Love's Labours

Lissa B.

This story is dedicated to Alex Sharp, with many thanks for some of my favorite and fondest  Bonanza memories. Special thanks to my long-suffering (and I do mean LONG-suffering!) betas: Gus Downey, Jan McDonald and Debby Warren. November 2000


Chapter 1: Much Ado About Everything

"O! What men dare do! What men may do! What men daily do not knowing what they do!"
         IV, i, 35

"It's not what you think..." began Joe Cartwright ingenuously, proffering his most innocent, boyish smile.

His brother shifted his weight to his hip and studied him through suddenly narrowed eyes. "Good. Glad to hear it. Just to be clear, then. What do I think?"

Joe cleared his throat, glancing at his middle brother for support, but Hoss was gazing with profound intensity at some point across the room. The boyish smile faded just a smidge. "You think we're goofing off." The tone was wounded and faintly reproachful.

His oldest brother raised his brows and nodded approvingly. "Very good. That's exactly what I think." He pulled out one of the capacious leather chairs facing the desk where Joe and Hoss were seated and made himself comfortable. "Why don't you clear up that little misconception for me?"  He leaned forward expectantly and pinned Joe with a look. "What is it that you are doing?"

Joe opened his mouth to give a flip response, but it withered under the sardonic beam of his brother's penetrating gaze. "Fixing that line of north fence," he answered lamely.

"Really." Adam let his eyes drift slowly around the great room with pointed thoughtfulness. "From here." Despite his intention to remain unflustered, Joe felt his ears redden. "Well, that's very ingenious of you. Considering that stretch of fence is over an hour's ride away. How are you managing that, did you say?"

Joe stuck out his lower lip, all pretense of charm gone. What was the point. It never worked on Adam anyway. He was eighteen years old, for Pete's sake - how was it that his eldest brother always made him feel like he was six? He glanced at Hoss again, but Hoss's brow was furrowed as though he were working out a very tough problem deep within his brain. Joe glared at him. A lot of help he was. "We were just taking a break," he mumbled finally.

"A break," repeated Adam slowly. "You rode all the way back here to take a break and then planned on riding all the way back out there to finish?"

"Now, it ain't like that at all, Adam," Hoss interjected hastily. "That'd-a been plumb loco! We ain't actually made our way to that line a fence yet - we came here straight from fetching supplies in town." The moment he finished it occurred to Hoss that the words weren't likely to have the soothing effect he'd been angling for when he'd started. His brother's smoldering expression told him that he was not mistaken.

"Are you telling me," began Adam with dangerous calm, "that you have not even begun the work on that fence yet? That, in fact, you have not even been anywhere near it?"

Hoss winced at his tone and offered a weak smile. "Adam, that's where we was goin' the very next thing."

Adam opened his mouth to answer, closed it abruptly, pushing himself explosively to his feet. For a second both Hoss and Joe flinched expectantly, but he moved away from them to take a turn around the room, swung back to face them, pointing his finger for emphasis, then dropped his finger and waved his hand dismissively. He turned his back to them for a long moment, rubbing his hand over his face while Hoss and Joe held their breath. When he finally turned back his expression was that of a man steeled for the worst. "All right," he said slowly, enunciating meticulously. "Slowly and clearly. Exactly what have you two been doing?"

Hoss eyed him cautiously, but Joe jumped in eagerly. "Adam, you're gonna to love this. Hoss and me had a great idea. We've all been working hard at the branding, right?"

"Almost made ourselves crazy with it," Hoss chimed in.

"Well, we were thinking - what if we gave a party - to thank all the men - you know - a big party and invited - oh - a whole bunch of people - "

"That's right, Adam," Hoss took it up. "We could have music and dancing…and invite - well - a whole bunch o' people."

Adam looked puzzled and wary. "A party," he repeated slowly.

Joe bobbed his head for emphasis. "That's right, Adam - the best darn party this town has ever seen. We could invite - well - just all kinds of people - "

"All kinds of people." Hoss echoed enthusiastically.

"Exactly," agreed Joe. "All kinds."

Adam held up a hand. "All kinds of people. I see.  You wouldn't, by any chance, have anyone special in mind?"

Hoss reddened. "Well…now…" he began stupidly, glancing at Joe.

Joe glared at him and took over quickly, trying to summon a nonchalant smile and succeeding only in looking a little queasy. "Well, now, Adam - nobody special. You know. The men. Neighbors. Friends. Townspeople. Neighbors."

"Uh - huh." Adam nodded slowly. "Let me just take a wild leap in the dark - " he held up a hand again as Hoss and Joe opened their mouths to protest. "Please. Don't embarrass yourselves. If there's someone - or, as I'm assuming, two someones, you have a burning desire to impress, I'm sure Pa'll have no objection to your little party. But for now, we have plenty to occupy us and I don't want to find you two goofing off again, understood?"

Hoss and Joe exchanged a cautious glance. Hoss cleared his throat. "Uh - Adam - we was athinkin' ta have it afore Pa came back."

Adam raised his eyebrows. "Before."

Joe could see the party disappearing before his very eyes and pushed a little. "We've had parties before without Pa here."

"Of course we have, occasionally, but at least then we've had Hop Sing. What were you planning to do about food?"

For a second both Hoss and Joe looked nonplussed. With beautiful visions of dancing and strolls in the moonlight floating before their eyes they had completely forgotten about a measly detail like food. Adam smiled a little, comprehendingly. Hoss must really have it bad for somebody to overlook a thing like that.

"Miss Mamie!" said Joe suddenly. "Miss Mamie can always use the extra cash and she cooks great! We can ask her to prepare stuff and bring it here the day of the party!"

"You're going to haul it all the way from town? No telling what kind of shape it will be in by the time it gets here."

"Hop Sing's cousin!" interjected Hoss hopefully. "I'll bet Hop Sing's cousin will come out and cook fer us!"

Adam shook his head as though to clear it. He couldn't believe he was getting sucked into this when they had so much to do. "All right. And where are we going to get the money for this party?"

Both Hoss and Joe stared at him. Joe shrugged. "Well, from the safe. Where else?"

Adam leaned back against the dining room table. "No, you don't. That money is for operating expenses and emergencies and has to last us until Pa returns."

"Oh, come on, Adam - you have power of attorney. You could get a draft from the bank if we had an emergency."

"I could, but I won't. Believe it or not, we operate on a budget and I'm not going to throw it all out of whack because you two have a couple of girls you want to impress. Use your own money."
"But I'm broke!" Joe protested, his voice rising.

Adam was unmoved. "Then take her for a walk or a ride or something else that's free. Just don't do it until after the branding's done."

There was a long, pregnant silence. Adam eyed them suspiciously. "What now."

Hoss cleared his throat. "We was all set on Friday night, Adam."

"Friday night!" Adam stood up straight. "How could you possibly have a party Friday night? We have to show those horses to that Cavalry buyer early Saturday morning!" Their blank faces showed him clearly that they'd forgotten all about it. Adam felt his temper rise. "Look, this is an important deal for the Ponderosa. I need you both awake and alert Saturday morning. And we need the branding done before that. Not that all the branding in the world is going to mean much if our fences are all lying around in disrepair."

Hoss thrust out his lower lip. "Dadburn it, Adam, we've been working like dogs. Seems we should be able to take it a little easy with Pa away."

Adam ground his teeth. "The idea, Hoss, is for things to run just as if Pa were here when he's gone, not to let everything slide until he gets back."
Joe frowned. "I'm with Hoss. We've earned a little break and I say we take it."

Adam's cold look silenced him. He finally broke the uncomfortable pause that followed, speaking with measured care. "Well, given the fact that the north fence is still not fixed and you two have spent God only knows how many hours in town this morning and then God only knows how many hours here, planning your party, I'd say you've had your break." Both Hoss and Joe winced involuntarily. They hated it when he used that particular voice. "I hope you both enjoyed it, because here's what we're going to do now.

I'm going to find a couple of men and send them to finish that fence you haven't gotten to and you two are going to the branding site and move things along there. And then this evening we're going to talk about what's left to do in branding and what else we need to do to get ready for this sale and we're going to forget about everything else until those things are taken care of! Am I clear?"

Joe scowled and muttered something. Adam fixed his gaze on him. "Did you say something?" he asked with deceptive gentleness.

Joe was not ready to back down yet. "I said you treat us like kids!" he burst out.

Adam folded his arms. "And can you think of any reason why that might be?"

Joe's cheeks flamed. "I just think we'd do a lot better if you let us do things in our own way and our own time!"

Adam looked at him. "Like today."

"Yeah, like today! We would have gotten it done, Adam."

"Fine. Eventually. And do you think you would have gotten anything else done? And what about the horse sale? What do you think you would have accomplished toward that, given that apparently you'd forgotten all about it?"

Hoss and Joe looked at each other then away.

Adam nodded. "Right. There's too much work to keep a spread as large and varied as ours running, Joe, for anybody to do what needs to be done in their own time. It needs to be done in the ranch's time. A little delay, a little carelessness and everything can unravel before your eyes. Now, I need you both at the branding pits - an hour ago - do you think you can oblige me or is that something you need to do in your own way and time?"

Hoss shrugged and nodded reluctantly.


"Adam!" the door flew open and one the ranch hands, Clyde Decker, stood in the doorway, a little out of breath. "Sorry to barge in, sir, but I saw your horse tied outside. That bridge finally gave way over Hammond Crick."

Adam reached for his hat. "Anybody hurt?"

Clyde shook his head. "No, sir.  Got two horses in though - one probably have to be put down. Got the other out okay, but don't think we can put off repairs any longer. Where you want me to pull somebody from?"

Adam closed his eyes for a minute and sighed. "Nowhere," he said at last. "I'll go."

Clyde looked doubtful. "Thought you were gonna help with the brandin'. Could sure use an extra set of hands there. Was thinkin' I could pull Lem offen breakin' them horses…"

Adam shook his head. "No, I need to pull Lem to fix that north fence. I'll need to send somebody with him as it is. I'll go myself."

Clyde opened his mouth to say he thought Joe and Hoss were taking care of the north fence, then closed it abruptly as he caught sight of their faces. "Yessir," he said doubtfully. "Sure do hate to lose the pair of hands with the branding, though."

"You won't be." Adam was pulling on his gloves. "Hoss and Joe will be joining you at the branding pits." He skewered them with a glance. "Won't you?" They both shuffled their feet and nodded sullenly. "Good. I'll see you two at supper."

Hoss scrunched his face into a frown. "Hey, with no Hop Sing who's gonna fix supper tonight?"

Adam smiled sweetly. "I have no idea. Why don't you two work that out. In your own way and time, of course."

Joe scuffed at the floor with his boot toe. "Adam, don't you ever get tired of telling people what to do?" he asked bitterly.

Adam gazed back at him, something in his expression that Joe hadn't expected. "Yeah, Joe," he said at last. "I really do."

Joe and Hoss watched in silence as he followed Clyde out the door, shutting it a little more sharply than necessary behind him. Hoss swallowed, wrinkling his forehead. "Sure is mad," he said glumly, breaking the long silence that followed.

Joe nodded soberly. "Yeah. But not nearly as mad as he's gonna be when he finds out we already invited everybody."


Adam's irritation followed him all the way to Hammond Creek.  The small bridge was even worse than he'd feared - one support fully broken through and the platform leaning at a crazy angle, dragging in the water and battered by the swift current. It was a poor design anyway - he'd been meaning to replace it for some time - but something more urgent always seemed to need his attention first. Now it had cost them a horse and twice as much work. Couldn't do without it all together - the creek divided some important pasture land - needed to have all of it accessible, not just half.  But he certainly couldn't build a new one this afternoon and would have to come up with some sort of makeshift repair. He stood studying it a moment, wondering if letting the animals wade would be more practical in the end. But the current was too strong and swollen with the early spring rains and melted snow - too risky. Between the jutting rocks and speedy flow too many would be injured or lost. No way around it, then. He pulled his ax from his saddle roll and moved to have a closer look.

Pole was rotted clear through. Planks didn't look in a whole lot better shape - other supports might be ready to give way as well. Only one way to find out for sure…he made a face. Still a little cool for wading to be enjoyable, but...he sat down on the bank and removed his gun belt and boots and socks, then took a deep breath and stepped in. And gave a hiss of surprise. Damn, that was cold! He stood still for a few minutes, giving his body time to adjust, then, holding tight to the platform, made his way across the creek to check the support posts on the other side. It wasn't very deep - no higher than his chest at the highest point - but the temperature was bone-chilling, and by the time he reached the first post on the other side his teeth were chattering. He shook the support, hard. Some of the pulpy wood came off in his hands, but it seemed sturdy enough. Pleased, he dragged himself up on the bank and made his way to the next one. He hesitated. It was tempting to warm up a little first, but if he did that chances were he'd never get himself in again. With a sigh of resignation he set his jaw and slid down the bank on the opposite side of the bridge. This one wobbled a little, like a loose tooth, but wasn't too bad. Some kind of support strut would hold it safely for a while. Clinging to the platform, he started back to the other side of the creek. Deep or not, the current tore at him, trying to drag him under, banging him against the platform. Almost unconsciously, he heard himself swearing in a soft, steady litany of complaint, wondering why he hadn't taken Clyde up on his offer to send somebody else to do this job. The branding pits were hot work, of course, but they sounded downright cozy about now. He reached the final support post with a rush of relief and shook it vigorously. It gave away in his hands with a groan of splintering wood, throwing him backward and off balance. His feet shot out from under him and he never even heard the splash that sent him under - just the sudden absence of sounds he'd hardly been aware of, the scrape of the bank against his shoulder, the greying of light. He slid a little against the stones, fighting to get purchase enough to push himself upright - clawing for the bridge to stop his sudden rush downstream. His stiffened fingers curled around one of the braces and he yanked his head out of the water, cracking it sharply against the edge of the bridge. This time the swearing was not soft.

He stood for a second with his teeth clenched, clinging to the brace, coughing up water, noticing that the bridge had all but broken free from the bank on his side. Well, that was just wonderful.  His eyes scoured the bank for a handhold - part of one of the posts was still sticking out of the bank - if it would hold his weight he could at least pull himself ashore.  Gingerly, so as not to dislodge the bridge's tenuous connection to the bank, he pulled himself along, hand over hand, floating alongside the platform to minimize the strain on the structure. He curled his hand around the remains of the post and tugged gently, testing it, without letting go of the disintegrating platform. It rocked a little, but held. It was all he needed. With a mighty lunge he caught a handful of grass and pulled himself onto the bank, rolling the rest of the way out of the water. He lay for a moment, chest heaving, then sat up slowly. Well. That had certainly been fun. Yanking impatiently at the buttons, he removed his wet shirt and tossed it on the grass to dry. He glanced at the bridge. The last of it had broken free and was bouncing merrily in the water, twisted and splintered by the tumble of the current.

He reached up to wipe the water from his face. Who was he kidding. There was no fixing that bridge. It had to be replaced. The wood would break apart as quickly as he nailed anything to it. Maybe he could come up with some kind of temporary structure…he let his eyes drift over the nearby trees. All he had to do was cut a bunch of those down, trim off the branches, and fashion them into some kind of a sturdy platform, all before the sun went down. In spite of himself, he laughed. Or he could just spin a roomful of straw into gold.

The other side of Hammond Creek was going to be out of reach for a little while - might as well admit defeat gracefully and join Hoss and Joe at the branding. He could think of a substitute range for grazing on the way there. But instead of rising, he rubbed his hands over his eyes and dropped onto his back on the grass again. Another grazing area. Another bridge. Another contract. He was sick to death of thinking of ways and means.

Spring was always a hectic season - so much to be set up and recouped after the long winter - but this time last week he would have said he had things pretty much in hand. Enough to take off for a little hunting trip - just a couple of days - long enough to blow the must of being cooped up all winter out of his lungs, to give himself some respite from the family he'd shared close quarters with all those long, cold months. His father had seen it differently.

"How can you possibly think of going away at a time like this? We have that horse sale coming up and I need to be in San Francisco!"

"Pa, I can be back for the horse sale - I just need a little change - a couple of days up in the hills. It'll help restock the larder. You can manage without me - you have Hoss and Joe."

"Hop Sing is away and Hoss and Joe should not be left here unsupervised!"

"Pa, they’ll be fine by themselves. They're eighteen and twenty-four, after all!"

"Even so. They can not be expected to do what you do."

"Well, you certainly don't expect them to," retorted Adam before he could stop himself. He saw Ben's face and sighed inwardly. "A couple of days," he continued more quietly. "That's all. What could happen in a couple of days?"

Ben hesitated, then shook his head. "Adam, I wish I could. I know you've earned it - I'm just not comfortable with it. Joe's at an age - "

Adam hadn't meant to push but he was disappointed and frustrated and it just didn't seem fair. "I know what age Joe is. But come on, Pa - think what I was doing at eighteen."

Ben was silent. "It's not the same," he said finally.

"No, it certainly doesn't seem to be," agreed Adam bitterly.

Ben's expression softened. "Adam, as soon as I return - "

"As soon as you return there will be another contract or another emergency or another opportunity and another reason why I have to be here. Never mind, Pa. I'm sorry I asked."

He sighed at the memory and let his hands fall from his eyes. He had hurt his father, he knew it, and he was sorry for it, but somehow he couldn't stop himself. And worst of all, his father had been right. Left to their own devices Hoss and Joe would even now be throwing a party and the branding and the horse sale would be going begging.

And how he envied them that. He wondered briefly what it was like not to walk around with an eight-page checklist in your head, not to have people constantly after you to make decisions, find answers, fix problems. What he wouldn't give to find out. With all his heart he wished that the biggest thing he was worried about was impressing some girl, instead of closing a horse deal, grazing the stock sufficiently, finishing the branding, keeping the books in order, staying within budget.

He turned his head and studied the hills ranging in the distance, beckoning him. I lift mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help… and smiled grimly. Scripture, not Shakespeare. Perfect. The transition from Adam to Ben Cartwright was complete. He had officially turned into his father.

He closed his eyes. He really had to get up. He really had to get back. He had about a thousand things to do and none of them were getting done while he was just lying around…the sun felt warm on his face though, and it was so quiet here, away from everyone…maybe he'd just take a couple of minutes…just long enough for his clothes to dry…the insect sounds were a soft hum in his ears and the late afternoon sun was baking the dampness from his clothes and before he knew what was happening he was sound asleep. He became vaguely aware, an indeterminate passage of time later, of Sport's whinny somewhere nearby and he swallowed and stirred. "I hear you," he murmured, barely audibly. "I'm coming." The sound came again, followed by a snort and a jingling as Sport tossed his head. "All right, all right." Adam reached up to rub his eyes. "I said I was coming. Pa got you on the payroll now?"

"You take it slow and easy, mister."

That got Adam's attention, and he froze, then opened one eye cautiously. Monopolizing his field of vision was the long, gleaming nose of a double-barreled shotgun, pointed directly at his chest. He closed the eye again and groaned. This really just was not his day.


“All right.” He lifted his hands slightly to show that they were empty. “I’m unarmed. Mind if I sit

 In his narrowed line of vision, the rifle shook a little. “All right. But nothing funny, you hear?”

 He smiled slightly to himself. That voice sounded more frightened than frightening. Still, better not to startle anybody, so he eased himself carefully onto his elbows, squinting against the sun for a look. Difficult to make out more than a fuzzy outline and that enormous gun barrel, wavering somewhere around the center of his chest. “Easy with that thing,” he said, a little plaintively. “The way you’re shaking it it’s bound to go off.”

 “Then you better be real careful, hm?”

 “I think we’d both better be.” He reached out with one hand and stopped abruptly as the barrel rose to rest on his collarbone. “My shirt,” he explained, pointing cautiously. “I’d kind of like to put it back on.”

 “Oh.” The gun was still. “Well, I spose that’s all right. Nothing funny now, y’hear?”

 “Wouldn’t dream of it.” Adam leaned over just far enough to snag his shirt. It was almost dry – he wondered how long he’d been asleep. “Just putting it back on.” He made his voice low and soothing, sliding his arms into the sleeves with exaggerated slowness. “Thanks.” He gestured to show he was going to button it now. “You know, that sun is almost directly in my eyes – I don’t suppose you’d consider moving a little to my right?”

 “Oh.” The gun wavered again. “Well, I spose there’s no harm. Just so long as you don’t try anythin’.”

 “Word of honor.” he suppressed a smile. Well, it was certainly a considerate desperado. And not a very experienced one.  The smile twitched a little despite his best efforts as the figure moved out of the glare and became visible. His ears had not misled him. “So. What can I do for you?”

 “Sure ask a lot of questions for a man at the business end of a gun.”

 He shrugged apologetically. “My nature, I’m afraid. But I assume you do want something? Other than target practice?”

 “Your horse.” The voice sounded a little cross this time.

 “I see.” Adam paused. “Um – I don’t like to criticize your technique, but I don’t suppose it occurred to you to take him while I was still asleep?”

 “Of course it occurred to me – I am NOT stupid.”

 Adam held up one hand as the gun barrel shifted alarmingly. “It was just a thought,” he said mildly. “I didn’t mean to imply anything.”

 “I tried to take him while you were asleep. I couldn’t get him to stand still. He kept tossin’ his head and turning away and makin’ noise an’ all.”

 This time Adam couldn’t suppress his grin. “He IS a bit of a handful.”

 “So I decided you could hold him for me while I mounted.”

 Adam eyed his captor thoughtfully. He still couldn’t see her very clearly due to the shapeless clothing, but he could identify enough to know that the figure was a female and sounded very young. “I suppose that’s one idea,” he agreed slowly, “but I couldn’t really recommend it. Even if you do manage to mount him he’s quite a lot of horse to control. That’s aside from the fact that horse stealing is a hanging offense in these parts. I just mention it.”

 “Well, I’ll return him, of course – I’m just borrowin’ him, after all. I don’t steal.”

 “Is that so. You know, that gun gives entirely the wrong impression, then.”

Even under the floppy hat brim he saw her lip thrust out and for a second she reminded him so much of Joe that he had to look down quickly to hide a smile.

“I’m sure I’ll manage just fine. Now you just get over there and hold his head.”

 Adam eased his way slowly to his feet, keeping his hands away from his body “You sound like you’re a long way from home.” he remarked off-handedly.

 She frowned from under her hat brim. “What makes you say that?” she challenged.

 “A little Dixie in your voice. What brings you to this part of the country?”

 She waved the gun at him for emphasis. “I don’t see what business that is of yours.”

 He shrugged. “Well, considering you’re holding a gun on me, stealing my horse, trespassing on my land, and leaving me afoot, I think you might indulge my curiosity. It’s little enough to ask.”

 She stared as he stretched to his full height. “Mercy,” she burst out involuntarily, “You are a big one!”

 This time Adam chuckled. “Second thoughts?”

“No sir. This gun’ll still blow one fine hole in you, big or not. Now, you get on over there to that horse before I use it.” She gestured broadly with the barrel and Adam winced, expecting a wild report any second.

“I wish you’d be more careful with that thing,” he said irritably. “A gun is not a toy. Have you ever even fired one of those before?”

“That,” she responded primly, “Is none of your business.” She gestured with it again and he moved obediently toward Sport just to make her stop. “For your information, I happen to be eloping.”

“Oh.” Adam backed toward Sport’s head, keeping the double muzzle warily in sight. “Well. Not to be critical, and I’m certainly no expert on elopements, but isn’t it customary to -  uh - bring a groom?”

“I have a groom!” Adam flinched as the barrel jumped again. “I am going to meet him and that is why I need your horse! Now, you are wasting my time – he’ll think I’ve been detained or lost my nerve!”

“Fine, fine – “ Adam made a placating gesture and reached blindly for Sport’s bridle, keeping his eye on the shotgun. “Virginia City?  Meeting him there, I mean.”

“Well, you are a nosy one. For your information, I’m meeting him  - there.” She gestured broadly to the hills in the distance.

“There.” Adam frowned. “All the way out there? You’re traveling all the way out there alone? Do you even know your way around?”

The girl shifted uncomfortably. “Well…I’m a little lost,” she admitted reluctantly. “But he gave me real good instructions. There’s an old abandoned cabin up there and we’re to meet there and get married.”

“Really.” Adam’s tone was tinged with sarcasm. “You know, the last time I looked there was a real shortage of ministers up that way. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“Of course I do.” But her tone wasn’t quite convincing. “Troy is bringing the minister with him.”

“Is he.” Adam was not smiling at all now. “And if he can’t persuade the minister to come along with him on this merry adventure, assuming that’s actually what he intends, what then? The two of you stranded up there all alone in the wilderness? Has it occurred to you that that would not do a lot for your reputation? Not to mention how dangerous it is. And how are you going to get the minister to travel that far? Kidnap him? Have you thought this thing through at all?”

“Of course I have,” she grumbled. “Or Troy has, anyway. It’s a wonderful plan, or it would have been, if that silly horse hadn’t gotten away from me back there and I hadn’t lost my way a little. But now I’ll have your horse, and…”

“Now, you listen to me - ” Adam broke in, then stopped. “ – what is your name, anyway?” She stared at him, stone faced. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, you might as well tell me. It’s ridiculous to keep on calling you “hey, you”.”

She glared at him from under lowered brows then said sulkily, “Cressie.”

“All right. Pleased to meet you, Chrissie. Now, listen – “

“Cressie,” she  interrupted. “Not Chrissie. My real name is – “ she made a face. “Cressida.”

Adam’s mouth twitched. “Cressida. Really.”

“Well, and it’s real easy for you to laugh, isn’t it? It’s my mama’s fault. She named me for some dumb book or somethin’.”

“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Cressie. Or would be, if you weren’t pointing a gun at me and determined to steal my horse. My name is Adam and my mother named me for a book, too.”

“No.” Her face lit up “You’re joshin’ me.”

“Gospel truth.”

“Well, I’ll be.” She almost lowered the gun, then yanked it back quickly as she caught sight of Adam’s stealthy gesture toward it. “Oh, no you don’t – I got to meet Troy and time is wastin’. You hold that animal steady now.”

Adam cleared his throat. “Well, I’ll try – but he’s quite a handful, even for me, at times.” He turned to face his mount and Sport promptly lowered his head and nuzzled under Adam’s arm, blowing contentedly, looking for treats. Cressie raised her eyebrows. Adam glared at his trusty steed. “You’re a big help,” he muttered. “Cressie, let me say one thing before you do something you’ll regret the rest of your life. Riding up into those hills is dangerous for a girl alone at any time. If you don’t know the territory it’s doubly so. I have real concerns about you trying to make such a trip and even more about any man who would ask you to. How well do you know this Troy anyway?”

She lifted her chin. “I know I love him.”

Adam sighed. “Of course.”

Her eyes flashed. “You’re just like my Daddy. You don’t know anything about being young and in love!”

Adam’s eyes flickered. “Well, that seems to be a unanimous consensus, especially today. Your father doesn’t know where you are?”

“Of course not! I mean, not exactly. I left him a note. Daddy doesn’t approve of Troy.”

“I can’t imagine why.” Adam saw her face and hastily switched tactics. He pinned on his most charming smile. “Look, Cressie, I have an idea – why don’t you come home with me – it’s not far from here. We’d be happy to put you up and I’ll send someone up to meet Troy and bring him back to you. In fact, I’ll go myself. We can get a minister from town and you can still be married, if you insist, though I think that now that you’ve scared the life out of your father it would be a nice gesture if you at least wired him and invited him to the wedding. Talked to him. This way you won’t start your new life off sneaking around. It will be a lot safer and you won’t have to remember your wedding in a broken down old cabin - you can even have a wedding dress.”

Cressie’s face wavered. “My Daddy doesn’t understand,” she said at last. “Daddys never let you do anything you want.”

Adam smiled a little. “I know how you feel.”

She opened her eyes at him incredulously. “You couldn’t! You’re a man grown! You can do anything you want!”

He shook his head ruefully. “You’d be surprised. What do you say? Come home with me?”

For a second he was sure he had her – the rifle barrel dipped and he was carefully poised to grab it without startling her when Sport tossed his head into him, throwing him off balance. The sudden movement startled Cressie and she involuntarily clutched one of the triggers. There was a thunderous report and a crack of wood and a scream from Sport and Adam found himself on his knees, staring from Cressie to the tree behind him, now missing a substantial chunk of trunk just about level with where his head had been a minute before. He drew a deep breath through his teeth, pushing himself slowly to his feet.

“You have absolutely no idea what you’re doing with that thing, have you?” he managed tautly.

“I know enough.” she answered weakly, a little shocked by the loudness and nearness of the report. “Mercy. Is it always that loud?”

“YES!” Adam felt his temper fraying as he tried to calm a now-rearing Sport. “So, why don’t you just give me that gun like a good little girl and come on home with me?" It was a terrible choice of words, he knew it as soon as they were out of his mouth, but it was too late to take them back.

Predictably, Cressie’s face hardened. “I will not give you this gun, Mr. High and Mighty. I am going meet my fiance and nothing will stop me!” She glanced nervously at Sport as he threw his head about and Adam murmured to him. “And as it happens, I have a new plan. A perfect one.”

“Really.” Adam looked at her suspiciously. “I can’t wait.”

Cressie took a deep breath. “YOU will take me to that old cabin. I’m sure you know the way and you can handle that – animal. You can even be a witness.”

Adam stared at her. “I’ll – now you listen to me – I’ll do nothing of the kind. I have about a hundred things to do already and I’m late enough as it is – I can’t afford to waste anymore time on this. So why don’t you give up this ridiculous idea right now and let me take you back to the Ponderosa where you’ll be safe and I can get back to work.”

Cressie cocked the other barrel. “My plan,” she said stubbornly. “We will be following my plan. You can get on that horse any time now.”

“Your plan. You call that a plan. How old are you anyway?”

She tossed her head. “I am eighteen.”

“Eighteen.” Adam sighed. “Of course you are.” He glanced past her to the grass. “I’ll need my boots.” he suggested innocently, an idea blossoming.

“All right.” Cressie gestured him toward them, keeping the gun trained on him. “Hold it – “ Adam stopped. “You let me get that gunbelt lying with ‘em first.”

Adam nodded resignedly. Another idea gone bust. If only he had headed back right away as he’d intended – if only he hadn’t fallen asleep. He’d be branding calves and arguing with his brothers this minute. Maybe Hoss and Joe were right – maybe they were all overtired and needed a little relaxation. As soon as the horse sale was over he’d surprise them and spring for that party himself. Let them invite whoever they wanted. He watched Cressie scoop up his gunbelt and pull out the handgun, slipping the shotgun into the crook of her arm. He frowned. “Careful with that. It’s not like that blunderbuss of yours - it’s got a hair trigger.”

“Then you just better do as I say, hadn’t you?”

Adam just looked at her. He looked at Sport. He looked over his shoulder at the hills. He thought about Cressie wandering them alone, shooting wildly and inaccurately at any sound or movement. “All right.” he said after a moment. “I’d kind of like to have a word with this fiance of yours anyway.” He unfastened Sport’s reins from the branch where he’d looped them, waiting for her nod before swinging easily into the saddle. He thought about spurring Sport into a gallop, but it was too likely that one of Cressie’s aimless shots would plug at least one of them. Or that she’d decide to wander into the wilderness on foot. Not worth it.

He stroked Sport’s neck and bent down to whisper in the his ear, “When all this is over? You and I are going to have a long talk.” Then reached a hand down to help Cressie up. She pushed the shotgun into his saddle roll, then accepted his hand, shoving the pistol into his ribcage. “Would you PLEASE be careful with that thing?” he snapped.

“I just want to make sure you don’t get any funny ideas.” she drawled.

“I have never felt less funny in my life.”

She settled herself comfortably behind him. “Well, that’s good. Because I’ll have this gun on you every step of the way.”

“Whatever you say. But you might want to hold on tight.” He glanced ahead at the hills and smiled a little. “Up there, huh?”

“Uh-huh.” She felt the shaking of his back where she leaned against it and glared. “What-all is so funny?”

“Answered prayers, Cressie. Answered prayers.” He shook his head simply. “Beware of them.”


Hoss glanced at the grandfather clock for what seemed like the hundredth time and back at his younger brother. “Sure is late,” he said uneasily.

Joe's mouth twisted in agreement. “Probably making sure he doesn’t get stuck cooking.”

Hoss fidgeted. "Maybe. But if he's havin' trouble with that bridge he's gonna come home ornerier than ever. One of us oughta get to cookin' somethin’ – I’m starved.”

Joe shrugged. “Fix some eggs and bacon or something. I’m not hungry.”

“Shoot, Joe, you gotta be hungry – we ain’t had nothin’ since lunch and all that brandin’ works up an appetite.”

Joe slumped lower onto the settee. “Bet he’s gone into town. Just to teach us a lesson.”

Hoss shuddered. “You’d dang well better hope not. If’n he’s gone into town somebody’s bound to mention ta him about that party bein' already set and he’ll be back here like a rampaging bull.” He shook his head. “Shouldn't-a done it without tellin’ him anyway. Don’t know how you talked me into it.”

Joe snorted. “Didn’t take much talking. Just took one glance from Sarah Jane Owens’ big brown eyes.”

Hoss blinked reminiscently, then sighed. “Reckon yer right. Dadburn it, if he DOES know then he IS mad and he's probably stayin' in town til he cools off. We might just as well eat.”

"I guess you're right." Joe perked up a little. "Well, as long as he's not around, we can get back to planning the party."

Hoss grimaced uncomfortably. "I been thinkin' Joe - maybe we oughta call the whole thing off."

"Call it off!" Joe shot upright. "We can't call it off now! We invited everybody! We'll look like fools! You wanna look like a fool in front of Sarah Jane?"

Hoss swallowed hard, the misty fantasy of Sarah Jane Owens dancing in his arms and smiling up into his face with her bright brown eyes alight crumbling painfully in his mind's eye. "No…" he admitted.

"Me either. And Hoss, the Cartwrights have always been known for their hospitality. You wouldn't want to ruin our reputation for being hospitable, would you?"

Hoss wrinkled his forehead. "No…"

"Of course not." Joe nodded his head briskly. "Why, it's practically a matter of family honor."

Hoss shook his head. "I just don't know if Adam's gonna see it that way, Joe. He's mad enough to call the whole thing off hisself if'n we don't."

"Oh, Adam." Joe shrugged elaborately. "Adam won't give us any trouble."

Hoss leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. "Now, I'm right curious to know how you figger that."

Joe warmed to his topic. "Adam'll like the party as much as we will - it was just bad timing that got him all hot under the collar before. If he hadn't found us here all cool and comfortable after he'd spent a hot morning at the branding and when he expected us to be out fixing that fence I'll bet he would've said "yes" with just a little coaxing. Why, we almost had him convinced anyway."

Hoss looked dubious. "We did, huh. I must have missed somethin'."

Joe waved a hand airliy. "It was subtle. But remember how he was helping us figure out how to get food with Hop Sing gone?"

Hoss scrunched his nose thoughtfully. "Yeah…"

"Well, that means he's in'erested. He's just been workin' too hard and you know how cranky that makes him. It means he needs a break. We gotta show him that this party is just the break he needs. And after he sees how much of the branding we finished today he'll stop worrying and relax and the party will start to sound real good to him. You'll see."

Hoss's expression lightened. "Huh. You reckon?" Somehow it all sounded so likely the way Joe told it.
"Sure." Joe stretched expansively. "Bet he'll even come across with the money. You know Adam. His bark is worse than his bite."

Hoss shook his head. "I don't know. I can recall some pretty good bites."

"Naw…" Joe's confidence was growing with every minute. "We just gotta approach it right. Let him have a nice meal. Good night's sleep. Show him how much progress we made. Then - bam! Spring it on him. He'll fall just like ripe fruit from a tree."

"Just like that, huh?" Hoss was still a little skeptical, but the glorious vision of a gracefully dancing Sarah Jane Owens was beating down his doubts. "Wouldn't hurt to do a little plannin', I reckon. Older brother does like his plannin'. He'll take us more serious if'n we got a plan. How many folk you reckon we invited?"

Joe's brows punched together. "How do I know? About everybody we saw, I guess. Didn't want to seem un-neighborly."

"Well, if'n we're gonna hire somebody ta do the cookin' we gotta tell 'em how many fer. How many ya think?"

Joe squinted his eyes to concentrate. "I don't know." he shrugged at last. "How many you think?"

"You don't know!" Hoss rolled his eyes in disgust. "You invited all them people an' you don't know how many? Of all the pea-brained - "

"Well, you were there too!" retorted Joe indignantly.

"Yeah, but it was your big idea!"

"Well, I didn't hear you protesting any! Especially around Sarah Jane!"

They glared at each other.

Uncharacteristically, it was Joe who backed down first. He cleared his throat. "Look, if we're gonna have to fight Adam we better not fight each other. We need a united front."

"Fight him, huh? I thought you said he was gonna fall like ripe fruit from a tree."  Hoss mimicked Joe's expansive gesture.

Joe made a face at him. "He will. Just might take a little  - well - persuading - is all. He can't give in too easy. He's got his pride."

"More than his share, if'n you ask me." Hoss grumbled.

Joe leaned forward and met his eyes squarely. "You want a chance to dazzle Sarah Jane or not?" Hoss rubbed his nose pensively. Joe lowered his voice slyly. "Saw Butch Peters givin' her the eye in town the other day. He lives right there in Virginia City, too. Bet he can just stop by and see her every day." Hoss's mouth twisted into a frown and he tugged at his ear. "Make it really easy for a fellow to get a head start. He'd be a tough one to catch, Butch Peters. But if you're too nervous - well - " Joe shrugged and sat back with a light sigh, watching Hoss surreptitiously through his lashes.

Hoss's face worked strangely. "Butch Peters rushes every new gal that comes ta this town then leaves 'em fer the next new one." he growled at last.

  Joe shrugged. "Well, a girl's gotta go around with somebody. If she doesn't meet the right fella what's she supposed to do?" he shook his head sadly. "Poor Sarah Jane."

"Aw, cut it out." Hoss kicked moodily at the carpet. "How many you figger we invited?"

Joe let out a crow of delight. "That's the spirit! I figger between us we can probably remember most of 'em - then maybe add five, to be on the safe side. And ol' Adam might have somebody he wants to invite, too. Let's see, there's Julie and Sarah Jane - "

"Well, that was kinda the whole point."

"Right. And Julie's folks, the Trayners, and Sarah Jane's Ma…"

"And Roy Coffey. Wouldn't be a party without him."

"Right. And if we got Roy, that means Clem - and the Doc, of course - "

"Margie Jenkins was with Sarah when we gave her the invite, so we asked the Jenkins…"

Joe was counting painstakingly on his fingers. "We ran into that wagonload of Simpsons on the way back to the ranch, too - how many of them do you think there were?"

Hoss squinted one eye. "Six, anyway." he said at last. "How many's that?"

Joe ticked them off on his fingers, then counted again, just to be sure. "I figure about twenty. So say twenty-five?"

Hoss started to brighten. "Twenty-five ain't so bad. We've had lots more than twenty-five ta parties."

Joe nodded enthusiastically. "That's right. How much could a little party for twenty-five people cost? Even Adam couldn't object to that."

The vision of Sarah Jane sweeping around the great room in his arms rushed back full force and Hoss smiled - his genuine, gap-toothed smile this time. "Dagummit, Joe - I think you're on to something afterall. This just may work."

Joe swung his legs up onto the settee and folded his hands behind his head. "Of course it will work, big brother. You just leave everything to me."

Chapter 2: As You Like It…Or Not

"True is it that we have seen better days!"
         II, vii, 120

"So where exactly is this cabin?" Adam steered Sport carefully through the trees, keeping him at a walk as much because of the uneven ground as the pistol Cressie seemed determined to press precariously in his back.

"Troy said there was an old cabin hunters used sometimes up by a place called Grouse Ridge, near an abandoned mine."

Adam automatically pulled Sport to a stop. "All the way up there?"

Cressie prodded him with the gun and he grit his teeth in irritation. "You just keep this here creature movin'. Is it far?"

"Cressie, that's hours away - and we're not exactly set up to camp out. Did you bring any supplies? Food?  Blankets?"

"Well, I told you I lost my horse." Adam couldn't see her face behind him, but she sounded like a sulky child. After a minute she added, "Troy didn't say it was so far."

"The more I hear about this fiance of yours - " he felt her stiffen and checked himself. "Is your Troy a local boy? From these parts?"

"I don't see why you ask all these questions. Troy is a fine s - " she caught herself. "He's a southerner. Like me."

 "It just seems funny for anyone not from this area to know about that cabin. Oh, it's pretty well known hereabouts - hunters use it for shelter now and again - but I don't see how anybody else could know about it. Unless he's hunted around this way?"

 Cressie sat up straight. "An' just what are you gettin' at?"

 Adam shrugged. "Nothing. Just  - thinking."

 "Well, your thinkin' is wrong about Troy. He wasn't expectin' me to make the trip by myself. We were supposed to meet back aways, but I got off track and then I lost my horse. He only told me about the cabin in case we got separated."

 A dry remark sprang to Adam's lips, but he bit it back and said instead. "Where'd you lose the horse?"

 Cressie sighed, unconsciously leaning against his back. Adam guessed she wasn't used to spending an extended amount of time in the saddle.  "Seemed like miles away from where I found you. I borrowed it from the last Way Station when we stopped to take a break for the night but I'm not used to ridin' bareback. In fact, I'm not used to ridin' astride."

 "Borrowed. Like you were going to 'borrow' mine?"

 "I was goin' to return it. I don't - "

 "You don't steal. So you said. You realize there could be a posse after you?"

 "For one silly horse? He wasn't even a very good horse. But he was much nicer than this one. Not so nervous."

 Adam patted Sport apologetically. "Sport isn't nervous. He just has a mind of his own. I like a horse with a little spirit. Other one throw you?"

There was a pause. "I fell off," she admitted at last, reluctantly, and, almost as if she could sense Adam's smile, "I told you I wasn't used to ridin' bareback. Anyway, after I lost the horse I knew there was no chance of meetin' Troy where we planned on time, so I walked for a ways, but goodness, there's just nothin' out here - no people or houses or nothin'. You were the first soul I saw for just miles and miles…"

"Which is why horse stealing is a hanging offense."

"Now, that's just silly. I don't even have the horse anymore. He's probably home in his stall this minute. If he's home there's no crime."

Adam shook his head. "You have a very creative view of the law. Stealing a stage horse, stealing my horse, not to mention kidnapping me - I'd say you're developing a pretty impressive record for yourself. This time next week you could be appearing on wanted posters all over the Territory."

"You think so?" Cressie sounded intrigued. "My, wouldn't Daddy be cross!"

In spite of himself, Adam laughed. "Wouldn't it be easier to go to your rendezvous location? Surely your Troy waited for you."

"Mercy, no. He couldn't wait, on accounta - " she broke off.

"Account of?" Adam prodded.

Cressie sat up straight again, disgruntled at her own carelessness. "Never you mind. You ask too many questions."

"Just making conversation. It's a long ride."

"Well, you just mind where we're goin'."

Adam sought out the sun, then looked at Sport. "If you're serious about pursuing this I'd better find a place for us to camp tonight. There's a stream not far on - we can find a place somewhere near there."

"But we can't!" Cressie forgot about the gun she was holding and made a grab for the reins, snagging them for a minute, then dropping them. Sport shied to the right, neighing his surprise and tossing his head and Cressie clutched at Adam, thunking the gun barrel against his breast bone. Adam hastily adjusted his hold on the reins, trying to bring Sport under control again, trying to ignore the insistent pressure against his sternum and how likely it was that all this jouncing would set the gun off. Cressie held on for dear life, oblivious to the direction of the pistol. After a minute, Adam had Sport back in hand, allowing himself a deep breath and trying to resist the almost overwhelming urge to grab the pistol away from Cressie - a move that, on horseback, would almost surely result in injury to at least one of them.

When he thought he could speak he said slowly and carefully, "Unless you want to find yourself alone in the wilderness with a corpse and a restive horse I suggest you learn to be a little more careful with that thing."

Cressie noticed for the first time where she was pointing the gun and let go of Adam with that arm, flapping the pistol around as if unsure of where to direct it. "Well, you just don't try anything." she squeaked unconvincingly.

"I am trying something. I'm trying very hard to stay alive. You make it hard work."

"Well - just don't do anything foolish, then. I don't want to have to shoot you."

The word "foolish" seemed to have an odd effect on Adam. He opened his mouth to retort, closed it, twisting his neck to relieve the stiffness there. He then carefully removed his hat, reaching up and kneading his temples for a full minute before he felt he could trust himself to speak calmly. Finally he managed, "I don't really have any fear of you shooting me on purpose, Cressie - in fact, I don't think you could do it if your life depended on it. But by accident? I shudder at the possibilities."

Cressie seemed at a loss for a minute, then she burst out, "Well, either way, you'd be dead."

"My thoughts exactly." He reached down to stroke Sport, who was prancing edgily. "You know, if we turned around now we could reach my ranch sometime after dark."

"That's not where we're goin'," said Cressie stubbornly. "We're goin' to meet Troy."

"All right…" Adam sighed, catching the sound of a stream up ahead. "Have you ever camped out before?"

   Cressie instinctively tightened her grip around his chest. "You mean - on the ground?"
 "On the ground."

 "No." Her voice sounded very small. "But I'm not afraid, if that's what you're thinkin'." She glanced about dubiously at the surrounding trees. "How much farther?"

 "Couple of hours. If we start out again at daybreak we can be there while it's still early."

  "Why don't we just ride on through the night, then?"

 "Lots of reasons. No moon, and it's going to be dark soon under these trees. Terrain's pretty rough. And Sport needs a break - he's been carrying double for a long way." He turned in the saddle and grasped her arm, swinging her effortlessly to the ground and dismounting lightly next to her. "Well, maybe not quite double." He smiled, with a glance at her. "More like one and a half." Cressie was rubbing her arms for warmth, the gun pointed unconsciously towards her own shoulder. Adam shook his head. "Why don't you put that thing away before you hurt someone? You can't honestly believe that I'd leave you all alone out here without a horse - especially with night coming on."

"No…" she admitted slowly. "You seem like a gentleman. But you might try to make me go back to your ranch with you if I don't keep guard."

Adam grinned appreciatively. "The thought had occurred to me."

"Well, you can just forget about it."

"You realize that you'll have to stay up and keep guard on me all night?"
"I can do that."

Adam shook his head. "Hope this fellow's worth it."

"He is," said Cressie loyally. "What are you doing?"

Adam finished untying the saddlebags and lowered them to the ground, turning to loosen the cinch. "Settling Sport. There should be some beans and jerky in there - my father's pretty strict about us bringing food when we set out for the day. Or you could let me take the rifle and see if I could bag us something a little more appetizing." He pulled the saddle and reached for the saddle blanket. "You'll be pretty happy to have this later on - I'm afraid it's the only one I have, though. I wasn't planning on staying out all night. You know how to build a fire?"

Cressie shifted from one foot to the other. "You're serious. About sleepin' out here."

Adam raised his eyebrows. "Where else? I want to water Sport and refill the canteens, too. What about the fire?"

"What about it?"

"Do you want to build it while I get water?"

"I - " in the uncertain light it looked as though she was blushing. "I have to keep the gun on you."

Adam's mouth twitched. "Of course." He slung the canteens over his shoulder and gathered Sport's reins. "This way." He gestured her courteously in front of him, but she frowned and waved the pistol. Adam shrugged and moved toward the sound of the stream.


"Beautiful night." Cressie jumped at the sound of his voice and he hid a covert smile. "Finished eating? I know it's probably not what you're used to."

Cressie put her plate of beans daintily aside and reached up to remove her hat, giving Adam his first good look at her face. To him she looked impossibly young - a broad, sweet face offset by a suprisingly square jaw and wide set eyes - in the shadowy firelight it was difficult to tell their color, but he thought light, like the long, tangled braid of golden brown hair. She folded her arms around her knees  - she was long and slender, and with the hat on passed well for a boy. For the moment she seemed to have forgotten about the gun, and he had no desire to remind her. Cressie with a loaded gun was alarming enough - Cressie with a loaded gun in the dark was horrifying.

Didn't matter anyway. It was too late to make it back to the Ponderosa tonight - he was stuck where he was. He put the remains of his own dinner aside, wondering what Hoss and Joe were thinking about his absence. Probably wouldn't worry too much tonight - of course he'd said he'd be home for dinner, but Hammond Creek was quite a ride and they'd probably assume he was just having trouble with the bridge. He grimaced. More trouble than they could possibly imagine. If he could get Cressie to the cabin a little after daybreak, he could either turn her over to this appalling fiance of hers or convince her to return with him and be back at the Ponderosa by lunchtime. Almost a full day lost.

He rubbed unconsciously at the bridge of his nose and sighed inwardly. If only Hoss and Joe had seen to the branding. If only they hadn't forgotten about the fences and the horse sale, if only they weren't off mooning somewhere for whatever two girls had caught their eye this week, things shouldn't be in too bad order. Of course, he was going to have some explaining of his own to do. And the mere thought of recounting this story to his two younger brothers made him squirm.  He'd let his guard down, he'd fallen asleep, and he'd been taken by an eighteen year old girl. A little delay, a little carelessness and everything can unravel before your eyes. His own words came back to haunt him and he moved to rub his forehead this time. Hoisted on my own petard. I will never live this one down - not ever - not if I live to be a thousand.

 Well, there was absolutely nothing he could do about any of it from here. Despite everything, that thought brought an odd kind of peace with it. No plan, no move, no idea would get him back to the Ponderosa and attending to business, no matter how urgently he wanted to. He had told his father that Hoss and Joe could manage on their own - now he just had to hope it was true and try to believe it himself.

The sounds of the night creatures were musical and soothing - he had always loved sitting by the fire and listening to them - through the canopy of trees he could just glimpse a few stars. He hadn't misspoken to Cressie - it really was a beautiful night and here he was, in the hills, just where he'd hoped to be. Of course, he hadn't exactly planned on the babysitting portion, but as long as he was here anyway, he might just as well enjoy himself. Too bad he wouldn't be able to squeeze in a little hunting. He bent forward to throw a little more wood on the fire.

"Where'd you learn all this?"

"What's that?" startled out of his own thoughts, it took a moment for Adam to process the question. "All what?"

Cressie rubbed her arms for warmth. "Makin' a fire. Cookin' over it. Findin' your way around in the middle of nowhere."

Adam reached for the horse blanket and held it out to her. When she eyed it dubiously, he rose and draped it around her shoulders, picking up a stick and crouching back down to stir up the fire. "Indians, I guess."

"Indians!" Cressie's eyes widened into huge pools that reflected the firelight. "You know Indians?"

"Were almost the only people out here when I was a boy. Got to know the Paiutes - their Chief, Winnemucca, had a son about my age named Young Wolf. We got to be good friends. He taught me how to navigate the wilderness - how to survive it. We hunted and rode together…for a lot of years."

Cressie edged closer. "Do you still?"

Adam poked the fire and shook his head.

"How come?"


"You? Or Young Wolf?"

"Both, I guess. Or maybe it was the rest of the world that changed. Never figured that one out."

Cressie stared moodily at the fire. "I hate change."

Adam smiled faintly. "For a girl that hates change, you're planning on making a mighty big one."
"Well, I figure that sometimes it's better to make the change yo'self if there's goin' to be change anyways - that way you can choose the change, sort of, and not be taken by surprise."

"Control it, you mean."


"Nice idea, if only it worked. What big surprise brought you to this conclusion?"

Cressie fidgeted with the edges of the blanket. "My Mama died."

Adam nodded understandingly. "That's the worst one, all right. Recently?"

"Oh, no. Six years ago, now. But it changed everything."

"Sure does."

She caught something in his voice and looked at him. "Is your Mama dead too?"

"Um hm."

"After she named you for a book?"

"Right after, as it happens."

"You didn't know her at all?"

He shook his head. "Not really. After the fact, some, I like to think, though."

Cressie pulled the blanket around her. "That's much worse. No Mama at all."

"Not as bad as it sounds - my father remarried."

"Then you still have that mama."

"No - it's a very long story, Cressie."

"I'm not goin' anywhere."

Adam relaxed onto the ground, Indian style. "Why don't we talk about you? What are these other changes you're hoping to control?"

"Oh." Cressie made a face. "After Mama died, Daddy had to find a place for me, since he - well, since he travels an' all. He sent me to Miss Haversham's Finishing School for Genteel Young Ladies."

Her tone of disgust made Adam laugh out loud. "Not your favorite, I take it."

"It's a stupid place. And we learn stupid things. Like sewing and dancing and deportment…and I can only see my Daddy on vacations and things. Course, he comes to see me when he can. Did your Daddy send you away when your Mama died?"

"No," Adam admitted. "He kept me with him. But I was younger and I think maybe it's a little easier with a boy."

"Everythin' is easier if you're a boy!"

Adam smiled. "Well, not everything. But many things, I'll grant you that. So, now that you're eighteen - are you graduated?"

"Later this year. I'm supposed to be meeting Daddy for vacation."

"And you're just not showing up?"

Cressie gave him a sideways glance. "I left him a note…"

"A great comfort to him, I'm sure. He must be half crazy with fear."

"Don't expect he knows just yet. Besides, it serves him right."

"What, for sending you to Finishing School?"

"Of course not!" she paused. "Well, maybe that, some. But I meant for not lettin' me marry Troy. Daddy just has this terrible prejudice against him."

Since Adam had already developed something of a terrible prejudice against the mysterious Troy himself he could well understand that he might, but he held his peace and said instead, "And where did you meet this Troy? Finishing School?"

"Mercy, no! Why, you could live there and not know there was a man in the world! I met Troy while I was visiting Daddy! He's - well, he works for Daddy, sort of. Troy took to me right off, and me to him. He courted me right hard. Not around Daddy, of course, because - well, there were reasons you'd understand if you knew everythin'. Before I went back to school I told Daddy about it and he just about blew his top! He ordered me to never, ever see Troy again! Can you imagine!"

Adam could imagine very well, but held his tongue.

"But Troy, he wasn't discouraged - he wrote to me in secret, and when we couldn't stand to be apart anymore he came up with this wonderful plan so's we could run away and get married. Now Daddy will have to accept him."

Adam put his tongue firmly in his cheek to avoid expressing his opinion of Troy and the wonderful plan. No point in wanting to thrash a stranger. He was probably just another heedless eighteen year old kid who never thought beyond tomorrow anyway.

"And what's to prevent your father from sending you back to school and kicking Troy into the hereafter once he catches up with you?"

"He can't. I'll be married. I'll belong to my husband, then."

"All right. And once you've taught your father this sterling lesson, then - what happens next? You and Troy live happily ever after?"

"Of course." Cressie sounded surprised he should ask.

"I don't know. Sounds to me like this whole thing is more about your father than it is about Troy. It's not too late to back out, you know."

"And let Troy think I'm a coward? Let Daddy think I'm a child? I will not!"

"Those are very bad reasons for getting married, Cressie."

"Now - now you see here - " Cressie sputtered, clambering to her feet. "You - you don't know - you just - " she clutched at the shotgun that had been lying across her knees and leveled it at him. "You seem to forget who's in charge here! I'll have you know - what was that?" A distant howling made her jump and she let out a small scream. The jump set off the remaining barrel with a reverberating bang, and Cressie jumped and screamed again at that sound. Sport echoed the scream shrilly, fighting his tether.

Adam, who had risen with her and had actually felt the scorching heat of the charge as it tore through his shirt, decided he had had just about enough.

"Would you give me that!" he demanded, snatching it out of her hands and breaking the barrel open to be sure it was empty before throwing it aside. "Now I do NOT want to see you pick that, or any gun, up again until you have some small idea of how to use it! It's a wonder you haven't killed one of us by now or shot your own foot off! That was a wolf, nothing more, and probably not within half a mile of here from the sound of it, so would you please - " he broke off suddenly at the sight of Cressie's face. "Oh, no." he groaned. "No, please - don't do that…"

It was too late. Cressie's chin trembled. She caught her breath in a sob. Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks.

Adam pushed his hands through his hair. "Come on, Cressie…don't cry…all I meant..." Cressie began to sob in earnest, great gulping sobs, and Adam couldn't help putting his arm around her. "All right," he said awkwardly. "It's all right."

Cressie buried her head in his chest. "It is not!" she sobbed miserably. "I've just ruined everythin'! I lost the horse and I almost SHOT you - twice - and now I'm late to meet Troy an' he'll think I'm too stupid to marry…"

"That's not so." soothed Adam, rubbing her back comfortingly. "You're not stupid."

"I AM." protested Cressie tearfully, clinging to his shirt. "Look at how I messed everythin' up! I stole two horses..."

"Borrowed," Adam murmured.

"And kidnapped you, and even with a gun I couldn't make you afraid of me…"

"Of course I was."

"And now I have to stay up all night to guard you and my goodness, I just don't know how I'm going to manage that…and the worst is all those years in Miss Haversham's School for Genteel Young Ladies and now I find I don't know one useful thing. I mean, if you hadn't been here I wouldn't have known anything about how to make a fire or found anything to eat and to be honest I'm not even very good at the sewing and deportment and things…and then…and then…" she broke off suddenly, sniffed and stole a peek at him. "You  - you were?"

"I was."

"Maybe just a little?"

"Terrified. I promise."

Cressie sniffed again. "Well, I think the gun made me a LITTLE scary."

"You have no idea."

Cressie looked mollified for a minute, then buried her head in his shirt again. Adam felt something suspicious pressing against his hip, reached down and traced the outline of his pistol stuck in Cressie's belt - not barrel down, as was customary, but barrel up, poised to blow off the head of the bearer. He sighed, dislodging it carefully and checking the hammer to be sure it wasn't cocked. She peered down to see what he was doing, remembering the gun too late.

"Cressie, we need to make a bargain."

"A bargain?" Cressie sniffled and squinted up at him through tear-swollen eyes.

"That's right. A deal. A - an agreement."

She ran the backs of her hands over her eyes to dry them. "What kind of agreement?"

"Well, for example, I agree to take you to the cabin tomorrow morning and wait, say, half an hour for Troy to show up if you agree to put away your little arsenal. You agree if Troy doesn't show up within half an hour you'll come back to the Ponderosa with me and try to contact him from there."

"Hm." she considered. "Once I'm at the cabin you could just leave me to wait for Troy."

"You know I couldn't."

"I'd be fine."

"Cressie - "

"Oh, all right. My, you are a bossy one. We wait two hours for Troy, though."

"No. I have things to do. Half an hour. That's all."

 "One hour, then."

Adam hesitated, then nodded resignedly. "One hour."
"And you don't get the guns either."

"Oh, for - "

"I mean it. This needs to be - y'know - equal."

"Well, you certainly can't think I'd shoot you and it would be nice if someone who knew how to use them had them handy for protection."

Cressie considered. "Well, maybe the rifle, then. For those wolves and things. But not the handgun or the shotgun."

"I just don't think you have any idea how dangerous it is to be out here unarmed."

Cressie wavered. "Well, you can keep the handgun nearby, then. But where I can reach it too."

"All right, all right, all right - whatever you say. Do you think you could get some sleep now? We have an early start tomorrow."

"We should shake on our agreement or somethin' - shouldn't we?"

Adam shifted the pistol to his left hand and she took his right hand and pumped it vigorously. "I feel just heaps better," she said cheerfully.

"Good thing somebody does."

It took a while to get Cressie comfortably stowed in the reversed saddle with the saddle blanket and settled for sleep - the strangeness of the bed and the night made her jumpy, but the unaccustomed rigors of the day finally took their toll and she was at last fast asleep. Only then did Adam feel comfortable seeking his own bed, such as it was. Without the blanket or saddle it promised to be a cold night.

He built up the fire and made himself as comfortable as he could, then lay back to try to get some sleep. It was a long time coming. Shivering in the chill night air and with the luxury of quiet to reflect, he found himself worrying about Hoss and Joe and how they were managing with the Ponderosa, and even more about his impulsive charge and her hazardous adventure. He hoped this Troy was indeed the kind of man he could feel comfortable turning responsibility for her over to, but if he wasn't, what then? Or if he was indeed another reckless teen, would he really be able to ride off and leave them to their own devices? He didn't think so. Sure aren't very good at minding your own business, Cartwright, he mumbled to himself, watching his hopes for a speedy return to the Ponderosa collapse before him. Hoss and Joe, I sure hope my faith in you isn't misplaced, or we're all in for it. He pictured the Ponderosa in his mind's eye, the great room fire, his favorite reading chair, his own room…and finally he dozed.

He awoke suddenly from a dream of Hoss and Joe laughing and dancing around the Ponderosa great room in a huge crowd of people while cattle wandered aimlessly everywhere, stepping casually over flattened fences, poking their faces down the well, wandering through Hop Sing's kitchen. His first thought was that he was much warmer than he remembered being when he went to sleep, his second that something had woken him. His hand went automatically to reach for his gun, but his arm was firmly lodged under something.

The rough nudge on his shoulder came again, more insistently. He heard the click of a rifle cocking and reached up with his left hand without thinking to brush it away. "Cressie, I thought we had an agreement," he mumbled sleepily.

An unfamiliar voice drawled, "I don't know about that, sir, but perhaps you'll be so kind as to tell me what you are doin' with my affianced bride?"

That penetrated Adam's drowsy fog and he opened his eyes and looked down to see that the source of all that mysterious warmth was a golden brown head tucked in the middle of his chest. It gradually dawned on him that Cressie must have crawled over next to him, bringing the blanket with her, at some point during the night -  just as the rifle barrel moved to plant itself firmly against the side of his neck.

He bit back a groan, moved to try to get a better view of the owner of the voice. "Troy, I presume?" he ventured wearily.

 This day wasn't shaping up to be any better than the last one.


Hoss was headed eagerly down the hall and to breakfast when he remembered that there wasn't anyone to fix breakfast and slowed his pace. Dang. This was no good. They needed to get somebody from town to come in and cook for them - a body could starve under these conditions. He approached Adam's door and paused, his hand hovering over the knob. Adam was usually up first, but there were no sounds coming from inside. Could be downstairs already, of course, but he hadn't heard him come in last night…after a second, he knocked. No answer. He hesitated, glancing at the knob again. If Adam was up he wouldn't appreciate having his privacy invaded, but…knocking louder, Hoss turned the knob and nudged the door open. Empty. He pushed the door open further, looking. Didn't look as if the bed had been slept in and there were no signs that someone had shaved recently, but then Adam was a neat one. Might not mean anything. Pulling the door carefully closed again, he headed for the stairs. He grimaced at the sight of the bare dining room table, inexpertly cleaned up the night before. Well, Joe could fix breakfast since he'd done dinner. He wanted to see to the animals.

Chubb nickered a greeting as he entered the barn and he reached over to rub under the horse's jaw, glancing at the next stall. Empty. And the barn chores weren't done, so it had been empty all night by the look of it. Pursing his lips in thought, he reached for a shovel to start the chores.

He hadn't gotten far when Joe appeared, hair tousled from sleep and tucking in his shirt, absent-mindedly leaving it half untucked as he reached for a pitchfork.

"Adam didn't come home last night."

"Huh?" it took Joe a while to wake up all the way, but he could do the barn chores in his sleep.
"Sport's stall ain't been used. Looks like Adam didn't come home."

"Oh." Joe rubbed at his head to rouse himself, leaving his hair in even greater disarray. "Maybe he's gone out already."

"And only cleaned out Sport's stall? Ain't likely."

Joe leaned on the pitchfork and peered in Sport's stall, knuckling his eyes and looking again. "Oh. Funny." He gave a jaw-splitting yawn and woke up a little more. "Line shack, you figure?"

"Mebbe." Hoss measured out some oats for Buck and gave him a mindless pat. "Or mebbe he spent the night in town, like you said."

"Mm." Joe forked some fresh hay into a stall Hoss had shoveled clean. "Lucky. Bet he ate better than we did."

"Yeah. Bet he stays in town fer breakfast too. Guess we'll likely see 'em at the brandin'."

"Reckon." Joe looked for another clean stall, didn't see one, resignedly picked up a shovel. He paused again, leaning on the shovel this time. "Funny," he repeated after a minute.

"Him eatin' better? Ain't a bit funny."

"No, not that - get your mind off your stomach for once. Funny him not coming back to the house to give orders."

Hoss smirked. "Mebbe he figgered on lettin' us do things in our own TIME and our own WAY."

Joe made a face at him. "Ha ha ha. You're a real wit this morning, you know that? I didn't mean to us, though that's even odder now that you say it. I meant the hands. Funny he didn't come back to give them orders after complaining about our full schedule. Ain't like him."

Hoss's brow furrowed. "No," he agreed. "It ain't." He plied a shovel in another stall. "Course, it's still early. And the ride ta town's a piece long."


"Ride from the line shack nearest Hammond Crik is long, too."


"Probably started early, though. Be here any minute, most likely."

"Most likely."

"You gonna use that shovel fer a leanin' post or you gonna give me a hand here?"

"Oh. Right." Joe shook himself and applied the shovel. "Be in a better mood, though - I mean, if he ate in town and slept in a good bed and maybe had a little pleasant company. Good time to tell him the party's all set if he did."

Hoss snorted. "Be in a worse one if he had to sleep out at the line shack and eat beans cause he was wrestling with that bridge. And mark my words, if he stayed in town he knows about that party. We won't get off that easy."

Joe shook his head at him. "Trouble with you, brother, is you got a bad outlook. What's got you so sour today? Your puss would curdle milk."

Hoss chopped moodily with the shovel for a minute. "Don't know," he admitted at last. "Gotta bad feelin' somehow."

"All you need is a couple of dances with Sarah Jane and maybe a walk under a full moon and you'll have a whole different kind of feelin'."

Hoss rolled his eyes, but his expression softened some. "An' you say I gotta one track mind. How we gonna walk under a full moon Friday when the moon's new right now, tell me that."

Joe gave a whistle. "You ARE a crab today. It was just a little romantic picture I was paintin' for ya, Hoss. So it'll be a sliver of moon instead - even more romantic if you ask me."

"Mornin', fellas. Where's Adam?"

Both Hoss and Joe jumped involuntarily at the new voice. Hoss looked over his shoulder and cleared his throat. "Mornin', Clyde. Still up at Hammond Crik, I reckon."

"No he ain't. Charlie was working up thata way yesterday and ended up spendin' the night at the line shack. He stopped by to check on the bridge on his way down this mornin' and said it was broke full away on this side - just all splintered and bobbin' in the water. Wondered if Adam needed a hand with it or where else he'd like to shift them horses we was expectin' ta turn out there."

Hoss and Joe exchanged a glance. "Reckon - reckon he's in town, now that you mention it," Hoss suggested hopefully.

Clyde raised his eyebrows and slid the match clenched in his teeth to the other side of his mouth. "With yer Pa gone and all we gotta do around here? Hard to believe."

Hoss and Joe squinted uneasily at each other.

"Well, you see, Clyde," Hoss began, clearing his throat again  "it was kind of - "

Joe jumped in, trying to help. "He was kind of - um - sick!" he improvised triumphantly, in sudden inspiration.

"An emergency!" Hoss put in at the same time. They looked at each other and tried again.

"An emergency," agreed Joe firmly.

"Sick," nodded Hoss simultaneously.

Hoss glared at Joe. Joe shrugged helplessly. Hoss coughed. "What we mean is - he had this - this emergency, in town, ya see, and it - ah - it just about made 'em…um…made 'em…sick…" Hoss winced at how feeble it sounded, even to his own ears.

Clyde's eyebrows raised fractionally. "That so." He made himself comfortable in the barn doorway. "Now that's too bad. What kind of emergency would that be? Mebbe I kin be o' help."

"Financial," Joe piped in quickly.

"Legal," Hoss supplied at the same moment. They exchanged a look of pure exasperation. Hoss forced a confident smile. "A legal/financial sort of…" he trailed off unhappily.

"Sort of …emergency…" Joe finished for him weakly. "Big legal/financial…" He drifted off uncomfortably.

The corners of Clyde's mouth quirked upward the slightest bit. "Huh. No foolin'." He took the match out of his mouth, looked at it, rolled it between his fingers, and then bit down on it again. "When-all you expect him?"

"Any time!" insisted Hoss.

"Hard to say," Joe chimed.

Clyde's eyelids drooped a little, masking his eyes. "You don't say. Which was that again?"

Hoss and Joe both looked from the barn floor to each other, then away again. Hoss was thinking that he'd never really thought about it before, but, now that he did, he'd never really liked that Clyde Decker. Too darned nosy. "Ain't sure," he mumbled at last.

Clyde grinned. He pulled the match out of his mouth, looked at it, tossed it aside. "Finally kicked over the traces, huh?"

Hoss scrunched up his face. "What's that supposed ta mean?"

"Finally cut the tether. Made a break fer it. Snapped." Hoss and Joe just stared at him. "Thought mebbe that huntin' trip would be the last straw but you know yer Pa - ain't the most flexible fella ta ever come down the pike."

Hoss shook his head like a bull dislodging flies. "Clyde, if'n yer speakin' English, I don't recognize it, so why don't you explain jest what you mean? What huntin' trip? What do you know about where Adam is?"

Clyde smirked. "Thought you said he was in town?" Hoss made a sound in his throat and Clyde decided he'd pushed his luck just about far enough. "Yer brother had a huntin' trip planned fer about now - he didn't tell you about it?" Hoss and Joe looked at each other, then shook their heads. "Wanted a little time away, after all them cows we just moved and calves we dug outta four corners o' this spread. But yer Pa wouldn't hear o' it, what with him an' Hop Sing bein' away and all that brandin' and fence mendin' and the horse sale an' all. Adam was right put out about it. Reckon it's the thing that done cracked him."

Hoss's frown turned to a scowl. "Cracked. Snapped. What's this you keep goin' on about?"

Clyde shrugged. "I figger he jest about reached his limit with that bridge and rode off to take a break anyway. Always figgered it would happen sooner er later."

Joe puckered his forehead. "You mean, just - ? Without even - ?" He shook his head vigorously. "He wouldn't. Not Adam."

Hoss folded his arms over his massive chest. "Joe's right. Why Adam's like - like them hills out there. Solid. He ain't the sort ta crack."

Clyde shook his head. "Can get ta anybody, I reckon. Sometimes a young feller's just gotta feel he has some say in where he goes and when."

"Adam ain't young!" said Joe, genuinely shocked. "Why, he's gonna be thirty come next month."

Clyde's shoulders shook. "Reckon that sounds old from where yer standin'. Sounds right young from where I am."

"Just the same," Joe insisted stubbornly. "I can't see Adam goin' off, no word to us or nothin', especially with Pa away and all the work facin' us. Adam takes his responsibilities real serious."

Clyde nodded. "Now, that there's the problem. All them responsibilities too soon an' too serious fer too long and somethin's jest gotta give. Ain't sayin' he did it on purpose. Probably happened afore he even knew what-all he was doin'."

Joe raised his chin. "Adam takes to responsibility. He likes it. Why, he's been givin' orders as long as I can - as long - " Joe suddenly flashed on the look on Adam's face and the tone of his voice when he'd asked him if he ever got tired of telling people what to do and something quivered across the inside of his stomach.  He blinked. "He just wouldn't, that's all," he finished with less conviction. He glanced uneasily at Hoss.

Clyde shrugged. "Well, we'll see, I reckon. Meantime, reckon yer in charge, Hoss. What you wanna do about grazin' them horses an the brandin' an the fences?"

Hoss looked over his shoulder as if expecting to see someone else standing behind him. "Whazzat?"

Clyde's eyes twinkled just the slightest bit. "The men. How you wanna use 'em?"

Hoss swallowed. "I - I'll…" he cleared his throat. "Git a crew down ta finish the brandin' an take care o' the fences, I guess. I'll - I'll have to think some on the grazin'." Hoss had bossed individual jobs before and enjoyed it too, but he had never had to look at the big picture and he felt a little overwhelmed by the suddenness of the prospect.

"Well, you know where we are if you need us. An' don't go worryin' about Adam. I reckon he'll be back when he's had a minute ta clear his head." He touched the brim of his hat to them and sauntered away. He didn't make a sound, but somehow Hoss still had the impression that he was laughing at them. He scowled. Nope. He never had taken to that Clyde Decker. Too cheeky by half.

"Think he's right, Hoss?" Hoss looked at Joe. His eyebrows were furrowed in a questioning "V".

 Hoss shook himself. "Howzat?"

"About Adam. Think Adam really cracked and just…?" he trailed off, his face solemn.

Hoss stuck out his lower lip. "I think it's the biggest dang fool thing I ever done heard," he said
flatly. "And I'm gonna prove it. I'm gonna ride on up ta Hammond Crik and take a look around and yer
gonna ride inta town and look fer 'em there. Clean yerself up and git. We ain't got no time ta waste."

 Joe's face brightened. "Right! On my way!"

 "And hire us a temporary cook while yer there!" Hoss hollered after him. He rubbed at the end of his nose. With one dang crazy thing and another a man needed to keep up his strength.

Chapter 3: …Or What You Will

"Journeys end in lovers meeting, every wise man's son doth know."
         II, iii, 46

"I believe I am the one askin' the questions here, sir."

Adam swallowed a yawn and blinked to clear the remaining sleep from his eyes. Cressie was lying directly on top of his right arm cutting off the circulation and pressed against his chest as though held there by a vacuum, so there would be no clever moves. He looked down at her again - he couldn't really blame Troy for jumping to the wrong conclusion. He offered a conciliatory smile. "Look, I know what this looks like, but it's really not what it seems - "

Keeping the gun carefully trained on Adam, Troy nudged Cressie with his boot. "Where I come from, sir, a man is permitted - nay, expected - to take lethal action against any cur who trifles with the affections of his intended." He nudged Cressie a little more forcefully.

"I have not trifled - would you stop that?" Adam pushed Troy's boot away as he made a more insistent effort to rouse Cressie. "There's no need to be so rough," he added, a little indignantly. "She's probably just worn out and maybe a little hard to wake up. My brother's the same way - let me do it. I don't know what you were thinking anyway, dragging a sheltered girl of her age out here all alone and unprotected."

Troy stared at him, somewhat off balance to find his prisoner taking the offensive. "She was supposeda meet me," he defended himself sulkily.

"Then you should have waited for her. Come on, Cressie…" Adam peeled her gently away from his chest and gave her a little shake. "Time to get up…and how far was she traveling to meet you? Alone? And what exactly was so important that you couldn't wait around for her?"

"Why, I - why - now, see here - " Troy shook himself and settled the gun more firmly against Adam's neck. "You are actin' mighty high handed for a gent that could see his head blown off any minute!"

Adam glanced up from trying to pry Cressie's fingers loose from the front of his shirt. "Let's just say I'm getting accustomed to it. C'mon, Cress - rise and shine." Cressie mumbled in her sleep and twisted, throwing an arm around Adam's waist and rolling to snuggle more firmly against him. Adam gave Troy a sheepish glance and cleared his throat. "She - had a  - very long day  - "

Troy glared.

Adam delicately removed Cressie's arm and pushed her carefully away again and onto her back, then leaned down to speak directly in her ear. "Cressie," he said firmly. "It's morning. I told you we needed to get an early start." He threw another look at Troy and shrugged. "Worse than my brother, actually."

Troy's expression remained stony.  Cressie's eyelids fluttered and Adam smiled. "There you go. Good girl."

Cressie opened her eyes a little and stretched luxuriously. She focused on Adam and smiled back. "I thought I dreamed you," she murmured. "My - " she stretched again, "I never would have believed I could sleep so well on the ground." She started to roll over and go back to sleep, but Adam kindly but firmly kept her where she was.

"No, you don't. It's morning. And I have a surprise for you."

"A surprise? How nice." Cressie blinked at him benignly. "Y'know, you do have just the prettiest eyes."

Adam gave an uneasy laugh, glancing again at Troy. Unlike Cressie, Troy seemed very handy with a rifle and his expression was darkening ominously. "All right. You're about as big a help as Sport. Why don't you take a look right over there?" He gestured cautiously to where Troy was standing.

Cressie turned her head to look. It took her a minute, but after a second her face lit up like a candle and she sat up straight.  "Why, Troy!" She started to get up to go to him, then saw his rifle trained on Adam and her cry of joy turned shrill. "Troy! What are you doing!" She reached out and grabbed the gun barrel.

"Cressie, don't!" Adam called sharply. He watched her hand in a kind of horrified daze, knowing he would never be able to stop her in time. There was no way to duck, there was nowhere to roll - he closed his eyes and prepared to meet his Maker.

The gun seemed to discharge directly in his ear, deafening him for a moment as the sound of the blast reverberated over and over against his eardrum. Somewhere under that he was distantly aware of the echo of the shot in the early morning air, the tumbled confusion of Cressie screaming and Troy scolding.

"Cressida, what is the matter with you, girl?" Troy's voice sounded shaken. "Didn't anybody ever teach you not to do a fool thing like that?"

Adam reached up very, very slowly to touch his ear. "Somebody tried, believe me…" He looked at his fingertips and noticed with blank fascination that there was blood on them. The bullet had actually nicked him. Just the smallest degree further to the right…

Cressie screamed again. "Oh, Adam! Oh, Adam, you're bleeding!"

"Cressie…" Adam drew his breath in carefully. "You really, really, TRULY have to stop doing that."

"Oh, Adam - I'm so sorry - I was so afraid Troy was going to shoot you…" She looked around wildly for a something to stop the bleeding and her eyes alit on Troy's neckerchief. She jumped to her feet and, before he could give more than a strangled protest, snatched it from his neck and knelt down to press it against Adam's ear.

Adam winced and pulled away. "Let me. You've done enough damage. It's barely a scratch anyway." He took the bandanna from her, folded it into a pad and was applying it when he caught a glimpse of her face and groaned. "Oh, for the love of God, Cressie. Please don't start that again…"

Cressie's eyes filled with tears. "I'm s-s-s-sorry…I was just so scared…"

"All right, all right, all right - everyone's fine - there's nothing to cry about. If you really want to help why don't you grab a canteen for me?"

Snuffling forlornly, Cressie grabbed one of the canteens from the rock where they'd placed them and thrust it at him. Adam opened it and splashed some water onto the neckerchief, dabbing at his ear and offering the canteen back to her. "You look like you need this more than I do. Take a sip. That's a girl. Now, look - bleeding's already stopped, right? So find a dry spot on this thing and blow your nose. Everything is fine." He shook out the damp cloth and paused, studying it for a minute before handing it to her. He shot a curious glance at Troy, then gave Cressie his full attention again as she blew her nose satisfyingly. He watched her mop her eyes. "Better?"  Cressie nodded dolefully. "Good. Because I want you to listen to me now.  If I ever - and I mean this, Cressie - ever - at any time - see you so much as touch a loaded gun again for any reason - I will turn you over my knee then and there and give you a tanning you will not soon forget. I give you my solemn word. Do you understand me?"

Cressie stuck out her lower lip. "My own Daddy doesn't tan me."

Adam met her eyes, his own steady. "Do you want to try me?"

Cressie studied him cautiously, then shook her head.

"Good choice."

"I beg your pardon," Troy broke in, his voice rising. "But who the devil are you?"

Adam and Cressie looked at him as though just remembering he was around. "I - " Adam studied Troy. He wasn't another crazy eighteen year old after all - he was closer to Adam's age than Cressie's - somewhere in his mid-twenties - old enough to know better than to drag an innocent girl away and into the wilderness without her father's permission, Adam thought. He could understand Cressie's attraction - he was medium height and slender, with a close cut blond beard and an air of raffish dash - the kind of romantic character guaranteed to appeal to a young girl - but for him there was something off that did nothing to dispel his original mistrust - a weakness in his face and a restless unease in his manner that itched at Adam's instincts. "I'll let Cressie explain," he said at last.

Troy fixed his burning eyes on Cressie.

Cressie looked a little flustered. "Why he - he's Adam. He's - I suppose he's my prisoner."

Troy narrowed his eyes at Adam. "You certainly don't talk like any prisoner I've ever known."

Adam looked apologetic. "Turns out I'm very bad at it."

Troy flushed scarlet. "Now you - you see here - this is - you can't expect me - I demand to know exactly what is going on between you two!"

Adam felt Cressie stiffen next to him and watched her with interest. "I beg your pardon," she clipped in an icy little voice. "What was that you said to me?"

"I said I demand to know the truth! God almighty, Cressie, I think I have a right to know - what on earth have you been up to?"

"And I would like to know, Troy Lewis, what you think you are doin' takin' that tone with me? What exactly is it you think I've been up to, I would like to know?"

Troy was sputtering with rage. "Well, now there's the question, isn't it? I go looking for my bride and I find her sound asleep with another man, pretty as you please! And I can't help noticin' that they're on pretty cozy terms all round, it seems - "

Cressie rose majestically to her feet. "Oh, indeed! And exactly what is it you are accusin' me of doing, Mr. Lewis? What kind of woman is it you think I am?"

"I think you're the kind of woman that I found all curled up with some other man this morning, on what's supposed to be our wedding day - which is certainly not the kind of woman I thought you were when I asked you to marry me!"

"Is that so!" Cressie sailed toward him, head high. "Well, if you are indeed so stupid that I have to explain, I was cold last night and  - and there were all these peculiar wolf sounds and I was maybe even a little scared  - for a little minute, maybe, since I am not accustomed to sleeping outdoors - so I did indeed go to Adam for - for - which certainly would not have ever been necessary if you had been here with me and not runnin' off somewhere else, isn't that so?"

Troy moved his jaw, struggling for words. "So I am expected to believe - "

"I am expecting you to believe - " Cressie interrupted hotly, "that I ran away from home, borrowed a gun and a horse from a way station and lost myself in this God forsaken wilderness all to meet you and marry you! Now if you can't believe in me after all that, well, then, I just don't know what it would take to convince you and maybe we shouldn't be married after all!"

"Maybe we shouldn't!" Troy shouted back.

"Fine!" Cressie snapped.

"Fine!" roared Troy.

Cressie turned her back on him.

Adam had been busily trying to take advantage of the distraction to bring his right arm back to life and to scope out the position of his handgun or rifle  - or even Cressie's cumbersome side by side. They were, he discovered to his disappointment, piled up well out of reach behind Troy. Well, first round went to Mr. Lewis. He sighed inwardly. He hadn't felt Cressie creep over during the night, he hadn't heard Troy approach - either he was more tired than he thought he was or he was losing his edge. Maybe both. He saw Cressie's shoulders shaking and patted automatically at his pockets. His handkerchief had suffered badly from his dunking in the creek - she'd have to make do with what was left of Troy's neckerchief. Troy noticed too and made his way to her.

"Aw, Cressie, honey, don't cry…" He stood behind her and put his hand on her shoulder. "You know I can't stand it when you cry…" Cressie sniffed. He adopted a coaxing tone. "C'mon, honey, if I didn't love you so much I wouldn't get so jealous. You know that." He slipped his arm around her. Cressie leaned back against him, ever so slightly. He nuzzled her ear, his voice wheedling. "I have a minister comin' on up an' everythin' - and all we need to do is get to that cabin and by evenin' we'll be man and wife. Forever and ever."  Visibly softening, Cressie began to turn just as Adam decided it was as good a time as any to stretch his legs. He was stopped cold by the lightening swing of Troy's rifle.

Adam's eyebrows inched upward. Fast. And - something else. Something about his stance…well, it would come to him. He waited. Cressie, still within the protection of Troy's arm, studied his face questioningly. She did not however, to Adam's immense relief, make any gesture toward the gun. "Troy? What-all is this? If we're going to the cabin Adam can go now. He was just bringin' me to you, and now he has things he needs to do."

Troy shifted his feet, his expression wary. "Sugar, we don't even know who he is. How do we know he won't go right to fetchin' your father?"

Cressie looked from Troy's face to Adam, her expression puzzled. "Well, mercy, Troy, for one thing he doesn't even know who Daddy is - for another he doesn't know my name. He's been just wonderful to me - we shouldn't keep him any longer."

Troy avoided Cressie's wide open gaze and Adam narrowed his eyes speculatively. "I'm sorry, Cressie," Troy mumbled at last. "I can't take the chance. He'll have to come with us. I'll let the - I'll let the minister decide what to do about him." Adam's brows jumped a fraction higher.

"Well, what on earth is there to decide?" Cressie's laugh had a bit of a nervous edge now. "My goodness, Troy, it seems to me that it's awfully rude - "

Adam made up his mind. "Never mind, Cressie." He gave her a reassuring smile. "You wanted a witness for your wedding - I guess I can spare a little more time."

"Could you, Adam?" For a moment Cressie looked pleased. "Why that would be wonderful. Almost like havin' family there."

Troy scowled. "How long have you known this fella, anyway, that suddenly he's family?"

Adam gave him his toothiest smile. "Oh, you know how it is with some people, Troy - even though you've only known them for a little while it just seems like you've known them forever. You don't mind if I call you Troy, do you? You see I feel like I already know all about you, too."

Troy did not miss Adam's meaning and he locked eyes with him, rifle poised. Cressie looked uneasily from one to the other, sensing something was wrong but unable to decide what.

"Honestly, Troy - " She looked as though she wanted to grab the rifle, but she restrained herself. "Really. The way you're holding that thing Adam will get the idea you want to hurt him. He said he'd be a witness. And then after the wedding when Daddy won't be able to do a thing one way or another he'll go home." She searched Troy's profile anxiously. "Isn't that right?"

Troy's gaze didn't leave Adam. "Now, sure would be a shame to see anybody get hurt," he drawled.

Cressie tugged at his sleeve. "After. He'll go home. Isn't that right?"

Troy glanced at her, then smiled. "Why sure, honey. Whatever you say."

Cressie let out a sigh of relief, turning to Adam. "Now, you see? Didn't I tell you he was wonderful?"

Adam and Troy continued to take each other's measure. "Oh, he's something all right," Adam agreed dryly. "Well, if you've decided not to shoot me, I'll get my horse."

Cressie moved to follow him and Troy pulled her back. "Not you," he said firmly. "You're ridin' with me."

Adam studied him pensively. Was that jealousy, or… something else? Had he guessed he wouldn't take off on his own and leave Cressie behind? Well, round two to Mr. Lewis as well, then, he thought as he collected his hat and strode over to Sport. But it was early days yet. The game was young.


 Joe couldn't help being pleased to be having his second trip to town in as many days. Aside from looking around for Adam he had a lot to occupy his mind - he needed to hire a cook, both until Hop Sing's return and for the party; he could use a new string tie - the one he had was looking a little limp (it wouldn't do to appear in front of the beauteous Julie Trayner with a limp tie); and it wouldn't hurt to stop off for a beer. While asking about Adam of course, he told himself virtuously.  He had been a little worried when Clyde had first proposed his theory about Adam's disappearance - when he thought back over the last few days he couldn't help remembering that Adam had seemed a little - a little - what? Tense? Irritable? But Hoss said it was nonsense and nobody knew Adam better than Hoss did. In some ways, not even Pa. Probably he'd find him in the Silver Dollar nursing a beer and a grudge. Well, he decided upon reflection, not a beer - not this early. More likely he'd meet him on his way back to the ranch.

 Even as he pulled into town with no sign of Adam he wasn't really concerned. Either Adam hadn't left yet or he had taken one of the shortcuts away from the main road - probably the latter. When he got back to the ranch Adam would be there and everything would be back to normal. And the truth was he was going to enjoy his visit to town a whole lot better without an angry big brother around.

 He stopped Cochise in front of The International House, whistling to himself as he swung out of the saddle and secured her to the rail. He waved a cheery salute to the desk clerk. "Hey, Sam! Adam around?"

 "Good to see you, Joe. What's this about Adam?"

 Joe swung the registry book toward him, still whistling, scanning the last few pages. "He stay here last night?"

 Sam shook his head. "Ain't seen Adam in I dunno how long. Week or more, I reckon. He in town?"

Joe's whistle petered out as he studied the pages. "Last night. Don't see his name. You on last night?"

  Sam turned the book back to look himself. "No, Jake Abrams was on last night, but I don't see Adam's name here. You sure he stayed here?"

 "Where else would he stay? Maybe he used another name?" Joe swung the book back to look again, a little more frantically, seeking some glimpse of his brother's distinctive writing.

 Sam eyed him curiously. "Now, why in the name of thunder would he do a thing like that?"

 "I dunno." Joe slowly released the book, that uneasy feeling returning to his stomach. "Adam's a hard one to figure sometimes."

"Humph." Sam looked at him over his glasses, firmly turning the book in his own direction again. "He ain't the only Cartwright that's hard to figure sometimes. Anything else I can do for you, Joe?"

Joe shook his head. "No," he said slowly. "No, thanks, Sam."

He exited The International House much more slowly than he'd entered and paused outside, glancing up and down the street. Wasn't another place in town he could imagine Adam staying. He stepped off of the sidewalk and his eye snagged on the saloon doorway. A girl in a low cut orange satin dress lounged there, looking for likely customers.

Unless…he swallowed. Naw. Not Adam. Not in the middle of the week. He hesitated. Still, he had been awful…tense. And…irritable. He rocked from one foot to another, trying to make up his mind. Well, if he had, it sure wasn't the kind of thing he could ask about. And if he did go asking about it and Adam found out…he winced. That just didn't bear thinking of.  He started to turn resolutely away.

Odds were Adam was already back at the ranch anyway, bossing somebody around. And whatever he did on his own time was his own business, and…and…and what if he wasn't? Joe cursed the little voice in the back of his mind. What if he was out wandering in the wilderness somewhere…cracked? Didn't he at least owe it to him to check it out? Adam would ask about you, the voice whispered insistently. Joe swallowed hard and turned slowly back around. All right. He would do it. It was just a question, after all - just an innocent, polite…question.

He marched stiffly toward the saloon, trying to look nonchalant, touched his hat politely to the saloon girl, struggling to remember her name. "Hello, Katie," he began.

"Kitty," she corrected. "Hi there, sonny. Somethin' I can help you with?" She swung her shoulders suggestively.
Joe blinked, then determinedly dragged his eyes away from the view. "I'm looking for - for my brother. Have you seen him?"

"Misplaced him?" Kitty roared at her own joke, but Joe flushed a little, thinking how close that was to the truth. "Yer one of them Cartwright boys, ain't ya?"

Joe nodded. "I was just wondering if - last night, maybe he…" He felt like kicking himself, wondering where that Joe Cartwright charm had gone when he needed it.

She smirked at him, her eyebrows climbing. "If maybe he…?"

"Stopped in," finished Joe evasively. "Tall. Black hair. You've probably seen him before."

Kitty ran her strand of beads through her fingers thoughtfully. "Think I have at that. Sorry, sugar. Wasn't here. If you think he was out tomcattin' though, this ain't the only place in town that can - er - accommodate a gentleman."

Joe reddened. "I didn't say I thought -" He pulled himself up straight. "He might have just stopped in for a drink and - " He stopped again. "You sure you ain't seen him?" He hated the way his voice cracked on the last word.

"Honey lamb, if you're talkin' about who I think yer talkin' about I promise you - " She touched the end of his nose playfully with her finger tip. "I'd remember. Now, how are you fixed for a morning's entertainment? Time to buy a girl a drink?"

"Um - " Joe was reaching for a graceful excuse when a choked sound from behind him made him spin on his heel.

"Little Joe Cartwright!" cried an anguished voice and he found himself staring directly into the china blue eyes of Julie Trayner.

"Julie!" Joe was pleased, and, almost as quickly, horrified, as he realized how things must look. "Julie, you don't understand - " Julie burst into tears, hurrying off down the street as quickly as she could manage in her blinded state. Joe snatched at her companion's sleeve as she made a move to follow. "Emma - Emma - it's not what you're thinking - "

Emma Springer gave him a frosty glare. "Little Joe Cartwright, I am surprised at you." And flounced off after Julie.

Kitty looked at him sympathetically. "Tough luck, kid. Your girl, huh?"

Joe stared after Julie, dazed at how quickly things had gone wrong. "I don't know," he said blankly. "But I'm going to find out."

Joe jogged after the pair, moving quickly past them to skid to a halt in front of them. "Now, Julie, just listen to me for a minute - you've got this all wrong…"

Julie turned away from him to seek Emma's comforting shoulder. Emma glared at him from over her head. "And…after…all the trouble I went through…to get a nice dress for your…p-p-p-arty…" Julie gasped out.

"Julie, I wasn't - I was just ASKING her something!"

Julie turned around suddenly, eyes blazing. "And I can just imagine what it was, too!" she snapped

"No! Not - I was asking her about Adam - if she'd seen him."
Julie was in the process of flouncing back around, but she turned a little at that. "Adam?" she queried shakily.

Joe saw he had a small handhold and moved in a little closer. "Right. I was just asking her if she'd seen him last night. That's all. Honestly, Julie - I can't even think about looking at any girl but you."

Julie turned back a little more. "Really?" She flicked a look at him from under wet lashes. "You're not just saying that?"

Joe risked taking her hand. "Of course not. I can't think about anything but Friday night."

Julie smiled coyly. "Well…I know your reputation, Joe Cartwright!" She tilted her chin at him. "But I did buy a new dress for Friday night. Guess it would be a shame to waste it." She giggled.

"Sure would. It's going to be the best party ever, too. " He caught a glimpse of Emma out of the corner of his eye. "You're invited too, of course, Emma," he added politely. "And your folks." He was trying to remember how many Springers there were.

Emma dimpled. "Why, I'd love to, Little Joe! My, I'll have to run home and freshen up my organdy. My Aunt Sal and Uncle Buster are visiting - can they come too?"

"Sure - the more the merrier." Joe smiled into Julie's now luminous eyes.

"My dress is lavendar," Julie whispered to him. "Doesn't that sound pretty?"

"Anything you wore would have to be pretty - just cause you were in it."

Julie giggled again. "Oh, Little Joe." She slapped him lightly on the chest. "You're just terrible. Now, we girls have to finish our shopping if we're going to be presentable by Friday night, so we're going to run along. You behave yourself!" She gave him a meaningful glance and swung off gracefully down the street, glancing over her shoulder to be sure he was watching. She was not disappointed. Joe stood transfixed and stared after her until she disappeared into the millinery shop. He sighed. Then remembered that he had a cook and some musicians to hire and shook himself and headed on his way.

By the time Joe finally returned home and led Cochise toward the barn the day was more than half gone and had not been entirely successful. He had a cook for the party, but not before, and he wasn't looking forward to telling Hoss - few things ruffled his easy-going brother for long, but an extended period of poor eating was definitely one of them. He was mulling it over as he led Cochise to her stall, coming to an abrupt stop when he saw Chubb was already in his. He looked a little further and noticed Hoss seated on a tack box with something dangling from his hand, his expression pensive. He sat down next to him.

"Found us a cook for the party." Starting off with good news was usually a good tactic.

Hoss nodded absently.

"Hop Ling said he'd do it. Got a music combo too. Want the money in advance though. We'll have to go into the safe."

Hoss nodded again.

"Adam didn't stay at The International House, though - couldn't find a soul who'd seen him. Was pretty thorough, too. He back?"

Hoss's eyebrows quirked. He shook his head.

Joe looked at him quizzically. "You have any luck?"

Hoss scratched at his ear. "Funny thing, Joe," he said at last.

"What's that?" Joe's mind was already sliding away to Julie in her lavender dress.

"Rode up to Hammond Crik - found this lying in the grass."

Joe looked. "An axe. So what."

"It's Adam's. I carved the handle fer 'em myself. Just lying in the grass. All night, by the look of it." He shook himself. "Y'know, I been thinkin' on it, and I can't remember a single time, not even when we was little shavers, that Adam just sort o' left a tool layin' around all night fer the dew ta get at it. Always been kinda the careful sort."

Joe shifted. "Maybe he forgot. What else you find?"

"Bridge sort of bobbin' there in the water. Thought on that too. Cain't figger Adam fer not cutting it away and pulling it to the bank. Just cain't figger him leavin' it like that."

 Joe shrugged. "So maybe he was in a hurry. Did you see him? Any sign of him?"

"Oh, there was tracks."

"Well, good. Did you follow them?"

"Fer a piece."

Joe itched to shake him, had such a thing even been physically possible. "To…?"

Hoss took a breath and let it out slowly through his nose. "Up in them hills. Quite a piece."

Joe flung out his hands in exasperation. "Well, why didn't you follow them all the way? What if he's hurt or lost or something?"

"Ain't no sign of a struggle, Joe. No blood. Tracks seemed nice and steady. Ain't no way Adam could get lost up thataway, even if he tried - knows it like the back of his hand. Sport seemed to be goin' nice and easy and the tracks went way up - would have took hours ta follow all the way. One peculiar thing - "

"One!" Joe burst out. "You're telling me our brother just up and rode off into the hills and you think there's ONE peculiar thing!"

"Well, two, actual. Sport's tracks were a mite on the deep side - not enough to be carryin' another person - maybe about a hundred pounds extra - just enough fer - "

"Some kind of game," Joe finished for him. "A cat or a wolf or something. Maybe even a small deer."

Hoss nodded solemnly. "And there was this big chunk outta one tree - a fresh one, high up - like he'd fired a shot at somethin' - "

Joe sank his chin onto his fists, all thoughts of Julie banished for the moment. "So it's true," he said flatly. "Adam's really - " He swallowed hard. "What are we going to do?"

"Well, Joe, I been sitting here thinkin' on it, and on what Clyde said - about him comin' back when his head cleared. Adam always was one fer goin' off on his own when he had a problem…I reckon we just need to give him some time and he'll come back when he's ready."

Joe shot him a sideways glance. "What makes you so sure he's comin' back?"

"Adam?" Hoss smiled a little. "Oh, he'll be back. He won't trust us ta run things around here long without 'em. He needed a couple o' days and I reckon sometimes you take what you need whether or not you have a mind to.  Now, we just gotta make sure everythin's runnin' real smooth, so's when he does come back he don't go crackin' all over again. Nice and smooth and calm."

"Smooth and calm," Joe repeated with a nod. "We can do that. Smooth and calm. Reckon he's all right, Hoss?"

Hoss chuckled. "Oh, sure. Probably stretched out someplace taking a nice nap in the noon day sun and laughing over the fact that we're left with all the work."


"So, what brings a couple of southerners like you two all the way to Nevada Territory to get married? There must be plenty of ministers where you come from." Adam surreptitiously shifted in the saddle, slowing Sport still further. They were almost at a crawl as it was, but they weren't far from the cabin now and he was hoping to get a little more information before they added a fourth to their party - if the minister was indeed more than an invention of Troy's fancy.

"Why it was convenient, given - " Cressie jumped in brightly, then fell quiet at a glare from Troy.

"That's enough, Cressie. Don't see as it's any business of yours, sir," he added witheringly.

Adam shrugged. "Just curious. After all, looks like I'm going to be the only witness to your wedding - seems like I should know a little more about you - more friendly."

Troy scowled. "If you're wise, you'll mind your manners and stay as ignorant as possible. For your own good."

Adam smiled soulfully. "Ah, well, wisdom has never been counted among my virtues, I'm afraid. Why exactly was it you couldn't meet Cressie again? Seems pretty callous to me. I thought you southern boys were supposed to be so gallant."

Troy's face reddened. "Now you see here - I would have met Cressie except there was no way to meet her and still - I mean, it was a matter of - " he caught himself. "I said this was none of your business!"

"So you did. Just seems odd, is all. You must have known she'd have trouble managing on her own - she's not much of a horsewoman."

Now it was Cressie's turn to be indignant. "Now, I am not so bad! It's just I'm used to a sidesaddle! It's not my fault - "

"I didn't know anything of the kind!" Troy cut in irritably. "How can you NOT be a horsewoman, for the love of heaven, when -"

"Well, I like that! Here I was, trying to manage astride with no saddle at all, which is, I assure you, a very different thing - "

"And why you couldn't take a few minutes to saddle the animal - you must have known that riding bareback across rough terrain at night was not going to be easy - "

"Oh! And of course, the way station had just dozens of saddles lying around for carriage animals! And as if I have EVER saddled my own horse in my entire life and knew how to go about it! Really, Troy, you are the most exasperating - you have no appreciation at all of what I've been through!"

"What you've been through!" Troy's voice rose. "And I suppose you think it was easy for me! Do YOU have any appreciation of what it was for me to - " He caught sight of Adam's face and narrowed his eyes suddenly. "What-all are you smiling at?" he demanded.

Adam raised his brows innocently. "Was I smiling? Just enjoying the ride, I suppose. Pretty day, isn't it?" Troy opened his mouth, then clamped it shut. Adam's smile grew. "But I'm afraid I lost the thread of the conversation. Why is it you said you couldn't meet Cressie again?"

Troy's face twitched. "I didn't say," he muttered.

Adam nodded genially. "Then I didn't miss it. I'm sure you have an excellent reason - I just can't imagine what it would be."

"I told you before it was none of your business. Now I don't want to hear another word out of you." He gestured to Adam's handgun, tucked in his own belt, significantly.

Adam nodded solemnly. "Of course. Pre-wedding jitters. I understand perfectly." They rode for a moment in silence. "Surprised you could find a minister to come all the way out here and marry you, though. Most have an objection to traveling so far to marry a girl who's barely of age without parental permission. It's kind of a moral issue. Where did you say he was from again?"

Troy glared at him. Adam didn't seem to notice. "Not Virginia City. I know Reverend Smith, and he'd never agree to it. Not very comfortable traveling outside of town for one thing." Troy's glare deepened. "Now, I suppose you could have gotten someone from Genoa - they have at least two there that I know of - but it just doesn't seem very likely. That's an overnight trip, probably two nights, by the time you get all the way up here and I have to believe they'd want SOME explanation as to why you wouldn't just go to the church. Very few ministers of my experience approve of elopement." Troy was clenching and unclenching his jaw now. "Of course, there's Placerville, but that really is a long way away. It's almost impossible to imagine - I'm sorry, did you say something?"

Troy choked. "I did not."

"Oh." Adam blinked balefully. "I thought you did. Well, I hope you didn't fall into the hands of one of those traveling medicine fellows? From what I hear you can't be at all sure afterward that you're legally married."

Cressie looked uneasy. "Troy - " she began.

"I did not!" yelled Troy. His horse shifted nervously and he took a minute to get him back in hand.

Adam looked sympathetic. "They can be so temperamental sometimes, can't they? Maybe you should walk him for a while. He's been carrying two for quite a ways."

Troy stuck his chin out. "Now you see here! I don't need you to tell me how to handle my horse or my fiancee!"

"Of course you don't," Adam agreed soothingly. "You do whatever you think is right."

Troy gave him a look of pure hatred. He glanced over his shoulder at Cressie. "Cressie, honey, maybe we'd better lead him for a little ways. We're not far now."
Cressie obediently slid to the ground and Troy followed. "You too," he said gruffly, gesturing to Adam. "And I don't want to hear another word out of you."

Adam dismounted and gave Sport a pat. They continued on foot for a ways before he broke the silence again by asking cheerfully, "So how is it you know about the location of this cabin? Seems unusual since you're not from around here."

"Now I warned you - " Troy had the handgun out and in his hand almost instantly, cocked and

Adam eyed him thoughtfully. Good. He'd been wanting to see that draw again.

Cressie actually made a convulsive snatch at the pistol, gave Adam a guilty, remembering glance and pressed her hand against her heart instead. "Troy! What on earth is the matter with you? What are you doin'? Where are your manners?"

Troy was directing a seething look at Adam, but he glanced briefly at Cressie, uncertain. "Goll darn it, Cressie, he - "

"He what?" Cressie was honestly perplexed. "He asked a few questions is all - perfectly natural ones. What on earth has gotten into you? I feel like I don't know you at all!"

Troy opened his mouth to retort, glanced at Adam in sudden suspicion. Adam smiled at him. Think round three is mine, Mr. Lewis, the smile said. Troy closed his mouth with a snap and turned away, yanking irritably at his horse to follow. The horse let out a snort of protest and flattened his ears and Troy, with a burning stare at Adam, eased up on the animal. Cressie frowned at him.

"Quite a temper, your fiance," Adam murmured, lowering his voice, but not enough to prevent Troy from overhearing.

Cressie shook her head. "I just don't know what's got into him. Usually he's so charming."

"Well, happens to a lot of prospective grooms, I guess, as the big moment approaches - the sudden thought of the upcoming responsibilities…wife…children…steady job…home to build…only natural, I guess.  I'd be nervous myself. How about you, Cressie? Any nerves now that you're so close?"

"N-no…" Cressie sounded a little hesitant, though, gazing uncertainly at Troy. "I spose you're right and it's just nerves."

Adam nodded agreeably. "Always good to know how nerves are going to affect a man, too - after all, married life brings a lot of things to be nervous about - especially once the children start coming. Some men even turn to the bottle. Not that I'm suggesting Troy would do anything like that - I'm just speaking generally, you understand."

"Of course." Cressie slid a dubious peek in Troy's direction.

"Just as well, too. Temper and bottle are a bad combination."

"I don't drink more than any other fellow!" Troy burst out, unable to keep quiet any longer.

Adam gazed at him, his brows lifted in mild surprise. "Of course," he agreed pleasantly. "That's just what I was saying."

"No you weren't!" Troy protested heatedly. "You were sayin' that I - that a man's temper - " He broke off, confused. "You - you just shut up and stop puttin' ideas in her head, that's what!" he finished lamely.

Adam considered him seriously. "Of course. Mustn't have a wife with ideas in her head."

Cressie looked at Troy indignantly. Troy balked. "That's - that's not what I was sayin', and you know it! What I mean is - why, you - thunder, you - " He stepped up to swing and Adam stood still to let him, but a glimpse of Cressie's face stopped Troy dead and he pulled his punch at the last minute and let his arms fall.  Red rushed from his collar upward to his forehead. He looked at Cressie guiltily, his expression pleading, then he turned on his heel abruptly. "Cabin's just up ahead," he growled and began walking again, his hard gaze on Adam.

Adam was well aware they were closing in on the cabin - he was even more keenly aware of the time - it would take him and Cressie the better part of the day to get back to the Ponderosa, with or without Troy, and he was hoping to reach there by dark. Even if they spent the night at the line shack it was a long haul - and he had a bad feeling about this minister. Right now the odds weren't too objectionable, especially given Troy's level of composure - he had no desire to unbalance them further. They pushed their way into a small clearing where a ramshackle cabin stood and Adam's eyes went automatically to the rustic hitching rail. "Looks like your minister's late. Lucky I'm here to chaperone."

Troy gave him a look that made his opinion on the quality of this luck passionately clear but he only said, "Might have staked his horse a ways away, in the brush."

"Really. Now, why would he do that? Some private time to pray and meditate before the ceremony?" Adam thought he almost had him then -  Troy's shoulder actually jerked convulsively under the instinct to swing - but though he choked and sputtered, in the end Troy only pulled the guns from his saddle with a series of ferocious yanks and said, "Get them saddlebags for me. Come on with me, Cressie."

Adam swore silently to himself.  One good punch and he was sure he could disarm Troy - inside would only make things that much harder. He tied Sport and went to pull Troy's saddlebags. They were decent quality, but noticeably roughed up, especially one corner…he stopped and looked at it more closely. Almost, he thought after a minute, as if someone had taken a file to it. Curious, he looked underneath the damaged flap. Couldn't see much, but as his thumb rubbed over it he could just make out an impression - the reverse side of an embossing. Two letters. He remembered the neckerchief and Troy's shooting stance and gave a low whistle. Well, well, well. That explained so much. He slung the bags over his shoulder and went to join Troy and Cressie.

Troy was showing Cressie the small, dim interior of the cabin - not that there was much to see - a bed built into one wall, a set of tilting, creaking shelves, a greasy window and a sad, broken down table and chairs by a poor excuse for a fireplace, but Cressie was looking at it with starry eyes. Adam sighed. Would he have found this romantic at eighteen? He grimaced. Probably.

"Brought your saddlebags." Something in his tone must have alerted Troy, because he looked at him quickly, his face suddenly alarmed and cautious. "Nice. Army issue, hm?" Cressie's face paled. She and Troy exchanged a frantic, frightened glance. Adam smoothed the bags under his palm. "I'm guessing by your expressions that your absence from the ranks is - um - unofficial?"

"Adam, " blurted Cressie hastily, "I know what you're thinkin', but Troy isn't really desertin'…"

"No doubt. Just as you didn't really steal a horse, hm? Please, fill me in - this one I'd really like to hear."

Troy had the gun in his hand in a flash. "That's enough out of you," he said harshly. "You just couldn't mind your own business, could you? Now give me those bags, nice and easy, and get over here."

Adam glanced to make sure he knew where Cressie was, well behind Troy and out of harm's way, then shrugged. "Sure." He started toward Troy with the bags in his outstretched hand. Troy reached out his hand to take them, holding the gun steady. Adam judged the distance carefully then swung.

The bags hit Troy's gun hand, sending the bullet harmlessly into the plank floor, even as Adam's other fist met his chin with a crack. Troy was looking up from the floor and holding his jaw almost before he knew what had happened, Adam's gun pointed in his face.

Adam couldn't decide which was more satisfying, the feel of his gun snugly back in his hand, or the feel of Troy going down under his punch. He eyed Troy consideringly. Maybe the latter. He'd been wanting to do that for quite some time.

Cressie was screaming, "Adam! What are you doin'! Oh, Troy - " even as Adam backed himself toward the open doorway.

"All right, Cressie - that's enough. You're coming back with me."

Cressie stared from Adam to Troy. "Are you crazy? I'm goin' to be married, Adam! What on earth - I know you think Troy - if you'd only let me explain - "

Troy made a move to get to his feet and Adam cocked the gun warningly. "You can explain to your heart's content on the way to my place. For all I care Troy can come along - he's welcome to talk to the sheriff or a military tribunal and explain his case and he can court you too if your father says it's all right - even if he doesn't, if Troy clears things up. But right now, Cressie, before you get in so deep you can't get back out, I suggest you come with me."

Cressie hesitated. "And what if I don't want to?" she challenged.

Adam smiled. "Then I guess it will be my turn to kidnap you. Come on, Cress. You know I'm right."

Cressie looked at Troy. "Adam, I love him - " she whimpered.

Adam was unmoved. "Then lucky for you true love keeps. You can love him all through his trial and visit to the stockade and beyond. But for right now, we're going home to straighten this out."

Cressie's eyes filled.

"It's not going to work this time," Adam warned firmly. "So you might just as well save the water." He held out his free hand to her. "Come on."

Cressie's voice caught in a sob. "You just don't understand. What it's like to be young and in love…"

"Yes, I know," agreed Adam dryly. "That is indeed my fate, to squash young love wherever I find it in favor of the dull and hideous practicalities of life. Come on - you know I'm not going without you, and I'm certainly not staying around here."

Cressie made a move toward him, stopped to look back at Troy.

Adam sighed. "All right," he said resignedly, fixing his eyes on Troy. "The hard way, then. Why don't you tell her your real name?"

Troy's face went white with shock, then red. "How - ?" he began, then, with a glance at Cressie, "I don't know what - "

"Don't even try it. Just come clean with her. It's the least you owe her."

Cressie was staring at Troy now. "Troy, what…?"

Troy's face was almost purple. "Sir, what do you mean by - "

"Fine, fine - " Adam brushed the words aside impatiently. "I don't know what your real name is but I do know it's not Troy Lewis. And I may not know everything that's going on here but I intend to, once Cressie's someplace safe. So if you really love her you can either come clean now - "

He was aware of it - some slight movement in the air behind him, even before he caught the change of expression on Troy and Cressie's faces. He was equally aware that he was never going to make it, that round four would not be his, even as he began to turn, but instinct was stronger than reason and he was turning to look anyway, gun following, when he felt the blinding blow that dropped him to his knees. He wanted to tell Cressie to run, foolishly, since he was blocking the only door and there was no place to go, but he couldn't seem to form the words, even if he could have made himself heard over the sound of her shrieking. Tears next, no doubt, he thought blearily - hope somebody has a clean handkerchief.

He reached down in hopes of steadying himself just as Cressie's cries rose in pitch and he made out the sound of a rifle cocking behind him. That girl sure can scream, was his last conscious thought. Then he pitched forward into darkness.

Chapter 4: Troy Lewis and Cressida

"My mind is troubled, like a fountain stirred; and I myself see not the bottom of it."
         III, iii,314

"Hoss, where'd you say you wanted them horses?"

Hoss looked up from the calf he was tying and glared at the hand in irritation. He rubbed his fist at the sweat beading his forehead. "What horses are those, Frank?"

"The ones we was goin' ta turn out over Hammond Crik?"

"Hoss, we got that whole new lot yer Pa just bought fer breedin'. Ya wanna brand them next, or ya wanna finish with them calves?"

Hoss held firmly to the calf and glanced over now at Deever, signaling to Lem to go ahead and brand. "That Mexican stock?"

"Ain't a one o' them horses Mexican, Hoss," Frank protested.

The calf bellowed and Hoss released him swiftly to let him hobble away. "Not them horses. I meant - "

"Though a palomino would be kinda nice. Them Mexicans do breed a nice palomino. You ever think o' takin' one o' them on?"

"So you're sayin' the new stock, Hoss?"

Hoss glanced at Frank, then back at Deever. "I ain't actual said anythin', yet. I was askin' - "

"Dunno as I'd call 'em new. Though a bunch of 'em are bare gentled. But we've had 'em since - "

"I weren't talkin' about them blame horses, nit wit," Deever interrupted impatiently. "I'm talkin' about the cattle. Case you haven't noticed this here's a cattle ranch. Ain't that right, Hoss?"

Hoss rubbed at his nose as Lem set the next calf, bawling loudly, in front of him. "Well, now, reckon it is, but then again, we've dealt in horses as long as I - "

"There, ya see?" Frank gave Deever a superior look. "Them palominos sure are a pretty lot, ain't they, Hoss?"

"Reckon as how they are, but - " Hoss glanced up automatically and his hand slipped in securing the calf, who took advantage of his inattention to kick him soundly in the knee and struggle half free. Hoss let out a bellow of pain and Lem knelt down hastily to lend a hand. When they had the calf secured again  Hoss held him steady with one knee and hand while he rubbed tenderly at his wounded limb with another. "Dadburn it."

"So, the new stock, Hoss?" Deever persisted.

Hoss shook his head as he watched Lem approach with the brand. "Well, I reckon - dadblame it, Lem, what are you thinkin'? That iron's too durned hot! We wanna brand 'em, not cook 'em! Let it cool a minute. Now, what were you fellas sayin'?"

"New stock next?"

"Where you want them horses?"

"Hoss, I need you over here a minute."

The third voice was Joe's and Hoss turned to look over his shoulder and find him. Unfortunately, at that same second Lem decided the iron was cool enough and pressed it firmly into the calf's side. The calf howled in protest and jumped in Hoss's loosened hold, the brand slipping to make an overlapping impression.

"DadBURN it!" Hoss forced his attention back on the calf, pushing him down firmly and inspecting the damage. It was a bad job, and what was worse, it had probably hurt the little fellow unnecessarily. He untied the calf apologetically. "Don't know why in blazes you all gotta talk to me at onct! It's a wonder a fella can hear hisself think. Now, one at a time this time and not while I got my blamed hands full!" Hoss could see the echo of his uncharacteristic anger reflected in the ring of silent eyes around him. He felt himself redden. After a second he continued more calmly, "Now, what is it you wanted ta ask me? Deever - you first."

"Cows. Which ones you want next. We got all that new stock - "

"Don't make no never mind ta me which is next as long as we keep movin'. Just rope somethin' and get it down fer brandin'. Frank?"

"Horses. We need ta turn 'em out someplace an - "

Hoss rubbed at the tightening muscles at the back of his neck. "How many we talkin'?"

Frank shrugged. "About twenty-five, all told. Some still pretty rough. I figger - "

Hoss squinted at the seemingly endless sea of cattle still in need of branding and the dark clouds gathering around the rapidly lowering sun and frowned. "Where are they now?"

"Penned up just over that rise, but they could use some more room and - "

"Leave 'em there fer now."

Frank cleared his throat. "There's some dry rot in that fence. Ain't too bad, but we figgered to move 'em in case - "

"If they been there this long they'll keep a mite longer. Let's finish this brandin'."

Frank looked as though he wanted to protest, then eyed Hoss pensively and said instead. "When did you say Adam was comin' back?"

Hoss's color deepened and he rose slowly to his feet, nursing his sore knee. Despite the fact he had found himself glancing up repeatedly throughout the day, almost unconsciously hoping for the sight of his brother 's reassuring figure riding toward him, the implication that he couldn't manage without him still rankled. "I don't believe I did say," he suggested warningly. "You got any special reason fer askin'?"

Frank shrugged again. "Just know he felt we oughta move them horses."

Hoss watched one cowboy rope and pin an animal by its front legs while another neatly secured it by its rear legs, leaving it stretched out for branding. To him the time was disappearing so fast it seemed as though some giant hand was ruthlessly pushing the sun toward the horizon. "Well, in case you ain't noticed, Adam ain't here," he pointed out testily.

"Yes sir, I had noticed." Hoss looked at him quickly, sensing a slight, but there was nothing in Frank's expression to tell him for sure. Frank shrugged one more time. "Well, sir, you're the boss. You want me on the brandin', then?"

Hoss tried to relax. If only people wouldn't keep yankin' at him, proddin' him with all those questions at once - "Yeah, that would be a big help." How many things was a fella supposed to be able to think of at a time, anyway? Everything else was gonna have to take care of itself until the branding was done. He turned to look and estimate the cattle again when he heard someone clear their throat nearby.

"Um. Hoss."

Oh. He'd forgotten all about Joe. Hopefully he was coming to help with the branding. Or at least not to poke at him with any new questions. "What now, Joe?" he asked wearily. "I got a couple dozen head what trampled a fence and went scatterin' all over kingdom come and done put us behind on the brandin', I hadta pull somebody to fix that fence and then somebody else ta fix a hole in the bunkhouse roof since rain's threatenin', and I got some fella wirin' with questions on a contract that I cain't make head nor tail of, so whatever it is I sure hope it's good news."

Joe gave him an uncertain smile. "It's Digger Jones to see you. Somethin' about a deal he made with Adam."

Hoss mopped his face with his bandanna. He had always been close to his older brother  - had been his veritable shadow when they were kids and was sincerely attached to him - so he never would have believed that he could actually come to hate the sound of his name. But after a day of having it thrown in his face over and over again he was feeling pretty close to just that. He glanced up again involuntarily, as if expecting to see Adam come riding across the range. Nothing, of course. And he was being a dadburned fool. He could manage fine without Adam, he knew he could. He was just sort of used to having him around - checking things with him, was all. Well, time he got un-used to it. He blotted at his neck this time. Land, it was hot. Almost enough to make a body wish for that storm.

He gestured to Frank. "Take over fer me with the brandin' fer a piece while I take care of this." He looked at Joe. "Where is he? You bring 'em with you?"

Joe nodded and indicated a ragged old grubstake farmer standing a little ways off next to a broken down mule.

Hoss pulled off his hat to cool his head and strolled over to meet him, limping a little on his stiffening knee. "Digger." He nodded politely. "What can we do fer ya."

Digger stared at him out of small, pale eyes. "I told the little fella. I'm here to see yer brother Adam."

Hoss set his teeth in what he hoped was a smile. "Well, I understand that, but Adam ain't here right now. He had - important business to attend to."

Digger continued to stare. "This here's business."

Joe cleared his throat. "I'm sure it is, Mr. Jones, but you can see for yourself that Adam ain't here."

Digger switched his unblinking stare to Joe. "This here's the time Adam done told me to come."

Hoss scratched at his sweat-flattened hair. "I don't doubt Adam intended ta be here, Digger, but he was called away kinda sudden-like. Bet Joe an me kin help ya out, though."

Digger eyed them dubiously. After a minute he said resignedly. "Yer brother an me had a deal."
Hoss nodded. "Well, that's fine. What kinda deal was that."

"Water. I gived him waterin' rights fer that stream that starts on my property and crosses yers, way up on the north side."

Hoss nodded again, relieved. He thought he remembered some talk about this. "Well, that's real nice o' you, Digger. We right appreciate it."

Digger continued to stare. "Want my pay."

Hoss glanced at Joe dubiously. "Well, now. Sure thing. How much we owe you?"

"Hunner dollars. And three horses. My choosin'."

"A - a hundred dollars!" Joe choked a little. "Well, that's - that's certainly reasonable. Of course, we haven't got that on us out here and I'm afraid we'll be out here until sundown anyway, but we could - maybe we could send it over by messenger later?" He smiled a charming, hopeful smile.

Digger looked unimpressed. "That was our deal. A hunner dollars down. A hunner dollars and three horses come spring. My choosin'."

"And - and it sounds like a right fine deal," Hoss agreed placatingly. "And of course we'll make good on it. But Joe's right - we don't have the money right here and now. We'll get it right to you, of course."

Digger gazed at him. "Adam said come today."

"I'm sure he did, Digger, but Adam ain't here and - "

"And - " Joe jumped in, improvising, "we're not so familiar with the deal and we'd like to look it over - you got a contract or somethin'? Somethin' in writing?"

Hoss shot him a look of deep respect.
Digger just stared. "Cain't read," he pointed out laconically.

"Well - well - all right - " Joe bobbed his head, trying to think. "But Adam probably gave you something in writing anyway? Some kind of a record."

"Gave me a handshake. Handshake is a man's bond."

"Sure - sure it is, Digger, and of course if you say - "

"Always done business by handshake. Always figgered a Cartwright handshake was worth somethin'."

Hoss rolled his eyes at Joe. "And it sure is, Digger, we're jest tryin' ta say - "

"Shook my hand and told me to come by today to collect today. Already gived my water. Never figgered you folks would welsh on the deal."

"And we're not - of course - Mr. Jones," Joe stammered hastily. "We'll see to it that you get your money, of course - tomorrow at the very latest. If Adam hadn't had this real - terrible - emergency - "

Digger's eyes showed a flicker of interest for the first time. "Yer brother in some kinda trouble?"

Hoss and Joe exchanged a desperate glance.

"Yes?" suggested Joe tentatively. "Something - something like that?"

"Huh. Ya don't say. " Digger's jaw worked thoughtfully. "Always been right cordial to me." He spit a long stream of tobacco juice and wiped his mouth. "Reckon I kin wait till tomorra fer the money." He decided after lengthy consideration. "No longer, though. Got people I owe."

Joe let out a sigh of relief. "Well, that's real decent of you, Mr. Jones."

"Cain't keep 'em waitin'. My handshake's worth somethin' too."

"Right - right you are, Digger. Tomorra at the very latest," Hoss agreed fervently.

"Like the horses now, though."

Joe looked anxiously at Hoss. Hoss's eyes lit up suddenly. "Now, I think I kin help ya there, Digger. Got about twenty-five of 'em right over that rise. You just go and take yer pick." Joe frowned a little. Something was picking at the back of his brain, trying to get his attention, but he couldn't put his finger on it. Hoss was continuing. "Don't know what you want with saddle horses though - ain't never seen you with nothin' but that old mule."

"Sell 'em. Ta folks. Fer money." Digger shifted his chaw to the other cheek. "On a handshake. Ain't never needed more."

"No - no - it's a real good way o' doin' business. Think my Pa misses the days all business was done that way sometimes." Hoss was steering him towards the rise. He glanced over his shoulder at the branding operation. "You fellas keep at it and I'll be right back. Move as fast as you can - looks like we're in fer a big storm."

Digger spit another stream of juice as they topped the rise. "So. What kinda trouble yer brother get hisself inta?"

Joe looked uneasily at Hoss. He felt like he was sinking in a quagmire of lies. "Well. Now. Nothin' serious. Just - "

"Just - just kinda - urgent…" Hoss glanced at Joe over Digger's head and shrugged.

Digger nodded wisely. "That's what I thought. Wimmin."

"Wo - wom - " Joe met Hoss's glance and shrugged back. "Uh - sure. How'd you know?"

"You young fellers - it's always wimmin."

"You - you sure are a sharp one, Digger," Hoss agreed. Well, it was no worse an explanation than the truth. Maybe a little better. "Now, here are them horses. You just choose any three you like."


"…on earth were you thinkin'? You were supposed to be with her ALL the…"

"…a girl along when you're desertin'…? How do you think…?"

"…did you expect? I swear, you haven't the good sense…"

"…got her here, didn't I? How was I to know…"

Adam gave a deep sigh, tried to lift his hand to rub at his aching forehead, then let it drop. Too much work.

"…too much to expect you to know anything. All my careful…"

Fighting. Hoss and Joe must be fighting. Suppose he should do something about it…

"…everythin' you told me to…almost…within reason. Damn it, Payne…"

Pain. Come to mention it there was a nasty one radiating right behind his eyes. He should probably get up and do something about that, too…

"…can say is it's a good thing…charm, because…on brains…"

Funny. Didn't sound right, exactly, unless Joe's voice had suddenly gotten deeper…maybe he was still dreaming. He had had the craziest dream…he tried lifting his hand again, this time got it to his eyes and rested it there.


That voice he knew. It snapped everything back into place like the missing piece of a puzzle and he bit back a groan. Oh, God. Not a dream, then. He dropped his hand and half-opened his eyes.

"Adam, are you - ?"

Not yet. He reached out to brush her knee, about the only part of her he could make out, as a warning. She seemed to understand because she was immediately silent. Good girl. Don't draw attention just yet. Need just a minute or two to -

"Well, well, well." Adam winced. Too late. Well, no time like the present to find out how much trouble you were really in…"Our friend seems to have rejoined us."

Almost. Not quite. But lying there made him feel vulnerable and he tried to pull himself into sitting position to look around. The pain in his skull stopped him short and he fell back, gingerly pressing his hand to the back of his head. Ouch
"I seem to have hit you harder than I intended, but you startled me. I thought my brother and his fiancee were in jeopardy." Adam gave a cynical snort before he could stop himself. Bad strategy to give your feelings away, he mentally scolded himself. Well, no use pretending anyway - their new player had had probably overheard his conversation with Troy and Cressie. He tried to sit up again, more slowly this time, using the wall for support, and Cressie grabbed his arm to assist him. A smile touched the new voice. "You sound skeptical, my friend."

Adam leaned into the wall. That was better. "I am." He squinted and made out a tall, thin figure in clerical garb.

"Unfortunately, your skepticism seems to be catching. Two days ago I would have bet my life that Cressie would believe anything I told her, no matter what. Now all my lovely plans lie in ruins. You have been a very great inconvenience to me, cowboy."

Adam gently fingered the growing bump. "Feeling's mutual."

"I didn't even know you till just today," Cressie protested indignantly.

Adam gave her a small smile. She was so pale the freckles on her nose stood out like a rash of measles, but she was pushing back. Good for her.

The cleric also smiled at Cressie. It was not a heartwarming smile. "Anything  - er - Troy, told you then. And then myself, by association and as a minister. Such a shame your new friend had to plant the seeds of doubt." Adam snorted again without thinking and the minister switched his gaze to him, his expression slightly petulant. "What gave me away?" he asked curiously.

Adam grimaced. "You've got to be kidding. Troy Lewis and Cressida? Pretty awful. And pretty self indulgent. You would have been better off with John Smith."

The minister raised his eyebrows just a touch. "Oh, dear. Don't tell me. I'm undone because fate decreed it my misfortune that Cressie should trip over the only classical scholar west of the Rockies?"

"If that's what you assume about the population west of the Rockies then I'd say you were undone by your own arrogance."

The minister's face froze for a moment and Adam braced himself automatically. After a second the face resumed it's pious, patronizing mask, but Adam didn't forget what he had seen. This was a dangerous man. Not just quick tempered like Troy - vicious.

"You are evidently not among the meek who will inherit the earth," he drawled after a minute.

"I warned Tr - your friend - brother - whatever he is - that I make a bad prisoner. What actually IS his name, anyway, if you don't consider that too forward a question?"

The cleric laughed, deep in his throat.  Stacy. Stacy Douglas. My brother. And I'm Payne Douglas. Very pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. - "

"Adam," he supplied blandly.

"Mr. Adam, then. I suppose I was, as you say, a little self indulgent, but one must amuse oneself as one can. It is so difficult to find real intellectual stimulation among the Philistines - I presume you find the same?" Adam just looked at him. "Take my brother for instance - " Payne gestured carelessly to where Troy/Stacy was carefully examining Cressie's side-by-side. "Pretty, isn't he? But barely a brain in his head. And we had all the same advantages. Still, he does have his uses. I knew little Cressie would fall for him - all the young girls do."

Stacy looked up crossly. "I am not stupid, Payne, and you're wrong to say so, especially in front of my fiancee."

Adam blinked at him. Fiancee, huh? Maybe he was stupid.

Payne noticed his expression and smiled. "You see what I mean. Despite an excellent education. Which he flunked out of, by the way. But, as I say, useful in other ways. Without him my little plan would have been impossible."

"What exactly was your plan? If you don't mind my asking."

Payne narrowed his eyes, but ego won out over prudence. "I don't see how it could hurt to tell you. Especially since now I'll be forced to resort to something quite mundane, thanks to you. I have been working on this for over a year, you know. I don't really think I can forgive you for spoiling it." He switched his gaze to Cressie, who was watching Stacy with her brows knit. "It's a very long story, if you're to really understand it, but I don't suppose you're going anywhere anytime soon anyway, are you?" He smiled again.

Adam was developing a serious dislike for that smile. He glanced at the one cloudy window, wishing he could estimate the time. The light was dingy in the cabin no matter what, but it seemed to be - about - early afternoon? By now Hoss and Joe must have figured out he was missing and be on the trail - he needed at least to stall until they could get here. Payne Douglas seemed to have a considerable ego - if he could play off of that he might be able to keep them alive until help came.

"You tell me."

Payne looked smug. "I am telling you." He reached up to loosen the clerical collar. He was taller than his brother - at least Adam's height, and lean, but tightly packed with muscle. Less pretty than Troy, he had an angular face with a beak nose and dark, predatory eyes. "Since you have invited yourself along to this party you will remain my guest until - well, frankly, until I decide what to do with you."

Cressie's brows knotted anxiously at that, but she made no sound. Adam glanced at her and said bluntly, "And Cressie?"

"Cressie?" Payne lifted his brows at him. "Cressie's to marry Stacy, of course."

Adam tilted his head questioningly.

"Marry him!" Cressie burst out. "Marry him! And who will I be then, pray tell? Mrs. Troy Lewis or Mrs. Stacy Douglas?" she glared at Stacy. "I can't believe I was going to marry you not even knowing your real name!"

Stacy leaned forward earnestly. "Of course I'm really going to marry you, Cressie - I wouldn't lie about somethin' like that. Names aren't really important anyway, are they? It's how we feel that matters. I had to change my name for - well, for reasons, and I couldn't stay Troy Lewis after I deserted anyway. You pick me a new name. Any name you like."

Cressie stared, then sat back on her heels, speechless.

Payne looked at Adam and shrugged. "You see how it is. After having had every advantage, too. We weren't always scraping together a living this way, you know, forced into common soldiery. We are blue bloods by birth - aristocrats. At one time our family owned one of the finest plantations in South Carolina. I matriculated at William and Mary. Our father, unfortunately, had something of a taste for cards - and a talent for losing. So eventually we were reduced to our current circumstances. Doing what we could to survive."

"I see," said Adam dryly. "I don't suppose it occurred to you to try earning an honest living?"

 Payne gave him a wolfish grin. "But of course it did. As it turns out, we are utterly unsuited for it. Once a gentleman, always a gentleman I suppose."

Adam smiled slightly. "I suspect we have completely different definitions of that word."

"I suspect that would be so."

What Adam really wanted to know was what they were waiting around for, but he didn't want to draw attention to that or risk giving them any ideas, so instead he asked, "Why Cressie?"

"Sweet Cressie." Payne shifted his gaze to her and Adam frowned a little. "Cressie's father and I had a bit of an altercation some years back - in this very region, as a matter of fact. I owe him a rather considerable debt."

"This region. So you’re the one who knew about the cabin. I thought that was unusual."

"Oh, yes. I was stationed not far from here at one time. Became quite familiar with the Territory, in fact. Even liked some things about it, all barbarism aside. Has that insulted you, my friend? You do look put out." Adam didn't answer, so he continued, "There are considerable charms associated with the rustic lifestyle, of course, but when all is said and done, there is a stunning absence of culture, don't you find?"

Adam stopped himself from answering smartly and after a pause said, "I can't imagine that my opinions on life out here can be of any real interest to you one way or another. I thought you were going to tell me your story."

Payne sighed. "Well, they would be of great interest to me, as a matter of fact - I have so few stimulating conversations these days - but you're right, of course - after today I can return to South Carolina and take my rightful place among my peers. And then I can converse for days on end among civilized folk."

"I'm guessing your definition of civilized folk is a whole lot different from mine as well."

Payne laughed. "I do like you, cowboy. Just don't seem to know when you're licked. Pity you never went to college - you would have benefited from it, I think."

Adam shrugged. "I did."

"Really." Payne leaned forward. "Where?"

Adam hesitated. "Harvard," he admitted after a minute.

"Indeed?" Payne's eyebrows climbed his forehead. "Now I do regret that our time together is so short. There is so much we could enjoy discussing."

"What do you mean by that?" Cressie interrupted suddenly. "Our time is short."

"I mean," Payne explained kindly, "that soon we will be hearing from your father and then you and Stacy can be off on your honeymoon and your friend can return to - whatever it was he was doing."

Cressie looked unconvinced. "You won't hurt Adam?"

"My dear child. Now why would I do that?"

"You hit him."

"A misunderstanding entirely."

"What about my Daddy? What are you waiting to hear from him?"

"Why, his permission for you to marry, of course."

Cressie scowled. "I don't believe you."

Payne sighed. "Cressie, Cressie, Cressie. You must never play poker. All this doubt regarding my motives wounds me deeply. What do I need to say to convince you? You may either marry Stacy or return to your father - whichever you wish - the choice is entirely up to you."

Adam narrowed his eyes at him. "And her father's permission - it wouldn't, by any chance, be expected in the form of a  - um - dowry, so to speak, would it?"

Payne touched his forelock to him in salute. "You are quick. That's right - a dowry. It's only natural for a groom of Stacy's station to expect one."

"And what station would that be? Private? Second class?"

Payne's expression shifted again and Adam sensed, not without pleasure, that he'd offended him. "I was referring to our lineage, of course. We have the blood of kings in our veins. You must not keep harking back to the unfortunate necessity of our taking refuge within the Army. It seemed like a good idea at the time - we both could, after all, ride and shoot, and we were suited for very little else in the way of labor."

"Hmph." Adam eyed him. "You a deserter too?"

"That's such an ugly word."

"Well, it's an ugly crime."

"The Army and I were forced to part company and I'll admit it was not entirely a mutual decision. My career was showing little promise, however. Thanks to a little philosophical disagreement between Cressie's father and myself I was forced to endure the last few years of my enlistment in - how shall I call it? - confinement."

"How about we just plain call it what it is for once? Prison."

Payne looked at him. "You know, my friend, you really do want for tact."

"Blame it on my rustic lifestyle. What were you in for?"

Payne's narrow eyes shifted around the small interior. "A small - very small - indiscretion - with a squaw. I had no idea people were so sensitive about them."

For a minute Adam thought he would not be able to hold himself back, but he caught sight of Cressie out of the corner of his eye and set his teeth hard instead. "And Cressie's father - objected?"

"Evidently. I spent nearly three years in the Stockade because of a savage that was little more than an animal and little Cressie here's father. Had a long time to think about how to get my own back."

"And instead of facing the man himself you hit upon the brilliant idea of taking it out on a helpless little girl."

Payne looked modest. "I flatter myself it was rather brilliant."

Adam took a deep breath. "You really have to tell me whether you consider this the 'gentlemanly' or the 'civilized' part."

"Now you're just being intentionally dense. Of course when I remembered Cressie I knew there was nothing I could ever do to him that would hurt him quite so much."

Adam felt Cressie stir next to him and reached out to rest a hand on her arm. "I'm sure you're right."

"It served my purpose on so many levels - evening the score, collecting sorely needed funds, finding a use for Stacy. Of course it required planning and great patience - but I have that. Patience. Unlike my brother here."

"And your plan was…?" Adam's voice was dangerously soft.

"Simple enough. Cressie was almost completely unexposed to men, except in storybooks, so she was prime pickings. Stacy has a knack with young girls. Bringing them together wasn't difficult - her father's objections were natural and only served to spur Cressie on in her determination."

Cressie made a small sound and Adam gave her arm a reassuring squeeze without removing his eyes from Payne.  "And then…?"

"And then - the elopement, of course, timed to coordinate with Cressie's travels. I knew about this cabin. It was remote enough and yet central enough to serve my purposes. I would send word to Cressie's father of my - expectations - then join them here dressed as a minister and perform the ceremony. Of course, I would eventually have to break the sad news to Cressie's father that I am not, in fact, a legally ordained servant of the church - at some time, say, during the honeymoon."

"After…?" Adam's jaw worked. He bared his teeth in a hard grin. "You know, you really are - " He was shoving himself across the small interior at Payne almost without thinking when he heard the cocking of Stacy's pistol. He paused, half-raised and leaning against the wall, enraged and undecided, his eyes traveling from the dead-eyed bead on his breastbone to Stacy's fixed blue eyes.

"I wouldn't." barked Payne sharply. "Really, I wouldn't - he's very good - and has a very nasty temper. You've already upset him today - he might feel a need to take it out on you." Adam drew a breath and hesitated, glancing speculatively from Payne to Stacy. "Stop yourself, cowboy. Think of the traumatic impact on this poor child if she sees you splattered all over the cabin floor." Adam looked at Cressie this time and her face decided him. Slowly, he slid back to the floor. Payne smiled his maddening smile. "Much better.  I'm sure it's just what her father would have wanted you to do. He's very protective of her. She's lived a very sheltered life. Haven't you, Cressie?"

"Watch yourself, Payne," Adam ground out through clenched teeth. "I am NOT a helpless little girl."

"No, but you do have a nasty chivalrous streak that is just bound to be your undoing. Where was I? Oh, yes. Whatever happens next is really unimportant - Stacy seems to have grown quite attached, so there's no reason they couldn't be legally married and continue on in wedded bliss - especially if any - ahem - little offspring should result from their honeymoon. Stacy and Cressie would inherit all of her father's money and I'm sure that they would not be slow to remember the part I played in bringing them together and to take care of me in the fashion to which I was once accustomed. Or Cressie's father could simply pay us to leave the Territory and we could all begin forgetting about the whole ugly incident. Either way, everyone lives happily ever after. Well, most everyone anyway."

 Stacy put down the pistol and faced Cressie eagerly. "I hope you'll still be my wife, Cressie. I do love you."

Cressie stared at him, then turned away and buried her head in her arms.

Payne gave a smirk of satisfaction. "Growing up is so hard, isn't it?"

This time Adam didn't stop himself. He drove forward fast and low, catching Payne around the legs and tumbling him hard to the floor, climbing on top of him. He managed one good, solid blow to the face before a hammer blow of pain exploded in his brain and a panoply of over-bright stars crowded his vision. Ouch. Same spot, damn it. Figures. It took all his focus not to black out so he was only marginally aware of Stacy dragging him off of Payne and back to the wall.

By the time he had cleared his head somewhat and could see again he noticed with satisfaction that Payne's nose was bleeding copiously. "Funny," he croaked. "Blood of kings doesn't look any different from anybody else's."

He thought Payne was really going to come after him then, saw him move toward him, face intent,  and steeled himself to be ready.

"Don't!" Cressie's voice sounded unnaturally loud in the small cabin. "Don't!"

Adam tried to straighten himself, shifting to block Cressie, afraid Payne would turn his attentions to her, but after a minute he seemed to get himself in hand and the smug, superior look was almost back in place over the angry, brutal one. He shook out a handkerchief and pressed it to his nose, frowning at the sight of his own blood  "You are beginning to annoy me, cowboy."

"The pleasure is all mine."

Payne laughed shortly. "Stacy, I think you'd better restrain our friend. He's a little too unpredictable."

Stacy sulked. "But you said - "

Payne gestured impatiently. "I know what I said. It can't be helped. Take care of it."

Adam took advantage of Stacy's brief absence to try and get the throbbing in his skull under control. He longed to rub at it, but he was damned if he was going to give Payne the satisfaction of seeing how much it hurt. He glanced up at Payne, who was holding the handkerchief against his nose, and their eyes met warily. Stacy returned and handed him something, Payne lowered the handkerchief to take it.

Adam looked at him askance. "You've got to be kidding. A little Gothic, don't you think?"

"Well, I had been saving them for something else, but there's a certain poetry in this, too. They are a souvenir of my incarceration. Give me your right hand, please."

Adam toyed with the idea of refusing - he shot a look towards where Stacy was standing at the ever-ready with his gun, then at Payne.  Payne caught his look and glanced significantly at Cressie. Adam let out his breath in a gust. @@Well, it was probably this or get bashed on the head again and he wouldn't be any good to anybody that way.@@ Reluctantly, he held out his right wrist and Payne snapped the manacle around it, then the other end around one of the rough beams that formed the shack frame.

Adam looked at it. "Army issue. You two sure helped yourselves to plenty of Army property."

Payne grinned. "So awkward returning things to the quartermaster when you're breaking prison." He dusted his hands briskly. "Well. That should keep you in one place for a while anyway. Before you know it it will be time for Stacy to go and check for Cressie's papa's response and then we can all part company."

Cressie balled her hands into fists. "You'd better not hurt my Daddy."

Payne smiled gently. "My darling girl. I have every confidence that I already have."

Adam could see she was struggling not to cry again and pressed his hand lightly on her shoulder. It seemed to be her undoing because she burst out, "Oh, Adam - you were right! It was a terrible plan and I wish we'd just done as you said and gone to the Ponderosa!"

Adam froze, staring at her. He just managed to stop himself from dropping his head into his hands in exasperation, but he couldn't quite keep his eyes from sinking closed for a moment. He entertained a brief hope that it wouldn't mean anything to Payne - but if he'd lived in the area and knew about this cabin what were the odds that he didn't know about…he opened his eyes and peered at him cautiously.

Payne's mouth was ajar, his expression arrested and beatific. Cressie looked from one to the other, sensing she'd done something wrong, but unable to see how.

Payne's smile confirmed her worst fears. "Well, well, well - so Lady Luck has not entirely abandoned me. The Ponderosa. Mr. Adam…Cartwright?" Adam remained silent. What was the point in denying it? "Cressie, I owe you an apology - you only select the very best of friends. And the most useful. Stacy, there's been a slight change in plans. Fetch me paper and charcoal - we are going to be rich beyond our wildest dreams."

Chapter 5: The Tempest

"Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows."
         II, ii, 42

Well over an hour later, Hoss longed to take the words back. Joe boredly held another horse as Digger bent forward, hands on knees, to study it one more time. He pushed his hat back on his head and spat another stream of tobacco juice. "Likely lookin' animal."

Joe perked up. "Yes. Yes, he is," he said eagerly. "You chose yourself a fine horse, Mr. Jones. Now which other two…?"

Digger scratched at his nose. "But I ain't jest sure. Like ta see that there one again."

Joe followed the direction he was pointing. "Mr. Jones, you seen that one three times now. In fact, you've looked over every horse in here at least twice. Surely seeing them again won't really…?"

Digger stared at him. "Like to see that one again."

Hoss stood up to join Joe. "Yup, that there's a right fine animal, Digger - don't know where you'd find one finer. Why don't we pull that one out fer ya…?"

Digger switched his pale gaze to Hoss. "Like to see it, I said. Ain't decided."

Hoss and Joe's eyes met feelingly. Hoss slapped his hands together in forced cheer. "Now, I reckon there's jest too many TO decide, Digger. So why don't you let Joe an me choose three fer ya? We'll pick you three real fine animals."

Digger looked at them. "My choosin', yer brother said."

Hoss swallowed, throwing an anxious look over his shoulder to where the branding was taking place, out of sight. "I know he did, Digger, I jest thought if you was havin' a little trouble - "

"No trouble. Jest don't like ta rush. Choosin' takes time."

"You can say that again," Joe mumbled under his breath. Hoss glared warningly at him and he sighed. "Let me show you that one again, Mr. Jones. And you liked that one there against the fence, too, didn't you? Why don't I pull that one out for you too?"

Digger shifted his chaw to the other cheek. "Reckon."

Hoss glanced at the sky, his heart sinking. The sun was noticeably lower and the clouds piling darkly on top of each other. Something thumped against his hat and he took it off to look. There was a small dent in the crown and he smoothed it out tenderly. There was a rustle of wings and something brushed against his scalp. He flapped at it irritably with one meaty paw. The horses shifted warily in their pen.

Joe frowned at him from inside the corral. "Cut that out. You're making the horses nervous."

"Sorry." Hoss rubbed moodily at his scalp. His hand entangled with tiny claws and he let out a howl of surprise. The horses blew and stamped their feet, milling about.

Joe slid hastily under the railing. "I said cut that out! What…?"

Hoss swatted at his own head with his hat. "Somethin's…caught…"

Joe watched the flurry of long wings around his brother's head with interest. "Just a bat. Must like your cologne."

"A - ?! That ain't funny, Joe!" Hoss scrabbled anxiously at his head and the little creature let out a high pitched squeal of distress. "Get it off'n me! It's caught in my hair!"

Joe moved toward him, grinning. "Don't know how - you hardly got any to be caught in."

The bat flapped hard, trying to escape, and Hoss beat blindly at it with his hat. "Dadburn it, Joe - "

Joe tried to reach him but had to keep ducking his wildly flailing arms. "Well, hold still and let me - " The horses snorted, bunching together, then moving restlessly. The bat screamed, beating his wings against Hoss's head. Hoss danced in a wild circle, trying desperately to dislodge it, while Joe tried to follow him, waving his own hat furiously. "Hoss, you gotta calm down! You're upsetting the horses and I can't reach you when - ow!" Joe let out a whoop of pain as one of Hoss's waving hands caught him in the eye and knocked him to the ground. He rolled back to his feet, clutching at his eye. "Darn you, now look what you've done! Hold still, you big galoot! It's just a tiny rodent - you could crush it with one hand!"

But Hoss didn't seem to hear him, he kept twisting in circles, beating himself in the head with his hat while the bat flapped frantically to free itself. Joe ran his hands through his hair, looking nervously from the increasingly restive horses to his brother. Making a decision, he took a deep breath, timed himself and jumped - straight onto Hoss's back. He clung to him with his legs and his one hand, trying to knock the bat free with his hat in the other hand. Hoss seemed unaware of his new passenger, jumping and howling with renewed vigor while Joe held on for dear life. Finally, the bat flew free with a hum of wings, wheeking in terror.

Hoss let out a sigh of relief, rubbing at his scalp, Joe still clinging tightly to his back. He turned around, planning to sit down and catch his breath, and found himself looking directly into the mildly curious eyes of Digger Jones.

Digger looked from Joe to Hoss, chewing thoughtfully. Joe saw the look too and slid abruptly from Hoss's back, smoothing his shirt and replacing his hat and trying to pull together the remnants of his tattered dignity. Hoss pressed his hands over his eyes and swallowed hard. He figured his dignity was pretty much shot for the day. He looked up at last and tried to smile nonchalantly. "So. Digger. Which horses…?"

The air was split by a tremendous clap of thunder, followed by a blinding flash of lightening. From the other side of the rise came the sound of cattle bellowing in fear, followed by the rumble of moving hooves. Joe grabbed Hoss's arm. "Them cows are on the move! We need to - " He hadn't even finished the thought before the horses gave an answering wail and started running. The far side of the corral fence gave way with a crack and was crunched and trampled under dozens of hooves as the horses broke loose to freedom. Hoss glanced around automatically for a mount, but the only one near enough to make a difference was Digger Jones' mule. At that moment the skies opened wide and dropped a deluge of water.

The brothers stood for a moment in the teeming rain, staring at each other, listening to the pounding of hooves from all sides and having no means of pursuit. Most of the horses were already out of sight, except for a few fussing in circles a couple of hundred feet away and three huddled tightly together in one corner of the still standing portion of the corral fence. Someone cleared their throat and Hoss and Joe turned in unison to look back at Digger Jones.

Digger looked around thoughtfully, from the boys' now fuzzy outlines in the grey downpour of rain, to the disappearing herd, to the broken fence, then spat another stream of juice into the mud and pointed to the three horses still standing in the corral. "I'll take them three," he said simply.


Rain pounded on the thin roof and a small fire burned in the fireplace, providing a dim light. Payne had the table pulled in front of the fire for the best visibility and sat bent over his scrap of paper with Stacy sitting opposite him, now studying Adam's rifle. Adam watched Payne scratching away with his charcoal, trying to think. The rain would make any tracking Hoss was trying to do difficult so he shouldn't count on help right away. He needed to figure a way out of this himself, with Cressie in tow.

"You know, my father's out of town," he suggested conversationally. "And there's only so much money in the safe. My brothers' have limited clearance for bank withdrawal. This may not be the big boon you're anticipating, unless you're prepared for a lengthy wait."

Payne narrowed his eyes at him. They both knew that with hunting season picking up a lengthy wait in this cabin was out of the question.

"Well, that is a shame," Payne agreed smoothly. "But I don't mind a small wait. I told you I'm a patient man. And I'm sure your brothers will consider this important enough to make contact with your father - say, by wire?"

Adam was sure they would too, and that was exactly what he didn't want. The thought of dragging Ben into this mess made him positively queasy. Careful to avoid the swollen lump there, he leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. Talk about blowing the budget. A party was nothing to this.

He felt a dampness under his hand and turned his head to look. Floor was wet. Probably seeping up when the ground got saturated - somebody would need to improve the drainage under the cabin or the timbers would rot. Given the wet, freeze-and-thaw winter they'd had it was a wonder they hadn't already suffered the same fate as the bridge at Hammond Creek…he paused. Hm. Maybe…he glanced at the Douglas brothers, but they seemed absorbed in their respective tasks, then at Cressie, but she had her head in her arms, a picture of woe. Quietly, he fingered the timber he was manacled to, trying to sense how much damage had been done. Hard to say, but it was definitely soft near the floor. A little determined effort might crack it, if he could avoid drawing any unwanted attention. He yanked on it experimentally.

The noise of the chain rattling was unexpectedly loud, even under the sound of the rain, and Payne looked over at him quizzically. "I hope you're not uncomfortable," he said sweetly.

"Not at all," answered Adam pleasantly. "Never better."

Payne chuckled. "Well, good. I've almost finished my message to your family - a masterpiece if I do say so. Do you think $50,000 is a reasonable amount to request of your father in exchange for your safe return?"

Adam shrugged. "Hard to say. Sounds like a lot. He does have two other sons."

Payne shook his head. "Now, really. I've always heard that old Ben Cartwright was unusually attached to his boys."

Adam rubbed thoughtfully at his unshaven chin. "Well, that's true, of course, as far as it goes - but he's also pretty attached to his money. How do you figure he got so rich?"

Payne scrutinized him darkly. Adam gave him his sunniest smile in return. Payne scowled. "I'm sure he'd be only too glad to pay it in return for his son's life."

"Maybe." Adam considered seriously. "On the other hand, he might be only too glad to be rid of me. As you pointed out, I can be pretty annoying."

Payne glowered at him. "And getting more so by the minute."

"So only imagine living with me - full time. Might just see it as a handy opportunity to thin out the herd, as they say. We rustic types live by a pretty brutal philosophy out here - survival of the fittest. Prosper or die."

Payne glanced back down at his letter. "I suppose you think you're amusing."

"Just realistic. Don't want to foster any unreasonable expectations. He's buried three wives, after all - one son would just be another day in the life."

"Well, you'd better hope your Papa is feeling sentimental or you, my friend, are a very dead man."

"Yes - I got that. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that I'm not a dead man either way."

Payne lifted his chin. "You impugn my honor, sir."

"Your honor," Adam repeated musingly. "Your HONOR. Now, there's a definition of yours I'd especially like to hear."

 Payne stared at him, then laughed suddenly. "Cowboy, you are a worthy opponent. But in this case, I'm afraid, you are also doomed to lose."

Adam clucked his tongue softly. "And then, on the other hand, that arrogance of yours has gotten you into trouble before."

Payne held his eyes for a long moment, then slowly forced a smile. "I'm afraid I'm not so easy to rile as my brother."

"No?" Adam's voice was quiet. "Then I'll just have to try harder, won't I?" He shot a thoughtful look at Payne's hand. "You broke your charcoal," he pointed out gently.

Payne noticed the snapped charcoal in his clenched fist and tossed it irritably into the fire. "It's not the only thing I can break. A good thing to remember when you're chained to a wall."

Cressie's head reared up suddenly. "You said you wouldn't hurt him," she said accusingly.

"Yes, well, he also said he was a minister, Cressie - and that his brother's name was Troy Lewis, and - I've lost track of the number of lies now. I'd say that if you added his word, his honor, his gentlemanliness and his civility all together it still wouldn't be worth two bits."

Payne reared to his feet, crushing the letter tightly in his hands and thrusting it at his brother. "Take this," he hissed "At daylight you can carry it to the Ponderosa, then check and see if Cressie's father has responded. You can find the Ponderosa all right, can't you? It does take up a good part of Nevada Territory."

Stacy looked indignant. "I've never had any trouble findin' anyplace. Don't take your bad temper out on me."

Payne's scowl silenced him. "Take something personal of his to make it convincing."

"I'll take his horse," suggested Stacy. "It could just ride in with the note. Scare 'em to death."

"Not the horse!" objected Payne fiercely. "I may need that if we have to move somewhere else quickly."

Stacy shrugged. "Just as well. Ornery animal."

"Take his handgun. They ought to recognize that."

Stacy sat up straight. "I wanted to keep the handgun! It's a mighty fine one, Payne."

"Oh, hush up and do as I say." Payne gave his chair a kick in passing. "I'm going to sleep. You take first watch, since you're so all-fired fond of those guns."

"Why me? If I'm going to make that ride tomorrow I need to get my sleep! It's not like they can go anywhere - there's no way down that mountain when it's dark and it's raining."

Payne's scowl deepened. "If you're fool enough to close your eyes on him then be grateful I'm not. Now keep watch like I say. Wake me in a couple of hours." He threw himself down on the small, built-in bed and was almost instantly asleep.
Stacy glowered at him, then turned his glower on Adam. "Don't you even think about tryin' anythin', mister, or I won't hesitate to shoot." Cressie threw him an indignant glance and he looked sheepish. "Now, Cressie - you see how he is - I have to!"
"I certainly see how YOU are!" returned Cressie coldly. "I can't believe I was so wrong about you, Tr - St - whoever it is you are! I can't believe I thought I wanted you for a husband!"

Stacy looked hurt. "Oh, now, honey - don't be that way. Nothins' really changed between us. You know I love you and I'll be real good to you. Once we have your Papa's money I'll be able to take real good care of you."

Cressie sat up, her back ramrod straight. "You think I would live with you on money you - you - STOLE from my Daddy??"

"It's not stolen!" Stacy protested.

Adam pondered. "'Extorted' probably is a better word," he interjected agreeably.

Stacy swung his gun up. "God damn, I warned you - "

Cressie shot to her feet. "Fine! Fine, shoot then! Shoot him - shoot us both! You're just a miserable bully and a thief and a coward  - why not a murderer too!"

Adam listened to Cressie in some alarm. He glanced uneasily at Stacy, hoping he wouldn't take her at her word, then at Payne - who slept on, impervious to the noise.

 Stacy's gun wavered. "Cressie - sweetheart - " he took a step towards her. Cressie stepped up to meet him and slapped him resoundingly across the face.

Adam's heart jumped into his throat and he yanked urgently on the manacle. If Stacy lost his temper… but there was no way he could get close enough to push himself between them…

Stacy and Cressie stared at each other for a long moment while Adam tried frantically to work his arm free. Then Stacy lowered both his head and his gun and drooped like a chastened child. Adam gave an inward sigh of relief. Cressie turned on her heel and dropped to her spot on the floor, burying her face in her hands.

Stacy made a hesitant step to follow her. "Honey - " She gave him one blistering stare and firmly turned her back on him. Stacy looked lost for a minute, then, feet dragging, returned to his seat by the fire. He started to speak once or twice, but at any sound he made Cressie only huddled further away from him. After a minute he thrust his lip out defiantly and deliberately spun his chair, slamming it into the floor, and turned his back to them.

Adam blinked. Well, that was…helpful. If Stacy had ever done sentry duty for the Army it was probably the Army's good fortune that he'd deserted. He stole a look at the beam. It was hard to get real view in the light from the fire, but his sudden pull on it seemed to have done some more damage. If he could be quiet enough and Stacy enjoyed a good, long sulk he might be able to make some real progress. Careful not to rattle the telltale chain, he arranged himself to block his movements from view and got to work.


Joe let the door swing shut behind him, taking off his rain drenched hat and shaking it vigorously. He glanced at his elder brother, who hadn't said a single word the whole, muddy, sodden walk back to the ranch. "They'll get Chubb and Cochise when they get the rest of the cattle," he offered. "Lem and Cooter and Deever still had their mounts. And tomorrow we can start lookin' for the other horses." Hoss didn't respond, just stood in the middle of the room, dripping. Joe glanced at the massive fireplace and noticed that the fire had gone out, so he set to work remedying that. "You oughta get out of those wet clothes." Hoss was still just standing there, so he added after a minute, "Ain't nothing that can't be fixed, Hoss. I know it's a kind of a mess, but we've had messes before. Ain't nothing that can't be fixed." Hoss pushed water silently off his face and didn't answer. Joe set a match to his pile of kindling and stretched his hands toward it, shooting a sideways look at his brother. Wasn't like him to be so silent. He added a little more wood and sat up straight. "Hey, Hoss! You know what we forgot? We forgot to count the men when we figured the party!"

Hoss was in the process of pulling off his vest but he stopped dead to stare at him. "I cain't believe it," he said blankly. "I cain't believe after all that's happened yer still thinkin' about that blame party."

Joe swiveled toward him from his seat on the hearth, surprised. "Of course, why not? After all this I'd say we really need it. How many hands we got?"

"How - ?" Hoss's eyes opened wide and his mouth moved silently, but no words came out. Finally he exploded, "Dang it, how can you not know how many hands we got?"

Joe was taken aback. "Well, I know about how many. Why?"

"Because - because - dadblame it - they're a part o' our ranch and they're important an' yer part owner! Ain't you never looked at the payroll book?"

"No," answered Joe reasonably. "Why would I? I don't do the payroll."

Hoss gave an exclamation of disgust and turned his back to him.

Joe threw up his hands. "Well, I bet I could name 'em," he said defensively. "I just never bothered to count! Besides, what does it matter?"

"It matters because - you - because WE should know these things. Because this is our ranch and, dadburn it, it don't run itself."

Joe's jaw dropped. "What did you say?"

"I said this blamed ranch don't run itself! And we should - we should - " He caught Joe's expression and stopped. "What?"

Joe shook his head blankly. "I can't believe you said that."

Hoss sat down on the coffee table and started pulling off his wet boots. "Said what?" he grumbled irritably.

"That. This ranch don't run itself. You said that. That's exactly what Adam always says." He reflected a minute. "Well. With better grammar."  Hoss glared. Joe ran his hands over his drenched curls, squeezing some of the water out and shaking his head. "Not even in charge for twenty-four hours and you sound just like him."

Hoss threw down the boot he'd pulled off and scrubbed at his face. "Well, Adam ain't wrong about everythin'. I think we should cancel this party, Joe. We got enough on our plate. More than enough."

Joe jerked up straight. "We can't!" he protested. "I'm already in dutch with Julie! Cancel the party and I lose her forever."

Hoss thunked the second boot next to the first. "Then maybe she ain't worth keepin'."

Joe was about to answer furiously when he decided on another tact. Lowering his voice he said instead, "Saw Sarah Jane when I was in town today."

Hoss scowled at him. "Don't try it. Just don't. Yer just pullin' my leg."

Joe held up one hand. "Honest. Looked real pretty, too. Had on some kind of a white ruffley blouse with a red ribbon around the collar. Nice."

Hoss's expression didn't soften as he rubbed at his feet but after a moment he said, almost against his will, "Red, huh? Bet that was real…aw, cut it out, Joe. That ain't the point an' you know it."

Joe leaned forward. "Asked about you. Said she was really lookin' forward to this party but that she hoped you'd stick real close to her cause she didn't know nobody and she's kinda shy. Still, she was hoping you'd introduce her around some."

In spite of himself, Hoss grinned. "Yeah? Fer real?" He frowned suddenly. "Dadblame it, Joe, there you go again. Makin' up stuff so's I lose my head."

Joe opened his eyes innocently. "Me?" He pointed to his chest. "Make stuff up? Hoss, this is the real, honest-to-goodness truth. You can ask Sarah Jane yourself. Or ask Clara Myers. She was right there when it happened." He shook his head sadly. "Poor Sarah Jane. Sure is gonna be disappointed when we cancel."

"Oh, shut up." Hoss pushed miserably at his wet hair until it stood up like pigeon wings and scowled. "Twelve," he said at last.

Joe shook himself. "How's that?"

"Twelve. Hands. We got twelve."

Joe's smile blossomed. "Hot diggity! You won't regret this, Hoss."

Hoss sighed deeply. "Prob'ly I will," he said heavily. "How many's that make?"

Joe scrunched his face in concentration. "Thirty-seven with the hands…oh, yeah - I had to invite the Springers too - how many of them are there?"

"Eight or so, I reckon."

"'Bout forty-five? I might have asked one or two others while I was in town so maybe we'd better say fifty to be safe."

"Fifty." Hoss squirmed. "Sure is growin'."

Joe stood up and slapped him on the back. "Don't worry, Hoss. It'll be a great party - a real humdinger. And tomorrow we'll get everything back on track - you'll see. Everything's gonna be fine."

Hoss nodded desolately. "Hope so."

"It will." Joe's optimism was catching. "Maybe Adam'll even make it back for the party."

Hoss pursed his lips. "If'n he's ready. Hope he takes his time."

Joe blinked at him quizzically. "Okay. But it would sure make things easier if he was here."

Hoss nodded, rising to his feet. "I reckon. Still hope he takes his time." He propped his hat and boots in front of the fire and moved toward the stairs, shaking his head. "All the time he needs. From where I'm standin', he deserves it. Far as I'm concerned it's a danged miracle he ain't cracked years ago."


The fire was burning low in the grate and the room was deep in dusky shadows. Adam glanced down at his handiwork in frustration. Not much progress, but he wasn't ready to roll over and give up either. What he needed was some kind of tool - the manacle itself helped a little, but not much. He brought his head up to glance around and nearly jumped out of his skin to find a face looming over his shoulder.

"What are you doin'?"

He pressed his hand against his heart until it resumed its normal rhythm  "Sshhh…"

"Sorry." She lowered her voice, noticing his eyes travelling towards Stacy. Stacy's head had dropped backward and he was snoring softly with his face to the ceiling. "They're both asleep. What are you doin'?"

"Trying to get free."

"Oh." She watched for a minute. "I don't see how."

"The wood is soft - a little rotted. I might be able to crack it if I try."

"Can I help?"

Adam paused to rub his wrist. All that pulling wasn't doing it much good. Of course, manacles weren't designed to be comfortable. "Maybe. If you could find me something to pry with - a lever of some sort. Something for yourself, too. Two of us might have better luck."  He let his eyes travel from place to place in the cabin, searching out the firearms. Stacy was still clutching Adam's rifle and his handgun was thrust in his belt, Cressie's double barrel shotgun at his feet. Payne's rifle was lying beside the bed within his easy reach. Making a move for them was probably too risky and Stacy did have a point - trying to get out of here in the dark and rain would be almost impossible. Hiding might have been feasible if he were alone, but not with Cressie. Besides, for the moment he wasn't going anywhere. "Try the woodbox," he said finally. "But be very, very quiet. Don't wake our friends."

He watched a little uneasily as Cressie made her way to the woodbox since so far she had proved to be a somewhat less-than-ideal co-conspirator, but she was very stealthy and after a minute he allowed himself to relax. She was back almost before he knew it and handed him a stick. He peered at it in the gloom. Not bad. Might work. He wedged it into the crevice between the support and the wall and felt a little give. He touched Cressie's hand and indicated where she should insert hers for the best effect. They pushed together and the wood made a faint groaning sound - he glanced anxiously over his shoulder. Both Payne and Stacy slept on in blissful peace. He shook his head.  No wonder they had both washed out as soldiers.

They were working patiently in silence when Cressie whispered, "I guess I shouldn't have said that about the Ponderosa?"

Adam sighed a little. "Well, what's done is done. But, Cressie - I must have told you not to wave around a loaded gun at least half a dozen times and you didn't seem to hear me at all. I probably mentioned the name of my ranch - what - once? Twice? In passing? How is it that that's what stuck with you?"

Cressie looked pensive. "I don't know," she confessed. "I guess I thought it was a pretty name.  I'm sorry."

"No point in brooding about it." With their close proximity he could make out her face, even in the dark, and he gave her a wink. "Probably increased my life expectancy anyway."

She smiled a little bit, trying to dig her piece of wood in deeper for better leverage. "How did you know?" She asked after a second. "About Troy not being Troy?"

Adam put down his makeshift tool for a minute to roll some of the stiffness out of his shoulders. "Cressie, have you ever READ this book your mother named you after?"

"No. Is it good?"

"Not one of the author's best, since you mention it, but that wasn't really my point - don't you think you should?"

Cressie shrugged. "I don't know. Why?"

"Well, in this case it might have been helpful, but I was thinking since your mother liked it enough to name you after it you might want to. Out of - out of respect."

"I think she just liked the name. Did you read the book your Mama named you after?"

"Many times."

"Is it good?"

"Very. But - I read it, I think, because I knew she liked it. It - made me feel close to her."

"Oh." She pushed on her stick. "Maybe I should, then."

"I think it would be a nice gesture."

Cressie was silent, working her stick with surprising patience. Finally she said, "I - I'm sorry I got you into this, Adam, but I'm glad, too. That you're here, I mean. I guess that sounds pretty terrible."

Adam gave her a half smile. "Not terrible. I am, too. Sorry we're in it, I mean, but glad you're not in it alone."

She nodded seriously. "Adam, I don't think - I don't think Troy ever really loved me. I know it seems silly to care, but…" she swallowed hard.

Adam's heart twisted. Poor kid. He almost wished she'd cry again and feel better. "I don't think that's true, Cressie," he said carefully. "I think he does love you, in his way. I'm not sure he's the best choice for you, though. What you need to ask yourself is if that's the kind of love you want in a husband - if he's the kind of man you'll want beside you when times are hard - that can be a good father to your children and a good friend to you, now and into your old age."

Cressie's face was thoughtful. "I don't think he's even the kind of friend I want right now. He's - he's so - dishonest.  And, Adam, I don't think he even knows he is." She put down her stick and kneaded her fingers. "I feel so stupid."

"You're not stupid - just inexperienced. The problem with good judgement is that you only get it from a few turns with bad judgement. I'd say you're about average for your age. Maybe a little more protected than most."

Cressie sighed. "How old are you?"

"Me? Almost thirty." Her face was close enough to his so that he could read her expression in the faint light and he chuckled. "Methuselah, eh?"

"No, but mercy - will I have to wait until I'm thirty to have good judgement?"

"I shouldn't think so. After this I'm guessing it'll already be a little better. Everybody makes mistakes as they go along, Cressie. It's how we learn."

"I bet you didn't."

Adam looked up in surprise. "Now, what makes you say that? Of course I did. I was eighteen once too, you know."

"Like what?"

Adam rubbed at his forehead, trying to remember eighteen, his mind wincing away from it a little. Not long after Marie had died. He couldn't actually remember any wild antics, but he must have had some. It had been a hard year, of course, but surely he hadn't always behaved responsibly? He found the thought vaguely depressing and pushed hard on his improvised pry bar. "I admit I can't think of any just at the moment but I'll tell you what - once we get to the Ponderosa you can ask my father - I bet he'll be able to come up with at least a half dozen off the top of his head." He'd better be able to. Or I am due for some serious soul searching.

Cressie sat back on her heels. "You really think we're going to make it back to the Ponderosa?"

Adam didn't look up from his task. "If I have anything to say about it. We've got a nice little gap going here - put your stick under mine, I'm going to use it as a kind of fulcrum. No, like this - "

Cressie obediently adjusted her stick. "What's a fulcrum?"

He glanced at her. "No Archimedes' Principle at Miss Haversham's?" She shook her head. He returned his gaze to his work. "You're right. They don't teach you anything useful there."

Cressie nodded dolefully.

Adam pushed again and the wood made a loud barking sound. Both held their breath, their eyes fixed on the snoring duo, Adam counting slowly to twenty. Stacy stirred and mumbled in his sleep, but neither woke. Adam relaxed. "And I thought you were a heavy sleeper." He poked at the beam, looking closely, carefully pushing on it to straighten it and hide the damage. "That's enough until morning. I'm pretty sure one good tug will break it through."

"Why not now? We could get away!"

Adam looked at her consideringly. "Why do you think? What happens tomorrow morning?"

Cressie frowned hard, concentrating. "Um - Stacy goes to collect the money from my Daddy?"

"That's right."

"Oh!" Her face cleared with sudden realization. "So there will be only one of them?"

He nodded, pleased. "Very good. Much better odds. One less to give chase and daylight in the bargain. And as well as Payne knows this area, I'll bet I know it better."

"I hope you're right."

Adam smiled at her woebegone tone. "Chin up, Cressie - we're not done yet. And I have no intention of losing out to a couple of worthless rogues like the Douglas brothers."

"So you really think we have a chance?"

 "There's always a chance. If I have my way, neither one of our fathers will be out a penny."
 Cressie stared at him for a minute - then she unexpectedly threw her arms around his neck and hugged him, hard. After a moment of blank astonishment, he reached up and hugged her back.


Joe studied his reflection in the small shaving mirror with dismay. There was no hiding it - Hoss's flailing yesterday had left him with a real shiner. And tonight was the party. He dropped back onto his bed for a moment with a sigh. Why did everything seem to go wrong just when you most needed it to go right? What would Julie say when she saw her date had one eye practically swollen shut? He fingered the tender area speculatively. Maybe it wouldn't be too bad. Maybe by evening it would hardly be noticeable. Feeling a little more optimistic, he roused himself and headed for the stairs.

He looked automatically toward the dining room as he descended and was immediately sorry since the empty table was just a sad reminder that they had to forage for themselves. Even though it was early, Hoss was probably out seeing to the animals. He should probably get out there and help him. He was going to the hearth to pick up his now-dry boots when he glanced over his shoulder and stopped in surprise. Hoss was seated at their father's desk, deeply absorbed in some kind of paperwork. He was so taken aback at the unaccustomed sight that he forgot to look where he was going and backed up into a chair, stumbling over the arm and sitting down hard. He couldn't remember ever seeing anyone but Pa or Adam behind that desk. Truth be told, Hoss looked unexpectedly good sitting there - dignified. Joe gazed at his brother with new eyes.

Hoss glanced up at the clamor Joe made. "Oh, hey, Joe. Yer up early. Think I just about got this here wire about that contract figgered - we gotta make a payment ta keep it movin', looks like. And we need that hunnerd fer Digger Jones. Let's add in what you need for Hop Ling and the musicians tonight and see what we got in the safe."

Joe nodded, pulling on his boots as he approached the safe. "I got us a real good deal on the musicians - what's the combination here again?"

Hoss didn't look up from the papers in front of him. "I thought you knew it."

Joe stopped spinning the dial and looked at him suspiciously. "Are you saying you don't?"

Hoss shifted uncomfortably. "Pa told all of us."

"And you don't remember," said Joe accusingly.

"Well, it sure don't sound like you know it neither!" Hoss shot back.

"Well, you're older - you're supposed to know these things!"

"Dang it, Joe - you know I ain't got a head fer numbers! What's yer excuse?"

"My excuse is I thought you'd know it! Or Adam, or Pa! I guess I just figured it would never be up to me, so I - I just didn't…" he trailed off unhappily.

Hoss nodded. "Yeah, I know, Joe. Me, too. I mean, I didn't actually think about it, but I guess I always assumed there would be somebody else around who knew it too - who knew a whole lot of things that I just never bothered with."

"Well, there always has been," piped Joe in a small voice.

Hoss nodded. "Yup. And now there ain't. An I'll tell you this, too, Joe - goin' forward it ain't gonna be like this fer me. I cain't tell you what to do, but I ain't never gonna find myself in this pickle again. Feel like a dang fool."

Joe nodded, tugging futilely at the safe door. "So what do we do now? Blow the safe?"

Hoss looked horrified. "We cain't blow the safe! What'd Pa say? Besides, we got guests comin'!"

"I guess you're right. But Hoss, we gotta get money. It's too late to cancel the party and we gotta pay the musicians and Hop Ling. And even if we didn't, there's Digger Jones - all we need is him sayin' all over Virginia City that a Cartwright handshake ain't worth anything. Maybe we can pry it open with somethin'…"

"It's a safe, Joe. If'n ya could pry inta it, it wouldn't be no good ta nobody."

"I didn't mean just anybody - I meant somebody extra-strong. Like you."

Hoss hesitated, then shook his head. "Ain't gonna work. Ain't no pry bar around strong enough."

Joe stared at the squat black box in frustration. "Maybe if we dropped it from a big height it would just sort of spring open. I mean WAY high up - like Panner's Bluff."

"That'd be jest fine, too - it breaks open and we're chasing money blowin' all over the canyon. Lucky if we gotta  fistful ta spend that way."

Joe threw up his hands. "Well, at least I'm tryin'! You're no help at all."

Hoss wrinkled his nose and nodded slowly, recognizing the justice of this. "Reckon yer right at that." He stared at the solid square of metal as Joe fiddled with the handle. "Mebbe we can drop it, but not so high up - kinda control it, like."

"Hey!" Joe's face lit up. "That's a good idea! How about the loft? We could use the hoist to get it up and let it drop, real fast. Then if the money blew around we could still catch it all 'cause it'd be inside the barn."

Hoss looked dubious. "Might scare the animals."

Joe brushed it aside. "Oh, come on - we do it with hay all the time - it's no different. I say we try it."

Hoss hesitated "Maybe this ain't such a good idee…"

"Of course it is." Joe was brisk. "Hoss, we gotta get money somehow. Come on - let's carry it out to the barn." He wrapped his arms tightly around the safe and heaved. It didn't budge. "Heavy." Loosening his arms and shaking out his hands he braced himself firmly and tried again. For all it moved he might just as well have been trying to lift the ranch house. He stared at it in frustration. "Maybe this isn't such a good idea…" Determined, he carefully positioned himself, took a deep breath, and then pulled with all his might. The safe sat, unmoving, as if bolted to the floor.

Hoss shifted feet impatiently. "Aw, come on, Joe - we ain't got time fer games. You gotta go and pick up Hop Ling and I gotta finish that brandin' - so let's get a move on - daylight's burnin'!" He reached down and effortlessly swung the safe up onto his shoulder, striding toward the door.

Joe stared after him for a moment, then, letting out a soft whistle, he scrambled to his feet and followed.

He caught up with Hoss in the barn, where he was studying the hoist thoughtfully.

"I dunno, Joe. Might be too heavy."

Joe frowned. "Hay is plenty heavy."

"Yeah, but it seems like it's spread out more, sorta. "

"Well, weight is weight, right? It shouldn't make a big difference."

Hoss eyed the safe dubiously. "Reckon," he said at last. "Oh, what's ta lose - let's try it. Sun's up already - we gotta be gettin' ta work." Out of the corner of his eye he caught a look at Joe's face, staring at him with his mouth ajar in bemused silence, and flushed. "What?"

"Nothin'. It's just - well - that's what Adam - "

"Aw, cut it out!" Hoss snatched at the hoist ropes and began to fasten them around the safe with unnecessary violence. "Anybody would say that! It's just fact!"

"I guess." Joe shrugged, eyeing him. "It's just - kinda - eerie."

Hoss scowled. "It's all in yer head." He yanked on the ropes, testing his work. "Okay. Let's hoist her up." They positioned themselves carefully on the rope with Joe in front and Hoss as anchor. "Nice and easy, now. Then drop 'er on my 'go'."

The safe was heavier than Joe had realized - he was glad he had Hoss's solid bulk behind him as they pulled the iron box hand over hand towards the barn rafters. They rested for a moment, the safe swinging slightly near the ceiling, gauging the drop.

"Now, when I say 'go' - " Hoss's voice reiterated from behind Joe. "On your mark - get set - "

"Been lookin' fer you fellas."

Hoss turned at the sound of a voice at the barn door, absent-mindedly dropping the rope. Joe let out a wail of surprise as he felt the sudden whoosh of air as his feet left the barn floor and the rafters rushed towards him.


"Huh?" Hoss turned back, suddenly remembering the rope and making a snatch at it - too late. The safe hit the earthen floor with a crunch that made the barn walls tremble and Joe's teeth clack together, leaving him clinging to the rope for dear life, twisting gently near the ceiling.

Hoss looked up at him in exasperation. "Joe, what in blazes are you doin'? This ain't no time fer foolin' around! We got work ta do!"

Joe glared at him from his lofty perch. "You were supposed to say 'go'," he hissed fiercely.

Hoss scratched at his ear. "Huh?"

"'Go'," Joe repeated, aggrieved, closing his eyes against the long, spinning drop to the floor below. "You didn't say it. Just let go."

"Oh." Hoss's face cleared. "Yeah. Sorry about that." He watched him for a moment. "Well, you comin' down er what?"

Joe gave another glance at the ground - it looked about a million miles away - and closed his eyes and swallowed. "Lower me," he ordered.

Hoss wrinkled his forehead. "Huh?"

"Lower me, darn it! Cut the safe loose and lower me!"

Hoss shook his head, but made his way to the spot where the safe had tumbled, loosening the ropes carefully. "Beats me why you cain't just shimmy down."

"DON'T. LIKE.  HEIGHTS!" Joe ground out from between his teeth with deep feeling.

"Oh. Right…" Hoss wrapped the rope around his elbow, lowering it slowly until Joe was within a comfortable dropping distance, then let go.

Joe had one hand over his face as his feet hit the comforting, solid mass of the ground. "Thanks," he said faintly. "Did it open?"


"The safe. Did it - " At that moment he lowered his hand and caught sight of Clyde Decker, propped in the doorway, staring at them in open amazement. He felt a hot flush climb from his neck to his ears. He opened his mouth to speak - closed it, at a loss. "Clyde," he managed to choke out at last.

Clyde let his eyes travel from Hoss to Joe to the safe, now face down on the barn floor. "Er - somethin' I kin help you boys with?"

Hoss looked at Joe, then at Clyde, swallowing and struggling for a casual smile. "Oh, hey, Clyde - we was just…" Clyde waited expectantly. "We was just…gettin' a little cash. Fer operatin' expenses."

Clyde looked back at the safe, then at Hoss, his brows creeping slowly upward. "Ya don't say," he drawled politely. He moved forward curiously to squat in front of the fallen safe. "Ain't none o' my business, o' course, but wouldn' it be easier jest ta use the combination?"

"We - " Hoss ran his hands through his hair, flustered. "I - " he threw up his hands. "Is the dang thing open er not?"

Clyde righted the safe with some effort and studied the door. "Nope," he said simply. He tugged experimentally on the handle. It came off in his hand. "Looks like it's broke."

Hoss and Joe groaned in tandem.

"It can't be." Joe strode over and snatched the brass handle from Clyde, trying futilely to fit it back on the door. It just kept dropping off again. Joe sank down on the floor, his head in his hands. "What we gonna tell Pa?"

Hoss winced. "Mebbe he won't notice."

Joe's face brightened a little. "Yeah. Maybe if we put it back where we found it he'll think it  - it just got old or somethin'." They remembered Clyde and turned to look at him, faces hopeful.

Clyde lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Hell, I don't know nothin'." Hoss let out his breath in a gust of relief. Now that he thought about it, that Clyde Decker wasn't such a bad fella after all. "Course, that don't solve yer money problem none." Hoss and Joe looked at each other, deflated. Clyde scratched at his scalp. "Some reason why you fellas don't jest go ta the bank?" Hoss and Joe looked at each other again, thoughtfully.

"Well, we need more money than we got permission ta withdraw - " Hoss began slowly.

Clyde shrugged. "Maybe you could just explain ta Mr. Weems. Ain't like folks don't know ya."

Hoss's smile broke out for the first time that day. "Doggone, Clyde - yer onta somethin'.  Joe - you get ta the bank and ask fer the money."

Joe looked startled. "Me! Why me? You're the oldest!"

Hoss grinned. "Cause I gotta see ta the brandin'."

Joe scowled. "Why don't I see to the brandin'?" he demanded.

Hoss rubbed at his knees. "Joe, I figger if we're gonna keep afloat here we gotta work as a team. Now, who's got more experience with the ranch work - you er me?"

Joe squirmed. "You," he admitted reluctantly.

Hoss nodded. "That's right. An who's better at talkin' his way round folks - you or me?"

Joe hesitated. "Me?" he squeaked unwillingly.

Hoss nodded, beaming. "That's right. So who should go to talk to Mr. Weems and who should go see ta the brandin'?"

Joe's shoulders slumped. "Okay," he said at last. "But then you're fixin' breakfast."

Hoss's face puckered into a smile and he nodded. "That there's a deal." He surprised a glimmer of a smile on Clyde's face and looked at him questioningly.

Clyde saw his look and shrugged, rising to his feet. "Reckon I'll go out and start settin' up the brandin'."

Hoss nodded. "Thanks Clyde. I'll be there directly." He gave Joe a friendly slap on the back that nearly staggered him. "Let's get movin'. The work won't wait while we sit around here jawin'."

Joe stared at him hard - opened his mouth to say something, then closed it abruptly.

Hoss grimaced. Joe didn't have to say anything. This time he'd heard it himself - older brother's words coming out of his own lips. He closed his eyes briefly, shaking his head. Joe was right. It was downright eerie.

Chapter 6: Measure for Measure

"I do percieve here a divided duty."
         I, iii, 181

Adam watched through his lashes, waiting, feigning sleep. He had finally managed to make himself comfortable against the wall at some point during the night, trying to keep an eye on the situation, drifting in and out of a light doze. Cressie, for her part, slept in a deep and dreamless sleep, curled tight against him. She seemed to crave physical contact the way a cat does, and Adam had no objection. At least this way he could keep an eye on where she was and what she was doing.

She certainly was a heavy sleeper. The morning altercation hadn't caused her to so much as stir.

Payne Douglas had roused early to find Stacy had never wakened him for guard duty - was, in fact, snoring gently in a nearby chair, and the results were predictable. Payne had kicked the chair over, spilling Stacy to the floor and lecturing him vehemently on his worthlessness. Stacy had reacted with typical petulant anger, defending himself and pointing out that nothing had happened and that Payne was as nervous as an old woman. This pleasantry had earned him a sharp cuff on the ear and a stern dictum to gather his things together to get ready to ride out.

During this brotherly exchange of morning greetings, Adam had cautiously glanced about to make sure that he had hidden all evidence of their nighttime activities - the sticks they'd used to pry with had been relegated to the fire and only close examination would expose the damage to the support beam - Adam had covered as much of the cracked wood as he could with the manacle then positioned Cressie in front of it, hoping against hope that Payne would not find any reason to examine it too closely. So far, he had stopped by to study them suspiciously but didn't seem to notice anything to warrant further investigation. Adam intended to make every effort to keep it that way.

"I trust you slept well," Payne smirked, eyeing him narrowly.

"Never better," Adam assured him evenly. "But Cressie's a little tired out, I'm afraid."

"Yes, well, the loss of one's innocence is indeed an exhaustin' experience."

Adam felt his fist clench automatically, set his jaw and forced himself to relax his hand, spreading it loosely on the clapboard floor. Too soon. And no point in affording Mr. Douglas with any extra, free amusement. He held all the cards. For now.

Stacy clattered back in through the doorway. "Ready." He gave his brother a defiant stare. "I got the note and his gun. Anything else you want ta bellyache about before I go?"

Payne silenced him with a glance. "Just do your job and return with the money from Cressie's Papa. And don't dally."

Stacy looked like he wanted to say something, then thought better of it and, turning sharply on his heel, strode out the door.

Adam's eyes followed him thoughtfully. "Long ride," he said after a minute as they listened to the retreating hoof beats. "Take him the better part of the day to get down there - can't possibly be back before almost this time tomorrow."

Payne met his gaze with an opaque one of his own. "What's the matter, cowboy? In a hurry to meet your demise?"

Adam shrugged. "Just seems like a long time for you to linger here. Risky. Don't you think maybe you're overplaying this hand?"

Payne turned from the doorway where he was watching Stacy disappear in the trees and regarded him sharply. "A gambler takes a risk if the stakes are high enough to make it worth his while."

Adam smiled faintly. "Inherited some of your father's weakness, have you?"

For once Payne didn't smile his irritating smile in return. "There is a difference, my friend. As I told you, my father had a talent for losing. It is a talent we do not share."

Adam relaxed back against the wall. "Nobody wins every hand."

Payne folded his arms. "Perhaps not. But in this instance I think we can agree that I am on a winning streak."

"Last hand is the only one that counts."

"No doubt. But you, my friend, hold some might poor cards."

Adam didn't answer. But he moved the manacle a little and reflected that he might have an Ace up his sleeve - almost literally - yet.

Cressie murmured in her sleep and curled away from him. Adam saw Payne watching her and read his face. "Might as well let her sleep. There's nothing else for her to do and it's a long wait."

Payne stared at him for a moment. "Your gallantry is so touching," he muttered sourly.

Adam didn't answer. Payne seemed restless and uneasy and that didn't suit his plans at all - he was counting on a little of that arrogant complacency to make this easier. He longed to tug at the support beam - to see how easily he would be able to break through - but he didn't dare. Drawing Payne's focus was the last thing he wanted.

His eyes followed Payne. Timing was important. He wanted Stacy far enough away to be unavailable for help, but not so far that he had a chance of running into Hoss and Joe who could be tracking their way in this direction even now. Better to wait a bit longer, then. Give Stacy, say, an hour's head start. He sighed and closed his eyes again. Maybe a little less. If Hoss and Joe weren't on his trail for some reason, the last thing he wanted was to give Stacy the opportunity to deliver that letter in time for somebody to get to the telegraph office. Alarming his father had to be avoided at all costs.

He let his ears follow the sound of Payne's agitated pacing and frowned a little. Where was the cool customer from yesterday? He heard the faint spin of metal on metal and opened his eyes again questioningly. Payne was taking a long pull from a hip flask. Adam tried not to stare. It was barely after dawn. He shifted uneasily against the wall, glancing down at Cressie. He didn't like this turn of events at all.

Payne strode to the doorway, moving into the early morning sunshine, bright and fresh smelling after the night of rain. Adam watched him a little wistfully. He wouldn't mind being out there himself. He wasn't used to being stuck in a dark and confined space and he was finding he didn't like it one bit. At least Payne left the door open - that let a little extra light in.

He took advantage of Payne's absence to glance at the support beam. One or two good pulls should break it. It had better be one. He probably wouldn't get a chance for two. He looked again at Cressie. Still sleeping. It would be helpful if that lasted and kept her out from underfoot. He was tempted to try giving a good yank at his manacle once and for all, but he couldn't tell how far away Payne had gone and didn't want the sounds to alert him prematurely. He set his teeth and swallowed, trying to relax. Patience.

He must have drifted off again, because the next thing he heard was the sound of Payne's boots on the clapboard floor. A glimpse of his face told Adam that the hip flask was probably considerably emptier and he tensed, watching. Payne strode the short length of the cabin and back, his expression moody and predatory.  Adam bit down on the inside of his mouth to stop the smart remark that sprang to his lips. No point in provoking him. Yet.

Payne picked up the side-by-side and broke it open, staring at the empty barrels and tossing it aside. He next looked at the rifle, seemed happier at what he observed there, and laid it on the bed. Adam felt a crawling shiver in his stomach. He was beginning to have a very bad feeling about this. Payne unholstered his handgun next, spun the cylinder, snapped it closed, satisfied.

Adam shifted slightly, going through the list of remaining weapons in his head. His handgun had gone with Stacy, along with Stacy's own handgun and rifle, and his own rifle lay abandoned by Stacy's chair.

Payne reholstered his handgun and hooked his thumbs in his belt, his heels making a dull, echoing thud on the hollow floor as he closed the short distance between them. The cool, civilized mask was gone from his face, leaving a look of simple, wanton cruelty.  He stopped just in front of Adam, looming over him.

"Long wait," he said plainly.

Adam felt his breath catch in his throat, but said nothing.

"And limited ways to pass the time, here in the back country." His eyes drifted past Adam to Cressie.

Adam followed his gaze. His heart was hammering so hard and fast he wondered if Payne could hear it.  "Read a book," he suggested tersely.

Payne sniggered, glancing at him, eyes bright. He moved to reach past him.

"Don't." Adam's voice was quiet, but the warning was clear.

Payne paused, amused. "And you'll stop me?"


"Now, that will be interesting to see." He moved forward again.

"I said - don't."

Payne regarded him, swaying slightly. "And you call me arrogant. Need I remind you, sir, that you are chained to a wall?"

Adam met his eyes squarely. "I'm warning you. Find some other way to amuse yourself. Don't."

Payne locked eyes with him, measuringly. "Now that," he drawled after a moment, "sounded very like a challenge."

Adam didn't answer, but he curled his manacled hand into a fist, waiting. One chance and one chance only, he thought.

Payne shifted his gaze away, past Adam, then seemed to think better of it and started to turn away. Adam wasn't fooled by the feint and when Payne swung back with his fist out and aimed for his the side of his head, he was ready for him.

He ducked low, swinging his own right arm away from the wall with all his weight behind it. There was a howl of stabbing protest across his wrist, a crunch and splinter of wood, then a sudden release and he felt his shoulder slam into Payne's knees.

He had the element of surprise, but his momentum had been slowed by the resistance from the support beam, so they landed in the middle of the floor in an untidy heap, struggling for dominance. Adam managed to climb on top, but his right hand was numb and achy; to compensate, he clutched the other half of the manacle in his fist like brass knuckles and swung. Surprise and alcohol made Payne slow and his head snapped back, lolling against the floor. Adam reached down and grabbed for his gun.

His fingers curled around the gun butt, the bone handle smooth and cool against his palm, and he drew it out  - but Payne's hand snatched at the manacle chain, yanking it viciously, and Adam let out a sharp cry of pain as the cuff bit deeply into the open wound it had left on his wrist, his fingers loosening their grip. Payne took advantage of the distraction to bring his knee up, hard, into Adam's stomach.

Adam felt the air leave his lungs in a whoosh and the gun drop from his hand as Payne pushed forward, slamming his back into the floor and reversing their positions. Vaguely, Adam knew what he was going for, knew that if he succeeded it was all over, but wasn't quite sure what he could do to stop it. He kept his left hand deeply entwined in the fabric of Payne's shirt and swung his manacled hand at his head again. It was a glancing blow that seemed to anger Payne more than incapacitate him - he focused his burning eyes deep into Adam's. Adam stiffened his neck in an attempt to minimize the damage of the blow he knew was coming, but before he could think of a way to avoid or cushion it, Payne grabbed him by the hair and pounded the back of his head mercilessly into the floor. His whole world vibrated with a nauseating wash of pain and the room disappeared in an explosion of light and color, his hand dropping bonelessly from Payne's collar to the floor.

There was an interminable moment suspended in time and silent space and the floor seemed to tilt so abruptly that he slapped his hand hard against it to keep from sliding off into the bottomless void of oblivion. He was distantly aware of a ponderous weight lifting from his chest, hoarse breathing - his or someone else's - and a staccato punctuation of words that he couldn't quite make out through the roaring that filled his ears. He shut his eyes tight, pushing against the groundswell of pain, willing himself back, to stay present, to open his eyes and see. He couldn't let go now - his life depended on it - and not only his, Cressie's too. He took a deep careful breath, then another - forcing his eyes open to slits. He saw a bouncing, muddled image of black and grey, heard a mumble of words, more distinct now, squeezed his eyes shut and opened them again. He could just make out a blurry outline of Payne standing over him, gun in hand, breathing heavily. He tried to lift his head to sit up, slid back with a grunt of pain.

Payne wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, fighting to stand erect and rubbing at the cut Adam had opened on his cheek. He stared at the blood on his hand, then looked back at Adam. The look in his eyes made the bottom of Adam's stomach drop out.

"Well, cowboy," he panted icily, "your presence grows increasingly problematic. There just doesn't seem to be any other way to convince you to stay in line." He lifted the gun casually and thumbed back the hammer, the sound unnaturally loud in the small room. "I may need you alive, but I most certainly do not need you whole."

Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Adam struggled to at least raise his head and shoulders off the floor - to meet his look head on - to not be caught flat on his back and totally helpless. The gun barrel hovered around his shoulder, its dark maw as wide as a cannon mouth. Payne lifted it slightly and licked his lips.

There was an odd sound - like the hollow wump a pumpkin made when Hop Sing tested it for ripeness - and Payne's expression changed gradually to one of blank surprise. He opened his mouth to say something, then his eyes crossed slowly over his nose and rolled back into his head and he collapsed onto the floor in a limp pile of arms and legs.

A prolonged silence hung in the air. Adam stared in complete bewilderment, wondering vaguely if it was a trick - otherwise why he wasn't dead, or at least shot? Then he let his eyes travel upward.

Payne's dramatic collapse revealed Cressie standing behind him, the cumbersome side-by-side clutched by the double barrels in a white knuckled grip, her eyes wide in her pale face and fixed in trembling amazement on the body at her feet. She swallowed hard, then glanced up and noticed Adam staring at her and looked guiltily at the gun in her hands.

"It isn't loaded," she pointed out meekly.

Adam blinked, his scrambled brain trying to bundle the fragments together into a meaningful picture. His gaze never left her as he reached up to knead at his neck, then delicately explore the battered back of his skull. "No," he admitted slowly. "No, it's not."

Cressie saw him wince with pain and stepped over the still form before her to kneel beside him. Adam reached over and gently eased the huge gun from her hands, turning it over and over musingly. "You know, Cressie - " He let his eyes run up and down it's length thoughtfully, then studied Payne's huddled figure and gave her a puckish grin. "In you own way and your own time? You're actually not half bad with this thing."


Joe stood outside the bank, in town for the third time in three days, but this time in a somewhat more subdued state of mind. His first stop at Hop Ling's to finalize things for their trip back to the ranch had started inauspiciously.

Joe had given Hop Ling all the cash he had on hand to buy any extra supplies he might need for the party and Hop Ling had eyed it suspiciously.

"Too much," he pointed out, staring hard at Joe. "Too much money feed twenty-fie people."

Joe gave what he hoped was a casual laugh, though it felt a little strangled. "Oh, yeah - I forgot to mention - guest list has grown a little. Get a little extra - we'll probably have a couple more than twenty-five."

Hop Ling's eyes had narrowed. "How many?"

Joe coughed lightly. "Well, let's see - maybe closer to um…" he swallowed. "Fifty."

"Fify?" Hop Ling's voice rose. "You wan cook for fify people?"

"Well, close to fifty," Joe hedged. "You know. Give or take. Maybe closer to - " he coughed into his hand. "Fifty-five."

Hop Ling's eyes widened and he went off into a string of staccato Chinese. Joe didn't speak Chinese, but he had a sneaking suspicion that he knew what Hop Ling was saying.

"Now, Hop Ling - I know it SOUNDS like a lot - "

Hop Ling exclaimed again in Chinese. "Double!" he said firmly.

Joe nodded. "Okay, I know it's double the people, but you just cook twice as much, see - "

Hop Ling shook his head firmly. "Double pay," he corrected flatly. "Double."

"Double - " Joe's voice rose indignantly. "That's Highway Robbery! It's not twice the cooking - you just up the quantities is all!"

"Double," Hop Ling repeated relentlessly.

Joe took off his hat and crushed it in his hands. "Well, doggone it, Hop Ling - I'll give you one third more."

Hop Ling set his jaw mulishly. "Double. Or you cook for self."

Joe's mouth worked. He knew Hop Ling had him, but it galled him. Darn it - now he was going to have to try to withdraw even more from the bank. "All right," he conceded reluctantly at last. "But you be ready to go within an hour. I'll pick you up at the General Store. And don't think I don't know that you're fleecing me!"

Hop Ling had smiled serenely and bowed. Joe had given him a parting glare and started down the street to the bank. He was not looking forward to this. Why was it things always went wrong when you most needed them to go right?

Joe sighed at the memory and tore his gaze away from the bank facade. Well, standing out here wasn't getting him anywhere. He was going to have to go inside and talk to Mr. Weems. He shifted uncomfortably. Of course, it was easy for everyone to say just go ask, but he had vivid memories of doing just that when he was about fourteen. He had badly wanted a new saddle with silver conchas that he'd seen on sale at the livery and had decided that he could use his share of Cartwright Holdings to purchase it. His arguments to Mr. Weems had been, he felt, darned eloquent, but Mr. Weems had seen it differently. The resulting lecture on thrift, good money management, and attempting to draw cash without discussing it with his father first, had been so stiff and unrelenting that it had put any Pa had ever delivered to shame. It was two years after that before Joe could bring himself to try to draw money again from his own savings account. Not that there was a lot there to withdraw.

He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. Well, that was four years ago - he had been fourteen - a boy. Now he was eighteen - a man. And he needed the money for ranch business. Mostly, anyway. Mr. Weems was bound to see things in a different light.

 He removed his hat and entered the cool interior of the bank with a firm, determined step. There were only two tellers on duty and a knot of customers milling about. He glanced over at Mr. Weems' office door - it was closed. After a small hesitation he strode over to the available teller and leaned against the counter.

"Hi, Edgar."

"Hey, there, Joe - nice to see ya. Got big plans tonight, I hear." For a second Joe looked blank. "The party?" Edgar prompted.

"Oh." Joe laughed a little nervously. "Yeah. You know about that, huh?"

"Sure, Joe. It's all over town."

"It is." Joe wasn't sure whether to be uncomfortable or gratified. He glanced again at Mr. Weems' door. "Well, that's - that's - all over, huh?"

"Oh, sure." Edgar counted and stacked money with brisk efficiency. "Everybody's talking about it."

"Everybody, huh?" Joe tugged at his collar, which suddenly felt a little tight. "Huh. Well, you're coming, aren't you?"

Edgar looked pleased. "Why, I'd love to, Joe. Okay if I bring Betsy?"

"Hm?" Joe's eyes had wandered back to the closed office door. "Oh, sure thing. More the merrier. Say, Edgar - I need to talk to Mr. Weems. He in?"

"Mr. Weems?" Edgar shook his head. "No, Joe, I'm sorry - he had to ride out to look at a piece of property. Something I can help you with?"

Joe felt his face relax into a smile. "Really? Yeah, Edgar - yeah, you can. I need to make a withdrawal."

Edgar smiled. "Sure thing, Joe. How much?"

Joe cleared his throat. "Five hunnerd dollars."

Edgar wrote it down painstakingly, nodding. "Sure thing, Joe. Just give me the bank draft from your Pa."

Joe shifted position, leaning in confidingly. "Um - my Pa's in San Francisco, Edgar."

"Oh." Edgar bobbed his head. "Well, all right, then. One from Adam will do just as well."

Joe shifted again, offering a hopeful, boyish smile. "Uh - Adam's out of town too, Edgar."

"Oh." Edgar pushed his glasses up on his nose. "Well, then. Is this coming from your personal account?"

"Um…" Joe squinted. "How much I got in there again?"

Edgar held up a hand and went to pull out a thick ledger, rifling through it. He paused over one page, studying it. "Fifteen dollars." he said at last.

Joe winced and scratched at his ear. "How much has Hoss got?"

Edgar hesitated. "Now, Joe, you know that's confidential…"

"It's for the party, Edgar. It's Hoss's as much as mine."
Edgar chewed his bottom lip. After a second he turned another page and studied it. "Twenty  dollars," he intoned.

Joe sighed. "Still a little short, ain't we?"

Edgar looked at him askance. "By four hundred and sixty-five dollars," he tallied precisely.

Joe nodded dismally. "Then I need to withdraw the rest from Cartwright Holdings."

Edgar returned to the ledger. "You can withdraw up to one hundred dollars," he pointed out briskly.

Joe let his head drop into his hands for a minute. "Hoss?"

"A hundred dollars. But I'd need him here to do it, Joe. And you're still short two hundred and sixty-five dollars."

Joe hesitated. With two hundred and thirty five dollars he could pay for the party and take care of Digger Jones and still have some left over, but he wouldn't be able to make the down payment on the contract. He wasn't sure what that would mean - probably a penalty - maybe even forfeit of the contract. Well, what was one contract to Cartwright Holdings, anyway? They seemed to have so many, would losing one really make such a big difference? He tussled with his conscience. No point in giving up on the party - the money wasn't enough to save the contract anyway and besides, everybody in town was talking about it, Edgar said. If it didn't happen and happen in a big way he'd never be able to look Julie in the eye - or show his face in Virginia City  - again.

He straightened. He was sure he could talk Edgar into relinquishing Hoss's withdrawal to him. He should just take the two hundred and thirty-five, pay Digger and Hop Ling and the musicians and cover supplies. He could explain to his father about the contract later. It wasn't his fault anyway. It wasn't his fault his father hadn't left him with the authority to withdraw decent sums of money and it wasn't his fault that Adam wasn't here. He'd done what he could. He had a whole lot to do to prepare for this evening and he couldn't hang around here all day.

"Spose I could trust you with Hoss's money, Joe," Edgar was saying, almost as if he'd read Joe's mind. Joe jumped a little at the sound of his voice. "Seeing as he'll take it outta yer hide himself if you aren't telling me the truth." Edgar's pen was hovering over the page.

Joe twisted his hat in his hands. "Well, that's real decent of you, Edgar. I - " he hesitated again, his eyes fixed on Edgar's pen. He cleared his throat again. "Thanks, I'm kind of in a hurry, I - " The words stuck somewhere in his throat and he dropped his head. He couldn't do it. "I - I really need the five hunnerd, though," he finished in a rush. "It's business, Edgar - I need to pay on a contract for Pa."

Edgar took off his glasses and rubbed at the lenses. "Well, that's fine, Joe, but you don't have authority to withdraw that and I don't have authority to give it to you. Why didn't your Pa leave orders for payment?"

"Well, he was concentrating on this other big business deal in San Francisco so he probably wasn't thinking about it. Besides, Adam usually does that stuff and he probably thought he'd be here."

"Oh." Something Joe couldn't quite follow changed in Edgar's face and he glanced stealthily over his shoulder. "Oh, I see." He leaned in as close to Joe as the barred window would allow and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Say, Joe - where exactly is Adam?"

"Where…?" Joe stared at him blankly. "Well, he's - what makes you ask?"

Edgar leaned still closer. "Well, I've been hearing some mighty peculiar things. I didn't pay them no mind, of course, but now I'm wondering…"

Joe frowned. "What kind of things?"

"Well…" Edgar got comfortable. "I hear he's got himself in some trouble with some woman."

Joe felt a funny prickling in his stomach. "Where - " he cleared his throat to get rid of the squeak in his voice. "Where'd you hear a thing like that?"

Edgar grinned when he didn't deny it. "Digger Jones is saying it all over town."

Joe laughed shrilly. "Well, Edgar - you know Digger - can't believe a thing he says. Can't imagine where he got a story like that."

Edgar looked at him levelly. "Says he heard it from you."

Joe opened his mouth to protest, then closed it, swallowing hard. He hadn't said that to Digger, exactly, but he hadn't exactly denied it, either…

Edgar took that for assent and leaned in still closer. "Also heard he's going around under an assumed name."

"Oh, now, come on!" Joe burst out, outraged. "Where'd you get an idea like that? That's the most “

Edgar narrowed his eyes meaningfully. "From Sam - over at the International House."

"Well, now, that's just plumb crazy! Where would he get a wild…?" Some faint memory was tapping at his mind and he trailed off. "Um…not…" Edgar's face confirmed his worst suspicions. "Um…from me?"

Edgar nodded wisely. "That's what he says."

"Well, that ain't what I meant! I was just thinking out loud, is all! Of course Adam ain't running around with some girl under an assumed name!" Joe became suddenly aware of his raised voice and the sidelong glances of the other teller and the bank customers. He lowered his voice hastily. "Can you even imagine such a thing?" he hissed. "I mean - "

"Okay." Edgar leaned even closer. "Then why did you tell Kitty he was tomcatting around? On the sly? In the middle of the week? Hm?"

"I - I didn't!" Joe flung his arms out helplessly, wishing he could wake up and end this horrible nightmare. "That's not at all what I - I was just trying to FIND him - " Even as he heard himself speak the words he saw the look on Edgar's face and longed to snatch them back. "That's - that's not exactly what I meant either…" He noticed the bank customers trying to look disinterested and failing and gave them a collective glare. "You folks got some bank business to keep you busy?" he growled. After a minute they made a pretense of turning away and back to their financial affairs. Joe gave them one final warning stare before returning the glare to Edgar. "Now. Edgar. Adam's - " Edgar met his gaze skeptically and Joe realized he had no idea at all what to say that wouldn't make things worse. He started again. "As I say, Edgar. Adam's - " he faltered to a stop, acutely aware of the bank patrons with their ears cocked in his direction. Oh, God.

He was dead. Dead, dead, dead. He let his head fall into his hands. First Adam was going to kill him. And then, if he lost this contract, Pa was going to kill him. And then, if he came back without paying Digger and the musicians and Hop Ling, Hoss was going to kill him. Joe slumped his shoulders, gradually filling with the slow calm of despair.

Okay. So he was a dead man. Might just as well repair what damage he could and then go out with a bang. He raised his head slowly and looked Edgar right in the eye. "So. You really want to know what happened, huh?" Edgar nodded breathlessly. The other patrons swayed imperceptibly in Joe's direction. "Just between you and me. You want to know where Adam is, huh?" Edgar bobbed another nod. Joe crooked a finger at him, indicating he should move in closer. "Okay. Just between you and me, Edgar. Confidentially." He settled his arms comfortably on the small shelf under the teller's window and stared directly into the bank clerk's expectant eyes. "I'm gonna tell you."


"Does it hurt?"

Adam smothered a hiss of pain as he fingered the back of his head tentatively. "Well, I could have done without that third knock there," he admitted. "Got a canteen?"

He turned and studied Payne carefully while Cressie scrambled for the canteen. First order of business would be to make sure Douglas was restrained. They finally had an edge and he wasn't taking any chances on the tables turning. The insistent pain in his skull nudged him with its presence and he rubbed at it and grimaced. A small enough edge, that was for sure.

Cressie dropped down beside him, brandishing a canteen and a rag she had found somewhere. She wet the rag and handed him the canteen. "I think I remember how you did this…"

Adam took a sip of water and eyed her with trepidation. "You've never done this before?"

"Mercy, no."

"Then maybe I'd better." He took the cloth from her and pressed it gently over the rising swelling. After the shock of initial contact, it felt wonderful. "Do you know how to saddle a horse?"

"My, no."

Adam shook his head. "We really need to do something about your education."

She nodded dolefully.

"Well, never mind. Got a belt? Or there should be a rope on my saddle, if it's still there."

Cressie reached under her baggy flannel shirt and removed a rope belt.

"Perfect. Think you can get his hands behind him and tie them? You aren't squeamish are you?"

"It will be a pure pleasure."

Adam watched her carefully, but she did seem able to tie knots. He nodded his approval. "Take mine for his ankles. Here - " He unfastened his belt and slid it off.

Cressie made neat work of Payne's booted feet. "I'm not MUCH squeamish, but it did make me feel a little shivery when he went down after I hit him. Goodness." She shuddered. "I have never felt anything like that."

"Doesn't surprise me." He shifted the manacle and trickled some of the water from the canteen onto the wrist under it. It was swollen, but the water offered some measure of relief. He rubbed at it. His gun hand, too. A blasted nuisance.

Cressie noticed. "Can you get it off?"

He shook his head. "Not unless he has the key on him somewhere. I might've tried shooting it off if it were the other hand, but I'm not risking it left handed." He read her expression and added hastily, "And I'm sure you'll understand if I don't ask you to do it."

She looked a little disappointed but took it philosophically. "I suppose I'd feel just terrible if I hit you by mistake anyway. What do we do now?"

"We get out of here."

She tilted her head at him, looking dubious. "Can you ride?"

"Think I'm gonna have to." He glanced at the rag as he rewet it. No blood - that was something anyway. Just a heck of a big bump. He shifted carefully to his knees to study Payne more closely. He seemed to be well out of it. He peeled back one eyelid, then ran his hand along the downed man's skull, feeling for wounds. No blood for him either, but he was starting a nasty swelling of his own. "Well, he's definitely out - for a while at least. You got him good."

"I thought he was goin' to kill you."

"Thought crossed my mind, too."

Cressie looked back at Payne and shuddered. "Are we taking him with us?"

Adam frowned. "I don't know." That was the quandary, of course. It was a long ride to try to keep a prisoner like Payne under control, especially with Cressie there as such a handy bargaining piece and with himself at somewhat less than his best. Hard to catch up with Stacy, too, with a prisoner in tow, and he had no doubt that Payne would do everything in his power to detain them. On the other hand, leaving him there for the authorities had its drawbacks, too - Stacy could elude them and double back, reuniting the unholy twosome for mayhem, or Payne could rouse and get loose at any time in the next twelve hours. He massaged a dull ache away from his eyes. He did not like these odds at all.

He looked over at Cressie and saw her face full of serene and expectant confidence, waiting for him to come to a decision. He sighed inwardly. Why was it people always looked at him like that? Like he could effortlessly produce the magic answer from somewhere? He didn't have any answers. He looked at her again and sighed out loud this time. Still, she was counting on him, and if thinking he knew what he was doing kept her calm…he made a cautious move to get to his feet. He wobbled briefly, but caught himself against the wall. "Come on. Let's check out the horse situation. That should help decide us one way or another."

The brightness of the outdoors made them squint and realize how dark it had been inside the shack. Sport lifted his head and whickered a greeting, tugging at his tether to turn toward his master. Adam smiled despite the pain in his head, listing a little as he walked over to pat the chestnut flank. "Missed me, huh?" He cast his eye over the bay tied next to Sport. He seemed to be standing unevenly and Adam bent down and lifted one hoof to look. "Thrown a shoe." He dropped the hoof abruptly and straightened carefully, making a mental note that bending was an experience best not repeated. "No wonder he wanted Stacy to leave Sport. Guess that decides things." He and Cressie would be riding double again, then. He looked around, thinking. There was a small makeshift trough by the rustic rail and enough greenery to crop at that the horse would be all right if left alone for a day or so. They had at least two canteens - one could be left for Douglas. "Let's collect the saddlebags and see what we need to take with us - then we'll head out. Stacy's got too much of a head start as it is. Then I want you to eat something - once we start I want to go as long as we can without stopping."

Adam garnered some small satisfaction from the mess they created on the cabin floor when they dumped all the saddlebags. The search revealed a knife, which Adam confiscated, some biscuits and jerky, a small volume of Byron's poetry, which Adam politely put aside, writing implements, and a number of trail odds and ends, but no sign of the key to the manacle. A search of Douglas' person proved equally fruitless. He sat back on his haunches and eyed Payne in frustration, reaching down and untying his hands from behind his back. Just figured. Nothing was simple with this guy.

"What are you doing?" Cressie broke into his thoughts.

"Tying his hands in front. So he can use the canteen."

"Won't that make it easier for him to escape?"

"Yes, but I don't see what else we can do - it could be a full day before somebody gets back to him. Needs water." Cressie's expression made him chuckle. "Cressie. We have to be humane, after all."

"He's not," she pointed out bluntly. "He's a terrible person."

"True. So let's not be terrible people ourselves." Cressie watched with ill-concealed dissatisfaction and Adam grinned. "Put some jerky on those biscuits and leave a couple for him - I want to clear out of here." He wondered, briefly, if he shouldn't leave a weapon of some sort - leaving a man bound and afoot and unarmed out here was dangerous - but he couldn't quite bring himself to. Payne was ruthless, and the risk he was taking in leaving him alone already made him uncomfortable enough. Well, probably the worst that would happen was a stray critter stopping by to share his biscuits. Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

He finished retying Payne's hands and placed the volume of Byron's poems within reach as a final act of civility before pushing himself to his feet again - it was a little easier this time. He saw Cressie cradling the empty shotgun and raised his eyebrows. "You planning on taking a swing at somebody? We don't have any ammo for it."

"No, I'm plannin' on returnin' it. I told you, I just borrowed it."

He bit back a laugh. "All right, fine - you can tuck it in the bedroll." He slid Payne's sidearm into his own holster, then emptied the soldier's rifle and tossed it aside. "If you're done eating, let's mount up."

He moved back into the sunshine, holding the door for Cressie and fastening it behind her, settling his hat gingerly on his head and wondering if he'd ever be able to look at that hunting cabin in the same way again.

Sport tossed his head, impatient to get started. Adam tugged his reins from the hitching rail and gave his neck a pat. "We're ready, boy. But go easy on me, huh? None of your tricks. It's been a tough couple of days." He swung himself into the saddle, landing a little heavily and making a quick snatch at the saddlehorn. For a second he closed his eyes, waiting for the moment of vertigo to pass. When he felt steadier, he reached an arm down to Cressie. She pushed the shotgun into the bedroll and let him pull her up behind him.

They sat for a second while Adam considered their options. He knew the cross country route that he'd originally hoped to follow to cut Stacy off was faster, but between riding double and the shape his head was in they might be better off on the roughly marked trail - Stacy's route, no doubt. He grimaced. Stacy Douglas in front of him and Payne Douglas behind him - no, he didn't like these odds at all.

"If we get to a stretch where we can gallop, we're gonna gallop," he instructed,  "So hold on tight, now." And then, as she obeyed, "Maybe just a little less tight. I am going to need to breathe."

Something about Cressie's silence and the way she was clinging to him caught at his attention and he paused Sport in the act of wheeling him around. "What's wrong? We're going to get you back to your father, I promise."

"I know," Cressie murmured reluctantly. "And I'm glad, of course, but - " she buried her face in his back. "But oh, my goodness, Adam - he's goin' to about kill me!"

Adam let Sport start at a slow walk, reaching down to pat one of the hands clasping him tightly around the waist. "I wouldn't worry too much about it, Cressie. By the time he sees you I'm betting he'll be so grateful and relieved that you're alive and unhurt that he'll forget all about being mad. He'll just be glad to have you back safe and sound."

He felt her lift her head so that her chin dug into his shoulder blade. "You spose?"

"I'm sure of it. That's just the way fathers are."

She gave a trusting sigh and settled her cheek comfortably against his shoulder again. "I hope you're right."

"Believe me." A thought occurred to him and he frowned, his hand automatically slackening on the reins, Sport slowing in response to the point of bare locomotion.

Cressie lifted her head again. "What's wrong?"

"Hm? Oh. Nothing." Adam noticed what he was doing and gathered up the reins again. "Just thinking."

Cressie tried to catch a glimpse of his face. "What about?"

Adam sighed gustily, coaxing Sport into a trot. "Nothing, really. Just kind of hoping…" he paused, closing his eyes briefly. "…hoping that that's the way brothers are, too."


Joe leaned back against the counter, exhausted. He had no idea that telling a story could be such hard work. His eyes swept his rapt audience - no one was even pretending not to be listening anymore - in fact, people arriving during his discourse had forgotten all about their bank business and stood as if rooted to the spot - caught up in Joe's tale. Now they stayed there, hanging on his every word.

"Joe - " Edgar offered timidly from behind him. "That wicked fella - what's his name again - "

For a moment Joe's mind pulled a blank - the whole thing had been sort of off the cuff - "Richlieu," he supplied triumphantly, nodding wisely. "A very wicked man."

"What'd he want to go and plague that little girl for? He ain't no heir to her money."

"But if her marries her, as her husband he'll have control of her money," Joe pointed out. "And he'll share it with her Uncle."

"Well, he is a rotten one!" agreed a round little woman in a faded calico dress. "Imagine deceiving that poor little girl that way! He oughter be tarred and feathered!" There were approving murmurs from the crowd.

"I think it's that there Uncle o'hern what oughta be horse whipped," put in a farmer in faded blue overalls. "He's the one what hired this Rishy-loo fella."

"Ain't got no proper sense o' kin," a dusty looking miner bobbed his head in vigorous assent. "What's that there Uncle called again, Joe?"

"Mountebank," said Joe promptly. "And his niece is the fair Rowena."

"Rowena," repeated Mrs. Haines from the mercantile. "Ain't that purty. They sure do have fancy names."

"Well, they're easterners," pointed out Miss Watkins, the seamstress, with a knowing smile.

The small crowd nodded their heads in agreement.

"I still don't see why Adam had to go into hiding," interrupted Willie, the other teller. "Why'nt he just take that girl back to the Ponderosa?" The crowd frowned at him in deep disapproval and he flushed and stammered, "I - I mean…"

"He done TOL' you this here Rishy-loo fella has spies everywhere - folks what he's bribed to pass him information," the farmer pointed out with disdain. "How could he be sure she'd be safe there?"

"Besides," added Miss Watkins primly, "he had his brothers' safety to think of as well - he couldn't expose them to such danger." Joe's audience bobbed their heads in accord.

"He always was a good boy," sniffed Mrs. Haines, dabbing at her eyes. "But Joe, I feel very strongly that you should wire your father about this."

Joe opened his mouth to reply, but the miner beat him to it. "Ain't you women been listenin'? That Uncle Monty-bank feller is determined to have the fair Rowena's fortune and he ain't above payin' folks ta check the tellygraph wires - he knows Ben is in San Francisco - how long you think it'd be afore Adam and that poor gal was found, if they was ta go about sending wires?"

Joe blinked at him in surprise, then recovered and nodded in soulful agreement.

"Tell us that part again, Joe - " jumped in Cab Robbins from the feedstore eagerly. "That part where Adam meets the fair Rowena - "

"And defends her honor!" chirped Mrs. Robbins wistfully.

"Against the evil Mr. Richlieu!" sighed Lily Masters, clasping her hands.

"Well…" Joe poked his hat back on his head, scrambling to remember the details. "Well, heck, you've already heard it once…"

"That's right, we've heard that - " interrupted the miner impatiently "Only thing I don't get, Joe, is that duel - can't quite see Adam fightin' a duel somehow."

"Duel to the death," amended the round lady in calico.

"But Rishy-loo didn't die - " a weedy wrangler reminded her. "Adam just scored his face some." He reflected. "Oughta've run him through. I'da run him through. Where'd he get the swords, Joe?"

Joe squirmed a little. He might have overdone it a little with that part, but the story had just sort of run away with him. "Well, he - Richlieu chose the weapons, so he - "

"So they must've belonged ta him!" finished the farmer triumphantly.

"Sure," agreed Joe, relieved.

"Joseph," Mrs. Haines put a gentle hand on his arm. "Do you even know where your brother is?"

"No, ma'am," admitted Joe, glad to be able to answer something truthfully. "No, ma'am, I don't."

"Well, how'd he get word ta ya, Joe?"

"Um…messenger - " They looked like they expected a lot more, so he continued vaguely, "An… Indian…"

Edgar pushed his glasses up on his nose and addressed the crowd. "Adam's always been close to the Paiutes," he informed them loftily.

The bank customers acknowledged to each other that this was so.

"Well, I think it's the bravest thing I've ever heard," piped up the shy Miss Beardsley unexpectedly. "And so terribly romantic. To help that poor little girl - why, a perfect stranger."

"Yes, ma'am," agreed Joe, touching his hat to her and giving her a grateful smile.

"And against such terrible odds," Miss Watkins asserted. "Very brave."

The word echoed through the bank as the crowd whispered their sympathy.

"I'll tell you this - " spoke the wrangler sternly, "them there Uncle Monty-bank or Rishy-loo fellers better not show their faces in this town - or I'll give them what for!" The men joined their voices to this in stalwart chorus.

"I'm - I'm sure they're far from here," Joe assured them quickly.

"They better be," drawled the farmer darkly.

"I'm thinkin' our Adam must be sweet on this Miss Rowena," offered the lady in calico.

All the women exchanged sly glances at this suggestion and Joe decided that things had gone about far enough. "Well, you know Adam - " he said briskly. "Wouldn't let on if he was. Just - close mouthed as a clam."

"Certainly would explain things," simpered Miss Watkins.

"SO romantic," sighed Miss Beardsley.

"Ahem -  " Joe choked and quickly coughed to cover it then cleared his throat. "Anyway, folks, I've really got to be movin' along, now, so - "

"Joe - " Edgar's voice caught his attention and he turned, then did a double take to see him carefully counting out a stack of currency. "Here."

Joe looked at the neat pile of cash. "What's that?"

"Five hundred dollars. Even."

Joe stared from Edgar to the money then back again. "But you said - "

"I know, but - " Edgar hesitated, as though searching painstakingly for the words. "I figure if you and your brothers are in trouble your Pa would expect me to help - Mr. Weems would expect it too. Anyway, isn't as if I don't know you, and isn't as if the money isn't yours."

Joe stared at the bills in disbelief. "Edgar - " he said breathlessly. For a second he could have kissed the man and might have, if it hadn't been for the metal bars of the teller cage.

It must have shown on his face, because Edgar recoiled precipitously from the small window. "Now, you just go and settle your contract like your Pa would want. And if there's anything I can do to help you boys out, you just let me know."

The crowd sighed - there was a spontaneous patter of applause.

Joe snatched at the money, grinning, then extended his hand to Edgar. "Edgar, you've helped already. I don't know how to thank you - "

Edgar removed his glasses and rubbed them on his handkerchief, looking pleased.

"That goes for us, too, of course, Joe," added Mrs. Haines, taking his hand. "If there's anything we can do to help any of you boys or that poor girl - "

Joe's heart warmed within him at the sight of the kind, friendly faces that surrounded him. This was wonderful. Adam might be a stick in the mud sometimes, but if Joe was honest with himself for one grudging younger brother minute, he had to admit that he was a little proud of his brother's pristine reputation. Now he had unsullied his brother's name and got the money he needed to boot. All was right with the world. And thanks, at least in part, to these good people. He needed to do something for them to show his appreciation  - some sort of grand gesture - and suddenly he knew exactly what it should be.

He held up a hand to get their attention. "Thank you, everybody," he said sincerely, "from my brothers and from my Pa. And as a token of my thanks, I'd like to take this opportunity to invite you all to the Ponderosa this evening as my guests. There's going to be a party and it's going to be a humdinger!"


Hoss gentled Chubb to a walk as he approached the Ponderosa, sunk deep in serenity, reliving the day's activities. He wouldn't have believed it could be so satisfying to see - nothing. The branding corrals standing empty, the hands dispersed to attend to the fences or to round up the missing horses - he had stood there for he wasn't sure how long, just enjoying the sight, before he had become aware of a presence at his shoulder. Clyde Decker.

"All done," Clyde observed in his laconic way, shifting the ubiquitous matchstick to the other side of his mouth.

Hoss nodded, drinking in the sight. "Looks like."

"Frank says they've found ten of those horses so far. Leaves eleven. Probably won't get 'em all back - some was still pretty wild - but we'll get most of 'em."

Hoss nodded again. "Tell Frank thanks."

Clyde shifted the matchstick back, admiring the view with Hoss. "Good job," he said at last, then moved away towards his horse at an easy lope.

Even now, Hoss felt a glow of pride at the memory. The branding was done - right on schedule. The fences would be repaired and the horses would be found. As for Clyde Decker - well - now that he thought about it, he was a real good sorta fella. The salt of the earth.

He saw Joe come out onto the porch as he approached and hailed him. Joe came over to take Chubb's reins and loop them around the hitching rail as Hoss dismounted.

"How'd you make out?"

Hoss grinned. "Ain't a cow on this place what ain't marked. Ten of them horses corraled and still working on the rest. You?"

"Hop Ling's in the kitchen cookin' up a storm. He was a little cranky about the extra guests so I had to give him a little more money, but he'll be okay now. Paid on the contract - paid Digger and the musicians, too."

Hoss gave a hoot of pleasure and slapped Joe on the back. "Knew you could get that money. How'd you do it?"

Joe expanded under his brother's approval. "Talked  - just like you said." He paused thoughtfully, remembering. "Um - Adam might want to stay outta town for a couple days after he gets back, though."

Hoss was feeling too good to press for the details. "Plenty to do out here, anyway, without goin' ta town," he said comfortably. "We even got time ta bathe and dude up before the party starts."

Joe nodded, draping his arms over the hitching rail. "Yeah." He squinted out over the landscape, thinking. "We did it, didn't we, Hoss?" he said after a minute. "We looked after things just fine. I mean, maybe we didn't do it just like Pa would have or Adam would have, but we got things done, and that's what counts, isn't it? We made it work."

Hoss smiled at him. "You mean we did it in our own time and our own way?"

Joe chuckled and ducked his head. "Something like that."

"Feels pretty good, don't it, brother?"

Joe nodded again. "Yeah."

Hoss leaned next to him and they stood in amiable silence, gazing across the land, enjoying the sense of success and accomplishment.

Joe was just going to suggest that they start water for baths when he caught sight of a rider in the distance, clearly heading their way.  He frowned in concentration. "Who's that?"

Hoss screwed up his eyes, looking. "Cain't tell. Too early fer the party." He peered harder as the figure got closer. "Looks like some kind of military feller, from his outfit. Soldier."

"Huh." Joe watched as the figure came closer. "Think you're right. What do you suppose he wants?"

"Dunno." Hoss leaned further forward, trying to catch a glimpse of something that would signify rank. "Brown horse. Cavalry, I reckon."

"Huh." Joe scratched at his head. What was it about the Cavalry that was ringing a bell?

"Best see what he wants." The figure was within hailing distance now and Hoss moved forward to intercept him.

The soldier slowed as he approached, then pulled his horse to a halt. "I'm looking for Adam Cartwright and the Ponderosa?"

Hoss bobbed his head cordially. "Well, you found the Ponderosa all right, but Adam ain't here just now. I'm Hoss Cartwright and this is my brother Joe - I'm sure we can help ya out."

"Captain Simms." The soldier swung from the saddle to offer his hand. "Pleased to meet you. I'm afraid I have a bit of a favor to ask. I know I told Adam - "

"Our brother," Hoss interjected.

The Captain nodded his thanks for the clarification. "Indeed. That I would be coming alone, but as it happens - through a series of circumstances - my Colonel is traveling with me. He has - separate business to attend to. I was wondering if you'd be willing to extend your hospitality to include him?"

Hoss looked puzzled. Joe was racking his brains. He almost had it…Captain Simms, Captain Simms…

"Well, I'm sure yer welcome Captain, and yer Colonel too, o' course - but maybe I should warn ya - we got a bit of a party goin' on tanight - yer both more than welcome ta attend, if it won't put ya out…"

The Captain looked a little surprised. "No, certainly. A party would be - the Colonel may not be up for it, of course…" he looked from one to the other. "An unusual way of doing business, though, to be sure."

Hoss smiled his gap-toothed smile. "Well, we done took care of business for the day and now we're up for some celebratin'. You boys are more than welcome ta join. Stay as long as ya like."

The Captain looked more confused than ever, but bobbed his head politely. "That's most gracious of you, of course, but my Colonel's business is rather pressing, so we'll be leaving as soon as we finish with our business here tomorrow. The Colonel should be here shortly - he's following in a wagon."

"Well, that's fine, o' course. And what sort of business would that be, Captain…?"

All the pieces snapped in place at once for Joe and he grabbed Hoss's arm.

The Captain wrinkled his brow. "I - I would have thought your brother would have mentioned it to you. We've been corresponding on it for a some time now - "

Hoss shook his head. "No, sir. I cain't recall that he did, but I'm sure - "

"Hoss!" Joe almost bellowed, pulling insistently on his big brother's arm as all the implications rushed in on him.

Hoss stared down at him in surprise. "What on earth's got into ya, Joe? The Captain and me are talkin'."

The Captain looked from one brother to the other. "Well, this could be a little awkward then. I understood - do you expect your brother soon?"

"Well, now sir, I don't know that - " Hoss was nearly toppled over by the violence of Joe's yank. "Joe," he blustered in exasperation, "I don't know what in tarnation your problem is, but - "

Joe cut him off hastily, baring his teeth at the Captain in a grim imitation of good cheer. "Of course, sir - we're all ready sir. Nothing to worry about - nothin' at all - why we're - we'll be - why don't you just grab your saddlebags there and we'll show you to a room…while I have just a second with my brother here…" In his desperation, Joe actually managed to drag Hoss two steps away, pulling his ear down so he could speak directly into it. "We - we - what are we going to…? The Cavalry! Hoss! Don't you remember? The HORSE SALE!" 

Chapter 7: The Comedy of Errors

"Be not thy tongue thy own shame's orator."
         III, ii, 10

Adam accepted the canteen from Cressie as she finished with it and took a sip, looking around. "We should probably walk for a bit and give Sport a break." Slowest escape on record, he thought ruefully. Stacy has to be miles ahead by now. Cressie started to slide from Sport's back and Adam reached automatically behind him to give her a hand before dismounting himself.

He was pleased to notice he was steadier on his feet - Sport had seemed to sense his master's problem and tread lightly in sympathy, almost instinctively avoiding any missteps or sudden jarring that might cause him undue pain. Adam slapped the animal's neck affectionately. "Thanks, boy," he murmured. "All is forgiven." Sport nibbled playfully at his arm, pushing his nose into Adam's chest. Adam gave the white blaze a stroke as he recapped the canteen and stowed it over the saddle horn, searching the surrounding area with his eyes.

"What's wrong?" asked Cressie finally.

Adam took off his hat and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. "Well, nothing, really, I just thought - " he leaned against Sport, eyeing the landscape in the other direction. "I just figured my brothers would have made it this far by now - rain or not. Seems funny."

"How many brothers you got?"

"Two. Younger. Hoss and Joe." He shook his head slightly, puzzled, and carefully replaced his hat.

Cressie tugged at a tough piece of jerky with her teeth. She was actually developing kind of a taste for it. "They're lucky," she said bluntly. "I wish I had a brother like you."

Adam gave a short laugh. "I think Hoss and Joe could give you a whole different perspective on that."

Cressie shrugged. "I don't have any brothers or sisters. I think they're lucky."

Adam frowned down the hillside. "Well, today I'm sure they're not feeling very lucky. Probably wondering why they have to go looking for their wayward big brother when they have plenty else to do and it's his job to look out for them."

"If they're mad I'll tell em it's all my fault." She shot him a shy glance. "I  - I don't know how to thank you, Adam. For all you've done for me."

Adam smiled. "Seems to me it was kind evened off when you saved my life."

Cressie stuck out her lip, avoiding his eyes. "My fault you almost lost it."

"Well, either way, we're not out of this yet, so let's hold all thanks until we are." He felt a frisson of worry shiver down his spine. "Hope this doesn't mean they've run into your ex-fiance."

Cressie shuddered. "Don't remind me. I don't think I'll ever trust a man again."

Adam smiled a little. "Oh, I think you will."

"Well, of course I trust you, Adam."

"See? If you can trust me then it's just a short step to trusting somebody else." He smiled down at her.

"I don't want to trust anybody else," said Cressie simply, meeting his gaze. And, when Adam just stared at her, his face frozen in surprise, "You know, you really do have the prettiest eyes."

"I - " Adam was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. "Cressie, we - " he tried again, failed, then cleared his throat nervously. "We'd better get moving," he finished weakly, tugging urgently at Sport's bridle so that the horse snorted in annoyance. "It's - we'd better." He started down the trail at a brisk, almost frantic, pace. Hoss and Joe, where are you when I need you?


Sport wasn't moving in anything like a hurry, so Cressie didn't have any trouble keeping up. Adam shot a glance at her. After a second she slipped her arm in his and he resisted the urge to shrug her off. Ridiculous, he told himself sternly. She's just a mixed up little girl. Avoiding the topic isn't going to help anything. He cleared his throat and tried to think of what to say. Coward, he chided himself.

"Cressie," he began slowly, "Don't you think you're rushing things a little?"

She beamed at him sweetly. "Oh, no, Adam. I've known for a while now."

"Cressie, we've only known each other for two days."

"It's enough. A girl just knows these things."

"And yesterday you knew you were in love with Troy. Who turned out to be Stacy."

"Well, that was different."

"Because - ?"

"Because that time I was wrong."

Adam suppressed the urge to shake her. "And if you were so wrong about the first man you decided you were in love with, what makes you think you can't be wrong about the second?"

"I'm just not, that's all. A girl knows."

"Cressie, you can't just go around falling in love with every man you meet!"

"I don't!" Cressie looked indignant. "I didn't care for that Payne one bit!"

Adam sighed and laughed at the same time. "Well, that's something, anyway." He ran the reins restlessly through his hands. "I think we need to make a bargain."

"Another one? You mean like the one about waiting for Troy and the guns?"

"Yes - like that. Only this time about men."

Cressie eyed him suspiciously. "What about 'em?"

"I want you to promise me that you won't tell another man you love him until you've had the chance to meet and talk to and get to know at least - oh - a dozen more."

"A dozen?" Cressie shook her head. "Four."

"Four? At least eight."

"Half a dozen, then. And that's counting you and Troy."

"Cressie, that IS four."

Cressie shrugged.

Adam pulled his hat off and wiped his forehead again. "Half a dozen, then. But NOT counting me or Troy. And they have to be eligible men - not old men or little boys."

Cressie scuffed thoughtfully at the dirt. "And if I do?"

"Well, if you do and then you still - feel the same - we'll - have a serious talk about it."

"Hm." She studied her feet. "All right," she said reluctantly. "Deal. But we should shake on it!"

Adam offered his hand and they shook solemnly, the manacle jingling in time.

"I'm not goin' to change my mind," remarked Cressie staunchly as he gently, then more insistently, tried to take his hand back.

"We'll see."

"You don't know everythin', y'know - just because you're older."

"So I've been told."

"Eighteen's not so young anyway. It's old enough for lots of things."

Adam grimaced. "That's what worries me."

"Lots of girls get married at eighteen. How old was your Mama when she got married?"

 Adam hesitated. "Nineteen." he admitted reluctantly.  "But she had kept house for my grandfather for a long time before that and lived in a big city, so it really wasn't - this doesn't have anything to do with it anyway! We're talking about you."

"My Mama was seventeen."

"Age is only part of - " Adam was abruptly silent, suddenly aware of a faint sound underneath the noise of the rushing river and their arguing. Cursing himself for his carelessness he thrust Cressie behind him and reached for his gun. The swift draw caused the other end of the manacle to swing up, knocking against the gun barrel with a clang and throwing his aim wildly to the right.

Before Adam could recover, a voice from the trees called, "Put it down, nice and easy, son." Adam hesitated, trying to get a fix on the voice, until it continued, "There's two of us, son, and we got you covered - put it down now, before somebody gets hurt." Swearing quietly between his teeth, Adam lowered the gun to the ground and raised his hands. A square, solid man behind a long rifle emerged from the covering of the trees, while another, thin and stooped, broke cover behind them. "Everybody just relax now…"

"We don't have much in the way of money," Adam offered.

The square man smiled. "We ain't lookin' fer yer money, son, we're - whoa, there, now, missy - "
 Adam's heart lurched as out of the corner of his eye he saw Cressie yank the side by side out of the bedroll and struggle to bring it up to aim. "Cressie!" he yelled frantically, dragging it out of her grasp. "Good God! What are you thinking? Are you crazy?"

"Adam! Why did you stop me? You know it's not loaded!"

"I know that! THEY don't know that! Do you want to get yourself shot? Here - " He thrust it at the square man without taking his eyes off of Cressie. "New rule!" he said sternly. "No guns! Loaded or unloaded!"

"Now, Adam, I think that's mighty unreasonable of you considering if I hadn't used that gun back at the cabin - "

The square man cleared his throat gently and, reminded of his presence, they glared at each other and turned their attention back to him.  He was studying some letters burned into the stock of Cressie's side by side thoughtfully. "Now, this here looks just like the gun we been lookin' fer," he said mildly.

"Looking for?" Adam peered more closely at him and caught sight of the tarnished star pinned to his vest. "You're - the law?"

The man nodded his grizzled chin, still studying the gun thoughtfully while the stooped man kept his rifle carefully trained on them. "That's right. Sheriff Struthers. An' this here is Deputy Pratt. Been searching for nigh on two days now fer a little girl what disappeared from the Clarendon Way Station in the middle of the night, slippin' her chaperone and taking a horse and this here gun with her. Off to meet her beau, her Pa said."

"I only borrowed the gun and horse," Cressie piped up.

"Well, that's as may be, missy, but you didn't ask no permission an' that makes it stealin' - scared yer Pa near ta death too, I figger."

Adam felt his shoulders sag in relief. The closer they had gotten to the Ponderosa, the more he had been beset by reminders of things he was supposed to have been taking care of for the last two days. Maybe at last he could unload the worrisome burden of Cressie and get back to his other responsibilities.

"You have no idea how glad we are to see you. Cressie's beau, as it turns out, is demanding ransom from her father - we were just trying to catch up with him."

Struthers eyed him measuringly, then cast a knowing look at Pratt. "Yup. Her Pa said as how he was a real bad 'un. Takin' advantage of a poor girl's innocence, he said."

Adam nodded gratefully. "There are two of them, actually - co-conspirators. We left one back at the hunting cabin by Grouse Ridge. Maybe you know it? If you two could ride up there and apprehend him, we could ride ahead to catch up with Stacy. I know the law in Virginia City - " Adam paused. They didn't seem to be listening. In fact, the way they were looking at him was making him a little uncomfortable. "Listen," he continued, more impatiently, "these are dangerous men and they've already got a head start."

Struthers and Pratt exchanged another meaningful look. "Yup. Her Pa said as how he was dangerous."

"That's right - I've met them. I know. I don't think we should lose any time - if you don't know the cabin, I can give you directions. You can go collect Payne and I can see that Cressie gets back to her father and catch up with Stacy…"

Struthers and Pratt looked at each other again and Struthers shifted his shoulders. "Her Pa said as how she ran off with some good lookin', smooth-talkin' young scalawag what turned her head and took advantage of her young innocence."

Adam narrowed his eyes at him. "Yes. She did. That's what I'm trying to tell you."

Struthers gave a snort of laughter. "Reckon as how you must think I was borned yesterday, son."

A terrible suspicion crept into Adam's mind. "Oh, no." He laughed uneasily. "You're not thinking..."

Struthers turned to Pratt. "You see anythin' in that there description that don't fit this young feller right here, Earl?"

Deputy Pratt shook his head solemnly.

Cressie gave a hiccup of surprise. "You think Adam is Troy?"

The sheriff eyed her kindly. "You can call him anything you like, I reckon, miss."

"Oh, no, no, no - Adam isn't Troy - I ran off to meet Troy and - and - well, Adam helped me - we were just trying to catch up with Troy, before - " She stopped at the blunt skepticism on their faces. "It's TRUE!"

"Yer Pa said as how you'd do about anythin' fer this here feller. Said as how he had you about bewitched."

"He DID, I admit it, but - but - then Adam came and saved me and…" she trailed off helplessly in the face of their blank looks.

The sheriff shrugged eloquently. "That's as may be, missy. Figger as how we'll take you both in and let the law decide…" He gestured toward Pratt, who moved forward.

Adam exhaled in disbelief. "She's telling you the truth! The real criminals are still on the loose and the longer we stand here talking the better chance they have of getting away!" He registered their expressions of total disbelief with a groan. His headache was returning with a vengeance. "Please. Just listen to me. My name is Adam Cartwright. I'm a rancher and part owner of the Ponderosa - " He reached up to rub the persistent pain away from his temple and saw both men fix their eyes on him. Apprehensively, he shifted his gaze to follow theirs. The manacle swung gently from his wrist, nodding to and fro in the sunlight. He closed his eyes. Oh, God. He took a breath. "I - I know this looks - um - damning…"

Pratt and Struthers stared at him in perfect union. Struthers squinted at the wrist shackle thoughtfully. "Looks like Army Issue, don't it, Earl? Girl's Pa said as how he was a soldier on the lam."

"He was," Adam agreed, his voice rising. "Which is how I got this. When he - " He stopped and took a hasty step backward as Deputy Earl Pratt moved toward him with a pair of handcuffs out. "Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute…you know Sheriff Roy Coffey?"

The sheriff stared hard at him and then gestured to Pratt to stop. "What about him?" he asked suspiciously.

"Well, we're friends - he can vouch for me. Take us to Virginia City instead of back to Clarendon and he'll tell you we're telling the truth." And, as they hesitated, "You've got nothing to lose - it's closer anyway."

"Got that right," Pratt spoke for the first time, feelingly, shooting Struthers a tentative glance.

After a minute, Struthers nodded. "Cain't hurt nothin', I reckon - and we could use a hot meal. But I want no tricks outta you, boy." He gestured again and Pratt moved toward Adam again with his handcuffs.

Adam gave an involuntary gasp of pain as Pratt grabbed his torn right wrist and tried to fasten the cuff on next to the manacle.

Cressie's eyes flashed and she shoved Pratt with all her hundred pounds, kicking him soundly in the shin. "Don't you hurt him!"

Pratt let out a high pitched howl, hopping away, holding at his leg. "Goldarn, little wildcat! Struthers - YOU cuff him yer ownself!"

Struthers eyed Cressie in wary surprise, shifting from one foot to the other. "Reckon they won't try nothin'," he said finally as he watched Pratt tenderly massage his leg. "You won't try nothin', will you, son? With the little girl along?"

Adam clutched at his wrist, staring in mute astonishment at Cressie. "No - " he said at last, "of course not - um - just let me check my horse - I think he may have picked up a stone…give me a hand, Cressie?" He plucked Cressie by the sleeve and dragged her with him to the horse's front quarter, crouching down to pretend to study Sport's shoe. "Cressie - " he half whispered, glancing up to catch her eye. "I appreciate the defense, but next time - "

"I know what you're goin' to say, Adam," Cressie interrupted abruptly. "That I shouldn't be kickin' a lawman. But he made me mad."

"Oh." Adam lifted his eyebrows, glancing in the direction of the two peacekeepers. "No. Not at all. What I was actually going to say was, next time…" He leaned in closer and lowered his voice still further. "For the best effect? You want to aim just a @@touch@@ higher."

Cressie's face split into a grin. Adam winked.


"We forgot. I can't believe we forgot. He said we would and then we did, just like he said. How does he do that, Hoss? How does he always know what we're gonna do before we do it?"

"Oh, hush up, Joe - I'm tryin' ta think here!" Hoss paused his pacing and leaned heavily against his father's desk. Then, seeing Joe's face, he added more kindly, "Reckon he figgered if we forgot once we'd more'n likely forget agin." He wrinkled his forehead. "Though he is sorta a scary fella sometimes."

Joe shuddered. "Scary? You think he's scary? You know I'm not a coward, right, Hoss? I mean, I don't scare all that easy, ain't that right?"

Hoss nodded distractedly. "O' course I know that, Joe. You ain't never been a coward."

'Well, that's right. But that Colonel fella, Hoss? He scares me stiff. Rather face Adam ten times over than him. Twenty times, even."

Hoss scratched the back of his neck. "Does sort of give a fella the willies, don't he? And ain't said a single word that I heard since he got here."

Joe shook his head. "Not a word," he agreed. "Just sort of - stares. Like - like - like -"

"Aw, cut it out, Joe!" Hoss interrupted. "Yer gettin' downright hysterical."

Joe sat up straight from his slumped position in one of the deep desk chairs. "And why shouldn't I be, huh? We've got a bunch of guests showing up in a few minutes, we've got a cranky cook in the kitchen, we've got two girls coming we been bending over backward to impress and I got this HUGE black eye and now we have this spooky military fella here to buy horses and we GOT no horses! How do you think I should be?"

"Keep yer voice down," Hoss hissed. He glanced anxiously toward the stairs, but when there were no sounds stirring continued, "Besides, that ain't true - we got at least ten horses we can sell 'em."

Joe also threw a glance toward the second floor. "How many were they lookin' ta buy?" he asked in a softer voice.

"Dunno." Hoss lumbered restlessly to the other side of the room. "Think maybe twenty or so."
"Well, how do we find out? It must be written down somewhere, right?"


"Well, good. Where do you think?" Joe jumped to his feet and started exploring his father's office shelves.

"I figger the safe," answered Hoss dully.

Joe stared at him, then back at the safe where the broken handle was precariously propped in position.

"The safe?"

"I reckon."

Joe threw himself back down in the chair. "What the heck they want ta go and put everything in there for?'

"Well, I reckon cause they figgered it was SAFE," snapped Hoss.

Joe glared at him. "There's no need to be sarcastic. Y'know who you sound like?"

Hoss took a step toward him. "You say "Adam", little brother, an yer gonna be sportin' TWO black eyes."

Joe jumped to his feet. "Oh, yeah? Well, you do. You sound just like 'em these days. Sarcasm and all."

Hoss lunged across the desk at him and grabbed his collar. They glowered at each other.

Hoss's face crumpled. "Eh - what are we doin'?" He let go of Joe's collar with a shake of his head, clumsily smoothing it and carefully straightening his tie. "Sorry, Joe. Don't know what got inta me."

Joe pulled himself up to sit on the desk. "Me either, Hoss. I'm sorry too."

They relaxed for a moment in glum silence. Finally, Hoss said, "I'm feelin' kinda bad, I guess, about the horse sale. Adam's put a lotta work into it and now it's goin' bust on 'em. Even if they take all ten horses ain't gonna do his reputation no good if he cain't fulfill like he said. An' the Cavalry'd be a real nice customer ta have regular-like. Guess I feel kinda like I let 'em down."

Joe nodded, swinging his legs. "I know. Me too. But it ain't like we've been goofin' off, Hoss - we done everythin' we could."

"Yeah, I know." Hoss dropped into one of the desk chairs. "Ain't a comfort, somehow. Wish there was somethin' more we could do."

Joe was watching his boot toes. Suddenly he looked up. "Hey! Maybe we could talk to them! Tell 'em about what a good businessman Adam is an' all - about how they doesn't wanna miss a chance to do business with 'em. How it'd be the mistake of a lifetime to let this chance go by."

Hoss's face lightened and he looked at Joe with admiration. "Joe, when you get goin' it does sound right convincin'. You reckon it'd work?"

Joe shrugged. "Worked at the bank."

"Yeah." Hoss leaned back, pleased. "Yeah, it did. Think you could make it work again?"

Joe shrugged again. "Worth a try." He leaned back against the wall and mulled it over. "Let 'em have a little punch and get mellowed out…maybe a few dances with some nice lady…somethin' good to eat..."

"Speakin' a somethin' good ta eat - those sure are some good smells comin' from the kitchen. Seems like days since I had a decent meal."

"That's cause it has been."

Hop Ling scurried into the great room balancing a large tray. Hoss jumped up to help him. "Here - let me give you a hand with that - " He settled the tray on the long table at the side of the room. "These sure do look tasty, Hop Ling - ow!" Hoss recoiled as Hop Ling swatted his searching hand.

"For guests!" he said sternly.

"Just giving it a sampling," said Hoss with dignity. "No need ta get touchy. I'll give ya a hand with the rest of those trays. Best light them lanterns, too."

Joe jumped off of the desk.

 "Why don't I take care of the trays in here and you two set up outside? Guests could be here any minute."
Joe busied himself at the table, setting out the punch bowl and filling it from the pitchers Hop Ling placed there. He watched Hop Ling exit with Hoss and bent to sample a sip. His lips curled into a smile. Not bad. Not bad at all. Almost as good as Pa's. This party was looking better all the time. Even his black eye seemed suddenly diminished. Outside, under the soft, forgiving light of the Chinese lanterns, it might even be unnoticeable. He bent for another sip of punch and heard the door open softly behind him. "Say, bring me that other tray, would you Hoss? Stuff sure does smell good." There was no answer, and he straightened in mild irritation. "You better not be sampling from it, or Hop Ling will have your hide - " he started to turn, when two silky palms suddenly covered his eyes.

"Guess who?" murmured a light voice coquettishly.

Joe broke into a grin. "Julie?"

"Good guess!"

He turned around to greet her and stopped, suddenly overwhelmed. "Julie," he whispered.

Julie smiled demurely and gave a little spin to show off her dress. "You like it? Do I look nice?"
"Nice?" Joe caught his breath. "You're about the prettiest thing I ever did see."

Julie's smile broadened with pleasure. "Good. The trimmings came all the way from Kansas City, you know. I've been saving them for something special. Someone special."

The soft organdy of her dress sleeve brushed against him and he could smell the lush, damp scent of the violets she'd tucked in her hair. Joe inhaled deeply, moving closer. Her moonlight blonde hair was swept off her face for the occasion, but tumbled down her back, a few errant strands loose around her cheeks. He tried not to stare, but couldn't seem to look away. "I - " he swallowed. "I - have a black eye," he blurted suddenly.

She giggled, moving in a little closer. "Hardly can see it," she whispered.

"Really?" He smiled in relief, gratified, meeting her pale blue gaze.

She widened her eyes at him, and almost before he knew what he was doing, he was bending his head to hers. Sounds from outside brought him back to himself in time and he straightened up apologetically. Julie pouted. "Where are your folks?" he asked, suddenly feeling a little tight in the collar.

"Outside, saying "hi" to Hoss," said Julie sulkily. She perked up a little. "It certainly is pretty out there, Joe - like a little fairyland."

"Yeah?" Joe looked pleased. "Good. Hoss and me worked real hard…" He turned to indicate the door and found Julie close - pleasantly and uncomfortably so at the same time. The sight of her smooth, pale skin so near to his made his senses swim. "Julie…" he began.

She stepped just a touch closer, her breath warm on his face. "Yes, Joe?" she whispered sweetly.
"Um…" Joe couldn't remember a thing he wanted to say. Her silky pink mouth filled his vision. He was drawn to it like a magnet. He closed his eyes.


Hoss's voice was an unpleasant interruption and he opened them again, thoroughly irritated this time. "What?" he hollered back. He was more aware now of the jingle of harnesses and the soft patter of horse hooves, voices tossing greetings to one another. He reddened when he realized what he might have been caught doing.

"Joe, I think you'd better get out here!"

There was something odd in Hoss's voice that made Joe ruffle his brows. Oh. Probably wanted help greeting guests. It was only proper. He reached his hand to Julie and moved toward the door. "Let's go see what he wants."

Julie's hand felt cool and sweet in his and he made his way happily to the heavy oaken door, pulling it open. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gathering dusk, but once they did he stared in admiration. The Chinese lanterns bobbed like oversized, bright colored fireflies in the evening air, suspended against a sky speckled with stars and a sliver of lemon moon. The air was soft and balmy, crowded with the pleasant murmur of friendly voices. How beautiful it was. Hoss was watching him expectantly, but he did not look as though he was drinking in the pleasures of the night. "What is it, Hoss?" Joe asked mildly. He saw Hop Ling standing next to Hoss, his face unreadable. "Did you get all the food set out?" Hoss stared hard at him. Joe frowned. Was Hoss angry that he had left him to greet folks alone? "Want me to greet some folks?" He glanced up at the line of carriages parking themselves a way off, at the train of them, arriving…and arriving…and arriving…his eyes followed the long, seemingly endless row - carriages as far as the eye could see. "Looks like a revival meeting. Who are all these folks? A wagon train? They need something?"

"I think they're guests, Joe," said Hoss in a still, frighteningly calm voice. "Just exactly how many people did you invite anyway?"

"Well, I thought we'd figured it at fifty-five…" Something was creeping through his memory and he gulped. "Oh. I DID invite a couple of more people when I was in town today - didn't want to seem…"

"Un-neighborly," Hoss jumped in grimly. "Yeah, I know. How many people?"

Joe scratched his head. "Well it's hard to say exactly…a few here and there…certainly not THIS many…" He peered at the faces in the gathering gloom, an odd feeling taking over his stomach. Actually, he didn't see anyone he HADN'T invited in the group, but surely he couldn't have invited ALL…??? "How - how many you suppose there are?" he asked faintly.

Hoss breathed out through his nose. "Looks like mosta Nevada Territory to me. Hop Ling, think we're gonna need some more vittles fer this crowd. Know it's a few more than you counted on - "

Hop Ling drew himself up to his full, sparse height and spurted vehement Chinese. Joe and Hoss stared at him, mouths ajar, as he windmilled his arms at them, yelling. The guests began to look on with interest.

Hoss winced. "Now, Hop Ling, why don't we just go on inside away from our guests and see what-all there is you can fix - " He was cut off by a near howl of Cantonese. Hop Ling shook his finger emphatically under Hoss's nose, his tone soaring like a banshee. Hoss couldn't follow a word and figured it was just as well. "Now, Hop Ling, if you don't talk English I cain't help ya - I don't git a single word you say."

Hop Ling held up his hand, palm out, and barked something, then repeated it. Hoss shook his head at him, wrinkling his nose for an explanation. Hop Ling repeated himself, then added, in English, "No." He prodded a finger solidly in Hoss's chest. "No. No more. No cook. No stay. So long."


Dusk was settling as Adam finally rode into Virginia City with his companions. He felt Cressie sagging against him tiredly and blew out his breath slowly in sympathy.  His headache was reaching gargantuan proportions, throbbing mercilessly behind his eyes, and he reached up with his left hand to rub them. His right was almost useless now, swollen and numb and bleeding from the constant abuse of the manacle. There would be no clever gunplay, that was for sure. Pray heaven he wouldn't need it. He cleared his anxious, aching eyes and sought out the Telegraph Office - the light was still on. He was longing to check there and see if Hoss or Joe had sent a wire to San Francisco - since he had no idea where Stacy had to go to contact Cressie's father he had no way of knowing whether or not he had had time to make his way to them yet with the ransom note. He glanced at Sheriff Struthers and Deputy Pratt with little hope. "I - don't suppose you'd consider a quick side trip to the Telegraph Office?"

Sheriff Struthers, who was holding his sidearm on Adam while Deputy Pratt backed him up with his rifle, eyed him warily. "Sounds like you're hoping fer a distraction to me, son. How do we know it's not a trap?"

"Yeah, a trap?" echoed the Deputy suspiciously.

Adam grit his teeth in irritation, wondering if the deputy ever had anything original to say. Spitefully, he wished Cressie's aim had been better. "Fine," he hissed, steering Sport toward Roy Coffey's office. He was almost there when he heard his name being called. He turned and looked down as Miss Beardsley, the milliner's assistant, rushed toward him, accompanied by a young man he didn't recognize.
"Adam," she said breathlessly. "Adam - I just have to tell you - I think you're wonderful. Joe told us all about it - it's just the bravest thing I've ever heard."

Adam stared at her, uncomprehending.

The young man with her removed his hat respectfully. "Reckon this is Miss Rowena, huh?" he said, gazing at Cressie with admiration. "Pleased to meet you, ma'am. Now, don't you worry none - we here in Virginia City don't cotton to any of that there slick stuff - we'll look out for you."

Adam couldn't see Cressie's face, but he could feel her shift against him. He glanced uneasily at his arresting lawmen. "What - ?" he began, but was interrupted by the young man, who was also frowning at the lawmen and the guns they had trained on Adam.

"Say - " he began darkly, "You ain't them Rishy-loo and Monty-bank fellers, are you? Cause if you is, I gotta tell you - "

His hand hovered over his gun and, picturing an impending tragedy, Adam interrupted hastily, "They are the Sheriff and Deputy of Clarendon, so please don't shoot. What on earth - ?"

The young man dropped his hand and nodded sagely. "Finally got yerself some help, huh? Gotta say I think that's wise. Best not to tackle these things alone, specially when there's a little girl involved."

"What - "

"What do you know about the little girl, son?" interrupted the Sheriff, beginning to be uneasy.

"Well, just about everything." The young man looked a little smug. "Joe told us."

"Joe." Adam shook his head. "Told you - ?"

Miss Beardlesy touched his stirrup reverently. "Really, it was so noble of you, Adam. So gallant. Pleased to meet you, Miss Rowena."

"Her name is not - how did Joe - "

The Sheriff puffed out his cheeks. "I think you two better come with us to Sheriff Coffey's. I'll wanta hear yer take on things."

Miss Beardsley's eyes opened wide with surprise. "You didn't tell them, Adam?" Her expression melted. "But of course - you're too modest. Too humble."

"I am not - " Adam felt the throbbing in his head rise to a roar. "What in the name of - " He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Tell me exactly - "

"At the Sheriff's." said Struthers firmly. "I only wanta have to do this once."

Adam grit his teeth again, harder this time. "Fine," he repeated, even more irritably. He gestured apologetically to Miss Beardsley and her escort. "I'd be much obliged…"

"But of course, Adam!" Miss Beardsley clasped passionate hands to her bosom. "We'd be honored!"

Adam shook his head, at a loss. "Well, that's - that's - thank you."  He helped Cressie dismount and then followed. The sudden change in elevation made the street heave for a moment and he stood still, clinging to the saddle horn, waiting to regain his balance.

"No stallin'," said Deputy Pratt dully, poking Adam in the back with a rifle. Adam set his jaw and promised himself that as soon as he felt a little better he would flatten that deputy. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Cressie move forward and Pratt back up so hastily he almost tripped over the Sheriff. Adam grinned, despite the pain in his head. Or maybe he'd just let Cressie take care of it for him.

Sheriff Struthers gave his deputy a look of exasperation. "If yer done dancin' there, Earl, maybe we can get on in and settle this thing?"

Earl glared at Cressie. Cressie glared back. "Sher thang, Sheriff, " he grumbled, following Adam, at a discreet distance this time.

Adam led the way into the bright interior of the Sheriff's office, blinking a little as the light hit his tired eyes. Just a few minutes with Roy and at least this part of the nightmare would be over. He could find out about the telegram, go back to the ranch - he was disappointed to see Dooley Jaspers settled comfortably at Roy's desk. A little too comfortably - Dooley hastily dropped his feet from the desk surface to the floor when he recognized Adam.

"Oh, hey, there, Adam!" he called sheepishly. "What kin I do fer you?"

Adam was still looking hopefully around for Roy. "I'd like to see Roy, Dooley. He here?"

"No, no - I'm watching the place fer right now. Roy's - "

Adam waved his hand impatiently. "On rounds maybe? How about Clem?"

"Well, Clem's with Roy, see. They - say, Adam - lookee here. This must be that Miss Rowena."

"Miss - ?" Adam took off his hat and ran his hand through his hair. "Why does everyone keep saying that? Her name is not Rowena! I'm not sure anybody's name is Rowena! Where did you get the idea - ?"

Dooley snapped his fingers. "That's right. I firgot. Joe said as how you were travellin' under an assumed name."

"He said - WHAT??!"

The Sheriff eyed him somberly. "Uh-huh. That there would explain why the little girl keeps callin' him Adam."

"She calls me that because that's my - Dooley! Please. Tell me exactly - "

But Dooley was gazing at Cressie. "She's a pretty thing all right, Adam, but - um - " he lowered his voice confidentially. "Don't you think she's a little young fer you?"

"A little young for me to what?" Adam roared in exasperation. "I don't know what you're talking about! I don't know what any of you are - "

"It's that he took advantage of her young innocence, is what," put in Struthers darkly.

"I did NOT - "

"Oh, I think it's VERY romantic, myself!" insisted Miss Beardsley emphatically. "Age knows no barriers in the path of true love."

Cressie nudged Adam. "I told you." She smiled complacently.

Adam turned his head to glare at her. "You stay out of this," he snapped. "Now, would someone –
"None o' my business o' course," offered Dooley with a shrug. "Just never seen you with a girl sa young before, Adam."

Adam narrowed his eyes at him. "Listen - if you're insinuating what I think you are - of course she's too young to be my - "

"Oh, I don't agree at all!" interrupted Miss Beardsley emphatically. "I think it's just perfect! After all, Adam's not even thirty, and she must be at least seventeen!"

Cressie slipped her arm into Adam's and beamed happily.

Dooley cocked his head at Cressie. "No mor'n sixteen, I'm thinking."

Cressie looked indignant at that. "I'm eighteen!" she interjected, deeply offended.

"Ah." Dooley nodded wisely. "That's okay then."

"It is NOT - she is NOT - " Adam sputtered, " - of COURSE she's too - "

Cressie leaned her head contentedly against his shoulder. Adam shrugged her off as if she'd burned him. "And you cut that out!" He drew air deep into his lungs. "Now. Dooley. These men need to see Roy and I need you to tell me exactly where I can find him. He's not out on a posse, is he?"

Dooley raised his brows in surprise. "Course not, Adam - he's jest where you'd expect."

Adam closed his eyes, seeking patience, seeking control. "I'd expect him to be here, Dooley. And he's not. So where - ?"

Sheriff Struthers cleared his throat. "I got some questions fer these folks here first, son," he said briskly. "And how do I know this ain't a trap o' some kind?"

"Yeah." Deputy Pratt glared at him but eyed Cressie and kept his distance. "How?"

Adam sucked a deep breath through his teeth, then another. "I can not imagine how you think I could set up a trap this elaborate from that distance when I never even knew I was going to run into you! In the name of God, has everyone run mad?"

Miss Beardsley smiled indulgently. "He's tired," she explained sympathetically to the group at large.

"Yes, I am," admitted Adam tautly. "It has been…" He kneaded his neck. "I am. And I would give a lot to be peacefully at home in my own bed, but I have a number of things to settle before I can - what is it Cressie?"

"Adam," Cressie ceased her pulling on his sleeve and spoke so softly he had to lower his head to hear. "Adam, do these gentleman count?"

"Count?" Adam stared at her, bewildered. "Count as what?"

"You know…" she gestured with her head. "Toward my half dozen. You said I had to get to know…"

Adam's eyes widened in disbelief. "NO!" he bellowed. "They do NOT - Struthers is old enough to be your father, for God's sake, and the deputy…for heaven's sake, Cressie - " He saw the assemblage staring at him and stuttered to a sudden stop, pressing his hand over his eyes. That yelling really had not helped his head. "No offense," he mumbled apologetically.

Cressie's expression grew mulish. "Well, you said - "

Adam pushed the heel of his hand hard against his forehead, willing whatever was knocking so violently against the inside of it, apparently trying to escape, to stop. "Never mind what I said. We'll talk about this later. Right now…" he rubbed the hand over his face and looked about him. "Miss Beardsley. I am most interested to hear  - whatever it is you've heard - but right now, more than anything, I need to find Roy. Dooley, if you can tell me, please - where is Roy? And have my brothers been in here inquiring after me? Don't tell me they're all out on a posse?"

Dooley looked surprised. "Why no, Adam - a course not. Like I say, they're all right where you'd expect them ta be. But maybe you've forgotten what day it is?"

Adam looked blank.

"It's Friday," Dooley prompted. "You know. They're all at the party."

"Party." Adam sighed deeply. Now they were getting somewhere. "And where is this party?"

Dooley gave him a peculiar look. "Well, shucks, Adam - at the Ponderosa, a course. Sure looks ta be a big one."

Adam grew very still. "I - beg you pardon?"

Dooley grimaced at something in his voice. "You know. The big - party."

Adam looked hard at Dooley until Dooley shifted uncomfortably. After a full minute he ground out, very, very softly, "Are you telling me, that while I…" he dropped his hand and swallowed. "My brothers have been…"

Dooley winced. He could never figure out why that quiet tone of Adam's was scarier than when he yelled. He peeked at him nervously. Adam was massaging the back of his head, his expression blank and unreadable. "Figgered you be there, too, Adam," Dooley ventured cautiously. "I mean, if not fer Miss Rowena here - "

"Her name is NOT ROWENA!" Adam shouted. His head roiled in protest. "It is Cressida." He continued with quieter vehemence. "And we are going to the Ponderosa to find Roy and my two errant brothers. And I am telling you, when I find them - "

Sheriff Struthers spoke up. "You ain't goin' nowhere without me, son - why, yer under arrest - "

Adam turned his searing gaze on him and for a moment the Sheriff faltered. "Oh, by all means, you come too." Adam suggested, his voice sibilant. "Come right along and I solemnly promise you, before the night is over, I will provide you with a REAL crime to arrest me for! Come along, Cressie!" He strode towards the door, pulling Cressie after him.

Struthers watched him with some consternation. "And just as you folks had me about convinced he was innocent! What crime's that, son?"

Adam balanced his hat on his splitting head, his eyes ablaze. "FRATRICIDE!" he hissed ferociously, and dragged Cressie out the door, slamming it behind him.

Sheriff Struthers stared after him thoughtfully, Deputy Pratt following his gaze. "Sheriff," the deputy said after a minute. "What's Frat - frater - "

The Sheriff shook his head dumbly. "Don't rightly know, Earl. But it sure don't sound good! I reckon we'd better not lose sight of  'im. "

Chapter 8: Love's Labours…Lost?

"By heaven, I do love, and it hath taught me to rime and to be melancholy."
         IV, iii, 13

Hoss put his arm around Hop Ling's shoulders and moved him almost bodily indoors, heedless of his protests. "Now, Hop Ling," he began sternly, "I know this ain't exactly what you counted on, but you did agree to cook fer this party an' - "

Hop Ling squinted holes in Hoss's face. "Agree cook fo' fify people," he said sternly. "Did. So long." He moved toward the door.

Hoss stepped hastily in front of him. "Now, Hop Ling, I know that, but we gotta lotta people here and ain't nobody ever gone away from the Ponderosa hungry afore - don't ya see - it's a matter o' pride."

Hop Ling looked unimpressed. "You pride," he said simply. "My pride fine."

"Hop Ling, Hop Ling, Hop Ling - " Joe snatched at his sleeve as he made another move to leave. "What if we pay you more money. How about that?"

For the first time Hop Ling paused. "How much?" he asked suspiciously.

"Well, I don't know - " Joe tried frantically to remember what he had left. "Maybe - maybe - a half again as much?"

Hop Ling snorted. "Double."

"Double?!" Joe's voice rose. "Why you old shyster, I already doubled it once!"

Hop Ling folded his arms. "Double," he repeated relentlessly.

Hoss glanced over his shoulder toward the door where party guests could enter at any minute. "Joe, I don't see that we got much choice."

"Joe?" Julie pushed the door open a crack and poked her head in. "Joe, you were going to take a walk in the moonlight with me!"

Joe rubbed distractedly at his hair, trying to smile. "Sure thing, Julie - I'll be there in just a minute. Just have a couple of - of - unexpected things to sort out here. Then I'm all yours for the rest of the night."

Julie pouted a little. "I don't much like waiting, Joe."

"I know, Julie - " Joe's smile was growing a little frantic. "And I'll be right there. Cross my heart."
"All right."

Julie's protruding lower lip made her look more adorable than ever, Joe thought with a sigh as he turned back to the business at hand. He glared at Hop Ling. "All right. I don't have any choice, I guess. But I won't forget this. There should be plenty of stuff in the supply shed - "

"Say, Joe - sure looks nice out there. You want us to set up in here?"

Joe looked up with a start as the door popped open again to reveal Art Burrows, carrying his fiddle and closely followed by the rest of his combo. Joe swallowed hard. "Oh - hi, Art - um - thanks. Sure thing - the dancing is going to take place right over there…" he gestured vaguely toward the fireplace, his eyes still on Hop Ling. "Hoss, can you get some stuff from the supply shed for Hop Ling? I promised Julie - "

"Advance," said Hop Ling flatly.


"Double money in advance."

"Advance?" Joe's voice rose. "You mean like - now?"

"You wan cook now, money now."

"Why you - "


Hoss's hiss of warning stopped him and at his gesture he turned and remembered the musicians. He lowered his voice hastily. "I'm not even sure I have that much on hand," he whispered ferociously.

Hop Ling shrugged indifferently.

Joe looked pleadingly at Hoss.

Hoss shook his head unhappily. "Sorry, Joe - I'm tapped out."

Joe looked back at Hop Ling, his face like a storm cloud. "You KNOW I'm good for it!"

Hop Ling shrugged again. Then considered. "Pay late - maybe add interest?"

"WHAT?" Joe's roar of indignation made the musicians turn in surprise. Joe ignored them this time. "Interest??? You've already cleaned me out more than - "

"Hoss?" The door swung inward again to reveal a stately girl in a dark red dress, her wine brown hair knotted elegantly on her head. "Hoss? Are you in here?"

Hoss whirled around, nearly tumbling both smaller men. "Sarah Jane?"

"Hello, Hoss," smiled Sarah Jane shyly. "Julie said I'd find you here."

Hoss came close to stepping on Hop Ling in his haste to reach Sarah Jane. He took her hand before he could stop himself. "Dadgum it, Sarah Jane," he stammered. "You look - yer prettier than a field o' wildflowers in spring!"

Sarah Jane laughed and blushed. "Thank you, Hoss. You're looking very handsome yourself. I was hoping you could show me around? I don't know many people…"

Hoss hesitated just for a minute, then, as if the words were dragged from him, "Ain't nothin' I'd enjoy more, Sarah Jane, but - " he hesitated, glancing at Joe. Joe returned his look stonily.

"Oh." Sarah Jane saw the look and misunderstood. "Of course. I was supposed to tell Joe that Julie is waiting for him."

Joe sighed mournfully. "I know."

Hoss steeled himself manfully. "We - we got a little situation here we gotta settle, Sarah Jane - maybe you could go out and keep Julie company for a little bit? We won't be a minute."

Sarah Jane glanced from Hoss to Joe and then to Hop Ling, suddenly understanding. "Oh. Of course. Whenever you're ready, Hoss." She smiled warmly at him and swung gracefully back out the door. Hoss stared after her, owl eyed, his face dazed and glowing.

Joe ruthlessly grabbed his arm. "Hey," he said firmly.

Hoss blinked. "Huh? Oh, yeah. Listen, Hop Ling - Joe's right. Yer not bein' fair a-tall. Yer just takin' advantage of the situation and that ain't right. Now, we'll give you what we got now, then the rest within - say - three days. No interest. Pa'll be home by then and - "

"Say, Joe - okay if we move this desk out of the way?"

"Huh?" Joe followed the voice to the combo of musicians, forgotten and half-hidden by the staircase. "Oh. Yeah. Sure. Just back against the bookcases, okay? And be careful - we break anything else and Pa's gonna skin us."

Art looked offended. "Ain't broke nothin' yet, Joe," he pointed out reproachfully.

"Not you - never mind, never mind…" Joe gestured impatiently. "Just be careful." He turned back to Hop Ling. "So, what about it, Hop Ling? That sounds like a fair deal."

Hop Ling's face was blank. "Price to meet demand."
"That's stealing!" blustered Joe.

"That business," corrected Hop Ling simply.

"Crooked business," grumbled Hoss. "Gol darn it, Hop Ling, ain't we always done right by you?"

Hop Ling shrugged. "Not point."

"It's exactly the point!" snapped Joe. "You - "

"Joe" Julie reappeared in the doorway, looking now like a small blonde storm cloud. "Joe, are you EVER coming?'

Joe rested his face in his hands for a minute. "Right away, Julie," he said pleadingly. "Honest."

This time Julie's pout was slightly less adorable. "You said that last time, Joe."

"I know, I know…" Joe smiled his best, most appeasing smile. "But this time I mean it. Please, Julie? Just another minute? Just have a glass of punch with Sarah Jane and I'll be right there. Hoss too."

Julie scowled. "All right," she said reluctantly. "But you'd better be this time, Joe. I'm not used to being kept waiting."

"I know." Joe gave her a grateful smile. "I'll make it up to you. You're a peach, Julie."

Julie looked a little dubious but slowly turned and went back outside.

Joe sighed in frustration, then took a deep breath. "All right," he said finally, determined to keep his temper this time. "Hop Ling - "

A shattering crash from behind the stairs made him jump. "What are you doing over there?" He shot across the room to the alcove behind the stairs where four musicians were working at shifting his father's prodigious desk.

Art looked sheepish. "Sorry, Joe. Guess we should have taken them off first."

Joe's eyes widened with horror as he saw the three pictures that usually graced the desk lying face down in a jumble. He leapt the remaining distance, his heart in his throat, snatching them from the leather surface and clutching them in his arms. "Of course you should have!" he cried. "What were you thinking? Do you have any idea what my Pa would say if anything happened to these?" Stiff with trepidation, he lay them down one by one on a bookcase shelf. Elizabeth. Looked all right. No cracks or scratches. Inger. Couldn't see anything wrong - any dents or chips. He hesitated over the last one longest, then finally set it down next to the other two. Marie, his own mother. He felt an enormous rush of relief as he studied it. Unmarked. Really okay. He didn't know what he would have done if it had been damaged. He'd studied that picture his whole life…he noticed the quality of the silence and looked up. The musicians were all staring at him with an expression he'd never seen before. Well, not aimed at himself anyway. He felt himself redden. They looked - what? A little cautious - even a little scared, maybe. How had this happened? Nobody looked at him like that. He was always everybody's buddy. He cleared his throat. "I - I'm sorry I yelled. I thought - " They continued to stare at him in unblinking silence and he ducked his head. "I was just afraid that - " He turned his back for a minute to collect himself and slowly slid the pictures high up on top of a bookcase, face down and out of harm's way. The look on their faces made his stomach feel funny. This being in charge sure wasn't all it was cracked up to be. He turned around at last. "I'll help you move it," he muttered. He slid his hands under the front lip and lifted, frowning. He had a few things he wanted to think over later, when he was alone.

The crisp tattoo of military boots on the stairs made him look up to see Captain Simms descending, resplendent in his uniform. Simms slid his eyes about the room and spotted Hoss.

"Mr. Cartwright - " he closed the gap between them. "Hoss - I'm so sorry. I thought I could talk the Colonel into staying but I can't. He's very agitated - and the party just seems to have made it worse. I'm afraid we'll have to leave tonight."

"No!" Joe made it across the room in two bounds. "No, you can't!"

Captain Simms nodded his head apologetically. "I'm so sorry. I wish things had been different. Perhaps another time - "

Hoss's shoulders slumped in despair. "Now, Captain - even if the Colonel has to go, maybe you could stay - just for the horse sale - "

The Captain shook his head regretfully. "I wish I could. But you must understand that I can't leave him on his own - not in his current state. Please give my regrets to your brother - "

"Captain - " Joe touched his arm beseechingly. "Please, if you'll just - "

"Joe!" This time Julie entered like a tiny tornado. "Joe - I have been waiting for you for over twenty minutes!"

Joe barely focused on her. "I know, Julie - " he said distractedly. "And I'm sorry. But - I have a little - business emergency - "

Julie gave a small stamp of her foot. "Joe. You invited me to the party. I thought it was because you wanted to spend time with me!"

"Julie. I do - you know I do, but - "

The Captain settled his hat and gestured a modified salute. "My regrets, gentlemen."

"Wait, wait - " Joe actually snatched at his coat sleeve. "There must be something - "

"Yeah." Hoss agreed urgently. "Maybe next week - ?"

The Captain frowned reluctantly. "I have to be in Sacramento by next week - I am sorry."

"And where are YOU going?" Joe saw Hop Ling shuffle toward the door and flung out his arms in exasperation. "We haven't finished our negotiations!"

Hop Ling paused. "No money," he said simply. "No cook."

Joe scrubbed both hands over his face. "Hop Ling - you hang on just one second. Captain Simms - " his eyes fell on Julie, tapping her foot with unconcealed impatience. "Julie. If you'll just give me - "

"Joe," she broke in coldly. "I have given you minutes and minutes and minutes! Now, if you don't want to spend time with me I'll find someone who does!"

"Darn it, Julie!" Joe burst out, aggrieved. "That's not fair! You have to understand that business comes first! You must know that a place like the Ponderosa doesn't run itself!" He heard the words echo in the room and slapped a hand over his mouth in surprise. His eyes met Hoss's, who lifted his brows and smirked in return. Joe groaned. "Don't say it, Hoss. Just don't - "

Hoss looked innocent. "I weren't gonna say a word, little brother." He patted Joe's shoulder sympathetically. "'Ceptin mebbe ta say that it sure seems ta come with the territory, don't it?"


Stacy Douglas slowed his horse to a walk as he approached the ranch house, startled by the roar of voices. He pulled his mount into a stand of trees to partially conceal himself and reconnoiter. A long trail of carriages and buggies and surreys lined the road leading to the ranch and all the hitching rails looked full. Under the soft colored lights of the Chinese lanterns people roamed, serving themselves from tables scattered with food and punch - talking and laughing. He frowned. He hadn't counted on this. He hesitated, watching. It wouldn't be easy to slip past them all, but leaving the gun and ransom note hidden in the trees wasn't going to do him any good.

He kicked the ground in a moment of temper. Damn. And just when everything else was going fine. He had collected the funds left by Cressie's father with no problem - now he only had to leave the note and he and Payne would be sitting pretty for years to come. Despite their unamiable parting, Stacy wished that Payne were here now. He'd have some idea for getting past these people - some clever plan…Stacy's mind was a total blank. He paced in a small circle. The crowd seemed to be mainly around the front of the house, with the food - maybe if he could get close to the back…he ground tied his horse to take a look.

There didn't seem to be anyone back that way and there was a door…and it was certainly less well lit - of course, it would be just his luck to trip over some couple spooning in the dark. He balked briefly at the thought, then remembered Payne. If he went back without following through, Payne would half kill him and Cressie would be ashamed of him - and that was no way to start a marriage. All right, then. He tucked the gun and note in his belt and made his way stealthily toward the door next to the woodpile. Coast seemed clear. He crept around the woodpile and was about to knock when he spotted something that made his blood run cold: a horse picketed at one of the hitching rails, its gear unmistakable. Cavalry. His hands shook. They must be onto him!

Hasty now, he dropped the gun and note unceremoniously on the doorstep. To heck with knocking - to heck with Payne! He had to get out of here! They'd find the note in time and Payne would have his money - keeping his freedom would be enough for Stacy. He shifted the gun so that it weighted the note, then turned to sneak back into the trees. And stopped and dropped hastily to a crouch behind the woodpile. Sure enough, a couple in their late teens strolled around the corner of the ranch house, giggling softly, and stopped within feet of him.

"Oh, Margie," sighed the boy. "Isn't it a beautiful night?"

"Very beautiful, Billy," returned Margie shyly.

"But not as beautiful as you," continued Billy gallantly.

Margie giggled again. "Oh, Billy. What a thing to say!"

Stacy rolled his eyes.

"It's the plain truth," insisted amorous Billy. "The moonlight in your hair…" This was followed by unmistakable noises that were not at all hurried.

Stacy let his head sink to his knees. Damn.


Joe gazed miserably after Julie's retreating figure as the door slammed and trembled in her wake. Hop Ling moved to follow her. "Hop Ling so long."

Hoss shifted his considerable bulk in front of the door. "Now, Hop Ling - you don't want to go anymore than we want you to! Yer just playing us like a couple o' suckers! So why don't ya just tell us what ya want and we'll come to a reasonable agreement."

Hop Ling eyed him. "Hop Ling already say."

Hoss shook his head firmly. "I said reasonable. We'll be fair but we ain't bein' held up."

The Captain's eyes slid from Hop Ling to the door. "Well, I can see that you gentlemen have your hands full. So if you'll excuse me - ?"

"Now, you hold on just a minute too, Captain. I cain't believe there ain't some way - "

Captain Simms rubbed his chin. "Gentlemen, I couldn't be sorrier that things are ending this way. But under the circumstances - "

"Now, look, Captain - " Joe took a deep, tentative breath, not believing what he was about to say. "Maybe if I talked to the Colonel…" The mere thought made his stomach go cold, but he had to do something.

The Captain lifted his brows and paused. "I don't really think - "

Hoss lifted his brows, too, and eyed his brother with respect.

"That it will do any good?" Joe cut in. "Maybe not. But I gotta try. It sure can't hurt anything any worse than it already is and - " he swallowed again. "Well. I gotta try."

Hoss gave him a deferential nod. "I'll go with ya if ya like, Joe."

Joe shook his head. "No, it's like you said - we gotta work as a team. You take care of Hop Ling and I'll take care of the Colonel."

Hoss nodded slowly. "Anything you say, little brother. Just - "

The door swung open again, almost into Hoss's back.

"Oh!" Sarah Jane blushed with confusion. "I'm so sorry, Hoss. But Julie just came out all upset and I thought I ought to find out if everything is all right?" She glanced from one to the other, troubled and perplexed, but easily reading the atmosphere.  "Is there anything I can do?"

Hoss's face fell. "Dang, I'm sorry, Sarah Jane - I don't mean to leave you danglin', but - "

The door was pushed more firmly and Hoss hastily sidestepped to avoid being clipped. It flew open all the way this time, swinging back until it smacked against the wall.

Hop Sing stood in the entranceway, a carpet bag in his hand and a scowl on his face. "I walk two mile to door!" he scolded. "Driver no can get near! What happen? Who all these people? Where Missa Cartwright?"


"Hop Sing!" cried Joe and Hoss simultaneously, looking first relieved and then horrified.

"Hop Sing you're - you're home!"

Hop Sing gave Hoss a scathing glance. "Smart boy. I think there accident - or funeral! Who all these people? Where Missa Cartwright?"

Hoss gave an unconvincing chuckle. "Well, shoot, Hop Sing - you cain't have forgot already! Pa's in San Francisco for another couple o' days - you know that!"

Hop Sing's gaze narrowed as it travelled from Hoss to Joe. "Hmph. Where Missa Adam?"

Hoss and Joe exchanged a stricken, here-we-go-again look. This time Joe answered. "Why Adam - Adam's - not here," he finished lamely. "He had…business."

"Hmph." Hop Sing's expression grew even more skeptical. "Who all these people? Why here?"

"Why," Hoss gave another attempt at a light-hearted laugh. It was, if possible, even weaker than the first. "Why, it's a party, Hop Sing. To celebrate finishin' the brandin'."

Hop Sing studied him minutely and Hoss dropped his gaze under the relentless scrutiny, falling silent. Then he thought of something. "Say!" Hoss's head came up sharply, suddenly sly. "Say, Hop Sing! Yer just in time! Hop Ling here ain't managed to cook enough food and we got that whole passel o' people in danger o' goin' hungry."

Hop Sing's face shifted suddenly from preparation to scold to…something else. "Why so many?" he asked suspiciously.

Joe grabbed at Hoss's lead. "There sure are a lot, ain't there?" he dodged glibly. "Just imagine what a pity if they left the Ponderosa hungry. Be the talk of Virginia City, I'll bet."

Hop Sing frowned hesitantly. "Why you have so big party with no fatha and no Hop Sing and no Missa Adam?" he asked finally, but it lacked conviction.

"Sure is a big one all right," agreed Hoss, winking at Joe. "Too bad Hop Ling here cain't help us."

Hop Sing's eyes traveled to Hop Ling. He asked a question sharply in Cantonese. Hop Ling responded indignantly. Hop Sing frowned. He took a step toward his cousin and rattled off something that sounded sarcastic this time. Hop Ling thrust his lip out and answered sulkily. Joe and Hoss tried to follow with baited breath.

Hop Sing stood toe to toe with Hop Ling and barked something that sounded like orders. Hop Ling glared, but after a minute he shifted his feet and nodded. Hop Sing nodded back. He handed his carpet bag to Hoss. "We cook now," he said serenely.

Hoss's face broke into a grin. "Doggone, Hop Sing - you're the best!" He was going to say more, but at that moment a lean, silent figure with a tortured face wreathed in whiskers moved mutely toward him. Hoss, Joe and the Captain all started in tandem.

"Colonel - "


"Sir - "

The tall, ghostlike form moved soundlessly past them, into the night.

"Colonel Pettigrew - " Captain Simms called, then touched his hat to them. "Gentlemen - " and exited hastily in pursuit.

Joe and Hoss exchanged a frantic glance. Hoss stared sadly at Sarah Jane, steeling himself. "Sarah Jane, I'm right sorry, but I gotta - "

Sarah Jane smiled and touched his arm. "Never mind, Hoss. I understand how it is with you big businessmen. I'll be fine."

Joe shot her a wistful, appreciative look. Why couldn't Julie be like that?

Hoss's face was a study in conflicting emotions. He closed his eyes to make the ultimate sacrifice. "I'll - see that ya ain't left unattended, o' course. Mebbe - Butch Peters - " he choked a little on the name.

"Hm?" Sarah Jane looked up at him - not too far up, she was a tall girl. "Oh, that's not necessary. I was thinking I'd give Hop Sing and Hop Ling a hand. I think they could use it." She gave him an arch smile. "As it happens, I'm a very good cook."

Hoss's face melted. "Sarah Jane," he gasped in awe, "reckon yer just about an angel."

Sarah Jane laughed comfortably. "Not at all," she twinkled. "I'm just a bit of a good business woman myself. I'm going to expect payment in full when it comes time for the dancing."

 Hoss grinned goofily, speechless. Joe sighed heavily in regret. He tugged at Hoss's arm as Sarah Jane disappeared behind the kitchen door. "Come on. We still gotta talk to the Colonel."


The Chinese lanterns winked delightfully against the deepening dusk, but they did not provide particularly good light for finding a single person.

Joe and Hoss glanced about in despair.

"He could have gone anywhere," sighed Joe.

Hoss nodded. "Best go out to the main road and see what we can see from there." He pressed his way through the crowd with Joe hard on his heels, slowing his progress to pause and smile and nod to guests.

Joe's eyes scoured the laughing, talking knots of people. "I don't see him," he confessed at last. "You, Hoss?"

Hoss started to shake his head, then stopped. Something else had snagged his eye. A small party of four, walking toward him, leading their horses. But it was the shape in the middle that caught and held his attention - a lean, somewhat bedraggled figure in black, turning his head this way and that and staring in open astonishment at the collection of vehicles. Joe followed Hoss's gaze to see what had distracted him and had to stop and swallow a sudden lump in his throat. A huge weight shifted from his shoulders and for one second he thought he was going to run and launch himself into his brother's arms, the way he used to when he was five. He settled for running.

"Adam!" he yelled, pelting toward him, shoulder to shoulder with Hoss. The figure stopped dead, folding his arms across his chest and waiting. "Adam!" Joe came to a skidding halt in front of him, unable to resist patting his arm to assure himself that he was real. "Oh, boy, Adam - are we ever glad to see you!"

Under the shadow of his hat, Adam's face was unreadable. "Then you did notice that I wasn't here," he answered coolly.

Hoss had reached out to stroke his shoulder - looking him up and down and grinning in open relief. "Shoot - course we did, Adam. You sure are a sight fer sore eyes. We was right worried."

"Really." Adam's voice dripped with doubt.

Hoss and Joe backed off a little, staring at him in surprise.

"Course we were," repeated Hoss, a touch indignantly this time. "How in blazes could you think we wouldn't be?"

Adam looked at him hard, his eyes glittering. Then he let his gaze travel pointedly from the Chinese lanterns to the tables of food, to the clusters of guests. When he returned his look to Hoss and Joe his brows were raised questioningly.

Hoss and Joe exchanged a discomfited glance, then Hoss dropped his eyes while Joe ran a finger around the inside of his suddenly too-tight collar. "Oh. You mean the - the…" Joe's voice dribbled away awkwardly. "Now, I know that this must SEEM…"

Hoss peered up guiltily. "Now, Adam, I know what this must LOOK like, but - but - you cain't really think that we - we - just took advantage of you disappearin' to - to - "

Adam slowly swept another look over the festive scene and then turned back to them, waiting.

"And that we didn't even…" Joe's voice cracked. "try to find you or…"

Hoss's face worked at the sight of Adam's granite-like countenance. "Dang, it, Adam, course we looked fer ya! We woulda kep' lookin' too, 'ceptin' fer what Clyde said - "

"Clyde." Adam frowned, startled out of his anger for a moment. "Clyde…Decker? What's he got to do with all this?"

Hoss rubbed his hands together nervously. "Well, he said as how you had a fight with Pa about takin' a huntin' trip and probably just sorta - sorta - "

"Cracked," Joe put in plainly. "And took off."

"Ta clear yer head, like."

Adam blinked, removing his hat slowly and rubbing at his forehead. "What?"

Joe nodded doggedly. "He said as how you'd been too responsible for too long and that sometimes a fella just had to have some say in where he went and when and that - that - "

"That mebbe ya just needed some time ta yerself," Hoss finished hastily. "We checked yer tracks an there weren't no signs o' trouble, Adam, and - and, well - after walkin' in yer boots fer a couple o' days I gotta say as how I really wouldn't-a blamed ya."

Adam was silent a moment, gazing past them, unseeing. "Clyde Decker said that?"

"Sure. And you'd been kinda tense, Adam, so it did sorta make sense - "

Adam looked directly at them this time. "It did."

"Sure did." Joe nodded. "We tried to keep everything goin' and we did pretty okay…"

"We finished the brandin'…" Hoss put in.

Adam's face shifted in surprise. "You did?"

"Sure did!" Hoss beamed, then wrinkled his forehead. "Had - had a few other little problems,
though... " He cleared his throat. "Like - like the horse sale - "

  Adam's stance relaxed. "You remembered the horse sale?"

 Joe cleared his throat noisily. "Well - well - not exactly - mostly, we did - " He glanced at Hoss for help.

"Mostly you did," repeated Adam a little dazedly. "How do you mostly…are we ready for the sale?"

"Well, now, not exactly, Adam - " Hoss made a face. "That's why we're so glad ta see ya - I mean ONE reason why - " he amended hastily.

Adam nodded sardonically. "Of course. What exactly did you say was the problem?"

"Well," Hoss and Joe looked at each other. "Well, we're a little short o' horses fer one thing - "

"A little short." Adam studied them suspiciously. "There were twenty-four. What's a little short? How many are there now?"

Joe looked at Hoss. "Oh, just a few less, really Adam. Really, we're almost - "

"How - many?" Adam interrupted deliberately.

Hoss and Joe shared a speculative glance. Joe cleared his throat. "Oh - almost - almost a dozen!"

"Almost…" Adam stared at him, then reached up and rubbed his forehead again, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Almost…? What on earth is an almost horse?"

Joe jumped a little at his tone.

Hoss folded his arms. "He means ten," he answered bluntly.

Joe nodded meekly.

Adam just looked at them. "Ten? But there were - where are the others?"

Joe and Hoss shuffled their feet, squinting in discomfort. Hoss nervously twisted his neck to loosen it. "Well, there was the three fer Digger Jones…"

Adam dropped his hand. "Those weren't the horses for Digger."

"Well, now, we didn't have any way o' knowin' that, did we?" replied Hoss with some asperity.

"No," Adam admitted. "I suppose not. Though the agreement was in the safe if you cared to look." Hoss winced and glanced at Joe, but Adam didn't notice. "Go on. What about the others?"

"Well…we had a bit o' a storm…" Hoss studied the ground intently. "They busted out…" he snuk a look at Adam. "Ain't got 'em all rounded up yet…"

Adam nodded resignedly. "Figures. Knew they needed to be moved to fix that corral. If only that bridge…is the Captain here now?"

Hoss pursed his lips and nodded. "Yeah, that's the other - say, Adam, you ain't mad?"

"Mad? About what? A broken corral fence? That can happen to anybody."

Hoss snorted. "Don't ever happen ta you. Things always go perfect when yer in charge."

Adam's face was a study. "Is that what you think? Of course they don't. Hoss, trouble shooting is a big part of the job. It never goes perfectly for anybody."

"No?" Hoss was dumbfounded. "Dang, Adam. How come when you do it it looks sa easy?"

"Does it?" Adam laughed tiredly. "Huh. Now, where's the Captain? Oh, wait - " He suddenly remembered his companions and glanced about at them. "More importantly, is Roy here?"

Hoss and Joe noticed the other members of the party at the same time. Joe's face broke into a grin at the sight of Cressie, shrinking back behind the protection of Adam's shoulder. "Hey! Don't tell me there really is a fair Rowena!"

"Her name is NOT -  where on earth did you come up with that anyway?"

Joe looked surprised. "Well, Ivanhoe, of course, Adam. You must recognize it. You musta read me that book a hunnerd - "

Adam waved at him impatiently. "Of course I realize it's from - that's not the question! Where did this ridiculous story that seems to be all over town come from about me and - and - well, I don't even know what?"

"Oh." Joe looked a little sheepish. "Well, that was me." He brightened earnestly. "But I did it for you, Adam! I mean, there were all these rumors flying and I was afraid your reputation - "

"Rumors." Adam shook his head slightly. "Where did the rumors come from?"

"Oh." Joe laughed weakly with attempted lightness. "Well - uh - that mighta been me too…" and when he saw Adam's expression, "But darn it, Adam, I didn't mean anything by it! You know how it is  - you say the simplest, most innocent thing and people take it and twist it into somethin' entirely different! And I did everythin' I could to fix it."

Despite himself, Adam's mouth twitched. "Yes, I see what you did. Richlieu, indeed."
Joe beamed. "Oh, yeah. Three Musketeers. That was my favorite."

"I remember." Adam's voice was dry, but his eyes twinkled. "But where are my manners? Hoss - Joe - this is the Sheriff and Deputy of Clarendon and, of course, the fair Cressida."

Hoss and Joe exchanged a blank glance. Adam shook his head and leaned aside to Cressie. "They haven't read the book either," he explained.

"Sure is a peculiar sorta name," said Hoss at last.

Cressie came to life. "That's fine talk, comin' from a man named Hoss," she snapped indignantly.

Adam chuckled.

Hoss flushed. "Beggin' yer pardon, Miss - I didn't mean nothin' by it - it's - it's right purty. Adam, how the heck you two come to be together anyhow?"

"Yeah, Adam!" said Joe with a grin. "Maybe we should be mad at you - leaving us with all the work while you run off with a pretty girl!"

Cressie shot forward and Adam had a sudden sense of what she had in mind and made a snatch at her. "Cressie - Cressie…" He just caught her sleeve in time and pulled her back and away from Joe. "I know what I taught you, but that's my brother and my father has high hopes of grandchildren some day."

Cressie glared at Joe. "Well, he just better keep a civil tongue in his head, then, when he talks to you."

Hoss guffawed. "Heck, Adam - I wouldn’t-a been worried a-tall if'n I knowed you had such a plucky protector with ya." His face wrinkled. "But how's she fit inta all this, Adam? And what're you doin' with the sheriff and deputy here?"

This time it was Adam's turn to hesitate. "I - " he choked. "It's really a very, very long…maybe we can talk about this - later? Is Roy here?"

Hoss and Joe looked at each other meaningfully. "Well, sure, Adam - he's gotta be around here someplace - just might take a minute to find him in all this crowd - "

Adam stared about him."Who are all these people, anyway? It looks like half the Territory!"

Hoss studied Joe severely and Joe sighed and tried to look jaunty. "Just - just a few friends and neighbors, Adam - you know how it is - you ask a couple of people and then the next thing you know…"

Hoss thumped Joe briskly on the shoulder. "And you know how our little brother hates bein' un-neighborly."

Joe smiled feebly.

Adam rolled his eyes. "Well, all I can say is the neighborhood certainly has grown. Good thing Pa isn't here."

Joe shuddered at the thought, then remembered. "Oh, say, Adam! We need your help! The Captain is going to walk out without ever seeing those horses if we don't talk to the Colonel!"

"Colonel. What Colonel?"

Hoss cleared his throat. "The Captain brought this - this - Colonel with him, and he's bound and determined to leave and take the Captain with him without even seein' one o' them horses…"

"Yeah, Adam - " Joe tugged at his arm. "I'll bet if you talked to him you could convince him to at least LOOK at the horses we got and Pa would never have to know -" Adam reached up unconsciously to rub at his temple again with his free hand and Joe stared. "Where in tarnation did you get THAT, Adam?"

Adam heard the faint jingling and remembered the shackle too late, grimacing at Hoss's and Joe's expressions. "It - can't we - later? What about this Colonel?"

"Oh." Joe hung on his arm. "Adam, please - if you'll just talk to him - "

"Yeah, Adam." Hoss cut in. "We ain't had any luck - he's practically a statue - scares the beejeebers right out o' a fella - "

"Please, Adam - "

Adam sighed and closed his eyes briefly. There was that look again. That you-have-a-magic answer-up-your-sleeve look. He ran a hand over his two-day growth of beard. "All right, all right, all right. Just - find Roy so I can release my escorts and let me get a little cleaned up - "

At that moment Captain Simms approached them out of the dark at a brisk pace. "Gentlemen." He nodded briefly in greeting. "Have either of you seen the Colonel? I can't seem to locate him in this crowd - "

Joe nudged Adam. "Er - Captain Simms? This is my brother Adam. The one you were corresponding with?"

Captain Simms seemed to barely register him, but nodded politely.

Adam groaned inwardly, but decided he'd have to make the best of it. He pasted on a cordial smile and offered his hand. "Pleased to finally meet you in person, Captain - " Too late he remembered the manacle and snatched his jangling arm hastily back, tucking it out of sight behind him. Trying not to seem flustered he continued, "Um - my brothers tell me there's some complication - ?" He stopped abruptly because he no longer had the Captain's attention. In fact, he had no one's attention, because all eyes were riveted on the long, narrow figure in uniform that had stopped just a few feet from them, staring with burning, empty, disbelieving eyes.

Captain Simms made a move toward the officer, then stopped, uncertain. "Colonel - " He bit his lip and looked questioningly at Adam.

The Colonel was staring at Adam with a look that he couldn't quite name, but an intensity that made him acutely uncomfortable. Hesitantly he began, "How do you do, Colonel, my name is - " but stopped as the man's ravaged face contorted strangely. Adam raised his eyebrows at the Captain, who looked just as puzzled as he felt, then turned back to the Colonel, clearing his throat, struggling for something to say. Damn it, he had worked hard over this horse sale and he wasn't going to see it all go to waste without a fight. "Sir, is there something I can - " the Colonel unexpectedly took a step toward him and he stepped backward hastily, nearly tripping on Joe and Cressie who had ducked behind him.

The Colonel was murmuring something under his breath, over and over, and Adam struggled to make out the words. The man's hands twisted at his sides - his eyes filled suddenly with tears. Adam wondered if he was in pain or having some sort of fit. He looked again at the Captain, who seemed rooted to the spot, and made a decision. Well, this was ridiculous. The man was clearly in agony of some kind and needed help…he made a move toward him, dislodging both Joe and Cressie from their death grips on his arms. "Sir, would you like some water, or…?"

This time he could understand the words, "Oh my Lord, oh my darlin', oh my dear Lord…" over and over in a hoarse, choked voice…

Adam furrowed his brows. "Sir, is there something…?" Why on earth was the man staring at him like…?
no. It came to him suddenly. Not AT him. PAST - just the faintest glimmer of an idea tickled at his mind and he turned his head to track the Colonel's gaze more accurately. Just behind him, Cressie had once again moved up to cling to his arm, half hidden by his body. Slowly, timorously, she lifted her face until her chin rested on his shoulder.

The Colonel's tears spilled over this time - he looked like a man staring across the gates of Tartarus and into the netherworlds, unable to believe his eyes, but equally unable to look away.

"Oh, my darlin', oh my good Lord, my darlin', my darlin'…" His voice broke in a sob and he reached out stiff arms.

This time Adam didn't flinch. Instead, he gently moved aside, looking questioningly at Cressie.

She returned his gaze timidly, then raised her eyes tentatively to meet the Colonel's, swallowing delicately.

"Hello, Daddy," she murmured meekly.

Chapter 9: All's Well That Ends Well

"The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together."
         IV, iii, 83

The Colonel swept forward and, despite the crowds of people humming about them, enveloped her in an embrace, his ghastly pallor disappearing in a hectic flush. Cressie threw her arms around him and pressed her face into his neck. He spotted Sheriff Struthers and Deputy Pratt standing just behind Adam and lifted his head to address them.

"Gentlemen - " his drawl was thick with tears. "How can I ever thank you - "

Cressie's face popped up at that. "It was Adam, Daddy!" she protested urgently. "Adam looked out for me from the start. I don't know what would have happened to me if he hadn't been there, takin' care of me."

The Colonel's eyes swept the group questioningly and settled on Adam, unkempt but smiling in quiet satisfaction. "You looked out for my little girl?"

Adam met his gaze. "Well, let's say Cressie and I looked out for each other. She's a brave girl."

The Colonel took a step toward him and for a horrible moment Adam feared he was going to be embraced as well. Instead, he was clasped by the hand and pumped with such vigor that the manacle bounced and clattered. "Sir," the Colonel said solemnly. "Sir - I can never thank you enough - Cressie is - well, she's all I have that really matters. These last few days I thought - " he broke off, his eyes filling again. His gaze fell on the lawmen and he paused. "I don't understand. I sent you off after my daughter and you did return with her, how - "

Adam glanced at the pair, who had grown increasingly silent and uncomfortable throughout the proceedings, and took pity on them. "They - acted as a sort of escort for our journey into town - ran into us on the trail."

Cressie looked at him in some surprise but didn't argue. He gave her a solemn wink. She met her father's eyes earnestly. "Daddy, you were so right - about Troy - only that wasn't his name, and he had this horrid brother who wasn't a minister at all and we were way far away from anyone in this cabin and Adam - "

"Cressie - "

"No, no - " the Colonel silenced Adam's protests. "I want to hear the whole story. Every word."

"I'd kind o' like to hear it, too, Adam," Hoss piped up, grinning at his brother's obvious discomfort.

"Me too, Adam," Joe twinkled.

Adam shot them a sour look. "There'll be plenty of time for that later. Cressie must be exhausted. She's been through quite an ordeal - she should have a bath and bed."

The Colonel stroked the golden brown head tucked beneath his chin. "Mr. Adam's right, honey. You must be clear worn out."

Cressie bobbed up in surprise. "Bed? Oh, no! I want to go to the party!" She clasped her hands and gazed about her with shining eyes. "Isn't it lovely! Will there be dancin'? Daddy, did you pick up my trunk when you were at the Clarendon Way Station?"

Adam and the Colonel exchanged looks of rueful amazement over Cressie's head.

"Eighteen," Adam suggested by way of explanation. "You forget, don't you?"

The Colonel chuckled. "Well, only comes once."

"Just as well, too," Adam smiled. "Not sure anybody could survive it twice."

 Cressie ignored them, tugging impatiently at her father's arm. "There must be a dress in my trunk that will do. Where is it, Daddy? My, but I do need a bath!"

Hoss eyed her in open amusement. "Hop Sing'll be happy ta help ya out, little lady. He's right in the kitchen - "

Adam looked up in surprise. "Hop Sing? When did he get back?"

Hoss and Joe snuk a look at each other.

"While ago…" Joe hedged.

"In time for the party." Adam raised his brows in surprise and whistled. "You two are lucky."

"You don't know the half of it," muttered Hoss.

The Colonel, pulled in the direction of the house by his insistent daughter, soothed her gently and took a step back toward Adam. "Son - I'm sorry, I didn't catch your last name?"

"Cartwright," answered Adam cautiously.

The Colonel nodded. "There is nothing in this world I can ever do to thank you. Nothing that will equal what you've done for me, but surely - " He looked about him and noticed the Captain standing to the side, open mouthed. "Captain Simms!" he rapped so sharply that they all came automatically to attention.

Captain Simms saluted. "Sir?"

"This horse sale. How many horses did you intend to buy on this trip?"

"Well, about thirty, sir - maybe twenty from Mr. Cartwright and then - "

"That's fine," the Colonel interrupted. "You will buy all thirty from Mr. Cartwright."

The three Cartwright brothers and the Captain all stared. "But - " the Captain stammered, "but, sir - I haven't even seen - "

The Colonel looked hard at Adam. "Mr. Cartwright. Are these horses all right? Fit for Cavalry?"

"Well, of course they are, sir - you can ask - "

"Never mind. Your word is good enough for me. Captain - see to the paperwork, will you? Thirty here and then this business is concluded. Now, if you'll excuse me, I mustn't keep a young lady waiting." He paused to clasp Adam's hand again, then turned away with his arm around Cressie. She peeked back over her shoulder as they made their way to the ranch house and mouthed "You were right!" to Adam, pointing surreptitiously to her father behind his back. Adam smiled.

Sheriff Struthers moved to get his attention. "Uh - son - you know we was just doing our duty an' all. I hope there's no hard feelins…"

Deputy Pratt looked miserable.

Adam, still slightly dazed by events, waved them away. "No, no - of course not. Look, you said you hadn't eaten - why don't you both just  - go join the party? Roy and Clem would probably enjoy a chat if you can find them, and I doubt that anyone will notice two more in all this crush. After all, we don't want the folks in Clarendon to think that we're," he winked at Joe " - un-neighborly."

Struthers and Pratt didn't need to be told twice. They were swallowed up by the crowd within seconds.

The Captain cleared his throat to get their attention. "Um - Mr. Cartwright - about these horses - "

"Oh." Adam turned back to him, his brain racing. "Of course. Well, you - don't look as though you're prepared to take them all with you just now, so - um - what do you say to - uh - ten now, ten in two weeks and ten at the end of the month?" He smiled with audacious brilliance.

Hoss and Joe gaped at him, then looked at the Captain.

"That - that would be fine, I suppose." The Captain unbent a little. "Your ranch does have a very good reputation for horse flesh, Mr. Cartwright - I'm happy that things worked out. I'm sure we can have a lucrative partnership going forward." He touched his hat to them and strolled away.

Adam, Hoss and Joe stared after him in silence.

"Adam," said Hoss after a minute in a hushed voice, "what just happened?"

Joe folded his arms and creased his forehead. "Yeah, Adam - one minute we were out of a deal and the next we got more than we hoped for. How did you do that?"

Adam gazed after the Captain in faint bemusement, scrubbing contemplatively at the stubble on his chin. "Well, I'll tell you - " he began after a minute. "It's like this. Planning is good. In fact, planning is excellent, but sometimes…" he paused as Joe handed them each a glass of punch from a nearby table.

"Yeah?" urged Hoss impatiently. He and Joe fixed their eyes on him and waited.

Adam knit his brows. "Sometimes?" He shook his head."Sometimes…there's just no substitute for plain, dumb luck."

Hoss blinked. "I'll drink to that," he agreed solemnly.

"Here here," breathed Joe.

They clinked glasses, in perfect accord.


Hoss pulled back the hammer and chisel for the third time in as many minutes. "Adam, you gotta stop flinchin' or I'm gonna hurt ya! You just hold still."

Adam looked abashed. "Hurts," he muttered apologetically.

"Well, I reckon it does, all torn like that, but the way it's swelled up you gotta be real still or I'll get you, not the cuff."

Adam nodded resignedly. "Right."

"Right curious to hear how you ended up in this contraption anyhow."

Adam shot him a sideways glance."And I'm curious to hear how you managed to pay for a party for half the Territory."

Their eyes met in mutual mortification.

"Later," suggested Hoss.

"Yeah, later," agreed Adam.

Joe watched them from his perch on a nearby table, his face pensive. He knew he should probably be acting the host, but he found himself curiously unready to separate from his brothers. Hoss positioned the chisel again and took a swing. Joe closed his eyes and didn't open them until the sound of metal on metal had passed. "Got it?" he asked.

"Almost," muttered Hoss, concentrating.

Joe swung his legs in time with his thoughts as he watched Hoss check the manacle and reposition. "Adam," he said suddenly. "How come you didn't tell us? I mean about the hunting trip. How come you told Clyde and not us?"

Adam looked up in surprise. "I don't know," he said slowly, after a moment's thought. "I don't actually remember telling Clyde…must have said something without thinking when we were working way out there on the upper north range. And then when Pa said no, well, there just didn't seem to be any reason to talk about it."

Joe frowned. "You shoulda told us."

"Yeah, Adam," Hoss looked up from the surprisingly delicate exploration his large hands were performing on the weakened metal. "You shoulda. We coulda gone ta Pa together - talked him inta it. Made some kinda plan ta show him how we'd cover things fer a couple a days."

Adam looked at Hoss, then back at Joe.

"After all," grinned Joe irrepressibly, just as Hoss swung. "Look how great we did this time."

Adam covered his face hastily with his good hand, struggling manfully with his composure, then laughed helplessly anyway. Hoss chuckled too as his blow landed and the cuff gave way with a snap.

 Joe looked smug. "Thought that would distract you."

Hoss put down his tools and slapped Adam's uninjured hand away from where it hovered, over the cuff. "Leave it be and let me take a look, here." He prodded gingerly at the shackle. "Sure is a mess." He began to pry the sections gently aside. "Anyway, next time we go ta Pa together, Adam. Wouldn't kill ya ta ask fer help every onct in a while. Then at least we'd know what in blazes ta expect insteada havin' ta figger it out as we went along." He saw the smile hovering around Adam's mouth and glared. "Yeah, bet you think it's dang funny."

Adam's smile deepened. "Just kinda sorry I missed it." Then, as Hoss yanked the remaining cuff off without ceremony, "Ow!"

"Teach ya." Hoss dangled the manacle before Adam's eyes. "Don't forget ya got some fancy explainin' o' yer own ta do." Adam winced ruefully in agreement. Hoss's frown grew as he turned his brother's wrist to the lantern light. "Nasty."

Adam nodded. "I'm going to write the Prison Reform Board about them - there has to be a more humane way to restrain a man. I can't imagine being stuck in them for - hey! What are you doing with that?"

Hoss looked up in surprise. "Tossin' it with the rest of the scrap metal. Might as well be useful fer somethin'."

"Don't do that. I want it."

Hoss looked at the shackle in disgust. "What in thunder fer?"

"I don't know. Momento."

Hoss snorted, but dropped the manacle back on the anvil with a clang. "Bet them are some real fond memories, too."

Adam picked it up to study it. "Well. A learning experience, anyway."

Hoss pulled out his handkerchief and tied it around Adam's wrist. "Let's git inside and wrap that proper. Needs ta be cleaned out real good, too."

Joe hopped down from the table and followed them out of the forge. Even without its hosts, the party seemed to be in full swing. Joe noticed with relief that the food was plentiful and all the guests happily engaged in conversation or flirtation.

He stopped beside Adam, who eyes roamed the grounds in silent wonder.

"How many people?" he asked after a minute.

Joe flushed. "Don't  - exactly know," he admitted gruffly and braced himself for the inevitable caustic remark.

Adam nodded. "Nice party," he added after a minute, and continued on his way toward the house, tossing and catching the manacle mindlessly in his left hand.

Joe stared after him, then quickened his pace to catch up. "Looks like it. Hoss and me ain't exactly had much chance to enjoy it, though." He slanted a glance at his eldest brother. "Sometimes bein' in charge can sure interfere with your fun." Adam smiled slightly, but didn't answer. Encouraged, Joe pressed on, "So. You comin' once you get cleaned up?"

Adam made a face, his hand going automatically to the lump on the bed sounds mighty good to me."

Joe toed the ground with his freshly shined boots. "You should," he said seriously. "It'll be fun, and - well. You should."

Adam stopped walking and looked at him curiously, now twirling the manacle around his forefinger.

Joe took a deep breath and pushed on,"You know, Adam, long as I known you, you been workin'. I mean, that's just how I always think of you, y'know?" Adam cocked his head at him, waiting and a little wary. Joe took another breath and continued carefully, "I guess I always kinda figured you worked so much because that's what you liked - that you didn't have anythin' else ya'd rather do anyway."

Adam bounced the manacle from one hand to the other, his expression thoughtful. "I do love the work," he said slowly. "But nobody likes to work all the time, Joe."

Joe nodded. "Yeah. That's kinda what I figured out." Their eyes met for a fleeting moment, then Adam grinned faintly and, after a pause, Joe grinned back. Adam turned back toward the house, swinging the manacle like a watch chain.

Hoss unexpectedly reached out and snatched it away. "Would ya cut that out?" he blurted with uncharacteristic heat. "Thing's downright gruesome."

Adam turned a surprised gaze to him. "Kind of edgy, Hoss? Not like you."

Hoss fingered the shackle with distaste. "Disgustin'. Cain't imagine who'd use it on a beast, never mind a man. Cain't imagine why ya insist on keepin' it."

Joe gleamed a mischievous glance at his large brother. "It's that Hoss ain't been eatin' so good. You know how he gets."

Hoss opened his mouth to retort, but was stopped by a sudden stirring in the crowd and the sound of raised voices and he groaned instead. "What in blazes is the trouble now?"

Sheriff Struthers burst through the crowd flanked by his faithful deputy, pulling someone along between them. "Mr. Cartwright - " the Sheriff's sudden change in demeanor made Adam smile briefly. "Mr. Cartwright, we found this here fella skulkin' around in the bushes - looked like he was makin' off with a horse. Tried ta tell us he was a party guest, but he don't look dressed fer no party an' Roy Coffey didn't recognize him."

Adam let his gaze travel past Sheriff Struthers to find Roy. Roy grinned. "Adam. Good ta see ya - especially after all the talk in town."

Adam felt himself color and hastily shifted his gaze back to the prisoner. "Stacy," he said cordially.  "How nice to finally catch up with you."

Stacy stared back at him, open mouthed. "How did you escape?" he demanded. "And where's Cressie?"
Adam watched the looks of revelation spread across the faces in the crowd and shook his head. This fellow just never got any smarter.

"Adam," Farmer Lawson, decked out in a faded but freshly laundered shirt, was eyeing Stacy in dark suspicion. "Adam - is this that there Rishy-loo fella what's been plaguing you and that little missy?" A low angry murmur, like the rumbling of approaching surf, ran through the crowd, and Stacy glanced about him nervously.

Adam paused. He looked at Joe, who smiled guilelessly and shrugged. Adam's mouth turned up. "Yeah," he said after a minute. "Yeah - that's him all right."

Stacy shrank back against the Sheriff as the crowd moved in toward him. "Now, see here - " he objected. "That is not my name! It's - "

"Oh, that's right," Adam reflected. "I forgot. He changes it a lot. I'm sure you have a wanted poster under at least one of his names."

The crowd noises grew ugly and Roy held up his hands. "Now folks! Folks, please - leave it to the law!"
"That's right." Adam smiled directly at Stacy this time. "The law - and the Colonel. I'm sure he'll have a lot of uses for him." Stacy went white. Adam got a glimpse of Hoss out of the corner of his eye."That reminds me - " He reached to take the manacle from Hoss's unresisting grasp and tossed it lightly underhand. Stacy caught it instinctively and blinked at it curiously. "For your brother. A souvenir of our time together. Tell him to remember what I said - that the last hand in the game is the only one that counts." He gave the law officers a polite nod. "I leave him in your very capable hands. Don't forget about his brother at the cabin, though?"

"Don't worry none." Sherrif Struthers glared at Stacy. "Earl'll be headin' up thata way tonight." The deputy groaned, then silenced at a glare from Struthers.

Stacy yanked against their hold. "You think this is finished, sir? It is not! You had best be lookin' over your shoulder  - we WILL meet again  - as soon as I am free!"

"Quite possibly," Adam agreed mildly. "But by then I think we'll both be very, very old." He turned away, not bothering to suppress a smile of satisfaction. And caught sight of Hoss's face, rumpled and moody. Adam stared at him, perplexed. "Hoss?"

Hoss tore his eyes away from Stacy and shook his head. "Nothin'," he grumbled. But Adam held his gaze and after a minute Hoss grimaced reluctantly. "Oh - guess I just - cain't believe you were out there somewhere with that blamed thing on yer arm an' I was sittin' here the whole time, thinkin' you was just fine. Riles me."

Adam's face softened. "Well," he suggested lightly, "from what got done around here I doubt you were doing much sitting." Hoss didn't smile, though, so he sobered and tried again. "Hoss, I am just fine. You did what you thought was right. And you had your hands pretty full."

Hoss glowered. "Ain't no excuse."

"I think it is." Adam paused, searching for the right words. "It's a lot - to suddenly have so much resting on you doing and saying the right thing. Overwhelming, sometimes." His mouth quirked into a half smile. "Believe me. I know."

"That's right." Joe nodded piously. "It's almost enough to drive a fella to run off into the wilderness and play Sir Galahad to some strange girl."

Adam was surprised into a snort of laughter. He squinted at Joe in mock anger, then dropped an arm loosely around his shoulders, looping the other one around Hoss and steering them back toward the house. With a grin of contentment, Hoss draped his arm around Adam and fell into step.

"So, Adam," Joe slid a sly, buoyant look at his brother. "How exactly DID you come to be totin' that girl around?"

Adam groaned at the memory and closed his eyes.

"Later," he said firmly. "Much, much, much…later."


Adam slid his eyes closed with a sigh of contentment, letting the steam drift up and around him. There was just nothing like a nice warm bath, especially after a couple of days on the trail. He had been planning to heat his own water to avoid bothering Hop Sing while he was trying to prepare things for the party, but had entered through the kitchen to find himself quickly ushered toward the back stairs by a torrent of Cantonese.

"Look at you!" Hop Sing had finished in exasperation. "You mess! Brothers gone crazy! And Hop Sing only gone three day! Get upstairs and take bath!"

"You have a bath ready?" Sometimes Adam wondered if Hop Sing had special intuitive powers when it came to the Cartwright family.

Hop Sing had nodded impatiently. "Missy tell Hop Sing you be coming soon too." He narrowed shrewd eyes at him. "Wait, wait - " Muttering to himself, he went over to the pantry and removed something, came back and thrust it at Adam. "Here. Take with you."

Adam eyed the canister of headache powders and glanced up at Hop Sing appraisingly. "I didn't say anything about a headache."

Hop Sing rolled his eyes. "Words no say - face say. Now, go - Hop Sing very busy."

Hoss guffawed and Hop Sing turned his frown on him. "What you doing here? You have many, many party guests need attention!" His eyes alit on Joe and his frown deepened. "You too!"

Hoss shuffled his feet. "I was goin'. Was just gonna see ta Adam's wrist first - it's sorta tore up."

Hop Sing looked from face to face and shook his head. Then he reached firmly for the hand Adam had discreetly stowed behind his back and studied it, growling something that sounded like Chinese swearing. He sighed, waving Hoss and Joe toward the great room. "Go, go - Hop Sing fix. You see to guests. You - " He fixed Adam with a glare. "Go get clean."

Adam had nodded meekly and moved to mount the back stairs, but not before exchanging guilty, amused looks with Hoss and Joe. He wondered if they'd ever be so old that Hop Sing would no longer be able to make them feel like naughty schoolboys. Somehow he doubted it.

Adam half-opened his eyes, smiling at the memory. Well, it was good to be home. He ducked under the water to rinse the last of the soap from his hair and ran a hand over his now-smooth chin. Maybe he'd just stay here all night.

The strains of the musical combo warming up drifted up the stairs and he closed his eyes again to listen. Nice, really. Very nice. The savory, mingled odors of fresh cooked food faintly filled the room and under the music stirred the affable murmur of congenial voices to the counterpoint of the soft clinking of glasses and cutlery.  It sounded - pleasant. He cautiously lowered his bad wrist back into the hot, sudsy water. It still stung a little when the soap hit it, but nothing like it had the first time he'd submerged it. And with the headache powders kicking in he was actually feeling…pretty good. And the thought of the party suddenly wasn't really…half bad. It actually sounded kind of relaxing.

He opened his eyes wide, surprised by his own thoughts. What was it Joe had said? Fun. He could do with a little fun. The music crescendoed and he smiled involuntarily. Maybe a dance or two…wonder if I have a clean dress shirt…

He was just thinking about getting out of the tub to look when Hop Sing bustled in. Adam reached for a towel. "Hop Sing, do you know if I have a - " He saw the neatly pressed dress shirt and string tie Hop Sing was tenderly laying out on the bed and his mouth dropped. He blinked. "How do you do that?" he asked blankly.

Hop Sing snorted in reply and set some bottles and cloths on the nearby washstand. "Now. Give me arm. Blood on good shirt very bad."


Hoss whirled around the great room to the melodious accompaniment of the fiddles, Sarah Jane Owens in his arms and smiling up into his face with her bright brown eyes alight. It was so exactly like his fantasy that he considered stopping to pinch himself, but that would have meant letting go of Sarah Jane for a minute and he didn't feel at all inclined to do that. He looked down at her again - almost afraid to find out it was all a dream - and felt himself color with pleasure at the unabashed admiration glowing in her eyes. He smiled back shyly and gave a sigh. Dang, if Joe wasn't right after all. This blamed party was perfect. A real humdinger.

Joe slumped disconsolantly against the wall with a glass of punch and sighed. He spotted Adam sitting far across the room, admiring the dancers, and pushed himself from the wall to make his way to him. He dropped down beside him on the settee and sighed again.

Adam didn't look up but it must have registered that Joe was there because he gestured toward the dance floor with his punch glass. "Good party. Did you see Hoss? He and Sarah Jane seem to have really hit it off."

"Yeah." Joe tried to sound happy for his brother but must not have quite succeeded, because Adam gave him a quick, searching glance before turning his eyes back to the dancers. "So. Why aren't you dancing? Where's your girl?"

Joe sighed. "With Tim Rogan."

Adam let his eyes drift around the room until they settled on Tim Rogan and a small girl in lavendar. "The little blonde?"

Joe nodded glumly.

Adam took a sip of punch. "Pretty," he said after a minute.

Joe nodded again, even more glumly.

"But - I wouldn't have thought she was your type."

"Huh?" Joe looked over at Julie in surprise and swallowed another sigh. To him, she looked like just about anybody's type. "How come?"

Adam shrugged, watching the young pair. "Giggles," he said simply.

Joe looked harder. Sure enough, as if cued, Julie let out one of her girlish giggles. He frowned to himself. Now that he thought about it, she did do that a lot.

"I mean, " Adam was continuing casually, "might be nice for a time out or two, but after a while I think it might get a little…"

"Annoying," finished Joe, sitting up a little straighter.

Adam smiled and shrugged again. "A little. Besides - " he leaned back against the settee. "You're the host here. You shouldn't tie yourself down to one girl - you should mingle - make sure all the girls are having a nice time. I'll bet there's more than half a dozen here that would be thrilled if you asked them to dance."

Joe sat up straighter still and looked around with new interest. He caught Emma Springer's eye and she smiled sweetly at him. He blinked in surprise. Now, why hadn't he noticed how pretty she'd gotten? Sure looked nice in that white organdy with the little sprigs of flowers on it. Sure was a different girl from the one whose desk he'd hidden that field mouse in so many years ago. His eyes swept the room. Adam was right - there were a lot of pretty girls here and as a good host he should be spreading himself around a little more. What had made him think that he should tie himself down to just one? Especially one the likes of Julie Trayner. It was just like Hoss had said - if she couldn't understand that a man had important responsibilities to tend to, well, then, maybe she just plain wasn't worth keeping.  His eyes travelled to the staircase and he sat up with a sudden jerk that made him swallow his punch the wrong way. He collapsed into a fit of coughing and Adam reached over to pound him between the shoulder blades. Joe tugged on Adam's sleeve and pointed at the stairs.

Adam followed his gaze and then smiled indulgently. "Oh. Yeah. Cleans up real nice, doesn't she?"

Joe managed to catch his breath. "She - she's beautiful!"

Adam nodded fondly. "Nice girl, too. Had kind of a nasty disappointment in love, though, poor kid. Sure could use a friend." He drained his punch glass and put it down, giving Joe a quick, sidelong glance. "Especially one that could teach her to shoot. Good punch. Almost as good as Pa's."

Joe nodded an absent-minded thanks, scrambling to his feet as Cressie approached on her father's arm. In a party dress with her hair washed and combed and styled he hardly recognized her.

Cressie stopped in front of them. "Hello, Adam." she said with a shy smile.

Adam smiled back. "Cressie. You look lovely."
"Thank you. So do you."

Adam laughed. "Thank you." And in response to Joe's forceful clearing of his throat, "You remember my brother, Joe?"

"Yes, of course." Cressie offered her hand to Joe. "How do you do."
Joe kissed it gallantly and she blushed, but he noticed that she didn't giggle.

Cressie looked up at Adam. "Adam, will you dance with me?"

Adam reached out a hand. "Cressie, I'd be honored."

They moved smoothly into the swirl of dancers and Adam raised his brows at her in surprise. "Now, I thought you told me you weren't very good at the dancing and deportment and things? You're a fine dancer."

"Oh, I love to dance. Guess I had to be good at somethin'. "

He frowned at her reprovingly. "Cressie. I think you know better than that. For instance, I don't think I know anybody that swings a shotgun quite like you do."

Cressie dimpled with pleasure. "My Daddy and I had a very long talk while I was gettin' ready. He's goin' to teach me to saddle a horse and then work on my ridin' with me his own self. He laughed about me fallin' off bareback but said a Cavalry officer's daughter should certainly know how to ride astride. Especially out here." She raised starry eyes to his. "I'm going to stay with him for a while, Adam - he says there are some officers' wives and such at the Fort so I won't be the only woman. Adam, I know I don't deserve to be so happy after what I did, but I can't help it. Isn't it wonderful?"

Adam moved her into a deft turn before he answered. "It is. And personally, I think we should just take our happiness wherever we find it and not worry too much about it. Are you leaving Miss Haversham's then?"

"N-no…" Cressie ducked her head. "I'm goin' to graduate. I thought about it and I knew you would tell me to finish what I start."

Adam looked amused. "Well, that's very nice - and probably very true, as a matter of fact, but you shouldn't do what I think. You should do whatever you think is right."

Cressie wrinkled her nose. "Well, I'm still workin' on the my judgement and all…I figure askin' myself what you would do is a good place to start. And I'd like you to be proud of me, Adam."

Adam met her eyes and swallowed quickly in surprise. For a moment he was so touched that he didn't know what to say. So he spun her into a twirl to buy himself some time and managed, "I am proud of you, Cressie." Cressie beamed at him and nestled her head on his shoulder. After a second Adam added, "You know, keep that up in front of your father and they'll be trolling the lake for my lifeless body."
Cressie laughed. "Oh, my, no. Daddy thinks you're just wonderful."

"A little more of this and he'll change his mind, I guarantee it."

Cressie obediently straightened with a sigh, following Adam effortlessly into another turn. "Say, Adam?" she said suddenly. "Do your brothers count?"

"Count?" Adam's brows twitched together. "Count as? - oh." He remembered in a rush. "OH." He chuckled. "Oh, yes. They definitely count. In fact, you can count every man here between the ages of sixteen and thirty and there look to be plenty. Make sure you meet as many of them as you can."

Cressie was about to answer when Adam felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see Joe standing behind him.

"Mind if I cut in?"

Adam glanced at Cressie questioningly.

Cressie smiled and dropped a brief curtsey. "Pleasure."

Adam stepped aside and Joe swept her back onto the floor.  Adam looked after them for a moment, then let his eyes drift to Hoss and Sarah Jane. Nice. Really. A nice party. Smiling faintly to himself, he went to get some air.

The night had grown quieter - many of the guests had moved inside to enjoy the dancing, or had scattered among the relative privacy of the trees to pursue some serious courting. Adam pulled himself up onto the porch railing and listened to the echo of the dance music keep tempo with the night insects.

"So. Yer back."

He turned his head to see a figure slumped against the opposite porch railing, the match in his teeth faintly visible even in the shadows.

"Clyde," he nodded polite acknowledgement. They sat together, their similarly taciturn natures enjoying the companionable silence, until Adam said suddenly, "How did you know?"

Clyde removed his match to study it. "What's that?"

"That I - " Adam hesitated. "That I might have run off. That I was close to it. I didn't know it myself. How did you?"

Clyde shrugged. "Work 'longside a man fer a while, ya get ta know summat about him."

Adam shook his head. "My family lives AND works with me and they didn't know."

"What, you mean yer brothers?" Clyde re-inserted his match and rolled it expertly from one end of his mouth to the other. "That's diff'urnt. They think yer like them hills out there - unbreakable." Adam laughed shortly. "Course," Clyde continued philosophically, "you don't do a whole lot to show 'em diff'urnt."

Adam was silent, his color rising under the cover of the dark. "I didn't - " he broke off and tried again. "I don't want it to be for them like it was for me. Always having to worry about something. Think of everything."

"Be responsible," Clyde finished for him. Adam nodded mutely. Clyde mulled it over. "Still. Kinda proud of themselves, ain't they?"

Adam's expression softened. "Well, why shouldn't they be?" he shot back, almost challengingly. "Did a good job."

Clyde nodded seriously, casually folding his arms and squinting up at the smattering of stars. "Still. Reckon it's kinda hard ta have the one without the other sometimes."

Adam studied him, his eyes penetrating the dark with their intensity. "Clyde Decker," he said quietly at last. "You are a crafty old coot."

Clyde grinned around the matchstick and touched his hat to him. "Good ta have ya back," he drawled cheekily and stepped off the porch and into the night. Adam sat and watched where he had disappeared into the darkness for a long time.


He had no idea how long he had been sitting there with his thoughts when he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned his head to look. Captain Simms stood behind him, smiling apologetically. "Mr. Cartwright. So sorry to disturb you, but I have drawn up that contract and if you could give me just a minute I'd be pleased to have this business concluded."

Adam hopped lightly down from the railing and joined the Captain on the porch. "Certainly…" He watched the Captain smooth the contract out on the porch table before him and leaned next to him to read it carefully. Seemed straightforward enough. He traced the terms down to the signature line. Captain Simm's was already in place. All it needed…

"Two Cartwight signatures," Simms pointed out apologetically. "It's standard procedure for us. Perhaps you could fetch one of your brothers…"

Adam stood studying the contract, absent-mindedly running the pen through his fingers. "Of course," he said after a minute. "Hang on just a second…"

He pushed through the heavy oaken door into the great room, giving himself a moment to adjust to the sudden glare and noise. Hoss was over in one corner, regaling a brightly laughing Sarah Jane with some story or other and enjoying a hefty plate of food while Joe was happily recounting a tale of derring-do to a rapt circle of four or five appreciative girls. His eyes automatically searched for Cressie next, who was gaily wheeling about the dance floor with a young man he barely recognized. He shook his head in amusement. Well, both she and Joe seemed to be recovering nicely. Two of a kind.

He went to Hoss first and tapped him on the arm. "Sorry to interrupt your evening again, Sarah Jane, but I could use Hoss for one more bit of business. Only take a second."

Hoss's face twisted in dismay for a moment but Sarah Jane touched his hand reassuringly. "Of course - I know how it is with an important man like Hoss."

Hoss's face lit with a glow that rivaled the noonday sun and Adam favored Sarah Jane with one of his rare, full smiles. "Thank you. I promise to bring him right back." As they started to work their way through the crowds to Joe, Adam glanced back at Sarah Jane, who was smilingly turning down an offer to dance, and then at Hoss. "That's one very nice lady," he said approvingly. Hoss garbled something that sounded like agreement. Adam's smile broadened. "Sure seems gone on you, brother."

Hoss blushed furiously. "Aw, Adam…" he mumbled. Then, anxiously, "Really think so?"

"Think so?" Adam whistled softly. "Got it bad."

Hoss's blush deepened, but he couldn't suppress a grin of pure bliss. "Dang."

Adam slapped him lightly on the back. "Come on. Let's collect Lothario Cartwright. I need you both for this."

Joe left his audience with a graceful flourish, and though the girls groaned and protested prettily, they were mollified by his promise to return quickly and finish his tale.

Adam shook his head as they made their way to the porch. "Borrowing from Sir Walter again? Or is it M. Dumas this time?"

"No, no - " Joe brushed this aside impatiently. "This is a real, honest to goodness, true to life story. About how Hoss and me survived this terrible stampede in the pouring rain - "

Hoss eyed him with simmering suspicion. "You tell'em about that bat an' yer a dead man, brother."

Adam looked from one to the other. "What bat?"

Joe was the picture of offended innocence. "Would I do that?"

"What bat?" Adam repeated, holding the door for them to proceed him onto the porch. "And how did you get that black eye, anyway?"

"What, this little thing?" Joe laughed lightly. "It - it was in the line of duty. Now, trust me, Hoss - you're gonna love it - you come out as a big hero - just like Adam did."

Adam nudged Hoss. "Take my advice - after he's done? Stay out of town for a few days."

Hoss rolled his eyes. "I'm thinkin'. And what's this about a story you told about Adam, anyway? What story?"

Joe looked from one brother to the other, opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. "You know," he said confidingly, "I think this is one of those stories that had better wait for later?"

"Yeah." Hoss thought about the bat and his agreement was heartfelt. "Later."

Adam started to protest, then dropped the door in resignation. "Why not. Captain Simms has the contract for those horses ready." He held the pen out to Hoss.

Joe looked at the contract and then back at Adam, puzzled, but Hoss took the pen and hovered it over the signature lines. He straightened without signing and scooched his face at Adam. "You ain't signed yet."
Adam shrugged. "Just needs two Cartwright signatures."

Joe looked back at the contract, baffled. "Okay, you and one of us. What you need us both for?"

Adam leaned into a porch support pole and folded his arms. "Thought you two might want to do it." They stared at him. "You sign and it's for real, of course. Means it's your job to fulfill it. I'll help you out if you ask me, but I won't be after you reminding you. It's all up to you."

Hoss wrinkled his forehead as though he didn't quite understand. "You trustin' us ta…?" He shook his head slowly. "You worked mighty hard on this, Adam."

Adam nodded. "Yeah, I did. On the first part. So how about taking care of the second part for me?"

Joe rubbed at his ear, staring at the contract. "But what if we mess up?" he blurted.

Adam smiled a little. "So don't."

Hoss twisted the pen around and around, frowning intently. "Think we're ready?"

Adam pursed his lips consideringly."Guess I must. You?"

Joe let out a whoop. "Yeah," he said eagerly. "Yeah, we are. C'mon, Hoss - sign so I can!"

Hoss looked at Adam as though there was something he wanted to say, then just smiled instead. Adam met his look and smiled back in perfect understanding. Hoss bent over and dipped the pen and then carefully signed his name, handing the pen to Joe. Joe dashed off his name with flair and stepped back, admiring the effect.

Adam leaned forward a little to admire it with him. "Good," he nodded. "Now, you probably want to take a couple of minutes to hash out the details with the Captain. Shouldn't take long." He turned to go back inside.

"Wait a minute - " Joe held out a hand to stop him. "Where you goin'?"

"Me?" Adam raised his eyebrows. "I'm going to go enjoy the party. Find a pretty girl or two and do a little dancing. Try out some of that food that smells so good. See you later."  He nodded briefly to them and pushed through the door to be absorbed by the sound and music.

Hoss watched him go in stunned amazement. "Well," he said soberly at last, "I'll be danged."
"Yeah," Joe echoed him in patent disbelief. "And I'll be double-danged."


The weary traveler pulled his horse up to stare. At first, his tired eyes had seen the dark line of shadows gathered along the edge of the road as some kind of oversized beasts, settled to sleep for the night, but closer examination showed that they were, in fact, a collection of vehicles of all kinds - wagons and buckboards, carriages and surreys. A frown gathered between his brows as he studied them. So many. The only reason he could think of for so many people to be gathered in one place would be a wedding. He paused. Or a funeral. His heart beat a little harder and he nudged his rented horse to a faster pace. He didn't believe any one would have a wedding without him…or a funeral, really, for that matter, but perhaps…a wake…? Oh, dear Lord. He moved the horse a little closer to the string of equipages, studying them for clues, but in the uncertain light from the thin sliver of a waxing moon, they gave nothing away. He pushed his flagging mount faster still.

As he rounded the bend, he caught a far glimpse of bobbing strings of bright colored lanterns and felt himself relax. Surely no one would hang Chinese lanterns for a wake. A mystery, to be sure, but perhaps not a sinister one. As he drew still closer, the breeze brought him the sound of merry voices and the faint whisper of music and the last of his tension left him to be replaced by curiosity. What the devil were those unaccountable boys of his up to now?

He dismounted, walking his beast the rest of the way to cool it, noting on approach the scattered tables, still covered with half-eaten dishes, the couples wandering together in the moonlight, the collections of chatterers enjoying the soft night air. He looked about for a free spot at one of the hitching rails but there was none to be found, so, with a grunt of irritation, he picketed his horse to a handy tree, pausing to loosen the cinch and untie his carpetbag. He'd get one of the boys to put the animal up for the night - right now he wanted to get to the bottom of this. If he didn't know better he'd think he'd come to the wrong home.

He hefted his bag and started toward the porch - stopped at the sound of familiar voices. The front door was partly open to show a wedge of light and he could just make out three shadows silhouetted in front of it. A little annoyed with himself to find that he was, after all, relieved to see them all standing and in one piece, he paused to listen.

"…saying is that you might want to put it in the safe until the party's over - just so that nothing happens to it. If it gets lost in this crowd you'll never find it." Adam. And, from the sounds of it, they were arguing. Oh, he was home all right.

"I  - figger on keepin' it with me fer the time bein'. Just so's I know where it is." Hoss now. And he sounded a little…evasive. Hm.

"Oh, and you're really going to be able to keep a close look on it while you're dancing with Sarah Jane." Sarah Jane? That was a new one. He'd have to look into that.

"And just how many girls have you been dancin' with while we were sweatin' out the details, huh, Adam?" Joe this time. And his argument was about girls. Well, it was nice to know that some things remained constant.

"A gentleman never tells, Joe." He could almost see the sly twinkle in Adam's eyes and smiled a little in spite of himself.

"Dadburn it, Adam, you said it was up to us, and I - well, I wanna hang onta it."

"That's right, Adam." Joe's answer was a little too quick. Hm again.

"All right, all right - " he could barely make out Adam's gesture of surrender. "Just a suggestion. That piece of paper is worth a lot of money, is all."

"I'll remember." Hoss sounded relieved and uneasy at the same time. Hm and hm.

"Don't know why every darn thing has to go into that old safe anyway." Joe's grumble made the traveler's smile broaden. The wedge of light widened to spill in a pool on the porch floor as the door was pushed inward and he decided it was time to make his entrance. He stepped out of the shadows and trod deliberately up the porch steps, stopping in front of them. Their frozen expressions were worth everything.

"Jumpin' Jehosaphat," he rumbled, after an adequate dramatic pause. "What the devil is going on around here?"

He hadn't seen them so universally share that look in a long time - that "caught red-handed and without an alibi in sight" look - and he found it deeply amusing. "Well?" he continued sternly. He could almost see them trying out and discarding explanations in their minds as they stood.

Adam seemed to come to life first. "Hi, Pa," he said faintly.

"Pa," Hoss wheezed.

"Pa," Joe echoed.

Ben gave them a wide, forbearing smile. "Good. You remember who I am. Now, perhaps, you'd like to tell me what's going on around here?" His voice rose on the last words and they cringed a little.

Joe forced a hopeful smile. "Why - a - a party, Pa."

Ben's eyes bored into him. "Thank you, Joseph." he said with icy politeness. "That was the one thing I had managed to ascertain for myself. So maybe now you'd like to tell me who in thunder all these people are?"

Since both his brothers seemed to have suddenly gone mute, Joe straightened his shoulders and tried again, attempting a cavalier laugh that came out sounding more like an asthma attack. "Oh - you know. Nobody special. Friends. Neighbors."

"The men," Hoss added quickly.

"Townspeople," Adam provided.

"Neighbors…" Joe trailed off.

"I see." Ben's jaw worked as he remembered the endless row of carriages. "ALL the neighbors?"

"Well, not quite all of them, Pa," Adam interjected judiciously. "Dooley Jaspers had to work tonight, so he's not here."

Ben turned his narrowed gaze on him. "'This is not the time for levity on your part, young man!"
Hoss tossed an uneasy look over his shoulder at the house full of guests. "Pa," he lowered his voice. "Mebbe we wanna take this someplace more private?"

Ben followed his gaze and sighed, nodding his head. "I suppose you're right. My desk - "

"Uh - Pa?" Joe wrinkled his forehead hesitantly. "We  - we put the musicians over there."

Ben looked at him. "All right," he said slowly, after a pregnant pause. "Then how about upstairs?"

Hoss cleared his throat. "Actual, there's a few guests what's staying up there, Pa - "

Ben ground his teeth. "Then tell me this. Is there anyplace left in this house where we can have a few seconds of privacy? Other than the woodpile?"

"Um, the woodpile's real popular for spoonin', Pa," Joe commented. Then, seeing the thunder gather on Ben's face, "Not that I - I mean - that's what I've heard."

"There's the kitchen," Adam jumped hastily to Joe's rescue. "Hop Sing and Hop Ling are in there, of course, but - "

"Fine." Ben shoved his carpetbag at Hoss and pushed past them to lead the way. "Glad to hear  Hop Sing is back. At least you had enough sense not to try to have this party without him."

Hoss and Joe exchanged a silent, petrified glance and then quickly went to follow their father and brother into the kitchen.

The warm, moist air of the kitchen, redolent with the smells of good things to eat, had a softening effect on Ben despite himself and he looked around with interest. Hop Sing and Hop Ling both looked up from their work and froze in surprise. "Boss!" said Hop Sing uncertainly. Hop Ling just stared.

"Gentlemen." Ben sniffed appreciatively. "Something certainly smells good."

Hop Sing hurried to prepare a plate. The three brothers' eyes followed him with determined interest.
Ben cleared his throat to regain their attention. "So." He studied them severely, his eyes stopping abruptly on Joe. "What - where on earth did you get that black eye?" His brows lowered. "Have you been fighting?"

"No!" Joe protested hastily. "It was an - an accident!"

"That's right, Pa," Hoss asserted anxiously. "Just a silly…accident."

"Hmph." Ben eyed them suspiciously. He looked more closely at Adam. "And what's that on your arm?" he demanded.

"My - ? Oh…" Adam laughed a little as he tugged self-consciously at his sleeve, trying to cover the bandage. "Oh, that. It's nothing, Pa - just a - nothing."

Ben leaned back, eyeing them cannily. "Have you two been fighting each other?"

"No!" Adam looked honestly surprised. "No, we - it's just a - a - "

"Accident, Pa," Hoss insisted helpfully. "A little - "

"Accident," Joe finished for him, nodding.

 Ben scrutinized them in turn. "Well," he said at last. "You certainly seem to have been accident prone while I've been gone."

"Yeah - " Hoss snorted at the memory. "Yeah, it really was kinda…" He caught the warning looks his brothers were aiming at him and swallowed and sobered quickly. "Uh - yeah."

 Hop Sing handed Ben a plate and fork and he dug in gratefully. "Hop Sing, Hop Ling - perhaps this would be a good time to pass some of those trays you have ready among the guests?" Hop Sing and Hop Ling nodded to Ben and, gathering up their trays, made a grateful exit. The Cartwright brothers looked after them, a little wistfully. "Now," he continued briskly. "About this party?"

"It's - just a party, Pa." Joe explained tentatively. "For morale - y'know - to celebrate finishin' the brandin'."

Ben snorted. "Just a party. I've seen smaller Founder's Day celebrations."

"Well, you know how it is, Pa - invite one person and the next thing you know…" Joe pinned on a smile. "Wouldn't want people to think the Cartwrights weren't…"

"…neighborly." Hoss valiantly took up the slack.

"Neighborly." Ben's eyebrows climbed. "Well. I have to hand it to you boys - I don't think there's any danger of anyone for miles around thinking that. And I do mean anyone. Save for a couple of Paiutes and of course - " he nodded sarcastically to Adam, "Dooley Jaspers, everyone else in the Territory is bound to think that the Cartwrights are the most neighborly folk this side of the Rockies!"

Joe raised wide, ingenuous eyes to his. "Yeah, but - that's good, isn't it, Pa?"

Ben just managed to stop himself from rolling his own eyes. So that's how it was, heh? The whole arsenal, innocent look and all. Whatever it was they were conspiring to hide, it must be a doozy. He chewed and swallowed. Still. It was hard to stay angry with your stomach full. "All right," he continued more mildly. "But I don't understand. Your brother's birthday is in two weeks. If you wanted to have a party, why didn't you just wait for that?"

His younger sons gaped at him in utter consternation. Hoss's face went slack. They looked wordlessly at each other, then back at Ben. Joe's jaw moved as though mouthing an explanation, but nothing came out.

Adam had to turn quickly away to smother his laughter. "Well, you know, Pa - " he finally stuttered out unsteadily. "I've never been much of one for big parties."

Hoss and Joe gazed at him as though he'd thrown them a lifeline. "That's true, Pa," Hoss declared forcefully. "You know ol' Adam - likes them small get togethers."

"That's right, Pa," Joe agreed, his smile brilliant with relief. "And a party for the brandin' would have to be a big one - you know, what with all the men - and - and - neighbors - "

"Townspeople…" put in Hoss helpfully.

"All right! I got it!" Ben held up a hand to stop them before Adam could chime in, pausing to take another forkful. "But it still doesn't make any sense. Isn't the horse sale tomorrow morning? Early? How on earth do you expect to manage this party AND that?"

There was a breathless silence during which they seemed to be choosing a spokesman almost without looking at each other. Adam finally stepped forward, bracing himself. "Well, to tell the truth, Pa - "

"Yes," agreed Ben pleasantly. "That would be refreshing."

Adam gave him an injured look, then continued. "To tell the truth - the horse sale is done. Contract's all signed."

That caught Ben off guard. He looked sharply from one to the other. "Done?"

"That's right, Pa," Hoss assured him.

"Signed, sealed and everything," Joe put in.

Ben turned his penetrating gaze on Adam. "How many?"

"Thirty," answered Adam promptly.

"Thirty!" Ben was reluctantly impressed. "I thought you were only expecting him to take twenty."

"Well, I was hoping to push him to two dozen. But thirty it is."

Ben shook his head, confused. "But how - when did the Captain get here?"

"Late this afternoon," Hoss supplied briskly.

Ben wrinkled his forehead. "And how on earth did you have time to show those horses, make a deal and still prepare this party of yours?"

"Well, Pa - " Hoss squirmed, looked at his boots, then took a deep breath and opened his mouth to explain.

"Pa, you know - " Adam interrupted artlessly, "I think the party is what clinched the deal?"

Ben's eyes narrowed still further. "Really. And how do you figure that?"

Adam shrugged lightly. "I don’t know, Pa, but I've heard about a lot of big businessmen who use social gatherings to close deals. Not at all uncommon in some circles."

"Is that so." Ben was not in the least convinced, but the combination of the food and the prospect of a contract for thirty horses were having a wonderfully mellowing effect on him. "And so you thought you'd try it out."

"Oh, not me, Pa." Adam shook his head modestly. "It was all Hoss and Joe's idea."

"Really." Ben raised his brows at his two younger sons, who were trying to decide whether they had just been thrown a laurel or just plain thrown in. They met Ben's gaze nervously. "Well." He eyed them appraisingly. "Well, maybe you two are starting to turn into a pair of real businessmen."

Hoss and Joe let out simultaneous gusts of relief, which they quickly tried to turn into sounds of enthusiastic assurance.

He shook his head at them, glancing wistfully at the back stairs, then reluctantly at the door that led back into the great room. He sighed."I suppose I should mingle a little with our guests - at least say "hi" to Roy - "

An alarmed look ricocheted among the brothers and Adam moved surreptitiously between their father and the door. "Now, Pa - " he smiled with strained nonchalance. "Now, Pa - you don't want to face all that crowd - you - you look tired out."

"You - you really do, Pa," Hoss agreed fervently.

"Just - just downright peaked, Pa," Joe swore devoutly.

"Do I." Ben watched their faces closely. "Well, your concern for my well being is very touching. But I can't imagine how rude it would be to have all these guests in my home and go to bed without even saying 'hello'."

"B - but, Pa!" Joe tried to distract his father from the door. "It's not like they even know you're here."

"That's true, Pa." Hoss took up the argument. "Why, in all that big crowd I bet nobody even saw ya arrive."

Ben looked at them in combined amusement and exasperation. "Well, that doesn't make it any more polite. I'm sure I taught you better than that."

"Well, Pa, it is late - " Adam was not above grasping at straws. "And the party will be breaking up soon. By the time you get cleaned up everybody will be leaving anyway."

Ben crossed his arms and looked consideringly from one son to the next to the next. The united front. He'd never get anything out of them as long as they were taking that route. No, he would have to divide and conquer. That would call for a little strategy. And to tell the truth, he was tired. "All right," he said at last, trying not to laugh at their visible relief. "Perhaps you're right. It has been a long ride. I'll turn in on two conditions - that one of you puts up my livery animal - he's tied to a tree outside - and that you help Hop Sing and Hop Ling clean up. Understood?" Their rush to reassure him was almost his undoing, but he did manage to keep a straight face. "Good. Then I'll see you in the morning." He took his carpetbag from Hoss and started up the back stairs.

"Pa," Adam's voice made him pause. "Aren't you home kind of early?"

"Yeah, Pa," agreed Joe, trying not to sound put out about it. "We didn't expect you for a couple of days."

"That's right, Pa." Hoss eyed him quizzically. "What brought ya home sa soon?"

"Oh." This time Ben looked embarrassed. His eyes sought out Adam. "I  - kept thinking about our - conversation - before I left and I thought…" He took off his hat and absently loosened his hair from his scalp. "I thought if I hurried up negotiations some I might get home quickly enough for you to - start your trip right after the horse sale."

The look on Adam's face touched and amused and gratified Ben all at the same time. Well worth the breathless rush of the last few days, he decided. His mood became more jocular. "But since you tell me the horse sale is all taken care of I guess you can start out first thing in the morning if you've a mind to."

"Oh." Adam rubbed awkwardly at the back of his neck. "Thanks, Pa - I mean, it means a lot, but - " He raised sheepish eyes to meet his father's. "About the hunting - I think right now - "

"Right now, he really cain't handle a gun too good with that there arm, Pa," Hoss volunteered.

Adam gave him a quick glance, grateful for the rescue.

"That's right, Pa. It's all a mess. Right now he can barely make a fist," Joe contributed promptly.

Adam grinned, a little apologetically, and shrugged. "So for right now, Pa - I guess I'm going to
stick pretty close to home."

"Hmph." Ben leaned over the banister, trying to get a better read on them. "What on earth went on around here while I was gone?" he asked at last.

The boys looked at one another.

"You know, Pa?" Hoss rested a broad elbow on Joe's shoulder, then the other on Adam's. "I'm thinkin' that's a story that's just plain best told - later."

"Yeah." Joe nodded sagely. "Later."

"Later," Adam concurred with feeling.

"Later," grumbled Ben. "Later. Well, maybe by tomorrow you'll all at least have remembered how to talk without repeating each other. Good night."

They watched until he had disappeared around the bend in the stairs, then counted to twenty and waited a little longer.

"Whew," Joe sighed gratefully. "That was close."

Adam didn't smile. "It's just delaying the inevitable. First trip into town and it all comes out." He leaned against the breakfront, kneading his forehead. "Well. My part of things, anyway. Once Struthers talks to Roy and Roy talks to Pa…"

Hoss slumped against the pantry door next to him, idly chewing on a stray cookie. "Well, that's a cryin' shame, Adam. Reckon Joe and I can keep our part quiet anyway."

Joe's face took on a peculiar expression. "Ahem - he - uh - might be able to find out just a LITTLE about our part in town, too, Hoss…"

Hoss threw him a peevish look. "You an' that mouth," he growled.

 Joe stiffened indignantly. "I would like to point out that this time my mouth got us out of just as much trouble as it got us into!" He pondered a moment. "Well, almost as much," he amended. "Hey!" he brightened. "Maybe we can just keep Pa out of town for a few days! By that time everybody's bound to be talkin' about somethin' else!"

"Oh, and that should be easy," drawled Adam.

Hoss held up his hands. "Well, I ain't thinkin' o' nothin' else tanight, that's fer sure. I'm gonna go see if Sarah Jane's still talkin' ta me and enjoy what's left of the evenin' until we have ta clean up."

Joe yawned and stretched. "Yeah. Me too. See you guys back here later."

Adam raised his brows at them. "You aren't talking to me? It's your party, after all. I'm just an invited guest."

He decided, belatedly, that he should have realized that the last few days had taken a toll on his speed and waited until he was a little further away from their grasp first.

"All right, all right, all right - " he held up his hands in quick surrender to allay any possible damage to his dress shirt, trying to shake them from his arms. "All right. For Pa's sake, then, and for Hop Sing's sake - " He attempted to pry Joe's finger's from one arm, glaring, "…and for my shirt's sake - I'll put up the livery horse - and if you're not done with the dishes by then I'll even help you in here."  Hoss released his other arm and he took a step back away from them. This time he judged the distance more carefully while pretending to dust fastidiously at his sleeves. "Look at that," he grimaced with calculated distaste, indicating where they had gripped him. "Don't either of you ever wash your hands?"

He sauntered with assumed coolness toward the door leading outside, but when they made a dash for him this time, he was ready  - and finished his exit at a very undignified, but effective, run.


  Ben followed the steady, ringing sound of an axe striking wood. It was two days after the party, and if the Ponderosa hadn't quite settled back into its usual routine, it was at least losing the signs of the crowds that had trampled its grounds.

He moved quietly as he approached the woodpile and the laborer was intent on his task, so he finally had to clear his throat to make his presence known. The other man rested the axe head on the chopping block, blotting at his face with his discarded shirt and turning to look.

"Pa," he nodded a greeting.

"Son." Ben hooked his thumbs in his pockets and frowned at him. "I thought Paul said your were to take it easy for a couple of days?" His frown deepened at the sight of the now soiled bandage adorning his right wrist. "And I know he said nothing strenuous with that hand."

"Oh." Adam drew the dipper from the bucket standing nearby and took a drink. He gave his father an innocent smile. "I'm sure he didn't mean a little thing like chopping wood, Pa."

"Really." Ben's voice was rich with skepticism. He squinted at him suspiciously. "And isn't this Joseph's job this week?"

Adam put the dipper back and shrugged, avoiding his father's eyes. "Joe's doing me a little favor."

"A favor." The question was implied.

Adam nodded, selecting a new piece of wood. "Yeah - he and Cressie went down to the lake - he's giving her some shooting pointers. Sure could use it, too." He hefted the axe and swung.

Ben's brows jumped. "An afternoon at the lake with a pretty girl. I'll bet that favor took a lot of persuading."

 Adam gave him a lopsided smile. "Well…they both suffered kind of a heart bruising. Thought maybe they could do each other some good."

"Hmph." Ben studied him. "And I suppose you thought you could use a breather? Girl certainly seems attached to you."

Adam looked a little guilty. "She's a nice girl. Just a little…"

"Ardent?" Ben suggested.

Adam laughed self-consciously. "Something like that."

"I like her father, the Colonel, too," Ben continued deliberately. "I've enjoyed talking with him."

The quick, sidelong glance Adam gave him was not lost on Ben. He watched as Adam tossed his newly cut logs onto the pile and managed not to smile when he asked, with careful casualness, "What do you two talk about?"

"Oh, you know." Ben was tracking his reactions intently. "The mysteries of fatherhood, mostly." He could see Adam couldn't decide whether he should be relieved or alarmed, so he pressed a little. "His gratitude to you seems a little extreme just for selling him thirty horses."

Adam found another piece of wood he liked and positioned it carefully on the stump that served as a chopping block. "I don't know," he countered seriously. "Horses are a pretty big deal when you're Cavalry."

Ben gave a gust of laughter before he could stop himself and eyed his eldest in affectionate exasperation. So it was going to be like that, was it? Irritating boy. "Adam," he said firmly. "What on earth went on around here while I was gone?"

Adam looked up from his task, his eyes faintly mischievous. "You know, Pa. Branding. Horse Sale. A party."

"Yes." Ben settled his hands on his hips. "Those I know about. I'm wondering about the things I don't know about."

Adam took a minute to split his log before saying cautiously, "Now, what makes you think there's anything you don't know about?"

Ben rolled his eyes. "Well, let's see - when I left for San Francisco, my two younger sons were barely able to keep their minds on their work and my eldest son was like a bear with a sore head. When I return, I find my middle son walking around muttering the terms of the Stimson contract over and over under his breath, my youngest son nagging me to show him how to do the payroll books when I would have sworn he wasn't even aware we had such things, and my eldest son positively…" He hunted for the right word, "…serene."

"Hm." Adam set half the log he'd split down to chop it into quarters. "Well, you know what the Chinese Zen Masters say, Pa - in the search for serenity, chop wood, carry water.'" He brandished his axe with a flourish and swung.

Ben was unimpressed. "They say that, do they?"

"Mm hm." Adam arranged his other log half.

"Now, why do I think there's a little more to it than that? Adam - " He reached out a decisive hand as Adam was positioning himself to swing again and wrapped it around the axe handle, firmly removing it from his grasp and plunging it into the stump with a thunk. "I'm sure Paul would not approve of you doing this and I'm sure there are more than a few holes in this story you boys are telling me. Now, it's not that I think you have to tell me everything but I am curious to know  - what's made the difference in you?"

Deprived of his diversionary tactic, Adam tossed the two pieces of firewood he'd created onto the pile and brushed his hands together, thinking. "Well, Pa - " he said at last, "I guess sometimes a man finds out it's as important to be grateful for the things he doesn't have as it is to be for the things he does have."

Ben shook his head, puzzled. "I don't understand."

"I mean," Adam explained patiently. "That sometimes you realize that the things you are dealing with are not so bad - once you see what you could be dealing with."

"Oh." Ben considered slowly. "By things a man doesn't have, then - you mean like crushing debt, for example? Or ill health?"

Adam nodded, pleased. "Good examples."

"Well…" Ben nodded slowly, weighing this. "I suppose that's a very wise philosophy. St. Paul says something very similar, actually - about knowing how to abase and to abound - " He was warming to his topic when he caught a glimmer of a satisfied smile on Adam's face and lowered his brows. So. He'd been maneuvered, heh? Well, think again, boy… "That reminds me," he continued sweetly. "I wanted to ask you - " Adam caught his tone and his smile became wary. "What do you know about this?" Ben removed an object from his vest pocket and held it out to him.

Adam eyed the cylindrical bit of brass in his father's palm, then took it from him to study it more closely. It looked familiar, like he should know what it was, but he couldn't place it. "I don't know," he admitted at last. "What is it?"

"The handle to the safe. Came off in my hand this morning."

"Oh…" Ben watched the implications chase themselves across Adam's face and the sparkle of amusement that lit his eyes, quickly hidden. "Well. Guess we'll need to order a new safe."

"Yes." Ben observed him closely. "Any idea how this could have happened?"

"I just don't know, Pa," Adam answered comfortably. "I don't suppose those safes last forever, though."

Ben gave him a look. "You know as well as I do that that safe is only five months old."

"True." Adam nodded solemnly. "But it does get a lot of hard wear."

Ben snorted. "I'm sure," he agreed dryly. "Well, maybe you'll be able to tell me something about
this, then." He reached into his trousers pocket and pulled out something else.

This time Adam could actually feel the blood drain from his face. He stared at the object for a moment, then carefully took it from Ben's hand, unrolling it and trying to look as though he were seeing it for the first time. He could feel the tops of his ears redden traitorously under his father's trenchant gaze as he pretended to read. The charcoal of the note was a little smudged, but it was still perfectly legible. Payne wrote a nice hand.

He carefully rolled it up again, avoiding his father's eyes. "Huh," he said with assumed lightness. "Where did you get this?"

"Hop Sing found it in the kitchen. Along with your gun."

"Oh." Adam scratched at his forehead. "Guess I'd better be more careful where I leave that."
"Yes," Ben's voice was heavy with irony. "I think you'd better. As for the note - no one seems to know where it came from. Hop Sing is going to ask Hop Ling about it since he was here Friday night, but he doesn't read English well."

Adam held the note out to him, trying to smile. "Well. Must be somebody's idea of a joke."

"You think so." Ben took it back from him, studying it again for himself.

"Must be."

"Not very funny," Ben suggested.

"No," Adam agreed fervently.

"Still," Ben rolled the paper  up again, his eyes never leaving his son's face. "It made me think that maybe…it's time I raised the limit of your brothers' bank withdrawal privileges. If they ever found themselves in a situation like this..."

Adam met his eyes obliquely. "I'm sure they'd appreciate that."

"Hum." Ben crossed his arms, his expression cagey. "Of course, if the note were real, it would help explain why you have a bump the size of my fist on the back of your head."

"Oh, that." Adam shook out his shirt. He was still a little put out that Hop Sing had seen fit to tell Doc Martin about his headache. Usually he could be counted on to cover for them, but some things he just seemed to feel compelled to share. Now, thanks to him, he wouldn't be allowed on horseback for at least another two days.

"Hop Sing did the right thing." Adam started at his father's voice. Sometimes the way he could read his mind was downright uncanny. "Paul says you have a mild concussion. And you might want to put that shirt on. It's not all that warm out yet." Adam rolled his eyes, but obediently slid his arms into the sleeves, not bothering to button it. Ben saw the eye roll and smiled complacently. "In fact, maybe you should call it a day and go back inside. Hop Sing just put fresh coffee on. We could have a nice father/son chat."

This time Adam laughed reluctantly. His father sure wasn't one to give up. And he knew he'd tell him everything - eventually. After a little time had passed and it was too distant for him to worry himself about - when the whole thing seemed a little more amusing and a little less humiliating. "All right. I'll clean up at the pump and be right in." Ben nodded, satisfied, and turned to leave. "Pa - " Ben raised his eyebrows questioningly, recognizing a different note in Adam's voice. He waited. "When I was eighteen - " Ben groaned involuntarily. Adam paused, surprised. "What?"

Ben smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, son. I didn't mean to - what was your question?"

Adam stared at him. "What was that for?"

"Oh - " Ben waved a discomfited hand. "Really, son - I didn't mean anything by it. It's - it's a difficult age and, of course, you were my first, so - "

Adam sat down on the stump and looked at him. Ben could not make out anything he was thinking from his expression. "Was I?" he asked at last. "Difficult?"

Ben grimaced. "No - Adam - that would be unfair…you were always a good boy and - and - well, I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't taken hold around here the way you did after Marie died. I still don't really know how you managed it, so I don't suppose it's too surprising if the next year you needed to - sow a few wild oats…" He saw Adam's face and paused. "You don't remember?"

Adam shook his head. "I remember seventeen of course because of - " his voice caught briefly, "Marie. And nineteen because that's when I headed off to Boston. But eighteen…" he shook his head again, a spark of curiosity in his eyes. "What did I do?"

Ben sighed. "Well, as I say, it's a difficult age. I can't say I'm sorry that I've only got one left to get through it and I can't say I'm sorry that I have you and Hoss to help me do it…"


Ben stopped himself. "All right. You're telling me you don't remember when you and Ross Marquette stole the new church bell?"

"Oh…" Adam started to smile. "I think…Ross dared me to do it…"

"Yes." Ben nodded wryly. "And the Reverend Smith went to pull the bell rope that Sunday to celebrate its installation with all the parishioners who had donated their pennies to buy it standing around waiting - and he pulled the rope and - "

"Nothing happened." Adam chuckled, then stopped himself and cleared his throat at the look on his father's face. "Well, it was funny, Pa."

"Oh, very funny." Ben tried to look stern. "I wasn't sure we'd ever be allowed back in church again. And then crazy old Captain Billy found where you and Ross had hidden it and thought it was his ship's bell - didn't think we'd ever get it away from him."

"@@You didn't. You made me get it back."

"A fitting punishment, I thought."

"Go on."

Ben gave him an odd look but continued. "Well. There was the time I took you to Sacramento with me on business and we were finished a little early so you talked me into going to see that new railroad display with the working steam engine…"

"Oh." Adam flushed at the memory.

"Yes, oh. And you snuk back while everyone else was at the next display and decided to give it a try - thank God it was on such a short run of track or something serious might have happened. I was sure they were going to throw you in jail that time, but thank heavens they let me pay the damages and let you off with a reprimand."

Adam sighed reminiscently. "Guess I should have known better, but I'll tell you, Pa, for that moment that it moved under my hand? It was almost worth it. You have never - " He saw Ben's face and stopped again, trying to look remorseful. "I suppose it was dangerous. But what a feeling. I'd forgotten that."

Ben couldn't quite suppress a smile. "Of course," he admitted reluctantly, "the way you were pouring over the thing I suppose I should have expected something. But somehow I always had a tendency to forget that you were a boy and not, in fact, another adult." His smile grew a little sad. "When you were five, even, I tended to forget that."

 Adam nodded slowly. "Yeah. Me too."

 Ben leaned back against a tree, watching his face. "And of course, there were those two Chinese indentured servants - you must remember them."

Adam glanced past him, his eyes distant. "Li Wang and Hun Woo. I haven't thought about them in years. But you can't really call that mischief, Pa. They were half starved and badly mistreated and barely spoke English - somebody had to help them."

"They were legally bound to work off their passage, Adam. Under the law, Mr. Abbott had complete control over them until they had."

"Didn't make it right. Li Wang wasn't any older than I was. Hun Woo was just a little older than Hoss."

  "Running away made them criminals and helping them made you an accessory. I remember when I found out what you were doing. Thought we were both going to end up in jail that time."

"I'd do it again."

"Uh huh." Ben nodded, something in his eyes that Adam couldn't quite identify. "Your penchant for two legged strays was always about as bad as Hoss's for four legged ones. But then - " he glanced pointedly at the note in his hand and reached over and tucked it gently into Adam's shirt pocket. "I suppose there are some troubles a man gets himself into that have more to do with who he is than whether he is eighteen…" he gave the pocket a light pat, "or nearly thirty."

Adam felt the color rush to his face and had to look away for a second before raising his eyes questioningly to meet his father's.

Ben gave his shoulder a squeeze. "Get cleaned up. It's too cold today to sit out here. And I'd like to put a fresh dressing on that arm."

Adam rose stiffly to his feet, nodding his acquiescence.

Ben started back toward the house, then stopped, remembering something. "Oh, and Adam - " Adam turned. "You never told me. What was it that made you realize that what you were dealing with wasn't so bad - by comparison? What is it that you've decided to be grateful that you @@don't @@have?"

The corners of Adam's mouth quirked upward, the merest suggestion of a twinkle kindling deep in his eyes. He reached over and gave Ben's shoulder a pensive swat. "Sisters, Pa," he said simply, pulling the axe from the stump and swinging it easily over his shoulder. "No sisters."


"Something to remember me by."

Cressie ran her hand over the front of the book, enjoying the feeling of the tooled leather. "My," she said in wonder. "Isn't it pretty. But I don't think I could ever forget you, Adam."

"Well, the feeling is very mutual."

Cressie stood by the wagon in front of the Ponderosa, turning the book over and over in her hands. Behind her, the Colonel waited patiently on the wagon seat for her to finish her good byes, Ben, Hoss and Joe lingering just behind Adam to see them off.  She raised her eyes reluctantly from the book. "But - but I - shouldn't accept it. It'd be a lot easier for me to find a new one back at school than for you to replace this out here. I do thank you kindly." She held it out to Adam, but he made no move to take it.

"Don't be silly. I've read it and I can always get another copy. There's no hurry about it. Besides, I've already marked the spot where your name is and written in the fly leaf."

"You have?" Cressie peeked eagerly inside, then closed it determinedly. "No, I'm goin' to save that for later. Well, it's certainly lovely - I do thank you, Adam."

"My pleasure. Now your job is to read it and tell me how you like it."

"Hm." Cressie studied the book again. She regarded Adam measuringly, then gave him a roguish smile. "Adam, I believe we need to make another bargain."

"Do we." Adam's mouth curled into an answering half smile. "What about this time?"

"Well…" Cressie clasped the book to her chest and eyed him reflectively. "I agree to read this whole book, cover to cover, and you agree…" She tilted her head questioningly. "To come to my graduation?"

Adam heard Hoss and Joe snicker behind him and turned to glare at them. That only made them laugh harder, so he returned his attention to Cressie. "Wheeling and dealing, hm? I can certainly tell you've been spending time with my brother Joe."

"Uh-huh." She smiled her sweetest, most wheedling smile. "So will you come?"

Adam cocked his head at her appraisingly. "The whole book?"

"Cover to cover. Cross my heart."

"Hm…" Adam pretended to consider. "I'll tell you what. You send me an invitation and if I can get away at all, I'll be there."

Hoss nudged Little Joe. "Got an awful big head, ain't he, Joe? Thinks the Ponderosa cain't do without 'em fer a week er so."

"That's right," Joe smirked. "Thinks it'd all go to wrack and ruin without him. Maybe he oughta try disappearing for a while and see if we even miss him."

Adam turned and gave him a speaking glance. Joe just grinned.

"Don't mind them, Cressie," Ben put in, placing one firm hand on Hoss's shoulder and the other on Joe's. "He'll be there. I've got a few new things I'd like to teach these other two boys of mine and that would be the perfect time to do it."

Hoss's and Joe's smiles became a little more uncertain and it was Adam's turn to smirk. He held their eyes for a second, then turned back to Cressie. "All right, Cressie - we have a deal. On one condition. You have to promise me that after you read this book?" He glanced significantly at Joe. "You won't use the plot or characters in any way to horrify your innocent neighbors with distorted, apocryphal tales."

"Hey!" said Joe indignantly. "I did that for you!" Then, seeing his father's questioning glance, he finished weakly, "Oh, hey, Pa."

Adam grinned.

Cressie wrinkled her nose. "Mercy, why on earth would I do a thing like that?"

Adam shook his head dolefully. "Who can say? But books, I find, become very dangerous things in some people's hands." Joe threw him a look that promised retribution and Adam's grin grew broader.

Cressie held out her hand. "We should shake, then."

Adam took her hand and they shook firmly, then Cressie suddenly dropped his hand and threw her arms around his neck, impulsively kissing his cheek. "Good bye, Adam."

He held her for a minute, then handed her up into the wagon next to the Colonel. She unfurled her parasol and peeped at him from under her lashes. "Oh, and Adam?" He met her gaze quizzically. "Before you come? You might want to think a bit on that serious talk we were goin' to have."

He frowned. "Which - ?" He studied her saucy smile, uneasy suspicion growing. "You don't mean - ? Cressie, I introduced you to at least a dozen nice young men! You can't possibly still - "

She shrugged, twirling her parasol. "I'm just sayin'. Good bye, Adam."

The Colonel touched his hat to them and clucked to the horses and the wagon pulled away, leaving Adam staring after it in helpless astonishment. He heard Cressie's voice float back over the rumbling of the wheels…@@"Y'know, Daddy, I bet I could drive those horses if you let me try? It doesn't look so hard…@@" and laughed quietly to himself. What was he worried about? A few days at Fort Barry surrounded by young recruits and Cressie would forget he was even alive. To his surprise a faint twinge accompanied the thought, but before he could analyze it, he felt his father's unmistakable grip around his shoulders.

"So." Ben followed the wagon with his eyes. "Do you want to tell me what that was all about, or is that another one of those things that will have to wait for…er…later?"

Adam shook his head. "Not that one, Pa. Especially not - " He glanced over his shoulder. "with those two hyenas I have for brothers around. No, that one I think I'm going to take to my grave."

Ben laughed, studying his face. "Still," he said warmly, "she was a sweet girl." Adam nodded. Ben eyed him shrewdly. "Got a little attached yourself, did you?"

Adam almost smiled. "I suppose so."

"And you're - sure you still feel the same way about sisters?"

Adam turned to meet his gaze this time with slightly lifted brows. "You know, Pa, the last time you asked me how I felt about having sisters…" He paused and patted Ben gently on the back, his tone suddenly solicitous. "You - have something important you want to tell me, Pa?"

Ben looked bewildered for a second, until he heard Joe snigger behind his hand.

Adam smiled and strolled toward the house.

Hoss seemed to be struggling with his composure too, but he choked out, "Yeah, Pa - you have something you wanna tell us? What exactly you been doin' in San Francisco?"

 Ben's face darkened with realization. "Of course not!" he thundered to Adam's retreating back. "And that'll be just about enough insolence from you, young man!"

He saw Adam's shoulders shake infinitesimally but that was the only sign he gave that he had heard. Ben scowled. The nerve. Oh, he was home, all right - there was no doubt about that. Really.  A reluctant smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Irritating boy.

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