship. At the school board meeting, when you realized your mistake, you tried your best to set things straight.”

“I’m afraid my best was none too good,” she sighed morosely. “They refused to listen, and even worse . . . Mrs. Danvers accused me of lying.”

“Mrs. Danvers is a mean, spiteful woman, who for whatever reason has had designs on me for at least the better part of the last six months or so,” Ben said. “My biggest regret about all this is that she isn’t a man. Had THAT been the case, I almost certainly would have mopped up the streets of Virginia City with her for threatening Stacy, and for dragging YOUR good name through the mud, as well.”

“Thank you, although . . . I’m afraid my good name is pretty much non-existent now.”

“It won’t be after two o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” Ben promised.

For a moment, Judith found herself wishing that Ben Cartwright HAD been the man with whom she had fallen so desperately in love. He had been very kind and generous to her, far more that she felt was deserved given the unfortunate circumstances by which they had been forced together. She silently vowed that she would do her best to be a good wife to him. But, deep in her heart, she knew that she would never love him as she loved and would always love Bradley Meredith.

 

Joe and Stacy Cartwright crept through the tall grass, moving on their stomachs, approaching between the barn and the windowless wall of the house, with the former leading. Upon reaching the house, after a seeming eternity of snaking through tall grass, across a field still wet from the spring rains, Joe turned his head and motioned for Stacy to draw up alongside him.

“What’s up, Grandpa?” she asked, keeping her voice to the decibel of a stage whisper. “Besides the real strong possibility of US doing laundry again tomorrow morning?”

Joe turned and favored his sister with a ferocious glare. “Whaddya mean US?! I did the laundry this morning. My fingers STILL look like prunes from all that soap and water,” he hissed back.

“Oh yeah? Well not only do MY fingers still look like prunes from sticking them into a lotta soap and water, but my knees are stiff and sore, too, because I had to scrub the kitchen floor three times.”

“Don’t tell ME your troubles, Kid.”

Stacy stuck her tongue out at him.

Joe returned the gesture.

“Ok. If YOU wanna do the laundry again tomorrow, Grandpa, you go ahead and knock yourself right out,” Stacy said.

“Not me,” Joe said with a grimace. “We can wade into Mister Grimley’s pond on the way home. We’ll be wet, but at least we won’t be muddy.”

Stacy grimaced, unsure of which prospect was worse: spending an entire morning doing laundry according to Hop Sing’s exacting specifications or taking a plunge into the ice cold waters of the pond out in the middle of Mister Grimley’s cow pasture.

“At any rate, I’m gonna move ahead to that corner to make sure the coast is clear,” Joe whispered, coming to the reason he had waved her forward. “One of those stage robbers is still here, probably inside that house. That and the fact that window over there is in full view of the way in here . . . things could get a little dicey from here on in, so we’ve gotta keep alert.”

Stacy nodded.

“If the coast is clear, I’ll wave you forward,” Joe explained. “Then we’ll move along the front, keeping real close to the foundation wall of the house ‘til we reach the end of the porch. I’ll make sure the coast is clear again before we make our move toward that window.”

“OK, Grandpa,” Stacy agreed. “I’m right behind you all the way.”

Joe nodded then moved ahead on his stomach, keeping himself as close to the stone foundation as he could. He reached the corner, then paused to listen. All remained quiet, save for the gentle breezes wafting through the tree branches. He slowly raised himself up until his eyes cleared the top line of the tall weeds and grasses surrounding him on all sides. He saw no one, nor did his ears pick up the sounds of horse hooves coming from the trail up ahead. He motioned for his sister to move up, then started moving on a course parallel to the foundation along the front of the house.

After having moved two thirds of the way along the foundation facing front, Joe silently signaled for them to halt. “The window should be right above us,” he whispered. “This is where we gotta be real careful.”

“I’m listening, Grandpa.”

“Once we’re up on that porch, we’re right out in the open,” Joe explained. “There’s absolutely no cover at all. The trail leading in from the main road ends on the other side of this cleared area. There’s a lot of underbrush and tree saplings that’s grown up since the Haines family left. However, since we left the path and rode in cross country, I don’t know how far back someone coming in can see the house.”

“If I were a criminal looking for a hideout, I’d be looking for a place I could see from the road from shootin’ range, at least.”

“I agree,” Joe said soberly. “Ok. I’m gonna go up first. I’ll wave you up once I’m sure the coast is clear.”

Stacy nodded solemnly.

Joe listened again, then, hearing no sounds of horses or people, he raised himself up, again just enough to see over the top line of weeds and grasses. The coast was clear. He swallowed nervously, then scrambled noiselessly up onto the porch, keeping well to the side of the window farthest from the front door. Slipping his revolver out of its holster, he crept toward the window and peered inside.

He spotted Li-Xing first, tied up to a stout hard back chair, set in the middle of the single room inside the small house. His hands had been pulled behind his back and bound at the wrists. Each foot was tied to the front legs of the chair and there was a white handkerchief stuffed in his mouth. His hair was mussed, and one of the sleeves had been torn from his shirt at the shoulder. Apart from that he seemed none the worse for wear.

A pig-like snort, drew Joe’s attention to the double bed, set up against the wall behind Xing. A big man, with reddish brown hair and massive barrel chest, lay on his side, with his back to the window, sound asleep. “Dang! That guy snores louder ‘n herd of stampeding cattle . . . just like Hoss,” he mused silently, as he turned and waved Stacy forward.

Inside, Xing raised his head. His dark eyes met and held Joe’s hazel ones. Joe quickly raised his first finger to his lips. Xing nodded.

“There’s TWO of ‘em in there, Stace,” Joe whispered, the instant his sister reached his side. “Xing and another guy, who’s big . . . like Hoss. The big guy’s sound asleep.”

Stacy silently crept past her brother and peered into the window. “He’s not wearing his holster, Joe. I think THAT’S it there . . . on the table next to Xing.”

“I think you’re right, Kid. If we can get in without waking Sleeping Beauty up, we’ve got the drop on him,” Joe said, as a wild, predatory grin spread across his lips. “I’ll lead, you follow.”

“I’m right behind you, Grandpa.”

Joe, with revolver in hand at the ready, moved to the front door and cautiously slipped his fingers around the knob. He turned it, and found, much to his pleasant surprise, that the door was unlocked. As he pushed the door inward, the rusty hinges resounded with a near deafening squeak. Big Jack Slade, the man lying inside on the cot inside the house, snorted and groaned. Joe and Stacy froze. Big Jack grunted, as he turned and flopped over on his back. A moment later, his snoring resumed.

Joe waited, then inclined his head toward the interior of the house, as he and his sister slowly exhaled the breath each had been holding. Thankfully the door was open just enough for the two of them to enter. Joe forced his body to relax before leading the way inside. Stacy followed close at his heels, then, tip-toed over toward the fireplace, set against the wall perpendicular to the same into which the door and window had been cut. Her eyes immediately fell on a wrought iron poker, lying on the hearth. Though its surfaced had rusted, its core remained solid. She picked it up and moved silently over to the cot and the big Texas gunman lying upon it, sound asleep.

Joe waited until Stacy was in place. “Hey, Mister, time to wakey-wakey,” he announced in a falsetto, sing-song voice, as he nudged the sleeping man’s shoulder, none too gently, with the barrel of his revolver.

Big Jack snorted.

“Come on, Sleeping Beauty, time to rise ‘n shine.” Joe nudged Big Jack harder.

“Sleeping Beauty?! You better not be counting on ME to play the role of Prince Charming,” Stacy said in a tone that dripped icicles, as she regarded Big Jack with a grimace.

“Perish the thought!” Joe wrinkled his own nose in disgust, as he moved half a step backward. He raised his booted foot and gave Big Jack a hard shove against his shoulder.

Big Jack snorted again, then rolled over ending up on his other side, facing toward the door. “What the fu—?!”

“That’s enough outta YOU, Big Fella,” Joe snapped, aiming the barrel of his weapon at the middle of Big Jack’s chest. “Now sit up and reach for the sky, nice ‘n slow.”

Big Jack very slowly, very cautiously raised himself from prone to sitting.

“Very good,” Joe said sardonically. “Now get those hands up!”

Big Jack raised his hands to the level of his head, then rose slowly to his feet. “Li’l boys got no business playin’ with guns,” he taunted, as he moved forward, wholly unmindful of Stacy, silently moving in behind him, with poker clasped firmly in both hands. “Why a li’l feller like you could get hurt awful, awful bad y’ know.”

“Do tell,” Joe said, taking a step backward.

“Now why don’tcha be a good boy ‘n just hand over that gun to ol’ Big Jack here?” the youngest of the Slade brothers continued to advance on Joe.

“Now lemme get this straight,” Joe said, as he moved back another step, then another. “You want me to hand over my gun.”

“Yep.”

“Just like that, no questions asked.”

“Just like that . . . an’ no one’ll git hurt.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Really? No one gets hurt?”

“That’s right. No one gets hurt,” Big Jack reiterated, noting with a triumphant smile, that Joe Cartwright had just backed into a wall.

“Well, Big Guy, I guess there only one thing I can say about your kind and gracious offer,” Joe said affably. He raised his right hand and waved. “Nighty-night and sweet dreams.”

Joe had no sooner uttered those words when Stacy, now positioned directly behind Big Jack, brought the fireplace poker down on his head hard. The biggest of the Slade brothers groaned softly, then collapsed to the floor like a lump sack of potatoes.

“Uh oh! Hope you didn’t hit him TOO hard, Kid,” Joe said as he started to work on untying the ropes securing Xing’s left ankle to the left chair leg.

“Not to worry, he’s still breathing.” Stacy insisted, as she moved in behind Xing and started untying the bonds holding his wrists together. “Ya wanna know something?”

“What?”

“Give that big guy a shave and trim up his hair around the edges, and he could very easily pass for Hoss.”

“I think he already DID,” Joe said with a scowl, “when he and his other two friends held up that stage. Hey, Stacy . . . . ”

“Yeah, Joe?”

“Hold up on untying Xing’s hands a minute.”

Stacy wordlessly did as her brother had asked.

Joe reached up and pulled the gag out of Xing’s mouth.

“It’s about damn’ TIME someone showed up to rescue me,” the young man sputtered angrily.

“Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk,” Joe clucked, shaking his head. He quickly stuffed the gag back into Xing’s mouth.

“MMMMPPPHHHHFFFF!” Xing protested, his eyes round with shock and outrage.

“Hey! If you want my sister and me to untie you, you’re gonna have to talk to us a heckuva lot nicer than THAT,” Joe declared.

“Yeah,” Stacy replied, with an emphatic nod of her head. “You don’t want to be talking like that around me. After all, I’m a very impressionable young child.”

Joe sarcastically rolled his eyes.

“Mmmmggghhhffff???”

“That’s more like it,” Joe said, as he removed the gag from Xing’s mouth. “So! Tell us, Xing, how in the ever lovin’ world did you ever end up in this fix in the first place?” Joe asked, as he rocked back from his knees to a crouching position.

Xing glared murderously at the youngest Cartwright son, and said nothing.

“Now the way I see it, you have two choices,” Joe said in a deceptively sweet honeyed tone of voice, sounding not unlike Ben in similar situations. “You can either talk to my sister and me here, THEN to Sheriff Coffee, OR the two of us’ll just trot along our merry little way and leave you to the tender mercies of your new friends.”

“ . . . which would be no less than what you DESERVE, Xing, after what you’ve done to your family, especially to Yin-Ling,” Stacy added with a dark, murderous scowl of her own.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Xing declared loftily, “nor can I understand why you assume that I even know, much less am friendly with the men who’ve kidnapped me.”

“Well, let’s just say I started to suspect something when I saw you in the Silver Dollar Saloon the day before that stage robbery talking to one of ‘em,” Joe said, adding a bright, sunny smile to he sweet sounding words. “It was the one who looks like our Pa.”

“I . . . I have no idea WHAT you’re t-talking about.”

Despite Xing’s words of denial, Joe knew he had just scored a direct hit when the face of Hop Sing’s young nephew suddenly lost every bit of its healthy, robust color. “We ALSO know that you’ve been working in cahoots with the men who’ve kidnapped you,” he pressed.

“No.”

“Xing, Xing, Xing, Xing,” Joe said, shaking his head. “My sister and I may be YOUNG, and we may not be the most sophisticated people in the world, but neither one of us were born yesterday!” He shrugged indifferently, then rose. “Hey! If you don’t wanna talk to US . . . that’s fine. We’ll see you back at the house later.”

“Maybe,” Stacy added ominously.

“Wait a minute! You two aren’t . . . y-you’re not leaving . . . ARE you?!”

“We’d hoped for a little more in the way of conversation, but . . . . ” Joe shrugged again as he and Stacy turned toward the front door.

“Alright!” Xing snapped angrily. “I’ll tell you everything.”

“We’re all ears!” Joe said as he motioned for his sister to return and help him complete the task of freeing Xing. “Now start talking, or my sister and I are outta here.”

Xing sighed, and surrendered himself to the inevitable. “You two were right. I don’t know how you figured it out, but I WAS working in league with the men who robbed that stage,” he confessed. “I told them about the dowry and when it was coming to Virginia City.”

“****!” Stacy spat contemptuously, using a Paiute epithet Joe had never heard before. “Hop Sing’s right! You ARE no good!”

“What do YOU know about it, Girl?!” Xing responded, giving full vent to the bitter anger that had been festering within him, since the day his great-grandmother had decreed that the exquisite jade statues by Yang Wei-Chu would be his sister’s bride price. “For centuries, those jade statues have passed down from father to the firstborn SON, to HIS firstborn son. By rights those statues should be MINE, not the bride price for my sister. The only reason they were promised as bride price for my sister is because my own father squandered the family fortune drinking, gambling, and . . . and on women.”

“That STILL didn’t give you the right to do as you did,” Stacy argued. “Yin-Ling loves the man she was supposed to marry— ”

“She’s young! She’ll get OVER him.”

“I don’t think so! She hasn’t stopped crying since your friends robbed that stage and took what was supposed to be her dowry,” Stacy said, giving full vent to her own rage, “and your great-grandmother . . . she won’t eat, she stays holed up in the guest room downstairs, she won’t see anyone . . . all she had left was your family’s honor, and now that you’ve taken THAT away from her . . . it’s like she’s just waiting around to die.”

“You know NOTHING about the things of which you speak,” Xing sneered.

“The hell I don’t!” Stacy angrily shot back.

“How can you possibly know of such things?” Xing demanded in a sullen tone. “You’re too young, and with a wealthy papa, too sheltered.”

“It hasn’t always been that way,” Stacy growled back.

“Whaddya gonna tell me next? That your papa sold you to gypsies or someth— ” His words ended on a loud, agonized scream when Stacy kicked him hard in the shins.

“Hey, come on, Kid, take it easy,” Joe admonished her gently, as he moved himself between his sister and Xing.

“Take it easy?!” Xing echoed, angry and outraged. “That kid needs to be kept on a leash!”

“Why you— ” Stacy balled her right hand into a tight fist, then pulled her arm back, with every intention of punching Xing’s lights out.

“I TOLD you to take it easy,” Joe said sternly, as he placed a restraining hand on her wrist.

Stacy whipped her arm out of her brother’s grasp, then favored him with a dark, withering glare.

“Hey! You could end up in a whole world of trouble for practicing dentistry with your fists,” Joe said in a kindlier tone. “I should know.”

An amused smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. “I guess you should at that, Grandpa.”

“As for YOU, Xing, any more cracks about Pa selling her to the gypsies or anyone else, and I’LL slug ya MYSELF,” Joe said, favoring Hop Sing’s nephew with a scowl underscoring the truth of his words. He finished untying the ropes holding Xing’s other ankle to the chair leg, then rose, and once again removed his gun from its holster. “You finished with his hands, Stace?”

“Yeah, I’m finished.”

“OK, Xing, you’re coming back to town with us,” Joe said, “and you’re going to tell Sheriff Coffee everything you’ve just told us.”

“Oh no he’s NOT!”

Three heads turned in unison to the sound of a new voice, one that sounded nearly identical to Joe Cartwright. There, standing framed in the doorway, was Shorty Jim Slade with a revolver in hand, aimed squarely at the chest of the man he so closely resembled.

“Hey! Y-You’re the man I saw in the Silver Dollar!” Joe stammered, stunned by the near identical likeness of the man standing before him.

“James Slade at your service, Mister,” the gunman sneered. “Most of my friends call me Shorty Jim, but YOU can call me MISTER Slade.”

Joe scowled as he rose slowly to his feet. “Now lemme get all this straight, MISTER Slade,” he said, turning mister into the vilest of insults, “you’ve spent the last month on a shopping spree, charging everything to MY account . . . you wore out Trudy at the Virginia City Social Club and put THAT on my account . . . . ”

“I especially liked the bit with the trapeze and the leather tutu,” Shorty Jim declared, drawing blank, quizzical looks from Stacy and Big Jack.

“ . . . . you also romanced Laurie Lee Bonner at the Silver Dollar Saloon in my name, putting me clear in up to my neck in deep curds ‘n whey with my REAL girl,” Joe continued, “and then on top of all that you robbed a stage coach and set ME up to take the fall.”

“Yeah . . . . ” Shorty Jim murmured thoughtfully, “yeah, that just about covers it, except for the skinny dip out at some quaint swimming hole called Miller’s Pond with Sherrie Lynn at that new place . . . . ” He frowned, trying to recall the name.

“The Pink Flamingo,” Stacy adroitly supplied the information.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Shorty Jim said. “The Pink Flamingo. That Sherrie Lynn is a goddess, Cartwright, nothing less than a goddess with real EXPENSIVE tastes. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let me put all that you’re your account, so I had no choice but to put it on you PA’S.”

“WHAT?!” Joe shrieked.

“You heard me,” Shorty Jim sneered. “Caviar . . . . champagne . . . . dinner at the lovely French place . . . . a half dozen new dresses, on a account o’ I got a little rowdy a few times . . . . all expensive, Cartwright, very, very, VERY expensive. I’d LOVE to be a fly on the wall when you try to explain all THAT to your pa.”

Joe responded with a primal roar, as he leapt on his ‘evil twin,’ before the man could even think of moving. Shorty Jim bellowed in pain, shock, and outrage as he crashed onto the hard wood floor of the dilapidated farmhouse he, his brother, and the man they called Boss had known as home for the last couple of months.

“Ok, you no-good, lousy, son-uva-rotten hunka goat cheese, I’m gonna make it real easy for folks to tell who’s who from now on,” Joe declared through clenched teeth, as his fist connected resoundingly with his double’s face, “ ‘cause Joe Cartwright’s NOT gonna be the one sporting a pair of black eyes.”

“THAT WILL BE QUITE ENOUGH YOUNG MAN!” a familiar sounding resonant baritone voice thundered from the general direction of the front door. “Now get up!”

Joe, much to his horror and chagrin, found himself staring into the barrel of a derringer held right in his face.

“P-Pa?!” Stacy stammered, as bewilderment replaced her initial anger towards Xing.

Bradley Meredith looked over at Stacy, and smiled. “YOU, My Dear, must be Stacy Cartwright,” he remarked, as he politely tipped his hat. “Miss Ashcroft’s told me so much about you, I feel as though I already know you . . . quite well.”

“M-Miss Ashcroft?! Wait a minute!” Her whole face suddenly lit up with the light of revelation. “You’re NOT Pa! You’re the guy— ” Stacy’s words abruptly ended with a groan, as Big Jack, now semi-conscious and on his feet, his balance wavering, slugged her from behind, knocking her senseless.

“So help me, Bub, if you’ve hurt my sister— ”

“Shut-up, Cartwright,” Bradley Meredith ordered, “and get up. I won’t tell you again.”

Joe complied, seething inside with rage and frustration.

“I don’t want to hurt you, your sister, or Xing,” Bradley continued, “and I WON’T as long as you do exactly as I say. Now get your hands UP. Mister Slade,” he looked over at Big Jack, establishing eye-contact, “take his gun.”

“Got it, Boss,” Big Jack said, as he jammed the barrel of the weapon into his pants, “an’ don’t YOU worry none ‘bout your sister. I ONLY slugged her hard enough to keep her sleepin’ ‘til mornin’.”

“ ‘Til mornin’?!” Joe echoed, as panic began to rise within him.

“ ‘Til mornin’,” Shorty Jim affirmed his brother’s words as he rose. Joe could see the beginnings of what would soon become a pair or real shiners discoloring the skin under his double’s eyes. “Big Jack’s got sluggin’ people down to a real science, so if he says the kid’s gonna be out ‘til mornin’, you can guarantee she’s gonna be out ‘til mornin’.”

“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have hit her that hard, she bein’ a girl ‘n all, but I figured she had it comin’ after the way SHE got the drop on ME first with that poker,” Big Jack said with a scowl. “You KNOW what they say ‘bout pay backs.”

“The only reason that girl probably DID get the drop on you was because SHE caught you napping . . . quite literally,” Bradley growled. The cheeks, suddenly tinged with red and the general shamefaced look on Big Jack’s face confirmed the truth of his suspicions.

“Hoo boy! What in the world am I gonna tell PA?” Joe groaned.

“You’ll have all night to work it out, Boy,” Bradley declared.

“WHAT?!”

“Either of you boys have some rope?” Bradley asked his associates.

“Yeah. I got some out on my saddle,” Shorty Jim replied.

“Get it,” Bradley snapped, “then tie up young MISTER Cartwright. Xing, YOU can sit down . . . right there.” He pointed to the chair that the young Chinese man had very recently vacated. “Big Jack, make yourself useful and get to work tying him back up.”

“Some rescue,” Xing groused, as he sat back down.

“I don’t suppose it’s occurred to you that if you HADN’T thrown in your lot with these guys that maybe . . . just MAYBE, you wouldn’t even BE in this situation needing to be rescued?!” Joe shot back without missing a beat.

“You sound just like my parents,” Xing growled.

“Oh yeah?! Maybe you should’ve listened to ‘em.”

“You self-righteous son-of-a— ” Xing’s remaining words came out as a hybrid cross between a snort and a guttural snarl when Big Jack stuffed the handkerchief back into his mouth.

“Thank you,” Bradley said sardonically. “You got ANOTHER handkerchief?”

“Yep.”

“Good. We’ll gag Young Cartwright, too. I sure wasn’t looking forward to listening to him and Xing going at it all night long.”

“Whaddya mean all night long, Boss?” Shorty Jim demanded as he stepped back inside the small house with rope in hand. He immediately set to work tying Joe up, taking malicious delight in pulling the knots extra tight.

“We leave at daybreak,” Bradley growled.

“WHAT?!” Shorty Jim howled.

“You heard me. We leave at daybreak. I’m not leaving Virginia City without Judy, and it’s a little late in the day for me to be dragging her out along these dangerous highways and by-ways.”

“You knock yourself right out, Boss,” Shorty Jim retorted as he finished tying Joe’s wrists behind his back. He, then moved to bind his captive’s legs together at the ankles. “YOU can leave whenever you like. My brother and me, however, are off ‘soon as we divvy up the money.”

“WE leave at daybreak,” Bradley said very pointedly.

“YOU and your schoolmarm lady friend leave any ol’ time y’ want, Boss,” Shorty Jim said, whipping his own gun from its holster, every bit as fast as the Cartwright son he so closely resembled.

“Wait a minute!” Joe yelped. “Did you say schoolmarm lady fr—?!” His words were effectively, if rudely, severed mid-sentence when Shorty Jim stuffed a handkerchief in his mouth.

“ . . . my brother ‘n me are headed outta here today . . . this afternoon, right after we divvy up the cash, so I suggest ya get it out and start countin’.”

A sigh, borne of pure and simple exasperation exploded from between Bradley Meredith’s lips. “Alright!” he snapped, as he retrieved the cloth sack containing the money from his saddle bags. “The sooner the three of us can part company, the better I’ll like it anyway.”

“UUUURRRRRGGGHHHH!” Joe half-grunted, half-snorted in a desperate bid to forcibly eject the gag from his mouth, that he might tell Bradley Meredith about Miss Ashcroft.

“I want it quiet over there,” Bradley growled, favoring Joe with a threatening glare.

“MMMMGGGGGFFFFFF !”

“Big Jack, why don’t you make yourself REAL useful and knock HIM out ‘til morning, too?” Bradley said as he drew the paper bills from his saddle bags and began to count. “Counting is a very tedious job at best, and I won’t be able to concentrate on doing it properly with all that noise.”

“RRRRGGGGGFFFFFFF!” Joe snarled as loud as the gag in his mouth permitted. A faint moan escaped his lips as Big Jack Slade gamely hit him from behind. The last thing he remembered was the unsettling feeling of pitching forward, before blackness claimed him.

 

“Mister Cartwright . . . Mister Hoss, supper ready ten minutes,” Hop Sing announced.

Ben and Hoss, both seated on the settee next to the fireplace with a half-played game of Checkers sitting between them on the coffee, table looked up. “Ummmm um! Whatever you’ve cooked up tonight sure smells wonderful,” the latter declared with a broad grin as he inhaled the savory aromas permeating the air.

“Tonight, Hop Sing make roast pork, with buttermilk biscuit, and mashed up potato,” Hop Sing said. “For desert, Miss Stacy favorite. Great big chocolate layer cake and plenty chocolate icing.”

“That’s one o’ MY favorites, too,” Hoss said, licking his lips in anticipation.

“You go out in kitchen, get washed, while Hop Sing go upstairs, get Little Joe and Miss Stacy.”

“Tell ya what, Hop Sing, why don’t you get your sister ‘n her husband to the table, ‘n maybe make up a tray for Mrs. Li, an’ let ME roust out everyone upstairs,” Hoss offered, rising.

“Thank you, Mister Hoss, Hop Sing appreciate very much,” Hop Sing said gratefully.

“How IS Mrs. Li doing today?” Ben asked as he and Hop Sing made their way back toward the kitchen.

“Bad, Mister Cartwright, very, very bad,” Hop Sing replied in a melancholy tone. “Hop Sing take venerable lady food, she not touch. Offer tea and water, she tell Hop Sing no. Sometime, hear venerable lady speak with men she call Singh Chou and Hou Chan. Mei-Ling say those names of husband and oldest son, both dead. Hop Sing worry.”

Hoss, meanwhile, meanwhile, quietly made his way up the stairs, reaching the fast closed door to his sister’s room. “Stacy? Yin-Ling? Shake a leg! Supper’s about ready,” he called out as he knocked. He was very much surprised when Judith Ashcroft opened the door. Yin Ling sat on the edge of Stacy’s bed, with head bowed, and hands clasped in her lap, her fingers loosely interlaced. “Hop Sing said supper’ll be ready in ten minutes, Miss Ashcroft. You ‘n Yin-Ling got just enough time t’ wash up ‘n git to the table.” His eyes darted over the length and breadth of the room searching for his young sister. “Stacy?”

“She’s not here, Mister Cartwright,” Judith said.

“Yin-Ling, have you seen Stacy?”

“Not since you got her up this morning,” Yin-Ling replied, as she dabbed her eyes on the edge of her sleeve.

Her reply left Hoss feeling uneasy. “You both best wash up ‘n git on downstairs. Hop Sing’s a real stickler for comin’ to the table on time.”

“Mister Cartwright— ”

“Please, Miss Ashcroft, call me HOSS. You’re part o’ our family now, leastwise as far as I’M concerned,” he said gently. “Most folks I know don’t call family Mister ‘n Missus.”

“Alright, Hoss . . . if YOU’LL call me Judith,” she said in the calm, quiet tone of sad resignation. “Do you need help looking for Stacy?”

Hoss shook his head. “She’s probably out in the barn with Blaze-Face. I’ll check there after I roust Joe up outta his room.”

Judith nodded. “Come along, Yin-Ling,” Judith turned and gently urged the sad young woman, still seated at the edge of the bed. “We need to go down and wash up for supper.”

“You go ahead, Miss Ashcroft,” Yin-Ling said in a very small, very sad voice. “I’m not hungry.”

“You need to eat, Young Lady,” Judith said in her firmest school teacher tone of voice, as she crossed the distance between the open door and the bed. “Now come on, let’s wash up.”

Hoss left Judith and Yin-Ling and moved on down the hall to his brother’s room. He knocked first, then walked in. “Supper’s ready, Li’l Brother.”

No answer.

Upon realizing that Joe wasn’t in his room, Hoss’ uneasiness increased a hundredfold, coalescing into a cold, hard lump in the pit of his stomach. He stepped out of Joe’s bedroom, closing the door behind him, and strode briskly down the hall.

“Mister Hoss!” Hop Sing’s voice, a mixture of surprise, apprehension, and a little outrage assailed his ears, as he stepped down off of the last step and started across the great room toward the front door. He stepped out of the downstairs guest room, just as Hoss stepped down off the last step. “Where you go? Supper ready!”

Hoss noted with sinking heart the tray, virtually untouched, that Hop Sing clutched in both hands. “I’ll be back there, Hop Sing. Joe ‘n Stacy ain’t upstairs in their rooms— ”

“Hoss?” It was his father. The worry and apprehension he saw reflected in Ben’s eyes, and etched into the lines and planes of his face, mirrored the same Hoss knew to be in his own.

“They’re probably out in the barn searchin’ that loft high ‘n low for Professor Foote’s book,” Hoss said, in what he hoped was a calm, reassuring tone of voice. “It won’t take me but a second t’ fetch ‘em.”

Ben nodded, but made no move toward the dining room.

Hoss stepped through the front door, and moving at a brisk clip, easily covered the distance between the house and barn. “Joe . . . Stacy,” he called out as he opened the barn door and entered, “suppertime.”

There was no answer.

Hoss glanced up toward the loft. “Joe? Stacy?” he called again.

Again, no answer.

Scowling, Hoss walked over toward the ladder, leading up to the loft over head. “So help me if the two o’ you are hidin’ up there with a pail o’ water, or some such, I’m gonna wash the two of ya up for supper in the trough out front,” Hoss grumbled under his breath, as he started to climb up. Upon reaching the top, he was surprised and dismayed to find the loft completely deserted.

Hoss climbed down the ladder, moving with surprising swiftness, given a man of his height and mass. The minute his feet touched the barn floor, he looked over toward the stalls normally occupied by Cochise and Blaze-Face. Both were empty.

“Hoss . . . . ”

He turned and found himself staring in to his father’s anxious face.

“ . . . did you find them?” Ben asked.

“No, dadburn it, they ain’t here,” Hoss replied, his heart sinking fast, like a mill stone. “Neither are Cochise ‘n Blaze-Face.”

Ben stared over at the two empty stalls in complete and utter dismay. “Damn!” he swore. “So help me, if those two are out playing detective again, the minute I get the two of ‘em home, I’m gonna drag the both of ‘em out to the barn and give them a tanning they’ll NEVER forget!”

“Pa, please . . . . don’t be too hard on ‘em,” Hoss begged. “They’re only tryin’ t’ help.”

“Help?! They could get themselves hurt . . . maybe even killed,” Ben rounded on his biggest son, giving vent to the volatile mix of worry, anger, and exasperation festering inside. “I should’ve KNOWN better than to let them ride out earlier.”

“We’ll find ‘em, Pa, don’t you worry none ‘bout that,” Hoss said, his jaw rigidly set with a grim, obstinate determination. “We’ve got an hour ‘n a half o daylight left, maybe two. I’ll g’won over t’ the bunkhouse, ‘n round up whoever’s there. We’ll search until either we find ‘em, or it gets too dark.”

“I’d better go back and let our guests know what’s happening,” Ben said grimly. “I’ll ask Hop Sing to keep our supper warm. Would you please saddle Buck?”

“You don’t hafta come, Pa. I can handle things.”

“I know, Son, it’s just that I can’t sit by and do nothing.”

That was the kind of thinking that had prompted Joe and Stacy to take up the mantle of private investigator in the first place. They couldn’t just sit by either, while the lives of the Cartwright and Li families went to heck on a handcar moving swiftly downhill. “Like father, like son ‘n daughter,” Hoss murmured, shaking his head.

“What was that, Hoss?” Ben demanded, favoring his second son with a sharp glare.

“Nothin’, Pa,” Hoss sighed. “You do what y’ hafta in the house. I’ll saddle Buck.”

It was going to be a long night.

 

Hop Sing paused as he swept the clean, spotless floor before the front entrance for what had to be at least the dozenth time, his body tensed, ears straining for the distant sounds of horses, heralding the return of his beloved family . . . his ENTIRE beloved family . . . the one he had unofficially adopted. Mister Cartwright and Mister Hoss had ridden out at dawn’s first light this morning, in the company of Candy, Jacob Cromwell, and a half dozen other men to continue their search for Little Joe and Miss Stacy.

Though Mister Hoss had gone through the motions of going upstairs and going to bed the night before, the half opened eyelids and facial muscles slack with weariness, eyes filled with worry and apprehension told Hop Sing very clearly how well the big man had slept. Mister Cartwright made no such pretense. He had spent the entire night in the red leather chair, staring down into a glass of brandy poured, yet never touched, consumed with worry, threatening all manner of dire punishment for his missing younger children one minute, fervently praying for their safe return the next. Both had declined Hop Sing’s offer to make breakfast this morning, but gratefully accepted the mugs of hot coffee, that he had brewed fresh and made extra strong.

“Anything?”

Hop Sing started so violently at the sound of his sister’s voice, he dropped the broom and dustbin he held in his hands, and almost, though not quite lost his balance. He glared down at the dustbin, lying inverted at his feet, then over at Mei Ling, as she stepped down from the last step to the floor of the great room. “Thanks a lot, Mei Ling,” he growled in Chinese. “NOW I have to sweep the floor all over again.”

“Not likely,” Mei Ling retorted. “That has to be the fifth time you’ve swept up there in the last half hour . . . or is it the sixth?”

Hop Sing bent down to retrieve the fallen broom and dustbin, noting the full, almost untouched breakfast tray Mei Ling held in her hands with dismay. “You . . . couldn’t get ANY of them to eat?” he asked, noting the painfully obvious.

“Miss Ashcroft is feeling quite ill this morning,” Mei Ling said with much sympathy and empathy. “I left a mug of peppermint tea with her. That should ease her distress a little and get liquid in her at the same time. Yin Ling did eat half a piece of toast, but Hsing . . . . ” She sadly shook her head, and shrugged.

“Hsing!” Hop Sing spat derisively, as he followed his sister out to the kitchen. “He is WORSE than useless.”

“Hop Sing, I have WARNED you not to go there,” Mei Ling rounded furiously on her younger brother. “I will NOT warn you again.”

“My apologies,” Hop Sing said in a sullen voice.

“I accept them in the same spirit of sincerity in which you offer them,” Mei Ling retorted wryly, as she favored Hop Sing with a knowing glare.

The pair continued on out into the kitchen in angry, sullen silence.

“I am sorry, Mei Ling,” Hop Sing apologized again after he and his sister spent the better part of the last quarter hour glaring at each other, and pointedly rattling the dishes and slamming around pots and pans as they cleaned up. “I mean it this time.”

“ . . . and this time, I accept your apology,” Mei Ling said. “I’m sorry, too, Hop Sing. I know you’re worried about the Cartwrights.”

“It’s not like Little Joe and Miss Stacy to be gone for so long a time . . . unless something is terribly wrong,” Hop Sing said anxiously.

“I . . . I feel like this is all MY fault.”

Mei Ling’s contrite words drew a sharp, astonished look from Hop Sing.

“I know Little Joe and Miss Stacy went out yesterday to find the men who stole Yin-Ling’s bride price.”

“Did either of them tell you this?”

Mei-Ling shook her head.

“Then . . . how do you know?”

“Hop Sing, I may not have the same talent you do in the kitchen . . . and my choices in love and . . . and in marriage have not been the most fortuitous . . . but I am NOT stupid,” Mei Ling declared with a touch of asperity. “Put together the fact that the jade statues have been stolen, Mister Cartwright going on and on about Little Joe and Miss Stacy playing detective, and . . . well, you don’t need a genius to put two and two together.”

“I didn’t mean to malign your intelligence, Mei-Ling.”

“Sorry I’m being such a prickly pear cactus.”

“We’re both worried about the people we love and care about the most,” Hop Sing said ruefully. “Not particularly conducive for being tactful, I suppose.”

“No,” Mei-Ling agreed, then shook her head. “With everything that’s happened . . . Yin-Ling’s bride price stolen, imminent loss of the Li family honor, Mister Cartwright and Miss Ashcroft being forced to marry against their will, Yin-Ling never again to see the man she loves, and now Xing, Little Joe, and Miss Stacy all missing . . . this must be the darkest hour this house has EVER known.”

“No, Mei-Ling, this isn’t the darkest hour this house and family have ever known, not by any means,” Hop Sing said quietly, his thoughts drifting back to the sudden death of Joe’s mother, Marie, and the terrible weeks and months that followed. “But, I’d have to say that it does rank right up there in the top forty.”

 

“JOE! STACY!” Ben yelled at the top of his lungs for the umpteenth time. Though he still had plenty of volume and resonance, his throat felt scratchy and he could feel the beginnings of hoarseness, both normal consequences of having spent the better part of the last six or seven hours riding dusty roads, shouting almost non-stop. He and Hoss rode along the road to the north and Virginia City, while Candy and Jacob Cromwell rode south to Carson. The younger men had been dispatched to all of Joe’s and Stacy’s known favorite places within the extensive boundaries of the Ponderosa.

“JOE!” he yelled again. “STACY!” Please answer, he prayed fervently in silence.

The only reply was the fading echo of his own voice frantically calling the names of his younger children.

“Pa?”

Ben turned, and found Hoss on Chubb pulling to a stop along side him. “Did you find anything, Hoss?” he asked, hope mixing with fear and trepidation.

Hoss reluctantly shook his head. “Nothin’, Pa. Not a dadburned thing!”

“Damn!”

“ . . . uuhh, Pa, I hate like anything havin’ t’ say this, but . . . . ”

“What is it, Hoss?”

“You ‘n Miss Ashcroft got an appointment with Judge Faraday t’day at two o’clock,” Hoss reluctantly reminded his father, all the while inwardly bracing for a backlash of temper.

Ben closed his eyes and forced himself to count to ten, seething now with impotent rage and frustration.

“If y’ want, I can ride into town ‘n cancel it,” Hoss quickly offered. “Findin’ Joe ‘n Stacy’s the important thing right now.”

For a moment, Ben considered asking Hoss to do just that. “No,” he said reluctantly. “If I cancel now at the eleventh hour Mrs. Danvers might take it into her head to wire her cousin.”

“She told ya that y’ had a week, Pa.”

“Hoss, I can’t take that chance,” Ben said tersely. “I want you to ride back to the ranch, have Hank gather up any and all men who can be spared . . . and tell them to keep looking. If your brother and sister haven’t been found by the time we get back, we’ll rejoin the search.”

“Alright, Pa,” Hoss nodded curtly, then sped off.

“Please Lord, wherever my missing son and daughter are right now, please . . . watch over them and keep them safe.”

 

The first thing to intrude upon Stacy’s awareness was pain that began at the back of her head and circled around to her temples. Her eyelids fluttered, then opened. She turned her head and found herself immediately blinded by the glare of sunlight streaming in through the door standing wide open. Groaning in agony, she squeezed her eyes shut and abruptly turned her face away from the door and the light, setting her head to throbbing. For one brief, horrifying moment, she feared she was going to be sick.

“Ffffttttffffyyyyy.”

It sounded like her brother, Joe, speaking from a place far distant. Stacy forced herself to take a deep breath, then exhale, focusing all of her attention on keeping the air flow slow and even. She took another breath, then a third.

“FFFTTTTTAAFFFYYY.”

“G-Grandpa?” she groaned in a low voice, barely audible, taking great care to keep her eyes tightly closed. “That YOU?”

“GGGGRRRRRGGGHHHHH !”

THAT wasn’t Joe! The timbre and pitch were all wrong. Stacy opened her eyes again, and very carefully, and turned her head in the general direction from whence the new sound issued. She frowned upon seeing Hop Sing’s nephew tied to a chair with a gag stuffed in his mouth.

“FFFFFGGGGHHHTTTYYY!” Now that WAS Joe. He was speaking louder this time, but she couldn’t understand a single word he said.

Stacy rolled over from her back to her side, then very gingerly eased herself from lying on the floor to sitting up. “Why am I lying on the floor?” she wondered silently, wincing as her head began to throb once more, this time more insistently than ever. “Joe?” she called aloud this time to her brother.

“FFFGGGGHHHHH.”

“What’s the MATTER with you?” Stacy demanded irritably, as she turned toward the direction from which Joe grunted and groaned. “I can’t understand a single solitary word ya say when ya mumble like th— ”

Her words trailed away to stunned silence upon seeing a man lying on the floor a couple of yards away, bound and gagged. She frowned, bewildered, uncomprehending, as her eyes took in his thick, wavy, chestnut brown hair and green jacket.

“J-Joe?!”

“VVVVVGGGGCCKKKKKTTTT!” he responded, nodding his head vigorously.

Then, she it all came back to her in a dizzying rush of confused images. Xing. The stage robbers’ hideout. Shorty Jim and Big Jack. The man who looks like Pa.

“The man who looks like Pa . . . . ” Stacy whispered, growing more confused by the minute. She and Joe had ridden out to this place in the late afternoon. By rights, it should be dark outside, depending on how long she was out, and down for the count. It shouldn’t still be light out, even if the days WERE significantly longer.

“UUUURRRRFFFFLLLPPPTT!” Joe’s groaned desperately.

“OK, Grandpa, keep your shirt on,” she said peevishly, as she rose unsteadily to her feet, and stumbled across the room toward her brother.

“UUUUUUPPPPPPFFFFTTTTUUUURRRGGGT!”

“THAT sounds like something you oughtta be washing your mouth out with soap for,” Stacy said as she removed the wadded handkerchief from Joe’s mouth.

“Uuuggggghhh! Thank goodness, I can finally BREATHE!” Joe gasped, as Stacy set to work loosening the ties that bound together his wrists.

“UURRRRRGGGGHHHH!” Xing grunted very pointedly.

“Xing, shut-up and wait your turn!” Joe returned cantankerously. “Ooh man, have I got one humdinger of a headache.”

“You and me BOTH, Grandpa.”

“That big lummox . . . the one who looks like our big brother, I know he came up from behind and hit YOU over the head, Kid,” Joe said. “I think he also did the same with me.”

Stacy gasped, horrified. “He did WHAT?”

“Not so LOUD, Stace, puh-leeeze!”

“Did you say that big idiot hit us over the head?” Stacy asked.

“He hit YOU over the head,” Joe replied. “I couldn’t stop him. Then he must’ve hit ME over the head, too, ‘cause one minute it’s yesterday, and now it’s . . . well, it’s tomorrow.”

“WHAT?!”

“Stacy! Please . . . don’t shout. Not right now.”

“Sorry,” she murmured contritely. “I thought you said that it’s tomorrow.”

“It IS tomorrow. The lummox’s brother . . . the one who looks like ME said the knock over the head he gave YOU would last ‘til tomorrow morning,” Joe said. “That was yesterday.”

“Oh NO!” Stacy moaned, her heart sinking. “What time is it?”

“I dunno. Why’s that so important?”

“Pa and Miss Ashcroft, remember?”

“Oh yeah . . . . ”

Stacy, her hands shaking with fear and trepidation, finally managed to work loose the knots binding Joe’s wrists together. She helped her brother rise to sitting position, then bolted for the open door.

“Hey, Xing,” Joe called to the young Chinese man, as he untied the ropes around his ankles. “Do YOU know what time it is?”

“AAGGGHHH!” Xing snorted derisively.

“Oh. Sorry. I forgot . . .YOU’RE still all tied up,” Joe teased unmercifully.

“GGGGRRRRRRGGGHHH !”

“Don’t you take that tone with ME, Bub,” Joe chided Xing with a dark scowl. He untied the last knot, then pulled the rope away from his ankles. “Stacy? Can you tell what time it is by the sun?”

“Kinda sorta,” she said, looking miserable and uncertain. “It’s not yet two o’clock, but it IS past noon. I may have an hour.”

Joe rose and made his way over to Xing, still bound to the chair. “Ok, Xing, talk!” he ordered tersely, as he removed the gag from Xing’s mouth. “When did Bradley Meredith leave and WHERE did he go?”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” Xing shot right back.

“Y’ know? I can’t for the life of me understand WHY you’re so gung-ho to protect men who’ve kidnapped you, kept you here tied up for the past couple of days, and now who’ve left you to swing alone as it were,” Joe said, addressing Hop Sing’s young nephew in the same condescending tone of voice he might address an extraordinarily thick, slow witted child. “But, hey! I can’t choose your friends for you.” He looked over at his sister, still standing next to the open door, making eye contact. “Let’s go, Stace.”

Xing’s eyes went round with horror. “Hey! Wait a minute! You’re n-not going to . . . to j-just leave m-me here . . . a-are you?”

“Stacy and I don’t usually make it a habit of hanging around where we’re not wanted,” Joe replied.

“Please! Don’t go! Don’t leave me like this!” Xing begged.

“Well . . . . ” Joe’s face was an almost caricatured mask of thoughtful indecision.

“PLEASE!” Xing screamed.

“Stacy and I might stay . . . MIGHT, mind you, if you answer our questions,” Joe said favoring the young Chinese man with a warm smile, triumphantly smug, and a look of hopeful expectancy in his eyes.

“Alright,” Xing growled. “He left a short time ago— ”

“When?” Stacy rounded on him, her voice filled with desperation.

“How should I know?” Xing shot right back. “Do I look like a blamed coo-coo clock?”

“You said he left a short time ago,” Joe immediately interjected, in the hopes of forestalling an argument between Xing and his sister, an argument that would undoubtedly waste whatever precious time they had. “Where did he go?”

“To get his girlfriend,” Xing replied. “The school teacher.”

“He’s probably gone to Miss Ashcroft’s house,” Stacy said grimly. “Joe, can you manage Xing by yourself?”

“I guess so . . . why?”

“ ‘Cause if I leave right now, I may be able to catch up with this Bradley Meredith,” Stacy said, her eyes, her lower jaw, and mouth all set with a granite-like, obstinate, determination.

Joe’s eyes immediately went round with horror. “Hey, wait a minute, Stacy, y-you can’t g-go after Bradley Meredith by yourself— ”

“I’ll see ya in town,” Stacy said, before then bolted out the open front door.

Joe ran after her, wincing each step of the way. “STACY ROSE CARTWRIGHT, YOU COME BACK HERE . . . RIGHT NOW!” he yelled, pausing at the door. “IT’S TOO DANGEROUS GOIN’ AFTER HIM ALONE!”

Stacy tore across the yard, moving at near-break neck speed beating a straight path toward the barn, turning a deaf ear to her brother’s orders to return.

“Daggonnit!” Joe groused. “That sister of mine is ‘way too impulsive for her own good sometimes.” He started out the door after her.

“HEY! WHERE IN THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?” Xing shouted, horrified by the prospect of Joe going off and leaving him tied up.

“I suggest you apologize for talking to me like that right now, or else I’m outta here,” Joe declared, taking no pains to conceal his annoyance. “My sister’s safety takes a heckuva lot more priority over YOURS.”

“Ok, Ok, I’m sorry,” Xing immediately apologized.

“Apology accepted,” Joe said, as he moved toward the door.

“Hey! Aren’t you going to untie me?” Xing demanded.

“I don’t have time,” Joe said. “If I don’t leave NOW, I may not be able to catch up with my sister.”

“You . . . you can’t go and leave me tied up like this,” Xing protested.

“Well now, Xing, I don’t see that I have a whole lotta choice in the matter,” Joe said. “I have to go after my sister, for heaven’s sake. I can’t have her facing down a known criminal by herself.”

“If you untie me, I’ll ride straight into town and turn myself in to the sheriff,” Xing begged. “I promise.”

“That’s all well and good, Xing,” Joe replied with an air of supreme, insulting indifference, “unfortunately, you’ve not exactly proven yourself as the most trustworthy of men.”

“I give you my WORD,” Xing growled through clenched teeth. “The word of a Li.”

“Which out of the mouth of your father and great grandmother means a great deal,” Joe said sternly. “Outta YOUR mouth, it ain’t worth a plugged nickel. Now you just sit tight here for a little while. After I catch up with Stacy and we settle things with Mister Meredith, I’ll send the sheriff back to fetch you. Adios, Xing.” With that, he left, with a ling string of Chinese invectives, shouted at top volume, ringing in his ears.

 

“Mister Rothburn?”

Nigel Rothburn, head butler and highest ranked servant in the Sutcliff household, sighed, unable to quite hold back his exasperation, then turned. It was Alvin Warren, known among his peers as “Tex,” one of the new footmen.

“The old China man’s out by the delivery entrance, Boss,” ‘Tex’ drawled, with a touch of insolence. “Says he’s here to drop off the clean laundry ‘n pick up the dirty. He’s also gotta whole buckboard full up with boxes o’ fireworks.”

“Thank you, Alvin,” Nigel replied in a tone of voice with just enough condescension to be insulting. He also noted with satisfaction that the young man bristled against being addressed by his true given name. “The man’s name is Hop Ling. From now on you WILL refer to him by his name, and you will do so with respect. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Mister Rothburn,” ‘Tex’ growled through clenched teeth.

“Very well, that will be all,” Nigel said in a bored, dismissive tone. “You may return to your work now.”

‘Tex’ nodded curtly, then left. “ ‘Very well, you may return to your work now,’ ” he mimicked bitterly under his breath. After having been fired from three jobs in as many months, he had taken what he thought would be an easy job, especially after roping steer and busting broncs day in and day out. He had found, much to his chagrin, that Nigel Rothburn was a far more exacting taskmaster than Clay Hansen, Hugh O’Brien, and Ben Cartwright all put together.

Nigel Rothburn, meanwhile, went outside to meet Hop Ling. He found the elderly man still seated atop his buckboard, in the driveway just outside the delivery entrance to the Sutcliff home. “Good afternoon, Sir,” Nigel politely greeted Hop Ling. “I understand you have the clean laundry and fireworks?”

“Chou-Sen, firework man, he know Hop Ling come here, bring clean laundry. Ask Hop Ling bring firework. Mister Sutcliff order special,” Hop Ling replied.

“Which of those packages has the clean table linens?” Nigel asked, eyeing the parcels, wrapped in brown paper, nestled beneath the buckboard seat.

“This package here, on bottom,” Hop Ling replied, as he carefully edged the two larger parcels out and placed them up on the seat. “Other two clean shirts, one Mister Sutcliff, other Mister Sutcliff son.”

“I’ll take the parcel with the table linens,” Nigel said, extending his arms. “If you’ll grab the two with the shirts, we can take them inside, then I’ll show you where you may pick up the dirty laundry.”

“Very good, very good,” Hop Ling murmured, smiling.

Upon entering the house, Nigel Rothburn immediately passed his parcels on to Bridget Murphy, one of the kitchen maids. “These are the table linens Mrs. Carlson was looking for,” he said in an aloof, imperious tone. “Please see that she gets them?”

“Aye, Sir,” Bridget murmured, as she accepted the large parcel.

“Is Mister O’Reilly about?”

“Yes, Sir,” Bridget replied. “He’s out front lookin’ out after the men what’s cleaning the front yard.”

“Thank you,” he said, curt and dismissive. He, then, turned to Hop Ling. “If you would follow me, Sir?”

Hop Ling nodded and fell instep behind Nigel Rothburn. Together, in silence, they moved through the large, formal dining room, into the ballroom. On the mantle piece sat three jade statues, of Kuan Yin, Chang-O, and Hou-Yi, exquisitely carved in fine detail. Hop Ling froze as he eyes fell on them.

“THIS way, Sir,” Nigel said with a touch of asperity, upon noting that Hop Ling no longer followed behind.

“Oh, so sorry,” Hop Ling murmured softly, his eyes still riveted to the three jade statues. Could they possibly be . . . . ? He had no way of knowing, having never so much as laid eyes on them. Only Li-Hsing and his venerable old grandmother would know for certain.

Nigel frowned, upon noting that the laundryman was staring up at Mister Sutcliff’s newest acquisitions for his already immense art collection. “Mister Hop-Ling . . . . ”

“So sorry, Hop Ling admire fine work Chinese art. Very, very beautiful.”

“Yes, indeed they are,” Nigel said curtly. “This way, please.”

Hop-Ling nodded, then dutifully fell in step behind Nigel Rothburn again, his mind racing. Together, they passed through the formal parlor and the drawing room.

“Wait here, please,” Nigel said, when they reached the entry way.

Hop Ling nodded, and waited while Nigel conferred briefly with Michael O’Reilly, the footman.

“I’ve asked Mister O’Reilly to have a couple of his men unload the boxes of fireworks from your buckboard,” Nigel said upon his return. “After they have done so, they will bring your conveyance ‘round to the basement door. It should be there by the time you have finished gathering the dirty laundry.”

“Yes, Mister Rothburn,” Hop Ling replied.

“You will find a rather large table cloth in among the dirty laundry,” Nigel continued. “I would greatly appreciate it, if you could launder it and get it back here by sometime this evening? You will, of course, be paid extra for the rush.”

“Yes, Mister Rothburn, Hop Ling wash, bring this evening.”

“We should have more dirty laundry for you by then as well,” Nigel said. “Mrs. Sutcliff’s maid is gathering her things together now. The lady of the house suffered another of her spells last night, necessitating that her maid attend her.”

“Oh,” Hop Ling murmured sympathetically. “Hop Ling very sorry to hear. Hope Mrs. Sutcliff feel better very, very soon.”

“I’m sure she will,” Nigel said in a dismissive tone, accompanied by a sarcastic roll of the eyes.

“Mister Sutcliff, he have party?” Hop Ling asked.

“Mister Sutcliff is always having a party, for one reason or another,” Nigel said, as they now made their way to the basement.

“This party, big celebration,” Hop Ling observed. “Very big, with firework?”

“Yes, it would seem so.”

“Why big celebration?”

“How should I know, Sir?” Nigel responded in a tone a touch too bland. “As I said before, Mister Sutcliff is ALWAYS having a party for one reason or another. I, quite frankly, find it more and more difficult these days to keep up with his reasons to celebrate. At any rate, My Good Man, here is the entrance to the basement, where you will find the dirty laundry we have presently.”

“Yes, Mister Rothburn.”

“ . . . and don’t forget about the tablecloth,” he added, as he took the parcels of shirts from the elderly laundry man.

“Hop Ling remember. Clean cloth, bring back this evening.”

 

Judith Ashcroft finished brushing her long, silky, golden tresses, then set to the task of binding and securely pinning them back into the tight chignon she had favored for so long, up until the day of the picnic when HE unpinned it before they—

She sighed, then shook her head vigorously as if to physically dislodge that errant thought. Mister Cartwright had been more than kind and generous taking her in, offering her and her child, when he or she was born, a home and, most important, a family. Judith had promised, vowed to herself that she would be as good a wife to him as it was in her power to be. That meant putting this Bradley Meredith, or whoever he was, out of her mind once and for all. The thought saddened her greatly, though, much to her own surprise, her eyes remained bone dry.

Judith finished pinning up her hair, then turned to the bed, where Hop Sing had neatly laid out her clothing. She picked up the blouse, lying on top of her good navy blue suit and slipped it on, moving entranced as if in a dream. Though her fingers moved automatically through the motions of pushing the fabric covered buttons through the button holes, her mind looked on from far away, as if though a long, dark tunnel.

Today was her wedding day. That was plain and simply that. Apart from sadness at the prospect of never again laying eyes on the man she really loved, and would always love, Judith felt nothing. No joy, no unbridled excitement, not even any sense of anger or bitterness over all that had happened, just nothing. A knock on the closed door to her room drew her from her strange, troubled thoughts.

“Yes?” Judith responded in a dulled monotone.

“Judith, it’s Ben. We need to be leaving pretty soon, if we’re going to reach the courthouse on time.”

“I’m almost ready,” she called back, suddenly unsure of how to address him. One the one hand, it seemed very out of form to go on calling him Mister Cartwright, yet she didn’t feel quite right about addressing him by his first name. She slipped her skirt on over her head, taking great care not to muss her hair, then reached for the jacket.

When Judith went downstairs a few moments later, she found Ben waiting by the front door, impeccably attired in a light gray three piece suit, white shirt, and a black string tie, with black hat in hand.

 

As Hoss drew near the courthouse, he was heartily dismayed to find the street thronging with most of the mass of humanity making up the population of Virginia City, along with their horses, buggies, and buckboards. He slowed the horses to a walk and began to thread his way carefully along what had become a difficult obstacle course, frequently zigzagging to avoid running down a pedestrian or horse.

“What in tarnation’s goin’ on here?” the biggest of the Cartwright boys grumbled under his breath, as he swerved yet again, this time to avoid running over two young children who had broken away from their mother and darted out right in the middle of his path. “You’d think it was Founders’ Day, or some kinda carnival goin’ on by the look o’ this crowd.”

“I think I’M beginning to get a good idea as to what’s going on,” Ben replied with a scowl, upon noting that virtually all of the adults present turned to stare as their buckboard passed by, through eyes round and mouths gaping open. A few actually had the temerity to point.

“Oh yeah?” Hoss queried as he swerved left to miss a collision with a skittish horse, then right to avoid an elderly couple, who had chosen the absolute worst moment to try crossing the street. “Is it some kinda carnival?”

“It’s some kinda carnival alright,” Ben groused, his brows coming together in an angry, disgusted scowl. “Judith and I are the main attraction.”

“H-Hoss? Is there . . . is there ANY way we c-could m-move straight without all this w-weaving s-side to side?” Judith ventured hesitantly. “I . . . I think I’m g-going to b-be sick.”

Ben immediately turned to the woman seated next to him in the buckboard’s back seat, noting her face, alarmingly pale, with a tinge of green around the proverbial gills, with alarm. “Judith, close your eyes and take shallow breaths,” he instructed her gently. “I’m going to fix a place in the back so you can lie down.”

“Pa?”

“What is it, Son?”

“We’re only a block or so down from the courthouse,” Hoss said. “I could let you ‘n Miss Ashcr—I mean, uuhhh . . . Judith! I could let ya both off here, then meet ya at the courthouse once I find someplace t’ park the buckboard.”

“No!” Ben adamantly shook his head. “The minute we step down on the street, we’ll both be mobbed.”

Hoss turned again to skirt around a buggy heading down the street from the opposite direction. As he circled around the smaller vehicle he glanced up, catching sight of the biggest of the Valhalla ranch hands working for Brunhilda Odinsdottir, a very good friend and neighbor, literally standing head and shoulders above the milling crowd.

“HEY! BIG SWEDE!” Hoss yelled. “I NEED YOUR HELP!”

“Someone call Big Swede?” the big man asked, his voice thick with the accent of his native Sweden.

“BIG SWEDE, OVER HERE! IT’S ME . . . HOSS CARTWRIGHT!”

“HOSS, YOU CALL ME?”

“YEAH! GOTTA JOB FOR YA!”

“NOT NEED JOB ON PONDEROSA, GOT GOOD JOB ON VALHALLA,” Big Swede yelled back.

“Y’ AIN’T WORKIN’ FOR THE PONDEROSA, YOU’RE WORKING F’R ME . . . TEN, MAYBE FIFTEEN MINUTES TOPS! I’LL PAY YA TWENTY BUCKS.”

The big Scandinavian pushed his way through the crowd until he was finally walking along side the Cartwrights’ buckboard. “What you want Big Swede to do?” he asked.

“Wouldja mind clearing us a straight path through to the courthouse?” Hoss asked.

“Ja, this Big Swede do,” the man promised. He, then, made his way around to the horses drawing the buckboard. Taking hold of the bridle on the horse directly in front of the driver, he began to head the team and conveyance down the street along a straight and narrow path. “MOVE ASIDE, COMING THROUGH!” he yelled. Miraculously, people began to shift, moving to one side of the street or the other.

“So much for a quiet, private ceremony,” Ben muttered under his breath.

“What was that, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“Nothing. I’ll tell ya when we get home,” Ben replied.

They reached the courthouse ten minutes later. Big Swede brought the buckboard to a halt in the middle of the street in front of the courthouse.

Big Swede walked to the back seat, as Ben jumped down. “Here, Miss, let me help you,” he said. Before either Judith or Ben realized what was happening, he scooped the former up into his arms and set her carefully down on the street beside her husband-very-soon-to-be. He, then, went the extra mile, clearing a path so that Ben and Judith could reach the courthouse entrance easily, without the crowd pressing in.

“Thanks, Big Swede, much obliged,” Hoss said gratefully, after his father and Judith were safely inside the courthouse. He dug into his pants pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Here’s the twenty I promised ya, with a couple more to buy yourself a few beers.”

“Thank YOU, Hoss,” Big Swede said, grinning from ear-to-ear as he pocketed the money Hoss had just paid him. “Big Swede much obliged.”

 

“Judith, are you all right?” Ben asked, after he and his reluctant bride-to-be had entered the courthouse and closed the door firmly behind them.

“I . . . I feel a bit woozy and I . . . need to catch m-my breath,” Judith gasped, as she collapsed heavily into the wall on the other side of the door.

“There’s a bench over here,” Ben said, as he gently took her arm. “Hoss will be awhile finding a place to park the buckboard. Why don’t we both sit down and catch our breath?”

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright, that w-would be wonderful.”

“My dear Miss Ashcroft, I should think that after all that has passed between you both that you would be at the very least addressing him by his Christian name.”

It was Myra Danvers. She and Ezekeil Abercromby stood together, side-by-side, before the bench upon which Judith and Ben sat. She had drawn herself up to full height, her back poker straight, with her arms hanging with rigid stiffness at her sides. Her face was an impassive mask, stone cold, void of any sign of emotion. Ezekeil shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot. He, too, peered into Ben’s and Judith’s faces, his eyes never quite meeting theirs.

Ben slowly rose to his feet, his jaw tightening with anger. “Mrs. Danvers, the manner by which Miss Ashcroft and I choose to address each other is none of your business,” he said stiffly.

“Well, I would’ve thought that after all the intimacies you’ve shared— ”

“Good day, Mrs. Danvers . . . Mister Abercromby,” Ben said very pointedly, as he sat back down in the bench.

“Good day, M-Mister Cartwright . . . Miss Ashcroft,” Ezekeil murmured, his face scarlet. “Mrs. Danvers, we’d best move along— ”

“No,” she snapped, folding her arms defiantly across her ample chest.

“Mrs. Danvers, please!” Ezekeil begged.

“Absolutely not. I fully intend to make certain that Mister Cartwright does right by Miss Ashcroft,” she stated imperiously. “I will NOT leave here until I’ve witnessed their marriage vows myself.”

“Mrs. Danvers, neither you NOR Mister Abercromby were invited,” Ben countered, his own tone every bit as cold, and as imperious.

“Mister Cartwright, my humblest apologies,” Ezekeil mumbled, “I honestly didn’t WANT to do this— ”

“As head of the school board, it’s your bounden duty to witness this marriage,” Myra Danvers hotly protested.

“I beg to differ,” Ben argued.

“Mrs. Danvers, please . . . this is most embarrassing,” Ezekeil said. “I told you before this is at best, highly irregular.”

“You may leave if you wish, Mister Abercromby, but I will NOT,” Myra declared loftily. “This courthouse is a PUBLIC place . . . I have every right to be here.”

“Mister Cartwright?”

Ben glanced up and saw John Faraday’s secretary, Elmer McFarlane standing over him. “Yes, Elmer?”

“The judge has your marriage license drawn up and ready for you and Miss Ashcroft to sign,” he said quietly.

“Come along, Mister Abercromby,” Myra ordered, as she started down the corridor toward Judge Faraday’s office.

Ezekeil shot Ben and Judith a resigned, apologetic look, before falling in behind Myra Danvers.

Ben sighed as he turned to gallantly help Judith rise. “Miss Ashcroft, I truly am very sorry,” he apologized. “I had no intention of making this the three ring circus it’s become.”

“It’s not YOUR fault, Mister Cartwright,” Judith said as she rose, her voice tremulous. She walked meekly along side him down the long corridor toward John Faraday’s office, feeling like a lamb being lead away to the slaughter.

Upon reaching the office of Judge Faraday, Ben and Judith found Myra Danvers and Ezekeil Abercromby waiting. The prospective bride and groom signed the marriage license, without sparing their two unwanted guests a single glance.

“Excellent!” Myra crowed. Ezekeil looked away in abject humiliation. “Let’s get on with it.”

“John, my son, Hoss, had trouble navigating past all of the people milling about in the street outside the courthouse,” Ben said, directing a venomous glare in Myra Danvers’ general direction. “He should be along shortly. I’d like to wait for him.”

“I protest,” Myra said immediately. “This is a stall tactic, pure and simple. I say let’s get on with it.”

“Mrs. Danvers, PLEASE!” Ezekeil begged. “Surely you’re not going to begrudge Mister Cartwright the right to have his own son present . . . . ”

“Judge Faraday, what say YOU in this matter?”

“I say we wait for Hoss,” John said.

Hoss arrived a few moments later, with Roy Coffee following behind. “Sorry, it took me so long, Pa,” the former quickly apologized.

“Ben?”

“Yes, John?”

“Are you expecting Joe and Stacy as well?” the judge asked.

Ben sadly shook his head. “No. Joe and Stacy won’t be attending,” he replied in a voice, barely audible.

 

Bradley Meredith, meanwhile, tethered his horse to the tree, a young tree, growing nearest the tiny house in which Judith Ashcroft had lived throughout most of her tenure as teacher at the Virginia City School, then bounded up the stairs with all the exuberance of a schoolboy, leaving the classroom on the last day of school, before summer vacation. Smiling, his heart light, at the prospect of seeing Judy again after being away three long, interminable days, he balled his fist and pounded on the door, his excitement barely contained.

No answer.

Bradley knocked again, his smile, his eager anticipation never wavering.

Again, no answer.

Frowning, Bradley reached into the pocket of his vest and pulled out his watch. He flipped up the cover as saw that the time was a few minutes past the half hour. “Of course,” he mused with a smile. She would be at the school this time of day. For a moment, he considered riding over to the school house and fetching her, but immediately decided against it. That course of action would attract far too much attention, given the fact that the Cartwrights had to be prime suspects in that stage robbery. He would be far better off waiting here. The house was just outside of town, set back away from the road and from eyes too quick to see and ever quicker to pry into the private affairs of their fellow men. He and Judy could very easily lie low here, then leave for Carson City first thing in the morning. From there, they could take the next stage out, destination . . . wherever, just so long as it took them far away from Virginia City and the State of Nevada.

Now that his and Judy’s immediate plans were settled in his own mind, Bradley pulled a key out of his pants pocket and slipped it into the lock. Upon entering the house, he was surprised to find that the painting, a seascape that Judy had hung above the fireplace mantle in the tiny living room, was gone. It had been painted a fair number of years ago, supposedly by a great uncle, and it was all she had left of the parents who had died so tragically, leaving her orphaned so young. He knew how she greatly treasured it. He, then, noticed that the books she had crammed into the built in shelves on either side of the fireplace, were also gone, along with a couple of pieces of porcelain bric-a-brac, she had kept on the mantle.

A troubled frown deepened the lines and creases of his brow, as he turned to survey the rest of the living room. The furniture was all there, each thing in its proper place. Of course the house had come furnished. But the small things were missing, like the cushions on the settee, with needle pointed flowers, hand stitched by Judy herself, and the hand crocheted afghan, a gift from a student.

Bradley, with heart in mouth, turned heel and ran into the bedroom. There he found the wardrobe doors standing wide open, its cavernous interior completely empty. The dresser, sitting against the wall next to the wardrobe, had the three largest drawers sitting open, empty of their contents. He found the two small top drawers sitting on top of the dresser, one piled on top of another, and the drawer normally beneath they lying on top of the bed upside down. The bed had been completely stripped of its linens, and dust ruffle. The oval shaped rag rug was also gone, and upon checking the dressing room, he found her towels, bathrobe, and nightgown missing as well.

“Mister Cartwright?”

Bradley turned upon hearing and recognizing the voice of Russell Churley, the rat faced little man, who was Judy’s landlord.

“There’s nothing of hers left here,” Russell said tersely. “My wife and I cleared out everything that belonged to her and set it outside on the front stoop. If anything was stolen . . . . ” He shrugged. “I can’t be held responsible for what others might do.”

“Where is she?” Bradley demanded, his voice tight with anger. “Why did she leave?”

“I have no idea where Miss Ashcroft has gone, nor do I much care,” Russell said, his nose wrinkling with obvious distaste. “I HAD assumed that you had taken her to the Ponderosa.”

“Why would I have taken her to the Ponderosa?”

“Because I had to evict her for non-payment of rent for the last six months.” Before Russell Churley realized what had happened, he found himself being lifted off the floor, his face less than an inch from Bradley Meredith’s. He flinched away from the intense anger in the big, silver haired man’s dark eyes.

“You lying little toad,” Bradley spat, “Judy’s rent was current. She paid on time every single month she lived here without fail and well you know it. So help me if anything’s happened to her— ”

“Put him down, Mister Meredith.”

Looking past the frightened Russell Churley, he saw Stacy Cartwright standing framed in the open door to what was Judy’s bedroom.

“I probably ought to let you pound Mister Churley for evicting Miss Ashcroft,” Stacy continued as she stepped into the room, “but we don’t have time for that.”

“Where is she?” Bradley demanded.

“She’s been out at the Ponderosa with us,” Stacy replied.

“The Ponderosa?”

Stacy nodded.

Bradley’s heart sank. He never in a million years dreamed that Ben Cartwright, the real one, would actually move in and beat his time with Judy. Perhaps, all things considered it was for the best. A life on the run was no proper life for a sweet, genteel lady like her. Though he was loath to admit it, Bradley knew that the man he so closely resembled could take care of her and provide for her in the manner she certainly more than deserved, after a lifetime of hardship and deprivation. “I guess that’s that,” he murmured sadly, as he dropped Russell Churley to the floor like a sack of potatoes. “I guess I’d best be going, then.”

“Going?!” Stacy echoed in dismay. She moved, planting her body right smack in the middle of his path, effectively barring him from the door. “Where?”

“Away,” he snapped, giving vent to the grief and anger within him, “someplace FAR away, well out of your sheriff’s jurisdiction.”

“What about Miss Ashcroft?” Stacy pressed.

“You can assure your father that I won’t trouble her anymore,” he replied. “As for Judy . . . . ” his manner softened. “Tell Judy I honestly and truly wish her the best.”

“But . . . . ”

“Now if you would please stand aside . . . . ”

Stacy stood unmoving, unsure of what to do next.

“Miss Cartwright,” he said through clenched teeth, “I said before that I have no desire to hurt you, and I meant it. However, if you do NOT move aside— ”

“****!” Stacy spat her own growing ire and frustration in Paiute, stamping her foot at the same time. “You CAN’T go!”

“ . . . and why NOT? I have nothing to keep me here.”

“You have Miss Ashcroft, you stupid idiot! She LOVES you! I thought . . . I was HOPING that YOU loved HER, too!”

“Whether I love her or not is a moot point,” Bradley growled. “The real crux of the matter is that she loves your father— ”

“DAMMIT!” Stacy shouted at the top of her lungs. “SHE DOES NOT LOVE MY PA!”

“THEN WHY HAS SHE TAKEN UP WITH HIM?” Bradley shouted back.

“SHE DIDN’T!”

“THEN WHY DID SHE TAKE UP RESIDENCE AT THE PONDEROSA?! YOU TOLD ME THAT YOURSELF, YOUNG LADY— ” His words ended on an agonized, astonished primal bellow when Stacy kicked him hard in the shins.

“I HATE it when people call me a lady!”

“Why you little—I oughtta turn you right over my knee and whale the daylights out of you!” Bradley declared vehemently as he bent down to massage his aching leg.

“Now you listen to me and you listen good!” Stacy growled back, unmoved by his threats. “Miss Ashcroft loves you. The only reason she’s been with US at the Ponderosa is because this . . . this . . . *****,” she spat out another Paiute word, as she inclined her head toward Russell Churley, standing huddled in a corner, all but forgotten, “wrongly evicted her and she had no place ELSE to go.

“She’s also going to have a baby . . . YOUR baby, only everybody ELSE thinks my pa is the father because the two of you look so much alike,” Stacy continued. “Right now, Miss Ashcroft and Pa are probably at the courthouse because Mrs. Danvers is MAKING them get married.”

“WHAT?!” Bradley roared.

“YOU HEARD ME!” Stacy returned without missing a beat.

“Damn!” Bradley muttered, as he climbed up onto his horse. “I’ve GOT to stop that wedding! All right, Miss Cartwright, let’s go. I need YOU to show me the way to the courthouse.”

“Now that’s the first intelligent thing I’ve heard you say all day,” Stacy said grimly. “I only hope we’re NOT too late.”

 

Joe Cartwright, meanwhile, brought Cochise to a screeching halt in front of the sheriff’s office and dismounted, all in the same quick, fluid movement. He quickly tethered his pinto to the hitching post, then bolted through the door, moving at a dead run.

“SHERIFF COFFEE?!” he yelled as he ran inside. He turned and found Clem Foster, the deputy, seated behind the sheriff’s desk. “Clem, where’s Sheriff Coffee?” he demanded, frantically.

“Sheriff Coffee left just a short while ago— ”

“Where’d he go?” Joe snapped out the question.

“To the courthouse,” Clem replied. “Seems there’s quite a disturbance goin’ on.”

“Oh no, the courthouse!” Joe groaned, suddenly remembering his father’s and Miss Ashcroft’s scheduled nuptials. “I plum forgot!”

“Joe, is . . . is everything all right?” Clem asked, noting the youngest Cartwright’s mussed hair, his pale face covered with a layer of grime overlaid by a sheen of perspiration, and his shirt tail half tucked in, half out.

“No, I don’t have much time to explain, but you’ve GOT to find Stacy,” Joe said, breathless. “She and I ended up spending the night in the hideout of the crooks who held up that stage day before yesterday. Their accomplice is STILL there, tied up— ”

Clem immediately rose and walked out from around the desk. “Sit down, Joe, and take a deep breath,” he admonished the youngest of Ben Cartwright’s sons. He sat Joe down in one of the hard backed chairs facing the desk, then walked over to the stove and poured a cup of coffee from the pot warming on top. “Here,” he said, shoving the cup into Joe’s hands. “Perhaps you’d best start at the beginning.”

Joe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “Stacy and I found the hideout of the men who robbed that stage day before yesterday,” he began.

“Where?”

“The old Haines place.”

“Are they still there?”

“One of ‘em is,” Joe replied. He took a big gulp from the cup in hand, wincing against its strong, bitter taste. “Li-Xing.”

“Hop Sing’s nephew?” Clem queried, aghast.

Joe nodded.

“Why didn’t you bring him in?”

“Because I have to find STACY,” Joe replied. “We were surprised when the stage robbers returned. One of ‘em, a big guy, dead ringer for Hoss, came up from behind and hit her over the head. His brother, the one who looks like ME, tied me up, then someone hit me over the head, too. This was yesterday.”

“Where are these men now?” Clem asked.

“Xing’s back at the Haines place,” Joe replied. “I left him there, still tied up. The man who looks like Pa . . . HE’S the man who, ummm . . . . ” He felt a sudden rush of blood to his face, much to his horror and chagrin. “ . . . well, uuhhh . . . YOU know . . . with Miss Ashcroft. Xing told Stacy and me that Bradley Meredith had come back to town to find her.” He scowled. “My hot headed, impulsive sister ran off after him before I could finish untying my ankles.”

“You have any idea where this Bradley Meredith and Stacy may have gone?”

“Probably to the place Miss Ashcroft’s been renting from Mister Churley.”

“All right, YOU wait here, I’ll go check that out,” Clem said grimly. “I’ll also send a man out to collect Xing.”

“Clem, I can’t stay here,” Joe said rising. He downed the last of the coffee in a single gulp, and handed the cup back to the deputy. “I gotta get to the courthouse . . . be there for Pa. You got a bit of water I can splash on my face?”

“You’ll find a pitcher on the floor, on the other side of the stove,” Clem replied. “I’ll look for you later at the courthouse.”

“Right.”

After Clem left, Joe located the pitcher of water and poured out as much as his cupped hand would hold, then splashed it on his face. He walked over to the cracked, grimy mirror, hanging on the wall near the door. There, he quickly removed his shirt and mopped it over his face. Instead of removing the sweat and grime, he had only succeeded in moving it around, spreading it across his face more evenly. He splashed another handful of water onto his face, then yet another.

“I guess that’s good enough for government work,” he sighed, after mopping his face for the third time. Joe quickly slipped his shirt back on. He, then, turned to glance up at the wall clock hanging directly behind Roy Coffee’s desk, while running his fingers through the disorderly tangle of chestnut brown curls. “If I hurry, I think I got just enough time to buy a clean shirt and a tie.”

Joe burst out of the sheriff’s office and strode briskly over toward Cochise, still tethered to the hitching post.

“LITTLE JOE! LITTLE JOE, WAIT!”

Joe stopped mid-stride and whirled in his tracks upon hearing and recognizing the voice of Hop Sing’s father, Hop Ling. “Sorry, Hop Ling, I don’t have time to stop and chat right now,” he said as he placed his hands on the saddle and prepared to swing himself up.

“Please,” Hop Ling pressed, drawing up along side the youngest Cartwright son. “Urgent. Must listen.”

Joe opened his mouth to retort, but something in the elderly man’s face and eyes cause the words to die a quick and sudden death before he could give them utterance.

“Little Joe, Hop Ling must see Li Hsing, right away, right now. Hop Ling think he see statues.”

“Yin-Ling’s dowry?” Joe queried in surprise.

Hop Ling nodded.

“Where?”

“Big house, where Mister Sutcliff live. Hop Ling see when take clean laundry.”

“You sure?” Joe pressed.

“Not sure. That why Hop Ling need to see Hsing. Then Hsing come, see statues, know for sure.”

“You got your buckboard close by?” Joe asked.

Hop Ling nodded. “Buckboard just around corner.”

“Let’s go,” Joe said, the wheels of his mind spinning a million miles a minute. His father’s and Miss Ashcroft’s wedding was suddenly all but forgotten. “Hsing’s probably out at the Ponderosa.”

 

“ . . . if any man can show just cause as to why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace,” Judge John Faraday intoned reluctantly, his heart going out to his old friend, Ben Cartwright, and the sad young woman standing next to him. He paused, as a formality.

“Why are you stopping?” Myra Danvers demanded. “Get ON with it!”

“Mrs. Danvers, I am conducting this marriage ceremony, NOT you,” John returned in a cold, imperious tone, “and for the record, I do this under duress.”

Myra stared up at the judge open mouthed with shock.

“One MORE word from you, Ma’am, and I will have you removed, if I have to bodily pick you up myself and carry you out myself.”

Myra’s mouth immediately snapped shut. She favored Judge Faraday with a murderous, indignant scowl.

“Now where was I?” John asked himself, returning Myra Danvers’ glare with an equally ferocious one of his own. “Oh yes! If any man can show just cause as to why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace.”

The sounds of men’s voices raised in anger and protest could be heard from the office of Elmer McFarlane, the judge’s secretary. Ben frowned, upon recognizing his daughter’s voice in the mix as well. The door burst open.

“Now hold on,” Elmer hotly protested. “You CAN’T go in there.”

Bradley Meredith burst into Judge Faraday’s office without breaking stride, despite the fact that Elmer was clinging hard to the hem of his jacket for dear life. Stacy Cartwright followed right on their heels.

“Your Honor, I object!” Bradley declared vehemently.

Myra Danvers and Ezekiel Abercromby stared from Ben to Bradley, and back again to Ben, their faces twin masks of shock, horror, and sheer astonishment.

“Mister Meredith, I presume?” Ben queried sardonically, as he favored his ‘evil twin’ with a dark angry glare.

“Sir, on what grounds do you contest this marriage between Mister Cartwright and Miss Ashcroft?” the judge asked.

“On the grounds that I am the father of her child, NOT Mister Cartwright.”

Judith, her eyes round with shocked astonishment, quietly left Ben’s side and walked over toward Bradley Meredith. “Mister Meredith . . . or whoever you are, I want you to look at me.”

“Judy, I— ”

“Your Honor, Mister Meredith speaks true,” Judith said, her voice trembling. “He IS the father of my child.” With that, she suddenly burst into tears.

“John, I’d like to suggest that the rest of us adjourn to Elmer’s office to allow Miss Ashcroft and Mister Meredith some privacy,” Ben said quietly. “I have a feeling they have much to talk about.”

“An excellent suggestion, Ben,” John agreed wholeheartedly. “Mister Meredith and Miss Ashcroft, feel free to take all the time you need. The rest of us will be out here.”

“Thank you,” Bradley said gratefully, as he slipped his arms around Judith.

Ben left the judge’s office first, with Hoss and Stacy following behind him. Roy Coffee followed next, shaking his head in wonder and complete bewilderment. Myra Danvers, her face pale and bearing painfully stiff, followed behind the sheriff, with a crimson faced Ezekiel Abercromby bringing up the rear.

“Stacy Rose Cartwright . . . . ”

Stacy swallowed nervously, as her father’s use of first, middle, and last names fell on her ears. After being out all night TWO nights in a row, to say she was in hot water clear up over her head would be the understatement of the year. “Pa, I— ”

“ . . . thank the Good Lord you’re all right,” Ben said, his voice shaking, as he caught his daughter up in a big, grateful, enthusiastic bear hug.

“I’m ok, Pa,” Stacy said, bewildered and vastly relieved, as she slipped her arms around Ben’s waist.

Ben held her for a moment longer, then set her away just enough to look her in the eyes, keeping his hands firmly planted on her shoulders. “You and your brother gave me quite a fright last night.”

“I’m sorry, Pa. We ONLY meant to find Xing and their hideout,” Stacy apologized with genuine, heartfelt remorse. “We also knew we’d find Mister Meredith.”

“Stacy, he’s a wanted criminal,” Ben hastened to point out. “Do you have any idea how foolhardy and dangerous that was? You and your brother could have been hurt . . . or worse.”

“I . . . I guess I didn’t think about all that,” Stacy admitted, her voice tremulous. “I only knew I had to do SOMETHING to stop you and Miss Ashcroft from making a real big mistake. If it hadn’t been for me in the first place— ”

“I thought I told you that none of this was your fault, Young Woman,” Ben chided her gently.

“You did, Pa, but . . . I couldn’t help feeling somehow responsible.”

“Kinda funny the way everyone feels responsible, except the individual who precipitated all this . . . . ” Ben acerbically observed, with a pointed glare over in the general direction of Myra Danvers.

“ . . . and what’s THAT supposed to mean?!” Myra demanded in a lofty, imperious tone, meeting Ben’s withering glare with a ferocious one of her own.

Ben gave Stacy an affectionate, reassuring squeeze, then let her go. “I think my meaning’s perfectly clear, Mrs. Danvers,” he replied, focusing his attention squarely on self-righteously indignant woman standing before him, her massive bosom heaving and her eyes smoldering with rage. Behind him, Hoss and Stacy exchanged nervous glances upon recognizing that very quiet tone of voice by which their father spoke as the deadly calm before the breaking of a ferocious thunderstorm.

“Mister Cartwright, everything I did was in the interests of safeguarding the moral sensibilities of this community,” Myra declared, as she slowly folded her arms across her chest, “especially the innocent, highly impressionable young minds of . . . of . . . that woman’s students, particularly the young ladies in this community. I will NOT apologize for that, and if I had it to do over, I would do the exact same thing.” This last she delivered with an emphatic nod of her head.

“Safeguarding the moral sensibilities of one’s community is all very well and good,” Ben allowed, “but when you blatantly ignore the weightier issues . . . like justice, mercy, humility . . . and love, all of your actions, though intended for good, become twisted into a great and terrible EVIL, bringing nothing but misery and heartache for everyone.”

Two bright, irregularly shaped spots of crimson appeared, amid Myra’s pallid complexion, one on each cheek. Her mouth thinned to a near lipless, near straight angry line, and her entire body, though held rigidly stiff, began to tremble. “By appearing before her class, day after day after day, in her delicate condition . . . she was setting an atrocious example for her students, most especially for the young ladies in her class . . . young ladies like your own daughter, Mister Cartwright,” Myra stoutly, obstinately maintained.

“When Miss Ashcroft learned that she was with child, she tended her resignation, effective immediately,” Ben said. “She made the decision to enter into what would have truly been a mockery of the sacred bonds of marriage . . . not out of any great love for me, but out of concern for my daughter. Miss Ashcroft, bless her heart, grew up in a place very much like the one your cousin runs out in Ohio. She not only wanted to spare Stacy from the possibility of suffering the same fate— ”

“Had your daughter been placed in the custody of my cousin in the first place, I daresay she would have turned out all the better for it,” Myra declared, rudely cutting him off, mid-sentence. “Vivian . . . Mrs. Crawleigh is the kindest, the most loving, selfless, woman I have EVER known. Stacy would have benefited far more from HER example than from any set by that . . . that . . . that common whore, who has the audacity to pass herself off as a school teacher.”

“I’ve met your cousin, Mrs. Danvers,” Ben countered, his voice rising slightly. “I found her to be a mean, nasty, cruel, spiteful, vindictive woman . . . a monster from hell, as my daughter has so aptly put it . . . who, to be brutally frank, has no damned business being a caretaker of children.

“In the years my daughter has been with me and her brothers, I’ve seen her grow into a very loving, kind, gracious young woman . . . strong . . . courageous . . . full of mischief sometimes . . . honest . . . willing to take up for those who, for whatever reason, can’t take up for themselves . . . with a fierce, independent spirit that makes my heart soar. I shudder to think WHAT would have happened to her . . . how terribly she would have suffered . . . had the fort commander granted THAT WOMAN custody of Stacy instead of me.

“Now . . . as just about everyone in Virginia City knows, I WAS a sailor once. I’ve sailed around the world two, maybe three times over at the very least,” he continued, “and I’ve seen a lot of what humanity as to offer, the good and the bad.” He paused briefly, to allow her to absorb the import of his words. “I honestly thought that when I met your cousin that I had met just about the worst humanity had to offer. I was wrong.”

With each word Ben spoke, Myra’s eyes grew rounder and rounder. She had unfolded her arms and slowly drawn the fingers of both hands together, one finger at a time, into a pair of tightly clenched, rock hard fists. “I don’t know WHAT you’re implying, Mister Cartwright— ”

“All right, I’ll say it plain,” Ben said, his voice low and even, the scowl on his face deepening. “You had the chance to show mercy, even as you did what was just.”

“Meaning?!”

“ . . . meaning that you and the other members of the school board could have . . . in fact SHOULD have . . . dealt with Miss Ashcroft’s resignation and the circumstances that lead up to it . . . privately, as Mrs. Wilkens and Mister McFarlane suggested.”

Myra favored Ben with the unblinking stare of a snake, slowly, inexorably closing in on a trapped mouse. “Are you saying that you APPROVE of Miss Ashcroft’s behavior?” she demanded in a tone of voice that dripped icicles.

“Not at all,” Ben replied, “though I have to bear in mind that her genuine love for Mister Meredith led her to make the choices she did . . . and out of concern for the example she WAS setting for her students, she immediately resigned her position as school teacher. YOU, on the other hand . . . refused to be satisfied with anything less than dragging Miss Ashcroft’s good name through the mud . . . and mine, too . . . before the eyes and in the hearing of everyone living in this community, using the most blunt language imaginable to further shame and humiliate.

“Now, speaking for myself, I might have forgiven the aspersions cast on my name, character, and reputation . . . given sufficient time,” Ben continued. “But that wasn’t enough for ya, was it? Oooh NO! You had to lash out at my daughter, too, threatening HER with the prospect of being placed in the custody of that . . . that . . . cousin of yours! Do you have any idea . . . any idea at all how terrified Stacy was at the prospect?! My daughter, like every other child, has the right to feel secure within her own home . . . within the circle of those she calls her family. For three days . . . YOU took that away from her!

“ . . . and THAT, Mrs. Danvers . . . is something I’ll never countenance or forgive!”

Mrs. Danvers stood, her entire body rigidly stiff, unmoving, with a baleful glare fixed on Ben. Her lower jaw flapped up and down, though no sound issued forth.

“Hoss . . . Stacy . . . . ” Ben turned to address his son and daughter in a kindlier tone of voice. “Why don’t the three of us wait outside? I don’t know about the two of you, but I could sure use a nice breath of fresh air . . . . ” The last two words were spoken with a pointed glare aimed square at Myra Danvers’ face.

 

“I . . . I love you, Pa,” Stacy said very quietly the minute they stepped outside the courthouse, where John Faraday’s office was located. Acting purely on impulse, she slipped her arms around his waist and gently squeezed.

“Stacy Cartwright, what’s all this?” Ben queried gently, taking due note that her eyes shone more brightly than usual and that they blinked excessively.

“Pa, did you . . . did you really mean all those things you said about me to . . . to . . . the cousin of the monster from hell?!”

Ben smiled and hugged her tight for a moment. “I love you, too, Stacy . . . and yes! I meant every last word. THAT’S why you, your brother, and I need to sit down and have a heart to heart talk about the pair of you being detectives in your spare time.”

“Yes, Sir,” Stacy replied, wiping her eyes on the edge of her sleeve. “I’m sorry I . . . that I worried you last night . . . . ”

“I know,” Ben said quietly. “I ALSO want you to know that I’m very glad . . . and very grateful you DID find that scalawag and bring him in.”

“Pa’s right, Li’l Sister, you did real good,” Hoss declared, grinning from ear-to-ear himself, “and I’M real proud of ya, too.”

Stacy hugged Ben again, while reaching out to pull her big brother into the family circle. “Thanks, Pa . . . Hoss. Even if I end up with no allowance, and being restricted to the house, yard, and barn for the next month of Sundays, it’ll be well worth it.”

“I can’t for the life o’ me figure out how y’ did it, but I’M glad ya convinced Mister Meredith t’ come back, too, Stacy . . . for your pa’s sake,” Roy said, as he stepped outside onto the small porch at the courthouse entrance.

“He came back with me because he loves Miss Ashcroft,” Stacy said quietly. “When I told him about this shotgun wedding, wild horses couldn’t have kept him back. Blaze Face and I were pretty hard pressed to keep up with him.”

“I hope you’re right, Young Woman,” Ben said quietly, “for Miss Ashcroft’s sake.”

“After Mister Meredith ‘n Miss Ashcroft’re through talkin’, I’m gonna hafta arrest him,” Roy said.

Stacy’s face fell.

“He IS a wanted man, Stacy,” Ben gently reminded her . . . .

 

For a time, Judith Ashcroft and Bradley Meredith clung to each other for dear life, kissing each other ardently and repeatedly.

“Judy . . . Judy, Darling, why didn’t you tell me . . . about the baby . . . about OUR baby?” Bradley demanded between kisses. “I would never . . . never have left you alone . . . . ”

“I didn’t know myself,” she replied, “not really . . . until a few days ago, when I fainted in the middle of arithmetic class. Stacy Cartwright and her friends, Molly O’Hanlan and Susannah O’Brien stepped in and summoned Doctor Martin. He examined me and . . . well, the rest, as they say is history.”

Bradley hugged her closer. “Thank God, Stacy found me in time to tell me.”

“Amen to that!” Judith murmured with equal heartfelt gratitude.

“Judy?”

“Yes, Be—uuhhh . . . Bradley?” That was going to take a bit of getting used to . . . calling the love of her life by his rightful name.

“How did you know?”

“How did I know . . . what?”

“Well . . . that Ben Cartwright wasn’t me,” Bradley asked. “We look so much alike we could pass for identical twins. I’ve fooled people more than once on that score.”

“Well, you’ll never fool ME, Bradley Meredith!” Judith declared stoutly. “Not now, not ever!”

“How?”

Judith smiled and pulled away from him just enough to gaze up into his face and his eyes. “I look into Mister Cartwright’s eyes, I see the father of one of my pupils . . . FORMER pupils,” she said quietly. “I look into yours . . . I see the man who has been steadily and pretty relentlessly courting me ever since that ‘parent’-teacher conference you and I had regarding Stacy . . . I also see the passionate lover who so thoroughly and so gloriously ravished me when we went on that picnic, who’s been so tender and wonderful all the other times we’ve made love . . . . ”

Suddenly, with a heart wrenching sob she wrapped her arms very tightly around his waist and buried her head against his shoulder.

“Judy . . . Darling, what is it?” Bradley asked, troubled himself by her sudden distress.

“I . . . I just realized . . . the minute we step through those doors? Sheriff C-Coffee’s going to arrest you . . . put you in jail, and . . . and after the trial, you may end up in prison—Oh, Bradley, I . . . I don’t want to be apart from you f-for so long,” Judith sobbed.

“Judy, it may NOT be for very long,” Bradley desperately tried to reassure the distraught woman sobbing so grievously in his arms. “I’ve as good as turned myself in when I came back to stop the marriage ceremony between you and Mister Cartwright. I also intend to cooperate with the sheriff, and tell him where to find the stolen goods. All that plus time off for good behavior . . . I shouldn’t be in prison for more than a year . . . maybe not even THAT long.”

“I . . . want y-you with me when . . . when our baby is born. If y-you . . . if you g-go to prison— ”

“I want to be with you, too, Darling, but it’s for you and our child I have to turn myself in. A life on the road, always running, always looking over our shoulders . . . that’s no life for a child, and its no life for you either.”

“Y-You’re sure it . . . it won’t be any more than a year?” Judith asked.

“If that.”

“Can we . . . can we arrange t-to be . . . . married before—?!”

“Absolutely!” Bradley declared, his arms about her tightening gently. “I almost lost you today. I would have if . . . if Stacy Cartwright hadn’t found me by whatever sheer stroke of good fortune. Now that we’re back together, I want to make sure I can’t EVER lose you.”

They kissed, ardently and passionately.

“I love you, Judy.”

“ . . . and I love YOU, Bradley.”

He kissed her again. “You don’t know how much I’ve longed to hear my real name on your lips,” he whispered as he once more held her close, committing to memory the warmth of her body so close to his own, every plane, every curve, the heaviness of her head resting against his chest, the faint lingering scent of lemon verbena in her hair. “Judy?”

“Yes, Darling?”

“I need to give you something,” he said, as he reached into his pocket with one hand, while keeping the other firmly about her waist. He drew out a black, silk bag with a tasseled draw string, and placed it in her hands. “There’s over thirty thousand dollars in this bag, My Love. I want you to take it, use what you need for you and for our child while . . . while I’m away. But, you must promise me that you’ll tell no one you have this.”

“I promise not to tell any one about this bag, Bradley, nor will I ask you any questions about how you came by this,” Judith said firmly, as she dabbed the last of the tears from her eyes. “But, this is the last time I make any promises about asking questions.”

“Fair enough, Darling. Rest assured that I have enough put by to give us . . . you, me, and our child a fresh start anywhere . . . anywhere you wish to go,” Bradley said as he placed the black bag into her hands.

Judith opened her pocketbook and nestled the silk bag safely inside.

“Are you ready to face the world, My Love?” Bradley asked, as he took her hand and gently tucked it into the crook of his elbow.

“I’m ready, Darling.”

“Let’s go.”

 

“Bradley Meredith, you’re under arrest,” Roy Coffee said briskly, the instant Bradley and Judith stepped together, arm-in-arm, through the courthouse doors out into the light of day. “The charge is theft.”

Bradley nodded.

“I’ll need t’ take your gun.”

“Of course.” Bradley Meredith unbuckled the gun belt from around his waist and surrendered it to the sheriff. He also removed his derringer from its customary place, in the inside pocket of his jacket, and handed it over to Roy Coffee as well.

“Ben, would you mind holdin’ on t’ these?” Roy asked, as he held out the weapons, already taken from his prisoner.

Ben nodded, taking the proffered derringer, revolver, and gun belt from the sheriff.

Roy quickly searched his prisoner for other weapons, finding none. “Alright, Mister Meredith, let’s go.” He took Bradley by the arm and led him out of the courthouse, down the street, toward the jail. Judith Ashcroft walked along, on the other side of the prisoner, his hand tightly clasped in her own. Ben, still holding on to the weapons Roy Coffee had taken from his prisoner, followed behind, with Hoss, and Stacy trotting along at his heels.

 

“Mister Meredith, did you rob the Overland stage day before yesterday?” Roy Coffee asked.

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

“No. Two associates also participated in the stage robbery,” Bradley Meredith replied. He sat on the bunk within his jail cell, with his arm around Judith Ashcroft’s shoulders. She held his other hand sandwiched between both of her own.

“Who were your associates?”

“I won’t name my associates,” Bradley replied. “I will only say that I chose them for this job because of their strong resemblance to Mister Cartwright’s two younger sons.”

“I can tell you who they were,” Stacy declared, favoring Bradley with a murderous glare. “Their last name was Slade. They were brothers. One of ‘em, the smaller of the two told us his name was James Slade, that his friends call him Shorty Jim.”

Sheriff Coffee looked over at her in surprise. “Stacy Cartwright, would you mind tellin’ me how YOU happened t’ git involved with these scoundrels?”

“I figured out where their hideout was,” Stacy replied.

“All by yourself, Young Woman?” Ben queried, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.

“Well, uhhhh . . . . ”

“I didn’t think so,” Ben replied.

“Who else was helpin’ ya, Stacy?”

“Professor Foote!” she said a bit too quickly in her unwillingness to implicate her brother. “I found his book up in the attic when we brought down all the tree decorations last Christmas.”

“Professor Foote?!” Roy echoed with a bewildered frown. “Who in Sam Hill is Professor Foote?”

“You remember the time Hoss and Joe got themselves into a world of trouble trying to catch a couple of bank robbers?” Ben asked with a touch of asperity.

“I’ll never forget it,” Roy declared, his scowl deepening.

“Professor Foote wrote the book that gave them all those wild ideas on how to go about catching criminals,” Ben continued.

“Like spendin’ all night shovelin’ mud around the bank buildin’?” [12]

Ben nodded. “I’m sorry I put that book up in the attic, when OBVIOUSLY I’d have been better off dropping it out in the middle of Lake Tahoe,” he said, directing a meaningful glare in his daughter’s general direction. “Stacy . . . . ”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Who ELSE helped you figure out where the thieves hideout was BESIDES Professor Foote?” Ben pressed.

“Sorry, Pa, I can rat out on Mister Meredith’s associates, but not on mine.”

“Perhaps I can answer your question, Mister Cartwright,” Bradley Meredith spoke up. “There was a young man with her, just under six feet tall, with brown, curly hair, wearing a green jacket. Does THAT help you in any way?”

“Yes, Mister Meredith, thank you. That was VERY helpful,” Ben said, glaring at his daughter, who in turn, shot Bradley a look meant to kill.

“You may consider THAT payback for the kick in the shins, Miss Cartwright,” Bradley said sardonically.

Ben’s eyes went round with astonishment and not a little trepidation. “Stacy . . . you . . . actually . . . kicked him . . . . ?!”

“He INSULTED me, Pa.”

“That must’ve been some insult,” Ben mused thoughtfully. “What did he say that you found so offensive?”

“He called me a lady,” Stacy replied in a withering tone.

“Hoo-wheee! . . . and you’re still walkin’, Mister Meredith?! You’re lucky my li’l sister here letcha off so easy,” Hoss quipped, not able to quite hide his amused smile.

“Stacy, how’d that book help you ‘n that, ummm ASSOCIATE o’ yours . . . figure out where their hideout was?” Roy asked, steering conversation back to the original topic.

“Easy! It’s in the first chapter,” Stacy replied. “You have to think like a criminal.”

Hoss threw back his head and roared. “Th-Think like a criminal, eh?” he murmured, at length, when at last his mirth began to subside. He shook his head in amazement. “That can’t be much of a stretch for you ‘n Li’l Brother, that’s f’r dang sure,” he chuckled, then very quickly sobered upon catching a sharp glare from his father. “Oh, uhhh . . . sorry, Pa.”

“I should hope so,” Ben said stiffly. “I did NOT raise your younger brother and sister to be a pair of criminals.” He, then, turned his attention to his daughter. “Alright, Young Woman, I want you to tell us EVERYTHING, from the beginning.”

Stacy nodded, then told them everything, starting with how she and Joe had reached the conclusion of Xing’s involvement. She was careful to omit the part about their visit to Polly McPherson’s establishment, however . . . . “Maybe I’ll tell ‘em . . . someday . . . in about ten years or so,” she ruminated silently.

“Well, well, well, ain’t this a small world,” Hoss murmured, shaking his head, after Stacy had finished her tale. “After all these years, the Slade brothers rear their ugly heads.”

“You know ‘em, Big Brother?” Stacy asked.

“I never met ‘em, but I think Joe ‘n me were mistaken for ‘em by a bunch o’ folks named Hadfield ‘n McFadden, # that time we went t’ Texas t’ look at some horse stock,” Hoss replied.

At that moment, Clem and another deputy, a new man by the name of Wade Johnson, entered the sheriff’s office with a young Chinese man between them. “Good afternoon, Everyone,” Clem said by way of greeting, as he politely touched the rim of his hat. “Sheriff Coffee, Wade and I found this man out at the old Haines place. Joe Cartwright told me he was also . . . . ” His eyes strayed over to the jail cell with Bradley Meredith and Judith Ashcroft locked together inside. “Y-You’ve arrested M-Mister Cartwright and . . . and M-Miss Ashcroft?!”

“Wrong on all counts, Clem,” Ben said, coming to stand alongside the perplexed deputy. “That man you see there is one of the men who REALLY robbed that stage.”

Clem looked from Ben, standing right beside him, to Bradley, safely locked behind bars, then back over to Ben, his eyes round as saucers, and mouth gaping open. “I-I don’t believe it!” he stammered. “Now I understand why those people on that stage thought it was YOU. B-but . . . what about Miss Ashcroft? Surely SHE didn’t . . . . ”

“No, I most certainly and assuredly did NOT help hold up that stage,” Judith stated clearly and succinctly. “I’m just here visiting my fiancé.”

“So what did you ‘n Wade bring THIS young fella in for?” Roy asked, turning his attention back to his newest prisoner.

“Oh. We, uhhh . . . found him . . . out at the Haines place. All trussed up like a calf for branding!” Clem replied, distracted, as he sought to recover a measure of composure. “Joe said we would. He also told me this guy was involved in that stage robbery, too.”

“He was,” Stacy confirmed. “He’s the one who told Mister Meredith and the Slades on which stage the Li family dowry was coming into town.”

“Young Man, you actually helped Mister Meredith and the Slades steal your sister’s dowry?” Ben demanded, staring over at Xing, open mouthed with astonishment.

Yes, I did, Mister Cartwright,” Xing said bitterly, “and if I had it to do all over, I’d do it AGAIN.”

“That’s all I need to hear,” Roy Coffee said wryly. “Wade . . . . ”

“Yes, Sir?”

“Lock him up.”

Wade nodded curtly, then led Xing over to the empty cell.

“The only other thing that remains, leastwise as far as I’M concerned is . . . where are those statues NOW?” Roy asked, glared at Xing first, then over at Bradley Meredith.

“I sold them, Sheriff,” Bradley Meredith replied.

“To who?”

“Mister Geoffrey Sutcliff,” Bradley said, grimacing as if he had just bitten into something with an incredibly nasty taste. “He and I set the price at one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The man has yet to pay what we had agreed.”

“Mister Sutcliff ain’t paid ya for them statues?” Roy asked.

“He has NOT paid the one hundred fifty thousand dollars,” Bradley reiterated with a dark scowl.

“Does he have the statues?” Roy asked.

“Yes, indeed he DOES.”

“Now just a durn minute, Mister Meredith,” Hoss growled. “You REALLY expect us t’ believe a couple o’ no good, ornery gunmen, like the Slade brothers done skipped town withOUT takin’ their cut in the robbery?”

“I had agreed to meet my associates at a spot previously arranged, so we could divide the money and finally go our separate ways,” Bradley said. “Since obviously I WON’T be showing up . . . . ”

“Looks like the NEXT thing I gotta do is see Mister Sutcliff about acceptin’ stolen goods,” Roy Coffee said grimly.

“ . . . and WE need to find Joe,” Ben said. “Clem?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“Didn’t you say that JOE told you where to find Xing?”

“Yes, Sir, he did.”

“Did he happen to say where he was going?” Ben pressed.

A bewildered frown marred Clem’s brow. “Didn’t you see him over at the courthouse?”

“No,” Ben replied, unable to completely hold back his growing frustration.

“Clem, did Joe actually say that he WAS going to the courthouse?” Roy asked.

Clem nodded. “He said he had to be there for his pa. Those are his exact words, or close enough to ‘em.”

“He might o’ gotten waylaid along the way, Pa,” Hoss suggested.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Ben said grimly.

 

Mei-Ling slowly paced the floor in the Ponderosa ranch house kitchen, with her face to the floor, wringing her hands every step of the way in utter despair. With her son missing, her beloved grandmother by marriage in the downstairs bedroom, patiently waiting for death to claim her, her husband upstairs, curled up like an unborn baby under the covers of the bed they shared, poor Yin-Ling weeping over the loss of the only man she would ever love in this life time, and immanent loss of the family respect and honor it had taken centuries to build . . . certainly these qualified as being among the darkest hours faced by the LI family, if not the Cartwrights. The soft sound of her brother’s footfalls drew Mei-Ling from her troubled thoughts.

“Did she eat ANYTHING, Hop Sing?” she asked in fluent Chinese. “Anything at ALL?!”

“No,” Hop Sing responded in kind, with a doleful shake of his head.

“Not even a little?”

Again, Hop Sing shook his head.

“Perhaps we SHOULD send for Mister Cartwright’s physician.”

“It wouldn’t do any good, Mei-Ling. Mrs. Li’s troubles are of the heart, not of the body. There’s no doctor in the world who can help her.”

Mei-Ling’s eyes stung with bitter tears, knowing all too well the truth of his words. “Is there truly NOTHING that can be done?” she asked aloud. “Nothing at all?”

“Our only hope is to find the stolen dowry, before the betrothal,” Hop Sing replied, as he placed the tray down on the counter, and set himself to the task of clearing away its contents.

“I only wish we knew where to look,” she sighed, as she wiped away the tears from her eyes and cheeks against the palm of her hand.

“What of Hsing?”

The question caught Mei-Ling completely by surprise. “What OF Hsing?” she demanded favoring her brother with a sharp glare.

“Where is HE in all this? Is he in offering comfort to his venerable grandmother? Is he upstairs maybe, offering comfort to his daughter? Has he offered no comfort to YOU his wife? Has he done anything to find his son OR the jade statues?” Frustrated and anxious himself, Hop Sing launched into an angry tirade.

“Hop Sing, please— ”

“Hsing is weak, Mei-Ling, though in body he may be a grown man, in mind and in heart, he is a spoiled little boy,” Hop Sing continued. “Countless times, he has betrayed you and cruelly humiliated you with his other women. He brought poverty to the Li family by squandering its entire fortune on strong drink, playing cards, and on his women. He would not even allow you to discipline his son . . . and yours, so Xing has grown up spoiled and lazy— ”

“HOP SING, STOP IT!” Mei-Ling yelled, rudely cutting her brother off at mid-sentence. “JUST STOP IT RIGHT NOW, DO YOU HEAR ME?”

“Why does he just lie around upstairs doing nothing?!” Hop Sing demanded.

“It is as you say, Hsing IS weak,” Mei-Ling admitted with much reluctance. “His family was very wealthy. He never HAD to be strong, as you and I had to be strong.”

“Being wealthy is no excuse,” Hop Sing argued. “Mister Cartwright is a wealthy man, yet HE is strong. His sons and his daughter are also strong. Joe and Stacy, his youngest son and daughter have been trying to find the men who stole the statues. They’ve also been trying to find the man who is father to Miss Ashcroft’s child so that they might restore THEIR father’s honor.” His words concerning Joe and Stacy were spoken with enormous pride.

“Mister Cartwright expects his children to be strong, to be honorable,” Mei-Ling said sadly. “Hsing was always sheltered and protected, first by his parents, then by his venerable grandmother. He never had to be strong, because it wasn’t expected of him.”

“Why do you stay with him?” Hop Sing asked.

“Because my son and daughter need a father,” Mei-Ling replied. “A poor father is far better than no father at all. I also stay because I care about Grandmother Li. She has been very generous and kind to me, Hop Sing. All the times I cried myself to sleep because I knew Hsing was out with another woman, she was there to comfort me. She . . . knows that it was wrong to spoil Hsing as she has, and she deeply regrets having done so. If I should leave Hsing, I would also leave Grandmother Li. This I will NOT do, not as long as she remains alive.”

“Will you leave him when his venerable grandmother dies?”

“No, because no matter what he has done, or NOT done, I still love him.”

The sound of horses galloping at full speed into the yard drew Hop Sing and Mei-Ling from their disagreement. The former frowned. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear that was Little Joe,” he muttered under his breath. “Mister Cartwright has told him, time and time again . . . . ” He abruptly turned and strode briskly from the kitchen, with his sister trotting along at his heels.

 

“MITCH! BOBBY!” Joe yelled as he halted the team pulling Hop Ling’s buckboard to a stop. He leapt down from the driver’s seat, then turned to offer the elderly Hop Ling a hand.

“Joe?” It was Mitch Cranston, one of the younger men who worked for his father. “What’s up?”

“I need you and Bobby to stable Hop Ling’s horses . . . and Cochise,” Joe said tersely. “We’ll also need fresh horses hitched up to the buckboard.”

Mitch nodded.

“HEY! WHAT YOU THINK YOU DO RUNNING HORSES IN YARD SO FAST?!” Hop Sing yelled at the top of his lungs, in English, as he bolted from the house and sped across the yard beating a straight path toward the youngest Cartwright son. “MISTER CARTWRIGHT TELL YOU AND TELL YOU AND TELL YOU— ”

“Hop Sing, we need to see Hsing pronto,” Joe said grimly.

“WHAT GO ON HERE? YOU AND MISS STACY GO FOR RIDE, STAY OUT ALL NIGHT,” Hop Sing continued to berate the young man he, himself, loved as a son, as they made their way back to the house. “WORRY PAPA, WORRY HOP SING! NOW YOU HOME, MISS STACY STILL GONE. WHERE YOU GO ALL NIGHT?!”

“Hop Sing, please— ” Joe begged.

“Hop Sing, we must see Hsing . . . immediately, if not sooner,” Hop Ling, speaking in his native tongue, very quietly, yet very effectively nipped his son’s angry tirade in the bud. “I saw the statues, Son . . . with my own eyes, I SAW them. I’m sure of it!”

Mei-Ling gasped, then turned, and fled into the house, screaming for her husband.

“You . . . actually SAW the statues?” Hop Sing queried.

“I’m REASONABLY sure,” Hop Ling replied. “But, I’ve never actually seen the statues before. We need to show them to Hsing, so that he may tell us for sure.”

“Hop Sing, why don’t you take your father over to the settee and sit down?” Joe suggested as they entered the house. “I’ll go in the kitchen and make up a pot of coffee— ”

“Fresh pot on stove,” Hop Sing replied, switching again to English, as he gently took his father’s elbow and steered him in the direction of the settee. A few moments after he had settled his father comfortably on the settee, Joe appeared carrying a tray with six mugs of steaming hot coffee, a bowl of sugar, and a small pitcher of cream.

“Where Mei-Ling?” Hop Sing demanded with a scowl, as Joe parceled out the coffee mugs, first to Hop Ling, then to Hop Sing. “Why she take so long?” He rose.

“Hop Sing, you sit down,” Joe said firmly, after handing Hop Ling the bowl of sugar. “I’ll go see what’s keeping— ”

“No bother, Little Joe.” The three men turned and found Mei-Ling standing next to the blue chair. Yin-Ling, her daughter, stood behind her mother and a little to the left. Though her eye-lids remained swollen, and her cheeks and angry shade of red from her long bout of crying, there was a fierce determination glinting in her dark eyes, like sunshine on a steel blade of a sword. “Hsing not come.”

“Then how we know statues Hop Ling see be statues belong to Li family?” Hop Ling asked.

Another voice spoke in the rising and falling sing-song pitch of fluent Chinese. Everyone was very pleased, albeit surprised, to see Mrs. Li standing next to the red leather chair. She spoke again, her words bringing a big smile to Hop Sing’s face. Mei-Ling and Yin-Ling exchanged glances then gazed over at the elderly woman, through eyes round with astonishment.

“Hop Sing . . . did M-Mrs. Li say . . . what I THOUGHT she said?” Joe asked, looking from one face to other, in awe and astonishment.

“Upshot is . . . Mrs. Li say she see statue. SHE come, make sure statue Hop Ling see are Li family statue,” Hop Sing replied, translating only the basics of what the venerable old woman had said into English.

“How we get inside house where statue are?” Mei-Ling asked, looking uncertain and troubled.

“Hop Ling and I have that all worked out,” Joe said, grinning from ear to ear. He looked over at the elderly father of Hop Sing and Mei-Ling. “You want to tell them, or should I?”

“You tell,” Hop Ling replied, returning Joe’s smile with a bright sunny one of his own.

“Truth to tell, this is mostly Hop Ling’s idea,” Joe said, then shared the plan with the others. Hop Sing and Mei-Ling translated for Mrs. Li.

Mrs. Li responded with a few thoughtful words.

Hop Sing grinned. “Mrs. Li say she think plan good, might work.”

“One problem,” Mei-Ling said. “Little Joe NOT look Chinese.”

“No problem, we fix,” Hop Ling said.

Joe glanced over at the face of the grandfather clock, standing next to the door. “We’d best get going then.”

“One minute,” Mei-Ling said. “Mei-Ling leave note for Hsing.”

“Go ahead,” Joe said rising. “I need to fetch something down from upstairs, myself.” With that, he bolted up the steps, taking them two and three at a time. He ran down the hall to his room, and there, grabbed one of the pink rhinestone shoes he had taken from the Virginia City Social Club.

“Little Joe, what that?!” Hop Sing demanded with a puzzled frown. “What you do with lady shoe almost big enough for Mister HOSS?”

A feral smile slowly oozed its way across Joe’s lips. “I’m taking THIS little sweetheart along for insurance.”

 

“What YOU think, Honorable Papa?” Mei Ling asked.

“Pant leg too short,” Hop Ling replied. “Up past ankle. No one wear pant leg so short. Need longer pair.”

“Mei-Ling go see,” she sighed dolefully.

“Little Joe, take off pants,” Hop Ling said.

Joe’s face fell. “You mean . . . THESE are also . . . too short?!”

“Too short. Shorter than last pants Little Joe put on,” Hop Ling replied. “Take off. Mei Ling look for pants to fit Little Joe.”

“OK, but . . . . ” Two bright spots of scarlet appeared on Joe’s cheeks, forehead, and the end of his nose. “You tell Mrs. Li and Yin-Ling to close their eyes.”

An amused smile tugged at the corner of his mouth as Hop Ling turned to address his granddaughter and her great grandmother. He spoke a few words of Chinese. Yin-Kuan and Yin-Ling giggled, but turned their backs.

An hour ago, they had returned to Hop Ling’s home, a small, narrow town house, located in the midst of Virginia City’s Chinese district. Hop Ling had dispatched his son, Hop Sing, at the laundry, located in the business district so that he, and number ten cousin, once removed, might launder the table cloth that the Sutcliffs were expecting that evening. Joe quickly shucked off the pants, a type favored by most Chinese men, then stepped behind the small dining room table, well out of view of the women present, leastwise from the waist down.

“Find pants, Papa!” Mei-Ling announced as she burst into the small room that her father used as living room, dining room, and kitchen. “These biggest you have.”

Hop Ling took the pants from his daughter, then instructed her to check on the pot, warming on top of the small stove set against the wall facing the door. He walked over to Joe and held the pants in hand up to his waist. “Hmmmm! Little Joe, hold.”

Joe took hold of the waist and held the pants up flush against his body, while Hop Ling stood back and gave them a critical once over. “Still little bit too short,” he sighed. “But we make do. Put them on, Little Joe, chop, chop. Almost dark outside.”

“Sheesh! I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’D have the same problem finding clothes to fit me that HOSS does,” Joe muttered and he slipped on the pants.

“Mei-Ling, how black dye doing?” Hop Ling asked, this time in English.

“Dye simmer, Papa, nice and black. Black as night.”

“Little Joe, come to table,” Hop Ling said. “Sit down.”

Joe pulled out one of the two chairs pushed under the table and sat down. “Uuhh, Hop Ling . . . do we HAVE to dye my hair?” he asked. His chestnut brown, thick, wavy locks, worn too long to suit his father’s taste most of the time, were his pride and joy. The thought of doing anything that posed the potential danger of ruinous long term consequences was enough to set him on edge.

“Must dye Little Joe hair,” Hop Ling insisted. “Chinese hair black, not brown.”

“Can’t I wear a hat?” Joe begged.

“No hat,” Hop Ling adamantly shook his head. “Hat can fall off. If hat fall off and they see Joe NOT Chinese . . . all of us end up in deep— ”

“I get the picture,” Joe sighed.

“Don’t worry, Joe,” Yin-Ling said. “The dye Mama and Grandfather have cooked up on the stove is made from things like plants, tree bark, and vegetables.”

“No paint?” Joe asked.

“No paint or ink,” Yin-Ling promised. “Next time you take a bath, it’ll wash right out.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Well . . . ok, . . . I guess,” Joe assented with much reluctance.

Mei-Ling, meanwhile, lifted the warm pan from the stove and quickly carried it to the table, with her hands wrapped in potholders. Yin-Ling grabbed a trivet from off the small sideboard, and set it in the middle of the table.

“Mei-Ling, need make up,” Hop Ling said.

“MAKE-UP?!” Joe echoed, incredulous.

“Need make up, paint Little Joe skin same color Chinese skin,” Mei-Ling explained. “Make Little Joe look Chinese.”

“Will the make-up wash off, too?” Joe asked.

“No worry, everything wash off.” Mei-Ling hastened to assure him. “Nice and clean, next time Little Joe take bath.”

“If I gotta . . . well, I guess I gotta,” Joe sighed.

There was a knock on the door. Yin-Ling ran to answer it, while her mother and maternal grandfather set themselves to work dying Joe’s hair. It was Hop Sing with the Sutcliffs’ tablecloth, freshly laundered, starched, pressed, and neatly wrapped in protective brown paper.

“The tablecloth is ready to be delivered,” Hop Sing told his niece in Chinese. “How’s Little Joe’s disguise coming?”

“We found him clothes that sort of fit,” Yin-Ling replied. “Mama and Grandfather are working on dying his hair now.”

Hop Sing carefully set the wrapped table cloth down in the small love seat, set against the wall perpendicular to the front door. “I’m frankly surprised Little Joe let them do it. He’s very fussy about his hair.”

“So I noticed,” Yin Ling said with a chuckle.

“Honorable Papa, one more thing before I forget,” Hop Sing continued, addressing his father in Chinese. “I ran into Wong Chung, the grocery man on my way back here.”

“What does HE want?” Hop Ling asked.

“He told me Mister Sutcliff ordered some food for a party he’s giving— ”

“That’s going to be some party! He’s already got a storage shed full of fireworks.”

“Wong Chung asked if we wouldn’t mind taking a half dozen crates of lo mein noodles,” Hop Sing continued. “I took the liberty of telling him he could load it in our buckboard.”

“It’s all right, My Son. Wong Chung extended me credit last year during my time of illness,” Hop Ling said. “I certainly don’t mind helping HIM when the opportunity arises to do so.”

 

The lengthening shadows, and sunlight, diminishing slowly yet with a relentless steadiness, coupled with the appearance of the gibbous moon, a bone white ghost against the still azure blue sky over head, evidenced the lateness of the day, as Ben Cartwright walked Buck into the yard, weary and anxious concerning the whereabouts of his youngest son. Hoss and Stacy followed silently behind on their own horses, Chubb and Blaze-Face, respectively.

Hoss peered over at his father with an anxious frown. “Pa?”

No answer.

“PA!” Hoss ventured, this time raising his voice slightly.

Ben stirred himself from his troubled musings, and shook his head as if to physically dislodge them, if only for a little while. “Did you call me, Hoss?”

“We’re home, Pa,” Hoss said as he and Stacy dismounted. He passed Chubb’s lead over to his sister, then took hold of Buck’s bridle, steadying the animal. “Why don’t you g’won in the house? Stacy ‘n I’ll see to the horses.”

Ben nodded as he slowly dismounted. “You two won’t be long?”

“We’ll be in lickity split,” Hoss promised.

“Where in the world could Grandpa have gotten himself off to?” Stacy voiced the nagging question uppermost in all of their minds, once she and her big brother were safely in the barn, well out of their father’s earshot.

“I dunno,” Hoss said gravely. “We’ve spent the whole live long day searchin’ high ‘n low for him, an’ . . . nothin’! You’d o’ thought he’d vanished right off the face o’ the earth or somethin’.”

“You want me to go back, and search along the road for him?”

“Oh, no you don’t, Li’l Sister. We don’t need YOU pulling another disappearin’ act like ya did last night,” Hoss admonished her sternly. “We’d best git these horses stabled. It’ll be supper time ‘fore long.”

Ben, meanwhile, had trudged across the yard alone. As he stepped through the front door, he was surprised to find Li-Hsing standing there, looking anxious.

“Mister Li, are you alright?” Ben asked, peering into the other man’s ashen gray face with concern.

“Hsing worry Mister Cartwright,” he said in a soft voice, barely audible.

All of a sudden, Ben became aware of the thick silence that seemed to have fallen on his home. There were no muffled sobs issuing from upstairs, none of the soft, hurried footfalls which had, over the past couple of days, become so characteristic of Mei-Ling’s relentless pacing, and at this time of day, Hop Sing was always out in the kitchen, rattling pots, pans, and other utensils in preparation for dinner. “Where is everybody?” he demanded.

“They go,” Hsing replied. “Mei-Ling say so in note.” He handed the delicate rice paper in his hands, over to Ben.

Ben looked over the note with a bewildered frown, then gave it back to Li-Hsing. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to read it to me, Mister Li,” he said quietly. “I can’t read a single word of Chinese.”

“So sorry,” Hsing humbly apologized. He raised the note up to the level of his eyes and translated the hastily penned Chinese characters. “Mei-Ling say they all go to town. She, Hop Ling, Hop Sing, Yin-Ling, even venerable grandmother. All go. Your Little Joe also go.”

Upon hearing the name of his youngest son, Ben turned and pounced with both feet. “Did you say Little Joe?” he demanded rounding on the hapless Hsing.

“Y-Yes,” Hsing stammered, as he involuntarily took a step backward.

“Joe’s been here?”

Hsing nodded. “He come with Hop Ling.”

“Does that note say where they’ve gone?” Ben quickly snapped out the question.

“Mei-Ling tell me venerable papa see jade statues, statues stolen from stage, he see them in house where he go, pick up laundry,” Hsing replied. “Hop Ling not know for sure statues in house belong to Li family. He and others take venerable grandmother to see.”

Ben inwardly groaned at the thought of his youngest son and house guests embarking on a course that would in all likelihood land them all in jail on charges of breaking and entering. “Mister Li, please . . . this is very important,” he said earnestly. “Did Mei-Ling say in her note whose house Hop Ling saw that statues.”

“No, but Hsing hear them say.”

“Whose house is it?” Ben pressed.

“Last name Slut-Clift.”

“Sutcliff,” Ben muttered through clenched teeth. Worse and worse. “Mister Li, I have to go right back out— ”

“Go bring back Mei-Ling, Yin-Ling and others?” he queried hopefully.

“Yes.”

“Please, go, bring back. Hsing be all right.”

With that, Ben tore out of the house. “HOSS! STACY! DON’T UNSADDLE THE HORSES!” he roared at the top of his lungs, as he flew across the yard, running at top speed.

“Pa?” Stacy queried, as Ben burst into the barn like gangbusters.

“I know where your brother has gone,” he said, taking hold of Big Buck’s lead.

“Where?” Hoss demanded.

Ben quickly filled Hoss and Stacy in on the details he had just learned from Li-Hsing.

“Dadburn it, not the Sutcliffs,” Hoss groaned. “Pa, y’ don’t think they’d have the good sense t’ go t’ Sheriff Coffee . . . do ya?”

“Not if your brother’s ring leading this little escapade,” Ben said grimly. “Mount up! We’re going after them. I just hope and pray we’re not too late.”

“Pa, what about Stacy?” Hoss asked.

“Whaddya mean ‘What about Stacy?’ ” the Cartwright daughter demanded, outraged at the prospect of being left behind.

“Stacy goes with US, Hoss,” Ben said. His reply drew a smug, triumphant smile from his daughter. “After last night, I’ll feel a whole lot better if I can keep her right where I can keep a sharp eye on her.”

 

“Mister Rothburn?”

Nigel turned and found himself staring down into the face of Abigail Mann, one of the downstairs maids, and a saucy little wench, if ever there was one. Her uniform always seemed to be a couple of sizes too small, with one button too many open, and apron cinched just enough to reveal her tiny waist. The brilliant tangerine curls, that were forever tumbling from the confines of her mobcap, and the way she walked with that subtle swing of her hip, led Nigel to suspect that she had once been a barmaid. She had been employed in the Sutcliff household for three, nearly four years now. Although her work was exemplary, he had to marvel at the fact that she had lasted so long. Mrs. Sutcliff was infamously known far and wide for her near obsessive jealousy, regarding her husband . . . a condition that seemed to have significantly worsened within the last few months.

“Mister Rothburn, the laundry man is back with that tablecloth,” Abigail reported, her ruby red lips curving slightly upward in a flirtatious smile.

“Thank you, Miss Mann, you may return to your work now.”

Abigail nodded, then withdrew.

Nigel smiled, as he indulged himself a moment of watching her retreating form, before heading out to the back door used by the servants and delivery people. He spotted Hop Ling’s buckboard upon stepping out through the back door, with a half dozen large crates piled up in the back and nearly the same number of people accompanying him.

“Good evening, Mister Rothburn,” Hop Ling greeted Nigel affably, with a big smile, as he alighted from the buckboard with surprising agility given a man of his advanced years. “Hop Ling bring tablecloth.” He held out a brown, wrapped parcel, his smile never wavering.

“Out for a family outing, Sir?” Nigel remarked, gazing up on Hop Ling’s companions, archly, with upraised, questioning eyebrow.

“Bring assistants,” Hop Ling cheerfully explained. “Mister Rothburn say laundry for Missus be ready? Hop Ling need plenty help, bring along lots and lots assistants.”

Nigel laughed out loud. “Yes, Mrs. Sutcliff does indeed have a rather extensive wardrobe,” he said wryly. “I hope they’ll be enough. What are all those boxes?”

“Lo mein noodle,” Hop Ling replied. “Mister Sutcliff special order. Noodle man ask Hop Ling bring, since Hop Ling come with tablecloth and pick up laundry for Missus.”

“Have two of your assistants stow those boxes out in the shed ‘round back,” Nigel ordered.

“Back where you put firework?”

Nigel nodded. “I’ll see that they’re shown to the basement when they have finished unloading your wagon,” he said. “If you and the rest of your assistants would be so kind as to follow me?”

Hop Sing quickly moved back toward the boxes, stacked in the rear of the buckboard, effectively blocking Joe from view as he jumped down, then moved to assist Yin-Kuan, the Li family matriarch. Hop Ling, meanwhile, set the brake on the wagon, as the remaining members of his family climbed down. He, Yin-Kuan, his daughter, and granddaughter meekly fell in step behind Nigel Rothburn, as he led the way directly to the basement.

Meanwhile, Hop Sing handed one of the boxes down to Joe, then prepared to alight from the conveyance himself.

“Hop Sing, these boxes are pretty light,” Joe said, taking care to keep his voice low. “I can easily take another.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure,” Joe replied with an emphatic nod of his head. “Oh! Would you mind handing down that canvas bag? It’s over there, under the seat.”

“You mean bag with insurance?”

“Ssssshhhh! Willya please keep your voice down? I don’t want ANYONE to find out about that trump card unless and until I have to play it,” Joe hissed.

Hop Sing quickly retrieved the canvas bag and passed it to Joe, before handing him another crate of the lo mein noodles. Joe took the draw strings of the canvas sack and carefully maneuvered it between himself and the crates in hand. Hop Sing jumped down and grabbed a crate sitting close to the edge. They crossed the yard in silence, taking the dirt path skirting around the Sutcliffs’ formal gardens. Less than a moment later, they reached the storage shed.

Hop Sing, being the first to reach the door, pressed and held the crate in hand up against the wall, balancing it with one hand, while he pushed the door open with the other. “Little Joe, you have match?”

“Oh har de har har!” Joe responded sardonically, as he stepped up to the open door, following a few feet behind Hop Sing. “Very funny.”

“Hop Sing no make joke. It dark in here, very, very dark. Not see hand in front of face.”

Stepping inside the small, windowless structure, Joe realized that Hop Sing was absolutely right. He set his boxes down and placed the canvas bag on top. “I think maybe I DO have a match, Hop Sing,” he said as he fumbled through the pockets of the Chinese style pants he now wore. His finger tips lightly brushed against a small wooden box. “I found ‘em.”

“Where Little Joe?” Hop Sing called from somewhere in the darkness, over in front of him, to his right.

“I’m over here . . . by the door,” Joe replied.

“Hop Sing find lamp.”

“You hold your horses a moment.” Joe pulled the box of matches from his pants, and , after removing one, struck it against the edge of his boot. The match ignited instantly.

Hop Sing stepped into the small circle of illumination a moment later, with lamp in hand. He lifted the glass, allowing Joe to light the wick.

“Whoa!” Joe exclaimed as Hop Sing held up the flickering light. Much of the shed’s interior was taken up by crate upon crate of fireworks, with long strings of coiled dynamite fuse liberally strewn over what remained of the floor space. “I’m sure glad you found that lantern, Hop Sing. A guy could fall and break his neck in here, otherwise.”

“Hop Sing sent lamp here, on floor next to door. Little Joe be careful. Not want start fire with fireworks.”

“I’ll be careful,” Joe promised. “Where are ya stacking the lo mein noodles?”

“Only place,” Hop Sing said, as he turned and picked up one of Joe’s crates, still sitting just inside the door. “Up here, on top of firework.”

Joe nodded, as the match, used to light the lamp, slipped from his fingers. He turned and picked up his second box, and placed it up on top along side the first, not knowing that the match had dropped on top of the very end of a long, coiled piece string of dynamite fuse. A tiny, remaining spark caught, igniting the frayed edge of fuse. The flame, too small yet to be discerned by human eyes, slowly, relentlessly began to eat into the fuse, that wound ‘round and ‘round, its other end reaching deep amid the stack crates of fireworks.

 

Meanwhile, inside the cellar, Mei-Ling and her daughter, Yin-Ling set themselves to the task of separating Mrs. Sutcliff’s delicate “unmentionables” from her other clothing. Her father had, a few moments before, gone to see if the way to the ballroom was clear. Yin-Kuan hovered anxiously near the door.

“Mrs. Li, the coast is clear,” Hop Ling announced in Chinese, upon his return a seeming eternity later. “All you need to do is take a quick look. If those ARE the statues, we’ll inform the sheriff.”

Yin-Kuan nodded.

“We go up the stairs, this way,” Hop Ling said, extending his hand. “Be careful, these back steps are very steep.”

Yin-Kuan took hold of Hop Ling’s hand with a grip surprisingly strong in one so elderly, and allowed him to assist her in climbing the stairs. At the top, Hop Ling held up his hand for them to stop, just outside the door leading into the butler’s pantry. Yin-Kuan mutely nodded. Hop Ling very slowly, very cautiously cracked the door open and peered inside. The small room was neat, clean, and empty. He turned and motioned for Yin-Kuan to follow.

Hop Ling and Yin-Kuan moved noiselessly through the butler’s pantry, then into the cavernous, deserted formal dining room. When they reached the closed pocket doors, Hop Ling again signaled for them to halt. He, then, parted the pocket doors just enough to allow him a peek into the ball room.

“The coast is clear,” Hop Ling said. He noiselessly slid the doors open, and motioned for Yin-Kuan to follow. Together, they tip-toed over to the mantle piece, where Hop Ling had seen the statues earlier. Now, however, they were gone. The mantle stood empty. He and Yin-Kuan stood together, side by side, staring up at the empty mantle in complete and utter dismay.

“They were here! I KNOW they were! I SAW them!”

“He must have known that you saw,” Yin-Kuan said, her thick, salt and pepper eyebrows coming together in an angry frown. “He’s taken them away and hidden them.”

“They may be in his gallery,” Hop Ling whispered. “I know the way, but I must warn you, it will be risky. Mister Sutcliff’s gallery is upstairs on the second floor amid the family living space.”

“I MUST know whether or not this man has those statues,” Yin-Kuan said grimly. “Not only for the sake of the Li family honor, but for the sake of Yin-Ling, your granddaughter . . . . my great-granddaughter. Please take me to the gallery.”

“Please follow me, Mrs. Li. We need to go back the way we came.”

 

Hop Ling and Yin-Kuan silently retraced their steps back through the darkening rooms on the first floor to the butler’s pantry without incident. The latter, breathless from all of the unaccustomed moving about, closed the door of the pantry behind her and leaned against it heavily, while her companion fumbled through the deep pockets of his pants in the darkness, searching for matches. Hop Ling found the box, after a seeming eternity of searching. He pulled it from his pocket and, after a few moments more of fumbling, pulled out a single match.

After lighting the match, Hop Ling glanced around, trying to get his bearings. “There it is,” he finally announced in Chinese, his voice barely above a whisper. “These are the steps leading up.”

Yin-Kuan took a deep, ragged breath, then crossed the pantry to stand beside Hop Ling.

“As you can see, they’re very steep,” Hop Ling said, shining the light of the steadily diminishing match into the narrow stairwell. “Will you be able to manage?”

Yin-Kuan noted the look of concern on his face, and nodded. “I have to know whether this Mister Sutcliff has my great-granddaughter’s bride price or not,” she declared, her face set with grim, stubborn determination. “To that end, I have the strength to do what I must.”

Hop Ling blew out the match in hand, all but spent, then lit another. “Let’s go,” he whispered, “and please! Be very, very careful.”

“I will.”

Holding the burning match in hand aloft, Hop Ling silently moved into the stairwell, and started up, his arthritic knees loudly protesting the steep angle of incline. There was no railing, no hand hold of any kind to offer balance and stability. Fortunately, the confines within the stairwell were extremely narrow, with just enough room for an average sized person to pass. Hop Ling found he was able to keep his balance by moving up one step at a time, and keeping his back pressed firmly against the wall. With his free hand, he held tight to Li Yin-Kuan’s hand, pulling her up along with him.

Half way up the backstairs, Hop Ling and Yin Kuan heard someone giggle in the darkness above their heads, beyond the dim circle of light from the former’s match.

“Oh, Kirk, you should see yourself with that stern face. You look so silly!” The speaker was female, the same one the had just heard giggling. Hop Ling recognized it as belonging to Myrtle Abigail Sutcliff, the youngest Sutcliff daughter. To friends, what few she had, and family, she preferred to be known as Muffy.

“I mean it, Muffy.”

“Who are they?” Yin-Kuan asked. “What are they saying?”

“Kirk and Muffy Sutcliff. The youngest son and daughter,” Hop Ling explained.

“I mean it, too, Kirk. It’s a lovely night out, and I intend to take a short stroll in the garden before going to bed.”

“I’m coming with you.”

“No, you aren’t.”

“Yes, I am.”

“NO!” Muffy screamed and stamped her foot. “NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!”

“Muffy, for heavens sake, keep your voice DOWN. Mother’s gone to bed with another of her sick headaches, and Father . . . well, Father’s not in the best of moods this evening.”

“I’ll keep my voice down when you, Mother, and Father treat me like an adult,” Muffy said firmly. “Now . . . I am going to go downstairs, let myself out back, so that I might take a stroll in our gardens . . . ALONE!”

“Muffy— ”

“NO!”

Hop Ling and Yin-Kuan stared at one another in complete and utter dismay, when they heard the soft creek of the door up on the second floor opening.

“Dammit, Kirk— ”

“Muffy, it’s very unseemly for a young lady to go around swearing like a sailor.”

Muffy stamped her foot again, this time hard enough to shake the very timbers of the house. “I DON’T GIVE A DAMN, DO YOU HEAR ME? I JUST WANT TO TAKE A SHORT STROLL IN OUR GARDENS . . . ON OUR VERY OWN PROPERTY . . . BY MYSELF . . . BEFORE I GO TO BED.”

“MYRTLE ABIGAIL SUTCLIFF YOU GET BACK HERE!” Kirk yelled after her as she ran into the stair well. The clatter of her hard soled shoes against the wooden steps as she ran was near deafening.

“GO TO HELL!”

“Oh no!” Yin-Kuan groaned. “She’s coming this way. What’ll we do NOW?”

“Back down the steps . . . quickly,” Hop Ling urged.

“It’s no use,” Yin-Kuan shook her head in despair. “At the rate she’s running down the steps . . . I can’t even move HALF that fast these days.”

Hop Ling new all to well that Yin-Kuan spoke the truth. Both closed their eyes and mentally braced themselves for the inevitable.

“MASTER Kirk and MISS Myrtle, your father has asked me to escort you to his study at once.” It was Nigel Rothburn. At the sound of his voice, Muffy’s clamorous descent down the back stairs abruptly ceased.

“I . . . I TRIED to tell her— ” Kirk whined.

“Don’t tell me, tell your father,” Nigel rudely cut Kirk off. “Miss Myrtle, if you aren’t up here by the time I count three, I’m coming right down there after you.”

A curt, exasperated sigh exploded from Muffy’s lips. She, then, turned and stomped back up the stairs. Hop Ling and Yin-Kuan slowly exhaled the breaths they had been holding. The match in the former’s hand went out, just before they heard the door upstairs close. They waited in darkness, until the footsteps and the terse, angry voices finally faded away to silence.

“That . . . was close,” Hop Ling whispered.

“TOO close.”

They remained silent for awhile longer, their ears straining to catch the sounds of footsteps, or voices returning.

“Do you wish to continue, Mrs. Li?” Hop Ling finally asked.

“I must,” she replied. “For the sake of my great granddaughter’s happiness . . . for the restoration of my family’s honor . . . I must.”

“I am getting to old for these kinds of shenanigans,” Hop Ling observed silently, as he fumbled again in the darkness searching for a match. He lit it, striking it against the sole of his shoe. After all the time spent in near total darkness, the tiny light cast by the match was near blinding. They continued on up the remaining stairs, until Hop Ling finally, at long last stood on the top most step, just inside the door opening out onto the second floor. There was barely enough room to accommodate him.

 

 

Hop Ling signaled for Yin-Kuan to wait silently, with a gesture. She nodded. He reached out, his fingers curling loosely around the door knob, then blew out the match. Hop Ling, with heart in mouth, carefully eased the door open, praying fervently the entire time that the hinges wouldn’t squeak. After allowing his eyes sufficient time to adjust to the dimmed, almost non-existent, lighting, he began to study the lay of the land.

The door to the back stairs, used mostly by the servants, was at the end of a very long corridor. There was a large window at the other end. Hop Ling could barely make out its lines. On either side, he could make out recessed alcoves, spaced at varying intervals, shrouded in deep shadow. The door to the gallery, where Mister Sutcliff kept and displayed his art collection lay within one of those dark alcoves. Unfortunately, Hop Ling hadn’t the vaguest idea which one. Even worse, he had at least a dozen choices.

He turned and explained the situation to Yin-Kuan. “If you have any second thoughts— ”

“We’ve come THIS far, Hop Ling,” Yin-Kuan said quietly. “To turn back NOW would like a traveler, who turns back from his destination to return home . . . after completing nine tenths of the journey.”

Hop Ling smiled. “You are absolutely right,” he said. “Are you ready for the last leg of THIS journey?”

“Yes.”

After making absolute certain the coast was clear, Hop Ling gallantly helped Yin-Kuan up the last step and out into the corridor. The first alcove, with recessed door was set into the wall, to their left, roughly ten yards from the door to the back stairs. They moved noiselessly down the hall, every sense alert, with Hop Ling in the lead, Yin-Kuan following. As they drew near, Hop Ling motioned for them to halt, and to draw back, close to the main wall. Yin-Kuan flattened herself against the wall as much as her body would allow, then held her breath.

Hop Ling swallowed nervously, as he peered into the alcove. He noted with dismay, the thin line of dim light along the floor. “Someone’s in there,” he whispered as he drew back. “We must be very, VERY quiet.”

“That must be Mister Sutcliff’s study,” Yin-Kuan whispered back, remembering the set-to between the man’s son and daughter.

“Yes. I hear no one in there talking, but someone is moving around.” Hop Ling pointed to the next alcove on the other side of the corridor, roughly four or five yards distant. “We go there next.”

Yin-Kuan nodded, then once more fell in behind him. Before they had gone two thirds of the way to their destination, the their ears picked up the sound of heavy footfalls coming from somewhere behind them.

“This way! Quickly!” Hop Ling hissed, pointing to the next alcove up ahead.
The two of them ran the remaining distance, then squeezed into the dark shadows of the alcove. Hop Ling gently moved Yin-Kuan deep into the recessed area, then peered around the corner into the hall way.

A tall, thin man stepped through the door to the back stairs, and started down the corridor, moving at a brisk pace. Hop Ling half feared that the man might have seen them. He noted with great relief that the man turned and stepped into the first alcove, where he and Mrs. Li had seen the light shining under the door. They heard the sound of human knuckles striking against a wood door, followed by voices, a brief exchange of words, and finally a door opening.

“Hop Ling, there’s nobody in here,” Yin-Kuan said. “No light shines under the door, and I’ve been listening with my ear to the proverbial keyhole. Not a soul has stirred.”

“Thank you,” Hop Ling murmured gratefully, as he noiselessly slid one of the pocket doors into its place in the wall. The room was indeed dark, as Mrs. Li had said. Dark and empty of all people. He entered the room first, moving to his left, keeping himself flush up against the wall. Yin-Kuan followed.

It was an enormous room, with tall picture windows lining the entire back wall. After an indeterminate period of time spent groping in the darkness, Hop Ling bumped into a wall sconce. He removed the matches from his pocket and lit the lamp, making sure to turn the light down very low.

“Hop Ling, it looks like we got lucky,” Yin-Kuan exclaimed with a satisfied smile.

The walls to the left and right of the door were crammed with all manner of paintings, drawings, and prints by well known American artists, with a smattering of pieces purchased at the Salon on his recent trip to Paris. A ring of free standing sculpture lined the outer perimeter of the room, ranging in size and taste from a statue of Anubis, the jackal headed God of the Underworld from ancient Egypt, to a small, statue of the Hindu deity, Shiva, exquisitely carved from fine ivory, to a marble statue of Demeter, a gift from a friend who had enjoyed the rare privilege of visiting an actual archaeological dig on Greece, just outside of Athens. The center of the room was crammed with all manner of display cases, filled to the brim with a wide variety of carved stone pieces, ceramics, and jewelry.

At Yin-Kuan’s suggestion, they divided the room between them and began their search for the exquisitely carved jade statues that rightfully belonged to the Li family.

 

“Good evening.”

Hop Ling and Yin-Kuan very slowly, very reluctantly, turned and found themselves looking into the baleful, stone cold face of Geoffrey Sutcliff. He stood framed in the open door, impeccably attired in black pants, a white shirt, and a port wine brocade smoking jacket.

“Oh, so sorry,” Hop Ling said with a big smile, as genuine as a three-dollar bill, laying on the Chinese pigeon English thicker than a jug of molasses. “So very, very sorry. Tay-ke wrong turn, zig when shudda zag?!”

“Oh. So . . . solly. So velly solly,” Yin-Kuan murmured trying hard to imitate Hop Ling’s version of American English.

“Not half so much as that act,” Geoffrey snapped as he reached into the pocket of his smoking jacket and extracted a derringer.

Hop Ling and Yin-Kuan both froze and raised their hands.

“You must be the laundry man,” Geoffrey said, eyeing Hop Ling with disdain. “At the very least, you’re going to find that business has taken a significant turn for the worse, because I plan to take my laundry business elsewhere.”

“To where? State of Nevada Correctional Facility?” Hop Ling queried without missing a beat.

“If ANYONE goes to the State of Nevada Correctional Facility it’s going to be YOU,” Geoffrey sneered. He, then, turned to Yin-Kuan. A smile oozed its way across his lips. “Well, well, well. I WAS expecting a visit from your grandson, or some other male family member, but NOT the family matriarch herself,” he said with a touch of sarcasm. “I must say your presence, Madam, is quite a surprise.”

“Y-You know we come?!” Hop Ling blurted out in surprise.

“Oh yes, I’ve been expecting you since Mister Rothburn told me about how intensely you scrutinized the jade statues,” Geoffrey replied. “He thought you were simply admiring the exquisite work of a countryman. I, however, thought it kind of odd that a mere laundryman would take so keen an interest in such fine works of art, so I did some checking. When I learned that your daughter had actually married into the Li family . . . well, I KNEW you’d be back.”

Yin-Kuan turned to Hop Ling. “Who IS that man?” she demanded in Chinese. “What is he saying?”

“He is the back-side-of-a-mule who purchased the statues from the thieves,” Hop Ling replied. His less than kind reference to Geoffrey Sutcliff brought an amused smile to Yin-Kuan’s face. He then translated the remainder of what Geoffrey had said.

“Then he knows the statues belong to the Li family,” Yin-Kuan said, her face darkening with anger.

“Yes, it would seem so.”

“You’ll both stop speaking in that ear-splitting gibberish at once,” Geoffrey ordered petulantly. They were ignoring him. Being ignored was the one thing Geoffrey Sutcliff hated above all else. “Furthermore, you’ll speak only when spoken to and then only to ME. Other wise you will keep your mouths shut.”

“Mrs. Li not speak American,” Hop Ling replied.

Geoffrey glared sullenly at Hop Ling for a moment, then sighed. “Oh all right. You tell HER what I just now told you . . . but nothing ELSE. You understand?”

“Hop Ling understand.” He turned and began to translate for Yin-Kuan’s benefit.

Geoffrey Sutcliff, keeping his eyes and the barrel of his derringer trained on the elderly man and woman before him, reached behind and to his left with his free hand to pull a braided cord the same color as his smoking jacket. Nigel Rothburn entered a moment later. Though he registered surprise upon seeing Hop Ling and Yin-Kuan in a place so far removed from the basement and the laundry, he said nothing. He merely looked over at his employer and waited expectantly.

“Mister Rothburn, I caught these two in the act of stealing,” Geoffrey Sutcliff said in a stone cold voice, bringing a look of sheer horror to Hip Ling’s face. “I want you to dispatch one of the footmen to fetch the sheriff at once.”

“Yes, Sir. What of their cohorts?”

“Cohorts?”

“Yes, Sir. When Hop Ling came, ostensibly to pick up Mrs. Sutcliff’s laundry, he brought this woman here and four others,” Nigel informed his employer.

“Where are they now?”

“I showed them all down to the basement.”

“Send some men downstairs to round them up, and escort them to my study,” Geoffrey said. “The three of us will meet you there. When the sheriff arrives, the entire motley crew will be turned over to him and placed under arrest.”

 

“Little Joe?”

“Y-Yeah, Hop Sing?”

“Do YOU know far Papa had to take Mrs. Li to see the jade statues?” Hop Sing asked. They had long ago switched to speaking Chinese exclusively.

“I’m afraid I don’t remember much about the layout of this house, Hop Sing,” Joe replied. “I’ve only been here twice for a couple of birthday parties when I was just a little kid . . . and that was before MA died.” He fell silent for a moment, thinking. “From what Hop Ling told me on our way out to the Ponderosa, I kinda think it’s not too far, once you get upstairs. Why do you ask?”

“Papa and Mrs. Li have been gone for a very long time,” Hop Sing said, looking anxious. “When you and I came in, after putting the lo mein in the shed . . . this laundry pile was almost to the ceiling. Now it’s barely to my waist, and we’ve got so many SMALL piles spread out over this basement, we’re tripping over them.”

“Joe?” Yin-Ling ventured, her eyes wide with alarm.

“Yes, Yin-Ling?”

“Y-You don’t suppose something’s gone wrong . . . . !?”

“I think it’s a little too soon to tell,” Joe said. “For one thing, even though both of ‘em move well enough for people as old as they are, but they don’t move fast, and if they’ve had to tip-toe around the other servants in this place . . . that’s gonna hold ‘em up even more.”

“I still think they’ve been gone too long,” Hop Sing anxiously insisted.

“I’m worried, too. Little Joe?”

“Yes, Mei Ling?”

“Think, maybe you could go have a look?” Mei-Ling suggested hopefully.

“No,” Hop Sing immediately shook his head. “Bad idea! VERY bad idea!”

“Why?” Mei-Ling demanded.

“If they catch Little Joe, they’re going to find out he’s only a PAINTED Chinese, not a REAL Chinese. If THAT happens, the rest of us are gonna end up in real deep . . . . ”

“You don’t need to say it, Hop Sing,” Joe quickly interjected.

“I WAS gonna say hot water. Real deep hot water,” Hop Sing stated, as he directed a withering glare over in Joe’s general direction.

“Let’s give ‘em a little while longer,” Joe suggested.

The sound of the door, upstairs in the butler’s pantry, slowly creaking open, drew everyone’s attention.

“That’s gotta be them,” Joe whispered to Hop Sing. “I’ll bet they had to hide from someone cleaning upstairs for awhile.”

Hop Sing, looking visibly relieved, began to blot away the beads of sweat dotting his forehead with the end of his sleeve.

Mei-Ling dropped the black silk stockings that she held, one in each hand, into a small pile of dark delicate garments, then ran around to the bottom of the steps. “Papa? Grandmother?!” she called out in English, as her eyes strained to make out the dimmed outlines of the human forms now descending the stairs.

“No, Lady, no Papa.”

Joe Cartwright immediately recognized that slow drawl as belonging to “Tex” Warren, a lazy ne’er do well his father had fired not long ago for incompetence, drinking alcohol on the job and showing up for work drunk, and excessive cruelty toward animals.

“Hey! Take you hands OFF me!” Mei-Ling protested. “You HURT me!”

Hop Sing and Joe Cartwright were half way around to the bottom of the steps before Mei-Ling finished giving voice to her complaint. Yin-Ling followed a scant half dozen steps behind.

“You three . . . you stop-ee right there,” ‘Tex’ ordered. He stood down on the basement floor, surrounded by seven footmen, whose hardened faces might have looked more at home in garments with horizontal stripes, and a number, accessorized with ball and chain, rather than the servants’ livery they wore. ‘Tex’ held Mei-Ling’s forearm in a tight vice-like grip. “No tick-kee, no wash-shee, Folks.”

“Oh, puh-leeeeze!” Yin-Ling muttered under her breath, while sarcastically rolling her eyes heavenward.

“Ok, we take-kee you to old man and old woman,” ‘Tex’ continued, addressing Hop Sing, Joe, and Yin-Ling as he would an exceptionally stupid child. “You come-mee with-ee me . . . or I break-kee this la-dee arm.”

“I’d like to ‘no tick-kee, no wash-shee’ a real good one right where it REALLY hurts,” Yin-Ling growled under her breath in Chinese, drawing a warning glare from her uncle.

Joe quietly grabbed up the canvas laundry bag, containing the extra insurance he had brought from home, and fell in behind Hop Sing, taking care to keep his face averted.

‘Tex’ led the way up the basement stairs, with Mei-Ling clasped firm in his iron grip. One of the footmen followed, carrying a lamp. Yin-Ling, Hop Sing, and Joe came after him, with the remaining footmen bringing up the rear.

“OW! Leggo! You hurting me!” Mei-Ling protested, as ‘Tex’ unceremoniously dragged her up the back stairs to the second floor, where Mister Sutcliff’s study was located.

“Shut-up!” ‘Tex’ growled.

“YOU LEAVE MY MOTHER ALONE!” Yin-Ling yelled, her face contorting with anger.

“If you ladies don’t shut the hell up, I’ll shut you up myself,” ‘Tex’ threatened, waving a tightly balled fist in Mei-Ling’s face for emphasis.

“You so much as lay a finger on either of these women, I’m gonna bust you in the mouth so hard, you’re gonna be picking teeth off the pages of Sears ‘n Roebuck catalogs for real long time,” Joe countered, favoring ‘Tex’ with a murderous glare.

“Cartwright?!” ‘Tex’ murmured, surprised. “That really YOU?”

“In the flesh ‘n twice as ugly!”

“Yeah . . . ugly is right,” ‘Tex’ sneered, favoring Joe with a mirthless smile. “What’re you made up for anyway? It’s ‘way too early for Halloween.”

“Shut-up and take us to your leader,” Joe growled back.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re trying to prove, Cartwright, but you and your coolie friends are in deep up to your necks. You KNOW that, don’tcha?”

“We’ll see,” Joe said evasively.

A few moments later, the group found themselves standing before the closed door to Geoffrey Sutcliff’s study. ‘Tex’ released Mei-Ling with a rude shove that sent her careening into her companions, they stepped up to the door and knocked. The door was opened by Nigel Rothburn.

“I’ve rounded up the others from the basement like you asked, Mister Rothburn,” ‘Tex’ said through clenched teeth.

“Thank you, Alvin,” Nigel said in a condescending tone. That, plus the use of the man’s real name, elicited a derisive snicker from Joe. He, then, turned to the man who had carried the lamp to light their way up the dark stairwell of the back steps. “David, if YOU would be so kind as to escort these ruffians in to join their fellows. The rest of you may return to your work.

“Mister Rothburn, one of these ruffians is Joe Cartwright,” ‘Tex’ said with raised voice, all the while trying to steal a glance at Mister Sutcliff over Nigel’s shoulder.

“Thank you, Alvin, I will be sure to inform Mister Sutcliff. You may return to your work now.” Nigel stood aside to allow David room to herd Hop Sing, Mei-Ling, Yin-Ling, and Joe into the study, then pointedly closed the door in ‘Tex’s’ face, leaving the young man seething.

 

“Come in, please, and make yourselves comfortable,” Geoffrey said, addressing his reluctant guests. He gestured to the six hard back chairs all lined up facing his desk. Four were empty, the two on the end to Geoffrey Sutcliff’s left, were occupied by Hop Ling and Yin-Kuan. “It would appear that the family who commits a crime together is going to end up serving time together.”

“You can’t have us thrown in jail,” Yin-Ling sputtered angrily.

“Oh yes indeed I can, Young Lady,” Geoffrey replied, “and I WILL, just as soon as one of my men returns with the sheriff.”

“On what charge?” Yin-Ling demanded.

“For openers, there’s breaking and entering,” Geoffrey said. “Add to that attempted theft . . . . ”

“If anyone’s a thief here, Mister Sutcliff, it’s YOU!” Yin-Ling accused, angered now past all sense of reason.

“Me?”

“Yes, YOU! You have the Li family treasure here in your house! My venerable grandfather SAW it.”

“ . . . and I say I DON’T have your family’s treasure here, Miss Li. It’s MY word against that of your grandfather,” Geoffrey said, as a smug, triumphant smile spread slowly across his lips, “and given the fact that he also numbers among the thieves whom I caught red handed in the act of stealing . . . well, let’s just say that there’s no question in MY mind as to who’s going to be believed.

“As for YOU, Young Cartwright, your father is going to be most disappointed when he finds out about this fast crowd you’re running around with,” Geoffrey continued. “I must confess to being somewhat surprised myself, since I had been led to believe that your father is a responsible parent. It would appear that I was quite WRONG, although . . . . ” His lips curved upward, forming a smug, prurient smile. “ . . . his past relations with the mother of your sister, and this tawdry business with the school teacher should certainly have suggested to me otherwise.”

“Alright, Mister Sutcliff, that’s it!” Joe said, his own face darkening with anger. “You can say anything about ME, but when you malign my friends, my pa, and my sister . . . Buster, the kid gloves come off.”

“So the Cartwright lion cub shows his claws. I am so frightened.”

Joe bristled against the condescending scorn he heard in Geoffrey Sutcliff’s tone.

“Your presence here quite frankly surprises me, Cartwright,” Geoffrey continued. He favored Joe with a tight, mirthless smile. “Your father’s apparent horrendous lack of parenting skills not withstanding, he IS nonetheless quite wealthy. I could well understand you committing OTHER crimes perhaps, but not stealing. You have no need to steal.”

“As Miss Li just got through telling you, we’re not here to steal anything, Mister Sutcliff,” Joe said with a wild feral grin. “We’re here to reclaim her family’s property.”

“ . . . and as I myself just got through telling Miss Li, her supposed family treasure is not here,” Geoffrey said, “nor can any of you prove it IS.”

“Miss Li’s grandfather says it IS here,” Joe pressed. “He saw it.”

“I’ve been over this ground before with the laundry man and Mrs. Li. The harsh fact of the matter is, the law is on MY side. As soon as that incompetent excuse for a sheriff arrives, you’re all going to be arrested, then tried and jailed for breaking and entering, and attempted theft. That’s it. Period. End of story.”

“Oohhh, I wouldn’t go counting my jailbirds before they’re hatched if I were you, Mister Sutcliff.”

“Cartwright, this inane cat and mouse game has long ago grown tiresome.”

Joe shrugged with insulting indifference. “Ok. We’ll play a new game,” he said, his hazel eyes shining with eager anticipation. “I call THIS one Cinderella.”

“Cinderella?!”

“Yes, Mister Sutcliff, Cinderella,” Joe replied. “The object of the game is to see whose foot fits this glass slipper.” With that, he drew the pink rhinestone studded, high heeled shoe from the canvas bag he still held in his hands.

Geoffrey Sutcliff blanched upon seeing the shoe in hand.

Hop Sing, his own eyes round as saucers, let out a low whistle. “That some lady shoe,” he murmured softly. “Big enough to fit Mister HOSS!”

“ALMOST big enough to fit Hoss,” Joe said grinning from ear-to-ear. “My big brother’s foot’s a smidge’ too wide in the beam to properly fit into this shoe, and ANYONE can see it’s ‘way too big to fit any of the ladies present.”

“Where did you get that?” Geoffrey demanded, as his ashen gray complexion slowly transformed to an odd purple hue.

“I found it,” Joe replied with all the innocence of an angel.

“WHERE?!”

“I am NOT at liberty to say, Mister Sutcliff,” Joe replied. “Now, where was I?”

“You just said that shoe’s too big to fit my venerable great-grandmother, my mother, or myself,” Yin-Ling adroitly supplied the answer, as she also took great delight in Geoffrey Sutcliff’s discomfiture.

“Thank you, Yin-Ling,” Joe said, favoring her with his most charming smile. “Now this lovely ‘glass slipper’ was obviously custom made. I’ve NEVER seen a lady with a foot THIS large before, so I have to assume the shoe manufacturing companies haven’t either.”

“Mister Cartwright— ” Geoffrey snarled threateningly through clenched teeth.

“Hey! I’ve come up in the world,” Joe quipped as he carefully placed the enormous high heel down on the floor. “I’ve suddenly gone from being a lion cub to Mister Cartwright. Now as I was saying, before being so rudely interrupted . . . . ” he directed a meaningful glare over in the general direction of Geoffrey Sutcliff, “this shoe is definitely too big to fit any lady I know.” Smiling once again, he lifted his leg and eased his own foot into the cavernous shoe. “As you can also plainly see, this shoe’s too big to fit me.”

“Mister Cartwright!”

“How ‘bout YOU, Mister Sutcliff? YOU care to try it on?”

“No,” Geoffrey returned in a voice stone cold.

“Why ever NOT, Mister Sutcliff?”

“I’ve had more than enough of this nonsense,” Geoffrey sputtered angrily.

A discreet knock on the closed door to Geoffrey Sutcliff’s study drew the attention of all present.

“WHO IS IT?” Geoffrey shouted.

“Mister Rothburn, Sir. Sheriff Coffee has just arrived.”

“It’s about damn’ time,” Geoffrey growled. “Rothburn, please show the good sheriff here, to my study.”

“At once, Sir.”

Geoffrey turned and favored Joe with a malicious smile. “Well, Cartwright, I can’t say it’s been a pleasure— ”

“Mister Sutcliff, I’m giving you a choice,” Joe said curtly, all trace of impish amusement gone. “You can either produce the Li family’s jade statues for the sheriff when he comes in, OR I will ask my brother, Hoss, to show this glass slipper’s MATE to Miss Mudgely and Mrs. Kirk, and let THEM know who the rightful owner is. I trust we understand each other?” He smiled.

Another discreet knock on the door drew Geoffrey’s attention from Joe. “Yes, Rothburn?”

“I have Sheriff Coffee with me, Sir.”

“Show him in.”

Nigel Rothburn opened the door, then stood aside to allow Roy Coffee to enter the room.

“I understand ya caught a gang o’ thieves, Mister Sutcliff?” Roy queried, directing looks of surprise at Joe Cartwright, Hop Sing, Hop Ling, and the female members of the Li family.

There was a moment of silence that, to Joe and the others, seemed to stretch into an unbearable eternity.

“I’m terribly sorry, my man must have misunderstood,” Geoffrey said with a grimace so grotesque, it was all Joe could do not to burst out into a fit of his infectious, high pitched giggles. He quickly balled his fist and stuffed it into his mouth, praying that would suffice at least for the short term. “It has come to my attention, Sheriff, that certain works of art, which I purchased in good faith, are in fact stolen goods. Rothburn.”

“Yes, Sir?”

“The jade statues I purchased recently from Mister Meredith . . . you will find them in my bedroom. Please bring them.”

Nigel’s eyes widened slightly in surprise, but he nodded. “Yes, Sir,” he responded with his usual aplomb, then turned heel and left to do as his employer had asked.

“You have THESE good people to thank for bringing the matter to my attention,” Geoffrey continued through clenched teeth.

“Well, Mister Sutcliff, I really appreciate ya makin’ MY job a li’l easier,” Roy said gratefully. He smiled and held out his hand.

“The pleasure is all mine,” Geoffrey lied as he reached out and shook the lawman’s hand.

“You’ll be happy t’ know that Mister Meredith is under arrest ‘n coolin’ his heels in m’ jail,” Roy said. “Seein’ as how he’s admitted his guilt, there won’t be a trial, just a hearin’ t’ determine sentence.”

“That’s good to know,” Geoffrey said with a scowl. “At least I can get my money back.”

“Money?” the sheriff queried.

Geoffrey tried desperately to ignore that deep sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.

“ . . . there AIN’T any money. Mister Meredith claims y’ never paid him.”

“He WHAT?!”

“He claims y’ never paid him,” Roy said again. “My deputy, Clem, searched him carefully. He found a couple a dollars on ‘im, but that was all.”

“That scoundrel!” Geoffrey growled. “That no-good cheating SCOUNDREL!”

“Now could be his associates somehow cut Mister Meredith outta the deal,” Roy suggested.

“Where are THEY?”

“By THIS time, they’re probably half way t’ Mexico, or where ever they’re headed.”

“Wonderful,” Geoffrey fumed.

“Mister Sutcliff?” It was Nigel Rothburn, carrying the statue of Kuan-Yin. Another footman followed carrying the statues of Chang-O and Hou-Yi. “I have the statues as you have requested.”

“Hand them over to the sheriff,” Geoffrey growled, glaring venomously at the laundry man and his cohorts. If looks could have killed, the man would have been jailed immediately for mass murder.

Joe and Hop Sing merely smiled back and waved.

“Joe, would y’ mind givin’ me a hand with— ” Roy suddenly stopped mid-sentence upon getting a good look at the youngest Cartwright son’s black curls. “What in the ever lovin’ world happened t’ your hair?” the sheriff demanded with a frown.

“Long story, Sheriff Coffee,” Joe said, as he took two of the statues from Roy. He then turned back to Geoffrey. “Oh, uhhh, Mister Sutcliff, you can have your glass slipper, but I’m keeping its mate someplace real safe, y’ know . . . . just in case?”

“Rothburn,” Geoffrey growled, his entire massive frame quaking with impotent fury, “show these good people OUT! NOW!”

 

By the time Ben, Hoss, and Stacy had reached town, darkness had fallen. The night was clear and warm, though not unpleasantly so. The Big and Little Dippers were easily discernable among the myriad of stars overhead, as was the North Star, and the constellation of Orion. The shops and other places of business were now closed, while the saloons were gearing up for a long night of brisk business.

“Lotta folks out t’night,” Hoss remarked as he, his father, and sister were forced to slow their horses to a walk.

“New burlesque opening tonight at the theater,” Ben replied.

“Can we go some night?” Stacy asked, remembering the time her brother, Joe, had taken her not long after she came to live with her father and brothers on the Ponderosa. All she had remembered was the music and the wonderful costumes, hued in vivid colors, glittering with rhinestones and sequins.

“Sure,” Ben replied, “when I decide you’re old enough.”

Her face fell. “When will THAT be?”

“Ask me that question again when you’re thirty.”

“But, Pa . . . I’ll be so OLD by then!” Stacy protested.

Hoss laughed out loud. Ben found himself chuckling, too, despite his worries about the potential trouble his youngest son might be getting himself into at this very moment.

“No y’ won’t, Li’l Sister,” Hoss said. Though his laughter had begun to subside, the smile remained. “When YOU finally git there, you’re gonna find thirty ain’t so old after all.”

“How do YOU know?” Stacy demanded.

“I OUGHTTA know, seein’ as how I’m gonna be turnin’ thirty next birthday.”

“Come on, let’s cut through this way,” Ben said, turning serious, as they came to one of the numbered streets. “I know this goes all the way down to A Street.”

The Cartwrights turned onto a residential street, largely deserted except for an occasional horse and rider headed down toward the main street. Here they urged their horses to a brisk trot.

“Pa, what’re we gonna do when we git to the Sutcliffs?” Hoss asked, as they rounded the corner onto A Street.

“To be perfectly honest, Hoss . . . I’m not quite sure,” Ben admitted reluctantly.

“Hey, Pa, look!” Stacy pointed to a buckboard turning out of the driveway to one of the big houses a few blocks down A Street on the right side of the road. “That man driving looks like Grandpa.”

“That’s Li’l Brother alright,” Hoss said, with a profound sense of relief. “I think that’s Hop Ling ‘n Mrs. Li riding up in the front seat beside him.”

“Uh . . . oh . . . . ”

“Pa, what is it?” Hoss asked.

“ . . . I think THAT’S Roy Coffee!” Ben said with sinking heart upon seeing a rider on horse back following behind the buckboard. He immediately nudged Buck to a full gallop down the deserted street on an intercept course toward the buckboard and lone rider. Stacy and Hoss followed closely behind on Blaze-Face and Chubb, respectively.

“ ‘Evenin’, Ben . . . Stacy . . . ‘n Hoss,” Roy greeted his friends affably, with a smile.

“Pa?” Joe peered over at his father and siblings in surprise. “Hoss?! Stacy? What’re YOU doing here?”

“I was just about to ask you the same question, Young Man,” Ben said sternly.

“Mister Cartwright, we get back jade statues!” Hop Sing exclaimed with glee, from his place in the back of the buckboard, sandwiched between his sister and niece.

“You WHAT?!” Ben exclaimed, unable to quite believe his ears.

“You heard the man, Pa,” Joe said, grinning from ear to ear. “We got the statues back.”

“Ok, you’ve given me the GOOD news,” Ben said wryly. “Now what’s the BAD news?” He mentally braced himself for the worst.

Roy looked over at Ben with a bewildered frown. “There ain’t no bad news, Ben.”

“No assault and battery charges?” Ben pressed. “No charges of breaking and entering?!”

“Nope,” Roy shook his head. “Hop Ling was here on legitimate business, ‘n he brought along his family t’ help him out. They was asked t’ come in, all nice ‘n legal.”

“Then . . . please don’t misunderstand my next question, Roy, but . . . what’re YOU doing here?” Ben asked.

“One o’ Mister Sutcliff’s men came bustin’ into my office with some wild story ‘bout Mister Sutcliff havin’ caught a gang a thieves that broke into his house, but it was all a big misunderstandin’,” the sheriff replied.

“Oh?” Ben queried, directing a sharp glare toward his son. “Any idea as to WHY Mister Sutcliff’s man misunderstood?”

“None at all, Pa,” Joe replied a beat too quickly, the look on his face a little too wide eyed and innocent. He swallowed nervously and averted his eyes away from his father’s all-knowing glare. “L-Like Sheriff Coffee said we were all asked to come in nice and . . . l-legal.”

“From what I could gather, it SEEMS Mister Sutcliff had no idea he’d bought stolen goods, ‘til this motley crew pointed that fact out to him,” Roy said. The scowl on his face made it clear that he put very little credence in Geoffrey Sutcliff’s allegations. “At any rate, he voluntarily turned all three o’ them statues over t’ me.”

“Voluntarily?!” Ben echoed, incredulous.

“Yep. Since Mister Meredith ‘n Mister Li pleaded guilty t’ the charges o’ robbin’ that stage, I won’t need t’ hold ‘em as evidence. Hop Sing?”

“Yes, Mister Sheriff?”

“Y’ can tell Mrs. Li that she’s free t’ take the statues with her,” Roy said.

Hop Sing eagerly translated. Yin-Kuan smiled, then said a few words in Chinese. “Mister Sheriff, Mrs. Li say thank you. She very, very, VERY grateful.”

“Tell her she’s welcome,” Roy replied. “I’m just glad everything’s turned out all right.”

“ . . . which means no one’s in trouble?” Ben asked.

“Ben, I just told ya this business o’ Mister Sutcliff holdin’ a gang o’ thieves at bay was just a plain ‘n simple misunderstandin’,” Roy said. “No one’s been arrested, leastwise no one HERE— ”

“ . . . and no one’s GOING to be?” Ben snapped out the question, while directing a meaningful glare over toward his youngest son.

“No,” Roy shot right back, with a touch of sarcasm. “Are y’ satisfied NOW, Ben?”

“Yes.” Ben exhaled the breath he had been holding, then raised his eyes to the heavens and breathed a silent prayer of thanks that everything had turned out well, and that no one had been seriously hurt in the process.

“Well, Folks, I need t’ be moseyin’ along,” Roy said. “I’ll be relievin’ Clem at the jail ‘round ten o’clock, an’ I’d like t’ get some supper in me and maybe grab forty winks in the meantime.”

“We need to get home ourselves,” Ben said. “Good night, Roy.”

“Good night.” With that, Roy turned his horse and headed for home.

“Pa?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“I’m real sorry I didn’t make it to the courthouse this afternoon,” Joe humbly apologized. “I honest ‘n truly wanted to be there for you, but— ”

“Apology accepted, Son,” Ben said with a smile, “and considering how THAT came out, it’s actually just as well you didn’t make it.”

“You mean you and Miss Ashcroft—?!”

“No, we DIDN’T get married,” Ben said.

“Really? That’s great, Pa!” Joe declared, grinning from ear-to-ear. “What happened?”

“Li’l Sister here showed up with Mister Meredith right when Judge Faraday asked if anyone knowin’ that this marriage shouldn’t take place, let him speak now or forever hold his peace,” Hoss replied with a big smile.

“You really got that ol’ scalawag to go back with you, Stace?”

“I sure did, Grandpa!” Stacy replied with a big smile of her own. “Fortunately for HIM he saved us both a lot of time and trouble by agreeing to come back on his own.”

“Then all’s well that ends well,” Joe said complacently. “We’ve recovered the jade statues, two of the men responsible for robbing that stage are behind bars, Pa didn’t have to marry Miss Ashcroft after all . . . . ”

“ . . . and Miss Ashcroft is with the man she REALLY loves,” Stacy added.

“Y’ know something, Kid?”

“What, Grandpa?”

“Cartwright and Cartwright, Private Investigators did good solving their first case,” Joe said. “Real good!”

“Yes, we did,” Stacy agreed.

“You mean your first and your LAST case,” Ben said very firmly, “because as of right now this very minute, the firm of Cartwright and Cartwright, Private Investigators is hereby officially OUT of business . . . FOR GOOD.” He glared at Joe first, then at Stacy. “Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, Sir,” Stacy sighed.

“Clear as glass, Pa,” Joe said.

“Good! Now let’s go home,” Ben said.

Pa?”

“Yes, Joe?”

“I have to take Hop Ling home first,” Joe said, “so we’ll catch up with you at house later.”

“Oh no you DON’T, Joseph Francis Cartwright,” Ben said in a firm tone that brooked no dissension of any kind. “We are ALL going to take Hop Ling home TOGETHER.”

“What’s the matter, Pa? Don’t you trust me?” Joe asked, all wide-eyed innocence, with his mouth turned down just enough.

“Of COURSE I trust ya, Son . . . and right now, I trust ya about as far as I can throw ya,” Ben replied, unmoved.

A loud, shrill whistle brought further conversation to a screeching halt. The Cartwrights, the Lis, Hop Sing, and Hop Ling all looked skyward in the direction from whence the whistling came. They were surprised to see a rocket, glowing a hot bright yellow white, rising up into the night sky, leaving a thin white vapor trail in its wake. Upon rising to its highest point, it hovered for a split second, then exploded into blinding white light, with a deafening roar that spooked the horses, and brought people running out of the houses lining both side of the street.

Hoss regained control over Chubb in the matter of a few minutes, though for him it seemed an eternity. “Pa? Stacy? How’re YOU doin’?” he asked, as he moved in to give Joe a hand with the team hitched to the buckboard.

“I’m ok, Hoss,” Stacy replied immediately.

“Buck’s still a mite skittish, but I’ve got him in hand,” Ben said.

“Hey! Ben! I thought that was you . . . . ”

Ben turned and found himself staring down into the face of his lawyer and good friend, Lucas Milburn. Ellie, Lucas’ youngest daughter, aged twelve, followed close behind. “Good evening, Lucas . . . Ellie.”

“Hello, Mister Cartwright. I hear the wedding between you and Miss Ashcroft is OFF. . . permanently,” Ellie said artlessly.

“Ellie!” Lucas turned and favored his young daughter with a warning glare.

“Oh!” she gasped. Ben could see the child’s face suddenly turning six shades or red, one after the other. “ . . . uuhhh, sorry.”

“It would appear the word is out,” the Cartwright family patriarch observed wryly.

“Yes,” Lucas sighed, “I— ”

“Papa, look!” Ellie cried out in delight, while tugging insistently on the sleeve of Lucas’ smoking jacket.

Lucas and Ben looked up in the direction she was pointing. Another rocket, this one glowing yellow had risen up into the night sky. On the porches and walks surrounding them, people were looking up, and pointing.

“Oh no,” Ben groaned. “STACY . . . JOE . . . HOSS! BRACE YOURSELVES!”

 

Ben had no sooner shouted that warning to his three children, when the rocket exploded into an enormous chrysanthemum burst that filled the entire sky. Though the sound was only a fraction of the decibel level generated by the first, the Cartwrights’ horses began to snort and paw the ground uneasily. Another yellow dot rose, followed by a red dot, then a blue. These also exploded one after the other, streaming long, glittering tendrils of gold, red, and blue. Ellie Milburn cried out with alarm and buried her face against her father’s chest.

The Cartwrights’ horses began to fidget now, in earnest. As Joe labored to keep a tight rein on the team, Hop Sing leapt out of the buckboard and ran forward to the horse on the driver’s right. This was the more calm, the more easy going of the two. If he could keep him under control, the other might be more easily managed.

“Little Joe, where firework come from?” Hop Ling asked, as he fought to keep himself and Mrs. Li in their seats.

“I dunno . . . . ” Joe replied, his mind focused on the task at hand.

“It looks like they’re comin’ from the Sutcliff place, Mister,” a young boy with a very pronounced Irish accent told Hop Ling as he ran past the buckboard.

Upon hearing the boy’s words, Hop Sing closed his eyes and groaned.

As the Cartwrights labored to regain control of their horses, more people spilled out of the houses, into the street. Two more blue dots rose, followed by another yellow. These also erupted into, fiery chrysanthemum-like blooms that filled the sky over head. Muted, awed ‘ooohhs’ and ‘aahhhs’ could be heard from the people already gathered in the street. More people began to rush out of the houses, joining those already outside.

“Pa, we gotta git outta here,” Hoss said apprehensively. “With them fireworks bringin’ all these people running helter-skelter out in the street . . . ‘n our horses as skittish as they are . . . somebody’s gonna git hurt.”

“I know, Hoss,” Ben murmured as he watched the crowd swell with increasing trepidation. “Stacy . . . Joe . . . . ”

“Yeah, Pa?” Stacy responded, as she, too, darted uneasy glances at the thronging mass of humanity in the street surrounding them.

“I’m listening, Pa,” Joe said curtly, as he and Hop Sing worked to keep the team from bolting.

“Let’s see if we can ease our way ba— ” Ben’s words were drowned in the shrill whistles of three rockets, all yellow-white arcing their way up into the sky, mixing with the screams of the people thronging the street. Each one exploded, one right after the other, in a flash of near blinding white light and a loud roar that frightened horses and humans alike.

Chubb and Blaze-Face reared. Hoss and Stacy struggled valiantly to not only regain control of their horses, but to keep themselves seated in the saddle as well. The people standing closest to the Cartwright offspring mounted on horseback, began to scatter. A young child, aged four, fell headlong onto the street into the path of Stacy’s horse, when a panicked young woman bumped her in the course of her own flight. Ben, with heart in mouth, managed to move Buck between Blaze-Face and the little girl, now screaming frantically for her mother.

“Oh no!” Yin-Ling whispered, as she watched Ben maneuver his own horse, frightened and dangerously on edge, between the little girl, and Stacy, who had just managed to rein in Blaze Face. Although the child was no longer in immediate danger of being trampled under horse hoof, the feet of panicked humans, all running in different directions was another matter entirely. She leapt from the buckboard, and started to push her way through the crowd to the little girl.

“YIN-LING! COME BACK HERE!” Mei-Ling shouted. She rose and started to climb over the side of the buckboard, as it moved forward in fits and starts under the impetus of frightened horses, just on the edge of bolting.

“Mei-Ling, NO!” Hop Ling reached out to restrain his daughter.

“But, Yin-Ling . . . . ”

“Yin-Ling will be alright,” Hop Ling said, in Chinese. “I need you to help me move Mrs. Li into the back with YOU. The way this buckboard’s jerking around, I’m afraid she’s going to fall.”

Mei-Ling nodded, and turned to help her father and Mrs. Li.

More yellow, red, and blue rockets rose one after the other, after the other, in rapid succession, exploding into glittering fiery chrysanthemums, which in turn, left behind billows of thick, white smoke. The smell of burning gunpowder lay heavy in the air.

Ben noted to his dismay, that the swelling tide had begun moving en masse in the opposite direction he needed to go. “Hoss . . . Stacy, I think we’d better dismount now, and try to move over to the side of the street,” he said tersely.

Hoss and Stacy nodded, and complied. The latter slipped off her jacket the minute both feet were planted solidly on the ground and placed it over blaze-Face’s eyes. Hoss quickly followed suit with his vest.

Ben watched as Hoss and Stacy began the arduous process of elbowing their way through the crowd to the side of the street for a few minutes. Then, satisfied they were on their way to relative safety, he turned and searched the crowd for Joe. He spotted his youngest son less than a minute later. “JOE!”

“YEAH, PA?”

“MOVE OFF THE ROAD!” Ben yelled.

“PA, YIN-LING’S GONE!” Joe shouted back.

“GONE?!” Ben echoed, with alarm. “WHERE?”

“I DON’T KNOW! LAST I SAW, SHE WAS RUNNING TOWARD YOU AND STACY.”

“JOSEPH— ”

“YEAH?”

“WE’LL LOOK FOR YIN-LING LATER, AFTER THINGS SETTLE DOWN,” Ben yelled. “FOR NOW, DO YOUR BEST TO MOVE OFF THE ROAD.”

“HOP SING, YOU GOT THAT?” Joe yelled, as he jumped down from the buckboard.

“HOP SING HEAR. SEE OPENING BEHIND LITTLE JOE.”

Joe quickly made his way toward the horses’ heads, while Hop Sing worked to keep the team still. He grabbed the reins of the other horse.

“Go that way,” Hop Sing said pointing to Joe’s left. “Mister Hoss, Miss Stacy already there.”

“I see ‘em,” Joe said grimly, as he and Hop Sing tugged on the reins with all their might. The horses hesitantly followed. “Hop Sing, can your sister drive a buckboard?”

“Yes.”

“Maybe you’d better ask her to move up to the driver’s seat and hold the reins, in case these guys take a notion to bolt,” Joe said. “It’s all I can do to hang on to ‘em NOW.”

Hop Sing nodded, then shouted Joe’s instructions to Mei-Ling in Chinese.

Mei-Ling shouted back a single syllable response, then moved up.

“It’s raining,” someone in the crowd shouted.

“Hey! It IS raining!”

Joe frowned. “What do they mean it’s raining? It CAN’T be raining. There’s not a cloud in the sky.”

Then, suddenly, there was an enormous explosion that literally rocked the country side. Rockets and bombs flew into the sky all at once, exploding into a grand finale of burning color, blinding light, explosions, and shrill whistles, made all the louder, all the more painful on the ears of horse and human alike by their great numbers.

“THE SUTCLIFFS’ HOUSE IS ON FIRE!” someone shouted.

Several dozen heads turned. Sure enough, billows of thick, white smoke could be seen rising from the vicinity of the Sutcliffs’ backyard. The teeming mass of humanity now became as a strong, powerful current, sweeping inexorably toward the Sutcliff mansion two blocks down. Li Yin-Ling, with the little girl still cradled safely in her arms, tried desperately to fight her way back to the place where she had last known her family to be.

“I want my mommy,” the child said. Though she had long ago cried herself out, she was nonetheless still very frightened.

“Tell you what, Child— ”

“I am NOT a child,” the little girl informed Yin-Ling indignantly. “I am a young LADY. I just had my birthday yesterday.”

“I’m very sorry, I didn’t know,” Yin-Ling said softly. “Since you ARE a young lady now, perhaps you can keep a sharp look out for your mommy, and let me know when you see her.”

“Ok,” the girl agreed, mollified for the moment by Yin-Ling’s apology. “But, maybe we’d better get under something.”

“It’s alright now,” Yin-Ling said. “I think most of the fireworks have already exploded.”

“But, it’s RAINING!”

“Raining?!” Yin-Ling echoed, incredulous. “It CAN’T be raining.”

“Yes it is . . . I just felt it.”

“YIN-LING!”

Relief surged through the young Chinese woman upon hearing the resonant, baritone voice she recognized as belonging to the head of the Cartwright Clan. “HERE, MISTER CARTWRIGHT!” Yin-Ling yelled back and waved vigorously.

Ben, on foot with Buck’s lead very firmly clenched in hand, moved with the surging mob toward Yin-Ling. He saw that she had the young child clasped in her arms, the same child who had nearly been trampled underfoot by a thoroughly panicked Blaze-Face a short while ago.

“Oh, Mister Cartwright, thank heaven!” Yin-Ling murmured, her relief at being reunited with him very evident.

“You all right, Yin-Lin?”

“Yes . . . . ”

“I’M all right, too, Mister Cartwright,” the little girl said very pointedly.

“Yes, I can see that you are,” Ben said, recognizing her as one of Hiram Baker’s daughters. “Hattie?”

“No, I’m ‘Lisabeth,” the girl said with a scowl, “and I want my mommy.”

“We’re going to find your mommy real soon,” Ben promised. “In the meantime, you’ll be safe with us.”

“But, it’s raining,” little Elizabeth whined.

“Raining?!” Ben echoed, incredulous, as he began to steer Yin-Ling over to the side, moving in a diagonal line against the crowd.

“Something’s falling,” Yin-Ling said. “Whatever it is . . . it’s getting heavier.”

“I toldja it’s raining,” Elizabeth said.

Ben frowned. Yin-Ling was right. Something was indeed falling, and growing heavier by the minute. But, whatever it WAS, it certainly wasn’t rain. In the distance, the strident clanging a fire bell could be heard. Within seconds, it was joined by another, then another, then another.

Overhead, one more rocket, a blue one, rose high up into the night sky and burst into an enormous chrysanthemum, amid the dying embers and thick clouds of smoke that remained of what had just gone before.

“JUMP HER LIVELY, BOYS, JUMP HER LIVELY!”

Joe frowned upon hearing the shouted battle cry of the volunteers making up the Virginia City Fire Brigade. As he stood watching, eight men turned onto A Street up ahead, pulling along the pressurized water tank. Another dozen volunteers ran along behind them. People began to move aside, opening a path just large enough for the volunteers to push their way through.

“Hunh!” Joe grunted in mild surprise. “Where’s the fire?”

“The Sutcliff house!” a passer-by paused just long enough to answer his question with eager relish.

Joe glanced down the street toward the Sutcliff mansion and saw for himself the telltale glow of fire.

Meanwhile, Hop Sing paused to study closely the “rain” that had fallen on his exposed hand and the sleeve of his garment. “Oy vey!” he gasped in horror, upon recognizing the true nature of the “precipitation” falling down on all their heads.

“What’s the matter with YOU?” Joe demanded as they finally reached the side of the road a few yards up from his big brother and younger sister.

“Little Joe, what you do?” Hop Sing groaned in dismay.

“Whaddya MEAN what did I do?”

“What you do with match?” Hop Sing pressed, trying hard to keep his voice down.

“WHAT match?”

“Match you light in Sutcliff shed so Hop Sing can see?”

“See what? When?!”

“See when Hop Sing and Little Joe put lo mein crates in shed.”

“Oh! Oh yeah . . . THAT match! I . . . . ” Joe frowned, trying to remember. “I . . . I dunno.”

“Hop Sing know. Little Joe drop match. Match not out.”

Joe paled as the implications of Hop Sing’s words suddenly began to dawn on him. “Hey, wait a minute! You don’t think . . . . ”

Hop Sing nodded.

“How do YOU know, uuhhhh . . . THAT’S what happened?”

“It raining.”

“I know it’s raining,” Joe growled. “Tell me something I DON’T know.”

“Rain NOT rain,” Hop Sing said.

“Whaddya mean not rain?”

“Not rain. Lo mein noodle.”

“Hoo boy!” Joe squeaked. “Hop Sing, you’ve got to promise me you won’t tell Pa about this.”

“Hop Sing promise not say one word to Little Joe papa, if Little Joe not say nothing to HOP SING papa.”

“Deal!” Joe immediately agreed.

“Not say nothing to your papa about WHAT?” an all too familiar sonorous voice demanded.

Joe and Hop Sing both turned with sinking hearts and found themselves looking into the stern faces of Ben and Hop Ling.

“Yeah. What you young puppy not tell papa?” Hop Ling demanded.

Joe and Hop Sing looked at each other and swallowed nervously.

“Joseph? Hop Sing? WHAT did you DO?” Ben pressed, glaring at his son first, then at Hop Sing.

Joe and Hop Sing looked up at their fathers through eyes round with healthy fear and trepidation and forced smiles stretching from ear to ear. “NUH-THING!” both chorused together in unison.

The deepening scowl on Ben and Hop Ling’s faces told their dismayed sons that, at best, they were skeptical.

“Mister Cartwright? Papa?” It was Mei-Ling, still seated in the driver’s seat of the buckboard. Yin-Kuan sat beside her with hands primly folded in her lap. “Venerable Grandmother have something to say.”

All eyes turned expectantly to Yin-Kuan, who spoke a few quiet words in Chinese. Hop Sing’s forced smile relaxed into something more genuine, as wave upon wave of relief washed over him.

“Venerable Grandmother say she grateful for return of statue and of Li family honor,” Mei-Ling adroitly translated. “Mister Cartwright . . . Honorable Papa, she ask you have mercy on Little Joe and Hop Sing.”

“Alright,” Ben sighed wearily. “Mei-Ling, please tell Mrs. Li that Hop Ling and I will do as she asks.”

Mei-Ling nodded, then turned to translate.

“Hop Ling?”

“Yes, Mister Cartwright?”

“Between you and me? If Joe and Hop Sing DID have anything to do with tonight’s fireworks display . . . . ”

“Yes?”

“I don’t really think I wanna know.”

“Perhaps you right, Mister Cartwright. Perhaps you right.” Hop Ling grinned. “For big ugly ‘Merican, you wise man. Very wise man, indeed.”

 

“Bradley Meredith, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?” Judge Faraday intoned.

“Yes, I do, Your Honor,” Bradley replied.

“Judith Eleanor Ashcroft, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”

“I do, Your Honor,” Judith said. She turned and smiled radiantly over at the man standing beside her, separated by a wall of iron bars. “Indeed, I do.”

“Then by the power and authority vested in me by the State of Nevada, I now pronounce that you are husband and wife,” John Faraday said.

Bradley and Judith turned and locked lips passionately before the judge could even think of giving voice to the words, “ you may now kiss the bride,” amid the raucous cheers and applause from most of the people assembled to witness the vows.

Myra Danvers and Ezekiel Abercromby who had come, ostensibly as school board representatives, held themselves stiffly apart and aloof from the spontaneous eruption of gaiety, while Phineas Talbot, one of the photographers working for The Enterprise, finished setting up his camera. Li-Xing politely applauded the newly wed couple, but other wise seemed preoccupied.

The wedding guests making up the enthusiastic cheering section included the entire Cartwright family, Sheriff Coffee, Deputy Clem Foster, Molly O’Hanlan and her father, Francis; and the editor-in-chief of The Enterprise, a friend of long standing with the Cartwrights. Molly had proudly stood up for her former teacher as maid-of-honor, while Clem served as the best man, and Ben very cheerfully gave the bride away.

Looking over at the pained expression on Xing’s face, Ben remembered the brief conversation he had with Roy, a few moments before Judge Faraday arrived to officiate the exchange of marriage vows between Bradley Meredith and Judith Ashcroft . . . .
“Has ANY of his family come by to see him?” Ben had asked, out of feelings of pity for the young man.

Roy nodded. “They stopped by early this mornin’ on their way t’ signin’ the marriage contract, or whatever it is they do,” he replied.

“How did it go?” Ben asked. “Were there a lot of hard feelings?” He could hardly blame the family if they did harbor anger and resentment toward the young man, now incarcerated in the Virginia City Jail, for his part in the stage robbery. Had the statues NOT been recovered, the consequences for the rest of the family would have been devastating.

“They’re plenty upset with him,” Roy said, “but, I don’t think they’re gonna hold it against him forever.”

“Oh?”

“When they first came in, he was belligerent . . . like Clem said he was yesterday, when he was brought in,” Roy elaborated. “He started sayin’ things like them statues shouldda been his, how everything was his pa’s fault ‘cause he spent ‘n gambled away the family fortune. After that boy finished up with all his rantin’ ‘n ravin’, his ma steps over t’ the cell, ‘n she tells him how sorry she is for bein’ a poor mother to him.”

“Oh no!” Ben murmured in complete dismay.

“She sure as shootin’ DID. Then she told him she was gonna start makin’ it all up to him, startin’ right now this minute,” Roy continued. “Well, she turned t’ me ‘n asked if I had a paddle.”

“A . . . paddle?!”

Roy nodded. “I told her I wasn’t in t’ habit o’ keepin’ paddles ‘round here, that the closest thing I had was the li’l shovel sittin’ over in t’ pail where I keep coal in the winter. Well, she marches herself right over there ‘n grabs that shovel. THEN she asks t’ be let in the cell.”

“What did you do, Roy?”

“I opened the door ‘n let her go in,” Roy said. “Clem had just come in, so I figured between us, we could handle him, if things got outta hand. Well, that li’l lady marched right in there like she owned t’ place, sat down on the cot . . . pulled that boy right over her knee ‘n warmed his britches but GOOD, using that shovel.” He smiled. “I don’t think that boy’s gonna be sittin’ down any time too soon.”

“Good for Mei-Ling!” Ben declared with a big smile.

“She also told him she loved him and that he’d be welcome t’ come back ‘n be part o’ the family, after he’s done his jail time, but he’d hafta work real hard t’ earn their trust ‘n respect.”

“That’s as it should be, of course,” Ben agreed. “I’m glad to hear the door’s still open . . . . ”
As the cheers, applause, and foot stamping finally began to die away, Sheriff Coffee, his cheeks flushed an unusual rosy hue, very pointedly cleared his throat. “Mister ‘n Mrs. Meredith, I, uhhh, think we’ve had just about enough o’ that kissin’ the bride stuff. After all, we DO have a couple o’ impressionable young la— ” He halted mid-syllable on catching the ferocious glare on Stacy’s face. “Excuse me. Young WOMEN . . . present.”

 

“Good thing you stopped yourself when you did, Sheriff,” Bradley said sardonically. “That Cartwright gal kicks harder than a mule. I’m STILL limping.”

“I toldja once, an’ I’ll tell ya again, Mister Meredith, YOU got off real easy,” Hoss said with a grin.

“If I got off easy, I’d hate to find out what it is to learn the HARD way,” Bradley growled, favoring Stacy with a ferocious glare of his own.

“You just remember that the next time you’re tempted to insult me by that four letter word that starts with ‘L,’ ” Stacy quipped, unimpressed by Bradley Meredith’s fierce visage.

“Mister and Mrs. Meredith, I wish you both all the best,” Ben said with a big, warm smile. He offered his hand to the groom, then turned to kiss the bride.

“Mister Cartwright?”

“Yes, Mister Talbot?”

“If you and Mrs. Meredith could squeeze in a little closer to the groom, I can get all three of you together in the same picture.”

Ben and Judith complied.

“That’s very good,” Phineas said. He took the picture, then removed the exposed frame. “If you folks would be so kind as to hold that pose, I’d like to get another shot . . . in case the first doesn’t turn out.”

“Certainly,” Ben was more than happy to agree.

Phineas took the second picture. “Ok, Folks, you can all relax.”

“You’d best get on back to your dark room and get those pictures developed, Young Fella,” the editor-in-chief of The Enterprise said with a broad grin. He raised the cigar in hand to his lips and inhaled. “I intend to put that photo right smack dab in the middle of the front page of the next edition, which, by the way, goes to bed tonight.”

“I’ll have these pictures developed and printed in plenty of time, Mister Clemens,” Phineas eagerly promised, as he began the painstaking task of packing up his camera.

“Yes, Sir, by the time I get through there won’t be a soul left in Virginia City who doesn’t know that Ben Cartwright and Bradley Meredith are two separate and unique individuals, different as night ‘n day, in spite of their good looks,” Mister Clemens declared with a smile.

“Sam, I don’t know how to thank you,” Ben said gratefully.

“No need to thank me, Ben,” Sam said. “Way I see it, I owe YOU one. After all, if it hadn’t been for you and your boys, why I might NEVER have come by my nom du plume . . . my pen name.” [12]

“I’m much obliged anyway,” Ben said.

“Mrs. Danvers, don’t YOU have something to say to Mister Clemens?” Joe prompted her with a smile.

“Yes, thank you so much for reminding me,” Myra Danvers said stiffly. She turned toward Sam, taking great care to avoid making eye contact with any of the Cartwrights. “Mister Clemens, I have a prepared statement, written by Mister Joseph Cartwright, to express my sentiments regarding this entire DISGRACEFUL affair.” She cast an angry, baleful glare over in the general direction of Bradley and Judith Meredith. “I would like you to print that in the paper, along with your article about Mister Cartwright and Mister Bradley.”

“Well, now, Mrs. Danvers, I don’t know about that,” Sam said, his tone cool, but polite. “I don’t much like to print things in the paper I’ve not read first.”

“Mrs. Danvers, perhaps if you read that statement ALOUD for Mister Clemens, and for the benefit of all here . . . . ?!” Joe said, his eyes dancing with an impish delight not lost on his father, brother, and sister.

“Joseph . . . . ” Ben murmured, directing a warning glare at his youngest son.

“It’s ok, Pa, I promise,” Joe said quickly.

“I don’t know about the rest of YOU, but I for one am very interested in hearing Mrs. Danvers’ statement,” Sam Clemens said. “You may begin when ready, Ma’am.”

“Now just a minute! I haven’t read this yet my— ”

“No arguments, Mrs. Danvers,” Ezekiel Abercromby rudely interrupted her mid-sentence. “Read.”

An exasperated sigh exploded from the very depths of her being. “Alright,” Myra very reluctantly agreed. She raised the paper in hand up to eye level and began to read.

“I, Myra Danvers, want to go on public . . . ” here, she grimaced, “ . . . record as stating how terribly, terribly wrong I was in accusing Mister Benjamin Cartwright of behaving indecently with the former Miss Judith Ashcroft. In so doing, I acted maliciously with intent to harm, and for this, I humbly apologize. Mister Cartwright has, for many years, been an upstanding pillar of this community, as many can attest; his ethics, morality, and behavior above reproach.

“I would also like to offer my most humble and sincere apologies to Miss Stacy Cartwright for any and all emotional distress she suffered as the result of me threatening to wire my cousin, Mrs. Vivian Crawleigh, of Dayton, Ohio, requesting that she come and petition for custody of Miss Cartwright,” Myra continued, wrinkling her nose and grimacing. “At the same time, I acknowledge that Mister Cartwright has proven himself a loving, contentious, responsible parent, who has, through his diligence, turned out a new generation of caring, responsible citizens in his three sons and only daughter.

“I would also like to make it known that I, Myra Danvers, tender my . . . . ” Her eyes went round with shocked horror as she scanned ahead, reading the next few sentences that followed. She gasped. “No! I won’t do it! This was NOT part of the agreement!” she protested, favoring Joe Cartwright with a dark, murderous glare.

“You’ll finish reading that statement as written, Mrs. Danvers, or you’ll go to jail,” Joe countered, returning her fierce glare with one of his own.

“On what charge?”

“Oohh, between Sheriff Coffee and myself . . . I think we can come up with SOMETHING,” John Faraday said.

“ . . . and if THEY can’t, Mrs. Danvers, so help me, I’LL haul your sorry fat ass into court and sue you for every penny you have and then some,” Judith added tersely.

“For WHAT?” Myra demanded imperiously, glaring at the former schoolteacher as she would a hideous, if insignificant, insect.

“Slander,” Judith snapped back without missing a beat. “You intentionally and very publicly besmirched my good name AND Mister Cartwright’s. Every man and woman who attended the last school board meeting bore witness to it.”

“Speaking as a former lawyer and now a judge, Mrs. Danvers, I feel compelled to warn you that Mrs. Meredith has a very strong case,” John added. “A very strong case indeed.”

“Alright,” Myra snarled, ungraciously surrendering to the inevitable. She raised the paper back up to eye level and began again, at the place where she had left off, reading through clenched teeth. “I, Myra Danvers, tender my resignation as member in good standing of the school board, effective immediately. I cite my diminished capacity to contribute to this worthy body in a constructive manner, beneficial to all, as reason. Signed . . . Mrs. Myra . . . Danvers.”

“On behalf of the school board, I ACCEPT your resignation,” Ezekiel Abercromby stated with an emphatic nod of his head.

“ . . . and I’ll be more than happy to print your statement in the paper, Mrs. Danvers,” Sam Clemens said, as he snatched the paper from her hands. “Now, if you folks will excuse me, I have a newspaper to put to bed.” He turned to leave, nearly colliding with Hop Sing’s young nephew, Jimmy Chong. [13]

“Uh oh, please excuse me, Mister Clemens,” Jimmy immediately apologized.

“You’re excused, Young Fella,” Sam said, then smiled. “Next time you’d best watch where you’re going. The NEXT man you bump into may NOT share my non-violent sentiments.”

“Yes, Sir, I promise to be more careful.”

Sam nodded and left.

Jimmy, grinning from ear-to-ear, turned immediately to Ben. “Mister Cartwright, Mrs. Li sends a gift.” He held out the covered basket in his hands.

“Thank you, Jimmy, and please . . . convey my thanks to Mrs. Li as well.”

“I will,” Jimmy promised.

Ben peered inside the basket and broke into a big, happy smile. “Hoss, Joe, Stacy, it looks like we have a match.”

“A match, Pa?” Hoss queried with a perplexed frown.

“A match!” Ben confirmed. “Yin-Ling and Yan-Chou are now officially betrothed.”

The three Cartwright offspring immediately erupted into a second round of raucous cheering.

“The wedding will take place next summer in San Francisco,” Jimmy said. “Mrs. Li also said to tell you that you’re all invited as honored guests.”

“Oh, Pa, can we go?” Stacy begged. “Please?”

Ben looked down at his daughter and smiled. “I think we can see our way clear to going, and maybe working in a nice family vacation at the same time.”

“Hey, Pa . . . . ”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“How’d you know Jimmy had a weddin’ announcement in that basket?”

“If you look inside, you’ll see about a dozen or so dragon and phoenix cakes— ”

“Didja say cakes?” Hoss asked, his eyes lighting up with anticipation.

“Yes, I did,” Ben replied. “According to Chinese tradition, the family of the prospective groom presents the family of the bride-to-be with dragon and phoenix cakes. If the match is approved, the bride’s family passes them out to family and friends as wedding announcements.”

“Ummmm UM! These are right GOOD, Pa!” Hoss declared, as he finished the last of his second one and started munching on the third.

“Hey, Big Brother, save some for the REST of us,” Stacy protested, as she made a grab for the basket.

Joe reached in and grabbed two of the cakes as Hoss lifted the basket out of Stacy’s reach, drawing a threatening glare from his biggest, older brother. “You wanna know something, Pa?”

“What’s that, Joe?”

“This idea of sending out cakes as wedding announcements . . . now that’s one Chinese tradition I COULD go along with.”

The End
December 2002
Revised October 2006

Next Story in the Bloodlines Series:

 

Bloodlines Series:

The Wedding
Sacrificial Lamb
Poltergeist II
Independence Day
Virginia City Detour
The Guardian
Young Cartwrights in Love
San Francisco Revisited
There But for the Grace of God
Between Life and Death
Orenna
Clarissa Returns
Trial by Fire
Mark of Kane

 

 

Notes:

1. Angela Drake and Carleton appear in Bonanza Episode #201, “The Spotlight,” written by Dick Carr.

2. See Bonanza Episode #122, “The Actress,” written by Norman Lessing.

3. The Bannings story is told in Bonanza Episode #83, “The Lady From Baltimore,” written by Elliott Arnold.

4. Clementine Hawkins appeared in Bonanza Episode #71, “The Burma Rarity.” Writer unknown.

5. The character of Bradley Meredith, Ben’s evil ‘twin’ appears in two Bonanza episodes: #379, “A Deck of Aces,” and #415, “One Ace Too Many,” both written by Stanley Roberts.

6. The Slade brothers, who bear uncanny resemblances to Hoss and Joe, appear in Bonanza Episode #19, “The Gunmen,” written by W. Carey Wilbur.

7. Margie Owens’ story was told in Bonanza episode #82, “The Tall Stranger,” written by Ward Hawkins

8. See Bonanza Episode #260, “Joe Cartwright, Detective,” written by Michael Landon and Oliver Crawford.

9. The specific incident I have in mind occurs at the beginning of episode #183, “The Flapjack Contest,” written by Frank Cleaver.

10. The character of Judge John Faraday and the story of his bid for the office of state governor appear in Bonanza Episode #291, “The Late Ben Cartwright,” written by Walter Black.

11. See Bonanza Episode #138, “Twilight Town,” written by Cy Chermak.

12. See Bonanza Episode #5, “Enter Mark Twain,” written by Harold Shumate

13. Jimmy Chong appears in Bonanza Episode #20, “The Fear Merchants,” written by Frank Unger and Thomas Thompson

*********

All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are property of their respective owners.  The original characters and plot are property of the author.   The author is not in any way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise, and makes no money from this work.     No copyright infringement is intended.

 

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